Wednesday, December 11, 2019

This thing of ours - so lucky

I've said before how much I cherish our trips to the football with two of my lads. The rock on which this is built is partly our bond, but also the underlying foundation of football culture in our country. Sometimes it can be toxic and repellent, but for the most part we need to remind ourselves that it is a collective pursuit of a common good and something unifying in a time of division. Afterall, all living is meeting, and we have a really good laugh along the way.

We had a great fun day out in the sponsors lounge at Stoke with a mate and his business colleagues, who generously let the lads present the man of the match award to a gutted Joe Allen. He's probably our favourite Stoke player, though that's particularly for his international performances as the Welsh Xavi. 

Then the next Saturday, on the train home from our win over Derby, three lads from Finland got on my horrible Northern Rail train home at Manchester Piccadilly. They'd been to Everton v Chelsea, they were then heading for Norwich for a game the next day to see the Canaries Finnish striker Teemu Pukki. Clearly they were on the wrong train, having been as confused as I often am by Platform 13, and I so hope they managed to get to Carrow Road eventually. But in that short space of a journey to Stockport we talked about so much, mainly Shefki Kuqi, Stockport County and next year's European Championships, the first major tournament Finland have qualified for.

"You are so lucky," one said, while his mate shuffled anxiously through the Trainline app to find another route across our rail network. "To have this football culture in your country. We have nothing like this." He's so right, we are lucky.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

New blog feature - Manchester lunches - and the first winner is... R&V

I've started a new feature on this blog and on Instagram. Manchester lunches.

It's not a fine dining extravaganza, but where I might go in the middle of the day, either with someone I'm externally engaging with (it's my job, afterall), or catching up with one of the sons.

I picked my best one each week through November, which included Tampopo (quality but pricey and in a poor location), Cafe Istanbul (solid and filling) and VietShack in Ancoats, which did a spectacularly spicy and dirty plate of Viet fries.

But the best all round lunch of this month was a new discovery, R and V on Oxford Street opposite Churchgate House, HQ of the Greater Manchester Mayor and other 'family' institutions. I went with a politician from one of the Boroughs who highly recommended it. He wasn't wrong. The ciabatta was a decent base for a Brasilien chicken salad sandwich with pineapple, cashews and salad. Really fresh and tasty. Another major plus was the space downstairs with a really chilled ambience.

The comments on the post also suggested that the owner really knows what he's doing and has the respect of some decent foodie types.

I’m getting quite militant about this now, there really is no excuse for eating crap at lunchtime in the city centre.

Friday, November 29, 2019

A grand day out in Sunderland - the People's Powerhouse

I came away from the People's Powerhouse convention in Sunderland earlier this month with two burning thoughts. The first was the way we use language and the way we refer to actual people. These can be emotional times and we have to be feisty to get what we want. And there’s a but coming. But there has never been a more urgent need to dial down the hate and to channel the anger. There are other people out there who want to build walls. I loved the Tortoise Media “think in” about how we can fix British politics, partly because I despair of the choice we’re faced with. But we need to go out and have conversations like that in communities, in cafes, in church halls, in schools and workplaces. I want to build bridges; and that means an urgent conversation with people when you might not like what they have to say.

The second thought was the power of “one”. Nazir Afzal’s talk was both joyous and shocking. Any conversation will shock and upset when it talks about victims of rape, grooming gangs, terrorists and, yes, family members who thought they were killing for ‘honour’. But it was joyous for how one man uses his impatience, persistence and canny sense of timing to correct wrongs. We need to take on bad people in workplaces and communities. That needs to fuel a narrative of love, against the easy answers of hate. And I know that’s hard.

I love the spirit of the People’s Powerhouse. I’ll be honest, I still like the idea of the northern powerhouse. But creating an unstoppable movement in the middle of perfect storm isn’t easy. But we don’t have a choice. We have no choice at all.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Two games in two days - and the goal of the season so far

I had the good fortune to go to two games this week. On Tuesday I was part of a group at work who took some international visitors to see Pep Guardiola's Manchester City in the Champions League v Shakta Donetsk, fully expecting them to present a masterclass in tika taka pass and move.

That came last night instead at Blackburn Rovers' 1-0 win over Brentford. In fact, if Raheem Sterling had scored that goal after starting a flowing move linking in Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho, Gabriel Jesus and Gundogan then it would be hailed as the goal of the season. For us it was a great way to win a game in some style. Something that says that on our day Blackburn Rovers are a decent team.

The stand out performances last night were Corry Evans and Danny Graham. I say that without any slight intended on any other player. They each of them brought the very best out of the other players around them, Evans to Travis, Graham to Dack. Danny Graham is such a leader on the pitch, he defends well at set pieces, he encourages other younger players, and he reads the game ever so well. He should be the first name on the team sheet.

Remind me of this day the next time I get all negative on them. See you all at Stoke.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Missing Crypto Queen - the story of the year

My favourite podcast of the year has been a real roller coaster of a story, the gripping tale of Ruja Ignatova, the so-called Crypto Queen of the so-called crypto currency One Coin, who seemingly vanished in 2017. I tried to book Jamie Bartlett to come back and speak in Manchester last year but he said he was involved in something which would blow my mind, and recommended his mate Carl Miller instead. He wasn't wrong (and Carl was great, as I said at the time).

More than just a radio documentary, Jamie has managed to create a compelling platform of information and an active network around the story. Jamie's narration, the use of music, the trust of experts, the whole feel of the production crafted by producer Georgia Catt. Jamie has written a really useful long read, here, which provides background, captures everything, but shouldn't stop you from delving in and listening to the series if you haven't already.

In the days when I used to write about conmen and scams I came across several individual acts of callous nastiness, all helped along by added helpings of delusion and greed. This has all those hallmarks on a massive industrial scale, but also with the added dimension of One Coin being almost cult-like, exploiting some of the poorest people in the world. It brings in global money laundering, tax havens and the dark web. In short it's a belting true crime tale for these dark times.

I can't believe it's not been a bigger story, and I'm now avidly following the trial in New York of some of the players in this unfolding drama. You can follow that here on a fabulous site called Inner City Press, which is all over the detail.

It feels like a real frontier moment, not just for crypto currencies, but also for the methods the BBC have deployed to get the story out.  Highly recommended.

Vinyl Finals 1980 - what a collection

The New Musical Express throughout the 1980s was at the very centre of my world, not only musically but politically and culturally too. Reading writers like Stuart Maconie really made me want to be a journalist. So to see this astonishing list of the vinyl finals 1980, from my 14th year, is something else. And then there’s this iconic photograph of Joy Division by Kevin Cummins on a bridge that I casually walk across between buildings at work.

It's hard to pick a favourite out of this lot, but it’s either Atmosphere, Going Underground or Treason.

There’s a Spotify playlist so you can make up your own mind, here.

Afterall, that’s the biggest lesson I learned of all in that decade, think for yourself and change your mind if you want. I had a great reaction on Facebook when I shared this there. Enjoy.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Never felt less like singing the blues

Riverside Twitter Rovers - Me, Ian, Joe, Jim, Louis, David

I always want Rovers to win. Always. Any winning goal is worth celebrating. Every time. And there's nothing wrong with winning ugly. Nothing at all.

So why did we leave Ewood so flat last night? I don't really pay much attention to Rovers Twitter beyond my own small group of pals (above), nor am I on the message boards, so I'm not aware of the sentiment that actively wants a defeat in order to hasten Tony Mowbray's departure. Nor do I want that. And there have been Rovers teams in my fairly recent memory with far fewer players worth getting excited about. So I think it is about the roller coaster of emotions and that the highs of yesterday only just cancelled out the lows. Enough to cheer the final whistle, but not quite enough to dance along the front of the Riverside.

