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.

Monday, July 22, 2019

You Swinson, you lose some

That was quite some acceptance speech from Jo Swinson, newly elected as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Frankly, it's what the centre ground needs, a bit of fire, a bit of clarity and some 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 her, both of which have the potential to frustrate the upper limit of her ambitions. The first is the rallying call to stop Brexit. I think she's captured the right tone to attract the significant resistance vote there. The bigger test comes when, or if, Brexit happens, and it requires an equally forthright and passionate vision that doesn't just demand another vote, or a re-entry.

I think her election has clearly struck a certain amount of fear into Labour and Tory strategists. The British public deserve better than the smirk and the scowl. Two deeply unattractive parties, equally deeply unloved and led by divisive men.

One of the voter groups I encountered in the European election campaign, in fact who I've been close to for the last 20 years, is Steve and Sarah Wilmslow. Professional, successful, graduates, a young family, excited by being in and around metropolitan Manchester, rather than looking to rural Cheshire. A living example of dormitory democracy - you vote where you sleep, but your engagement and consciousness is awakened by where you spend the most significant time. They'll be appalled by how austerity has taken its toll on the rough sleepers in Manchester, and will have done something charitable to support them. They'll be shaken and baffled by no-deal Brexit, though would probably have accepted a quick soft version. They will be top rate tax payers, working at partner or director level, but not millionaires by any stretch. These were my core readers when I was editor of Insider and I think these types of voters in Tatton and Macclesfield will desert the Tories and they won't go to Corbyn. Steve and Sarah's old college pals Dave and Karen have already ditched the Tories in Richmond and many other outer London boroughs. That liberal minded pro-business sentiment may have been Boris Johnson's priority when he was London Mayor, he now has the Brexit Party snapping at his very existence and triangulating both will be beyond him now.

Jo Swinson is up front about what the party got wrong in the coalition government, which is why I think it's a mistake for the Labour attack lines to be so focused on that.

She also should be mindful that there are two words in the name of the party she now leads. She was proud and vocal about the first, but the social democratic tradition has the potential to go deeper and bolder.

Her other challenge will be tonal. I fully expected that speech to be a touch smug. It was anything but. The party has done very well to resist the meltdown many expected. But it's a long way off achieving anything yet. For now, this is a rare good story to enjoy in our national politics, before the horror show to come.

* Thanks to Daniel Sugarman, excellent journalist at the Jewish Chronicle, for that headline, a suggestion for an opening line for Ed Davey's concession speech.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Have an awayday, Glasgow Rangers away

I’m often reminded on a football related trip to a city that I barely touch the surface, but that those you do tend to be a bit sticky.

We were early for our agreed rendezvous in a location near the station, so ate first. Given we were meeting my mate’s son, wife and baby grandson, it wasn’t going to be a ‘Spoons or a spit and sawdust bar. But we ended up spending only the briefest of time in Platform under the arches, with its artisan craft stalls and interesting ethnic street food.

I like Glasgow, I’ve been for work a few times, and was best man at John and Rachel’s wedding 21 glorious years ago, all full of happy memories. The grand and imposing industrial centre, and the embrace of the Clyde is redolent of Newcastle, and the people have an easy charm.

The experience of taking the miniature Subway to Ibrox and the stroll around the ground before the game were probably bereft of the everyday edge you’d get from a Rangers fixture in the season. Certainly I couldn’t imagine getting away with unfurling a flag outside the Louden Tavern would be acceptable to fans of Aberdeen or Hibs.

Then again, much as it fed the occasion to be amongst 1600 travelling Rovers fans, most of whom seemed to have been on our four carriage Trans Pennine Express train that morning, it really wasn’t much more than a glorified training session. Rangers were the better team in the first half and Defoe showed class in how he put his goal away. All my frustrations with several of our regulars picked up where they left off last season. Happily too so did my ever so slightly irrational love of Lewis Travis. The second half featured more of our exciting crop of young players and I saw more to like about the skilful and industrious John Buckley. Ben Brereton and Richie Smallwood have wilder hairstyles, the latter I hope because he’s on a journey to becoming the Redcar Pirlo, effortless style, a “brio”, “sprezzatura”, a different sort of axeman.

By the way, I’m over the horrid away kit. It is what it is.

We couldn’t not go today. We also couldn’t not go into the heart of darkness that is the Louden Tavern for a quick drink after the game. It was everything I suspected and worse, I hadn’t realised that this scene in T2 was a documentary. But we were greeted as friends and comrades, a secret handshake away from joining in the loud renditions of battle songs. When the early chimes of Matchstalk Men piped up I thought it was a nice touch to embrace their Lancastrian visitors. Nah! Old tune, different lyrics and papist bashing.

Fulham away is next, and I do love a London trip. There won’t be time for a stop over at the Design Museum for the Kubrick exhibition, but it won’t detract from a pleasant pre-match refreshments around Putney Bridge, nor will it feel like a missed opportunity. That said, to keep things consistent, we squeezed in a personal Glasgow tradition; a curry.

