Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in review - looking forward

Here's something of a review of the year based on the most used topics and tags on this blog. A lot has changed this year, a new business, no booze, a book, travel, new horizons, important projects. Anyway, here's a review, and all in Twitter form.

Blackburn Rovers - The. Worst. Year. Ever. But under Venky's things will get worse. I trust in the Trust.

Manchester - you can read all about my views on civic matters and business issue on my Downtown blog Taking the Michael.

Marple - the day of reckoning approaches. Two new supermarkets planned. Please don't let Asda build on Hibber Lane.

Football - really enjoyed watching the rise of Hyde FC and some other local encounters. Love real football. Against Modern Football.

Friends - since my career change I've really found out the value of true friendships, and false ones. You know who you are (happy face).

Politics - Disappointed that the people of Marple South re-elected our dismal councillor Shan Alexander.
Commuting - Don't do this quite as much as I used to. Doing the London trip a fair bit, avoiding the 19:05 from Euston.

Telly - Obviously Match of the Day doesn't hold as much interest as it once did. But last night on MOTD2 I loved the dissection of two games by Pat Nevin. Shearer, get your coat.
Best day of 2012 - it's been a brilliant year, shared a stage with inspiring and brave people - but this day takes some beating. Getting my honorary fellowship from UCLAN.

Blogging - Going to do something very different on this blog from now on. Thanks for bearing with me.


The very last BBC Radio Manchester business programme

It was a privilege to be involved in the BBC Radio Manchester business programme over the last 8 years. We recorded the very last one on the Monday before Christmas and I was proud to be the last voice on there. It's a shame it ended, but hopefully there's a proper sense in the station of the role that the private sector plays in the life of the city.

I was also on the BBC Breakfast News this year, not bashing the banks and on BBC Radio 5Live a few times. I have to say the BBC is a brilliant institution full of fine people. The move North was a stroke of brilliance.

Pictured are: Andy Crane (presenter), me, Steve Saul (producer), Brian Sloan (Chamber of Commerce), Jacqui Hughes Lundy (business team), Tim Murphy (Seneca Partners) and Reverend Pete Horlock (business chaplain).

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sasha Baron Cohen's great new character - "Shebby"

Confidential memo from agent representing Sasha Baron Cohen, to head of comedy at Unamed Hollywood studio.


Great to see you at the last Vanity Fair party. I mentioned to you that Sasha has been pretty busy lately. He revived Ali G at the Britsh Comedy Awards, which was a reminder of his genius. After two character roles in films, which he was pleased with, he is now ready to unveil his latest deep cover project.

The success of the whole Borat character was remarkable, Bruno has done pretty well too and we're  sure you will be delighted he is looking to the same format of spoof character. For this Sasha has had to go further and deeper in his public deception than anything he has ever done before.

I am telling you about his latest comic creation: "Shebby".

We started out as a football (soccer to you) summariser on TV in Malaysia. Unbelievably, people bought into his phoney past we created for him. We thought this was good enough, right up there with Ali G at his cheeky best, but a couple of Bollywood guys over in Pune, India, decided they wanted to get out of this crazy deal they'd struck to buy an English soccer club. Long story short, it had all gone horribly wrong, they wanted to get out and agreed to invest in the next film as long as we could stretch the character in a role as "global adviser". They expected it to last a week or two, but do you know the craziest thing? He has been on Sky TV, he has met the fans, he has even fired two coaches. The first quit and sued the club because of some of the things "Shebby" suggested. We have all this on film, hidden cameras are great.  We've got shots of him in the pub talking to fans. Some of them are totally into this guy. And get this, right. He did this public meeting where they were firing questions at him, and they actually applauded and cheered.

We're going to get this in the can pretty quickly now as the rest of the fans have turned against him. He's going to get lynched if we're not careful. I love Sasha's bravery, but he is properly messing with these guys.

Now, he's done this lame radio interview with some ex-soccer player, Robbie something, and his cover is like totally blown now. I mean, it was comedy gold - making up his role with each question, agreeing with the questions, dodging questions, getting aggressive. Our next move is to get his sidekick in as coach, this other character we've created - Judan Ali. Then the fun really starts, a new strip, a dwarf playing as goalkeeper, the appointment of a guru. Changing the strip to saris. But the clock is ticking.

So, Hank, what do you say?



Hey Chuck,
I love it. I agree that Borat may have jumped the shark, but this is genius. Let's meet for lunch at the Mondrian on Friday. Seems a bit far fetched, but it has promise.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

BRFC Action Group - you don't speak for me

I am too weary and sad about what the witless Venky's have done to my beloved Blackburn Rovers. I am at risk of repeating myself.

Indeed, here is what I said just over a year ago:

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."

But those protesting fans have somewhat splintered. We had the disgraceful scene this morning of self-appointed fans spokesman Glen Mullan commenting on Radio5Live about the "downward spiral" and saying "someone needs to be accountable", without ever criticising the ownership of the club by Venky's or their appointee Shebby Singh. This is a guy who shared a platform with Shebby Singh.

No, the only serious option is for all Rovers fans to get behind a serious and concerted effort to rid the club of these idiots and pursue a supporter ownership model. It won't get us back to the top of the premiership, it won't attract top talent, but it will restore dignity where currently there is none.  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Shop talk - Marple takes steps forward, and back again

The ever changing range of shops and cafes in our home centre of Marple seem to have taken steps forward and backwards over the last few months. And that's before we even consider the impact of Asda, Waitrose or Aldi opening a new store.

A new ironing shop and the ZipYard franchise near each other on Stockport Road both offer excellent service and are a cut above what I'd been getting in comparable businesses in Manchester.

Interesting dynamic on the Hollins parade. While we loudly praise the efforts of local and independent retailers, the multiples are providing a complementary backbone to the more creative offer, sometimes competing. With the exception of the Wilsons veg shop, all the shops on the Hollins are now multiples - Barclays, Johnsons cleaners, Greenhalgh's bakery, Co-op pharmacy, Greggs, Taylor Made Betting, Costa Coffee, Bargain Booze and soon to be joined by Dominos Pizza. This isn't an objection, just a comment.

Nothing much is going on restaurant wise. Another Indian, solid food in the pubs, rumours of some of the cafe's looking to sell up. All Things Nice continues to impress the new people we bring to work at our office in Marple - don't just take my word for it, here's a great review from Mellor View.

The parade at the bottom of Stockport Road just south of the junction seems to be ready for a new opening of a traditional sweet shop called Granny's. Always a tough location, it will be competition for the Stars and Stripes shop, which seems to be doing OK.

I must admit to a sense of relief everytime I see the Marple bookshop still open, it could do with an injection of life and ideas though. The Bramall shop Simply Books is a good template.

But the biggest groan I have to emit since the demise of Toast Deli is for the news that The Bike Shop - Marple is having a closing down sale. These guys will be much missed. We've bought three bikes here, serviced many others, stocked up on accessories and it's been an inspiration to us to get out on our bikes more. I feared this would happen.  I'll continue to get bikes for our lads from their shop in Heaton Moor and thank them for giving Marple a real go. Good luck, Will.

As for Asda, they have now submitted their planning application. I'll be lodging my own objection and would urge you to do the same.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Revealed: Blackpool's confidential scouting report on Rovers

On my way out of Bloomfield Road this evening I found a piece of paper - it was a confidential leaked scouting report to Blackpool manager Michael Appleton and a briefing for his team.

"Right, I don't know how to brief you to be honest. On paper this lot, man for man, are a top team. But there's such a bad feeling around the club, and you'll know what that's like from your time at Portsmouth, that we just don't know what could happen. There's this clown Shebby Singh gobbing off about tactics - it's caused mayhem behind the scenes, the players don't know what's going on.

