Sign this petition to government to negotiate a Europe-wide visa-free permit for touring performers - here.

Monday, 11 January 2021

CAMRA - coping manfully with the 20th century

From Viz magazine: I have occasionally heard
such sentiments - supposedly made in jest.
In my capacity as press officer of CAMRA's Southport & West Lancs branch, I sometimes use national CAMRA press releases in my articles in the local papers, and one thing that increasingly irritates me about them is the description of Nik Antona as the campaign's national 'chairman'. This term was even used when two women, the late Paula Waters and Jackie Parker, held the post.

I have belonged to a number of organisations, campaigns and political parties over the years and CAMRA is the only one that still uses such old-fashioned terminology. When I became a union rep in 1984, my union had scrapped gender-specific terms years earlier and - believe it or not - the world didn't implode. There are three main reasons why I feel that change is long overdue:

  • Use of terms such as 'chairman' reinforces the stereotype of CAMRA as a lads' drinking club rather than a campaign to represent all real ale drinkers, an image problem that has discouraged some people, mostly but not exclusively women, from joining. Such a stereotype also has the effect of diminishing any influence we may hope to have. Viz magazine had a cartoon strip that mercilessly took the mickey out of real ale drinkers, and if we're being honest, we real ale drinkers have all met people who resembled the Viz caricatures.
  • Gender-specific terms are on the decline in general, with terms such as police officer, fire fighter and seafarer increasingly becoming the norm. There are women in the acting profession who prefer the term 'actors' to 'actresses'. Some gender-specific terms have become completely obsolete, such as baxter for a female baker and brewster for a female brewer; I have seen one or two beer writers pretentiously, but pointlessly, using the latter term, but they really are swimming against the tide.
  • Whether you agree or not, it is a fact that some people find such terminology irritating, or worse. For a mass membership organisation, discouraging potential supporters by using outdated language really is an own goal, one that is both wholly unnecessary and very easy to prevent. 
One argument that I've heard deployed against change is, "I'm not a piece of furniture!" This is, frankly, quite silly. The term 'chair' when used as the title of the person presiding over a meeting is being used symbolically, not literally. Other examples are:
  • The use of the term 'the crown' in reference to our head of state: as far as I know, the queen has never been heard to say, "I'm not a piece of jewelry". 
  • The Crown Prosecution Service will take you to court in the queen's name and not on behalf of an expensive trinket, and the Netflix series 'The Crown' is not a multipart documentary about royal jewelry.
  • Magistrates are routinely referred to as 'the bench', and yet you don't hear them complain, "I'm not a piece of furniture!"
Dea Latis is an organisation committed to "bringing beer to women". While I welcome this organisation and its aims, surely this is something CAMRA should have been doing; I think we missed a trick here and our image is part of the problem.

A genuine commitment to equality and diversity has to include the language we employ. Clinging on to outdated terms simply reinforces stereotypical attitudes, especially among our detractors. We are foolish to give them ammunition, while at the same time discouraging people who might otherwise support us.

In CAMRA's 50th anniversary year, surely it's about time the organisation took a decisive step forward into the 1980s.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Pub closures – an ongoing misfortune

The closed down Old Ship
The Christmas and New Year holiday is often an occasion to reflect on the past as well as look forward to the future. This post is about a couple of local real ale pubs that I used to frequent but which are now closed.

First is the Old Ship on Eastbank Street, Southport. I discovered this pub at a time when I was helping run a folk song club that had become homeless. A friend who worked at the brewery (Tetley Walker) arranged for us to use the function room which became our club's home for several years. I began to go there at other times and made many friends there.

The manager Charlie Oliver was popular and was known for his well-kept Walkers ales. Bikers liked the pub, which had a great rock juke box. I remember Meatloaf was blasting out with “I'll do anything for love but I won't do that”. One biker at the bar asked, “What won't he do for love?” His mate replied, “Lose weight.”

On another occasion, a young man was being obnoxious. When Charlie politely asked him to leave, he began to argue, at which five bikers simply stood up. He then decided discretion was the better part of valour and hurriedly left.

The Falstaff after its last short-lived refurbishment
The Falstaff on King Street later became my local, and we used to hold informal song sessions there. It was managed by Gail Heyes (now at the Guest House), had an extensive choice of well-kept real ales that drew drinkers from far and wide, and a good value food menu as well. We held a few successful musical charity fundraisers there. Unfortunately this pub later had two extensive refurbishments in the space of 18 months, the most recent just over four years ago. 

Regrettably both of these pubs have been closed and boarded up for some time, two of the 13,600 pubs that have closed in the UK since 2000. People walking past them now just see boarded up buildings, and most will be unaware that they used to be thriving community pubs, focal points for people to meet, have a few drinks and enjoy each other's company.

