Friday, October 18, 2019

Mystify Michael Hutchence - terribly sad

Mystify Michael Hutchence is a terribly, terribly sad film.  It’s a journey that we all know how it ends for the INXS front man. For all its sorrow, it is sensitively put together by the film maker Richard Lowenstein, who made their beautiful video in Prague for their standout breakthrough hit Never Tear Us Apart.

But while it is a hugely impressive visual achievement, it is still somehow stylistically messy, and eschews the talking head style of documentary in favour of a mixture of home movie clips, concert footage and splices in archives material which focuses relentlessly on Michael, pretty much like the image of INXS. None of it makes Michael any less striking, or the film less of a spectacle.

As a generation of music fans we’re not short of tragic stories of those troubled tortured geniuses who burn out and left us too soon. From my own musical sphere I have the works of David McComb, Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis to look back on for an early glimpse of their startling careers and wonder what might have been.

Hutch was different. He always had a vivid star quality that far exceeded the musical reach of his decent hard working rock band. When I lived in Perth in the late 80s he was considered cool and iconic even if the rest of the band wasn't. I was won over by his live presence at the Perth International Arena on the Kick tour in 1988, a crescendo to a marathon 18 month global slog, and considered myself a fan and stuck with them. Journalists and other mates who knew him also had stories of his generosity, kindness and capacity for hard work and hard partying.

But this film isn't really about his musical legacy - did he have one? - but the story of the relationships of a global rock star. His family, the band members, and the women. How a warm, beautiful man, went from one mad passionate relationship to another, usually with gorgeous global superstars, but starting with his first love Michele, who inspired the sentiment of Never Tear Us Apart, and was the last person to speak to him before he died. You occasionally hear it said that someone at their height of their fame ‘could have anyone he wanted’ but in Michael’s case he could. After seeing her in the video for the Chris Isaak song Wicked Game, Michael asked the director to introduce him to the star of it, the world’s most desirable supermodel, Helena Christiansen, and asked her out. And that was on the rebound from Kylie Minogue!

Though the inquest into his death in a Sydney hotel room in 1997 recorded a verdict of likely suicide, it was contested by his grieving widow Paula Yates who herself died of a heroin overdose a few years later. What the film reveals in a testimony from Helena is that he suffered a brain injury after being punched in the head in Copenhagen in 1992 and was never the same again. He lost his sense of smell, had no taste, and suffered mood swings and blackouts. And as Kylie says elsewhere in the film: “Sex, love, food, drugs, music, travel, books, you name it, he wanted to experience it.”

It’s hard to say whether the film advances a theory or closes a book. I’d say it tells one aspect of his life. There’s further mystery over his money, some of it revealed in the leaked Paradise papers, that his assets were held in offshore trusts and companies. The entertainment industry can be cruel, the pressures to sustain success, or deal with a fall from the summit enormous.

I found the film sobering and hard to watch. But for all the trappings of fame and fortune it all comes back down to what really matters in the end. Love. Love for your family. Love for yourself.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Breaking Bad - the gift that keeps on giving


I miss Breaking Bad, but I liked the way it ended. I'm also enjoying Better Call Saul, the prequel series which pivots around Walt's slippy lawyer Saul. Or Jimmy as we know him.

The new film, El Camino, basically, 'what happened to Jesse Pinkman' is a faithful reminder of what we loved so much about the epic 'Mr Chips to Scarface' journey of the original five series. Honestly, I forgot a few details and probably missed a few Easter Eggs that writer Vince Gilligan left in there for the faithful. Honestly, it doesn't matter. All you need to tune in to is the last episode of BB and where you were as Walt massacred the Nazis and Todd got what he deserves.

El Camino brought back a few things I really loved about Breaking Bad, notably, the chaos. Everything on this crazy trajectory is always a couple of steps from catastrophe and an entire cast of criminals are all kinds of incompetent, but not without a capacity for human kindness too. As it's only been out a few days I'm not going to spoil anything but it is every bit as gorgeous, glorious and grim as we remember. 

