As someone that has been actively involved in beer since 1974, I reckon I have a fairly broad view of things in the UK beer world. I have been (and still am a customer), a worker in a pub, an attender at CAMRA meetings,
a seeker after good beer both home and abroad and, since 1989, a local
CAMRA committee member of one type or another, including my last almost
20 years as a local chairman. Nor must I overlook my continuing stint as both a blogger and a beer
writer, which has exposed me to a hugely diverse set of people and opinions all held together by beer. This broad view was widened further when I was the co-sponsor of CAMRA's Fit for Purpose Review in 2010/2011. CAMRA is still guided by and held to account by its outcomes and recommendations. Or at least it ought to be. There might well be a need for a reminder and probably an update though. It is already a different world.
Like me you'll have noticed that there has been a few thoughtful pieces on where beer is "at" these days and where CAMRA is going particularly. In a similar way there are concerns about the influence of craft beer has in the UK and consequently its effect on beer festivals, pub going, women, young people and more. You can of course take this as a healthy thing where a thousand flowers bloom or, perhaps, take a view that there is a struggle for hearts and minds and a tendency by one to dismiss the other more than somewhat. I'm not really that sure where my sympathies lie, but while I welcome healthy debate, I'm not as inclined as some to see current beery situation as entirely benevolent and healthy. I'll try and set my views out below and likely in subsequent posts.
Taking CAMRA first, I was prompted to write this piece by reading my good friend Paul Bailey's blog
where he has outlined the achievements of CAMRA, most of which I agree with and his own reasons for taking more of a back seat, which I fully understand too. 30 years of active involvement is a lot to give any voluntary organisation and his feelings are no doubt replicated in CAMRA committees up and down the country where members are getting stale in the job, fed up in the job and, trust me on this one, looking anxiously over their shoulder at the Grim Reaper jogging effortlessly along, not that far behind. The fact is we are all getting old and there isn't enough young people coming through to replace us. I think CAMRA at national level underestimates the height of the brick wall it faces in terms of its local structure. Most of us were fairly young when we started out in the campaign. Then you got involved, but while CAMRA has quite a few young members, their inclination to get involved no longer seems to be as strong. I understand from other voluntary organisations that this is a problem for them too. Now many will say that this is because young people don't feel as welcome as they could be within CAMRA, but in most cases this is not a clique wishing to protect its position. Rather, many of us are a lot of desperate old men looking for a way out. Most of us would bite a challenger's hand off and nurture them like a bloom in the desert. Like Paul, many of us have given enough already and far from wishing to cling on to power, would welcome a ready successor and a step down to a less demanding role and to have our time back before Yer Man gives us a clout with his scythe.
There are negative views a plenty about CAMRA but negative attitudes work both ways and it is very difficult for CAMRA to change, if those wishing the change don't try and generate it. Expecting old leopards to entirely change their spots is surely swimming against nature? In short, life just doesn't work that way. It is also instructive to this writer at least, that newer active members tend to come from relatively recent joiners, many of whom are retired and for whom an active interest and new friends in retirement is a good thing. Others, for whom the "job" is at times a chore are happy to see such as those at meetings and welcome them with open arms. That they and any new blood are welcome is not in doubt. In my area at least but I'm guessing that's pretty typical. There has been much sniping too about CAMRA and its out of date attitudes. Regretfully there has been a few blunders that have done the organisation no favours - I had motions to this year's AGM about that - one of which was about everyday casual sexism which we know is off putting to women. Regretfully the powers that be felt that my motions were already policy, or are capable of being dealt with by correspondence. An opportunity for a little bit of honest appraisal of ourselves scorned I think. To paraphrase the Bard, taking a look at ourselves as others see us would not have been a bad thing.
Having said that, without agreeing with it or excusing it, I reckon that some of the stuff of which CAMRA stands accused is behaviour that occurs in normal everyday society, but is somehow attributed exclusively to CAMRA festivals and CAMRA members. That seems unlikely, but we all have to take care. When I briefed Bar Managers at the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, I included a few words about ensuring all customers were treated equally and the same. No disagreement there. All I saw coming back was nodding heads, but it is surely right to reinforce the message. A debate at our Annual Conference would, in this context, have been a good thing.
There is too criticism of our Beer Festivals, which, despite their massive popularity, are seen by a number of
commentators to be out of date in comparison with some newer ones. I think much of this stems from being amongst fellows and contemporaries, as these festivals are not aimed at such a broad demographic as ours, though it is a fact that at
ours, most customers, young or old, just come and enjoy them with no
"political" or comparative thought at all. It isn't a competition and
while there is certainly a place for alternative beer festivals which
appeal to a mainly young crowd, CAMRA does have to play to its
strengths. CAMRA Campaigns for Real Ale and does it its own way. We
can learn lessons though, but it must be recognised that our customer
demographic and aims are not the same as, say, IndyManBeerCon or Craft
Beer Rising. Ours are all about keeping real ale alive and any profit is
used only to further the Campaign's stated aims.
It may seem odd to some when CAMRA membership is at an all time high to worry about the future, but really that's the best time to do it. There is no chance of CAMRA disappearing soon, but there is a time bomb ticking away. You might dislike CAMRA, but I reckon you'd miss it and its influence if we weren't there. Publicans certainly would.
I could have gone on about how there may be considered to be two CAMRAs. The central lobbying part and the local campaigning (and social) part and that there is a disconnect between the two, but I've been poring over this long enough and thought it better just to get it out for sensible discussion. There will be more from me on this theme fromtime to time.
Oh and CAMRA Democracy. There's another one. Feel free to add others in comment. It can be as long a list that you like.