Monday, December 31, 2018

Rovers put faith in youth - but there's no plan

If we have a lesson to learn from recent performances, then it must be to trust the youth policy. New blood into the squad has yielded some excellent results. No, not the Rovers team at Sheffield United but the injection of young Matt and our Louis into the BRFCS podcast.

I'll not linger much on the game that followed, but we got what we deserved. It's no good matching the best teams for 70 minutes, 80 or even 90 as we did at Leeds. The team has to get much, much better at game management. The line up against the Blades was ambitious. I'm all for bringing in Rothwell and Travis as I rate them both very highly. But they seemed to be unable to provide a killer final ball, understandably as the the whole game plan this season has been to serve two players who weren't on the pitch, Dack and Graham. It pains me to watch Palmer and Brereton, every sinew in my body is willing them to make a liar of me and to perform like match-winning footballers. One reminds me of Grabbi, the other of various loanees who have ghosted in and out to make little impact. The other source of goals has been Mulgrew at free kicks and penalities, which may explain some shameful diving by Palmer and Rothwell.

So, please enjoy the podcast, it's the most enjoyable aspect of supporting Rovers at the moment. I'm not worried about the team yet, but I probably should be.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Policing the boundaries of a community

When I pitched up in Manchester in 2000 to edit North West Business Insider, a well-established regional business magazine, it took a while for the scale of the responsibility to sink in. I barely had a contract, let alone an instruction manual. And certainly no-one took me into a back room and handed me the keys to the secret files.

On the one hand, the sales team had one set of expectations - come up with good ideas that they could sell advertising and sponsorship around. But the far harder responsibility was to make the publication and the brand relevant in the long term. The previous editors all bequeathed me a mixed set of expectations: one was to be accessible, commercial and of good quality; another was to be spiky and brave; and the third was to have a witty, yet powerful voice. All of them had a sense of what would attract readers, which is what the advertisers needed to be sure we had. I was also fairly wedded to strong magazine aesthetics and thought the design was dated and needed refreshing in time.

But this piece isn't a memoir, or a reflection on the nuances of magazine editorship. It is, however, something that's been burning inside me for a while. One of the mantles I was handed was a deeper moral duty, part of a wider purpose as a community clarion to take very seriously what it meant to transact good business in the regions of England. It came with a responsibility to expose crooks and chancers. The magazine was a sustained success because it was part of a community. In so doing we were happy to celebrate the successes of businesses and entrepreneurs who were doing well, who were working hard in pursuit of a common good, but also we were all trying to explain the new rules of an ever-changing world. But that community was also sustained by resolute policing of the boundaries. 

Grimly, sadly, sometimes we'd get taken for a ride. Before I arrived, we had featured a character in the list of the 42 under 42, an annual roll call of new emerging talent. He called himself Paul Raymond Versace, yes, after the fashion label. He popped up as a charitable philanthropist and posed for a photograph with the great and the good of Manchester's business community. His inclusion in the Sunday Times Rich List, and disgracefully, our own, triggered a number of incredulous phone calls from people with an altogether different view of this character. He was using his media and charity connections for personal advantage, opening doors and building credibility. With the help of good sources, and in a fairly short space of time, we had enough to piece together a damning story. Some of the national press waded in with far less subtlety, and he was placed right out of circulation.

Other tip offs followed and we started to get a reputation. I'll be honest, our rival publication, EN magazine, also got stuck in to a few targets and upped their game. Simon Donohue from the Manchester Evening News did a blistering series of articles exposing Reuben Singh. I got a bee in my bonnet about the fact that chancers were turning up to meetings at banks with a clippings file of positive media stories, sometimes with the name of my magazine included. I became obsessed, even chasing down two stories when I was on holiday in Marbella with my family. I formed an alliance with Sue Craven from Armstrong Craven, who remains a good friend to this day. She would help me understand detailed research reports, on labyrinth corporate structures, which helped me to get my head around credit reports and see what the data was saying. One was on a target called The Accident Group, which I long suspected was a house of cards. It turned out to be far worse than that.

A lot of this became self-sustaining, lawyers, corporate finance advisors and property agents would use their intelligence and their networks and tip me off about the latest shyster doing the rounds. 

There were gangmasters, VAT scammers, celeb chasers, phoney football agents, jolly chaps telling stories in the Stag's Head and asking the lads to chuck in a cheeky 50k for a deal that wouldn't happen. You literally couldn't invent a fictional character like Paul "The Plumber" Davidson, but he proved to be the gift that kept on giving. Our hounding of him won us many friends.

In all of these cases, the front of the brain would compute one set of responses, the back of the brain was screaming a different set of messages. Sometimes I'd spend far too long looking for evidence on someone I wasn't sure about. Often it wasn't the money, but the tales of sex, or drugs. I had good lawyers and solid media law training so I knew when to stop, when to draw the line, it was beyond me to expose Manchester's Harvey Weinstein, were we to have found one. In those instances where you know something isn't right, you just had to exercise the one remaining option left, ignore them. Let someone else do their propaganda for them.

Time and again I'd see the same patterns emerge. Grand gestures around charitable giving, associating with genuinely successful and credible people, the desperate seeking of honours and the ostentatious wearing of the badge of corporate social responsibility, which my late great friend Walter Menzies called "the icing on the shit".

That was a different time, but it's not a different place. The resources and reach of the media have been transformed in recent years. I lost my capacity to do anything meaningful over time and created a satirical outlet instead. 

So where are we now?

I've never known a time when businesses in Manchester and the North West have needed someone, something, to police the boundaries more than now. 

I'm firmly on the record for welcoming a Mayor of Greater Manchester. But as much as such an office holds power and leverage, so too it needs protection from those that see it as a quick route to credibility, power and glory. I believe in it too much to see its credibility and moral authority undermined. Same goes for business organisations who have incredible convening power. I have a few opportunities working at a university to promote good work, networks and sound causes. But I'm well out of the media game these days. And I'm not even sure the business press, online and print, is up to it.

But just as campaigns and political movements have been transformed by technology, so too can scrutiny and community protection. I don't know how, I don't know who, but I'm very open to ideas.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Manchester City Way - a culture of commitment?

Damian Hughes came to speak at Manchester Metropolitan University recently and he was every bit as impressive as I've come to expect.

I've worked with him a few times, delivering client events for TSK and I've seen him speak here before. This was remarkable. His latest book focuses on one of the most successful sports teams of my lifetime, FC Barcelona.

At the heart of this success is "culture". As Damian said to the i newspaper: "As someone who has worked with a variety of elite sports teams and blue chip companies, I always seek to impress upon management the importance of culture. The results bear this out. Research suggests that culture can have as much as 22 per cent impact on performance. Pep Guardiola’s current boss, Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano, emphasised this point – 'culture is a crucial ingredient in all organisations' and is especially crucial at football clubs."

Guardiola's footballing style, his methods and his philosophy were formed when he was a player in Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona team, lifting the European Cup in 1992 at Wembley, a game I was fortunate to have been at.

As Damian says in the book: "Cruyff had his very own interpretation of what doing things the ‘Barcelona Way’ actually meant. It was centred around three trademark behaviours: humility, hard work and putting the team above your self-interest."

I'm going to do Damian a grave injustice in attempting to summarise a whole book stuffed full of stories, evidence and research, but he calls what was created at Barcelona an example of a commitment culture.

I've said before that Barcelona’s ‘more than a club’ irritates me, a little bit like the mysticism of the All Blacks, of which their Haka is a part. Both create the aura of semi-religious purity that so frequently they fail to live up to. But life would be duller without them, granted.

