Sunday, April 15, 2018

Save me, from the makers of desperate TV

The most important element of any storytelling is how it ends. A very close second is how it starts. How it grabs your attention and says powerfully that this is worth sticking with. But the ending is everything. And have you noticed how many TV series now seem to end on a promise of more to come? It’s a hopeful wave at the possibility of a new series, or a disappointing whimper. The desperation to milk a format means that no happy-ever-after is an option. There has to be a loose end that remains flailing in the wind, even looser and freer than before, begging for someone to have another go to tie it up properly, rather than chuck it in the plot stream with all those other red herrings.

Spoilers follow, but the main point is a build up to tomorrow night’s Season 8 conclusion of The Walking Dead, a make or break moment for a declining franchise.

So it was been with the best series I’ve seen recently - Sky Atlantic's Save Me - where the conclusion is entirely unsatisfactory, yet utterly in keeping with everything that’s gone before. A roller coaster of a story, of (most remarkably) wit, redemption, true horror, twisted morality and a deeply depressing and unsettling glimpse of humanity’s narcissism and depravity. Second series? How can there not be?

Marcella left me with an entirely different feeling as Hugo Speer leaned over a dishevelled homeless person, talking about a secret unit of the police. Everything that had gone before, the ham fisted signposting of the supposed suspects, the wasted time on dead end story lines and the preposterous liberties with police procedures. All of it had me screaming inside, please end this. No more, no more. And then she finds a way to disappear, to vanish, but the so-secret-we-must-never-know-about-them-police find her. It seems to be a shrug. Less of a plea, more of a well, if you really must commission a third series, here’s your angle, but we really don’t believe you’ll go for it.

Poor Anna Friel, after bravely traversing the Sahara desert and battling rogue mercenaries in Odyssey, as a more Poundland version of Homeland, her next attempt to match Claire Danes (Carrie in Homeland) as the worst mother on television is so psychotic, so off the wall, even the makers seem to have given up. But this is ITV where nothing too absurd can ever be discounted.

BBC’s Come Home won’t ever come back. It was a bold attempt at addressing that most taboo of all last taboos, the crap, selfish and reluctant mother. I don’t know what it is with BBC series set in post-troubles Northern Ireland, but while The Fall was rapey and exploitive, Come Home was populated with snide and manipulative women all either lacking empathy or only capable of making poor decisions against the interests of children and hard working men. The only exception was the absolute beast of a criminal wife beater, but even with him we were invited to price in the possibility that he was driven to it.

And so to tomorrow night’s season 8 conclusion of The Walking Dead. I could write pages of fan theory and meta analysis of TWD, but all the failings of this series crash on the rocks of the basic season architecture. It has found a rhythm of predictability that has rendered it wholly absurd. As other critics have pointed out, it is a series with too little story and too much time to tell it. I said at the conclusion of Series 7, or half way through series 8, that nothing really happened since Negan killed Glenn and Abraham so brutally. There have been some interactions between the warring factions, but the same stand off pretty much still exists, it needs a dramatic stand-off with a firm conclusion, a seismic peak moment of television that the makers have deemed can only happen in 4 out of the 16 episodes of the season - the first, the last and either side of the mid-season break. It means there are 12 weak and plodding episodes that inch us closer to those points. There is no possibility of any major character being killed outside of those four episodes, stripping them of any tension or surprise. As ratings have slumped there is now a consensus that the stables need sweeping. Even in interviews with the producer who says this next episode will be an ending to all current storylines. I’ve had the advantage of reading the graphic novels up until the arrival of these crazies called the Whisperers (who wear zombie skin) and am up with the debates about who they might be, and if they might end up making an appearance in the TV series, or if they’re already around. There’s also the build up to the point about what to do about Negan. In the comics they keep him prisoner in Alexandria, skip ahead and several communities live peacefully for a while.

Here's what we know is going to happen: Morgan (Lennie James) is going to cross over into Fear the Walking Dead, there is going to be a severe change of plot and tone, something with the helicopter will be an important part of the transition. There is another community out there.

