Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Books of the Year

A slightly shorter list this year, with most of the books on it ones I happened to see a favourable review of, or by authors whose complete works I'm trying to read.

Howards End by E.M. Forster

I read this after watching a BBC TV adaptation of it, although I still prefer the film version with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I've had this on my bookshelf for decades and this year I finally got round to reading it, prompted by the bicentenary of the publication of what is generally regarded as the first science fiction novel.

Guerillas by V.S. Naipaul

Loosely based on the Michael X case, this short novel about black nationalism in a post-colonial society is set on an unnamed island which closely resembles the author's native Trinidad.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

The classic satire about journalism, with some wonderful passages of purple prose. Waugh based it on his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Abyssinia, and its main character, William Boot, at least on part, on Bill Deedes.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The second of Greene's four Catholic novels (preceded by Brighton Rock, and succeeded by The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, all of which I've read in the last few years) takes place in an unnamed Mexican province, a country he visited in the late thirties, and centres on a renegade priest, also never named, who is being hunted down by an anti-clerical government there.

Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence was a proto-fascist, but this novel, largely autobiographical, about love and disappointment in a Nottinghamshire mining village and the countryside around it is nevertheless a major work of literary realism.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I read an abridged version as a child, but picked this up out of a box set of other adventure novels I bought a couple of years ago.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

At a little over a thousand pages, this was the longest novel I read this year, after seeing a newspaper review of it and being intrigued by the idea of telling the story of someone's life as four different, and essentially random, possibilities interwoven together, based on a near-death experience Auster had in childhood.

The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola

I must have read at least half of Zola's Rougon-Macquart series of novels now, about two sides of a family (one legitimate, the other illegitimate) under the French Second Empire (1852-70). This one concerns the political intrigues around a defeated republican returning to France from exile, after Napoleon III's coup d'état, and is largely set in the then new and massive market hall of Paris, which gives the novel both its title and some of its famous descriptive passages.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

I bought this novel about a young man's first experience of combat in the American Civil War in a second-hand bookshop as a teenager, but only got round to reading it earlier this year.

The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty by Peter Handke

I saw the film based on this years ago, and was prompted to finally read the original novel when it was re-released during this summer's World Cup. A sort of existential murder story, it has echoes of works by other twentieth century European writers I admire like Camus, Kafka, Sartre and Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Who would have thought that an alternative history novel about a celebrity (in this case the transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh) unexpectedly being elected US President and pursuing an isolationist "America First" programme whilst scapegoating ethnic minorities and journalists would see a spike in sales since 2016?

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Winter Warmer Wander (w)ended again

I've just completed the Winter Warmer Wander, an annual celebration of porter, stout and strong ale organised by my local CAMRA branch, Stockport and South Manchester, by visiting twelve pubs and drinking at least a half of cask-conditioned beer in one of those styles there.

Actually, one of the first places I visited on it, as part of a pub crawl to launch the promotion, the Arden Arms in Stockport, didn't have their seasonal pin of Robinson's Old Tom (which also sponsors the event) on the bar yet when we called there, so we had to substitute the strongest beer that was, their strong bitter Trooper, but apart from that I've managed to find plenty of winter-style beers going round Manchester and Stockport in the last month.

Of the eleven other beers, nine were stouts or porters and two strong ales, seven were made by microbreweries in the North of England, four were drunk in tenanted or managed pubs (three of them Wetherspoons) and seven in free houses or micropubs, and eight of them in Stockport and three in Manchester.

My favourite beer was one I've drunk and enjoyed many times before, and CAMRA's Champion Beer in 2013, Elland 1872 Porter, at the Paramount in Manchester city centre, a silky stout which doesn't really drink to its 6.5% strength.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

A row going on down near Tsingtao

This month's centenary of the armistice which ended World War I has understandably attracted a lot of media attention, and sent me back to a book which I first read as a teenager, The Great War, by the military historian Corelli Barnett, who also co-wrote the TV series of the same name.

I've just been reading about that war's first military action outside Europe, in late October and early November 1914, when British and Japanese troops jointly attacked Tsingtao, a port on the north-east coast of China which the Germans had occupied since the 1890's as a trading post and naval base. When you think about what happened in World War II in the same theatre of war, it's quite ironic that British troops even donned Japanese gear after a friendly fire incident in which their Far Eastern allies mistook them for German soldiers.

The peace treaties concluded after the armistice in 1919 at Versailles stripped Germany of its colonial empire in Africa and Asia, but left Tsingtao in Japanese hands until the Republic of China, which had also been an ally of the British, French and Americans in World War I, finally gained control of it in the early 1920s.

Tsingtao, now known as Qingdao, is best known outside China for the brewery which German colonists founded there in 1903, and which has had the eventful a history you might expect given China's turbulent twentieth century, passing through the hands of the varying governments which have ruled the country, outside powers and private companies. It is now the second biggest in China, having around a 15% market share there with its flagship 4.7% pils-style lager, part of a wider legacy of German, Austrian and Czech-style beers brewed throughout southeast Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Sonny and me

Yesterday would have been the 107th birthday of the blind blues harmonica player Sonny Terry (who died aged 74 in 1986).

A couple of years after his death, I watched a BBC Arena documentary presented by Alan Yentob about the left-wing folk singer Woody Guthrie which included footage of him playing with Sonny Terry and the guitarist Brownie McGhee, with whom Sonny formed a long, if not always harmonious offstage, musical partnership, and a few months after that was in an "A" Level General Studies lesson when the teacher played a Guthrie track and asked if anyone knew who it was (needless to say, I was the only one who did; he also read to us the famous bit in W.C. Handy's autobiography, Father of the Blues, where he recalls meeting a "lean loose-joined Negro" at a country station in Mississippi in 1903 who "pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar with a knife" as he played a song about "goin' where the Southern cross the Dog", which Handy called "the weirdest music I ever heard", before playing Charlie Patton to us, thus planting another musical seed in me...).

Where white teenage blues fans in sixties England began by listening to the Stones and Animals' cover versions before working their way back to the Chicago originals by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, I started with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee accompanying Woody Guthrie, moved on to Bob Dylan's early Guthriesque albums and then the folk-blues of John Lee Hooker, before finally arriving myself at those post-war South Side classics.

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee also appeared alongside Muddy Waters, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, pianists Cousin Joe Pleasant and Otis Spann and bassist Ransom Knowling at the disused Wilbraham Road railway station in south Manchester in 1964 for the Granada TV show Blues & Gospel Train, performing somewhat incongruously between stacked coops of chickens and a tethered goat on the platform.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The lines they aren't a-changin'

The publication of the annual Cask Report has prompted reflections on the state of cask beer from bloggers including Paul Bailey, Pub Curmudgeon and Pete Brown, particularly on the issue of pubs having far too many handpumps than their sales of cask beer justifies, leading to slow turnover and tired, off-tasting pints. The figures on falling sales come at the same time as a study showing that about a third of 16-25 year olds now don't drink alcohol at all, let alone in pubs.