You start to think what other possible cultures any other winning team could adopt. Damian's book highlights five which apply in business and in sport, and from memory, in brackets, are where you might find examples of each one.

The Superstar Culture – Companies would bring in the best talent on the biggest salaries and give the stars the best resources (Real Madrid)

The Autocratic Culture – The will of one person in charge (Man United under Sir Alex Ferguson)

The Bureaucratic Culture – Where middle managers rule (the Moneyball approach, Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers and late period Arsenal under Wenger)

The Engineering Culture – Based on problem solving (Klopp at Dortmund, and now at Liverpool, maybe?)

The Commitment Culture – Getting employees to really buy in to what an organisation is trying to achieve.

I've become curious about what Guardiola is attempting to create here in Manchester, with City. The football they play is magical, based on movement and possession. They've definitely created a winning culture where excellence and preparation have produced outstanding results, but, let's not be coy about it, amidst a setting where money is no object.

I had all of this in mind when I went to the Etihad last night to watch City come from behind to beat Hoffenheim and top their Champions League group. The stand-out player was Leroy Sane, who was left out of Germany's World Cup squad. Also impressive was Phil Foden, who has emerged through the Academy and the great youth set-up at Reddish Vulcans Junior Football Club. Both examples of hard working, humble players who do it for the team.

Damian makes the argument that the foundation of the team at City has obvious parallels with what Pep did at Barcelona – "he quickly dispensed with Joe Hart and Samir Nasri and allowed an ageing Yaya TourĂ© to drift to the fringes of the first team, whilst allowing the humble Kevin De Bruyne, quick-witted David Silva and the selfless Fernandinho to emerge as key figures within the dressing room."

On the back of reading Damian's book I lapped up the Amazon Prime series, All or Nothing. In different ways it told me everything and nothing. For all the claims that it is an access-all-areas and unexpurgated insight behind the scenes it is actually City's tightly controlled commercial exposition of what they want the rest of us to think of them.  As Simon Hattenstone said in his review in the Guardian: "For in the end, this is nothing but a gloriously glossy commercial for Manchester City – a great big blowy for the club from run-down Kippax Street determined to become the world’s leading football brand." And that, in a way, tells you more about humility and culture. So I think there's some real hard traces of all of the above cultures at work in the Manchester City Way.

Much as City have built a team and created stars of real quality, forged around a commitment culture, they have used engineering and bureaucracy to source a tier of superstar. And it was Yaya Toure who rather brutally laid the charge that Pep is an autocrat in the way he enforces his FIFO culture.

To come back full circle to Damian's point about culture, it is always an aspiration. Performances dip, things go wrong. It is a touchstone, a guide, defined as much by what is included as by what is left out. For the moment, it's for football fans to savour the potential of City coming up against Barcelona in the final in Madrid in June 2019.

Buy the book here. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

This day will forever be Pankhurst Day

Our Emmeline, photo by Sue Anders

This Friday, 14 December 2018, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in her home city of Manchester, exactly 100 years to the day after the first women cast votes in a UK General Election. 

Amidst a deeply turbulent and depressing period of history, it's sometimes worth celebrating the achievements.

The statue in St Peter's Square has been designed by sculptor Hazel Reeves and will be the highlight of a campaign to celebrate the significant contribution of women to the city and will take place on the day that exactly 100 years ago the first women voted in UK General Election for the first time.

Credit where it is due to Councillor Andrew Simcock who in May 2014 kicked off the Womanchester Statue Campaign to commission a new statue for Manchester to recognise the significant contribution of women to the city’s history. The campaign was prompted by the fact that of Manchester’s 17 statues at the time, only one represented a woman, a monument to Queen Victoria that was erected over 100 years ago, which is situated in Piccadilly Gardens.
Andrew Simcock and Hazel Reeves 

From a long list of 20 potential figures, through a series of public events, a shortlist of six finalists was reached, with Emmeline Pankhurst emerging as the people's favourite.

Once 'Our Emmeline' was chosen, and the artist selected in a public competition, the build up has been fantastic with schools, with parades to the unveiling in St Peter's Square. It is a day that everyone is invited to participate in that will embrace and bring together all those who have supported the Our Emmeline project. To reflect the coming together of people, two symbolic meeting points have been selected; the Pankhurst Centre, the former home of Emmeline Pankhurst and the birthplace of the suffragette movement; and People’s History Museum, the national museum of democracy. Those taking part are invited to meet at locations near these points, or along the route, which we will be doing from Manchester Metropolitan University at All Saints Square, before converging at St Peter’s Square to greet Our Emmeline.

Our Lancaster Story: City, hub & heartland.

Wow. What an inspiring and gorgeous film by my old pal Daniel Kennedy of Paper Films. So many of these place-punting pieces of propaganda get it wrong, but I think he's really pulled in the very best of Lancaster here. Something for everyone.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Our new Met Mag is out now - it's a cracker

I've said before, there's something special about a freshly printed magazine arriving in the office ready to hit the streets. That was the sense right through the comms team at work as the the sixth issue of Met Magazine, the magazine of Manchester Metropolitan University was published. This edition has been an incredible team effort and a real celebration of our greatest assets and achievers – our students.

I was pleased to contribute to the a feature about Students’ Union Presidents past and present, interviewing Paul Scriven, a LibDem peer and Councillor in Sheffield who was President in the early 1990s. It's quite a thing to hold a post like that and as Paul explained to me it shaped his future career in so many ways. I found him to be an absolutely fascinating character, both in the personal struggles he's fought, but his sheer tenacity and decency. There were a few stories that didn't make the cut which I'll use elsewhere.

When I was editor of Insider I used to pick the best interview assignments for myself, but then realised certain people would respond better to a particular writer. So, now I get the politicians and someone else gets the rock stars. Alongside my own modest contribution is one I'm going to confess to a bit of envy that it wasn't me that got to do it. We also cover two diverse and hugely interesting feature interviews. The first is with Guy Garvey, songwriter and lead singer of multi-award winning band Elbow and now a visiting professor at Manchester Metropolitan. He talks about his creative influences and his love of Manchester and its students.

The other big interview is with Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the recently-formed Office for Students, an important regulator for the higher education sector.

As part of our work with MPs, I was also keen to commission a piece from Afzal Khan MP for Gorton and one of the many Manchester Met graduates now sitting in the House of Commons. It is important that people know what we are doing and the impact we have. Met Magazine is a powerful platform to profile our stories and I hope colleagues and friends will share the content and help us to show the way that we change lives for the better, and how we shape our world.

Visitors to campus can pick up the latest edition at reception areas, or if you prefer to read an electronic copy, you can find our new-look digital version. This is a new web version which includes videos and a fantastic podcast featuring an interview with Guy Garvey.

But message me through this site if you want the joyful experience of a beautiful and classy copy of the proper print version.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

John Niven and Stuart Maconie in Manchester

Back in October, I took the eldest son to see the writers John Niven and Stuart Maconie in conversation. It was a brilliant evening, full of great stories about the music business, the film industry and the dire state of the world.

I took home a copy of Niven's latest novel, Kill 'em All, the follow up to one of my favourites, Kill Your Friends, the rip roaring tale of 1997 Britpop excess, which I bought for Joe as part of his essential reading list for studying Music Business at University. This one skips twenty years and to cut to the chase, the central character, the appalling Steven Stelfox, has become Simon Cowell and has a plan for total domination and riches based on dealing with the mess created by Lucius de Prey, a character no-one is even pretending isn't Michael Jackson.

OK, I enjoyed it. I had to look over my shoulder to check no-one was watching me laugh at some of the grotesque passages. I loved how it weaves Donald Trump into the story and how Stelfox's wicked inner voice provides a running commentary.

