Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Books of the Year

I've had a bit more time than expected for books this year, for obvious reasons; getting out into the countryside regularly for long walks also enhanced my appreciation of the rural scenes in some of the novels I read.

The Train Was On Time by Heinrich Böll 

I read this short novel, about a young German soldier travelling by rail towards the Eastern Front in World War II, and what he thinks will almost certainly be his death, after hearing it recommended on Radio 4's A Good Read.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Another novel about a young soldier in World War II, an American prisoner of war who experiences the Allied firebombing of Dresden, as did Vonnegut himself.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe 

I read this novel about life in a postwar Midlands factory and the terraced streets around it after watching the film based on the book, part of the new wave of social realist film and literature by working-class actors and writers.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

This had been on my bookshelf waiting to be read for a while. It combines time travel and gender switching in a very postmodern way for a novel written in the late 1920s.

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

Another postmodern novel which I read after seeing the film adaptation of it, starring Meryl Streep as the title character and Jeremy Irons as the upper middle-class fossil collector who meets and falls in love with her while walking along the shoreline near Lyme Regis on the south coast of England (and which I might just get to return to the still closed public library almost a year after borrowing it).

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe 

I don't need to tell you why I read this in March. Some of the parallels with the current pandemic are uncanny: people shielding in their houses, or being confined to them, while wealthier families bribe officials and escape London to their second homes in the country, thus spreading the disease there, cash being seen as a potential source of infection, wild rumours and theories about the causes and origin of the plague sweeping through the city.

Summer by Albert Camus 

A short essay about Camus' native Algeria, famous for the line "In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer", a sentiment that seems particularly apt this year.

The Mill on the Floss/Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot 

A mill on the bend of a river outside a small town on the Lincolnshire-Nottinghamshire border and the flat land around it are the settings for a tragic story about a brother and sister growing apart until finally reunited in death. The second book is a collection of three short novels, the first volume of fiction Eliot published, about Anglican clergymen in the Warwickshire countryside of her childhood.

Black Dogs by Ian McEwen

A dark novel which switches between the emotions sparked by  the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the disturbing legacy of wartime German occupation in rural southern France.

The Scorpion God/Envoy Extraordinary/Pincher Martin by William Golding

The first two are novellas set in the ancient world, and the last a short novel about a drowning sailor in the North Atlantic in World War II, in which Golding served as a naval officer, whose plot is almost impossible to describe without revealing the twist at the end of it.

 Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne 

This rambling shaggy dog story about a young man and his battle recreation-obsessed uncle, complete with lengthy diversions, diagrams and squiggles, was considered unfilmable until a screen version starring Steve Coogan was released in 2006.

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

I read this Trumpian tale of a self-made American businessman after seeing this, banned by Amazon, review of it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall/Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë 

The two novels by the youngest and least known of the there literary sisters both deal with the position of women in mid-Victorian society, one the estranged wife of an alcoholic gentleman and the other a farmer's impoverished daughter forced to become a children's governess.

The Good Soldier Sjvek by Jaroslav Hasek

I picked up this long comic novel about the wanderings of an eternally cheerful soldier through the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I after seeing this article by Adrian Tierney-Jones (I finally got round to reading A Time of Gifts, the first part of Patrick Leigh Fermor's account of his walk across interwar Europe, from Rotterdam to Constantinople via Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, for the same reason).

When the weather is warmer, and the virus has been suppressed, the vaccine proved effective and travel restrictions lifted, so probably in the spring of 2022 now, I plan on finally making my own trip to Austria and Bohemia and, as Richard Boston said of his visit to Prague on a mid-sixties rail holiday through Central Europe in his book Beer and Skittles, spend a few days "going from place to place drinking this wonderful beer and feeling more and more like the good soldier Sjvek".

Saturday, 12 December 2020

I'm A Union Man

I've finally got my hands on some beer from Manchester Union, the microbrewery founded a couple of years ago to brew Czech-style lagers (their head brewer is well known in Manchester beer circles, and to me personally as the mate of one of my brother-in-law's ex-colleagues).

Having only been available as a draught beer in the pubs that stocked it, and at the brewery tap, a railway arch behind Piccadilly Station in Ardwick which opened on Saturdays before lockdown, the pandemic has prompted them to crowdfund a canning line and sell their products online.

