On the other hand…
Like many people the one thing I do have a clue about, regarding the three million words that the lugubrious-looking novelist put down on paper in his cork-lined bedroom, is that somewhere in the book the narrator dunks a biscuit into a cup of tea and sets off a whole chain of what would be called involuntary memory (hell there’s even a Wikipedia entry for on this subject). Hold on a minute though, a biscuit in a cup of tea? That hardly seems the style of an aesthete and a man who seems (from the perspective of a century later) to have the personality of an exhausted oyster who’s taken to its bed for the rest of its natural life, while breathlessly (in his case literally) picking through the minutiae of the social lives of his upper class pals. He’s not exactly Joe Sixpack or whatever the biscuit eater’s equivalent of a blue-collar beer drinker is, is he?
The truth is that the narrator (who is supposed to be Proust) delicately (he’s always going to be delicate) dunks a Madeleine in a tisane of lime flower (herbal tea in other words) and then starts remembering his young pampered life. This Madeleine is more of a soft, sweet sponge than a biscuit but somehow it’s designated a biscuit over in France (the same problem exists in the categorising of beer — Black India Pale Ale is one that gets the purists going). Meanwhile the cup of tea is something someone looking for a dairy- and caffeine-free attitude to passing through life would order — think fruit teas and you’re there.
It’s all very genteel.
This involuntary memory not only ended up in Wikipedia a century later but it often looked like it had crystallised or set in stone a literary process that has encouraged writers to use all sorts of items to suggest time travel back to when they were children (or even further if they’ve read Tristram Shandy). And of course the word Proustian is used to describe such a process (I hold my hands up — I’ve done it many times).
However, it’s not such an absurd proposal. I’ve been returned to my early 20s and the hopeless crush I had on someone when smelling a similar perfume to the one that my object of love wore during a long ago summer. The whiff of this bathroom-fresh, slightly soapy fragrance never fails to take me back in time. For instance, the smell of this perfume helps me to re-imagine the clack of balls on the snooker table in the bar of the Ancient Druids, a pub in Cambridge that has long been knocked down (it existed in an area called the Kite, which was levelled to provide a shopping area called the Grafton centre; the band I was in used to rehearse in a squat a couple of doors down). I can even remember the crush at the bar on a Thursday when the dole cheques for those who were living on people’s floors were handed out — this money would then fuel a night’s binging. The perfume is almost like a step terrace of remembrance, with one aroma leading onto a memory that leads to another memory and so on. The aromas of perfume, wood smoke, barnyard, ripe bananas and — perhaps somewhat more radically — electric fire all can reach backwards into the past and grab a day for our consideration.
Yet it’s Marcel Proust and his soggy biscuit (sorry I mean Madeleine) that blew the starting whistle for how the smallest of sensations can trigger a rash of memories. He has been inducted into a psychological hall of fame where his precious Madeleine is perhaps the only sustenance or foodstuff that is best for recovering the data of our lives.
There are other ways don’t you know.
As someone who writes and talks about beer for a living, I would argue that beer is as good as or even better than any biscuit when it comes to bringing the past to life in the context of day-to-day living. If Proust’s Madeleine allied itself with a tisane to bring back the past, then a glass of beer’s ally is far stronger — the pub and beers we drink within its walls and the people we drink with.
And this is what Rather a beer than a Biscuit is all about.
Pause a moment though, let me gather some thoughts and try to make sense of what I have just written. What is a biscuit, for instance? It is a commonplace piece of edible sweetness, a diurnal treat, a tooth crunching, tea- or coffee-dipping confection that comes in all sorts of styles. Something that children look forward to and infantile weight-obsessive adults devour on what has is known as their ‘cheat day’ (it basically means a day when they gorge themselves silly on biscuits and cakes and the next day it’s back to the latest diet until the next ‘cheat day’, it all sounds gratuitously infantile and celebrities love to endorse it as if it’s the most sinful thing they ever do, which of course we all really know isn’t).
