Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Books of the Year

I've had a bit more time than expected for books this year, for obvious reasons; getting out into the countryside regularly for long walks also enhanced my appreciation of the rural scenes in some of the novels I read.

The Train Was On Time by Heinrich Böll 

I read this short novel, about a young German soldier travelling by rail towards the Eastern Front in World War II, and what he thinks will almost certainly be his death, after hearing it recommended on Radio 4's A Good Read.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Another novel about a young soldier in World War II, an American prisoner of war who experiences the Allied firebombing of Dresden, as did Vonnegut himself.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe 

I read this novel about life in a postwar Midlands factory and the terraced streets around it after watching the film based on the book, part of the new wave of social realist film and literature by working-class actors and writers.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

This had been on my bookshelf waiting to be read for a while. It combines time travel and gender switching in a very postmodern way for a novel written in the late 1920s.

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

Another postmodern novel which I read after seeing the film adaptation of it, starring Meryl Streep as the title character and Jeremy Irons as the upper middle-class fossil collector who meets and falls in love with her while walking along the shoreline near Lyme Regis on the south coast of England (and which I might just get to return to the still closed public library almost a year after borrowing it).

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe 

I don't need to tell you why I read this in March. Some of the parallels with the current pandemic are uncanny: people shielding in their houses, or being confined to them, while wealthier families bribe officials and escape London to their second homes in the country, thus spreading the disease there, cash being seen as a potential source of infection, wild rumours and theories about the causes and origin of the plague sweeping through the city.

Summer by Albert Camus 

A short essay about Camus' native Algeria, famous for the line "In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer", a sentiment that seems particularly apt this year.

The Mill on the Floss/Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot 

A mill on the bend of a river outside a small town on the Lincolnshire-Nottinghamshire border and the flat land around it are the settings for a tragic story about a brother and sister growing apart until finally reunited in death. The second book is a collection of three short novels, the first volume of fiction Eliot published, about Anglican clergymen in the Warwickshire countryside of her childhood.

Black Dogs by Ian McEwen

A dark novel which switches between the emotions sparked by  the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the disturbing legacy of wartime German occupation in rural southern France.

The Scorpion God/Envoy Extraordinary/Pincher Martin by William Golding

The first two are novellas set in the ancient world, and the last a short novel about a drowning sailor in the North Atlantic in World War II, in which Golding served as a naval officer, whose plot is almost impossible to describe without revealing the twist at the end of it.

 Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne 

This rambling shaggy dog story about a young man and his battle recreation-obsessed uncle, complete with lengthy diversions, diagrams and squiggles, was considered unfilmable until a screen version starring Steve Coogan was released in 2006.

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

I read this Trumpian tale of a self-made American businessman after seeing this, banned by Amazon, review of it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall/Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë 

The two novels by the youngest and least known of the there literary sisters both deal with the position of women in mid-Victorian society, one the estranged wife of an alcoholic gentleman and the other a farmer's impoverished daughter forced to become a children's governess.

The Good Soldier Sjvek by Jaroslav Hasek

I picked up this long comic novel about the wanderings of an eternally cheerful soldier through the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I after seeing this article by Adrian Tierney-Jones (I finally got round to reading A Time of Gifts, the first part of Patrick Leigh Fermor's account of his walk across interwar Europe, from Rotterdam to Constantinople via Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, for the same reason).

When the weather is warmer, and the virus has been suppressed, the vaccine proved effective and travel restrictions lifted, so probably in the spring of 2022 now, I plan on finally making my own trip to Austria and Bohemia and, as Richard Boston said of his visit to Prague on a mid-sixties rail holiday through Central Europe in his book Beer and Skittles, spend a few days "going from place to place drinking this wonderful beer and feeling more and more like the good soldier Sjvek".

Saturday, 12 December 2020

I'm A Union Man

I've finally got my hands on some beer from Manchester Union, the microbrewery founded a couple of years ago to brew Czech-style lagers (their head brewer is well known in Manchester beer circles, and to me personally as the mate of one of my brother-in-law's ex-colleagues).

Having only been available as a draught beer in the pubs that stocked it, and at the brewery tap, a railway arch behind Piccadilly Station in Ardwick which opened on Saturdays before lockdown, the pandemic has prompted them to crowdfund a canning line and sell their products online.

