Saturday, August 18, 2018

A holiday in Estonia

I don't think I've sat in a political conference before, enjoyed listening to a speaker and thought 'I'd like to go there on holiday'. But it was listening to Arto Aas, an Estonian MP and former minister, that sparked a real interest in the former Soviet state.

Arto was speaking at Andy Burnham's Digital Summit in Manchester last December, a really stimulating conference full of ideas and smart thinkers. A local Manchester perspective from Chris Maguire is here, and a more political take on it is here, from Richard Angell. Both convey very well the energy generated by his talk and huge interest in Estonia that Arto sparked.

It was good to get a perspective from someone from somewhere with such ambition. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Estonia has forged a completely new identity, joining the European Union and NATO, building stronger links with the Nordic countries and making a giant leap forward towards being a modern digital state.

I had a vague idea I'd be able to replicate our tour of western European cities last summer, by zipping through the Baltic states. Unfortunately it isn't as simple as that, as Matthew Engel explained in his Estonian odyssey as part of his excellent tour of Europe series for the New Statesman. The trains between the Baltic states are still Soviet-era, and the flights from the North of England are pretty much non-existent. If you think about it, there are vanishingly few reasons to do so: Tallinn has taken itself off the stag circuit and precious few Estonians have sought the path to a 'better life' in Britain. Instead we flew to Helsinki - itself a great city to visit and spend a day or two - then caught a ferry across the Baltic. It was all pretty seamless, technically and culturally, the people looked similar and had a cool and precise aura. Indeed, there was less of a difference than Manchester to Edinburgh, or London.

Flaneuring around the old part of Tallinn was great. There were loads of groovy coffee shops, quirky museums and cute squares to hang out in. I was gutted the Museum of the Occupations was closed for refurbishment when we were there, and it’s almost a reason to return another time. The national museum of Estonia placed it all in a long context, but the former KGB cells were a brutal reminder of how much Estonia's history is tortured and steeped in suffering.Yet the character of confidence and fierce pride now is all the more remarkable.

For me the highlight was the Telleskivi part of the city (pictured), a collection of refurbished warehouses and railways sheds, populated with food stalls, a market and funky offices for tech start-ups. It was like Manchester’s Sharp Project, with a Borough Market and an Affleck’s. But the vibe had something more than just a hipster hangout Estonia is also a deadly serious place for business. Skype was invented there and the profits from the sale invested in Estonia’s latent venture capital industry.

Culturally, we saw the spaces where the Estonians love to gather and sing, but not any actual singing. Our time there coincided with the World Cup, so I watched England beat Colombia in a hotel with my non-football supporting son who had more in common with the rest of the residents - marked indifference. So go, take it in. One of most intriguing places I've been to, in turn both inspirational and modest. Not only a brave country with a tough past, but somewhere with such a bold grasp of the future.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

People define places and people value style



This is the video arising out of our recent Vibrant Economy event where we looked at how places can thrive and find new purpose.

My pals at Influential Communications pulled it together and made a very fine job of it.

In this short film some of the participants offer reflections on what they have learnt during their careers in property, retail and academia – led by the entrepreneur Nick Johnson, whose inspired reimagining of Altrincham Market as an independent food and drink destination has won widespread acclaim. In his career Nick Johnson has taught at Yale, chaired Marketing Manchester and served as a commissioner for Chartered Association of Building Engineers. He was a director of the developer Urban Splash for 15 years before taking the plunge with his vision for his home town. What I love is the break with the orthodoxy from Nick Johnson, who I have to say, was absolutely magnificent on the night.

He's been involved two different phases of change in the way the public use buildings and prioritise space - which he talks about in the video. While, the last 20 years have seen a complete transformation of UK regional cities, with decades of industrial decline replaced by flourishing regeneration schemes and booming popularity, there's still a long way to go. Our regional centres have progressed beyond the best hopes of civic leaders in the 1970s and 1980s but many of those mitigating solutions have contributed to new problems.

