Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Books of the Year

My annual review of what I've read in the last twelve months.

Lady Susan/Sanditon/The Watsons by Jane Austen

Sanditon, Austen's last, and unfinished, novel, was filmed by ITV this year in an adaptation that I unexpectedly enjoyed. As it's quite a short book, the volume also includes the epistolary novel Lady Susan and an early, also unfinished, work, The Watsons, and thus I completed my reading of her entire oeuvre.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The archetypal Dostoevsky, and indeed Russian, novel, dealing with religious themes through the framework of a murder mystery within the network of an extended family made up of contrasting characters, including the titular brothers.

The Manchester Man by G.L. Banks

This rags to riches story of the main character, Jabez Clegg, might be a bit corny, but is also full of descriptions of early nineteenth century Manchester, from the River Irk at Smedley, into which he is swept as an infant, to the area around the Cathedral and Chethams School, which he later attends as a foundling scholar.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I was prompted to read this by the thirtieth anniversary of the furore around its publication (I'd already read pretty much every other Rushdie novel).

The Third Man/The Basement Room by Graham Greene

I read Greene's classic novel about post-war Vienna after watching the film, together with one of his short stories included in the same volume which he also wrote a screenplay for and Carol Reed directed, The Fallen Idol.

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

I read The World According To Garp a few years ago, and have also seen the film Simon Birch, which is loosely based on the diminutive title character of this book, that you could call Irving's Vietnam novel.

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

The first of seven volumes in Proust's multi-million word work Remembrance of Things Past. Some people seem to struggle with the first section, about his childhood in Normandy, but I thought it was the best, that the middle section, about his love affair with the courtesan Odette as a young man in Paris, dragged a bit, before picking up with a return to the countryside of his youthful memory in the final section.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

This novel about bored rich Americans wandering around post-World War II Europe drinking and falling in love reminded me a bit of one of my favourites, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Being Hemingway, there's also lots about bullfighting and fishing.

Two On A Tower by Thomas Hardy

We're back in Hardy's familiar Wessex territory here with a story about two star-crossed lovers (literally: the young astronomer in it meets his future wife atop the tower which the older, richer woman lets him use for his observations of the night sky).

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Milling About Ancoats

One of my mates who's in voluntary exile in London came back up North yesterday so I met him off the train at Manchester Piccadilly and we did a bit of a crawl around Ancoats, the now trendy ex-industrial district just north of the city centre whose former cotton mills have been converted into flats and offices, to visit some of the pubs and bars that have (re)opened there in the last couple of years.

Cask, New Union Street

Pretty much what I expected, very light and stripped back with high ceilings and large windows giving a classic view of the archetypal Northern scene, a bridge over the Rochdale Canal with former cotton mills in the background. Mostly keg, but a couple of decent cask beers on from local micros, and at reasonable prices for the area.

Seven Brothers Beer House, Blossom Street

A split level place with the bar in a loft like space up a few steps and more tables downstairs in the basement. Darker and warmer with suspended filament bulbs and lots of light coloured wood. Mostly keg, including from their own microbrewery in Salford, but again a couple of cask beers too.

Edinburgh Castle, Blossom Street

Just down the street, this pub was built in 1811, but stood empty for many years before reopening a couple of months ago.  It has a very retro feel with high ceilings, frosted lamps and candles in copper holders on the tables, and a large dining room at the rear.

Marble Arch, Rochdale Road

We finished at an old favourite (which is technically just in Collyhurst I think). As well as the tiled Victorian interior, I always enjoy ordering a pint of Pint, the classically Mancunian pale hoppy bitter created here when it was a brewpub, but now brewed off site nearby along with Marble's other beers. I also had a vegan rarebit there, for the first time (don't know what was in it, but it looked and tasted like cheese).

Thursday, 19 December 2019

That Was The Winter Warmer Wander That Was

I've just completed another Winter Warmer Wander, the annual celebration of strong ales and stouts organised by my local CAMRA branch, Stockport and South Manchester, so here are my scores on the doors:

Beer style

7 stouts, 2 strong ales (both Robinson's Old Tom), 3 premium beers (strong bitters, milds and brown ales over 4.5% abv where the pub didn't have another qualifying beer).


Stockport 6, Cheadle 3, Manchester 2, Cheadle Hulme 1.


5 beers from regional brewers (Hydes 1, Robinson's 4), 7 from micros (4 from the North West - Cheadle, Dunham, 2 from Thirst Class - and 3 from the rest of the North/north Midlands: Elland, Little Critters, Titanic).


Cheapest pint £1.95 (in Cheadle!), dearest a fiver, in Manchester city centre.

Favourite beers/pubs

Stout: Elland 1872 Porter in the Petersgate Tap, Stockport.

Strong ale: Robinson's Old Tom in the Bakers Vaults, Stockport (our local CAMRA Pub of the Year for 2019).

Pub: Britons Protection, the new home of Manchester Jazz Society, for its historic, multi-roomed interior and range of well-kept cask beers; runner-up, its sister pub, the City Arms, which had two cask stouts on the bar.

Sponsors of this year's Winter Warmer Wander

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Hygge, brygge and the bridge

I've just got back from a few days in Copenhagen. When people found out that I was going to Denmark, they asked me if I planned on seeing the Little Mermaid, the Carlsberg museum or Hamlet's castle at Helsingor, but like many British tourists what actually drew me there was watching Danish political dramas Borgen and 1864 and Scandi noir detective series The Killing and The Bridge, set on and around the five mile long road and rail link across the Øresund Strait which I travelled over by train to Malmö in Sweden.

