Monday, November 30, 2020

A month in lockdown - thank you for your company


First of all, an apology. When we were locked down at the start of November and I decided to blog every day for a month, I drew up a bit of a list of likely topics. Although I blogged every day, I'm afraid I went a little bit off piste and didn't do very well on tackling the list. 

Secondly, I wondered if it would make a difference to my visitor numbers. At first I was shocked to discover I had more visitors in October when I blogged just four times. It turned out I had a massive spike of thousands of visitors on the 2nd of October, when I was completely off the grid up a mountain. There doesn't seem to be a particular reason for this. I had a spam attack from overseas and a load of duff backlink attempts, but that was later in the month. Once I factor that out, there's been a steady flow of traffic. The most visited individual post was the one on Stockport and the planning issues coming down on us all soon. I'm pleased about that. I would have been disappointed if my biggest draw was Blackburn Rovers. 

My excuse for not getting round to all of them was some are linked to a writing project that I'm not ready to spill just yet and that in turn has also meant I haven't read many books this month. There were also some events to comment on, the small matter of a US election, the scrapping of Pacers and a few media and events things I was doing. And the outrage of Luke Unabomber and Instagram.

So here are the subjects I didn't get round to writing a blog on. I'll try and get through them, as I know what I need to say.

  • Academic writing v journalism
  • 24 Hour News
  • The Strong Personalities Group
  • Family
  • Friends
  • All Those Things That Seemed So Important
  • Aesthetics
  • Devolution and Democracy
  • Living with medical conditions
  • Welsh Nationalism
  • Some book reviews
  • Folk horror
  • Kinder Scout
  • Cumberland

Sunday, November 29, 2020

What's this? Luke's off Insta

Glenn Kitson made this 

I'm fairly new to Instagram, and as I've said before it's been a comfortable balm during this lockdown year. It's not the place for self-defeating arguments, or pointless sharing of angry memes, but generally it's for nice things and cultural gems. One of the most prolific punters-out of all those nuggets of goodness has been Luke Unabomber, one of the heroes of Manchester's music scene and a proper food innovator as well. What he has done with Volta, Refuge, Freight Island and Hatch has been game changing for the city. His musical passion is unquestionable. But it's his homespun advice and his personal wellbeing journey that has made him the first person to go to on his Instragram lately. My youngest son Elliot is inspired by all of the above. Possibly his last post was a call to arms on self-preservation - just turn up, he said, amongst many other things, fight the demons.

I don't know him personally. I obviously know who he is, and he was around and about in the 80s with some kids I knew from Sheffield who'd moved to Manchester. And obviously what he's done makes him a public figure of sorts. 

But last week I noticed that he'd disappeared off Insta. I checked in with a mate of his that all was well, only to learn his account has been suspended. I'm assuming for the language. I hope this isn't permanent. I've written to Instagram expressing my displeasure. When I see the absolute dingbats and actual nazis who are still on Facebook and Instagram, and yet they go after someone who only brings happiness and wisdom, I despair.


Saturday, November 28, 2020

So farewell then, Pacer trains



A few weeks ago I was taking one of my rare trips into work in Manchester and this sleek, long, clean modern and quiet new train arrived  grandly into my local terminus, Rose Hill. The coronavirus and the lockdown has reduced commuting by rail into a real minority pursuit. As it glided into the station I took a quick photo, then scanned the length of this beautiful feat of engineering that I'd only ever seen on other Northern routes. I was looking for the green bike sign, so I could tie up by bike safely while I took my seat. As it happened there wasn't one, oh horror of horrors. I had to stand up with it for the half hour journey in the doorways, guessing which side it would open on as passengers tried to squeeze past me. I needn't have worried. Our branch line has also had a temporary closure imposed on it due to the need to train up new staff on these new trains. Just as there was hardy anyone on our platform, the few people who did get on at the other stations could easily get on board. But in that fleeting moment I had to check myself and pause before being dragged into the weeds of disappointment. I think I can live with not cycling when things return to normal, I'll get over it.

Let me say it as clearly as I can. I am so pleased that Northern Trains have finally run the last Pacer train on their network. I suppose we're supposed to feel grateful, but it's not gratitude that I feel but latent anger and a bit of relief. Over the years they've been too hot in summer, freezing in winter, wet inside when it rains, and in normal times far too small to cope with the capacity on our line.  The seating format was hideous. They were noisy, and dangerous. I mentioned all of this in one of the most popular posts this blog has ever run, a rant about the damned things from 2017, where I included a picture of one of the ugly units left to rot on a siding in Iran. I feel not a smidgen of nostalgia for them; they were neither quaint, nor utilitarian, just a monstrous assault on our human rights.

I know too that we won't always have these gorgeous new trains, for the most part the route will be serviced by refurbished Sprinters which are grotty and noisy and hard to board it you have mobility issues. But they are still better than the Pacer.

I find it quite hard to imagine the new normal, or life in a big city and the whole experience of commuting from our little station on the edge of the Peak District. It will never be the same again, I'm sure of that. But there will also be many things that are better, starting with our trains.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Lunch of the month for July/August/November



Last year I came up with a new wheeze for this blog, a social media tally through a month of good lunches I'd had in Manchester, with a more expressive flourish at the end of the month to celebrate the best. 

Suffice to say I haven't updated it since March. At a push I could have done one in July, as we celebrated my birthday at Rudy's Neopolitan Pizza in Ancoats, with an absolutely phenomenal Calabrese, and then did another lunch at a Vietnamese place called Nam in the same square in Ancoats, and a Eat Out to Help Out stop off in August at Hanoi75 in Hatch. Me and Neil also celebrated the first recording of Music Therapy with a trip to Lily's in Ashton for a sizzler. That's four Manchester lunches out since, an Ashton lunch, and then on those rare days I went into work I got a takeout katsu curry from Nudo one day, and a Lahmacun (Turkish pizza) from Venus on another. All of these were absolutely brilliant. 

However, the best of them all was today when I nipped out of the office, where I'd been for an essential meeting, for lunch with our Joe at this absolute cracking little place in Hulme called Buzzrocks. Joe had chicken and I had saltfish. Typically for a Caribbean food outlet both came with rice and peas and an absolutely gorgeous gravy. I liked the friendly service and the smells and genuine love of the food from the staff as soon as I walked in. It's one of those places where I'd loved to have spent more time chatting to them about the food, and generally coming over all Phil Rosenthal, but we had to grab and go. 

So, this feature is back in business. Come what may, I will support our amazing food businesses, I will eat out and try new things. 



Thursday, November 26, 2020

Gary Lineker's brilliant, heartfelt tribute to Diego Maradona



I know he's the scourge of a certain section of the male population due to his stance on Brexit (and not being a dick) but this was a reminder of what a good broadcaster Gary Lineker is. I'm pleased he's not just a pundit, but he gets the respect of the other players because of all he achieved in the game. It's brought back home too what a player he was. My generation's greatest international tournaments were Mexico 86 and Italia 90. England's performances were totally enhanced by Lineker's input. He was a deadly striker and a superb ambassador for the game at the time. I adored him.

I haven't always though. In the days when my team was frequently last on Match of the Day, as opposed to next to last on the Football League Show on Channel 5, I thought they were phoning it in. I don't see as much of him now for obvious reasons, but I think he's got much better as a broadcaster, as you'd expect, and as the media age has changed. He bounces off Ian Wright Jermain Jenas and Alan Shearer far better than he ever did with the far too cosy Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen. I'm not a Danny Murphy fan.