Here’s what I think should happen: Jadis, or the Oceanside women, should conduct a massacre of whoever they find as a way of marking their border, just as happened in the graphic novel. The mysterious helicopter needs to open a door into a much more imaginative post-apocalyptic social order than a dictatorship, linked to the appearance of Georgie. We're done with idiots like Negan and The Governor. Frankly, I'm done with Rick Grimes. A far better leader is emerging in Maggie, who still hasn't had her baby. She needs to execute Gregory once his cowardice and treachery are made tragically apparent. Eugene needs to go. He will probably redeem himself with some kind of sabotage of the Saviours weapons, but he'll still go.

Will that happen? I somehow doubt it, but it needs to, to actually prepare the way for what needs to happen in Series 9. The end of The Walking Dead for once and for all.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Still upbeat after clash of the Rovers at Bristol

It’s never a pleasure to come off a game when you’ve looked at the clock and it’s 1-0 and it’s 90+4, and then in the blink of an eye and the swing of a boot it’s 1-1. And at this stage of the season I’m not in the mood for fair results overall or laments over wasted chances. Part of me wants it to end. Another just wants this season to go on and on. More new grounds, more trips with my lads, more lunches with friends in nice pubs and cafes in parts of England I haven’t been to before. But also that feeling of pride that I’ve somehow got back in this football club.

I can’t feel anger at these players, only disappointment at a result. Sure Derrick Williams should have scored. Payne could have done more with the ball running at defenders. As a team they would have looked at how they might have done more to kill the energy of the game at 1-0 and into the last few minutes. Could have, should have, would have. But this team is still noticeably better than most teams they share a pitch with, and they seem to be able to avoid defeat remarkably well. As a club, we are clearly still in a very decent position. Last week against Southend was a horror show in the last few minutes, but we won. Today we looked comfortable on the ball, stronger going forward, but just missing a bit of brilliance from Dack and Armstrong. I think we owe them an enormous amount and the pressure to perform miracles must be huge. But any analysis of a football match can’t just take into account one team without acknowledging the ability of the opposition to also influence the result, so fair play to Bristol Rovers for chucking everything at us right to the end.

Some of our fans don’t half come out with some nonsense, but I’m going to hold back from repeating the extremities of what I heard from people today as I’ve no desire to fuel this debate as it’s just not helpful. But I will confess to being disappointed that the whole mentality of the team is that we’re edging closer to the finish line, rather than flowing out in pomp and with a swagger.

I enjoyed another good day out today, except for that shot from Chris Lines at 10 to 5. The Inn on the Green on Gloucester Road was a fine spot to catch up with my pal Neil Tague. I used to live in Bristol but on the opposite side of the city, and have never been to the Memorial Ground. That’s the point about this season being about discovery. It also brought back a few memories of the first long distance away trip I did on my own – the second day of May 1981 – when we missed out on promotion despite winning at the old Eastville stadium. Subsequent trips were to their temporary home at Bath City’s Twerton Park.

It’s a funny wee ground. The stand behind the goal looked like it was on loan from Chatsworth Country Fair, the terrace behind the other goal looked packed and raucous, and I liked that they call it the Tote End as a nod towards their history at Eastville. Our terrace in the corner lacked a bit of atmosphere, but the view was OK. It’s odd that a city like Bristol doesn’t have a more successful club, maybe the “Gas” getting a new stadium might be the spur that worked for Swansea and Brighton.

That makes it another new ground I’ve watched football on, the 156th. I’m still on 83 clubs out of the current 92 (the Punk 92), and I’m up to 78 of the current 92. Onwards to Doncaster. I still think we’re going up.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

What I'm going to say on the BRFCS podcast, what I've said and what I never say any more

Louis, Danny Graham, me, David Southworth
Next week we're going to be recording a Blackburn Rovers supporters podcast, it will be a marker for where we are up to with just four games to go, having played Bristol Rovers at the weekend.

