Sunday, September 24, 2017

First World Problems put into context in Shrewsbury

The impressive stained glass window at Shrewsbury's small but stunning Catholic cathedral depicts the desperate and gory history of England's Catholic martyrs. Tortured, executed and persecuted for their faith. Being able to take that in and then order a cup of herbal tea and a freshly baked cake in a beautifully appointed cafe underneath speaks to the progress towards civilisation we have made.

It's also a reminder that we live in a society where we do what we want, say what we want and live within rules, for the most part. Our discourse dwells endlessly on our divided and fractured society. Social science focuses relentlessly on breakdown, schism and threats to the social order. I'm frankly amazed at how it actually holds together for the good most of the time. My anger and frustration at the sight of broken lives sleeping in doorways is not that society can't prevent this, but that the solutions are so remarkably within our grasp.

I got to know how to get around the country by train at a remarkably young age, taking summer holidays by buying British Rail runabout tickets that took me from Wales to the Scottish border, just because we could. I'm also reminded now quite how much of our country I want to see, either revisit or see for the first time. Either way it's a journey of discovery. At different stages of life you view places as through a lens. I first wandered the streets of Shrewsbury as a teenager, bored with the frankly pointless collection of train numbers on Crewe station, so I jumped on a train to Shrewsbury and looked around the town. I was on the hunt for record shops, probably, and somewhere to eat. I certainly didn't go to the Cathedral.

Shrewsbury is a lovely place for a day out. If you've come to this blog to read about the football match I went to, then can I politely direct you here, where Old Blackburnian, who we sat next to at the New Meadow, summarised it perfectly.

The New Meadow is another new ground chalked off. I make it the 151st ground I've watched football on, I'm still on 80 out of the Punk 92 as I went to the previous ground, Gay Meadow a few times, and it marks my 73rd of the current 92. Doing the 92 isn't just a way of chalking off identikit grounds, but a way of rediscovering this land.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The problem with the Liberal Democrats

I read an extraordinarily disappointing pamphlet over the weekend. It started well enough because it was entitled Reinventing the Liberal Democrats - how to build a party for tomorrow. At last, I thought, they've got it. Given all of the political turmoil, the mess that the Tory government are in, the lack of focus from Labour on the biggest issue of the day, then it should be a golden opportunity for a centrist party to surge through the middle and offer a compelling vision for the future, as Macron has done in France.

It's a pipe dream though. The Economist's Bagehot summed up the Liberal Democrats pretty well describing the party as "feeble", going on to sketch their predicament in stark terms: "The party's implosion after the coalition coincided with the opening up of its biggest opportunity in decades: the Brexit vote. Had the party entered the post-referendum world with 60 seats and a charismatic leader it would have had a chance of engineering the political alignment it always dreamed of. Instead it entered that world as a political husk."

The pamphlet, timed to fire up the activists at this week's conference in Bournemouth, backs that up with its central call: "Set out an inspirational purpose that is illustrated by signature policies and communicated through everything we do." The fact that it states from the outset something so obvious, so fundamental and so basic to any brand; especially so a political party, only serves to accentuate the crisis the party is in. The rest of it is standard stuff - digitise the party, lower the barrier to entry, be welcoming and nice - none of which anyone in any campaign group or party should have a problem saying. But that isn't why the document is disappointing, it's the lack of reach, the lack of ambition and the lack of generosity.

I've consistently argued that the LibDems are a party without purpose or point. Here, in July 2010, again in 2011 here, and again in the aftermath of the 2015 election, where I found them to be the ultimate "say anything, believe in nothing" party. At their high watermark they were the beneficiaries of protest votes from the New Labour dominance. Such an existence is unsustainable. It manifests itself in the pitch at election time which purely focuses on the negative. Positioning themselves in opposition as the party in the best place to beat the other party you hate the most. Laughably, this is illustrated to almost comic effect by their obsession with mathematically illiterate bar charts, something I've created my own Pinterest board - Ludicrous Lib Dems - to record for political posterity. This betrays more than just a readiness to fight dirty, but an acute lack of confidence in their own purpose.

More than a few times I've overheard people saying that history will be kinder in its analysis of Nick Clegg's part in a coalition government with the Conservatives. It was an extraordinarily brave and bold thing to do, but one for which their 'core vote' or more accurately their 'peak vote' have never really forgiven them for. It's not the point of voting LibDem for them to be in power, but to salve your conscience that you are doing something positive. I'm not even so sure about that any more. Times have changed to such an extent that the opportunity is staring them in the face, but the party no more seems to want another tilt at power than a return to their comfort zone.

Next week: The problem with Labour.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Doing the 92 at Scunthorpe

Mushy, me, Smithy and Martin at Glanford Park
Scunthorpe last night was an oddity. A newish stadium, opened in 1988, on an out of town retail park that felt old, certainly older than Rochdale on Saturday, which has been tweaked and improved substantially. There were no corner stands, steel beams held up each stand roof, which isn't ideal with low sight lines, and the pitch felt very close to the crowd. Not surprisingly, I hear they're looking to move.

On my groundhopping journey I've started to see patterns in stadium development. On one level it's binary, there are old grounds and new ones, obviously. Of those some are finished, others are constantly evolving.

There are old grounds that exude character, like Everton, while some new ones look they have been knocked up out of an Ikea flat pack. The constant is that I find something to like about the experience in all of them. The thought never leaves you about how a new stand came to be built, the compromises, the budgetry limits, the vanity of the naming or the expediency of working with needy sponsors.

Quick point on the game - I thought Scunthorpe were the best side we've played this season. Graham Alexander, their manager, thought they were at their best. It wasn't always pretty and David Raya was our best player overall. Which tells you that we ground out a decent 1-0 with some solid defending and good counter attacking play.

Glanford Park is another new ground chalked off, and was my first visit to Scunthorpe. I make it the 150th ground I've watched football on, I'm now on 80 out of the Punk 92, and it marks my 72nd of the current 92.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fathers, sons and football - why I love going to the Rovers

One of the joys of going to watch Rovers each week is the company. I really don't think I would bother if I was going on my own. A few years ago we had seven season tickets and some weeks my Dad would join us. One by one the kids developed their own interests, I wrote here about even having to take one of them to Manchester City, but Joe and Louis have stuck at it. I thought I might lose Joe this season as he planned to go to college or have weekend work commitments to price in, but he's still up for it, it would appear.

Me and Louis have been to every game, so far. Which is some going.

One of the reasons I particularly like the company of two teenage chips off the old block is that they are much better readers of the game than me. It goes without saying that they are also far better players than I ever was and have the tactical and statistical grounding you get from playing FIFA on the Xbox and PlayStation.

