Sunday, June 11, 2006

The World's Worst Beer?

In the run-up to the World Cup in Germany this week, I noticed something in the news about the official beer for the event being Budweiser. Moreover, it’s not even the original Budweiser from what was Czechoslovakia, but that insipid, watery excuse for a beer made by Anheuser-Busch of St Louis. Apparently, this American mega-corporation have ponied up $47 million as one of the official sponsors, giving them the right to make Bud the only beer on sale within a 500 metre radius surrounding the official stadiums. As a sap to the Czech brewery of Budweiser Budvar, Anheuser-Busch are only allowed to advertise their product as ‘Bud’.

The German reaction has been predictable.

‘I wouldn't wash my car with it,’ said Bavarian Beer Club member Ottmar Riesing.
‘We have a duty to public welfare and must not poison visitors to World Cup venues,’ said Franz Maget, leader of the Bavarian Social Democratic Party, commenting on what some Germans have called ‘beer censorship’.
The same man called Bud ‘the world's worst beer’ and he could be right, even though by his country’s standards it is _not_ beer at all, but something else.
Advertising Bud as ‘beer’ contravenes the German version of the Trade Descriptions Act. The German purity law only considers a drink to be beer if it is brewed from malt, hops and water and Bud is looked down upon by those familiar with Germany's storied tradition of beer because it is produced with rice included in its ingredients.
However, FIFA are standing firm, which gives the verity to what Bob Dylan penned all those years ago--‘Money doesn’t talk--it swears’.

All this reminds me of a dispute in Britain over thirty years ago concerning ‘Real Ale’ versus ‘keg beer’. A consumer association called CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale’ was set up in 1971 in protest at the brewing industry producing pasteurised beer served chilled from kegs pressurised with CO2 or nitrogen. Aggressive merger and acquisition tactics meant that many small breweries producing traditional cask ales were disappearing. I prefer cask over keg anyday and I was and am generally in favour of the activities of CAMRA

It must be said though, that keg beers have improved immeasurably over the years. Moreover, there is nothing worse than having your ear bent by an over-enthusiastic CAMRA auto-didact, while you are just trying to enjoy a quiet pint.
In the sixties one of the bete noirs of CAMRA was an abominable beer called Watney’s Red Barrel, which is no longer in production. Its demise was surely helped by a Monty Python sketch broadcast in November 1972 featuring a dialogue between Mr Bounder of Adventure Travel (Michael Palin) and a tourist called Mr Smoke-Too-Much (Eric Idle). It was enough to put anyone off for life!

… Bounder: Anyway about the holiday

Tourist: Well I saw your adverts in the paper and I've been on package tours several times you see, and I decided that this was for me

Bounder: Ah good

Tourist: Yes I quite agree I mean what's the point of being treated like sheep. What's the pointof going abroad if you're just another tourist carted around in buses surrounded by sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Coventry in their cloth caps and their cardigans and their transistor radios and their Sunday Mirrors, complaining about the tea - "Oh they don't make it properly here, do they, not like at home" - and stopping at Majorcan bodegas selling fish and chips and Watney's Red Barrel and calamares and two veg and sitting in their cotton frocks squirting Timothy White's suncream all over their puffy raw swollen purulent flesh 'cos they "overdid it on the first day."

Bounder: (agreeing patiently) Yes absolutely, yes I quite agree...

Tourist: And being herded into endless Hotel Miramars and Bellvueses and Continentales with their modern international luxury roomettes and draught Red Barrel and swimming pools full of fat German businessmen pretending they're acrobats forming pyramids and frightening the children and barging into queues and if you're not at your table spot on seven you miss the bowl of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, the first item on the menu of International Cuisine, and every Thursday night the hotel has a bloody cabaret in the bar, featuring a tiny emaciated dago with nine-inch hips and some bloated fat tart with her hair brylcreemed down and a big arse presenting Flamenco for Foreigners.

Bounder: (beginning to get fed up) Yes, yes now......

Tourist: And then some adenoidal typists from Birmingham with flabby white legs and diarrhoea trying to pick up hairy bandy-legged wop waiters called Manuel and once a week there's an excursion to the local Roman Remains to buy cherryade and melted ice cream and bleeding Watney's Red Barrel and one evening you visit the so called typical restaurant with local colour and atmosphere and you sit next to a party from Rhyl who keep singing "Torremolinos, torremolinos" and complaining about the food - "It's so greasy isn't it?" - and you get cornered by some drunken greengrocer from Luton with an Instamatic camera and Dr. Scholl sandals and last Tuesday's Daily Express and he drones on and on about how Mr. Smith should be running this country and how many languages Enoch Pow ell can speak and then he throws up over the Cuba Libres.

