Category Archives: Pubs & Restaurants

Burning down the house….

It would seem that living in this part of Birmingham is rapidly becoming a hazardous business.  Going way back, the old Indoor Market in Kings Heath burned down under suspicious circumstances and only a year or so back, the old Kingsway cinema went up, yet again under similarly dodgy circumstances.

Now, a landmark of the Birmingham music scene, the former Ritz Ballroom in York Road;  most recently a branch of grasping pawnshop chain Cash Converters has also pretty much burned to the ground under – you guessed it –  the proverbial ‘suspicious circumstances’.

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You say ‘Hello’, I say ‘Goodbye’ – the Ritz goes up in flames

So is Kings Heath now ‘Arson Central’?  Should we go to bed with a bucket of water and a fire blanket?  Just what is going on?  As far as I am aware, neither the Indoor Market fire or the Kingsway fire were ever adequately explained and though the local Fire Department are talking of ‘suspicious circumstances’ no-one seems quite sure what they mean.

Did they find an empty firelighters box and a trail of spent matches in the vicinity?  Perhaps some shellsuited denizen of the  wretched Stalinist banlieues further out of the city loudly and publicly threatened to rain down doom and disaster on Cash Converters because they would only give him £3 for his extensive collection of PS3 games or maybe it was just some dodgy wiring in an old building which, I suspect, was never terribly well-maintained.

Whatever the case, the BBC were quick to dig up some rentamouth Brummy social historian – though not Carl Chinn for once – who deplored the city’s lack of care & attention where its musical heritage was concerned.  This bloke suggested that both Manchester & Liverpool have been much more adept at preserving their musical heritage.  Hmmm, well I’m not sure about Liverpool and that whole ersatz Beatles thing in Mathew Street, but I do know that Manchester has been equally careless with the Electric Circus, the original Factory/Russell Club and the Haçienda all now demolished.

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Hooky at the site of The Haçienda; from yacht showroom to iconic venue to a block of yuppie flats……is nothing sacred?

Ho hum, sic transit gloria swanson, but there is a certain irony in the fact that the people behind the (ahem) ‘Kings Heath Walk of Fame’ – first to be honoured, Toyah Willcox, next up (apparently) The Move’s Trevor Burton – had staged an event in Fletcher’s bar opposite The Ritz in February to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles playing The Ritz.

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The Ritz as it was back in the day. Note bizarre multi-coloured plastic checkerboard tiled frontage.  Groovy!

The Ritz was one of 4 ‘ballrooms’ owned and run by the Regan family in this area.  In addition, there were 2 Plazas – one in Handsworth and one in Old Hill plus the notorious Garryowen club in Small Heath.  I can recall visiting the ‘Garry’  a few times back in the 80’s and it was pretty wild.  As far as I know,  it, too. was either demolished or burned down a while back .  Hmm, bit of a pattern developing here……

According to  ic Birmingham back in 2005:  “The Small Heath club, a cornerstone of Birmingham’s Irish community since 1946, was labelled by police as a hot-spot of crime, disorder, alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour….Insp David McCrone  said there had been 223 call-outs to the club in two years, even though it was only open two nights a week, and closing time deadlines were flouted.”  That sounds about right…my strategy in the Garry was keep drinking and keep your head down.  How bad things got in there generally depended on the respective results for the Blues (Birmingham City) and the Villa (Aston Villa) on any given Saturday.  A win for Villa and a defeat for the Blues meant maximum aggravation and you might be wiser to spend your evening in an alternative cocktail bar unless you were ‘in’ with the central core of drinkers.

Anyway, the Regans are gone, the ‘Garry’ is gone and now so is The Ritz.  As I stood at the corner of York Road yesterday surveying the still-smouldering remains, an old dear next to me said ” I met my husband in there ; we used to go dancing there nearly every weekend”

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The Fab Four – allegedly taken out the back of The Ritz in 1962

There is a sense of loss locally; after all it wasn’t just The Beatles who played at The Ritz – the place also played host to the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones and even Pink Floyd.  However, I think it’s dubious to start moaning and groaning about how poor this city is at preserving its musical heritage – apart from Manchester, a quick look around will show that the Rainbow (née Finsbury Park Astoria) became a Happy-Clappy Church in the 1980’s and now seems to be closed/derelict.

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The former Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park

Maybe the USA does this kind of thing better;  Harlem’s  ‘Apollo’ is still open for business whilst there is a ‘ Fillmore Club’ on the site of the old Carousel / Fillmore in San Francisco.  However,  CBGB in The Bowery is now a clothes shop and whilst long-standing  jazz clubs like  Birdland and the Village Vanguard are still around,  none of them are in the same premises where they began.  Seen from this point of view, the whole thing just becomes a kind of franchise and authenticity becomes a question of branding rather than geographical  location.