"Absorb a bit of pressure in the first 15 minutes and you'll be home and dry. They're bringing a large following - they've sold out - but they'll soon turn on their team, the owners, and that will get to the players.

"If they've got any sense they'll play Jordan Rhodes with another forward just off him. If they do, then we're in for a tough afternoon. Lately though, they tend to play him on his own up front (I know! barmy).

"They have these young lads up and down the wings, a combination of Lowe, one or more of the Olsson twins, this lad King from Man United who doesn't want to be there, Henley. Let them run around a lot, it won't come to much, as long as we keep a couple of big lads on Rhodes they'll have nothing to aim at.

"There's nothing we can tell you about Vukcevic - a bit of a mystery man.

"Stick a couple of early challenges on Etuhu, he's doesn't fancy it, let him know he's in a contest and he'll be useless. Same goes for Kazim-Richards. Test this young keeper Kean - he's going to be bricking it, so keep the pressure on him in one to ones.

"If we get a corner, just float it towards the penalty spot. Don't worry, you'll be unmarked. Givet might be there, but equally, he might not. You never can tell with him.

"The best news I've heard is that Scott Dann is going to be skipper today. Not only is
he hopeless at set pieces, but his confidence is shot to pieces.

"Make sure you patronise them in the programme notes and pre-match interviews, say they're a top top team, but to be honest this will be a breeze."

Monday, December 10, 2012

Olympic gold

One of the great unsung heroes of modern British culture is Frank Cottrell Boyce. I bumped into him at the Hay Festival and asked him to speak at a conference I was involved in at Aquinas College.
He is a terrific speaker and responded really well to questions afterwards. He played a huge role in scripting the Olympic opening ceremony with his friend Danny Boyle, which is full of anecdotes and glory. But I just really liked his delivery. He has a warmth and generosity about him and a particularly smart way of communicating the simplicity of Christian values and faith. Just what you need for an event like this as the rhetoric can get quite heavy.

Here he is: "Even so, people are often surprised when I admit to being a practising Catholic. Not that anyone’s ever taken issue with it but there is always that moment of surprise that tells you they had an image in their head, and it wasn’t you. And because people are polite you never quite know what that image is: did they think I was going to be St. Francis – poet, environmentalist, genius – or did they think I was going to be Mel Gibson?"

Here is the full text of Frank’s talk and here is the audio recording.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

My mate #19 - Andy Shaw

Dennis Tueart, Andy Shaw and Michael Taylor
The latest random profile of one of my friends and how I know them is my pal Andrew Shaw, a prolific football supporter, FA Councillor, property personality and an all round good sort.

Me and Andy got off to a great start in my early years as the editor of Insider back in 2000. He was a generous informant and good conduit for intelligence and information in the property world when he ran the Jones Lang LaSalle office in Manchester. He moved to another agency and was always supportive. Though we would get together and talk about business and property, he also had a more colourful hinterland as a keen observer of politics, a parent with shared interest in some of the subtleties of how we bring our lads up. And then there's the football.

Football is where we share a particularly anorakish interest. While I like to ground hop and support my team, Andy has also taken his involvement to another level altogether. He joined the board of Altrincham FC about a decade ago, as well as being a massive Manchester City fan, home and away. He's now an FA Council member, looking after non-league clubs, and visiting hundreds of clubs around the country.

He served as the chairman of judges in the Insider Property Awards for a few years and added a real flair to the day. It was a role I was keen to revive for him when he joined me as a judge of the Northwest Football Awards. So, pictured is Andy, with me, and another of his pals from the football world, Dennis Tueart.

Now, the glasses I'm wearing (above) are currently in Andy's possession. I left them on our table at the awards and haven't seen them since. He rescued them - he's good like that - and I thought this blogpost might flush him out and get him along to meet me for a quick drink and hand them over. I mean, they're bloody useless without me.

Andy is not only great fun, he's incredibly loyal and a very considerate. I'm proud to call him a mate.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mark Wastell RIP

L to R John Knight, Mark Wastell, random interloper, Neil Arthur, Michael Taylor
I received some really sad news this week that an old pal had passed away. Mark Wastell, pictured above, second left at Wembley in 1992, died quite suddenly. I last saw "Tonto" as we called him, at Swansea at the end of the last season. I've got loads of great memories of playing football with him, travelling to Rovers matches all over the place, including, memorably, to Lyon in 1998 for the UEFA Cup game.

Our friend Martin Cook has written a lovely obituary.

When I was at secondary school Mark was three or four years ahead of me and it was his younger brother David Wastell who was in my class. It was only when I moved down south to that London, and joined the Rovers London Branch football team, that I recognised the surname.

‘Tonto’ was the eccentric chap I had first met on the terraces at Plough Lane one midweek September evening in 1985 as Rovers were humbled into an embarrassing 5:0 defeat in the League Cup, away at plucky Wimbledon.

As one of the 2,110 official crowd that night, and arriving directly from work, Tonto was be-suited in pin-stripes and carrying a black umbrella. Over time I’ve convinced myself he was wearing a bowler hat too (but that is probably just my memory exaggerating the rather plausible caricature).

Shortly after this introduction to the Rovers London Branch I travelled to Wormwood Scrubs fields one Sunday afternoon to make my footballing debut. I was shocked to see the team didn’t have a ‘proper’ Rovers strip and those who didn’t have their own shirts wore a second-hand navy blue Scotland team cast-off.

Tonto wore his old Rovers shirt with pride that day, despite it being riddled with holes, in need of a good wash and failing to comply with any FIFA regulations.

Those who didn’t know Tonto could be excused for thinking he was part of an upper-class elite from Oxford University, merely slumming it with the lumpenproletariat as part of some social experiment. He spoke the Queen’s English, he talked the talk and he introduced me to some big, accountant-speak words – I never knew a brand-new football team strip could be ‘amortized’ over a three year term (well, not as such)!

But Tonto was one of us; brought up in Blackburn, a proper Rovers fan, often distraught, sometimes delirious but nearly always there to follow the ‘world’s greatest’ as he would say often.

Despite all his later denials, he really did do a mini-breakdance routine, in front of Don Mackay, Steve Archibald, Ossie Ardiles, Colin Hendry, Howard Gayle and er…Tony Diamond in the Bishop Bonner pub, Bethnal Green, after Rovers had secured a play-off spot away at Millwall in May 1988 (4:1 away victory). We were all delirious that night.

Eventually I became player-manager of the London Branch football team from 1988 to 1991 and soon realised Tonto was one of the most reliable members of the squad. Virtually ever-present, competent around the field and a reliable stand-in goalkeeper; he even weighed-in with a few goals now and again.

We were an eclectic bunch but enjoyed three ground-breaking summer football tours; the first two to Brixham in Devon and the third to Brighton. Tonto was part of all three trips and played a blinder in goal at St James’ Park (May 1990) as we narrowly lost 3:1 to a far superior team from Exeter City supporters club.

In Brixham we had all stayed in the guest-house of a former London Branch member (Roger Snowdon) – an old friend to some of the more established team. Following some typically boisterous drinking behaviour from the younger element (of which Mrs Snowdon was most disapproving) the elders, including Tonto, John Knight and Allan Fell, retired to one of the rooms for a late night cup
of tea.

I shall always remember the incredulity that Tonto displayed when, upon the orders of his wife, Roger Snowdon burst in to ‘check the room for beer!’ Also, having been met by rather childish and muffled laughter from the elder statesmen’s tea party, they were all sent to bed for laughing about it!

