Monday, 15 December 2014

Books of the Year

It's time for my annual review of what I've read this year.

As with last year's list, it's influenced by things I saw on TV or in newspapers and other media, as well as the non-fiction I've read.

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

I enjoyed re-watching this ITV Hercule Poirot adaption with David Suchet at the start of the year so decided to read the novel it's based on in which a serial killer's victims and the towns in which the crimes are committed proceed in alphabetical order.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe

I spotted this short, semi-autobiographical novel about unrequited love on a list of supposedly unreadable books and thought I'd take up the challenge.

The Jealous God by John Braine

I picked this up after reading a description of it in Jay P. Corrin's Catholic Progressives in England after Vatican II, about the Catholic left of the 60's. The main character is a young Catholic schoolteacher of Irish descent in a small Northern English town who meets a Protestant woman, a world I instantly recognised given my own similar background.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Pretty much the only thing I hadn't read by Conrad, this novel, about exiled Italian revolutionaries in a fictional South American country, is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

The only book I hadn't read by Austen, for similar "completist" reasons.

Ulysses and Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

I tried to read Ulyssses as a teenager but didn't get very far. It's about Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged Jewish advertising salesman wandering around Dublin on a single day in 1904 (now known as "Bloomsday") and is actually quite accessible, especially compared to the supposedly unreadable Finnegans Wake, an avant garde mix of Irish folklore and puns which I read next.

The Group by Mary McCarthy 

This had sat on my bookshelves for many years and I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to this highly autobiographical novel about young female graduates and the American left in 1930's New York.

The Folks That Live on the Hill by Kingsley Amis

I read this social comedy set in early 90's North London after hearing an excerpt from it in a documentary about Amis.

Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D'Urbevilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

Having not read a Hardy novel before, I had a midsummer binge on four of his tales of life and love in his native Wessex.

The Spire by William Golding

Stopping in South West England, I read this novel about the building of Salisbury Cathedral's spire in the early fourteenth century.

Nana by Emile Zola

I read quite a few Zola novels as a teenager and this was the only one on my bookshelves that I hadn't got round to. The young prostitute Nana serves as a metaphor for the corruption of the French Second Empire on the eve of its downfall.

The Long Memory by Howard Clewes

Set in the post-war London Docklands, this novel was made into a film starring John Mills which has long been a favourite of mine. The main character is an ex-convict who - in an almost Dickensian plot - wanders along the banks of the Thames attempting to clear his name.

Catholics by Brian Moore

I bought this after a seeing a clip from the film adaption of it. A short novel about an American priest sent by Rome to to suppress the Latin Mass at a monastery off the coast of Ireland after the Second Vatican Council, I read it straight through in a little over an hour.

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

Also on the theme of religion, this light comic novel features camp Anglo-Catholics in a London parish of the late 50's.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Long on my "must read" list, this is a psychological study of a young man who commits a double murder in mid-nineteenth century St Petersburg.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Rounding off the year on a Russian theme, I read Gogol's comic masterpiece about landowners and their dead, but still taxable, serfs and the conman who aims to exploit that.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Matt's mats

Rather stereotypically for a cask beer drinker, my favourite types of music are blues and jazz.  Those two interests coincided yesterday when the secretary of Manchester Jazz Society, of which I'm a member, very kindly gave me a collection of 1970's beer mats which he was clearing out.

As well as being visually appealing and in some cases jogging memories of pubs from my childhood, they also give a snapshot of a vanished world: not just the breweries that no longer exist such as Ansell's, Higson's and Walkers but also the unexamined sexism, tobacco advertising and the appeal on the back of some of them that drivers only drink moderately.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Take Courage

I've finally got round to drinking a bottle from the new batch Courage Russian Imperial Stout which I wrote about here.

I now get what Cyril Ray meant in the sixties when he wrote that "the beer frothed creamily into the glass, dark and rich...smelled like burgundy and drank like liquid silk." 

