Thursday 27 September 2012

The Cheshire Lines

The newly refurbished Cheshire Lines
The Cheshire Lines is probably the oldest pub in Southport. It is a quaint pub in King Street, and for many years has been noted for its meals; it has been popular with lovers of Tetley beers, whose ranks don't include me. I called in there last Friday, the day it reopened after refurbishment.

The Cheshire Lines is rather picturesque, consisting of a small bar area as you enter with a cosy snug to the left, and a larger room to the rear. It has been nicely redecorated without changing the structure or character of the pub; I understand there was quite a lot of essential maintenance needed too, and the toilets have at last entered the 21st century. There is free wifi for anyone who wants it.

The beers that were on were: Marstons EPA, Marstons Pedigree, Thwaites Original as well as the customary Tetley Bitter. I enjoyed a couple of pints of the Pedigree. This is perhaps not the most exciting of ranges, but the licensee was telling me that she hopes to start stocking beers from local microbrewers, such as Southport and Burscough, and perhaps instal an extra handpump. The changing guest beers have found favour with quite a few of the regular customers, and I've no doubt they will attract more real ale drinkers who, like me, aren't enticed by Tetley's. I called in again on Saturday, and the place was nicely busy, so the reopened pub seems to have made a good start.

I know I'll be visiting more frequently than I used to.

The repainted pub sign ~ the new version is on the right. I'm glad to see
the old Walker's Brewery sign still sitting on top.

Monday 24 September 2012

Cains no longer able

I visited two real ale pubs today, the Railway in Formby and the Arion in Ainsdale, both of which have improved dramatically in recent years. The Arion had been closed down for 18 months until about a year ago, and some of us thought it might have been closed for good. It now serves four real ales and is happy with the way they're selling. The Railway has increased its range considerably in the last couple of years and regularly has 6 to 9 real ales on at any time.

Both licensees commented that more women and young people were choosing real ales, especially as there was more variety nowadays. What interested me most was that both licensees independently stated that they had stopped stocking Cains beers because of a serious decline in quality, with even casks bursting open and spraying their contents all over the cellar. My own impression as a drinker was that quality went seriously downhill after the reverse takeover by Cain's of Honeycombe Leisure went pear-shaped and the business went into administration, hastened by an unpaid tax bill.

I particularly used to like Cain's FA, Triple Hop and Sundowner beers: I haven't see the last two for a while, but I did try the FA a few months ago in the Guest House in Southport, and it was still disappointing. A year or two ago I tried a new beer, Liver Bird, in Cain's Brewery Tap, but wasn't impressed at all. You don't see Cain's beers around as often as you used to; I haven't seen it in the Cain's pub on Renshaw Street, the Dispensary, for ages. Apparently when Cain's was in turmoil, they got permission to buy their beer from anywhere just to keep the pub open, and neither the licensee or the customers particularly want Cain's back, leading to the bizarre situation that a Cain's pub that has won CAMRA Liverpool's Pub of the Year award in Liverpool doesn't actually sell Cain's.

I know that Cain's has recruited a brewer from Brain's of Cardiff. I must give their beers another go to see whether this has led to any improvement, but even if it has, the problem for Cain's is that a bad reputation is very hard to shake off. It's sad that the company that inhabits the former home of the legendary Higson's beers has come to this sorry state. I expect that the production of own-brand tinned beers for supermarkets, which has always constituted a large proportion of Cain's production, is what keeps the company afloat.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Duty to Parliament

The e-petition receives
some unexpected support
An e-petition to the Government against the beer duty escalator has reached 100,000 signatures, which means that the matter now has to be debated in Parliament. As I'm sure most readers here will know, the beer tax escalator increases the tax on beer by 2% above the rate of inflation, and is a significant reason why beer has gone up in my local pubs by about 50% over the last 4 or 5 years, and - in my opinion - why pubs have been closing down in such numbers in recent years. 