Ideally, of course, a cask would be put on and emptied the same day, and failing that in 2-3 days. That gives us the following guide as to how many pints a pub should be selling a day to have x handpumps on the bar, assuming they're using standard 9 gallon/72 pint firkins, with the left hand column being the ideal, the middle one still acceptable, and the right hand one the absolute minimum (there will naturally be considerable variation between how fast different casks sell, and some less popular beers, especially in non-cask specialist pubs, should probably only be sold in 4½ gallon/36 pint pins, but the bottom line is that if you're not selling at least twenty-four pints a day, serving cask beer to your customers becomes a quality lottery for the people handing their money over the bar and a risk to your reputation as a business).

Monday, 8 October 2018

London Calling

London Broncos claimed the final place in next season's Super League last night, beating Toronto Wolfpack 4-2 in the Million Pound Game (maybe it should have been called the Two Million Dollar Game given it was played in Canada). Their win followed equally narrow results for Warrington and Wigan in the Super League semi-finals this weekend, also dominated by defences and the kicking of penalties and drop goals rather than try-scoring, and was the final edition of a single playoff match introduced in 2015 to determine which team takes the last berth in the next season's competition, having just been dropped in favour of a traditional one up, one down system of promotion and relegation.

I found myself rooting for Toronto during the game, mainly I think because having a Canadian team in Super League would be a significant step foward for the expansion of rugby league in North America. London itself has of course long been a target for the game's expansion, with the first professional clubs formed there in thirties, partly to attract workers who had moved south to escape the industrial depression in the North, and partly as a second-string attraction and source of revenue for the owners of greyhound racing tracks, and later football grounds. The recurring problems with rugby league clubs in London are low attendances at matches, only partially masked by large contigents of away fans from the North, and a lack of the amateur clubs which provide the more successful Super League sides with a succession of talented junior players.

Admittedly there would have been travel issues with a Canadian team in the Super League, although those have already been managed pretty successfully for more than a decade with the Catalans Dragons from Perpignan in southwest France, and west London on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon isn't exactly an easy trip from Hull or St Helens given Britain's low-speed and fractured transport system. I'm sure that just as away fans make a weekend of it in Catalonia, either driving up to the ground from Barcelona or exploring the area between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees, so people would enjoy spending a few days in the Toronto spring and summer sunshine before and after a match there. Having only formed two years ago, and set themselves a target of reaching the Super League within five, I'm also sure that Toronto, who topped the second-tier Championship and would have been promoted automatically under next season's rules, will soon achieve their ambition of playing top-flight rugby league.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Eleven days a week

We're about halfway through Stockport Beer Week, an annual event now in its fourth year which celebrates the town's pubs and breweries. I went to both the press and public launches for it last week, kindly hosted by Robinson's Brewery and their market place house the Bakers Vaults respectively, and am planning to go to a couple more events on it this week too.

There are a few things which are notable about Stockport Beer Week:

1. Although termed a week, it actually lasts eleven days (20-30th September), paralleling National Cask Ale Week;

2. It's the only beer week in England hosted by a town rather than a city;

3. It's the only one, I'm pretty sure, which is organised by the local CAMRA branch, the others being commercial ventures promoted by pubs and breweries.

Official beer of Stockport Beer Week, Cherry Cross the Mersey, a cherry stout from Thirst Class Ale, Reddish, at the Petersgate Tap.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Stockport tops the Carbuncle Cup

The Redrock entertainment complex in Stockport has won the Carbuncle Cup, an annual architectural award for the worst-designed new building in Britain whose name comes from Prince Charles' description of a proposed extension to the National Gallery in London.

I've never actualy stepped inside the place myself, but some of my younger relatives have been to the cinema there and seem to like it, and it doesn't strike me as any worse than the other buildings which were nominated for the prize, or lots of others that easily could have been. I also know that, unusually for a place like this, one of its bars serves a cask beer from the Stockport brewery Robinsons, their golden ale which CAMRA's rules on inclusivity preclude me from naming (at least they've changed the pump-clip to a less sexist one).

Stockport really is two towns now: the area around the market place, and to a lesser extent along the main Wellington Road, where there are lots of new bars, eating places, museums and music venues, and Merseyway, the sixties-conceived shopping precinct at its centre which, although perhaps thought futuristic when it was built, has aged badly and, despite a couple of renovations in the last three decades, is now looking a bit sad and forgotten, with most of its large retail units standing empty.

I know that the council has redevelopment plans for the area between the bus station and Stockport's most impressive architectural and engineeering feat, the Victorian railway viaduct which spans both the River Mersey and the M60 motorway, from which Friedrich Engels once looked down (both literally and metaphorically) on the town, and which you can just about see in the background of the photo below, but the thing which I think would really transform the centre is if the council opened up the section of the river which runs beneath the pedestrianised Merseyway, which was hidden with concrete slabs when it was built in the mid-60s, and made it into a feature, as has already been done to a small extent at one end of it. That radical action might not make Stockport the Venice of the North, but it would create a natural feature that could then become a focal point for a hopefully more successful regeneration of that part of the town.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

How low can you go?

I watched the TV programme Drinkers Like Me last night, in which sports presenter Adrian Chiles documented his relationship with alcohol. reminiscing about teenage underage drinking in the pubs of his native Black Country before having his current weekly intake monitored by medical staff.

While Chiles described most of his drinking as social, pre-match pints before watching West Bromwich Albion with his mates or bottles of wine at birthday drinks and meals with his friends back in London, he also admitted to using alcohol to relieve the stress, anxiety and depression he has struggled with throughout his career, consuming between 75 and 100 units a week, equivalent to between forty and fifty pints of beer or ten bottles of wine (the Government-recommended limit is fourteen units a week, about six to seven pints of beer or ten small glasses of wine).

I now almost always drink fewer than fourteen units a week, mostly at home, and often little or nothing in the week, unlike in my twenties and thirties when I was a student and then a junior civil servant and socialised in pubs with mates and colleagues: that's largely due to being, as I wrote about here, in an area without a decent pub; if I lived two or three miles to the north or east, where there are several Good Beer Guide entries, I would no doubt be a regular in one of them, although I'd still probably follow the current medical advice of having three of four alcohol-free days a week.