For that reason, I proudly present Louis' debut for the Rovers Chat blog this week, a report from Rochdale v Rovers, far more lucid than anything I'd write.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Chris Brookmyre's Want You Gone, a stormer of a book

I've just read my favourite novel of the year so far, Chris Brookmyre's Want You Gone, or in the US the far better title The Last Hack. It's the sixth Brookmyre I've read that features journalist Jack Parlabane and is a terrific progression of how he's developed as a writer and observer of a fast changing world.

There seems to be a move into hard-boiled crime fiction by a wide range of male writers over the last few years. I've enjoyed Tony Parsons' latest series of Max Wolfe books, good stories, strong adversaries, and a good twist on his empathetic single Dad genre. I suspect that in another age a writer of the sensitivity and capability of Joseph Knox may have attempted a more literary state of the nation debut novel, but Sirens was as gritty and dark as they come.

I've enjoyed discovering Brookmyre this year and have resolutely ploughed through the Parlabane novels in chronological order, attempting to get to know errant journalist better by the book. Truth be told, he's not easy to get to know, or like, sometimes. I've enjoyed viewing all manner of Scottish life through his lens - Edinburgh society, the press, the Tory establishment, then the Labour one that followed, the medical fraternity. As you'd expect from a former journalist, he has a good eye for a new milieu and a fine ear for speech. I'd run out of Parlabane stories and no sooner had I finished Be My Enemy, that friends at work got me Black Widow and Want You Gone. The transition in his story structure and writing style has been remarkable. No less observant, but far darker and more urgent. Not without lighter moments and laughs, but far less of the quirky scatalogical humour that seems to have reached a peak with Be My Enemy. It all runs in parallel to Parlabane's status shifting from super star hack picking his assignments to him hustling to 25-year old editors on a fading reputation as the world changes around him.

Want You Gone is a masterpiece in modern crime noir and would easily make a Hollywood blockbuster; bang up to date with the Dark Web, Cyber attacks, Fake News and old criminals still up to the same shifty games.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Grumpy Rovers post - 5 things I dislike about modern football this week

This week I've been up close and personal with pretty much everything I dislike about modern football. Here's my five.

MK Dons - I don't have a proplem with Milton Keynes, or with the city having its own team. I just think they should have come up through the pyramid like Burton or Fleetwood. They shouldn't have stolen another club's position and part of its name. So, I always feel a bit grubby going to see them.

The Lancashire derby with Burnley - don't get me wrong, I've always enjoyed beating Burnley. I can take the defeats too, just as I did in 1979. But the hysteria, thuggery, sheer blind hatred around this fixture has got out of hand. Those idiots running on the pitch and attacking players was bad enough. Lauding them as "legends" by some fans makes me ashamed to be human.

The gulf - Burnley are a functional Premier League side. They will probably finish somewhere between 20th and 15th. Yet the gulf in ability, fitness, awareness and attitude was so far beyond our 11 that you realise how polarised football in this country has now become. I don't accept the cycle of life argument, I think a massive tectonic gap has opened up.

Venky's branding - I wince at the amount of Venky's branding around Ewood Park. I would rather they just said "Sorry". What are they selling?

Black and white - this or that, no room for nuance. Opinions are great in football, but I've paused before saying this last one, partly through fear of sparking some kind of Twitter war, Facebook fight, or whatever passes for a delinquent rage with someone who doesn't agree with you. Yesterday, I was pleased that Rovers won 4-1. But for large parts of the game we were a mess, against opponents who were demonstrably a weaker side. Football can be like that. Even when Rovers put 7 past Norwich and Forest back in the glory days, there were spells when the other side held the ball and when our players made mistakes. And just because we now have six points and we've got a winnng feeling back, we are not going to smash this division. We still might go up, but it will be by stealth, luck, grinding out a win at Scunthorpe next month and yes, occasionally, there may be a day when it clicks into place and we dominate a game. The other teams in this division will have something to say about each match. The young managers with modern methods of training, the players looking to make a mark. On the whole most people I speak to are like this, they get it. But there seem to be about 5% of fans for whom triumph and disaster are the only reactions. These tend to dominate social media and radio phone in shows. Sadly, as film maker Jonny Owen pointed out today, the news media build a narrative around these.

But we'll be back, there's far more that I love about football, there's always something about the many moving parts on the pitch to appreciate, and so much I love about the culture of the supporters too.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Freshwalks is for dogs - even eccentric ones like ours

Rachel and I went on the latest Freshwalks yomp through and around Lyme Park on Friday. It was a truly great day, as these occasions always are, covering 9 miles, 21,128 steps and a climb up the equivalent of 76 floors. 

We also took our trusty border terrier, Martha, who we thought would enjoy the challenge and the exercise and being around other people. As this is National Dog Day, it's high time this blog paid tribute to our eighth family member. I didn't expect us to be joined by six other four legged friends on the day. It has to be said, our Martha doesn't like other animals. We can be relaxing in the back garden or conservatory and she goes completely doolally at the smell of a cat, squirrel or a pigeon. She is particularly offended by squirrels. Hates them. And she will never get near one, ever. But she retains her greatest outrage for other dogs, the nearer to home, the angrier she is. When we walk her up the hill from our house she's literally straining at the leash in a demented rage if there's another dog on our road. Not without justification she's earned the nickname "Millwall" for her readiness to "have it" with any dogs trying to take serious liberties on her "manor".

Around people she's absolutely fine. She'll roll on her back and invite anyone to stroke and tickle and she's remarkably affectionate with little kids.

Her transition from border terrier to border terrorist can be traced back to when she was a puppy and she bounded up to a Rottwelier being barely controlled by a skinny woman in high heels and "WAG" sunglasses who screamed at us, making the situation even worse. She's never been the same since. Our only other major concern was when she escaped from our cottage in the Lake District and chased sheep (and caravans). I have palpitations thinking about it now, relieved none of my kids were far sighted enough to capture the moment and my anxiety for YouTube. Put it this way, Fenton wouldn't be the name guaranteed to get a cheap laugh whenever a dog is chased if they had.

Here's the thing though. She managed not to have any fights yesterday. A bit of casual gnashing to start with, but she got used to it and behaved herself. Even shrugging off an attempt to be mounted by a lively bull terrier. My favourite of the other dogs on the trip was Fox, pictured above, a gorgeous and totally eccentric character who did a lap of honour around the Ram's Head at the end of the walk. All that was missing was a chef in full whites chasing this curious half Jack Russell/half Collie out of the kitchen while he scamped off with a string of sausages hanging from his mouth and that tail wagging furiously. And our Martha slept ever so well.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A win at Bradford, that's more like it Rovers. Better in every way

The contrast with last week couldn't have been greater. Yesterday at Valley Parade, Blackburn Rovers ended the home side's unbeaten home record with a good win. Not emphatic, not dominant, not even lucky. Just good.

