Sunday, 30 August 2020

Breweries - once you've seen one, you've seen them all?

Over the course of the past 45 years I’ve visited more breweries than you could shake a stick at. That’s probably not quite true, but at the last count, and I’m sure I might have missed some, I’ve been shown round 35 breweries, here in Blighty, and 19 overseas.

Those breweries on home soil, include 20 established/ family concerns and 15 micro-breweries. The latter ranging from “man in a shed” and pub breweries, to some quite substantial operations – Dark Star, Woodfordes and Hog’s Back. I haven’t included breweries visited, in order to collect beer for parties or beer festivals; if I had names such as Boddingtons, Brakspear’s, Wethereds, Palmers and Robinsons would feature on my list, even though the first three are no longer with us.

The overseas operations include 9 in mainland Europe, one in Ireland (Guinness naturally), and 7 in the United States. Apart from Guinness, there are some other “big boys” amongst this lot, including Carlsberg, Heineken, Pilsner Urquell and Stone Brewing (Richmond). I haven’t included the substantial number of brewpubs in Germany and the Czech Republic, where I have enjoyed beers brewed on the premises, but not viewed the actual brewing plant.

So, what exactly is the appeal of a brewery visit, and as some would day, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s answer the first one to begin with, and it does actually depend on the type of brewery it is. For example, there is far more to see at an established brewery such as Harvey’s, Elgood’s or Greene King.

These are family owned concerns with heritage and pedigree behind them. The same could be said of De Halve Maan in Bruges, their West Flanders neighbours Rodenbach, or Schumacher in Düsseldorf. All these places are fascinating combinations of old and new; factors which provide plenty of interest and lots of things to look at. Sadly other, traditional breweries such as Fremlin’s, Morland’s, Ridley’s and Young's are no longer with us, but at least I had the privilege of touring them whilst they were still brewing.  

Of far less appeal are the ultra-modern mega-breweries, where everything is enclosed and there is little to catch one’s interest. The aforementioned “big boys” fall into this category, although Pilsner Urquell in Plzen, does at least mange to blend in some old plant with the new. Guinness, on the other hand, was a real disappointment with virtually nothing, apart from a collection of monstrous stainless-steel vessels and tanks to look at.

Some micro-breweries are also staggeringly boring to look at, particularly if they are housed in a modern, look-alike, industrial unit. If the premises are converted agricultural or industrial buildings, then this is much better, especially if the premises have some character and pedigree associated with them.

That’s the first question put to bed, and it sort of answers the second by dismissing the absurd statement of having seen one, then you’ve seen them all. This quite clearly isn’t true, even though the process and mechanics of brewing are basically the same, despite the huge variances in size, construction and layout. In addition, as someone who was a keen home-brewer, a tour round a brewery provides insight into the brewing process and on occasion will give tips and ideas

Most brewery visits end with a sampling of the products, and some breweries are naturally far more generous than others. For some visitors this is the most interesting section of the tour, and for a handful, perhaps the sole reason for embarking on such a trip. Only real cynics, or out and out philistines would have such an attitude, but it does exist.

The end of tour enjoyment should be an opportunity for the brewery concerned to show off their wares and demonstrate the care and skill that has gone into creating each individual beer, and yet again some companies do this better than others.  A charge that covers both the brewers, or their tour guides time is not unreasonable and especially so if the sampling room is generous. Some breweries will even include food as part of the package, and here a fee to cover this really should be expected.

Now some facts and figures about the 50+ brewery tours I have experienced over the past four and a half decades.

First brewery tour
Marston’s, Burton-on-Trent c. 1974.

Most recent tour, Cellar Head, Frant, 2019.

Best and most interesting tour(s)Harvey’s, Lewes. I’ve undertaken at least four tours of Harvey’s, and possibly a fifth. Head Brewer, Miles Jenner has been the guide for all but one of these visits, and he is a real entertainer, as well as a font of knowledge of all things brewing. Last tour – April 2019.

Most unusual tour
Elgood’s, Wisbech c. late 1990’s. Elgood’s retain a classic, open wort cooler, known as a “cool ship” at the top of the brewery; similar to the one I viewed at De Halve Maan Brewery in Bruges.

