Sunday, May 07, 2017

The precise moment when I realised my Rovers were going down

I think I can pinpoint the exact moment when I should have realised Blackburn Rovers were heading for the Third Division, or League One in new money. It wasn't today, as news filtered through that Forest were romping home and that Bristol City had given up on spoiling Birmingham City's day. That's when it was confirmed.

It wasn't before the game when I heard Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy, I song I always associated with sadness and grief.

No, I'm not even going to pretend to be a sage and say I've long feared we were heading that way, though I did say as much at the arse end of last season. It wasn't on the opening day when Norwich humiliated Owen Coyle's ragbag side in the first home game, or when Wigan humiliated us in the worst performance by a Rovers side in my living memory. It wasn't when a late headed goal sent all three points to Leeds, though that was a sickener.

It wasn't when the fans properly turned on Owen Coyle after more misery at Barnsley, making his sacking a matter of time. It wasn't even when we capitulated in such lame fashion to Barnsley, or let Bristol City control a game we should have stormed.

No, in my heart of hearts it was that late equaliser by Aiden McGeady for Preston North End at Ewood Park in March. I said at the time it was a cruel end to a game where we played some great football, that it still extended our unbeaten run, but that we'd be alright and get 51 points. Well, we did, but it wasn't enough. That result will have encouraged Burton and Bristol City. It said to every team we were going to play that we weren't a serious professional outfit, but naive bottlers. That was also before two tough trips to Brighton and Reading, where we got nothing. It wasn't the continuation of an unbeaten run, but further stagnation in a winless rut. There was never really a way back from those two points dropped.

Amazingly, of those 51 points, 24 of them have been won against just four teams - Forest, Derby, Brentford and, inexplicably, the champions Newcastle.

I liked the starting line-up today and hope we keep the guts of it. The spine of Raya, Mulgrew, Lenihan, Bennett and possibly Graham. Next season there'll be a clear out of players who are on too much money, which may include some of those I've just mentioned, and those who think they deserve to be playing at a higher level. Some are assets, but we've been lumbered with a lot of liabilities as well - the ninth highest wage bill in the division for a team that underperformed by 13 places is disgraceful. Why are Wes Brown and Anthony Stokes even on the payroll?

This is a dark time. I really don't know what's next, I'm too tired after driving there and back and having all that emotion drain out of me today. On the way home we went through all the away trips we want to do next season - 15 of them, 15! One of them will be Portsmouth. And do you know what? If there's one place that can give all fans of clubs with dodgy owners some hope, then it's Pompey.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Watching my eldest son play for his football team for the very last time

It was Joe's last ever competitive match for Marple Athletic on Sunday. The lads will be dispersing to university, world travel and faraway jobs this summer. So that's it. The final. 

But what a journey it has been over the years; tournaments and trophies, tantrums and tears - and that's just the parents.

 The team on Sunday included seven players who were involved in the very first season in 2006 when they were just 6 years old.

 In the times I've been involved, there's always been a voice in the back of my head whispering - "who's it for?". It started with Jim White's excellent book - You'll Win Nothing With Kids, fathers, sons and football - which I reviewed on this blog in 2008. Routinely, before every game, I've said to my son, "Joe, remember what you need to do today. Enjoy yourself." After a while, I didn't need to say it, but we did it anyway, like one of those private family jokes.

I did jump for joy at times and probably over-celebrated on other occasions. I also felt their pain when they lost. But as much as I am totally convinced I'm absolutely not living my frustrated football dreams through my son, I will concede that watching this team is one of those rare occasions where I truly live in the moment and as a consequence feel a particular type of happy. As I walked off Brabyn's Park on Sunday it hit me that this would be the last time I'll ever do this. The very last time I'll ever be in that place of contentment, of belonging. Maybe it's also because in all the years I've watched Joe play I have never once come away thinking he's let himself down. It's a public and open arena for an expression of his developing character and a certain set of virtues which are expressed through how he plays. I see these characteristics in other ways, but maybe none so routinely and where they impact on others so publicly. And we passed the point long ago where this was any kind of displacement. Joe is a far, far better footballer than I ever was. That isn't just the blinkered parent speaking, by the way, it's something to do with the whole way these lads have been brought up and the expectations they have of themselves.

As our twin lads have stepped into refereeing I've witnessed again what I call "PlayStation managers" who scream from the touchline and move the players around the pitch vicariously. What has happened with these lads, as they showed in their final game, coming back from a goal down to win 4-2 against a decent Weston Rangers team, is that ability to make their own decisions. They just seem to know what to do. They can be tricky when they need to be, they look after each other on the pitch and they know how to win games of football.

I will always owe a massive thanks to the managers who've coached, cajoled and inspired my son and all the boys in this team, from those days to today - Padraig Walsh, Jason Isaacs and in the early days, Clive Breed. As Clive said over the weekend, if these lads apply themselves to their careers in the same way, then they'll do just fine. So I know who this has been for. It's been for the kids. For them as they are and for their future selves. It's always been for them.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

How I voted in the Greater Manchester Mayoral election today

Today was the Greater Manchester Mayoral election. This has been a long time coming and is an idea that has truly found its time. For me, it's been something of a mission, to campaign for a different way of doing our politics and for a decentralisation of the UK.

So, apologies for the clickbait headline, I voted with considerably more enthusiasm than I will on June the 8th.

I supported a regional assembly for the North West in 2002 to 2004. I was part of Tony Wilson's Necessary Group, suffering that excess of civic pride that led us to commission Peter Saville to design a North West flag.

I campaigned against the weak directly elected Mayor option for the city of Manchester in 2012. I despair of anyone who thinks what we voted for today was what we rejected then (though of course I didn't actually have a vote).

I sat on the second row at the Museum of Science and Industry to listen to George Osborne make his first ever Northern Powerhouse speech in 2014, next to Susan Williams and Joe Anderson. I applauded with great gusto.

In 2015 I described how I'd got my political mojo back through the possibilities of devolution.

I blogged about the issues in the contest at the start of the year. If I got anything wrong it was how the national parties have had a negligible effect on the contest. If anything I was worried they'd taint it.

You see, at heart all politics is local. If the Brexit vote told us anything it was that mantra about taking back control has to actually mean something. Where we live there have been a few attempts at an insurgent break with the political norm. A new one is starting around opposition to the sitting MP. I'm intensely relaxed about people getting involved in politics, as long as they play by the rules.

As for the Mayoral contest, I've been really impressed by Andy Burnham and Sean Anstee at different times during the last few weeks. And on Sunday at the Lowry, the Citizens Assembly for Greater Manchester laid bare some of the knotty challenges the new Mayor will have to confront. The Times podcast on the West Midlands election showed how capable the likely winner of that contest will be and how our Mayor needs to be on top of their game in winning business and attracting investment.

I accept the turnout for this first election will be low; it's a vote for a role that's not widely understood. But the Mayor can truly bring together the disparate parts of the city region into a coherant whole. Hopefully too he can create an identity beyond national party politics. It can bring innovation, brio, verve and ideas to a political stage, while the national picture is stained with the bitterness of Brexit. So yes, I'm pretty excited about the possibilities, as you can see.