I've done two previous reviews of John Niven's more recent outings, Straight White Male and No Good Deed, and have been impressed how he's progressed as a writer - observant, dark, but not without sensitivity. Seeing him up close backed up the point Stuart Maconie made - how can this affable, kind, funny man I have before me, who I know well, create a dastardly character with such an authentic and believable inner narrative as Stelfox?

But with a POTUS like this, surely all bets are off. There's a nod too in the direction of the MeToo movement, highlighting the turning tide that so surely opened up for Niven to plot Stelfox's return. It must have just seemed too good a chance to miss. It's like a band cashing in on a greatest hits tour before getting back to the studio and banging out another classic.

Finally, I should really mention the event. Back in his NME days I was a fan of Stuart Maconie's humour, writing, observations. I don't listen to him enough on the wireless, but whenever I do I smile and probably learn something new. I've seen authors interviewed by people who have no idea about the context, or many who haven't even read the book. This was a real treat and I couldn't think of anyone better to do it.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Welcome to the future of work

We did a terrific event earlier this year with Gran Thornton. Here's a wee video.

Marple at the thin end of a GM wedge

There's a lot I love about living in Marple. It's friendly, convenient, relatively safe, there's a lot of people very committed to making the community better.

Maybe it's a positive sign that there has been an outpouring of outrage that an old school building will be demolished to make way for apartments.

Aesthetics are important, especially as they represent a link to the past. People care about the physical environment and good quality architecture. Hopefully it guides better decision making about what is acceptable in the future.

Some people at Manchester Metropolitan University who I help out have been doing some very serious work about how a place redefines itself. There's a glimpse of the work of Professor Cathy Parker and Steve Millington and their work here, Five Ways to Save Britain's High Streets. It's not particular to this country though, all over the world, there is a debate raging which is about one thing, shops, but should actually be about something else entirely, land and how we use it.

This issue has become the thin end of a very large wedge; that is, what we do in Marple is but a part of a bigger picture in Greater Manchester.

Flawed though the application for this building is - another retail unit??? - it does meet the requirement for 'brownfield first' that concentrates the minds of the councillors on the planning committee and the planning department, trying to follow complex rules.

Two things can and should clarify those rules, one here in Marple, the other at a GM level, which in turn is heavily influenced by central government.

First, I'm not a town planner, but to me it's fairly obvious that like many areas Marple suffers from poor traffic flows, a struggling central core and a sense of purpose. I like how Marple's Neighbourhood Plan has tried to take a long view on these issues, though the questionnaire rather leads the witness on some issues. But at least it looks up and onwards at the trends that shape our world: an ageing population, a lack of property alternatives for retirees to downsize to, a different kind of demographic and what they might require from shared civic spaces.

Change takes time, and much as it seems unrelated, a high priority should be a high frequency train service to Manchester and a line to Stockport, even if it looped through Guide Bridge and Denton. More than anything else that could ameliorate many of the other issues of overcrowding and air quality.

The second is the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, which I'm frustrated to see is stuck in the weeds. It needs all ten council leaders and the Mayor to support it. Bolton is on a bit of a knife edge, but the others are stacking up behind it and Andy Burnham looks like he's getting the rewrite he wanted. But Stockport's Labour leader Alex Ganotis has said he won't support the plan if a majority on the Council don't. Given it is under tentative minority Labour control, there's a real chance that it will eventually be sunk in this very area. In order for it to get through in Stockport would require a dialling down of the plans to build extensively in High Lane and Woodford, despite the opening of the new Airport road. In turn that may make it hard to swallow for leaders in other boroughs trying to sell it locally.

Even if it did, I still can’t see it getting support from a majority of members in Stockport. There is too much political advantage to be gained by Liberal Democrats and the very strong NIMBY voice will sway the Tory councillors at the southern fringes. Some concessions on numbers would be basic common sense, especially as the assumptions keep shifting. But all of this work, all of this vision, all of this serious attempt to address land needs of a future economy will be scuppered right here in SK6.

The irony of course is that without rules, without a plan, without a strategy for what an area requires, there will be a planning free-for-all. And when that's the case, there'll be even more isolated and opportunistic developments like this one.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Another brush with crappy crime

Someone crashed their car into mine at Rose Hill Station on Wednesday or Thursday last week. I was parked on the top row, facing outwards and had foolishly left it overnight when I'd been in London on a late one.

I put a couple of posters up on Friday morning in the hope that someone might come forward and realise what they'd done. I hoped someone in a silver car may have checked their car for blue paint scratches from mine. Hopefully we would then swap insurance details and put it down to one of those things.

It's another of life's annoyances on top of our frustration with the ongoing failure to prosecute far more serious local thugs. I enquired to the police and they said I have to attend Cheadle Heath police station with my documents and report the accident. Presumably this is a way of reducing the number of reported crimes, by making it inconvenient to report and to be given the impression by the police that they really haven't the time or the inclination to do anything. My expectations are very low.
Will I even make an insurance claim? Probably not.

Do you know what's really saddened me about this? By Monday my little posters had been taken down, after just one day, and the local Marple Community Forum refuses to put a friendly request for witnesses on their page. I look around at my lovely fellow commuters each morning and am left wondering which dirtbag did this. I don't want to feel like this about people I get the train with. But someone with a silver car knows and it will be on your conscience.

If the CCTV yields anything, then I unleash hell.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Digest and digress, blog from Wonkfest 2018

Here’s the thing. There are far, far more talks and panels (and therefore insights and wisdom) at an event like Wonkfest18 that you DON’T see, than you do. It’s inevitable. You literally can’t be in two, three or even four places at once.

So picking your way carefully through the schedule is part of the skill before you even go. But in there lurks hidden dangers; you miss those serendipitous moments of revelation.

Or as the modern parlance has it, fear of missing out, or #fomo.

My job is external relations. I look for opportunities for our university to connect to industry, other civic institutions, the public sector, our democracy. To make us relevant.

I will also confess to being profoundly irritated by the culture war narrative around “free speech on campus” and the (imagined) prevalence of the censorious “no platform” in our universities. I think it is overstated, and has become a useful “straw man” to bash the sector. 

Food for wonks
So, I digress, but on day two of Wonkfest, I digested quite a lot. There was a sparkling “in conversation” with Two VCs (Linda Drew of our hosts, Ravensbourne University London, and Mary Stuart of the University of Lincoln). I enjoyed the morning motivational lift from Michael Barber. I was even appreciative of a sparky lesson in how badly prepared we all are for Brexit from Dirk van Damme of the OECD.

All good. In fact, really good. But I sat on the edge of my seat in a session, What Should HE Do For Local Communities? Plenty of concrete examples from Clive Winters from Coventry University and Selena Bolingbroke from Goldsmiths, University of London about the importance of trust building and aligning priorities with external partners (that woefully doesn’t do them justice, by the way). But it was everything you come to a conference for: ideas, and confirmation that what you’re doing is right; or a challenge to yourself if it’s spectacularly wrong.

But I didn’t leave early; partly because I’ve been on panels where those on stage outnumber the audience, and it’s a horrible feeling seeing people peel away to be somewhere else when you’re baring your soul. But the main reason was the debate was really getting going by 2.25pm, when I should, by rights, have been shuffling in to the main stage to see Mark Leach grill Sam Gyimah. But I was also really gripped. In a very strong two-day programme it was the most useful and practical discussion I attended.

So, I didn’t get in to hear the minister speak. I could have pressed my nose against the crack in the door and heard him, but I didn’t. Instead, I retreated to the soft furnishings of the Guardian Stage and deleted some email, followed the sparring downstairs via the wonders of social media, and after a few minutes or so was interrupted by a panel of students appearing in front of me to discuss “the snowflake generation”. Remember what I said before? Irritated and grumpy about the culture war rumblings? Yep.

