Friday, May 13, 2022

A ray of light in the Dark Peak

Pic: Freshwalks Fresh Futures on Kinder in April this year

Over the last three years I’ve developed a deep spiritual connection with a mountain.

Kinder Scout, the plateau that dominates the Dark Peak to the east of Greater Manchester represents so much of what I have come to believe in; connecting with and respecting nature, the universal opportunity we all have to explore the challenges of the great outdoors, and something uniquely connected to the traditions of the place I call home.

One of my sons lives over the hill in Raworth and when I drive over to see him - or he drives me - we get an incredible view of the plateau in all kinds of light. It’s like being able to view one of your favourite paintings again and again. Even when storm clouds loom over it, or it is enveloped in darkness.

For me, Kinder is also the spiritual home of Freshwalks, the walking community that I was loosely involved in setting up in 2013 and which my friend Michael Di Paola has established as simply the best networking community I’ve ever had the privilege to be involved in.

I adore the Lake District, I am awestruck by the Cairgorms in Scotland, Snowdonia has a magical magnetism. But Kinder and the Dark Peak feel like they are ours. It’s a different emotional connection. 

When walking up it, I love its unpredictability. My friend John and I set off one sunny August morning last year from the car park at Hayfield quarry where there stands a plaque to the heroes of the Kinder trespass in 1932. We were booted up and ready for anything in our walking shorts and also slapped on the factor 30 as the sun shone, imagining a still stroll around its eerie lunar edges. An hour later we were planning a hasty retreat down Williams Clough, soaked to the bone, as lightning crackled in a dark sky and the rains lashed down on us.

By the time we got back to Hayfield it was cracking the flags again, humbled that Kinder had once again laughed at our plans and reminded us how futile it is to speak of ‘conquering’ mountains and hills.

I was at a low ebb at the time. That challenge, the conversations we had up there that day have sustained me for a long time. I think of so many other days, other friends, other conversations, that have had a similar effect. Sometimes about music, by the way.

Shortly after my jaunt with John, my wife Rachel joined a sunset walk which properly gave her the confidence to make profound lifestyle and fitness choices. She’s now edging ahead of me on the leaderboard for miles walked on Freshwalks this year. 

And so to our latest initiative. I volunteered to be a mentor on the Freshwalks Fresh Futures initiative with Manchester City Council’s Our Year programme, to help young people see what I’ve experienced.

As potential mentors we just brought our open hearts, a curiosity and our passion for the outdoors. The young people brought ideas and energy, but also bonded with each other. It’s taken me a lifetime to find this way of recharging and connecting. Hopefully this day has made an early impact on these guys, though some are already well on their way to their Duke of Edinburgh Awards.

So here's to Kinder, whether in the morning sunrise, through hail and wind, or as the sun sets on another day, it truly was worth fighting for.

Saturday, April 09, 2022

Another disappointing day at Ewood as play off hopes drift away

It was one of those days where the weather couldn’t make it’s mind up, but neither was it clear which Blackburn Rovers would turn up. 

The first half version from Coventry, or the battling second half edition, or the ultimate bottlers. 

As it happened it was the frustrating, nervy, disjointed, diving Rovers. Picking up stupid bookings, over hitting passes, getting in the way, losing shape and failing to hit cow’s arses with banjos, rarely troubling the Blackpool keeper.

For fans of most teams who fancy an end of season flourish, it’s the hope that kills you. I think today that’s gone. I write this before even looking at the other results, but this just doesn’t look like a side with enough belief to secure a top-six finish let alone step up to the occasion of the playoffs.

The team has missed the enterprise and guile of John Buckley in that in-between slot, not least when John Buckley himself has fallen so short of those giddy heights his performances offered. The same too could be said of thrusting Joe Rothwell and busy Lewis Travis. Instead, Rothwell looked disconnected and indifferent today while Travis just seemed to get in the way. 

On the positives, it was good to be reminded how good it feels to have Dack on the pitch. He got the ball in the net but the pass from Lenihan bobbled and slowed on its way which may have bought the advancing defenders a split second worth of reprieve. He offers something exciting, and he should play from the start. 

Another gripe while I’m in a low mood; I want the scoreboard to tell me how long there is to go, not that we’re playing Stoke City on Easter Monday. Or that we’re HOME and playing BLA. These are basic little things, but then so is passing to your own side. And as we know, getting those basics right are the foundations of all good things. 

It’s not over, there are 15 points still to play for. I want to believe, I truly do, and there are better teams than Blackpool in the way, but on a bad show like that my main worry is there aren’t many capable of being as limp and listless as we saw today. 

Music Therapy - top tunes and great jackets

Since me and Neil started doing Music Therapy back in 2020, just as we thought we were emerging out of lockdown, we’ve really discovered a lot about ourselves, but also about our listeners.

Confession time, we only managed to record one show from the studio before another lockdown sent us all home again. For an absolute age we were recording from home. Blissfully, thanks to the ingenuity of the station controller Andy Hoyle and the wonders of modern technology, by some minor miracle, we managed to get a show out every week.

