Saturday 26 November 2011

Liverpool Beer Festival – the annual ticket ritual

If you want to go to Liverpool Beer Festival (16 - 18 February), you need to have your wits about you. There are postal applications with different rules for members of Liverpool Branch, members of other Branches and non-members, and there is the allocation for those who work the festival. Finally, there’s the famous queuing for tickets on a freezing December morning.

I’ve often said that some CAMRA members are wannabe civil servants – they love to make things really bureaucratic.  Think of any CAMRA beer festival: very often, you pay your admission here, then get you glass there, and the beer tokens are on sale on the far wall in the main room.  Some festivals have you queuing three times before you sip your first pint.  For Liverpool, add in the fact that actually obtaining your tickets is a bureaucracy of Byzantine proportions.  It takes more than 800 words on the webpage just to explain how to buy tickets; click here to see.  I used to work for the DSS and, as I recall, none of its systems were as convoluted as this.

The webpage includes a Q&A bit that doesn’t always answer the question. For example:
  Q)  Why can’t we buy tickets online?
  A)  We are looking into this method. However it is complicated, due to the fact that we have to limit tickets and need to facilitate a members presale. We are however hoping to be able to offer this next year.

Nonsense, it’s not complicated.  The festival webpage says that they are holding back at least 200 tickets per session for sale at the public sale day, which this year is on 10 December at the Catholic Cathedral.  Why not scrap the public sale day and just put those 200+ tickets on line? You’re not obliged to put all the tickets for your event on-line: just the number you want to.  I’ve set up an on-line ticket system myself, and I know that it’s very easy, very quick and free to the organiser, with the additional benefit that people who live further away might have a chance of getting in.  Perhaps you're wondering how this service is funded:  the on-line ticket company charges the customer 10% extra (with a 50p minimum). A £7 ticket would cost £7.70, and that 70p is considerably less than the bus or train fares into Liverpool city centre.

I look forward to next year with interest to see how the festival copes with the technology of on-line ticketing.

The FAQ also has the surly note:  “If you have further suggestions for next year, please consider becoming part of the festival working group.”  In other words, they won’t accept suggestions or criticisms from outside the inner sanctum.  Fair enough, it’s their festival after all, but that won’t stop people having an opinion, and I know I’m definitely not alone in mine.

If you’re going to the public sale day, wrap up well and good luck!

Thursday 24 November 2011

The perfect pub

Interesting article on the BBC website discussing what constitutes the perfect pub.  It begins by referring to George Orwell's famous description in 1946 of his ideal pub, the fictitious Moon Under Water * (you can read his essay here), and then points out that there are now 14 pubs called the Moon Under Water, all them belonging to JD Wetherspoons (JDW).  The nearest to Southport is in Wigan.

Tim Martin, founder of JDW, says that Orwell's essay picks out the essence of what a pub is about, which is "very similar" to what the chain is trying to create, although he admits that the writer might not have been impressed by some examples.  "He'd probably say we do very well in getting near to his idealised pub in some and we've got some more work to do in others."  

I'm not someone who dismisses JDW out of hand, but I think this is nonsense.  An important feature of Orwell's ideal pub is individuality.  Take food, for example.  Orwell says of the Moon Under Water:  "You cannot get dinner at the Moon Under Water, but there is always the snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels (a speciality of the house), cheese, pickles and those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses.  Upstairs, six days a week, you can get a good, solid lunch - for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll - for about three shillings."

In a JDW pub there isn't any snack counter, certainly no specialities of the house, and the food they serve, all pre-packaged and microwaved, has nothing in common with the home-made fare that Orwell describes.  In general, the fixtures and fittings in JDW pubs are all bought in bulk and sent to every outlet, so that they all have a very similar look when you enter.  This bears no resemblance to the individual look of pubs where licensees have stamped their mark by choosing items that suit both their own personality and the nature of the pub - the antithesis of Spoons' one size fits all approach.