I was warned about the price of beer, which comes in at the equivalent of £5 to £8 a pint. My favourite pub was the Taphouse, with 61 taps on the back of the bar, one of which dispensed an excellent half litre of Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen. I also went to the Storm Inn, where I was surprised to find cask Timothy Taylor Landlord, Sam Smiths beermats and a barman from Barnsley, and the destination craft beer bar Mikkeller, where I had a decent imperial stout and chatted to the young Danish barman, who like all his compatriots it seems spoke flawless English, about beer and football.

Copenhagen doesn't feel like a big capital city, having, pardon the cliché, a homeliness about it thanks to historic buildings like the town hall and railway station, the compactness of its centre and what appears to be half the population riding their bikes along its long wide streets.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Prime in Korea

I've just used a voucher which came with CAMRA's quarterly magazine Beer to order a box of eight South Korean beers in cans and bottles (free apart from just under a fiver for p&p).

The beer market in South Korea is dominated by light, rice-based lagers, a result no doubt of the US military presence there since World War II, and even the ones now being produced by microbreweries there - hazy IPAs, hoppy brown ales and funky saisons - have been inspired by the American craft beer revolution.

The company running the promotion have just come back from the Korean peninsula, visiting breweries both north and south of the demarcation line dividing it since the end of the war there in 1953.

In North Korea, as well as the large, state-run Taedonggang brewery - bizarrely brewing since 2000 on the imported kit of defunct English brewery Ushers of Trowbridge in Wiltshire - the lack of petrol for national distribution means that there are apparently now lots of brewpubs, in the hotels and restaurants serving foreign visitors and the roadside stands where locals drink their monthly Government ration of five free litres, and anything above that at about 30p a pint.

PS. Hats off to anyone who can identify the musical pun in the title without clicking here.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Warming up for another Winter Wander

With chill winds beginning to blow as we approach the back end of 2019, it's now only a fortnight until the start of the Winter Warmer Wander, Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's annual celebration of strong ales and stouts. And with even more pubs and bars signed up for this year's event, including a few new places which have opened in the last twelve months, it's easier than ever to take part.

On a pub crawl around Stockport town centre last Saturday with fellow blogger BRAPA, it was noticeable that nearly all the ones we went to had a dark and/or strong cask beer on the bar, as befits the season, although to be honest I'm happy to drink these kinds of ales and stouts at any time of the year. 

I'm yet to drink a half or two of this year's Old Tom, the strong ale from Stockport brewery Robinson's which only appears on draught in their pubs in the winter, but I'm sure that I'll put that right in the next few weeks.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Blue(s) Wor(l)d

Impulse Records has just issued Blue World, an album of material from a rediscovered and until now unreleased John Coltrane session in 1964, for the score of an experimental Canadian film about a young couple in Montreal, Le Chat Dans Le Sac.

The session opens with the laid-back and lyrical Naima, first heard on his debut album for Atlantic Records in 1959, Giant Steps, with the rhythm section of the Miles Davis Quintet which he would leave the next year - pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb - replaced by that of his own "Classic Quartet", pianist McCoy Tuner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones.

Most of the tracks are shorter and blusier than the ballad which both the session and the film begins with, in contrast to the longer and freer compositions on his next Impulse album, the religiously inspired A Love Supreme.

With Thelonious Monk's score for the 1959 French film Les Liasions Dangereuses being rediscovered a few years ago, it makes you wonder what other jazz gems are yet to be unearthed in the archives.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Oh Manchester, so much that Pevsner saw

I was reading a blogpost last week by an American visitor to the Marble Arch, the classic pub on the Ancoats/Collyhurst border a few hundred yards up Rochdale Road from Manchester city centre, and noticed a reference to a description of it in the Pevsner Guide to the Architecture of Manchester ("unusual jack-arch ceiling with exposed cast-iron beams supported by tile-clad brackets. Walls and ceiling of the main bar are lined with glazed bricks and tiles and a lettered frieze advertises types of drink") published in 2001.

I've got the South Lancashire volume of Pevsner's The Buildings of England that covers Manchester, which he wrote after a visit here in 1967 and published in 1969, but didn't realise that the series had continued after his death in 1983. I've just picked up a cheap second hand copy of the Manchester guide online.

There are a few other pubs in the book, including the Britons Protection ("early C19 revamped in the 1930s, with much interior decoration"), Circus ("an almost miraculous survival considering the tiny scale of it") and Hare and Hounds ("late C18 origins with a remarkably complete interwar interior"), but the main interest is in how the city is described in that period, between the opening of what is now the Manchester Central conference centre in 1986, the 1990 Strangeways prison riot which destroyed much of the Victorian gaol just north of the city centre (next to the tower of Boddingtons Brewery that survived until 2007), the coming of the Metrolink tram system in 1992 and the 1996 IRA bomb, which triggered much of the redevelopment of the centre, and the rampant skyscraper building which has transformed it in the last decade, including an artist's impression of what the new Piccadilly Gardens with its now much criticised wall would eventually look like.

Monday, 16 September 2019

The Missing Page

I've been watching, and unexpectedly enjoying, Sanditon, ITV's adaptation of Jane Austen's final and unfinished novel about a town on the south coast of England being transformed into a Regency seaside resort, which she was writing until shortly before her untimely death at the age of 41 in 1817.

Although sequels are almost always inferior to the original classics whose success they seek to cash in on (Lewis after Inspector Morse, the awful Blues Brother 2000), finishing uncompleted novels either on the page or screen tends to work better (I'm also a fan of prequels which establish the background and motivations of well-known characters - as Endeavour does with Inspector Morse, or, in one of my favourite novels, that of Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea).

