Thursday, 17 December 2015

Books of the Year

In which I run through the novels I've read this year, and what inspired me to read them.

Notes from Underground and The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Continuing the Russian theme from the end of last year, I read these two short novels, the latter of which can be seen as an early sketch for his much later masterpiece Crime and Punishment.

The Return of the Native, The Well-Beloved and A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

Continuing my Thomas Hardy binge from last summer, I read one of his major and two of his minor novels.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

I read this novella, set in a dystopian Manhattan of the near future, after seeing the film version, which I didn't think really worked. The book is much better, as you'd expect from a writer of DeLillo's skill.

Metroland by Julian Barnes

I picked this up after reading a piece about it in The Guardian. It's a semi-autobiographical account of a young man growing up in the London suburbs in the fifties and spending time as a student in Paris in the late sixties before moving back to the Metroland of the title.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

This classic of mid-twentieth century teenage alienation had been on my bookshelf for a few years so I thought it was about time I read it.

Brighton Rock, A Gun for Sale and England Made Me by Graham Greene

Greene called these gangster thrillers "entertainments" but they nevertheless contain many of the moral and religious themes of his later novels.

Nemesis and The Human Stain by Philip Roth

I saw a review of Nemesis when it was published in 2010 but only got round to reading it this year. It's basically a reworking of La Peste by Albert Camus, relocated to mid-forties Newark, New Jersey. I read The Human Stain after seeing the film version with Anthony Hopkins. Its tale of a black man "passing" as white has echoes of one of this year's strangest news stories, that of Rachel Dolezal attempting the reverse.

The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

Like her better-known The Group, this, her debut novel, is another semi-autobiographical account set in New York in the thirties of a young women encountering its intellectual, political and literary milieu.

The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

I love sequels, or prequels, to other writers' works (Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is one of my favourite novels) so I was attracted to this reworking of L'Etranger by Albert Camus, seen from the viewpoint of the victim rather than perpetrator of the murder on the beach.

Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn

I find the period between the wars in Britain, described and explored by some of my favourite writers such as Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton, fascinating. This murder mystery is a pretty convincing depiction of it.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

A sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, written before it but only published this year, which I blogged about here.

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

Another reworking of a famous novel, this time transposing Joyce's early twentieth century Dublin to mid-eighties London and replacing Ulyssses' Stephen Dedalus with an Indian student of English Literature.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

This novel about the relationship between Mancunian-Irish sisters and mill operatives Mary and Lizzie Burns and the factory owner and Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels ticked quite a few boxes of things I'm interested in: left-wing politics, history, Germany, working-class feminism, and Manchester and Salford.

Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler

This had long been on my "must read" list and, like Forever Flowing by Vassily Grossman and The Case of Comrade Tulayev which I had read before, is about Stalin's Great Purge of the late thirties.

List of the Lost by Morrissey

Not quite as bad as the reviews suggest but could still have done with an editor chopping the text and Morrissey's long rants about his favourite subjects (vindictive judges, veganism, sadistic teachers).

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Dickens' first novel isn't much regarded by critics but I enjoyed this rambling tale of a group of gentlemen getting into scrapes as they travel around 1830's England.

Monday, 14 December 2015

My favourite Alt

I spent a few days in the Rhineland last week, going round pubs, Christmas markets and cathedrals in Düsseldorf and Cologne, which I've made half a dozen or so trips to in the past decade. I also went to Aachen for the first time.

I kicked off at Brauerei Schumacher on Ostrasse, partly because it's only a short walk from Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof, but also because it's got a special place in my beer memories: in 2009, it was the first pub in which I drank Altbier.

When I last went to Düsseldorf a couple of years ago, I wrote that Uerige Alt was "fast approaching Füchschen as my favourite Alt". I reckon it's now finally made it to top spot: it seems far darker, heavier and hoppier than when I first drank it six years ago.

