Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Opinion becomes propaganda

I was quite surprised to see in the pub trade magazine, the Morning Advertiser, two articles about the statement by Pete Brown that he has mostly stopped drinking cask ale. One article was by Brown himself, and the other referred to the response by CAMRA national chair, Colin Valentine. Why the big fuss? Partly because Pete Brown is a regular beer columnist in the Advertiser, and partly because he has won awards from the beer writers' club, the British Guild of Beer Writers, including in 2016 Beer Writer of the Year for the third time.

Apparently Brown is fed up of getting poor real ale, which according to his article happens all the time. My thought is quite simple: he must be choosing the wrong pubs because what he's written doesn't reflect my own experience. Real ale is the one expanding part of the beer market; if he were right about the state of the product, I'd expect sales to be contracting.

I'm wondering whether this is another sideswipe at CAMRA, an organisation that Brown has consistently criticised, along with its members, even though he did actually join in 2012, as he wrote in this mea culpa piece at the time. Even as he signed up, he wrote about the "social [CAMRA] stereotype of the socially inadequate, visibly outlandish beer nerd, with his big belly, beard, opaque glasses, black socks and sandals, and leather tankard on his belt." That's a bit rich coming from someone with uncombed hair, a scrappy beard and untidy clothes. Whatever your views on Roger Protz, another prominent beer writer, you certainly can't describe his appearance in such terms.

I once took a beer blogger to task because I felt a description he gave of an unreasonable pub customer was implausible; I explained why I thought the described behaviour could not have occurred. He admitted the incident described had not actually happened, but was an amalgam of two or three separate incidents. So, in other words, it was made up, including the quoted dialogue. I think this matters. If he'd said that it was a hypothetical example of the kind of behaviour he'd come across, then there could have been no complaint - although in that particular case it would still have seemed improbable to me. Even hypothetical examples should seem credible.

I wonder whether Brown has done something similar. In my view, his antipathy to CAMRA has spilled over into his articles. In one, he described how he was drinking in a pub when a customer went to the bar, said he was a CAMRA member and suggested that he should get free beer because without CAMRA, the pub wouldn't be serving real ale. Even worse, he went and joined a friend and they began swapping videos about trains. Two stereotypes in one anecdote: a boorish real ale drinker with a sense of entitlement - and a train spotter to boot!

Another alleged incident was at a dinner put on by, I think, a brewery where the beer on the table Brown was sitting at ran out, causing a CAMRA member to complain loudly. The host went and brought some bottles from his own supply and placed them on the table, for which the CAMRA member gave no thanks, proceeding to claim them all for himself and not letting anyone else near them.

I have no way of disproving such stories, but I find it difficult to understand why I, as someone who joined CAMRA when Brown was doing his 'O' levels, have never come across such bad behaviour by CAMRA members. In my experience, they tend to be just as well- or, if you prefer, just as bad-mannered as the general public. The difference is that I don't have a well-documented antipathy to CAMRA, which I'd be the first to agree isn't a perfect organisation, but then neither is any other on the planet.

In his Morning Advertiser article, Brown refers to "campaigners who insist cask ale is the highest quality beer available, while simultaneously demanding that it is cheaper than any other beer on the bar". Which particular campaigners might these be? Certainly CAMRA has campaigned for cuts in beer duty, but I can't recall any campaigns demanding that licensees cut their prices. Most CAMRA members would understand that pub profit margins on real ale are very slim. If price were their only consideration, then surely they'd all be drinking only in Wetherpoons and similar lower price establishments; this is quite clearly not the case, Wetherspoons vouchers notwithstanding.

