Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Cheers Ron

One of the best things about blogging is the ability to discuss with and learn from people online.  But it's obviously better to meet them in person.

It was especially good last night to meet up for a few pints with Ron Pattinson, the beer and brewing writer, who is in Manchester on a family holiday. Ron's blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins is a model of research and analysis of primary sources and I'm looking forward to reading the results of his digging in the Boddingtons archives yesterday

I hope Ron enjoyed the different beers and pubs, from the tiled ex-Wilsons Peveril and cosy Grey Horse to the trendy Port Street Beer House, and that he and his family enjoy the rest of their stay in Manchester.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

CAMRA and coupons

Ahead of a pub crawl around Manchester tonight with Ron from Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, I was looking at the Good Beer Guide's section on the city centre.

Two of Manchester city centre's Wetherspoons are in the GBG.  I'm not against Wetherspoons pubs being in the GBG if they are the only places in a town with cheap and well-kept beer but neither of those things is the case in Manchester.  I'm not even sure Wetherspoons really qualify as pubs - they normally have the size and atmosphere of an aircraft hangar.  I also object to their inclusion at the expense of gems such as the Briton's Protection, Hare and Hounds, Lass O'Gowrie, Peveril of the Peak and Unicorn. 

There has been criticism of the commercial relationship between CAMRA and Wetherspoons whereby the former send out discount coupons to their members on behalf of the latter.  Given that entries in the GBG are decided by CAMRA members at local level, I don't think it's a case of Wetherspoons directly buying influence but rather that CAMRA members with vouchers are more likely to frequent their pubs for the discounts on already cheap beer and then vote for them.  Traditional working-class pubs that sell well-kept cask beer in Manchester seem to fall under the GBG radar, presumably because the percentage of CAMRA members among their regulars is much smaller.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Keeping keg

On the bar of a pub in Manchester city centre where I drink regularly is a tap for Bass XXXX, a keg mild. Another pub in East Manchester I go to occasionally has another, Mann's Chestnut Mild.  I have never seen anyone order a pint of either.

Neither Bass nor Mann's have been independent breweries for a long time. Mann's merged with Watneys in 1958 and Bass was taken over by Interbrew in 2000.  Their brands are now part of the portfolio of global brewers Diageo (best known for Guinness) and A-B Inbev (whose flagship "beer" is Budweiser).  I'd guess that neither of them have any interest in mild and have them contract brewed, presumably in very small quantities.

Kegs unlike casks don't have a spile hole through with carbon dioxide is vented and oxygen enters. They remain pressurised after they've been tapped and therefore slow turnover isn't a problem like it is with cask beer.  I wonder how long keg beer keeps after being tapped.  In theory, you'd think for ever.  But I'd be interested to hear from a publican, scientist or other expert if it actually does.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Called to the bar of the House

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle this week after the Labour MP for Falkirk, Eric Joyce, allegedly headbutted a Tory MP in a bar at the House of Commons.  Joyce has been arrested and charged with common assault and will appear before magistrates next month (as the incident took place in the Palace of Westminster, I'm not sure why he can't invoke parliamentary privilege and insist on trial by the House of Commons sitting as the High Court of Parliament and, if convicted, imprisonment in the Clock Tower cell reserved for MP's).

Others have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of MP's who speak in Commons debates about cheap alcohol, extended opening hours and binge drinking before repairing to one of Parliament's ever open bars to drink heavily subsidised beer late into the night.  But unlike those who think MP's should pay more for their beer and have last orders called on them, I think we should level up, reducing the price of beer by cutting, or ideally abolishing, the tax and duty on it and allowing pubs to set their opening hours (as they could before the so-called Liberal Lloyd George introduced restricted hours in World War I). Any problems could then be dealt with by local licensing authorities. And it might also be an idea for other workplaces to introduce subsidised bars for their staff.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Morse's music

ITV3 is showing episodes of Inspector Morse on weekday mornings at the moment. Although I've seen them all dozens of times, I've been watching again and enjoying them as much as the first time they were broadcast. 

