Saturday, 22 April 2017

Roll on the polls

With a General Election now set for 8th June, the bookies are offering longish odds on anything other than a landslide victory for the Conservatives.

I think the Tories will probably gain about fifty seats, and Labour lose about the same. I can't see the Lib Dems winning more than twenty seats, which would nevertheless be a big step forward for them after their electoral wipeout two years ago, or, unfortunately, the SNP losing any of theirs. This election could also, hopefully, be UKIP's last hurrah.

I also think that after such a result Jeremy Corbyn might, to the consternation of most of his colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party, stop on as Leader.

I'm not sure why I continue to make these predictions, having called a Remain vote in the EU referendum and thought that Labour would become the biggest party at the 2015 General Election. On the other hand, I did think, in the face of those who told me that I was dead wrong and that there was absolutely no way that it couldn't happen, that Trump might just win last year's US presidential election.


Monday, 3 April 2017

Macbeth in Manchester

I went to a talk by beer historian and blogger Ron Pattinson yesterday afternoon, part of the so-called Macbeth Tour he's doing to promote his new book about Scottish beer.

The event took place at the Beer Nouveau Brewery Tap, a microbrewery housed within a railway arch in Ardwick half a mile south of Piccadilly station, and featured tastings of historic Scottish beers recreated by them as well as some produced by Manchester homebrewers.

The beers, which spanned the years 1879 to 1894, were shilling ales, designated according to the wholesale price of a hogshead which, at least in the nineteenth century, gave the drinker some idea of their strength: the ones we tried began with a 1879 Youngers 50/- Sparkling Ale at 3.7% abv and ended with a 160/- from the same brewery and year at 7.8%.

The Scotch ales brewed and sold in Belgium and the United States tend to be dark, strong and malty but shilling ales like the ones we drank yesterday are nothing like that, being pale and well-hopped. Many also had an appealingly sharp sourness and some woodiness picked up from the oak casks they'd been racked into. My favourites were probably the Youngers 1879 160/- and Ushers 1885 100/- which reminded me of pale barley wines.

Thanks again to Ron for the talk, which as always was packed with masses of interesting and informative stuff interspersed with lots of humour and myth-busting, and to Steve at Beer Nouveau for kindly hosting us.








Tuesday, 28 March 2017

This Sporting Life

The playwright, screenwriter and novelist David Storey, who has died aged 83, epitomised the early 1960's realist "New Wave" in British film: Northern, working-class and newly self-confident.

The son of a miner from Wakefield, Storey belonged to the same generation of actors and writers as Albert Finney, Shelagh Delaney, John Braine, Tom Courtenay and Alan Sillitoe, and like them often experienced something of a disconnect between the artistic world he found fame in and his roots, playing rugby league for the Leeds "A" team at weekends before returning to the Slade School of Art in London, a feeling memorably expressed by Courtenay in the entry from the diary he kept as a student at RADA for the day in 1959 when his hometown side Hull lost to Wigan in the Challlenge Cup Final: "Met Dad, went to Wembley. Played Chekhov in evening."

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Young Bones Groan

A 14 year-old boy from Sheffield has died in hospital in Leeds after he collapsed at the end of an unlicensed kickboxing bout in the city on Saturday night (unlicensed because the "sport"'s governing body bars those under 16 from the fights it promotes) and the private medical team hired by the event's organisers were unable to save him.

I'm not a fan of boxing, as I wrote here, but there's a world of difference between the law allowing adult men to engage in violence which if it took place anywhere else would see them prosecuted and young people with still developing brains and muscles, no doubt heavily influenced by older family members, being exposed to the dangers of the ring, especially one in which they can legally be kicked as well as punched to the head and upper body.

I've seen comments along the lines of "he died doing what he loved" and " all sports have risks", and West Yorkshire Police have said that they are not treating his death as suspicious, but surely his parents should face some sort of criminal liability.

I'm not saying that they should go to prison - punishment beyond the ridiculously premature and entirely avoidable loss of their son is hardly appropriate here - but a conviction for manslaughter on the grounds that they recklessly put his life in danger, or under one of the child protection laws requiring adults to ensure the safety and welfare of young people in their care, and a suspended sentence would at least send a message to others about society's attitude to such behaviour.




Sunday, 12 March 2017

Yes we can

Although it's been available for more than eighty years, having first been sold in the mid-thirties in the post-Prohibition United States, canned beer has always had a bit of a cheapo image compared to draught, or even bottled, beer, and long been associated with globally-brewed, mass-market lagers.