The biscuit can be both egalitarian and elitist (so can beer for that matter). It’s a matter of great concern to some folk. To use the language of the rabble-rouser on both left and right: those people who might be deemed posh are commonly thought to have their biscuits delivered to them on a tray, while the rest of us make do with the packet. Such hardships we poor folk suffer. On the other hand there are posh biscuits in funny wrappers with more than a touch of Downton Abbey about them, which non-posh people can get from the local Co-op. Snobbery and nobbery seem like ideal handmaidens for biscuits. I wonder what literary history would have remembered about Proust’s theme of involuntary memory if he’d dipped a couple of Gypsy Creams or Hob-Nobs (or whatever late 19th century France’s mass-market biscuits would have been called) into a cup of Tetley’s tea (or whatever passed for Tetley’s in his part of France). I’m not sure we would have been regaled so much about memory though I believe that the whole idea of involuntary memory would have been picked up just as fast by another writer: I imagine Hemingway during his time as a war correspondent in Spain in the 1930s rhapsodising about the surrounding smell of cordite that would have been transporting him back to the First World War battlefields in Northern Italy, where he came up with his glorious novel A Farewell To Arms. Then there was Orwell who recalled the smell of wartime Britain (and the BBC in which he worked) and managed to conjure up the deadliness of 1984. And I speculate on all of this because of biscuits and I have even got to beer yet.
My personal history with biscuits took in all the usual suspects when I was a child: Bourbons were ideal to dip into the milky, thin, skin-topped coffee that was served at the Liberal Party coffee mornings my grandmother sometimes took me to. Mark & Spencer’s Golden Crunch was another favourite: a small round syrup-gold biscuit with a rough, sandpapery top reminiscent of the cracked surface of salt flats in the Americas and a smoother, but still pitted base. They were delicious. Chocolate digestives were pretty cool as well, though the oats in them meant that teeth soon became gritted with bits. These childhood favourites then gave way to soft flexible chocolate cookies or Wagon Wheels, which as I remember were chocolate coated biscuits, round of course, with layers of spongy marshmallow. As I grew older, I wanted a room at the top and started to eulogise the more sedate and genteel Bath Olivers and selection packs at Christmas (from M&S of course) — biscuits were cool and luminous in the attraction they had to me. On the other hand I didn’t like Rich Tea, which seemed to suggest long boring Sunday afternoons when it was raining outside (so bourgeois, so boring, so redolent of the UK in the 1970s), while Fig Rolls just seemed unpleasantly medical with a suggestion of roughage and regular stools.
That’s my relationship with the biscuit, but what about the history? Whilst beer has a heritage going back to the Sumerians and the Ancient Egyptians what about the biscuit? When did the biscuit come into being, when was it called a biscuit, when did it become part of the day to day incentive for good behaviour and sitting in the bay window of life, watching all the world whiz by? Why do most of us have memories of biscuits, of biscuits of different kinds, whether it’s those domino-shaped, chestnut-coloured, sugar spotted Bourbons, sickly infantile, ridged, powdery custard creams, pink wafers (more controversy, some people regard them as cakes), Hob-Nobs or Gypsy Creams? It’s anarchy out there in the world of biscuits.
First of all then it seems to me that I should comb out some crumbs from the table that hosts the history of the biscuit. Drum rolls please. Apparently we owe a great gladiola-waving sweep of thanks to the Italians for the origins of the word biscuit as it comes from the Latin panis biscoctus, when means twice baked or double cooked. And it was during the Middle Ages when the panis biscoctus emerged. ‘Twice baked’ suggests that the biscuit’s dough would have been as hard as Conan the Barbarian on a Friday evening with too much beer within him; unless it was soaked in water rather than the beer that Conan was chucking down his neck. Pliable it would not have been. Given the state of most people’s molars during the Middle Ages I wonder why people distended their mandibles over these panis biscoctus. I can hear the sound of broken teeth tinkling down through the centuries. This digression on hard tack biscuits brings me to another digression: ship’s biscuits, which were made to feed sailors on their long journeys to find other worlds that were rumoured to exist. At the same time the Scots had oatcakes, about which Jean Froissart eulogised in his Chronicles (he’s welcome to oatcakes, for in my modern experience without a stinking Stilton or a molten Pont l’eveque spread upon the oatcake’s unyielding Calvinist surface it is about as much fun as winning first prize in the hunt for a human coconut shy). Elsewhere across the world, I have no doubt that various people were thinking up various different styles of biscuits, all with the raw materials of flour, water and whatever provided them with sweetness, usually honey (bit like brewing in the Middle Ages really, when various herbs provided the bitterness that hops would eventually come up with).
Down through the centuries the biscuit has evolved to become the sweet treat that keeps dentists wealthy, healthy and wise to this day. And as I am ostensibly writing about biscuits and beer, I find it fascinating that when I started writing about beer one of the words used to describe the taste of a beer was its biscuity character. What that means is the malt character, the sweetness, the graininess, the crunchy texture and the dryness that you will find in plenty of beers, especially of the old school bitter style. Biscuitiness is good in the evaluation of beer, but when I was editing and writing 1001 Beers You Should Try Before You Die I was told that instead of using biscuity I should used cracker-like, which meant something more to American readers. Biscuits and beer seem to keep rubbing each other up the wrong way.
