Friday, 23 December 2011

The last post (of the year)

I'm taking a break from blogging over Christmas and the New Year. So until then, here's an appropriately seasonal tune from the great R&B/jazz singer Nat 'King' Cole.



Have a happy Christmas and God bless You, Every One!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Luis Suarez and the N word

We won't know for a couple of weeks if the Liverpool striker Luis Suarez intends to appeal against the decision by a FA tribunal to ban him for eight matches and fine him £40,000 after it found him guilty of racially abusing Manchester United fullback Patrice Evra during a match.  The facts though appear clear and are seemingly not in dispute.

Suarez called Evra "negrito", Spanish for "little black guy", at least ten times. He contends, apparently with some justification, that the term can be used in his native Uruguay as the equivalent of the English "pal" irrespective of whether the person being addressed is black or white.

"Negrito" is the diminutive of the Spanish word "negro" which simply means "black" and was used by socialists and liberals and black people fighting for their rights in Britain and the USA up until the 1960's when "black" became the preferred self-description .  "Negro" today is at best outdated and at worst offensive and I would only use it in a historical context, for example when referring to the Negro Leagues that existed before major league baseball was desegregated in the late 40's.

Liverpool has predictably defended Suarez to the hilt, adopting a "our player right or wrong" attitude.  One of the more distateful aspects of their PR campaign is the wearing of Justice for Suarez T-shirts by Liverpool players and the display of similar signs by fans in the stands which mirrors and demeans the legitimate campaign by relatives of those who died at Hillborough in 1989 to discover the extent to which police and stewarding failures contributed to the deaths of their loved ones.

I think Suarez knew exactly what he was doing when he baited Evra and the line of defence he would use if he was challenged about it.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Ordinary or Best?

I've been rereading Andrew Campbell's Book of Beer in the last couple of days, a fascinating glimpse into not just beer and pubs but British society in the mid-1950's.

One thing that struck me is his description of Fuller's London Pride as "an excellent strong pale ale". Today, London Pride (OG 1040.5, abv 4.1%) is Fuller's standard bitter, in between the lighter Chiswick Bitter (OG 1034.5, abv 3.5%) and the stronger ESB (OG 1054, abv 5.5%).

Comparing the 1983 and 2011 Good Beer Guides confirms the trend towards regarding the best bitter as the standard beer. In my hometown of Stockport, the local brewery Robinson's biggest seller is its Unicorn Bitter (OG 1041, abv 4.2%). In 1983, the same beer was called Robinson's Best Bitter - their standard Bitter then (OG 1035) has become the rarely seen Old Stockport.

Similarly, Marstons Pedigree (OG 1043, 4.5%) has become a nationally avaliable flagship beer for its brewers, far outstripping their Burton Bitter (OG 1037, abv 3.8%). Only Young's still seem to be distinguishing their bitter and best bitters with Young's Bitter (OG 1036, abv 3.7%) and Young's Special (OG 1044, abv 4.5%).

So how and why did a pint of best become a pint of bitter?

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Scotland leads the way on standing

The Scottish Premier League has announced that top-flight clubs in Scotland will be allowed to reintroduce standing at their grounds after its twelve member clubs voted on the question yesterday. Celtic, Rangers, Kilmarnock and Motherwell have already said that they want to to reintroduce standing.

The SPL chief executive pointed out that if large, safe standing terraces were possible in the German Bundesliga why wouldn't they be in Scotland, an argument whose logic is unanswerable.  He also said that he was "delighted we have been able to respond positively to supporters' views on improving the match day experience."

Don't expect a similar announcement from the FA any time soon but if its leadership actually reflected the views of the fans who pay their wages we might be able to avoid disputes like this.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Politicians and beer


When politicians are photographed drinking or pulling a pint, the motive is normally to appear "of the people" and attract votes. None of the charlatans above actually enjoy drinking beer as far as I know: Blair as PM drank whisky, Johnson as an ex-member of the Bullingdon Club is surely a champagne drinker and Livingstone in an interview last year admitted that his enthusiasm has shifted over the years from Newcastle Brown Ale to wine.

With the ex-Czech president Václav Havel who died yesterday, it was surely different.  While he doubtless benefitted from a beer drinking image given the Czech Republic has the world's highest per capita beer consumption, like politicians across the border in Bavaria I'd guess he actually liked the stuff too. 

The right-wing Labour chancellor of the 70's Denis Healey once criticised Margaret Thatcher for having no hinterland, that is interests outside politics (his were opera and photography).  Václav Havel's hinterland was pretty extensive, encompassing beer, politics, drama and poetry.  One of the most famous photos of him was taken in 1994 by Jiri Juru in the Prague pub U Zlatého Tygra, alongside the US President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and fellow writer and regular Bohumil Hrabal.
















h/t to White Beer Travels for reproducing the photo.
            

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Cameron attacks a straw man

David Cameron's speech on the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible declaring that "we are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so" and decrying people who "argue that by saying we are a Christian country and standing up for Christian values we are somehow doing down other faiths" is a case of attacking a position that no one holds.  Tory ex-Cabinet minister Michael Portillo also weighed in with "We all know the classic cases of political correctness that you are not allowed to mention Christmas, and cards that you send out at this time of the year must not mention Christmas and things like this."

