Monday, September 30, 2013


My uncle Harold, a Yorkshireman of the old school, who was a steelworker, had two traits that are relevant to this post.  The first, he called everybody “Boss,” except of course for his actual boss in the steelworks.  Secondly he was the most obsessive beer connoisseur that anybody in the family had ever met.  This is one of the pubs he often drank in.  It used to be called the Shakespeare, now it’s The Shakey.  Sign of the times innit?

It was said around the pubs and clubs of Sheffield that uncle Jim should have been a professional.  He brought the same attention and expertise to beer tasting that others brought to the very finest wines.  Uncle Harold died before the Internet really took off and I don’t imagine he’d have been a fan, but these days there are any number of beer-related websites that obsess about beer in ways that even he would have thought were going a bit far.

 Here in the USA, Saturday September 28th was National Drink Beer Day.  This had very little to do with my visiting Jons, our local all-purpose “ethnic” supermarket, by which I mean it caters for a great many ethne (yep, that’s the plural of ethnos – I just looked it up).  You want half a sheep’s head?  You want some Guatemalan sausage?  You want a vast selection of Arak?  This is the place to go.  You want some Polish beer?  Ditto. 

And so, on National Drink Beer Day I found myself drinking Polish Boss Beer, made in Witnica.  It was a good strong lager, 8.10 ABV, sweet but not too sweet, and although you knew you were drinking a serious beer, you didn’t feel you were going to end up in the gutter, in a stupor.  The people over at (should you care about the opinions of beer drinkers you don’t know) are not especially keen.  One of the reviewers says, “Overall, this is quite a poor beer with a really weird pickle-like smell and flavors that make this one a chore to drink.”

Later that same evening I watched the  “camp classic” movie The Big Cube one of those psychedelic angst fests from the late sixties, which takes a fairly ordinary plot and then shoehorns LSD into the scenario.  This one had Lana Turner in it, as the widow who won’t hand over her money to her daughter who wants to marry George Chakiris, and so he doses her (Lana) with acid to make her think she’s going mad.  It’s kind of like Gaslight with ergot.

But, and here’s a thing, and the only reason I mention it, there’s a certain amount of beer drinking in the movie.  People drop sugar cubes into their beer, which is drunk from strangely spherical beer glasses.  You get some idea from this screenshot:

“Sugar in beer, what a groovy idea,” says the ingĂ©nue: little does she know.  Well it all turns out sort of OK for Lana Turner, though I must say that by the end I wasn’t following things all the closely.  I did like the look of those beer glasses though. (Forget about the lightweights at the back with the coffee cups).

Anyway, next day, Sunday September 29th clearly was not National Drink Beer Day (though only another 364 days till the next one) but while at Jons, I’d also bought myself a bottle of Black Boss Porter.  Hard to decide whether that name is politically incorrect or not, but let’s say not. 

It thought it was damn good, and the folks at beeradvocate tend to agree.  One of the reviewers really expresses himself over this one:  “Burnt umber liquid, dark but clear with a thick finger of soapy khaki up top. Sticky fluffy lacing, superior retention.  Melanoidin rich, yet soft malt in the nose with a hint of toasted oats, light chocolate, and tobacco. Clean but inviting. Sweet palate entry with a massive kick of sweet malt and alcohol. An explosion of brown sugar with plenty of fusels subsiding to a slightly dry finish full of black bread with hints of rye, wheat, and pepper. Low bitterness though I can almost detect a hint of chive-like hops in there. Maybe just a whisper of diacetyl.”
Melanoidin? Fusels? Diacetyl?  My uncle Harold would have had a fit.  Has this guy taken acid or what?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


I just watched a great movie, a minor British cult classic, Villain, starring Richard Burton as Vic Dakin, a gay, mother-loving, self-loathing, East End gangster.  The cast seems to include just about every British actor who was alive at the time (Ian McShane, Colin Welland, Joss Ackland, Nigel Davenport, uncle Donald Sinden and all).

The movie was released in 1971, and depicts a London that is at once recognizable and very alien.  The cars are great in that doomed, end-of-the British-motor-industry, and they roam around a beautifully uncongested city where there’s always somewhere to park, though somebody does complain about the “diabolical traffic.”  The city is also apparently immigrant free; only white faces ever appear on the screen.

And of course there’s the matter of 1970s English food.  Those of us who were there at the time have tried pretty well to blot out our memories of the food, and even at the time we went out to Indian, Greek, Chinese restaurants.  This obviously isn’t an option in the all-white London of the movie, so most of the characters eat thin, ungenerous English sandwiches, with a just single line of filling, and no fancy extras, not even a bit of salad as far as you see.  

Even Donald Sinden, playing the pervy Member of Parliament (not as pervy as all that, really) eats vey much the same kind of sandwich, though they’re rather more elegantly presented.

Meanwhile Vic Dakin takes his mum to Brighton for a few prawns and cockles; not exactly exotic but a very loving gesture in the context. 

The character of Vic Dakin is clearly based on Kray-twin, Ronnie, though he and his brother were convicted and jailed in 1969, so I suppose their specific brand of gangsterism, could be regarded as a “sixties thing.”  Certainly the movie is full of dodgy haircuts, facial hair and suits with flared trousers, and the Krays were never having any of that.

In fact there are plenty of pictures of them sitting around in depressing rooms that look unchanged from the early fifties, and although I haven’t found any pictures of them eating sandwiches (mostly I find them drinking tea), I don’t doubt that they did.  There are also quite a few pictures of them having a drink, and sometimes in distinctly non-East End locales, such as this one, taken at 1, Eaton Square: that’s Lord Boothby on one side, Leslie Holt described as a “cat burglar” on the other.

