Tuesday, 13 March 2018

It’s a No from me

I’ve just cast my vote on the so-called Revitalisation proposals which the CAMRA National Executive are putting forward, including those which seek to embrace “quality beers” beyond the cask ales that the organisation was founded to save in the early seventies.

Traditionalists/conservatives and progressives/modernisers have been battling each other in architecture, classical music, jazz, the Catholic Church, and about reform of counties, money and measurement, for much of the last century, and now inside CAMRA: you could call it the organisation’s “Clause Four” moment.

The sixties marked the height of this process: probably as a reaction to the militarisation and shared experience of suffering in World War II, revolutionary changes took place in each of those spheres, all predicated on moving with/keeping up with the times, attracting young people, engaging in renewal, modernisation, revitalisation, and stripping away what seemed outdated and unattractive.

I voted against the Revitalisation proposals and hope that if you're a CAMRA member you will too. Here are five reasons to vote against:

1. The proposals dilute the core thing CAMRA stands for, and introduce a new category, “quality keg”, or “craft keg” as it’s usually referred to, which – unlike cask beer/real ale – is not only subjective, but, as the official documents tacitly admit by describing cask beer as “pinnacle of the brewer’s craft” is an inferior product (that’s their opinion, by the way, not mine: while I’ve drunk nitrokeg stouts and keg bitters, I don’t think I’ve ever drunk craft keg, mainly because, and almost uniquely for a preservationist movement like CAMRA, it’s usually served in pubs which also have cask beer. But, having drunk non-bottle conditioned and canned beer from some of the breweries which produce it, I can imagine that at its best it’s as good as some cask beers).

2. They attempt to attract younger drinkers by including craft/quality keg when that may just be a passing fad (many modernisation projects, by attaching themselves to what is currently fashionable, soon come to look dated themselves when fashion and young people move on to something else, sixties clothes, music and architecture, including pubs, being examples of that, and only a small number of young people drink craft keg – most drink lager, spirits or wine, at home rather than in the pub, or not at all).

3.  Snobbery/ageism: underlying the proposals is I think the idea that the older, male, working-class drinker supping a pint of boring brown bitter produced by a national brewer in an estate, town centre or dining chain pub with a single hand-pump should not be championed in preference to younger, trendier drinkers sipping thirds of super-hopped IPAs, kettle sours and bourbon barrel-aged strong ales dispensed in keg form in specialist bars and beer-houses.

4. They will not in fact attract many young people not only to join CAMRA but to become active in the organisation: like many other organisations with large but inactive memberships and fewer, ageing volunteers (some of whom will leave the organisation if the proposals are approved), CAMRA is likely to become a more professional, HQ/full-time employee-led group in the future, with fewer, probably bigger, branches, and more emphasis on socials and festivals rather than the current democratic structures of branch and regional meetings. Online voting – as is now happening before the AGM – is likely to be extended, with virtual rather than “real life” events making more decisions.

I also agree with the point Phil at Oh Good Ale makes here, that what CAMRA needs to keep its local structures going is not necessarily more young people – although they of course should be welcomed – but just more new people, of whatever age.

5.  CAMRA, as the name suggests, is a campaign, formed to ensure the survival, and also quality, of real ales/cask beers (and, later, other traditionally-produced drinks, cider and perry), when it looked as though they might disappear in the wave of new, heavily advertised and promoted keg beers from the national brewers. Craft keg is a niche product which does not need a campaign to ensure its survival, which is not to say that there are others things CAMRA does and should campaign on: preservation of historic pub interiors, the level of tax imposed on beer and the rents pubcos charge their tenants, the hike in business rates and, perhaps most importantly, against the anti-alcohol lobby who are also vying for the Government’s ear.

As well as voting against Special Resolutions 1, 5 and 6, I also voted for Lynn Atack, the “traditionalist” candidate running for a place on the CAMRA National Executive.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Welsh Codebreakers

I've just watched The Rugby Codebreakers, a documentary shown on BBC Wales last night about the Welsh rugby union players who were forced, as the saying had it, to "go North" and become professional rugby league players in Lancashire and Yorkshire when the union game was, at least officially, still strictly amateur.

