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!

Coal Fires, Pub Bands and Formula One

The nights are growing shorter and the weather is cooling rapidly. In fact, the U.K. Is heading for a three-week freeze according to the latest weather report and Liz and I have lit our first coal fire since those long departed days of winter.

This has been a long Formula One season. The days when the season fizzled out towards the end of the summer are long gone. Nowadays there are new races and new venues, some in countries that have no native F1 drivers or teams, nor even in some places, any noticeable motor sporting traditions.

This year two four time world champions are battling it out for the honour of becoming only the third ever five times champion. The very first of course was Fangio, someone I heard described as the Godfather of F1 the other day, and Michael Schumacher, who went on to take 7 world titles in total.

Schumacher made a return to F1 in 2001 with the Mercedes team and didn’t exactly cover himself in glory, finally retiring again a couple of years later. When Lewis Hamilton decided to leave McLaren in favour of the Silver Arrows I thought that was probably the biggest mistake of his career but luckily, Hamilton ignored my advice, moved to Mercedes and now as I write this, is poised on the verge of championship number 5.

It is perhaps fair to mention here that despite a life long love of the sport, every prediction I have ever made, regarding formula one, has been completely wrong. JJ Lehto, who I predicted would one day be a multiple F1 champion, failed to live up to my hopes and in fact his career nose-dived in a sad and unhappy way after an accident whilst testing the new Benneton. Jean Alesi, another driver who I noted early on was destined to be a world champion won only one grand prix, once again confirming my credentials as a bad, very bad, F1 forecaster.

Sebastian Vettel has an outside chance of challenging for the 2018 title but the odds are really against him. This has been a season of lost opportunities for the German driver and, as was mentioned in the channel 4 US Grand Prix coverage, he is looking increasingly unhappy at Ferrari. Ferrari came out tops in the recent US Grand Prix although it wasn’t Vettel who won the race but teammate  Kimi Raikkonen. Kimi, known as the Iceman because of his rather inexpressive demeanour, scored a popular victory. This is his last season with Ferrari and next year he will return to Sauber, the team in which he made his F1 debut in 2001.

It’s good that Kimi is not leaving the F1 grid, after all, like me he hardly has a career as an F1 pundit to look forward to.

Last Saturday, the qualifying hour for the US Grand Prix was shown live on Channel Four in the UK. I really do love the irregular live coverage we get on terrestrial TV as I have no intention of splashing out, as I have mentioned before on these pages, for Sky TV. Anyway, due to the time difference the coverage started at 8:30 pm in the UK, just about the time Liz and I were due to leave for our local pub. Friends had mentioned to us that a ‘great’ band were playing in the pub so we decided to go and see what they were like, quaff a few beers and generally show support for our local which had just reopened under new management.

We were chatting away with friends who were sitting just by the stage when the band started up. The music wasn’t anything I would call ‘great’ but then again, they were playing at a volume several decibels above the normal volume of a rocket launch from Florida so Liz and moved to an area of the room furthest away from the racket. Did I say racket? Well, noise, cacophony, you get the picture. Not long afterwards our friends joined us, having been blasted away from their table by the volume. Even at the furthermost reaches of the pub, conversation was difficult and I spent a lot of time nodding to people who were telling things I hadn’t even heard. Anyway, the beer was good and our new table was happily near to a TV set showing the qually so I was able to keep my eye on events in Texas. Although I tend to moan about F1 not being as good as the old days, one new aspect of the sport I really do like is the qualifying. The qually hour is now divided into three; qually one where the slowest four cars are dropped. Times are reset and then the top ten cars from qually two go forward to qually one for the top ten shoot out.

On this particular occasion, Hamilton was fastest just ahead of championship rival Sebastian Vettel. Unfortunately, Vettel was demoted to fifth place due to a rule infringement during the practice session, where he failed to slow sufficiently during a red flag period. Importantly for Ferrari though, Kimi Raikkonen, Vettel’s team-mate was therefore elevated to second place.

