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‘Real ale as folk horror’

In his weekly ‘The Bar Man column’ Jeff Hoyle discusses the folk revival of the 1970s…

I was just about to set off for the last instalment of a series of lectures on the History of the British Cinema organised by the local branch of the Workers’ Education Association (WEA) and presented by Christopher Budd when an email popped into my inbox entitled ‘Real Ale as Folk Horror’, the latest from the Boak and Bailey Beer Blog. In it they state that ‘I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Campaign for Real Ale, The Wicker Man and the English Morris dancing revival all landed at about the same time.’

The Wicker Man is perhaps the key film in the ‘Folk Horror’ genre and we had watched clips of Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle breaking the news to the outsider policeman played by Edward Woodward that human sacrifice was part of the local Pagan religion and that he, the policeman, was to be taking a leading role in the proceedings.

Jeff Hoyle
Jeff Hoyle

Another film that we had studied on the course was also referenced in the article, The Blood on Satan’s Claw from 1971, helping us to build up a picture of secretive cults which are unwelcoming to outsiders and cling to arcane practices and rituals.

CAMRA? Well, maybe, though as far as my experience goes, we do not indulge in human sacrifice. Brewery logos such as the one from Hop Back, with its grinning man surrounded by foliage, numerous pub names such as the Green Man, the identification with Morris Dancing and pseudo-traditional games like Dwile Flonking feed into this narrative.

Where I disagree with Boak and Bailey is the horror dimension. A deep connection with mysticism and the history of the countryside need not be a threat. They quote the 1971 song by Traffic, John Barleycorn Must Die, as evidence, but after all the crushing, scything, pricking to the heart and skinning, he is resurrected as a drink essential to life. And what is the contemporary Worzel Gummidge other than a wicker man made palatable for children?

The central tenet of Folk Horror seems to be that the horror comes from the people themselves. There are no ghosts or monsters, just ordinary people who behave in an unexpected and nasty way, but is the threat element really necessary? What if the revival of interest in the past was a reaction against the ‘white heat of technology’ promised by Harold Wilson in the 1960s?

Maybe the yearning for traditional and old-fashioned customs was more a rejection of the concrete brutalism of the buildings such as the South Bank complex in London or the sharp angular featureless multi-story car parks created as the population moved from their generational homes in the country to the soulless cities.

Did not a similar thing happen in the 18th century when the age of enlightenment and scientific discovery helped to spawn the romantic movement with the poetry from the likes of Wordsworth and Keats, the art of John Constable and the novels of Jane Austen?

So, while I accept that there was a kind of folk revival taking place in the early 70s, I would argue that it is not all about horror. Sure, it can skew that way, as it did earlier with the gothic genre exemplified by Mary Shelley’s 1816 novel, Frankenstein, but it is not inevitable.

Come, then. along to a CAMRA event in the sure and certain knowledge that you will not end up as a human sacrifice to the Gods of Barley and Hops and instead drink real ale in communion with the old ways of the countryside. Or perhaps just because you like the taste.


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