time, gentlemen, please

Last week, my local drinking establishment closed down without much advance warning. The street its on used to have six pubs along its length; it now has one ‘cocktail bar’.  From having so much of a reputation for pubs that it was said Prestonians had one for every day of the year, thus prompting the creation of teetotalism, we are a city slowly and surely drying up. The most recent figures from within the industry suggests Britain is losing 100 pubs a month: some estimates put that far higher, maybe as many as twice that amount.

What is prompting the loss of pubs in the UK? It’s not just the smoking ban, or the increase in alcohol duties, or the popularity of supermarket deals, or any other single suggestion in isolation. It’s all those things, some of them, one of them, and others aside in combination depending on area. The old fashioned boozer is on the endangered list as much as the kakapo parrot, and in its place are a dwindling number of gastropub/brand pub combos. And not to sound too much of a grump on this, but they’re not always what I need of an evening.

I’ve seen some of the regulars from my local – the blokes who would sit in the same seats, at the same time, having the same drink and often sharing the same conversation – wandering around Preston looking for somewhere else to go. It’s a ‘Goldilocks’ process, each pub being not quite friendly enough, each seat not comfortable enough, each ale not poured just right. Now I know what some of you are thinking – you’re middle aged men putting the world to rights at a backstreet boozer, you don’t really need to rediscover the ‘perfect pub’. To a degree, you’re right. We just don’t want to find the wrong ones.

Now let’s not get over-romantic. There’s some terrible pubs out there. I can see why people argue very convincingly that the death of the British boozer is just the free market working its way through oversized buildings selling lager to a dwindling number of pensioners. In a society in which email and social networks are killing off the art of conversation, in which organising nights out has been reduced to a few texts, the death of the pub exacerbates the decline of our “social society”. Anecdotal evidence for the win – the 90 year old whose only interaction with the outside world was my local twice a week may now have nowhere to go.

(And even in my local, as it happens, there’s been one or two uneasy moments. I was swung at by a bloke who took offence at my belief in the existence of black holes, as he was adamant that they didn’t exist and my ‘chatting shit’ about them being real was enough for him to roll a punch at my face. Exception rather than rule, there, though.)

So now the country faces an unusual situation. CAMRA and its real ale supporting colleagues have never been so popular. Real ale and new micro-brewers are filling pubs with much more choice than we’ve seen in years. It’s just the structure of the pub industry has not kept strong against the resilience of the brewers. In oversized franchise pubs with little interaction between barstaff and customer, you might as well install self-service checkouts for all the experience you have when drinking. These places can’t ever be “your local” because you don’t feel local when drinking there. The “custom” part of “customer” is lost when the JD Wetherspoon you’ve chosen has hundreds of people surrounding you with no space for air, never mind asking about the weather.

And so where does this leave me? I’ve tried a number of new locals, all a bit different, all not quite as comfortable, all without a jukebox which leaves me VERY frustrated because I’d happily pour £20 a night into a jukebox rather than across the bar. I’m very conscious of the pubs I’m choosing have a secondary role as somewhere to meet and greet, somewhere to wind down, just somewhere to go if you have few other options, and how friendly and social and familiar these places can be. Maybe Britain’s binge drinking problem has its origins in the new generation of drinkers only knowing chain pubs with their neon lit special offers, rather than the world-to-rights solitude of the boozer down the road? I’m worried we won’t have long to find out as each of those boozers shuts up for good.

Mine’s a Cumberland, or whichever guest’s on that takes my fancy, please. And a packet of Scampi Fries too.

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masters of the map

Constitutional reform turns even the strongest man to jelly. Tony Blair was known to switch to ‘glazed eyes mode’ whenever someone mentioned a policy not related to the important stuff – like academy schools and PFI hospitals and invading Iraq without justification, that sort of thing. Mention ‘House of Lords reform’ to Blair after the 92 hereditary peers fudge and you might as well have been discussing boot polish.