Now for beer, my great passion, my great receiver (and sometimes when a flashy label turns my head, the great deceiver), the drink and the culture about which I have weaved my life around in the last few years, in a way that no one could have done with a mere biscuit (or maybe they could have— the world is full of surprises, for instance some people like the colour purple). What is it about beer? Why does it play a much larger role in people’s lives than a plate of biscuits? On the other hand how important is beer beyond its capacity to liven up an evening’s socialising or provide a refreshing glass of cold liquid with which to accompany a viewing of a football match on the TV?
I’ll try and answer by going back in time. When I first tasted beer I was 12 (or was it 13?). I would sniff the glass of Mackeson Milk Stout that my father accompanied his Sunday lunch with at his mother’s back-to-back when my brother and I would see him at the weekend. I tasted it a couple of times and down through the years and I can still recall my recoil at what I now know was its roastiness (though I also now know that Mackeson’s roast character is a pretty mild creature). My grandmother enjoyed a glass of Guinness with her beer and Yorkshire pudding though its acridness would put it totally beyond my pale until I went to Dublin in 1985. Then there was Double Diamond, which I only encountered in a way that didn’t go down well with my mother.
As was common with many boys of my age (early teens) my younger brother and I would hang out with a bunch of other lads of roughly the same age on an open sports ground that was fringed with trees (I remember the crab apple tree and how I made a face when I bit into one of these apples). Throughout the holidays this was the place where lads put their coats down as goalposts and indulged in a frenetic game of football (one of the lads who turned up one day went in goal and I couldn’t get the ball past him — about 13 years later my late father called me up to ask if I was watching the FA Cup Final between Everton and Manchester United; the boy whom I failed to kick a ball past was playing in goal for Everton: Neville Southall). There was a cricket club pavilion at the top of the field, a decrepit, falling down building that was often burgled, while attempts were made to set it on fire as well. Next to it was the scoring hut, which also suffered the attention of those with a mission to vandalise. The reason that I tasted Double Diamond was that someone had broken into the clubhouse, dragged out a full crate of the beer, drank it on the spot and left the dregs for me and my brother and a couple of friends to drink. Which we then did. All I can remember is that it tasted like the smell I used to breathe deeply of when passing the pubs in town (and when I was growing up pubs were forbidden territories, places where grown-ups gathered, places whose engraved, opaque glass kept the world outside, including us kids, from observing) — it was a smell of beer and tobacco, though beer had its own unique smell that later on I came to recognise as a mixture of sweet barley malt and spicy, even floral hop. At the time it was just beer to me.
And the reason I got into trouble was that as we were drinking the dregs from these bottles a policeman turned up and questioned my brother and I about the theft of the bottles (the two friends were free to go — their father was a policeman). As this interrogation was happening, friendly but firm, my grandfather, an ex policeman, passed by and was told what had happened. When I got home my mother was livid and made the two of us drink a glass of salty water — she said in calm tones that it was not a punishment, but a concern that we might have been poisoned and that the salty water would make us sick and bring up any toxins in our body. We weren’t sick.
As I got older, other beers passed through my life: Long Life, a canned lager that was, as the name suggests, meant to have a long life; there was Ansell’s Mild, an insipid kind of beer and nicknamed the skinflint’s ale by us lads in my local in Llandudno, North Wales; Greenall Whitely, Stone’s Keg, Wrexham Lager. Later on in college I enjoyed Greene King IPA though not Abbot (it gave me a ferocious hangover) and Courage Director’s; I also loved Holsten Diat Pils (I could drink a lot of it and still come up smiling the next day); and then a genuinely delicious beer, Ind Coope’s Burton Ale, a golden-coloured beer with a fluffy meringue of a head, something that my friend Keith and I hoovered up with great glee whenever we met in the King’s Head in Llandudno.
In the mid 1980s cask beer started to become important, but life changed forever when it came to beer after reading Michael Jackson in the Independent and being given his New World Guide to Beer for Christmas. The whole world of beer was opening up to me with Bavarian wheat beers and bocks, Czech Pilsners, Belgian strong golden ales, barley wines from the UK and the USA. It was like poetry and the list of beers that I wanted to devour before I shuffled off the mortal coil was getting larger. And then about 10 years after this epiphany of sorts I decided that I wanted to ease my way into writing about beer, it was something that fascinated me, it was something that I felt I could say something about, uncover something, bend the language to write about beer in a way that Jackson was doing. I wanted to become a beer writer.
