Friday, 21 December 2012

The blues at Christmas

I'm taking a break from blogging for a couple of weeks. I hope you all enjoy Christmas and New Year whatever you're doing. Here's blues pianist Charles Brown to get you in the festive mood.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland

This time last week, I was on my way back from Germany.

My flight from Düsseldorf to Manchester took off at half past three so as usual I arrived at the airport just after midday. Düsseldorf Airport is actually quite a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours buying presents and having one last beer (the bar has bottles of Frankenheim Alt and Radeberger Pils on draught: I chose the latter).

In the last three years, I've been to Germany quite a bit: Düsseldorf and Cologne, Munich and Bamberg. I've  been following in the footsteps of other beer enthusiasts who showed me the way to some wonderful drinking expereiences, notably Michael Jackson and his World Guide to Beer and Ron Pattinson with his invaluable pub guides. I've now got the unexplored beer lands of Belgium and the Czech Republic in my sights. And I really must get to Salzburg one day.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Engels, industrialisation and the Schwebebahn

I'd hate to give the impression that my trip to the Rhineland last week was just an extended pub crawl. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, it was more of an educational and cultural tour with a few pubs thrown in. The highlight was visiting the house in Wuppertal that Friedrich Engels lived in as a child.

I didn't realise until recently that Barmen where Engels was born merged with Elberfeld in 1929 to become Wuppertal. As well as the house itself, you can also go in the wonderfully named Historisches Zentrum und Museum für Frühindustrialisierung next door where I not only had a chat to the guys running it about Engels, Manchester and the textile industry but also a go on a power-loom.

Wuppertal's other attraction is the Schwebebahn monorail that runs over the River Wupper. Opened in 1901, it's based on a industrial railway designed by English engineer Henry Robinson Palmer for a steel mill in Elberfeld.






 

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A stroll around Cologne

When I was in Cologne last week, I got to a couple of brewpubs that I hadn't been to before.

The first one was Brauerei Päffgen. It's a bit out of the way, about half a mile from the Altstadt pubs I've drunk in before, but well worth the short trip (although not that short in my case: I knew it was two stops to Friesenplatz from the Hauptbahnhof but by getting on the wrong train I ended up at Neumarkt instead. I approached a passing couple for directions and they seemed shocked that I intended to walk to it from there, claiming it would take me half an hour. They clearly underestimated my walking speed, especially when there's a pub at the other end, as ten minutes later I was in Päffgen with a glass of Kölsch in front of me. Coming out of the pub, I noticed that the spires of Cologne Cathedral next to the Hauptbahnhof didn't seem that far away and it was in fact only another ten minute walk back).

I sat in the drinking corridor at Brauerei Päffgen, partly to watch the trays of small Kölsch glasses being filled with beer from the barrel and partly to enjoy the banter between the waiters (at one point, some schoolchildren came in with a questionnaire and were laughingly passed on to each other by the staff). I've drunk Päffgen Kölsch before, in the Bierhaus en d'r Salzgass in the Altstadt, and the beer was as good as ever: uncompromisingly bitter as the Good Beer Guide used to say about Holt's.

Next up was Brauerei Malzmühle. Unlike Päffgen, Malzmühle is in the Altstadt but cut off from the standard crawl around the Heumarkt by a main road and tram line. It has a very traditional feel although looking at the photos on display it seems the present three-storey building only dates from the early 60's. Mühlen Kölsch is at the other end of the spectrum to Päffgen, being very soft and malty, a bit like Pfaffen in fact (given that Pfaffen is brewed by Max Päffgen, it makes me wonder whether he deliberately produces a beer opposite in flavour to that made by the relatives he's fallen out with).

For the third time in a row, I mistimed my trip to Cologne so that Sünner Im Walfisch was closed yet again. I would have hung around the Alstadt for a couple of hours until it was open but the Arctic temperature meant I was losing the feeling in my feet by this point.



Monday, 17 December 2012

Drinking in Düsseldorf

This time last week, I was about to fly to Düsseldorf ahead of a few days touring the Rhineland. Each time I've been, I've rated the Altbier produced by the brewpubs there differently.

My first stop this time was Schumacher. Between the train station and the Alstadt, it's the first brewpub you come to and is where I first drank Altbier. From the first glass, I immediately got what people meant about Altbier: the malt and hops that remind you of an English bitter combined with the crispness added by lagering. My favourite Altbier from that trip though was the hoppiest of all the ones produced by the brewpubs, Füchschen. Uerige came third behind Schumacher with Schlüssel in fourth place (I'll still drink it but find it a bit underwhelming - it's got a nutty, slightly medicinal taste that reminds me of Hydes Bitter for some reason).

On my last couple of trips, the beer I enjoyed most was Uerige, transformed from what I regarded as an average beer my first time there to a clear winner. Uerige is also my favourite pub in Düsseldorf because of its setting by the Rhine and traditional atmosphere. This time, I found Uerige a bit darker and heavier (I suspected for a moment it was Sticke, the beer they produce around Christmas, but I don't think it was). The best beer this time was one that's always been in my top two, the wonderfully hoppy Füchschen.