But I didn't just enjoy the day because we won. I was taken with the manner of it. All of the things that appalled me about the performances at Southend and at home to Doncaster were gone. The play was positive, Conway got some good crosses in. I liked Dack playing just off Samuel and thought they were both a handful.

There are still errors lurking, but this is the third tier of professional football.

I can't be bothered analysing the opposition any more. There's enough going on with my team to take in. But there were enough slack passes and mistimed tackles by Bradford to suggest they just had one of those days where they couldn't click. Overhearing a few of their fans after the game confirmed this. But fair play to Evans, Smallwood, Bennett and Dack for being first to those loose balls.

I've not been to Valley Parade for a long time, nearly 30 years, it's a striking ground that seems unfinished. If we'd planned our day better we should have paid tribute to the memorial in the city centre and at the stadium to the 56 who died in the fire in 1985. Instead, after we got off the train we found ourselves being escorted to the stadium by a testy police presence. Rubbing shoulders with the Blackburn leg of the EDL was a thoroughly unpleasant experience and one not to be repeated. Memo to self: if you hear the sound of a football crowd in a city centre, don't go towards it, go the other way.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Binge watching, what's been good lately on BBC, Netflix etc

You don't need another article by someone from my generation (X, Y, etc) to observe with bewilderment at how media consumption is changing. But I do think we are in something of a golden age of television.

How you consume though is everything. I really enjoy the binge watching of a series and it has totally altered the way our attention spans pivot around a programme. Being married to a teacher not all of these have been shared experiences, one of us doesn't have the time, one of us travels on trains a lot. But the ones I enjoyed the most, we enjoyed together.

Here's what I've been watching over the last year since what I thought were the peak telly highs of Stranger Things and Narcos.

The Fall (BBC) - we gave up on this creepy, rapey, sexist crap. Should never have been broadcast. Outrageous. 1/10.

The OA (Netflix) - I didn't really get into this. The twists and turns seemed like strange leaps into the unknown and in the end I skipped a few to find out what was going on. 4/10.

Homeland (C4) - I thought Homeland had run out of steam around series three, but this last series probably cemented its place as a decent but run-of-the-mill spy thriller. The Trump election probably ruined the narrative about America's new place in the world and the characters rather fizzled out. 5/10.

Cleverman (ABC- iPlayer) - an Australian thriller, set in a dystopian racist future with the emergence of a secret race of "hairy people" or "subhumans" in a corporatist police state. Sometimes I wish they'd just get on with it, there's not quite enough going on, and I'm struggling to see the shifting motives of two of the lead characters. 6/10.

Taboo (BBC) - Tom Hardy's grunt fest was a real mixed bag. In parts brilliant. In others just a load of incomprehensible mystical tosh, which I admit is a harsh verdict given how forgiving I've been of Twin Peaks. By the end it had all the elements and you could truly smell the filth of London's dirty streets and rivers. 6/10.

Twin Peaks - The Return (NowTV) - strangely, I don't think I could handle binge watching Twin Peaks. It would be too much to handle. It started off with so many disparate strands and red herrings thrown to the winds that it seemed aimless and directionless. Just as I was losing patience with it came the outrageous 8th episode (Got a light?). It was off the scale Lynch weirdness, creepy, dark, ugly and needlessly violent. Unforgettable television that had as many theories as it probably had viewers. Since then it has started to draw the fragments together, from the first half and from the first series 25 years ago and from the film Fire Walk With Me. It is a masterpiece, for all it's flaws. Whatever happens now will be unable to be repeated by anyone. What Lynch has done is to graft onto an old project something that feels like a lifetime of work and creativity, sometimes with the sense that a director is indulging his fans and his  own imagination. 7/10 (points deducted for needless indulgence).

Ozark (Netflix) - billed as an heir to Breaking Bad this was always on a hiding to nothing. But I liked it and was gripped by the end. Sympathetic characters were in short supply, but the stars of the show weren't the entitled money laundering Chicago family, trying to make a mark in the sticks, but the roughnecks of the Missouri Ozarks, especially the dysfunctional Langmore clan, exemplified by an outstanding performance by Julia Garner as Ruth. But for me the real show stealer was Peter Mullan as Jacob Snell. 7/10.

Top of the Lake, season 1 (BBC) - I came across Top of the Lake series one quite late. It was glorious to watch, unnerving and full of suspense with a series of jaw dropping scenes starring Elisabeth Moss, again. And Peter Mullan again, this time with his Scots accent intact. 8/10.

Top of the Lake, season 2 (BBC) - I was pleased that season two was made available all at once on the BBC iPlayer. It was hard going at times. Though I have a soft spot for pretty much anything Australian (of which more later) the grimy side of Sydney was too much at times. It wasn't until the third episode that a male character emerged with any redeeming features whatsoever. But it was a brave and ambitious series marked out with some complex character twists. 7/10.

The Code (ABC- iPlayer) - we watched two series of this pacy and high octane Australian thriller, pretty much one after the other. Taught and anxious due to stand-out performance of Ashley Zukerman as Jesse, a high functioning autistic lead character. I loved how it spanned different parts of Australian life, the outback as well as the stiff political class of Canberra. 8/10.

Hinterland (S4C) - we were properly gripped by Hinterland, picking up on where I left off from the first series which I reviewed here. I adored the sparse and oppressive central character in the show, the one consistent and dominant element that loomed not just in each episode, but every scene. That is the landscape of Ceredigion, and collectively the people of west Wales. I was disappointed that Sian and Lloyd weren't bigger parts, but the priority had to be flushing out the frankly ludicrous presence of the most useless copper on television, the brooding Prosser. We liked it so much we went to Aberystwyth for the day. 8/10.

The Handmaids Tale (C4) - I thought this was a masterful piece of filmmaking. Atmospheric, uncomfortable and terrifying. As part of an Elisabeth Moss binge it was right up there. But. There was a but coming. The experience of watching it every Sunday night, with adverts, was hard going. I'm delighted there's a next series, but I'm going to dash off the lot in a weekend. 5/10 for the experience, 8/10 for the actual programme.

Broadchurch (ITV) - we were dubious about how ITV could keep the momentum going with Broadchurch. More red herrings than a trawler could catch off the Dorset coast, the third series was actually my favourite of the lot. So many issues got resolved, so many didn't. I can't think of a better cast female detective than Olivia Coleman as DI Miller. 8/10

The Missing (BBC) - we found this second series a really tough watch, and frustrating for the jumpy timelines, but it was mesmerising and truly worthy of a week off between episodes. Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were outstanding as the parents of a missing daughter, while Tcheky Karyo as Julien Baptiste brilliantly portrayed the detective who takes an obsession to a new level. The producers are constantly in the driving seat with what they choose to reveal, prompting a whole industry of speculation. 8/10.

