Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Tracey Thorn's Another Planet - we were all young once and not very nice

It took me far too long to read this delightful and insightful memoir of a suburban childhood, bought for me by my dear friend John Dixon who has over the years opened my eyes and ears to routinely enriching books and music. 

Maybe lockdown has made us all more reflective. I've certainly found nostalgia very appealing, even more so than usual. 

The structure veers between the 1970s and 2016 and a nostalgic return to Brookman's Park in Hertfordshire where she grew up. The fact that you know the happy ending - Tracey's career as a singer songwriter and her own family life (I'm an avid reader of her fortnightly Off The Record column in the New Statesman, by the way) doesn't change anything; there's no revelation or a gotcha moment. 

It brought back all kinds of memories of discos, experimenting with alcohol and girls, getting into scrapes and the emerging music of the time. But the strongest reminder I got was that teenagers aren't terribly nice, and regard their long suffering parents either with disdain, or not at all. Whenever I've tried to place myself in the world of my own sons and reverted to how my magnificent parents behaved, my memories are almost entirely bereft of them. And yet who picked me up from the Hornby village disco at 10pm before starting work the next day at 5 am? And that I habitually lied to them about where I was, who I was with and what I was doing. I'm just relieved I didn't have a diary to cross reference as Tracey has, I wince at the thought.

More than anything though, it is a tenderly written book, tinged with appreciation and sharp social and cultural observations. As John reminded me of Paddy McAloon's thoughts on the matter: "the sweet sweet songs that cloud your eyes (pause) nostalgia supplies."

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The terror legends of the Australian outback

I've never been anywhere quite like the Australian outback. Even going back 30 years ago, before the phrase 'backpacker murders' was ever uttered, there was a fear, a mythology, a set of folk horror tales that tainted any trip through the great expanse. 

Over the last couple of weeks I've watched the Channel 4 True Crime documentary Murder in the Outback, the Peter Falconio mystery, and the questions over the guilt of Bradley Murdoch, the man who two trials have concluded was the murderer, of which more will follow. I've also watched two series of gory horror fest Wolf Creek, which claims to be based on the real story of Ivan Milat, and dangles the fact that 38,000 people go missing in Australia every year. They do, but all but a couple of hundred are found almost immediately, and of those missing, most are in cites. 

But first I wanted to capture something of the atmosphere and the relationship with the vast unknown expanse and what it does to you. 

Basically, you have this overwhelming feeling that you are in terrain so very different to anything you are familiar with. On each and every occasion, good or ill, I was always at the mercy of strangers to navigate me through even the relatively minor challenges that can befall you. And if that was to go wrong? You're stuffed basically.

In 1984 I spent time on a cattle ranch and settlement in central Queensland, where the address was "Old Gordon, via Dingo" and despite the basic amenities, the fact it was in the middle of nowhere, it was still 150 kilometres by road from the coastal town of Rockhampton, on the Tropic of Capricorn. Compared to what I later experienced in the red centre, it was practically a seaside town. Even the nearest actual town, Biloela (population 5000), had a bank, even if they lost my money for a few days. Life was so different and pretty sparse, because the houses were so isolated, runs for supplies were infrequent and you relied on tins and frozen food. More than anything though, the work was hard and it was always very hot. 

When I lived in Perth a few years later, some of the fondest memories are of weekend jaunts 'down south' to some glorious countryside, complete with gorgeous isolated beaches and stylish old hotels. It didn't take long before you were out of Perth on the road to Bunbury or Busselton and the sky stretched out in front of you, there was desert and scrub as far as the eye can see, and you had to keep a careful eye out for two hazards, kangaroos and road trains. Oh, and running out of petrol, which we'll come to later.

But if down south held an allure, up north was a different kettle of fish, or shark. Me and Samantha, an old girlfriend from Manchester who was passing through, rented a car and headed up towards a legendary spot called Monkey Mia. It's now a UN World Heritage Site, and the attraction is that dolphins come right up to the shallow shore and rub up to you. Being there was awesome, but getting there wasn't without it's trials. The first overnight spot was in possibly the grimmest town I've ever stayed in, Geraldton. It literally had nothing to commend it, except possibly that it wasn't as grim as Northampton, 80 miles north, where we stopped for fuel, and was the birthplace of murderer Bradley Murdoch. I'm sure now they've developed a heritage museum to follow the trail of Gerald, a pioneer of the outback, or they've discovered gold and cobalt somewhere. Anyway, we were 22 and didn't care to look back. We did however stop to look at Shell Beach, the world's only beach made of, well, shells. There wasn't a sign saying don't take your car on it, but there wasn't one marking a road either. We made it off the beach, but not much further. It wasn't long before a passing car pulled over and offered to give us a lift to the next town so we could complain to the hire company about our faulty car (*innocent face*). All I remember about the mechanics of the rescue was the overwhelming kindness from the local people, how we got a tow out to our ceased up rental, and that the hire firm brought us a new rental car up from Perth, and gave us a lift to our basic quarters near to the dolphins. And looking at the distances now, that's quite some service, to be fair. No, what I remember so vividly were the people who gave us a lift. Within five minutes of picking up two poms at the side of a deserted desolate road, these 1970s migrants from Essex wanted to know if Britain was "still really bad, you know, with the blacks and everything". I was shocked, even then racism was more of a polite thing amongst English people, but I was also a cowardly pragmatist and keen to get out of the midday sun. God love her though, Sam wasn't having it, turning the conversation towards the problem being racists who can't handle change. On telling the story back in Perth a few days later, you'd get a handle on a cultural divide and a social pecking order where "£10 poms" were mocked and sneered at for their lack of graces and general ignorance. 

In retrospect it was a lucky escape that we only had Essex man and his racist missus. The bloke at the garage was keen to tell us how fortunate we were to have been rescued by such nice people, and that a much worse fate could have befallen us. The peril of meeting a real outback folk devil was genuinely rooted in supposed friend-of-a-friend tales of robbery, rape and violence. 

That fear probably motivated me to pick a relatively deluxe backpacker option to explore the wilds of the Northern Territory, some months later. I paid up front for a bargain $33 for three nights for a single room (not a dorm) in the Backpackers hostel next to Darwin coach station for the week and decided to embrace all that the capital of the rural north had to offer. I took a bi-plane to Bathurst Island, a raw and fascinating jungle island off the coast, and a pretty harsh place to live if you were a native Australian. I was determined to learn more about their lives, to spend time seeing their country as much as the one that was pretty familiar to me. That said, I checked out of my breeze block cell after just a night, as Jarvis Cocker later said - "watching roaches climb the walls" - wasn't much fun. In so doing I nearly missed my coach tour to Kakadu National Park the next day, because they literally round up the bus passengers from where you said you were when we booked and needed to set off early because of a rain forecast. This is when I encountered, for the second time, the ludicrously generous extent to which rural Australians would go out of their way to make sure you have a good experience (the first was the mechanic in Shark Bay). A bloke from the tour company radioed the coach and chased after it in his Ute. Magic. Another evening I went to the cinema to see the "Territory Premiere" of Mississippi Burning, and chatting to locals (white, obviously) drew plenty of historical parallels with life in the Territory.