Bounder: Will you be quiet please

Tourist: And sending tinted postcards of places they don't realise they haven't even visited to "All at number 22, weather wonderful, our room is marked with an 'X'.

Bounder: Shut up

Tourist: Food very greasy but we've found a charming little local place hidden away in the back streets

Bounder: Shut up!

Tourist: where they serve Watney's Red Barrel and cheese and onion.......

Bounder: Shut up your bloody gob....

Tourist: crisps and the accordionist plays 'Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner'." And spending four days on the tarmac at Luton airport on a five-day package tour with nothing to eat but dried BEA-type sandwiches and you can't even get a drink of Watney's Red Barrel because you're still in England and the bloody bar closes every time you're thirsty and there's nowhere to sleep and the kids are crying and vomiting and breaking the plastic ash-trays and they keep telling you it'll only be another hour although your plane is still in Iceland and has to take some Swedes to Yugoslavia before it can load you up at 3 a.m. in the bloody morning and you sit on the tarmac till six because of "unforeseen difficulties", i.e. the permanent strike of Air Traffic Control in Paris - and nobody can go to the lavatory until you take off at 8, and when you get to Malaga airport everybody's swallowing "enterovioform" and queuing for the toilets and queuing for the armed customs officers, and queuing for the bloody bus that isn't there to take you to the hotel that hasn't yet been finished. And when you finally get to the half-built Algerian ruin called the Hotel del Sol by paying half your holiday money to a licensed bandit in a taxi you find there's no water in the pool, there's no water in the taps, there's no water in the bog and there's only a bleeding lizard in the bidet. And half the rooms are double booked and you can't sleep anyway because of the permanent twenty-four-hour drilling of the foundations of the hotel next door - and you're plagues by appalling apprentice chemists from Ealing pretending to be hippies, and middle-class stockbrokers' wives busily buying identical holiday villas in suburban development plots just like Esher, in case the Labour government gets in again, and fat American matrons with sloppy-buttocks and Hawaiian-patterned ski pants looking for any mulatto male who can keep it up long enough when they finally let it all flop out. And the Spanish Tourist Board promises you that the raging cholera epidemic is merely a case of mild Spanish tummy, like the previous outbreak of Spanish tummy in 1660 which killed half London and decimated Europe - and meanwhile the bloody Guardia are busy arresting sixteen-year-olds for kissing in the streets and shooting anyone under nineteen who doesn't like Franco. And then on the last day in the airport lounge everyone's comparing sunburns, drinking Nasty Spumante, buying cartons of duty free "cigarillos" and using up their last pesetas on horrid dolls in Spanish National costume and awful straw donkeys and bullfight posters with your name on "Ordoney, El Cordobes and Brian Pules of Norwich" and 3-D pictures of the Pope and Kennedy and Franco, and everybody's talking about coming again next year and you swear you never will although there you are tumbling bleary-eyed out of a tourist-tight antique Iberian airplane...

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A game of two halves, innit?