A new dawn has broken, has it not?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Statement on Hazel Grove and my plans for the General Election 2017

Standing as a parliamentary candidate in my home constituency in 2015 was one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my life. I was so proud to have achieved Labour's best ever result here, but I was even more proud of the team of activists who joined us in campaigning on a positive and lively campaign. I was particularly proud that my campaign team found room for people from right across the Labour family.

A great deal has changed since then, both in my life and in the world of politics. You won't have to look very far to find my views on Brexit, the Labour leadership and the challenges we now face as a country. I also have sons about to take GCSEs and A levels who need my support.

I'm also really enjoying my job at Manchester Metropolitan University where I work on political and external relations, including making a strong case for the Higher Education sector on developing skills and contributing to an industrial strategy. We've also established a non-partisan think-tank where we are finding opportunities to project world-class research into policy development.

For these reasons and more I wrote to the Labour Party North West office this week to make it clear I wouldn't be contesting this election.

I hope Labour select a candidate who will build on the strides we made in 2015, continue to hold together a broad based team of fantastic activists, gain the experience and, you never know, cause a major upset.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Things can only get better - Peter Mandelson at the People's History Museum

Yesterday was the first day of the 2017 General Election campaign. Twenty years since Labour won so convincingly I had the pleasure to listen to Professor Steve Fielding interviewing Peter Mandelson at the People's History Museum.

I owe an enormous amount to Peter, now the Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University where I've worked since January 2016. He's put his shoulder to a couple of projects I'm fully invested in, such as the MetroPolis think-tank, but more than that, New Labour gave shape to the ideas that have made all our lives immeasurably better.

Today, he spoke about that election, as part of the New Dawn exhibition to mark the 20 years since that groundbreaking poll victory for Labour. He discussed the ways in which the party could have done more still and scotched a number of myths and falsities about it being some kind of Tory-lite neo-liberal continuation of Thatcherism.

The podcast will be available soon of the event, so I'll share it here, but he spoke about New Labour's enabling of ambition, the under-promising and over-delivery of social reform, especially in the NHS and education. He also spoke about Labour's traditions - how Attlee and Morrison, then Wilson and Crosland bequeathed an intellectual and political legacy. It was a topic of discussion that the emphasis on the "New" rather than the "Labour" is a lesson to be learnt today. The 20th anniversary is not being marked by the present Labour leadership. 

My favourite bit was in response to the first audience question. I have heard him tell the full story before about the quote attributed to him about being "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". For accuracy, here's John Rentoul's quote in the Independent from a seminar he did at King's College London last year
At a meeting in 1998 the CEO of Hewlett Packard, Lewis Platt, said to me, "Why should I consider investing in a country like Britain that’s now got a communist government?" And I said I was intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes. That second part is often left out, usually by The Guardian. What’s the lesson there? Never do irony.    
We had a good chat amongst friends as well today, we talked about what we're going to be doing to support colleagues seeking re-election and to ensure we have a strong Labour party ready to meet the new challenges of these quite extraordinary times.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Blackburn Rovers - the despair I can handle, it's the hope I can't stand

I've never seen ball skills like it. The craft, the dedication and the persistence. And all the more impressive because it was done in the colours of the mighty Blackburn Rovers. Yes, that seven-year old girl doing keepy-ups was a brilliant half time distraction from the dross we had just been served up at Ewood today by the team we have learnt has the 9th biggest wage bill in the division, according to the director of football Paul Senior.

We were lost for something to say on the way home. I wish we'd been at the game the sponsors had seen where Jason Lowe was man of the match. Or the one the two blowhards on Radio Rovers saw where Bristol City "sat back". I've never understood that fatuous and meaningless phrase about a sporting encounter. Never mind that they managed more shots on goal and tested our (second choice) keeper far more than we tested our former third choice keeper between their sticks.

I genuinely don't think I've seen a worse performance from a centre-midfield pairing than that served up by Hope Akpan and Jason Lowe today. We saw the worst of Liam Feeney. We saw some horrendous passing by Elliot Bennett who was seemingly doing Ryan Nyambe's job for him as well. Tactically, Mowbray got it wrong today. The first half formation of 5-4-1 failed utterly. And the problem is the midfield. Ringing the changes at half time saw some kind of improvement, Bennett carried on doing Nyambe's job, he just didn't need the young defender on the pitch to do it. He put in a brilliant cross for Gallagher's goal and turned to our stand to roar his anger at the crowd, a proper snarl. I hate it when players do that. It's like he's saying, get behind the team you bunch of know-nothing idiots, love us blindly. Rightly, he'll have got some stick for some of that dreadful wayward passing today, but there's no need for that.

The goal of the season montage before the game shows that we have players who know where the net is - real quality goals. But Gallagher, Jao, Emnes and Mahoney didn't terrorise the defence enough. Then again, a player like Mahoney is always most effective running onto a ball so he can make a run into the box, or to skin a defender. Lowe has proved incapable of delivering that kind of pass.

Birmingham City seem to be doing their level best to loosen our grip on that last relegation spot. But we have win two of our last three games, if not all of them.

I've never really thought that we were good enough to stay up. We've had flickers of being a good side, but they've just been that, flickers. We didn't go to Forest on Good Friday, so we've missed a high among a season of lows. What I haven't been prepared for was just how miserable it was going to be. Watching this stumble to the inevitable is proving far more difficult than I imagined. It's the despair I can handle, it's the hope I can't stand.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Top 100 tunes - tears, laughter and triumphs

I blogged way back in 2011 about my top 100 - my own very male and very anoraky list of my 100 top songs. To make the editing easier - and there is also a top 1000, a top 500, a top 250 and a top 150 - I restricted each artist to one track each and bent the rules for the New Order, Moby thing. But there's more to this list than just 100 songs I like; each one has a particular memory. At least three throw up cherished emotions about friends who've died, many others evoke memories of special times and places. This is a refresh of the original list with about ten new tracks.