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The original Carousel Ballroom / Fillmore West in 1970…

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…and the same intersection today

When I lived in Copenhagen in the late 1970’s, I can recall witnessing a plethora of top-flight jazz gigs at the Montmartre Jazz Club, a venue known – by reputation at least – to all European jazz fans.  In just a couple of years I saw some fantastic gigs featuring the likes of the nascent Pat Metheny Group, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Dollar Brand, Gil Evans and perhaps best of all, the 1977  McCoy Tyner Sextet.  However, I knew well and good that the club on Nørregade was by no means the original Montmartre location.  Earlier in the 70’s I had been to Montmartre on Store Regnegade to see Ben Webster, but even that wasn’t the club’s original location.

So, what does it really matter?  I guess we only really miss these places when they are gone.  After its heyday, the Regans turned The Ritz into a bingo hall and it then stood derelict for quite a while before it was tarted up by Cash Converters.  Can’t say as I noticed the doyens and doyennes of Birmingham’s music scene trying to reclaim it for posterity at any time during this period.  The Ritz now joins the long and honourable roll-call of venues we have loved and lost.  And maybe they are best preserved in our memories rather than being regurgitated via places like the formulaic Hard Rock Cafés and their ilk.

Ironically, Montmartre closed down in 1995, but has now reopened back in the same Store Regnegade location it occupied for nearly 15 years.  Wonder if they have revived the red-check tablecloths that were the club’s trademark?  Doesn’t seem very likely…..

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Dexter Gordon, Lars Gullin and Sahib Shihab plus rhythm section  filmed at Montmartre in 1962

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Man versus Food

What we are eating and – additionally – how much of it we are eating is big news right now.

It’s certainly big news in this house where,  with just 2 weeks to go before I swan off to celebrate my 60th birthday in Sri Lanka,  I decided that unless I wished to be mistaken for Moby Dick washed up on a tropical beach, then losing a few of my excess pounds might be a good idea.  No problem, help yourself – I have plenty of those excess pounds to spare, unfortunately.

I know that, to some extent, the predilection for stacking on weight is about one’s genetic make-up.  Both my parents tended to be slightly or moderately overweight for most of their adult lives and to some extent this was about their body shape, which inclined toward short and stocky rather than svelte and slim.  Not surprisingly, I have picked up these genetic markers and have  probably been slowly piling on the pounds since my early 40’s.

My folks were also ‘foodies’ – they approached mealtimes with considerable gusto well into their seventies.  My Mum was a pretty accomplished cook of the traditional English type and, unfortunately, derived far too much of her self-esteem from what she put on the table.  In later years, with money a bit more plentiful, they took to eating out a bit more often and would frequently regale us with tales of meals they had recently eaten whilst on holiday in Cornwall or France,  even whilst in the midst of consuming a meal in this house.

Not that this offended me, you understand; both of my folks were always very complimentary about my cooking, which – to be honest – has become lazier and more uninspired as the years pass.  However, this ability to enthuse endlessly about meals already eaten was not lost on the Princess who grew up – perhaps unsurprisingly – to undergo an ‘eating disorder’ phase  in her mid-teens.  The two issues may not be connected, but I suspect that they are….

Giving up smoking a while back also accelerated this whole process; after all we all know about the compulsive oral aspects of sticking a cigarette in your mouth and once you stop that, food tends to take over and on go the pounds.

The other issue is probably lifestyle.  I do a reasonable amount of walking as a non-driver – that’s walking, not hiking – but have nonetheless became too sedentary for anyone’s comfort, least of all my own.

So, all in all, not a great recipe (so to speak) and I have slowly ballooned up to Zeppelin proportions over the last 12 months.  Finally, the penny dropped and I realised that the ‘I’ve quit smoking and now I’m fat but this will pass‘  mentality was just another example of false consciousness.

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The real situation is that gaining weight is not a corollary of stopping smoking but is, in fact, another manifestation of the same thing – in other words, my erstwhile and lifelong tendency to eat, drink, smoke and ingest whatever I wanted to,  in whatever quantity suited me,  without having to particularly cope with any adverse consequences.  That ship, like the one containing my carefree youth, is now hull down over the horizon and vanishing fast.  Bottom line: I just can’t live like that any more if I want to live much longer at all.

So, how to deal with this new and unpalatable set of circumstances?  Well, if I tell you that I live with a partner who is obsessed with her appearance in general and her weight in particular, you can probably guess that there was no shortage of advice on offer.  Trouble is, though, I’m not a Weight Watchers joiner or a calorie counting obsessive – it just won’t happen, no matter how many photocopied articles from mid-market tabloids shrieking about ‘New Year, New You!’ or ‘Try our new Miracle Diet!’ are left lying around for me to read.  Just not going to happen, I’m afraid.

Monitored by the Princess, I initially tried to be more judicious and make healthier choices about what I was eating and not to snack between meals.  I also tried to build in a 30-minute walk every day, but it just wasn’t working.  I was still taking on board too many calories for my lifestyle and my weight was such that even a short walk was playing havoc with my knees and lower back.  It got to the point where even getting dressed in the morning was a major effort and with a short walk to the local High Street now often leaving me wrecked, I could see the horizons of my world closing in.  This must be how it happens, I thought; before you know it, you’re housebound and can only get somewhere in a cab or when somebody offers you a lift.

