Saturday, September 19, 2020

Lockdown blues

There was something about the whole country being locked down together that helped us feel we were part of a collective effort to do our bit.

Last week we got the news that one of our sons had been with a mate who'd tested positive. He felt a bit rough and had to get a test before going back to university, which came back positive. We got tested as well and were negative, but rules is rules and we have to isolate for two weeks. I'm not going to lie, it's been horrible. Much as I want to put a stoic face on it, I'm struggling with it. We can't leave the house, Max can't come home on his leave, everything is delivered, and I think the worse of it is that we were edging towards returning to work, college, walks and the gym. And I've had to pre-record from home our second Music Therapy programme, with embarrassingly disastrous consequences.  

But we are healthy and well. No symptoms, no real drama. As ever, Rachel is far more cheery than me and has raised our spirits. We are counting our blessings and very much looking forward to celebrating her birthday this week in a spirit of togetherness. This will pass and we will have a chippy tea to mark the end of our isolation next Friday.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Music Therapy on Tameside Radio

On Sunday nights from 9pm until 11pm me and my mate Neil Summers are going to be playing a few records and telling stories on a new show, Music Therapy on Tameside Radio 103.6 FM. It's a breezy mix of the new and the familiar, designed to end the weekend on a blissed out way. I think of Neil as my far more clued up younger brother, nudging me to appreciate richer, deeper and more exciting music. There's no such thing as a guilty pleasure in our book, just an open mind and a love of great music.

You can listen to us live here. We'll probably get round to setting up a website with mini features, extended interviews and playlists. Possibly.

Massive thanks to Chris Bird and Andy Hoyle at Quest Media for giving us the chance. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

A summer of Telly and Box Sets

It's been the best of times, the worst of times. Staying at home, home cooking, eating local, shopping local, trying to imagine another kind of world out there, beyond the news and the various phases of lockdown. And we've watched lots of telly series. At times I've obsessed, binge watched and barely been able to think of anything else, sometimes diving in and forgetting everything within days.

Here's what I've been watching, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

I'll start with the best thing I've seen and take you through the rest in no particular order, but leaving the absolute worst until last. 

Succession (HBO) managed to be even funnier and more shocking than series one.  A little bit of knowledge of the Murdoch family psycho drama really helps, especially watching the way the series grafts on the sacrifices demanded and the brutal boardroom politics of real life. All that was missing was a cream pie at a government committee hearing. But the acting and the whole way the lives of the worst people in the world are designed and captured was something else. 

The Secrets She Keeps (BBC iPlayer) - a plausible and shocking Australian drama with a predictable finger on the emotional manipulation button. It fairly crudely lathers on the class divide, but it was based on a real case and still has the potential for a follow up series. Also reinforced my firm conviction, gleaned from repeated Australian TV series that their cops are the worst in the world.

Giri Haji - (BBC iPlayer) was good, if a little strange at times. An Anglo-Japanese co-production that probably didn't need to keep reminding us of that. It was a brave attempt to lever in some remarkably off-type genre crossing, some worked, some really didn't. I liked the comic book style for the commentary and the set piece over stylised interactions between mob bosses, but the ballet scene for a showdown just felt odd. Played humour very well in what could have been relentlessly bleak and overly procedural.

Normal People (RTE on BBC iPlayer) really pleasantly surprised me. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, probably a bit of BBC Sunday night middle class right of passage romance, but it was far more than that. Not only was it beautifully shot, tenderly acted and well paced, and I really liked the short episodes, it needed the darker moments to make you properly yearn for the better possibilities. However, we had to shut the curtains in case anyone was shocked by what they might be seeing from the street.

Safe (Netflix) was compelling if a bit ridiculous. Very much like another Harlan Coben adaption The Stranger in both style and delivery (both made locally by Red Productions) and occasional use of locations. Both had the desired twists and turns, but too many red herrings and useless coppers tested my patience by the end. Does no-one in this middle class universe move away? 