“Put me in a football shirt and it was tin hats and fixed bayonets, death or glory.” Terry Butcher, former captain of England.
“Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it’s much more important than that.” The late Bill Shankly, 1913--1981, probably the greatest manager Liverpool Football Club ever had.
It’s that time again. The four-year recurring disease as my wife calls it. The greatest sporting spectacle known to man, unless you are American. Yes, the World Cup is upon us again and in little over a week it will begin, in Germany this time. It differs from the American baseball World Series in that other countries are actually invited to take part, until 32 of them have managed to qualify for the final tournament. About one billion people, over fifteen per cent of mankind are expected to watch the drama unfold, all the way to the final tie on July 9 at the Berlin Olympiastadion, the venue where Jesse Owens humiliated Hitler’s Aryan athletes in 1936. Apparently, T-shirts bearing the words ‘Don’t mention the War’ have been top sellers among England fans bound for Germany, so it would be good form for me not to. Stop here.
Strange though it may seem to those who know me, but I was not _always_ a rabid football supporter. The game held little charm for me up to the age of eleven. I preferred reading, especially poetry and verse. The ‘Walrus and the Carpenter’ was a particular favourite, as was ‘Jabberwocky’, just about anything by Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Caroll.
However, in 1966 the then Jules Rimet trophy, forerunner of the present World Cup was contested in England and it became increasingly difficult to ignore what was going on. Somehow, Alf Ramsey and his ‘wingless wonders’ captained by Bobby Moore fought their way to the final tie at Wembley where they defeated West Germany (as it was then) 4-2 after extra time, to send the nation into raptures. The victory was achieved after one of the most controversial goals ever scored in a World Cup final to get England’s noses in front and surely one of the most spectacular, to put the tie beyond doubt, both by Geoff Hurst. All Englishmen can recite the words of the commentator, the late Kenneth Wolstenholme, “Some people are on the pitch--they think it’s all over--IT IS NOW!” as the ball screamed into the top corner of the net. Geoff Hurst later said he had been trying to put the ball into the stand, to use up some precious time and that the goal was a complete fluke. His earlier goal probably should never have stood since the ball ricocheted off the bar down onto the line and probably did not totally cross it before being hooked away. Referee’s decision is final, though...
Great stuff. And since the closest England have come to duplicating the feat was a 1990 semi-final loss (on penalties to West Germany, as they _still_ were then), we cling to the memories. It has been forty years of hurt. However, if you ask me for my memories of the match I have to confess I don’t have any. It being ‘shipyard fortnight’ I was on holiday in Cornwall with my parents and sister and we listened to the match on a battery-powered transistor radio while driving about in our old Austin A40 Somerset somewhere near Newquay. I remember being pleased at the outcome, as were my parents, but it was not until we got home that I realised that history had been made. Flickering, grainy monochrome highlights of the famous victory were often on TV, though I don’t recall ever seeing the full match. It was enough to spark my curiosity.
The following year, on January 21st 1967, I attended my first ever football match, at St James’s Park to see Newcastle United versus Nottingham Forest. I remember a feeling of exhilaration on seeing the famed black-and-white shirts appear, to a thunderous roar from the crowd. However, as sometimes happens, the match was a dreadful affair, dull and tedious, ending in a goal-less draw. The crowd seemed quite happy though, in that the team had secured a vital point in the battle to stave off relegation. There was a lot of grumbling about ‘The Board’ and I kept looking about to see where this piece of wood was, thinking perhaps it was blocking someone’s view of the pitch. It was a typical raw-and-damp January day and I was glad to get home to some of my mother’s home cooking, wondering how eleven men versus eleven men could differ so much from the halcyon spectacle of the World Cup. It was not until later in the season, on April 1, that I ventured back again, under peer-pressure from half of my schoolmates, the half who were Newcastle crazy. The other half were Sunderland crazy and the two camps existed in a more or less perpetual war of verbal attrition. The town where I grew up, Chester-le-Street, is more or less equi-distant from these two meccas of football and I had decided early on where my allegiance lay, even though I wasn’t really interested at the time. It was just something you had to do, so as not to appear stand-offish. Why I chose Newcastle remains a mystery to this day... It just seemed natural.
My second football match, Newcastle United versus Leicester City was infinitely more entertaining, with some spectacular goal-keeping from the great Gordon Banks--one of England’s World Cup heroes--and equally good work from Gordon Marshall between the sticks for Newcastle. Just when it looked like another 0-0 was on the cards, our man Dave Hilley intercepted a back pass and beat Banks from 20 yards, with seemingly consummate ease.
Newcastle United one Leicester City nil.
I will never forget the roar of euphoria then and at the final whistle, for it meant that the two points secured (as it was then) had virtually guaranteed First Division status for the ‘Magpies’ for another season. God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. We didn’t care that Sunderland had beaten us 3-0 at home and 0-3 away that season, our team was _still_ in the big time. At that point in time I _understood_ what it was all about I and have been hooked ever since.
It is a terrible disease to suffer from and in moments of reflection I have advised my offspring not to support Newcastle United, on the grounds that it is detrimental to one’s mental health. It is too late for me but...