Normally, what happens on tour stays on tour, but I can recall (summer 1991) Tonto happily taking part in that most vulgar of working class pursuits, the karaoke night in Brighton! His enthusiastic contribution was a very flat version of the Beatles ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’

I’m unsure of Tonto’s belief system, but if he is up there in the sky, he’s probably holding court over a pint of Thwaites best, with Noel Brotherston, Ronnie Clayton and Jack Walker and advising them on the pros and cons of equity differentials and the secured bond markets etc.

Over the years I have played football, darts, pool and cricket with Tonto and attended beer festivals, curry houses and countless Rovers matches, home and away. We were in Trelleborg for Rovers first ever adventure in European football and we have shared enigmatic tales of genuine wit and repartee, as often reported in the branch newsletter, Many Miles From Home.

Despite being tagged as an ‘International Man of Mystery’ and regarded as ‘a bit of a boffin’ (terms which I suspect he was secretly happy to be known by) above all, Tonto was a friend, a loyal Rovers fan and a true Blackburnian.

Arte et Labore

Tonto, RIP

(Martin ‘the boy’ Cook – November 2012)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Writing about politics and business

This blog used to have a fairly clear identity and a sense of purpose. It was a chance for me to write about the stuff I didn't write about at work. A place where the work life balance played out. My work and my life now is a little more integrated and entwined. It also involves a fair amount of blogging and commenting for the different businesses and organisations I work with.

As the chairman of Downtown Manchester in Business I have a regular blog called Taking the Michael, which I update every Friday.

The standards of the Downtown blogs are first rate. I am humbled to be posting alongside one of the best political writers in the country in the shape of Jim Hancock. He absolutely knows his patch.

I also have to say that Downtown's chief executive Frank McKenna is a superb analyst of business and politics.

I've been blogging regularly on the North West Football Awards, some of which I have a been judge. Some of these have been crossposts.

On top of all of that I'm regularly commenting and blogging on the GrowthAccelerator website, providing a regular drumbeat of content and opinion about my mission to support growing businesses.

It's unlikely I'll talk about Marple's changing retail scene on the Downtown blog, nor will I prattle on about Rovers and family trips to Belfast on GrowthAccelerator. But this does chip away at what I used to use this site for. I'll get there, but bear with me.

Norwegian Branch: History lesson with uncle Bill

Norwegian Branch: History lesson with uncle Bill: The Vikings are alive and well and living in the North West of England, if we are to belive our friend William "Bill" Routledge. We asked h...

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Greater Manchester Groundhopping

I miss going to my football club. I could just swallow my pride and start going back to Ewood Park, but I'm stubborn like that. One day I hope the Venky's will be gone, but until they do, then we won't go. To give my non-league adventures a bit of a purpose I'm going to try and chalk off the Greater Manchester grounds this season. I love the feeling of walking through the turnstiles at a new ground, sampling the atmosphere, tasting the pies, weighing up the balance of two teams of toilers at an unfamiliar standard and feeding off the crowd's knowledge of who is who.

My 134th ground was Ashton United's Hurst Cross, which had a tidy little main stand with a covered terrace opposite and open ends behind each goal. I sat in the main stand with FC United supporters around me, expressing their disappointment at certain players, especially in the second half when Ashton pegged them right back and should have wiped out the 2-0 half time deficit.

It was also the first time I'd seen the FC United rebels in action. The team play with a lot of energy and passion and don't seem to have the odd primadonna that blights most teams at this level. They were supported by hundreds of fans who sang all through the game with a fine spread of hyperbolic and colourful banners. I have to say I was a bit disappointed at their berating of Ashton players "you fat bastard" and the ubiquitous "this is a shit hole, I want to go home" that the modern funboy gobbie fans like to sing as part of the matchday 'banter'. I thought the co-operative principles of this club were above that sort of nonsense. It has to be said that the fans do give FC a lift, a desolate ground with only the home fans willing their team on may have broken the siege of the second half. You have to remember though, these fans are from a tradition of supporting the world's most arrogant football club.

Anyway, next up will be any one from Curzon Ashton, Radcliffe Borough, Ramsbottom United (steam trains too!) or Trafford. The real soul of football and not a "global advisor" to be seen.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Amy Macdonald at the Lowry - superb

We went to see Amy Macdonald at the Lowry last week. I thought she was pretty amazing. I think I saw her on Jools Holland first of all and just thought, what a voice, what well crafted songs and what a lovely girl  - I bet her parents are so proud of her. I know, such a Dad thing to say.

But the set she did was perfectly constructed. New, old, stripped down acoustic versions, signature hits, even a brilliant cover of Jackie Wilson's Your Love Lifts Me Higher. She ended the set with a stirring rendition of my favourite track off her first album - Let's Start a Band - a great song even without the horns and the choir. But I was curious as to what her core audience is - she does festivals, she is massive in Europe, Paul Weller has worked with her and yet she was ignored by the hip music press, and chose the least rock and roll venue in Manchester. The audience was more folky than rocky, which rather suits me. I'm well past that stage where I care whether something is hip or not, but I wonder about her - she's neither one thing nor the other. Far better than all that bland X Factor stuff, yet not folky hip either. Yet I think as her tour bus leaves Glasgow for a sell out concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday next week she's not going to be too bothered about whether Mark Ellen reviewed her album in the last issue of the Word.

Something horrible I need to get off my chest

A long while ago, I worked with a lad who told another lad on the team that he was serially abused from a young age by one of the senior men in the organisation. I then witnessed another lad asking what to do after the same bloke propositioned him - "be a man about it" came the reply. It was a horrible atmosphere around the place and I was relieved to leave. These were all consenting adults, even though there is something deeply unpleasant about abuses of power and sexual relations. I never heard directly from the lad who had supposedly been abused. In fact he told me, in glowing terms, that this man was his mentor. The guy even rang me once and offered some career advice - if I hadn't heard the rumours I'd think he was kind and generous. Maybe he was, maybe the whole 'dark other thing' was imagined and made up by gossips.

Equally, I've worked in other places where junior people see demons and devils around every corner. Charismatic bosses must be sexually corrupt or on cocaine. They must be at it, because that's what fertile imaginations demand.

So, in the light of all this sickening stuff about Jimmy Savile, you start to think what is the right thing to do? Apparently everyone knew about Savile, it was an open secret. He was dropped from Children in Need because he was a bit creepy. Well, is that enough? Of course it isn't. And if you do tell, then who do you tell? What do you tell?

A city break in Belfast with the family

The kids were thrilled when I told them we were going away on a plane for the half term break. There was a certain disappointment when they learned it was to Belfast. The birthplace of the Titanic still carries the baggage of the recent past, even with pre-teen kids. But having hopped over there on business myself I am positively evangelical about the place and was itching to show them around a city I have got to know quite well and grown rather fond of.

The Titanic Belfast visitor attraction is brilliant. It is one of the best of its kind I have seen. It manages to span a huge range of touching points that the Titanic opens - starting with the history of the city itself, to the empire, trade, maritime engineering right through to emigration and social class when the exhibits got to the maiden voyage.

In the city centre we enjoyed Linen Hall Library and the City Hall and compared how it is so similar to Stockport Town Hall! We looked around the new Victoria Square centre, which was very pleasant.  It was fascinating how Halloween is so enthusiastically supported, probably as the Guy Fawkes celebration of the next week - with all its burning parliaments and Catholics is a little too raw.

