Thursday, 20 October 2016

Stirring things up at Spoons

The pub chain Wetherspoons has closed and sold off dozens of its outlets in the last few months, including the King's Hall in Cheadle Hulme and Milson Rhodes in Didsbury.

Apparently neither site was owned by the company, and the leases on them are likely to generate higher profits for more upmarket operations in what are two of the better-off suburbs in the Stockport and South Manchester area.

Wetherspoons' owner Tim Martin was a vocal advocate of Leave in June's EU referendum. I blogged here about how he probably didn't think a Leave vote would affect his business much given that it isn't as reliant as others on migrant labour and exports, but the subsequent fall in the pound has pushed up the price of imported goods, including some of the food and drink his pubs sell. Brexit might just turn out to be a bigger blow to pubs than the Beer Duty Escalator and smoking ban combined.

Just as in the Scottish independence referendum it seemed some ultra-nationalists would be happy to live in a tent if it meant freedom from the alleged manacles of English rule, so too it appears that the "hard Brexiteers" who now hold sway in government see crashing the economy as a price worth paying for separation from the European Union.

I suppose ideally there would be a system of differential pricing, with only those who voted Leave paying more for things to offset the economic consequences of their choice.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Sharpen the Sickle!

I'm reading Sharpen the Sickle! at the moment, a history of the farm workers' union written by Reg Groves in 1947.

Groves himself is a fascinating character, having been, successively, a Communist, Trotskyist, film critic and perennially unsuccessful left-wing Labour Party Parliamentary candidate, and throughout all those phases, apparently, a Christian socialist associated with the Anglo-Catholic, "High Church" wing of Anglicanism.

Some of the episodes in Sharpen the Sickle!, such as the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Dorset agricultural labourers transported to Australia in 1834 for forming a union, and the Burston school strike in 1914, the subject of a BBC drama in the 1980's, are well-known, but the book also outlines how local farmworkers' unions, which were especially strong in the eastern counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, grew into the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, which in 1982 became a section of the Transport and General Workers' Union (now Unite).

Many of the descriptions of the attempts to organise farmworkers in nineteenth century England  people walking miles through country lanes to attend meetings held by lantern light in fields or the back rooms of pubs —  could be scenes from a Thomas Hardy novel.

Monday, 10 October 2016

One More Thing...

You can see Peter Falk playing the dishevelled LAPD detective Lieutenant Columbo on one or another channel most days, but Sunday afternoon now seems to be the main time, with ITV, ITV3 and 5 USA all regularly showing episodes.

Except for a few, the ones from the seventies are still watchable — the only real duds are those based on foreign "stock characters": Dagger of the Mind set in London's theatreland, A Matter of Honor with its Mexican bullfighter, and A Case of Immunity with a dodgy cast of Arab diplomats hamming it up in headscarves at a US embassy  and I've got them all as a box set, but the nineties ones are another matter, lacking the calibre of acting, sublety of plot, and above all modish Southern Californian atmosphere of the originals.

I find it hard to name a favourite episode, but my top five in no particular order are:

The Most Crucial Game

Robert Culp plays the general manager of an American football team who bumps off its playboy owner (Dean Stockwell). I like the technical stuff, with radios and bugged telephones, and the comedy scene with secretary-cum-escort Eve Babcock (Valerie Harper). Veteran Hollywood actor Dean Jagger adds gravitas as the victim's scheming attorney.

Any Old Port in A Storm

Donald Pleasance stars as a winery owner who murders his greedy brother to stop him selling the land on which the vineyard stands, and is then blackmailed by his secretary after she lies to give him an alibi. Columbo gets to show off his Italian, learn about wine, and even comes to sympathise with the murderer who killed to save the one thing he really loves.

Blueprint for Murder

Patrick O'Neal is an architect who kills the businessman bankrolling his ambitious building project when he threatens to cut off the funds for it. There's another comedy scene as Columbo goes to the planning department to get the permits he needs to dig up a concrete construction pile and bluff the murderer into revealing the whereabouts of the victim's body.

Double Exposure 

Robert Culp again (he also plays the murderer opposite Ray Milland in Season One's Death Lends a Hand), this time as the head of an advertising agency who Columbo finally catches by using a trick he's learnt from him, splicing subliminal cuts into a promotional film.

An Exercise in Fatality

More technical stuff — spliced sections of recorded telephone calls, laces tied the wrong way — and comedy scenes as Columbo forsakes his trademark cigars and joins a gym (!), before tangling with an officious computer operator.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Death in the ring

The death of the twenty-five year old Scottish boxer Mike Towell after a bout in Glasgow last week has re-opened the debate about the safety of professional boxing and whether it should be banned.

Whenever a boxer is killed in the ring, the same arguments are put forward to justify the so-called "fight game".

1. People should be free to do what they want, as long as no else is harmed

If you're a libertarian, there's some logic to this, but it also means having to argue for the legalisation of bare-knuckle boxing and fights outside pubs and football grounds (boxing is one of the exemptions to the legal rule that you can't consent to being assaulted, and if Dale Evans, the boxer who killed Towell, had struck the fatal blow outside the ring he'd now be looking at a manslaughter charge and many years in prison).

