Monday, 19 August 2019

Auf Wiedersehen Yet?

I've just picked up online a cheap secondhand copy of the Good Beer Guide to Munich and Bavaria, published by CAMRA in 1994 and written by Graham Lees, one of the four founders of the organisation (I especially like his dedication of the book "to all who appreciate good beer, regardless of borders").

Although I went to pubs in Dublin and the West of Ireland in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was as much for their historical/political and literary associations (notably the Brazen Head and McDaid's) as the beer (invariably Guinness), and my first specifically beer trip was to Germany at the end of 2009, to Düsseldorf and Cologne, followed by one to Munich and southern Bavaria in the summer of 2010 (when I accidentally attended the wedding of footballer Philip Lahm in Aying). I've been back to Düsseldorf and Cologne numerous times since then, and to the nearby towns Aachen, Bonn, Ratingen and Wuppertal, and in 2012 travelled to Upper Franconia in northern Bavaria to sample the very special pubs and beers of Bamberg and Forchheim.

Apart from some brewery takeovers and reorganisations, not that much seems to have changed on the beer front in south-eastern Germany in the last twenty-five years, thanks no doubt to the Bavarians' well-known conservatism (in both brewing and politics). The beechwood-smoked malt lager Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen is described as "virually black as coal" rather than the dark brown that I remember it being on draught in the brewery tap, but I think that might just be a question of perception rather than any change in the grist, and the warning that train travel around the state is expensive unless you book tickets in advance has been superseded by the relatively inexpensive Bayern day ticket, which covers buses, trams and underground services too. The advice that "Bavaria, especially in country areas, is likely to be a little stomach-shrinking for vegetarians" is probably still true given the locals' propensity to wash down huge plates of pork and sausage dishes with their litre steins of lager, and the description of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich as "plagued by coachloads of gawping tourists" (not to mention the oompah band) certainly is.

The next beer trip I'm planning is to central Europe, travelling by train from Prague to Plzeñ, Regensburg, Freising, Munich and Salzburg, although it'll probably be in the winter rather than summer months given the punishingly hot weather that now seems to afflict that part of the continent almost annually, and that direct flights between Salzburg and Manchester only appear to depart during the skiing season (assuming that planes and visa-free travel are still operating then).

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Bottles of beer for the boys

I was looking through a photo album yesterday and spotted a couple of photos of my mum's dad that I hadn't seen for a while.

He was born in Beswick, east Manchester, in 1909, but grew up in Old Trafford, started work as an apprentice at the nearby Metrovicks engineering factory in Trafford Park in the late twenties and became a toolmaker and a shop steward in the Amalgamated Engineering Union (one of his mates on the shop floor was Hugh Scanlon, who became President of the union in 1968). He moved to the new Manchester Corporation housing estate at Wythenshawe just before he got married in 1938, and to Metrovicks' Wythenshawe Works when it opened in the late fifties, working there until it closed in the early seventies, and he became a porter at Barnes Hospital.

The first photo is of a works social for long-serving employees, sometime in the sixties in the canteen at Wythenshawe Works. My grandad is on the left (naturally) in the light suit and glasses.

Apart from all the men wearing ties (I wonder who put an end to that tradition?), the other thing you notice is the beer bottles lined up along the table, supplied by the company for the event. I'm not sure any employer now serves alcohol to its workers on the premises given the potential for litigation if things go awry. although I think some still open a bar tab at a venue off-site for them, and even then there are possible legal pitfalls (by the time I started working in the civil service in the nineties, drinking at office parties had been banned after someone fell to their death from a window at one in Salford). Even zooming in on the photos, it's hard to make out the label on the beer bottles, but I think it might just be that of Groves & Whitnall, the brewery which inspired Coronation Street's Newton & Ridley.

The second photo, from around the same time, is of my grandad eating his butties at his work bench. He's also reading The Sun, which had replaced the Daily Herald in 1964 and was still then a Labour-supporting newspaper, and would remain one even under Rupert Murdoch's ownership until the mid-seventies.

Part of the Union: my grandad's 1963-64 AEU membership card

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Back to the Briton's

Having not been for a couple of years, I went to the Briton's Protection in Manchester city centre twice last week: for a meeting of Manchester Jazz Society, and then with Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA to present its award for best Mild Magic pub oustside Stockport.

Like the Unicorn where the Jazz Society met until a few weeks ago, I first went to the Briton's Protection for political and union meetings, some of them fringe events of conferences being held across the road at the former Manchester Central railway station, now an exhibition space and convention centre. The Peterloo massacre, the bicentenary of which falls later this month, took place in the area between the two and features on the pub's sign and a painting inside.