Honestly though, since we returned to the studio, it’s been a proper gamechanger. We get to twiddle nobs a bit more (fnarr, fnarr) get a few tips from Alex Cann, the most prolific man in commercial radio, and take over curated pictures of ourselves wearing a variety of much admired jackets.

One of Neil’s oldest mates said to him that he’d heard the show and that we sound like actual real radio DJs now. I think he meant it as a compliment, we’re certainly taking it as one.

You can’t beat being in the same space and having the right technology. The sound is crisper, we’re not likely to get bounced out by a dodgy WIFI connection, but it’s given us time to think and appreciate the music we play on the show.

We’re both hustling freelancers, looking for new opportunities, more often than not working from home, so the chance to do what human beings should be doing is an important part of our weekly structure. Although we haven’t been headhunted by BBC 6 Music (yet) every person I’ve done work for has found it fascinating that I do this. Neil has made films about the music and fashion scenes in Manchester and Sheffield for the fashion brand Pretty Green, which have been informed by having a focus on music. 

But the main delight has been our interactions with you, the listeners. We have no idea on the numbers of people, but through social media we get lots of love and comments. We don’t do requests, but we do take suggestions from people who get the show and what we’re about.

Some of our listeners aren’t even in Tameside and the High Peak. They use modern technology such as Tune In and Radio Player, or the station’s superb app, to listen to the show from anywhere in the world, at a time of their choosing.

One of those conversations sparked an idea to do a slot called Original Spin. We pick a song that you will be familiar with, but probably didn’t realise was a cover version. A few times these have been Prince songs, I Feel For You, covered by Chaka Khan, and Nothing Compares 2 U which Sinead O’Connor rescued from being an unperformed album track.

It takes us on a journey into different styles, plays to our ethos of there being no such thing as a guilty pleasure and hopefully opens up music that will be new to people.

I also don’t think I’ve been as switched on to new music as I am now. So thanks for the opportunity and keep on listening. Drop us a message if you fancy a chat about what you’d like us to do next.    

Monday, April 04, 2022

Lunch of the month for March - and the winner is ... in Stockport


I've been very pleased with the variety of quick lunches I've managed to have through the month of March. Definitely a Greater Manchester theme this time around as there's a good variety of locations too that are all noteworthy. 

Starting from the top left, going clockwise, is Athena, a very tasty Greek joint on St Petersgate in Stockport, where I spend a lot of time these days. The chicken gyro was very juicy and the sauces added a real kick.

Along the top was a return to Society food hall in Manchester, this time for a katsu curry and dumplings from Manzoku which went down very well and was significantly better than the one I had at Wagamama recently. 

In the top right is crispy beef at Stockport's Kambuja, the Cambodian stall in the Produce Hall. Sensational. 

Then there's a hearty wrap at All Things Nice in Marple where I watched my pal Alex order a cheese and avocado toastie and I suffered a bit of food envy. 

I've included my mum's chicken sandwiches, not because they qualify for this competition, but because 8 pictures look crap and they are truly amazing.

Next was a trip to Oldham with the Professor of kebabs himself, Andy Westwood. Amazing bread, but the salad was hard going. We'll just have to have another one soon to continue our quest. 

In the centre is a succulent burger and fries from The Butcher in the unlikely setting of Manchester Arndale. The company was good too, great to break burgers and bread with Gemma Krysko and her husband Matthew (DJ Radiator, warms up rooms). We were treated too, so thank you. 

Finally, the winner, Stockport Produce Hall is the place, the jerk halloumi wrap from Mamma G's Caribbean Soul Food was the choice and it blew my socks off. Fresh, tangy and very wholesome. 

Saturday, April 02, 2022

Autism acceptance - something for us all

This paper lands on your doormat in the middle of Autism Acceptance Week, as promoted by the charity the National Autistic Society, writes Michael Taylor.

(Tameside Reporter column, 1 April 2022).

Without going into details, I think I’m fairly aware of autism and what it means for how someone with that diagnosis lives their life, battles the education system and locates support.

The mission statement of the charity points out that there are currently around 700,000 autistic people in the UK. Their work seeks to create and contribute to a more inclusive world: a world where autistic people are accepted in society and able to live a life of choice and opportunity. During the week the charity has been sharing lots of information and ideas on how everyone can play their part in making this happen.

Crudely, we are all on a spectrum of how our brains are wired and how our senses interpret, communicate and signal to us how we respond. People on the autism spectrum find many of these processes challenging.

When it comes to encouraging acceptance, TV can play a huge part in doing the heavy lifting for us all. 

There’s a great video on the NAS website by Alan Garner who presents a series called The Autistic Gardner on Channel 4. He makes the point not just that people on the autism spectrum face their own challenges, but that they are so frequently misunderstood and therefore unable to live a life where they reach their full potential.

