Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Canal Street Gothic

My dear friend David Thame, one of the finest business writers in the western world, is touting a sweet little book, created in the handful of waking moments he has spare from writing about industrial units in Staffordshire. It's raising funds for Albert Kennedy Trust, who do very sensible things for young gay homeless people in the big cities. It's called Canal Street Gothic, after the celebrated Manchester party street.

It's been very sweetly reviewed - funny,  touching, "very northern" etc - I haven't bought it yet, but will. David says he hopes it gives pleasure as well as helping with the money. You can find it on Amazon here. It's also in most sensible bookshops, and all the other online retailers. Selling quite nicely so far.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fenton, Fenton, Martha!

The kids have roared with laughter at the viral video of a poor bloke chasing his dog across Richmond Park as it attempts to herd deer. The reason they like it is it reminds them of me in the Lake District this summer chasing our pooch down the road as she was in hot pursuit of sheep in and out of cars and with me shouting. I wasn't laughing at the time, but nor did I take the Lord's name in vain. Amen.

Picture, left, drawn on the day by Matt.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My mates #16 - Ian and Andrea Wolfendale

I've long maintained that the secret of happiness is spending time with the people you love. Well, this week has been a pretty bloody brilliant week because I've just been bowled over by the love of good friends at every turn.

I'll come on to all of that over the next few weeks and months, but today I wanted to pay tribute to two of my dearest friends Ian Wolfendale and Andrea Jenkins, who have just got married. This is a series where I randomly select someone I know and do a quick blog about how I know them, how we met and what I like about them. It's difficult to know where to start with these two.

Wolfie and Andrea and I work together. Andrea is in Insider's events team and Wolfie works in business development. They both have a calm, measured and patient manner about them. They are both very good with people and really excellent at seeing things from everyone else's perspective.

All over the country I meet people in banks, law firms and corporate finance companies who deal with Wolfie. I have to say I've never seen a client base with such respect and affection for someone who seeks to take money from them. But Wolfie listens and understands what they need. We have been to Belfast together a few times this year and you see the efforts there of a man who has introduced people to each other which could quite literally transform lives.

Similarly, I rarely see event organisers get thanked from the stage. I'm as guilty of taking them for granted as anyone, but Andrea has achieved that many times when she's worked in partnerships with people who can be difficult to please.

They also live locally - Mellor - and we get the train together sometimes, sharing our gripes about the shoddy service from Northern Rail / Northern Fail. We have also all been involved in the Marple Food Festival's Samuel Oldknow Pie Competition where Andrea gets to take notes while me and Ian eat pies. Bliss.

On a personal level, I will never forget how Wolfie was there for me when I was at my lowest ever ebb. It seems an age away now, but he took me in, put his arm around me and in his no nonsense way just helped me focus and get on with my life. In particular, he made me dispense with self pity and sentiment.

They got married in New York, but had the reception in New Mills. I can think of no better metaphor for the pair of them than that. The party was brilliant - a delightful and eclectic gathering of interesting and kind people - a fact that makes me think of no better tribute to them both. There were lovely speeches from best man Howard Thorp and from the father of the bride, Russ Jenkins. But the star for me was Wolfie when he announced they were very like Charles and Diana. Oh yes. There are three people in their marriage, he announced. And then revealed that ever present presence in their life - the entertainment: Elvis! Out popped the King himself! Rock and Roll.

To Andrea and Ian - may your love always be tender.

What if it had been Steve Kean instead of Gary Speed?

The most uncomfortable aspect of the current protests at Blackburn Rovers is the deepy personal nature of the attacks on Steve Kean. I was talking to David Conn about this recently. We both commented on the affect this must all be having on the mental state of a man who is the object of so much targetted hatred. We concluded that he will probably have some kind of breakdown eventually. Either when he is finally sacked, or if he just combusts and quits. Yesterday at Stoke he had to be escorted to the tunnel by two burly minders, as the swelling of anger in the away end was so ferocious.

