Sunday, March 18, 2018

Are Sundays cheat days in Lent?

Apparently, they are not. My social media abstinence is holding. It is definitely giving me time and space to think, pray and read a lot more. But I am breaking it a little on Sunday just to update the blog, which has a trigger to Twitter. 

What's the purpose of towns in the digital age?

Ann Coffey MP for Stockport, and me
I don't get asked to speak myself so much these days, even though I'm probably involved in more speech writing, briefing and events organising than I have ever been.

It was a real delight to accept an offer from Stockport's first rate Labour MP Ann Coffey to speak with members about the big issues facing towns.

In the welcoming confines of Heaton Moor United Reform Church, I talked through three big challenges that digital has thrown at us all, which sparked a fascinating discussion. It wasn't a speech as such, there was no list of demands for the council or a future Labour government, but some themes for us to think through with a bit more evidence, knowledge and humility.

Firstly, I looked at the specific profile of Stockport's economy, drawing on some of the work of the Stockport Work and Skills Commission and what skills the jobs of the future are going to require and how everyone can build the resilience to keep learning and adapting to change. This, I suggested, was an opportunity for plenty beyond what we'd call the skills ecosystem: families, small businesses and trade unions, who I still feel have missed on an opportunity to engage with members in better equipping them for the 21st century.

Secondly, I tried to reconcile what these employment trends will mean to how we use land, building and open spaces. In short, what's it going to mean for where we shop, live and spend our leisure time? Where are new homes going to be built? And will be purposes of town centres if big box retail is in decline and how can this be far better integrated into Greater Manchester through better transport links?

Thirdly, digital has demanded a re-thinking of how public services are delivered. Yes, Stockport has done some transformative work, but if we look further east to Estonia, a small country of 1.5 million people we see the laboratory of a digital society. What then for the old debate on compulsory ID cards?

I have to say I really enjoyed it. The local members were very knowledgable and more than anything we had a good trawl through the issues. More of this, please.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Lynsey Hanley's Respectable, crossing the class divide

There's such a tenderness and sense of love running through Lynsey Hanley's memoir cum sociological journey through Britain's class structures that you sort of miss the anger at first. But it's there.

I'm a few years older than her, but I found it relatable. A few years earlier my devouring of the NME led a straight line to George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Marx, Dickens and the Lakeland poets. It was an alternative education that prised open a cultural door. A universal intellectualisation of low and high culture that you can place in a time and place.

For a while my own connection back to a trace working class identity was football. But when I mentally scroll through my friends I go with, those I have accumulated along the way, then our shared experience is of a particular type. You can share the same view of a pitch and 22 players, but there's the Sky Sports Soccer AM view of life and the When Saturday Comes one, and many others beside. A constant thread on this blog is irritation at other fans, which rather proves the point. 

But this is an enjoyable read, if a challenging one at times, made more pleasurable through the elegance of her prose, even when I don't agree with the point she's making. Quite starkly, for example, on page 100, I had to stop and check I'd read it right: "working class school children must reject the values of their parents and community if they are ever to be a part of society." In a single sweeping statement about the assumptions of the education system, it blows apart every working definition of what it is to be from a working class community and, more pointedly, a strange meaning of what "be a part of society" constitutes. I found myself asking then how narrow were the parameters that she was defining both class terms.

But here's the thing. She can really write. Take this, on transferring class: "I have this feeling all the time, and the greatest fear that accompanies it is not of losing the substantial privileges that come with being middle class, but of knowing that , if I had to go back, I'd fit in even less now than I did back then".

She takes on board some underlying themes-in-motion that pre-occupy me in my day job. The difference in character of the university I work at, compared to the rest of sector. It plays itself out at varsity events where the boorish Russell Group students chant 'your dads work for our dads'. The challenge of widening participation and the link from study to work and whether this is really producing a new transfer class, or notching up the skills levels right through social strata.

Three things, I think, require further scrutiny and evidence to take her observations on. 