I had a published travel piece in a magazine about my enjoyable climb up Uluru (Ayers Rock, as it was then), something in retrospect I really shouldn't have done and would have been better placed understanding its cultural significance from afar. But they were different times. Alice Springs, deep in the red centre, was a sleepy, hot old town, with not much going on. But I was firmly inside a backpacker bubble, which almost as a mark of being in my own bubble within that bubble, I railed against it. I met nice people, including a character actor who had a small role in Silence of the Lambs, but the guided tour made me feel pampered and inadequate, defeated by the fear of the land, which of course I was. Maybe I'd been spoiled by more authentic encounters and felt distant from the real Australia, but I still absorbed the vast, glorious red centre, the endless landscapes and the sense of magic in the air. 

It was such a sharp contrast to city life, even in an isolated and relatively comfortable city like Perth, which I never experienced as an edgy and urban environment at all. I worked at weekends, as my jobs were either in journalism or club promotion, and I was into the club scene, so these were a treat, a contrast and a release. They were also an unfamiliar challenge. One weekend three of us jumped into our mate Bruce's old car and headed out on a whim to Nick's parents weekend bolt hole somewhere near Margaret River, a beautiful town surrounded by vineyards, I'm pretty sure our directions were no more precise than that. It wasn't until we were a couple of hours down the Kwinana Freeway towards the Forrest Freeway and Busselton when we realised we'd need petrol for the next leg of the journey. It was a quirk of licensing and regulation that we couldn't find a petrol station that was open on a Friday night, so we had to stay overnight in a truckers motel (an A frame) with fold down beds and not really designed for three. We certainly didn't risk going in the pubs and trucker bars of the south west, not quite fitting in with our fancy city ways, and feeling slightly out of place, even with our checked shirts. It was the first time I experienced the raw hostility of country folk to city types, as opposed to just flat out dislike of poms (my pals were proper Aussies). By the time we got to our destination the next day we also realised we didn't really have much in the way of food, drink or any means to find any. In the house all I found to pass the time was a Jeffrey Archer novel, but we scavenged for wood and lit up a stove, another use for Archer. It was the closest I've had to Withnail's immortal lamentation that we had 'gone on holiday by mistake'. Somehow though, that weekend gave me some fond memories and great photos.

The experiences of going south and north in WA convinced me I'd seen enough without a pressing need to head east across the Nullaboor plain along the Eyre Highway. There's nothing much there except a vastness, between mining towns like Coolgardie, which didn't get the best PR from a recent documentary, Coolgardie Hotel, about the tough time two Finnish girls had there. None of my friends recommended it, and it existed like a barrier to fly over, rather than a land to explore.

So, to the Peter Falconio mystery. I thought the Channel 4 documentary, frankly, was a pretty crude hatchet job on Joanne Lees. For me, the basic premise was that she became a media property, precisely because she didn't react the way the media, especially the British media, expect people to react. It reminded me of another desperately tragic murder, that of Meredith Kercher, and how the eccentric behaviour of her flatmate, Amanda Knox, led to her wrongful conviction and trial by media. In his new book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the way we fail to compute people and I thought that in the sequences where she faced the public, or made a reconstruction video, Joanne Lees behaved as she thought she should, faking tears. All their decisions were scrutinised, why were they on that road at that time? why did they leave Alice Springs in the late afternoon? It doesn't matter. You don't think logically, or like a country person out there, you put yourself at the mercy of the land.

Then there's Bradley Murdoch. It is the job of any defence lawyer to pick a hole in a prosecution, but I found the case mounted by his lawyer, a rum character called Andrew Fraser, unconvincing. Having now spent far too long reading all of the court documents from the dismissal of Murdoch's appeal, the TV show (steered by Fraser) was selective in how the flaws of the prosecution were presented. The other witnesses made claims wholly without substance. The wider mystery is why poor Peter's body was never found, or details of what he was doing in Sydney, prior to them travelling north in a VW camper van along a 3000 mile highway. But it got me thinking, the very character we had come to fear in the wilds of Australia fitted the type that Murdoch matched so well. Aside from the DNA, the CCTV, and some circumstantial evidence, he ticked all the archetypes too. And from that you have the fictional persona of, ahem, Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek, the most terrifying horror film character since Hannibal Lecter and himself based on Ivan Milat, the serial murderer who preyed on backpackers until he was convicted in 1996.

These encounters are remarkably tame in the greater scheme of things. There is nothing heroic or courageous about breaking down in the middle of nowhere and dying of thirst, but the added threat of a predatory killer provides the lurking alibi for that soft core fear. 

Would I go back? Yes, I'd love to travel the long distances, in something sturdier than a compact rental, and staying in the kind of places that I can now afford. I can't quite imagine getting on a plane again in current circumstances, but there is a lure of the wilds of deepest Australia, and of the glorious south west of WA and The Triffids' Wide Open Road playing loudly. You just have to prepare yourself and trust that most people are there to help you.

LiveBetterVirtual - Stress, Health and Performance

Hosted a webinar on stress, health and performance with Professor Marc Jones from Manchester Metropolitan. We covered a lot, hope you enjoy it.

Marc's also doing a survey, so if you have time, we would greatly appreciate your contribution to this research, by completing the survey, which will take approximately 20 minutes. You can find a link to the survey hereAll responses will be strictly anonymous.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

'Proper Tea' with OBI featuring David Dunn

This was a bit special - having a lockdown chat with my pal Will Lewis and one of my all time favourite Blackburn Rovers players, David Dunn. Such a nice bloke, and hopefully something for everyone.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Gangs of London - over the top and magnificent

So I see the poster first: Gangs of London on Sky Atlantic. Here we go, I thought: Yardies, East End villains, football hooligans, footsoldiers and a few Russians for good measure. I think that's because I've probably watched too many dreadful British gangster films than are good for me. 

I was wrong though. Judged alongside the dross of St George's Day, anything touching on the Essex Range Rover Murders series, Footsoldier, anything with Danny Dyer in it, then Gangs of London was (is) a masterpiece. And so as much as it plays in a higher league than that, it actually stands fairly well in a tradition of British gangster films that depict the shifting ethnic, economic and cultural tectonic plates in organised crime. It starts with Harold Shand ragging off the New York Mafia in Long Good Friday, before stepping into the cross hairs of the IRA.  In a similar way Gangs of London introduces all manner of feuding bad guys, briefly at peace as the increasingly globalised nature of crime interlocks and sustains everyone. None of them behave well enough for you to pause and spare a moment of sympathy on any of them, though to be fair, the Nigerians don't even try. In short order we have Albanians, Pakistanis, Irish, Chinese, Kurds and Welsh Travellers. They all love their families and will do anything for them, but don't particularly care much for anyone else's family. 

Though these epics aren't meant to be documentaries, their background noise has to have a foothold in current events and a form of reality. Two of the best and most terrifying books I've read in recent years have been Misha Glenny's McMafia and Peter Walsh's Drug Wars. The former was used as the source material for a dreary BBC series which was big on locations and short on any actual action. 

Gangs of London is sprawling in every way. All eight part box sets are. This had nine. None were wasted. All were stunning visually, horribly violent and of course had some utterly ridiculous plot twists and character behaviours. Stylistically it was epic and cinematic. Big scenes, expansive, musical scores to lift the sometimes wooden acting. I loved the influences all the way through, not least from director Gareth Evans' dalliances in Asian martial action films, notably the pumping Indonesian powerhouse The Raid. Described variously as Peaky Blinders for the 21st century, Game of Thrones dressed by GQ, or Succession with aggression, every frame. 

