Sunday, 10 December 2017

Coronation Street capers

I've been watching re-runs of Coronation Street from 1986 on ITV3 for the last week or so, episodes which I probably watched when they were originally broadcast.

The first thing to say about them is that the show was far funnier then, with many more comic characters and storylines than there seems to be now (I gave up watching it regularly a few years back, partly for that reason) rather than the Eastenders-style grimness which seems to have crept in since, with lots of sparkling repartee between brassy Rovers Return landlady Bet Lynch and the conniving showbusiness agent (and her future husband) Alec Gilroy, the newsagent's shop-running duo of Rita and Mavis (and her hapless fiance Derek) and the malapropisms and wall-adorning "muriel" of pub cleaner Hilda Ogden. The main difference there is the number of boxed keg beer taps on the bar - something you don't see much now outside of Sam Smith's pubs - rather than the more traditional handpumps which have since replaced them.

The main reason for the drop in quality is no doubt the increase of episodes from two to six a week, requiring the scriptwriters to stretch out storylines and make them more melodramatic.

That problem funnily enough is one which the only soap I now watch regularly, the Australian Neighbours, seems to have overcome, despite being broadcast daily, mostly maintaining quality and the fine balance between comedy and drama.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Suds flow in Ludlow

The poet laureate John Betjeman once described Ludlow as "probably the loveliest town in England". I'm not sure if he got to any of its pubs though, some of which are also right up there in the picturesqueness stakes.

I've been to Shropshire a few times before, but until yesterday hadn't been south of Shrewsbury, a similary timber-buildinged and narrow-streeted market town and the principal one in what must be amongst the emptiest counties in England.

The purpose of the trip was for my local CAMRA branch to present the silver award from Stockport Beer Festival to Ludlow Brewery for their Black Knight stout. En route there on the train, we passed both the trackside Salopian Brewery, probably the county's best-known brewer, and New Meadow, the rather identikit new home of Shrewsbury Town Football Club.

Ludlow Brewery operates out of a modernised ex-goods shed right next to the railway station, a handy location which meant that when we arrived at not long after noon the split-level structure was already filling up with several large parties. Certificate presented and a few pints of their beers and very toothsome pork pies and Scotch eggs dispensed with, we set out to explore some more of the town's other pubs .

I was quite surprised at how steep the hill we climbed up to the town centre was, although it was  worth the effort as we passed numeous mediaeval buildings, and in terms of size Ludlow is very walkable. The pubs there were also hearteningly full for a Saturday afternoon, partly because of the coach parties which had travelled to the town for a Christmas market at the castle.

Apart from the Ludlow brewery tap, the town has just one other Good Beer Guide entry, The Queens, which we visited as well as the courtyarded Feathers and Rose and Crown, the bottle shop-cum-bar Artisan Ales, the more modern but still atmospheric Church Inn, and finally the front parlour-style and single beer-dispensing Dog Hangs Well for a last pint before boarding the train for the return journey north, one enlivened at Shrewsbury by some raucous but chatty Bradford City fans celebrating their 1-0 win over the town's table-topping League One side.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Labour in vain

BBC Two last night showed a documentary filmed throughout the campaign for June's General Election, Labour: The Summer That Changed Everything, which followed four anti-Corbyn Labour MP's who hoped that a Tory landslide and a heavy defeat for their own party might just finish off a Leader whom they themselves had spectacularly failed to oust with an, at times farcical, parliamentary coup the summer before, ultimately fronted by the comically inept and now almost forgotten figure of Owen Smith.

The highlight of the programme for me was the moment when the exit poll was announced as voting ended at ten o'clock on polling day, showing that Labour had actually gained thirty seats, the Tories had lost their slim House of Commons majority and their hopes of Corbyn resigning had just evaporated, with Stephen Kinnock, next to his father, the failed ex-Labour Leader and now Baron of Bedwelty, Neil in a social club in South Wales and Lucy Powell amongst besuited young activists in the City Arms, long a meeting place for Manchester councillors, being just round the corner from the Town Hall, both attempting to suppress their obvious disappointment as their hopes for a swift return to what they still no doubt see as normal politics were finally dashed by the electorate.