A big part of Morse's appeal is that he is the ultimate cultured copper whose interests include beer, crosswords and literature.  In the episode about drug smuggling, Deceived By Flight, he even begins to take an interest in cricket.

The one thing that jars slightly is his taste in music. Morse is a fan of opera, especially Wagner.  I presume this reflects writer Colin Dexter's own musical interests. But as a cerebral, crossword solving beer drinker, Morse would surely in real life be a jazz fan.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Shakespeare and the conspiracy theorists

I'm reading Shakespeare's Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum at the moment. The most entertaining parts are where he discusses, dismisses and pokes fun at those who believe someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays.

A lot of the people who believe a grammar school boy from Warwickshire couldn't have written the plays are clearly motivated by snobbery.  For example, the barrister Christmas Humphreys wrote in 1955: "It is offensive to scholarship, to our national dignity, and to our sense of fair play to worship the memory of a petty-minded tradesman while leaving the actual author of the Shakespeare plays and poems unhonoured and ignored. Moreover, I have found the plays of far more interest when seen as the work of a great nobleman and one very close to the fountainhead of Elizabethan England."  (Humphreys was an unusual member of the Bar, a convert to Buddhism whose North London home is now a temple). They are invariably never - unlike Schoenbaum - academic experts on Shakespeare's plays but rather eccentric amateurs: the pioneer of the theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays was a schoolteacher called, rather appropriately, Looney.

There is now though another element to the anti-Stratfordian movement apart from the snobbery.  They increasingly resemble other conspiracy theorists and "truthers" who believe the moon landings were a hoax, 9/11 was carried out by the CIA and/or Mossad etc.  in believing that they have secret, "inside" information that "they" (the Government/Jews/academic establishment) don't what us to know.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Sun also rises

When Rupert Murdoch flew into Britain last week following the arrest of senior Sun journalists on suspicion of making corrupt payments to police officers, there was some speculation that the daily tabloid was about to meet the fate of News International's former Sunday title The News of the World and be shut down. Instead, Murdoch visited the Sun newsroom and told staff that a new Sunday paper would be launched "very soon". Many thought it would appear in the next couple of months but shortly afterwards it was announced that The Sun on Sunday will launch next weekend. This was predicted when the NotW was shut down and the new title must have been in preparation since then.

Although it's wrong to assume that people who read a newspaper automatically share its attitudes or  politics (a shop steward at Longbridge car factory in the 70's I know says the West Indian guys on the shop floor always read the Times for its cricket coverage), I don't think there's much doubt that people only read the NotW for the gossip about footballers, soap stars and minor celebrities. That is borne out by the fact that while there was much discussion at the time as to which Sunday tabloid ex-NotW readers would now switch to, it seems most of them have stopped buying a Sunday paper. It is also doubtful if they will start buying The Sun on Sunday, especially as the editor has promised more "family content" in place of the salacious tittle tattle.

I know when the NotW shut down, many people pointed to the fact that the workers there were being sacrificed for their bosses' errors and the way to deal with such abuses was for News International to rerecognise the National Union of Journalists so that their staff would be bound by its code of conduct. I have some sympathy for that view but still raised a cheer when the NotW sank below the waves, seeing it as a small move towards to a more decent press. I would have felt the same if the Sun had also been axed. Of course journalists would have lost their jobs, just like the NotW staff, and before them the public hangman and witchfinder general. They would though then be able to write for better newspapers, or do something more socially useful, like roadsweeping.

Monday, 20 February 2012

The upside down world of boxing

The media have reacted with horror to professional heavyweight boxers David Haye and Dereck Chisora trading punches at a press conference in Munich on Saturday night following Chisora's loss to Vitali Klitschko in a WBC title fight.

According to insiders in the the boxing world, both men now face substantial fines and suspensions.  Chisora was also arrested by German police on assault charges, Haye having given them the slip for now.  The two boxers have allegedly brought the noble art of professional boxing into disrepute with their impromptu pugilism and will no doubt be punished for it.   Boxing promoter Frank Warren, who ironically has already lined up what may now turn out to be a comeback fight between Haye and Chisora  in London later this year, said he was "absolutely disgusted" by the set-to while the head of the British Boxing Board of Control is quoted as saying: "I am extremely disappointed... it does not do the sport any good."