Cut & thrust
It was an illuminating and challenging debate, especially with the questions and answers that followed. I came away with some far deeper reflections on the language we use, the expectations of the students we serve and its coupling to a growing mental health crisis. But also the sometimes woeful institutional response to issues when they arise. It’s all important, of course, because of the wider political context being tiptoed around downstairs as they spoke.

My vice chancellor didn’t know that initially, because I gave him my hot-take on the minister’s comments first thing the next morning, which he seemed happy with. I got that from listening to it on the Wonkhe podcast and scrolling through the social media responses.

But there you go, my first Wonkfest. I really enjoyed it.  I got a lot from it. I felt emboldened and determined. We’ve got some tough times ahead, but there are brilliant people working at all levels of HE prepared to share ideas and work very hard to fulfil a very important cultural and economic mission. To do it well we have to be alive to everything shaping that. And that includes listening to testimonies in places we wouldn’t normally go, however it was that we got there.

Crosspost from WonkHE.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

My mate Mike Emmerich #27

Today is a very happy day. It's therefore a good opportunity to add a good friend to the "my mate" list. I liked Mike Emmerich from the first time I met him, mainly because he's clever, he's decent and he's committed to making the world a better place as an economist.

But we properly became good pals about six years ago when we embarked on an idea to get Manchester discussing. With Martin Carr we ended up with Discuss Manchester. I look back on the sheer scale of our events and achievements and it was bloody brilliant.

In the course of all of that we went through a lot, some of it together. I say this delicately, but he isn't easy to work with. He challenges, he questions and he won't settle for second best. I like that. Part of the experience of working with him encouraged me that a good place to end up would be amongst academics and university enterprise people.

All that makes him sound like a boffin, but his wide hinterland - which sadly includes supporting Manchester United - gives him a real richness. I have also never laughed as much as I have on nights out with Mike and Martin. Sweary, puerile, bombastic, but always clever and always funny.

When he rang to tell me he was seeing Jessica I was thrilled for him. I thought they were a perfect match. Today is the day we toast their marriage. See you later, comrade.   

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Great Escape of Marple

These local posters are the handiwork of my old pal and neighbour Eric Jackson, once of the Manchester Evening News and the creative force behind Statement Artworks.

We have a few 1930s art deco railway posters around the house. It's a style from the golden age of railway advertising, rather than the railways themselves, and Eric has cleverly borrowed from that style.

So many localised artefacts are twee and boosterish, but I love how these tread that thin line between a smidgen of pride and self deprecating northern humour, something very dry and very Eric. Northernticity, as Dave Haslam calls it.

He's been telling me for a while that there was a Marple one in the pipeline. I wondered what local characteristics it could come up with. I think the allusion to the traffic is genius and the typography a great twist. The Offerton poster is great too, drawing a landmark with a gentle overstatement of the place in anyone's heart.

Take a look at Eric's website for one for your area, I love how he's not tried to be in any way tactful for Wilmslow, Alderley and Hale. There's an assumption, I suspect, that there aren't markets in irony to be found in Cheshire's golden triangle.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Heap's Sausages in Greenwich - a delight

I've said before that one of the best ways to experience London is by its cafes. As I found in Holborn, Pimlico and Bethnal Green, they reveal all the deep layers of London life in each one, multiple generations as well as shifting demographics.

Last week I was in Greenwich at a conference, so I skipped the option of the predictable hotel breakfast and went on the hunt for a local cafe. I struck gold with Heap's, a sausage specialist and delightful haven just around the corner. The sausages and bacon were as good as anything I've experienced, rich in flavour and the eggs were cooked to perfection, which is rare.

There were other options available, but nothing that really fitted the old school bill. But this at least had that artisan nod to some firm London traditions.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Here comes the techlash - interviewing Carl Miller author of Death of the Gods, the new global power grab

Carl Miller has travelled the world meeting people at the forefront of digital change - Russian spies in Prague, fake news merchants in Kosovo, hackers in Las Vegas, powerful Silicon Valley titans and the British soldiers training in information warfare. I interviewed him in Manchester last week, above is a link to the raw and uncut recording of the event. Fascinating.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Thank you for the music - the 30 song challenge

So, that's the 30 Day Song Challenge completed. A mad, epic, exploratory, confessional expo. Choosing songs based on the criteria listed above. Broadcast via a group chat on Twitter, curated by a group of old pals from KPMG's Manchester office, I set myself the target of picking something new if one of the others had bagged that song first. It's incredibly cathartic too, makes you cleanse your playlists and explore more from artists others jog your memory on. I've done my top 100 songs list too, if anyone fancies a go at that, it's here.

1. Orange by Richard Lumsden
2. One Last Love Song by The Beautiful South
3. The Sun Rising by The Beloved
4. Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes
5. The Air That I Breathe by The Hollies
6. Voodoo Ray - A Guy Called Gerald
7. Driving Away from Home by It’s Immaterial
8. True Faith by New Order
9. Left to my own devices - Pet Shop Boys
10. A Good Day to Die by Sunhouse (Gavin Clark RIP)
11. Union City Blue by Blondie
12. Yes Sir I Can Boogie by Baccara
13. When You're Young by The Jam
14. Mr Rock n Roll by Amy Macdonald
15. La Vie En Rose by Grace Jones
16. How soon is now? by The Smiths
17. Your Love Alone (is not enough) by the Manic Street Preachers and Nina Persson
18. Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks
19. Wide Open Road by The Triffids
20. This is the Day by The The
21. Stan by Eminem with Dido
22. My Sweet Lord by George Harrison
23. All You Need is Love by The Beatles
24. Northern Skies by I Am Kloot
25. Purple Rain by Prince
26. Annie's Song by John Denver
27. You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Dusty Springfield
28. Son of a Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield
29. Waterloo by ABBA
30. Make Your Own Kind of Music by Cass Elliot 

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Black Moss - a storming fictional debut by author David Nolan

I love an author event. I love seeing writers sharing their moment, their pride, their secrets. 

I love an event in my home town, where we can be home in time for the rest of our evening. Strangely, this was the first time I've been to such an event at Marple Library, but where David Nolan has started, I hope there will be more.

For a start, he spoke so well, so powerfully and was so compelling that we not only bought this book but his investigative books on the St Ambrose child abuse scandal. I'd already read the Tony Wilson biog when it came out.

While Black Moss is a fictional story, there is a solid grounding in reality. The background is important, David Nolan was writing a book on the complex and murky world of abuse scandals - particularly kids in care homes and the existence of a dossier into high profile paedos held by former Saddleworth MP Geoffrey Dickens. Dickens was always dismissed as a bit of a buffoon, but the hard truth, we sometimes discover, is stranger than anything we could dream up. The revelations about what was going on in Rochdale, for instance, have been truly shocking.

David's publisher didn't think the book was worth him finishing so paid him a kill fee. He turned that disappointment into an inspiration for a story about an unsolved child murder, committed in plain sight at a time when the news media and the police were obsessed with the Strangeways prison riot of 1990. Using a major event to hide a crime was the root of I Am Pilgrim - Terry Hayes' sprawling espionage thriller, set against the aftermath of 911. This tale is far more locally focused, intensely so, and he uses devices to show the time and place to great effect. They are best when they are subtle - speech and behaviours - rather than what was playing on the radio. The attention to the detail of Manchester and Oldham's changing topography is also highly skilled, while he clearly had some fun settling a few old scores with the depictions of characters from a barely disguised Piccadilly Radio newsroom, or even a Tory MP called "Peter Jeffreys". But the tale is one of isolation and rather sparse emotions - a central character with flaws, a monstrous ego, but also an impatient hunger to right a series of wrongs. The eventual plot twist is ballsy, I'll only say that, but the journey to get there is driven by a writer with a real feel for the pace of a story. An excellent first foray into fiction.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Our story - a year of excuses from Greater Manchester Police

Twelve months ago today, I discovered that one of our sons, along with three of his friends, had been mugged at knifepoint. In an hour-long ordeal, hidden in plain sight of customers and staff at a major 24-hour supermarket, they were robbed by four youths who had half a dozen younger kids for support.