And of course one of the reasons for these trips is it’s a taster for a return. You couldn’t say that about Scunthorpe or Northampton.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The men who went to the moon

There is something so magnetic about the original astronauts. As kids we followed all the space missions avidly. I was only 3 when the first mission to put a man on the moon was completed 50 years ago today, but we all wanted to know much more about it. Somehow it seemed to symbolise boundless optimism in a world of conflict. I remember very well the Apollo-Soyuz mission with the Soviet Union to link up in space. 

It was a great privilege to meet Buzz Aldrin in 1995 at the MIPCOM television market in Cannes. He'd been flown in by MTM, a Hollywood studio, to promote a new series called The Cape, which he wasn't even in, but was about NASA.

There wasn't a great deal he imparted, in truth. He was happy to pose for pictures and say how pleased he was to be there. I wish I'd made more of the opportunity. It's difficult to find the words other than 'thank you' for being such an inspiration. He's had an eventful life, not always a happy one, struggling with drink and depression. But even at 89 he remains a fascinating, lucid and thoughtful man as this interview with National Geographic shows. He gets called the second man to walk on the moon. I think of him of the first man to take Communion on the moon. There's an exhibition at Lichfield Cathedral celebrating this.

In 2003 I also met Neil Armstrong. He was the keynote speaker at the North West Business Convention at Tatton Park alongside Peter Mandelson and Sven Goran Ericksson, amongst others. The event lost money and didn't quite live up to its billing. I suspect that Neil Armstrong had two prices for public speaking. One for $20k to talk about the moon landings, and one for $10k to give a lecture on the history of flight. The organisers clearly plumped for the second and the delegates were left disappointed.

Anyway, I know what you're all thinking. What's with the hair? It wasn't through the shock of meeting Buzz, but it did seem like a good idea at the time.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The new Blackburn Rovers away kit is just so dreadful

It was the worst kit I've ever seen. A dreadful positioning of a sponsors logo, no respect for the tradition of the club and the ultimate in crass. 

Fortunately the new Huddersfield kit was a stunt, a spoof by a betting company. 

Ours is worse. I literally hate it. Now I don't buy replica football shirts. Those I do own are in a frame and I only previously bought the odd polyester nightmare for playing 5-a-side in. 

So I get that I'm not the target market for "away kits as leisure wear". For me, football kits are for playing football in.

I'm also a bit old fashioned when I think of my own team's kit. We're blue and white halves. We're Blackburn Rovers. Blue on the left and white on the right, reversed on the back. And it's a royal blue. Not sky blue, or a tinge of turquoise. Blue.

Away kits are a different terrain. But for me it's either red and black, or yellow and blue. Anything else is tinkering with tradition. I didn't like white, there's no point. I didn't care for burnt orange either. Apparently the all black one was the choice of the players at the time they were all wealthy enough to be driving big black Bentleys and Rollers. It's also the last kit I own, because Mark and Juliet Cort got me one with Taylor 40 on for my significant birthday. Thanks guys, I still wear it to the gym occasionally, that or my Lancaster City away kit which was also a present.

But this kit is an abomination. No link to tradition, no purpose or story behind it. Not that it has to. I noticed with some disdain that Manchester City have launched an away kit with a nod towards the Hacienda's yellow and black chevrons. The launch stage was evocative of New Order's Music Complete album design. I'm sorry, but I hate that too. And what the hell is a launch of a kit all about? It's confected history, and smacks of trying too hard. And at a time when the city needs to move on. What's wrong with people?

I tremble at the thought of what was said in the meetings that created this atrocity. Did someone once say of a kit, "It'll look good with jeans"? Who decided? Was it Umbro? Or the betting company sponsor? And will they be adding vaping companies and law firms to the shirt again this season? looking in the end like a Formula One driver's outfit.

I would applaud the decision of Huddersfield to do away with sponsors (mostly betting companies) if it wasn't part of a cynical social media campaign by the cynical social media and betting company, Paddy Power.

At a time when terrace culture and styling is getting more sassy and culturally aware, this is the anti culture. A Brexit shirt in defiance of all that is modern and aesthetic. This just looks like someone's run over it with tractor tyres. I can't see any redeeming feature of it. Even the badge is mono.

To top off a truly dreadful decision, the first outing of this hideous curse of a shirt is going to be at Glasgow Rangers on Sunday. A green collared shirt and socks. At Rangers. As if taking a team captained and managed by ex-Celtic men wasn't stupid enough, we're wearing green. Maybe that's unfair to our sophisticated metropolitan opponents. I shouldn't judge. Just step up and play.

I'm looking forward to the day. We're going to enjoy it, come what may. But more often than not I find myself shaking my head at the decisions of the board at our football club. But what do I know? I'm just a fan.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

All we are saying, is give Stockport a chance

Eric Jackson, Statement Artworks 
I spend more time than is healthy thinking about how northern towns can become better places. I try and do my bit by using them. One of the traits of a failing place is that it will have lost a clear purpose and people don't go there.  There's only so long you can keep going somewhere out of civic pride and loyalty.