By the end of the programme, Chiles had cut down to around 21 units a week (which was the weekly limit for men until 2016, when it was reduced to 14, the same as for women).  The question that struck me is how sustainable the pub and brewing industry would be if everyone followed his example, let alone the new, lower limit, and also restaurants and supermarkets, much of whose profits come from alcohol sales (there is also a daily alcohol limit of 2-3 units, equivalent to about a  pint and a half of standard-strength beer, or two small glasses of wine). Not very I suspect.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Remembering Peterloo

I went to the Peterloo memorial event in Manchester city centre yesterday afternoon to remember the fifteen victims of the massacre in 1819 when a crowd of working-class men and women, assembled on St Peter's Field to demand the vote, then restricted to upper-class men, were cut down with sabres and trampled by horses after the city's magistrates, watching the protest from the upper windows of a house on nearby Mount Street, ordered cavalrymen of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, a local part-time volunteer regiment mainly composed of wealthy merchants and mill-owners, to disperse them. Hundreds more of the protestors, many of whom had - as some people did yesterday - walked into Manchester from the surrounding industrial towns of Lancashire and Cheshire, were seriously injured after being attacked by the reservist troops charging at them on horseback and then flung against a wall of bayonet-wielding regular soldiers guarding the edge of the sixty thousand-strong demonstration.

Although a memorial event has been held for the last decade, alongside a campaign to erect a permanent one to the victims near the site of the massacre, this was the first one I'd been to. There were probably a hundred of so my fellow lefties and trade unionists there, mostly my age or older, some of them wearing the red liberty caps first donned by the French revolutionaries of 1789,along with actors from the Manchester area including John Henshaw from Ancoats and Bolton's Maxine Peake who appears in Mike Leigh's soon to be released film about Peterloo.

Mike Leigh has said that he never heard or was taught about Peterloo when growing up in the Higher Broughton area of Salford in the 1950's, despite it having happened only a few miles down the road, and similarly I was never told about it or taken to the site when I was a pupil at primary and secondary schools in Stockport in the 1970s and 80s. It was only a decade or so a go, as result of the ongoing campaign, that a new plaque was placed on the outside of the former Free Trade Hall, now a boutique hotel, which, unlike the one it replaced, acknowledged that people had actually died in the massacre.

I'm hoping that the new film about Peterloo will spark increased awareness, interest and activity around the event and that next year's memorial, on the two hundredth anniversary, will be bigger than those which have preceded it.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The price of a pint (again)

CAMRA always gets a bit of media attention round about now, partly because of the trade session at the Great British Beer Festival yesterday which lots of journalists attend, partly because we're only a month or so off the launch of another Good Beer Guide, but mainly because we're in the becalmed days of slow news when most people are on holiday and eager editors are happy/desperate to fill their pages with whatever subject the PR department at its St Albans headquarters has decided to run with in their press release this year, normally by reprinting it all but verbatim alongside other "silly season" stories about barley, hops and carbon dioxide being set to run out soon as a result of heatwaves, droughts, forest fires and/or the World Cup.

The theme of this year's press release is the rising price of a pint, which it directly links to increased taxation, leading to pub closures, along with competition from supermarkets and off-licences. As always, it's very hard to judge whether the cause and effect being attributed to those factors here actually bears much scrutiny given the myriad costs of brewing and selling beer (the price of raw materials, transportation, wages, rents and business rates as well as duty and VAT), the other, non-price, factors which might lead to people going to the pub less (social attitudes to daytime drinking, deindustrialisation of areas which once supported dozens of pubs, the smoking ban, a lack of public transport, especially in rural areas, and other leisure opportunities now being available) or the reasons why breweries and pub companies sell off viable pubs (as land for housing developments, or conversion to other uses such as flats, shops, cafes or restaurants).

With cask beer being an unpredictable purchase, price doesn't really have much to do with quality either: I've had some great pints in the £2-3 range, and some average ones in the £3-5 one. What's certainly true is that the price of a pint has far outstripped inflation in the last couple of decades. Beer was 80-90p a pint when I started drinking in pubs in the late 80s, and even that would have seemed expensive to older drinkers back then, like this guy who remembers it being a shilling and threepence a pint, which, with my dodgy, post-decimalisation, maths, I make to be between 6 and 7 new pence, when he lived in London in the 60s.

Beer being dearer, and not as good, now than it was in the past is naturally not a new complaint amongst drinkers, as the old man whom Winston Smith meets in a London pub in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four tells him: "The beer was better,' he said finally. 'And cheaper! When I was a young man, mild beer - wallop we used to call it - was fourpence a pint. That was before the war, of course.'"

Monday, 23 July 2018

The centre cannot mould

Rumours are circulating yet again of a new centre party that is about to be launched and will reshape British politics.

British political parties have always been broad coalitions, with people in them who could easily be in other parties, and would be except for some quirk of geography or their personal history. The first past the post electoral system forces politicians without much, if anything, in common into the same parties because, whilst it works in a two-party system,  it doesn't in one with three or more parties, hence those which get millions of votes at General Elections, but evenly distributed across all constituencies rather than concentrated in a few hundred (the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP), ending up with little or no parliamentary representation.

There are now three broad camps in British politics:

1. Socially conservative, anti-EU, pro-free market economics (the right-wing of the Conservative Party and UKIP);

2. Socially liberal, pro-EU, generally pro-free market economics ( the Lib Dems, the right-wing of the Labour Party, the left-wing of the Conservative Party);

3. Socially liberal, generally pro-EU, interventionist economics (Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, left-wing of the Labour Party)

So where would a new centre party draw its support from? The Lib Dems seem to be the main players in the project, with between a dozen and twenty right-wing Labour MP's also rumoured to be ready to join it. I can't see many, if any, pro-EU Tory MP's joining up given that they have far more influence in their own party, if they choose to stand up to the leadership. Some of the more maverick Labour MP's who oppose Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the party (Frank Field, John Mann, Kate Hoey) are also anti-EU, as well as having conservative views on other issues that already don't fit well in a mostly socially liberal party, and would do so even less in a new one.

I really can't see a new centre party becoming a reality, and if it did having any chance of taking off with the electorate. As well as the problem of the electoral system - and, at constituency level, simply splitting the left of centre vote to the benefit of the right - there's also the question of establishing brand loyalty/recognition, with all three major British political parties having stood for election under pretty much the same name since the early twentieth century.

We have of course been here before. The example of the Social Democratic Party in the early 80s, formed by twenty-eight right-wing Labour MP's and one Conservative with masses of publicity, an intial surge of support and some notable by-election victories, which later found itself forced to ally and then merge with the Liberals, is instructive here, and will no doubt be on the minds of those tempted to go down the same path.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Tanks of the Tyne

I'm reading So They Brewed Their Own Beer, a history of the Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, at the moment, having been tipped off about it by this post from Boak and Bailey.

The Fed, as it became popularly known, was established just after the First World War by social and working men's clubs  on Tyneside in North East England to brew beer of a better quality and at cheaper prices than that which they could get from the outside commercial breweries which had supplied them till then (it was also unusual in publicising the original gravity of the beers it brewed, thus indicating their approximate strength, in contrast to the big brewers who refused to divulge them to their drinkers until towards the end of the twentieth century). I'm up to the bit where the Fed switched from cask to tank beer in the sixties. You might think this would spark something of a backlash (my Dad who worked as a waiter in a Sam Smith's pub in Manchester in the early sixties remembers the furore amongst drinkers there when they went over from cask to keg beer) but apparently there wasn't much if any complaint from either drinkers or managers in the clubs it served.