This wasn’t the real surprise though, as after chatting to the head gardener, after looking round the brewery, I was given my own private tour of the four-acre, enclosed gardens behind the Georgian brewery buildings. The gardens were in the process of being restored to their former brewery and are now open to the public (not at present, due to Covid-19 restrictions).

Most missed brewery
Young’s, formerly of Wandsworth, London.  A cask stalwart that stood firm against the keg-tide that threatened to engulf British brewing in the early 1970’s. Sorely missed, and only closed after former charismatic chairman John Young, had passed away. 

Driest brewery tour - Hall & Woodhouse (Badger), Blandford Forum c. early 1990's.  The family and I were staying in a rented, holiday
cottage, in a small village, about 5 miles outside Blandford. We'd called in at the brewery, earlier that day, and discovered a tour was taking place that evening. I was able to join the tour, but unfortunately had to drive myself there and back.The post-tour sampling was consequently very limited, although the company did provide me with a selection of bottles to take home. 

I'm sure you've probably got the picture now and, with luck, have realised that no matter how similar they might appear at first site, brewery tours are very much distinctive and different from each other. So, if you get the chance to join one, don't turn it down.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Take the long way home

Apologies for the rather lengthy introduction to this post, but please bear with me as the points raised are not only relevant, but help to set the scene. They revolve around my journey home from work and the fact that, over the course of the summer, my drive home has often necessitated me taking a slightly different route.

My choice has, at times, been dictated by the weather, but the influence played by local geography should also be taken into account. My drive to and from work involves crossing  over the River Medway; the largest river in Kent. The Medway rises on the high ground of Ashdown Forest, before making its way to Tonbridge, Maidstone and then eventually out to sea. 

My home town of Tonbridge is the limit of navigation for all but the smallest of boats, but this still doesn’t prevent the  river from forming a significant barrier to travel by land. Apart from the viaduct that carries the A21 trunk road across the Medway flood plain, the next crossing, upstream from the town, is at Ensfield Bridge, between Leigh and Haysden. The crossing here forms part of my normal route, but  unfortunately it is prone to flooding. This means that following prolonged spells of heavy rain I am forced to use the crossing further upstream at Penshurst.

For several months now, I have been travelling home via the Penshurst route; not because of flooding, but more so because of the irresponsible behaviour of groups of “yoofs.” You see Ensfield Bridge has become popular, during spells of hot weather, as a place where the local idiots can jump off the parapet, and “dive-bomb” into the water below. Not the safest of pastimes, and one that has become known, not without some degree of irony, as “tomb-stoning”  in maritime areas, where people jump off from rocks and even piers, into the sea. 

This doesn't always end well, especially when there are underwater obstructions, or the water is not as deep as the jumpers believe, but whatever the appeal of this rather reckless behaviour, it does seem to have increased in popularity and prevalence over the course of this increasingly strange summer. If people are stupid enough to risk injuring themselves in this fashion, that’s up to them and if they are removed from the gene pool, then this is natural selection at work, but they should consider the impact this could have on loved ones and on increasingly stretched healthcare resources, before doing so.

That’s enough pontificating, but these activities have often obstructed the road that runs over the bridge, due to the limited amount of car-parking spaces available at this spot. In normal times, this would be where anglers, walkers or local farmers would park their vehicles, but with the “tomb-stoning” craze at its height, there have been times when the road has been  blocked and virtually impassable.

So when the sun is shining and the mercury is high in the glass, I tend to take the slightly longer homeward route, via Penshurst. This isn’t too much out of my way, and does make for a pleasant change of scenery. Penshurst is an attractive village and is home to Penshurst Place;  a 14th Century  manor house that has remained largely untouched since late medieval times. It is also home to the Leicester Arms; an imposing inn situated almost opposite the entrance to Penshurst Place.

The  Leicester Arms had been closed for some months, before the start of lock-down, so driving past one afternoon in early July, I was pleased to notice the pub had reopened. A couple of days later, I saw a couple of drinkers, sat out at a tables in front of the pub, obviously enjoying a pint.

I felt as if I ought to be joining them, so for several weeks I thought about leaving work early, and calling in for a pint. There’s something really attractive about sitting out in front of a pub, bar or café, preferably with a beer in front of one, and then just watching the world go by. A picturesque village such as Penshurst, attracts plenty of passers-by, especially now that the stately pile has re-opened (for pre-bookings only), so yesterday I took the opportunity of paying  the Leicester Arms a visit, on my way home.

