Saturday 30 November 2013

Getting the vapours

Sucking on a biro? No, using an e-fag
Funny: I was thinking of writing a few words about e-cigarettes when Curmudgeon pipped me to the post.

I was in the Endeavour in Whitby last August when I glanced to my left and saw what seemed to be a woman smoking, and so looked again more closely. She laughed and said, "You thought I was smoking a cigarette, didn't you?" I had to agree, but was interested, as I hadn't seen one close up before: they do look superficially like cigarettes and emit something that looks like smoke but is apparently water vapour. As far as I can see, they can pose no risk to the health or comfort of third parties. So why are they being banned?

Mitchells and Butlers, Wetherspoons and now Fullers have forbidden the use of e-cigarettes in any of their pubs. The reason is that it apparently causes anxiety to other customers, and the staff are under enough pressure as it is without having to check what people are using. While it's understandable that licensees would want to avoid the draconian penalties for contravention of the smoking ban, these aren't covered by it so there's no legal problem. It's just that you can't tell from behind the bar what the customer is using.

ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) are surprisingly sensible on this issue, cautioning businesses against introducing bans too hastily:
  • Not all e-cigarettes look like tobacco cigarettes.
  • Forcing people who are trying to quit to go outside with the smokers seems unfair, and may sabotage their efforts.
  • If e-cigarettes become licensed as a medical product, they could become less of an issue over time.
Perhaps the solution would involve banning only those that look like cigarettes, so that the problem of differentiating them from ordinary cigarettes would vanish in a puff of vapour.

Friday 29 November 2013

RBS "stole" real ale hotel

The Bold Hotel, Lord Street
The Bold Hotel is a familiar sight on Lord Street, Southport. It is a residential hotel with a real ale bar and an outside seating area overlooking the town's main thoroughfare that, as you'd imagine, is very popular in summer. According to the former owners, Eddie and Cheryl Warren, their business was forced into administration by the Royal Bank of Scotland, leaving them more than £1 million out of pocket after borrowing from the state-owned bank. The trauma has cost them their livelihood and their marriage.

According to a report by Business Secretary Vince Cable, the alleged scam worked like this: RBS engineered businesses to default on their loans and then to moved them into a special division called Global Restructuring Group. Once there, the businesses were then hit with exorbitant rates and fees, which caused some of them to collapse, at which point RBS bought their property and assets on the cheap.

Eddie and Cheryl bought the hotel for £3.7 million in 2007, £1.2 million of which was their own money and the rest financed by an RBS loan. After the hotel was put into administration, West Register, an RBS property company, bought the business for a mere £1.4 million. Eddie and Cheryl insist that the hotel never ceased to be profitable, with Eddie adding simply, "They stole it."

It brings it home to you when items on the national news are reflected in businesses you are familiar with, and in this case have been drinking in. I hope that Eddie and Cheryl, as well as others who state they have been ripped off by RBS, get some justice. If Vince Cable can achieve that, I'll give him more credit than I've granted anyone in his party since the general election.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Drink driving hotspots

According to a recent survey, drivers who live in the countryside are twice as likely to be charged with driving under the influence of drink and drugs than town dwellers. The survey was conducted by price comparison website, MoneySuperMarket, based on an analysis of almost 12 million insurance quotes on the site in a 12-month period. The worst areas are the north of Scotland and mid-Wales which both have a conviction rate double that of Greater London. Breaking down the stats further by postcodes shows that Scotland and Wales still dominate the top 10 with Aberdeen, Inverness, Dundee, Kirkcaldy, Cardiff and Swansea all featured, whereas at the bottom end of the table you'll see central London, Bradford, Liverpool and Manchester.

It's not not surprising that rural areas are likely to feature in such lists with pubs generally much further apart, poor or non-existent public transport and a police presence that is much thinner on the ground. All this, however, doesn't fully explain why parts of Scotland and Wales are so prominent, seeing that England too has remote, rural areas, as well as 88% of the UK's population: on the basis of sheer numbers alone, I'd have expected a greater English presence in the top 10.

