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.'"