Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A special day in the Wicklow Mountains

Early alarm call, Ringway, Ryanair, hire car palaver and 45 minutes south of Dublin and we’re having a mid-morning drink and a packet of Tayto’s in beautiful Glendalough, County Wicklow.

“This place is an absolute jewel,” we’re told a few hours later at the summit of Lugduff (689m) by 75 year old Mary from Dublin, one of the few hikers we met on this glorious day. Mary was right, and like most of our unguided walks it took a few twists and turns.

We started out thinking we’d do the moderate Hill Walk in the local guide booklet, starting from Upper Lake, past the Poulanass waterfall, but the weather was so good we just kept going for 35,000 steps, up 182 floors and covering 28km. We climbed steeply through a logging forest, then onto a heather covered fell and up, and up to the summits of Lugduff, Mullacor (709m) and Cullentragh (520m). It is spectacularly beautiful and very well tended by the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service. 

We’re here because of the family connection. From 1898 to 1938, the Glendalough Hotel was managed by Francis Slefer, Rachel’s great grandfather, an emigre from Cerhovice in Central Europe, an employment tradition that this delightful hotel has preserved, or more likely, revived. 

The setting is glorious, the food has been sumptuous and more than anything the occasion has been just perfect.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Why most networking is rubbish and how we can make it better

I've been thinking a lot lately about networks, networking and building up your own social capital. 

In my Freshwalks profile (here) I talk in zealous terms about my visceral rejection of what I used to think of as a networking event. We know the cliches, that dry mouth and raised anxiety level as you step into a room full of strangers, feeling unworthy of being in any way interesting enough for someone to want to talk to, then that sinking feeling as you get pumped and dumped, when the friendly face you thought you'd found gets visibly bored with you and spots someone over your shoulder and leaves you with another bewildered soul who's also questioning why they've bothered coming out.

It might surprise people who have known me for the last 25 years in journalism, politics and business that I get those terrors. People often say to me that they think I'm 'well networked' and that all this chit chat is part of the patter. 

But that's not networking is it? That's just a crappy experience of an event, the business equivalent of getting back in the dating game. But unfortunately, we pump and dump the idea of getting out and meeting people precisely because the experience has become such a metaphor for networking.

As you'll see from everything I've been writing over the last month or so, we're desperate to get out and live again after being locked away. I have genuinely really missed being in and amongst people and meeting new faces and old, and experiencing culture and sport, yes, and meeting people with my professional head on.  

Better sages than me will have urged you to start with asking "why?"

Do you need to build sales? Maybe it's to find better clients, more clients, a new job, a mentor, or just friends who you can relate to because you share things in common. Either way, I think we need to strip it back down and revisit the premise of building your network for your own sake. 

I struggle to accept that collecting business cards and shoving your card into someone's hand at an event, then reporting those numbers back to your boss the next day is proper evidence of building a network. Maybe this is a ludicrous 'straw man' argument and that no one actually says it is, but there is enough evidence that the whole premise of the fleeting encounter is still measured and evaluated. I'm a great believer that the more you put in, the more you get out. In life, in business. 

So the real depth to conversations, the real building up of trust and shared agendas can start in these places and spaces, but it can't solely exist in them. It's usually in the follow-up that magic happens.

How then do we build on these encounters? How do we fast track meaningful human relationships that can shape fruitful and enjoyable experiences of doing business with one another? 

If we truly want this pandemic and lockdown to be a reset, then maybe we need to rethink how we relate to one another in a much broader sense. What kind of person do we want to be, how do we want to lead people, show an example, make a difference, or make a mark? 

Maybe we need to start from a more generous mindset of thinking about how you might be able to do something good for someone. Pay it forward, give something, and just see what flows. Maybe this is just the hopeless meanderings of a middle-aged gadfly, but more than ever, I find myself offering this advice to people I meet from all ages and walks of life, and my own sons and their friends.

It might not rid you of the terrors of a networking event, but it might liberate you from the expectation that this is what networking is.

Footnote: the picture above is chosen entirely at random and in no way is used an example of a rubbish networking event. I think it's from an event in Scotland I went to in about 2013, which was quite good actually.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Saint Etienne - I've Been Trying To Tell You - Official Trailer

We went to the film premiere of Saint Etienne's new album last week, followed by a delightful Q&A with the band's Bob Stanley and the film maker Alasdair McLellan. 