I arrived shortly after 4.30pm, and after negotiating the narrow entrance to the car park, made my way to the front of the pub and stepped inside. The Leicester Arms still has the look and feel of an old fashioned country hotel, with an entrance lobby, reception area, plus dining and restaurant areas towards the rear of the building. The spacious bar area leads off to the right, and although it is a while since I last called in, not much seems to have changed; apart from an obvious spruce up.

For many years the Leicester Arms traded off the fact that film stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had stayed at the hotel whilst filming a period drama set in the nearby Penshurst Place. There were some modern-day guests staying whilst I was there, which I took as a good sign – see below.

There was the by now obligatory hand-gel dispenser by the door, but apart from that no other obvious track and trace procedures.  I approached the bar and ordered myself a pint of Larkin’s Traditional. A beer from Brakspear’s was the other offering, but with Larkin’s brewed just a few miles away,  I prefer to remain  local.

I told the barmaid that I wanted to pay cash, which was fine, and handed over a tenner, but after her colleague had pulled my pint, she took it round the corner of the bar, and left it on a tray, complete with my change. All nice and professional, and presented with a friendly welcome as well.

I headed outside for the front of the pub, but before I left, another customer appeared and ordered pint of Guinness. He asked if he could put the beer on his room – a clue that he was actually staying at the hotel. Another clue came shortly after, when he joined me outside, at one of the other tables, and shouted up at someone looking out from an upstairs window. I presumed correctly that this was  another member of his party.

A young lad then appeared who turned out to be connected with the hotel owners. He very commendably asked the guest with the Guinness, as to why he wasn’t drinking Larkin’s. The chap looked puzzled until the boy explained it was the local ale, brewed just down the road. He muttered something about always drinking Guinness, but if truth be known he really should have been drinking Larkin’s, as it was exceptionally good.

It was by far the best pint of cask I’ve had since before lock-down, and worth every penny of the £4.25 I paid; not too bad a price for the area, the hotel and the general rise in prices, after re-opening. More to the point, it was that good that I awarded it a very rare 4.5 on the NBSS.  

I sat there enjoying my pint, watching the passers-by – dog-walkers, ramblers, visitors to Penshurst Place and no doubt locals from the village as well. I accept that lovers of the traditional pub will probably be aghast at this blatant enjoyment of café culture, and will mumble amongst themselves that I should be inside, soaking up the totally different atmosphere of the dimly-lit bar, but to hell with them. I enjoyed my little moment of beer appreciation and people watching.

As I made my way back to the car, I noticed a garden area, complete with tables and umbrellas, at rear of pub, opposite car-park. There were several groups of customers taking advantage of the early evening sunshine whilst enjoying a drink and a chat together.

All this, and more is evidence that the great British pub is still alive and kicking – even for those sat inside in the bar. Long may it continue!


Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Breakfast at Goodfellas

With pubs, bars and restaurants re-open now, albeit under certain restraints and conditions (more stringent in some, than in others), it was time for father and son team, Paul and Matthew to venture out in search of that traditional, old favourite, Sunday breakfast. But with some outlets still closed, and other operating with restricted opening times, the big question was, where to go?

Not wishing to risk the displeasure of Mrs PBT’s, we’d ruled out Wetherspoon’s (don't ask!), but even long-time fan Matthew admitted that a Spoon’s breakfast was very hit and miss these days. One possibility was the Hilden Manor, but it wasn’t clear whether booking was necessary at this Beefeater establishment. This then was where I came up with the idea of the Chaser at Shipbourne.

The latter is a scattered settlement of houses spread around the periphery of a large open green; a piece of open ground that’s almost large enough to be called a “common.” The Chaser is a large and impressive pub with a tile-hung exterior, and white-painted veranda, which overlooks the green. It is part of the Whiting & Hammond chain of pubs, which means it is very much food oriented. A check of the pub’s website the night before, confirmed that breakfast was available between 9am & 11am, so we set of in Matthew’s car, arriving just before 10am.

Before going any further, it’s worth noting that Whiting & Hammond also run the Little Brown Jug in the village where I work, the King’s Head at Bessels Green, near Sevenoaks and, slightly further afield, the Cricketers at Meopham.  Matthew and I had breakfasted previously at the first two pubs, so knew the quality would be good, but what we didn’t anticipate were the hungry hordes!