I'm sure most pubgoers realise that pub closures will accelerate as a result of the current pandemic. Our towns and cities will have more boarded up pubs to be sold for change of use or redevelopment. The government seems intent on doing the bare minimum to help - what's been offered has been wholly inadequate - and indeed seems to be opting for tier restrictions that are doing more harm than good. I'm not convinced that this is entirely due to their habitual incompetence - I suspect that there may be a hidden agenda, as I wrote here in September - but either way, the vaccine rollout will come too late to save thousands of pub from closure.

Thursday, 10 December 2020

Support pubs for the long-term good

Many pubs were already struggling
pre-CV19 such as Southport's Old Ship 
Regrettably, politicians adopting sad faces and praising pubs as the hearts of our communities won't save a single one from the consequences of prolonged closure or extremely restricted activity during the COVID-19 emergency. Decisive action is needed, not just for pubs but for the hospitality industry in general. The £1000 one-off payment in this month to wet-led pubs is like giving a single chip to someone who hasn't eaten for a week.

I, and many others, have explained the social value of pubs both before and during the pandemic, but there are also good pragmatic reasons for supporting the hospitality industry through the current problems. The licensees of most pubs are tenants running their own individual businesses in premises rented from a pub company; the days of pub managers employed by the brewery are largely in the past. If a licensee goes bankrupt, the pub's owners can advertise for another tenant, or they may decide to sell the building for redevelopment. Nowadays, a pub on a prime site can be worth much more to the owners closed and sold than open and operating, and if that happens, the business and the employment it provides is lost permanently.

It's consequently very worrying that we are in danger of losing many of our treasured locals because of the pandemic restrictions. If whole swathes of the hospitality industry do disappear permanently, the rise in long-term unemployment will be considerable. Unemployment doesn't come cheap.

In this situation, it makes more sense to help those businesses and jobs survive now and preserve as much of the hospitality industry's infrastructure as possible rather than having to pay for a huge increase in unemployment benefits for many years to come. Now is the time for our government to take the long view, but what's on offer at present is no more than crocodile tears and sympathy. Unfortunately, as we have a clueless government that believes to be 'oven ready' means taking a year or more to achieve absolutely nothing, I'm not optimistic.

► Many pubs were already struggling even before the pandemic, such as my one-time local, the Old Ship in Southport town centre, which had already closed when the pandemic struck.

Monday, 23 November 2020

Roscoe Head, classic Liverpool pub, saved

The Roscoe Head in Liverpool is one of only five pubs to have been in every issue of the CAMRA
Good Beer Guide, and the only one in the North. Opened in 1870, this unspoilt pub c
onsists of a main bar, two small rooms and a tiny snug. As there is no jukebox or fruit machine, conversation, good beer and a warm welcome are what you get.

Despite its obvious attractions and the success of the business, this pub has been at risk for many years with the owners charging inflated prices for supplying a limited choice of drinks, unreasonable rent, and plans to redevelop the site. The licensee, Carol Ross who took over the running of the pub in 1997 from her mother, has campaigned for many years for a fair deal for pub licensees in general, and for the Roscoe Head in particular.

All her exhausting and stressful hard work has finally paid off: the pub's owners have just agreed to sell her the freehold. This classic pub is a popular destination across Merseyside, not just for real ale drinkers, but for anyone who likes to enjoy a drink with friends in a relaxed, friendly and welcoming environment. This sale ensures that the Roscoe Head will provide just that for generations to come.

Carol had a special word for the pub's supporters: ”I want to say a very special big thank you to all my Roscoe Head family of supporters who have continued to fight this battle with me for over 10 years.”

Carol at the front of a demonstration
in support of the Roscoe Head in 2015
CAMRA Liverpool & Districts branch announced: “We were just as surprised as everyone else but this is absolutely tremendous news and of great significance. Carol has managed to prise this CAMRA award winning pub from her Pubco owner New River Retail who are renowned for converting pubs into retail and residential units.

With our unique heritage of British locals in even more danger than usual because of the pandemic, such good news makes an encouraging change.

The Roscoe Head is on Roscoe Street, Liverpool L1 2SX, less than 10 minutes' walk from Central Station, just around the corner from Liverpool's iconic Bombed Out Church. Do pay it a visit when you can. Website.

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

New micropub for Southport

The first Beer Den
Some good news for a change! Parker Brewery has just been given planning permission to convert a former shop at 125 Rufford Road, Southport, into a new micropub. The brewery already runs the popular Beer Den which opened just over two years ago on Duke Street, Southport. Work has only just begun on the new pub, and it will be run in a similar way to its older sibling serving local cask ales, wines, fizz, spirits and coffee.

