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        The politics of drinking

December 14, 2017



Avatars of Aloysius: the Tiny Rebel bear affair

When I first saw it I thought, thatís the whole brand up the spout. But The Portman Groupís decision to uphold a complaint against Tiny Rebel Brewing, that its cans of Cwtch Welsh Red Ale appeal to children and encourage immoderate consumption, hasnít resulted in anything that drastic.  

It turns out all the Newport brewer has to do is switch its logo from the front to the back of the can. I say Ďallí. The whole palaver has, according to its own calculations, cost the company £31,000, including making the same change to two other canned brands that are likely to fall foul of a similar ruling, Clwb Tropicana and Cali APA, solicitorís fees and trips to London to sort it out.

Thatís a hefty bill for a small brewer, even one of the larger small brewers, but the damage is localised, despite the fears expressed by sections of the beer literati that it will set a precedent for an assault on the precious creative imaginations of the craft beer movement.

Itís a shame this has happened to Tiny Rebel, though, which not only brews great beer, in my opinion, but takes its social responsibilities seriously, something The Portman Group takes the trouble to note.

I visited its new brewery earlier this year and was astonished at how quickly the vast bar and restaurant on site has become a hub of warmth and light for the community, beaming out across a bleak post-industrial landscape.

I also like the attitude towards cask beer of Tiny Rebelís founders, Brad Cummings and Gazz Williams, protecting the quality by working closely with pubs rather than abandoning the style as several of its fellow craft brewers have done.

But the bear has always bothered me. The company logo, I mean. Not because it might entice children to drink beer, but because itís asking for trouble from those who foolishly think it does. And it was the bear on which Tiny Rebelís fate hinged.

The full report from The Portman Groupís independent complaints panel is worth reading. Itís very funny. Almost absurdist in its attention to the semiotics of a cartoon bear. Though not quite in the same league as The Pooh Perplex.

Having rightly dismissed the complainantís contention that the bright, primary colours on the can may seduce under-18s Ė that way plain packaging lies Ė the argument fell on the brewerís prominent logo.

This was where Tiny Rebelís defence unravelled. You can see why it didnít want to concede that itís a teddy bear, but it obviously is a teddy bear.

As The Portman Group reports, apologetically: ďThe Panel then discussed whether toy bears had a particular appeal to very young children. The Panel concluded that this point could not be ignored.Ē

Whatís more, despite Tiny Rebelís protests, the teddy bear is definitely ďslumpedĒ in what the panel describes as ďa drunken demeanourĒ. Teddy bears do little other than slump, after all.

Looked at like this, itís a wonder the logo has survived so long.

Yet there was, I believe, a winning defence available to Tiny Rebel, one that it nearly grasped in finessing the bear as ďan abstract reflection of Newportís urban environmentĒ Ė but it didnít go far enough.

A closer reading finds the bear apparently stitched up the middle its whole length. This bear has been through it, ripped apart and repaired. By who? And why?

Then there are those eyes. Both lost. One stitched, cross-wise, in the manner of a cartoon drunk. The other replaced by a button. And in that dull, unseeing light, a human face, its own eyes holes, its mouth a thread stretched in confusion and despair.

This is a scary bear, and its meaning is deeper, more personal, than a casual reflection of urban decay.

In Evelyn Waughís Brideshead Revisited, the grown-up Sebastian Flyte clings onto his childhood teddy bear in a taut, chilling symbol of a man unable to face the ugliness of the real world. The bear is called Aloysius, the patron saint of youth.

Tiny Rebelís bear is also a childish memory worth holding onto, worth repairing. But it is Aloysius turned inside out Ė we see not the comforting unchanging bear, but the horror that the bear is no longer protecting us from, but revealing.

At the risk of mixing literary references, it is Oscar Wildeís Picture of Dorian Gray, escaped from the attic, spoiling the party by revealing the decadence beneath the surface film of beauty.

This is not a toy. It is an extraordinary adult image. Iím sure Brad and Gazz know that, and they should have pushed that further.

Of course, itís ridiculous that alcohol regulation has to be determinedby semantic frippery. But that seems to be the game weíre in.





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