Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Sacre bleu!

French drinkers must be spluttering into their Kronenbourg this morning after the government there announced a 160 per cent tax hike on beer, increasing prices in bars and supermarkets by 15-20 per cent.

I suppose the French government thinks it can get away with dipping into drinkers' pockets as beer represents a much smaller proportion of the overall alcohol market than in Belgium, England, Germany or the Czech Republic. If they tried the same thing with wine, I suspect that growers and drinkers would unite and re-run 1789 in the streets of Paris, a bit like the Germans did in the Bavarian beer riots of 1844 that Friedrich Engels wrote about for the Chartist newspaper The Northern Star.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Keeping score

I watched the final game of the World Series yesterday, the twelfth Fall Classic that I've seen. This year, I scored the World Series as well.

The first time I filled in a baseball scorecard was at a Phillies game in the now demolished Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in 2002. I think we got them going through the turnstile and I made an untutored stab at completing it.

There are two reasons to score a baseball game. The main one is to keep track of at-bats, what batters did in their previous trips to the plate, who's on-deck and the pitcher's record of walks, strikeouts etc. But it's also fun. As well as being creative, using your own symbols and adding a "!" for an outstanding play, I also find jotting down the K's, L5's and 6-4-3's adds to the rhythm of watching a ballgame with its three outs in the top and bottom half of each inning.

Monday, 29 October 2012

London calling?

The NFL arrived in London again at the weekend with the annual International Series game that’s been played at Wembley since 2007. I went to and the 2008 and 2009 games with a mate who lives in North West London and has been a fan of American football since the 1980’s and enjoyed them both.

The St Louis Rams-New England Patriots match-up was expected to be a one-sided contest and that’s how it turned out with the Massachusetts outfit running out 45-7 winners. But that doesn’t seem to have affected the NFL’s enthusiasm for expanding American football in the UK with the league announcing a second game will be played here from 2013. The owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft also said that the he sees a second game as a step towards having a NFL team based in London. I think that might have been a bit of hype to sell the game.

I know that from two games to the eight home games a London team would play isn’t a huge leap but there are other questions too.  Would the other teams be happy about crossing the Atlantic every season? Would the London team be a relocated existing team or part of an expansion of the league? It would be a bit odd to have a London team but not one in Los Angeles although a team that could match the 80,000 attendances of the International Series would be one of the best supported in the NFL.

If the NFL does go ahead with a London team, perhaps they could train in Iceland to cut down on travelling time.

To look for America

Last night on Channel 4, Matt Frei travelled across the American Midwest ahead of next week's presidential election.

Frei was born and grew up in Germany (he did a very good BBC series on Berlin a couple of years back), was educated in England when his father worked here as a journalist and is now a foreign correspondent in Washington. He seems to have picked up the American habit of referring to pretty much the whole population as "middle class", including anyone who's not a millionaire or homeless. In England, someone like the guy he met in Minneapolis who has two jobs, one in a warehouse and one at night in a off licence, would never be called middle-class. I'm not sure how this started, whether it's working-class people aspiring to be middle-class or politicians thinking it best not to talk about a working class excluded from the American Dream.

Frei's trip from Minnesota to Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky didn't reveal much new - guns, racism, poverty -  but the Republican pollster who told him that no president has been re-elected with unemployment over 7% makes me think Romney becoming president might not be as unlikely a prospect as it appeared a couple of months back.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Thinking about thinking

BBC's Horizon last night took a look back at its programmes about human intelligence.

The programme tried to draw an artificial line between human and animal intelligence, undermined by footage of chimpanzees co-operating, but did cover a lot of material, including the rather creepy Cyril Burt of the Eugenics Society attempting to link IQ to DNA, neolithic writing in a cave in South Africa and research into artificial intelligence.

Unusually for a science programme, it also had some laugh out loud moments, especially the wacky Robert Graham and his Nobel laureate sperm bank in California.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Fly me to the Moon

I'm quite excited at the news that the European Space Agency is hoping to land a robot-controlled probe on the Moon by 2018. The mission is seen as a first step towards humans landing on the Moon for the first time since 1972.