Friday, 7 December 2012

Auf Wiedersehen again

I'm off to the Rhineland again next week. I'll be going to a couple of places I haven't been to before - Ratingen and Wuppertal - as well as Cologne and Düsseldorf.

I'll also be going to a couple of brewpubs in Cologne that I haven't been to before - Päffgen and Malzmühle - as well as Sünner Im Walfisch which although just down the street from one of my favourite Altstadt pubs, Bierhaus en d'r Salzgass, has always been shut on previous trips.

Bis später!


Thursday, 6 December 2012

RIP Dave Brubeck

Today would have been the ninety-second birthday of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck who died yesterday morning in Conneticut.

I know people who say they don't like jazz but who listen to Brubeck, mainly because of the ridiculously catchy Take Five, written by altoist Paul Desmond and featuring Joe Morello on drums, from Time Out, the 1959 release that became the first jazz album to sell a million copies.

Along with Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, Time Out is still the jazz album most likely to be in a non-jazz fan's CD collection, leading some jazz fans to see Brubeck's music as too commercial. I think that misses the point. I've gone in a circle with it myself: I listened to Time Out before I was into jazz and then having got into it returned to it with an extra appreciation.

Brubeck's record of standing up to racism in the 1950's when many clubs refused to book an integrated band should also not be forgotten.


Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Franco-Belgian beer war

I've written before about the French's government tax hike on beer (although apparently duty on beer will still be lower than in the UK). The 160 per cent rise now seems to have sparked a diplomatic stand-off between France and Belgium.

According to today's Guardian, the Belgian prime minister was rebuffed when he raised the matter with the French president and Belgium is now planning to increase duty on French wine.

Michael Jackson in his 1977 World Guide to Beer talks about the line running through Europe between beer and wine countries. The Franco-Belgian border now seems to be the main confrontation point on that line.

Surely the main effect of tit-for-tat tax increases on Belgian beer and French wine will be consumers on either side of the border crossing it on shopping and drinking trips.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Only connect

Sometimes you can connect seemingly unconnected people through mutual acquaintances or events; at other times you stumble across such connections.

Ahead of my trip to the Rhineland next week, I've just found out that Nico, the singer, actress and Andy Warhol model, was born Christa Päffgen in Cologne and was a member of the city's famous brewing family of that name.

Apparently, before her untimely death in 1988, Nico also lived in North Manchester and Salford, something else I was unaware of.



Monday, 3 December 2012

The art of spin

I've just started reading a book someone bought me for my birthday the other week, Twirlymen by Amol Rajan about spin bowling in cricket.

Like Rajan, I think spin bowling is the most fascinating and impressive aspect of cricket. In the summer of 2007, I went to a county game between Lancashire and Hampshire at Old Trafford and sat at the top of the pavilion, watching a masterclass in the spinner's art with Muttiah Muralitharan bowling off-spin for the home team and Shane Warne leg-spin for the visitors.  The performances of left-arm spinner Monty Panesar and off-spinner Graeme Swann in England's last Test match against India in Mumbai, taking nineteen wickets between them, suggest that spin has a fabled future ahead of it.


Friday, 30 November 2012

Fighting Freddie

As Mancunian boxer Ricky Hatton finally hangs up his gloves, another local sporting legend, former Lancashire and England cricketer Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff, is preparing to step into the ring against American heavyweight Richard Dawson in Manchester tonight.

I'm no fan of the so-called fight game. Professional boxing - people beating each other up for money - is not my idea of sport but in most cases I can understand why they do it. For many boxers from the inner city estates of London, Manchester, New York or Chicago, the only alternative means to escape the poverty and deprivation of their surroundings is crime (Flintoff's opponent Dawson is apparently an ex-convict). But in Flintoff's case, I fail to see why a wealthy young man would risk serious injury or worse by taking up boxing.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Bronze Age brewing

Archaeologists from the University of Manchester say they have found a Bronze Age brewery in Cyprus.

The eight foot square structure is thought to have been built around three and a half thousand years ago to dry malt for brewing beer with. The research team have already brewed a test beer based on the grains found at the excavation site and are making the recipe available to others.

Who knows, maybe in another couple of thousand years archaeolgists will be digging up Boddies Brewery in Strangeways and declaring it a site of cultural significance.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Lighting up the Dark Ages

A new series about art in the so-called Dark Ages, the period of Late Antiquity following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, started on BBC4 last night.

Art crtic Waldemar Januszczak began by looking at Christian art in the early fourth century, when Christianity was still a persecuted sect whose adherents gathered secretly in catacombs (within a couple of decades, it would become the official State religion of the Roman Empire and begin its rise to power as the Catholic Church). 

Januszczak is a witty and engaging presenter. I enjoyed his explanation of the Latin Rotas square, a secret Christian code that I hadn't heard of before, unlike the  well-known Greek chi rho (XP) and Ichthys (fish) symbols which he also discusssed. His look around the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna with its stunning Byzantine mosaics was the highlight of the programme for me though.

