Wednesday, May 15, 2019

How to be happy at work - a podcast discussion during mental health awareness week

Wellbeing in the workplace can drive business success and yet stress and anxiety account for millions of lost working days each year. To mark #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek one of the Manchester partners of Grant Thornton, Paul Scully, joined a fascinating and challenging discussion with Dawn Moore, HR director of Morgan Sindall Construction and Infrastructure and Professor Marc Jones of Manchester Metropolitan University about better ways of working. I was delighted to chair the discussion and share a few thoughts along the way.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Change our country - Change our politics

I'm standing in the upcoming European elections for Change UK - The Independent Group. We have an amazing opportunity to create a unifying force in politics.

There was no plan for Britain to leave the EU, there was no way for the different false promises of brexit to be fulfilled, it is a symbol of our broken politics.

I wasn't initially convinced of the case for a new referendum on our future relationship with the EU. But it's so clear that parliament can't find a way through, so the government should have the courage to put whatever deal they can pull together to a binding public vote, with the option to Remain on the ballot paper. That way, it is clear what kind of Leave deal is being offered and we can therefore make a decision with far more clarity about what we want our future relationship with the European Union to be.

But there's something else worth fighting for. The capture of Labour by the hard left, and the marginalisation of progressive traditions in the Conservative party screams for an alternative. I've wanted this to happen for a long time. This is a great moment and I look forward to campaigning for the new politics.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

The inside track on Game of Thrones

Now that I've made up for six years of Game of Thrones not being in my life, I thought I ought to share this fabulous day from earlier this year.

Our careers and employability team got Maisie Williams (Arya Stark from Game of Thrones) to come and talk to the students. She’s set up a new venture called Daisie - a sort of a social network to connect creative people with one another to encourage co-operation and collaboration on projects. Anyway, someone had to host the event and ask the questions, which was a great experience. 

She also answered loads of great probing questions from students on how to keep going, how to raise money for a tech start-up and lots about the final series of GOT.

The coverage on the University website is here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The EU flag flies in Marple - and why we get the wrong politicians

A mate who works for an MP told me over a drink the other day how much anger he gets whenever he picks up the phone. Over Brexit? I asked. "Everything," he said. Housing, parking, fly tipping, schools, cuts, immigration, everything you can think of, and plenty more you couldn't.

I'm also reading Isabel Hardman's excellent book Why We Get The Wrong Politicians - a well written and incisive gallop through the problems of our failing political system. Politics is broken, but there is still much virtue in the intentions of people who work for our politicians, as well as among the much maligned political class too.

With that in mind, I popped into the office of William Wragg MP in Marple this afternoon. I thanked his staff for all they do, keeping democracy ticking over in the best way they can. They'd arrived at work recently to find that someone had stuck Bollocks to Brexit stickers all over the windows. At best that's a pain the backside and it will have taken them a while to scrape them off, distracting them from whatever else they do. At worst it must be very unsettling in the current climate. I made the point that I fully support the views of the people who want to resist this insane Brexit and that I'm massively disappointed in William's stance on this issue, but I'm sorry for the inconvenience that this has put his staff through. They seemed OK, and grateful of a visitor who didn't want to fight.

I did so also because I did "like" a tweet that pointed out the sticker stunt, but more so because whoever did it also hung an EU flag from the sign above the door. I thought that was funny. There has to be space to disagree well, not to escalate every slight and every action into a massive outrage on social media. But these are angry, edgy times.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The best food in Stockport

Like most people who live in the outlying areas of Stockport, we don't actually go into the town centre that much. Frankly, there's very little reason to.

When we do it's for a very specific purpose, a particular shop, or the excellent Light Cinema. In fact, that is an example of a building that is so much better from the inside than the hideous carbuncle of an exterior. I'd go so far as to say it's the best cinema I've ever been to.

We popped in to Stockport today to drop Louis at work and thought we'd check out the new Produce Hall and the work that's been done to the area around the market. It has definitely improved. Today being Monday, everywhere was closed, so we'll have to have another go later in the week. But from a pure place making perspective, the progress is really noticable and we've seen enough to make us want to come back.

What it did do however was send our fizzing tastebuds in the direction of Tyros, a sensational Lebanese cafe tucked away just off Tiviot Dale.

All three of us had wraps, lamb and two kinds of chicken. The salad extras are something else though; carrots, potato salads, possibly the best hummus outside of the Middle East. The service is not just friendly, but really enthusiastic for food, the love oozes out. And it's just such good value too - £5.50 for a wrap and two sides is incredible, really.

One fabulous previous visit was to treat Paul Lawrence before he left Stockport for a new job in Edinburgh. Paul is someone with real vision and a sense of how to build a place and all the good things now happening were started on his watch.

I've heard great things about Where The Light Gets In, but also that it's a lot of money for something I probably wouldn't appreciate. I like my food, but my palate isn't delicate, my choices unrefined. I value hearty every time.

So, there's more exploring to do, but when it comes to the town centre, I'll reserve a verdict on the Produce Hall for another day, because I've had it confirmed for now that Tyros remains the best food in Stockport town centre.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Confidence is a preference for the habitual routine for match winning Rovers known as Fist Pump!

We made a late decision to head for Nottingham Forest today to watch our merry men.

A week ago I wouldn’t have backed us to get anything from another team lolling about in mid-table, like Stoke City, with a newish manager and an eye on next season.