We Could Send Letters, Aztec Camera
Yes Sir I Can Boogie, Baccara
A Day in the Life, The Beatles
One Last Love Song, The Beautiful South
Let Em in, Billy Paul
The Day Before You Came, Blancmange
Union City Blue, Blondie
Tinseltown In The Rain, The Blue Nile
Subterranean Homesick Blue, Bob Dylan
Waving Flags, British Sea Power
Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen
Nobody Does It Better, Carly Simon
Father and Son, Cat Stevens
The British Way of Life, The Chords
Straight to Hell, The Clash
Bloody Revolutions, Crass
Weather With You, Crowded House
Instant Crush, Daft Punk
Life On Mars, David Bowie
Dignity, Deacon Blue
California Über Alles, Dead Kennedys
Enjoy the Silence, Depeche Mode
There, There My Dear, Dexy's Midnight Runners
I Touch Myself, Divinyls
MacArthur Park, Donna Summer
You Don't Have to Say You Me, Dusty Springfield
The Killing Moon, Echo and the Bunnymen
One Day Like This, Elbow
Getting Away With It, Electronic
Stan (Featuring Dido), Eminem with Dido
Paid in Full, Eric B. and Rakim
Love See No Colour, The Farm
Do You Realize?? The Flaming Lips
Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Frankie Goes to Hollywood
My Sweet Lord, George Harrison
La vie en Rose, Grace Jones
The Message, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron
Your Evening of Swing (has been Cancelled), Half Man Half Biscuit
Zeus and Apollo, Hatchback
Silver Machine, Hawkwind
Love Train, Holly Johnson
When You're Young, The Jam
Tomorrow, James
Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley
Annie's Song, John Denver
Ring Of Fire, Johnny Cash
Atmosphere, Joy Division
This is the Last Time, Keane
The Gambler, Kenny Rogers
Sunny Afternoon, The Kinks
Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin
Aria [with Michael Gambon - Layer Cake speech] Lisa Gerrard
All Woman, Lisa Stansfield
Wasting My Young Years, London Grammar
Idiot Child, Madness
Motorcycle Emptiness, Manic Street Preachers
Teardrop, Massive Attack
What's Going On, Marvin Gaye
Anchorage, Michelle Shocked
Irish Blood, English Heart, Morrissey
Express Yourself, N.W.A.
True Faith , New Order
New Dawn Fades, Moby
Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon, Neil Diamond
Time Of No Reply, Nick Drake
Don't Speak, No Doubt
All Around the World, Oasis
If You Leave, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Because the Night, Patti Smith
Being Boring, Pet Shop Boys
She Said, Plan B
Cruel, Prefab Sprout
Purple Rain, Prince and the Revolution
Pretty In Pink, The Psychedelic Furs
Common People, Pulp
Losing My Religion, R.E.M.
Fake Plastic Trees, Radiohead
Open up Your Arms, Ren Harvieu
Orange, Richard Lumsden
Please Read The Letter, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Gimme Shelter, Rolling Stones
In Dreams, Roy Orbison
The Spirit Of Radio, Rush
The Great Rock n Roll Swindle, Sex Pistols
Run, Baby, Run, Sheryl Crow
Itchycoo Park, The Small Faces
How Soon Is Now, The Smiths
I Got You Babe, Sonny and Cher
Ghost Town, The Specials
Up The Junction, Squeeze
I Am The Resurrection, The Stone Roses
Good Day to Die, Sunhouse
Give A Little Bit, Supertramp
It's My Life, Talk Talk
Reward, The Teardrop Explodes
Heartland, The The
Song to the Siren, This Mortal Coil
I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone,Tom Jones With James Dean Bradfield
Up Against the Wall, Tom Robinson Band
Funky Cold Medina, Tone Loc
Wide Open Road, The Triffids
Red Hill Mining Town, U2
Lucky Man, Verve
Story of the Blues, Wah
And A Bang On The Ear, The Waterboys
Baba O'Riley, The Who

Sunday, April 09, 2017

There's no-one left to blame at Blackburn Rovers

Like most people, I watched most of yesterday's desperately depressing defeat to Barnsley in stunned silence.

I said at the end of last season that it might have been better if we'd gone down then. A team of over-paid stalwarts, loanees, cast-offs and kids needs something special to become a team capable of surviving. I think yesterday we saw what happens when it all falls apart. I still like honest Tony Mowbray. I still want to believe we can pull a series of performances out of the bag and survive, but I  also find myself asking why we'd want to.

There are always three teams who will be relegated. Therefore there must be three teams worse than us over the course of a 46 game season for us to survive. The epithet "too good to go down" has been applied to good sides before. But we know in truth that this is not a good team. It is half a team, it has some elements of a team, but it can't mask the negatives with the abilities of Sam Gallagher, Marvin Emnes and the weight of expectation that sits on the young shoulders of Conor Mahoney. They should be the sparkle that makes winning enjoyable. Instead they flatter to deceive and come up short time and time again.

I often wonder about the motivation of professional footballers. What deep inner core of determination can unite a dressing room to perform as Barcelona did against Paris St German, or for Blackburn Rovers to overcome Derby County in the play off semi-final in 1992 after going 2-0 down so early. What is it? Why do some teams accept that they're just not beaten, while others capitulate, blame each other, do that arm shrug when there's no-one to pass to that virtue signals a frustration with a team that aren't as good as the player doing the shrugging. Why?

Go through the entire squad and ask yourself who will be here at the end of next season. The club's director of football has already hinted that there are players on too much money who won't be offered new contracts, presumably that's Lowe, Guthrie, Conway and Evans. The loan players will be off. Wes Brown has presumably played his last game of football. I think Conor Mahoney can have a bright future in football, but honestly, would you blame him if he worked out that the best place for  him would be away from Blackburn Rovers? Can anyone tell me why Anthony Stokes was ever even signed?

Put like that you start to piece together the mess that the club is in from top to bottom.

I've headlined this blog, 'no-one left to blame', partly because the manager said there must be no more excuses. But the crowd yesterday was stunned and silent. We wanted to get behind a spirited performance and a dogged fightback, but none came. No player is capable of changing a game plan on the pitch, grabbing hold of a game and leading the team. The only two players at the club who could are both injured, Lenihan and Mulgrew were much missed yesterday, but if we're pinning our hopes on them coming back to save us, we're dreaming. Under Owen Coyle it would have been the hapless and clueless manager who would have got the brunt of the crowd's ire. But he's gone. Venky's are never there and don't listen. I don't honestly think Rovers have been starved of cash, if anything they've spent too much on the wrong things. We're paying dearly for the sins of the past. For them to walk away like Portsmouth's previous owners did would arguably be far worse. None of that changes the fact that we're still adrift and putting in a shift like that one yesterday.

I'm rambling now, I genuinely don't offer any solution. The world outside our club is suffering enough from people who think things are easy, obvious and solvable.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Martin Regan RIP

I was shocked and saddened to be told yesterday that the journalist Martin Regan had died. Even though we had a period of time where we were slightly bitter adversaries, I never failed to admire his dry wit and two-fisted editorial style.

When I took over as editor of Insider in February 2000 I was pretty stunned to get a congratulatory email from a predecessor and avowed rival. At that point Martin had fallen out with everyone at Insider and taken his EN magazine with him to a new venture, Excel Publishing. He used to point out that we were in fact a property magazine and in that first barbed introductory email he said he'd look forward to reading about "the next thrilling article" about "Eileen Bilton, industrial B1 workspaces in Runcorn and the price of sheds in Skem."

When we produced a 10th anniversary edition and I plundered back issues for nuggets I realised just what a fine writer and observer he was. His was a more acerbic and angry style than mine - and he never held back from telling me how he detested my embrace of corporate social responsibility, regarding me as an insipid Blairite - but if I was going to take barbs from a watchful opponent, then I'd better not be intellectually lazy or loose with facts. It was a strange but stiffening influence.

