Mervyn Edwards has written numerous opinion pieces over the years for such as The Sentinel newspaper, The Local Edition, Potters' Bar (the Potteries CAMRA newsletter) and many other periodicals past and present. A selection of his published columns appears here.
Potteries-born author Arnold Bennett believed that self-education was the best education.
It's a view that accords quite comfortably with that of the Workers Educational Association, and - decades before that - the appetite of thousands of working people for self-improvement, one of the great rallying-calls of the Victorian Age. Many of our comrades here today will have used museums, art galleries and libraries that offer us the chance to broaden our minds and to self-improve.
But how many of these amenities are propped up by low paid workers or volunteers? As local authorities across the country compete with one another for the honour of City of Culture status, it's as well to remember that it was reported in late 2018 that nearly 130 libraries had closed in Britain in the previous twelve months. The knock-on effect has been that full-time library workers have lost their jobs and volunteer numbers at libraries have increased dramatically.
The local authority funding gap has resulted in fewer libraries, significant stock loss and poorer customer service - but it isn't the fault of volunteers that this has occurred. What's more, those volunteers deserve greater recognition for the revenue they help to generate for our towns and cities. Free libraries, museums and other attractions are a social lifeline for many people as well as being pillars of democracy. What do I mean by that?
Well, when the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850, there was much hostility to it from Conservatives, who belly-ached that the upper and middle classes would be paying for a service that would mainly be used by the lower classes. It was stated that "the more education people get, the more difficult they are to manage."
This is, of course, why tyrants and extremist regimes have burned libraries throughout history - damn dangerous things, those books.
It's not only libraries where we will find volunteers willing to impart knowledge, or to help family historians find out whether they really were descended from Jack the Ripper. Across the Birmingham and West Midland region, we have numerous award-winning tourist attractions that boost the local economy by attracting visitors from far and wide.
At our industrial museums, volunteer workers might show us how to throw a pot, or explain vanishing skills. These decent, passionate people are part of what I call Self-help Britain - a country that has been sold short by the Establishment and whose public cultural amenities are sustained through the good will of ordinary folk making a special contribution to society.
I move that Congress recognises their crucial role in the cultural and intellectual growth of our communities.
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One man's meat is another man's poison. It's a hoary adage that often springs to mind when I consider the buildings of Stoke-on-Trent or indeed any other city. Stoke has a particularly poor building conservation record - which is a stomach-churning but very necessary accusation for me to make, considering the city's undoubted and abiding reputation for creativity. Like many other areas - though not all - its building stock is a jarring mishmash of just over 190 listed buildings juxtaposed with concrete banana crates, soulless office and residential blocks and some particularly gruesome manifestations of post-war development.
Part of the problem with Stoke's architecture in the last sixty years has been the relative lack of originality. When I gaze, glumly, at many new buildings I see a tepid harking back to the past that attempts to give structures a dignity and gravitas. This is perhaps offered as a sop to the traditionalist but fails on two levels. Firstly, it is better to preserve the past rather than copy it. Secondly, we need to be designing exciting, high-quality, visually-challenging buildings that are our proud legacy to future generations. Stoke is not alone in not having picked up the gauntlet. I never cease to smile when I read Thomas Hardy's description of the High Street Hall in his 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge (he writes of fictional Dorchester). He scribes:
"It was Palladian, and, like all architecture erected since the Gothic age, was a compilation rather than a design."
Truth be told, some of the finest buildings in Stoke-on-Trent ape past architectural styles but are nevertheless a feast for the eye. Burslem Town Hall doffs its cap to several and is one of the city's most handsome landmarks. However, there are very few post-Thatcher era buildings whose design can be described as being influenced by lateral thinking, eccentricity and daring.
My book, Stoke-on-Trent in Fifty Buildings (2018) was never intended as a Top Fifty picked in order of merit. It deliberately lists some odd and hopefully annoying choices such as the Walker's Nonsuch factory in Longton and the Vale Park football ground in Burslem - buildings that are of their time and tell a particular story.
Stoke is sometimes too proud and too parochial to learn from other areas, but I am a huge advocate of comparing and contrasting. When you consider what other cities have achieved, could Stoke not be more madcap and more venturesome? Why can't we have shopping malls as architecturally risky as the Trinity Leeds Shopping Centre or the Selfridges building in Birmingham? Or exciting mixed-use development such as the canalside Nottingham One? Could you imagine something like Blackpool's famous Comedy Carpet in Market Square, Hanley? And, rising above it, an iconic structure such as the Dublin Spire? At the very least, can't we have architecture that teaches, that rips up old paradigms and encourages cultural events or public art?
Instead, Stoke, along with its development partners, comes up with ideas such as the tidy but timid Unity Walk shopping complex in Hanley - which has now been shelved - and pats itself on the back for its ingenuity. Granted, Stoke is not an affluent city, but if it is truly serious about emerging from the shadows of Manchester and Birmingham then it must find the will and the imagination to reject the safe and the mediocre and embrace pioneering design. It might take its cue from one of Staffordshire's greatest figures, Reginald Mitchell, who remarked:
"It is not good enough to follow conventional methods of design. It is essential to invent and evolve new methods and new ideas."
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Cast: Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand), Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford), J.J (Bradford Dillman), Carol Ann (Lois Chiles), George Bissinger (Patrick O'Neal), Paula Reisner (Viveca Lindfors), Rhea Edwards (Allyn Ann McLerie), Brooks Carpenter (Murray Hamilton), Bill Verso (Herb Edelman), Vicki Bissinger (Diana Ewing), Pony Dunbar (Sally Kirkland), El Morroco Captain (George Gaynes), Frankie McVeigh (James Woods), Judianne (Susan Blakely).
Director: Sydney Pallack.
Musical score: Marvin Hamlisch.
This love story is set in the period from the late 1930s to the 1950s. It is told partly in flashback, and centres on the relationship between two very contrasting individuals. Katie Morosky is a strident anti-war campaigner and a passionate and vocal Marxist Jew with a tendency to denounce people as fascists or racist finks.
Hubbell Gardiner is an easy-going and insouciant Adonis with a talent for sports (javelin, discus, rowing, etc) but no appetite for politics.
The opening scenes go some way to establishing the period in which the story begins - one cinema is showing a Marx Brothers movie. Much later, we see Katie and Hubbell attending a Marx Brothers costume party at which they appear as Harpo and Groucho Marx respectively.
At college, Katie not only admires Hubbell's all-American good looks but his writing prowess, whilst he is intrigued by her political passions. She is heavily involved with the Student Council and is President of the Young Communist League, and we see her bravely winning over a massed audience of snickering students at an open air peace demonstration. Hubbell shows a tremendous ability for writing at college, winning a class writing competition with a piece entitled, The All-American Smile, which the tutor reads out to the class. It begins, "In a way he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easy for him." Katie tearfully consigns her failed submission to the dustbin.
Katie has a part-time job in a diner, which is visited by Hubbell and his friends, whose easy humour she does not embrace. He tells her, "You're a puritan. You have no sense of humour." Later in the story, she berates them as being "Decadent and disgusting. You make fun of everything. You think politics is a joke."
Too busy inhabiting their own worlds, they go their separate ways after graduation.
Their paths cross once more near the end of World War II. Katie is working at a radio station, whilst Hubbell, who has served as a naval officer in the South Pacific, is back on civvy street. Despite their contrasting outlooks, they fall in love, but Katie finds her boyfriend's companions uncaring and insensitive, especially when they joke about President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death. Hubbell realises that Katie's all or nothing outspoken politics render her a liability in social situations, and the pair drift apart. "You push too hard. Every damn minute."
They eventually achieve reconciliation and when Hubbell - who has already had a novel, A Country Made of Ice Cream, published - applies for a job as a Hollywood screenwriter, Katie urges him to pursue more challenging work. Still trying to iron out the kinks in their relationship, they move to California and are able to enjoy easy affluence as he becomes a successful screenwriter.
However, they live in troubled times. Creative performers in the entertainment industry are squeezed out of employment by the Hollywood blacklist that targets American entertainment professionals thought to have pro-Communist sympathies. McCarthyism - the U.S. government campaign against alleged Communists and other seditious forces, carried out under Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid twentieth century - is on the march. Katie and others demonstrate in support of the Hollywood Ten. With Hubbell increasingly becoming sucked in by the Establishment, his reputation becomes threatened by his now-pregnant girlfriend's unquenchable thirst for political expression.
Hubbell has an affair with Carol Ann, his erstwhile college girlfriend and the former wife of his best friend, J.J. When Katie gives birth to a daughter, Rachel, she comes to her senses and accepts that the blasé
Hubbell is not everything she had desired him to be. Not suitably motivated to realise his potential as a creative talent, he is now writing forgettable sitcoms.