Something clicked in midweek against Derby County though; as soon as the ball flicked over Joe Rothwell’s heel and into his accelerating path, his control connected with his decision making faculties and he clipped the ball deftly into the corner. On such margins are games won, as are tap ins and lucky bounces.

That being Rothwell’s debut goal in a season of fits and starts was significant and it made him literally fit to start this afternoon and, I say this confidently in hindsight, certain to score. His goal came in a spell of intense pressure when he found himself within the range and lashed in the sweetest of finishes. He wouldn’t have had the confidence to even try that had he not lost his goal scoring cherry on Tuesday.

We know that Player of the Season shoe-in Danny Graham scores when he wants, and he certainly wanted it again today. But after some delightful twists and the deft drop of the shoulder, everyone in the ground expected Bradley Dack to stretch the net. At that moment he was everything I ever wanted him to be, but for minutes afterwards I was ready to announce on Instagram that Bradley and I were no longer in a relationship.

I hope that miss doesn’t knock his confidence in the way his other recent setbacks have. It shouldn’t, because Dack was immense in that second half. His trickery, his intelligent passing out to Adam Armstrong, and his offering of an option to Corry Evans and Lewis Travis, were everything we missed last week.

Rovers conceded 19 fouls today. 19. Only a few of them were what you’d call industrial challenges, the kind of roughing up we frankly don’t do enough of. No, they were what our Louis calls “Conway fouls”: forced collisions by players placing themselves in harm’s way. When we do it, Charlie Mulgrew often obliges with a free kick. Forest had one shot on target out of 22, which was our other fortune today.

So, the baby elephant in the room remains Ben Brereton. I watched him on the bench in the second half and he was like a coiled spring. When he finally bounced onto the pitch he was more like Bambi on ice, unable to challenge, trap, or control, let alone score a goal against his old team and lessen the burden of that price tag. He had the nuisance presence of a goalie coming up for a corner in the 98th minute; opponents don’t really know what to do with him, neither do his team mates, more to the point. It must be unbearable to be Ben, but I can see the future opening up for him once he’s scored, the trouble is there are no easy games in the Championship, with the possible exception of relegated Bolton at home on Easter Monday. Too easy?

I thought that Dack miss, and a fluffed one-on-one by Rothwell, would cost us. It didn’t. And I’m reluctant to be overly critical of our players. They take it to heart and change behaviour as a result. Since some wag on Twitter called Elliott Bennett “a fist pumping Liam Feeney”, the trademark celebration has vanished, though so too have the wins, to be fair. He put a shift in today, even some rough stuff when needed. It was good to have that back at the end. Very good indeed.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Getting to Ewood is an effort, and today was the day I snapped

It was quite an effort to get to Ewood on time for the kick off today. We even rang ahead to put in our order with the peerless Leavers Bakery on Bolton Road, picking up and then wolfing down our motley collection of steak, potato and butter as the whistle blew to start the game against Stoke City in the glorious Lancashire sunshine. "Thanks, love, see you next season," said the lady in Leavers, reminding us that there isn't another Saturday home game.

Next season, eh?

It seems she isn't the only one thinking ahead to August. We certainly are, and with some dread. I also get the impression that's where Tony Mowbray's head is. Those references to 50 points, the talk of a transition, the purchases of players he doesn't use, wrapping them up for a special occasion.

To be blunt, come August, the only players who played any part today that I'd be happy seeing start, I mean, really happy in the sense that I'd be gutted if they left, I could count on one hand and in descending order of affection: Darragh Lenihan, Lewis Travis, Ryan Nyambe, Adam Armstrong,  and at a push, David Raya. I feel dreadfully disloyal thinking of a team without Charlie Mulgrew and Danny Graham, the absolute bedrocks and saviours of this season, but frankly, something isn't working and they are of an age. Of my favoured five, they have the potential to become top, top footballers at the highest level, they have so much more to give our club. But in a sport dominated by agents, how long before these lads start getting the word that they don't need to be struggling among this dross?

Like at Sheffield Wednesday last month, I was most disappointed for Joe Rothwell, who once again huffed and puffed without ever seizing his moment in the absence of Bradley Dack. There's a good player in there that can have an impact, but I just don't think he's a clever player in the way that Dack or Travis is. When a loose ball fell to him early on and he scuffed a clear chance, it betrayed a total lack of confidence. Or that he's just not as good as I hoped he was.

I know it's a predictable siren cry for fans to demand they try the kids when other options don't work, and clearly they aren't, but how much might John Buckley and Lewis Travis have enjoyed pitting their wits against Stoke's Joe Allen (the Welsh Xavi) and Bojan (an actual Barca prodigy)?

On the whole I didn't think Stoke were much cop, but then seeing us lose to teams that fit that description has been the story of this season. Their young manager clearly has a different idea about what kind of team he wants next term, but they're seeing this one out with a bit more grit. A rare away win seems to prove my fear that all teams lacking confidence need is a game against Blackburn Rovers.

Which brings me back to my constant niggle. Once again we seem to adapt tactics to the style of play of the opposition and let them settle in to how they want the game to go. The way Amari Bell slows up play when we have a chance to break is baffling. And if the idea that playing League One quality bruisers in the middle would give us grit, then sadly the manager has a very different view of the abilities and possibilities offered up by Bennett, Evans and Smallwood, and of why Harrison Reed warrants a place on the bench, but not to play any part.