Zum Uerige is easily my favourite pub in Düsseldorf. The first time I went, it was summer and I sat at the tables opposite, drinking Alt and eating sausages from the pub's own butchery under the shade of a canopy, but the real magic is inside the pub itself. I love wandering along its narrow corridors discovering different rooms, each with their own distinct atmosphere, from the long-tabled Neweaan dining room to the large, standing Brauhof at the back. My favourite though is Der Uerige, the taproom at the front, not just for the theatre of wooden barrels being hoisted up from the cellar and lifted onto the bar by the waiters, before being swiftly emptied, but also because sharing the small tables with the mostly sociable regulars means it's easy to strike up conversations with your fellow drinkers, albeit thereby inflicting my no more than passable German on them.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Knock on wood

On Saturday night in Bar Fringe, a Belgian-style bar on the edge of Manchester city centre and Ancoats, I picked up a leaflet produced by the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood.

Although founded in 1963, eight years before CAMRA in 1971, the SPBW is much smaller and its role in promoting cask beer far less well-known. That's largely down to the esoteric name: as far as I know, the famously traditional Samuel Smith's in Yorkshire is the only British brewery which still regularly uses wooden casks. Even the SPBW's moniker has been kept solely for tradition's sake and it has no problem with draught beer dispensed from metal casks.

It also seems to be more of a social rather than a campaigning organisation, although CAMRA has a social as well as a consumer protection side too, and mainly based in the South of England, albeit with trips organised to pubs and breweries around the country. I'm tempted to send off my fiver and join and would be interested to know if anyone else has, and if so what their experience of it has been.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Then and now

I went to The Crown in Cheadle last night for the presentation of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Month award.

In 1990, I worked round the corner as an office junior at a firm of solicitors for a few months before going to college and drank there at dinnertime occasionally, but I haven't been back since. So what's changed in the last twenty-five years?

It's still a smallish, L-shaped one-room pub (it was originally converted from a shop) although it's been opened out slightly, especially at the front which, as the photo from 1990 below shows, used to be a brick wall with windows along the top, giving the place a bit of a hole-in-the-wall feel. There's also the now obligatory smoking shelter outside at the back. It still sells well-kept Hydes mild and bitter, as well as a few guest beers now too.

And most importantly, it's still not just a pub but a regulars' local with a real community atmosphere.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Pub and the People

Among the presents I got for my birthday last week was The Pub and the People. It's a study of pubs in a Lancashire town called "Worktown", actually Bolton, carried out in the late 1930's as part of the Mass Observation project.

Boak and Bailey and Ron at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins have both blogged about what a mine of information the book is: having read it, you feel as though you could recreate a 1930's Bolton pub.

Nearly all the draught beer drunk in "Worktown" is mild ale, either dark ordinary or light best (my local brewery Robinson's of Stockport had a light and dark version of their mild until they stopped brewing it earlier this year, and Hydes in Salford still do), and most of it comes from large regional breweries, Magees, Walkers and Threlfalls (my grandmother grew up in a Threlfalls pub in Wigan in the 1920's and in the 1930's worked as a barmaid at another in Stretford, where she met my grandfather, a toolmaker at the Metrovicks engineering factory in nearby Trafford Park).

A couple of surprising things: almost all the men in "Worktown" drink half-pints (women tend to drink bottled beer, mainly Guinness but also pale and brown ale), although both sexes switch to spirits, cider or bottled beer for the highlight of the "Worktown" calendar, the annual, booze-filled trip to the Lancashire seaside resort of Blackpool (where my grandparents spent their honeymoon). One lucky local is hired by the researchers to do an early evening crawl of the pubs in the town centre, getting through eight and half pints in, presumably, seventeen of them by half past nine.

The vault and the taproom are also separate rooms in the pub when I've always thought of them as being the same thing: the main difference seems to be that there's a bar in the first and you can play games in the second.

The pub is the centre of social life, hosting sporting and other clubs, trade union meetings and societies such as the Buffs (the Wigan branch of which met above the pub where my grandmother spent her childhood: she always referred to them, like the book does, as "the poor man's Masons"), as well as illegal, but officially overlooked, activities including gambling and prostitution.