Jason Wood from Home is very good at this, and not only asks the questions you want him to, but brings his own passions and knowledge to the conversation. It feels very natural and comfortable.

Bob Stanley has to be one of the most interesting men in pop music, constantly experimenting and delving into his love of pop culture. Maybe I'm biased, but I think it's because he's basically a journalist. 

I like the story told by Alasdair McLellan, a fashion photographer of some standing, that they started with one idea and settled on another, partly constricted by lockdowns and practicalities of the band having to record remotely. "When we met, we found we shared so much in common – after all, Saint Etienne’s music has always conjured beautiful images for me and influenced my own visual style – the project became something bigger."

There's something very Balaeric about the new album, lots of dreamy loops and smart samples. The intent is to create a melancholic sense of longing - nostalgia, as Bob correctly said on the night, is a disease - but this is some tonic.

The film features lots of implausibly beautiful young people hanging out together, intended to make you half-remember your own summers gone by. It's all stitched together like a strange road trip around Britain: from Southampton to Portmeirion to Blackpool to Grangemouth to Scunthorpe to London.

I'm not sure how you get to see the film at the cinema now, but the whole package of the album, vinyl, booklet, is available in all kinds of gorgeousness, here.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Muscle and the menace of Craig Fairbrass

A few years ago (here) I made a confession that my guilty pleasure was British gangster films. Not just the good ones, but the rank bad ones too. The good ones are really very good and stand on their own as great British dramatic films, irrespective of the criminal content - Long Good Friday, Get Carter, Layer Cake, in particular, because they help us to understand Britain in a time and place, as well as being compelling stories; far more than the Lock Stock geezer flicks of the 1990s. But it’s the straight-to-DVD, formulaic, sweaty, expletive-laden, violent, ludicrous and overblown films of the burgeoning genre that fascinate me. The Rise of the Footsoldier franchise is now at stage five, and I am genuinely looking forward to seeing how Craig Fairbrass rinses the story of the Essex Range Rover murders even more, in his muscular menacing portrayal of Pat Tate, by all accounts a horrible bully undeserving of his cult status.

There’s a great piece from the Guardian in 2015 here that gives some insight into the economics of these films, popular with a male demographic. I’d be fascinated to see the data behind the algorithm-driven commissioning of Netflix and Prime Video, because even with declining DVD sales there still seems to be an active market for more of this stuff. 

But the one constant that makes many otherwise dire films compelling and edgy is the presence of Craig Fairbrass, who is also fiercely aware of his own persona and how he’s become the go-to big guy. I’m thinking here of two films centred on errant brothers with Fairbrass as the bigger scarier sibling, Villain and Avengement. He not only looks the part, whenever he's cast in roles like these but knows how to act.

Yes, the point of this preamble is a proper and deserving tribute to the under-appreciated and possibly underrated talent of Craig Fairbrass. It's time to say this because of one of the most unsettling and atmospheric films I’ve seen in a long while. Gerard Johnson’s Muscle is a gruelling deep dive into the crisis in masculinity, with Cavan Clerkin’s central character of Simon drawn in by the intimidating charisma of Fairbrass’s Terry, who he meets down at the gym. Things escalate badly, and never reach a satisfactory or obvious conclusion. The high point is the claustrophobic menace that Fairbrass brings to every scene he’s in. You can’t just do that by direction and set design, but by proper acting. 

And that’s my way of saying, by the way, that Muscle is very stylishly directed and designed by Gerard Johnson, gifted the support of his brother Matt from the band The The, and their mesmerising contribution to the score of the song I WANT 2 B U. Gerard Johnson's previous film Hyena was grim, effectively and deliberately, but by shooting Muscle in black and white he took it up a notch. Shifting the action to Newcastle, it also included a cast of extras that looked so authentically seedy you could practically smell them. 

As for the rest of the genre, I genuinely don't want the conveyer belt of geezers and grafters to ever stop. I want more Footsoldiers, follow-ups to The Business, I want JJ Connolly's Viva La Madness, I want gangs, drugs, hitmen, geezers and old lags still doing it the old way. But after Muscle I think what I really want is Craig Fairbrass to get a few more breaks and directors to take risks to get the very best out of a fine acting talent and lift this genre to greater creative heights.

hat tip: Neil and Macca.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Radcliffe to Wembley, next stop Mossley

I don't think there's a prettier view in all of football than the setting of Seel Park, Mossley. 

