Friday, 30 September 2011

Workers and the bomb

The current ITV series in which Billy Connolly travels by motorbike across America on Route 66 is pretty formulaic stuff but the ten minutes of last night's episode I saw contained an interesting bit.

He passed through Los Alamos, New Mexico, home during the Second World War to the Manhattan Project, the US government's programme to build an atomic bomb.  An elderly guy who'd worked there as a machinist after being transferred from the Ford Motor factory in Detroit told him how him and his workmates had climbed into the mountains and watched the weapon being tested.  After seeing the power of the explosion, they started a petition against it being unleashed against civilians which hundreds of workers signed.  It reached the US Defense Secretary who refused to pass it on to the President.

I think it's pretty hard to argue that wiping cities off the face of the earth and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people wasn't a war crime and that Harry Truman by rights shouldn't have been in the dock at Nuremberg. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was supported by the majority of the US population. A major factor in that was the way anti-Japanese racism had been whipped up during the war, describing the enemy in the Pacific as sub-human for example. I doubt there would have been the same feeling about the atomic bomb if it was German or Italian cities that had been targetted.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Adios Carlos?

The reaction of most Manchester City fans to the apparent refusal of Argentinean striker Carlos Tevez to come off the bench for the last half hour of their 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich the other night has been simple: "Sack him". The club's lawyers are also reportedly looking at whether City can dismiss him for gross misconduct, i.e. without notice, and thereby save themselves a couple of million or so.

On the face of it you would think a disciplinary charge of gross misconduct would be hard to prove given it's normally something so serious or criminal that it immediately voids the employment contract but we're in the parallel world of Premier League football here so who knows. 

City would of course prefer to cash in Tevez's transfer value so him sitting at home in Buenos Aires on a quarter of a million a week until they can sell him in January seems the more likely option.  That has happened in cases which are clearly gross misconduct like stubbing out a cigar in a youth player's eye at a Christmas party, being arrested for assaulting a team mate on the training pitch or being sent to prison for beating a teenager unconscious in the street (step forward Joey Barton for all three) so I will be amazed if the Gulf sheiks who own City sanction him being sent down the road without a penny.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The next tram to Chorlton

I went to a beer festival at South West Manchester Cricket Club last weekend.  It was the first time I'd travelled on the new South Manchester tram line, part of Manchester Metrolink's plan to expand to Ashton-under-Lyne, Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Manchester Airport by 2016.

As the tram headed down the spur just south of Trafford Bar and pulled into Chorlton-cum-Hardy, I thought about how the expansion is replacing stations and services cut in the infamous Beeching Axe of the 1960's.

Chorlton-cum-Hardy's new Metrolink station is on the site of the railway station that stood there from 1880 to 1967.  The comedy singers Flanders and Swann even bemoaned its closure in their song "Slow Train":

"No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat,
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street."

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Dad's Army

The television writer David Croft who has died aged 89 is best known for co-writing Dad's Army.  I had a distant family connection to Croft - my mum's uncle was his cousin - but never met him.

That a comedy about the antics of a Home Guard unit in World War II was nearly not commissioned because some at the BBC thought it disrespectful to those who had served in the war seems strange now that it is rightly regarded as as a TV classic.

Comedies about army life had of course been done before and not just in Britain - another of my favourite shows is Sergeant Bilko - but what sets Dad's Army apart is the way it pokes fun at British class structures. The Home Guard unit in the fictional small town in which it is set replicates these - the bank manager is the captain, the butcher the corporal and the bank clerk the sergeant. The sergeant however is from an upper-class background and a lot of the humour derives from his effortless superiority over the pompous Captain Mainwaring:

Monday, 26 September 2011

A river runs through them

The Guardian today ran a short piece about the move of BBC programmes to "Salford Quays in Manchester".  As you might guess from the name, Salford Quays is in Salford, not Manchester.