One, has her journey been just a transfer of class, or also a transfer of place? London's norms; London's intellectualism and London's economic options still open up more opportunities to be with people like you and become even more marinaded in the spice of cultural life.

Two, the impact of property prices on social mobility, both negative and positive. To have got on the property ladder in London in the 80s and 90s is to have won the lottery of life. Even those who are cash poor, but asset rich, have a massive inbuilt route to stability. To have missed it in London is the subject which dominates so much of our public discourse.

Thirdly, the baking in of social norms and class status through consumption of media probably needs updating. I'm fascinated by the way internet has reconnected people and created a nostalgia industry already enriched by books and TV programmes (usually featuring Stuart Maconie), but made more personal through a Past and Present Facebook experience.  It gives us a way of never really leaving, of measuring success against others - in and of itself a particularly middle class thing to do. If the Daily Mail shaped attitudes of the angry, self-righteous and defensive middle class, and the Guardian it's liberal equivalent, then what's guiding the emerging generational touchstone? Twitter as opposed to Facebook?

This is a terrific body of work from an important writer I'm looking forward to reading more from. 

Winter telly. A quick reprise and a constant theme - get on with it!

Anna Friel in Odyssey
We've enjoyed stoking up the coal fire and indulging in some decent TV during these cold nights, and I've sneaked in a few while I've been travelling.

At the moment though the biggest problem with so many series is pace. Either too much crammed in, or frankly they've been padded out to a ludicrous degree. I also appear to have too many TV series on the go. It was probably like this in the pre-boxed set days when the papers would run a 'wise-up on the soaps' column. But this crop largely have strong female leads, or co-leads.

Strike (BBC) is well conceived, brilliantly cast, superbly acted and far too busy. That Robert Galbraith knows how to write, I wonder what else he's done?* The storyline was ambitious and brave, lots of interlocking bad people. But if anything there wasn't enough time to comprehend who was who and what they were meant to be doing. There was supposed to be a twist at the end, but instead I just wondered if I'd missed something and was curious as to why Neil Maskell appeared to be playing two different people.

Collateral (BBC) suffers from being a political broadcast on behalf of Jeremy Corbyn dressed up as a TV crime drama. David Hare railing at the dystopian nightmare of a Labour opposition led by Yvette Cooper and a military full of sociopaths and imbeciles. It's a shame because compared to pretty much all of the other dramas mentioned it has good pace and some strong central performances, Carey Mulligan's Kip Glaspie is a model of sass and smart policing.

Homeland (C4 - US) we're currently storing up the recorded episodes of Homeland, now surprisingly on its SEVENTH season. The first episode saw the unlikely scenario of Saul moving almost seamlessly from jail to the Oval Office. The success of Homeland when it started was pushing the boundaries of a spy drama of a stable but frightened America against a hostile and uncertain world. Now it seems the roles are reversed. Trump has allowed that door to an uncertain America to be opened and basically anything goes. At first I thought they’d dropped a clanger with a Hillary Clinton type in the White House, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still an isolated and paranoid President who doesn’t listen to advice and is being manipulated by darker forces. Yet the raw power of Homeland is still the incredible acting, notably from Claire Danes, and especially in her heightened meltdown situations. We’re three episodes in and it is finding its feet again.

Odyssey (NBC) - one reviewer dubbed this interlacing American military conspiracy drama as more Poundland than Homeland. It never survived the first season, which we're ticking through, but I found myself rooting habitually for Anna Friel's Odelle more comfortably than I often do for Carrie in Homeland. There are some interesting and well-written untypical characters (Bob, Shakir, Aslam and Luc), as well as cardboard cut out bad guys from the military industrial complex.

Marcella (ITV) - paradoxically the first season of this Anna Friel drama saw her playing a character cut from the Carrie Matheson school of tortured genius and mental breakdown. Much of the story arc was preposterously interwoven, but it certainly had danger and pace. It's a triumphant end rresult, on the whole. Marcella is a difficult character to pull off as she battles fugue blackouts, distrustful colleagues, her snide gaslighting husband playing with her mind and the staple of ITV drama to create ever nastier and creepier bad people.

