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An Initiation to Alcoholic Ginger Beer

A deferential consideration of the cleansing properties of alcoholic ginger beer and another, wholly unrelated matter.

I’ve always had a thing for ginger ale. There have been occasions in my life when, usually following a lengthy sequence of excess, an urge to lay off the booze for a while proved resilient enough to withstand any peer pressure or fear of missing out. During these brief sober spells, ginger ale was my go to drink. I would continue to meet up with friends at bars and clubs, happily sipping a champagne-coloured, ginger-flavoured soft drink while real life reruns of animated discussions and intoxicated idiosyncrasies unfolded around me. As soon as body and soul were amply rejuvenated to endure more carnage, I would readily partake in all the regular shenanigans all over again.

Until recently, I was under the impression that ginger ale and ginger beer were one and the same drink. This misconception might be tenable in contemporary times but, traditionally speaking, there is a distinct difference. Ginger ale is, and always has been, nothing more than carbonated water flavoured with fresh ginger. It is a well-known remedy for an upset stomach and is commonly used in cocktails to offset the intensity of dark liquors with its sweetness. Ginger beer, on the other hand, was originally an alcoholic beverage prepared through the natural fermentation of ginger, yeast and sugar.

Ginger Beer – A Brief Intro

While ginger has been used for medicinal purposes and the flavouring of food since as early as 500 BC in ancient China and India, ginger beer’s origins date from an era in which the colonial spice trade with the Orient and sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean was already in full swing. First mentioned in Thomas Sprat’s A History of the Royal Society of London, published in 1702, the author writes of “brewing beer with ginger instead of hops.” By the mid 18th century, ginger beer was being brewed on a large scale in Yorkshire and quickly gaining popularity throughout the rest of Britain ˗ including the colonies of Ireland, South Africa, the United States, and Canada ˗ as a result.

The brew’s popularity continued to soar until 1855, when the introduction of excise tax laws saw the alcoholic content of ginger beer limited to 2%. Over time, this led to many brewers abandoning the production of alcoholic ginger beer altogether. Their customers did not seem to mind though, and demand for the non-alcoholic version was particularly high up until the beginning of the 20th century.

Nowadays, ginger beer is often manufactured instead of brewed. It is stronger-tasting, less sweet, and less carbonated than ginger ale. That prominence in terms of flavour means ginger beer is generally used in more complex cocktails ˗ like the Moscow Mule and Dark ‘N’ Stormy, for instance. It is even known to be mixed with regular beer, preferably a British ale of some sort, to make a type of shandy.

When I spent a week with friends in Crouch End in August 2022, I was still completely oblivious to all of the above; my knowledge pertaining to non-alcoholic, ginger-flavoured drinks did not extend further than an awareness of my finding their taste extremely agreeable. Imagine my delight when, on the day after a late arrival in North London’s foremost hidden gem, I stumbled upon a bottle of Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer at the convenience store around the corner from my hosts’ residence. I did not have a doubt in my mind that I was in for a treat and grabbed myself two bottles, which would immediately thereafter be supplemented by a small selection of other brews.

In a Nutshell – The John Crabbie Story

One of the online resources I came across whilst doing the necessary background reading about the topic at hand states that “when John Crabbie discovered the perfect recipe for green ginger wine back in 1801, it was steeped in ginger for up to eight weeks and blended with citrus, herbs and spices.” Considering there are records to show John Crabbie was not born until the 2nd of December, 1806, the previous statement is likely to apply to his father, Millar, instead. Old man Crabbie was an upholsterer by trade but another set of council records show that by 1814 his occupation had changed to grocer, operating from an address in the centre of Edinburgh. When his third child, John, inherited this small-scale trading enterprise, a range of beverages ˗ including ginger cordial ˗ became central to its business model.

John Crabbie would enter a partnership with a certain William Cree in 1838 or thereabouts to enable the acquisition of a company with properties ˗ among them an old porter brewery ˗ in Edinburgh’s port of Leith. A haven for pirates and smugglers up until the dawn of the 19th century, Leith was, at the time, undergoing a lengthy metamorphosis from dry dock to sizeable wet dock. The move to the southern shore of the Firth of Forth signalled the beginning of a golden era for Crabbie & Cree, who now had first dibs on the finest fruits, spices, and ginger imported from Indonesia, India, China, and Nigeria, among many other exotic places.

