A spirited performance

James Sumner takes a voyage through the drinking-glass

This piece first appeared in BSHS Viewpoint in February 2011.

Looking for somewhere to give a public lecture? You could do worse than a public house. There may be excellent audiovisual facilities in Virology Basement Theatre B1 (East Campus), but the back room of the Red Lion is easier to find and rather more welcoming. The traditional pub “function room” is not quite a dying breed: most large town centres in Britain still boast a few, often available for hire relatively cheaply.


Drinking Up Time, Manchester Science Festival, 2010

As a historian of the science of alcohol (chiefly beer), I’ve naturally been drawn into giving occasional pub talks. The obvious visual/gustatory aids provide good starting-points for the wider history of chemistry and other disciplines: “The growth of professional public health analysis”, for instance, attracts more attention if re-presented as “How do you know there’s no arsenic in your beer?” Most of my presentations have been variants on the traditional lecture format. Recently, however, as much to my surprise as anybody else’s, I attempted something rather different.

Drinking Up Time is a 45-minute monologue presented by what appears at first to be an ordinary, if slightly careworn, academic historian; before long, however, he claims to possess a fully functioning time machine, constructed from an empty winebox. This, he alleges, is used for conducting first-hand interviews with natural philosophers and early scientific analysts interested in alcohol. The approach does not seem to be particularly effective, usually leading to mutual confusion or (in one regrettable case involving Sir Isaac Newton) physical assault. The ‘time machine’ itself, meanwhile, objects persistently to the whole farrago, and does its best to give an honest explanation of the actual research involved.

Believe it or not, the piece is the outcome of various perfectly sober considerations. It was inspired by an Outreach and Education Committee session at the 2009 BSHS conference in Leicester, which discussed the particular difficulties of framing “serious” history for schools and public audiences. The devices popular with popularisers – heroes and villains, solitary Eurekas, cumulative progress – are rightly shunned by contextualist historians because they mislead people. I decided, therefore, to try an experiment. I would take a relatively dry research presentation, and enliven it with fictional devices so colossally false that nobody could possibly believe them.

Time travel was the perfect candidate. It is, first of all, a fertile source of silly jokes. More importantly, it gives historical narrative a wonderful immediacy. Ordinarily, any scrupulous researcher is from time to time forced into statements of the form “Newton must have come to the conclusion...”, which sounds off-puttingly indirect and (however you sweat to justify that “must”) tenuous. The time-traveller simply opens up with a breezy “Newton banged the table and shouted at me...” There is no danger that the listener will mistake this for anything but a representative fiction, because, of course, time travel is impossible.

I next decided that my not-entirely-reliable narrator needed to be challenged. As established by Shapin and Schaffer, blazing dispute is more informative than tidy consensus; as affirmed by authorities ranging from Steptoe and Son to Rod Hull and Emu, it is also much more entertaining. The obvious solution was to introduce other performers, but I was constrained by a nonexistent budget and a hard-learned determination not to multiply bodies or kit unnecessarily. (Anyone who has worked on this kind of event will be familiar with the interesting sensation that arises on finding that performers, props, and a surprisingly crucial power adapter are in a taxi three miles away with three minutes to go. Drinking Up Time was designed to fit into one mind and one rucksack.)

Only one art form has satisfactorily resolved the problem of a solo performer conveying conflict: ventriloquism. I am not a ventriloquist. My chief dramatic ability, if you can call it that, is in waving my arms around in response to lecture slides. I therefore cast my projector slideshow in the role of vent dummy – but with the traditional straight-man/comic polarity reversed. While I fantasise, a series of scrolling messages describes the sources actually used, irons out potential confusion, and complains that the central gimmick is an insult to the audience’s intelligence. I, of course, retort that the messages are due to malfunctions in the time machine’s independent consciousness.


The secret of wine travel.

The appearance of the time machine itself honours another golden rule: the world loves visibly cheap and tacky props. Cost aside, these have a number of advantages over more credible visual aids. They can be replaced or multiplied at will; they are extremely reliable, in that nobody expects them to work properly in the first place; and they are an astonishingly consistent source of amusement. The aforementioned one-rucksack limit was the main factor behind the choice of a suitably modified cardboard winebox (three litres, but – cue the inevitable gag – bigger on the inside...)

