Monday 31 December 2012

Review of my ale and music year

Around this time of year, bloggers tend to do a review of the year. I don't feel able to speak generally about the whole country on the enormous subjects of music and ale, so I've decided to write a short review of my personal year.

Best Folk Club: Southport's Bothy, which is one of the oldest folk clubs on the country, continues to provide, within the limits of what a voluntary, non-profit making organisation can, an excellent range of guests withing the folk scene, using the broadest definition of that term. Traditional singers, singer-songwriters, old established favourites and rising young stars make up the guest nights. In between guest nights, there are singers nights when anyone can get up to play a couple of songs and tunes: the quality of singers nights is such that some people prefer them to the guest nights. The format hasn't altered since the club was founded in 1965, and it has clearly passed the test of time.

Favourite pub: this has to be the Guest House in Union Street, Southport. Despite being a pubco tenancy, Gail the licensee consistently has up to 11 real ales on, which usually constitute a mixture of microbrewery offerings alongside more familiar regionals. This does mean that occasionally the selection is not especially exciting for lovers of microbrewery beers, but generally I'm more than happy with what's on offer; I don't know of any tenancy that can provide such a range. The pub itself is just over 100 years old, largely unaltered with wood-panelled walls and it hosts acoustic music nights on the first and third Mondays of each month.

Favourite pub in Liverpool is harder: the Ship and Mitre on Dale Street has an excellent range but suffers from a ill-judged 1960s refurbishment, while the Lion on Moorfields also has a good range and is an attractive mini-gin palace as well. The former pub hosts the Woody Guthrie Folk Club (last Thursday of the month), while the latter has my acoustic song session on the 2nd Thursday of the month.

Favourite beers: around the 4% mark, I'd mention Southport Golden Sands (4.0%) and Liverpool Organic 24 Carat Gold (4.2%). My favourite strong beer has to be Liverpool Organic Shipwreck, a 6.5% IPA. Honourable mentions go to two Wigan breweries: Prospect for consistently good beer and Allgates for its significant improvement. The formerly good Cains of Liverpool continues to be disappointing.

Best Beer Festival: for my money, the Wigan Beer Festival. Although it's in a sports hall with less atmosphere than the now redeveloped Wigan Pier venue, it makes up in so many other ways: much more extensive and interesting range of beers than before, ample seating for all, regular courtesy bus between the festival and the town centre, and it's friendly to boot. To any who still miss the old venue: the festival was outgrowing Wigan Pier even before it moved, and would have no chance of fitting in there now even if it were available. The National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester and the Southport Beer Festival also worth visiting.

Favourite Music Festival: this has to be Whitby Folk Week. I've been going since 1988 (with one year missed since). The setting of a beautiful old fishing town is unique with a good range of guests and events in various venues across the town, pub sessions for songs and tunes all over the town, frequent folk dancing in the streets, plus for me the annual Lunchtime Legends gig in the Elsinore, which has been a fixture of the folk week fringe since 1992. Also extremely good was Fairport Convention's Cropredy Festival, which had a completely different character: a big stage in a field with a succession of acts invited by Fairport throughout the weekend. Their big-name guests this year included Squeeze, Joan Armatrading, Bellowhead, Richard Thompson, The Saw Doctors, Dennis Locorriere, Big Country, Ashley Hutchings Morris On, and Richard Digance, plus a load of newer artists, most of whom I hadn't heard of but who were all pretty good.

Best non-folk gig: rock band Karnataka whom I saw in St Helens. Hint of progressive and hint of Goth, but mainly themselves. If you recall All About Eve, Karnataka are vaguely in that style. A seasoned band with good material and a lead singer, Hayley Griffiths, who has a beautiful voice.

Biggest disappointment of the year: being put on tablets in April for four weeks with no drinking for a month. During this period, I went to stay with my friend Geoff in London, but the expected pub crawls didn't materialise and the trip to Fullers Brewery was interesting but lost something with me on the wagon. I also opted out of a Wigan beer festival helpers' trip to Ulverston Brewery during this period, and I cut short my attendance at a friend's stag night once I'd had my fill of pub coffee.