The programme then skipped forward to the Labour Party conference in Brighton a few months later, with the four looking rather forlorn and friendless amidst the, admittedly a bit gushingly admiring, youthful Corbyn fan club. Having twice failed to persuade the membership to elect one of their own as Leader in successive years, you felt that deep down their thoughts were pretty much identical to those which Bertolt Brecht famously assigned to the Stalinist dictators of East Germany in 1953 after the Berlin building workers' strike sparked an uprising against their rule: "Would it not be easier.../To dissolve the people/And elect another?"

The most bizarre Labour Party-related TV moment of the night had already occurred earlier in the evening, when one-time Cabinet minister and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls brought the ex-Communications Workers Union General Secretary Billy Hayes onto BBC One's Would I Lie To You?, not a programme I normally watch, but which I happened to catch five minutes of while flicking through the channels, and introduced him as his former partner in a Lionel Richie/Diana Ross karaoke tribute act.

Monday, 30 October 2017

How the mighty are fallen

On Saturday afternoon, an unfortunate incident involving Salford City's goalkeeper briefly focussed the otherwise Premier League-engaged attention of TV studio pundits and Twitter upon a hitherto unregarded Horsfall Stadium, home to National League North side Bradford Park Avenue.

Bradford Park Avenue are one of the ghosts of non-League football, former League clubs who have slowly drifted downwards to that level and, as with the also resurrected Accrington Stanley, their glory days, such as they were, are a long way back, in the early twentieth century.

Their descent isn't quite so dramatic though as that of the European Cup, League title and FA Cup winners who have subsequently found themselves playing in the lower divisions (Nottingham Forest, Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers, Coventry City, Wigan Athletic, Portsmouth, Leeds United, and a few more I've probably missed too). So who, I thought, has fallen furthest down football's League pyramid?

The answer it seems, at least according to this article last year, is my own hometown team Stockport County who top the table - not a phrase you associate with the Edgeley Park outfit - with an impressive drop of 99 places, although they've no doubt fallen even further since...

Thursday, 19 October 2017

A voice in the wilderness

As other bloggers set out across the country to tick off new entries in the 2018 Good Beer Guide, a look at the map indicates, yet again, a complete lack of entries for my area on the Stockport/South Manchester border, and rightly so given the absence of any decent pubs serving good beer here.

A look at earlier editions of the GBG, specifically the ones from 1983 and 1990, reveals that the same wilderness has existed for at least thirty-five years, and although some "beer deserts" are easily explicable - the one on the other side of town, in the part of North Manchester beyond the extension of the Northern Quarter into now trendy Ancoats and across into East Manchester, is the result of deindustrialisation in the 70's and 80's and the subsequent demolition, conversion to other uses or switch to keg-only dipense of wet-led boozers there and the closure of some of the breweries which once supplied them (notably Wilsons, which shut in the mid-80's, and Boddingtons whose iconic Strangeways Brewery tower came down a decade ago) - the one here is less so as similar outer suburbs around it are not equally bereft of decent pubs to drink in, whether newish micropubs or ones tied to local family brewers.

The nearest GBG pubs to me are all two to three miles away, which realistically means a shortish bus or train journey, and a specific reason to go there, maybe once a week, rather than casually dropping into them more regularly for a pint or two as I would if they were within half a mile or so.

The extremes on the spectrum of a drought to a surefeit of GBG entries are, I would guess, the central belt of Scotland, where lager-drinking largely took over from the 60's onwards (the whole country only takes up a slimmish section at the back of the GBG), and the Black Country, where you can easily visit half a dozen in an afternoon or evening, reflecting the tradition of brewpubs which never quite ended there as it did in other parts of England.

My immediate drinking options are an estate pub and members' only social club, both keg-only, and dining pubs with zero atmosphere and variable, to say the least, beer quality, so my best bet for anywhere half-decent to drink locally in the near future is probably if someone converts one of the several empty shop units hereabouts into a micropub.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Salford not for sale

I wasn't particularly surprised the other day when Marwan Koukash, owner of Salford rugby league club, announced that he was relinquishing control and handing it over to a supporters' trust. I'd been expecting something along those lines at the end of a season in which, despite the money he's put into the team and the highish league position that they achieved, attendances at matches have continued to fall.

When Salford moved to their new ground in Barton-on-Irwell from their longtime home at the Willows in Weaste in 2012, attendances were about 5,000. The stated aim of the move was to at least double that; instead, they are now around half, often bolstered by away rather than home fans supporting their team, and even some season ticket holders no longer attend as many matches as before.