As well as that silky mouthfeel and the alcoholic warmth you'd expect from a beer with an ABV of ten per cent, Russian Imperial Stout has a complex range of flavours: among those I picked up were burnt cork, fruit, chocolate and dates. I think I'll buy a few more bottles to see how those flavours mature with age.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bishops' wars

Assuming Parliament approves the measure passed by the synod of the Church of England yesterday, a female Anglican bishop should be appointed some time next summer at the end of a battle that has taken up almost half the twenty years since the first women were ordained. I wonder which Prime Minister will chose her, the nominal Anglican David Cameron or the Jewish atheist Ed Miliband?

The Church of England must surely be the only religious institution in the world whose leaders are picked by people who aren't themselves members of it, like the last Prime Minister, the Scottish Presbyterian Gordon Brown. Margaret Thatcher  a Nonconformist turned Anglican  was apparently the most interventionist Prime Minister in episcopal matters, once rejecting both names on the shortlist sent to her by the Church, while Winston Churchill was so uninterested that he let his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the Irish Catholic Brendan Bracken, pick them for him.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Indulge yourself

I tried Indulgence, the new seasonal beer from Stockport brewery Robinson's, for the first time yesterday.

Robinson's describe Indulgence as a winter warmer which made me think it would be brown, malty, sweet and strong. It's not really any of those things but it's still a great beer.

It's a darkish amber colour and has got a very clean, crisp taste, mouthfeel and finish with a nice balance between the malt and hops. It reminded me a lot of the Altbier you get in Düsseldorf.

If you're anywhere near a Robinson's pub this winter, I recommend trying it.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Brewer's pounds

Anti-alcohol groups have seized on the fact that the new head of the civil service John Manzoni has been allowed to retain a non-executive directorship with global brewer SABMiller.

Although Manzoni will forego his £100,000 a year salary and place the shares he holds in the company into a blind trust, critics claim that these interests should rule him out being appointed as Civil Service Chief Executive,

I don't hold any brief for Manzoni (his activities in the oil industry haven't between without controversy and he seems set to introduce a more business-orientated, target-based culture into the civil service), or for global brewers like SABMiller come to that, and as a former civil servant I understand the argument about conflicts of interest and impartiality.

Having said that, I suspect that what those opposed to his appointment really object to is not his corporate background per se but specifically his links to an industry (brewing) which they regard as beyond the pale.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Another Man Done Gone

The bassist Jack Bruce who died aged 71 at the weekend was one of those who came to prominence in the British blues and R&B boom of the 1960's.

Bruce started out playing in jazz and skiffle bands in his native Glasgow before gravitating, along with like-minded musicians from Belfast, Newcastle and Manchester, towards the blues and R&B scene in London where he played with Blues Incorporated, the band led by Alexis Korner (a mentor to many of them), John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Manfred Mann. In 1966, he formed the blues-rock trio Cream with ex-Bluesbreakers guitarist Eric Clapton and ex-Blues Incorporated drummer Ginger Baker (I've got a diagram somewhere showing how musicians swapped bands in the British blues and R&B boom).

I'm happy to say that there are still a few people left from that generation of British blues musicians, including John Mayall - who I'll be seeing when he plays Manchester tomorrow night - and Paul Jones, with whom Bruce collaborated in Manfred Mann. Others though, like so many musicians, succumbed at an early age to drug and/or alcohol problems.

Here's Bruce on bass in Cream playing probably his most famous riff .

Monday, 20 October 2014

Guinness Nigerian Foreign Extra Stout

I've been drinking bottled Guinness quite a bit recently.

I've drunk Guinness Foreign Extra Stout and the Special Export Stout they brew for Belgium before but not the FES brewed in Nigeria.

I don't know if it's the sorghum in the mash but Nigerian FES has got a smoother mouthfeel and less burnt flavour than the Dublin-brewed version. And it goes without saying that the different versions of Foreign Extra and Special Export Stout are not just stronger but far superior in taste to the standard Extra Stout now that it's no longer bottle-conditioned.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Hail to the ale

I've been watching One Ale of A Job, Channel 5's series about Marston's Brewery.