The open top bus tour in the rain wasn't such a hit. It gave the kids a perspective on the city, but the sights of armoured cars, peace walls and derelict buildings were hard to take in as we were rather rushed from one place to the next. As one of them commented as we wound our way up the Shankill Road - "it's like Brinnington with murals".

I think seeing this important part of British history is educative. I want Northern Ireland to be normal and happy. All the lovely people I've met over there want to embrace a new future away from the turmoil and madness of the past. But breaking with that past, but still appreciating its impact on people's heritage is important. We took a bus ride out to a sweet emporium in the Castlereagh Road area of East Belfast. Next to the bus stop home was a mural we had been led to believe had been phased out and replaced with George Best and CS Lewis tributes. Not so.

We left with a sense that we'd had a good old look around and were still left with a few more things we could have done. But Belfast is a city with a lot of energy and the Titantic may have been a tragedy 100 years ago, it's an opportunity now.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

I bought a car on the back of a Jeremy Clarkson review

I love my new car. I like how it is economical, sleek and comfortable. I like too that although I'm not that bothered about cars as totems, it nevertheless says something about me. Not much, you understand, because it is only a car.
Yes, I've bought, or should I say leased, a Toyota Prius. In the first month I've already been to Newcastle, Liverpool (twice), Nottingham, Sheffield, Derby and all around the North West. It has never felt like hard work and has been easy to drive through the night. It handles well. I nearly ran over a couple of pedestrians in Chinatown today as they don't sense it when it is in silent EV model at 10mph. And I know this seems so incredibly minor, but it seems to work with my phone and music player and sat nav. Something that somehow didn't happen for me with my previous cars (Audi A4 and Fiat 500).
But more than that, I also have to say too that I was tipped over the edge by the vendetta waged on this car by Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear. I love that he hates it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

First awayday for the kids

I took two of the lads to their first trip out on the road with the Barmy Army. I wouldn't contemplate it with the Kean Out vitriol of recent seasons - stories of fans arguing and fighting wasn't worth it to me.

We chose a short drive to Pride Park to see Derby County against the Rovers. The game should have been wrapped up within an hour. Despite some huffing and puffing Derby were palpably weaker in all departments than Rovers. After Jordan Rhodes put Rovers ahead, everyone in the stadium expected the dominance in midfield to show, but with 5 minutes left on the clock Derby slotted a deserved equaliser. I say deserved because a complacent and lazy performance doesn't ever deserve a win.

And I took the flag, but it was inspected before I was able to display it.  What if it said "Love Rovers, Hate Venky's"? or "Forever Rovers - Never Venky's"? then Derby's stewards would have prevented me from putting it up. Not unexpected, but out of order.

Literature and football

A novel or a film about football can't match the genuine sense of jeopardy or drama of sport. It can exaggerate it, or even explain it. But it only ever seeks to use sport as a backdrop or as a very dominant proxy character. I say all of this after spending a very engaging 90 minutes discussing two books at an event at the Manchester Literature Festival with their authors. The writers in question are David Conn (Richer Than God) and Rodge Glass (Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs), both were funny and gave great anecdotes about their books and their personal relationship with football. 
I would recommend both books. 
David Conn writes expansively and draws on a depth of research and social analysis that marks him out in a world of football writers that rather hang off the coat tails of the machine. He's rather earned the freedom to do that and in so doing imparts some uncomfortable truths. Though football is the starting point, he makes incisive observations on flows of international capital, how Manchester's poor haven't gained from the riches of football and leveraged buyouts. But I found myself disagreeing with some of his economic conclusions, and rather looking forward to a more searing attack on Abu Dhabi's riches and the politics of oil, which never came. That said, there are none better. I also sensed a deeper story on his personal journey, but that's his choice.
Rodge Glass similarly researches hard. There is little to fault the detail of the story of Mikey Wilson, an authentic Manchester tale of disappointment. Some have said he resembles Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureshi, but I liked his monologue on the reality of sport which was resonant of John Niven's dissection of the music business in Kill Your Friends. There's also something of David Peace's reality fiction.    
But have a peek at these reviews of the event.


Monday, October 01, 2012

Watching Chester's revival at Stalybridge

We fancied some real football on Saturday so took in a trip up to Bower Fold, home of Stalybridge Celtic to see the visit of Chester, a club which has fallen through the leagues only to bounce back again.

As I've been to Hyde a few times this season it seemed traitorous to go on the home end of their bitter enemies, so we joined the 800 or so Chester fans behind the goal. The first half was horribly, cruelly, one sided with Chester setting up a 4-0 half time lead. The second half was a 2-2 draw, which is all the Celtic bench of Jim Harvey and Tim Ryan could have hoped.

I liked Bower Fold, a nice little stadium, two stands and two covered terraces. It's my 133rd ground on which I've watched senior football. These trips are fun, a glimpse into a slightly more joyful and honest version of football. It's also heartening to see so many fans rally to the flag of their club after everything they've been through.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The cowboy has gone, now let's chase the Indians out of town

I don't feel like celebrating Steve Kean's resignation from Blackburn Rovers. And I genuinely fear what the next act will be in this hideous circus.

Don't get me wrong, I had no regard for Kean as a manager or in the way he conducted himself. I was suspicious of Kean's comments recently that Shebby Singh had bought certain players and he hadn't seen them. His self pitying reaction to Singh's comments at an open evening also smacked of a man looking for excuses. It all rather exposed the sham of his "man of quiet dignity" persona he has cultivated.

It cannot be healthy for someone to be so hated and so blamed. In fact it is wrong the way he has been singled out by the fans, and even more shameful that the owners allowed him to be the lightning rod for such discontent.

Clearly now he is holding out for his big pay off for constructive dismissal. He will be assisted by his pals in the managers' club crying crocodile tears for one of their own, knowing full well that if he was sacked for poor performance - as he should have been - and not paid up to the end of his contract, then it would set a precedent. Football management is the one professional job you can be rubbish at, and still be rewarded. They all get massive pay offs. I rather suspect the surprise that Venky's experienced on learning that Sam Allardyce was going to get a cheeky million or two has been looming large in their minds as they wonder what to do about Kean.

If the boycott was the catalyst that pushed Venky's to fire him, then it must continue. They must learn that fans do not support their twisted vision of using a community football club to promote chicken, if that is what it is. I still suspect darker motives.

I've lost track of who's in charge at Rovers. It almost doesn't matter. Derek Shaw doesn't know what is going on. Shebby Singh is a joke appointment, the Mark Lawrenson of Malaysia. It breaks my heart to see what is happening.

So, no, I don't feel like celebrating. This is not a new beginning, but hopefully it is the beginning of the end of Venky's.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dropping a division

Phil Jevons
Phil Jevons, Hyde FC hat trick hero on Saturday

Form is temporary, class is permanent, so the saying goes. One of my earliest memories of following Blackburn Rovers as a kid is the different reactions to older players joining the club on the downslopes of their career. John Radford, ex-Arsenal, used to get dog's abuse for his lack of goals, while the crowd were far more forgiving of Duncan Mackenzie. Some are perceived to be living off past glories and picking up a meal ticket, others bring a new exciting dimension and valuable experience.

What must it be like for a player realising his pace and fitness has dropped, but he still wants to keep on playing. To do so, he drops a division so he can be effective. Sometimes the pressure can be greater than when playing in a higher league. The game is different and so therefore are expectations.

I was thinking of this on Saturday when I went to see Hyde play at home to Hereford. The Tigers have found it tough in the Conference, having won the Conference North last season. To bolster the promoted side they signed Phil Jevons. I saw him play against both Barrow and Southport and felt for him. I also felt for his strike partner Scott Spencer, who banged them in last term, but had an equally barren start to the season. Their runs weren't being picked up - I sensed Jevons had some clever flicks but Spencer wasn't seeing them. Both were getting bullied a bit too.

