Wednesday 30 December 2015

Jez Lowe this Sunday

Jez Lowe is a singer songwriter from County Durham. His songs frequently deal with daily life in the North East, particularly in his hometown of Easington Colliery, and cover a wide range of subject matter, including economic decline, mining disasters, and the narrow opportunities set by living in a depressed area. As well as performing solo, Jez sometimes plays in a band format with the Bad Pennies, and in various collaborations, such as the Pitmen Poets.

Jez is an old friend of the Bothy Folk Club and her performed there many times, both as a guest and on occasion as a floor singer. He is appearing in Southport at the Bothy next year (aka next Sunday 3 January). The Bothy meets at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS, which serves Southport real ale. Tickets available on-line and on the door, and the show begins at 8.00pm.

This night is likely to be very busy, so I recommend an early arrival.

Monday 28 December 2015

BBBB new venue

I wrote in August that the Bent & Bongs Beer Bash in Atherton had lost its customary venue, Formby Hall, due to redevelopment, and that a new venue had been found at Atherton Community School. It seems this has fallen through - I've no idea why - and the new venue is the Atherton Roller Rink on Bolton Road, Atherton, M46 9JQ. This is closer to the station, which is about three tenths of a mile away, than both the original venue and the school.

The new dates are Thursday 4 to Saturday 6 February, a fortnight earlier than those planned for the school: this change is probably to prevent a clash with the Liverpool Beer Festival. Admission prices will be reduced and the festival will stay open all day on Saturday until 9.00pm. Go to their website for full details of times and prices.

Sunday 27 December 2015

Free speech in pubs?

The Stoke Inn in Plymouth has put a few rules for its customers for New Year's Eve, covering the wearing of Christmas jumpers, fancy dress, indiscriminate snogging, New Year countdowns and regulars getting preferential treatment as they pay the bills throughout the remaining 364 days. To see the post, click on the date:
New Year’s Eve’s always a disappointment, so this new year’s eve, the Stoke Inn is hosting; “Thursday...
Posted by The Stoke Inn on Tuesday, 15 December 2015
Only partly tongue in cheek, I feel, but it did get me thinking about the rules that some people claim apply to pubs, particularly concerning talk about politics or religion. Why are such subjects apparently forbidden in pubs which are, after all, the most popular voluntary meeting places in the country?

I can understand that there are times when discretion may mean that silence on certain subjects is sensible. For example, speaking in support of the IRA in a pub frequented by the Orange Lodge, or singing The Sash My Father Wore in a Republican pub would only be a great idea if you like hospital food - or can run very quickly. The same applies to praising a football team in a pub associated with hostile supporters of a rival team.

Generally, however, I haven't found any subjects that are out of bounds, and on those occasions when I've discussed politics, it's never seemed to be a problem. After union meetings or conferences, my fellow reps and I sometimes had political chats in pubs and survived, although we weren't fanatics (well, most of us weren't) and might end up talking about anything but politics. The point is I don't think anyone was bothered, and if they were, they shouldn't have been earwigging. Besides, pubs have often been used for political meetings, as assembly points before and after going canvassing or leafleting, and political plots have been hatched in pubs. The back room in the Vernon in Dale Street, Liverpool, was a popular meeting place for Militants during the Hatton era, and Nigel Farage has based a whole political career on being seen with a pint in a pub.

Religion isn't something I discuss very often, but a few months ago I was talking in my local about how I had dealt with some religious door knockers. The two fellows on the next table interrupted me to say that you weren't allowed to talk about religion or politics in pubs. I think I replied, "Says who?" In the end they moved away to another table, which I thought was a laughable reaction: not only had they been listening in to our conversation, but they'd also missed the point: I hadn't been talking about religion, but how I had got rid of religious cold callers. Their attitude was interesting, seeing how much money the Salvation Army raises by collecting in pubs without there ever being the slightest murmur of objection.

Apart from my previous examples where avoiding certain subjects is simple self-preservation, who decides these rules, and why? I know some people say that their political allegiance is a secret between them and the ballot box, an attitude I used to gently mock by saying the same thing while wearing a political party badge; while that's fine for them, why does their reluctance to discuss something mean no one else should either? I find treating politics like a guilty secret quite odd, seeing how comprehensively it affects our everyday lives.

I've been trying to think of any subject that should automatically be out of bounds in pubs, but I can't. I find talk about sport boring, but that's only because I'm uninterested in sport; I wouldn't ban such talk, not that there'd be much chance here in Merseyside.

