Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A half in a pint pot

The latest issue of CAMRA's Beer magazine has a debate about the measures beer is served in.

The Government is changing the law to allow pubs to serve beer in a two thirds of a pint measure. At the moment, the legal measures are a pint, a half pint and a third of a pint (known as a nip and now normally only seen at beer festivals).

The arguments for introducing the two thirds of a pint measure seem completely spurious to me. OK, sometimes you want to drink less than a pint. That's where the half pint comes in. The guy in the CAMRA magazine argues that not only is half a pint not enough but that it is "unmanly" to drink out of a half pint glass. I've never really encountered this attitude, even in pubs mainly frequented by "manly" types such as miners. And if you're that bothered about drinking out of a half pint glass, order a half in a pint pot. If you're at a beer festival where you don't get a new glass every time you go to the bar, there's an incentive to do this anyway as the half in the pint pot is likely to be nearer two thirds of a pint in most cases.

The way things are going, we could end up like Australia where each state not only has its own measures but different names for them as well.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Barbarism begins at home

The comments by Labour MP David Lammy over the weekend that last summer's riots, which began in his Tottenham constituency, happened at least in part because "parents are scared to smack their children" are not exactly the cutting edge intellectual "big ideas" that his party needs if it is to return to power at the next election.

Much of the subsequent debate was based on the bizarre assumption that "smacking" children has been made illegal when it clearly has not. Lammy was actually talking about the clarification in the 2004 Children's Act as to how hard parents can hit their children.

"Smacking" is of course a euphemism, a polite way of saying "hitting" or "beating". Hitting your children should be just as unacceptable socially and legally as domestic violence (which of course is exactly what it is). The idea that hitting children will make them more rounded and sensitive individuals is of course a sick joke. All the excuses about discipline and not being able to reason with children are just that and are ultimately based on the fact that children are too small to hit back. Parents who regularly beat their children - including Lammy who admits to hittting his three and five year old sons - are bullies and should be treated as the perpetrators of domestic violence.

I once saw a woodwork teacher in anger, and rather unwisely as it turned out, throw a block of wood at the head of the biggest boy in the class. Not only did it miss him but he then proceeded to punch the teacher in the face, leaving him with a black eye. The teacher was now in a bind as reporting the boy to the headmaster (who had the power to cane pupils) would have opened him up to more serious charges.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Bankers and bonuses

There's been a lot of anger today - and rightly so - that Stephen Hester, the boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland, is to receive a bonus of £963,000 on top of his annual salary of £1.2 million. As the Government owns 83% of the shares in RBS after it bailed it out in 2008 with taxpayers' money, it was its decision to award the top up on his already high salary.

The justifications given for paying someone who is effectively a public official such a massive salary and bonuses, as opposed to the much lower but still generous wages paid to senior civil servants, are usually as follows:

1. we need to attract the best people.
2. it was a contractual entitlement we inherited.
3. if we don't pay them this money, the bankers will leave RBS and probably the country as well.

To which I would answer:

1. a lot of the people who steered RBS onto the rocks were also supposedly "the best people" who had to be paid equally high salaries. I'm sure there are lots of people with a working knowledge of economics who would take the job for a fraction of the salary and no bonus.
2. either "Sue us" or pay it weekly by order book at the post office, in pound coins.
3. Goodbye!


Thursday, 26 January 2012

The key to cask

I read with interest the results of CAMRA's experiments with KeyCask at last summer's Great British Beer Festival. KeyCask, as the article on the CAMRA website explains, "is similar to a wine box, where beer is held in a flexible “bladder” inside a rigid plastic sphere. The beer is dispensed by air being drawn in between the outer sphere and the bladder as the beer is drawn out by a handpump."

Apparently the views of beer drinkers were mixed (when are they not!) with the majority of the people who tasted the same beer dispensed by KeyCask and from a traditional cask preferring the latter. Opinion has been similarly divided over Marston's FastCask system which allows cask beer to drop bright quicker.

Coming up with other ways to dispense cask beer in places where it is normally not available - cricket grounds, trains, ships - can only be a good thing. Even if it tastes a bit different to cask beer conditioned in the pub cellar, it's surely better than the keg alternative.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Football, racism and the law

The idea that football operates outside and above the law has received a boost in the past month.

Liverpool player Luis Suarez has been banned for eight matches for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. He has not however been charged with racial harassment, unlike England captain John Terry who is to stand trial for allegedly racially abusing QPR centre-half Anton Ferdinand, or indeed the Liverpool fan on the Kop - ironically wearing a Justice for Suarez T-shirt - arrested after a black Oldham player was subjected to racial abuse.