The rest of the series will counter the myth that the peoples who migrated into the collapsing Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries were uncultured barbarians and that the Dark Ages represent a step backwards for European culture.


Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Wine after beer?

The Guardian last weekend had a review of a new book about wine by Eric Asimov.

The main target of the book seems to be wine critics and their blind tastings, scorecards and tasting notes. It reminded me of a recent BBC4 documentary about Australian wine in which snobby critics who laughed about Chateau Chunder from Down Under went on to rate it highly in blind tastings.

Asimov talks about his wine epiphanies, the moments he understood what all the fuss was about. I can relate to that in terms of beer: the first glass of Schumacher Alt in Düsseldorf, Päffgen Kölsch in Cologne, Augustiner Edelstoff in Munich and Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen in Bamberg.

Apart from the odd glass of champagne at weddings and christenings, I don't drink wine. It's like classical music - something lots of people seem to derive a great deal of pleasure from but whose appeal I find hard to understand.

Maybe the reason is that I've never drunk really good wine. There's a lot of talk about how wine's been demystified and democratised over the years but I'm not sure that's really true. Maybe cheap wine has but the really good stuff is still beyond the pockets of all but a few rich collectors. With beer it's the other way round: the best beers in the world tend to be cheaper than the mass-produced ones.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Football and fascism

For the second time in a week, Tottenham fans have been subjected to anti-Semitic abuse as a result of the club being perceived to have a large support in the Jewish communtiy of North London.

Last Thursday in Rome, Spurs fans were attacked in a bar by men shouting "Jews!" and then racially abused by Lazio supporters in the Olympic Stadium. Yesterday at White Hart Lane, West Ham fans  chanted about Hitler and hissed in imitation of the poison gas the Nazis used to kill Jews in the Holocaust.

At the height of football hooliganism in the 1970's and 80's, British clubs including Chelsea and Leeds had a sizeable far-right following. At others, notably Manchester City and Newcastle, the fascists were driven off by a combination of the left and the local black community.

The conflict between Republicans and Loyalists in Northern Ireland means that fascist hooliganism in Britain is also linked to religious identity with clubs having a large Catholic support seen as left-wing and anti-fascist and Protestant ones such as Rangers in Glasgow providing foot soldiers for the BNP and National Front. Unlike in Britain. where Catholics are overwhelmingly of working-class Irish descent, in Spain and Italy the Church, football and fascism have long been linked with clubs such as Real Madrid, Espanyol, Lazio and Inter supported by fascist politicians and organised neo-Nazi groups on the terraces.


Friday, 23 November 2012

Hey Jimi

A new album of unreleased material by Jimi Hendrix is coming out next year. According to the  Hendrix website, the tracks, recorded in 1968 and 1969, show "new, experimental directions" and "fresh diversions from his legendary guitar work".

Hendrix's music is clearly rooted in the blues. You could describe it as psychedelic blues, blues on a LSD trip to Mars and back.  Buddy Guy in his autobiography tells the story of Hendrix turning up at one of his gigs and asking if he could record it on his tape-to-tape machine. I've also seen an interview with Guy where he demonstrates how Hendrix's Voodoo Chile is based on a Muddy Waters lick.

Hendrix would have been the first to acknowledge his blues influences. According to people who knew him in New York in the mid-60's, he played Muddy Waters records pretty much continuously in his apartment. At the end of his life, he experimented with acoustic blues as well as playing with R&B musicians in the Band of Gypsys. I wonder where Jimi would be now musically if it hadn't died so prematurely in 1970.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Giving thanks with beer

Across their Atlantic, our American cousins are celebrating Thanksgiving.

There's lot of advice online about what beer to drink with your Thansksgiving dinner. Given it's basically a Christmas dinner with a few extra trimmings, I'd say any bitter/pale ale would do.

I'm not that into beer and food pairing. Apart from the classics - pork pie and a pint of bitter, lager with Chinese and Indian food - it strikes me as an attempt by the beer world to ape wine. Having said that, you occasionally stumble across a combination that really works, like the cheese and onion cob and pint of mild I had in the Beacon Hotel on my tour of the Black Country a few months back or Robinson's Old Tom with Christmas pudding.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Blues Run the Game

I listened to a radio programme yesterday about the American folk singer Jackson C. Frank.

I must admit I hadn't heard of Frank before, although I had heard the cover of his song Blues Run the Game by Simon and Garfunkel. Along with other Americans in the 50's and 60's, many of them escaping the McCarthyite witch hunt or the draft, Frank headed to London and joined its burgeoning folk scene after being awarded compensation for injuries he received as a child in a fire at school.

His subsequent fate, homeless and beset by mental illness, has echoes of that of the blues guitarist Peter Green, except that it took Frank's untimely death to propel his work back into public consciousness.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Christmas brings good beer

The Christmas markets opened in Manchester last weekend. I won't be going to them for a few weeks yet as I'm a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist/old Scrooge who thinks Yuletide starts in mid-December rather than mid-November.