One of Manchester's oldest pubs, the Briton's Protection, with its long front lounge, L-shaped corridor and two rear rooms supplied by a serving hatch at the back of the bar, is known for its interior tiling and the number of malt whiskies it sells (it's also home to Manchester Whisky Club). A Grade II listed building, it's included on CAMRA's national inventory of historic pubs.

From being a former Tetleys house with an average beer offer of a couple of cask bitters from regional brewers (Jennings and Robinsons), it's now expanded its draught range to include the products of local microbreweries and other styles, including mild and stout, and well deserves its award for the former, which it now turns over a cask of every couple of days.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Out of the Public Eye

The programmes on Talking Pictures TV, broadcast on Freeview channel 81, are fast becoming some of my favourite on television.

As well as documentaries, like John Betjeman's elegaic early sixties train trip from Kings Lynn to Hunstanton, on a now closed north Norfolk branch line, and films such as the social realist late forties film noir "The Blue Lamp", with its superbly-shot finale at the White City dog track in west London, there are lots of repeats of sixties and seventies drama series.

My current favourite is the detective series "Public Eye", made for ITV between 1965 and 1975. I hadn't heard of it before and am not sure why, unlike many other, in some cases inferior, shows from the era, it hasn't been repeated on a more mainstream channel.

Although the central character, private detective Frank Marker, might seem like a bit of a TV cliche, a loner, slightly dishevelled and with a somewhat murky past, the writing and acting really lift it (as with my favourite TV detective, Columbo, it's now impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role apart from Alfred Burke, despite neither he nor Peter Falk being first choices for the part), and span the comedy of the Christmas special "Horse and Carriage" to the pathos of "The Man Who Said Sorry", a terse, almost hour-long, two-hander, apart from the dialogue-free opening scene and the final one, where Marker chats to his sometime ally, sometime adversary, DI Firbank, at their usual public bar meeting place.

The location of the series moves around southern England, but for the latest, and final run, Frank Marker has setttled in Eton, renting a spartan shopfront office where he seems to subsist on instant coffee brewed on a single gas ring and takeaway meals from the adjacent Chinese restaurant. There are lots of late sixties and early seventies details, from keg fonts in the pubs to his fee of six guineas plus expenses (later decimalised as £6.50, a slight increase, no doubt the result of rising inflation, although given his seemingly sparse workload it appears doubtful that the operation would have really been commercially viable, especially in one of England's posher towns where he also rents a flat).

Perhaps the coolest feature of the series though is the jazzy theme tune, composed by Robert Earley.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Last orders at the Unicorn

One of Manchester city centre's more traditional pubs, the Unicorn Hotel on Church Street, is closing this weekend for a refurbishment.

There have been some concerns that the pub's owners - Enterprise Inns, the pubco formed out of the the ex-Bass tied estate in the early 90s - were going to remove distinctive features such as the island bar and wooden panelling and turn it into a sports bar, as they did with this historic building in Cardiff last year, but thanks to the efforts of the soon to be former landlady, Historic England and CAMRA's Heritage Pubs committee an application to grant it Grade II Listed Building status was fastracked by Manchester City Council, a welcome outcome given the new high-rise apartment buildings that have risen around it in the last few years which also seemed to threaten its future.

The Unicorn was built in 1924, originally, as its name suggests, as a hotel offering food and accommodation to local businessmen and commercial travellers (there's a fascinating history of the pub in the report written by Historic England's surveyor).

I've been drinking in the Unicorn for the last twenty years or so, mostly while attending meetings in the upstairs function room, at first union and political ones, and in the last decade those of Manchester Jazz Society, which until last week had met there every Thursday evening since the mid 90s (and before that in other pubs and clubs around town since at least the early 60s), but has now had to relocate, to an even more historic city centre pub, the Britons Protection.

Apart from its architectural features and atmosphere (which Tandleman captured well here), the other attraction of the Unicorn is that it's the last pub in Manchester city centre with Draught Bass as a permanent cask beer (as befits a former headquarters of the Honourable Order of Bass Drinkers, and which you can see still with its Bass signage here). Let's hope that, as well retaining the interior, the new licensees keep it on the bar too.

Unicorn pump-handle and Bass ashtray, kindly given to me by the current landlady

Enjoying a couple of pints of Draught Bass at the Unicorn with Mike Cleaver in March

Monday, 1 July 2019

Play ball!

