Monday, 2 May 2011

Wales... land of song, land of… drink?

In the mid 1980s I was a member of a Student Union railway society. The room we were using for a meeting was required by an other group and we wanted to continue the meeting in a neighbouring pub, but this suggestion was howled down by one of the more vociferous members of our railway society, a mature student and former bank worker from South Wales.

He would not, he shouted, enter ANY place that allowed the consumption of "the Demon Drink!" (Yes, he used that exact phrase!)

There was an awkward silence, when everyone stared at him, somewhat aghast. "You are serious, aren't you?" I asked him, eventually. "Never more so!" He retorted.

An older member of the railway society, a somewhat grizzled former railwayman (who had fired and driven steam trains for a living in the 1960s) who was another mature student, said: "Well, you don't have to join us in the pub, you know? Just go home, if you'd prefer."

He stormed off with a "harrumph" and never again attended a meeting of the railway society. No great loss, it has to be said, as he wanted everything to be run his way or not at all!

But this brings me to the dichotomy of thought in Wales with regards to drinking. There seems to be those who still to this day refer to beer or alcohol as "The Demon Drink" or who consider the consumption of alcohol as a part and parcel of everyday life in Wales.

The Thirsty Dragon is a book by Lyn Ebenezer which covers this dichotomous attitude to beer.

To the Bards of old, beer was the very lifeblood of their Bardic traditions, but to the chapel patriarchs, beer was the enemy of man, and the drinking of beer was to be rooted out and stopped.

The book details present and past breweries, and also distilleries, too, and includes a very useful map detailing the locations of past and present breweries.

The book covers the history of the consumption of alcohol, starting with Mead, which was almost certainly the first alcoholic drink brewed and consumed in Wales and in the rest of the British Isles. The author speculates on how the first batch of mead came to be. Perhaps it was an accident, with wild yeast somehow managing to get into a pot of honey, which was accidentally allowed to get rainwater in, too. The rest, as the author says, is history.

Mead was used as part of the feasting celebrations to mark a wedding. The author points to a link between the consumption of mead at such a festive celebration and the wedding honeymoon. In fact, in Welsh the honeymoon is called 'mis mel', the literal translation of which is 'honey month.'

The book then covers wedding and honeymoon traditions from all over Europe and beyond. The book deals with how very important mead was in commerce and in war.

The book also covers the efforts (sometimes seen as somewhat hysterical and, to be frank, rather silly) of the temperance movement which wanted nothing more nor less than the total eradication of the consumption of alcoholic drinks throughout the whole Principality of Wales.

The book points out that there as been, in recent years, an upswing in the brewing of mead and that it is making a good showing at the Royal Welsh Show and other agricultural shows throughout Wales.

It also covers the involvement of the church in brewing beer, and wine. It covers the later brewing traditions in Wales and raises some interesting facts. Apparently it was a Welshman who invented Guinness, and at one point Mr Arthur Guinness was giving serious consideration to moving his whole brewery, lock, stock and barrel, to Wales! Incidentally, as late as the 1950s, adverts for Guinness in Wales were written in Welsh. Which is as it should be. "Guinness yw Gwin y Gwan" or "Cato Pawb! Fy Nguinness i" where just two examples.

The book also touches on the Welsh tradition of cider making and on the new Welsh whisky distilleries that are springing up, including Penderyn, which rivals many a Scotch distillery for flavour, it has to be said.

It devotes the latter part of the book to the newer Welsh breweries that have come to the fore in recent years and mentions the fact that the Wetherspoon chain is selling locally brewed Welsh beer in its Welsh pubs.

The book is well illustrated with both archive and contemporary photographs. It also tells the story of the only union never to even contemplate strike action, the Welsh Union of Tipplers, founded in 1952 and still going strong.

This is an eclectic book which is not without humour, yet which contains several serious messages, too.

It is published in paperback by Carreg Gwalch at £5.50, and is 116 pages in length.

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