The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC) was probably the most heart breaking of all TV dramas, not least because it was based entirely on real events, but never threatened to become an episode of Spooks. It was what happens to the real lives of people caught up in an act of terror. I was particularly cut up about the fate of poor Dawn Sturgess, who this series seemed to go out of its way to generously rescue in death from the grave indignities she suffered in her own short life. I do hope that Tracy Daszkiewicz, the director of public health, has been OK during the pandemic. I've no reason to doubt the portrayal of her as a modest and dedicated civil servant by Anne-Marie Duff. It reflects the hard working reality of thousands of public servants called upon to lead at times of crisis, unglamorous work delivered with bravery, heroism and self-doubt.

The Sinner (Netflix) - we did all three series of this Bill Pullman led "why-dunnit" set in upstate New York and I have to say the first was superb, the second was even better but the third lapsed into the absurd.

The A Word (BBC) did a great job of bringing life and laughter to everyday family life for a third series. I probably enjoyed this series the least of all of them as I grew impatient at the breathless ease with which scenes between the Langdale Valley and Manchester took place with barely a reference to the three hours it takes to get from one to the other. I also spent the whole series awaiting the imminent much hinted at demise of my favourite annoying character (of which there are many). But, overall, tender and messy.

Fear the Walking Dead season 5 (Amazon Prime) - I have waxed lyrical before on the desperate turns of the whole Walking Dead franchise and I'm probably overdue a piece on the whole comic book arc, the direction the main show is going with one delayed season finale to come soon. So while I was hugely sceptical of the potential for a spin off series set in California, I did actually quite like seasons 1-3 of Fear the Walking Dead. The characters of Madison, Nick, Alicia and Strand were an improvement on the nonsense playing out with Rick Grimes and his crew in Georgia around seasons 7 and 8. Daniel Salazar was also one of the best ambiguous good guy/ bad guy characters of the whole universe. Season 4 was all over the place, literally in where it was set, the time jumps which were hard to follow, and the lighting and locations. I don't blame the actors, none of them were unconvincing, it was the whole package. The way things happened with no context, continuity was all over the place, decisions were made with no logic and the whole 'help people' thing was just stupid by the end. Morgan, played by Lennie James, was just boring and annoying when he left The Walking Dead, and he got progressively worse through Season 4 and by season 5, which is by some margin the worst television series I have watched this year, or possibly any year, I actually wanted him to die. The only good thing I have to show for the whole torrid and laughably bad experience (much of which I shuttled forward through) is the sheer unadulterated joy of reading reviews on Fortune's website by the excellent Erik Kain.


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Rose Hill and the Hyde loop must stay open - fight the power

I was really cross when I heard of plans to suspend train services on the route from Rose Hill Marple to Manchester Piccadilly via Hyde from September to December 2020. Northern Trains, also sneaked out the news in a letter to MPs. Given they are now run by the Department for Transport’s Operator of Last Resort, part of the state, in public ownership, it was particularly galling.

The reason they give is hollow, supposedly it's due to insufficient staffing caused by the need to train for new rolling stock and new recruits. During this period there will be no trains at Rose Hill Marple, Woodley, Hyde Central, Hyde North and Fairfield stations. As a result, frequency will also be cut at Romiley, Guide Bridge and Ashburys. 

For what it's worth this blog fully supports the campaign to stop these plans and is delighted to be supported by the Goyt Valley Rail Users’ Association and all our local MPs along the route, Tory and Labour, and by local Councillors.

Rachel Singer, Chair of the Friends of Rose Hill Station, said “The withdrawal of service is not just inconvenient, it will cause distress and a severe sense of dislocation and disruption to life for many who use the service when we are all struggling to re-establish some routines as lockdown eases. We are also concerned about the many local school pupils who will not be able to use the service just as they return to school at the start the new session. Many of those affected will switch to travelling by car, causing more pollution and congestion. Others will be forced to use less convenient bus and rail services, increasing the pressure on these services and making social distancing harder. Some people will decide not to travel at all, undermining the Government’s efforts to get the economy growing again”.