They were stripped of their personal possessions (mobile phones, outer clothing, cash) and then, at knifepoint, taken along the main road, to a cash machine and forced to withdraw the money from their bank accounts.  Our son was first to be sent to the ATM, and told that if he did a runner or told anyone what was happening, they would "cut" his friends and find his mum and brothers and hurt them. One of the youths even openly chatted-up drunk girls in the queue.

Luckily, all four of our lovely young men survived this dreadful ordeal in-tact.  They even laughed at how surreal it had been, but at the same time, shook with fear.  At one point, as they were led into the underpass beneath the M60 motorway, our son truly believed he was going to die, "just like Jimmy Mizen."

Until now, you will not find any mention of this crime on my timeline, on this blog, because I do not ordinarily believe in sharing every single detail of our life with social media.  Our dignity and privacy is far more important to me.  Instead, we decided to trust Greater Manchester Police to find the lads that did this, and for the criminal justice system to do the rest.  We did not want public hangings or life sentences. Justice, that's all. And safer Stockport streets for other beautiful young people enjoying time with their friends on a Friday night.

Twelve months on, the perpetrators of this crime are still at-large.  This, despite the fact that each one of the four youths were identified by name the next day, thanks to a little detective work and the joys of a small-world via Instagram, Snapchat and FB.  One even bragged he was off to the Trafford Centre to spend his ill-gotten gains, and asking if anyone wanted to buy an iPhone 7.

Unbelievable?  You betcha!

I'm tired of how many excuses I have heard from GMP.  I'm tired of how pathetic their attempts to do anything have been.  But I am listening, with interest, to the chief constables of major police forces this week, discuss their need to tackle ever-rising violence and crime on a threat-harm-risk basis and wonder what will happen next.

By the way, we have given up on ever seeing justice for this particular crime.  We no longer harass the police officer for updates.  He tells too many lies. It's embarrassing.  Our son quit college and joined the British Army, despite the risks in that particular career path. He even told us he would be safer in Iraq than in Stockport, and is now receiving initial soldier training. We are so proud of him.

So, Happy Anniversary boys.  All four of you are amazing.  And whatever doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger. Except polio, maybe.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Untypical Rovers and those legions of Leeds fans

That was the anti-Rovers out there today against Leeds. All season we’ve been conceding late goals, denying us points in games that should have been out of sight. Ipswich, Villa, Forest and so very nearly at Stoke. At the end of a second half where we comfortably matched a fluid and attacking Leeds side, we did it again. Same old Rovers, we all thought.

But there were very important differences on display today, some of it not great, some of the passing out of defence was off beam, but when they earn you three points against Leeds, dirty Leeds, with their 10,000 fans, then this is most definitely not a complaint. So here are the untypical Rovers traits.

1. Adam Armstrong terrorising the Leeds defence. He’s threatened to do that all season but today he did it with vengeance. Well deserved for boozed up jewellers guests’ man of the match.

2. Corners. When did we last score from a corner? End of last season at Doncaster, maybe? Even that was an aberration. Our corners are shocking. Reed and Conway landed two crackers onto unmarked heads today. Boom.

3. Bradley Dack was brilliant today without ever actually being Bradley Dack. The odd flick, two sniffer’s chances (and Leeds fans of my vintage will get that) but it was link up play, his persistence, his hard running, his tackling back, all of that for me made him one of our stand out perfomers today.

4. Cynical game play to the death. Again, when did we last waste time and cynically see out a game with such effectiveness? I can’t remember either. I still don’t know what kind of player he is, but Ben Brereton was a nuisance for that last period, so was Craig Conway, both of whom I didn’t wholeheartedly welcome when they came on.

5. A decent referee. I barely noticed the ref today. Despite us getting bookings (deserved) I can’t think of a bad call for either side.

All week, I have been thinking how much I wasn’t looking forward to the unpleasant walk through the 12,000 Leeds fans back to the car as they celebrated their victory over us. I didn’t actually believe we’d win until we actually did. In the end I rather enjoyed it. Instead it was like a hushed parade away from a wake. Shuffling off together.

I love welcoming large crowds to Ewood, I really do. So I dedicate the win to one of the 20,000 Leeds fans for whom I held the door of Leavers before the game and told him, with a smile, that these will be the best pies he’ll enjoy all season. “I know,” he snarled. “We came two year ago, but couldn’t come last year as you’d been relegated. Ha ha ha.”

For you my surly Yorkshire friend, after the game, stuck in traffic to make way for the 25,000 Leeds fans, we played the saddest song ever written on loop. And for once I had a massive smile on my face. Love will tear us apart, indeed.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A wander around Holborn and Clerkenwell

London is a great city for flaneuring. There's probably nowhere quite like it. And so having an hour to kill is always an opportunity.

After a smashing fish and chip lunch with John Dixon at the Fryer's Delight on Theobold's Road, I took in a few old haunts. I worked for magazine publisher EMAP in four different buildings around Holborn and Clerkenwell from 1989 to 1993. Robert Elms described Holborn as his favourite part of London when he was his own Listed Londoner on BBC Radio London recently. I can see why. It's a really fascinating part of town, with plenty of traces of the strong Italian character, including two splendid Catholic Churches in contrasting states of health. All of this rubs alongside the diamond traders in Hatton Garden.

While businesses in office buildings come and go. I was pleased to see some of the old pubs, cafe's and delis are still going strong. But what pleased me most were the characterful newer businesses. Nowhere stays the same for long in London, but it was good to see so much has remained true to these roots. Exmouth Market is an artisan food paradise but unsurprisingly the pie and mash shop has gone. Lamb’s Conduit Street has also upgraded its reputation as the home of strong independent menswear, with Universal Works and Folk the standouts. However, to see the magnificent Shop 70 now a Ryman seems a travesty.

Hatton Garden and Leather Lane are actually very similar to how I remember them, full of life, colour and lurking intrigue. There was no trace of the old publishing village we inhabited, the Guardian having long gone too, though I'm sure there are salesmen of a different kind keeping the City Pride in business. MEED House on John Street is now residential, 67 Clerkenwell Road and Abbots Court are still offices, but there's not much to show of the “most advanced publishing system in Europe” we were told we had on Bowling Green Lane. The receptionist told me they still get mail for EMAP.

There's a gallery here, if you want to see the pictures.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Aussie Noir - TV's promising genre

On my telly review posts I’ve dipped into Welsh noir, which has been surprisingly good. I’ve also been immersed this year in Australian TV drama, which has been a bit hit and miss.

But generally speaking, if you watch a few series, you see the same strong lead actors pop up again and again. This is both a blessing and a curse, but the strength of each one is the very powerful sense of place and the leading character's relationship with it, in the absence of other characters to rub against. So much so, it’s hard to imagine any of these storylines crossing over to the UK or the US. I touched on The Code, Top of the Lake and Cleverman here, but here's a bit of an update on a very promising run of form from Australia.

