In Search of Dark Beer

Last year my brother and I struggled to get our Christmas pint in before Christmas so this year we decided to meet up early and make sure we did. My brother hates it when I drag him round book and music shops so I decided to go out early, have a bit of a nosey about then meet him later for drinks. In particular I was on a quest for that rare item in British pubs today, dark beers; stouts, porters and mild.

Manchester in December is nothing short of an absolute madhouse. The streets were packed, as were the shops. I had a look round a couple of my favourite shops but the rain was relentless and so I retreated into the Arndale centre to dry out. There are a couple of cheapie book shops in there that I always look at and then there is the – actually a shop I can’t remember the name of but it sells all kinds of geeky stuff that appeals to me; CD cases, electronic items, leads, blank media and so on, so I always spend a lot of time looking round there.

Feeling a little hungry I wandered over to the market area and realised it was actually years since I had been there. To my surprise, there was a whole hall of small stalls and shops that I had never seen before. As I moved further inside I discovered a sort of street food area with some tasty looking food. The whole area seemed to be screened off from the rest of the Arndale which is probably why it was relatively quiet compared with everywhere else. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve been in this part of the Arndale since it was redeveloped years ago.

The Micro Bar.

In the street food area there were stalls selling various types of food. I spotted Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Indian stalls but then I came across a Greek takeaway and picked up some Greek Gyros in pitta bread with salad and some cooling yoghurt for £4. Lovely! I wandered about looking for a table and sat myself down only to find I had settled down in front of what was a small bar, appropriately called the Micro Bar, selling some tasty real ales. The barman offered me a taster of the porter he had on. Sadly it was a plum porter, a dark beer flavoured with a plum essence. It wasn’t for me! There seems to be a trend in drinks today calling for fruit flavoured drinks. Various flavours of gin are available in pubs. I even saw a rhubarb gin the other day I shudder to add. Cider is another drink that comes with various fruit flavoured varieties.

I called for a pint of a tasty golden ale to wash down my Gyros and sat back and waited for my brother, watching the horde of shoppers and office workers braving the lashing wind and rain down the High street.

The Grey Horse.

Pint of MildWe decided to take in some of the old and the new of licensed premises in the city. First stop was our old favourite, the Grey Horse, one of the smallest pubs in Manchester but also a pub that serves that classic dark beer, mild. Don’t you just hate it when you go in a pub nowadays and the teenage barman looks at you like you are a nutter when you ask for a pint of mild just because the average teenage barman has never heard of it? Well in a proper pub like the Grey Horse that just never happens.

I think I have mentioned before, in the evening of my years (just a minute, late afternoon surely?) I have moved away from lagers and closer towards the darker beers to be found in life’s brewery. As often as not I end up drinking Guinness or some random guest beer but in the Grey Horse they serve a lovely dark mild.

Pubs and bars are driven by the younger generation and their drink of choice is lager which explains the distinct lack of porters, stouts and mild available these days. For me, I must admit I do drink lager but it’s mild and Guinness I’m always on the lookout for.

As the afternoon moved into early evening we decided to take a wander down to the so-called ‘Northern Quarter’ of Manchester. Really the Northern Quarter is just a PR exercise, a rebranding of the older and more run down area of Manchester, actually Ancoats, so that younger and less savvy people like myself can be lured into small bars that were once probably shops or offices and now charge incredible prices for drinks.

Luckily it was my brother who got saddled with a ridiculous bill for two drinks and not me but now armed with this new information, that the rebranding of this area is just an excuse to double prices, we wandered back to more sensible pubs.

Albert’s Schloss.

For one last pint we went into Albert’s Schloss, a sort of modern German Beer Keller sort of place packed with people and serving lager at inflated prices. (Though not as inflated as the Northern Quarter!) No dark beers to be found there but Albert’s was actually a fun place full of city centre workers spending their hard-earned cash.  I enjoyed that pint of pilsner. Pity I couldn’t have had one last dark beer.

Dark Beers in Classic Film.

Back in the war years dark beers were the more accepted drink for men in the UK. I remember watching ‘The Way to the Stars’, a 1945 war picture in which John Mills, a ground controller at a world war 2 airfield, stays behind when his squadron is posted overseas. The new squadron are a US Army Air Force group flying B-17 Flying Fortresses. John Mills’ character takes the Yanks out for a few beers and is surprised to see them drinking pale ales which he and the other Brits consider a little ‘ladylike’ to use his words! Straight away he introduces them to some dark beers.