The brewery's flagship beer is a golden Pilsner-type lager, but they also now brew a dark lager with a dense white head and fruity nose. At 4.5% and 4.8% abv, they would probably both be classified as a 12° Lezak if they were brewed in the Czech Republic.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Tiers for beers

In the 1980s TV political drama A Very British Coup, based on a novel by the Labour MP Chris Mullin, there's a scene where Harry Perkins, the left-wing Sheffield steelworker who has just been unexpectedly elected Prime Minister, is travelling to London by train. A journalist on board asks him if he intends to abolish first class, to which he replies that he's going to get rid of second class, adding "I think all people are first class, don't you?".

In the North at the moment, it feels as if the government thinks of us as second class at best, with Liverpool and Lancashire under the tightest Covid-19 restrictions, and those of us in Greater Manchester seemingly about to join them in Tier 3, while, outside London, the South carries on pretty much as normal. As with the ten o'clock curfew, shutting pubs that don't serve food - a distinction that people have inevitably had a bit of fun with, despite the actual legislation being pretty clear what it means - is less to do with the science or sources of transmission for the virus than being seen to do something, while keeping major centres of infection, notably schools and universities, open.

At Westminster, the Speaker of the House of Commons has banned the sale of alcohol in its bars and dining rooms in solidarity with areas of the country where pubs and restaurants are shut, a bit of tokenistic populism which, like the decision to bring in the ten o'clock curfew there on a voluntary basis - being a royal palace places Westminster outside normal licensing laws - doesn't actually help the hospitality industry at all, but is seen as good PR (unsurprisingly, the House of Lords has declined to follow the lower chamber's example).

Last week's announcement by Wetherspoons that it had made a loss for the first time was also the occasion of some misplaced rejoicing. I'm not a huge fan of the pub chain, and even less of its pro-Brexit chairman Tim Martin, but the company contracting, or even failing, would no doubt see those sites sold off for alternative use, and the mostly young people who work there joining what is likely to be an already long dole queue.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

A Beacon for Bristol

Bristol's concert venue Colston Hall has been rebranded as the Beacon after a decades-long campaign to remove the name of the eighteenth century slave trader whose statue was toppled and thrown into the harbour there in June.

Bristol has of course a longstanding Afro-Caribbean community, and an equally long history of fighting slavery and racism, including the 1963 boycott of the local bus company which refused to employ black drivers, shamefully in connivance with the Transport and General Workers Union (whose first General Secretary, and future Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, founded the union while working in the city), and in 2016 elected its first black mayor, Labour's Marvin Rees, a descendant of slaves now running a city built on the slave trade.

In the early sixties, another descendant of slaves, the former Mississippi field hand McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, stood on the stage of Colston Hall in front of hundreds of young white blues fans - thousands of miles and a world away from his Delta youth of sharecropping on plantations and playing at juke joints and Saturday night fish fries - although, in an echo of current restrictions, a local by-law banning amplified music after ten o'clock meant that the power to the microphone broadcasting his electric slide guitar to an enraptured audience was cut off after fifteen minutes!

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

I Know What I Like

Talking Pictures TV last night showed I Know What I Like, a 1973 film about beer and brewing made for the trade body the Brewers' Society.

Starring Bernard Cribbins in various parts - farmer, brewer, maltster, landlord, hop picker and white-coated scientist - it's a fairly standard promotional film that reflects drinking trends in the early seventies, with the brewing industry keen to defend itself against the charge of pushing an inferior product on consumers by, rather unconvincingly, claiming that the traditional method of brewing draught beer in regional family breweries before racking it into wooden casks and loading them onto horse-drawn drays for distribution to tied pubs had essentially been retained, admittedly on a much larger scale, in the stainless steel coppers, mash tuns and closed conical fermenting vessels of a massive keg plant lately built by some national conglomeration next to a motorway junction whose output was then transported around the country by tanker lorries. In the pub scenes, very little distinction is drawn between cask and keg or draught and bottled beer, with it being taken for granted that you could buy bitter, mild, stout, brown ale and lager in at least one of those forms of dispense wherever you happened to call in for a drink.

Thankfully the argument that the consumer must be happy with the choice of beer in their local because they kept going to them was resisted by at least a significant minority of drinkers, with 1973 also seeing the publication of Frank Baillie's seminal book The Beer Drinker's Companion, and the Campaign for Real Ale - which had been formed in 1971 on a casual basis by four journalists on holiday in the West of Ireland - starting to find its feet as a national organisation of members organised into branches and about to produce the first printed Good Beer Guide.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Stout and about with a trailblazer

Manchester brewery Joseph Holt's has just launched a new draught nitrokeg stout called Trailblazer in its tied estate.

