Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 in review

Here is my review of 2011 based on the most frequently used labels. It reads like it was quite a poor one to be honest, but it doesn't reflect what I feel. MediaCity has opened, I've become a school governor and joined a board of my old University. I've been to Northern Ireland for the first time, I took Rachel to Rome, and visited the Isle of Man and London a few times. There have been big changes in my working life, big developments with the kids, achievements and firsts as well as challenges, but on the whole our life is a happy one.

Blackburn Rovers - the downward spiral feels like it is running out of control. In every way 2011 has been one of the worst years in the history of the club.

Marple - the biggest issue locally has been the prospect of Asda putting in a planning application for the college site on Hibbert Lane and the council urging Waitrose to develop in the centre. More local shops have closed, more chains are creeping in. Marple is fighting the tide stronger than other places, but it is a hard road.

Book review in a lift - Finally got round to reading Any Human Heart by William Boyd, which was my favourite novel of the year, but my favourite factual book was probably Harold Evans' memoir.

Food - If you ask the kids they rave about Red Hot Buffet. We liked the Grill on New York Street. Still disappointed by Manchester's so-called fine dining establishments.

Politics - Cameron is at his best when he is bold - he has done well enough over Libya and on Europe, and he has seen his Chancellor win the argument over the need to cut the public sector. Many in the party are now urging an election in 2012. It would be a gamble, but he'd probably get a majority. I think he's still got more to do to change the party and needs the Clegg to do more for him.

Commuting - It's been generally OK, but when it's bad, it's very, very bad. But Rose Hill is a nicer station while Marple is to get more improvements.Telly - This was the year we discovered Inbetweeners. Old favourite Spooks finished, which was probably necessary. Enjoyed Shadow Line on DVD boxed set.

Blogging - Kept it up, discovered that linking to Twitter is the biggest driver of traffic. Blog posts about Rovers are still the most popular stories, with an astonishing hit rate for the post about the Steve Kean hatred and tears for Gary Speed.

Music - I did a fair few concerts this year with a wide range - the Halle, the BBC Phil, Take That, I Am Kloot, The Specials, Elbow and Sinead O'Connor. Edited playlists avidly to a top 100.

Friends - this has been a tough year. Losing Tim Edwards and Uncle Pete have clouded everything. If they are to mean anything, it has really made me appreciate those I love dearly. Life is precious.

Film: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

We were lucky enough to get another rare night out this week and so headed for the Cornerhouse in Manchester to see this film.

We must be the only people who haven't read the Stieg Larsson books, but can safely say the film was a rollicking good thriller. An interesting range of characters - notably Lisbeth - but also a compelling cast, working faithfully to the exciting plot. Very stylish too.

Today I was the "I like trains" kid

In that strange period between Christmas and New Year one is often tempted to do strange and new things. Today I joined less than a dozen other men and one woman in travelling on our local ghost train, the 09:22 from Stockport to Stalybridge. This is a weekly service, yes weekly, and is the only train that stops at the otherwise defunct and deserted stations at Reddish South and Denton.

I was ready to categorise my fellow travellers as trainspotters or rail enthusiasts, (you know the cliche's - not a wedding ring amongst them) - but detected just a few curious blokes looking to check out something they'd heard about on Radio 4 recently, or had read this lively piece by Michael Williams in The Independent.

The train edges out of Stockport heading north, turning right (very slowly) at Heaton Norris junction and snaking through towards Reddish and then Denton on a single track. I'll be thinking of this underused line the next time I sit in traffic on the A57 as people from Denton drive to Manchester as a commuter service to the city hasn't proved to be within the wit of any rail planners. Both stations are just grey platforms served by this train. Presumably the cost of decommissioning them is greater financially and politically than keeping them notionally open. Andrew Gwynne MP mentions it here.

Top blogger Stuart Vallantine alerted me to the service when he blogged here about the service when it used to run on Saturday, which may have made some kind of sense. Now it just runs on a Friday and arrives in Stalybridge before the legendary buffet bar has even opened, but in time to get back on a crowded train to Manchester Victoria within minutes. There being nothing to keep me in Stalybridge at this time of day I opted for this and then hiked back across Manchester to Piccadilly.

This is one of the so-called Parliamentary trains - a route that is kept open for unclear motives, either political or for more Kafkaesque bureaucratic reasons. Maybe there lies the possibility of doing more with the line and these stations in the future, but for now the train operating company keeps this rather pointless service going.

My kids just laughed when they found out what I'd done and kept singing this mildly irritating song called "I like trains" at me. Apparently it's some kind of YouTube sensation.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tintin movie - a reminder of how good Herge was

I was disappointed by the Tintin movie. The overblown CGI, the fights with cranes, the chase down the mountainside were all modern additions and a concession to young audiences who crave such action. That is as maybe, but the Tintin stories have been so enduring for their realism and low tech drama. Yet all that was good about the film was all that Herge created - realism, subtle touches, kind characters and stories with multiple layers. If the next film is to be Tintin's moon adventure (realism, yes, I know), then hopefully there will be enough of the personal drama to sustain a modern sci-fi kids film. But I doubt it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Where did we go on that big black night?

We don't get out much. But park that thought for a moment. For one reason and another I've found a song trapped in my head like an ear worm for the last two weeks, it's not particularly new either. It's I Am Kloot's Northern Skies, from their Mercury Music Prize shortlisted album The Sky At Night - here's the video too, which is pretty good as well.

I was delighted then to discover that vocalist John Bramwell was performing on Sunday at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. We went along and massively enjoyed a posh concert experience. He was sort of supporting a folk singer called Thea Gilmour who is touring with her band. Now, she was brilliant too. But I found myself drawn to the tragi-drama and warmth of John Bramwell. From the moment he walked on with glasses of wine and beer in one hand, guitar in the other, he struck a chord as a fundamentally honest performer. His guitar playing was incredible too - filling the strange space of the in-the-round theatre with a wide range of often complex notes and chords.

He didn't even play Northern Skies, but that didn't matter. His voice, a lush, throaty Mancunian mix - part Richard Hawley and even Glen Campbell, brings to life these amazing songs, these authentic tales of a life lived. More than once he said the song was about "drinking, and disaster". I Am Kloot have never made it big, they probably won't, but I'm pleased they've got recognition, support and a loyal following. But you find yourself in that awkward position of wanting them to accelerate alongside Elbow's slipstream and carry on with these songs that have been produced painfully and carefully amidst a backdrop of fighting demons. You don't do that kind of work from a mansion in Oxfordshire. You may do a different kind of good work, but it's not this. The new album is out in 2012, sometime.

Link: I Am Kloot.

We want our Rovers back

I can't bear to go to Ewood Park any more. So I apologise for pontificating from the comfort of my home 35 miles away as passionate fans protest outside the ground. I simply don't want my children subjected to a hostile and poisonous atmosphere. My love for football has seriously waned anyway, but what Venky's are doing to Blackburn Rovers is nothing short of disgraceful. I always feared that new foreign owners could clumsily make poorly thought through decisions, but these clowns haven't got a single decision right. Not one. Even if they sacrifice their appointed manager tonight or tomorrow, it won't matter. I have always said he wasn't the whole problem. They are.