Years after their divorce, the star-crossed lovers meet by chance in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Hubbell seems happy with his chic and sophisticated partner and is one of a number of jobbing writers working on a popular sitcom. Katie, now married, suggests that the three of them meet up, but Hubball declines. He asks about Rachel's progress and about her father. We see that Katie, though older, has retained her political convictions, as she clutches "Ban The Bomb" fly-leaflets. "You never give up, do you?" asks Hubbell.
The film is dominated by the two leads. Streisand is beautiful - though not conventionally so - with luxuriant hair (which her character irons), full lips and expressive eyes. Though there is precious little opportunity for her to display her comedic talent in this film, her "funny bones" and her timing are still there for all to see. Katie's politics eventually drive her apart from Hubbell, but her love is nevertheless unconditional - a point referenced by Hubbell's pal, J.J., when the two boys go for a sail, having both become single again: "It's not like, you know, losing SOMEBODY. Katie... THAT would be a loss."
Some reviews criticise Redford's character for being weak and spineless, but this fails to recognise his complexity. It is not that he is indifferent or uncaring about politics as much as the fact that he has figured it all out. He is astute enough to have recognised the pervasiveness of "political double-talk" and laughs at the idea that a Bill of Rights actually operates in America. Disengaging himself from politics, he believes that people are more important, and he expresses this forcefully when provoked in argument by Katie. Thus, we see that Hubbell is not merely eye-candy in the film. Indeed, he is given some great anti-politics lines.
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Upon being loaned this autobiography by a friend, I had no great hopes that I would enjoy it. You see, I never really took to the Royle Family TV series, and saw nothing appealing about its paterfamilias, the nose-picking, flatulent and indolent Jim Royle. However, vaguely aware of the actor's left-wing political views and his brushes with the law, I chose my favourite armchair, Jim-style, and began reading.
Eric Tomlinson is born in Blackpool in 1939, but grows up in Merseyside, even as the Germans drop bombs on Liverpool docks. The family home is 37, Lance Street ("no doors were ever locked") about three-quarters of a mile form Liverpool FC's ground. Like so many people of his generation, Tomlinson recalls what were then the staples of working-class life: the parlour/ front room (aka "the best room"), the toilet down the yard, bum-fodder fashioned from the local newspaper, tin baths in front of the fire and the nit-comb. Dad - Albert Edward Tomkinson - is a long-serving baker who once took industrial action over poor pay, but whose social conscience was so strong that he secretly baked at home and shoved barm cakes through neighbours' letter-boxes. The author paints an intriguing picture of the Liverpool people of his childhood - the children who played among "bombdies" (the bombed properties), the stealing of wooden toilet doors and seats ("Liverpool pans") for bonfire material, the close families and community rivalry: "Far more than race, it was religion that divided people in Liverpool... Religious intolerance was part of the fabric of my childhood, ingrained into youngsters in a thousand little ways. Catholics were different. It was us against them."
Tomlinson also describes his early dalliances with the opposite sex and the particular term used in Liverpool for coitus interruptus, "getting off at Edgehill" - Edgehill being the last railway station before Liverpool Lime Street (the end of the line). The author's accounts of amourettes and sexual tensions are copious throughout the book and candidly described.
Having been known for his story-telling prowess at school, Tomlinson learns to play the banjo and to perform songs at clubs whilst still an apprentice plasterer. Comedy turns follow as his band secure bookings in working men's clubs.
Though his early political views are influenced by his father - a royalist and Tory - Tomlinson becomes a trades unionist, supporting fellow workers on building sites.
The 1950s - which the author recalls as a special, magical time - give way to the Sixties, though intriguingly, he is no devotee of the Beatles: "I'm not taking anything away from the Fab Four, but I'm always quick to correct people who imagine they were working class heroes in Liverpool. Lennon and McCartney were middle-class, well-educated boys." Elsewhere in the autobiography, there are references to another contemporary, Cilla Black. There is a passing nod to Cilla's mother, a hard-working marketeer who sold clothes, but there is criticism of the singer herself, in respect of a spat at a showbiz function in Liverpool. On this occasion, a press photographer asks Tomlinson if he could round up some celebrity peers for a picture. He approaches Cilla and touches her on the arm, eliciting the response, "Get your hand off this dress. It cost a lot of money." Ricky replies, tartly, "I wouldn't have thought so, the way it looks on you." Over the years, their relationship grows chillier. Black was a vocal supporter of Margaret Thatcher - for which a lot of Liverpool people never forgave her, according to the author.
Tomlinson's politics change drastically over the years. He has a mixture of right and left-wing views and is no follower of Socialist newspapers. Indeed, he temporarily joins the National Front, believing that immigrants are taking British jobs and are responsible for overcrowding. His subsequent conversion from right-wing politics makes for an interesting journey. He discovers Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but in taking part in the national building strike of 1972 he is subsequently jailed, as one of the Shrewsbury Two, on conspiracy charges. He desperately appeals against a verdict that appears to have been driven by misinformation, lies and a general "stitch-up", but trade union executives give his case a wide berth (though it finds in miners' leader, Arthur Scargill, a vocal supporter). Ricky describes the tortuous legal battle for freedom, the inhuman conditions in the clutch of prisons in which he is incarcerated and his defiant hunger-strike.
Elsewhere in the autobiography, Ricky tells of creative disputes with showbiz writers and actors - Bernard Hill included - as well as marital disharmony and his womanising tendencies.
However, although there may be a hint of score-settling in the book, it is not a malicious narrative, nor a muck-raking kiss-and-tell. Tomlinson's desire "not to do anything to betray the working class" drives this, and although he confesses to being a gobby, flawed individual, there is much humanity in him. He is reluctant to regard himself as an actor, even with credits such as Brookside, Nice Guy Eddie and The Royle Family. He appears not to be showbizzy and drinks cans of Sainsbury's Mild. By the end of this very readable autobiography, we find a man who appreciates the luck he's had - notwithstanding some harrowing times - and who remains a staunch supporter of the working class. He asserts:
"Every kid deserves to have a job; trade unions should be treasured and not demonised; rolling contracts should be outlawed and New Labour should stop masquerading as a party for the workers."
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In 1787, Stoke's master potter Josiah Wedgwood produced his white jasper "slave medallion" with the inscription, "Am I not a man and a brother?" encompassing the image of a manacled black slave. It was the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and it became the most famous portrait of a black person in all of eighteenth century art. Key dates in the nineteenth century bullet-point the advances of the anti-slavery movement, but in the southern states of America, man's inhumanity to man died hard.
Designated by some, perhaps unfairly and inaccurately, as a sentimental novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin depicts very graphically the brutalities of slavery in the southern states. It "helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War" according to Will Kaufman, and has otherwise been recognised as an example of a fictional work that became an agent of social change. It deals with colour prejudice, womens' rights and even ageist attitudes towards women, exposing some of the cant and pretence of nineteenth century society.
Connecticut-born Stowe cites some of the evils of capitalism in America and Britain, and questions the dogmatic views of middle class religious humbugs and hypocrites. Marie St. Clare, the wife of a wealthy slave-owner, drips with silk, lace and jewellery on her visits to a "fashionable church", making a point of being "very pious on Sundays." Yet such brazen displays of empty-hearted religion are juxtaposed with the simple fervour of the lower churches:
"'I do wish St. Clare ever would go to church,' said Marie, 'but he hasn't a particle of religion about him. It really isn't respectable.'
'I know it,' said St. Clare. 'You ladies go to church to learn how to get along in the world, I suppose, and your piety shed respectability on us. If I did go at all, I would go where Mammy goes; there's something to keep a fellow awake there, at least.'
'What! Those shouting Methodists? Horrible!' said Marie.
'Anything but the dead sea of your respectable churches, Marie. Positively, it's too much to ask of a man..'"
In her Afterword, Stowe adds, "Both North and South have been guilty before God, and the Christian Church has a heavy account to answer." It's the admission of both a hand-wringing penitent and a religious thinker - American Christianity with a conscience - and it might explain how this book became, unbelievably, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and the second best-selling book, after the Bible. The book simultaneously holds Christianity to account whilst peddling its glories. After all, it is through Uncle Tom that we witness how Christian love can infuse the human spirit even when cruelty and inhumanity appear to reign supreme. He is seen as an upright, noble individual with an unshakeable faith in God.
