Sunday, September 24, 2017

First World Problems put into context in Shrewsbury

The impressive stained glass window at Shrewsbury's small but stunning Catholic cathedral depicts the desperate and gory history of England's Catholic martyrs. Tortured, executed and persecuted for their faith. Being able to take that in and then order a cup of herbal tea and a freshly baked cake in a beautifully appointed cafe underneath speaks to the progress towards civilisation we have made.

It's also a reminder that we live in a society where we do what we want, say what we want and live within rules, for the most part. Our discourse dwells endlessly on our divided and fractured society. Social science focuses relentlessly on breakdown, schism and threats to the social order. I'm frankly amazed at how it actually holds together for the good most of the time. My anger and frustration at the sight of broken lives sleeping in doorways is not that society can't prevent this, but that the solutions are so remarkably within our grasp.

I got to know how to get around the country by train at a remarkably young age, taking summer holidays by buying British Rail runabout tickets that took me from Wales to the Scottish border, just because we could. I'm also reminded now quite how much of our country I want to see, either revisit or see for the first time. Either way it's a journey of discovery. At different stages of life you view places as through a lens. I first wandered the streets of Shrewsbury as a teenager, bored with the frankly pointless collection of train numbers on Crewe station, so I jumped on a train to Shrewsbury and looked around the town. I was on the hunt for record shops, probably, and somewhere to eat. I certainly didn't go to the Cathedral.

Shrewsbury is a lovely place for a day out. If you've come to this blog to read about the football match I went to, then can I politely direct you here, where Old Blackburnian, who we sat next to at the New Meadow, summarised it perfectly.

The New Meadow is another new ground chalked off. I make it the 151st ground I've watched football on, I'm still on 80 out of the Punk 92 as I went to the previous ground, Gay Meadow a few times, and it marks my 73rd of the current 92. Doing the 92 isn't just a way of chalking off identikit grounds, but a way of rediscovering this land.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The problem with the Liberal Democrats

I read an extraordinarily disappointing pamphlet over the weekend. It started well enough because it was entitled Reinventing the Liberal Democrats - how to build a party for tomorrow. At last, I thought, they've got it. Given all of the political turmoil, the mess that the Tory government are in, the lack of focus from Labour on the biggest issue of the day, then it should be a golden opportunity for a centrist party to surge through the middle and offer a compelling vision for the future, as Macron has done in France.

It's a pipe dream though. The Economist's Bagehot summed up the Liberal Democrats pretty well describing the party as "feeble", going on to sketch their predicament in stark terms: "The party's implosion after the coalition coincided with the opening up of its biggest opportunity in decades: the Brexit vote. Had the party entered the post-referendum world with 60 seats and a charismatic leader it would have had a chance of engineering the political alignment it always dreamed of. Instead it entered that world as a political husk."

The pamphlet, timed to fire up the activists at this week's conference in Bournemouth, backs that up with its central call: "Set out an inspirational purpose that is illustrated by signature policies and communicated through everything we do." The fact that it states from the outset something so obvious, so fundamental and so basic to any brand; especially so a political party, only serves to accentuate the crisis the party is in. The rest of it is standard stuff - digitise the party, lower the barrier to entry, be welcoming and nice - none of which anyone in any campaign group or party should have a problem saying. But that isn't why the document is disappointing, it's the lack of reach, the lack of ambition and the lack of generosity.

I've consistently argued that the LibDems are a party without purpose or point. Here, in July 2010, again in 2011 here, and again in the aftermath of the 2015 election, where I found them to be the ultimate "say anything, believe in nothing" party. At their high watermark they were the beneficiaries of protest votes from the New Labour dominance. Such an existence is unsustainable. It manifests itself in the pitch at election time which purely focuses on the negative. Positioning themselves in opposition as the party in the best place to beat the other party you hate the most. Laughably, this is illustrated to almost comic effect by their obsession with mathematically illiterate bar charts, something I've created my own Pinterest board - Ludicrous Lib Dems - to record for political posterity. This betrays more than just a readiness to fight dirty, but an acute lack of confidence in their own purpose.

More than a few times I've overheard people saying that history will be kinder in its analysis of Nick Clegg's part in a coalition government with the Conservatives. It was an extraordinarily brave and bold thing to do, but one for which their 'core vote' or more accurately their 'peak vote' have never really forgiven them for. It's not the point of voting LibDem for them to be in power, but to salve your conscience that you are doing something positive. I'm not even so sure about that any more. Times have changed to such an extent that the opportunity is staring them in the face, but the party no more seems to want another tilt at power than a return to their comfort zone.