Having got thus far, I double-checked my sanity (with no particularly conclusive result) and sat down to write. I included as much direct primary material as possible, such as an extraordinary speech delivered by the Solicitor-General against a firm of brewers accused of using fish offal in beer in 1809. My time-traveller claims to have a digital recording of the speech; it’s actually word for word from the courtroom transcript. An approximately workable script emerged remarkably quickly: here, again, the time machine showed its value by allowing me to dispense with the tedious business of plotting. Whenever I felt a point had been sufficiently milked, I simply painted my traveller into a corner (usually involving enraged primary actors) and teleported him to another time.

The journey begins in 1700 with a visit to William Yworth, distiller and “philosopher by fire” – a conveniently elusive alchemist, known chiefly from his published works. I use him to introduce some historicist propaganda which, in essence, is ripped off from Sabine Clarke’s debrief activity from the 2007 OEC production on plague in the seventeenth century. Why, she asked, didn’t our ancestors tumble to the principle of microbial infection? Were they stupid? No, protested the audience of schoolchildren, who clearly grasped that their ideas must be a product of their opportunities and culture.

Adults, alas, have often been trained out of such awareness, particularly where alchemists are concerned, so I hammer the point as hard as possible. Acting the brash positivist, my character sneers at Yworth’s Philalethean doctrines, and tries to teach him an account of the formation of ethanol grounded in modern atomic theory. Yworth, however, is profoundly unconvinced by a worldview which offers neither conceptual harmony nor plausible direct evidence, eventually writing me off as a hopeless mystic addicted to obscure symbology.

The only depressing thing about time travel is that it cries out for Meetings With Great Men. I compromised: they appear only in supporting roles, determined strictly (well, nearly strictly) by the historical record. Newton is introduced as Yworth’s patron; Humphry Davy, as expert witness in the 1809 fish-offal trial; Michael Faraday, as BAAS section president in 1837, listening sympathetically to a brewer’s account of how electrical action spoils beer. (The story also features Joseph Banks, who I didn’t intend to include at all: he ambled in unbidden, as is his habit.)

The largest role, in fact, goes to the unsung William Thomas Brande, whose investigations included a long series of determinations of alcoholic concentration. Alongside Davy’s testimony and the BAAS episode, this story helps to affirm that the divisions between ‘pure science’ and commercial practice are artificial and regularly crossed in both directions. I round off in the twentieth century with the notorious tale of Watney’s Red Barrel (ask a beer fan), to establish that technological ‘progress’ can, and will, be rejected sometimes. While at one level a history of drink, then, the production is more a bundle of familiar historiographic concerns projected through a beer-glass, hopefully not too darkly.

Drinking Up Time has now existed for over a year, with performances in three different venues in association with local science festivals. There have been significant changes:, the winebox has been considerably enhanced by an impressive display panel matrix (Christmas tree lights, which belong on any good cheap-and-tacky-prop procurement list). Some initial uncertainty over the time-traveller’s motives – if he is a professional historian, why does he attempt to bully the alchemist into present-minded thinking? – has now been resolved: he is acting under duress, having been sent back by David Willetts (who, it must be noted, is as fictional as Yworth or Newton) in a misguided bid to save Britain’s knowledge economy retrospectively.

Managing Drinking Up Time has been what’s commonly euphemised as a “challenging learning experience”. One-mind-plus-one-rucksack proved a hopeless ideal: even with AV provided by the venue, you need a glamorous assistant to fret over the cables while you panic about the script. (The AV, incidentally, never works as intended. Never.) The shift from lecture to quasi-performance makes “breaking character” faintly embarrassing: I’ve been lucky not to be handed any announcements about sponsorship or fire doors. A less obvious nuisance is that you no longer have the option to be ill. One outing was marred by a streaming nose which, at a straight lecture, would have attracted only sympathy, but here displayed an embarrassing lack of narrative justification.

On the whole, though, I can warmly recommend the experience of standing up in a pub and launching into a potentially embarrassing venture with absolute conviction. If nothing else, it’s character-building. But Drinking Up Time has drawn audiences who wouldn’t normally turn out to historical, or indeed to science-y events; they have laughed in the right places; and they have understood its message. One final advantage: if things go particularly well or particularly badly, when you get to the end, you’re already in the pub.

Drinking Up Time has been proposed for the British Science Festival in Bradford in September 2011.

The usual disclaimer | Last modified at 19:53, Monday 25 July 2011