I wanted to mark the passing of a legend this week. But plenty of others can have their say far better than I could on Diego Maradona, over the last few days. He was an absolute icon and one of the greatest players in my lifetime, I still think Cruyff was the greatest ever, but it's churlish to mention that. Sometimes it's hard to find the appropriate words too, but I'm glad that Gary Lineker did.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

I don't know - the power of three little words



It's been the People's Powerhouse conference this week. Once again, I was asked to play a small part in hosting short Lightening Talk presentations from 8 different people. As ever it was inspiring and troubling in equal measure. Sometimes it's heartbreaking to listen to the stoic stories of people who do so much for others, such as refugees, with so little resource, and seemingly up against a hostile system. But they carry on, they find the money, they work harder, and they make connections at events like this. 

It's great too that entrepreneurs and community activists get to share the same space. One of the talks was by a young woman called Emma who has a jewellery brand Aster and Lion with many of the same values that I wrote about yesterday. 

I also heard Nazir Afzal speak again and he always inspires. He was posing the question as to whether the North should take the knee. It was followed by powerful testimony from people who encounter everyday racism. It's just not good enough is it? We all have to play our part as allies wherever we can. Yesterday he was in conversation with Kim Leadbeater (Chair of More in Common and Ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation) and the sister of Jo Cox. Again, it was an emotional and inspiring discussion. How do we better get along with one another in such a hateful and divided world? To hear them both speak the language of peace love and understanding was humbling. And I have to conclude that having your own echo chamber extends way beyond who you follow and block on Twitter.

I come away from these events with plenty of ideas and good intentions. But there was a phrase used yesterday by Nazir that really struck home. Not enough people say "I don't know". Leadership sometimes requires humility, and more importantly, the ability to listen. I liked for instance how the Metro Mayors were invited to sit in and listen to ideas and encounters, like the one I hosted. 

Edna Robinson, chair of the People's Powerhouse, is without doubt one of the most inspiring people I've had the pleasure of working with. The origin of the movement was a reaction to a time when the Northern Powerhouse was a limp slogan being delivered from the top down. And it's as relevant today as the government have disgracefully cut the international development commitment and made half hearted reviews and pledges on a series of Red Wall infrastructure schemes. Today was a rare ray of hope and a true joy to be involved. Next year they even said I can DJ. It'll be an honour.


 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The way we wore - thinking a bit more about fashion


There's a certain ugliness to Black Friday. I never want to be that person attacking businesses for making a living, but there's something grotesque about this recent import. Impulse shopping driven by excessive discounting.

I hope it's a chance to think a bit about where stuff comes from. It's also maybe an opportunity for homespun brands that properly get provenance and building a decent partnership with suppliers. I was pleased to see that one of my favourite brands Haglofs are doing an anti-Black Friday campaign and urging people to recycle instead with the launch of Haglofs Restored. It's not something I'll have call for just yet, as I'm a recent convert and it seems remarkably resilient technical clothing that's also really well made and very smart too.  

I've been reading Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard's book about the evolution of the outdoor brand and the risks he's taken and the decisions he made early on. Not only is it really smart gear, it's rooted in excellent values. I love how he declared his Manchester shop as a gift to the people of the city and the area. I want to believe that. I also find myself wondering why everyone doesn't do this. Not only is it good, it's good business. As a mate who knows far more about this sort of stuff than me pointed out, Kantar research reveals that brands with a clear commitment to purpose outperformed others massively. 

Patrick Grant, founder of Community Clothing has issued a bit of a plea for the fashion industry in this country. He's passionate about a revival and urges us to support social enterprises that support skilled jobs. I don't see a problem with that. I've bought loads of pieces from CC over the last few years, basic, well made, hard wearing staple items. I don't see the point of a massive mark up on well marketed brands that I won't name, but the lambswool jumper I'm wearing today is from a quality mill in Scotland and produced through CC, just as the Peacoat (pictured) was made in Blackburn using Hainsworth milled wool. 

Avid readers of this blog will note too that the picture is cropped to edit the trouser troubles I talked about last week. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

A bit of a lockdown telly catch up



Here are a few things we're watched on telly over the last few months, no spoilers.

I've already posted up reviews of The Crown, Somebody Feed Phil and the feature length documentary The Three Kings, which merited direct and immediate attention, but here's the rest in descending quality order.

Fargo (Netflix) - we're up to series two and three back to back and it was right up there amongst the best telly we've seen during lockdown. The whole Fargo universe is eccentric genius, brilliantly acted and with characters like you've never seen before, even if the one constant is a sympathetic and under resourced  police officer doing his or her best. I really enjoyed the whole brutal gang war in series two, with the outstanding character Hanzee Dent sporting a fantastic green combat jacket. Series three took things up another notch on the bad guy front, with the modern take on global crime in the persona of David Thewlis' enigmatic and verbose V.M. Varga. 

Mystery Road (BBC) - The second series of this Australian outback detective drama contained most of the boilerplate features of Down Under noir, corrupt cops and darkly cruel bad guys. It was a good story with few surprises and twists and turns. Lead actor Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan does understated very well, but as with so many other Aussie series it's always the women that shine brightest, especially Tasma Walton as Jay's estranged wife Mary.

Hanna (Prime) - I enjoyed the first season where we saw feral child assassin on a string of adventures, and searching for the sinister truth. Series two was a bit like High Street Musical mashed up with Jason Bourne, in rural England. Preposterous nonsense really, but strangely enjoyable.

Roadkill (BBC) - Much like The Crown, Roadkill was brilliantly acted - especially by Hugh Laurie - but was pretty dismal. I'm always a bit surprised at the cartoon portrayal of politicians, their officials and the deep state. I know we have new levels of venal reality to draw from, but they never seem to have anything other than dark motives. But my main problem with it was that nothing that happened to anyone seemed to have any meaning, and so many of the characters had no purpose, a very strange mix. 


Sunday, November 22, 2020

The footballification of politics and scandal

Sorry, not sorry


Usually, when an organisation launches an enquiry, it is to have an independent person reach a just and fair conclusion about something that has gone wrong. In a just and fair world, those who are investigated and found to have trangressed, misbehaved and simply made a mistake, are supposed to take responsibility for that. This of course was designed to provide accountability and trigger change in an imperfect world.

Let's just have a think about what's been happening. Well, you all see the news and frankly I haven't the words any more. People seem to disregard these simple and thoughtful attempts to regulate our society as a trigger to double down. 

I haven't read it yet, but I believe the writer and broadcaster James O'Brien is developing this theory in his new book: 

We’re completely immersed in the “footballification” of politics. Actions are judged not by an objective assessment of their content but by the perceived allegiances of protagonists. We tackle it by publicly owning our mistakes, praising opposing ‘teams’ & criticising our own. 

So, call me a dreary centrist if you like, but Priti Patel, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Jeremy Corbyn need to own their errors, show some contrition, and their supporters need to think of the consequences of on people affected by their failures of leadership, not doubling down. There's something worse about a non-apology apology. "I'm sorry if you were offended by my unintentional bullying of you" or frankly,  "I oppose anti-semitism and all forms of racism", is the left wing version of "don't all lives matter?"

Down with this sort of thing. Careful now.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

iFollow is horrible, I can't be bothered with it



In the last two seasons the fixture I had my eye on more than any other was Luton Town away. Sad isn't it? To actually want to go to ickle racist Stephen's team. But I've never been to Kenilworth Road, the only stadium in the Championship I've not seen my Blackburn Rovers at. There's Brentford's new home, I suppose, but no-one's been there yet. I'm collecting my totals and once this lockdown ends, I'm going to swiftly complete the remaining 12 of the 92.

Just as I posted that I haven't been to a live event since the end of February, the last Rovers match was on the same day. I do miss everything about going to the match, but as followers of this blog will recall, it's a lot to do with spending time with the two of my lads who support Rovers. I really cherish it.

