Sunday, February 28, 2021

Mermaid's Pool by David Nolan reviewed

It dawned on me half way through The Mermaid's Pool that I was far more familiar with the universe it depicted than I first appreciated. It takes a rare skill as a storyteller to do this. Not only has David Nolan carefully and painstakingly crafted characters and a realistic backdrop, he's also planted seeds in your imagination in his first novel, Black Moss, set nearby, but with a seemingly different storyline, era and location. There are overlapping characters, but not in an overt way, not as a centrepoint, but as a landscape. Obviously part of the reason I liked the book as much as I did is because it's got bits in it that I know about and am a little bit obsessive: British fascism, Kinder Scout, rave music and local politics. So often I read books about worlds I know something of and when a vague detail isn't quite right then it ruins it for me. Again, it's a skill of a journalist and writer of David Nolan's quality that he never slips up. I trust then that the depictions of police procedure and cancer care are as well researched. All that said, the real pinnacle of Mermaid's Pool is the story. It is pacy, shocking, violent, but also very well structured. You think you've worked out plot twists, but there's always a surprise in store. Highly recommended and I can't wait for the third in this Manc Noir trilogy, The Ballad of Hanging Lees.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Review - 'Life of a Mountain: Helvellyn' by Terry Abraham

In fairly short order we were treated to the BBC showing all three of Terry Abraham's films in his series Life of a Mountain, the latest being A Year On Helvellyn. Although this is the most recent addition to his series of stunning films about the mountains of the Lake District we didn't watch them in strict order. First we watched the Scafell Pike film from 2014, then the latest one, and then last night finally completed  the trilogy with the return to BBC4 of A Year on Blencathra from 2017. I loved how all of the interviewees were so passionate and eloquent, how they seemed to be just in conversation, rather than being interviewed. That takes a particular skill. They are in no way tourist films, but are deeply respectful of the everyday lives of people in the Lake District and their relationship with all three mountains and their different characteristics. Terry has clearly got better and better as a film maker and developed a sense of what worked from the first two, so much so that I would almost militantly urge anyone who hasn't seen any of them to view them in the correct order - Scafell Pike, Blencathra, Helvellyn - and see how they reach a peak of their own. A spiritual dimension definitely populated the first two, but deeper historical and social context seeped into the Blencathra film (as well as more music), but Helvellyn had the right blend of everything (and less music).

My own relationship with the Lake District is lifelong and I love it deeply. My Mum is from there, my Grandma spent time in the sanatorium on Blencathra when she conducted TB, and I've probably had more holidays there than anywhere else. For all of that my run rate on its mountains isn't great - I've hiked up a dozen, no more. I went up Catbells and Skiddaw in October last year (not on the same day) and still feel quite emotional about how much I enjoyed doing so, and with the friends I did it with, at a time we now look back on as a false dawn, when we all felt lockdown was easing. These films have drawn me ever closer to these mountains as I'm sure they will for you too. And I think we'll do so more respectfully, more sensitively and with an enormous sense of gratitude that it is possible. Thank you Terry Abraham.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Lockdown telly and why we're really missing Saga Noren


We tend to fall head over heels for some series. The Bridge (BBC4) was definitely one of them. Having arrived at it 9 years late, and seen the conclusion just three years after everyone else, I do feel slightly foolish for not having responded to a strong recommendation from my friend Martin Carr throughout that time. I know that an obvious question will be about my own take on the depiction of Saga Noren as a rare principal character with Asperger's (though it's never described as such). My own personal response is the same as it often is about anything related to the condition, and that Sofie Helin does an incredible job as the actor playing the very well written part of Saga. She's not a type, she's unique, she's both brittle and hard as nails; impenetrable and yet lovable; vulnerable yet impervious to others. There's still much to forgive with the series, unlikely plot twists and dramatic reveals, and often ludicrously complex themed killing sprees, but though it's gruesome at times it never feels exploitative or cruel. I've only been to Copenhagen once, and don't remember it being this gloomy either, or having so many disused industrial sites where ritual murders can take place, but it is portraying a grim world, and usually in winter. It has all been quite a ride with Saga, Martin, Henrik, Hans and Lillian, and all of the complicated, messy, normal, odd and quirky characters that have formed the 38 episodes. I feel I want more and I have genuinely felt loss over the last 24 hours that I will never again see that Porsche 911 ("ahem, 911S, actually," Saga Noren would say), or hear the words: "Saga Noren Lanskrim Malmo".
For the time being I'm immersed in The Bridge fandom, here, and here. A warning though, there are spoilers.

Modern Love (Prime) - slightly quirky, but brilliantly well acted crop of New York-based single act stories. The one with Anne Hathaway utterly broke me. But mostly they were beautifully packaged, wonderful immersions.

