Thursday, October 31, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell at the Liverpool Phil

To Liverpool for a performance by Malcolm Gladwell. As I've said before, I'm a fan of the pop-sociologist and storyteller. In my profile on Propermag I name him as one of my favourite "five things".

But this was a strange event. Strange, as it was in a magnificent theatre, but the acoustics were dire. I couldn't quite hear what he was saying some of the time and when it's a one-man show that's pretty important.

I was also slightly puzzled that he chose Northern Ireland for his book about underdogs, but also to speak about in Liverpool, London and Dublin. Brave if nothing else, for North Americans can get the perspective badly wrong about who the bad guys were in that conflict. I refer to this piece in the Spectator to pick up that particular point - How Malcolm Gladwell Gets Northern Ireland wrong.

But negatives out of the way - I loved how he told the story of Alva Erskine Vanderbilt, the 19th century social climber par excellence. How different elements of her story told one way portrayed her as a hero of feminism, or from another view as a tyrant and a mother from hell.

All of which was a clever way of tacking the issue of legitimacy. People pay taxes when they feel government and authority is fair and respectful - it then gains legitimacy. Taxes are avoided, in Greece for instance, when the rule of law is widely seen as unfair. And it's a lack of legitimacy which causes much of the turmoil around the world. Other political theories around detterance don't cover this.

“People choose to obey the law not because of a calculation of risks and benefits but because they think of a larger justice,” he said.

"Alva Erskine Vanderbilt was a very unlikely radical,” Gladwell said. She built monstrous houses, divorced her philandering husband and prevented her daughter from marrying someone similar, pairing her off instead to the aristocratic Churchill/Marlborough family. And it is her ferocity in the face of unfairness and a lack of legitimacy that fires her.

“She does not stand back because she does not see society’s judgment as legitimate. She has been denied on every level the basic fundamental rules of legitimacy and she is angry. She puts every ounce of her domineering and ambitious personality into the cause and she is successful.

“Alva wins in the end and the message of that victory applies as much to this day as it did then. The lesson at the end of the day is that the powerful are judged not by their ends but their means. If you deny people legitimacy then they will come back and defeat you."

All told, it was enough to make me and my pal Alex want to buy the book. We missed getting one on the night as we were being social butterflies at the bar, him with this guy, and me with another old favourite.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Why Russell Brand is a little bit right about globalization and politics, but why he is still wrong about pretty much everything else


Florid, flirtatious and fun. But also angry. Russell Brand has this week been elevated to some kind of spokesman for a generation. He guest edited the left-wing current affairs magazine the New Statesman and contributed a long essay about the importance of changing the way we think.
His entertaining interview with a glum and not very serious Jeremy Paxman (above) showed this to more people, via YouTube, than had ever even heard of the New Statesman.
It’s easy to pick holes in his comfortable pontificating from his mansion in LA, and to pick up on everything stupid thing he ever did, as this guy does here. but he has a point. And he may have hit a nerve.
I’m with Simon Kelner in the Independent when he said this: “His call for revolution may be Spartist nonsense, but Brand definitely articulates a strain of thinking among a growing number of young people who feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.”
A session I went to at the University of Manchester this week saw four white men in suits presenting policy ideas from their respective think tanks. Yet it only really ignited when a member of the audience evoked the spirit of Rusty and asked if he was on to something or was insane. And this was in a room full of people who WANT to talk about policy and politics and all the things that are supposed to be so boring.
So what do we do? How do we engage and entertain and make relevant the things we seek to do?
The first is that we must seek out interesting people with creative solutions to difficult problems. How they talk, how they think and yes, how they look. People like Al Mackin, holder of our Tony Award, who has recently been to Tel Aviv and has a few things to say about what he found. People like Vincent Walsh who is rethinking our whole approach to food production in the city of the future.
Have I got your attention? Anyway, all this and more is on offer at our SmartCity event on the 13th of November.
You see, I don’t think we need a revolution in this country. I don’t think the system is fixed against everyone. I think there are plenty of revolutionary opportunities to make change and do things better and with more fun.

