31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 22: “Beer Trip to Llandudno” by Kevin Barry

May 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Dark Lies the Island

Dark_Lies_the_IslandAt Toronto’s International Festival of Authors last fall, Irish writer Kevin Barry spoke about the literature of his native country, which he feels is polarized into two camps. The members of each camp, Barry argues, march under the respective flags of one or another representative figurehead. The first camp follows the example of James Joyce: this is the Catholic camp, home to the expansive, put-everything-into-the-story brand of writer. The second, by contrast, follows Samuel Beckett. This is the Protestant, austere, take-everything-out-of-the-story camp. Barry’s ideal involves the Irish equivalent of Aristotle’s Golden Mean, a mode of writing that pays homage to both camps, while pledging fidelity to neither. His short stories are shining examples of his ethos: linguistically alive and full of the music and cadence of vernacular speech, while also being rigorously concentrated, careful to avoid anything extraneous or ornate.

The results can be surprising. “Beer Trip to Llandudno,” which won the Sunday Times Short Story Award, is one of those stories that sneaks up on you – appearing at first to be a trifle, a bagatelle, something tossed off and insignificant, and only gradually revealing its depths and gravitas.

In broad strokes, “Beer Trip to Llandudno” is about exactly what its title suggests: six members of the Real Ale Club embark on a rail trip from Liverpool to Llandudno, in Wales, for the purpose of sampling some of the regions best brews. This is a trip similar to innumerable trips in the past, and the members of the Real Ale Club have their routine down to a science. Rail schedules are planned out to the minute (their train from Liverpool is “two minutes and fifty seconds late taking off,” one of them observes drily), locations are scouted in advance, and the club members know the characteristics of the local beers backwards and forwards, from tasting notes to alcohol by volume.

“There was a Whitstable Silver Star,” we are told of a draught at a pub called “the Mangy Otter,” “6.2 per cent to volume, a regular stingo to settle our nerves.” Asked about the best beer he’s ever had, one club member recalls “the Swain’s Anthem I downed a November Tuesday in Stockton-on-Tees: 19 and 87. 4.2 per cent to volume. I was still in haulage at that time.”

The members of the Real Ale Club are as snobbish as connoisseurs of any specialized product can be: they turn up their noses at the lagers consumed by the masses (German beer is “gassy pop” as far as one member is concerned), and believe that their palates are far more refined and discriminating than even the accredited experts in their field. They take umbrage with the National Beer Scoring System, which they feel is not sufficiently nuanced:

The NBSS, by long tradition, ranked a beer from nought to five. Nought was take-backable, a crime against the name of ale. One was barely drinkable, two so-so, three an eyebrow raised in mild appreciation. A four was an ale on top form, a good beer in proud nick. A five was angel’s tears but a seasoned drinker would rarely dish out a five, would over the course of a lifetime’s quaffing call no more than a handful of fives. Such was the NBSS, as was. However, Real Ale Club, Merseyside branch, had for some time felt the system lacked subtlety. And one famous night, down Rigby’s, we came up with our own system – we marked from nought to ten. Finer gradations of purity were thus allowed for. The nuances of a beer were more properly considered.

One member of the club suggests going even further, awarding half-points to ensure the most precise quality measurement possible. But, it is determined, “we had to draw the line somewhere.”

In their single-minded obsessiveness, the members of the Real Ale Club are no different from hardcore Trekkies or Deadheads: they know everything there is to know about their chosen field, which is prescribed and defined and popular among the hoi polloi, although to the club members, anyone not willing to go to the mat for a half-point on a particular ale is nothing more than a dilettante.

The men of the Real Ale Club have forged a bond based on their shared obsession, but like all obsessions, theirs has the effect of cutting them off from the rest of the world. When outside life does intrude on their insular camaraderie, they are unprepared to deal with it.

This becomes clear when one of the club members, Mo, encounters an ex-girlfriend tending bar at the Prom View Hotel in Llandudno. The idea of Mo romantically linked to a woman (who calls him “Maurice,” no less) seems inconceivable to the rest of the group: “Could be they’re only family friends,” one of the others tries on naively. “Or relations?”

When the group moves on, Mo returns to the Prom View to try to reconnect with his ex, apparently oblivious (or immune) to the antipathy with which the woman’s husband, the hotel’s landlord, greets the realization that his wife and the drinker in his bar had once been romantically linked. When Mo catches up with his mates, he has vicious scratch marks down his face (the story does not reveal how the wounds came about, though one can easily surmise potential awkward scenarios that might lead to such a result), and his friends are at a loss as to how to react. “A Slattern will set you right kid,” is all one can muster, naming a beer that has a particularly unfortunate connotation in the context.

The men of the Real Ale Club are as devoted to one another as they possibly can be, although as Mo’s ex – and any other person who tries to enter their lives in any meaningful way – has long since discovered, their overwhelming obsession with the pursuit of the perfect pint will always take precedence. In the spring prior to their Welsh jaunt, Mo underwent surgery to remove a cancerous testicle. The members of the club diligently call on the hospital on the night of the operation to offer their support, stopping at a local pub on the way, because they “needed the fortification” and the pub has “a handsome bitter from Clitheroe on guest tap.”

What a reader comes to understand is that the men’s shared passion for hops and barley has crossed over from a pastime into the realm of addiction. “There are those who’d call us a bunch of sots,” says the narrator early on in the story, “but we don’t see ourselves like that. We see ourselves as hobbyists.” This statement is highly ironic, however, as we come to realize when the narrator, who acts as the compiler of the club newsletter, confesses, “My grimmest duty as publications officer was the obits page of the newsletter. Too many had passed away at forty-four, at forty-six.”

The staunch inability, or unwillingness, to make the connection between the number of club members who died so young and the evident reason they died is telling, and underscores the subtle movement in Barry’s story. What begins as a gleeful train trip among six friends in search of the perfect pint becomes a poignant and melancholy examination of the price of obsession and the lies we tell ourselves to keep the pain of the world at bay.

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