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Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “Beer: Part 2” by Ken Dunn

As dawn broke on the big day of the ‘Great British Beer Festival’ all was in place but not as complete or as ‘Great’ as it should have been. There was less than a third of the original list of breweries present which had originally agreed to take part but we’d managed to spread things out so that it wouldn’t really be noticed. Everyone was wondering just how many punters would actually turn up. The morning ground on to the official opening of midday and there wasn’t a soul in sight apart from the few constables who had been organised to ‘keep the peace’. After all, northerners knew how to drink and this was probably the biggest single alehouse ever erected in this part of the world and in the history of beer itself.

Then, as the seconds ticked away towards noon, a few strolling figures began to make their way across the grass to the entrance. Robert Long turned and signalled to the sound system people and the air was filled with the sounds of brass bands as the first few customers paid their fiver and strolled through the narrow sales gauntlet, accepting their free, printed, ‘Great British Beer Festival’ pint glass, the dimpled and handled variety, and their free ‘Beer hat’, the cloth caps which had been so important to the ‘image’ of the whole event.

After another nerve wracking five minutes there was, at last, a healthy crowd at the entrance with more and more people streaming across to the tent. Within another twenty minutes the tent was stuffed full of people, with hundreds more trying to get in, all anxious to taste the various beers available, all at knockdown prices, and enjoy the entertainment. We’d managed to get just enough together to keep things going, ranging from a creche to beauty contests, giant size bar games, a Bingo session, a trad jazz band belting out drinking ditties on the stage and characters in nineteenth century costume acting out the brewing process.

In amongst all of this the ‘Red Specials’, as they were now known, flitted through the throng fluttering their eyelids and flashing everything else, selling ‘Beer Souvenirs’. These included the humble beer mat and counter cloths to more of the cloth caps and engraved glasses. The biggest selling line were the saucy photographs, courtesy of Tommo, of most of them in ‘beer wench’ poses. The punters were loving it and in less than an hour community singing had broken out all over the place, aided by the trad jazz group who were blasting away on stage with a large crowd, jigging and drinking in front of them. It looked as if everything would be all right. How wrong can you be.

By the end of the day, near midnight, we were relieved at how well it had actually gone. The Long brothers were beaming with satisfaction and, with handshakes all round, they left and walked back to the hotel being careful to collect the takings of the day with them. As the last unsteady, yet grinning punter, was poured out into the cool night air a bustle of activity began as the bar staff set to, cleaning up all the bars while a squad of cleaners spread out through the tent to tackle the dross of the first night.

Tommo and myself wandered around making sure everything was set for the second day and then, still on a high, poured ourselves a couple of pints from one of the bars. The half dozen coppers who had been patrolling outside wandered in a few minutes later on their final check of the tent and happily accepted a pint each. We all sat round for another hour, laughing and joking about the day until a rather stern Superintendant arrived and spoiled the fun. The cops sloped off winking back at us but looking forward, just as much as we were, to the second of the five days of the Festival.

The second day, Tuesday, was just as successful but I noticed we were beginning to run out of the special beer glasses and the cloth caps were getting a bit thin on the ground as well. I wasn’t particularly concerned about this as I’d arranged another delivery of both items for the following morning. When neither of these had turned up by eleven o’clock on Wednesday morning I began to wonder what was going on. We were due to open in an hour and that didn’t leave us a lot of time. A phone call to each supplier gave me the answer. They hadn’t been paid a penny, contrary to a prior agreement to stagger the cost day by day, and wouldn’t supply a single thing until the Long brother’s coughed up for the first two days goods.

I phoned the hotel but was told the brothers were in ‘conference’. I didn’t like the smell of this at all. What I didn’t know was that the ‘conference’ they were involved with was an emerency financial meeting with one of the local money lenders. The banks wouldn’t touch them so they’d been forced to find this other source and were faced with having to pay way above the standard rates of interest to fund the rest of the festival.

Minutes before we were due to open a line of near thugs arrived, all carrying cash registers. Behind them a tall lean figure followed, dressed in a dark overcoat and wearing a wide brimmed, velvet fedora. An up market Fagin. This was the money lender the brothers had brought in to pull them out of trouble. He set his team up carefully across the entrance in readiness of the place opening up. Then a couple of trucks arrived. One was full of glasses but these were just ordinary ones, not the specialy printed variety which the punters had been promised. The other carried a load of really ‘naff’ caps, cheap rubbish really and nothing like the originals.