Tony Wilson on London, the North and the legacy - Chas and Dave

Listening to the Today programme this morning, I was reminded of this:

"'In the North West it rains and rains. And yet we managed to produce the best music, the Industrial Revolution, the trade union movement, the Communist Manifesto and even the goddam computer. Down South, where the Sun never sets, you took all our money and what did you produce? Chas and fucking Dave." Tony Wilson, 2007.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Marple's future in the hands of Waitrose

There's a great phrase I heard yesterday - crucibles of snobbery. That's supermarkets, by the way. The ultimate status symbol for a community is the supermarket in its centre.

I remember when it all kicked off in Marple over the college site. Dave Goddard, leader of the Stockport Council, joshed with a few of us that we were snotty Marple types who only protested because it was likely to be turned into an Asda or a Tesco. Not so, we protested. But now the possibility of a Waitrose on Chadwick Street has met with barely a flicker of protest. There's obviously the reason that the site is more suitable for a supermarket of a certain size in the centre, but there's also a frisson that a new presence will lift the whole area. I think it will. Something needs to.

Every step forward seems to be matched by a couple back. Paul Howard Menswear closing is a real loss to the Main Street. Yet it's an opportunity for Richard Morris of All Things Nice to expand his excellent deli. The result, sadly, will be to kill off one or more of the caf├ęs on that part of Market Street, I guarantee it. 

The Waitrose option is what most people want, but it will also bring disruption, displacement and change, but it will be a sign that the media types moving in to the area are in good hands.

There's a link here - - to a detailed piece on the BBC magazine about the value of a supermarket of a certain character. 

The question we also need to ask is this: what if Lidl step in? And personally, I'd rather have a Booths.

Now that's better - Homeland gets good again

I'm glad I stuck with Homeland after the first slow, meandering episodes. The twist at the end of the fourth episode kind of made everything alright again. Did we ever really think Saul had turned on Carrie for the shallow political opportunistic reasons it appeared?

The double double agent mask now can create that tension and lack of resolution that made the first series so brilliant. This isn't 24 or the X-Files, this is even better than that. And there's a football story line too. And for all that, we can just about forgive this turgid sub-Hollyoaks sideshow with Dana Brodie.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Vikas Shah – Renaissance Man

I presented the Chairman’s Award at the 2013 Mancoolian Awards. It went to Vikas Shah, someone who I’ve got to know over the course of the last year or two.

Vikas is one of those people in business in Manchester who makes things just that little bit more interesting. Though he works in his family business Swiscot, a textiles company, what makes him interesting is the range of different things he does.

He’s been involved in setting up the Greater Manchester Film Festival, has produced a couple of films, he supports a number of different entrepreneurs – many of them with the aim to pushing the agenda of Manchester and making it a great city to do business in.

One of the first things about him that caught my eye was his blog – Thought Economics. It will never win any wards for design but for content it is quite something. Over the course of the last few years Vikas has managed to interview some of the leading thinkers and influencers on the planet., including Nobel Prize winners, business leaders and people who are changing the world through incredible work in Africa and Asia. And then there’s Sir Richard Branson. We may disagree slightly on the bearded one, but Vikas still landed a good interview.

His work with a business school in Portugal and with Manchester Business School reminds us of the need to give in order to get. He has found new opportunities through working with entrepreneurs and start-ups that need that injection of energy, ides and inspiration.

What Vikas reminded me of was the whole essence of the Renaissance Man – the multi-faceted, intellectually curious and enigmatic risk taker. Sometimes people who don’t fit the profile of the straight laced corporate man attract suspicion, rather than admiration. As entrepreneur Luke Johnson says in his book Start It Up – “Centuries ago there were no sharp divisions between state and the private sector, between science and the art. Bring back that enlightened approach!”

