For the moment that he shut his eyes, he could see every detail of that little bar in the lane off Mahomet Ali Square; the high stools, the marble-topped counter, the Greek behind it. The sound of the place came back… the purr of the overhead fan, a fly, buzzing drowsily, the muffled noise of the traffic seeping through the closed door…
Then he thought about the beer itself, in tall thin glasses, so cold that there was a dew glistening on the outside of them, even before they were put down on the counter; the pale amber clearness of it; the taste, last of all."
I like to look at how writers who don't normally write about beer treat it when it crosses their path - some of the best 'beer writing' doesn't come from beer writers at all. They're starting from a different perspective and with a different frame of reference. If they’re good, they can make even the most knowledgeable and experienced beer enthusiast think again about the essence and the role of great beer.
Christopher Landon served as a ‘Desert Rat’ in North Africa in the Second World War. In 1957 he fictionalised his experiences for a novel that went on to become one of the most famous war films of all time: Ice Cold in Alex. It contains possibly the most iconic beer drinking shot in the whole history of cinema – but we’ll come to that later. A few months ago I spotted a reprint of the novel in a bargain bookshop. Tempted by the cover illustration of a tall, full, pilsner glass, I decided to give it a go.
The opening passage above forms the opening of the book. Captain George Anson is a man ‘with too much sun, too much sand, too much of everything to bear.’ Stuck in Tobruk as a circle of Nazi armour closes around it, he’s succumbing to alcoholism, cauterizing his senses with a repetitive, metronomic swigging of the whisky bottle.
As the fall of Tobruk becomes inevitable, all non-essential personnel are shipped out to Alexandria before the noose closes. Anson is charged with getting two nurses in an ambulance to safety. He takes with him his faithful mechanic, Sergeant Major Tom Pugh, and on the way they pick up Zimmerman, a stranded South African officer who is not all he seems.
(Oh alright, he’s a German spy.)
Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan. They’re forced to detour deeper and deeper into the desert to avoid the German armour. At one point a German armoured column fires on them, killing one of the nurses. As the Germans decide whether or not to let them go, Anson’s old self emerges, and he swears off the whisky for the duration of their journey:
"Anson’s voice went on, it was different, held a faraway, dream-like quality. “If he has… I’m going to tell you something right now, Tom. It will be a sort of peace offering. Do you know the next drink I’m going to have? A beer, Tom. A bloody great, tall, ice-cold glass of Rheingold in that little bar off Mahoment Ali Square in Alex… and I’ll buy you one, all of you one, because I’m bloody well going to get you there.”
Rheingold was an American lager, from a New York brewery founded in 1883 by a German Jew called Samuel Liebmann. Anson calls it “The best and coldest Yankee beer in the Delta”. But reading about it in this context, its German name and ancestry says something in and of itself about war’s bitter ironies.
The biggest character in the book though is the desert itself. Landon’s descriptions of the mirage – a solid, shimmering wall throwing all manner of illusions at them – the blazing sun and the unyielding, hostile but ever-changing sand, render North Africa as a different planet. As the book forces you to consider the desert from the point of view of the average Briton in the early 1940s – it strikes you that it might as well have been.
Anson, Tom Pugh and Diana the surviving nurse figure out that Zimmerman’s a kraut spy pretty quickly. But the desert forces them to unite against a common enemy, survival coming before the war against Nazism.
Anson rallies and his inspirational leadership galvanizes the other three. The beer has become totemic to him, not just for the alcoholic hit he’s denying himself until they reach safety, nor for the promise of near-orgasmic refreshment after the parched dessert: he’s promised to buy them a beer. And to buy them a beer, he has to get them to Alexandria.
One night, Anson and Diana are talking on watch, under the stars:
"“Let’s talk about something else… Beer.”
“But I thought that was out.”
“It is – until that date in Alex. Do you know – I’ve been thinking about that one particular drink all day. I’ve told you about the bar, haven’t I? But that Rheingold – it’s so bloody cold that there’s a sort of dew on the outside of the glass. I always run my finger up and down – to make a sort of trail – before I have my first sip.”"
Beer is hope.
I wrote in Man Walks into a Pub about some ancient myths in which beer is a gift of hope to humanity, a consolation prize for having to cope with knowledge, sin and inevitable mortality. Here it’s a rock that Anson can cling to, to prevent himself from falling apart.
On the outskirts of the city, KATY the ambulance is on her last legs – or last wheels I suppose – rattling and wheezing and leaking and steaming as the city reaches out and pulls them in. The book flits between the perspective of each of the four characters, and as the finale approaches we’re with mechanic Tom Pugh:
"He was not hungry, not thirsty – but once when the captain said, “I hope that beer’s bloody cold,” his mouth started watering uncontrollably."
Finally, they make it. The bar is just as Anson described it, empty because it’s still early. The barman sees four unwashed, filthy tramps until Anson rouses him with a parade ground bark.
"“Get cracking, Joe. FOUR VERY, VERY COLD RHEINGOLDS.”
When they came up, again they were as he said they would be, pale amber in tall thin glasses, and so cold, the dew had frosted on the outside before he put them down. They stood in a row now, but Tom waited, as he knew the others were waiting, for Anson to make the first move. He stared at his for a moment, looking all round as if it were a rare specimen, then ran his finger up and down the side of the glass, leaving a clear trail in the dew. He said, “That’s that,” and lifted the glass and tilted it right back. Tom watched the ripple of the swallow in the lean throat, and there was a tight feeling inside him and his eyes were smarting and he knew that in a moment he would cry. So he lifted up his own glass and swallowed it fast.
When Anson put his glass down it was empty. “I quite forgot to drink your healths,” he said. Then to the barman, “Set ‘em up again.”"
It’s ready-written to be the climactic scene of the film adaptation. This is the ultimate thirst, the best beer you’ve ever tasted, a reward for the hardest day’s work imaginable. It works perfectly in the film – so perfectly, in fact, that all it took was one editor’s snip, one line of dialogue and a title to turn it into the second-best beer ad of all time.
Of course, the fact that for some reason the filmmakers switched Rheingold for Carlsberg detracts a level or two from the meaning. But without that bit of corporate chicanery, there’d have been no ad. And if there hadn’t been an ad, I would have forgotten about the film. And if I’d forgotten about the film, I would never have read this powerful, moving little book.
I can't find the ad itself on YouTube, and blogger won't let me upload the mpeg I have of it from my laptop, but here is the piece of film Carlsberg later used in the ad, without title and voice over:
So let’s hear it for the ice-cold, dew-dropped glass of lager. Given the choice I tend to go for cask ale these days. But if you were in Anson’s baked, cracked shoes, you’d have to be some kind of pervert to fancy anything other than one of these frosty bad boys.