European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference 2015: Brussels

Omer Blond

It is almost a month now since I attended the European Beer Bloggers’ and Writers’ Conference (EBBC) in Brussels and a blog post about it is long overdue. EBBC15 is the fourth conference of its type that I’ve attended (there have been five altogether) and the first to take place in continental Europe. The opportunity to learn about Belgian beer was irresistible.

Probably the best thing about these conferences is the opportunity to try a lot of different beers from a single geographic location, and of course to discuss them with knowledgeable, enthusiastic people. That’s probably why most of my photographs from the weekend are of people talking in bars, and people pouring beer. The few seconds it takes to pour beer into a glass are are always filled with joyful anticipation, so watching people doing it with skill and evident pride in what they are pouring is a great pleasure.

For the Belgian Family Brewers this was an opportunity to tell the world about their new cooperative venture, bringing together 22 longstanding brewing families to promote their beer and to show us “the rich diversity in our beer scenery.” As recent convert to Belgian beer, being able to taste many different beers close together, and to hear about them from the people who make them, was a great learning experience.

Lambic Visitor Centre

Arend Triple

Of course the beer itself is what we were there for and throughout the weekend we were treated to the full range of what Belgium has to offer, from the fruitiest Kriek to the sourest Lambic. De Brabandere Browerij, producers of Petrus even showed us how they are reinventing the Belgian tradition of blending by suggesting drinkers do it themselves. All conference organisers should consider doing something similar to this. I’m looking forward to these blending packs appearing in the UK.

Petrus Blending

For me though, the highlight of the trip was the excursion to the Lambic breweries. Even though we had to cut it short to catch the train to the airport, the visits to Drie Fontainen and Boon breweries were an education and a privilege. Thanks to everyone who made the conference so enjoyable; it was great meeting old beer friends again, and making new ones. Reuben Grey at Tale of Ale has a great roundup. Here’s to next year.

Armand De Belder

Armand De Belder with some of his life’s work.

A thoughtful Frank Boon.

A thoughtful Frank Boon.



Boon Barrel

Simon Nash News

Back in 2012 I began digitising the five detective novels of Simon Nash, all of which were published in the 1960s. I still have three more to finish off (the third one won’t be long I hope), but recently there has been a flurry of interest in this forgotten writer. In March 2014 CADS (Crime and Detective Stories) magazine published a great piece by John Cooper on Simon Nash in issue 67. CADS doesn’t seem to have a website, but it’s published by Geoff Bradley, who can be contacted at Geoffcads [AT] The magazine has an old-style fanzine look about it, but the content seems very good indeed.

Elsewhere, I published a short guest post about Simon Nash on the blog of crime fiction writer Martin Edwards, who I met at, of all places, a James Ellroy conference organised by Dr. Steven Powell of Venetian Vase fame.

The two Simon Nash ebooks (available for Kindle and all other e-readers) I’ve republished so far are Dead of a Counterplot and Killed by Scandal.

On Morris Minors

Morris Minor

When my mother in law died last November one of the things she left behind was the Morris Minor 1000 she bought new in 1960. Apart from a new reconditioned engine at some point in its life, “Beetil”, as the car was known, had survived for 54 years in more or less original condition. Among other things, what that means is no seatbelts, ineffective drum brakes, a four-speed gearbox with no synchromesh on first gear, and “trafficators” (little illuminated metal arms that spring out of the side of the car to show which way you want to turn). But of course “original condition” does not equate to “as new” condition. A 55 year-old car that has been used as intended for most of those years, and has never been restored, is probably going to be in need of a little work.

And so it was with Beetil. Despite strong sentimental attachments, nobody in the family had the inclination to handle a restoration, or to use the car afterwards. So Beetil was sold to a young woman whose enthusiasm for Minors proved to be stronger than her worries about passing MOT roadworthiness tests or the fact that the car wouldn’t start. Her companion, a classic car magazine journalist whose magnificent Triumph Stag was parked round the corner, went over the car with magnets and declared her “sound enough for now”. He probably didn’t expect to have to push a car through the the wet January streets of South West London, but luckily we had some help from a well-dressed couple who appeared out of the drizzle. They seemed unfazed by the prospect of pushing a dead car along a London bus route and melted away, once the car was secured, before they could be thanked.

The next morning I made my way home in my comfortable modern car, anxious about that MOT and whether the Morris would make it back up the M1 to Yorkshire. As it turned out I needn’t have worried. The MOT was no problem and a new battery was all that was needed to make the engine go. After several years of hardly ever leaving the garage, Beetil seemed keen to be running again.

