Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Wolfe of Wall Street

The American writer Tom Wolfe who has died aged 88 was known almost as much for his flamboyant dress (white suit, Homburg hat, two-tone shoes) as his prose. Wolfe styled himself a "Southern gentleman" and, despite many years residence in New York, you could still pick up the trace of a Virginia drawl in his speech when he gave TV interviews.

Beginning as a journalist in the fifties, he went on to document the late sixties counterculture movement in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and, like Dickens, used material from his reporting in fiction, especially in his first, and best known, novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which, again like Dickens' early work, was serialised in a magazine before being revised and published as a single volume in 1987.

The Bonfire of the Vanities has been called the quintessential novel of the 1980's, but it also one of the great late twentienth century New York novels which, alongside those of Don DeLillo, explore the racial and class divisions of the city, divisions which, given its geography on three islands connected by dozens of bridges and tunnels, is expressed by physical borders, such as the ever northward-shifting boundary between the ultra-rich Upper East Side and working-class Hispanic and black Harlem somewhere in Manhattan's east nineties and beyond them, across the Harlem River, the equally impoverished South Bronx section of the city into which the novel's wealthy main character, Sherman McCoy, and his mistress accidentally stray coming back from JFK Airport in Queens.

Although he's a bond trader on Wall Street, one of the people whom Wolfe dubs "The Masters of the Universe", rather than a property speculator, McCoy belongs to the same glitzy, greed-fuelled world of eighties New York as Donald Trump. It must be almost twenty-five years since I read it, but given that quite a few of the novel character's are based on real people - such as the Rev. Bacon, a thinly disguised Al Sharpton - it might be worth a flick through its eight hundred or so pages to see if I can spot the Donald.


Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Grim news

The monks at Grimbergen Abbey just north of Brussels apparently want to start brewing again, in part because visitors to the site are always asking them if they can take a look round the brewery.

There are two types of monastic beer in Belgium, those with the Authentic Trappist Product logo which have to be brewed within the walls of a monastery, albeit often by secular workers under the supervision of monks, and Abbey beers which are normally contract-brewed by outside companies on their behalf.

Trappist beers have a deservedly high reputation internationally, but some of the Abbey beers are up there with them in quality, notably the Sint Bernardus ones brewed in Watou. One of the Trappist breweries, Chimay, went through a spell of producing poor-quality beer with cheap ingredients a decade or so ago, although they have supposedly improved since I tried them then. I've also tried a couple of Grimbergen beers and found them, well, grim.

Grimbergen was first contract-brewed by the Maes Brewery in 1958 (when I went to Belgium in 2015, Maes Pils seemed to be the beer old blokes drank in cafes first thing in the morning, the equivalent of John Smith's Smooth in Wetherspoons here) before it was taken over Scottish & Newcastle in 2000, who were then taken over themselves by Heineken and Carlsberg in 2007.

The only snag the monks at Grimbergen have hit is that they can't find the mediaeval recipe for their beer and a team of researchers is now going through the documents in their library in an attempt to find it for them. I'm not sure it's that big a deal: they know from invoices what types of hops and malt were used in it, if not the exact proportions or how it was brewed, and they can just say, as other breweries have, that it's "inspired by" rather than a replica of the original. Whatever they come up with must be better than what's produced in their name now, and it's not as though anyone who drank the original beer is still alive to dispute its authenticity.




Thursday, 26 April 2018

Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking when I said

I watched a bit of a programme on BBC1 last night in which TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched a personal crusade against obesity, starting with a missionary trip to the frozen North (Newcastle-upon-Tyne to be more precise) to shame educate the fat-guzzling plebs there into eating more healthily.

There are of course many serious and overlapping issues when it comes to obesity - the amount of sugar and salt in processed food; the labelling of food by manufacturers and retailers; poverty caused by low wages and benefits making better quality food unaffordable - but the point that he doesn't seem to grasp is one that another upper middle-class, ex-Etonian, George Orwell, highlighted in his classic piece of 1930's social reportage The Road to Wigan Pier, and which came to mind as Hugh hectored the bemused populace of Newcastle through a megaphone:

"The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire might enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't...When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want to something a little bit 'tasty'...Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream!...That is how your mind works...White bread-and-marg and sugared tea doesn't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer.."

Later, Hugh drove a van onto a housing estate in one of the poorer parts of the city and tried to tempt its working-class inhabitants with fresh fruit. As Orwell put it later in the same passage, "In London..parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping-lessons to the wives of the unemployed...First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money."






Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Changing Times

To mark thirty years being editor of it, John Clarke has just scanned and circulated the May 1988 issue of Opening Times, the magazine of the Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA branch which he's also now the chairman and I'm a member of.

John is planning to write a longer piece for the next issue of Opening Times about the anniversary, but I'd just like to pick out a few things that caught my eye when reading it.

In pub news, the Crown Inn on Heaton Lane, Stockport, had just been refurbished by Boddington's, and the toilets moved inside from the backyard which was about to be turned into a beer garden with close-up views of the famous railway viaduct that spans the building. As well as Boddington's, beers available included ones from Higson's and the Oldham Brewery which Boddingtons then owned (none of those three breweries now exists). The Crown is now a multi-handpump (and multi-award-winning) freehouse and the backyard beer garden hosts regular live music.