Mystery Road (ABC and on BBC4) - Australia has the blessing of locations and landscapes that take your breath away, used to great effect by Ivan Sen, the director of the original feature film Mystery Road, and Rachel Perkins, the series director who made much of the setting in the far north of Western Australia. But as well as the landscapes this 6-part spin off from the film of the same delved right into the rural tensions between Aboriginal people and the anomie of young white kids in such isolated sparse locations in a hyper connected world. Something social media and organised drug gangs don’t necessarily respect. Beyond the sparkling performances of the main cast however some of the acting is comically bad, something you suspect the writers and directors know. Subsequently a lot is asked of Aaron Pederson as lone operator detective Jay Swan and Judy Davis as the local law enforcement stalwart Emma James. A good story, well told, looking forward to more from this crop. 7/10

Secret City (Foxtel's Showcase and Netflix) - Set in Canberra and set up as a House of Cards style conspiracy thriller, this jogs along nicely and takes some brave twists and turns with both geo-politics and casting a trans character. Anna Torv is a real star as journalist Harriet Dunkley, but some of the politicos are right out of The Thick of It with some very strange motivations of characters which seem a bit fanciful. But frankly I can believe anything these days. 7/10

The best acting in any of these recent televisual tours Down Under has been from Rebecca Gibney as Lola in Wanted (Seven Network and Netflix). It’s a woman-hunt road movie which jumps over to Thailand and New Zealand, as well as making great use of the expanses of South Australia’s outback and Queensland. As well as being a tense and believable thriller it’s also very warm and witty and tests your patience with complex characters. 8/10

Finally, Deep Water (SBS and BBC4) a fairly gripping cop drama set in Sydney. It had the usual macho corrupt cop that seems a staple of all Aussie drama, but touched on some strong social issues around homophobia and ethnic diversity in Sydney. 7/10

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Sir Charles Dunstone at Alliance MBS - why Apple is reaching sunset, ethics and Five Guys

One of Britain's leading entrepreneurs was in town last night. Sir Charles Dunstone captivated an audience of business school students with his well told story of risk taking and innovation. Here are ten things I learnt from Charles' talk.

He's looking very well - I interviewed him at the University of Liverpool in 2012, here, and I have to say he's dropped a lot weight and is looking trim.

He owns Five Guys - I should have known, but possibly forgot, that he owns half of Five Guys in the UK. I love Five Guys. I think the food is a real treat, delicious customised burgers and probably the best fries there are. I don't disagree when Charles described it as an amazing business, even though it's remarkably simple. I was taken with his summary of the business model - it's bright, the music is too loud to be comfortable, they don't sell coffee and they don't have wifi. Basically you eat up and leave. One is opening near work soon, I need to take a lead from Charles and not go there too much.

Six guys - the perfect business has six people in it. For every employee you then add the productivity of the others goes down.

Avoid going public - it shouldn't be an ambition and it caused him great headaches having to deal with the City and the institutional shareholders.

He doesn't like HR - he described it as a poison. All good businesses don't have it he says. His reasoning is that it confuses people at work about who they work for and it confuses managers about their relationship with the people who work for them. "It grows like a tapeworm inside you," he said.

He won't come to your leaving do - he's never been to any leaving do and has never had one for himself. When he's done, he's done, and so should you be.

The most common mistake in business -  you set up, get going, realise you don't know what you're doing, so you hire experts who you assume know what they're doing and they screw your business up. He used an example of that going spectacularly badly at Carphone Warehouse when a group of supermarket buyers came in and started treating Nokia and Vodafone in the way they used to bully strawberry farmers.

Big companies kill innovation - he hated being chair of Dixons Carphone Warehouse when it got so big. 48,000 people is too many people and the edge has gone, he said. People spend so much time working to avoid doing something wrong that they never have the time to do something right. Every successful internet business was a recent start-up. That's where innovation is coming from, nothing new and revolutionary has emerged from a big company.

Apple is heading for the sunset.  - I asked him what insights he had of Apple, and whether they were the exception to the rule about big companies losing their agility. He answered by pointing out that they haven't come up with a revolutionary new product since Steve Jobs died. They are squeezing every last drop out of their hardware business. Tim Cook is the Steve Balmer of Apple, a product marketing guy, not an innovator.

Ethics is ever more important in business - he drew a diagram and asked us to imagine a rectangle, inside that is everything that's legal to do in business. Inside that is a circle inside which is everything that is ethical. Between the two are things like drug companies selling opiods. It's legal, but they shouldn't do it. I had the fashion industry in my mind at the time and the environmental damage cheap cotton is having. And how our children's clothing is so cheap because other people's children are making it in Bangladesh, and no-one seems to care. That was the question I didn't ask. 

This was part of the Entrepreneur series produced by the Manchester Enterprise Centre at the University of Manchester and supported by A2E. Vikas Shah was asking the questions and elegantly leading the Q&A. Next event is with Wayne Hemingway on Tuesday the 27th of November at the Alliance Manchester Business School. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

My mates - the 245 crew - #26

Jazz hands outside the Student Union

The weekend just gone has been epic. 30 years after we graduated from the University of Manchester the housemates from 245 Upper Brook Street got together. It took a bit of planning, not least because of the 7 of us who got our degrees in 1988, three live abroad; France, Hong Kong and New York, with one in Hertfordshire, one in London, another in Lancashire, while I'm the only one who's returned to Manchester.

What was so good, so life affirming and so warm about the time we all spent together this weekend was the ease. I felt comfortable, loved and relaxed in the company of guys who've been a part of my life since 1985. We pretty successfully stayed in touch through the 90s - weddings, a funeral, baptisms and a social whirl. The last decade has  - with some more than others - been trickier; we managed to get four of us together for John's 50th and five at Chris's wedding in 2016. But this weekend we hit six, which was good going. 

I just loved the stories, the reflections, not all of it necessarily good stuff. There was also something else. We've all taken different paths, but what's amazing is the similarity on how we've sorted the priorities of life. Our families, loved ones and friends at the centre. I love how everyone does something for other people, volunteering and fundraising for our personal passions. And not sweating over the small stuff.

So, thanks so much for making the effort - Dave Knights, John Dixon, Chris Lodge, Dave Crossen, Mark Sibley and hope we can get you on the next one, Adrian Carr. I love you all. Friends for life.

So, I thought I'd add them all to the my mate series on this blog, where I randomly shuffle my address book and talk about my friends, how we met and what I like about them.

My eldest son Joe and his girlfriend Jess joined us for a brief drink on Saturday. He's a first year studying in this great city, while the son of another mate of ours was with us too. If they can come through their time here with friendships like these then I'll be very proud and very happy for them.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Sometimes the other team is just better - Sheffield United were

Moving up a division is a tough task. Even from the first home game of the season Blackburn Rovers were up against a far better goalkeeper from Millwall who proved to be the difference. On the back of this home defeat I don't question the abilities or the credentials of the squad, or the manager. I'm happy to take a long view on this.

But here are my nagging doubts.

Character. 2-0 up with ten minutes to go, Sheffield United saw out the game without any sense of panic, nor did they at any point in the match have to adapt their style of play. This is something Mowbray hasn't forged into the character of this team.

The signings. I'm still not sure what kind of player Bell is. He doesn't have a firm defensive presence, he doesn't tackle and though he has the ability, he isn't brave enough going forward. The bloke behind me tells me he used to roast opposition defenders when he was at Fleetwood (Bell, that is, the chap behind is in his 70s). I think Mowbray wants to play him wide in a 3-5-2, but at the moment he's a square peg in a round hole.

Our liveliest game changers aren't getting game time - I like Joe Rothwell and think he can be a big impact player, but he has to have time. Same with Palmer. Brereton? Not seen enough to convince me yet that he's worth the outlay.