What makes a pub into a local is a strong sense of individuality; corporate styling therefore puts a pub at a disadvantage straightaway, as the brewers in the 1970s found out when they adopted corporate signage and livery to go with the national brands they were trying to get us to love.  For instance, Ansells pubs in the Midlands had the identical lettering and colour scheme to Tetley's pubs in the North West.  After a while, the brewers realised this wasn't working well and so revived old brands they had cheerfully discontinued in the 60s, in some cases setting up entire pub chains, like Walkers (a Tetley brand), or establishing festival ale houses (i.e. carefully designed dumps with bare floors and artificial tobacco stains on the walls) - anything as long as it didn't have the corporate styling.  Some of these initiatives, like Walkers, were quite welcome, but most, like the festival ale houses, were another example of brewery accountants deciding yet again that they knew what customers wanted better than the customers themselves, despite previous experience.

Most of my favourite pubs locally are ones that have retained their character - I'll name but a few:  the Guest House in Southport, the Ship in Haskayne, the Volunteer in Waterloo and the Globe, the Lion and Ye Cracke in Liverpool.  There are many more, too many to list, but these I've mentioned all have individual qualities.  We should be glad they managed to avoid being ripped out into open plan, being themed, being corporately styled, being stripped down to bare seats, walls and floors, or being sold off for flats.  Let's hope they survive the current danger of insolvency because of PubCo greed and excessive beer taxes.

*  Moons under water seem to be associated with pubs and beer.  For example, JW Lees brew a beer called Moonraker, the local name for people from Middleton.  It's said that when some poachers were approached by the constabulary, they threw their loot into a pond and began raking the reflection of the moon in the water, telling the officers they were trying to recover the green cheese.  The constables went on their way chuckling at the gullibility of the yokels.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Port Street Beer House festival

The Port Street Beer House, Manchester, is going dark.  From 22 November to around 6 December, the Port Street is having an 'Old & Dark Festival'.  They have been gathering beers of these styles in the cellar for some time.  A couple are to be launched at special events:  Hardknott Vitesse Noir on 23 November and Magic Rock's new imperial stout, Bearded Lady, on 28 November.  According to their website, the beers will include:

Great Divide Yeti
Mikkeller Vesterbro Coffee Stout
Magic Rock Bearded Lady
Magic Rock Dark Arts
Hard Knott Vitesse Noir
Thornbridge Raven
Thornbridge x Kernel Burton Ale
Kernel Export India Porter (Cask)
Summerwine Cossack
Summerwine Cohort
Marble Little Jim
Moor Old Freddy Walker
Brodies Superior London Porter
Left hand Wake Up dead
Red Willow Fathomless
Gadds Black Pearl

I understand that not all beers will be real; some will be in kegs. 
The beer house is at 39 - 47 Port Street, Manchester, M1 1EQ.

Monday 21 November 2011

Local Lancashire Celebration events

Lancashire Day is held on 27 November to commemorate the day in 1295 when the first representatives from Lancashire were summoned by Edward I to attend parliament at Westminster.  Southport was part of Lancashire until local government reorganisation in 1974, but many Southport people still consider themselves to be Lancastrians.  To celebrate the town's Lancashire connections, several local hostelries are putting on various events.  There's a lot of fun (and decent beer) to be had.

Tue 22 November:  Guest House, Union St, Southport, Lancashire Beers, Food, Charity Raffle and Entertainment with Southport Swords.

24 - 27 November:  Barons Bar, Scarisbrick Hotel, Lord St, Southport, Lancashire Beers, Quiz and Town Crier/Proclamation.

24 - 27 November:  Sir Henry Segrave (Wetherspoons), Lord St, Southport, Lancashire Beers, Food and Charity Raffle of Lancashire Goodies.

Sun 27 November:  Inn Beer Shop, 657 Lord St, Southport. Lancashire Beers, Food and Proclamation.

Sun 27 November:  The Hop Vine, Liverpool Road, Burscough, Lancashire Beers, Food, Charity Raffle, Proclamation and Entertainment with Tarleton Brass Band Sunday Afternoon.

You can read the Lancashire Day Proclamation here.  All these venues sell real ale, and the Inn Beer Shop has the best bottled beer range for miles.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Prog rock band named after a brewery

I've just discovered that a Midlands progressive rock band originally called themselves the MBs or the MB Five in the early 1960s in the hope that they'd get sponsorship from the Mitchells and Butlers brewery, which is often referred to as M&B.  Both the band and the brewery are from the Birmingham area.

