Thursday, 26 April 2018

Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking when I said

I watched a bit of a programme on BBC1 last night in which TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched a personal crusade against obesity, starting with a missionary trip to the frozen North (Newcastle-upon-Tyne to be more precise) to shame educate the fat-guzzling plebs there into eating more healthily.

There are of course many serious and overlapping issues when it comes to obesity - the amount of sugar and salt in processed food; the labelling of food by manufacturers and retailers; poverty caused by low wages and benefits making better quality food unaffordable - but the point that he doesn't seem to grasp is one that another upper middle-class, ex-Etonian, George Orwell, highlighted in his classic piece of 1930's social reportage The Road to Wigan Pier, and which came to mind as Hugh hectored the bemused populace of Newcastle through a megaphone:

"The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire might enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't...When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want to something a little bit 'tasty'...Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream!...That is how your mind works...White bread-and-marg and sugared tea doesn't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer.."

Later, Hugh drove a van onto a housing estate in one of the poorer parts of the city and tried to tempt its working-class inhabitants with fresh fruit. As Orwell put it later in the same passage, "In London..parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping-lessons to the wives of the unemployed...First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money."






Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Changing Times

To mark thirty years being editor of it, John Clarke has just scanned and circulated the May 1988 issue of Opening Times, the magazine of the Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA branch which he's also now the chairman and I'm a member of.

John is planning to write a longer piece for the next issue of Opening Times about the anniversary, but I'd just like to pick out a few things that caught my eye when reading it.

In pub news, the Crown Inn on Heaton Lane, Stockport, had just been refurbished by Boddington's, and the toilets moved inside from the backyard which was about to be turned into a beer garden with close-up views of the famous railway viaduct that spans the building. As well as Boddington's, beers available included ones from Higson's and the Oldham Brewery which Boddingtons then owned (none of those three breweries now exists). The Crown is now a multi-handpump (and multi-award-winning) freehouse and the backyard beer garden hosts regular live music.

The "ABC" Stagger of twelve pubs in the Ardwick, Brunswick and Chorlton-on-Medlock districts just south of Manchester city centre which the branch had just completed and is reported on in the May 1988 issue would now be impossible as all but one of them has since been closed and/or demolished, and the Wilson's mild and bitter which most of them served is no longer brewed either, the brewery in Newton Heath, north Manchester, having been taken over by Webster's of Halifax in 1986, who moved production there before shutting themselves a decade later.

The Pub of the Month, the Church Inn, Cheadle Hulme, retains its cosy three-room structure and is still tenanted by the same family who had it in 1988. As well as Robinson's Best Bitter, now called Unicorn, it still serves equally well-kept cask ales from the Stockport brewery of that name, although not the Best Mild it did back then which, after several name changes, was finally discontinued by Robinson's a few years ago. It had also just started serving meals - now a major part of its trade - but not on Sundays, which is probably now its busiest day for food. The Church was a well-deserved winner of another of our Pub of the Month awards last summer.

Although some of the contributors to the magazine are sadly no longer with us, it's pleasing to see some familiar names in its pages who are still, I'm happy to say, active members of the branch.




Sunday, 1 April 2018

April sours

Ahead of the CAMRA AGM in Coventry at the end of this month, plans are apparently already being put into place for a successor organisation which will split off from the main body of the campaign should the controversial and divisive Revitalisation proposals to extend the organisation's remit beyond cask-conditioned real ale to other so-called "quality beers" be adopted by that gathering.

The new splinter group, which will no doubt present itself as being the legitimate continuation of the original campaign should that body slip into heresy, has been given the provisional name of the Campaign for Real Ullage Deposit, emphasising the technical differences which have led to this potential schism in the British beer-drinking world.

A meeting took place last week at a pub somewhere in the so-called "Bass triangle" between Burton, Derby and Leek to sketch out plans for the new group, with several beer bloggers apparently being provisionally offered places on its soon to be formed national executive which will, should the split occur, be chosen by popular acclamation in the public bar of the same pub rather than the traditional, if somewhat unpredictable, method of annual elections held amongst the membership.

