Tuesday 26 March 2019

Who's singing? You or the computer?

I've just been listening to BBC Radio 2 late at night and I have been dismayed - not for the first time - by how many singers have, in my judgement, had their voices adjusted by Autotune. If you can't sing in tune, you have no right to fob off a fake product on the public.

Judging by this image I found on-line, I am clearly not alone in regarding Autotune as the musical equivalent of sports people using performance-enhancing drugs. In both cases, the public is being conned.

For the record, I am on at least 18 albums (possibly more), and I know I can sing in tune without computerised assistance. That's not just my opinion: it's also the view of a friend who has perfect pitch. And I'm just a local, mostly amateur, singer.

Thursday 21 March 2019

The EU, free speech, and Tim Martin

I wrote a few days ago about how some people can, in my opinion, be quite snooty about Wetherspoon's pubs. In recent weeks I have been hearing another explanation for avoiding them, a more political one. As I said in my earlier post, anyone who chooses not to patronise Spoons because of Tim Martin's strident views on leaving the EU is of course perfectly entitled to do so, but although I completely disagree with him on that issue, it won't stop me using the pubs.

Why not? Quite simply, I take the view that Tim Martin is entitled to his views, although I must question the business sense of potentially alienating up to 48% of your potential customers, but that's his problem, not mine. As I also previously said, if I knew the views of senior directors of a lot of pub chains, breweries, or indeed any companies that get money from me, I'm sure I'd find plenty to disagree with. Sensibly from a business perspective, most people in such positions will be much more guarded in their public statements than Tim Martin.

This second post on the subject of Spoons was prompted by a friend giving me a few vouchers, saying that she'll never use them because of Martin's public statements on leaving the EU, so I might as well have them. Fine by me. While I'm a very political animal, having been involved in unions, political parties, demonstrations and campaigns for most of my adult life, I accept the principle of free speech.

So let's define free speech: it doesn't just mean that you have the right to say what you believe in, it also includes other people having the right to say things that you fundamentally disagree with. In this country, there used to be an attitude of, "I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it", often more simply expressed by agreeing to disagree. Increasingly the attitude is, "How dare you say that!", very often accompanied by insults and abuse.

I believe this change began with Mrs Thatcher because that was very much her approach, but she is not solely, or even mostly, to blame: social media have given very public voices to people with genuinely nasty attitudes who are incapable of tolerating, not only views they don't like, but people they disapprove of, often for irrational reasons such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, political views, or even just because they don't find them physically attractive. In other words, bigots. Bigots don't respect free speech in others, which is one of the reasons why we have laws against the hatred they spew out.

The tone of some discussions, especially on-line, has become distinctly unpleasant: calling your opponents 'Brexiteers' or 'Remoaners', by no means the worst terms I've seen, isn't likely to encourage a respectful exchange of views, which is why I have never used them: I prefer 'Leavers' and 'Remainers'. Besides, adults engaging in such silly name-calling is an unedifying sight.

Getting back to Tim Martin. As far as I know, he has not demonstrated any bigotry; he simply has very strong views on leaving the EU and has used his public profile to try to persuade others. He is, in short, exercising his right to free speech. Unfortunately, this issue has become so toxic that rational discussion is becoming increasingly difficult, but as long as he stays within the bounds of civilised debate on an issue about which we've all had the chance to have our say through the ballot box, I have no intention of boycotting his pubs.

One thing I have observed is that the old convention, one I have never fully agreed with, that you don't talk politics in the pub seems to have gone out of the window. In the last month or so, I have heard several animated conversations in pubs about leaving the EU.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Whiskey in the Jar

The song 'Whiskey in the Jar' is probably most associated with Thin Lizzy, but it is of course an old traditional Irish folk song, and before Lizzy got their hands on it, the Dubliners' version was probably the best known. Thin Lizzy never intended it for release, and were in fact just larking around in the studio when they recorded it. They consequently weren't too pleased when Decca released as a single anyway as it wasn't representative of their sound, although I expect they were to some extent consoled by the higher profile they gained when it reached number one in Ireland and six in the UK.

I remember it was on our college bar jukebox and one night at the student  folk club, the club organiser got up and announced he was going to sing the song, "the proper version, not that abomination on the jukebox." I remember thinking that I rather liked the abomination on the jukebox.

With line-up changes, Lizzy dropped the song from their repertoire, and they never played it on the five occasions I saw them live. However, that wasn't the end of the line for the song. In 1990, the Dubliners re-recorded it with Celtic punk band the Pogues with a faster, more rocky sound. In 1998, Metallica recorded a version similar to Lizzy's, but heavier as you'd expect, even winning a Grammy for the song in 2000 for Best Hard Rock Performance.

The song has come a long way from Irish pub folk sessions to heavy metal recognition.

