Thursday, 7 February 2019

Forty years of beer on film

I picked up a DVD last week, at the end of CAMRA's online January sale, about the history of the organisation, released in 2011 to mark its fortieth anniversary.

Quite a lot of the things in it are of course familiar, from the founding of the campaign by four young men, three of them journalists, in a pub in the West of Ireland, while on holiday there in 1971, to footage of the first festival they organised, a forerunner to the Great British Beer Festival, in Covent Garden flower market in 1975, but there are still a few other things that I didn't know before, including the full story about how Bateman's Brewery was saved and the fact that the right-wing Tory MP for Macclesfield Nicholas Winterton served on the board of CAMRA's investment arm in the 1970s. The unintended conseuences of the 1989 Beer Orders, championed by CAMRA at the time, is also explored with more self-examination than you might expect.

It was good to put a face and voice to the beer writer Christopher Hutt, whose pioneering work helped to launch the campaign, along with that of Frank Baillie and Richard Boston, although I was a bit surprised that there was no mention of Michael Jackson who, despite focussing more on continental and North American beers, was also an important influence in the early years of the organisation.

There's a rather prescient bit in the film where one of the directors of Fuller, Smith and Turner is interviewed and admits that in the early seventies the board was considering selling their Chiswick brewery site for development into a hotel and housing and becoming just a pub company...

Friday, 25 January 2019

RIP Hugh McIlvanney

The sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney, who has died aged 84, was one of the country's most distinguished football writers in a career which spanned more than five decades, and several Fleet Street newspapers, until his retirement only a few years ago.

I think I first became aware of McIlvanney when I watched the TV programme he wrote and presented about the trinity of legendary Scottish football managers of the fifties and sixties, Matt Busby at Manchester United, Bill Shankly at Liverpool and Jock Stein who led Celtic to European Cup glory in Lisbon in 1967, as Busby did with United the following year at Wembley.

McIlvanney came from the same working-class background, the mining villages of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire in the West of Scotland, a world of hard and dangerous manual labour from a young age and a culture of self-reliance and self-education that has now all but disappeared.

I can imagine McIlvanney chatting to Busby,  Shankly or Stein with a glass of Scotch whisky in hand at the bar of a lounge above the stand at Old Trafford, Anfield or Celtic Park after a big European night under the newly-installed floodlights in the sixties, analysing in their soft Scottish brogues the team's performance in the match just played, reminiscing about the junior football they would all have known in their youth, and maybe marvelling at how far they had travelled in their different paths from that time and place.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

1976 and all that

I've just picked up a copy of the 1976 Good Beer Guide, published seven years before the 1983 one which until now was the earliest edition I had (I couldn't find a cheap copy of the 1975 or 1974 editions which preceded it online).

It's a pretty slim volume, reflecting the number of breweries then producing cask beer, their limited range (locally, Holt's brewed just two, a mild and bitter, and Hydes, Robinson's and Lees four, an ordinary and/or best bitter, a light and/or dark mild and a, often seasonal, strong ale) and the terse descriptions of both the beers ("smooth", "malty", "thin", "unexceptional") and pubs ("no nonsense", "lively").

Although many of the pubs have since closed, been converted to other uses or demolished, a few which I'm familiar with have survived, albeit some with different owners than those they had forty years ago: in Manchester city centre, Robinson's Castle, Hydes Grey Horse and Jolly Angler, the Circus, Crown and Kettle (then respectively Tetley and Wilsons pubs) and Sam's Chop House ("The haunt of expense-account businessmen"), and in Stockport town centre Robinson's Arden Arms ("Three grandfather clocks") and the Crown, then a Boddingtons pub, now a free house, and still with a spectacular view of the Victorian railway viaduct, even if not, as in 1976, from the outside gents toilets.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Tynt bad at all

To celebrate the New Year yesterday, I opened a bottle of Tynt Meadow, a strong ale brewed since last summer by monks at Mount St. Bernard Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Coalville, Leicestershire, and named after the field in which the original monks lived in a small house after they relocated from post-revolutionary France in the early nineteenth century.

The monks have been helped by Trappist breweries in Belgium to develop their beer (although the monastery brewed in the nineteenth century, that recipe had been lost), and they also made a trip to Robinson's Brewery in Stockport to pick up some brewing tips.

The resulting beer is quite similar to a Belgian Trappist ale: bottle-conditioned, mid-brown, with a fruity, almost date-like, flavour, and, at 7.4% abv, a warming alcoholic finish.

I thought it appropriate to pour the beer into a Robinson's Old Tom glass given the assistance the monks received from them. 

It also reminded of an incident when I worked at Stockport social security office: a man in religious garb walked into reception, explained that he had run out of money while doing missionary work in the town, and asked to borrow some to get back to his monastery in the  Midlands. The supervisor recalled a rule that you couldn't give loans to monks - which I think goes back to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the English Reformation, when displaced monks began roaming the countryside, subsisting on parish relief - but a phone call to the monastery revealed that he was a novice who had yet to take his final vows, so we gave him his train fare, which was promptly repaid by the religious order on his return to them.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Books of the Year

A slightly shorter list this year, with most of the books on it ones I happened to see a favourable review of, or by authors whose complete works I'm trying to read.