So, about a week ago, I just decided on a radical solution which so far seems to be producing promising results.  I have simply stopped eating during the day and now just eat an evening meal.  I drink juice and coffee during the day and have been known to scarf down the odd tomato as I pass the bowl, but no solids really.It’s hard, of course; not as hard as quitting smoking but still pretty difficult.  The rewards after a week seem to be that I simply feel ‘better’ in a vague and undefined manner,  walking around is easier,  my clothes don’t  pinch so much and I have actually lost the best part of a stone.  My aim is to take to the beaches of Sri Lanka in a fortnight or so as a moderately walrus-sized obstacle rather than a genuine shipping hazard.

Strangely, all of this personal angst and re-assessment is going on at a time when the Government is telling us that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic.  We also seem to be eating quite a lot of horse-meat, apparently, which is blowing a lot of people’s ‘My Little Pony‘ dreams out of the water.  I seem to recall eating minced horse-meat a couple of times in Sweden in the 70’s and my recollection is that it was like a slightly more intensely flavoured version of ground beef.  Back then, I think the Swedes also sold a version of ‘biltong’ – wind-dried horse-meat in chewable strips.  Yum!

TescoOoops!

I think my appreciation of life’s ironies only grows more substantial as I grow older (and larger).  So it is that I find myself more than a little amused by the fact that it is at this very juncture of my life that I have discovered the joys of  a TV show called ‘Man versus Food’, which is shown on cable over here and is a great favourite with the Princess and many of her friends.  The name of the programme  kind of encapsulates my current predicament whilst the content is the kind of stuff which will – for better or worse – always be beyond me.

The leading light of ‘MvF’ was Adam Richman, a genial actor from  Brooklyn in his late 30’s who between 2008 and 2010 travelled around the USA, seeking out local culinary specialities and the diners, bars, cafés and restaurants that serve them.  These places often come up with ludicrous ‘challenges’ that speak directly to the competitive drive of Americans.  Typically,  people are required to consume insane quantities of the local ‘delicacy’, often within a time limit.  The reward  for those attempting (and succeeding in) these challenges is often nothing more than getting their meal free or getting their name on a ‘Wall of Fame’ in the restaurant or perhaps a t-shirt (usually XXXL)  that promotes the establishment in question.

In a typical episode, Adam and the ‘MvF’ crew will descend on an American city having previously researched the local delicacies.  Adam will visit a couple of places to try out said local delicacies before the main event, where he visits a place specialising in one of these deranged food challenges.  He starts in the kitchen to chat with the owner/proprietor or manager, finding out how the local speciality is cooked/assembled.  He then goes out front and takes on one of these ‘challenges’ in front of a crowd of hooting shrieking locals who cheer him on like they were at a baseball game.

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Adam Richman attacks another ludicrous plateful in ‘Man vs Food’

For example, the show I watched most recently saw Adam up in Portland, Maine, trying out one of Maine’s famous Lobster Shacks before moving on to a burger joint that specialised in a ziggurat of a burger with 8 beef patties, foie gras and grilled pork belly slices, bookended by a bun and pinned through with a long wooden skewer to keep it all together.  Surprisingly, that was not the (ahem) ‘Maine Event’.    That turned out to be a giant 6-pound plateful of frittata with potatoes, onions, pepperoni, bacon, broccoli and cheese, all bound together by 4 eggs.  It’s a  bit of a blur now, but I seem to recall that the challenge was to take this lot down in 20 minutes or less; then again, I could be mistaken, but it’s hardly important.  The main point of the show is that we get to gawp at the colossal burgers, steaks and plates of barbecue served up to ordinary Americans on a regular basis.  All of this is mediated by our engaging host Adam, who as he says in the show’s intro is ‘an ordinary guy with a serious appetite’.  Certainly, he can boast a high success rate in terms of defeating these challenges and can certainly put away huge quantities of food.

On the other hand, my experience of the USA, whilst limited to New York City should have taught me that what goes on in ‘Man versus Food’ is hardly unique to that show.  I can remember one of my first ‘eating out’ experiences at an Italian restaurant in The Bronx where I ordered an Escalope Milanese –  generally a thin escalope of veal, dipped in a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs and egg, then swiftly pan-fried.  My dish arrived in a rectangular cast-iron dish,  about 18 inches long, 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep.  The majority of it was filled with a mixture of fried Mediterranean vegetables (tomatoes, capsicums, onions, aubergine etc), on top of which were perched 3 colossal Veal Escalopes, each one  beaten to a thin, irregular disc about the size of a standard dinner plate.  Just in case I was peckish, I got a huge pot of garlicky sautéd potatoes as well.  In Europe, this lot would have fed 3 hungry adults but this was mine, all mine.  It was indeed delicious, but my pleasure was diminished by the fact that I could only eat about half of what was on offer – and had to push myself to the limit in order to achieve that much.  This was hardly an unusual experience in New York and among the locals, there does seem to be the expectation that if you go out to eat, the ‘calibre’ of your meal is, to a considerable  extent, determined by the size of the portions.