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Stunning. The best word to describe Matt Jansen’s autobiography

There are football biographies, then there are books about football fan culture, or the business end of the game, then there are books about the banter that surrounds professional football. I’m probably a little bit interested in the first lot, but only if they’ve been a significant Blackburn Rovers player or manager, curiously drawn to elements of the second and third category, and probably not that interested in the latter batch at all. I’ve never read the story of the career of, for example (and to pluck a random name completely out of the air), Dean Saunders. I do like fast paced business biographies, tales of bravery and courage, and the extraordinary achievements of relatable people.

Matt Jansen’s timely biography is rather brilliant, in that I found myself unable to explain quite what it meant to me, welling up with tears, relaying the tale of the post-accident Jansen appearing at Ewood for Bolton Wanderers and getting a standing ovation from all four sides of the ground. I was about as articulate this week, to my non-Rovers supporting 15 year son, as I was to Matt Jansen himself when I asked him if he was going to be alight in Velvet Restaurant in Manchester in July 2002. What I wanted to say was - “I have watched Blackburn Rovers teams for the last 25 years, reared on Wagstaffe and Garner, spoilt by Shearer and Hendry, but you, Matt, are something special. THAT goal at Preston, all those performances in that season culminating in THAT goal at Preston, THAT game against Arsenal. Oh, and Cardiff. That’s why I have a son called Matt, born six weeks after THAT day in Cardiff. Your day. I hope beyond all else, that you are going to be OK. I love you Matt Jansen.”

Instead I said something like - “going to be alright then, you? Please. Sorry?”

Or as my Canadian deputy commented once we were back in the office. “Just seen the boss go all weird and woozy in front of some soccer kid called Matty Hansen”.

But much as I enjoyed the rekindling of footballing memories - and I really, really did - and much as the latter narrative was challenging - it really, really was - this was a book about belief. The deep, psychological core belief in who you are as a person. How that motivates your actions and guides behaviour. Told against the backdrop of what might have been for a professional athlete who had his world shaken to its roots, it is at times heartbreaking and unbearable. The passages with the psychiatrist Steve Peters, with my mate Michael Finnigan, the performance psychologist, and his experiences around various doctors was truly fascinating. Jaw dropping, in fact. Professional football has been on a journey, as wealth has grown, so assets need nurturing, protecting. You also get the impression from the story just how many people in football management are winging it. No qualifications, no attention to detail, no success. I mean, work it out.

I won’t say the book is ultimately uplifting, because it isn’t. But to bear witness to one man overcoming loss - and it is loss - is at least inspiring. It becomes a book about choice too. The most powerful passages pivot around Steve Peters and how he approaches Matt. It’s what ultimately makes it such a compelling book.

A word then on professionalism. This is a well produced book by the impressive imprint Polaris. It is also very well written and very smartly constructed by the Carlisle News and Star journalist Jon Colman. I like the way it is Matt’s story, but not without critical voices - his wife, his father-in-law, friends like Garry Flitcroft one of many people who emerge from the book with abundant generosity of spirit and time.

This is also a welcome addition to a conversation I’m delighted is happening more and more, that mental health matters, that the mind matters.

So I’ll say now all that I really wanted to say to Matt in 2002. Thank you. And that I wish you every happiness.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Y Factor 2019 - and the winner is...

It was a real honour to be involved in the Y Factor Reunion 2019. I hosted the whole event and presented the winners trophy (left) to Kieran Lawton for his incredible performance of Try A Little Tenderness (oh, the irony of a Private Equity guy doing that song!).

But joking aside, there was a tenderness involved in the whole enterprise. When we convened to get the band back together there was a real sense of mission that this street homeless problem in Manchester has become morally unacceptable. In Mancunian Way we found a charity that really appealed to the rest of the group, not only for the symbolism of actively tackling the homelessness crisis, but for the sheer gritty bloody mindedness of the charity's founder Nick Buckley in how he delivers help and assistance in a non-nonsense, tough love, Mancunian way.  Personally, I applaud the Mayor's Bed Every Night campaign because at that moment of crisis people need that immediate response. But where I think the Mancunian Way approach struck such a chord was in how Nick spoke about the small and targeted interventions, and partnerships to build trust with employers, that can really transform lives for the long term.