For David Cameron, constitutional reform was supposed to be over and done with by last Christmas. Help defeat voting reform, stifle the Lords and cover party funding legislation with more grass than you’d find on a teenager’s windowsill. Well you don’t always get what you want, eh?

In the week we find that ‘man of the match’ is to be trademarked I wonder what we could come up with for our D-Cam. “You can’t always get what you want” seems a bit over blown, even if it is accurate. After all, I genuinely believe he wants to reduce the size of the Commons for good reason and not just partisan advantage. This is the proposal which sees Nadine Dorries’ constituency disappear, remember, it’s not as though the Conservatives come out of this without some advantage. Anything which might just open the door to the possibility of a new constituency being formed called “Valleys of Ribble and Lune” seems like a ruddy good scheme to me.

(Disclaimer, that might just have been an idea for which I’m partly responsible. At least I admitted it now, eh?)

What phrase should be look towards selling off to the highest bidder then? “We’re all in this together” seems to have lost more credibility with every passing nano-second so that’s out. “Compassionate Conservative” joins “Quiet Bat People” in the lexicon of the clinically insane. What about “be careful what you wish for”? That could be the 2015 manifesto title. “Party Chairman Grant Shapps, there, holding up the Conservative Manifesto, ‘”Be Careful What You Wish For”, it’s cover showing Nick Clegg in a car with the windows slightly ajar and the engine running, hint hint.”

Regular readers will know that I’m somewhat fond of the ongoing process of reducing the size of the Commons, as I see it without all the nanny goat bleating from the benches opposite. “Gerrrrrymandering!” they….bleat, I suppose….like so many of those people who stand outside shopping centres handing out pocket sized leaflets entitled ‘Let’s Think About Jesus;.  Only in this case it’s “Let’s Listen to Ed Balls”, for which there can be no greater punishment for committing any of sins for which Christianity has cobbled together over the years. I admit that the boundary review has turned into a pile of arseache, with Nick Clegg gambling on acting tough on the one subject matter 90% of the general population don’t care if he acts tough about or not. You see, I’m not that obsessed about equalising constituency sizes to think that it’s the first topic of conversation at the Cricketer’s Arms, no matter how many times I try to shoehorn it into whichever debate is ensuring amongst the barflies. And trust me on this, I’ve had a punch swung at me for daring to suggest that black holes might exist, it’s a tough crowd.

In his pursuit of the one constitutional reform which benefits his party the most (….well, second most, there’s still an in-built Labour bias in the system due to First Past the Post but let’s not meander along that cul-de-sac),  Cameron is in the territory marked ‘at least he tried’. No assists, no goals – he could be the Stewart Downing of politics. Now there’s a phrase I know won’t be trademarked.

Balls on Thatcher

Ed Balls blathered on Radio 5’s drive-time show last night. You can hear it here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01mk8w8/5_live_Drive_11_09_2012/

This is the transcript (testing my audio typing skills) of the closing part of the interview, at around 45 minutes. This deals with the “dancing on Thatcher’s grave” t-shirts which are doing very well thank you very much amongst Trade Union Conference stalls and websites.

Is this Ed Balls condoning the t-shirts until being backed into a corner?
In this transcript I’ve used (-) to indicate a significant pause, and italics to indicate any significant stress.

