Friday, 27 November 2015

Then and now

I went to The Crown in Cheadle last night for the presentation of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Month award.

In 1990, I worked round the corner as an office junior at a firm of solicitors for a few months before going to college and drank there at dinnertime occasionally, but I haven't been back since. So what's changed in the last twenty-five years?

It's still a smallish, L-shaped one-room pub (it was originally converted from a shop) although it's been opened out slightly, especially at the front which, as the photo from 1990 below shows, used to be a brick wall with windows along the top, giving the place a bit of a hole-in-the-wall feel. There's also the now obligatory smoking shelter outside at the back. It still sells well-kept Hydes mild and bitter, as well as a few guest beers now too.

And most importantly, it's still not just a pub but a regulars' local with a real community atmosphere.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Pub and the People

Among the presents I got for my birthday last week was The Pub and the People. It's a study of pubs in a Lancashire town called "Worktown", actually Bolton, carried out in the late 1930's as part of the Mass Observation project.

Boak and Bailey and Ron at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins have both blogged about what a mine of information the book is: having read it, you feel as though you could recreate a 1930's Bolton pub.

Nearly all the draught beer drunk in "Worktown" is mild ale, either dark ordinary or light best (my local brewery Robinson's of Stockport had a light and dark version of their mild until they stopped brewing it earlier this year, and Hydes in Salford still do), and most of it comes from large regional breweries, Magees, Walkers and Threlfalls (my grandmother grew up in a Threlfalls pub in Wigan in the 1920's and in the 1930's worked as a barmaid at another in Stretford, where she met my grandfather, a toolmaker at the Metrovicks engineering factory in nearby Trafford Park).

A couple of surprising things: almost all the men in "Worktown" drink half-pints (women tend to drink bottled beer, mainly Guinness but also pale and brown ale), although both sexes switch to spirits, cider or bottled beer for the highlight of the "Worktown" calendar, the annual, booze-filled trip to the Lancashire seaside resort of Blackpool (where my grandparents spent their honeymoon). One lucky local is hired by the researchers to do an early evening crawl of the pubs in the town centre, getting through eight and half pints in, presumably, seventeen of them by half past nine.

The vault and the taproom are also separate rooms in the pub when I've always thought of them as being the same thing: the main difference seems to be that there's a bar in the first and you can play games in the second.

The pub is the centre of social life, hosting sporting and other clubs, trade union meetings and societies such as the Buffs (the Wigan branch of which met above the pub where my grandmother spent her childhood: she always referred to them, like the book does, as "the poor man's Masons"), as well as illegal, but officially overlooked, activities including gambling and prostitution.

The book also gives an interesting overview of the influence of religion and politics on "Worktown"'s drinking scene, from the fiercely teetotal Nonconformist sects and non-pub going middle-class councillors to the boozy working-class Irish Catholics who run the local Labour Party.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Zola on the radio

I listened to the first episode of a new dramatisation of the Rougon-Macquart novels by the French writer Emile Zola on Radio 4 yesterday.

I've read a few of the novels in the series, subtitled "Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire": Germinal, about a miners' strike in Northern France, La Terre, about life in the countryside outside Paris, La Bête Humaine, a psychological thriller about a homicidal railwayman, and Nana, about a prostitute/actress. The overall idea is to use the novel as a sort of science lab in which the effects of heredity and environment on human behaviour can be studied.

Glenda Jackson is convincing as Tante Dide, the matriarch of the extended Rougon-Macquart clan who narrates it, and the whole thing moves along at a smart pace. It seems to be fairly loosely translated from the text: a woman who in 1852 goes off to join Republican rebels fighting the National Army, after Napoleon III  has overthrown the Second Republic proclaimed in 1848 in a coup d'état, exclaims on seeing her new comrades for the first time "Cool!". I'm pretty sure that's not a line lifted from Zola.

Overall though, it's a enjoyable, and accessible, way of experiencing the novels and I'm looking forward to listening to the rest of the series,

Sunday, 15 November 2015

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

The actor Warren Mitchell who died yesterday aged 89 was best known for playing the working-class racist Alf Garnett in the 1970's TV comedy Till Death Us Do Part.

Unlike out-and-out racist comedies of the 1970's like Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language, it was Warren Mitchell and scriptwriter Johnny Speight's intention that viewers should laugh at, rather than with, the character they had created, but it didn't work out like that and Garnett became a hero to the bigots who took up his lines as their own. In an interview, Mitchell recounted how he, unlike West Ham-supporting Alf, a Spurs fan from an East London Jewish background, had once been embarrassed at a football match to become the subject of supportive chanting by racists on the terraces.

Garnett's views are challenged in the show, by his long-suffering wife and his left-wing "Scouse git" son-in-law (played by Labour-supporting actor Tony Booth), but they both tend to come off second best to him. A much better attempt to challenge racism by way of comedy in the 1970's was Rising Damp in which the reactionary views of boarding house landlord Rigsby are made to look ridiculous by a black and a white lodger, played by Don Warrington and Richard Beckinsale respectively, and the audience does end up laughing at his backward attitudes rather than having their prejudices reinforced.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Student pubs

In a fit of autumnal nostalgia, I've been looking through my diaries from the early nineties when I was a student at Staffordshire Polytechnic in Stoke-on-Trent.