Moreover, it had become a lot easier to offload their own fruit-based cordials and green ginger wine onto the steady flow of ships headed out to the furthest reaches of the empire ˗ and all the ports in between. John Crabbie often jumped on board himself and absorbed many a captivating experience on his travels; the type of experiences that would leave a lasting mark. It is said that his first encounter with elephants in India was one such experience, which is why the majestic pachyderm graces the entire range of Crabbie’s alcoholic ginger beers with its image in this day and age.

Sadly, one of the business partners was not granted the privilege of revelling in their newfound success for very long; following William Cree’s death in 1840, the company was renamed John Crabbie & Co. and its rise continued. Additional properties were purchased in Leith, bonded warehouses stockpiled with wine and brandy were established, a distillery was opened, and John Crabbie took to blending his own range of whiskies. In addition to procuring large stocks of single malt whisky from some of the most renowned distilleries in Scotland, Crabbie signed licences to have his whiskies produced on their premises during the decades that followed.

Perhaps his most notable contribution to the burgeoning success story of Scotch whisky came in 1885, when he teamed up with two other influential whisky magnates to found the North British Distilling Company. Their aim was to supply a new, independent, and cheap source of grain whisky, and when wine harvests across continental Europe started failing in the late 1880’s due to the spread of a particularly nasty parasite, North British was ready to meet the enhanced demand for alternatives on the other side of the North Sea. It was also around this time that John Crabbie got involved with local politics and moved into a stately property with a view of Leith, plus all the ships that sounded their arrival from afar.

John Crabbie would enjoy that view until his death in 1891; the seeds he had sown characterised the landscape he left behind deep into the 20th century. North British was producing over 13 million litres of grain spirit at the fin de siècle ˗ more than any single malt distillery in Scotland today ˗ and Leith soon became famous for its whisky storage facilities. Casks of whisky on which excise duty had yet to be paid were kept under lock and key in these bonded warehouses, around 85 in total up until the 1960’s. The warehouses owned by John Crabbie & Co. were filled with the blends of revered distilleries such as Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Talisker.

Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer – A Succinct Review

When it came to the its own range of beverages, however, John Crabbie & Co. was best known for the previously mentioned green ginger wine, which would continue to be produced in Leith until the 1980’s. It was during that decade when another Leith distiller and blender, one by the name of MacDonald & Muir, acquired the company. MacDonald & Muir’s most prized asset was, arguably, the Glenmorangie distillery, which had been under their ownership since 1918 and they would ultimately become the Glenmorangie Company in 1996. In turn, this brand was sold to its present owners, Halewood International Ltd., in 2007. Halewood Int. then started manufacturing alcoholic ginger beer at their plant in Liverpool and attached the Crabbie name to it. The legendary green ginger wine and a variety of whiskies are also still sold as certified Crabbie products, donned with the image of an elephant and all.

Besides their traditional ginger beer, the folks at Crabbie’s have come up with a variety of flavours, of which Scottish Raspberry, IPA, Stout, and Rhubarb are available in the United Kingdom, and Spiced Orange in the United States. The “Original” is by far the most satisfying alcoholic soda I have ever tasted. Its nose is on point ˗ a sweet ginger aroma that smells natural, not artificial. Its pale golden colour sparkles bountifully as it reluctantly settles beneath a thick head of fuzzy white foam that quickly fades to a thin collar with some clingy lace. It tastes just as crisp and refreshing as it looks. The spicy kick of ginger balances out the distinct soda sweetness very nicely while the burning sensation intrinsic to the palate of all ginger-based drinks is far from overpowering and does not linger.

The two bottles I purchased on my first full day in Crouch End were finished before sundown. During the remainder of my stay, every time my gracious host and I popped into the local corner shop, I was tempted to treat myself to another one ˗ and almost invariably succumbed.

Summary of a Leisurely Stroll in the Woods

On one of these occasions, a lone bottle of the Rhubarb variant was on display next to a row of the “Original” so I immediately snatched it out of the cooler and claimed it as my own. A day or two later, my guy Louie Jenkini suggested we embrace the heat wave that had been keeping us housebound by taking a walk to nearby Queen’s Wood, where 21 hectares (52 acres) of shaded ancient woodland awaited us. Before heading out, I was alert enough to grab a drink for the road. Hydration was imperative, you see, and remembering to bring along a bottle of alcoholic ginger beer for emergencies only showcases a sense of preparedness and responsibility befitting a man my age. And so we set forth out into the wilderness of brick and tarmac; the bottle of Rhubarb ginger beer had already been opened before we reached the end of the road.