We're instead are offered the opportunity to watch the matches on TV. That means paying £10 per game for something called iFollow. In principle it's a good idea. But I'm going to be as tactful as I can when I say this: it's rubbish. Today's game at Luton was probably the worst of the lot, and in truth I'm not going to bother again. Bad production, terrible lighting, dreadful directing, the commentary I manage to zone out of, but it's not a patch on BBC local radio. The still picture at the top is the precise moment the screen froze for one fan.  The club guilt trip the fans with a message about pirate streams, but I'll say this now - what we saw today wasn't worth £10 for a headache and sea sickness. 

As for the game, it was there for the taking and I'm disappointed. Two shocking refereeing decisions at the end from Gavin Ward of Surrey, not the only person in Luton today stealing a living. Bitter? Grumpy? Fed up with football? You bet. 




 

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Crown - is it me, or is it now a sitcom?



I think most of the acting, set design and period setting in the Netflix series The Crown is as good as anything I've seen. Not only are really good actors cast perfectly, they carry off their roles with studied perfection and attention to detail. Most of the time.

The stories take some liberties. On balance I see how the writer takes a number of known established facts and builds a narrative around presenting them as they may have been discussed and talked about at the time. There probably was no letter from Lord Mountbatten to Charles telling him to stop carrying on with Camilla, but there is supposedly enough evidence to make it a plot device to carry through that tension. Some are inexcusable and exist to simplify, rather than amplify and exaggerate - plenty of critics have piled in on the chronic inconsistencies around Mark Thatcher going missing in the Sahara and the start of the Falklands War. 

There are two emotionally manipulative narratives underpinning the whole exercise. One is the moral collapse of the House of Windsor and the sense that a distracted, hapless but well meaning Queen holds together a rag bag of spoilt brats, bullies and spiteful egos. It's the Princess Diana vs the Windsors being played out and it's clear which side The Crown is on. Seeds are sewn too for what we now believe about Prince Andrew. It all feels like it's building up to a terrible reckoning. The future is not yet written, but then clearly the past isn't either.

The other underlying pitch through the 80s is what I can only describe as the Brassed Off view of life. Not even a Boys from the Blackstuff view, but a simplified and romantic paternalism. Maybe that's how we're supposed to see the world; through the Queen's eyes. Some of it though is so obviously geared to that version of truth that it's almost like a parody. It even reminded me of the Comic Strip Presents classic Strike, where Peter Richardson played Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill.

So we're halfway through season 4 now and are cracking on with it. Season 5 though. Oooooh!

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Events dear boy, events




For the best part of 20 years, a huge part of my working life has pivoted around live events. As a business journalist the annual editorial calendar would be oriented towards trade shows and conferences. It's given me a good life, all told. I wouldn't have got to travel the world and learn as much without them. In my second act, from 2000, I found myself hosting business breakfasts, lunches and dinners pretty much every week. From 2012 I tried to build a client base as an events host and producer and to create a brand around live debates. Even at the University, building a regional network - and internal communications - has often involved the old fashioned tricks of filling a room full of the right people and engaging in meaningful conversations. 

About a year ago, I really enjoyed interviewing Andy Burnham on stage at a business event for my old client the ICAEW in Manchester in front of a live audience (pictured, above). The occasion was great, and it was the bits around it, the people, the conversations and the laughs over drinks that made it an evening to remember.  

COVID has clearly changed everything. I dare not even imagine the horrors of trying to earn a living doing all of these things in a time when events aren't allowed. The last live event I went to was TEDx Manchester at the Bridgewater Hall at the end of February. One by one, March's dates got cancelled including those run by good friends of mine.

Over time the attempts to do something different have been a real credit to the creativity of the events professionals I've got to know over time. I still get asked to chair sessions, introduce speakers and even speak at events and it's been a genuine lifeline since March. During lockdown, I've also been to lots of events on Zoom, and I was at one today about cities that was organised by the outrageously good new media outlet, Tortoise. New techniques, rhythms and disciplines have been established in that relatively short space of time. Technology can't make a boring speaker better, and sadly it can't light up a Zoom call in the way a great speaker can electrify a live audience. 

It's also required events themselves to be better structured and sharper. Given most of us get drained by the performative demands of Zoom calls and Teams meetings, the stage management of an event demands that something has to be better paced, scripted and prepped. 

I'm in that process at the moment, thinking through some internal projects, but also how we project externally and being part of the constant conversation. I've been grateful to Quest Media, Bird Consultancy, Downtown, the Growth Company, Labour Economics Society and Manchester Digital for opportunities to take a virtual stage over this time. Tomorrow I'm involved in two sessions at the iNetwork annual conference for public sector leaders. Next week, I'm hosting some freestyle pitches at the People's Powerhouse event. We should have been in Blackpool. Maybe next year.

Soon hopefully, we're hatching plans for a hybrid event schedule which I'm starting to get excited about. It will be a way to get back together in some form, when this cursed lockdown and social distancing is over. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Stockport should support Greater Manchester's plan for jobs and homes

Unlike most people I follow some of the twists and turns of local politics. The latest row is an attempt by the Liberal Democrats on Stockport Council to take our local area out of something called the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework. I wrote on this blog almost two years ago that it could well come a cropper in this very ward, as the Labour group on the council don't have the numbers without Conservative support. So, unless there are assurances on the zoning of house building land in High Lane, then I can't see our local Tory councillor backing it. Similarly, Heald Green don't seem to want any more houses either.

I hear the argument trotted out that it should be brownfield first. That's both a neat way of saying building should be of houses where no-one currently wants to live, and that there is a vast amount of former industrial land that no-one has thought of remediating and developing. It's not true. Brownfield costs a lot to develop, and even if all the sites are built, it only gets us so far. Also, this is a long term plan for a lot of houses over a long period of time, and priority is given to building around infrastructure. The new link road to the airport is hard infrastructure. It is meant to be built around.

A young person I know pointed out to me that those posters in High Lane with the slogan NO TO MASS DEVELOPMENT, and accompanied by a picture of a gas mask, are often at the end of driveways with two or three cars, sometimes 4x4 diesels. It's where irony parks his car. 

When I wrote about this in 2018 the trigger was a planning application in the centre of Marple to develop an old school building. People lost their heads about it, and said it shouldn't be developed because, er, they used to go to school there and it should be a community hub. I have lost count of the number of underused 'community hubs' and cafes in Marple. There was also an assumption it was going to look terrible. I walked past the building site yesterday and saw the apartments and a new Co-op store taking shape and frankly it's a massive improvement aesthetically. In time, it will be somewhere for people to live and add to the community in the centre of Marple, boosting the economy of the neighbourhood. 

It's an emotive issue and one I run the risk of being called out for. I'm involved in a controversial project at work, but I do so with a fervent belief in the need to build more homes. I was once asked HOW WOULD YOU LIKE IT? if someone wanted to take land and build houses ON YOUR ROAD. My answer is simple, I did actively oppose Marple College selling land to a supermarket ON MY ROAD, but instead I equally actively supported housing on the site instead. I genuinely don't think my life, or that of my neighbours, has been worse as a result of the new estate being built.

It's easy to always be against stuff, the big challenge, the brave thing, is to say what you are for. Usually I'm for progress. Stockport should support Greater Manchester's plan for jobs and homes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Day 17 - he's finally flipped, he's talking about trousers


I may have reached peak lockdown cabin fever madness with this blog, but I need to say it. I've always had problems with my trousers. I just don't feel either comfortable, or right, in pretty much anything except jeans. Working from home has been liberating in one small sense. Not having formal meetings, or events, or politicians and special visitors around, means I have four suits hanging up in the wardrobe that haven't been worn this year. A couple of them were looking a bit ragged anyway and I'm tempted to bin them for good. I particularly hate another one I have which only comes out for weddings. 

I've found some dark trousers from Uniqlo that work alright with smart shoes and are OK for work, but they're a bit narrow. I've been told it rocks my "Danish architect" look, though I'm not sure that's a compliment.

