Saturday, September 19, 2020

Lockdown blues

There was something about the whole country being locked down together that helped us feel we were part of a collective effort to do our bit.

Last week we got the news that one of our sons had been with a mate who'd tested positive. He felt a bit rough and had to get a test before going back to university, which came back positive. We got tested as well and were negative, but rules is rules and we have to isolate for two weeks. I'm not going to lie, it's been horrible. Much as I want to put a stoic face on it, I'm struggling with it. We can't leave the house, Max can't come home on his leave, everything is delivered, and I think the worse of it is that we were edging towards returning to work, college, walks and the gym. And I've had to pre-record from home our second Music Therapy programme, with embarrassingly disastrous consequences.  

But we are healthy and well. No symptoms, no real drama. As ever, Rachel is far more cheery than me and has raised our spirits. We are counting our blessings and very much looking forward to celebrating her birthday this week in a spirit of togetherness. This will pass and we will have a chippy tea to mark the end of our isolation next Friday.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Music Therapy on Tameside Radio


On Sunday nights from 9pm until 11pm me and my mate Neil Summers are going to be playing a few records and telling stories on a new show, Music Therapy on Tameside Radio 103.6 FM. It's a breezy mix of the new and the familiar, designed to end the weekend on a blissed out way. I think of Neil as my far more clued up younger brother, nudging me to appreciate richer, deeper and more exciting music. There's no such thing as a guilty pleasure in our book, just an open mind and a love of great music.

You can listen to us live here. We'll probably get round to setting up a website with mini features, extended interviews and playlists. Possibly.

Massive thanks to Chris Bird and Andy Hoyle at Quest Media for giving us the chance. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

A summer of Telly and Box Sets


It's been the best of times, the worst of times. Staying at home, home cooking, eating local, shopping local, trying to imagine another kind of world out there, beyond the news and the various phases of lockdown. And we've watched lots of telly series. At times I've obsessed, binge watched and barely been able to think of anything else, sometimes diving in and forgetting everything within days.

Here's what I've been watching, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

I'll start with the best thing I've seen and take you through the rest in no particular order, but leaving the absolute worst until last. 

Succession (HBO) managed to be even funnier and more shocking than series one.  A little bit of knowledge of the Murdoch family psycho drama really helps, especially watching the way the series grafts on the sacrifices demanded and the brutal boardroom politics of real life. All that was missing was a cream pie at a government committee hearing. But the acting and the whole way the lives of the worst people in the world are designed and captured was something else. 

The Secrets She Keeps (BBC iPlayer) - a plausible and shocking Australian drama with a predictable finger on the emotional manipulation button. It fairly crudely lathers on the class divide, but it was based on a real case and still has the potential for a follow up series. Also reinforced my firm conviction, gleaned from repeated Australian TV series that their cops are the worst in the world.

Giri Haji - (BBC iPlayer) was good, if a little strange at times. An Anglo-Japanese co-production that probably didn't need to keep reminding us of that. It was a brave attempt to lever in some remarkably off-type genre crossing, some worked, some really didn't. I liked the comic book style for the commentary and the set piece over stylised interactions between mob bosses, but the ballet scene for a showdown just felt odd. Played humour very well in what could have been relentlessly bleak and overly procedural.

Normal People (RTE on BBC iPlayer) really pleasantly surprised me. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, probably a bit of BBC Sunday night middle class right of passage romance, but it was far more than that. Not only was it beautifully shot, tenderly acted and well paced, and I really liked the short episodes, it needed the darker moments to make you properly yearn for the better possibilities. However, we had to shut the curtains in case anyone was shocked by what they might be seeing from the street.

Safe (Netflix) was compelling if a bit ridiculous. Very much like another Harlan Coben adaption The Stranger in both style and delivery (both made locally by Red Productions) and occasional use of locations. Both had the desired twists and turns, but too many red herrings and useless coppers tested my patience by the end. Does no-one in this middle class universe move away? 

