We were four young men from the north of England, all of us under 25 and more concerned with making the most of our youth while it lasted than getting involved in a serious consumer campaign.
It was the first time the four of us had got together, the night before a week's drinking holiday in Ireland, and we were bitterly disappointed to discover that many of the places we called at in search of good beer in Chester — half a dozen pubs and a boat club — sold nothing of the sort. Instead of the flavoursome ale we loved, we were offered only gassy liquid from flashy bar-top dispensers.
It got worse when we crossed the Irish Sea to find that there was no sign at all of any old-fashioned ale. We had to content ourselves with Guinness, pint after pint of it, and though it was a heart-warming experience to see how it was painstakingly poured in Ireland and how lovely and creamy it was, we reckoned that seven days of it might get a bit monotonous.
We talked light-heartedly about doing something to counter the deteriorating quality of beer back home and even came up with the acronym CAMRA, which might mean the CAMpaign for the Something-beginning-with-R of Ale, though we couldn't for the life of us think what the missing word could be.
One night, we turned up at Europe's most westerly pub, Kruger Kavanagh's near Slea Head in County Kerry, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone except the landlord's mother and the four of us spoke only Irish, so we decided it was as good a place as any to hold the first meeting of our secret society.
We had no idea how we were going to go about saving the kind of beer we liked but that didn't stop us electing ourselves as officials as there was no one to oppose us.
We were not an organised bunch of lads by anyone's definition — Graham Lees, Bill Mellor and me, all journalists, and Jim Makin, who worked in the company secretary's department of a brewery in Salford. Because I was the first to say anything, I became chairman. Lees had a pen and a crumpled piece of paper, so he was the natural choice as secretary. Makin was an office worker, an ideal treasurer. And Mellor, who hadn't offered to do anything else, was put in charge of organising events, a task we are still waiting for him to begin 40 years later. The only other thing I can recall us deciding was that the missing R in CAMRA would stand for Revitalisation, though none of us thought it was ideal.
Then we got back to exploring Ireland, drinking and jotting down Irish sayings and weird signs such as "Danger Village Ahead" and, in a pub, "Dead and worn-out animals collected here every Thursday".
When we got back to England, we went about establishing and promoting our new campaign with all the energy of a snoring Rip Van Winkle. Nine months later, however, Lees and I were again traipsing around the pubs of Chester when Lees suddenly suggested we ought to do something to turn CAMRA into a serious consumer body. For some reason, what he said caught my imagination and we began to discuss what we might do.
We started by talking to publicans about the difference between what we liked and disliked and were invited down into cellars to find out that the stuff we favoured was cask beer and the new-fangled gassy liquid was keg beer. That was, though we didn't realise it, the moment when we identified our cause for the first time. Our mission would be to save and promote cask beer.
We called our first annual meeting to coincide with the anniversary of our trip to Ireland, and attracted 20 or so like-minded fellows to the Rose Inn in Nuneaton, Mellor's local. We approved a constitution that Lees and I later drastically amended without reference to anyone else, and elected a national executive, which proved so lacking in enthusiasm that we had to call an extraordinary general meeting only months later in another pub in Nuneaton, which in retrospect seems like no more than an excuse for a booze-up.
This time, we were lucky. We took on board some of the experts on beer and pubs who had begun to join us, people such as Frank Baillie, who had written The Beer Drinker's Companion, and Chris Hutt, who was putting the finishing touches to his book, Death of the English Pub.
Over the coming months, we found people all over Britain who had been waiting for an organisation like CAMRA to spring up. There were bus drivers, licensees, teachers, graphic artists, librarians, brewers, all bringing with them unexpected knowledge of how beer was brewed and where cask ale could be found.
One of these new campaigners was V.D.S. Fowler, a dapper estate from the Isle of Wight, who called himself Boathook because he didn't like any of his Christian names. He had a neat turn of phrase, as when he replied to a letter from a brewery in the south of England. The company had pointed out that carbon dioxide was a natural by-product of beer.
"Muck," Boathook replied, "is a natural by-product of a pig, but you don't expect it to be served up with your roast pork on a Sunday."
We were now picking up momentum, hampered only by our name. The Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale meant very little to most people. But at our second annual meeting, we changed it to the Campaign for Real Ale, opting for a phrase we had begun to use to describe the kind of beer we preferred. It was a critical moment in CAMRA's development into what would be described a few years later as the most successful consumer group in Europe by Lord Young of Dartington, chairman of the National Consumer Council.
One of the 50 or 60 people at that second meeting, in London, was Jeremy Beadle, who was about to become a television star as presenter of Game for a Laugh, Beadle's About and You've Been Framed. He was elected to the national executive and secured the campaign's first TV or radio coverage in a one-hour programme on BBC Radio London, which he hosted.
He was the first of many celebrities who have been members of CAMRA or supporters of real ale. We were overwhelmed by a letter from Buckingham Palace in the mid-1970s, offering the best wishes of the Duke of Edinburgh, and since then other members of the Royal Family, the late Queen Mother, Prince Charles and Prince Edward, have been photographed pulling pints of cask beer.
Madonna has delighted us all by saying she loves real ale and choosing Timothy Taylor's Landlord as her favourite. Kenneth Clarke, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, cricketer Bob Willis, actor Neil Morrissey, pop stars Andrew Ridgeley and Tony Hadley have all been or still are members.
In all, there are now 120,000 members, a far cry from the four who started a campaign with no plan of action on 16 March 1971.
- Michael Hardman is The Beer Tutor, conducting tasting sessions in pubs. www.thebeertutor.co.uk