Thursday, 22 December 2016

Wandering in winter warmer land

I've just completed Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Winter Warmer Wander by visiting twelve pubs and drinking at least a half of cask-conditioned old ale/barley wine, porter or stout. I pretty much evenly split the pubs between Stockport and Manchester, although you could just about do it in one of them alone.

The event is sponsored by Old Tom, the 8.5% abv strong ale brewed by Robinsons in Stockport which I've drunk a few halves of this month. Robinsons also now brew another qualifying beer, Red and Black Porter, as well as the seasonal Dizzy's Christmas Kiss. The other family-owned regional breweries in the Manchester area don't really feature in the event. I'm pretty sure Hydes haven't brewed their XXXX winter ale since moving from Moss Side to Salford in 2012 and Holt's Sixex strong ale is a rare sight in draught rather than bottled form, although I did have a half of Lees Moonraker on their stand at Manchester Christmas market.

Except for Robinsons Old Tom and a half of Wadworth's Christmas ale, everything else I've drunk on the Winter Warmer Wander has been from the microbrewries Acorn, Blackjack, Brightside, High Peak, Howard Town, Long Man, Pictish and Weird Beard, the stouts from the first three being among my favourite beers of the trip around the twelve pubs.




















































Monday, 12 December 2016

Books of the year

With another spin round the sun almost complete, it's time to look back at the books I've read this year.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith

I'd not read anything by Ali Smith before a mate bought me this last Christmas. It's a tale of two halves split between a teenage girl in contemporary Cambridge and an artist in Renaissance Italy (apparently in the American edition, the two halves are switched round, which somehow I can't see working as well).

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

I'd read a couple of novels in the Barsetshire Chronicles series before I skipped ahead to this the last one which as you'd expect ties up a number of loose ends for the ecclesiastical and small squire characters in Trollope's fictional West of England county.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I read this massive page-turner after watching the BBC TV version, and before that listening to a radio adaptation of it.

A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

I'd seen the film Kes, and even been to a talk by the author many years ago at a Stockport library, but it was his untimely death in March which prompted me to read this, his best-known novel.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I bought the BBC edition of this after watching the TV series at Christmas. It's Christie's ultimate whodunnit in which the murderer joins the corpses piling up in a house on a remote island off the southwest coast of England.

The Fortune of the Rougons/Money/Pot-Luck/The Ladies' Paradise by Émile Zola

Having read about half a dozen novels in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series, listening to the BBC Radio 4 serialisation of these four led to me reading these four too.

The Green Man/The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

I've been on a bit of an Amis binge since watching this Bookmark documentary about him. These are both semi-comic pieces, the first a supernatural novel based in a English country pub, and the second about a boozy group of pensioners in South Wales.

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I somehow accidentally recorded the first half of the film based on this comic novel, starring Michael Douglas and Toby Maguire as a jaded English professor and his aspiring writer student at a Pittsburgh university, and am glad I did as both are equally entertaining, if slightly different in plot and characters.

The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor by Cameron McCabe 

This unorthodox detective novel ticked a number of boxes for me: set in 1930's London, in a film studio and the fog-bound docklands, and interwoven with lines from blues and jazz songs. The author's identity was as much a mystery as that of the murderer's in the decades after it was published in 1937, until in the 1970's it was revealed to be the work of the left-wing German-Jewish refugee and occasional jazz musician and critic Ernst Bornemann.

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

One of the few of Hardy's major novels I hadn't read, this cheery tale set in the semi-fictionalised county of Wessex features academic failure, doomed love, poverty, loveless marriages, teenage murder-suicide and inept pig slaughtering.










Monday, 28 November 2016

Black and white

Last night, as part of a season on Black British history, BBC2 had a programme about a 1979 testimonial match between black and white football teams at West Bromwich Albion's Hawthorns ground, presented by lifelong fan of the club Adrian Chiles.

Like most people I suspect, I hadn't heard of this match before. Although it seems inconceivable now, the players involved all saw it as either uncontroversial or even progressive. In a period when racist chanting and violence on the terraces stopped many black fans from entering football grounds, the presence of a significant number of people from the local Afro-Caribbean community among the 7,000 crowd, many of them no doubt attracted by the chance to see some of their young, Black British footballing heroes play in front of them, was seen as something of a step forward,

The general tone of the programme was "look how far we've come", and rightly so given the archive footage of National Front paper sellers outside turnstiles, Stanley knives wielded as weapons and bananas thrown onto the pitch, but former player and now QPR director of football Les Ferdinand did pop up at the end to give a necessary reminder of the racist abuse black footballers still face online and the problems they have moving into management and coaching at the end of their playing careers.


Friday, 25 November 2016

Fifty-first state?

My email inbox this morning was full of offers for Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving shopping holiday in the United States, the news for the last year or so has been dominated by the US Presidential election, and the chances of London gaining an NFL franchise in the next decade now seem pretty high. With Britain about to leave the European Union, and it looks increasingly likely the Single Market too, might it not be better for us to apply to join the USA?

I can see a number of advantages. We would become part of a federal republic in which policies like taxation and healthcare are decided at state level, but Congress has far more control over Government than the Houses of Parliament does here. Britain, with over sixty million people, would become the most populous US state, and with something like seventy-five Electoral College votes a decisive force in Presidential elections. Americans could also vote for a left-wing, trade union-based party rather than one funded by Wall Street.

Becoming a US state could deal with the national tensions within the UK: Scotland and Wales could join as separate states if they wanted, as could a re-united Ireland. In sport, we'd walk the Olympic medals table.

Economically, Britain would have access to a single market not much smaller than the EU's, and of course we'd also gain the right to live and work there. Joining the US would mean swapping the pound for the dollar, probably not a bad idea as the former plummets, and even the five hour time difference between here and the East Coast isn't that much more than the three hours between there and the West Coast.




Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Bear with us

I'm not sure what to make of the news that Hofmeister lager is being revived. I'm pretty sure I never drank it in the 80's when it was produced by Scottish & Newcastle, now trading as Heineken UK,

The entrepreneurs who have bought and relaunched the brand are working with Marston's to make it available in pubs again, although, unlike the original beer, the new Hofmeister will only be available in bottles, rather than the canned and draught versions of the past, has jumped in strength from 3.2 to 5% abv, is now a Helles rather than a Pils, and will be contract-brewed by a small Bavarian brewery just east of Munich, Schweiger.

Hofmeister was just one of a number of fake German-sounding lagers brewed in Britain in the 70's and 80's. Locally, Robinsons brewed Einhorn (German for "unicorn", the name of their brewery in Stockport) and Greenall's in Warrington Grünhalle, a very rough translation of the company's name.




Monday, 14 November 2016

Sixteen going on seventeen

Wetherspoons owner Tim Martin's call for 16 and 17 year olds to be allowed to drink in pubs, where they'd be supervised by bar staff, has attracted a bit of comment, most of it negative (either the usual "Won't someone think of the children" line from the temperance lobby, or people thinking it's just a ploy to boost his slumping post-Brexit vote profits).

As I commented here, the legal drinking age rose throughout the twentieth century in parallel with the school leaving age, both of which are now 18, although 16 and 17 year olds can legally drink beer, wine or cider (not spirits) in a pub as long as it's with a meal and someone else buys it for them, a trick demonstrated by this guy.

My own drinking progression must be fairly typical: bottles of coke with a straw in beer gardens and holiday camp bars as a child, cans of Shandy Bass in my early teens, halves of keg Greenall Whitley bitter in the local Labour Club (now, ironically, a children's nursery) in my mid teens, and pints of keg Whitbread Trophy bitter in one of their tied houses in my late teens, before moving on to cask Holt's bitter and mild in one of theirs.

In his memoir A Sort of Life, the novelist Graham Greene, who was related to the owners of Suffolk's Greene King brewery, remembers his own teenage beer drinking: "We stopped at an inn for bread and cheese, and I drank bitter for the second time and enjoyed the taste with a pleasure that has never failed me since."



Wednesday, 2 November 2016

My Back Pages

Bob Dylan has finally spoken about the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to him a couple of weeks back, saying that the committee's decision had left him speechless.

I discovered Dylan as a teenager through his, and my, one-time musical hero Woody Guthrie, rather than the other way round as I suspect is more common (in much the same way, I listened to Chicago's West Side blues greats Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Freddie King long before I heard the covers of their songs by the Stones, Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin).

I have no problem with the decision to award Dylan the prize. His songs, especially the early, 1960's ones, are clearly written in a poetic form, and often echo Biblical phrases, as in the line "And the first one now will later be last" from The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Maybe the Nobel committee picked Dylan because of the press coverage they knew it would create, but whatever the reason, I'll still be pleased to see him collect his award in Stockholm next month.




Saturday, 29 October 2016

Brewing in the Steel City

Ron Pattinson's post at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins about Tennants got me thinking about Sheffield and its beer.

Although Sheffield has plenty of award-winning pubs and microbreweries, it's the best part of twenty years since it's had a large-scale, regional brewery, joining the ranks of Birmingham, Nottingham, Newcastle and Leeds as cities without one.

Sheffield's big three breweries, Wards, Tennants and Stones, were established in 1837, 1852 and 1868, bought by bigger brewers a century or so later (Tennants by Whitbread in 1962, Stones by Bass in 1968 and Wards by Vaux in 1972), and their Sheaf, Exchange and Cannon Breweries closed  by them between 1993 and 1999.

My experience of the historic beers of Sheffield is so fleeting as to be almost non-existent, unsurprising given that my reaching legal drinking age barely preceded their demise. The first pub I drank in as a teenager in the late 80's was a Whitbread house which stocked bottles of Gold Label strong ale, first brewed by Tennants in 1951, behind the bar along with Mackesons Stout, another nationally-distributed brand from a brewery Whitbread had taken over, although I never drank either myself, or saw anyone much below pension age order them. A couple of years later, when I was a student in Stoke, we occasionally drank canned Stones Bitter from the street corner off-licence, but in pubs Bass was pushing its other keg beer, Worthington's, and anyway I soon discovered ones where you could drink cask beers from the Staffordshire breweries, Draught Bass, Marstons Pedigree and Banks's Mild and Bitter.

It's a few years since I've been to Sheffield. A return trip is no doubt long overdue.





Thursday, 20 October 2016

Stirring things up at Spoons

The pub chain Wetherspoons has closed and sold off dozens of its outlets in the last few months, including the King's Hall in Cheadle Hulme and Milson Rhodes in Didsbury.

Apparently neither site was owned by the company, and the leases on them are likely to generate higher profits for more upmarket operations in what are two of the better-off suburbs in the Stockport and South Manchester area.

Wetherspoons' owner Tim Martin was a vocal advocate of Leave in June's EU referendum. I blogged here about how he probably didn't think a Leave vote would affect his business much given that it isn't as reliant as others on migrant labour and exports, but the subsequent fall in the pound has pushed up the price of imported goods, including some of the food and drink his pubs sell. Brexit might just turn out to be a bigger blow to pubs than the Beer Duty Escalator and smoking ban combined.

Just as in the Scottish independence referendum it seemed some ultra-nationalists would be happy to live in a tent if it meant freedom from the alleged manacles of English rule, so too it appears that the "hard Brexiteers" who now hold sway in government see crashing the economy as a price worth paying for separation from the European Union.

I suppose ideally there would be a system of differential pricing, with only those who voted Leave paying more for things to offset the economic consequences of their choice.





Saturday, 15 October 2016

Sharpen the Sickle!

I'm reading Sharpen the Sickle! at the moment, a history of the farm workers' union written by Reg Groves in 1947.

Groves himself is a fascinating character, having been, successively, a Communist, Trotskyist, film critic and perennially unsuccessful left-wing Labour Party Parliamentary candidate, and throughout all those phases, apparently, a Christian socialist associated with the Anglo-Catholic, "High Church" wing of Anglicanism.

