Thursday, November 09, 2006


John May is spearheading the Friends of the Lewes Arms campaign to try to keep Lewes’ favourite beer in Lewes’ most iconic pub. I arrive at the pub in question, The Lewes Arms, buy a pint of the bitter in question, Harveys, and look round for him. At first I don’t see him, then I do. John, a regular, seems to blend into the background. When I greet him, he’s excited. “We’re in Private Eye today,” he says. Since we have first mentioned this issue in these pages, the campaign has gone, quite literally, global. When it was informally reported several weeks ago that Greene King was to stop serving Harveys in the Lewes Arms, one of three pubs the Suffolk company owns in Lewes, and one of over 2,600 it owns nationwide, John put the news on his personal blog, and we reported it in our webmag.

The story has since, in journalistic parlance, got legs. It caught the attention of the Sussex Express and the Argus, then the Financial Times and the Mail on Sunday financial section. Then onto the main section of the Guardian and Radio 4’s Today programme. “Reuters have sent out the story on the wire as well,” says John, one of a number of national-level journalists who is involved in the campaign. “So far we have spotted the story in the Jamaica Gleaner, The Toronto Star, and a couple of African papers.” I drink my Harvey’s Best, CAMRA’s current Champion Best Bitter of Britain, as we conduct the interview. John has an orange juice and lemonade, a reflection of the fact the doors of the pub have just opened. Is this not, ventures the devil’s advocate in me, just a local storm in a provincial beer glass? “Not at all,” says John.
“It is a larger story in microcosm, and it involves some important issues that are of national importance. There is a lot of concern about the loss of local pubs due to the aggressive activities of what we call the PubCos.

Local beers and local breweries are under increasingly under pressure from companies like Greene King. Since we have started the campaign we have discovered a number of similar movements all over the country which are trying to stop local pubs from closing and local beers from being taken out of the ones that remain.” So why, I wonder, a journalist in a town full of them, has this particular case caught the attention of the press? “In press terms it’s a classic David and Goliath story,” continues John, “and Lewes is always in their sights around Bonfire Night. From Greene King’s point of view it was the wrong pub in the wrong town at the wrong time.”

Recently the Evening Argus, having misheard the comments of Greene King’s Mark Angela on the Today Programme, announced that the company had decided a policy u-turn and were to keep Harveys on. “I have had to correct them on that,” says John. “Although we have made some progress in that Greene King have agreed to considering occasionally keeping Harveys as a guest ale. Also Norman Baker MP has requested a meeting with the Greene King Chief Executive Rooney Anand at his earliest convenience on the matter, and is delivering our petition with over 1,200 signatures. But there is still a lot of work to be done.” Publicity, however, can work both ways. “The eyes of the brewery industry are all on this situation,” says John. “If Greene King back down, it may well set a precedent.” As I finish my pint and we wind up the conversation, the pub phone rings. “It’s the Publican,” says the barman, to the landlady. The Publican is the trade magazine of the brewing industry. “I can’t comment,” she says. “You’ll have to go through the Greene King press office.” This one, you feel, will run and run. And so it should.
Alex Leith

See the whole issue of Viva Lewes


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