Category Archives: beer

A dry season

1. It’s great when you’re straight, yeah

I have a beer most nights – just the one, usually. I’m fairly conscientious about my intake; I have one dry day every week and often two, and tot up my weekly units every so often (the number’s never been at all alarming). But a low level of regular alcohol consumption is a normal feature of my life, and has been for some time. I don’t think I’ve gone as long as ten days without a drink since an ill-advised ‘detox’ attempt back in the 90s (three long weeks of muzzy caffeine withdrawal); before that you’d probably have to go back to my teens or early 20s.

I’m not a heavy drinker, though, and never have been; I’ve never worried I was overdoing it, never felt I ought to cut down, never been tempted by a ‘dry spell’ like Alcohol Concern’s ‘Dry January’ teetotalism-for-charity initiative. That said, if I did try and abstain for as long as a month I think I’d find it tough. Beer writer Pete Brown has written a couple of times about his own personal ‘dry January’ routine (“I try to go dry for January every year, and have done so for years – since long before it became a piece of nonsense to beat people with”). His account makes it sound – as Guy Debord wrote of his own alcoholism – émouvant mais difficile:

In the first few days, you notice the better sleep, the higher energy, the greater clarity of thought. … After a couple of weeks, you realise you’re thinking differently. You’re more in the moment, more thoughtful, more connected. This is not always pleasant. But like the physical benefits, it does feel like it’s doing you some good. … By the third week, you start to notice that everything is bright and shiny and hard. Perhaps a little TOO bright. It’s natural and healthy to sometimes want to fuzz the edges and turn the lights down to mood. I’ve missed that.

Whether that ‘you’ would include me – whether somebody who averages (say) a pint a day is limescaling his sensorium by doing it, such that three weeks’ abstention would give his system a hard reset and make the world turn dayglo – is an interesting question; I tend to think the answer’s No, but I’m not in a hurry to find out.

That small point aside, it’s clear from Pete’s post that it was quite a long month. Which is no surprise – alcohol is a normal part of most adults’ lives: in a 2011 government survey, two-thirds of men and 54% of women claimed (admitted?) to have had a drink in the previous week. For anyone other than a very occasional drinker, I think a month would be plenty. Admittedly, alcohol is less normal that it has been – in 1998, a similar survey found that 75% of men had had a drink in the previous week; while, in another recent survey, only 39% of under-16s reported ever having drunk alcohol, the lowest figure this survey has ever recorded. But it’s normal for all that; after all, giving up alcohol for a month wouldn’t be something you do for charity if it were something you’d do anyway.

So how about giving alcohol for four months?

People who repeatedly commit alcohol-related crime will be forced to wear ankle tags that monitor if they are still drinking, under a year-long pilot scheme. The “sobriety tags”, to be worn around the clock, will enforce abstinence by measuring a person’s perspiration every 30 minutes and testing to see if it contains alcohol. If any trace is found, an alert will be sent to the offender’s probation officer and they can then be recalled to court, where they may be resentenced or face sanctions such as a fine.

It is anticipated that up to 150 offenders will be fitted with the tags. They will be banned from drinking alcohol for up to 120 days, and the tag will test them to see if they flout the ban. Offenders will be screened before being tagged, and the scheme will not be used on people who are alcohol-dependent and require specialist support. The scheme, being introduced by the mayor of London, Boris Johnsons, builds on a similar scheme in the US and aims to reduce alcohol-related reoffending, ease pressure on the police and courts, and make streets safer.

A salutary initiative which will help some potentially dangerous problem drinkers clean up their act (the view of Deborah Orr in the Guardian)? Or should we be more sceptical?

2. Your weakness is none of my business

The London pilot was provided for in section 77 of LASPO; on its completion the scheme will either be rolled out nationally or repealed altogether. (Section 77(7) is an interesting bit of drafting; I don’t remember seeing an “if this doesn’t work, let’s just forget about it” clause in an Act of Parliament before.)

There are two ways of reading the pilot: it depends whether you see it as having a good chance of success, or as being highly likely to fail. My initial reaction was the latter. If you put me (or, I venture to suggest, most adults) on a total four-month alcohol ban, the result would be a foregone conclusion; inflicting a scheme like this on repeat alcohol offenders is setting them up to fail sooner rather than later. Repeat offenders tend to be people with problems – you don’t make a habit of putting yourself at risk of arrest if you’ve got lots of other, safer options. Repeat alcohol-related offenders, specifically, are likely to have a problematic relationship with alcohol, which is likely to involve compulsive activity and impaired judgment – which in turn means that people with alcohol problems are highly likely to breach controls imposed on them. (Although if candidates for this scheme do have drink problems, they’ll have to deal with them on their own: the scheme excludes anyone whose problems rise to the level of dependency, qualifying them for support as well as for control measures.)

The role played by the probation officer in this scenario is particularly saddening. Probation was once a coherent alternative to a custodial sentence, based on the belief that a supportive relationship with a responsible citizen, outside prison walls, can help an ex-offender go straight. Over the last thirty years there has been a stronger and stronger insistence on portraying law-breakers as both wicked and dangerous, and hence on the necessity of both punishing and controlling them. The result has been a growing presumption, both that prison is the right place for a convicted offender, and that ex-offenders in the community should be treated no differently from those inside – treated, in other words, as dangerous wrongdoers in need of both punishment and control. With suspended sentences replacing discharges, and community sentences replacing probation as an alternative to sentencing and then having custodial strings attached, the result has been a gradual annexation of probation by the prison system. The role of the probation worker in this scenario is not to “advise, assist and befriend” (the original mission of the probation service) but to monitor ex-offenders, control them and where necessary return them to court for sentencing.

If the scheme works as described – if an alarm goes off every time a tagged offender has a drink, leading automatically to the decision that the offender’s alcohol abstinence order has been breached – the scheme will “reduce alcohol-related reoffending [and] ease pressure on the police and courts” by one means only: by making 150 offenders’ lives a bit less pleasant, subjecting them to stress and anxiety for a while, then recalling them to court and rubber-stamping a prison sentence. (Admittedly, the scheme does not mandate prison sentences for breach; alternative sentences are available, for example a fine. But if you think that repeat alcohol-related offenders will be deterred from reoffending by a fine, I’ve got news for you about human nature.) So its net effect on those 150 people will be to interfere with their lives, imposing technologically-mediated humiliation and harassment, before stigmatising them as failures and disrupting their lives still further. This isn’t rehabilitation, it’s sadism.

If the scheme is intended to work as it is described here, it is being undertaken either naively (in which case it will fail horribly) or cynically. And if it is being undertaken cynically, it represents a peculiarly debased and unlawlike use of the criminal justice system: the imposition of behavioural conditions on an offender, in place of a punitive sentence, in the expectation that the offender will breach them and incur a punitive sentence for the breach. This use of criminal penalties will be familiar to anyone who recalls the history of the ASBO: we remember cases where rowdy youths were barred from particular streets, a graffiti-sprayer from using public transport, a suspected drug-runner from sitting in the front passenger seat of a car – in each case, with the force of a criminal offence. In each case, the offender has (ostensibly) had the option of modifying his behaviour and walking free, but only by avoiding behaviour which is legal and normal for other citizens, and which can’t be avoided without greatly reducing his freedom to lead a normal life. And, in each case, the offender is held responsible for any breach and for the penalty attached to it, thus incurring the stigma of recidivism as well as that of law-breaking. Barring repeat drink offenders from drinking – by law – is only a more direct and straightforward version of the same logic. The inference is that problem drinkers – like anti-social youths – are now seen as a subject population, a minority group needing to be controlled for the sake of the majority, and whose own rights can be disregarded.