Salford had apparently been told by the Rugby Football League that the Willows was no longer a fit ground for the twenty-first century, hence the move to Barton and a new 12,000-capacity stadium there, jointly owned by Salford City Council and Peel Holdings, owners of the nearby Trafford Centre shopping mall.

A modern ground, even one that incorporated standing areas and offered cheap tickets, was never going to have either the atmosphere or historical associations of the Willows, where Salford had played since 1901, but there have been many other problems with the site too.

I remember at the last match at the Willows, while in the queue for the turnstiles, that some fans were complaining that in moving to Barton the club was leaving the traditional (i.e. pre-1974) boundaries of Salford, and although that might be a minority opinion there's definitely a feeling that a lot of fans who walked to the ground from the club's Weaste and Pendleton heartlands in the past now no longer bother.

Public transport isn't great to the new ground - the nearest train stations and tram stops are at least a mile away - the proposed tram line to Port Salford, the freight terminal on the Ship Canal also owned by Peel Holdings, which will include a stop nearby, isn't scheduled to open for another four years, and the long access road to the ground means that despite there being a large, free car park outside the time it takes to leave it at the end of matches means many fans have given up using it and now park in the Peel Green housing estate opposite instead.

There has been some talk of Salford not taking enough advantage of their potential fanbase in the neighbouring city of Manchester, and while the idea of that city's name being incorporated into the club's has rightly been rejected, there is some truth to it, especially with their location miles out from the centre in Barton not helping with that.

If the funds could be found, the ideal solution would be to build a ground in the part of Salford that adjoins Manchester city centre, with its numerous transport hubs, but I suspect that they can't, what with the financial support Koukash has given about to be withdrawn and the money from the naming rights to the ground going to Sale Sharks rugby union club, Salford's co-tenants at Barton.

Rugby league has always been dependent on local businessmen becoming owners and directors of its clubs, whether for the prestige or connections that gave them, much like football clubs up until the last quarter of a century in which they have either become PLC's or been transferred to offshore trusts in exotic tax havens controlled by American or Middle and Far Eastern billionaires.

It's hard to see then how, without an alternate source of outside income, a supporters trust will work at Salford, the first board of which is apparently going to be appointed by the outgoing owner. It seems that rather than generously gifting the club to its fans, he is instead walking away from it, perhaps understandably given the circumstances, and taking with him the money which he is no longer willing to put into its continued maintenance.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Wythenshawe between the wars

I've been reading 20th Century Pub this past week, a new book from beer bloggers Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey which charts the ups and downs of that quintessentially British institution across the last hundred years or so, and also, by way of acknowledgement, namechecks fellow bloggers and local CAMRA faces Pub Curmudgeon and Tandleman.

There are quite a few references to Manchester pubs. I was particularly interested in the section about how none of the six pubs built between the wars in Wythenshawe, the so-called garden suburb constructed by the city at its southern edge from the late twenties to early fifties and once apparently the biggest public housing estate in Europe, still exist as pubs, and indeed, according to the website they cite, five of them no longer exist even as buildings.

My grandparents moved to Wythenshawe from Old Trafford in the late thirties (he worked as a toolmaker at the Metrovicks engineering factory in Trafford Park and she as a barmaid at the Gorse Hill Hotel, a pub in Stretford to which she'd transferred from another Threlfalls house in her native Wigan) and I remember most of those pubs from the seventies and eighties, in particular the Benchill Hotel, the closest to where they lived and from where he was fetched when the telegram arrived informing him that his brother had been killed fighting with the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium in 1940, and whose weekend discos my older cousins later frequented. The nightclub attached to the Royal Thorn in Sharston was also where student parties were held by my secondary school in the late eighties.

One of the other pub types they look at is the post-war estate pub, those unloved flat-roofed buildings which were once common in inner-city Manchester, outer suburbs such as Wythenshawe and the towns surrounding them, but which are now as much in danger from conversion to other uses or the swing of the developer's wrecking ball as the pre-war drinking establishments which preceded them.

I also went to the Gateway in East Didsbury yesterday, one of the Manchester pubs Boak and Bailey visited while researching their book, and perhaps uniquely, as an inter-war roadhouse which is now a Wetherspoons pub, one which spans two of the categories to which they devote chapters in it.