When people look back at the history of human exploration of our solar system, they'll surely wonder why we didn't visit our nearest neighbour for so long. Nixon's administration cut the budget for NASA's Moon missions in the early 70's - along with Lyndon Johnson's inner-city education programme - because of the spiralling cost of the war in Vietnam. Before that, most Americans watching men on the Moon expected to see a permanant base on the lunar surface within their lifetime.

The Moon landings are a bit like Concorde, an example of people co-operating to achieve something that is both technically complex and beautiful but which is then shelved because no-one wants to assume the cost of maintaining it on their own. If you were placing a bet, you'd have to say that the next person on the Moon will probably be Russian or Chinese.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Play ball!

The World Series between the two league champions of Major League Baseball, the Detroit Tigers of the American League and San Francisco Giants of the National League, starts later today.

This will be the twelfth World Series I’ve watched. I got into baseball through one of my mates who’s also a fan. In 2002, we travelled along the East Coast of America, watching games in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. We also spent a day at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York where I took my first and last swing in a batting cage.

I tend to support National League teams in the World Series but more importantly ones that are original members of their league and haven’t switched cities. The San Francisco Giants began as the New York Giants playing at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan before switching to the West Coast along with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957 so that rules them out. Detroit on the other hand have played in the American League since its inception in 1901. Go Tigers!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Antarctic IPA

I was amused to read that a brewpub is sending beer to British scientists at the South Pole.

According to the Platform Tavern in Southampton, Pole-Axed IPA has been brewed strong to "survive the long and freezing journey to the Antarctic." It makes a change from the usual myth about India pale ale having to be strong to survive the sea journey through the tropics to the subcontinent where thirsty troops were waiting to gulp it down after it had been watered down by their officers.

If the scientists need to warm the bottles up, they could always try the trick used in the short story Ivy Day in the Committee Room by James Joyce and stick them in the fire.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Looking for a brighter day

Radio 1 Xtra had a programme last night about the musician, poet and activist Gil Scott-Heron who died last year at the age of sixty-two.

Scott-Heron's music spans blues, jazz, soul and funk. His spoken word poetry over a drum beat can also be seen as a precursor of hip-hop. He is probably best known for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

One of the most interesting bits in the programme was an interview where Scott-Heron talked about his childhood in Tennessee. He was brought up by his maternal grandmother, a religious woman who took him to church where he heard gospel music. He also listened to blues records by Robert Johnson, later describing himself as a "bluesologist" exploring the African roots of the music. I was struck by the similarities between his childhood influences and that of another African-American musician, Muddy Waters.

The programme was called Gone Too Soon but Gil hasn't gone: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was played in Tahrir Square by the revolutionaries who toppled the Mubarak regime in Egypt last year.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Over the heads of babes

A sixty-four year old man has been fined by magistrates in Nottingham after he poured beer over a crying baby in a Wetherspoons pub.

I'm not one of those grumpy old men who think children should be banned from pubs - quite the opposite in fact. But if this Wetherspoons is anything like some of the ones in Manchester - and by the sound of it, it is - why would you take a baby into what is, especially during the day, a retirement home for geriatric alcoholics?

Having said that, I doubt the baby's beer baptism will have done him much harm. Unlike the toddlers I once saw in a pub in Manchester whose mothers carefully arranged their pushchairs into a protective circle between them, well away from stumbling drinkers, before all proceeding to light up and envelop the sleeping infants in a fog of tobacco smoke.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Kick them out

If past experience is anything to go by, Serbia will get away with a small fine after England Under 21 players were racially abused and then attacked on the pitch.

Fine words about respect and tolerance will count for very little when it comes to taking action against serial offenders like Serbia. The money-driven and deeply corrupt international football authorities have demonstrated just how shallow their commitment to equality and tackling bigotry is by awarding this summer's European Championship to Poland and Ukraine, turning a blind eye to the massed ranks of sieg-heiling neo-Nazis on the terraces, and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar where it's illegal to be gay.

The answer is really very simple: to belong to FIFA, a country should be required to show that it allows everyone - men and women, black and white, gay and straight - to play and watch football without being discriminated against or intimidated. If they can't or won't, out they go. It would probably mean excluding large parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa but ultimately football either supports universal human rights and applies them consistently or it doesn't.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Vote early

I listened to a discussion on the radio yesterday about whether sixteen year olds should be allowed to vote, a debate sparked by the Scottish Government's decision to let them take part in the independence referendum in 2014.