3. Computer says No

If the scheme is intended to work as described here… That may be a big If. The Alcohol abstinence and monitoring requirement was added to LASPO after lobbying from a group of American professionals with experience of a similar scheme in South Dakota; one member is Keith Humphreys, a Stanford professor of mental health policy and former White House drug advisor. (Humphreys’s paper on the lobbying process (presented to the International Society for the Study of Drugs Policy) is a fascinating account of how policy transfer works.) In the South Dakota scheme, Humphreys writes,

[alcohol-related repeat offenders were sentenced] to mandatory sobriety coupled with daily testing. Those who tested positive were arrested immediately and given a modest sanction, such as a night in jail. In the 24/7 sobriety model, a slow, inconsistent and capricious system of monitoring offenders was transformed into one that provided swift, certain and fair sanctions for drinking.

The effects were dramatic. A stunning 99.4 per cent of the over five million breathalyser tests administered to offenders have been negative. Despite the punishment for drinking being modest, its certainty and swiftness motivated many previously recalcitrant offenders to change their ways.

Research by the RAND Corporation – a US-based non-profit global policy think tank – found that 24/7 sobriety dropped repeat drink driving arrests by 12 per cent. The same study also yielded a pleasant surprise: domestic violence arrests dropped by 9 per cent, despite not being a focus of the programme. … This week, under the leadership of Mayor Johnsons and his team, a pilot of the programme will be launched in South London. Leaping the pond will come with some challenges, particularly around delivering sanctions swiftly within the constraints of British law, but local tailoring of innovations is always an essential part of making them spread.

It works, in other words. The figures are in: not only do offenders comply with the stay-straight provisions more than 99% of the time, the effects can be seen in the crime figures.

What should we make of this? I’ve got three comments, of increasing generality; let’s say, one technical, one analytical and one philosophical. The technical comment is this: I can’t believe it. I’ve looked at the South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety Program Evaluation Report (dead links removed – PJE, 2021); it tells me that, when 4,009 drink driving offenders were ordered to report to a judge twice a day to be breathalysed, for periods averaging three months, 98.1% of those tests were negative and only 0.3% positive (1.3% of tests did not take place because the participant was excused; 0.3% of tests were unauthorised no-shows). Pace Humphreys, this isn’t “a stunning 99.4 per cent of … over five million breathalyser tests”, for two reasons. Firstly, the 4,009 offenders in the sample took 817,926 tests (an average of 204 apiece); if it’s a representative sample, we can infer that that rate would apply across the programme as a whole, but we haven’t got that data. Secondly, the figure of 99.4 per cent includes the 1.3 per cent of tests ‘excused’ and excludes the 0.3 per cent of no-shows; the real positive rate is the total of positive tests as a proportion of the tests taken, or 98.1/(98.1+0.3), which works out as a (stunning) 99.7% pass rate. In the course of their participation in the programme, 2,659 of the 4,009 participants – slightly less than two-thirds – had no negative tests at all. (These are convicted drink drivers, remember, being breath-tested twice a day for a period of months.) Of the remaining 1,350, between 584 and 802 (between 14% and 20%) had precisely one negative test; the number who had four or more negative tests is somewhere between 131 (one in 31) and 267 (one in 15). (The published figures lump together unauthorised missed tests and negative tests as ‘Failures’, making it difficult to derive the exact number of participants who had a certain number of negative tests.)

These figures seem to represent a level of behaviour modification which I find incredible. The programme’s advocates will say that the novelty of this outcome is related to the novelty of its key innovation, the use of those “swift, certain and fair sanctions” – if people know that one drink will infallibly earn them a night in the cells, they’re strongly motivated to stay clean. Maybe so (I’ll say a bit more about this approach further down). Even so, purely based on my knowledge of human nature, I find it very hard to imagine any combination of rewards and incentives having a 99.7% success rate in modifying entrenched behaviour, in any population (imprisoned populations included). Then again, based on my knowledge of British (European?) human nature. I have just as hard a time imagining the participants in such a scheme meekly turning up to be breathalysed 98.4% of the time, but that certainly appears to have happened in South Dakota. It’s a cultural difference, perhaps; when it comes to criminal justice agencies, the British (and British law-breakers in particular) just don’t respect their authority – or not the way that South Dakotans do.

In any case, with regard to the London pilot the point about showing up is moot – the testing is to be carried out by an ankle bracelet, replacing the stigma and inconvenience of twice-daily reporting with the stigma and humiliation of wearing an ankle shackle that spies on you. But the point about the near-as-dammit 100% negative test rate, and the seemingly total behavioural transformation brought about by the programme, is absolutely key – and I think there’s a genuine case for saying that, like a Communist bloc election result, these figures are just too good. A clue of sorts is provided by the RAND research referred to by Humphreys – presented, in the form of a paper by Beau Kilmer, to the ISSDP conference mentioned earlier. In the published version of the paper, Kilmer and his colleagues (Nancy Nicosia, Paul Heaton and Greg Midgette) write:

More than 17,000 individuals participated in the 24/7 Sobriety Project between 2005 and 2010 and their tests indicated that there were approximately 2.25 million days without a detected alcohol violation. This does not mean that there was absolutely no drinking on those days. Rather, it provides support for a reduction in the incidence of heavy drinking among a population with a history of problem drinking.

Emphasis added. Perhaps the South Dakota breathalysers weren’t all that sensitive; perhaps the scheme operated, in practice, like a benign version of the Philadelphia Lie Detector, scaring offenders into cleaning up their act without, for the most part, actually detecting whether they had done or not. The tiny minority of negative tests might be accounted for by the tiny number of occasions when participants turned up with a really substantial amount of alcohol in their system, e.g. still drunk from the night before. The use of breathalysers to carry out the twice-daily test raises the question of what level of blood alcohol concentration constituted a positive result; if the standard DUI level of 0.08% was being used, this would be entirely compatible with participants maintaining a relatively normal level of consumption of alcohol – which in turn would make that 99.7% pass rate considerably less surprising.

This kind of approach is not planned for the London trial, however. The Alcohol Abstinence Monitoring Requirement Toolkit produced by the Mayor’s Office (dead link removed – PJE, 2021) notes:

[LASPO] allows the court to specify that the offender cannot drink more than a specified amount of alcohol (expressed as the proportion of alcohol in any one or more of the offender’s breath, blood, urine, sweat or by some other means); thus allowing for the possibility of minimal drinking rather than abstinence. For the purpose of the pilot, this provision will not be used and complete abstinence will be enforced.

Sure enough, the statement to be signed by participants in the London trial states baldly “I must not drink any alcohol until my requirement ends.” This, however, raises the question of evidence. The most widely-cited figures for the South Dakota scheme appear to be based on a sample of 4,009 participants who submitted to a twice-daily breath test, which (according to Kilmer et al) did not return a positive result for low levels of alcohol. Generalising these results from South Dakota to South London – a vastly different setting both culturally and legally – is problematic enough. Using a ‘low consumption’ success story to justify a ‘total abstinence’ trial – in a different country, with a different legal system – is problematic in a more fundamental sense; it’s not comparing like with like.

4. He’s got ’em on the list

Still, the effectiveness of the South Dakota pilot is proven; there’s that 12% drop in repeat DUI arrests that we heard about, and the 9% drop in domestic violence arrests. (According to Kilmer et al, after being implemented the programme was rapidly extended to cover arrests for offences other than DUI – specifically including domestic violence – so it’s not quite correct for Humphreys to describe the fall in domestic violence arrests as a ‘pleasant surprise’, a side-benefit of a programme focusing on drink driving.) You can’t argue with the numbers.

Well, maybe not. But on reading the Kilmer et al paper it turns out that the ‘12% drop’ isn’t anything like as simple as a comparison between year 1 and year 2 in area A, or for that matter between area A and area B in year 2. Although the initial five-county pilot of the scheme might have lent itself to the second approach, analysis was made more complicated by the rapid and uncontrolled adoption of the scheme in other counties. The writers’ approach was to make a virtue of necessity, taking arrest data from the 66 counties of South Dakota – all of which had adopted the scheme by the end of 2010 – and calculating the overall extent to which the arrest rate was affected by the introduction of the scheme. The scheme was defined as having been introduced at the point where the numbers in the scheme in a given month first equalled 25% of the county’s average DUI arrests. The much quoted 12% drop is actually an incident rate ratio of 0.883 (p < 0.05), derived from a Poisson regression of five parameters. The outcome (arrest rate) for a given county and time period is assumed to be given by the sum of α, the effects of the scheme itself; β, other known factors associated with the county; γ, “unobservable characteristics of each county that are fixed over time”; δ, “fixed effects for each month in the sample”; and a dummy variable ε.