The video sows the original line-up of Thin Lizzy featuring drummer Brian Downey, lead guitarist Eric Bell and Phil Lynott on vocals and bass guitar.

Sunday 17 March 2019

CAMRA local pubs of the year awards

The Southport and West Lancs CAMRA branch covers parts of two counties: Southport and Formby in Merseyside and, as you'd expect, western Lancashire. Consequently the branch makes two sets of awards, and these are the results.

The North Merseyside Pub of the Year is the Sparrowhawk, Southport Old Road in Formby. The Cider Pub of the Year is the Grasshopper, Sandon Road in Hillside. The Club of the Year is the Fleetwood Hesketh S&S Club, Fylde Road, Southport.

The West Lancashire Pub of the Year is Tap Room No 12 in Burscough Street, and the Cider Pub of the Year is the Court Leet in Wheatsheaf Walk, both in Ormskirk. By coincidence, I wrote about these two pubs in January. No clubs were entered for Club of the Year.

These awards are determined after visits over twelve months by ordinary CAMRA members, and a shortlist is derived from their scores. The pubs on the shortlist are then visited by a team of judges (including Yours truly this time for the cider pub scoring) who make the final decisions. The pubs themselves do not usually know they are in the running for an award.

My congratulations to all the winners.

Please note that CAMRA receives no money or payment in kind for making such awards. The same applies to entries in the Good Beer Guide; if someone claiming to be from CAMRA asks a licensee for payment in return for an award or for being listed in a beer guide, it is a scam. I have recently heard reports of this happening in the north west.

Thursday 14 March 2019

Spoons - just stirring it up?

The great hall in the North Western on Lime Street
A recent negative comment ("poor food cheap drinks") on a Facebook post about Wetherspoons got me wondering why some drinkers are so dismissive about the pub chain. I accept that Tim Martin is perfectly capable of being complete prat, particularly on those occasions when he spouts his views on issues beyond his immediate business, but if I knew the views of managing directors or CEOs of most breweries or pub companies, I'd probably find quite a lot to take issue with.

Anyone who chooses not to patronise Spoons because of Martin's strident views on leaving the EU is of course perfectly entitled to do so, but although I completely disagree with him on that issue, it won't stop me using the pubs.

Comments I've read over the years, sometimes inserted anonymously on other beer blogs, have been along the lines of:
  • Pensioners drooling into their meals.
  • Brats running wild.
  • People on benefits squandering their 'handouts'.
  • Alkies drinking from opening time.
And so on. People writing such things are clearly looking down with contempt upon some of their fellow citizens: not an admirable trait. 

I have never noticed anyone drooling into their food, beer or anything else; I regarded that kind of comment as snobby ageism. How dare older people want to go out for a drink? They should be tucked up at home with their slippers and cocoa, getting increasingly isolated and depressed - but out of sight. Any children I see in Spoons are no worse than those in other family-friendly pubs, and calling them 'brats' is just another instance of snobbery. As for people spending their benefits: first of all, how would you know? And secondly, even if they were, they're entitled to some kind of social life.

I've also read a number of times, especially recently for some reason, that CAMRA shouldn't give £20 of beer tokens to its members.  Some people seem to think that the beer tokens constitute a subsidy of Spoons by CAMRA; if so, they have got it completely wrong. The vouchers are a CAMRA membership benefit entirely paid for by Wetherspoons, and it's not the only company that provides perks - have a look here - but no one ever suggests that CAMRA should turn those other offers down. This type of whingeing is just a handy stick to beat both Spoons and CAMRA, even if it does involve getting the facts wrong, but that's indicative of the times we live in, unfortunately.

There are a number of pubs in Southport that I like to frequent, and they include traditional pubs, micropubs, and Spoons. The one I go to most is the Guest House, one of the most unaltered traditional pubs in the town centre, but on occasion I like to go to one of the town's two Spoons, the Sir Henry Segrave and the Willow Grove. I also like the magnificent North Western in Lime Street, Liverpool, and, although I don't get there very often, the Court Leet in Ormskirk. The Twelve Tellers in a former bank in Preston is also rather impressive.

Nearly ten years ago, I wrote how Southport's two Spoons outlets were a thorough disappointment. I'm pleased to say that post is completely out of date today, and a good choice of well-kept beer is available in both. I mention this to demonstrate that I am not an uncritical fan of Wetherspoons, and if I am dissatisfied, I am prepared to say so.

From an old local guide that listed every real ale outlet.
Perhaps some slightly younger Spoons detractors simply don't know how lucky they are. In the 1970s and 1980s, we would have a thought a pub like Spoons was marvellous at a time when most pubs had only one or two beers on, usually from the same brewery. My chart shows the number of real ale pubs in the whole of Southport (not just the town centre) in 1985, categorising them by how many real ales they had on. Nowadays you can get a better choice in the area around the northern end of Lord Street alone.