Moves are also afoot for a beer festival to launch the new group, pencilled in for this time next year at the venue which is then expected to become its permanent home, the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, although contract negotiations have reportedly yet to resolve the issue of whether drinkers will be allowed to use the tunnels beneath the stands to access the bars in the middle rather than having to cross the track with their pint. A dummy edition of a new monthly publication, with the working title "Brew Believer", has been mocked up, although there are no plans for a website or any other online presence and communications with the new group's HQ, location yet to be decided, but definitely north of the contentious East Midlands "sparkler divide", will be by post only, with all previously-held email addresses deleted for security reasons.

Reports that the new body has approached the Society of St. Pius X, the Steam Railway Preservation Society and the Campaign for Real Cheese to act as advisory consultants on the new project have yet to be confirmed.




Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Stingo by jingo

I've spent a fair bit of time in Sam Smith's pubs of late, mainly Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Year, the Blue Bell in Levenshulme.

Sam's Smiths draught beers are famously cheap - around the £2 mark in the North and only a pound or so more in London - but at £4 and upwards their bottled beers, at least in their pubs, aren't.

Just as Tadcaster's most traditionalist, some would say idiosyncratic, brewery only brews one cask-conditioned draught beer, Old Brewery Bitter, only one of their bottled beers is bottle-conditioned, the 8% abv strong ale Yorkshire Stingo, and while I've drunk most of their bottled range - especially their pale ales and stouts - I've never tried this one before.

Although Yorkshire Stingo sells for around £9 a bottle in pubs, I managed to pick one up online as part of a mixed box of 12 Sam Smith's beers for £34.95 from the Real Ale Store. It's a reddish beer with an alcoholic aroma which hits you straight away and reminded me of XX Strong Ale which Fuller's produced as part of their Past Masters series a few years ago.

I watched a few online reviews of Yorkshire Stingo before drinking it, including this one which, despite the guy speaking - I think - Polish, you still sort of get what he's saying.






Monday, 26 March 2018

New balls, please

I can't quite bring myself to welcome or join in the crowd booing and general opprobrium currently being directed at the Australian cricket team after their captain and star batsman Steve Smith and another member of his squad were found guilty of tampering with the ball in a Test match against South Africa.

Yes, ball tampering is against both the spirit and laws of cricket, and yes, it's right that those found guilty of it face some kind of sanction (the one Test ban and loss of match fees from the one in which the incident occurred in this case seems sufficent to me), but all teams have at one time or another done it and it strikes me as a tad hypocritical for the English press in particular to lambast Australia for it.

There's also the idea that cricket, being supposedly a gentleman's game, should be above such chicanery - "It's just not cricket" - and, again hypocritically, that ball tampering is something that might happen in Britain's former colonies but not here.

The only real way to eliminate it would be to do as cricket's distant transatlantic cousin baseball did at the end of the so-called "dead ball era" in the 1920's and change the ball as soon as it becomes scuffed or worn, but that would radically alter the playing of a game in which the condition of the ball, and the point at which it is replaced, can, pardon the pun, swing the outcome of a match, and even then, as baseball discovered, illegal deliveries akin to spitballs would no doubt still continue to be sent down the pitch to batsmen.



Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Home and away

Last weekend's draw for the FA Cup semi-finals which saw Manchester United picked to play Tottenham Hotspur in the last four of the competiton has produced an anomaly, and not a little controversy.

Even though Spurs are officially the away team, they will in fact be playing at their current home ground, Wembley, the stadium used for semi-finals since 2008 and by them this season whilst their White Hart Lane home is being remodelled and expanded.

This situation wouldn't have arisen of course had the Football Association not devalued the competition by playing semi-finals at Wembley rather than at a large neutral club ground roughly equidistant between the two teams, such as Villa Park, which is what happened before the switch to the newly-opened national stadium a decade ago, but is of a piece with the other money-making schemes they have introduced: sponsorship of the competition by corporate bodies, executive seat packages which include all events at the stadium across a number of years, the moving of matches from three o'clock to early evening to maximise profits from global TV deals, with the travelling supporter low down on their priority list, all supposedly justified by the cost of construction, just as the later kick-off time is supposedly more "family friendly" (by not interrupting Saturday afternoon shopping) and finals on the same day as League matches, rather than later in May when the season had finished, were supposedly to help England prepare better for international tournaments, hence their stellar performances at them since 2008.

