Wednesday, 30 September 2009

It’s not a civil liberties issue

Nottingham City Council is planning to become the first city in the country to ban all drinking in public places. No matter that the authorities already have extensive powers to deal with threatening or abusive behaviour, they have to deal with the “problem” by introducing yet another law to criminalise people having a glass of wine with a picnic in the park.

Amazingly, City Council leader Jon Collins said: “I do not think it's a civil liberties issue. It's about saying we do not want people drinking in the street.”

Umm, Jon, the whole point about civil liberties is that you tolerate people doing and saying things you might strongly disapprove of. You can just hear him saying a couple of years ago, “I do not think it's a civil liberties issue. It's about saying we do not want people smoking in pubs.” I don’t think he has the first inkling of what the concept of civil liberties means.

Mind you, Nottingham is also planning to do its best to drive business out by becoming the first city in the country to introduce a workplace parking levy, so it seems to be leading the field in arrogant, “we are the masters now” restrictions.

Vote against the Nanny State

Thanks to RedNev for pointing out a poll on the website of anti-drink fakecharity Alcohol Focus Scotland, asking us to vote Yes or No to the proposition “Cheap alcohol is damaging health and society. I support minimum pricing.” It’s currently running at 66% against.

As Nev says, let's try to make that figure higher before they remove the poll through embarrassment.

I read an interesting statistic today, that while alcohol-related “harm”, and alcohol consumption, are considerably higher in Scotland than in England and Wales, the general level of alcohol pricing and promotions is much the same. This strongly suggests the reasons have far more to do with social mores than with price.

All or nothing

Thirteen people from my workplace went out to the pub at lunchtime to mark the completion of the annual accounts process. Four had alcoholic drinks, nine soft drinks – and, as it was within walking distance, nobody could justify this by saying they were driving. This kind of thing underlines the dysfunctional relationship we have with alcohol in this country, at the same time experiencing chronic town-centre disorder and growing rates of cirrhosis amongst younger people, yet with responsible folks feeling inhibited from having even a single drink except when specifically “having a night out”.

Some years ago, in response to the latest alcohol scare story, there was a letter in the Sunday Times from one Ian Mulvihill, which made this point very clearly:

Brewers and legislators have created a society where regular social drinking is unfashionable, impractical and undesirable; but acute drunkenness one night a week is the opposite. And we're surprised at the results?
We would have a much healthier and more satisfying relationship with alcohol if we encouraged the regular consumption of moderate amounts in a social setting, but frowned upon obvious drunkenness, which is the situation that still prevails in many Continental countries. But, regrettably, as the routine consumption of alcohol is increasingly demonised and “denormalised”, the situation is likely to get worse in the future, not better.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Welcome to the twother

I see the government have given a positive response to the weights & measures consultation and said they will legislate to allow beer measures of two-thirds of a pint “at the earliest opportunity” – although that probably means it won’t happen before the General Election. I’ve said before that I think this is a good idea as it will allow people to have a worthwhile-seeming measure of beer that is significantly less than a pint. It’s especially appropriate for stronger beers of 5% ABV or more. However, it remains to be seen how enthusiastically pubs and drinkers will take it up. It’s one in the eye for metrication zealots that in effect the government are creating a new Imperial measure.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Losing loss leading

I see the Tories are planning to ban loss-leading in the off trade if they gain power next year. “Shadow licensing minister Tobias Ellwood has said the Tories will ban supermarkets from selling alcohol as a loss leader if they get into power.”

Setting aside the obvious administrative burden of establishing that nothing is being sold at a loss, I think people would be surprised how little difference it made. The extent of loss-leading in supermarkets even now is far less than many imagine – I would be amazed if it accounted for more than around 2% of all alcohol units sold. Most of those keen prices come from driving a hard bargain with suppliers, and if loss leading was banned the retailers would simply turn the screw further to make suppliers fund more of the promotions.

Given that you can’t pass a law to say that no business can trade at a loss, you can’t ban loss leading by the people who actually make the stuff. And would it become illegal to sell off surplus or short-dated stock below the wholesale price? If so, retailers might well become much more reluctant to stock anything that might represent a bit of a risk - or force producers to supply it on a sale-or-return basis.

Banning loss-leading stands alongside minimum pricing as another delusional panacea that in practice would bring no discernible benefit for the on-trade.

And yet more evidence that a Tory election victory won’t really make much difference.

A trip to Tokyo*

Being a cheeky bugger, having given a mention to BrewDog’s awesome and controversial Tokyo* imperial stout, I blagged a sample from them for review purposes. Thanks guys, you were very generous.

