Friday, 27 May 2011

Oliver's Barmy

This piece was the first thing I wrote for the CAMRA magazine, Sussex Drinker and published on p. 5 of the summer 2009 issue (see right), the first under my editorship, The context was an article by Stephen Oliver, MD of Marston's, attacking CAMRA with an injudicious use of the word "stormtrooper". I thought it quite a good riposte and, since this issue had a circulation of only 5000, worth reproducing here.


There has been much consternation over the last two months concerning the intemperate remarks made about CAMRA members by Stephen Oliver, managing director of Marston’s Beer Company. Some have described his outburst as a “Ratner’s moment”, a barmy PR disaster guaranteed to alienate an activist section of his customer base. If that is all there were to it we should have less cause to worry. True, his tired stereotypes of “sandal-clad … beardy weirdies” did much to antagonise many in the CAMRA rank and file, but his real targets lie so much wider. His rhetorical contrasts as reported in the Morning Advertiser (12th March 2009) are particularly telling. In portraying Marston’s as not only forward-looking and grandly metropolitan but as a “serious”, professional and “proper brewery”, Oliver characterises the beers he assumes to be favoured by CAMRA members as aged, infirm and of inferior quality (“Knackered Old Cripplecockserved with bits in it”), knocked out by bumpkin breweries (“down a country lane”) who happen to be amateurish hobbyists (“brewed in a cupboard”).

By so doing Oliver insults at one stroke the whole gamut of microbreweries, independents and SIBA included. He even engages in a spot of good old-fashioned regional-baiting. I’m not sure why Rotherham in particular deserved to be singled out for comparison to the size of a beer-gut, but then Oliver must think that just as all CAMRA members are “whisker-stroking stormtroopers”, all northerners are pie-chomping, pint-swilling lard-eaters. It’s a wonder he didn’t add: by gum, it’s grim up north with all those micros and not enough Marston’s.

All of this is irritating, it’s true. One can, of course, invert the meaning of the message intended by the sender, and I, like most CAMRA members would much rather sample the flavoursome guest ales individually crafted by small-scale rural microbreweries than swallow whole the mechanised mass outpourings of some sanitised national conglomerate. The problem though (and this is the real danger) is that Oliver doesn’t want me, doesn’t want you, in fact doesn’t want anybody to be allowed to. And the reason for this is because Oliver knows best. Oliver has already bestowed bountiful brands from the Marston’s portfolio and to “have an even wider choice” is “bizarre”. In fact licensees are told in no uncertain terms by Oliver that they “should be aware of kowtowing” to choosy customers who have the temerity to ask for something other than Big Brother Oliver’s National Blands, especially if those customers are CAMRA members for these are less likely to be the placid conformists that Oliver obviously idolises.

Oliver’s message, his propaganda, is clear: be a sheep; be a “normal person”. Find a pub serving Marston’s and stay there. Shut up and don’t complain, no matter how poor the pedigree. Just be grateful for what you’ve so generously been given. To dare give opinion about the product is to risk “talking rubbish”. To go in search of in interesting alternative is to be “itinerant” and to hunt “promiscuously” in search of the “eclectic”. These are all hallmarks of an independent mind for me, but decidedly deviant for Oliver. It is really not so surprising that the MD of a large and successful company is set so firmly against freedom of choice. For those who seek to gain most by the market have the most to lose by free trade and the free supply of commodities. Failure to stifle customer choice is to risk the growth of competition and threaten one’s own profit margins. Oliver’s not barmy: he’s downright dangerous. Our right to choose our “national heritage”, as he refers to cask ale, is not safe in his hands. Oliver’s army is on the march. Perhaps in his megalomaniac plans even Suffolk and Dorset are not safe from invasion. Beware!

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