That was my relationship with beer, but what about people’s connection with beer?
As might have been suggested by my experience, beer both fascinates people and fashions itself around their lifestyles, which is something you do not get with the biscuit. During the great days of mild consumption, working men in the industrial areas of south Wales and the Midlands drank pints and pints of their chosen ale, in their own clubs or community pubs, roistering, reckoning on their lives’ work and readying them for the day after tomorrow. Beer was a part of their daily life, as common as bread and butter, steak and kidney, bacon and egg or the rent.
Beer also encourages debate. Everyone who drinks beer seems to believe that the beer they enjoy is the best and they will take to websites, social media and heated conversations in pubs to prove the point. On a more parochial rather than confrontational level, others believe that the beer they used to enjoy was much better in the past, as I discovered at http://www.retrowow.co.uk/retro_britain/keg_bitter/60s_and_70s_beer.html.
According to Mickey, who wrote in November 2012, ‘I was a teenager during the early/mid 1970s and was “weened on” Double Diamond & Watney's RED barrel and still miss drinking those beers in 2012! Pubs in England since the 1990s only sell ''real ale'' and it tastes TERRIBLE so i don't bother going into them anymore, i wish i could still buy a nice pint of Double Diamond or Watney's RED barrel!’
A suitably energetic response emerged on Boxing Day a month later from Kez of Challacombe (incidentally a village a few miles from where I live, whose pub the Black Venus I have written about).
‘Mickey (24/11/12) You are very much off your head, the very reason the keg beer of the 1970's have all disapeared is because it was tasteless fizzy bilge. There are now over 1000 breweries in this Country, and the CASK ales produced are by far the best ale this Country has EVER had. The quality, the strengths, the diversity, and now Real Ale is here to stay because it is simply the best. I remember drinking Trophy Bitter, Tankard Biter, Worthington E, Double Diamond, Albrite etc, they were just awful.’
Look at that exchange of words and the undercurrent is CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, the consumer group that was formed in the early 1970s and is generally seen as the saviour of traditional draught beer. The arguments their members waded into were epic: for instance, Watney’s, so beloved of Mickey as quoted above, was reputedly so stung by the nickname Grotney’s in CAMRA’s newspaper What’s Brewing that they allegedly felt that Red Barrel — their baby, their big time Charlie, their blockbuster — was fatally undermined by the constant use of the name in the cartoon. Other breweries would voice their displeasure, but years later, providing they were still in existence, would be holding hands with CAMRA attempting to stem a new tide of problems.
I’ve never heard about anything similar for the biscuit, whatever its variety. Though, if you had the strength to do it you could consider the biscuit’s class nature. Was it the well-dressed sweetmeat on the sideboard, only to be brought out with the best china or like beer did the variety of biscuit have a different time, a different place and a different mood to be used? If beer was a reward what was the biscuit — a show of wealth, a pretension to social advancement, or was it a reward as well? Which then leads to another contrast to beer and the biscuit — beer is undoubtedly an adult aspect of our lives, it can make you drunk if you drink too much, it has an adult taste (well the bolder flavoured beers do), it can mark a rite of passage in a life like going for the first pint with your father or mother, it is drunk in the company or other adults. Hold up a glass of beer in the air and toast a friend, a sporting occasion or just the joy of life and you are an adult. On the other hand, as I have mentioned before, a biscuit is positively juvenile, it is a treat, a reward (‘who’s a good boy then?’) that dogs as well as humans get and in the case of yo-yo dieting celebrities a sin and a well-deserved treat, that is not without some element of danger or sin.
Sin is something that few of us are aware of. We are in a post-belief age, a schizophrenic-like age where people profess disbelief but also like to pronounce themselves as spiritual. The clued-in beer-drinker, if pressed on their immortal soul, will mention beers made by Trappist monks and English beers that have been fermented and matured for seven days and thus blessed on the Sabbath, or maybe they will talk about the magic of fermentation. Beer, unlike the biscuit, can have a metaphysical life.