The text of Sanditon is only about sixty pages long, so most of the TV series is the work of screenwriter Andrew Davies who, rather than messing around too much with the plot and characters, has managed to extend some of the novel's themes - slavery, racism, financial speculation - that are only hinted at by Austen.

The pre-eminent example of an unfinished work of literature is of course Lady Don't Fall Backwards by Darcy Sarto, as brought to life by East Cheam's inimitable man of letters Anthony Aloysius Hancock.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Not to Bury Them

One of England's oldest clubs, Bury FC, was expelled from the Football League yesterday for failing to meet their financial requirements, and Bolton Wanderers given a fortnight's stay of execution as they continue to search for a buyer to save the club.

I've been to watch Bury a few times over the years, often when the Premier League was on an international break, and until the late 90s paid on the turnstile to stand in the appropriately named Cemetery End at their home ground, Gigg Lane (still homeless Swinton rugby league club and fan-owned breakaway FC United have also played there in the past). I always found it charming that, as well as their 1900 and 1903 FA Cup wins, the honours list printed in the matchday programme also included their highest League position, a fourth place finish in the First Division in 1926.

Of course, Bury's location just a few miles north of Manchester, which makes it a shortish bus or tram journey for a casual fan like me, is also one of its problems, given the proximity of the two big Manchester clubs, and, as in other nearby towns such as Oldham and Stockport, there are probably as many City and United fans there as there are those of the hometown team (Stockport, like Tranmere Rovers on Merseyside, got round that for a while by playing on Friday nights).

The other problem facing small clubs like Bury is the huge inequality of income within the football pyramid (you could argue that the start of that was the abolition of the maximum wage for players in the early 60s which saw the decline of other Lancashire mill and seaside town clubs Bolton, Burnley and Blackpool). A fan outside Gigg Lane on TV last night said that Premier League clubs would come to rue letting small town lower league clubs like Bury go to the wall as they produce young players for them, but I think the former can probably now rely on their own academy systems and scouting networks to identify and attract both local and international prospects.

For Bury fans wondering how to spend their Saturday afternoons after the club's liquidation - and for those of Bolton who seem set to follow them - the answer is surely to do what supporters of other "lost clubs" like Accrington and Wimbledon have done and re-form as a non-league side and begin the ascent up the divisions again.

In my first phone call to the club's ticket office twenty-odd years ago, I learnt as soon as the woman there picked up the phone that while to outsiders the town and club is "Berry", to locals it is definitely "Burry".

Monday, 19 August 2019

Auf Wiedersehen Yet?

I've just picked up online a cheap secondhand copy of the Good Beer Guide to Munich and Bavaria, published by CAMRA in 1994 and written by Graham Lees, one of the four founders of the organisation (I especially like his dedication of the book "to all who appreciate good beer, regardless of borders").

Although I went to pubs in Dublin and the West of Ireland in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was as much for their historical/political and literary associations (notably the Brazen Head and McDaid's) as the beer (invariably Guinness), and my first specifically beer trip was to Germany at the end of 2009, to Düsseldorf and Cologne, followed by one to Munich and southern Bavaria in the summer of 2010 (when I accidentally attended the wedding of footballer Philip Lahm in Aying). I've been back to Düsseldorf and Cologne numerous times since then, and to the nearby towns Aachen, Bonn, Ratingen and Wuppertal, and in 2012 travelled to Upper Franconia in northern Bavaria to sample the very special pubs and beers of Bamberg and Forchheim.

Apart from some brewery takeovers and reorganisations, not that much seems to have changed on the beer front in south-eastern Germany in the last twenty-five years, thanks no doubt to the Bavarians' well-known conservatism (in both brewing and politics). The beechwood-smoked malt lager Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen is described as "virually black as coal" rather than the dark brown that I remember it being on draught in the brewery tap, but I think that might just be a question of perception rather than any change in the grist, and the warning that train travel around the state is expensive unless you book tickets in advance has been superseded by the relatively inexpensive Bayern day ticket, which covers buses, trams and underground services too. The advice that "Bavaria, especially in country areas, is likely to be a little stomach-shrinking for vegetarians" is probably still true given the locals' propensity to wash down huge plates of pork and sausage dishes with their litre steins of lager, and the description of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich as "plagued by coachloads of gawping tourists" (not to mention the oompah band) certainly is.

The next beer trip I'm planning is to central Europe, travelling by train from Prague to Plzeñ, Regensburg, Freising, Munich and Salzburg, although it'll probably be in the winter rather than summer months given the punishingly hot weather that now seems to afflict that part of the continent almost annually, and that direct flights between Salzburg and Manchester only appear to depart during the skiing season (assuming that planes and visa-free travel are still operating then).

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Bottles of beer for the boys

I was looking through a photo album yesterday and spotted a couple of photos of my mum's dad that I hadn't seen for a while.

He was born in Beswick, east Manchester, in 1909, but grew up in Old Trafford, started work as an apprentice at the nearby Metrovicks engineering factory in Trafford Park in the late twenties and became a toolmaker and a shop steward in the Amalgamated Engineering Union (one of his mates on the shop floor was Hugh Scanlon, who became President of the union in 1968). He moved to the new Manchester Corporation housing estate at Wythenshawe just before he got married in 1938, and to Metrovicks' Wythenshawe Works when it opened in the late fifties, working there until it closed in the early seventies, and he became a porter at Barnes Hospital.

The first photo is of a works social for long-serving employees, sometime in the sixties in the canteen at Wythenshawe Works. My grandad is on the left (naturally) in the light suit and glasses.