Next week: The problem with Labour.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Doing the 92 at Scunthorpe

Mushy, me, Smithy and Martin at Glanford Park
Scunthorpe last night was an oddity. A newish stadium, opened in 1988, on an out of town retail park that felt old, certainly older than Rochdale on Saturday, which has been tweaked and improved substantially. There were no corner stands, steel beams held up each stand roof, which isn't ideal with low sight lines, and the pitch felt very close to the crowd. Not surprisingly, I hear they're looking to move.

On my groundhopping journey I've started to see patterns in stadium development. On one level it's binary, there are old grounds and new ones, obviously. Of those some are finished, others are constantly evolving.

There are old grounds that exude character, like Everton, while some new ones look they have been knocked up out of an Ikea flat pack. The constant is that I find something to like about the experience in all of them. The thought never leaves you about how a new stand came to be built, the compromises, the budgetry limits, the vanity of the naming or the expediency of working with needy sponsors.

Quick point on the game - I thought Scunthorpe were the best side we've played this season. Graham Alexander, their manager, thought they were at their best. It wasn't always pretty and David Raya was our best player overall. Which tells you that we ground out a decent 1-0 with some solid defending and good counter attacking play.

Glanford Park is another new ground chalked off, and was my first visit to Scunthorpe. I make it the 150th ground I've watched football on, I'm now on 80 out of the Punk 92, and it marks my 72nd of the current 92.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fathers, sons and football - why I love going to the Rovers

One of the joys of going to watch Rovers each week is the company. I really don't think I would bother if I was going on my own. A few years ago we had seven season tickets and some weeks my Dad would join us. One by one the kids developed their own interests, I wrote here about even having to take one of them to Manchester City, but Joe and Louis have stuck at it. I thought I might lose Joe this season as he planned to go to college or have weekend work commitments to price in, but he's still up for it, it would appear.

Me and Louis have been to every game, so far. Which is some going.

One of the reasons I particularly like the company of two teenage chips off the old block is that they are much better readers of the game than me. It goes without saying that they are also far better players than I ever was and have the tactical and statistical grounding you get from playing FIFA on the Xbox and PlayStation.

For that reason, I proudly present Louis' debut for the Rovers Chat blog this week, a report from Rochdale v Rovers, far more lucid than anything I'd write.



Sunday, September 03, 2017

Chris Brookmyre's Want You Gone, a stormer of a book

I've just read my favourite novel of the year so far, Chris Brookmyre's Want You Gone, or in the US the far better title The Last Hack. It's the sixth Brookmyre I've read that features journalist Jack Parlabane and is a terrific progression of how he's developed as a writer and observer of a fast changing world.

There seems to be a move into hard-boiled crime fiction by a wide range of male writers over the last few years. I've enjoyed Tony Parsons' latest series of Max Wolfe books, good stories, strong adversaries, and a good twist on his empathetic single Dad genre. I suspect that in another age a writer of the sensitivity and capability of Joseph Knox may have attempted a more literary state of the nation debut novel, but Sirens was as gritty and dark as they come.

I've enjoyed discovering Brookmyre this year and have resolutely ploughed through the Parlabane novels in chronological order, attempting to get to know errant journalist better by the book. Truth be told, he's not easy to get to know, or like, sometimes. I've enjoyed viewing all manner of Scottish life through his lens - Edinburgh society, the press, the Tory establishment, then the Labour one that followed, the medical fraternity. As you'd expect from a former journalist, he has a good eye for a new milieu and a fine ear for speech. I'd run out of Parlabane stories and no sooner had I finished Be My Enemy, that friends at work got me Black Widow and Want You Gone. The transition in his story structure and writing style has been remarkable. No less observant, but far darker and more urgent. Not without lighter moments and laughs, but far less of the quirky scatalogical humour that seems to have reached a peak with Be My Enemy. It all runs in parallel to Parlabane's status shifting from super star hack picking his assignments to him hustling to 25-year old editors on a fading reputation as the world changes around him.

Want You Gone is a masterpiece in modern crime noir and would easily make a Hollywood blockbuster; bang up to date with the Dark Web, Cyber attacks, Fake News and old criminals still up to the same shifty games.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Grumpy Rovers post - 5 things I dislike about modern football this week

This week I've been up close and personal with pretty much everything I dislike about modern football. Here's my five.

