Friday, 30 November 2012

Fighting Freddie

As Mancunian boxer Ricky Hatton finally hangs up his gloves, another local sporting legend, former Lancashire and England cricketer Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff, is preparing to step into the ring against American heavyweight Richard Dawson in Manchester tonight.

I'm no fan of the so-called fight game. Professional boxing - people beating each other up for money - is not my idea of sport but in most cases I can understand why they do it. For many boxers from the inner city estates of London, Manchester, New York or Chicago, the only alternative means to escape the poverty and deprivation of their surroundings is crime (Flintoff's opponent Dawson is apparently an ex-convict). But in Flintoff's case, I fail to see why a wealthy young man would risk serious injury or worse by taking up boxing.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Bronze Age brewing

Archaeologists from the University of Manchester say they have found a Bronze Age brewery in Cyprus.

The eight foot square structure is thought to have been built around three and a half thousand years ago to dry malt for brewing beer with. The research team have already brewed a test beer based on the grains found at the excavation site and are making the recipe available to others.

Who knows, maybe in another couple of thousand years archaeolgists will be digging up Boddies Brewery in Strangeways and declaring it a site of cultural significance.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Lighting up the Dark Ages

A new series about art in the so-called Dark Ages, the period of Late Antiquity following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, started on BBC4 last night.

Art crtic Waldemar Januszczak began by looking at Christian art in the early fourth century, when Christianity was still a persecuted sect whose adherents gathered secretly in catacombs (within a couple of decades, it would become the official State religion of the Roman Empire and begin its rise to power as the Catholic Church). 

Januszczak is a witty and engaging presenter. I enjoyed his explanation of the Latin Rotas square, a secret Christian code that I hadn't heard of before, unlike the  well-known Greek chi rho (XP) and Ichthys (fish) symbols which he also discusssed. His look around the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna with its stunning Byzantine mosaics was the highlight of the programme for me though.

The rest of the series will counter the myth that the peoples who migrated into the collapsing Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries were uncultured barbarians and that the Dark Ages represent a step backwards for European culture.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Wine after beer?

The Guardian last weekend had a review of a new book about wine by Eric Asimov.

The main target of the book seems to be wine critics and their blind tastings, scorecards and tasting notes. It reminded me of a recent BBC4 documentary about Australian wine in which snobby critics who laughed about Chateau Chunder from Down Under went on to rate it highly in blind tastings.

Asimov talks about his wine epiphanies, the moments he understood what all the fuss was about. I can relate to that in terms of beer: the first glass of Schumacher Alt in Düsseldorf, Päffgen Kölsch in Cologne, Augustiner Edelstoff in Munich and Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen in Bamberg.

Apart from the odd glass of champagne at weddings and christenings, I don't drink wine. It's like classical music - something lots of people seem to derive a great deal of pleasure from but whose appeal I find hard to understand.

Maybe the reason is that I've never drunk really good wine. There's a lot of talk about how wine's been demystified and democratised over the years but I'm not sure that's really true. Maybe cheap wine has but the really good stuff is still beyond the pockets of all but a few rich collectors. With beer it's the other way round: the best beers in the world tend to be cheaper than the mass-produced ones.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Football and fascism

For the second time in a week, Tottenham fans have been subjected to anti-Semitic abuse as a result of the club being perceived to have a large support in the Jewish communtiy of North London.

Last Thursday in Rome, Spurs fans were attacked in a bar by men shouting "Jews!" and then racially abused by Lazio supporters in the Olympic Stadium. Yesterday at White Hart Lane, West Ham fans  chanted about Hitler and hissed in imitation of the poison gas the Nazis used to kill Jews in the Holocaust.

At the height of football hooliganism in the 1970's and 80's, British clubs including Chelsea and Leeds had a sizeable far-right following. At others, notably Manchester City and Newcastle, the fascists were driven off by a combination of the left and the local black community.