My patience snapped today. It snapped with the players I've mentioned just now. It snapped with Mowbray too. It takes some effort for us to get to Ewood, especially as there are other things I need to do on a Saturday to make it all work, both before and after. As I sit here now, it's been a long day. And yes, of course I question whether it's worth it. Because frankly, Blackburn's a long way to go for a pie.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Business awards are now a joke

Trophy shelf at now liquidated Noir Agency
A couple of months ago I did a talk at Alliance Manchester Business School about the challenging environment for the business media.
Before that I'd written something, here, about how no-one in the press seemed to feel any kind of duty to police the boundaries of the business community.

Most of the reaction to that was that it was a bit of an enjoyable whinge about how things were so much better back in my day. Sure, I fuelled that with a few tales and I enjoyed swapping memories with a few former muckers and occasional rivals.

That wasn't my intention though. It's much more serious than a nostalgia fuelled rant. It's about the reputation of Manchester as a serious city.

I can't remember the last time I went to a business awards ceremony. Actually, I can. It was the 2017 Business Desk Awards where I presented an award as my employer sponsored the large business category. But before that? I really can't remember.

Since I stopped being involved I've given them a swerve. I also refuse to be a judge, in case anyone was thinking of asking me.

Let me say one more thing before I say what I'm about to offload. Running a business is hard. I couldn't do it. In fact I haven't. I've worked with incredibly capable people and I've seen at close hand the weight of the decisions they make. I'll say something else. The last decade has actually created a phenomenally resilient, agile, occasionally ruthless, but actually quite a brilliant generation of entrepreneurs. The fact that the turmoil of Brexit hasn't sunk the whole of the British entrepreneurial class is a testament to how good they actually are.

They deserve gold medals.

Instead they get the devalued currency of the current crop of business awards.

I'm going to pass no comment on the story of Noir, a digital agency, except to share a few facts I've discovered this evening, ignoring the off-the-scale boasting on social media and their own website. 

They incorporated in September 2016.

They filed for liquidation in March 2019, owing £62,000 to creditors, including about half that amount to HMRC. 

In the intervening period they filed micro-entity accounts.

They won the following awards: ‘Best Brand Agency’ at The Talk of Manchester Awards, ‘Startup Agency of the Year’ at UK Fast's Digital Entrepreneur Awards, as well as being listed in YENA’s Future 15.

On February the 22nd the Noir Agency tweeted a story about what winning at the Manchester Evening News Business of the Year Awards meant to them.

Seven days before that on the 15th of February, the director of the business, Anthony Logan, had signed a legal document confirming that the business was bust. Papers were then filed at Companies House on the 21st of March.

They are facts.

Pretty much everything else I've read and learned is subjective, and open to any kind of interpretation, including clients, where the staff went for an awayday, where their offices were. It's impossible at this stage to dissect fact from fiction. And that's a problem, clearly. The people who've lost money here, staff who lost jobs, HMRC who get stiffed again, suppliers getting left to make up the loss of income, all of that is bad enough.

But the multiple award wins represent something worse. The triumph of style over content. The readiness to hand over awards to a business built on nothing. What checks did anyone make? Or did they just admire the swagger? It's become a feeding frenzy, a cycle of lies. The emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

I look at this nonsense now as a parent. Would I want one of my sons to be working for people like this? Oh, but they're award-winning, they must be good.

I came across another awards event recently where one winner had only been in business for a month.
If you care about standards in the business community and what our city represents then you should make a conscious decision today to stop going to awards events and paying the stupid amount of money for a ticket. You should not enter awards, you should refuse to judge awards, stop putting them on your own branding, you shouldn't sponsor them, support them, or give them any credibility whatsoever.

This is the equivalent of a major doping scandal in the Olympic Games. Except there's no governing body, just the credibility afforded to the competitions by those who patronise them. Only if decent people boycott these discredited, ludicrous charades will they be put out of their misery. Trust me, this would be an act of mercy.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

If you are as tired of all the hate as me, choose love

Since when did you have to pick an ugly side in this culture war? The anger, the demands, the talk of civil war, uprising, hate and “yebbut” and “whataboutery”. It is possible to be sickened and saddened by Christchurch, Paris, Manchester and Sandy Hook.

You can also find it appalling that girls were groomed and abused by gangs of men from the same ethnic group, without becoming a racist. Ask Nazir Afzal, who prosecuted them.

It’s also possible to want Brexit and not be a "thick gammon racist". People are allowed another opinion. It’s not mine, but snooty isn’t a good look either.

It’s the same with the supporters of my football team, and presumably many others too. Catastrophisers versus ‘happy clappers’. I just don’t bother worrying about what anyone else says anymore. My first thought after our recent defeats is not, ‘someone is being wrong on the BRFC Chat forum, I must correct them.’

And since I started industrial scale blocking on social media, life is happier. I don’t care about what someone else says on social media, or whether someone expresses insufficient outrage for one atrocity, but not the other. It’s not about them, it’s about the innocent people going about their lives murdered in that moment of hate.

I’m on an anger diet for Lent. It’s better that way. Trust me.

Monday, April 01, 2019

I think I made a terrible mistake

In order to unwind during my campaigning in the 2015 General Election I started binge watching The Walking Dead. There was something raw and existential about a zombie apocalypse where rebuilding communities again was a constant struggle.

Like many things I did that year, I think I made a wrong choice.

I should have got stuck into Game of Thrones instead.