Cameron seems to be saying that the English language, architecture, art, history, literature and music have all been influenced by Chrisitianity. But who has ever denied that?  Portillo's remarks are even more lame-brained.  If "we all know" that you can't mention Christmas or send Christmas cards any more, he won't have any trouble reeling off a list of people he knows who object to the mention of Christmas or to people sending cards.

I also find it amusing that the Church of England is now reduced to being defended by a self-proclaimed "wishy-washy" Anglican PM who has said that his faith comes and goes like the radio reception in the Chilterns and a lapsed Catholic atheist.

Friday, 16 December 2011

RIP Hitch

The journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens who has died of oesphagal cancer aged 63 moved a long way politically over his lifetime.

Hitchens was a member of the International Socialists from the mid 60's to early 70's when, as he later said, it was "a small but growing post-Trotskyist Luxemburgist sect". I don't know the circumstances in which Hitchens left IS but it coincided with the transformation of the group into a tightly controlled mono-tendency which banned internal factions and dissent. He subsequently moved to the right, but not as far as some of his detractors on the left claim. Hitchens towards the end of his life said he was no longer a socialist but denied he was a conservative. It would probably be accurate to call him a liberal, albeit a more consistent and principled one than the spineless, hand-wringing types who write for The Guardian. He certainly avoided the fate of his younger brother Peter, like him an ex-IS member, who is now a Daily Mail Tory Anglican caricature.

Even though he was wrong on the Iraq war in 2003, it was for the right reasons (wanting to liberate the Iraqi people from Ba'athist dictatorship) as opposed to much of the left who rightly opposed the invasion for the wrong reasons (anti-Americanism, pacifism or, in the case of George Galloway, friendly relations with Saddam and his henchmen). He was also clear in opposing Islamic clerical fascists like al-Qaeda, refusing to let them speak for a Muslims as a whole and standing up for those threatened by them like Salman Rushdie, in sharp contrast to the IS's successor the SWP who downplayed the threat and promoted organisations like the MAB inside the anti-war movement.

Hitchens' other role was as a debunker of religion. That he chose to do so in the United States where religion pollutes public life to a much greater extent than in most of Europe is to his credit and I think he did it more thoughtfully than others like Richard Dawkins. It was certainly always entertaining, as when he spoke about the death of the charlatan Jerry Falwell in 2007.




Thursday, 15 December 2011

Champions of the World

The minimal coverage being given to the Club World Cup in Japan reflects the low regard in which the competition is held in Europe. The situation is quite the opposite in South America where the winners of the Copa Libertadores relish the chance to take on the champions of Europe.

The competition started life as the Intercontinental Cup in 1960 and was played over two legs until 1980 when the World Club Championship became a single tie played in Japan. Expansion by FIFA to include the champions of other continents has made little impact with the European and South American champions getting byes to the semi-finals where they invariably cruise past Asian or African opponents to set up a meeting with each other in the final.

Such has been the disregard in Europe for what is seen as a friendly or exhibition match that after some notoriously violent encounters with South American opponents in the late 60's, a number of European champions boycotted the competition in the 1970's. In 1974, Atletico Madrid even managed to become world champions by standing in for European Cup winners Bayern Munich.

That the South Americans' record in the competition is equal to that of the European clubs (twenty-five trophies each) is remarkable when you consider that they usually field youth players. With the more senior Argentinian and Brazilian internationals all playing in Europe, the competition can be seen as a showcase for young South American talent. The likelihood that Neymar, the nineteen year old star for Pele's former club Santos who will play Barcelona in this weekend's final, will soon be getting on a plane for Milan, Madrid or Barcelona must be very high if this goal is anything to go by.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Beer and breast milk

I've just started reading Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. Like other novels by Dickens - Great Expectations, David Copperfield, The Old Curiosity Shop - it abounds with references to beer and brewing.

As the novel opens, the son of the title has just been born. His mother dies shortly afterwards, leading Mr Dombey to employ a working-class "wet nurse" to breast feed him.  He also orders that she be supplied with "porter - quite unlimited."

I've heard the idea before that stout promotes the production of breast milk.  According to the beer writer Michael Jackson, in Malta Farsons Lacto Stout is prescribed by doctors to breastfeeding mothers. 

The question is whether it's actually true.  Is it an advertising ploy like Guiness is Good for You or is there scientific evidence to back the claim up?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Higgs boson and the triumph of science

I don't pretend to understand the physics behind the experiments carried out at the CERN nuclear research centre in Switzerland but I'm still excited by today's announcement that scientists there think they may have seen a Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that is thought to give other matter its mass (I think!).  What is just as interesting is that before the announcement the physicists at CERN said that if the Higgs boson could be shown not to exist they would have to rewrite the laws of particle physics from scratch.  This is still possible given the provisional nature of the results and mirrors the situation with the last publicly discussed results from CERN which seemingly showed particles travelling at more than the speed of light, contravening the theory of general relativity put forward by Einstein.

Science's willingness to treat evidence as provisional rather than immutable and completely rewrite its theories when new evidence becomes known is of course what makes it science - in contrast to the pseudoscience perpetrated by whacky Midwestern creationists - but those qualities should nevertheless still be celebrated by all rational people.



Monday, 12 December 2011

The Killing II

I've been watching the second series of the Danish crime drama The Killing as avidly as I watched the first.  With only a couple of episodes to go, I've still got no idea who the mysterious army officer Perk supposedly behind the murders is.