"The efficiency of the tank system caused beer sales to increase and was more than beneficial to the transport department. With a cask wagon there were three men on board to manhandle the beer. With a beer tanker two men are needed. The drayman's work is so much easier that it has led to a noticeable reduction in staff-turnover at the Federation Brewery since tanks were introduced. The innovation also helped to speed up the disappearance of cellars, for centuries one of the main characteristics of any British public house. Modern refrigeration has enabled cold-rooms to be used for beer storage. The only point of digging a hole in the ground was to achieve lower temperatures. The Federation has long had the policy that beer should be kept and sold under temperature-controlled conditions, arguing that as beer is produced under controlled temperature if it is to reach the club members in a perfect state it must be stored at the club in the same way and not allowed to stand in cellars where the temperature fluctuates because of lack of adequate refrigeration."

Tank beer is of course not the same as keg beer, lying somewhere between it and cask beer in being unpasteurised, and in some cases unfiltered, in which case it would be closer to bright beer which is racked into casks without the sediment which would otherwise allow for a secondary fermentation in the cellar.

If the beer was kept under a fairly low blanket of carbon dioxide pressure, only roughly filtered, not overly chilled and drunk while still fresh (the clubs which owned the Fed had been turning over between thirty and seventy 36-gallon casks a week before tanks replaced them), it's possible that the drinkers supping Fed Pale Ale and Special in the working men's clubs of Tyneside didn't notice that much difference, especially since throughout its trading area of Northern England lots of draught beer, both cask and bright, was by the sixties already being dispensed by metered electric rather than tradtional hand-pumps.

Other beer writers of the period also noticed the changeover to tank beer, and generally seem to have approved of it. Andrew Campbell in his 1956 Book of Beer notes that "Some brewers are now delivering beer in bulk. Watney's barrel-shaped tanks are a familiar sight in London's streets. The beer is racked into measured tanks at the brewery, forced by CO² into road tanks, and then run by gravity at the public houses into cellar tanks which hold as much as one hundred gallons" while Richard Boston in his 1976 book Beer and Skittles says, "But fot the real draught Guinness you must go to Ireland where a glass of stout is poured with proper reverence. Draught Guinness in Ireland is still a naturally conditioned unpasteurized beer, and is sold in the living state, though it now arrives at the pub in a container known derogatarily as 'The Iron Lung'."

I've drunk and enjoyed bright/tank beer a few times myself, notably Augustiner Spezial, filtered and racked into the wooden barrels from which it's dispensed by gravity in the brewery's beer garden opposite Munich's central station, and Pilsner Urquell tankovna fresh from metal tanks above the bar of Manchester's Alberts Schloss.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Mile High Try in Denver

The England rugby league team will play a mid-season Test match against New Zealand tonight at the Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado.

It'll be interesting to see what American viewers make of rugby league (the match is being shown on CBS TV as well as BBC Two here). Some of it will be familar to them from American football - especially the six tackle rule which is similar to gridiron's four downs - but obviously much of it will be unfamilar, and will need to be explained by the commentators.

The match is of course part of rugby league's mission to expand the game internationally - there's already a North American team playing at professional level, Toronto Wolfpack, and plans for another in New York.

I've heard opposing opinions on the Denver Test match, part of an ongoing debate within the game between traditionalists, who opposed the Challenge Cup Final being moved from the North to Wembley in the twenties and attempts to expand the game beyond its Northern heartlands of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumberland through the decades, some of them successful (Australia, New Zealand, France), others less so (London, Wales), and modernisers who want to see it become a global sport.

The former camp often claim that international expansion of the game is being pushed by the sport's governing bodies at the expense of the grassroots game and less fashionable, once leading but now often semi-professional, clubs in the North such as Bradford, Featherstone, Swinton and Barrow, but the decline of those sides has more complex origins, often combining deindustrialistion with mismanagement off the field.

If rugby league can become even a minor professional sport in the United States, with its huge TV and sponsorship markets, surely it can only be good for the profile and funding of the game as a whole.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Votes for Women?

I've just watched Emmeline Pankhurst: The Making of a Militant, shown on BBC Four last night at the same time that the England football team were taking on Tunisia at the World Cup.

I wasn't expecting much from the programme, but it managed to be even worse than I thought it would be. The Guardian trumpeted it as an "excellent biography" of the suffragette leader, but it was actually a hagiography, the life of a saint, with gushing pieces to camera replacing any critical analysis of her politics, and almost everything about her presented in a misleading or partial way.

That slipperiness started at the beginning of the programme with Pankhurst described as a working mother from Moss Side, Manchester, which, while strictly true, is misleading given that Moss Side was then home to the prosperous merchant class, as was nearby Chorlton-on -Medlock which she moved to, and become a part-time registrar in to supplement her income from the store which she owned, after the death of her husband, a radical barrister whose sudden demise she learnt of while travelling back by train from a holiday in Switzerland.

You would never know from watching the programme that about a third of men, in particular unskilled workers, didn't have the vote in 1914, because of property qualifications - a number that rose as men who had the vote moved into the army or munitions factories in the First World War (other men had more than one vote as business owners or university graduates, a privilege that wasn't abolished until 1948).

Emmeline Pankhurst was in favour of women being enfranchised on the same basis as men, which would have had added about a million upper and upper middle class women like herself to the electoral register; the acts of petty terrorism which she inspired (setting fire to postboxes, smashing windows) to further that modest demand is what gained her the reputation as a militant compared to other women from the same class background, like Millicent Fawcett, who campaigned with marches and petitions, as well as the working-class men and women who campaigned for universal suffrage (I once saw the play "Tea with Mrs Pankhurst" at the old Independent Labour Party hall in Nelson, Lancashire, in which the main character, the millworker and trade unionist Selina Cooper, delivers the immortal line to her, "You don't want votes for women, you want votes for ladies!").

While Pankhurst started out on the left, joining the ILP in the 1890's, she later moved to the right, enthusiastically supporting the First World War, and in the 1920's putting herself forward as a Conservative parliamentary candidate (unlike her daughter Sylvia, who, along with several other of her former supporters, split from what had essentially become a personality cult around her mother and moved to the left).

None of this though has put Manchester's Labour council off from commissioning a statue of her which will soon be erected in the city centre.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Will Travel For Beer

I went to Edgeley Park football ground in Stockport on Saturday afternoon for a talk and tasting session hosted by the Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont, part of both a British tour he's doing to promote his new book Will Travel For Beer and the annual beer and cider festival organised by Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA there, with drinkers enjoying themselves in the sunny Cheadle End overlooking the ungrassed, just reseeded, off-season pitch and, on the horizon, the dark line of the Pennines beyond which the rain-hit Second Test at Headingley had lately resumed as we assembled in one of the function suites behind the stand.