The other night I finally got round to trying it. I gave it an hour in the fridge and then drank it half at a time in a wine glass. To be honest, Pete Brown sums it up perfectly, and there’s not a lot I can add. It is incredibly thick, dark, rich and heavy, with a taste redolent of molasses and dates, but it remains very identifiable as a beer, and it is drier than you might expect. I would certainly echo Pete’s comment that you would struggle to get through a 330ml bottle in less than an hour. The closest comparison I can think of is some Pedro Ximenez dessert wine I once had.

It’s the last beer in the world you would want to binge on – realistically it is something like a vintage malt or claret that you would want to keep for special occasions. This only served to underline how misplaced were the criticisms of the anti-drink lobby.

Perhaps they should make it available in 170ml bottles which would be more suitable for a single serving.

Keith Floyd - TV Legend

Tonight on BBC2 at 9 pm.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Support the Pub

I know the petitions on the Number 10 website are systematically ignored by the government, but even so they can be useful in getting publicity for a particular cause. So I think this one is well worth signing:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to reject proposals from the British Medical Association to vastly increase taxes on alcohol and restrict pub opening hours; and to protect the interests of the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers.

I can’t see anything to object to in that – so long, of course, as we don’t accept the BMA definition of “moderate drinking”. Is this a sign that folks are at last waking up and smelling the coffee?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Public house, public toilet?

In a move that is billed as both saving costs and improving facilities, Stockport Council are planning to introduce a “Community Toilet Scheme”. This will involve closing current council-run public toilets and allowing the public to use existing toilets in business premises, for which the owners will receive an annual fee. On the face of it, it sounds like a win-win situation, but in reality it may prove much more problematical.

For a start, how many businesses actually have toilet facilities that are actually extensive or robust enough to cope with being heavily used by members of the public? How many have nappy-changing facilities or proper disabled provision? And, in general, toilets are tucked away at the back of the premises so can only be accessed by walking through areas where public access may cause a problem.

Inevitably the spotlight is likely to fall on pubs and restaurants, but a major problem there is that many do not open until 11 am or midday, whereas in a town centre there is a demand for public toilets from 9 am or even earlier. And it will need to be properly publicised, with signposts erected and maps produced and distributed through libraries, doctors’ surgeries and information centres. It’s no use just putting a little sticker in the window.

Perhaps it could work in a rural area where the only users will be a few motorists, cyclists and ramblers, but you can see it leading to all kinds of problems in large towns and cities. Will business owners really want to expose themselves to all the problems associated with public toilets such as drug use, sexual activity, theft of supplies, soiling, vandalism and graffiti? At present, a business owner can control the people who use his facilities, but if they are thrown open to the public this will no longer be possible. How much would the licensee of a town-centre pub think he needed to be paid to justify all the extra work and hassle? Many town-centre pubs, of course, currently have notices on the door saying “Our toilets are for customer use only”.

If it works, good luck to them, but I have serious doubts that it will prove a success, and in the longer term will just lead to a further erosion of already inadequate public toilet provision. The number of declared “community toilets” will never be sufficient and will be whittled away year by year. While it is not a statutory duty on councils to provide public toilets, surely businesses in town and village centres have a reasonable expectation when they pay their business rates that part of them will be used to provide such facilities alongside pavements and streetlighting. And can we be sure that before cutting expenditure on services that are actually used by people on a day-to-day basis, Stockport Council have eliminated all the politically correct non-jobs such as lesbian outreach workers and five-a-day co-ordinators?

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Liberal health fascism

The term “health fascism” is often bandied about in relation to the banning tendencies of the Righteous, but equally it is often dismissed as a crude and simplistic term of abuse directed at what are really high-minded and altruistic policies. However, once you look into it, the term actually contains far more truth than might seem at first sight.

I have recently been reading Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg. This is an American book and so uses “liberal” not in the usual European sense but referring to a broadly left-wing viewpoint favouring greater State control over the economy and people’s lives. Goldberg’s central thesis perhaps goes beyond the remit of this blog, but in a nutshell he argues that Fascism is essentially an ideology of the political Left, not the right, and although modern leftwingers are not in an objective sense “fascist”, the two views share a common ancestry in the “Progressive” movement of the early 20th century, which sought to harness the power of the State to improve the human condition, and in the process might well end up eroding the rights of individuals.

This links very specificially to the modern tendency to wish to modify people’s lifestyles and economic choices in the interest of the “greater good” – something that was very much characteristic of Italian Fascism and German Naziism.