0.5 litre bottle of Crabbie’s Rhubarb Alcoholic Ginger Beer

The Rhubarb variant is not quite as splendid as the “Original”. It is sweeter and lacks a distinctive taste, almost as if the spicy heat of ginger and the tartness of rhubarb have managed to neutralise each other and sugar, the sneaky third party, has prevailed. Nevertheless, it is still refreshing enough to come in handy on a sweltering August day in the Big Smoke and we reached our destination without incident. And what a destination at that!

A remnant of the ancient Forest of Middlesex, which covered large sections of what is now North London from prehistoric times until the 13th century, Queen’s Wood has never been subjected to the type of intensive management practices upheld at abutting Highgate Wood and other surviving pockets in the area. Not only has this enhanced the diversity of flora and fauna to be marvelled at, the absence of playgrounds and fitness zones means large crowds rarely form under its canopy ˗ least of all on a Monday afternoon during working hours.

Unlike yours truly, the son of a tropical forester, Louie Jenkini is very knowledgeable about trees. Before we were formally introduced, I knew him only by the nickname he had earned himself during our first few weeks of living on campus: The Tree Hugger. It soon became apparent how misplaced our judgements had been. Louie did not hug trees, he climbed them; much higher than any of us brand-clad posers with gel in our hair and trainers on our feet would ever dare venture. What’s more, our first conversations revealed that we had plenty of shared interests and a similar sense of humour.

I distinctly remember one windy autumn evening outside our respective halls of residence, atop a hill overlooking Canterbury, when I spotted Louie gently swaying back and forth in the upper reaches of an oak tree as if he were Barrelman of the flippin’ HMS Bounty. Genuinely concerned for his safety, I rushed to the foot of the oak and urged him to abandon his reckless endeavour. After a while, when he happened to look down and saw me waving my arms frantically, he smiled broadly and waved back.

Since I was not about to hoist myself up there to try and outstubborn my new friend, I retreated to a nearby bench from where I continued to watch him scour the horizon for his proverbial Pitcairn Island. Some twenty minutes later, he was back on terra firma. Seated next to me on the bench, in response to my barrage of questions, he explained that he had honed his skills on a patch of preserved forest not far from the house he called home. Of course I could not have known it was destined that, twenty years on, I myself would consider that very same house and its surroundings to be a home away from home.

As we made our way to the heart of Queen’s Wood at a leisurely pace, Louie pointed out some of the trees he liked to climb back in the day. He simultaneously educated me on random characteristics of the specimens around us; English oak, hazel, hornbeam, midland hawthorn, mountain ash, both species of lowland birch, the occasional beech ˗ all self-seeded in an era long gone. Even the Wild Service Tree, a rare deciduous tree with brown berries whose presence is commonly interpreted as an indicator of ancient woodland, is scattered throughout the grounds.

We paused to inspect a fallen oak and, seated on its trunk, finished the bottle of Rhubarb ginger beer. The topic of conversation turned to an incident that took place quite recently ˗ within the past five years, at least ˗ involving Hornsey Urban District Council, the residents of a property bordering Queen’s Wood, their insurance company, and three or four mature oak trees.

Louie told me that the insurance company had pressured their clients, the residents, into initiating legal action to have the oaks felled in order to root out any risk of damage occurring to the property during extreme weather. When it was publicly announced that the council had granted the relevant permits to have the trees cut down, a torrent of bohemian outrage was unleashed. Petitions were signed and presented, conservation organisations got involved and, most impressively, a sizeable group of people kept constant vigil at the site for weeks on end.

All these efforts persuaded the council to backtrack and declare the whole situation would be reassessed the following year. Predictably, this turned out to be little more than a bureaucratic diversion tactic. It is plain as day the council are wary of another community backlash; the oak trees in question are still standing tall and proud. I, for one, was genuinely ecstatic with the outcome. The story hit freakishly close to home.