I enjoyed all the beers we tasted, from the draught, cask-conditioned Cwtch, a candyish, floral bitter from the Tiny Rebel brewery in Newport, Wales, which won Champion Beer of Britain in 2015, served from a large plastic jug, to the three bottled beers, all of which benefited from being left on a table to come to room temperature rather than being opened straight out of a fridge, an amber barley wine from Arcadia Ales in Michigan, Op & Top, a dry-hopped pale ale from Dutch microbrewery De Molen, and the one which really stood out for me, Rodenbach Grand Cru, a sour Belgian ale in the Flemish Red style.

I hadn't drunk Rodenbach Grand Cru before, one of the beers often listed by connoisseurs as among the best in the world and one championed by the late drinks journalist and writer Michael Jackson, who indeed was responsible for its creation at the brewery in Roeselare, Belgium, where he suggested that they release it as an older, sharper ale rather than just blending it with the younger one also being aged in the giant wooden tuns there. It reminded me a bit of the draught Kriek lambic I drank at the Mort Subite cafe in Brussels, although unlike that beer Grand Cru's appetising tartness is derived solely from the wild Brettanomyces yeast which the oak barrels it spends at least eighteen months maturing in are impregnated with rather than the addition of sour cherries (I was also reminded that I'd bought a bottle online and stashed it away, so opened and drank that too yesterday).

The book which I bought at the end of the session, and most of the talk he gave about it, describe the author's travels around the world in search of great beers, the former tilted towards Europe, apparently at the behest of its British publisher. There are lots of high-quality photos, each chapter is, at one or two pages, short enough to be read quickly before moving on to the next, and it includes every city I've travelled to myself to drink beer (Düsseldorf, Cologne, Bamberg, Munich), ones I've been to for other reasons, including blues, baseball and political history, but have also drunk at specialist beer bars/cafes in whilst I was there (Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Dublin, Brussels), and quite a few I've still to get round to (Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam).

I've also learnt a couple of things I didn't know before from the book and talk about beer styles and cultures around the world which very few people outside the countries they're from must have experienced, including sahti, a Finnish beer partially brewed with unmalted rye and flavoured with juniper twigs, being drunk in saunas there, and bia hoi, a light lager served fresh from metal containers into plastic buckets, from which it's then dispensed into glasses at very cheap prices, at roadside cafes of the same name in Vietnam.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Clubbing together

I've just finished reading Not Just Beer and Bingo: A Social History of Working Men's Clubs by Ruth Cherrington, a secondhand copy of which I picked up online after flicking though the pages of one which Cooking Lager brought along to the Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA branch meeting earlier this month (fellow bloggers Boak and Bailey and Shut Up About Barclay Perkins have also written extensively about clubs in the last few months).

The book is primarily a social history, looking at the role of clubs in community life, as the venues for entertainment, family events, sports clubs and political and other meetings, but the author does sketch out their beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century as working-class educational institutes which paralleled the upper-class gentlemen's clubs with their reading rooms and snooker tables. It is also tilted - being partly a personal narrative - towards clubs in and around the author's native city of Coventry. One thing she doesn't get round to looking at though, and admittedly a bit beyond the scope of the book, is the breweries established by clubs, such as the famous Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, to supply them with beer at lower prices than those which they could obtain from outside brewers.

The first licensed premises I drank in was a Labour club in Stockport where, as a teenager in the late eighties, I attended meetings of the local Young Socialists branch. It was supplied by the Greenalls' brewery in Warrington, whose keg bitter I would sip a couple of halves of over the evening. After some financial shennanigans and the running up of a large debt to the brewery, the club closed a few years later (as did the brewery itself not long after that) and is now a children's nursery.

Since then, I've visited a wide range of clubs - Labour, Conservative, Catholic, Irish, football, cricket, rugby, railway and social - for the weddings, funerals, birthdays and baptisms of friends, relatives and co-workers, trade union meetings, works' socials and leaving dos. Although by no means a clubman, I do appreciate their appeal, especially the cheap beer prices.

The number of clubs has been dropping sharply since at least the eighties, for a combination of reasons: deindustrialisation and unemployment, people living further away from their workplace (making a few post-work pints there less common, especially if you're driving), demographic changes (the author shows how some clubs operated an official, and later unofficial, colour bar), increases in beer duty and tax, chain pubs undercutting their prices and offering cheap meals too, the smoking ban and the drift towards a more individualised society in which leisure takes places more and more in the home, thus undermining traditional communal institutions, a similar trend to the one which also affects wider civil society, from pubs and clubs to churches, political parties and other voluntary organisations.

The book ends though, happily, on a much more upbeat note, looking at the things the surviving clubs are doing to meet those challenges and to attract more members so that clubland can continue its hundred and fifty year-long, and almost uniquely British, function of acting as a social, sporting and cultural centre for working people into another century.

Working men's clubs have been the subject of some cheap humour on TV, from the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, Granada TV's seventies recreation of a Northern club (which apparently many people watching thought was real!) to Phoenix Nights in the early noughties with its archetypal entertainment committee before which prospective club acts had to perform.

CAMRA is also doing its bit for clubs, with members, including myself, surveying some of their local ones for WhatPub, the organisation's national database of licensed premises.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Making a meal of things

The market research company YouGov has published a report on that most fascinating of sociological subjects, what you call your main evening meal.

The basic answer is that north of the Trent it's tea and south of it dinner, but there are lots of class and other differences beyond that.

As you'd expect, I'm a breakfast dinner, tea man, but Northern people who are trying to sound posher than they actually are occasionally called their midday meal lunch, and in the South there's a tendency for middle-class people to call their evening meal supper, an aping (unconscious or not) of the aristocracy who apparently call a formal evening affair with guests served by the staff dinner, but a simpler meal without guests prepared by the butler for them in their kitchen, rather than the dining hall, supper. Supper to me is a light snack - crisps, cheese, toast - just before bed so I'm not sure what people who call their main evening meal that call it, a late supper maybe.

And then there's brunch, a cooked or cold meal eaten later than breakfast (the only meal name incidentally which everyone can agree on), either in the late morning or early afternoon, although I'd call the former a late breakfast and the latter an early dinner (a name which also extends to so much else: school dinners, dinner money, dinner hour, all referring to the midday meal, whether a hot main meal or a substantial snack such as sandwiches or something cooked on toast).

Afternoon tea falls between meals, ranging from that beverage with biscuits or cake to a more formal event with sandwiches, scones (however you pronounce that!) and even smaller cooked items like crumpets or toasted teacakes (another linguistic minefield), eaten between dinner and tea at around three or four o'clock.