I'm as one with King of the Ewood Bloggers Jim Wilkinson that this has been a heck of a good season to be a Blackburn Rovers fan. After all the disappointment of recent years, to be 'on our way back' feels so much better than the slow decline we had endured. We have the most exciting player in the division in Bradley Dack. So whatever happens in the next few games, I will probably see our team notch up more points in a single season than they ever have before. Think about that for a minute. The promotion of 2001 was completed with 91 points, the Premiership win with 27 wins and 89 points (from 42 games) and the last time we were at this level it was with two points for a win, but we would have got 84 points in new money.

So, as well as a few thoughts from Bristol, I'll say a version of all of that.

I'll also be reminded that earlier in this season I called Danny Graham 'useless' after the Plymouth home draw, that I said Mowbray over complicates things and the team is 'overcoached', that we play to the style of the opposition too much and that the team has a soft core. Well, all of that (and more) is true on a bad day. Blissfully, we have had far fewer bad days.

I also have said how much I was annoyed by Elliot Bennett’s fist pump. To me it seemed like a snarl at the fans. It’s become a thing now, a symbol of his connection with the fans. What do I know? As the old gent behind us says when someone does something other than the simple obvious thing.

As I said here, I never speak to the players, I literally have nothing to say to them beyond 'well done'. I certainly can't deign to discuss the game they've just played in. When I do it usually ends awkwardly. From the time when I collared Noel Brotherston on Blackburn station on his way to meet the Northern Ireland squad (1981, I'm thinking) and I suggested he was saving himself for his country. Frankly, he should have given me a Belfast slap, never mind a couple of comps for the next away match. There have been exceptions, like when David Dunn came to a dinner as my guest. I like listening to players give their view, but they're usually so guarded.

We had our picture taken with Danny Graham after the Walsall game (above). He seemed like a really nice bloke, to be fair as most of this squad do. I'm amazed though that I managed to get that close to him without him grabbing my shirt, tangling his legs around mine, or him using his backside to shove me out of the way.

So, hope you enjoy the podcast and here's to three points at the third ground I've watched Rovers at the other Rovers. Do they still play in blue and white quarters?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Northern Rail goes all Kafka on us (updated)

Friends of Rose Hill station make the place so appealing, what are Northern playing at?
I wrote over the weekend about the proposed new timetable for Rose Hill station, at the end of a branch line in the bottom right corner of Greater Manchester. In there, I expressed my delight at the new timetable in May and how half hourly services throughout the day, up until after 9pm were a massive improvement on the status quo.

However (and there's always a however with Northern Rail, the train operating company), there is no train at the absolute peak time. Instead, at 17:34, a train will leave Manchester Piccadilly, go to all the usual stations on our line, stop at Woodley for NINE MINUTES then divert into Marple instead (source, Real Time Trains). At first I put this anomaly down to a data error, but no, it's apparently because they *might* need to park a works train sometime between 1800 and 1810.

I've tried to offer Northern a chance to respond, but they clearly don't care about some berk with a blog. I got the bureaucratic fob off of a 20 day response time to my "complaint".

It isn't a complaint. It's an enquiry.

They told me to phone. I did, I got cut off. I phoned again. No one answered.

Our local heroes, the Friends of Rose Hill Station have done some digging and have had a reply. It actually defies belief. I'm going to quote directly from a note I was copied in on.

It is because Network Rail have a Railhead Treatment Train (RHTT) path on the Rose Hill branch between 1800 and 1809. Note, it is a PATH, not a TRAIN.

It has apparently always been there but the proposed new timetable departure at 1734 would conflict with it. This is why the 1734 departure will travel to Woodley, sit for ten minutes there and then pootle on to Romiley and terminate at Marple, 40 mins after leaving Piccadilly!! This is so surreal that I find it difficult to get my brain round it. It poses the following questions (and I'm sure there are more questions):

1. Why has Northern Rail waited until now to raise this? The 1734 Monday to Friday departure was in the May 2018 consultation timetable issued last year.