To me it represents something important about Manchester as well. Successful Mancunians have always had that streak of curiosity and daring about them. It was therefore an absolute delight to present Vikas with that award and to mark his move into such exalted company.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Homeland, three episodes in and it's rubbish

How long are we going to give this new series of Homeland? I don't think I have ever felt the crushing sense of disappointment that I have with this third series. The storyline simply hasn't caught on at all. The undercurrents from Saul are just random acts of weirdness and the parallel incarceration angle in episode three is so laboured it may as well have come with a shovel. Huh.

Norman Geras - an inspiration

Norman Geras, who died last week, was a real inspiration. I never had the privilege of being taught by him at the University of Manchester - but many of my friends there did. Anyone who encountered his humanity and detailed approach to rational debate cannot have failed to have been touched by him.

My contact with him came many years later when I stumbled across his blog - Normblog. It is no exaggeration to say that a Marxist Blairite academic with a love of cricket, country and western music, philosophical discourse and political debate showed the way. He managed to provide a daily delight. When I wrote a feature about the benefits of blogging for Insider magazine he was both courteous and generous with his time. When he asked me to contribute to his weekly Friday questionnaire I was humbled.

What I took from him more than his searing intellect, or even his unique and detailed writing style, was a consistent sense of humanity and love. And from that place he was particularly critical of many on the left of politics.

He was also a devoted husband and father who obviously enjoyed a rich range of friendships. His loss will clearly be felt by all those close to him.

There's a link to an obituary, and then a link to a few more, which was often the way of the Normblog, here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When a city is a character in a crime novel

Kevin Sampson on writing 'The Killing Pool' from Red Union Films on Vimeo.

To the Manchester Literature Festival to a panel discussion featuring Val McDermid, Cath Staincliffe and Tom Benn. All have featured Manchester in their work - not always by name, but the city works as a location as it is big enough to have a lot going on, but not so big that it swamps the characters.

This was all in my mind over summer when I read Kevin Sampson's first hard boiled crime book - The Killing Pool, which painted a very detailed, well researched picture of Liverpool's murky underworld. It was a good story, but it was Liverpool that seeped out from every page - warts and all. The video, above, sets out how the author set about creating such a story. I've been fascinated by this whole period ever since I read Cocky by Peter Walsh way back when. But he really brings the city to life, which was his aim.

Manchester similarly loomed large in the debut digital download novel of AK Nawaz's The Cotton Harvest. Again, another work produced from someone close to the centre of crime and the underclass in the city.

As Val McDermid said tonight, if the author does it well, then you visit a place and feel you know it. Think Ian Rankin's Edinburgh, Sarah Paretsky's Chicago and Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles.

Apologies to Helen Carter, in the chair tonight, for asking her if the portrayal of journalists in crime stories has changed and whether any of the panel were any good at it. I asked, because I think many get the workload and pressures of the journalist woefully wrong - AK Nawaz didn't, by the way. I didn't mean to put her on the spot regarding how Val McDermid does anything. A greater, more impressive force and a yet massively warm presence on a stage at a book event I have yet to see. Had I been offered an invitation to nit pick her work, I would have passed on it too. Soz.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

A proud performance at Wigan today - and Grant Hanley won't do that again

Grant Hanley Grant Hanley of Blackburn looks on during the Sky Bet Championship match between Derby County and Blackburn Rovers at Pride Park Stadium on August 04, 2013 in Derby, England,So there we were, 30 minutes in to the game at Wigan. Rovers were 1-0 up. I said to my lads - "this is the best we've seen them for years isn't it?" So in control, so positive and there's Grant Hanley, so strong and confident playing the ball out of defence. Then, bang! A Wigan player is down, the referee was better placed to see it than us. It's a red card.

I don't want to dwell on what he did, but that raised arm probably cost Rovers the game. I don't for a minute think that with 11 men on the pitch we'd have been going into injury time at 1-1. This young team is playing with purpose and style. They will be rightly gutted about leaving empty handed, but will have learned a lot about each other today. Hanley will be gutted and disappointed with himself if he's half the character he appears to be. The fact that the team were applauded off at the end - and that every one of them lined up to take that applause and gave it back to a magnificent away following - says a lot for a club that has suffered such recent trauma.

