Reflections on 50 years of CAMRA: real ale and my life

CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, was founded in 1971, and so celebrates 50 years this year. I joined in the late 1970s, so I have certainly been a member for 40 of those 50 years!

Laura Hadland, in her book entitled ’50 years of CAMRA’ has done an admirable job in documenting the history of CAMRA, the more so because it was written mostly during the lockdown in 2020, and many planned meetings had to be rearranged to take place online, etc. In this post I will attempt to explore the effect of the real ale movement on my life, and how I see things moving forward.

I drank very little beer until I was 18. My parents were not beer drinkers – in my mother’s case it may have been seeing her father drunk after one too many pints, and I’m not sure about my father. They did however encourage me to drink wine, and I remember an Italian holiday where as children we had diluted wine with our meals (recommended in the travel guides as a precaution against the local water!) My father also made his own wine, and I remember there being demijohns regularly sitting in the airing cupboard!

It was when I went to university in 1975 that I first tried beer properly. The UCL 2nd floor student bar had Worthington ‘E’ on keg, and I drank that until a friend persuaded me to try Charrington’s IPA, served from a single solitary hand pump on the bar. Real ale was taking off then, and, with friends, I started going to the relatively few pubs in London that then served real ale. As well as Young’s and Fuller’s pubs, there were some other haunts, like the Princess Louise in High Holborn (still there I’m pleased to say). The beers I remember from back then included Young’s Ordinary and Special, Fuller’s London Pride and ESB, and Brakspears’ bitter, not to forget Ruddles Best and County. Many of these still exist, although in some cases they are brewed at different locations. Beer is influenced by the local water, and although Young’s Special is available to this day, it is now brewed in Bedford, and although still a fine beer, it’s not the same as when it was brewed in Wandsworth. Fuller’s still brew their beers at Chiswick, although there were some concerns when the company was taken over by Asahi in 2019.

It was no doubt my new interest in real ale which prompted me to join CAMRA, and to start going to beer festivals, particularly the GBBF (Great British Beer Festival). The first one I attended was at Bingley Hall in Birmingham in 1983. (It seems that Bingley Hall was burned down in 1984 and later replaced by the International Convention Centre). In 1985 I attended the GBBF at the Brighton Metropole. In 1986 I moved from London to North Staffordshire, and there was then a gap of a few years before I started regularly attending the GBBF at Kensington Olympia, Earl’s Court, and then Kensington Olympia again, right up to and including 2019 (and I must thank Angela for her encouragement here). The 2020 and 2021 events were cancelled, and I wonder where the event will be held in 2022, since I understand that Kensington Olympia is also now being redeveloped!

There have recently been questions about the relevance of CAMRA, and in 2016 a series of ‘revitalisation’ (sic) meetings were held. One of the issues was the rise of so-called ‘craft keg’ ales, which are not brewed to conform with CAMRA’s definition of real ale. I talk about craft keg here, and the meeting I attended, at the (now sadly recently closed) White Star pub in Stoke, is described here (and the post includes my thoughts on the ‘revitalisation exercise’ in general). However, I feel that CAMRA played an important role when pubs were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I’ll say more about its relevance going forward later.

Of course, much of 2020 and the start of 2021 were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. All pubs and bars in the UK were made to close in March 2020, and then had a few months of reopening in the summer-autumn before having to close again. It wasn’t until April 2021 that outdoor opening was allowed (and it was very cold then), followed by restricted indoor opening in May, and finally, full opening in July. During the lockdown months I got some deliveries from a local bar, and became an authority on online beer sellers!

So now we are in August, and it’s the second year without a GBBF. CAMRA is running a ‘GBBF at your local’ which is a great idea in principle, but not many pubs in my area are taking part. However, at least they are open, which still seems a luxury!

A brief moment of reflection on the GBBF: yesterday would have been my mother’s 101st birthday. I’m very pleased that she came to two editions of the GBBF, and enjoyed them. I even enticed her younger brother to come one year. The GBBF is a wonderful and inclusive event, and I’m missing it very much, particularly as in a normal year I would be travelling to London tomorrow to be ready for the start of the festival. It has been a fixed point in my summer for many years.

Looking ahead, I do think CAMRA is still an important and relevant organisation. As we open up after the months of lockdown, not all pubs and bars (and breweries) have survived, and real ale will continue to need a champion fighting its corner. I’m looking forward to beer festivals being able to happen again, and particularly the GBBF in 2022. CAMRA and real ale have both figured prominently in my life, and I wish CAMRA all the best as it begins the next 50 years of its existence.

Roy McWeeny, 1924-2021: his Life and Keele Links.

Roy McWeeny died in Pisa on 29 April 2021 where he had retired. He had a long career, and was a very important figure in Quantum Chemistry. Apart from his field which slightly overlaps with mine, he spent 9 years at Keele, so I have a personal interest there. I previously mentioned him in a post from 2013 about Harry Greenwood, his scientific ‘brother’, who died in 2013, and who had been director of the Keele Computer Centre for many years.

