Tuesday 30 June 2009

School bans English traditional dancers

A school in Kent, which had booked Motley Border Morris Men to appear at a day celebrating diversity, cancelled the booking because the dancers black their faces. The school was anxious not to cause offence to anyone. The irony, particularly for a diversity day, is that this blacking up is not an imitation of black people (as in the case of the Black & White Minstrels), but was originally a disguise. It's an English tradition from the borders with Wales and is hundreds of years old.

Often Morris sides (or 'troupes' as the school called them) went dancing to raise a bit of cash to supplement meagre farm wages, or during the winter when there was no work. As it could be interpreted as a form of begging, they concealed their identity. In 1723, because poachers sometimes blacked their faces as a disguise, it was even made a hanging offence to be found with weapons and a blacked face. Blacking up by Morris sides today is a relic of part of our social history, and has absolutely nothing to do with race. As a committed anti-racist, I wouldn't defend it otherwise.

It's a pity that the school didn't bother to find out why the dancers black up, and explain the reasons in terms of social history and rural poverty. Another reason why it's a pity is that whenever I have watched Border Morris, I've noticed that kids usually love it as it's energetic, noisy, involves clashing sticks, and has a large band of varied musicians creating a great wall of sound. It's difficult to ignore Border Morris.

What's it got to do with this blog? How about the fact that Morris sides dance to live traditional music and tend to drink real ale? The picture shows the Men O' Th' Mere Morris outside the Zetland pub in 1981; they were active in Southport throughout the 1980s. I am at the back wearing a cap and clutching a guitar ~ and a pint, of course. As a musician I didn't black up. (click on picture to enlarge it)

Monday 29 June 2009

Real Ale & Real Music

When I began this blog, I assumed that venues with both cask beer & real music in this area would be rather more common than in fact they are. Locally the Fox & Goose is an well-established rock venue, but it hasn't served real ale for many years; it used to serve Castle Eden, if I remember correctly. Our venue for big music events, the Southport Theatre (where I have seen Marvin Gaye, Kim Wilde, Hall & Oates and Black Sabbath, although not on the same bill) has never sold decent beer.

The Arts Centre occasionally puts on a cask of Southport beer for a big folk event, but mostly relies on bottled ales. It used to serve real Higson's many years ago, but strangely had both the cask and keg versions next to each other with the keg 2p cheaper; the staff automatically reached for the keg pump unless the customer specified otherwise, and as you'd expect the real version soon disappeared. Apparently we CAMRA types were all to blame for not coming in en masse and drinking it; I replied that there were simply weren't enough CAMRA members to sustain every real ale outlet in the area.

The Falstaff does have real ale and sometimes has live bands on, but strangely doesn't advertise them in the pub or on its website, so finding out what's going on there is surprisingly difficult. They seem to rely solely on adverts in the local papers, but these adverts are so cluttered with various meal offers, quiz nights, the Campaign for Real Chips, Liz Dawn, and everything else that's going on that any mention of live bands is usually swamped. Adrian, the licensee, agreed weeks ago to send details of forthcoming music events to local CAMRA to go on their website and then on this blog, but nothing has appeared yet.

Incidentally, the Southport CAMRA website now has a 'what's on' page, derived in part from this blog. The website has recently been revamped and is looking a lot better, especially now that they have dispensed with the muddy brown colour scheme, apparently intended to resemble the colour of beer.

I have been asked why I don't mention the Maghull Folk Club. I always have a link to their website, and will mention their guest artists in my 'What's On' column, but the venue doesn't serve real ale. For information, they meet on Tuesdays mostly with singers nights (i.e. anyone is welcome to perform) with a PA if you want to use it; it is a very friendly club, and they have a booked guest singer about once every two months.

I do know there are music nights at the award-winning Derby Arms in Aughton, about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago (click here),and the folk nights at the Ship Inn in Haskayne have begun again. I hope to visit and write about these in the near future.