Lewis Travis. Everything I've seen of Travis I've enjoyed - except for the sending off at Portsmouth. I hear they tried to loan him out. Personally, I think he could be a very special player for us and hope his run in the side comes soon.

I thought September looked really, really tough and six points was good work. October is going to be tougher still. But here's the thing, I think Mowbray knows all of this. He's worked wonders before and he's looking ahead.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

No false modesty - I'm dead chuffed this blog is a finalist

I'm not going to lie. I'm not going to claim false modesty. Nor am I going to say it's a team effort, because writing never is. But what I will say is this - I'm chuffed to bits to be a finalist in the Northern Soul Awards 2018 - writer of the year category.

I've never thought of myself as a 'former journalist' since I stopped formally editing a magazine in 2012. Since then I've written for loads of websites with a wide hinterland. I've written for the UK's largest circulation business magazine, Economia. I contribute to Met Magazine at Manchester Metropolitan University. In the last two issues I've contributed the type of feature I like best - the set piece sit-down interview. One was with Greater Manchester's Mayor, Andy Burnham. The other was with the man who did more than anyone else to create the powerbase Burnham now wields, Sir Howard Bernstein. There's one with another northern politician in the next one.

I also write speeches for other people. There is something incredibly satisfying when I hear someone else's voice relaying words I've written for them. There's an example here and another here. Having been to hear two of my favourite writers this week, I would dearly like to have another crack at long form writing again.

But it was for this wee blog that I entered the award. A mixture of obituaries, grumbles about trains and politics, TV reviews, and melancholic tales of football and fatherhood. And not being diagnosed with bowel cancer. I don't blog as much as I did in the pre-Twitter era, but I have been at it now for 12 years. I love having the outlet and the platform and I enjoy getting messages from visitors from all over the world. So to be able to fly the finalist flag on here is a great lift.

I've also realised how much I enjoy reading Northern Soul, the organiser of the awards. Helen Nugent has done a brilliant job curating a hub of culture and northern life. So, please support her enterprise, wish me luck and I hope you continue to enjoy visiting the Marple Leaf blog.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Clubbing, football and mates - two nostalgic memoirs

If you'd asked me 25 years ago what I enjoyed the most about life I'd probably have said clubbing and playing football. Sadly, now I do neither.

Over summer I read James Brown's Above Head Height, a memoir based around his footballing life, mostly playing five-a-side. As he's roughly my age and hung around various overlapping media circles, I'd be amazed that we didn't play with some of the same people at some point in the 1990s. I played for a Sunday team called Shepherds Tuesdays, as well as the Blackburn Rovers London Branch and was a regular in various 5, 8, 9 a-sides all around London. His observations are familiar and amusing, his namedropping impressive. His playing with Woody Harrelson definitely trumps my Neil Arthur from Blancmange.

That all said, I find James a far more interesting character than just as a park footballer. I bought a fanzine off him at Leeds Poly in 1982 (Attack on Bzag) and was inspired to produce my own. I've followed his journalism ever since, NME, Loaded, GQ, Jack and Sabotage Times, which I occasionally write for.
Others have told the story of Loaded magazine and the lad mag culture of the era, and he tip-toes around it. But I think he's found an angle with the football, a social arena that brings disparate men together in regular games of football that outlast marriages. It's full of fond recollections, many stemming from the death of one of his footballing pals, who he realised he knew very little about.

I'd have been quite interested in James Brown taking on a memoir similar to the terrain of Dave Haslam's delightful tome Sonic Youth Slept on my Floor. Dave is someone else I've known about for 30 years through his Djing and his writing, but have actually got to know him more recently. His book takes us from Birmingham, where he was born, to Manchester, where music plays a central role. His stories are reflective, rather than riotous. Melancholic, as opposed to embittered score settling. I like his recollections of his complicated relationships which never sound nasty, but lay out home truths. The fall out with Tony Wilson sounds achingly familiar to anyone who actually worked with him, and it's sad that they never reconciled before Tony died in 2007. There's a lesson there, for sure.

I'm probably dwelling on this kind of retrospective as the old crew are getting back together this weekend. It's more than 30 years since we graduated, 7 of us sharing 245 Upper Brook Street over two years, though one left to tour Europe with Sonic Youth and we took on a squatter. We all have memories of Manchester, though of course I've been drawn back, even showing the daughter of one of our number around our old stomping ground, while my eldest son is also enrolled nearby. Obviously I'm really looking forward to seeing everyone, but I very much doubt we'll be playing five-a-side, or even clubbing for that matter. Afterall, we have our memories for that.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

What’s the story - televised glory? Magic Dack and a ready made Villain

If you want to know the way that television influences games, then it was there tonight at Ewood Park in flashing LED lighting, flashing as obviously and ostentatiously as adverts for bookies, vapers and the Venky’s.

It was always going to be about Dack versus Grealish whether the game turned out that way or not.

For the most part it didn’t. The referee protected the pound shop Ronaldo like a precious newly born pup. Giving him soft free-kicks and refusing to book him for the kind of gamesmanship that clipped Corry Evans’ wings with a yellow card minutes earlier. By the time he fell like a rag doll from a nothing challenge from Harrison Reed, earning the free kick, he shouldn’t have been on the pitch if the referee had applied the same standards of footballing justice he had dispensed to others.

You can’t tell me that the referee wasn’t showboating for the cameras. In his mind was how this would play to Sky’s pre-scripted narrative. Grealish is one of those players for whom an occasion like this has to pivot on his contribution to it. Except it wasn’t at all, not even close. And then there was that cheap free-kick he won. Though to be fair, the lad that curled it into the bottom left deserves some credit for a strike of such quality.

On a long list of things that frequently irritate me about a day out at Ewood is the choice of Peter Jackson the Jeweller Man of the Match, which is usually wrong. It wasn’t the player I’d have chosen, but then I don’t get invited as a guest of said jeweller. It wasn’t Charlie Mulgrew, Ryan Nyambe, Elliot Bennett or Danny Graham. Or one of the two players who were substituted who did such a good job of souring Sky’s script and snuffling out Grealish. No, of course it wasn’t. It was Bradley Dack. It was always going to be Bradley Dack, because he scored what they call in the trade “a Sky goal” and because he’s Bradley Dack. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Medway Messi. I thought his goal was a work of unbridled genius that deserved to win us the game. But what do I know?

So we get home, way past 9pm, after dropping the eldest at his university digs, the bitter disappointment dissipated somewhat by our usual way of dealing with it, swearing a lot and playing music. Yet Sky are telling everyone who wasn’t there that the story of the night was the one they always wanted it to be.

I’d have been happy with a draw today as Aston Villa are a team with decent players in it. Whether they are a decent team is Steve Bruce’s problem, not ours. Our frustrations are another late equaliser, and some odd substitutions. Notably the bizarre introduction of Ben Brereton, a non-tackling striker in a wingers position. But I was confused by the lack of courage from Bell and Armstrong in attacking either empty spaces or an ageing full back. They might not face as experienced an opponent as Alan Hutton this season, but they will face faster ones and when they do they will look on tonight as an opportunity missed.

To end on a positive. Charlie Mulgrew was commanding and composed tonight. Ryan Nyambe gets better every game. Lenihan lives dangerously, but what a warrior. And yes, Dack is immense, but the story the Rovers fans have been stewing on all week has been the poor form of Richie Smallwood. He answered that in the best way possible tonight with a performance of bravery and some astute passing. Harrison Reed was impressive, and is a good problem for the manager to have, but the King (of Ewood) isn’t dead yet.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Where there's hope

I had the briefest peep into political Twitter this morning. Horrible. Truly horrible. The usual attacks, the same old tired shibboleths and the deep, deep divisions laid bare.