The Walking Dead has got stuck in a loop of ridiculous bad characters (The Governor, various roadside baddies, Negan, even Rick Grimes stopped making sense) and all played out in the same dull predictable location, despite supposedly having crossed two states. I said at the end of Season 7, here, that the structure had got dreadfully predictable, only the breaks, the premieres and the finale episodes had anything significant happen in them. It got to the point that after three pretty ropey seasons, I was on the brink of giving up for good. However, much as I've been transfixed by a huge leap in quality in season 9, almost everything new, terrifying and surprising about The Walking Dead owes a debt to Game of Thrones. In the season 9 finale, we were pretty much teased that Winter is Coming. Even the walkers in GoT are better than the Walking Dead, and that's meant to be the actual point.

While both series have drawn heavily from original source material, Game of Thrones is clearer a far superior show. The cast, the locations, the scripts, the tension, the high politics and even the moments of humour.

However, I know this now because the second stage of this terrible telly mistake is that I decided to catch up and so watched a 90 minute Game of Thrones summary and the very last episode of the last season. Partly it was after meeting Maisie Williams at an event I hosted earlier this year, but it was also after some fairly aggressive peer pressure at home.

About five minutes in to that final episode of Game of Thrones Season 7 and I realised that the whole package is better in every way and I have to say I am truly hooked. But, because I know what happens with the interweaving and over arching plots, I can’t correct my error by starting at the beginning because the surprise has gone. I'll enjoy season 8, the last one, no question. Bring it on. But I’ll literally never get that time back when I watched those lost episodes where nothing much happened between Rick Grimes and Negan and the Hilltop and the Kingdom. Never. But at least I never got into Lost.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Back in the pod - Cottonmouth Manchester

We recorded the first edition of the new format Cottonmouth Manchester podcast this month. I was chuffed to have been asked by Vaughan Allen, CEO of CityCo, and the pod host, to be one of two regular guests commenting on the news, Manchester culture, business and politics. I was doubly chuffed that alongside me would be Eve Holt, Chorlton councillor and social activist, and someone I've enjoyed working with over recent months.

The first one was pretty good, I think. I listen back and always judge it harshly, and know it could be even better. But now we know what's expected and what we're both like on the mic, then I think it's going to be great fun.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Deutschland 86 - the divided and the deplorable

We’ve just finished ten episodes of the excellent Deutschland 86, the follow up to 2016’s Cold War caper, Deutschland 83. Our hero Martin Rauch starts the series in exile in Angola, teaching German to kids, many of whom are displaced by a proxy war fought by Africans representing manipulative communist and western interests, until he is cornered back into action by his deplorable Aunt Lenora.

There are three great facets to the whole package; the acting, the script and the overall design. Because of the language (it’s in German), and the subtitles, I think I study the faces more and the expressions, the upper body leakage. The writing and story structure expertly manages to weave in real events from 1986; Chernobyl, AIDS, the Berlin nightclub bombing and the US retaliation in the bombing of Libya. But it also catches the style of the era very effectively with Mad Men style graphic titles, a sharp eye for punk fashions, especially in West Berlin, as well as big shoulder pads; all of which is complemented by snappy soundtrack, bookended each episode by the English version of Major Tom by Peter Schilling. Poignantly, just a few days after Mark Hollis died, up popped Talk Talk’s Such a Shame for the pivotal scene of one of the early African adventures.

This tale is darker, I’d say, than three years previous, where it bordered on Carry on Communism at times. The government of the DDR is even crueller and more corrupt than before. There’s certainly no playing it for laughs in how the Stasi treat the Fischer family.

Cynicism abounds and no-one really tells the truth about what they really want and what their purpose is. Everyone’s a bit of a shit, and a bit of dupe at the same time. The ending seems at once both hopeless and desperately sad, the ever presence of a wall that divides families, a people, a country. The hope however is in how their lives play out in Deutschland 89.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

February in Berlin - no blog, no cry

February went by in a bit of a blur. So much so I didn't update this blog much. I've been a bit poorly, but nothing serious, I've moved offices at work and started a different role which I'm still getting my head around. I'm also moving into the writing phase on my MA and feel I'm wasting time if it's not about that. But there's something more. As I said on a Twitter thread today, I forever find myself stuck in a perpetual state of repetition. Whatever new outrage emerges about Brexit, Labour, the Catholic Church, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester or Marple, I feel I've said it all, or that all the things I care about seem to be combusting at once. 


I said in April 2018 that Labour can't get rid of anti-semitism, because Jeremy Corbyn doesn't understand the problem, or see it.

I said in September 2016 that I didn't fear a Labour split, but I actively want it to happen. That the party is wrong, nasty and lost to the far left. Same rules apply.

This month a group of Labour MPs did what I've been hoping they'd do and left the Labour Party. This is what I said in 2017 about a project of the centre, and it pretty much stands. 

And as for Blackburn Rovers - the underbelly has been exposed, which I was worried about in October, only now we can't seem to beat teams as ropey as Rotherham or Reading. More Travis, more Rothwell and a fit Lenihan should stop that rot.

Part of me is tempted to do what David Parkin does and knock out a reflective summary of the week on Friday. 

Anyway, one thing I did do in February was visit Berlin with Joe, Matt and Elliot. It was a great trip, a real living city. It had a vibe of London - but as if it was South Kensington, Westminster, The Mall, Hyde Park and six better versions of Shoreditch. We probably only scratched the surface as you'd expect in a two night break, but we did have the best burgers at a place called Burgermeister in Kruizberg and immersed ourselves in recent political history.