Roy’s first degree was in Physics from the University of Leeds, from 1942-45. Because of the 2nd World War, he was drafted into the Ministry of Defence upon graduation, and from 1945-46 he worked on theory of thermal stress in brittle materials in the Department of Ceramics at Leeds. In 1946 he was able to go to Oxford to do a DPhil degree with Charles Coulson , in Mathematical Physics, on Momentum Space Solutions of the Schrödinger Wave Equation. Because of his research work at Leeds, he was classed as a ‘senior student from another university’, and was required to complete his doctorate in 2 years! So, in 1948, having got his DPhil, he moved to the Chemistry Department at King’s College, University of Durham (later to become the University of Newcastle) as a Lecturer in Physical Chemistry. The significance of this move cannot be understated; at the time, the appointment of Quantum Mechanics specialists to Chemistry departments was rare, and Roy’s was perhaps the first such appointment. He was there until 1957, when he was appointed Lecturer in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry (a Faculty appointment with equal affiliation to three Departments) at the University College of North Staffordshire (which became the University of Keele in 1962). Again the nature and scope of this appointment was unusual. He was subsequently promoted to Reader in Quantum Theory at Keele in 1960, and to Professor of Theoretical Physics and Theoretical Chemistry at Keele in 1965. in 1966 he moved to the University of Sheffield as Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, and was Head of the Department of Chemistry from 1976-1979. In 1982 he moved to the University of Pisa, as ‘Professore Ordinario di Chimica Teorica’, where he remained until his retirement in 1997.

Roy published extensively, and it is not the purpose of this post to discuss his work in detail. However, the Spiers Memorial Lecture, which he gave in 2006, entitled ‘Quantum Chemistry: The first seventy years’ is available online and not only contains interesting science, but mentions his life, and provides a fascinating account of his interactions with others working in Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Chemistry over the years.

I feel privileged to have had some correspondence with Roy, although I never met him. In 2003-2004 my faculty at Keele opened a new PC lab, and I suggested that it be named after him (he having obtained the first computer for the university, an IBM 1620, in 1962). He was happy to give permission for this to happen, but unfortunately university bureaucracy and personnel changes meant it never did. However I am glad I at least pursued this possibility!

In conclusion, Roy McWeeny was a significant and influential figure in Quantum Chemistry, and along with Harry Greenwood, is a part of Keele’s scientific heritage. I am grateful to Brian Sutcliffe and Grant Hill for providing useful information that helped me write this post.

My recent social media follower trends

From time to time I look at how my various social media accounts are doing as regards followers/friends/connections.

For Twitter, my follower numbers, have been going down steadily for several years now. There have been some #TwitterPurges no doubt, and I have lost some followers who I never followed back (so fair enough) but in general it’s not an encouraging picture. It has led me to stop regarding Twitter as the most effective way of getting a message across, which is confirmed by the very small amount of interactions I get there. As of now, my follower numbers are 4952.

For LinkedIn, my connections are increasing steadily, ranging from students to research and external examining contacts. I am making more of an effort to post there now as a result. I currently have 993 connections.

Facebook seems to be my most successful social media account, with friend numbers increasing steadily. Of all my accounts, it’s the one where I get most interactions, and my friend numbers currently stand at 616.

Social media has (have?) been of considerable importance during the pandemic. Twitter seems to be a very unfriendly place these days, which tends to put me off posting anyway. LinkedIn is good for work related information, including new publications, conferences etc. But as a place to comment on life and what I am currently doing and concerned about, Facebook is best. I keep contentious material like politics off my main account though. It will be interesting to see how these trends change as we come out of the pandemic.

35 years at Keele

This will be a short post to recognise the fact that today marks 35 years at Keele University for me. 5 years ago I wrote at some length about my first 30 years, so I won’t repeat what was written then, but will provide a link to the post.

The two main things that have happened in the past 5 years are that a few months after writing that post I was appointed Acting Head of School, which I did for 16 months (see separate posts about this), and of course, in the last year, Covid-19 and its effects (again much commented on).

I’m not too sure about what the immediate future holds; these are uncertain times, so we will see how it goes over the next few months. But this is certainly an occasion to be noted!

A year (plus) on, and what has changed?

With it being over a year since we first went into lockdown in the UK, I have been thinking about how I felt about things this time last year, and how I feel about them now, and trying to understand the difference. I had a good chat with my wife, Angela about it this morning, which was a great help in achieving this understanding.

A year ago, my attitude was basically, OK, this is what we have to do, so let’s do it. I embraced the challenges (both from work, where it was all about changing my way of teaching and attending meetings etc, and from home, learning how to survive in the new situation – what shops were still open, how to get prescription medication etc.) I enjoyed the clarity of thought which seemed to come from somewhere (I’m still not sure where), and used it to good effect (see my posts from that time for examples of how I managed this).

