Saturday 31 December 2016

Happy 2017

I'd like to wish a very Happy New Year to all of you who are so kind as to come here and read my ramblings on various subjects about real ale and real music. I am really pleased that some people feel this blog is worth looking at.  Thanks to you all!

I can proudly say that - unlike another beer blog that I have recently tried to comment on - I only delete comments that are abusive. I do not block comments that I disagree with. I therefore query the credibility of a self-styled right-wing libertarian who censors opinions he doesn't like. But that's up to him to explain, and should he choose to do so here, I won't delete his comment - unless it's abusive!

Anyway, enough of the killjoys:
I wish everyone a truly Happy New Year.

Friday 30 December 2016

Women drinkers: tut tutting and titillation

Civilised young drinkers:
clearly not newsworthy.
There's been quite a bit of coverage about the recent report from two Glasgow universities that drinking by women is depicted more negatively than that by men, despite the fact that, overall, men still drink more alcohol. The BBC's report is here; I don't intend to rehash it.

I tend to feel the depiction of women's drinking in our male-dominated media is determined by prescriptive attitudes to how women should behave, wrapped up as concern for their vulnerability. It's often implied that female drunkenness can lead to sexual promiscuity and, even worse, bolster the offensive old insinuation that a drunken woman, especially if revealingly dressed, is "asking for" sexual assault. Interestingly, I can't recall seeing much concern about young males becoming sexually promiscuous after a skinful, or too much concern about their being attacked, even though statistically they belong to the group in society most likely to be assaulted on the streets.

I looked at Google images for 'drunken women' and 'drunken men', and found many pictures for both genders of drinkers in similar poses - huge grins, raising glasses in the air, swigging from bottles, and so on - as well as some showing people throwing up or lying unconscious in the street. The one big difference was that those depicting unconscious young women often showed them with their clothes in disarray revealing their underwear and bodies; one or two were nearly naked. I found no comparable pictures for men.

I have no doubt that many pictures in the media of young people out binge drinking are posed, but that doesn't explain why drunken women are photographed differently to men. One reason must be that most editors and journalists are male, but another is an outdated morality about the behaviour of young women in society, combined with a gloomy sentiment that society is going to pot.

The latter view is usually expressed by those middle aged or older people who hold that things were better in the old days. Curiously, some young people of the 1950s and 1960s who had been described in 'shock horror' terms at the time are now saying similar things about today's younger generations. Nothing new there: in the 1920s, young women who flouted conventional manners and expectations were often disapprovingly referred to as 'flappers'; 40 years later, some of them probably took a dim view of the 'flower power' generation.

A combination of disapproving morality and barely-disguised titillation drives the media's reporting of female drinking, which makes its contribution to informing us about this subject largely worthless. Perhaps our 'free' press needs to grow up.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Local pub and brewery review

There has mixed news in recent years for local pubgoers. The financial crash of 2008 had a major detrimental effect on the pub trade, as on many other businesses. Since then we have lost a lot of local pubs. In Southport, the Portland is now offices, the Shakespeare closed in 2013 and is for sale, the Blundell Arms has been closed for redevelopment, while the Herald, the London and the Plough have all disappeared. In Ormskirk, the historic Buck I' Th' Vine, an old coaching house, has been closed for a long time, as have the Ropers on Wigan Road and the Red Lion in Burscough. Unfortunately this list is not exhaustive.

Earlier this month, the historic Scotch Piper in Lydiate caught fire, although there are hopes it can be repaired and reopened; it really would be a sad loss otherwise, seeing that the date on the sign is AD 1320.

On the plus side, we have seen a few pubs reopen after lengthy periods of closure, such as the Up Steps in Birkdale, the Cock and Rabbit (formerly the Rabbit) in Southport and the Old Packet House in Burscough.

The Tap & Bottles in Cambridge Walks
At the same time we have seen the rise of micropubs, which usually open in former shops or similar small premises. The grandfather of them all locally is the Inn Beer Shop on Lord Street, Southport, with a huge range of bottled beers from all over the world as well as real ale from Southport Brewery.