As they didn't get the sponsorship, they expanded their name to The Moody Blues and the rest as they say (etc). Who knows what could have come of it? Their big single might have been "Pubs That I've Sat In".

Friday 18 November 2011

Local song for BBC folk awards

Kevin Littlewood is a local singer songwriter and a resident singer at the Bothy Folk Club here in Southport; he and I have occasionally performed together.  A few years ago, he wrote a song called On Morecambe Bay about the drowning in 2004 of 23 cockle pickers, all illegal immigrants mostly from the Fujian province of China.  In humanising the tragic plight of illegal immigrants - a reviled category in modern Britain - who lost their lives simply trying to earn a living, the theme of the song has resonances of the Woody Guthrie song Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos), which was covered by Joan Baez.

It's a great song that deserves to be heard more widely, so it's good news that it's been picked up by Irish singer Christy Moore, a founder member of Moving Hearts and Planxty but now known mostly as a solo artist.  His version of the song has been nominated in the Best Original Song category of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.  Here are all the nominations in the category:
  • The Herring Girl – Bella Hardy
  • Last – Adrian McNally (performed by The Unthanks)
  • On Morecambe Bay – Kevin Littlewood (performed by Christy Moore)
  • The Reckoning – Steve Tilston
The nominations in all categories are here.  To say that locally we're all quite excited about this is probably an understatement.  Here is Kevin singing his song, accompanied by fellow Bothy resident Chris Nelson on violin, with Christy Moore's cover version underneath.  Which is best?  It's up to you.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Lost pub - The Villiers, Liverpool

The Villiers was a quaint old pub in Liverpool on the corner of Elliott Street and Market Street.  It was like a local in the city centre, in much the same way that the nearby Globe still is.  It served the excellent original Higson's (brewery closed by Whitbread, like so many others).  I remember its steep stairs down to the gents which became more perilous after a few pints. 

The last time I was in there was in May 1985 with my friend Pete (known to beer bloggers as Tandleman).  We had just returned from our union (SCPS) conference in Eastbourne, a 7-day affair in those days that really taxed your stamina, especially with all the keg beer in the hotel bars where most of the union socials took place.  I recall one morning coming down for breakfast in my hotel to see a coterie of Scots who were still drinking around the bar from the social the evening before (I'd hit the sack at around 3.30 am). 

Pete and I went into the Villiers for a drink or two before going our separate ways - him in Liverpool and me home to Southport.  Later that year it was demolished to make way for the Clayton Square shopping centre.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Legends strike right note for Queenscourt

Our Lunchtime Legends gig on Friday (free entry - pass round the hat) raised £120.50 for Queenscourt Hospice. Thanks to all who came along, danced the night away and donated to this wonderful local charity. I'm still happy to accept donations if you weren't able to be there!

Till the next time then.

P.S. a late donation has increased the total to £130.50 - thanks.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Taxing the Sheep

Reading What's Brewing, the CAMRA newspaper, I noticed that in the last financial year, Black Sheep brewery paid almost £7.5 million in alcohol duty, 41% of its entire annual turnover.  No other industry, with the possible exception of tobacco, is similarly hit, but what happened to governments being committed to creating a competitive Britain for the 21st century?  Many pubs and breweries are struggling because of the tax regime; as the government knows this, I can only conclude that they regard pub and brewery closures as a price worth paying.  I don't see why I should pay excessive tax because certain other people believe that the legal product I choose to spend my own money on is a vice.

In the meantime, it's good that Black Sheep are making the point that beer is becoming unaffordable, because for many drinkers it is.  Among the people I know, I can't think of anyone who's given up going to pubs because of the smoking ban, but I do know some who have stopped, or seriously restricted their visits, because of the prices.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Fag Ash Lil at the Mount

I've just learnt that local classic rock band, Fag Ash Lil, are playing at the Mount Pleasant, Manchester Road, Southport this Saturday 12 November from around 915 pm.