Some of the episodes in Sharpen the Sickle!, such as the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Dorset agricultural labourers transported to Australia in 1834 for forming a union, and the Burston school strike in 1914, the subject of a BBC drama in the 1980's, are well-known, but the book also outlines how local farmworkers' unions, which were especially strong in the eastern counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, grew into the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, which in 1982 became a section of the Transport and General Workers' Union (now Unite).

Many of the descriptions of the attempts to organise farmworkers in nineteenth century England  people walking miles through country lanes to attend meetings held by lantern light in fields or the back rooms of pubs —  could be scenes from a Thomas Hardy novel.


Monday, 10 October 2016

One More Thing...

You can see Peter Falk playing the dishevelled LAPD detective Lieutenant Columbo on one or another channel most days, but Sunday afternoon now seems to be the main time, with ITV, ITV3 and 5 USA all regularly showing episodes.

Except for a few, the ones from the seventies are still watchable — the only real duds are those based on foreign "stock characters": Dagger of the Mind set in London's theatreland, A Matter of Honor with its Mexican bullfighter, and A Case of Immunity with a dodgy cast of Arab diplomats hamming it up in headscarves at a US embassy  and I've got them all as a box set, but the nineties ones are another matter, lacking the calibre of acting, sublety of plot, and above all modish Southern Californian atmosphere of the originals.

I find it hard to name a favourite episode, but my top five in no particular order are:

The Most Crucial Game

Robert Culp plays the general manager of an American football team who bumps off its playboy owner (Dean Stockwell). I like the technical stuff, with radios and bugged telephones, and the comedy scene with secretary-cum-escort Eve Babcock (Valerie Harper). Veteran Hollywood actor Dean Jagger adds gravitas as the victim's scheming attorney.

Any Old Port in A Storm

Donald Pleasance stars as a winery owner who murders his greedy brother to stop him selling the land on which the vineyard stands, and is then blackmailed by his secretary after she lies to give him an alibi. Columbo gets to show off his Italian, learn about wine, and even comes to sympathise with the murderer who killed to save the one thing he really loves.

Blueprint for Murder

Patrick O'Neal is an architect who kills the businessman bankrolling his ambitious building project when he threatens to cut off the funds for it. There's another comedy scene as Columbo goes to the planning department to get the permits he needs to dig up a concrete construction pile and bluff the murderer into revealing the whereabouts of the victim's body.

Double Exposure 

Robert Culp again (he also plays the murderer opposite Ray Milland in Season One's Death Lends a Hand), this time as the head of an advertising agency who Columbo finally catches by using a trick he's learnt from him, splicing subliminal cuts into a promotional film.

An Exercise in Fatality

More technical stuff — spliced sections of recorded telephone calls, laces tied the wrong way — and comedy scenes as Columbo forsakes his trademark cigars and joins a gym (!), before tangling with an officious computer operator.













Monday, 3 October 2016

Death in the ring

The death of the twenty-five year old Scottish boxer Mike Towell after a bout in Glasgow last week has re-opened the debate about the safety of professional boxing and whether it should be banned.

Whenever a boxer is killed in the ring, the same arguments are put forward to justify the so-called "fight game".

1. People should be free to do what they want, as long as no else is harmed

If you're a libertarian, there's some logic to this, but it also means having to argue for the legalisation of bare-knuckle boxing and fights outside pubs and football grounds (boxing is one of the exemptions to the legal rule that you can't consent to being assaulted, and if Dale Evans, the boxer who killed Towell, had struck the fatal blow outside the ring he'd now be looking at a manslaughter charge and many years in prison).

It's also not true that no else is harmed by boxing: apart from the fighters killed or maimed in the ring, women are widowed, or left with a paralysed partner for the rest of their life, children orphaned, and ambulance and hospital staff affected by deaths and serious injuries in the ring.

2. There are risks associated with all sports

It's true that people have been killed or seriously injured in other sports - athletes who die from undiagnosed heart defects, rugby players from concussive head impacts or broken spines, jockeys thrown from horses, drivers in motor racing crashes and collisions - but those are accidents, which can be minimised by better safety regulations, not the aim of the activity as it is in professional boxing where winning often means battering your opponent into unconsciousness.

3. Millions of people enjoy watching boxing matches

And back in the day, cock-fighting and bear-baiting were very popular too...

4. Boxing keeps kids off the streets and teaches them discipline

If anything, that's an argument for amateur/Olympic boxing with headguards and fewer, shorter rounds, not the more brutal bouts you get in professional boxing.

5. Boxing is a way out of poverty

For kids from deprived backgrounds with few educational or employment opportunities, that might well be true, but is still an indictment of the inequality and lack of social provision in the areas where boxing flourishes.

6. If boxing were banned, it would go underground, and there'd be more deaths in the ring

Undoubtedly true, and the only argument I can think of for opposing a ban and calling for even stricter regulation of professional boxing.






Sunday, 25 September 2016

Going underground

I went on a tour of two pub cellars yesterday afternoon as part of Stockport Beer Week.

The Boar's Head and Baker's Vaults are early nineteenth century buildings, remodelled somewhat in the second half of it, which stand facing each other on opposite sides of Stockport market place. Although only thirty or so feet apart, it would be hard to imagine two more different pubs.

The Boar's Head is a Sam Smith's pub and has all the things you'd expect from Yorkshire's most traditional brewery: a Victorian interior,  an older, mainly male, working-class clientele, no TV or music, a single, cheap  cask beer, the malty, brown Old Brewery Bitter at £1.90 a pint, drawn from 36-gallon wooden barrels stillaged in the cellar, and their own brand keg and bottled beers. On Saturday dinnertime, despite not serving food it was busy, with people constantly coming in and and going out, some of them for a smoke before returning to their drinks on the bar,

The Baker's Vaults is a Robinson's pub which is operated by the same people who run The Castle in Manchester city centre. It's airy and modern with filament bulbs suspended on long cords, high stools at tables with ornamental bottles and candle holders on them, an extensive food menu, a more mixed, upmarket, and considerably sparser clientele on a Saturday afternoon, with young families dining and older couples drinking coffees at the bar. It sells half a dozen of Robinson's cask beers, as well as guest ales and "craft keg" and lagers from tall founts, rather than the boxy ones at the Boar's Head, The cask beer is a bit dearer, but still pretty reasonable at £3-3.60, depending on abv, and equally well-kept.