The dodgy puns - delivered by Pub Landlord comedian Al Murray - don't end with the title and I had pretty low expectations of what looked like, and to be honest is, another cheapo fly-on-the-wall documentary. Having said that, it contains some interesting stuff about brewing, cellar management and beer dispense and is the first TV series about beer and brewing I can remember since Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter in the late 80's.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Thomas Hardy's ale

I'm on a bit of a Thomas Hardy binge at the moment: in the last month, I've read four of his novels and some of the short stories too.

There's lots of stuff in Hardy about ale, cider and pubs, including landlords and farmers brewing their own beer in mid-nineteenth century South Wessex (Hardy's name for his native Dorset) rather than buying it from breweries. The relatively late arrival of the railway in that part of South West England which he also mentions might have had something to do with that.

One thing that caught my eye in A Tragedy if Two Ambitions, a short story Hardy wrote in 1888, is a character talking about a pub having "the rarest drop of Old Tom that I've tasted for many a year", showing that other brewers were making strong ales called that before the famous one from my local brewery Robinson's, first brewed in 1899 by a brewer who drew the face of the brewery cat in the brewing log.

Monday, 18 August 2014

GBBF 2014

I went to the Great British Beer Festival in London for the first time last week.

The first thing to say is how impressive Kensington Olympia where the event's held is: it's like walking into a Victorian railway station with its iron and glass arched roof and pillared galleries.

I'd read that the GBBF could be a bit overwhelming both in terms of the number of people attending and choice of beer but I can't say I found that; it was more like an upscaled version of the CAMRA festivals I've been to over the years in Manchester.

We mainly stuck to the brewery bars, drinking beers that you don't see much outside London such as Fuller's ESB and Young's Special and two that could easily join my list of favourites: Belhaven Black Stout and Harvey's XX Mild. I also got to drink draught Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen outside the brewpub in Bamberg for the first time and it was as deliciously smoky bacony as I remember it there.

If you live in Britain and like beer, you really should go to the GBBF at least once. I know that I'm already planning to return.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Batting for cask

I spent yesterday at Old Trafford watching the Test match between England and India.

Although the former Prime Minister John Major, echoing George Orwell, famously listed warm beer and cricket as quintessentially English things, for a long time the choice at matches consisted of lager, smoothflow bitter and Guinness.

I'm glad to say that cask beer has made a comeback, at least at Old Trafford. I first saw it a few years ago in the members' pavilion at a county match and since then the beer  Bomber and Wainwright from Lancashire's sponsor Thwaites – has spread to the bars around the ground and a marquee in front of it.

Cask beer has a long association with cricket, being served at the inns that adjoined the playing fields in the game's earliest days. All I can say about its re-appearance at Test matches is, "Welcome home!".

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Beer Drinker's Companion

I've just picked up a second-hand copy of The Beer Drinker's Companion, Frank Baillie's 1974 survey of British beer and brewing.

I was inspired to look out for it by a reading list on Boak and Bailey's blog as it was pretty much the only book there that I hadn't got.

Some of the things he mentions about the storing and serving of beer ( (metal v wooden casks, gravity or hand-pumps v electric dispense, cellar conditioning v bright, top pressure or container tank beer) aren't really issues now; others, like serving temperature and cloudiness, clearly still are.

One of the things that stands out is bottled beer. Bottle-conditioned beers are now, he says, "very few" (Guinness Extra Stout and Worthington White Shield being the only nationally available ones), compared to the hundreds you can buy today. On the other hand, the number of bottled beers in pubs has dropped. In 1974, according to Baillie, my local brewery, Robinsons in Stockport, produced not only the bottled pale and strong ale they still sell but also a bottled stout and a light and a brown ale. I think this has to do with the decline in mixing bottled and draught beer that I remember from my early pub-going days in the late 80's.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Too much too young?