Their website says:  "Formed in 2001, we have produced two CDs, both recorded at Parr Street Studios, Liverpool, entitled How It Really Is and Not Sorry. As well as performing our original material, other tracks in the set are from Free, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Skunk Anansie and even The Sensational Alex Harvey Band!  The vocals, provided by three members of the band, give a wide range of variety and diverse harmonies. The bass is solid and uncompromising and is complemented by driving percussion."

I've seen them several times and I'll be there on Saturday.  The Mount serves real Tetley Bitter.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Huers in Upholland

The Huers, a local folk roots acoustic duo comprising Phil Caffrey and Ian Cleverdon, are doing a special gig next Saturday in Up Holland. Full details can be found on the website, but briefly they are:

An Evening with The Huers
Saturday 12th November at 7.30pm.
St Thomas The Martyr Parish Church, Church Street, Up Holland, Lancs, WN8 0ND.
Tickets are £6 each (refreshments included) with ALL proceeds going to church funds.

St Thomas’s is a former priory which is over 700 years old. That combined with special lighting and our acoustic-based music will hopefully lead to a very special night.  To enquire about tickets, call 01695 627106; I understand that tickets are going really well. What’s more, there’s the White Lion across the road with Thwaites’ Wainwright usually on tap!

Also featuring special guest artist (and Huers sound engineer) Richard Abley.

Monday 7 November 2011

Even zealots have their price

Responsible marketing of cheap booze in Tesco earlier today
Strolling up Mount Pleasant in Liverpool today, I noticed this double window display of cut-price booze in the Tesco Express window.  Then I thought of Tesco's "commitment" to a minimum price for alcohol, a commitment which consisted of doing nothing except issuing grand statements and waiting for the government to introduce a minimum price.  Don Shenker, until recently Chief Executive of fake charity Alcohol Concern, said: “We welcome this announcement [in relation to minimum pricing] from Tesco and see these measures as important first steps towards more responsible supermarket alcohol sales."

We now have minimum pricing of sorts but it's still business as usual for cheap booze at Tesco's.  When Alcohol Concern refused to support the government's Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network, Mr Shenker said:  "By allowing the drinks industry to propose such half-hearted pledges on alcohol with no teeth, this government has clearly shown that when it comes to public health its first priority is to side with big business and protect private profit.”

Funny - when I looked into that Tesco window and remembered how Mr Shenker welcomed Tesco's initiatives (such as they were) on alcohol, I thought exactly the same thing about Alcohol Concern.

By the way, Don Shenker left Alcohol Concern recently when, due to a cut in government funding, his job became part-time.  Clearly a part-time percentage of his former £70,000+ salary (largely paid by the tax payer) wasn't enough to live on.  What was he spending it all on?  Not champagne, I hope.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Lunchtime Legends in Southport

The Legends at a previous
visit to the Park Golf Club
Next Friday 11 November, the Lunchtime Legends will be making their fifth visit to the Park Golf Club in Southport.  The band play a wide range of classic pop songs by artists as diverse as Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Sandy Posey, Brian Hyland, the Kinks, the Shirelles, Eddie Cochran, PP Arnold, and many others.  They have their own distinctive style, using an unusual array of instruments for a rock & roll band: acoustic guitar, accordion, keyboard and drums.

Everyone is invited and admission is free; there will be a collection for Queenscourt Hospice, the local charity the band has raised funds for three times previously. It all begins at 7.30 p.m. at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS, which has ample parking and real ale.

The above is adapted from the press release I sent the local papers.  The Legends consist of Candy Rell (vocals), Chris Harvey (keyboard, accordion), Clive Pownceby (drums, vocals) and Nev Grundy (vocals, guitar).  Yes, it's the band I play with.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Brewery beer festival in Preston

It seems that everyone is running beer festivals nowadays and in recent years, breweries have decided to get in on the act, which is good - more choice.  Preston brewery, Arkwright's, is holding its 1st Beer Festival this weekend, 3 - 6 November at St Walburge's Church Hall, Weston Street, Preston, PR2 2QE.  They tell us there will more than 100 real ales, ciders and perries, plus live music and other entertainment.  Some of the proceeds will go to good causes.  For more details, go to the festival website here.

Thu & Fri:  7 pm to 11 pm
Saturday:  Noon to 11 pm
Sunday:  1 pm to 3 pm

I hope to get there, but other things may get in the way!