At the end of June, under happier circumstances, we were reacquainted with the car, which is now known as Bee. The new owner, Steph, had little trouble using her as a daily driver through the second half of a Yorkshire winter and has begun the work of restoration. She invited us to meet her at the Morris Minor Owners’ Club national rally at Scampston Hall in North Yorkshire. My wife, who wisely shied away from the emotionally difficult process of selling the car she grew up with, was delighted to be handed the keys. She started the engine and disappeared across the showfield, our wildly grinning daughter in the passenger seat. There were shinier cars on the show ground, but I don’t suppose any of them made anyone that happy.

Morris Minors

And the name “Beetil”? It comes from E.H. Shepherd’s illustration to A.A. Milne’s poem “Forgiven”, which begins “I found a little beetle, so that beetle was his name …” In the illustration the word “beetil” is written on top of the matchbox in which the beetle is kept.


Some pictures from the rally:

How Arctic Whalers Heard about Waterloo

The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th 2015 is (understandably) getting a lot of coverage in the British press at the moment. For most British adults at the time, living in a state of war was all they knew, so the end of hostilities must have come as a great relief. It is difficult to imagine now not hearing such momentous news within minutes or hours of events taking place. But a whaling journal entry from August 1st 1815 brings home the reality of a world where the latest news events might have happened last week, or a month ago.

On that day, the whale ship Esk, commanded by William Scoresby Jr., was returning from the Arctic. After almost five months at sea, most of which had been spent north of the Arctic Circle, Scoresby and his crew encountered a fishing boat from Orkney. So it was, somewhere off the Firth of Forth, and over six weeks since the defeat of the French at Waterloo, that these whalers finally heard the news. This is what Scoresby wrote in his journal:

Tuesday 1st August, 1815*

… At noon spoke to a smack from Orkney bound to London with a cargo of fish, which gave us the gratifying intelligence that peace was once more returned to Europe, through the gallantry of our British troops with most splendid honours & that the pest of the world, the violator of treaties and oaths was again taken captive or has delivered himself up. This intelligence was so grateful to the feelings of all our crew was received with three cheers & returned by [the] smack with loyal heartiness. These pleasurable feelings were … enhanced by the distinguished [share?] which the idol of our country, the brave & judicious Wellington bore in the unequal contest.

*Scoresby’s journals have been transcribed and edited by C. Ian Jackson and published in three volumes by the Hakluyt Society. This extract comes from The Arctic Whaling Journals of William Scoresby the Younger Volume II, 1814-1816. London: Ashgate, 2008.

Northern Exposure 2015

View from the Ribblehead Viaduct, North Yorkshire.

Framed: view from the Ribblehead Viaduct, North Yorkshire.

Last week I had some exciting news. I have been selected to exhibit my photography in the Northern Exposure exhibition at the Portico Library and Gallery in Manchester. Northern Exposure is an annual exhibition of the work of seven or eight artists from the North of England. This year the exhibition is taking place from 3-30 July, during the Manchester International Festival, so it is a great opportunity for me as a photographer, and one I know I am lucky to have been offered.

For as long as I can remember I have been interested in where the boundaries lie between rural and urban, natural and human-made. Even in my relatively short lifetime British culture has become significantly more urban-centred (and London-centric), but of course the process goes back much further than that. I have begun choosing the eight or so pictures for hanging in the exhibition and all of them will explore the ways in which human activity and nature interact, the human influence on apparently natural landscapes, and how we have come to see the natural, or perhaps unnatural, world.

More of my work is over at my photography website Mottershead and Hayes.

Lime Street

Sell Everything

Over on my photography blog, some pictures of Lime Street, Liverpool, in reflection.

Oil Lamps, Corsets and Neptune’s Razor

Greenland whale fisheryJust a quick note to say I’m going to be giving a talk entitled Oil Lamps, Corsets, and Neptune’s Razor: The Popular Culture of Arctic Whaling at Liverpool Hope University on March 2nd, 1pm-2pm, room FML 123.

Why Arctic Whalers Did Not Become Explorers


Scoresby’s observation of ships appearing to be inverted by refraction at high latitudes.

The forgotten history of Arctic whaling had something of a boost from the British Library in the form of a blog post by Philip Hatfield on the contribution of William Scoresby Jr. to the exploration of the Northwest Passage. Hatfield is a curator of the Lines in the Ice exhibition at the British Library and his post reproduces some of Scoresby’s beautiful detailed drawings from An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) to support his view that the whaler and scientist is overlooked in the history of the Northwest Passage. Scoresby’s two volume book was arguably the most important text on the Arctic and Arctic whaling for a century after it was published. It is referenced by Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851), Charles Darwin had a copy in his library, and the second volume remains the most comprehensive description of the processes involved in Arctic whaling before about 1860. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Scoresby was frequently referenced in newspapers as an expert on the Arctic, and was a champion of Lady Franklin in her attempts to find her missing husband. Her efforts in 1849 included paying Hull whalers significant amounts of money to join the search. Scoresby went with her to Hull to help her persuade them.