Line of Duty (BBC) - for tension, twists, manipulation and sheer brass balls I watched most of Line of Duty stood up. This was the BBC at its best and at most preposterous. The clues were littered all the way back through the previous series, and sometimes it stretched credibility with the deep and frankly inexplicable dark criminal conspiracy looming over everything. 9/10.

But the winner is...

Broken (BBC) -  as Catholics you sort of heave a sigh of predictable acceptance when a TV series focuses on a priest. It's usually only a matter of time before he gets outed as a kiddie fiddler. Dark as this series was though Sean Bean not only delivered a performance you could believe in, but depicted a priest that truly fulfils Pope Francis' call to them to get out and smell of the sheep. Tough storylines, full of despair, frustration and tension, but in doing so Jimmy McGovern also wrote a troubled love letter to the church. Full of contradictions, but full of the graces. 9/10.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Tony Mowbray is the problem

That was awful. Pitiful, weak, shambolic, amateur and downright dishonest. Losing anytime is disappointing, losing at home is always particularly hard to take. But surrendering in our first home game of the season to newly promoted Doncaster really hurt.

I blame Tony Mowbray all the way. Sure, some players had individual off-days (Williams, Graham, Ward, Bennett) but he picked the team. He drilled the formation, he will have read the scouting reports on Doncaster Rovers and stuck Danny Graham up front on his own to hide in the shadows of two taller centre halves. Unbelievably, inexplicably, he sent them out in the second half to do the same again.

So if Tony Mowbray's the problem, what's the solution? For now, more Tony Mowbray.

Friday, August 11, 2017

I love the Inn at Whitewell

I love the Inn at Whitewell.

I've only been twice, but I have an irrational and emotional connection to it, possibly to everything it represents.

Growing up in Lancaster the Trough of Bowland was so close, but yet so far. Signs to places like Oakenclough, Calder Vale, Chipping and Clitheroe pointed to destinations we never quite reached. The hills and vales seemed like a nether region, somewhere that an Ordnance Survey map offered mystery, but an ancient map in an antiquarian bookstore would probably denote them as "there be dragons". We had our own names for our favourite beauty spots for picnics and paddling - the pipe place, the pools, the rocky place. Far from ice cream vans and penny arcades they contain firm memories of enduring innocence and, I've grown to appreciate, wise parents.

JRR Tolkein visualised Middle Earth when he was embedded at Stonyhurst College, a few miles away. As you peel away from Whalley with your Sat Nav charting a course ahead, along no obvious highway, defying logical directions to anywhere in particular, you can see why. It is glorious countryside, rolling and surprising.

Yesterday was a magical, glorious, emotional day. The wedding of our very special niece Danielle to Carl Holden, such a smashing lad. These days layer on the pleasurable experiences that cement a reputation. Stood on the terrace with braziers burning brightly and warmly added to the sense of comfort and hospitality. And I'm a sucker for a shop stocked full of cookbooks and expensive cashmere socks.

The Inn also kicked off the TV series The Trip, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon open their food travels of the North. The surprises on seeing that for the first time back in 2010 are all happy ones, a real delight, heightened possibly by Coogan's chicken choice pretty much matching what we had as our wedding banquet yesterday. I scanned the menu while we were there; local, seasonal and utterly tantalising. On the way there we passed by the Three Fishes at Mitton, the first of Nigel Haworth's monuments to Northern food where we have enjoyed many a splendid lunch.

I got hopelessly lost on the way home, in the dead of night. It didn't put me off, quite the opposite. I liked that it requires extraordinary effort to discover, but also to escape. I love that no-one stumbles on it by chance, that you have to go there with purpose and prior knowledge.

And that photo above of my beautiful wife Rachel in the private dining room will be one to treasure forever.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Clash of the abominable owners - Rovers at the Ricoh

Two clubs with abominable owners met last night at the Ricoh Arena. My team the Blackburn Indian Chicken and Pharma Conglomerate visiting the Japanese Photocopier Bowl, the temporary home of of the Coventry Hedge Funders in the Confected Energy Brand Trophy. That Blackburn won the actual cup tie 3-1 doesn't settle the argument of who have the worst owners (not that they were there, either). You can take a look at many others here to decide that for yourself.

It is an appalling situation that Coventry find themselves in. Kicking off the season in League Two (fourth division) is no place for a club of this size in a city like Coventry. Reading back through the coverage of their shabby period in charge provokes real anger. SISU thought they could turn around a distressed situation to their advantage, wreaking havoc on the fortunes of the club, the city and the asset they thought they'd enhance. Instead they've made it worse, arguably by applying their own ruthless business logic to a sport that defies it.

In one of our Discuss Manchester debates a few years ago my pal Graeme Hawley (currently on the silver screen as Morrissey's teacher in England is Mine) made the powerful and emotional case for fans everywhere. An unregulated wild west has enabled football to become the plaything of oligarchs and asset strippers. A club is no longer a focal point in a community that exists for the common good.

On looking out across this large bowl of a stadium last night my first sad thought was how sparse and eerie it was. How a few thousand people peppered around it accentuated the demise of what it ought to be. I texted Graeme to say I thought it felt like a music venue, an arena with a pitch in the middle, compounded possibly by a very good choice of music. The effect of that size and scale, that emptiness, has proved suffocating to teams, he said.

On my groundhopping journey, of which this season will be a very busy one, this is another new ground chalked off. I make it the 149th ground I've watched football on, I'm now on 79 out of the Punk 92 as I'd seen Coventry City at Highfield Road twice before, but it is my 71st of the current 92 as I lost Hartlepool United and Leyton Orient last season, the latter another club with bad owners.

I was pleased that we won, especially after the disappointment of Southend, but never have I felt as sad at a football ground for the fate of the fans following the other team.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Southend away - back to reality

It always takes me a while to absorb the pattern of a game of football, to work out a formation and a game plan and to see who's on top and what's going on. Yesterday at Southend, after 20 minutes or so I thought to myself we're the better team here, our players are clearly a notch above and I like what I see. Of the new faces Peter Whittingham has a forward gear and an instinct to go forward in a way that Jason Lowe never did, and I like the look of Richie Smallwood. Bradley Dack never got in the game until too late.