The book also gives an interesting overview of the influence of religion and politics on "Worktown"'s drinking scene, from the fiercely teetotal Nonconformist sects and non-pub going middle-class councillors to the boozy working-class Irish Catholics who run the local Labour Party.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Zola on the radio

I listened to the first episode of a new dramatisation of the Rougon-Macquart novels by the French writer Emile Zola on Radio 4 yesterday.

I've read a few of the novels in the series, subtitled "Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire": Germinal, about a miners' strike in Northern France, La Terre, about life in the countryside outside Paris, La Bête Humaine, a psychological thriller about a homicidal railwayman, and Nana, about a prostitute/actress. The overall idea is to use the novel as a sort of science lab in which the effects of heredity and environment on human behaviour can be studied.

Glenda Jackson is convincing as Tante Dide, the matriarch of the extended Rougon-Macquart clan who narrates it, and the whole thing moves along at a smart pace. It seems to be fairly loosely translated from the text: a woman who in 1852 goes off to join Republican rebels fighting the National Army, after Napoleon III  has overthrown the Second Republic proclaimed in 1848 in a coup d'état, exclaims on seeing her new comrades for the first time "Cool!". I'm pretty sure that's not a line lifted from Zola.

Overall though, it's a enjoyable, and accessible, way of experiencing the novels and I'm looking forward to listening to the rest of the series,

Sunday, 15 November 2015

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

The actor Warren Mitchell who died yesterday aged 89 was best known for playing the working-class racist Alf Garnett in the 1970's TV comedy Till Death Us Do Part.

Unlike out-and-out racist comedies of the 1970's like Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language, it was Warren Mitchell and scriptwriter Johnny Speight's intention that viewers should laugh at, rather than with, the character they had created, but it didn't work out like that and Garnett became a hero to the bigots who took up his lines as their own. In an interview, Mitchell recounted how he, unlike West Ham-supporting Alf, a Spurs fan from an East London Jewish background, had once been embarrassed at a football match to become the subject of supportive chanting by racists on the terraces.

Garnett's views are challenged in the show, by his long-suffering wife and his left-wing "Scouse git" son-in-law (played by Labour-supporting actor Tony Booth), but they both tend to come off second best to him. A much better attempt to challenge racism by way of comedy in the 1970's was Rising Damp in which the reactionary views of boarding house landlord Rigsby are made to look ridiculous by a black and a white lodger, played by Don Warrington and Richard Beckinsale respectively, and the audience does end up laughing at his backward attitudes rather than having their prejudices reinforced.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Student pubs

In a fit of autumnal nostalgia, I've been looking through my diaries from the early nineties when I was a student at Staffordshire Polytechnic in Stoke-on-Trent.

There's quite a lot of political stuff (I was active in the Poly Labour Club and Stoke Central Labour Party as well as in campaigns against the Gulf War and in support of the miners, quite a few of whom still worked locally at Hem Heath colliery) but also the odd mention of pubs and beer too.

For those unfamiliar with the Potteries, the city of Stoke-on-Trent is the result of an amalgamation in the early twentieth century of six towns (reduced to five in the novels of Arnold Bennett which omit Fenton). I lived in Fenton for the first year and then in Shelton, between the shopping area of Hanley and Stoke-upon-Trent, the city's administrative centre.

I wrote about two of the pubs I used to drink in, The Glebe (then a Banks's pub) and The Victoria (a Marston's pub) when I revisited them a couple of years ago, but I thought I'd have a look online to see what's become of some of the others.

Two student pubs in Shelton, The Roebuck and Merry Tippler, have been demolished to make way for a Sixth Form college, and two locals' pubs, The Terrace and Old Corner Cupboard, seem to have been transformed into student bars. The Terrace in Fenton, where I used to drink with my housemates, is still there and looks relatively unchanged (I wonder if women still come in with jugs to be filled with draught beer for their husbands?) as does The Albion in Hanley which I often drank in after meetings in the town hall opposite. Both had what seemed to be a common practice in the Potteries then of the landlord or landlady bringing round a tray of free sandwiches and pies at the end of the night. The Black Lion in Hanley where I drank with political and student mates is long gone though.