But what is more distateful and inhuman: punching someone because they've wound you up or because you've been paid a lot of money to do so?

Friday, 17 February 2012

The price of beer

The Government is again thinking about introducing a minimum price for alcohol. It says such a policy could reduce binge drinking by teenagers and the number of alcohol-related deaths every year, despite a lack of evidence for either assertion.

CAMRA also supports minimum pricing, in the belief that binge drinking teenagers and alcoholics will stop buying their booze at supermarkets and off licences and start drinking in pubs under the watchful eye of landlords, thereby boosting the on trade on which cask beer and therefore CAMRA depends. There are lots of problems with this scenario. Unless the minimum price was the equivalent of pub prices, people would just spend a bit more on buying booze in supermarkets and off licences. And even if it were that high, the pubs that benefited might well not be ones which sell cask beer.

The real discussion we should be having about beer price is the amount the Treasury takes in VAT and duty. CAMRA rightly calls for these to be cut to reduce the price of beer.  I not only think they should be cut but that the indirect taxes such as VAT and beer duty should be scrapped altogether in favour of progressive income tax (i.e. the rich paying more).  Alongside that, the Government should introduce maximum pricing for beer so that the benefits of cutting or removing duty ends up in drinkers' pockets rather than on the balance sheets of breweries.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

What to do with Abu

The Islamist miltant Abu Qatada who was released from a high security prison earlier this week has spent much of the last decade either in custody awaiting deportation or under house arrest, as he is again now.

Qatada apparently cannot be put on trial as it would jepordise the safety of MI5 officers who gave evidence, although why they can't do so from behind a screen ot by video link with their voices disguised I'm not sure.  It may also be that the evidence against him would if presented in open court endanger ongoing MI5 operations.

The Government's preferred option of deporting him to his native Jordan, where he has been found guilty in his absence of terrorist offences, has so far been blocked on the grounds that the Jordanian government might torture him or reconvict him with evidence obtained from others by torture. Similarly, his extradition to the United States where he is also wanted on terrorist charges is unlikely to go ahead unless a guarantee is given that he won't be executed or given a whole life sentence.

Given that he cannot remain indefinitely on bail conditions that amount to house arrest and allowing him to operate freely in Britain is out of the question, a deal whereby he is deported to Jordan with an assurance that he isn't tortured seems the most likely outcome.  Failing that, perhaps the Government could go for the Napoleon on St Helena option and send him and his family to a remote British territory under armed guard.  I hear the Falklands are lovely this time of year.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Whitney Houston, 1963-2012

The body of the singer Whitney Houston, found dead in a hotel room in Los Angeles last weekend, has been flown back to her native Newark, New Jersey. Although the coroner's report may take several weeks to complete, it seems likely that her death was the result of an addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Even if her music was a bit too commercial for my tastes, there was no denying the power of her voice in its prime, rooted in the gospel singing of the African-American church. The explanation for Houston's untimely demise offered by most of the media centred on the idea that as a young woman she had been unprepared for the pressures of in the music industry and as a result had turned to drink and drugs.  I'm not so sure about that.  As the daughter of a professional gospel singer, a cousin of Dionne Warwick and goddaughter of Aretha Franklin, she was pretty well placed to understand the music industry she entered as a nineteen year old. And it seems more likely to me that she drank heavily and took large amounts of drugs because she enjoyed it and had the wealth to do so.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Last orders?

CAMRA are looking to appoint a "endangered beer style co-ordinator" in order to ensure the survival of styles of beer it deems are at threat of disappearing, including "old ales, mild, barley wines, stouts and porters".