Beer wise, there always a pretty decent choice at the main market in Albert Square. Lees head the pack with a stand selling all their regular cask beers and the German hut has a stouty dark beer which I think is Köstritzer Schwarzbier. The only brewery who really let the side down is Hydes whose stand sells nitrokeg bitter and mild at heavily marked-up prices.

 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Tax and morals

Business Secretary Vince Cable yesterday rounded on the "appalling abuse" of the UK's tax system by multinationals operating here.

Last week, Margaret Hodge, chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, described Amazon, Google and Starbucks as "immoral" for chanelling their profits to low or no tax countries via spurious licensing fees, allowing them to claim that they make a loss here year in year out.

Cable and Hodge are and have been members of governments that have overlooked and even encouraged this activity, hailing chief executives as "wealth creators" while cutting the number of tax inspectors. They even subsidide these companies with public money by topping up their low-paid workers' wages with tax credits. Looked at from the perspective of the companies themselves, you've got to ask why they would voluntarily pay tax when politicians don't expect them to and the Revenue isn't chasing them for it, preferring to enter into agreements with them about how much they can fiddle. Morally, they are no different to the poacher told by the estate manager that he's laid off the gamekeeper and he can help himself to the grouse as long as he doesn't overdo it.

The idea that if these companies paid tax  the government wouldn't have to cut public services - and protests organised against them on that basis by UK Uncut - is also off-beam. That the government's drive to cut and privatise public services is an ideological one rather than forced on them by a lack of money is underlined by their intention to spend £20 billion replacing the Trident nuclear missile system over the next decade.


Friday, 16 November 2012

The Killing is back

Get your Faroese jumper out of the wardrobe and brush up on your conversational Danish, the third series of superior crime drama The Killing starts on BBC4 tomorrow night.

Apparently this will be the last outing for Sarah Lund and the Copenhagen cops, in a case linked to the financial crash of 2008. No news yet as to who her partner is but hopefully he won't be shot dead before the end of the series as both her former partners were.


Thursday, 15 November 2012

What's up Bud

This week saw the launch in St Louis of Bitter Brew, an account of the rise and fall of the Anheuser-Busch brewing dynasty in the city by William Knoedelseder (great name: "Knoedel" is German for "dumpling").

The takeover of Anheuser-Busch in 2008 by the Belgian brewer InBev, makers of Stella among other global brands, may have prompted jokes along the lines of "whatever they brew, it's got to be better than Budweiser" but in the US Midwest it led to 1,400 job losses and a blow to civic and national pride.

I've drunk Budweiser in the US when there was nothing else. It doesn't really taste of anything much, especially when chilled (it's also brewed with rice for a "lighter taste"). Since the takeover, Budweiser has started brewing an American Ale and a wheat beer, both of which I'd like to try. Blue Moon from fellow global brewers Molson Coors which I have drunk is a good stab at a Belgian wheat beer.

When I went on holiday to Chicago in 2004, I didn't realise that the Chicago River runs out of rather than into Lake Michigan (the flow was reversed in 1900 by a system of locks to stop industrial effluent polluting the shoreline). We went on an architectural boat trip along the river and the guide pointed this out, adding that "Now we send all our dirty water down the Mississippi to St Louis". She said that a few weeks back a guy from St Louis had shouted back "Yes, and we send it back to you as Budweiser!"




Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Franchise football

I suppose it had to happen. AFC Wimbledon will play MK Dons in the next round of the FA Cup.

AFC are the club set up by fans in 2002 when Wimbledon FC moved to Milton Keynes. The boycott of what was dubbed "Franchise FC" continued until 2007 when MK Dons gave up their claim to Wimbledon's historical record, including winning the FA Cup in 1988. AFC Wimbledon also helped Manchester United fans set up FC United, a similar community-run club, after the Glazer takeover at Old Trafford in 2005.

While clubs moving cities is almost unknown here, in North America lots of NFL and Major League Baseball "franchises" have relocated thousands of miles away, in some cases more than once. Like the people who run the Premier League, the owners of US sports teams are more interested in TV viewers than the fans who go to games. You might think this means that US sports teams are less rooted in their communities but that isn't always the case. When the owner of the Cleveland Browns NFL team relocated the "franchise" to Baltimore in 1995, fans succesfully fought for a new team in the city that retained the original team's colours and historical record. And I still remember on my first trip to New York in 2002 talking to baseball fans about the bitterness in the city after the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers left for the West Coast in the late 50's. Like MK Dons, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants should be seen as new clubs. The storied legacies of the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers - the team that broke baseball's colour bar by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947 - belong not to them but to the New York Mets, the team that replaced them in the National League in 1962 and deliberately combined their colours.


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Women, wine and beer

Guess what? Some women prefer beer to wine. And some men prefer wine to beer!