Thankfully, living here,  I don’t really have to suffer the temptation of  American Diner food, though the ubiquitous Birmingham Curries are something I’m having to limit.    Of course, there will be plenty of curry in Sri Lanka as well, but just as much fresh fruit.

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Sri Lankan Crab Curry

However, even once I return from my 60th birthday expedition, I am going to need to be judicious about what and how much I’m eating and that is something that I’ll simply have to put up with from now on.  Just another of the delights of growing older…

“If Food be the music of love…….Who’s Next?”

Saturday night just gone was both memorable and slightly surreal, hence my re-invention of Shakespeare’s well-known quote about the soothing of savage beasts.  Don’t fret; all will hopefully become clear as we proceed.

Two of the beasts in question were myself and my mate Adrian, out for a night of fun and frolics in the suburban wastelands of south Birmingham.  We’ve become good mates over the last few years and like many blokes of our age and  ilk and to the frequent despair and mystification of our partners, we share a love of decent beer, curry, football and music, though not necessarily in that order.  However, finding common ground on the music front has been trickier than you might think, given that we are ‘of an age’ and grew up listening to the same stuff in the late 60’s and 70’s.  I have a feeling that Adrian drifted away from music a little in the 90’s before his kids re-connected him to it all via the dance music of the rave era.  I, meanwhile, never really drifted away from music altogether, but during the same time went over to a ‘diet’ composed largely of jazz and ‘world music’.  Dance, techno, hip-hop and the like just left me cold – and still does for the most part.

After a certain amount of trial and error and a few misfires, one of the areas where Adrian and I found common cause were the points where technology and experimentation meet. He introduced me to the Thievery Corporation, whilst I got him interested in the kind of ‘Nu Jazz’  personified by people like Nils Petter Molvær and Jaga Jazzist.   We both enthused about the Cinematic Orchestra and I even joined him at a gig by Pendulum. 

We both enjoyed seeing Molvær last time he toured, so, when I saw that Food were playing a gig at the newly-refurbished Midland Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park, I knew that Adrian would be interested.  I had already introduced him to the band via their ‘Quiet Inlet‘ album and I knew he had liked it.  We were all set.

Food at MAC with guests

It’s difficult to believe, but Food have been around for over 10 years now.  The original quartet (with bassist Mats Eilertsen and trumpeter Arve Henriksen) has now been whittled down to a duo of Iain Ballamy and Thomas Strønen, who add guests (Molvær and Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz on the last album) as and when they feel the need to do so.  Saxophonist Ballamy was part of the original Loose Tubes collective and has subsequently compiled a CV that leans toward the ‘freer’ end of the jazz spectrum.  Drummer Thomas Strønen has been involved in numerous projects – often via the Rune Grammofon label – since the turn of the millennium.  His range of current activity sees him working with pianist John Taylor and saxophonist Tore Brunborg in the Garbarek-inspired trio Meadow, playing solo percussion under the Pohlitz banner and in another duo – Humcrush – with Supersilent keyboardist Ståle Storløkken.  Busy boy – he’ll actually be back in Birmingham later this month to do a gig with Meadow.

Adrian picked me up about 8 pm and by common consent, we headed for Balsall Heath and our watering hole of choice, the Old Moseley Arms, known by all as ‘The Old Mo’, an unreconstructed back-street boozer of considerable charm in Tindal Street.  They offer a rotating slate of  micro-brewery real ales, look after them properly and generally work hard to cater for a loyal but demanding clientele.  On Saturday, they were in the throes of one of their intermittent ‘Beer Festivals’ where they lay on an extra range of beers, all served out the back of the pub in the semi-outdoor  ‘smoking area’ with a barbecue and a band.  When we arrived, the band were just setting up but we took little notice, just grabbing a quick pint before heading off to MAC.

The Old Moseley Arms in Balsall Heath

The Midlands Arts Centre has been a fixture in Cannon Hill Park for as long as I have lived in Birmingham.  It was always a focus for film, music and sundry arty stuff, staging everything from yoga classes to photography exhibitions.  The original complex had a slightly ramshackle feel to it;  buildings joined on to one another with a variety of extensions and corridors, so it was no real surprise when it closed down a few years back for  a complete refurbishment. It’s been open again for a while now, but I’d had no occasion to visit before Food rolled into town.  First impressions of the new place were of slight anti-climax; it’s all clean and brightly-lit, with an impressive new entrance, blond wood floors and white walls, but no great sense of innovation.  Signage is poor, too – we weren’t sure whether the Theatre was in its original location or had been moved and there were no signs to enlighten us one way or another.  Also, the bar – quite an engaging space in the old MAC – is now a narrow corridor-type area with the feel of a motorway service station.  Oh well.

