Friday, June 28, 2019

Manchester policy, forward motion and our new handbook

We launched our new book at work last week - Transforming Policy and Research. It's a handbook to help academics navigate the way towards having a positive impact on policy. Loads of researchers I know do amazing work, far better than the kind of thinking that comes out of political parties and many conventional think tanks. Our task is to help them translate that knowledge, those insights, into a place where they can co-produce positive outcomes.

In that spirit, I invited along Elizabeth Mitchell from the policy team at Manchester City Council to speak to the audience. I'm sure many people listening to her insights and noting down her examples of good practice would have been thinking the same as me: why has this fantastically bright public servant committed her career to Manchester? I'm sure she would thrive in any central government ministry. The answer lies behind the premise of the question, I suppose. Why wouldn't you want to be in Manchester? Even with the punishing budget cuts and the apparent slowing of the progress of devolution, the city, the Combined Authority and the associated institutions are innovative and dynamic places to be. Much more so than a national government paralysed by Brexit.

In the latest issue of our bi-annual MetroPolis magazine, I touch upon these themes and the thought I keep coming back to is 'ambition'. It happens to be one of the pillars of the University strategy, which is in itself an example of that successful forward motion that good strategies are supposed to give you. There would be no point doing any of this if we were howling into the darkness. But we believe we have an opportunity to be part of a movement of policy enablers in our civic universities. It also coincided with the release of a sparkling new website, which rightly emphasises our key themes: public service reform, building a caring society, and creating future cities. We've also launched a section for Policy Thinkers, to broaden out our community of thinkers and practitioners.

Taken together, it's more than just a handbook, but a toolkit, a set of resources and structures that can bring together agents for change and better policy. It's also a work in progress, blissfully.

Brexit breakdown: 14 days that shook politics | Anywhere but Westminster

Ah well. He got the bit at the Change UK Manchester rally where the tech broke down. He included my speech in it. And he said, it's not bad, but it's not Frimley. Sums up the campaign pretty well really.

I always enjoy John Harris' analysis of where we are politically and socially.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Life in Thirty-Five Boxes – Dave Haslam book event

Me and Joe really enjoyed Dave Haslam’s launch of his first mini-book last night, a series which he has dubbed ‘Art Decades’. The first mini-book in the ‘Art Decades’ series will be ‘A Life in Thirty-Five Boxes: How I Survived Selling My Record Collection’.

Partly I think it's because I always love listening to Dave when he tells stories. I've probably heard him in this kind of setting more than I've heard him DJ now, which is a testament to his own successful second act - I won't prolong that metaphor, too many have. We also heard about some of the slightly surprising things collected by his guest panellists; poet Tony Walsh, musician/artist Naomi Kashiwagi, and DJ/producer Mark Rae, including a crazy story about a trip to Chernobyl.

The blurb for the event explained how the core of ‘A Life in Thirty-Five Boxes’ is an exploration of our impulse to collect - particularly our emotional attachment to vinyl - and the notion that every record collection reflects our life story. Dave tracks how his own collection built up, how others have fed their obsessive collecting, including the man who tracks down multiple versions of Light My Fire by Jose Feliciano. It takes us all the way to the moment Dave decides to sell all his vinyl to DJ Seth Troxler, and waves goodbye to thirty-five boxes of records as they’re loaded into the back of a van.

He talks a lot about giving up the inheritance his vinyl collection represented - he was going to pass it to his children - but feared the tragedy of it scattering and breaking up. It reminded me of the parable of the rich man getting in to the kingdom of heaven, and it being harder than a camel passing through the eye of a needle. I have always taken that to be less of a denunciation of wealth, more of a statement that you can't take any of it with you, so give it back with love.

As is often the case, the Q+A flushed out some important points. Not least, the triumph of nostalgic revisionism. Dave touched on it in a challenging essay he wrote in 2015, here:

"The city authorities habitually give a nod to Factory Records, but I’m not sure they quite get important parts of the Factory story. The Hacienda wasn’t a disco version of the Trafford Centre. The Factory label, the club, those around and involved – from musicians to video makers – produced culture. It wasn’t an exercise in consuming but creating. In addition, like Shelagh Delaney, not only were they forced into action by despair at the cultural provision of the time, Factory operated outside the margins. One of the richest chapters of Manchester’s cultural history began when the lads who went on to form Joy Division began to meet up in a makeshift rehearsal room above the Black Swan Pub, near Weaste Bus Depot.

