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.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Wanted: big ideas for troubled times

While Brexit has been the all absorbing policy challenge that seems to have proved too much for the very people who campaigned for it, for the rest of us, life goes on.

In pursuit of this, the third edition of our magazine of ideas and provocation has rolled off the presses in time for the new term and the party conference season.

Usually this is a time where fresh ideas are debated and new policies get an airing. We can but hope this time, but the chances are it'll be more fractious back-biting.

When I joined Manchester Metropolitan University I was keen for the MetroPolis think-tank to project good work as effectively as possible. One way of doing that is to find a platform to shout about our achievements. I still think a well-designed magazine is a great way to do that.

The magazine, featuring Trump, first confronted the notion that truth and evidence was whatever suited you. the second, with crayons, that a visionary politician was drawing the outline, but there's an opportunity to colour the detail.  The third was imbued with the spirit of Emmeline Pankurst, who worked in the building where MetroPolis is based.

Putting this third edition together was a real eye-opener and a reminder of what the team have achieved in a short time. Seminars with MPs of the calibre of Liz Kendall, Angela Rayner, Jim McMahon, Jake Berry and Mike Kane. It's all here. Our first The Challenge Of… lecture series,  where Sir Andrew Cahn forecast that the United Kingdom will be asking for a pick and mix approach in the final deal separating out issues like fishing, aviation and financial services that would be unlikely to commend itself to our negotiating partners.

But also in a year of milestones there are frequent reminders of the profound social shifts taking place all around us. Take the upheaval on Britain’s High Streets, where pubs and shops are closing at a time when demand for land for housing and for social spaces is growing. Or the 70th anniversary of the formation of the NHS, where a system designed for one era is struggling to resource itself and organise itself in an era of wider public knowledge, experience of conditions and the very fact that people live longer. Or the centenary of women achieving the vote.

There will soon be a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in the centre of Manchester, just a short walk to the site of the Peterloo massacre. Remembering these dates and everything they represent is enormously important, but even more vital is the challenge we all face to do things in a more inclusive, open and participatory way. There’s a huge sensitivity for policy makers to address people’s lives as they are lived, where they are lived and not directed as a social solution for the activists and campaigners. Devolution presents the opportunity to do something other than create more "layers of they".

We hope this magazine provides some stimulus and a showcase of the work we’re involved in and are very excited by. Drop me a message if you'd like to talk about what we do, see a magazine, or come to one of our future events.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A holiday in Estonia - where people dress in black

I don't think I've sat in a political conference before, enjoyed listening to a speaker and thought 'I'd like to go there on holiday'. But it was listening to Arto Aas, an Estonian MP and former minister, that sparked a real interest in the former Soviet state.

Arto was speaking at Andy Burnham's Digital Summit in Manchester last December, a really stimulating conference full of ideas and smart thinkers. A local Manchester perspective from Chris Maguire is here, and a more political take on it is here, from Richard Angell. Both convey very well the energy generated by his talk and huge interest in Estonia that Arto sparked.

It was good to get a perspective from someone from somewhere with such ambition. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Estonia has forged a completely new identity, joining the European Union and NATO, building stronger links with the Nordic countries and making a giant leap forward towards being a modern digital state.

I had a vague idea I'd be able to replicate our tour of western European cities last summer, by zipping through the Baltic states. Unfortunately it isn't as simple as that, as Matthew Engel explained in his Estonian odyssey as part of his excellent tour of Europe series for the New Statesman. The trains between the Baltic states are still Soviet-era, and the flights from the North of England are pretty much non-existent. If you think about it, there are vanishingly few reasons to do so: Tallinn has taken itself off the stag circuit and precious few Estonians have sought the path to a 'better life' in Britain. Instead we flew to Helsinki - itself a great city to visit and spend a day or two - then caught a ferry across the Baltic. It was all pretty seamless, technically and culturally, the people looked similar and had a cool and precise aura. I’ve thought that too when I’ve met visiting delegations of FinTech specialists from Nordic countries in Manchester. I can tell the Finns and Estonians from the Swedes and Danes. And between the cities, there was less of a difference the two than between ,say, Manchester and Edinburgh, or London.

Flaneuring around the old part of Tallinn was great. There were loads of groovy coffee shops, quirky museums and cute squares to hang out in. I was gutted the Museum of the Occupations was closed for refurbishment when we were there, and it’s almost a reason to return another time. The national museum of Estonia placed it all in a long context, but the former KGB cells were a brutal reminder of how much Estonia's history is tortured and steeped in suffering.Yet the character of confidence and fierce pride now is all the more remarkable.