As a proto-feminist, Stowe promotes the moral authority of motherhood, and the futile cries of women slaves who lose their children in the story are meant to wrench at the heartstrings of all mothers who have loved and lost their progeny. Stowe's writing deliberately draws a trenchant comparison between the helpless slaves and the disenfranchised housewife of the mid nineteenth century. She wrote in 1869, when campaigning for the expansion of married women's rights:
"The position of a married woman... is, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave. She can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at that moment the property of her husband... Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earned a fortune through her talents, he was the sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny... In the English common law a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence."
Another Stowe observation that many women would salute today, runs, "So much has been said and sung of beautiful young girls, why don't somebody wake up to the beauty of old women?"
That said, Stowe shows us a truly vile and self-pitying older woman, the preening matriarch Marie St. Clare, a woman of stomach-churning self-regard.
The novel - without any intention - popularised several social stereotypes, notably the figure of the docile black servant, loyal to a white, middle-class master. I believe that the book has been mis-read, or perhaps not read at all, by some critics nursing their own agendas, including a few over-zealous and wrong-headed anti-racism campaigners.
The fact is that Stowe showed tremendous courage in writing a work that she knew would be attacked in her own time by Establishment figures and conservative elements in the American South. No wonder that one of Stowe's critics remarked,
that her great novel was "perhaps the most influential novel ever published, a verbal earthquake, an ink-and-paper tidal wave." No champion of Stowe's work could have written a more apposite epitaph.
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Harry's Last Stand: How The World My Generation Built Is Falling Down And What We Can Do To Save It (2014) was written by Harry Leslie Smith (1923 - ).
Harry Leslie Smith was born in Barnsley in 1923, growing up in Barnsley and Bradford. His father had been a miner, but when Smith senior lost his job, his family was plunged into abject poverty, being forced to live in a doss-house. Harry "became an adult at seven", becoming a beggar boy with a rag-and-bone man and then finding employment as a beer barrow boy. Smith saw his family as one that was perched on the lowest rung of the social ladder - the slum-living working poor of a nation that was "stratified and defined by an exacting social class caste system."
Smith witnessed poverty and tragedy, his sister Marion perishing from tuberculosis in 1926 and spending her final days in a workhouse infirmary, "the last stop for many people who were too poor to pay for a doctor or proper hospital care." She was buried in an unmarked grave.
Smith senior's work in mining is discussed, "a cruel, profit-driven industry that had no compassion for its workers," and the dangers and diseases associated with the job. The miners' morale-sapping defeat in the General Strike, the elder Smith's enforced retirement through a hernia - and the family's consequent near-starvation - are also highlighted. His wife's rebukes - borne of frustration and their social situation, but nevertheless cruel - offered little comfort. Smith senior died, penniless and heartbroken, in 1929, his wife already having begun to look around for a replacement bread-winner, and taking up with a pig man named Bill.
The author joined the RAF at 22, witnessing the horrors of Nazism and observing the hunger and poverty of ordinary Germans as his unit moved from Holland to Germany. He stayed on with the RAF, following the War, in order to help with reconstruction in Germany.
He rejoices in recalling the 1945 General Election and the arrival of a Labour government that adhered to socialist principles, creating a welfare state and a much-needed house-building plan. We are also reminded of life before corporate greed spawned irresponsible capitalism: "In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, governments co-operated with business to enhance the prosperity of the nation. However, unlike today, it was under the premise that everyone must share in our country's success."
In 1947, Smith married Friede, a German woman from Hamburg. They were together until her death in 1999. Smith secured a good job with a UK carpet manufacturer, allowing him to travel the world and achieve middle-class social status. He continued to educate himself through extensive reading.
Harry triggered a furore in November, 2013 by announcing in an article for the Guardian newspaper that he would wear a poppy for the last time, sparking a robust debate on Facebook and elsewhere. The reason? "I am no longer certain that the sacrifice my generation paid with their blood was worth the cost." Smith paints a picture of a country that has surrendered its liberal values to "corporatism without conscience" and rampant consumerism; a society that is content to embrace an "every man for himself" philosophy.
Smith excoriates governments that "are in lock-step with big business", thereby betraying the post World War II Labour government's vision of an equitable society supported by the pillars of the welfare state. He rails against the evils of corporate tax avoidance by such as Google, Amazon, Starbucks and Apple, payday loan sharks, greedy banks, zero hours contracts and a UK government minister (Iain Duncan Smith) who claims he could live on a welfare handout of £53 a week when "300,000 citizens need to use food banks."
Commendably, Smith does not offer a jaundiced, Old Labour view, and he is not afraid to castigate the "ill-advised" Left for its failures of the 1970s: the weak Labour governments who couldn't stabilise the nation's finances or control the chaos of industrial action. He also criticises the Left's refusal to accept that capitalism "does produce benefits to the individual and society at large if properly controlled and cultivated." Trade unions come in for a degree of criticism - notwithstanding Smith's support of co-operation - so that no-one can assert that this is a one-eyed rant blaming capitalism as the root of all evil. The author's stance on the divisive issue of Europe is also open-minded and balanced, being driven by our need to ask the right questions about Europe rather than react as xenophobes, UKIP and mainstream parties have done.
The parlous state of the nation is blamed on a wide range of other factors, notably the baneful impact of the Thatcher government, Margaret's insistence that "there is no society" and the consumerism-worship of modern Britain that has impaired our ability to care about anyone else's economic fortunes beyond our own. Smith palpably sees Tony Blair's New Labour as an agency that continued Thatcher's work in creating a canyon-wide gap between the rich and the poor.
Smith is not above using colloquialisms to reinforce his opinions. "Ministers," he spits, "speak as if the entire working and middle class have been on the piss for the past twenty years."
Like other left-wing writers, such as Robert Tressell and Owen Jones, Smith is not above emotionalism either, and in his introduction, he admits that some of his arguments may not be watertight. However, at his age, he has the right to interpret history as he has seen it and to evince passion and even a little wrong-headedness borne of frustration. Smith is a self-educated bloke of working class stock who conveys much humanity in disparaging governments, banks and tax-dodging capitalists.
The title of the book suggests that Smith has answers to society's present-day ills. These include the replacement of the present first-past-the-post voting system with a more representative system that guarantees that seats in government are
determined by votes cast. He also advocates that the cronyism that exists between government and business be addressed, in the interest of promoting environmental protection - he is evidently anti-fracking - human rights and democracy. He adds, "We must remember the City is not the nation."
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It was reported a while ago that newly-single TV personality Anthea Turner had enjoyed lunch with a 50 year old man named Jeremy but that she chose not to pursue matters when she discovered that he didn't like the taste of brown sauce.
How many Potters Bar readers have craved romance with a celebrity? It's a little known fact that some years ago, I offered to date sexy actress Greta Scacchi, star of the films Presumed Innocent and White Mischief.
In 2000, The Sentinel ran with the story that Greta, who was due to appear at the Regent Theatre, had expressed no appetite for Potteries cuisine.
I wrote to the newspaper and offered to take her to the Wright's Pie cafe, around the corner from the theatre, to sample the ambrosial steak pie, chips and gravy. I added that if love were then to blossom between us, I could take her to the Coachmakers Arms for a pint of Bass, and that if she was still hungry, I'd buy her a bag of pork scratchings from behind the bar.
It is to my eternal chagrin that Greta ignored my magnanimous invitation, and I have been secretly traumatised ever since.
The news story about Anthea reminded me of the perils and pitfalls of the dating game. On my own first dates, I made it a point never to talk about the major divisive issues: politics, religion, football, fashion and Wetherspoon's pubs. Sex was another one. In my book, sex shouldn't be discussed on a first date, even if you're having it. Some of you might call me emotionally repressed, but I'm just being a gentleman.
Actually, I'm not averse to concupiscent canoodling in pubs as long as it offends no-one else. My first lady friend and I were in the habit of using Shades in Chell Street, Birches Head - the later Fox and Duck. It was a split-level pub with a slightly separate section to the rear-left that offered some privacy. It was only after a particularly passionate embrace that I noticed that there were sizeable mirrors on the walls that would have reflected the view of our licentious activity to those in the lower room.
The question of where you'd take a lady on a first date is a tricky one. In the case of my last girlfriend, our first rendezvous took place at the Furlong Tavern in Tunstall, in 1998. It was then a well-presented pub capable of appealing to both genders, and has since become markedly more female-friendly.
I also took her several times to the Cliff Vale in Stoke. I adored the pub, but was aware that not everyone felt the same way. My sweetheart was broad-minded enough to fit in well with the regular crowd, though a comment I once made in print - "You'd only take your girlfriend to the Cliff if you were trying to give her a reason for dumping you" - recognised the venue's reputation as an old fashioned "blokes' pub."