By a remarkable coincidence the new series of Deutschland 86 starts on Friday. Maybe that will get me writing about good telly again.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Be the editors of our own stories - notes for my talk at Alliance MBS today

I started out in journalism as I’ve carried on – unconventional, unorthodox and unprepared. But I was always convinced that what I was doing had a valid purpose.

I was talking to my friend Paul Unger about this the other day; business reporting comes with such a responsibility to the community you are part of. It also gives you such a solid grounding in the basics. Checking, summarising, thinking strategically, listening, understanding and checking again. You have to learn how to cut through the marketing hype of slick PR operations to get the real message. Paul reflected on how Giles Barrie built a powerful brand and platform at Property Week, that in turn spawned a cohort of top drawer media professionals working today. My generation in the media and broadcast press of the 1990s have also gone on to great things too, with the benefit of that firm foundation.

My first editor in the business press was a guy called John McCrone who was pretty tough on me. He had a reputation for having buried a company up to its neck in a computer leasing scandal. He held me to a high standard and marked my work ruthlessly, pushed me to ask the difficult questions and helped me more than I probably ever thanked him for.

You have to develop an empathy for the sector you cover, in turn you risk the inevitable accusation that you have ‘gone native’ and got too close to the people you are supposed to be covering. I’ve definitely done that. But then I just like smart people and can’t help but be impressed by them and their achievements.

In our heyday at Insider and at Television Week in the 1990s we made choices to get closer to our readers by ostracising, humiliating and hounding those who didn’t play by the rules. We were a player in that world, especially when we had a role in building up chancers and crooks as a result of our own previous naiveté.

I used to do this talk to journalism students at UCLAN about why the business press was a good route to a career. One of the attributes you’d pick up was versatility. Writing for different formats, producing events, analysing new sectors. The way things have shaped up since have multiplied that phenomena. But the one constant is knowing what to say, remain trusted by the people you need to be trusted by, and knowing when to say it.

I think of all of this as I browse through the regional media market now – Paul’s brand Place North West and the media site Prolific North are ambitious deep dives into the vertical sectors; they have events as well as streams of content.  The business news factories keep churning it out; the race to cut and paste. I get all of them daily and sometimes can’t distinguish whether I got a story from one or the other. But no media organisation can afford to ever be behind and irrelevant. As long as the print products can generate an advertising income no owner will cut off a revenue stream and take their chances on a digital market that’s been restructured to suit Google and Facebook.

A lack of relevance, a lack of reach and diminution of quality has created a greater drive towards creating your own content channels. Cut out the middleman. It’s created a situation here where our Met Magazine, produced at Manchester Metropolitan University, to a very high standard, is the method by which we get out key messages for local stakeholders.     

Sure, we do plenty of media work, our press office are great at it. This week we had ITV interviewing Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones on campus, and last year David Beckham came to visit. Our experts, despite what Michael Gove said, are still in demand and trusted. We also actively work with other regional players to make our contribution effective.

When I was asked to do a talk at Alliance MBS today on media and messaging, especially the impact of social media, part of me thought it would be a masterclass. A modern PR toolkit for engagement with press and media, star columnists, and influencers. Such is the level of my cynicism now, it would simply include:
  • 1.     Have a great back story – childhood trauma
  • 2.     Create a business in the tech sector, no need to be specific
  • 3.     Have great offices in the city centre
  • 4.     Social media presence – lots of hashtags #entrepreneur
  • 5.     Offer to speak at conferences
  • 6.     Become a mentor to young people - at a university, or an incubator
  • 7.     Enter all the awards
  • 8.     Get listed in the Insider 42 Under 42, and the BusinessCloud 35 under 35
  • 9.     Speak out about charitable causes – homelessness is favourite at the moment, but it was sick white kids
  • 10.  Hang out with Andy Burnham
And that, in many ways, highlights the problem.

Two tweets in the last week also showed to painful effect what is going on under the noses of the media that they are able to react to at best, but have actively encouraged at worst. Rachel Thompson from Manchester Digital admirably called out the companies around the city going into administration then opening up around the corner as if nothing happened, leaving creditors high and dry. The other was a tweet calling out a horrendous experience at an interview. But the explosion of interest in the issue here proved it goes way beyond the odd isolated incident. The media, business clubs, events organisers and social media have all been culpable in creating many of the characters responsible; not least promoting the cult of the individual, especially the alpha male, the all powerful corporate dictator, who has taken all the wrong lessons from Steve Jobs.

It comes back to another painful truth about entry into the media profession, as well as resources. So many new emerging journalists want the glory, the status, the attention. I know this. I enjoyed it all too. They want to be a face, a name. Helen Lewis of the New Statesman was commenting recently that graduates want to be columnists, like Owen Jones or Katie Hopkins, neither of whom I rate, by the way. But to have that right, it isn’t good enough to be a voice, loud, strident, opinionated, you have to be able to do the journalism. I’ve been interviewed by Jones and he was dreadful. He was a good speaker at a left wing rally, but he’s no researcher and certainly no kind of journalist.

The other modern new phenomena that I just don't get are so-called 'influencers'. I sat through a presentation recently on how they came about, who they were and how much money they make. I was staggered. We had a descriptor for them back in the day – the corrupt ones. Paying for a positive review is just bullshit frankly. And if you want to see where it ends up – watch the Fyre documentary on Netflix. A party organised by the worst people in the world for people who actually want to be like them. 