Well, on Saturday it all came together. Jevons got a hat trick and Spencer scored a wondergoal. The interplay between them was excellent. In fact, once Jevons got his first it looked like he'd score every time he had the ball at his feet. Confidence is everything.

There are lots of examples around the divisions of players who've made the transition, up or down, and we'll certainly be bearing all this in mind as judges of the North West Football Awards this year - it's the mark of a quality player how they respond to change.

Friday, September 07, 2012

A friend in need?

One of the things that strikes me about the people who know each other through work and their businesses in and around Northern cities is they look out for each other. Friendships strike up between the unlikeliest people. As we become absorbed by our families, we may have less time for friends, even less for new ones, but we still meet people we grow enormously fond of.

We sometimes never know what troubles, what demons, can lurk beneath. All I have to say today, is this. If you know who I am, if we have shared time together, then you'll know I care about people. I look out for my friends and love my family. But if you're suffering, if you are agonising, and that you just need someone neutral to talk to, someone uncomplicated by longer attachment to you and whatever it is that's troubling you, and you do know where to find me, then do. I'm the father of five sons, so I worry about this constantly. There's a phrase that chills me: most men lead lives of quiet desperation. While I accept that men aren't very good at all this soft stuff, please, if you need a friend, then call me.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ted Smith - a true pioneer of football and an inspiration

Ted Smith, left, coach of Benfica
All of us have important early memories of our lives as football supporters. The noise, the crowds, a particular player, the cold night air, a sense of a special occasion, or the emotions of the people around us.

I was fortunate that my Dad wanted me to watch games from an early age. We'd take in matches at Preston, Blackpool, Blackburn as well as Lancaster City. But he was always keen to take in European nights and that meant a trip to Anfield or the Racecourse at Wrexham. One was a complete write off when a game against Anderlect was swathed in fog, but we particularly enjoyed a 3-0 win over Trabzonspur in about November 1976.

Obviously we never became Liverpool fans. But the root of my Dad's love of European football opens up an extraordinary story of an English football coach who played a vital role in the shape of the game in the 1960s as club competition became more intense and styles collided.

My Grandfather, Stan Taylor, had been a Commando in the war, served his country heroically and was a man of some stature in the community in Lancaster where he moved to be the manager of Woolworths. He became friends with a man called Ted Smith, pictured above, who at the time was the landlord of a pub in Skerton, just over the River Lune from the town centre.

Here's the amazing story. Ted Smith had been a player with Millwall and Crystal Palace. For reasons and circumstances I can't fathom, but am eager to learn more about, he became the coach of Benfica. The foundations of the team he built included the legendary Jose Aguas, the lynchpin of the side that went on to break Real Madrid's dominance of European football in the 1960s. Ted had brought Aguas from Angola to Portugal and the two had a strong bond. I know this because my Dad witnessed their emotional reunion outside the Park Lane Hotel in London in 1962 when Benfica were in town for a European Cup semi final at White Hart Lane against the double winning Spurs side.

Such magical memories, such a proximity to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people has become part of our family folklore, even if I didn't realise it. These exotic influences on my Dad's life - a trip to London, seeing the greatest club side in the world at the time, meeting such legends. These things weren't accessible or easy to find back then. They shouldn't be now, either, but somehow television makes them rather less mysterious. That memory, those moments, encouraged my Dad to seek out such experiences for me. Maybe that what was also behind the first Subbuteo sets he got me, Juventus and Ajax - after the 1971 final.

I notice that Google puts a previous post by me about Ted Smith fairly high on the search criteria. I've been contacted since by Ted's son Harvey, and by a bloke writing a Millwall A-Z. Beyond that the trail is cold - I've found newspaper cuttings from Lancaster that rather coldly reports how "Mr Ted Smith, the former Benfica coach," became the manager of Lancaster City FC in 1967, as if that achievement was on a par with Barrow or Bamber Bridge. But what more can we celebrate and know of these pioneers, these adventurers who saw football as a route to a new life and amazing experiences that shape our culture today. People laud Terry Venables for what he did at Barcelona, but surely this was greater?

Harvey has told me via email that his father passed away in 1993 and is buried in Lisbon, where Benfica looked after him in his final years, respect and love from a fine club who remembered a hero of their history.

Where great minds meet

It was the trailblazer event for the Manchester Literature Festival last night. Zadie Smith read from her new novel NW, and was then interviewed by journalist and broadcaster Anita Sethi.

To me though the real stars of the show were the Manchester public - smart, clever, engaged and enquiring. It struck me this is just what Stuart Maconie was referring to in his chippy love letter to the North in the New Statesman recently - yes, sure, London has loads of intellectual events, but we have them too. It's also given me tons of inspiration to do more.

While I'm banging on about the festival, make sure you book early for my event - an audience with David Conn and Rodge Glass, two authors talking about Manchester, football and literature.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Northern Monkeys - a book about growing up

Next month will see the publication of a book I've been working on for the last few years. It's called Northern Monkeys and it's a journey through working class social history in the North of England.

At its centre is the "casual/dresser" scene of the 1980s - lads going to football in gangs, dressed to the nines in designer sportswear and often with violent motives. For me and Bill Routledge, the prime mover and guiding hand of the project, it's the period that defined and changed everything. Fashion, sport, work, pride, politics and it all came together in this uniquely volatile period of recent history. The book covers where it was all rooted, what it was like to be there at the time, who was first, how the looks of the time quickly mutated and how the key figures at the time went on to use that mindset to influence music and fashion to this day.

But to see it as a book about football casuals is an epic understatement. Its central core is a way of interpreting that movement and putting it slap bang in the context of some seismic social and cultural changes.

We start with tales of post-war austerity, moving through the sharp suits, the Teddy Boys and the Cunard Boys - Liverpudlian seamen who would stock up on rare fashion items on their international jaunts - clearly influencing their sons and heirs in the Transalpino era. Male narcissism and looking good was nothing new, of course, and the pack look of football lads of the 1980s clearly cocked a nod in the direction of the Mods and even skinheads of the previous two decades. Different scenes also fed into it - we've got a whole section of memories from Northern Soul devotees and the look and lustre of nights at Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca.

Where this look differed for those of us in Northern towns was that it was more DIY than many have previously acknowledged. The early Scouse pioneers tracked down rare Adidas trainers in Germany, the Manc innovators plundered market stalls for flares and leathers as the look evolved. But my early memories of the developing style was rooting out a Fila tennis top at Lancaster University sports shop, finding Pringle in old man's shops and a Peter Storm cagoul in an outdoors shop. For many it was about buying the look off the shelf in Hurleys in Manchester or Wade Smith in Liverpool, for early adopters, it never was.

The compiler of this has been a lad I'm now proud to call a good friend, Bill Routledge. He's cajoled and persuaded a huge range of mates and contacts to contribute various tales, some going back to the post-war period of austerity and community building in Northern towns like Preston, others are boot boys, skinheads, rockabillies and the most dominant cult of them all at the dawn of this movement - the punks. Bill and his crowd in Preston in 1981, like me and my Lancaster mates (pictured, right, in 1984), made a transition from punk to "football lad" - it was a remarkable transformation. This was the closest I ever got to being in a "firm" - Lancaster, Morecambe and Carnforth lads all supported different teams, the picture above covers lads who followed Blackburn Rovers, Morecambe, Manchester United, Blackpool, Rangers and Spurs, from memory. Can you spot me, by the way?