More recent micropub openings include: the popular Tap and Bottles in Cambridge Walks, Southport; Birkdale's Barrel House in a former newsagent's shop, and further down the road opposite the Crown pub is Taylor's Bar in a former butcher's shop run by one-time 50s and 60s rock & roller Kingsize Taylor. Hillside was a beer desert until the Grasshopper on Sandon Road and the Pines on Hillside Road opened this year; both serve real ale. Further afield, we now have the Beer Station by Freshfield Station and the Hop Inn Bier Shoppe in Ormskirk. This trend for new, different drinking places is continuing.

The Southport and West Lancs area had no breweries until 2004 when Southport Brewery opened. This was followed in 2010 by Burscough Brewery, and in the last couple of years we have gained 3 Potts and Craft breweries in Southport, Parker Brewery in Banks, Red Star in Formby, Neptune in Maghull and Rock The Boat in Little Crosby.

The world of brewing and pubgoing is certainly changing, but this has always been true. When I began drinking in the 1970s, the pub scene was quite different from now, but it also differed from that of the 1950s, and so on further back. There's nothing wrong with nostalgia, unless it inhibits your ability to cope with the present and future: until the TARDIS turns up, time runs in only one direction. With micropubs opening all over the place and a record number of breweries, it well may be that we are in something of a golden age, as I wrote six months ago. Enjoy it while it lasts: in the future, there will probably be people who will wistfully look back to now. 

This has been adapted from an article I wrote for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Some previous articles are here.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

2016 - a year of loss

After the most recent celebrity deaths, I've been reading quite a few comments on Facebook and elsewhere to the effect of: "Let's get this awful year out of the way - roll on 2017." Don't hold your breath, because the Grim Reaper doesn't operate by the calendar. Having said that, it does seem to have been a particularly bad year. Some deaths are sad but not astonishing: for example, the actress Liz Smith who was 95 after all, but George Michael's death at 53 was completely unexpected. I was never a fan, although I've always acknowledged his talent, but as Billy Bragg has said, "His support for the LGBTQ community, the NHS and the miners marked George Michael out as an activist as well as a great artist."

Here is my own, highly subjective list of musical losses that were particularly significant to me. Not mentioning an artist here should not be taken as a posthumous snub.

