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.