I know that in international and European club competitions, teams have played finals at their own home grounds, and that England won the World Cup at theirs, the old Wembley, in 1966, just as West Germany, Argentina and France have at theirs since then, but that is pretty much unavoidable when the tournament venue has been picked years in advance and the teams have travelled thousands of miles to play there, but apart from money there is no reason why Spurs should be handed home advantage rather than the tie being played at a neutral ground.










Tuesday, 13 March 2018

It’s a No from me

I’ve just cast my vote on the so-called Revitalisation proposals which the CAMRA National Executive are putting forward, including those which seek to embrace “quality beers” beyond the cask ales that the organisation was founded to save in the early seventies.

Traditionalists/conservatives and progressives/modernisers have been battling each other in architecture, classical music, jazz, the Catholic Church, and about reform of counties, money and measurement, for much of the last century, and now inside CAMRA: you could call it the organisation’s “Clause Four” moment.

The sixties marked the height of this process: probably as a reaction to the militarisation and shared experience of suffering in World War II, revolutionary changes took place in each of those spheres, all predicated on moving with/keeping up with the times, attracting young people, engaging in renewal, modernisation, revitalisation, and stripping away what seemed outdated and unattractive.

I voted against the Revitalisation proposals and hope that if you're a CAMRA member you will too. Here are five reasons to vote against:

1. The proposals dilute the core thing CAMRA stands for, and introduce a new category, “quality keg”, or “craft keg” as it’s usually referred to, which – unlike cask beer/real ale – is not only subjective, but, as the official documents tacitly admit by describing cask beer as “pinnacle of the brewer’s craft” is an inferior product (that’s their opinion, by the way, not mine: while I’ve drunk nitrokeg stouts and keg bitters, I don’t think I’ve ever drunk craft keg, mainly because, and almost uniquely for a preservationist movement like CAMRA, it’s usually served in pubs which also have cask beer. But, having drunk non-bottle conditioned and canned beer from some of the breweries which produce it, I can imagine that at its best it’s as good as some cask beers).

2. They attempt to attract younger drinkers by including craft/quality keg when that may just be a passing fad (many modernisation projects, by attaching themselves to what is currently fashionable, soon come to look dated themselves when fashion and young people move on to something else, sixties clothes, music and architecture, including pubs, being examples of that, and only a small number of young people drink craft keg – most drink lager, spirits or wine, at home rather than in the pub, or not at all).

3.  Snobbery/ageism: underlying the proposals is I think the idea that the older, male, working-class drinker supping a pint of boring brown bitter produced by a national brewer in an estate, town centre or dining chain pub with a single hand-pump should not be championed in preference to younger, trendier drinkers sipping thirds of super-hopped IPAs, kettle sours and bourbon barrel-aged strong ales dispensed in keg form in specialist bars and beer-houses.

4. They will not in fact attract many young people not only to join CAMRA but to become active in the organisation: like many other organisations with large but inactive memberships and fewer, ageing volunteers (some of whom will leave the organisation if the proposals are approved), CAMRA is likely to become a more professional, HQ/full-time employee-led group in the future, with fewer, probably bigger, branches, and more emphasis on socials and festivals rather than the current democratic structures of branch and regional meetings. Online voting – as is now happening before the AGM – is likely to be extended, with virtual rather than “real life” events making more decisions.

I also agree with the point Phil at Oh Good Ale makes here, that what CAMRA needs to keep its local structures going is not necessarily more young people – although they of course should be welcomed – but just more new people, of whatever age.

5.  CAMRA, as the name suggests, is a campaign, formed to ensure the survival, and also quality, of real ales/cask beers (and, later, other traditionally-produced drinks, cider and perry), when it looked as though they might disappear in the wave of new, heavily advertised and promoted keg beers from the national brewers. Craft keg is a niche product which does not need a campaign to ensure its survival, which is not to say that there are others things CAMRA does and should campaign on: preservation of historic pub interiors, the level of tax imposed on beer and the rents pubcos charge their tenants, the hike in business rates and, perhaps most importantly, against the anti-alcohol lobby who are also vying for the Government’s ear.

As well as voting against Special Resolutions 1, 5 and 6, I also voted for Lynn Atack, the “traditionalist” candidate running for a place on the CAMRA National Executive.