The brewery's flagship beer is a golden Pilsner-type lager, but they also now brew a dark lager with a dense white head and fruity nose. At 4.5% and 4.8% abv, they would probably both be classified as a 12° Lezak if they were brewed in the Czech Republic.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Tiers for beers

In the 1980s TV political drama A Very British Coup, based on a novel by the Labour MP Chris Mullin, there's a scene where Harry Perkins, the left-wing Sheffield steelworker who has just been unexpectedly elected Prime Minister, is travelling to London by train. A journalist on board asks him if he intends to abolish first class, to which he replies that he's going to get rid of second class, adding "I think all people are first class, don't you?".

In the North at the moment, it feels as if the government thinks of us as second class at best, with Liverpool and Lancashire under the tightest Covid-19 restrictions, and those of us in Greater Manchester seemingly about to join them in Tier 3, while, outside London, the South carries on pretty much as normal. As with the ten o'clock curfew, shutting pubs that don't serve food - a distinction that people have inevitably had a bit of fun with, despite the actual legislation being pretty clear what it means - is less to do with the science or sources of transmission for the virus than being seen to do something, while keeping major centres of infection, notably schools and universities, open.

At Westminster, the Speaker of the House of Commons has banned the sale of alcohol in its bars and dining rooms in solidarity with areas of the country where pubs and restaurants are shut, a bit of tokenistic populism which, like the decision to bring in the ten o'clock curfew there on a voluntary basis - being a royal palace places Westminster outside normal licensing laws - doesn't actually help the hospitality industry at all, but is seen as good PR (unsurprisingly, the House of Lords has declined to follow the lower chamber's example).

Last week's announcement by Wetherspoons that it had made a loss for the first time was also the occasion of some misplaced rejoicing. I'm not a huge fan of the pub chain, and even less of its pro-Brexit chairman Tim Martin, but the company contracting, or even failing, would no doubt see those sites sold off for alternative use, and the mostly young people who work there joining what is likely to be an already long dole queue.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

A Beacon for Bristol

Bristol's concert venue Colston Hall has been rebranded as the Beacon after a decades-long campaign to remove the name of the eighteenth century slave trader whose statue was toppled and thrown into the harbour there in June.

Bristol has of course a longstanding Afro-Caribbean community, and an equally long history of fighting slavery and racism, including the 1963 boycott of the local bus company which refused to employ black drivers, shamefully in connivance with the Transport and General Workers Union (whose first General Secretary, and future Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, founded the union while working in the city), and in 2016 elected its first black mayor, Labour's Marvin Rees, a descendant of slaves now running a city built on the slave trade.

In the early sixties, another descendant of slaves, the former Mississippi field hand McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, stood on the stage of Colston Hall in front of hundreds of young white blues fans - thousands of miles and a world away from his Delta youth of sharecropping on plantations and playing at juke joints and Saturday night fish fries - although, in an echo of current restrictions, a local by-law banning amplified music after ten o'clock meant that the power to the microphone broadcasting his electric slide guitar to an enraptured audience was cut off after fifteen minutes!

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

I Know What I Like

Talking Pictures TV last night showed I Know What I Like, a 1973 film about beer and brewing made for the trade body the Brewers' Society.

Starring Bernard Cribbins in various parts - farmer, brewer, maltster, landlord, hop picker and white-coated scientist - it's a fairly standard promotional film that reflects drinking trends in the early seventies, with the brewing industry keen to defend itself against the charge of pushing an inferior product on consumers by, rather unconvincingly, claiming that the traditional method of brewing draught beer in regional family breweries before racking it into wooden casks and loading them onto horse-drawn drays for distribution to tied pubs had essentially been retained, admittedly on a much larger scale, in the stainless steel coppers, mash tuns and closed conical fermenting vessels of a massive keg plant lately built by some national conglomeration next to a motorway junction whose output was then transported around the country by tanker lorries. In the pub scenes, very little distinction is drawn between cask and keg or draught and bottled beer, with it being taken for granted that you could buy bitter, mild, stout, brown ale and lager in at least one of those forms of dispense wherever you happened to call in for a drink.

Thankfully the argument that the consumer must be happy with the choice of beer in their local because they kept going to them was resisted by at least a significant minority of drinkers, with 1973 also seeing the publication of Frank Baillie's seminal book The Beer Drinker's Companion, and the Campaign for Real Ale - which had been formed in 1971 on a casual basis by four journalists on holiday in the West of Ireland - starting to find its feet as a national organisation of members organised into branches and about to produce the first printed Good Beer Guide.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Stout and about with a trailblazer

Manchester brewery Joseph Holt's has just launched a new draught nitrokeg stout called Trailblazer in its tied estate.