The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC) was probably the most heart breaking of all TV dramas, not least because it was based entirely on real events, but never threatened to become an episode of Spooks. It was what happens to the real lives of people caught up in an act of terror. I was particularly cut up about the fate of poor Dawn Sturgess, who this series seemed to go out of its way to generously rescue in death from the grave indignities she suffered in her own short life. I do hope that Tracy Daszkiewicz, the director of public health, has been OK during the pandemic. I've no reason to doubt the portrayal of her as a modest and dedicated civil servant by Anne-Marie Duff. It reflects the hard working reality of thousands of public servants called upon to lead at times of crisis, unglamorous work delivered with bravery, heroism and self-doubt.

The Sinner (Netflix) - we did all three series of this Bill Pullman led "why-dunnit" set in upstate New York and I have to say the first was superb, the second was even better but the third lapsed into the absurd.

The A Word (BBC) did a great job of bringing life and laughter to everyday family life for a third series. I probably enjoyed this series the least of all of them as I grew impatient at the breathless ease with which scenes between the Langdale Valley and Manchester took place with barely a reference to the three hours it takes to get from one to the other. I also spent the whole series awaiting the imminent much hinted at demise of my favourite annoying character (of which there are many). But, overall, tender and messy.

Fear the Walking Dead season 5 (Amazon Prime) - I have waxed lyrical before on the desperate turns of the whole Walking Dead franchise and I'm probably overdue a piece on the whole comic book arc, the direction the main show is going with one delayed season finale to come soon. So while I was hugely sceptical of the potential for a spin off series set in California, I did actually quite like seasons 1-3 of Fear the Walking Dead. The characters of Madison, Nick, Alicia and Strand were an improvement on the nonsense playing out with Rick Grimes and his crew in Georgia around seasons 7 and 8. Daniel Salazar was also one of the best ambiguous good guy/ bad guy characters of the whole universe. Season 4 was all over the place, literally in where it was set, the time jumps which were hard to follow, and the lighting and locations. I don't blame the actors, none of them were unconvincing, it was the whole package. The way things happened with no context, continuity was all over the place, decisions were made with no logic and the whole 'help people' thing was just stupid by the end. Morgan, played by Lennie James, was just boring and annoying when he left The Walking Dead, and he got progressively worse through Season 4 and by season 5, which is by some margin the worst television series I have watched this year, or possibly any year, I actually wanted him to die. The only good thing I have to show for the whole torrid and laughably bad experience (much of which I shuttled forward through) is the sheer unadulterated joy of reading reviews on Fortune's website by the excellent Erik Kain.

 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Rose Hill and the Hyde loop must stay open - fight the power

I was really cross when I heard of plans to suspend train services on the route from Rose Hill Marple to Manchester Piccadilly via Hyde from September to December 2020. Northern Trains, also sneaked out the news in a letter to MPs. Given they are now run by the Department for Transport’s Operator of Last Resort, part of the state, in public ownership, it was particularly galling.

The reason they give is hollow, supposedly it's due to insufficient staffing caused by the need to train for new rolling stock and new recruits. During this period there will be no trains at Rose Hill Marple, Woodley, Hyde Central, Hyde North and Fairfield stations. As a result, frequency will also be cut at Romiley, Guide Bridge and Ashburys. 

For what it's worth this blog fully supports the campaign to stop these plans and is delighted to be supported by the Goyt Valley Rail Users’ Association and all our local MPs along the route, Tory and Labour, and by local Councillors.

Rachel Singer, Chair of the Friends of Rose Hill Station, said “The withdrawal of service is not just inconvenient, it will cause distress and a severe sense of dislocation and disruption to life for many who use the service when we are all struggling to re-establish some routines as lockdown eases. We are also concerned about the many local school pupils who will not be able to use the service just as they return to school at the start the new session. Many of those affected will switch to travelling by car, causing more pollution and congestion. Others will be forced to use less convenient bus and rail services, increasing the pressure on these services and making social distancing harder. Some people will decide not to travel at all, undermining the Government’s efforts to get the economy growing again”.

Chair of the Goyt Valley Rail Users’ Association, Peter Wightman, added “Northern are asking passengers to find other ways to travel, pointing them to local bus services, and to rail stations on the routes from Glossop and from Sheffield via Marple. But this comes when bus services are being reduced, and passengers are already being asked to try to avoid the rail route from Sheffield via Marple due to overcrowding. With capacity on alternative routes being limited due to social distancing, overcrowding may force passengers to find another means of transport, or make it impossible to maintain social distancing.