I keep hearing that regional journalism is dead. I tell you this, Jess Middleton-Pugh and Jennifer Williams are two of the best we've ever seen. Jess has built a powerful community around property and place making. Jen covers politics and social affairs for the MEN and is the best political journalist working in Britain today. Some are better known, some have better access. But none are as feared and respected like she is by those she covers.

But they’ve both made a choice – they have the same number of hours in the day as every other journalist, they hold truth to power. And yet, let's not forget, there are so many resources that journalists have available now that weren’t around when I started out.

The internet, for a start. Freedom of Information requests. The justice system can be just as impenetrable, but the Companies House website enables you to rely on more than your gut. Open source journalism and data scraping has been the driver behind Bellingcat; a new model of political gossip has created Guido Fawkes, poisonous as it sometimes is. Locally, a few have tried things, but they’re at the margins.

I’m heartened by the CIJ, the Centre for Investigative Journalism at Goldsmiths in London and by a young journalist called Jem Collins who has created Journo Sources. These tools, this spirit for collaboration makes me a little less worried about the future.

And the other incredible resource is access. Social media has flattened the hierarchies, it has created new ones, granted, but it has made the powerful more visible and more fallible. They can’t hide, they don’t hide. More people have that platform and frankly they are easier to track down and enter into dialogue.

My hunch is that we’ve created a vacuum here. A post-truth fake news cavern that is being filled up with a mixture of ice and shit. One melting, to be forgotten, and the other growing and creating a stink that threatens to choke us all.

That painfully needy streak I’ve always had manifested itself in me being flattered and impressed by attention. But how many of you genuinely have a regular dialogue with a journalist? Good journalists talk to people, they get stuff explained to them, tell their stories, share, explain, effectively get the experts to do a lot of the legwork. Same rules apply now. Don't look to the editor, be the editor, come together, share, support, and source. It’s a community endeavour. If we as a community created these monsters like your dodgy company flippers, like the idiot bullying business owner, then we have it within ourselves to do something about this.

I don’t know what the answers are. I can’t claim to know where this will go. But I can say with some certainty that if we don’t pull our fingers out and think very seriously about what we are doing, then we’ll have no-one left to cry to.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Massive Attack’s Mezzanine at Manchester Arena

If you took all the different individual elements of Massive Attack’s live show at Manchester Arena tonight then it’s an enticing cocktail of music, artistic and ideological challenge. It’s why I forked out a ton for a couple of briefs. I didn’t think I’d get Banksy/3D spray painting a mural on the concourse, and I didn’t *really* expect I’d get Mezzanine from soup to nuts, even if it was billed as the 20 year anniversary tour. We didn’t get either, by the way. It wasn’t a shock, or a surprise, or a let down, but I’m wondering why I feel a bit flat after that. And really I shouldn’t.

First off, I’ve now heard and seen Elizabeth Fraser hit those notes at the peak of Teardrop. Second, I fell a little bit in love with Horace Andy, reggae legend, and possibly the only person on stage tonight who looked like he enjoyed himself. Fraser isn’t meant to, not if you sing Teardrop or Black Milk like you mean it. I expected a visual spectacle, there’s always been that element to Massive Attack’s whole pitch.

I’ve duly noted that they have worked with Adam Curtis before. I can sit through 3 hours of his mesmerising Hypernormalisation documentary and feel a bit numb. His film Bitter Lake had a similar effect, but as the backdrop to a couple of hours of spliced together video, knowing cynicism and Jenny Holzer stylised bursts of words the unsubtle attempts at messaging just left me infantilised, as did my teenage son, who assured me he won’t be donning a tinfoil hat in his student flat tonight.

I don’t love Massive Attack for their attitude or their charm, it’s possible even to forgive a lack of an encore, zero attempt to connect with the audience or the rigid set list. Possible even to pass over the £100 we paid (did I mention that?), because at times they were spectacular. That sound comes from here. Those bold cover versions of Velvet Underground, Cure and Ultravox, and that magical atmospheric grit they have crafted to painful precision.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The call of the mountains

Our rocky place

I'd love to claim that my bond with the hills, dales and mountains of England is in my blood. That I could climb rock faces and that I learnt of daring tales of Himalayan expeditions on my mother's knee. And that Chris Bonnington, Don Whillans and Ian Clough were as familiar names around our lives as George Best, Jimmy Armfield and Bobby Charlton. I'd like to be able to say that I was raised on Kendal Mint Cake, born with a Karrimor rucksack on my back and a pair of stout walking boots to guide those few tentative steps.

All of that is true, by the way. Before she had me at the age of 22 my mum was a climber, hitching to Scotland, proper hardcore, hanging with Whillans and that crowd, dossing down in a tenement in the Gorbals before heading out to Glencoe in the morning. Her dearest friends were Ian and Nikki Clough, absolute legends of the climbing world. We now wear the brand of Patagonia on our packs and coats, that logo with the distinctive peaks of Cordillera Del Paine in bleakest southern Chile. Their expedition conquered the central tower of Paine in 1963. To get there they stowed away on container ships and hitched a ride on a military aircraft. Nikki climbed the Matterhorn, the first woman to do so. Ian died on Annapurna in Nepal in 1970. Like I said, legends.
The very first Freshwalks

I probably managed more outdoor yomps than most kids, but I never tried to climb anything more challenging than a tree.  Weekends were spent scrambling around Littledale and Baines Crag, which we called The Rocky Place (top). I went Youth Hostelling with my primary school, hiking with the Scouts and even went up Borrowdale with the serious walkers in my secondary school.