During a break from the band someone at the table noticed me watching the TV and asked what I saw in motor racing. ‘After all, it’s just cars going round and round.’ ‘Well that’s one way of looking at it’ I replied but isn’t football just a bunch of guys running up and down a field kicking a ball about? There are good races and boring ones, just like any football or cricket match. You either like racing or you don’t I argued and no amount of tinkering with the format will make people watch it if they don’t like the sport. Nothing will never make me tune in to a football match even if they decide to have naked dancing girls at half time.

The band finished their set, mercifully, and the lead vocalist called out ‘Do you want one last number?’

Our table called ‘No’ in unison but clearly deafened by their own acoustics, the band went on to crucify another final song. At least the bar staff and a few deaf regulars were there to listen to them. We were off!

On Sunday evening then, it was rather nice to sit in my favourite armchair after our Sunday dinner, a glass of red to hand, coal fire roaring away in the grate and enjoy the US Grand Prix live from Austin, Texas. It was a fairly exciting event. Kimi stole the lead from Hamilton at the start and using his super soft tyres carved himself a fair old lead. Hamilton and the Mercedes team dropped the ball by coming in for tyres too early, Kimi switched to a harder compound and held the lead to the end. Verstappen had a great drive from 18th to second place and Vettel who had yet another comeback drive after tangling with another car in the opening laps, this time Ricciardo, came home fourth and so keeps the championship alive for this weekend’s race in Mexico. In order to win the championship, Vettel has to win all three remaining races with Hamilton scoring only 4 points. Bit of a tall order really, even for Vettel.

Pity we haven’t got Sky TV though, might be an exciting championship finale . .


Floating in Space, a novel by Steve Higgins and set in Manchester, 1977 is available from Amazon as a Kindle download or traditional paperback. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Manchester, 41 Years On

A lot has changed in Manchester city centre, at least on the surface, but to a great extent it’s still the same city as it always was. My book, Floating in Space is, as you probably know if you have ever visited this web page before, set in Manchester in 1977 and I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the city, some 41 years later.

In 1977 there was no internet, no mobile phones and wireless was an old fashioned word that our parents used for the radio. Manchester was a busy and bustling city even back in 1977. People came into the city to shop, visit the cinema, eat at restaurants, drink beer and socialise in pubs and bars, pretty much just as they do today.

I loved my Saturday nights in Manchester. There was a quality of security, of expectancy, a feeling that the night and the future were going to be good. A feeling that you might just meet some gorgeous girl and that even if you didn’t, it didn’t really matter because there was always the excitement of the people and the music, and everything else that made up the evening. 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 for me and my friends on a Saturday night in 1977 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 down at street level and when people stepped up to the bar, which was up on a slightly raised level, they could look down at the dancing, gyrating and mostly female dancers. Interestingly, on the same dance floor 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 friends and I used to meet up in the Salisbury, by Oxford Rd station, have a few pints and then make the short walk to the Playground. There was a paltry fifty pence charge to gain entry, the solitary bouncer was silent, but not unpleasant, and the DJ, who always began the night with ‘Love’s Theme’ by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, (Barry White’s backing band) played alternate sessions of rock, disco and chart music.

We were 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 whilst the music of the seventies drifted through us.

Those then, are my memories of Saturday nights in Manchester. Beer, music, girls and a kebab or curry before getting the late bus home.

I’m sure there are still Saturday nights like that, in Manchester’s 21st century world. Most of the pubs I used to frequent are still there, repainted, refurbished and in some cases re-named. They may look different but peel away those new outer layers and you’ll find things pretty much the same. Different decor, different music but still very similar people enjoying an evening of drinks, music and chat.

The Salisbury is still there. Today it looks just like it always did. Inside the pub has been refurbished but in a good way and it looks pretty similar to how it used to look. The room where my friends used to sit has gone. It’s now an office or a private room. Still, the same flagged stone floor is there and whenever I step inside the memories come flooding back.