“The longer this closure goes on, the harder it will be to persuade passengers to come back to rail, working against the aim of making our transport system more sustainable. This also undermines the government’s commitment to rebuild passenger confidence when it took over the running of services across the Northern rail network in March.”

The user groups point out that several thousand people have signed petitions against Northern’s plans in less than a week, and they have created a storm of opposition on social media. The groups are committed to fighting the plans until they are scrapped. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Build Back Better - webinar with Andy Burnham, the LEP and the Growth Company





I was really pleased to be asked by the Growth Company to host this important webinar with Andy Burnham on Build Back Better - How Greater Manchester can make the best of the challenge of the pandemic and stay true to the ambitions of creating quality jobs, homes and businesses.

Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Help me out, Charlotte - letters to a Labour activist from the political wilderness


The second in a series of conversations with political activist friends has taken a little longer to produce than I hoped, but following a long chat to Liberal Democrat Stephen Duckworth, here are some ideas and thoughts shared between me and Charlotte Morris, a Councillor and now an Executive member on Bury Borough Council. 




Hi Charlotte,
 
Thanks for agreeing to this. As you know I’ve had a very troubled relationship with the Labour Party. I hated it under Corbyn. In fact I wasn’t that keen on Miliband and I fought a General Election in my home seat on that manifesto. I left when the anti-semitism was out of control and the NEC, the leaders office and local infrastructure of the party was dominated by people I had no interest in working with, or had any desire to see get into power. I supported Ann Coffey, Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger when they had the courage to leave. I was disappointed more didn’t follow and that an alternative wasn’t possible – and it really isn’t, I get that. 
I also thought that after the general election wipeout that Corbyn could truly own his defeat when it inevitably came. But he hasn’t and the Left were quickly back on social media with a ready made betrayal narrative because they discovered the kind of Whatsapp group I have been in over the last few years. 
And though I can’t for one minute support a Boris Johnson Conservative government, I’m relieved in a way that the government we have now is not the one Jeremy Corbyn may have led. I wasn’t convinced Kier Starmer would be able to shape Labour into an electoral force, but I think he’s made a very good start. To be clear, despite three seperate messages from Labour MPs urging me to 'come home' as Starmer was elected, I don’t really see the point of rejoining and yet, at the same time, I think our society is faced with an opportunity to really change and emerge from this terrible virus and the economic catastrophe with a better heart and a sense of common purpose. I know that’s a bit of an offload, but I value your view.
 
Cheers,
 
Michael 

------------------

Hi Michael,
 
Sorry for not getting back to you sooner on this. Given I’ve kept you waiting for a response, I won’t hang about. Let’s get to the nub of the issue; you’re looking for someone to give you reasons to re-join the Labour Party. 
 
Well, sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to indulge you in that.
 
I’m not really sure you should re-join. You said yourself in your email you “don’t see the point”. So why are you even considering it? 
 
Seeing as we both work for esteemed academic institutions, I’ve done a bit of Google bashing and it turns out there is plenty of clever sounding academic thought around why people join political parties. The ‘General Incentives Model’ (Seyd and Whiteley, 1992) is a widely accepted approach to understanding why people become active in political parties. So why don’t we start there?
 
This model outlines the following reasons why people take up membership of political parties:
 
- Perception that participation will achieve a desired collective outcome.
- A desire to see particular policies introduced. 
- Selective benefits of membership e.g. material or career benefits. 
- The intrinsic pleasure of political engagement. 
- Altruistic motivations. 
- A desire to conform to social norms and behaviour and expectation of personal contacts. 
- Personal affection for a party and / or leader. 
 
(Isn’t it amazing what you can learn after a few minutes on Google, by the way …)

I don’t profess to you know you super well, but we’ve shared many conversations about politics over many brews over the past couple of years, so if you don’t mind I will make a couple of observations on what I think motivates you. Please tell me if I’m off base.
 
