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.