Where you take a girlfriend depends largely on how welcome she is likely to feel when she gets there.
We also patronised the Crossways in Newcastle, which didn't resemble the typical female-friendly, sofa-and-embroidered cushions girlie pub for one nano-second. In fact, it tended to be favoured by stag parties and even more raucous hen parties. On one occasion, I exited from the notoriously soaking-wet toilets, and stepping out of my kayak into the considerably drier lounge bar, saw one chap stretching a contraceptive sheath over his head and with a few mighty puffs blowing up the "skin" as if inflating a balloon.
Today, I'd be hugely saddened if I took a girl to the Holy Inadequate in Etruria and she expressed dissatisfaction. It's my equivalent of Anthea's brown sauce yardstick. If the lass can't agree with me on this pub and its attributes, then it's unlikely that there'll be common ground on matters such as Trident, Europe, zero hours contracts and who was the best James Bond. (It was Roger Moore, by the way).
Incidentally, I've always viewed Anthea Turner as attractive, bright, bubbly and a fine ambassador for Stoke-on-Trent. However, you're unlikely to see us holding hands in the Holy. You see, I just can't stand brown sauce.
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What are the negative effects of capitalism, and how deeply-rooted are they?
We hear much about the merits of "responsible capitalism" even from those close to the Labour Party, and this tells us two things immediately. Firstly, that many in the party, whilst championing social equality, are scared stiff to be thought of as anti-business, and secondly, that there is an acceptance among many people that there are far worse economic systems in the world than capitalism. The argument seems to be that if only its upholders were brought into line and made more accountable for its failings, then a sanitised version of capitalism might be workable.
Unfortunately, capitalism with a moral conscience is as rare as a comb in Duncan Goodhew's bathroom cabinet. By and large, responsible capitalism is a chimera, a fanciful conception. For whilst the most sandal-wearing, vigorously-bearded Socialist would have to concede that driven people inevitably rise to the top in a competitive world, the capitalist must acknowledge that his system succeeds by keeping the vulnerable in their place. Capitalism is not the bright, industrious pupil who reaches the top of his class. It is more akin to the playground bully, who muscles his way to supremacy by exploiting the inadequacies of the weak.
Not that capitalism is incapable of whispering sweet nothings in your ear, as various commentators have been forced to admit. Thomas Day (1748-89), a member of the 18th century group of polymaths known as the Lunar Society, wrote a letter to Arthur Young praising the improvements in industry at the time: "What morasses have been drained, what arid deserts cultivated, what an increase of animals, of happiness and population!" However, as he had to admit, the advances threatened destruction in their course, having a tendency to bear away "liberty, public spirit, and every manly virtue." The manufacturers were reducing the farmers to slavery, he spluttered. Sounds familiar?
Another who eventually accepted that self-interest was divisive was the poet, William Wordsworth. He came to realise that the growth of the free market was likely to enslave rather than liberate.
Today, trade union news sheets as well as the national newspapers routinely trot out statistics that illustrate the unequal distribution of wealth in the world. Oxfam announced in 2014 that the world's 85 richest people had accumulated as much money between them as half of the world's population, highlighting that people are increasingly separated by economic and political power, fuelling social tensions.
However, it was ever thus. According to the historian Jose Harris, just before World War I, ten per cent of Britain's population owned 92% of its wealth. Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) offers a perspective on how decent working people suffered poverty in order for the capitalist system to provide abundance and even superfluity for the few - all of which illustrates how little has changed since Tressell's day.
I don't do wealth envy, but I recognise when cash corrupts: when multinational companies can hold elected governments to ransom, and when the taxpayer effectively subsidises major chains because they pay so little that workers have to claim working tax credit in order to avoid privation.
President John Kennedy once declared that "if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few that are rich." It's a statement worth heeding.
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My favourite public house, the Moon Under Water, is only around the corner from our house, and upon entering it, I do not have to edge through a cordon of ignorant smokers who refuse to budge.
The Moon Under Water is a hostelry of warmth, integrity and character whose walls teem with carefully-sourced Victorian objets d'art without any pubco posters for Carlsberg and Sky Sports football matches in sight. Among the furniture we find original wooden forms removed from the local cinema when it had tip-up seats installed in 1946, an oak bookcase that once adorned the Hanley Mechanics' Institute, and an ageing escritoire that was taken from Arnold Bennett's house in Waterloo Road.
It's something of a warren, my local pub, with flagged floors and seven individual rooms groaning with bric-a-brac including an antique capstan from Brixham harbour, a luggage rack used on the Flying Scotsman, a preserved fritter sold on the opening day of Aaron Holding's May Bank chip shop in 1929 and a stuffed ocelot known to have been brought back to these shores by Joseph Banks.
Customers of all ages - predominantly middle-aged, perhaps - luxuriate in the warmth of the coal fires, respectfully sipping pints of Old Piledriver (6.8% ABV), Tyrannosaurus Rex Ale (7.2%) and Uncle Bitumen's Dirty Ale (a 5.6% ABV session beer), conversing intelligently about multifarious matters and displaying coruscating wit. The last expletive heard in the pub was in 1963 when a metal "No Swearing" sign fell from a wall and struck someone's foot.
Such signs are no longer needed here as people respect their surroundings and the couple who keep it: Tony the ever-smiling landlord, always immaculate in a shirt and tie, with the odd touch of eccentricity. Today, he's wearing a pin-on badge that reads, "Never trust an atom. They make up everything." His spouse, Janice, is fancied by all the men and admired by all the ladies. Truly a trophy wife, she can name every farm-produced pork pie presently available in the UK and would rather place her beautifully-coiffured head in a bucket of lyctus beetles than watch one second of Celebrity Big Brother.
In any case, there is no television to be seen in the Moon Under Water, for it would lower the tone. The "idiot's lantern" has no place in a pub where conversation flows as incessantly as the delicious pints of Wrigley's Creosote Oil from the hand pumps (7.8% ABV with a hint of citrus, seeing as you ask).
It's a pub that has commanded respect from all who have ever visited. One night, burglars broke in and were discovered moments later buffing up the ornaments with Brasso.
And the toilets? Senior members of the Royal Family have taken a fifty-mile detour in order to use them. Here is the smell of honeysuckle borne on a gentle zephyr. Here are floor tiles as white as a rain-washed bone and tap handles that gleam like the Koh-i-nor. There are no signs here declaring that the pub operates a strict no drugs policy. The only pot you'll find in these toilets is the one that the fresh orchids stand in.
The Moon Under Water is my ideal of what a pub should be. But now is the time to reveal something that the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. Just like George Orwell's Moon Under Water, there is no such place.
Oh, well. A man can dream, can't he?
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So how was Christmas for you? You'll have heard that question several times since the last (Winter, 2013) edition of Potters Bar, and if you're like half the population, you'll have responded to the question with a slightly diffident, "Erm.. it was quiet, but nice."
Sometimes, I just don't get people. They hare around from early September, buying presents, sending cards, planning familial visits, haranguing supermarket checkout operators and generally running themselves into the ground, only to have a "quiet but nice" Christmas.
My own memories of Christmases past were that they were rarely quiet - and if you were looking at the toilet floor of the Bull's Vaults in Newcastle, late on Christmas Eve - not particularly nice.
They were, however, rollicking good times, because, on Christmas Eve especially, my friends and I made an effort to create a special night.
For many years, we'd venture out on Christmas Eve in fancy dress, our chosen venues at various periods being the Bull's Vaults, the Coach House, the Old Brown Jug and the Crossways - which, itself, had an unhygienic, flooded men's toilet floor almost all the year round. This being the case, it would have been appropriate for me to have attended our Christmas Eve parties at the Crossways dressed as a deep sea diver, towing my personal bathysphere behind me.
Not wanting to take the Mick too much, however, I appeared variously over the years as Santa Claus, Frankenstein's Creature, Ronald McDonald and the Devil - complete with horns, tail, trident and a red-painted torso.
Our crowd tended to get on quite well with pub landlords, meaning that much of our exuberant behaviour was tentatively permitted. There is one surviving photograph of me in the Coach House standing under a huge, polychromatic golfing umbrella.
By the end of Christmas Eve, I was sometimes not only tiddly, but suffering from a sore throat that felt as if it had been cut by a buzz-saw. Any pub worth its salt would play Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody over the PA system, and although plenty of people sang along, none of us had any chance of emulating Noddy Holder's infamous yelling without doing ourselves an injury.
Of course, not only were we all young and foolish then, but we still had our drinking L plates on. Sometimes, I had a drop too much myself, and a friend of mine used to take me out of the Bull's Vaults and around the corner to the relative privacy of Market Lane where I could "be bad" in peace and recite the Travel Agents' Sketch from Monty Python in a vain effort to recover my senses.