There seems to be a bit of trend amongst both national and local family brewers to have their own draught stout, with Robinsons, Lees and now Holt's introducing one, as have Marston's and Tadcaster's idiosyncratic dynasty Samuel Smith's, who allegedly did so after a falling out between owner Humphrey Smith and the Guinness rep for the North of England over the price they were being charged for its product (some accounts place their confrontation on a golf course), the resulting Extra Stout being a decent beer which I've sometimes drunk at the end of the night in a couple of their pubs in Stockport and south Manchester after few pints of cask Old Brewery Bitter.

Twenty or thirty years ago, the only draught stout you really saw in either tied pubs or free houses was Guinness, the main exception being others from multinational brewers like Murphy's or Beamish. As a teenager, I drank all of them at one time or another, and occasionally followed a few pints of Holt's cask bitter with a bottle of Guinness Extra Stout shipped in from Dublin, which before the 2005 closure of the Park Royal brewery in west London only supplied the North of England while the latter distributed what was then still a bottle-conditioned beer to pubs in the South and Midlands.

Looking back at beer books from the seventies - such as Frank Baillie's Beer Drinker's Companion and some of the early Good Beer Guides - pretty much all the regional family breweries produced a bottled, usually sweet, stout, something that has disappeared almost entirely in the years since, but happily the boom in microbreweries in the last few decades has seen the appearance of plenty of cask stouts, whose widespread absence from London pubs George Orwell lamented in his seminal essay The Moon Under Water, in different styles including dry, imperial and oatmeal.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Manchester, so much (for the council) to answer for

 A new series on BBC2 last night looked at the property boom in Manchester city centre.

Manctopia's main theme is how property development in the city is pushing locals out as overseas investors buy up sites and erect skyscrapers of flats for rent (the latest trend is small flats with communal kitchens and bathrooms which, if not warehouses for the poor, as an American poet once described high-rise public housing, will no doubt end up as overcrowded containers for the precariously employed), contrasting a wealthy divorcée from out of town with a million to spend on a city centre penthouse and a single mother from Winton evicted and facing homelessness before being rehoused in Engels House in Eccles.

The roots of this development can be traced back to the early eighties when the city took a double hit with deindustrialisation, as the docks and engineering factories shut, and central government cuts combined with rate-capping restricting the amount of revenue that could be raised locally. The right to buy scheme introduced then also saw a sharp decline in the council's housing stock.

At first, the solution seemed to lie in the election of a Labour government, but as that prospect receded through the decade - and the party moved to the right both in the city and nationally - a new strategy for funding projects emerged, finding private investors to pay for infrastructure improvements (at a profit to themselves of course), hence the failed bids for the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, the successful one for the 2002 Commonwealth Games which saw the construction of the City of Manchester Stadium and other sporting facilities to regenerate Bradford, a deprived and deindustrialised district of east Manchester, latterly in conjunction with the autocratic rulers of Abu Dhabi who bought the stadium's tenants Manchester City in 2008, an abortive attempt to open a "supercasino" next to it, partnerships with Chinese investors to build a new economic hub at the airport and to gentrify the so-called Northern Gateway along the River Irk through Collyhurst, as well as expanding the council tax base by increasing the number of people living in the city centre from a couple of hundred before the Provisional IRA bomb remodelled most of the new Northern Quarter in 1996 to tens of thousands now.

There are of course counter-arguments to those who criticise any of this, including the absence of alternative funding for these projects which probably wouldn't have been built without private investment (although in some cases that would have been no bad thing) and that outside the city centre rents and house prices are still far lower than in London and the south-east, but it is undoubtedly the case that the planning process for construction in the city centre and its adjoining districts is extremely opaque and unresponsive to local needs, with councillors complaining about a lack of consultation or oversight of decisions affecting their wards and power seemingly being in the hands of the Leader of the Council, his Cabinet and Chief Executive and other unelected officers who routinely allow developers to evade legal requirements to include "affordable" housing below market rates, or pay for it elsewhere in the city. Allegations of "backhanders"  of course abound, but I think the truth is more prosaic: the council's desire to generate revenue, and the movement of senior staff between local government and the private sector, so that those in charge of making decisions come to see things solely through the eyes of the developers.