I've watched them all now - I won't drop any spoilers - but episode 5 was the best. A squad of mercenaries against the Welsh gypsies. For once I picked a side. I've said before about the presence of Mark Lewis-Jones, a great actor who brought remarkable earthy verve to contrast with the relentless march of murderous slick precision. It was a brutal, overwhelming, ear splitting movie style set piece battle. Louder than War, indeed. The whole enterprise is hardly a love letter to London - a sink of depravity, money laundering and blistering double standards in a city that festers with corruption and cruelty - but there's something about the away match in Wales where Gareth Evans is in his prime, using the location beautifully, despite the leap in faith required to work out how they all got there.


You don't watch gangster movies or box sets for the tug of the heart strings or to snug up sympathetically and share a character's tears. And if you do to Gangs of London then someone will very quickly laugh in your face and remind you why that's a terrible idea. The acting too is at times ridiculously understated and the carnage simply unimaginable. But for so many reasons this lockdown has given us plenty of reasons to totally suspend what we could imagine. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Bang for your buck, best Welsh noir series yet

My fascination with Welsh Noir started with Hinterland, but has just gone to a new level with Bang.

Yes, I was drawn into the darkness of Hidden. Keeping Faith teetered just to the right side of preposterous, with overuse of pop video style lingering to music over the attractive female lead. Requiem was super creepy, folk horror. 35 Diwrnod is OK, but limited by its small budget and cast. Bang seemed to reconcile all of these shortcomings and make a powerful virtue of each one, with much use of a popular technique of location centred drama - long location shots, and very smart use of music.

Like I said when Hinterland broke through with its take on the Scandi noir set up - cop outsider with demons - the strongest cast member in a heck of a strong field was the landscape of Ceredigion, and the dark secrets of Aberystwyth. They also ended up smothering the plot and compensating for a drift into borderline cod. But like in Hidden, the stark survival of the Welsh working class was an ever present, if a little on the hopeless side.

Bang had all of this and more. The backdrop being Port Talbot, warts, beaches, steelworks, motorways and all. It didn’t pull a single punch in the portrayal of the daily stuff of a police beat, following a spree of gun crimes in Series One and a savage killer on the loose in Series Two. But though life at times for a whole load of characters was unremittingly tough, it didn’t seem as universally grim and hopeless as Hidden, or have the stolen idyll of Keeping Faith. Life is hard in this world of loan sharks, low wages, drugs, domestic violence, crappy crime and decay. Yet for all that, there are characters who still bring warmth and joy, office banter and small tender moments of friendship and family life. Even poor old Sam Jenkins, bullied, friendless and prosecuted manages to have happiness and a sense of humour in his grasp. I say this having just wrapped up a stunning conclusion to the six part second run, which certainly didn’t cue things up for happy ever afters.

There lingers too the possibility of justice not being served. It's possible that bullies, murderers and rapists might break an unwritten rule of TV drama and get away with it. Bang also has an earthier menace to it, man-made malignancy, rather than an ethereal lingering evil of the kind we saw so profoundly in Requiem, and hinted at from time to time in both Hidden and Hinterland, where there's always a hint of the weird and the eerie. Hopefully there are no spoilers here, and this is enough of a recommendation. Just watch it, absorb yourself in it and try not to have nightmares. The cast are (mostly) tight and the creator Roger Williams' script sparkles with bilingual delights. But in Catrin Stewart as Gina, and Jacob Ifan as Sam, you have two performances that would earn a BAFTA, or equivalent, in any language.

A final thought though, did nobody care what happened to creepy Russell?

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Souness revisited

A couple of weeks ago a couple of Rangers fans invited me on to their football starved podcast to do a bit of nostalgic reflection on one of their heroes of old, Graeme Souness. I enjoyed our chat and have dug up the original piece I wrote about the Souness years at Ewood.

And I also found a picture of him from the summer of 2000 with my nephew Jamie Ritchie one of the "Time Team" who launched the new kit.

On Sky’s Monday night Football recently Graeme Souness was the focus of attention and retrospective scrutiny. As well as being an engaging studio summariser and the scourge of Paul Pogba, they made him the subject of a fans question and answer session.

He mainly talked about his time playing at Liverpool and his record as a manager, notably with Rangers and Liverpool. At times it was emotional. He didn’t explicitly say so, but he regretted doing an exclusive with The Sun newspaper just a few years after that paper so viciously slandered Liverpool’s supporters in the aftermath of Hillsborough. He wished he could turn back the clock, he said, quite visibly upset at the memory.

I remain fascinated by Souness as a character. He was truly one of the great players of my lifetime, the captain of one of the greatest club sides of them all. His character, his grit, his drive were forged then. They gave him his reference points for his later career in management. And I would argue, they were to be his downfall in management.

There was only one reference to his time at Ewood Park. He was our manager from 2000 to 2004, where he had some truly great times. And he referenced one of the best players he coached – our very own Turkish delight, Tugay.

Had he been asked about his time at little old Blackburn Rovers, I think I know what he will have said.

In fact, this is what he said in his second published biography in 2013:
“To finish sixth in the league, I think the club would certainly take that now”,
“To get promoted at the first asking, to win a major trophy, to finish sixth, to qualify for Europe twice, I consider that a successful time.
“I definitely regret leaving.”
“I had four of my happiest years in management at Blackburn and I do think now it was a mistake to leave.
“But if I hadn’t left Blackburn then, I would probably still be in management now.”


There’s an alternative history of his later years at Rovers that needs airing.

I’m grateful for all of that success. I appreciate too that there were good players in the team he bequeathed to Mark Hughes. But I had it on pretty good authority that he was a game away from the sack when Newcastle came calling.

Of all his jobs in management Blackburn Rovers was the only job where he exceeded the expectations of the supporters. He revolutionised Rangers in his 5 years there, and deserves credit for that, but that was what is expected of a club of that size in that city.

Torino, Benfica, Southampton, Galatasary and of course Liverpool, weren’t tenures of a glittering career.

He needed the Blackburn Rovers job as much as we needed a manager to get us back on the path Jack Walker intended.

Let’s have a look for a moment at the backbone of the squad that won promotion and lifted the Worthington Cup. Picking five players at random – Henning Berg, David Dunn, Martin Taylor, Keith Gillespie, Andy Cole.

He fell out with Berg and sold him to Rangers.

He sold Dunny to Birmingham, a relationship that had broken down.

I frequently remember his withering assessments of Martin Tiny Taylor that he was ‘son-in-law’ material, too nice to be decent centre half.

Keith Gillespie left for Leicester in 2003 with a parting shot at the manager that he didn’t speak to him. In his book, he paints a picture of a manager parading around in a towel and brogues. The respect had clearly gone as quickly as one of Gillespie’s bets on the horses.

He got plenty of goals out of Andy Cole, even signing his pal Dwight Yorke, hoping it would ignite his dynamic partnership from the Manchester United treble winning side of 1999. Despite flashes of magic, like in a final day 4-0 demolition of Spurs at White Hart Lane, it didn’t work.

Cole reported him to the PFA after a series of training ground bust ups. Souness admitted he physically attacked Yorke in a 5-a-side game.

“I regret that. I don’t want to say too much about what happened but certainly it was my fault. I shouldn’t have been trying to play five-a-side at 50 years of age.

“Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were good players but we fell out in the end because I thought they could be giving so much more. I felt they were taking their foot off the pedal.”

And despite the success of the previous seasons, 2003-2004 was a disaster.

The Rovers squad started to change in the summer of 2003. Damien Duff joined Chelsea for £17m and David Dunn was sold to Birmingham for £5.5m.

And those who left were replaced inadequately.

Out of the cups early. Out of Europe straight away. Only a late burst of form in April fought off relegation.

It’s the heartbreaking paradox of his time at Ewood. In the space of a summer he made the best and the worst signings in the history of the club.

Tugay was a revelation. I remember thinking at the time, he had better be some player to improve on Eyal Berkovic, who I liked.

All managers sign players that just don’t work out. But the £7.5 million signing of Corrado Grabbi in 2001 took some beating. And the bigger the fee, the bigger the flop.

The trouble with Souness seemed to be that this wasn’t just a temporary lapse in judgement.

Many of his signings after that were poor.

None of Lorenzo Amoruso, Barry Ferguson, Dwight Yorke, Dino Baggio, Vratislav Gresko could be judged a success.

Even Lucas Neill, Steven Reid and Brett Emerton failed to make an immediate positive impact, arguably turning in their better performances after Souness left in September 2004.

Imagine for a moment that this frittering away of wages and big fees had been half of what it was. And he left for something else. What would his successor have achieved?

But that’s not it. I think the game outgrew him.

As a player Souness was a winner. He won by ruthless commitment to his craft. He took on responsibility. He also had a clear idea of what his goals were and how to achieve them.

On the Sky programme Souness spoke of his early days as a player at Liverpool. Asking Bob Paisley and Ronnie Moran what he was expected to do. They castigated him. He had to take responsibility himself to fit into a team alongside Tommy Smith and Alan Hansen. 

If you think about the players he actually got on with, who he didn’t fall out with, they were cast in that mould. Tugay. Damien Duff. Garry Flitcroft. Stig Inge Byonebye.

I think he resented players who hadn’t had to fight as he had.

But time and expectations caught up with him.

He proved at Rangers that he wasn’t a terrible manager. But they had a clear defined goal. Be better than Celtic.

At Liverpool, it was to get back on that perch. He failed.

When he took over at Ewood in 2000 there was a clear aim. Get Promoted.

Then it was survival.

As a squad that group really kicked on and achieved. But what was the goal after that? Champions League?

I’m not entirely sure any of us knew.

And I’m pleased he has an affection for us as a group of supporters.

“My last game before I left was at home to Manchester United, we were winning 1-0 but then Louis Saha took the ball down with his hand in the 92nd or 93rd minute and they scored. After that game I was asked if I was interested in the Newcastle job. I think at the time John Williams was fairly happy about the deal, because they were getting good compensation for me. But Mark Hughes inherited a very good side with good players. The fans at Blackburn were good to me, they weren’t on your back straight away, they gave you time and got behind you. I can only say I really enjoyed my time at Blackburn.”

The board couldn’t believe their luck.

The idea his career took a dive after his time at Rovers is remarkable. I hope I’ve demonstrated that the decline was already well underway. Maybe there’s a reason he hasn’t worked since.

But for all of that I still like him. Managing these millionaires is a thankless task. Trying to fine them a week’s wages for misconduct is like dropping ten pence for the rest of us.

For all of the memories of that rotten last season and the millions that were wasted. I retain an affection for those early years.

Thanks Graeme. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Two very good books about London

Reading Robert Elms' memoir of his life and of London, I was struck by the passing of both the London I knew and left, and the London I visit and still love.

There's a significance to the timing here. My first born son, Joseph John Taylor, was born in the Homerton Hospital in Hackney on this day 21 years ago. We go back every year or so for a mooch about, but it's much more my city than his. But it's not really mine at all now.

First off, I like Robert "Dutch" Elms and his chirpy BBC Radio London show that I still listen to occasionally on the weekly podcast. Although he's a good few years older than me, his hinterland and curiosities match many of my own, including my favourite street in London - Lamb's Conduit Street - long lost oddities like the Albanian Shop in Betterton Street, Pollo and Stockpot, but also national treasures and Soho staples of my 20s like Bar Italia and the Groucho (wasn't a member, loved going), and the glorious Mangal Ocakbasi in Dalston.

He's got a real grasp of London people and their stories, the places that don't have a blue plaque but were significant for what went on there. Three jumped out at me, a scummy hotel in King's Cross that was a base for the violent nuisance of the far right; the old drinking den in St Giles that was burnt down in Britain's biggest mass murder in 1980; and the flat in Stoke Newington - bang opposite where Joe was first taken home 20 years later - where the Angry Brigade had a bomb factory.

It's full of observational delight, as well as his own life story; but it's his family stories that were intentionally touching, particularly his love for his late mum who sounded wonderful and proud, and the Dad who died at 40 when he was such a young lad of whom he yearns for more knowledge. It comes later when he meets veterans from the Spanish Civil War who knew him as a trade unionist and a good comrade.

He keeps layering on the love, and the laments, but then towards the end, he gets angry as he confronts London's unsustainable housing situation - the unaffordable and soaring prices. He makes the point that anyone who has bought a London property in the last 30 years has won a version of the lottery, but once you've left you can never go back. That was my thought as our removal van chugged up the A10 from Stoke Newington before Joe even reached his first birthday. His kids have grown up in Camden Town, but won't be able to live there unless he leaves the house to one of them and move to his place in the country. And after reading the love letter to his London, that won't be likely.

It also made me recall another book I read in the last couple of years that left me quite depressed and unable to articulate with any enthusiasm why that was. Ben Judah's This is London was powerful, hard hitting and packed full of stories of London life. It painted a picture of a cruel and unforgiving city of broken dreams and exploitation of the disparate desperate like the African office cleaners of Barking and piled high Romanians sharing cramped rooms in Neasden.

Ben Judah is a young journalist, he was 27 when this was published, so the force of these stories comes from the stoic pursuit of the testimonies he skillfully extracts from the lives he seeks to chronicle. For Robert Elms this is his life's work, which I speculated he might write after I enjoyed his previous tome, The Way We Wore. 

Quite where a teeming and sprawling city like London goes after the Covid-19 pandemic is anyone's guess. There's no alternate reality that the London of Robert Elms contradicts the city of Ben Judah. I just know I was lucky enough to have experienced the delights of the former, without suffering anything of the dystopia of the latter. This is a day to count our blessings, certainly for me.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Lockdown fiction

I think I've only read two fiction books this year. Both have been magnificent and now that I've finished my thesis, I am hungry for more.

My mate Michael Finnigan recommended A Gentleman in Moscow, and it was the perfect preparation for lockdown. The tale of how Count Alexander Rostov spent his time under house arrest in the gilded gulag of Moscow's Metropole Hotel from 1921. The writing is sublime. There are times when you have to put the book down, pause, read a passage again and just luxuriate in it.

The other was the latest triumph from my old favourite John Niven - The F*ck it List. Set in a totally believable future of the first term of the Ivanka Trump presidency it bubbles with quiet liberal outrage at the lunacy and destruction we are (still) tip toeing into. Vivid and splenetic, as I've come to love about Niven's writing, but also crisp and emotional too. A real tribute to the central character, Frank Brill, a former newspaper man with a terminal cancer diagnosis, directing his rage and denying himself an ounce of self-pity.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Lockdown telly - quick update

After a solid month in isolation it's been up and down. I've been working from home, exercising every day, eating well and and inevitably watching all sorts of telly and films. I'll do some telly reviews first.