There are a lot of reasons that I like The Killing:

1. the acting obviously, especially that of Sofie Gråbøl as the main character Sarah Lund.

2. the combination of crime drama and political thriller.

3. the atmospheric dark shooting of it, reminiscent of my native North of England.

4. the Danish language which not only sounds a bit like German but Northern English as well.

The Killing might just still be pipped by Wallander as my favourite Scandinavian crime drama (the Krister Henriksson one obviously) for its team rather than lone wolf approach and humour but it's a close run thing. The last two episodes of the current series are next Saturday. If you haven't seen it, here's a clip.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Little Englanders and Europe

I've been in Germany most of this week which provided an interesting perspective on the anti-Europeanism  of the Tory party and the Little Englander tabloid press.  There may be such attitudes on the far right on the continent but not in the political mainstream or even the popular press. The exceptionalism of Little Englanderism can be explained by history and geography. 

Britain as an island is by definition cut off from the rest of Europe where people are used to moving across national borders without a passport.  There's also the fact that European wars and revolutions have seen areas occupied and borders change dozens of times over the last couple of hundred years.  The Rhineland where I was for example has in that time been controlled by Napoleonic France, Prussia, France again, Weimar and Nazi Germany and since World War II has had thousands of British troops stationed there.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Auf Wiedersehen

I'm off to the Rhineland tomorrow for a few days.  I'll be visiting Düsseldorf, Cologne and Bonn, going to a few Christmas markets and looking round Cologne Cathedral.  I may also find time to pop in a pub or two.


Bis dann!

Friday, 2 December 2011

Bigmouth Strikes Again

I don't know or care whether Jeremy Clarkson was being serious when he called for striking public sector workers to be executed on TV the other night.  He obviously said it to be controversial and provoke a reaction which is just what he got as Twitter and Facebook went into meltdown.  Given he was on the show to promote a book, him and his publicist must be laughing at all the publicity his remarks have attracted.  Rather than phoning the police or complaining to the BBC, a much better response would have been to yawn and turn over.  It's like a child throwing a tantrum: make a fuss and they just carry on; ignore them and they give up.

Clarkson's pal David Cameron has unsurprisingly tried to downplay the remarks.  Cameron and Clarkson have a lot in common: educated at public school, part of the Chipping Norton set in Oxfordshire, and ironically, unlike the strikers they condemn, in receipt of very generous wages and pensions paid for by the taxpayer.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Toffs and tax

Having been on the public sector workers' pensions demo in Manchester yesterday, I watched the BBC2 programme Your Money and How They Spend It more out of interest than any expectation of it being very incisive.

My low expectations of the programme were borne out as the presenter, ex-national chairman of the Young Conservatives Nick Robinson, interviewed former Labour and Conservative Chancellors of the Excheque who all basically said: "People want decent public services but won't vote for higher taxes".  Needless to say, the obvious point that rich people and big companies could pay more, or in many cases even start paying tax, was not put to them.

The most interesting part was where Robinson walked round a racecourse asking people who they thought "the rich" were, how much "rich people" earned and how many of them there were.  Unsurprisingly, the richer people are, the higher their bar for what counts as rich.  No one admitted to being rich themselves even when they clearly were and estimates of how many people earned the same as them were also way off with people guessing that 25% of the population earn over £120,000 rather than the actual figure of 1%.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

RIP Ken

From watching interviews with him and reading his obituaries, the film director Ken Russell who died yesterday aged 84 appeared to be someone who combined a passion for film making with good humour and a lack of pretension.

I must confess that I've never seen any of his films, save for a few clips which were shown again yesterday.  This is partly because as far as I know most of them haven't been shown on TV for years, if at all, either because of their content or the critical panning they received. 

Hopefully following his death TV channels will show them so that we can see his artistry in full.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Düsseldorf versus Cologne

I'll be in the Rhineland next week visiting Düsseldorf and Cologne.

The two cities are about thirty miles apart and have a sharp rivalry going back hundreds of years. Coming from Manchester, I know about rivalries with cities thirty miles downstream but whereas the competition between Manchester and Liverpool centres on football and music, the Rheinland one is expressed most clearly over beer: Alt in Düsseldorf and Kölsch in Cologne. 


Maybe this is because Fortuna Düsseldorf are a bit like Manchester City, bouncing up and down the divisions not winning anything, and neither city as far as I know has been the centre of a music scene like Merseybeat or Madchester, but I still can't think of any other two cities so close together which denigrate the beer produced in the other.  I've not been to the Czech Republic but I don't think the competition between Pilsen and Prague beer extends to calling the other one undrinkable.

For the record, I like them both (heretical in the Rhineland),  but if I had to pick one it would be Alt.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

From the North (part two)

I don't think I'll be watching this later.  It appears to be just a collection of clips cobbled together to make a promo film for the BBC's move to Salford.

The BBC's invitation to join "a host of stars as they recall their favourite TV moments and celebrate the distinctly northern flavour" falls as flat as a Southern pint when you realise that they're talking about Dragon's Den, A Question of Sport, It's A Knockout, Mastermind and Songs Of Praise. They may have been filmed here but what they mean by their "distinctly northern flavour" is beyond me.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Beer and the tie

The FT takes a gloomy view of the Government announcement yesterday that it doesn't intend to change the tie, the arrangement by which pub tenants are restricted to buying beer from the owners of the freehold. CAMRA is also against the tie.