A sign of how bad things have become in the city centre is the announcement that one of its oldest pubs, the Jolly Angler near Piccadilly station, has been sold off for redevelopment by its owners Hydes Brewery, along with, apparently, the Albert in Rusholme, a proper Irish pub which I used to drink in and blogged about here.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Trying times for transatlantic sports

Super League, the top division of rugby league in the northern hemisphere, kicked off again yesterday, albeit without fans in the stands and one fewer team than when play was suspended back in March at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Toronto Wolfpack having withdrawn from the competition because of financial and logistical problems, and their results before the break expunged from the records.

The NFL and MLB have also cancelled events in London to showcase their sports, and ones that involve flying between or across continents, including the Olympics, European football's Champions League and Euro 2020 and rugby union's Six Nations, have all been postponed (although the West Indies cricket team were able to travel from the Caribbean to play a biosecure Test series against England at Southampton and Old Trafford last month, and Pakistan are about to contest another beginning this week).

Super League will now complete a shortened season without relegation at the end of it, or the Magic Weekend where an entire round of matches is played at a ground in a city outside the game's heartlands like Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool or latterly Newcastle, although the Catalan Dragons from southwest France have re-entered the competition after being forced to cancel fixtures because of travel restrictions before the suspension of play in March.

I suppose that with most rugby league grounds still having standing terraces, getting at least a few socially distanced fans back into them before the end of the season might be a bit easier than with the all-seated stadia of top-flight football, but there must surely now be some doubt as to the Rugby League World Cup due to be played in England next autumn.

Monday, 27 July 2020

The Manchester Paper Mill(er)

The online Manchester newsletter The Mill has just published a piece on the decline of print journalism in the city, with the drop in revenues from newspaper sales and advertising leading to cuts in the number of journalists, and therefore far less interviewing people in person and investigative reporting and more "churnalism", essentially rewriting press releases without checking the facts in them yourself, and sensationalist "clickbait" stories being posted on social media to generate hits on the Manchester Evening News website (although the writers there still occasionally pen some excellent articles, such as yesterday's feature about the "forgotten district" of inner-city south Manchester, Chorlton-on-Medlock).

An epitome of pre-internet Manchester print journalism passed last week, the sports journalist and court reporter Stan Miller, whose wife was a friend  of my mother's when they worked together as draughtswomen at Metrovicks Wythenshawe Works in the sixties (he also gave the large teddy bear I had as a child the name which my younger relatives still call him by).

Monday, 6 July 2020

Back to the pub

I strolled down to my local just after it re-opened on Saturday afternoon to see what it was like.

It's a large tied house, surrounded on three sides by a car park. When I first drank there in the late 80s, it was a smoky and wet-led multi-roomed boozer, with a darts board in the vault and a snug unofficially reserved for pensioners, but a series of modernisations since has seen it transformed into an open plan dining pub which, although it still serves a decent pint of cask beer, means that it isn't really my kind of place any more and I now only go there to watch football, rather than for a social drink as I did regularly in the 90s and 2000s.

Looking through the large windows, I could see that it was pretty busy, with lots of the tables full, and heard the sound of laughter and shouting coming from them. In the smoking shelter at the front, half a dozen teenagers had gathered with their pints and an older guy was nervously nursing his there too (looking at the pub's Facebook page later, it turned out that he'd been told that he couldn't go in the pub as they were only seating parties of up to six at the tables inside, not solo drinkers, and he hadn't felt very safe outside given the lack of social distancing). It had the feel of a slightly boisterous Friday or Saturday night rather than a normal weekend dinnertime session with the initial surge of people eager to get back to the pub, which will probably subside quite quickly - and perhaps disastrously so for some pubs. The mostly uncovered outdoor seating area along one side of the building was unsurprisingly empty as the rain swept across it, something that was always going to be an issue with the typically British, and especially Mancunian, summer weather.

I've no problem with the pubs re-opening or with people going to them, and if there's another wave of Covid-19 infections in the coming weeks I won't, as some undoubtedly will, point my finger at those who went this weekend, given that, from what I could see, the big majority behaved responsibly by following Government safety guidelines, despite critics on social media highlighting the small minority who didn't while also exposing their snobbery towards working-class drinkers and general disdain for pubs.

When I go back to the pub myself, it'll be somewhere I can walk to, rather than travel to on public transport as I generally used to do, and where I can drink, and ideally order and pay for, my pint outside, although rationally I know that ordering apps, social distancing, regular cleaning, contactless payments, hand sanitiser, table or end of bar service, perspex screens, face masks and one way systems all lessen the risk of contracting and spreading the virus indoors.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Really the Blues

Having listened to the post-war recordings of blues pianist Cousin Joe Pleasant on which he plays clarinet alongside Sidney Bechet on soprano saxophone, I was prompted to pick up Really the Blues, the autobiography of Mezz Mezzrow, who was known in the jazz world as much for being a raconteur and sometime drug dealer as he was for his playing.