One of the best TV drama series I have seen is the BBC’s The A Word. It brings to life the complexities of a family challenged by the sinking realism that their beautiful son Joe has autism. His Dad encourages Joe’s love of great music which forms a vital part of the soundtrack, but for me the best part of the series was the rest of the annoying and complex characters around him. Life is like that, and if these lot can accept Joe and all his differences, then so can you.

I didn’t need a TV drama to know what effect a child with profound special educational and emotional needs has on a family. It's uncomfortable, the shock, the stages of comprehension and the allowances you make are all there.

I read somewhere that the series didn't speak a truth about one reviewer's autistic brother. Maybe so, but that's not the point. It didn't try to be the last word on autism any more than it is about the tensions of succession in family businesses.

It can be annoying telling people that autism doesn’t mean maths genius, card counter, or music obsessive. Each person is unique, but several core communications challenges require the rest of us to be more understanding.

Which brings me to the main thrust of this week, awareness, yes, but also acceptance and appreciation of people on the autism spectrum.

Having worked in a university, a media company and been part of social activities around music, football, politics and the outdoors and I can tell you firmly that I meet people all the time who have a way of communicating that others bristle at, because they don't understand the other person's wiring. 

I am not qualified to diagnose, and I don’t claim to have any kind of super power, but I find myself identifying behaviours that if that is a possibility that someone is on the autism spectrum then maybe those of us who are neuro typical have to meet others half way.

We say it at the end of each show, look after each other out there. 

Saturday, March 12, 2022

It was meant to be Roy of the Rovers, but we got same old Rovers instead


It was meant to be Roy of the Rovers stuff, in the end it was just same old Rovers.

It was written that a full year after a horrible injury, Dack returns, comes on as sub, scores the winner. But with a penalty as weak as Kehdra’s at Sheffield United. Quite why Dack took such a feeble shot is a mystery. It sucked the life out of what should have been a turning point in this disappointing phase of the season.

Even getting a penalty award from Gavin Ward was counter to everything you would ever expect from an official who has enraged this fan base more than George Courtney. 

In the first half, to be fair, Ward’s handling of a dismal encounter was probably the only competent performance out there. It couldn’t last.

Either Ward is a shrewd observer of the worst aspects of gamesmanship (cheating) or he just can’t accept that skilful players like Dolan and Khadra ever get legitimately fouled.

There was some good football played in that second half. Van Hecke was masterful. Rothwell menacing, a beautiful shot from Khadra bounced off the bar. Dack had another chance that fell to his sweet right foot. Gallagher, oh dear. He seems to make his best interventions in defensive positions; headed clearances, blocks and tackles. But he’s no striker. Not on recent showings. 

In the end even Bristol City upset their own game plan of following up Millwall’s slow grind of coming for a 0-0 draw. It was a very good goal of which Blackburn Rovers fans used to celebrate quite a few. 

This is my 500 words straight after the final whistle, usually I have a drive home to stew on it, but tonight I’m sat in the back and ignoring my driver.

I feel sad, slightly foolish and not for the first time in the last few years so bitterly disappointed for Dacky. 

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Lunch of the month for February - the winner

The month was cut a little short for me due to having Covid. So these are slightly slimmer pickings than I hoped for. And not many trips into Manchester or Stockport. That will change. 

Full marks to the steak and ale pie at the Wheatsheaf in Old Glossop, it took me back to the very first Freshwalks when this was the final destination. Superb piece of work.

No complaints about Nandos in Stockport either. But it's just a Nando's, right?

Antonios in Ashton was a real surprise. No disrespect to Ashton town centre, but this was a quality Italian and a cut above what I expected. I anticipated Pellicci and got a neighbourhood Piccolino. My canneloni was rich in tomato flavour, the garlic bread of similarly high quality to Rudi's Pizza, and it was a lovely friendly atmosphere. It stood up nicely next to actual Piccolino, where I was delighted to be asked back and I hope we can do some business with my host after our excellent calamari, followed by chicken and gnocci. It's slightly busting the budget rules though.

Also in the foody hot spot of Ashton was the absolute beast of a Morroccan / Lebanese mezze platter from Mozaic.  On any other month it would absolutely smash this competition out of the park. But it was a cold draughty day and though the food warmed us up, it wasn't as transformational as this month's close run winner.

The lunch of the month was actually an all day full Derbyshire breakfast from the Old Hall Hotel in Hope at the end of a glorious Freshwalks sunrise walk. 20 of us arrived and were served promptly, efficiently and with great humour. The bacon was thick and cured, just as I like it, the eggs done to perfection with deep pools of warm yoke to dip the sausage and black pudding into. The oatcake was a curve ball, if I'm honest, but gave it that point of difference for the local twist.

Maybe I'm also slightly biased, because I've had breakfast on my mind this week as Dave Angel reminds us all that pancakes are on Shrove Tuesday, with lemon, and sugar. And that a full English is the one thing at which we rule the world.

Well done everyone.  

Saturday, February 26, 2022

The sweetest victory of all - Rovers v QPR

That was the sweetest victory of all. A victory for the true believers. For all those who kept the faith through the toughest of times.