Once we got in there, the Theatre had been changed as well, with the stage lowered and a steeper rake to the seats in the auditorium.  The old place felt like a converted cinema, the new one is like a modern lecture theatre.  For some reason, the air was filled with effects-type smoke when we got in there, though this may have been the legacy of a previous performance by someone or other.  Certainly, it didn’t appear to have anything to do with Food;  they took to the stage as a trio, with the addition of Norwegian guitarist Bjørn Klaklegg, who proved to be a kindred spirit in every respect, adding effects-laden drones and chiming chords that enhanced everything else that Messrs Ballamy and Strønen were concocting.  To refer to Thomas Strønen as a drummer is to do him a considerable disservice;  throughout Food’s set – essentially one continuous 70-minute improvisation – he was as busy with a table full of electronic gizmos on the table to the left of his kit as he was with any traditional percussive instruments.  Ballamy, too, whilst alternating on soprano and tenor saxophones, also had a table alongside him with a slightly less impressive collection of gizmos, enabling him to manipulate his sound, adding delays, fades and echo.  Klaklegg, meanwhile, was using what looked to be a reel from a fishing rod affixed to the back end of his guitar.  As he spun this, filaments of fine plastic would brush against the strings, providing an interesting drone effect. 

When Adrian and I saw Nils Petter Molvær’s band a while back, one of the most extraordinary aspects of the gig was the way in which this use of electronics and effects enables three guys to concoct a huge sound that would suggest a far larger ensemble.  So, it was with Food, whose set built to a series of crescendoes before dropping away to a virtual whisper.  For the last 20 minutes or so, they added two trumpet players – Percy Pursglove and Aaron Diaz – who further ‘beefed up’ the sound.  As improvised music, it was at one and the same time both ephemeral and massively solid – like  waves crashing  on to a rocky coastline before retreating, reforming  and sweeping in again.

We emerged, energised,  into a warm Indian summer’s evening and decided to head back to the pub.  Pulling up in Tindal Street, we could hear the band battering away at ‘Born to be wild’ or something similar and plunged into the fray.  They were doing good business, too; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in the place.  Out the back, the joint was jumping, so we grabbed a couple of beers and found a place in the garden where we could hear ourselves think.  At this point, the band, who featured a wizened lead singer with a mop of greying curls and a goatee beard, launched into what became an elongated trawl through The Who’s back catalogue.  As far as I can recall, over the next hour or so, they played virtually every well-known Who song apart from ‘Pictures of Lily’ and,  I have to say, they did a pretty good job of it as well.  Sure, the aged singer lacked the explosive bellow of  ‘Dodgy Poultry’ as he referred to him, but the drummer had Keith Moon’s contrapuntal thrashing off to a tee and the bassist and guitarist also did a fair job of reproducing the band’s trademark sound. My next door neighbour wandered over to say hello – not only is he Canadian, but he also plays in a Neil Young tribute band – double jeopardy for me.  He handed me a flyer for a forthcoming gig for his band and I again failed to come clean with him by telling him that I would sooner eat my own head than attend.  God knows, I find listening to the real Neil Young difficult enough, so the prospect of a Neil Young tribute band  just fills me with horror.  I really must get round to telling him the truth; he’s fundamentally a nice guy and I think he deserves that much.

The night wore on and the barrels of beer rapidly emptied as the whole event turned into a good-natured Brummie piss-up.  Out in the garden Adrian and I surveyed the clear night sky and the glittering skyline of the City Centre as the band hurtled into a selection from ‘Quadrophenia’ and people threw themselves around the improvised dancefloor.  This was about as far removed from the cerebral electronic mélange of Food as it was possible to get.

Wonder what Pete makes of it all….?

The whole tribute band thing is something I have consciously shunned – too much of a musical snob I guess.  A woman I worked with used to go off with a bunch of her mates to an open-air festival in North Wales that takes place every summer where the line-up is composed entirely of tribute bands.  She thought it was great and always seemed to have a ball but I just felt that the whole process somehow devalued the original.  Inevitably the lines began to blur when heavy metal band Judas Priest replaced their departing lead singer with a guy who was the lead singer in a Judas Priest tribute band.  Life imitating art imitating life?  Who knows?  Who’s next? Who are you?

What is clear,  listening to this highly competent band and their lovingly crafted renditions of 45-year old pop songs is that I need to lighten up a bit.  There were a bunch of young girls standing just near us who undoubtedly weren’t born when The Who had their last chart single and they were singing along with each song with enormous gusto; for them it was just a good night out and the purist lurking inside me can at least take comfort from the fact that whilst two of the band have shuffled off to Buffalo and the remaining duo have become marginal figures at best, the songs they created all those years ago live on.

Graduation Day

A major event on an increasingly busy summer calendar was the Princess’ Graduation Bash, which took place last Saturday at the Bridgewater Hall in Mancunia.  It was best bib & tuckers (whatever they are) all round as we piled into the car and set off up the M6. 