With age, Christmas in the pub becomes a little less high-spirited, but it can still be very agreeable. An annual treat was to drive out in a few cars to the Crown in Wrinehill. It could boast of an enormous log fire that was beautiful to sit in front of. The only thing is, it gave off so much heat that you were soon throwing your clothes off quicker than Katie Price.
I remember only a few years ago that Jason and Sue at the Coachmakers Arms erected an enormous fir tree in the rear-right room. Sitting next to the tree and the open fire nearby was a benediction.
With any luck, you, dear reader, had a Christmas that overflowed with good ale and bonhomie. This being the first Potters Bar of 2014, I hope it's not to late for me to wish all our readers a Happy New Beer!
Why should Congress support the beleaguered, besieged, downtrodden, undervalued public house? Well, I guess the answer is in my question.
Congress, we've always been ready to fight for the underdog - and the pub couldn't be more of an underdog even if it sat up on its hind legs and slobbered all over your lap. Recent reports have stated that a quarter of the UK's pubs have closed since 2001, and as many as 14 pubs closed per week in the second half of 2018.
The Campaign for Real Ale has stated only recently that pubs contribute £23 BILLION to the economy every year - and £13 billion in tax - as well as creating thousands of jobs. The reasons for the decline of the pub are multifarious - and I would be disingenuous if I didn't tell you that one of them is plain bad management. However, for all those thousands of decent pubs struggling to make ends meet, there are ongoing battles, not least against the prevailing policies of central government.
Crippling business rates and VAT have affected many pubs and then there is the matter of beer duty. The UK has one of the highest beer tax rates in Europe - it is 3 times the EU average. The government harvests £3.5 billion every year in Beer Duty as well as a considerable sum in additional taxes on pubs and brewers.
To put it in context, one in every three pounds spent in the pub goes to the taxman and this in turn creates rising prices for the customer. Clearly, the Government needs to do far more to save our pubs - particularly the non-chain pubs - from extinction. You can access further information about the plight of the pub from the Office for National Statistics website, but I stand here today hoping to appeal to your hearts as well as your heads.
Firstly, I've been a pub-goer for over 35 years and talking to people in pubs has been very much a part of my own education. Well, it's taught me a lot, anyway! Secondly - and I speak as a humble Branch President of the GMB - pubs have offered us convenient places to hold meetings, and I am grateful for that. Thirdly, part of the work I do in Stoke-on-Trent involves working with elderly people in the community who may have become lonely, isolated or otherwise disenfranchised, and I have found that the public house is one of several valuable social outlets for people who fall into this category.
Pubs provide a social environment that enables us to do what working class people used to do so well: communicate, be creative, think laterally and swap ideas on life's major issues. The very best pubs offer all this and more. We've got one like this in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, where I come from. It's called the Congress. [Glances at President]. I thought you'd like the name.
I've observed warts-and-all humanity in pubs. I've hopefully sharpened my wit in pubs. I've laughed, I've cried, loved and lost in pubs... I'm sure you'll agree, all of this is pretty impressive for one night. But seriously...
Pubs should only ever be one of the many meeting places for trade unionists' meetings - but I would urge Congress to acknowledge the role they continue to play in the magnificent, unfolding story of working class life.
I move that public houses be recognised as a community amenity and that Congress supports them wherever possible as venues for our meetings thus helping to preserve them.
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I have written nearly twenty books on North Staffordshire local history, of which four have been on the subject of - be still, my beating heart! - pubs.
My latest has just been published by Amberley, and is entitled Newcastle-under-Lyme Pubs. It offers historical information about many hostelries, past and present, in a fairly formal, though (I hope) attractive way. However, for the purpose of this blog, I shall take a breather from history research and writing and offer a few humorous insights on my pub-trekking over the last few decades.
One of the reasons I have so many stories about pubs is that I busy myself with taking notes, either speaking into a dictaphone or just using a notepad. What sometimes happens is that a landlord will see me and ask, "Y'alright?"
Well, I'm delighted that he's taking an interest in my health, and so I tell him that I suffer from sciatica, and occasional diverticular disease - though it's been better since I added more fibre my diet. However, the ligaments in my knees are playing up at the moment, after my last charity walk, and my epididymal cysts can get a bit nasty at times. The landlord will respond, "I don't want your medical record, mate, what are you doing walking around my pub with a dictaphone?" They don't half get touchy.
However, I can't help having the recording bug. I research and read about pubs and equally importantly, I visit them, often learning bizarre facts.
A while ago, I visited the Boot Inn in Weymouth. At one time, the pub's landlady was a world champion stinging nettle eater. The world nettle eating championships were later held annually at another Dorset pub, the Bottle Inn. The competition began in the 1980s to resolve a dispute between local farmers over who had the longest nettles on his farmland. Alex Williams brought in a nettle over fifteen feet long, and challenged anyone to beat his record, promising to eat his if anyone found a bigger weed. You can guess what happened next. Alex ate his nettle, and the championships were born.
In 2006, Josie Carter achieved a new women's world record by eating a staggering thirty-four feet of nettles. In June, 2014, Philip Thorne won the competition by eating a phenomenal eighty feet of nettles - which just goes to show that they're not all locked up yet.
I'm quite comfortable visiting pubs either with friends or on my own. You can learn a lot about people. Years ago, I called into a pub in Knutton, Newcastle-under-Lyme, called the Forge, on a solo pub crawl. As I recall, I had a few things on my mind at the time. I bought a pint and sat down in one corner, only to hear one of the pool players say to his mate, "What's HE looking so miserable for?" It comes to something when you can't go to a pub and be miserable in peace. What have I got to do, buy a potting shed or an allotment greenhouse, and retire there every time I want a sulk?
At best, though, pub surroundings can help the solo drinker make sense of an angry world, or trigger Eureka moments. Some questions have teased my fevered mind for years. Which colours did Constable mix to get those lovely skies above the River Stour? What exactly is a tangent clamp on a sextant? Why do we have a demi-semi-quaver in music? I was in a pub on my own the other night, and in a spectacular moment of clarity, the answers to all these questions came to me, and I also figured a way of curing the world of all known diseases.
Solo drinking is great, because instead of discussing some of the more weighty matters of existence - should Allardyce play two up top for England, or Rooney "in the hole"? - you cease to care. Let go of your worry spirals... especially when you realise how STUPID the world can be. For example, I bought a packet of salted nuts in my local a while back and read on the packet, "This product may contain traces of nuts."
I've occasionally been to pubs to take part in pub quizzes. I'm proud to be able to record that back in 2006, I was the only person in the Blue Bell in Kidsgrove, Newcastle, to name all seven of the Deadly Sins: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth. It just goes to show that experience is a wonderful thing.
Knowing bits of trivia can be entertaining. For instance, did you know that chameleons DON'T actually change colour to match their background, but as a result of different emotional states. I can identify with that, because when I went into a Newcastle pub recently and was charged £4 for a pint of Guinness, I turned white, myself.
However, we must remember that pub quizzes are not about winning. They're about which team has the silliest name - and a lot of teams like to pick a name that embarrasses the quiz master when he reads their name out over the microphone. I emceed a quiz at the aforementioned Blue Bell a few years ago, when the teams included, the Shy Teds, the Klingons from Uranus and Norfolk and Chance.
However, I'm one to complain about pub quizzers making life hard for the quiz master. After all, the name of my own quiz team for many years was a bit of a mouthful itself.
We were known as the John Logie Baird Memorial Big Band.
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We've all heard the expression "the film of the book" but it was the talk of the book that sold it to me.
Rachel Holmes appeared before the GMB Book Club in March this year and spoke for about 45 minutes about Eleanor Marx, giving a well-considered, broad-sweep overview of Eleanor's life. The best public speakers are the ones who don't sound like public speakers, but have the air of someone energetically holding court around a convivial table in their local pub. Holmes did exactly this and was very natural - a speaker of great passion and intellect, not unlike her subject. I'd have paid good money to hear Rachel Holmes speak, and there was no way I was going to walk out of the room without her book tucked under my arm.
Nevertheless, I had questions about it, some of which I put to the author in her Q and A session. If she were as "passionately partisan" about her subject as was claimed by The Guardian, did this create difficulties in writing the book? Did it undermine her objectivity and was there a chance that the book would slip into the realms of hagiography? Mulling this over whilst simultaneously harbouring the hope that Holmes' work would be a real page-turner, I took the book home and plunged into the near-500 pages.
