Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hope for the Arab world

A thought keeps coming back to me as the people of Cairo and Tunis take to the streets. All of this was part of a vision for the Middle East back in 2001, post 911. There was a theory that the people of Iraq would welcome to invading US troops with open arms. It was clearly dreadfully, tragically wrong. But the resistance, the alternative to corrupt dictatorship was seen as Islamist butchery. I hope with all my heart that the alternative now is looking clearer for all the people of the Arab world.

Anyway, here's an interview with Paul Wolfowitz from the Spectator.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

From Belfast with love - ten thoughts

I've been meaning to sit down and blog a few thoughts about Belfast these last few days. I've been over twice recently and have been very impressed. Then, today, there was the news that an explosive device was left in Antrim Road, to the north of the city centre, planted by dissident Republicans. Anyway, here are ten thoughts that have sprung to mind about a city that deserves your attention. I'm slightly ashamed that I haven't been before and amazed how few people have. Do something about that and go there soon.

Don't look back in anger - This depressing return to the past will have saddened the hearts of everyone I spoke to in Belfast, who have all been incredibly candid about the past. But to a man and a woman the message was consistent. That was the past, we have moved on. Northern Ireland needs to move on. And that even those who are politically engaged are lagging behind business people, creative people and a new professional class that sees bigger issues in the world than the colour of the kerbstones. I was also struck by such a passion and a decency about everyone. It sounds patronising coming from a chippy Northern Englishman but I have never felt as welcomed in a new city as I have in Belfast.

Troubles tourism - here's a picture of me on the Falls Road alongside some Republican murals. We also took a tour along the peace line and through the Unionist Shankill area too. This is a must. It has to be seen to be believed, it also drives home the appetite for normality, and the pride that comes from these conflicting and often violent traditions. The murals, which always fascinated me have become more romantic and less sinister, but they've certainly put a marker down for the permanence of their street culture.

The regeneration game - for urban planners Belfast is a work in progress. Example, the Titanic Quarter - one of 5 (figure that one out) - is a massively ambitious project that looks almost Arabian or Chinese in its ambition. It's a £25bn 25 year plan that seeks to extend the city through its docks. Economic development is a long and complex process. We're at a poor spot in a cycle at the moment, but Belfast has challenges in a UK setting, never mind a global context. The state dominates the economy. That is unsustainable in Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle. Belfast is no different.

The Titanic - "She was fine when she left here" is the boast. Belfast is gearing up to open Titanic Belfast, a stunning visitor attraction that marks the city's contribution to shipbuilding and the centenary of the maiden voyage.

A good place for an elegant weekend away with Rachel? I tell you what, I've been to some well turned out hotels with a good bar, a nice service culture and some fine food, but I'd hazard that the Merchant is without equal in a provincial British city. Just a theory. They've spent £16.5m on it, or so it says here. It shows. We had an amazing lunch and the ambience of a Friday afternoon tea was just lovely.

Good place for a lad's trip? Well, the Guinness is good. They Belfast Visitor Bureau have picked the worst Oasis album to steal a title - Be Here Now. But it looks brilliant for a weekend away. We had a quick one in the Duke of York in the Cathedral Quarter, but there are loads of character pubs. Here's a pic of the Red Hand Guinness sign at that pub. There are also now flights to the Belfast George Best City Airport direct from Manchester with both FlyBe and BMI Baby. On balance I prefer BMI Baby's bigger planes, but both offer bargains.

Breakfast - you can and should judge a place by the quality of the breakfasts. I wasn't disappointed by my first genuine Ulster Fry at the legendary Oscar's but I left my two remaining pieces of fried soda bread. On Friday's St George's Market has local food produce and plants. That's a good spot for the next trip, I reckon.

Clobber - I happened upon a very smart clothes shop. The Bureau. Like Oi Polloi, but smarter. More like Paul Smith on Floral Street in London. Quirky.

Churches - I do like to visit a church in a city centre, especially in the middle of a frantic day. Recommended  was the beautifully restored Saint Malachy's in Alfred Street. It has an understated spleandour, but it has also had an awful lot of money spent on it.

Outcomes - Back in my student days I studied the sociological aspects to the conflict in the 1980s, tending towards a very bleak view of life as articulated by Professor Steve Bruce of Aberdeen University in his study of Ian Paisley and Unionism. "This is not a problem. Problems have solutions. This is a conflict, conflicts only have outcomes." I rather think the outcome has been for the better, certainly happier than any of us envisaged back then.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Question of Sport

I'm a sucker for a sports quiz. Or, a football teaser at least. There's this at the moment: An A-Z of highest goalscorers in the Premier League (since 1992). One for each letter. Obviously C is for Cole and S is for Shearer. When I've worked it out I'll post. But if you have, let me know. Struggling with R.