Over time we had a couple of lively legal disputes. One was his fault, one was mine. One attempt to get him to settle was met by the declaration that he'd rather cut off his own head than ever apologise or back down. But eventually over a long dinner at Nick Jaspan's house we crossed a line and moved on from such needless and wasteful squabbles. He was a man with a hinterland, a chess master, author, art collector, football lover, a writer and a father. He took more risks than most journalists and it made him all the more fascinating as a result.

At the Open golf championship in Birkdale in 2008 we were on the same hospitality table. We talked about the spoof Roger Cashman column which I'd started doing. I liked how he let me know he enjoyed it, without ever actually admitting it and we swapped notes on a few chancers and characters from around town who eventually found their way into Roger's imaginary orbit.

While I was serving my tedious year-long notice period I'd see Martin a lot more, initially on the street in Chinatown where we'd share a few more stories and tales of publishing comings and goings. We were both ready for something new and that personal competitive pride had ceased to be any kind of factor in our relationship. 

Last summer I noticed he'd appeared on Twitter and was continuing with his pet rants about economics, politics and Manchester City. He was a natural for such a sparky environment, targeting the swirl of bullshitters that social media attracts. I helped him out, suggested he used that marvellous picture of him holding a fat cigar and pointing, instead of an egg, and that he boost his followers by joining conversations and picking fights. He soon got the hang of it, and I enjoyed chatting to him again.

Last year a national newspaper called me about a businessman I'd once written about and who features as a cameo in my book. I was slightly guarded and cautious, but also tipped the wink that Martin might be willing to talk a bit more than I had as he knew the character better (there had been litigation, I believe). When the journalist called again, his tales of what Martin had spilled were typically robust, ripe and utterly unusable. He hadn't held back! 

As I've got older I've tried to make my peace with everyone I've ever fallen out with. It's for days like these.

I really liked Martin Regan, and I'm really sad he's gone so bloody soon.

Walking Dead - enough is enough

I'm Negan! credit: Andy Westwood
The Walking Dead has become a joke, a TV show that has lost its way, ceased to be allegorical or moral, and worse still, just doesn't really surprise you any more. OK, you have to suspend a certain amount of belief to indulge yourself in a drama series about a dystopian zombie apocalypse. And it isn't that the Walking Dead has got ridiculous overnight, it's that the makers have lost all ability to create tension and drama, while moving a story on at pace.

After a needlessly brutal season opener, Season 7 has been the worst yet.

I was gripped by the books, which have taken the graphic novel form to a new level, and if I'm honest I've really enjoyed a few lost weekends binge watching the earlier series. But this was substandard at best.

The season finale had its moments, as the Independent says here, the battle scene was the culmination of so many sub-plots coming together - Sacha's sacrifice, the return of "badass" Carole and of Morgan finally dropping his sullen pacifism - but the rest of the episode was tedious, drawn out and like much of the 15 episodes that went before, it could all have been done in about a quarter of the time.

The one element that was done well and was genuinely shocking was the betrayal of Alexandria by the garbage pail kids. But it still hasn't tried to add up quite why they went along with the plan for war with little supposed motive to fight Negan, or even a passing curiosity about who he is and what they are all about.

Other unanswered dead ends, for starters.

1 - Where did Gregory go? Just vanished 
2 - How did the Alexandrians not get butchered when they turned on the Saviours
3 - Dwight, friend or foe? - still not clear
4 - Are all three armies the worst shots ever? Was someone firing blanks? Who died?
5 - Why on earth do the garbage pail kids speak so weirdly, who are they, where are they from?
6 - And what next for that Tiger?

My theory since we discovered creepy Jadis and her black clad clan was that they will turn out to be Alpha and the Whisperers from the graphic novels, people who walk among the dead in zombie skin and attack those who trespass and who have reverted to a primitive animal state. The twists and turns in that story line are genuinely shocking.  

But I may never know. I won't be buying a series pass, or subscribing to Fox. If I do catch up it will be long term, on a box set, or if comes back to Netflix. When I do I can fast forward through the lingering unnecessary moping about and find something else. Because what has been exposed by the dire pace of the broadcast series is that the single episode story structure has become stymied by ad bumpers and the mid-season break. Each episode is padded out to reach fake peaks around adverts, stripping the storyline of rhythm and adding false tension. Worse still, each half season is about the build up to the end point, which the showrunners clearly obsess about, to exclusion of caring about the progress of each episode.

Early ratings indicate that the show is rapidly declining in popularity. It needs a major reboot, or this next season must surely be its last.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

We were the future once - our trip to Brighton by the sea

In the early 1990s our newly built Ewood Park was full, the team were flying and the cry from the opposition fans was always about where we were before all of this. Or as a West Ham fan sung on the tube in 1995 - "that shirt, looks awfully new." To this day, some fans of other Lancashire clubs refer to Blackburn Rovers as "plastics" - a fan base that is younger, more middle class, glory hunting and yes, female.

Our trip to Brighton yesterday reminded me of that. I genuinely don't think I've ever been part of such a civilised, gentrified and polite football crowd. Maybe it was the sunshine or the success of the local team, but actually I think it's the onward success of a club with potential in a prosperous area, something that you'd struggle to attribute to Blackburn. Even the Rovers fans seemed mostly to be marketing managers and investment directors, originally from the Ribble Valley, on a day trip from the London suburbs to see their home town club.

The Amex Community Stadium is one of the most impressive of the new builds. The stand the TV cameras are in - which you don't see on TV - is enormous, similar in shape and tiers to the Etihad. The quality of the seats even in our little away fans corner were of highly superior cushioning. The local train service was convenient, quick and well organised, and without wishing to mix two obsessions on one day, the Southern Railways trains are in a different league to what we suffer on Northern Rail.

The pre-match build up was more like that for a community arts festival than a Championship football match.  A little contrived, but at least the brass band rendition of Sussex by the Sea is more fitting for them than a limp Coldplay effort which we endured for two seasons. Every club has their own way of piping in rousing music, something I could frankly do without at my vintage. What it didn't do was make it a cauldron of hatred. If I'm honest Brighton should slip nicely into the increasingly southern and very shiny Premier League, so they can renew their rivalry with the "stripey Nigels" at Crystal Palace. They won't have problems attracting international talent to come to the south east and they clearly have a coherant and sizeable fan base to fill their stadium.

On one other occasion this season we've found ourselves directly across the segregation of the webbed seats from the home supporters. At Huddersfield it was pretty feral and intense. Yesterday, they were practically sharing their hummus dip and discussing the parliamentary performance of Brighton's Green MP Caroline Lucas. One chap at the end applauded us for longer than the Rovers players did.

You can read match reports elsewhere, from people who do it for a living, but they will no doubt tell you that we played alright but didn't create enough chances. I thought Emnes should have done better with his chance, Mahoney needs to be more deadly and we probably missed Danny Graham's poaching. Brighton aren't twenty odd places better than Rovers, but they have the luck and the persistence to win games like this.