Eleanor Marx was born in 1855, the daughter of Karl and Jenny (nee Von Westphalen) Marx. The family lived frugally in London lodgings, pawning linen and jewellery and receiving handouts from the generous Friedrich Engels, with whom Karl had collaborated on the Communist Manifesto (1848). There are piquant descriptions of the Marx home, an ordered chaos of soot, smoke, babies and books. "Restless, curious, wanting to know everything, and constantly widening the horizon of her mind," Eleanor spent a bustling childhood developing interests ranging from chess to China, vamping with words, and more significantly, cultivating a political consciousness. She did, after all, grow up as Daddy was writing Capital (published in 1867), and even had the chutzpah to correspond with Abe Lincoln when she was nine. Then again, she was reciting Shakespeare at the age of three.
Described by her mother as political "from head to toe", Eleanor the international socialist either led or was involved in numerous campaigns: the Paris Commune March, the eight-hour day, women's education policy, women's trade unionism, the gasworker's union and more. Championing "socialist feminism," she believed in free love and equal marriage and saw the fight for the equality of women workers as being inseparable from the struggle of both sexes for improved working conditions and pay. As a writer and journalist, Eleanor harnessed the powers of new technology - the typewriter, popularised in 1868, and for me, one of the great enfranchisers of women - to write challenging papers like The Factory Hell (1885) and The Woman Question: From A Socialist Point of View (1886). Particularly recommended is the former, a brilliant read, not least because it is based on painstaking research. Marx was nothing if not thorough.
What on earth can we make of her love life? There was Olivier-Prosper-Hippolyte Lissagaray, French Socialist and the author of The History of the Commune (1871). He was twice Eleanor's age and a womaniser. She terminated the relationship in 1882, before finding love with Edward Aveling, Socialist pioneer and influential writer - also bigamist, shameless philanderer and fraud (he stole money from the labour movement). He was reviled as having caused Eleanor's suicide in 1898.
Eleanor Marx's achievements are manifold. She founded the Socialist League and three trade unions, played a leading role in the "New Unionism" of the 1880s and, according to Holmes, "changed the world." It's a big statement, suggesting that Eleanor in Rachel's hands has truly joined the saints - but wait a minute, what's not to like about Marx? She was diligent, believing that laziness was the root of all evil; she liked booze, defining her idea of happiness as champagne; she smoked; she ate pies; and she quite clearly cared for others rather too much at her own expense. Just for good measure, she hated shopping and housework. Was she without fault? Well, she liked puns, didn't suffer fools gladly and was not above calling her friends "stupid" if they had acted unwisely - but we shouldn't hang her for that!
Rachel Holmes' preface informs us that Eleanor "had many shortcomings, frustrations and spectacular failures." She was, then, like all of us, and that's why we warm to her.
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It's pure coincidence that at a time when a cartoon by yours truly appeared in Potters Bar, your venerable Editor should have referred to the occasional Viz cartoon strip entitled, Real Ale So-and-So's (last issue, #164, page 15). Of course, like the Venerable, I am far too polite to give the genuine title of the strip, and I certainly wouldn't say it out loud in the Marquis of Granby in Penkhull, where there are now no fewer than six No Swearing signs in the lounge.
Question is, though, are you familiar with the strip, and do you know any of these Real Ale So-and-So's yourself?
Over the years, I've occasionally found Viz Comic sick, cruel and lacking in taste. Some gag about the then-recently deceased entertainer Roy Castle comes to mind. However, I'm not going to go all sanctimonious on you, for the simple reason that the comic - like picking scabs, leaving the toilet seat up and watching Strictly - can be enjoyed in private without harm to anyone else. It also serves the purpose of pricking the pomposities of all - including Tory scoundrels, bearded Lefties, students, hypocritical intellectuals and yes, Real Ale drinkers.
If you're some benighted cove without cognizance of said comic offering, I shall describe the aforementioned so-and-so's. They're verbose (oops!) superficially-knowledgeable blokes who wax rhapsodic about their foaming jug of Archbishop's Ruby Tipple whilst unaware that they've just been slipped a pint of Stella. They won't use the expression "fellow drinkers" when "maltophilic confreres" will do. They tell turgid drinking stories before collapsing into helpless laughter - "Arf! Snort! Snurfle! Arf!"
Does that sound like you? I'm aware that many of us nurse pet obsessions. There are train-spotters, philatelists and numismatists. There are folk who collect Titanic memorabilia - "Titanoraks" as they've been called. Booze, though, brings out the weatherproof hooded jacket in scores of us. Two of my friends are tegestologists - they collect beer-mats - whilst two others are beer-tickers. One of them has kept a spiral-bound pocket notebook for years, listing the brews he-s sampled. To people of this bent, such a document carries similar value to Shakespeare's first folio or Pepys' original diary, but that's not prevented him from losing it on occasions, only to miraculously find it again. I was never really a beer-ticker, although a few years ago, I made an effort to write down the names of the brews I sampled at the Stoke Beer Festival. The only trouble is that fishing my pen and paper out of my pockets whilst also clutching my beer glass and a programme became a bit cumbersome. So I then recorded my choices into a dictaphone, which was much easier until I came to play back the recording the next day and found that some slurring, gravel-voiced oaf had been speaking into it the night before.
My own particular obsession, seeing as you ask, is pub-ticking. I have lists of all the pub visits I've made since 1989. I also keep a Pub Log describing interiors and incidents and containing my observations on customer service. One day, I'll publish it as a book - sometime after I've moved to Canberra.
I felt very privileged, at last year's Stoke Beer Festival, to be asked to serve as an official beer taster in a darkened room away from the main auditorium. Breadsticks and pieces of Warburton's were available to freshen up the palate, and the eighteen or so "experts" were expected to give their considered opinions on the brews. I hope I didn't disappoint, although I only agreed to be a taster on the proviso that I could sit with my peers attired in my famous beer bottle costume. I joked that I could still perform my task with gravitas, though this piece of tomfoolery was probably my way of saying that we're only going to be labelled Real Ale So-and-so's if we take ourselves too seriously.
I'd like to believe that CAMRA members are well capable of laughing at themselves. I seem to recall that a copy of the Real Ale So-and-so's cartoon strip was once displayed on a wall in the estimable Blue Bell in Kidsgrove - proof positive that we can take a bit of a ribbing. Snort! Snurfle! Arf!
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It was Johann Wolfgang Goethe who wrote, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."
There is a lot to be said for taking a deep draught from the cup of culture, a thought that occurred to me recently whilst visiting a Newcastle pub during a karaoke evening.
Karaoke in a pub: is it desirable? I have several mates who bypass such evenings with the panic-stricken desperation of Superman trying to avoid Kryptonite. They cite that they really don't want to listen to some crimson-conked oaf who has stepped up to the microphone perhaps on the promise of an eleemosynary pint, and who then proceeds to make mincemeat of some well-loved classic. You've heard the type. They sound like bath-water gurgling down a plughole.
As someone who advocates the glories of cross-table conversation in pubs, I might be expected to eschew karaoke evenings with a passion. Yet there;s something about them that harks back to a half-forgotten age when people fashioned their own entertainment, and praised each other for making the effort.
It's a sense of community that is gloriously obvious if you punch up the short film, Stoke Beerhouses, on the internet. It is narrated by Ray Johnson and ends with vintage monochrome footage of a pub sing-a-long in which an initially reluctant flat-clapped bathroom warbler, Joe, is urged by the drinking throng to give 'em one. "What me? Not tonight!" parries the Mario Lanza of the tap-room. In a jiffy, he's changed his mind and is belting out, "You can't put a stop to misfortune for what is to be will be," the chorus being taken up by all assembled.
Karaoke, in largely replacing the open mic session, has obviated the need to remember song lyrics, and perhaps that's been beneficial in persuading shrinking violets to join in and build self-esteem. Is that a bad thing? How do we know that a debut karaoke appearance didn't give John Caldwell the confidence to become a captain of industry, or Joey Barton the amour propre necessary to stamp on opponents' calves?
In any case, taking part in a karaoke evening isn't easy. Drinkers of my age have spent the last few decades singing along to Don McLean's American Pie whenever it's been played on pub juke boxes. It's a timeless drinker's anthem - but try singing it over the karaoke microphone. The scansion's damned awkward, and most people stumble and falter through the number like a dachshund wading through a peat bog.
Then there are those singers who like a song so much that they don't care that they can't actually sing it. Robbie Williams' Angels comes to mind. Nowadays, even the Robster points his microphone at his fans during the high bits, thus transforming his concerts into an expensive karaoke session. Girl singers - we'll call them karaokettes - are more likely to chance their arm with a difficult song than blokes. It may be that girls have a higher embarrassment threshold, but attempting to do full justice to I Will Always Love You requires the blind optimism of Verne Troyer trying to high-five Peter Crouch.