The following passages show how the Nazi approach to individual health and lifestyle has its close modern parallels:

The Nazis used the slogan “Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz” – “the common good supersedes the private good” – to justify policing individual health for the sake of the body politic. This is the same rationale used today. As one public health advocate wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Both health care providers and the commonweal now have a vested interest in certain forms of behaviour, previously considered a person’s private business, if the behaviour impairs a person’s ‘health’. Certain failures of self-care have become, in a sense, crimes against society, because society has to pay for their consequences. In effect, we have said that people owe it to society to stop misbehaving.”

Compare all this with a typical admonition found in a Hitler Youth health manual: “Food is not a private matter!” Or, “You have the duty to be healthy!” Or as another uniformed health official put it: “The government has a perfect right to influence personal behaviour to the best of its ability if it is for the welfare of the individual and the community as a whole.” That last official was C. Everett Koop (former US Surgeon General).
There was a classic example of this in the pretty odious views on individual health expressed the other day by Dr Kailash Chand. Now, if he isn’t a health fascist, I don’t know who is.

And read the book - it will open your eyes.

Stand up and be counted

It’s good to see someone from the drinks industry being prepared to stand up and challenge the ludicrous “alcohol health guidelines” that have been drawn up by the neo-Prohibitionists of the medical profession. Neil Robertson, the chief executive of the British Institute of Innkeeping, has condemned the views of leading doctors on the alcohol debate as “misguided” and “ill-informed”, and suggested further draconian measures could shut up to 10,000 pubs. At least 10,000 pubs, I would have thought.

He also points out that the average alcohol consumption in the medical profession is 26 units per week, which is above their own guidelines. Given the high proportion of non-drinking Muslims in the profession, those who do drink must be way above the guidelines. Funny how they don’t practice what they preach – probably, deep down, they realise what nonsense these figures are.

Unless both drinks industry bodies and consumer representatives are prepared to challenge the torrent of questionable so-called health information about alcohol, the future for responsible drinkers, drinks producers and retailers, will be very bleak.

As I have posted before, these alcohol limits were in effect plucked out of the air and have no real scientific basis. But, even if you accept they do have some validity, surely their intent is to represent an ideal as part of an overall healthy lifestyle, not to define the boundary of acceptable behaviour. If a nutritionist were to draw up an ideal healthy diet, it probably wouldn’t include any crisps or chocolate, but if someone occasionally eats a packet of Walkers or a Mars Bar it doesn’t mean they have an eating disorder. Yet we are increasingly seeing the alcohol guidelines treated as Holy Writ, and anyone who exceeds them from time to time branded as irresponsible and a problem drinker.

It needs to be said loud and clear that drinking alcohol in moderation is not harmful to health, and the official guidelines are not a hard-and-fast definition of the bounds of moderation.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Size does matter

...or at least it seems it does to the readers of this blog. I recently concluded a poll asking the question “What is your preferred size for bottled beers?” (meaning those of 5.0% ABV or less). There were 25 responses, broken down as follows:

330ml: 6 (24%)
500ml: 11 (44%)
Pint: 8 (32%)

So a decisive defeat for the smallest measure, and a surprisingly strong showing for the traditional pint. Having said that, the contents of a pint bottle won’t fit comfortably in a brim-measure pint glass – underlining the short measure that is endemic with draught beer in pubs. Personally, although I’m no great lover of the metric system, I find the combination of 500ml bottle and brim-measure pint glass ideal for at-home drinking.

Pint bottles of ale are now very rare. Charles Wells used to do Bombardier and Banana Bread Beer in pint bottles, but have now reverted to the 500ml size, although, oddly, a number of mass-market lagers such as Stella, Carlsberg and Carling are sold in pint cans, sometimes at a distinctly higher price per unit of volume than the 440ml ones.

You have to wonder whether the likes of BrewDog might be missing a trick by not putting beers like 77 Lager in bottles bigger than 330ml.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Chin-chin to tiresome moralisers

I can’t say I’m normally a great fan of the writings of India Knight in the Sunday Times, but her article today on our attitudes to alcohol certainly strikes the nail on the head. She rightly takes Frank Skinner to task for arguing that, because he was once an alcoholic who regularly woke up in a pool of urine, those of us who can enjoy a drink responsibly should be subject to draconian restrictions. And she makes the point – sadly all too true - that “the idea that anyone who enjoys a big fat glass of red with their supper is basically a functioning alcoholic is slowly gaining ground.”