Another new ground chalked off. I make it the 147th ground I've watched football on, I'm still on 82 out of the Punk 92 as I'd seen Brighton at the Goldstone Ground quite a few times, but it is my 72nd of the current 92 and the full sweep of this season's Championship. It was a long day out, but I was also reminded why I do this, what keeps me at it, the memories, the friendships, a little bit of the football and not a little obsession with doing the 92.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The far left needs the near enemy

The whole Corbyn project has started to look frayed around the edges. Not surprisingly, the defeat in Copeland, dire polling, constant scrutiny and media questions have taken a toll on the leader. He has always been tetchy and reluctant to answer critical questions, but his performance in Scotland bore all the hallmarks of a man cracking under the pressure.

Comedian Sarah Pascoe was talking about the Corbyn effect on the New Statesman podcast this week. She had never heard of Corbyn before he stood for leader. Like many of his early supporters she projected onto him all of the hopes of a better way of doing politics. Anyone who pointed out the truth of what he was, what the left in Britain is, was met with a plea not to be so mean to poor Jeremy. But now it's over. When sensible people said his ideas were nonsense, they were right. When they said he was unelectable, they were right about that too. And as Nick Cohen said in the Observer at the weekend - don't say you weren't warned.

But even with a government reeling over a budget U-turn, distracted by Brexit and terrified of upsetting the Daily Mail, Corbyn has been abjectly useless even by his own low standards. The non-rally against a Bill he ordered MPs to vote for represented everything that is chaotic, incompetent and hollow about the whole circus. Losing key members of his staff, as well as the fading support of Owen Jones and George Monbiot, should represent a final fracture. But this is the new politics.

Frankly, Corbyn has been given a free pass by MPs since his re-election. Disappointingly, they are either playing the long game and hoping something turns up, giving him enough rope, or have literally given up. Some MPs have agreed to serve, others to hope for the best and pick attack lines on the government from the backbenches, and it has to be said far more effectively than the front bench. 

But even as his supporters peel away as they realise all of this, along comes a lifeline. Like a parasite feeding off a host, the far left needs the animated form of a Labour Party prepared to contemplate a different future. And so as deputy leader Tom Watson steps up to the plate to speak out against the organisation Momentum and its attempts to game the system, so they spring to life again, emboldened. 

There isn't actually a challenge to Corbyn, but they wish it was. Just as I wish the circumstances were such that there could be, and that we could win, but instead attention is focusing on the time when he gives up. For me, never again can a major political party in this country ever have a leader so at odds with the elected members of parliament. It goes against the very definition of what the party is there to do. The so-called McDonnell amendment to reduce the number of MPs required to nominate a leader would be a travesty, a perpetual threat that whomever the leader is, a small clique of Labour MPs could vote against him or her and mobilise a coup, a real coup, electing a left wing Prime Minister against the wishes of the public. It would kill the party forever.

Now there is even talk on the left of a challenge to Tom Watson from the ludicrous Emily Thornberry. Just what Labour needs to win the country, led from Islington North, deputy from Islington South. It speaks volumes about the priorities of the far left that this is what excites them - taking over a party, not paying a blind bit of attention to what a Conservative government is getting away with. But here is the fact, they don't have a plan to take control of the country through the winning campaign of a General Election. They can barely win a safe seat on a parish council. But to exist, to function and to have a strategic goal they only have one goal, control of the leader's office, propping up "Jeremy". To do that they need perpetual warfare, they need their enemies in Labour, or they have nothing. It will be protracted and long, but it can't last. They must be defeated.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

50 points and you're still not safe

In 2013 Peterborough and Wolves were relegated from the Championship with 54 and 51 points. 54 points! I can see the 2017 total being as high, especially with Rovers having to play at least two of the teams at the foot of the table.

I've just completed the hopeless exercise of plotting the outcome. You know the drill, second guessing how each team are going to do, working out that they'll all beat Wolves and then realising that Wolves will be down there with us as well if that happens.

On the evidence of today against Preston I thought we looked like a quality side in the second half. Full of fight, led by mature courageous players like Jason Lowe, Charlie Mulgrew and Darrah Leninhan. I thought Lucas Jao and Marvin Emnes dazzled with skill and footwork. The two goals were well worked and well deserved. But we didn't know how to finish the game off. A 2-2 draw after coming from behind should be OK. But it felt like a defeat. A really hollow, gut punched, defeat.

Although we're unbeaten under Tony Mowbray our points tally for the last seven games amounts to 11 points. If we get that many from our next eight games - which include trips to Brighton (in 2nd) and Reading (in 5th) - we will have to start winning games at home.

Anyway, I reckon we'll be alright. 51 points should do it.

An unbearable but beautiful film - The Hard Way - Annapurna South Face (1970)

This incredible film documents the first ascent of the very difficult South Face of Annapurna, a huge Himalayan wall that the right team could achieve the seemingly impossible. It features my Mum's friend Ian Clough who perished in the expedition and for that reason it's unbearable to watch at times. 

These are the notes I found on YouTube. Everything about the lo-fi film and exhibition leaves you in awe.

"The ascent of the South Face of Annapurna in 1970 was one of those breakthrough ascents - both technically and psychologically. Chris Bonington assembled the cream of British mountaineering and American Tom Frost for the attempt. The documentary is punctuated by wry observation, understatement and cutting humour from a by-gone age when the game of taking huge risks was matched by a determination not to take it too seriously. The summit triumph leads to unexpected tragedy, a common theme in the Himalayas, but never told more poignantly as in the classic film."

Link: I reviewed a book about one of the characters on the expedition, Don Whillans, here.

Featuring: Chris Bonington, Martin Boysen, Mike Burke, Ian Clough, Nick Escourt, Tom Frost, Dougal Haston, Mike Thompson, Don Whillans

Director: John Edwards

Producers: John Edwards

Duration: 55 minutes

File Sizes: SD (format 4:3) 1.2GB

Released: 1971

Best Climbing Film -- Trento Mountain Film Festival 1971.

Friday, March 17, 2017

George Osborne, you can't be an MP and an editor. You have to choose

I agonised about getting involved in politics when I was a working journalist. I concluded pretty quickly that it wasn't possible. My constituency though was my readership. The business community of the North West. I ran campaigns, organised events, looked after their interests and held politicians to account, including the MP for Tatton.

On hearing the news today that George Osborne has become the editor of the Evening Standard the more I spoke about it, the angrier I got. It is an ambition born out of arrogance - a contempt for the people of Tatton who elected him, a disdain for the Conservative Party who's whip he will be under in the House of Commons and a neglect of the office of editor of a major city newspaper.

Maybe a better editor than me will know the collective noun for multiple conflicts of interest, but for now, as Guido helpfully lists them, we can call them "a Gideon".

I took his passion for the Northern Powerhouse in good faith. I accepted as a northern MP he wanted to create a legacy, I suspected it had an enormous capacity for hubris. Earlier this week I was saying to someone how he should have stood for Mayor of Greater Manchester, just to show he was serious. He clearly wasn't. And I now feel a bit of a gimp for giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Had he decided to resign as an MP, then that's his choice. It is wrong on every possible level that he can even comtemplate it. I suspect he hasn't properly thought this through or discussed it with his constituency association. When he does they need to tell him to resign.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

A challenge for the Metro Mayor candidates

The election for the new role of Greater Manchester Metro Mayor is in May. I'm worried. In my wonky world of civic engagement and politics, there is talk of it. I'm involved in organising a hustings at our University between the candidates for the business community.