As on brewery tours, you always see or learn something new when you go down into a pub cellar. On a busy day, the Boar's Head can shift the contents of an entire 36-gallon barrel  (that's 288 pints for the mathematically-challenged like me), which must rank as the most cask beer sold by a pub in Stockport. The Baker's Vaults foundations are even older than the pub itself, with still unexplored tunnels which may connect it to watercourses or other buildings, outcrops of the sandstone on which the nearby Roman fort and later the mediaeval castle were built, and beneath the cellar the high brick bins which once held wine and gin barrels and give the pub its name.















Friday, 16 September 2016

Inter-city cricket

It looks like the England and Wales Cricket Board is going ahead with an inter-city Twenty20 competition, provisionally starting in 2018. The plan is to have teams in eight cities, playing at Test cricket grounds.

I'm not a fan of shorter forms of cricket like Twenty20, and not sure about inter-city sport either. In the mid-fifties, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the predecessor of the UEFA Cup and Europa League, began as a tournament between representative XI's from different cities (London, Frankfurt, Milan), although some (Birmingham, Barcelona) were effectively just the clubs of that name, before switching to club sides by the end of the decade, and in the mid-nineties, when rugby league switched to a summer season, the new European Super League narrowly avoided the monstrosity of merged clubs, with the owners eventually voting down the proposal that, amongst others, Warrington should join up with Widnes as Cheshire (!) and Salford with Oldham as Manchester (!!).

I can't see the teams which play in the new competition at Old Trafford or Headingley being any different to the Lancashire and Yorkshire county sides who currently play Twenty20 cricket there, or attracting more fans under their new names.




Saturday, 10 September 2016

RIP Prince Buster

I've just heard of the death at 78 of the Jamaican ska pioneer Prince Buster.

Ska began in Jamaica in the early 1960's as a combination of musical styles: mento, the form of calypso native to the island, jazz, influenced by the Americans who played the hotels before sitting in with local musicians in after-hours jam sessions, and the rhythm and blues records beamed across the Caribbean by radio stations in New Orleans and other southern cities or imported by U.S. servicemen stationed there in World War II and just after.

In the late 1970's, there was a ska revival in Britain in the form of Two-Tone. Here's one of the bands associated with that movement, Madness, riding the Tube in London (in the days when you could still drink on it) as their musical inspiration Prince Buster performs the song they got their name from.








Friday, 2 September 2016

In the footsteps of the Beer Hunter

Tonight in Leeds, three episodes of The Beer Hunter, the TV series presented by the late beer writer and journalist Michael Jackson, are being shown as part of a Beer Week in the city.

I was 18 when Channel 4 broadcast The Beer Hunter in 1989. I'd never heard of Bamberg, let alone the Rauchbier brewed there with smoked malt, nor what Jackson called in one of the episodes being shown tonight "The Burgundies of Belgium", the strong ales produced by its Trappist monasteries. Later, I picked up a couple of his books - The World Guide to Beer and Great Beer Guide - and later still made it myself to Franconia and to Brussels, drinking the beers he had drunk in the same pubs and bars he had spoken and written about. I'm sure I'm not the only beer drinker to have followed his footsteps to the brewing towns of Germany and Belgium whose specialities he was the one of the first to explore.

Until a few years ago, all the episodes of The Beer Hunter were available on YouTube, but Channel 4, who hold the rights, has since blocked them on copyright grounds (in Britain at least: they might still be viewable elsewhere in the world). I've not got a problem with them doing that, but why don't they make them commercially available on DVD so that beer lovers can once again enjoy them?


















Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Beyond A Boundary

I went to a rugby league match between Swinton and Workington at Heywood Road, Sale, yesterday afternoon.

Since leaving their Station Road home in 1992, Swinton have played at a few grounds, including Gigg Lane, Bury, and Park Lane, Whitefield. Their new home at Sale is shared with the amateur rugby union club of that name whose professional offshoot, Sale Sharks, left for Edgeley Park, Stockport, in 2003 before moving into the AJ Bell Stadium in Barton-on-Irwell with Salford Red Devils rugby league club in 2012.

Sale is quite a distance from Swinton, as is Barton from Sale. In relocating to Barton from their home at The Willows, the Red Devils moved within the City, but outside the traditional boundaries, of Salford. Manchester United's ground at Old Trafford is just outside the boundaries of the City of Manchester, having moved there from Newton Heath in 1910, and Arsenal began life in Woolwich, south London, before moving north of the river in 1913. So how far can a club move before the connection between its name and history and geographical location is severed?

Most people would, I think, regard AFC Wimbledon as the continuation of Wimbledon FC rather than Buckinghamshire outfit Milton Keynes Dons, although neither side now claim the honours of the historic club. The real difference seems to be between moving outside a conurbation (London, Greater Manchester) and relocating within it, especially if, as with Swinton and AFC Wimbledon, you're still looking to build a ground back in the place you originally came from.

Of course, in the United States, not only would such moves within cities not even register with all but the most diehard of fans, nor seemingly do the multiple moves franchises in the four major sports (American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey) make, so baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants can relocate from the East Coast to the West without dropping their nicknames or records and in the NFL the Cleveland Browns can become the Baltimore Ravens while the Oakland Raiders leave for Los Angeles before moving back to Northern California and resuming play under their original name.





Monday, 22 August 2016

Derby day

I was in Derby last week and managed to get to a few decent pubs, most of them only a couple of minutes walk from the railway station.

I've been to Derby before, on the way to Burton-on-Trent, but a combination of a wrong turning out of the station and electronic ticket barriers meant I ended up trudging for a couple of miles on the wrong side of the tracks without finding any of them. Having learnt my lesson, I set off with a CAMRA guide to the pubs of Derby in hand, included in which was a map of the city centre.

