Wednesday, 23 September 2020

A Beacon for Bristol

Bristol's concert venue Colston Hall has been rebranded as the Beacon after a decades-long campaign to remove the name of the eighteenth century slave trader whose statue was toppled and thrown into the harbour there in June.

Bristol has of course a longstanding Afro-Caribbean community, and an equally long history of fighting slavery and racism, including the 1963 boycott of the local bus company which refused to employ black drivers, shamefully in connivance with the Transport and General Workers Union (whose first General Secretary, and future Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, founded the union while working in the city), and in 2016 elected its first black mayor, Labour's Marvin Rees, a descendant of slaves now running a city built on the slave trade.

In the early sixties, another descendant of slaves, the former Mississippi field hand McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, stood on the stage of Colston Hall in front of hundreds of young white blues fans - thousands of miles and a world away from his Delta youth of sharecropping on plantations and playing at juke joints and Saturday night fish fries - although, in an echo of current restrictions, a local by-law banning amplified music after ten o'clock meant that the power to the microphone broadcasting his electric slide guitar to an enraptured audience was cut off after fifteen minutes!

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

I Know What I Like

Talking Pictures TV last night showed I Know What I Like, a 1973 film about beer and brewing made for the trade body the Brewers' Society.

Starring Bernard Cribbins in various parts - farmer, brewer, maltster, landlord, hop picker and white-coated scientist - it's a fairly standard promotional film that reflects drinking trends in the early seventies, with the brewing industry keen to defend itself against the charge of pushing an inferior product on consumers by, rather unconvincingly, claiming that the traditional method of brewing draught beer in regional family breweries before racking it into wooden casks and loading them onto horse-drawn drays for distribution to tied pubs had essentially been retained, admittedly on a much larger scale, in the stainless steel coppers, mash tuns and closed conical fermenting vessels of a massive keg plant lately built by some national conglomeration next to a motorway junction whose output was then transported around the country by tanker lorries. In the pub scenes, very little distinction is drawn between cask and keg or draught and bottled beer, with it being taken for granted that you could buy bitter, mild, stout, brown ale and lager in at least one of those forms of dispense wherever you happened to call in for a drink.

Thankfully the argument that the consumer must be happy with the choice of beer in their local because they kept going to them was resisted by at least a significant minority of drinkers, with 1973 also seeing the publication of Frank Baillie's seminal book The Beer Drinker's Companion, and the Campaign for Real Ale - which had been formed in 1971 on a casual basis by four journalists on holiday in the West of Ireland - starting to find its feet as a national organisation of members organised into branches and about to produce the first printed Good Beer Guide.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Stout and about with a trailblazer

Manchester brewery Joseph Holt's has just launched a new draught nitrokeg stout called Trailblazer in its tied estate.

There seems to be a bit of trend amongst both national and local family brewers to have their own draught stout, with Robinsons, Lees and now Holt's introducing one, as have Marston's and Tadcaster's idiosyncratic dynasty Samuel Smith's, who allegedly did so after a falling out between owner Humphrey Smith and the Guinness rep for the North of England over the price they were being charged for its product (some accounts place their confrontation on a golf course), the resulting Extra Stout being a decent beer which I've sometimes drunk at the end of the night in a couple of their pubs in Stockport and south Manchester after few pints of cask Old Brewery Bitter.

Twenty or thirty years ago, the only draught stout you really saw in either tied pubs or free houses was Guinness, the main exception being others from multinational brewers like Murphy's or Beamish. As a teenager, I drank all of them at one time or another, and occasionally followed a few pints of Holt's cask bitter with a bottle of Guinness Extra Stout shipped in from Dublin, which before the 2005 closure of the Park Royal brewery in west London only supplied the North of England while the latter distributed what was then still a bottle-conditioned beer to pubs in the South and Midlands.

Looking back at beer books from the seventies - such as Frank Baillie's Beer Drinker's Companion and some of the early Good Beer Guides - pretty much all the regional family breweries produced a bottled, usually sweet, stout, something that has disappeared almost entirely in the years since, but happily the boom in microbreweries in the last few decades has seen the appearance of plenty of cask stouts, whose widespread absence from London pubs George Orwell lamented in his seminal essay The Moon Under Water, in different styles including dry, imperial and oatmeal.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Manchester, so much (for the council) to answer for

 A new series on BBC2 last night looked at the property boom in Manchester city centre.

Manctopia's main theme is how property development in the city is pushing locals out as overseas investors buy up sites and erect skyscrapers of flats for rent (the latest trend is small flats with communal kitchens and bathrooms which, if not warehouses for the poor, as an American poet once described high-rise public housing, will no doubt end up as overcrowded containers for the precariously employed), contrasting a wealthy divorcée from out of town with a million to spend on a city centre penthouse and a single mother from Winton evicted and facing homelessness before being rehoused in Engels House in Eccles.

The roots of this development can be traced back to the early eighties when the city took a double hit with deindustrialisation, as the docks and engineering factories shut, and central government cuts combined with rate-capping restricting the amount of revenue that could be raised locally. The right to buy scheme introduced then also saw a sharp decline in the council's housing stock.

At first, the solution seemed to lie in the election of a Labour government, but as that prospect receded through the decade - and the party moved to the right both in the city and nationally - a new strategy for funding projects emerged, finding private investors to pay for infrastructure improvements (at a profit to themselves of course), hence the failed bids for the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, the successful one for the 2002 Commonwealth Games which saw the construction of the City of Manchester Stadium and other sporting facilities to regenerate Bradford, a deprived and deindustrialised district of east Manchester, latterly in conjunction with the autocratic rulers of Abu Dhabi who bought the stadium's tenants Manchester City in 2008, an abortive attempt to open a "supercasino" next to it, partnerships with Chinese investors to build a new economic hub at the airport and to gentrify the so-called Northern Gateway along the River Irk through Collyhurst, as well as expanding the council tax base by increasing the number of people living in the city centre from a couple of hundred before the Provisional IRA bomb remodelled most of the new Northern Quarter in 1996 to tens of thousands now.