Twin (BBC4) - So we're finally getting into Scandi noir. This was as compulsive as it was implausible. Once you suspend your misgivings about how identical twins aren't so alike and living a different life 15 years apart literally can change you physically, then it's great. All sorts going on by the end and a wild box of intrigue and secrets. Very deft and visually stunning. And yellow coats.

Fear the Walking Dead (Amazon Prime) - I did this the wrong way round, following Lennie James's character Morgan Jones from The Walking Dead into this world. Then, a bit like the show runners did with season 4, which started at the end and showed you how they got there, I then went back into Season 3. I found it to be really very good, some of the best writing and story plotting in the whole TWD universe. But it made me realise how lame season 4 was.

Don't F*** with Cats (Netflix) - deeply strange and unsettling. It started as a doc about a crowd sourced investigation into some creepy sicko and ended up being something very existential about the way this whole messed up world works. But I'd still highly recommend it.

Better Call Saul (Netflix) - wow. OK, I thought this was going to be the last series before it catches up with Breaking Bad. So by the end of the final episode I was panting for breath in terror at what was going to happen to Kim. The two episodes towards the end with the desert scenes were as good as anything from this universe. The whole Salamanca family story is also wild and raging with potential now. We now have two years and 10 episodes to wait. I have a theory....

Homeland (Channel 4) - one to go. Absolutely nuts.

Sunderland 'til I Die (Netflix) - I didn't enjoy this as much as the first series, but it was structured much more on themes, rather than telling the story of the season, which we obviously know. The boardroom characters came across even worse than last time.

Celebrity Who Dares Wins (Channel 4) - I am always awestruck by Ant Middleton's ability to stick a "fucking" in the middle of words, not just sentences. As in, "get your arse over fucking there and get in the heli fucking copter." I can't imagine any of the celebrities lasted longer than a couple of days. Brutal.

Save Me Too (Sky Atlantic) - as I write I am half way through. Lenny James is a great talent and he has crafted some multi-dimensional non-cliched complex characters that seems utterly unique to other portrayals of how urban estate lives are portrayed on TV. Makes your teeth itch with discomfort, but utterly compelling.

PS - We finished Save Me Too. Definitely the best of this list, by some distance. I think it's the characters Lennie James has created. I said that after the first series, people who live on London estates don't tend to live normal lives in TV drama, they are either victims or perpetrators. And main characters seem to always live in large suburban (usually London) houses that you couldn't possibly afford on the jobs and salaries they do. But the acting was top class too, especially from Lennie James and Leslie Manville, as you'd expect, but also from Olive Gray as Grace.    

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Hands off Wales - Wyn Thomas, a quick review

I spotted this hefty tome at the Hay Festival, a couple of years after I had a brief flurry of interest in the militant Welsh nationalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Like a lot of purchases from festivals and readings I never got round to reading it. I was however inspired to do so by a recent binge of Welsh language TV series and films.

Though my Dad is Welsh born, and he spoke Welsh as a child, before moving to Lancashire, I'm not as in touch with that side of my heritage. As anyone who has ever visited this blog before will note, I'm a very proud Professional Northerner. But in so being I do recognise the cultural and economic injustices that have blighted Wales and what it has as a special nation.

I dropped the author a note of appreciation this week and rather than compose a long blog review, I just thought I'd share some of the same observations here.

So Hands off Wales, an ambitious and impressive work by Dr Wyn Thomas takes a wise and particular view on a time and place, and pauses to consider how history views political movements over time.

It is a far richer and more thorough analysis than that of two earlier books I stumbled upon, Ray Clews To Dream of Freedom and John Humphries' Freedom Fighters. I developed some real anger and frustration about the militant movements for Wales from reading those. As I said at the time: “But it also served to deepen my anger at John Jenkins from MAC and his high minded lack of accountability for the bombs that maimed an RAF officer - he claims it wasn't "our boys". Neither was the one left in a locker at Cardiff station. But that's the problem with autonomous cells and leaderless resistance, people do their own thing. Nutters who don't and can't make moral judgements.”

I also said on the Free Wales Army: “It also really annoyed me that the FWA were cited as "anti-communist" and "nationalist" but were probably to all intents and purposes neo-fascists. The uniforms, the oaths, the rhetoric. Clews makes no comment about them receiving correspondence from the National Front leader John Tyndall, or their links to the IRA.”

Thomas's conclusions are better nuanced and more considered, as I’d expect, but the showboating and virtue signalling of politics today and the ability to create pop-up movements does lead me to think the last chapter on Welsh nationalism and political identity is far from written.

Indeed, Thomas has also written a biography of John Jenkins, the leader of one of the terror cells, and who now lives in the same village my Dad grew up in. His next work is a real analysis of the scandal of Liverpool Corporation's flooding of Tryweryn. On this evidence, they should be very worthwhile texts to study. But there is more to come, I feel.

I enjoyed the detail and the interplay of personalities in Hands Off Wales. I found myself wondering whether the injustice of Tryweryn and the hollowing out of communities are two sides of the same bad penny Wales has inherited, but also left wondering what political history will make of Welsh attitudes today, the support for Brexit and the uptick in support for Plaid. I guess we’re in unchartered territory now, we all have fears of what kind of dystopian world could emerge, but we’re still holding on to hopes that something better should.

Finally, it's also been inspiring as a piece of historical scholarship. As I plough on with my own magnum opus on a subject particular to my own sphere of interest, this proves that good clear and lively writing is essential to bring a subject and personalities to life.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Passing - more Welsh noir, if you know your history

Severn Screen's The Passing

I tend to go down these cultural rabbit holes. After watching Severn Screen's second season of the excellent Hidden (Craith, in Welsh), I was drawn to this feature length 'horror' written a few years earlier by Ed Talfan, producer of Hinterland and Hidden, and a particularly gruesome historical horror film The Apostle from 2018.

The trailer suggested it was going to be a horror film, I think. The premise being that it starts with a lonely man tending to a run down farm, building a well. He's played by Mark Lewis Jones, a Welsh actor of some stature, who brought real presence recently to both his part as Steve Baldini in Keeping Faith and as Prince Charles' Welsh language tutor, Edward Millward in The Crown. There is a sense of foreboding and a tragic, hidden menace, but as the story goes on you're sure the gentle giant Lewis Jones' Stanley is just that, but that the young man and the woman he's pulled from a crashed car have something they're running from.

All of the spoken dialogue is in Welsh, but it's also sparse and packed full of non-verbal tension, with just the three actors, the couple played by Annes Elwy from Hidden, and Dyfan Swyfor who stars in S4C's Bang, which is now on my list. Yet for all of the uncertain undercurrents of tragedy and loss, The Passing is a remarkably tender and reflective story. There are a couple of dark twists that I can't even begin to hint at, but by the end of it (and I'd worked it out), you realise it's a work of quiet allegorical genius. Like many of the other projects that Talfan and his cohort are creating, it's a body of work that not only tells the stories of the people of Wales, that lets the landscape play an important central part, but does so in knowing and critical solidarity. It's far more ambitious in that regard than just Scandi Noir, Welsh style, unless of course I'm missing something cultural there too.