Thursday 25 June 2009

A pub rescued

The last time I had a drink in the Grapes in Knight Street (corner of Roscoe Street) in Liverpool was around 30 years ago when it was a Higson's house. My friend and I had just come from Ye Cracke, a legendary Liverpool pub nearby. We ordered two pints of bitter, and were dismayed to see them served from keg electric pumps hidden behind the hand pumps ~ a con certainly, but over half of Higson's houses in those days had no real ale. A more recent visit a few years ago showed it had declined to a dirty, scruffy dive of the worst sort; I didn't stay to have a drink.

I was in the area yesterday and having noticed it was listed in the CAMRA Liverpool Real Ale Passport (from which the picture has been borrowed), I decided to call in. The place was clean, the walls had been painted in light colours with wooden relief carvings placed on them ~ and three hand pumps. The beers on were Caledonian 80/- and Everards Tiger, the Speckled Hen having run out. Both beers were in very good condition, and I'd forgotten that I do like Tiger; the 80/- was quite a different beer, and not one I am very familiar with, but it too went down a treat.

The pub was been taken over by a young couple a few years ago, Anna Slater and Paul Agoro, who learned their trade in the former Black Horse & Rainbow brew pub on nearby Berry Street. She told me that when they took it over, it had a turnover of £500 per week, which for a pub is the final stage of anorexia. They wanted to sell real ale, and in the early days ended up pouring unsold beers down the drain regularly, but that doesn't happen now; in fact, they have plans to install another 3 hand pumps. There is still quite a lot of work to do - the seats need re-covering, for example - but this is a pub that has been dragged from the brink of almost certain closure by an enthusiastic couple. I had a chat with some of the locals: one, a Scot, told me Deuchars IPA (usually on in this pub) was the best beer in the world; I replied I wouldn't go that far, but it was certainly a good beer. Then we found we were both into Thin Lizzy ~ he an ex-punk and me a sort of ex-hippy. I was told that quite a few young drinkers enjoy the real ale, and the pub is near the student area. Just then a group of students came in, taking their drinks (mostly lager, except for one young woman who chose the draught Hoegaarden) to the outdoor drinking area.

Anna says they are slowly getting rid of the insensitive modernisation that the pub had been subjected to, and are trying to reinstate original features. It's a real pleasure to see a pub that appeared to be in terminal decline, turned around and becoming a place well worth visiting. It's about 10 minutes' walk from Central Station; Knight Street is off Berry Street, where the bombed-out church is. (postcode L1 2SX) And for those who believe in such things, it's said to be haunted.

Sunday 21 June 2009

Our Dizzy Island

British beer drinkers pay nine times more duty than the Germans and seven times more than the French, and the only EU countries to impose higher excise duty rates on beer than Britain are Finland and Ireland. British beer lovers pay more in duty on a single pint than drinkers in each of the five other largest member states (Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland) pay on five pints.

These figures, compiled by the Axe the Beer Tax campaign, destroy the argument that beer taxation is good for us. We are berated for our so-called binge drinking lifestyles and are burdened with high taxes to discourage this. We are also urged to follow the example of more 'sensible' drinking habits of our continental neighbours ~ and the government studiously ignores their lower tax levels. It is clear, therefore, that while higher taxation obviously does not cause drinking problems, it does little to prevent them.

Britain, and England specifically, has had a reputation in Europe for binge drinking since before Tudor times. The Royalist preacher Thomas Reeve called England "the Dizzy iland", whose people "drink as if ... we were nothing but spunges to draw up moisture, or we had tunnels in our mouthes" (God's Plea for Ninevah, 1657). Over centuries preachers, prohibitionists and now chancellors have all determined to resolve the drinking problem with their own panaceas, but history suggests that Alistair Darling's solution will be no more successful than his ecclesiastical and teetotal predecessors.

