Sunday, April 29, 2018

We had joy, we had fun, we had a season in League One

In our darkest hour, we vowed to thee, my Rovers, that we would support our club in the hostile and unfamiliar terrain of League One. And we have.

Best place to visit: Shrewsbury. I like Shrewsbury, it's a really smart centre, decent places to eat and drink and though it's a hike from the stadium to the station, it's a more pleasant stroll than some of the other places we visited. And me and Rachel had a great pre-match catch up with our friend Father Tony McGrath.

Worst train journey: going to Peterborough away was like my morning commute stretched into three hours; hot, crowded, cramped, and never ending. Coming back in a great mood it started well enough as we were sat with Tony Leake, the former referee, then we got to Nottingham where we were joined by idiot Bolton fans, then Sheffield where noisy pissed-up Preston joined the party. I'm seriously too old for that crap.

Best away end atmosphere: so many contenders for this, Doncaster, Blackpool, Bury and Rochdale were all bouncing. But maybe because it was the distance involved and the constant noise, and the positive support throughout, I think Peterborough away was when it felt brilliant to be part of a fanbase that was connected to an improving team. Which brings us to...

Best performance: Nick Hornby's theory is that winning 3-2 is the best ever result because of the emotional journey, especially if the other team score first, and so Peterborough away proved. The second half spell, crowned by the sweeping move which led to the goal of the season from Dack was magic.

Most ashamed to be a Rovers fan: some berk shouting "MK Dons" at Wimbledon is just embarrassing, but being kettled with the Blackburn EDL at Bradford was a grave mistake. Having to walk to the match alongside people who should be locked up was truly depressing. The racism was disgusting, the wanton violence from scrawny scrotes who couldn't punch their way out of a wet paper bag was pathetic, but the looks of horror from the police and ordinary members of the public in Bradford city centre was truly shaming.

Best pre-match scoff: a few contenders here, but The Inn on the Green in Bristol with my pal Neil Tague was decent bar grub. Best take away was a massive piece of fish at Fleetwood, slightly edging it over cockles on Southend pier.

Best stadium: The stadiums in this division aren't great, if I'm honest. Including Ewood I've been to 20 grounds this season, 8 of them for the first time. Many are identikit new boxes on the edge of town like Scunthorpe, Walsall, Shrewsbury and Northampton. Or attempts at modernisation that create a mish mash of styles like at Bradford, Bristol Rovers, Peterborough and Fleetwood. The other failing of grounds at this level is the optimistic design. Swathes of empty seats in towering stands like at Coventry, Blackpool, Wigan and, ahem, Ewood, aren't great either. But for the proximity to the centre, a great view and a decent atmosphere, the best League One ground is New York Stadium, Rotherham.

Best station to ground signage thanks to visiting supporters trail of crude drawings on snow sprinkled car windscreens? Definitely Wimbledon, where every other car from Norbiton station to Kingsmeadow had been adorned with either a "BRFC" or a cock and balls. Thanks, lads. Which brings me to...

Worst ground, Kingsmeadow, the temporary home of Wimbledon isn't fit for purpose, as I said at the time. Best of luck on your journey back to Wimbledon, chaps.

Most shithouse team: Northampton Town, home and away, but especially away. Frustrating, hard to play against and celebrated a point like they'd won the league.

Best performance by a former player: Jack Byrne for Oldham was more Richie Smallwood than Richie Smallwood and more Peter Whittingham than him. A crime we never got the best from him. Terrific player.

Best team we played: I've been surprised how athletic and how fit most teams are at this level and no game has been a breeze, whatever the result. The main difference is that mistakes are more plentiful than the Championship, but for me the team that asked the most questions of us on the road was Scunthorpe.

Coldest: Blackpool was absolutely freezing.

Wettest: Rochdale.

Hottest Bovril: Rochdale, scalded hands.

Best cheeky diversion for one of life's delights: The Brick Lane Beigel Bakery after Southend.

Game I'm glad I didn't go to: the trip to Gillingham sounded dire, both times.

Game I wish I had gone to: I only missed six aways and three of them were midweek night matches, I refuse to go to Milton Keynes and had other plans for Charlton (I know). Plymouth was a stretch and the night matches at Gillingham, Portsmouth and Oxford just weren't practical. But I really think that win at Portsmouth was another positive turning point and I was gutted not to be there to see it.