I've got the Daily Telegraph to thank for this revelation. Over at The Guardian, we learn - in a piece clearly written straight from the ad agency's press release - that "fruit-flavoured ciders" (surely all ciders are fruit-flavoured?) are the next big thing in the drinks market, mainly because they "have  what is known in the drinks business as a real 'shareability' factor – that is that they are as popular with men as they are with women."

It seems to me that whether drinks appeal to men and women has far less to do with differences in male and female tastebuds than with social attitudes about a pint pot being "manly" and smaller glasses more "ladylike".


Monday, 12 November 2012

RIP Jack

The actor Bill Tarmey who died last week aged 71 became synonymous in the public mind with Jack Duckworth, the character he played  on Coronation Street for over thirty years.

Like Jack, Bill was a wryly humourous working-class Mancunian, a construction worker who got into showbiz through singing in clubs. Jack himself was a man of simple tastes, never happier than when tending to the pigeons his long-suffering wife Vera detested, having a flutter on the horses or propping up the bar of the Rovers' Return with a pint of Newton and Ridley's best bitter and one of Betty's hotpots.

The character changed over the years from a womanising, petty thieving "lovable rogue" to a moral compass for the community, under the guidance of his unlikely godfather Ken Barlow.

Newton and Ridley, the brewery that owns the Rovers' Return, was apparently based on Groves and Whitnalls Brewery in Salford and the pub itself on one of the same name on Shudehill, Manchester.


Friday, 9 November 2012

More beer here

I went to a CAMRA meeting in Stockport last night.

I hadn't been in the pub where it was held since I worked just down the road for a couple of years in the late 90's and was pleasantly surprised at how a decent, run-of-the-mill Robinson's house has been turned into a potential Good Beer Guide entry. The owners of two new breweries in Stockport and South Manchester, Privateer in Ardwick and Ringway in Reddish, were also there to talk about their beers. I especially liked Ringway Session which combines a copper colour from the crystal malt with a citrusy flavour from the Cascade hops that you normally only get in paler bitters.

In the twenty-five years or so I've been drinking in Manchester, I've seen Boddingtons brewery at Strangeways pulled down and iconic beers from the former Chesters and Wilsons breweries disappear. Manchester is better off than than most British cities with the area still having four big breweries (Holt's, Hydes, Lees and Robinsons) and has avoided the fate of places like Birmingham, Liverpool and Nottingham which have seen all their traditional breweries close. The appearance of new breweries in the Manchester area not only offers more choice to drinkers but should also help to keep the bigger local brewers on their toes.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Biking Belgians

When it's not whipping up middle-class prejudices about immigration or benefits, the Daily Mail can sometimes be (unintentionally) funny.

The Mail reports in shocked tones that a few years back British cycling hero Bradley Wiggins started "collecting all 365 varieties of Belgian beer" and "regularly set off for Brussels and returned home with a van-load of local brews. He would sit at home, admiring his collection, and then start drinking it. Before long he would be standing outside the pub, waiting for the doors to open, and by the end of the day he would often have consumed a dozen pints."

I'm not sure why the Mail describes Wiggins' collection as a "unlikely obsession with Belgian beer" - beer, and cycling, are pretty much the only things Belgium is famous for. And I don't believe the claim about "365 varieties of Belgian beer". Not only does it sound on the low side, it's a bit too much of a coincidence that there's one for each day of the year.

1845 and all that

I picked up a slim book the other day that includes the original 1845 and 1871 rules of rugby.

A nineteenth century fan of rugby football would recognise most of the play in the modern games of rugby league and rugby union. As the introduction points out, rule 18 from 1871, "any player holding or running with the ball being tackled and the ball being fairly held he must at once cry down and there put it down" is very close to the play-the-ball rule in rugby league.

The football game played at Rugby School in the 1840's is the forerunner not just of rugby league and rugby union but American football too. A modern NFL fan would have no problem understanding rule 43: "A player who has made and claimed a fair catch shall thereupon either take a drop kick or a punt or place the ball for a place kick."


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Gunpowder, treason and plot

The sky was lit up by bonfires and fireworks last night as people celebrated the four hundred and seventh anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.

Alternate history being very popular (especially if it's to do with World World II), I was wondering if anyone's ever speculated in print about what would have happened if Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators had suceeded in blowing up the King and Parliament on the fifth of November 1605.

Two questions strike me. Firstly, would England have become and remained an absolute Catholic monarchy like Spain? And given that the Puritans in Parliament, the backbone of the English revolution, would also have been blown up, would Charles I still have lost his head in 1649 even if a Protestant monarchy had been restored after 1605?

A lot of this hinges on the role of individuals in history. As someone once said, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." Individuals are important - Cromwell in 1649, Robespierre in 1789, Lenin in 1917 - but so are the conditions in which they find themselves.

I doubt that England would have become and remained either an absolute or a Catholic monarchy if Guy Fawkes had suceeded in 1605. The rising class of merchants and bankers in London would have seen to that, just as they did in 1649 and again in 1688 when James II tried to impose one.