Drinkers who find they can't afford pubs any more can switch to having supermarket booze at home, and the problem is thus merely swept under the carpet ~ out of sight, out of mind. The best that can be said for unregulated, isolated drinking at home is that it keeps trouble off the streets and makes life easier for the police. Perhaps, despite the rhetoric, that's all they really want ~ it's certainly all they can hope to get.

Friday 19 June 2009

Falstaff and Golden Sands Mentioned at Westminster

In a debate at Westminster recently, Southport's MP, Dr John Pugh, mentioned the Falstaff Inn and the Southport Brewery's Golden Sands winning of the SIBA North West Champion Beer award. He was calling for the Government to take action over PubCos which are contributing to the large number of pub closures by their restrictive and - frankly - suicidal practices. Click here for a clip of what he said. For the full speech and a transcript, click here. It is good to see that our MP taking this matter seriously, especially as perusal of other beer blogs has convinced me that many MPs don't. But then, why should they bother when we taxpayers subsidise their booze?

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Volunteer Canteen, Waterloo

Less than a quarter of a mile from Waterloo Station (on the Southport to Liverpool line), there is a first-class pub that is embedded in a row of houses that all open straight onto the street, close to Crosby Marina. It is a small pub with a comfortable wood-panelled lounge and a rather more spartan bar. In the lounge, there is still waitress service to your table, and on the walls pictures of old Liverpool, in particular of the old overhead railway that used to serve the docks. There are no fruit machines, pool tables, juke box or food ~ it's just a good honest, old-fashioned local that does not look to me as though it has ever been altered, although it is not the scruffy drinking den that word 'unaltered' can sometimes describe ~ quite the contrary, in fact. As a result, it is often busy with a friendly crowd of regulars chatting and having a good time, with helpful bar staff.

The pub was originally a Higson's house and is rather like a small version of the Crow's Nest in neighbouring Crosby, also a former Higson's house. When I visited the guest real ale was Bateman's XXXB, which was in such excellent condition I didn't try any other beer (which is usually from the Cain's range).

If you fancy trying this untouched reminder of a former age, turn left out of Waterloo Station then right at the Marine pub into East Street. You'll find the Volly on the left. (postcode L22 8QR)

Sunday 14 June 2009

Sandgrounder Beer Festival

Advance notice of the next Sandgrounder Beer Festival in Southport ~ very early notice I know, but people's diaries tend to get filled up over the summer. The festival is put on by Southport CAMRA and will take place in the Southport Arts Centre as usual from Thursday 10th to Saturday 12th September with over 60 beers, plus ciders, perries and fruit wines.

It will be the 10th Sandgrounder festival, and this year will have a War of the Roses theme ~ Lancashire v. Yorkshire Real Ales, based on the old pre-1974 boundaries. Should be a tough competition, seeing that both produce good beers.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Folk Against Fascism

I have recently joined a FaceBook group called Folk Against Fascism. The group page states:

"The British National Party's manifesto encourages its members to insinuate themselves into the folk and traditional customs and events of Britain. This involves the appropriation of British folk music, customs and culture as a means of spreading their racist policies. They are selling traditional music through their Excalibur merchandising arm, despite the protestations of many of the artists included who find their policies abhorrent. The UK folk scene is a welcoming and inclusive one. Folk music and dance is about collaboration, participation, communication and respect."

I've checked the BNP website and they have issued folk albums which include tracks by Fairport Convention, Tir Na Nog, Ashley Hutchings, Albion Band, Magna Carta and Phil Beer & Paul Downes. I'd be amazed if any of these artists gave permission.

If you're on FaceBook, type "Folk Against Fascism" into the FaceBook search engine. There's also a thread on Mudcat and a page on MySpace, but I understand that the aim is to take this group beyond cyberspace in time. I've just been told T-shirts and badges will be coming soon.