Should I pay any attention to reviews on IMDb? I was surprised it wasn't higher rated, but those who just didn't get it seemed to really hate it. Yes, there are things that happen that are improbable, impossible, inexplicable. That's the point. All I'll say is this: Cofiwch Drywern.  So if you know what that means, fine, if you don't, that's not fine and you probably ought to read more. Coming up next, a review of this important book I've gone back to and finished by this guy. Isolation rabbit holes, eh?

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Podcast with Influential Communications - managing news in the digital age

The advance of digital into all aspects of our lives has increased the rate news can spread exponentially. We are working in a 24-hour news cycle, with stories constantly breaking and updating. This has put great pressure on print media; a situation only accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis.

I took part in this podcast at the invitation of Chris Hulme, a director of Influential, and it was largely looking around the changing face of news in the built environment, but was also pretty relevant to news more generally, especially since the lockdown. I was billed as one of three "vastly experienced communicators" which was nice, but daunting. The others were Paul Unger, publisher of Place North West and Place Tech and Zak Garner-Purkis, head of content at Construction News.

One of the topics we touched on was the spreading of misinformation. In these strange times of social isolation, we seem even more desperate for the inside track. I'm sure we've all had messages claiming knowledge about the next phase of the crisis or medical insights. Some we can dismiss as outright disinformation designed to upset and degrade our resilience. Rightly, the tech companies are being asked to do something about this and clamp down on harmful spread of false information. We also all want to be the person who points out that the WhatsApp shared is a fake, because we're connected to Marianna Sprigg at the BBC who does an amazing job of researching and debunking such rubbish. Some nonsense on Facebook is easily reported and dissed in the comment section. But the forward button on WhatsApp is the biggest single cause of spreading conspiracies and wrong information. Often this is done by family members who can't spot fakes, and because of its source is more likely to be believed.

All this rather reinforces the trusted brand status of the BBC and the trusted local media. I'm a staunch defender of the BBC and their public service ethos. They tread that line between being a public body and being state controlled and do it very well. In some countries the equivalent is a tool of propaganda, and in the US this is faced with a battle by stealth from a President actively peddling outright lies and accusing any media who don't go along with him of being 'lamestream', 'fake news' or being a 'con'. Luckily we're nowhere near that.

The other vital and vulnerable source is the local media. Just when we need our community more than ever, our local outlets are in need of state support. This could be for advertising, or some kind of partnership. I'm in support of the News Media campaign and in particular the local version of it nearby, where my good friend Chris Bird is working wonders with Quest Media in Tameside.

I think we need journalism and informed scrutiny more than ever. These troubled times remind us of it on a daily basis.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Hidden: Series 2 - Relentlessly bleak, but remarkably good

We reflect in these troubled times about all the things we have to look forward to, all the times we can spend with people we're missing, places we can go, new joys we can experience. I'll be honest, a trip to north west Wales may well figure in those thoughts. The scenery, the cute railways, the open spaces. But this is not the Wales of Hidden, its dark noirish second season managing to be even more relentlessly bleak and hopeless than the first, which takes some doing given it pivoted around a lonely man who abducts, rapes and imprisons girls on his farm, with the encouragement of his mother.

And yet, it was a hugely compelling second run out. Without giving away the plot, or how it gets resolved, it doesn't have a happy ending. It simply can't - there are lives torn asunder, as you'd expect with an opening that lays it out from the start - retired teacher killed at home and nihilistic teenagers up to their necks in it. But it's never a 'whodunnit?' but a why dunnit?

Part of the mystery is in the lives of people who are abandoned and neglected. In different ways each character yearns to belong to something, or someone, while lamenting a dark sense of loss.

Wales has been blessed in so many different ways and these are exploited fully in the rich atmosphere that swirls all around each scene in Hidden, sometimes overdoing the long shots of the characters staring into the distance. The slate quarries, the forests and lakes, and the views of the Menai Straits over to Angelsey hang over the individual human tales of loss and sadness as a reminder that people can be capable of such collective mistakes and mishaps. Every single character seems to carry a heavy burden of grief, or are the victims of appalling circumstance - even the offers of something better get snuffed out - be it the stress of raising a newborn child when you have no time, a fishing trip, or that you don't get to go out for a drink with the person who you click with.

There is police procedure, but it doesn't get in the way. Neither do the police seem particularly under resourced to deal with a murder investigation in the way you depressingly see in some urban crime dramas. Though you wouldn't want to rely on the services of a duty solicitor in a Welsh police station if these lot are anything to go by.

The central character DCI Cadi John (played with an understated melancholy by the excellent Sian Reece-Williams) is not only by some distance the most competent police officer Wales has ever seen (see Hinterland and Keeping Faith and you'll see what I mean), but also hugely empathetic, caring and yet pulled in all directions.  And in a refreshing break with TV norms her personal story never overplays its hand, or exacerbates professional tensions with fellow officers who all seem to work for one another.

The whole cast of Hidden pull it off with real style and raw emotion. But it is the young actors in particular who are exceptionally strong, especially in the final two episodes where they are called upon to let out their respective despair, cunning and anger (left to right). Remember these names: Steffan Cenydd, Annes Elwy and Sion Eifion, as Conor, Mia and Lee.

As I wrote in appreciation of Welsh noir after the second excellent series of Hinterland, Welsh TV has a great head start on the rest of the UK with a tradition of drama going back to the very beginnings of its own fourth channel S4C. With Hinterland, Keeping Faith, Bang and Requiem, there clearly are a pool of actors, daring script writers and a landscape, literally, to die for.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Ozark season 3 - wow

The initial hot take on the Netflix series Ozark was that it was Breaking Bad lite. Respectable family gets in over its head with the Mexican drug cartels, with murderous consequences. But somehow from the start you felt that much as he was a nice guy out of his depth, Marty Byrde's character development through the first two seasons simply lacked the complex brilliance of the transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg.

Well, I'm not minded to compare the two on any kind of balanced score card, but Season Three raised the game and took Ozark in a direction all of its own. We know by now what Mexican drug cartels are capable of. But the question you ask yourself all the way through, is how far will any of these characters go? Or as cartel kingpin Omar Navarro puts it, "what do you want, Marty?"

The acting, the writing, the tension, all ratchet up throughout. All of it makes for a totally bingeworthy series with twists and turns, accelerated by the regular introduction of new characters that take the plot to new places and force the characters into darker moral choices. Foremost amongst them all is Ben, Wendy's brother, with a terrifying performance by Tom Pelphrey as worthy of an Emmy as Julia Garner was (and is, again) for her next level delivery of Ruth Langmore.

The women of the Ozarks, Darlene, Wendy, Ruth and Helen. Bad assess, all of them
And it has to be said, at the centre, slap bang at the the molten core of this whole crazy show are the women. All of them. Darlene, Helen, Wendy, and especially Ruth. These are complex, vibrant, surprising, repulsive and mesmerising, all at once. But also Charlotte, Marty and Wendy's daughter, their therapist Sue, and Maya, the six months pregnant FBI agent. Wow. Never once did you stop for breath and think, no, leave it out, that's exploitative or implausible. Well, as wild and unexpected as you can get with a family like the Byrde's and set ups like their labyrinth money laundering empire.