Born Milton Mesirow in 1899, into a middle-class Jewish family of "doctors, lawyers, dentists and pharmacists" on Chicago's Northwest Side, he was soon running with a street gang which congregated at the corner of Western Avenue and Division and as a teenager spent time in juvenile detention for car theft (the book's memorable opening lines are: "Music school? Are you kidding? I learned to play the sax in Pontiac Reformatory."). He also found his way to the South Side Chicago jazz clubs, including the De Luxe Café at 35th and State where he first met Bechet.

In 1928, Mezzrow moved to New York, living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, just across the Harlem River from the African-American section of uptown Manhattan whose clubs he began playing in, and where he became friends with Louis Armstrong.

In 1941, he was sentenced to 1-3 years for possession with intent to supply marijuana and sent to Rikers Island, where, in an echo of the Rachel Dolezal case, he managed to "pass" as black and be allocated to the block for African-American prisoners which housed friends and fellow musicians from Harlem. Released at the end of 1942, he resumed playing on the New York jazz scene before leaving for France in the early fifties, where he died in 1972 and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The book includes an appendix that discusses the technical differences between New Orleans and Chicago-style jazz, an afterword that describes the "transculturation" by which Mezzrow came to see himself as "a pure Black", a self-identification which would surely, and rightly, not go unchallenged now, and a glossary of "hip" slang, including "mezz" for marijuana, as in this song by Stuff Smith.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Cousin Joe from New Orleans

In May 1964, a group of African-American musicians on tour in England assembled on the rainy platform of Wilbraham Road railway station in south Manchester to perform blues and gospel songs to an audience of mostly white students seated in a temporary marquee across the tracks, transported there on a special steam train from Manchester Central for the Granada TV show Blues and Gospel Train, complete with "Wanted" posters on the ticket office and waiting room, chicken in coops on the piano, and a tethered goat tied to a post, as the producers mocked up the disused buildings as a southern US-style railroad halt.

The show is best known for the performance of gospel singer and virtuoso guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and rightly so, especially her opening and, prompted by the unseasonal Mancunian weather, apparently impromptu number Didn't It Rain, but the man who introduced her, and then helped her down from the horse drawn surrey with a fringe on top which bore here to the makeshift stage, the New Orleans blues pianist Pleasant "Cousin Joe" Joseph, isn't remembered as much it seems, despite his Chicken A La Blues being a hit with the youthful hipsters on the other side of the tracks.

I read Cousin Joe's autobiography Blues from New Orleans a few years ago, and have just picked up a 4 CD box set of his remastered records released by the British blues label JSP. Much of the material is in the West Coast R&B/jump blues genre very much in vogue with African-American record buyers throughout World War II and the post-war years, recorded in New York in the mid to late forties for the Los Angeles label Aladdin and New Jersey's Savoy Records, but there are also some slower numbers, including a few featuring jazzmen in the form of clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and some later ones recorded in the early fifties and produced by bandleader Dave Bartholomew in the legendary New Orleans studio of Cosimo Matassa.

Cousin Joe combined his musicianship with a wry sense of humour very much in need in these uncertain days. Get some in your soul now!

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Jivin' With Jack

I was reading the other day about Manchester Sports Guild, which led me to a live album recorded there in 1966 that I hadn't heard of before, Jivin' With Jack by the New Orleans blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree.

Although, as its name suggests, Manchester Sports Guild was primarily an amateur sports club, many of its members were only nominally there for athletic activities, as throughout the sixties the cellar of its social club on Long Millgate near the Cathedral hosted some stellar jazz artists.

Champion Jack, who picked up his nickname as a professional boxer in the thirties, was also an accomplished cook, a skill which saw him become a US Navy chef in World War II. He left New York in the early sixties and travelled to Europe, moving between Scandinavia, Switzerland and England, where he lived in Ovenden, a village on the edge of Halifax, before ending up in Germany, where he died in 1992.

His 1966 set spans humorous material (The Sheikh of Araby, Income Tax) and more traditional blues standards (How Long Blues, Going Down Slow), interspersed with some well practised banter with the audience.