My nearest town is Stockport, and significantly, a framework was released today for a large part of the centre of the town that planners have called Stockport Town Centre West, from the area around the station, down to the river Mersey and along towards the bottom of Hollywood Park. It's significantly the first Mayoral Development Corporation that Andy Burnham is backing to use powers of land assembly and planning.

This is unquestionably a good thing.

Let's get a few home truths on the table first. In its present form Stockport Market is dead. Turning it into a food hall, like Altrincham, in one swoop wouldn't have worked; but it has to change. The sale and development of the Produce Hall could have been handled better. It got the whole project off to a bad start. The external aesthetics of the Red Rock leisure complex, with a great new cinema, are pretty grim. Any plan to reinvent a shopping precinct where the largest retailer is Primark is on a hiding to nothing.

Right I've said it. Can everyone move on now?

I'm on record as saying the Light Cinema is the best I've been to. I really love it. I've now been to the Produce Hall a few times and the reshaped Market Place and I think it's great too. I had a good chat to the gaffer, Steve Pilling, and he talked me through the scale of the project, and the thinking behind the different "stalls" and the need to prove the concept, create footfall, then to support other decent quality operators to come once it had been established. I was delighted that our wonderful neighbourhood Cambodian is expanding from Marple and into the Produce Hall. I'm sure others will follow.

I'm really pleased that Foodie Friday is still thriving on the last Friday of every month.

The area around the Underbanks, all around the brewery is an absolute treasure trove, every bit as potentially charming and fascinating as historical cities like Chester and York. The key word there is potentially. It also has the commitment from some really sassy and innovative retailers. I'm not sold on the identity of the area as "Stockport's Soho", but as this piece from the Manchester Evening News captured recently, the will to improve the area is palpable, but also tainted by frustration. Parts of it are crumbling before our very eyes.

Here's the thing though. Without footfall, without people coming to a place, day in, day out, then specialist retail and leisure dies. It can't support a business, let alone a town. Stockport, like many northern towns, has a big challenge to attract the people with money to spend, to sustain the businesses and to provide a range of things for people from all different incomes to come and enjoy.

You can get part of the way by encouraging existing locals, by swishing things up to tempt the Bramall set to stop by (and Marple, Davenport and Woodford types), but the re-population of town centres is what will surely be key. Town planning takes time, and everything has to be patiently and carefully consulted on.

The latest plans for Town Centre West look uncontroversial and rather urgent. The consultation period is open until the 6th of September. I know what I'll be submitting: just get on with it.

This piece of news passed me by at the time, but Chaat Cart, another local Marple favourite, is also setting up in the Produce Hall alongside Angkor Soul.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

We’re putting the band back together! Manchester Y Factor returns

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to sing with my own band. One problem, I couldn't hold a note if it had brass handles.

For my significant birthday in 2006 my mates put a band together and I belted out I Fought the Law, Don't Look Back in Anger and Ever Fallen in Love. For the rest of the night they had a proper singer and it was such a laugh.

We thought it would be great to keep the whole vibe going and for the next five years after that we pulled together a charity event with Manchester business and professional folk called The Y Factor.

Owing to huge popular demand, in the words of Jake and Elwood, “we’re putting the band back together” after an 8 year absence. How time flies!

I fought the Law, 2006
The Y Factor returns to Manchester this year, at Gorilla on 19 September 2019 and it will be a fantastic night. It reminds me what a great spirit there is amongst the finance community in Manchester, who will be showing a fair bit of bravery and generosity to perform with a live band of actual brilliant musicians and in front of amazing celebrity judges. For those who were there for the first five tours – you will remember it well! For those who weren’t - prepare to be entertained!

I'll be MC for the event and I'll be jousting with our expert judges as they pass their verdict on the acts. We'll be letting you know who they are, and who the competitors are, shortly.

Y Factor winners 2009 - the Cobbettes
Amongst the event sponsors are my pal Michael Reeves' business Clearwater International, a global corporate finance and advisory firm, and ABN AMRO Bank, where Jeremy Smith works by day, when he isn't touring with Barclay James Harvest.

There was a real sense that we needed as a group to use that capacity and energy we first had to do something to address Manchester's chronic problem with street homelessness and a collapse in support for vulnerable individuals. I think our charity partner Mancunian Way is a great fit. It was formed in 2011 to support the homeless by securing employment opportunities for individuals so they can improve their lives.

As Mike says in the press release that's gone out this week: “Over the last series, we raised more than £200k for our nominated charity – once again this will be a great event and an opportunity for our professional community to support Mancunian Way with their ambitions. This is our sixth time supporting the Y Factor event. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved together and delighted to be involved with the event again.”

I'll also do some updates on the performers over the summer and a bit more about the charity and the astonishing work they do in incredibly difficult circumstances.

Tickets are priced at £25 and available HERE! This event will be a sell out - so get your tickets early to avoid disappointment and help support this great cause.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Freshwalks in the City - the benefits of looking up

I've blogged before, here, about the wonder that is Freshwalks. Maybe I haven't mentioned how it's expanded to also include Freshwalks City

It has a similar function, get outdoors, meet new people, hang out with old friends, learn something.