On social media sites and on the messageboards you see the ludicrous and overblown exposition of hysteria boiling over into all kind of violent talk. I'm sure it's just that - talk - but it has highlighted a massive loss of perspective. At the heart of all of this is a man trying to manage a football team. He might be out of his depth, he may also be getting rather well paid for it, but it is just a game of football. I see this everywhere at the moment and it depresses me. I see it when a 12 year old boy writhes on the floor and opposing parents and coaches trade insults over the fairness of the challenge. It's just a game, guys, get a grip.

Anyone connected with football today is trying to make sense of the apparent suicide of Gary Speed. The eulogies to him have been forthright and coloured with a massive sense of shock. I share them. He always seemed to be a man who had it all. Thoughts from everywhere are with his wife and family. "It puts life into perspective," is one comment that keeps coming back, yet it will soon be forgotten.

What would people be saying today if it was Steve Kean who had been found dead? Seriously, before you burn an effigy, wave a banner with his face on it, or scream that you wish something unpleasant upon him, just think that there's a human being at the centre of all of this. And it is just a game.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Commercial chaos - the Venky's and Rovers

When Crown Paints ended their sponsorship of Blackburn Rovers, the efforts that went into finding a new shirt sponsor were laughable. The club ended up donating the sponsorship to a charity - a very good charity as it happens - but it was yet another example of a lack of direction under Venky's.

Commercially, Rovers start from a low base. With cheap seat prices, income from the box office is low and sponsorship options look even more limited. As this excellent piece on The Swiss Ramble points out the trick Rovers have to play, year in year out, is through player trading. Selling players on at a profit. That needs infrastructure and football people who know what they're doing. Sadly, Tom Finn and John Williams have gone. Venky's are now advised by an agent who thinks it's a good idea to go on TalkSport and brag about a deal where the selling club, Barcelona, were fleeced when Rovers signed Ruben Rochina. Nice one Jerome.

So, given that the club only has one main sponsor these days - what efforts do you think the owners have made to keep that company, WEC, onside?

I'll tell you. Nothing.

Here's Wayne Wild, one of the directors, speaking out in the Lancashire Telegraph this week.

"Blackburn Rovers Football Club is the heart and soul of the town. It has been for ever and certainly since they were in the Premier League. It creates employment for the town, the indirect business of people travelling to the games, and the sponsorship. I just feel if I can’t get a reply - as the only paying corporate sponsor - that underlines the frustrations that general supporters are having, because there is no direct contact. We do not feel valued. As well as the business side I have offered to mediate between the fans and the owners. I feel there is a growing gap between the two. Maybe if they could talk to me, I could relay that message to the fans."

I've met Wayne a few times and I really rate him. I'd go so far as to say he's just the type of forward thinking but feet on the ground business person they ought to have on the board. Obviously the Rao family have their own people as directors and they've made overtures to another couple of good lads - Ian Currie and Ian Battersby, even flying them over to India. But ask yourself, seriously, would you want to be a bridge to these people? I know I wouldn't.

Elbow at the Little Noise Sessions

Saw a rousing performance from Elbow last night at the Little Noise Sessions for Mencap. They were playing at St John in Hackney, just around the corner from the hospital where my eldest son was born.

You don't need me to blather on any more about how good Elbow are, so I'll mention the venue - it was awesome. It required a more basic and industrial sound from the band to start with, but they grew into the surroundings and filled the space with their subtle sounds.

As an experience, it was truly immense. A very different performance from the last one I saw in 2009, but I just adore the simplicity of their songs and the warm stagecraft that Guy Garvey deploys. Hey, they may have been using backing tracks on a few numbers, including on THAT one. But they remain my favourites.

There's a good review here.

Getting down with the kids

Every now and again we all get asked to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you just think - "nah" and make your excuses. Yet a few months ago I was asked by a friend if I'd help one of her friends and speak to some kids at a school in Partington, to the west of Manchester.

Time passed and we had a couple of chats, but eventually we settled on a time and I had a clearer idea about what the kids would get out of me coming to their classroom for a couple of hours.