I also hate chinos. I immediately think they make me look like I'm off to Twickenham. I bought a pair of neutral stone coloured ones from Community Clothing but ended up getting them taken in. Though they're comfy, they're still not quite right for me.

This is probably a load of self-indulgent bollocks, but I am trying to make positive and progressive purchasing choices. This means shopping at good retailers, ditching fast fashion and thinking of craftsmanship and provenance. 



So, in that spirit, I stumbled on Tim at This Thing of Ours, in a unit at Hatch. He totally sold me on a pair of loose fitting cords from a Korean brand called Uniform Bridge. They've been my go-to non jeans this autumn and they look and feel ace, hanging nicely onto whatever I've got on my feet. . 

Next, I was put on to these deep navy Roots trousers from a niche brand called Arhto (top). I got these ridiculously cheap in a flash sale and they're so gooood. The material is a midweight canvas, but it's the cut that's quite unlike any others I've worn before; lower cut crotch with a slight taper at the ankle. The rear pockets are also like an inverted fatigue style. And they have a button fly; really smart buttons too. 

Outdoor wise, I still prefer walking in shorts, even on a winter grueller. I've got some Fjallraven multi-pocket utility long walking trousers, which are practical enough, but frankly are like a chocolate fireguard when it rains. I tried the waxing thing but it didn't work. For our last yomp over the West Pennine Moors I wore these mammoth Haglofs bib and brace snowboarding pants, which may have been over the top for what I was doing, but they absolutely did the trick. Being so big too, there's plenty of space to layer up underneath, the technical knowledge of which has been a genuine revelation in recent months.



I think I may have temporarily solved the pant dilemma, but the search goes on and recommendations are very welcome.


Monday, November 16, 2020

Venky's and Rovers - 10 years on - what I've changed my mind about

It's been ten years now since my football club, Blackburn Rovers, were taken over by Venky's, an Indian business conglomerate. There's been some very smart commentary about this over the course of the last few days, notably the Sporf podcast (above) with Nick Harris of Sporting Intelligence and on Lancashire Live by my podcasting chum Mike Delap.

I was always a sceptic, as nearly all Rovers fans were, but here are a few things I've changed my mind on, and a few home truths.

I was massively critical of the way the fans hounded Steve Kean. Maybe I'm just too soft, but it felt wrong. In hindsight he really did take us for a ride, took us down and played the Venky's for fools. I do not forget, or forgive.

The worst stuff happened early on. Those early couple of years were absolutely bat shit mad. All of it; rinsed by Kentaro and SEM, Jerome Anderson, the clear out of the board, Jerome Anderson's son, Steve Kean, Paul Agnew and Derek Shaw, Shebby Singh. All of it. It was so unbelievable, that anything actually became believable, even who really owned the club. You could make up a plot line for a film where a consortium of gangsters bought it and put their mate in charge, as part of a bizarre money laundering enterprise, in exchange for a gambling debt over the relegation. Even that fantasy scenario would be more plausible than the reality that Nick Harris tells in the podcast.

There's a theory I have heard, and never managed to discount, that the ownership of Rovers actually saved them a ton of money due to EU quotas and tariffs on imported chicken from India to the EU, due to their ownership of an EU domiciled business. Maybe Brexit cuts that off.  

At one time I may have described Venky's as the worst owners in football. You don't have to look very far to see far worse ones now. Bolton, Oldham, Blackpool and Wigan have all fallen further than we have. Local boys made good don't seem to cut it any more either. 

There are plenty of terrible owners, but I don't readily see a better model. It's a horrendous gamble that British football has hocked itself to the global oligarchs and you just have to hope you get a rich one, or one with an attention span. I'm sure it would have been very dignified to have had a group of local business people in charge, including friends of mine, but it's hard to sustain the levels of investment while every other club is playing such a high stakes game. Bizarrely, the way things have gone, they're probably amongst the best owners a club could want. However, if you think I'm going to thank them for it, then obviously I won't. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

If you can be anything, be kind

 


I'm giving over today's blog for a straight up appeal for my wife Rachel's incredible work for people experiencing homelessness and everything that entails. 

TV's John Thomson has voiced the video for the Caritas Advent Appeal, urging people to give at a time when the services are not only stretched, but finding it harder to raise funds while churches are closed and so many people are feeling the pinch.

Homelessness is so much more than sleeping rough or on a park bench.

When we think about homelessness, our thoughts often turn to those poor souls sleeping rough in a shop doorway or on a park bench. Of course, sadly we all know that the problem is so much greater than that.  There are countless people ‘sofa surfing’ – the term given to those relying on friends, family and even casual acquaintances to put them up for a night.  

And then there is the shocking statistic of ‘hidden homelessness’ affecting families, highlighted recently:  

A child is made homeless every 8 minutes in Britain*. A staggering 135,000 children are living in temporary accommodation - bed and breakfasts and hostels - totally unsuitable for family life. *Source: Shelter December 2019 

The short film made for the appeal features Nikki, Quinton and Rochelle telling their unique stories of homelessness.  Thanks to the love and support from Caritas support workers and volunteers, they’ve transformed their lives and are looking forward with hope to a brighter future.

Due to the pandemic, the film will be shared digitally and uses the hashtag #MiracleofKindness, a direct reference to Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti in which he calls for kindness to be recovered because it is a ‘star shining in the darkness.’

*To give £10 Text the words BEKIND to 70460 

Fundraising has been almost impossible this year. But the need for these services is greater than ever.  We hope these personal stories of hope will leave an impression that calls for action and shines a light into the darkness.

Gift Aid allows us to claim 25% on your gift without it costing you a penny extra.  If you are a UK tax payer, please gift aid donations.  

To give £10, text the words BEKIND to 70460.  *Texts cost £10 plus one standard message. You will occasionally hear updates about the impact donations have made to the lives of those we support. Text BEKINDNOINFO to give £10 if you do not wish to hear from us.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Three Kings - another outstanding and ambitious sporting documentary from Jonny Owen




I'm really looking forward to seeing The Three Kings documentary about the lives of Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Matt Busby, all former miners from the Scottish coalfields who shaped the destiny and identities of Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. There's been a bit of a buzz around at work about it because it features footage from the North West Film Archive, but I'm particularly pleased for the director Jonny Owen, who has form in this emerging genre of storytelling.

The first of his films I saw was the high energy celebration of Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest winning the European Cup, I Believe in Miracles. It's a wonderfully warm and inclusive tale, and you can tell that the players enjoyed their interviews and encounters with Jonny. The funky soundtrack added something really special too, evoking the rhythms of that team and the refreshing way they broke the mould.

Next up was Don't Take Me Home, which blended behind the scenes footage with the fan experience of Wales at the European Championships in 2016. It wasn't just about the football, it can never just be about the football, and sometimes it takes someone with drive to tell that story, someone who gets it. Me and my eldest lad Joe met Jonny in London just after he'd got back from France and was putting the film together. I know I go on about people I've met and bore the arse off you all with my namedropping but he really struck me then as a very special talent. We only recorded a podcast together, with our mutual friend Mark Webster, but I've not heard anything since that contradicted that view I formed in the space of that afternoon together.  He's not only compellingly passionate about the things that really matter to him, but also hyper aware of how sport forms cultural and emotional bonds between people, way beyond the field of play. His background in the South Wales valleys also forms his frame of reference, rather than the baggage of the place he's escaped from, as many other film makers and artists often define themselves. 

As well as the historical footage that he's pulled together with the help of Will McTaggart at the archive, the film also includes musical contributions from, amongst others, Richard Hawley, the musician and songwriter from Sheffield who feels like an incredibly good fit for this project. 

Sporting documentaries can be a bit hit and miss, like musical ones, as I found with the unexpected delights of the Style Council Long Hot Summers film on Sky Arts. It takes effort, access and a burning passion for the subject. I don't normally do enthusiastic previews, but this will be a banger, I guarantee it. 