The lunchtime or evening walks are guided and themed, and today we had a quick jaunt around the city centre looking at the makings of modern Manchester.

I was looking forward to this one because as our city centre changes, it's important that we understand the context of how things are changing. Sometimes this isn't for the best reasons, nor are the right choices made. But we can appreciate both the beauty and ugliness that surrounds. I'm not sure at the moment there's a consistency in design styles that appreciates all of that. But for all of us a better understanding of the past equips all of us to better shape the future.

Thanks to tour guide Emma Fox, here are a few things I learnt today.

The movement of millions of artefacts in 1934 was done with the assistance of hundreds of unemployed Mancunians, carting stuff between Piccadilly Gardens and the new library in St Peter's Square.

There's a fallen soldier statue on the top of the war memorial, his great coat draping downwards.

Ship Canal House on King Street has a statue of Neptune at the top.

55 King Street, once the home of District Bank, then NatWest, is constructed from black Swedish granite, which was chosen to match the soot covered stone buildings alongside. They were subsequently cleaned and the air quality improved.

I did know that the Arndale Centre was deliberately planned in order to crush an underground and multiracial music scene in the 1960s. I didn't know that the same architects responsible for the hideous yellow tile design were also responsible for the Hulme Crescents. Wow, what a legacy.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The 6.30 am eye roll

Rob Hulme, Ann Coffey and me earlier today
We have a routine in our house in the mornings, it's called the BBC News eyeroll. Usually it's a tired and grumpy response to whatever half-baked gasp from a politician, business leader or John Humphrys that we might hear as we sip our coffee.

There's also a subset of that called the teacher shrug. Since Rachel qualified as a teacher and threw herself into the profession it's got worse. Whatever the social problem, whatever the business failure, whatever the impending tidal wave of dystopia that is heading our way, you can guarantee someone somewhere will pop up on the news and say "if only schools could do more..."

We had all the potential to indulge in a lot more of this today at the University's annual partnership conference for the School of Teacher Education. My contribution was to have asked two excellent local MPs to come and speak. I did ask some crap ones as well, but they never got back to me. I also had the privilege of introducing them both and moderating the response from an impressive panel of educationalists.

What came across loud and clear - and no doubt was discussed throughout the day - was a real fundamental quest for purpose. We're all for joined up thinking across government and policy areas, but there seems to be a clash of purposes at play now. The hyper-accountability on one hand, a governance free-for-all on the other. The collision of values at the school in Birmingham over the teaching of relationships seems to have brought this into sharp focus. Who else can have played a part in community dialogue before it got to the stage of shouting matches and protests at the school gate?

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Where were you when we were getting high?

So it came down to a champagne super over. I thought of it - maybe because, you know, once an editor, always an editor. But it was as dramatic an ending as it was able to be. Snatching a hope of victory from the jaws of slow inevitable defeat.

But you can read about the twists and turns and the heroes of the Cricket World Cup elsewhere and in abundance. I can only add something of the emotion of it. In our living room, where we've seen England football teams lose semi-finals, quarter finals and send us to bed in sadness. We watched the 2012 Olympics in our holiday cottage in the Lakes, and how surreal and triumphant all of that now feels.

Louis said in the final over, please, just once, let me see in my lifetime an English team win a major tournament.

Had I been glued to the TV all day, gripped by it? No, we've been gardening and dipping in and out. I can't claim to be that big a cricket fan, but Louis was providing yelps and groans to keep us posted.

I just sort of expected disappointment. It's become part of our psyche. To be voyeurs at someone else's sporting moment of absolute triumph.

In the end though it was essential viewing. I was drawn to the collective moment and fully expected disaster. The heroic, so-close but yet so far, drama. We had to watch it together, bonded in that finale. 

Thank you.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

University open days - a non-helicopter Dad's take

Lancaster University ducks
So, I’m on another round of University open days at the moment. In so many ways it’s a fascinating sociological experiment; overhearing the snippets of chats between parents, while their self-conscious and slightly embarrassed offspring are weighing up the merits of the ‘student experience’ through a wholly different lens.

I can’t claim it’s an advantage, but I suppose I know what to expect given I’ve volunteered at an undergraduate open day at work, so I’ve seen it all fall into place from different perspectives. Although my job isn’t normally what you’d describe as ‘student facing’ the experiences were particularly helpful. It reminded you of the purpose of the organisation: to educate young people and give them an experience that raised their ambition. That starts with how they are treated at every stage of the way.

My colleagues in student recruitment at Manchester Met are pretty damn good at what they do. I see up close the hard work they put in to the small details that contribute to the open days being successful. Clearly, in such a competitive marketplace for students, these days have all uniformly shown the universities off in the very best light. You see it in the armies of staff volunteers, student helpers, the guest lecturers, advisers, senior leaders from the institutions, and it starts at the train station.