And yet serious walking and hiking never quite fully formed in me. Music, football and friends took hold. True, for my 21st birthday me and the mother got our boots on and conquered Dow Crag, which is laughable when you think of what she was capable of and could have done. I did a bit of exploring when I lived in Australia and climbed Uluru, which I probably shouldn't have done. But I then went for years without doing something that clearly made me very happy whenever I did it. It always gave me a sense of achievement and helped me refocus. I realise now what I was missing all that time.

Over the last ten years, as a family, we've strapped on our boots and hit the hills. We've bagged the best that the Lake District has to offer, even getting lost attempting Haystacks, Wainwright's favourite, only to discover we were in fact on the top of Grey Knotts. But the kids have had enough of that lark, except for the middle son who has taken it to extremes.

It's the Peaks that now draw me closer. And other undiscovered gems around the North West, like Delamere and the coastal walks. That step into nature, away from everything that my city and suburban life isn't. A retreat from the present and yet a step into my past. Yes, I think I've got back in touch with who I should have been. I like the community of Freshwalks, a responsible adult guiding our route and actually understanding maps. I love that it has done all of this for me. It has pushed us to be better, to go further and not only to explore the outdoors and appreciate the natural beauty of the North of England, but to smell it, touch it and respect the challenge it can give us.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Rodwell incident - Unidentified Footballing Object

Tony Mowbray congratulates Man of the Match, Jack Rodwell

Close watchers of the Sunderland Netflix documentary would have struggled to spot Jack Rodwell in the first few episodes. Not only was the ex-England international not playing, he didn’t appear to be training, or appear in person at all. By the time Chris Coleman arrived, continuing to marshall a losing team, and looking for excuses; Rodwell was cast as pantomime villain.

The facts, we were led to believe, were that he was refusing to play and refusing to leave. He was everything that was wrong with football. Prepared to sacrifice his career for the short term riches that the lottery winning loot of a Premier League salary has offered up. There might be a truth in that, and if I was a Sunderland supporter, as many good friends are, I wouldn’t be happy that a player of his stature was unused while they dropped two divisions.

A far more visible presence on Netflix was the hapless Sunderland chief executive Martin Bain, for whom any sympathy was tempered by the fact that, like David Brent, he welcomed the cameras into his “behind the scenes” world. I’m going to cast an unpopular opinion in here; I’m as uncomfortable with the new exaltation of the senior management team at Rovers, and I winced at Tony Mowbray appearing without irony on a team picture of the “backroom team” tucked in behind Steve Waggott, the Bain of my club.

To be fair, I respect these guys have a vital job to do. And I’ll be honest, when Rodwell signed for Blackburn Rovers I wasn’t doing cartwheels at the prospect, given the collective failure of previous regimes. We’ve been had over by these types of footballer before. One of them now plies his trade on the Match of the Day sofa, ruling his moralistic eye over the footballing world, set up for life with the unearned income from a club in crisis. Obviously I don’t mean Alan Shearer.

In the last month we’ve seen the difference between Danny Murphy and Jack Rodwell. Rodwell has been towering in his appearances for us, and especially so against a dreadful Ipswich side yesterday. I’d suggest the motivation and management of a player of his obvious natural ability has been instrumental to his transformation. I have no idea how much he is paid, or what bonus structure he is on. I believe he’s on a year long contract. We get a glimpse of Mowbray’s management style when he speaks to the press and how he behaves on the sidelines. But what we see in Rodwell’s performances in central defence is of a manager who has found a purpose for a player who has physically changed since he made his mark for Everton as a creative midfielder.

Not only that, Rodwell looks hungry and determined. I love a centre half who is comfortable on the ball. Charlie Mulgrew has that, Rodwell too, and it’s a part of Darragh Lenihan’s game that is improving as he plays alongside either of these two.

For the first time this season yesterday, I sat through a match never in any doubt that Rovers would win comfortably. Paul Lambert’s Ipswich were a ragbag of journeymen artisans and broken men. Much like Paul Lambert’s Blackburn Rovers, to be fair. Every single Rovers player won his personal battles around the pitch, the one possible exception being James Collins putting a shift in at the back and matching Danny Graham in his weekly game of grapple. It should have been 5 or 6, frankly.

I over-confidently predicted that we’d finish 8th at the beginning of the season. To do that would involve getting beat a few times and suffering bad runs as well as enjoying good ones. That’s happened and will continue to do so. What is more, when we win it will be because good players like Rodwell, like Bradley Dack, like Lewis Travis, put in great performances, inevitably attracting the attention of bigger clubs. It’s a good position to be in, maybe not dramatic enough for a Netflix series, but it’ll do me.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Millwall Away

When Tony Mowbray said that Blackburn Rovers’ 2-0 win at Millwall was a terrible game of football, he was obviously right. But it reinforced to me once again how these days are about so much more than the 90 minutes that we forked out decent money to see.

Even the heading for this – Millwall Away – conjures up an adventure, a sense of danger that any football fan will relate to. We were as far away from any of that as we ate artisan snacks in Borough Market before the game, sharing stories with friends old and new in the Market Porter.

Yes, I was delighted to see Rovers win, I always am. But it reminded me of many of the games last season where I felt we were a better footballing side, but had that slight doubt we might not be physically strong enough and could come away empty handed (Walsall, Northampton, Oldham). 