The Playground is still there too, well not the Playground exactly but the building is there. It’s now the Palace Theatre bar and what it looks like inside I do not know. The last time I passed by it was closed but I imagine that the DJ’s booth and the dance floor have gone. Perhaps Jenny passes by and remembers the old times just like me. Perhaps not, perhaps it was just another bar job to her.

Once upon a time in 1977 I was a young office clerk who ate his sandwiches in St Peter’s Square on sunny weekday lunchtimes. All is different there now. Today Manchester looks cleaner and sleeker. Modern buildings of steel and glass sit side by side with traditional architecture and through it all glides the modern tram, toot tooting its way through the city.

Even at the old end of town, things are cleaner, smoother. Warehouses and old buildings have been reformed into trendy bars and restaurants and dance music venues. A short walk from Deansgate Station takes you to the Dukes 92, a lovely and trendy canalside bar but take plenty of money with you, it’s not cheap!

Walking up Peter St from Deansgate, the Café  Royale is gone. There is a bar called Henry’s Schloss, a huge Beer Keller sort of place where 2 pints of lager cost nearly ten pounds and large groups of men quaff beer and enjoy themselves. It’s not really my sort of place.

Just round the corner though, is a place that is my sort of place, the Abercromby, actually the Sir Ralph Abercromby, is one of those pubs that is a little like stepping into a time capsule. The decor is authentic seventies with lots of stained dark wood and leather seats and they serve a decent pint. I read on the internet that it was the model for the pub in the TV show Life on Mars. The former footballer turned property developer Gary Neville apparently wanted to knock down not only the pub but an entire block in the area to build two skyscrapers and a hotel. The fact that the pub dates back to the early 19th Century and is the only structure remaining from St Peter’s Field, site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre clearly meant nothing to him. Happily the council planners would not let him have his way.

As you read this on a Saturday morning the cleaners are busy in those Manchester bars. The chillers will be stocked, the carpets cleaned and the tables polished. New barrels of beer and lager will be made ready.

Everything is ready for another Saturday night.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester 1977

Manchester, Metrolink and the Saga of a Mobile Phone

The other day I was staying at my Mum’s house in Manchester. It’s always nice to be back in the old home town. I was meeting my brother in the city centre and he advised me the best way to get there was by using the Metrolink, Manchester’s tram service.

Now, from my Mum’s place to Manchester city centre by car, it takes about twenty to thirty minutes, depending on traffic. The bus which comes down her road takes nearly an hour, why? Because it takes in a tour of various small estates within the larger housing estate of Wythenshawe, then takes another tour around Sharston and Northenden, eventually ending up in Piccadilly.

The tram is no quicker. It too takes the passenger on a tour of Wythenshawe before passing through Chorlton and Trafford and finally ending up in Manchester.

Cornbrook is a place I’ve never heard of before. It’s a remote tram staging post at the outskirts of the city centre. It looks like a vast industrial area where in the recent past, passengers from Manchester airport have to change to get to the city centre. Metrolink have done a lot of advertising recently telling the public that we no longer have to change at Cornbrook for the city centre: Wrong! You can go a stop further to Deansgate, the very edge of the city  but if you want to go to the heart of the city, Piccadilly for instance, you still have to change trams so sorry Metrolink, your publicity is just not true!

I should add that there is a tram every few minutes so it’s not a great inconvenience to have to change but it’s still rather annoying because the trams are always pretty packed. They vary from absolutely jam-packed to pretty busy and it makes you wonder where all these people come from. Are the buses all now running empty? Are there hundreds of cars left at home or have a great load of travelling public suddenly appeared from nowhere? I don’t know but the trams are certainly packing them in.

One other observation about the trams: It is a very impersonal way of travelling. There are no conductors and the driver is shut away in his cab. The passengers are all locked into their smartphones, many with earplugs further blocking out the outside world and passengers have to buy their tickets from a machine by the station platforms.