Can we accept as an explanation that in those areas of Wales or Scotland, you can be even more remote than in England? I don't think so because if you fancy wandering out for a pint, a pub 10 miles away in North Yorkshire is as inaccessible on foot as a pub 30 miles away in the Scottish Highlands, but it could be argued that if you're prepared to drive while over the limit, you may have a longer journey with a greater chance of being breathalysed. Perhaps, but in my view it's more likely that the police being thinner on the ground through trying to cover a larger area might encourage more people to take the chance.

The loss of many village pubs certainly won't have helped. Curmudgeon has blamed such closures, at least in part, on the denormalisation of alcohol by campaigners, which has led to a decline in people being prepared to drive after drinking within the legal limit, thus reducing trade in rural pubs. Fewer rural pubs will mean that many of those prepared to drive after drinking over the limit will have longer journeys.

I'm not making excuses for drink-driving, as my previous posts will make clear (click here if you wish to see them): attempting to understand why something happens doesn't constitute approval. I do wonder, however, whether people who like a drink take the proximity of a decent pub sufficiently into account when choosing where to live, whether in the town or the country, bearing in mind an increasing number of country homes are occupied by incomers. I once visited a college friend who enjoyed his beer and who had moved with his girlfriend to Solihull (admittedly not very rural); he soon made the welcome suggestion that we go for a pint. After 10 or 15 minutes' walk, we reached a pub, but he said that it was no good. After more than half an hour's walk, we reached somewhere reasonable. I asked him why they hadn't chosen a house closer to a pub. He looked at me incredulously and said that you don't take that kind of thing into account when finding somewhere to live. I pointed out that if he'd played golf, he'd have chosen a house near a golf course.

Back to the survey: although it makes interesting reading, bald statistics can't come up with any explanations, and my own attempts are little more than informed guess work. Contacted for a response, the Institute of Advanced Motorists, a self-appointed driving club, began by stating the obvious: "Lack of public transport is no excuse for any (rural) driver to risk a journey under the influence. Offenders may think they stand more chance of getting away with it in quiet rural areas but these roads are actually the most dangerous, with more fatalities than on city streets."

Okay so far, but then the nanny state tendency came out with: "A hard day's work may seem a good justification for a quick pint on the way home but responsibility for your and others [sic] safety comes with every driving licence." In other words, a quick pint on the way home is going to endanger yourself and others, which misses the point that the survey was about people being over the limit. Having a go at legal drink-driving does not address the real problem of those who will get behind the wheel no matter how much they've knocked back.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

The Lion in Burscough to close

I've just heard from a regular that the Lion pub on Liverpool Road South (A59) in Burscough will be closing for business within a day or two. The present manager, Mr 'H' Botha, is unable to carry on paying the high rent to Enterprise Inns and therefore he is calling time before he loses any more money. 'H' has worked tirelessly to turn this pub around, he has invested a large amount of his own money in completely refurbishing the beer garden and decorating the inside of the pub. He was promised a refurbishment of the pub and car park by Enterprise Inns, but it didn't happen. The Lion always has one cask beer on and he'd had plans to add another in the future. Significantly, the area manager is known to have stated that the last three managers of the Lion have failed to turn the pub round and he was considering selling the pub for other uses.

The Lion used to called the Red Lion and efforts have been made appeal more to the food market, although I've heard it suggested that unfortunately it may have lost a bit of its 'pubby' character in the process. Perhaps, but I can't judge I haven't been in there for a while. It's a familiar, but nonetheless still sad, story of pubcos throwing licensee after licensee into a pub and hope that one sticks, and if they don't, they've had a few more months rent. Equally familiar are the promises of work that will be done, promises that are kept until the potential licensee has signed on the dotted line. It doesn't matter to them if in the process someone loses his or her savings and is thoroughly disillusioned in their ambitions to run a pub. 

Let's hope that Mr 'H' Botha and the Lion don't just become more dismal stats. We don't need any more Tesco Expresses.

Saturday 23 November 2013

The Doctor Who Good Drinking Guide

The 23rd of November is of course the 50th anniversary of the greatest day in television history: the launch of Doctor Who. There aren't many references to the demon drink in the series, but I've retrieved these from my data memory banks. 