It's also not true that no else is harmed by boxing: apart from the fighters killed or maimed in the ring, women are widowed, or left with a paralysed partner for the rest of their life, children orphaned, and ambulance and hospital staff affected by deaths and serious injuries in the ring.

2. There are risks associated with all sports

It's true that people have been killed or seriously injured in other sports - athletes who die from undiagnosed heart defects, rugby players from concussive head impacts or broken spines, jockeys thrown from horses, drivers in motor racing crashes and collisions - but those are accidents, which can be minimised by better safety regulations, not the aim of the activity as it is in professional boxing where winning often means battering your opponent into unconsciousness.

3. Millions of people enjoy watching boxing matches

And back in the day, cock-fighting and bear-baiting were very popular too...

4. Boxing keeps kids off the streets and teaches them discipline

If anything, that's an argument for amateur/Olympic boxing with headguards and fewer, shorter rounds, not the more brutal bouts you get in professional boxing.

5. Boxing is a way out of poverty

For kids from deprived backgrounds with few educational or employment opportunities, that might well be true, but is still an indictment of the inequality and lack of social provision in the areas where boxing flourishes.

6. If boxing were banned, it would go underground, and there'd be more deaths in the ring

Undoubtedly true, and the only argument I can think of for opposing a ban and calling for even stricter regulation of professional boxing.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Going underground

I went on a tour of two pub cellars yesterday afternoon as part of Stockport Beer Week.

The Boar's Head and Baker's Vaults are early nineteenth century buildings, remodelled somewhat in the second half of it, which stand facing each other on opposite sides of Stockport market place. Although only thirty or so feet apart, it would be hard to imagine two more different pubs.

The Boar's Head is a Sam Smith's pub and has all the things you'd expect from Yorkshire's most traditional brewery: a Victorian interior,  an older, mainly male, working-class clientele, no TV or music, a single, cheap  cask beer, the malty, brown Old Brewery Bitter at £1.90 a pint, drawn from 36-gallon wooden barrels stillaged in the cellar, and their own brand keg and bottled beers. On Saturday dinnertime, despite not serving food it was busy, with people constantly coming in and and going out, some of them for a smoke before returning to their drinks on the bar,

The Baker's Vaults is a Robinson's pub which is operated by the same people who run The Castle in Manchester city centre. It's airy and modern with filament bulbs suspended on long cords, high stools at tables with ornamental bottles and candle holders on them, an extensive food menu, a more mixed, upmarket, and considerably sparser clientele on a Saturday afternoon, with young families dining and older couples drinking coffees at the bar. It sells half a dozen of Robinson's cask beers, as well as guest ales and "craft keg" and lagers from tall founts, rather than the boxy ones at the Boar's Head, The cask beer is a bit dearer, but still pretty reasonable at £3-3.60, depending on abv, and equally well-kept.

As on brewery tours, you always see or learn something new when you go down into a pub cellar. On a busy day, the Boar's Head can shift the contents of an entire 36-gallon barrel  (that's 288 pints for the mathematically-challenged like me), which must rank as the most cask beer sold by a pub in Stockport. The Baker's Vaults foundations are even older than the pub itself, with still unexplored tunnels which may connect it to watercourses or other buildings, outcrops of the sandstone on which the nearby Roman fort and later the mediaeval castle were built, and beneath the cellar the high brick bins which once held wine and gin barrels and give the pub its name.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Inter-city cricket

It looks like the England and Wales Cricket Board is going ahead with an inter-city Twenty20 competition, provisionally starting in 2018. The plan is to have teams in eight cities, playing at Test cricket grounds.

I'm not a fan of shorter forms of cricket like Twenty20, and not sure about inter-city sport either. In the mid-fifties, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the predecessor of the UEFA Cup and Europa League, began as a tournament between representative XI's from different cities (London, Frankfurt, Milan), although some (Birmingham, Barcelona) were effectively just the clubs of that name, before switching to club sides by the end of the decade, and in the mid-nineties, when rugby league switched to a summer season, the new European Super League narrowly avoided the monstrosity of merged clubs, with the owners eventually voting down the proposal that, amongst others, Warrington should join up with Widnes as Cheshire (!) and Salford with Oldham as Manchester (!!).

I can't see the teams which play in the new competition at Old Trafford or Headingley being any different to the Lancashire and Yorkshire county sides who currently play Twenty20 cricket there, or attracting more fans under their new names.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

RIP Prince Buster

I've just heard of the death at 78 of the Jamaican ska pioneer Prince Buster.

Ska began in Jamaica in the early 1960's as a combination of musical styles: mento, the form of calypso native to the island, jazz, influenced by the Americans who played the hotels before sitting in with local musicians in after-hours jam sessions, and the rhythm and blues records beamed across the Caribbean by radio stations in New Orleans and other southern cities or imported by U.S. servicemen stationed there in World War II and just after.

In the late 1970's, there was a ska revival in Britain in the form of Two-Tone. Here's one of the bands associated with that movement, Madness, riding the Tube in London (in the days when you could still drink on it) as their musical inspiration Prince Buster performs the song they got their name from.