There are two issues here, pub companies that own freeholds but don't brew beer and breweries that have an estate of tied estates.  It is the former that cause problems for tenants by hiking beer prices and rent but the latter who would suffer most from the abolition of the tie.

CAMRA should be careful what they wish for: the existence of pub companies is largely the result of the Beer Orders of twenty years ago that forced breweries to offload large parts of their tied estates.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Bankers doing God’s work?

I just watched the programme When Bankers Were Good, presented by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop.

Hislop's argument is that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bankers were sober Quaker types like the Barclays who only loaned to respectable businesses and were generous philanthropists who made charitable donations to feed and house the poor, in contrast to the bankers who work in the deregulated, risk-tasking City of today.  It's a similar argument to Ed Miliband's about "predatory" and "productive" capitalism.

The problem with all this is that as a result of all kinds of complicated financial devices like credit default swaps and bundles of sub-prime mortgages, "predatory" and "productive" capitalism has become inextricably intertwined to the extent that even the banks themselves are unaware of their liabilities to each other.

Just as banks and joint-stock companies characterised the early development of capitalism, so the international finance system that has grown up since World War II characterises its current stage.  Attempts to turn the clock back and retreat behind national borders are neither possible nor desirable.  The answer is to bring international finance under democratic control.

Hislop also concedes at the end of the programme that the philanthropy of the Victorian bankers only had a marginal impact on poverty and that it was progressive taxation and the welfare state that began to narrow the gap between rich and poor in the twentieth century.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

An A-Z of Murdoch's crimes

Watching the Leveson Inquiry into press standards earlier, I started thinking about how most murky or destructive things can be linked to or traced back to Rupert Murdoch. 

The list of crimes he is directly or indirectly responsible for and their victims is a long one and in many cases the name alone is enough: the anti-union laws (which he exploited to bring out his scab titles at Wapping in 1986 before getting Blair to  promise he would keep at the News International conference on Hayman Island, Queensland in 1995 in return for the support of his British newspapers in the 1997 election),  the Dowlers (whose murdered daughter's voicemails a News of the World employee deleted, leading them to think she was still alive), families of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan and people killed in the London tube bombings (phones hacked by News International employees), Fox TV, Hillsborough, journalists (whose union the NUJ he derecognised after the Wapping dispute, meaning that News International reporters are no longer covered by its Code of Conduct),  the McCann's (News International bought a copy of the diary Kate McCann kept following the abduction of her daughter Madeleine in 2007 from the Portuguese police and published it in the News of the World), the NUM in the 1984-85 strike, printers (sacked en masse with other newspaper workers in the 1986 Wapping dispute), Sky Sports (which charges cricket, football and rugby league fans to watch matches previously shown live on free-to-air TV and dictates changes to kick-off times which mean they have to take time off work or travel at ridiculously early or late times),  The Sun, the Tea Party (promoted by Fox TV), Margaret Thatcher.

I'm sure I've missed lots of his other crimes and victims but the charge sheet above is enough to convict him I think.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

From the North

Like many people born in Manchester in the 1970's, I first heard of Shelagh Delaney as a teenager when The Smiths put her on one of their single covers (left) and lead singer Morrissey championed her work in interviews.

Delaney, who has died aged 71, is best known for her play A Taste of Honey, later made into a film by Tony Richardson. Apparently she wrote it while on two weeks holiday from Metro Vicks, the massive engineering factory in Trafford Park where most of my family also worked in the 1950's and 1960's.

Delaney was part of the British New Wave realist film movement in the early 60's, many of whose leading lights were like her Northern and working-class: fellow Salfordian Albert Finney and Bolton's Shirley Ann Field (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), Hull's Tom Courtenay (Billy Liar, written by Keith Waterhouse from Leeds) and writers Stan Barstow (A Kind of Loving) and David Storey (This Sporting Life), both from Wakefield and respectively a miner's son and ex-rugby league player. It also coincided with the start of Coronation Street on TV.

Here's a homage to Delaney by another member of Manchester and Salford's Irish diaspora:


Monday, 21 November 2011

The talented civil servant

I've just received the magazine of my trade union, PCS.  Along with other public sector unions, PCS will be striking at the end of the month over Government plans to attack our pensions and most of the issue is understandably given over to that issue.

There's a bit at the back though about Sarah Millican, one of my favourite comedians, who it turns out is also a former civil servant. 

It got me thinking about other famous former civil servants.  As well as Millican, there are comedians Phil Jupitus and Paul Merton and Mancunian musicians Morrissey and Ian Curtis.  I'm sure there are lots of others I can't think of just now.

So what is it about former civil servants? Are we overrepresented in entertainment and if so why? Does the civil service attract talented people or is it the experience of working in the civil service that provides comedic and artistic material? 

I know when I worked in the civil service we used to laugh at the lyrics of this song knowing that Morrissey had been a civil servant himself.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Police and thieves

I listened to this programme on Radio 4 before about the police strikes of 1918 and 1919 in Liverpool and London, presented somewhat imcongruously by the Tory ex-Cabinet minister Michael Portillo.

One thing it blew out of the water was the idea that in the past everyone respected the police and private property. In Liverpool, there was mass looting of shops when the police struck for higher pay and recognition of their trade union.  The strikers also found that the support they expected to get from trade unionists wasn't forthcoming as dockers, railway workers and seamen remembered the beatings they'd had at police hands in the 1911 transport strike.