Parker Brewery is in Banks, just north of Southport, and it produces both traditional and modern ales in casks and bottles. The new Beer Den (as it will also be called) will sell the brewery's real ales alongside local guest ales. This micropub will be a welcome development in Crossens, a beer desert at present, with thirsty drinkers currently having to trek either to the Shrimper or to the pubs in Churchtown. I'll let you know the opening date when it becomes available.

► This is taken from an article that I wrote for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Mass pub extinction imminent

It is bad news that the pubs in Lancashire and Merseyside have been forcibly closed, even though similar businesses like restaurants are allowed to stay open. This is despite the fact that pub licensees have done everything asked of them to make their venues COVID-secure. It feels as though pubs are being made a scapegoat for the pandemic.

In my last job, some colleagues used to be amazed that I would go out at weekends into Southport town centre or, on occasion, into Liverpool. 'You'd never catch me doing that,' they'd say. They seemed to think the town centre at weekends was like something out of an old Wild West movie. I wasted my breath stating that I always felt safe and rarely saw any trouble much beyond an occasional argument.

I feel that such misconceptions have made pubs and bars easy targets for government measures that are intended more to make a point to the populace than to control the virus. The leader of Pendle council said as much to the government official with whom he was discussing Tier 3 restrictions: the official agreed.

In other words, it looks as though pubs have been closed to teach us a lesson: CAMRA and other organisations have asked for the evidence that pubs are the cause of spreading the infection, but to date have received no reply.

CAMRA Chief Executive Tom Stainer said: “Even if pubs serving food can stay open, the restrictions will see an even bigger reduction in footfall and trade, making businesses unviable. The Government urgently needs to increase the financial support available to all pubs to help them pay staff wages, meet fixed costs and to make up for lost business.

“We also need a long-term support package for the beer and pubs industry covering not just the period of the Tier 3 restrictions, but also the weeks and months that follow as pubs and breweries try to get back on their feet.

“This is a real sink or swim moment for local pubs and the breweries that serve them – without proper support, we risk thousands of local businesses that are now under additional restrictions not surviving beyond Christmas.”

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Tracks Of My Tiers

The Tier 3 restrictions that have been imposed upon Merseyside and Lancashire mean that drink-based pubs have now been closed for a second time this year, while food pubs can sell you drinks but only when you are having a meal. Some pubs are now offering takeaway and delivery services. Local CAMRA members have been telling me which pubs and breweries in our area that are doing this.

  • The Grasshopper, 70 Sandon Road, Southport. Delivery every day of real ales, ciders and wine. Order via Facebook. Tel: 01704 569794.

  • The Tap & Bottles, 19A Cambridge Walks, Southport, are doing beer deliveries. Order via Facebook. Tel: 01704 544322.

  • The Beer Den 65/67 Duke Street, Southport. Takeaways on Thursday to Saturday, plus deliveries. See their Facebook page. Tel: 01704 329007.

  • The Parker Brewery, Unit 3, Gravel Lane, Banks, Southport say “anyone interested in takeaways or deliveries, get in touch”. Tel: 01704 620718.

  • The Rock the Boat Brewery, 6 Little Crosby Village. L23 4TS are doing takeaways. Tel: 07727 959356.

  • The Dog & Gun, 233 Long Lane Aughton, L39 5BU. Takeaway real ale, cider and food. Tel: 01695 421999

  • The Beer Station, 3 Victoria Buildings, Victoria Road, Formby, have said they intend to instal two extra fridges for bottled beer takeaway. Tel: 01704 807450.

  • The Cricketers, 24 Chapel Street, Ormskirk, is doing a food and drink takeaway service. Tel: 01695 571123

  • Cheshire Lines, King Street, Southport, say, “Sunday delivery service so get your roast & cask orders in by messaging us, calling 07787 406 504 or phoning 01704 807710 on Sunday”.

I've tried to ensure these details are correct. If any other local pubs and breweries are doing deliveries or takeaways, tell the local branch of CAMRA via the contact details on the CAMRA Southport & West Lancs website for inclusion in a future column in the local papers.

You can order on-line from other beer businesses using CAMRA's Brew2You website which aims to support pubs and breweries through these difficult times. This site connects you with local businesses selling great beer, and perhaps other drinks too. Your money will be paid in full to the businesses concerned, with only 5% admin fee to cover costs, thereby making this service completely free to the businesses using it.

► This is adapted from an article that I wrote for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Death by a thousand cuts

At the time of writing, the general view is that pubs in our area (the Liverpool City Region: Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral), are going to be closed in the latest measures against COVID-19. As a campaigning organisation, CAMRA has written to the government demanding that they release the evidence that pubs, along with other hospitality outlets, are hotbeds of coronavirus infection. To date, no reply has been received. 