I think you are fascinated by politics, see it as the vehicle to achieving things that make the world a better place and enjoy the intellectual stimulation of being involved in political debate. You’re not a Tory. Not even a shy one, I don’t think. You’ve got too much water under the bridge locally with the Lib Dems. And that lot you had a brief dalliance with last year are no more (hurrah!).
 
You’re politically engaged, but politically homeless.
 
Perhaps you could consider the motivations for joining a political party against your own feelings of the Labour Party in its current form. Ask yourself why you want to be a member of a political party at all and what you want from that membership, and then you might start to find your answer as to whether that party should be Labour. I’d be interested to know what you come up with.  
 
I know I could have used this email to tell you all the reasons why you should come back. Anti-Semitism will be stamped out once and for all. We’re going to focus on winning elections, not just the argument. The Shadow Cabinet and its diverse talent shows the ambition the Party has. Sir Keir Starmer’s hair. The truth is I don’t think you should have left in the first place and I’m not too sure I want to legitimise that decision by saying “it’s alright now, we’re back to normal and you can return to the fold”.
 
It somehow normalises the idea that those who resigned in protest at anti-Semitism were morally right. And that those who didn’t were morally wrong. How can you support a racist Party? Why won’t you take a stand? How can you ask people to vote for that man? My membership of the Labour Party certainly has caused me issues with people I love at times over the past couple of years. It’s been hard to justify. And I accept that. I know that for those who quit, like you, it wasn’t an easy decision. And at times, neither was deciding to stay. But ultimately I believe that my values are in line with those of the Labour Party and those who espouse anti-Semitism in the name of the Party or in the name of the Leader are the ones that are out of step.  
 
I think ultimately what you need to ask yourself is do you think the Labour Party best represents your values and is it the best vehicle for seeing those values put into action?
 
But don’t forget, with your chequered past, the big question isn’t whether you should re-join the Party, it’s whether we’d have you. 
 
Speak soon. 
 
Charlotte 
 

------------------


Very good, Charlotte. Maybe we should have carried on talking about our pets.
 
I’m not all surprised you’ve cut to the chase and put the hard word down about joining. You’re right, but I thought I made it clear I’m not joining, and I think I’m probably done with parties. Not least because you raise the obvious issue that they wouldn’t have me anyway. So let’s park that thought for now.
 
There’s an element of the last five years that I still find troubling though. In an effort to keep the party together plenty of people kept their heads down and didn’t speak out against the basket of deplorables that presided over the most shameful political leadership of a major party in our country’s history. There’s a sense now that papering over the shame can suddenly make everything OK. It’s fine to laud Keir Starmer now with his impressive words and deeds and his grown up approach to political management, and his forensic and calm dissembling of Boris Johnson at PMQs is masterful, but there are going to be sterner tests when the EHRC publish their report that WILL declare Labour to have been institutionally racist. 
 
Anything less than a sweeping of the stables, withdrawl of the whip, expulsions and firm statements of intent, will render any attempts to reach beyond that current base utterly redundant. 
 
I put it back to you then, what should non-aligned, non-partisan community activists do? How do parties seek to coalesce allies with whom they find common cause around campaigns. Maybe later we can think about what Build Back Better might mean and how you and I as various elements of our personas - Councillor, University execs, community activists – can imagine that at local, regional, national, global level. 
 
Ta,
 
Michael


------------------

Michael,

The past five years is all I’ve known as a Labour Party member. I joined in the summer of 2015 following the General Election defeat. As a political observer both personally and professionally I’d never really felt party political and certainly not tribal, but by the time the exit poll came in I had had enough of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (I’d voted Lib Dem in 2010, don’t tell anyone, we were all young once). I was absolutely gutted that Labour wasn’t going to be able to form a minority or coalition government. Maybe it was the heady days of the Milifandom and we all got a bit carried away with ourselves (I confess I came for the memes, but stayed for the politics). Regardless, there wasn’t much I didn’t agree with the Labour Party on and I wanted to see the Party win. Ed Miliband wasn’t perfect nor was that manifesto, but much of it spoke to me at that time and, actually, still does. 
 