The principal selling point of Keeping Faith (BBC Wales) is lead character Eve Myles and, like 2016's Hinterland, it was filmed back-to-back in Welsh and English. Three episodes in and her husband has vanished, but nothing much else had happened. It badly needed some actual drama, which came in the fourth episode, but still managed to intersperse plot shifts with a very long series of pop videos where the director indulged lingering scenes of Faith staring into the distance while a melancholic folk song layers on quite how troubled and sexually alive she is. This is apparently because of the difference between a TV hour on S4C, with adverts, and the BBC, with no adverts. Hence each episode is padded out by 8 minutes. *rolls eyes*

I wasn't always sure whether Requiem (BBC Wales) was a compilation of horror's greatest hits, or just another twisted psycho drama. But it was terrifically atmospheric and very, very creepy. All that was missing at the end were torches, hoods and animal heads, though the casting director missed a trick with the family from Deliverance who popped up in Keeping Faith.

I watched one episode of Shetland (BBC Scotland) while I was on the train. It was everything you’d expect of a Nordic noir, but my first impression was the obvious missing ingredient of place. London as a location can be cruel, unforgiving and unexpected, because there's so much life there. Shetland is just shown as bleak. Everyone talks about getting away. It's small and closed. That's it. I just don't think they tried hard enough to make Shetland interesting. I've written before about how well Hinterland managed to really get under the skin of the Welsh people and landscape, I await with interest how this gets on.

* I know.

Albania, Albania, not nearly as repressive as Romania

Last year I heard Robert Elms eulogising and reminiscing about the Albanian Shop on Betterton Street in Covent Garden on his own Listed Londonder slot on BBC Radio London. It's always worth a listen to a historical and socially curious podcast, but it still surprised me that with his intimate knowledge of London’s nooks and crannies that he would have been drawn to somewhere familiar to me.

My own interest was that I visited the shop in 1983 as a diversion from a school trip, where as an accompanying sixth-former, I was allowed to do my own thing, which was supposedly to visit the British Museum. I was mildly obsessed by this secretive closed Stalinist society back then. If I remember rightly I bought a wildly hyperbolic history of Albania (which I still have, left), an enamel badge and a small silk flag (which I don't), I also acquired some free Albanian produce - tomato puree, pickles - none of which were ever consumed.

I do have a vivid recall of my teachers looking at me with a mix of bewilderment and fear when I told them what I'd disappeared to do.

The root of this teenage fixation may have been Alexi Sayle who recorded the Albanian World Cup Squad's official song for the 1982 World Cup. At the time oppressive Stalinism was still a bit of a joke. Albania an entire mystery, but Sayle at least was speaking from experience having been taken Eastwards on holiday by his communist parents.

The other day I wandered down Betterton Street and couldn't quite place where it was, and what is there now.  It's another symbol of London's quirkiness that it has probably lost forever. Not just the shop, a Cold War relic, but that anyone could sustain an eccentric enterprise amidst such sky land prices now.

Monday, March 05, 2018

My Manchester - remarkable photographs from the 1980s

Manchester Confidential have produced a remarkable photo gallery of Manchester in the 1980s. There are tinges of glamour and a slight fizz of action revealed within them, but on the whole they stand as a record now for how much the city has changed for the better.

The commentary alongside from the peerless Jonathan Schofield also captures the time remarkably well. It was the Manchester I fell in love with in the 80s. The city I chose over all others to come and study and eventually to return to twelve years later. I'm still now.
Jonathan quotes one writer Charles Jencks who viewed that older city: 'Look again at those buildings. As examples of frozen energy they fill you with amazement. Some Mancunians must have been giants. What dreams did those people have? And do they still have them?'

The road to being Wigan's peers - the BRFCS podcast

We recorded a podcast after the Wigan game, where I hope we got across how most fans are feeling after the draw at home to our promotion rivals. When our second goal went in it truly felt like we were the invincibles, guided by the magician that is Bradley Dack. When Wigan's second bobbled in it started to feel like a defeat.  I still think we'll go up, probably in second spot though. I'd much rather have the points in the bag now than the games in hand. 

