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  "Negro" today is at best outdated and at worst offensive and I would only use it in a historical context, for example when referring to the Negro Leagues that existed before major league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%.