Thursday, 27 August 2015

Souping up the sixties

I watched BBC4's Soup Cans and Superstars: How Pop Art Changed the World the other day.

Much of it was familiar stuff - Roy Lichtenstein's cartoons, Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe screenprints - but there were also quite a few artists I hadn't heard of before. As you'd expect in a programme largely about New York in the fifties and sixties, there was a lot of jazz on the soundtrack, especially by Miles Davis.

One thing that hadn't really struck me before was how British pop art preceded that of America, starting in the early rather than late fifties. Peter Blake, who appeared on the programme, even claims to have invented the term "pop art".

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell

Yesterday, Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation of Keith Waterhouse's play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.

Bernard, played by John Hurt, is a journalist who, with his pals including the painter Francis Bacon and actors John Le Mesurier and Denis Shaw, inhabits the pub and clubland of the bohemian Soho area of London's West End. The play is set around the time of its first production in 1989 and takes place in the gents of the Coach and Horses pub where Bernard, having passed out after a drinking session, has been accidentally locked in for the night.

Much of the humour stems from Bernard's anecdotes about the drunken escapades of himself and his friends. I wonder if it would be produced on the West End stage today in these more censorious times or whether the anti-drink lobby would succeed in having it banned.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Manchester Star Ale

I picked up a bottle of this after seeing a label for it posted by Ron at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

Drinking mostly in Stockport and South Manchester, I rarely go to pubs owned by J.W. Lees, a family-run brewery in Middleton just north-east of Manchester whose tied estate extends across Rochdale, Oldham and Bury. The only one I've drunk in at all regularly, and even then not for a while, is the Rain Bar, their flagship pub on the banks of the Rochdale Canal in Manchester city centre. Unlike some, I quite like the biscuity malt taste in their draught bitter, mild, golden and strong ales.

According to the back of the bottle, Manchester Star Ale is brewed in collaboration with the Brooklyn Brewery in New York to a recipe from 1884. At 7.3%, it's a strong ale now, although I'd be interested to know what it was called then. I suspect it might have been one in a range of milds, and maybe not even the strongest.

Brown-black in colour, it's very smooth and has a fruitiness that reminded me a bit of Belgian Trappist beers. It's the kind of bottled beer which would attract me to a pub that doesn't sell cask beer and one which I'll be looking out for in the future.

Friday, 24 July 2015

A Shropshire Gad About Seve(r)n Pubs

I've just got back from a couple of days in Shrewsbury.

I've been to Shrewsbury once before, eighteen years ago, but only went to a chain pub-restaurant on the outskirts of the town. This time, I got to seven pubs in the town itself, including the one where I stopped, a Wetherspoons which, unusually, isn't a former furniture shop, cinema, snooker or dance hall but an eighteenth century coaching inn, albeit thoroughly modernised inside to match the corporate style.

Just along the street is the Salopian Bar. I got the impression from reading about it online that it was a trendy place with sofas but popping in mid-afternoon for a pint of Oracle and a pork pie (both excellent) I found it pretty pubby with middle-aged men reading newspapers and watching cricket on TV.

Shrewbury is in a loop of the River Severn and has numerous timber-framed mediaeval buildings, several of them pubs. It reminded me a bit of the Franconian towns I've drunk in, Bamberg and Forchheim, and like them is small enough to walk round easily.

In the old town, I started at The Loggerheads, a multi-room pub with narrow, stone-flagged passageways and a wood-pannelled snug. It's a Marston's house so the choice of beer isn't that great but the pint of Pedigree I had was fine with a pronounced sulphury "Burton snatch" which reminded me of when I drank gallons of it as a student in Stoke in the early 90's. The nearby Three Fishes and Nag's Head are also multi-roomed pubs, albeit a bit more opened out and airy with lots of timberwork and in the latter's case a pleasant walled beer garden.

Back towards the main square are the Coach and Horses and Admiral Benbow. I'd read that the former is known for its food and the modern restaurant I spotted at the back when I popped to the gents suggested that but the front bar where I sat and the snug to the side give it the feel of a street corner local. The latter has a largeish beer garden, a modern, airy feel inside and an impressive choice of local ales.

Shrewsbury is quite easy to get to by train from the Stockport and South Manchester area, changing at Crewe or Wilmslow, with lots of crop fields, river meadows and level crossings to look at on the way.


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Go Set A Watchman

I've just finished reading Go Set A Watchman, the newly-published novel by Harper Lee (the name comes from the Book of Isiah in the Old Testament).

Like most teenagers in the 80's, I studied Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird at secondary school. This book is written in a very different style and voice: Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is now a twenty-six year old woman rather than a ten year old girl and sees her father Atticus and the racism of the American South very differently when she returns to the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, from New York.

Go Set A Watchman reads like a sequel to the 1960 Pullitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird but is actually an earlier first draft of it: it just shows, as other s have said, how important an editor can be, in this case advising Lee to expand the childhood flashbacks and tell the story through Scout's youthful eyes.

Friday, 26 June 2015

First trip to Ye Olde Vic

I went to Ye Olde Vic in Stockport for the first time last night as my local CAMRA branch was presenting it with a Pub of the Month award.

I can't remember the last pub I went to in Stockport for the first time: it was probably when the Hope Inn reopened as a brewpub a few years back. I'd heard about Ye Olde Vic's reputation for beer - it was one of the first multi-beer freehouses in Stockport, preceding the Crown and Magnet by a couple of decades - and unique atmosphere but, like many others it seems, assumed it was derelict on the numerous times I walked out of the back of the station or went past it when I worked in Stockport ten years ago, not unreasonably given the decidedly distressed exterior (for some time, I thought that when people talked about the semi-derelict pub behind the station, they were referring to the former Holt's house The Blue Bell just round the corner which definitely was shut and has now been converted into flats).

Unlike other multi-beer freehouses, which become destinations for people outside the area they're in, like the Crown and Magnet in Stockport or the Marble Inn and Port Street in Manchester, Ye Olde Vic has the feel of a street corner local with regulars definitely, and rightly, dominating. It reminded me a bit of some of the brewery taps I've been to in the Black Country, and, at least externally, to Lommerzheim in Cologne. It's basically a one-room pub with a pleasant seating area at the back. It only opens in the evenings but if you're passing it then, do as I did and try the door handle,

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The shores of America

I'm reading two books at the moment which both speak to the immigrant experience in twentieth century America, albeit in different ways, The Life of Saul Bellow by Zachary Leader and The Last Sultan, Robert Greenfield's biography of Ahmet Ertegun, a founder in the late forties of Atlantic Records, the soul and R&B label whose roster of artists included Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

Bellow was the son of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire who had travelled from St. Petersburg to Chicago via Canada whereas Ertegun arrived in Washington, D.C. with his jazz-loving brother Neshui in 1935 from London where their father had been the Turkish ambassador (The Last Sultan also discusses the Erteguns' relationship with the Chess brothers Leonard and Phil, founders of the Chicago blues record label of the same name and themselves Jewish immigrants from a town in Poland, now Belarus).

There a couple of things which immigrants bring to their artistic endeavours, whether literary or musical. One is the ability to see the society they have joined with the perspective of an outsider, and the other is a blindness to its barriers and rules: I'd guess, for example, that Ertegun was the only student at the exclusive private prep school he attended as a teenager in Maryland who bought records and went to jazz clubs in Washington's black section.