The Long brothers turned up just before we opened, threading their way past the eager queue of folk outside, both of them looking downcast and, had we known it, resigned to a virtual takeover. They nodded at Tommo and I and, after looking around, walked back to their hotel, leaving us to it. The crowd outside were beginning to get restless as midday came and went but we were still trying to get ourselves organised inside with the deliveries of glasses and the, so called, replacement hats. By twelve fifteen we opened but the paying public, as they dribbled past the cash registers, were not happy and said so loudly. It was the glasses and the hats they were complaining about. Things didn’t improve. If it hadn’t been for some of the heavies from the cash registers coming over there could have been a nasty situation. That was just the begining.

There were a number of glum faces around the place that day, all of them grumbling about not being paid but recognising that another financial source had been found. The general mood from all concerned began to rise but it didn’t last. That was due to the simple fact that the money lender wouldn’t accept any claim for payment other than keeping the place going from his actual arrival that morning. As the day came to an end and the last of the public left the atmosphere in the tent was tense to say the least.

He left with his cash registers just before one in the morning and after he’d gone an impromtu meeting took place in one of the bars. All who had been involved with the Festival were there. There was talk of pulling out there and then but a few of us argued to keep going. After all if we did pull out there and then the chances of covering costs would disappear completely. An agreement to meet at nine in the morning was accepted. Then we would all attempt to talk again to the money lender to find out what the true situation was.

I doubt any of us had an easy night. Many of the businesses involved with the Festival had spent a great deal of money supplying various services. None of them had been paid more than a small, initial percentage of their whole committment. It was not a good situation. At nine o’clock the following morning we were all there, waiting for the money lender to arrive. He didn’t show at all.

At ten forty five the people who’d supplied the cutlery and crockery stormed out of the tent and brought their van up to the entrance. Without saying anything to anybody they began to collect all their stuff, loading all of it as quickly as they could into the back of the van. That was the signal for the rest of them to do the same. All hell broke loose as a multitude of vehicles were brougt up to various parts of the tent. Where there wasn’t an entrance they made one with the expensive sound of tearing canvas coming from all sides. They were all quite adamant about clearing the place and disappearing before the public began to arrive.

Tommo and I slouched over to one of the bars and sat dejectedly in front of the pumps.

‘Want one?’ Tommo asked, nodding his head at the nearest one.

‘Why not,’ I answered.

He walked round and pulled two pints. With the security we’d had for the tent there’d been no need to lock any of the bars so we took advantage of the short lull before anyone else realised the same thing. We were on our third pint and feeling a little better for it when the Police arrived. Tommo held his wrists together, offering them up as they strode towards us. Both of us expected to be dragged off for drinking illegally but they ignored us completely. All they were interested in doing was helping themselves to the barrels! The Police van was backed up to the tent just like all the others. Tommo and I looked at each other as the same thought dropped into our heads. We had thirty minutes to do something about it.

That afternoon we were sprawled in our living room, both of us quite pissed, my wife looking on from an armchair, a glass of scotch in her hand, smiling vacantly. Around us were stacked cases and cases and cases of beer, lager and all manner of things liquid. We had taken our outstanding payment from the Long brothers ‘in kind’ just as everyone else involved with the Festival had done, Police included.

The last few minutes before Festival ‘opening time’ had been total mayhem. The tent had been alive with people running backwards and forwards, struggling with anything that wasn’t staked down tight. Within seconds of midday the whole tent had been stripped. The place was a wreck and looked as if it had been hit by a hurricane. The bars were empty. Tables and chairs lay scattered. Banners from the fronts of the bars lay amonst them and the remnants of publicity material lay trampled where it had fallen under the manic stampede to get everything out.

Lounging back home in my living room we wondered what had happened to the brothers. We found out a few days later. They’d disappeared from the hotel that same day, their bill unpaid, with all of the takings from the first two days. That must have been thousands of pounds. At a fiver a head we must have easily had ten thousand people through the tent in the first two days. £50,000 is a lot of money today, never mind forty years ago!

The money lender was not too pleased about that and the aftermath which the Festival had brought. He’d had the problem of paying the people who’d erected the tent and then for the damage to it which had happened on that last day. As well as that there’d been the expense of clearing the site but he refused to pay all the other outstanding bills from all the other contributors since he’d taken over. They, and he, were not very happy.

A few weeks later I had a phone call from Tommo. He had a new scam going and wanted me to handle the design work. I asked him what it was. He told me and I looked round at the cases of booze which we still had stacked up in the living room. Tommo had taken his ‘cut’ but there was still a hell of a lot sitting there. The project he was working on was for an Australian company. They were new to the U.K. and anxious to make the right impact on the market place. They had chosen this part of the world as it had a lot going for it. They’d be needing a major exhibition space and a lot of publicity.

What were they selling? Lager.

Slowly and quite deliberately I put the phone down.

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