The conflict between Republicans and Loyalists in Northern Ireland means that fascist hooliganism in Britain is also linked to religious identity with clubs having a large Catholic support seen as left-wing and anti-fascist and Protestant ones such as Rangers in Glasgow providing foot soldiers for the BNP and National Front. Unlike in Britain. where Catholics are overwhelmingly of working-class Irish descent, in Spain and Italy the Church, football and fascism have long been linked with clubs such as Real Madrid, Espanyol, Lazio and Inter supported by fascist politicians and organised neo-Nazi groups on the terraces.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Hey Jimi

A new album of unreleased material by Jimi Hendrix is coming out next year. According to the  Hendrix website, the tracks, recorded in 1968 and 1969, show "new, experimental directions" and "fresh diversions from his legendary guitar work".

Hendrix's music is clearly rooted in the blues. You could describe it as psychedelic blues, blues on a LSD trip to Mars and back.  Buddy Guy in his autobiography tells the story of Hendrix turning up at one of his gigs and asking if he could record it on his tape-to-tape machine. I've also seen an interview with Guy where he demonstrates how Hendrix's Voodoo Chile is based on a Muddy Waters lick.

Hendrix would have been the first to acknowledge his blues influences. According to people who knew him in New York in the mid-60's, he played Muddy Waters records pretty much continuously in his apartment. At the end of his life, he experimented with acoustic blues as well as playing with R&B musicians in the Band of Gypsys. I wonder where Jimi would be now musically if it hadn't died so prematurely in 1970.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Giving thanks with beer

Across their Atlantic, our American cousins are celebrating Thanksgiving.

There's lot of advice online about what beer to drink with your Thansksgiving dinner. Given it's basically a Christmas dinner with a few extra trimmings, I'd say any bitter/pale ale would do.

I'm not that into beer and food pairing. Apart from the classics - pork pie and a pint of bitter, lager with Chinese and Indian food - it strikes me as an attempt by the beer world to ape wine. Having said that, you occasionally stumble across a combination that really works, like the cheese and onion cob and pint of mild I had in the Beacon Hotel on my tour of the Black Country a few months back or Robinson's Old Tom with Christmas pudding.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Blues Run the Game

I listened to a radio programme yesterday about the American folk singer Jackson C. Frank.

I must admit I hadn't heard of Frank before, although I had heard the cover of his song Blues Run the Game by Simon and Garfunkel. Along with other Americans in the 50's and 60's, many of them escaping the McCarthyite witch hunt or the draft, Frank headed to London and joined its burgeoning folk scene after being awarded compensation for injuries he received as a child in a fire at school.

His subsequent fate, homeless and beset by mental illness, has echoes of that of the blues guitarist Peter Green, except that it took Frank's untimely death to propel his work back into public consciousness.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Christmas brings good beer

The Christmas markets opened in Manchester last weekend. I won't be going to them for a few weeks yet as I'm a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist/old Scrooge who thinks Yuletide starts in mid-December rather than mid-November.

Beer wise, there always a pretty decent choice at the main market in Albert Square. Lees head the pack with a stand selling all their regular cask beers and the German hut has a stouty dark beer which I think is Köstritzer Schwarzbier. The only brewery who really let the side down is Hydes whose stand sells nitrokeg bitter and mild at heavily marked-up prices.


Monday, 19 November 2012

Tax and morals

Business Secretary Vince Cable yesterday rounded on the "appalling abuse" of the UK's tax system by multinationals operating here.

Last week, Margaret Hodge, chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, described Amazon, Google and Starbucks as "immoral" for chanelling their profits to low or no tax countries via spurious licensing fees, allowing them to claim that they make a loss here year in year out.

Cable and Hodge are and have been members of governments that have overlooked and even encouraged this activity, hailing chief executives as "wealth creators" while cutting the number of tax inspectors. They even subsidide these companies with public money by topping up their low-paid workers' wages with tax credits. Looked at from the perspective of the companies themselves, you've got to ask why they would voluntarily pay tax when politicians don't expect them to and the Revenue isn't chasing them for it, preferring to enter into agreements with them about how much they can fiddle. Morally, they are no different to the poacher told by the estate manager that he's laid off the gamekeeper and he can help himself to the grouse as long as he doesn't overdo it.