My Dad – now a sprightly 87 – was along for the ride, which assuaged a certain amount of guilt I’ve always felt for missing my own graduation.  When I should have been in Newcastle for that, I was actually on a ferry between Stockholm & Helsinki with a gaggle of tourists in tow as I whizzed them round the highlights of Scandinavia.  It would have been very difficult for me to (literally & figuratively) jump ship to be at my own ceremony, but I’ve always felt that I denied my folks an opportunity to show a little parental pride, so my Dad’s presence at his grand-daughter’s graduation was a partial recompense.

MMU or ‘ManMet’ is such a huge institution that 9,000 students graduate each year and the ceremonies go on for a whole week.  Saturday’s event was the last one of the week  and featured Law & Social Sciences, Languages and Politics, pretty much in that order, so as a Politics graduate, the Princess was right at the very end of a 75-minute ceremony.

We were joined by the Princess’ boyfriend and found our way to seats up in the Circle.  The whole thing was being recorded on video, so there were numerous close-ups of nervous students fussing with their gowns and mortar-boards juxtaposed with shots of doting parents and excited younger siblings.  After a bit of musical fol-de-rol on the Hall’s pipe organ, the dignitaries took to the stage, all wearing gowns and hats straight out of a bad Harry Potter pastiche.  There was much tugging at forelocks in the direction of the Dean and the whole thing had a slightly comic opera freemasonish ambience.  I expected the Lord High Executioner and the Three Little Maids to appear at any minute.   Maybe it’s because MMU was formerly a Polytechnic that they feel they have to pour on the gravitas and the fancy dress – or maybe they’re all like this; I have to say I wouldn’t know.

Once we got going, however, the whole thing soon became tedious beyond belief as student after student went up to shake hands and enjoy their moment in the spotlight.  MMU has a very multi-cultural intake and what was very noticeable was that there were large numbers of students with Chinese names who were ‘in absentia’.  This was something of a relief as we would probably have been there for 3 or 4 hours if they’d all turned up.  For the extrovert few whose friends and family cheered as they went up, there was a brief salute to the gallery but there was thankfully only one eejit who decided it would be the thing to do to kiss the Dean on the cheek rather than just shake her hand.

Finally the Princess’ big moment came and despite being very nervous earlier, she put her best foot forward and carried off her moment in the spotlight without a hitch.  Rather sadly, she finished her course without ever making any real friends among her coursemates, but that’s probably down to MMU being such a vast and slightly impersonal institution with a high proportion of local, home-based students as it is with any social shortcomings on her part.  Anyway, it didn’t seem to bother her that she was unable to chuck her mortar-board in the air with a bunch of her mates once we got outside.

In fact, once she’d dropped off her costume, we quickly jumped into a cab and headed off to San Rocco in South King Street.  I ate there quite a few times when I lived in Manchester in the 70’s and 80’s, at which point it was called Cesare or something along those lines.  It’s a tad pricier these days and I would call it a ‘special occasion venue’, but the staff were friendly and the food was excellent.  I actually had a chat with the maitre d’ before we left.  He had been there for nearly 30 years and our paths may well have crossed back in the day.  As he reminded me, in those days, Cesare was the only restaurant in South King Street; now there are 5 of them.  This is perhaps a worthwhile measure of how the Princess’ experience of Manchester has varied from my own.  Of course, I wasn’t a student there, but it was altogether a grimmer, greyer place in those days.  Despite that, it was still a great city, but nowadays, it really looks like one as well.

Sooner a Bhuna than a salty Balti…….

Birmingham is justifiably well-known for its ‘Balti Houses’, which have been serving up delicious and economical food from the Indian sub-continent since the 1970’s.  When I first became a regular visitor here in the late ’70’s, there were a handful of top-quality restaurants in the Sparkbrook/Sparkhill area who offered a limited but excellent range of Balti dishes based on Meat (Lamb), Chicken or Mixed Vegetable served with naan or tandoori roti.  This area of the city had been colonised by families escaping from the India/Pakistan conflict of 1970 and many were Muslims originating from the Mirpur region of the Punjab.  Some of the refugees went to Bradford, others here to Birmingham. 

By the time I actually moved to Birmingham in the late 1980’s, visiting these places had become a regular and frequent social activity.  It was not unusual for us to go twice in a weekend and we rapidly established a network of favourite haunts, becoming quite friendly with the staff and enthusing to friends from elsewhere about the quality of the food.

Yum……

Over the coming years, things began to change on several fronts.  Firstly, restaurants all over the city began to incorporate Balti dishes into their Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Biryani and Prawn Dhansak menus, blending this ‘new’  Punjabi/Kashmiri cooking in with the well-established Bengali dishes they had been serving for years.  On top of this, the sheer number of Balti Houses in what became known as ‘The Balti Triangle’ around the Sparkbrook area proliferated to a massive degree.  Thirdly, over the years, pressure on finances, the arrival of children and the deleterious effect of eating too many Baltis on middle-aged English waistlines took their toll, so we went less often.

