Friday, 22 January 2016

Hello Central

I went to the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival last night, in its new home at Manchester Central.

I was a fan of the velodrome where the festival was held for the last two years. I enjoyed the unique experience of drinking a pint while watching bikes flash past you on the track above. Many of the teething problems of the first one (accessibility for disabled drinkers, lack of seating and beer shortages) were largely addressed at the second, but the cycling team who are its main tenants effectively kicked us out and CAMRA was forced to look elsewhere in Manchester.

I can't think of anywhere more iconic that CAMRA could have picked than Manchester Central. It's a Victorian former railway station and the arching iron roof reminds you a bit of Olympia where the Great British Beer Festival is held. Another similarity to the GBBF is the addition of brewery bars from local breweries including Marble, Bollington and RedWillow.

The January beer festival in Manchester is replacement for and in many ways a continuation of the National Winter Ales Festival which was held here for much of the last decade before moving to Derby. That's probably the reason I often end up drinking beers in that category such as dark milds, stouts and strong ales, this year mainly from the brewery bars, but also the porter just launched as part of Robinson's range of White Label one-off brews.

I'm going again tomorrow and already have a list of other beers I want to try, at the top of which is the Batham's Bitter I didn't get round to yesterday.

Monday, 11 January 2016


I watched the film Amy the other day, about the singer Amy Winehouse who died in 2011 aged 27 from heart failure as a result of alcohol and drug abuse.

Not many people come out of the film well, from her father whose desertion when she was a child seems to have triggered her later emotional problems to her husband who got her hooked on heroin and crack and the paparazzi and tabloid journalists who hounded her until her death. The only people who emerge with any credit are her first manger Nicky Shymansky and her schoolfriends who tried to help her and the singer Tony Bennett with whom she duetted not long before she died.

I can remember the first time I heard Amy Winehouse, on a pub jukebox singing Rehab. I was convinced it was a sixties soul record before the person I was with put me right.

Monday, 4 January 2016

The Sense of Style

I always read a book at Christmas, usually non-fiction, and for the one just gone I picked The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

I first heard Pinker's name when I did a part-time course in teaching English as a foreign language at Manchester College of Arts and Technology twenty years ago. Along with Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen,  he's a leading academic in the field of language acquisition theory.

The Sense of Style is a guide to English grammar and usage which, among other things, looks at commonly confused words ("disinterested"/"uninterested", "enormousness"/
"enormity"), the minefield of "lie, lay, laid, lain", the singular "they" for men and women, and whether to punctuate quotation marks the American way "like this," or the British way "like this". Pinker prefers the latter, dismissing the former as aesthetic fussiness by printers, and is pretty liberal when it comes to things most grammar experts frown upon (splitting infinitives and misusing "less"/"fewer"). It's a handy book for anyone who regularly attempts to turn out decent English prose, whether on a blog or elsewhere.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Books of the Year

In which I run through the novels I've read this year, and what inspired me to read them.

Notes from Underground and The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Continuing the Russian theme from the end of last year, I read these two short novels, the latter of which can be seen as an early sketch for his much later masterpiece Crime and Punishment.

The Return of the Native, The Well-Beloved and A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

Continuing my Thomas Hardy binge from last summer, I read one of his major and two of his minor novels.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

I read this novella, set in a dystopian Manhattan of the near future, after seeing the film version, which I didn't think really worked. The book is much better, as you'd expect from a writer of DeLillo's skill.

Metroland by Julian Barnes

I picked this up after reading a piece about it in The Guardian. It's a semi-autobiographical account of a young man growing up in the London suburbs in the fifties and spending time as a student in Paris in the late sixties before moving back to the Metroland of the title.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

This classic of mid-twentieth century teenage alienation had been on my bookshelf for a few years so I thought it was about time I read it.

Brighton Rock, A Gun for Sale and England Made Me by Graham Greene

Greene called these gangster thrillers "entertainments" but they nevertheless contain many of the moral and religious themes of his later novels.