In case anyone thinks I spend all my time in pubs spouting politics, I don't. I simply can't see why some people consider it a taboo subject.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Bad Reputation II

Last night I went to the Mount Pleasant in Southport, my nearest pub, to see Fag Ash Lil, an excellent local band playing what is now called classic rock, such as Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Joe Cocker, Black Sabbath, Cream and Fleetwood Mac. It was a great gig, and towards the end I gave the sign of the horns (a hangover from my heavy metal days).

One of the two female singers noticed and said that it was good to see me in the audience, "but I wouldn't recognise Nev without a pint in his hand!"


But they did perform a really good and extremely energetic version of this song:

Saturday 19 December 2015

Dreaming of drink

At this time of year, we are being bombarded with messages, not only to buy-buy-buy, but also to take it easy on the drink over the holiday, and next year to go on the wagon in "Dry January". Paul Bailey has covered this barrage of propaganda pretty thoroughly here, thus saving me the bother.

A bit of personal history: I last took my car to the pub without any regard to the limit on Friday 13 February 1981, when I was stopped by a foot bobby who gave me a stern warning and let me off, providing I left the car where it was until next morning. So much for Friday the Thirteenth being unlucky. I wrote more about drink-driving, including my own, in May 2013.

Considering how long ago that was, it was strange to have a dream last night about me drinking and driving. I got into the car and remember nothing more until I came to, finding the car had moved. I arrived at the gathering I was going to, and afterwards everyone began cracking jokes about all the things I couldn't remember doing.

I do wonder whether this dream had been provoked by the anti-drink messages that gladden the hearts of alcohol campaigners at this time of year. While the rest of us are proposing toasts and wishing each other a happy and peaceful new year, they are tut-tutting that there's no reason why you can't have perfectly a good time on a half of shandy.

Fortunately no one was injured in my dream, just as - through sheer luck rather than skill - they weren't in my real life drink-driving days. But seeing that for nearly 35 years, I have walked or travelled by bus, train or taxi when drink is involved, I sometimes just wish the killjoys would put a sock in it. But I suppose that for some people, this is the season to be Scrooge.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Bad Reputation

I realised this evening that I have a certain reputation with the staff in my local when the fact that I had bought a half pint became a talking point behind the bar!

Which reminded me of this great song by Thin Lizzy (from the John Peel sessions):

Wednesday 16 December 2015

To Boldly go

I went into the Bold in Churchtown, north Southport, last night. My main reason for going was to check whether the Southport Swords, friends of mine, could dance there as part of their customary Boxing Day dance tour, but I also wanted to see how the pub looked after more than £300,000 had been spent on refurbishing it. I wrote about this pub and its neighbour, the Hesketh, in July last year.

A few weeks ago, our local paper, the Southport Visiter, published an artist's impression of what the renovated pub would look like, and it was really quite hideous with wooden slats on the ceilings and walls. I should have realised the artist's impression was sheer guesswork when I noticed that, through the pub windows in the picture, you could see traffic going the wrong way down the one way street.

The separate rooms and nooks and crannies that I previously wrote about still exist, as does the old carved woodwork, including the arches over the bar. The floor is now either wood or stone, which will increase the noise levels when the place is full, and some of the tall new tables are on old wooden barrels with high stools, but most of the furniture is more conventional. Overall, I'm quite pleased that this pub, which dates to at least the seventeenth century, hasn't been spoilt.

The real ales that were on at the time of my visit were:
  • Churchtown Best Bitter (the house beer, brewed by Greene King).
  • St Austell Tribute.
  • Tetley Mild.
  • Greene King IPA.
  • Hardy and Hanson Rocking Rudolph.
This isn't the most adventurous range, but a lot of people like standard beers like Tribute and Greene King IPA. I chose the Rocking Rudolph which I quite enjoyed: it's certainly preferable to its boring IPA stablemate. The presence of a cask mild is to be welcomed. While I am well known as someone who doesn't like Tetley Bitter - I was once booed at the CAMRA AGM for stating what I thought of it - I always used to find Tetley Mild more acceptable. I haven't drunk it since the Tetley brewery in Leeds closed, but perhaps I should try it some time in the interests of research.

I also noticed among the whiskies, Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I can only assume that the word does not have the same connotations in the USA as it does here, rather like the surname of a certain obnoxious American presidential candidate. The pub offers a reasonably priced standard pub food menu with a specials board, and there are televisions for sport. 