Leaving aside the argument as to whether some of those are even styles of beer in their own right, it seems a bit over the top to me.  Unlike the wheat ale, heather ale and herb-flavoured beers whose disappearance Martyn Cornell discusses in his superbly-researched book Amber, Gold & Black, there are no technical or legislative reasons why any of these beers might stop being produced.

Mild experienced a precipitious decline in sales in the twentieth century and it is unlikely porter will ever again be sold in the quantites it was in eightenth and nineteenth century London but the expansion in the number of cask breweries and of bottled conditioned beers means that there is probably more mild, stout and old ale being produced in those forms than at any time in the last fifty years.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Suarez and the handshake that wasn't

In her novel about racism in the US Deep South of the 1930's To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee has the lawyer Atticus Finch tell his daughter Scout, after her first day at school with the children of impoverished backwoods bigots, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view."
In Atticus Finch/Gregory Peck mode, I've been trying to put myself in the mind of the Liverpool fans who have supported their Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez after he was found guilty by the FA of racially abusing the Manchester United defender Patrice Evra and his refusal at Old Trafford on Saturday to shake Evra's hand before the match.
Things that, however irrelevant, one-sided or just plain wrong, might make the attitude of Liverpool fans understandable from their point of view and explain, if not justify, their wearing of Justice for Suarez T-shirts and subsequent booing of Evra could include:
  • The FA/media/Government being biased against Liverpool Football Club and in favour of Manchester United (or even anti-Liverpool and pro-Manchester);
  •  The reputation of Evra for being confontational and deliberately provoking opponents;
  • Alex Ferguson and United fans using the dispute to score points against Liverpool, and in particular their manager Kenny Dalglish;
  •  That Suarez not only had the right not to shake Evra's hand (even if he had said beforehand that he would) but that to do so would have been hypocritical;
  •  That the word "Negro" can be used in Uruguay in a friendly context as the equivalent of "pal" to either white or black people.
The last point is to me the crux.  The other things can be argued over but it is impossible to maintain that the repeated use of the word "Negro" by Suarez to Evra (there is no dispute between the players or clubs that it was used and repeatedly)  took place in a friendly context rather than the heat of a Liverpool-Manchester United match and a confrontation between Suarez and Evra.

It is of course a common narrative on the far-right to turn the victims of racism into culprits. As well as exposing and challenging that poison, we also need to eradicate the poverty and lack of education that serve as its breeding grounds.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Twisting the night away

The future of the famous Twisted Wheel club in Manchester is under threat.

The Twisted Wheel was a leading soul and R&B club whose stage in the 60's hosted, among others, Arthur Conley, Edwin Starr, Junior Walker and Solomon Burke.  Along with other clubs like Blackpool Mecca and the Wigan Casino, it helped launch Northern Soul, the movement that revived the careers of dozens of obscure, bemused but highly delighted US Southern souls artists who now found themselves playing to massive audiences in the industrial towns of North West England. It closed in 1971 (a victim of the drive by "God's Copper" James Anderton to close down late night clubs that also wiped out Manchester modern jazz scene). Now a gay club, Legends, it still hosts a soul night a couple of times a month, run by a promoter from the original Twisted Wheel, which attracts hundreds of people, some of them travelling from abroad.

The building is now in danger of being knocked by a developer who wants to build yet another hotel.  Manchester City Council's whole redevelopment of the city centre in the last decade or so has involved allowing the building of dozens of indentical hotels and upmarket flats, many of them now empty as a result of the economic downturn.  It is a policy that has seen the Hacienda nightclub turned into apartments and developers threatening to knock down the early nineteenth century Briton's Protection pub.

What the council and developers who want to knock down historic pubs and clubs in the city centre and replace them with a swathe of apartments and hotels ignore is that the people who move into or stay in them might just want to go out for a drink or a dance at night.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Here's to you Robinsons

I admire the dedication of the secretary of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA who has just completed a twenty year crawl of 300 of the 370 pubs tied to the Stockport brewery Robinsons.

As the number of breweries producing cask beer expands and rediscovered and new styles of beer are launched, it's easy for established breweries like Robinsons to be overlooked or even dismissed as "boring" or "stuck in their ways".

