Sunday, December 28, 2014

Point of Brew: The Crimea, beer and me


From page A7 | March 13, 2014 |

I knew all about the Crimea, or more exactly the Crimean War of 1853-56, when I was a small boy in grade school. So I am intrigued to find it back in the news again and I’m taking a good deal of interest in it.

To tell the truth, my youthful introduction to the Crimea did not do much for my knowledge of geography because, being British, we were not taught about that part of the world. Nor did it do a great deal for my knowledge of politics and the ebb and flow of national and regional ambitions. Nor did I learn much about the frailties of the human intellect that make war an option for solving problems.

British childhood instruction revolved around the wonderful achievements of the English upper classes, for which we snotty-nosed urchins should be eternally grateful; we also paid homage to the glories of Empire which, by the time I learned about them, were still in the textbooks and examinations we faced, but fast fading from contemporary reality.

And so my expertise about the Crimean War consisted of three things:

* Florence Nightingale, whom we knew as The Lady with the Lamp from her practice of comforting wounded soldiers during the night when they were at their lowest ebb. She was a remarkable woman of the upper classes whom we were taught to love as an example of service to others: among many social achievements she established the first school of professional nursing in the world that was separate from religious houses.

* We knew of the Battle of Balaclava (where the charge of the Light Brigade took place) because the name Balaclava became attached to the woolen helmet headgear worn by many soldiers in that battle and that were hand-knitted, to the same design, by their loving Mams for small boys to sport on frosty mornings. Known today as a ski mask.

* And we knew, all too well, about the glorious story of the Charge of the Light Brigade through the poem of Alfred Lord Tennyson; we were required to memorize and appreciate it. It’s curious to find that when I read the poem now, after all these years, the words and cadences of Tennyson’s text still make my heart beat a little faster and bring a shine to my eyes; perhaps the words entered my DNA during my snotty-nosed urchin days.

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs was to do or die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred

Tennyson recorded the poem on an old wax cylinder and so his voice still exists and you can hear it online; of course, the sound quality is so bad that it helps to know the poem! I recall hearing that recording in some old house preserved for posterity, perhaps in the English Lake District (but I’m not sure), but I well recall the emotional effect; same effect it has today.

The poem is a recognition of bravery and patriotism and duty and honor in time of war as well as its blunders and brutality and, ultimately, sorrowful failure in the face of overwhelming odds. A good story for small boys to learn about and appreciate and, I would say, should be required reading for certain elected Representatives from the House and Senate in these days in these United States. The Crimea again represents potential danger and now is not the time to undermine our American stance by praising Vladimir Putin and denigrating our president to score paltry points.

But the last of my reminiscence of the Crimean War, brought to mind by the present circumstances in that part of Ukraine, was one referring to the healthful effects of beer and especially of Guinness. Guinness, now owned by the global drinks conglomerate Diageo, abandoned their famous advertising slogan “Guinness is good for you” years ago, but the healthful effects and certain benefits of beer in general, and Guinness in particular, are part of our folklore that, for the most part, are true.

The origin of this idea may well have been the Crimean War; though I have not been able to track down the original reference I remember it quite well: A wounded officer wrote home that when he first realized he was still alive he had an intense desire for a Guinness (of course he did!) which, since it was readily available, he thoroughly enjoyed. He was certain that a daily Guinness contributed more to his recovery that any other medicine or treatment.

And that’s how and why I came to love Guinness.

— Reach Michael Lewis at Comment on this column at



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