Monday, 23 March 2020

Pubs and pandemics

In 1918, my four year old grandmother and her older sister, who were born and grew up in Wigan, lost both their parents within a week. They were killed by the so-called "Spanish flu" pandemic which spread across the globe towards the end of the First World War, taking the lives of up to fifty million people.

My great grandfather was a colliery blacksmith (I've got the badge he wore in WWI with the words "On War Service" on it, to avoid being beaten up in the street by people who would otherwise think that he should be in the Army), so wasn't in the trenches or military camps where the outbreak seems to have first taken hold, but no doubt would still have been weakened by long hours at work and food shortages.

My grandmother and her sister were taken in by their uncle and auntie who ran a pub in the town, the Colliers Arms on Frog Lane (now Mr Wang's Chinese restaurant). None of my Wigan relatives could ever work out how Uncle Jack, who started out as a cotton worker, managed to get the money together to acquire the tenancy of a large, and apparently very profitable, pub from Threlfall's Brewery (family legend has it that in the twenties he was the first man in Wigan to own a radio). When he died in the the early thirties, he left a couple of thousand pounds in his will, then a pretty large sum, especially in a Lancashire mill and mining town in the midst of a worldwide economic depression, and his widow bought a small sweet shop near Central Park rugby league ground, where my grandmother worked as an assistant. After her auntie died in the mid thirties, she got in touch with the brewery to ask about a job as a barmaid, and was sent to the Gorse Hill Hotel in Stretford, where she met my grandfather, who was a toolmaker at the Metropolitan Vickers engineering factory in Trafford Park and used to pop in there for a drink after work.

I've drunk in both pubs, the former in the early nineties on a trip back to her home town with my grandmother, who told the then landlady about the original layout of the pub and how the back room we were sitting in had been the family's kitchen when she lived there in the twenties. The Gorse Hill, where she worked until 1938, when she got married and moved with my grandfather to a council house on the Wythenshawe estate in south Manchester, has had a bumpy few years, but reopened in 2019 and was a popular stopping off place before and after matches at the nearby Old Trafford football and cricket grounds.

I last went to my local a fortnight ago, to watch the Manchester Derby, and have been social distancing since. I don't know when I'll next be able to go to a pub, or how many of them will survive being shut for the next few months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Beer in the Millennium Year

A post about Boddingtons Strong Ale on Ron Pattinson's blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins the other day had me looking through my collection of Good Beer Guides, and noticing a gap - the first one I've got is from 1976, then the ones published in 1983 and 1990, but after that nothing until the 2011 edition, so I put that right by buying a cheap secondhand copy of the 2001 one online. So how do pubs in the Manchester area compare now to back then in the first year of this millennium nearly twenty years on?

Of the pubs in Manchester city centre, most are still there - the Britons Protection, Castle, Circus, City Arms, Grey Horse, Hare and Hounds, Jolly Angler and Old Monkey - but further out a few cask outlets in the 2001 GBG have gone, including the Sir Edwin Chadwick, a Wetherspoons in Longsight ("Comfy chairs near the door are appreciated by older customers") that I can't say I remember, and which was apparently quite short-lived, and the Albert in Rusholme, a genuine rather than plastic Irish pub, with an Irish landlord and regulars, which I drank in quite a bit at the time and which served a decent pint of Hydes bitter, from their then brewery not far away in Moss Side (round which it occasionally organised tours). It went downhill after Manchester City moved from nearby Maine Road to the City of Manchester Stadium in east Manchester in 2003 and the landlord retired to Australia, and became keg-only, but seems to have regained its popularity since.

In Stockport, the Armoury, Blossoms, Red Bull and Swan With Two Necks are thankfully still with us, but a couple of pubs that I never made it to, Robinson's brewery tap the Spread Eagle on Lower Hillgate and the Olde Woolpack near the Pyramid office building, have shut (the latter only fairly recently), as has the Tiviot which I drank in once or twice in its final days, when it had steel poles supporting the roof ahead of the long-serving licensees retiring from the trade.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Encrypted in the Cathedral

I went to Liverpool yesterday to meet one of my mates who now lives in Ormskirk and a couple of fellow CAMRA members from Stockport at a beer festival in the crypt of the city's Metropolitan Cathedral.