No one who loves the folk scene, or even people who just enjoy folk occasionally, will want it hijacked by this deeply unpleasant party for their own nefarious ends, as happened to German folk traditions in the Nazi era.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

CAMRA's conceit

In most editions of the Good Beer Guide, you'll read something like, "if a pub landlord cares about the quality of the beer in the cellar, then everything else - the welcome, the food, the wine and ... the toilets - will fall into line. In keg-only pubs, on the other hand, you are likely to find micro-waved food, stale sandwiches, Blue Nun and Lambrusco, and toilets that answer to the name of bogs." (2003 GBG)

On what planet is the writer of this off-repeated tosh living on? I'm sure many people have been in pubs with great beer but no wine to speak of, a couple of stale clingfilm-wrapped sandwiches and ancient, unhygienic toilets. I also know I've been in keg pubs where everything was fine except the beer. One revered Liverpool pub has the wash basin in the short passage that leads to the gents, with the hand dryer over it; the dryer is inaccessible while the wash basin is in use. Using these means no one can get in or out of the gents, so if you value hygiene on a busy Friday night, you can cause quite a hold-up in both directions. On my last visit to the Lower Angel in Warrington, I enjoyed a great pint but found there was no water in the gents, which any case were well overdue for refurbishment. In general, I've often heard women complain about the state of the toilets in real ale pubs.

In a real ale pub in Uppermill, I waited for an hour for a lasagne, only to find it was still frozen inside when it arrived. Although the beer was nice, that food certainly didn't "fall into line." In Ormskirk last Friday, I went into a pub that sold real ale, had a horrible decor from an expensive but utterly tasteless refurbishment, and uncontrolled children running wild. I turned around and left.

So where does this nonsense come from? It could be that some drinkers can't see past the beer, but I think it goes further than that: it's really a form of PR trying to convince us all that real ale pubs are the best in every respect, and that keg pubs are always the poor relations. As a member, I do expect CAMRA to promote real ale, but talking up real ale pubs with such demonstrably false claims does the campaign no favours. Whether a pub is well-run or not has little to do with the type of beer it sells, and wishing won't alter that. Let's just stick to what we cask beer drinkers all know is true - that real ale is the best and most natural form of beer - and not let drinking it blind us to reality.

Argarmeles Day of Dance Cancelled

The Argarmeles Clog have had to cancel their annual Day of Dance on 27 June. This is usually a chance to see various teams from different parts of the country as well as the Argies dancing around Southport, and is interesting even if you're not a big fan of traditional dance. They tend to attract an audience of interested onlookers whenever they dance out. I'm reporting the cancellation as I have mentioned this event in my 'What's On' column for a week or two.

The picture was taken by Rich Simcock at the Wirral Folk on the Coast festival last weekend.

Saturday 6 June 2009

Derby Arms & Ormskirk pubs

Last night, Southport & District CAMRA ran a bus trip to present the Derby Arms in Aughton with a West Lancs Pub of the Year award, but first we stopped in Ormskirk for a couple of hours. There is real ale in Ormskirk and it's generally well kept, but mostly consists of well-known brands, such as Bombadier, Landlord, Black Sheep, Pedigree, Directors, and Tetley. The surprise of the evening was in Disraeli's which sported two hand pumps next to a large bank of tall silver fonts; the beers were Pedigree and Ringwood's Old Thumper, the latter completely unexpected in this pub, and very tasty to boot. For quite a few of us, the Old Thumper was the best beer we tried in Ormskirk.

On to the Derby Arms. This country pub is on Prescot Road (B5197) in Aughton, surrounded by fields rather than houses. Despite this location, the pub was very busy when we arrived, with a happy buzz of conversation and friendly regulars. It has been partially knocked through at some time in the past, but there are still four distinct drinking areas, almost separate rooms, that add the charm and atmosphere. The beers were Marble Lagonda IPA, Boggart Bog Eyed and 3Bs Shuttle Ale and an Arran ale I didn't get around to. A curiosity was keg Walkers, apparently brewed to the old Warrington recipe; I don't think any of our party tried it, although I was slightly curious. The beers were excellent and those that ran out were replaced straight away. I found the bar staff were friendly and helpful, happy to chat when serving duties permitted.