My own experience as a regular pubgoer is that pubs are taking their responsibilities for the health and safety of their staff and customers very seriously: they have to because they do not want their businesses to be closed down. The restrictions currently in place have significantly changed the experience of going to the pub, and have also reduced the numbers of people they can take in.

Most pubs are small, individual businesses that are not supported by the pub company that owns the building. Unlike in the past when most pubs were run by breweries who had a salaried manager on site, nowadays the pub is a stand-alone business with the licensee renting the premises from the owning company. The success or failure of these businesses rests entirely upon the licensee. If a pub fails, the owning company simply has a valuable piece of property to sell for redevelopment, while the licensee loses everything.

One pub landlady told me a few days ago that she is slowly going bankrupt during the current restrictions; another enforced pub closure will only speed up that process. Hospitality accounts for a huge amount of employment in our economy, and pubs provide a valuable antidote to isolation, especially nowadays when the number of single-occupied households is at its highest ever.

Closing pubs is an easy fix for a government that wishes to show that it is 'doing something'. It is not enough to do something: it is essential to do the right thing, especially when thousands of small businesses and jobs are at stake.

► This is adapted from an article that I wrote for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Monday, 28 September 2020

10pm pub closure - stupidity or hidden agenda?

The shape of things to come?
Like most people I know, I try to follow the CV19 restrictions and I can see the logic for many of them. In other words, I am not a Covidiot. That said, I have to say that the latest restrictions on pubs and bars seem guaranteed to achieve the precise opposite of the ostensible aim, i.e. restricting the spread of the virus.

Like most places, Southport where I live has a range of establishments where you can buy alcohol for consumption on the premises, such as pubs, bars, clubs, hotels, restaurants and micropubs. Their closing times are correspondingly varied from 10.00 p.m. to well after midnight. As a result, the times when people are leaving are automatically staggered over several hours.

Now we have the situation that all venues have to stop serving at 9.30 p.m. and be closed by 10.00 p.m. My first thought was that throwing everyone out on the streets at precisely the same time when previously they would have left in dribs and drabs over several hours was the height of uninformed stupidity, and if anything is likely to spread the virus. I heard on the news earlier today that Greene King have made a similar point, suggesting that many drinkers head straight for supermarkets to buy supplies to continue drinking at home with their friends, which would also help spread the virus.

But then I began to wonder whether it is stupidity, or is there another motive at work here? If this particular restriction does cause an upsurge, I am certain that the government will blame the pubs and not their own rules. They will then have the perfect excuse to close pubs down altogether. The question is: why would they want to do that?

I have long held the view that the Establishment in this country, supported by much of the media, does not like ordinary people gathering in large numbers. This has applied throughout history: for example, Peterloo, Chartists, suffragettes, the general strike, the miners' strike all led to vicious overreactions and clampdowns by the state. It is noticeable that certain sections of the Establishment and the media will always condemn any collective action such as a strike, regardless of the cause and how peacefully it is conducted - ordinary people acting together is anathema to them. I have been going on demonstrations since the 1970s, and I have never seen any trouble. However, you might have a couple of dozen hotheads on a demonstration of hundreds of thousands, and guess who the attention will invariably be focussed on?

What does all this have to do with pubs? Every day, in every town and city, thousands will go out for a drink in an environment that involves alcohol, and this spontaneous gathering of ordinary people is unwelcome in certain quarters, because it cannot easily be controlled. The fact that the vast majority of pub-goers are simply socialising and enjoying themselves is irrelevant to the mindset that I am describing.

What other evidence is there for hostility to pubs?

  • Beer tax in the UK is among the highest in Europe.
  • Business rates are set at unrealistically high levels.
  • There isn't much protection for tenants of predatory pub-owning companies. The minimal safeguards that do exist were grudgingly granted after the strenuous representations by pubcos resulted in the dilution of the measures to near worthlessness.
  • Alcohol in supermarkets is a fraction of the price of that in pubs.
  • 'Trouble' involving pubs is always given disproportionate prominence in the media. 
These could all be just coincidences, of course, and this CV19 measure which may well cause permanent pub closures could simply be yet another one, but I find that increasingly implausible.

Concerning the last bullet point: pre-CV19, I'd go out for a pint between four and seven times per week, rarely less, and it is quite literally decades since I have seen anything worse than the occasional argument. However, the repeated drip-drip reporting of pubs as dangerous places can put people off going to them. In my last job, some of my colleagues were amazed that I went into town every weekend: "You wouldn't catch me doing that!" is the kind of thing I tended to hear, and my argument that I never saw any trouble was disregarded. 