Anyway, it was nice to be in Manchester again. My brother and I were due to shoot some video of me blathering on about my book, Floating in Space, and once again urging the public to buy it. He however had found a mobile phone, a rather nice Samsung device costing I would guess between 150 to 200 pounds. He went to drop it in at Wythenshawe police station, a new building erected in the last few years. It is pretty big so I assume the local constabulary are expecting a lot of business. Anyway when he went round it was closed, as was another police station he tried. He called the police on the non emergency number but the officer who answered urged my brother to go to the station!

A little frustrated he had brought the phone with him to Manchester and I said we could go to the police station near to St Peter’s square and relax afterwards with a drink in the old pub the Abercromby, a watering house I had not visited in years. Alas, the cop shop was closed down and looked ready for demolition, no doubt ready to make way for a brand new futuristic office block which as we know are in short supply these days, so we took refuge in the pub.

The Abercromby, actually the Sir Ralph Abercromby was one of those pubs that is a little like stepping into a time capsule. The decor was authentic seventies with lots of stained dark wood and leather seats and they served a decent pint. I later read on the internet that it was the model for the pub in the TV show Life on Mars. The former footballer turned property developer Gary Neville apparently wants to knock down not only the pub but an entire block in the area to build two skyscrapers and a hotel. The fact that the pub dates back to the early 19th Century and is the only structure remaining from St Peter’s Field, site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre clearly means nothing to him or to the council planners.

The mobile phone was locked so we were unable to get access to any stored numbers and we also noticed it was set to silent so it wasn’t easy to pick up incoming calls. Two calls came and went while we chatted, both of us too slow to pick up the call. Eventually my brother answered a call from the owner, arranged to meet him and hand over the mobile. That sorted, we decided to get on with our video shoot.

There was another camera crew in our chosen location in St Peter’s Square. They had an impressive looking camera and tripod but we found ourselves a spot away from them and with my mobile phone sized video camera, hand-held by my brother, we set to work. The result was something vaguely similar to other videos I have made but this time I tried to evoke the spirit of the 1970’s by mentioning people, music and films from the time. For instance, in 1977 (the year Floating in Space is set) the Prime Minister was James Callaghan, the US President was Jimmy Carter, a hit album from Fleetwood Mac was Rumours and so on. I’ll post the result after the usual editing process. (I edit in a way similar to George Stevens, the director of Giant with James Dean and Shane starring Alan Ladd to name but two of his classic movies. I review all my footage, all fifteen minutes of it, and take my time with the final cut. Any similarity to George Steven’s work will probably not be evident!)

The fellow who had lost his mobile duly arrived to meet my brother, said thanks and took away his phone. Now I may sound a little churlish here but my brother had saved the man a good £150 to £200. He had made numerous efforts to hand the phone to the police and had politely resisted my outrageous but not totally serious suggestion to keep the phone for himself. In a similar situation I think I might have offered £10 or even a fiver to the finder of my lost phone for his honesty and efforts.

No such luck on this occasion so whoever you are Mr Recently Reunited with your Mobile Phone -shame on you!


Floating in Space is available from Amazon.co.uk Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

Saturday Night, a bar called ‘The Playground’ and that first pint . .

As a younger man Saturday night was everything to me and my friends. Nights out, beer, music and the ritual ‘chatting up’ of girls was our ‘raison d’etre’

In my book ‘Floating in Space’ a lot of the action takes place in bars and pubs and one of my favourite places in late seventies Manchester was the ‘Playground’, a disco bar on Oxford street. Here’s an extract from the book where I introduce the venue;

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 Insurance 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 was smart, but had a sort of ‘middle of the road’ taste in clothes.
“Jenny’s looking gorgeous tonight” he told me over his pint of Worthington’s.
We were propped up at the bar at 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 mild, or lager 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 more about that night out in either the kindle or paperback version of my book available at amazon. Click the icon below for more details.