I've always carried this look on. During Fresher's week at University in 1985 I was turned away from the goth and punk night at the Ritz in Manchester for wearing chinos, deck shoes, a Lacoste polo and a red Italian chunky jumper. It didn't have a name then, but this was the emerging Paninaro look. By the time of our third year my mates were well into looking smarter too - we liked Chevignon, Chipie, C17 and Timberland for a night at the Hacienda or the Venue, way before the Madchester druggie rave scene. By the time we moved to London, the treasure trove that was Shop 70 on Lamb's Conduit Street in the 90s was a delight, and a few pieces of Stone Island and CP Company still adorn my wardrobe as a tribute to that era and that look.

For my bit of the book I've interviewed Robert Wade-Smith, Barry Bown from JD Sports and Gary Aspden, the former brand director of Adidas, as well as commissioning a few tales from lads who were there with stories to tell. The stories are long and revealing and I like to think I get what they're about, the journey they've been on and how their interpretation of brands and street fashion influenced the high street today.

One thing Northern Monkeys is certainly not is hoolie-porn, there's been enough of that to be honest, but it doesn't try and sugarcoat a movement that had football violence as one of its core identifiers.

So, here's the Northern Monkeys website, have a nosy at that. There's a Northern Monkeys Book Facebook page which we're using to gather some extra pictures and messages and you can join in this majestic nostalgia fest on Twitter by following @MonkeyNorth.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Toast Deli in Marple is no more - very sad

I was saddened to see that Toast Deli in Marple has shut its doors for the last time today. They offered a pleasant ambience with a modern foody feel. We had a delicious cooked breakfast there one Saturday and their coffee was excellent. The chicken liver pate (pictured) is a delight, though I last bought mine from our butcher in Romiley. Toast also worked hard on the community events and there were rave reviews for the tasting evenings. But, it must have been tough competing with All Things Nice, just 30 yards away, and though I divided my loyalties between the two, this does nothing to assuage my feelings of guilt that I didn't go there more often, or genuine sadness for the lovely staff in a place that tried to be new and different.

But the grim reality of the demise is what it says about Marple. Toast would probably thrive in a different location, not so far away. Dutsons and Libby's are doing well in nearby Marple Bridge, while Bramhall has quite a restaurant scene these days. Toast would have done so much better there, it would seem.

As one door closes two more open - a cafe and sandwich shop called Truly Scrumptious on the old site of Grenaby Farm Bakers has just opened; while Rileys, a new newsagents and butty bar opposite Costa Coffee on Stockport Road, is up for it. I'd argue that Grenaby couldn't live with Greenhalgh's and Greggs for cheap pies and bread, which leads you to think why do more of the same. While the popularity of Costa must have really hurt Toast and near neighbour All Things Nice, it has gained a certain magnetism even with grumpy staff. I wish the two new businesses well, but it is a tough market with the ever creeping presence of multiples making it harder for quality independents.

I also posed the question on this blog last week as to whether Marple was a Waitrose or an Aldi kind of place. I rather think we've just had the answer.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Empty seats at Ewood Park

Here I am, pictured, surrounded by empty seats at Ewood Park, home of the club I have loved since I was 11 years old. Obviously I'm not qualified to sit in that particular seat, but...
I didn't go much last season - three times in fact - I managed more than that in 1988-1989 when I lived in Australia from September. Last season's stayaway wasn't a boycott as such, partly it was because of the toxic atmosphere that the angry fans had created, but frankly, I just wasn't enjoying it anymore. Now, it's more straightforward. I refuse to give the club a penny of my money while Venky's are in charge.

I'm not a glory hunter, who will only go to Premier League games. My first season as a regular was 1977-1978 and Rovers were a mid-table Second Division side with an average crowd of about 7,000. We were in the same division as Blackpool, Burnley and Bolton. Preston were in the division below. I chose this. I made a conscious decision to support a local team instead of Manchester United, Leeds or Liverpool. All the good times were a bonus, an unexpected gift from a rich fan who helped this club do great things. Without him, well, we'd be in the Second Division, on a level with the rest of our Lancashire rivals. So no, I'm a realist and I'm not a spoilt child, but what the Venky's are doing is as poor a job at running down an institution as football has ever seen.

There is hardly anything worth saying on the subject, because there is nothing they can do to change my mind. Even if they do things which on the surface seem like good moves.

Signing new players It may well be that by chucking a few quid at the squad that Venky's believe they can get back up. Some of the signings seem OK, but my heart and head says they have absolutely no chance. Steve Kean's record speaks for itself.

Communicating better The connection to the fans was lost a long time ago, gimmicks and stunts have backfired, I have never rated Paul Agnew either as a PR man, or anyway capable of running the club. This new director of football, Shebby Singh, came across as a bumbling buffoon on TalkSport. The reaction from the manager that his comments at a Fan's Forum were "disruptive" was further evidence of how manipulative Kean is with the media and how he engineers every situation for his advantage. Always the victim, never his fault.

Colin Hendry The recruitment of Colin Hendry as a coach is far more complex than a hero returning, in fact it's as tangled as Hendry's financial affairs.

Winning games Last night was the first home game of the season. And it had the lowest crowd since 1993 when Ewood was a building site. I had no excuse for not going, and I missed being there and I was glad they won, in fact, I hope they win all the matches at Ewood. If anything I'm quite looking forward to an away game soon - though I couldn't possibly take this moral high ground and go to the next one - MK Dons away!

Sacking Steve Kean This seems unlikely, but it is their ace card. The fans have worked themselves up into a frenzy on this issue and his sacking would make them happy, but he's not the problem. I want them to go, and take him with them.

Lack of performance on the pitch hasn't persuaded Venky's to give it all up, but lack of corporate, sponsor and commercial support will hit them where it hurts. That, and the sight of all those empty seats.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My holiday reading

Remember beach and villa holidays where you'd read a book a day? Vaguely. I ambitiously took a stack of books I've been looking forward to reading. I was mildly disappointed in them all.

Dom Joly's Dark Tourist wasn't as funny as I expected it to be, nor as angry about the way places like Lebanon, Cambodia and North Korea are like they are. It's a strange juxtaposition, an anarchic comedian known for his irreverence visiting places that require sensitivity and reverence. That said, I enjoyed his anecdotes.

Reading Owen Jones' Chavs is like sitting opposite someone on a train who just goes on and on, and you end up just losing the will to argue anymore and end up agreeing with them. His central premise that the white working class have been unfairly demonised is fair enough. Where I dispute his argument and his conclusions is his ascribing a raw agenda of class war to Conservatives and a rather rosy view of unions and their role in workplaces. As a polemicist he's entitled to use any device he likes to make his point, but it tends to come across as rather shrill. In his new introduction, and lately on Twitter, he's addressed the riots of last summer. It was not a protest, it was raw criminality. To fail to acknowledge that is the politics of fantasy.

I enjoyed Nick Cohen's book, but his punchy style left me exhausted. There's too much "yebbut" - who are the people he is attacking, through such a wide subject as freedom of speech and censorship? 

"Because they believe the real enemy is at home, Western radicals ignore the victims of dictatorial states," he says. I'm not sure what some idiots on Comment is Free have to say is that important, to be honest. I loved What's Left?, his broadside on the decline of the moral left in Britain, but there are bigger subjects involved and far more deserving of scrutiny.

The whole issue of freedom of speech is currently at the centre of so many warped and undeserving starting points - Julian Assange, people who set up fake Twitter accounts, racist footballers, internet trolls. The moral maze is complex indeed.

Is Marple an Aldi, or a Waitrose, kind of place?