There seems to be a bit of trend amongst both national and local family brewers to have their own draught stout, with Robinsons, Lees and now Holt's introducing one, as have Marston's and Tadcaster's idiosyncratic dynasty Samuel Smith's, who allegedly did so after a falling out between owner Humphrey Smith and the Guinness rep for the North of England over the price they were being charged for its product (some accounts place their confrontation on a golf course), the resulting Extra Stout being a decent beer which I've sometimes drunk at the end of the night in a couple of their pubs in Stockport and south Manchester after few pints of cask Old Brewery Bitter.

Twenty or thirty years ago, the only draught stout you really saw in either tied pubs or free houses was Guinness, the main exception being others from multinational brewers like Murphy's or Beamish. As a teenager, I drank all of them at one time or another, and occasionally followed a few pints of Holt's cask bitter with a bottle of Guinness Extra Stout shipped in from Dublin, which before the 2005 closure of the Park Royal brewery in west London only supplied the North of England while the latter distributed what was then still a bottle-conditioned beer to pubs in the South and Midlands.

Looking back at beer books from the seventies - such as Frank Baillie's Beer Drinker's Companion and some of the early Good Beer Guides - pretty much all the regional family breweries produced a bottled, usually sweet, stout, something that has disappeared almost entirely in the years since, but happily the boom in microbreweries in the last few decades has seen the appearance of plenty of cask stouts, whose widespread absence from London pubs George Orwell lamented in his seminal essay The Moon Under Water, in different styles including dry, imperial and oatmeal.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Manchester, so much (for the council) to answer for

 A new series on BBC2 last night looked at the property boom in Manchester city centre.

Manctopia's main theme is how property development in the city is pushing locals out as overseas investors buy up sites and erect skyscrapers of flats for rent (the latest trend is small flats with communal kitchens and bathrooms which, if not warehouses for the poor, as an American poet once described high-rise public housing, will no doubt end up as overcrowded containers for the precariously employed), contrasting a wealthy divorcée from out of town with a million to spend on a city centre penthouse and a single mother from Winton evicted and facing homelessness before being rehoused in Engels House in Eccles.

The roots of this development can be traced back to the early eighties when the city took a double hit with deindustrialisation, as the docks and engineering factories shut, and central government cuts combined with rate-capping restricting the amount of revenue that could be raised locally. The right to buy scheme introduced then also saw a sharp decline in the council's housing stock.

At first, the solution seemed to lie in the election of a Labour government, but as that prospect receded through the decade - and the party moved to the right both in the city and nationally - a new strategy for funding projects emerged, finding private investors to pay for infrastructure improvements (at a profit to themselves of course), hence the failed bids for the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, the successful one for the 2002 Commonwealth Games which saw the construction of the City of Manchester Stadium and other sporting facilities to regenerate Bradford, a deprived and deindustrialised district of east Manchester, latterly in conjunction with the autocratic rulers of Abu Dhabi who bought the stadium's tenants Manchester City in 2008, an abortive attempt to open a "supercasino" next to it, partnerships with Chinese investors to build a new economic hub at the airport and to gentrify the so-called Northern Gateway along the River Irk through Collyhurst, as well as expanding the council tax base by increasing the number of people living in the city centre from a couple of hundred before the Provisional IRA bomb remodelled most of the new Northern Quarter in 1996 to tens of thousands now.

There are of course counter-arguments to those who criticise any of this, including the absence of alternative funding for these projects which probably wouldn't have been built without private investment (although in some cases that would have been no bad thing) and that outside the city centre rents and house prices are still far lower than in London and the south-east, but it is undoubtedly the case that the planning process for construction in the city centre and its adjoining districts is extremely opaque and unresponsive to local needs, with councillors complaining about a lack of consultation or oversight of decisions affecting their wards and power seemingly being in the hands of the Leader of the Council, his Cabinet and Chief Executive and other unelected officers who routinely allow developers to evade legal requirements to include "affordable" housing below market rates, or pay for it elsewhere in the city. Allegations of "backhanders"  of course abound, but I think the truth is more prosaic: the council's desire to generate revenue, and the movement of senior staff between local government and the private sector, so that those in charge of making decisions come to see things solely through the eyes of the developers.

A sign of how bad things have become in the city centre is the announcement that one of its oldest pubs, the Jolly Angler near Piccadilly station, has been sold off for redevelopment by its owners Hydes Brewery, along with, apparently, the Albert in Rusholme, a proper Irish pub which I used to drink in and blogged about here.