Apart from all the men wearing ties (I wonder who put an end to that tradition?), the other thing you notice is the beer bottles lined up along the table, supplied by the company for the event. I'm not sure any employer now serves alcohol to its workers on the premises given the potential for litigation if things go awry. although I think some still open a bar tab at a venue off-site for them, and even then there are possible legal pitfalls (by the time I started working in the civil service in the nineties, drinking at office parties had been banned after someone fell to their death from a window at one in Salford). Even zooming in on the photos, it's hard to make out the label on the beer bottles, but I think it might just be that of Groves & Whitnall, the brewery which inspired Coronation Street's Newton & Ridley.

The second photo, from around the same time, is of my grandad eating his butties at his work bench. He's also reading The Sun, which had replaced the Daily Herald in 1964 and was still then a Labour-supporting newspaper, and would remain one even under Rupert Murdoch's ownership until the mid-seventies.

Part of the Union: my grandad's 1963-64 AEU membership card

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Back to the Briton's

Having not been for a couple of years, I went to the Briton's Protection in Manchester city centre twice last week: for a meeting of Manchester Jazz Society, and then with Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA to present its award for best Mild Magic pub oustside Stockport.

Like the Unicorn where the Jazz Society met until a few weeks ago, I first went to the Briton's Protection for political and union meetings, some of them fringe events of conferences being held across the road at the former Manchester Central railway station, now an exhibition space and convention centre. The Peterloo massacre, the bicentenary of which falls later this month, took place in the area between the two and features on the pub's sign and a painting inside.

One of Manchester's oldest pubs, the Briton's Protection, with its long front lounge, L-shaped corridor and two rear rooms supplied by a serving hatch at the back of the bar, is known for its interior tiling and the number of malt whiskies it sells (it's also home to Manchester Whisky Club). A Grade II listed building, it's included on CAMRA's national inventory of historic pubs.

From being a former Tetleys house with an average beer offer of a couple of cask bitters from regional brewers (Jennings and Robinsons), it's now expanded its draught range to include the products of local microbreweries and other styles, including mild and stout, and well deserves its award for the former, which it now turns over a cask of every couple of days.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Out of the Public Eye

The programmes on Talking Pictures TV, broadcast on Freeview channel 81, are fast becoming some of my favourite on television.

As well as documentaries, like John Betjeman's elegaic early sixties train trip from Kings Lynn to Hunstanton, on a now closed north Norfolk branch line, and films such as the social realist late forties film noir "The Blue Lamp", with its superbly-shot finale at the White City dog track in west London, there are lots of repeats of sixties and seventies drama series.

My current favourite is the detective series "Public Eye", made for ITV between 1965 and 1975. I hadn't heard of it before and am not sure why, unlike many other, in some cases inferior, shows from the era, it hasn't been repeated on a more mainstream channel.

Although the central character, private detective Frank Marker, might seem like a bit of a TV cliche, a loner, slightly dishevelled and with a somewhat murky past, the writing and acting really lift it (as with my favourite TV detective, Columbo, it's now impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role apart from Alfred Burke, despite neither he nor Peter Falk being first choices for the part), and span the comedy of the Christmas special "Horse and Carriage" to the pathos of "The Man Who Said Sorry", a terse, almost hour-long, two-hander, apart from the dialogue-free opening scene and the final one, where Marker chats to his sometime ally, sometime adversary, DI Firbank, at their usual public bar meeting place.

The location of the series moves around southern England, but for the latest, and final run, Frank Marker has setttled in Eton, renting a spartan shopfront office where he seems to subsist on instant coffee brewed on a single gas ring and takeaway meals from the adjacent Chinese restaurant. There are lots of late sixties and early seventies details, from keg fonts in the pubs to his fee of six guineas plus expenses (later decimalised as £6.50, a slight increase, no doubt the result of rising inflation, although given his seemingly sparse workload it appears doubtful that the operation would have really been commercially viable, especially in one of England's posher towns where he also rents a flat).

Perhaps the coolest feature of the series though is the jazzy theme tune, composed by Robert Earley.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Last orders at the Unicorn

One of Manchester city centre's more traditional pubs, the Unicorn Hotel on Church Street, is closing this weekend for a refurbishment.

There have been some concerns that the pub's owners - Enterprise Inns, the pubco formed out of the the ex-Bass tied estate in the early 90s - were going to remove distinctive features such as the island bar and wooden panelling and turn it into a sports bar, as they did with this historic building in Cardiff last year, but thanks to the efforts of the soon to be former landlady, Historic England and CAMRA's Heritage Pubs committee an application to grant it Grade II Listed Building status was fastracked by Manchester City Council, a welcome outcome given the new high-rise apartment buildings that have risen around it in the last few years which also seemed to threaten its future.

The Unicorn was built in 1924, originally, as its name suggests, as a hotel offering food and accommodation to local businessmen and commercial travellers (there's a fascinating history of the pub in the report written by Historic England's surveyor).

I've been drinking in the Unicorn for the last twenty years or so, mostly while attending meetings in the upstairs function room, at first union and political ones, and in the last decade those of Manchester Jazz Society, which until last week had met there every Thursday evening since the mid 90s (and before that in other pubs and clubs around town since at least the early 60s), but has now had to relocate, to an even more historic city centre pub, the Britons Protection.

Apart from its architectural features and atmosphere (which Tandleman captured well here), the other attraction of the Unicorn is that it's the last pub in Manchester city centre with Draught Bass as a permanent cask beer (as befits a former headquarters of the Honourable Order of Bass Drinkers, and which you can see still with its Bass signage here). Let's hope that, as well retaining the interior, the new licensees keep it on the bar too.