I have to say it was one of the most exciting and rewarding days I've had. They were a tremendous group of enthusiastic children. We started talking about the news media, but by the end I was asking them how they share ideas and news and how they connect with people. There were social networks and sharing services they referred to that I'd never heard of. Their confidence with technology was boundless.

But it was also fascinating to get them thinking about employment and the jobs market. I've blogged before (here) on the importance of small businesses, sole traders and the self employed. I told the kids the story of how working with my Dad from the age of 13 taught me so many of the skills that have been important throughout my working life - namely; talking to customers, going out of your way to help people and smiling often. None of it costs anything and it's good for business.

I tried to get the kids to think a bit about their world and their aspirations - nothing grand, but to think about how they can apply all their love of technology and their particular passions into what they want to do. I've suggested they hook up with Young Enterprise and get a tour round the awesome new Salford University facility at MediaCity.

Anyway, to end the session we had a bit of a singalong. I'll try and upload the video soon, but above, left is a picture of me and the kids of Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School throwing those curtains wide. One day like this a year will see me right.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The glory of grief

There is nothing glorious about death, of course. But I've been thinking this week about the power of intense and sustained personal grief. This year has been tough in that regard - I lost my dear friend Tim Edwards. Even thinking about him now I'm welling up.

In March we also lost my Dad's "little brother" Pete, who at 6 foot 7 was a giant in one very obvious way, but also a large and loving presence in the lives of everyone he touched. Pete was only 52 and left a wife Sue and two wonderful kids Danny and Jenn who are the greatest permanent memorial to a proper bloke who extolled such a love of life and a terrific sense of humour. There was a big gap at my sister's wedding party recently where Pete should have been. I thought today how much a throwaway joke about Liverpool player Andy Carroll would have been right up Pete's street.

This powerful feeling, this strong emotional wrench we experience is the ultimate tribute to a life lived. The packed services for both men were a mark of how loved they were and how many people had such varied and cherished memories. There's a bible reference that comes to mind - "blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted". But there's also the celebration and love of a person who has died, but who created so much good, so much love and so much emotion. 

I have difficulty explaining exactly what I feel here, but I was once again moved this week reading the eulogy Alastair Campbell paid to his friend Philip Gould by way of a letter to a man who was weakening and fading. His was a slow and expected death, while Tim and Pete both died suddenly - which shocked everyone concerned to their core. It also denied so many the chance to show how loved they were, but you hope, in fact you know, they surely were aware of it. Grief, as Alastair's piece says, is the price we pay for love. A quote from the Queen.

There's a link to it in full here, and I would encourage you to read it, whatever you think of AC. But I would like to take the last bit for Pete and his family and for how I feel about Tim: "More, I’ll miss your always being on hand to help me think something through, large or small. But what I will miss more than anything is the life force, the big voice. You have made our lives so much better. You are part of our lives and you will be forever. Because in my life, Philip, you were a bigger force than the death which is about to take you."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gary Aspden in conversation

The thick end of two hours, he spoke for. Just him, a chair, a table, some slides. And I was gripped. OK, 1980s street fashion, a Lancashire upbringing, raves and trainers may not be your thing, but they are all as part of me as my DNA. And Gary Aspden's too. For the Creative Lancashire Lecture, he told his life story - he didn't gloss over the lows, and he beamed at his high spots - Mount Fuji with Shaun Ryder, at the World Cup Final with Noel Gallagher, creating the costume for David Beckham for the 2002 Commonweath Games - but the best thing was, he kept connecting it all back to Darwen, Lancashire, where he grew up.

It was a masterful exercise in story telling and I could have listened to him all night, so too, I suspect were the sell out audience at the Continental in Preston, a cracking venue.

I also had a chat to Gary beforehand and he's happy for me to use his words and stories. It will form part of a book I'm currently working on. Watch this space.