It's partly about expectations. Here were the pre match pluses: we pre-ordered our pies from Leavers, Darragh Lenihan was back, Lewis Holtby was playing, Lewis Travis was playing, Joe Rothwell was starting. But I tweeted before we set off that I fully expected a frustrating and dire 1-1 draw. That's what I've become conditioned to expect this season. Once the game got going, I just couldn't see it clicking for us. Every good thing Amari Bell did seemed to follow up with a mistake. Sam Gallagher was having a nightmare stuck out on the wing. Bradley Dack was up for it, he scored, but wasn't getting decisions, which riles him.

It seems there's a golden thread in this side that when it clicks then that thread shines out. Dack's unpredictable artistry, Holtby's intelligence, Lenihan and Toisin's desire to play out from the back. Rothwell. And Travis. But there's also a thread of crap that when you tug it, then the whole tapestry unravels. Then we're left looking at Elliot Bennett's hopeless crosses, Bell's errors, Walton flapping and a collective lack of energy that says to the opposition 'we're here for the taking'. Fair play to Barnsley for spotting that. John Buckley's introduction seemed to be to better protect Bennett. Rothwell looked a danger whenever he got space to run at. Adam Armstrong didn't. I get the argument that Danny Graham isn't the long term solution, but neither is lobbing long balls at a little bloke, and sticking a lanky striker on the wing. I can't quite get over that.

We can't make it on Wednesday to see the Brentford game, but will be at Stoke next weekend. I wonder which thread will turn up? And whether anyone will give either of them a hard tug.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Old habits and Blackburn Rovers

We have rules and habits and rituals around our football day out that probably defy logic and sense. We could probably park somewhere more convenient. My commitment to my health and fitness at an intensive gym session on the morning of a home match is directly contradicted by the consumption of a potato and meat pie from Leavers bakery three hours later.

It becomes a pattern, a formation for the day. Something we expect and price in to the whole experience.

Similarly, I think our reactions have become deeply programmed as well: confusion about who is supposed to be playing where as the team emerges and takes shape; frustration with the referee who gives Bradley Dack too few decisions; an intake of breath as Christian Walton receives a back pass; a groan of irritation as a free kick in the opposition’s half is squandered into a series of pointless sideways passes and a fruitless punt upfield. And finally the bafflement at Tony Mowbray’s substitutions.

It was all of that and more yesterday. But if we have our rituals it sometimes seems the players and the manager have theirs; ultimately ending in an interview on BBC Radio Lancashire where Mowbray says he has been left “frustraaaaaaated”.

Me too, Tony.

So it was expected to be yesterday when we conceded a bad goal with 5 minutes left on the clock. The heads go down, the fans go quiet, the away fans finally make some noise (almost as much as a tiny number of them did, disgracefully, during the minute’s silence for the war dead). Mowbray brings on 20 year old John Buckley - who I still think of as a nippy prospect for Signol Athletic in the Stockport Metro League under 14s - and I roar out: “what’s the point of that, Mowbray? Are you trying to destroy his confidence?”

But we never leave early. Despite all of what I’ve come to expect, all that is predictable and confirms our deep internal biases, football is beautiful because of what then followed. Rovers did come from behind to win a game by the same fine margins that could have seen it and many others go the wrong way.

You can attach a bigger meta narrative to everything that went on today, but all that it said to me was that against all my expectations, football is joyous because it can surprise us.

And though we might tweak any or all of the little things we do that contribute to a match day, the one thing we never do is leave early. We stay to the end. But not for the fireworks.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Blackburn Spezial exhibition

I really enjoyed the Spezial exhibition in Blackburn's Cotton Exchange. Definitely enjoyed it more than the football match we attended beforehand. The curation of the huge collection of iconic adidas shoes was very well executed.

I also liked the whole context around the exhibition, a tilt in the direction of Blackburn's heritage, both in textiles and in culture.

Gary Aspden did an excellent job and got the look and feel just right.

Never mind the election - come and meet the Mayor

The Mayor speaks at Parklife 2017

As Andy Burnham approaches the end of his first term in office, and the public contempt for the Westminster he left behind is laid bare, I'm delighted that my old client, accountancy institute the ICAEW, have asked me to host an event with the Greater Manchester Mayor.

It's come at a critical time in our politics nationally, but also in our city region. London has long been synonymous with “Big Business”, but what can we expect from the Manchester of the future under Andy Burnham’s steer? The Manchester skyline may be crowded with more cranes than any other UK city, but how do we address true regional imbalances?

So far he's built alliances beyond the political realm in order to achieve his manifesto goals of eradicating street homelessness and sorting out transport. Obviously I spend a lot of my day job making sure the university I work at is in tune with these regional strategies and priorities and acts accordingly. One example is the ‘UK 2070’ report, published recently by Lord Bob Kerslake’s Commission, which clearly demonstrates the “huge gulf” that exists between the UK’s best and worst performing towns and cities. How do we ensure that Greater Manchester’s towns benefit from the city’s boom and that they are not left behind?

The question I keep coming back to is whether Greater Manchester has the means to drive its own destiny. Even though the city region has the most advanced devolution deal of any of the UK’s cities, how do we use this to deliver a fundamental shift in decision making outside of London and pass these devolved powers and self-determination to people across the North? What are the levers that the Mayor can pull? And what are the limits?

Going all the way back to 2000 when I moved back North, I've worked closely with the region's extensive professional services sector, which I believe has consistently been underappreciated and misunderstood. Is it truly a participant in the local industrial strategy? Or does the emphasis on health innovation, advanced manufacturing, digital, and working towards becoming carbon neutral, drown out the innovation that financial and professional sectors are contributing? And what complementary skills does the region need from the professions in order to bring the strategy to life? That's before we've even started asking questions to those of us working in the local educational sector about what we need to do to make all of this happen?

Register here to join us on the 7 November to hear more from Andy Burnham on his vision for the city and take the opportunity to ask your burning questions on the future of Greater Manchester.

And if you can't make it, put your question to Andy via Twitter using #InConvoGM

Friday, October 25, 2019

If the shoe fits - repair, recycle, renew - me and my Mephisto's

New shoes? Nope, but I only refurbished my absolute favourites. These Mephisto Rainbow beauties have been worn relentlessly since I picked them up from FW Tyson in Ambleside in 2014.

They've got the comfort of trainers, and are a true French design classic. They also come without the connotations of wearing trainers for doing something that isn't sport, for a man of my age. So, I simply couldn’t bear to throw them away when the sole had worn down and splits to the stitching got worse. Normally I'd just start to look for something similar, as good, or even replace them like for like.

But my I've recently bought a couple of pairs of Joseph Cheaney shoes. Hand crafted Northampton made exemplars of British craftmanship. They come with a lifetime guarantee that the skilled shoemakers can bring well worn pieces back to their best.

It got me thinking about these Gallic glories. I found out that there was this bloke in Burnham-on-Sea who does a refurb service, Footwear4you. We had a lovely chat on the phone about how it works, so I popped them in the post and waited to see what happened. He sent them off to the factory in France, four weeks later I got them back, and I'm staggered at the results. They've had a real overhaul, a brand new sole, they've seamlessly stitched up a couple of the tears on the trim, and polished them up far better than I ever could, as good as new, and thrown in fresh laces. Remarkable. Great service and a reasonable price as well. As my Dad has always said, 'pay less, pay twice'.