More data is better than less; in principle a 0.883 regression coefficient is actually more reliable, and hence more informative, than an eyeball comparison of two figures showing a 12% drop. (If you find this counter-intuitive, join the club.) The authors’ approach is also an ingenious way to get round the muddying of the waters brought about by the wide adoption of the scheme. But the method is still somewhat opaque (what difference might alternative estimates for ‘county’ and ‘month’ effects (β and δ) have made?), and concerns remain about the results, particularly given their relative weakness (repeat DUI and domestic violence arrests are not the only variables tested for, but the only ones where programme-related results rose to the level of p < 0.05).

Notably, the authors report “no statistically or substantively significant effect of [the programme] on first-time DUI arrests” and “suggestive evidence that it may have reduced reported traffic crashes involving men aged 18 to 40 years”. The coefficient for crashes involving 18- to 40-year-old males is 0.956 (95% CI 0.909-1.006); the figure for first-time DUI is 1.062 (0.955-1.181). One may be positive or null but is probably weakly negative; the other may be negative or null but is probably weakly positive; and neither of the two is statistically significant. In other words, the evidence for an effect on first-time DUI is no weaker than the crash-related evidence, but the effect in this case is positive – which is to say that this is, strictly speaking, “suggestive evidence” that the programme may have increased first-time DUI arrests. The single strongest result reported has nothing to do with the programme: according to the data, the Sturgis Rally (an annual motorcycle rally held in and around Sturgis SD) has an effect on repeat DUI arrests of 1.477 (1.330-1.641) and on crashes of 1.642 (1.293-2.086), in both cases with p < 0.001.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the figures are good. Let’s take it as given that Kilmer et al have shown that the effect of introducing twice-daily-breathalyser-monitored sobriety in county X in month m will be that county X‘s repeat DUI arrest figures, averaged over months m+1…m+n, are 12% lower than they were when averaged over months m-nm-1. Now what? Or rather, now why? What’s the mechanism?

I ask this not because failure to specify a mechanism would invalidate the effect  – it wouldn’t – but because Kilmer et al do in fact seem to have a mechanism in mind. Consider the threshold used to define when the programme had been implemented – when the numbers in the scheme in a given month equalled 25% of the county’s average monthly DUI arrests – and the alternative threshold suggested later in the paper, five scheme participants for every 10,000 population. South Dakota has a population of 825,000, of whom 17,000 were on the programme between 2005 and 2010. This is over 2% of the entire population, and a considerably higher proportion of the population typically involved in DUI offences; Kilmer et al note that, in some counties, more than 10% of men aged between 18 and 40 participated in the programme at some point. And consider the expansion of the programme following the passage in 2007 of South Dakota House Bill 1072:

The unanimous passage of House Bill 1072 dramatically expanded the 24/7 program. The bill went into effect July 1, 2007, and provided funds to counties that wanted to adopt the program. The new law allowed judges to order anyone they believed had an alcohol problem, pre- or post-conviction, to participate in the program. The law also changed rules for those who lost their license for a repeat DUI offense. It had previously been possible for some of these individuals to receive a permit to drive only to and from work, but these permits were now conditional on 24/7 participation.

So participation could be ordered by a judge without the individual involved being convicted of anything. Moreover, continuing participation could be made a condition for holding a (restricted) driving licence, making participation in the programme more or less a life sentence.

My first reading of the Kilmer et al paper made me wonder if longer-term outcome effects were being confused with direct programme effects. In other words, I wondered if the reduction in repeat DUI arrests might not be a sign of problem drinkers taking the (enforced) opportunity to turn their life around – as in Orr‘s optimistic account – but merely of drinking being temporarily suppressed by the imposition of a stressful and demeaning reporting requirement. On re-reading the paper, I’m not convinced that the authors are even thinking in terms of outcome effects. Got an alcohol problem? Right – you’re on the programme. You’ll get off the programme eventually; if you start causing trouble then, guess what – you’re back on the programme. Alcohol problem solved!

5. As sloshed as Schlegel

Technically, I think the individual test data can’t possibly show what it appears to show, and hence that it doesn’t give reliable guidance for the London pilot. Analytically, I think the programme as described by Kilmer et al is one of mass behaviour modification rather than criminal justice – the idea seems to be, not to use the programme to help former offenders reform, but to put as many people as necessary through the programme for as long as necessary to bring crime down. And these points are separate from my philosophical concerns about the programme – concerns which remain even if we assume the validity of the test data and the crime drop figures.

Humphreys describes the scheme as delivering “swift, certain and fair sanctions for drinking”; Kilmer and colleagues describe the South Dakota programme as combining “frequent monitoring with swift, certain and modest sanctions for violations”. Swift and certain: you test negative, you’re off to the cells, no ifs, no buts, no phone call, no duty solicitor. What’s the problem? Maybe there isn’t a problem at all – maybe the problem’s with our way of thinking, or the presuppositions of our system?

The key principle in disposals like this is certainty: offenders need to know that a breach will result in instant and decisive penalty. Our criminal justice system resists such practice. The pilot’s weakness is that it could take weeks for action to be brought against offenders who drink while tagged. If an offender breaches the sobriety order, they will first have to be returned to court where further sanctions can be imposed. Imprisonment is only likely to result from persistent non-compliance. This isn’t swift and sure justice, but neither is it the Mayor’s fault – it’s a fundamental weakness in our system of probation which needs fixing.

Opinion polling for the GLA in 2011 found that sobriety orders were popular with the public (well over two thirds supported the idea). Doubtless some will disagree. I recall the horror of a prominent politician, partial to a shandy, on being told that an electronic device might be used to monitor someone’s alcohol consumption. And I wonder how long it will be before the civil libertarians complain that sobriety tags are an egregious breach of human rights…

Thus Nick Herbert MP (Con). I think this line of argument needs to be resisted. It’s fundamental, not to “our criminal justice system” but to the rule of law, that the law governs us as free individuals. The law is a system of rules which we can freely choose to follow; when we choose to obey the law (as we generally do), it is because we know that everyone is being asked to obey the same law, and because freedom and fairness can be maximised by everyone choosing to live by the same rules. We obey the law because the law is worth obeying, not because we have personally been commanded to do certain things – still less because we have been directly threatened with adverse consequences if we do not. To break the law is also a free choice, and one which may be made on rationally justifiable grounds; the choice of breaking the law may even be made under conditions which (rationally and/or morally) left no alternative course of action.

To be put on trial is thus to enter a field of judgment: are we guilty of committing a criminal offence or can our action be justified? To be put on trial is precisely to have our actions ‘tried’ (tested) against the standard of the law, and the possibility always exists – however remote it may be in the day-to-day operation of the courts – that it will be the law that blinks. However clear and unambiguous the law may appear to be, the outcome of a trial is never certain; a judge’s guidance may be overruled by a jury verdict; the law itself may be amended by an appeal court judgment. At its best, the criminal justice system respects the freedom and rationality of the law-breaker as well as the law-abiding citizen.

To say that we are governed by law, then, is to say two things. The first is that the law is a system of rules with certain characteristics – universality, comprehensibility, followability – which make it possible for each one of us to arrange our lives so that we obey it: the law respects our freedom. The second is that those who break the law are not only brought to account but allowed to put their case, protected by certain fundamental safeguards – the rules of procedural justice – which exist to ensure that nobody is unjustly criminalised. The law respects us as free and rational citizens, when we break it as well as when we obey it.