There was a brief period in the summer where things opened up a bit, and we managed a few trips to London, shops and hospitality venues reopened, and there was a general positive feel, at least for a while.

In September, with the new academic year looming, it seemed as if we would be teaching online until the new year, with limited face to face teaching for projects and labs. That was OK – I had acquired a basic working knowledge of Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, and felt I could cope. After all, it was just for a few months. But then we were told we would be doing this for the whole academic year, and that was where despondency and frustration entered. To make matters worse, we had a short lockdown from mid autumn, followed by the ‘tiers’ system, and then another full national lockdown, which basically meant that in my area ‘non essential’ shops and hospitality venues closed, and have remained closed ever since then. It also meant that very few students returned to the university after Christmas (only those on health related courses), and then, with three weeks before Easter, some more were allowed to return (third and fourth year students who had lab work to try to complete). This put pressure on us, with the expectation that we would be able to somehow bring these students to the level they would have been at had they not missed 6 weeks of the semester!To make matters worse, there has not been enough change in the assessment process, in my opinion, for all students, to reflect the changes in their learning experience this academic year. For example, we have been expected to set assessments to replace exams that are appropriate to home working, with no help or advice, but just criticism most of the time.

A year ago, Angela was impressed with how well I adapted to the situation, but now, in early April 2021, I am where she thought I would be then – fed up, despondent, and with no optimism or hope for the future. Even though hospitality venues will be allowed to open for outdoor service, and ‘non essential shops’ will be allowed to open, on April 12th, with further milestones in May and June, the government and media (who seem to simply echo them now) keep saying things on the lines of ‘it’s up to you – if you mess up we can close things down again’.  Angela’s interpretation of this is that it is the excuse they will use if things go wrong again due to their shambolic handling of the pandemic since the beginning.

So, today that is where I am, but at least now I understand how I got here. Here’s hoping for more optimistic posts in the future.


Inheriting a piano

My mother died in September 2020. She had told me that she wanted me to have her piano, and of course I agreed, although even back when she first mentioned this, I had practical misgivings. How would I get it from Suffolk to North Staffordshire, and would it even go into my flat? Then there was the issue of finding room for it – we live in a fairly compact flat on the university campus, and having been here a long time, things build up!

But, in the end, everything worked out very well. The removal firm that moved some of my mother’s things to my sister’s house in Kent agreed to move the piano (and a few other bits and pieces) to me, and they collected it from my mother’s house, now on the market, and put it into storage. I didn’t expect it would actually be moved up here until the end of the current lockdown, so I was surprised to get a call last week to say that it would arrive on Thursday (18/02/21).

Moving the piano from the removal van to the flat entrance was fairly straightforward, balancing it on a set of wheels. It required a bit more thought to get it into the entrance area of the flats, down a few steps, and through our front door! Once in the flat, it had to be moved along the passage way and turned into our living room. That last step was the most challenging as it couldn’t just be wheeled in, as there wasn’t enough turning room, but had to be lifted on its side. The use of a blanket to slide the piano across the floor was key! However, in the end it was in position, and fits very well, as the photo below shows.

I have tried to find out a bit about the piano. It was in our house in Ealing, and moved with us to Suffolk in 1962. It was bought from Squires, a music shop in Ealing, probably in the mid 1950s. I haven’t been able to find out much about the manufacturer, Roseman, yet, but I’m on the case. The various sites I have consulted online all say that old pianos are not worth much, but that’s not the point. It’s a beautiful instrument in its own right. It needs some TLC and tuning, but that is hardly surprising as the last time it was tuned was probably in the late 1960s- early 1970s, when both myself and my sister were practising on it. In spite of the challenge in getting it here (and the future challenge of moving it again), I’m very pleased to have inherited it.

Incidentally, the rocking chair in the photo isn’t being used as a piano stool (!) but is something else I have inherited. It is even older, having belonged to my maternal grandmother. That’s another project for another time.

Writing an article for ‘The Conversation’

It has been an interesting week. On Monday (1st February) just before 12:00 noon, I received an email from my Head of School, forwarding a request to write an article for The Conversation, a website which publishes articles on a very wide range of subjects, and gives its byline as ‘Academic rigour, journalistic flair’. The motivation for the article was a new paper on the chemistry of einsteinium, due to be published in Nature on Wednesday 3rd February. The Conversation wanted an article understandable to a wide audience, which introduced einsteinium and explained the importance of the paper. The fact that 2021 marks 100 years since Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the photoelectric effect provided another impetus. After some thought I agreed to take this on. I had spent the last three weeks marking student assessments online, and needed a change. It proved to be an interesting exercise, as I will tell!

