If we meet at the Great American Beer Festival this year, I hope I won’t scare you. If our encounter today is beyond Denver, I hope I’m not frightening you now.
How might I alarm you? Not by criticising your beers, if you are a brewer; your pub, if you are a saloon-keeper; or your taste in beer, if you are one of those noble souls who describe themselves as “just a drinker.” That humble description indicates that you are a paying customer, which ennobles you in the view of both of the previous parties.
Being a critic is one of the things I do for a living. Being a reporter is another. Is a reporter a fearless seeker-out of truth, neutral and objective? Or does he recruit those qualities in support of his personal passions? When I enlisted, at the age of sixteen, I may have been attracted by the powerful purity of the first role. In the event, I grew into the second.
My favorite exponent of subjective reporting was Whitney Balliett, jazz critic of The New Yorker. He recently died, and I am wondering how he is coping with being offered a position Upstairs when all decent jazz clubs (not to mention drinking dens) are in the Other Place. There is also the question as to the choice of beers Downstairs. One might expect a decent Hell, Helles or Heller, depending on the grammar of the label, but what is on offer for darker days? For the moment I shall not pursue this investigation any further, for fear that I should find out soon enough.
A man who has the chutzpah to be both a talented writer and a cartoonist, Alan Moen, once drew a cartoon showing a bearded, bespectacled fellow exuding a storm of sweat while declining to accept a glass of Miller Lite. The heading on the cartoon was: Michael Jackson in Hell.
I have wondered how imminent this assignment might be. It has been a busy year already. Let me see, where have I been? In love. Yes, I have been in love. That’s for sure. Still am.
I have also been in Turkey, where I cavorted professionally with a troupe of Russian girls in tubular golden dresses. (It was the girls who were in the dresses, not me. They were purporting to be stalks of wheat.) This curious event was in the service of a major Turkish brewery which was launching a wheat beer in broadly the south German style.
I have been in Poland twice this year. On both beer and whisky business. I am beginning to reach the conclusion at this late stage that Slavic girls are as magnetically charming as Colleens, perhaps without the downside of Yeats’s “terrible beauty.”
Italy, I can reveal, is as beautiful as ever. I spent a week there this year promoting my new book, Storie nel bicchiere di birra, di whisky, di vita. This is an anthology comprising mainly articles from Slow Food magazines, especially their Italian edition. It includes some writing in a new vein: what might be termed memoir, in some cases lightly fictionalised. There is even the odd fiction short story.
This book was commissioned by Slow Food, to whom I was originally introduced by Charlie Papazian. Unfortunately, it is thus far available only in Italian. A couple of people have offered to translate it into English for me. I nearly agreed before remembering that I actually wrote it in English. The problem lies not in finding a translator, but in locating a publisher for an English-language edition. I am working on that at the moment. I also hope eventually to find an English-language publisher for the revised version of the fifth edition of my book the Great Beers of Belgium.
Before the end of the year, there will also a be a new book, the Eyewitness Guide to Beer which is published under my name as writer/editor, but with substantial contributions by Stan Hieronymus, Derek Walsh, Conrad Seidl and others.
Heavyweights in a Clinch
I am hoping that my next book will be an account of my dealings with Parkinson’s Disease. I have lived with Parkinson for many years, but I have only recently allowed him out of the closet. I find myself referring to ‘my Parkinson’s’. We do this, don’t we? We refer to our ailments possessively, as though we are staking a claim. Perhaps we are. Perhaps I am. I would rather him inside the tent, pissing out, than the reverse. Pissing, with excessive frequency and desperate urgency is one of his annoying habits. I cannot exclude him, so I embrace him. It is not the bear-hug of old buddies. We are more like heavyweights in a clinch, or even schoolboys locked in a playground fight.
It is this element of my behavior that may frighten you. I am sometimes the quiet, courteous, friendly Lithuanian Jewish Yorkshire Englishman that I always was. On other occasions, I look about as fresh and mobile as one of those ancient men found in peat bogs (no doubt in search of an Islay Malt). Other versions of the new and not necessarily improved Michael Jackson include the Immobile (Good heavens, I didn’t realise they’d made a statue of him already), the Dancing Dyskinetic, The Mumbling Mystic and the Garrulous Grandstander. It was a virtuoso performance of these characters at Denver Airport a year ago that led to my longest and strangest journey in a lifetime of restlessness and wanderlust.
Or perhaps it was simply the fact that I appeared to be drunk. I was not. I hadn’t had an alcoholic drink that day or the day before. As to when I last consumed too much alcohol, that is history—of the ancient genre. I do not have, and never have had, a drink problem.
Apparently, it appeared as though I did and, unbeknown to me, many friends had been concerned that my profession had taken its most obvious toll. The Lady from the Friendly Skies was also concerned. She wanted me to meet some friendly paramedics who apparently reside at the airport. They were keen beer lovers, and I seem to remember signing a few autographs on my way to the hospital. In the meantime, my Parkinson’s had taken a turn for the Tourette’s (if you’re going to embrace virtuoso ill-health, you might as well go for gold).
When I woke up, I was in a hospital bed. It was just like it is in the movies. I was surrounded by people in white coats, one of whom asked me: “What is your name?” When I replied, “Michael Jackson,” there was none of the usual sniggering. People in Denver know who Michael Jackson is. Nonetheless, he asked again. My voice sounded a little crackly. I later learned that I had had a tube down my throat. It had been removed before they brought me out of a coma. That’s where I’d been? Coma? Where is that? Iowa, perhaps? Oklahoma? North Dakota? I have heard of Hygiene, Colorado. Been there, in fact. Likewise, Intercourse, Pennsylvania. Now I have been to Coma, Iowa. “Tell us your name again,” said the doctor. “The Artist formerly known as Prince.” He looked across at another of the white coats whom I later came to know as a neurologist. “I guess he’s OK,” he said.
Then, addressing himself to me, he asked whether I was hungry, and what I fancied to eat. I suggested a large mimosa and a Denver omelette, though I think something less extravagant was eventually provided.
They said they thought I might have had a minor heart attack. My previous travels had taken me from Poland to Patagonia. Now I had pursued a journey almost to the end of my life. As occasionally happens, I had missed the plane I had intended to take. Sometimes I prefer to travel by rail. An advantage of the train is that one can always, like a Glasgow Catholic practising coitus interruptus, get off at Paisley. Metaphorically, this is what I had done. For the moment, I had cheated Mort Subite.