And then as it all draws to a shocking conclusion, it's the raw, abused and rough arsed hill billies that display empathy and love and are prepared to draw a line that defines their version of decent, and beyond which they simply will not cross (apart from seeding a new poppy field to pump smack into Season 4, but what's a bit of drug distribution amongst old friends?). No, that's the shocking trajectory that this series has taken you on. It's the not the educated, urban, ambitious politicos and lawyers, you feel for, the people a bit like us, but the women of the Ozarks.

Wow. What an ending. We've all got a bit more time on our hands and time at home, but trust me, this is great.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Isolation telly - some from me to you - recommendations welcome

As we enter the third week of isolation, it seemed like a moment to sum up where we are with various bits of telly drama and films since I last did a review of telly in June last year.

The Crown (Netflix) - it took us a while but we're up to date with the sprawling dramatised peep into the lives of the Windsors. I liked the earlier ones with Claire Foy as Her Maj, but season three picked up with her warm relationship with Harold Wilson, brilliantly played by Jason Watkins.

The English Game (Netflix) - there were even more liberties with the historical truth in this period drama that felt a bit like Downton Abbey meets Escape to Victory. My eldest son Joe is in it as a supporting actor, (pictured, to the left) so I was bound to be a bit excited. The footballing history was a bit warped, which was a shame, blurring two Blackburn teams. But it was well made, with a good historical storyline that though it wasn't always real, it had a wider evidential truth to it about the era. There's a long piece to be done on Fergus Suter and Blackburn Olympic.

The Capture (BBC) - seems a while ago now, but this BBC dystopian drama set in London where a young soldier is fitted up for a crime was pretty gripping, even if its moral twists and turns were really annoying.

The Walking Dead (Fox) - I'm the last one standing in our family when it comes to this zombie apocalypse now in its TENTH season. Some of the recent episodes have been really good, plenty of tension and some unexpected deaths that seem to have had the effect of moving it all on from its dark days of season 8, when I actively wished its demise. The plotlines have sometimes followed the comic book arc too closely, but the rhythm has really picked up now. Disappointed I haven't managed to catch up with Fear The Walking Dead season 5, or even to locate where it is.

The Stranger (Netflix) - loved this locally shot thriller. Kept you guessing all the way through, with judicious use of plot manipulation. Loved the chase scene that went from Stockport Market, through Manchester city centre and ended up at the railways sidings in Bury. Impressive.

Homeland (Channel 4) - best season since the first. Half way through and Carrie is at her unpredictable and brilliant best.

Succession (Sky Atlantic) - Gutted we came to this late. The script is one of the sharpest, sweariest most cutting I've seen in a while. The acting so on point. We're now puzzled as to where we can see the second season.

COBRA (Sky One) - a bit of nonsense really, but slightly prescient as turned out. Scratched the itch that the absence of Spooks has caused, and liked Robert Carlyle very much.

Keeping Faith (BBC) - didn't like the second series as much as the first and wasn't sold on the idea of a new actor to play the arch baddie Gael Reardon. Good to see the return of Faith's yellow parka far more than her drippy husband.

Better Call Saul (Netflix) - me and Matt are really enjoying Season 5 of the Breaking Bad prequel, which has started gently segueing into the universe of Walter and Jesse. The levels of deception cut right across the storylines and the quality of the acting is never less than terrific.

Ozark (Netflix) - I'm one episode in to the third season which dropped at the weekend, as they say.

Looking forward to Save Me Too with Lennie James and Suranne Jones on Sky One. The first season was a couple of years ago and was probably the highlight when I did this round up in 2018. The two minute trailer had me panting.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Now all them things that seemed so important ...

Well, mister, they vanished right into the air

Day two of the great lockdown and here we are quoting Bruce Springsteen and trying to keep calm and carry on.

Last week the most pressing non-work issue on my mind was what new hiking boots to get in time to break in for my trip to the beautiful English Lake District to climb Skiddaw and Catbells in April*. Other quibbles like sporting tournaments, the trains and the Labour leadership election all seem so utterly inconsequential now.

We're not sure when or if or even how one of our sons is getting back from his posting in Africa. One of our students is home and the other confined to his high rise residence. But we have technology to keep in touch with parents and friends, these are the blessings we count.

We've signed up for the local support networks, we've done that through our Church and unofficial community networks, but it's imperfect and unclear what we can safely contribute other than to stay at home and try not to fall over each other.

On that imperfection, I've also heard it said that there will be a reckoning for how organisations behave. Rachel and I both work for large complex organisations trying to keep on top of difficult communications issues, and with so many moving parts. Difficult decisions are being made, but always with the very best of intentions. Seeing the government wrestle with this, and then how businesses react, show's painfully that not everyone will get this right all of the time. Yes, the Wetherspoons bloke, Ian Lavery, Mike Ashley and Britannia Hotels appear to have acted with predictable insensitivity, but in many cases we should try and cut people a bit of slack, I think.

This is new for us all. It is a test for us all, we can help each other, stay as positive as we can and hopefully emerge better, more decent and more caring as a result. I might post a few TV and book reviews from time to time, but if you fancy a natter, get in touch.

*Haglofs Skuta mid-proof eco in barque/maroon red, in case you were wondering

Friday, March 13, 2020

Our train hell - Channel 4 Dispatches on Monday

After five weeks of hard work, and a lot of train travel, Channel 4 Dispatches' "Britain's Train Hell" is airing on Monday 16th March at 8pm on Channel 4.

I helped out by talking through our experiences on the line from Rose Hill or Marple into Manchester Piccadilly and home again, and submitting a video diary. The producer has written to thank me for my contribution to the film. Many other people submitted video diaries, and they have tried to use as many of these as possible, but have a watch on Monday and see if mine is in there. If it isn't then I'm fine with that, because if someone else can give their powerful and personal testimony in a far better way than me, then brilliant.

It's more important we keep this message up that our trains are unacceptable. They are still shocking. I actually dislike the Sprinters as much as the Pacers. I love the beautiful long new electric trains that run from Blackpool to Hazel Grove, but we can't have them, we still have antiquated diesel cast offs.

Give the programme a watch and do let us know what you think.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Well done to Big Issue in the North - journalism at its best

Over the course of the last year or more I've done a few blog posts about a corrosive element of Manchester business that wasn't been held to account. One was a talk at Alliance Manchester Business School, here. Or this one about policing the boundaries of a community, here.

The media seem to have precious few reporters and editors prepared to dig in and do a story exposing wrongdoing. There are many reasons for that: some have become supine, some are complicit and others lack the resources.

So fair play to the bravery of the The Big Issue in the North, under the editorship of Kevin Gopal, in doing a story about missing pension payments by a bust company director with multiple identities, who also claimed to run a charity.

Go out and buy this terrific little magazine and support the work they do.

Or if you're out of range, read this excellent story here.

And shame on those who have supported and boosted the people who are doing such harm to the reputation of our city.

Lunch of the month for February - Refuge

Lunch of the month for February was from a fairly lean field as I was away for a week of a short month. But it is no less a mark of quality as it was the Worker’s Lunch at the Refuge. They rotate the menu depending on the week and on the day I went we were fortunate enough to have a choice which included a gorgeous chunky beef ragu in tomato with thick ribbons of pasta (which I had). My lunch pal Steve Kay had the vegetarian noodle soup. For £7 a head it’s really decent.