Writing about beer - as in writing about music, come to think of it - should be a combination of facts and opinions. While accepting that genuine errors can occur, what you understand to be factual can shape your opinions, but opinions - or prejudices - shouldn't modify your perception of the facts, or else you'll be producing propaganda, not information.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Needing some space

The Heatons Bridge, a popular community pub in West Lancs
I see the the Morning Advertiser has an article suggesting how pubs can make greater use of their space, particularly areas that are unused for much of the time. It all makes sense, as long as it doesn't impinge upon the main functions of a pub. How far a pub can follow the Advertiser's suggestions obviously depends very much on the amount and the nature of spare space available; the tendency in the 60s and 70s to knock pubs through massively reduced the numbers of function rooms that are available.

I have long been involved in groups that make use of pubs for specific purposes, such as folk clubs, union meetings, CAMRA meetings, political party meetings, as well as the more usual birthday parties, wedding celebrations and wakes. In work, management would book hotels for meetings and conferences or, when I worked in Norris Green in Liverpool, the hospitality suite at Everton FC, much to the chagrin of Liverpool fans. The union, not being so flush, would choose pub function rooms, which were usually free. Occasionally someone would raise the objection that some of our members might not wish to go into pubs because they weren't drinkers, but I'd argue that no one was obliged to drink alcohol, and that we'd be in a room without an open bar. If that wasn't sufficiently persuasive, I'd simply invite the person concerned to find another suitable free, or at least cheap, venue, and we'd go there. It's not as easy as people assume.

Recently, when the Lion pub was closed as I have mentioned recently, I did consider moving my song session to another pub, but the only one I approached wasn't interested; surprisingly, I couldn't think of another suitable venue that was suitable for us and also convenient for public transport.

A few years ago, a Wetherspoons pub agreed to reserve space a couple of mornings a week for a mother and toddler group. Predictably, there were horrified reactions from the usual suspects, so extreme you'd think they were suggesting sacrificing the first-born. I wasn't impressed with the objections: Spoons is a lot cheaper than expensive branded coffee houses, and if a young woman decided to have a glass of wine, so what?

The critics claimed to be concerned for the welfare of the mothers and children, but I thought them quite heartless. For many years, I was a home visiting officer for the DSS in Liverpool, and single parents made up quite a few of the clients I called upon. Some were fine, coping with support from friends and family nearby, but others were clearly isolated and lonely, having been housed in an area where they knew no one. I feel certain that something like the Wetherspoons group once or twice a week would have made a big difference, getting them away from the four walls, meeting others in similar circumstances and perhaps making new friends.

But such concerns wouldn't cross the minds of our self-righteous, self-appointed moral guardians, who failed to see that the proposed mother and toddler group was intended to reduce loneliness and isolation, a subject that I wrote about on 1 January.

It seems obvious to me that opening a pub to other uses when practical will justify its place as a valued part of the community. It will also help ensure it stays open for us drinkers.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Stamping a place on the gravy train

The mark of Satan?
It's nice when politicians have their finger on the pulse of the burning issues of the day. Bill Etheridge, an MEP for UKIP, a single issue party that has achieved its sole objective, is now looking around for something to justify continuing to receive his Euro-salary (three times the UK national average wage) from an institution he claims to hate. He's come up with a demand that the UK should reintroduce the old crown stamp on our pint glasses instead of the EU-wide CE mark.

He asserts that, "All drinkers remember the crown mark, knowing that it guaranteed them a full pint, indeed there are still some around." All drinkers? Perhaps it's true of some more mature drinkers, but
not of those who came of drinking age after the introduction of the CE mark. Regardless of the hyperbole, the real point is: do British drinkers - whatever their age and whether or not they remember the crown stamp - worry about this? I haven't done a survey, but I seriously doubt that anyone could care less.

Bill Etheridge: worth every penny!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Monday, 9 January 2017

Scotch Piper to return

On 6 December I wrote about the fire at the Scotch Piper in Lydiate, the oldest pub in the area. The early indications were that, although the blaze was furious and took four hours to bring under control, the damage was mostly to the thatched roof. This has proved to be the case, and the roof structure and the building were saved.

A fire brigade spokesperson said: "The thatched roof is 100 per cent damaged by fire. The property is severely damaged by water from fire fighting." The police have ruled out foul play.