Although large numbers of strikers were sacked after the walkout (and then blacklisted by MI5), the police did get higher pay as a result, albeit not trade union recognition - the Government instead set up the Police Federation and expressly forbad it from striking.  As Portillo noted, the reliablity of the police to the State came in handy when the Tories were beating down the miners and printers in the 1980's.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

GPs and sicknotes

The government has a plan to cut the amount of time people take off work sick.  They want to stop GP's writing sicknotes and hand the job over to an "independent assessment service", presumably a private company who get paid for the number of people they refuse a sicknote to. 

The plan is based on two ideas, neither of which is true: that lots of people go off sick from work long-term (as opposed to a "sickie") when there's nothing wrong with them and that GP's give sicknotes to people who they know are not sick.

I've got a couple of ideas to reduce the amount of time people take off work sick: make workplaces healthier and cut NHS waiting times. 

Five years ago, I was off work for over a year as a result of an industrial injury to my knee.  After seeing my GP, it took six months to go for a scan and another six months for an operation.  At the end of two months physio I returned to work. As a doctor said to me, if I'd been Wayne Rooney I would have had the scan and op on day one and after physio been back at work after a couple of months.

Of course, the government won't do either of the things that would reduce work-related sickness as the first would require strong trade unions in every workplace and the second taxing the wealthy to pay for decent public services.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Guardian of human rights?

The Guardian, which prides itself on being a liberal newspaper, defending democracy, tolerance and human rights, carried an advert yesterday for holidays in Uzbekistan, the "heart of Central Asia".

Those lefties at the US State Department describe Uzbekistan as "an authoritarian state with limited civil rights". Not that you'd know it from the advert of course which extols "the towering fortresses of Khiva and Bukhara and the glorious Islamic architecture of Samarkand".

The Guardian's spinelessness clearly extends to keeping the customer satisfied.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Time to split from Sepp

The comments by FIFA President Sepp Blatter that footballers who are racially abused by opponents in "the heat of the game" should accept a handshake from them at the final whistle and forget about it were totally predictable given his track record on such questions.

English football has thankfully largely moved away from such attitudes as a result of campaigns against racism by players and fans and a decline in racism in wider society since the 1970's.  The same cannot be said of Italy, Spain and Russia where racist abuse is routinely directed at black players, something which FIFA unsurprisingly turns a blind eye to.

Rio Ferdinand in lambasting Blatter on Twitter made a good point: if it's acceptable for players to racially abuse opponents "in the heat of the game", why isn't it OK for fans to do so as well?

Given the massive corruption that runs through the internal politics of FIFA, an attempt to reform it from within seems doomed.  The best thing would be for England and other countries to withdraw from FIFA and set up a new international football federation with its own World Cup.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Keeping it simple in the Rhineland

In three weeks time I'll be in the Rhineland visitng Düsseldorf and Cologne.

One of the things the brewpubs in the Altstadt of both cities get right is the simple service system.  You sit down - or if you're in a hurry lean against a standing table outside - and then wait for one of the blue-aproned waiters (Köbes) to pass with a tray of small glasses of Alt or Kölsch.  A glass is put in front of you, a pencil mark made on your beermat and when you've finished you pay the waiter.  No queuing at the bar, no ordering and no need to decide what to drink given there's just one beer, served by gravity from a seemingly endless supply of wooden barrels.  And some pretty tasty meat-based snacks to go with it.

It makes me wonder whether it would work here.  On the face of it, there seems to be no reason why not but somehow I don't think it would.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

No, no, no

I won't be going to see the new film about Margaret Thatcher when it's released in the New Year.  You need a pretty strong stomach just to watch the trailer.

The plot seems to have been pulled straight off the Hollywood shelf: grocer's daughter from small town braves male chauvinism to reach the top.  The producers claim that the film is a "compelling story of ..a woman who smashed through the barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male-dominated world." No mention obviously of the millions of lives smashed apart as a result, from the miners, printers, steelworkers and dockers thrown out of work to the hundreds of thousands of young people with no hope of ever finding a job. 

As we return to recession and mass unemployment under the Tories, young people who see the film might at least learn who was responsible for creating the dog-eat-dog society they now have to live in, hopefully just in time to celebrate Thatcher's death with the rest of us. I've had a bottle of champagne on standby for months now...

Monday, 14 November 2011

Goodbye Dr No

The news that the Rev Dr Ian Paisley is to stand down as a preacher in the Free Presbyterian Church he set up in 1951 is hardly surprising given that he's 85.  He has already stepped down as moderator of the church, a MP, Northern Ireland First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in the last couple of years. It's certainly less surprising than him becoming First Minister in the first place, let alone one seemingly on friendly terms with his deputy, former Provisional IRA Chief of Staff Martin McGuinness.

Paisley always reminds me of what a Catholic priest I know used to joke: "In the beginning was the word, and the word was No."  Those who see his career as a question of showmanship are only partly right.  Beyond the political stunts - like heckling the Pope in the European Parliament in 1988 - and the Bible thumping preaching was a conviction politician who actually believed what he said he did.  In many ways, his unbending Ulster Protestantism was more suited to the seventeenth than the twentieth or twenty-first centuries.

