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Warm beer

June 23, 2013

There was a column in the Independent recently which described something or other as being ‘as English as warm beer’. I must say I regard this cliché as utterly tiresome and infuriating. Unlike most clichés it doesn’t contain even a grain of truth. English beer is not supposed to be warm. It is supposed to be cool. Not chilled, like lager; but it is meant to be served at cellar temperature. That is why it is kept in cellars.

The cliché seems to have originated, or at any rate gained currency from John Major’s speech of 1993, in which he characterised England as a nation which, in 50 years time, would still feature ‘long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog-lovers and pools-fillers.’ He also included a quote from George Orwell, about ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion through the morning mists’, from The Lion and the Unicorn. Major himself seems to have been uncertain about where the quote came from, as in Jeremy Paxman’s book, The English, Major claims that in the speech he ‘quoted some poetry’ about England. So presumably he did not write the speech himself.

At any rate, Orwell doesn’t seem to have been responsible for the warm beer cliché. In The Lion and the Unicorn he says that one of the things you notice when you return to the England from abroad is that ‘the beer is bitterer’. But not warmer. So it looks as if we should blame whoever wrote John Major’s speech. But why did this inaccurate image become a cliché so popular that it is still being quoted, with every expectation of being understood, twenty years later? 

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