There's been a growing backlash against fast fashion lately. The alternative is buying better quality because it lasts, getting things repaired because they're worth it. These definitely are.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Mystify Michael Hutchence - terribly sad

Mystify Michael Hutchence is a terribly, terribly sad film.  We all know how it ends for the INXS front man, but the build up to the conclusion is still a compelling tale. For all its sorrow, it is sensitively put together by the film maker Richard Lowenstein, who made their beautiful video in Prague for their standout breakthrough hit Never Tear Us Apart, the right mix of celebration and lamentation.

But while it is a hugely impressive visual achievement, it is still somehow stylistically and gloriously messy, and eschews the talking head style of documentary in favour of a mixture of home movie clips, concert footage and splices in archive material which focuses relentlessly on Michael, pretty much like the image of INXS in their heyday. None of it makes Michael any less striking, or the film less of a spectacle.

As a generation of music fans we’re not short of tragic stories of those troubled tortured geniuses who burn out and leave us too soon. From my own musical sphere I have the works of David McComb, Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis to look back on for that early glimpse of their startling careers and wonder what might else have been.

Hutch was different. He always had a vivid star quality that far exceeded the musical reach of his decent hard working rock band. When I lived in Perth in the late 80s he was considered cool and iconic even if the rest of the band wasn't. I was won over by his live presence at the Perth International Arena on the Kick tour in 1988, a crescendo to a marathon 18 month global slog, and considered myself a fan and stuck with them. Journalists and other mates who knew him also had stories of his generosity, kindness and capacity for hard work and hard partying.

But this film isn't really about his musical legacy - did he have one? - but the story of the relationships of a global rock star. His family, the band members, and the women. How a warm, beautiful man, went from one mad passionate relationship to another, usually with gorgeous global superstars, but starting with his first love Michele, who inspired the sentiment of Never Tear Us Apart, and was the last person to speak to him before he died. You occasionally hear it said that someone at their height of their fame ‘could have anyone he wanted’ but in Michael’s case he could. After seeing the video for the Chris Isaak song Wicked Game, Michael asked the director to introduce him to the star of it, the world’s most desirable supermodel, Helena Christiansen, and asked her out. And that was on the rebound from Kylie Minogue!

Though the inquest into his death in a Sydney hotel room in 1997 recorded a verdict of likely suicide, it was contested by his grieving widow Paula Yates, who herself died of a heroin overdose a few years later. What the film reveals in a testimony from Helena is that he suffered a brain injury after being punched in the head in Copenhagen in 1992 and was never the same again. He lost his sense of smell, had no taste, and suffered mood swings and blackouts. And as Kylie says elsewhere in the film: “Sex, love, food, drugs, music, travel, books, you name it, he wanted to experience it.”

It’s hard to say whether the film advances a theory or closes a book. I’d say it tells one aspect of his life. There’s a further mystery over his money, some of it revealed in the leaked Paradise Papers, that his assets were held in offshore trusts and companies, out of the reach of his immediate family and intended beneficiaries. You also come away with the feeling reinforced that the entertainment industry can be cruel, the pressures to sustain success, or deal with a fall from the summit, enormous.

I found the film sobering and hard to watch. But for all the trappings of fame and fortune it all comes back down to what really matters in the end. Love. Love for your family. Love for yourself.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Breaking Bad - the gift that keeps on giving

I miss Breaking Bad, but I liked the way it ended. I'm also enjoying Better Call Saul, the prequel series which pivots around Walt's slippy lawyer Saul. Or Jimmy as we know him.

The new film, El Camino, basically, 'what happened to Jesse Pinkman' is a faithful reminder of what we loved so much about the epic 'Mr Chips to Scarface' journey of the original five series. Honestly, I forgot a few details and probably missed a few Easter Eggs that writer Vince Gilligan left in there for the faithful. Honestly, it doesn't matter. All you need to tune in to is the last episode of BB and where you were as Walt massacred the Nazis and Todd got what he deserves.

El Camino brought back a few things I really loved about Breaking Bad, notably, the chaos. Everything on this crazy trajectory is always a couple of steps from catastrophe and an entire cast of criminals are all kinds of incompetent, but not without a capacity for human kindness too. As it's only been out a few days I'm not going to spoil anything but it is every bit as gorgeous, glorious and grim as we remember. 

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Stunning. The best word to describe Matt Jansen’s autobiography

There are football biographies, then there are books about football fan culture, or the business end of the game, then there are books about the banter that surrounds professional football. I’m probably a little bit interested in the first lot, but only if they’ve been a significant Blackburn Rovers player or manager, curiously drawn to elements of the second and third category, and probably not that interested in the latter batch at all. I’ve never read the story of the career of, for example (and to pluck a random name completely out of the air), Dean Saunders. I do like fast paced business biographies, tales of bravery and courage, and the extraordinary achievements of relatable people.

Matt Jansen’s timely biography is rather brilliant, in that I found myself unable to explain quite what it meant to me, welling up with tears, relaying the tale of the post-accident Jansen appearing at Ewood for Bolton Wanderers and getting a standing ovation from all four sides of the ground. I was about as articulate this week, to my non-Rovers supporting 15 year son, as I was to Matt Jansen himself when I asked him if he was going to be alight in Velvet Restaurant in Manchester in July 2002. What I wanted to say was - “I have watched Blackburn Rovers teams for the last 25 years, reared on Wagstaffe and Garner, spoilt by Shearer and Hendry, but you, Matt, are something special. THAT goal at Preston, all those performances in that season culminating in THAT goal at Preston, THAT game against Arsenal. Oh, and Cardiff. That’s why I have a son called Matt, born six weeks after THAT day in Cardiff. Your day. I hope beyond all else, that you are going to be OK. I love you Matt Jansen.”

Instead I said something like - “going to be alright then, you? Please. Sorry?”

Or as my Canadian deputy commented once we were back in the office. “Just seen the boss go all weird and woozy in front of some soccer kid called Matty Hansen”.

But much as I enjoyed the rekindling of footballing memories - and I really, really did - and much as the latter narrative was challenging - it really, really was - this was a book about belief. The deep, psychological core belief in who you are as a person. How that motivates your actions and guides behaviour. Told against the backdrop of what might have been for a professional athlete who had his world shaken to its roots, it is at times heartbreaking and unbearable. The passages with the psychiatrist Steve Peters, with my mate Michael Finnigan, the performance psychologist, and his experiences around various doctors was truly fascinating. Jaw dropping, in fact. Professional football has been on a journey, as wealth has grown, so assets need nurturing, protecting. You also get the impression from the story just how many people in football management are winging it. No qualifications, no attention to detail, no success. I mean, work it out.

I won’t say the book is ultimately uplifting, because it isn’t. But to bear witness to one man overcoming loss - and it is loss - is at least inspiring. It becomes a book about choice too. The most powerful passages pivot around Steve Peters and how he approaches Matt. It’s what ultimately makes it such a compelling book.

A word then on professionalism. This is a well produced book by the impressive imprint Polaris. It is also very well written and very smartly constructed by the Carlisle News and Star journalist Jon Colman. I like the way it is Matt’s story, but not without critical voices - his wife, his father-in-law, friends like Garry Flitcroft one of many people who emerge from the book with abundant generosity of spirit and time.

This is also a welcome addition to a conversation I’m delighted is happening more and more, that mental health matters, that the mind matters.

So I’ll say now all that I really wanted to say to Matt in 2002. Thank you. And that I wish you every happiness.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Y Factor 2019 - and the winner is...