So what went wrong? I had my say on TalkSport2 half an hour after the game as we rattled through the Essex countryside. I said there seemed to be too much of what we had last season. Reliance on our best player to pull some magic out of the hat, a defence that crumbled under pressure and failed to do the basics, and a forward that for all his undoubted poaching ability doesn't score enough goals.

There's something else though. Ever since we lost Mark Hughes as manager each of our teams has lacked steel. They've been a soft touch and been unable to impose their style of play and physical presence on a game. We just seem to adapt to the game plan of the opposition. When it counted we were bullied by Southend yesterday. Anton Ferdinand might as well have got a new pocket sewn into his shorts for Danny Graham to slip into for the second half. I don't honestly think Southend were better players, neither did they "want it more" but the last 15 minutes Rovers were totally unable to create momentum to get an equaliser. The introduction of Harry Chapman descended into farce when he fell over his own feet right in front of us. Despite that, I believe Sheffield United fans who tell me we've got a good one there.

There were loads of us in the sold out away end yesterday, an impressive turnout from a loyal support. It added to the occasion and the home fans relished beating the team everyone is going to want to beat. But as we discussed on the way home yesterday, we're going to have some more tough days like that. We should win this league. We can win this league, but it's going to be a lot harder than a lot of fans, and maybe some players, realise.

First Generation: The campaign to transform lives

There's a really fabulous programme underway at work to support students to come to university. Across Greater Manchester there are bright kids at schools and colleges who are thinking that further education isn't for them. They don't have the peer groups, the siblings or the parents who can relate their experiences. What I like about First Generation is that it provides a level of pastoral support as well as a financial package. Have a look at the video and see if you can contribute to this really good cause.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

David Goodhart's Road to Somewhere and our journey to Oldham

Author David Goodhart has contributed something substantial to the understanding of our confused new times. The backdraft from the EU referendum last year has been a constant debate conducted alongside an exposed fault line in society between two tribes of people. On one hand are the "Anywheres"; highly educated, mobile, not as rooted, international in outlook, well-travelled and comfortable with globalisation and immigration, and usually found in big cities, and they make up about 20 per cent of the population. On the other hand are the "Somewheres"; rooted in their decaying places, often feeling left behind, threatened by immigration and globalisation, and more likely to hold socially conservative attitudes.

Though it's a useful distinction and powerfully argued, Goodhart's compelling book The Road to Somewhere draws on these influences from a social and cultural perspective, rather than a political dichotomy between left and right. So far, so good.

If anything the 2017 General Election told us even less about the distinction than we could have reasonably expected in Brexit stricken Britain. As Goodhart said himself in the Catholic Herald last week: "the task of politics now is to create new settlement between Anywheres and Somewheres which gives more space to Somewhere principles without hurting too many Anywheres. Theresa May produced an innovative programme that tried to do just that... but her own performance let her down."

At an event at Oldham College last month we wrestled with these and many other issues, with David present and ready to lead the discussion. There's a good account of that discussion, here, from the Oldham Chronicle.

I have a few issues with his central thesis. The first is personal, the second is the political expression of this dichotomy, the third is in his attempt to hang heavy charges on the university sector.

So, firstly, I don't fully buy that the Anywhere identity applies to anything like the numbers he suggests. Even as someone who moved from a Lancaster home to a Russell Group university, passed through London and Australia, settling 60 miles from where I was born, I was the offspring of itinerant post-war parents. But I hesitate to even begin to apply my own anecdotal experience into this sphere, because I think it's where Goodhart's arguments are at their weakest.

The University of Manchester has a corporate social responsibility programme that encourages staff and alumni to become school governors. Large international businesses in Greater Manchester mandate their senior staff to volunteer in their communities. Undoubtedly professional careers give people the options to advance in other places, but it's too convenient to assume the ties that bind them to a place are inevitably weak. In discussing this with my colleague who appeared on the panel with David, a French academic who is raising a family in Stockport, I tend towards less of Somewhere v Anywhere, but to consider the possibilities of a "Somewhere Else". Communities of people, brought together by where they live, shaping places into a diverse and different character by the contribution of changing groups of people and families.

As he closed the event in Oldham David Goodhart tossed in an anecdote that graduates of Russell Group universities have no close friends who aren't also graduates of similar institutions. It cuts to the heart of where these people go and where they end up? Parts of big cities, presumably. It's not my responsibility to disprove that, but Goodhart's to justify, but I suspect it's nonsense. I suspect too that there are more than a few anecdotes in search of suitable evidence, which is partly why I've indulged my own story too.

Second, there's the politics. There are large parts of the country where people feel that the system doesn't work for them. And when things don't work, you cast around for the causes, for who it does seem to work for. On page 225 he lists initiatives and government actions that were Anywhere priorities: Scottish devolution, the fox hunting ban, immigration, the Iraq war, EU expansion to allow Bulgarians and Romanians into the country in large numbers, £9,000 tuition fees, the Human Rights Act.

I read through that list with some sympathy. But it spoke to me of something far more fundamental to the British political psyche than Somewhere and Anywhere, but "don't take the piss", something I first heard articulated by a guy called Jonathan Simons at a Tory conference fringe last year. That to me comes closer to synthesizing the anger we feel all around us.  And there are a variety of political responses that coalesce around a number of no-go zones of moral relativism; all attempts to manage sensibly public spending is "austerity" and the automatic response to an act of Islamist terrorism is to say it isn't Islamic and to say otherwise is playing to the racist right. To me, that's where we've got stuck. There are tribes of people who think the other side isn't just wrong, but "extreme", "alien" and "dangerous". No-one is talking to one another. Everyone is shouting. The left behind feel ever more helpless.

Thirdly, he has it in for the university sector. In fact, not only is this the sector where I work, my job is to do all the things he suggests we don't do and that are the cause of many social ills. He identifies a “university or bust” mentality; “Today’s university option is sucking in more young people than is economically or socially desirable” (p230); "Modern universities have expanded far beyond any useful purpose”; and (p165) that it would be preferable to recreate elite vocational colleges with strong local connections.

Some of the charges I simply don't recognise within the sector. A big drive to create more apprenticeships, more generous support for technical training, better links within and between northern cities and more patriotic procurement are all pretty much mainstream ideas today in Whitehall, not least at the top of the agenda for the Metro Mayors.

I don't accept the binary distinction between what is offered in universities and what is more practical and rooted, or that the shift from polytechnic to university was a mistake. I accept a massive underfunded skills shortage, but the fingers are all pointing to the wrong place. I don't see the evidence that what is achieved at a modern university is to the detriment of technical pathways. Or that we don’t offer them. At Manchester Metropolitan, where I work, we take most of our students from the North of England, 40% from Greater Manchester. Many are what we call 'first generation' students.  The percentage of pupils coming from the 20% lowest participation neighbourhoods has increased from 14.5% in 2011/12 to 16.6% in 2015/16. Universities provide high quality, cost-effective routes to advanced technical skills. Degrees should not be placed in opposition to technical education.