The last canned beer I drank was probably a widgeted can of nitroflow Guinness at a sports event or in a hotel bar. Although I knew that some microbreweries had begun producing so-called "craft cans", the only pubs I'd seen them on sale in were Wetherspoons, where the draught choice is usually good enough not to bother with anything else, and at home I normally drink bottled beer, but an email from online retailer EeBria tempted me to pick up some from Macclesfield brewery RedWillow.

I've drunk cask versions of a fair few RedWillow beers (all of which have a -less suffix: Feckless, Wreckless etc.) on draught in the pub, and a couple of their bottled equivalents here and there too, so I was interested to see how they'd survive the transition to can. The first one I cracked open, Smokeless, is a beer right up my street: a 5.7% abv smoked porter, albeit one infused with chipotle.

I was expecting lots of fizz and a thin head, but as you can see from the photo there was a decent amount of foam and the beer beneath was softly carbonated: if I'd been asked to, I think I'd have had a hard time distinguishing it from the cask version, although the chipotle flavour was a little bit more pronounced I thought. I'm looking forward to seeing how their hop-forward and fruity pale ales stand up in cans.

There are apparently some can-conditioned beers, including a few German wheat beers, which still have live yeast in the container and would therefore be acceptable to CAMRA in the same way that bottle-conditioned ones are.









Thursday, 9 March 2017

Miss Simone

For the last few days I've been listening to BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week, an abridgement of Alan Light's biography of singer and pianist Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone?

Nina Simone is notable not just for spanning multiple genres in her musical output - blues, jazz, gospel, soul, R&B and pop as well as the classical music she had been trained to perform as a child in North Carolina - but also for being a political figures whose songs Mississippi Goddam and The Backlash Blues (the latter penned by her friend the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes) exemplified the harder-edged, more militant tone the black civil rights movement took on in the sixties in the face of racist intransigence from the Southern states and the Federal government's sluggishness in enforcing freedoms legally won by African-American activists.

Simone acquired a reputation for being "difficult", a trait often ascribed to her having some sort of personality disorder, but given the racism she experienced throughout her life (she refused to play at her first public piano recital until her parents were moved forwards from the back of the concert hall where they had been placed and put onto the front row and later had a place at a music college denied to her on the grounds of her colour before becoming a cabaret act at the bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she adopted her stage name) it was surely either a case of her standing up for herself, or, if it did indeed stem from mental illness, was a reaction to those injustices.





Thursday, 23 February 2017

Up in the air

The Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific has introduced a beer designed to be drunk at altitude.

Betsy is a 5.1% abv unfiltered, bottled beer brewed by the Hong Kong Beer Co. which uses a lager yeast, English Fuggles as well as local New Terrritories hops and 60% wheat malt in the mash. It's named after the first DC-3 aircraft the company flew in its early days in the mid-40's. and supposedly has a flavour profile which works particularly well at thirty-five thousand feet. It all sounds a bit gimmicky to me.

Having a beer on the plane is a ritual which is part of most people's holidays, although you're most likely to get served the product of a global brewer like Amstel or Stella. The one beer I look forward to drinking when flying is Lufthansa's in-flight beer Warsteiner which always seems to have a bit more hoppiness than the average mass-market German Pils.




Monday, 20 February 2017

Another ground, another planet

I went to Edgeley Park in Stockport on Saturday afternoon to watch FC United, the club which split from Manchester United following its takeover by the Glazers, play Stockport County in National League North, the sixth tier of English football.

The last time I went to a match at Edgeley Park, back in 2008, Stockport were in fourth-tier League Two, (heady days!) and I sat towards the back of the Main Stand, amongst the grumbling, seen it all before old codgers you expect to find in that section of the ground, as they beat visitors Accrington Stanley 2-0; this time, I stood with the away fans on the open Railway End as the home side recorded a 2-1 win.

There were four things which separated the match from the modern experience of watching top-flight football:

1. Paying in cash on the turnstile at prices even lower than the already pretty reasonable ones of nine years ago.

2. Standing throughout the match in unreserved seats bolted onto the terracing, allowing groups of teenage lads, older mates, and most importantly the loudest singers to congregate together, so that sound builds behind the goal before spreading across the end.