Throughout the evening, 10 acts across the corporate finance industry came together to show their support by performing with a live band; led by two great friends of mine, Clearwater International CEO, Michael Reeves and Director at ABN Amro Commercial Finance, Jeremy Smith.

Each performer was judged live by our celebrity panel; Penny Haslam, Paul 'Boy George' Johnson and Aziz Ibrahim, followed by a live vote from our sold-out audience, to determine the winner of the Y Factor trophy.

It also reminded me how much I enjoy working with people in the world of corporate finance. They are smart, good at what they do, but for all the bad press they get from people in other corners of my world, they are amongst the most generous and decent I know.

For me the passion and power of the evening shone through. Every single participant really pushed hard and never lost sight of what we were doing it for. In total, we raised over £50k, which could ensure projects run for two years. It's not too late to donate, you can do that here.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Podcast: Change, choice, and the future of politics

In other exciting soul searching news, I recorded a podcast with my mate Tom Cheesewright. We have a right old ramble through politics, choice and LibDem bar charts. And what it was like getting creamed for Change UK.

The link is here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Help me out Steven - letters to a Liberal Democrat from the political wilderness

The first in a series of soul bearing conversations. First up, here's what happened when I dropped a note to Steven Duckworth, a Liberal Democrat activist in Northumberland...

Help me out Steven.

Like you I left the Labour Party, for me it was because I fundamentally oppose the kind of crude ‘easy answers’ sloganeering socialism that typifies Corbynism.  There’s a direct dotted line from there to antisemitism, the socialism of fools and the people who felt welcome in Labour. It’s not for me any more. Before joining Labour in 2014 I’d been outside of politics for long enough not to feel a need to be part of the Labour family. But having been active in my home constituency and standing for parliament, when you’re in the political sphere, you’re in it. I still believe in a mixed economy, a society that values human contribution over individual rights, looking after our most vulnerable, fair tax rates, and I don’t have an instinct to clip the wings of business. I was gutted about leaving the EU, but assumed the grown ups would negotiate some kind of future relationship that most of us could live with. But I didn’t feel an urgent need to seek a new political home.

So, you joined the Liberal Democrats and got stuck in. That would have been a tough call for me. Having fought against them locally, in council elections and in a four way parliamentary tussle (in which I came third), I have some visceral tribal instincts to get over. Plus, I thought they were truly done for when the levy broke and the first wave of MPs left the main two parties to form the Independent Group. We know how that turned out. I gave it a shot too and stood for Change UK in the European election. We all know how that played out too.

What has that election experience and this summer of madness taught us? For me, it’s that there is life left in the party that many of us had written off. But how does a progressive, social democratic policy framework even begin to be created out of the mess of the current politics? And I’m not just talking about parliament here, but our corrosive discourse, the lack of trust, an assumption of bad faith, the politics of easy answers of the left, the right and the centre?

Thanks for listening. Cheers,

Michael



Hi Michael,

Lovely to hear from you.

I was incredibly worried about the election of Corbyn, particularly as it was followed so quickly by the appointment of Seumas Milne as the strategic architect of the Corbyn project, a project that seemed to me at the time to be about creating a rump party that was ‘pure’ in socialist thought. I found the antisemitism and general approach to party management toxic and disgusting and so, like you, I left- knowing it wasn’t a productive and creative space in which to ‘do’ politics.

Regarding Brexit, I’m rather an outlier on the centre-left in that while I voted for us to remain and hope we have a close alignment to the EU in the future. I do think some of the Brexiteers criticism of lack of democracy and sovereignty inherent in our EU membership have some force that left leaning liberals have failed to acknowledge. I also believe the outcome of the referendum should be respected and that May’s deal, however imperfect, was our best way through this.

You’re right that politics is in a state and that it is going to be difficult for a left leaning platform to come out of this. But it’s my firm belief that the mainstream left over the past twenty years has drifted towards a managerial and technocratic approach to politics and that, in some part, has given rise to the populists of right and left and the easy solutions they propose. I really feel we need to get back to discussing the big questions: what a good society is, the nature and dignity of work, what should an education system provide, how do we democratise markets? how do we improve our institutional culture? And many more. These are big moral questions that we should not be afraid or embarrassed to discuss and we should be wary of discussing them purely in terms of policy fixes.