I have written several times about this issue (instead of me regurgitating those arguments, you can see the posts here), but I will just point out one fact: the UK pays 40% of the beer tax in the EU, with the 26 other countries paying the remaining 60%. We can't blame Brussels for that - we created this all by ourselves. To clear up one misconception, the e-petition doesn't call for a tax cut, just for the end of above inflation tax rises.

It's not too late to sign, and more signatures will give the petition even more clout. Just click here.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Rank amateurs

The Lunchtime legends at Whitby -
two of these performers are amateurs!
If you think about it, it's a funny business being an active amateur performer. As a folk club resident singer, I often open for our guest artists, who are of course paid an agreed fee. On the folk scene, there are many unpaid organisers and performers rubbing shoulders with the pros and semi-pros who make some kind of living out of performing. Your status doesn't seem to matter that much: at festivals, I've seen booked performers spending some of their free time at informal singarounds or music sessions. There are some precious acts who wouldn't dream of doing that, but they are the exception rather than the rule. As an example, when our band, the Lunchtime Legends (all drawn from the folk scene) play at Whitby during Folk Week, we play pop and rock & roll, and Clive, our drummer and Bothy Folk Club organiser, uses his many contacts to persuade one of the festival guests to come and open for us. They always enter the spirit of what is only a matter of fun, but I can't imagine someone from the pop or rock scene pretending to be the support act for an amateur rock band. The Legends themselves are a similarly unusual band in that two members (Clive and me) are amateurs and two (Chris and Alison, or rather Candy Rell) are professionals. I put all of this down to the fact that singing and playing is the main reason why all of us do it, whether we get paid or not. There is a line, however, that shouldn't be crossed: if I were offered a booking as the main act at a folk club, I'd usually expect some kind of fee; I wouldn't do it for nothing, because you would then be undercutting people who do rely on bookings for a living.

Similar principles apply outside of the folk scene. If I've played a couple of songs in a pub, I have been asked on occasion whether I'd like to play in their pub one evening, and they'd see me right. This sounds good, until you realise it usually just means a few free pints. If they want an evening's free entertainment, then I'm not going to provide it; they should put their hand in their pockets and pay someone. I've no wish to undercut anyone who makes any kind of living out of music. And yet, I do play in pubs several times a month with other performers at acoustic song and music sessions. The difference is that we do that on our own terms: we play what we want, when we want, and for as long as we want. We'll do a request if we happen to know it, but we're under no obligation to learn a repertoire for the audience. On the rare occasion when I've been asked to bring out my PA system and entertain all evening, I tend to expect a fee.

Fundraisers are another matter again. The problem with these is that, because the artists are usually not being paid and the room's usually free too, some organisers don't put enough effort into publicising the event, taking the view that as whatever money they take goes to the good cause, that's good enough. I do know some acts who will demand a fee, thus forcing the organisers to make greater efforts to get people in to cover their costs, and then they'll waive their fee afterwards as a donation. I've played fundraisers, just me and my guitar, in nearly empty large rooms, and found it discouraging, and I can therefore understand that if you're in a band that normally gets paid, considering all the work involved in rehearsals, setting up and taking down, it's no fun at all if they haven't tried to get people in.

I have once or twice been told that, as a committed trade unionist, I should belong to the Musicians Union. I remember my friend Bernie Blaney and I were playing as a duo at a club in Southport for people with learning difficulties. One of the other performers was a local MU official and afterwards he approached us to ask whether we'd like to join a MU roadshow he was arranging. I replied that we'd like that, but that, as amateurs, we weren't MU members. He walked away and didn't speak to us again. There is nothing in it for me to join the MU: I don't have employers, contracts or fees and my equipment is covered by my house insurance. I'd be paying £177 a year for no benefits whatsoever. If my amateur status should ever change, which is unlikely, then of course I'd join, but as things stand, it's just another of those oddities of being a regular amateur performer.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Blanket Apology at the George

An old Whitbread sign in the George
This Saturday, 22 September, local band Blanket Apology will be playing at the George Hotel, corner of Duke Street and Cemetery Road from around 8.30 p.m.  Blanket Apology are basically a blues-influenced rock band led by guitarist Mick Cooper, and with a  new lead singer, Sue Raymond - well fairly new now. I wrote about the band in more detail in June. They've asked me to do a couple of songs too, which I'm looking forward to.