The train journey from Manchester to Derby via Crewe and Stoke passes through some very pleasant countryside, fields of crops bordered by small lakes and streams. The square outside Derby station, with the Victorian Midland Hotel on one side, is quite impressive too, as is the row of terraced houses built for railway workers opposite. You can imagine how busy it would have been when Derby was a railway hub connecting the North West and East Midlands (the last direct trains to Manchester ran in 1968).

The Standing Order is not just the grandest of Derby's three Wetherspoon's pubs but also has one of the most impressive pub interiors I've ever seen, having been transformed from a former bank. The Draught Bass I had, the cheapest of the pints I drank in Derby, was flanked on the central island bar by beers from local microbreweries.
















The Station Inn on Midland Road is more of a local's boozer than a destination pub, but stands out by advertising "Bass Served From the Jug". Although on entering, the barman asked me whether I minded one from a hand-pump and as it had been a warmish day I readily agreed to a cellar cool pint rather than one transported from a gravity-dispensed barrel of unknown temperature somewhere else.
















The next two pubs I went to are within a few feet of each other on the corner of Railway Terrace and Siddals Road.

The Alexandra Hotel is a railway buff's pub, with train-related advertising in the bar, station signs in the beer garden at the back and a disused locomotive in the car park. It also had half a dozen cask beers on the bar, including a mild and a stout, and a 20p a pint discount for card-carrying CAMRA members.
















The Brunswick Inn is a brewpub, owned by, but operated independently from, Everards Brewery, which is Derby CAMRA's Pub of the Year for 2016. Inside the triangular, brick building is a Victorian-style interior of red leather benches and wall-mounted lamps, and half a dozen cask beers from their own range as well as guest ales from other breweries.
















All the beer I drank in Derby was in good condition and, at between £2 and £3 a pint before CAMRA discounts. pretty cheap too. As General MacArthur said, "I shall return".

Saturday, 20 August 2016

That Was Then, This Is Now

Beer bloggers Pub Curmudgeon and Tandleman have been discussing what pubs looked like in the early 80's.

I didn't reach legal drinking age until 1988, but went in pubs and social clubs a fair bit before that. I remember quite a lot of the things they mention: afternoon closing, the dominance of tied houses which only sold products from the brewery which owned them, a bit like Sam Smith's pubs now I suppose, including bottled beers (the first pub I drank in was a Whitbread house which sold their Gold Label and Mackesons Stout), the mixing of bottled and draught beers by older drinkers to make "splits" (mild and brown ale or bitter and Guinness), probably a hangover of the poor quality cask beer in the decades when they'd started drinking, and the unavailability of food in many pubs, even cold snacks like sandwiches and pies, which is rare now,.

Other things I remember include separate children's rooms in some pubs, plastic, brewery-branded ashtrays (probably illegal now), people coming in to sell things (legally), including potted shrimps on a Friday night (which might have been a Catholic thing) and on Saturday afternoon the football "pink" (now also defunct). There also seemed to be more middle-aged bar staff, possibly a result of differentials in the minimum wage making it cheaper to employ younger staff now.

In 1990, I went as a student to Staffs Poly in Stoke and entered another world of pubs, not just Banks's, Bass and Marston's Pedigree instead of Holt's, Robbies, Wilsons and Boddies, but trays of sandwiches passed round by landlords at closing time, older women coming in with plastic jugs to be filled with draught beer for their husbands at home, and beer a couple of pence dearer in the lounge compared to the vault where (unofficially, and unlawfully, even then) women weren't allowed, leading to some comical situations if you were in a mixed group with men nipping in to see their mates and buy a slightly cheaper pint.









Friday, 19 August 2016

Lottery winners

I was amused to see that the Conservative former Prime Minister John Major is being credited by some for Britain's medal haul at the Rio Olympics because it was  his Government which introduced the National Lottery in 1994, and ensured that a large portion of the revenue from it was spent on improving facilities and coaching for elite sports, especially in multi-medal events such as cycling and swimming, a policy others have somewhat outlandishly compared to the State sponsoring of Eastern bloc athletes in the 70's and 80's.

There are three basic arguments against the National Lottery.

The first is that it's a tax on the poor, because poorer people will spend more on tickets in the hope of becoming a millionaire, a sort of low cost, no risk get rich quick scheme, albeit one with little chance of paying off. I'm not sure however that many people, if any, become addicted to buying lottery tickets, as opposed to gambling in high street bookmaking shops or online.

The second is that by generating not just cash for its operators but a sense of excitement around the draw amongst players, it serves as a distraction from the social ills that people would otherwise focus on (the same argument has also been made about mass spectator sports like football). George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four even predicted it when he wrote, "The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention." The problem with this argument is that people can play and be excited about the Lottery and be aware of and angry about the cracks which the cash from it helps to paper over (in the case of sport, it can even generate a sense of solidarity and become a focus for opposition). It also assumes that if such "distractions" were somehow abolished, people would almost automatically switch their attention to resisting our rulers' latest dastardly plans.

The third, and strongest, argument is that Lottery cash substitutes for public spending and lets the Government off the hook in its social responsibilities. If Lottery funding ceased, it's doubtful that public spending would increase to match the shortfall, but while it's clearly a problem if schools, hospitals or homelessness charities become dependent on grants, it's much less of one if the British Olympic track cycling team does. And, unlike your taxes, if you don't agree with what Lottery money is spent on, there's a simple solution: don't buy a ticket.


Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Protz on the radio

This week's edition of Radio 4's Food Programme was an extended interview with beer writer and longtime CAMRA staff member Roger Protz. The programme also included an excerpt from an episode in 1998 in which Roger compared the "Burton snatch" sulphur aroma in Marstons Pedigree and Draught Bass and concluded that it was more pronounced in the latter. Having drunk a fair amount of both as a student in Stoke in the early 90's, I'd have said it was the opposite.

Roger told the interviewer a few things I hadn't heard before - that he got the CAMRA job in 1976 because he'd worked on the Evening Standard as had founder member Michael Hardman, that Fuller's had decided to stop brewing cask beer before CAMRA persuaded them to continue - and made some general observations about British beer that didn't really stand up to scrutiny, such as local hops being fresher than foreign ones (goodbye golden ales with all those American hops!) and a long secondary fermentation in the pub cellar being one of the defining features of cask beer, something that I'm sure we'd all welcome but which probably doesn't happen to the extent we might like to think it does.