We had something special for a while. We could have even have kept something special too. In this scenario we may even have seen the club getting relegated eventually, but as I sit here brooding over tonight's loss to Bolton I feel acute pain because it's worse than just being bottom at Christmas. Something else has gone.

Why didn't we, as a group of fans, have the balls to say to the Walkers and to Rothschild, we'll take it off your hands and run it as a mutual trust? There's enough good people with skills and connections to have made it work at some level for the long term. All we have now is decline.

But it would at least have been our Rovers and not the plaything of mysterious foreign owners being manipulated by shady agents.Why, oh why, has this happened?

This is what Venky's should do now. They should turn round to the protesting fans, and to John Williams, and to Tom Finn, to Ian Battersby, Ian Currie, Wayne Wild and Roger Devlin and say, "Sorry, we just didn't understand English football. We cocked up. Have your club back. We're sorry."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, an appreciation

This is a bit of a rehash of a book review I did of Hitch 22, the memoir of Christopher Hitchens, who has died.

Christopher Hitchens was a profound and prolific writer for whom I had a consistent and enormous regard. His features in Vanity Fair were always the best thing in that impressive magazine. He intentionally and deliberately got up people's noses, so, when you agreed with him, such as over his storming book on the Clintons, No-one Left to Lie To, you cheered at his searing wit, his savage pen and his withering turn of phrase. When you disagree, as I do over his outright dismissal of anyone of faith anywhere, I just thought he came across as oafish. Even more bizarrely, though I find less to agree with his brother Peter Hitchens about, I find his civility more endearing.

Hitch's stance on Iraq was the one issue he became the most notorious for. I supported the case for regime change in 2003, even though the WMD issue was the one used here in the UK, and Hitchens provided ballast for an argument that became almost unarguable through the so-called "insurgency" and throughout the horror that Iraq became. Yet, he did this well, he's a closer observer and a longer chronicler of Iraq than most and predicted a horrific collapse of Iraqi society, post-Saddam Hussein and his murderous sons, with or without an invasion. Where Hitchens was at his best was in his journalism, such as when he told the story of Mark Jennings Daily, a young American who enlisted in the army and died in Iraq after being convinced of the nobility of service by Hitchens' writings. This was heavy grown-up stuff. Proper choking accounts of a proud family deep in grief, but accepting into their home the man who so inspired their son to fight and die.

There are some wonderful tributes today. This from Norman Geras, and this from Ian McEwan. But the best of all is this from his brother Peter.

Sunday addition: Christopher Buckley in the New Yorker.

On the theme of death, which has concerned me lately, I liked this line from Peter: "Much of civilisation rests on the proper response to death, simple unalloyed kindness, the desire to show sympathy for irrecoverable loss, the understanding that a unique and irreplaceable something has been lost to us. If we ceased to care, we wouldn’t be properly human."

I hope Christopher is being pleasantly surprised right now.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Celebrating Christmas

Those slightly hysterical stories that scream - "political correctness gone mad" - usually make me think the writer is actually enjoying stirring up a bit of indignation. Offence is taken even when it is not intended. The reader's prejudices are then fulfilled, and everyone feels validated that the world has truly gone mad. More often than not there is a wilful misunderstanding at the heart.

I had to stop and look at this press release I got recently for that very reason. To put it in context, it's from an employment consultancy and they want to "warn" or "safeguard" or maybe "scare" employers about what to do at this time of year.

Here is the first of four questions in full.

"Can we still refer to 'Christmas' or should we use a generic term such as 'festive season'?"

That's a fair question and probably representative of the kind of paranoid paralysed management thinking that the HR industry thrives on.

Here is the answer they gave.

“This question is still up for debate but employers should avoid fostering a working environment in which employees feel that the term ‘Christmas’ is forced on them. In the same way that Christmas may continue to be celebrated by Christians, other religious celebrations throughout the year should also be able to retain their identity. For example, Muslim employees should not be discouraged from celebrating Ramadan, or Jewish employees from celebrating Hanukkah. As long as various religions and beliefs are considered and accounted for, employers do not need to refrain from using the term 'Christmas'.”

I think that is absolutely disgraceful advice. The question is not "up for debate" at all. It is Christmas.

Please advise me as I think I may have missed a subtle hidden meaning here. This national celebration, throughout the world, has deep significance. As for forcing it upon anyone, then it is simply not up for debate whether this country, a Christian country, a tolerant Christian country, celebrates a public holiday called Christmas Day. There isn't even a reason to justify celebrating the gift that God gave us at this time of year. Or even creeping secularisation. No, the question appears to be even more crass than that. Who can deny the existence of Christmas? And really, who is actually offended by the celebration of Christmas? No-one. The last thing people of other faiths want to do is quash the main festival at the centre of the Christian faith.

As I tried to think through the rising anger, I slowly came to the conclusion that it was me that was missing the point. There's no debate. There really isn't, but the company pimping such nonsense want to have one. If me and other gullible media are dumb enough to react then here they are, proclaiming honest broker status, in order to arbitrate at the centre of a row they themselves are at the centre of. This is just PR spin for an industry peddling fear. And for that reason I'm not going to dignify the sender or the client with a name check.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Quick video about social media

Social media, some rules

It's surprising to think that there are rules to social media, given how fast moving and new it all is. But I think the etiquette of it is a personal thing. Here are a few of my rules, let me know if I've called it wrong.

I only block real nutters on Twitter, the spirit of it to me is it should be open and free.
I know you're not meant to take stats seriously, but I'm very pleased to have broken the 2000 followers barrier.
I don't follow everyone back, and 800 or so is rather unmanageable.
I try and thank, or talk back with, anyone who mentions or responds.
If I'm not following someone who makes the effort to converse, then I follow back.
When I ReTweet something I source the person who did it first.
I don't do mass #ff follow Friday things. I tend to state a reason and single someone out.
I use Twitter to link to my blog.
My Twitter is more about the me beyond work, it's not about my job and what the business is doing.
I also use it a source of research as well as reading all the nonsense.
I don't abuse people. Except during Question Time. If I have, I've regretted it.
I try not to be too intensely personal about family life, but I do enjoy doing the Saturday morning plan - hat tip @adventurebaby.
Be honest, be loyal, be kind.

This is much more businesslike and is about very much about work stuff.
I don't accept requests from anyone who says they are a "friend" but aren't. That's cheating.
I tend not to accept requests from anyone who I've never heard of, but if they've taken the time to introduce themselves beyond the standard LinkedIn message, then I do.
I don't like the standard LinkedIn request, I prefer it when people personalise.
I don't feed my Twitter through LinkedIn. It's not always appropriate.
I comment in groups, but not enough. Who reads them?
Be honest, be loyal, be kind.

Google +
I haven't made my mind up about this, but the same rules as LinkedIn should apply, I think.

This blog is about everything I'm interested in beyond work, so I don't blog about anything work related. That can be tricky as I'm a journalist and I write about business at a time when business and finance is the biggest story of the modern era.
I use all these other tools to promote this site. Hence the Twitter name.
I'm not hooked on stats, if I was I'd blog about the news and football all the time.
The most read story on this blog was about the abuse of Steve Kean and the thin veneer of humanity that followed Gary Speed's death.
Be honest, be loyal, be kind.