Which classic film buff can forget John Ford’s The Quiet Man? John Wayne plays a retired American boxer returning to his roots in Ireland. He steps into the pub, looks around and orders ‘one of those black beers’. John Wayne knew a good pint when he saw one.

St Annes on the Sea.

A couple of days later, back in St Annes, Liz and I popped into the Number 15, one of our favourite local pubs. The premises used to be a bank and what was once the bank vault is now a cosy room at the back. The great thing about 15’s is that along with many guest beers they serve one of my absolute favourites, Theakston’s mild.

I ordered the drinks and waited eagerly at the bar while the barmaid went off to pull our beers. She was back a moment later with an apologetic look. ‘Sorry’ she said, ‘I’d forgotten, we’re not serving mild any more. There’s no call for it these days!’

Clearly I hadn’t been drinking enough of it!


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy a copy or for more information!

Manchester, Saturday Night, and Floating In Space

My book, Floating In Space is set in the Manchester of the late seventies. A pint of bitter was 25 pence. There were no smartphones, no Internet and no wireless networks. In fact ‘wireless’ was an old fashioned word for the radio. I’m tempted to say that things moved at a slower pace then but that’s not true. Things just moved at a different pace. In 2015 you hear a lot about pubs closing down but back in 1977, pubs were far from closing down; at the weekend they were the place to be! That was where my friends and I met up, drank beer, listened to music and chatted up the ladies. Saturdays were the focus of our week and here’s an excerpt from Floating In Space where Stuart, the narrator, talks about the upcoming Saturday night.

ManchesterSaturday night was in a lot of ways the culmination of the weekend. I always preferred it to Friday nights because things were more relaxed, there was no rushing home from work, no rushing to get your tea down your neck so you can get changed, then leg it out for the bus. Saturday, you could take your time and leisurely work up to things. Sometimes I would go out shopping and buy myself something new to wear for that evening, a shirt, or perhaps even a new pair of trousers. Then later I would have a long relaxed soak in the bath, and dress unhurriedly in my room to the tune of my favourite music. In 1977 my favourite album was Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick road’, and as I dressed I would mimic Nigel Olsson’s measured and rhythmic drumming to ‘The Ballad of Danny Bailey’, or ‘Candle in the Wind’.

There was something about Saturday nights in Manchester. Some quality of security, of expectancy, a feeling that the night and the future were going to be good. A feeling that you might just ‘get off’ with some gorgeous girl and that even if you didn’t it didn’t really matter because there was always the excitement of the people, the music, the drink, and everything else that made up the evening. And then there was always the expectancy of the next night, and the next, and on and on into the future. The past building up inside you like a great data bank, reminding you, reassuring you, like a light burning in some empty room in the corner of your mind.

The main venue that night, and on many other Saturday nights like it, was the ‘Playground’, a small disco bar on Oxford Rd in the town centre. Flickering multi-coloured spotlights rotated across the red carpeted room, which, on Fridays and Saturdays was generally packed. It had a small dance floor sunk low like a pit, where people up on the raised bar level could look down at the gyrating girls, and where also, on week day lunchtimes, a topless dancer appeared at the stroke of one o’clock to translate the soul and disco music of the time into pulsating physical motion, the eyes of jaded office workers glued to her as she did so.

My friend ‘Matty’ Edwards and I used to meet up in the Salisbury, by Oxford Rd station, have a few pints and a bit of a natter to any Regal cronies who we might find there, then make the short walk to the Playground. There was a paltry fifty pence charge to get in, the solitary bouncer was silent, but not unpleasant, and the DJ, who always began the night with ‘Loves Theme’ by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, played alternate sessions of rock, disco, and chart music. We were both mad about Jenny, the barmaid. She was lovely. She had a kind of round, open face, framed by thick blonde hair and her skin was a creamy white. She served us Worthington ‘E’ and we melted into the hubbub of people on their Saturday night out while the music of the seventies drifted through us.

Matty was tall; he had lazy, rather hayfevered eyes, and a biggish nose over thin lips. His brown hair was short and untidy and he dressed smartly, but had a sort of ‘middle of the road’ taste in clothes.
“Jenny’s looking gorgeous tonight,” he told me over his pint of Worthingtons.
We were propped up at the bar in a convenient spot where we could eye up any possible female talent, and cast a fond eye over Jenny’s appealing form.