Why did I get stuck into the Lib Dems? I suppose I’m a believer in the idea that you refine your views and politics by getting involved and testing them out. I also think being a member of a local party helps to root you in the concerns of the community, like you I’m suspicious on the constant focus of individual over that of the common good. I’m very much a trans-partisan and I find tribal politics to be tedious, though I accept that it’s red meat to a lot of activists and we need activists. As Roberto Unger points out in his recent book: It’s not hope that leads to action, it’s action that leads to hope.

Best wishes,

Steven


Thanks Steven, that’s illuminating.

I’m going to have a few questions for you though. It seems from reading between the lines that you have to do a lot of holding of your nose as a member of the Liberal Democrats. Like me, you’re probably not an outright liberal, more of a democrat. You don’t hold with the vehement Stop Brexit strategy either.

I concur with you on the party-as-a-key-player-in-a-community point. And I get that the Liberal Democrat identity and strategy is to dig deep in a community, plant firm roots, build a network of activists and councillors, then MPs.

But what do you do when you fundamentally disagree with the stances that a local party takes in a community? It strikes me that the closeness to what a community wants nearly always places you in opposition to change, be that a new road, new houses, or new community infrastructure – like a mosque, for example. When does a party activist lead, rather than follow, public opinion? What latitude do you have to do that?

And what do you do when those difficult decisions are taken by people at an elected level in your own party? It seems to me that’s where the Liberal Democrats come unstuck locally, because the constant campaigning and petitioning and community chivvying leaves you exposed when you actually achieve power and have to make a decision. It certainly happened in the coalition government.

Sorry to appear negative, but it serves as a useful metaphor for the future too. When the dead cat of Brexit is off the table. What next? Is this even a political entity that has legs beyond that, or a repository for protest votes in the way it was after the Iraq war?

Cheers,

Michael



Hi Michael,

You’re right to say I’m not an outright liberal and more of a social democrat. I’d go further and say I’m a communitarian with liberal values; these two positions are often portrayed as being in opposition, but I think they can be reconciled by taking a more nuanced view of liberalism. I tend to find British liberalism is heavily defined by Mill and is reductive and negative in many ways. I think ‘liberalism’ has its limits, beyond which it tends to eat its own values to some extent.

As I said earlier in our conversation, I do find being rooted within a party to be extremely beneficial to the way I think about my politics and other moral questions. I don’t expect to agree with my fellow members on everything, but my experience is that dissent from the party line is usually respectfully tolerated. Maybe I have been lucky locally in that respect.

I’m less concerned by achieving national power than building up a base of activists and local councillors that can start to engage with the change needed at that level. It’s my hope that Brexit will lead to more emphasis on local democracy and that is how we must try to steer it. With local associations and institutions driving the agenda forward. I realise this sounds very utopian, but I’m all out of thinking in the old ways of public policy tinkering.

To be honest it’s an approach to change that goes well beyond our current party set up, it’s just that it’s that set up that helps me to think and contribute in the small way that I do while rooted in a party structure.

Best wishes,
Steven

Hi Steven

This has been a very helpful and salutary exercise. It’s helped me to focus on the important questions that were front and centre to me when I left journalism and made the decision to get involved in a local campaign, then to rejoining the Labour Party in 2014. Ultimately we have to be driven by something greater than the sums of our personal ambitions and wanting to support the latest jousting in the Westminster arena.

My politics starts with my faith, and the centrality of the human person so passionately articulated through the traditions of Catholic social teaching. But something has gone very wrong with our politics. I think the party system is knackered, but it’s been inspirational to hear of your local experiences in the Liberal Democrats. Time and time again I’m inspired by the efforts of people who get things done, without necessarily having been granted the permission to do so. Subsidiarity and human control cross over into so many inspirational examples of local action, and that includes what the Metro Mayors have done, despite all of the flaws in their fragile constitutional mandate. I like everything I hear about the experiment in Frome in Somerset, where local people have taken over a local council.