  • David Bowie was at his hit-making peak when I was a student, The Jean Genie coming out in my first year. At college discos, friends would sometimes chant "Neville Neville" to another of his hits; it's amazing what can seem funny after a night on the ale. His constantly changing pop persona kept him in the spotlight for decades: Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, the heavy metal of Tin Machine and the white soul of Let's Dance, to mention just a few. His recent songs are certainly no disgrace to his memory.
  • Glen Frey. I always liked the Eagles, particularly Desperado, both the album and title track, which Frey co-wrote. Hotel California, which he also co-wrote, always seemed an especially eerie song, which I occasionally like to bash out on my 12-string guitar. I saw Glen Frey live with the Eagles on the Hell Freezes Over Tour in the McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield in July 1996; it was a memorable performance.
  • George Martin. I wrote about his death at the time. I was 15 when the Sixties ended, so the Beatles provided the soundtrack of my childhood. Paul McCartney said of him: "If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George." Says it all really.
  • Keith Emerson. As students, we'd often sit late into the night in each other's rooms listening to prog rock, which was massive at the time. Along with Genesis and Yes, we often listened to The Nice and Emerson Lake and Palmer, which both featured Emerson. As I recall, rock musos tended to view the latter two with more respect than most of their contemporaries. It is a cliché to describe prog rock as overblown and pretentious; while some undoubtedly was - even Rick Wakeman has said he doesn't know what Tales of Topographic Oceans was about - much was groundbreaking, innovative and pushed the boundaries. Emerson's bands tended to be viewed in the latter category.
  • Dave Swarbrick. Virtuoso fiddle player with Fairport Convention, in a duo with Martin Carthy, and in the line-ups of various other band over the years, including the band he founded, Whippersnapper. The electric folk that Fairport pioneered owed a lot to Swarbrick's vast folk repertoire and trad credibility. Ashley Hutchings described him as "the most influential [British] fiddle player bar none". He was an enthusiastic performer, although the energy had to be conserved in latter years owing to his long-term health problems. I wrote about him in June, where I included a Youtube video of him accompanying Richard Thompson.
  • Scotty Moore. Elvis was really before my time; I'd just been born when he first went into a recording studio. However, we were all aware of Elvis in the 60s and 70s, even when we could name only a handful of his 50s contemporaries. Scotty Moore was essential to the early Elvis sound and was credited with the invention of the power chord on the song Jailhouse Rock. Keith Richards once said: "When I heard Heartbreak Hotel, I knew what I wanted to do in life... Everyone else wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty."
  • Leonard Cohen. His name has almost become shorthand for miserable dirges - I've made jokes along those lines myself - but this is only part of the story. His lyrics were often poetic, and in fact he began as a poet; the songwriting came later. His songs undoubtedly did reach a lot of people: I'd guess that Bird On The Wire and Hallelujah are probably the ones most people relate to. Actually, I'm not keen on the latter, but there are three of his that I do perform occasionally: my favourite to sing is Winter Lady from his first album.
  • Greg Lake. Much of what I've written for Keith Emerson applies here too. Lake's pre-ELP band was King Crimson, and the album In the Court of the Crimson King was a favourite, especially its searing track 21st Century Schizoid Man with its apocalyptic tone and Vietnam war references. I'm sure I'm not the only rock fan to have mused that Carl Palmer remains the only member of ELP still with us.
  • Rick Parfitt. Status Quo have at times seemed almost eternal, so it was a shock when Parfitt died, coincidentally on the day after Quo had played a gig in Liverpool (without him, as he'd given up touring for medical reasons). I have sometimes joined in the "three chord wonders" jokes about Quo that used to do the rounds, although in reality I liked them. I saw them live two or three times, and they were an excellent act. No one can take away from them the fact that they opened Live Aid with Rocking All Over The World, a song written by John Fogerty, but which Quo made very much their own.
There have been many other great acts we have lost this year, such as Merle Haggard, Prince, Maurice White (of Earth Wind and Fire) and, as previously mentioned, George Michael, but this list is specifically of music I have chosen to listen to over the years, whether recorded or live. I'm just hoping I don't have to update it between now and 2017.

Here are some high energy jigs and reels by Dave Swarbrick with Fairport Convention at Glastonbury in 1971. Plus ça change ...

Sunday 18 December 2016

Taylor's Continental Beer and Wine Bar

A bar named after a legendary
Merseybeat rock & roller
I'd been intending to visit Taylor's Continental Beer and Wine Bar in Birkdale for some time, and finally got round to it earlier this month. It opened in 2015 in a former butcher's shop on the corner of Liverpool Road and Halsall Road, but that isn't the whole story: the butcher was Ted Taylor, better known as 1950s and 60s rock & roller, Kingsize Taylor, as in Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes who in the early 1960s sometimes had a certain Cilla White (later Black) singing with them. He visited the bar in April this year.

The bar named after him is in a modern style with embedded ceiling lights, tall chairs and tables, and easy chairs in the window; I liked seeing the old butcher's rail still in place over the bar. There is an outside drinking area for when the weather permits. Sky Sports is available for fans to watch the big games. They have occasionally put on live music, and may make this more regular in the New Year.

There are two handpumps serving changing real ales, often from local breweries; when I visited, the choice was Wily Fox Crafty Fox from Wigan and Reedley Hallows New Laund Dark from Burnley. I noticed they were happy to let you try before you buy; I found both beers were in good condition. There is a good general choice of drinks, including on tap a couple of German beers and a sparkling Italian wine.

It was a busy Friday night when I called in, and I found both the bar staff and the customers friendly and helpful to the extent that I stayed for an hour longer than I had planned. One customer pointed out the photographs of Kingsize Taylor on the walls, along with a poster showing him on the same bill as the Beatles.