I had heard that Liz Taylor was with Burton while he was filming Villain, and legend had it that she sometimes went behind the bar of the pub where they were filming, and served pints for cast and crew.  It seemed unlikely but sure enough there’s this picture of La Taylor at the pumps of the Assembly House in Kentish Town Road.  Only a cynic would think she might be doing it just for the camera.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


There’s a terrific short film directed by Iain B. Macdonald (a man rash enough to try once, or maybe twice, to make a movie based on one of my novels, though he did, of course, fail) titled Billy’s Day Out

Billy is a little kid who’s being taken for a day out by his family, and on the way they stop to buy some fruit.  It all seems very cozy and healthy, but eventually you join the dots (spoiler alert) and realize that they’re on their way to join a hate mob and throw the fruit at some poor woman who’s being released from prison, apparently after serving a sentence for killing a child.  The movie’s not about whether the woman’s guilty or innocent, but about the way that a perfectly normal-looking family can so happily join a hate mob, and how something as innocent as fruit turns into a symbol of hatred.  It’s the premeditation that’s so scary.

And once you start thinking about it, you realize that sometimes protestors must go to a great deal of trouble to buy flour or eggs or cream pies to throw at their victims, but then again sometimes people must surely be moved to just throw whatever they happen to have in their hand at the time. 

Take the case of Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister who, at the beginning of May, was making an official visit to a high school, when somebody threw a Vegemite sandwich at her.  It doesn’t sound premeditated, but then at the end of May, during another school visit, somebody threw another sandwich at her, containing salami this time.  It looked exactly like this:

Gillard has some reputation in Australia as a left-wing feminist firebrand; and I surely didn’t know this, in certain parts of the Internet, the phrase “make me a sandwich” is regarded as a misogynistic slur against female Internet users.  There are, I’m sure, worse slurs, although Julia Gillard doesn’t look like a woman who’d do anything she doesn’t want to.  Here she is eating a meat pie:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


I’ve been a bit slow picking up on this.  One morning In April of this year, a box of cheese and sausage sandwiches (actually some reports say they were rolls, but I think you could argue that a roll is in any case a form of sandwich) were left on the doorstep of Mueller Technik, a car parts company in Steinfeld, Germany, along with a note saying help yourself. Now you and I might suspect that these sandwiches had been tainted in some way (fecal matter, psychedelics, whatever) but apparently it was a tradition for employees of the firm to buy sandwiches for each other.  They tucked in.

It was only in the afternoon that one of the workers noticed a “strange substance” on them, not poop or LSD, but as lab later tests confirmed, rat poison.  They contacted the police and 150 emergency personnel arrived to take care of the “victims.” How’s that for socialized medicine?  The company only employs 240 people, of whom 25 were duly hospitalized.  No, I don't know why the ambulances apparently have ads for Maltesers on them.  

Frank Soika, the police spokesman said, "We don't believe the amount of poison used would have been deadly, but it could have caused serious illness." The managing director of Mueller Technik, Helmut Kohake (that’s him above far left), told a press conference that there’d been no problems with staff, and nobody had been fired, but that he’d look into protective measures, perhaps including the fencing off the premises, which seems a bit job, looking at the picture at the top of this post.  "You don't know whether something like this could happen again," he said.

All of which suggests to me that Mr. Kohake has not read Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, because if he had he would surely have thought it might be an inside job (actually a thought you could have even without Agatha Christie).  Sad Cypress is a Poirot novel and the whole thing centers around poisoned, and apparently deadly, fishpaste sandwiches. It’s a courtroom drama, and some of it’s quite punchy stuff. 
“Mr Abbott, the grocer, in the box.  Flustered – unsure of himself – (slightly thrilled though at his own importance).  His evidence was short.  The purchase of two pots of fish paste.  The accused had said ‘There’s a lot of food poisoning with fish paste.’  She had seemed excited and queer.”

Anyway (spoiler alert), it’s the tea that’s poisoned, not the sandwiches, which is a bit of a disappointment – and morphine is the poison. The murderer quite cleverly drinks some of the deadly tea, and then uses apomorphine as an emetic to purge herself of it.  William Burroughs would have been thrilled, but I’m guessing he wasn’t much of an Agatha Christie reader either. 

So anyway, I trawled around the net and found this rather extraordinary poison sandwich story from the Perth Daily News, dated 7th June 1932, this is quite punchy too:

RAT POISON SANDWICH:  Eater is Now in Hospital

Rat poison spread on a piece of bread was the
strange supper a man prepared for himself, and
ate, last night,according to the story he told
the police today.  He told the story from a bed in the
observation ward of the Perth Hospital.

He is:—  Jack Hopkinson (27), of  the Cremorne
Arcade off Hay-street.

Hopkinson was picked up in a state of collapse
under the Town Hall clock shortly after 9 a.m.
today, and was conveyed to Perth Hospital by
a St. John ambulance van.

Later, he told a constable that he attributed his
collapse to the fact that he had eaten rat poison
Last night, he said, he spread a rat poison paste
on a piece of bread and ate it. It did not have the
effect  expected, he claimed, and early today
he ate some of the paste 'neat.'

Then he collapsed.

So you see, those German victims really didn’t have too much to worry about just from eating a rat poison infused sandwich.  Say what you like about Agatha Christie, but she knew her poisons.

Meanwhile, keeping abreast of popular culture, there’s the video for Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s “Telephone” (a video that has nothing whatsoever to do with the song’s lyrics)  but it does feature Lady Gaga making sandwiches, which may or may not in themselves be poisoned (like all great works of art it’s capable of multiple interpretations), then she does the “sandwich dance,” (above, which I rather like) and one way or another Tyrese Gibson ends up dead.  Ironic or what?