Young people are often stereotyped as politically apathetic, more interested in the latest iPhone than who the Prime Minister is. What came out in the discussion though was that while 18-24 year olds are the least likely to vote, within that group 18 year olds are much more likely to vote than 24 year olds, suggesting that rather than being uninterested they actually start off idealistic before being disillusioned, like students swinging behind the Lib Dems in 2010 - the ones who'll vote for them again in 2015 could fit inside a phone box.

Sixteen year olds should be able to vote as a matter of general principle but it should also be integrated into their education, allowing students to hold hustings and cast their ballot at college.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Black Jacobins

I'm reading The Black Jacobins by CLR James at the moment, his account of the 1791 slave revolt in the French Caribbean colony of San Domingo that led to the independent republic of Haiti.

James began writing The Black Jacobins in 1932 when he was living in Nelson in Lancashire and working as a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. It was published in 1938, just before he went to the United States.

What stands out in The Black Jacobins is James' command of the contemporary sources. He spent six months in France delving into the archives, including the correspondence between the French revolutionary government and Toussaint L'Ouverture, the ex-slave who led the Africans on the plantations to freedom and became the first consul of these black Jacobins.

San Domingo in the 1790's was a fascinating society. James manages to integrate the interlinking three-sided struggles that shaped the Haitian Revolution: in San Domingo itself, between the whites, the mixed-race "free people of colour" and the black slaves and between the "big white" planters and merchants, the "small white" artisans and the aristocratic colonial bureaucracy that ruled over both; in France similarly, between the King and his ministers, the republican bourgeoisie and the revolutionary sans culottes and between the Left, Right and Centre in the Constituent Assembly; internationally between Britain, France and Spain who each sought control of the island and between the royalist aristocracy and republican bourgeoise in France and the San Domingo colonists who - like the American colonists of Britain - wanted independence from France to escape the exclusive trade imposed on them by the former and the debts they owed to the latter.

Toussaint L'Ouverture died in prison in France in 1803, having been captured by a Napoleonic army that tried and failed to re-establish slavery in San Domingo. William Wordsworth, an early sympathiser of the French Revolution, wrote these lines in his poem To Toussaint L'Ouverture:

"Toussaint, the most unhappy of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
 Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
 Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den; -
 O miserable Chieftain! where and when
 Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
 Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
 Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
 Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
 Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
 There's not a breathing of the common wind
 That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
 Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
 And love, and man's unconquerable mind."

Monday, 15 October 2012

BB on film

The Life of Riley, a film about the life of bluesman BB King, is being released today.

Born in 1925 in Indianola, Mississippi, King whose real name is Riley B. (BB comes from Blues Boy, his nickname as a young radio performer in Memphis in the late forties) is the last survivor of the generation of musicians including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who quit sharecropping in the Delta, moved to the big city and electrified the blues, ultimately revolutionising popular music in the process.

The reviews of the film, such as this one by Ed Vulliamy in last week's Observer, have all been pretty positive and I'm looking forward to seeing it. Hopefully it will be up there with No Direction Home, director Martin Scorsese's masterful overview of the life and career of Bob Dylan.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Back to 1914

The Government has announced that it is spending £50 million to mark the centenary of the First World War in 2014.

There are proposals to shut shops and cancel sporting fixtures on the day itself. I've got another idea. In 1914, the average original gravity of English beer was around 1050º (compared to around 1030º now) and the average price of a pint was threepence, equivalent to about £1 now. The Chancellor should suspend the duty on beer brewed for that day so that pubs can sell it at 1914 prices. If he doesn't, I suppose it'll have to be Wetherspoons with CAMRA vouchers for a pre-WWI priced pint.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Groves and Withnall's?

Groves and Whitnall's was one of Manchester biggest breweries in the 1950's before being taken over by Greenall Whitley and closed in the early 1970's.

I'm not sure where it was exactly although I've seen the building (now converted into flats I think) a few times on the short train ride from Manchester Victoria to Eccles.  A bit of a Googling suggests it was near the junction of Regent Road and Ordsall Lane on the banks of the Irwell in Salford but I can't see it on Street View.