This CV19 measure looks likely to cause precisely what we are told it is intended to prevent. If pubs are blamed for an upsurge and are consequently completely closed down again, many will never reopen. I believe that some people in the Establishment would welcome that; in their eyes, the more people supping supermarket drink at home rather than gathered in groups, the better. Some politicians like to be seen in a pub quaffing a pint, usually with a big head*, to show that they are 'men of the people', and they usually are men. This is all just for show. If after CV19 we have lost whole swathes of our pubs, bars and clubs, some will be mentally punching the air and shouting, "Result!"

I also believe that, if they could get away with it, they'd have everyone watching sports, football especially, on subscription channels at home rather than in stadia.

Would they deliberately provoke an upsurge by this 10.00 p.m. rule? I wouldn't put it past a government that wanted the virus to sweep through the population, regardless of the number of casualties, to achieve the unproved aim of herd immunity. There was a report in the press, later denied, that an unidentified individual (although I can guess who) in a government meeting about the virus said it wouldn't matter very much if old people in care homes died of the virus, and it is a fact that for several months those homes received almost no help despite high mortality rates. So yes, I do believe they are callous enough to provoke an upsurge, blame it on pubs and close them down again. 

Even if you disagree with my opinion, this point remains: because this measure is seriously flawed, either they are stupid, or they have an agenda which, if you reject my speculation, is what?

I'd just finished writing this post when I noticed in the news today: Covid: Manchester mayor calls for 'urgent review' of 10pm closures

* I mean the pint rather than the politician.

Monday, 7 September 2020

CAMRA Southport & West Lancs awards 2020

The Southport & West Lancs branch of CAMRA will shortly be presenting its branch awards to local pubs, bars and clubs. These awards are decided by the votes of ordinary CAMRA members who have visited all the finalists. Because the branch covers two quite dissimilar areas, Southport and Formby on the one hand and West Lancs on the other, there are two sets of awards. This year the winners include a traditional pub, two micropubs, a modern pub and a cricket club. 

West Lancs
• Pub of the Year is Tap Room No 12 (formerly the Hop Inn Bier Shoppe) at 12 Burscough Steet in Ormskirk. Formerly a shop, it was converted into a single-roomed bar, and the wooden panels and genuine pub furniture successfully recreate the atmosphere of a traditional pub room. There's a choice of real ale, as you'd expect, but they can also sell you 20+ gins as well as craft and continental beers.
• Cider Pub of the Year is the Court Leet on Wheatsheaf Walk, just off Burscough Street in Ormskirk. This JD Wetherspoons pub is much more modern than the customary house style of the pub group with large windows and a bright and airy interior. The pub is on two levels with an open air balcony on the first floor overlooking the Ormskirk skyline.

North Merseyside
• Pub of the Year is the Guest House, Union Street, Southport. The impressive exterior is half timbered, and inside the walls are wood-panelled. It is mostly unaltered with three separate rooms, a drinking area around the bar and an outdoor drinking area to the rear. It regularly sells up to 11 real ales.
• Cider Pub of the Year is the Grasshopper, Sandon Road, Hillside. In addition to a good selection of real ales, this two-roomed micropub has the widest choice of ciders in the area. There are tables to the front where you can sit and enjoy the sunshine – when we get any.

Club of the Year
Formby Golf Club in Cricket Path, Formby. This club has recently been celebrating the return to playing cricket after the lockdown. With a comfortable club house serving real ale, what better way to enjoy what has been described as the King of Sports? 

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Petition to government re: Small Brewers Relief

The Treasury has announced changes to Small Brewers Relief (SBR) – the progressive tax system that has revolutionised UK brewing. These changes will reduce the 50% duty threshold from 5,000hl to 2,100hl: small breweries will have to pay more duty, whilst larger breweries could pay the same or less.

The amount of extra revenue this may raise will be a pittance initially and is likely to dwindle to nothing as currently successful businesses close down. So much for joined-up thinking in government. 

► Please sign here.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Wetherspoons: stories often have two sides

The impressive North Western JDW pub, Lime Street, Liverpool
I've written a few times, most recently in September last year, about the hostility I've detected among some drinkers against the JD Wetherspoons pub chain. With lockdown, the news that Tim Martin told his staff to go away and get a job in Tesco's has given Spoons-haters the perfect moralistic justification for their antipathy. I've seen many posts on Facebook by indignant drinkers declaring that they will never drink in Spoons again and encouraging others to boycott the pub group. It is stating the obvious to say that no one is obliged to drink in any pub they don't want to enter, but trying to organise a boycott is another matter entirely. Is it the right thing to do?