Best apocalypse: 21 December, which was when the Mayans had supposedly foretold our doom.

Favourite blog: after this one? Too close to call!

All the best for 2013!

Sunday 30 December 2012

I wish they'd put a sock in it

One of our local free sheets has given up nearly half a page to the "Dry January" campaign that other bloggers, such as Curmudgeon, have already talked about; the campaign aims to nag people to give up drink for a month. The newspaper stated that "A number of members of the public and organisations [in Sefton] have already come forward to take part in the Alcohol Concern campaign, which aims to give participants time to think about their own drinking."

Well, firstly, can the paper tell us how many members of the public in Sefton have "come forward"? They can cite just one. The organisations are all the usual suspects, plus a couple who probably felt it would reflect badly upon them if they didn't take part, which might explain why the Health and Safety Executive signed up. Their own website states: "HSE's job is to protect people against risks to health or safety arising out of work activities", which is quite clearly a separate brief altogether.

A local chemist, which I won't name, has leapt upon the bandwagon by signing up all its staff to take part. It has been rewarded by a good plug in the paper and a photograph of the shop featuring all the staff, all very valuable free publicity, I'm sure. 

As for the ostensible reason for the campaign, that of making us think about our own drinking: this sounds rather patronising to me, that we all have to put ourselves on the naughty step to make us think about our misdeeds. Most drinkers are not problem drinkers, which even the anti-alcohol campaigners have accepted, so why are they trying to impose guilt trips upon them? I believe there is a combination of motives:
  • There are those who truly believe the propaganda and see it as their mission to spread the message; for instance, medical experts or social workers who see the damage that unsafe drinking can do, and extrapolate from what they see to the population at large. Such people can be quite persuasive, even when their sweeping assumptions go beyond their areas of expertise.
  • There are the puritans and morality merchants who see pubs as (to use old-fashioned terminology) dens of iniquity that they'd never set foot in and, although they deny it, they'd prefer to see drink restricted almost to the point of prohibition.
  • There are the law and order people who believe that city and town centres are like Sodom and Gomorrah at weekends, their view no doubt fuelled by live action police programmes, which of course show the worst, not the norm. A trouble-free Saturday night in a town centre won't make good TV.
  • There are the emergency services who'd, perhaps understandably, prefer a quieter life on the streets, but that doesn't mean any remedies they suggest are automatically correct.
Are all these good enough reasons to try to make ordinary people feel that drinking is some kind of aberrant activity? Furthermore, are these tactics likely to work? The answer to both is no. It is wrong to provoke guilt about an activity when you know that most people don't have a problem with it. This approach won't work because the main effect will be to drive drinking out of sight, something which is well on the way to happening with increased home drinking, shown by rising supermarket sales, and reduced pub going, demonstrated by pub closures. Pub closures aren't an economic form of evolution, with the weakest driven to the wall; rather they are a result of what Curmudgeon refers to as deliberate denormalisation of alcohol.

Obviously some pubs do become uneconomic, but the acceleration of closures since the duty escalator was introduced is not coincidental. The campaigners are out to achieve results, and, with government funding behind them (Alcohol Concern is almost entirely funded by us taxpayers, and more insultingly, by us beer duty payers), they have no shortage of our resources to pursue their objectives.

If you want to give up alcohol for January for your own reasons, go ahead, but don't take much notice of these silly, gimmicky campaigns that to me reek of desperation. In the meantime, just remember that pubs are open throughout January.


Tuesday 25 December 2012

Season's Greetings

Happy Christmas
Whether or not you like Christmas, it can always be improved by a decent beer. I hope everyone has a good time. Cheers!

Sunday 23 December 2012

Xmas cheer

Tonight is the Bothy's Xmas Party night. As well as loads of local performers, there will be the Bothy Chorale (and even I'm not quite sure what that it), hot pot and of course the usual Thwaites Wainwright. Old friends often turn up for the party night, and it should be good fun. It's basically a singers night, although if you want to play, I suggest you get there early. It begins at 8.00 p.m. tonight at the Park Golf Club, Southport, PR9 0JS.