The album's liner notes mention that "Manchester Sports Guild at the time was home to Manchester Jazz Society. Each Wednesday the society held meetings in the clubroom at which guests would give talks or recitals." Since then, the society - which I've been a member of for the last dozen years or so -  has met weekly at various pubs around the city centre, most recently at the Unicorn and Britons Protection.

Manchester Sports Guild's social club closed in the early seventies - along with numerous other jazz venues whose late night licences, and supposed licentiousness, offended the morals of Manchester police chief, and sometime Methodist lay preacher, James Anderton - and was demolished a few years after that, with the site now occupied by the National Football Museum. I will think of Champion Jack the next time I pop in there.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

No room at the inn

BBC One's One Show was in Manchester last night to look at how pubs might reopen after some of the restrictions on social distancing are relaxed, and the difficulties smaller ones like the Britons Protection (which appears from about 7 minutes into the programme) will still have when they're legally allowed to open their doors again.

Some beer gardens in Germany have already reopened, with table reservations (to stop people from more than two households sitting together), waiter only service, staff wearing gloves and face masks, hand sanitiser stations and payment by contactless card or app. The same model is also being trialled here by Wetherspoons, whose cavernous premises lend themselves to social distancing. I can't say that any of it sounds much fun, and older people, those with a health condition that makes them particularly vulnerable to the virus, and anyone who comes into regular contact with them, like health and care workers, will probably still be advised to avoid going in pubs.

There are only three ways that I can see pubs getting back to how they were before the pandemic, or smaller ones being able to open at all: the virus mutating into a less virulent strain which means that when people are infected by it they only have mild, or even no, symptoms; immunity to it building up in the population (although that doesn't necessarily mean that people couldn't still be carriers and transmit it to others); or scientists developing a vaccine against it. I think that, sadly, we're probably months, or even years, away from any of those things happening.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Altbier und die Autobahn

I was reading an obituary of Florian Schneider, co-founder of the pioneering German electronic music group Kraftwerk, the other day which had the photo below of them in their home town.

That image sparked lots of associations with what is probably my favourite German city, which I first went to in 2009 and have been back to numerous times since.

Düsseldorf might be an industrial city, but, even without the Gothic, tourist-attracting cathedral of its Rhineland rival Cologne, it still has some architectural gems, especially the modernist central railway station, and also benefits from having a long promenade along the Rhine which is quite wide at that point, allowing pleasure boats to share the waterway with the large barges carrying their cargoes to the Port of Rotterdam further downstream.

I also love the Radschläger, the small wooden figure of a cartwheeling child which you see all round the city, and which supposedly celebrates a military victory over Cologne in the thirteenth century (the rivalry of these two Rhineland industrial and port cities is very similar to that between Manchester and Liverpool in North West England).

The main attraction though, and the thing that first brought me to Düsseldorf, is the Altstadt (Old Town), and its brewpubs serving small glasses of brown, hoppy Altbier. When this pandemic is finally over, they'll be very high up my list of places to revisit.

I wrote here about another Rhineland beer/pop connection, and one with links to Manchester, the Velvet Underground's Christa "Nico" Päffgen, whose family owned the Kölsch brewery of the same name.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Back in time for beer, wine and spirits

BBC Four showed an episode from the series Timeshift last night, first broadcast in 2012, about British drinking habits across the twentieth century.

I'd seen some of the archive footage before, and some of it was about drinking wine and spirits at home rather than beer in pubs, but there were still some interesting contributions, including from Pete Brown, talking about lager advertising, and Ruth Cherrington on how women fought to become members of working men's clubs, rather than just guests admitted with men for social occasions.

There was also a statistic at the end of the programme about British alcohol consumption being the same now as it was in 1900, although of course that doesn't tell you what's being drunk or where, or indeed how strong it is.

In the current situation of locked pubs, it was rather poignant to watch men jostling at the bar for a pint, and made me reflect how we all took that pleasure for granted until a few weeks ago. I just hope it doesn't become a historical document of a vanished social institution akin to some prehistoric artefact we might find ourselves now and wonder what it was for.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Searching for Secret Heroes

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the blues collector, writer and producer Sam Charters travelled across the American South locating and recording artists who hadn't been heard since the late 1920s, and many of whom didn't even own the discs from their sessions for record companies such as Columbia, Paramount and Victor. I've got his 1959 book The Country Blues, which is based on those trips, as well the three album series Chicago/The Blues/Today! which he recorded for Vanguard in the mid 1960s, in the more urban setting of that city's South Side black ghetto.