We currently recruit a third of all degree entrants from BTEC and other vocational backgrounds and are one of the leading universities in the development and delivery of Degree Apprenticeships with employers, a good example of a pathway that is both ‘technical’ and ‘academic’.

I'm going to leave it there. It's starting to sound like I've got a bee in bonnet about what is in fact a very helpful and fascinating contribution to our understanding of some big trends in our society. It's certainly going to have some influence on society, politics and education for sometime. Though I don't think it's as effective a summary of our psyche as "Don't Take the Piss".

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mobike - play nicely please, or is it all over already?

These sharing Mobikes are great. The first day I took them it was ideal - it was sunny, I was bouncing between work and the Digital Summit at the Museum of Science and Industry and it all felt very modern and exciting. And it worked. I felt really proud that our city had taken 1000 of them and they were popular.

I last took one last Friday to go and meet my mate Steve Connor for a vegan lunch, which passes all Catholic tests too. But it was after four attempts. And in all seriousness I haven't seen a single one this week. Have they dispersed? Or are there more broken than they're letting on? Rightly, the MEN are asking this week if this spate of vandalism means we're just not ready for them.

Cycling advocate Helen Pidd in the Guardian was an early fan, but is wondering whether the vandals stealing the handles have potentially wrecked it for everyone and whether this is another example of crappy self-entitled sod-you attitude: "I do not want to live in a country where you can be caned for graffiti, but I would like to live in a city where people know how to share. The man who wanted to have his own personal Mobike displayed an all-too common sense of entitlement. There is always someone who refuses to put headphones on or take their feet off the seat, who won’t shut up during the gig and can’t be bothered finding a bin."

So, come on Manchester, play nicely. This could be great.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Manchester Climate Change Conference - a time to be Greater

As if we really needed reminding, our political culture is shifting in Greater Manchester. As I walked from work to the Manchester Climate Change Conference at the Royal Exchange theatre last night there was a protest outside Churchgate House, where the Greater Manchester civil service sits. The demand by homeless campaigners was for an audience with the recently elected Mayor Andy Burnham.

That thought stayed with me for the evening. I admire the work of Manchester A Certain Future, the city's climate change action plan, so was delighted to be hosting the event and leading a discussion. It puts some priorities in place for the city of 650,000 people to reduce carbon use and promote sustainable development. The targets slip away, but as the director Jonny Sadler outlined at the conference last night, there is some momentum and some urgency behind the city's ambitions to be carbon neutral by 2050.

But here's the thing. We had a wide ranging discussion last night about what those in cultural industries can do. The audience contributions were exciting and ambitious, sign me up for the Green Drinks Mcr, for starters. But volunteers from various voluntary groups and campaigners made helpful and creative suggestions for future priorities. But as you weigh up the achievements and start to think about what's achievable, it's pretty clear that the scope of the work to make Manchester carbon neutral falls short due to structural limits. Changes to housing policy are led by the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework on where new houses are going to go. Transport cuts right across borough and city boundaries. And the low carbon economy can't be created in the city centre alone. And how do you solve a problem like Peel?

With Martin, @Visceral HipHop
More than one contributor last night - many more on social media - asked the question of what Andy Burnham was doing about this. Or where was he? Then people asked, to applause, why does the GM Pension Fund make investments in carbon businesses? What about the airport?

It is a matter of record than he has appointed the thoughtful and energetic Stockport leader Alex Ganotis to be the lead member on the environment. At his Digital Summit last week he announced that there will be a Green Summit too, to bring together stakeholders from across Greater Manchester to drive this. One of the challenges set last night was for a new board for Manchester Climate, a new chair and including members of the public. Who knows whether it will be funded long term by the city council. My hunch is that this important strategic work needs to adapt to these new political times and find a new home. Hopefully to make Greater Manchester the low carbon city region. More ambitious, scary targets, but done at scale. This is doable.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

My mate #24 Janine Watson

Janine (in green) at her retirement do last from the UoM Alumni Board
I was honoured to give a citation to my friend Janine Watson last night as she stepped down as chair of the University of Manchester Alumni Board, which I have been on for the last 5 years. So, I thought I'd add it to the "my mate" series on this blog, where I talk about my friends, how we met and what I like about them. What follows is the speech with all the libels taken out.

Janine and I first knew each other in our poacher and gamekeeper roles. She the softly spoken Alastair Campbell of Manchester Town Hall, protecting her estate. Me, the editor, the occasional hunter. I well remember a whispering phone call from Janine to follow up about something that Sir Howard Bernstein wasn’t happy about that had been written in Insider, the magazine I edited. But it was an early glimpse of her quiet steel in how she delivered the words that turned your blood to ice - "Howard isn't happy".  It's also one of the hallmarks of how professional she was that we managed not to fall out and all emerge with dignity intact and relations remained strong. We always stayed good professional friends, especially so when she moved to Stockport Borough Council as assistant chief executive and her advice was always wise, especially when I got involved in the bear pit of local politics.

So I was particularly delighted when Janine asked me to apply to join the board of the University of Manchester Alumni Association, when she was taking over from our mutual friend Andy Spinoza.

In all that time over the last 5 years Janine has been mindful that the scope of the work of the board is to give strategic advice and to provide support and ideas to the Alumni and Development Office, and of course awarding travel bursaries to students. Part of the skill of any board chair is to make the best use of the rest of the board members, something Janine has become particularly skilled at. One day she called me with an invitation to support her on a particularly important piece of work. Given the build up and the hushed way she was briefing me on this special assignment I was practically packing my sunglasses for, the very least, a trip to host the Singapore Alumni reception, maybe even New York. No, it was to join her as part of a task and finish group to scrutinise an important piece of drafting on the new constitution.

But it is also a sure sign that Janine has been a fantastic chair because she also gets stuck in on important work like this herself and makes it a pleasure, as much as a constitutional drafting can be enjoyable.

In fact, there was probably only one job where she has consistently exercised chair’s privilege. Namely, any occasion where the job involved formally thanking and introducing Professor Brian Cox!