For me the highlight was the Telleskivi part of the city (pictured), a collection of refurbished warehouses and railways sheds, populated with food stalls, a market and funky offices for tech start-ups. It was like Manchester’s Sharp Project, with a Borough Market and an Affleck’s. But the vibe had something more than just a hipster hangout; Estonia is also a deadly serious place for business. Skype was invented there and the profits from the sale invested in Estonia’s latent venture capital industry.

Culturally, we saw the spaces where the Estonians love to gather and sing, but not any actual singing. Our time there coincided with the World Cup, so I watched England beat Colombia in a hotel with my non-football supporting son who had more in common with the rest of the residents - marked indifference. So go, take it in. One of most intriguing places I've been to, in turn both inspirational and modest. Not only a brave country with a tough past, but somewhere with such a bold grasp of the future.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

People define places and people value style



This is the video arising out of our recent Vibrant Economy event where we looked at how places can thrive and find new purpose.

My pals at Influential Communications pulled it together and made a very fine job of it.

In this short film some of the participants offer reflections on what they have learnt during their careers in property, retail and academia – led by the entrepreneur Nick Johnson, whose inspired reimagining of Altrincham Market as an independent food and drink destination has won widespread acclaim. In his career Nick Johnson has taught at Yale, chaired Marketing Manchester and served as a commissioner for Chartered Association of Building Engineers. He was a director of the developer Urban Splash for 15 years before taking the plunge with his vision for his home town. What I love is the break with the orthodoxy from Nick Johnson, who I have to say, was absolutely magnificent on the night.

He's been involved two different phases of change in the way the public use buildings and prioritise space - which he talks about in the video. While, the last 20 years have seen a complete transformation of UK regional cities, with decades of industrial decline replaced by flourishing regeneration schemes and booming popularity, there's still a long way to go. Our regional centres have progressed beyond the best hopes of civic leaders in the 1970s and 1980s but many of those mitigating solutions have contributed to new problems.

What Nick has priortised now is shaping places based on how people want to interact. That's the way Altrincham Market and Mackie Mayor market hall are structured. Unreserved seating, everyone piling in together, an open source and uncurated space. And a pleasant place to try new food. I don't wholly buy the argument that he's broken with the past commitment to design excellence. There's an unconscious aesthetic around both places that probably comes from habit on Nick's part as much as anything, and even if you do place people's needs and behaviours at the centre the love of somewhere that feels good helps to build that emotional connection to a place.

All of this is incredibly pertinent to my own home patch of Marple and to Stockport. To Marple, it's about understanding what the people who live there need. While the challenge is to achieve what Altrincham has done, while appreciating the very different set of circumstances and demographic.

Anyway, I'm on the video as well, talking about the view from my window of my old student halls.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

No Good Deed by John Niven reviewed

I can't believe it's been over four years since I last read and reviewed John Niven's Single White Male, his more thoughtful, though no less observant follow up to the debauchery of Kill Your Friends. Such was the familiarity and accessiblity of his writing that it felt like getting back in touch with an old pal.

Well, not quite a reunion with the sting in the tale of his latest book, No Good Deed. Writer Alan Grainger bumps into Craig Carmichael on the streets of Soho. Homeless and hopeless after blowing his success as a rock musician his life is in contrast to Alan, who has done OK for himself in a profession where luck has as much to do with it as talent. Slowly, the hierarchies of their childhood days in Ayrshire emerge, eventually and literally floating to the surface from the deepest wells of a badly cared for septic tank. Close behind is Craig's capacity for destruction, though not just his but that of Alan and all he holds dear.

It's a painful and troubling tale, a reminder why I have a feeling in my own sensitive bowel at the thought of school re-unions, but also feel extremely blessed to have the friends I have.

I've had my Niven itch scratched recently with my belated discovery of Chris Brookmyre. But as I said four years ago, about his last book, this is his best book yet and evidence of a writer getting better and better.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A state of flux - and politics is actually the least interesting change going on

A few weeks ago I went to an excellent discussion about our new political landscape, featuring two of the finest journalists working today - Jen Williams and John Harris - and some top drawer political scientists, including Rob Ford and Maria Sobolewska from the University of Manchester.

They were all brilliant on how polarised and dense our politics has become, describing the shift in social attitudes that political research around Brexit has exposed. But ever since I've been mulling over what was discussed and how it affects everything else beyond politics.