Chair of the Goyt Valley Rail Users’ Association, Peter Wightman, added “Northern are asking passengers to find other ways to travel, pointing them to local bus services, and to rail stations on the routes from Glossop and from Sheffield via Marple. But this comes when bus services are being reduced, and passengers are already being asked to try to avoid the rail route from Sheffield via Marple due to overcrowding. With capacity on alternative routes being limited due to social distancing, overcrowding may force passengers to find another means of transport, or make it impossible to maintain social distancing.

“The longer this closure goes on, the harder it will be to persuade passengers to come back to rail, working against the aim of making our transport system more sustainable. This also undermines the government’s commitment to rebuild passenger confidence when it took over the running of services across the Northern rail network in March.”

The user groups point out that several thousand people have signed petitions against Northern’s plans in less than a week, and they have created a storm of opposition on social media. The groups are committed to fighting the plans until they are scrapped. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Build Back Better - webinar with Andy Burnham, the LEP and the Growth Company

I was really pleased to be asked by the Growth Company to host this important webinar with Andy Burnham on Build Back Better - How Greater Manchester can make the best of the challenge of the pandemic and stay true to the ambitions of creating quality jobs, homes and businesses.

Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Help me out, Charlotte - letters to a Labour activist from the political wilderness

The second in a series of conversations with political activist friends has taken a little longer to produce than I hoped, but following a long chat to Liberal Democrat Stephen Duckworth, here are some ideas and thoughts shared between me and Charlotte Morris, a Councillor and now an Executive member on Bury Borough Council. 

Hi Charlotte,
Thanks for agreeing to this. As you know I’ve had a very troubled relationship with the Labour Party. I hated it under Corbyn. In fact I wasn’t that keen on Miliband and I fought a General Election in my home seat on that manifesto. I left when the anti-semitism was out of control and the NEC, the leaders office and local infrastructure of the party was dominated by people I had no interest in working with, or had any desire to see get into power. I supported Ann Coffey, Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger when they had the courage to leave. I was disappointed more didn’t follow and that an alternative wasn’t possible – and it really isn’t, I get that. 
I also thought that after the general election wipeout that Corbyn could truly own his defeat when it inevitably came. But he hasn’t and the Left were quickly back on social media with a ready made betrayal narrative because they discovered the kind of Whatsapp group I have been in over the last few years. 
And though I can’t for one minute support a Boris Johnson Conservative government, I’m relieved in a way that the government we have now is not the one Jeremy Corbyn may have led. I wasn’t convinced Kier Starmer would be able to shape Labour into an electoral force, but I think he’s made a very good start. To be clear, despite three seperate messages from Labour MPs urging me to 'come home' as Starmer was elected, I don’t really see the point of rejoining and yet, at the same time, I think our society is faced with an opportunity to really change and emerge from this terrible virus and the economic catastrophe with a better heart and a sense of common purpose. I know that’s a bit of an offload, but I value your view.


Hi Michael,
Sorry for not getting back to you sooner on this. Given I’ve kept you waiting for a response, I won’t hang about. Let’s get to the nub of the issue; you’re looking for someone to give you reasons to re-join the Labour Party. 
Well, sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to indulge you in that.
I’m not really sure you should re-join. You said yourself in your email you “don’t see the point”. So why are you even considering it? 
Seeing as we both work for esteemed academic institutions, I’ve done a bit of Google bashing and it turns out there is plenty of clever sounding academic thought around why people join political parties. The ‘General Incentives Model’ (Seyd and Whiteley, 1992) is a widely accepted approach to understanding why people become active in political parties. So why don’t we start there?
This model outlines the following reasons why people take up membership of political parties:
- Perception that participation will achieve a desired collective outcome.
- A desire to see particular policies introduced. 
- Selective benefits of membership e.g. material or career benefits. 
- The intrinsic pleasure of political engagement. 
- Altruistic motivations. 
- A desire to conform to social norms and behaviour and expectation of personal contacts. 
- Personal affection for a party and / or leader. 
(Isn’t it amazing what you can learn after a few minutes on Google, by the way …)