Best flag day: We only had one outing for the flag at Doncaster (above). I sort of considered the pithy and curt "how does it feel to treat me like you do?" as a direct cock at the club in general and the owners in particular, so it's been folded up in a bag since Brentford last season. It wasn't until recently that I found myself listening to the song from which it comes (New Order's Blue Monday), that I reckoned you could view it another way. To "treat me" like you do. And we have been treated. Dack's magic, Charlie's leadership and his goals, the King of Ewood rarely giving the ball away, Danny Graham's poaching. It has been a treat.

Best thing about this season: Yes, winning again is great. But football is nothing without the fans. It's been a real blast to be fair. So thank you to you all for your contribution to the good times on the road this season: Robin Sager and Sam Taplin, Dave Smith, Mushtaq Khan, Andy Currie and Alex, Baz Dootson, Matt Dunham, Neil Tague, Stuart Shaw, Ian Herbert, Linz Lewis, Mikey Delap, Stuart Grimshaw and Matthew, Kamy, Jim Wilkinson, David Robinson, Kevin Bradley, Paul Oldrieve, Tony Leake, Danny Davis, Andrew Stirrup, Ian and Jan Currie, Andrew Currie, Matthew Currie, James Barrow, Tony Brierley, Steven Lindsay, Mike Kendal, Alec Craig, Trevor Curson, David and Pam Southworth, to all the Rovers fans who we've had a natter with on trains, concourses, stations, pubs and podcasts and most of all to my fantastic lads who've been on this trip with me, Joe and Louis.

Next weekend: Fortress Ewood?

Friday, April 27, 2018

A few thoughts on the local elections in Marple South and High Lane Ward

Here's a bit of a summary of my thoughts on the local council elections in my ward. It started with some tweets I rattled off in frustration at what was landing on my doormat, I hope I'm relaying the sentiment.

"Good grief local politics is so very shabby. Horrible race to the bottom to oppose speed bumps. Has no-one the courage to stand up for road safety? Dog whistle, dog dirt politics at its worst."

So started a tweet on Sunday morning, that became a thread and a bit of a rant. Sparked as it was by a truly appalling Liberal Democrat leaflet. It cut to the heart of everything awful about local politics. Jumping on bandwagons, lack of nuance, failing to lead, saying anything at all to get an angle.

At my snarkiest I summarised my disgust thus: “Yes, I went into politics to really make a difference. I got rid of some speed bumps. Saved the suspension on some boy racer’s Subaru. Three children died, mind, but it’s a price worth paying to get elected.”

But it also brought me back to what I think the role of a local political representative is. Being elected should be about leading a community, not following or reflecting back the supposed popular will. And claiming local credentials as the NUMBER ONE reason to vote for someone is beyond laughable. Yes, when I stood in an election I told my story. People have a right to know, but THIS! This is treating the electorate like fools. A BIG reason to vote for him? No, Colin. You had three goes and that’s your best?

Sure, all politics is local. But it also doesn’t have to be parochial. And so I've also nothing but derision for Liberal Democrat rubbish about the Burnham Tax.

Then the Tory leaflet arrives.

I'll be honest, I'm not thrilled about their stance on the green belt and speed bumps, but at least they explain their alternative. As a piece of political communication it is very effective. You get ten "positive reasons" to vote for them with strong visual indicators. I'm not surprised at this, one of their existing councillors, Kenny Blair, is probably the best local councillor I've ever had represent me; smart, considerate and dedicated.

We delivered the first Labour leaflet for the candidate, Chris Wallis, a guy I really like. Local politics needs enterprising, popular, funny, energetic people like him.

But I'll be honest, the more Labour nationally frame this as an endorsement of an alternative government, the less inclined I am to vote for them. The more this is about the make-up of a competent and forward looking Labour council in Stockport Town Hall, then I'm happy.

But when it's amateurs against professionals out there, you just have to ask yourself who you'd want on your side as your local representatives. 

V is for Victory

The Friends of Rose Hill station are delighted to announce that, following all of our efforts, the 17.34 from Piccadilly has been reinstated to run into Rose Hill instead of Marple in the upcoming new timetable.

"Through Northern, Network Rail are offering the service to Rose Hill until 31st August with discussions ongoing as to a proposal after that with the train running to Rose Hill as well as the Work Train. This would result in the return service being retimed earlier. Let’s hope that a satisfactory permanent solution will follow."

This is a real victory for common sense and a massive tribute to the power of small groups of dedicated people who can take on distant bureaucracies.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Save me, from the makers of desperate TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Still upbeat after clash of the Rovers at Bristol

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Northern Rail goes all Kafka on us (updated)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 08, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 06, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

New era for New Charter - building the Northern Powerhouses

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 01, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Good Friday - a timely revisit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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