“You’re not wrong mate.” I agreed. “I wouldn’t mind getting a grip of that myself.”
I caught Jenny’s eye and ordered two more pints of Worthington ‘E’. It wasn’t a great drink but we were tuned into it now for the rest of the evening, and anyway, I hadn’t as yet developed any clearly defined tastes in beer. The first pint I ever ordered myself was a pint of mild, and that was because I had nervously entered a Cheshire country pub after a long cycle ride and hesitatingly asked for a pint of ‘beer’.
“A beer?” asked the barmaid.
“Yes,” I replied, “A pint, please.”
“A pint of what?”

I realised, uncomfortably, that something more was required. I had thought that ‘a pint of beer’ would have been enough, but what the barmaid wanted to know was did I want bitter, or lager, or mild even? My first tentative forays into the world of the alcoholic drink were with my friend Mike Larini and it was always he who had done the ordering. What did he ask for, I thought? I couldn’t remember but down the bar the faint voice of an old man asking for half of mild drifted along to me, and so I went on to drink mild.

Later I changed to bitter, and even now I was currently considering another change as someone had given me the cheerful news that bitter ‘rots your guts’. Perhaps it had been that eternal pessimist Matty Edwards with his inside knowledge of beer. His father was a Didsbury publican, and Matty’s drink changed from pub to pub. Sometimes it was lager, sometimes bitter, but here, in the Playground, it was that now long departed brew, Worthington ‘E’.


You can read on and find out what happens to Matty and Stuart on that and other Saturday nights. Click the icon below to go to my Amazon page or click the links at the top of the page to find out more about Floating In Space.

Catchphrases, Pub Friends, and Big Steve

quotescover-JPG-23Not long ago at work I noticed something that wasn’t right on the rota so I spoke to our former rota lady about it. She agreed with me, there was a problem but she herself couldn’t do anything about it and I would have to contact the new ‘National Roster Team.’

“Drop them an e-mail.” She said, then added with a giggle. “Tell them you’re not happy!”

Now, at first I don’t think I quite understood that but the other day I had an e-mail from a colleague which was in reply to some procedural point I had raised. The e-mail said something like I’ll sort that out straight away because I wouldn’t want you to be ‘not happy!’

Now, we don’t always notice that something we say habitually has become a sort of personal catchphrase and I’m sure I don’t say ‘not happy’ that much but clearly some people think differently.

trawlboatHere’s another example of a catchphrase or saying that I always associate with a particular person but first I need to tell you about a pub that Liz and I regularly use. It’s called the Trawl Boat and we both know a lot of people in there. I don’t always know their names but then that’s the thing about pub friends, they’re acquaintances and beyond our pub chatter I don’t know much about most of them at all. Anyway, there are the two guys who always stand at the end of the bar and order double rounds (not sure if that’s a comment on the bar service or maybe they just like their ale!). The thin guy who works for British Aerospace and is not happy (oops, there’s that phrase again! ) about being sent by his company to work on a project in Australia. (Wish my employer would send me off on a project like that! ) Then there’s his colleague with the Kojak haircut and a group that I do know the names of, Colin and Dougie, B&B owners in St Annes and Nick who manages a hotel on St Annes front.

The very first guy we got chatting with in the Trawl boat was a guy we called Big Steve. I’m six-foot and Big Steve towered above me, he must have been six-foot six, easy. He was a pretty fit guy having been a former drayman, one of those people who lug big beer barrels about for a living and he was a really easy fellow to get on with. We always used to sit with Steve and have a drink and a natter and when he was due to leave his would pull his jacket on, say his goodbyes and then always say to us; “Nice to see you both again: As always.” And then he would be off.

A couple of years ago we saw Big Steve sometime in December and as usual at the end of the evening we said our goodbyes, wished each other a happy Christmas in case we didn’t see each other before the holidays and Steve said his usual “Nice to see you both: As always” and left.

We didn’t see Big Steve over Christmas, nor through the New Year period and one day we both said together in the Trawl Boat, ‘wonder where Steve is?’ Anyway we thought nothing of it and assumed we’d catch up with him soon.

Later, Liz was chatting to some of the regulars and one mentioned to her that he had been to a funeral the previous day. Liz asked idly who the deceased was and the man answered that it was someone they didn’t think Liz or I knew. It was a guy called Big Steve who used to be a drayman! Well, the words leapt up and hit Liz like a slap. Big Steve was gone and we’d hadn’t even had a chance to pay our respects at his funeral. I can’t tell you how sad we both felt.