I think Facebook is the devil. I really don't like it.
I have edited it right down to close friends, friends abroad and family.
I think it's hidden from general view.
I pretty much use it as a photo sharing service and hold back from the sharing of nonsense.
I don't join groups or sign petitions.
The kids are all obsessed with getting on Facebook, but none of them are old enough to. So they can't.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

A big list of my 100 favourite songs

When I get the Rose Hill rattler home on a wet night in winter, the last thing I want for company is a random selection of new music to try and get into. No, I want the familiar comfort blanket of what I know I like. In a very male and very anoraky way I have compiled a list of my 100 top songs. To make the editing easier - and there is also a top 1000, a top 500, a top 250 and a top 150 - I've restricted each artist to one track each and bent the rules with the New Order and Moby thing. But there's more to this list than just 100 songs I like; each one has a particular memory. At least three throw up cherished emotions about friends who've died, many others evoke memories of special times and places. I'm slightly embarrassed that the list is overwhelmingly white and very male biased, but I think the span and range is pretty varied. Given all of these, if you have any suggestions for new stuff that you think I might like, let me know - maybe have a go yourself.

The Winner Takes It All, ABBA
Blaze Of Glory, The Alarm
Somewhere In My Heart, Aztec Camera
Ticket To Ride, The Beatles
One Last Love Song, The Beautiful South
The Day Before You Came, Blancmange
Union City Blue, Blondie
Tinseltown In The Rain, The Blue Nile
Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen
Nobody Does It Better, Carly Simon
Close To You, The Carpenters
Father and Son, Cat Stevens
The British Way of Life, The Chords
(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, The Clash
Let's Go Out Tonight, Craig Armstrong
Bloody Revolutions, Crass
Weather With You, Crowded House
Life On Mars? David Bowie
Dignity, Deacon Blue
California Über Alles, Dead Kennedys
Little Ole Wine Drinker Me, Dean Martin
I Touch Myself, Divinyls
MacArthur Park, Donna Summer
One Day Like This, Elbow
Getting Away With It, Electronic
Stan (Featuring Dido), Eminem & Dido
Paid in Full, Eric B. & Rakim
Love See No Colour, The Farm
Do You Realize?? The Flaming Lips
The Message, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron
It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry, Glasvegas
November Rain, Guns N' Roses
Silver Machine, Hawkwind
When You're Young, The Jam
Tomorrow, James
Hallelujah,  Jeff Buckley
Annie's Song, John Denver
Ring Of Fire, Johnny Cash
Atmosphere, Joy Division
It's Grim Up North, The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu (KLF)
Sunny Afternoon, The Kinks
Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin
The Life Of Riley, The Lightning Seeds
Aria [with Michael Gambon - Layer Cake speech] Lisa Gerrard
All Woman, Lisa Stansfield
Idiot Child, Madness
Motorcycle Emptiness, Manic Street Preachers
What's Going On, Marvin Gaye
Anchorage, Michelle Shocked
Extreme Ways, Moby
Irish Blood, English Heart, Morrissey
Express Yourself, N.W.A.
True Faith , New Order
New Dawn Fades, New Order Feat. Moby,
Time Of No Reply, Nick Drake
Don't Speak, No Doubt
Don't Look Back in Anger, Oasis
If You Leave, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Being Boring, Pet Shop Boys
She Said, Plan B
Cruel, Prefab Sprout
Purple Rain, Prince & The Revolution
Pretty In Pink, The Psychedelic Furs
Common People, Pulp
Losing My Religion, R.E.M.
Fake Plastic Trees, Radiohead
Orange, Richard Lumsden
Please Read The Letter, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Gimme Shelter, Rolling Stones
More Than This, Roxy Music
In Dreams, Roy Orbison
The Spirit Of Radio, Rush
Run, Baby, Run, Sheryl Crow
Nothing Compares 2 U, Sinéad O'Connor
Itchycoo Park, The Small Faces
How Soon Is Now, The Smiths
I Got You Babe, Sonny and Cher
Ghost Town, The Specials
Up The Junction, Squeeze
Suspect Device, Stiff Little Fingers
I Am The Resurrection, The Stone Roses
Alright, Supergrass
Give A Little Bit, Supertramp
It's My Life, Talk Talk
Reward, The Teardrop Explodes
Heartland, The The
The Boys Are Back In Town, Thin Lizzy
Song to the Siren, This Mortal Coil
I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone,Tom Jones With James Dean Bradfield
Funky Cold Medina, Tone-Loc
Wide Open Road, The Triffids
Bitter Sweet Symphony, The Verve
Story of the Blues, Wah
And A Bang On The Ear, The Waterboys
Baba O'Riley, The Who

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Mike Garry - poet, teacher, hero

I've linked before to Mike Garry's emotional and powerful writing. Well, this account of his encounter with an apparently suicidal man on a bridge is spellbinding. What a hero.

Manchester's finest?

Last week I was with a bunch of friends and we had a guest with us from out of town. She's a big hitter with a big global brand. Obviously we wanted to go to a good restaurant with a lively atmosphere that shows off our home city of Manchester in a good light.

Once again I found myself wincing at the toe-curling provincialism of what passes for restaurant culture in our aspirant city. There was a crooner belting out songs as we arrived - he was OK, but I'm not sure it's necessary. We then waited at the bar for ages. When we got our booked table for 8, it was a round table and a square table pushed together. The service was either in-your-face intrusive, or utterly negligent. I had a tray of drinks spilled down my back - but, hey, accidents happen. The food was of variable quality, some was excellent, while one of our gang just barely touched her salty mush. Mine was alright. Overall though, the portions were just far too big, which sort of summed the place up - flash and brash for the sake of it. The worst thing was the way the waiters brought the food to the table and just shouted the name of the dish and tried to dump it in front of whoever they managed to make eye contact with. They had no idea who ordered what. Basic waiting skills require you know this. It's just good manners. To just pile it all on the table is what I expect at the Star of India in Nelson at 11pm on a Friday, but not somewhere that purports to offer a fine dining experience. In fact, I only  have good memories of that curry house, but you take my point and they didn't take a fraction of the bill here.

And the restaurant? Go on, have a guess.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

On Jeremy Clarkson

Frankly there have been quite ludicrous flights of indignation over Jeremy Clarkson's comments on the One Show that public sector strikers should be shot.

Most people had made their minds up already, probably before they'd heard what he had to say. It struck me as an opportunity for anyone who doesn't like him to say - "ha, there you go". Equally, some responses in his defence brought up comedians who wished death on Margaret Thatcher. Yebbut, he said, she said, yebbut, yebbutt.

If you took every utterance of a celebrity pundit, journalist or comedian as seriously as those of a serious figure in public life then you'd never stop.

I found myself agreeing with a comedian called Dave Gorman. He posted a blog entitled "Jeremy Clarkson should be lined up and shot". Many commenters didn't get past the headline, but you should, especially for the Bill Hicks references and clips.

Here's the essence: "Because if you really think that you and I are entitled to live in a world without offence, then you have to concede that everyone else is equally entitled to the same. And that means that all the jokes you like but they don't will have to go too."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Canal Street Gothic

My dear friend David Thame, one of the finest business writers in the western world, is touting a sweet little book, created in the handful of waking moments he has spare from writing about industrial units in Staffordshire. It's raising funds for Albert Kennedy Trust, who do very sensible things for young gay homeless people in the big cities. It's called Canal Street Gothic, after the celebrated Manchester party street.

