Saturday, 18 February 2017

Just not cricket

The International Cricket Council is once again discussing how the game can be reformed and expanded , beyond the ten Test-playing nations which are its heartlands, especially those on the Indian sub-continent where it's a mass sport.

It's interesting to see that rugby union is being held up as an example of a sport that has expanded beyond the former British Empire, but there are important differences between them which mean that its successes are unlikely to be repeated by cricket.

Except in South Wales, and to a lesser extent the neighbouring areas of South-west England, rugby union is a sport of the upper and middle classes. That means that in both former colonies of the British Empire (Australia, Ireland) and those countries that are not (Argentina, Italy) the game has a social prestige and is thus the chosen sport of private schools and universities rather than the football codes which are the mass, working-class sports in those places.

Although privately-educated players have featured quite heavily in the England cricket team, usually as batsmen, unlike in rugby union they're balanced out by a group of more working-class players from the North and Midlands who often make up the bowling attack (that mix was also present in nineteenth century England rugby teams, before the split between rugby union and rugby league, with Oxbridge backs and forwards from the pit villages and mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire). And when it comes to race and national identity, pretty much any match England plays is against a team descended from colonial subjects, convicts or slaves.

Attempts by rugby league to expand beyond its heartlands (Northern England and the urban east coast of Australia) are also instructive: whereas they have failed repeatedly in London and Wales, where the game has no real roots, and more importantly no social significance beyond the pitch, they have flourished in the politcally and religiously dissident working-class and small-peasant areas of South-west France where, to quote the author  Tony Collins, "rugby league symbolised much more than an alternative set of rules for rugby",




Thursday, 9 February 2017

RIP Alan Simpson

Alan Simpson who died yesterday aged 87 was, along with Ray Galton, one half of the scriptwriting team which wrote two of the most celebrated British TV sitcoms of the 50's, 60's and 70's, Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son.

A number of themes run through both programmes, contributing to the pathos as well as to the comedy in them.

1. Class: all the best British TV comedies are about class, whether inverted as in Dad's Army, with the lower middle-class bank manager Captain Mainwaring in supposed charge of his aristocratic clerk Sergeant Wilson, both of whom rely on the black marketeer Private Walker for essential supplies, or aspiritional in Only Fools and Horses where Peckham tower block dwellers and wheeler dealers Del Boy and Rodney strive unsuccessfully to become yuppies in the Thatcherite 80's.

In Galton and Simpson's sitcoms, there's a lack of connection between how characters see their class position and the reality of it: Albert Steptoe is a working-class Tory who sees himself as a small businessman, and therefore a cut above the neighbours, while his left-wing son Harold, a partner in the firm, nevertheless sees himself as an oppressed worker; Hancock similarly has social aspirations beyond his working or lower middle-class background, in contrast to the spivvy Sid James and their charwoman Patricia Hayes.

2. The frustrated artist/intellectual: Hancock and Harold Steptoe both see themselves as frustrated men of letters, philosphers, artists and actors, unlike those around them who invariably mock their artistic pretensions.

3. Claustrophobia: Hancock's Half Hour takes place first in a small house in Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, and later a bedsit in Earl's Court. Steptoe and Son live in a gloomy house amid a ramshackle, rickety-gated scrapyard in Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd's Bush, which in the episode where Harold takes up amateur dramatics, only to be upstaged, inevitably, by his father, the director of the play mistakes for a theatrical set. The episode of Steptoe and Son where escaped convicts led by Leonard Rossiter turn up there late at night could easily be a short piece by Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett.

4. Post-war imperial decline/the nuclear age: there's a feeling in both series that Britain and the characters' best days are behind them: Hancock and Harold Steptoe probably dreamt of, and might even once have achieved, a place of some sort in a now rapidly disintegrating British Empire. The latter did his National Service in Malaya during the so-called Emergency, an end of empire conflict which eventually led to the colony's independence, while the former's finest hours, as recounted in no doubt exaggerated tales of battlefield exploits, lie further back, in World War II. And hanging over both is the sense that their frustrated, claustrophobic lives might end all too soon in thermonuclear destruction.




Monday, 6 February 2017

Back in Port Street

Club 43, the place to hear modern jazz in Manchester from the early fifties to the late sixties, is returning to its original home, the newly-reopened Stage and Radio Club at 43 Port Street, a thoroughfare between Piccadilly and the Northern Quarter best known now as the location of Port Street Beer House.

Club 43 was owned and operated by jazz promoter Eric Scriven, first at Port Street, then from the mid-fifties in a building on Oxford Road later demolished to make way for the Mancunian Way, and finally, with business partner Ernie Garside, on Amber Street off Shudehill. Pairing British jazz musicians including drummer Phil Seamen and local bebop pianist Joe Palin with such stellar American names as Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins and Max Roach while the latter were on tour in Europe, its closure was the result of a crackdown on late-night music clubs in the late sixties and early seventies by one James Anderton, later a hugely conroversial Chief Constable of Manchester. 