Then came the award, and panic among the CAMRA ranks as the framed certificate could not be found. Eventually it turned up, having slid down the back of a seat. The award was made, speeches given and Jan and Mike's achievement, as well as the work of the staff, duly applauded by everyone. A few minutes later Jan brought the certificate back ~ it had 2008 on it! Someone would have to come back with a replacement. The pub had laid on some snacks, and I had a look at the ordinary menu and thought it reasonably priced. There are regular live music nights that I intend the visit for the purposes of the real music aspect of this blog.

This is an excellent and attractive community local, clearly very popular with its regulars, whether real ale drinkers or not, that serves an excellent, interesting and varied range of real ales. Needless to say, definitely worth a visit. Just over a mile from Town Green station; postcode L39 6TA.

Friday 5 June 2009

Get down to the Vernon

I went to Dale Street in Liverpool yesterday afternoon to meet some union friends in the courtyard behind Rigby's, nice when the sun was shining in but draughty later. The Okell's IPA (4.5%) and Elixir (6%) were fine, the latter being a fuller flavoured and stronger version of the usual Okell's style. My idea of a good session beer.

Steve and I then strolled to the Vernon Arms, my first visit since the pub was reopened. Six cask beers were on: Brains Reverend James and SA Gold, Lees Game On, Wapping Summer Ale, Cambrinus Deliverence, and Betwixt Dark Matter. Between us we tried them all, and they were in excellent shape. I don't know much about Betwixt, except that it's a Wirral brewery, but the Dark Matter was nicely well-balanced dark ale, not overpowering in flavour as some dark beers can be. The Wapping was good as usual, and I rather liked JW Lees Game On. They were keen to show me was lined up: Baltic Gold, Everards Tiger and Sunshaker, Wadworths, Wychwood Rye Smile, Thwaites Bomber, Betwixt Sunlight, and from Wapping a blonde and a dark beer. I've listed them all to show the range of breweries and styles they are featuring. The pub also has reasonable priced food until 6.00 p.m. and a choice of 6 malt whiskies.

The pub is much as it had been before (although the paintwork is now in better condition): a long front room with a sloping floor, and the back room where militant Liverpool city councillors used to meet to decide their strategy before going to council meetings. Steve and I chatted to licensees Jimmy and Barbara Monaghan who are rightly very pleased of what they have done with the pub. Unfortunately, the future of the pub is not as 100% secure as we would all like, although one positive result of the recession is that destroying this Liverpool gem is currently impractical for property developers, so the more successful the pub is, the better its chances of a long-term future. So get down there and get drinking ~ it is just around the corner from Moorfields Station, and thus very convenient for the Northern Line to Southport.

The Dale Street area is a wonderful place for a pub crawl, with Rigbys (and the Lady of Mann behind it), the Hole In The Wall (currently selling George Wright beers), the Ship and Mitre, the Lion in Moorfields, and of course the Vernon itself ~ every one just a few minutes' walk from Moorfields Station. The last train for Southport is at 23.40 (23.10 Sundays), so there's plenty of time for a good evening out. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Tonight ~ Mason's singaround and Richmond jazz

Tonight is the regular singaround at the Masons Arms in Anchor Street, behind the main post office. Robinson's beer, and free sandwiches courtesy of Brenda the licensee. All welcome to perform, join in or simply listen. From around 8.30 pm.

Also tonight at 8.30 pm is the weekly jazz night at the Richmond on Scarisbrick New Road, this week with the Blue Magnolia Jass Orchestra. Having seen some of the bands booked, including tonight's, I judge the style to be classic jazz and swing. I haven't been to any of these nights yet, so I don't know whether they charge for admission or not - you can phone the contact on the webpage if necessary. The Richmond does good food and sells Holts beers, which were in good condition when I was last there a month ago. I'll do a report after I've been to this music night.