This scheme is unlawlike twice over. On one hand, the idea of “fair sanctions for drinking” tends to suggest that drinking per se should be sanctioned. At best it suggests that drinking should be sanctioned for certain, arbitrarily chosen people – as unlawlike a proposal as you could wish for, effectively substituting the rule of individual law-enforcers for the rule of law. On the other, contra Herbert, closing the gap between infraction and sanction is not “swift and sure justice”, or not for any meaning of the word ‘justice’ associated with the rule of law. Any kind of automaticity in declaring somebody a law-breaker – including but not limited to the technological automation delivered by alcohol shackles – subjects the law-breaker to the law, without defence or excuse, in a way that is corrosive to respect for the law.

Perhaps the most telling part of Herbert’s comment is his sneering reference to a critical politician being “partial to a shandy”. Herbert himself may be a teetotaller, but he must be aware that the great majority of his fellow-citizens are, in fact, “partial to a shandy” – and as such might have well-grounded concerns in response to the development of technology that enforces total abstention. The unstated minor premise, underlying Herbert’s complacency, is that alcohol shackles will never be a threat to us. Herbert’s confident that these measures will only be applied to them, that unruly minority whose behaviour needs controlling – and that we can trust law-enforcers to identify the people to control and modify their behaviour in the right way. (Deborah Orr’s message is much the same, dressed in more liberal language.)

But this isn’t the rule of law. It’s using the law, but using it as an instrument for controlling a deviant population (in this case problem drinkers). It’s using it – in Hegel’s image – like a man raising a stick to a dog.

A threat presupposes that a man is not free, and its aim is to coerce him by the idea of an evil. But right and justice must have their seat in freedom and the will, not in the lack of freedom on which a threat turns. To base a justification of punishment on threat is to liken it to the act of a man who lifts his stick to a dog. It is to treat a man like a dog instead of with the freedom and respect due to him as a man. But a threat, which after all may rouse a man to demonstrate his freedom in spite of it, discards justice altogether.
Hegel‘s Philosophy of Right, thesis 99.

They really are a treat

On a not particularly amusing day, I was amused by the news that the LGBT section of the EDL had planned a leafleting session on Canal Street in Manchester, but had bottled ithad a change of plan.

What do we know about Canal Street? Three things. Firstly, it is mad busy these days; the top end of the street, especially, is basically paved with little round tables, and if you pass through after work on a weekday you’ll find a good half of them occupied. (I should say before I go much further that Canal St makes a particularly good short cut from the station to a bus stop that I use; I’ve passed through quite a few times over the years.) Some of the venues are bar/clubs, some are restaurant/bars; some are ‘mixed’ (i.e. straight-friendly), some are gay but tolerant of the hen-night trade, several are gay with a capital G. It doesn’t make much difference: walk down Canal Street at 5.00 on a Thursday and they’ll all be buzzing. What a sunny Saturday afternoon is like I don’t know, but I can guess. If we assume that the Canal St clientele has a similar political makeup to the population as a whole, that would mean that 60-70% of those people were positively hostile to the EDL. Tough crowd.

Secondly, it’s been the place to go for a gay venue from way back. Back in the 80s – before any of the joints I’ve just referred to existed – there used to be more of a (heterosexual) ‘red light’ vibe to Canal St; once when I was heading for my bus a young & cheerful woman actually fell into step with me and walked along next to me describing her services. (Wonder where she is now. Hope she’s OK.) Even then, pubs like the Rembrandt and the New Union were spoken of in hushed tones, as if to say no really some of the people who go in those places actually are gay, some of them even look gay… Then came Manto, a ‘mixed’ bar at the bottom of Canal St where I used to go quite a lot on Saturday afternoons in the mid-90s; at the time I don’t think there was anywhere else in Manchester where you could drink beer while sitting on hard chairs at little round tables on a terracotta pavement, and the novelty was quite appealing for a while. There also weren’t many places where nobody would care whether you were gay or straight. Compulsory heterosexuality has never really cramped my style, but I still quite liked the atmosphere created by a bit of discreet outness. Manto was the first of many, and not the most assertive by any means. (It’s still there now, under different management, although it’s looking a bit sad; it’s been rather left behind by the development of the area.) The point is, Canal Street was gay-friendly at a time when being gay-friendly was deeply unfashionable, culturally and politically – and the nationalist right were the most hostile of all.

Thirdly, the hostility was reciprocated. Digressing a bit, here’s something I wrote in response to Michael Walzer a few years ago:

We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation, a leap “into a realm free of determination”; what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”.

the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.

The bridge was over the canal, beside Canal St. Happy leafleting, lads.

Thou art my darling

Well, this is odd.

Back in January 2008 I started keeping beer tasting notes on the blog. Repeatedly updating that post rapidly became a pain, so I hived off the tasting notes to a separate page, which turned into a series of pages; quite soon after that, I started a dedicated beer blog and put the pages on there.

Earlier this year – on the 10th of August, to be precise – I started putting posts up on Oh Good Ale. Traffic was pretty slow to begin with, but once I’d got the blog listed on a couple of aggregators and exchanged comments with a few other beer bloggers it soon settled down to a regular 10-50 hits a day.

Then I posted this.

Here’s the last week’s stats on the Gaping Silence:

23/11: 40
24/11: 37
25/11: 34
26/11: 43
27/11: 66
28/11: 37
29/11: 82 (so far)

And on Oh Good Ale:

23/11: 11
24/11: 30
25/11: 7
26/11: 25
27/11: 19
28/11: 89
29/11: 1288 (so far)

It’s been linked, it’s been tweeted, it’s sparked a debate on an American beer forum (To be fair, when reading a UK blogger’s opinion on beer, you have to take into account the effects of insular dwarfism). In the immortal words of Sandeesh off the Apprentice, like influenza and e. coli, it’s gone viral.

I’ve always thought 100 hits in a day was good going on this blog, and on Oh Good Ale I don’t think I’ve ever even reached that. And now look at it. If I’m not getting asked to say something about beer on Radio 4 by the end of the week, I won’t be at all surprised.

Anyway, why am I even talking to you lot? My beer people await…*

*Joke. Honest. This will always be my main blog. And I’ll try and put a word in for The Gaping Silence over there, promise.

The real thing, yeah

[Crossposted from Oh Good Ale]

Following the lead of several beer bloggers, here’s what would be on my ideal jukebox.

I’ve got quite mixed feelings about background music in pubs. (I exempt music sessions and singarounds, which are about making music rather than having it in the background, and which don’t invite an audience: if you’re listening, the chances are you’re also playing or singing.) The only kind I can’t stand is the kind that’s too loud to hear yourself speak; I don’t even like that kind of volume in a club for as long as I’m not actually dancing, and in a venue where you can’t dance it seems downright perverse. I’m not crazy about piped music, or amplified live music for that matter, where it’s loud enough to be intrusive; too much of that and you start hankering after silence. But relatively quiet music can make a good backdrop to a drink and a chat.

The big exception to the rule about intrusively loud music is the jukebox, which I appreciate at more or less any volume. Really, the jukebox is commodity capitalism in musical form: it delivers music in discrete packages, each of which can be purchased for the same fee, and by doing so it generates both demand and competition: if you don’t like what someone else has put on, put your hand in your pocket and buy your own choice. All the same, there’s something liberating – empowering, even – about being able to turn your desire for music so quickly and easily into effective demand: a good jukebox lets you dredge up the song that’s going through your head, be it a B-side or a buried album track, and fill the room with it almost instantaneously. It’s not a million miles away from the buzz of singing a new song at a singaround – although obviously in that case there’s more effort involved, and no money changing hands.

Anyway, here are some songs I’ve filled rooms with in the past and hopefully will do again.

Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks”
“Where immobile steel rims crack, And the ditch in the back roads stop…” What’s it mean? What’s he going on about? Half a minute later it doesn’t matter. Bliss.

the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want”
For a long time I couldn’t pass the Crescent in Salford without going in, and I couldn’t go in without putting this on the jukebox. (To be fair, I only went down that street about once a week.) “I went down to the demonstration, To get my fair share of abuse…” Them weret’ days.