Most of what I know about Club 43 are things I've learnt from fellow members of Manchester Jazz Society who patronised it, played or worked there, including Bill Birch whose book Keeper of the Flame: Modern Jazz in Manchester features photographs, programmes and maps of it.

The relaunched Club 43 kicks off at the end of this month with a session featuring Matt Nickson, of Matt & Phreds jazz club on Tib Street, whom I filmed performing with Mancunian blues legend Victor Brox last year at the Smithfield Market Tavern on Swan Street.








Sunday, 22 January 2017

A Chess Jigsaw Puzzle

I've just bought and am now listening to the complete Chess recordings of sixties soul singer Sugar Pie De Santo. I'm sure I'm not the only person prompted to pick them up after hearing her sing Go Go Power on this TV advert.

Although Chess Records in Chicago is best known as a blues label, in the sixties its subsidiary Checker had a roster of young female soul and R&B singers which as well as Sugar Pie De Santo included Etta James and Fontella Bass.

The liner notes for the album feature photos of Sugar Pie performing at the Jigsaw club in Manchester. There's a bit about it on this forum, suggesting that it operated in the mid to late sixties as a competitor to the better-known Twisted Wheel, but none of the people I've asked who were going to clubs in Manchester then can remember it, and the building on Cromford Court which housed it was flattened in the early seventies to make way for the Arndale Centre.

Here's Sugar Pie in 1964 singing Slip-In Mules, written by Tommy Tucker (real name Robert Higginbotham) in reply to his own hit, Hi-Heel Sneakers.






Tuesday, 10 January 2017

How many teams can a World Cup have?

The FIFA Executive Council has voted unanimously to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, and the number of matches from 64 to 80, starting with the 2026 tournament.

The World Cup which England won in 1966 featured 16 teams, and you could argue that some of those were making up the numbers.

I'm not against teams from around the world playing in the World Cup, but those that qualify for the finals should have at least some chance of winning it. I already only watch a fraction of the matches, and avoid the meaningless ones between teams who you know have no hope of reaching the knock-out stage, let alone lifting the trophy.

It's easy to see the appeal to FIFA of a bigger tournament: more matches means more TV money, especially from its target markets in Asia and Africa, more ticket sales, and more votes in the bag from grateful national federations when it comes to internal elections, but in this case less is definitely more.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Beer In So Many Words

Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post asking why no one had put together an anthology of beer writing. Now, a mere four years later, the publishing world has heeded my request and produced just such a book, a copy of which someone bought me for Christmas.

Beer In So Many Words has excerpts from many of the writers you'd expect to see, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, A.E. Housman and Graham Swift, although suprisingly nothing from the great chronicler of the interwar London pub Patrick Hamilton, along with a few you might not, such as Ernest Hemingway discussing Ballantine IPA, Thomas Mann's description of porter from The Magic Mountain and Robert Graves with a poem about strong ale. I especially liked the phrase penned by Dylan Thomas in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, which I hadn't come across before, about "the taste of beer , its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet-brown walls of the glass".

One my favourite pieces though is a 1974 Sunday Times article by Ian Nairn about the state of English beer and pubs, in which he also references fellow campaigners Frank Baillie, Richard Boston and Christopher Hutt, whose first words signal how close we came to losing cask beer: "It my be the fifty-ninth second of the fifty-ninth minute after eleven o'clock, but I think there is now a chance of saving what remains of draught beer in Britain."



Thursday, 22 December 2016

Wandering in winter warmer land

I've just completed Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Winter Warmer Wander by visiting twelve pubs and drinking at least a half of cask-conditioned old ale/barley wine, porter or stout. I pretty much evenly split the pubs between Stockport and Manchester, although you could just about do it in one of them alone.

The event is sponsored by Old Tom, the 8.5% abv strong ale brewed by Robinsons in Stockport which I've drunk a few halves of this month. Robinsons also now brew another qualifying beer, Red and Black Porter, as well as the seasonal Dizzy's Christmas Kiss. The other family-owned regional breweries in the Manchester area don't really feature in the event. I'm pretty sure Hydes haven't brewed their XXXX winter ale since moving from Moss Side to Salford in 2012 and Holt's Sixex strong ale is a rare sight in draught rather than bottled form, although I did have a half of Lees Moonraker on their stand at Manchester Christmas market.

Except for Robinsons Old Tom and a half of Wadworth's Christmas ale, everything else I've drunk on the Winter Warmer Wander has been from the microbrewries Acorn, Blackjack, Brightside, High Peak, Howard Town, Long Man, Pictish and Weird Beard, the stouts from the first three being among my favourite beers of the trip around the twelve pubs.