Hoofball RIP

Blackburn Rovers beat West Brom today. Two months ago the same result would have been brute force over elegance. Big Sam over Cool Hand Roberto. Today it was an enterprising footballing side playing with daring and verve at home, against a visiting side who shipped two goals based on positive attacking play.

Apart from the goals, the happiest moments for me were the determined efforts to look for another way of getting the ball forward than a long lump. Paul Robinson playing a ball wide to a defender, for example. Even Pedersen was prepared to try a short throw instead of a predictable long one.

The first Rovers team I followed was all about Noel Brotherston and Dave Wagstaffe on the wings, with Kevin Hird and John Bailey overlapping as full backs. So it was good to see Hoilett and Olsson running at defenders with such confidence today. They were immense. And new signing Jermaine Jones really patrolled the midfield, giving Dunny room to roam like a rampaging Tony Parkes. All in all, a terrific performance.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The point of the Lib Dems

I haven't bought into the tide of anger over the "betrayal" of the Liberal Democrats. Or their inevitable demise, as predicted by Nick Cohen in the Spectator this week. On the contrary, I think, on the whole, they have embraced the responsibilities of government rather well. In time, that may be appreciated by the electorate.

The easiest part of politics is the gesturing, the spin and the sloganeering. It's also the cheapest. The most difficult part of politics is governing. My biggest problem with the third party is they could always appear to be all things to all people. Making silly pledges that sought to, for example, increase tax by 1p to spend on education, to call the Iraq War "an illegal war" and to, er, vote against tuition fees.

I've actually got more respect for those who backed such an unpopular measure than those who - like Charles Kennedy and Tim Farron - take delight in standing against it. Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and our MP Andrew Stunell have stood up to their responsibilities to govern. They have taken a collective decision to face up to the need to reduce the deficit, to reduce the size of the state, the cost of the state, and what the country can afford. It's not a comfortable reality to confront, less to make choices about what to do, but they have.

The last election was the worst one in a generation to win. An era that needs to implement cuts and public sector reforms sees many in Labour very safely in their comfort zone, saying anything that springs to mind about the government because they can do so easily without having any kind of responsibility.

But but back to the LibDems. Simon Beard, here, argues that there is a point to the Liberal Democrats: Free trade, civil liberty and electoral reform. Issues he says that are popular, but ... "Instead they are far more interested in the wealth of services provided by the state, how they are run and how they will be paid for. In these areas the Lib Dems are far less distinctive."

At the moment, that's the issue. In four years time, it may not be. That's where liberalism can come to its fore. The biggest danger for the Lib Dems at the moment isn't how they are in government, but how they deal with the politics of it all.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Thumbs up for the Marple Wine Club

I was giddy beyond words on Friday at buying my first mixed case from the Marple Wine Club. It was also delivered by John Hulme, the bloke that runs it.  The good news was, as we had pals round on Saturday, we could try a few. Here's the verdict.

Domaine Bech Merlot 2008 (Vins dePays du Gard)  3 for £15. John described it as gorgeous, soft, rich wine with concentrated berry fruit and dark chocolate finish. Packed full of character. Agree. Absolute bargain.

Sonetti Pinot Grigio 2008 (Venezia, Italy) £4.55 or £13 for 3. This was described as light, fresh, clean tasting dryish white. "Perfect for just glugging." In other words, it's pretty bog standard. The sort of wine you'd get in a pub that doesn't really do wine. But, you get what you pay for.

We splashed out on a few others like a Mud House Pinot Noir 2008 (Marlborough, New Zealand), another spectacularly fruity and slightly dark wine.

The maverick choice was the Hochar Pere et Fils 2003 (Lebanon)  at  £9.95  Like other Chateau Musar wines it's a slightly thinner than the full bodied reds we tend to go for. It even has that slight sherry taste. Certainly very unusual and one for an occasion to savour.

The best by far, was the Squinzano Rosso 2008 (Italy) an absolute bargain at £7.65, full of body and really aromatic. Terrific.

Overall, I think this is a wonderful idea. We'll be back for more.