JDW employs 43,000 staff, and all were paid when they were supposed to be, receiving either their wages or their furlough payments. If a boycott were to succeed even partially, JDW would have to make many of them redundant at a time when tens of thousands (if not more) of other workers are likely to lose their jobs because of CV19. Other jobs - in pubs or elsewhere - will not be so readily available as they were pre-lockdown. I saw on Facebook one boycott advocate declaring that as people will still be drinking, ex-JDW staff will all be able to get jobs elsewhere. This is nonsense:
  • The hospitality industry, including pubs, will be operating at a much lower level of income post-lockdown because some drinkers are still wary of coming out, especially those in vulnerable groups, and because social distancing reduces pub capacity.
  • Lower pub incomes will result in fewer staff employed by pubs.
  • With unemployment predicted to increase, and the incomes of many of those still in work likely to reduce, there will be less disposable income to spend in pubs.
  • Some pubs will never reopen - I already know of one or two around here, and I fully expect to hear of more.
  • As I wrote last September, "CAMRA says that avoiding isolation by going to the pub is a good thing, but without Wetherspoons, many people on low incomes could rarely, if ever, afford to go out for a pint." The number of such customers look set to increase, and it's logical to assume that many of them would be less able to afford the prices in non-JDW pubs.
  • BFAWU, the trade union which represents JDW staff, has urged the public not to boycott the pubs.
In view of the above (and as a trade unionist I find the final bullet point particularly compelling), I see no logic in punishing JDW staff for the 'sins' of their boss.

I was going to leave this article there until I picked up the latest issue of 'Wetherspoon News' on Monday. I do understand that this is an in-house journal and what it says must be viewed in that light. However, Tim Martin has written a spirited defence of his company's actions at the beginning of lockdown, denying the accusations, and blaming the press's tendency to spin stories out of recognition and create pantomime villains. It's interesting that people who'd normally be sceptical, or at least questioning, about what they read or hear in the media (or MSM as some dismissively call it) have uncritically swallowed the anti-JDW story in its entirety. In support of his assertions, Martin has reprinted in the mag seven different press corrections to the story and a right of reply that he was given in a local paper. Newspapers don't like to print corrections, and won't do it on a whim. That they have done so is an admission that what they published contained inaccuracies.

I have no intention of reproducing his defence here - I'm not an apologist for the company which is much bigger and richer than me and, anyway, can speak for itself - but if you believe in seeing two sides to the story, I suggest you look at the mag, which is available free in all branches of Wetherspoons now.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Tales of tipples past

When I was 17, our scout troop went on a camping trip around the area where the borders of Austria, Yugoslavia (as it still was) and Italy meet. In Austria, we were staying near a city called Villach (pronounced Feel-ack). The local beer was Villacher Bier, which in itself we found mildly amusing because out loud it sounded to us a bit like 'feel like a beer'. About all I can remember is that it was a golden-coloured beer.

One evening, we were sitting in a beer garden and, having studied German briefly, I was instructing our group how to order beer in German ("Ein Bier bitte ... zwei Biere bitte ... drei Biere bitte ..." and so on). Some of the other drinkers were laughing at us when a dog walked in. It wandered hopefully from table to table and was completely ignored until it came to us; we of course patted and made a fuss of it. The dog with tail wagging furiously was loving every second of all this unaccustomed attention, but from the neighbouring table I heard just one word: "Englisch!"

••••♦••••

The Scarisbrick Hotel
In the late 1970s, at a time of petrol shortage, I had been to a party on the other side of Southport and in the early hours was cycling home on a bike borrowed from my brother. As I approached Lord Street, the main shopping street in Southport, it began to sleet and the bicycle chain broke. I managed to fix it, but it broke again a few minutes later.

Lord Street has a long canopy for most of its length so I was sheltered from the worst of the weather for part of the journey home, but it was going to be a long walk, until I had an idea, the kind that usually only occurs to you after a few pints. Treating the bike like a kid's scooter with one foot on a pedal and the other pushing on the ground, I was getting quite a good speed up.

Halfway along Lord Street is the Scarisbrick Hotel, something of a local landmark, and outside was standing a young policewoman. As I approached, she held up her hand to stop me and said: "I know there's a petrol shortage. Are you economising on bicycle oil?"

••••♦••••

A few years later, I'd had several pints in the Park Hotel, a pub in Birkdale, and then went to a wine bar called the Grape Escape on Lord Street (now Waterstones book shop). A young lady helped me dispose of a couple of bottles of wine and promptly disappeared when the last one ran out, after which the bar shut anyway so it was time to go home.

As I started out, I realised I was going down a one-way street the wrong way so I carefully turned around and went a longer way home to avoid breaking any more one-way street regulations.

When I woke up the next morning, I remembered all of this - including the fact that I hadn't been driving: I'd been on foot all evening.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

'Coming out' with Mixed feelings

Little Mix's fifth album
No one could ever accuse me of being a Little Mix fan; apart from anything else, I am definitely not part of their target audience, and until I decided to write this post, I couldn't name any song they've recorded. However, while I don't usually pay much attention to acts that come through TV talent shows, I've always had a certain respect for this group.