The World Cup has done something similar, forced us to reconsider our relationship with England. Not a nation state, but a football team that represents a stateless nation. As Matt Forde says in the i, it also thrust forward a team of such 'diversity, dignity and talent' that it had to stand for something to unite us. The manager even grasped for the bigger picture when we said how much pain and division blighted the country. 

As a starting point, if you accept that the vote to Leave the European Union was a narrow vote against things as they were, then there must be a whole lot more going on. It seems to me to be a culture entirely defined by what you are against rather than for a programme of change. But change occurs in many different ways, shaped by human behaviour and choices. As William Hague said recently, actually when you step outside of politics the rest of the world is in colour. Viewing these profound social schisms purely through the optics of politics and voting intention is possibly the least interesting exposition of this change, especially as the political paralysis seems to satisfy no-one and even fails to address the acute policy challenge of Brexit.

Where do these changing societal attitudes, beliefs, emotions and values play out? The voting intentions have been important - seismic, epic, plate shifting - but they may not be so for a few more years.

I'm not sure I totally buy into the idea that Britain is retreating into political tribes, where people vote based on their attitudes and feelings. I genuinely don't think they think about politics that much to deserve being defined as tribal. But something is shifting. The movement from the cities and into the suburbs, making some more places a bit more like inner London, and others defiantly less so.

We're also confronted with a degree of complexity we haven't really got to grips with yet. What attitudes form towards people from other countries, be they economic migrants, refugees, or someone who can only be identified in a mundane daily encounter as 'foreign'? A sliding scale of acceptance and dislike to a range of ethnic groups ranging from Chinese (good) to Somalis (bad) troubles me. It's where the Windrush scandal ends up, it's what happens when a hostile environment is played out by bureaucrats with targets - they go for the easiest first.

What about other everyday behaviours that these attitudes and feelings may alter? How people drive, how they behave on public transport. There's something divisive and angry about cyclists that shouldn't be so joyless. What about consumer purchasing habits? Why do young people hoard so much less? Are we really buying more ethical products or cutting down on single-use plastic? Do people really wash down industrial grade skunk with Fair Trade Coffee? I'm not quite sure where attitudes towards starting a business are these days, or to family. Our household pays rather more attention than most to wider social attitudes to education, but they too are wrapped up so many other social norms.

So too do the measurement of social virtues we would consider to be good: manners, contributing time to good causes, giving to charity, driving habits, tolerance of criminal behaviour.

What consent is granted to institutions, professionals and power structures? Many people have a disconnected relationship with where they work, others are loyal, supported and motivated. And according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey - "Despite ongoing labour market change, the British public continues to perceive there to be a dignity in work, with intrinsic value placed upon employment that goes beyond simple monetary compensation." Generationally and class wise, people want different things, feel differently and have varying degrees of hope. Who doesn't want for respect, pride, value and and a shared mission in what they do with their life?  

The same applies to business confidence. I’ve always been fascinated by the corporate zeitgeist. It affects credit decisions, risk appetite, whether to give someone a job or not. But despite the erosion of trust in business, helped by Philip Green, the other Philip Green, and Mike Ashley, business is proving pretty resilient and public attitudes towards business in general haven't turned. 

This starts to get us into whole areas that you could make an attempt to politicise by blaming cuts to public spending - such as trust in the police, but it quickly gets into really complex areas around attitudes to vigilantism and hostility to the justice system. Read the comments on any crime story, any Facebook group about local issues and it's a cauldron. Isn't that partly what lies at the heart of why the Free Tommy Robinson nonsense has gained traction? On one hand is a pitiful misunderstanding of his breach of licence, but also a fury about the grooming gangs, the insolent defiance of the perpetrators and a perception that they've got away with it. But equally, there are many that fall below the two crucial markers of British values - "don't take the piss" and "don't be a dick". 

The England performance in the World Cup, like the unifying response to the Manchester terror attacks, give us some cause for comfort. But we need to fall in love with our country again. And the more things we can agree on about what that country looks and feels like, the better chance we'll have. The prospects of politics doing that are more remote than ever. But until then, we scratch around.



Monday, July 09, 2018

A tourist in my own youth - a great day trip to Edinburgh

Edinburgh has so many good memories. Day trips, the Festival, and when our pal Dave Crossen lived in the city, we had weekends, New Years and I even had a week long holiday up there.