The car park was rammed full and the nearest available parking space, on the green, was practically in the next parish. The sight of all these vehicles, and nowhere to park, indicated that the pub was most likely full too, so without even stopping, Matthew made a quick circuit of the green before heading back to Tonbridge.

We parked up next to the castle, and descended to the High Street, past the remains of the medieval curtain wall. I was reasonably confident that the nearby Chequers would be open, but unfortunately, I was wrong, and the front door was well and truly shut.  The Gatehouse, opposite was also closed, so we did a quick about-turn, and headed off back down the High Street in the direction of the station.

We passed the Humphrey Bean – Tonbridge’s local Wetherspoon’s outlet on the way, but that looked crowded, so we continued making our way, in a southerly direction, with the provisional idea of calling in at Jimmy’s Café, just behind the station.  A few shops away from Spoon’s though, we noticed that Goodfellas Café was open, and what’s more the breakfast offering advertised in the window was looking good.

Until quite recently, Goodfellas was called Jenny’s and to add to the confusion, there is another establishment called Jel’s Café & Sandwich Bar, next door. It always struck me as strange to have two similar cafés next to each other, but despite having lived in Tonbridge for the past three and a half decades, curiosity never got the better of me, and Sunday was the first time I’d set foot in either establishment.

We chose Goodfellas because Jel’s was shut, but on balance it also looked the better of the two. We were ushered in by the friendly waitress, pausing briefly for a dollop of hand gel. The café was thin and quite narrow, extending back a long way. I remarked on

this, and the waitress agreed it was rather like Dr Who’s Tardis.  I mentioned this to Mrs PBT’s, when we arrived back home, and she told us that the café used to be Tonbridge’s Wimpy Bar. She should know, having been born in the town and this,  coupled with a mis-spent youth frequenting cafes and burger bars, means she's always been quite an expert on local eateries.

We were shown to one of the far tables, suitably socially distanced from other diners, and after ordering a large cup of tea each, flicked through the menu to see what was on offer.  Matthew was tempted by the Traditional Breakfast, but then changed his mind when I told him there was nothing “traditional” in having chips with one’s egg, sausage and bacon!

In the end we both opted for the “build your own” option; Matthew taking rather more options than his father! One egg, one sausage, two rashers of bacon, one hash brown, grilled tomato and slice of toast was fine for me, and was enough to keep me going until early evening,

The food was good quality, well-cooked, nicely presented and good value; so yes, we will return. In the meantime, it was good to discover another decent cafe in the town, even if it was somewhere I’d been walking past for over three decades!

Friday, 21 August 2020

Moving in the right direction

I took three days off from work at the end of last week. I didn’t go away anywhere and didn’t do anything terribly exciting, but it was nice just being away from the workplace for five days and just generally chilling out.

The reason I wanted to write this piece is I have noticed encouraging signs of something like a return to normal. For example, I had to take my car in for a spot of work last Wednesday, and after dropping it off at a garage on North Farm Industrial Estate, I took a stroll along to High Brooms station from where I caught the train back to Tonbridge.

My original plan had been to walk back, via the cycle-way that runs parallel to, separate from the main A21 trunk road, but with 30 degrees of heat, and no shade, I didn’t fancy a three and a half mile walk. Instead I let the train take the strain, as the ads used to say, and was heartened by the number of people waiting to board at High Brooms.

Arriving back in Tonbridge, I thought I’d chance getting a much needed haircut – my first since early March. Walking up to my usual barber’s I was just studying  the sign on the door about how to make an appointment, when the owner popped her head out and asked if I’d made a booking.

I said that I hadn’t, so she said she could fit me in, if I wanted. Well, after sweltering in the heat, with a mop of unruly hair, I of course said yes, but before sitting down in the chair, there were the Covid safety procedures to perform. Name and contact number, followed by having my temperature taken. I was slightly concerned that having walked up from the station, the reading might have been too high, so I was rather shocked when I was informed it was 34° C!

If her thermometer was that accurate, I would have been suffering from hypothermia, so rather than relate this information I instead  just smiled sweetly and said nothing. It was nice and cool in the barbers, due to the recently installed air-conditioning, and whilst in the chair, we’d chatted about trade and the situation in general. The hairdresser’s had been busy, and whilst operating mainly on an appointment basis, the proprietor said that she wasn’t going to turn away walk-up trade, if the shop was quiet.