The other positive I'll take from the game is that we have for the first time since 1996, or maybe 2001, the best player in the division playing for us. Dack is fantastic to watch: brave, tricky, generous and remarkably honest. I've never seen a player get fouled so much, but he always tries to stay on his feet.

These podcasts are great fun. Ian Herbert puts in great effort to make them a cut above what most people would expect from a fans ramble. Please share widely and give us a rating.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Wimbledon, Wromantic, but wrong

Worst view ever . Away terrace at AFC Wimbledon
Who can't be impressed by the story of the fall and rise again of AFC Wimbledon? I know I am. For a tiny supporter created club to have born again after their club was handed over as a franchise to Milton Keynes takes some doing. That they now compete at the level of League One is remarkable.

I usually just roll my eyes and cringe with embarrassment when my fellow away supporters try and find the most offensive thing they can say in order to taunt opposing supporters. On top of the usual tedious claim that a place "is a S*** hole, I want to go home" (to luxurious East Lancashire, no doubt), this season we've also had comments on the ethnic make-up of Bradford, that Blackpool are poorly supported and using MK Dons to taunt AFC Wimbledon. As the bloke trying to start an MK Dons chant was right in front of me at the Cherry Red Records Stadium, I felt compelled to call him out and say "enough".

I say all of that because I really didn't enjoy the away fans experience on our trip to Kingston to watch our 3-0 win over AFC Wimbledon this week. The view in both halves was probably the worst I've ever experienced. In the first we were tucked behind the dugout and could get no sense of the game at all. It was like standing on a packed concourse of the Riverside. In the second we moved to a piece of flat land in the corner where Rovers were attacking and couldn't see anything in the half we were defending at all.

So we must all surely wish the club well in their quest for a new stadium in Wimbledon. Kingsmeadow isn't acceptable for football at this level. Apart from anything else a team can't expect to grow on crowds capped at 4,000, let alone sustain a presence in this league. Neil Ardley mentioned the difference in budgets of the two sides and though they beat us at Ewood, the gulf in quality was really evident in the return match. The style of play was akin to a 90s Wimbledon tribute act, but one that Mulgrew and Lenihan were more than capable of absorbing and coping with, despite another woeful refereeing performance.

The two pieces of action we did have a decent view of were the two goals. I've been shouting "shoot" at Elliot Bennett all season, when he's found himself in such scoring positions, so to see him lash one in for the first time this season was a delight. I still don't get his angry celebration though. It seems contemptuous of the fans, in defiance of us, rather than an expression of communal joy.

With a trip to Walsall chalked off on the Saturday before, this marks another two new grounds. I make it the 154th and 155th grounds I've watched football on, I'm now on 83 clubs out of the total, (the Punk 92), and I'm up to 77 of the current 92.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

I've given up social media for Lent

Six years ago I gave up alcohol for Lent. I never started again. Last year I forsook crisps, but I've now cut down on potato based snacks for health reasons. I could claim to be giving up impulse buys of clothes and books, but I'm skint. So this year I'm giving up Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, MySpace and LinkedIn. To be honest I only really use the first two, and I'm not even sure that MySpace exists anymore. I probably have to carry on with Blogger, but only on Sundays.

But Lent isn't just about giving up and sacrificing things we like, it has to be about what you do extra. I haven't quite figured that bit out yet. It's a time for prayer and reflection, for searching, for resisting temptation and doing good.

Earlier today I posted a blog about health and fitness, which was a strong reason why I won't be fasting as my fairly strict diet takes precedent. I've also been on a long personal journey where I've been looking for guidance and help to stop feeling angry about others. It's something I've struggled with all my life, effectively drinking poison in the hope that it will hurt those I'm angry about. Guess what? It doesn't work. As I sit here now, there are situations where I would previously have seethed at those I've clashed with, gossiped about so-called rivals. No more. Maybe it's been a renewed focus, a health scare, or maybe it's something else. When you choose to look you can bear witness to the inspiring behaviour of people you least expect, people who are capable of such remarkable forgiveness and charity to those who may not deserve it. In my life too I've got the example of my wonderful mother who has reserves of love, loyalty and self-sacrifice that leave me speechless and in awe.