Stockport Council is pressing ahead with plans to develop Chadwick Street car park in the centre of Marple. Kirkland Developments is in pole position and is in partnership with a retailer.

It throws quite a cog into Asda's plans for developing a large store on the site of the Sixth Form College on Hibbert Lane. All their calculations on demand and consumer need will need reforecasting. Asda may be used to getting their own way, and may still do so.

But where does any of this leave the balance of Marple's shopping offer? What effect will this development have on the butchers, the bakers and the other local shops?

I notice a few more subtle changes to the retail make up now that I work here a few days a week. There's a new newsagent and sandwich bar planned on Stockport Road opposite Costa Coffee. The likely occupier of the old HSBC unit is Domino's Pizza. The new American sweet shop Stars and Stripes has gone down an absolute storm during the kids holidays - I wish them well and hope they don't refer too much trade to the business next door - the dentists. My favourite new addition to the centre has been the dog grooming shop on the corner of Hollins Lane.

Like it or not, the brands in an area say something about the sense of place and start to determine which other retail brands will gravitate to a location, but as much as I'd like a bustling cluster of independents, there is a remorseless march of the multiples.

So who arrives in Chadwick Street will have a huge bearing on the character of Marple.

Waitrose are on a massive expansion drive and have opened in Alderley Edge, Poynton and Cheadle Hulme recently. I'm pretty sure many Marple people like to think of their home on the same par as these places.

But what of the other likely expansive retail player on the prowl at the moment, Aldi? What if Aldi were to add to their successful stores in Hyde, Hazel Grove and Romiley with a new store in Marple? I shop at Aldi and often fill a trolley at the Hazel Grove store for about £30, then spend the same amount again on a basket at M&S Food next door.

I enjoy the savings, but can't say I enjoy the experience. It's pretty stark and functional and OK for the basics. But here's the deal, there's a market for this kind of thing in Marple. The Co-op is expensive, the local shops can't offer the range. The German discount retailer would go down a storm with a large part of the population. But would signal a huge move in the identity and direction of what Marple represents.

The future of the centre is becoming a sideshow while so much attention, rightly, is looking intently at the dastardly deeds of the College and their sneaky deal with Asda.

The question is, what kind of place is Marple? The one we are, the one we had, or the one we wish we could be, but aren't? I honestly don't know.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Our Olympic legacy

I can't add very much to the wall of plaudits for the London 2012 Olympics. We all really enjoyed the spectacle, the only regret being that our application to buy tickets yielded only football at Old Trafford - like we can never do that. How brilliant must it have been to have seen the athletics on either Super Saturday, but even just to have soaked up the atmosphere at the Handball or the Badminton.

There has been a lot of talk about inspiring a generation - I so hope that happens, even if all the evidence is that it makes no difference. In JJB the other day the sales assistant confirmed that people are buying more sports equipment, there is definite interest in running, tennis and cycling.

I worry that the education agenda is being kicked around by politicians eager to meddle and jump on a passing bandwagon - the aim shouldn't just be to produce 80 odd Olympians from the millions of children who take part in school sports, rather to make every kid feel that exercise and ambition are for them. That's inspiring a generation.

So in our house we've all got bikes. Partly it was the inspiration of Bradley Wiggins and co, but also that we are blessed to live in such a great place for cycling - the former rail line, the Middlewood Way, and all the canal tow paths are perfect.

My bike is a folding Dahon (right), single speed, pedal brakes and not much else. I bought it from Will's Wheels, which has a bike shop in Marple. I mention the local angle because it makes me feel slightly better about the fact the bike was made in Taiwan. I was tempted to get a British made Brompton after meeting Will Butler Adams last month, the MD of the iconic British bike company, but £800 is a stretch. Maybe next time.

The Dahon is excellent for taking on public transport and whizzing around Manchester. I was able to take it on the train to cycle friendly Milton Keynes recently, and it was ideal - but everywhere I go I'm stopped to talk about the bike, it's a real show stopper.

So there we are, a bit more opportunity for exercise and a quicker way to get around. However good the kids are at any of this only time will tell, but it's so important to hold those great feelings of exhilaration and embrace this sporting life in all its forms.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

St Frank of North Liverpool

The awesome Olympic ceremony was a spectacle made and conceived by two proud sons of the North West, Danny Boyle and his mate Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer. Frank has written an incredibly warm and wonderful account of his Olympic opening ceremony adventure and how he kept it all a secret for the last couple of weeks.

We went to the Hay Festival in June and met with Frank, firstly because after we watched his talk we queued up to get a book signed (pictured). Our kids love his writing and his sense of humour. I thought he did an amazing job of 24 Hour Party People - remember, "faced with the truth and the legend, always print the legend." And of course he was part of the team on Brookside when it was good. Personally, I love how he also articulates his Catholic faith in such a profound way. Not easy, not comforting, but almost ... obvious.

We then bumped into him again at Hay and stopped for a chat. He was even more lovely and impressive in person than I possibly imagined him to be. I asked him if he'd do a couple of things for projects I'm involved in. Long story short, he's agreed to. 

To see the universal acclaim for the opening ceremony makes me so proud of our tolerant and creative country and the embrace of a loving and diverse population. Even the nasty wing of the Guardian and Daily Mail and the keyboard warriors trying to be sage just reinforce the core of what Danny Boyle and Frank were pointing out. It was a piece of audacious, obvious, courageous genius. So do read the link, but if you can't be bothered, then my highlight is this:

"As Danny wrote in his introduction to the brochure: "We can build Jerusalem, and it will be for everyone." He'll hate me for saying this but he has a very Catholic sense that yes, this is a fallen world, but you can find grace and beauty in its darkest corners – even if you chop off your arm to do so."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Joe Birrell - Olympic Hero

Our kids had to do a presentation on an Olympic hero. Louis and Elliot chose a guy who competed in the 1948 "austerity" Olympics in London called Joe Birrell. He was my maths teacher at school and got me through my O Level resit. He never boasted about his sporting achievements, in fact he was a bit of an enigma to be honest. Here's a story about 'Joe Biz' from the Lancaster Guardian.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Steve Kean and Rovers - my concern over the Kean Out abuse

Of unknown origin, but borrowed from a fansite
To the Crown Ground, home of Accrington Stanley today for two Blackburn Rovers pre-season friendly matches. One against Fleetwood and another against the home side. I went out of curiosity and to chalk off a new ground, my 132nd.

Two totally different Rovers teams turned out. The first game was more of a practice match which Rovers won. The second was turgid and niggly with loads of mistakes. Rovers lost. You learn very little from a pre-season, but it is a good barometer of the mood around the club.

The fans are still feeling very raw. The abuse of Steve Kean, especially when the pubs emptied for the second game, was unrelenting. I have a worry about this. Were he to be sacked, the Venky's would immediately prick a bubble of protest. Hooray, they'd all celebrate, the problem is gone. But of course it hasn't. We have negligent, ignorant, hopeless owners. It is they who have destroyed the club. Sure, Kean has been a willing and atrocious accomplice, but all this is a diversion and lets Venky's off the hook.

Venky's must go, and they must take clueless Kean with them, but if people are in the mood to be angry, remember the real culprits. There are enough people who care about our club, we will also be "the club that won't die" but I'm still not prepared to give the club a penny while Venky's, Anderson, Kean and the whole shower remain. Aways only until then.

And no appearance for Myles Anderson either. Maybe he's off to Manchester United, now that Chris Smalling is injured?