"This self-organised, independent activity still happens of course; actors, crews, artists, printmakers, musicians, freelancers hiring pub functions rooms, meeting wherever and whenever, trying to bring ideas to life. Isn’t it time these people were celebrated and encouraged?"

Since then I feel the city has become even more of a shallow memorial to the misunderstood past of Madchester. I like to think Dave's writing and his new publishing model is a subtle nod to how to use our past to tick on to the future, but as we walked out there was a poster for another Hacienda night (at Gorilla).

Monday, June 17, 2019

Viva Marseille

We had a tremendous time in Marseille. It all came about after meeting a lovely French bloke who worked in the hotels world. We wanted to go away in early June to somewhere neither of us had been before. He recommended Hotel Dieu in Marseille. What a glorious surprise the whole city was. As a port city you expect a certain grit, but it was nothing like as rough as I feared. In many ways it felt like somewhere that is changing and modernising, while trying hard to preserve its edge, without having the swish elan of Nice and Cannes, which I've been to many times before.

We took in the sights on the first day - Notre Dam, the harbour, Mucem. Then we headed for the small coastal town of Cassis on day two.

Getting around, as it is in so many European cities, was easy and safe.

To quote my favourite film, one ought to have a room with a view on the first visit. As you can see, we certainly had that. But we also treated ourselves to a real quality hotel, way above what we'd normally go for. Poached eggs at breakfast will never be same now we've had them cooked by a Michelin starred chef.

The only disappointment was Boullabaise. We felt obliged to try it, but fish soup is fish soup and wasn't worth the tourist premium we got fleeced with.

We have a few other European cities in our sites for visits soon. Recommendations welcome.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

A recap on some great telly I've watched

Riviera, a real guilty pleasure
As we're getting stuck into the long awaited second series of Killing Eve, we're also going to have to face the inevitable sense of loss that will follow it when it ends. Just as we have following a ton of different series and boxed sets over the last year. Here's a bit of a flavour of my tastes.

Fleabag was as good as any comedy I've seen in the last 10 years. Very sharp, very well acted. The scene with Kirsten Scott Thomas was mesmerising and if anything the second series took it all to a new level.

By contrast, much as I was swept along by the last series of Line of Duty it was more miss than hit. Great one liners, good pace, but at times it seems to have disappeared up its own firmament.

Bodyguard was better and proved you can still create those moments of collective gasping both in the social media second screen, but back around the table at work on Monday.

The Walking Dead managed to redeem itself in Season 9, the time jump was a bad idea which betrays quite how over ambitious the whole enterprise is becoming. It's good that it seemed to have broken something of the cycle of plot lines and places. Conversely, the bridging of TWD with the alternate Fear The Walking Dead season 4 didn't work with Morgan walking across four states, and somehow managed to make a series with sublime promise lapse back into the ridiculous. Season 5 looks somehow better.

A strange zombie apocalypse diversion on Netflix was Black Summer, which was particularly brutal and fatalistic about the ability of society to cope with a shock like this. It ended on a bleak and very final kind of note, which strangely felt like a relief.

The algorithim on Netflix has picked up on my fascination for end of days apocalyptic drama. I was disappointed we can't seem to get hold of season 3, the final one, of alien invasion nightmare Colony. The first two were good enough and well put together.

Danish bio-disaster The Rain was better with subtitles than with dubbing into English. It was also in danger of running out of ideas as much as spending a meagre budget on limited locations and bad CGI. Still, decent enough and a similar evil biotech corporation loomed large in Sky Atlantic's Hanna, which had its moments.

I felt violated by the extreme violence of The Punisher and irritated by ITV's Paranoid, though surprised to see they shot some of it at my workplace.  I'm one episode in to the new season of Black Mirror, having been drawn in and spellbound by the intensity of the two mates getting carried away by a VR game in Striking Vipers. Warped.

A really guilty pleasure was a double series binge of Sky Atlantic's Riviera. The younger me was transfixed by Lena Olin when I saw first saw her as Sabina in the 1988 adaptation of my student era favourite novel Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She stole the show then in her bowler hat, and again five years later as the ultimate femme fatale mob boss in Romeo is Bleeding. As the matriarch Irina Clios she also dominates every scene with a look, or a glance, in a lavish and preposterous romp that takes us back to the glory days of Dallas and Dynasty. And I spotted Doug Barrowman in the first episode.