2. Has an RHTT ever traveled up the Rose Hill branch? Have any neighbours ever seen or heard a railhead treatment train on the Rose Hill branch around 1800 Mon-Fri? Does anyone else have any knowledge of such a train?

3. Would the good folk of Surbiton or Bromley calmly accept such a pathway for a phantom train to prevent one of their peak time trains from being timetabled? I think not and nor should we.

4. Why can't Northern Rail shift their phantom RHTT path to 2140, after the last Rose Hill train will have been and gone? Most RHTT's run at night.

5. Has Network Rail got it in for Rose Hill? After their five year unjustifiable refusal to give us permission to clear part of the disused platform, it feels like an anti-Rose Hill vendetta.
We need to reverse this stupid decision. Who is this railway run for?

UPDATE: Northern Rail have officially confirmed this account to be true, but say they hope to have the problem sorted in time for the December timetable change.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Strange moves on the railway - how new timetable for Marple and Rose Hill makes no sense

Us hardy commuters of Northern Rail have had to put up with a lot over the last few years. As working patterns change, cities grow, so does the popularity of taking the train to work in the morning. This has led to overcrowding at a time when the rolling stock is well past its sell-by date. The government issued Northern with a new franchise on the condition that the hated Pacers be replaced by 2020, and we have been assured that’s happening by the end of next year. What is more likely, however, is our lines will get the refurbished Sprinter diesel units which are still pretty noisy and have a higher doorway, which makes them hard to access for less mobile passengers.

We've also had to grin and bear it through regular strikes over future staffing levels on new driver only trains. Yes, the limited services are a disruption, but we cope. But it rather exposes a worrying intransigence on the part of Northern Rail management and the RMT Union that they can't sort this issue out.

I digress, but that’s important context. In May there is to be a new timetable, thanks to the Real Time Trains site we've had a glimpse before they are officially announced. It looks like the morning services are broadly the same, and there is a massive improvement in the frequency of trains in the evening. Currently, if you go to an event or work late, the next (and last) train after the 18:35 isn’t until two hours later, or you get one to Marple and hike up the hill. That’s changing and there will be two trains an hour up until 21:09. Inevitably the frequency of that service will result in more park and ride passengers utilising Rose Hill in the morning. The tweaks however don't make much sense. There will be a gap in service in the absolute peak time from the frustratingly early 17:10 (which was the 17:20 and will have worked well for people who finish work at 5) until 18:09! But there will be a 17:34 out of Piccadilly via Hyde, but running into Marple instead of Rose Hill.

As fellow commuter Catherine Waddington first suggested on Twitter this just has to be a mistake as it seems to clash with other Marple trains minutes apart and the return to Piccadilly is right behind a service from New Mills. I’m intrigued as to the planning process that has informed these changes. The wonderful Friends of Rose Hill Station conduct a survey on numbers, but I’m not aware of any detailed enquiries into why these changes are taking place in the shape they are.

Also, Piccadilly station will soon have the electronic barriers on platforms 1 to 3 which will make it even more crowded at peak times. Already my season card doesn’t work in barriers because my phone has damaged it, and I’m not convinced that everyone will have the ability to purchase a ticket by the time they get to Manchester and the rules are tightening on people who don't. Or maybe they’ll open the barriers as a free for all at peak times meaning the fare dodgers will take their chances like they do on Metrolink.

In the interests of fairness I've put these points to Northern Rail's press office on Friday morning, but they hadn't replied (it's Sunday now). I will update if they do.

Finally, it's difficult to understate how important to our service the local Friends of Rose Hill Station have been, improving the environment of the station and campaigning for improvement to services. Please sign up to receive updates and subscribe to support the excellent work they do on our behalf.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Honesty and sense on the law, killing burglars and Richard Osborn-Brooks

I was thinking of writing something about the death of the burglar in south London, killed by 78-year-old Richard Osborne-Brooks. But Stephen Bush in the New Statesman has saved me the bother.