Children are allowed until 7.00pm, dogs are permitted too, and there is free WiFi for customers. They are on Facebook and their phone number is 01704 569912. Getting there is easy on the 49 and X2 buses that stop a minute's walk away, and street parking is available nearby.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Friday 16 December 2016

Looks like he'll have to blow his own Trump

In 2009, Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin sang at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. During his term of office in the White House, singers of the stature of Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Rihanna, and Kelly Clarkson have performed for him. The Donald isn't so lucky: his inaugural committee is struggling to find top stars who are willing to play at his swearing-in ceremony on 20 January 2017 to the extent that some agents claim to have been offered cash, posts in the administration or even the diplomatic service. "They are willing to pay anything," said one, pointing out that the fees of most of these artists are in six or seven figures, and adding that he was invited to name his own price for getting them to perform. To play at the inauguration is usually unpaid, being seen as a high-profile, high-prestige patriotic gig.

The Trump party has predictably denied all of this. "Elton John is going to be doing our concert on the mall," said Anthony Scaramucci, a member of the inaugural team, claiming that Trump would be the first president to enter the White House with a pro-gay stance. But Elton John's spokesperson immediately denied this: "Incorrect. He will NOT be performing. There is no truth in this at all." The BBC reported that Elton John’s hits were frequently played at Trump rallies, although it has become very clear that permission was never given to use them. It looks as though Trump may have to make do with the likes of far right-wing hunting and shooting rocker Ted Nugent and some of the products of America's Got Talent

Here is Paul McCartney performing Hey Jude at the White House six years ago. Politicians often try to look cool when faced with pop music; Obama is the only one I can think of who doesn't look embarrassing in the process. Look for the enthusiastic audience participation by the Obamas and White House staff at the end.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

The Old Packet House, Burscough

The reopened Old Packet House
Six months ago, the Old Packet House in Burscough was reopened after a major refurbishment by new owners. Previously known as the Waterfront, the pub is conspicuously situated next to the canal bridge in the centre of the village. It was built in 1775, around the same time that the Liverpool Line of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was completed. Inside a single bar serves several separate drinking areas pleasingly decorated and furnished in a traditional manner.

There are four real ales on: a regular beer from Sharps, either Doom Bar or Atlantic, and three changing guests which this time were: Wells Bombardier, Southport High Tide and 3B's Bees Knees. Beers from Moorhouses, Prospect and Southport often feature, and our group enjoyed the real ales we tried. There is also a selection of thirty gins.

Food is served daily from noon to 2pm and 5.30 to 8.30pm (9.00pm weekends), with a specials menu. Tuesday or Wednesday are specials nights for food, and Friday is fish night. They have other special nights: Mondays are quiz night; on Thursdays they host open mike nights; and on Fridays and Saturdays there is live music. Also on Fridays, there are drinks offers: reductions on a bottle of Prosecco, and one cask beer and one lager sold at £2.50 a pint.

The beer garden to the rear overlooks the canal, and a large function room upstairs is being prepared and should be available early in 2017. The pub offers free WiFi. Children are welcome, and dogs allowed in the snug.

The pub is at 29 Liverpool Road North (A59), Burscough, L40 5TN, close to both Burscough stations and on major bus routes; there is a car park nearby. The pub opens daily 12.00 to 12.00. Website: Tel: 01704 807330. They are also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The owners already run the Allotment bar in Manchester, and they tell me they have been granted planning permission to open another Allotment bar in Birkdale in the former HSBC building; the beers will include real ale, and it will be a welcome addition to Birkdale's lively nightlife.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Christmas present idea

I've come across this advert; what a great idea to help children prepare for their drinking careers, especially as our stringent under-age drinking laws mean that young people cannot begin to acclimatise themselves to the world of alcohol in actual pubs and bars until they're 18, unlike many of us older hands.

I do hope the suitably scowling barman takes the keys to the pedal cars off any of his customers who imbibe too much.

Predictably, there has been an indignant and, at times, highly abusive moral panic in the USA where this advert originated. It seems that it's okay to drink, but not let your children play at it. It's not as though they're all going to turn into alcoholics; I used to buy sweet cigarettes as a kid, but I've never smoked a real one in my life.

Monday 12 December 2016

Minister rejects demands to cut drink-drive limit

A sort of follow-up to my previous post:

I've always said 'give credit where it's due', which explains why I am reporting the surprising news that a Tory minister has actually been heard to talk sense.

Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport, has ruled out lowering the drink-driving limit because government policy is not about "people who had a glass of wine at the pub", but is about "people who systematically flout the law". I've made the point here several times before that, while I don't approve of driving while over the limit, merely reducing the limit is a cheap and easy way of appearing to be strict while doing nothing whatsoever: the idiots who have a skinful before driving will take no more notice of a lower limit than they do of the present one.

With the reductions in police numbers and traffic patrols increasingly being replaced by speeding cameras and CCTV, there is a real possibility that we are making it easier for drunks behind the wheel to get away with flouting the law, and putting the rest of us at risk in the process. Grayling makes a similar point: "We have a fairly thinly stretched police force and we should concentrate on catching the serious offenders."

The Institute of Alcohol Studies, which is lobbying for a cut in the limit, says that the minister is "out of touch", but I have yet to read proposals by any alcohol campaigners that make positive and realistic suggestions as to how we tackle those who blatantly ignore the drink-drive limit. So who's out of touch?

Passing a law relating to drink-driving is easy, whereas implementing it is not. Lowering the limit will do nothing to stop persistent drunk drivers, who'd just as happily ignore a limit of zero. It would simply penalise drivers who carefully stay within the current limit, i.e. the very people who are not the problem.

Friday 9 December 2016

"None for the road" - the annual campaign

A subtly nuanced Australian sign
"None for the road" is the slogan Merseyside Police are using this year in the annual drink-driving campaign. My initial thought was that they seem to be ignoring that fact that drink-driving within the limit is still legal. I rarely drink while using the car, preferring to walk or use public transport. Virtually the only occasions are when I'm delivering Ale & Hearty, the local CAMRA magazine, when I might have a couple of ordinary strength halves while going around half a dozen pubs. But the campaign isn't really aimed at the likes of me.

There are drivers who have become so wedded to their cars that going anywhere without them is inconceivable. In the same paper that the drink-drive campaign was announced, a woman seen driving erratically was found to be nearly three times over the limit. Her excuse was she had fallen out with her friend after drinking and drove home because she felt that both she and her car were vulnerable. The question is: why did she drive to meet her friend for a drink in the first place?

Some simply don't care less about the law, and others actually believe they drive as well, if not better, when they've had a few drinks. In a way, I can see why they think that, insofar as I have sometimes walked out of a pub and thought to myself that I feel okay to drive. The difference is that I never do because - even after a few drinks - I know for a fact that such a feeling is deceptive. Another reason is that my car is at home anyway, where it should be when you go drinking.

In some ways you could look at this issue as a part of your lifestyle choices. Many years ago, I visited my friend Jim who had moved to Solihull. He enjoyed a drink as much as me, and suggested we go for a pint. After a quarter of an hour walk, we reached a pub, but we didn't go in because he said it was rubbish. It was half an hour's walk before we reached a reasonable boozer. I asked why he had chosen to live so far from a pub. He replied that you don't take such considerations into account when looking for somewhere to live, but I disagreed.

If you like golf, you'd probably choose to live near a golf course, and the same obviously applies to any kind of interest or social activity you may enjoy. If you like going to the pub, it makes perfect sense to live within reasonable distance of one, but suggest that and people treat it as a joke. I doubt most pubgoers seriously consider where the pubs are when choosing a new home, but they ought to. If I needed to move, there are whole swathes of Southport I wouldn't consider looking at for this very reason. It seems to me that if you don't 'need' the car to go to the pub, you probably won't be tempted to use it.

These thoughts were prompted by an article in the Morning Advertiser, which is mainly about how drink-driving deaths, injuries and convictions are in decline, and how pubs can help. 

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Scotch Piper on fire

The Scotch Piper 8 months ago
I've just seen on the news that the Scotch Piper in Lydiate is on fire. I visited this pub in April to write a review for the CAMRA page of the local paper; I also posted the article on this blog, where I recounted the local legend that explains how the pub got its name. The Scotch Piper is the oldest pub in the Merseyside and Lancs area - the pub sign on the front wall says AD 1320 - and it is a Grade II* listed building.