Monday, 5 November 2012

The land of the free market

As you'd expect, the media are giving a lot of coverage to US politics ahead of tomorrow's presidential election. The BBC alone had two programmes last night, one a look at Obama's presidency and the other a documentary about JFK's win in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary.

There's a tendency in Britain to think of the Democrats and Republicans as like Labour and the Tories, something that's way off the mark. As someone rightly said the other day, the Tories would never be accepted in the Republican party: nowhere near religious enough, far too liberal on abortion and gay rights and pro-gun control. The Tory, Lib Dem and Labour frontbenches could all easily fit into the Democratic party. The Republicans are the equivalent here of a right-wing fringe party like UKIP or the English Democrats. The "Obamacare" health care reforms that the Republicans have denounced as "socialist" give tax breaks to people who don't qualify for existing federally-funded insurance schemes that provide basic health care for the elderly (Medicare) and very poor (Medicaid) if they take out their own insurance. All the money, from the federally-funded schemes as well as personal insurance, goes to the private health care firms that run hospitals. Sounds like a Tory plan to me.


Friday, 2 November 2012

Going down?

The House of Commons yesterday debated a subject close to the hearts of MP's, and indeed mine: the price of beer.

The beer duty escalator introduced by the Chancellor Alistair Darling in 2008 means that the duty on beer increases every year by two per cent above the rate of inflation. Along with 104,000 others, I signed the CAMRA e-petition that triggered the backbench debate, introduced appropriately by the MP for the brewing town of Burton-on-Trent.

I'm not sure how many MP's normally turn up for these debates but there were quite a few there yesterday, all of them - Tory, Labour and Lib Dem - calling on the Government to scrap the escalator. It makes you wonder who voted for it in the first place.

I'm in favour of scrapping the escalator - and ultimately beer duty and other indirect taxes - but there seems to be an assumption that the beer escalator is the reason pubs are closing and scrapping it would cut the price of a pint.

There are lots of reasons pubs close and lots of factors pushing up the price of beer: VAT, rises in the cost of raw materials and transport and the rents pub companies charge their tenants. I'm not sure how scrapping the escalator would reduce the price of a pint, as opposed to giving brewers a bit of breathing space and possibly holding back further increases. given that most breweries would surely just pocket the money they saved in duty rather than pass on the benefit to their tenants and drinkers.


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Matchstalk Men

Today is the hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of the artist L.S. Lowry.

People sometimes think that because Lowry painted scenes of working-class and industrial Salford, he must have been left-wing. In fact, he was a lower middle-class Tory whose knowledge of the area was gained collecting rents there. As he said himself:

"At first I detested it, and then, after years I got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it...One day I missed a train from Pendlebury - a place I had ignored for seven years — and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill ... The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out... I watched this scene — which I'd looked at many times without seeing — with rapture..."

There's a bit of a disdainful attitude to Lowry in the art world - the critic Brian Sewell once did a snobby but quite funny deconstruction of his paintings on TV with the Salford artist Harold Riley defending his mentor.

I quite like Lowry's paintings myself. I first saw them at Salford Art Gallery and then at the Lowry Centre where the collection is now displayed.  They may not be up there with the Italian Renaissance but there's something about the angles and symmetry of the buildings and the famous matchstalk figures have a wistfulness about them. It also helps I suppose that I'm familiar with quite a few of the places Lowry painted in Manchester, Salford and Stockport and that I associate him with the 1978 number one song Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs by local duo Brian and Michael.


Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Sacre bleu!

French drinkers must be spluttering into their Kronenbourg this morning after the government there announced a 160 per cent tax hike on beer, increasing prices in bars and supermarkets by 15-20 per cent.

I suppose the French government thinks it can get away with dipping into drinkers' pockets as beer represents a much smaller proportion of the overall alcohol market than in Belgium, England, Germany or the Czech Republic. If they tried the same thing with wine, I suspect that growers and drinkers would unite and re-run 1789 in the streets of Paris, a bit like the Germans did in the Bavarian beer riots of 1844 that Friedrich Engels wrote about for the Chartist newspaper The Northern Star.


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Keeping score



I watched the final game of the World Series yesterday, the twelfth Fall Classic that I've seen. This year, I scored the World Series as well.

The first time I filled in a baseball scorecard was at a Phillies game in the now demolished Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in 2002. I think we got them going through the turnstile and I made an untutored stab at completing it.

There are two reasons to score a baseball game. The main one is to keep track of at-bats, what batters did in their previous trips to the plate, who's on-deck and the pitcher's record of walks, strikeouts etc. But it's also fun. As well as being creative, using your own symbols and adding a "!" for an outstanding play, I also find jotting down the K's, L5's and 6-4-3's adds to the rhythm of watching a ballgame with its three outs in the top and bottom half of each inning.


Monday, 29 October 2012

London calling?


The NFL arrived in London again at the weekend with the annual International Series game that’s been played at Wembley since 2007. I went to and the 2008 and 2009 games with a mate who lives in North West London and has been a fan of American football since the 1980’s and enjoyed them both.