MK Dons - I don't have a proplem with Milton Keynes, or with the city having its own team. I just think they should have come up through the pyramid like Burton or Fleetwood. They shouldn't have stolen another club's position and part of its name. So, I always feel a bit grubby going to see them.

The Lancashire derby with Burnley - don't get me wrong, I've always enjoyed beating Burnley. I can take the defeats too, just as I did in 1979. But the hysteria, thuggery, sheer blind hatred around this fixture has got out of hand. Those idiots running on the pitch and attacking players was bad enough. Lauding them as "legends" by some fans makes me ashamed to be human.

The gulf - Burnley are a functional Premier League side. They will probably finish somewhere between 20th and 15th. Yet the gulf in ability, fitness, awareness and attitude was so far beyond our 11 that you realise how polarised football in this country has now become. I don't accept the cycle of life argument, I think a massive tectonic gap has opened up.

Venky's branding - I wince at the amount of Venky's branding around Ewood Park. I would rather they just said "Sorry". What are they selling?

Black and white - this or that, no room for nuance. Opinions are great in football, but I've paused before saying this last one, partly through fear of sparking some kind of Twitter war, Facebook fight, or whatever passes for a delinquent rage with someone who doesn't agree with you. Yesterday, I was pleased that Rovers won 4-1. But for large parts of the game we were a mess, against opponents who were demonstrably a weaker side. Football can be like that. Even when Rovers put 7 past Norwich and Forest back in the glory days, there were spells when the other side held the ball and when our players made mistakes. And just because we now have six points and we've got a winnng feeling back, we are not going to smash this division. We still might go up, but it will be by stealth, luck, grinding out a win at Scunthorpe next month and yes, occasionally, there may be a day when it clicks into place and we dominate a game. The other teams in this division will have something to say about each match. The young managers with modern methods of training, the players looking to make a mark. On the whole most people I speak to are like this, they get it. But there seem to be about 5% of fans for whom triumph and disaster are the only reactions. These tend to dominate social media and radio phone in shows. Sadly, as film maker Jonny Owen pointed out today, the news media build a narrative around these.

But we'll be back, there's far more that I love about football, there's always something about the many moving parts on the pitch to appreciate, and so much I love about the culture of the supporters too.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Freshwalks is for dogs - even eccentric ones like ours

Rachel and I went on the latest Freshwalks yomp through and around Lyme Park on Friday. It was a truly great day, as these occasions always are, covering 9 miles, 21,128 steps and a climb up the equivalent of 76 floors. 

We also took our trusty border terrier, Martha, who we thought would enjoy the challenge and the exercise and being around other people. As this is National Dog Day, it's high time this blog paid tribute to our eighth family member. I didn't expect us to be joined by six other four legged friends on the day. It has to be said, our Martha doesn't like other animals. We can be relaxing in the back garden or conservatory and she goes completely doolally at the smell of a cat, squirrel or a pigeon. She is particularly offended by squirrels. Hates them. And she will never get near one, ever. But she retains her greatest outrage for other dogs, the nearer to home, the angrier she is. When we walk her up the hill from our house she's literally straining at the leash in a demented rage if there's another dog on our road. Not without justification she's earned the nickname "Millwall" for her readiness to "have it" with any dogs trying to take serious liberties on her "manor".

Around people she's absolutely fine. She'll roll on her back and invite anyone to stroke and tickle and she's remarkably affectionate with little kids.

Her transition from border terrier to border terrorist can be traced back to when she was a puppy and she bounded up to a Rottwelier being barely controlled by a skinny woman in high heels and "WAG" sunglasses who screamed at us, making the situation even worse. She's never been the same since. Our only other major concern was when she escaped from our cottage in the Lake District and chased sheep (and caravans). I have palpitations thinking about it now, relieved none of my kids were far sighted enough to capture the moment and my anxiety for YouTube. Put it this way, Fenton wouldn't be the name guaranteed to get a cheap laugh whenever a dog is chased if they had.

Here's the thing though. She managed not to have any fights yesterday. A bit of casual gnashing to start with, but she got used to it and behaved herself. Even shrugging off an attempt to be mounted by a lively bull terrier. My favourite of the other dogs on the trip was Fox, pictured above, a gorgeous and totally eccentric character who did a lap of honour around the Ram's Head at the end of the walk. All that was missing was a chef in full whites chasing this curious half Jack Russell/half Collie out of the kitchen while he scamped off with a string of sausages hanging from his mouth and that tail wagging furiously. And our Martha slept ever so well.