So to have gone from non-party political and very non-tribal to suddenly being a member of a political party that has been tearing itself limb from limb in a factional war for the past half a decade has been a bit disconcerting to say the least. I can’t disagree with you that Corbyn’s tenure has brought shame to the Labour Party and I tried to explain briefly why I stayed with the Party even though I felt that way in my previous reply. 
 
But I don’t agree that by moving forward in the way that the Party is doing now we are somehow papering over the cracks. Following a meeting with Keir Starmer after he was elected leader, the Board of Deputies said he achieved more in four days more than his predecessor had in four years. That’s a good start and there is much more that needs to be done; I agree that we need action. I guess it’s the old “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” and we shall await the publication of the EHRC report and judge Keir Starmer’s response accordingly. 
 
Beyond political parties, community activism is alive and well. In my own ward where I’m a councillor I’m lucky enough to know and work with a number of really proactive, passionate and dedicated community groups. These are non-party political although the people that run them have political views and in some cases party allegiances. They come in different forms, from a volunteer-led community centre to local litter picking groups, and from a traditional residents’ association to a constituted ‘Friends of’ group that hopes to take over management of the local country park. I don’t think they’d call themselves ‘activists’ as I don’t think they see themselves as campaigners, but they are making a real difference in their communities and isn’t that the ultimate aim of activism?
 
So to answer your question, what do non-aligned, non-partisan community activists do? You find something in your community that you’re not happy with or that you think could be improved, you get a group of like-minded people together and you take action. In today’s society with social media and the multitude of ways in which we can stay connected, this is easier than ever. 
 
Ultimately, however, a degree of political engagement will be required, but political engagement doesn’t have to be aligned or partisan either. 
 
A great example of successful community activism, again from my patch in Bury, has been seen around the climate emergency. The Council passed a climate emergency in July 2019. In response a local group, Bury Climate Action, was set up. They’ve got engaged, got online, got in our faces by asking questions at Full Council, held meetings and asked us to attend, and they’ve lobbied local councillors to take appropriate action. They’ve put pressure on us. Asked us hard questions. And we’ve had to find answers. They’ve changed the debate and held us to account on our promises. 

I hope that answers your question. 

Cheers,

Charlotte 
 
 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Under appreciated genius

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I've been thinking a lot about what might have been. But also listening to a wide range of new music at a time when venues like Gorilla were at risk of closing, Q Magazine is nearing the end, and artists are staring into the abyss. Before all of that though, here are some massively unappreciated geniuses.

The one above is a towering anthem of melancholy from Gavin Clark, Good Day to Die, from the album Crazy on the Weekend by Sunhouse. In his A&R days author John Niven looked after Gavin when he was a brittle and sensitive singer songwriter at a time when the music market demanded brash and confident at the tail end of Britpop. Although you might recognise his tone and key from This is England soundtracks and various indie films, Gavin never broke through with any of his bands, Sunhouse or Clayhill. He died a few years ago in sad circumstances. Here's a heartbreaking and beautifully written obituary John Niven wrote in the Daily Record which captures him painfully well and a film his friend Shane Meadows made with Gavin in his living room. Maybe you could read the obituary while you play Good Day to Die, or just the whole of the album to be honest.

I went to see I Am Kloot a few times and was touched by the wall of affection from an appreciative audience of people like us. I noticed that singer John Bramwell was due to tour again just as lockdown kicked in. That’s going to be top of my list when this is over. Support venues, support artists, and no, just downloading on Spotify won’t be enough will it?

You couldn’t download this next track if you wanted to, as it’s not on Spotify.  Flowered Up, or the Cockney Mondays as they were known at the time (by me) had an incredible energy about them and (heresy, I know) I genuinely think Weekender is far better than anything the baggy Mancs ever came up with. It's a sprawling, multi-layered, epic non-anthemic classic. Behind it is another tragic story of a talent lost and the subject of what I hear is a very good book. This here, about them, nails it and the epic lost brilliance of Weekender.