A Short Account of the Cedrus libani Affair

I have mentioned in a previous chronicle that my garden is full of trees. Their presence was quite possibly the main reason my late father, the forester, fell in love with the property in his student days and put in a bid when it came on the market over twenty years later. A handful of them are majestic enough to have been declared natural monuments on a municipal level, including a most noble walnut tree, a massive beech, and a century-old Lebanese cedar ˗ the Cedrus libani. As owners of the plot of land on which they stand, the upkeep of these trees is solely our responsibility. On the other hand, we are not allowed to make any alterations to their shape without formal approval from the city council.

The Cedrus libani in question.

In February 2022, a protracted storm named Eunice left a trail of destruction across Northwest Europe from to the UK to Poland. In the Netherlands, record inland wind speeds of up to 145 km/h were measured at a weather station not far from where I live. Closer to the coast, in The Hague, dozens of houses were evacuated over fears the bell tower of a nearby church could collapse on top of them, and a large section of roof was torn from a football stadium and sent flying. A total of four people lost their lives nationwide, all in separate incidents involving falling trees. In short, it was nothing short of frightening. As you can imagine, the days that followed were every insurance company’s worst nightmare.

Eunice hit the Netherlands on a Friday afternoon and raged until well past midnight. The morning after, we received a rare visit from our neighbour, the male head of a family of four we have rarely interacted with in the eight or nine years since they moved into the property that borders ours to the east. He had come to report some damage to his garden. From my bedroom above the hall, I overheard the neighbour inform my brother ˗ who was visiting at the time and first to the front door ˗ that a humongous branch from one of the trees on our side of the fence had snapped off, narrowly missing the back of his house on its way down.

He went on to stress it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened and that his family felt unsafe in their own home. Furthermore, there was the matter of cleaning up the mess in his backyard. My brother calmly let him know that we would take care of it. Then I heard my mother enter the hall, shouting wildly:

You want that tree gone, don’t you? That’s what you’re really saying, isn’t it? Well, you’re going to have to wait until I’m dead!”

So much for easing into the day. Once downstairs, I prepared myself a hearty breakfast and, no more than an hour after my mother had sent the neighbour scurrying back from whence he came, my brother and I were ready for action. In their defence, I understood the neighbours’ concerns all too well. One of the cedar’s branches had snapped off around a year after they moved in next door and although it landed on our side of the fence, my mother had our preferred tree surgeon prune all the branches that protruded into their unsullied realm. On top of that, one of our pine trees was blown over during another particularly violent storm in December 2017 and its crown had come crashing into that very same realm, albeit several metres further away from neighbours’ house than the branch dislodged by Eunice.

Remnant of the branch in question.

The latter had landed approximately five metres away from the neighbours’ dining area window and flattened one of their small, immaculately trimmed holly trees in the process. When I say small, I mean barely three metres in height; our cedar, in comparison, is at least fifteen metres tall. It took my brother and I a good four hours to finish the job. If he hadn’t bit the bullet and gone off to buy an electric chainsaw, we would probably still be at it today. The main bough of the branch had a diameter of at least thirty centimetres and was impossible to get through with a hand- or hacksaw. It was also about five metres long and too heavy to lift, let alone carry all the way to the roadside.

When our work was done, the neighbours pointed out a large, deep wound on the trunk of the cedar facing their dining area. Apparently, it was a popular hangout with a wide variety of species; insects, squirrels, birds ˗ you name it. Every pint-sized creature passing through our neck of the woods popped in to see what all the fuss was about, regularly disappearing for minutes at a time. To the neighbours, this was a clear sign the cedar’s trunk had been hollowed out and it would not be long before the whole tree came tumbling down on their thatched roof.

We were already aware of the wound’s presence but it had never been raised as a point of concern in the annual controls we are obliged to have conducted. I assured the neighbours we would take steps to ensure the risk of an eventual reoccurrence was minimised and that I would keep them posted on any developments. My brother ˗ whom, like myself, had struggled to contain his laughter when they started complaining about their garden having “lost a considerable amount of depth” without the obliterated holly tree ˗ told them to send us the bill for the damages suffered.

The wound in question.