I always tried to speak to the students directly, rather than just to the parents, even if they were doing a lot of the talking. I figured it’s important to engage them in brief conversations, even in that fleeting moment, about what they wanted and what they thought of the experience. They’re on a journey towards independence  away from the influences of home, the presence of the parents is supportive, yet the dynamic has the potential to be fraught with tension and awkwardness. The only exception I made to my golden rule of ‘students first’ was when I was confronted by a musical hero, with his daughter. After a brief chat about a forthcoming festival, he gave me a look that very visibly reminded me why he was there.

As a large family, we’ve also got two other ‘advantages’. One is we’ve done it before; though I went to loads of open days with Joe, he ended up picking the one that he went to on his own and of his own volition, which rather proves the previous point. We also have the contrast between the parental experience of one of our sons passing into the care of the British Army. They presented a very realistic though very reassuring picture of military life, and the flow of information on his progress has been rather more thorough than any university would provide.

In this phase of visits we’ve also been looking at the University I went to 30 odd years ago, the University of Manchester (or down the road, as we call it) and the one a couple of miles from where I grew up, Lancaster University.

That has managed to lay a few traps for me. I think I avoided being the Dad who pointed out loudly where my old department and hall of residence was, or told slightly painful anecdotes about what he got up to ‘back in the day’. Though I did say ‘wow’ a couple of times at Lancaster because the campus I used to visit from time to time is so much better nowadays. And the ducks are still there.

But I did wince when a parent asked a politics lecturer what the ideological leanings of the department were. Came the reply: “Do you mean are we a bunch of demented Marxist revolutionaries? No.”

My son Matt isn’t being drawn on preferences just yet. It’s a complex changing picture, with many moving parts. He’s taking it all in, and I’m trying not to lead the witness.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Who benefits from the latest Labour horror show?

Who benefits from Labour's latest row? Or to put it another way, does this grim spectacle, actually suit the far left? Of course it does. By staunchly defending the mistakes of the past, the clearly dysfunctional response to antisemitism, the battle lines have been drawn. The mob has been raised.

I think the leadership have made a calculation that there is no more damage to limit on the issue of antisemitism. It has become mainstream and priced in to Labour's brand.

Straight after the European election results it was clear that the left were itching for Tom Watson to make a move and launch a leadership challenge. It was the one thing that a wounded beast needed to revive itself. It worked in 2016, when the Owen Smith challenge played right into their hands. A summer of pro-Corbyn rallies and roadshows would have been enough to fire up the base again.

Consider too the timing of the letters sent to MPs around their intention to stand in a General Election. The leadership must curse the missed opportunity of 2017 to sweep the stables and recreate the Parliamentary Labour Party in their image. By putting pressure on the present remaining 247 Labour MPs to quickly confirm their intentions was meant to put the squeeze on a few to confirm they were going to quit and couldn't stomach a challenge. On balance, I'd suggest it hasn't worked. Some have refused to say, others have said they will be standing again, but in truth they know they won't. Others know they now face trigger ballots and likely deselection.

The contrasting Twitter statements in response to the Panorama programme presents itself to the membership as a useful guide on which side MPs sit. A little less Pat McFadden, Louise Ellman and Wes Streeting, and a little more in the style of the arch loyalists - Dan Carden, Laura Pidcock and Dawn Butler.

I have only a passing interest in a couple of selection contests and it's clear that well-qualified and highly capable candidates from the wrong part of the party are being pushed out in favour of woeful but ultra loyal candidates supported by Unite and Momentum. And this is despite 'dressing to the left' in their recent statements and campaign rhetoric. Sitting MPs, even serving shadow cabinet members, will face vicious show trials and demands for statements of loyalty to the cult.

Part of me knows the left aren't as clever or as strong as they like to think. But it is their party now, and all Labour MPs (and members) have to wake up to that, however painful.

Anna Turley MP nails it when says: “If we cannot deal with internal problems like this, we cannot ask the public to put us into Downing Street.”

But as Ian Austin MP, who has had the courage to say 'enough is enough' and actually mean it, has said, they will. They all will: "They are going to have to decide whether they can really appear on television or campaign in an election to tell people that Corbyn should be Prime Minister. That is what it will come down to. There will be no ducking this question when an election approaches. It is no longer enough to issue a few angry tweets or to tell people like me privately that they understand why we left the Labour Party or that they disagree with Corbyn and the people around him."

To the absolute avoidance of any doubt whatsoever, the Panorama programme (and the unruly reaction to it) was a searing indictment of a party utterly unfit to govern. If this is how they mobilise the mob while in opposition, think how ugly it will get when they have the levers of the state at their disposal.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Cyclists and pedestrians - the unbearable tension

Every morning, when I cross Oxford Road on that last leg into work I will thank a cyclist who has stopped at the traffic lights, or the pedestrian crossing, whichever route I take. Often they seem a bit bemused, but appreciative. My logic is this: thanking people and acknowledging good behaviour starts to normalise it. It also shows respect for people who share the same space.

But here's the thing. About twice a week I'll see a cyclist just power on through a red light, weaving between pedestrians.

I point out that it's a red light. The responses are literally never - "whoops, sorry".

In the last month alone they have included: "Fuck off"; "what's it got to do with you?"; another one motioned as if to spit at me; another rode his bike deliberately at me and laughed - "well get out of my fucking way then". It's always a he, by the way. But I did once see a police officer cautioning a female cyclist on Oxford Road for ignoring a red light.