Yesterday we added another as we enjoyed a day out for the football, watching Blackburn Rovers win 2-0 at Paul Hanlon's testimonial against Hibernian at Easter Road, another new ground I'd not been to before. You can read very little into friendly matches, but Scottish football must be in a bit of a mess if that was the fourth best team in the country. It seems to me the SPL is basically Man United (Celtic), Leeds (Rangers), Forest (Aberdeen), Birmingham City (Hibs), Ipswich (Hearts) and half a dozen random teams from League One. But the city was the attraction yesterday, glorious and welcoming. Stunning to be around and it seems to be growing in self-confidence and modernising since the last time I visited.

Hopefully that's something to do with the efforts of Paul Lawrence, once of this parish, who invited us along to West Princes Gardens to see a delightful new fountain.

It was a great trip up and a rubbish journey home as we had cancellations and delays which stretched the day out. But you can't fault a day with the people you love, deep fried Mars bars, City Cafe, Leith Walk and the Royal Mile.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Building vibrant places - from 1989 in Perth to 2018 in Manchester

I'm seeing a mate from Australia next week so found myself sifting through a magazine I edited over there in the 1980s.

And as I promote and hustle to get people to come to an event on how our cities stay exciting and fresh and vibrant, I'm taken back to those days.

Towards the end of my time there I worked for a bar/club called The Freezer in downtown Perth, doing the PR, working the door and even appearing in an advert.

They were great times. But my best memory of working front of house was a couple of old Aussie rockers bowling up and asking what time the band were on. When told that the "Wayne Lewis" on the poster was a DJ they said they weren’t paying five bucks to listen to some guy playing records and could do that in their living room. Jog on, lads.

I learnt a lot then about network marketing, the importance of opinion formers and the wisdom of crowds. Creating events that have that sense of jeopardy, that things are going to happen, that you don't want to miss out on. It mustn't be a call to a passive experience, but an active one.

We created demand for places by attracting and exciting the people who created energy and ideas.

So when I tell you that we've got a great guest list for you to come and discuss with Nick Johnson - who might reveal how he animated Alty Market and the Mackie Mayor market hall - then you're going to want to come along aren't you?

It's after work on the 12th of July at Manchester Met University, register here.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Twelve of the best - a lifetime of live music

When Alexander the Great was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds left to conquer. On June the 7th 2018, two months before my 52nd birthday, at a venue called the Troxy in London's East End, I watched one of my favourite bands of all time run through an emotional journey of their catalogue. Matt Johnson's The The represented the last living band I've craved to see live, but until that night never had the chance.

I've seen them all now. A lifetime of going to live music, seeing terrible punk bands at Preston Warehouse, the very best of them at Lancaster University (as described in this book here), taking coaches to Leeds and Manchester, sleeping on stations, going to gigs at stadiums, student unions, arenas, pokey venues, concert halls and churches. I can take a great deal from each one.

Obviously there are bands I've loved who I never got to see - The Beatles, The Clash, Nirvana, Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys. I remember crying with despair when my Mum and Dad told me, aged 13, that I couldn't go on the coach to Blackburn to see the Damned, yet I wouldn't cross the road to go to a punk gig now.

It's impossible to say which ones are the best performances, because live music has so many moving parts. It's also very rare these days that a band will bomb on stage, though Glasvegas were truly awful as I said at the time. But like trips to watch football it's as much about the occasion as the spectacle; the friends, the context, the circumstances, the whole day.

So, here are twelve of the best in roughly a date order...

The Jam - I saw them four times in my teens, obviously. All were amazing occasions, edgy, raucous, highly charged. I loved them at Carlisle Market Hall in July 1981 the best I think, partly because I went with my Penrith cousin John Warwick, but it seemed to mean so much to the audience there who had been there all day. We even went to see the sound check. The Jam connected with their audience like no other band I've experienced. Even seeing two thirds of them in 2007 at Preston still made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle.

The Teardrop Explodes - Lancaster University, 1981 - I think on balance, this was my favourite of all the concerts we were lucky enough to experience on our doorstep as kids. They were promoting the difficult and more melancholy second album, Wilder, which never quite reached the heights of their debut Kilimanjaro, but I loved it all the same (teenagers, eh?). I was lucky too to have an older friend, David "Baz" Baron, who inspired my eclectic love of music and had a wonderful dry humour. We went up early and took in the sound check, even meeting Julian Cope and Troy Tate. I was proper knocked for six when I learned that David had died in his early thirties.

The Pogues - a tremendous live experience where the audience always made the occasion. I think I probably enjoyed seeing them at Manchester International 2 in 1986 the best, a proper barmy night.