Living in Stockport, I am of course familiar with Robinson's beers. Unicorn is a decent amber, fruity bitter. All the brewers with a tied estate in Manchester produce a mild but only Hydes and Robinsons still have light and dark ones. Robinsons Hatters mild is a delicious beer when on top form, its caramelly flavour reminiscent of the Wilsons Mild I was lucky enough to drink just before the brewery shut in the late 80's. And Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale is rightly famous, especially in cask served by handpump or by gravity from a pin behind the bar in the winter months.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Fighting over the Falklands

Not being an Argentinean nationalist, I find it hard to understand the fervour of their territorial claim to the Falklands. Neither do I get Argentina's objection to the Royal Navy sending a ship or the RAF one of its officers (Flt Lt Wales) to tour the South Atlantic. Argentina and Britain's contest over the islands is about economic and strategic control of the area, irrespective of the flag waving on both sides. 

The Argentinian government is planning to refer the dispute to the United Nations and the Argentinan Football Association has renamed its First Division after the General Belgrano, the warship sunk by the Royal Navy in the 1982 conflict that followed Argentina's invasion of the islands. (I have also never understood the objection to the Royal Navy sinking an enemy ship in a war, whether you supported that war or not).

The chances of another war over the Falklands are slim, not least because Britain is too tied up militarily in Afghanistan to deploy a Task Force to retake them. The Argentinian government's sabre-rattling is also a matter of winning votes, just as the military junta tried to shore up its rule by invading in 1982.

Many people who support self-determination seem to have a blind spot over the Falklands. They may be Godforsaken, windswept islands where sheep outnumber the people but there is little doubt that their inhabitants want to remain part of Britain. That ultimately is what matters, not spurious stuff about the continuity of the Argentinian state with the Spanish Empire or who occupied the islands first.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Dickens at 200

Today is the bicentenary of the birth of the novelist Charles Dickens.

Like many of my favourite novelists - Conrad, Orwell, Patrick Hamilton - Dickens' genius lies in creating a world from what he saw about him and peopling it with characters many of whom have become bywords for a type of person (Scrooge, Miss Havisham, Pecksniff).  His serialisation of his works and the massive public interest in each new chapter can be seen as a precursor for the TV soap opera.

I know the charges against him - a particularly Victorian sentimentallity (lampooned by Oscar Wilde's with his famous remark about the death of Little Nell), daft names (although they were taken from gravestones) and repeated use of plot devices like rediscovered wills and people who are secretly related to each other.  He is though the only nineteenth century English novelist I can think of who combines superb description with laugh out loud humour. No other writer in the English language has had his or her works adapted for film and TV as much either, a testament to the the characters and plots he created in his novels.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Lancaster bomber and me

I watched the BBC programme Bomber Boys last night, in which the actor Ewan MacGregor and his brother, a RAF pilot, looked at Bomber Command in World War II, and in particular the Avro Lancaster bomber.

I've got several personal connections to the Lancaster bomber. A.V.Roe was born in Patricroft, Eccles where my grandad grew up and set up his aircraft company in Ancoats, Manchester where some of my Mum's family lived. The Lancaster was test flown at Woodford Aerodrome in Cheshire, not far from my home town of Stockport. My grandad also worked as a toolmaker at the Metro-Vicks engineering factory in Trafford Park which during the war switched production to making parts for the Avro Lancaster. As a child in the 70's and 80's, I made models of pretty much all the American, German and British aircraft of World War II, including the Lancaster. I have also seen the last remaining flying Lancaster at airshows at Woodford.

Ewan MacGregor and his brother discussed the impact of the RAF's area bombing tactics in last night's programme, travelling to Germany to meet survivors of the 1943 Hamburg raid which killed over 42,000 in a firestorm and the similar attack on Dresden in 1945 in which an estimated 25,000 people perished. I find it difficult to imagine any circumstances where the indiscriminate bombing of civilians might be morally justifiable. The MacGregor brothers clearly struggled too in balancing their admiration for Avro's engineering achievement in building the Lancaster and the undoubted bravery of the young men who flew them with uneasiness when presented with evidence of the death and destruction they wreaked on the ground. 