Over at the City of Manchester Stadium, Mario Balotelli is to be banned for four matches after he stamped on the head of Spurs midfielder Scott Parker in last weekend's Premier League match and Carlos Tevez has been fined six weeks wages for his one-man strike in Buenos Aires.

These actions - racial abuse, assault, refusal to carry out your job - would in any other workplace lead to dismissal and/or arrest. It seems though that in the parallel world of football it's OK to deal with them internally unless someone makes a complaint to the police.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Church of Rome in England

The idea that there's any lingering anti-Catholicism in England took another blow yesterday as Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Dunacan Smith led the charge against the poor that is the Government's Welfare Reform Bill and ex-Tory party chairman and now head of the BBC governors Chris Patten appeared before the Leveson Inquiry into press standards alongside BBC chief executive Mark Thompson.

The Church of England has been pretty accurately described as the Tory party at prayer. The reverse is not quite the case though: as well as a Nonconformist former PM (Thatcher), the Tories also have a sprinkling of upper-class Catholics in their ranks like Michael Ancram and Julian Fellowes.

As a lapsed Catholic atheist from Manchester, I am unsurprisingly descended from the Irish peasant and labouring classes who since the nineteenth century have been more prevalent in the North West of England than the upper-class descendants of English recusants. The priests and bishops I knew in my youth came from Cavan or Mayo rather than Ampleforth or Stonyhurst. Although I've never met an upper-class Catholic, I nevertheless have a interest in and certain regard for the English recusants who refused to give up their faith and went underground, sending their sons to be educated on the Continent and smuggling in priests. In part this is based on having enjoyed Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Paul Scofield's superb performance as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons but is also to do with being impressed by people prepared to stand against the stream whatever the cost.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Racking up rents

It looks like there will be a mini-revolt on the Government benches in the House of Lords later today over the Welfare Reform Bill. Lib Dem peer Paddy Ashdown has said he will vote against proposals to cap benefits at £26,000 per household per year and others are likely to join him, including it appears at least some of the twenty-six Anglican bishops who sit in the Lords.

The Government are appealing to a number of right-wing tabloid myths in the Welfare Reform Bill. Ashdown's specific objection is to the capping of Child Benefit which in the Tory mindset is about stopping the feckless poor overbreeding and punishing the moral failings of single mothers. The Bill is essentially a divide and rule tactic, telling workers that their enemy is not the bosses but other workers who are living it up at their expense by having lots of children or swinging the lead on Incapacity Benefit.

£26,000 is equivalent to £500 a week. A large percentage of that will be taken up by Housing Benefit. Nowhere in all the media coverage is there any discussion as to where that money goes, not to benefit claimants but to their landlords. The root problem is not that benefits are too generous but that rents in private rented accommodation are too high.

The situation is especially acute in London, especially in central London where demand for housing far outstrips supply. Two things could be done to tackle this: regulation of the housing market by the Government introducing strict rent control and building more council houses.

Another point overlooked by the media is the circular relationship between the Government, banks and private landlords. The boom in building private flats in the 2000's was funded by credit and many of them were bought by private landlords on buy to let mortgages so at least part of the money paid out in Housing Benefit ends up via interest payments in the hands of banks bailed out by the taxpayer.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The ties that bind

It seems that the tie is in irreversible decline.  Martin Roth, the new German head of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has said that he is shocked by how few English men now wear one.

The interesting thing when a BBC reporter did a vox pop of men wearing ties was that without exception they all said they that didn't enjoy wearing them and took them off as soon as they could.

Although I've been associated in the public mind with ties, I wouldn't be so bold as to claim credit for a shift in social trends that has been going on for decades.  Looking at old photos of my relatives - engineering workers from Manchester and miners from Wigan - sporting ties on the beach at Blackpool, it's clear that wearing a tie even on holiday is one of the many things that were thankfully cast aside in the 1960's.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Go Your Own Way

The debate on Scottish independence includes an argument over whether Scotland can unilaterally decide to leave the union or whether it needs the agreement of the United Kingdom parliament at Westminster to do so.

I'm not expert enough to give an opinion on the legal and constitutional aspects but it seems to me that historically secession only really works where it is agreed on both sides.  There is a long list of states which have unilaterally seceeded sparking conflicts, armed or otherwise: the Confederate States of America, Bangladesh, Yugoslavia, Rhodesia. 

I'm not saying that countries should obtain the permission of the states they are unwilling to be part of any longer before they secede.  Ireland clearly had a right to take up arms in in the 1919 War of Independence that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and the secession of 26 counties as the Irish Free State.  But it would obviously have been better if Britain had agreed - and it clearly wasn't going to without a fight - to respect the will of the majority of the Irish people as expressed by Dáil Éireann's Declaration of Independence and let Ireland secede from the United Kingdom.