He made some other claims which ranged from clearly untrue ("When I was a teenager in the 50's, the legal drinking age in pubs was 21": it was actually 18, as it is now, having been raised from 14 in 1923) to somewhat doubtful: did keg beer really take off in the 60's as an alternative to poor quality cask beer because lots of experienced publicans who knew how to look after a cellar had been killed in the war? He also took the opportunity to take some swipes at big breweries, including A-B InBev for cutting the lagering time for Stella Artois, SAB Miller for computerising the brewing process at one of their Eastern European plants (although at least one of the family-owned regional independents rightly championed by CAMRA has also done this), and Scottish "craft punks" BrewDog for slating him personally and CAMRA as an organisation in its PR. I was amused by the interviewer, in the the true spirit of BBC impartiality, then intoning that all these breweries had been contacted for a response but had declined to comment.

Protz, then a member of the Socialist Labour League, edited the Young Socialists' paper Keep Left in the early 60's, before moving on to the same job on Militant in the mid-60's and Socialist Worker in the late 60's. He left IS, the organisation which later became the SWP, in 1974, and said that when he bumps into former comrades from the far left and they question him about having spent his life writing about and campaigning for cask beer, he tells them that he has had a much bigger impact on British society than they have.

The programme was a handy introduction to the history of CAMRA and cask beer for younger listeners who hadn't heard it all before. Protz also got a plug in for the Revitalisation Project and rightly paid tribute to the pioneering work of Michael Jackson whose travels around Europe opened his eyes, and mine, to the good beer to be had beyond our shores.












Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Kim's foreign legion

Channel 4's Dispatches programme last night investigated the policy of Kim Jong Un's rigidly Stalinist regime in North Korea of exporting what are effectively slave labourers to others parts of Asia and Europe.

The reporter, Morland Sanders, travelled to the Polish countryside where he found North Koreans in huge greenhouses picking tomatoes for export. Although they didn't seem to have minders with them, their relatives have to stop behind in North Korea, effectively as hostages in case they escape. The workers are forced to do large amounts of overtime and only receive about a tenth of their wages, the rest being paid directly to the North Korean regime. Sanders tried to speak to some of them with a South Korean interpreter at a bus stop near the farm, but, understandably, they all ignored him, as did their compatriots building a luxury apartment complex in Warsaw. He then went to a clothing factory in Malta which apparently also uses North Koreans as forced labour.

It's estimated that the North Korean regime earns around £1 billion a year from the companies who exploit the forced labour of the citizens whom it ships overseas, money which helps to shore up its rule and fund a nuclear weapons programme. It's something I'd not heard of before, and a reminder, if one were needed, that's there's nothing even vaguely socialist or pro-working-class about North Korea's hereditary dictatorship.


Friday, 5 August 2016

Rio, by the sea-o

The Rio Olympics, whose opening ceremony takes place later today, starts amongst the now almost obligatory scandals and tensions: Russian athletes already banned for doping, the Brazilian president suspended for alleged financial misdemeanours, sporting facilities and accommodation only just built or sub-standard, working-class communities displaced and protests violently dispersed by riot police.

It's not quite up there with Mexico City in 1968, where the games opened just ten days after the army had shot dead hundreds of protesting students, but as ever there's a dissonance between watching and enjoying the sporting events which individual athletes have trained hard for in the last four years and the violence, kickbacks and corporate control you know is going on in the background, all overseen of course by the aristocratic IOC which only just comes behind football's world governing body FIFA in the number of corruption allegations levelled against it.








Saturday, 30 July 2016

Pre-boarding boozing

I'm surprised that there hasn't been more media comment at the news that the Government minister Lord Ahmad is to look at the sale of alcohol at airports, apparently with a view to restricting or even banning pre-flight pints, in response to an alleged surge in alcohol-related violence on board planes.

I might end up being wrong here, but I'd be very surprised if the review leads to a ban, not least because of the amount of money alcohol sales generate for airports. And even if a ban were to be introduced, I very much doubt that it would apply to those dining in first class lounges as opposed to us plebs slumming it in the terminal bars, just as when you go to a football match and buy a pint at a bar under the stand you can't take it to your seat, or even stand with it near an entrance in sight of the pitch, but people having a meal in executive boxes while watching the game can order alcohol to go with it.

Surely the relatively few incidents that do take place on board planes as a result of people drinking too much before boarding can be dealt with by refusing to board them in the first place rather than a sweeping ban which some, no doubt for other motives entirely, seem to want.









Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Gadget Man

I went to a meeting organised by my CAMRA branch, Stockport and South Manchester, last night, part of the Revitalisation Project being run at national level which I wrote about here.

CAMRA founder member Michael Hardman introduced the evening with an interesting overview of where cask beer was when the organisation was formed in 1971, and some of the wins and losses since, and then it was down to the main business: voting on questions flashed up on a screen via the electronic keypads with which we'd been issued at the door.

I'm not sure what the upshot of the Revitalisation Project will be, but it was good to hear the views of other members and the national officials running the event. I suspect though that, as others at the meeting said, it will be a mixture of market forces, Government policy and social trends that determines the future of pubs and beer rather than campaigning, and that CAMRA will probably evolve into a beer drinkers' club/pub preservation society, one which I'll happily continue to be a member of.


Sunday, 17 July 2016

The many Malcolms

I went to an open day at the local mosque yesterday afternoon,

There was a stall with various pamphlets about Islam, including one about Malcolm X which I picked up. It ends "So many people love and admire him, wanting to be like him, and aspiring to follow in his footsteps, yet they see what they want to see and ignore the rest. We must never forget it was Islam that made Malik El-Shabazz [the Muslim name he assumed in 1964] what he was."

The thought struck me that there not many people who so many claim as their own: black nationalists, Muslims, socialists. In large part, that's because Malcolm was all those things, albeit to varying degrees and at different times in his life.