For the best of times this season previous wins have been grafted on that defence, granted, but it has been the intelligence of John Buckley, Joe Rothwell’s ability to spring a surprise, and of course the goals of Ben Brereton Diaz that have propelled this side to the unimaginable heights. A recent barren patch has missed, in particular, those goals of Diaz, though frankly a bounce off Scott Wharton’s backside would suffice.

So to win against a fellow contender with those key elements missing, on the back of a head messing week for Reda Khadra, is what had me reaching for my professional lexicon of memorable great political acceptance speeches of the twentieth century, and why it was so so sweet.

Not only did Khadra have better chances to score today, he won’t have needed reminding by Sky TV, but he was anyway, that he’d also missed a penalty in front of their cursed cameras on Wednesday night at Bramhall Lane; whilst only picking himself out of the blood and spit of a potential career-ending assault from a flashing Blade.

I can't claim to understand the psychology of a substitution, but when I saw Ryan Hedges stripping off I assumed that was the Brighton loanee done for the day. I suspect, so did he. When he saw Sam Gallagher's number up, he must have thought, cheers gaffer, I won't let you down. 

Given my early judgements on players in this squad, after Fulham I said Jean Paul van Hecke should be sent straight back to Brighton, what I have to say about the two new Ryans probably doesn't count for much. It's not their fault that they bring to my mind a couple of tricky players in the first team of a post-92 university, with distracting thoughts of a stretched deadline on an economics essay.  

On 55 minutes, with Ryan Nyambe on a stretcher, I thought it was another curse of our club. A season going to pot. We all hope it isn't as serious as it looks. 

It seems trite, with careers at stake, to think so immediately of the qualities of his replacement, but I may have to admit I was as wrong about Zeefuik as I was about our other flying Dutchman. He plays like one of life's true eccentrics, a tackling style and a quickness of thought that must make him a nightmare to play against.

Which brings me to the one player in this side who I would absolutely despise if he played for any other team. Lewis Travis brings true grit and devilment. I have zero confidence in his ability to not get that painful ninth booking which will trigger a ban but his pulling of the strings today was a thing to behold. 

Finally, a word on the deserved Man of the Match. I don't know what it is about this kid, but Tyrhys Dolan brings a lump to my throat. His pointing to the sky for his friend, his willingness to get stuck in, his bag of tricks, his zest to play. We are very lucky to have him.  

I said on Twitter on Wednesday after the lamentation at the lane that I hate football. There are other things going on in the world right now more worthy of such emotions, so I was so quickly over it. But for everything Tony Mowbray has been saying about this rather special set of players, I fell right back in love. Fickle, I know, but how sweet it is.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Belfast, Branagh and the power of a great movie soundtrack

Last week on our radio show I properly overdosed on Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated film Belfast.  There are legions of reasons why I loved it.

There were the heart-warming moments of innocence as a grim time in our recent history was told through the eyes of Buddy, a really sound 9-year old kid, played with such grace by Jude Hill. 

It reminded me of Hope and Glory, John Boorman’s 1987 film about the home front of the second world war, and Empire of the Sun, another child’s eye view of the fall of Shanghai. 

Belfast created a similar vibe, through the black and white styling in Branagh’s directing, and in the peerless acting performances from young and old alike. Dame Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds deservedly have Oscar nominations.

Then there was the music. Most of the atmosphere was created through clever inclusions of a clutch of fantastic Van Morrison songs throughout the film.

But there are also songs which tell a story all of their own about Buddy’s favourite shows on the small television he watched space films and westerns, notably Tex Ritter’s High Noon and Real Love by Ruby Murray, who I had forgotten was a significant musical presence as well as being rhyming slang for a curry.   

One scene, in particular, captured the deep love within the family, when Pa (the ludicrously handsome Jamie Dornan) sings the sixties banger Everlasting Love to Ma (the outrageously striking Caitriona Balfe).

That song has been used in a film before, Jamie Cullum’s version popped up in Bridget Jones Diary. Let’s just say it didn’t have the same impact as the original version used in Belfast by yet another of those sixties British pop music underachievers, Love Affair.

On our show recently we were discussing the best film soundtracks of all time.

Quentin Tarantino routinely pulls together amazing collections which always went down in the 1990s in the golden age of CDs. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Jackie Brown soundtracks are amongst the best. 

Similarly, David Lynch films are as much about aura as what your eyes see before you. Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway are incredibly rich in a powerful musical. 

Neil is clear there is no film with a better Official Soundtrack than Martin Scorcese's 1998 epic Casino. Spanning generations it places the audience slap bang in the decadent seventies of Roxy Music, Fleetwood Mac and the Moody Blues, but also with a rhythmic nod to the greats of jazz, blues and soul. 

To ram home the point, this weekend’s show will open with a tune from the very best film music composer of all time was Enrico Morricone, who became best known for the musical score to spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but who’s long life achieved hit after hit and legendary status. In 2007, a tribute album We All Love Ennio Morricone featured performances by artists as diverse as Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Bruce Springsteen and Metallica.