Nemesis and The Human Stain by Philip Roth

I saw a review of Nemesis when it was published in 2010 but only got round to reading it this year. It's basically a reworking of La Peste by Albert Camus, relocated to mid-forties Newark, New Jersey. I read The Human Stain after seeing the film version with Anthony Hopkins. Its tale of a black man "passing" as white has echoes of one of this year's strangest news stories, that of Rachel Dolezal attempting the reverse.

The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

Like her better-known The Group, this, her debut novel, is another semi-autobiographical account set in New York in the thirties of a young women encountering its intellectual, political and literary milieu.

The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

I love sequels, or prequels, to other writers' works (Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is one of my favourite novels) so I was attracted to this reworking of L'Etranger by Albert Camus, seen from the viewpoint of the victim rather than perpetrator of the murder on the beach.

Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn

I find the period between the wars in Britain, described and explored by some of my favourite writers such as Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton, fascinating. This murder mystery is a pretty convincing depiction of it.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

A sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, written before it but only published this year, which I blogged about here.

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

Another reworking of a famous novel, this time transposing Joyce's early twentieth century Dublin to mid-eighties London and replacing Ulyssses' Stephen Dedalus with an Indian student of English Literature.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

This novel about the relationship between Mancunian-Irish sisters and mill operatives Mary and Lizzie Burns and the factory owner and Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels ticked quite a few boxes of things I'm interested in: left-wing politics, history, Germany, working-class feminism, and Manchester and Salford.

Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler

This had long been on my "must read" list and, like Forever Flowing by Vassily Grossman and The Case of Comrade Tulayev which I had read before, is about Stalin's Great Purge of the late thirties.

List of the Lost by Morrissey

Not quite as bad as the reviews suggest but could still have done with an editor chopping the text and Morrissey's long rants about his favourite subjects (vindictive judges, veganism, sadistic teachers).

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Dickens' first novel isn't much regarded by critics but I enjoyed this rambling tale of a group of gentlemen getting into scrapes as they travel around 1830's England.

Monday, 14 December 2015

My favourite Alt

I spent a few days in the Rhineland last week, going round pubs, Christmas markets and cathedrals in Düsseldorf and Cologne, which I've made half a dozen or so trips to in the past decade. I also went to Aachen for the first time.

I kicked off at Brauerei Schumacher on Ostrasse, partly because it's only a short walk from Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof, but also because it's got a special place in my beer memories: in 2009, it was the first pub in which I drank Altbier.

When I last went to Düsseldorf a couple of years ago, I wrote that Uerige Alt was "fast approaching Füchschen as my favourite Alt". I reckon it's now finally made it to top spot: it seems far darker, heavier and hoppier than when I first drank it six years ago.

Zum Uerige is easily my favourite pub in Düsseldorf. The first time I went, it was summer and I sat at the tables opposite, drinking Alt and eating sausages from the pub's own butchery under the shade of a canopy, but the real magic is inside the pub itself. I love wandering along its narrow corridors discovering different rooms, each with their own distinct atmosphere, from the long-tabled Neweaan dining room to the large, standing Brauhof at the back. My favourite though is Der Uerige, the taproom at the front, not just for the theatre of wooden barrels being hoisted up from the cellar and lifted onto the bar by the waiters, before being swiftly emptied, but also because sharing the small tables with the mostly sociable regulars means it's easy to strike up conversations with your fellow drinkers, albeit thereby inflicting my no more than passable German on them.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Knock on wood

On Saturday night in Bar Fringe, a Belgian-style bar on the edge of Manchester city centre and Ancoats, I picked up a leaflet produced by the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood.

Although founded in 1963, eight years before CAMRA in 1971, the SPBW is much smaller and its role in promoting cask beer far less well-known. That's largely down to the esoteric name: as far as I know, the famously traditional Samuel Smith's in Yorkshire is the only British brewery which still regularly uses wooden casks. Even the SPBW's moniker has been kept solely for tradition's sake and it has no problem with draught beer dispensed from metal casks.

It also seems to be more of a social rather than a campaigning organisation, although CAMRA has a social as well as a consumer protection side too, and mainly based in the South of England, albeit with trips organised to pubs and breweries around the country. I'm tempted to send off my fiver and join and would be interested to know if anyone else has, and if so what their experience of it has been.

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.