It's been very sweetly reviewed - funny,  touching, "very northern" etc - I haven't bought it yet, but will. David says he hopes it gives pleasure as well as helping with the money. You can find it on Amazon here. It's also in most sensible bookshops, and all the other online retailers. Selling quite nicely so far.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fenton, Fenton, Martha!

The kids have roared with laughter at the viral video of a poor bloke chasing his dog across Richmond Park as it attempts to herd deer. The reason they like it is it reminds them of me in the Lake District this summer chasing our pooch down the road as she was in hot pursuit of sheep in and out of cars and with me shouting. I wasn't laughing at the time, but nor did I take the Lord's name in vain. Amen.

Picture, left, drawn on the day by Matt.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My mates #16 - Ian and Andrea Wolfendale

I've long maintained that the secret of happiness is spending time with the people you love. Well, this week has been a pretty bloody brilliant week because I've just been bowled over by the love of good friends at every turn.

I'll come on to all of that over the next few weeks and months, but today I wanted to pay tribute to two of my dearest friends Ian Wolfendale and Andrea Jenkins, who have just got married. This is a series where I randomly select someone I know and do a quick blog about how I know them, how we met and what I like about them. It's difficult to know where to start with these two.

Wolfie and Andrea and I work together. Andrea is in Insider's events team and Wolfie works in business development. They both have a calm, measured and patient manner about them. They are both very good with people and really excellent at seeing things from everyone else's perspective.

All over the country I meet people in banks, law firms and corporate finance companies who deal with Wolfie. I have to say I've never seen a client base with such respect and affection for someone who seeks to take money from them. But Wolfie listens and understands what they need. We have been to Belfast together a few times this year and you see the efforts there of a man who has introduced people to each other which could quite literally transform lives.

Similarly, I rarely see event organisers get thanked from the stage. I'm as guilty of taking them for granted as anyone, but Andrea has achieved that many times when she's worked in partnerships with people who can be difficult to please.

They also live locally - Mellor - and we get the train together sometimes, sharing our gripes about the shoddy service from Northern Rail / Northern Fail. We have also all been involved in the Marple Food Festival's Samuel Oldknow Pie Competition where Andrea gets to take notes while me and Ian eat pies. Bliss.

On a personal level, I will never forget how Wolfie was there for me when I was at my lowest ever ebb. It seems an age away now, but he took me in, put his arm around me and in his no nonsense way just helped me focus and get on with my life. In particular, he made me dispense with self pity and sentiment.

They got married in New York, but had the reception in New Mills. I can think of no better metaphor for the pair of them than that. The party was brilliant - a delightful and eclectic gathering of interesting and kind people - a fact that makes me think of no better tribute to them both. There were lovely speeches from best man Howard Thorp and from the father of the bride, Russ Jenkins. But the star for me was Wolfie when he announced they were very like Charles and Diana. Oh yes. There are three people in their marriage, he announced. And then revealed that ever present presence in their life - the entertainment: Elvis! Out popped the King himself! Rock and Roll.

To Andrea and Ian - may your love always be tender.

What if it had been Steve Kean instead of Gary Speed?

The most uncomfortable aspect of the current protests at Blackburn Rovers is the deepy personal nature of the attacks on Steve Kean. I was talking to David Conn about this recently. We both commented on the affect this must all be having on the mental state of a man who is the object of so much targetted hatred. We concluded that he will probably have some kind of breakdown eventually. Either when he is finally sacked, or if he just combusts and quits. Yesterday at Stoke he had to be escorted to the tunnel by two burly minders, as the swelling of anger in the away end was so ferocious.

On social media sites and on the messageboards you see the ludicrous and overblown exposition of hysteria boiling over into all kind of violent talk. I'm sure it's just that - talk - but it has highlighted a massive loss of perspective. At the heart of all of this is a man trying to manage a football team. He might be out of his depth, he may also be getting rather well paid for it, but it is just a game of football. I see this everywhere at the moment and it depresses me. I see it when a 12 year old boy writhes on the floor and opposing parents and coaches trade insults over the fairness of the challenge. It's just a game, guys, get a grip.

Anyone connected with football today is trying to make sense of the apparent suicide of Gary Speed. The eulogies to him have been forthright and coloured with a massive sense of shock. I share them. He always seemed to be a man who had it all. Thoughts from everywhere are with his wife and family. "It puts life into perspective," is one comment that keeps coming back, yet it will soon be forgotten.

What would people be saying today if it was Steve Kean who had been found dead? Seriously, before you burn an effigy, wave a banner with his face on it, or scream that you wish something unpleasant upon him, just think that there's a human being at the centre of all of this. And it is just a game.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Commercial chaos - the Venky's and Rovers

When Crown Paints ended their sponsorship of Blackburn Rovers, the efforts that went into finding a new shirt sponsor were laughable. The club ended up donating the sponsorship to a charity - a very good charity as it happens - but it was yet another example of a lack of direction under Venky's.

Commercially, Rovers start from a low base. With cheap seat prices, income from the box office is low and sponsorship options look even more limited. As this excellent piece on The Swiss Ramble points out the trick Rovers have to play, year in year out, is through player trading. Selling players on at a profit. That needs infrastructure and football people who know what they're doing. Sadly, Tom Finn and John Williams have gone. Venky's are now advised by an agent who thinks it's a good idea to go on TalkSport and brag about a deal where the selling club, Barcelona, were fleeced when Rovers signed Ruben Rochina. Nice one Jerome.

So, given that the club only has one main sponsor these days - what efforts do you think the owners have made to keep that company, WEC, onside?

I'll tell you. Nothing.

Here's Wayne Wild, one of the directors, speaking out in the Lancashire Telegraph this week.

"Blackburn Rovers Football Club is the heart and soul of the town. It has been for ever and certainly since they were in the Premier League. It creates employment for the town, the indirect business of people travelling to the games, and the sponsorship. I just feel if I can’t get a reply - as the only paying corporate sponsor - that underlines the frustrations that general supporters are having, because there is no direct contact. We do not feel valued. As well as the business side I have offered to mediate between the fans and the owners. I feel there is a growing gap between the two. Maybe if they could talk to me, I could relay that message to the fans."

I've met Wayne a few times and I really rate him. I'd go so far as to say he's just the type of forward thinking but feet on the ground business person they ought to have on the board. Obviously the Rao family have their own people as directors and they've made overtures to another couple of good lads - Ian Currie and Ian Battersby, even flying them over to India. But ask yourself, seriously, would you want to be a bridge to these people? I know I wouldn't.

Elbow at the Little Noise Sessions

Saw a rousing performance from Elbow last night at the Little Noise Sessions for Mencap. They were playing at St John in Hackney, just around the corner from the hospital where my eldest son was born.

You don't need me to blather on any more about how good Elbow are, so I'll mention the venue - it was awesome. It required a more basic and industrial sound from the band to start with, but they grew into the surroundings and filled the space with their subtle sounds.

As an experience, it was truly immense. A very different performance from the last one I saw in 2009, but I just adore the simplicity of their songs and the warm stagecraft that Guy Garvey deploys. Hey, they may have been using backing tracks on a few numbers, including on THAT one. But they remain my favourites.