The George is a nice pub but unfortunately it doesn't sell real ale, so it looks like it will be Guinness for me.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Hillsborough - drunken lies

It's my view that most people in Liverpool, if they didn't know anyone who was killed or injured in the Hillsborough disaster, knew somebody who was at the match; I certainly did. All who were there, even if uninjured, were deeply shocked by the fatal disaster they saw unfolding before their eyes. The lies and cover-up that took place have at long last been placed on record today, and it is a disgrace that the Hillsborough families had to use their own money to try to get to the truth, while those who were lying had ready access to taxpayers' money to conceal their wrong-doings; such expenditure must now be investigated as misappropriation of public funds.

Today's extraordinary developments have been covered elsewhere in more detail than I can in a post here, so I intend to concentrate on one aspect: the lies about drunken, out of control Liverpool fans. Liverpool fans were, and are, ordinary people, not saints, but they did have a reputation for being well-behaved at a time when the word 'football' had often been linked in the media with the word 'hooligan'. Police incompetence caused a disaster of unprecedented proportions, and their response was to begin their cover-up and lies on the actual day of the tragedy by blaming the fans. Senior police officers and the local Tory MP, Irvine Patnick, claimed drunken louts had caused the crowd problems and, when it was clear that hundreds were injured and dozens dead, accused the fans of attacking police who were trying to help injured fans, of stealing from the dead and of urinating on bodies and on the emergency services - all fuelled (they claimed) by alcohol. They tried to find 'evidence' of drunkenness by asking relatives of the dead how much their loved ones had had to drink - this while they were trying to absorb the news of their losses - and by testing the blood of all the dead, including the children, for evidence of drink. And as for the police accessing the records of the dead to see whether they had criminal records ... unbelievable.

We now know (although some of us consider we have known this all along) that this was a lie, and that the fans had behaved extremely well, warned the police that some people were likely to be injured or killed, and when those warnings were ignored and thus came horribly true, tore down advertising placards - condemned as hooliganism at the time - to use as makeshift stretchers. We also know that, while some fans had had a drink, there was no evidence either of mass drunkenness or of misbehaviour. So how did the lies of the police and The Sun strike a chord with so many people for so long?

People usually tend to believe what the police tell them, probably less so now than 23 years ago, so their stories of drunkenness did a lot to give the cover-up credibility at a time when the popular perception of football fans among the general public - gleaned from the press - was that they were habitually drunk and violent; the lies of the police, repeated by The Sun, fitted into such prejudices perfectly. People tend to believe stories that match what they already know or, rather, what they think they already know.

There are many things that went wrong in relation to Hillsborough, covered more extensively elsewhere, but I can't help feeling that police lies were given credibility by tapping into a moral panic concerning alcohol and drunken football fans, with the resulting misconceptions being a significant factor in causing this injustice to fester for 23 years. As the fight for justice continues, I look forward to seeing heads roll.

I've had a link to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign since the first day of this blog.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Masonic revival & others

The acoustic song nights at the Mason's, which were suspended for the summer, are returning next week. As usual, they're open to anyone either to perform or just to listen. The pub serves Robinson's real ale, and they usually provide sandwiches on the night. The music tends to be eclectic, from folk song to old pop and rock songs, and usually a few tunes along the way as well.

That's in the Mason's Arms, Anchor Street, Southport on Wednesday 19 September from around 8.30pm.

While I'm posting this, I might as well mention:
  • my acoustic song session in the Lion Tavern in Moorfields, Liverpool this Thursday the 13th from 8.30pm. 8 real ales.
  • a singers night this Sunday the 16th at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Thwaites real ale. Performers get in free.