Chatting to one of the staff, I mentioned how inaccurate the picture in the paper had been. She suggested that perhaps the idea was to make it look so bad that you'd be relieved with whatever lesser changes were made. She was joking, but I wonder whether she might have a point.

Incidentally, the Southport Swords will be dancing there on Boxing Day at around 12.15pm. Times for their whole tour can be found on this page.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Never say never

I've just come across an article in the Liverpool Echo on-line about breweries in Merseyside. They list nineteen, and I have to say I didn't realise there were that many; there's even a couple I hadn't heard of before. I must keep my ear closer to the ground.

Here in Southport, there are three: Southport Brewery, a veteran now of 11 years; Parker Brewery in Banks just outside the Southport boundary, but proclaiming its Southport credentials; and the newest, 3 Potts, which is a near neighbour of Southport Brewery. Other breweries nearby include Burscough Brewery in West Lancs, Neptune Brewery in Maghull, Red Star Brewery in Formby, and Rock The Boat Brewery in Little Crosby. More details of these and other Merseyside breweries can be found in the Echo's article.

The most interesting point about all of this is that before 2003, none of these breweries existed at all. After the old Higsons Brewery in Liverpool was closed by Whitbread in 1990, Merseyside and the surrounding areas didn't have a single brewery, and I certainly recall the Liverpool CAMRA branch mourning the loss of all its breweries in a city that had once proudly had quite a few. Although some of us tend to think we know about this subject, none of us ever anticipated the resurgence that has occurred.

I've had beers from most of the breweries listed in the article, and haven't been disappointed. Some aren't entirely to my taste, but that's not the same as saying they're no good. In contrast, some of the old regionals and locally based nationals that we had, such as Matthew Brown, Greenall Whitley and Tetley Walker produced at best mediocre beer, and at worst unpleasant slop (Higsons was the honourable exception). Such an accusation cannot be aimed at these newer breweries, whether you like their products or not.

As for all our previous mourning over the passing of the era of brewing in and around Merseyside, never say never.

The one odd note in the article is that it states that the owners of Cains say they hope to be brewing again within two years. My message to them would be: either seriously get your act together or don't bother. Cains beers became utter rubbish before the company went bankrupt for the second time. While they were thereby destroying any remaining brand loyalty, far superior competitors appeared on the scene. My view is that in the changed beer scene in Merseyside, they'd have a hard job re-establishing themselves.

Monday 14 December 2015

Sky's the limit

I've just read that a Birmingham licensee has been told that if she shows Sky Sport illegally again, she could end up paying £50,000 and may even be sent to prison. This only the latest in a series of prosecutions of pubs and bars, and if you put 'pub illegal sky sports ' into Google, you'll find loads more. Sky says that it is committed to protecting pubs who invest in legitimate Sky Sports subscriptions, and while there must be some truth in that, I'm certain that protecting Sky's profits is the main motivation. There is nothing wrong with that in itself - Sky is a capitalist company, and it is the raison d'être of such companies to make profits - but does Sky represent good value for money?

The Sky website gives no indication of charges, but I read in a newspaper article that Sky costs pubs around £15,000 a year. Recovering that amount requires a massive number of bar sales. I have come across pubs who discontinued Sky because it wasn't paying its way. I have also been in pubs where: the sport is on but no one is looking at it; the pub is largely empty; or where people have turned around and walked out when they've seen that a noisy, large screen showing sport is dominating the room. I am usually in the last group. I have been told that, even when you have a pub full of sport fans, many of them make one or two drinks last the whole match, which doesn't do wonders for the takings.

We in this country are often described as sports mad, but this is all hype generated by the media which stands to gain if it can encourage more of us to tune in to sporting events. The reality is that sport is a minority interest that often gets far fewer viewers than dramas, soaps, and even so-called reality shows. Big name events, such as the Cup Final, the Grand National, Wimbledon and the Olympics will always get lots of viewers, but these are the exceptions. Big crowds of males (they're almost all males) in front of large, noisy screens do deter some drinkers, including people like myself who tend to drink rather more than they do. I know I'm not the only one who prefers not to be encircled by a crowd of testosterone-fuelled fans shouting pointlessly at a referee who is hundreds of miles away.

I have no doubt that some pubs find providing Sky Sports worthwhile, but I'd seriously doubt that the massive investment required would help less successful pubs, and possibly may have a detrimental effect. When Sky salespeople are extolling the worth of their product to a pub or bar, do they explain that their product may deter some custom? Or are they just peddling the myth that we are all enthralled by sport?