Tide of opinion turning for Venky's

I base this on a gut feeling, nothing more, and a fair few comments and sentiments expressed by Blackburn Rovers fans on the web and on social media settings. But I think the tide is turning in Venky's favour.

The manager is doing OK. Dan Clough's excellent blog Rovers Return reflects this theme with a good analytical post following the defeat at Chelsea yesterday. Link is here. Dan praises the attacking style and the positivity of 4-4-2. He's spot on about Nicola Kalinic being better attacking than being a lone striker. The only player at Rovers who can do that is Jason Roberts, which rather limits the options if that is the sole style of play.

There's this piece in the Mail on Sunday about Venky's. It's a positive feature that puts their point of view. It claims they are hugely wealthy and ambitious.

But the issue that gives me the most concern is the link with SEM/Kentaro. It's clear they are in control. They are in on two sides of transfer deals. It may suit them to have a club dominated by their clients, and it may suit them that this is a roaring success. But what if it doesn't turn out that way? Then what? And what if Venky's fall out with SEM?

I'm still convinced that Venky's don't really know what they're doing. It may be re-assuring to some fans that they have massive wealth, and their bling somehow validates this, but beyond the sincere pleas that they are eager to make Rovers a success, this deal is about what Rovers can do for Venky's, not the other way round. Longer term, this deal is about opening fast food chicken outlets. We're pretty helpless and stuck in the middle, we just have to hang on to the hope that they consider doing well in the Premier League to be within their gift and a price worth paying to market sell some more chicken.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Calm down, calm down

The New York Times has suggested that Manchester is on its list of 40 places to visit. The actual write up was pretty pants though: suggesting a cafe in Fallowfield, the Deaf Institute and the usual wax museum musical mystery tour that provoked this.

Stephen Bayley has written a lovely piece in the Daily Telegraph, here. He says of the Northern Quarter, that it "makes the Sohos of London and New York appear as sleepy as Bath". I think that's overdoing it a bit, to be fair.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Earning his Spurs

One of my stepsons - bonus children, I call them - is a Spurs fan. His twin brother is resolutely Rovers, but I think there's a twin thing going on. You know, stridently seeking an individual identity that marks him out as different. For Christmas, all he wanted was tickets to go to White Hart Lane. Luckily, I put a few calls in and a top chap of this manor, George Dearsley, assisted us.

The occasion was Sunday's FA Cup tie against Charlton, which Spurs won at a canter. It was obviously a great experience for a 10-year old boy. He loved the whole occasion, the way the seats were high up and steep. He loved the golden cock, left, which was right opposite our eyeline. He loved being amongst Spurs fans, which of course he never is. And his little face just lit up as they sang "oh when the Spurs go marching in", that slow one they like at the Lane.

I also enjoyed a bit of a nostalgia trip down Upper Street in Islington, dropping in at Yotam Ottolenghi's pattiserie on the way there and taking a tour through Stoke Newington, Essex Road and Islington Green on the way back to Euston.

But I wanted to make another observation. Watching most of my football at Ewood Park I'm rather used to being surrounded by kids and even youths. At Spurs everyone around us in the West Stand was a man in his 40s or 50s. Many of them looked like the kind of men that had sons, but were in groups of other similar men. On the train to the ground from Seven Sisters they were men in their 30s who had been in the pub. Coming out along the High Road there were a smattering of younger fans, and a few women, but the more I looked it was clear that this was an ageing male crowd. This, I think I've observed before, is the way of the Premier League. This is the demographic who are in the habit of attending football. The youngsters, the people with families, can't and don't risk it. Splurging so much on a day out that has that chance of disappointment and yet costs so much isn't worth it. Kids have TV, they have their version of football on FIFA 11 and other games and I'm sure they wear all the gear.

I'm sure Spurs are aware of this. And it rather reinforces a point I've always suspected, that the policy at Blackburn Rovers of making football accessible to the people of Lancashire is a wise investment indeed.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Hair, today