Note the glazed expression and vacant look about one who is once more at his personal Wailing Wall.
Since those early days I have been to what must be hundreds of football matches involving Newcastle United and listened to more on the radio. There are certain stand-outs in that time span, most notably the last time the team was successful in a major competition--in season 1968-1969--when we lifted the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, now better known as the UEFA Cup. At the start of the campaign none of the sporting pundits gave Newcastle a snowball’s chance in hell, but as the big names of Europe became scalps on our belts one by one, people began to sit up and take notice. Feyenoord, Sporting Lisbon, Real Zaragoza, Vitoria Setubal were dispatched and then came the mighty Glasgow Rangers in the semi-final. The second leg of this tie was played at St James’s Park after a goal-less draw at Ibrox on May 14th involving a penalty save by our keeper, Willie McFaul. I rose at 04.30 on Sunday May 18th when the tickets went on sale for the 2nd leg, to catch the first bus through to Newcastle, packed with like-minded devotees. The length of the queue outside the ground was a daunting sight but by 10 a.m. I had the precious slip of paper in my grasp, along with more than 60,000 others in the same frame of mind, and simply couldn’t wait for Wednesday night. For me and probably many others, the match was probably the most memorable of the whole campaign, but not for the football. It was a very tough, physical affair with no quarter given or expected but Newcastle managed to grab two goals in the 2nd half to win the game and put themselves into the final tie. The first goal came after 53 minutes--a high angled drive by Jim Scott in front of the home fans beating Neef all ends-up, after a killer through ball from Tommy Gibb. The second came 24 minutes later after an Ollie Burton free-kick to the head of Wyn Davies. A typical flick-on found Jackie Sinclair who cracked the ball into the roof of the net. Oh Joy O Bliss O Transport of Delight! A sea of black & white scarves hailed their conquering heroes and the din was unbelievable. We were in seventh heaven and loving it. However, the Rangers fans were not amused, to say the least. Maybe it was the fact that Scott and Sinclair were both Scots and had committed apostasy in their eyes or maybe it was the fact that they were to a man awash to the gunwales in drink, but they simply went berserk. From our position opposite in the Leazes, the Gallowgate resembled a rumbling volcano, erupting with blue-shirted two-legged lava hurling bottles and bricks and invading the pitch in an attempt to get the game abandoned. The referee stopped the match and took the players off for 17 minutes while the police fought back with horses and dogs to try and restore order. I was not yet 15 years old and it was and is the most fearful I have ever been at a football match. After the final whistle was blown, we had to get back to the bus stop while running battles were fought in the streets of Newcastle. After taking all the back routes we knew, I and half-a-dozen mates reached the haven (we thought) of the Pilgrim Street bus station. There was a double-decker in the sloping bay next to ours, with chocks under the front wheels and a few passengers on the top deck awaiting the driver and bus-conductor. It was going our way, but via Wrekenton, and we decided to wait for the next Middlesbrough bus as it would not be long, surely, and would get us home quicker. As we began to feel a little more secure, nervous chatter broke out, discussing the highlights of the game and wondering aloud who our final-tie opponents would be. And then we saw them, two brawny Jocks stripped to the waist, with blue scarves wrapped round both wrists, swaying as they passed a bottle of White Horse between them, swigging straight from the open neck. Raw fear began to overtake us again and we wondered which way to run. The bigger of the two Jocks finished the bottle and hurled it through a fire-station window and then hoisted himself up to the driver’s cab of the double-decker and released the hand-brake while his mate removed the wheel chocks. The bus rolled straight backwards and smashed into the back wall of the bus station, showering the screaming people inside with broken glass. The Jocks then wandered off, no doubt to try and get more drink from somewhere, totally ignoring we cowering, tim’rous beasties.
When I _finally_ got home that night somewhere around twelve, after my one and only experience of a genuine riot, one of the most terrifying nights of my life, my mother was furious. She had been watching the events on live TV. I was immediately forbidden to ever attend a football match again, it was simply too dangerous.
Two weeks later, I saw Newcastle beat the mighty Ujpesti Dosza of Budapest at St James’s park by three clear goals in the final tie first leg. After a further two weeks they triumphed in Hungary, after a few hiccups, to win the tie six-two on aggregate. Victory in Europe at the first attempt, surely we were going places now. Even the monumental landing on the moon by Apollo 11 a few weeks later, was small beer to a Newcastle fan. This was just the start.

Oh well...
Sometimes, going to a match is actually more enjoyable than being at the match. The putting on of the colours, the waiting for your transport to the ‘toon’, the pre-match banter over pies and pints of cask ale, the entrance to the ground and gasping at the first glimpse of the lush green sward, especially at the first match of the season are all part and parcel of the experience.

Nowadays, being resident in Japan most of the time, I only get to go to early season Newcastle games if at all, but I do enjoy following the matches live via Internet radio, for a small fee. I’m sure the day is not far off when a live video feed will be available, and that will be true progress.
Starting next Friday, June 9th, a different kind of madness ensues. Die-hard fans of deadly rival teams (even Newcastle/Sunderland, Spurs/Arsenal, Liverpool/Everton etc) put away their differences to follow the common cause--ENGLAND!
The wunderkind Wayne Rooney is unlikely to take part, but no matter. With this team, England have the best chance of the last forty years to win the World Cup.

Don’t let us down boys. England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty!