Sunday, April 15, 2018

Save me, from the makers of desperate TV

The most important element of any storytelling is how it ends. A very close second is how it starts. How it grabs your attention and says powerfully that this is worth sticking with. But the ending is everything. And have you noticed how many TV series now seem to end on a promise of more to come? It’s a hopeful wave at the possibility of a new series, or a disappointing whimper. The desperation to milk a format means that no happy-ever-after is an option. There has to be a loose end that remains flailing in the wind, even looser and freer than before, begging for someone to have another go to tie it up properly, rather than chuck it in the plot stream with all those other red herrings.

Spoilers follow, but the main point is a build up to tomorrow night’s Season 8 conclusion of The Walking Dead, a make or break moment for a declining franchise.

So it was been with the best series I’ve seen recently - Sky Atlantic's Save Me - where the conclusion is entirely unsatisfactory, yet utterly in keeping with everything that’s gone before. A roller coaster of a story, of (most remarkably) wit, redemption, true horror, twisted morality and a deeply depressing and unsettling glimpse of humanity’s narcissism and depravity. Second series? How can there not be?

Marcella left me with an entirely different feeling as Hugo Speer leaned over a dishevelled homeless person, talking about a secret unit of the police. Everything that had gone before, the ham fisted signposting of the supposed suspects, the wasted time on dead end story lines and the preposterous liberties with police procedures. All of it had me screaming inside, please end this. No more, no more. And then she finds a way to disappear, to vanish, but the so-secret-we-must-never-know-about-them-police find her. It seems to be a shrug. Less of a plea, more of a well, if you really must commission a third series, here’s your angle, but we really don’t believe you’ll go for it.

Poor Anna Friel, after bravely traversing the Sahara desert and battling rogue mercenaries in Odyssey, as a more Poundland version of Homeland, her next attempt to match Claire Danes (Carrie in Homeland) as the worst mother on television is so psychotic, so off the wall, even the makers seem to have given up. But this is ITV where nothing too absurd can ever be discounted.

BBC’s Come Home won’t ever come back. It was a bold attempt at addressing that most taboo of all last taboos, the crap, selfish and reluctant mother. I don’t know what it is with BBC series set in post-troubles Northern Ireland, but while The Fall was rapey and exploitive, Come Home was populated with snide and manipulative women all either lacking empathy or only capable of making poor decisions against the interests of children and hard working men. The only exception was the absolute beast of a criminal wife beater, but even with him we were invited to price in the possibility that he was driven to it.

And so to tomorrow night’s season 8 conclusion of The Walking Dead. I could write pages of fan theory and meta analysis of TWD, but all the failings of this series crash on the rocks of the basic season architecture. It has found a rhythm of predictability that has rendered it wholly absurd. As other critics have pointed out, it is a series with too little story and too much time to tell it. I said at the conclusion of Series 7, or half way through series 8, that nothing really happened since Negan killed Glenn and Abraham so brutally. There have been some interactions between the warring factions, but the same stand off pretty much still exists, it needs a dramatic stand-off with a firm conclusion, a seismic peak moment of television that the makers have deemed can only happen in 4 out of the 16 episodes of the season - the first, the last and either side of the mid-season break. It means there are 12 weak and plodding episodes that inch us closer to those points. There is no possibility of any major character being killed outside of those four episodes, stripping them of any tension or surprise. As ratings have slumped there is now a consensus that the stables need sweeping. Even in interviews with the producer who says this next episode will be an ending to all current storylines. I’ve had the advantage of reading the graphic novels up until the arrival of these crazies called the Whisperers (who wear zombie skin) and am up with the debates about who they might be, and if they might end up making an appearance in the TV series, or if they’re already around. There’s also the build up to the point about what to do about Negan. In the comics they keep him prisoner in Alexandria, skip ahead and several communities live peacefully for a while.

Here's what we know is going to happen: Morgan (Lennie James) is going to cross over into Fear the Walking Dead, there is going to be a severe change of plot and tone, something with the helicopter will be an important part of the transition. There is another community out there.

Here’s what I think should happen: Jadis, or the Oceanside women, should conduct a massacre of whoever they find as a way of marking their border, just as happened in the graphic novel. The mysterious helicopter needs to open a door into a much more imaginative post-apocalyptic social order than a dictatorship, linked to the appearance of Georgie. We're done with idiots like Negan and The Governor. Frankly, I'm done with Rick Grimes. A far better leader is emerging in Maggie, who still hasn't had her baby. She needs to execute Gregory once his cowardice and treachery are made tragically apparent. Eugene needs to go. He will probably redeem himself with some kind of sabotage of the Saviours weapons, but he'll still go.

Will that happen? I somehow doubt it, but it needs to, to actually prepare the way for what needs to happen in Series 9. The end of The Walking Dead for once and for all.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Still upbeat after clash of the Rovers at Bristol

It’s never a pleasure to come off a game when you’ve looked at the clock and it’s 1-0 and it’s 90+4, and then in the blink of an eye and the swing of a boot it’s 1-1. And at this stage of the season I’m not in the mood for fair results overall or laments over wasted chances. Part of me wants it to end. Another just wants this season to go on and on. More new grounds, more trips with my lads, more lunches with friends in nice pubs and cafes in parts of England I haven’t been to before. But also that feeling of pride that I’ve somehow got back in this football club.

I can’t feel anger at these players, only disappointment at a result. Sure Derrick Williams should have scored. Payne could have done more with the ball running at defenders. As a team they would have looked at how they might have done more to kill the energy of the game at 1-0 and into the last few minutes. Could have, should have, would have. But this team is still noticeably better than most teams they share a pitch with, and they seem to be able to avoid defeat remarkably well. As a club, we are clearly still in a very decent position. Last week against Southend was a horror show in the last few minutes, but we won. Today we looked comfortable on the ball, stronger going forward, but just missing a bit of brilliance from Dack and Armstrong. I think we owe them an enormous amount and the pressure to perform miracles must be huge. But any analysis of a football match can’t just take into account one team without acknowledging the ability of the opposition to also influence the result, so fair play to Bristol Rovers for chucking everything at us right to the end.

Some of our fans don’t half come out with some nonsense, but I’m going to hold back from repeating the extremities of what I heard from people today as I’ve no desire to fuel this debate as it’s just not helpful. But I will confess to being disappointed that the whole mentality of the team is that we’re edging closer to the finish line, rather than flowing out in pomp and with a swagger.

I enjoyed another good day out today, except for that shot from Chris Lines at 10 to 5. The Inn on the Green on Gloucester Road was a fine spot to catch up with my pal Neil Tague. I used to live in Bristol but on the opposite side of the city, and have never been to the Memorial Ground. That’s the point about this season being about discovery. It also brought back a few memories of the first long distance away trip I did on my own – the second day of May 1981 – when we missed out on promotion despite winning at the old Eastville stadium. Subsequent trips were to their temporary home at Bath City’s Twerton Park.

It’s a funny wee ground. The stand behind the goal looked like it was on loan from Chatsworth Country Fair, the terrace behind the other goal looked packed and raucous, and I liked that they call it the Tote End as a nod towards their history at Eastville. Our terrace in the corner lacked a bit of atmosphere, but the view was OK. It’s odd that a city like Bristol doesn’t have a more successful club, maybe the “Gas” getting a new stadium might be the spur that worked for Swansea and Brighton.

That makes it another new ground I’ve watched football on, the 156th. I’m still on 83 clubs out of the current 92 (the Punk 92), and I’m up to 78 of the current 92. Onwards to Doncaster. I still think we’re going up.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

What I'm going to say on the BRFCS podcast, what I've said and what I never say any more

Louis, Danny Graham, me, David Southworth
Next week we're going to be recording a Blackburn Rovers supporters podcast, it will be a marker for where we are up to with just four games to go, having played Bristol Rovers at the weekend.

I'm as one with King of the Ewood Bloggers Jim Wilkinson that this has been a heck of a good season to be a Blackburn Rovers fan. After all the disappointment of recent years, to be 'on our way back' feels so much better than the slow decline we had endured. We have the most exciting player in the division in Bradley Dack. So whatever happens in the next few games, I will probably see our team notch up more points in a single season than they ever have before. Think about that for a minute. The promotion of 2001 was completed with 91 points, the Premiership win with 27 wins and 89 points (from 42 games) and the last time we were at this level it was with two points for a win, but we would have got 84 points in new money.

So, as well as a few thoughts from Bristol, I'll say a version of all of that.

I'll also be reminded that earlier in this season I called Danny Graham 'useless' after the Plymouth home draw, that I said Mowbray over complicates things and the team is 'overcoached', that we play to the style of the opposition too much and that the team has a soft core. Well, all of that (and more) is true on a bad day. Blissfully, we have had far fewer bad days.

I also have said how much I was annoyed by Elliot Bennett’s fist pump. To me it seemed like a snarl at the fans. It’s become a thing now, a symbol of his connection with the fans. What do I know? As the old gent behind us says when someone does something other than the simple obvious thing.

As I said here, I never speak to the players, I literally have nothing to say to them beyond 'well done'. I certainly can't deign to discuss the game they've just played in. When I do it usually ends awkwardly. From the time when I collared Noel Brotherston on Blackburn station on his way to meet the Northern Ireland squad (1981, I'm thinking) and I suggested he was saving himself for his country. Frankly, he should have given me a Belfast slap, never mind a couple of comps for the next away match. There have been exceptions, like when David Dunn came to a dinner as my guest. I like listening to players give their view, but they're usually so guarded.

We had our picture taken with Danny Graham after the Walsall game (above). He seemed like a really nice bloke, to be fair as most of this squad do. I'm amazed though that I managed to get that close to him without him grabbing my shirt, tangling his legs around mine, or him using his backside to shove me out of the way.

So, hope you enjoy the podcast and here's to three points at the third ground I've watched Rovers at the other Rovers. Do they still play in blue and white quarters?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Northern Rail goes all Kafka on us (updated)

Friends of Rose Hill station make the place so appealing, what are Northern playing at?
I wrote over the weekend about the proposed new timetable for Rose Hill station, at the end of a branch line in the bottom right corner of Greater Manchester. In there, I expressed my delight at the new timetable in May and how half hourly services throughout the day, up until after 9pm were a massive improvement on the status quo.

However (and there's always a however with Northern Rail, the train operating company), there is no train at the absolute peak time. Instead, at 17:34, a train will leave Manchester Piccadilly, go to all the usual stations on our line, stop at Woodley for NINE MINUTES then divert into Marple instead (source, Real Time Trains). At first I put this anomaly down to a data error, but no, it's apparently because they *might* need to park a works train sometime between 1800 and 1810.

I've tried to offer Northern a chance to respond, but they clearly don't care about some berk with a blog. I got the bureaucratic fob off of a 20 day response time to my "complaint".

It isn't a complaint. It's an enquiry.

They told me to phone. I did, I got cut off. I phoned again. No one answered.

Our local heroes, the Friends of Rose Hill Station have done some digging and have had a reply. It actually defies belief. I'm going to quote directly from a note I was copied in on.

It is because Network Rail have a Railhead Treatment Train (RHTT) path on the Rose Hill branch between 1800 and 1809. Note, it is a PATH, not a TRAIN.

It has apparently always been there but the proposed new timetable departure at 1734 would conflict with it. This is why the 1734 departure will travel to Woodley, sit for ten minutes there and then pootle on to Romiley and terminate at Marple, 40 mins after leaving Piccadilly!! This is so surreal that I find it difficult to get my brain round it. It poses the following questions (and I'm sure there are more questions):

1. Why has Northern Rail waited until now to raise this? The 1734 Monday to Friday departure was in the May 2018 consultation timetable issued last year.

2. Has an RHTT ever traveled up the Rose Hill branch? Have any neighbours ever seen or heard a railhead treatment train on the Rose Hill branch around 1800 Mon-Fri? Does anyone else have any knowledge of such a train?

3. Would the good folk of Surbiton or Bromley calmly accept such a pathway for a phantom train to prevent one of their peak time trains from being timetabled? I think not and nor should we.

4. Why can't Northern Rail shift their phantom RHTT path to 2140, after the last Rose Hill train will have been and gone? Most RHTT's run at night.

5. Has Network Rail got it in for Rose Hill? After their five year unjustifiable refusal to give us permission to clear part of the disused platform, it feels like an anti-Rose Hill vendetta.
We need to reverse this stupid decision. Who is this railway run for?

UPDATE: Northern Rail have officially confirmed this account to be true, but say they hope to have the problem sorted in time for the December timetable change.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Strange moves on the railway - how new timetable for Marple and Rose Hill makes no sense

Us hardy commuters of Northern Rail have had to put up with a lot over the last few years. As working patterns change, cities grow, so does the popularity of taking the train to work in the morning. This has led to overcrowding at a time when the rolling stock is well past its sell-by date. The government issued Northern with a new franchise on the condition that the hated Pacers be replaced by 2020, and we have been assured that’s happening by the end of next year. What is more likely, however, is our lines will get the refurbished Sprinter diesel units which are still pretty noisy and have a higher doorway, which makes them hard to access for less mobile passengers.

We've also had to grin and bear it through regular strikes over future staffing levels on new driver only trains. Yes, the limited services are a disruption, but we cope. But it rather exposes a worrying intransigence on the part of Northern Rail management and the RMT Union that they can't sort this issue out.

I digress, but that’s important context. In May there is to be a new timetable, thanks to the Real Time Trains site we've had a glimpse before they are officially announced. It looks like the morning services are broadly the same, and there is a massive improvement in the frequency of trains in the evening. Currently, if you go to an event or work late, the next (and last) train after the 18:35 isn’t until two hours later, or you get one to Marple and hike up the hill. That’s changing and there will be two trains an hour up until 21:09. Inevitably the frequency of that service will result in more park and ride passengers utilising Rose Hill in the morning. The tweaks however don't make much sense. There will be a gap in service in the absolute peak time from the frustratingly early 17:10 (which was the 17:20 and will have worked well for people who finish work at 5) until 18:09! But there will be a 17:34 out of Piccadilly via Hyde, but running into Marple instead of Rose Hill.

As fellow commuter Catherine Waddington first suggested on Twitter this just has to be a mistake as it seems to clash with other Marple trains minutes apart and the return to Piccadilly is right behind a service from New Mills. I’m intrigued as to the planning process that has informed these changes. The wonderful Friends of Rose Hill Station conduct a survey on numbers, but I’m not aware of any detailed enquiries into why these changes are taking place in the shape they are.

Also, Piccadilly station will soon have the electronic barriers on platforms 1 to 3 which will make it even more crowded at peak times. Already my season card doesn’t work in barriers because my phone has damaged it, and I’m not convinced that everyone will have the ability to purchase a ticket by the time they get to Manchester and the rules are tightening on people who don't. Or maybe they’ll open the barriers as a free for all at peak times meaning the fare dodgers will take their chances like they do on Metrolink.

In the interests of fairness I've put these points to Northern Rail's press office on Friday morning, but they hadn't replied (it's Sunday now). I will update if they do.

Finally, it's difficult to understate how important to our service the local Friends of Rose Hill Station have been, improving the environment of the station and campaigning for improvement to services. Please sign up to receive updates and subscribe to support the excellent work they do on our behalf.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Honesty and sense on the law, killing burglars and Richard Osborn-Brooks

I was thinking of writing something about the death of the burglar in south London, killed by 78-year-old Richard Osborne-Brooks. But Stephen Bush in the New Statesman has saved me the bother.

“Good morning. The death of Harry Vincent, killed by 78-year-old pensioner Richard Osborn-Brooks, has taken on a political dimension after the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, said that people should feel to defend themselves in their own homes. (Osborn-Brooks has been arrested and charged. The Sun is running a petition calling for the charges to be dropped.)

“Of course, the truth is that homeowners – and renters too for that matter – are allowed to defend themselves provided they use “reasonable force”. And, of course, if I phone up the police, tell them I have killed someone in my flat but they were breaking in, for obvious reasons, the police have to investigate rather than take my word for it.

“Don’t forget that Tony Martin, the farmer who shot and killed a burglar in 2000, the last time this issue was on the political agenda, told the police that he had fired in self-defence but a jury found that he had laid in wait for the robbers and fired without warning.

“In this case, if it turns out that Osborn-Brooks’ account of events is true, the charges will likely be dropped – not because of a petition in a tabloid newspaper but because that’s how the law works, though I doubt that will stop the Sun from declaring victory should that happen.

“We hear a lot about fake news, as if this were a problem that cropped up only in the 2016 and 2017 elections. There is a real problem with news stories that have at best a sketchy relationship with the truth being spread by new blogs on the Internet. But there is also a real problem of news stories that have at best a sketchy relationship wit the truth being spread by old newspapers on the Internet and in print. How disappointing that Gauke couldn’t do what a Lord Chancellor should, and explain how and why the law works, rather than bending in the wind with the tabloid mood.”

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

J. Simons of London, the Godfather of British male fashion



I can't remember whether I ever actually bought anything from J Simons, possibly a pair of Bass Weejun loafers (which I still have and really love), but I still can probably cite it as the motherlode when it came to my fairly fixed style of clothing and how it has gently evolved. In the early 90s we'd wander in to this treasure trove of a shop next to Covent Garden and the owner, John Simons, would talk us through great stories such as the red stitching on the seams on Levis jeans, the origins of penny loafers and the Harrington jacket.

We didn't know it at the time but we were in the presence of one of the giants of the mod era. A real cultural figure in London. So I'm really looking forward to seeing the full version of the film trailed above, featuring notable sharp dressers like Robert Elms, Paul Weller and Kevin Rowland, and someone who featured heavily in my 1988 undergraduate dissertation on the New Man - ad guru John Hegarty. It feels like a fitting tribute to the contribution of one of the giants of British male fashion, who took the best bits of Americana, Italian quality and a classy British street attitude and made something special.

I love his shop in Marylebone. Next time I'm down I'll be paying him a visit. I might even buy something this time.

The source for this nostalgia trip was a lovely piece in GQ, here.

New era for New Charter - building the Northern Powerhouses

Tim, Gill, Bridget, Fay, Ian, me and Mark. 
We held the last ever New Charter Group board at the end of March. It's been a real privilege to serve alongside such a smart and energetic board of directors, giving support and scrutiny to a really capable and talented executive team.

I've known the chair, Fay Selvan, for a while longer than we've worked together. She's one of those people who fizzes with ideas and just exudes passion and concern to make a difference.

It's been an incredibly challenging period for social housing. When I joined the board the government capped rent increases, which drove a coach and horses through the business plan, and a bond issue. It necessitated a cost reduction programme across the organisaton, yet we still hit all our targets and metrics. It was clear too that well-run, socially focused social housing organisations had a real role to play in mitigating austerity and meeting the challenges of the lack of new homes being built. Slowly, surely, the tide has turned and government ministers have grasped who has the capacity and structure to deliver. Yes, we're still here, Sajid.

When I was interviewed to join the board I made it clear I wanted to join an organisation that could be part of the change. The endgame has been a merger with Adactus to form Jigsaw Homes Group, with homes stretching across the North West, but still with a vitally important root in Tameside.

I'm still going to be a director of the New Charter Building Company and a trustee of some of the charitable projects, and while things might take a while to settle down, I'm confident that we can continue to play a really important part in building our Northern Powerhouse.


Sunday, April 01, 2018

My social media fast - Twitter is toxic, Facebook is sinister, but I'm not quitting

Being off social media during Lent has definitely given me time and space for the reflections I intended. I hope I've made much better connections with true friends, prioritised what is truly important and discarded what is trivial and makes me unhappy.

That it's not the be all and end all is obvious. But it's all made me realise its inherent benefits as well as the obvious downsides. Some to do with system design, others to do with human behaviour.

I'll start with Facebook first. A really good friend who works in law enforcement describes it as the devil. It seeps into lives and corrodes from within. When in the wrong hands it is a tool for great evil. It has also been deliberately designed as a mind control tool, as we found out recently with the Cambridge Analytica revelations. But that's also because it makes us lazy. We rely on it too much to tell us who to be friends with, whose posts to follow, what to like and comment on. If it doesn't happen on Facebook it hasn't happened. So it makes you disconnected from the daily lives and concerns of people you care about, but have view of their lives seen only through this very distorted lens.

On the upside, I quite like seeing my Mum's posts about cats. I actually think it's a perfect tool for organising close groups of connected people - like in my fitness classes. I also appreciate it as a conduit for family news and sharing stories from friends abroad, who it has been harder to stay in touch with over the last few weeks. I used to be strict about Facebook friending, then I stood in an election. I started taking all kinds, but I think I'm going to tidy up and make it about real friends, old friends, friends abroad and family. And no politics.

As if to prove the point, the first post I've just seen on Facebook is a delightful post by my brother-in-law Dave Tinkler in the Lancaster Past and Present group, of a newspaper clipping of his Dad (RIP) when he was on his National Service.

The platform I've missed the least as a sucker up of time and energy levels has been Twitter. I used to love Twitter for its serendipity. I'd smugly boast that Twitter amazed me with wisdom from people I don't know, while Facebook would appall me because of people I did. I now think pretty much the opposite. People have got a bit more used to Facebook, but have got massively self-important and shouty on Twitter. I say most people, I noticed a while ago how much the algorithims were shaping your timeline now that I follow so many people. It's meant to be helpful, a filtering, but it just keeps pushing more and more angry Corbynistas, Centrist Dads, antisemites and Mancunian boosterists. The politics of the loudmouth has ruined it. You are required to work hard at your followers and timeline, which seems like further demands on time I don't want to give up.

However, Twitter is a decent platform for being part of an emerging trending news event. It's also a powerful tool for driving traffic to a website and for sharing content. I've done the odd blog on a Sunday through Lent and the page views are right down. Being able to tag people, target the marketing and share stories from events I've been involved in has always been really useful. Not utilising it would be a folly. But again, it requires time and effort to make it focused and useful.

I've just had a look at what's been going on, and I've rightly missed a few chances to punt my own events and debates and support colleagues who were speaking. I've not replied to comments about blogs, either about football or political things, but also local Marple matters. I've dropped about 12 followers.

Finally, I had one person, just one, ask me at an event why I'd been so quiet on LinkedIn lately. I've just looked and I've had 92 requests to do the linking in thing. Six from people I work with at Manchester Met, a smattering of old contacts in business, and hardly any with a personal message. It really showed up the paucity of relevance of LinkedIn. It also reminded how much more important it is to actually go out and meet people.





Jeremy Corbyn simply doesn't get anti-semitism - that's why he's unfit to lead

Corbyn with his friend Jackie Walker, currently suspended for Antisemitism
I should have spotted an early glimpse of Labour's antisemitism crisis in Stockport Labour club in 2014, when I passed a positive comment about the effectiveness of Andrew Gwynne, the MP for Denton and Reddish. The retort came that he was "dodgy on Palestine". Apart from questioning then how often this came up on the doorsteps of Dukinfield, I wondered what kind of Labour activist even knew what Andrew thought about the Middle East and why it would be the first thing you'd say about him. The same activist seemed animated to discover on another occasion that a prominent local Liberal Democrat "might be Jewish".  All of this pre-dated Jeremy Corbyn as leader and could at a stretch have been described - or even dismissed - as an "isolated pocket".

There was a telling moment in the Vice documentary about Jeremy Corbyn when he got incredibly prickly about Ken Livingstone. His response was an irritable repetition about Ken being suspended for "inappropriate" comments. He both refused to, and was unable to, explain what that was. In the whole rumble about antisemitism he would continually condemn "antisemitism, and all forms of racism". It showed that Corbyn actually doesn't understand it at all. He had no appreciation of why Ken Livingstone had caused such grave offence, no awareness of the intricacies of his crass and cod historical scholarship of Nazi Germany, or of why the dripping of poisonous revisionism of history is a trope to minimise the memory of the Holocaust.

To Jeremy Corbyn racism is generally perpetuated by white people on minority ethnic people, usually blacks and Asians. It comes largely in the form of racist jokes and comments about other ethnic groups, escalating to discrimination, racist graffiti and outright violence. Of course he's against it. In his world only the virtuous left wingers like him are against it quite as seriously as him. The Tories and the right wing of the Labour Party aren't, either because they don't care, or they feed off the divide and rule of cynical neo-liberalism. I don't know, I'm guessing.

People like him don't do things like that, so the very notion that anyone on his side does so is absurd. So, it follows, the accusation that anyone does is almost certainly a cover for something else. Or to quote the Unite union boss Len McCluskey, a smear: "I believe it was mood music that was created by people who were trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn."

You don't have to look very far before you find a strong body of opinion amongst the Corbyn adoring left that this is a "smear". There are opinion polls which back this up. If Jeremy says something, then it's true. If you contest it, then you *must* be acting in bad faith against him and weaponising an issue that simply doesn't warrant a serious consideration.

As the most recent exposition of Labour's problem with the Jews emerged in late March, Tom Peck, summed up the reaction in the Independent:  "#PredictTheNextCorbynSmear, in which his supporters turn this antisemitic anger, which Corbyn himself appears to be genuinely upset and angered by, into a joke."

Apart from quoting a bit of Shelley at Glastonbury, I genuinely struggle to remember literally anything Corbyn has said in any of his rather rambling speeches to his following, but it is impossible to imagine him actually speaking the words in his open letter to the Jewish community. For a politician who’s brand is supposedly straight talking and honest, that is a serious charge.

In the open letter he says: "While the forms of anti-Semitism expressed on the far right of politics are easily detectable, such as Holocaust denial, there needs to be a deeper understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism in the Labour movement. Sometimes this evil takes familiar forms - the east London mural which has caused such understandable controversy is an example. The idea of Jewish bankers and capitalists exploiting the workers of the world is an old anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. This was long ago, and rightly, described as "the socialism of fools"."

Instead, when he was finally pinned down by Jewish News to be asked about antisemitism on the left, we got the usual waffle - "all forms of racism" and "all abuse is wrong". But most tellingly of all, "I’ve obviously locally met people from the mosque and so on to deal with that and indeed Muslim women groups because they have suffered the most in exactly the same way as many Jewish people have suffered abuse as well. Abuse is wrong whoever it is against. "

HE DOESN'T GET IT AT ALL.

Frankly, he's still in the realms of street attacks and Twitter abuse. A one-dimensional characterisation of how racism plays out. Intellectually, he can't seem to get his head around the insidious nature of left antisemitism and where it comes from, what it fuels and how it ultimately destroys communities from within. Which is why the lazy conspiracy world view, that a cabal of Zionists, Tories and Blairites (the few) control the world, has taken such deep root in this swamp of soundbites and easy answers.

But this, by Neil McCrae, starts to posit the question that no-one actually wants to ask. Why now, and where has this come from? It sort of comes full circle to the original view about what we traditionally think the racist enemy looks like and how they behave. "They are aghast at the resurgent ogre of anti-Semitism, which ranges from casual remarks to blood-libel conspiracy theorists, Holocaust-deniers and that ugly combination of hard Left and Islamo-Fascists who want Israel wiped off the map. Will this change anything, I wondered? Walking back over Westminster Bridge, I overheard an answer to my question: ‘He won’t bat an eyelid’. After all, there is a voting bloc twelve times larger than the Jews to harvest."

He's obviously talking about the Muslim community. George Galloway built his Arabist political rebirth on this rumbling, adopting the rhetoric and language of the middle eastern dictator. As the writer Nick Cohen put it back in 2016, "George Galloway, who, never forget, was a demagogue from the race-card playing left rather than the far right, made the private prejudices of conservative Muslim voters respectable."

I don't think Corbyn's up to this. His judgement, his intellect and his moral range are too limited. Despite his pretence at being this man of peace, he rarely seeks to find common ground, just to take sides. The "dodgy" company he keeps doesn't contradict this. Seeing him parading around with his long term friend Jackie Walker (picture, above), was open mockery of concerns in the party and explains the limp response that follows. It was she, lest we forget, a vice-chair of Momentum, who has been suspended from the Labour Party twice. Firstly because she claimed the “chief financiers of the slave trade” were Jewish; secondly some nonsense that Holocaust Memorial Day didn’t commemorate victims of other genocides (it does). (Hat tip, Tom Peck again).

It would be generous to say that the leader of the opposition, and his team, have been asleep at the wheel, thinking at best that they can sweep it away. Now, they even appear to be blaming the previous General Secretary of the party for not acting quickly enough to implement the findings of his whitewash report. It's been a depressing and sickening time to see this divisive, inelegant and hateful debate linger on.

Manchester's response a year ago showed how the issues that divide this country need to be addressed by inter-faith and inter-community dialogue and by calling out hatred and warped ideology early. There are lines to be firmly redrawn around support for terrorism and racial hatred, and not looking the other way because it is on "our side" or that every debate is viewed through the prism of supporting "Jeremy".

And I sort of count myself in all of this. Instead of rolling my eyes at the Andrew Gwynne detractor, I should have confronted directly what was staring me in the face.

The Long Good Friday - a timely revisit

(Rex Features)
Good Friday seemed like a good day to rewatch one of my favourite British films, The Long Good Friday.

I still regard it as Bob Hoskins' finest performance, displaying an immense range of emotions and behaviours over a turbulent two days for gangland kingpin Harold Shand; be that perception and confusion, humour and menace, or ultimately power and vulnerability. Helen Mirren brings far greater substance to her role as his wife than many leading female performers are afforded in the gangster genre that was inspired by it.

I love that it was written by a journalist from the Stratford Express, Barrie Keeffe, who filled his tapestry of London 1970s life with characters and observations informed by keeping a wily eye on the East End crime beat, daring to dream of dramatic possibilities and emotional shortcomings of his source supporting characters; greedy, sneaky and short-sighted.

Although The Long Good Friday feels like a film firmly fixed in a very particular time and place it is in so many ways a film about the future, complete with the lamentations of the elements of the past that are being sacrificed. In particular, Harold Shand's vision of a new London is remarkable for its accuracy and vision, tainted though it was by hooky money and corrupt politicians.

(Rex Features)
If anything the film underestimated the long term future potential of the regenerated East London of Harold's ambition. But as I'm sure Jack Brown's PhD thesis on the rise of Canary Wharf will no doubt reveal, those early ideas were real enough and firmly rooted in the reality of the rhythms of political life at the time. The film was released in 1980, while Michael Heseltine created the London Docklands Development Corporation a year later.

The Long Good Friday has inspired an explosive genre of British crime films, most of them laughably bad because they come up so short. In fairness, some have been very good but for different reasons: Lock Stock played largely for laughs, Snatch for style, Crying Game and Mona Lisa were impressive subplots to the big picture. But it’s also why I was so disappointed by BBC's dull and plodding McMafia which missed a chance to slot into an epoch defining high concept. I'd say Sexy Beast and possibly Layer Cake (also featuring a future James Bond) grasp the changing back story of London villains, the latter depicting the collisions between the legitimate corporations and the internationalisation of the drug trade and its game changing effects on crime and society, Michael Gambon playing Harold gone legitimate, but still with a stake in the game. As good as Sexy Beast is, as a commentary it feels like a retreat.

And then there's that ending. Having dispatched the New York Mafia with a flea in their ear, that last journey before the single frame of black (Sopranos fans take note) contains some of the most expressive facial acting I can think of in any film ever.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Are Sundays cheat days in Lent?

Apparently, they are not. My social media abstinence is holding. It is definitely giving me time and space to think, pray and read a lot more. But I am breaking it a little on Sunday just to update the blog, which has a trigger to Twitter. 

What's the purpose of towns in the digital age?

Ann Coffey MP for Stockport, and me
I don't get asked to speak myself so much these days, even though I'm probably involved in more speech writing, briefing and events organising than I have ever been.

It was a real delight to accept an offer from Stockport's first rate Labour MP Ann Coffey to speak with members about the big issues facing towns.

In the welcoming confines of Heaton Moor United Reform Church, I talked through three big challenges that digital has thrown at us all, which sparked a fascinating discussion. It wasn't a speech as such, there was no list of demands for the council or a future Labour government, but some themes for us to think through with a bit more evidence, knowledge and humility.

Firstly, I looked at the specific profile of Stockport's economy, drawing on some of the work of the Stockport Work and Skills Commission and what skills the jobs of the future are going to require and how everyone can build the resilience to keep learning and adapting to change. This, I suggested, was an opportunity for plenty beyond what we'd call the skills ecosystem: families, small businesses and trade unions, who I still feel have missed on an opportunity to engage with members in better equipping them for the 21st century.

Secondly, I tried to reconcile what these employment trends will mean to how we use land, building and open spaces. In short, what's it going to mean for where we shop, live and spend our leisure time? Where are new homes going to be built? And what will be the purposes of town centres if big box retail is in such sharp decline - Marks and Spencer is soon to depart Stockport - and how can this be far better integrated into how we imagine a Greater Manchester, surely better transport links is a priority?

Thirdly, digital has demanded a re-thinking of how public services are delivered. Yes, Stockport has done some transformative work, but if we look further east to Estonia, a small country of 1.5 million people we see the laboratory of a digital society. What then for the old debate on compulsory ID cards?

I have to say I really enjoyed it. The local members were very knowledgable and more than anything we had a good trawl through the issues. More of this, please.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Lynsey Hanley's Respectable, crossing the class divide

There's such a tenderness and sense of love running through Lynsey Hanley's memoir cum sociological journey through Britain's class structures that you sort of miss the anger at first. But it's there.

I'm a few years older than her, but I found it relatable. A few years earlier my devouring of the NME led a straight line to George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Marx, Dickens and the Lakeland poets. It was an alternative education that prised open a cultural door. A universal intellectualisation of low and high culture that you can place in a time and place.

For a while my own connection back to a trace working class identity was football. But when I mentally scroll through my friends I go with, those I have accumulated along the way, then our shared experience is of a particular type. You can share the same view of a pitch and 22 players, but there's the Sky Sports Soccer AM view of life and the When Saturday Comes one, and many others beside. A constant thread on this blog is irritation at other fans, which rather proves the point. 

But this is an enjoyable read, if a challenging one at times, made more pleasurable through the elegance of her prose, even when I don't agree with the point she's making. Quite starkly, for example, on page 100, I had to stop and check I'd read it right: "working class school children must reject the values of their parents and community if they are ever to be a part of society." In a single sweeping statement about the assumptions of the education system, it blows apart every working definition of what it is to be from a working class community and, more pointedly, a strange meaning of what "be a part of society" constitutes. I found myself asking then how narrow were the parameters that she was defining both class terms.

But here's the thing. She can really write. Take this, on transferring class: "I have this feeling all the time, and the greatest fear that accompanies it is not of losing the substantial privileges that come with being middle class, but of knowing that, if I had to go back, I'd fit in even less now than I did back then".

She takes on board some underlying themes-in-motion that pre-occupy me in my day job. The difference in character of the university I work at, compared to the rest of sector. It plays itself out at varsity events where the boorish Russell Group students chant 'your dads work for our dads'. The challenge of widening participation and the link from study to work and whether this is really producing a new transfer class, or notching up the skills levels right through all social strata.

Three things, I think, require further scrutiny and evidence to take her observations on. 

One, has her journey been just a transfer of class, or also a transfer of place? London's norms; London's intellectualism and London's economic options still open up more opportunities to be with people like you and become even more marinaded in the spice of cultural life.

Two, the impact of property prices on social mobility, both negative and positive. To have got on the property ladder in London in the 80s and 90s is to have won the lottery of life. Even those who are cash poor, but asset rich, have a massive inbuilt route to stability. To have missed it in London is the subject which dominates so much of our public discourse.

Thirdly, the baking in of social norms and class status through consumption of media probably needs updating. I'm fascinated by the way internet has reconnected people and created a nostalgia industry already enriched by books and TV programmes (usually featuring Stuart Maconie), but made more personal through a Past and Present Facebook experience.  It gives us a way of never really leaving, of measuring success against others - in and of itself a particularly middle class thing to do. If the Daily Mail shaped attitudes of the angry, self-righteous and defensive middle class, and the Guardian it's liberal equivalent, then what's guiding the emerging generational touchstone? Twitter as opposed to Facebook?

This is a terrific body of work from an important writer I'm looking forward to reading more from. 

Winter telly. A quick reprise and a constant theme - get on with it!


Anna Friel in Odyssey
We've enjoyed stoking up the coal fire and indulging in some decent TV during these cold nights, and I've sneaked in a few while I've been travelling.

At the moment though the biggest problem with so many series is pace. Either too much crammed in, or frankly they've been padded out to a ludicrous degree. I also appear to have too many TV series on the go. It was probably like this in the pre-boxed set days when the papers would run a 'wise-up on the soaps' column. But this crop largely have strong female leads, or co-leads.

Strike (BBC) is well conceived, brilliantly cast, superbly acted and far too busy. That Robert Galbraith knows how to write, I wonder what else he's done?* The storyline was ambitious and brave, lots of interlocking bad people. But if anything there wasn't enough time to comprehend who was who and what they were meant to be doing. There was supposed to be a twist at the end, but instead I just wondered if I'd missed something and was curious as to why Neil Maskell appeared to be playing two different people.

Collateral (BBC) suffers from being a political broadcast on behalf of Jeremy Corbyn dressed up as a TV crime drama. David Hare railing at the dystopian nightmare of a Labour opposition led by Yvette Cooper and a military full of sociopaths and imbeciles. It's a shame because compared to pretty much all of the other dramas mentioned it has good pace and some strong central performances, Carey Mulligan's Kip Glaspie is a model of sass and smart policing.

Homeland (C4 - US) we're currently storing up the recorded episodes of Homeland, now surprisingly on its SEVENTH season. The first episode saw the unlikely scenario of Saul moving almost seamlessly from jail to the Oval Office. The success of Homeland when it started was pushing the boundaries of a spy drama of a stable but frightened America against a hostile and uncertain world. Now it seems the roles are reversed. Trump has allowed that door to an uncertain America to be opened and basically anything goes. At first I thought they’d dropped a clanger with a Hillary Clinton type in the White House, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still an isolated and paranoid President who doesn’t listen to advice and is being manipulated by darker forces. Yet the raw power of Homeland is still the incredible acting, notably from Claire Danes, and especially in her heightened meltdown situations. We’re three episodes in and it is finding its feet again.

Odyssey (NBC) - one reviewer dubbed this interlacing American military conspiracy drama as more Poundland than Homeland. It never survived the first season, which we're ticking through, but I found myself rooting habitually for Anna Friel's Odelle more comfortably than I often do for Carrie in Homeland. There are some interesting and well-written untypical characters (Bob, Shakir, Aslam and Luc), as well as cardboard cut out bad guys from the military industrial complex.

Marcella (ITV) - paradoxically the first season of this Anna Friel drama saw her playing a character cut from the Carrie Matheson school of tortured genius and mental breakdown. Much of the story arc was preposterously interwoven, but it certainly had danger and pace. It's a triumphant end rresult, on the whole. Marcella is a difficult character to pull off as she battles fugue blackouts, distrustful colleagues, her snide gaslighting husband playing with her mind and the staple of ITV drama to create ever nastier and creepier bad people.

The principal selling point of Keeping Faith (BBC Wales) is lead character Eve Myles and, like 2016's Hinterland, it was filmed back-to-back in Welsh and English. Three episodes in and her husband has vanished, but nothing much else had happened. It badly needed some actual drama, which came in the fourth episode, but still managed to intersperse plot shifts with a very long series of pop videos where the director indulged lingering scenes of Faith staring into the distance while a melancholic folk song layers on quite how troubled and sexually alive she is. This is apparently because of the difference between a TV hour on S4C, with adverts, and the BBC, with no adverts. Hence each episode is padded out by 8 minutes. *rolls eyes*

I wasn't always sure whether Requiem (BBC Wales) was a compilation of horror's greatest hits, or just another twisted psycho drama. But it was terrifically atmospheric and very, very creepy. All that was missing at the end were torches, hoods and animal heads, though the casting director missed a trick with the family from Deliverance who popped up in Keeping Faith.

I watched one episode of Shetland (BBC Scotland) while I was on the train. It was everything you’d expect of a Nordic noir, but my first impression was the obvious missing ingredient of place. London as a location can be cruel, unforgiving and unexpected, because there's so much life there. Shetland is just shown as bleak. Everyone talks about getting away. It's small and closed. That's it. I just don't think they tried hard enough to make Shetland interesting. I've written before about how well Hinterland managed to really get under the skin of the Welsh people and landscape, I await with interest how this gets on.

* I know.

Albania, Albania, not nearly as repressive as Romania

Last year I heard Robert Elms eulogising and reminiscing about the Albanian Shop on Betterton Street in Covent Garden on his own Listed Londonder slot on BBC Radio London. It's always worth a listen to a historical and socially curious podcast, but it still surprised me that with his intimate knowledge of London’s nooks and crannies that he would have been drawn to somewhere familiar to me.

My own interest was that I visited the shop in 1983 as a diversion from a school trip, where as an accompanying sixth-former, I was allowed to do my own thing, which was supposedly to visit the British Museum. I was mildly obsessed by this secretive closed Stalinist society back then. If I remember rightly I bought a wildly hyperbolic history of Albania (which I still have, left), an enamel badge and a small silk flag (which I don't), I also acquired some free Albanian produce - tomato puree, pickles - none of which were ever consumed.

I do have a vivid recall of my teachers looking at me with a mix of bewilderment and fear when I told them what I'd disappeared to do.

The root of this teenage fixation may have been Alexi Sayle who recorded the Albanian World Cup Squad's official song for the 1982 World Cup. At the time oppressive Stalinism was still a bit of a joke. Albania an entire mystery, but Sayle at least was speaking from experience having been taken Eastwards on holiday by his communist parents.

The other day I wandered down Betterton Street and couldn't quite place where it was, and what is there now.  It's another symbol of London's quirkiness that it has probably lost forever. Not just the shop, a Cold War relic, but that anyone could sustain an eccentric enterprise amidst such sky land prices now.

Monday, March 05, 2018

My Manchester - remarkable photographs from the 1980s

Manchester Confidential have produced a remarkable photo gallery of Manchester in the 1980s. There are tinges of glamour and a slight fizz of action revealed within them, but on the whole they stand as a record now for how much the city has changed for the better.

The commentary alongside from the peerless Jonathan Schofield also captures the time remarkably well. It was the Manchester I fell in love with in the 80s. The city I chose over all others to come and study and eventually to return to twelve years later. I'm still now.
 
Jonathan quotes one writer Charles Jencks who viewed that older city: 'Look again at those buildings. As examples of frozen energy they fill you with amazement. Some Mancunians must have been giants. What dreams did those people have? And do they still have them?'

The road to being Wigan's peers - the BRFCS podcast

We recorded a podcast after the Wigan game, where I hope we got across how most fans are feeling after the draw at home to our promotion rivals. When our second goal went in it truly felt like we were the invincibles, guided by the magician that is Bradley Dack. When Wigan's second bobbled in it started to feel like a defeat.  I still think we'll go up, probably in second spot though. I'd much rather have the points in the bag now than the games in hand. 

The other positive I'll take from the game is that we have for the first time since 1996, or maybe 2001, the best player in the division playing for us. Dack is fantastic to watch: brave, tricky, generous and remarkably honest. I've never seen a player get fouled so much, but he always tries to stay on his feet.

These podcasts are great fun. Ian Herbert puts in great effort to make them a cut above what most people would expect from a fans ramble. Please share widely and give us a rating.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Wimbledon, Wromantic, but wrong

Worst view ever . Away terrace at AFC Wimbledon
Who can't be impressed by the story of the fall and rise again of AFC Wimbledon? I know I am. For a tiny supporter created club to have born again after their club was handed over as a franchise to Milton Keynes takes some doing. That they now compete at the level of League One is remarkable.

I usually just roll my eyes and cringe with embarrassment when my fellow away supporters try and find the most offensive thing they can say in order to taunt opposing supporters. On top of the usual tedious claim that a place "is a S*** hole, I want to go home" (to luxurious East Lancashire, no doubt), this season we've also had comments on the ethnic make-up of Bradford, that Blackpool are poorly supported and using MK Dons to taunt AFC Wimbledon. As the bloke trying to start an MK Dons chant was right in front of me at the Cherry Red Records Stadium, I felt compelled to call him out and say "enough".

I say all of that because I really didn't enjoy the away fans experience on our trip to Kingston to watch our 3-0 win over AFC Wimbledon this week. The view in both halves was probably the worst I've ever experienced. In the first we were tucked behind the dugout and could get no sense of the game at all. It was like standing on a packed concourse of the Riverside. In the second we moved to a piece of flat land in the corner where Rovers were attacking and couldn't see anything in the half we were defending at all.

So we must all surely wish the club well in their quest for a new stadium in Wimbledon. Kingsmeadow isn't acceptable for football at this level. Apart from anything else a team can't expect to grow on crowds capped at 4,000, let alone sustain a presence in this league. Neil Ardley mentioned the difference in budgets of the two sides and though they beat us at Ewood, the gulf in quality was really evident in the return match. The style of play was akin to a 90s Wimbledon tribute act, but one that Mulgrew and Lenihan were more than capable of absorbing and coping with, despite another woeful refereeing performance.

The two pieces of action we did have a decent view of were the two goals. I've been shouting "shoot" at Elliot Bennett all season, when he's found himself in such scoring positions, so to see him lash one in for the first time this season was a delight. I still don't get his angry celebration though. It seems contemptuous of the fans, in defiance of us, rather than an expression of communal joy.

With a trip to Walsall chalked off on the Saturday before, this marks another two new grounds. I make it the 154th and 155th grounds I've watched football on, I'm now on 83 clubs out of the total, (the Punk 92), and I'm up to 77 of the current 92.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

I've given up social media for Lent

Six years ago I gave up alcohol for Lent. I never started again. Last year I forsook crisps, but I've now cut down on potato based snacks for health reasons. I could claim to be giving up impulse buys of clothes and books, but I'm skint. So this year I'm giving up Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, MySpace and LinkedIn. To be honest I only really use the first two, and I'm not even sure that MySpace exists anymore. I probably have to carry on with Blogger, but only on Sundays.

But Lent isn't just about giving up and sacrificing things we like, it has to be about what you do extra. I haven't quite figured that bit out yet. It's a time for prayer and reflection, for searching, for resisting temptation and doing good.

Earlier today I posted a blog about health and fitness, which was a strong reason why I won't be fasting as my fairly strict diet takes precedent. I've also been on a long personal journey where I've been looking for guidance and help to stop feeling angry about others. It's something I've struggled with all my life, effectively drinking poison in the hope that it will hurt those I'm angry about. Guess what? It doesn't work. As I sit here now, there are situations where I would previously have seethed at those I've clashed with, gossiped about so-called rivals. No more. Maybe it's been a renewed focus, a health scare, or maybe it's something else. When you choose to look you can bear witness to the inspiring behaviour of people you least expect, people who are capable of such remarkable forgiveness and charity to those who may not deserve it. In my life too I've got the example of my wonderful mother who has reserves of love, loyalty and self-sacrifice that leave me speechless and in awe.

See you on Easter Sunday.

How I came to love the gym and probably saved my sanity

Last year I started training again. Most people my age have some longer term aspirational goal, or a health scare. Me? I just knew I needed to do something again, the scare came later.

That said, feeling persistently tired and having constant junk food cravings aren’t good. I knew that doing the mountain walks with the Freshwalks crew a few times a year, and the full circuit of Marple walk three or four times a week with the pooch, wasn’t going to battle off the middle-aged spread and reduce the chances of getting ill. The stats for sedentary males are a worry - diabetes, heart attacks, tumours, high blood pressure and depression. The comment that stuck with me was that if you can’t find the time for yourself to exercise, expect to give up time to be ill. It became one of those ambitions that I wanted something to work at, but didn't know what. I miss football like mad, but I'm too timid now to risk injury. I even asked the doctor if I was in imminent danger of damaging myself before I took the plunge. I took the bike to work, I used the Mobikes in Manchester when I could and I checked out a few activities at work, but still nothing stuck. I went swimming a few times, but the biggest thing I needed was motivation. With the best will in the world I’m not going to pull off a marathon from scratch and to be honest I just can’t get excited about running. A few years ago I had a personal trainer, Steve Hoyles, who made a big difference and helped me lose weight. Our weekly sessions were good fun, but I was missing too many due to work commitments and I wasn’t sure  what the goals were. I liked Steve’s company and his approach, but wanted something more sociable as well. My pal Will Stone told me about this converted warehouse in Stockport with a no frills approach to fitness and that Steve was doing some work out of there. So, I reached out to Steve again, though events took a slightly different turn.

Five months on I can’t even begin to describe what a difference I’ve felt. Once the introductions had been done, I joined the gym, which almost instantly changed ownership and is now run by Melanie Duffy, a personal trainer who led my first session, under the banner Body Box. There are no machines, no pools, no spa treatments. It is as back-to-basics as they come. Lots of free weights, industrial tyres to flip, medicine balls, punch bags, kettle bells, prowlers and hanging bars. In jest, I say to friends it is not so much a gym as a medieval torture chamber. And I love it.

But the real experience comes from the people I train with. We do our own bespoke workout programmes, but always finish off with a High Intensity Interval Training session. We are as eclectic a group as you could pull together. But the support in the group sessions like ‘HiiT Squad’ ‘Saturday Suicide’ and the punishing ‘Chipper’ is just phenomenal. Someone asked me last week whether I’ve lost any weight and to be honest I haven’t, but I have changed my body shape. More importantly, that's all made me feel sharper and fitter and happier. Sure, some days it hurts, after intense leg work I end up walking like John Wayne the next day, but the warm downs and stretches usually work well enough to avert too many aches. It’s costing me money to buy new trousers as I’ve dropped two waist sizes, even if my pot hasn’t quite shifted yet. I know I have a long way to go, to be as fit as I can be, but the simple act of doing the kind of exercises which were flooring me when I started is such a rush.

At the turn of the year I enjoyed my first post-Christmas sessions and felt a twinge the next day in my lower abdomen. For a day I put it down to training and thought I must have pulled something. It turned out to be much more serious and I had two days in Stepping Hill Hospital hooked up to a drip and on powerful IV anti-biotics. Hospitals are not happy places to be, the consolation that I was reasonably fit and don't drink probably saved me from sliding into a spiral of despair. It was mortifying and upsetting being visited in hospital by my family. The scan revealed no tumours, which was obviously a relief, but the medical advice I'm trying to live by was a stark reminder of the importance of good diet and, of course, proper exercise.

It’s made me more determined to enjoy the gym sessions and take my wellness a bit more seriously. I now have two clinical conditions under control and don’t want another. I was talking to my dearest friend John Dixon about it all recently. We traverse through these ages. Catching up with friends used to be about what great fun times we've been having, then we started taking work seriously, then how our kids are. Now we swap stories of our ailments. There's another age to it, that sort of runs in parallel; what we're doing about it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Why diversity matters

Pic courtesy of iNetwork and Tangerine Event Photography
Public sector leaders from across the country got together in Manchester in January to try and unlock some tricky challenges. I’d been asked to work with iNetwork, the event organisers, on an opening discussion about public service innovation that could stimulate some critical thinking.

As I’ve discovered about myself, although I can come across as quite forceful in some situations (I blame the cropped hair and the new fitness regime), my own personal style on an event stage is very much to allow the other participants to express their individual points of view in a conversational context. I won’t seek to either embarrass anyone, or aggressively press them into slipping up and I don’t ask people for comments on something that isn’t in their sphere of influence or expertise.

My function is to give the audience the best possible insights into the experiences of the interviewee. As a former journalist I’m very driven by the power of storytelling. That’s not to say anecdotes are better than evidence, but that experiences illuminate understanding.

I say all of that because the event I chaired was on the challenge of diversity. Phenomenally self conscious of the fact that I’m an educated middle-aged white man, it was nevertheless my responsibility to trigger the conversation and audience engagement around why diversity is important, not least because I believe it. I hope I avoided mansplaining, or telling anyone what’s wrong with their perspective.

Handily, the story Bury Council’s interim chief executive Pat Jones-Greenhalgh has to tell is a compelling one. From hairdresser, to care assistant, through the ranks, to be chief executive at the council where she’s devoted her life to public service. Understanding the diversity of a team and of all colleagues is crucial to maintaining a positive working culture in the fast changing world of local public services.

It’s one thing to recruit and promote individuals in order to satisfy a well-meaning diversity agenda. What I was interested in exploring was how organisations then embed behaviour and culture that takes on board characteristics that a more diverse workforce delivers, and embracing the virtues of that difference. It’s a danger that we create groups that may look very different, but all think the same.
I also wanted to consider what a workplace that embraces neurodiversity would look like and feel like and why it is important. Is there any evidence that making our workplaces more suitable for people with Autism, ADHD and other conditions, also makes public services more responsive and appropriate to a large part of the community.

There’s a project at the BBC which is exploring how to better support people with what they term 'hidden disabilities', focusing on their strengths and talents, utilising the aptitudes and abilities of individuals with neurological conditions. Much of it aims to dispel the myths, perceptions and even prejudices people may have about these conditions, especially in employment, but the bigger challenge is to shift organisational thinking from a position of compensating for a deficit and really embracing how diversity becomes an asset.

I imagine I’ll be returning to this again soon, and I do have a stake in all of this, but for now there’s a small marker. Hope that’s OK.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Brexit, how we got here and where we might end up

Day by day, I worry quite where the whole Brexit process is taking us. I'm sure I'm not alone. Not just because I work at a University, or are some kind of irrational remainer who can't accept defeat. No, even if I accept that we're leaving, I've never quite understood the interpretation that we have to torch every link with the outside world, leave the customs union and the even the single market. The world is more interconnected than ever, we can't opt out of that world even if there is some kind of mythical 'will of the people' that says we must.

Anyway, Manchester businesses and political leaders will be joining us on campus on the 21st of February for a special lunchtime lecture on Brexit featuring a leading Anglo-European civil servant, Sir Andrew Cahn, and the University's Chancellor Lord Mandelson. Entitled The Challenge of Brexit, how we got here and where we might end up, it should provide some very valuable insights, and some glimmer of hope that there are people involved in trade negotiations who know what they're doing.

Sir Andrew Cahn and Lord Mandelson faced many challenges in their time in the civil service and in government, but none quite like Brexit. After a period in industry, Sir Andrew became CEO of UK Trade & Investment. He worked closely with three successive Prime Ministers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron and served on the Boards of the Foreign Office and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. 

We're registering people from 11.45, the lecture will be an hour and you can register here. There'll be butties and nibbles afterwards.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Visit Auschwitz, it's hard, but necessary

It's been almost a year since Rachel and I took our youngest son to Krakow in Poland for a city break. Absolutely central to the trip was to visit Auschwitz and Oskar Schindler's factory in Krakow. I haven't been able to find the words to express what we experienced, but not a day has gone by that I haven't been haunted by what I saw, what we all felt and why it's important.

Part of the reason for the blockage is that there are far more eloquent witnesses than I. There are books, documentaries and witness accounts. Anything I can say also sits badly with the rest of what I warble about on this blog. Anything I could possibly express about a place of such bleak barbarity and profound evil will just look awfully crass and unfeeling. I'm sorry for that. We didn't take photographs. We took only our memories and what we were told by a tour guide who managed to describe everything in an incredibly descriptive, powerful and mesmerising way.  But I can't skip it any longer.

On a fairly regular basis friends and colleagues pop up who are planning a trip to Krakow. And to each one, I look them firmly in the eye and say that they absolutely must visit Auschwitz. It is one of the most important things you can do today but it forces you to remember and it forces you to reflect on what happens to people because we let it happen.

This week we have had Holocaust Memorial Day, the day that marks the liberation of the death camp from the Nazis. On this day, many of us remember; we share social media links, sign memorial books and light candles. Others still feel it necessary to question why we need to, question why we should and, outrageously, deny that there is even a need for us to do so. One of the reasons I have found it so hard to write anything about the experience is the sickening prevalence of Holocaust deniers. I followed the earlier trials of these attention-seeking truth twisters with horror. Their insidious motives drip feeding insult upon the injury and industrial scale cruelty of what happened.

I also despair at the hasty "yeah" and the insolent "but" that prefaces a breathtaking rant that lacks both awareness and shame. I lament the numbers game that history forces us to play, but at Auschwitz it's simply too overwhelming to contemplate engaging with anyone who offers a desultory "what about?".

I'll be honest, my primary senses weren't assaulted by either the stench of death or the intense humming of evil. What you see, what you hear and what you feel are far more overwhelming. The first horror is the piles of spectacles, suitcases and shoes in the brick built barracks behind the barbed wire and the notorious Arbeit Mach Frei gates. These mountains of artefacts betray the treachery and deceit that many of the victims were lured to. Then there's the sheer mechanised bureaucracy that sustained the vast camp itself.

On its own the death camp is hard enough to take in. But the context and the brutality of the Nazi occupation of Poland confronts you profoundly in the tour of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow and Oskar Schindler's factory. A people erased from life, eradicated like vermin, reduced to being the "other".

We won't forget that this happened, we can't. The greater danger is that we forget how. That we stop believing in love and give in to hate.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Leading through change - half a dozen thoughts

I think a lot about change and how leaders can successfully manage change in organisations in a stressed situation. One of the (many) bonuses of working alongside the leadership team at Manchester Metropolitan University is the insights we often hear from leaders from outside the Higher Education sector. 

I can't say who it was, but we had a real treat last week with one external visitor talking about a profound turnaround situation, but also drawing on experiences of taking an established institution in a new exciting direction earlier in their career. 

Summing it all up, it's clear that management is about the efficient running of the status quo. Leadership is about change and re-orienting an organisation to a new goal. Here are six key pointers I thought worth sharing.

  1. Create the basis for change, quickly. If an organisation is in a crisis, staying afloat is the priority. Sometimes this isn't grasped fully as it's a hard message to swallow and share. Many leaders wish they’d used the term crisis earlier. When no-one is happy with the status quo, they don’t believe change can succeed and it can take two years to understand the extent of it. Take from Greek philosophy - logos (evidence), pathos (the appeal to emotion) and ethos (trust and credibility).
  2. Have a clear sense of purpose - aspiration and powerful aims. Aspire to be the best.
  3. Surround yourself with great people who share that sense of purpose. Accept that a third of new hires won’t work. Be completely frank. Learn that references count for more than interviews. Many people also struggle with 360 feedback, they find it uncomfortable, but the leadership layer is vital, especially to work together as a team.
  4. Minimise complexity - there is such value in simplicity.
  5. Resilience - single most important attribute for a leader. They don’t teach it at Harvard, but it is so important and it trumps intelligence every time. It is lonely to lead, but creating support networks are really important. People always underestimate how long these things can take. To do so you need to be both patient and impatient. Raise the game, be urgent, but recognise it takes time. Machiavelli said there is nothing more difficult than to create a new order of things, it is the foundation of confidence and determination. Leaders don’t have all the answers - so showing humility is important. Organisations know the truth, it’s up to leaders to ask the questions to find the right answers. Would like to achieve authority and humility. Humour is also important, as is humanity. “Try and be a good bloke” and never underestimate the power of a well delivered and heartfelt thank you.
  6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk less, listen more. Develop an external facing narrative, shift perception, from which other things will flow. Milk the achievements for all they are worth.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hard Sun - Damp squib - BBC Drama in a bit of a mess

By far the best output from BBC Drama at the moment are the trailers. I was completely lured in by the promise of a pre-apocalyptic crime thriller, Hard Sun, but it has been possibly the worst drama series I've seen on the BBC for years, even worse than the remake of Survivors and right down there with last year's execrable Undercover. Badly acted, preposterously scripted, overly lingering on London landmarks and needlessly violent. In fact needless sums it all up rather well. It's Spooks meets Line of Duty with none of the cleverness of either.

Similarly McMafia looked immense in the trailer, it was even quite promising throughout the first two episodes, but has sadly descended into something of a predictable rhythm as we hit the half way mark. The best things about it are its internationalism - the Russian actors, no expense spared on the global locations and the source material of Misha Glenny's factual analysis of globalised crime. The weaknesses are what they do with it all when they've got there. Comparisons have been made with last year's sizzling Le Carre adaptation The Night Manager which kept the tension high throughout with a clarity of motive and that raw sensation of lust and attraction. When you find yourself wondering which is the most dynamic female British character - choosing the compliance manager in a hedge fund, and not the ethical fund manager girlfriend - you know there's a problem somewhere.

Other TV critics have pointed out the grand scale of these projects, and the projection of international place, is both a burden and an asset (Private Eye's excellent TV Eye, notably). I find myself worrying now that Sky Atlantic's forthcoming Britannia, starring David Morrissey, will be an attempt at replicating Taboo, but in Roman Britain. Drama by numbers, it seems that if  something works once, then the formula gets used to death, to the point where the one thing that has always made BBC Drama good is no longer present; originality and the capacity to surprise.

Friday, January 05, 2018

On the Brink - Simon Hughes' North West football journey reviewed

Over the course of the last five turbulent football seasons it's been at times a humbling and humiliating experience as a Blackburn Rovers supporter. True, in any sporting situation there are always winners and losers, that fortunes of clubs ebb and flow.  But for some fans the pain and disappointment is made worse by their clubs falling into the hands of criminals and greedy charlatans.

I like to think I've always been able to spare a thought for the plight of other fans and how the distribution of money is a huge missed opportunity to create something amazing and of a real common good. In the 1980s I was active in the Football Supporter's Association which was moderately successful in giving fans a voice they didn't have back then.

Simon Hughes takes us on a journey around the North West from Carlisle to Manchester and many points in between. He speaks to owners, players, managers, of clubs from the heights of the Premier League to little Droylsden and Barrow and including insights into real grass roots football (which isn't the same as the Academy system, contrary to what Sir Trevor Brooking thinks). I really appreciated the richness of each and every story, wincing at times at what people put themselves through. But I was also slightly jealous that in my own time as a business journalist, covering this exact same patch, I didn't use my access and contacts to do something similar; but grateful nevertheless that Simon has used his position at the Independent to do this.

On balance I'm pleased that the most head-spinning, disgraceful act of larceny in recent North West football history isn't included. I refer of course to the plundering of Blackburn Rovers by Jerome Anderson and Kentaro and the "ownership" of the Venky's. I say I'm pleased because it made me realise there is more to my love of football than the pre-occupations of my own team in the third division. Yes, I have every right to feel hurt and wounded, but so too do supporters of pretty much every club featured in this book. It also raises some fundamental questions of society and how we raise children to play the game. The chapter on Fletcher Moss Juniors in Manchester is particularly poignant.

I genuinely worry too about how one-eyed so much coverage of football has become. I don't have the time or the inclination to pore over the details of the opposition like I used to, I enjoy listening to Jim Bentley and John Coleman on BBC Radio Lancashire Sport, but I only really get emotionally triggered by the interview with the Rovers boss.

It can be an uncomfortable read at times, but it's ultimately optimistic, because it captures a passion so well and I'd heartily recommend this work of real dedication.

Available from DeCoubertin Books.