I'm pleased to see that the Staff of Life is still trading. An Irish pub, in the sense of having a largely Irish clientele rather than being plastered with leprechauns and shamrocks, it always had a decent pint of Draught Bass and I once spent a very enjoyable St. Patrick's night there drinking bottled Guinness and singing Galway Bay with the regulars.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Mixed drinks

I'm re-reading Patrick Hamilton's novel The Midnight Bell at the moment, set in a London pub of that name in the early 1930's.

Most of the action takes place in the saloon bar, overseen by the Governor and the Governor's wife and patrolled by the waiter Bob who gives his orders to Ella, a barmaid secretly in love with him. The public and private bars are described as "dreary, seatless, bareboarded structures wherein drunkenness was dispensed in coarser tumblers and at a cheaper rate to a mostly collarless and frankly downtrodden stratum of society". The public bar is also where mild would have been sold.

In the first chapter, the pub is about to re-open at five o'clock in the evening. As the regulars drift back in, they place their orders at the bar or with the waiter: half a Burton, a bottle of Bass - once staple drinks which it'd be hard to find in pubs now - a pint of bitter, and finally, "B an' B, please...He employed the popular abbreviation for Bitter and Burton mixed, and Ella gave it him, primly and deprecatingly, and took his money."

Richard Boston in his 1976 book Beer and Skittles lists some popular mixed drinks:

"Black and tan: stout and bitter
Mother-in-law: Old and bitter
Boilermaker: Brown and mild
M and B: Mild and bitter
Narfer narf: Half a pint of mild and half a pint of bitter
Lightplater: light and bitter
Granny: Old and mild
Blacksmith: barley wine and Guinness"

Black and tan made with a bottle of Bass and Guinness is apparently still quite popular in the United States.

In the Holt's house I drank in as a teenager, quite a few of the older drinkers would add a bottle of brown ale or Guinness to their draught beer. I never really saw the point as the cask bitter and mild were always well-kept (the practice of mixing bottled and draught beer probably has its roots in drinkers wanting to give some artificially carbonated life to poor quality cask beer) and the only time I drank anything else was the odd bottle of Guinness at the end of an evening.

I've got a few bottles of Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen and Lees Manchester Star Ale which are approaching their best before dates. I might try making a Franconian-Mancunian black and tan with a couple of them.

Monday, 26 October 2015

No bacon, no beer

Two reports by health bodies caught my eye in the last week.

First up, the NHS's National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) published a report on dementia which said that for people between 40 and 64 there is no safe limit for alcohol and therefore they should abstain from drinking to avoid it being a trigger for the condition, and now the World Heath Association (WHO) has announced that eating sausages, bacon and ham puts you at the same risk of cancer as smoking.

As someone in his mid-forties who regularly drinks beer and eats bacon, ham or sausages most days, I'm clearly in big trouble. Our beer-drinking and sausage-eating cousins across the North Sea in Germany should no doubt be worried too as they swig their steins of lager and munch their Bratwurst.

I accept that there are environmental and animal welfare issues around how meat is currently produced, and health and social problems associated with the excess consumption of alcohol, and not being a scientist I have no way of knowing how accurate the findings from NICE and the WHO are. But even if they are, the messages are so extreme as to make it almost inconceivable that they'll be heeded. And if they were, and we all became teetotal vegetarians tomorrow, there would be massive economic knock-on effects with closed shops, restaurants, breweries, farms, factories, pubs and off-licences.

Kingsley Amis put it well when he said, "No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home in Weston-super-Mare."

A lethal combination

Monday, 19 October 2015

Mancs get tanks

A new German-style beer hall opened its doors to the public in Manchester yesterday, after a couple of press and invitation-only nights last week, so I popped along to take a look.

Alberts Schloss, named after Queen Victoria's German consort Prince Albert, is on Peter Street and is fitted out with a Bavarian pine interior which I'm quite a fan of, but the main attraction is the beer, in particular Pilsner Urquell, the world's first golden lager brewed since 1842 in the Bohemian town of Pilsen, or Plzen as it's known in the Czech Republic.