The idea that if these companies paid tax  the government wouldn't have to cut public services - and protests organised against them on that basis by UK Uncut - is also off-beam. That the government's drive to cut and privatise public services is an ideological one rather than forced on them by a lack of money is underlined by their intention to spend £20 billion replacing the Trident nuclear missile system over the next decade.

Friday, 16 November 2012

The Killing is back

Get your Faroese jumper out of the wardrobe and brush up on your conversational Danish, the third series of superior crime drama The Killing starts on BBC4 tomorrow night.

Apparently this will be the last outing for Sarah Lund and the Copenhagen cops, in a case linked to the financial crash of 2008. No news yet as to who her partner is but hopefully he won't be shot dead before the end of the series as both her former partners were.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

What's up Bud

This week saw the launch in St Louis of Bitter Brew, an account of the rise and fall of the Anheuser-Busch brewing dynasty in the city by William Knoedelseder (great name: "Knoedel" is German for "dumpling").

The takeover of Anheuser-Busch in 2008 by the Belgian brewer InBev, makers of Stella among other global brands, may have prompted jokes along the lines of "whatever they brew, it's got to be better than Budweiser" but in the US Midwest it led to 1,400 job losses and a blow to civic and national pride.

I've drunk Budweiser in the US when there was nothing else. It doesn't really taste of anything much, especially when chilled (it's also brewed with rice for a "lighter taste"). Since the takeover, Budweiser has started brewing an American Ale and a wheat beer, both of which I'd like to try. Blue Moon from fellow global brewers Molson Coors which I have drunk is a good stab at a Belgian wheat beer.

When I went on holiday to Chicago in 2004, I didn't realise that the Chicago River runs out of rather than into Lake Michigan (the flow was reversed in 1900 by a system of locks to stop industrial effluent polluting the shoreline). We went on an architectural boat trip along the river and the guide pointed this out, adding that "Now we send all our dirty water down the Mississippi to St Louis". She said that a few weeks back a guy from St Louis had shouted back "Yes, and we send it back to you as Budweiser!"

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Franchise football

I suppose it had to happen. AFC Wimbledon will play MK Dons in the next round of the FA Cup.

AFC are the club set up by fans in 2002 when Wimbledon FC moved to Milton Keynes. The boycott of what was dubbed "Franchise FC" continued until 2007 when MK Dons gave up their claim to Wimbledon's historical record, including winning the FA Cup in 1988. AFC Wimbledon also helped Manchester United fans set up FC United, a similar community-run club, after the Glazer takeover at Old Trafford in 2005.

While clubs moving cities is almost unknown here, in North America lots of NFL and Major League Baseball "franchises" have relocated thousands of miles away, in some cases more than once. Like the people who run the Premier League, the owners of US sports teams are more interested in TV viewers than the fans who go to games. You might think this means that US sports teams are less rooted in their communities but that isn't always the case. When the owner of the Cleveland Browns NFL team relocated the "franchise" to Baltimore in 1995, fans succesfully fought for a new team in the city that retained the original team's colours and historical record. And I still remember on my first trip to New York in 2002 talking to baseball fans about the bitterness in the city after the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers left for the West Coast in the late 50's. Like MK Dons, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants should be seen as new clubs. The storied legacies of the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers - the team that broke baseball's colour bar by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947 - belong not to them but to the New York Mets, the team that replaced them in the National League in 1962 and deliberately combined their colours.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Women, wine and beer

Guess what? Some women prefer beer to wine. And some men prefer wine to beer!

I've got the Daily Telegraph to thank for this revelation. Over at The Guardian, we learn - in a piece clearly written straight from the ad agency's press release - that "fruit-flavoured ciders" (surely all ciders are fruit-flavoured?) are the next big thing in the drinks market, mainly because they "have  what is known in the drinks business as a real 'shareability' factor – that is that they are as popular with men as they are with women."