David Bowie - I saw the Duke at Maine Road, Manchester, 1987, a surprise for my 21st birthday from my girlfriend at the time - it was my first stadium gig and the first with all kinds of audio visual trickery and lighting. It blew me away visually as well as musically and was a true work of genius, even if the Glass Spiders stuff was pretty crap.

Prince, Earl's Court, 1992 - quite simply the best musical performance I've ever seen. I went with my Australian pals, including Stu McGavin (RIP) who always chased the big moments in life. For energy, atmosphere, and the sheer thrill of watching him play the solo on Purple Rain was something to behold.

Oasis, the best I saw them was in America, when they were far better musically away from home than they ever were during the adoration of the laddish 90s. I'd grown tired of them by the time of Knebworth and Maine Road. But in one of life's great happy coincidences, I was in the US for work in 1996 and they were playing at the Bill Graham auditorium in San Francisco. Me and my sales manager Michael Mullaney went along to see a bit of history, they went out with Black Grape that night and bizarrely cancelled their next show in Los Angeles due to ill health.

Manic Street Preachers at the Town and Country, Kentish Town, 1996. I loved the Manics through this time, the aching tragedy of their story, but the energy of their live performances added something very special to a very accomplished crop of songs on Everything Must Go. I first saw them supporting Oasis in Cardiff as they returned to playing after Richey Edwards' disappearance. I've  seen them in Arenas since, but this was a great sized venue. It wasn't the London gig on that tour where Kylie joined them on stage for Little Baby Nothing, but Liam Gallagher got on the stage at the end and jumped around. Idiot.

U2 - I've seen them three times, pretty much in ten year intervals and they have got better each time in correlation to the comfort and conditions in which I watched them. First was at a rain sodden Milton Keynes Bowl supported by REM in 1985, dodging flying bottles of what I thought was stale beer. A decade or so later at Cardiff Arms Park for the Achtung Baby tour, which took five hours to get home to Bristol, then in Manchester in 2005 dancing to them knocking out Vertigo from the luxury of an executive box as guests of Manchester City FC. A class act.

Elbow - I don't think I could ever see Elbow in a standard venue after seeing them in very special situations. Either with The Halle orchestra at the Bridgewater Hall for my 40th, or at a special gig at St John's church in Hackney in 2011 which Mencap invited us to as a thank you for raising up to £40K a year through the Y Factor events I was involved in with Jeremy Smith, sometime financier, and musical genius with Barclay James Harvest. I took my best pal John Dixon, who has always introduced me to great music, these included. I never tire of One Day Like This, nor the folksy intimacy of an evening with Guy Garvey.

Amy Macdonald at the Lowry, 2012. I sort of regard Amy Macdonald as a guilty secret, but her musicianship, poise and energy are as good as anyone I've ever seen. My review at the time, said: "the set she did was perfectly constructed. New, old, stripped down acoustic versions, signature hits, even a brilliant cover of Jackie Wilson's Your Love Lifts Me Higher. She ended the set with a stirring rendition of my favourite track off her first album - Let's Start a Band - a great song even without the horns and the choir." It was also a realisation that I preferred theatres to standing in halls and arenas. And I preferred the audiences who weren’t as beery or waving mobile phones around trying to capture the moment. It’s totally an age thing.

New Order at Castlefield Bowl for my 50th. I don't know why but I'd got it into my head that New Order were no good live, so despite being one of my favourites I never made the effort to see them. In a way, it set everything up perfectly for this special day. They were blisteringly good, the venue was spectacular as well. You get close to the band wherever you are there, but we went right to the front with the pyro and the general mayhem and madness. Rachel got us these tickets for an eye-watering amount, but I still thrill thinking about it now. A perfect birthday. Seeing them at Manchester International Festival with our Louis a year later was a bonus.

And finally, as a bonus, The The at the Troxy, June 2018. As I said, it's about the occasion. I saw Matt Johnson doing a Q&A in Manchester around the release of his documentary film The Inertia Variations, with Steven Lindsay, the most prolific gig goer of my generation (Steven sorted the Troxy tickets and couldn't go. I swooped). The event that night reminded me how much I tuned in to Matt Johnson's intensity. He's an expermental artist, so I didn't know quite what to expect, but it was  a traditional tour de force, requiring a real versatility amongst his assembled band. For all it's majesty, the venue was a challenge, and I liked how he discouraged cameras, an instruction that was largely respected. Going for a Turkish with John Dixon beforehand, then strolling around this part of the East End was all part of the experience. In truth, the set had its peaks and therefore a dip of energy half way through. But just hearing This is the Day, Heartland and Lonely Planet felt like a completion.