The Southport Swords
On Boxing Day, if you need to escape from the flood of "heart warming" Xmas films on TV, you can instead watch the Southport Swords. They will be out on their customary Boxing Day dance tour which begins at the Hesketh, Botanic Road, Churchtown at lunchtime, going on to the Guest House, Union Street, Southport at about 2.30 p.m. These being the Swords, timings are very approximate.

Both pubs serve real ale.

Friday 21 December 2012

Whoops! No Apocalypse!

On Radio 4 today, a traveller was being interviewed after his rail journey had been cancelled. The reporter asked, "Is your journey done then?"
His reply: "Everybody's journey's done; it's the end of the world."

Thursday 20 December 2012

Crawling in Liverpool

Liverpool has a great buzz in the run-up the Christmas, the streets and pubs being full of people out to have a good time as only Liverpool people can. My friend Jean's annual Christmas crawl of selected real ale pubs takes place tonight, the 20th December, in Liverpool. There will the usual mixture of people, including folkies and CAMRA types, but basically anyone who wants to tag along is welcome.  The itinerary is below, and we're usually fairly good at keeping to the times, should you want to join part way through. It must be said, though, that this is a pretty good pub crawl at any time of the year. Cheers!

Wednesday 19 December 2012

State-enforced teetotalism?

A Tory nightmare
Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke has proposed that benefit claimants should receive their money on a special debit card that would not work for luxury purchases such as alcohol, cigarettes, Sky TV and gambling, thus ensuring taxpayers' money was spent "wisely" and "for the purpose for which it was intended".

When I joined the DHSS, as it was called then, in the 1980s, we sometimes used to do something similar in cases where there was serious misspending of benefits; for example, we might make a giro payable to the local supermarket. The DHSS's instructions at the time were to do this only in extreme cases, as it deprived claimants of choice and could cause them embarrassment and humiliation by letting the shop workers and other customers know that they were on benefits. Not an attitude you'd get today when official DWP guidance to staff includes referring destitute claimants for food parcels. It didn't work anyway. Anyone who really was intent on misspending their money would get cash by simply selling on the giro at a loss, and that's what would happen with benefit payment cards: people would buy permitted goods and sell them for cash. This would definitely be the first action of the alcoholic or drug addict.

Furthermore, I doubt it would be technically possible to ensure that every retail outlet in the land is equipped to discriminate between different purchases, such as between food and booze, and some retailers would allow the purchases anyway, either because they were sympathetic or because they just wanted the business.

More than the impracticality of the proposal, by what right does this Tory believe the state should control people's behaviour in this way? Unless you think that there is a suitable job available for every unemployed person, and official figures show otherwise, then many people claiming benefit are not unemployed because they want to be. The same applies to many sick, disabled and lone parent claimants. If they choose to spend some of their money on drink or a packet of fags, it's no more anyone else's business than if I choose to do so. Having had several spells of enforced unemployment myself, I well remember going for a pint as a rare treat. People on benefits are entitled to some pleasures in life, even if it is just a packet of fags or some cheap booze from a supermarket every so often. 

Enforced abstinence is never successful; it just makes the banned items seem even more desirable. I yearned for the day when I could go into a pub and not worry about whether I had enough for a pint, or even several! Mr Shelbrooke states that he wants to end the something-for-nothing stigma of the welfare system. Well, he should know about that, seeing that he enjoys the benefits of the most generous and least regulated 
expenses regime in the public sector (and far better than most private ones too); he also benefits from taxpayer subsidies when he buys alcohol and food in the Palace of Westminster. What is it someone said about removing the plank from your own eye before trying to remove the speck of dust from someone else's?

The story is here

Curiously, Mr Shelbrooke's Wikipedia page says he was "Constructed in 1976", rather than "Born". What is it they're not telling us?

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Fresh air or marketing hype?

I first came across Thwaites Wainwright (4.1%) in 2007 when it was put on at the Park Golf Club, Southport, home of our folk club, as an alternative to the usual Thwaites Bomber. It proved very popular with most real ale drinkers there, and the Bomber eventually disappeared for good. It's a pleasant golden ale, named after Alfred Wainwright, author of the famous walking guidebooks, and while it's by no means my favourite, it's quite acceptable and rather better than many of the bland pale offerings some regionals produce. Since its launch, I have been increasingly seeing it all over the place, and it was even a guest beer when I went into a pub in London a few weeks ago (and a pound more than I'm used to paying here in Merseyside). According to Thwaites, it is now the fastest growing top 25 cask ale in the UK and a Top 20 premium bottled ale in the off trade. In short, it's becoming very popular.