All of us do these voluntary roles because we care and we want to make a positive difference. I think we can agree Janine has done that, but more so that she's done it with great warmth and love. Keeping it going over and again is the real skill. But as a board we are more global, more connected, more digital than ever. We are working smarter and have held board meetings in London, to be closer to the wider network, though still not in Singapore! All meetings are now held using video conferencing with useful inputs from around the world, and we are all kept up to date on important events and ways we can support Kate White, Claire Kilner and all in the Alumni and Development offices. Both of us feel deeply that the University of Manchester transformed our lives. To serve on a board together like this and to turn business contacts into firm friends is a mark of how that experience persists to this day.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Why everyone's wrong about Arlene Foster and the DUP

Back in 2012 I took a finance conference to Belfast. It wasn't unusual to get some warm words from a local politician, but in Northern Ireland we were greeted with enormous appreciation from devolved government, notably by Business and Investment Minister Arlene Foster, as she was then, First Minister of Northern Ireland and supporter of the minority Conservative government as she is now.What struck me more than anything in the couple of years that I regularly hopped over to work in Belfast was the powerful desire to be seen as a "normal" part of the United Kingdom, somewhere that business is done, where visitors are made welcome and that peace was permanent.

The last issue they're going to raise as part of a UK settlement is gay marriage and abortion. That wasn't on the table when they negotiated with Gordon Brown's team in 2010 and it isn't now. I don't doubt for a minute that the infrastructure spending in Northern Ireland will form part of the long promised 'peace dividend', and that concessions will be made to many of the campaigns that politicians on all sides in Stormont have made over the last twenty years. These include a competitive corporation tax regime with the Republic and further inward investment incentives.

At the heart of this hostile assault on the DUP is a depressing characterisation of the people of Northern Ireland. That they are the other. That there is more that divides us, than unites us, if you want to put it like that.

Jenny McCartney in CapX makes these points very well.  "The level of vitriol has been disturbing even to those of us from Northern Ireland who are both wary of the DUP’s social conservatism and familiar with its flaws: the Paisleyite inheritance, the party’s dwindling rump of religious fundamentalists and creationists, the energetic self-interest and intermittent financial scandals. But the ecstasies of liberal piety and fury in the British press at any potential deal with the DUP – the sort of deal that Labour sought in 2010 – have gone beyond normal political criticism and plunged into outright hypocrisy and untruths. It was as if – hemmed in by correctness on all sides – many, mainly English, pundits were finally relishing the unleashing of fire on people they could feel really pious about hating."

The greatest misgiving I have about Arlene Foster was her poor handling of the botched biomass scheme, or "cash for ash". But she has stuck it out. The price of failure is a high one in Northern Ireland, so too is the value of unity around a project for peaceful co-existence, compromise and forgiveness, as Stephen Bush acknowledges, here: "The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator."

I'll leave the last word to Jenny McCartney again, who goes on to say: "Foster is, in fact, a member of the Church of Ireland who happily drinks alcohol and only joined the DUP in 2004. She spent the day before the election in Messines, Belgium with the outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, commemorating a WWI battle in which unionist and Irish nationalist soldiers fought side by side. When necessary, she has attended local events alongside the Sinn Fein MLA Sean Lynch, a former close comrade of the late IRA man Seamus McElwain, whom Foster believes attempted to murder her policeman father and succeeded in wounding him. How many armchair pundits have had to negotiate such a complex past and present?"

POSTSCRIPT: Here is a brilliant, concise, but detailed examination of the deal by Ciaran McGonagle, that summarises the very clever negotiation by Arlene Foster on this. It's on

Friday, June 16, 2017

Jonathan Schofield and Manchester's "betrayal" of its radical history

I could listen to Jonathan Schofield all day. I could listen to a talk on Manchester's radical history for even longer than that. So last night at Manchester Metropolitan University's 70 Oxford Street, the building that used to be the Cornerhouse, I listened and watched as he took us on a proper trek through Manchester's past.

The proposition our favourite tour guide and historian put to us was this: has Manchester betrayed its radical roots? It's a story of nuance and myth, heroism and sacrifice. But it's ultimately a story about the thing that really encapsulates Manchester's real radicalism - pragmatism and progress.

I won't attempt to summarise his talk, instead I'll point you to his excellent books. But I will take three examples that rather show we haven't betrayed our past in the way some may think. Jonathan's journey took us from the development of the town of Manchester, England's least aristocratic, through the English civil war and the siege of 1642, the stubborn non-conformist Christians who challenged the divine right of kings to rule. He talked about the beginnings of opposition to slavery, a careful case built against it by the preacher Thomas Clarkson, a direct influence on William Wilberforce who eventually succeeded in outlawing such barbarism, despite opposition from the Liverpool dockers who tried to kill him.

Secondly, Manchester's radicalism was, he argued, middle-class and non-conformist. Even the reaction to Peterloo - the birth of the Chartist movement - had a moderating force despite its entirely reasonable demands for universal (male) suffrage, the victories of this soft radicalism - the vegetarianism and municipal parks of Joseph Brotherton, John Bright's opposition to the needless Crimean war and Richard Cobden's free trade treaty with France were all touched not by insurrection and revolutionary radicalism but by a rounded and benevolent pursuit of the common good.

Thirdly, the incredible achievements of universal women's suffrage were characterised by a determination, a collection of evidence, a persistence and a refusal to shut up. Isn't that so very Manchester. And then there's Engels observation of the 3000 people gathered in a socialist hall on a Sunday that no Englishman can go three minutes without telling a joke.

So, I don't think Manchester today is a betrayal of those roots. What we do now, based on evidence, decent moderation and noisy anger traces a direct line to all that in some form or other. True, we all don't do enough, like voting in greater numbers, for a start. Change dot org and Facebook clicking absorb our own calls to radical action, while much is so wrong in the world we seem unprepared to do much about it. But isn't it something that there has been a sea of flowers around the statues of Cobden and Bright in St Anne's Square. Those flowers are our response to an act of medieval barbarism, not an act I would ever describe as radical, never. Flowers next to statues that commemorate an idea that we should be tolerant, open-minded and free to exchange ideas and the fruits of our common endeavour.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A bitter defeat for Theresa May, a glorious defeat for Jeremy Corbyn