I was there for the Second Qualifying Round of the FA Cup today, to see Radcliffe again, and for a second time they ended up comfortably overcoming opposition from a lower division, this time it was Mossley from the Northern Premier League West Division.

It was a good crowd on today as well, taking advantage of another extension to our summer, drinking pints in the sun and enjoying a decent game. A good following from Radcliffe swelled the attendance too, with both teams really up for a cup run and all that it brings to a shoestring operation like this. 

I had a good chat to my pal Alan Townley before the game, a Radcliffe director, who filled me in on some of the team news. The story of Kole Hall, Radcliffe's wide attacking star fascinated me. In June he played for Bermuda in a World Cup qualifier in Florida against the Cayman Islands. He was one of a number of Radcliffe's young team that look like they could play at a higher level. The winning goalscorer Andrew Owens gets himself into good positions and the two centre backs - Olly Thornley and Joe Cummings - look assured. 

The score was 2-1 and although the home side took the lead in the first half, played with real guts and spirit, in the end, the division of difference between the sides started to look obvious. 

I don't have any skin in this game, I'm not supporting one team over another. As much as I enjoyed another trip to beautiful Seel Park, all I hope for in the next round is somewhere interesting to go with Radcliffe's ball in the velvet bag for Monday's draw. 


Friday, September 17, 2021

Big Sleep Out


So many of us have had something of an epiphany over recent months. A feeling that we have to think about others, wake up to the terrible circumstances many people find themselves in and do something positive.

Rachel is sleeping out tonight as part of the Big Sleep Out, the major fundraiser her charity, Caritas, is organising, particularly to raise money to continue the amazing work of the Cornerstone Day Centre in Manchester, providing practical help and support for people that are street homeless, sofa-surfing, and those without the security of a permanent home. 

It would be great if you could sponsor Rachel, or donate to the appeal. You can do that here.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

On my bus

As part of the onward movement to being fully human again, I’ve spent today on an Army base in Yorkshire as a Fellow of the Forward Institute. It has been life-affirming, helpful, thought-provoking and has given me a particularly strong sense of mission again.

In a nutshell, Forward was formed by my friend Ruth Turner (above) to promote responsible leadership. In many ways it’s oxymoronic for me; I’m not currently in a leadership role, and even when I was, I would hardly express that with irresponsible leadership. However, did I always value diversity? Did I always care enough? Think for the long term? Be honest? Be brave? Of course, I’d like to think so, but when I’ve come up short it’s often against that set of principles.

I was enrolled on an Exchange programme with them through the lockdown. I got an enormous amount from the sessions, even if they were conducted over Zoom. My exchange partner was a senior Army officer, and I learned a lot from him and about what makes his world tick.  We observed one another in meetings in our work, supported one another, and took part in wider group exercises, where we'd share thoughts and stress test our ideas. Here’s the thing though, while I was obviously massively taken by his world, he says with all sincerity that he got a lot from walking in my shoes for a while.

Since then I’ve spoken in several discussions with other Fellows from different organisations, public, private and charitable sector. So many of us share the same challenges, which obviously I can’t go into great detail about, but it was all conducted with incredible candour in a place of profound psychological safety.

Today was a significant step up in our collective working relationship. It felt all the more special because we were physically together in one space. There were other Fellows in different locations around the country, and we hooked up for a guest speaker, beamed to us all in the manner to which we've become accustomed.  It felt like we were fully in the moment. That we devoted ourselves to the tasks at hand. Some of the heroes amongst us really valued this time and space to practice truly reflective thinking, given what they've been required to do over the last two years. 

I’ll cut to the chase, my two big learnings and actions are remarkably small scale in comparison. I’m journaling (which this blog is a part of, but a lot is private), and working generously. That’s easy to do when I literally don’t have a full-time job, but I have set a mode of thought and operation that I just have to believe in; that helping others, applying what I know, what I have passion for, will find its place. Part of that long-term thinking is taking responsibility for my own actions and those who I work with. To do that seriously requires a proper alignment in values.

There are other societal issues, business observations I have at the moment, but this main burning platform is largely reflective. My friend Penny Haslam speaks about getting the right people on your bus. I look around and see who’s on my bus, and I’m phenomenally grateful. People who keep you honest. People who tell you what you sometimes don't want to hear.  Among them, I realised today, are the Fellows of the Forward Institute.