I was also treated to a lunch at Tast, which was long overdue - both for the company I was lucky enough to have - my mate Michael Finnigan - as well as the restaurant. However, really, honestly, this exercise is about something you grab and is under a tenner, ideally, rather than a culinary experience. Tast was a Catalan taste sensation, so I'm just putting that out there. 

Also impressive this month was Hanoi75 in the pop up paradise that is Hatch, under the Mancunian Way - and it was a very well blended box of veg, chicken and noodles. 

I also really enjoyed a gloriously dirty Katsu curry from Nudo. Sometimes when it’s cold and wet (and it was wasn't it, February really made me shiver) it is just what you need. Katsu like this has a taste and texture like the very best Chinese takeaway curry I remember from my youth, Woo Ping in Lancaster.

Keep the suggestions coming, and if I've not seen you for a while, let's grab lunch!

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Martin Cook RIP my friend

We said goodbye to Martin Cook this week, one of the nicest guys I have ever known. It was an absolute choker, to be honest. More so for how sudden it seemed, because although I knew he'd been poorly, I assumed he was over the worst and on the mend.

There have been two dates marked on the calendar that won't have been met over the course of the last year. His wedding to Bev last July in Dublin which we didn't get to, and a night out in Blackburn with Trevor, Tony, Robin, and Cookie, next Saturday, after the Swansea game. The importance of both of those dates to him is now so cruelly apparent.

At the funeral in Dublin yesterday it was, as all of these occasions attempt to be, a celebration of a life as much as the mourning of a loss. But I still can't feel much to celebrate today. I spent the day with Trevor Curson, someone I met at the same time as Cookie, and with whom we have shared so much, and that is a real blessing. It rammed home to me the real aching need to connect and make sure these friendships get the love and attention they deserve.

I first met Cookie in 1989 when as a fellow professional Northerner in London I started turning out for the Blackburn Rovers London supporters team on Sundays at Wormwood Scrubs. Cookie was a great manager, bringing a bit of humour and effort to the job. He was the epitome of a team player, going in goal if necessary, making the tough decisions about who played where and who was a sub (me, usually). But a team formed of such a mixed bag of people inevitably you found your own. On our end of season tours to Devon and Sussex we'd properly bond, me Trevor and Cookie in particular eventually forming the editorial team on the Blackburn Rovers London fanzine Many Miles From Home (Best Boy, Key Grip and Dubbin Mixer).

I did a blog a few years ago about 20 amazing football memories - which was way too limiting. Cookie featured in a few but he pulled me up on missing out Grimsby away 1991, where we sold hundreds of fanzines, had an astonishingly good fish and chips and saw a terrific 3-2 win. It was also about the journeys, the mix tapes we'd make to play in the car, or the crack we'd have on the train. I have probably never laughed as much in my life as I did on the way back from Sheffield Wednesday in 1992 when we composed a ludicrously childish and self deprecating "what type of Rovers fan are you?" quiz for our fanzine. Nor will I forget kipping on his hotel floor pre-Cardiff in 2002 (18 years ago, almost to the day) and spending the match day together getting soaked, before heading into the stadium for an epic day.
Tinseltown in the rain - Cardiff 2002

We went out for dinner together in Dublin a few years ago and he brought some Irish Rovers t-shirts for the kids, which was such a great example of his generosity. I managed to squeeze into one last weekend for the trip to Charlton, where we seemed to bump into people all day all saying the same thing - "how sad about Cookie". Charlton, like most London grounds, was somewhere we went together loads of times over the years, one extending into a great East End night out with his mate Tom McCourt, a lovely bloke with a massive hinterland of stories from musical history.

Listening to the wonderful eulogies in Dublin yesterday you get to hear perspectives from people he worked with, his family from Blackburn, the friends he's made in Dublin since he moved there. Although they were a view of him I didn't have, they were all consistent in the themes of generosity, warmth, friendship, loyalty, doing things properly, but also with a real intelligence. He'd write incredibly well put together Christmas cards, and they were not only funny, but precise. It was apparent when we did the fanzine together that his standards and attention to language was very high. So it was no surprise that he eventually turned his back on local government and civil engineering and retrained as a broadcast journalist. Along with Facebook, that's given us a slice of Cookie in our lives; his recorded voice on the Dublin Inquirer podcasts and on Dublin City FM; all marked out with his humour, his commitment, and his absolutely tip top music choices, which he also must have chosen for his service  - The Clash foremost amongst them, a bit of Morrissey, but the observational melancholy of The Jam's That's Entertainment.

All I can say tonight is give your mates a ring. Invest in those friendships that truly mean something. I've always said the key to happiness is spending time with the people who you love and I loved Cookie, I'm really going to miss him. But not only are there all the times we didn't have more recently, but all the times we did. Go easy, step lightly, stay free.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Lunch of the month for January - Grow Cafe

Manchester lunch of the month for January is our very own Grow Cafe in the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School. Not only was it a wholesome home cooked soup and a slice of beetroot focaccia pizza, it felt healthy and fresh too. Lovingly served by staff who totally get the whole ethos behind Grow and its commitment to plant based eating and sustainable food, it is such a great addition to the choice I have. Not something you would always say about University catering. The whole idea behind Grow emerged from a  Project called Met Munch which promotes sustainable habits in food and drink. And all for just over £3.

Other honourable mentions to Philpotts, the Lasso Gowrie, Chimaek and Falafil. 

I was long overdue a trip to the ever excellent Philpotts branch on the corner of Portland and Oxford. I had a real craving for a hot sandwich on good quality bread on what was a cold day. The system in Philpotts does freak some people out, but I don’t mind queuing twice for something as good as the hand made beef, mushroom, onions and gravy in a seeded roll, not at all. It actually gave me time to think about which posh crisps to get as as a side - black pepper Kettle Chips as it goes. I did a story a few years ago about how Philpotts initially chased Pret out of town, and I'm really pleased they got out of the financial basket case that was Patisserie Valerie and seem to be thriving. The sandwich was just the job on a cold day, generous and well made, but a treat at just under a fiver. 

I was in two minds about whether to include Korean joint Chimaek and the traditional pub meal at Lasso Gowrie. For reasons of academic ethics compliance I can only refer to my lunch chum in the final report as “Professor A” but he did describe it as “KFC meets Wagamama” - and we devoured the potato twirl like a pack of hungry “wolves”. It was both an assault on the senses and a bit confusing as to what to order, which is why we emerged stuffed and spiced and probably a little lighter in the pocket than I planned. Here’s the other “but”. The Lancashire Hot Pot at the Lass doesn’t quite meet the criteria for popping out for a quick lunch AND it was part of a walking tour package with Freshwalks. However, we will be back at Chimaek now we’ve collectively completed a literature review of the menu and agreed on a future methodology.

First week back after Christmas the lunch of the week winner was a bit of a shoe-in. As I was in Nottingham one day and skipped lunch on two others, I had a great Friday treat in the shape of a fresh, tasty, and ridiculously good value of Falafil Express on Oxford Road. I go for a medium falafel wrap for £3, with hummus, tahini, chilli sauce, lettuce, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, potatoes and a dash of red cabbage. Astonishes me every time that I enjoy it without equivocation, know exactly what I’m getting and still manage to make such a mess! Yet I’m never tempted by a salad box, stuffed vine leaves or plain hummus. It is a triumph and never ever disappoints.

So, well done to Grow for standing out in a very strong field.