There's a good review here.

Getting down with the kids

Every now and again we all get asked to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you just think - "nah" and make your excuses. Yet a few months ago I was asked by a friend if I'd help one of her friends and speak to some kids at a school in Partington, to the west of Manchester.

Time passed and we had a couple of chats, but eventually we settled on a time and I had a clearer idea about what the kids would get out of me coming to their classroom for a couple of hours.

I have to say it was one of the most exciting and rewarding days I've had. They were a tremendous group of enthusiastic children. We started talking about the news media, but by the end I was asking them how they share ideas and news and how they connect with people. There were social networks and sharing services they referred to that I'd never heard of. Their confidence with technology was boundless.

But it was also fascinating to get them thinking about employment and the jobs market. I've blogged before (here) on the importance of small businesses, sole traders and the self employed. I told the kids the story of how working with my Dad from the age of 13 taught me so many of the skills that have been important throughout my working life - namely; talking to customers, going out of your way to help people and smiling often. None of it costs anything and it's good for business.

I tried to get the kids to think a bit about their world and their aspirations - nothing grand, but to think about how they can apply all their love of technology and their particular passions into what they want to do. I've suggested they hook up with Young Enterprise and get a tour round the awesome new Salford University facility at MediaCity.

Anyway, to end the session we had a bit of a singalong. I'll try and upload the video soon, but above, left is a picture of me and the kids of Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School throwing those curtains wide. One day like this a year will see me right.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The glory of grief

There is nothing glorious about death, of course. But I've been thinking this week about the power of intense and sustained personal grief. This year has been tough in that regard - I lost my dear friend Tim Edwards. Even thinking about him now I'm welling up.

In March we also lost my Dad's "little brother" Pete, who at 6 foot 7 was a giant in one very obvious way, but also a large and loving presence in the lives of everyone he touched. Pete was only 52 and left a wife Sue and two wonderful kids Danny and Jenn who are the greatest permanent memorial to a proper bloke who extolled such a love of life and a terrific sense of humour. There was a big gap at my sister's wedding party recently where Pete should have been. I thought today how much a throwaway joke about Liverpool player Andy Carroll would have been right up Pete's street.

This powerful feeling, this strong emotional wrench we experience is the ultimate tribute to a life lived. The packed services for both men were a mark of how loved they were and how many people had such varied and cherished memories. There's a bible reference that comes to mind - "blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted". But there's also the celebration and love of a person who has died, but who created so much good, so much love and so much emotion. 

I have difficulty explaining exactly what I feel here, but I was once again moved this week reading the eulogy Alastair Campbell paid to his friend Philip Gould by way of a letter to a man who was weakening and fading. His was a slow and expected death, while Tim and Pete both died suddenly - which shocked everyone concerned to their core. It also denied so many the chance to show how loved they were, but you hope, in fact you know, they surely were aware of it. Grief, as Alastair's piece says, is the price we pay for love. A quote from the Queen.

There's a link to it in full here, and I would encourage you to read it, whatever you think of AC. But I would like to take the last bit for Pete and his family and for how I feel about Tim: "More, I’ll miss your always being on hand to help me think something through, large or small. But what I will miss more than anything is the life force, the big voice. You have made our lives so much better. You are part of our lives and you will be forever. Because in my life, Philip, you were a bigger force than the death which is about to take you."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gary Aspden in conversation

The thick end of two hours, he spoke for. Just him, a chair, a table, some slides. And I was gripped. OK, 1980s street fashion, a Lancashire upbringing, raves and trainers may not be your thing, but they are all as part of me as my DNA. And Gary Aspden's too. For the Creative Lancashire Lecture, he told his life story - he didn't gloss over the lows, and he beamed at his high spots - Mount Fuji with Shaun Ryder, at the World Cup Final with Noel Gallagher, creating the costume for David Beckham for the 2002 Commonweath Games - but the best thing was, he kept connecting it all back to Darwen, Lancashire, where he grew up.

It was a masterful exercise in story telling and I could have listened to him all night, so too, I suspect were the sell out audience at the Continental in Preston, a cracking venue.

I also had a chat to Gary beforehand and he's happy for me to use his words and stories. It will form part of a book I'm currently working on. Watch this space.

Hat tip: Creative Lancashire, the D&AD and The Continental.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

BBC - My Autism and Me

This amazing and inspiring film was shown on BBC Newsround last week. The You Tube link seems to have vanished, but the link to the BBC site is here. There is so much misunderstanding about autism and how to live with the condition. I've read a fair amount about it, but these real people really explain it better. I'd appreciate any other links.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The application of Original Modern

I had the pleasure of interviewing the archly fashionable Nick Johnson from Urban Splash last week. He's also the chairman of Marketing Manchester, the tourist board in old money. He told a good tale of how he took the themes of his university dissertation - urban living - and explained how that then inspired him to work with Jim Ramsbottom on Castlefield, and then with Tom Bloxham at Urban Splash.

In the aftermath of the IRA bomb in 1996 the city's marketing response was deemed pretty crap - "we're up and going" - to which the reaction was "you cannot be serious". Out of that reaction came a stroppy group that met at Johnson's bar - Atlas - and said "enough". They called themselves the McEnroe Group and have since gone on to form part of the ruling class in the city: Colin Sinclair, Bloxham, Johnson, Andy Spinoza, Eliot Rashman, the late Tony Wilson was around them too. Their adoption of the ideas of urban geographer Richard Florida - who's work, The Rise of the Creative Class - inspired the decision to hire Peter Saville as the City's first creative director.

So, we covered all of that. Nick also revealed that Saville was cheaper than the others but was hired because he was prepared to challenge established wisdom. And he still does, to be fair. It was Saville's initial articulation of the "brand values" of "original modern" that Johnson described as an "economic development strategy".

Anyway, Nigel Sarbutts, who was in the audience for the interview, says he wasn't happy that the city adequately applies or articulates the aspiration. Well, maybe he didn't say exactly that. What he did say is here. "Ultimately Original Modern is an idea in search of substance. It is a hollow slogan and the truth of its weakness is that it was overshadowed overnight in August by a thousand flyers in shop windows, reproducing a logo copied from New York circa 1975."

I feel slightly glum reading that. Not because he's wrong, but because that last bit about the August response, as I said here, is so true. It doesn't detract however from how a big idea like original modern has been reduced to what it was never intended to be. There has always been a danger that Manchester gets carried away - but for me, there is much of modernity and originality abounding. It's time to proclaim it.

There are also plenty of forums where new ideas and new explorations of what the city has and what more can be discovered about Manchester are taking place. There is a thirst for knowledge and ideas beyond our narrow immediate concerns. I picked this up at the recent Science Festival, at the Cockford Rutherford Lecture and through some of the awesome offerings at Manchester's own Literature Festival and this weekend at the Salford University "Believe" day. And then there are the things I haven't had time to see - like Dave Haslam's interviews and conversations.

