Secrets and Lies

There is little point in devising such a parallel universe if no one knows about it. Organisations said to be secret are usually not. The definitive example, the Freemasons, even have their own public relations staffs in some countries.
Perhaps this is an attempt to shrug off the popular view that they conspire to further the cause of people who are already advantaged. In Britain, many senior police officers are Masons. The fictional hero Inspector Morse expresses constant irritation over this, clearly echoing the views of his creator Colin Dexter.

The writer’s passion for justice is evident in the Inspector Morse books. Dexter and I have on occasion judged together judged at the Great British Beer Festival, showpiece of the Campaign for Real Ale.

In its early days, to be a member of this consumerist organisation felt like being in a Maquis, a resistance movement seeking to undermine the power of the big brewers to blandify our beer. A ‘secret’ handshake would have been useful, to help us know whether we were greeting friend or foe.

CAMRA remains as tenaciously consumerist as ever it was, but the sense of an underground movement is hard to sustain when its annual awards for the best beers are received with such delight by the winning brewers.

Why do I still hanker for membership of a secret organisation? Is it because men (more than women) are unable wholly to escape childhood? The seven ages of men are, after all, a return ticket.

Even the most militant Marxist, such as myself (I refer to the teachings of Groucho), finds it hard to resist the kind of organisation that wears medieval-looking caps and gowns, requires some sweeping testament of fealty, and raises a sword over one’s shoulders. In the world of food and drink, the sword may become a knife or fork.

I finally felt secure in my beer-drinking manhood when I was summoned for admission to La Ghilde des Eswards Cervoisiers, in French Flanders. What on earth is an Esward ? Such obscure terms are helpful in implying secrecy by obfuscation. I am also a Sosson. That is to say that I am a member of the Confrérie Les Sossons d’Orval, therefore celebrating and defending the glories of the famous Trappist (don’t tell Bubbe) monastery in the Valley of Gold, in the Belgian province of Luxembourg.

The greatest of such honours was mine when I was dubbed an Officer of Honour in the Chevalerie de Fourquet. The ceremony took place at the Brewers’ Guild House on the Grand Place of Brussels. The 1707 building is the only one of the guild houses on the square to be used still for its original purpose.

New members are inducted on the day that a mass is held to thank God for beer. Members of the Guild, in ceremonial robes, take part in a traffic-stopping procession through the streets, from the l’Eglise de la Madeleine. I rode in the horse-drawn carriage of a veteran brewer. Such pageantry re-affirms the status of beer in one of the world’s greatest brewing nations.

I was profoundly gratified by the honour, but I had perhaps earned it by the diligence of my research in Belgium over the decades. There have been days when I have visited as many as eight breweries.

On one such day, the last brewery was Huyghe, in Melle, a suburb of Ghent. As we finally headed in that direction, I sensed that my colleague and driver was feeling tense. ‘We’re nearly there,’ I offered, by way of reassurance. His response was mumbled and slightly irritable. I think the words ‘Arranged something’ were in there somewhere.

When we got to the brewery, I knew there would be a dozen or more beers: Huyghe has lots of products, of which the strongest, at 9.0 per cent by volume, is Delirium Tremens. I expected to be led to the tasting room, but was taken to the brewhouse. As we entered, I blinked at my greeting. There were five or six stern-looking men in pale blue caps-and-gowns, with pink sashes and sleeves.

I began to think I was in a frightening dream. Or had I died? Then I noticed that a beer was being poured for me. It was not Lucifer, Satan, or Duvel. It was Delirium Tremens. I was not dead, though possibly suffering from a lifetime of alcoholic over-indulgence. I was beckoned to the sternest of the robed men, asked to drink the beer down in one and to pledge my support to it above all others. Delirium Tremens is a sippin’ beer, and I am a taster, not a chugger, so I made a poor job of that. Nor could I pledge to promote one beer above all others (my turn to mumble). I was nonetheless dubbed, with a mashing fork and a ribbon bearing a medallion decorated with a pink elephant was placed round my neck.

After several years as a Member of the Order of the Pink Elephant, I have apparently not disgraced myself. I am now a Commander of the Pink Elephant.
Despite having dodged the pledge, I suppose I am duty-bound not to question the names of either the beer or the order. In many countries, they might be deemed in poor taste. I shall defend them by arguing that they typify the Burgundian attitude of the Roman Catholic Belgians: ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die’ (Ecclesiastes, VIII.15).

It was the depredations of the day and the unexpected encounter with the Order, that made Melle momentarily frightening.

The elements can be more threatening in the ‘drowned lands’ where the River Spey rises, in the whisky country of Scotland. ‘You can be filled with dread,’ a local person once observed to me. Many times I have expected the three witches of Macbeth to come flapping on the wind.

To the immediate south-east, the Forest of Atholl mounts guard over the baronial Blair Castle, which also has the services of its own private army, the only one permitted in Britain. I have been led into the castle between lines of rifle-bearing Atholl Highlanders and announced by a man entitled Fear an Tigh.

It has been demanded of me: ‘Do you undertake to uphold the spirit and aims of The Keepers of the Quaich?’ My agreement to do so has been followed by dinner with 200 people in the Grand Hall, its walls densely spiked with 132 sets of antlers beneath a looming, vaulted, ceiling.

The bagpipes have howled through the narrow stone corridors and stairways. The mace has whirled. The Earl of Elgin has spoken of ‘Our Dear Land…this Great Nation of Ours…wherever you are in the world, it will be a better place for your having been to Scotland’.

A quaich is a saucer-like vessel, usually in silver, from which whisky is ceremonially consumed. The Keepers of the Quaich honours people from throughout the world for their services to Scotch whisky.

For reasons which I never quite grasped, former President Reagan was honoured a few years ago. An important stage of the proceedings is the address to the haggis, in which ‘the chieftain of the pudding race’ is stabbed with a dagger and eulogised with the words of the national poet, Robert Burns, before being presented to dinners.

President Reagan’s wife Nancy seemed to blanch when presented with her portion. She apparently thought that the theatrical performance would have been performed by a stunt haggis or body double.
Having been assured that everything was, so to speak, kosher, she ate her share, I’m told.

Michael Jackson, a journalist and writer, is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on beer and whisky, on which has published dozens of books.

This article, originally published in the Slow 53 magazine is included in the Italian anthology of Jackson’s writings, Storie nel bicchiere di birra, di whisky, di vita (Slow Food Editore). An English edition of the volume is currently in preparation.

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