I probably over react. Maybe I shouldn't confront them because it just makes me cross. But to quote the Greater Manchester cycling AND WALKING commissioner Chris Boardman this week, cyclists are (as are pedestrians by the way) "mothers, fathers, grandparents and children all doing their bit to make Britain a healthier, greener and more liveable place."

We are all human beings inhabiting the same space, but this brutal, dehumanising lack of respect shown by some road users gets us nowhere. And wouldn't your son, daughter, father or mother be so proud that you intimidated another person in pursuit of your right to break the Highway Code?

I know how vulnerable cyclists are. I abhor boorish car and van drivers who provide a far greater risk to life and limb. And I've got rid of my car, I use public transport every day and now that the weather is better I'd like to cycle more myself.

What I also know is that this sense of mistrust, entitlement and rage has to stop. Otherwise Andy Burnham and Chris Boardman's bold and ambitious vision for our city will fail due to a lack of consent, based on intolerance and wilful blindness.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Abduls - a lament

Intellectual capital with Professor Westwood
When Abduls re-opened in 2017 with comfortable furniture, a sharp new brand and the logo - "same passion, new generation", I could barely contain my glee.

Professor Andy Westwood and I were practically rattling at the door for the grand opening demanding our chicken tikka on a naan with extra chillis and chutney. When we emerged for air, barely four minutes later, we shared our own particularly fond memories from our student days three full decades ago. I think his even involved a date with a woman he was particularly keen on. It was a story with a happy ending - a marriage and two kids. I can't trump that with my recollection of ordering 8 kebabs to take home, with Dave Knights eating the first one at the counter before we transported the others home for the rest.

Last year, when we were entertaining a group of big hitters from King's College London there was only one place we were going to take them. I think we even discussed the title of Dr Jon Davis' new book over an Abduls - in that kind of fiery environment it was always going to be Heroes or Villains, the Blair Government Reconsidered, frankly.

Dr Jon Davis, big hitter from King's
When my pal Jonathan Reynolds MP (pictured, below) comes to this part of town on important parliamentary and party business, the work can be demanding and requiring of refuelling. The solution is often Abduls. It was in this very place that he and Chuka Umunna plotted their futures in politics, I believe.

Transacting important MP business
When our University hired visiting professor Ashwin Kumar, one of the benefits of joining us, I explained, was a Tuesday evening trip to Abduls with Andy Westwood. To discuss political dynamics, obviously.

I can't face the disappointment that the branch at All Saints has closed and has no plans to re-open. It is the cradle of our modern civilisation, the wellspring for co-operation and new ideas.

We are in need of a new location. These are times of genuine crisis.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Thank you Mum and Dad

Not all these daily blogs have to be long. And it is my birthday today. So I’m just going to very briefly pay tribute to the two people who made it possible, my parents.

I owe you absolutely everything. The most generous, loving, inspirational people I have known.

Every day I go to work I try and put a decent shift in and help other people. Every time I see someone I think I can help out with something, or introduce them to someone who can help, I will. You both showed me the importance of that.

Never once in all my life have you made me feel anything other than loved and supported, though frankly at times undeserving of your patience and pride.

My family near and far are everything to me. Our world. And if I’m not there with you, I’m thinking about you and missing you every day too.

Thank you.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Yes, I'm still for change - our politics requires it

I can’t foresee any circumstances that don’t lead to a General Election in the autumn. The most likely path to that is a no-confidence vote to prevent no deal Brexit. The next most likely is an emboldened Boris Johnson doing so proactively in order to demand a mandate from the public for his deal Brexit, probably a slightly different version of the same one he resigned over when it was Theresa May’s Brexit. For any of that to give Johnson a hope of resetting the system is a deal with Nigel Farage and the targeted hounding of the remaining grown-ups in the Conservative Party.

Labour knows what it needs to do. Get rid of Corbyn. In a stroke it removes the single biggest obstacle to making a case to the British people for a new approach to public services, investment in infrastructure and international leadership. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the membership will elect someone capable of it, but it is clear that the paralysis has to end. I found myself listening to John McDonnell in a Times Red Box interview talking about his economic strategy. I think it’s wrong, wreckless and undeliverable, but at least it’s coherent. But when he got on to talking through the politics of it, the Labour positions and contortions, the defence of anti-semitism and the lame response to it. All of it was just so utterly unattractive. A real horror show. 

So where does that leave me? As a wrap up from the EU election campaign, I heard murmurings that there was a move by some of the Change MPs to dissolve the whole enterprise. I got together with some of my fellow candidates from here, and from all the other regions, and we managed to persuade most of the candidates to sign a letter to Chris Leslie, as the campaign lead, to say don’t do anything hasty. We argued that we should at least try and keep the best of this campaign, namely the candidates and the activists we fell into this with, and see what we have to contribute. The end result of that was on Saturday when we had a get together here in Manchester.

Anna Soubry summed it up well when she said we have the right analysis and the right ideas. But it’s going to be hard in the future to build from where we are.  