Scaffolding has been set up, and piles of new thatch have appeared, although it will be some time before the pub can reopen.

To find out more about this classic pub, please have a look at the post that I wrote in April 2016; this also appeared in the CAMRA column of our local paper, the Southport Visiter.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

'Prehistoric' - but he has a point

The Seekers, featuring Judith Durham - not a basque in sight
There is a lot of publicised anger, not least in The Mirror, aimed at Tom Jones for his comment that Leanne Mitchell, winner of The Voice, failed to become a star because of her weight. He has suggested that she ought to have lost weight and seized her chance.

Jane Kenyon, of support group Girls Out Loud, said: "We need zero tolerance on these kind of comments. He should know better and if it's his view, it is time to put him out to pasture." Natalie Harvey of charity Combat Bullying, said: "These comments are prehistoric and dangerous. I find these comments really scary. If you can sing you can sing."

They're not wrong, of course, but there's a wider picture here. I sometimes watch the old music programmes on BBC 4 - Sounds of the Sixties, Dusty at the BBC, and so on. The 60s are infamous for sexism, with phrases such as 'dollybirds' to describe fashionably dressed young women, and I do recall the shocked newspaper articles about miniskirts, and how young women would be storing up health problems for the future. However, the way women in the public eye dressed then was not as overtly sexual as now: in shows I've watched recently, Dusty Springfield and Judith Durham wore long gowns, and while Sandie Shaw sported a miniskirt, it was tame by modern standards and would probably now be acceptable in most offices. The Supremes, one of the most successful female groups of the era, were always dressed in a sophisticated manner.

In contrast, many modern female performers feel in necessary to do so in their underwear: highly revealing basques and other outfits that leave little to the imagination. Even older singers such as Jennifer Lopez, 47, Kylie, 48, and Madonna, 58, feel obliged to conform to the sex kitten image. There are many female singers who don't follow this path, but they are less likely to get exposure on TV. The videos of those who do will get millions of hits that probably are not primarily prompted by their music. Would Cheryl Cole have been as commercially successful if she had been overweight and not considered attractive? I think not.

The singing credibility of many such performers is often bolstered by autotune, which can put right any singer, no matter how tuneless; I wrote about it here a year ago. Perhaps we should create a new term for performers who can't sing without electronic help and rely on selling their bodies to become rich and famous.

It is perhaps an indication of the power of massive entertainment corporations that decades of feminism have not hindered the growth of such visual exploitation of young women. A counter argument that I have read is that such women are empowered, proven by their commercial success, but you could make the same point about successful female escorts, as they are sometimes coyly called. Over the years, there have been, quite rightly in my opinion, campaigns to end Page 3 girls in The S*n, but I'd argue that a static photo of a topless young woman in a newspaper is tame compared to some of the highly sexualised dancing we can see on TV, and which is readily available on the internet, thus hugely more accessible than in in pre-internet days.

Tom Jones's comments were certainly ill-advised, but he has a point that appearance is more important for commercial pop success than ever before. I can only speculate how singers such as Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass Elliott and, more recently, Alison Moyet would fare if they were starting today. I'm not making adverse comments about these women's looks; I'm merely stating that they wouldn't have conformed to the very narrow, very prescriptive definition of desirability expected by some audiences - and required by record companies.

Perhaps Tom Jones's critics should cast their disapproval wider to include those who have created and who perpetuate a definition of female pop singer that requires hopeful young women to sell themselves primarily as sexually alluring - by their appearance rather than by their talent. I consequently find it encouraging that Leanne Mitchell has said that she is quite happy the way she is and has no intention of slimming down.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Lion singaround returns

A detail in one of the Lion's windows
In June, I wrote that the classic Liverpool pub, the Lion Tavern, had closed, and in November that it had reopened; some of us had been worried that it might never open again. I'm pleased to report that the song session that I have run in the pub from July 2010 will begin again next week; the last one was in June, just before the pub stopped trading.

