Tuesday, 10 January 2017

How many teams can a World Cup have?

The FIFA Executive Council has voted unanimously to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, and the number of matches from 64 to 80, starting with the 2026 tournament.

The World Cup which England won in 1966 featured 16 teams, and you could argue that some of those were making up the numbers.

I'm not against teams from around the world playing in the World Cup, but those that qualify for the finals should have at least some chance of winning it. I already only watch a fraction of the matches, and avoid the meaningless ones between teams who you know have no hope of reaching the knock-out stage, let alone lifting the trophy.

It's easy to see the appeal to FIFA of a bigger tournament: more matches means more TV money, especially from its target markets in Asia and Africa, more ticket sales, and more votes in the bag from grateful national federations when it comes to internal elections, but in this case less is definitely more.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Beer In So Many Words

Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post asking why no one had put together an anthology of beer writing. Now, a mere four years later, the publishing world has heeded my request and produced just such a book, a copy of which someone bought me for Christmas.

Beer In So Many Words has excerpts from many of the writers you'd expect to see, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, A.E. Housman and Graham Swift, although suprisingly nothing from the great chronicler of the interwar London pub Patrick Hamilton, along with a few you might not, such as Ernest Hemingway discussing Ballantine IPA, Thomas Mann's description of porter from The Magic Mountain and Robert Graves with a poem about strong ale. I especially liked the phrase penned by Dylan Thomas in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, which I hadn't come across before, about "the taste of beer , its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet-brown walls of the glass".

One my favourite pieces though is a 1974 Sunday Times article by Ian Nairn about the state of English beer and pubs, in which he also references fellow campaigners Frank Baillie, Richard Boston and Christopher Hutt, whose first words signal how close we came to losing cask beer: "It my be the fifty-ninth second of the fifty-ninth minute after eleven o'clock, but I think there is now a chance of saving what remains of draught beer in Britain."

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Wandering in winter warmer land

I've just completed Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Winter Warmer Wander by visiting twelve pubs and drinking at least a half of cask-conditioned old ale/barley wine, porter or stout. I pretty much evenly split the pubs between Stockport and Manchester, although you could just about do it in one of them alone.

The event is sponsored by Old Tom, the 8.5% abv strong ale brewed by Robinsons in Stockport which I've drunk a few halves of this month. Robinsons also now brew another qualifying beer, Red and Black Porter, as well as the seasonal Dizzy's Christmas Kiss. The other family-owned regional breweries in the Manchester area don't really feature in the event. I'm pretty sure Hydes haven't brewed their XXXX winter ale since moving from Moss Side to Salford in 2012 and Holt's Sixex strong ale is a rare sight in draught rather than bottled form, although I did have a half of Lees Moonraker on their stand at Manchester Christmas market.

Except for Robinsons Old Tom and a half of Wadworth's Christmas ale, everything else I've drunk on the Winter Warmer Wander has been from the microbrewries Acorn, Blackjack, Brightside, High Peak, Howard Town, Long Man, Pictish and Weird Beard, the stouts from the first three being among my favourite beers of the trip around the twelve pubs.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Books of the year

With another spin round the sun almost complete, it's time to look back at the books I've read this year.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith

I'd not read anything by Ali Smith before a mate bought me this last Christmas. It's a tale of two halves split between a teenage girl in contemporary Cambridge and an artist in Renaissance Italy (apparently in the American edition, the two halves are switched round, which somehow I can't see working as well).

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

I'd read a couple of novels in the Barsetshire Chronicles series before I skipped ahead to this the last one which as you'd expect ties up a number of loose ends for the ecclesiastical and small squire characters in Trollope's fictional West of England county.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I read this massive page-turner after watching the BBC TV version, and before that listening to a radio adaptation of it.

A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

I'd seen the film Kes, and even been to a talk by the author many years ago at a Stockport library, but it was his untimely death in March which prompted me to read this, his best-known novel.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I bought the BBC edition of this after watching the TV series at Christmas. It's Christie's ultimate whodunnit in which the murderer joins the corpses piling up in a house on a remote island off the southwest coast of England.

The Fortune of the Rougons/Money/Pot-Luck/The Ladies' Paradise by Émile Zola

Having read about half a dozen novels in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series, listening to the BBC Radio 4 serialisation of these four led to me reading these four too.

