The Best Of Curmudgeon - 1993
Highlights from Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Columns during 1993
One of the saddest items in the news recently was the case of Jeffrey Sullivan, the railway guard and magistrate who lost his job and his position on the bench because he had drunk three pints of beer before starting his turn of duty and was therefore over the "legal limit" for driving.
There is no dispute that the British Rail regulations do state that for any member of staff to be over this limit constitutes gross misconduct and just cause for dismissal. However, Mr Sullivan was not driving a train and there was no suggestion that he was incapable of performing his duties. In the circumstances his fate, although correct by the book, seems harsh.
It is more worrying that this regulation applies to any member of British Rail staff, whether or not they are responsible for the safety of the public, even the tea-maker or the toilet cleaner. It is one thing to set a limit (which is a very small amount of alcohol indeed) for an activity such as driving which requires concentration and is potentially dangerous. It is another entirely to imply that anyone over this very low limit is incapable of any form of rational action. Yet this view seems to be spreading through society with disturbing speed. Will more and more employers start breath-testing their workers?
One wonders what this country's fate would have been in the Second World War if Winston Churchill had been made to take a breath test before his turns of duty.
One of the most cynical and irresponsible marketing exercises carried out by the big drinks companies in recent times has been the introduction of super-strength ciders such as Diamond White, Max, "K", etc. Some of these have an alcoholic strength of over 8%, yet they are unashamedly aimed at young people, particularly young women. Apparently they are often referred to as "legover juice" (though I cannot vouch for this from personal experience). They certainly bear only a very tenuous connection to genuine, traditional cider, and are deliberately light-bodied so that they don't drink their strength.
So what, you may say, there are beers available which are just as strong, not to mention traditional ciders. But ordering an Old Tom or a Westons Special Vintage is not something to be undertaken lightly. There is certainly a place for strong beers and ciders, but it is essential that they should be taken seriously, and promoted for their heritage and character, not just their strength.
These ciders are regarded as being just something for a good time, and people often do not appreciate quite how strong they are. I have seen a young woman insist she was fit to drive after consuming four bottles - "it's only four little bottles after all, only two pints" - when this would probably have put her at least double the legal limit.
If the drinks trade wants the public to believe it has a sense of social responsibility, it needs to look very carefully at what it is doing marketing products such as these in the way it does.
One of the glories of our pub food - and one of its staples - should be plain bread and cheese, commonly referred to as a Ploughman's Lunch. Yet how often does this apparently simple meal turn out desperately disappointing? The basic ingredients couldn't be easier - a large chunk of crusty bread, large chunk of proper cheese, generous helping of pickles and, if you must, for appearance's sake, a little serving of salad in the corner of the plate.
But how often do pubs live up to this? Stale white rolls are all too common, as are sweaty pieces of the cheapest supermarket "Mild Argentinian Cheddar", even in places such as Cheshire and Wensleydale where you might expect something better. Sometimes you get on your plate little more than the dissected contents of a small cheese salad roll, sold for twice the price.
The pub which shows how it should be done is, of course, the Royal Oak in Didsbury. Admittedly it isn't perfect, as it's very mean with pickles and doesn't serve lunches at weekends. But most other pubs would be doing far better than they are now if they offered half the portions and a quarter of the choice for the same price.
Tony Wilkinson wrote a lighthearted article on it in September's "Opening Times", and it was a point well made, but it's a serious issue which doesn't get the publicity it deserves. What is it? Disappearing public toilets, of course. In the past year, Stockport has closed about half the toilets in the borough. There are now only about fifteen in the whole of the City of Manchester.
This may only be a minor inconvenience to drinkers (but it may also be an inconvenience to others if they are forced to relieve themselves elsewhere). It can, though, severely restrict the activities of groups in society such as the elderly, pregnant women and mothers with young children, often those who are disadvantaged in other ways too. I know local authorities aren't exactly flush with money, but no-one can tell me that, even so, they don't waste money on fripperies which would be better spent on basic necessities like loos.
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A large local pub has recently been refurbished and half the lounge turned into a no-smoking area. The result is that, even when it's pretty busy, the customers cluster in the smoking area, as hardly any of them are in wholly non-smoking groups. They only occupy the no-smoking zone as a desperate measure late in the evening. Is this responding to demand, or forcing a trendy no-smoking policy down people's throats?
In the past ten years we have seen a highly effective campaign against smoking, to the extent that it is rapidly being confined to something done in private between consenting adults. There are disturbing parallels with the campaign now being increasingly waged against those who enjoy alcoholic drinks. I don't smoke myself, but that connection worries me.
O.K., if customers demand no-smoking areas in pubs, the brewers should provide them, in the same way as they provide Taboo and Mirage and tomato sauce crisps. But drinkers should regard any surrender pubs make to the dreary killjoys of the "health" lobby with a healthy dose of scepticism.
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Maybe such views are "politically incorrect", but I'm sure I wasn't by any means the only person in Greater Manchester to breathe a sigh of relief when it was announced that the 2000 Olympics were to be awarded to Sydney!