So I came away inspired but daunted. I’m more convinced than ever of the need for a movement of the sensible centre ground of politics. As my friend Andrea Cooper said: 'we’re the people who did something.' As were those MPs who said ‘enough’.  I can take the sneers, I can bat off the insults, because I’m convinced I’ve at least tried to do something positive. An opportunity awaits.  

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Why I'm still a Catholic

OK, so I'm blogging every day this month. So far I've ticked off a couple of common themes. That was easy. Rose Hill station, a tap in. A musical eulogy, round the keeper and into an empty net. Family life, a hard working team effort.

And yet there's something I do every week that I rarely talk about. Church. Faith. To be more precise, the Catholic Church, which I properly joined in 2007 and has been a part of me for a good chunk of my life. In the theme cloud along the side of this blog you'll see that I blog about Catholic stuff as much as I do about London, radio and food. And nothing like as much as I do about Blackburn Rovers, Manchester and the Labour party.

Part of it is a lack of confidence in what I believe, how I don't really live up to what it should be to be a practising Catholic, or have a thorough understanding of how to live an authentic Christian life, albeit an imperfect one. Though I do get that is the absolute cornerstone of our faith. It isn't about being perfect, it's not a zero sum game, it's who we are as flawed unique humans. And that a spirit in us all, an inner voice that says that you matter, you have value, you are loved. That's what made us. That's God.

I've even deflected personal responsibility for this piece of content, by making it subsidiary to something far slicker, a video from Alpha (top), a course I went on and took part in a couple of years ago. Alpha really changed how I thought about the whole religious experience, about what the essential message of Jesus Christ was and how it is as relevant today as it's always been. An idea that for all the horrors of the world, the response of kindness, humility, forgiveness and a readiness to confront injustice, we can create this on earth - God's kingdom as He intended - and it is an idea that Jesus died for. For us.

And also how it's above all else a social enterprise, a shared and collective experience of people gathered together in the name of Jesus. I actively, enthusiastically love that. There is something special about a parish. The gathering together of people of all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds and with all their burdens. Many of us might work in diverse workplaces, follow our sports teams with a mixed crowd, but where else do you get to look someone in the eye, having shared a ritual of such profundity, such power, such mystery, then say 'peace be with you'?  And that the same thing is happening all over the world in our universal church at roughly the same time, give or take. Or as Frank Cottrell Boyce put it - "each parish has the potential to be a neighbourhood utopia." That, for me, is a little bit of the Holy Spirit.

I'm sorry this is a bit crap. It's neither profound, nor answers the question I set.

Let me try and answer it another way. What if I wasn't still a Catholic? And what if I'm wrong?

Seriously, what will any of us have lost by taking these beautiful words of inspiration every week and to try and live our lives accordingly? What's the worst that can happen? I get to dodge the terrible car parking skills of my fellow church goers, I no longer have to endure the occasional dirge of a hymn I don't know, and drift off through a homily I can't follow because I'm not clever enough? It's imperfect, it's church, but I know I'd be far far poorer and less fulfilled if I didn't have it. That's why I'm still a Catholic.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Our family life, what you see and what you get

Birthday team photo 2016

At the centre of this month long experiment to do a blog every day of July is my own resistance to overshare.

When I started The Marple Leaf back in 2006 it was often confessional about parenting issues. I probably have overshared and there was eventually a reckoning for this when one of the kids got the piss taken out of him at school for something I’d written that a class mate’s dad had spotted.

When Twitter became a thing in 2009 I picked up a habit of sharing our weekly Saturday ritual of chaotic kid juggling between football, art class, lunch, shopping trips, going to the cinema, etc. I got loads of lovely feedback about that, much more than I did about pretty much anything else. In a trick borrowed from Twitter friend Jeremy Bramwell, I even numbered them kids 1 to 5. That’s stuck.

And how I pine for the days when we’d all do things together in such joyous family spirit. Take this week for example, kid 1 is in Ireland, I can’t tell you where kid2 is (it’s classified), kid 3 is in Cyprus, kid4 has gone to visit a friend in another city, while kid5 is off to his first concert. Rachel’s been to a Caritas event and I’ve been fulfilling my role as a Centrist (not very good) Dad at a workshop trying to reimagine our broken politics.

Younger and fatter, 2006
You never stop loving them, missing them, or making plans for things to do together. And I never stop worrying either. Given what happened to one of them in 2017, we always do what we can to make sure they get home safely.

On the plus side, the other thing we’re able to do now is afford a trip abroad with a portion of them while the others make their own plans. I think we’re still paying for our all-you-can-eat summer holidays for 7 to Croatia and Malta. But we have a plan this year to get away.

I’ve said before that as much as I enjoy watching Blackburn Rovers, the bond that really ties me to the season ticket and the commitment is that it’s time well spent with kid1 and kid3, or Joe and Louis as I call them. I know I wouldn’t go as much if they both moved further away to study, and maybe one of the reasons they haven’t is that too. 