Howards End by E.M. Forster

I read this after watching a BBC TV adaptation of it, although I still prefer the film version with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I've had this on my bookshelf for decades and this year I finally got round to reading it, prompted by the bicentenary of the publication of what is generally regarded as the first science fiction novel.

Guerillas by V.S. Naipaul

Loosely based on the Michael X case, this short novel about black nationalism in a post-colonial society is set on an unnamed island which closely resembles the author's native Trinidad.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

The classic satire about journalism, with some wonderful passages of purple prose. Waugh based it on his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Abyssinia, and its main character, William Boot, at least on part, on Bill Deedes.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The second of Greene's four Catholic novels (preceded by Brighton Rock, and succeeded by The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, all of which I've read in the last few years) takes place in an unnamed Mexican province, a country he visited in the late thirties, and centres on a renegade priest, also never named, who is being hunted down by an anti-clerical government there.

Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence was a proto-fascist, but this novel, largely autobiographical, about love and disappointment in a Nottinghamshire mining village and the countryside around it is nevertheless a major work of literary realism.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I read an abridged version as a child, but picked this up out of a box set of other adventure novels I bought a couple of years ago.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

At a little over a thousand pages, this was the longest novel I read this year, after seeing a newspaper review of it and being intrigued by the idea of telling the story of someone's life as four different, and essentially random, possibilities interwoven together, based on a near-death experience Auster had in childhood.

The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola

I must have read at least half of Zola's Rougon-Macquart series of novels now, about two sides of a family (one legitimate, the other illegitimate) under the French Second Empire (1852-70). This one concerns the political intrigues around a defeated republican returning to France from exile, after Napoleon III's coup d'état, and is largely set in the then new and massive market hall of Paris, which gives the novel both its title and some of its famous descriptive passages.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

I bought this novel about a young man's first experience of combat in the American Civil War in a second-hand bookshop as a teenager, but only got round to reading it earlier this year.

The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty by Peter Handke

I saw the film based on this years ago, and was prompted to finally read the original novel when it was re-released during this summer's World Cup. A sort of existential murder story, it has echoes of works by other twentieth century European writers I admire like Camus, Kafka, Sartre and Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Who would have thought that an alternative history novel about a celebrity (in this case the transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh) unexpectedly being elected US President and pursuing an isolationist "America First" programme whilst scapegoating ethnic minorities and journalists would see a spike in sales since 2016?

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Winter Warmer Wander (w)ended again

I've just completed the Winter Warmer Wander, an annual celebration of porter, stout and strong ale organised by my local CAMRA branch, Stockport and South Manchester, by visiting twelve pubs and drinking at least a half of cask-conditioned beer in one of those styles there.

Actually, one of the first places I visited on it, as part of a pub crawl to launch the promotion, the Arden Arms in Stockport, didn't have their seasonal pin of Robinson's Old Tom (which also sponsors the event) on the bar yet when we called there, so we had to substitute the strongest beer that was, their strong bitter Trooper, but apart from that I've managed to find plenty of winter-style beers going round Manchester and Stockport in the last month.

Of the eleven other beers, nine were stouts or porters and two strong ales, seven were made by microbreweries in the North of England, four were drunk in tenanted or managed pubs (three of them Wetherspoons) and seven in free houses or micropubs, and eight of them in Stockport and three in Manchester.

My favourite beer was one I've drunk and enjoyed many times before, and CAMRA's Champion Beer in 2013, Elland 1872 Porter, at the Paramount in Manchester city centre, a silky stout which doesn't really drink to its 6.5% strength.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

A row going on down near Tsingtao

This month's centenary of the armistice which ended World War I has understandably attracted a lot of media attention, and sent me back to a book which I first read as a teenager, The Great War, by the military historian Corelli Barnett, who also co-wrote the TV series of the same name.

I've just been reading about that war's first military action outside Europe, in late October and early November 1914, when British and Japanese troops jointly attacked Tsingtao, a port on the north-east coast of China which the Germans had occupied since the 1890's as a trading post and naval base. When you think about what happened in World War II in the same theatre of war, it's quite ironic that British troops even donned Japanese gear after a friendly fire incident in which their Far Eastern allies mistook them for German soldiers.

The peace treaties concluded after the armistice in 1919 at Versailles stripped Germany of its colonial empire in Africa and Asia, but left Tsingtao in Japanese hands until the Republic of China, which had also been an ally of the British, French and Americans in World War I, finally gained control of it in the early 1920s.

Tsingtao, now known as Qingdao, is best known outside China for the brewery which German colonists founded there in 1903, and which has had the eventful a history you might expect given China's turbulent twentieth century, passing through the hands of the varying governments which have ruled the country, outside powers and private companies. It is now the second biggest in China, having around a 15% market share there with its flagship 4.7% pils-style lager, part of a wider legacy of German, Austrian and Czech-style beers brewed throughout southeast Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.