I was therefore slightly concerned to read that Thwaites intends to make Wainwright a Top 10 ale in the UK over the next three years beginning with a £2 million investment across the on and off trade. Playing on the brand name’s obvious association with walking and the outdoors, a new slogan "A Breath of Fresh Ale" has been devised. A Thwaites Wainwright Pub Walks App has been created to cross Thwaites' list of Wainwright stockists with Cask Marque's 8000 pubs so you can get pub walks straight on your smartphone. Thwaites will also push the beer through sports sponsorships.

Perhaps I'm being too cautious and should welcome a regional brewery investing heavily in a real ale, but I can't help thinking about other local or regional beers that became national and lost much of their character, such as Boddingtons, Ruddles County or Deuchars IPA. Perhaps times have changed and they can increase sales (or should that be "grow the brand"?) without any loss of quality. I hope so, but as the good Doctor once said, "Time will tell - it always does."

Monday 17 December 2012

Guest House music tonight

A session in the Guest House
The last pub acoustic music session of the year in Southport will take place tonight (Monday) in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport. As usual, it's free and playing along with the music isn't compulsory; you can just listen if you like. The Guest House is of course noted for its good beer range, and they usually provide free chip butties on music nights.

If you fancy joining in, get to the Guest House with your instruments at around 8.00 p.m.this evening. These sessions are often very popular, so don't leave it too late if you want a seat.

Friday 14 December 2012

Carols & ale ~ a jolly wassail!

In the Fishermen's Rest in Birkdale, local singers from the Bothy Folk Club and elsewhere will be running a carol singing session. They have been doing this in Southport for more than 30 years, though not always in this particular pub. The Fishermen's Rest is a pleasant little pub, being the only remnant of the former, allegedly haunted, Palace Hotel that used to dominate the area. It has an interesting, if rather tragic, history that I briefly described here two years ago.

This Sunday, singers and musicians will be gathering from midday, with the singing actually beginning at around 1.00 p.m. and going on until about 3.00 p.m. The pub has four changing real ales, always well-kept in my experience.

Admission is of course free, and if you want to join in, although you don't have to, song sheets will be available, but you'll have to buy your own beer. The Fishermen's Rest is on Weld Road in Birkdale, Southport.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Sorry, stats again!

I didn't intend to come back to this topic so soon, having discussed it last month when I said that "the number of hits I received in October was helped partly by all the information I published about the Southport Beer Festival, so no doubt I'll get fewer hits this month now that's over. Perhaps I'll have a corresponding jump in the [beer] blog rankings."

Well, the number of hits has dropped as expected, although not down to its previous level (thanks folks!), but my tongue in cheek suggestion I'll jump in the blog rankings has, to my surprise, actually come about: up 26 places to 38, the highest position ever. Yet again I can't make any sense of it, and in the up-down nature of these things, I'm not holding my breath I'll stay there.

Still, it's nice to see that figure on the blog (bottom of right hand column), if only fleetingly. If you'd like to look at who else is in the beer blog Hot 100, click here.

P.S. Looking at the statcounter to see where the visits to the blog are coming from, I was surprised to see that only 65.4% are from the UK (it's usually around 90%), with 13.4% from the USA and 5.6% from Finland, although it likely that some of the Finnish ones might be accounted for by Harri, the real ale hunter from Finland whom I met at the beer festival.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Scotch Piper songs & ale

The region's most peripatetic singaround that began life many years ago in the Ship Inn in Haskayne has found another new home: the historic Scotch Piper in Lydiate. Following from its leaving of the Ship, it has spent time at the Running Horses and Weld Blundell, both also in Lydiate. Apparently the latest move has something to do with a clash between the requirements of a singaround and those of big screen TVs.