Someone like Nick Johnson can't have all the answers all the time. He's got a day job as well as a brief to keep the tourist board lively, motivated and on top of the city's assets to tell great stories. But it was a stimulating experience and hopefully useful for those that gave up their lunch hour to attend.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A long shot - latest plot turn at Blackburn Rovers

If you hit a golf ball just a few millimetres away from the sweet spot, by the time the ball lands it will be several metres, if not a hundred metres away from the intended target. That is the most generous way I could describe the way the Venky's organisation have tried and failed in their ownership of Blackburn Rovers. Whatever is the good intention of any of their actions from the comfort of Pune, by the time that command takes effect back in Blackburn, it is horribly way off.

Throughout all the Anti-Steve Kean protests I haven't wavered in my view - he is not a good manager, he isn't the right manager and I don't like him. But he is a symptom of the problem, the owners and their advisers (SEM, Kean's agents) are the problem. They have a strategy for using a Premier League club to promote their brand in India - they have impressive plans to open stores in India and really crank up the promotion of Rovers in and around Pune. The plans for a training complex out in their home town also sound like great sense. What they don't have is a strategy in Blackburn. There may have been good reasons for getting rid of Sam Allardyce - the football was grim, they wanted to aim beyond that negative cynicism. That reluctance by the backroom management team to fire the bullets may in turn have led to the owners feeling they weren't supported - so they slowly dismantled a whole tier of management, probably on the advice of Jerome Anderson.

In every possible way you look at it, their ownership has been a disaster.

But though I viscerally dislike the way so many of these foreign owners have behaved in English football, I suspect Venky's are honest and naive, rather than bent. They don't form part of the international jetset who are plundering a national treasury. Much as football has never been a particularly clean industry, the foreign owners who have raped West Ham and Portsmouth, and their pals who hawk others around the bars of Bangkok, leave a vile taste in my mouth.

But even of the successful foreign owners ask of each one - what is in it for them? The Glazers will make a hefty return on the ownership of Manchester United. Roman Abramovich got a public profile and a home in a western country with property rights and the rule of law. The Abu Dhabi people have such wealth that they can expect to bring their country to international prominence through a successful Manchester City. It makes my blood boil when I hear callers to 606 begging for an oligarch to buy their club in order to compete in this league. I have admiration for Arsenal in staying sustainable through this period and hoping UEFA's financial fair play rules will validate their approach by the time Manchester City are only able to spend what they earn.

So what of Venky's and Rovers? Let's be clear - they bought a Premier League club at a knockdown price, compared to the value of Liverpool and Aston Villa which also changed hands recently. But even the sellers for the Walkers were surprised when they showed they had the money. I still don't know if they have paid the full £25m the Walker Trust eventually settled for, or whether they have borrowed to do so. It has given their brand an airing in the west and a new prominence in India. But there is such doubt over their ability to stabilise the finances that Barclays Bank now have a charge over pretty much everything.

The protests by the fans, thus far, have mildly shaken the owners. But they are not stirred into acting. They are also pleased that Steve Kean has been the lightning conductor for that anger. They hope that things will turn around. Afterall, there is an argument that suggests the squad is younger, fitter and arguably better placed to face the future than it was. What the Venky's really fear however is a backlash that could taint their brand back home. They bought the club to promote their brands, not to propel Blackburn Rovers to greatness as Jack Walker did - and not even out of a love for the glory of football.

The story today is that the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar is interested in buying a Premier League club. According to Alan Nixon in The People one target could be Rovers. I don't take much notice of Nixon, even on the relatively rare occasions when his punts turn out to be right I am reminded of the old phrase  - 'even a stopped clock's right twice a day'.

So I simply don't take the speculation seriously and refuse to get carried away. I just don't see it happening to Rovers for a multitude of reasons - Venky's won't sell, Qatar isn't a good fit for Blackburn, and there are other far more attractive options for a fund that sponsors Barcelona and owns Paris St Germain.

The next few weeks are so crucial for Blackburn Rovers - they need to beat Wigan, draw at Stoke, beat Bolton, Swansea and West Brom at home. A win over Cardiff to get into the semis of the Carling Cup would give everyone a lift too. Sounds easy from Marple, probably looks like a piece of cake from Pune. Lose all of them and there's a disaster which no amount of money from Qatar, or anywhere, will make the slightest difference.

There are also some very important management issues to address - a proper chief executive, a proper chairman and a board that can run the business at base. That then requires financial management, a communications strategy and, probably, a new first team manager. But one thing is for sure, they can't carry on hitting the ball in India and hope it lands near the hole in Blackburn.

Stories of lives changed

This video clip is just the latest documentary short from the Manchester Vision project, run by Manchester production company Riverhorse. This one focuses on the work of the Ancoats based charity The Mustard Tree, others are equally revealing and inspiring.
Mancheter Vision is a not-for-profit initiative that produces monthly films on people, organisations and campaigns that are seeking to create positive social change in the wider city region. The Mustard Tree charity is one such initiative.

A link to the Manchester Vision project is here.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Mad in Belfast, Made in Belfast

Given I've been over to Belfast so much this year, I've taken a keener interest than average in the history and heritage of this unique city.

Last night I finally finished Kevin Myers' mesmerising account of his decade there in the 1970s. It is a horrific and, at times, unsettling tale. He doesn't hold much back from outing his own personal demons and weaknesses, which rather separates it from a straightforward historical account. That is hard work on the reader at first, but once you accept him, it makes for an honest and heartfelt recording of a city gripped by a particularly savage collective madness.

What I've experienced has been all of the good stuff about Belfast - the eager and rather emboldened sense that this place will succeed against all the odds. I look around at people I meet with a real feeling of awe. There is a real appetite for normality and a better life - I mean, there is everywhere, but in Belfast it is particularly acute. You can feel it this week as they have embraced the arrival of the MTV Awards.

Coincidentally, this morning, with much of this on my mind, I read Jay Rayner's review of Made in Belfast, a restaurant I've been to and enjoyed. There's nothing factually wrong with the piece by a writer I'm proud to call my favourite food critic in the British press; he wasn't patronising or snooty about the food, nor was he mean about the city in the way some critics love to be. Jay is also upholstered like a proper restaurant critic, which made this place just right for him. But I was disappointed with his review because I very much enjoyed the food in Made in Belfast and was happy with the choices I made when I went with a large party. In fact, we all were. That's the luck of the draw on these occasions. I also enjoyed the ambience and informality of the place, as Jay Rayner did. It's just that he wasn't too taken with the menu and the rather forensic account of each dish - or the need to list the produce. I think that's forgivable, especially as the character of the place is rather given away in the name. I do however bow to his far better knowledge of food and think it's such a shame his Tandoori wings weren't crispy and that the food was "relentless".

But, here's the thing. It's Jay Rayner's first review in Belfast, I hope it won't be his last. But there's a real passage for any city towards acceptance and normality - and one of those albeit very minor staging posts on that long road is a rotten review of one of a city's restaurants by a disgruntled critic from a national newspaper and, as importantly, the debate about its merits that follows.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Preston bus station - a work of genius?

Pic from BDP
I've never been convinced by the argument that Preston bus station represents a work of architectural marvel. For something so substantial and so ambitious to work it has to at least connect with the users of that space. It was misunderstood and misused at street level. It became neglected by an ignorant authority. The marvel of it from the outside is of the curves of the car park above. It is a structure that divides opinion, for sure.