One haircut later, and a promise to send my son up for a haircut as well, I was on my way to pick up some shopping, before heading home. Tonbridge High Street was bustling as I walked along to son Matthew’s shop to inform him it was safe for him to get a haircut. The hardware store he works at has remained busy, since reopening at the end of June, and the same seemed true of several other nearby shops. I was tempted to stop off for a coffee, but wanted to get home before temperatures climbed much higher.

The following day I was up extra early, as we were due to have a section of our garden fencing replaced. The contractors advised they would be on site between 7.30 and 8am, and true to form they were ringing the bell at just after 7.30am.  There were just two of them, but they worked like a couple of Trojans, slaving  away in the heat and high humidity of the summer heatwave.

I kept them liberally supplied with cold drinks and coffee (most contractors drink tea, surely?), nipping out for a short while in order to drive Mrs PBT’s to her place of work. The fencers were finished, just after 1pm, having replaced three damaged and two missing panels, along with new fence posts, where necessary.

We’d been waiting to get that job completed since the winter storms had first wreaked havoc with our fence, back at the end of last October, so that was another item to cross off the list. In the weeks leading up to the installation, I had the job of removing a Leylandii conifer hedge, that was long passed its prime, so whilst the garden looks a little bare at present, I will be planting some less rampant and far more colourful replacement shrubs.

Friday proved a welcome chance for a trip out. The weather was a lot cooler, so Mrs PBT’s and I took a drive down to Peasmarsh, in order to pick up some “luxury” grocery items from the Jempson’s  superstore on the edge of the village. I have written about this emporium before, so won’t repeat myself here, but it proved an enjoyable ride out in the country and the chance to do something a little different.

One thing we did notice was the leaves on many of the trees were already starting to turn yellow. Some were even brown, indicating that autumn has either come early, or that the trees were suffering from a lack of water, given the near drought conditions we’ve experienced over the past few months.

Continuing in that vein, I’ve noticed a similar autumnal effect on many of the trees, whilst out on my regular lunchtime walks. I’ve also come across plenty of ripe blackberries, whilst out on these jaunts; another indicator that autumn is on its way.

The following day we drove over to Gravesend, for a socially-distanced get together in the garden, with Eileen’s brother and his girlfriend. It was quite wet on the drive over, but fortunately there was a large gazebo which kept us dry.

Keeping us wet, on the inside, was some draught beer which Mrs PBT’s brother had collected earlier from the local Iron Pier Brewery. I took a look at their website, which demonstrated that Iron Pier produce a myriad of different beers – far too many in my eyes, but their standard bitter that we glugged was a very drinkable, dark and malty 4.0% brew, which went well with the fish and chips, ordered from a local takeaway.

The point of this article is not so much to bore readers with domestic trivia, but to demonstrate  that a degree of normality is starting to return to our lives. Yes it's a pain having to wear face-masks in shops and other places, but if they allow us to mingle more freely whilst we go about our business, then I can put up with it for a while longer.

Getting that much needed haircut was another step in the right direction, as was that ride on the train. It was encouraging to notice a lot more passengers than on my previous journey, three weeks before, and whilst I didn’t get the chance to visit any pubs over the course of my short break, I’ve received reports from friends that suggest things are picking up too in the licensed trade.


Thursday, 20 August 2020

Dancing to the music of time - a book at bedtime

“A Dance to the Music of Time” is one of those books I’d always promised myself that I’d read. I first became aware of it when the book was dramatised on Radio Four, back in the early 1980’s. At the time, the previous Mrs Bailey was an avid listener to the broadcasts, and although I dipped in and out of the dramatisation, I never properly got into it.

That wasn’t quite true as I remained mildly fascinated by such a lengthy novel, so some 40 years on was determined to fulfil my desire to one day read the book, in its entirety. So, in June last year, I bit the bullet and placed an order for “Spring,” the first volume in the series. I have been reading my way through that, and subsequent volumes until the present date, and have enjoyed the books immensely. I still haven’t finished – more about that later.

 “A Dance to the Music of Time” is a multi-volume novel, published in twelve instalments between 1951 and 1975 and spans a large chunk of the 20th Century, from the years before the First World War to the early nineteen-seventies. It was written by English writer Anthony Powell – pronounced “pole” rather than “pow-ell,” who was a contemporary of other 20th Century literary luminaries, such as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and George Orwell.