Unicorn pump-handle and Bass ashtray, kindly given to me by the current landlady

Enjoying a couple of pints of Draught Bass at the Unicorn with Mike Cleaver in March

Monday, 1 July 2019

Play ball!

I watched the two games in Major League Baseball's London Series this weekend, broadcast on BBC iPlayer from the former Olympic stadium in east London.

There have been a few complaints by players and others about the event: the aerodynamics of the stadium allegedly affecting the pictchers' abilty to throw breaking balls; glare off the white seats making it diffcult for outfielders to pick up fly balls; the extent of the foul territory behind home plate and along the base lines causing problems for the catcher and infielders; and most spectators being American tourists or expats (not to mention the sky-high prices of some of the tickets, many times that of those for an equivalent match-up in the US, and for food and drink at the game, with two foot-long hot dogs £25 and the 330ml bottles of Heineken being hawked in the stands £6.50).

Despite the logistics of flying the two teams three and a half thousand miles across the North Atlantic and transforming the football ground where West Ham now play their home matches, including importing North American soil for the pictcher's mound and infield dirt around the basepaths, I think MLB will count the event as a success, albeit an expereience to learn things from, especially given that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox of the American League East Divison served up the big home run-hitting that most fans seem to want to see at the ballpark, rather that the National League-style "small ball" of pitchers' duels, base-stealing, bunts, groundouts, double plays and pitchers batting that I prefer myself.

I first watched baseball in the 2001 MLB season, when Channel 5 showed two live games a week, ESPN's Sunday and Wednesday Night Baseball (actually broadcast in the early hours of Monday and Thursday morning here, which is why, like most fans I suspect, I used to record them, and then watch them when I got in from work). In 2002, I went to the United States for the first time, on an organised coach tour along the East Coast, stopping at ballparks in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston for Orioles, Phillies, Yankees, Mets and Red Sox games with my workmate who got me into the sport, followed by independent trips to New York in 2003 and 2005 for a Mets double-header and weekend series against Arizona and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Shea Stadium and to Chicago in 2004 for a Sunday afternoon Cubs-Pirates game at Wrigley Field as part of a blues pilgrimage to the city with my brother-in-law. After Channel 5 stopped broadcasting baseball in 2008, I watched ESPN's games on Top Up TV through a card decoder that slotted into the back of your set, until that too finished in 2013.

I still follow the fortunes of my favourite team (the Cincinnati Reds) online, and watch video clips of highlights from their games (insert joke here), but it's not really the same as watching a whole game, with the pitchers making adjustments as the batting lineup rotates through nine innings, series or season, getting to know the idiosyncracies of each ballpark and the players on each team. For the serious fan, there's a multitude of stats to have fun with, from WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) for pitchers to RISP (runners in scoring position) for batters, and many, many more (the fact that the scoreboard at the London Stadium spelt out Runs, Hits and Errors, rather than just the RHE columns that you'd see at a US ballpark, was mentioned more than once in this weekend's commentary).

I like to think that I still know the rules of baseball pretty well (including the supposedly impenetrable infield fly rule that I've never had any problem understanding, or explaining to others, and which was invoked in Game 1 on Saturday), although I had to dig out my pocket-sized rulebook yesterday afternoon when Aroldis Chapman came in from the bullpen to close out the game for the Yankees in the ninth inning to check on the conditions for a pitcher to qualify for a save.

It seems that you can now watch BT Sport's baseball coverage by downloading their app to your phone without being a broadband customer, so I may check that option out for continued regular viewing after getting my two game fix these last forty-eight hours.

Monday, 24 June 2019

A class glass

I've finally got round to buying some lantern pint pots, the ten-sided, handled beer glasses that were standard in pubs throughout the thirties and forties, but stopped being manufactured some time in the sixties, until Stockport-based glassware suppliers Stephenson's started importing them a couple of years ago from China (Martyn Cornell on his Zythophile blog has a, typically thoroughly researched, history of their creation and resurrection).

I reckon this is the fifth type of pint glass I've drunk from or owned: nonics and tulips, which were standard in the late eighties and early nineties when I started drinking in pubs, conicals, which you can pick up at most beer festivals, dimpled jugs with handles, which I've got in both pint and half pint form ("borrowed" by relatives from south Manchester pubs in the sixties), and now lantern glasses, which can be seen in a Lancashire pub in this clip from the 1945 documentary Down At the Local that's included in the British Film Institute DVD Roll Out the Barrel.

I don't expect the lantern to become again the standard pint pot it once was, or as they appear to be in this advert for them, but it'd be good if they came back as a niche glass in more specialist beer houses.

As I washed and dried my new beer glasses, I thought of my grandmother, who worked as a barmaid in Threlfalls pubs in Wigan and Stretford in the thirties, and who must have done the same thousands of times.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Catch-22 on TV?

Last night Channel 4 broadacast the first episode of a new adaptation of Joseph Heller's anti-war novel Catch-22, starring George Clooney.

Catch-22, set on an American airbase on an island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy in World War II, is regularly listed amongst the greatest novels of the twentieth century which everyone should read (I first read it about thirty years, pretty much straight though in a single day). The "catch" of the titles refers to the fact that to be withdrawn from combat duty pilots and aircrew have to be diagnosed insane, but them asking to be so is taken as indicating their sanity.