I've written here in October 2018 about my penchant for sharply written Australian noir and a couple of series have capitalised on the wave with well-delivered follow-ups. The third season of Wanted was another step up in drama and plot twist and I do hope they are heading towards my old home of Perth for season 4. Canberra set Secret City took the geo-political stakes even higher in the follow up as my favourite new hero, Harriet Dunkley, made a seamless transition from journalist to jailbird to political SpAd.

A constant of that whole genre has been the corruption and laziness of the entire Australian police force. When I go back, please remind me not to be a victim of crime. I've seen the two Wolf Creek films with the villainous and sadistic Mick Taylor stalking unsuspecting backpackers and torturing them, I don't know if I'm quite ready for two entire series of more of this.

Similarly, Welsh noir took a dark turn with Hidden, which was gracefully acted and touched on the same unseen Wales, as I said here, that parts of Hinterland did so successfully.

Finally, as if we needed reminding of the incredible raw acting talent of Stephen Graham and the awesome combination of him being directed by Shane Meadows then Channel 4's The Virtues hit you like a steam train. Graham's depiction of lead character Joe wasn't even the stand-out, though him falling off the wagon was horrifically powerful. But Meadows seems to draw out a whole range of quite incredible close up, raw, believable and underacted performances. Helen Behan as Anna and Niamh Algar as Dinah brought such sensitivity and feeling to a disturbing and haunting storyline. I watched this a few days after finally seeing Meadows' bleak and captivating 2004 film Dead Man's Shoes. Sometimes telly can be like a snack to the full on glory of a sit down spread that a feature film offers, and sometimes it is a real treat.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The need for Change - a political howl

I don't know where we go from here.

I don't know what's going to happen in our broken political system.

I don't know what's going to break the deadlock over Brexit, or whether it can be stopped or not. I want it to be stopped, but I don't know whether we can or not.

What I do know is that the Tories are going to install Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and that Jeremy Corbyn is still the leader of the opposition. That is not an acceptable choice to lead our country.

What I also know is that I have never felt as at home politically as I did amongst the Change UK candidates and activists when I stood in the European election in May. Nor have I felt as inspired. I know we got absolutely creamed at the polls and that the experience wasn’t ultimately what I expected. I’m also disappointed at the swift break up of the parliamentary group, the shambles with the name and I do seriously wonder what can realistically carry on.

Let’s be clear. Those brave MPs who quit Labour over the toxic anti-semitism, the fudge over Brexit and the unpalatable state of the party were right to do so. Nothing has changed. It wasn’t premature to do so, something had to give. It was also disappointing that more didn’t follow. I genuinely don’t know what those MPs and members who oppose Corbyn expect to happen.

Taking it all in good faith, I did my bit and walked towards the sound of the battle. It was the usual rough and tumble, but also I believe we raised the Europe issue on another platform and LibDems and Greens reaped the rewards. Fair play to them, they worked hard for it.

But what happened in the locals and the Euros hasn't changed the mess in Westminster. The next question is what kind of ambitious realignment in the mainstream of politics is possible. If it can happen, then where might the different remnants of Change UK go next? And what kind of berth do the Liberal Democrats represent? The Liberal Democrats need an injection of serious political ambition, not to take a few seats back and to win a few hung councils, but to provide a serious government that isn’t Johnson or Corbyn, which a majority of the British people are horrified by. Maybe that's what Chuka Umunna thinks will happen now. The general in search of his army.

For those that have left, personally, I think it might have been worth waiting to see what the longer view was from a larger body of activists, candidates and the collective group, rather than to act individually, or to just walk away now, but you can’t fault them for acting swiftly and politics is often about the gut feel.

A whole series of blunders contributed to the disappointing campaign and plenty of other people have commented on all of that. Not least the leaked strategy note that seemed to regard the LibDems as an irritating irrelevance, ready for the taking. I’ve always felt they have been key to any new entity, but that culturally they need that injection of ambition and to have the confidence to get over the coalition government experience. My own frustrations with their local opportunism have also betrayed that lack of courage to stand up for what they believe. And yet when they do? Well, the result was clear.

I've reached out to the Liberal Democrats I know personally and have enjoyed some robust and forthright conversations.

But I feel two things at the moment, an urgency to act, and a deeper one not to waste time on a callow gesture. The alternatives just aren’t there. I recognise that a Westminster led group always had a better chance of building something through the centre and taking activists with it. The Renew party has attempted to build from the grass roots and got 45 votes in the Peterborough by-election.

So, it's going to be decision time soon.