“Good morning. The death of Harry Vincent, killed by 78-year-old pensioner Richard Osborn-Brooks, has taken on a political dimension after the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, said that people should feel to defend themselves in their own homes. (Osborn-Brooks has been arrested and charged. The Sun is running a petition calling for the charges to be dropped.)

“Of course, the truth is that homeowners – and renters too for that matter – are allowed to defend themselves provided they use “reasonable force”. And, of course, if I phone up the police, tell them I have killed someone in my flat but they were breaking in, for obvious reasons, the police have to investigate rather than take my word for it.

“Don’t forget that Tony Martin, the farmer who shot and killed a burglar in 2000, the last time this issue was on the political agenda, told the police that he had fired in self-defence but a jury found that he had laid in wait for the robbers and fired without warning.

“In this case, if it turns out that Osborn-Brooks’ account of events is true, the charges will likely be dropped – not because of a petition in a tabloid newspaper but because that’s how the law works, though I doubt that will stop the Sun from declaring victory should that happen.

“We hear a lot about fake news, as if this were a problem that cropped up only in the 2016 and 2017 elections. There is a real problem with news stories that have at best a sketchy relationship with the truth being spread by new blogs on the Internet. But there is also a real problem of news stories that have at best a sketchy relationship wit the truth being spread by old newspapers on the Internet and in print. How disappointing that Gauke couldn’t do what a Lord Chancellor should, and explain how and why the law works, rather than bending in the wind with the tabloid mood.”

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

J. Simons of London, the Godfather of British male fashion

I can't remember whether I ever actually bought anything from J Simons, possibly a pair of Bass Weejun loafers (which I still have and really love), but I still can probably cite it as the motherlode when it came to my fairly fixed style of clothing and how it has gently evolved. In the early 90s we'd wander in to this treasure trove of a shop next to Covent Garden and the owner, John Simons, would talk us through great stories such as the red stitching on the seams on Levis jeans, the origins of penny loafers and the Harrington jacket.

We didn't know it at the time but we were in the presence of one of the giants of the mod era. A real cultural figure in London. So I'm really looking forward to seeing the full version of the film trailed above, featuring notable sharp dressers like Robert Elms, Paul Weller and Kevin Rowland, and someone who featured heavily in my 1988 undergraduate dissertation on the New Man - ad guru John Hegarty. It feels like a fitting tribute to the contribution of one of the giants of British male fashion, who took the best bits of Americana, Italian quality and a classy British street attitude and made something special.

I love his shop in Marylebone. Next time I'm down I'll be paying him a visit. I might even buy something this time.

The source for this nostalgia trip was a lovely piece in GQ, here.

New era for New Charter - building the Northern Powerhouses

Tim, Gill, Bridget, Fay, Ian, me and Mark. 
We held the last ever New Charter Group board at the end of March. It's been a real privilege to serve alongside such a smart and energetic board of directors, giving support and scrutiny to a really capable and talented executive team.

I've known the chair, Fay Selvan, for a while longer than we've worked together. She's one of those people who fizzes with ideas and just exudes passion and concern to make a difference.

It's been an incredibly challenging period for social housing. When I joined the board the government capped rent increases, which drove a coach and horses through the business plan, and a bond issue. It necessitated a cost reduction programme across the organisaton, yet we still hit all our targets and metrics. It was clear too that well-run, socially focused social housing organisations had a real role to play in mitigating austerity and meeting the challenges of the lack of new homes being built. Slowly, surely, the tide has turned and government ministers have grasped who has the capacity and structure to deliver. Yes, we're still here, Sajid.

When I was interviewed to join the board I made it clear I wanted to join an organisation that could be part of the change. The endgame has been a merger with Adactus to form Jigsaw Homes Group, with homes stretching across the North West, but still with a vitally important root in Tameside.

I'm still going to be a director of the New Charter Building Company and a trustee of some of the charitable projects, and while things might take a while to settle down, I'm confident that we can continue to play a really important part in building our Northern Powerhouse.