The St Louis Rams-New England Patriots match-up was expected to be a one-sided contest and that’s how it turned out with the Massachusetts outfit running out 45-7 winners. But that doesn’t seem to have affected the NFL’s enthusiasm for expanding American football in the UK with the league announcing a second game will be played here from 2013. The owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft also said that the he sees a second game as a step towards having a NFL team based in London. I think that might have been a bit of hype to sell the game.

I know that from two games to the eight home games a London team would play isn’t a huge leap but there are other questions too.  Would the other teams be happy about crossing the Atlantic every season? Would the London team be a relocated existing team or part of an expansion of the league? It would be a bit odd to have a London team but not one in Los Angeles although a team that could match the 80,000 attendances of the International Series would be one of the best supported in the NFL.

If the NFL does go ahead with a London team, perhaps they could train in Iceland to cut down on travelling time.

To look for America


Last night on Channel 4, Matt Frei travelled across the American Midwest ahead of next week's presidential election.

Frei was born and grew up in Germany (he did a very good BBC series on Berlin a couple of years back), was educated in England when his father worked here as a journalist and is now a foreign correspondent in Washington. He seems to have picked up the American habit of referring to pretty much the whole population as "middle class", including anyone who's not a millionaire or homeless. In England, someone like the guy he met in Minneapolis who has two jobs, one in a warehouse and one at night in a off licence, would never be called middle-class. I'm not sure how this started, whether it's working-class people aspiring to be middle-class or politicians thinking it best not to talk about a working class excluded from the American Dream.

Frei's trip from Minnesota to Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky didn't reveal much new - guns, racism, poverty -  but the Republican pollster who told him that no president has been re-elected with unemployment over 7% makes me think Romney becoming president might not be as unlikely a prospect as it appeared a couple of months back.



Friday, 26 October 2012

Thinking about thinking

BBC's Horizon last night took a look back at its programmes about human intelligence.

The programme tried to draw an artificial line between human and animal intelligence, undermined by footage of chimpanzees co-operating, but did cover a lot of material, including the rather creepy Cyril Burt of the Eugenics Society attempting to link IQ to DNA, neolithic writing in a cave in South Africa and research into artificial intelligence.

Unusually for a science programme, it also had some laugh out loud moments, especially the wacky Robert Graham and his Nobel laureate sperm bank in California.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Fly me to the Moon

I'm quite excited at the news that the European Space Agency is hoping to land a robot-controlled probe on the Moon by 2018. The mission is seen as a first step towards humans landing on the Moon for the first time since 1972.

When people look back at the history of human exploration of our solar system, they'll surely wonder why we didn't visit our nearest neighbour for so long. Nixon's administration cut the budget for NASA's Moon missions in the early 70's - along with Lyndon Johnson's inner-city education programme - because of the spiralling cost of the war in Vietnam. Before that, most Americans watching men on the Moon expected to see a permanant base on the lunar surface within their lifetime.

The Moon landings are a bit like Concorde, an example of people co-operating to achieve something that is both technically complex and beautiful but which is then shelved because no-one wants to assume the cost of maintaining it on their own. If you were placing a bet, you'd have to say that the next person on the Moon will probably be Russian or Chinese.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Play ball!

The World Series between the two league champions of Major League Baseball, the Detroit Tigers of the American League and San Francisco Giants of the National League, starts later today.

This will be the twelfth World Series I’ve watched. I got into baseball through one of my mates who’s also a fan. In 2002, we travelled along the East Coast of America, watching games in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. We also spent a day at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York where I took my first and last swing in a batting cage.

I tend to support National League teams in the World Series but more importantly ones that are original members of their league and haven’t switched cities. The San Francisco Giants began as the New York Giants playing at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan before switching to the West Coast along with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957 so that rules them out. Detroit on the other hand have played in the American League since its inception in 1901. Go Tigers!


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Antarctic IPA

I was amused to read that a brewpub is sending beer to British scientists at the South Pole.

According to the Platform Tavern in Southampton, Pole-Axed IPA has been brewed strong to "survive the long and freezing journey to the Antarctic." It makes a change from the usual myth about India pale ale having to be strong to survive the sea journey through the tropics to the subcontinent where thirsty troops were waiting to gulp it down after it had been watered down by their officers.

If the scientists need to warm the bottles up, they could always try the trick used in the short story Ivy Day in the Committee Room by James Joyce and stick them in the fire.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Looking for a brighter day

Radio 1 Xtra had a programme last night about the musician, poet and activist Gil Scott-Heron who died last year at the age of sixty-two.

Scott-Heron's music spans blues, jazz, soul and funk. His spoken word poetry over a drum beat can also be seen as a precursor of hip-hop. He is probably best known for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

One of the most interesting bits in the programme was an interview where Scott-Heron talked about his childhood in Tennessee. He was brought up by his maternal grandmother, a religious woman who took him to church where he heard gospel music. He also listened to blues records by Robert Johnson, later describing himself as a "bluesologist" exploring the African roots of the music. I was struck by the similarities between his childhood influences and that of another African-American musician, Muddy Waters.