And yet I feel strangely optimistic today. Yesterday at the Convention of the North in Newcastle we once again saw the very best of our people trying to find ways to improve the North. There were local leaders from all three main parties there with a really positive common purpose. All the discussions around the breakouts were practical and never partisan. I spent valuable time talking to colleagues from Middlesbrough, Stockport, Preston, Newcastle and from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, on Education, local government and business engagement. I spent the train journey back fizzing with ideas.

On Wednesday Andy Burnham made a speech in Westminster which made the point that a new politics was being born in Greater Manchester: "Devolution to Greater Manchester has transferred budgets, powers and responsibilities.

"But it’s done something much more important than that. It is helping us engage people in developing policies and counteracting the widespread disengagement from politics that led to Brexit.

"Devolution is not just a series of technical changes to the machinery of Government. It has had a profoundly positive effect on the culture of our city-region. It has created a new energy; a sense of possibility; a shaft of light in an otherwise gloomy political scene.

"It has allowed us to give a level of engagement to our leaders in business, the universities, the faith and voluntary sectors in developing new policy solutions that you can never provide from a national level."

I take an enormous amount of encouragement and pride in that. Not a day goes by without someone in our university reaching out to me to run by ideas about how they can engage with the whole devolution enterprise, and the Mayor has been a transformative figurehead in enabling that enthusiasm.

Locally, there's a few different things going on. A couple of really quality young campaigners in Stockport, Daniel Oliver and David Allum, have decided they've had enough of Labour and have cut up their cards. One of my councillors, Kenny Blair, has left the Conservatives and is now operating as an enthusiastic independent. Putting parties to the side seems like the best thing to do in such circumstances.

It cuts to the heart of what you are prepared to do with your time and talents. Self selecting groups of activists passing motions of no confidence and support for various causes isn't democracy in action. Making a difference to how we organise society to help people fulfill their potential is much more exciting.

So farewell then Mobike

So farewell then Mobike. Manchester now has the dubious honour of being the first city in the world to lose the bike sharing service. Honestly? I'm disappointed. I thought the novelty of vandalising them would wear off, and they would be a regular feature of the city centre.

Am I surprised? Not really. As I said here when they launched they could be great, but the service never became sufficiently reliable. I simply got out of the habit of relying on them. My job pretty much means I'm up and down and about the Oxford Road Corridor every day - popping into the city centre and occasionally Salford Quays. Sometimes they'd be stacked up in All Saints Park and the next day there'd be none.

Martin Bryant puts it well (as he usually does) here: "Manchester city centre packs a lot into a relatively small space. It’s easy to walk across in 20 minutes, and there are free buses operating three circular routes, each running every 10 minutes, if you don’t want to walk. For logistical reasons, Mobike quickly stopped people using the bikes for treks out into the suburbs, or even to the media and technology district in Salford Quays, which would probably have been a popular trip."

I took them 27 times, rode 38.8 km in total, burning up 2088 calories (yes, right) but I literally never rode one to Salford Quays. The ideal journey was from or to the University of Manchester and on to Piccadilly station or the city centre, but as I like walking, it was usually only when I was a little tight for time. But on more than one occasion the app crashed, and if I could happen on a stray bike, they wouldn't unlock and I was late anyway.

I also suspect there were other factors beyond shrinkage to the stock. My pal Dave EB scrutinises the operating business here: "When explaining to investors, it might be far easier to say that local vandalism is the cause than publicly saying that the business model was wrong and the marketplace didn’t want the product. It’s easier than saying than perhaps the product wasn’t adequately marketed. Mobike’s own Twitter account wasn’t very lively and didn’t garner many more followers than the author."

Also, the private equity fundraising model is to say to investors - 'we are going to replicate our success in city A, by also doing it in cities B, C and D. This is why we need your cash investment.' It's a good story and it stacks up. Once that capital has been raised in a funding round, you can pivot the business model on changing circumstances.

I like the ambitions for Manchester's suburban population to embrace cycling. I like the idea of cycling routes and maybe a docking scheme would work. It just wasn't going to be this one.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Great start from Blackburn Rovers. Off the pitch, not so good

Des Lynam used to refuse to show the league tables on BBC's Grandstand until 5 games had been played. Given what happened to Blackburn Rovers last season, I've waited until this point in the season before blogging my rash predictions and barely formed observations.

So, five games, fifth in the table, two wins and unbeaten and still in the League Cup. By any measure, that's a great start. You can read Blue Eyed Boy and his loan signing Old Blackburnian for a peerless observation on the start, here. But there's something more.

There's a reason Championship players get loaned out to League One clubs. One of the phrases used in such circumstances is to 'toughen them up' get them game time in a hard physical environment. When it goes well, they return as better players and perform accordingly. Braver, stronger, fitter and with a hunger never to have to go back to all of that.

It feels like the whole club has been on loan and come back so much better. Even the fans seem to be part of that renaissance. It's what led me to make the optimistic prediction on the BRFCS podcast that we'd finish eighth and that Bradley Dack would light up this division.

Denied the magic of Dack for two of the games I've seen, I'm sticking to that. But then without the pace of Armstrong and the determination of Samuel to make the best of his opportunity, our expectations were pretty low for the visit of Brentford, a side beloved of footballing purists.

Tony Mowbray studies the opposition carefully. At times last season I was critical of the excess of respect I thought he showed to visiting teams. But his change of gameplan for the visit of Brentford paid off. Kevin Gallagher on BBC Radio Lancashire called it winning ugly. I don't. I call it winning effectively. I don't regard tracking back 50 yards, fierce tackling and pressing the goalkeeper as ugly. Mowbray's too much of a gentleman to say it in public, but I'd be pretty sure he told his charges that Brentford were a decent footballing side, but they don't like it up 'em. They were the softest team we've played in ages. The fact they conceded free kicks and got the only yellow card of the game was for frustrated niggling acts of cowardly shithousery, because they knew they were no physical match for Evans, Smallwood, Bennett and the massively impressive Rothwell.

And the fans, going in 2-0 down against Reading? Applause and patience. And at the final whistle after the draws with Millwall and Reading? Acknowledgement of decent performances.

The summer signings seem good, especially Rothwell who I really like. I wasn't thrilled at the recruitment of Jack Rodwell, and not just because I'm going to get them mixed up, but because of the bad taste of what happened at Sunderland. The manager cherishes the positive balance in the dressing room, hopefully he thinks Rodwell will be improved by that and everyone else will benefit as a result. But we're going to have to trust that Mowbray knows what he's doing.

Anyway, so far so good, but I didn't start blogging just to say how great everything is. I'm not happy about a few other developments at Ewood in the close season.

We are a ridiculously leaky club. Mowbray is annoyed at this. And it possibly contributes to deals falling over and prices going up.

The transfer business always seems too close to the wire.

I don't really like the pale blue kit.

I don't like that the half time scoreboard and announcer named two teams in our division as Sheffield and Sheffield. Sloppy.

I don't like being sponsored by a betting company.

I really disliked the dazzling bright LED advertising board, especially as it was punting yet more betting.

And the rest of the static ads, more betting, more junk food and, inexplicably, a vaping company.

Who do the commercial staff talk to? Do they just walk down a run down high street and seek out all those tatty peddlers of crap that contribute to the blight of modern life and the poor health outcomes it encourages.

Why not partnership with Community Clothing? Why haven't bridges been built with WEC? or Crown Paints? or Blackburn's wider efforts at civic renewal, instead of taking money from those who so cynically extract it from the pockets of those who can least afford it?

But, overall, this has been a great start and it's terrific to have adapted to life back in the Championship with less pain than we seemed to have adjusted to League One this time last year. What a difference a year makes.