There are of course counter-arguments to those who criticise any of this, including the absence of alternative funding for these projects which probably wouldn't have been built without private investment (although in some cases that would have been no bad thing) and that outside the city centre rents and house prices are still far lower than in London and the south-east, but it is undoubtedly the case that the planning process for construction in the city centre and its adjoining districts is extremely opaque and unresponsive to local needs, with councillors complaining about a lack of consultation or oversight of decisions affecting their wards and power seemingly being in the hands of the Leader of the Council, his Cabinet and Chief Executive and other unelected officers who routinely allow developers to evade legal requirements to include "affordable" housing below market rates, or pay for it elsewhere in the city. Allegations of "backhanders"  of course abound, but I think the truth is more prosaic: the council's desire to generate revenue, and the movement of senior staff between local government and the private sector, so that those in charge of making decisions come to see things solely through the eyes of the developers.

A sign of how bad things have become in the city centre is the announcement that one of its oldest pubs, the Jolly Angler near Piccadilly station, has been sold off for redevelopment by its owners Hydes Brewery, along with, apparently, the Albert in Rusholme, a proper Irish pub which I used to drink in and blogged about here.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Trying times for transatlantic sports

Super League, the top division of rugby league in the northern hemisphere, kicked off again yesterday, albeit without fans in the stands and one fewer team than when play was suspended back in March at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Toronto Wolfpack having withdrawn from the competition because of financial and logistical problems, and their results before the break expunged from the records.

The NFL and MLB have also cancelled events in London to showcase their sports, and ones that involve flying between or across continents, including the Olympics, European football's Champions League and Euro 2020 and rugby union's Six Nations, have all been postponed (although the West Indies cricket team were able to travel from the Caribbean to play a biosecure Test series against England at Southampton and Old Trafford last month, and Pakistan are about to contest another beginning this week).

Super League will now complete a shortened season without relegation at the end of it, or the Magic Weekend where an entire round of matches is played at a ground in a city outside the game's heartlands like Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool or latterly Newcastle, although the Catalan Dragons from southwest France have re-entered the competition after being forced to cancel fixtures because of travel restrictions before the suspension of play in March.

I suppose that with most rugby league grounds still having standing terraces, getting at least a few socially distanced fans back into them before the end of the season might be a bit easier than with the all-seated stadia of top-flight football, but there must surely now be some doubt as to the Rugby League World Cup due to be played in England next autumn.

Monday, 27 July 2020

The Manchester Paper Mill(er)

The online Manchester newsletter The Mill has just published a piece on the decline of print journalism in the city, with the drop in revenues from newspaper sales and advertising leading to cuts in the number of journalists, and therefore far less interviewing people in person and investigative reporting and more "churnalism", essentially rewriting press releases without checking the facts in them yourself, and sensationalist "clickbait" stories being posted on social media to generate hits on the Manchester Evening News website (although the writers there still occasionally pen some excellent articles, such as yesterday's feature about the "forgotten district" of inner-city south Manchester, Chorlton-on-Medlock).

An epitome of pre-internet Manchester print journalism passed last week, the sports journalist and court reporter Stan Miller, whose wife was a friend  of my mother's when they worked together as draughtswomen at Metrovicks Wythenshawe Works in the sixties (he also gave the large teddy bear I had as a child the name which my younger relatives still call him by).

Monday, 6 July 2020

Back to the pub

I strolled down to my local just after it re-opened on Saturday afternoon to see what it was like.

It's a large tied house, surrounded on three sides by a car park. When I first drank there in the late 80s, it was a smoky and wet-led multi-roomed boozer, with a darts board in the vault and a snug unofficially reserved for pensioners, but a series of modernisations since has seen it transformed into an open plan dining pub which, although it still serves a decent pint of cask beer, means that it isn't really my kind of place any more and I now only go there to watch football, rather than for a social drink as I did regularly in the 90s and 2000s.

Looking through the large windows, I could see that it was pretty busy, with lots of the tables full, and heard the sound of laughter and shouting coming from them. In the smoking shelter at the front, half a dozen teenagers had gathered with their pints and an older guy was nervously nursing his there too (looking at the pub's Facebook page later, it turned out that he'd been told that he couldn't go in the pub as they were only seating parties of up to six at the tables inside, not solo drinkers, and he hadn't felt very safe outside given the lack of social distancing). It had the feel of a slightly boisterous Friday or Saturday night rather than a normal weekend dinnertime session with the initial surge of people eager to get back to the pub, which will probably subside quite quickly - and perhaps disastrously so for some pubs. The mostly uncovered outdoor seating area along one side of the building was unsurprisingly empty as the rain swept across it, something that was always going to be an issue with the typically British, and especially Mancunian, summer weather.

I've no problem with the pubs re-opening or with people going to them, and if there's another wave of Covid-19 infections in the coming weeks I won't, as some undoubtedly will, point my finger at those who went this weekend, given that, from what I could see, the big majority behaved responsibly by following Government safety guidelines, despite critics on social media highlighting the small minority who didn't while also exposing their snobbery towards working-class drinkers and general disdain for pubs.

When I go back to the pub myself, it'll be somewhere I can walk to, rather than travel to on public transport as I generally used to do, and where I can drink, and ideally order and pay for, my pint outside, although rationally I know that ordering apps, social distancing, regular cleaning, contactless payments, hand sanitiser, table or end of bar service, perspex screens, face masks and one way systems all lessen the risk of contracting and spreading the virus indoors.