It seems to me that whether drinks appeal to men and women has far less to do with differences in male and female tastebuds than with social attitudes about a pint pot being "manly" and smaller glasses more "ladylike".

Monday, 12 November 2012

RIP Jack

The actor Bill Tarmey who died last week aged 71 became synonymous in the public mind with Jack Duckworth, the character he played  on Coronation Street for over thirty years.

Like Jack, Bill was a wryly humourous working-class Mancunian, a construction worker who got into showbiz through singing in clubs. Jack himself was a man of simple tastes, never happier than when tending to the pigeons his long-suffering wife Vera detested, having a flutter on the horses or propping up the bar of the Rovers' Return with a pint of Newton and Ridley's best bitter and one of Betty's hotpots.

The character changed over the years from a womanising, petty thieving "lovable rogue" to a moral compass for the community, under the guidance of his unlikely godfather Ken Barlow.

Newton and Ridley, the brewery that owns the Rovers' Return, was apparently based on Groves and Whitnalls Brewery in Salford and the pub itself on one of the same name on Shudehill, Manchester.

Friday, 9 November 2012

More beer here

I went to a CAMRA meeting in Stockport last night.

I hadn't been in the pub where it was held since I worked just down the road for a couple of years in the late 90's and was pleasantly surprised at how a decent, run-of-the-mill Robinson's house has been turned into a potential Good Beer Guide entry. The owners of two new breweries in Stockport and South Manchester, Privateer in Ardwick and Ringway in Reddish, were also there to talk about their beers. I especially liked Ringway Session which combines a copper colour from the crystal malt with a citrusy flavour from the Cascade hops that you normally only get in paler bitters.

In the twenty-five years or so I've been drinking in Manchester, I've seen Boddingtons brewery at Strangeways pulled down and iconic beers from the former Chesters and Wilsons breweries disappear. Manchester is better off than than most British cities with the area still having four big breweries (Holt's, Hydes, Lees and Robinsons) and has avoided the fate of places like Birmingham, Liverpool and Nottingham which have seen all their traditional breweries close. The appearance of new breweries in the Manchester area not only offers more choice to drinkers but should also help to keep the bigger local brewers on their toes.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Biking Belgians

When it's not whipping up middle-class prejudices about immigration or benefits, the Daily Mail can sometimes be (unintentionally) funny.

The Mail reports in shocked tones that a few years back British cycling hero Bradley Wiggins started "collecting all 365 varieties of Belgian beer" and "regularly set off for Brussels and returned home with a van-load of local brews. He would sit at home, admiring his collection, and then start drinking it. Before long he would be standing outside the pub, waiting for the doors to open, and by the end of the day he would often have consumed a dozen pints."

I'm not sure why the Mail describes Wiggins' collection as a "unlikely obsession with Belgian beer" - beer, and cycling, are pretty much the only things Belgium is famous for. And I don't believe the claim about "365 varieties of Belgian beer". Not only does it sound on the low side, it's a bit too much of a coincidence that there's one for each day of the year.

1845 and all that

I picked up a slim book the other day that includes the original 1845 and 1871 rules of rugby.

A nineteenth century fan of rugby football would recognise most of the play in the modern games of rugby league and rugby union. As the introduction points out, rule 18 from 1871, "any player holding or running with the ball being tackled and the ball being fairly held he must at once cry down and there put it down" is very close to the play-the-ball rule in rugby league.

The football game played at Rugby School in the 1840's is the forerunner not just of rugby league and rugby union but American football too. A modern NFL fan would have no problem understanding rule 43: "A player who has made and claimed a fair catch shall thereupon either take a drop kick or a punt or place the ball for a place kick."

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Gunpowder, treason and plot

The sky was lit up by bonfires and fireworks last night as people celebrated the four hundred and seventh anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.

Alternate history being very popular (especially if it's to do with World World II), I was wondering if anyone's ever speculated in print about what would have happened if Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators had suceeded in blowing up the King and Parliament on the fifth of November 1605.

