Monday, 22 August 2016

Derby day

I was in Derby last week and managed to get to a few decent pubs, most of them only a couple of minutes walk from the railway station.

I've been to Derby before, on the way to Burton-on-Trent, but a combination of a wrong turning out of the station and electronic ticket barriers meant I ended up trudging for a couple of miles on the wrong side of the tracks without finding any of them. Having learnt my lesson, I set off with a CAMRA guide to the pubs of Derby in hand, included in which was a map of the city centre.

The train journey from Manchester to Derby via Crewe and Stoke passes through some very pleasant countryside, fields of crops bordered by small lakes and streams. The square outside Derby station, with the Victorian Midland Hotel on one side, is quite impressive too, as is the row of terraced houses built for railway workers opposite. You can imagine how busy it would have been when Derby was a railway hub connecting the North West and East Midlands (the last direct trains to Manchester ran in 1968).

The Standing Order is not just the grandest of Derby's three Wetherspoon's pubs but also has one of the most impressive pub interiors I've ever seen, having been transformed from a former bank. The Draught Bass I had, the cheapest of the pints I drank in Derby, was flanked on the central island bar by beers from local microbreweries.
















The Station Inn on Midland Road is more of a local's boozer than a destination pub, but stands out by advertising "Bass Served From the Jug". Although on entering, the barman asked me whether I minded one from a hand-pump and as it had been a warmish day I readily agreed to a cellar cool pint rather than one transported from a gravity-dispensed barrel of unknown temperature somewhere else.
















The next two pubs I went to are within a few feet of each other on the corner of Railway Terrace and Siddals Road.

The Alexandra Hotel is a railway buff's pub, with train-related advertising in the bar, station signs in the beer garden at the back and a disused locomotive in the car park. It also had half a dozen cask beers on the bar, including a mild and a stout, and a 20p a pint discount for card-carrying CAMRA members.
















The Brunswick Inn is a brewpub, owned by, but operated independently from, Everards Brewery, which is Derby CAMRA's Pub of the Year for 2016. Inside the triangular, brick building is a Victorian-style interior of red leather benches and wall-mounted lamps, and half a dozen cask beers from their own range as well as guest ales from other breweries.
















All the beer I drank in Derby was in good condition and, at between £2 and £3 a pint before CAMRA discounts. pretty cheap too. As General MacArthur said, "I shall return".

Saturday, 20 August 2016

That Was Then, This Is Now

Beer bloggers Pub Curmudgeon and Tandleman have been discussing what pubs looked like in the early 80's.

I didn't reach legal drinking age until 1988, but went in pubs and social clubs a fair bit before that. I remember quite a lot of the things they mention: afternoon closing, the dominance of tied houses which only sold products from the brewery which owned them, a bit like Sam Smith's pubs now I suppose, including bottled beers (the first pub I drank in was a Whitbread house which sold their Gold Label and Mackesons Stout), the mixing of bottled and draught beers by older drinkers to make "splits" (mild and brown ale or bitter and Guinness), probably a hangover of the poor quality cask beer in the decades when they'd started drinking, and the unavailability of food in many pubs, even cold snacks like sandwiches and pies, which is rare now,.

Other things I remember include separate children's rooms in some pubs, plastic, brewery-branded ashtrays (probably illegal now), people coming in to sell things (legally), including potted shrimps on a Friday night (which might have been a Catholic thing) and on Saturday afternoon the football "pink" (now also defunct). There also seemed to be more middle-aged bar staff, possibly a result of differentials in the minimum wage making it cheaper to employ younger staff now.

In 1990, I went as a student to Staffs Poly in Stoke and entered another world of pubs, not just Banks's, Bass and Marston's Pedigree instead of Holt's, Robbies, Wilsons and Boddies, but trays of sandwiches passed round by landlords at closing time, older women coming in with plastic jugs to be filled with draught beer for their husbands at home, and beer a couple of pence dearer in the lounge compared to the vault where (unofficially, and unlawfully, even then) women weren't allowed, leading to some comical situations if you were in a mixed group with men nipping in to see their mates and buy a slightly cheaper pint.









Friday, 19 August 2016

Lottery winners

I was amused to see that the Conservative former Prime Minister John Major is being credited by some for Britain's medal haul at the Rio Olympics because it was  his Government which introduced the National Lottery in 1994, and ensured that a large portion of the revenue from it was spent on improving facilities and coaching for elite sports, especially in multi-medal events such as cycling and swimming, a policy others have somewhat outlandishly compared to the State sponsoring of Eastern bloc athletes in the 70's and 80's.

There are three basic arguments against the National Lottery.

The first is that it's a tax on the poor, because poorer people will spend more on tickets in the hope of becoming a millionaire, a sort of low cost, no risk get rich quick scheme, albeit one with little chance of paying off. I'm not sure however that many people, if any, become addicted to buying lottery tickets, as opposed to gambling in high street bookmaking shops or online.

The second is that by generating not just cash for its operators but a sense of excitement around the draw amongst players, it serves as a distraction from the social ills that people would otherwise focus on (the same argument has also been made about mass spectator sports like football). George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four even predicted it when he wrote, "The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention." The problem with this argument is that people can play and be excited about the Lottery and be aware of and angry about the cracks which the cash from it helps to paper over (in the case of sport, it can even generate a sense of solidarity and become a focus for opposition). It also assumes that if such "distractions" were somehow abolished, people would almost automatically switch their attention to resisting our rulers' latest dastardly plans.