I agree with Hatfield that the significance of whalers in Arctic exploration has been overlooked by historians, but their part in the story was necessarily limited by commercial concerns. While some whalers did contribute to exploration, the number who contributed to scientific knowledge from outside of Admiralty-sponsored expeditions is very small indeed. Scoresby of course is the great exception, but as a talented and university educated scientist he was unusual among whalers in any case. Even so, Scoresby struggled throughout his whaling career to square scientific interests with financial obligations to the ship owners and his crew.

Scoresby’s achievements are many. In 1817 his letter to Sir Joseph Banks, informing him of a sudden, significant, and unexplained retreat in the sea ice, helped convince Sir John Barrow that an attempt on the Northwest Passage might then be possible. Although he was to play no part in the failed expedition led by Capt. John Ross in 1818–he sailed instead from Liverpool as commander of the whaleship Fame–Scoresby later became a friend of Ross and in March 1820 visited him at Stranraer when the Baffin took shelter in Loch Ryan on her maiden voyage north. In 1822, Scoresby made the first detailed map of a section of East Greenland, naming it the Liverpool Coast, and noting that it was 70 miles West of where the Admiralty maps suggested.

Like many people at the time Barrow subscribed to the belief that sea near to the North Pole was warm and free of ice. The popularity of this view can be gauged by its appearance in Frankenstein (1818), in which the narrator Walton declares “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.” (p.5) Scoresby himself remained sceptical about explorations by ship in the high Arctic. The Caledonian Mercury reported in October 1818 Scoresby’s suggestion that an attempt on the Pole might be made with sledges: “… he proposes to pass the winter in the island of Spitzbergen, and starting in the spring with sledges drawn by dogs, to pursue a direct journey of 600 or 700 miles to the Pole. He might then expect to find a continuous sheet of ice, stretching through his whole track.”

Scoresby’s achievements, however, stand out among whalers, whose priority was to bring home a full ship in the shortest time possible. Whaleship crews became restless, and even threatened mutiny, if they felt time was being wasted. Even the enticement of a reward for any whaler who found a passage through the ice could not persuade captains to take the risk of becoming beset. A ship full of blubber and a winter beside the hearth at home, while by no means guaranteed, was a more attractive prospect. Indeed, Barrow complains in an 1817 Quarterly Review article “On the Polar Ice and Northern Passage into the Pacific”, that whaleship captains, who received a substantial government bounty on their catches, had to swear to the custom house to pursue whales and “other large creatures” and undertake no other activity. Whalers were legally obliged to catch whales, rather than explore. Even Scoresby’s own explorations, notably the 1822 voyage to Greenland, were undertaken alongside commercial whaling (he caught nine large whales that year) and his freedom to go ashore was granted by his Liverpool underwriters. Led by Scoresby’s friend William Rathbone, they gave him more generous insurance terms than other whalers, with the express purpose of aiding his research, but the owners–and the law–still expected him to bring home a full ship if he could. Frustrated, Scoresby gave up whaling the following year.

Whalers have certainly been overlooked in the history of Arctic exploration, but the neglect of twenty-first century historians is less significant than the failure of the governments of the time to take advantage of their expertise and experience. As Barrow himself argues, the presence of large British whaling fleets in the Arctic offered an opportunity for exploration which the Admiralty did not adequately encourage or exploit.

William Scoresby Jr. in Liverpool

Greenland Street Sign

I’ve been working for a while now on a book about William Scoresby Jr. and his 1822 voyage to Greenland, though with other work to do, progress has been slow.

By 1820, Arctic whaling was in decline in Liverpool, and it stopped altogether after the 1823 season, but in the late eighteenth century it was big business.  Evidence of its significance exists even today in the street name “Greenland Street”, which runs perpendicular to the Mersey, and parallel with Parliament Street. It is divided now by modern development, but it used to connect up with what was then the southern end of the Queen’s Dock. Greenland Street is now home to Camp and Furnace and an ice-cream van depot, among other things. It seems likely, given the name of the street, that the oil works that stood by the Queen’s Dock in the late eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth, serviced a mixed industrial area of bone cutters, stay makers and warehousing, centred there. In the 1780s, when Liverpool whaling was at its peak, Greenland Street would have been on the edge of town. I suspect it was a good thing that it would also have been downwind of the city most of the time.

Church of St. James

The area around Greenland Street must have been an unpleasant place to live, but quite a few whaleship captains did just that. Between about 1818 and 1825, Scoresby himself lived a quarter of a mile up the hill, on the then relatively new development of Upper Stanhope Street. Very few of the buildings that Scoresby would have known now exist, apart from the church of St. James (above) and possibly the once rather grand, but now sorry-looking house below. Gore’s Directory suggests he lived at number seven, so not very far from this derelict remnant. On foot, he could have been at the Queen’s Dock in ten minutes.

Upper Stanhope Street