It was a perfectly nice bottle of beer. I drank all of it, slowly, with reasonable if not extreme pleasure. Not too sweet, not too strong, nicely flavoured while avoiding over- hoppiness. A beer to be quietly and briefly appreciative of. Not a gimmicky beer. That would have been the end of it. Until I made the mistake of looking at the label.
‘A modern ale,’ said the label, ‘from Britain’s oldest brewery.’ And do you know, that rather spoiled it for me. Because if there is one thing that irritates me more even than schoolteachers using the grocer’s apostrophe (you know, ‘best apple’s’), it’s the unthinking use of the word ‘modern’. Beer is the oldest alcoholic drink known to mankind, older and more widespread than wine. Every culture, no matter how primitive, has been able to use yeast to ferment some liquid so that it comes out something like beer. Beer is ancient. Beer is living history. So in what way was this a modern beer?
It was not the shape of the bottle – that was the squat, square-shouldered design, somewhat 18th century in look, that universally betokens your serious beer. Nor was it the label, retro in feel and livid of hue, with its flowing script and a smudgy illustration that, on close inspection, turned out to be of something like sailing barges. So did this vaunted modernity lie in the brewing process, as with those chemical lagers brewed to be flavourless and very cold while still being dangerously strong? No. This was just traditional beer. To be precise, ale. Which means only that it wasn’t a lager.
So how modern is modern? The name on the bottle gave it away. Whitstable Bay Organic Ale, from Faversham-based Kentish brewer Shepherd Neame. It’s made with the blessing of the Soil Association. Pesticides have not been sprayed on its barley or its hops. Is that what makes it so cutting-edge?
Well, I don’t want to pick a fight with the master brewers of Faversham, who I imagine to be the kind of men who could hurl full barrels right across the Swale Creek to the Isle of Sheppey. But isn’t additive-free beer a pre-modern thing? In that all beer was organic before agriculture and food production became branches of ICI? I don’t think medieval peasants had much call for a Soil Association.
So what does modern mean? Fashionable restaurants are praised for ‘modern food’. Meaning small amounts of food placed on very large, preferably square, maybe titanium, plates. I’ve seen a stage play described as modern. Odd, when TV producers are apt to say things like ‘If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing episodes of Eastenders’. Which is, annoyingly, probably true.
We used to know what modern meant. It meant that which was of today. It still means that, but the waters got muddied when Post-Modernism, as an attitude, came along. It’s a semantic nightmare. What happens after Post-Modernism? But then that’s a red herring, since we’re not talking about isms here. If modern is what’s happening now, then in 1985, say, modern would encompass Post- Modernism. Just as in 1720 it would mean Palladianism (itself a revival of a previously revived style), and in 1914 the killing of thousands of unprotected soldiers by machine guns. In the late 1950s, it was nuclear weapons; in 2004, psychos filming themselves sawing people’s heads off.
But modern, since it does not know the future, always contains elements of the past. Even in, say, the mid-1960s, a period favoured by today’s designers. Even then, when technological progress was still deemed to be good, when old things were shamelessly discarded and new forms of everything were emerging. You only have to think of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, anything of the period by the Kinks, or the fashion phenomenon of Biba, to realise that the Sixties were awash with nostalgia. The artist Peter Blake didn’t have a modern nerve in his body. The 1920s, or Lord Kitchener, or Queen Victoria, were cool. To be anti-modern was modern. And New York’s Museum of Modern Art, just like the Tate Modern, has lots of surprisingly old art in it.
That’s the conundrum – our sense of now is always tinged with our knowledge of what happened before. It’s just a matter of how far back you choose to be influenced. Not very far, in the case of the copywriters for my beer label. So what could the word mean in 2005? Impossible to tell. Because that’s another thing about modern. It might know all about the past, but it seems not to be able to learn from it.
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