It was a real honour to be involved in the Y Factor Reunion 2019. I hosted the whole event and presented the winners trophy (left) to Kieran Lawton for his incredible performance of Try A Little Tenderness (oh, the irony of a Private Equity guy doing that song!).

But joking aside, there was a tenderness involved in the whole enterprise. When we convened to get the band back together there was a real sense of mission that this street homeless problem in Manchester has become morally unacceptable. In Mancunian Way we found a charity that really appealed to the rest of the group, not only for the symbolism of actively tackling the homelessness crisis, but for the sheer gritty bloody mindedness of the charity's founder Nick Buckley in how he delivers help and assistance in a non-nonsense, tough love, Mancunian way.  Personally, I applaud the Mayor's Bed Every Night campaign because at that moment of crisis people need that immediate response. But where I think the Mancunian Way approach struck such a chord was in how Nick spoke about the small and targeted interventions, and partnerships to build trust with employers, that can really transform lives for the long term.

Throughout the evening, 10 acts across the corporate finance industry came together to show their support by performing with a live band; led by two great friends of mine, Clearwater International CEO, Michael Reeves and Director at ABN Amro Commercial Finance, Jeremy Smith.

Each performer was judged live by our celebrity panel; Penny Haslam, Paul 'Boy George' Johnson and Aziz Ibrahim, followed by a live vote from our sold-out audience, to determine the winner of the Y Factor trophy.

It also reminded me how much I enjoy working with people in the world of corporate finance. They are smart, good at what they do, but for all the bad press they get from people in other corners of my world, they are amongst the most generous and decent I know.

For me the passion and power of the evening shone through. Every single participant really pushed hard and never lost sight of what we were doing it for. In total, we raised over £50k, which could ensure projects run for two years. It's not too late to donate, you can do that here.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Podcast: Change, choice, and the future of politics

In other exciting soul searching news, I recorded a podcast with my mate Tom Cheesewright. We have a right old ramble through politics, choice and LibDem bar charts. And what it was like getting creamed for Change UK.

The link is here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Help me out Steven - letters to a Liberal Democrat from the political wilderness

The first in a series of soul bearing conversations. First up, here's what happened when I dropped a note to Steven Duckworth, a Liberal Democrat activist in Northumberland...

Help me out Steven.

Like you I left the Labour Party, for me it was because I fundamentally oppose the kind of crude ‘easy answers’ sloganeering socialism that typifies Corbynism.  There’s a direct dotted line from there to antisemitism, the socialism of fools and the people who felt welcome in Labour. It’s not for me any more. Before joining Labour in 2014 I’d been outside of politics for long enough not to feel a need to be part of the Labour family. But having been active in my home constituency and standing for parliament, when you’re in the political sphere, you’re in it. I still believe in a mixed economy, a society that values human contribution over individual rights, looking after our most vulnerable, fair tax rates, and I don’t have an instinct to clip the wings of business. I was gutted about leaving the EU, but assumed the grown ups would negotiate some kind of future relationship that most of us could live with. But I didn’t feel an urgent need to seek a new political home.

So, you joined the Liberal Democrats and got stuck in. That would have been a tough call for me. Having fought against them locally, in council elections and in a four way parliamentary tussle (in which I came third), I have some visceral tribal instincts to get over. Plus, I thought they were truly done for when the levy broke and the first wave of MPs left the main two parties to form the Independent Group. We know how that turned out. I gave it a shot too and stood for Change UK in the European election. We all know how that played out too.

What has that election experience and this summer of madness taught us? For me, it’s that there is life left in the party that many of us had written off. But how does a progressive, social democratic policy framework even begin to be created out of the mess of the current politics? And I’m not just talking about parliament here, but our corrosive discourse, the lack of trust, an assumption of bad faith, the politics of easy answers of the left, the right and the centre?

Thanks for listening. Cheers,


Hi Michael,

Lovely to hear from you.

I was incredibly worried about the election of Corbyn, particularly as it was followed so quickly by the appointment of Seumas Milne as the strategic architect of the Corbyn project, a project that seemed to me at the time to be about creating a rump party that was ‘pure’ in socialist thought. I found the antisemitism and general approach to party management toxic and disgusting and so, like you, I left- knowing it wasn’t a productive and creative space in which to ‘do’ politics.

Regarding Brexit, I’m rather an outlier on the centre-left in that while I voted for us to remain and hope we have a close alignment to the EU in the future. I do think some of the Brexiteers criticism of lack of democracy and sovereignty inherent in our EU membership have some force that left leaning liberals have failed to acknowledge. I also believe the outcome of the referendum should be respected and that May’s deal, however imperfect, was our best way through this.

You’re right that politics is in a state and that it is going to be difficult for a left leaning platform to come out of this. But it’s my firm belief that the mainstream left over the past twenty years has drifted towards a managerial and technocratic approach to politics and that, in some part, has given rise to the populists of right and left and the easy solutions they propose. I really feel we need to get back to discussing the big questions: what a good society is, the nature and dignity of work, what should an education system provide, how do we democratise markets? how do we improve our institutional culture? And many more. These are big moral questions that we should not be afraid or embarrassed to discuss and we should be wary of discussing them purely in terms of policy fixes.

Why did I get stuck into the Lib Dems? I suppose I’m a believer in the idea that you refine your views and politics by getting involved and testing them out. I also think being a member of a local party helps to root you in the concerns of the community, like you I’m suspicious on the constant focus of individual over that of the common good. I’m very much a trans-partisan and I find tribal politics to be tedious, though I accept that it’s red meat to a lot of activists and we need activists. As Roberto Unger points out in his recent book: It’s not hope that leads to action, it’s action that leads to hope.

Best wishes,


Thanks Steven, that’s illuminating.

I’m going to have a few questions for you though. It seems from reading between the lines that you have to do a lot of holding of your nose as a member of the Liberal Democrats. Like me, you’re probably not an outright liberal, more of a democrat. You don’t hold with the vehement Stop Brexit strategy either.

I concur with you on the party-as-a-key-player-in-a-community point. And I get that the Liberal Democrat identity and strategy is to dig deep in a community, plant firm roots, build a network of activists and councillors, then MPs.

But what do you do when you fundamentally disagree with the stances that a local party takes in a community? It strikes me that the closeness to what a community wants nearly always places you in opposition to change, be that a new road, new houses, or new community infrastructure – like a mosque, for example. When does a party activist lead, rather than follow, public opinion? What latitude do you have to do that?

And what do you do when those difficult decisions are taken by people at an elected level in your own party? It seems to me that’s where the Liberal Democrats come unstuck locally, because the constant campaigning and petitioning and community chivvying leaves you exposed when you actually achieve power and have to make a decision. It certainly happened in the coalition government.

Sorry to appear negative, but it serves as a useful metaphor for the future too. When the dead cat of Brexit is off the table. What next? Is this even a political entity that has legs beyond that, or a repository for protest votes in the way it was after the Iraq war?



Hi Michael,

You’re right to say I’m not an outright liberal and more of a social democrat. I’d go further and say I’m a communitarian with liberal values; these two positions are often portrayed as being in opposition, but I think they can be reconciled by taking a more nuanced view of liberalism. I tend to find British liberalism is heavily defined by Mill and is reductive and negative in many ways. I think ‘liberalism’ has its limits, beyond which it tends to eat its own values to some extent.

As I said earlier in our conversation, I do find being rooted within a party to be extremely beneficial to the way I think about my politics and other moral questions. I don’t expect to agree with my fellow members on everything, but my experience is that dissent from the party line is usually respectfully tolerated. Maybe I have been lucky locally in that respect.