After that I’ve also got Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come to share with you, a song so closely associated with a film it’s not clear which came first.

(column from the Tameside Reporter and Glossop Chronicle).


Tuesday, February 15, 2022

I've never been to a music festival


Do you want to know a secret? I’ve never been to a festival. 

I’ve been to mega raves, super clubs, dingy gigs in smoky rooms, stadiums, arenas and even the Witchwood in Ashton.

But never to a festival. The closest was a very muddy Milton Keynes Bowl in 1985 to see U2 headline a mega day of music that included REM, The Ramones, Spear of Destiny and Billy Bragg. It was great, but very, very wet and featured the one thing that has put me off ever going to a festival - awful toilets, and then the inevitable consequence of that, flying bottles of wee.

Ever since, whenever I’ve looked at the line-ups of a festival I think of what  the facilities and food will be like. I used to think that the handy festival guides in weekend newspapers should have had a graphic icon with a flying bottle of urine on, to denote whether it was somewhere that this was likely to happen. I understand why festival organisers wouldn’t support that. 

I didn’t even go to a festival I could literally walk home to, the annual Moovin Festival in Compstall which to be fair looks very good.

Lots of people my age say they want to try and get to Glastonbury at least once. Good luck with that. The waiting list is enormous and the scramble for tickets is an absolute bunfight. But if you’re nice to Thomas in Brenda Warrington’s office at the Town Hall in Dukinfield, he always seems to get a sniff of tickets. 

So this summer, I’ve found two absolute corkers to lose my festival cherry at. 

One, Kite Festival in Oxfordshire is billed as a festival of music and ideas. As much as I’m looking forward to dancing to Saint Etienne and Grace Jones, I’m also quite excited about talks by David Miliband and Delia Smith (let’s be having you!).

It will certainly be a new experience sleeping in a hired camper van for a couple of nights and obviously a lot depends on the English weather.

The other, Bluedot Festival, is closer to home, just down the road at the atmospheric setting of Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire on the third weekend in July. 

It’s literally the Music Therapy set list in live form. Headlining Sunday evening with a UK Festival Exclusive and uniquely commissioned performance alongside Manchester’s famed Halle Orchestra is international superstar Bj√∂rk.

Legendary Scottish post-rockers Mogwai will headline Saturday night alongside Indie-electro giants, Metronomy whilst one of the best-loved dance acts, Groove Armada will close Friday night.

The stellar line-up also sees Spiritualized, Yard Act, Working Mens Club, A Certain Ratio, Tim Burgess, Squarepusher and Anna Meredith amongst many more acts.

There’s even an appearance in the spoken word tent of so-called comedian Stewart Lee, talking about his music documentary film King Rocker.

I’ve really had my love of music rekindled over the last couple of years, since we’ve been producing Music Therapy for you, and so the efforts of people in the music business to put on very special shows like this is more welcome than ever. 

And it’s just a hunch, but I don’t think I’ll need to worry about flying bottles with this crowd. 

(column from the Tameside Reporter / Glossop Chronicle, 11 February 2022)

Friday, January 28, 2022

The end of The Marple Leaf is nigh

We've put our house up for sale and are probably going to move out of Marple.

That's of little or no interest to anyone outside of our family and close friends, and we're not planning on going far. I'm remarkably unsentimental about it, but it does create a slight problem for my social media identities.

This blog started in 2006 when we moved here, my Twitter and Insta accounts followed.

The other thing is, blogs are sort of over aren't they? I have outlets for the things people want to read about, food, football and music and the sort of long post that gets lots of likes on LinkedIn. Having this outlet for political commentary probably prevents me from pushing hard enough to places where it contributes to a wider debate.

It's not a decision I have to make today, but I will throw it out there. The response will certainly influence what I decide to do. 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Make your TV world a little bigger - Ozark, Walking Dead and those hopeless Australian cops

Maybe I've reached an age where I find my willingness to try new things tested. Yes, I say I want to find new films to watch, new books to read, films and TV series to bury myself in, ones that bust a genre and redefine culture. But let's face it, most stuff is made precisely because it has a guaranteed audience of people who liked one thing, and who will also like another. People like me.

I quite enjoyed the BBC's Australian outback romp, The Tourist, but as one reviewer said - "stick another cliche on the barbie, Bruce". It had elements of Mystery Road and of Wolf Creek, and the only two types of cops allowed in Aussie TV dramas, corrupt ones and the hopelessly incompetent variety. But it also had Jamie Dornan, who seems to have a strong appeal to a certain section of the population. By the way, I'm genuinely excited to hear that a third Wolf Creek film is in production, just in time to prepare my wife Rachel for our long-awaited holiday in WA.

Another slick Harlan Coben adaptation featuring seemingly unemployed wealthy people living in implausibly large houses in the North West of England, Stay Close was probably one too many. I can get over the location continuity - IT'S NOT MEANT TO BE REAL - but not the ludicrous introduction of Killing Eve inspired characters Barbie and Ken and the utterly implausible scenario of someone living in the next town and no one noticing she was missing, nor that twenty blokes were AWOL. Maybe the cops were trained in Australia.