Description of photo at end of post
The Doctor (William Hartnell) is offered some alcohol by the dentist Doc Holliday before a tooth extraction, but he replies that he never touches the stuff. (The Gunfighters)

The Doctor (William Hartnell) raises a glass, looks direct to camera and proposes a toast to everyone at home, the episode being broadcast on Christmas Day 1965. Presumably alcohol-free, in the view of his earlier statement. (The Dalek’s Master Plan)

Ben Jackson, one of the companions of Patrick Troughton's Doctor, drinks some beer in 17th century Cornwall. Excellent reason to have a TARDIS: I want one. (The Smugglers)

At the end of The Daemons (a Jon Pertwee adventure), it is suggested that Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart of UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) might join in some Morris dancing. He replies, "I'd rather have a pint" (a daemon drink?) and heads towards the Cloven Hoof pub. He might have decided differently if he knew how much Morris dancers like real ale.

UNIT requisitions a pub, the Fox Inn in the Scottish village of Tullock, as a temporary HQ when combating the alien Zygons. With the help of the Doctor (Tom Baker), they soon let Zygons be bygones. (Terror of the Zygons)

The Doctor (Tom Baker) says, “Let’s try the pub”, and heads towards the Fleur-de-Lys to learn why the village he's found himself in is deserted. It turns out the village is a fake, part of an evil plot to take over the world by aliens, the Kraals, who even go to the trouble of devising fake McEwan's Export bar towels for the bar, clearly an essential detail for global domination. (The Android Invasion)

Pat Rowlinson, owner of the Gore Crow Hotel, invites the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) to try Arthur's Ale, a real ale brewed on his premises: “We’re in the CAMRA guide”, he says proudly. That would have convinced me, but the Doctor opts for a glass of water and soft drinks for his disappointed young companions, Ace and Shou Yuing, which he pays for with a £5 coin. That sounds a lot, but remember it is in the future and proof that CAMRA will be around for a good while yet. (Battlefield)

The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) states he has taken part in drinking contests with former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who apparently drank him under the table. Name dropper. (Aliens of London)

My bottle opener
The Doctor (David Tennant) pretends to be drunk in order to outwit the clockwork androids who have his companions, Rose and Mickey, prisoner. What looks like a glass of wine is in fact anti-oil that puts one of the droids out of action; the others teleport away. (Girl In The Fireplace)

When Craig Owens tells the Doctor (David Tennant) that he belongs to a pub league football team at his local, the King's Arms, the Doctor assumes that he means a drinking competition. (The Lodger)

WPC Gwen Cooper drinks a large beer (relax, she’s off duty) as Captain Jack Harkness tells her all about Torchwood after she saw them in action. She finds out too late that he has laced her drink with an alien substance that’ll make her forget everything she’s witnessed and everything he's said. He needn't have gone to all that trouble: a few WKDs would have done. (Torchwood: Everything Changes)

If you can think of any other examples, please tell us below. Before watching the show later today, you might want to have a look at Boak and Bailey's beer blog where you'll find a post on Beer and Doctor Who Matching.

The photograph shows Patrick Troughton (The Doctor), Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon) and friends enjoying a Guinness over lunch during the filming of The Invasion on location at the Guinness brewery in Park Royal, now demolished, not by aliens but by Diageo.

Friday 22 November 2013

More real ales at the Mount

The Mount Pleasant
Jo the licensee at the Mount Pleasant on Manchester Road, Southport, has e-mailed me to say that they now have three handpumps installed and there are two changing real ales in addition to the - until now - sole real ale, Sharps Doom Bar. At the time Jo contacted me, the guests on sale were Hobgoblin and Blonde Ambition. Sharps will remain the fixed real ale.

This is a pleasing development in a pub that at the beginning of this year sold only the Tetley's. When Doom Bar replaced it in February, cask sales went up, which supports my long-held view that Tetley's is nowadays a very poor product, not half the beer it used to be.