It has a cast of several hundred characters, drawn largely from the English upper middle classes. This was a society where the well to do and the bohemian overlap, and a world where no-one appears to have a proper job. As the novels progress, it is clear that this society was disappearing, even as Powell wrote the books, so for those interested in mid-20th Century history, the novels provide a fascinating insight, into a rapidly vanishing world.

Another element about the series, and one which keeps readers on their toes, is the various characters come and go throughout the books; just as they might in real life. At times it is hard to keep up, as some characters who might have just a minor role in one volume, appear later with a major one later in the series. The same is true the other way around.

The books are narrated by a writer called Nicholas Jenkins, who is closely modelled on Powell himself, and many of the events portrayed in the narrative, reflect similar happenings in the life of the author.

The twelve books, whilst not quite stand-alone novels, run roughly in chronological order through Jenkins’s life; although there are a couple of exceptions which appear almost as flashbacks. The twelve books are grouped into four sets of three novel volumes that reflect the seasons, and are titled accordingly Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

The Spring volume chronicles Nick Jenkins and his friends, from their time at public school – almost certainly Eton College, through to them making their way into what Powell describes as the “acceptance world.” This is a world of debutantes and society balls which, whilst sounding glamorous, turn out to be predictable and often boring affairs.

Summer continues this theme through the late 1920’s and into the 30’s, detailing the comings and goings amongst the crowd that Jenkins falls in with. Although members of the aristocracy many of the characters have fallen on hard times. There is also a definite bohemian element amongst them.

Nick marries into the aristocracy by wedding Isobel, one of the Tolland sisters; siblings of Lord Erridge, Earl of Warminster, an eccentric socialist peer, who goes off to take part in the Spanish Civil War. Nick’s marriage, mimics that of Powell’s own to Lady Violet Packenham, daughter of the 5th Earl of Longford. 

The third book in this volume is a flashback to 1914, when Nick was still living at home with his parents. The events of that summer, which led to the start of the First World War, are deliberately set against the storm clouds that gathered over Europe during the latter part of the 1930’s, with the Spanish Civil War casting a shadow and acting as a chilling precursor to the horrors of World War II.

Autumn details Nick Jenkins’s experiences through that war, and to me is the dullest and most drawn-out of the four volumes. Given his age, Nick does not see active service, but does eventually obtain a posting within the section set up to liaise with the forces of the occupied countries who are fighting the Nazis alongside the western allies.

One character who crops up throughout the series, is Kenneth Widmerpool, a slightly tragic, anti-hero, described by one critic as “one of the most memorable characters of 20th Century fiction.” Because of his awkwardness and total lack of any self-shame, Widmerpool is ridiculed and made fun of by his peers, but despite this becomes determined to show the world what he is made of. 

He turns into a real social climber who, against the grain, achieves high office, first in the military and then in politics and, much to Nick's chagrin, keeps popping up in his life, often at the most awkward of moments.

The Winter volume covers the years following World War II, up until the 1970’s. Here, Nick continues his literary career, becoming the reviewer for "Fission," a socialist magazine, backed by Quiggin, a Marxist writer and adversary from his time at Oxford. Financial backing for this magazine comes from non-other than Kenneth Widmerpool.

I have now started the second book of this final volume, which jumps forward to the late 1950’s, and sees Nick attending a literary conference in Venice; a city he remembers from visits during childhood, with his paents. Even whist far away from home shores, it comes as no surprise that he should bump into Widmerpool, accompanied this time by his highly attractive, but "man-eating" wife, Pamela.

I have been thoroughly engrossed in this series of novels for the past 14 months; so much so that it will be a shame in some respects to finish them. I of course, had aspirations of reading one of these volumes whilst lounging out on the deck of the Queen Mary 2, on the cruise Mrs PBT’s and I booked, across the North Sea to Hamburg, but alas it was not to be.

Instead the books helped keep me sane through the long weeks of lock-down and into the unsettled times we now find ourselves in. There’s much to be said about “a book at bedtime,” especially as one can lose oneself in another word, before drifting off into a restful sleep, and I’m certainly glad I embarked on this marathon, 12 book novel.