For a slightly happier ending, David Ford is at least still with us, but nowhere near the status he deserves. I'm fairly stuck on one of his earlier albums, Let the Hard Times Roll, but I'm not here to judge, just to share. I'd start with To Hell With The World, but maybe cheer yourself up with Making up For Lost Time. I just don't understand why everyone doesn't know these songs like I do. Life's better for it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Let it happen


I found this old photo taken of me in 1989 when I was the editor of a fashion magazine in Australia, sat staring out of the window of the L'Alba Cafe in Northbridge, WA, possibly one of my all time favourite neighbourhood hangouts. 
Strangely, I've been taken back to that time and place by the song below - Let it Happen by Tame Impala. Written and performed by Kevin Parker who grew up in WA, but will have been 3 years old at the time, it seems to capture that anxious feeling of the world of possibilities and excitement. The added ingredient for me is the sense of dislocation from home, and that I'm not meant to be laying down roots and making plans here, I'm in a foreign land. Hence the most critical line is this - "If I never come back, tell my mother I'm sorry". 
There's also a loop in the song where it momentarily sounds like the disc is stuck, before the burst that breaks that loop finds another settled rhythm and then a complex harmony of two vocal tracks competing for your attention. There's a lot going on, but it's ultimately uplifting.
I often think about those 'Sliding Doors' moments of big life decisions, and deciding to return to Britain was just such a time for me, especially the crushing sense of struggle and uncertainty, loneliness and rotten English weather that followed, taking me a couple of years to find my groove in London. 
Where would the friendships, relationships and opportunities in Australia have taken me? How much more chicken mango or Greek salad could I have eaten at L'Alba, or Vietnamese noodles from this takeaway in Highgate? Would I have grown out of dance music and clubbing in Perth as quickly as I did in London? Maybe I quit while I was ahead? Obviously I don't wish away the happy marriage and the wonderful children I've fathered, and I would always have wanted to have landed here.
I've been doing a lot of looking back lately and thinking about where my own sons will go in the world and how I'll feel about that. Maybe it's because the world has got so much smaller during lockdown, shrinking our literal horizons, but expanding our sense of responsibility. 
Let it Happen
It's always around me, all this noise
But not nearly as loud as the voice saying
"Let it happen, let it happen (It's gonna feel so good)
Just let it happen, let it happen"
All this running around
Trying to cover my shadow
An ocean growing inside
All the others seem shallow
All this running around
Bearing down on my shoulders
I can hear an alarm
Must be a warning
I heard about a whirlwind that's coming 'round
It's gonna carry off all that isn't bound
And when it happens, when it happens (I'm gonna be holding on)
So let it happen, let it happen
All this running around
I can't fight it much longer
Something's trying to get out
And it's never been closer
If my take-off fails
Make up some other story
If I never come back
Tell my mother I'm sorry
I will not vanish and you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to bounce to it
All the while thinking I might as well do it
They be lovin' someone and I'm not that stupid
Take the next ticket to take the next train
Why would I do it? And you wanna think that
I will not vanish and you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to bounce to it
All the while thinking I might as well do it
They be lovin' someone and I'm not that stupid
Take the next ticket to take the next train
Why would I do it? And you wanna think that
I will not vanish and you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to bounce to it
All the while thinking I might as well do it
They be lovin' someone and I'm not that stupid
Take the next ticket to take the next train
Why would I do it? And you wanna think that
I will not vanish and you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to bounce to it
All the while thinking I might as well do it
They be lovin' someone and I'm not that stupid
Take the next ticket to take the next train
Why would I do it? And you wanna think that
Oh, maybe I was ready all along
Oh, maybe I was ready all along
Oh, maybe all I wanted was the sound
Oh but maybe I was ready all along
Songwriters: Kevin Parker
Let It Happen lyrics © BMG Rights Management

An introduction to the future


Every day we seem to lurch from one example of our crisis of leadership and trust, to another. I'm not alone in feeling adrift, confused, and searching for purpose, but whatever else is going on it doesn’t have to be one of crushed personal responsibility and accountability. This pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has been a shock to the collective system and to individual hopes and dreams.

I hardly stand unique in this country at my disgust and horror at how the most impressive collective contribution of sacrifice and civic spirit was frittered away by a lethal amateurism. It is a time of intense national shame. Yet organisations and individuals across our country have displayed leadership, generosity and a capability to contribute to the common good, and it is from them that we must take inspiration in order to contribute to a rebuilding of trust.