I don’t profess to you know you super well, but we’ve shared many conversations about politics over many brews over the past couple of years, so if you don’t mind I will make a couple of observations on what I think motivates you. Please tell me if I’m off base.
I think you are fascinated by politics, see it as the vehicle to achieving things that make the world a better place and enjoy the intellectual stimulation of being involved in political debate. You’re not a Tory. Not even a shy one, I don’t think. You’ve got too much water under the bridge locally with the Lib Dems. And that lot you had a brief dalliance with last year are no more (hurrah!).
You’re politically engaged, but politically homeless.
Perhaps you could consider the motivations for joining a political party against your own feelings of the Labour Party in its current form. Ask yourself why you want to be a member of a political party at all and what you want from that membership, and then you might start to find your answer as to whether that party should be Labour. I’d be interested to know what you come up with.  
I know I could have used this email to tell you all the reasons why you should come back. Anti-Semitism will be stamped out once and for all. We’re going to focus on winning elections, not just the argument. The Shadow Cabinet and its diverse talent shows the ambition the Party has. Sir Keir Starmer’s hair. The truth is I don’t think you should have left in the first place and I’m not too sure I want to legitimise that decision by saying “it’s alright now, we’re back to normal and you can return to the fold”.
It somehow normalises the idea that those who resigned in protest at anti-Semitism were morally right. And that those who didn’t were morally wrong. How can you support a racist Party? Why won’t you take a stand? How can you ask people to vote for that man? My membership of the Labour Party certainly has caused me issues with people I love at times over the past couple of years. It’s been hard to justify. And I accept that. I know that for those who quit, like you, it wasn’t an easy decision. And at times, neither was deciding to stay. But ultimately I believe that my values are in line with those of the Labour Party and those who espouse anti-Semitism in the name of the Party or in the name of the Leader are the ones that are out of step.  
I think ultimately what you need to ask yourself is do you think the Labour Party best represents your values and is it the best vehicle for seeing those values put into action?
But don’t forget, with your chequered past, the big question isn’t whether you should re-join the Party, it’s whether we’d have you. 
Speak soon. 


Very good, Charlotte. Maybe we should have carried on talking about our pets.
I’m not all surprised you’ve cut to the chase and put the hard word down about joining. You’re right, but I thought I made it clear I’m not joining, and I think I’m probably done with parties. Not least because you raise the obvious issue that they wouldn’t have me anyway. So let’s park that thought for now.
There’s an element of the last five years that I still find troubling though. In an effort to keep the party together plenty of people kept their heads down and didn’t speak out against the basket of deplorables that presided over the most shameful political leadership of a major party in our country’s history. There’s a sense now that papering over the shame can suddenly make everything OK. It’s fine to laud Keir Starmer now with his impressive words and deeds and his grown up approach to political management, and his forensic and calm dissembling of Boris Johnson at PMQs is masterful, but there are going to be sterner tests when the EHRC publish their report that WILL declare Labour to have been institutionally racist. 
Anything less than a sweeping of the stables, withdrawl of the whip, expulsions and firm statements of intent, will render any attempts to reach beyond that current base utterly redundant. 
I put it back to you then, what should non-aligned, non-partisan community activists do? How do parties seek to coalesce allies with whom they find common cause around campaigns. Maybe later we can think about what Build Back Better might mean and how you and I as various elements of our personas - Councillor, University execs, community activists – can imagine that at local, regional, national, global level. 