I know I'm not.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Policing pubs

Reported in almost comical terms is the tale of a pub, Cooney's Bar in Llandudno, where the theme tune to Peppa Pig was played when some police officers visited the premises last October. The DJ also made snorting noises. It was apparently the last straw after in a series of incidents going back to April 2014; the police then decided to refer the pub to the licensing committee.

Given in evidence was the fact that one officer who dealt with a former door supervisor was not happy about going to the bar on his own, and the licensing committee was asked: "If an officer is not happy to visit then how do members of the public feel?"

Reading this last point reminded of a story my grandmother once told me. She used to work in pubs and ended up acting as her son's (and my uncle's) relief manager on his days off. In earlier days, she had worked at the Cherry Tree in Kirkby, near Liverpool, when it was notorious for trouble. At weekends, fights often broke out and the police would be called. She said they'd wait outside until it all went quiet, and then they'd go in and make a couple of arrests. She understandably described them in unflattering terms, unimpressed that they preferred to leave the fights for a couple of barmaids to deal with.

Violence in pubs is no joke, and I have very rarely seen it during my 40+ years of pub-going. Licensees are responsible for enforcing much of the law relating to licensing hours, smoking, drug misuse, noise levels, excessive drinking and customer behaviour. If they fall down in any of these areas, they could lose their licence or have punitive conditions imposed. In return for upholding the law in so many areas that aren't necessarily directly linked to their core business, licensees can reasonably expect support on the odd occasion they may need the police. I say "odd occasion" because I can't recall a single instance of the police being called out to a pub when I was there.

Cooney's, incidentally, kept its licence but with extra conditions imposed. If you're interested, you can read the full story in Wales Online.

Saturday 12 December 2015

"Middle class parents turn kids on to drink"

I was interested to read an article in The Independent that quoted a report about the health of young people with this headline: "Middle-class parents more likely to turn their children to alcohol". I looked up the report, which was published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (a government quango): it runs to 161 pages and covers all aspects of the health of young people, including drink, drugs, exercise, diet and so on. It is not a report solely about youthful drinking, although you wouldn't know that from the press coverage. The lines that caught the journalists' attention were:

Rates of drinking also varied by deprivation, with young people in the least deprived areas being more likely to have ever drunk alcohol than those in the most deprived areas (70% and 50% respectively).

There was an association between age of first drinking and frequency of drinking. Among those who had first had a drink at less than 10 years, 28 per cent were regular drinkers, while among those who had their first drink at age 15 or 16, 3 per cent were regular drinkers.

A regular drinker is defined in the report as someone who has at least one drink per week. The report defines various risky behaviours, and for alcohol this is described as at least one drink a month.

While there may be a correlation between the age of the first drink and the later level of drinking, suggesting this is because of parents giving children alcohol earlier might provide an explanation. However, it could be equally argued that in areas of deprivation there is logically going to be less disposable income to spend on alcohol, which might provide either an alternative or an additional explanation. It seems to me that suggesting middle class parents are the cause of the level of drinking later in life is less politically troublesome than suggesting that deprivation itself may the cause, with all the suggestions of social inequality that naturally follow. Provoking middle class angst is less controversial than talking about inequality.

It's an interesting finding, but as is often the case with such reports, the conclusions drawn by the press are overly simplistic and not entirely supported by what the report actually states.

Friday 11 December 2015

First HS2 pub victim identified

Photo borrowed from pub website
A bit out of my area this, but I was really quite sorry to hear that a pub near Euston station in London may be demolished to make way for a proposed rail project.

I discovered the Bree Louise in Coburg Street, NW1, a couple of years ago after we had been on a massive anti-austerity demo in London. It was a real find in the normally boring landscape of London pubs, which so often just plump for the obvious and unoriginal - and then charge you through the nose for the privilege.

The Bree Louise, on the other hand, had 6 handpumps, and 11 beers on gravity dispense, plus an extensive range of real ciders. We didn't have any of the food, but it looked good. The beer was £4 per pint, but the discount for CAMRA members of 50p brought it down to a more palatable - for this Merseysider, anyway - £3.50 a pint. The pub was busy, but with a relaxed atmosphere and we were a bit disappointed when we had to go for our train home.

I've just learnt that one consequence of the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway development may well be that this pub might be demolished, which would not only deprive the licensee, Craig Douglas, and his staff (to whom he pays the living wage, not the minimum wage) of their livelihoods, but Craig and his family of their home. He named the pub Bree Louise after his daughter who had died, so it is clear this pub is much more than just a job. Let's hope the government sees sense, and doesn't apply plans that result in the unnecessary closure of successful businesses such as this one.