But where I rub alongside and amongst the folk who matter, the people on the train, in the supermarket and on the touchline at kids football, awareness is low. On Facebook it is downright hostile and slightly devoid of facts.

But here's a response to the misnomer that the people of Manchester rejected a chance to have a Mayor and that therefore this an invalid role "imposed" on us:

In 2011, the cities of Salford and Manchester held badly promoted referenda whether they wanted to directly elect their council leaders. Salford on a 18% turnout said yes, Manchester said no. This is for a new position for GREATER MANCHESTER, an elected politician with oversight over many more newly devolved powers. Or maybe you'd prefer an appointed Chief Exec do the job.

It also emphasises the urgent need for the winning candidate not to do politics as usual, to be ambitious for Greater Manchester.

Cut and paste that, spread the word and if you please, come along to our event.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Tony Mowbray - what a difference a manager makes

There's been plenty of talk over the last couple of weeks about players getting a manager sacked. The performance of the Leicester City team after the owners had sacked Claudio Ranieri was statistically and demonstrably better than the ones that cost the previous manager his job. So what of Blackburn Rovers?

Three games, an away draw and two home wins since the new manager arrived. It's the same players, so did they let Owen Coyle, the previous manager, down?

I don't think so. I've noticed three important differences already:

- more confidence in midfield, a readiness to move forward and press
- like for like substitutions, none of the baffling tinkering under Coyle
- Stronger in the last ten minutes

I type this as I listen to Owen Coyle's shallow patter on Channel 5. I'm pleased he wishes us well, I'm sure he's a decent man with frustrations about the owners that he's keeping to himself, but as a manager he clearly came up short.

However, on the way home I heard more in a ten minute Radio Rovers interview with Tony Mowbray, about how to manage a football team, than I ever did in all the dreary platitudes from Gary "give it a right good go" Bowyer, Owen "good group" Coyle and Paul Lambert, who talked in riddles.

Mowbray mentioned the performance analysis team. He talked openly about how he hasn't had enough time to work on the training ground with the defenders, about how he's got better performances out of Marvin Emnes and Liam Feeney. I could have listened to him all evening, he spoke with great affection about the players, the club and the fans. I might eat my words at the end of the season if we go down, but for the first time in a while I'm just going to enjoy the glow of confidence that we have a manager who knows what he's doing.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Jason Lowe and Liam Feeney - an apology

In common with many Blackburn Rovers supporters I have on occasion blasted the performances of Liam Feeney as "lamentable", "disinterested" and "lazy". When the previous manager Owen Coyle introduced him into a game as a substitute I did comment that if Feeney was the answer then it was a stupid question. In a moment of frustration I did indeed comment to my sons that "at that moment" I despised Liam Feeney and his £500,000 a year pay packet more than any other person in the world, fictional or non-fictional, alive or dead, sporting or not. In that moment.

Similarly I have on occasions, many occasions, described Jason Lowe as the crab. Always playing backwards and I enthusiastically quoted Jim Wilkinson's description of him (and others) as"They are the generic, faceless, run-around-a-lot but contribute-little, jobbing 21st century huffers and puffers." 

However, following last night's performance against Derby County and a series of creditable crosses from Feeney against Burton Albion, I am prepared to admit I may have judged him harshly. Here is a player of vision, pace and bravery. Someone prepared to take on opposition defenders and provide an option for our more visionary centre-back, the much loved Charlie Mulgrew. And in Jason Lowe we have a centre midfield player prepared to tackle and look for forward options again.

Long may it last.   

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Burton away, unsettling, but better

This was a disorienting experience. Stood on a terrace with just the oldest lad, low down in a tiny stadium, behind the goal and watching Rovers enjoy (or endure) 75% possession in the first half. I'm not used to any of that. The atmosphere amongst the Rovers fans was supportive for a change. The whole toxic mood around the useless Owen Coyle was getting me down. Howling at the Venky's is morally justifiable and righteous, yet seems so helpless.

Burton manager Nigel Clough was right when he reflected on how outclassed his side were. It's been so unusual for Rovers to dominate a team the way they did in that first half. Yet despite some excellent crosses by Liam Feeney, there was little to show for it, but an own goal from a lethal Charlie Mulgrew corner.

It's too early to make a judgement on the new manager, but I like the fact that new boss Tony Mowbray replaced like for like. Takes off two strikers, puts two on. Takes off a winger, replaces him with a winger. It's a self evident fact that the team looks better and plays better when Marvin Emnes is on the pitch, but Conor Mahoney also seems to lift the side with his energy and his ability to surprise. Guthrie was good in the first half, but invisible in the second. At one point a cross field pass went wayward and Mowbray turned in frustration to his bench. I imagine he was saying 'what the bloody hell do you lot do in training, play table tennis?'

Another new ground chalked off. I make it the 146th ground I've watched football on, 82nd out of the Punk 92 and 71st of the current 92. Next target is Brighton on the 1st of April, which will be a sweep of this season's Championship. Who knows which new ground I'll get to visit with Rovers next season.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

This has been Jeremy Corbyn's worst week yet

It wasn't just the abject surrender over the Brexit vote, the resignation of a close ally, or the rumours of his planned retirement. No, it was the statement that the fightback starts here, and then what followed.

It should also be worth mentioning that he had a relatively good performance at Prime Minister's Questions, with a series of leaked texts about the Surrey Council social care funding deal. These minor victories only count for something if you then dominate the narrative thereafter. Pushing the government on their weak spots - that they are unfair, sneaky and look after their own.

As Jonathan Freedland said in the Guardian:

"In a tweet both tragic and comic, Corbyn reflected on this disaster with a declaration that the “real fight starts now” – as if the parliamentary decision to trigger article 50 were a pantomime, and what really matters is waving placards and all the shouting into a megaphone in Hyde Park that now follows. That’s his comfort zone, and he should be allowed to retreat to it. But it leaves the rest of us in a zone of discomfort and distress, watching as a government cruel enough to shut out the world’s most helpless children leads our country off a cliff, unchecked by an opposition that isn’t worthy of the name."

The very next day he started on the BBC sofa by attacking a legitimate question as "fake news" with the same insolence he greets any attempt to point out the hopeless situation he is in.

He then headed up to Ashton-under-Lyne to meet New Charter Homes, the Housing Association I am on the board of. I wasn't involved at all, I didn't even know about it. But colleagues had the expectations that he would be open to conversations about how Housing Associations can contribute to solving the homes crisis.

This is where Corbyn supporters claim he is at his best, with ordinary people talking about their challenges. And, to be fair, I hear from colleagues that they enjoyed his visit.

But here's the thing. He doesn't listen. He doesn't learn. He doesn't understand the world as it is.