The past five years is all I’ve known as a Labour Party member. I joined in the summer of 2015 following the General Election defeat. As a political observer both personally and professionally I’d never really felt party political and certainly not tribal, but by the time the exit poll came in I had had enough of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (I’d voted Lib Dem in 2010, don’t tell anyone, we were all young once). I was absolutely gutted that Labour wasn’t going to be able to form a minority or coalition government. Maybe it was the heady days of the Milifandom and we all got a bit carried away with ourselves (I confess I came for the memes, but stayed for the politics). Regardless, there wasn’t much I didn’t agree with the Labour Party on and I wanted to see the Party win. Ed Miliband wasn’t perfect nor was that manifesto, but much of it spoke to me at that time and, actually, still does. 
So to have gone from non-party political and very non-tribal to suddenly being a member of a political party that has been tearing itself limb from limb in a factional war for the past half a decade has been a bit disconcerting to say the least. I can’t disagree with you that Corbyn’s tenure has brought shame to the Labour Party and I tried to explain briefly why I stayed with the Party even though I felt that way in my previous reply. 
But I don’t agree that by moving forward in the way that the Party is doing now we are somehow papering over the cracks. Following a meeting with Keir Starmer after he was elected leader, the Board of Deputies said he achieved more in four days more than his predecessor had in four years. That’s a good start and there is much more that needs to be done; I agree that we need action. I guess it’s the old “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” and we shall await the publication of the EHRC report and judge Keir Starmer’s response accordingly. 
Beyond political parties, community activism is alive and well. In my own ward where I’m a councillor I’m lucky enough to know and work with a number of really proactive, passionate and dedicated community groups. These are non-party political although the people that run them have political views and in some cases party allegiances. They come in different forms, from a volunteer-led community centre to local litter picking groups, and from a traditional residents’ association to a constituted ‘Friends of’ group that hopes to take over management of the local country park. I don’t think they’d call themselves ‘activists’ as I don’t think they see themselves as campaigners, but they are making a real difference in their communities and isn’t that the ultimate aim of activism?
So to answer your question, what do non-aligned, non-partisan community activists do? You find something in your community that you’re not happy with or that you think could be improved, you get a group of like-minded people together and you take action. In today’s society with social media and the multitude of ways in which we can stay connected, this is easier than ever. 
Ultimately, however, a degree of political engagement will be required, but political engagement doesn’t have to be aligned or partisan either. 
A great example of successful community activism, again from my patch in Bury, has been seen around the climate emergency. The Council passed a climate emergency in July 2019. In response a local group, Bury Climate Action, was set up. They’ve got engaged, got online, got in our faces by asking questions at Full Council, held meetings and asked us to attend, and they’ve lobbied local councillors to take appropriate action. They’ve put pressure on us. Asked us hard questions. And we’ve had to find answers. They’ve changed the debate and held us to account on our promises. 

I hope that answers your question. 



Monday, July 20, 2020

Under appreciated genius


I've been thinking a lot about what might have been. But also listening to a wide range of new music at a time when venues like Gorilla were at risk of closing, Q Magazine is nearing the end, and artists are staring into the abyss. Before all of that though, here are some massively unappreciated geniuses.

The one above is a towering anthem of melancholy from Gavin Clark, Good Day to Die, from the album Crazy on the Weekend by Sunhouse. In his A&R days author John Niven looked after Gavin when he was a brittle and sensitive singer songwriter at a time when the music market demanded brash and confident at the tail end of Britpop. Although you might recognise his tone and key from This is England soundtracks and various indie films, Gavin never broke through with any of his bands, Sunhouse or Clayhill. He died a few years ago in sad circumstances. Here's a heartbreaking and beautifully written obituary John Niven wrote in the Daily Record which captures him painfully well and a film his friend Shane Meadows made with Gavin in his living room. Maybe you could read the obituary while you play Good Day to Die, or just the whole of the album to be honest.

I went to see I Am Kloot a few times and was touched by the wall of affection from an appreciative audience of people like us. I noticed that singer John Bramwell was due to tour again just as lockdown kicked in. That’s going to be top of my list when this is over. Support venues, support artists, and no, just downloading on Spotify won’t be enough will it?

You couldn’t download this next track if you wanted to, as it’s not on Spotify.  Flowered Up, or the Cockney Mondays as they were known at the time (by me) had an incredible energy about them and (heresy, I know) I genuinely think Weekender is far better than anything the baggy Mancs ever came up with. It's a sprawling, multi-layered, epic non-anthemic classic. Behind it is another tragic story of a talent lost and the subject of what I hear is a very good book. This here, about them, nails it and the epic lost brilliance of Weekender.

For a slightly happier ending, David Ford is at least still with us, but nowhere near the status he deserves. I'm fairly stuck on one of his earlier albums, Let the Hard Times Roll, but I'm not here to judge, just to share. I'd start with To Hell With The World, but maybe cheer yourself up with Making up For Lost Time. I just don't understand why everyone doesn't know these songs like I do. Life's better for it.