I'm not really a fan of the modernist, in the round sixties-built cathedral, nicknamed Paddy's Wigwam or the Mersey Funnel by locals, and find the crypt, which was completed in the fifties - and where my Dad went to and served Mass as a student at the nearby university in the early sixties - more architecturally impressive, with its brown brickwork and barrelled roof beneath the aluminium and glass structure above.

The festival had a War of the Roses theme with most breweries from Lancashire and Yorkshire, but I went mostly for beers from outside those two counties, including ones not often seen north of the Trent, like Westerham from Kent, and old favourites Hawkshead and Titanic.

After the festival finished, we went to two contrasting pubs: the university-owned Augustus John which has a functional seventies feel reminiscent of the student union bars I used to drink in thirty years ago, and most of whose customers could now just about be my grandchildren, and the Dispensary, with its brown wood interior and other classic Victorian/Edwardian features including frosted lamps and etched smoked-glass windows.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

The end of text

With all eyes fixed on Britain's exit from the European Union tomorrow, another momentous severing from an institution that has also been part of our lives since the mid seventies has gone all but unnoticed, namely the BBC's decision to end its Red Button text service, which began as Ceefax in 1974 before morphing into its current incarnation in 2008 (rival broadcaster ITV axed theirs, Teletext, in 2009).

I know that you can find all the information online now, but it's still not the same as pressing those familiar buttons: news headlines (102), local news (1635), football headlines (302), scores (316), tables (324), fixtures (330), cricket (340) and rugby league (370).

What's even worse is the dishonest way they've gone about announcing it: not a decision taken lightly, regret having to do it, blah, blah, blah. I'd have more respect for them if they just said that as pretty much everyone can check things on their phones now, and those that can't will have to push off to the local library if they can find one still open, they're no longer prepared to pay to keep it going (the service has already been cut back, removing some of the "fringe" items like American sports that some of us found useful).

As the BBC comes under attack on several fronts - for the excessive pay of its executives and presenters, the removal of free TV licences for pensioners, and its perceived political bias - it really knows how to alienate those of us who are normally first in line to defend the public service broadcaster (and don't get me started on their shifting of Jazz Record Requests around the radio schedule).

Thursday, 16 January 2020

HS2 to-do (or not to do?)

The future of HS2, the proposed new hundred and forty mile long high speed rail line between the North of England and London, seems to be in the balance as the initial costings threaten to overrun massively (HS1, Britain's only existing high speed rail line, runs for just over sixty miles between London and the Channel Tunnel).

I admit to being attracted by the idea of travelling between Manchester and London in just over an hour, rather than in about two and a half now, which would also reduce the appeal of shuttle flights between the two cities and make rail travel to the continent from the North much easier, especially if there are cheap standby tickets on offer, as some have suggested there should be to stop it becoming an expensive white elephant with half empty carriages.

Beyond that, I'm not convinced about HS2 bringing economic benefits to the North, partly because the supposed flow of people and investment outwards from the South East might well operate in reverse, drawing more commuters into the capital as the hour to work travel area to London expands hugely to include pretty much the whole of the Midlands.

The section of the Y-shaped line that appears most vulnerable to being cancelled is the right hand arm to Leeds, with the potential savings being diverted into HS3, another proposed high speed line linking Liverpool and Hull, but again, apart from pleasing commuters, and helping to prop up support for the Government in the Tories' newly won Northern constituencies, the economic benefits of making travel between cities which are relatively close to one another quicker are hard to see, especially as technology increasingly makes such travel unnecessary.

There is also of course the environmental impact of building a high speed rail line through the English countryside. Tunnels like the one planned under Manchester's southern suburbs between the airport and city centre, emerging after seven miles at Ardwick before arriving at Piccadilly, would mitigate much of this, but would also push up the price of an already over budget scheme.