Hat tip: Creative Lancashire, the D&AD and The Continental.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

BBC - My Autism and Me

This amazing and inspiring film was shown on BBC Newsround last week. The You Tube link seems to have vanished, but the link to the BBC site is here. There is so much misunderstanding about autism and how to live with the condition. I've read a fair amount about it, but these real people really explain it better. I'd appreciate any other links.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The application of Original Modern

I had the pleasure of interviewing the archly fashionable Nick Johnson from Urban Splash last week. He's also the chairman of Marketing Manchester, the tourist board in old money. He told a good tale of how he took the themes of his university dissertation - urban living - and explained how that then inspired him to work with Jim Ramsbottom on Castlefield, and then with Tom Bloxham at Urban Splash.

In the aftermath of the IRA bomb in 1996 the city's marketing response was deemed pretty crap - "we're up and going" - to which the reaction was "you cannot be serious". Out of that reaction came a stroppy group that met at Johnson's bar - Atlas - and said "enough". They called themselves the McEnroe Group and have since gone on to form part of the ruling class in the city: Colin Sinclair, Bloxham, Johnson, Andy Spinoza, Eliot Rashman, the late Tony Wilson was around them too. Their adoption of the ideas of urban geographer Richard Florida - who's work, The Rise of the Creative Class - inspired the decision to hire Peter Saville as the City's first creative director.

So, we covered all of that. Nick also revealed that Saville was cheaper than the others but was hired because he was prepared to challenge established wisdom. And he still does, to be fair. It was Saville's initial articulation of the "brand values" of "original modern" that Johnson described as an "economic development strategy".

Anyway, Nigel Sarbutts, who was in the audience for the interview, says he wasn't happy that the city adequately applies or articulates the aspiration. Well, maybe he didn't say exactly that. What he did say is here. "Ultimately Original Modern is an idea in search of substance. It is a hollow slogan and the truth of its weakness is that it was overshadowed overnight in August by a thousand flyers in shop windows, reproducing a logo copied from New York circa 1975."

I feel slightly glum reading that. Not because he's wrong, but because that last bit about the August response, as I said here, is so true. It doesn't detract however from how a big idea like original modern has been reduced to what it was never intended to be. There has always been a danger that Manchester gets carried away - but for me, there is much of modernity and originality abounding. It's time to proclaim it.

There are also plenty of forums where new ideas and new explorations of what the city has and what more can be discovered about Manchester are taking place. There is a thirst for knowledge and ideas beyond our narrow immediate concerns. I picked this up at the recent Science Festival, at the Cockford Rutherford Lecture and through some of the awesome offerings at Manchester's own Literature Festival and this weekend at the Salford University "Believe" day. And then there are the things I haven't had time to see - like Dave Haslam's interviews and conversations.

Someone like Nick Johnson can't have all the answers all the time. He's got a day job as well as a brief to keep the tourist board lively, motivated and on top of the city's assets to tell great stories. But it was a stimulating experience and hopefully useful for those that gave up their lunch hour to attend.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A long shot - latest plot turn at Blackburn Rovers

If you hit a golf ball just a few millimetres away from the sweet spot, by the time the ball lands it will be several metres, if not a hundred metres away from the intended target. That is the most generous way I could describe the way the Venky's organisation have tried and failed in their ownership of Blackburn Rovers. Whatever is the good intention of any of their actions from the comfort of Pune, by the time that command takes effect back in Blackburn, it is horribly way off.

Throughout all the Anti-Steve Kean protests I haven't wavered in my view - he is not a good manager, he isn't the right manager and I don't like him. But he is a symptom of the problem, the owners and their advisers (SEM, Kean's agents) are the problem. They have a strategy for using a Premier League club to promote their brand in India - they have impressive plans to open stores in India and really crank up the promotion of Rovers in and around Pune. The plans for a training complex out in their home town also sound like great sense. What they don't have is a strategy in Blackburn. There may have been good reasons for getting rid of Sam Allardyce - the football was grim, they wanted to aim beyond that negative cynicism. That reluctance by the backroom management team to fire the bullets may in turn have led to the owners feeling they weren't supported - so they slowly dismantled a whole tier of management, probably on the advice of Jerome Anderson.

In every possible way you look at it, their ownership has been a disaster.