See you on Easter Sunday.

How I came to love the gym and probably saved my sanity

Last year I started training again. Most people my age have some longer term aspirational goal, or a health scare. Me? I just knew I needed to do something again, the scare came later.

That said, feeling persistently tired and having constant junk food cravings aren’t good. I knew that doing the mountain walks with the Freshwalks crew a few times a year, and the full circuit of Marple walk three or four times a week with the pooch, wasn’t going to battle off the middle-aged spread and reduce the chances of getting ill. The stats for sedentary males are a worry - diabetes, heart attacks, tumours, high blood pressure and depression. The comment that stuck with me was that if you can’t find the time for yourself to exercise, expect to give up time to be ill. It became one of those ambitions that I wanted something to work at, but didn't know what. I miss football like mad, but I'm too timid now to risk injury. I even asked the doctor if I was in imminent danger of damaging myself before I took the plunge. I took the bike to work, I used the Mobikes in Manchester when I could and I checked out a few activities at work, but still nothing stuck. I went swimming a few times, but the biggest thing I needed was motivation. With the best will in the world I’m not going to pull off a marathon from scratch and to be honest I just can’t get excited about running. A few years ago I had a personal trainer, Steve Hoyles, who made a big difference and helped me lose weight. Our weekly sessions were good fun, but I was missing too many due to work commitments and I wasn’t sure  what the goals were. I liked Steve’s company and his approach, but wanted something more sociable as well. My pal Will Stone told me about this converted warehouse in Stockport with a no frills approach to fitness and that Steve was doing some work out of there. So, I reached out to Steve again, though events took a slightly different turn.

Five months on I can’t even begin to describe what a difference I’ve felt. Once the introductions had been done, I joined the gym, which almost instantly changed ownership and is now run by Melanie Duffy, a personal trainer who led my first session, under the banner Body Box. There are no machines, no pools, no spa treatments. It is as back-to-basics as they come. Lots of free weights, industrial tyres to flip, medicine balls, punch bags, kettle bells, prowlers and hanging bars. In jest, I say to friends it is not so much a gym as a medieval torture chamber. And I love it.

But the real experience comes from the people I train with. We do our own bespoke workout programmes, but always finish off with a High Intensity Interval Training session. We are as eclectic a group as you could pull together. But the support in the group sessions like ‘HiiT Squad’ ‘Saturday Suicide’ and the punishing ‘Chipper’ is just phenomenal. Someone asked me last week whether I’ve lost any weight and to be honest I haven’t, but I have changed my body shape. More importantly, that's all made me feel sharper and fitter and happier. Sure, some days it hurts, after intense leg work I end up walking like John Wayne the next day, but the warm downs and stretches usually work well enough to avert too many aches. It’s costing me money to buy new trousers as I’ve dropped two waist sizes, even if my pot hasn’t quite shifted yet. I know I have a long way to go, to be as fit as I can be, but the simple act of doing the kind of exercises which were flooring me when I started is such a rush.

At the turn of the year I enjoyed my first post-Christmas sessions and felt a twinge the next day in my lower abdomen. For a day I put it down to training and thought I must have pulled something. It turned out to be much more serious and I had two days in Stepping Hill Hospital hooked up to a drip and on powerful IV anti-biotics. Hospitals are not happy places to be, the consolation that I was reasonably fit and don't drink probably saved me from sliding into a spiral of despair. It was mortifying and upsetting being visited in hospital by my family. The scan revealed no tumours, which was obviously a relief, but the medical advice I'm trying to live by was a stark reminder of the importance of good diet and, of course, proper exercise.