Liz, being the amateur Sherlock Holmes she is, tracked down the widow and we went to see her to pass on our condolences. It turned out that Steve had died quietly in his sleep and his wife went into his room one morning to find him dead. Not very nice for her but a peaceful passing at least for Steve but here’s a thing about pub friends. I don’t have the phone numbers of any of those guys from the Trawl Boat and apart from the guys who own B&B’s I’ve no idea where they live. Luckily, Big Steve had mentioned Nick to his wife as being a hotel manager and one day they had popped in the hotel for a meal and when Big Steve passed away that was the one contact she had for Steve’s pub friends.

One day, in the next world, I’ll make a point of finding Big Steve and I can see myself now tapping him on the shoulder and saying “Nice to see you again Steve, as always.”

Hope he doesn’t turn round and say “Steve, I’m not happy!”


If you liked this, why not try my book? Click the icon below.

 

Malta, and why you should never drink with eight pub landlords.

I left home when I was nineteen and went to share a house in Burnage with my friend Brian. Brian was a regular at a pub which I think was called the Farmers Arms, anyway; whatever it was called, he mentioned that a pub holiday to Malta had been arranged but someone had dropped out and there was a spot for me on the trip. It turned out there were eight pub regulars going, including me, and eight pub landlords.

My Mum was a little apprehensive at the time because since I had become a busman my social life and intake of alcohol had escalated hugely. Now I was playing snooker at the club after the early shift, out late after a late shift and out on my rest days too, but she was happy eight responsible landlords were going along to keep me ‘in check’ as she put it.

malta-map1We rented two apartments in Malta, one for the pub regulars and one for the pub landlords and on the first night at the resort the landlords invited us over to their apartment for a drink and it appeared to me as we entered their place that we were walking into a well-stocked brewery. Perhaps they were intending to open a bar or some such establishment in Malta because the place was stacked with booze. At the end of the night as we staggered back to our place the landlords called out, “Make sure you invite us over to your place!” Yes, a pity about the poor Maltese postal service. Can’t understand how that invitation was never delivered!

Later on towards the end of the week which turned out to be one long alcoholic soiree, we ended up in some Maltese bar after an evening spent visiting the ‘Gut’, a fairly appropriate name for the Maltese red light district. The numerous ‘ladies of the night’ there had a habit of grabbing a man’s crotch presumably to check if he had the equipment necessary to enter into a transaction with them. Strangely, when they tried the same tactic on our wallets they found us less co-operative.

I sat myself at the bar ready for a relaxing night drinking and chatting and towards the end of the night the manager locked the bar up while we were still drinking. Clearly a Maltese lock in. Every time we ordered a drink from then on the manager said in fractured English, “I let you stay after time, you buy me drink.”

OK, seemed like a reasonable arrangement to me so every drink we bought we added ‘one for yourself’ to the manager. He had a tall glass with some ice and lemon and topped it up every time from a bottle of what appeared to be whisky.

One of the landlords who had the physique normally associated with a sumo wrestler seemed to be pretty interested in this arrangement. He came and sat near me at the bar and asked what the drink was.

“You no like.” said the barman. “Cheap whisky.”

“I like cheap whisky.” said the landlord.

“No, I get you good whisky, cheap whisky for me.”

“Pop us a drop in that glass, I’ll have a taste.”

“Not good whisky, you no like.”

My friend the landlord however had other ideas and with a swiftness and grace which I wouldn’t have thought he possessed, he flipped himself up and over the bar, grabbed the manager’s glass and took a big swig of the amber liquid. I can only guess that this impromptu taste test was something of a failure as he then sprayed the offending drink all over the bar!

The drink was probably cold tea or some other unacceptable non-alcoholic beverage, but either way, what happened then was that this small bar turned into a scene from a John Wayne film with accusations and glasses flying, tables and chairs overturned and a bunch of Mancunians turned out onto the streets well before their usual drinking up time.

When I returned from that holiday I popped into my Mum’s with some Maltese confectionery or something and Mum looked at me and said “Hope you behaved yourself young man.”

“What? Of course I did.” I replied.

“Good job those landlords were there to keep an eye on you!”

Dear me, If only she knew!


If you enjoyed this post you might be interested in my novel, Floating In Space. Click the links at the top of the page for more information!