My good mate Jim Warwick, the first of the gang to start the inevitable passage of male pattern baldness, always maintained the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut was about a week. As I'm losing my hair, slowly, it seems almost a waste of effort to get a decent haircut. And I've always struggled to settle on a decent place to stay loyal to. I like Dave Ward, the radio DJ who also operates a barbers out of  Denise @ Carringtons shop next to Debenhams. Then there's the Italian lads in the St Anns Arcade, the aggressive lad in Marple and his laid back Mod mate across the road. I did get passed on to a lad in the Gay Village by Tony Wilson, who thought my hair was "shocking". After trying a longer and floppy haircut my pal Chris Bird lost patience. He thought my hair was so rubbish he had me arrested and I was put on trial in the court at the Police Museum and I had to raise £2K in pledges to St Anns Hospice to get out of jail, I was also sentenced to a decent haircut by Chris from Razor's Edge. Again, a good lad, but more sophisticated than I needed. I once went to Nicky Oliver in Piccadilly Gardens. They asked me if it was alright if "Wayne" or "Derek" did it. I said I didn't mind who did it, thinking it's short and you can't go wrong. The reason they asked was "Wayne" or "Derek" or whatever he was called, was this stylist to the stars who had been poached from Harvey Nics. It cost me about £50. I've never come out with less hair and for so much money. If I'd been seen by Mr Oliver it would have cost me over £400. Honestly. Prices here.

Anyway, I'm rather taken now with Nick MacLure at his new shop in the Northern Quarter. He's taken a decent look at what I need, what to avoid and what to make it last. My first cut with him was 6 weeks ago. his shop was just about to open so it was hard to get an idea about what he was completely about. I liked his approach and his stories, which is quite important, and the way he approaches haircutting.

I also like to support independent businesses in the Northern Quarter. It's an important area for the city and seems to be on the up again. I'll come back to Oi Polloi, Black Dog Ballroom and the new frontage to Afflecks later.

I went back today and his shop was buzzing. The bare wooden frames on the mirrors, the painting style on the beams, the lighting. There were three different stylists, one doing extensions, cool music and a damn fine cup of coffee. And, I have to say, a decent trim to the job he started six weeks ago.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Links to things to make you think

Great piece in Vanity Fair about Julian Assange and the Guardian. And this, from the Wall Street Journal, about Zimbabwe, statecraft and Wikileaks.

Christopher Hitchens on Tony Blair, also from VF.

A load of really interesting political and philosophical books I won't get round to reading this year. (via Respublica).

Chris Woebken. Cool stuff.

How dope smokers with the munchies at 2AM almost destroyed the number three wholesale grocery distributor in Australia. Bronte Capital, a blog I've found.

Political debate and media coverage doesn't know the difference between the deficit and debt. As John Redwood says here.

Martin Bright on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme and whether it goes far enough.

Proper Mag. Go and buy it. Ace.

Steve Kean, on second thoughts

One swallow doesn't make a summer. One win over a dysfunctional Liverpool side doesn't mean Blackburn Rovers are out of the woods yet. But... I saw enough last night to be able to feel much more positive.

First of all, the important events on the pitch. Watching a team with TWO strikers, wingers and a flattish back four was exciting again. There are plenty of match reports that focus on how awful Liverpool were, but I was impressed with every single Rovers player. So, fair play to Steve Kean.

None of that detracts from what I said after the farcical press conference on Tuesday. If Kean is a good coach, a thinker, shrewd tactically and capable of getting the best out of his players, then the best thing would be to let him get on with it. The overwhelming feeling I got from the club's executives and directors last night was still a confused and dispirited mood. To a man they are good blokes. They've run the club very well up until now and should be trusted to do so. I hope now this ludicrous search for "marquee" signings is over. Once the Venky's mob realise it's not like playing FIFA 11, then let the football people run the show and manage the business effectively.

I didn't get chance to speak to Jerome Anderson (he was on the phone after the match), but he holds the cards.

Also there were Sir Alex Ferguson, Derek Fazackerley, Matt Jansen (was he scouting for Chorley?) and Ian Holloway. No sign of Kenny Dalglish, the man who would be their returning King.

I was lucky enough to be a guest of Crown Paints last night, and honoured to be handed the duty of presenting the Man of the Match award to David "Junior" Hoilett. What a nice lad. Quite shy, but he seemed very humble.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Roll up, roll up for Comical Ali's Circus

Mark Ogden in the Daily Telegraph tomorrow will liken the Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean to Comical Ali. The former Iraqi minister of information, you may recall, made a fool of himself, denying the truth, while his country was invaded. That, says Ogden, was what came to mind at the Rovers press conference today.

Preston fan Mark Lawrenson also waded in tonight. He can see us getting relegated this season. And like everyone else he knew, just knew, there was no chance on earth of Ronaldinho coming to Ewood Park.

The most humiliating thing about the Kean press conference was his utter lack of participation in the building of a team. This is what he said: "I know there has been contact made by the owners to representatives of Ronaldinho but I don't know how far down the line it is and whether it will actually happen." (source: here).