An exhibition at the CUBE gallery celebrates some of the amazing work of architectural firm BDP, for it was they, from socialist/modernist roots to a globalised future. It is a quite marvellous presentation; really educative and quite seductive. But don't take my word for it, read Neil Tague's blog on it here.,

Now here's a thing. Back in my teenage 1980s a friend of mine, Russell Colman used to invite a few of us to stay at his house. It was always good fun and we had some laughs, as teenage lads would. His stepfather would put Radio 4 on in the morning and the well appointed cottage was full of good books and copies of this hitherto undiscovered magazine called Private Eye. I would go so far as to say that Eye changed my life - it gave me a cheeky urge for satire, inspired me to do my own fanzine, to pursue journalism and not to take politics and the powerful too seriously. I never got round to expressing anything resembling respect or gratitude towards the master of the house, teenagers tend not to.

The man was Keith Ingham, architect of Preston bus station, who I learned, died in 1995. There's a professional obituary of him here.  I never had the inclination or the manners to say this at the time, but sorry for abusing your patience, Mr Ingham, and thanks for introducing me to the Eye.

What is going on at Blackburn Rovers?

As regular Marple Leaf readers will know, I haven't been protesting and ranting about Steve Kean, the manager of Blackburn Rovers. I think it's ultimately a futile exercise. I think Kean is a symptom of a much more serious issue - the hijacking of a senior football club by a super agent and the mismanagement by proxy by clueless owners.

I asked last season what money Venky's had used to buy Rovers. The Walker Trust never thought any of the Indian buyers who showed an interest were serious. They simply thought they'd fail to come up with the money. Whether they are doing it with other people's money, or borrowed money is the killer question. Many of the new signings have been free transfers and the Phil Jones money seems to have vanished. I've never been convinced the Venky's understood even the most basic details of how to run a football club prior to the purchase.

It is an abject shambles, a hopeless mess.

The video above may not work, and it may get taken off YouTube, but it makes for horrible viewing. It wasn't me that made it by the way, but a lad called Andy Rothwell.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Francesca Simon at the MLF

We went to see Francesca Simon last week, the author of the Horrid Henry series. There's a prefectly good report on another website here. The boys loved meeting her too.

Her new children's book is set around the British Museum and the statues there. She took a lot longer to write it, but she put ever so much thought into it. I'll let you know what the boys thought of it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Creative and media are moving on

There was a useful debate on Thursday as part of CityCo's conversation series. A decent opportunity for the city centre managment to keep businesses up to date with various goings on. Peter Salmon was very impressive - as you'd expect. The Head of BBC North talks a good game and conveys the passion of the whole BBC project.

There's a good piece in the Telegraph today, here.

The other speakers were two big favourites of mine, Lou Cordwell and Sue Woodward who both mentioned the shortage of capital for the technology and creative businesses sprouting up. Rightly, that needs addressing and it is the top priority.

There was a question from the floor that said something along the lines of "yes, yes, we've heard it all before" and said the Manchester swagger was in danger of being overstated. Although the panel didn't invoke the memory of Tony Wilson, the questioner anticipated they were about to.

Sat next to me was a wise professional of these parts, with his daughter, who is on work experience at a big firm in Manchester. She had sat gripped throughout the discussion. She leaned over to her Dad and asked this question: "who's Tony Wilson?" I don't think the great man would have wanted it any other way.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why it's OK to like Tintin and why he isn't a fascist

We are all massively excited about the new Tintin film. It's been a long time coming, but I really hope that it's as good as people are suggesting. Tintin is a marvellous character and a noble role model for young men.

What I like about the stories is the way that Herge matures and improves his sense of humour. The way Captain Haddock changes from a hopeless drunk to be a courageous and loyal friend. I recently read Flight 714 to our youngest son and the layers of meaning are magical, particularly in the unravelling of the back story to Rastapopolus, Tintin's evil nemesis.

Even taking aside the crude racism of the Congo book, which I blogged on back here, and there are some abusive racist names used by Haddock in The Crab With The Golden Claws - which are the utterings of an unreconstructed angry alcoholic - I still compelled to defend Tintin from lazy attitudes that he was "right wing" or even a "fascist". That slur pops up again here in an excellent analysis in The Australian.

But the essential Tintin, forged in wartime, never really changed. For ever young, for ever apolitical, his adoption by Spielberg and Hollywood is final proof of the timeless universality of his appeal as the Peter Pan of the cartoon strip. Remi did not take a stand against an evil ideology. Instead, he worked tirelessly, while the world tore itself apart, to create a character without beliefs who always did the right thing.

That's a delicious way of putting it. Tintin displays virtues of humanity, forgiveness, morality, justice and humility. He lives a relatively modest lifestyle even as the stories unfold and Haddock becomes wealthy. Herge clearly dabbles in mysticism, sci-fi and even vaudeville, but never dark politics.

I am delighted that Tintin has been reclaimed and renewed for the new century. It's been a long time coming.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Prize Culture debate at the Manchester Literature Festival

Picture courtesy of Jon Atkin
A new experience this week, hosting a session on "prize culture" at the Manchester Literature Festival. The panel (left) was a brainy quintet of poets, writers and academics, all of whom were lovely to work with. Blogger Valerie O'Riordan has written a detailed account of who said what. It's here, if you want to link.

She says: "A couple of hours before this year’s Booker Prize winner is to be announced, The University Of Manchester’s own cabal of bookish experts turns out at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation to thrash out the advantages, complications and intricacies of literary prize culture. The debate is all the more timely in that this year’s Booker competition has been dogged by more than the usual speculation, with Dame Stella Rimington, head of the judging panel, announcing that she wanted "readability" (see link), and Jeanette Winterson, responding in theGuardian, saying that, in contrast, great literature ought to demand "time and effort" What’s happening? cry the commentators. What’s the remit of literary prizes? Have they replaced critics as the arbiters of public taste? Have the publishers’ publicity machines obliterated the rewarding of quality? Do we really need the Booker? Never fear, dear reader – our panel has stepped boldly into the breach to figure it all out.

"The event is facilitated by journalist Michael Taylor, and joining him are most of the staff of the University’s Centre For New Writing – Vona Groarke, MJ Hyland, Ian McGuire and John McAuliffe – as well as Jerome de Groot, Senior Lecturer in the English Department; between them, we’ve got poets and novelists, academics, literary prize judges and prize-winners – including, in Hyland, a former Booker shortlistee."

The main point was that literary prizes, like the Booker, may be flawed, they may exist for underlying marketing reasons, but on balance they have a place in the cultural firmament. The same could equally be said of art and music prizes. We also touched on how literary criticism is evolving through online reviews and the evolving proliferation of literary blogs.

The whole festival is amazing. I love the breadth of ideas that the range of venues and format has brought to Manchester. Last Saturday I saw readings from John Niven and Emma Jane Unsworth. On Tuesday I sat transfixed through a debate on Norweigan and Dutch short stories. There is an appetite for different cultural experiences and patterns of thought that the festivals bring. It's an explosion, a celebration of something extraordinary, rather than the very ordinary that we can so easily wallow in. It's exciting too that it's all happening here.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rude boys!

Specials at Manchester Apollo, pic courtesy of Joanna Simpson
After missing out on seeing The Specials, Selecter and Madness on the Two Tone tour in 1979 at Lancaster University, I finally got to see The Specials on Friday night. It was a magnificent nostalgia trip for a band I still love listening to. Musically they displayed an incredible range - at one point there were 13 performers on stage - the band, the brass section and strings helped them rattle through all the old favourites. My pal Richard Bell, who sorted the night, says they've got better from when he went to see them two years ago.