At the start of the subsequent working week, I contacted our tree surgeon to seek his advice on how to proceed. Eunice had caused sheer havoc around the ends and he was already fully booked for the next fortnight. Nevertheless, he asked me to e-mail him the pictures my brother had taken of the damage to the neighbours’ garden and the cedar’s wound. Several days later, our tree surgeon regretfully informed us that it looked as if the wound had grown in the three to four months since the last annual control and that it would be best to apply for a felling permit. The news broke my mother’s heart. By the end of the week, I had successfully navigated the bemusing online portal through which residents of The Inferiorlands are nowadays obligated to apply for permits relating to any substantial modifications of home and/or garden.

Some two weeks later ˗ much sooner than I had dared to expect ˗ the city council dispatched an affiliated tree surgeon to assess the cedar’s condition. As far as he was concerned, there was absolutely no cause for distress; within a matter of minutes he had determined the tree was healthy and the wound healing nicely. He also made it crystal clear that there was no way he would so much as consider approving our application. My dear mother was over the moon.

A further couple of weeks down the line, a council representative called to announce that the felling permit had indeed been rejected. Should we so wish, there was the option of having an in-depth assessment regarding the overall health of the cedar carried out within a time frame of four weeks. In the event the assessment report put forward a different set of conclusions, the council would be compelled to reconsider. If no action was taken on our part, the council would proceed to publicly announce its decision and therewith initiate a six-week period during which appeals could be lodged.

True to my word, I swung by the neighbours’ place soon after and updated them accordingly. On my previous visit, several weeks after the post Eunice clear-up, the materfamilias had been visibly relieved upon hearing of our willingness to have the tree felled. The second time round, in early May, it was her husband who opened the door. Evidently dismayed at the news I bore, he subjected me to an audible inner dialogue about the possible motives behind the council’s reckless decision. He quite rightfully deduced that the cedar’s monumental status had been taken into account, the rest of his soliloquy consisted of pure gibberish.

When the chance presented itself, I cut in and described how a mature beech that stood along one of our town’s main thoroughfares had been uprooted during a storm the previous month. While that specific storm had rivalled Eunice in intensity, it lasted no longer than an hour and had failed to inflict any further mutilation upon our cedar. Hence, I suggested the branch which landed in his backyard may have snapped under prolonged duress and that there was not necessarily anything wrong with the tree per se. The baffled expression he produced in response revealed that my reasoning had gone right over his head.

Our next meeting took place not long after. The sun was out and I was busy removing the blades of grass and abundance of weeds that had sprouted up between the concrete slabs on the path to our gate. His little boy, who looks about twelve but goes through life screaming and shouting as if he were still teething, announced their impending arrival long before I could see them approaching from the corner of my eye.

I did not raise my head until the neighbour rolled up the path on his bicycle. He had come to notify me that they had gone ahead and lodged an appeal against the council’s decision on the grounds that their safety could not be guaranteed as long as the cedar loomed over their premises. If I had the gift of gab, I might have told him the only guarantees in life are death and taxes, and that the likelihood of any one of his family members meeting their end in the same manner as the dandy little holly which had made their backyard look bigger was next to none; instead, I nodded solemnly and told him I understood.

Maybe he mistook my courtesy for sympathy. Maybe he was looking for a friend. It could just as well been part of his spiel, for all I know; what is certain, is that my dealings with the bugger became annoyingly frequent. With the summer solstice on the horizon, his children and their friends could often be heard playing football or jumping on the trampoline in their front garden until 10 p.m. ˗ or until my mother had leaned out of her bedroom window and told them to get lost. My preferred approach, which involved less shouting and more appeal to reason, was equally ineffective.

It took one of the boy’s friends to damage a section of the low brick wall that separates our driveway from the rest of the front garden whilst reclaiming a ball that had flown over the fence, and dash off when I told the little rascal to clean up the mess he had made, for a settlement to be reached. Better said, I made use of the opportunity to offer the neighbour a glimpse of my confrontational self, reminding the dunce that his family resided next door to a terminally ill lady in the final phase of her life and that their lack of consideration was starting to test my patience. I must admit, in that respect, they have been on their best behaviour ever since; the children still regularly do their utmost to wake the dead but never after 9 p.m., as agreed upon.

What’s more, the neighbour was constantly on my case about the cedar as well. He started timing his trips to the waste collection point down the road according to mine, magically appearing at the entrance of his driveway as I advanced with a wheelie bin to voice the same concerns over and over. His frustrations were never aimed directly at me though, always at the council. Time and time again, I reassured him that it was our intention to have the tree pruned if their appeal came to be dismissed. It did little to put his mind at ease.