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam, a sect led by Elijah Muhammad, while in prison in Massachusetts in 1948. The NoI opposed integration with what it called "white devils" and ultimately advocated the return of black Americans to Africa, a position which led it into contact with the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.

Malcolm X was drawn to socialism not just because of the racism and exploitation he witnessed in America's black ghettoes from a young age, but also because he saw it as the system by which Cuba and the newly independent former colonies in Africa he visited were advancing themselves economically and socially.

1964 was a turning point in Malcolm's life: he split from the NoI, converted to orthodox Sunni Islam and made the Hajj to Mecca, where he prayed alongside white pilgrims. He also formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity which, while still black nationalist, advocated some sort of alliance with poor whites.

After Malcolm's assassination in 1965, while giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in uptown Manhattan, the actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis gave this eulogy at his funeral, which also forms the final scene of Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X.









Monday, 11 July 2016

Beer on the Fourth of July

A week ago, on the day our American cousins celebrate their independence from British colonial rule, I was inspired by this video to order some bottled beers from Brooklyn Brewery via my favourite online beer shop.

I first tried Brooklyn Lager, an amber, all-malt beer classified as a Vienna lager, about a decade ago, after picking up a bottle in the supermarket, and was very impressed by its full-flavoured hops and malt taste, but hadn't tried any other beers from Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (10% abv)






















Brooklyn's attempt at a Russian Imperial Stout. Not much carbonation or mouthfeel, and doesn't really drink its strength. Some nice, lingering roasty notes though, and I can imagine it being a decent "winter warmer".

Brooklyn Brown Ale (5.6% abv)





















I expected this to be similar to Sam Smith's Nut Brown Ale given that beer's popularity in the US, but it's actually more like a heftier version of Newcastle Brown Ale: dryish and with a very pronounced caramelly taste. A bit more carbonation and my favourite of the Brooklyn bottled beers I tried.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (7.2 % abv)





















This, described by the brewery as "an unfiltered golden farmhouse ale", is Brooklyn's take on a Belgian saison: hoppy, sourish and with a refreshing lemony taste. Not that I'd fancy drinking a pint of it though.

Brooklyn East India Pale Ale (6.9% abv)


















I suppose this is what Americans think of as an IPA: pale, hoppy and above average strength. I'd call it a best bitter or a strong golden ale. A long-lasting head and nice balance of malt and hops, although the latter (not sure which variety they are, might be Cascade) give it a slightly weird lemony aftertaste.


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Irish Blood, English Heart

The untimely passing of the comedian, actress and scriptwriter Caroline Aherne, who died last week at the age of just 52, led me to reflect once again on a particular aspect of her prodigious talent.

Like many other comedians, musicians and performers who came out of the Manchester area in the 1980's and 1990's, Steve Coogan, Morrissey, Marr and the other members of The Smiths, Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis, Terry Christian, Shaun Ryder of The Happy Mondays and Mani of The Stone Roses, Aherne was the child of Irish immigrants. As a Catholic born in Manchester of Irish descent, albeit farther back, I've often wondered what it is about that combination that seems to produce such talents.

I think there are two things. One is that being an outsider allows you to see things more clearly than others and, even if only unconsciously, feel little affinity for or need to respect an Establishment (Protestant, pro-monarchy and Empire) that you're not a part of. The other is that as the child of immigrants you belong to the "other" not just in the country you live in, but also the one your parents left, a "double outsider" if you like.

One of Caroline Aherne's earliest, and funniest, comic creations, the Irish nun Sister Mary Immaculate, must surely have been based on her teachers at the Hollies FCJ Convent Grammar School in Manchester.








Saturday, 25 June 2016

Euro beer

Watching Euro 2016 in France this last fortnight got me thinking back twenty years to when England hosted the tournament, a summer in which Football's Coming Home became a temporary national anthem.

Looking at my diary for 1996, I spotted a mention of bottles of Boddington's Export, a beer I'd completely forgotten about. A bit of Googling, and the ever reliable Wikipedia, reveals that it was a bottled version of Boddington's Pub Ale, at 4.6% quite a bit stronger than Boddington's Bitter, and only available in the UK in 1995-96 (Boddington's Strangeways brewery closed in 2005 and was demolished in 2007, although cask Boddington's Bitter was contract-brewed by Hydes in Moss Side until they moved to Salford in 2012).

I know Boddington's Pub Ale is available as a draught and canned beer in North America, but I wonder if you can get bottles of it too. I might just be tempted to give it a try.





Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Raising a glass to Manchester's brewing past

I went to the Smithfield Market Tavern last night for the launch of four historic beers from the Manchester area, recreated for Manchester Beer Week by local microbreweries Beer Nouveau, Blackjack, Squawk and Tickety Brew. Beer historian Ron Pattinson, who blogs at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, also spoke knowledgeably and entertainingly about the beers we were privileged to get to drink.

The wooden pin of Beer Nouveau's Lees 1903 XXX on the bar ran out before I got to it, but I drank the other three, two of them from the brewing records of J.W. Lees in Middleton and one from the long gone Heginbothams in Stalybridge.

I was especially keen to try Blackjack's Lees 1951 "C" Ale, a type of strong ale brewed in the Manchester area in the twentieth century, mostly it seems as a bottled beer, whose name no one appears to know the origin of. A dryish, malt-accented beer which is amber in colour, as Ron said in his talk, it's in the same family as the Burton ales brewed elsewhere in Britain. I also had the two stouts, Squawk's Lees 1952 Stout and Tickety Brew's Heginbothams Invalid Stout, which some people reckoned had a lactose taste, although I couldn't particularly pick one up myself.

Hearteningly, the Smithfield was packed for the event, and hopefully other brewers, including the bigger ones in the Manchester area, will be inspired to delve into the archives and produce historic beers of their own.









Thursday, 9 June 2016

From Humble Petition to Militant Action

Like fellow beer bloggers and CAMRA members Red Nev and Tandleman, I'm a former civil service trade union activist, in my case between 1997, when I joined the Department of Social Security as a casual Admin Assistant, and 2007, when I was made redundant after the local office I worked in closed.

