Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Beer Drinker's Companion

I've just picked up a second-hand copy of The Beer Drinker's Companion, Frank Baillie's 1974 survey of British beer and brewing.

I was inspired to look out for it by a reading list on Boak and Bailey's blog as it was pretty much the only book there that I hadn't got.

Some of the things he mentions about the storing and serving of beer ( (metal v wooden casks, gravity or hand-pumps v electric dispense, cellar conditioning v bright, top pressure or container tank beer) aren't really issues now; others, like serving temperature and cloudiness, clearly still are.

One of the things that stands out is bottled beer. Bottle-conditioned beers are now, he says, "very few" (Guinness Extra Stout and Worthington White Shield being the only nationally available ones), compared to the hundreds you can buy today. On the other hand, the number of bottled beers in pubs has dropped. In 1974, according to Baillie, my local brewery, Robinsons in Stockport, produced not only the bottled pale and strong ale they still sell but also a bottled stout and a light and a brown ale. I think this has to do with the decline in mixing bottled and draught beer that I remember from my early pub-going days in the late 80's.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Too much too young?

Seeing the twenty-two year old midfielder Mario Götze come on as a substitute and score the winning goal for Germany in extra time in the World Cup Final last night reminded me of Brian Kidd's goal for Manchester United on his nineteenth birthday in the 1968 European Cup Final at Wembley. Where do you go next in your career when the highlight comes so near the start of it?

F. Scott Fitzgerald sums that feeling up in a passage near the beginning of The Great Gatsby which Hugh McIvanney quotes in his documentary about George Best:

"one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax...Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrevocable football game."

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Bargain booze

Last night's edition of the Channel 4 documentary series Dispatches, which claimed to investigate the influence of the drinks industry on Government policy, was really a propaganda piece for "minimum unit pricing" alcohol.

The beer I drink in pubs and at home is already above the suggested minimum unit price of 50p so a change along those lines isn't going to affect me but I still came away thinking that the arguments the programme put forward are seriously muddled.

How can we stop young people "pre-loading" unsupervised at home with cheap alcohol bought in supermarkets and off-licences before heading out to pricier pubs and clubs? Increase the cost of the alcohol supermarkets and off-licences sell of course, argued Dispatches. But that defeats the object of "pre-loading" doesn't it? And for those who think that it will force them to go straight to the pricier, supervised pub, they won't: unless minimum pricing is European-wide, they'll either buy cheap alcohol from people who've smuggled it in from the Continent or, especially if they live in the South of England, pop across the Channel for it themselves. This point seemed to elude the coffee-drinking professor in Canada who claimed that minimum unit pricing there had cut hospital admissions and arrests for assault. And what about the underage drinkers who get their older mates to buy drink for them from supermarkets and off-licences? They won't even be able to get into pubs and clubs and will be forced to deal with unlicensed vendors.

As I was watching, I had a couple of ideas to curb excessive drinking:

1. Introduce rationing via an electronic ID card, allowing you to buy so many units a day/week/month. Admittedly a little authoritarian, and also vulnerable to cross-border smuggling, it would at least mean that cheap alcohol was still available to "responsible drinkers", as long as the Government didn't use the current, ridiculously low, recommended units.

2. Require all sellers of alcohol to permit drinking on the premises, provide seating and glasses etc. Let's see how much cheap booze Tesco sell when they have to employ bouncers to turf out the teenagers and alcoholics at closing time every Friday and Saturday night.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Give me land

Today's Guardian has an investigative piece about supermarket Tesco buying up land and leaving it empty, either to stop competitors opening stores near their own or in anticipation of its value increasing, and BBC2 also broadcast a documentary last night showing how house building companies operate along similar lines.

We all know how pubcos use restrictive covenants to stop rivals buying pubs they sell off as unprofitable, ensuring that they become houses, shops or other businesses; I wonder what an analysis of Land Registry records like the one the Guardian has carried out on Tesco's property division would show about their "land banking" activities.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Rio by the sea-o

With a week to go before the World Cup kicks off in Brazil, it's predictions time. So, skipping to the latter stages of the tournament, here are mine.

In the quarter-finals, Brazil will beat England, Germany France, Spain Italy and Argentina Portugal; in the semi-finals, Brazil will beat Germany and Argentina Spain; and in the final itself, Brazil will beat Argentina, lifting their sixth World Cup and their first as hosts.

You heard it here first. Get yourself down to the bookies and stick your shirt on Brazil (currently 3-1 to win it).

Monday, 19 May 2014

Dylan's blues

The poet Dylan Thomas famously wrote that people should "rage against the dying of the light" when approaching death.

BBC2 marked the centenary of Thomas' birth last night with a drama about his own final days in New York, where he died aged 39 in 1953, allegedly after drinking eighteen whiskies in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village. Although I haven't been to the White Horse, I have walked past the Chelsea Hotel where he collapsed after his supposed alcoholic bout.

Tom Hollander, who played Thomas, apparently had to put on two stone to play the role and he did look quite like him but his performance reminded me somewhat of Chuck Berry's remark to the Rolling Stones when they recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago: "You nearly got it." I'm also not sure why an Englishman was cast as Thomas when there are plenty of Welsh actors who could have played the role such as the superb impressionist Michael Sheen.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Finnegans Wake

"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Evirons."

I'm now just under half way through Finnegans Wake, James Joyce's final novel, of which the above is both the end of the first and beginning of the last sentence, separated by a little over six hundred pages of – many would say unreadable – prose.

I'm not going to say that Finnegans Wake is an easy book to read – although Harold Pinter once claimed, somewhat dubiously, to have finished it without any problem as a sixth former – nor that there haven't been moments, especially in the first couple of chapters, when I haven't been tempted to give up on it. So why haven't I?

For one thing, Finnegans Wake with its puns and jokes ("flushpots of Euston and the hanging garments of Marylebone", "peats be with them", "boy fiend") can be very funny, especially the encounter between an Irishman and an invading Dane in the first chapter. As for long passages that seem bewildering when you first read them, I'd say two things. Firstly, as Joyce himself said to a young reader, it's possible to enjoy the flow of the language, the layers of legend, historical and literary allusions and the images they create without fully understanding their meaning: one of the fun things about Finnegans Wake is that nearly every sentence has multiple possible meanings and your own interpretation of them is as valid as anyone else's, although unlike some, mainly American, reading groups (over)analysing them, I plan to finish the book in a month to six weeks rather than a year or more. Also, it helps if you have some knowledge of Irish language and literature  Finnegan for instance refers to both the music hall song Finnegan's Wake, in which a hod carrier comes back to life after being splashed with whiskey at his wake, as well as Finn MacCool, the mythological hero also destined to rise again   read what others have written about the book before you start, use a guide to it (I've found this one quite useful) and make notes as you go along.

Like Ulysses, Finnegans Wake also has plenty of references to pubs the main character is a Dublin landlord called Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and beer, including Allsopp's, Guinness and Reid's family stout. I've a feeling I may reward myself with a drop when I become one of the few to finish it...