Monday 10 September 2012

"More women drinking beer" - Sainsbury's

Borrowed from Lipstick On The Rim 
In 2002, Gordon Brown introduced Progressive Beer Duty, which allowed smaller breweries to pay less tax on their products. While it is not without its critics, for instance that it creates a glass ceiling because brewers will stop expanding when they are just below the point at which the higher rate of tax is payable, it is generally credited with being a significant factor in the huge increase in the number of microbreweries. According to Sainsbury’s, it has led to another interesting and unforeseen effect, that more women are drinking beer because, with more breweries, there are more varieties that appeal to women.

Sainsbury’s beer buyer Nicky Millington said, ‘There has definitely been a rise in women trying beers as there are a whole load of new tastes such as espresso, mocha, lemon, ginger and honey which appeal to them more than the traditional brown ales.’ She added that there were also more women working in brewing.

I find this interesting, although she does seem to be suggesting that the way to get women drinking beer is via novelty ales. But if beer is not seen as a monoculture, if the perception is that there is a variety of different flavours to be had, that must be a good thing. Flavoured beers aren’t going to displace the more conventional ales that many of us usually drink. But even I enjoyed a pint of honey beer at the Ship Beer, Pie and Sausage Festival in Lathom last week.

One thought has just occurred to me that there seem to be fewer silly sexist names and pumpclips that in my view discourage some women from trying beer by strongly implying it’s a drink for the lads. It’s a fairly modern phenomenon that beer was treated as a male drink – I blame the 1960s, when women were supposed to drink silly, girly drinks like Pony and Babycham, or grudgingly be bought “just a half of lager”. So perhaps the artifical distinctions between male and female drinking tastes are diminishing, which is good for beer diversity. 

As for Progressive Beer Duty, it may not be perfect but by encouraging the brewing of a greater diversity of beers, the favourable effects far outweigh the undesirable. And this story is unusual in being a positive example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The full story is here.

Friday 7 September 2012

Lunchtime pints key to economic recovery

According to the influential current affairs website, the Daily Mash, it has been claimed that drinking at least three pints at lunchtime could put Britain's economy back on track. Soulless American-style business 'experts' have been responsible for the demise of the enjoyable and morale-boosting break from the daily grind and replacing it with a sad buttie by the computer.  No wonder the level of disenchantment with employers is on the increase.

You can read the full article here.

Thursday 6 September 2012

The Ship Beer, Pie and Sausage Festival

The 1st Beer, Pie and Sausage Festival last year
One of the more unusual local beer festivals begins tomorrow: the Ship Beer, Pie and Sausage Festival at the Ship ("Blood Tub") in Lathom, near Burscough. It's a picturesque canalside pub. There will be at least 35 handpulled beers and 15 ciders from across the country in a beer tent erected just for the festival. There will also be a range of specially prepared pies and some fine local sausages. At some point Dave Sharp, guitarist with The Alarm, will be performing, as will Mancunian Darren Poyzer. You can find more details of the festival here.

That's at the Ship, Wheat Lane, Lathom, W. Lancs, L40 4BX from Friday 7 to Sunday 9 September. For CAMRA members there's a preview this evening; don't forget your membership card.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

John Kirkpatrick kicks off autumn season

Apparently we've now had summer (I blinked and missed it), and this Sunday the Bothy's autumn season opens with the great John Kirkpatrick as the guest. John is a multi-talented performer, being an expert performer of reed instruments (squeeze boxes in popular parlance), a singer of interesting and sometimes unusual folk songs, a lifelong Morris dancer, and in his marginal time has been a composer, choreographer and musical director, contributing to dozens of stage and radio plays.

He is highly regarded as a solo performer, but the list of musicians and singers he has collaborated with reads like a Who's Who of the folk scene for the last half century, so highly is he regarded by his peers. A peek at his impressive gig history will tell you more.

He is not averse to a bit of fun and has twice opened for the Lunchtime Legends (for whom I sing) during Whitby Folk Week when he played rock & roll sets. Despite that setback, he remains one of the stars of the folk scene, although you'd never know it from his unpretentious and friendly manner. It's going be a busy night, so best not arrive late.