I watched the two games in Major League Baseball's London Series this weekend, broadcast on BBC iPlayer from the former Olympic stadium in east London.

There have been a few complaints by players and others about the event: the aerodynamics of the stadium allegedly affecting the pictchers' abilty to throw breaking balls; glare off the white seats making it diffcult for outfielders to pick up fly balls; the extent of the foul territory behind home plate and along the base lines causing problems for the catcher and infielders; and most spectators being American tourists or expats (not to mention the sky-high prices of some of the tickets, many times that of those for an equivalent match-up in the US, and for food and drink at the game, with two foot-long hot dogs £25 and the 330ml bottles of Heineken being hawked in the stands £6.50).

Despite the logistics of flying the two teams three and a half thousand miles across the North Atlantic and transforming the football ground where West Ham now play their home matches, including importing North American soil for the pictcher's mound and infield dirt around the basepaths, I think MLB will count the event as a success, albeit an expereience to learn things from, especially given that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox of the American League East Divison served up the big home run-hitting that most fans seem to want to see at the ballpark, rather that the National League-style "small ball" of pitchers' duels, base-stealing, bunts, groundouts, double plays and pitchers batting that I prefer myself.

I first watched baseball in the 2001 MLB season, when Channel 5 showed two live games a week, ESPN's Sunday and Wednesday Night Baseball (actually broadcast in the early hours of Monday and Thursday morning here, which is why, like most fans I suspect, I used to record them, and then watch them when I got in from work). In 2002, I went to the United States for the first time, on an organised coach tour along the East Coast, stopping at ballparks in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston for Orioles, Phillies, Yankees, Mets and Red Sox games with my workmate who got me into the sport, followed by independent trips to New York in 2003 and 2005 for a Mets double-header and weekend series against Arizona and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Shea Stadium and to Chicago in 2004 for a Sunday afternoon Cubs-Pirates game at Wrigley Field as part of a blues pilgrimage to the city with my brother-in-law. After Channel 5 stopped broadcasting baseball in 2008, I watched ESPN's games on Top Up TV through a card decoder that slotted into the back of your set, until that too finished in 2013.

I still follow the fortunes of my favourite team (the Cincinnati Reds) online, and watch video clips of highlights from their games (insert joke here), but it's not really the same as watching a whole game, with the pitchers making adjustments as the batting lineup rotates through nine innings, series or season, getting to know the idiosyncracies of each ballpark and the players on each team. For the serious fan, there's a multitude of stats to have fun with, from WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) for pitchers to RISP (runners in scoring position) for batters, and many, many more (the fact that the scoreboard at the London Stadium spelt out Runs, Hits and Errors, rather than just the RHE columns that you'd see at a US ballpark, was mentioned more than once in this weekend's commentary).

I like to think that I still know the rules of baseball pretty well (including the supposedly impenetrable infield fly rule that I've never had any problem understanding, or explaining to others, and which was invoked in Game 1 on Saturday), although I had to dig out my pocket-sized rulebook yesterday afternoon when Aroldis Chapman came in from the bullpen to close out the game for the Yankees in the ninth inning to check on the conditions for a pitcher to qualify for a save.

It seems that you can now watch BT Sport's baseball coverage by downloading their app to your phone without being a broadband customer, so I may check that option out for continued regular viewing after getting my two game fix these last forty-eight hours.

Monday, 24 June 2019

A class glass

I've finally got round to buying some lantern pint pots, the ten-sided, handled beer glasses that were standard in pubs throughout the thirties and forties, but stopped being manufactured some time in the sixties, until Stockport-based glassware suppliers Stephenson's started importing them a couple of years ago from China (Martyn Cornell on his Zythophile blog has a, typically thoroughly researched, history of their creation and resurrection).

I reckon this is the fifth type of pint glass I've drunk from or owned: nonics and tulips, which were standard in the late eighties and early nineties when I started drinking in pubs, conicals, which you can pick up at most beer festivals, dimpled jugs with handles, which I've got in both pint and half pint form ("borrowed" by relatives from south Manchester pubs in the sixties), and now lantern glasses, which can be seen in a Lancashire pub in this clip from the 1945 documentary Down At the Local that's included in the British Film Institute DVD Roll Out the Barrel.

I don't expect the lantern to become again the standard pint pot it once was, or as they appear to be in this advert for them, but it'd be good if they came back as a niche glass in more specialist beer houses.

As I washed and dried my new beer glasses, I thought of my grandmother, who worked as a barmaid in Threlfalls pubs in Wigan and Stretford in the thirties, and who must have done the same thousands of times.