The Green Man/The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

I've been on a bit of an Amis binge since watching this Bookmark documentary about him. These are both semi-comic pieces, the first a supernatural novel based in a English country pub, and the second about a boozy group of pensioners in South Wales.

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I somehow accidentally recorded the first half of the film based on this comic novel, starring Michael Douglas and Toby Maguire as a jaded English professor and his aspiring writer student at a Pittsburgh university, and am glad I did as both are equally entertaining, if slightly different in plot and characters.

The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor by Cameron McCabe 

This unorthodox detective novel ticked a number of boxes for me: set in 1930's London, in a film studio and the fog-bound docklands, and interwoven with lines from blues and jazz songs. The author's identity was as much a mystery as that of the murderer's in the decades after it was published in 1937, until in the 1970's it was revealed to be the work of the left-wing German-Jewish refugee and occasional jazz musician and critic Ernst Bornemann.

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

One of the few of Hardy's major novels I hadn't read, this cheery tale set in the semi-fictionalised county of Wessex features academic failure, doomed love, poverty, loveless marriages, teenage murder-suicide and inept pig slaughtering.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Black and white

Last night, as part of a season on Black British history, BBC2 had a programme about a 1979 testimonial match between black and white football teams at West Bromwich Albion's Hawthorns ground, presented by lifelong fan of the club Adrian Chiles.

Like most people I suspect, I hadn't heard of this match before. Although it seems inconceivable now, the players involved all saw it as either uncontroversial or even progressive. In a period when racist chanting and violence on the terraces stopped many black fans from entering football grounds, the presence of a significant number of people from the local Afro-Caribbean community among the 7,000 crowd, many of them no doubt attracted by the chance to see some of their young, Black British footballing heroes play in front of them, was seen as something of a step forward,

The general tone of the programme was "look how far we've come", and rightly so given the archive footage of National Front paper sellers outside turnstiles, Stanley knives wielded as weapons and bananas thrown onto the pitch, but former player and now QPR director of football Les Ferdinand did pop up at the end to give a necessary reminder of the racist abuse black footballers still face online and the problems they have moving into management and coaching at the end of their playing careers.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Fifty-first state?

My email inbox this morning was full of offers for Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving shopping holiday in the United States, the news for the last year or so has been dominated by the US Presidential election, and the chances of London gaining an NFL franchise in the next decade now seem pretty high. With Britain about to leave the European Union, and it looks increasingly likely the Single Market too, might it not be better for us to apply to join the USA?

I can see a number of advantages. We would become part of a federal republic in which policies like taxation and healthcare are decided at state level, but Congress has far more control over Government than the Houses of Parliament does here. Britain, with over sixty million people, would become the most populous US state, and with something like seventy-five Electoral College votes a decisive force in Presidential elections. Americans could also vote for a left-wing, trade union-based party rather than one funded by Wall Street.

Becoming a US state could deal with the national tensions within the UK: Scotland and Wales could join as separate states if they wanted, as could a re-united Ireland. In sport, we'd walk the Olympic medals table.

Economically, Britain would have access to a single market not much smaller than the EU's, and of course we'd also gain the right to live and work there. Joining the US would mean swapping the pound for the dollar, probably not a bad idea as the former plummets, and even the five hour time difference between here and the East Coast isn't that much more than the three hours between there and the West Coast.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Bear with us

I'm not sure what to make of the news that Hofmeister lager is being revived. I'm pretty sure I never drank it in the 80's when it was produced by Scottish & Newcastle, now trading as Heineken UK,

The entrepreneurs who have bought and relaunched the brand are working with Marston's to make it available in pubs again, although, unlike the original beer, the new Hofmeister will only be available in bottles, rather than the canned and draught versions of the past, has jumped in strength from 3.2 to 5% abv, is now a Helles rather than a Pils, and will be contract-brewed by a small Bavarian brewery just east of Munich, Schweiger.

Hofmeister was just one of a number of fake German-sounding lagers brewed in Britain in the 70's and 80's. Locally, Robinsons brewed Einhorn (German for "unicorn", the name of their brewery in Stockport) and Greenall's in Warrington GrĂ¼nhalle, a very rough translation of the company's name.