Initially I didn’t have the paper itself; it was embargoed until Wednesday 3rd February at 16:00 GMT. I had a press release, but that didn’t tell me enough to write the article (for example it said that the authors had not used X-ray diffraction, but didn’t say what they had used!) I finally received a copy of the paper via my editor just after 16:00 (on the Monday), and I set about writing the article. With the help of Angela I found some useful references, including this excellent book which she bought me as a Christmas present some years ago.  On the Tuesday I had a teaching meeting in the morning, but was able to write what I felt was a reasonable first draft of the paper by the evening, which Angela read with her critical eye. It meant I was able to email the draft to the editor on Wednesday morning just before 9:00.  That was when the fun really started, with a deadline of 14:00 to send the article to the senior editorial team!

I had attempted in my draft to discuss what the authors had done in their work, including explaining that they had synthesised a chemical complex with einsteinium, and then used X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy to determine both the element’s valence state and the structure of the complex, measurements they performed at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. I was informed that this was too much detail, and that it assumed too much chemical knowledge on the part of the intended audience, so it was substantially edited. This led, unfortunately, to some rather dubious chemical statements, including a confusion of nomenclature over ‘charge’ and ‘valence’, partly because the paper was being edited in real time on The Conversation’s (excellent) article  template system, and it was hard to keep up with the changes.  Anyway, the article was completed and submitted on time, and published shortly after 16:00 as originally requested. Of course, I only noticed the problem mentioned once the paper was published, and I requested to be allowed to put in a footnote of clarification, but it was too late, and I was advised to blame the editor for any errors!

Looking back on the overall experience, it was largely a good one, although having a bit more time would have ironed out some of the issues mentioned above. Incidentally, the specific point about charge and valence has been picked up in comments on the paper (on The Conversation website), including a rather unkind comment questioning my ‘science credibility’ (sic). But I hope for most readers it will be of interest, and I’ve had some nice comments on my own Facebook and Twitter accounts. It was certainly my quickest publication – 48 hours from conception to publication.

The Nature paper can be read here, and my article is here.

Comments are of course welcome.

Lockdown 3 – a new challenge (written 6/01/2021)

England is in its third lockdown period now, and I know it will be more challenging at a personal level. I’ve just compiled my blog posts for 2020, and noted that I was relatively positive throughout the first lockdown, even finding good aspects. The second lockdown occured in the middle of our autumn semester, so it made little difference to my work, although the closing of hospitality venues that had invested considerably in making them Covid-19 secure was a worry and a frustration. When we came out of Lockdown2 we went into Tier 3, which meant that ‘non essential’ shops could at least be open in the run up to Christmas.

We entered Lockdown3 as the new year started. Now everything is shut apart from essential shops, and staying at home apart from going out for exercise and essential shopping etc is encouraged. Most of our students haven’t returned to campus, so many will not, until restrictions are lifted, although hen that will happen is anyone’s guess. It means no face to face teaching for the time being, with everything going online.

It’s dark, cold and there seems little hope just now. We can only hope that the roll out of vaccines will steadily improve things, and that at some point in 2021 life may begin to return to something like normal.

Pokemon Go and Ingress: different approaches to the pandemic

Pokemon Go and Ingress are both owned by Niantic, but the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been different for both games. I play  both games, and particularly noted this difference.

Of the two, Pokemon Go was the winner in my view. The minimum distance to be able to spin a Pokestop was increased, such that I can now reach my nearest stop from home. Community Days and the Pokemon Go Fest went online, meaning that for the first time I could attend the latter event. The Community Days were generally great, with plenty of Shinies to catch. The only issue I have is the increase in the number of paid events (I don’t mean Community Days, where its a nominal amount, but events like the forthcoming Pokemon Tour, which costs £10.99 in the UK). But apart from that, full marks to Niantic.

Ingress is another matter. During the first lockdown, the decay rate for portals was decreased to 5%, meaning you didn’t need to recharge them so often. This was good for maintaining portals, but not for gaining AP. Probably due to community pressure it was increased back to the normal value after a few months. I would have preferred a slower return; maybe to 10% initially. The problem was that in many parts of the world, getting out was still problematical, so you couldn’t reach many of the portals anyway.  First Saturdays, Ingress’s community event, went online, but I didn’t think it worked, because the whole point of a FS is to visit a new area and capture the portals there. Instead all you could do was to recharge the portals for which you have keys. I tried the first one, and while it was nice to get the medal, that was about it. And, very strangely, my nearest portal is also a Pokestop which I can reach from home, but I can’t reach it as a portal!

I have continued to play both games throughout the pandemic, but I have enjoyed Pokemon Go far more. The recent roll out of levels 41-50 is good, although not without issues, but that is for another time. What I wanted to discuss here was the differing approach to two games from the same company, which doesn’t make sense to me, although I appreciate that there may be reasons that I am unaware of.

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