Monday, 1 April 2019

D-Day approaches

With Britain's scheduled departure from the European Union now less than a fortnight away, a secret Government document outlining what a no deal exit from the 28-member trading bloc might entail has come to light.

The 42-page dossier entitled Advanced Planning Regulations If Leave Finally Only Option Left, discovered by a parliamentary clerk inside Lord Lucan's missing backgammon set, lists a number of measures which the government intends to implement on the first day of Brexit, including:

1. Petrol to be rationed so as to restrict car journeys to within ten miles of the coupon holder's home address. Special dispensations may be sought for journeys of an especially patriotic nature, e.g. coach expeditions by ornithologists in search of the sialia sialis above the white cliffs of Dover.

2. A new Small Growers' Relief is to be introduced in agriculture, although HMRC is yet to confirm whether this refers to the stature of the farmer or size of their plot. Keen allotment holder and Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn is said to be drafting an amendent restricting this to the growing of organic vegan produce.

3. Working hours are to be cut across the civil service, staff with surnames beginning A-K working Monday morning to Wednesday dinnertime, those with surnames beginning L-W Wednesday dinnertime to Friday afternoon, and those with surnames beginning X, Y or Z being excused from attending completely.

4. A new 2.8% abv limit introduced for beer and a ban on the importation of foreign wines and spirits to boost domestic production of British vodka, champagne and J├Ągermeister. Wetherspoons to be nationalised under workers' control in order to maintain public morale.

The new British National Diet to be introduced in all schools (baguettes to be renamed long bread rolls).





















Thursday, 28 March 2019

In and Out of Some Stockport Pubs

The chairman of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA John Clarke is putting together a list of pubs which have closed in the branch area since it was formed in 1974.

As part of the discussion around that, someone mentioned a book I hadn't heard of before, The Inns and Outs of Stockport Taverns by Coral Dranfield, so I got myself a copy of it.

Since the book's publication in 2011, quite a few of the historic pubs it lists have closed, including the Florist, Shaw Heath, the Flying Dutchman, Higher Hillgate, the Waterloo just off it, the George, Wellington Road North, and Winters, Little Underbank; one, the Pack Horse/Cocked Hat, has shut and then re-opened, whilst another, and possibly the oldest of them all, the Angel Inn on the Market Place, has recently reverted to being a pub, having shut as one in the early 50s.

Although I've been on guided walks and cellar tours around them, I didn't know that the Bakers Vaults and Boars Head on the Market Place once had, respectively, marines billetted with them or a pole in the bar where you could tie up your pig, or that the steps next to the Queen's Head on Little Underbank used to be closed one day a year to stop a public right of way being created there. I also didn't know that the Blossoms in Heaviley used to be called the Wellington Arms, or that the now closed Wellington Inn (also known as the Ups and Downs because the upper half was above the elevated Wellington Road South and the lower half beneath it, close to Mersey Square) was originally called the Wellington Bridge Inn to avoid confusion with the former.

Stockport's obsession with the  Anglo-Irish general and politician (I once worked for the civil service at Apsley House on Wellington Road North, next to Wellesley House, before transferring to Heron House on Wellington Street, just off Wellington Road South, and round the corner from the Waterloo) continues with the Wellington Free House, which opened last year a bit further up the A6. We once had a works Christmas do at the White Lion, also now closed, another contender for Stockport's oldest pub.





Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A class act

The civil service is to introduce a new question for job applicants, asking them whether they think that they come from a lower socio-economic background.

Of course the popular image of a civil servant is a bowler-hatted, rolled-up umbrella-wielding Sir Humphrey strolling along Whitehall with a copy of The Times under his arm, but in reality the term spans a huge spectrum, from the relatively small ranks of senior civil servants with their high pay and pensions to a far larger number of junior ones earning not much more than the minimum wage.

I worked in the administrative grades of the civil service for just over ten years, from the beginning of 1997 to the end of 2007, in what was first the Department of Social Security and then Department for Work and Pensions, and was also a trade union activist, briefly in the admin grade CPSA and then, following a merger with another union, the current, multigrade, union, PCS.

I'm not sure what I would have answered to the question, probably "No", but that's one of the problems with this idea: most people, whether they are rich or poor, think of themselves as average, because that is their and their friends' and family's experience, and because they wrongly estimate (poor people slightly underestimating and rich people wildly overestimating) what an average income actually is. There is also the problem of non-manual workers, some of them low-paid, seeing themselves as middle-class because they wrongly associate being working class with manual labour.

