Monthly Archives: March 2011

To find the long-lost bars

Before I supply the long-awaited parts 5 and 6 of my four-part survey of the local pubs, here are Seven Things You (probably) Didn’t Know About Me.

1. I’ve written a book. Some years ago I persuaded a radical publisher to give me an advance to write a biography of Guy Debord. For a variety of reasons I never finished it, although some of the more fully automated book sites on the Web still list it as available. What is available, however, is this: the book of my doctorate, and one of only a very few books in English on the Italian radical Left of the 1970s.

2. I’m a folkie: I play whistle in a scratch ceilidh band and sing traditional songs to anyone who will listen. I have been known to be an utter pedantic arse about the definition of ‘folk’, insisting in the face of all evidence to the contrary that ‘folk’ is synonymous with ‘traditional’. (This may come as a surprise to everyone familiar with my light-hearted free-wheeling approach to definitions in the field of beer.)

3. I didn’t have a haircut between 1996 and 2007. By the time of the last Comic Relief but two, I had hair down to my waist, and wore it in a plait. Washing it wasn’t particularly arduous – I found it stayed clean better than short hair – but I had to spend ten minutes every morning combing and re-plaiting it. So I had a sponsored haircut, and raised £120 for Comic Relief. My hair was shorter afterwards than it’s ever been before or since – I’d promised early on that if I raised over £50 I’d have a no. 1 crop.

4. I ate at the Croydon McDonald’s shortly after it opened – when it was the only McDonald’s in the country. It was OK. (After reading Richard Boston’s write-up in the Graun, I was actually slightly disappointed that it wasn’t worse. I believed every word Richard Boston wrote at the time – a policy which generally served me pretty well.) I tend to avoid McD’s these days – my son swore to avoid them for life after he saw Supersize Me!, and I go along with him – but I’m not a complete fast food refusenik; I was a huge fan of Denny’s when they had a branch in London.

5. I once appeared on GMTV, standing on the beach at Arromanches and being interviewed (well, being fed a couple of questions) by Roger MeJohn Stapleton, who introduced me as a ‘military historian’. I am not now and never have been a military historian. (I was a freelance journalist, and I’d written some fairly detailed stuff about Normandy for a BBC site – and I was available.)

6. I’m currently on my third career. I had a career in IT (11 years, three employers, eight different roles) and a career in journalism (eight years, one employer and a lot of freelancing, many different roles) before starting my current career as an academic (so far, six years, two employers, five different roles). The ironic thing is that when people asked me at school what I wanted to be, I used to say I was going to be a university lecturer. I was right the first time – I don’t know what took me so long.

7. I once interviewed Tony Wilson, in the Factory boardroom. Great man (among other things).

And this is me (in 1978):

They say you’re a nice enough young man

PS If anyone’s wondering, I know the title’s a misquote – I only realised it when I looked it up just now, though.

Taxi for Mr Nelson

A couple of postscripts to earlier posts. I wrote about my ideal jukebox here; alternatively, how about this?

Gruff Rhys, “Candylion”
Lazy, shuffling, whimsical psychedelia. The Neutrons meet De La Soul, essentially.

the Clash, “Train in vain”
Ah, you know this one. No, you do. I was a huge fan of Mick Jones until he got kicked out of the band – the B*A*D stuff just wasn’t the same.

Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 revisited”
If you don’t know this one, make its acquaintance immediately. Seriously.

The The, “This is the day”
“Well, you didn’t wake up this morning, ’cause you didn’t go to bed…” One of the all-time great life-affirming songs, in spite of the fact that a lot of what it’s affirming is groundless optimism – or perhaps because of it.

Talking Heads, “Born under punches”
“Well, I’m a tumbler – Born under punches – I’m so thin…” All this over something polyrhythmic, futuristic and vaguely Latin in the background. Probably Talking Heads’ greatest album, and not the worst track on it.

Richard Hawley, “Who’s going to shoe your pretty little foot?”
Bring it down. The Yorkshire crooner does something traditional at last (I knew he could).