Much of the confusion around this question stems from the fact that originally everyone, of whatever class and whether they lived in the countryside or the city, ate their main meal in the middle of the day and called it dinner, a tradition which persists in schools and was once prevalent in factories with subsidised canteens, especially in wartime (I'm not sure why in the South the name of the main meal has followed it to a much later hour, and in the North become tea, which would once have been a simpler repast between five and seven o'clock). As Christopher Hibbert says about a country house in the early eighteenth century in his 1987 book The English: A Social History 1066-1945:

"Breakfast was served at about half past nine or ten, and usually consisted of tea or chocolate and hot buttered bread, perhaps with cheese, or toast...

Dinner was served at about four or five and supper at ten, though by the early nineteenth century the hour of dinner had moved on to nearer seven o'clock, and luncheon was served as an additional meal in the middle of the day....In simpler homes dinner was still served in the middle of the day, although the provincial family with pretensions might sit down at two or three o'clock".

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Wolfe of Wall Street

The American writer Tom Wolfe who has died aged 88 was known almost as much for his flamboyant dress (white suit, Homburg hat, two-tone shoes) as his prose. Wolfe styled himself a "Southern gentleman" and, despite many years residence in New York, you could still pick up the trace of a Virginia drawl in his speech when he gave TV interviews.

Beginning as a journalist in the fifties, he went on to document the late sixties counterculture movement in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and, like Dickens, used material from his reporting in fiction, especially in his first, and best known, novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which, again like Dickens' early work, was serialised in a magazine before being revised and published as a single volume in 1987.

The Bonfire of the Vanities has been called the quintessential novel of the 1980's, but it also one of the great late twentienth century New York novels which, alongside those of Don DeLillo, explore the racial and class divisions of the city, divisions which, given its geography on three islands connected by dozens of bridges and tunnels, is expressed by physical borders, such as the ever northward-shifting boundary between the ultra-rich Upper East Side and working-class Hispanic and black Harlem somewhere in Manhattan's east nineties and beyond them, across the Harlem River, the equally impoverished South Bronx section of the city into which the novel's wealthy main character, Sherman McCoy, and his mistress accidentally stray coming back from JFK Airport in Queens.

Although he's a bond trader on Wall Street, one of the people whom Wolfe dubs "The Masters of the Universe", rather than a property speculator, McCoy belongs to the same glitzy, greed-fuelled world of eighties New York as Donald Trump. It must be almost twenty-five years since I read it, but given that quite a few of the novel character's are based on real people - such as the Rev. Bacon, a thinly disguised Al Sharpton - it might be worth a flick through its eight hundred or so pages to see if I can spot the Donald.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Grim news

The monks at Grimbergen Abbey just north of Brussels apparently want to start brewing again, in part because visitors to the site are always asking them if they can take a look round the brewery.

There are two types of monastic beer in Belgium, those with the Authentic Trappist Product logo which have to be brewed within the walls of a monastery, albeit often by secular workers under the supervision of monks, and Abbey beers which are normally contract-brewed by outside companies on their behalf.

Trappist beers have a deservedly high reputation internationally, but some of the Abbey beers are up there with them in quality, notably the Sint Bernardus ones brewed in Watou. One of the Trappist breweries, Chimay, went through a spell of producing poor-quality beer with cheap ingredients a decade or so ago, although they have supposedly improved since I tried them then. I've also tried a couple of Grimbergen beers and found them, well, grim.

Grimbergen was first contract-brewed by the Maes Brewery in 1958 (when I went to Belgium in 2015, Maes Pils seemed to be the beer old blokes drank in cafes first thing in the morning, the equivalent of John Smith's Smooth in Wetherspoons here) before it was taken over Scottish & Newcastle in 2000, who were then taken over themselves by Heineken and Carlsberg in 2007.

The only snag the monks at Grimbergen have hit is that they can't find the mediaeval recipe for their beer and a team of researchers is now going through the documents in their library in an attempt to find it for them. I'm not sure it's that big a deal: they know from invoices what types of hops and malt were used in it, if not the exact proportions or how it was brewed, and they can just say, as other breweries have, that it's "inspired by" rather than a replica of the original. Whatever they come up with must be better than what's produced in their name now, and it's not as though anyone who drank the original beer is still alive to dispute its authenticity.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking when I said

I watched a bit of a programme on BBC1 last night in which TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched a personal crusade against obesity, starting with a missionary trip to the frozen North (Newcastle-upon-Tyne to be more precise) to shame educate the fat-guzzling plebs there into eating more healthily.

There are of course many serious and overlapping issues when it comes to obesity - the amount of sugar and salt in processed food; the labelling of food by manufacturers and retailers; poverty caused by low wages and benefits making better quality food unaffordable - but the point that he doesn't seem to grasp is one that another upper middle-class, ex-Etonian, George Orwell, highlighted in his classic piece of 1930's social reportage The Road to Wigan Pier, and which came to mind as Hugh hectored the bemused populace of Newcastle through a megaphone:

"The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire might enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't...When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'...Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream!...That is how your mind works...White bread-and-marg and sugared tea doesn't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer.."

Later, Hugh drove a van onto a housing estate in one of the poorer parts of the city and tried to tempt its working-class inhabitants with fresh fruit. As Orwell put it later in the same passage, "In London..parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping-lessons to the wives of the unemployed...First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money."

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Changing Times

To mark thirty years being editor of it, John Clarke has just scanned and circulated the May 1988 issue of Opening Times, the magazine of the Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA branch which he's also now the chairman and I'm a member of.

John is planning to write a longer piece for the next issue of Opening Times about the anniversary, but I'd just like to pick out a few things that caught my eye when reading it.

In pub news, the Crown Inn on Heaton Lane, Stockport, had just been refurbished by Boddington's, and the toilets moved inside from the backyard which was about to be turned into a beer garden with close-up views of the famous railway viaduct that spans the building. As well as Boddington's, beers available included ones from Higson's and the Oldham Brewery which Boddingtons then owned (none of those three breweries now exists). The Crown is now a multi-handpump (and multi-award-winning) freehouse and the backyard beer garden hosts regular live music.

The "ABC" Stagger of twelve pubs in the Ardwick, Brunswick and Chorlton-on-Medlock districts just south of Manchester city centre which the branch had just completed and is reported on in the May 1988 issue would now be impossible as all but one of them has since been closed and/or demolished, and the Wilson's mild and bitter which most of them served is no longer brewed either, the brewery in Newton Heath, north Manchester, having been taken over by Webster's of Halifax in 1986, who moved production there before shutting themselves a decade later.

The Pub of the Month, the Church Inn, Cheadle Hulme, retains its cosy three-room structure and is still tenanted by the same family who had it in 1988. As well as Robinson's Best Bitter, now called Unicorn, it still serves equally well-kept cask ales from the Stockport brewery of that name, although not the Best Mild it did back then which, after several name changes, was finally discontinued by Robinson's a few years ago. It had also just started serving meals - now a major part of its trade - but not on Sundays, which is probably now its busiest day for food. The Church was a well-deserved winner of another of our Pub of the Month awards last summer.

Although some of the contributors to the magazine are sadly no longer with us, it's pleasing to see some familiar names in its pages who are still, I'm happy to say, active members of the branch.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

April sours

Ahead of the CAMRA AGM in Coventry at the end of this month, plans are apparently already being put into place for a successor organisation which will split off from the main body of the campaign should the controversial and divisive Revitalisation proposals to extend the organisation's remit beyond cask-conditioned real ale to other so-called "quality beers" be adopted by that gathering.

The new splinter group, which will no doubt present itself as being the legitimate continuation of the original campaign should that body slip into heresy, has been given the provisional name of the Campaign for Real Ullage Deposit, emphasising the technical differences which have led to this potential schism in the British beer-drinking world.

A meeting took place last week at a pub somewhere in the so-called "Bass triangle" between Burton, Derby and Leek to sketch out plans for the new group, with several beer bloggers apparently being provisionally offered places on its soon to be formed national executive which will, should the split occur, be chosen by popular acclamation in the public bar of the same pub rather than the traditional, if somewhat unpredictable, method of annual elections held amongst the membership.

Moves are also afoot for a beer festival to launch the new group, pencilled in for this time next year at the venue which is then expected to become its permanent home, the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, although contract negotiations have reportedly yet to resolve the issue of whether drinkers will be allowed to use the tunnels beneath the stands to access the bars in the middle rather than having to cross the track with their pint. A dummy edition of a new monthly publication, with the working title "Brew Believer", has been mocked up, although there are no plans for a website or any other online presence and communications with the new group's HQ, location yet to be decided, but definitely north of the contentious East Midlands "sparkler divide", will be by post only, with all previously-held email addresses deleted for security reasons.

Reports that the new body has approached the Society of St. Pius X, the Steam Railway Preservation Society and the Campaign for Real Cheese to act as advisory consultants on the new project have yet to be confirmed.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Stingo by jingo

I've spent a fair bit of time in Sam Smith's pubs of late, mainly Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Year, the Blue Bell in Levenshulme.

Sam's Smiths draught beers are famously cheap - around the £2 mark in the North and only a pound or so more in London - but at £4 and upwards their bottled beers, at least in their pubs, aren't.

Just as Tadcaster's most traditionalist, some would say idiosyncratic, brewery only brews one cask-conditioned draught beer, Old Brewery Bitter, only one of their bottled beers is bottle-conditioned, the 8% abv strong ale Yorkshire Stingo, and while I've drunk most of their bottled range - especially their pale ales and stouts - I've never tried this one before.

Although Yorkshire Stingo sells for around £9 a bottle in pubs, I managed to pick one up online as part of a mixed box of 12 Sam Smith's beers for £34.95 from the Real Ale Store. It's a reddish beer with an alcoholic aroma which hits you straight away and reminded me of XX Strong Ale which Fuller's produced as part of their Past Masters series a few years ago.

I watched a few online reviews of Yorkshire Stingo before drinking it, including this one which, despite the guy speaking - I think - Polish, you still sort of get what he's saying.

Monday, 26 March 2018

New balls, please

I can't quite bring myself to welcome or join in the crowd booing and general opprobrium currently being directed at the Australian cricket team after their captain and star batsman Steve Smith and another member of his squad were found guilty of tampering with the ball in a Test match against South Africa.

Yes, ball tampering is against both the spirit and laws of cricket, and yes, it's right that those found guilty of it face some kind of sanction (the one Test ban and loss of match fees from the one in which the incident occurred in this case seems sufficent to me), but all teams have at one time or another done it and it strikes me as a tad hypocritical for the English press in particular to lambast Australia for it.

There's also the idea that cricket, being supposedly a gentleman's game, should be above such chicanery - "It's just not cricket" - and, again hypocritically, that ball tampering is something that might happen in Britain's former colonies but not here.

The only real way to eliminate it would be to do as cricket's distant transatlantic cousin baseball did at the end of the so-called "dead ball era" in the 1920's and change the ball as soon as it becomes scuffed or worn, but that would radically alter the playing of a game in which the condition of the ball, and the point at which it is replaced, can, pardon the pun, swing the outcome of a match, and even then, as baseball discovered, illegal deliveries akin to spitballs would no doubt still continue to be sent down the pitch to batsmen.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Home and away

Last weekend's draw for the FA Cup semi-finals which saw Manchester United picked to play Tottenham Hotspur in the last four of the competiton has produced an anomaly, and not a little controversy.

Even though Spurs are officially the away team, they will in fact be playing at their current home ground, Wembley, the stadium used for semi-finals since 2008 and by them this season whilst their White Hart Lane home is being remodelled and expanded.

This situation wouldn't have arisen of course had the Football Association not devalued the competition by playing semi-finals at Wembley rather than at a large neutral club ground roughly equidistant between the two teams, such as Villa Park, which is what happened before the switch to the newly-opened national stadium a decade ago, but is of a piece with the other money-making schemes they have introduced: sponsorship of the competition by corporate bodies, executive seat packages which include all events at the stadium across a number of years, the moving of matches from three o'clock to early evening to maximise profits from global TV deals, with the travelling supporter low down on their priority list, all supposedly justified by the cost of construction, just as the later kick-off time is supposedly more "family friendly" (by not interrupting Saturday afternoon shopping) and finals on the same day as League matches, rather than later in May when the season had finished, were supposedly to help England prepare better for international tournaments, hence their stellar performances at them since 2008.

I know that in international and European club competitions, teams have played finals at their own home grounds, and that England won the World Cup at theirs, the old Wembley, in 1966, just as West Germany, Argentina and France have at theirs since then, but that is pretty much unavoidable when the tournament venue has been picked years in advance and the teams have travelled thousands of miles to play there, but apart from money there is no reason why Spurs should be handed home advantage rather than the tie being played at a neutral ground.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

It’s a No from me

I’ve just cast my vote on the so-called Revitalisation proposals which the CAMRA National Executive are putting forward, including those which seek to embrace “quality beers” beyond the cask ales that the organisation was founded to save in the early seventies.

Traditionalists/conservatives and progressives/modernisers have been battling each other in architecture, classical music, jazz, the Catholic Church, and about reform of counties, money and measurement, for much of the last century, and now inside CAMRA: you could call it the organisation’s “Clause Four” moment.

The sixties marked the height of this process: probably as a reaction to the militarisation and shared experience of suffering in World War II, revolutionary changes took place in each of those spheres, all predicated on moving with/keeping up with the times, attracting young people, engaging in renewal, modernisation, revitalisation, and stripping away what seemed outdated and unattractive.