I'm also not sure what the civil service intends to do with the data. Two long-term studies, Whitehall I and II, have linked pay inequality and lack of job control in the civil service with a reduced life expectancy amongst lower-grade workers, and at the other end of the scale the Fast Stream graduate entry scheme continues to channel a disproportionate number of white, privately-educated men from elite universities into the top jobs rather than promoting people within departments.






Monday, 18 March 2019

Jarring Carling

Last week's episode of the BBC Two series Inside the Factory saw presenter Gregg Wallace visit the ex-Bass brewery in Burton-on-Trent to see how Molson Coors make Carling, "the UK's most popular lager", there (there's also an interview with ex-Bass brewer Steve Wellington about Burton water at the adjacent brewing museum).

There weren't quite as many questionable historical facts as you might imagine from such a programme (apart from the myth about IPA needing to be stronger than other beers to survive the sea voyage to British India), but a few things that he was told while going round the brewery with one of the workers had me scratching my head.

They use hop pellets he was told because most of the actual hop flower is "waste". I'm pretty sure that pellets are used in large-scale commercial brewing for economic reasons, because they're easier to store and use, rather than any intrinsic value compared to whole hops.

He was also surprised, when weighing it out on a old-fashioned mechanical scales, at the amount of hops used: 21 kilograms for 190,000 pints, which I make to be 0.06 lbs per 288 pint barrel. I know British beer isn't as hoppy as it was in the nineteenth century, when a hopping rate of 2 to 3 lbs per barrel was the norm, or even in the second half of the twentieth century, when it was around a pound a barrel, but I think cask beer still contains about half a pound a barrel. Maybe modern hop varities have more bittering agents in them, or perhaps Carling hasn't got much of a hop profile...

The final scene saw the filtered, force-carbonated and pasteurised end product dispatched in palleted cans onto lorries for distribution, with a comment from a brewery worker that it has to go straight out after its short fermentation period because there are no storage facilities at the plant (the German word "lager" means "storage") and a reply from the presenter that, at twelve days from the malt arriving at the brewery to the finished beer leaving it, it just goes to show that some industrial processes still can't be rushed (German and Czech beers brewed using traditional contintental methods are lagered for between two and six months).










Thursday, 28 February 2019

Minding our language gap

The news yesterday that the teaching of foreign languages in English secondary schools is in steep decline, disappearing from the curriculum in large parts of the country, was sad, but hardly surprising.

One striking example is that thirty-seven local authority areas, including some of the poorest (North Tyneside, Knowsley, Wigan, Rochdale) now enter fewer pupils for foreign language exams than the elite Eton College.

I did French and German to "A" Level in the late 80's, but never felt really confident about speaking them in a real life situation until the last decade or so, when I started going to Germany and the French-speaking part of Belgium on beer trips, and was pleasantly surprised how much came back within a few hours of my being there.

Apparently foreign languages, especially French and German, are seen as too hard, both by students choosing which subjects to study to GCSE and their teachers. A big part of that is exam results counting towards a school's position in the league tables, and hence their funding. And of course, once people stop studying foreign languages at school it has a knock-on effect on both the number of undergraduates studying them at university and those qualified to teach them.

I was also one of the last half dozen people to take "O" Level Latin at a state school in Stockport, although sadly I don't get much chance to use it now.









Thursday, 7 February 2019

Forty years of beer on film

I picked up a DVD last week, at the end of CAMRA's online January sale, about the history of the organisation, released in 2011 to mark its fortieth anniversary.

Quite a lot of the things in it are of course familiar, from the founding of the campaign by four young men, three of them journalists, in a pub in the West of Ireland, while on holiday there in 1971, to footage of the first festival they organised, a forerunner to the Great British Beer Festival, in Covent Garden flower market in 1975, but there are still a few other things that I didn't know before, including the full story about how Bateman's Brewery was saved and the fact that the right-wing Tory MP for Macclesfield Nicholas Winterton served on the board of CAMRA's investment arm in the 1970s. The unintended conseuences of the 1989 Beer Orders, championed by CAMRA at the time, is also explored with more self-examination than you might expect.