Wizzard, “See my baby jive”
The greatest single ever released. If it doesn’t lift your mood a bit you may be dead.

Radiohead, “Paranoid android”
Sometimes it’s not about lifting the mood. “From a great height… From a great height…”

Mott the Hoople, “All the young dudes”
This single had almost mythical status when I was growing up, largely because nobody I knew had a copy. If you ever found it on a jukebox, what a song. My friends and I were fascinated by the spoken passage that you can just make out in the fade – “I’ve wanted to do this for years… There you go!

David Bowie, “Sound and vision”
I think we don’t always hear how weird this single is. It sounds as if the elements of a pop song have been shuffled and then put back together; they’re all there but nothing fits properly. It’s only let down by patches of downright ineptitude – he should have got rid of that saxophonist.

the Phantom Band, “Throwing bones”
Today on this programme you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. And folk, and angsty singer-songwriter introspection, and quite a lot of Krautrock. And Scottish accents.

the Pet Shop Boys, “Left to my own devices”
There had to be some Pet Shop Boys (at least, when I’m in a pub there often is). “Being boring” and the wonderful “What have I done to deserve this” were strong contenders, but this won out – the eight-minute album version, of course. (You may detect a theme emerging here. By my reckoning these eight tracks come in at 47 minutes.) Strings by Trevor Horn, rap by Neil Tennant:
I was faced with a choice at a difficult age
Would I write a book, or should I take to the stage?
But in the back of my head I heard distant feet:
Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat.

You can’t say fairer than that.

So near my nose

[Crossposted from Oh Good Ale]

There was an interesting article by Gazza Prescott in the July 2010 Opening Times (the CAMRA magazine for Stockport and South Manchester), called “Mid-Atlantic: the new ‘Best of British’?”; it’s a slightly shortened version of a similarly-titled post on Gazza’s site.

Gazza’s argument goes something like this. There’s a distinctive beer style, which Gazza labels “mid-Atlantic”; it’s characterised by the use of lots of hops and the palest possible malt, to give an end result which is clear and pale yellow to look at, light in mouthfeel and very, very hoppy. Gazza traces the ancestry of this style from Exmoor Gold and Summer Lightning, through experiments by Rooster’s and Brendan Dobbin’s West Coast brewery, to today’s Pictish, Phoenix and Marble brews (“brewing of the new style around Manchester continued apace”). The growing availability of new varieties of hop, particularly from New Zealand, has fed into the growth of this style.

So far, so descriptive, but we’re rapidly reminded where Gazza’s allegiances lie. “The drinking public are waking up to pale and hoppy beers – or ‘Mid-Atlantic’ as I call them – with their intense flavours and attractive colour”; “happily, the number of brewers specialising in this new style of beer is growing all the time”. The conclusion is downright triumphalist:

Pale’n’hoppy beers are slowly taking over the beer culture of the UK … in the majority of specialist cask pubs nowadays, it’s common for most – if not all – of the pumps to be pouring beers of this style … this golden revolution is here and, on what I’ve seen atop bars and heard from brewers, it’s only going to keep growing.

“Mid-Atlantic” combines the UK’s growing love of extremely pale beer with the American ethic of large-scale hopping and, in doing so, has created a style of beer which is easy to drink, full of hop flavour, uncluttered by dark malts and – importantly in these image-obsessed times – a delight to behold atop a bar. It’s becoming extremely popular in the UK at the expense of old-fashioned “brown bitter” … we can legitimately claim it to be a new style of beer, one we have invented, and one of which we should be justifiably proud. So, long live “Mid-Atlantic” pale ales… the UK’s new favourite beer style!

I’m particularly struck by the idea that a pale yellow pint is intrinsically more attractive than a nut-brown one, irrespective of which you prefer to drink; it’s not a thought that’s ever crossed my mind before.

For my money, Gazza gets one thing right and a few big things wrong. Here’s the text of a letter I’ve sent to OT:

I came to Manchester in my early twenties, in 1982. In the previous few years I’d drunk and enjoyed beer in London, East Anglia, Cumbria, Scotland and Wales. Those beers were very different – you’d never mistake Buckley’s for Young’s, or Dryburgh’s for Tolly Cobbold – but two things they all had in common: they were brown and they were malty.

In Manchester things were different. The pride of the city was the yellow, hoppy Boddington’s Best; my local served the yellow, hoppy Hyde’s Anvil. I tried seeking out Robinson’s pubs, I tried switching to mild, but I soon realised I was fighting a losing battle: I was going to have to learn to like the Manchester pale style.

It’s taken a while, but I’ve just about managed it. So I agree with Gazza Prescott on two things: there are a lot of these beers around at the moment, and some of them are very good. But I don’t believe this style is anywhere near as new as Gazza suggests, and I don’t believe it’s “taking over the beer culture of the UK”. Without looking particularly far afield, I’ve drunk big malty ales in 2010 from Allgates, Conwy, Dunham Massey, Moorhouse, Robinson’s, Rooster, Titanic… the list goes on. And surely this is how it should be – the strength of British beer is its diversity.

Gazza’s “Mid-Atlantic” (I prefer “Manchester Pale”) isn’t a “golden revolution”; it’s just one style among many, one that happens to be popular this year. Done well (Pictish) it’s very nice indeed; pushed to extremes (Marble) it’s interesting at worst, stunning at best; done badly (no names) it’s bland as Budweiser. Hops have their place, but so does malt; brewers who forget this fact, in pursuit of the taste of 2010, could end up taking British beer up a flowery, lemony, smoky dead end.

The first point here is Gazza’s “mid-Atlantic” family tree. I yield to no one in my respect for Brendan Dobbin, but – as anyone who remembers Boddington’s Best can attest – Manchester’s affinity with pale hoppy bitters goes back well before he got started. I wrote about this back in 2006 (in a post on the class politics of the smoking ban). [Updates in square brackets.]

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. [Damn, but I miss Buckley’s bitter.] But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals [viz. the Marble] is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well) [the original (2005) Summer Marble]; I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The other points I don’t agree with Gazza on, clearly, are whether this style is “taking over” (clearly it isn’t, although it is having a bit of a vogue in a few parts of the country) and whether it would be a good thing if it did (absolutely no way at all). As Pub Curmudgeon commented at the time,

It’s probably also fair to say that these beers are the beer world’s equivalent of highly-peated malt whiskies such as Laphroiag and Talisker – very well-respected, but too much biased towards one extreme end of the flavour spectrum to appeal to many people as a regular tipple. You might well enjoy one or two during an evening’s sampling of a variety of beers, but few would want to drink them all night.

That’s about right. I’m baffled by Gazza’s repeated assertion that these beers are outstandingly ‘drinkable’ or ‘easy to drink’. Most Marble beers, in my experience, have a full-on front-of-mouth attack combining bitterness with hop aroma. Sometimes they’re brilliant beers, but they’re certainly not easy drinking bitters; sometimes, when a brew is particularly hoppy or has a particularly strong nose, I’ve found it a challenge to get through a whole pint (especially when they were using that particular hop variety which smells of stale beer and vomit – or is that just me?).

To my mind, Gazza let the cat out of the bag in a sentence which was cut (diplomatically?) from the print version of his piece. Describing the characteristics of the “mid-Atlantic” (or Manchester Pale) style, he says

The malt is here to give body, alcohol and a suggestion of flavour and not to balance the hops; if you have balance then there’s something wrong!

I like a lot more malt in my beer than Gazza, but I also like the sense that the different flavours are in balance. I think great beers almost invariably give that impression of balance, of no one flavour swamping the others; this is as true of Summer Lightning as it is of Old Peculier. What Gazza’s presenting is not so much a “golden revolution”, more a Hopheads’ Manifesto.

Up you comes and down you goes

Mixed message of the day:

As soon as this pub closes, there'll be no future for you!

You remember that song, surely?

Can come true
dum dum-de-dum dum…
You know you’ve got to have hope,
You know you’ve got to be strong
dum-de-dum dum…
Thirty years of hurt
There is no future
In England’s dreaming!