Approx 43:00
Ed Balls (EB):… George Osborne is preventing this Government doing anything to kick-start our recovery, to get growth moving. That is why this year, as I said at Treasury Questions, Government borrowing is up this year compared to last year…
Peter Allen (PA): Yes….That’s…
EB: …and his plan’s failed….
PA: I mean….you’re…..you’re talking about boosting public spending which is what got us into trouble in the first place. I mean…demand is something rather different isn’t it?
EB: Well….Peter….Peter…
PA: It can come from all sorts of things?
EB: We are talking about a cut in VAT, temporarily for a year. Bring forward infrastructure and investment because unless you get the economy growing and creating jobs you don’t get people paying tax, people are on benefits and borrowing goes up. Now for two years you and I have debated this and I have been saying for two years if they choke off recovery the borrowing will get worse. And it’s up by a quarter this year compared to last year. Because, in an economy, if nobody is spending and nobody is investing and we’re in recession things get worse. So Vince Cable, I think, I said this on Sunday, in his heart of hearts, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat  Business Secretary, knows the Conservative Party strategy for the economy is flawed  and failed. He’s not allowed to say that.  And he won’t go out and say that, (-) he’s tinkering around the edges (-) with, as John Pienaar was saying, finding different ways to repackage inactivity and no action.  And it’s not good enough, and we need a new change and I understand why the Trade Unions are very frustrated at the moment because their members are having such a hard….
PA: Okay….
EB: …Such a hard time….But….What you can’t do is deny that the next Labour Government will have some difficult decisions to make and I said that to the Congress in those terms today.
PA: Mmm. What would you say to somebody at Congress who wore one of these t-shirts saying “A Generation of Trade Unionists will dance on Thatcher’s grave”?
EB: (-) Well…I…I actually said at the Congress today that nobody wants to go back to the hatred and division of the 1980s. Nobody wants to go back to the (-) lost days and strikes. Seven times more days lost in strikes in the 80s than under the Labour Government. Nobody wants to go back to the high unemployment and the terrible NHS waiting lists…
PA: …I was talking about the t-shirts….
EB: ….
PA: Not…not the….
EB: I think the T-shirt…..Expresses a view of that division…
PA: Are you condoning it?
EB: …which I reject entirely….Completely, completely.
PA: Completely.
EB: I don’t want to go back to the division of the 1980s. Er…(-) I don’t like that kind of politics.
PA: Yeah. So you would say to people “Don’t wear that shirt”? Don’t wear that t-shirt?
EB: (-). Yeah. I would say to people (-) do not wear that shirt.
PA: Thanks very much. That’s Ed Balls….

Gathering of the damned

In the words of Clint Eastwood;

Hoodi-floodi plinky empty chair, where’s my medication?

Yes, it’s Political Party Conference season, which comes across these days with all the anticipation of SAW week on X-Factor. (And I can’t decide if that’s Stock Aitken Waterman or the series of horror films, being as they are much of a muchness on reality television).

I’ve first hand experience of Party Conferences in my previous life, and in retrospect it’s amazing that I sat through them all without going mad. Or at least drunk. Despite the reputation of Conferences in memoirs and television fiction, the majority of delegates will only ‘network’ by changing trains on the way back home. For the majority of people who turn up at Conferences it’s a long week of listening to earnest speeches on Bus Stop Provision motions and administrative box-ticking with occasional training exercises involving role play and coloured cardboard. It’s a strange mix of middle management get-together and Evangelical church. And as anyone who’s accidentally flicked over to BBC Parliament can testify, it’s also unbelievably boring.

For one thing, there’s no set piece debates any more. Diluted and orchestrated as much as they now are, Conference organisers can’t risk splits (unless they’ve negotiated the result of that split beforehand) or wacky motions from troublemakers. Remember when the youth branch of  the Liberal Democrats used to guarantee a page in most newspapers by putting forward motions on drugs legalisation or sticking the heads of a disposed Royal Family on spikes along the Thames? All pushed out to the Fringes now, lest the media return to “OMG THOSE WACKY LIBDEMS” headlines, not least because there’s a greater need these days for the LibDems to turn up, be solemn and serious, and then go home again before Lembit turns up with a harmonica.

(Actually, I think Lembit is now on the ‘bargepole list’ drawn up by Federal Executives, alongside people like Brian Sedgemore and me.)