I’m less concerned by achieving national power than building up a base of activists and local councillors that can start to engage with the change needed at that level. It’s my hope that Brexit will lead to more emphasis on local democracy and that is how we must try to steer it. With local associations and institutions driving the agenda forward. I realise this sounds very utopian, but I’m all out of thinking in the old ways of public policy tinkering.

To be honest it’s an approach to change that goes well beyond our current party set up, it’s just that it’s that set up that helps me to think and contribute in the small way that I do while rooted in a party structure.

Best wishes,

Hi Steven

This has been a very helpful and salutary exercise. It’s helped me to focus on the important questions that were front and centre to me when I left journalism and made the decision to get involved in a local campaign, then to rejoining the Labour Party in 2014. Ultimately we have to be driven by something greater than the sums of our personal ambitions and wanting to support the latest jousting in the Westminster arena.

My politics starts with my faith, and the centrality of the human person so passionately articulated through the traditions of Catholic social teaching. But something has gone very wrong with our politics. I think the party system is knackered, but it’s been inspirational to hear of your local experiences in the Liberal Democrats. Time and time again I’m inspired by the efforts of people who get things done, without necessarily having been granted the permission to do so. Subsidiarity and human control cross over into so many inspirational examples of local action, and that includes what the Metro Mayors have done, despite all of the flaws in their fragile constitutional mandate. I like everything I hear about the experiment in Frome in Somerset, where local people have taken over a local council.

I think for my part I have to dial it down a bit on the tribal politics. It doesn’t do me any good and for what it’s worth I’m veering to the view that the politically homeless have to start showing a bit of humility and appreciate the bigger picture and start thinking a bit more about how their behaviour contributes to the distrust and dislike that has undermined institutions from councils, parliament and public services. I’ve probably torched my bridges with my local political parties, but I remain supportive of campaigns that address the burning injustices and the spaces that exist for socially committed actors.

Thanks again for your time.


It’s been helpful for me too, to get some of my thoughts into words. I think we do have to take inspiration from big ideas and while it doesn’t mean we can’t be pragmatic in application, I do think politics has been reduced too much to issues of managing the existing system.

You’re right that much can be achieved by people at a local level committed to making positive change happen. I too have been impressed by the ‘flatpack democracy’ movement in Frome and by initiatives by town and parish councils in different parts of the country, not to mention the community and voluntary sectors. David Cameron has a lot to answer for, but I think the Localism Act might prove to be useful.

I don’t know about ‘dialling it down’, but we all should think about our methods of doing politics, including how we engage with other people. Institutions are important in this and it is no surprise that people with a short-term view of political change often see them as the problem and not as an enabler. I don’t think we need political parties to achieve a lot of this agenda, but they are useful in terms of the generation of ideas and ways of engagement.

Best wishes,


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Discovering Blackburn

I did something yesterday that I haven’t done for nigh on 20 years. I went to a Blackburn Rovers home game by train. We’ve come to the conclusion that one car is quite enough for our family, and there were other pressing places for it to be yesterday.

Now that Joe and Louis are both living in Manchester, it actually makes logistical sense to put our fate in the hands of Northern Rail and see what flows. I could hardly describe it as an adventure, even with Millwall as the opponents, but as we were walking down Bolton Road from town, Joe said to me it felt more like an away game, because he had no idea where we were. Our usual route is from Lower Darwen along Branch Road.

But from when we passed underneath the inscription at Blackburn station - By Skill and Hard Work - I was pleasantly surprised. It always helps to brighten a place when the sun shines, but the public space around the Cathedral and the Mall was very nicely done. The shopping centre was both busier and tidier than I’ve seen in other town centres around the North West.

We stopped for lunch at the Chippery, a bit of a Blackburn institution, where the friendly staff served us up a decent pre-match pie and chips. I was keen to visit the Community Clothing pop up store on King William Street. I was an early adopter of Patrick Grant’s social enterprise, providing basic items of clothing, made locally. I invested in the first crowd funded call for support and have steadily accumulated a wardrobe of staple items, a mac, a crew neck lambs wool sweater and some gloriously well fitted selvedge denim jeans. An order is pending for a Dutch-style Peacoat.

Anyway, long story short, it’s really whetted my appetite to explore Blackburn a bit more. Through October there’s a film being shown at Blackburn Museum which tells the story of Patrick’s fashion project. Given it’s made by film maker Aaron Dunleavy, it will have an honest earthy style and be one to savour. Also next month is a Trainer exhibition at the Cotton Exchange being curated by fellow Riversider Gary Aspden, the bloke behind the surge in appreciation of the adidas Spezial brand.

More information on the exhibition is here.

Football wise, the first half was nothing to write home about, bar Derek Williams’ left foot screamer. I like 3 at the back, but it sometimes seems like the players and the fans don’t quite believe the manager’s vision. Tony Mowbray seemed a bit peeved at the performance in his post-match interview (frustraaaaated, even), but the high spots for me were the sheer dogged tenacity of Bradley Dack to try and pick the lock of the opposition and the growing influence on the pulse of the team of Stewart Downing.

It seemed a good day to finally break another family ritual, our pre-match Twitter predictions. Given they’ve both admitted to being fundamentally dishonest - never predicting what they truly feel - one an optimist, the other the opposite - we’re instead just going to pick our own man of the match.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Discovering Jane Harper

There's something exciting about discovering a new author and exploring their work in quick order. Jane Harper is Manchester born, but very much Australian raised. Her authentic style is a real tribute to her career in journalism - the eye for how things work, and ear for how people speak, and a real appreciation of that uniqueness of a place and its own role in the development of a story. In her case, all of her opening three books are set against the challenging terrain of the vast expanses of the Australian outback.

At first I thought I liked her first one, The Dry, the most of all; small town tensions and a classic mystery twister. But having had a couple of days to mull it over, the most recent book, The Lost Man, really is a masterpiece of modern thriller writing. It's still spinning around my head a few days later, the real test of quality. The Dry and Force of Nature both feature the central character, federal detective Aaron Falk, and bring out the harsh environment by contrasting it with city life. The Lost Man sits very firmly in the hottest, most isolated and utterly sparse deep desert of Queensland.

I spent a few weeks out that way in 1984 on a Queensland cattle farm a few hundred kilometers inland. You never quite get over the distances and the sense that a way of life has been grafted on to this land in fairly short order. Five years later when I lived in Perth, there was always the pull of the city from my sporadic and enjoyable sojourns into the red centre, but the contrasts were shockingly stark.

What Jane Harper has managed to do is remarkable. She has brought complexity and subtlety to human relationships as well as those harsh collisions with the earth. As well as the frequent "screen door slams" in The Lost Man, evoking Bruce Springsteen, I'm going to be very disappointed if the soundtrack for the forthcoming film of The Dry doesn't find a place for Wide Open Road by The Triffids. 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Sign the petition - link Marple with Stockport by rail

There are so many great things about living in Marple.

But let's be honest, the relationship with Stockport is an odd one. Many people don't even put Stockport on their addresses, preferring to think of it as Marple, Cheshire, and avoiding thinking too much about who the direct debit goes to once a month to pay for the bins to be collected. Then there's the local councillors who about half of us elect most years, without them ever campaigning on a vision for leadership in Stockport. That's not a criticism, by the way, but a valid observation.

To get to most places from Marple, I imagine a journey through Stockport doesn't figure much. You either go round it, or join the M60 motorway to go through it, rarely touching the centre itself. Unless that is, you actually want to go to Stockport. At peak times, this is slow. My kids get a bus to college in Stockport that is unreliable due to congestion, and frankly it is disgracefully expensive.