Stories about the social ostracism imposed on those who converted from union to league are legion, as are those about the subterfuge scouts and directors of the Northern clubs were compelled to resort to when heading into Welsh rugby union territory to obtain the signatures of star players from the working-class mining villages of the South Wales Valleys and dockland districts of Cardiff - a history outlined again last night, with much of the archive footage coming from the 1969 documentary The Game That Got Away - but I hadn't quite realised the extent of the racism amongst the Welsh union's selectors which meant that up until the mid-1980's the chance of a black Welsh rugby union player being picked for the national side was effectively nil, all but forcing them, as some of their black South African counterparts also did, to accept the generous financial inducements being offered them by the top rugby league clubs in the North.

Wigan's legendary Welsh wing Billy Boston

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Lancashire League

The Rugby Football League, the governing body of rugby league in England, has announced that it is relocating its headquarters from Leeds to Manchester.

By the start of the 2021 World Cup, the RFL will base itself at the Etihad Campus in east Manchester, the sporting complex which already includes national cycling and squash venues, an athletics track and the two stadia where Manchester City's first, youth and women's teams play their home matches, where the England rugby league team will also train ahead of international fixtures.

Manchester being pretty much equidistant between the sport's two main heartlands, southwest Lancashire and west Yorkshire, with road and rail links between them going through the city, was the reason why the Magic Weekend, the annual event where a round of Super League matches is played across two days at the same stadium, was held here from 2012 to 2014, before moving up to Newcastle's St. James' Park when Manchester City began expanding their ground, towards a projected final capacity of 61,000. I can now see that event taking place here permanently, as well as perhaps the Super League Grand Final now played at Old Trafford (although the showpiece Challenge Cup Final is unlikely to head North again from Wembley, its home since the late 1920's), and international and World Club Challenge matches too.

Although they are unlikely to relocate permanently outside the boundaries of their city, I'd also like to see Salford rugby league club play a few matches at the 7,000 capacity Academy Stadium there (pre-season friendlies to start with, say), both because of the much better public transport services to it compared to those to their home ground at Barton-upon-Irwell (itself outside the historic boundaries of Salford) and as part of the wider missionaty effort to extend the appeal of the game beyond its traditional heartlands.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

A bevvy in Levy

I went to Levenshulme last night for the presentation of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Year award to the Blue Bell Inn, and also popped into a new micropub, Station Hop, en route to it.

The Blue Bell and Station Hop are contrasting pubs in a numbers of ways: the latter a converted shop with dark, minimalist signage on the main Stockport Road through Levenshulme - I walked past it without spotting it at first - which extends a long way further back than you'd imagine from the narrow shop front through three sparsely decorated rooms lit with suspended filament bulbs and attracts a younger, middle-class crowd, and the former a solid redbrick building with a well-lit separate sign a few minutes walk from it on a large plot amid terraced housing (the original thatched inn was replaced by the current interwar incarnation sometime in the thirties, the only alterations since being the post-war repair of bomb damage) which has the classic multi-room arrangement of lounge, vault and snug and is patronised mainly by older, working-class drinkers; the only real similarity between the two is that each sell a limited number of well-kept cask beers (Old Brewery Bitter in the Blue Bell and two handpumps in the Station Hop) alongside a more extensive range of keg beers, the latter at average prices for a micropub close to the city centre and the former at the very reasonable ones you'd expect in a Sam Smith's house.

I finished the night on Sam Smith's Extra Stout, a smooth, coffeeish beer that reminds you of Guinness at its very best. Somehow though, I'm not sure it's the "quality keg" that those in the CAMRA leadership pushing the so-called Revalisation proposals  have in mind when they talk about embracing all well-brewed beers...