The Mount is a large, well-maintained pub in a residential area close to the town centre, known for good food, showing films (it was The Great Gatsby yesterday), live music on Saturday evenings, plus quiz, poker and karaoke nights. It also has a nice conservatory to one side, a separate bar area and a function room upstairs. Increasingly worth a visit by real ale drinkers.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Beer advert withdrawn after protests

I'm confused. This is a Lidl advert advertising a German beer called Perlenbacher, and it has been withdrawn because it has caused offence. If I were to guess why it caused offence, I might go for one of these:
  • It suggests that women are a piece of property to be bagged up with the shopping. Or
  • It depicts a young woman who looks as though she has a serious eating disorder, thus setting a bad example.
It's neither of these. A charity called Trans Media Watch says its supporters have made complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about it because it could put transgender women in danger. Trans Media Watch stated:

"We found the ad to be deeply problematic because the slogan 'unexpected item' implied deceit on the part of the person it depicted. The myth that trans women and cross dressers present as they do in an attempt to seduce straight men is sadly still widespread and is commonly used to try and justify aggression against them. Promoting this myth puts trans people in real danger."

In general, most of us can understand the reasons why people say they are offended, even if we don't agree. For example, everyone understands why some women don't like the name of the Slater's beer, Top Totty, including those who think it's just a bit of fun and the protesters are humourless. You don't have to agree with something to understand it.

Because I don't look at that picture and think, "That's a transgender woman", I simply don't understand how Trans Media Watch did. To me, she is a young woman who looks very underweight. And I'm wondering whether I'm the only one who has never heard of the widespread myth that trans people aim to seduce straight men.

My view of the advert is that it's crass with a feeble attempt at a joke that doesn't work: for that reason I have no problem with Lidl withdrawing it, but I still don't understand the protests. What am I missing?

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Cains brewery village plans approved

Cains workers demonstrating after being
sacked without notice or compensation
The plans by the Dusanj brothers to convert the old Cains Brewery site in Liverpool into a brewery village and tourist venue have been approved. The brewery was closed 6 months ago with debts of £8 million (previous post here) and the workers laid off in a particularly shabby way without compensation (previous post here). The BBC report briefly describing the plans and their approval by the council is here.

Both the Liverpool mayor, Joe Anderson and the MP for Liverpool Riverside, Louise Ellman, have welcomed the proposed redevelopment, even though partners and operators for the cinema, hotel and supermarket have yet to be found. The BBC article states that the existing Brewery Tap pub would also be restored to produce traditional ales. This sounds like a microbrewery to me. One of the owners, Sudarghara Dusanj, claims the redevelopment will attract 2.5 million visitors per year, benefiting the city's economy by £25 million. If you accept that, consider the following:
  • The Dusanj brothers have gone bankrupt twice in five years, not a track record to give potential investors and partners confidence.
  • The brothers originally stated that Cains beers would be brewed elsewhere under licence. While this is not an adequate substitute for a brewery on the site, it never happened.
  • The Cains brand was run into the ground after the first bankruptcy and I was told that the beers were made using the cheapest ingredients they could find. Previously good beers became very poor.
  • 38 staff were made redundant without payment and had to claim payouts from a Government fund.
We're never going to get the brewery back as it was, so I hope this scheme succeeds, but given the brothers' record, I'm not putting any money on it.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Not just a numbers game

We're often told that X number of pubs are closing every week, and I'm sure these figures are correct as far as they go: I have long wondered how far they do go though. Are the figures gross or net? Do they offset the number of new pubs and bars opening against the losses, or does the number refer to closures only without any account taken of new licensed premises? I'm fairly sure it's the latter. If so, are the prophets of doom talking down the state of pubs and bars in the country?

The Sparrowhawk pub sign
I've previously written about pubs we have lost locally this year, the Plough and the London, and I've also written about the new Marston's pub, the Guelder Rose, which opened recently. Another new real ale outlet is the Sparrowhawk, which has just opened in the former Tree Tops Hotel on Southport Old Road. The owners, Brunning and Price, state that it will be "a traditional pub restaurant serving high quality fresh food, along with a decent range of cask ales and wine". I've been told the range of cask ales is good, but with prices at around £3.60 a pint, it is clearly catering for foodies and special events, such as weddings and christenings, rather than the ordinary drinker.

