Spinning the stats

I’ve known a number of journalists who were brilliant before 1pm and useless after 2.30: Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, had a raft of reasons for naming its archetypal Fleet Street reporter character Lunchtime O’Booze. The advance of new technology into journalism, however, has sunk the five-pint lunch: you just can’t fly a computer keyboard after a good session in the Stab in the Back the way you could a manual typewriter.

It may be because bibulous, red-nosed excess has almost entirely vanished from British journalism that our national newspapers get so up their own posteriors about any story involving alcohol consumption, pub opening hours, “binge drinking”, teenage drinking, “alcohol-fuelled violence” and other staples of the Daily Mail-style scare story. They credulously accept all the propaganda that the anti-alcohol lobby puts out, and spin stories themselves to put the worst possible interpretation front and centre.

The Times last week splashed on crime figures it claimed showed “alcohol-fuelled crime figures rose in the first full year of relaxed licensing laws, with a particular jump in the hours after midnight”. The page one headline roared: “Drink, Drugs and All-Night Violence”, But the figures eight paragraphs down in the story showed serious violent crimes, woundings, assaults and criminal damage cases between 6pm and 6am were up just 0.74 per cent. There had been a “surge” of 22 per cent in the number of such cases between 3am and 6am since pubs and clubs stayed open later, the paper shouted – but the actual number of cases was tiny, and had risen by fewer than five per police force per week. The average police station probably saw one extra case a fortnight. Surge? Not even a ripple across a teacup.

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Pete Brown, Cape Crusader

When Coors decided to redesign the packaging for Worthington White Shield, they added a couple of florid paragraphs to the label declaring that this was one of the last surviving original 19th century India Pale Ales, and describing how casks of IPA would be taken out to India by sailing ship, around Cape Horn.

Ahem.

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Two and a half cheers for Heinrich Beck

One of the funnier five minutes on the BBC programme Antiques Roadshow, where the public brings its mouldering rubbish along hoping for the experts to tell them it’s worth thousands, was a couple of years back when a woman turned up while the programme was being filmed in Scotland with a painting signed by someone called Jack Hoggan. She liked it, she told the Roadshow’s art expert, she had bought it quite cheaply in a junk shop, and she kept seeing pictures that reminded her of it, so the thought she would bring it along to try to find out more about this Hoggan chap.

The BBC art expert was obviously tortured by, on the one side, being able to tell the woman the painting was indeed worth much more than she had paid for it, and on the other, by having to say this was because it was by the painter who later changed his name to Jack Vettriano, the artist the experts loathe and the public adores. Vettriano’s The Singing Butler is one of the most reproduced pictures in Britain (you know it – it’s the one with the couple in evening dress dancing in the rain, while the butler and maid hold wind-blustered umbrellas). Art critics insist his work is flat and derivative. Vettriano is sheltered from their jibes by the £500,000 a year, at least, he makes from reproduction rights to his paintings.

There are plenty of beers that fit into the Jack Vettriano category – loathed by the “experts”, drunk in enough volume by the public that the brewers who make them don’t care. I don’t like Jack Vettriano that much, but there are at leat a couple of beers I’m not supposed to like that I really feel need to have a flag waved on their behalf: they’re, you know, actually, not that bad. Maybe it’s because they’re both from that global megacategory the pilsalikes that they come in for the ritual dismissal. The World’s Top Writer On Beer™ insists

“Even if you want nothing more than simple refreshment, you could do much better than the familiar Foster’s, Corona, American Bud, Carling, Heineken, Grolsch, Beck’s and similar international-style golden lagers from Ruritania, Xanadu or Bongoland. People imagine that these beers are enormously different from one another, but they are all lighter-bodied, blander-tasting, distant impersonations of just one style: the Pilsner lager of Bohemia. None of these imitators is truly individualistic.

but there are two errors in that position.

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The ploughman’s lunch – guilty or innocent?

How much metaphorical baggage can you pile on a simple bar snack? Can bread, cheese and pickle (plus some lettuce and a sliced tomato, if you like) really be placed in the dock and charged with representing the worst kind of British fakery? Does the ploughman’s lunch masquerade as a false representation of simpler times, when muscular farmworkers furrowed the fields with the aid of a couple of tons of Clydesdale or Shire, while in reality it’s the invention of Italian-suited marketers in slick Soho offices? And what does the father of Martin Bell, the BBC journalist and former MP for Tatton, have to do with the story?

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Out of step …

There’s an entry in The Guinness Book of Guinness, the volume of reminiscences produced in 1985 to mark the 50th anniversary of the building of the Park Royal brewery in London, which talks about the daily tastings of bottled Guinness undertaken by senior staff in the Park Royal sample room. Guinness being the sort of company that it was, bureaucratic, very strongly process-driven, all the tasters’ individual results were logged and compared, so the stats department could tell who were the most reliable. Edward Guinness, whose branch of the clan were actually from the non-brewing side, but who joined the company anyway in 1945, was “i/c sample room” in the late 1940s, and records:

… my worst taster by a wide margin was JF Brown, who upset every graph, and I had to be tactful in finally suggesting to him that he might forgo the privilege …

As John Brown was then head of raw materials, and went on to be Head Brewer at the Guinness brewery in Dublin, it is understandable Edward Guinness felt he had to be careful about telling the poor fellow he couldn’t taste his way out of a hop-sack …

I’ve got reasonable faith in my own tastebuds: I’ve raved over new beers, such as Little Creatures that others have later raved over too, and I’ve dissed beers, like Jupiler that most others seem to compare to weak stale dishwater too. But there are a couple of brews that turn up on “beers to try before you croak” lists that I fail to get at all, and I don’t know why everybody else is out of step except me.

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Waggle-and-Special

My third-nearest Young’s pub (which is named after the unpleasant, and unreadable, poisoned dwarf Alexander Pope, but I try not to let that damage my enjoyment of it) is currently selling draught Waggledance, the honey beer now, since all brewing of Young’s beers moved to Bedford, on its third brewery. This is not a beer I drink at home, but as I was in a pub I thought I’d experiment with Waggledance as a mixed beer. Young’s ales, since they have plenty of individual character, make excellent mixes, the best being a classic, Winter Warmer and Ordinary. This is the traditional “Mother-in-Law”, or old-and-bitter (no reference is intended here to any of my mothers-in-law, living or dead, and certainly not to you, Kate, as if …).

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