So now we get down to the nitty-gritty. Have I ever sung on a karaoke evening? Well, back in the 1980s, I was in a vocals and guitar duo, playing pubs and clubs. It's also a little-known fact that I've sung a few bars on live radio with the brilliant local soprano, Denise Leigh. These days, I'd rather drink in bars than sing them, but yes, I've given voice to such as Sweet Caroline, Ferry Cross The Mersey and It's Now or Never. Occasionally, I'll listen to the Thursday night karaoke at the Victoria in Newcastle. I am not averse to singing in public even now, as long as I'm not expected to perform too many vocal somersaults. I know my limitations. If the emcee at the Vic - just for a wind-up - announced, "Here's Mervyn Edwards to sing Kate Bush's classic Wuthering Heights," you wouldn't see me for dust.
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The GMB has been highlighting evidence of links between watching football matches and domestic violence. One of my local football clubs, Port Vale - whose chief sponsor is the GMB - has already vigorously shown support for the campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
It's important for football clubs to convey that there is no conflict of interest and that, to use fans' parlance, they're "on-side."
My other local club is Stoke City, whose fans' anthem, Delilah (the Tom Jones hit) was recently called into question for allegedly glorifying domestic violence: "I felt the knife in my hand, and she laughed no more." This particular issue was raised by former Plaid Cymru president Dafydd Iwan, who believed that the song trivialised the idea of murdering a woman.
Any chance of banning this song from the terraces at Stoke's Britannia Stadium? Stoke supporters have responded with an emphatic "No" in the eloquent way that is particular to all football fans. Even women fans say that they sing the song - though the lyric I quote was changed by Stoke fans long ago in favour of a smuttier version.
Would I ban the song? No, I wouldn't, because the natural extension of this argument would require us to ban Tom Jones from belting out a number that has earned him good money since 1968. Besides, there are songs with far more offensive, deliberately provocative lyrics.
Another conflict-of-interest scenario for GMB members wishing to highlight the links between football and domestic violence is that The Beautiful Game's roots are inextricably connected with working class life.
Manchester United began as Newton Heath in 1878, formed by the carriage and waggon department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath. West Ham United once went under the name of Thames Ironworks FC, being founded by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company. This club was formed in 1895 as a means of nourishing co-operation between workers and management and was an attempt to "wipe away the bitterness left by a recent strike."
And in underlining the working man's love affair with football, should we not mentioned the massed ranks of flat-cap wearing, pigeon-breeding salts of the earth that appear on photographs of football terraces in the 1940s and 1950s? That's us, that is. Or was - and there's the rub.
Smarter people than yours truly will have proved that there are links between football and domestic violence. What I have noticed at football games is the uglier face of working class Britain - fans who, in claiming to be "passionate" about the game, evince one-eyed bias towards their team and baying animosity to all opposition.
This point was discussed in George Orwell's essay, The Sporting Spirit, way back in 1945, following a British tour by the Russian team, Moscow Dynamo. He remarked that football promoted "vicious passions" and that serious sport was "bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words it is war minus the shooting."
Even allowing for Orwell's penchant for a polemic, his essay is still relevant today. If you think that racism has truly been kicked out of football, then go to a match between an English team and a European club, and listen to the abuse screamed at the third officials by the pillocks in the paddocks.
Likewise, if football and domestic violence are connected, then the GMB is right to flag it up.
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The recent World Cup football finals shone the media spotlight on various hostelries around the country, with film crews following the time-worn path to the pub to report on the ecstasies and agonies of those patrons watching the televised footy.
We all knew what to expect, from the opening film footage of gung-ho, Carlsberg-sodden supporters singing "Enger-land, Enger-land, Enger-land," through to the Panglossian pre-match predictions of barely-articulate oafs forecasting nothing other than victory for the Three Lions. Excessively optimistic? These guys would expect to find clumps of four-leaf clover sprouting through a tarmac path.
The inevitability of the misery that followed triggers the question: how much are you prepared be distracted from the deadly-serious, nay sacred matter of enjoying a pint in a pub?
For me, watching live, televised European football has always been dodgy ground. Your beer never tastes as good when you are watching your team being drubbed 4-0 by a side from a country whose population is no bigger than that of South Yorkshire and which has a manager whose main job is as a sales advisor for Dyno-rod.
Truthfully, I've never been one for going to the pub and watching the telly - known by some as "the idiot's lantern."
Who needs it? Drink is a great aid to creativity. Author Arthur Berry drew heavily on his pub-going experiences in his writing, whilst the Irish playwright, Brendan Behan, penned short stories and articles whilst in the boozer. What the Irish call "the craic" is rarely generated by external means of entertainment such as pool tables or computer games. The joys of a drinking session lie in the concomitant banter that goes with it: the lateral ideas, the spontaneity, the Eureka moments and the comedy that all stem from human interaction around the convivial table.
Self-generated entertainment makes better memories than the external stimulation offered by pubs. I can't tell you which pub TVs I caught bits of Spurs' last European Champions League run on. But on the occasion I threw down the challenge to my friend Linda, a nurse practitioner, to name ten skin-related diseases in a minute, I know for a fact that we were in the lower room of the New Smithy in Wolstanton. She duly named ten within the sixty seconds, meeting the challenge and adding to my vocabulary into the bargain.
At one time, my chum Cliff and I used to exercise our creative faculties in the pub by spotting look-a-likes. The drill was for each of us to spot four look-a-likes in sixty seconds. At this time in our lives, we were regularly visiting the lounge of the Hempstalls pub, just outside of Newcastle. After the minute had elapsed, I would reveal my look-a-likes, and Cliff would follow. There was one old chap with a bald head, and a long thin neck, and he was likened to a Galapagos tortoise. Then again, anybody who was bald always stood a very good chance of being cited a dead-ringer for Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Starship Enterprise. "Lou Macari", the former Stoke City manager, was also a regular at the Hempstalls. Of course, we had to ensure that the folks we were peering at didn't catch on or overhear our conversations. One woman did, but the smile on her face signified that she'd actually appreciated being my Carol Vorderman look-a-like.
What made this parlour game more difficult was that the Hempstalls began to decline and fewer people used the lounge - and the challenge was always to name "new" look-a-likes among the existing clientele. Spotting four look-a-likes when there were only eight other people in the room was the Devil's own task. So we had a bizarre situation where last week's dubious Kevin Keegan became this week's disgraceful Eddie Large, or when Carol Vorderman had now metamorphosed into Joan Bakewell. When the bald fella stopped coming, we were really in trouble.
With age, I find that I can barely see a bloody thing from a distance - which, according to some has improved the quality of my look-a-likes appreciably.
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TV presenter Fern Britton's impressive loss of weight over the Christmas period drew a decidedly underwhelmed reaction from her husband, who remarked in the national press: "Oh, that. She's just eaten less and exercised more." This is all the proof you need that a common sense approach will triumph over fancy diets any day of the week.
As a lover of exercise but a devotee of pubs and beer, I am not the perfect role model for anyone wishing to keep fit and lose weight. However, after 17 Potteries Marathons - most of them completed in very good times - I have amassed some wisdom that is worth sharing with you.
First of all, why should we take exercise? There are many reasons. It boosts the immune system. An activity such as swimming boosts all-round fitness, strength and suppleness, working muscles and joints. I find that energy breeds energy, so that I can go to work after an hour or so of power-walking or jogging, feeling punchy and outgoing. The endorphin release is wonderful, and it can last for a couple of hours! When you are walking, you should also swing your arms to increase your pulse rate. If walking or jogging bores you, then go to a gym or do some star jumps so that all parts of the body are exercised. A friend of mine, Maxine Proctor, runs diet and fitness classes (ring 01782 612642).
At this time of the year, most of us wish to lose weight. Try exercising before breakfast. This activity scorches through body fat, as there is no food in the system! Have a go at interval training - very quick bursts of speed. This gives a greater fat burn under the skin and within muscles than a session at regular pace.
Walk instead of using public transport, and walk at pace whenever possible. You may also want to take a walk after dinner, but a word of warning: don't exercise too late in the day, lest you are buzzing with energy at bedtime and it affects your sleep. I have often made this mistake and suffered a poor night's sleep. Another practice I thoroughly recommend is that of recording your exercise stints in a diary - you will find that what gets recorded gets done!
There is insufficient space here to discuss diet, though we should all be drinking more water. Almost every book on self-development recommends several pints a day. I find this exceedingly difficult, but it should not stop you from trying! Books on NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) inform us that water is important for skin cells and that lack of it creates sluggishness.