So there we are, what a list, and still no room for more than a few who almost made the cut and for whom they delivered varying tempos of concerts of immense power, beauty and professionalism,  that I enjoyed massively: REM, Bruce Springsteen, INXS, Duran Duran, I Am Kloot, The Housemartins, Stone Roses, Radiohead, James, Neil Finn, The Cure, Squeeze, Oh Susanna, The Flaming Lips, Morrissey, Prefab Sprout, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Farm, Coldplay, Billy Bragg, Roddy Frame, Teardrop Explodes, The Specials, Madness, The Triffids, The Men They Couldn't Hang, Take That (Progress tour with the Pet Shop Boys), Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Diamond.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Why the trains are so bad - 11 reasons

As I squeeze on to my window seat, ready for the bedraggled multitudes of Romiley, Hyde and Guide Bridge to shuffle on in grave discomfort, we console ourselves that we don't live in Gorton as the train trundles in and no-one gets on. If we are able to move our elbows enough to turn the pages of our soggy Metro newspaper we will also be grateful we aren't commuting in from Wigan, Bolton and Preston. Or that we would attempt to travel at all in Cumbria.

I don't count these as blessings, or celebrate any of this. But I am pleased there's been an awakening. After feeling like I was just warbling like some eccentric uncle contesting the authenticity of the moon landings, I do feel a twinge of encouragement. Others are complaining, so I don't have to.

When I was a magazine editor, I campaigned forcefully for the Ordsall Chord - and all forms of rail infrastructure improvement. That it has been the catalyst for further problems, not eased solutions, should never be a reason to stop these improvements. There need to be more. Piccadilly station for a start.

Last week I had the good fortune to be in London, where I use the orange line. When I lived there in the 90s you just never would, it was horrible. Now, it's a high frequency service used throughout the day, connecting all parts of a bustling city. If you were looking for premises, or building a business it would be a major factor in where you'd locate.

Jonn Elledge of the New Statesman's marvellous urbanist arm, City Metric, has nailed it again. Please link here to his 11 reasons why the North's railways are in chaos.

Summary: poor planning, no investment, terrible industrial relations, more bad planning, indecision, poor stock management, the south matters more and dreadful regulation,

Friday, May 25, 2018

Sir Howard Bernstein interviewed in Met Magazine

Pic by Ade Hunter
I've interviewed Sir Howard Bernstein for the latest edition of Met Magazine, our University's very own award winning publication.

He's always a fascinating person to listen to. All of the accolades that have come his way over the last two decades are deserved. His vision, his workrate and his sheer determination to push Manchester ever onwards has been unstinting. I've interviewed him before in front of an audience on a few occasions, and done a couple of sit down profile interviews. One was just ahead of the Commonwealth Games in 2002, one of his greatest triumphs. The other was weeks before the referenda on a congestion charge in 2008, one of his rare defeats. Both are in my portfolio, if you’d like a copy, let me know by email.

I interviewed Howard in the offices of Deloitte, where he now has a base. It was a stark contrast to having a cup of tea in his old suite in the Town Hall, and so was a slightly strange experience. His old office was always full of cues and reminders, awards on the mantelpiece, a framed City shirt, two seats from the old stadium and a firm sense that this was his habitat. The same also applied when we'd have lunch at Wings, surrounded by signed plates of Manchester's great and the good and plenty of passing friends.

But the more you think about the lack of a sense of place in a 4th floor meeting room in Spinningfields, the more you focus on the challenges of a city still gripping big systemic problems. But then there's the very presence of the building itself, a part of town that barely existed when we first broke bread in 2001. He has always pushed the terms of what we should be talking about. The kind of city Manchester wanted to be, the notion that if you believed the work was ever finished, then the very idea of Manchester itself was finished. He is the ultimate progressive.

My agenda was very specifically to avoid the past and focus on the future. And as the headline reveals (right) I wasn't disappointed.

We covered a lot of ground - but a golden thread that ran through everything was the importance of partnerships to raise the ambition of Manchester. These apply equally in sport, the creative sector, devolution and housing.

I'm pleased with the end result. I hope people like it. But to be honest the whole of the magazine is quality. Covering a ton of things we're working on at Manchester Metropolitan University to make the city more successful, more tolerant, and more inspiring than ever.

Just a quick final point. I just can't stay away from magazines. A blog or a digital snippet is like a snack. A well put together magazine is still a work of beauty and nourishment. I can send you a copy if you'd like to be added to the list, email me here.