But though I viscerally dislike the way so many of these foreign owners have behaved in English football, I suspect Venky's are honest and naive, rather than bent. They don't form part of the international jetset who are plundering a national treasury. Much as football has never been a particularly clean industry, the foreign owners who have raped West Ham and Portsmouth, and their pals who hawk others around the bars of Bangkok, leave a vile taste in my mouth.

But even of the successful foreign owners ask of each one - what is in it for them? The Glazers will make a hefty return on the ownership of Manchester United. Roman Abramovich got a public profile and a home in a western country with property rights and the rule of law. The Abu Dhabi people have such wealth that they can expect to bring their country to international prominence through a successful Manchester City. It makes my blood boil when I hear callers to 606 begging for an oligarch to buy their club in order to compete in this league. I have admiration for Arsenal in staying sustainable through this period and hoping UEFA's financial fair play rules will validate their approach by the time Manchester City are only able to spend what they earn.

So what of Venky's and Rovers? Let's be clear - they bought a Premier League club at a knockdown price, compared to the value of Liverpool and Aston Villa which also changed hands recently. But even the sellers for the Walkers were surprised when they showed they had the money. I still don't know if they have paid the full £25m the Walker Trust eventually settled for, or whether they have borrowed to do so. It has given their brand an airing in the west and a new prominence in India. But there is such doubt over their ability to stabilise the finances that Barclays Bank now have a charge over pretty much everything.

The protests by the fans, thus far, have mildly shaken the owners. But they are not stirred into acting. They are also pleased that Steve Kean has been the lightning conductor for that anger. They hope that things will turn around. Afterall, there is an argument that suggests the squad is younger, fitter and arguably better placed to face the future than it was. What the Venky's really fear however is a backlash that could taint their brand back home. They bought the club to promote their brands, not to propel Blackburn Rovers to greatness as Jack Walker did - and not even out of a love for the glory of football.

The story today is that the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar is interested in buying a Premier League club. According to Alan Nixon in The People one target could be Rovers. I don't take much notice of Nixon, even on the relatively rare occasions when his punts turn out to be right I am reminded of the old phrase  - 'even a stopped clock's right twice a day'.

So I simply don't take the speculation seriously and refuse to get carried away. I just don't see it happening to Rovers for a multitude of reasons - Venky's won't sell, Qatar isn't a good fit for Blackburn, and there are other far more attractive options for a fund that sponsors Barcelona and owns Paris St Germain.

The next few weeks are so crucial for Blackburn Rovers - they need to beat Wigan, draw at Stoke, beat Bolton, Swansea and West Brom at home. A win over Cardiff to get into the semis of the Carling Cup would give everyone a lift too. Sounds easy from Marple, probably looks like a piece of cake from Pune. Lose all of them and there's a disaster which no amount of money from Qatar, or anywhere, will make the slightest difference.

There are also some very important management issues to address - a proper chief executive, a proper chairman and a board that can run the business at base. That then requires financial management, a communications strategy and, probably, a new first team manager. But one thing is for sure, they can't carry on hitting the ball in India and hope it lands near the hole in Blackburn.

Stories of lives changed

This video clip is just the latest documentary short from the Manchester Vision project, run by Manchester production company Riverhorse. This one focuses on the work of the Ancoats based charity The Mustard Tree, others are equally revealing and inspiring.
Mancheter Vision is a not-for-profit initiative that produces monthly films on people, organisations and campaigns that are seeking to create positive social change in the wider city region. The Mustard Tree charity is one such initiative.

A link to the Manchester Vision project is here.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Mad in Belfast, Made in Belfast

Given I've been over to Belfast so much this year, I've taken a keener interest than average in the history and heritage of this unique city.

Last night I finally finished Kevin Myers' mesmerising account of his decade there in the 1970s. It is a horrific and, at times, unsettling tale. He doesn't hold much back from outing his own personal demons and weaknesses, which rather separates it from a straightforward historical account. That is hard work on the reader at first, but once you accept him, it makes for an honest and heartfelt recording of a city gripped by a particularly savage collective madness.