More info here.

Monday 7 December 2015

Fred McCormick

I've just returned home from the funeral of Fred McCormick, folk singer, trade unionist and socialist; the chapel at Landican Crematorium was packed with friends and family, including many stalwarts of the local folk scene. Fred was a regular at my acoustic song session in the Lion in Liverpool and also at the Belvedere sessions, but his reach was much greater than that. He was also a lover of jazz and blues, and the local jazz scene also honoured his passing.

Peta Webb gave a beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish song 'Our Ship Is Ready'. Afterwards in Misty Blues in Wallasey, Ken Hall sang one of Fred's own songs, the comic 'The Bacon Butty Song', which lightened the mood, followed by several rousing songs from the Socialist Singers.

All in all, a suitable send-off.

RIP, Fred.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Have you no homes to go to?

I recently had a conversation with a friend in the pub about drinking up time.

We well recalled the time when you had ten minutes to sup up, a rule that often honoured on the breach rather than observance; for instance, some drinkers might buy double rounds at closing: to stay within the law, they'd have to drink two pints in 10 minutes, and obviously they didn't. Then it became 20 minutes of course, which was rather more sensible.

It was even worse was when I visited Glasgow in December 1972. Although I was quite delighted when I walked around a corner and saw the TARDIS - yes, they still had police boxes in Scotland then - there was another, less welcome, outdated relic from another age that I discovered: the pubs stopped serving at 10.00 pm, with no drinking up time whatsoever. I thought then, quite rightly, that that was an incredibly stupid state of affairs. Subsequently, of course, Scotland led the way in liberating licensing laws.

But now? My friend insisted that by law you still had to stop drinking 20 minutes after the bar closed. I told him I was fairly sure that wasn't the case any more, but I'd check. I subsequently learnt that the Licensing Act of 2003, which came into force in November 2005, made no mention of drinking up time, because the consumption of alcohol itself was no longer considered a "licensable activity" under the Act. However, this doesn't give drinkers licence to tell the staff to get stuffed when they ask you to empty your glasses, because a licensee has the absolute right to take your drink off you and ask you to leave at any time without explanation.

My friend was quite surprised that drinking up time is no longer regulated by law, and that it is up to the individual licensee to decide the rules that apply; I suppose after so many years, some things can seem set in stone. My advice if you're in an unfamiliar pub and are wondering how many drinks to get in at last orders is quite simple: ask. Remember that licensees have every right to take your beer off you if you've overstayed your welcome.

Thursday 3 December 2015

In the Meantime ... divorce

What's a poor, spurned craft brewery to do? London craft brewery Meantime was taken over by SABMiller in May this year. Like most marriages, SABMiller promised to love and honour its new craft bride, assuring its customers that Meantime wouldn't be forced to change and would still be allowed to get on with doing what it did best: loyal customers need not fear.

But, heartbreakingly, SABMiller has found a new love in AB InBev, and not only is the honeymoon period with Meantime over, but divorce papers have already been served. AB InBev is looking to sell Meantime, as well as brands such as Grolsch and Peroni. They promise to look after these brands until the decree absolute comes through, but the question of maintenance afterwards must be a worry, especially for the staff at Meantime brewery. Unlike when they sold out to SABMiller, they won't have any say over who owns them in future, which must be unsettling to say the least.

Selling out to a big beer corporation must be a temptation for the owners of a highly successful small brewery, but the problem is that you are instantly converted from a company to a brand, and brands are no more than commodities to bought and sold like any other.

You'd think the example of Sharp's, taken over by Molson Coors who subsequently moved all the brewing of bottled Doom Bar hundreds of miles north, would have rung a few warning bells, but obviously not.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Local breweries win awards

Red Star is a new brewery in Formby, between Liverpool and Southport. It's a 10 barrel microbrewery and has been producing cask ales for about six months. I first tried their beers three months ago in the Corner Post, a micropub in Crosby, and more recently in the Guest House, Southport. I've liked all their beers that I've tried so far.

I'm pleased to learn that they won a gold in the Speciality Beer cask category at the SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) annual beer competition. The successful beer was their Weißbier, a naturally cloudy Belgian-style wheat beer; I've yet to see this, but I'll keep an eye out for it.

Southport Brewery won gold for the bottled version of their Dark Night Mild and bronze for the bottled version of their Shrimper. I've enjoyed both of these in draught form.

Well done to all concerned.