What Nick has priortised now is shaping places based on how people want to interact. That's the way Altrincham Market and Mackie Mayor market hall are structured. Unreserved seating, everyone piling in together, an open source and uncurated space. And a pleasant place to try new food. I don't wholly buy the argument that he's broken with the past commitment to design excellence. There's an unconscious aesthetic around both places that probably comes from habit on Nick's part as much as anything, and even if you do place people's needs and behaviours at the centre the love of somewhere that feels good helps to build that emotional connection to a place.

All of this is incredibly pertinent to my own home patch of Marple and to Stockport. To Marple, it's about understanding what the people who live there need. While the challenge is to achieve what Altrincham has done, while appreciating the very different set of circumstances and demographic.

Anyway, I'm on the video as well, talking about the view from my window of my old student halls.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

No Good Deed by John Niven reviewed

I can't believe it's been over four years since I last read and reviewed John Niven's Single White Male, his more thoughtful, though no less observant follow up to the debauchery of Kill Your Friends. Such was the familiarity and accessiblity of his writing that it felt like getting back in touch with an old pal.

Well, not quite a reunion with the sting in the tale of his latest book, No Good Deed. Writer Alan Grainger bumps into Craig Carmichael on the streets of Soho. Homeless and hopeless after blowing his success as a rock musician his life is in contrast to Alan, who has done OK for himself in a profession where luck has as much to do with it as talent. Slowly, the hierarchies of their childhood days in Ayrshire emerge, eventually and literally floating to the surface from the deepest wells of a badly cared for septic tank. Close behind is the Craig's capacity for destruction, though not just his but that of Alan and all he holds dear.

It's a painful and troubling tale, a reminder why I have a feeling in my own sensitive bowel at the thought of school re-unions, but also feel extremely blessed to have the friends I have.

I've had my Niven itch scratched recently with my belated discovery of Chris Brookmyre. But as I said four years ago, this is his best book yet and evidence of a writer getting better and better.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A state of flux - and politics is actually the least interesting change going on

A few weeks ago I went to an excellent discussion about our new political landscape, featuring two of the finest journalists working today - Jen Williams and John Harris - and some top drawer political scientists, including Rob Ford and Maria Sobolewska from the University of Manchester.

They were all brilliant on how polarised and dense our politics has become, describing the shift in social attitudes that political research around Brexit has exposed. But ever since I've been mulling over what was discussed and how it affects everything else beyond politics.

The World Cup has done something similar, forced us to reconsider our relationship with England. Not a nation state, but a football team that represents a stateless nation. As Matt Forde says in the i, it also thrust forward a team of such 'diversity, dignity and talent' that it had to stand for something to unite us. The manager even grasped for the bigger picture when we said how much pain and division blighted the country. 

As a starting point, if you accept that the vote to Leave the European Union was a narrow vote against things as they were, then there must be a whole lot more going on. It seems to me to be a culture entirely defined by what you are against rather than for a programme of change. But change occurs in many different ways, shaped by human behaviour and choices. As William Hague said recently, actually when you step outside of politics the rest of the world is in colour. Viewing these profound social schisms purely through the optics of politics and voting intention is possibly the least interesting exposition of this change, especially as the political paralysis seems to satisfy no-one and even fails to address the acute policy challenge of Brexit.

Where do these changing societal attitudes, beliefs, emotions and values play out? The voting intentions have been important - seismic, epic, plate shifting - but they may not be so for a few more years.

I'm not sure I totally buy into the idea that Britain is retreating into political tribes, where people vote based on their attitudes and feelings. I genuinely don't think they think about politics that much to deserve being defined as tribal. But something is shifting. The movement from the cities and into the suburbs, making some more places a bit more like inner London, and others defiantly less so.

We're also confronted with a degree of complexity we haven't really got to grips with yet. What attitudes form towards people from other countries, be they economic migrants, refugees, or someone who can only be identified in a mundane daily encounter as 'foreign'? A sliding scale of acceptance and dislike to a range of ethnic groups ranging from Chinese (good) to Somalis (bad) troubles me. It's where the Windrush scandal ends up, it's what happens when a hostile environment is played out by bureaucrats with targets - they go for the easiest first.