To return to the matter of common sense in looking after yourself: stripping this subject of all it complexities, you KNOW what's best for you. Listen to your inner Jiminy Cricket, and always let your conscience be your guide. Write a list, headed, "What makes my health better?" Write another - "What makes my health worse?" What depletes your energy levels and what boosts them?
Best of luck with your exercise and diet this year!
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John Webbe (Local Edition #7) urges us to ask ourselves, "What is Art?"
There is no definition; and yet there are hundreds. It is a little like asking, "What is religion?" Whatever our denominational differences and whatever our reading has taught us, it's what's inside us that provides a response.
I can only define art in giving a few examples of things that have deeply moved or affected me. As a local historian, it is sometimes a building that has the power to almost literally knock the wind out of me.
Whenever I visit the church of St Chad in Greengates Street, Stafford, the detail and elegance of the Norman arches force me to sit down in order to catch my breath. The experience is ineffable, but is like a punch in the stomach, being on a first date with a stunning woman and becoming breathless through climbing to the top of a hill - all combined. There is also the sense of having one's mind expand at the very sight of such beauty and the sheer artistry and imagination of the craftsmen responsible. It is the feeling of wanting to genuflect to these gods of creativity, knowing that my own talent is minuscule in comparison.
Truth be told, I have similarly been shrink-wrapped in my own insignificance by the sight of numerous edifices, and not all of them would make Jimmy Carr's list of 100 Top Architectural Masterpieces; but these are the buildings that fill ME with wonder. Beverley Minster in Yorkshire, with its plethora of fine carvings and figure-work; the Musee D'Orsay, a former railway station in Paris: the Old Joint Stock pub (a former bank) in Birmingham, a bobby-dazzler of a Victorian building.
Paintings, too, can stir me. The stillness of Benjamin Leader's scene, February Fill-Dyke, with the pinnacled church protecting - or louring over (?) - a thatched labourer's cottage. Art urges us to look for our own meanings.
Art manifests itself in other areas of life, too. Watching a hand-pulled Guinness settling in its glass, all the colour changing gradually to ink-black. And what about the beauty of an empty room?
I still cannot tell you for sure what art is; but as long as I have a sense of wonder, I feel that I am on my way towards finding out.
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Pub food has changed a great deal since I first started drinking in North Staffordshire's watering holes.
Back then, a three-course meal in a pub consisted of a packet of salt and vinegar, a bag of peanuts and a chunk of black pudding once the pub snacks salesman had arrived with his basket of savouries.
In those days, a plate of carefully-prepared rainbow trout bracketed by sweet potatoes and a serving of asparagus and Jerusalem artichoke would have been as unfeasible as a Fenton branch of the Arnold Bennett Society.
When pubs like the Bull's Vaults in Newcastle and the Globe in Tunstall began heating up Wright's pies in their microwaves, my pub table had never seemed so convivial. However, even though my own tastes may lack refinement, many other people are becoming increasingly picky over the standard of pub food and its value for money.
They say that a meal at a pub has increased beyond the rate of inflation and that in any case, food is not so much cooked as de-frosted, re-heated and deep-fried in readiness for your dinner plate. They then object to paying restaurant prices for edibles that have been microwaved from frozen.
Are we to blame for unrealistic expectations? Or do we blame the pubs for being rip-off merchants?
In one sense, you cannot really blame pubs for, as it were, freezing their assets. A public house worth its salt depends first and foremost on its wet sales - the quality, range and price of its drinks. Some manage to offer a tasty range of food as well, and I have enjoyed meals at hostelries such as the Greyhound and the Beehive in Penkhull and the New Inn in Burslem.
However, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between pubs such as those mentioned above, and the more chameleon-like "gastro-pubs" and mainstream restaurants. Herein lies the problem.
In some cases, public houses whose idea of a gastronomic masterpiece five years ago was a packet of pork scratchings are now expecting you to pay over the odds for a fairly simple salad sandwich. Pubs like this are taking liberties with the good folk who choose to patronise them, and this applies to the price of beer in many of them too. Value for money is a matter which the Potteries Pub Preservation Group feels very strongly about, and relatively few pubs are really giving patrons a fair deal.
Part of the reason for all this diversity is that pubs have become popular targets for restaurateurs. Most of them have kitchens, some sizeable, and they can be converted into restaurants without planning permission as both are classed as A3 under planning law.
As things stand, it really depends on what sort of meal the public wants. I have been perfectly happy with meals in Wetherspoons' outlets, as they are cheap and tasty. But if cordon bleu comestibles are your preference, then by all means go to a mainstream restaurant, not a public house - it's your choice.
A recent meandering coach journey through Derbyshire reminded me of the chocolate-box charm of the English village, writes Mervyn Edwards. The tapering shadow of the church spire stretching across the lush meadow, the profusion of rosebay willow herb bracketing the drowsy mill-pond, and the tinkle of glass as a burly all-rounder slogs another six through the window of the organic cheese shop, a cricket ball's journey away from the village green. And at the centre of it all, the village pub, replete with horse-brasses, hoary timber beams and a labrador retriever slumbering by the hearth.
However, for all the dreamy appeal of country pubs, the harsh reality is that they have been closing at the rate of six a week according to the Countryside Agency's statistics. Indeed, it was reported in 2000 that 10,000 of Britain's villages are now without a watering-hole. In short, it appears that the rural pub now has the life-expectancy of a deck-hand on a submarine.
The reasons are manifold. Whilst CAMRA's view on drinking and driving is quite categorical - Don't! - some people believe that other motorists using hand-held mobile phones or under the influence of drugs are probably just as dangerous as those who drive home having imbibed a couple of pints at a country hostelry. The decline in the rural economy and the falling number of agricultural workers had already given cause for concern before the outbreak of foot-and-mouth effectively rendered some areas off-limits. Also, "wet sales" at country pubs (as elsewhere) have been hit by cheaper beer from off-licenses, supermarkets, and French booze purchased from the back of a transit van.
Increasingly in the last few years, it has become a back-breaking task to be a tenant in the licensing trade, working long hours and haggling with the pub company over who is going to pay for what. No wonder few tenants, with their homespun business strategies and innovative approaches, survive in country pubs. The "pubcos" instead prefer to bolster their corporate identity through the deployment of managers.
Perhaps these factors have impacted on standards of customer service, because at some pubs, you are as welcome as Dale Winton at a dockyard workers' "do". The licensee's cry of "use it or lose it" in respect of his rural hostelry just doesn't wash when he can't be bothered to greet customers with a smile and some genuine interest. The brutal truth is that some pubs do not deserve to survive.
For those licensees who are really trying to please customers, the crippling business rates are the real killer. Both CAMRA and The Publican newspaper have pressed hard for rates relief, and although the Government (in April 2001) introduced legislation to assist businesses in rural communities, there is a general feeling of "too little, too late". Indeed, some pubs hoping to secure rural settlement rate relief have found local authorities unhelpful.
So how are country pubs expected to survive? Well, in the case of some, there has been a metamorphosis into something that irks "pub purists". Step forward the "gastropub", a food-led outlet, where stuffed quail is higher on a customer's wish-list than a pint of Titanic Premium. By any other name, a restaurant where wine, rather than beer is served with the food, and where the bar area is an afterthought. In the past few years, changes along these lines at the Talbot in Biddulph, and the Plough in Endon (now the Toby Carvery) have angered Sentinel correspondents. If the application to convert the Cock Inn in Stableford to private accommodation is rubberstamped, then this old hostelry will have suffered the same fate as the Poachers Tavern at Rudyard, the Crown at Rushton Spencer and the Black Horse at Betley (notwithstanding the last-mentioned pub's grade II listed status and inclusion in the Betley Conservation Area). Perhaps in some cases, some pubs have been deliberately "run down" by their owner, on account of their expected rise in valuation on the property market, once converted.
However, where there is the honest intention to save a country pub, how can this be achieved by conservationists, and how can such a hostelry prosper? Two publications by CAMRA - "The Public House Viability Test: Advice for Planners", and "Rural Pubs: A Route to Success" (written in conjunction with the Countryside Agency) contain helpful information for local authorities and those involved in the trade itself.
We may also consider Prince Charles' determination to Make The Pub The Hub. Basically, this would involve the pub offering post office, banking or shopping facilities under the same roof. It would require an overhaul of the licensing laws, but would make economic sense, providing a superb focal point for outlying communities.In addition, the Potteries Pub Preservation Group continues to actively promote worthy public houses through literature and talks. Unless they sell stuffed quail, of course.