The chances of an armed conflict if Scotland holds a referendum and declares itself independent without the go-ahead of Westminster are slim but there would presumably be diplomatic and financial repercussions.  The best model for separation (something I still think is unnecessary and unlikely to happen) would be the so-called Velvet Divorce of 1993 in which Czechoslovakia agreed to split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A pub with no beer (part two)

I again found myself in a pub with no cask beer last night.  It normally has well-kept beer but is having its cellar rebuilt, hence the lack of cask.  I was thus faced with the - thankfully rare - question of what to drink. It being a cold night in Manchester, I ended up drinking Irish whiskey.

Looking at some of the early Good Beer Guides from the 1970's, they talk about bottle conditioned beers like Guinness and Worthington White Shield as the fallback choice in a pub that only serves keg beer on draught.  At the time, there were only five bottled conditioned beers available in Britain. Now there are hundreds but how often do you see any of them in a pub?  They seem to me the obvious answer for pubs which for whatever reason can't serve cask beer.

A CAMRA prediction from the early 70's, made for example by Christopher Hutt in The Death of the English Pub, also seems to be coming true: self-service.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The cost of cruising

The accident involving the Italian ship Costa Concordia has helped to shine a light on the whole cruise industry and not before time.

As oil and gas runs out, travelling by sea (whether in sailing ships or solar-powered ones) could become an enviromentally friendly alternative to long-haul airline flights, especially if we had longer holidays which meant we could travel at a slower pace.  Cruise ships though are in a very different category.  As well as their environmental impact - the amount of food and water they carry, the waste they produce and the need to deepen and widen harbours to allow them to dock - there are also labour rights issues affecting the mainly migrant workers who crew them.  With its high turnover of staff, the catering industry has always been hard to unionise.  When the workplace is floating around an ocean thousands of miles away, that task is even harder.

Nautilus International, the trade union organisation that represents seafarers, has also pointed out the dangers of high-sided mega-ships carrying thousands of passengers with only a small hull in the water, an unheeded warning it seems of what happened in the waters off Tuscany last week.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Prisoners of Poundland

I wish Cait Reilly well in her legal challenge about unemployed people being forced to work for free.  As someone who's been involved in a high profile legal case against my employer, I also sympathise with her over the way she's been attacked in the tabloid press by uninformed and overpaid right-wing journalists.

Reilly is an unemployed graduate from Birmingham who volunteers in a museum.  The jobcentre told her she had to accept a two week "training placement" at Poundland or lose her meagre unemployment benefit of £53 a week.  The "training placement" was unsurprisingly nothing of the sort, consisting of stacking shelves and cleaning floors.

There is of course nothing wrong with unemployed people being offered training or volunteering.  When I was unemployed in the mid-90's, I took a computer course arranged by the jobcentre.  After I was made redundant a few years ago, I volunteered as an advisor in a law centre (now closed due to Government cuts).  These "training" schemes however have nothing to do with training and everything to do with Poundland and other employers in the already low-paid retail sector exploiting the expanding pool of unemployed young people when they need extra staff.

If I was forced to work in Poundland for nothing or lose my benefits, I think I'd turn up every day on time and then work as slowly as possible, "accidentally" dropping or knocking over stock on a regular basis.  Somehow, I don't think I'd be there two weeks.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Scots Wha Hae

Although there's been a lot of politiciking on the part of the Tories and SNP over the timing of it, the question to be asked and rules for who can vote in it, a referendum on Scottish independence now looks likely to be held within the next couple of years.

Scotland is clearly a nation with its own history, culture, language, literature and education and legal systems.  If the Scottish people want to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom they should be allowed to. But what would they gain?

Nationalism is a divisive force but some nationalisms are more understandable than others, especially those of oppressed peoples such as Jewish nationalism (Zionism) in the late nineteeenth and first half of the twentieth century, Irish nationalism from the late eighteeenth to early twentieth century and black nationalism in the US in the 1960's.  Scottish nationalism is one of the least understandable, being a mix of romantic longing for a past that never was, a drive to sell Tartan and tweed to the tourists and anti-Englishness.  In no way are the Scottish people oppressed and nor have they been in history.  Scots have been prime ministers, top judges, generals and colonial administrators.  There has been no discrimination against Scottish people in the United Kingdom or British Empire akin to that experienced by black, Jewish or Irish people.