We’re not the only party whose Conferences have been blanded to death. Labour have ensured the media can’t get their money shot of a Union member jabbing a pipe into someone’s eye. The Tories have replaced all those women with knitted haircuts and suburban bow-tie dresses with diversity co-ordinators introducing five-minute video clips of eager backbench MPs with forced grins pointing at young children playing football in the street with plinky-plonky background music noodling away in the background. Where once Conferences meant Cabinet Ministers getting haughty, now leaders of lobby groups perform the same smooth advertising schtick as might happen in a boardroom of an AIM listed construction company.

Aside from Conferences being boring, the coverage surrounding them has failed to catch up with everybody else realising that their reputation for being ‘see and be seen’ calendar highlights has long since been a thing of the past. Even “The Thick of It” doesn’t pretend that anything goes on at Conference which might be considered intriguing. We’re left with the BBC asking Andrew Neil to perform set-piece gags in the entrance hall (insofar as anyone needs to force Andrew Neil to do something gimmicky for filler material). At least the LibDems ask members to contribute towards potential manifesto promises (by and large), the other two parties having deemed it necessary to only involve ordinary members for the Leaders Speech in case anything unfortunate happens. (We can’t have ‘TONY BLIAR WAR CRIMINAL’ protests every year, mind, and I can’t think who would be so frustrated at Ed Miliband’s impression of a wet flannel to consider heckling his speech-cum-lecture).

Talking about the Leaders’ Speeches,  it’s unfortunate that BBC News considers it necessary to broadcast Barack Obama’s Conference Speech in real time as it enables ordinary people who consider boot polish more exciting than politics to notice how natural an orator the US President is compared with:

*David Cameron, whose speaking style has now settled down into an incidental character from the Archers being asked to appear on “Live & Kicking” against his will;
*Ed Milliband, whose inability to tell a joke without signposting it for three paragraphs gives the impression that he couldn’t order a takeaway curry without rehearsing the phone call for an hour.
*Nick Clegg, now forced to abandon his ‘humility personified’ schtick in favour of something approaching how a father would speak in court having been discovered pleasuring himself with a frozen chicken by a close relative.

At least we don’t have the ‘Leaders Wives’ showcase in this country, which is prostitution by another name. It’s a blessed relief that our politics has copied only the least disagreeable bits of American political culture, so we don’t have to put up with Samantha Cameron forcing home made Eccles cakes down the throats of sketch writers and/or Andrew Neil. I dread the day OFCOM finally snap and allow political advertising on prime time television which shows Ed Miliband openly weeping as an David Cameron look-a-like wraps barbed wire around hospital beds and pisses into school lunchboxes. All the while, of course, BBC News and ITV News are left covering the personality side of Conferences because they’re still stuck with the idea that real life political news coverage must be covered as though everyone taking part has momentarily finished recording a new series of “Yes Minister”.  I’m certain the  reality of Conferences being the location of the beginning or termination of political careers ended when Alan Clark was in short trousers, but this doesn’t stop SKY News acting as though they’re covering a real time version of “The West Wing”. You can sometimes see Adam Boulton adjusting his trousers just thinking about it.

I’m aware that ordinary members of political parties need to feel involved in ways which go beyond raffle tickets and golf club meet-and-greets. It’s just Conferences have long since stopped being the solution to the involvement problem. They’re tedious and self-congratulatory sessions of advertising at the best of times, covered by a media machine in love with a fantasy idea of political intrigue. Maybe the age of gathering in coastal resorts for a week long love-in died longer ago than anyone dare thing, but in this age of cynicism and political abstention, it seems all the more remarkable than the charades are allowed to continue. How many focus groups convince the suits that the general public think they’re a constructive use of time and money?

There was a time when Conference season triggered my anorak tendencies, not least because I assumed everyone with a membership card had to go at least once, a sort of Hajj pilgrimage for leaflet droppers. Now I watch from so far back I might as well be in a different time zone. Sorry, politics, but  Conferences were always rather awkward and boring places for me to visit when I was involved in campaigns; now I’d rather not bother with you at all.  Good luck keeping Lembit away from a microphone….