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.