3. Watching the whole match in the resulting kind of noise which, as it should, leaves you slightly hoarse/deaf when you come out of the ground.

4. The teams playing in unnamed strips numbered 1-11: might seem a minor point, but it just looks right to me.

I don't remotely think that the Premier League is going to allow any of the above any time soon, although there are admirable efforts underway to re-introduce safe standing at top-flight grounds, as already happens in Germany, and from this season at Celtic Park in Glasgow too.


Saturday, 18 February 2017

Just not cricket

The International Cricket Council is once again discussing how the game can be reformed and expanded , beyond the ten Test-playing nations which are its heartlands, especially those on the Indian sub-continent where it's a mass sport.

It's interesting to see that rugby union is being held up as an example of a sport that has expanded beyond the former British Empire, but there are important differences between them which mean that its successes are unlikely to be repeated by cricket.

Except in South Wales, and to a lesser extent the neighbouring areas of South-west England, rugby union is a sport of the upper and middle classes. That means that in both former colonies of the British Empire (Australia, Ireland) and those countries that are not (Argentina, Italy) the game has a social prestige and is thus the chosen sport of private schools and universities rather than the football codes which are the mass, working-class sports in those places.

Although privately-educated players have featured quite heavily in the England cricket team, usually as batsmen, unlike in rugby union they're balanced out by a group of more working-class players from the North and Midlands who often make up the bowling attack (that mix was also present in nineteenth century England rugby teams, before the split between rugby union and rugby league, with Oxbridge backs and forwards from the pit villages and mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire). And when it comes to race and national identity, pretty much any match England plays is against a team descended from colonial subjects, convicts or slaves.

Attempts by rugby league to expand beyond its heartlands (Northern England and the urban east coast of Australia) are also instructive: whereas they have failed repeatedly in London and Wales, where the game has no real roots, and more importantly no social significance beyond the pitch, they have flourished in the politcally and religiously dissident working-class and small-peasant areas of South-west France where, to quote the author  Tony Collins, "rugby league symbolised much more than an alternative set of rules for rugby",




Thursday, 9 February 2017

RIP Alan Simpson

Alan Simpson who died yesterday aged 87 was, along with Ray Galton, one half of the scriptwriting team which wrote two of the most celebrated British TV sitcoms of the 50's, 60's and 70's, Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son.

A number of themes run through both programmes, contributing to the pathos as well as to the comedy in them.

1. Class: all the best British TV comedies are about class, whether inverted as in Dad's Army, with the lower middle-class bank manager Captain Mainwaring in supposed charge of his aristocratic clerk Sergeant Wilson, both of whom rely on the black marketeer Private Walker for essential supplies, or aspiritional in Only Fools and Horses where Peckham tower block dwellers and wheeler dealers Del Boy and Rodney strive unsuccessfully to become yuppies in the Thatcherite 80's.

In Galton and Simpson's sitcoms, there's a lack of connection between how characters see their class position and the reality of it: Albert Steptoe is a working-class Tory who sees himself as a small businessman, and therefore a cut above the neighbours, while his left-wing son Harold, a partner in the firm, nevertheless sees himself as an oppressed worker; Hancock similarly has social aspirations beyond his working or lower middle-class background, in contrast to the spivvy Sid James and their charwoman Patricia Hayes.

2. The frustrated artist/intellectual: Hancock and Harold Steptoe both see themselves as frustrated men of letters, philosphers, artists and actors, unlike those around them who invariably mock their artistic pretensions.

3. Claustrophobia: Hancock's Half Hour takes place first in a small house in Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, and later a bedsit in Earl's Court. Steptoe and Son live in a gloomy house amid a ramshackle, rickety-gated scrapyard in Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd's Bush, which in the episode where Harold takes up amateur dramatics, only to be upstaged, inevitably, by his father, the director of the play mistakes for a theatrical set. The episode of Steptoe and Son where escaped convicts led by Leonard Rossiter turn up there late at night could easily be a short piece by Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett.

4. Post-war imperial decline/the nuclear age: there's a feeling in both series that Britain and the characters' best days are behind them: Hancock and Harold Steptoe probably dreamt of, and might even once have achieved, a place of some sort in a now rapidly disintegrating British Empire. The latter did his National Service in Malaya during the so-called Emergency, an end of empire conflict which eventually led to the colony's independence, while the former's finest hours, as recounted in no doubt exaggerated tales of battlefield exploits, lie further back, in World War II. And hanging over both is the sense that their frustrated, claustrophobic lives might end all too soon in thermonuclear destruction.