When we talk of beer, we talk of lager (which then divides into a variety of sub-sections including Dunkel, Helles, Marzen, Pilsner, Bock, Schwarzbier and so on), a bitter (or pale ale), a mild, an IPA (though some would say that this resides in the bitter camp), a stout (and a porter), a lambic, a Weissbier, a Gose and so on. In the manner of an ancient shape-shifting god, beer displays many faces to the world; it’s Joseph’s bible story in that it has a coat of many colours; in the way we humans categorise the ages of our dogs beer crosses a wide spectrum from soft and sweet to bitter and bracing to dry and dusty to wild and sour. Yet there are differences. A Czech Pilsner (or světlý ležák in the Czech demotic) such as Pivovar’s Dobranska Hvezda 12˚ has sweet toasted grain, a slight pepperiness and delicate Saaz-derived floral notes all vying for attention on the nose. The palate has a hint of fruit pastilles, a slight sweetness and a long lasting dry and bitter finish. On another level, let’s have a taste of Pivovar Kácov’s Hubertus Premium 12˚: the nose pulsates with expressive Saaz lemony notes alongside an undercurrent of grain. The palate is fresh and elegant, with an expressive lemoniness chiming with a grainy, cracker-like firmness. The finish is crisp, dry and bittersweet. Both beers come under the same style umbrella but they are different — one has a bittersweet character and the other is drier.
Bolder flavoured beers also have their differences. Colorado Ithaca Imperial Stout from Brazil is as dark as a moonless night and topped with an espresso-coloured head of foam; the nose marries bubblegum, sweet apple and toffee, while in the mouth there are notes of berry fruit, toffee and milky coffee plus a creamy mouth feel and an assertive bitterness in the finish. On the other hand Emelisse Imperial Russian Stout, which comes out of Holland, is also as dark in the glass though it has smoke, roastiness, smooth alcohol, mocha and soot on the nose; the flavour is a multi-layered adventure of smoke, ripe plums, chocolate, coffee, soya sauce while there is a bracing bitterness in the finish that also has some sweetness.
Can the same be said about the biscuit? The only change in taste is when different ingredients are added, such as chocolate or spices (and of course different shapes are made). For a start a biscuit, whatever shape it is, always possesses an element of sweetness, a variable texture of crunchiness and the ability to dissolve when dunked into a cup of tea (or tisane of lime-flower if that’s your bag). I’m leaving savoury biscuits alone here — they are totally different creatures, made to have slivers of cheese and bumps of pate deposited on them and certainly not dunked in cups of tea.
However, where biscuits have the edge on beer is in the real 3-D world — biscuits come in all shapes and sizes: some the same size as a medallion that men with too much back hair wear around their necks, others such as cookies are large enough to cause pain if flipped into the face of a misbehaving adult. In-between we have chocolate covered biscuits, round in shape, but lumpy in the face they turn to the world; biscuits with small holes in them, which are sometimes filled with a synthetic jam-like sweetness; then there are biscuits with larger holes in the middle (which always set me off considering the Greek word Omphalos, meaning the navel of the world, and in turn brings me a memory of Buck Mulligan using the word in the early pages of Ulysses); square biscuits; multi-layered biscuits; triangular biscuits and ones shaped like letters now and again. However, no matter what their shape, they have a uniformity of sweetness that they cannot escape from. One last thing about biscuits though, something that you cannot do with beer: they are collaborationists, quislings, willing to transform their material being and shape, which is what you do when you dunk them in tea. Which once more brings us back to Marcel Proust and his memories and the infuriating hold that the biscuit has on the memories we have.
But I, sitting with a glass of beer in my hand, or glancing at one standing alone, gleaming and burbling its bubbles to the world, on the well-polished table in front of me, would much rather have a beer than a biscuit. This glass of beer, whether being drank in a hobo bar next to a country railway halt in the middle of Europe or a northern English pub where last night’s football result still smarts or a Pacific coast brewpub where the klaxon call of sea lions on the dock outside add their own sense of cacophony, is more important to me, more suggestive of what I have experienced in my life, more elective in how I would choose to spend my life, than a biscuit, whatever its shape, sugariness or absorbent qualities when dipped into a cup of tea like a suspected witch in early modern England. This beer and the atmosphere in which I consume and contemplate it has the power to shift time, tilt time, take me back, take me forwards, rake up the still warm embers of remembered moments, remove me to towns and cities that I visited, call up faces and voices of those with whom I talked, and best of all the flavours, the colours, the contours, the entourage of taste, smell and sensation that a glass of beer brings with it. All of which is why I would rather, any day, any time, anywhere, have a beer than a biscuit.
And with that in mind, I must admit I have to feel sorry for Marcel Proust; it must have been murder in that cork-lined room with only a biscuit and a tisane for company.
If you have got this far congratulations, this was meant to be part of an essay on memory and beer, which may or may not be expanded on in the future for a Kindle essay, but for now here it is.