Seeing the twenty-two year old midfielder Mario Götze come on as a substitute and score the winning goal for Germany in extra time in the World Cup Final last night reminded me of Brian Kidd's goal for Manchester United on his nineteenth birthday in the 1968 European Cup Final at Wembley. Where do you go next in your career when the highlight comes so near the start of it?

F. Scott Fitzgerald sums that feeling up in a passage near the beginning of The Great Gatsby which Hugh McIvanney quotes in his documentary about George Best:

"one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax...Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrevocable football game."

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Bargain booze

Last night's edition of the Channel 4 documentary series Dispatches, which claimed to investigate the influence of the drinks industry on Government policy, was really a propaganda piece for "minimum unit pricing" alcohol.

The beer I drink in pubs and at home is already above the suggested minimum unit price of 50p so a change along those lines isn't going to affect me but I still came away thinking that the arguments the programme put forward are seriously muddled.

How can we stop young people "pre-loading" unsupervised at home with cheap alcohol bought in supermarkets and off-licences before heading out to pricier pubs and clubs? Increase the cost of the alcohol supermarkets and off-licences sell of course, argued Dispatches. But that defeats the object of "pre-loading" doesn't it? And for those who think that it will force them to go straight to the pricier, supervised pub, they won't: unless minimum pricing is European-wide, they'll either buy cheap alcohol from people who've smuggled it in from the Continent or, especially if they live in the South of England, pop across the Channel for it themselves. This point seemed to elude the coffee-drinking professor in Canada who claimed that minimum unit pricing there had cut hospital admissions and arrests for assault. And what about the underage drinkers who get their older mates to buy drink for them from supermarkets and off-licences? They won't even be able to get into pubs and clubs and will be forced to deal with unlicensed vendors.

As I was watching, I had a couple of ideas to curb excessive drinking:

1. Introduce rationing via an electronic ID card, allowing you to buy so many units a day/week/month. Admittedly a little authoritarian, and also vulnerable to cross-border smuggling, it would at least mean that cheap alcohol was still available to "responsible drinkers", as long as the Government didn't use the current, ridiculously low, recommended units.

2. Require all sellers of alcohol to permit drinking on the premises, provide seating and glasses etc. Let's see how much cheap booze Tesco sell when they have to employ bouncers to turf out the teenagers and alcoholics at closing time every Friday and Saturday night.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Give me land

Today's Guardian has an investigative piece about supermarket Tesco buying up land and leaving it empty, either to stop competitors opening stores near their own or in anticipation of its value increasing, and BBC2 also broadcast a documentary last night showing how house building companies operate along similar lines.

We all know how pubcos use restrictive covenants to stop rivals buying pubs they sell off as unprofitable, ensuring that they become houses, shops or other businesses; I wonder what an analysis of Land Registry records like the one the Guardian has carried out on Tesco's property division would show about their "land banking" activities.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Rio by the sea-o

With a week to go before the World Cup kicks off in Brazil, it's predictions time. So, skipping to the latter stages of the tournament, here are mine.

In the quarter-finals, Brazil will beat England, Germany France, Spain Italy and Argentina Portugal; in the semi-finals, Brazil will beat Germany and Argentina Spain; and in the final itself, Brazil will beat Argentina, lifting their sixth World Cup and their first as hosts.

You heard it here first. Get yourself down to the bookies and stick your shirt on Brazil (currently 3-1 to win it).

Monday, 19 May 2014

Dylan's blues

The poet Dylan Thomas famously wrote that people should "rage against the dying of the light" when approaching death.

BBC2 marked the centenary of Thomas' birth last night with a drama about his own final days in New York, where he died aged 39 in 1953, allegedly after drinking eighteen whiskies in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village. Although I haven't been to the White Horse, I have walked past the Chelsea Hotel where he collapsed after his supposed alcoholic bout.