They don’t write ’em like that any more.

(The beer, incidentally, is very nice indeed – one of those heavy pale bitters, quite a full-on flavour and a big bitter finish; if you like Summer Lightning, you’d like this. If you don’t like Summer Lightning, whyever not?)

Just watch me now

This week (if you’ll excuse the steal) I’ve mostly been listening to the Dandy Warhols’ 2008 album Earth to the Dandy Warhols.

By way of an introduction:

Turn that way up.

There are three things I like about this album. Firstly, the drug thing. When I was a regular gig-goer, I used to start with a can of Red Stripe and follow it with a can of Special Brew. The main point of the exercise was the enveloping alcoholic hit of the first swallow of Special Brew: an almost physical sense of falling backwards, sinking into an alcoholic haze. Some kinds of music conjure precisely this kind of befuddling onslaught – and I don’t just mean ‘psychedelia’. (“I wouldn’t say Doll by Doll are a psychedelic band,” Jackie Leven once corrected an interviewer. “We’re an acid band.”) Take the Beta Band, for instance. Some of their songs had a distinct acid edge to them, but this strikes me very much as cannabis music – in its soft quietness and its insistent precision, and in the way the track seems to take itself apart, come to a halt and then reassemble itself:

The Dandys are no strangers to mood-altering substances. As an album, Welcome to the Monkeyhouse had a distinctly speed-y sound to it. By contrast, Earth to… has a fairly intense downer-ish quality (and let’s face it, calling a song “Valerie Yum” is a bit of a clue). Full-on would be one word for it: a sound that leaves you feeling crushed, enveloped, sated. Intense but not unenjoyable, if you’re in the mood.

The second thing about the Dandy Warhols is that they’re very rock’n’roll; you could almost say they are rock’n’roll. In terms of musicianship and originality they’re pretty ordinary, but that’s part of the point – they’re what a pretty ordinary band would sound like if they were convinced they were the coolest band in the world. As I said about their previous album (which is a bit hard going, I have to admit) what they do isn’t so much rock’n’roll as the sound of what rock’n’roll sounds like – the sound of the process of the form being realised. Very arty…

…and then again (back with the Dandys) not arty at all, because the sound of the process ect ect is, fundamentally, the sound of three chords being cranked out. And that is, let’s face it, a fantastic sound. Lou Reed said somewhere that he’d never had any desire to go beyond rock’n’roll, because he still felt there was a lot to be done with those basic rock chord changes. Listening to the next song, you feel he’s proved himself wrong (sorry, Lou, you’d nailed it for all time by 0:22) but at the same time right (that’s a seam that will take plenty of digging).

Back at the Dandys album, the track after “Wasp in the Lotus” proves it all over again: a perfect three-chord trick, utterly simple and predictable, utterly beautiful.

I like the stunned, languid quality that song has, and the way it just keeps on going; it makes me imagine watching the sky start to lighten, too tired to go to sleep. I particularly like the way the horns come in towards the end, and the raw, unpolished, “just slap it down” sound they have – very rock’n’roll. Ed Kuepper would probably have a fit if you called Laughing Clowns a rock’n’roll band, but what I’m talking about here is very like the immediate, noisy production the horns used to get on Laughing Clowns albums. Laughing Clowns reformed last year; it’s a trumpetless lineup, but Louise Elliott’s sax here has the same raw, punkish quality I hear in the Dandys’ brass.

The third thing, finally, is related to the dogged endlessness of that last track, and the three-chord trick generally: minimalism. Three chords, did I say? The Dandys aren’t the first band to see what happens if you hit one chord and stick to it…

…nor were Stereolab, come to that…

…but I don’t think you’ll hear it done better than here, in a track which originally bore the marvellous (and very Dandy Warhols) title “The World The People Together Come On”. Listen out for the chord change – it’s at 2:13 (at the end of the second verse).

Nice video – especially the first minute or so. I could just fancy a can of Special Brew now…

To stun an ox

I’ve written a book. The MS has just gone off to the publisher; it’s still got to be checked, copy-edited, re-checked, typeset, proof-read and probably several other stages I’ve forgotten about, and it probably won’t be out much before Christmas. But it’s a book, and it’s been written. By me.

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-1977. The introduction begins like this:

A long wave of direct action spread across Italy between 1972 and 1977. Factory workers went on strike without union approval, walking out or occupying their workplaces; empty buildings were squatted and converted as ‘social centres’; council tenants withheld the rent; groups of women went on ‘can’t pay? won’t pay!’ shoplifting trips. The streets were also busy, with marches and demonstrations running at around two per week throughout the period.

Sidney Tarrow has analysed an earlier wave of contentious activism in terms of a ‘protest cycle’ or ‘cycle of contention’. Tarrow described how, in the early 1970s, a wave of contentious and disorderly movements spread from the universities to the industrial North of Italy before being neutralised by the Partito Comunista Italiano. The PCI’s qualified endorsement of the movement’s tactics led to the demobilisation of the movement and the achievement, in modified form, of its principal goals, by way of an expansion of the political repertoire endorsed by the PCI. The PCI in this period occupied an ambivalent position, as a supposedly ‘anti-system’ party which nevertheless played a significant role in the Italian political system; this put it in a strong position as a political ‘gatekeeper’. The outcome of the cycle was positive: under pressure from the movements, the PCI pushed back the boundaries of acceptable political activity.

In this book, I argue the late-1970s wave should be seen as a second cycle of contention. The movements of this second cycle include the ‘area of Autonomia’, based in factories and working-class neighbourhoods and active between 1972 and 1977; a wave of activism among young people which gave rise to the ‘proletarian youth movement’ of 1975-6 and the ‘movement of 1977’; and the left-wing terrorist or ‘armed struggle’ milieu. I argue that the outcome of the second cycle, like that of the first, was determined by the interaction between contentious social movements and the PCI. I also suggest that the PCI’s hostile or exclusive engagement with the second cycle of contention had lasting effects for the party as well as for the movements of the cycle. The PCI committed itself to a narrower and more explicitly constitutional range of activities and values; the result was a lasting contraction of the party’s ideological repertoire, and consequently of the repertoire of mainstream politics.

The conclusion ends like this:

Between 1966 and 1980, the PCI played the role of ‘gatekeeper’ to a relatively closed political system, admitting certain innovations to the sphere of political legitimacy and barring others. The movements of the second cycle were confronted by a hostile gatekeeper, which persistently framed their activities in terms which excluded them from political legitimacy. A key manoeuvre, as we have seen, was the evocation of violence: the movements were repeatedly denounced for the use of violence, toleration of violence, tardiness in disowning those who used violence… The ultimate result was the repression of a broad area of social, cultural and intellectual ferment, accompanied by dozens of prison terms and a brief flourishing of openly illegal ‘armed struggle’ activity; the PCI itself also suffered, denying itself a source of much-needed ideological renewal.

The disastrous outcome of the second cycle of contention was not inevitable. Given the relatively closed Italian political system, any disorderly social movement would face some type of engagement with some type of gatekeeper; by the 1970s the gatekeeper for any left-wing movement could only be the PCI. However, the exclusiveness of the PCI’s engagement was not a foregone conclusion until Berlinguer committed the party to the ‘historic compromise’ strategy – if then. The engagement was a missed opportunity which could have been taken.

The same choices could face other gatekeepers in other relatively closed systems. In Britain, where the electoral system excludes social movements from the national political system, the Labour Party remains the principal left gatekeeper. Faced with a disorderly and uncontainable rival to its left, Labour would have the same options as the PCI. An inclusive engagement would require the party quietly to appropriate and absorb the demands and tactics of the new movement, while publicly denouncing its leadership as irresponsible extremists. An exclusive engagement, in contrast, would involve denunciations of violence, escalating demands for dissociation and emphatic assertions of the party’s own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. The Italian experience demonstrates that the second of these approaches is not likely to have good results – for the movements or for British society.