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Less is more

An irritating practice that seems to be becoming more common in pubs is charging more for a half pint than a strict half of the pint price. I am familiar with the arguments in favour of this, that the service costs of a half pint in terms of staff time, glass-washing etc are the same as for a pint, but even so it comes across as one of those niggly things that creates a bad impression out of all proportion to any benefit it may yield. What proportion of draught beer is served in halves anyway – I suspect well under 10%?

But it seems that the new Scottish licensing laws, while objectionable in many respects, may bring an end to this practice, as they outlaw any quantity discounts. As they say, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

Service with a frown

Holiday time again, so more exposure to the vagaries of British restaurant service. The favourite transgression recently seems to be serving coffee before the dessert, which surely should be an obvious no-no. To her credit, the waitress in one establishment made a point of asking me whether I wanted my coffee with my dessert, or later. That merited a £2 tip.

Worst of all was in a Belgian-style restaurant. I had a perfectly decent meal, although I felt a bit overfaced by the number of mussels. The frites were some of the best I’ve had in years. Then they served the coffee before the dessert, when both had been ordered at the same time. To add insult to injury, they then added a standard 10% service charge to the bill. When a two-course meal cost £26, this seemed quite unreasonable. I struck this out, and returned the bill. They took the full amount, so I complained. I was then given the difference, with ill grace, in shrapnel.

The culinary experience was fine, but the customer experience was execrable.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Misheard at the bar

It’s often said we have a north-south divide in this country, but those who know me will confirm that I don’t exactly have the most “eeh bah gum” Northern accent in the world, and so it beggared belief when I asked for a pint of Sussex Best in a Harvey’s pub in East Sussex and was presented with a pint of Fosters. Maybe the landlady was overdue for an ear-waxing. To their credit, there was no problem in putting the order right.

It also puzzled and dismayed me the amount of John Smith’s Smooth being sold in said pub, when one of Britain’s finest cask bitters was available alongside it in excellent condition and at a lower price.

Does size matter?

The current poll about people’s preferred bottle size was sparked by this comment of mine suggesting that BrewDog should put their 5.0% ABV 77 Lager in 500ml rather than 330ml bottles. I can see why they do it – they want to stress the idea that their beers are for savouring rather than swilling, and they want them to appear on the section of the supermarket shelves that contains Brooklyn Lager and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. But, personally, I don’t really consider a 330ml bottle of a beer in that strength range to be a satisfying drink. I would stress it’s standard beers I’m thinking about in the poll, not those of the strength of Duvel and Old Tom where a smaller bottle size may well be appropriate.

Get your vote in now - the poll closes around lunchtime tomorrow!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Meeting Keith

It was sad, but not altogether surprising, to hear earlier this week of the death of TV chef and noted bon viveur Keith Floyd. A couple of years ago, I had a chance meeting with Keith in the surprising surroundings of the Olde Vic pub in Stockport. This was the finishing point of a CAMRA pub crawl, I had certainly enjoyed a few drinks over the course of the evening and so, by the looks of it, had Keith. His presence there was explained by the fact that the owner of the pub (who is not the same person as the licensee) was acting as his driver and general minder during a tour of his one-man show Floyd Uncorked: the life of a Bon Viveur, following Keith’s latest and, it would turn out, last drink-driving conviction. They had called in to the Olde Vic on the way between a show in Keswick and the minder’s home in Stoke.

Keith was 63 at the time, and it has to be said he didn’t look a well-preserved 63, with his trademark floppy forelock reduced to a few strands, but no doubt he could still scrub up well for a public appearance. Predictably, he expressed his concerns about the future of the pub trade following the smoking ban (which turned out to be entirely justified), and, perhaps more surprisingly, said that he felt the gastro-pub trend had gone too far and was now ruining the character of many pubs. I can well understand why he thought that, as he was always a strong believer in authenticity and a critic of pretension.

Sadly, on the Keith Allen TV programme which aired on Monday, the night of his death, he seemed a frail shadow of his former self, and aged well beyond his 65 years, although his mind was clearly still as sharp as ever. It can’t be said that in his last days he was a great advertisement for a bibulous lifestyle, but he lived life to the full – he was married and divorced four times – and given the chance to live his life again I doubt whether he would have it any other way. Apparently, although he had recently been diagnosed with bowel cancer, his most recent medical gave his liver a clean bill of health.