As with the earlier film adaptation in the 1970s, I'm not sure that Catch-22 really translates to either the big or small screen. It's not just that the structure of the novel, with many of the early chapters focusing on the foibles and interior life of an individual character, has to be altered to fit a more linear narrative on TV, but the zaniness, transmitted in its five hundred or so pages by Heller's prose, in descriptive passages as well as dialogue, can't really be rendered either.

When you don't laugh at an adaption of a novel which almost defines "black humour", that's a problem.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Beer and wine

The media have had some fun in the last couple of days with a story about how someone at a high-end Manchester steak and seafood restaurant mixed up their most expensive bottle of wine with one costing a fraction of the price.

The 2001 Château Le Pin Pomerol (which makes me think of Pomeroy's wine bar where Rumpole of the Bailey swilled an inferior "cooking claret") costs £4,500 a bottle, rather than £260 which the other Bordeaux of the same vintage, Château Pichon Longueville Contesse de Lalande, is priced at.

I don't drink wine, apart from the odd glass of Champagne on a special occasion like a wedding, or maybe a small port at Christmas, but I'm pretty sure that the most expensive pint or bottle of beer I've ever drunk has still come in at under a fiver, with many of the world's great beers considerably cheaper than that.

I'm also doubtful that anyone can tell the difference taste-wise between a £260 and a £4,500 bottle of wine. I suspect that the quality pretty much plateaus at the couple of hundred quid mark, and after that you're just paying for the rarity of the label.

The democracy of the beer world, where anyone of all but the most limited means can still enjoy the best of what it has to offer, is something to be prized.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Mancunian misses and miscues

I watched the World Snooker Final from Sheffield yesterday, the forty-third played at the city's Crucible Theatre since it moved there in 1977.

For the first fifty years of the World Snooker Championship, the final was played across the country, often in less than salubrious venues, such as the British Legion club in Birmingham where the 1972 final was contested in front of spectators sitting on beer crates around the table, reflecting the slightly disreputable, bar room image the sport had before the era of television contracts and tournaments around the world, especially the Far East where the game has grown massively since China first hosted a professional championship in 1997.

I knew that the 1976 final, the last before Sheffield became the permanent home of snooker's most prestigious event, was held at Wythenshawe Forum, the leisure centre where I now go swimming, with Ray Reardon beating Alex Higgins 27-16 in a best of 53 frames match, but there were another four finals in Manchester before that, two, in 1952 and 1954, at Houldsworth Hall on Deansgate, one just down the road at the City Exhibition Hall on Liverpool Road in 1973, and one the following year at Belle Vue.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Scotland: that was then, this is now

Two things happened yesterday, the death at 79 of the former Celtic player and manager, and captain of the first British club to win the European Cup, Billy McNeill, and the announcement by the Scottish FA of a rather thin shortlist for a new head coach after the national team's lacklustre start to their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, that somehow seemed to sum up the state of Scottish football now.

All but one of the so-called Lisbon Lions team which lifted the 1967 European Cup, with a 2-1 win over the favourites Inter Milan, was born within a few miles of the club's home ground, Celtic Park, and while the next generation of top Scottish footballers largely chose to ply their trade in England, with Celtic and other Scottish clubs becoming almost feeder clubs for big clubs south of the border in the 70s and 80s, the national side which they continued to represent was still a force in world football (the former Manchester United midfielder and Scottish international Lou Macari tells the story of how, when they were boarding the plane at Glasgow Airport to fly to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, a worker there shouted up the steps from the runway that he'd see them back there the next month with the trophy). Now, of course, as in England, players in the Scottish leagues are as likely to come from other countries in Europe, or further afield, than they are the cities which the clubs in them represent.

The football writer Jonathan Wilson has pointed out that if you invent a sport (England and Scotland played the first international football match in 1872) and then export it to the rest of the world, the only way is down, and although I suppose Scotland's decline isn't quite as dramatic as that of two-time World Cup winners Uruguay or inter- and post-war central European powerhouses Austria and Hungary, the current national side and the performance of its league clubs in European competitions still stand in sharp contrast to those that I remember from the 70s and 80s.

Monday, 1 April 2019

D-Day approaches

With Britain's scheduled departure from the European Union now less than a fortnight away, a secret Government document outlining what a no deal exit from the 28-member trading bloc might entail has come to light.

The 42-page dossier entitled Advanced Planning Regulations If Leave Finally Only Option Left, discovered by a parliamentary clerk inside Lord Lucan's missing backgammon set, lists a number of measures which the government intends to implement on the first day of Brexit, including:

1. Petrol to be rationed so as to restrict car journeys to within ten miles of the coupon holder's home address. Special dispensations may be sought for journeys of an especially patriotic nature, e.g. coach expeditions by ornithologists in search of the sialia sialis above the white cliffs of Dover.

2. A new Small Growers' Relief is to be introduced in agriculture, although HMRC is yet to confirm whether this refers to the stature of the farmer or size of their plot. Keen allotment holder and Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn is said to be drafting an amendent restricting this to the growing of organic vegan produce.

3. Working hours are to be cut across the civil service, staff with surnames beginning A-K working Monday morning to Wednesday dinnertime, those with surnames beginning L-W Wednesday dinnertime to Friday afternoon, and those with surnames beginning X, Y or Z being excused from attending completely.

4. A new 2.8% abv limit introduced for beer and a ban on the importation of foreign wines and spirits to boost domestic production of British vodka, champagne and Jägermeister. Wetherspoons to be nationalised under workers' control in order to maintain public morale.

The new British National Diet to be introduced in all schools (baguettes to be renamed long bread rolls).