So I do have a tendency to revert to what I know and like. British gangster films. And Zombies.

I'm going to have to say this now, but for slightly different reasons. I'm kicking the habit. Enough is enough.

I reached gangster/hooligan nadir with ID2: Shadwell Army. A truly awful film. Unless it has Craig Fairbrass in it, I'm out, maybe Rise of the Footsoldier Five will be just one last job.

With Season Six of Fear the Walking Dead, I've seen my last zombie fight. Erik Kain in Forbes - a peerless TV and games reviewer - said it was: "tepid, nonsensical and deeply silly". He's right, but I think it's actually even worse than that. I actually watched the last few episodes on shuttle, it takes about ten minutes, the dialogue is predictable drivel, the stand-offs tedious. But it is also now offensive because it is so reckless and negligent with the development of characters and the use of acting talent, notably Alicia Clark, played by Alycia Debnam Carey. I want it to end and refuse to have anything more to do with this franchise or any of its spin-offs.

So that's me also done with season 11 of The Walking Dead too, which involves a Disney subscription, and a bucket load of disbelief that this is still a thing. 

Redemption for the familiar has come in the form of Season 4, part one, of Ozark. As I wrote about season 3, which concluded in April 2020, I lauded the women of the Ozarks. How this is a show in which they provide all of the forward motion. Even Helen, spoiler alert, is the one corpse from the previous season that's unaccounted for and causing problems for everyone else in season 4.

But for all the nonchalant chat about the drugs trade and the outrageous behaviour of Wendy Byrde, Ozark is tense and challenging. The last two episodes were directed by Robin Wright, but unlike House of Cards (in which she starred as Claire), or Succession, which also has no characters with any redeeming features and none you can root for, you are gripped by Ozark because you care. We may not inhabit the world of media moguls or powerful politicians, so we probably can't place how we'd react. But while we also don't launder money for the Mexican drug cartels, or farm heroin, there are parenting choices and business decisions that indecisive middle-aged men everywhere can relate on a certain level to Marty. 

But, all day long, Team Ruth are we, right? 

It's only been up a few days and we've rinsed it already, I hope none of that has spoilt it. But it's set up for a storming return in a few months time.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Music Therapy has it covered

There's something great about a really well-performed cover version.

Not just a copy, but a really thought-through intelligent take on a great song. It gives the artist who is doing the cover a real credibility boost for having the sheer audacity to take a successful piece of work and put their own mark on it.

The greatest and surest trick is to respect the original, but do something new and different with it.

Sure, there are some takes on a classic song where you wonder why they bothered, but as I’m being true to my New Year pledge not to be mean on social media, or print media, I’ll do what my mum always told me to do - if you’ve nowt nice to say, say nowt.

What the Pet Shop Boys did with Elvis Presley’s Always on my Mind is a fantastic example of that. 

They managed to add it seamlessly to their confident camp disco range of songs at their 80s’ peak, probably introducing the work of the King to a new audience.

There’s a story too about Marc Almond of Soft Cell working as a cloakroom attendant at Wigan Casino, the mothership of Northern Soul in the 1970s, and falling in love with a song called Tainted Love by Gloria Jones, the one-time girlfriend of Marc Bolan. When it was originally released in 1965 it was a b-side, and a commercial flop.

Within a decade Soft Cell’s reworking of it quickly became an 80s’ pop classic, selling a million copies, making it one of the best sellers of 1981, alongside the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me.

There’s no doubt which is the more successful, and the best known, but which is the best version? 

Then there are some songs where you probably didn’t know the original because the cover version is far more popular. 

It just so happens that quite a few of these were written by Prince, probably the greatest musician of all time, so it seems only fair that he’s able to spread his genius around to the benefit of others. 

The two most notable songs that were made absolute staples lying there somewhat neglected in the archive of His Purple Highness were Nothing Compares 2 U, which Sinead O’Connor (pictured) did such an amazing, heart-rending job of, and I Feel For You, which most of you will think of as a Chaka Khan tune. 

That’s going to be a new feature on our show. Well known songs you maybe didn’t realise were cover versions, here’s the original, but which one is better? 

We kicked it off last week with a couple of gems. 

Firstly, China Girl by Iggy Pop, released in 1979. The song was written by David Bowie, and he later performed a very polished version on his incredible album Let’s Dance, the very high point of 80s’ slick pop mastery, given a big sound by Nile Rodgers from Chic.

Secondly, we dropped a glorious 70s’ soul track by Otis Clay called The Only Way is Up, which people of my vintage will know as an 80s’ nightclub floor filler with acid house tinges by Yazz. 

There are loads more out there, so let us know your favourites and we’ll offer our humble opinions on which we prefer. 

Unless it’s about the cover of Talk Talk’s It’s My Life by No Doubt, because there is nothing to debate.

This is my weekly column in the Tameside Reporter and Glossop Chronicle.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Don't Look Up is flawed, but great fun and a savage satire for our times

The film that’s got everybody talking at the start of the year has been Don’t Look Up.