The programme was called Gone Too Soon but Gil hasn't gone: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was played in Tahrir Square by the revolutionaries who toppled the Mubarak regime in Egypt last year.


Friday, 19 October 2012

Over the heads of babes

A sixty-four year old man has been fined by magistrates in Nottingham after he poured beer over a crying baby in a Wetherspoons pub.

I'm not one of those grumpy old men who think children should be banned from pubs - quite the opposite in fact. But if this Wetherspoons is anything like some of the ones in Manchester - and by the sound of it, it is - why would you take a baby into what is, especially during the day, a retirement home for geriatric alcoholics?

Having said that, I doubt the baby's beer baptism will have done him much harm. Unlike the toddlers I once saw in a pub in Manchester whose mothers carefully arranged their pushchairs into a protective circle between them, well away from stumbling drinkers, before all proceeding to light up and envelop the sleeping infants in a fog of tobacco smoke.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Kick them out

If past experience is anything to go by, Serbia will get away with a small fine after England Under 21 players were racially abused and then attacked on the pitch.

Fine words about respect and tolerance will count for very little when it comes to taking action against serial offenders like Serbia. The money-driven and deeply corrupt international football authorities have demonstrated just how shallow their commitment to equality and tackling bigotry is by awarding this summer's European Championship to Poland and Ukraine, turning a blind eye to the massed ranks of sieg-heiling neo-Nazis on the terraces, and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar where it's illegal to be gay.

The answer is really very simple: to belong to FIFA, a country should be required to show that it allows everyone - men and women, black and white, gay and straight - to play and watch football without being discriminated against or intimidated. If they can't or won't, out they go. It would probably mean excluding large parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa but ultimately football either supports universal human rights and applies them consistently or it doesn't.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Vote early

I listened to a discussion on the radio yesterday about whether sixteen year olds should be allowed to vote, a debate sparked by the Scottish Government's decision to let them take part in the independence referendum in 2014.

Young people are often stereotyped as politically apathetic, more interested in the latest iPhone than who the Prime Minister is. What came out in the discussion though was that while 18-24 year olds are the least likely to vote, within that group 18 year olds are much more likely to vote than 24 year olds, suggesting that rather than being uninterested they actually start off idealistic before being disillusioned, like students swinging behind the Lib Dems in 2010 - the ones who'll vote for them again in 2015 could fit inside a phone box.

Sixteen year olds should be able to vote as a matter of general principle but it should also be integrated into their education, allowing students to hold hustings and cast their ballot at college.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Black Jacobins

I'm reading The Black Jacobins by CLR James at the moment, his account of the 1791 slave revolt in the French Caribbean colony of San Domingo that led to the independent republic of Haiti.

James began writing The Black Jacobins in 1932 when he was living in Nelson in Lancashire and working as a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. It was published in 1938, just before he went to the United States.

What stands out in The Black Jacobins is James' command of the contemporary sources. He spent six months in France delving into the archives, including the correspondence between the French revolutionary government and Toussaint L'Ouverture, the ex-slave who led the Africans on the plantations to freedom and became the first consul of these black Jacobins.

San Domingo in the 1790's was a fascinating society. James manages to integrate the interlinking three-sided struggles that shaped the Haitian Revolution: in San Domingo itself, between the whites, the mixed-race "free people of colour" and the black slaves and between the "big white" planters and merchants, the "small white" artisans and the aristocratic colonial bureaucracy that ruled over both; in France similarly, between the King and his ministers, the republican bourgeoisie and the revolutionary sans culottes and between the Left, Right and Centre in the Constituent Assembly; internationally between Britain, France and Spain who each sought control of the island and between the royalist aristocracy and republican bourgeoise in France and the San Domingo colonists who - like the American colonists of Britain - wanted independence from France to escape the exclusive trade imposed on them by the former and the debts they owed to the latter.

Toussaint L'Ouverture died in prison in France in 1803, having been captured by a Napoleonic army that tried and failed to re-establish slavery in San Domingo. William Wordsworth, an early sympathiser of the French Revolution, wrote these lines in his poem To Toussaint L'Ouverture:

"Toussaint, the most unhappy of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
 Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
 Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den; -
 O miserable Chieftain! where and when
 Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
 Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
 Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
 Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
 Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
 There's not a breathing of the common wind
 That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
 Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
 And love, and man's unconquerable mind."

Monday, 15 October 2012

BB on film

The Life of Riley, a film about the life of bluesman BB King, is being released today.

Born in 1925 in Indianola, Mississippi, King whose real name is Riley B. (BB comes from Blues Boy, his nickname as a young radio performer in Memphis in the late forties) is the last survivor of the generation of musicians including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who quit sharecropping in the Delta, moved to the big city and electrified the blues, ultimately revolutionising popular music in the process.

The reviews of the film, such as this one by Ed Vulliamy in last week's Observer, have all been pretty positive and I'm looking forward to seeing it. Hopefully it will be up there with No Direction Home, director Martin Scorsese's masterful overview of the life and career of Bob Dylan.