Thursday, 28 March 2019

In and Out of Some Stockport Pubs

The chairman of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA John Clarke is putting together a list of pubs which have closed in the branch area since it was formed in 1974.

As part of the discussion around that, someone mentioned a book I hadn't heard of before, The Inns and Outs of Stockport Taverns by Coral Dranfield, so I got myself a copy of it.

Since the book's publication in 2011, quite a few of the historic pubs it lists have closed, including the Florist, Shaw Heath, the Flying Dutchman, Higher Hillgate, the Waterloo just off it, the George, Wellington Road North, and Winters, Little Underbank; one, the Pack Horse/Cocked Hat, has shut and then re-opened, whilst another, and possibly the oldest of them all, the Angel Inn on the Market Place, has recently reverted to being a pub, having shut as one in the early 50s.

Although I've been on guided walks and cellar tours around them, I didn't know that the Bakers Vaults and Boars Head on the Market Place once had, respectively, marines billetted with them or a pole in the bar where you could tie up your pig, or that the steps next to the Queen's Head on Little Underbank used to be closed one day a year to stop a public right of way being created there. I also didn't know that the Blossoms in Heaviley used to be called the Wellington Arms, or that the now closed Wellington Inn (also known as the Ups and Downs because the upper half was above the elevated Wellington Road South and the lower half beneath it, close to Mersey Square) was originally called the Wellington Bridge Inn to avoid confusion with the former.

Stockport's obsession with the  Anglo-Irish general and politician (I once worked for the civil service at Apsley House on Wellington Road North, next to Wellesley House, before transferring to Heron House on Wellington Street, just off Wellington Road South, and round the corner from the Waterloo) continues with the Wellington Free House, which opened last year a bit further up the A6. We once had a works Christmas do at the White Lion, also now closed, another contender for Stockport's oldest pub.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A class act

The civil service is to introduce a new question for job applicants, asking them whether they think that they come from a lower socio-economic background.

Of course the popular image of a civil servant is a bowler-hatted, rolled-up umbrella-wielding Sir Humphrey strolling along Whitehall with a copy of The Times under his arm, but in reality the term spans a huge spectrum, from the relatively small ranks of senior civil servants with their high pay and pensions to a far larger number of junior ones earning not much more than the minimum wage.

I worked in the administrative grades of the civil service for just over ten years, from the beginning of 1997 to the end of 2007, in what was first the Department of Social Security and then Department for Work and Pensions, and was also a trade union activist, briefly in the admin grade CPSA and then, following a merger with another union, the current, multigrade, union, PCS.

I'm not sure what I would have answered to the question, probably "No", but that's one of the problems with this idea: most people, whether they are rich or poor, think of themselves as average, because that is their and their friends' and family's experience, and because they wrongly estimate (poor people slightly underestimating and rich people wildly overestimating) what an average income actually is. There is also the problem of non-manual workers, some of them low-paid, seeing themselves as middle-class because they wrongly associate being working class with manual labour.

I'm also not sure what the civil service intends to do with the data. Two long-term studies, Whitehall I and II, have linked pay inequality and lack of job control in the civil service with a reduced life expectancy amongst lower-grade workers, and at the other end of the scale the Fast Stream graduate entry scheme continues to channel a disproportionate number of white, privately-educated men from elite universities into the top jobs rather than promoting people within departments.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Jarring Carling

Last week's episode of the BBC Two series Inside the Factory saw presenter Gregg Wallace visit the ex-Bass brewery in Burton-on-Trent to see how Molson Coors make Carling, "the UK's most popular lager", there (there's also an interview with ex-Bass brewer Steve Wellington about Burton water at the adjacent brewing museum).

There weren't quite as many questionable historical facts as you might imagine from such a programme (apart from the myth about IPA needing to be stronger than other beers to survive the sea voyage to British India), but a few things that he was told while going round the brewery with one of the workers had me scratching my head.

They use hop pellets he was told because most of the actual hop flower is "waste". I'm pretty sure that pellets are used in large-scale commercial brewing for economic reasons, because they're easier to store and use, rather than any intrinsic value compared to whole hops.

He was also surprised, when weighing it out on a old-fashioned mechanical scales, at the amount of hops used: 21 kilograms for 190,000 pints, which I make to be 0.06 lbs per 288 pint barrel. I know British beer isn't as hoppy as it was in the nineteenth century, when a hopping rate of 2 to 3 lbs per barrel was the norm, or even in the second half of the twentieth century, when it was around a pound a barrel, but I think cask beer still contains about half a pound a barrel. Maybe modern hop varities have more bittering agents in them, or perhaps Carling hasn't got much of a hop profile...

The final scene saw the filtered, force-carbonated and pasteurised end product dispatched in palleted cans onto lorries for distribution, with a comment from a brewery worker that it has to go straight out after its short fermentation period because there are no storage facilities at the plant (the German word "lager" means "storage") and a reply from the presenter that, at twelve days from the malt arriving at the brewery to the finished beer leaving it, it just goes to show that some industrial processes still can't be rushed (German and Czech beers brewed using traditional contintental methods are lagered for between two and six months).

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Minding our language gap

The news yesterday that the teaching of foreign languages in English secondary schools is in steep decline, disappearing from the curriculum in large parts of the country, was sad, but hardly surprising.

One striking example is that thirty-seven local authority areas, including some of the poorest (North Tyneside, Knowsley, Wigan, Rochdale) now enter fewer pupils for foreign language exams than the elite Eton College.

I did French and German to "A" Level in the late 80's, but never felt really confident about speaking them in a real life situation until the last decade or so, when I started going to Germany and the French-speaking part of Belgium on beer trips, and was pleasantly surprised how much came back within a few hours of my being there.