So it doesn't exactly help to build a civic connection when there isn't a direct train service, despite Stockport station being only 4 miles away. Building a new line wouldn't be easy or practicable, mainly because of the topography, and there was probably a good reason it hadn't been done in braver bolder times.

But now that there are ambitious plans for Stockport - greater residential concentration and a larger secondary office market in the centre - and that the commuting population of our area seems to be increasing exponentially, then it would at least be worth examining travel patterns to see what could reduce road usage and provide a better link.

Thus far, Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor, has developed an ambitious plan for a massive expansion of routes around Greater Manchester including the possibility of a tram train to Manchester from Marple and Rose Hill, improving a spoke into Manchester. However, there is a simpler and more achievable short term solution - a train service linking our community and parts of Tameside with Stockport.

As you know, the Rose Hill services to Manchester Piccadilly pass through Hyde and Guide Bridge, passing by a branch line which runs to Denton, Reddish South and then joins the main line just north of Stockport station at Heaton Norris. An alternate service along this line to Stockport would take about half an hour, pretty much the same as the bus.

There are lessons from London's development of the orbital overground 'orange line' which upgraded poor services on under-performing routes with high frequency, better designed trains, that in turn opened up more variety of journeys and locations. I don't underestimate the hurdles that have to be overcome, but I do see the urgency of creating a rail system that better serves all parts of Greater Manchester.

Andy Burnham gets this, which is why his own transport strategy - Our People, Our Place, Our Network - took a long term and wider view on a whole host of spatial and transport issues. These include sustainable transport, different types of journeys used mixed modes and opening up the whole of the city region to new possibilities.

The Stockport to Guide Bridge line is just such a service, and it's only through sustained jostling from local campaigners and the Friends groups at local stations that the case can be made consistently.

A chap called James O'Mullane has started a petition that I hope more people will sign.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The July blog experiment - what I learnt

I've been blogging for a long time, you would have thought that I'd have understood why I do it by now. But if you don't keep testing and probing you never learn.

So, I blogged every day throughout July. Some days it was an effort. In fact on one of the days I just uploaded a holding post saying how hot and fed up I was. Life's like that, isn't it?

But I did it to see if I got people's attention, which topics got the most traction, and to make this purely a numbers game, which were the most popular posts. Once I'd done that, what steer that would give me about what works on here and what kind of blog this might be in the future.

I did two blogs about faith. Why I'm still a Catholic and what that means on a daily basis. They didn't get much traction. I think partly it was because I didn't pump them much on social media as a result of my own lack confidence in expressing and defending my own faith position. Sad I know, but in a very crowded market of good quality Catholic bloggers, I know I'm miles behind and have very little to offer.

Blogging about national politics is similar, but I get good stats. I still think it's a crowded market and I enjoy the traction and debate that I get from it, but it's not going to break through. Plus, it's a little close to what I do at work. I've also said, this blog is for the other stuff.

The one topic I nearly always get good reach with is Blackburn Rovers. Given this was July and I only actually went to two friendly matches, I knew there was a bit of a season build up that might have dampened enthusiasm and reader interest, but two of them made it into the top 10. One angsty piece of confected outrage about the away kit made it into the top 5, but all that proved to me was the harder you try to be controversial the bigger the impact.

The other high fliers were a bit random to be honest, a long awaited lament about Mark Hollis (music), a piece about Stockport town centre and a return to a previously popular theme about post-50 male fitness and goal setting.

In second spot was our account of two years of dealing with the Criminal Justice System, which was highly political, as we anonymised some of the detail, but of direct personal interest too.

But the most read by some distance, and the one that was shared widely on social media was the one about Tony Wilson quotes and Manchester's tendency towards faux nostalgia.

It tells me two things, if I may say so. 1. I care deeply about this kind of stuff and that I have a voice in this debate about our city's identity.  And 2. If I blend those two facts, and think about what's current, then I have a right to carry on.

As you were. 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Fulham away is different

Face in the crowd

Fulham away is different. I sat next to a woman eating a pie with chopsticks, in a shared stand, I chatted football to Fulham “geezers” on the way in through the park, we went to a nice pub before and bought burgers in brioche buns. Call me a middle class fop, but give me this any day over angry, boorish, snarling and bullying “real fans”.

I used to live just off New Kings Road in early the 1990s, and it was a real treat to discover that it still got the best kebab shop ever, Kebab Kid. Sadly our local pub The Jolly Brewer is now flats, while our old house is being rebuilt and is probably worth £1.3m plus.

As for the match, it was a decent first half from Rovers, but a failure to punish Fulham in that period of dominance cost us. I felt that in the second half we lacked a plan. Why was Lewis Travis subbed off again?

More importantly for us, it was a great day out with pals.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Football and identity

I had my football identity consciousness raising tonight. I sat with my Dad in the exact same place we sat in nearly 50 years ago at Giant Axe, home of Lancaster City, my local team where I grew up, and the first place he took me to for a football match, Lancaster City v Barrow, 1973.

Tonight the Dolly Blues played Blackburn Rovers Under 23s, which was why it was the first time I'd been back on the Axe in a long while. Also with us in the stand was Kevin Bradley, who took me to Ewood Park in 1977 and effectively recruited me to the Rovers cause, and two of my old mates from back in the day Paul Swinnerton and Dave Tinkler, both Blackpool fans and partners on several outriding days out with them in the 1980s. Tinks is now also my brother-in-law.

It's been said that your team finds you, rather than you hunting for the right team. Because my Dad wasn't a native Lancastrian, I didn't inherit a team connection. So all that convergence of circumstances has ended up in that place tonight, watching my club's reserve team against the home town club.

Even though I probably couldn't find my way out of Blackburn without a map, Rovers is unquestionably and defiantly my team. It's more than a colour or a badge, but an identity. For all the foibles, it sort of defines who I am more than anything else. I used to drift between all kinds of teams when I was younger, never quite sticking, never quite belonging. But I felt at home with Rovers, probably because I wanted to be part of that gang, initially, but it outlasted the patience the older lads had for me hanging around with them.

I've probably been to Giant Axe more than any other ground than Ewood Park. I even played on that pitch (or half of it) in the annual Easter Field schools football tournament when we got to the semi-final in 1977. It's in such a gorgeous setting, with the castle and the station overlooking it as you watch from the main stand.

But it's not my team. There's something about non-league football that doesn't quite do it for me. Tinks pointed out that one of the Lancaster players was off the Marsh, the estate right next to Giant Axe. But he was the only local one that he knew of. Town clubs should have a few faces at their core, back in the day it was Vaughan Williams, more recently the much mourned Neil Marshall. I hope they find a few more to walk in their shoes.

Rovers has been the constant in a life of movement and flux. And what a journey, what a time to be alive. So, here ends a month of blogging every day. I'll reflect on how it's gone by the end of the week, then we're on holiday,

(By the way, Rovers won 2-1)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Trust me, Tony Wilson never said: "This is Manchester, we do things differently here."

Trust me, Tony Wilson never said: "This is Manchester, we do things differently here."

There is no recorded evidence of him saying it, because he didn't.

It has become this slightly ridiculous marketing slogan, plastered on hotel reception walls, property marketing brochures, a health strategy and Andy Burnham's manifesto.

Steve Coogan said it, playing "Tony" in Michael Winterbottom's film 24 Hour Party People. In a script entirely written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, a brilliant writer, and a Scouser, who knew what he was doing. It's a mesh of literary references, something Tony could have done, but didn't. Not those anyway.

It's a great film. I love it's warmth, I love the version of Tony that Coogan carries off for public consumption, and he liked it too. Others didn't; I remember Steve Morris describing it as 'Carry On Factory Records'.

