Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Back in town

I met up with a mate who happened to be in town and went on a bit of a pub crawl round Manchester city centre yesterday afternoon, the first time I'd been there since the beginning of 2020.

Before the start of the pandemic, I went into town at least once a week, a ten minute train journey through the south Manchester suburbs on which, having done it hundreds of times over the years, I got to know the order of the intermediate stations by heart and almost every yard of junction, siding and signalling we passed through. It was quite surreal seeing it all again yesterday.

The pubs we went to - the Piccadilly Tap, City Arms and Britons Protection - were all pretty much the same as three years ago, although the last seems to be imperilled not just by the ongoing dispute with its owner, but also the still expanding cluster of apartment towers at the end of Deansgate

The most startling thing really was seeing the town hall encased in white plastic sheeting and Albert Square occupied by a mountain of builder's portacabins.

Sunday, 19 February 2023

We're All Doomed (Bar None)

There are four pubs within a mile of where I live. They are all dining places to a greater or lesser degree and only one, a Holt's house, regularly serves cask beer; in the others, which have it on occasionally, it's normally represented by a single handpump for Sharp's Doom Bar.

As a national brand of bitter, Doom Bar is often dismissed as a boring brown beer, despite being the UK's best selling cask ale and favourably reviewed by at least one blogger. I drank, and enjoyed, it on a CAMRA stagger around the area last summer, and saw it on the bar of a couple of pubs while on another of Cheadle Hulme on Friday night, although it was either unavailable or overlooked in favour of better cask options 

I popped into the largest local pub, which also has a hotel attached to it, the other afternoon (most of its trade comes from Manchester Airport, whose runways lie a couple of hundred yards to the west). Unlike on my last visit, Doom Bar was available, but the bar was completely deserted and, wanting to avoid the first pint out of the pump, I swerved it and had half a Guinness instead, which being the normal rather than Extra Cold version wasn't actually a bad drink. I'll call in at the weekend when it's a bit busier, I thought, and duly did yesterday afternoon, only to find a pint pot atop the handpump again, so had another half a Guinness.

Guinness is a bit of a thing itself at the moment, overtaking Carling Black Label as the best selling UK beer brand, a position the latter had held since the early eighties (although it's still top in volumes rather than revenue, and the market for stout is still much smaller than the overall lager one). Anecdotally, I seem to have seen more people drinking it in pubs recently, including younger ones. Could keg lager become a declining beer style favoured by older drinkers like cask bitter and mild before it?

I've been in ten different pubs so far this year, the same as the first two months of 2020, compared to only half a dozen last year, and thirty-eight in 2019.

Boak and Bailey have written a very useful summary of Doom Bar's rise from regional beer to national brand.

Carling Black Label is an older beer than you might think, having been brewed in Canada since the late twenties and available here in bottles since the early fifties and on draught since the mid sixties, as explained in Ron Pattinson's excellent, and typically comprehensive, history of British lager.

Thursday, 5 January 2023

Kafka and beer

I've been re-reading in the last few days some of the works of Franz Kafka, which I first discovered as a teenager in the eighties.

As with Dickens, Orwell, Patrick Hamilton, and his compatriot Jaroslav Hasek, there are very few novels or longer short stories by Kafka which don't feature pubs, beer, or the effects of drinking, often in the opening chapter or even paragraph: the young land surveyor K. in The Castle who arrives late on a winter night at the village inn where a "few peasants were still sitting over beer"; the victim of The Trial, Josef K., who on leaving the office at nine would "go to a beer hall, where until eleven he sat at a table"; and Metamorphosis, which can be seen as a description of a hangover.

Coming from a well-off, German speaking Jewish family, Kafka felt alienated by his class, language and religion from much of the society around him in early twentieth century Prague, but there was one thing he shared with his fellow Czechs: an appreciation of good beer, still ubiquitous in his native Bohemia.

Kafka's relationship with his father was a difficult one, but dying of tuberculosis at the age of forty in a sanatorium outside Vienna in 1924, and unable to swallow much, he wrote to his parents about how "during heat spells, we used to have beer together quite often, many years ago, when Father would take me to the Civilian Swimming Pool" and recalled the same childhood memory to his girlfriend Dora who nursed him there:

"When I was a little boy, before I learnt to swim, I sometimes went with my father, who also can't swim, to the non-swimmer's section. Then we sat together naked at the buffet, each with a sausage and a half litre of beer...You have to imagine, that enormous man holding by the hand a nervous little bundle of bones, or the way we undressed in the dark in the little changing room, the way he would then drag me out, because I was embarrassed, the way he tried to teach me his so-called swimming, etcetera. But then the beer!"