It’s made me more determined to enjoy the gym sessions and take my wellness a bit more seriously. I now have two clinical conditions under control and don’t want another. I was talking to my dearest friend John Dixon about it all recently. We traverse through these ages. Catching up with friends used to be about what great fun times we've been having, then we started taking work seriously, then how our kids are. Now we swap stories of our ailments. There's another age to it, that sort of runs in parallel; what we're doing about it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Why diversity matters

Pic courtesy of iNetwork and Tangerine Event Photography
Public sector leaders from across the country got together in Manchester in January to try and unlock some tricky challenges. I’d been asked to work with iNetwork, the event organisers, on an opening discussion about public service innovation that could stimulate some critical thinking.

As I’ve discovered about myself, although I can come across as quite forceful in some situations (I blame the cropped hair and the new fitness regime), my own personal style on an event stage is very much to allow the other participants to express their individual points of view in a conversational context. I won’t seek to either embarrass anyone, or aggressively press them into slipping up and I don’t ask people for comments on something that isn’t in their sphere of influence or expertise.

My function is to give the audience the best possible insights into the experiences of the interviewee. As a former journalist I’m very driven by the power of storytelling. That’s not to say anecdotes are better than evidence, but that experiences illuminate understanding.

I say all of that because the event I chaired was on the challenge of diversity. Phenomenally self conscious of the fact that I’m an educated middle-aged white man, it was nevertheless my responsibility to trigger the conversation and audience engagement around why diversity is important, not least because I believe it. I hope I avoided mansplaining, or telling anyone what’s wrong with their perspective.

Handily, the story Bury Council’s interim chief executive Pat Jones-Greenhalgh has to tell is a compelling one. From hairdresser, to care assistant, through the ranks, to be chief executive at the council where she’s devoted her life to public service. Understanding the diversity of a team and of all colleagues is crucial to maintaining a positive working culture in the fast changing world of local public services.

It’s one thing to recruit and promote individuals in order to satisfy a well-meaning diversity agenda. What I was interested in exploring was how organisations then embed behaviour and culture that takes on board characteristics that a more diverse workforce delivers, and embracing the virtues of that difference. It’s a danger that we create groups that may look very different, but all think the same.
I also wanted to consider what a workplace that embraces neurodiversity would look like and feel like and why it is important. Is there any evidence that making our workplaces more suitable for people with Autism, ADHD and other conditions, also makes public services more responsive and appropriate to a large part of the community.

There’s a project at the BBC which is exploring how to better support people with what they term 'hidden disabilities', focusing on their strengths and talents, utilising the aptitudes and abilities of individuals with neurological conditions. Much of it aims to dispel the myths, perceptions and even prejudices people may have about these conditions, especially in employment, but the bigger challenge is to shift organisational thinking from a position of compensating for a deficit and really embracing how diversity becomes an asset.

I imagine I’ll be returning to this again soon, and I do have a stake in all of this, but for now there’s a small marker. Hope that’s OK.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Brexit, how we got here and where we might end up

Day by day, I worry quite where the whole Brexit process is taking us. I'm sure I'm not alone. Not just because I work at a University, or are some kind of irrational remainer who can't accept defeat. No, even if I accept that we're leaving, I've never quite understood the interpretation that we have to torch every link with the outside world, leave the customs union and the even the single market. The world is more interconnected than ever, we can't opt out of that world even if there is some kind of mythical 'will of the people' that says we must.

Anyway, Manchester businesses and political leaders will be joining us on campus on the 21st of February for a special lunchtime lecture on Brexit featuring a leading Anglo-European civil servant, Sir Andrew Cahn, and the University's Chancellor Lord Mandelson. Entitled The Challenge of Brexit, how we got here and where we might end up, it should provide some very valuable insights, and some glimmer of hope that there are people involved in trade negotiations who know what they're doing.

Sir Andrew Cahn and Lord Mandelson faced many challenges in their time in the civil service and in government, but none quite like Brexit. After a period in industry, Sir Andrew became CEO of UK Trade & Investment. He worked closely with three successive Prime Ministers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron and served on the Boards of the Foreign Office and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. 

We're registering people from 11.45, the lecture will be an hour and you can register here. There'll be butties and nibbles afterwards.