Many of us are determined the inevitable change should be positive, and a few of us have been knocking ideas around. For me, this arose from a small group of us from within the Freshwalks hiking group. We were split into smaller groups to support one another during lockdown and see where it took us. We've done OK, I think. We've shared a lot, helped one another and enjoyed the experience. I knew one of the others quite well, another a bit, one used to work with Rachel years ago, and the final chap, not at all. I'd say we've been through a fair bit together since and know each other pretty well now. 

Let me start with my own state of mind.

I’m one of those people on the divide in society that has been able to work from home.  I’m not going to complain about that, because others have suffered far worse symptoms than the new blight of being all Zoomed out. We've done alright at home, eating together, I exercise regularly, Rachel's done well with her work, raising money for people in crisis.

But while I’ve got a lot done - finally written an MSc thesis - I’ve also drifted and dithered. I’ve wondered how I can make a meaningful contribution to my work, and to making the world better, to know what I’m doing in my job, and that it matters. In reviewing things I’ve written and read, there’s an awful lot of nostalgia. From that comes a melancholy about what I’ve missed out on. I think we look back because there’s precious little to look forward to. The promise of the future as a better place is an uncertain one now.

I have three impatient words written on the opening page of my work journal – the book where I take notes at meetings and where I write ideas down. It just says – does it matter? Frankly, at the moment, it doesn’t always feel like much does; but it must.  I want to articulate a bold sweep of key actions and behaviours that can and should take place as we emerge out of lockdown to contribute in our own way to Build Back Better, it can’t happen just by willing it so.

And much as I muse at a policy level - I literally wrote a thesis on it - it's at a personal level that I have had similar moments of clarity that have looked at the ticking clock of life and thought – I no longer have the patience to work with unpleasant people. I think part of me has always done this. I've definitely been guilty of discriminating in favour of working with people who crack on, get stuff done, work at a pace I do and share my values. I described it recently as finding a golden thread of good people. However, I’m also aware that has come across in the past as 'picking favourites'. But for many emerging from this terrible pandemic and the recession to come, we’re going into a severe economic situation where plenty of us will be content to work for anyone, assholes included. Therefore it also places an even greater importance on those of us who can discriminate to build alliances with the good, the kind, the generous.

Here, then, are my three thoughts on where I think I must go:

All of us who can must double our commitment to get on and do stuff - I think of what Matthew Taylor at the RSA described as the need to 'make power, not take power'. Not require power to be given to us, but demonstrate we are effective community leaders and actors, capable of using the skills, efforts and capacity we have to make change. It’s not a substitute for gaining real power, but it’s a step towards it.

Secondly, more than ever, we need to build alliances. I’m in a community of people loosely based around our hiking group, Freshwalks. It’s but a small example of how we can support one another. It's not the solution to the world's problems, but right now as a collective it works for me. So does the People's Powerhouse, the RSA, my Church, other networks I'm part of, and the links I've built through my work. Our whole world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and obviously plenty of people say this, repeatedly. But maybe within that we have to understand there are things beyond our control and decisions made that we don’t like and that our response has to be messy too. So to counter that feeling of helplessness we need to ask the right questions, not always to try to provide all the answers, and only through thinking through a potential answer with others, will we be able to make progress.

Thirdly, we must never be afraid to think big, and realise it’s not just for us. I’ve stumbled across something called “Cathedral thinking” the idea that you are creating something you may never see built in your lifetime. Greta Thunberg has talked about it, apparently, which is fine with me. Submitting yourself to the pursuit of a big idea. 

The bottom line is a revolution in spirit, in kindness, in a new conception of how we live our lives in relation not only to each other, but to nature, to our air, our rivers and seas and a different understanding of how our land is our common treasury. I've said so many times that happiness is about spending time with the people you love, but it's also about knowing you are living your life as close as possible to your own sacred values. Mine are to be honest, be loyal, be kind. When I fall short on any of them, it crushes me. So I need personal strength, but also that of others, to uphold those pillars.  

Where we individually go with that I genuinely don't know. The answer to the question of "what we do" isn't actually as important as the why?

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.”

Really?

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.