Our final moment of glory probably came about 1992 when we became embroiled in a BBC film shoot for a now-defunct programme called ‘The Food and Drink Show’. A friend of the partner was a director on this show and he got a bunch of us together at a restaurant in Church Road.  He had enlisted comedian Lenny Henry, a West Midlander and Balti fan, to guide cordon bleu chef John Burton Race through the whole Balti phenomenon, culminating in a night in a restaurant where JBR cooked baltis for a group of us and we all waxed enthusiastic about what a fabulous job he was doing.  The 10 minute segment was broadcast on the show a few weeks later and we revelled in the glory; I even got stopped on the High Street here by a total stranger who recognised me from the show and was quizzed about the whole evening.  It’s also perhaps worth noting that Race later acted as a consultant on Henry’s series ‘Chef’, based on JBR’s own restaurant(L’Ortolan) in Berkshire.

I suppose that restaurants in general and ‘Indian’ food in particular have always been characterised by fads and vogues and suchlike.  In time, it became possible to get a Balti from your local (often Bengali) restaurant or takeaway which was every bit as good as the ones you got in Sparkbrook.  So, with kids and mortgages and inertia, we got lazy and even though Sparkbrook was just down the road, the frequency of our visits dropped off.  We used our local outlets and neglected our old favourites.  Other cuisines like Thai and Moroccan arrived on the scene and those, too, took us away to other venues.

Consequently, many Balti restaurants went over to ‘Halal Fast Food’ – pizzas, kebabs and the like.  Some closed down completely.  The City marketed the Balti Triangle to visitors, but many stayed in the city centre rather than coming out to Sparkbrook.  It all seemed vibrant enough as restaurants began to upgrade their decor from the traditional glass-topped tables with menus underneath to more conventional restaurant fittings and put up lurid neon signs to attract passing moths like us.  However, the reality was that times were getting harder; it wasn’t just the ageing fans like us who just couldn’t drag ourselves away from ‘Friends‘ and Jonathan Woss on a Friday night – pub closing hours were also going through a revolution, too.  This meant that the customary 11 o’clock closing time rush had also diminished.

Ladypool Road at the heart of the ‘Balti Triangle’

Like everyone else who frequented Sparkbrook, we had our favourites.  People would earnestly discuss which restaurant served the best tarka dhal or Balti Chicken or Lassi. Meals were analysed and compared like bottles of vintage wine.  We had a particular favourite, which I’m not going to name for reasons that should become obvious.  We used a variety of restaurants like The Royal Naim (now gone) and the Grand Tandoori (also gone) on Stratford Road, Saleem’s on Ladypool Road (still there, still excellent) and even K2 in Moseley Village (also still there and still excellent) but we had our default venue and we would visit this place more often than any of the others.  The reason for that was simply that although the starters were often iffy, the Baltis were consistently brilliant; something that went on throughout the 1990’s and into the new millennium. 

We have been known to get off the ferry at Holyhead after 10 days in the west of Ireland and drive hell-for-leather down the motorways to get to Sparkbrook before closing time.  We would joke that we needed to get home for some  ‘real food’.  We would take remnants home in foil containers and re-heat them for brunch the following day.  We sang the praises of this place to anyone who would listen.  Giant parties of visitors from London and New York and Manchester were dragged off to this place and we would take over at least half of the restaurant.  It wasn’t just us either; I can remember seeing a coach party from Worcester arrive and take over the whole of the top floor.

South Birmingham’s Balti Triangle

And then, somehow, it all just started to fall away.  Staff changed, chefs came and went and we went, but far less often.  The food didn’t suddenly become vile – it was more subtle than that somehow.  The food just became average and our motivation to go diminished in line with the declining quality.  We knew that the Baltis served up by the prizewinning ‘Sylhet’  Bangladeshi restaurant here in Kings Heath were just infinitely superior to what we were eating at our old watering-hole.

What remained were the relationships we had built up over 30 years of eating there.  We knew the family who ran the place – not intimately but well enough that I could stand outside and have a cigarette with the Manager, not only sparring  gently with him about his affection for Liverpool and mine for Manchester United but also quite seriously discussing  the negative impact of the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings on attitudes and on business.  The ‘Glory Days’ were over it seemed and therefore each of the occasional visits we did make somehow seemed to become increasingly important to them.

I guess we have only visited this restaurant twice a year for the last five years – compared to twice a weekend back in the late 80’s.  To be honest, I cannot remember the last time I had a truly outstanding meal there – something that used to happen pretty much on every visit.  So, we went last night – there is a nostalgia about place that keeps us going back, particularly when we get together with certain groups of friends with whom we used to eat there on a regular basis.  Now, the scenario has become reversed – the starters we had were excellent but the Baltis were dismal.  My Chicken Tikka Jal Frezi was so salty I had to send it back. 

They are marvellous people and their concern at serving us sub-standard food was genuine enough.  I was quickly supplied with a replacement dish, which was at least adequate, but of course the damage had been done.  As we left, one young lad who has risen through the family ranks from teenage washer-up to head waiter asked me about my Dad and about the Princess, neither of whom have visited for many years.  Is it genuine interest or just good PR?  Who can say?  No doubt we will keep returning from time to time, but somehow you just know that it’s never going to be the same again…

Living off the land……

As a non-gardening consumer of processed food of all kinds, a visit to my mate Barry is a bit of a revelation.  He  has a well-tended allotment about a 10 minute walk from his place in Derby and we were there yesterday picking raspberries….