Here are the roots of that quote though.

Half way through the film, in a delicious use of the theatrical technique of 'breaking the fourth wall' "Tony" reflects on the transition from one musical era to another, sort of quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (subject to some dispute, by the way): There are no second acts in American lives.
The supposed Manchester quote is the reply, which itself is derived from ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,’ the first line of L. P. Hartley’s The Go Between.

Does any of this matter? No, probably not. Afterall, didn't Tony Wilson also say - 'faced with the choice between the truth and the legend, always print the legend?' Except, he didn't say that either. It comes from 'This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,' which is from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Quotes from the film, attributed to Tony, appeared at his funeral and were beamed on to a wall at the wake. It's a fitting allegory, because he's become one of these figures who people project their own version of an ideal reality onto. I asked Frank about all of this, and as a public intellectual Tony would never have referenced Fitzgerald, or WB Yeats, Frank said, pointing out that Tony was far more interested in philosophers like Derrida, Adorno, Deleuze and in his later days, Habermas.

By the way, I haven't said any of this in order to trash Tony's reputation. In fact, precisely the opposite. Here's what Frank says about Tony in David Nolan's candid and reflective biography You're Entitled to An Opinion: "He was a good device for driving a movie forward.  You have this idea when you're growing up that musicians are rock 'n' roll and suits are boring. Tony was massively more interesting than any musicians he worked with. I know he worked with geniuses. I'm sure Ian Curtis was an amazingly charismatic person and Shaun Ryder as well, but utterly boring compared to Tony. Musicians become fossilised; Tony was always moving forward. He was alive in a way most musicians aren't. And more romantic. He cared less about money than they did.  He was incredibly generous. He was like a perverse St Francis, he gave everything away. He was psychotically generous."

So, can we all stop now please. How about, Manchester, the psychotically generous city?

Monday, July 29, 2019

British politics - what's going on

The smirk

A mate of mine was involved in Boris Johnson's visit to Manchester on Saturday (from the Manchester civic side) and had one very clear message that he took away. Labour is screwed, he surmised. Johnson is in campaign mode, he was very, very good and if he delivers Brexit, Labour is out for two terms. It just layered on yet more evidence that this isn't a government, but a campaign. The old Vote Leave gang, back in business with the single aim of delivering Brexit. The speeches, the roadshows, the meeting today with Nicola Sturgeon, it's all just a show. All of that and everything else isn't even a dead cat, it's a dead duck, a dead parrot. A dead democracy.

Professionally I've been looking out for the announcements of various ministerial briefs. I'm wasting my time, there are no ministers. There are Johnson allies around the cabinet table with no actual work to do. People analysing that Gavin Williamson (or is it Grant Shapps?) might do something in Education is for the birds. Will Esther McVey (or is that Michael Green?) build more houses? None of it matters. He's brought his brother back to Higher Education, which isn't a bad result for the sector, but the chances of actions being taken over the Augar Review this year are slim to none.

There will be no votes in parliament, no government business, no reform agendas. Just Brexit.

Labour literally has no plan to confront this. Labour's core leadership is entirely focused on changing the make up of the Parliamentary Labour Party. All over the country Momentum activists are mobilising to get rid of their MPs via trigger ballots and deselection contests.  It is time consuming and energy sapping for activists, it is distracting for MPs. Don't expect sensible compromises and cross party working from those Labour MPs, they are too terrified of the knock.

And those who pledged to 'stay and fight' over anti-semitism are meekly posing with Jeremy and his true believers in photos, sounding for all the world like hostages.
and the scowl - complete with eyeroll and sneer

Corbyn isn't even trying to pretend he cares about the issue any more. His disgraceful interview with Sophy Ridge on Sky News showed that. The aggressive eye roll and sneer he reserves for female interviewers who make him uncomfortable, and the general message that it's no more than a few people dipping into it by mistake.

All Labour's outriders and useful idiots have had to say this weekend has been to launch further attacks on the straw man construct of the 'centrists' who they believe have enabled Boris Johnson. Mocking people who celebrated the anniversary of Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce's tremendous opening ceremony at London 2012.

I slightly disagree with my mate's prognosis. Sure, Labour is knackered, but a clear path to stopping this madness is opening up. Enough Tories in parliament can make a stand against this capture of their party, rallying to sensible ones like Justin Greening, Dominic Grieve and Rory Stewart to effectively force an election and make a stand. If the Liberal Democrats and more brave independents can capture the non-maniacs in the Tory core vote with a Remain Alliance, and become the largest party, there's a deal to be done by Jo Swinson with the non-Corbyn element of what's left in the Labour Party.

Time to get busy people.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

How we pray

When I did my blog earlier in the month about why I'm still a Catholic (albeit a crap one), it got me thinking. It attracted a few questions as well. What's different about how I conduct my life? How is this blog, for example, a projection of Christian faith?

Today at church, the Gospel readings were about prayer and how to do it.

In a nutshell, it's this: Praise God, seek forgiveness, ask for what you need, then for good measure, offer thanks for all you have. Reading back through these daily thoughts over the last month, in their own way each one is a prayer. A musing, a doubt, a confession of weakness, an expression of human frailty and a plea for help and guidance.

And when we pray to ask for what we need, and for others. I don't ask for a Jaguar car, by the way, or anything material, but do I really need that Sunspel white t-shirt? or another book I might not read? But take the last two posts. Our really upsetting experience with the criminal justice system, something that we also thought isn't something nice people like us should ever have to deal with, has been a massive test for us. Humbling, terrifying, but strengthening too. Dealing with feelings of anger, vengeance, hatred, but we've tried to channel it, to make our experience have meaning. To act positively to what negative experience has taught us. Similarly, the exercise regime I wrote about yesterday, I wrestled with that all day and today and I've come to some firm conclusions about what I do and for who.

So, for Sunday, thank you for all my friends, my family, everyone who has been so kind to us, for everyone who takes the trouble to read these self-indulgent and rambling posts. Thank you. And please forgive my vanity, venality and that I can be quick to judge and condemn. And as for that Rovers away kit, lead us not into temptation...


Saturday, July 27, 2019

Goal setting and male body image

I was a bit disturbed when I first saw this picture of actor Simon Pegg uploaded to Instagram by his personal trainer. I too get unsettled by pics our PTs stick on the Facebook group, mostly because I seem to look like I've got a wok under my top and have sticks for legs.

There has been all sorts of commentary and judgement on Simon's transformation, but on further reading of his story to fitness over the last few years I found the journey a familiar one until this point he reached in March. So I simply don't have the time, the money or the capacity to set goals as ambitious as his - rapid weight loss in order to look scrawny for a part in a film.

But I have reached a point where I'm struggling with goal setting. When my gym moves to a new site next month it will mark about two years since I started training. I wrote about it here, so it will be a useful juncture to weigh up where we are and what I do next.

On the plus side I'm the fittest I've ever been at 53 years of age. I suffer no shame in that. Getting into the habit of going to the gym about three times a week was a big step and I've stuck at that. It's also been 7 and a half years since I drank alcohol. I haven't weighed myself in ages, but if I say it now, it's there for the record, I'm just over 90 kilos (14 stone). I'm terrible with figures, but I think I've been almost two stone heavier. Putting that number into an NHS website, with my height and age, it flashes up - "you should cut down on your pork life mate, get some exercise". My Doctor isn't concerned.

There's the nub of it, the numbers don't tell me anything. How I feel does. I don't get as down as I used to. I'm not going into all of that, but there's a massive link between the endorphin rush of a training session and how well I feel mentally, and then how I sleep, and all these things are linked.