This song by The Dubliners allegedly about Paisley sums him up.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Never on Sunday

This time in a fortnight, Manchester City will be playing Liverpool at Anfield in the Premier League. Forty-eight hours later, both teams will be in London to play Arsenal and Chelsea respectively in the quarter-finals of the League Cup. The reason for this quick succession of matches? Sky Sports wants to show the Liverpool v Manchester City match originally scheduled for three o'clock on the Saturday afternoon at four o'clock on Sunday.

Politicians have finally broken free from the grip of the Murdoch empire; it's about time football did.  The clubs could play on the Saturday as planned and let the Premier League do what they want.  The League itself could have refused to move the game, offering Sky another one or just saying "sue us".  Fans could refuse to buy tickets (Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish has already told their fans he'll be putting out a second-string team at Stamford Bridge on the Tuesday night so they might want to reconsider travelling away), and also think about cancelling their Sky subscriptions which give Murdoch the cash to lord it over the Premier League in the first place. I've never subscribed to Sky, both on principle and for cost reasons. If  I want to watch a match, I go to the pub.

Friday, 11 November 2011

That joke isn't funny any more

The first episode of Ricky Gervais' latest comedy, Life's Too Short, had one funny scene I thought, the one where lead actor Warwick Davis went to see his accountant.  It seems he's on a downdward curve from the cringingly funny The Office through the sporadically amusing Extras.

I know it must be difficult to repeat a hit or sustain success.  Another of my favourite comedies, Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, also seems to have fallen a bit flat in the middle of the current series, when the characters relocated from LA to New York.

David started out as a writer for Woody Allen who has also slipped from his stellar seventies films Annie Hall and Manhattan and the bittersweet Hannah and Her Sisters to OK ones like New York Stories and now stuff that doesn't even seem to be written as comedy. 

As someone once said of Allen, real art consists of being able to mine the same seam without it ever becoming repetitive.  The other side of that coin is that if you're in a hole, stop digging.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

What's in a name?

I shouldn't really be surprised that the name of Newcastle United's ground has been changed from St James' Park to the Sports Direct Arena, after owner Mike Ashley's sporting goods company.

Newcastle plan to sell the naming rights to their ground and decided that the name St James' Park is "commercially unattractive". 

Newcastle have played at St James' Park since 1892.  The millions of fans who have passed through its turnstiles since then would laugh at, refuse to believe or vocally protest at the way Ashley has so deliberately spat on that history.  And I can't see the current fans calling the ground anything other than St James' Park, whatever its official name now or in the future.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

No borders

Home Secretary Theresa May continues to flounder over allegations that she ordered immigration officers to relax passport controls for both EU and non-EU nationals.  Labour has predictably jumped on the issue to claim that "Britain's borders aren't safe under the Tories".  What very few people question is the need for immigration and passport controls in the first place.

Immigration controls are usually presented as natural and having always existed.  Neither of these things is true  In Britain, immigration controls date from the Aliens Act 1905 which resulted from an anti-semitic campaign by the far-right British Brothers League to restrict Jewish immigration from the Russian Empire. 

It is true that if the entire population of the world decided to move to London tomorrow, it would cause problems in housing, transport etc.  But how likely is that if immigration controls were scrapped?  As it stands, the entire population of the rest of the European Union (somewhere between 400-500 million people) have the right to live in Britain, as did all Commonwealth citizens up to the 1962 Immigration Act and as have Irish people since Ireland gained its independence in 1922.  The actual numbers of immigrants has largely depended on the economic conditions in the countries they came from, the demand for labour in Britain and access to cheap long-distance transport.

The fact that the EU allows free movement of its (mainly white) citizens but restricts entry to Arab, African, Asian and Hispanic people outside it is clearly racist.  The fact that Britain is an island also probably has something to do with the obsession about controlling borders.  The Schengen Agreement means that citizens of France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and other EU countries can travel between them without a passport. 

And let's not forget that the immigration laws are routinely used to intimidate and victimise migrant workers, as in this case of a cleaner and RMT member currently facing deportation.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

What's a Greek earn?

To misquote another Mancunian, last night the only thing I saw on Channel 4 was a Dispatches programme about the economic crisis in Greece.

It was a lot like one of those tabloid stories that consists of a bold claim in the headline that soon unravels when you read the story. While there was some mention of tax evasion by the rich and the siphoning off of public money by corrupt officials, the main thrust was that it was Greek workers who were to blame for the crisis.

Outrageous examples of the feather bedding our Greek brothers and sisters enjoy highlighted by the programme included retiring on a decent pension at a young enough age to enjoy it, earlier retirement for those doing heavy or dangerous work and being paid for working overtime. With crazy practices like that, no wonder Greece is in a mess.

There was also a sleight of hand in proclaiming loudly at the top of the programme that as a Greek bus driver earns about twice the average wage, that's the equivalent of £40,000. Near the end, it was quickly mentioned that as average wages in Greece are lower the difference - if there even is one - is much smaller than first suggested.

There was a quick mention of the collapse of the international banking system having something to do with Greece's sovereign debt crisis as banks hiked the interest rates on bonds they had issued but it was clearly a side issue compared to Greek workers receiving a living wage, decent pensions and overtime pay.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Good riddance Lord Gould

It's a commonplace argument that you shouldn't say anything critical about someone when they die, however dishonest, unprincipled or objectionable they were in life.  It's a view that I completely reject, as I shall now demonstrate.

Lord Gould, the advertising man the Labour Party hired in the mid-80's as a pollster and strategist, has died aged sixty-one after a long illness.  His track record has been predictably eulogised by other "architects of New Labour" including spin doctors Lord Mandelson and Alistair Campbell as well as Tony Blair.

Mandelson claimed that "Philip was as brave in his illness as he was in his politics, always doing things differently."  In fact, the opposite is true.  Gould pioneered the use of focus groups and policy making according to opinion polls rather than principle.  His so-called "bravery" in politics consisted of transferring the techniques of the advertising agency to it, adopting or dropping policies not according to what he thought right but the whims of media-influenced public opinion.  Given that  media was largely owned by Rupert Murdoch, another toxic influence on New Labour, Gould's role in the labour movement was akin to the cancer that killed him, spreading a life-threatening poison.  Rather than "doing things differently", he helped to ensure that the 1997 Labour government was a continuation of the Thatcher-Major governments that preceded it, maintaing the anti-union laws and bowing down to big business over the minimum wage.

Blair, Campbell and Mandelson are right that Gould's legacy will outlive him.  For those of us who have to live with that in terms of a hollowed out Labour Party, the only reason to join his funeral cortege would be to make sure the coffin lid is firmly nailed down.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

In Berlin steht ein Hofbräuhaus

The famous Hofbräuhaus beer hall in Munich has opened a franchise in Berlin for the first time. As well as the Bavarian original, there is also a Hofbräuhaus in a dozen or so other cities including Melbourne, Las Vegas and Seoul.

Like most people who've been to Munich, I've visited the Hofbräuhaus. Built in 1589 for the Duke of Bavaria, it's an impressive building both from the outside and walking around the massive rooms inside. I bought a pen from the gift shop but didn't stop for a beer, despite it being supposed to be good if a bit pricey.

The Hofbräuhaus pulls in tourists by the coachload who think they're experiencing authentic Bavarian entertainment. What they actually experience is large groups of American, Australian and Japanese students singing drunkenly along to the oompah band. I'll give that a miss thanks.

The upside of the Hofbräuhaus being such a tourist trap is that other more authentic beer halls and gardens like the Löwenbräukeller, or my favourite the Augustinerkeller, are relatively untouched by the snapping hordes and I can sit in the shade of the trees with a Maß of great beer inflicting my German on the waiter and locals without Hank from Pittsburgh and his twenty mates providing a chorus. We're all tourists of course but you don't have to behave like one or travel in large groups of your compatriots.

The other reason some people steer clear of the Hofbräuhaus is its Nazi connections. This I think is less fair on the place. OK, the Nazis did hold their first meeting there in 1920 but the year before it had also been the headquarters of the shortlived Bavarian Soviet Republic. The Nazis met in other pubs too, including the Löwenbräukeller and the Bürgerbräukeller where they staged the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923.

The main problem I have with the Berlin Hofbräuhaus is the falseness and soullessness of pub chains, whether they be German or the much more prevalent fake Irish pub. One of the saddest things I've ever seen is a group of tourists sitting in one such place in Düsseldorf's Altstadt, drinking Guinness amidst the usual plastic paddwhackery just yards from some of the best pubs and beer in Germany.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Ireland, changed utterly

I can't believe I'm going to write the next sentence.  Ireland has broken off diplomatic relations with the Vatican.  Just a couple of years ago, that would have seemed as inconceivable as Ian Paisley becoming a Catholic or Manchester City winning the European Cup.

The news isn't entirely unexpected.  Earlier this year, the Vatican recalled its ambassador after the Taoiseach Enda Kenny attacked the Church's role in covering up child abuse. 

The official reason for closing the Irish embassy at the Vatican is to save money.  But given that the amount involved is under a million pounds a year - less than Charlie Haughey, the spectacularly corrupt Taoiseach in the 1980's, spent on posh French shirts - it seems almost certain that it is a result of the Church covering up child abuse.

More evidence of the new mood in Ireland came in last week's presidential election when the openly gay senator David Norris beat the staunchly Catholic candidate Dana into sixth place by almost sixty thousand votes.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Beery German fun

Ahead of my trip to Germany next month, I've been looking at the websites of pubs and breweries in the cities I'll be visiting.

The thing that strikes me is not only how attractive and well-designed most of them are, like Pfaffen in Cologne, but also the wit a lot of them contain, like Füchschen in Düsseldorf, ironic given the standard English view of German humour.

The website I could watch all day though is the one for the famous Augustiner brewery in Munich.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Paying for our pensions

The announcement by the Government that it will not force public sector workers within ten years of retirement to work longer to get their pensions is clearly an attempt to divide both trade unions and their members ahead of the planned strike on the issue at the end of this month.

We have been here before: last time the Government attacked public sector pensions, in 2005, the unions accepted a deal whereby existing staff would still be able to retire on a full pension at 60 while new staff would have to work to 65.  The folly of allowing that two-tier workforce to be created is now becoming clear.

The Government's plan for public sector pensions is based on three lies:

1. everyone is living longer

Life expectancy overall may have increased but it still varies widely, both between men and women and more importantly by class: poorer people, including low-paid manual and admin workers in the public sector, die younger.