I voted against the Revitalisation proposals and hope that if you're a CAMRA member you will too. Here are five reasons to vote against:

1. The proposals dilute the core thing CAMRA stands for, and introduce a new category, “quality keg”, or “craft keg” as it’s usually referred to, which – unlike cask beer/real ale – is not only subjective, but, as the official documents tacitly admit by describing cask beer as “pinnacle of the brewer’s craft” is an inferior product (that’s their opinion, by the way, not mine: while I’ve drunk nitrokeg stouts and keg bitters, I don’t think I’ve ever drunk craft keg, mainly because, and almost uniquely for a preservationist movement like CAMRA, it’s usually served in pubs which also have cask beer. But, having drunk non-bottle conditioned and canned beer from some of the breweries which produce it, I can imagine that at its best it’s as good as some cask beers).

2. They attempt to attract younger drinkers by including craft/quality keg when that may just be a passing fad (many modernisation projects, by attaching themselves to what is currently fashionable, soon come to look dated themselves when fashion and young people move on to something else, sixties clothes, music and architecture, including pubs, being examples of that, and only a small number of young people drink craft keg – most drink lager, spirits or wine, at home rather than in the pub, or not at all).

3.  Snobbery/ageism: underlying the proposals is I think the idea that the older, male, working-class drinker supping a pint of boring brown bitter produced by a national brewer in an estate, town centre or dining chain pub with a single hand-pump should not be championed in preference to younger, trendier drinkers sipping thirds of super-hopped IPAs, kettle sours and bourbon barrel-aged strong ales dispensed in keg form in specialist bars and beer-houses.

4. They will not in fact attract many young people not only to join CAMRA but to become active in the organisation: like many other organisations with large but inactive memberships and fewer, ageing volunteers (some of whom will leave the organisation if the proposals are approved), CAMRA is likely to become a more professional, HQ/full-time employee-led group in the future, with fewer, probably bigger, branches, and more emphasis on socials and festivals rather than the current democratic structures of branch and regional meetings. Online voting – as is now happening before the AGM – is likely to be extended, with virtual rather than “real life” events making more decisions.

I also agree with the point Phil at Oh Good Ale makes here, that what CAMRA needs to keep its local structures going is not necessarily more young people – although they of course should be welcomed – but just more new people, of whatever age.

5.  CAMRA, as the name suggests, is a campaign, formed to ensure the survival, and also quality, of real ales/cask beers (and, later, other traditionally-produced drinks, cider and perry), when it looked as though they might disappear in the wave of new, heavily advertised and promoted keg beers from the national brewers. Craft keg is a niche product which does not need a campaign to ensure its survival, which is not to say that there are others things CAMRA does and should campaign on: preservation of historic pub interiors, the level of tax imposed on beer and the rents pubcos charge their tenants, the hike in business rates and, perhaps most importantly, against the anti-alcohol lobby who are also vying for the Government’s ear.

As well as voting against Special Resolutions 1, 5 and 6, I also voted for Lynn Atack, the “traditionalist” candidate running for a place on the CAMRA National Executive.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Welsh Codebreakers

I've just watched The Rugby Codebreakers, a documentary shown on BBC Wales last night about the Welsh rugby union players who were forced, as the saying had it, to "go North" and become professional rugby league players in Lancashire and Yorkshire when the union game was, at least officially, still strictly amateur.

Stories about the social ostracism imposed on those who converted from union to league are legion, as are those about the subterfuge scouts and directors of the Northern clubs were compelled to resort to when heading into Welsh rugby union territory to obtain the signatures of star players from the working-class mining villages of the South Wales Valleys and dockland districts of Cardiff - a history outlined again last night, with much of the archive footage coming from the 1969 documentary The Game That Got Away - but I hadn't quite realised the extent of the racism amongst the Welsh union's selectors which meant that up until the mid-1980's the chance of a black Welsh rugby union player being picked for the national side was effectively nil, all but forcing them, as some of their black South African counterparts also did, to accept the generous financial inducements being offered them by the top rugby league clubs in the North.

Wigan's legendary Welsh wing Billy Boston

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Lancashire League

The Rugby Football League, the governing body of rugby league in England, has announced that it is relocating its headquarters from Leeds to Manchester.

By the start of the 2021 World Cup, the RFL will base itself at the Etihad Campus in east Manchester, the sporting complex which already includes national cycling and squash venues, an athletics track and the two stadia where Manchester City's first, youth and women's teams play their home matches, where the England rugby league team will also train ahead of international fixtures.

Manchester being pretty much equidistant between the sport's two main heartlands, southwest Lancashire and west Yorkshire, with road and rail links between them going through the city, was the reason why the Magic Weekend, the annual event where a round of Super League matches is played across two days at the same stadium, was held here from 2012 to 2014, before moving up to Newcastle's St. James' Park when Manchester City began expanding their ground, towards a projected final capacity of 61,000. I can now see that event taking place here permanently, as well as perhaps the Super League Grand Final now played at Old Trafford (although the showpiece Challenge Cup Final is unlikely to head North again from Wembley, its home since the late 1920's), and international and World Club Challenge matches too.

Although they are unlikely to relocate permanently outside the boundaries of their city, I'd also like to see Salford rugby league club play a few matches at the 7,000 capacity Academy Stadium there (pre-season friendlies to start with, say), both because of the much better public transport services to it compared to those to their home ground at Barton-upon-Irwell (itself outside the historic boundaries of Salford) and as part of the wider missionaty effort to extend the appeal of the game beyond its traditional heartlands.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

A bevvy in Levy

I went to Levenshulme last night for the presentation of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Year award to the Blue Bell Inn, and also popped into a new micropub, Station Hop, en route to it.

The Blue Bell and Station Hop are contrasting pubs in a numbers of ways: the latter a converted shop with dark, minimalist signage on the main Stockport Road through Levenshulme - I walked past it without spotting it at first - which extends a long way further back than you'd imagine from the narrow shop front through three sparsely decorated rooms lit with suspended filament bulbs and attracts a younger, middle-class crowd, and the former a solid redbrick building with a well-lit separate sign a few minutes walk from it on a large plot amid terraced housing (the original thatched inn was replaced by the current interwar incarnation sometime in the thirties, the only alterations since being the post-war repair of bomb damage) which has the classic multi-room arrangement of lounge, vault and snug and is patronised mainly by older, working-class drinkers; the only real similarity between the two is that each sell a limited number of well-kept cask beers (Old Brewery Bitter in the Blue Bell and two handpumps in the Station Hop) alongside a more extensive range of keg beers, the latter at average prices for a micropub close to the city centre and the former at the very reasonable ones you'd expect in a Sam Smith's house.

I finished the night on Sam Smith's Extra Stout, a smooth, coffeeish beer that reminds you of Guinness at its very best. Somehow though, I'm not sure it's the "quality keg" that those in the CAMRA leadership pushing the so-called Revalisation proposals  have in mind when they talk about embracing all well-brewed beers...