I'm still hoping to go to Prague myself one day, possibly when the sleeper train from Berlin starts running there next year; I'll be sure to raise a glass of pivo to him when I finally get there.


Thursday, 29 December 2022

Golden Pints 2022

Having read Boak and Bailey's, I was inspired to put together my own list of favourite beery things from 2022. I like the subtitle of their post, "notes on an almost normal year": despite the final Covid restrictions being lifted at the end of January, it's been another tough year for the beer industry as soaring energy prices and other rising costs have seen pubs and breweries shut and drinkers' pockets hit.

Looking back at the first time I did this in 2013, and the last in 2017, I saw how little some of my answers have changed in the last decade. I'm not sure if that indicates a reassuring adherence to tradition, or a worrying failure to explore new things...


I've only been to half a dozen pubs this year, mostly my local – either side of yet another refurbishment by Holt's in November – and a few other food-led places within walking distance, including on a CAMRA crawl in July which also saw my first visit to a newish micropub, as well as a couple of multi-cask specialist free houses in Stockport, the Magnet, where I spent a memorable afternoon in September, and the one I'm going to give the prize to, Ye Olde Vic in Edgeley, whose twenty-one years in the Good Beer Guide we celebrated in August.

Draught beer 

Holt's Bitter: despite progressively wrecking my local in the last twenty years, the north Manchester brewery still produces a top cask pint.

Bottled beer 

Fuller's 1845 is still my favourite British bottled beer. I've also enjoyed a few bottles of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout and Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen.


I only went to one, Stockport in June, the last at Edgeley Park, at least for now, before the move to the Masonic Hall in 2023.


I've read two pretty much every day, Ron Pattinson's Shut Up About Barclay Perkins and Retired Martin, whose posts from the Rhineland I particularly enjoyed, as well as BRAPA, Boak and Bailey, Paul Bailey, Pub Curmudgeon, Tandleman and Zythophile as they published on theirs. Cooking Lager deserves a special mention for this post about the pubs of Reddish.

Saturday, 17 December 2022

London Calling?

Yet another review into the future of rugby league, this time by consultants IMG, has concluded that what the sport really needs is a top flight London team, pointing to the healthy attendance at Arsenal's stadium for England's World Cup semi-final against Samoa last month, in contrast to a lower turnout for their opening match of the competition in Newcastle.

The idea of a London club in the top flight of rugby league is not a new one: Wigan Highfield relocated to the White City stadium in the early thirties and Fulham FC established a side to play at their Craven Cottage ground in the early eighties, while semi-professional teams London Broncos and Skolars still exist lower down the league structure, the former having played in the Super League before.

There has always been a tension in rugby league between concentrating resources on the game's Northern heartlands and attempting to extend its appeal beyond them, which in the twentieth century was reflected in a long debate amongst its governing bodies as to whether the Challenge Cup Final should be played at Wembley, and while some expansion projects have flourished, notably Australasia and France, others have spectacularly foundered, including Paris, Newcastle, Wales and Toronto, although the last was really scuppered by the travel restrictions brought in at the start of the Covid pandemic rather than a lack of public interest.

The game's authorities have two groups of supporters in mind for a London team: rugby league fans from the North who now live there, and potential new converts from rugby union, who they think can be won over by the sport's innate strengths (tough tackling, speedy passing and running with the ball, and an emphasis on try scoring rather than penalties, scrums and kicking into touch), as well as the kind of casual spectator who turned up at Arsenal's stadium a few weeks ago, and has largely filled the seats for the NFL International Series since it was first played in the capital in 2007, and which has also led to calls for a team in North America's biggest sports competition to be (re)located here.

Ultimately what a London based club really needs to take off though is a production line running through schools, junior amateur sides and its own academy to provide a stream of talented young players, rather than having to rely on expensive imports from the North and Australasia.

Monday, 12 December 2022

Books of the Year

I seem to have read a few more books than normal this year, partly because I've got into online and eBooks (Project Gutenberg is a good resource for that). Many of my choices have been inspired by watching TV or film adaptations of novels.

The Adventures of Phillip by William Makepeace Thackeray

I started the year with the sequel to the unfinished novel I ended 2021 with, A Shabby Genteel Story.

The Path to Rome by Hilaire Belloc 

Belloc was a great walker and this travel journal with his own illustrations documents the pilgrimage he made in 1902 from Toul, the French town where he had completed his military service, to Rome.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

I've had this on my bookshelves for years, and finally got round to reading it after seeing another TV adaptation of it. 