The Serpent (BBC) - there was something creepy and unsettling about the BBC’s drama based on the true story of Charles Sobhraj; and at times it was unbearably tense just waiting for him to kill another hapless victim lured into his lair of evil. But the BBC adaptation of the true story hangs together really well and manages to pull it off with enough panache without you still feeling anything but revulsion for him and his pathetic sidekicks. Going down the rabbit hole of research on Sobhraj was quite an eye opener, the consistently excellent Andrew Anthony, who has met him twice, is particularly good in GQ here. Good use of music in the series too. 

Lupin (Netflix) - really enjoyed this stylish and slick French thriller with a deeply moral core. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Vikas Shah's new book - impressive access, delightful insights

I've known Vikas Shah for about ten years. I first noticed him as he was doing a blog where he interviewed incredible people that you wouldn't expect a textiles trader from Manchester to be accessing, never mind uploading to a very basic looking blog called Thought Economics. In that time I've seen him grow in confidence, but never diminish in either energy or ambition. I've seen him fall in love and get married, get an MBE and deliver an incredibly powerful TEDx talk. This book then marks just another milestone in his fascinating life. In it he tries to do justice to the access he's gained by virtue of his own raw audacity and package the insights gained into a useful bundle, curated under such headings as identity, culture, leadership and entrepreneurship. The interviews include Maya Angelou, Marina Abramovich, Bertie Ahern and Carlo Ancelotti. And that's just the As. 

There's a lot of insight and some remarkably candid reveals, which I won't spoil, but having gone through them all, I still found myself being genuinely more stimulated and impressed by the interpretations of those insights that Vikas himself shares. Maybe that's a bias of my own pride in what he's achieved, but I rather think he's earned the right. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The End of the Beginning

We've all crawled towards the finish line of the end of January. It feels like the 51st, never mind the 31st. It's always a bit of a grind, even in normal times, but the routine of my life has always been the happy promise of a family get together and a party for my Dad's birthday at the end of this month. This year it's been a card and a phone call, not steak and chips in the Toll House.  Like so many things, making do and staying safe is no substitute. Last week I tried to make an effort and caught up with a few good friends over the phone and Zoom and whatever else. It's not the same as breaking bread with them, or the free flowing conversation that comes from a walk on the hills, or on an awayday to the match, or just time well spent doing nothing much at all. My stock response to friendly enquiries is that I'm OK. But I worry, constantly, about how everyone is. And I find my self saying it's OK not to be OK, like I know what I'm talking about. Instead I stop and talk to this object in a field, above, that I pass on my morning walk. I don't know what it is, what it does, or why it's there. And then it speaks back to me saying pretty much the same thing of me. We seem to have been in close proximity to heartbreak and real grief recently, the net result being we hold our own ever closer, literally and metaphorically, depending on distance. I'm relieved our parents have had the vaccine, it gives us the hope that this is edging towards something better, that there will be birthday get togethers again, that we will enjoy life as it is meant to be lived. Until then we can only say what I say at the end of our radio show each week - look after each other out there. 


Friday, January 29, 2021

Upping my podcast game, an update

I said I wanted to 'up my podcast game' a couple of weeks ago. Anyway, on that theme two recordings I did this month have landed today, rather proving the point that the production, marketing, social and framing of podcasts generally has been through quite the evolution.

First up, two of my hiking friends Mitch and Richard asked me to carry on a conversation that probably started at Kinder Downfall earlier in the year, just as we came out of lockdown one. They have an amazing podcast series about the world of work and it was so good to speak with them.  

Then the Higher Education policy platform and news hub WonkHE invited me on to the WonkHE Show pick through the week's news. Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Upping the podcast game

One of my New Year resolutions is to up my podcast game. I want to do more of it, I want to get better at it, and I want to have a bit more production control over an end product. 

I'm getting some better gear to complement a top quality microphone (currently without a cable), and have got the youngest son on the case for a mixer and the best software. 

But that's enough about me. The reason is down to the absolute game changing quality of podcast output over the last year. The ones I'm involved in have got really good, so a big shout to Ian from the BRFCS podcast for nailing the tech and the production. Obviously doing a show with a proper radio station with broadcasting professionals means we have raised our game too.

Even in a global pandemic with travel restrictions, the dramatic quality of podcasts keeps getting better. My mate Macca casually asked me this week if I could recommend a few and that's focused my mind. 

Here they are:

Nonce hunting with John Sweeney (above).

Lions Led by Donkeys, history podcast from the US. The ones on the Khmer Rouge are amongst the most harrowing I've ever come across, but because of their presentation style, it's more digestable and at times it's darkly entertaining.


I recommended this about a major financial scam, but I've also blogged about it before, here. It was the story of 2019 and it's far from resolved.

A couple of deep dive investigations. One into an absolute balloon who managed to con her way around New York, and a far more sinister account of spooks, skullduggery and dark state actions in war zones and online.

So many of these music and culture nostalgia trips are absolute crap. This is actually really good. Creditable sources, captures the scene really well.


For curiosity and stimulation, no-one gets near the RSA. You'd expect the son of Laurie Taylor to be a good broadcaster, but Matthew Taylor is a peerless public intellectual.

Finally, there's Matt Forde. You know I'm a fan so I'm not going to miss him off a list of great podcasts.