Let's wipe our mouths and start again.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Let's have the emotional and excitable case for HS2, please

It’s tempting to say we’d like to see a grown-up, mature and evidence-based case made for High Speed Rail, but to be honest I’d also like to see a quirky, excitable and emotional debate too.

I was at a special event with the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin on Tuesday evening. There he was presented with a well argued case for HS2 from an august group of business leaders from around the North West, notably Jurgen Maier of Siemens, the current chairman of the North West Business Leadership Team. And not for McLaughlin the coded messages about blank cheques transmitted a week earlier by Ed Balls. No, the Tories are determined that HS2 will happen and that the whole country will benefit from a well delivered project.

The case for HS2 has been rather meekly made so far. I speak to many businesses and the biggest gripe is that they fail to see the relevance of a long term project that will get you to London quicker, this from Lawrence Jones of UK Fast is typical: “We don’t need to get to London quicker. It’s a waste of money when we don’t have enough to go around, and it’s not all about London, which already gets the lion’s share of all our taxes.”

Then the argument about capacity on the West Coast main line seems to get confused with how many empty seats there are in First Class during off peak periods. So when Labour’s Andy Burnham met a few of us recently he was slightly taken aback by the lack of enthusiasm for HS2 and the weakening of the supposed cross party consensus.
People also feel that budgets in their billions sound like an awful lot of money. It is a lot of money. But it is still a modestly small proportion of the rail budget if you take a long term view and measure it against all the other transport plans.
And after the dripping of negativity from Ed Balls at Labour conference, it must have been encouraging for city council leaders like Sir Richard Leese in Manchester to see beyond party politics and welcome a Conservative government supporting a project he feels passionately about, because he feels it will benefit Manchester.
Richard has acknowledged too that he’s been criticised in his own party for sharing platforms with Tory ministers: “Today I shared a platform with the Secretary of State for Transport and had no problem whatsoever. We were talking about HS2, something I passionately believe in, and something that like all long-term infrastructure programmes needs cross-party consensus to deliver. Sometimes it’s more difficult but at the end of the day they are the party of government. Every day they make decisions that impact on this city and its citizens. My job involves standing up for Manchester and that means I should take every opportunity to argue Manchester’s case with the decision makers in Whitehall.”
That’s why I want a bit of vision and passion in the debate too. I like trains. I like new technology and I get excited about dramatic advances in how we live. I like a bit of vision and bold thinking. Indeed it was heartening to hear George Osborne evoke the spirit of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the greatest of British engineers.
So in making the case for HS2 it has been important to hear how it cost £10bn to improve the current main line. As prime minister David Cameron said at his conference, why settle for less than the best if improvements are needed anyway?
“The fact is this: the West Coast Mainline is almost full. We have to build a new railway and the choice is between another old style Victorian one or a high speed one. Just imagine if someone had said no, you can’t build the M1 or the Severn Bridge, imagine how that would be hobbling our economy today.
“HS2 is about bringing the north and the south together in the national endeavour. Because think how much more we could do with the pistons firing in all parts of our economy.”
But there’s the rub, if this is a North-South thing, then why not build it from here first? I also share the frustration that the consultation and then the timetable for delivering HS2 is “painfully slow”. Patrick McLoughlin revealed to us on Tuesday that the new chairman of HS2, Sir David Higgins, is keen to quicken the pace too.
As the Birmingham to Manchester dimension is in open consultation at the moment I believe it’s important to make the case for building it sooner and to start the work in Manchester, particularly linking the city centre to the Airport.
I commend the report from the North West Business Leadership Team, which can be downloaded here. The main point is that HS2 has to be part of a range of measures that tackle problems in how road, rail and air transport functions effectively. It requires a fresh way of looking at the economy of the country, it requires a shift in thinking about how we view the country, it requires, as we’ve been saying for a while, a Northern Revolution.

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