What I've experienced has been all of the good stuff about Belfast - the eager and rather emboldened sense that this place will succeed against all the odds. I look around at people I meet with a real feeling of awe. There is a real appetite for normality and a better life - I mean, there is everywhere, but in Belfast it is particularly acute. You can feel it this week as they have embraced the arrival of the MTV Awards.

Coincidentally, this morning, with much of this on my mind, I read Jay Rayner's review of Made in Belfast, a restaurant I've been to and enjoyed. There's nothing factually wrong with the piece by a writer I'm proud to call my favourite food critic in the British press; he wasn't patronising or snooty about the food, nor was he mean about the city in the way some critics love to be. Jay is also upholstered like a proper restaurant critic, which made this place just right for him. But I was disappointed with his review because I very much enjoyed the food in Made in Belfast and was happy with the choices I made when I went with a large party. In fact, we all were. That's the luck of the draw on these occasions. I also enjoyed the ambience and informality of the place, as Jay Rayner did. It's just that he wasn't too taken with the menu and the rather forensic account of each dish - or the need to list the produce. I think that's forgivable, especially as the character of the place is rather given away in the name. I do however bow to his far better knowledge of food and think it's such a shame his Tandoori wings weren't crispy and that the food was "relentless".

But, here's the thing. It's Jay Rayner's first review in Belfast, I hope it won't be his last. But there's a real passage for any city towards acceptance and normality - and one of those albeit very minor staging posts on that long road is a rotten review of one of a city's restaurants by a disgruntled critic from a national newspaper and, as importantly, the debate about its merits that follows.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Preston bus station - a work of genius?

Pic from BDP
I've never been convinced by the argument that Preston bus station represents a work of architectural marvel. For something so substantial and so ambitious to work it has to at least connect with the users of that space. It was misunderstood and misused at street level. It became neglected by an ignorant authority. The marvel of it from the outside is of the curves of the car park above. It is a structure that divides opinion, for sure.

An exhibition at the CUBE gallery celebrates some of the amazing work of architectural firm BDP, for it was they, from socialist/modernist roots to a globalised future. It is a quite marvellous presentation; really educative and quite seductive. But don't take my word for it, read Neil Tague's blog on it here.,

Now here's a thing. Back in my teenage 1980s a friend of mine, Russell Colman used to invite a few of us to stay at his house. It was always good fun and we had some laughs, as teenage lads would. His stepfather would put Radio 4 on in the morning and the well appointed cottage was full of good books and copies of this hitherto undiscovered magazine called Private Eye. I would go so far as to say that Eye changed my life - it gave me a cheeky urge for satire, inspired me to do my own fanzine, to pursue journalism and not to take politics and the powerful too seriously. I never got round to expressing anything resembling respect or gratitude towards the master of the house, teenagers tend not to.

The man was Keith Ingham, architect of Preston bus station, who I learned, died in 1995. There's a professional obituary of him here.  I never had the inclination or the manners to say this at the time, but sorry for abusing your patience, Mr Ingham, and thanks for introducing me to the Eye.

What is going on at Blackburn Rovers?

As regular Marple Leaf readers will know, I haven't been protesting and ranting about Steve Kean, the manager of Blackburn Rovers. I think it's ultimately a futile exercise. I think Kean is a symptom of a much more serious issue - the hijacking of a senior football club by a super agent and the mismanagement by proxy by clueless owners.

I asked last season what money Venky's had used to buy Rovers. The Walker Trust never thought any of the Indian buyers who showed an interest were serious. They simply thought they'd fail to come up with the money. Whether they are doing it with other people's money, or borrowed money is the killer question. Many of the new signings have been free transfers and the Phil Jones money seems to have vanished. I've never been convinced the Venky's understood even the most basic details of how to run a football club prior to the purchase.

It is an abject shambles, a hopeless mess.

The video above may not work, and it may get taken off YouTube, but it makes for horrible viewing. It wasn't me that made it by the way, but a lad called Andy Rothwell.