What about other everyday behaviours that these attitudes and feelings may alter? How people drive, how they behave on public transport. There's something divisive and angry about cyclists that shouldn't be so joyless. What about consumer purchasing habits? Why do young people hoard so much less? Are we really buying more ethical products or cutting down on single-use plastic? Do people really wash down industrial grade skunk with Fair Trade Coffee? I'm not quite sure where attitudes towards starting a business are these days, or to family. Our household pays rather more attention than most to wider social attitudes to education, but they too are wrapped up so many other social norms.

So too do the measurement of social virtues we would consider to be good: manners, contributing time to good causes, giving to charity, driving habits, tolerance of criminal behaviour.

What consent is granted to institutions, professionals and power structures? Many people have a disconnected relationship with where they work, others are loyal, supported and motivated. And according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey - "Despite ongoing labour market change, the British public continues to perceive there to be a dignity in work, with intrinsic value placed upon employment that goes beyond simple monetary compensation." Generationally and class wise, people want different things, feel differently and have varying degrees of hope. Who doesn't want for respect, pride, value and and a shared mission in what they do with their life?  

The same applies to business confidence. I’ve always been fascinated by the corporate zeitgeist. It affects credit decisions, risk appetite, whether to give someone a job or not. But despite the erosion of trust in business, helped by Philip Green, the other Philip Green, and Mike Ashley, business is proving pretty resilient and public attitudes towards business in general haven't turned. 

This starts to get us into whole areas that you could make an attempt to politicise by blaming cuts to public spending - such as trust in the police, but it quickly gets into really complex areas around attitudes to vigilantism and hostility to the justice system. Read the comments on any crime story, any Facebook group about local issues and it's a cauldron. Isn't that partly what lies at the heart of why the Free Tommy Robinson nonsense has gained traction? On one hand is a pitiful misunderstanding of his breach of licence, but also a fury about the grooming gangs, the insolent defiance of the perpetrators and a perception that they've got away with it. But equally, there are many that fall below the two crucial markers of British values - "don't take the piss" and "don't be a dick". 

The England performance in the World Cup, like the unifying response to the Manchester terror attacks, give us some cause for comfort. But we need to fall in love with our country again. And the more things we can agree on about what that country looks and feels like, the better chance we'll have. The prospects of politics doing that are more remote than ever. But until then, we scratch around.



Monday, July 09, 2018

A tourist in my own youth - a great day trip to Edinburgh

Edinburgh has so many good memories. Day trips, the Festival, and when our pal Dave Crossen lived in the city, we had weekends, New Years and I even had a week long holiday up there.

Yesterday we added another as we enjoyed a day out for the football, watching Blackburn Rovers win 2-0 at Paul Hanlon's testimonial against Hibernian at Easter Road, another new ground I'd not been to before. You can read very little into friendly matches, but Scottish football must be in a bit of a mess if that was the fourth best team in the country. It seems to me the SPL is basically Man United (Celtic), Leeds (Rangers), Forest (Aberdeen), Birmingham City (Hibs), Ipswich (Hearts) and half a dozen random teams from League One. But the city was the attraction yesterday, glorious and welcoming. Stunning to be around and it seems to be growing in self-confidence and modernising since the last time I visited.

Hopefully that's something to do with the efforts of Paul Lawrence, once of this parish, who invited us along to West Princes Gardens to see a delightful new fountain.

It was a great trip up and a rubbish journey home as we had cancellations and delays which stretched the day out. But you can't fault a day with the people you love, deep fried Mars bars, City Cafe, Leith Walk and the Royal Mile.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Building vibrant places - from 1989 in Perth to 2018 in Manchester

I'm seeing a mate from Australia next week so found myself sifting through a magazine I edited over there in the 1980s.

And as I promote and hustle to get people to come to an event on how our cities stay exciting and fresh and vibrant, I'm taken back to those days.

Towards the end of my time there I worked for a bar/club called The Freezer in downtown Perth, doing the PR, working the door and even appearing in an advert.

They were great times. But my best memory of working front of house was a couple of old Aussie rockers bowling up and asking what time the band were on. When told that the "Wayne Lewis" on the poster was a DJ they said they weren’t paying five bucks to listen to some guy playing records and could do that in their living room. Jog on, lads.