Sure, Rovers contributed to the dire game; lots of mistakes, hoofing up to Bradley Dack (who was off the pace) and Joe Nuttall (who needs match practice), no shots on target until the bitter end and some pointless passing around. But I always take something from a game and for me it was the solid defensive pair of Darragh Lenihan and Jack Rodwell, and once again the role of Lewis Travis in picking out some terrific forward passes and properly mixing it when required.

What will live with me longer in the memory though was the experience of visiting The Den. I went to their old ground a couple of times, even meeting Jack Walker outside on the second occasion and getting a quote from him for the Lancashire Evening Post. I didn’t meet anyone like that this time but Matt Smith (Doctor Who) was stood just behind us. Such is the mythology around Millwall that I did vaguely consider asking him for a lift out of there if he had his blue phone box with him. I’m not going to lie, it is intimidating, it is grim. Everything about getting to the stadium; the heavy police presence, the cages guiding the walkway to the stadium, the fact visiting fans are placed only in the upper tier all create the feeling of being in a state of siege. That in turn encourages a certain type of swaggering dickhead among visitors and ours were no different. We also saw a gang of Dutch lads at London Bridge earlier in the afternoon, and I spoke to another group of PSV Eindhoven fans on the train from South Bermondsey. I doubt there’d be the same attraction for this kind of football tourist to go to Brentford or Charlton.

That makes it another new ground I’ve watched football on, the 158th. I’m on 84 clubs out of the current 92 clubs (the Punk 92), and I’m up to 80 of the current 92 grounds.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

New Statesman - an appreciation

From an early age I've always had a magazine that I have consumed avidly and which pretty much defined my world.

At various times that dubious and fragile honour has fallen to the NME (mid-80s), New Society, Marxism Today, Arena, The Face, When Saturday Comes, Loaded, Monocle and The Word. In recent years I've drifted a bit, as I think magazines have.

In all of that time, I've dipped in and out of reading the New Statesman - particularly when it absorbed New Society in 1988, before erasing trace of it 8 years later. It sort of baked in my politics around the 1987 General Election, but I think it probably lost its edge when Labour were in power. At that time, I found The Spectator the better of the political weeklies.

Yet now I look forward to my regular Friday treat of the New Statesman. It’s not only really helpful for work, providing the best insights into British politics, but it’s also a great commentary on a really rich cultural hinterland.

The present editor Jason Cowley has been in the job for a decade. When he was announced I remember a rather snooty backlash against his appointment, given he was a bit of an outsider from the political commentariat and had been editing Observer Sport Monthly, before a relatively short stint at literary journal Granta. Yet it was pretty clear that he's proved those doubters wrong and taken the title in a really bold direction.

In the 2018 end of year edition, he talked about what his original plan was:

"Take the New Statesman upmarket; make it more politically sceptical and unpredictable; free it from the clutches of the Labour Party; publish longer and better-written pieces; burnish its literary pages; create a dynamic website; and discover and nurture a new generation of political writers."

What I think I appreciate more than anything is the careful blend of freshness and intellectual discomfort that it brings.

Of course it's a bit London-centric, all of our media is. I've spent a lifetime trying to do something about that, and I wish they'd make more of an effort. Having a conference on the Northern Powerhouse in Leeds in February is good. More, please.

But I don't think I've read a better series this year than Matthew Engel's tour of Europe. It proved hugely useful to us before our trip to Estonia and I really liked his last essay on train travel.

Kate Mossman, ex-The Word,  is a wonderfully deft culture writer and a perfect accompaniment as a columnist to Tracy Thorn. Having John Gray doing expansive moral philosophy pieces is a real coup. I always enjoy Anna Leszkiewicz's media columns, but her piece on the future of television was the best synthesis of the issues for the business, showing a real grasp of what lies behind the rise of Netflix and the challenge to the conventional TV channel model. I also think the political commentators Stephen Bush, George Eaton and Helen Lewis, all do a particularly good job of  providing steady, solid political commentary on the chaos of our failing system.

It's not just because I agree with everything. I'm at odds with Paul Mason on many things, but he does reserve his best strategic analysis pieces for this outlet than any other he writes for. I also welcome Grace Blakeley joining as an economics writer, because she reflects a particular thread of UK leftist thought that is at the  heart of the debate that has been opened up by Mason and Yanis Varoufakis.

The great skill of an editor is to curate a publishing space that can welcome new voices and nice surprises. There's a fairly high bar here, where the age ranges of the contributors give you a sense of a world observed from a wide perspective. I like seeing Howard Jacobson popping up as a reviewer and guest diarist alongside towering figures like Michael Heseltine, Gina Miller and Mike Brearley.

As well as the writing I enjoy the political podcasts with Helen and Stephen, while Jonn Elledge's CityMetric podcast has a marvellous geeky streak that I just adore. Whatever it is they do, you pretty much know there's a high standard of insight and commentary you come to expect. I even think they make a decent job of the advertorial supplements, which newspapers manage to make unreadable, whereas the NS ones are usually very useful.

When I used to lecture at UCLAN on the magazine journalism course, I used to emphasise the importance of knowing the reader, creating a clear personality of what the title is about and how it improves their life. As the editor of a business magazine group for twelve years I aspired to make our titles this relevant and with that single minded commitment to high quality. When you have writers, designers, sales staff and a publisher who share that vision, then you are on to a winner.

It's been a challenge for magazines to transition to digital and to keep on innovating with events and podcasts and other brand extensions, but I think they have everything at their disposal to do so.

Congratulations on 10 years Jason Cowley, you’ve done a top job.