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Bradford Northern

Back in Time for Tea which started on BBC2 last night is the Northern equivalent of the series Back in Time for Dinner (north of the Trent, breakfast is followed in the early afternoon by dinner, tea is eaten in the early evening and supper is a snack just before bed) in which a family experiences work, leisure and especially food through the decades, this time set in Bradford rather than London and presented by Bolton's Sara Cox.

Last night's opening episode spanned the twenties and thirties, when wage cuts and then mass unemployment drove down working-class living standards to subsistence levels, and saw the family eating bread smeared with lard and, if they were lucky, rag pudding, tripe and poached rabbit. There was also mention of some of the social struggles of the time, including the "right to roam" protests which saw young workers from the Northern industrial towns battle landowners for access to their estates when out rambling, and a neat synopsis of the origins of rugby league for our benighted Southern bretheren who have to make do with union.

One thing that did make me wonder though was when the mother and father of the family shared a can of beer: I know canned beer was introduced to Britain in the mid-thirties, but surely Bradford millworkers who wanted to drink at home would have either bought some bottles or carried draught beer back from the pub in a jug.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Hundred Club at Manchester Central

Manchester Beer and Cider Festival rolled into Manchester Central Convention Complex, the city's former Central Station, for the third time last night with an opening session for the trade, press and CAMRA members.

I know some people go to beer festivals to try strangely-flavoured collaborations from obscure microbreweries, but I usually head first for the Independent Family Brewers of Britain bar, this year restyled the Hundred Club for those who have been brewing for more than a century, to drink beers from regional breweries whose products don't normally appear on the bar of pubs in the Manchester area, such as Harvey's and Fuller's, especially dark ones like milds, stouts and strong ales, as well, last night, as two new cask offerings, chewy, treacly 10.7% Fuller's Imperial Stout (normally only available in bottles) and the just launched stout from J.W. Lees of Middleton which seems mainly to be nitrokeg beer when found on draught in their tied estate.

My standout beer of the session though was - as I thought it might be - one from a relative newcomer, the deliciously rich and smoky, and at 6.5% dangerously drinkable, Elland 1872 Porter which was deservedly Champion Beer of Britain in 2013.

Monday, 15 January 2018

RIP Cyrille

The former footballer Cyrille Regis who has died suddenly at the age of 59 after a heart attack was one of the black players who broke through into the game at the top level in England in the late 70s and early 80's, overcoming appallingly racism which was then, sadly, often regarded by fans and managers alike as just harmless banter, to be brushed off as something "normal" and to be expected.

In this, although more vocal and, in the "terrace wars" between hooligan "firms", many of whom had links to the far right, which accompanied them, more violent, those chants and insults were of a piece with the society around the football grounds at which they were hurled at players such as Cyrille, with the streets, pubs and workplaces which black people returned to after matches (if indeed they had been brave enough to attend them in the first place) and with the TV comedies of the era, such as Till Death Do Us Part, with its oft-quoted bigot Alf Garnett, and the awful Love Thy Neighbour, about a white couple living next door to a black one.

In particular, they were of a piece with the West Midlands and Black Country, where, along with the late Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson, Cyrille was one of the so-called Three Degrees of black players signed by West Bromwich Albion and managed  for a time by Ron Atkinson, someone who has had his own issues with racism (albeit not, if what his former charges say is true, with his own black players): the immigrants from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent who had come to work in its foundries and car factories in the 50s and 60s had experienced a racist backlash from the start, epitomised by the notorious "Rivers of Blood" speech of 1968 in which the Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West Enoch Powell fulminated against their arrival, but the decline of those industries in the 70s and 80s led to white working-class frustrations which expressed themselves politically in the electoral rise of the street-fighting fascists of the National Front, which gained more than eight per cent of the vote at a 1977 by-election in Powell's birthplace of Stetchford.

Above all, though, Cyrille Regis should be remembered for his sublime footballing talent: here he is in his pomp playing for West Brom against Manchester City on a typically muddy Maine Road pitch in 1980.