The third, and strongest, argument is that Lottery cash substitutes for public spending and lets the Government off the hook in its social responsibilities. If Lottery funding ceased, it's doubtful that public spending would increase to match the shortfall, but while it's clearly a problem if schools, hospitals or homelessness charities become dependent on grants, it's much less of one if the British Olympic track cycling team does. And, unlike your taxes, if you don't agree with what Lottery money is spent on, there's a simple solution: don't buy a ticket.


Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Protz on the radio

This week's edition of Radio 4's Food Programme was an extended interview with beer writer and longtime CAMRA staff member Roger Protz. The programme also included an excerpt from an episode in 1998 in which Roger compared the "Burton snatch" sulphur aroma in Marstons Pedigree and Draught Bass and concluded that it was more pronounced in the latter. Having drunk a fair amount of both as a student in Stoke in the early 90's, I'd have said it was the opposite.

Roger told the interviewer a few things I hadn't heard before - that he got the CAMRA job in 1976 because he'd worked on the Evening Standard as had founder member Michael Hardman, that Fuller's had decided to stop brewing cask beer before CAMRA persuaded them to continue - and made some general observations about British beer that didn't really stand up to scrutiny, such as local hops being fresher than foreign ones (goodbye golden ales with all those American hops!) and a long secondary fermentation in the pub cellar being one of the defining features of cask beer, something that I'm sure we'd all welcome but which probably doesn't happen to the extent we might like to think it does.

He made some other claims which ranged from clearly untrue ("When I was a teenager in the 50's, the legal drinking age in pubs was 21": it was actually 18, as it is now, having been raised from 14 in 1923) to somewhat doubtful: did keg beer really take off in the 60's as an alternative to poor quality cask beer because lots of experienced publicans who knew how to look after a cellar had been killed in the war? He also took the opportunity to take some swipes at big breweries, including A-B InBev for cutting the lagering time for Stella Artois, SAB Miller for computerising the brewing process at one of their Eastern European plants (although at least one of the family-owned regional independents rightly championed by CAMRA has also done this), and Scottish "craft punks" BrewDog for slating him personally and CAMRA as an organisation in its PR. I was amused by the interviewer, in the the true spirit of BBC impartiality, then intoning that all these breweries had been contacted for a response but had declined to comment.

Protz, then a member of the Socialist Labour League, edited the Young Socialists' paper Keep Left in the early 60's, before moving on to the same job on Militant in the mid-60's and Socialist Worker in the late 60's. He left IS, the organisation which later became the SWP, in 1974, and said that when he bumps into former comrades from the far left and they question him about having spent his life writing about and campaigning for cask beer, he tells them that he has had a much bigger impact on British society than they have.

The programme was a handy introduction to the history of CAMRA and cask beer for younger listeners who hadn't heard it all before. Protz also got a plug in for the Revitalisation Project and rightly paid tribute to the pioneering work of Michael Jackson whose travels around Europe opened his eyes, and mine, to the good beer to be had beyond our shores.












Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Kim's foreign legion

Channel 4's Dispatches programme last night investigated the policy of Kim Jong Un's rigidly Stalinist regime in North Korea of exporting what are effectively slave labourers to others parts of Asia and Europe.

The reporter, Morland Sanders, travelled to the Polish countryside where he found North Koreans in huge greenhouses picking tomatoes for export. Although they didn't seem to have minders with them, their relatives have to stop behind in North Korea, effectively as hostages in case they escape. The workers are forced to do large amounts of overtime and only receive about a tenth of their wages, the rest being paid directly to the North Korean regime. Sanders tried to speak to some of them with a South Korean interpreter at a bus stop near the farm, but, understandably, they all ignored him, as did their compatriots building a luxury apartment complex in Warsaw. He then went to a clothing factory in Malta which apparently also uses North Koreans as forced labour.

It's estimated that the North Korean regime earns around £1 billion a year from the companies who exploit the forced labour of the citizens whom it ships overseas, money which helps to shore up its rule and fund a nuclear weapons programme. It's something I'd not heard of before, and a reminder, if one were needed, that's there's nothing even vaguely socialist or pro-working-class about North Korea's hereditary dictatorship.


Friday, 5 August 2016

Rio, by the sea-o

The Rio Olympics, whose opening ceremony takes place later today, starts amongst the now almost obligatory scandals and tensions: Russian athletes already banned for doping, the Brazilian president suspended for alleged financial misdemeanours, sporting facilities and accommodation only just built or sub-standard, working-class communities displaced and protests violently dispersed by riot police.

It's not quite up there with Mexico City in 1968, where the games opened just ten days after the army had shot dead hundreds of protesting students, but as ever there's a dissonance between watching and enjoying the sporting events which individual athletes have trained hard for in the last four years and the violence, kickbacks and corporate control you know is going on in the background, all overseen of course by the aristocratic IOC which only just comes behind football's world governing body FIFA in the number of corruption allegations levelled against it.








Saturday, 30 July 2016

Pre-boarding boozing

I'm surprised that there hasn't been more media comment at the news that the Government minister Lord Ahmad is to look at the sale of alcohol at airports, apparently with a view to restricting or even banning pre-flight pints, in response to an alleged surge in alcohol-related violence on board planes.

I might end up being wrong here, but I'd be very surprised if the review leads to a ban, not least because of the amount of money alcohol sales generate for airports. And even if a ban were to be introduced, I very much doubt that it would apply to those dining in first class lounges as opposed to us plebs slumming it in the terminal bars, just as when you go to a football match and buy a pint at a bar under the stand you can't take it to your seat, or even stand with it near an entrance in sight of the pitch, but people having a meal in executive boxes while watching the game can order alcohol to go with it.

Surely the relatively few incidents that do take place on board planes as a result of people drinking too much before boarding can be dealt with by refusing to board them in the first place rather than a sweeping ban which some, no doubt for other motives entirely, seem to want.