POST SCRIPT: I’ve seen it now and it’s absolutely magnificent in every way, I particularly enjoyed a cameo by Granada TV cub reporter Tony Wilson in 1974. It's available on Apple TV, Prime and Showtime, and DVD. I would happily go and see it again in a cinema when they reopen.




Friday, November 13, 2020

We had our second two weeks of self-isolation, and it was OK



We coped. Elliot didn't get poorly, despite his positive COVID test and we never showed symptoms to contradict our negative tests.

The first isolation in September when Louis tested positive was tough, I'm not going to lie. It came as a shock and so we started in a state of unprepared anxiety, with ladled on potential guilt that we may have infected people we had walked with. 

This time we were ready, we knew we would be supported if we needed it, and bizarrely, we had a lot more to distract us - The American election was a bit of a rollercoaster, which we properly strapped in for, and then as soon as we were shut in, so too the rest of the country was following us by going into a new lockdown. So yes there wasn't the 'fear of missing out' we had in September, which might seem a bit selfish, but it's how it affects you.

It's the young I feel bad for. It's easier for us to press pause. They haven't the same sense of perspective, and it's putting off some anxious life events. We have to support them with kindness and sensitivity.

I had a trip into Manchester to look forward to on Thursday this week. The trip to Venus supermarket was spontaneous and I absolutely devoured my takeaway Lahmacun from their grill. Officially we are working from home, where possible. But some things require meeting face to face, safely, and we don't have a printer at home.

And here's another thing, it might only be reaching a few hundred people, but this blog is such a satisfying thing to sit down and do, usually in the evening. Recording a radio programme once a week also gives me the focus of discovering new music and finding a dozen songs or so to play, some of them linked and with a story. Hopefully that's been reflected on what I've written about, but I've got a list of further topics to get through in this month of blogging, and some more books to read. 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Second Acts are great, but so are First Acts

Last week on our radio show (Music Therapy on Tameside Radio, I may have mentioned it) our opening two tracks were Désolé by Gorillaz and Headstart For Happiness by The Style Council. Both the work of important British musical figures who have made a significant and broad body of work.

Paul Weller keeps knocking it out. Maybe it's because he keeps having kids into his 60s, but he just can't seem to stop, and I admire massively how he keeps trying new things all the time. I'd watched the new Style Council documentary on Sky Arts, Long Hot Summers the week before and loved it (trailer above). I mean, really loved hearing those songs again, and seeing how happy Paul Weller was making music again. As he says in the clip at the start, "it was the freedom I was looking for coming out of The Jam". Certainly, Cafe Bleu managed to lose a hell of a lot of Jam fans; those instrumentals and free form jazz with guest vocals from Tracey Thorn weren't what the all the Saturdays Kids wanted. Personally, at the time, I lapped it all up. I remember standing in the street with my copy of Our Favourite Shop and showing it to one Boy About Town and Jam fan who was stunned at the direction Weller had gone in.  

It's a really good music documentary. Most of the talking heads work, I won't say which ones grated. And the contributions by the core members of the band - Weller, Mick Talbot, Dee C Lee and Steve White - all add different blocks to the story and our understanding of what they were creating then, and how they view it now. I loved the piece with film director Tim Pope who directed the Long Hot Summer punt on the river in Cambridge, which was so bold at the time. 

But it got me thinking since the show how disappointed I was that some aspects of the Style Council appreciation seem to have been quite dismissive of The Jam. I gave the 1980 album Sound Affects a spin from soup to nuts. It is a remarkable record, probably my favourite Jam album, and apparently Weller's too. As this Quietus review explains, for a 22 year old to create something so rich in its influences was incredibly bold, to package it all up into something that sounds this good all these years later, and stands proud alongside its biggest influence, The Beatles' Revolver, is maybe worthy of more respect.

It's the same with Gorillaz. Damon Albarn has done amazing things since Blur, but he also made some great Blur records too.

So on the show this week we're going to remind ourselves of that. Right to the end. Stay tuned, 103.6FM, or on the listen again

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Regeneration Manchester - 30 years of storytelling by Len Grant

Pic from Len Grant!



This bundle of gloriousness arrived yesterday. It's the new book by Manchester photographer and artist Len Grant, designed by a former collaborator of mine, Alan Ward of Axis Design. With those two involved, it was always going to be quality. But there is a richness and a warmth that has exceeded my expectations.

I attended the launch over the summer, virtually of course, and immediately signed up to crowdfund the printing of it, so got an early subscribers copy with my name listed as a subscriber in the back, alongside lots of friends, and Len signed a personal message too.

This work is so important. Manchester's renewal and regeneration is an ever changing story. There will be other books that concentrate on the architecture, heritage and design. There will be others that take a critical view of the politics of it all. In some ways, the recent TV show Manctopia tried to blend the wider context of housing policy into one narrative, especially where it collided with the real lives of displaced and uprooted people. And featured some real idiots.

Len attempts to do something much better. He's telling the visual and emotional story of a changing city with all its complexities, and trying to do so with the people involved at all levels. Nothing is ever as simplistic as the all powerful "they" doing change to the little people. But the other important thing to bear in mind is that this is like a compilation album of Len's work over 30 years. He has the full range of stories and images representing a changing city to present, but he's also a big part of the story himself.

Len's work has featured in such a huge range of books and exhibitions (and, ahem, magazines) that he's already made his impression on how the cities of Manchester and Salford feel about their new spaces and buildings. I've enjoyed reading and absorbing this remarkable book today, I can heartily recommend it as a perfect present for anyone with an interest in the city, in photography, or just in the stories of how lives and places change.

Published by University of Manchester Press, the book is available here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

What a week to be "Subscriber of the week" in the New Statesman




One of my weekly joys during lockdown has been the rattle of the letterbox on a Thursday or a Friday to mark the arrival of the New Statesman in amidst the usual pile of junk mail and adverts for care homes.

I blogged here last year about how much I appreciated it as a package, not just for the high level political analysis, but the culture writing too. Over the last year that weekly drop has also included some outstanding coverage of the pandemic. At a time when all of the national newspapers I was ever loyal to have gone ever crapper, the Staggers seems to just get better and better. Indeed, in one instance giving a column to a writer who was drummed out of the Times, Philip Collins.

Anyway, this week I've been selected to be "subscriber of the week". I don't win anything, I haven't done anything to achieve it, but I do get to answer a bit of a Q&A in the cool back section of the magazine. 

I'm not going to lie, I am dead chuffed about it. It's one of my favourite little corners of the magazine, getting a glimpse into the lives of your fellow readers and what their hinterland is. It comes back to something I've always firmly believed, that any successful media creates an emotional clubbable bond with its readers. It has to be more than a transaction. At the moment, the New Statesman is very much my neck of the woods.  


Monday, November 09, 2020

Somebody Feed Phil - a real gem



Are things feeling better already? I don't know. Trump's going, a vaccine for COVID might be nearing reality, maybe things *can* only get better. 

Given we're all staying in for a while longer, I had stacked up a boat load of folk horror films and some more post-apocalyptic mayhem in the ever growing Walking Dead universe to watch. 

But along came a delight I didn't see coming - Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix, recommended by partner in Music Therapy dispensation, Neil "long hot" Summers. I usually wait until I've finished a series before posting any kind of a review, but I've got the hang of the basic format after just five episodes and I'm calling it early.

I think it's the best thing I've seen all year. 

Here's how it works. Comedy actor Phil Rosenthal, from Everybody Loves Raymond, pitches up in a city and eats food. Oh, so it's a travel show? you say. No, not really, it's probably an anti-travel show travel show. There's no danger, or jeopardy, there's no real information, no travel tips, a teeny bit of historical context, but not much. The continuity is all over the place, so much so, it doesn't really try. At the end of each episode he call his parents in New York over Skype. And yet none of these are flaws, it's just a gloriously sensory experience. But I keep thinking I'm over thinking it. It's just fun, beautiful, warm, loving and funny.  

