Thursday, 19 February 2015

Bob Copper and Harveys Copper Ale

Harveys Copper Ale was brewed at 8.30am on Tuesday 6 January to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Sussex folk singer and song collector, artist, author and broadcaster, Robert James (Bob) Copper MBE (1915-2004). The brew took place in the presence of the Copper family who sang ‘Oh Good Ale’. The suggestion that the Lewes brewery create a special centenary beer for Bob came in a letter from Hastings-born folk singer and local resident Shirley Collins. Head brewer Miles Jenner said: “It is an honour for Harveys to be marking the centenary of this remarkable man in a manner which would have given him tremendous pleasure.” 

The 5.7% copper-coloured beer has a smooth, malty palate and a restrained bitterness with a subtle aftertaste reminiscent of nuts and raisins. It was first sold at the Bob Copper Centenary Event at Cecil Sharp House, London, on 24 January, which featured an all day celebration of Bob’s work:

Three generations of the Copper family of Rottingdean are vividly recollected in characteristic anecdotal style in Bob’s (1972)  A Song for Every Season: A Hundred Years of a Sussex Farming Family. While the book is part eulogy for a vanishing rural way of life that was charted out by the rhythmic seasons of the year, the arduous labouring conditions for the farmers and shepherds of the time are never idealised. The scenes of communal singing over pots of ale in the smoky tap-rooms of Sussex alehouses are nonetheless conveyed with warmth and joy, and levied with not a little humour. The epilogue describes the opening up to a wider audience in the 1950s of the Copper family’s repertoire of traditional songs, through BBC broadcasts and by appearances at festivals and concerts sponsored by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. 

In the 1950s the BBC requested Bob to record for posterity old country dialects and traditional songs. Armed with his tape-recording equipment Bob journeyed in ‘The Major’, his 1932 Morris Major car, extending his search to Hastings, North Chailey, Fittleworth and Angmering and into rural Hampshire. His experiences of coaxing out and capturing the extemporised performances of traditional singers find their way into his (1973) book, Songs and Southern Breezes: Country Folk and Country Ways. The drawings of the locations that embellish and enrich the text are the author’s own. 

But it was a journey across Sussex by foot, from Robertsbridge to Harting, for which Bob was later known and which is documented in his (1994) Across Sussex with Belloc: In the Footsteps of the ‘Four Men’. As the title suggests, Bob was following the path taken in October 1902 by Grizzlebeard, The Sailor, The Poet and Myself, characters in Hilaire Belloc’s farrago, The Four Men. Bob completed the walk twice, in 1950 and 1988, visiting on the way the many famous pubs featuring in Belloc’s tale, including the George Inn, Robertsbridge; Bridge Inn, Amberley; Fountain Inn, Ashurst; Cricketers, Duncton; and the Foresters Arms, Graffham.

Bob’s great-uncle Tom was landlord of the Black Horse, Rottingdean and later of the Kings Head, Chailey. Older brother Ron took the Queen Victoria, Rottingdean while Bob was at some point licensee of the Central Club, Peacehaven, and landlord of the H. H. Inn, Cheriton, Hampshire. Later in life Bob would walk from his home in Peacehaven to the Ram Inn, Firle, imbibing four pints of Harveys Best Bitter before setting out on the return journey, a round trip of fifteen miles.

Bob’s genuine love of traditional pubs and his delight in a glass of ale is a recurring theme in his books, conveyed in a prose style that combines romance and realism - a beguilingly poetic rendering of precise observational detail. Take, for example, the following passage from the preface of Songs and Southern Breezes:

“Have you ever spent an evening in early summer sipping ale on a wooden bench outside a country pub, while the sun filters its fading glory though the tracery of a flowering apple tree … have you sat in a chimney corner in a flagstoned taproom, while the wind moans under the thatched eaves outside and the light of the leaping log-flames and of the oil-lamp overhead glints in everyone’s eyes …”

Chapter fifteen of this same book also contains the most evocative characterisation of a pint of bitter I have so far encountered in English literature. On having the glass set on the counter in front of him, Bob Copper muses …

“What wonders of re-creation can be worked by a pint of good bitter beer. Embodied in the limpid amber of its liquid heart are all the rewards of last year’s harvest. The purity and sweetness of April rains; the warmth and brilliance of summer sunshine; the tang of September dews on southern hopfields; and the golden richness of sun-baked barley, all confined in one seductive glass and ready to be released at the first touch of your lips. Good English beer is a tribute to English ingenuity.”

I’ll drink to that!

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