His tweets that followed said he had enjoyed his day and that he was pleased to see a Labour Council supporting the building of more council houses. He also tweeted that he spoke about the need for more council homes. It might seem a pedantic question of words, that council housing and social housing are interchangeable. They're not, of course, but there is something else here. Housing Associations have a whole range of challenging issues that the leader of the opposition needs to understand and should be able to assist with. Nor was there any recognition of the wider social mission that a non-state actor provides in a community like Ashton. The local MP who was with him will also have told him that.

In his reshuffle he has sacked the elections co-ordinator two weeks before two by-elections Labour could lose. I fear for Andrew Gwynne, given an almost impossible job as the replacement. Corbyn has lost the support of Owen Jones, one of his important critical friends. Poll ratings are still falling. This is, as Matthew Engel writes in the FT magazine today, the behaviour of a party on a slow death march.

Labour is in many ways clueless, disunited and perhaps in terminal decline. Whatever happens in the by-elections, it faces another crisis in the mayoral elections in May: the Tories are now favourites to win in Birmingham and there are worries even about Corbyn’s former rival Andy Burnham in Manchester.

The tragedy of this situation is that Andy Burnham's campaign is seeking to do all the right things that a listening, responsive and modern Labour candidate should be doing to address the challenges of Greater Manchester. I don't make this point to rerun the 2015 leadership but to illustrate the dire position Labour is in, even when it says and does the right thing.

If this is the fightback, I dread to see the state of a surrender.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

T2 - nostalgia ain't what it used to be

Last year we saw the Stone Roses, New Order and James at emotional and celebratory events held in cathedrals of praise to the god's of our past. Last night I indulged in more of the same with a swim through the messy memories of the last twenty years since Trainspotting hit the screen.

Danny Boyle has a sure touch for what's current and able to make an emotional connection with his audience. That Olympic opening ceremony captured it beautifully. So it's no exaggeration to say the whole exercise of T2, aimed at the right here and right now, is far more than moving the story of Edinburgh junkies along.

It's a film full of Easter "Road" Eggs - knowing references and in-jokes - Hibs shirts, posters and references are in virtually every scene, as are constant flashbacks, references and retellings of the original story, so much so that one of our lads who hadn't seen Trainspotting found it incomprehensible at times. Also, Edinburgh as a changed city plays a far more prominent role than the more claustrophobic environment portrayed in the original. It's a casual but important acknowledgement that you notice the world beyond your immediate gaze as your own mortality hits mid-life.

Like New Order ending their 2016 set with a montage of Ian Curtis images and their own version of Love Will Tear Us Apart, T2 is splattered with its own indulgences - Irvine Welsh pops up again - and though I had to look it up, there's a cameo by a gangster character that's the equivalent of a backing vocal from one of the Happy Mondays at a Stone Roses gig.

It's a good film, an enjoyable journey, with differing versions of the way the story could be told competing with one another. My favourite three scenes were the scamming of a Loyalist social club in Glasgow (original), the meeting of Renton and Begbie in adjacent toilet cubicles (well shot) and the ending (won't spoil it).

The best and most important character in the film is Veronika, the Bulgarian "friend" of Simon, or "Sick Boy". She tells the others they are tourists in their past, while she has no past worth recalling, so only has a future. It's the line that defines the film and almost every detail of it.

Friday, February 03, 2017

My mate #22 Mark Webster

Jonny Owen, Webbo and Me in London 2016
So, to the revival of the "my mate" series where I say something nice about one of my mates after a random shuffle of the address book, telling a tale about how we met, etc. 

This time it's Mark Webster, broadcaster, writer and Whistleblower.

Webbo and I worked together at a doomed TV station in the early 1990s called Wire TV. He was one of the best things about it. He was smart, funny, sharp and above everything else in broadcasting - he was good to work with. The reason Alan Partridge works as a TV character is because it's such an accurate parody of the worst kind of media personality. Mark is the total opposite of that, he works hard on getting the programmes right, but he is always as quick to share the love, as others can be to place the blame.

As a sports broadcaster Webbo also brings a much wider cultural hinterland. He writes for Jocks and Nerds magazine, used to be a writer on Blues and Soul, was a main DJ on Kiss FM and I think this brightens his writing about Sport on TV for the Mail. I think football has required that wider world view of its burgeoning media and I sense his success with his work reflects that. Partly that also comes from having a great address book. In the times he's invited me onto his Whistleblowers podcast I've met brilliant fellow guests - Kevin Day, Andy Smart, Alan Alger, Stuart Deabill and Jonny Owen (apologies if I've missed anyone out).

Here's another measure of what kind of bloke he is. When I did the podcast last summer (pictured) Webbo and Jonny were so good with my eldest lad, Joe. I can imagine Joe was dreading taking time out from our day in London by going to a pub to meet one of his Dad's mates. Jonny, I ought to mention, has made the brilliant I Believe in Miracles about Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest and on St David's Day will be releasing a film about the Wales' adventure in France last summer, Don't Take Me Home.

So, thanks Webbo, see you back in the pod soon.

It's been a while since I updated the "my mate" series. I haven't stopped because I've run out of friends or anything, but it was born in the pre-social media era when this blog was a far more vibrant place. So, I'm reviving it. It's basically a chance to get some more variety on here as well. to do a little bit more than just moaning about Blackburn Rovers, Jeremy Corbyn and trains.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

When Mark Guterman called about his appearance in 40 by 40

I got a call at the back end of last year from a businessman who I included by name in my 2015 novel 40 by 40. I don't know Mark Guterman well, but met him a few times, through various friends, when he was the owner of Wrexham Football Club. That experience didn't end well for him, or the club. The point of including him was as a warning to the central character about the risks of buying a football club and the fans coming after you if it goes wrong.

Mr Guterman's polite enquiry seemed to be about how a work of fiction can include real people. He also wanted to put me right on his ownership of Wrexham and how it was represented in the book. I explained that what was always important to me was to capture accurately the time and the place - Cheshire 2008. It's not pivotal to the story, but it includes a reference to "the boys" who piled in to join his investment consortium to buy Wrexham. I heard this quite a few times myself at the time. The truth was, Mr Guterman stressed, there were no boys. He did it all by himself, but with some involvement from another investor who he fell out with, Alex Hamilton. There was no consortium and no deal done at the bar of the Stag's Head in Great Warford or after a round at the Mere Golf and Country Club.

My argument, which stands, is that the book wasn't inaccurate. The purpose wasn't to report accurately on every deal that got done and who was involved, but to reflect the myths and bravado of the time too. As Tony Wilson used to say, "faced with the choice between the truth and the legend, always print the legend."

Out of the blue I've had a few more calls and reviews about the book recently. No literary agent has called begging to sign me up, no producers asking for the rights to adapt it for TV, or Hollywood, or a major publisher offering me a mega-deal on the follow-up. Just readers who enjoyed it, who liked the story and more than anything, the linkage between the real world and the one I invented.