So what should I aim for - more weight loss? Dieting? I think I eat quite well. I don't want to give up a chippy tea and the odd pie. I like to think I've earned it.

I'm not going to get in a boxing ring and I don't want to run a marathon. My football days are over. So what's it for?

But how about going for a reduction on body fat and getting ripped like Simon? Can I? Should I? Then what? How much metal should I be shifting. Every single time I go, I record what I've done in my book, and right now I couldn't tell you accurately what my personal best is for deadlifting, bench pressing or squats. Even if I did, I wouldn't put it in a blog.

There was something the writer Tony Parsons says in his GQ column this month, "the work is never done." You don't stop when you reach these goals, or slide back, you carry on, until the next session and the one after that. Packing your bag, making sure the kit ready. It was the last of his ten commandments of the gym, my absolute favourite being "train with someone" which has been the biggest single joy of being a member of Body Box Mcr. It's the other people, my training partners, the expert personal trainers. But maybe that's all it is, keeping at it, loving it, staying happy with it, seeing others hit their goals, being part of that, committing to something greater than yourself for the benefit of others. Maybe that's it?

Friday, July 26, 2019

No justice, no peace

There's a great big gnawing hole in the middle of our society that many of us will never experience. It's one that all of us feel ferociously passionate about and have very little faith in. While the NHS is visible, we demand better and better of it, and we praise it when it works for us, for all its faults. And we will happily wear badges saying how much we love it.
But the criminal justice system has to be the worst public service of them all.

Let me caveat this piece with something personal. Today we have secured closure for something that has rocked our world for the last 21 months. But happy as I am about what has happened today, finally, my eyes have truly been opened over that time. I'm also going to leave out any detail about what we saw in court and that's partly the point.

The system doesn't work for victims of crime, it doesn't work for offenders, it frustrates the police, it is under-resourced, it operates in silos, there is a spectacular lack of trust between those silos, the flow of information and the protection of data is fragile. Despite being largely uncorrupted, compared to other broken systems in other countries, it is still held in contempt.

All public services have an element of being run for the benefit of the people that work in them, even the beloved NHS sometimes. But I've never witnessed 'computer says no' quite like it. 

I'm aware this runs the danger of me just spewing out my anecdotes, but there is a large scale debate going on around the system that seems to have identified one of the biggest barriers to justice reform, the lack of transparency. There are two issues as I see it.

One, in a world where information and data has never been more visible, or more freely available, in the justice world it is largely hidden, often restricted and subject to complex rules. If you know how, much of that data - court records and the like - exists in what we loosely and lazily call the public domain. The restrictions around its management and distribution presents an opportunity for better public services. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say the tax system has got better in that regard.

Secondly, if it is accountability for the criminal justice system that lies at the very heart of its purpose - public consent - then tragically it has been outsourced to a tightly regulated media industry that to quote a technical term, is on its arse. Court reporters may have once provided a valuable public service, but frankly, in the exceptional high visibility cases, the reporting of crime is either non-existent, or distributed by a police press release. Why can't court transcripts, timetables, progress of cases and criminal records be there digitally for the public to see?

Amidst all of the urgent reform agendas going on in British society, the one to reshape justice has gone the same way as all the others, smothered by Brexit, or dressed up as reform when it's just a crude cost cutting device. There are some valiant efforts to push a debate on this, which will become ever more necessary. 

Finally, I just want to say I've seen the very best of the police and the judiciary in action today. But they are poorly served, hampered and tied up in knots at times. Digitisation provides the justice world with the opportunity not just for justice to be done, but for it to be seen to be done.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

It's too hot and I'm pissed off

OK, I said I'd try and blog every day through July. It's been hot today. Blissfully the air con at work has been brilliant and I'm not boiling. That will no doubt change when I get on my train. But it's still hot, hard, and frankly I'm fed up.

There are also few things that have got my goat that I'm probably wise to hold my counsel for now. But I don't feel great.

Tomorrow's another day, an important day as it goes, which we've been spent a very, very long time waiting for.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Golden Age of Podcasting - a bit of a top 10

I've been an avid consumer of podcasts for the best part of a decade. For a while, most of the best ones were podcast versions of BBC programmes. It's true that my regular downloads do have plenty of them - including The Bottom Line - Evan Davis' very warm hearted business discussions - and Desert Island Discs, where I think Laura Leverne has been a great successor to Kirsty Young and always manages to reveal fascinating nuggets about the castaways.

But we now seem to be entering some kind of golden age. Major media groups are getting better at these, but for me the gems are elsewhere. So here are my top 10 podcasts - not produced by BBC, radio companies or national newspapers, in no particular order. I won't do the links, you know what to do.

Delving into Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History is such a great journey to go on, and right now we're exploring Jesuit thought and the casuistic method - though I must confess to getting really irritated by the adverts, especially when Malcolm voices them. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but you have to be able to spot the difference between advertising and editorial.

Unherd - Giles Fraser's Confessions - each one has been sublime. Even the one with Claire Fox.

CapX is a bit to the right of me, but I enjoy their takes on business and politics. The interview with historian Anne Applabaum was superb on Putin's Russia.

Progress - Alison McGovern has a remarkable brain - a real ability to see the bigger picture.

New Statesman - if there's a better reader of the political day-to-day than Stephen Bush I've missed them, his double act with Helen Lewis has sadly ended with her move to The Atlantic, but happily Anoosh Chakelian is getting into her stride impressively.

Polarised from the RSA - Matthew Taylor and Ian Leslie never disappoint. Their basic premise is to look again and how society is getting more divided and find ways through that. The episode with Elizabeth Oldfield from Theos think tank is a good starter.

Political Party with Matt Forde - making politics fun, but also ready to jab when needed. His interviews manage to get real insights and stories from his guests.

Intelligence Squared do some fabulous recordings of their live debates, but their one offs are courageous and compelling too. Rose McGowan on MeToo and finding a voice was unsettling but an urgent message on gender power.

I've been a contributor to two which in any other circumstances I'd be an avid listener regardless. Vaughn Allen's Cottonmouth Manchester really captures the best of Manchester. It's been a real honour to work with Eve Holt to run the rule over local issues around our city.

BRFCS - I can't believe how good Ian Herbert is as a radio producer. An absolute natural. The episode that Linz Lewis and Jenn Bellamy did a women's takeover was a pearler.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

With Johnson, either way you lose

That was a typically bombastic and hyperbolic speech from Boris Johnson, newly elected as leader of the Conservatives. Frankly, it's what the right in politics have come to expect, a bit of fire, a lack of clarity and vague ambition. The fight of their lives indeed.

I think it's entirely plausible that the collapse in the Conservative and Labour parties could lead to something dramatic happening in our politics.

There are two big challenges facing him, both of which have the potential to frustrate the upper limit of his ambitions. The first is the rallying call for Brexit. I think he's captured the right tone to attract the significant Brexit at all costs vote there. The bigger test comes when, or if, Brexit happens, and it won’t be possible to position it as anything other than a betrayal.

I think his election has clearly struck a certain amount of fear into Labour and Tory strategists. He’s positioned it as the fight of his life, the smirk against the scowl of Corbyn. Two deeply unattractive parties, equally deeply unloved and led by divisive men.

See what I did there? Doesn’t change a thing, really. Copied and pasted, vague on detail, basically I’ve winged it. Consider it a tribute.

He has started as he means to go on, underestimating not only those in Europe and Dublin he needs to  negotiate with, but his political opponents a home, and the scale of his task.