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 tomatoes…..

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and dahlias…….

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I thought it was October…..?  There were also savoy cabbages, courgettes, Little Gem Lettuces…a feast.  This time of year often produces a glut in certain crops and one guy in the allotment clearly had too many apples, so left a selection out for people to help themselves….

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I find that there’s something rather re-assuring  about allotment culture, even though I’m not involved in it myself.  Real people still producing real food, maybe?  You meet some absolute characters at these places and once people have decided you’re OK, they are often very kind.  Barry is a vegetarian and it says something for his hard work that he rarely has to buy any vegetables between May and November – unless it’s something pretty exotic. Then again, he is growing globe artichokes at the moment…..

As if that wasn’t enough, we then drove out into the Derbyshire countryside, passed through Dovedale, over the ridge to the west and were heading south  in the general direction of Uttoxeter when Barry screeched to a halt, so we could pick several pounds of very ripe elderberries from bushes along the roadside.

We then stopped for a beer at The Three Horseshoes in Long Lane (that’s the name of the village) about 6 miles out of Derby, which is a really pleasant pub run by an Italian family. They serve Italian food and -amongst other things – a very dark and malty bitter called ‘Long Lane Bitter’, so presumably brewed locally.  It seems like a very nice pub and they further endeared themselves to us by allowing us to raid the damson tree in their car park and relieve it of several pounds of its fruit.  By this point, the back of the car was looking like a mobile market garden, so we returned to Derby to cook and consume some of our acquisitions…..

Off to Derby…..

‘LTSN’ will – for once – be following its own advice for the next few days and saying nothing because I am off to Derby tomorrow  to visit my friend Barry.  He and I go way back to before decimal currency and we get together now and again to sink a few beverages and put the world to rights, usually in that order.

My memories of Derby  before Barry moved there- imperfect and fragmentary as they were – did the town scant justice.  I can recall going to an evening football match at the old Baseball Ground with my friend Serge.  We seemed to walk through mile after mile of dimly-lit streets filled with back-to-back terraced houses, to the extent that I felt like a character from an L S Lowry painting by the time we reached the ground.

What I’ve found since I got to know the place is that Derby is actually a really pleasant town with some terrific pubs and lots going on if you know where to look.  Barry lives on the north side of town, which is pretty leafy and green with parks and open spaces easily accessible.  It’s also easy to get out to the country from where he lives and this weekend I’m hoping to pay a return visit to an excellent secondhand bookshop in Crompton, which is just up the road……

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‘The Royal Standard’ in Derby

We may well also venture out into the town for a pint or two – I always used to enjoy drinking in ‘The Brunswick’ which is close to the railway station and always had a cracking selection of beer.  There are a number of good Brunswick stories, but the best one I can offer comes from the day I walked in there and found the place full of green-shirted Plymouth Argyle fans.  It was a Saturday lunchtime and ‘The Brunswick’ is pretty convenient for Derby County’s new ground at Pride Park, so their presence seemed reasonable enough.  

I got a pint and a sandwich and settled down near the fire to read my ‘Guardian’, as ever, starting with the Sport section.  I glanced at the fixtures for the day, only to see that not only were Derby not playing Plymouth, they were actually playing away from home in somewhere like Ipswich.  I also noticed that Plymouth were playing Port Vale, whose ground is in Burslem, some 40 miles  from Derby.  Returning to the bar for a refill I asked one of the Plymouth fans why they were so far ‘off course’, to which he replied that if Argyle had any fixtures in the Midlands or North that could justify the detour, they would always detour to ‘The Brunswick’ .  They left about 1:30  to complete their journey to The Potteries, but had already placed orders for take-out jugs of Brunswick beer to be ready for their return about 6 pm that night. 

Being a Plymouth fan must take a lot of dedication (and cash)  if you’re going to travel to away games like that – after all, their nearest ‘local’ rivals are probably Bristol City – a staggering 120 miles away from Home Park.  On one level, the dedication is admirable, but you’d have to wonder about the lifestyle. Do these guys (this lot were all male) have families, kids back in Plymouth?   The mind boggles……

Anyway, as regards ‘The Brunswick’, I hear grim tales of  it being taken over by Everard’s Brewery – certainly, the folks who used to run ‘The Brunswick’ now seem to have migrated to the re-opened ‘Royal Standard’ near the river.  This pub is also sometimes confusingly referred to as ‘The Brewery Tap’ as this is where the local microbrewery is now based.  Things must have come on a bit in Derby, because the ‘Royal Standard’  apparently used to be informally referred to as ‘The Aquarium House’ in the 1930’s as the publican kept tropical fish and used to feed them periodically, drawing quite a crowd.  This must be what is meant by ‘making your own entertainment’, which is what we were always told people used to do in the ’30’s……cue Michael Palin and the Four Yorkshiremen of the Apocalypse….