Document Records has now released the 1962 film The Blues which he shot on a 16mm cine camera while his wife Ann held a microphone to capture the sound on a reel to reel tape recorder, featuring many of the bluesmen he had met on his earlier trips to the South. There's also an hour long interview with Sam and Ann Charters about the making of the film, and a CD with the music which she recorded as well as some of the artists' original 1920s tracks.

The great thing about their film is how it links the music to the artists and their lives, recording them in their homes and neighborhoods, and in the case of Furry Lewis at work as a street sweeper in Memphis.

The most amazing story though is to be found in the liner notes, which explain how Sam and Ann Charters came to wander by complete chance into the small industrial estate in rural southwest Scotland where Document Records have their office and warehouse.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Pubs and pandemics

In 1918, my four year old grandmother and her older sister, who were born and grew up in Wigan, lost both their parents within a week. They were killed by the so-called "Spanish flu" pandemic which spread across the globe towards the end of the First World War, taking the lives of up to fifty million people.

My great grandfather was a colliery blacksmith (I've got the badge he wore in WWI with the words "On War Service" on it, to avoid being beaten up in the street by people who would otherwise think that he should be in the Army), so wasn't in the trenches or military camps where the outbreak seems to have first taken hold, but no doubt would still have been weakened by long hours at work and food shortages.

My grandmother and her sister were taken in by their uncle and auntie who ran a pub in the town, the Colliers Arms on Frog Lane (now Mr Wang's Chinese restaurant). None of my Wigan relatives could ever work out how Uncle Jack, who started out as a cotton worker, managed to get the money together to acquire the tenancy of a large, and apparently very profitable, pub from Threlfall's Brewery (family legend has it that in the twenties he was the first man in Wigan to own a radio). When he died in the the early thirties, he left a couple of thousand pounds in his will, then a pretty large sum, especially in a Lancashire mill and mining town in the midst of a worldwide economic depression, and his widow bought a small sweet shop near Central Park rugby league ground, where my grandmother worked as an assistant. After her auntie died in the mid thirties, she got in touch with the brewery to ask about a job as a barmaid, and was sent to the Gorse Hill Hotel in Stretford, where she met my grandfather, who was a toolmaker at the Metropolitan Vickers engineering factory in Trafford Park and used to pop in there for a drink after work.

I've drunk in both pubs, the former in the early nineties on a trip back to her home town with my grandmother, who told the then landlady about the original layout of the pub and how the back room we were sitting in had been the family's kitchen when she lived there in the twenties. The Gorse Hill, where she worked until 1938, when she got married and moved with my grandfather to a council house on the Wythenshawe estate in south Manchester, has had a bumpy few years, but reopened in 2019 and was a popular stopping off place before and after matches at the nearby Old Trafford football and cricket grounds.

I last went to my local a fortnight ago, to watch the Manchester Derby, and have been social distancing since. I don't know when I'll next be able to go to a pub, or how many of them will survive being shut for the next few months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Beer in the Millennium Year

A post about Boddingtons Strong Ale on Ron Pattinson's blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins the other day had me looking through my collection of Good Beer Guides, and noticing a gap - the first one I've got is from 1976, then the ones published in 1983 and 1990, but after that nothing until the 2011 edition, so I put that right by buying a cheap secondhand copy of the 2001 one online. So how do pubs in the Manchester area compare now to back then in the first year of this millennium nearly twenty years on?

Of the pubs in Manchester city centre, most are still there - the Britons Protection, Castle, Circus, City Arms, Grey Horse, Hare and Hounds, Jolly Angler and Old Monkey - but further out a few cask outlets in the 2001 GBG have gone, including the Sir Edwin Chadwick, a Wetherspoons in Longsight ("Comfy chairs near the door are appreciated by older customers") that I can't say I remember, and which was apparently quite short-lived, and the Albert in Rusholme, a genuine rather than plastic Irish pub, with an Irish landlord and regulars, which I drank in quite a bit at the time and which served a decent pint of Hydes bitter, from their then brewery not far away in Moss Side (round which it occasionally organised tours). It went downhill after Manchester City moved from nearby Maine Road to the City of Manchester Stadium in east Manchester in 2003 and the landlord retired to Australia, and became keg-only, but seems to have regained its popularity since.