People are of course fully entitled to dislike like Spoons as pubs, but the nature of some of the criticisms has made me wonder whether there are other factors, such as feelings of superiority, perhaps?

In response to the comment that provoked this post, I wrote: 
I don't agree the food is poor: it's good for what you're paying. I also have no problem with cheap drinks.
Wetherspoons provides many people on restricted incomes with an opportunity to have an afternoon or a night out with a few drinks and a reasonably-priced meal, that they certainly couldn't afford in an overpriced gastro-pub.
Not everyone can afford to be as choosy as you!

Saturday 9 March 2019

St Patrick - Southport's most famous son?

As the 17th March approaches we prepare ourselves for the annual carnival of Hiberniana. There will be mass parades of emerald green in the big cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, Dublin and even London. It will be a celebration of all things Irish and people will be encouraged to wear ‘the Green’ and sup the famous Irish stout.

Well, it may surprise some to discover that St Patrick was not even Irish. He was from England. In his diaries he describes how he was brought up in the North of England until the age of 16. He was then kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. With the advancing and receding shoreline there is no archaeological evidence to identify St Patrick’s home and the place names used then are no longer recognised. However, some historical texts place St Patrick’s home between The Mersey and The Ribble. In my book that puts him in Southport.

Of course, the Welsh claim him but then they claim everyone. Last I heard, they were claiming that King Arthur and even Robin Hood were Welsh.

So what of the young lad sold into slavery? Eventually he escaped, came home and joined the church. He decided to go back to Ireland to spread Christian culture to the war-like tribes of Ireland and the rest is history.

Did St Patrick drink The Black Stuff? There is little doubt that St Patrick would have drunk dark ales. That was the staple drink in monasteries at the time. The malts would have been darker and smokier because of the traditional methods used, resulting in a darker ale. St Patrick would not have drunk anything like the nitrogenised, pasteurised, super-cooled commercial products associated with St Patrick’s Day but would have enjoyed a cask ale much more like our local brews: Parker’s Dark Spartan, Red Star’s Havana Moon or Southport’s Dark Night.

What about all this green? For over a thousand years St Patrick was depicted in blue. In fact he had a shade of blue named after him. St Patrick’s blue is a pale blue. The green has come in over the last hundred years or so to make St Patrick seem more Irish.

On 16 March, the Grasshopper in Sandon Road, Hillside, has a double cause for celebration: St Patrick’s Day and their 3rd birthday party. They invite you to put on your best blue outfit and join them in raising a glass to St Patrick – Southport’s most famous son.

On the same day, the Guest House in Union Street, Southport, is hosting 'St. Patricks shenanigans with ukulele rebels', aka Uke-Rhythmix.

Wishing you 'Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh' – Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

This is a guest post by Andrew Frith of the Grasshopper pub.

Thursday 7 March 2019

Churchtown pub tour

The village of Churchtown is known for its picturesque qualities: St Cuthbert's Church, the village green, the stocks, thatched cottages and two of the oldest pubs in Southport. The Bold Arms and the Hesketh Arms, listed buildings dating from the 18th century, sit on opposite sides of the village green. I recently visited them, along with one of the resort's newer pubs, Peaky Blinders. All three pubs allow children and dogs, and all have outside drinking areas.

The Hesketh (Google street view)
The Hesketh is a large pub that has a central bar with several separate drinking areas, various nooks and crannies, and is popular for food. On one wall, I saw this sign: “Dogs welcome – owners tolerated”! The real ales that were on when I called in were: Sharp's Doom Bar, Thwaites Wainwright and Bombardier, which I was told usually alternates with Black Sheep. William Sutton, credited as the founder of Southport, was the landlord here when it was known as the Black Bull. Every Boxing Day, the Southport Swords dance outside this pub as they have done for decades.

The Bold (Google street view)
Strolling past the village green, you quickly reach the Bold. This three-roomed pub is an old coaching house and it too is popular for food. You can watch the big football matches here as you enjoy your pint. Talking of beers, they were serving: St Austell Tribute, Robinson's Dizzy Blonde, Taylor's Landlord, Abbot and IPA (both from Greene King), and Tetley Cask. Their website advertises the imminent launching of a gin club, and I saw that Thursday is their quiz night.

Peaky Blinders
Leaving the Bold, you pass the Remedy bar – no real ale, but just the place if you're into gin – and a few minutes later you reach Peaky Blinders. This is an L-shaped bar with modern furnishings and large windows overlooking the road. It is light and airy, with walls decorated with a reproduction of old newspaper adverts and cuttings. The real ales available on my visit were: Taylor's Landlord, Wadworth's Horizon, Black Sheep and Cumbria Way which had run out just before I arrived. Cheese platters and paninis are available.

This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Previous write-ups are here.