Faust, “It’s a bit of a pain”
A pretty little tune interrupted by bursts of white noise and tailing off into an atonal guitar solo. Nice.

the Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield, “What have I done to deserve this?”
Oh. My. God. This hits me between the eyes every time. I know every word of Neil Tennant’s rap, but really I wish I could hit Dusty’s high notes.

There’s one big difference between that and my earlier list, which is that you can currently select all of these songs in one place, at Electrik in Chorlton. Perhaps not my ideal jukebox (see previous post) but it’s pretty close – and it has one major advantage, which is that it’s free. And the beer’s pretty good too – but more on that anon.

“Tastes all right to me”

I don’t know much about real ale. (I do know what I like, though.) I’ll be more specific: I don’t know much about bad real ale: beer that’s not fit to serve any more, or wasn’t fit to go in the cask in the first place. I don’t know much about condition, in a word. I know when I think a beer’s off – and I’m arrogant enough to think that (a) I’m going to be right most of the time, and hence (b) bar staff should take my word for it (instead of doing that infuriating thing of looking at you as if you’re mad, then replacing the pint as if they’re doing you a personal favour). But I don’t know much about how and why a beer goes off, apart from a general sense that if you leave the last couple of pints sitting at the bottom of a cask they’re likely to go sour. When a beer is overpoweringly bitter – really, really bitter; KölschJever-like levels of bitterness – is that something going wrong, or is it just a really bitter beer? When a beer tastes of gravy, what’s that about? (Sorry, I know that’s not a literal description, but it’s the only way I can think of to describe the flavour I’ve got in mind. An odd kind of greasy quality, with a definite hint of saltiness.)

Sometimes detailed tasting notes seem called for. Take, for example, the Saddleworth Shaftbender I tried at the National Winter Ales Festival. On the first mouthful I thought it was a sour-tasting beer; by the end of the second mouthful the sourness had become really obtrusive, and I’d come to the conclusion it was off. I told the volunteer who’d served me about it; she fetched someone senior, who took a swill of it and said “Yes, it is a bit flat.” (It was no flatter than some of the other beers I’d had that evening.) I still wonder vaguely whether it was off or not.

Or take the Thirsty Moon I had the other week. I used to see Thirsty Moon a lot at the Crescent in Salford, where I went a lot about ten years ago, and it was one of my very favourite beers – a light, easy-drinking bitter with a definite hop character and a surprisingly full malty body, and generally very nice indeed. This time round I was surprised to find a real sourness in there – a strident acidic layer of flavour sitting over the top of the others, not unlike citric acid. (The body itself wasn’t sour, but there was this extra sour element in the mix.) Was it a duff batch or a bad cask, or was it meant to taste like that? (Maybe the recipe’s changed over the years – it has been a while, and there are all these new hops on the scene.)

Take, lastly, the Castle Rock Merlin porter I had on stillage the other day. A very nice half (it was early in the day) with a rich jumble of flavours and a quite pleasant brashness, a quality that beers on stillage often seem to have – probably just because they’ve had less time to sit in the cask rather than because of the method of dispense. But what was that tannic, metallic note, almost a buzzing on the tip of my tongue? Was there something wrong, or was it just a beer with a metallic, tannic note?

While I’m on the subject, what’s this I keep hearing about bottled beer in clear glass being doomed to get ‘light-struck’ and end up ‘skunked’? I haven’t looked at Shepherd Neame the same way since I started reading TBN’s reviews. I’ve had bottled beers that were flat and sour – which presumably was the result of the same kind of problem that makes cask beer go flat and sour – but never noticed a particular kind of bottled-beer ‘offness’, even in clear-glass bottled supermarket beers. (I remember thinking my last Gentleman Jack wasn’t terribly nice – it tasted a bit coarse and thrown-together – but I did think that was what it was meant to be like.)

So, has anyone got a handy listing of common ways for cask beer to taste wrong? And has anyone else had beer that tasted of gravy?