The central premise - the high concept - is that there’s a meteorite heading for the earth that’s going to wipe out civilisation. The scientists who spot this are rushed to the White House to brief the President so the powers that be can prepare for, or prevent, this apocalypse. 

The rest of the film is a parable for how science is trivialised, weaponised and manipulated. The obvious parallels are with climate change and the current pandemic.

It’s certainly been popular. It smashed streaming records with more than 152 million hours streamed around the world in a single week, according to Netflix.

It’s stuffed full of A-list megastars who all pull off superb if overblown performances, especially Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as the scientists and Cate Blancett as a randy TV presenter.

The music is also sensational. From the original score by Nicholas Britell (who also did the music on my favourite TV show, Succession), a new song specially recorded for the film by Ariane Grande (Just Look Up) to the beautiful Second Nature by Bon Iver used at the end, right through to the inclusion of the Four Tops classic Bernadette. It is a masterclass in how to use music in a film.   

Yet the movie seems to have really divided opinion - and there have been lots of views expressed already - so let me get my stance out there early: I loved it.

Sure, if you overthink it there is plenty to pick it apart. It’s massively irritating for the usual American exceptionalism that runs through so many Hollywood movies, even ones where the whole plight of the planet is in peril. Like, the whole story is still told as if the only country in the world is America. Yet even this obvious niggle is turned into another layer of satire.

Then there’s the charge that the central character of President Janie Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, is just a crude caricature of Donald Trump. It is. She is. President Orlean is a narcissistic bully, in thrall to big tech, manipulating a supporter base. What else can she be?

British actor Mark Rylance plays a powerful tech tycoon who is socially awkward, downright rude and ruthlessly convinced of his own immortality and superior abilities. Again, the parallels with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are plain to see.

But if you think it’s just an attack on easy targets no one really gets off the hook  I liked the way the liberal media - a clear parody of the New York Times - lose interest in the biggest story in the world because of the missed opportunity to use it to attack the President close the mid-term elections.

So much of the film is so frighteningly close to the bone. Just see the reaction of the current media during any serious discussion on climate change. Piers Morgan hectors people about car use, Richard Madeley tries to pick at the reputation of Sir David Attenborough, while Talk Radio’s Mike Graham trying to claim concrete can be organic to a carpenter is probably the most egregious example of dumbing down any serious discussion about the real science behind climate change.

Even here in Greater Manchester, 20,000 people have signed a petition against a clean air zone charge aimed at discouraging tax polluting vehicles. No government is prepared to make any serious attempt to price air travel properly. The popularity of Don’t Look Up suggests many of us recognise that we are sleepwalking towards a disaster, but then isn’t Greta Thunberg annoying? 

(Column from the Glossop Chronicle and Tameside Reporter, 14 January 2022)

Monday, January 10, 2022

Strange goings on at Rose Hill

I've had a strange message from the Friends of Rose Hill Station, which I thought I should pass on.

A person is using the emergency help point to make a complaint about the station cleanliness introducing himself as “a former station adopter”.  He apparently does it from various stations, often Woodsmoor and last Friday it was from Rose Hill.

Obviously, this is improper use of this facility so if by any chance you happened to be around the station when this occurred, please let the Friends of Rose Hill Station group know any information that would help to identify the person.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

The FA Cup Odyssey takes me to the best stadium in the land

Watching the scores roll in on the Saturday afternoon of FA Cup third round weekend captured every single bit of magic and that clear hope (and dread) of a footballing upset. Every fan of any team cheered the efforts of Cambridge, Kidderminster, Huddersfield and Wigan, except of course if your team, like mine, was one of the vanquished.

And so to the progress on our FA Cup odyssey, picking up on the trail that started at Radcliffe and had most recently found itself most romantically in Buxton. I said I would persist as long as I could. And though there was no room at the inn for the second round tie between the Bucks and Morecambe, it was on telly, and I had bagged the bonus of Buxton’s replay win over Kettering. That was, as I said at the time, as hardcore as it gets for a hardy groundhopper.

And taking in new sights, new grounds, is what this is all about. Today I took in the fourth new hallowed domain of this trip, the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, for the visit of the Shrimps. I think it’s probably the best of all the new builds, and marks my 75th of the current 92 and the 165th stadium I've watched football in. The thought and planning that’s gone into the whole concept is highly impressive, especially when you consider the card Spurs have been dealt. Even when I lived in London I never found the access to White Hart Lane particularly enjoyable, or without difficulty. Choosing therefore to build on roughly the same site, and embracing the gritty urban setting, and still pushing public transport and pedestrian options is a brave move. 

Partly as a result of an old habit failing to die as hard as my perceptions of the old ground and its environs, we opted for lunch at Yildiz, the best Turkish grill in London, and deep in Arsenal territory.