Alberts Schloss is one of the few places in Britain that serves unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell tankovna, dispensed by air pressure from large tanks above the bar. It's not cheap (£4.80 a pint, or £3.20 for two-thirds) but it's great stuff: fresh, soft-bodied, cool rather than cold, with low carbonation and a delicate balance between the sweetness of the Moravian malt and the bitterness of the Saaz hops. There's also a range of draught and bottled German and Belgian wheat beers and lagers at similar prices and a single hand-pump for cask ale which yesterday was from Magic Rock.

I didn't get chance to look at the food menu but I'd guess it's the usual German combinations of pig, potatoes and pretzels.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Treizification comes to town

Fans of both rugby codes will be heading to Manchester tomorrow as England play their last match in rugby union's World Cup, a dead rubber against Uruguay at the City of Manchester Stadium, and Leeds meet Wigan in the rugby league Grand Final at Old Trafford.

Since rugby union lifted its ban on professionals twenty years ago, quite a few players and coaches have left league for union, although many of them have not found it an easy switch, Sam Burgess being the latest convert from league to union to struggle in the rival code. Some of the England rugby union team's youngsters played rugby league at amateur or junior level, including Owen Farrell and George Ford, both sons of former league players who now coach in union. Rugby union has also adopted some tactics and rules from league, a process French rugby league historian Robert Fassolette has dubbed "treizification".

When rugby union became openly professional in 1995, many had concerns that the fifteen-a-side game would poach league's top talent in much the same way that union players used to be lured North by league club scouts. While that has happened to some extent, thankfully it hasn't been on anything like the scale that some feared and, as now looks likely with Burgess, several ultimately returned to the thirteen-man code.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The six tribes of Labour

At the end of the most interesting Labour Conference for a couple of decades, the media is focussing on divisions between the left and right in the party, mainly over Trident, but also to a lesser extent over Europe, Syria and the economy.

Those divisions are real and important but what's often overlooked is the differences in background and class that have shaped Labour politics throughout the party's history. I can think of half a dozen such groups in the party:

1. Upper middle-class Nonconformists, often from a Radical Liberal background: tend to the left and towards vegetarianism, teetotalism, pacifism and mild eccentricity. Tony Benn and Michael Foot are the classic examples.

2. Middle-class professionals, especially academics, journalists and lawyers: tend to the right. Current examples include Tristram Hunt, Gerald Kaufman and Keir Starmer, and in the past Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, Jack Straw, John Smith, Bryan Gould, Paul Boateng, Jack Cunningham, Harold Wilson, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins.

3. Working-class, former blue collar trade union officials: to be found on the right (Alan Johnson, and in the past Ernest Bevin) as well as on the left of the party (Ian Lavery, David Anderson, and in the past John Prescott, Eric Heffer and Aneurin Bevan).

4. Working-class, former white collar trade union officials or activists in local government, the public and voluntary sector or campaigns and pressure groups: tend to the left. Current examples include Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, and in the past Ken Livingstone, Tony Banks, David Blunkett and George Galloway.

5. Politicos/staffers/policy wonks: people who've never had a job outside Westminster, graduating straight from student politics to working for a MP or a left-of-centre think tank, in the party or an affiliated trade union's research unit or as a speechwriter or special adviser to a minister. Lots of current examples including Andy Burnham, Stella Creasy and Tom Watson, and in the past Ed Balls, both Miliband brothers and Denis Healey. Tend to be lower to upper middle-class, occasionally working-class, and on the right of the party. The network of ex-NOLSies (members of the National Organisation of Labour Students) who came from this background were key to creating the New Labour project in the early to mid 90's.

6. Business donors: not many examples, but, unsurprisingly, influential, at least in the recent past, given their ability to donate large sums to the party's coffers and access to other fundraising contacts and networks: Geoffrey Robinson, Lord Levy, Lord Sainsbury.

I'm sure I've missed a few people out and there are of course others who fit into more than one category: Corbyn is a mixture of 1. and 4. and both Benn and Foot worked as journalists too. Let's hope that in the future we see more of 3. and 4. and a lot less of 2. 6., and especially 5.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Midnight's Children

I watched the TV premiere of the film Midnight's Children on BBC2 this weekend.