So if there are any literary gems, or even a plain old novel that you’ve always promised yourself you’d read, you could do far worse than just follow you desire and discover whether or not that special book really was worthy of your time and your patience.


Friday, 14 August 2020

I'm with Tim on this one!

 It’s very rare that I find myself agreeing with Tim Martin, founder and chairman of JD Wetherspoon, especially after his support and enthusiasm for a damaging, hard Brexit, but on the issue, I am about to relate, Mr Martin is spot on.

The case in question concerns a statement made by Richard Pennington, Professor of Bacteriology at Aberdeen University, in which he claimed there is a link between drinking indoors in pubs and a recent rise in Coronavirus cases. The Wetherspoon’s chairman has subsequently demanded that the scientist should publish hard evidence to back up his claim.  

The professor was referring to the recent spike in cases seen in the city of Aberdeen, which has led to the imposition, by the Scottish government, of a localised "lock-down" shutting all pubs, bars and restaurants in the area. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, the professor said that pubs were risky places for the spread of Coronavirus, as “hot and steamy” environments help Covid-19 to “get about.” Tim Martin has now challenged Professor Pennington to publish his findings so they can be “properly peer reviewed.”

A statement from Mr Martin in the Morning Advertiser, said that whilst some JDW outlets had experienced “individual cases” among staff and customers, they had not experienced an outbreak. He added there was nothing which could be described as an outbreak, and so far, there had not been a case of transmission from person to person among staff, or from staff to customers, or vice-versa.

In the light of this, Tim Martin stressed the importance of the pub industry to staff, customers and the treasury, and reiterated his call for an in-depth analysis of Professor Pennington’s findings and challenged him to publish the basis of his assumptions about any possible link between pubs and Coronavirus.

Now I doubt very much whether the professor will put his money where his mouth is; especially as his pronouncement seems little more than an assumption, but putting two and two together and making five is something that has characterised the Coronavirus saga since the beginning of 2020.

If anything, the use of science to drive a certain political or behavioural agenda has accelerated over the course of the past eight months, with dozens of so-called “experts” all eagerly chipping in with their own thoughts and comments. Some, of course, have been well-thought out and have helped our understanding of this novel-virus, but far too many have been sensationalist or misleading.

As a scientist, this "politicisation" of science makes me very cross, especially as good science (and there is still plenty of that out there) is working hard for the benefit of us all, but bad science is leading us in the opposite direction and it is not somewhere we ought to be travelling to.

Now I don’t intend on getting bogged down here, as this is a subject in its own right, but I do want to mention briefly,  the mathematical modellers, whose predictions (not always, by any means accurate),  have influenced, and in many cases driven, government policy from the start. Pandemics, such as Coronavirus, don’t always behave in the nice, neatly ordered way that computer-generated modelling says they should, and neither do populations, and this is now starting to show in various parts of the world.

Unfortunately, false assumptions, based on flawed science, attract the attention of the mainstream media, which remains obsessed with anything remotely connected to Coronavirus, especially if they can put a negative/sensationalist spin on the story.

So, to return to Tim Martin, who is quite right in calling for studies into virus spreading within pubs, to be published, along with proper scrutiny of the type of generalised statements put out by scientists and politicians to suit their own agendas. Given the measures put in place by licensees and pub owners throughout the country, to keep people safe and mitigate any risk – real or imagined, why should pubs and restaurants be regarded as less safe than say travelling on crowded buses and trains or shopping in a busy supermarket?

Pubs have received more than their fair share of bad publicity during this outbreak and seem to be used as scapegoats every time there’s even the merest hint of Coronavirus. It’s almost as if the powerful health lobbyists, at Public Health England are using the situation to promote their own anti-alcohol, "kill-joy" message, which sadly is being taken up the UK government. And in Scotland, just yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was once again singling out pubs for criticism, virtually repeating Professor Pennington’s words. 

We would all like this situation to be over, as soon as possible, and for a degree of normality to return to our lives.  Properly managed businesses, whether they are factories, distribution centres, retail outlets or pubs and restaurants are helping this process along the way, whilst at the same time ensuring employees and customers remain safe. Why then single out certain sectors of our struggling economy?

Politicians are very keen on stressing that we are all in this together, so stop playing politics and get people behind what you are doing, instead of alienating them. That way we can bring about an end to this pandemic, that little bit sooner.