It's a common mistake. I've lost count of the number of times I've read "Salford, Manchester" and seen references to Coronation Street (based on a street in Salford) as a Manchester soap. I can sort of understand the mistake if people are not from the area.  But for a journalist on a national newspaper, the former Manchester Guardian no less, to make it is just sloppy.  It's as bad as saying the House of Commons is in the City of London.

Salford and Manchester have been separate cities since the 1200's.  Salford has its own university, cathedral and rugby league team.  And just to make the division clear, the two cities are separated by the River Irwell: like the other twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, you need to cross a bridge to get from one to the other.

Language is our nature

Stephen Fry's new series on language started on BBC2 last night.  Having studied language acquisition years ago when I was doing a part-time teaching course at Manchester College of Arts and Technology, I was familiar with those whose theories he outlined, Chomsky, Pinker (and Krashen who surprisingly wasn't mentioned by name) but there was also a lot of interesting stuff about DNA and language.

Fry's pretty watchable whatever he's talking about and if you missed it I recommend watching it here.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The satellite has landed

I don't understand the nervousness of some people about the satellite that landed in the early hours of this morning and whose whereabouts are currently unknown. The astronomer I saw on Channel 4 News last night was at pains to point out the improbability of it hitting land, let alone inhabited areas or people.

I'd be quite excited if a bit of it landed in the garden. And if you could keep it quiet from NASA, what a souvenir to have. Even if it clipped off a few roof tiles, it'd make for an interesting call to the insurance company (although they've probably got a space exemption clause).

Friday, 23 September 2011

Faster than light?

The news that scientists at the CERN research centre in Switzerland may have observed particles travelling at more than the speed of light raises some interesting possibilities.

While it's all very tentative and there may well be an explanation for why they appear to be doing something Einstein ruled impossible - such as taking a short cut through another dimension in space - it at least opens up the possibility of travelling backwards in time, and all the Star Trek-types dilemmas about the space-time continuum that would lead to.

It also reminds me of one of my favourite Muhammad Ali quotes about how he was so fast that when he turned the light off at night he was in bed before it was dark.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Fight night in Preston

Earlier this month, a Labour club in Preston, Lancashire held a "fight night" in which an eight year old and a nine year old boy battled each other in a ten minute bout.

I'm opposed to boxing but would not ban it. I would ban this.

For adults to be paid to beat each other up, for fans to pay for and enjoy the spectacle and for promoters to rake in the profits is both objectionable and depressing as a measure of the kind of society we live in.  Hopefully in the future when it has disappeared, along with the social conditions on which it thrives, people will look back on boxing as we do now at the Roman games. For parents to allow their children to fight in front of paying customers is far worse.  They should be prosecuted and the club shut down.

In interviews, the parents have defended their actions by saying that children have to work off energy and it is better than them joining gangs and getting involved in crime, as if there were no other, healthier ways to keep fit and fighting for money was the only alternative to joining a criminal gang.

The parents and the promoters share responsibilty for this event with those who attended it and - even more creepily - those who paid to watch it streamed live on the internet as their evening's entertainment.

The event was apparently licensed by the local council to ensure that doctors were present, the fight was stopped in the case of injury etc. but it seems to me it was only by them licensing it that the event was able to go ahead at all. In any other circumstances, the organisers would have been prosecuted.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Le binge drinking

According to today's news, France now has a problem with teenage drinking.

I'm not denying the social and health implications but at least British teenagers won't now be lectured  about how while they're sneaking into pubs for underage pints or necking cheap cider in the park their ever so sophisticated counterparts across the Channel are sipping a glass of watered wine over a sumptious meal en famille.

I never bought the line that heavy drinking was unknown among French youth and if it is less common they've been missing out on the essential teenage rite of getting half-cut with your mates.

Officer material?

I watched the first episode of the new BBC4 documentary series about the British Army's officer training college at Sandhurst last night. It confirms what you already knew: the officer cadets are almost all posh products of public schools and university. 

Yet the officers in charge of Sandhurst boast of their abilty to mould almost anyone into an officer capable of leading working-class privates into battle.  Those working-class privates as well as the equally proletarian sergeants who knock the Sandhurst cadets into shape are praised by their superiors for their loyalty, toughness, discipline etc. but are clearly not seen as people who could make the grade as an officer themselves.

It's interesting to think about what effect a wider recruitment policy for officers would have on the British Army. I would guess the most egalitarian armies are the Scandinavian and Israeli ones. Even the US Army doesn't seem to replicate class structures in the way the British one does almost exactly.

The Guardian review of the programme made me laugh:

"the moment mummy and daddy's Volvo disappears down the long drive, things change. You are stripped of your clothes, your dignity and your individuality...(you're stripped of your first name too)... 3,500 miles away, in Helmand province, men with beards are writing [your] names on IEDs. Surnames only, obviously."

Monday, 19 September 2011

Blues, jazz and soul

I've just received an email from Amazon alerting me to offers on "Blues CD's". What strikes me is how arbitrary that category can be. According to Amazon, it includes Dinah Washington and Etta James for example.

Clearly blues, jazz and soul all overlap with each other and are all rooted in black religious music. I think it's also probably true that many of the distinctions within African-American music have been made by white critics rather than the musicians themselves. Ray Charles for example is usually categorised as a soul singer but could just as easily be described as a blues, jazz, R&B or even country singer. 

I read an article in a blues magazine a few years back about the club scene and record buying trends in black areas of Chicago which pointed out that many of the people seen as blues artists within their own community are seen (and dismissed) by white blues critics and fans as soul acts. 

I know whose judgement I trust...

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Life and Fate

I've just ordered a copy of Vassily Grossman's novel Life and Fate from Amazon and am looking foward to reading it. It's set in part at Stalingrad, one of the decisive battles of World War II which Grossman witnessed as a journalist at the front.                   

At Stalingrad at the end of of 1942 around  three hundred thousand German troops were encircled by the Russian army. After a siege which saw massive bombardment of the city, starvation and brutal street to street fighting, about a hundred thousand German soldiers were taken prisoner by the Russians in February 1943 and transported to labour camps. Of these, just five thousand ever saw Germany again, only being released in 1955 after Stalin's death.

I was reminded of a trip I made to the small Bavarian town of Aying during a holiday to Munich last summer.  Aying is a small, pretty place just south of Munich which is known for its brewery. In the square is a war memorial, three sides of which are dedicated to those killed in World War I and II. The final side though contains the names of dozens of inhabitants of this small town who died "in other places than the field of battle" in the late 1940's and early 1950's in Stalin's labour camps.

It's no surprise that thousands of German soldiers fought on at Stalingrad after their officers had surrendered, knowing that they had a choice between a quick death in battle or a slow one in captivity.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Lancs champs

The news that Lancashire are cricket's county champions for the first time since 1934 set me thinking about my trips to their home gound Old Trafford over the years.

My first trip was my grandad who grew up in Old Trafford and went with his mates as an engineering apprentice at the nearby Metropolitan Vickers factory in the 1930's.  It was the last day of the Fifth Ashes Test against Australia in 1981 and the thing that sticks in my memory is fast bowler Bob Willis pounding in from the boundary on an incredibly long run-up with the noise from the stands building with every step.

I've been to county matches and Tests at Old Trafford since then, including being lucky enough to get into the ground when twenty thousand were locked outside for the thrilling last day of the Third Ashes Test in 2005, but that first trip still ranks as the best.

Magnet for beer drinkers

The Magnet in Stockport has been named as Greater Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Year.

I used to work opposite it when it was a pretty  unremarkable place about fifteen years ago. Since then it's been transformed and when I last called in a couple of months back had an impressive and well-kept range of cask beers as well as German wheat beers.

It also meets my personal standard for a perfect pub: it serves pork pies at the bar.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Why we need more MP's

A lot of the coverage of the plan to equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies has focused on the redrawing of boundaries producing bizarre results, the rebranding of parts of Salford as Manchester Central for example, but the more important point is the reduction in the number of MP's.

By reducing the number of MP's from 650 to 600, the government claims it is "making politics cheaper". That the redrawn boundaries will favour the Tories is clear and the Lib Dems must now be rueing their decision to support a plan that looks likely to see them mown down in even greater numbers than they would have been at the next election in return for a referendum on the voting system in which they were beaten into the ground by their coalition partners.

The principle of equal constituencies is of course obvious which is why the Chartists included it in their demands in 1838, along with full adult (albeit male) suffrage, secret ballots, payment of MP's and annual Parliaments (so that Cameron and Clegg would be facing the voters again this year).

If we want to make MP's more accountable, we should have more of them, introduce the right of constituents to replace them at any time by triggering a by-election and annual Parliaments and restrict their wages to that of an average worker.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Looking at a cover

As some of you may know, the title of this blog is a line from the song Friday Night, Saturday Morning by The Specials, although I prefer this cover version by the French group Nouvelle Vague.

I was thinking about what other covers I prefer to the originals. It's a pretty short list. With British blues, for example, I would always rather listen to the original by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf or whoever. As for Bob Dylan, The Byrds Mr Tambourine Man and Hendrix's All Along the Watchtower come close but the only one I actually prefer is this cover of It's All Over Now Baby Blue by Them, the band fronted by Van Morrison in the 60's.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The end of The Willows

I went to Salford yesterday for the last ever match at The Willows, Salford rugby league club's home since 1901. With no away fans admitted, just over ten thousand turned up, about twice the average gate.

On the pitch, it was definitely a game of two halves: a tight first half in which Salford's defence kept the score to 18-12 at half time and then a second half in which the Catalans ran in four more tries and the last ever points scored, after the hooter had sounded, were from the boot of the French stand-off Thomas Bosc.

Salford are due to move to the new City of Salford stadium in Barton-upon-Irwell in time for the start of next season. I've heard some fans complain before (and again yesterday in the queue for the turnstiles) about Barton being outside the historic boundaries of the City of Salford. I'm not really bothered about that but I've still got mixed feelings about the move.

I understand that the chances of Salford remaining in the Super League if they'd stayed at The Willows were slim and that a bigger, more modern stadium will generate the revenues they need to become a competitive force in it. But even with its standing sections, the new stadium is never going to have the atmosphere of The Willows with its low roofed terraces and high open corners hemmed in by the adjoining streets.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Travellers, TV and racism

I didn't really watch Celebrity Big Brother but I was pleased to hear that Paddy Doherty had won it.

Doherty is an Irish Traveller from Salford who in the post-series programme I did watch explained that his motivation in taking part was to dispel some of the stereotypes about Travellers (he also spoke interestingly about how this was the first time he had really spoken to non-Travellers,  what he called "country people").

The result of Celebrity Big Brother and the success of the Channel Four programme My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (in which Doherty also appeared) demonstrate curiosity about and respect for the Travellers' lifestyle combined with the ongoing discrimination and bigotry directed at them.

The statistics are pretty clear that Roma and Irish Travellers are among the poorest and most socially excluded groups in terms of education, health and life expectancy and are also most likely to face both official and day to day overt discrimination in much the same way as black and Asian people did up to at least the 1970's .

Two examples sum up for me this combination of a romantic view of the Traveller lifestyle and the crude prejudice that they are subjected to.

In the middle of Wilmslow, a posh Cheshire town where half the first teams of Manchester City and United live, is a caravan once owned by George Bramwell Evens, a Methodist minister of Roma descent who presented a BBC radio programme about the Traveller lifestyle. The local council have preserved it as a tourist attraction. If any Roma or Travellers parked their caravan in Wilmslow today, the council would go straight to court  to have them moved on.

A few years back I was in Ennis in the west of Ireland. Walking into the town centre just after I arrived, I passed a derelict building on the edge of an industrial estate with some caravans parked outside, a couple of dogs running round and kids playing football. I didn't think much of it until I got back to where I was staying and switched on the TV. The main item on the local evening news bulletin was about the Travellers who had taken over a disused school in Ennis and how the Gardai were preparing to throw them out. Travellers face as much if not more discrimination in Ireland, despite them being ethnically identical to the rest of the Irish people. One of the theories as to origin of the Irish Travellers' lifestyle is that their ancestors were driven off their land by Cromwell in the 1650's, an event still remembered in word if not deed in Republican towns like Ennis.

It would be good if just a small fraction of the people who watched My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding or voted for Paddy Doherty on Celebrity Big Brother went down to Dale Farm in Essex on 19th September to stop Tory-controlled Basildon Council evicting ninety Irish Traveller families from their homes on a disused scrapyard.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Golden or pale?

Every brewery now seems to have a golden ale, especially the new microbreweries which have expanded the market for cask beer.

As Martyn Cornell has shown in his book Amber, Gold and Black, golden coloured beers have been brewed in England since the late nineteenth century, Manchester's Boddingtons Bitter being a notable example. But the start of the trend towards golden ales is normally dated to the late 80's and Hop Back Summer Lightning, the success of which apparently prompted CAMRA to set up a new Golden Ale category, separate from that for copper coloured bitters.

The CAMRA claim that brewers started producing golden ales to appeal to lager drinkers seems a bit shaky to me. The pubs who first stocked it already sold cask beer so it is much more likely it started as a seasonal summer ale for cask beer drinkers. Talking to one of my mates who normally drinks lager, I asked him whether he had ever drunk golden ale. He hadn't heard of it, despite drinking in pubs where it's available. If he drinks cask beer, it's a standard bitter, what he thinks of as "real ale". He asked me what it was and I had to say rather confusingly "It looks and tastes a bit like lager but has the mouthfeel of bitter".

Which brings me to my main point. What really distinguishes golden ale and bitter? Some would argue that it is merely a type of bitter/pale ale. I suppose the real dividing line is between beers brewed with pale malt and English hops which taste like bitter (Boddingtons) and the new category brewed with pale malt and European and/or North American hops which give them a citrusy taste.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

How not to stop riots

According to the Guardian, the government is considering allowing magistrates to withdraw social security benefits as part of its response to last month’s riots.  An epetition on the Government’s website to cut benefits from those found guilty of riot-related offences has attracted nearly a quarter of a million signatures.

Is there anyone who thinks magistrates withdrawing benefits, or councils evicting the families of convicted rioters, will make it less rather than more likely that rioting and looting happens in the future? It can only increase poverty, homelessness and hopelessness in already impoverished working-class communities.

Understanding and doing something about the social conditions that lead to rioting is not the same as thinking that they were a good thing ("a popular uprising" as some have misguidedly called them) or denying the personal responsibility of those who destroyed homes and businesses in their own communities. It is the only way of stopping them happening again.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Islands in the pub

I've been thinking about island bars recently (the ones that you can walk all the way round). I can only think of one pub in Manchester that has one but why is that?

The island bar was apparently invented by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer of the Great Western Railway, at Swindon station where trains stopped for ten minutes. The bar wasn't big enough for everyone to be served before the train left again so he came up with the circular island design to increase the number of people who could be served at the same time.

I know lots of Victorian pubs got knocked about in the 1960's and 70's and many of their distinguishing features - snugs, etched glass - disappeared but the island bar is such a logical answer to serving lots of customers in a busy pub that its revival by brewery designers seems long overdue.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The first post

Welcome to my new blog.

I'll be writing about some of my favourite things, including beer and pubs, blues and jazz, football, literature, Manchester, rugby league and left-wing politics.