When they were doing well on X Factor, the name proposed for them was Rhythmix. At the time I thought this sounded very like the Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart band Eurythmics, but an even closer similarity came to light: when X Factor tried to trademark the name, it turned out that it was already being used by a children's music charity based in Brighton, who quite reasonably didn't want their name to be appropriated. I read at the time that Simon Cowell was all for brazening it out - clearly no one tells Simon what to do - but the young women themselves decided to change their collective name to Little Mix. "Good on them!" I thought, genuinely impressed.

Last week in the aftermath of the worldwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, the group's Leigh-Anne Pinnock published a video, now gone viral, in which she talks about her own experiences of racism. She described one particular incident as the biggest awakening of her life when she was filming the video for the group's single 'Wings'. The director and choreographer Frank Gatson, himself black, told her: "You're the black girl. You have to work 10 times harder." She said: "Never in my life had someone told me I would need to work harder because of my race", but in time she found he'd been right.

Other artists who have publicly described similar experiences have lost fans as a result, but Leigh-Anne's attitude is: "I don't care if I lose fans. Now the whole world is speaking about it and hopefully there is going to be a change. I feel hopeful." [More about this on the BBC news site here.]

Her band mate Jade Thirwell has also described some of the racism she had been subjected to, saying: "If you weren’t evidently black, you were called the P-word or called 'half-caste'. I would get so confused because I’m not from Pakistan. One time I got pinned down in the toilets and they put a bindi spot on my forehead – my mam was fuming!... I’d identify myself as mixed-race; if I delved deeper, I’d say of Arab heritage, I guess. I’ve had an inner battle of not knowing where I fit in or what larger community I fit into."

Jade was rightly incensed when media coverage of her description of this racism was illustrated by a photograph of Leigh-Anne, telling them: "You might want to make sure you're using an image of the correct mixed race member of the group." A good example of casual racism - almost certainly unintended, but racism nonetheless.

Although I'm a white male, I can to a very limited extent identify with some of this. During the height of the 'Me Too' movement, I became sick of reading comments by people - mostly but not exclusively male - asking why it had taken so long for some of the accusers to tell their stories, with more than a few sarcastically suggesting the motive was money. I was so incensed by such stupidity that I 'came out' myself in a post on Facebook about my own experiences of being on the receiving end of sustained domestic violence. In response to anyone who questioned why it had taken some of these women perhaps 10 or 15 years to come forward, I pointed that my own 'coming out' had taken nearly 40 years.

I'm not deluded: I do understand that I don't have the public profile of Leigh-Anne and Jade, but I also know it is not easy to put something so personal and painful in the public domain, so I admire the steps they have taken: it cannot have been easy, but if my own experience is at all relevant (and I leave others to judge that), I'm sure they won't regret doing it.

[Read more in this Metro article.]

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Lockdown thoughts & pubs

One of the rooms in the Guest House (floor not shown)
The last time I went for such an extended time without going to the pub was forty years ago when I was on the dole. That spell of involuntary abstinence ended on 7th July 1980 when I began working for the DHSS in Liverpool which, as I used to say at the time, involved me jumping from one side of the counter to the other.

Back then I'd sometimes walk past busy pubs in which it seemed everyone was having a really great time. They probably weren't especially - it would have been just another day to them - but forbidden fruit does have a special allure, particularly when you can observe others enjoying it seemingly without a second thought.

The big difference is that today, while everyone is currently excluded from pubs, abstinence has not ensued: off sales have gone through the roof as people resort to drinking at home. This includes me, even though previously I rarely did so as I view having a pint as a social activity. Home drinking is easier today than it would have been had this pandemic occurred 40 years ago. In 1980, only heavily-regulated off licences were allowed sell alcohol for consumption off the premises. The current situation whereby supermarkets, corner shops, petrol stations and other retail outlets can sell alcohol in the same way as any other goods was still years away.

I remember in the 1980s when a supermarket in Southport applied for a licence to sell alcohol, rigid restrictions were imposed: the alcohol had to be confined to a separate room with its own till, and you couldn't wander into the main shop with a bottle and pay for it at one of the normal tills. This controlling, paternalistic approach to the sale of alcohol was based on a mistrust of ordinary people who, it was thought, would go on wild booze-filled orgies of destruction if restrictions on selling alcohol were eased. I recall worried letters in the local press about the dire consequences of allowing that particular supermarket the licence it wanted. Images were dreamt up of of drunken crowds in the streets and tipsy housewives neglecting child care and household duties - the ultimate horror of paternalists everywhere: no dinner on the table!

Curiously, the world didn't end, and I'd expect that younger drinkers today would regard the restrictions on alcohol sales that I grew up with as a quaint, ancient curiosity as remote from their own lives as rationing or the BBC Home Service.