Salman Rushdie's 1981 Booker Prize winner, which I first read as a teenager, is still one of my favourite novels. Reviewing it when it was published, the Sunday Telegraph said that "India has found its Günter Grass" and Midnight's Children does have some similarities with Grass's best known work, The Tin Drum: the "magic realism"; a country divided into three with the main character, Saleem, forced to cross and recross its new borders; taste and smell as metaphors for political history.

Although the film skips over some parts of the plot (communalism in Bombay, conflicts between pro-Moscow and pro-Peking Communists, Saleem's experiences as a soldier in the 1971 war in East Pakistan/Bangladesh), it's generally faithful to the novel (unlike the film version of The Tin Drum which ends halfway through the book) and benefits from Rushdie's collaboration with director Deepa Mehta and a voice-over of him reading from his novel.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Stockport Beer Week nearly here

I went to Robinson's Brewery this afternoon for the press launch of Stockport Beer Week (although it actually lasts for eleven days: to misquote Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson talking about Manchester in Twenty-Four Hour Party People, "This is Stockport, we do things differently here").

From my teenage drinking days up until a few years ago, there was only one brewery in Stockport: Robinson's, who kindly hosted the launch of what will hopefully become an annual CAMRA event, with their extensive tied estate. There are now seven, including three attached to pubs on the "Stockport Slope" crawl of Wellington Road North (Stockport Brewing Company behind The Crown, Watts Brewing behind The Magnet and Fool Hardy Ales in the cellar of The Hope),

I know many people aren't huge fans of Robinson's beers. I've always enjoyed drinking their best bitter Unicorn and seasonal strong ale Old Tom, and in recent years their premium bitter Trooper and golden ale Dizzy Blonde, but for those of you who don't there's now a lot more beer choice in the town's free houses.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The English Pub

Halfway through a semi-annual clear out, a stack of magazines has bobbed to the top of the pile whose existence I'd completely forgotten about.

In what seems to be a complete set of English for All, published for German prisoners of war in England between 1946 and 1948, issue no. 30 of 17th June 1947 caught my eye with its lead article entitled "The English Pub".

As L.P. Hartley famously wrote in the opening sentence of The Go-Between, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." So what has, and hasn't, changed in the English pub as it was described almost eight decades ago?

"Broadly speaking, there are three types of public house  the city pub, the village pub and the "local," – though the the last-named category may, in certain cases, embrace one of the other two."

Still broadly true, although there are a few more categories that could be added now: family and fun pubs. pub-restaurants, estate pubs, sports pubs.

"British inns differ from their continental counterparts principally in that we make no serious effort (generally no effort at all) to cater for food...our opening hours are restricted and children under 16 are not admitted at all."

Although there are still some wet-led pubs which don't serve food or admit children, they're now a minority, and restricted hours have long gone.

"Also our public houses invariably have two classes of bars (saloon bar and public bar), each charging different prices for the same drinks; in some parts of England (and in the whole of Scotland) public houses are closed all day on Sunday."

Sadly, the majority of pubs which had a saloon and public bar (or lounge and vault as they're called in the North) and snug have long since knocked them through to create a single room; the ones that haven't – many of them listed on CAMRA's inventory of Historic Pub Interiors – should be treasured.

I just about remember drinking in a pub where it a was a couple of pence a pint cheaper in the vault, as a student in the now closed Victoria in Stoke-on-Trent, and the end of "dry Sundays" in some areas (I seem to recall heavily Nonconformist parts of Wales holding out on that front well into the 1980's).

"The drinks they consume could be had at any Off-Licence at prices about one-third lower"

Bottled beer is still cheaper in off-licences than pubs, although I'd have thought that most people drinking in the latter would, as now, order draught beer. Up until at least the  60's, many pubs also had a separate "outdoor"/bottle and jug for off-licence sales where I'd guess prices for bottled and draught beer were the same as in the public bar/vault.

"Cases of drunkenness are to-day negligible in Britain."

I reckon that was even less true then than it is now.

"There is also the essentially English custom of "treating"."

Although now better known as buying rounds, a sociable tradition that is thankfully still going strong.