Back in April when the General Election was called, my contribution to the discussion was that it proved that everything we thought we knew was wrong. Today, many commentators, campaigners and pollsters are even more wrong. I broke it down then to what it meant for a number of key players. I’ll return to them all, in the same order, as we absorb the results today.
For Theresa May, it is a disaster, pure and simple. Her poor campaign has delivered a victory that feels like no victory at all. Her wide ranging manifesto lies in tatters – described by Nigel Evans MP for Ribble Valley as “dire” – her programme of a reforming Red Tory government now lacks a convincing mandate.
The decision to call an election and tear up the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was born of political calculation, believing her own hype and badly underestimating the resilience and popularity of her rivals.
It has been said too that she has relied too closely on her two closest advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, and too little on her cabinet and the Conservative Party. Once called, the campaign was about her, less about how she would govern. Her u-turn on social care added to the negative perception that she was far from ‘strong and stable’ but was indecisive “Theresa Maybe”.
She called it the Brexit election, but it was barely an issue, hardly mentioned by Labour, while the two parties who are defined by that vote – the Liberal Democrats and UKIP - seem diminished and irrelevant.
For the business of government, there will be disruption. Those of us who work in the Higher Education sector were relieved the Higher Education and Research Bill sneaked through in the pre-recess wash-up. There will have to be a priority given to less contentious and controversial measures that won’t provoke a Tory rebellion. One example, on immigration policy and international students, it is arguable that there is no longer any clear mandate for the Conservative manifesto commitment for keeping international students in the net migration target.
For UKIP, I anticipated the disaster that followed. Paul Nuttall, one of their longest serving leaders this year (I think, I’ve lost count), has now resigned.
What was a factor was the distribution of UKIP’s 4 million insurgent votes from 2015. It seems more returned to a boisterous Labour under Jeremy Corbyn than the Tory campaign expected.
For Labour, it is the glorious defeat. After losing the Copeland by-election and trailing by 20 per cent in the polls, to achieve a result like this is nothing short of a miracle. It is a tribute to Jeremy Corbyn’s calmness under pressure and to the legions of volunteers and party activists that the uptick happened at all, let alone to the extent it denied Theresa May a majority. Localised campaigns where the MPs clawed back slim majorities were hard fought and attracted door-knockers and leafleters in their thousands. The most telling and popular policy in the manifesto of free stuff was undoubtedly the promise to abolish university tuition fees and bring back grants. It clearly did the trick in Canterbury, Lancaster, the Manchester seats and Remain supporting parts of London.
For the Tory campaign strategists, the push in Northern heartlands wasn’t enough, and they took their eye off the ball in London and parts of the South East, badly misreading the sentiment in places like Canterbury and Swindon. The squeeze on Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott went too far. People stopped listening and it backfired. Even the rhetoric about Corbyn being the terrorist’s friend only worked to a limited degree.
For the SNP, it was a mighty fall. There was only one way to go after 2015 when they swept all before them, but no-one except the impressive Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson expected the losses they suffered. Politics isn’t just about winning elections, it’s also about governing. If people’s lives haven’t improved and they don’t feel things are getting better, then the electorate will take that out on the government.
For the Liberal Democrats, it was a disappointing campaign which failed to deliver the gains they should have achieved in an election where their pro-European purpose was a key issue. Their gains in Scotland, Bath and Twickenham were offset by Nick Clegg’s loss in Sheffield Hallam. It’s a sour end for Clegg who one commentator observed had sacrificed his party in 2010 for the good of the country, while David Cameron had done the opposite in 2016.
For Labour moderates, this now represents an existential crisis. Rather than Corbyn owning a catastrophic defeat, he owns a triumph of sorts. It should have been predictable that Corbyn was rather good at campaigning. Where he has frustrated the parliamentary Labour Party is his inability to effectively oppose in the House of Commons. The fragile government requires scrutiny, especially over Brexit, but even as talented seasoned centrist politicians like Yvette Cooper and Caroline Flint indicate they are willing to serve, Corbyn may feel he owes it his loyalists to continue.
Many MPs may point out that Corbyn’s face was on far more Conservative leaflets than Labour ones. That activists from across the party won their own local battles despite Corbyn. What the path to government is from here may be more rallies, more free stuff promised in manfestos, or it may be a gentle combination of the two.
For the devolution project and the Metro Mayors, they have an opportunity to come up with imaginative solutions to the problems that have evaded this failed “Mayist” project. They have the moment to operate outside the claustrophobia of Westminster.

Monday, June 05, 2017

My mate #23 Jonathan Reynolds

So, to the latest installment of the "my mate" series where I say something about one of my mates, telling a tale about how we met, etc, after a random shuffle of the address book.

By a remarkable coincidence it's my friend Jonathan Reynolds, who this week is up for re-election as the Labour Member of Parliament for Stalybridge and Hyde, the constituency next door to where we live.

Mothers know, don't they? I was with my Mum yesterday and showed her Jonny's video of his own story (above). How he was the first from his family to go to University, in Manchester, and made a home in Greater Manchester of which his family, community and his church are very much at the centre of his life. He also chairs Christians on the Left and the All Party group on Autism. "Wow," she said, "so many parallels, and I can see why you're friends. I wish I could vote for him."

I first met Jonny when he worked for James Purnell, his predecessor, where one of his duties had been to deliver Alastair Campbell from Turf Moor to a fundraiser at Hyde Town Hall. I bumped into him after that a couple of times, but it was Chuka Umunna who suggested I invite him to speak at a Downtown business conference I was involved in. He went down a treat that day, providing thoughtful and cogent ideas and arguments on regional devolution, while sitting alongside Terry Christian on a panel.

When the opportunity came up for me to stand as a candidate Jonny was hugely supportive, giving me a reference and some good advice. He introduced me to his team, including his amazing wife Claire and to his office manager, Jason Prince, who is also a great friend now. When I was selected in 2015 he came over to Marple to support me when he was on Caroline Flint's shadow energy team. "I'm the minister for all the green crap," he said, disarmingly, quoting David Cameron, to the gathering of activists and eco-entrepreneurs we'd corralled and of which we have rather a few in Marple.

I've had the pleasure to support Jonny of the last few weeks during this General Election campaign. I have seen people do extraordinary things for an extraordinary guy. The wells of love and support for him in his constituency are deep and real. People who remember favours he did, kind words he spoke and how he fulfilled his role as a proper community leader.

You'd expect me to say nice things about a mate who is standing for election, so I'm not going to disappoint or layer it on any less thick. But I will say this, we have disagreed on a number of issues, but it is a function of a strong friendship that one can disagree well.

On the side of this blog you'll see a quote from the Dangerous Book for Boys extolling the three virtues of boyhood - "be honest, be loyal, be kind". These are the attributes you'd think of when you think of Jonny. Bluntly honest, supremely kind and fiercely loyal.

Of all the people I know in the harsh and brutal world of politics I can say without fear or favour that he is probably the nicest of them all. That may be a low bar in that space, but it actually should count for something.

There is also a call to action in that same quote - to march on when things are tough, to work hard and not grumble. They are qualities you want in your representative in parliament. Someone who doesn't just tell you what you want to hear, or takes a position because it's easy, but someone who is drawn to this as a calling, a mission, a response to the parable of the talents.

So, people of Stalybridge, Hyde, Mottram, Mossley, Longendale and Gee Cross, you are very lucky to have an MP like Jonny. And me, I feel blessed to count him and Claire as friends. Best of luck, mate.

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?