That's this Sunday 9 September at the Bothy Folk Club in the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS at 8.00pm. Tickets available on-line here. The Park Golf Club serves real Thwaites beer.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Why do people drink?

The most recent edition of Beer magazine, issued quarterly by CAMRA with What’s Brewing, really brought home to me how different people consume beer in different ways, and sometimes for different reasons. For me, drinking real ale is a social activity, which I almost always do in company, perhaps chatting with friends, or playing in a pub acoustic session or folk club. Beer is a part of the evening’s pleasure, and while I do have my favourites, I can drink an unexceptional beer in such social contexts if I’m enjoying the evening as a whole. That doesn't mean I'll drink beers I don’t like, and as it’s knocking on for £3 a pint, I don’t see why I should have to. I rarely drink bottled beers – even real ale in a bottle isn’t, I find, as good as draught - and I rarely drink beer at home, unless I have a beer-drinking visitor.

The first article that got me thinking was about the UK’s first qualified beer sommeliers. A sommelier’s job in a restaurant is to advise diners on wines and on wine and food pairing, so beer sommeliers do the same with beer. Now, I have absolutely no interest beer and food pairing, and my experience of it has hitherto been confined to a ploughman’s lunch and a pint of bitter - a wonderful combination. I don’t tend to drink much beer, or wine for that matter, when I’m eating. I found it interesting to read the enthusiasm of these new sommeliers for beer and food matching, even though it’s not one I share. My worry is that it takes beer further away from its origins as the drink of working people, and makes it an adjunct to classy dinner parties. That doesn’t seem right to me.

The next was a letter in Beer by a home brewer who wanted to produce beers as good as those he could buy in a pub, and in unusual styles. He and other home brewers meet to taste each other’s beers in two Cambridge pubs that are willing to let them, as long as they buy some beer too. I had always thought that any alcohol drunk in licensed premises had to be bought there; if I’m right, this activity is illegal. But that’s not really my point. Going to a pub to drink home brew as an end in itself seems quite odd to me: the beer will be bottled – as I said, I prefer draught – and it is the sole reason for being there. It isn’t a part of the evening – it is the evening. The writer says he “can enjoy [his] own tasty, kegged beers costing as little as 50p a pint”. I’m not sure about anyone extolling keg beers in a CAMRA magazine – home-made or otherwise – but this whole approach is neither how nor why I drink.

The third and, from my perspective, most extreme example is from the What’s Brewing letters page in which the writer tells us that he joined CAMRA, not CAMPO (the Campaign to keep pubs open), stating that if he chooses to drink real ale in a bottle and sit “behind closed doors” while comparing tasting notes on-line, he’s perfectly entitled to. The phrase “behind closed doors” must be a reference to something I missed in a previous edition. He is of course absolutely right, and it seems to me that the critic of his style of drinking was being rather arrogant, but I can’t see any attraction in doing that myself; it is the diametric opposite of my beer drinking habits.

I’m not passing judgement; people can drink how they like, and it would be a dreary world if we all thought and acted the same, but from the outside, beer drinkers probably come across as a homogeneous group. This post is no more than some musings upon how wrong such a perception would be.

I wonder what beer the sommeliers would suggest to pair with pie and chips?
P.S. I've just noticed that this is my 700th post.

Monday 3 September 2012

Acoustic night in a great Southport pub

I meant to post this a few days ago, but went away to Fylde. It's my acoustic/folk singaround tonight in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport, from about 8.30pm. Open to all - free admission - performing optional, but welcome.

There are loads of real ales in the Guest House, and it's currently serving: Cyclone 3.8%, Young's Special 4.5%, Farmers Blonde 4%, Old Peculier 5.6%, Deuchars IPA 3.8%, Oakwell Mild 3.4%, Theakston Best 3.8%, Tiger 4.2%, Cumberland 4%, Ruddles Best 3.7% and Adnams Explorer 4.3%. 

That's a pretty good range for a pub subject to a PubCo tie.