And now for something completely different…
Every so often I read in the newspapers that far too many people in the UK drink more units of alcohol than those whose role it is to ensure we live healthy (but boring) lives believe we can safely drink. I often wonder what planet these people are from since from my experience most pubs on Friday nights host drinkers who’ll consume twice their entire weekly quota in a matter of hours.
Time was, however, when nobody cared. Indeed, some of those who enjoyed their beer once drank more than their weekly limit in less than an hour, so let’s travel back in time to June 1968 when a party of friends from my home town of Skipton decided to enter one of our number into the North of England Beer Drinking Championship, held that year at Bilton near Hull as part of the local annual carnival. Our hero – let’s call him Brian – was renowned for exceptional feats of drinking, his party trick making three pints of Tetley’s Bitter disappear in 20 seconds, though only if someone else paid for them. I forget now the details of how we heard about this event or even whether it was necessary to register Brian as an entrant prior to the day. But I do remember that about a dozen of us set off in three cars to the port on the Humber Estuary, confident that Brian could hold his own against all comers.
The Championship was decided on the basis of who could consume the most pints of Younger’s Tartan bitter (they were the sponsors; none of that ‘encouraging responsible drinking’ bollocks in those days) in one hour, specifically between four and five in the afternoon. There were about 15 entrants, all of whom sat opposite one another at trestle tables in the open air. The rules were quite simple: the (free) pints of beer were delivered to each competitor by impartial helpers who kept count of the number consumed; vomiting resulted in disqualification, as did spillage.
The Championship had attracted a colourful crowd. There were at least two local wrestlers dressed for the ring, a few rugby players in club colours and one guy who claimed to be a lumberjack from Canada, complete with red checked shirt, coonskin hat and axe, and most but not all the competitors were on the big side, as you would expect.
A key element of the event was betting. Spectators could place bets on who they thought might win, with odds calculated after the first 30 minutes on the basis of whoever was winning at that point got the shortest odds and whoever was trailing the longest. For this reason we encouraged Brian to take it fairly easy during the first half hour, to stay with the field and not try any of his fancy three-pints-in-20-seconds malarkey. We were confident of his ability, and felt that he would be able to reward us all by coming from behind and bucking the odds. Brian agreed this was a sensible strategy.
And so they were off, amidst much shouting and encouragement from a fair sized crowd. At first the pints were delivered and downed remarkably quickly by all the contestants, though the pace slackened off noticeably after the first three or four. At the half way mark Brian was on seven, as were about half a dozen others. Three were ahead, one guy on eight, another on ten and the third, the odds-on favourite now, on 12. All the rest were trailing at the five or six mark and would die away in the second half.
So it was that the odds on the favourite – a curiously skinny chap whose name was Lionel Tutt* – were 2-1, on the two trailing him 3-1, and those with seven pints inside them 4-1. It was at this point that we began to cheer on Brian very loudly and, without a doubt, he did us proud, stepping up his pace while all the rest fell away. Indeed, Brian was the only competitor who drank more in the second half hour than in the first but try as he might he couldn’t catch the leader Lionel who drank less and less but somehow maintained his lead as the clock ticked down towards the hour mark. At the finish Lionel was on 17 and Brian was on 16. I think two others were on 11 or 12, with the reminder of the field in single figures. Brian’s noble sprint towards the end won him many admirers, especially as at the close he was able to stand up and walk – albeit unsteadily – towards us, uttering the immortal words: “Sorry about that lads, let’s go back to the beer tent.”
The winner, meanwhile, was barely conscious, to all intents and purposes carried away by his supporters, unable to stand, let alone head for the beer tent. It was later disclosed that he’d been training on salted ham and dry biscuits for 24 hours before the event and hadn’t touched a drop in all that time. Our pal Brian, on the other hand, had quaffed at least a couple of pints with us in the beer tent before the competition even began. He was also ruing his tactics, suggesting that if we’d encouraged him to drink more in the first half he’d have lifted the trophy.
And so we retired to the beer tent where, to our amusement, a local TV crew had set up their camera and lights in the hope of interviewing the winner. Being as how this was not possible – Lionel really had collapsed in a heap – they opted instead to interview Brian, whom many thought was the moral winner anyway. We all crowded round, grinning inanely.
After establishing his name and where he and his supporters came from the girl from the TV news crew asked him whether he had ever drank so much before. “Oh yes,” he replied blearily. “On my 21st birthday I drank 21 pints, half a bottle of whiskey, half a bottle of vodka and drove home.” **
* If you Google the name Lionel Tutt you’ll find a report of the event from the Glasgow Herald dated June 10, 1968. I take issue with this report insofar as it states the runner-up in the ‘most pints in an hour’ discipline was four pints behind the winner. Brian was only one pint behind Lionel as I recall.