Sunday, November 08, 2020

We remember them, and we thank them



Amidst the celebrations this weekend we must pause for more than a moment to remember, in the best way we can.

We weren't able to attend our usual service, so we held our own on our doorstep this morning.

I remembered my Mum's father Teddy O'Hare who died in a field in Germany in 1943 just a month after his daughter was born, shot down in a Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster Bomber he was navigating. 

We remembered the sacrifice and the contribution made by my other Grandad, my Dad's dad, Stan Taylor of the Cameron Highlanders and the Royal Commando Regiment in special operations in Malta, Burma, North Africa and Norway. He returned home to his family in North Wales, and led a successful life as a manager at Woolworths stores around the North West. But until he died in 1982 he always lived with the memories of horrors we will never even be able to contemplate. 

I will remember Frank Sayer, my Great Grandfather, who's letters home from the trenches of France in the First World War I now have and will look after carefully. 

And we will also thank my late Uncle Peter, his son Daniel, my nephew Ben, who all served their country, and my cousin Justin who still does. For all they've done, seen and unseen, be it in Northern Ireland, Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, or in readiness, and the friends they may be mourning today.

And we will think of how proud we are of our son Max, currently on the home front in this pandemic, doing what is asked of him today, just as he did in South Sudan with the UN mission. 

To all who serve, thank you.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

A new dawn has broken, has it not?

http://www.stanleychow.co.uk/



There's only one thing on all of our minds today. The election of decency back to the office of the President of the USA. Sorry for the headline (not sorry).

We've been glued to CNN all week, a change from our usual global 24 hour news channel of choice, France24. I could listen to John King all day long. 

It's hard to comprehend what an unpleasant and repugnant force Trump has been. The powerful reaction from CNN's Van Jones hit that home. ""Every day you're waking up and you're getting these tweets and you just don't know, and you are going to the store and the people who were once afraid to show their racism are getting nastier and nastier to you." That got me. Trump enabled all of that. In our country, we get a glimpse of it from the likes of Farage, but not from the leader of our country, aside from a few stupid old jokes, not at that scale, and frankly you can barely imagine it. In time we'll look back and be baffled not just at how he was elected but that how normalised his outrageous, ungraceful, rude style of governing became. Pundit Sam Harris described Trump's appeal and strategy as allowing people to feel OK about the worst version of themselves, someone incapable of casting moral judgement on people by default makes them feel fine about being hateful and racist.

I've been in a global echo chamber of like minded happy people today, which has made Twitter fun again (notably, John Niven has been immense). I have made a half hearted attempt to try and think of the opposite point of view. What has Trump done that's been good? Frankly, it's a short list. Taking out the Iranian General, maybe? Standing up to China, possibly? I do hear the cry that he's made a political cause of working people in left behind communities, but he harvested their votes and made them his base without any coherent economic plan, and did so on the premise of trade war with China, almost America's version of our false prospectus of Brexit.

Biden's election is also a headache for the Boris Johnson government, as if they didn't have enough problems. A US trade deal that rides roughshod over the Good Friday agreement won't wash. And if I was an official in the Biden team, the mealy mouthed comments of Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary, would push the interests of the UK a little further down the list of priorities. 

At some point quite soon, Biden and Harris will have to make really difficult decisions - the kind of test of character that Presidents have to make. The obvious first one being a proper response that takes COVID-19 seriously.

They'll also be asked to tack left by the Bernie Sanders crowd, and rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Congressional Progressive Caucus. The stoked up culture wars will be a further test. I had an immediate taste of it with a tweet about Iraq. But Biden has spent all of his political life negotiating and triangulating, finding a solution, working around the table, not just being righteous. He also has a strong Vice President, possibly the next President, at his side.

Many of us Brits are aware of Biden's shortcomings. Right now I'm very much looking forward to his acceptance speech. I just hope he starts it with - "We're ALRIGHT!" 


credits: illustration by Stanley Chow, punchline by Patrick Maguire.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Lockdown training - finally a goal



One of the things I've been doing since the very beginning of lockdown is a daily workout. Before you think it's another alpha male with an Instagram account show boating, then it really isn't. I never thought I'd be that person, even when I joined a gym a couple of years ago it was often an effort. I've blogged a couple of times before about where this came from and what that journey has been like.

In February 2018 it was about how training gave me focus and got me fitter. 

By July 2019 I was wondering what the next level might be like, getting ripped like Simon Pegg and trying something substantial. In truth, I was plodding along and wasn't very good at goal setting or motivation.

Lockdown changed everything.

Our gym closed, I tried following some Zoom sessions, but it didn't work. Instead I just thought I'd follow some British Army training moves and the routines we used to do at the gym, but without weights. After a while I found myself wondering out loud what the point was, and finally settled on something I think I'd been avoiding, some proper goal setting. 

The thing that has always bothered me about how I looked (and how that affected me) has been my middle. Despite being six foot tall with a slim build, I have what can only be called a pot belly. Despite giving up alcohol and generally eating well, it hasn't really shifted in the few years since I started training. I feel better, and I now have actual shoulders, better stamina, a couple more holes in my belt, and strong legs; but that belly hadn't really shifted. It's always bothered me, and there are incidents and comments over the years that have triggered me. In many ways it's just been a part of me, an element of a negative image of myself that I just priced in.

I researched a set of routines and have now built a six day a week full body workout, with a special day for my major goal - Abs Wednesday. I can't pin point the time it started to make a difference, but it has.  Not ripped, not a six pack, but better.

But though this is the goal, it isn't the main benefit. It's got to the stage now that it's part of the wake up routine. Coffee, news, workout, breakfast, shower. It's a release of endorphins in that middle one that is as important as all of the others to how I can mentally function. Some mornings it's so hard; it gets to the point where I dread a push up more than anything. But I have to go on. I don't have any wisdom, any technical tips, a programme for you to copy, and I'm not trying to laud it over anyone. The point is that I've finally found something that works for me. I'm happy to share the routines with anyone who wants to have a look, but the point is to find something that works for you.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

The influencers of the North. Discuss




Ten years ago The Big Issue in the North published a list of the 50 most influential Northerners. 

Reading it now it feels like a piece of history of a different country, where they do things very differently. I was one of the selection panel and can only look back and laugh now at some of the choices we made. Not because we were wrong, but because the whole premise was built on the primacy of big money and raw power having lasting influence. We said that influence was a broad term, covering economic clout, political power, cultural impact and more. And if the way in which you wield that power is the ability to make change and influence lives, then how the Gods must laugh at such plans now. Our list, made up mostly of white blokes, was not of superior beings who have shaped our destiny since then, but of the modestly successful and wealthy, but also the humbled, and ultimately the powerless and uninfluential; as they have been utterly impotent to arrest the meta trends that have shaped the last decade, for better or for worse.

I picked my way through all of this in last week's Big Issue in the North. Even if this isn't a reason for you to buy it, there's always plenty more true goodness in there. So please take the trouble to buy a copy, either from your local vendor, or via this link.

The link to the piece is now live, here.

When you've had a read, let's have a chat about influence and power in our troubled times.


Wednesday, November 04, 2020

See you on the other side, see you on the fells



I don't think I've ever felt envy like it. 

There was a Freshwalks today to Alport Castles in the Upper Derwent Valley of the Peak District National Park on this most beautiful of autumn days. 

Obviously I was pleased for friends who were able to take this last opportunity to get out in a small group and be guided on a new route, while I sat isolating at home in our virus pit. It must have been quite emotional, as the description of the walk on the Twitter reveals: "Alport Castles quite simply took the breath away. Howden and Derwent reservoirs also competitively resplendent."