Monday, 6 February 2017

Back in Port Street

Club 43, the place to hear modern jazz in Manchester from the early fifties to the late sixties, is returning to its original home, the newly-reopened Stage and Radio Club at 43 Port Street, a thoroughfare between Piccadilly and the Northern Quarter best known now as the location of Port Street Beer House.

Club 43 was owned and operated by jazz promoter Eric Scriven, first at Port Street, then from the mid-fifties in a building on Oxford Road later demolished to make way for the Mancunian Way, and finally, with business partner Ernie Garside, on Amber Street off Shudehill. Pairing British jazz musicians including drummer Phil Seamen and local bebop pianist Joe Palin with such stellar American names as Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins and Max Roach while the latter were on tour in Europe, its closure was the result of a crackdown on late-night music clubs in the late sixties and early seventies by one James Anderton, later a hugely conroversial Chief Constable of Manchester. 

Most of what I know about Club 43 are things I've learnt from fellow members of Manchester Jazz Society who patronised it, played or worked there, including Bill Birch whose book Keeper of the Flame: Modern Jazz in Manchester features photographs, programmes and maps of it.

The relaunched Club 43 kicks off at the end of this month with a session featuring Matt Nickson, of Matt & Phreds jazz club on Tib Street, whom I filmed performing with Mancunian blues legend Victor Brox last year at the Smithfield Market Tavern on Swan Street.








Sunday, 22 January 2017

A Chess Jigsaw Puzzle

I've just bought and am now listening to the complete Chess recordings of sixties soul singer Sugar Pie De Santo. I'm sure I'm not the only person prompted to pick them up after hearing her sing Go Go Power on this TV advert.

Although Chess Records in Chicago is best known as a blues label, in the sixties its subsidiary Checker had a roster of young female soul and R&B singers which as well as Sugar Pie De Santo included Etta James and Fontella Bass.

The liner notes for the album feature photos of Sugar Pie performing at the Jigsaw club in Manchester. There's a bit about it on this forum, suggesting that it operated in the mid to late sixties as a competitor to the better-known Twisted Wheel, but none of the people I've asked who were going to clubs in Manchester then can remember it, and the building on Cromford Court which housed it was flattened in the early seventies to make way for the Arndale Centre.

Here's Sugar Pie in 1964 singing Slip-In Mules, written by Tommy Tucker (real name Robert Higginbotham) in reply to his own hit, Hi-Heel Sneakers.






Tuesday, 10 January 2017

How many teams can a World Cup have?

The FIFA Executive Council has voted unanimously to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, and the number of matches from 64 to 80, starting with the 2026 tournament.

The World Cup which England won in 1966 featured 16 teams, and you could argue that some of those were making up the numbers.

I'm not against teams from around the world playing in the World Cup, but those that qualify for the finals should have at least some chance of winning it. I already only watch a fraction of the matches, and avoid the meaningless ones between teams who you know have no hope of reaching the knock-out stage, let alone lifting the trophy.

It's easy to see the appeal to FIFA of a bigger tournament: more matches means more TV money, especially from its target markets in Asia and Africa, more ticket sales, and more votes in the bag from grateful national federations when it comes to internal elections, but in this case less is definitely more.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Beer In So Many Words

Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post asking why no one had put together an anthology of beer writing. Now, a mere four years later, the publishing world has heeded my request and produced just such a book, a copy of which someone bought me for Christmas.

Beer In So Many Words has excerpts from many of the writers you'd expect to see, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, A.E. Housman and Graham Swift, although suprisingly nothing from the great chronicler of the interwar London pub Patrick Hamilton, along with a few you might not, such as Ernest Hemingway discussing Ballantine IPA, Thomas Mann's description of porter from The Magic Mountain and Robert Graves with a poem about strong ale. I especially liked the phrase penned by Dylan Thomas in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, which I hadn't come across before, about "the taste of beer , its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet-brown walls of the glass".

One my favourite pieces though is a 1974 Sunday Times article by Ian Nairn about the state of English beer and pubs, in which he also references fellow campaigners Frank Baillie, Richard Boston and Christopher Hutt, whose first words signal how close we came to losing cask beer: "It my be the fifty-ninth second of the fifty-ninth minute after eleven o'clock, but I think there is now a chance of saving what remains of draught beer in Britain."