The truth is, he did know. He must have known. This is a silly stunt. Their whole play acting with our football club is a stunt to promote their chicken business. This interview with Mrs Desai on Sky Sports News is excruciating.

These people are making fools of us all and should go. I'm sorry. But they should. The sooner they realise the whole thing is a mistake and sell to someone else the better. But, like I said about the rather listless ownership of the Walker Trust: better the devil you know, and beware of what you wish for.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Is "Local" a movement?

This is of interest to Marple. According to the US website Small Business Trends, local is developing into a movement.

Local foods, shop local, local business. Local, local, local. This collision of trends into an entire movement is reshaping small town economics. It must be big, because big businesses are trying to get in on it. Here are the subtrends that smart small town businesses can use this year.

I was struck by the last one: an increase in self-employed and owner managed businesses. Once again, the supply side of an economic trend outweighs the effects of the demand side. That's what happens in periods of change. There's more here.

A restoration of faith in football

There is a subtle pattern to my flirtation with grass roots, no-frills, non-league football. It's usually at a time when I'm sick to the depths of my stomach with the Greed League and all the nonsense that comes with it.

Take today: the Beckham circus rolls on; the burning sense of entitlement of the supporters of Liverpool Football Club (never just Liverpool, by the way); the Chicken Farmers of Venkys, the owners of Blackburn Rovers, made a claim on Twitter (???) that they were going to bid for Ronaldinho, then denied it to the Lancashire Telegraph (making a fool of a good man they need to get onside), then confirm a bid later on. Add a sprinkling of Lee Bowyer, a touch of Joey Barton and wrap it all up in Mario Balotelli's snood.

What better way to escape this nonsense than a trip 4 miles up the road from Marple to see New Mills play Alsager in the North West Counties League. The previous meeting between the sides had resulted in a 10-2 win to the home side. Today that was the ratio of soft chances missed by both sides as New Mills battered the Alsager goal. In the second half it was particularly one way, but Alsager still fluffed two chances themselves.

It was an open and entertaining game, half a dozen players stood out as really good footballers: Alsager's goalkeeper Paul Willis, their centre half Daniel Gleave, who played a blinder until the last five minutes when he mistimed a challenge to let Steven Moore through on goal. Chris Hirst struck me as an intelligent midfielder, but hopeless in front of goal today. Leon Grandison was capable of a blistering burst of pace and had quick feet.
 This was the 130th ground I've watched football on, and I'm looking forward to chalking off a few more. More than I'm excited about more dross at Ewood. And it cost us all a tenner. It warmed my soul and restored my faith. Even if they did run out of pies. Maybe I should have told them in advance to expect an extra visitor.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Canal cleansing needed

One the wonders of Marple is its canal network. Indeed, as the local website claims, the walks along the canal towpaths are an important part of the delights that await visiting walkers and residents. The bad weather has however contributed to a massive deterioration in standards. The canal by Goyt Mill is still frozen over in parts, which can't help, but you do despair at the amount of litter, dog dirt and discarded stuff along the paths.
Just saying.

Our New Year Quiz

This is our New Year's Eve Quiz, our kids got them all between them

Marple and local
Which two Marple shops are having a store war?
Who is the boss of the Red Lion in High Lane?
All Things Nice is the deli on corner but what the name of the new Deli in Marple with its name on the gable end?
What is the name of the new Bishop?
What did the Middlewood Way used to be?
What’s the number of the bus to Harrytown?
Who's this?

TV and music and stuff
Which programme does Richard Hammond NOT present – Top Gear, Hole in the Wall, and Total Wipeout?
What country do the Pogues sing about more than any other?
What channel are Dick and Dom on?
How many tanks does Concord have?
Who tells Preposterous Tales?
Who’s the highest scoring player for Lancashire on PES 2011?
Name the four humans in Scooby Doo?
Who sings the end song in Finding Nemo?
What’s the surname of the blogging man called Biff?
In Simpsons, what is Apu’s nationality?
What is Springfield’s rival town called?
What does the j stand for in Homer J Simpson?

Who is the manager of Bolton and which team did he used to manage?
Who are Spurs playing in the next round of the Champions League?
Where will the next World Cup be held?
What was Rovers' biggest defeat of 2010?

Who’s oldest, Theo, or Aidan?
What’s Danielle’s baby called?
What breed is Martha?
Who are Theo’s godparents?
What are my two favourite countries for food?