I learnt a lot then about network marketing, the importance of opinion formers and the wisdom of crowds. Creating events that have that sense of jeopardy, that things are going to happen, that you don't want to miss out on. It mustn't be a call to a passive experience, but an active one.

We created demand for places by attracting and exciting the people who created energy and ideas.

So when I tell you that we've got a great guest list for you to come and discuss with Nick Johnson - who might reveal how he animated Alty Market and the Mackie Mayor market hall - then you're going to want to come along aren't you?

It's after work on the 12th of July at Manchester Met University, register here.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Twelve of the best - a lifetime of live music

When Alexander the Great was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds left to conquer. On June the 7th 2018, two months before my 52nd birthday, at a venue called the Troxy in London's East End, I watched one of my favourite bands of all time run through an emotional journey of their catalogue. Matt Johnson's The The represented the last living band I've craved to see live, but until that night never had the chance.

I've seen them all now. A lifetime of going to live music, seeing terrible punk bands at Preston Warehouse, the very best of them at Lancaster University (as described in this book here), taking coaches to Leeds and Manchester, sleeping on stations, going to gigs at stadiums, student unions, arenas, pokey venues, concert halls and churches. I can take a great deal from each one.

Obviously there are bands I've loved who I never got to see - The Beatles, The Clash, Nirvana, Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys. I remember crying with despair when my Mum and Dad told me, aged 13, that I couldn't go on the coach to Blackburn to see the Damned, yet I wouldn't cross the road to go to a punk gig now.

It's impossible to say which ones are the best performances, because live music has so many moving parts. It's also very rare these days that a band will bomb on stage, though Glasvegas were truly awful as I said at the time. But like trips to watch football it's as much about the occasion as the spectacle; the friends, the context, the circumstances, the whole day.

So, here are twelve of the best in roughly a date order...

The Jam - I saw them four times in my teens, obviously. All were amazing occasions, edgy, raucous, highly charged. I loved them at Carlisle Market Hall in July 1981 the best I think, partly because I went with my Penrith cousin John Warwick, but it seemed to mean so much to the audience there who had been there all day. We even went to see the sound check. The Jam connected with their audience like no other band I've experienced. Even seeing two thirds of them in 2007 at Preston still made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle.

The Teardrop Explodes - Lancaster University, 1981 - I think on balance, this was my favourite of all the concerts we were lucky enough to experience on our doorstep as kids. They were promoting the difficult and more melancholy second album, Wilder, which never quite reached the heights of their debut Kilimanjaro, but I loved it all the same (teenagers, eh?). I was lucky too to have an older friend, David "Baz" Baron, who inspired my eclectic love of music and had a wonderful dry humour. We went up early and took in the sound check, even meeting Julian Cope and Troy Tate. I was proper knocked for six when I learned that David had died in his early thirties.

The Pogues - a tremendous live experience where the audience always made the occasion. I think I probably enjoyed seeing them at Manchester International 2 in 1986 the best, a proper barmy night.

David Bowie - I saw the Duke at Maine Road, Manchester, 1987, a surprise for my 21st birthday from my girlfriend at the time - it was my first stadium gig and the first with all kinds of audio visual trickery and lighting. It blew me away visually as well as musically and was a true work of genius, even if the Glass Spiders stuff was pretty crap.

Prince, Earl's Court, 1992 - quite simply the best musical performance I've ever seen. I went with my Australian pals, including Stu McGavin (RIP) who always chased the big moments in life. For energy, atmosphere, and the sheer thrill of watching him play the solo on Purple Rain was something to behold.

Oasis, the best I saw them was in America, when they were far better musically away from home than they ever were during the adoration of the laddish 90s. I'd grown tired of them by the time of Knebworth and Maine Road. But in one of life's great happy coincidences, I was in the US for work in 1996 and they were playing at the Bill Graham auditorium in San Francisco. Me and my sales manager Michael Mullaney went along to see a bit of history, they went out with Black Grape that night and bizarrely cancelled their next show in Los Angeles due to ill health.