The Purple Pakora - a cut above the average curry house

Picture of Purple Pakora taken by Ted of Mellor View
Maybe all curry houses are starting to get smarter, especially in the suburbs. Maybe I just need to get out more. Even though we were warned by pals that the Purple Pakora wasn't that good, we went anyway. And I liked Ted Stockton's review on the Mellor View blog. I've also sniffed its aromas enough times when I've arrived home at Marple station.

The popadoms were a little lifeless - but the accompaniments were excellent, especially the coleslaw.

We didn't order starters as we sometimes overdo it on my favourite - mixed tandoori grill. Our mains were off the special menu - lemon tikka chicken, a big chunky prawn bhuna, bhindi bahji, mutter panneer, pilau rice and a peshwari nan.

Everything was really fresh tasting and not too oily. The chicken was a particular surprise, very distinctive.

For me though the real test comes the next day when we eat what we couldn't finish for breakfast. Warmed up in the Aga it was just as delicious, and again, not greasy at all.

So yes, I would heartily recommend the Purple Pakora, a really good dinner. Others have suggested the Blue Nile in Hazel Grove is excellent, and the Indigo in Romiley is even better than that. Neither however have the advantage that they are walking distance from my new office and right outside Marple station.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The death of The Word magazine

It's sad when a magazine closes. All of the effort and emotional commitment coming to an end. It seems especially sad when the publication is well loved, but not by quite enough people. And so it was with The Word magazine, the August issue will be the last.

I've been a subscriber for six years and have found something to enjoy in each issue. The circulation at the back end of 2010 was 25,000, a new iPad edition had just been released and the podcasts were a regular delight. Their strapline, a friendly American accent pronouncing "The Word, a magazine, a podcast, a way of life" was an accurate depiction of a brand extension. Indeed, their foray into live events attracted fierce loyalty from "the Word massive" and the True Stories Told Live evenings were fully subscribed.

The news of the demise is covered on the BBC and Media Guardian and follows the line that the falling circulation made it a difficult business to sustain. Declining circulation for a print title is nothing new. Yet I rather suspect something else forced the issue at this moment in time.

First, all magazines make money from advertising and copy sales. The Word's advertising team seemed to consist of one person. But a metropolitan readership with higher than average discretionary income should be able to attract higher spending advertisers in greater numbers than they did. The problem seemed to be a sales strategy built on the content of the magazine - festivals, CDs and books. That worked very well in the era of "Fifty Quid Bloke" the demographic which the founders identified back in 2001. But successful consumer magazines also feature adverts for products that the readers will like irrespective of whether they are written about. There was rarely a sponsor for the podcast, which amazed me. At a time when a lot of brands do get the importance of Long Tail marketing, there are worse parts of the long tail to own than a hub of middle class culture vultures.

Second, the founders and popular talismen for the title, publisher David Hepworth and editor Mark Ellen, always contributed the better features in the magazine, but my feeling was they've lost their love of new music. The things they contributed to Radio 4 about and wrote about on blogs expose such a rich hinterland, I suspect this is where their love lies. There is only so much you can write about music after a lifetime of doing just that. The best of the rest of the features in The Word were always the non-music ones to my mind, or Eamonn Forde's epic rants about the changing economics of the industry, and it became the strength of the magazine and what provided regular moments of serendipity.

Thirdly, owner Development Hell is a lean business but has experienced media industry investors like Chris Oakley. Like David Hepworth, he has sharp antennae for what is going on and what needs to be done, and a rather gloomy view of print media's future. The trouble was, they didn't have the energy to do what they know needs to be done to do it properly. What surprises me is there isn't at least a plan to take The Word online only. Maybe it's an experiment in human nature to see how self sustaining the Massive can be. Which I suppose takes me back to the first two points.

I'll miss it hugely and hope that the incredible array of talent involved in its production and writing will find a place somewhere else. I note with some interest that Andrew Harrison, formerly of this parish is brightening up Q magazine these days.

Monday, July 09, 2012

On getting an Honorary fellowship from UCLAN

I was awarded an honorary fellowship today, my birthday, by the University of Central Lancashire. It was a really special day. My Dad and his wife were there, so was Rachel. I had to do a short speech to the students and their parents, which I include here.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, recent graduates, parents and friends.

First of all, could I thank the University of Central Lancashire for this award.

50 years of running the journalism course is some achievement and I am honoured and humbled to be here today.

The kind words bestowed on me made several references to the journey I’ve been on through my career.

My hero, my inspiration to get into journalism, was Hunter S Thompson, the Godfather of Gonzo journalism. This was a quote attributed to him that fuelled my fire in the late 1980s:

“Journalism is a money trench, a long plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free and good men die like dogs. It also has its downsides.”

I’ll come back to that.

But I am mindful today of the uncertainties that confronted me on my graduation day in 1988. And at many other occasions at crucial turning points in my life over the last 24 years.

None of what has happened to me was part of a masterplan.. Some things I fell into. Others I made happen.

Sometimes, I’ve been lucky. And you will be too.

But it’s hard out there, I know that.

But if I may, I would like to address my brief remarks to those of you receiving your first degrees and MA certificates today.

As an external marker and guest lecturer at this university, I know how hard you have worked to achieve your degrees today.

And I recognize too that many of you will be looking for careers in industries where the structures have crumbled and the very foundations of the media sectors you want to work in are in undergoing a constant period of change.

When I did a series of mock interviews with students from this university recently I was struck by a number of things.

Firstly, I was impressed at the lengths to which Cathy Darby (left), a wonderfully generous and devoted course leader had gone to extraordinary lengths in order to make you even more employable.

Secondly, it really struck me what a fantastic education you have received here. As I said to the group afterwards, I saw something in all of them that would have made me want to employ them and help them along.

But thirdly, I emerged with a certain sadness from the day because of the reluctance many of them displayed in wanting to show off their remarkable achievements.

The one skillset I never learnt at University, or I properly gripped until my second job, was entrepreneurship and enterprise. Don’t confuse that with selling your soul to the advertising devil. Or compromising your values and journalistic integrity.

And don’t think I mean becoming a big head.

But sell your achievements. Be proud of who you are and what you have done. Make the person sat opposite think that you can make their life easier and better by working with you. The same applies to a film graduate pitching an idea, or those of you with business degrees looking to raise funds for a business idea.

Realise that old people like me need young people like you, to understand how the emerging generation use social media tools like Facebook and Twitter as instinctively as we use our thumbs.

But think too what advertisers want, but create for yourself a space to do what you do best – to tell stories and speak truths.

But how you do that is changing too. Like at no other time in the 50 years of this course.

Rightly, this University, through the Journalism Leader’s Programme, is at the forefront of research and debate about the future of media. Get involved and stay close to that work.

The most successful amongst you will start to work out a new and different economic model for content. I’m sure you are doing that already.

A friend of mine used to have a suitcase full of contact cards that he’d drag around between the Sunday Times and the Manchester Evening News and, God help him, the Daily Star.  Now of course they’ll be his contacts on LinkedIn, or saved on his phone – and backed up on a cloud.

It shows the power of networks, the connections between people that make things happen.

Contacts are currency – so work hard on building your own networks, starting today on this day where all of you in the room, from countries all over the world, have something that links you for the rest of your lives – your graduation day.

Back finally, to Hunter S Thompson. That quote I shared at the start is made up. It’s a composite, a twisting of the truth. These things often are.

Don’t rely on Google and Wikipedia. Talk to real people and get real quotes.

But there is a further skill you will all need. 


You just never know who will be able to help you. So in everything you ever do, remember these three things. Be honest, be loyal, be kind.

And remember the old Chinese proverb, which may also be made up, but it still stands – “the wise man knows everything, the shrewd one knows everyone.”