The Coronation Street brewery Newton and Ridley is apparently based on Groves and Whitnall's which the show's scriptwriters would have been able to see from their offices at Granada TV.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Tories and the tax on beer

The Guardian has interviewed people attending the Tory conference, including the chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association (formerly the Brewers' Society) who, while there in a professional capacity, also supports the party personally.

It's hardly surprising that most brewers, like most business owners, are Tories. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, brewers who became Tory politicians, known as the "beerage", included the Allsopps, owners of the one of the biggest breweries in Burton-upon-Trent.

More than three hundred MP's are members of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group which exists to "promote the wholesomeness and enjoyment of beer and the unique role of the pub in UK society". Why then do they do so little to stop the pocket of the drinker being raided by the Chancellor in successive Budgets?

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

End of the English hop?

The English hop is apparently under threat with one hop merchant warning "If we don't stick up for the UK hop industry now, there will be no industry in a decade's time." According to the hop growers, imported foreign hops from the Czech Republic and United States are driving the English hop to the point of extinction.

In the early 1970's, Christopher Hutt in The Death of the English Pub predicted that Britain's entry into Europe would lead to a ban on the English male hop and an end to the brewing of bitter. That hasn't happened and I doubt that the Kent hopfields are going to disppear now either. Brewers have been importing Czech and US hops and using them along with English ones since at least the nineteenth century. As the the head brewer at Kent's biggest brewery Shepherd Neame says "We are hugely committed to Kentish hops for a variety of reasons. With such an abundance of great hops on our doorstep it doesn't really make sense for us to buy hops from elsewhere."

Monday, 8 October 2012

Beer and votes

After the news that President Obama is home brewing at the White House, the US magazine National Journal has published a poll which suggests that the beer Americans drink is an indicator of how they'll vote in next month's presidential election.

The poll looks at beer drinkers' position on the left-right spectrum and also how likely they are to turn out to vote. Some of the results are quite surprising. Sam Adams, brewed in the Democratic stronghold of Boston, turns out to be the favourite beer of right-of-centre Republicans most likely to turn out to vote rather than the trendy liberals you might expect to be drinking "craft beer".

Turnout is also normally a reflection of class with better-off Americans more likely to vote than poor ones. On that basis, Sierra Nevada beer from California is drunk by well-off liberals, Miller and Michelob by slightly less well-off Democrats, Heineken and Corona by left-wing blue collar workers and Busch Light by right-wing ones, neither of whom are likely to vote in November. Swing voters are split between Budweiser, Fosters and Guinness.

Next week, how the wine and spirits vote breaks down...

Friday, 5 October 2012

Alfred Russel Wallace online

The works of the nineteenth century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace have just gone online.

Wallace is best known for his collecting trip to the Malay Archipelago that led to him producing a theory of evolution by natural selection around the same time, 1858, that Charles Darwin was writing On the Origin of Species. Wallace described how it came about in his autobiography:

"The problem then was not only how and why do species change, but how and why do they change into new and well defined species, distinguished from each other in so many ways; why and how they become so exactly adapted to distinct modes of life; and why do all the intermediate grades die out (as geology shows they have died out) and leave only clearly defined and well marked species, genera, and higher groups of animals? It then occurred to me that these causes or their equivalents are continually acting in the case of animals also; and as animals usually breed much more quickly than does mankind, the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order to keep down the numbers of each species, since evidently they do not increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long ago have been crowded with those that breed most quickly. Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which this implied, it occurred to me to ask the question, why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, on the whole the best fitted live ... and considering the amount of individual variation that my experience as a collector had shown me to exist, then it followed that all the changes necessary for the adaptation of the species to the changing conditions would be brought about ... In this way every part of an animals organization could be modified exactly as required, and in the very process of this modification the unmodified would die out, and thus the definite characters and the clear isolation of each new species would be explained."

Politically Wallace was an eclectic reformer who described himself as a socialist, a Spiritualist who argued for women's suffrage and the nationalisation of the land as well as speaking out against militarism, eugenics and currency being based on gold or silver. I like the line in his 1890 article Human Selection  where he writes, "Those who succeed in the race for wealth are by no means the best or the most intelligent."