Manic Street Preachers at the Town and Country, Kentish Town, 1996. I loved the Manics through this time, the aching tragedy of their story, but the energy of their live performances added something very special to a very accomplished crop of songs on Everything Must Go. I first saw them supporting Oasis in Cardiff as they returned to playing after Richey Edwards' disappearance. I've  seen them in Arenas since, but this was a great sized venue. It wasn't the London gig on that tour where Kylie joined them on stage for Little Baby Nothing, but Liam Gallagher got on the stage at the end and jumped around. Idiot.

U2 - I've seen them three times, pretty much in ten year intervals and they have got better each time in correlation to the comfort and conditions in which I watched them. First was at a rain sodden Milton Keynes Bowl supported by REM in 1985, dodging flying bottles of what I thought was stale beer. A decade or so later at Cardiff Arms Park for the Achtung Baby tour, which took five hours to get home to Bristol, then in Manchester in 2005 dancing to them knocking out Vertigo from the luxury of an executive box as guests of Manchester City FC. A class act.

Elbow - I don't think I could ever see Elbow in a standard venue after seeing them in very special situations. Either with The Halle orchestra at the Bridgewater Hall for my 40th, or at a special gig at St John's church in Hackney in 2011 which Mencap invited us to as a thank you for raising up to £40K a year through the Y Factor events I was involved in with Jeremy Smith, sometime financier, and musical genius with Barclay James Harvest. I took my best pal John Dixon, who has always introduced me to great music, these included. I never tire of One Day Like This, nor the folksy intimacy of an evening with Guy Garvey.

Amy Macdonald at the Lowry, 2012. I sort of regard Amy Macdonald as a guilty secret, but her musicianship, poise and energy are as good as anyone I've ever seen. My review at the time, said: "the set she did was perfectly constructed. New, old, stripped down acoustic versions, signature hits, even a brilliant cover of Jackie Wilson's Your Love Lifts Me Higher. She ended the set with a stirring rendition of my favourite track off her first album - Let's Start a Band - a great song even without the horns and the choir." It was also a realisation that I preferred theatres to standing in halls and arenas. And I preferred the audiences who weren’t as beery or waving mobile phones around trying to capture the moment. It’s totally an age thing.

New Order at Castlefield Bowl for my 50th. I don't know why but I'd got it into my head that New Order were no good live, so despite being one of my favourites I never made the effort to see them. In a way, it set everything up perfectly for this special day. They were blisteringly good, the venue was spectacular as well. You get close to the band wherever you are there, but we went right to the front with the pyro and the general mayhem and madness. Rachel got us these tickets for an eye-watering amount, but I still thrill thinking about it now. A perfect birthday. Seeing them at Manchester International Festival with our Louis a year later was a bonus.

And finally, as a bonus, The The at the Troxy, June 2018. As I said, it's about the occasion. I saw Matt Johnson doing a Q&A in Manchester around the release of his documentary film The Inertia Variations, with Steven Lindsay, the most prolific gig goer of my generation (Steven sorted the Troxy tickets and couldn't go. I swooped). The event that night reminded me how much I tuned in to Matt Johnson's intensity. He's an expermental artist, so I didn't know quite what to expect, but it was  a traditional tour de force, requiring a real versatility amongst his assembled band. For all it's majesty, the venue was a challenge, and I liked how he discouraged cameras, an instruction that was largely respected. Going for a Turkish with John Dixon beforehand, then strolling around this part of the East End was all part of the experience. In truth, the set had its peaks and therefore a dip of energy half way through. But just hearing This is the Day, Heartland and Lonely Planet felt like a completion.

So there we are, what a list, and still no room for more than a few who almost made the cut and for whom they delivered varying tempos of concerts of immense power, beauty and professionalism,  that I enjoyed massively: REM, Bruce Springsteen, INXS, Duran Duran, I Am Kloot, The Housemartins, Stone Roses, Radiohead, James, Neil Finn, The Cure, Squeeze, Oh Susanna, The Flaming Lips, Morrissey, Prefab Sprout, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Farm, Coldplay, Billy Bragg, Roddy Frame, Teardrop Explodes, The Specials, Madness, The Triffids, The Men They Couldn't Hang, Take That (Progress tour with the Pet Shop Boys), Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Diamond.