The book is dedicated to Nanni Balestrini and the late Primo Moroni, whose work on the period is absolutely indispensable; I mean, by all means start with my book (and Steve Wright’s), but then get some Balestrini – and an Italian dictionary if you need one. The epigraph is from one of Balestrini’s novels:

I said to him I ask myself sometimes now it’s all over I ask myself what did it all mean our whole story all the things we did what did we get from all the things we did he said I don’t believe it matters that it’s all over I believe what matters is that we did what we did and that we think it was the right thing to do that’s the only thing that matters I believe

You won’t see the book for several months, and all things being equal you’re not very likely to see it then: the first print run will be an academic hardback, limiting its potential sales rather severely. But if the hardback run sells out a paperback may be possible – so tell all your friends, especially if they work in a library. It looks like being the first book-length study in English of the autonomist movements of the late 1970s, which should give it a bit of an audience.

Anyway: I’ve written a book. A book, by me, written; written, then edited and re-edited, checked and edited again, and sent off to the publisher today. I’ve celebrated with a bottle of Decadence. Now perhaps I’ll complete that biography of Debord. Or I may just do some of the stuff that’s been piling up while I’ve been working on this book…

And I will drink two

Picture a man of 35. He gets up every morning and gets in his car, goes to the office, moves papers around, goes out for lunch, plays poker, moves some more papers around, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, meets his wife, kisses his children, eats a steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love, goes to sleep. Who reduces a man’s life to such a pitiful series of clichés?
– Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage de ceux qui aiment les livres aux titres très longues et tout à fait meaningless, ce qui n’est pas français mais who cares no one’s going to read this far

(He dunnit, by the way.)

I was working in an office when I read that book, and I have to admit that when I got to that passage I thought that sounded like a bloody good day – lunch out! booze! sex! steak! I mean, obviously creating at long last a situation which goes beyond the point of no return – or even a situation that knocks on the point of no return and runs away – would be even more fun, but how often do you get to do that?

So I’ll admit I’m a creature of habit. Saturday evenings, in particular, almost always involve a takeaway and a couple of pints. But pints of what, eh? I’ve been thinking for a while I ought to keep track of the beers I drink, if only to give me a fighting chance of avoiding the Manchester Pale style in future. So, if you’re not interested in reading a beer-spotter’s tasting notes, don’t read on. I’ll be updating this post regularly in future, quite probably on Saturday nights.

(The remainder of this post is now a separate blog.)

Wrapped in paper (8)

After all those columns from 1999, here’s one from last month. (And then I’ll get back to proper blogging, probably.) They say you should write about what you know; what I knew, that particular weekend, was beer. ‘Dave Bitzer’ doesn’t represent anyone in particular. Years ago I invented a consultancy called Gargle Bitzer Helipad, and I’ve used various Gargles and Bitzers ever since then to stand in for different talking heads and company spokespeople. Usually I make them talk rubbish, for obvious reasons, but in this one I think Dave talks a lot of sense.

I RAN INTO my old friend and commenting partner Dave Bitzer the other day at local beer tasting event Pale And Bitter (And Slightly Sour). I’d worked my way through the milds by this point and started on the fruit beers. In retrospect I think the second blackcurrant flavoured porter may have been a mistake.

“Dave!” I put it to him. “How’s it going! How is it going? How’s life in the… well, you know.”

I could see that my incisive style of questioning had caught Dave unprepared. For a moment, in fact, he got so confused that he said “Hello” and then turned his back on me – very much as if he had said “Goodbye”! Pausing only to sample the ginger-flavoured pale ale, I hastened to set his mind at rest.

“Dave,” I put it to him, placing a friendly arm around his shoulders. “David, David, Davey Davey Dave. It’s like this. I mean, is it like this? That’s the thing, you see – is it like this or not? I mean, if you spend your time reading about Web 2.0 on blogs and podcasts… and, and blogcasts…”

Dave said that people who did that should probably get out more, although in my case he’d make an exception. I thought that was a very good point.

“That’s a very good point,” I put it to him. “Thing is, if you read the Webby, Web things, lots of stuff. Lots of stuff happening. Reminds me of the dot boom. Is this another dot boom boom, Dave? Wait a minute, that’s not right. Is this… another… dot dot boom, de-boom boom boom. That’s what I say.”

Dave gave a heavy sigh, clearly impressed with the cogency of my argument. OK, he said, look at it this way. He tore the top layer of paper from a beermat and drew a cross on the exposed surface. So here’s your basic quadrant, he said. You can call this one –

“I’ll call it Henry,” I put it to him.

Dave sighed again, obviously deeply impressed. OK, he said, here’s Henry the Quadrant. Left to right we’ve got usefulness – is an application idea actually useful or not? Top to bottom, marketability, or whether or not you can get people worked up about it. We can rule out a couple of combinations straight away. ‘Dull but useful’ is an uphill battle for any company (apart from companies that have a large installed base they can sell to), and ‘dull and useless’ is best avoided. Clearly, ‘useful and exciting’ is what most developers are aiming for. But here’s the problem. How can developers actually come up with something that’s both exciting and useful? Look at the way we live already – we wear clothes, we drive cars, we synchronise calendars, we download MP3s, we shop around to get the best price for DVDs and don’t worry too much about the Hong Kong customs stamp when they arrive. It all works, basically. So people end up going for “exciting but useless”, and you get applications like Twitter – sounds great, if you like the idea of reading other people’s diaries in real time, but it’s not much use if you’ve actually got a life. Speaking of which, he added cryptically, then turned to look around the room, avoiding my gaze completely. I was touched by this mark of respect and put my arm round his shoulders again.

“So… So, so, so, Dave,” I put it to him. “Tell me, Dave. Is this another dot boom boom?”

Dave made a strange respectful growling noise. Not really, he said, because… oh, never mind. Look, it’s as if a brewery had to keep coming up with something new, and after a while they found they’d done every kind of beer that was actually drinkable, but they just kept going anyway and turned out, I don’t know, ginger-flavoured pale ale or blackcurrant-flavoured porter. There’s just not a lot going on, and the stuff that gets the hype isn’t really worth it. That’s why I’m here, actually.

“What, to check out the brewing… trendy… trendy trends?” I put it to him.

No, Dave said – to get drunk. What do you recommend?

Not too much more

4% of 568 is 22.72. Hold on to that thought.

A ‘unit’ of alcohol is actually 10 ml; if you’re a man, your recommended weekly dosage amounts to a bit less than a pint of gin, or rather more than half a pint of cask strength whisky, or rather less than half a pint of pure alcohol. Don’t drink it all at once.

But what, I hear you ask, what about beer? I refer the honourable reader to the answer previously supplied. A pint of bitter at 4% alcohol by volume will contain 22.72 ml of alcohol, or slightly more than two and a quarter units. Two and a quarter isn’t all that handy as figures go, but it’s a lot handier than 2.272. Apart from anything else, two and a quarter translates nicely to the improper fraction 9/4, which is handy. Say, for the sake of argument, that you want to know the strength (in ‘units’) of a pint of something at 4.5% a.b.v. (e.g. the Marble Brewery’s renowned Ginger Marble), or indeed something at 6% (e.g. the Marble Brewery’s hard-to-find Special Ginger Marble, which I tasted last Friday). Simple: all you need is fractions. First you calculate the ratio of 4.5% to 4%, which is (9/2) / 4; invert the second term to get 9/2 * 1/4; multiply out to get 9/8. Then you just need to multiply that original 9/4 – the number of ‘units’ in a pint of 4% a.b.v., you’ll remember – by the 9/8 ratio; you end up with 81/32, which is as near as dammit 80/32 or 5/2. Two and a half units, in other words. (For the 6% the ratio is 6/4 or 3/2, meaning that when you multiply out you get 27/8, or nearly three and a half.)