In Stockport, the Armoury, Blossoms, Red Bull and Swan With Two Necks are thankfully still with us, but a couple of pubs that I never made it to, Robinson's brewery tap the Spread Eagle on Lower Hillgate and the Olde Woolpack near the Pyramid office building, have shut (the latter only fairly recently), as has the Tiviot which I drank in once or twice in its final days, when it had steel poles supporting the roof ahead of the long-serving licensees retiring from the trade.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Encrypted in the Cathedral

I went to Liverpool yesterday to meet one of my mates who now lives in Ormskirk and a couple of fellow CAMRA members from Stockport at a beer festival in the crypt of the city's Metropolitan Cathedral.

I'm not really a fan of the modernist, in the round sixties-built cathedral, nicknamed Paddy's Wigwam or the Mersey Funnel by locals, and find the crypt, which was completed in the fifties - and where my Dad went to and served Mass as a student at the nearby university in the early sixties - more architecturally impressive, with its brown brickwork and barrelled roof beneath the aluminium and glass structure above.

The festival had a War of the Roses theme with most breweries from Lancashire and Yorkshire, but I went mostly for beers from outside those two counties, including ones not often seen north of the Trent, like Westerham from Kent, and old favourites Hawkshead and Titanic.

After the festival finished, we went to two contrasting pubs: the university-owned Augustus John which has a functional seventies feel reminiscent of the student union bars I used to drink in thirty years ago, and most of whose customers could now just about be my grandchildren, and the Dispensary, with its brown wood interior and other classic Victorian/Edwardian features including frosted lamps and etched smoked-glass windows.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

The end of text

With all eyes fixed on Britain's exit from the European Union tomorrow, another momentous severing from an institution that has also been part of our lives since the mid seventies has gone all but unnoticed, namely the BBC's decision to end its Red Button text service, which began as Ceefax in 1974 before morphing into its current incarnation in 2008 (rival broadcaster ITV axed theirs, Teletext, in 2009).

I know that you can find all the information online now, but it's still not the same as pressing those familiar buttons: news headlines (102), local news (1635), football headlines (302), scores (316), tables (324), fixtures (330), cricket (340) and rugby league (370).

What's even worse is the dishonest way they've gone about announcing it: not a decision taken lightly, regret having to do it, blah, blah, blah. I'd have more respect for them if they just said that as pretty much everyone can check things on their phones now, and those that can't will have to push off to the local library if they can find one still open, they're no longer prepared to pay to keep it going (the service has already been cut back, removing some of the "fringe" items like American sports that some of us found useful).

As the BBC comes under attack on several fronts - for the excessive pay of its executives and presenters, the removal of free TV licences for pensioners, and its perceived political bias - it really knows how to alienate those of us who are normally first in line to defend the public service broadcaster (and don't get me started on their shifting of Jazz Record Requests around the radio schedule).

Thursday, 16 January 2020

HS2 to-do (or not to do?)

The future of HS2, the proposed new hundred and forty mile long high speed rail line between the North of England and London, seems to be in the balance as the initial costings threaten to overrun massively (HS1, Britain's only existing high speed rail line, runs for just over sixty miles between London and the Channel Tunnel).

I admit to being attracted by the idea of travelling between Manchester and London in just over an hour, rather than in about two and a half now, which would also reduce the appeal of shuttle flights between the two cities and make rail travel to the continent from the North much easier, especially if there are cheap standby tickets on offer, as some have suggested there should be to stop it becoming an expensive white elephant with half empty carriages.

Beyond that, I'm not convinced about HS2 bringing economic benefits to the North, partly because the supposed flow of people and investment outwards from the South East might well operate in reverse, drawing more commuters into the capital as the hour to work travel area to London expands hugely to include pretty much the whole of the Midlands.

The section of the Y-shaped line that appears most vulnerable to being cancelled is the right hand arm to Leeds, with the potential savings being diverted into HS3, another proposed high speed line linking Liverpool and Hull, but again, apart from pleasing commuters, and helping to prop up support for the Government in the Tories' newly won Northern constituencies, the economic benefits of making travel between cities which are relatively close to one another quicker are hard to see, especially as technology increasingly makes such travel unnecessary.

There is also of course the environmental impact of building a high speed rail line through the English countryside. Tunnels like the one planned under Manchester's southern suburbs between the airport and city centre, emerging after seven miles at Ardwick before arriving at Piccadilly, would mitigate much of this, but would also push up the price of an already over budget scheme.

The first HS2 train is due to pull into Manchester in 2033, but somehow I can't see myself waiting on the platform with my newly issued senior citizens railcard for it.