Friday, 3 February 2012

Cover ups, conspiracies and speeding tickets

The news that the oily Lib Dem Chris Huhne is being charged along with his ex-wife with perverting the course of justice raised a small cheer this morning. But the real question is why politicians don't learn from the experiences of others. A mixture of arrogance and brass neck I suppose.

If Huhne is found guilty, he faces a couple of years in prison. If he had just taken the points for speeding, he would have lost his licence for a few months. At the time of the offence he was a MEP, with expenses even more generous than those of MP's, and could easily afforded to take taxis from the airport when he flew in from Brussels or Strasbourg.

Similarly, if Jeffrey Archer and Tommy Sheridan had responded to tabloid allegations, of paying off a prostitute and swinging trips to Swinton respectively, with a short denial or no comment rather than launching libel actions, neither of them would have swapped their political careers for stints in HM Prisons. As Richard "no whitewash at the White House" Nixon learnt with Watergate, it is the attempt to cover things up that brings you down in the end.

Someone who believed in conspiracy theories might link Huhne's confrontations with Tory colleagues in Cabinet with his impending trial and possible imprisonment.  But that's just too far-fetched, isn't it?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

RIP Angelo

The boxing cornerman Angelo Dundee, who had died aged 90 in Tampa, Florida, is best known for having trained Muhammad Ali.

The first time I went to the United States was in 2002. It was a baseball trip along the East Coast from Baltimore to Boston which included a couple of days in New York for games at Yankee Stadium and the Mets' then ballpark, Shea Stadium.

After the Yankees game, we were sitting on the coach waiting to head back to Manhattan when a small, elderly guy appeared from the direction of the stadium, surrounded by a group of fans. The friend who was on the trip with me is, unlike me, a boxing fan and knows everything there is to know about the fight game. He immediately said, "It's Angelo Dundee!" I must admit I didn't know the name then but he soon filled me in on who he was.

I only caught a glimpse of Angelo that day but it evoked that New York sub-culture, best captured by famed sports journalist Jimmy Cannon, of baseball, boxing, card games, trips to the racetrack, bartenders, fedoras and Cuban cigars. I'm glad that he not only got to celebrate his 90th birthday last year but was also able to attend the 70th of his greatest protege, Muhammad Ali.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Primary questions

Mitt Romney's win in the Florida Republican primary has put him back in the lead in the race to become the party's nominee in November's presidential election.

I've got a basic understanding of the primary process but there are still a few questions I'm not sure on.

Primaries are run by and paid for by the states, with differing rules as to who can take part. In some states you have to register as a supporter of a party to vote in its primary, in others I think anyone can (except voters registered as supporters of another party: I think that's what closed, open and semi-open primaries means).

Has anyone legally challenged the right of states to run closed primaries? Can smaller parties like the Greens take part in the primaries by reaching so many registered voters? What is the difference between being a registered voter and a member of a political party (if indeed you can be the latter, either at national or state level).

The nominees of the political parties are chosen at a convention. Florida is described as a "winner takes all" primary which I take to mean that all the Florida delegates to the Republican convention are bound to vote for Romney. Do other states allow proportional representation of all the candidates in their delegation to the convention, and if so how?

The Democratic party is also running its primary elections at the moment, which are understandably attracting less media coverage: in Iowa, Obama got 98% of the vote against a handful of fringe candidates. Has any incumbent President ever been unopposed in seeking the nomination of his party? If so, would the primaries still go ahead with one candidate? At what stage in the process is it possible for a candidate to have gained enough delegates for his or her nomination to be a formality at the convention? Do other states still have primaries when the result is already decided? Have there been cases of delegates who vote against the primary result at the convention (similar to faithless electors in the Electoral College which elects the President)? Are "superdelegates" (elected officials who attend the convention ex-officio) free to vote for whoever they want?

Any answers from experts on US politics gratefully received!