There are apparently no injuries. The fire brigade have stated that the blaze is purely external, and started when the thatched roof caught fire just after 3.00 pm today.

I seem to remember that this pub had a serious fire 20 or 30 years ago, but then I suppose that thatch is easily inflammable.

Monday 5 December 2016

Falstaff's second refurbishment in 18 months

The Sir John Falstaff - to reopen soon
This is a strange bit of local pub news. The Falstaff on King Street, Southport, has been closed for refurbishment and will soon reopen as the Sir John Falstaff. The odd thing is that it reopened 16 or 17 months ago after a major refurbishment that cost £325,000. What went wrong?

Before I answer that: this pub was once my local, and at that time was very busy, but in recent years it has not done well. I went in a couple of times after last year's refurbishment, but wasn't impressed, as I wrote here. When it reopened, it had advertised itself as a sports bar. I think this is a mistake: there is no shortage of pubs showing sports in the area, but I'm fairly certain that there are not enough pub-going sports fans to fill them all. Besides, the Sandgrounder sports bar on Lord Street is five minutes' walk away, with much cheaper beer to boot. In addition, the Sir Henry Segrave, a JDW pub, is a similar distance, with a much better range of beers. With those two pubs nearby, real ale drinkers are unlikely to go out of their way for a very ordinary beer such as Brains Reverend James, which was the only real ale on offer when I called in. Having said that, there obviously wasn't enough to draw in other drinkers either, because the place never seemed busy when I passed by.

The new management have stated that they are going to serve both craft beers and cask ales, mentioning local breweries such as Southport and Burscough, and 'a great selection of gins'. They are also advertising 'artisan pizza' and to that end have installed a new pizza oven. Sports will now be shown in just one half of the pub, with the remaining space available for those of us who aren't sports fans; the pub is certainly big enough to cope with such a division.

It reopens on 16 December. I'll certainly give it another chance, and I hope it does well, but it is not easy for a pub to claw back lost custom.

Here is the report in the Southport Visiter.

Saturday 3 December 2016

Ring o' Bells, Lathom

The Ring O' Bells, Lathom
Just off the A5209 in Lathom you will find another of our many local canalside pubs, the Ring O' Bells. Externally it is an impressive, solid brick building, but going inside, it is much larger than the outside would suggest. It had four distinct drinking and dining areas, one with a new pool table, all served by a central bar and attractively decorated after a recent refurbishment. Particularly welcoming in the cold weather are the real fires. Upstairs there is a middle-sized function room suitable for private dining or meetings with a table and chairs and a lounge area.

The real ales when we called in were Thwaites Nutty Black, Wainwright, Lancaster Bomber, Hawkshead Bitter, Hardy Tup, Hobgoblin Gold, and a Dry Strong Stout. I particularly enjoyed my Hawkshead Bitter (a half only as I was driving). They also have a good selection of gins. Food is available between midday and 9.00pm from Wednesday to Sunday now, and seven days a week from next spring. Featured food nights are curry on Wednesdays and steak on Thursdays. A speciality on the menu is barbecued smoked foods on a hickory smoker.

Friday is darts night and they occasionally put on live music. Children and dogs are welcome, and there is a well-equipped outdoor children's play area, a beer garden and a large car park. Free WiFi is available. The pub has its own canal moorings and canal tours can be arranged all year round run by Lancashire Canal Cruises, which is based at the pub.

They are holding a New Year's Eve party with live music from three piece-band, the Late Poets; tickets on sale now.

The Ring O' Bells is on Ring O'Bells Lane, Lathom, Lancashire, L40 5TE, just over a mile from Burscough village. It is open from 11.00am to 11.00pm every day, except Friday and Saturday when it closes at midnight. They have a Facebook page (@theringofbellslathom) and their phone number is 01704 893157.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Friday 2 December 2016

Raw Deal at the Mount

No, the pub isn't ripping us off. Local rock band Raw Deal are playing the Mount Pleasant tomorrow (Saturday) evening. The Mount usually serves three real ales and tends to be buzzing on rock nights.