One day, I can’t recall whether it was in June or July, I was contacted by another council representative. First and foremost, he wanted to know whether we would consider having the cedar felled in order to settle the affair. Off the back of my resolute “No”, he expounded the possible scenarios moving forward. Seeing as the council had decided to refuse their appeal, the neighbours would be given the option of challenging this pronouncement. If they chose to do so, the matter would be relayed to an independent advisory committee for final consideration; if not, the case would be considered closed and we could proceed to apply for a separate permit to have the tree pruned. That very same evening, or possibly the one after, the neighbour was waiting for me at his gate again ˗ they had opted to escalate the procedure.

A hearing was scheduled at the local town hall in late August, exactly ten days after my return from Crouch End. There was plenty of confusion beforehand. The bureaucrat that had been put on the case ˗ the same guy who had called me several weeks prior ˗ made sure of that. For example, the summary of events sent out along with some other general information regarding the proceedings contained numerous glaring mistakes. The repeated adulteration of my surname annoyed me but it happens all the time; there’s more than enough Dutch people out there who can’t help but throw a “van” into the mix, bless their bigoted little hearts.

Switching my corrupted name with the neighbour’s, however, was taking it a bit too far. All of a sudden, I was the one who had lodged an appeal and called for the hearing ˗ in an official document, no less. I immediately highlighted these errors to the muppet at the council per e-mail, after which they were rectified in a timely manner. Even so, the next time the neighbour ambushed me at his gate, he claimed to not have received an amended version of the document. Nothing short of alarmed at the levels of incompetence on parade, I felt compelled to follow up with a reminder that the amended document should be shared with all parties involved. As it turned out, my lack of confidence was entirely called for.

It would become apparent that all this confusion had started affecting the neighbour’s perception and common sense. The Thursday before the hearing, on the eve of another scheduled bin collection day, he was waiting for me at the usual spot; this time round, he proposed we contrive a communal strategy to convince the members of the committee that the cedar was one huge health and safety hazard. I was literally speechless. Months’ worth of unwanted encounters and tiresome exchanges, and this cretin had somehow convinced himself that we were allies.

Balancing on a tightrope between derision and sheer exasperation, I spelled out our standpoint yet again ˗ yes, we had been dismayed by the fallen branch, which is why we had initially felt obligated to apply for the felling permit, but it had never actually been our desire to have the tree felled. Hence, we had no wish to see the council’s decision overturned. With that said and done, and in no mood for yet another futile back-and-forth, I brusquely excused myself and left the neighbour standing in front of his gate sporting the bewildered expression I had come to know so well.

On the big day itself, I showed up at my local town hall woefully unprepared. The neighbour and his wife were decked out in their Sunday clothes, I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt; they were equipped with piles of paper stacked in transparent folders and a notebook, I carried a crumpled envelope containing the amended summary of events and a pen. They reacted sympathetically when the previously mentioned council representative, the dunce responsible for overseeing the entire procedure, introduced himself and let it be known that hearings held after working hours were a burden on him because he had four young children at home. I, on the other hand, could not prevent a contemptuous frown from conveying my thoughts: Four?! Are you for real?! I certainly hope your wife is more competent than you are!

The dunce had led me to believe that my personal input at the hearing would be negligible; it was the council’s decision the neighbours were contesting, after all. In reality, I too was expected to defend my position and regurgitate the exact same story I had been reciting to the neighbours as well as the city council all along. The neighbour, in contrast, was obviously very comfortable in this setting and feeling inspired as a result. First, he accused me of lying about the size of the branch that had landed on their side of the fence; according to him, it had been at least ten metres long with a diameter of one metre. He then went on to condemn the city council for their failure to conduct an in-depth assessment concerning the cedar’s overall health.

The dunce deflected these criticisms onto my court, claiming that the option of further analysis had been raised by his colleague in the early stages of the whole palaver; I pushed back by saying that it had never been communicated that this option was in fact a condition. When I raised the possibility of having the tree cabled ˗ as our preferred tree surgeon had suggested in a written proposal that the dunce had neglected to share with the neighbours ˗ it was staunchly brushed aside.