Things like the Highland Clearances happened all over England as land was enclosed and peasants driven into the towns.  Scotland was ruled for much of the twentieth century by Tory governments despite only electing a handful of Tory MP's but then so was the North of England.

The SNP is clear that Scotland would remain a monarchy post-independence, a member of the EU, with no border controls with England, and would keep the pound at least initially.  Whether an independent Scotland would leave NATO is unclear.  Would anyone in an already devolved Scotland notice any difference if independence were won?

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Plenty of seats at the back

Thirty six thousand people were at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester last night for the first leg of Manchester City's League Cup semi-final against Liverpool, twelve thousand short of the ground's 48,000 capacity.  Watching the game on TV, you could clearly see the thousands of empty seats.  In fact, the upper tiers of the stadium seemed not to be in use at all.  This followed last weekend's FA Cup Third Round when between them clubs playing at home recorded a 80,000 drop in attendances compared to their average League gate.

You can argue that it's just after Christmas, it was a wet and windy night in Manchester and the match was being shown live on TV.  You could also argue that the League Cup's a bit of a meaningless competition.  But even if all that's true, it's not every week that Manchester City have the chance to book a trip to a Wembley cup final. 

Ten years ago on my first trip to America, I went to my first baseball game, at Camden Yards, the much copied retro ballpark in Baltimore.  Sitting in the upper deck for the Orioles-Chicago White Sox match up, you soon realised that Friday night was student night when young people with ID could buy a ticket for $5 and once inside a beer and hot dog for the same price.  Looking around the upper deck, half the undergraduate intake of the nearby University of Baltimore seemed to have taken them up on the offer, giving a huge boost to the atmosphere of a run of the mill regular season game. The Orioles clearly understood that given they were paying staff to steward and provide catering for the game, it made more economic sense to sell tickets for the upper deck cheap than to leave them empty, especially as some of the students who came on Friday nights would become fans of the team and after graduating regular customers paying full price for their tickets.

So why couldn't Manchester City, easily the richest club in the world, have filled their ground for a cup semi-final by offering cheap or even free tickets to kids, students and other people priced out of modern football?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Dickens and Drood

I enjoyed the first episode of BBC's The Mystery of Edwin Drood last night and am looking forward to the concluding part tonight.  Based on Charles Dickens' last novel, unfinished at his death in 1870, it also supplies an ending to the story.

Unlike most other TV adaptations of Dickens, I haven't actually read the book so don't know how close it is to the original but there is some top class acting in it, including from, amongst others, Alun Armstrong, Ron Cook and a particularly impressive Rory Kinnear as the good natured clergyman Rev. Crisparkle.

You can watch the first episode here.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Bingeing on units

The news that we seem to be moving away from daily limits for alcohol should be welcomed.  The reasoning behind daily units was that a small amount of alcohol every day was good for you.  The only problem was that if you multiply the number of recommended daily units (2-3 for women, 4 for men) by seven, it takes you over the weekly limits (14 units for women, 21 for men).

One of the unremarked upon uses of daily units was to define binge drinking as consuming more than twice that amount in a day, that is 4-6 units for a woman or 8 units for a man.  The last time I went to my local health centre for a men's health check, the nurse asked me if I ever (not regularly) drank more than 8 units in a day.  As I said Yes - like most men I do drink more than four pints of beer in a day occasionally - she ticked the box on the computer screen labelled "binge drinker".  So I guess I'm now included in the Government stats that newsreaders come out with when discussing this week's initiative to combat "binge drinking".

Someone I used to work with went for the same men's health check.  The nurse asked him how many pints he drank in a week.  He told her and she said "That's quite a lot, maybe you should cut down a bit" and he thought to himself "Actually, I've told her what I drink in the week, I didn't include weekends."

Monday, 9 January 2012

Plastic people

The news that forty thousand British women may have faulty breast implants, 95% of them fitted by private clinics for cosmetic reasons, highlights the extent to which plastic surgery has become a part of many people's lives.

As well as breast implants, facelifts, nose jobs and stomach reductions have become viewed not just as something self-obsessed Hollywood celebrities spend money on but as a treat that teenagers save up for and couples buy each other as wedding presents.

It's all a long way from the pioneering work done by surgeons in the Second World War on disfigured airmen.  The desire to look like people in film or on TV is of course not new but the ability to routinely turn that desire into reality clearly is.

The thousands of cosmetic procedures carried out every year are a huge waste of the medical expertise gained by surgeons over many years of training and professional experience, expertise which could and should be used for treating people with serious medical conditions.  Doctors can be struck off by the General Medical Council if they carry out medically unnecessary operations for personal profit.  That definition should be extended to plastic surgery which should be limited to post-operative or post-injury reconstruction rather than cosmetic enhancement to fit into the celebrity-obsessed media's model of what people should look like.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Pint to line?