"In the public bar a dozen or so workmen are drinking beer and enjoying the sandwiches they have brought with them. Four of them are playing darts."

Good luck with finding a pub with a public bar/vault where you can bring your own food and there's a dart board.

"It is two o'clock and no more drink may be served...Reluctantly the glasses are drained and the last customer disappears. The pub is closed until 5.30 when the real business of the day will begin."

I just about remember afternoon closing too, although I thought it started at three o'clock?

"Let us hope that you, too, will one day accompany us into the saloon bar...(by then the beer may be stronger!)"

Richard Boston's Beer and Skittles has a handy table giving the average original gravity of English beer in the twentieth century: in 1923, it was 1042 (much lower than it had been before World War I), in 1933, (after teetotal Chancellor Philip Snowden's 1931 Budget) 1039, in 1948, after another World War, 1032, and in 1953 1036, stopping around that mark until 1973. I don't know what it is now, but I'd guess that it's slightly higher at about 1040.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A proper pub?

Boak and Bailey have a post today discussing "craft beer bars" and how you define them (I like their answer to the question: "If we turned up in your town and asked someone carrying a Pete Brown paperback under their arm for directions to the nearest craft beer bar, where would they send us?")

It got me thinking about how you define a proper pub, something that has of course been extensively 
discussed over the decades, most famously by George Orwell in The Moon Under Water. But for what it's worth, here's my checklist.

1. At least one, well-kept cask beer (don't care what style or who brewed it) which you can drink several pints of over an evening without getting too drunk or applying for an overdraft.

2. You can sit anywhere you want and drink, i.e. there are no reserved tables for dining.

3. Drinking is the main activity rather than watching sport on a big screen TV, listening to live music or comedy or having a meal.

4. Food is restricted to pub snacks:  pork pies, crisps, pork scratchings, nuts.

5. Even if there is a lot of passing trade, there is a core of regulars whenever you go in and who are looked after by an identifiable landlord/lady who runs the pub, rather than an ever changing roster of inexperienced staff.

6. Ideally, it is split into separate rooms with different functions: minimally, a lounge, vault and snug.

There are of course lots of pubs I go in which don't meet most, or even any, of those criteria, and I realise that more modern and chain pubs are less likely to fulfill them too, but I can think of several pubs I go to regularly in Manchester and Stockport which meet them all.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Northern Quarter crawl

I went to a CAMRA beer festival at the National Cycling Centre in East Manchester on Saturday afternoon.

I thought I'd limber up for it by going to a few places I'd not been to before in the Northern Quarter, the former warehouse district now transformed into an alternative cultural area in the northern part of Manchester city centre.

The Micro Bar in the market hall of the Arndale Shopping Centre is run by the Boggart Hole Clough Brewery in North Manchester whose beers I've enjoyed a few times at beer festivals. As well as the couple of handpumps on the bar, the attached bottled beer shop seemed to be doing a decent trade in the half hour or so I was there.

The Lower Turks Head on Shudehill reopened as a hotel and pub a couple of years ago after being closed for more than two decades. It wasn't quite as ornate or cosy as I'd expected - it's been knocked through into a wine bar next door - but it was busy with football fans on the way to the match and the Black Sheep Best Bitter was fine.

Just round the corner is the Abel Heywood, Hydes Brewery's flagship city centre bar and hotel, named after the one-time Chartist and Radical who became mayor of Manchester in the 1860's, which opened last year. It's a lot less "boutique bar" and far more pubby than I'd imagined and had a good mix of regulars, football fans and tourists, friendly staff and a decent selection of beers from Hydes' Beer Studio range on the bar.

Adding the Hare and Hounds, a couple of doors up Shudehill from the Lower Turks Head,  and the Unicorn, just across Church Street from the Abel Heywood, to my mini-crawl would I reckon make for a fine circuit of some of Manchester's most atmospheric drinking establishments, all of them within a relatively small area between Tib Street and High Street.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Souping up the sixties

I watched BBC4's Soup Cans and Superstars: How Pop Art Changed the World the other day.