There's quite a lot of political stuff (I was active in the Poly Labour Club and Stoke Central Labour Party as well as in campaigns against the Gulf War and in support of the miners, quite a few of whom still worked locally at Hem Heath colliery) but also the odd mention of pubs and beer too.

For those unfamiliar with the Potteries, the city of Stoke-on-Trent is the result of an amalgamation in the early twentieth century of six towns (reduced to five in the novels of Arnold Bennett which omit Fenton). I lived in Fenton for the first year and then in Shelton, between the shopping area of Hanley and Stoke-upon-Trent, the city's administrative centre.

I wrote about two of the pubs I used to drink in, The Glebe (then a Banks's pub) and The Victoria (a Marston's pub) when I revisited them a couple of years ago, but I thought I'd have a look online to see what's become of some of the others.

Two student pubs in Shelton, The Roebuck and Merry Tippler, have been demolished to make way for a Sixth Form college, and two locals' pubs, The Terrace and Old Corner Cupboard, seem to have been transformed into student bars. The Terrace in Fenton, where I used to drink with my housemates, is still there and looks relatively unchanged (I wonder if women still come in with jugs to be filled with draught beer for their husbands?) as does The Albion in Hanley which I often drank in after meetings in the town hall opposite. Both had what seemed to be a common practice in the Potteries then of the landlord or landlady bringing round a tray of free sandwiches and pies at the end of the night. The Black Lion in Hanley where I drank with political and student mates is long gone though.

I'm pleased to see that the Staff of Life is still trading. An Irish pub, in the sense of having a largely Irish clientele rather than being plastered with leprechauns and shamrocks, it always had a decent pint of Draught Bass and I once spent a very enjoyable St. Patrick's night there drinking bottled Guinness and singing Galway Bay with the regulars.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Mixed drinks

I'm re-reading Patrick Hamilton's novel The Midnight Bell at the moment, set in a London pub of that name in the early 1930's.

Most of the action takes place in the saloon bar, overseen by the Governor and the Governor's wife and patrolled by the waiter Bob who gives his orders to Ella, a barmaid secretly in love with him. The public and private bars are described as "dreary, seatless, bareboarded structures wherein drunkenness was dispensed in coarser tumblers and at a cheaper rate to a mostly collarless and frankly downtrodden stratum of society". The public bar is also where mild would have been sold.

In the first chapter, the pub is about to re-open at five o'clock in the evening. As the regulars drift back in, they place their orders at the bar or with the waiter: half a Burton, a bottle of Bass - once staple drinks which it'd be hard to find in pubs now - a pint of bitter, and finally, "B an' B, please...He employed the popular abbreviation for Bitter and Burton mixed, and Ella gave it him, primly and deprecatingly, and took his money."

Richard Boston in his 1976 book Beer and Skittles lists some popular mixed drinks:

"Black and tan: stout and bitter
Mother-in-law: Old and bitter
Boilermaker: Brown and mild
M and B: Mild and bitter
Narfer narf: Half a pint of mild and half a pint of bitter
Lightplater: light and bitter
Granny: Old and mild
Blacksmith: barley wine and Guinness"

Black and tan made with a bottle of Bass and Guinness is apparently still quite popular in the United States.

In the Holt's house I drank in as a teenager, quite a few of the older drinkers would add a bottle of brown ale or Guinness to their draught beer. I never really saw the point as the cask bitter and mild were always well-kept (the practice of mixing bottled and draught beer probably has its roots in drinkers wanting to give some artificially carbonated life to poor quality cask beer) and the only time I drank anything else was the odd bottle of Guinness at the end of an evening.

I've got a few bottles of Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen and Lees Manchester Star Ale which are approaching their best before dates. I might try making a Franconian-Mancunian black and tan with a couple of them.

Monday, 26 October 2015

No bacon, no beer

Two reports by health bodies caught my eye in the last week.

First up, the NHS's National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) published a report on dementia which said that for people between 40 and 64 there is no safe limit for alcohol and therefore they should abstain from drinking to avoid it being a trigger for the condition, and now the World Heath Association (WHO) has announced that eating sausages, bacon and ham puts you at the same risk of cancer as smoking.

As someone in his mid-forties who regularly drinks beer and eats bacon, ham or sausages most days, I'm clearly in big trouble. Our beer-drinking and sausage-eating cousins across the North Sea in Germany should no doubt be worried too as they swig their steins of lager and munch their Bratwurst.

I accept that there are environmental and animal welfare issues around how meat is currently produced, and health and social problems associated with the excess consumption of alcohol, and not being a scientist I have no way of knowing how accurate the findings from NICE and the WHO are. But even if they are, the messages are so extreme as to make it almost inconceivable that they'll be heeded. And if they were, and we all became teetotal vegetarians tomorrow, there would be massive economic knock-on effects with closed shops, restaurants, breweries, farms, factories, pubs and off-licences.

Kingsley Amis put it well when he said, "No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home in Weston-super-Mare."

A lethal combination