The first HS2 train is due to pull into Manchester in 2033, but somehow I can't see myself waiting on the platform with my newly issued senior citizens railcard for it.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Books of the Year

My annual review of what I've read in the last twelve months.

Lady Susan/Sanditon/The Watsons by Jane Austen

Sanditon, Austen's last, and unfinished, novel, was filmed by ITV this year in an adaptation that I unexpectedly enjoyed. As it's quite a short book, the volume also includes the epistolary novel Lady Susan and an early, also unfinished, work, The Watsons, and thus I completed my reading of her entire oeuvre.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The archetypal Dostoevsky, and indeed Russian, novel, dealing with religious themes through the framework of a murder mystery within the network of an extended family made up of contrasting characters, including the titular brothers.

The Manchester Man by G.L. Banks

This rags to riches story of the main character, Jabez Clegg, might be a bit corny, but is also full of descriptions of early nineteenth century Manchester, from the River Irk at Smedley, into which he is swept as an infant, to the area around the Cathedral and Chethams School, which he later attends as a foundling scholar.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I was prompted to read this by the thirtieth anniversary of the furore around its publication (I'd already read pretty much every other Rushdie novel).

The Third Man/The Basement Room by Graham Greene

I read Greene's classic novel about post-war Vienna after watching the film, together with one of his short stories included in the same volume which he also wrote a screenplay for and Carol Reed directed, The Fallen Idol.

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

I read The World According To Garp a few years ago, and have also seen the film Simon Birch, which is loosely based on the diminutive title character of this book, that you could call Irving's Vietnam novel.

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

The first of seven volumes in Proust's multi-million word work Remembrance of Things Past. Some people seem to struggle with the first section, about his childhood in Normandy, but I thought it was the best, that the middle section, about his love affair with the courtesan Odette as a young man in Paris, dragged a bit, before picking up with a return to the countryside of his youthful memory in the final section.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

This novel about bored rich Americans wandering around post-World War II Europe drinking and falling in love reminded me a bit of one of my favourites, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Being Hemingway, there's also lots about bullfighting and fishing.

Two On A Tower by Thomas Hardy

We're back in Hardy's familiar Wessex territory here with a story about two star-crossed lovers (literally: the young astronomer in it meets his future wife atop the tower which the older, richer woman lets him use for his observations of the night sky).

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Milling About Ancoats

One of my mates who's in voluntary exile in London came back up North yesterday so I met him off the train at Manchester Piccadilly and we did a bit of a crawl around Ancoats, the now trendy ex-industrial district just north of the city centre whose former cotton mills have been converted into flats and offices, to visit some of the pubs and bars that have (re)opened there in the last couple of years.

Cask, New Union Street

Pretty much what I expected, very light and stripped back with high ceilings and large windows giving a classic view of the archetypal Northern scene, a bridge over the Rochdale Canal with former cotton mills in the background. Mostly keg, but a couple of decent cask beers on from local micros, and at reasonable prices for the area.

Seven Brothers Beer House, Blossom Street

A split level place with the bar in a loft like space up a few steps and more tables downstairs in the basement. Darker and warmer with suspended filament bulbs and lots of light coloured wood. Mostly keg, including from their own microbrewery in Salford, but again a couple of cask beers too.

Edinburgh Castle, Blossom Street

Just down the street, this pub was built in 1811, but stood empty for many years before reopening a couple of months ago.  It has a very retro feel with high ceilings, frosted lamps and candles in copper holders on the tables, and a large dining room at the rear.

Marble Arch, Rochdale Road

We finished at an old favourite (which is technically just in Collyhurst I think). As well as the tiled Victorian interior, I always enjoy ordering a pint of Pint, the classically Mancunian pale hoppy bitter created here when it was a brewpub, but now brewed off site nearby along with Marble's other beers. I also had a vegan rarebit there, for the first time (don't know what was in it, but it looked and tasted like cheese).