Clearly on a roll, the neighbour’s grand finale consisted of an emotional appeal to the three-man committee to place more emphasis on his family’s well-being. On windy days, they were forced to check their preferred weather app to determine whether they should enter certain sections of their house – this was no way to live. The committee members were all ears and, seemingly, in silent rapport. While the masquerade dragged on, the last ounces of sympathy and consideration I had left for the neighbours evaporated; all that remained was a vile cocktail of disdain and deep-rooted enmity gushing through my veins.

My exterior, however, remained stoic and I calmly agreed to the committee’s request for an in-depth report on the cedar’s overall health to be provided to all relevant parties before the start of autumn, when the likelihood of storms increases. It goes without saying that we were also expected to bear the cost of the assessment on which said report would be based. With that, the hearing was pronounced closed and the entire procedure put on hold.

Out in the hallway, I asked the dunce if he could send me an overview of the criteria that the assessment was expected to comply with but my request was brushed off on the grounds that every tree surgeon in the country would know exactly how to proceed. As it turns out, our preferred tree surgeon did not; better said, he informed me there were numerous methods that could be applied. For instance, his team was capable of assessing the cedar’s root structure using infrared technology if need be but, due to cost considerations, we were advised to refrain from going that far unless specifically requested.

This was subsequently conveyed to the dunce in an e-mail, his response cited several ambiguously defined statutes. Fortunately, he also mentioned the name of a company that had conducted similar assessments at the behest of the city council in the past; our preferred tree surgeon offered to get in touch with them on our behalf.

The assessment was carried out in early September. No more than a fortnight later, I bumped into the neighbour at the usual spot; he was clearly anxious to review the findings of the report and wondered why it was taking so long to be compiled. I told him that the experts we had commissioned were extremely busy and that I had already sent them a reminder, which was true. When the report came through at the end of that week, my mother and I were pleased to find its conclusions were in line with the previously made observations ˗ the cedar could do with a good pruning but is otherwise in excellent health, meaning that the likelihood of its trunk splitting or snapping within the next fifteen years is next to none.

Moreover, the report contained clear recommendations, supported by Photoshopped photographs, pertaining the extent to which the tree should be pruned and the time frame in which this should occur. There were two other details that immediately caught my eye: The height of the tree had been estimated at fifteen metres and the diameter of its trunk measured at just under one metre. This meant I could now refute the neighbour’s grossly exaggerated claims regarding the size of the fallen branch. Confident that it would not be long before the whole affair was finally over and done with, I forwarded the report to the dunce.

By the time October was coming to a close, I was feeling decidedly less assured. Storm season was, technically speaking, already underway but the committee’s final decision was still pending. According to our preferred tree surgeon, the recommended pruning activities were not expansive enough to necessitate formal approval from the city council; I figured it would be best to run it by the dunce, just in case. Once again, he highlighted a number of vaguely worded statutes that suggested we were legally bound to apply for a separate permit to have the tree pruned.

A week or so after said requisition had been lodged, I received another e-mail from the dunce asking whether the neighbour had approached us with the intention of seeking a compromise. I wrote back saying that there had been no contact whatsoever with the neighbours in almost two months and that we were not interested in discussing a compromise ˗ we had paid for an in-depth assessment to be conducted and were set on seeing through the recommendations formulated in the report. The dunce’s reply revealed that the neighbours refused to accept the findings of the report and had lodged another appeal.

Although more than a month had passed since this latest appeal was drawn up, the dunce had failed to send a copy my way. When he finally did, I spent an entire evening dissecting and rebuffing every half-witted argument the neighbour had come up with. I will spare you all the details, save one example that immediately springs to mind.

The report contained a short paragraph in which it was described that, despite being in good health, the extensive pruning activities performed some eight years prior had rendered the cedar at a slight imbalance and that this potential hazard should be rectified as soon as possible by shortening some of the larger branches on the opposite side of the crown. The neighbour had voiced his concerns about the sentence that spoke of the imbalance, I countered by quoting the very next line. I also pointed out that there was no way in hell the fallen branch could have been ten metres long with a diameter of one metre. The whole exercise felt like such a tremendous waste of time.