A demo to save the Roscoe Head in September 2015.
Licensee Carol Ross is centre front.
I've had quite a few chats with friends who, like me, are looking forward to when we can go to the pub again, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that we won't be returning to the way things were. Most of us realise that some pubs will be unable survive a loss of trade for so long and will never reopen, but there will be two other causes of permanent closures. After restrictions are lifted, I anticipate that home drinking will remain significantly higher than it was pre-CV19, and I've little doubt pub-owning companies will use the prolonged closure to argue that reopening some pubs is not viable, allowing them to implement lucrative redevelopment schemes that have previously been successfully opposed. For example, Liverpool's Roscoe Head, which has been run by the same family for 35 years and is the only pub in the North to be in every edition of the Good Beer Guide, was under renewed threat even before we'd heard of lockdown. For this pub, the timing of the pandemic couldn't be worse.

I have read in the CAMRA newspaper that it is possible that we may lose as many as 40,000 pubs. I sincerely hope this is wrong, but am not much reassured by the fact that such worst case scenarios rarely come to pass.

► I was pleased to see on the Facebook page of my local, the Guest House in Southport, a photo of the newly-varnished floor. It had been looking rather tired, and the fact they have used the closure to improve the pub is encouraging news, suggesting it is not in line for redevelopment or conversion to another use. I hope so anyway.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Locked down beer in pub cellars

Two locked down pubs in Churchtown, Southport.
The Bold (left) and the Hesketh (in the distance)
The order to close pubs, like many other businesses, was not unexpected, but the actual date came at very short notice. As a consequence, pub licensees had little chance to run down their stocks by reducing the size of their orders in the run-up to closure, meaning that the cellars of many pubs and bars have large quantities of unused beer, cider and perry. It is estimated that if they stay closed into the summer, 50 million pints will have to be discarded.

"It's a very sad waste of all the work and talent that goes into producing great beer," says Tom Stainer, CAMRA's chief executive. "People won't get to drink it and all those resources have been used up for nothing."

The shelf life of beers, ciders and perries depends on how it's produced, stored and served. Keg products, which include most beer sold in British pubs such as lagers, smoothflow beers (including a famous Irish stout) and ciders on fonts, can last for several months. Real ales and ciders, on the other hand, will only last for weeks, with any that have been already opened going off after a few days. All real ales, ciders and perries that had been opened at lockdown will probably have already been disposed of.

One suggestion is converting out-of-date beer into hand sanitiser by extracting the alcohol, which independent brewer Brewdog is already doing, but this is ultimately a very limited solution.

According to the BBC, supermarket alcohol sales increased by more than a fifth last month after pubs, cafes and restaurants closed.

"People are missing these things in their lives," says Tom Stainer. "It's not the biggest issue that the country is dealing with, but aspects of life like going to the cinema or cafĂ©, or going for a pint, are something we treasure." 

Many breweries and distributors have offered to take back barrels at no charge once the lockdown is over, taking some of the financial pressure off licensees. However, more can be done, as Tom Stainer, explains:

“The Government needs to recognise the impact of an extended lockdown on [hospitality] businesses and confirm that the support package in place is extended until all restrictions are lifted. It must also consider a support package for pubs, breweries and cideries after they reopen, in recognition that it will take many months for businesses to recover fully.”

► This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Keg Buster RIP

Bill Tidy has announced in the latest edition of the CAMRA newspaper What's Brewing the sad demise of the legendary real ale campaigner, Keg Buster. This news is not very surprising, seeing that Bill himself is 84 and in poor health. Over the years he has created several wonderful long-running cartoon strips in addition to Keg Buster, such as The Cloggies and The Fosdyke Saga.

In the 1980s, Bill Tidy was a neighbour of ours in Westbourne Road, Southport. He was a regular at the Berkeley Arms, a hotel bar well-known for a fine choice of real ales and home-made pizzas; my friends and I spent a lot of time there. I occasionally saw Bill with his friends in the bar, although I never had the opportunity to speak to him. Bill drew a cartoon about the Berkeley which was framed and proudly displayed on the wall. I can't recall after all this time what the joke was, and this was in the days before we all had a mobile phone camera in our pockets. Unfortunately the Berkeley closed well over a decade ago when the building was converted to flats; I have occasionally wondered what happened to the cartoon.

By affectionately mocking us real ale campaigners, Keg Buster was a welcome corrective to the tendency to solemn self-importance and pomposity that some committed advocates for any cause can occasionally be prone to. I don't know whether there are any plans to replace Keg Buster, but if there are, the cartoonist concerned has a hard act to follow.

RIP Keg Buster, and best wishes to Bill on his retirement.
From November 2017. Click on the cartoon to see a larger image.