It was good to put a face and voice to the beer writer Christopher Hutt, whose pioneering work helped to launch the campaign, along with that of Frank Baillie and Richard Boston, although I was a bit surprised that there was no mention of Michael Jackson who, despite focussing more on continental and North American beers, was also an important influence in the early years of the organisation.

There's a rather prescient bit in the film where one of the directors of Fuller, Smith and Turner is interviewed and admits that in the early seventies the board was considering selling their Chiswick brewery site for development into a hotel and housing and becoming just a pub company...




Friday, 25 January 2019

RIP Hugh McIlvanney

The sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney, who has died aged 84, was one of the country's most distinguished football writers in a career which spanned more than five decades, and several Fleet Street newspapers, until his retirement only a few years ago.

I think I first became aware of McIlvanney when I watched the TV programme he wrote and presented about the trinity of legendary Scottish football managers of the fifties and sixties, Matt Busby at Manchester United, Bill Shankly at Liverpool and Jock Stein who led Celtic to European Cup glory in Lisbon in 1967, as Busby did with United the following year at Wembley.

McIlvanney came from the same working-class background, the mining villages of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire in the West of Scotland, a world of hard and dangerous manual labour from a young age and a culture of self-reliance and self-education that has now all but disappeared.

I can imagine McIlvanney chatting to Busby,  Shankly or Stein with a glass of Scotch whisky in hand at the bar of a lounge above the stand at Old Trafford, Anfield or Celtic Park after a big European night under the newly-installed floodlights in the sixties, analysing in their soft Scottish brogues the team's performance in the match just played, reminiscing about the junior football they would all have known in their youth, and maybe marvelling at how far they had travelled in their different paths from that time and place.


Tuesday, 15 January 2019

1976 and all that

I've just picked up a copy of the 1976 Good Beer Guide, published seven years before the 1983 one which until now was the earliest edition I had (I couldn't find a cheap copy of the 1975 or 1974 editions which preceded it online).

It's a pretty slim volume, reflecting the number of breweries then producing cask beer, their limited range (locally, Holt's brewed just two, a mild and bitter, and Hydes, Robinson's and Lees four, an ordinary and/or best bitter, a light and/or dark mild and a, often seasonal, strong ale) and the terse descriptions of both the beers ("smooth", "malty", "thin", "unexceptional") and pubs ("no nonsense", "lively").

Although many of the pubs have since closed, been converted to other uses or demolished, a few which I'm familiar with have survived, albeit some with different owners than those they had forty years ago: in Manchester city centre, Robinson's Castle, Hydes Grey Horse and Jolly Angler, the Circus, Crown and Kettle (then respectively Tetley and Wilsons pubs) and Sam's Chop House ("The haunt of expense-account businessmen"), and in Stockport town centre Robinson's Arden Arms ("Three grandfather clocks") and the Crown, then a Boddingtons pub, now a free house, and still with a spectacular view of the Victorian railway viaduct, even if not, as in 1976, from the outside gents toilets.


Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Tynt bad at all

To celebrate the New Year yesterday, I opened a bottle of Tynt Meadow, a strong ale brewed since last summer by monks at Mount St. Bernard Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Coalville, Leicestershire, and named after the field in which the original monks lived in a small house after they relocated from post-revolutionary France in the early nineteenth century.

The monks have been helped by Trappist breweries in Belgium to develop their beer (although the monastery brewed in the nineteenth century, that recipe had been lost), and they also made a trip to Robinson's Brewery in Stockport to pick up some brewing tips.

The resulting beer is quite similar to a Belgian Trappist ale: bottle-conditioned, mid-brown, with a fruity, almost date-like, flavour, and, at 7.4% abv, a warming alcoholic finish.

I thought it appropriate to pour the beer into a Robinson's Old Tom glass given the assistance the monks received from them. 

It also reminded of an incident when I worked at Stockport social security office: a man in religious garb walked into reception, explained that he had run out of money while doing missionary work in the town, and asked to borrow some to get back to his monastery in the  Midlands. The supervisor recalled a rule that you couldn't give loans to monks - which I think goes back to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the English Reformation, when displaced monks began roaming the countryside, subsisting on parish relief - but a phone call to the monastery revealed that he was a novice who had yet to take his final vows, so we gave him his train fare, which was promptly repaid by the religious order on his return to them.