It is the same night as before, the second Thursday of each month, and it is completely acoustic - no amplification at all. The session is open to both singers and non-singers; anyone who just wants to come and listen is very welcome.

If you're free on Thursday 12 January, it's at the Lion Tavern, Moorfields, Liverpool, just across the road from Moorfields Station on the Northern Line, and starts at around 8.15 pm. The last train to Southport leaves at 11.40 pm. The Lion has a good selection of up to 8 real ales.

Hope to see you there.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

A small brewery far away ...

A choice of good real ales
in the Guest House, Southport
The decision of the Cloudwater Brewery of Manchester to cease brewing real ale seems to have evoked a variety of reactions from "Is this the beginning of the end of cask beer?" to "It's no big deal - move on." In the latter category you'll find Tandleman and the Pub Curmudgeon.

The doom mongers will always be among us, of course, often comprised of people who favour craft keg over real ale, sometimes despising CAMRA into the bargain: while they are fully entitled to their own preferences, their views should be taken with a large pinch of salt as they've an axe to grind.

I'm not the only person to have suggested that at some point the contradictory phenomena of ever more breweries and fewer pubs will collide - see my post from June 2016. One licensee I put this point to last year told me he thought that process had already begun, and pointed out that hobby brewers add to the problem by their ability to undercut those who need to make a living out of their breweries. 

So: apocalypse? Or damp squib?

Some breweries can cut production in the face of fierce competition, but not all. Brewers who either go to the wall or abandon real ale production will not necessarily be those who brew the least interesting cask beer. It is logical to assume that we will lose some good real ales in a process of consolidation that seems almost inevitable. Quite a few of us have been predicting this for a while, so I don't quite understand the apparent shock the Cloudwater decision has made in some quarters. They're a business, not a charity, and therefore have to make a profit - although even charities need to balance the books - and if their current business structure does not enable a profit to be made, then it is not surprising if they discontinue the product with the slimmest profit margin.

This will probably happen again elsewhere, but it would be incorrect to assume this means the beginning of the end for real ale. If the number of breweries producing real ale does decline, it will reach a new, lower point of equilibrium, a position that should be more sustainable in the longer term. The unfortunate consequence is that in the process we may lose some of our favourite beers.

While there is an overlap in the markets for real ale and craft keg, there is also quite a level of separation. Because of its longer shelf life, keg can be transported further and can supply small volume venues better than cask beer with its need for quick turnover. On the other hand, small real ale brewers tend to supply within their local areas. I doubt the two products will ever be wholly separate, but there can be circumstances when they'll meet different requirements.

Not an apocalypse, but not a damp squib either. Long term predictions about the beer market by people more knowledgeable than I am frequently prove wide of the mark. While pubs are still closing, micropubs, café bars and other small venues are opening in large numbers, and many do stock real ales; they may not be able to compensate for all the pub closures, but they should mitigate the situation, especially as they often go for locally-brewed real ales. Furthermore, many of the pubs that are closing were not real ale venues anyway; that's not to say such closures don't matter, but they won't affect real ale sales.

This decision by Cloudwater is part of the evolution of the beer market, and where we will end up in the long term is anyone's guess - and I use the word 'guess' intentionally.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Pub adjudicator reveals commercial interests

I've written on 10 June 2016 and 30 November 2016 before about how the pub code adjudicator (PCA), Paul Newby, has financial interests that could compromise his independence; my post in June goes into detail about his investments. Mr Newby has decided to publish full details of his financial involvement in Fleurets in order to answer charges of a conflict of interest: the details are in the Morning Advertiser.

A spokesperson for the PCA has said: "These pre-existing interests do not call into question his ability to carry out his responsibilities. This is a view that has been upheld by the commissioner for public appointments. There is no direct link between the ownership of shares and loans and the decisions Mr Newby is required to make as the adjudicator. He gains no direct benefit from future instructions to Fleurets or the outcome of any particular case involving the company and there is no incentive for him to act in any particular manner."