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Beer myopia

If you type "top ten" or "world's most popular" into a search engine on any topic, the first results you usually get are from WikiAnswers and Yahoo! Answers. Some of them are quite amusing. Most seem to be written by teenagers in between doing their homework online and are invariably US-centric, such as a list of the world's most popular spectator sports that includes volleyball and hockey but omits cricket.

USA Today is not a open forum website nor I presume is it written by teenagers after they get home from school. It's a mass circulation newspaper that sells a couple of million copies in the US and internationally every day. They've just published a list of the 10 best beer cities in the world.

Five of the ten are in North America and the other five are all places that American tourists are likely to go. So Denver's on the list but not Bamberg, Düsseldorf or Cologne. I'm not even sure they deserve any credit for recommending the Augustinerkeller beer garden rather than the Hofbräuhaus in Munich as the latter tourist trap is very useful in keeping the coach party hordes away from one of the most idyllic places to drink beer imaginable.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Happy birthday George

Today is the eighty-seventh birthday of the jazz promoter George Wein.

Wein, who set up the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, is largely responsible for some of the most seminal musical performances of the sixties, including Muddy Waters performing to a white audience in the U.S. for the first time in 1960 and Dylan going electric in 1965. The 1958 Jazz Festival was filmed as Jazz on a Summer's Day with Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles and Miles Davis.

On top of all that, Wein can also cut it as a pianist.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Marx, money and straw men

I watched the final episode of the BBC2 series Masters of Money last night in which the economics correspondent Stephanie Flanders looked at whether Karl Marx has anything to say about the current financial crisis.

Flanders claimed to have "waded through hundreds of pages of Marx" - just as literary experts "wade through" Dickens and Shakespeare I suppose - but there wasn't much evidence that she had. I could have predicted most of the stock images and ideas she came up with: the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of socialism, miners hacking coal for a pittance are workers, but not people who work in offices and have shiny new mobile phones, so the working-class which Marx described has disappeared, at least in Western Europe and North America, and unemployment is the inevitable result of new technology.

The main problem with the programme though was that Flanders, despite her degrees from Oxford and Harvard, clearly doesn't understand Marxist economics. She claimed that Marx thought the only way profits could increase is by workers' wages being driven down to the bare minimum needed to survive, a view that Marx actually spends a lot of those pages she claims to have "waded through" attacking. This argument was repeated by Madsen Pirie of the right-wing Adam Smith Institute who said that rising wages alongside rising profits showed that Marx had been wrong. In fact, Marx argued that technological innovation meant that workers could spend a lot less of the working week replacing the cost of their wages and that rising wages and shorter hours could go hand in hand with higher profits. She also seemed to be arguing that Marx would have been surprised at the role of credit in the current crisis, something he again spends quite a few of those "hundreds of pages" explaining.

The programme had the usual line-up of talking heads, from right-wingers like Pirie and Nigel Lawson to ex-Marxists Martin Jacques and Peter Hitchens. Tariq Ali and Slavoj Žižek came out with some pretty obvious remarks and the only person who could have given some real insights into Marx's ideas, the geographer David Harvey, got about five seconds on screen.

The programme concluded with Flanders and some of her economics professor and City trader pals agreeing that Marx has some interesting things to say about capitalism which could help the system "reinvent itself". Hopefully some of the people who watched the programme will be interested enough in his ideas to do what Flanders clearly hasn't and read Marx themselves.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Close the Coalhouse door

I listened to the Radio 4 play Close the Coalhouse Door by Alan Plater on Saturday afternoon.

Based on the writings of ex-miner Sid Chaplin, Close the Coalhouse Door is about the Durham miners' union from the strikes to achieve recognition in the 1830's through the Depression and post-war nationalisation.  It's also well known for the songs in it by Alex Glasgow which as well as Close the Coalhouse Door include As Soon As This Pub Closes and Socialist ABC.

Alan Plater wrote the play in 1968, before the coalfield battles of 1972, 1974 and 1984-5, so director Sam West brings the play up to the present day with an "alternate history" in which Thatcherism never happened. If only...