I think for my part I have to dial it down a bit on the tribal politics. It doesn’t do me any good and for what it’s worth I’m veering to the view that the politically homeless have to start showing a bit of humility and appreciate the bigger picture and start thinking a bit more about how their behaviour contributes to the distrust and dislike that has undermined institutions from councils, parliament and public services. I’ve probably torched my bridges with my local political parties, but I remain supportive of campaigns that address the burning injustices and the spaces that exist for socially committed actors.

Thanks again for your time.
Cheers,
Michael


Michael,

It’s been helpful for me too, to get some of my thoughts into words. I think we do have to take inspiration from big ideas and while it doesn’t mean we can’t be pragmatic in application, I do think politics has been reduced too much to issues of managing the existing system.

You’re right that much can be achieved by people at a local level committed to making positive change happen. I too have been impressed by the ‘flatpack democracy’ movement in Frome and by initiatives by town and parish councils in different parts of the country, not to mention the community and voluntary sectors. David Cameron has a lot to answer for, but I think the Localism Act might prove to be useful.

I don’t know about ‘dialling it down’, but we all should think about our methods of doing politics, including how we engage with other people. Institutions are important in this and it is no surprise that people with a short-term view of political change often see them as the problem and not as an enabler. I don’t think we need political parties to achieve a lot of this agenda, but they are useful in terms of the generation of ideas and ways of engagement.

Best wishes,

Steven

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Discovering Blackburn



I did something yesterday that I haven’t done for nigh on 20 years. I went to a Blackburn Rovers home game by train. We’ve come to the conclusion that one car is quite enough for our family, and there were other pressing places for it to be yesterday.

Now that Joe and Louis are both living in Manchester, it actually makes logistical sense to put our fate in the hands of Northern Rail and see what flows. I could hardly describe it as an adventure, even with Millwall as the opponents, but as we were walking down Bolton Road from town, Joe said to me it felt more like an away game, because he had no idea where we were. Our usual route is from Lower Darwen along Branch Road.

But from when we passed underneath the inscription at Blackburn station - By Skill and Hard Work - I was pleasantly surprised. It always helps to brighten a place when the sun shines, but the public space around the Cathedral and the Mall was very nicely done. The shopping centre was both busier and tidier than I’ve seen in other town centres around the North West.

We stopped for lunch at the Chippery, a bit of a Blackburn institution, where the friendly staff served us up a decent pre-match pie and chips. I was keen to visit the Community Clothing pop up store on King William Street. I was an early adopter of Patrick Grant’s social enterprise, providing basic items of clothing, made locally. I invested in the first crowd funded call for support and have steadily accumulated a wardrobe of staple items, a mac, a crew neck lambs wool sweater and some gloriously well fitted selvedge denim jeans. An order is pending for a Dutch-style Peacoat.

Anyway, long story short, it’s really whetted my appetite to explore Blackburn a bit more. Through October there’s a film being shown at Blackburn Museum which tells the story of Patrick’s fashion project. Given it’s made by film maker Aaron Dunleavy, it will have an honest earthy style and be one to savour. Also next month is a Trainer exhibition at the Cotton Exchange being curated by fellow Riversider Gary Aspden, the bloke behind the surge in appreciation of the adidas Spezial brand.

More information on the exhibition is here.

Football wise, the first half was nothing to write home about, bar Derek Williams’ left foot screamer. I like 3 at the back, but it sometimes seems like the players and the fans don’t quite believe the manager’s vision. Tony Mowbray seemed a bit peeved at the performance in his post-match interview (frustraaaaated, even), but the high spots for me were the sheer dogged tenacity of Bradley Dack to try and pick the lock of the opposition and the growing influence on the pulse of the team of Stewart Downing.

It seemed a good day to finally break another family ritual, our pre-match Twitter predictions. Given they’ve both admitted to being fundamentally dishonest - never predicting what they truly feel - one an optimist, the other the opposite - we’re instead just going to pick our own man of the match.