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That Reminds Me: For bitter or worse

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WHEN I started drinking beer on a regular basis, more than half a century ago, the choice was pretty poor. Fizzy keg bitter was the order of the day, weak and characterless.

Older topers would speak fondly of the days when Massey’s Burnley Brewery was top dog in the pubs of North East Lancashire, followed by Dutton’s and Thwaites’s, both from Blackburn.

The first two both fell by the wayside in the 1960s, taken over by larger concerns: Massey’s was snapped up by Bass Charrington while Dutton’s was swallowed by Whitbread. Thwaites’s remained in family hands.

Bass Charrington made the colossal mistake of closing down the small breweries it had acquired and combining their unique flavours into a single beer which it hoped would appeal to all. It appealed to none. Brew Ten, known as Spew Ten, was an anodyne keg production which had to be mixed with brown ale or even Mackeson to be palatable. Its equivalent over at Whitbread was Trophy, known to me and my mates as Atrophy.

A third Blackburn outfit, Matthew Brown’s Lion Brewery, got too big for its boots in trying to take over Theakston’s, of Masham, North Yorkshire. This failed and Lion was itself taken over by Scottish and Newcastle. The Blackburn operation was eventually closed with the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Similar events happened throughout the country and within a few years a trade once centred on small independent brewers, producing mainly mild ale, was dominated by pasteurised bitter brands such as Watney’s Red Barrel. Lager, formerly seen as a woman’s drink usually mixed with lime, enjoyed a surge in popularity partly because of the rise in foreign package holidays. A pint of Harp or Carling enabled drinkers to think they were back in Benidorm.

Thankfully the real ale revolution arrived and now there is an abundance of craft breweries. But in many walks of life there remains the confidence that bigger is better.

An echo of the disastrous Brew Ten rebranding experiment came in the newspaper world, at the Blackburn-based Lancashire Evening Telegraph. This was a hugely successful business in the early 1960s, with a daily circulation well above 100,000, plus the Sporting Pink on Saturday, which miraculously was on the streets within an hour of the final whistle. The catchment area included the whole of North East Lancashire, including Burnley, Nelson, Colne and the Rossendale Valley. Readers were happy with the arrangement.

In their wisdom, however, new owners Thomson Regional Newspapers decided to split the paper into two, prompted by an advertising boom which had led to a waiting list of several months for a front-page ad. The Lancashire Evening Telegraph would continue to serve Blackburn and its surrounding towns and villages while the new Burnley Evening Star, with a beefed-up staff and expensive launch operation, would cover Burnley, Nelson, Colne and Rossendale, taking readers from the successful bi-weekly Burnley Express. Right? Wrong.

Seeing the word ‘Burnley’ on the masthead, the good folk of Nelson, Colne and Rossendale naturally assumed that this was no longer their paper and declined to buy it.

To complicate matters further, the Burnley Evening Star also covered areas to the south-west of Blackburn including Chorley, more than 20 miles from Burnley. As can be imagined the Chorley readers were deeply unimpressed by the Burnley Evening Star and sales rapidly declined. This loss was never made up.

The Star‘s editor, Dennis Taylor, tried every trick in the book to boost sales but to little avail. In a campaign smacking of desperation, free copies were distributed every day for three weeks via schoolchildren dubbed ‘junior agents’, including myself in Nelson, in the forlorn hope of convincing readers that there were still plenty of local stories. This produced hardly any subscriptions – one, on my round – and had the effect of angering the newsagents who had made a tidy sum selling the Telegraph.

By the time I started as a reporter on the Star, in 1974, the ‘Burnley’ had been dropped from the title but the damage was done and circulation was a fraction of the old days. It was the beginning of a long decline during which the Lancashire Evening Telegraph name was reinstated for all editions to no avail. Now it is simply the Lancashire Telegraph and sells hardly any copies. As with the Bass Charrington fiasco, the words ‘piss-up’ and ‘brewery’ come to mind.

My Goodness

There cannot be many dogs better fed than Teddy, our yellow Labrador pup. Every few days I roast a pack of chicken legs for him and fry some pork chops, finished off in the oven, which are served with premium dry food. The bonus for me, apart from having a happy pet, is that I drain the juices from the roasting pans into a jug which then goes into the fridge. A line of fat solidifies on the top and this can be used instead of cooking oil – particularly delicious for doing roast potatoes. Beneath it is what we call the Goodness – a concentrated jelly which is divine on toast and adds depth to any savoury dish. I imagine many readers think I am trying to teach granny to suck eggs with my simple tips but I hope the younger end might find them useful.

Old Jokes’ Home

Doctor: ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mr Jones, but you have only five minutes to live.’

Patient: ‘Oh, no. Can’t you do anything for me?’

Doctor: ‘I can boil you an egg.’

A PS from PG

I can’t stand Paris. I hate the place. Full of people talking French, which is a thing I bar. It always seems to me so affected.

PG Wodehouse: Big Money

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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