Tom Hollander, who played Thomas, apparently had to put on two stone to play the role and he did look quite like him but his performance reminded me somewhat of Chuck Berry's remark to the Rolling Stones when they recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago: "You nearly got it." I'm also not sure why an Englishman was cast as Thomas when there are plenty of Welsh actors who could have played the role such as the superb impressionist Michael Sheen.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Finnegans Wake

"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Evirons."

I'm now just under half way through Finnegans Wake, James Joyce's final novel, of which the above is both the end of the first and beginning of the last sentence, separated by a little over six hundred pages of – many would say unreadable – prose.

I'm not going to say that Finnegans Wake is an easy book to read – although Harold Pinter once claimed, somewhat dubiously, to have finished it without any problem as a sixth former – nor that there haven't been moments, especially in the first couple of chapters, when I haven't been tempted to give up on it. So why haven't I?

For one thing, Finnegans Wake with its puns and jokes ("flushpots of Euston and the hanging garments of Marylebone", "peats be with them", "boy fiend") can be very funny, especially the encounter between an Irishman and an invading Dane in the first chapter. As for long passages that seem bewildering when you first read them, I'd say two things. Firstly, as Joyce himself said to a young reader, it's possible to enjoy the flow of the language, the layers of legend, historical and literary allusions and the images they create without fully understanding their meaning: one of the fun things about Finnegans Wake is that nearly every sentence has multiple possible meanings and your own interpretation of them is as valid as anyone else's, although unlike some, mainly American, reading groups (over)analysing them, I plan to finish the book in a month to six weeks rather than a year or more. Also, it helps if you have some knowledge of Irish language and literature  Finnegan for instance refers to both the music hall song Finnegan's Wake, in which a hod carrier comes back to life after being splashed with whiskey at his wake, as well as Finn MacCool, the mythological hero also destined to rise again   read what others have written about the book before you start, use a guide to it (I've found this one quite useful) and make notes as you go along.

Like Ulysses, Finnegans Wake also has plenty of references to pubs the main character is a Dublin landlord called Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and beer, including Allsopp's, Guinness and Reid's family stout. I've a feeling I may reward myself with a drop when I become one of the few to finish it...

Monday, 28 April 2014

Back to Macc

I went on a pub crawl around Macclesfield this weekend.

I don't think I've been to Macclesfield since I used to change trains there travelling between Stoke and Stockport as a student twenty or so years ago. In the early 90's, its pubs were mainly tied houses of Robinson's Brewery in nearby Stockport and a few owned by Manchester brewers Boddingtons and Holt's. That's changed in the last decade or so as microbreweries Bollington, RedWillow and Storm have all opened up in or near the town.

Following a map produced by the local CAMRA branch, we started in the Castle Inn, a pub whose architectural features have led to it being listed on the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. The good thing about this crawl is that – contrary to how it might appear on the map – the pubs are actually pretty close together, and to the station; there is also a good balance of "pubby" pubs, including street-corner locals like the Jolly Sailor and Waters Green Tavern, and more modern specialist beer bars such as the Treacle Tap and Snow Goose  which give Sunderland Street the feel of a mini-Mancunian Northern Quarter. Although it's not on the map, we also managed to find the new RedWillow brewery tap whose draught beers include their distinctive, Bamberg-style smoked porter.

As someone once said, I shall return.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Cheese and whisky

I had one of those moments the other day  I suppose you could call it an epiphany if you wanted to be a bit pretentious  where something unexpectedly clicks in your head

Cheese and whisky. Without really planning to, I had a glass of whisky with some cheese and was surprised how well they go together. I suppose I shouldn't have been given that sweet things  Branston pickle, picalilli and other chutneys  are often served with cheese.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Pub of the Year

I went to the presentation of the Stockport and South Manchester Pub of the Year award to the Hope Inn in Stockport last night.