This, I’m sure you’re saying at this point, is all very well, but what about situations when I may want to sample a wide variety of drinks of different strengths? What if I were to visit the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival, whose programme boasts an impressive 120 beers, a startling 34 ciders and a frankly alarming 18 perries? (This isn’t advertising – the festival was last weekend.) Oh, you might say, I can always carry on drinking while I’m feeling pleasantly drunk and stop when I start feeling unpleasantly drunk, but experience warns that this may not always be sufficient to ward off inebriation-related mishaps such as stopping for ghastly fast food on the way home, stopping for a drink on the way home (how could that have been a good idea?), falling asleep on the bus and ending up in Bolton, feeling thoroughly ill for the rest of the weekend, etc. To which I reply, think of the units. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you know from experience that three pints at 4.5% is a decent evening out, four pints is chancy for mid-week, five is a bit rocky the next day and six is definitely too much of a good thing. (I do remember managing seven once; I don’t remember how I got home, though.) Then multiply out by the units, two and a half per pint. So ten is fine, twelve is time to slow down and if you reach fifteen you should have stopped already.

Then – and this, frankly, is the clever bit – you work out what concentration of alcohol you’d have to be drinking to reach your selected limit in half a pint. We know that a pint at 4% contains 9/4 units, from which it follows that half a pint contains 9/8. So to get ten units in half a pint, the level of alcohol by volume would need to be (10 / (9/8)) * 4, or 10/1 * 8/9 * 4, or 80/9 * 4, or as near as dammit 9 * 4: 36%. Then all you need to do is tot up the percentages of the halves you drink (no shame in drinking halves at a beer festival; most of the people there were drinking from lined half-pint tankards), and stop when you hit 36. Or, if you’re aiming for 12, do the whole thing again and… stop at 42.

I worked all that out in the stands at Edgeley Park, gazing into the distance and vaguely trying to separate out crowd noise, traffic noise and aeroplane noise, between a half of the aforesaid Special Ginger Marble and one of something with the uncompromising name of Blackcurrant Stout. (Unfortunately, this tasted exactly like you’d expect, say, Murphy’s and black to taste. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.) In the event I was slightly disappointed by the beer range, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. On one hand, the range was just too big – you might not go in expecting to sample everything, but with 120 beers on offer over three days even the most dedicated ticker would have to leave the great majority untasted. And you’ve got to try a rarity like the Special Ginger Marble, and the odd novelty, and the odd strong beer like Phoenix Earthquake (7.3% and very nice indeed), not to mention the odd cider or perry – and how many bitters does that leave room for? At the same time, the mainstream ales were very big on the hoppy style and rather light on the darker, more malty bitters. All very Manchester – rather more Manchester than Stockport, in fact – but still a bit disappointing. I felt alternately spoilt for choice and stuck for choice. On the cider and perry front, on the other hand, spoilt was the word. I ended up skipping the cider and trying two perries, in one case because I was intrigued by the name: Stinking Bishop. All rapidly became clear: the taste is interesting – not unpleasant if you don’t mind being reminded of ripe Brie while you’re drinking your perry – but the smell… Yes, this is in fact a perry which stinks. Well done, Minchew’s. The Blakeney Red perry from Gwynt y Ddraig was rather fine, on the other hand, despite the name of the brewery translating as Dragon’s Fart. There must be something about growing pears that brings out a sophisticated sense of humour.

I worked all that out – and I stopped at 35.7, because I’d been feeling tired – but I only realised much later that most of the calculations had been completely wasted. Let’s say that I’m aiming for the equivalent of four pints at 4.5%; to find the half-pint equivalent, I just need to multiply 4.5% by the ratio of four to a half, or 8. So you can get to the same result with a lot less mental arithmetic. But really, where’s the fun in that?

If a tree don’t fall on me

Apparently I’m up to blogpost #100, a little short of the blog’s first anniversary. How about some beer?

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The local with the pale, hoppy ales I’ll call Old Local. It’s not particularly old – it’s six or seven years old, in fact – but it looks it; the decor is classic Pub Basic. It’s a small pub, tied to a small local brewery; on an average night they have four or five of the brewery’s ales on, plus a couple of guests and a real cider (from a one-gallon barrel, kept in the fridge). It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away and handy for a good Chinese takeaway.

Then there’s New Local, which was opened a little more than a year ago and looks it. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away (in the other direction) and handy for a good Indian; it’s a Thwaites’ pub, usually serving Bomber and Thoroughbred plus a couple of guests. New Local doesn’t serve real cider, and they serve the bitter a couple of degrees too cold. But it’s good ale – their Thoroughbred in particular is a very nice pint, without the slightly curdled caramel heaviness of the Bomber. New Local also has a bar snacks menu consisting mainly of things like miniature salamis and Japanese rice crackers. (Old Local, to be fair, serves Kettle Chips and Bombay mix, so it’s not that stark a contrast; I’m not sure where you’d go round here for pork scratchings.) Another difference between the two is that you don’t hear many local accents in New Local; from what I’ve overheard I get the impression that most of the clientele are incomers (like me), working in the social services or education (like me).

Can you guess which of the two has a no-smoking policy?

Last October I wrote (in comments here)

I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ’stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) – which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban – and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms – is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place precisely when it’s no longer necessary.

*Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class-correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time – and not in a good way, either.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the pending smoking ban is that it won’t come into force for another eighteen months. I imagine that the imminent threat of a ban will give market forces another nudge, so that by the time the ban actually takes effect it will look even less necessary than it does now. (But then, ‘market forces’ only ever make sense within a given framework of law, custom and expectation.)

But it’s not just clean air that the ban will promote – or rather, it’ll promote clean air by promoting a broader shift of values. And that’s what worries me. I’m a middle-class incomer, with an incomer’s accent, an incomer’s taste in beer and an incomer’s habit of taking the LRB to the pub and sitting on my own reading it (or sometimes, particularly in Old Local, standing on my own reading it). Or maybe that last one’s just me. But anyway – middle-class incomer I am. But I like Old Local because I can feel at home there without being entirely surrounded by other middle-class incomers; conversely, I like New Local, but I’d like it more if it wasn’t quite so full of people like me. I’m settled here – I’ve been in Manchester for 23 years and in this specific area for 18 – but I still feel like an incomer, and I think that’s appropriate: I like the fact that I share a local with people who are actually from around here, and I don’t object to being reminded that I’m not. At some deep level, the opening of New Local and places like it feels like a different kind of middle-class influx – not so much immigration, more colonisation. And the smoking ban seems like a big vote of confidence to New Local, and a big ‘up yours’ to the Old Local crowd.

I wonder if Chris goes far enough:

To New Labour, health egalitarianism is a strong enough principle to justify restricting freedom, but not strong enough to justify seriously attacking inequality.

I think we can simplify: to New Labour managerialists, just about any principle is good enough to justify restricting working class freedoms, and just about any principle is more important than seriously improving working class life chances. (And no, the smoking ban isn’t about doing just that – or if it is, it’s a peculiarly limited and indirect way of achieving that goal. See Chris’s post for more.)

Update A friend challenged me today to specify less coercive means of effectively protecting bar staff from passive smoking. I don’t think it’s that difficult. Firstly (and symbolically), you’d give legal status to smoking bans imposed by the management of pubs and clubs: you light up and it’s not just the management you’re taking on, there’s a chance you could actually be fined. (Or at least have a fee extorted – but that’s another rant.) This in itself wouldn’t do much more than make it easier to non-smoking establishments to open. Secondly, you’d legislate so that the continued tolerance of smoking, in a smoking establishment, rested on the consent of the people who work there: you’d enable bar staff to hold binding ballots on converting to (or, to keep it fair, from) non-smoking status and encourage pubs and clubs to hold such ballots regularly – starting now. If there is any groundswell of support for a smoking ban, among pub customers or pub workers, this should be enough to turn it into reality. And if not, what are we doing imposing one?

Updated update: Brian‘s post reminds me that, with the exception of the clause about balloting the staff, I’ve just reinvented the 2005 Labour manifesto position on smoking. Since the Blairite takeover there have been numerous cases of people and policies moving from respectable centre to extreme left without actually changing; it usually takes a bit longer than this, though.

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