The best we usually do is a Friday chippy tea, the occasional Sunday dinner, but life gets in the way. Last night three of us went to the cinema in Marple, I jumped at the chance to do so because I wanted to spend time sharing a moment or two. Not because I was desperate to see Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’ summer feel good flick, Yesterday, but I do desperately crave such simple shared pleasures.

We’re watching them grow wings, they make us proud every single day. But you’ll notice that we don’t share as much of that detail as we used to. If you are reading this, and you cared enough and wanted to know about their wider lives, challenges and conditions, I think you’d probably know by now. Family get updates on those details on Facebook. But what we never do, either on here, or in person, is sugar coat it. Life is tough, keeping on top of it all is relentless, exhausting, but absolutely essential to everything we are and what our values are.

So, what you might occasionally see on here is a bit of the truth. Something selective, a trigger for something else I might want to say, but it’s not the whole story. It never is.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Happy 150th birthday Rose Hill station

Our wonderful little railway station is having a birthday party this weekend. Rose Hill will be celebrating 150 years of service.

There’s a poem to mark the occasion that takes us through the deaths of monarchs and the reduction of the station to a terminus and the closure of the through line to Macclesfield in 1970, despite having survived Beeching's axe in the 1960s. It's been a battle, but a renewed lease of life more recently has made it a valuable community asset.

In the time I’ve been using the station it has transformed from somewhere that felt truly at the end of the line to a welcoming hub. It wasn’t too long ago that the poor service was rumoured to be a tactical worsening to suppress demand and lead to eventual closure. Instead we’ve had the steady improvement of the soft infrastructure led by the amazing Friends of Rose Hill station group - tree planting, a mural, the re-opening of the waiting room and so many other delightful improvements. The curation of the station into its present form has also been supported by Tony Tweedie, the station master, who embodies the very best virtues of public service. In turn that accumulated investment of love, and comprehensive data collation about who is using the station, gave a moral imperative to some resolute and successful campaigning for a higher frequency service last year.

I've done a few blogs about it over the years, this one here harks back to the campaign over the missing mystery service in the evening and the leaf train. But I also wrote here about how much better for my mental health Rose Hill is than Marple station.

We still have a crappy train operating company with their dire rolling stock, and I shall claim to speak for the permanently malcontented when I say I thoroughly dislike the 150 Sprinters as much as I despise the soon to be extinct Pacer units. But at least we have this station to come home to.

I can see a bright future for Rose Hill, but I think in ten years time it might all look very different again. Greater Manchester’s shifting demographics require an explosion in high frequency public transport services to places like this, requiring something new and exciting, like a tram train. The case for that network to expand to Marple and Rose Hill is a strong one. The reopening of the Middlewood Way towards High Lane may be trickier.

So, thank you to everyone who has got this station to 150, the passengers, the dedication of the Marple public in supporting something worth defending, to Tony Tweedie, but most of all to the Friends of Rose Hill.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Simplicity, humility, charity, service and unity - thank you Harrytown Catholic High School

We’ve just got home from an emotional evening at Stockport Town Hall. Seeing our youngest lad get two gongs at the Harrytown Catholic High School Awards Evening was just fantastic, especially as one was for music. A couple of years ago he started getting interested in making his own music. We tried lessons, a crap guitar, but it was a proper MIDI keyboard and a download of FL Studio that propelled him to new heights. The sounds that come from our garage are like something else, like Giorgio Moroder has moved in for the night to do some electronic jamming with Kendrick Lamar. He’s had to work hard to catch up with the kids in his music GCSE class who have much better parents than he has, and have been mastering instruments and scales all their lives. So that was just brilliant.

But it was something else as well. Living round here as long as we have, knowing the families, knowing the twists and turns of their lives, the heartbreaks and the challenges, gives you a  glimpse of the importance of those moments for kids enjoying that walk of pride across the stage. Rachel taught some of them and has first hand experience of their journey. And I don’t know why but the kids with names ending in scu and ski get me every time. You know, coming over here, making friends, learning a language, putting up with bullying and the nasty stink of Brexit, coming to OUR COUNTRY, and achieving. I love it when I see them succeed.

Then there’s more still. Running a school in this climate is so hard. I was a governor of Harrytown for a while, and today isn’t the time to dwell on why that wasn’t an entirely happy experience. But I couldn’t be more delighted that the school has this week been awarded GOOD status again by OFSTED, proving that the improvement measures they required last time have been met. The head, the staff, the governors, the kids will have all made an enormous effort to get that kite mark of progress. Yes, it’s really important. Yes, it matters. But something deeper, more uplifting and joyous occurred tonight for so many families and for our community.

I think it deserves a prayer, the school prayer.

Heavenly Father, we gather together as one community in your name.
Give us the courage to live our shared vision that Christ is among us, at the centre of all we do.
Pour down your Spirit on Harrytown Catholic High School.
Renew in us the simplicity to recognise your presence at the heart of each person and the humility to put others first.
Touch our lives with your love so that we can share each day with each other and wide world in charity and service.
Unite us to live in the same spirit that moved Jesus to give his life for others so that ‘all may have life and live it to the full.’
We make this prayer through Jesus Christ, your Son.