In his final statement, the neighbour could not resist cautioning the city council and myself that he would hold us responsible if the cedar caused any more damage to his property; I retorted by acknowledging his right to repeatedly question the conclusions of the experts and lodge appeals whenever he had the chance but that his doggedness was only dragging out the whole procedure, essentially increasing the risk of the recurrence he so feared in the process. When I sent my rebuttal to the dunce, I was sure to include a reminder that it ought to be shared with all parties involved.

December was already well underway when we were notified the city council had given us the green light to have the cedar pruned but that we could not proceed to do so until the six-week appeal period had transpired. I tried to speed up the process by arguing we would not be able to meet the recommended time frame stated in the report as a result, only to be duly informed that this type of exemption would be deemed unlawful. A few days before Christmas, we finally received word regarding the felling permit ˗ the committee had opted to side with the city council and reject the neighbour’s appeals. However, my mother and I were not inclined to rejoice just yet; the schmuck still had the option of taking the matter to the provincial courts and we half expected him to act on it.

The day before New Year’s Eve I awoke to find the neighbour had sent a somewhat incoherent, passive-aggressive message to me personally. He opened with a reminder that the pruning permit had been approved, rambled on about how he expected immediate action to be taken for a bit, demanded that cables be fastened to the higher echelons of the tree, and concluded by wishing both my mother and I all the best for the year ahead.

I couldn’t be asked to point out that neither the report nor the committee’s final decision had made any mention of security cables. Instead, I sent an e-mail to the city council ˗ neighbour in cc ˗ inquiring whether we could go ahead and prune the cedar if the neighbours did not intend to lodge another appeal, this time against the approval of the pruning permit. The neighbour followed up shortly after with a confirmation that he accepted the committee’s decision. It did not make any difference; the six-week appeal period had not run its full course.

On a chilly February morning in 2023, almost an entire year after Eunice reminded “us” ˗ “we”, the indomitable Dutch ˗ that nature cannot be tamed and that some things will always remain out of our control, our preferred tree surgeon dispatched a three-man crew to prune the cedar. One of the guys told me that the neighbours had covertly taken pictures of them while they were up in the cherry picker, working away.

Little did he know that, eight years earlier, his boss had told the neighbour to bugger off when the latter had attempted to supervise the pruning of the very same cedar. Having been spared the unwanted company this time round, I was certain the schmuck would show up at our doorstep later on in the day, whining about branches with diameters larger than the trunks that supported them and twenty metre long security cables and a life that had become unbearable because his back garden looked smaller than it used to. Thankfully, that too did not come to pass.

Parting Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering what on earth a long-winded account of a fairly mundane neighbour dispute has to do with alcoholic ginger beer. The answer is: Absolutely nothing. I would have liked to crack open a bottle of Crabbie’s “Original” to celebrate the successful outcome of a year-long battle but, sadly, the stuff is not readily available here in The Inferiorlands. With any luck, I’ll be able to make another trip to Crouch End in the not too distant future and enjoy one or two beneath the shade of the mature oak trees that persevered in the face of human belligerence, just like our cedar has done.

During the latter stages of the Cedrus libani affair ˗ when my confidence in a favourable outcome had started to wane ˗ I found solace in the words of Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, a historical character in War & Peace. Kutuzov won considerable distinction in one of the many Russo-Turkish wars by forcing the Ottomans to retreat and, according to Tolstoy, forcing them to eat the horses they rode on to ward off starvation.

Roughly two decades later, Tsar Alexander I appointed him to lead Russia’s army against Napoleon. By then a wise and battle hardened soldier in his late sixties, Kutuzov was well aware that one does not necessarily need to win battles in order to win a war, and that no amount of glory was worth needlessly risking the lives of his men. Instead, and with great success, he placed his faith in the two most potent warriors he had ever come across: Time and patience.

So, should you find yourself engaged in a protracted dispute of some sort, do not despair; let yourself be guided by Kutuzov’s champions and, if it is meant to be, your adversaries will be forced to back down and “eat horse flesh” as well. Caution is of the essence though – those very same adversaries may have taken to reading dead Russian authors themselves.

By Christopher Andel

Born in Bangkok to a Dutch father and German mother, Christopher has spent much of his life pedalling back and forth between Europe and South East Asia. A true ‘Jack of all trades’, he has worked as an environmental consultant, language tutor, and roadie for the Chippendales, just to name a few. He currently resides in the Netherlands and is patiently plotting a return to greener pastures.

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