A dozen or so mergers of sectional and grade-based associations in the last century led at the end of it to a single union, PCS, which represents civil servants across Government departments and agencies. I'm reading a history of one of its predecessor unions, the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA), which I was a member of for just over a year before the final merger which created PCS. From Humble Petition to Militant Action was published in 1978 after the union commissioned the industrial correspondent of The Times Eric Wigham to write a book to mark the 75th anniversary of its formation.

The introduction to the book is a hoot.

"The abrasive character of Association life is probably in part a reaction to the humdrum routine of many of its members' jobs...many of the more energetic young members seek to develop in union work a freedom of expression they cannot find in their daily tasks....Youth is impatient. Association work offers an escape from the restraints and inhibitions of Civil Service life. Conferences and meetings give members an opportunity to let their hair down. Certainly on these occasions they bear little resemblance to the image of tea-drinking, rubber-stamping, buck-passing plodders which seems to be imprinted on the public mind."

Many of the things described in the book, disputed and cancelled elections, General Secretaries refusing to stand down at the end of their terms of office, court cases (the union's HQ in south-west London was famously dubbed "Clapham Injunction"), and arguments about affiliation to the Labour Party, will be familiar to younger union activists, as will the internecine conflicts between Catholic Action and the Communist Party in the 50's and the National Moderate Group, Broad Left, Militant and Redder Tape in the 70's: not for nothing was CPSA known as the Beirut of the labour movement.

I knew that women civil servants had to leave their jobs upon marriage up to 1946, but not that in the 20's the payment they received when they did made them attractive to the few young men who had survived World War I, nor that in the 60's the CPSA magazine Red Tape ran beauty competitions, printing photographs of young women members in its pages ("A motion submitted to the conference expressed disapproval, but got little support"). I also hadn't realised that the head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life between 2004 and 2007, Alistair Graham, is a former CPSA General Secretary.


Thursday, 2 June 2016

Boycott Spoons?

Tim Martin, the founder and chairman of pub chain Wetherspoons who is campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union ahead of this month's referendum, has placed beer mats in his pubs urging customers to vote Leave.

Unlike other businesses which are campaigning for Britain to stop in the EU, Wetherspoons doesn't trade with continental Europe and is less reliant on migrant labour than those in agriculture and construction. His opposition to the EU is probably based, at least in part, on the rights it gives his workers to reasonable working hours, breaks, holidays and maternity leave which the right wing of the Tory party want to rip up, one of the main reasons why I'll be voting Remain on 23 June.

Having said that, I'm not going to boycott Wetherspoons as some have said they will, for a number of reasons.

1. They sell cheap food and cask beer which is generally well-kept. In a town you don't know, and at airports and railway stations, they can be a reliable fallback. Although many are large and impersonal, having been converted from former banks, shops, cinemas or snooker halls, some are neither, including the one I go to most often in South Manchester which was built as a pub in the 1930's and still feels like one.

2. I don't expect the owners of the businesses I frequent to share my politics. Tim Martin is somewhat unusual in speaking publicly about his, and there are no doubt many others who share his views without saying so. If we boycott all the businesses whose owners' politics we disagree with, we might find ourselves with a very short list of shopping and entertainment options. I also think the call for a boycott smacks of intolerance of others' opinions.

3. For a boycott to be effective, it would have to be on a very large scale. I don't think many of Wetherspoons customers are that bothered about it to make a real difference, and quite a few will agree with Martin. Equally, I doubt the beer mats will sway anyone who is still undecided.






Tuesday, 24 May 2016

French past imperfect

I've been reading a lot about French politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth century recently.

As well as The French Right Between the Wars, I've gone back to the beginning of Émile Zola's Rougon-Maquart series of novels about the French Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-70), having unknowingly jumped into the middle of it as a teenager and read a couple of the later ones since. The first novel in the series, The Fortune of the Rougons, is about Napoleon III's coup d'état in December 1851 which led to the proclamation of the Second Empire a year later.

The thing to get your head round about French politics is that as well as the left-right spectrum, political parties are (or at least were) divided by their attitude to the monarchy and the Church, so there were liberal monarchists (like the Orléanists, supporters of the Duc d'Orléans from the junior, cadet branch of the French royal house who wanted a constitutional monarchy), conservative ones (Legitimist followers of the Bourbons, and later Bonapartist followers of Napoleon III), and conservative republicans, both clericalist (Fédération républicaine) and secular (Alliance démocratique).

I'm wondering whether I should brush up my schoolboy French and read some of these books in the original...





Thursday, 19 May 2016

Back in time

In the last decade or so, microbreweries and home brewers have recreated historic beers using recipes found in brewery archives, as have some bigger brewers.

I'm a fan of Fuller's cask and bottle-conditioned beers, especially ESB and 1845, and have enjoyed XX, Double Stout and Old Burton Extra from the Past Masters range brewed in collaboration with Ron Pattinson of Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. Some historic beers are now being revived in the North West.

Boak and Bailey report on the reappearance after forty-six years of beers from the Bolton brewery Magee and Marshall, whose brand names someone has bought the rights to, and next month, as part of Manchester Beer Week, the Smithfield Market Tavern will host the launch of four historic beers, including a 1903 XXX, a 1951 "C" Ale and a 1952 Stout from the brewing records of Middleton brewery J.W. Lees, an event at which Ron will be speaking. I'll be going and am looking forward to trying beers my (great-)grandfathers might have drunk.




Saturday, 7 May 2016

Cumberland lap

I blogged the other day about the Hairy Bikers, Dave Myers and Simon King, coming to Manchester as part of their national pub tour on BBC2. Last night, they were in Carlisle.

The first half of the programme was about the State Management Scheme which ran pubs and brewed beer in Carlisle from the First World War to the early seventies, when Ted Heath's Conservative government privatised it, with the presenters saying how odd it would be if the State ran your local and made the drinks served in it. They then met a group of older drinkers at a bowls club who said that they liked the State Management Scheme pubs and that the beer had been both good and cheap.

Perhaps something for Comrade Corbyn to think about...