I voted for the Hope so was pleased when it won the award. At the top of the so-called Stockport Slope, it is Stockport's only brewpub, although the Magnet and  I learnt last night – the Crown are also in the process of building breweries on their premises. If things go to plan, it looks like Heaton Lane and Wellington Road North might soon be rivalling the Black Country for pubs brewing their own beer.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

A walk on the mild side

I went on a CAMRA-organised crawl of pubs selling cask mild in Stockport on Friday night.

As you'd expect, quite a bit of the cask mild we drank was Robinson's, now called 1892, and I'm glad to say that with one exception, swiftly replaced and taken off sale, it was all in good condition. The non-Robbies houses we went to, the Railway, Crown and Magnet, also had some decent milds, most of them dark ones like Copper Dragon Black Gold and All Gates All Black. On the subject of colour, if the appropriately named Black Country is the heartland of dark mild, the Manchester area must still rank as the top producer of light mild with Hydes and Robinson's leading the way.

I'm also happy to report that most of the pubs were pretty busy, especially the ones on the Stockport beer slope that is now Wellington Road North.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Manchester Beer Festival

Having been to most incarnations of CAMRA's National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester over the last fifteen years, from the first one at Upper Campfield Market in Castlefield in 1999 to the ones at the East Germany circa 1960 New Century Hall, I was looking forward to the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival at Manchester Velodrome, the replacement post-Christmas drinking get together now the NWAF has moved to Derby.

The first thing to say is how impressive a venue the Velodrome is. I've seen it before on TV but that doesn't give you any idea of how high and steep the track really is. I reckon I'd struggle to get round one lap of it, never mind the dozens the professionals do. I know some disabled drinkers had problems accessing the bar area in the middle of the track but as far as I could see the volunteer stewards did everything they could to work round that, taking people down to it by lift and putting extra seating there, and one plus of the Velodrome is that trams stop pretty much outside the front door.

I went to the first session on Wednesday afternoon and the last one on Saturday. The stand out beers for me on the first day were the cask version of Fuller's 1845 Strong Ale and the dangerously drinkable 6.5% Elland 1872 Porter, interspersed with a few halves of Robinson's Old Tom. Unsurprisingly they had all run out by the last session, as did the rest of the beer by about three o'clock, something reflected in free admission for CAMRA members and a reduced entry price of £1 for non-members. Like most people we headed back into town on the tram and went to a pub in the Northern Quarter, the beer shortage at the Velodrome providing a windfall for a number of city centre hostelries.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Driven to drink

The decision by Wetherspoon's to open a pub at a motorway service station has led to predictable protests from road safety charities and health professionals who predict that hordes of tanked up drivers will now be wreaking havoc on the highways.

Even if it may be unwise to drink and drive, it is not currently illegal to do so as long as you stick to the limits. There is nothing to stop drivers at the moment turning off the motorway and going in a pub and of course many people at service stations (passengers in cars, coach parties) are not drivers at all.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Silks on strike

Today's walk out by barristers over the Government's proposals to cut the amount of legal aid available in complex criminal cases has produced predictable responses.

To be honest, I've no idea whether barristers are hideously underpaid as they claim or outrageously overpaid as the Ministry of Justice contends. Probably somewhere in the middle I'd guess. My only real experience of the legal aid system is from when I worked as an employment adviser in a law centre in one of the most impoverished parts of South Manchester and saw how the cuts to it by the then Labour government reduced access to advice and representation on housing and benefits (the centre has now closed as a result of cuts in local government).

One thing that did strike me about some of the comments from barristers on the picket line is how high their concept of "low pay" is. One of them asked "Would you be happy to be represented in court by someone only earning £35,000?" and another claimed that such pay levels would deter young people from entering the profession.

The walk out also reminded me of the episode of Rumpole of the Bailey where the head of chambers Guthrie Featherstone QC MP played by Peter Bowles leads a strike of judges and arriving home early is met by his appalled wife who asks him if he now intends to go down the working men's club in a flat cap and order a pint of wallop.