Does this mean that locally we have a net loss of zero? In one way, yes, although there is certainly no exchange of like for like: both our new pubs are heavily food oriented, while those we lost were traditional pubs: this neatly illustrates the changing face of pub going. There must still money in pubs, seeing that the Guelder Rose was built entirely from scratch while the Sparrowhawk was a very expensive refurbishment, but neither will ever be a local. Considering the style of establishments that are opening and closing, I take the view that our net loss is indeed actually two.

Very few pubs close completely unmourned, so in a way the figures do reflect the level of losses of unique places where some people loved to spend their time, meet their friends and down a few beers that they presumably enjoyed, whether or not the beer was real. If you've lost your comfortable, old, local, traditional boozer, a new smart food oriented pub restaurant or bar can never be a replacement, so in answer to my question at the end of the first paragraph, I'd say no.

Monday 18 November 2013

You should be dancing, yeah!

I've been asked to issue a reminder about this ceilidh, or barn dance, if you prefer. In view of the weather, they're holding it in St John Stone Social Club rather than a barn. It features the Gallimaufry Big Band (even more musicians for a bigger sound!). Phone Clive or Pete for tickets. Real ale? I wouldn't have thought so, although there is a bar.

Pete Morton and Roger Wilson in Southport

Roger Wilson (left) & Pete Morton
Pete Morton and Roger Wilsonthis is a new project of traditional songs, tunes and dance from two experienced and respected folk performers, both of whom have appeared at the Bothy before, although not as a duo. From the big ballads to the finest tunes, from gentle love songs to the bawdy, Pete and Roger come together to share their love of the tradition, playing, singing and dancing their favourites from both the British Isles and North America with two fine voices, a fiddle, harmonica, guitars, a broomstick and a dustpan and brush! (so it says here anyway)

I've seen them separately and rate both highly. What this collaboration is like I've no idea, but I can't see that it will be anything less than thoroughly entertaining, and probably rather more.

They're on this Sunday 24 November at the Bothy, which meets at the Park Golf Club, Park Rd West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Thwaites cask ale. 8.00pm start. On-line tickets.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Beer festivals - campaign or commerce?

2014 marks something of a landmark for CAMRA Liverpool and Districts: they are finally putting some of their beer festival tickets on line. I've written about this a few times in recent years, particularly here, provoking quite a hostile reaction from a couple of members of that branch. In addition to some flak aimed at me, Doug Macadam, the chair of my own CAMRA branch (Southport and West Lancs), was harangued while working at the Liverpool beer festival and, for some reason, Ken and Carol Worthington of Wigan branch, friends of mine, were questioned too. All a gross overreaction: it was only me shouting my mouth off.

However, much as I'd like to think this blog is highly influential, I feel that Liverpool's move to on-line ticketing has less to do with anything I wrote and more to do with the festivals being run by Liverpool Organic Brewery and others in the city, all of whom effortlessly put their tickets on line. For some reason, CAMRA are still having their sales day, although this time it will involve queueing in the Augustus John pub near the cathedral rather than in the freezing cold outside the crypt, but on-line sales do mean that if you live further afield you have a chance of getting a ticket.

Which brings me to the question of price. Liverpool CAMRA will charge £7 a session. This is comparable to the Liverpool Organic Brewery's charging of £7 a session for their festival in the Old Christ Church in Waterloo and £8 for their festival in St George's Hall and their festival in the Black-E next month. I appreciate that these venues don't come cheap, and the success of these festivals suggests that there are enough people around able and willing to pay such prices.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves why we have beer festivals. In their current form, they were invented by CAMRA in the 1970s as a way of campaigning, the idea was to show people that the range and - sometimes - quality of real ale could be much better than what they were used to locally. CAMRA's job has changed but is still necessary, as every year a new generation of drinkers upon reaching 18 is subjected to expensive advertising campaigns for the latest fad drink: it was alcopops for a while, but now it seems to be fruit or pear ciders. Some say CAMRA's work is done because real ale has been saved, but no situation is static: vast drinks corporations will always try to steer young drinkers towards high profit, mass-produced and easily handled products. They do this because real ale has a lower profit margin and is less easy to look after.