By another strange concidence, we are doing the same pub crawl tomorrow evening. Maybe it should be named the “Keith Floyd Memorial Crawl”.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Chopping down the grapevine

Plenty has been said this week about the British Medical Association’s call for a total ban on alcohol advertising and there’s not a lot I can add to it. But one point that hasn’t received much attention is the enormous amount of information disseminated about alcoholic drinks that is not paid for directly by the producers. There are societies devoted to the appreciation of beer, wine and spirits, magazines, guide books, newspaper columns and a growing number of internet listings and blogs. In this respect it is totally different from the tobacco market where, as far as I can see, there never has been any significant amount of amateur appreciation.

Most people with a serious interest in alcoholic drinks will probably get much more information from these informal sources than from paid-for advertising. Obviously, though, there is plenty of scope for behind-the-scenes manipulation by drinks producers, which would assume more significance if conventional advertising was outlawed. But do the doctors really want a situation where the Good Beer Guide is a banned publication and I’m committing an offence if I write on this blog that I had a good pint of Robinson’s in the Arden Arms? Regrettably, given the tone of many of their recent pronouncements, I fear the answer is “Yes”.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Bon appetit Mike!

Today (the whim having taken me) I asked for a packet of scratchings in my local pub. I expected the usual Smiths or Golden Wonder bag, but instead got an original West Midlands product labelled thus:


6 Pinfold Lane Penn
Wolverhampton WV4 4EE

Tel. 07775873815

Ingredients: Pork Rind, Salt, Yeast Extract, Rusk, Flavour Enhancer 621, Hydrolised Protein, Yeast Protein, Dextrose, UK WL 010-EEC


That is the sum total of the labelling. God knows what the last ingredient is, but they were delicious, and far better than the usual corporate version. Good to see a small-scale producer getting their product into a managed pub.

Why is it that all pork scratchings seem to originate from the Black Country? And will Woolpack Dave, famed for his commitment to authentic produce, be stocking them?

Number unobtainable

Seen in today’s Sunday Times “Atticus” column by Roland White, not at present online:

Walking past a red phone box in my village last week, I noticed for the first time that it contains no actual telephone but a large sign which insists “No smoking”. So the phone box no longer does what it was designed for, and is now just bossy and annoying.

It should be Grade I listed as an outstanding monument to modern government.

Happy days

One pleasure that they haven’t yet tried to curb is Schadenfreude, and the unintended consequences of the Righteous banning tendency provide plenty of opportunities to enjoy it. The latest example comes from Scotland, where the new licensing rules seek to ban “happy hours” by insisting that pubs must maintain prices for at least 72 hours. However, in response to this, the Tun on Holyrood Road, close to the Scottish Parliament, has decided instead to offer happy days, with certain drinks being discounted from Mondays to Thursdays, a pattern that, as the report suggests, is likely to become increasingly common. Mr Eugenides goes thinks they should go even further:

So I would suggest to the good people at The Tun that, if they haven't already, they install a Rogue's Gallery behind the bar with mugshots of every MSP who voted for these regulations, and make damn sure that every one of those bastards are forced to pay full whack on their pints to subsidise the discounts for the rest of us.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Untying the pub trade

Interesting article here examining what the pub trade would look like if the tie were to be abolished. Far from ushering in a brave new world for consumers, the author argues that in fact it would lead to more pub closures, less investment in pubs, higher prices, a reduction of choice and a greater concentration of the brewing industry. It would also, ironically, boost the pub companies’ profits.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Not worth the paper they’re printed on

Plenty of other bloggers such as Dick Puddlecote and Mr Eugenides have had a go at the ludicrous restrictions in the Scottish government’s new licensing act, so I didn’t see much point in simply echoing their comments.

But one point that has so far gone unremarked is that, because of the ban on any drink promotions and discounts, the vouchers that have been given to CAMRA members allowing them 50p off a pint of real ale in Wetherspoon’s pubs have now been rendered worthless north of the border. This is despite the fact that (officially at least) only one voucher can be used per person per visit, so they can hardly be accused of being an encouragement to binge-drinking.

Maybe this might at last bring home to the powers-that-be in CAMRA that they are in a bare-knuckle fight with the anti-drink lobby who are determined to severely curtail the responsible enjoyment of alcoholic drinks. Or will they continue gaily skipping hand-in-hand with Don Shenker down the road to prohibition?

It is also very easy to see these restrictions having the opposite effect to that intended and kill off innovation and progress in the Scottish licensed trade, turning such bars as remain back into dour, hole-in-the-corner drinking shops, as they often used to be before the liberalisation of licensing law that started in the 1970s.

Edit (22 September 2009): It seems that following further consultations, Wetherspoon’s have now agreed with the Scottish Government that these vouchers can be accepted, as it is very hard to see how, if the restrictions are adhered to, they can be seen as promoting excessive or irresponsible consumption.