Apparently foreign languages, especially French and German, are seen as too hard, both by students choosing which subjects to study to GCSE and their teachers. A big part of that is exam results counting towards a school's position in the league tables, and hence their funding. And of course, once people stop studying foreign languages at school it has a knock-on effect on both the number of undergraduates studying them at university and those qualified to teach them.

I was also one of the last half dozen people to take "O" Level Latin at a state school in Stockport, although sadly I don't get much chance to use it now.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Forty years of beer on film

I picked up a DVD last week, at the end of CAMRA's online January sale, about the history of the organisation, released in 2011 to mark its fortieth anniversary.

Quite a lot of the things in it are of course familiar, from the founding of the campaign by four young men, three of them journalists, in a pub in the West of Ireland, while on holiday there in 1971, to footage of the first festival they organised, a forerunner to the Great British Beer Festival, in Covent Garden flower market in 1975, but there are still a few other things that I didn't know before, including the full story about how Bateman's Brewery was saved and the fact that the right-wing Tory MP for Macclesfield Nicholas Winterton served on the board of CAMRA's investment arm in the 1970s. The unintended conseuences of the 1989 Beer Orders, championed by CAMRA at the time, is also explored with more self-examination than you might expect.

It was good to put a face and voice to the beer writer Christopher Hutt, whose pioneering work helped to launch the campaign, along with that of Frank Baillie and Richard Boston, although I was a bit surprised that there was no mention of Michael Jackson who, despite focussing more on continental and North American beers, was also an important influence in the early years of the organisation.

There's a rather prescient bit in the film where one of the directors of Fuller, Smith and Turner is interviewed and admits that in the early seventies the board was considering selling their Chiswick brewery site for development into a hotel and housing and becoming just a pub company...

Friday, 25 January 2019

RIP Hugh McIlvanney

The sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney, who has died aged 84, was one of the country's most distinguished football writers in a career which spanned more than five decades, and several Fleet Street newspapers, until his retirement only a few years ago.

I think I first became aware of McIlvanney when I watched the TV programme he wrote and presented about the trinity of legendary Scottish football managers of the fifties and sixties, Matt Busby at Manchester United, Bill Shankly at Liverpool and Jock Stein who led Celtic to European Cup glory in Lisbon in 1967, as Busby did with United the following year at Wembley.

McIlvanney came from the same working-class background, the mining villages of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire in the West of Scotland, a world of hard and dangerous manual labour from a young age and a culture of self-reliance and self-education that has now all but disappeared.

I can imagine McIlvanney chatting to Busby,  Shankly or Stein with a glass of Scotch whisky in hand at the bar of a lounge above the stand at Old Trafford, Anfield or Celtic Park after a big European night under the newly-installed floodlights in the sixties, analysing in their soft Scottish brogues the team's performance in the match just played, reminiscing about the junior football they would all have known in their youth, and maybe marvelling at how far they had travelled in their different paths from that time and place.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

1976 and all that

I've just picked up a copy of the 1976 Good Beer Guide, published seven years before the 1983 one which until now was the earliest edition I had (I couldn't find a cheap copy of the 1975 or 1974 editions which preceded it online).

It's a pretty slim volume, reflecting the number of breweries then producing cask beer, their limited range (locally, Holt's brewed just two, a mild and bitter, and Hydes, Robinson's and Lees four, an ordinary and/or best bitter, a light and/or dark mild and a, often seasonal, strong ale) and the terse descriptions of both the beers ("smooth", "malty", "thin", "unexceptional") and pubs ("no nonsense", "lively").

Although many of the pubs have since closed, been converted to other uses or demolished, a few which I'm familiar with have survived, albeit some with different owners than those they had forty years ago: in Manchester city centre, Robinson's Castle, Hydes Grey Horse and Jolly Angler, the Circus, Crown and Kettle (then respectively Tetley and Wilsons pubs) and Sam's Chop House ("The haunt of expense-account businessmen"), and in Stockport town centre Robinson's Arden Arms ("Three grandfather clocks") and the Crown, then a Boddingtons pub, now a free house, and still with a spectacular view of the Victorian railway viaduct, even if not, as in 1976, from the outside gents toilets.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Tynt bad at all

To celebrate the New Year yesterday, I opened a bottle of Tynt Meadow, a strong ale brewed since last summer by monks at Mount St. Bernard Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Coalville, Leicestershire, and named after the field in which the original monks lived in a small house after they relocated from post-revolutionary France in the early nineteenth century.

The monks have been helped by Trappist breweries in Belgium to develop their beer (although the monastery brewed in the nineteenth century, that recipe had been lost), and they also made a trip to Robinson's Brewery in Stockport to pick up some brewing tips.

The resulting beer is quite similar to a Belgian Trappist ale: bottle-conditioned, mid-brown, with a fruity, almost date-like, flavour, and, at 7.4% abv, a warming alcoholic finish.

I thought it appropriate to pour the beer into a Robinson's Old Tom glass given the assistance the monks received from them. 

It also reminded of an incident when I worked at Stockport social security office: a man in religious garb walked into reception, explained that he had run out of money while doing missionary work in the town, and asked to borrow some to get back to his monastery in the  Midlands. The supervisor recalled a rule that you couldn't give loans to monks - which I think goes back to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the English Reformation, when displaced monks began roaming the countryside, subsisting on parish relief - but a phone call to the monastery revealed that he was a novice who had yet to take his final vows, so we gave him his train fare, which was promptly repaid by the religious order on his return to them.