2.  public sector pensions are too high

As a member of the Civil Service Pension Scheme who worked in the admin grades for ten years, I can vouch for the fact that given it's based on your earnings, low pay means a low pension for most public sector workers.

3.  the money isn't there to pay for them

This is part of the broader argument that the Government has to slash public services, jobs and benefits and hold down wages and pensions in order to pay off the deficit.  That is a political decision rather than an unavoidable choice, as is the decision as to whether or not we tax the enormous wealth of the City and the super rich in order to pay for decent public services, wages, pensions and benefits.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Why Stan just doesn't get it

Stan Kroenke, Arsenal's American owner, has used his first interview with a British newspaper to outline why he thinks US owners have been good for English football, and specifically to defend the Glazers' ownership of Manchester United.

"We have a whole different philosophy in the States...in the States you would never get this dialogue. 'He took money out of the club.' So what? ...A lot of owners in the US do," he argues.

While US sports fans may be relaxed about owners using clubs as a personal piggy bank, or even relocating the "franchise" to another city to increase revenues, we are rightly not. 

Maths has never been my strongest subject but a quick look at the figures easily disposes of Kroenke's argument that the Glazers' owenership of Manchester United has been good for anyone apart from the Glazers.

The Glazers bought United in 2005 with loans of £660 million from Wall Street hedge funds secured against the club's assets.  Since then, the club has bought Dmitar Berbatov for £30 million and sold Cristiano Ronaldo for £80 million.  More recent signings like Javier Hernandez and Ashley Young were for undisclosed fees but are thought to be well within the surplus created when Ronaldo joined Real Madrid.  So contrary to what Kroenke seems to think, the only thing fans are paying for in the now eye-watering prices of season tickets and match tickets is the interest on the Glazers' loans.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Moneylenders throwing people out of the cathedral

It seems that the Church of England is joining the City bankers in their legal action to forcibly remove the Occupy London protestors camped outside St Paul's Cathedral.

Although a couple of radical clerics have resigned over the decision, let's not forget that the CofE is not only a large landowner - of shopping centres as well as cathedrals - but also has extensive interests in banking as well. It even charges people to visit cathedrals (people who pitch up at St Paul's claiming to be there for religious rather than touristy reasons are apparently diverted into a small side chapel to pray).

The Church of England isn't exactly awash with young people, especially those with a belief in social justice that is (as yet) as vague and unfocussed as its own.  You'd think the bishops would be throwing open the doors of the cathedral and welcoming the protestors with open arms.

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

Matthew ch 19, v 24

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Who benefits?

As part of its response to this summer's riots, the government has announced that it intends to give the courts powers to cut up to £25 from the benefits of those convicted of and fined for a criminal offence.

Recently published research has shown - not very surprisingly - that most people convicted of looting in the riots are from the poorest communities across Britain, about a third of whom receive social security benefits.  Who actually believes that making poor people poorer is the way to cut crime?  David Cameron for one does.  "The system as it stands at the moment is far too soft," he claims.  

Social security benefits are set at a level the laws says people need to live on.  If nearly half is deducted by judges as fines, what does the government think people will do to survive?  But then Cameron, Clegg and Osborne don't think like us.  To them £60 is what they pay for a cheap bottle of wine, not what has to last them all week.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Brother Tevez

Manchester City have reacted with anger to the decison by the Professional Footballers' Association to block them doubling the fine handed down to Carlos Tevez after he allegedy refused to play for the team in a Champions League match in Munich.

City claim the PFA has a conflict of interest because it represented Tevez at the disciplinary hearing and also negotiated the agreement with the FA and Premier League that limits clubs from fining players more than two weeks' wages.

Guess what guys, the PFA is a trade union. I know you don't have them in Abu Dhabi so here's a pointer: its job is to protect its members, whether by representing them in disciplinary hearings or negotiating agreements on how much their employers can fine them.

The PFA is an unusual trade union.  It has a flat rate annnual membership fee of £80 whether you play for Mansfield Town or Manchester United and most of its income comes from FA grants which it spends on educating current players and supporting retired ones (given they've just saved Tevez half a million quid, maybe he'd like to make a donation to that work).

It is also highly unusual in that its leader is not only easily the highest paid union official but also the only one whose wages bear any resemblance to those of his members.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Every sentence a lie



I was tempted not to read the article in today's Guardian about Libya by their Stalinist columnist Seumas Milne.  I knew a) exactly what it would say and b) it would be awful even by his low standards.

Reading it, I kept in mind Trotsky's remark that every sentence Stalin wrote contained a lie, and some of them two.  It works with this article too, try it for yourself.

The real puzzle is why the supposedly liberal, human rights promoting Guardian allows its coverage of international politics to be written by an unrepentant Stalinist.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A pub with no beer

On Sunday afternoon, I walked to a nearby pub to watch the Manchester derby. 

The visit started badly (it would get a lot worse over the course of the next couple of hours) when the barman informed me that there was no cask beer as "the new barrel hasn't settled yet".  He offered me a pint of smoothflow bitter; I politely declined.

I then had the old conumdrum of what to drink in a keg-only pub, in this case one owned by a large cask brewery (who I won't name expect to say it's in Manchester, begins with H and isn't Holt's). The choices were the already declined Smooth, Guinness Extra Cold or Becks Vier.

In the end, I watched the nightmare unfold on the pitch with nothing to take the edge off the pain except a large glass of lemonade.