I've debated the merits of these reunion gigs before. On balance, I'm in favour. I probably wouldn't go and see Stone Roses who are rumoured to be doing a couple of gigs, I won't bother with From The Jam again, much as I enjoyed the last outing.

For me the audience was fascinating as well. Skins, rude boys, mods and 100s of paunchy blokes dusting off the old Fred Perry to lap up a feast of memories and hear some echoes from down the years. I certainly spotted a few old faces from places as diverse as the terraces at Ewood as well as the boardrooms of modern Manchester.

We went in memory of Tim Edwards, who wasn't able to join us.

Between the Wars - a song for Marple

A tongue-in-cheek reworking of Billy Bragg's Between the Wars by Carl Cieka in protest at the Plans of Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College to sell their Hibbert Lane Campus for development as a supermarket. More info at http:/

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Doing it for yourself

The unemployment figures make for harsh reading. According to New Economy, the Manchester agency tasked with promoting economic activity, the rise recently has been especially harsh in the young.

"The number of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) claimants in Greater Manchester grew by 1,170 and was recorded at 82,310 in September 2011 – a monthly rise of 1.4%. National and regional JSA numbers also increased from August to September – by 0.2% and 1.4% respectively."

To bring home the human side of it, there's a journalist of my vague acquaintance - Nick Hyde - who has joined those ranks. I don't know him well, but he's written a calm and collected blog about it, here, which has taken some guts.

I detect too that he's got a few irons in the fire. More and more the self-employment and start-up business route is appealing to people like Nick. Not just to those who have had unemployment forced upon them, but for those for whom grinding away at the same thing just doesn't seem worth it any more.

A venture capitalist of this parish, Richard Young, is even looking for experienced managers to back in start-ups, something many private equity and venture funds seemed to have given up on a long time ago. He's come up with the phrase "management breakout" and I wrote a bit about it here. I tend to squirm at some of the rhetoric around start-ups and new business. There is a tendency to make a serious endeavour into something like the Apprentice or the X Factor, but there is an opportunity here for investors even if banks aren't there as they should be.

Much as I'm sure the likes of Nick want to avoid hanging round the house reading books, I can heartily recommend a great new title by Luke Johnson. Start It Up - why running your own business is easier than you think reads like a real go-to-it guide for anyone thinking of making a leap on their own. Plenty of people dream, but few take the plunge to do it for themselves. There are inspirational stories of people who made the leap, but also useful pointers on what to avoid and what not to do. It's also rare for a business book in that it's very well written.

I've always had a massive admiration for the self-employed. Walking around the streets of Marple early in the morning, while walking the dog, I see plenty of them getting into their vans and setting off on jobs as plasterers, window fitters and builders, etc.  This is the army of hard working grafters that keep the economy ticking along. My Dad was a self-employed milkman until he sold up last year, though we made sacrifices as a family, that independence of spirit and that control over his own destiny was a freedom he loved and gave him the chance to diversify with his farm.

The economy is dreadful, there is clearly less money around, but I think there is a boldness and a zeal out there. People will struggle, they will be hungry, but they will also get up, attack the day and try and make the best of things. They are the true heroes - you hear politicians pay lip service to them, but I really wish the media would recognise this growing movement. They need all the encouragement they can get.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

My mate #14 - Ian Currie

My random shuffle of my address book has come up with Ian Currie, the latest addition to the roll of honour that is the my mate series on this blog.

I've known Ian for 11 years. He's a fellow Rovers fan and has season tickets close to where we used to sit in the Blackburn End upper tier. I fondly remember celebrating together when Rovers were promoted at Preston in 2001.

Until a couple of years ago he was in business with another friend of mine, Richard Hughes. Here's a profile I did on them back in 2005. The fact that the two of them have split was a source of some upset. I like them both very much and admire their dealmaking skills and their ablity to add value to businesses. It's not the time or the place to go into the reasons for the split here, but they were a formidable double act in their heyday and I'm proud to count them both as friends still.

Ian and Richard also grew a much coveted client base who they introduced to investment opportunities. It's a matter of public record that their wealthy backers included some old northern family trusts as well as footballers and entrepreneurial business people. Ian is also close to Sam Allardyce who is an active investor; I still kick myself that I royally cocked up a diary date to have lunch at Ian's house with Sam, he rang me as I was arriving in Chester, when I should have been in Lancashire. That link between the two dates back to when Ian was a director of Bolton Wanderers, a purely business arrangement that he enjoyed while it lasted. I imagine Phil Gartside, Bolton chairman, isn't the easiest guy to work with and eventually Ian left the board. We have enjoyed some sweet victories at the Reebok since.

Ian is also a great supporter of good causes (not just Rovers) and particularly of the Prince's Trust, the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital Charity Appeal and of the Lowry at Salford. We worked together on an event a couple of years ago with Theo Paphitis, another close friend of Ian - a report is here. We also played on opposing sides at the Reebok at this match in May.

By a remarkable coincidence there's tabloid speculation today suggesting Ian has been over to India and is about to be invited onto the board at Blackburn Rovers, something I suggested here back in February. This would be a very good move for Rovers, but I'm confident Ian and his pal Ian Battersby would require assurances that things are going to change and they won't be "yes men" to people who are taking our club down. I certainly hope so.

Meeting Hooky at the BBC at Salford Quays

We had a great experience this morning as I was a guest on Gordon Burns' programme on the BBC Radio Manchester AND Lancashire. The first such show from Quay House at MediaCity. You will be able to listen to it for a while if you click the iPlayer link here.

I was reviewing the Sunday papers with Maria McGeoghan, the editor of the Manchester Evening News, who is always very lovely company. We picked up a few serious highlights to start with: Steve Jobs, the rising popularity of crafts and a good piece on climate change that Maria found. In the second part we highlighted TV shopping, the X Factor, Christina Aguilera's backstage demands, internships and I had a bit of a rant about the hopeless cause that his Blackburn Rovers under Venky's.

It was great to be broadcasting from a studio with a view and one where Rachel and the kids could watch from the office outside. It was also a fantastic experience watching Gordon Burns work, he has a great manner about him. He carries such authority but he also interviews and discusses in a very easy way. No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson wanted his first BBC interview to be with Gordon. But as much as he makes it look easy, he prepares very methodically.

The guest after us was the great Peter Hook from New Order. We had a good chat about his forthcoming concerts and the experience of RAW 2010 when he was interviewed by John Bishop. I was ready to apologise if he hadn't, as it was my idea. His daughter took this picture of us next to his old boss and our much missed friend Tony Wilson. I wish I'd told him how much his music has meant to me over the last 25 years.

There's a growing realisation that the BBC move to Salford isn't just a good idea, but a popular reality. It has started to put the inaccessible BBC just that bit closer to the heartbeat of the nation. Yes, this is good for the BBC, but it's also important for the North too. This piece in the Spectator by William Cook is refreshingly positive without being patronising. Hopefully the rest of the country will awaken to what greatness lies within the North, and appreciate that not only will great things happen, but that they have been happening for years and this is just another step.