This has really been a driver for me over the last year. Not only getting out and walking the hills, but sharing the experiences safely and responsibly. It's been a journey of personal and collective discovery;  pushing the limits of what I can do, but developing friendships of real depth and trust.

I also went out on quite a few walks independently of Freshwalks though the summer, and predictably, on a couple of occasions, got lost. I'll save a few more stories for this blog-a-day through lockdown.

I shall miss this more than anything else over the next month. Thank you to each and every one of you I've walked with. 





Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Get this clown out of the White House

I've lived through scores of elections and they always seem very important at the time. But we're going to stop up tonight to watch this one and pray for Biden/Harris to win and get this horrible man out of the White House. I can't think of very much more to say than that. Plenty of other pundits are having their say, but I feel moderately optimistic that sense will prevail. My biggest fear is that Trump won't go quietly and is fermenting a civil war.  Like a lot of narcissistic leaders, it's always about him. 

Monday, November 02, 2020

Music Therapy on Tameside Radio - getting into the groove


So, day two of the daily blog. We've had a good couple of months now of playing two hours of music every Sunday night. As I knew it would do, it's found its rhythm and Neil and I have found out more about each other and what we talk about between songs. It feels good, it feels like we're doing something different, fun and worthwhile.

It all came about last year when we bumped into one another a few days after Mark Hollis died. Neil was one of the first people I'd noticed commenting on him on social media when I'd seen the news when I was with my sons in Berlin. We shared a virtually identical Talk Talk epiphany on different sides of the world, but catching the bass line to Life's What You Make It in a dance floor setting. That's as much as you need to know. I knew then in that conversation, I needed to work with his musical knowledge. I went away not knowing what that would look like, thinking publishing, a TV idea, then the more I had time to think of other times when I've been really happy it took me back to a radio show I did a few guest slots on with my pal Adil Bux in Perth in 1989. I also remembered a show Terry Christian used to do on Sunday nights on Stockport station Imagine FM, Northerners With Attitude, where I don't ever recall him playing a bad song. We're not trying to copy that, far from it, but it always struck me as a very honest show.

One thing led to another, and here we are. Neil came up with the name for the show, Andy Hoyle from Tameside Radio took a punt on us, taught us the tech, and we were off. We try not to overthink it too much but the clue's in the name, we just want to try and use music to get people in a good mental space on a Sunday night. We only have one strict rule - there's no such thing as a guilty pleasure. Neil set the bar for that with his first play list that dropped a delicious Wham B-side Nothing Looks the Same in the Light. Since then we've found remixes and straight up classics from household names and forgotten wonders alike. I can honestly say I've never felt as musically liberated. It's been an absolute journey of discovery, education and thrills. Friends have also got what we're trying to do and made some fantastic suggestions. Keep them coming.

It's great that the station goes out on the internet, but we're now also on Listen Again, or On Demand, so you can listen at leisure. I do keep Spotify play lists, which I share, but they aren't always accurate versions of what we've played and you don't get us.

Let us know what you like, what works, what you might want to hear more of. 

Sunday, November 01, 2020

A month in lockdown

A couple of years ago I found it particularly motivating to write a blog a day during the summer lull at work. I decided a couple of days ago that I'd repeat the exercise as our wee family went into our own lockdown after our youngest son came down with COVID-19. It was partly intended as a catharsis because the last lockdown we had to do in September was tough. 

As soon as we got his results we felt far better equipped to deal with it and he felt OK. Back in September I was edging towards a return to work one day a week for team meetings, which Tier 3 has since knocked on the head. Also, we've only actually recorded one of our radio shows from the studio (hope you haven't noticed), but I was worried we wouldn't be able to. And we've been very touched by the generous offers of support and help from friends and neighbours.

Now it turns out that we're all going to be in it together anyway as the whole country is heading for a lockdown. I don't know how that's going to go, but obviously I'm worried about people, especially the young. 

Here's a basic rough list of topics I'll try and get through, but like all good lists of ideas some will drop off and others will pop up.

  • Academic writing v journalism
  • 24 Hour News
  • Our Music Therapy programme
  • The Strong Personalities Group
  • Family
  • Telly
  • Labour
  • Friends
  • All Those Things That Seemed So Important
  • Aesthetics
  • Devolution and Democracy
  • Living with medical conditions
  • Welsh Nationalism
  • Some book reviews
  • Some film reviews
  • Folk horror
  • Kinder Scout
  • Cumberland
  • High Intensity Interval Training

 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Coming home to football


So I took my seat on the front row of the main stand at Broadhurst Park, home of FC United of Manchester. I placed my programme, my ticket and my Hollands Pepper Steak Pie in front of me and paused for breath. Some of the Lancaster City substitutes were warming up, knocking the ball back and forth to each other. The tannoy was playing a Jam song, I think, and there was chatter around me about other things than the game we were about to see. And never have I felt happier to be in a football ground.

The last game I'd been to was Blackburn Rovers v Swansea City at the end of February, seven months, two weeks and five days earlier. 

The pie, the Bovril and the smell of football were the first things I sensed. But as the match progressed it was other things that reminded me why watching matches on TV has been no substitute.  It was a decent, physical, boisterous game which ended 1-1. Lancaster should really have won, but you notice so much more by immersing yourself in a game over 90 minutes. You see how players move off the ball, how the bench communicates to them and what the shape of either team is. But even with just 600 people in a tidy new stadium like this, and everyone sensibly observing social distancing, there was a decent enough atmosphere. I never thought I'd enjoy hearing "liner" getting verbals from the home fans as much as I did. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think he enjoyed it too. The players certainly did. There was plenty of good old fashioned shithousery and off the ball niggling for it to rile the home fans. For Lancaster it was one of the bigger crowds they get to play in front of and the players relished it.

That was it really, the collective experience. It's what makes us human and it's what makes football more than a game. Football without fans really is nothing.

And it was another new ground, obviously not one of the 92 (or 91 this season), but the 159th ground I've watched football on.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Warm, welcoming and very, very funny - Matt Forde's Politcally Homeless reviewed

There are some days in your life that stick in your mind for years afterwards. July the 22nd, 2015 is one of them. As was usual back then I hot footed it down to London for an event in Moorgate at the HQ of one of my then clients, but this was different. It wasn't a business do, but a political one, and that was my world that summer. I was pleasantly surprised to be signed into the event by our former babysitter, and good family friend Ciara Hogan, a student at LSE at the time. I had a chat to Alison McGovern MP and arranged to meet up, which led to an enduring professional friendship with her husband. I was there with another pal who I'd got closer to over the summer months of the Labour leadership contest and while we were chatting he invited me to his wedding later that year (we're still good mates and he's still married, that's not where this is going). 

The occasion was Tony Blair was speaking. He was trying to get the Labour Party to come to its senses and not elect Jeremy Corbyn. The speech, the interview, the takeaway message was quite brilliant, you might remember it - he said, "if your heart says vote Corbyn, you need a transplant" - but as we all know it was, like most recent political campaigns I've ever been involved in, hopelessly doomed. 

But it was also the first time I saw Matt Forde, who interviewed TB on stage and was everything that day that he's ever been since: warm, welcoming and very, very funny.

I've since seen him do stand up twice live and he just gets better and better, Matt Forde that is, not Tony Blair. You might then have quite rightly guessed that I'm a fan. I've listened to pretty much all of his podcasts and he never ceases to surprise. His interview style is respectful, sharp, but he also invites the subject into a space where they rarely get to go, thus we are treated to rare glimpses of their character and motivations.

Last year, before a gig at The Lowry in Salford, I even managed to interview Matt for a little video I did (and have foolishly deleted) when I was standing in the Euro elections of 2019. I slipped in a podcast joke that he didn't see coming, which was a personal highlight.

He's now got a book out with a title that perfectly sums up my own status, Politically Homeless. 