The "ABC" Stagger of twelve pubs in the Ardwick, Brunswick and Chorlton-on-Medlock districts just south of Manchester city centre which the branch had just completed and is reported on in the May 1988 issue would now be impossible as all but one of them has since been closed and/or demolished, and the Wilson's mild and bitter which most of them served is no longer brewed either, the brewery in Newton Heath, north Manchester, having been taken over by Webster's of Halifax in 1986, who moved production there before shutting themselves a decade later.

The Pub of the Month, the Church Inn, Cheadle Hulme, retains its cosy three-room structure and is still tenanted by the same family who had it in 1988. As well as Robinson's Best Bitter, now called Unicorn, it still serves equally well-kept cask ales from the Stockport brewery of that name, although not the Best Mild it did back then which, after several name changes, was finally discontinued by Robinson's a few years ago. It had also just started serving meals - now a major part of its trade - but not on Sundays, which is probably now its busiest day for food. The Church was a well-deserved winner of another of our Pub of the Month awards last summer.

Although some of the contributors to the magazine are sadly no longer with us, it's pleasing to see some familiar names in its pages who are still, I'm happy to say, active members of the branch.




Sunday, 1 April 2018

April sours

Ahead of the CAMRA AGM in Coventry at the end of this month, plans are apparently already being put into place for a successor organisation which will split off from the main body of the campaign should the controversial and divisive Revitalisation proposals to extend the organisation's remit beyond cask-conditioned real ale to other so-called "quality beers" be adopted by that gathering.

The new splinter group, which will no doubt present itself as being the legitimate continuation of the original campaign should that body slip into heresy, has been given the provisional name of the Campaign for Real Ullage Deposit, emphasising the technical differences which have led to this potential schism in the British beer-drinking world.

A meeting took place last week at a pub somewhere in the so-called "Bass triangle" between Burton, Derby and Leek to sketch out plans for the new group, with several beer bloggers apparently being provisionally offered places on its soon to be formed national executive which will, should the split occur, be chosen by popular acclamation in the public bar of the same pub rather than the traditional, if somewhat unpredictable, method of annual elections held amongst the membership.

Moves are also afoot for a beer festival to launch the new group, pencilled in for this time next year at the venue which is then expected to become its permanent home, the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, although contract negotiations have reportedly yet to resolve the issue of whether drinkers will be allowed to use the tunnels beneath the stands to access the bars in the middle rather than having to cross the track with their pint. A dummy edition of a new monthly publication, with the working title "Brew Believer", has been mocked up, although there are no plans for a website or any other online presence and communications with the new group's HQ, location yet to be decided, but definitely north of the contentious East Midlands "sparkler divide", will be by post only, with all previously-held email addresses deleted for security reasons.

Reports that the new body has approached the Society of St. Pius X, the Steam Railway Preservation Society and the Campaign for Real Cheese to act as advisory consultants on the new project have yet to be confirmed.




Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Stingo by jingo

I've spent a fair bit of time in Sam Smith's pubs of late, mainly Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Year, the Blue Bell in Levenshulme.

Sam's Smiths draught beers are famously cheap - around the £2 mark in the North and only a pound or so more in London - but at £4 and upwards their bottled beers, at least in their pubs, aren't.

Just as Tadcaster's most traditionalist, some would say idiosyncratic, brewery only brews one cask-conditioned draught beer, Old Brewery Bitter, only one of their bottled beers is bottle-conditioned, the 8% abv strong ale Yorkshire Stingo, and while I've drunk most of their bottled range - especially their pale ales and stouts - I've never tried this one before.

Although Yorkshire Stingo sells for around £9 a bottle in pubs, I managed to pick one up online as part of a mixed box of 12 Sam Smith's beers for £34.95 from the Real Ale Store. It's a reddish beer with an alcoholic aroma which hits you straight away and reminded me of XX Strong Ale which Fuller's produced as part of their Past Masters series a few years ago.

I watched a few online reviews of Yorkshire Stingo before drinking it, including this one which, despite the guy speaking - I think - Polish, you still sort of get what he's saying.






Monday, 26 March 2018

New balls, please

I can't quite bring myself to welcome or join in the crowd booing and general opprobrium currently being directed at the Australian cricket team after their captain and star batsman Steve Smith and another member of his squad were found guilty of tampering with the ball in a Test match against South Africa.

Yes, ball tampering is against both the spirit and laws of cricket, and yes, it's right that those found guilty of it face some kind of sanction (the one Test ban and loss of match fees from the one in which the incident occurred in this case seems sufficent to me), but all teams have at one time or another done it and it strikes me as a tad hypocritical for the English press in particular to lambast Australia for it.

There's also the idea that cricket, being supposedly a gentleman's game, should be above such chicanery - "It's just not cricket" - and, again hypocritically, that ball tampering is something that might happen in Britain's former colonies but not here.

The only real way to eliminate it would be to do as cricket's distant transatlantic cousin baseball did at the end of the so-called "dead ball era" in the 1920's and change the ball as soon as it becomes scuffed or worn, but that would radically alter the playing of a game in which the condition of the ball, and the point at which it is replaced, can, pardon the pun, swing the outcome of a match, and even then, as baseball discovered, illegal deliveries akin to spitballs would no doubt still continue to be sent down the pitch to batsmen.