Synaesthesia – it’s one of my favourite words.
According to Wikipedia, it’s “a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway”. So seeing colours might evoke sounds, you might ‘taste’ texture, and so on.
Since I learned of it, I’d tell myself I had it. And recently, doing a bit of research, I discovered I do have a particular strain. Since an early age, I’ve always thought that numbers have personalities – 6 is a bit hysterical, 7 cool and aloof, 5 friendly and garrulous, 2 cool and elegant, 9 a bit sly, and so on. I also visualise dates, years, and days of the week three-dimensionally, on curved lines. I’d always thought this was entirely normal. Turns out it’s all a variant of synaesthesia known as ‘ordinal linguistic personification’. So there you go.
But I think we all have a yearning for cross-neural pathways. Information from one sense can fit – or not fit – with information from another sense to create a more or less pleasant holistic sensory experience.
Everyone who has ever put a soundtrack to a movie, chosen music for a pub, restaurant or dinner party, decided they prefer the feel of a book in their hands to the theoretical convenience of a Kindle, or played the Withnail and I drinking game has, at some level, matched different sensory stimulation to create a more pleasing experience.
So while beer and food matching is being extensively promoted by beer writers and brewers, you can also match beer with music, films, books, anything really. I wrote a few years ago about how research at Herriott Watt discovered that different styles of music actually changed the enjoyment of wine that was drunk while it was being played.
You can take words that apply to experiences in any sense – music, pictures, flavour, texture – and whether it’s complex, loud, light, spritzy, heavy, dark or whatever, they go well together.
But on another level, it’s just a bit of fun – a ruse to get some interesting beers in front of people who may otherwise be unaware of them or choose not to drink them.
The success of this ruse was borne out at my first proper ‘beer and book matching’ talk, last Sunday as part of the Beer Widow’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival. The sell-out audience (OK, it was a small venue) was one of the most mixed I’ve ever spoken to, about 50-50 men and women, mostly unfamiliar with my writing, mostly unfamiliar with the beers I’d chosen. It worked really well, taking the beer conversation into completely new territory and making porter fans out of at least two steadfast red wine drinkers.
I didn’t have time to go out into the wider field of literature and match non-beer related novels thematically or tonally, but I hope to do some of that in future. All the following are beer or pub related and simply provide a platform to talk about some good beers, while showing in a different way how important beer and pubs are to society, and to our collective imagination.
Obvious starting point – the reason I came up with this idea is that I’ve been half-jokingly calling readings/tastings of my beer trilogy ‘beer and book matching’. I used the title here, then realised people were probably expecting something more. And H&G led in a very convoluted way to StokeyLitFest happening – it was while I was touring the book round literary festivals in 2009 with the Beer Widow at my side that she had the inspiration for the event.
I read bits that showed what she’d had to put up with when I made the journey, and tasted a restrained but flavourful IPA from the folk who make Chapel Down Wines.
The Flying Inn by GK Chesterton with Brentwood Summer Virgin
Chesterton is one of my favourite writers, a total polymath whose ideas and language feel totally relevant today. A century ago, he wrote “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” This struck me as having some resonance with the whole CAMRA vs Blogeratti debate.
But that wasn’t why I chose him. The Flying Inn is the story of a slimy, devious, PR-savvy Prime Minister trying to kill pubs and usher in prohibition via the back door. It seems to have a particular contemporary relevance.
It’s a charming read, a pastoral ramble down English country lanes, across fields and through copses. (No one talks about copses any more. Where have all the copses gone?) As such, I felt it needed a golden ale, a beer that evoked summer evening and birdsong. Brentwood, an Essex brewer, were very generous in response to a Twitter plea and supplied me with Summer Virgin, their first brew, which won the Chelmsford Summer Beer Festival in 2007 and fit the bill perfectly.
London Fields by Martin Amis with Brew Dog Avery Brown Dredge
On one level, Amis and Brew Dog feel like a perfect match: undeniable brilliance, undeniable arrogance, they piss off a lot of people, but even those people have to admit that on their day, few can match them.
I love Keith Talent, the lager-drinking, darts-obsessed protagonist of London Fields. This is easily Amis’ best work. Even though he can’t help sneering at the stupid poor people in down-at-heel boozers, frustratingly he captures something true and timeless about those boozers. And Keith’s defence of lager – “It’s kegged, innit? You know what you’re getting. Kegged,” meant I simply had to read it now.
ABD is a lager I hope Keith would have liked. It’s still tasting bloody marvellous. It combines the brute power of Keith ‘The Finisher’ with the elegance and mystery of his obsession, the beguiling Nicola Six. Shit, I should probably have said that on Sunday.
‘Neath the Mask by John M East with Curious Brew Porter
Long story – this is a biography of an actor by his grandson – also an actor. The family had a long association with the George Inn in Southwark, subject of my next book. This biog has some great material about the George, especially its association with Charles Dickens, who was a regular porter drinker in the pub. And there’s a punchline to this particular luvvie biog that I’m going to have to keep under wraps till I’ve got it right in the book. Another showing for Curious Brew – their beers are really rather good, if you don’t believe a beer has to tear up the rulebook to be good.
Honourable mention: Westerham Little Scotney Pale Ale
I recently featured this beer in my 50 best British beers in the Morning Advertiser. I love it because it’s one of those beers that’s hoppy without being HOPPY, structured, refined and friendly. Westerham’s offered to send me some beer for the tasting. In the middle of festival chaos I was told it had arrived. Three hours before my event I was looking for it, couldn’t find it. The following day it turned up, unopened, behind one of the festival bars. Guys, I promise I will make good, literary use of it.
So, I think I’ll take this format out on the road – just as soon as I’ve ironed out some of the kinks such as Chesterton’s casual racism and Amis’ tongue twisters, and perhaps broadened the repertoire.
What do you think?