I devoured it over a weekend, the Saturday of which his team (Nottingham Forest) beat mine (Blackburn Rovers), something to which I was sublimely indifferent to.  

It's more than a memoir, but it tells us a lot about his life. It's not a manifesto for the future, but it's brimming with good ideas. And it's not a handbook for political activists, but the tips are priceless. 

Paul Wright, a lovely bloke who's been selected to contest our local ward for Labour has it on his Christmas list, he told me over Twitter. I'd suggest he read it now. He'll learn not to organise a photocall to clean graffiti off a wall with only Waitrose Evian water to hand; he'll perhaps be comforted that however dysfunctional and fractious Stockport Labour Group is, at least it's not Stoke; and he'll be given a re-affirmation of why Labour activists really, really hate Liberal Democrats (though living round here he knows that already). I'd give Paul my copy but it's signed by Matt and it's going on my political bookshelf next to prized signed tomes by Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Tony Wilson and Andrew Marr. That's how much I liked it.

A few weeks after the Tony Blair event I got to interview someone on that very same stage who had lived an extraordinary life. I remember thinking, how do I get great stories out of a guy who has been played in a Hollywood film by Leonardo di Caprio? I deployed some of Matt's techniques of building a rapport with the audience and realising that sometimes the obvious question everyone is thinking is the best way in.

On top of it all the book is a powerful statement too in favour of the values of the Britain we want to be - warm, welcoming, and funny (have I said that already). So go on, buy it, read it. Whether you're a political anorak like we are, or just want a good laugh, then I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The conveyor belt of outrage - I've stepped off

I've 'sort of ' disengaged from Twitter. It's become such a festering hell site of anti-nuance, I've decided to observe, rather than participate. I can't quite bring myself to delete my presence, and I do need the platform when I want to punt out a blog (like this) so I'm working through the process of blocking the most aggro people who seem to love loading on to the conveyor belt of outrage, and easing it out of my field of vision.

I just don't need it in my life, so I'm starting the detoxification of my world by withdrawing from the places where the discourse is so shouty and angsty. One of my favourite writers, Ian Leslie, put it well, so I'm going to quote his passage in full: "Public debates are becoming more algorithmic and binary. You must pick one side or another, and when you do, there is always a ready-made script waiting for you to run. When Tory ministers defended Dominic Cummings over his trip to Durham, it wasn’t just what they said that was depressing but how: in a series of near-identical, robotic tweets. More of us are behaving like politicians. Every row on social media is conducted with a set of arguments, slogans and memes that each side – and in binary arguments there can only be two sides – faithfully deploy."

I guess Twitter is where the debate happens, and it's not just about politics, but sport, especially football. Elsewhere, despite the data scraping and social manipulation, I find Facebook to be more carefully curatable. LinkedIn is mostly corporate boosterism, but at least it has some useful well argued content. And Instagram? Ah well, Instagram is my new vice. It may be harmful for young people trying to live up to an aspiration of image perfection, but for me it's the comforting balm of aesthetic comfort and joy. I love the stimulating drip of goodness than oozes onto my feed, mainly outdoor landscapes, but also photos of food, art, weirdness, shoes, jackets, jeans, retro photos and more music ideas for our programme. The universe it creates is one of walks I want to go on -  the Camino, the Appalachian trail, the Wainwrights, the Munroes and the peaks of Snowdon - in boots and fleeces I want to wear. It gives me visual recall of cities and open spaces I’ve only got fading memories of, such the gorgeous South of Western Australian and the deep outback, oddities like Tallinn, Berlin, Marseille, rural Italy, Miami and many more. That's what I need in my life, something to look forward to. It's what we all need, frankly.  Call it escapism, but I’ve done with reality and I’m done with Twitter.


Monday, October 12, 2020

Downtown Den #111 // Michael Taylor in the Downtown Den





I had great pleasure in joining my old friend Frank McKenna in conversation last week. Inevitably, we're having to adapt to all kinds of new event formats during isolation, lockdown and working from home. This was an old fashioned two-way interview, conducted over Zoom.

We covered a lot, spanning the time we've known each other. The state of the regional media, social media, my first novel and the state of fiction, politics, mental health and my job at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Left Out - The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn


There are good friends of mine who can't bear to pick up this excellent book and learn more of the inevitable feuds and mishaps within the inner workings of the Leader of the Opposition's Office (LOTO). It's too raw, said one, who worked in a previous Labour government and would be tipped over the edge. Especially as the consequences of this protracted self-indulgence is a destructive Conservative government. 

Anyone who has followed this blog and my own political commentary will know where I stand on all of this. I never thought Jeremy Corbyn was even a suitable candidate for leader, and evidently, neither did he. I never trusted, or liked, his inner sanctum. Quite why I was right in that sentiment howls out of every interview and source that Patrick Maguire and Gabriel Pogrund speak to. And so I look back now and feel there was an inevitability about it all.  

Given we all know how it ends, and that it pretty much confirms every prejudice I had about many of the key people featured in the book, there isn't much that is surprising, but I'll come onto one significant factor shortly.

But though it isn't surprising, it is still shocking. I mean genuinely, gasp inducing, out loud guffawing, jaw dropping, really shocking. There is something on pretty much every page that is worse than anything the writers of the Thick of It could invent. Many other reviewers have picked up on particular standout moments, but mine was the plan to topple Tom Watson just before 2018 conference, a plan that failed because Claudia Webbe was late. Or that Andrew Fisher was upset that Corbyn had a nickname for Seamus Milne, but not him. None of the personalities come out of it particularly well, the accounts of bullying and fawning around the leader are particularly toe curling. 

The whole narrative of the story is built around a number of clumsily enacted catastrophes - internal division, anti-semitism, Labour Live festival, Salisbury, Brexit, parliamentary chicanery and the General Election campaign of 2019. At all points Corbyn's lack of leadership qualities make Labour's dysfunction worse.  All you learn is entirely consistent with the prickly old man we sometimes saw on the news, slamming car doors and demanding of interviewers - "can I finish?"

If behind the scenes at "the Project" resembled a bunch of bickering children, you are left to wonder who the adults were. Diane Abbott seems strangely absent, Len McCluskey lurks around every corner, but one figure emerges as a tragi-hero, John McDonnell. He at least recognises that the left have a moment to make a mark and achieve power, but seems powerless to stop their worst instincts from consuming themselves. I don't actually think there is a great deal between him and his leader on policy issues. It seems amazing to me still that much of the left chose to dig in so damagingly on anti-Semitism. Having put to one side their lifelong opposition to nuclear weapons, Irish republicanism, NATO and nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, it's peculiar that they seemed so militant about this one issue. McDonnell seems to understand the need to triangulate and pick the battles that can be won. It's not "tittle tattle" that caused a serious fracture in the relationships, but a defining characteristic of a politics that wants to stand up for a principle, and one that wants to shape society according to those principles. 

This is a fair, balanced and detailed account that tries to work out what went wrong, from their high watermark of hubris at Glastonbury in 2017 to Keir Starmer thrashing their candidate in the 2020 leadership election. It has a level of introspection that all failed political projects have to subject themselves to, including the one I was briefly involved in that gets a mention, The Independent Group for Change. By overly focusing on the Westminster and LOTO operations and less on the grass roots from where this movement came, it is open to the criticism that it only tells half a story. I don’t think that’s grounds to dismiss this work though, because with leadership comes a deep responsibility to do what you promised. Another history would show how Corbynism inspired hope, then dashed it, across the Labour Party in different local branches and constituency parties, and how that played out on social media. But that would be a different book, albeit one that would still include stories about Claudia Webbe. As John Harris says in his peerless review of this, and another account by someone I don't like, the one group of people that doesn't get a look in, or a hearing, are the voters who were turned off by what was evidently a wholly unappealing rabble.

Postscript: this review by Stephen Bush in the New Statesman is also very good.