It's still available at Amazon for £5.99.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Walking Dead isn't fascist - Rick Grimes is a Churchillian inspiration

Rick eyeballs Negan - and lives
Steadily, and quietly I've become a devotee of the post-Apocalyptic TV series The Walking Dead. At first I just thought of it as the traditional cowboy film format, but with zombies. But it's far more profound than that.

Slow as it can sometimes be, and frustrating as it has become, especially in the first half of the current series, the 7th!, it serves as a searing existential commentary on the human condition.

Each scene, each episode, each character asks the most important question of all - what lengths would you go to in order to survive?

There is a frustrating treadmill that the series needs to step away from at the moment. Group gets together again, finds a haven, calamity falls, haven disrupted, new depths are sunk, new depravity exposed, innocence and cowardice challenged, bad guys confronted and overcome - and on it goes.

I've also read the graphic novels, which sometimes dictate the plot trajectory, yet in other ways they walk a completely different path. The character of Andrea is central to the comics, but she died in series two. The character of Daryl (or Derl) isn't in the comics at all.

But we are up to a point now where the most complex and mesmerising bad ass of them all is on the scene - Negan. We first heard his name when a bunch of creepy bikers tried to rob Derl and Abraham, saying that their property "now belonged to Negan". Derl blew them up with a rocket launcher. As you do.

When we finally meet him - played with swagger and verve by Jeffrey Dean Morgan - it is with a violence rarely seen in mainstream TV. We see plenty of zombies being crushed, but not the actual skull of another human - especially not one of our most loved characters. Add to that, he rules over his community with draconian rules and extreme theatrical violence. He is a despicable sadistic villain, but he's also witty, charismatic and difficult to second guess what he's going to do next.

He's far more interesting than the Governor, played by David Morrissey and who dominated two seasons of gruesomeness. But though he swaggers and teases, claiming "I can be reasonable" he's also in command of a particularly nasty crew of bullies and sycophants who seem to delight in dishing out a kicking because they can, whereas Negan at least does so because, he says, he's been left with no choice.

Which brings me to the core moral flaw of the series and the accusation that the default fall back position for all groups is one form of fascism or another, as described in this piece from The Vulture website which makes the point thus:

"For years, both The Walking Dead and its spin-off series, Fear the Walking Dead, have portrayed survival in the post-apocalypse as a triumph of the will — a state of constant conflict in which the preservation of “our people,” however they may be defined, is paramount. The preservation of this in-group, and the destruction of all who threaten it, both living and dead, is the ultimate moral end. This end justifies — even necessitates — the most brutal means at each group’s disposal. Trusting others, treating others with mercy, is all but invariably portrayed as weak, stupid, self-destructive. In a world where the only moral barometer is survival, establishes a binary in which the only choice for Rick Grimes and his fellows is to kill or to be killed, to slaughter or to be slaughtered. deal from strength or get crushed every time."

I disagree. If anything, the choices facing the disparate communities who are bullied and threatened by Negan and his Saviours isn't to become like them, but to resist. The choice from our history isn't to face evil with evil, but to confront it for what it is and to pursue a better alternative. That choice is appeasement, or war.

Understandably, the American counter-narrative is seeking parallels with the President elect and the rise of intolerance. I don't see that. Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, is building up to a role as a Churchill, not any kind of Trump or anti-Trump.

We've already seen glimpses of other adversaries with a far more animalistic sense of survival, contemplating violence as instinct, or accepting of the truly primal and desperate sense of the world and what it has become - think the cannibals of Terminus or the feral and desperate Wolves.

But no, bad as Negan is, powerful as he seems, there isn't even the beginnings of a moral debate to be had, just a practical one of weapons and tactics.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Left to rot on a siding in Iran - where Northern Rail's hated Pacer trains belong

Pacer train, rotting in Iran, but still used in Northern England
You can raise a laugh when you tell people that the trains used by Northern Rail, our train operating company, are so bad they were rejected by Iran and Vietnam. 

But it’s not funny. It is actually an outrage.

These buses on rails, the diesel Pacer trains we are expected to commute into Manchester on, at least along the unelectrified lines (Tameside, Hope Valley, Sheffield, Liverpool, Lancashire, Bolton), are over 30 years old.

This morning, like every morning, I travelled on one into Manchester and it was dangerously overcrowded and clammy. And late. Words were exchanged between rail staff and passengers about standing room. The trains leak when it rains, they are cold in winter and too hot in summer as the heating is still on, even when it was 30 degrees outside. I pointed this out to the driver once we had arrived and he corrected me. It wasn’t on, it’s just that the train’s heat generates such power it appears to heat the system inside the carriage.

Another driver has told me that the trains don’t have fuel gauges, so it’s impossible to do anything but guess when they are low on diesel. They aren’t even really trains, they are buses, built onto a chassis, but they were only ever a temporary measure. Disgracefully, they are still in service more than a decade after they should have been scrapped.

Some units were donated to the Islamic Republic of Iran, presumably safely within the sanctions imposed on that regime, but have since been withdrawn from service (pic, above).

 Here’s what the Office of the Rail Regulator says about the Pacer trains, in the 2012 annual report: “Rolling stock failures, such as the loss of a final drive, or bearing failures, could result in multi-fatality incidents. We flagged these concerns in the annual report for 2010-11 in relation to Pacer trains. We still have concerns about the planned continued use of these trains because their age means they can be more susceptible to failures and they often require more maintenance and monitoring.”

In short, these trains could kill you. And even the regulator is worried. But do you know what the main priority of Northern Rail appears to be at the moment? Intimidating passengers with heavy handed ticket inspection procedures, which they admit are complex and arbitrary.

I have an annual season pass, which some days I can have it checked six times by guards or by bouncers from G4S. Other days, not at all. I notice that on some days passengers can buy a ticket on the train (not today, too crowded), other days you can be issued with a failure to purchase notice when attempting to buy a ticket at Piccadilly station.

As an experience, Manchester Piccadilly station at peak times is getting better, but is still barely managed chaos. Communication is erratic, trains are overcrowded and platform changes always handled badly, though these are less frequent than they used to be. However, some annoying habits continue, one in particular is to leave passengers shivering on the platform while the driver revs up the diesel engine, opening the doors at the last possible moment. A lung full of diesel fumes doesn't warm you up, strangely.

Should you need help getting on a train, or if the platform is crowded and it is not clear which train is which, you generally get a shrug of the shoulders from one of the men on the station in a Northern Rail or Trans Pennine uniform. They aren’t paid to help, or care, just to bust fare dodgers.

What this company has done, under its new owners Arriva, and under the previous regime, is get our backs up. They are regarded as a joke by the commuters and travellers I know. The only solace people have is in a pathetic guerilla war on Twitter by referring their failings alongside a hashtag #northernfail.

New trains could be delivered to Arriva by the end of next year. And I understand they are being built by a company called CAF in Spain. In fact, it was a condition of the award of the franchise that they need to be in service by 2020. But welcome as that commitment is to new trains - and they look great - this has effectively prolonged the use of Pacers until then, rather than exploring the option of refurbished cast-offs from other networks in the south. Or Iran.