I am unsure how festivals charging £7 or £8 fit in to the campaigning ethic. Liverpool Organic Brewery can rightly point out that they are a business, not a campaign, but CAMRA can't say the same. Look at these other CAMRA festival prices as a contrast:
  • Manchester (300+ real ales) next January: entry £2 to £5; CAMRA members free on 2 out the 4 days.
  • Wigan (70+ real ales) last March: entry £1 to £3; CAMRA members free at all times.
  • Southport (50+ real ales) last month: entry £3; CAMRA members free at all times.
While it is generally true that the majority of people at festivals are already committed real drinkers, even though most of them aren't CAMRA members, I wonder whether the high admission prices being charged by all festivals in Liverpool will discourage those who might want just to find out about real ale and cider; will these festivals increasingly cater only for the converted? In my opinion, they will. Having to buy tickets in advance increases the tendency of the festivals to become drinking extravaganzas for the knowledgeable, seeing that most ordinary drinkers, whether they drink real ale or not, don't usually plan their drinking sessions weeks or months in advance. The three festivals listed above don't have advance tickets and, with lower admission charges, are more likely to cater for those who decide, perhaps at the last minute, "Come on, let's go and see what this beer festival's all about."

But I don't want to be too churlish: Liverpool CAMRA has after 2 or 3 years of "looking into" on-line tickets finally taken the plunge. It wasn't so bad after all, was it?

Having said all that, it is a well-run festival in a great venue, and it's not my intention to discourage anyone from going. I am simply reflecting upon what I see as a shift away from campaigning.

Friday 15 November 2013

Lancashire Day 2013

Thanks to proud Lancastrian Jeff Carter who has done his usual fine job in compiling this information. As I was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, I always like to take part in these local celebrations of our history.
  • Guest House, Union St, Southport, Lancashire Night with Southport Swords,Tuesday 26 November in aid of Queenscourt Hospice. Proclamation 9.00pm by CAMRA stalwart Stuart Elliott.
  • Inn Beer Shop, Lord St, Southport, Wednesday 27 November. Lancashire cask and bottled beers, Lancashire music and nibbles.
  • Barons Bar, Scarisbrick Hotel, Lord St, Southport, Wednesday 27 November: Lancashire Day Proclamation at 1.00pm by Don Evans, West Lancashire Town Crier; Lancashire beers.
  • Sir Henry Segrave (Wetherspoons), Lord St, Southport, Wednesday 27 November. Lancashire beers and charity raffle.
  • Sandgrounder, Lord St, Southport, Wednesday, 27 November. Lancashire Day menu and 2 Lancashire cask ales at £2 per pint.
  • Crown, Station Road, Croston, Wednesday, 27 November. Lancashire Day menu 4.30pm to 8.30pm: Lancashire Hot Pot or Delway cheese board; two for one offer.
  • Hop Vine, Liverpool Road, Burscough,Wednesday, 27 November, Lancashire Night. Lancashire and Burscough brewer beers.
  • Hop Inn Beer Shoppe, Burscough St, Ormskirk, Wednesday, 27 November. Lancashire beers, quiz and nibbles.
  • The Ship, Wheat Lane, Lathom, Thursday, 28 November. Lancashire themed quiz night from 9.00pm.
  • The Grapes, 67 Town Road, Croston, Sunday 24 November: Celebrate Lancashire Day, Regional Morris Dancers, Croston Drumming Band, Indoor stalls include Delway cheese, Lancashire crisps and Bretherton Bakery, hot pie and peas and tables (bookable) for traditional Sunday lunch. Tel: 01772 600 225.


Sorry I've not posted anything for a while, but I've been feeling somewhat under the weather. I've been having sneezing fits, which on a couple of occasions have gone on all day, along with something that was a bit like a cold, but wasn't.

Don't you sometimes look back to the days when a cold was a cold, and when it was over, it vanished?