But though the Seven Sisters Road might not have anything to compete with pre-match scoff like that, in every other way this was a superlative match day experience. The facilities are better, the food options more diverse, the atmosphere improved, and every lesson in flawed stadium design has been eagerly learned from every mistake made by everyone else, but mainly Arsenal. 

On the pitch though, we were in for a treat, served up with pluck and grit by a Morecambe side prepared to embrace the occasion and give it a go. Spurs might have had all the possession, but the blocks of empty seats and a place in the team for what were effectively Conte's triallists showed an institutional lack of respect that gave the Shrimps every motivation to run their bloody noses in it. 

Though there was a roar for Morecambe's opener on 33 minutes from their 3000 fans, some 150 of whom may have been at Christie Park for the 8-1 crushing of Esh Winning in 1986 in an early FA Cup memory we will share. But the loudest cheer of the day came for the Harry Kane led cavalry to replace Ali, Ndombele and Gil, and raucous boos as they didn’t leave the pitch, and possibly their Spurs careers, quickly enough. The eventual 3-1 win had a feeling of inevitability about it once the first one rattled in. An ungracious taunting of the visiting fans from parents and children around us, that they weren’t singing anymore, won’t be enough to properly extinguish the embarrassment that a struggling League One side with scant resources took the game this far. Premier League, having a laugh, for sure, but they weren’t laughing in Newcastle last night.

The reason this odyssey is back on is down to our 21 year old soldier son Max, a Spurs supporter. On Sunday 9 January 2011 I took him by trains, buses and tubes across all points of London, via an Ottolenghi cake shop, also close to Arsenal, to an FA Cup third round sweeping aside of Charlton Athletic. It was a special day, and the write up is here. For my Christmas present he made today happen. The circle of life, and the magic of the cup. Pick whichever cliche you want, but it works for me.

Friday, January 07, 2022

Social Media, the scourge of our times

I’m sure that many of you have made New Year resolutions to cut down on social media use. 

If so, then you probably realise what a tragic waste of time it is to scroll away through different platforms and then come away at the end of another lost hour and think - what was I doing? 

It might be that you’ve seen passive-aggressive chain letters on Facebook that family members expect you to share, but with the caveat that “most probably won’t”, thus making it your fault that cancer, child abuse or Brexit is your fault because you didn’t share.

I wouldn’t say so at the time, but the run-up to Remembrance Sunday gives me palpitations. As I’m from a family with cousins, nephews, grandads, uncles and now a son who has served in our armed forces, it’s a given for me that I’ll pay my respects. 

That doesn’t seem to be enough for some people. Facebook profiles become a parade of misinformation, culture war nonsense that contrasts the mythical plight of a homeless veteran with refugees and asylum seekers, and tirades of anti-German, anti-EU nonsense, or worse, made-up stories about poppy sellers being banned for fear of offending someone.

It might also be that you come away from a session scrolling through Instagram posts of your beautiful “friends” in glamorous restaurants and clubs, or looking amazing in front of a mirror “living their best life”. Or their shared memes from life coaches and mental health experts.

You may have come away from LinkedIn, the home of the humblebrag, feeling utterly inadequate that you haven’t spoken to thousands of people in a TED talk, sealed a mega-deal, or had a record month for sales.

Then there’s the cesspit that is Twitter, where a constant conveyer belt of outrage fills your timeline with splenetic opinions about everything and anything. I find sides to pick, and tribes to join, in every area of life, local stuff, football, politics, music, comedy. And if you’re active, then it’s a constant threat that your hot take will land badly with someone else and you risk being cancelled or shamed.   

The writer and comedian David Baddiel has made a very thoughtful BBC TV programme, Social Media, Anger and Us, about the harmful effects of social media, and I would thoroughly recommend you watch it if you are in any way interested in the effects it’s having on our mental health. 

His most telling part of the hour-long programme was the discussion with his daughter Dolly who had suffered from anorexia, but whose condition became worse the more social media groups encouraged her to define herself in such a way.

Twitter seems to have set its algorithm to push more opinions from angry people at you, so you will engage because engagement drives numbers, which results in advertising income. 

The trick is never to be that person on Twitter. As I file this column that person is the comedian Stewart Lee, who isn't even in Twitter, but has sent out his monthly newsletter with an exhausting and long list of everything he likes and doesn't like from 2021. Some people think that's incredibly conceited. I think that's probably the joke. But Twitter is never good at subtlety.

Full disclosure, I am guilty of all of the above behaviours I mentioned. I’ve been snooty on Facebook, braggy on LinkedIn and pushed a false image of my life on Insta. And while I will say that bullying and shaming are wrong, you won’t have to look very far to find Twitter posts from me where I’ve said horribly unkind things about football referees, certain political figures and Prince Andrew. 

You could make a ‘fair comment’ defence at some of those individuals, but it all adds to the overall atmosphere and tone of the room. 

So, I’m going to try and be kinder, humbler, more honest and more tolerant. I’ll share nice things, rather than spread poison, and hopefully get some more lovely feedback from you all about what songs you’d like us to play on our show.

(Tameside Reporter and Glossop Chronicle column, 7 January 2022).