Much of it was familiar stuff - Roy Lichtenstein's cartoons, Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe screenprints - but there were also quite a few artists I hadn't heard of before. As you'd expect in a programme largely about New York in the fifties and sixties, there was a lot of jazz on the soundtrack, especially by Miles Davis.

One thing that hadn't really struck me before was how British pop art preceded that of America, starting in the early rather than late fifties. Peter Blake, who appeared on the programme, even claims to have invented the term "pop art".

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell

Yesterday, Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation of Keith Waterhouse's play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.

Bernard, played by John Hurt, is a journalist who, with his pals including the painter Francis Bacon and actors John Le Mesurier and Denis Shaw, inhabits the pub and clubland of the bohemian Soho area of London's West End. The play is set around the time of its first production in 1989 and takes place in the gents of the Coach and Horses pub where Bernard, having passed out after a drinking session, has been accidentally locked in for the night.

Much of the humour stems from Bernard's anecdotes about the drunken escapades of himself and his friends. I wonder if it would be produced on the West End stage today in these more censorious times or whether the anti-drink lobby would succeed in having it banned.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Manchester Star Ale

I picked up a bottle of this after seeing a label for it posted by Ron at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

Drinking mostly in Stockport and South Manchester, I rarely go to pubs owned by J.W. Lees, a family-run brewery in Middleton just north-east of Manchester whose tied estate extends across Rochdale, Oldham and Bury. The only one I've drunk in at all regularly, and even then not for a while, is the Rain Bar, their flagship pub on the banks of the Rochdale Canal in Manchester city centre. Unlike some, I quite like the biscuity malt taste in their draught bitter, mild, golden and strong ales.

According to the back of the bottle, Manchester Star Ale is brewed in collaboration with the Brooklyn Brewery in New York to a recipe from 1884. At 7.3%, it's a strong ale now, although I'd be interested to know what it was called then. I suspect it might have been one in a range of milds, and maybe not even the strongest.

Brown-black in colour, it's very smooth and has a fruitiness that reminded me a bit of Belgian Trappist beers. It's the kind of bottled beer which would attract me to a pub that doesn't sell cask beer and one which I'll be looking out for in the future.

Friday, 24 July 2015

A Shropshire Gad About Seve(r)n Pubs

I've just got back from a couple of days in Shrewsbury.

I've been to Shrewsbury once before, eighteen years ago, but only went to a chain pub-restaurant on the outskirts of the town. This time, I got to seven pubs in the town itself, including the one where I stopped, a Wetherspoons which, unusually, isn't a former furniture shop, cinema, snooker or dance hall but an eighteenth century coaching inn, albeit thoroughly modernised inside to match the corporate style.

Just along the street is the Salopian Bar. I got the impression from reading about it online that it was a trendy place with sofas but popping in mid-afternoon for a pint of Oracle and a pork pie (both excellent) I found it pretty pubby with middle-aged men reading newspapers and watching cricket on TV.

Shrewbury is in a loop of the River Severn and has numerous timber-framed mediaeval buildings, several of them pubs. It reminded me a bit of the Franconian towns I've drunk in, Bamberg and Forchheim, and like them is small enough to walk round easily.

In the old town, I started at The Loggerheads, a multi-room pub with narrow, stone-flagged passageways and a wood-pannelled snug. It's a Marston's house so the choice of beer isn't that great but the pint of Pedigree I had was fine with a pronounced sulphury "Burton snatch" which reminded me of when I drank gallons of it as a student in Stoke in the early 90's. The nearby Three Fishes and Nag's Head are also multi-roomed pubs, albeit a bit more opened out and airy with lots of timberwork and in the latter's case a pleasant walled beer garden.

Back towards the main square are the Coach and Horses and Admiral Benbow. I'd read that the former is known for its food and the modern restaurant I spotted at the back when I popped to the gents suggested that but the front bar where I sat and the snug to the side give it the feel of a street corner local. The latter has a largeish beer garden, a modern, airy feel inside and an impressive choice of local ales.

Shrewsbury is quite easy to get to by train from the Stockport and South Manchester area, changing at Crewe or Wilmslow, with lots of crop fields, river meadows and level crossings to look at on the way.