The Oldham Evening Chronicle reports on yet another episode in the seemingly endless discussion on how much head there should be on a pint of beer.

The size of the head on a pint is not something that's really bothered me.  If there's too much, you can ask for a top up.  I even think that in principle you should be able to ask for a sparkler to be removed, although being a fan of this distinctly Northern style of dispense I never would myself. And of course a properly conditioned pint of cask beer will have a head even without a sparkler being used to serve it.

The obvious answer would be to introduce lined glasses with room for a head above the pint line.  But I'm not that bothered that I think pubs should be forced to use them. I would much rather have a proper head and a bit less liquid than a pint of liquid and no head.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Warehouses for the poor?

Neither of housing minister Grant Shapps' announcements on New Year's Day, that the Government intends to prosecute council house tenants who sub-let their homes as well as increasing rents for well-paid tenants, were that surprising.  What did bring me close to putting my fist through the TV screen though was the subsequent discussion on the BBC news channel.  Two journalists - neither of whom I'd guess has much experience of social housing - homed in on the twenty thousand or so council tenants who earn £100,000 and agreed with each other that "council houses weren't meant for people like that".

By "people like that" they meant skilled workers and they are completely wrong.  The idea that council houses were built only for jobless, poor people to live in is not only historically inaccurate but politically poisonous, implying that society has no responsibilty to provide housing for anyone but the most desperate and in doing so should spend as little as possible.

The two things that drove council housing building between the late 1930's and early 1950's were slum clearance and bomb damage in the Second World War.  When my own grandparents moved to the Wythenshawe estate in South Manchester, they saw it as moving to the countryside from inner city Old Trafford.  Manchester City Council even called what would eventually become the biggest housing estate in Europe its Garden Suburb.  My grandad worked as a toolmaker at the giant MetroVicks engineering factory in Trafford Park, my grandmother behind the bar in a pub and later on school dinners.  Like their neighbours in the full employment and increasing affluence of the 50's and 60's, they bought a car, a TV and a fridge and saw their children go on holiday abroad. The idea that they constituted a social underclass is a joke.

The idea that only unemployed or poor people should live in social housing has two roots.  One is the United States where public housing in cities like New York and Chicago was designed, as the poet Carl Sandburg put it, as "warehouses for the poor". The other dates from the Thatcher government of the early 1980's which simultaneously ran down manufacturing industry and sold off council houses so that in the end many estates did become largely peopled by deprived and jobless tenants.  The idea that that was the intention from the beginnning is far from the truth though and the BBC housing correspondent who claimed that it was should read about the history of what he purports to be an expert on before he speaks.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Vox pop vacuity

This week's shootings in County Durham led to a recurrence of the pointless media exercise where journalists hit the streets to ask people what they think of the incident and whether they were surprised by it.

The dialogue always runs as follows:

Journo: what's been the reaction in the town?

Local: we're all very shocked, this kind of thing doesn't normally happen here.

Journo: what about the killer?

Local: nice guy, kept himself to himself.

I'm genuinely bemused as to what news editors think they're adding to the story by broadcasting such banal guff.  If I were stopped in such a situation, I'd be tempted to answer "Pretty laid back, we have a massacre here most weeks." and "We all knew he was a nutter but no one would listen".

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Death at the sales

Seydou Diarrassouba, the teenager from South London stabbed on Oxford Street on Boxing Day in what appears to have been an gang-related incident, and Anuj Bidve, the postgraduate student shot in Salford in the early hours of the same day and whose killing is being treated as racially motivated by the police, were as far apart as you can imagine. One a petty criminal awaiting trial for theft; the other a middle-class Indian with a well-paid career ahead of him.  But their deaths were united in one respect: consumerism.

Both men were killed as a result of the Boxing Day sales: Diarrassouba was stabbed after an argument broke out out in a trainer shop and Bidve at 1.30 a.m. while walking through the Ordsall estate in Salford in order to be at the front of the queue at a shop in Manchester city centre.

The BBC and other media outlets talked of the "traditional Boxing Day sales", despite them having only started in the last decade.  Politicians also seem confused about whether consumerism is a good thing or not.  Last summer, it was blamed as one of the factors that led to the looting of shops in riots across England. Now, the ability of the British economy to avoid recession is apparently dependent on the amount of money people spend in high street shops.  The supposedly liberal Guardian even ran an editorial blaming the train drivers' union ASLEF for putting "thousands of jobs at stake" after its members struck on Boxing Day over bank holiday pay.