The Scotch Piper boasts that it is the oldest pub in Lancashire and displays the year AD 1320 on its sign. It has whitewashed walls and a thatched roof and is undoubtedly ancient. According to local legend, the pub was named because in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie's retreating Jacobite army left wounded piper in the care of the pub. When he recovered from his injuries, he stayed and married the landlord's daughter. The pub has a tiny bar and snug to the left as you go in and two rooms to the right; the singaround is in the farthest. Unlike the previous pub that the singaround met at, it does serve real ale, which was in good nick when I was last there a few weeks ago. Like all singarounds, there is no admission charge and you can either perform or just listen, as you prefer.

The pub is worth a visit at any time and is very close to the Leeds-Liverpool canal. It is on Southport Road (the A5147), Lydiate, L31 4HD. This is a good pub; I hope the singaround can find a permanent home here.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Bothy guests: James Hickman and Dan Cassidy

The guests this Sunday at the Bothy are James Hickman and Dan Cassidy, a newly formed transatlantic folk and roots duo. Dan Cassidy (USA), provides an exciting array of fiddling renditions, while James Hickman (UK), brings his driving guitar playing and wonderfully unique interpretations of songs to their mixture of new and old folk music.

They're on this Sunday 9 December at 8.00 p.m. at the Bothy Folk Club in Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Thwaites real ale. On-line tickets here.

Here they are at the Uxbridge Folk Club playing The Tiger Rag:

Monday 3 December 2012

London to close?

Photo from Oakwell brewery website
We're hearing worrying rumours that the London Hotel on Windsor Road, Southport, is to be demolished and houses built on the site. As the pub has a bowling green, it's sitting on a sizeable piece of land, so I can see why the owners might be tempted to cash in on the value of their property. However, I have checked on the local authority website and can see no record of planning permission being applied for.

The London sells Oakwell beers, including Barnsley Bitter, a highly regarded pint in some circles, at extremely low prices (well under £2 a pint last time I was in earlier this year). I won't repeat previous posts: you can see what I wrote about it in January here. The London's in a residential area with no other pubs in the immediate vicinity. I'll try to find out what is going on and let you know.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Charity fundraiser total

The total we raised at the fundraiser in tribute to our friend Bernie Blaney in aid of the Southport Kidney Fund was £518. As admission was free, this amount was raised solely from the raffle and donations into the charity collection boxes. It was an excellent evening of music, featuring folk group Patchwork, blues singer Raphael Callaghan, the Wayfarers Singers who specialise in barbershop and with whom Bernie had sung, plus singers from the Bothy and Maghull Folk Clubs.

We were pleased to welcome members of Bernie's family, especially his wife Sue and daughter Judith, and also John Pugh, MP for Southport and five local councillors; Bernie had been active in his local Liberal Democrat Party branch, but the evening was not one for politics.

The night climaxed with a ensemble rendition of the song Bernie was probably best known for singing, Strike The Bell, which really did have everyone joining in. I have accompanied Bernie on that song so many times in the past that it felt strange to have to take the lead.

Thanks to everyone who helped make the evening such a great success.

P.S. a subsequent donation of £100 has increased this total to £618.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Return to the Zetland

Men O' Th' Mere Morris February 1981.
I'm at the back with the guitar.
I went into the Zetland Hotel the other evening for a CAMRA meeting. It's a large pub in a residential area and I used to go there regularly more than 30 years ago when I was a musician for a Morris team and more recently for Labour Party meetings, until I left the party over Iraq.

It has recently been nicely redecorated, and I was pleased to see they had kept the separate bar. It also has a small meeting room suitable for up to about 15 people. Although I don't play the game, it's nice to see they've kept up the bowling green. This used to be a Burtonwood house, but when we visited, the real ales were: Bateman's Combined Harvest, Jennings Cumberland and St Austell. I had only the Bateman's which was well-kept and tasted very nice, but another of our group said the St Austell was also in good nick. I'm told the pub does good value meals too.

The licensee recently had a beer festival, which I mentioned on this blog; unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend it myself. He said that he hopes to hold another in March. The atmosphere when we were there was friendly and relaxed, and this is certainly a pub I hope to visit more often. I've no excuse really, as it's only ten minutes' walk from where I live!