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

A very topical novel set in a plague struck seventeenth century Lombardy, with both religious and class themes.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I read this after watching the film, which has significant plot differences from the novel. Steinbeck interleaves his tale of Dust Bowl refugees in thirties California with political commentary generalising from the experiences of its characters.

Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

A classic example of how you can turn a longish short story  into a two hour film.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust

Having read Swann's Way, the first volume of Proust's famously long novel In Search of Lost Time, I moved onto the second, in which the upper class Parisian characters travel to a Normandy seaside resort for the summer.

The Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France

France appears as a character in Proust, which led me to this, his best known work.

The Card by Arnold Bennett

Having lived in Stoke as a student in the early nineties, I recognised many of the locations in this Potteries-set comic novel about an ambitious young man.

Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

A modern recreation of Patrick Leigh Fermor's classic interwar tramp across Central Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.

The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musill

Also set in Central Europe, at a military academy on the edge of the Austria-Hungarian empire before WWI, this novel strongly prefigures the militarism and fascism about to overwhelm the continent.

Hell Is A City by Maurice Proctor

I blogged about the film based on this Mancunian detective thriller here, although there's a major plot difference at the end of the novel.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

I think we all know what this book is about.

Ritual by David Pinner

The novel on which the film The Wicker Man is loosely based, although again there are major plot differences.

Adam Bede/Felix Holt/Middlemarch by George Eliot

A midsummer blitz of works by the English Midlands most famous novelist.

The Professor/Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Some unkind critics have claimed that this is really the same novel written twice, one with a male and the other a female protagonist, and both draw on the author's experiences teaching at a school in Brussels.

The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Political crisis wracks England as a mysterious virus from the Far East sweeps across Europe and climate change threatens human existence in this prophetic sci-fi novel.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John Le Carré

Somewhat ironically, I read this Cold War spy thriller straight through while sheltering indoors on the hottest day of the year.

The Decembrists/The Devil by Leo Tolstoy

An unfinished sequel to the much longer War and Peace, although started before it, and a short story about a love triangle involving a rich young man who inherits a country estate.

The Misfits by Arthur Miller

A cinematic novel based on the screenplay for the modern Western which was the last film of both Miller's then wife Marilyn Monroe and her co-star Clark Gable.

The Attack on the Mill/The Flood/The Fête at Coqueville by Émile Zola

Having  read most of his Rougon-Macquart series of novels, I whipped through a few of Zola's short stories, the first two about disasters striking rural communities, and the last a comedy about washed up barrels of wine overcoming ancient enmities in a Normandy fishing village.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Grahame based the character of Toad in his Thamesside children's story on the politician Horatio Bottomley, but his boundless ego and reckless self-promotion inevitably brings to mind the first of this year's three Prime Ministers.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

You can't read this novel, which combines espionage, comedy, romance and religion, without thinking of the title character in the film version played by Alec Guinness (like Greene, a convert to Catholicism who often struggled with his faith).



Saturday, 19 November 2022

Advance Australia's Pair

A day before the football World Cup kicks off atop the graves of thousands of migrant workers killed building the stadia for it in Qatar, the Australian men's and women's teams both lifted the top prize in a double header final of the Rugby League World Cup at Old Trafford this afternoon.

You could probably have put both Australian teams down as trophy winners before they boarded the plane from the Antipodes; the only real surprise was that it was Samoa that the men's team beat in the final, after the Pacific Islanders' shock extra time golden point drop goal victory against hosts England in the semi-final at Arsenal's stadium last Saturday afternoon.

The dominance of Australia in international rugby league - with a dozen World Cup wins out of the fifteen contested since the first in France in 1954 - is down to a number of things: the Australasian NRL is the top level, and highest paid, domestic competition in the world, attracting the best young players from both Europe and the Pacific Islands; League is not only the leading rugby code in Australia, but also the foremost sport in the big cities on its eastern coast, with youth systems feeding a stream of talent into its clubs and the national side; and in the women's game, the female version of the NRL is now fully professional, hence the achievement of England's semi-pro women in reaching a semi-final against today's runners-up New Zealand.

There's lots to celebrate from this World Cup, including the emergence of Pacific Island quarter finalists Tonga and Samoa alongside established rugby league nation Papua New Guinea, the expansion of the women's competition, and England winning the wheelchair final at Manchester Central last night - I'm already looking forward to the 2025 tournament in France.