Two questions strike me. Firstly, would England have become and remained an absolute Catholic monarchy like Spain? And given that the Puritans in Parliament, the backbone of the English revolution, would also have been blown up, would Charles I still have lost his head in 1649 even if a Protestant monarchy had been restored after 1605?

A lot of this hinges on the role of individuals in history. As someone once said, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." Individuals are important - Cromwell in 1649, Robespierre in 1789, Lenin in 1917 - but so are the conditions in which they find themselves.

I doubt that England would have become and remained either an absolute or a Catholic monarchy if Guy Fawkes had suceeded in 1605. The rising class of merchants and bankers in London would have seen to that, just as they did in 1649 and again in 1688 when James II tried to impose one.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The land of the free market

As you'd expect, the media are giving a lot of coverage to US politics ahead of tomorrow's presidential election. The BBC alone had two programmes last night, one a look at Obama's presidency and the other a documentary about JFK's win in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary.

There's a tendency in Britain to think of the Democrats and Republicans as like Labour and the Tories, something that's way off the mark. As someone rightly said the other day, the Tories would never be accepted in the Republican party: nowhere near religious enough, far too liberal on abortion and gay rights and pro-gun control. The Tory, Lib Dem and Labour frontbenches could all easily fit into the Democratic party. The Republicans are the equivalent here of a right-wing fringe party like UKIP or the English Democrats. The "Obamacare" health care reforms that the Republicans have denounced as "socialist" give tax breaks to people who don't qualify for existing federally-funded insurance schemes that provide basic health care for the elderly (Medicare) and very poor (Medicaid) if they take out their own insurance. All the money, from the federally-funded schemes as well as personal insurance, goes to the private health care firms that run hospitals. Sounds like a Tory plan to me.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Going down?

The House of Commons yesterday debated a subject close to the hearts of MP's, and indeed mine: the price of beer.

The beer duty escalator introduced by the Chancellor Alistair Darling in 2008 means that the duty on beer increases every year by two per cent above the rate of inflation. Along with 104,000 others, I signed the CAMRA e-petition that triggered the backbench debate, introduced appropriately by the MP for the brewing town of Burton-on-Trent.

I'm not sure how many MP's normally turn up for these debates but there were quite a few there yesterday, all of them - Tory, Labour and Lib Dem - calling on the Government to scrap the escalator. It makes you wonder who voted for it in the first place.

I'm in favour of scrapping the escalator - and ultimately beer duty and other indirect taxes - but there seems to be an assumption that the beer escalator is the reason pubs are closing and scrapping it would cut the price of a pint.

There are lots of reasons pubs close and lots of factors pushing up the price of beer: VAT, rises in the cost of raw materials and transport and the rents pub companies charge their tenants. I'm not sure how scrapping the escalator would reduce the price of a pint, as opposed to giving brewers a bit of breathing space and possibly holding back further increases. given that most breweries would surely just pocket the money they saved in duty rather than pass on the benefit to their tenants and drinkers.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Matchstalk Men

Today is the hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of the artist L.S. Lowry.

People sometimes think that because Lowry painted scenes of working-class and industrial Salford, he must have been left-wing. In fact, he was a lower middle-class Tory whose knowledge of the area was gained collecting rents there. As he said himself:

"At first I detested it, and then, after years I got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it...One day I missed a train from Pendlebury - a place I had ignored for seven years — and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill ... The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out... I watched this scene — which I'd looked at many times without seeing — with rapture..."

There's a bit of a disdainful attitude to Lowry in the art world - the critic Brian Sewell once did a snobby but quite funny deconstruction of his paintings on TV with the Salford artist Harold Riley defending his mentor.

I quite like Lowry's paintings myself. I first saw them at Salford Art Gallery and then at the Lowry Centre where the collection is now displayed.  They may not be up there with the Italian Renaissance but there's something about the angles and symmetry of the buildings and the famous matchstalk figures have a wistfulness about them. It also helps I suppose that I'm familiar with quite a few of the places Lowry painted in Manchester, Salford and Stockport and that I associate him with the 1978 number one song Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs by local duo Brian and Michael.