Does that answer all the criticisms? In my opinion, the use of the word 'direct' twice in this statement leaves questions unanswered. It could be argued that a decision he may make in a pubco's favour could benefit him indirectly. After all, he doesn't want a company in which he has a sizeable stake to lose value, thus jeopardising repayments to him. If I had money invested in a company, I'd want it to do well. Greg Mulholland MP has asked why someone with a legal background wasn't appointed, a suggestion I made in a comment to my post in June; such an appointment would not have been touched by this kind of controversy.

For all I know, Mr Newby may well be a man of integrity who is committed to doing his job fairly; I certainly hope so, and the increased openness is to be welcomed. However, the question of how he is perceived remains unanswered, so I'm inclined to doubt that all the critics will be satisfied.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Pubs v. Facebook

Acoustic songs in the Mason's, Southport
I see that CAMRA has reacted positively to a survey by the Campaign To End Loneliness which revealed that older people experiencing loneliness miss simple things in life, such as a drink in the pub, a walk in the country or a shared meal. CAMRA itself commissioned a study by Oxford University called Friends On Tap which showed how community locals can help fill gaps left by loneliness.

In 2014, the Office for National Statistics found Britain to be the most lonely country in the EU. We're less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours, and many us have no one to rely on in a crisis. While isolation is most commonly associated with older people, the study found that younger people in the 18-34 age band can often feel alone too, despite smartphones, Facebook and other social media, or - in my view - partly because of them. Reading 'LOL' on your phone is not the same as laughing out loud with your mates around a pub table.

This time of the year, Christmas and New Year, can actually deepen feelings of isolation because, if you're alone, it can look as though the whole world is having a party to which you're not invited. To be fair, there are occasional messages reminding us not to forget people who are lonely at this time, but the problem is not seasonal phenomenon: for many, this is a year-long struggle.

Pubs are one obvious answer, as you can enter and buy a drink without having to pay for admission, join or sign in, and it is acceptable to speak to strangers, but it's not necessarily as straightforward as CAMRA seems to suggest. First you have to find a suitable pub: not every pub is a community local, and some may cater more for specific age groups so that even a regular pub goer of the 'wrong' age might feel out of place. An older woman may not find it easy to go into a pub on her own, especially as she may be of a generation that did not readily accept women doing so.

When you are a regular pub goer, as CAMRA members are almost by definition, walking into a pub is simple, so it's easy for us to forget that some may find the prospect daunting, partly because of the fear that you may end up sitting sadly on your own, perhaps compounded by simple unfamiliarity with pubgoing in general. 

I'd suggest that people try to find out about suitable pubs before venturing out: for example, from other people, from the local papers and on-line. It may be an idea to go when there is entertainment on, because that can be the ostensible reason for being there, and it doesn't matter if you're watching, say, music alone as people will assume that's why you're there. Music and quiz nights are probably the most common forms of entertainment, although some pubs put on comedy acts. If music is your thing, a loud rock band doesn't help if you're hoping to speak to people, although not all amplified music precludes speech. Increasingly there are unamplified acoustic music sessions, some held during the day and therefore clearly suitable for retired people. Pub games, such as darts or pool where you can challenge whoever's playing to a game, may be another way of breaking the ice. It is not even necessary to drink alcohol: in my local, one of my friends whom I've known for decades drinks only diet Coke. If, like me, you are not drawn to soft drinks, tea and coffee are often available nowadays.

Pubs aren't a silver bullet that can solve all the problems of loneliness, and some people may genuinely not like them anyway. The propaganda of the anti-alcohol brigade has had a corrosive effect on the perception of pubs, as have media stories suggesting our town centres are like the Wild West at weekends: I go out every weekend, and they're not. Having said that, CAMRA is basically correct in suggesting that pubs can help reduce isolation for many people. 

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.

January
  • 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.
March
  • 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.
June
  • 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."
November 
  • 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.
December
  • 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: www.oldpackethouse.co.uk. 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.