Thursday, March 27, 2014

Northern Rail franchise extended – why this may be good news, but probably won’t be

Happy commuters, pic stolen from Northern Rail's website
I am no fan of the shoddy service offered to commuters in the North of England by Northern Rail. The joint venture between Serco and Abellio has brought nothing to the experience or helped economic development in the region. But change is going to come – the clock is now ticking down towards the next franchise period, just as this one has been extended for a couple more years. Hopefully the terms of the next deal will look very different indeed – a longer period and the benefits of the Northern Hub investment.

The Rail North plan envisages a larger franchise integrated with the local transport authorities of Greater Manchester and  beyond – that should have the benefits of integrated ticketing, electrification, better rolling stock and more services – in short, a service fit for purpose. 

It is surprising how little political traction this has. It remains a bold move - an important devolutionary step. Longer term it could also lead to franchises being run by a consortium of local transport authorities. 

I do find it laughable that the Rail Minister Stephen Hammond has set Northern Rail short term targets for improved customer satisfaction. The first thing the management should do is measure peak time punctuality separately from the empty rattlers ambling along on time during the afternoon. Then they should massively rethink the brutal approach to ticket checking at most stations by their G4S bouncers – it is humiliating, unfriendly and intimidating.  But they will argue it catches fare dodgers effectively. I believe it is counter-productive.

I also worry when I read the managing director of Northern Rail, Alex Hynes, saying efficiency and service are his priorities and those dreaded words – “more with less”.

The Department for Transport must also insist there is no further running down of trains to the South as First TranspennineExpress have had to give trains to Chiltern. I have noticed more and more trains are made up of just two carriages in the evenings. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it has to stop.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Do you trust the press? and how far should they be tamed?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The problem with the Co-op

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Straight White Male by John Niven

This is John Niven's best book and marks his real maturity as a writer. The strength of Kill Your Friends was the laugh out loud portrayal of the horrors of the music industry, building on that as a backdrop for a story about busking it and depraved ambition.

This goes further. You still root for a flawed central character - Kennedy Marr a self-centred and hedonistic writer who turns to English academia. But while Stelfox in Kill Your Friends is utterly beyond redemption and without a shred of a scruple, Marr never particularly does harm. Success comes relatively easy to him, even though he runs away from his responsibilities and is led by his urges.

But the skill of the book is to change pace and mood - to remain consistent to the character and how he thinks through his crises, but it is also incredibly tender in its final third when he tells stories of his family and of death and how Kennedy confronts the misery of his own recklessness. It's a delight at times and I genuinely couldn't put it down. John Niven is definitely one of my favourite writers at the moment.

Monday, March 10, 2014

House of Cards Season 2 - theatre of the absurd - spoilers aplenty

We rattled through season two of House of Cards and finished it last night. Yes, the conclusion was inevitable, yes, Kevin Spacey is truly brilliant as Frank Underwood. And yes, like everyone else who has reviewed it, it wasn't as good as the first series.

For me, the big problems lie in the rushed script and storyline. So many questions are left unasked, never mind unanswered.

Characters behave in irrational and erratic ways with no attempt to explain - like the President resigning, like the FBI doing a deal with the ludicrous hamster-stroking Gavin, like everything to do with Doug and Rachel. So much time and effort is expended on storylines which go nowhere - Christina getting fired for example, it was like they just forgot about her. The constant presence of a noisy and lively demonstration outside the Underwood residence added another hyperreal layer of nonsense.

Just about all characters had lines that you actually laugh out loud at, because they are THAT absurd. Jackie explaining why she has all those tattoos. Claire, well, pretty much everything she says.

A lot of the politics didn't ring true either - not that I'd know - but it had a feeling like it was the West Wing, but with scumbags. Series 3 will be more of the same with the added presence of the Assange-like Gavin. Yes, we'll watch it, but it won't be worth the wait.

There are two problems for all mini-series now, which House of Cards has helped bring home. First, they simply suffer from a poor comparison to Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Sopranos - the High Concept, the powerful characters, the acting. But secondly, because it's on box sets, you tend to binge watch these days. On old fashioned TV, there's a lingering when something is left hanging, a number of stop-you-in-your-tracks moments that you'd collectively dissect the next day. I don't think House of Cards would scrub up to that level of scrutiny to be honest. You just want to rush to the end to see what happens. Did I do that? You may think so, I couldn't possibly comment.

The Salford question - the answer is still Manchester

I've just been on BBC Radio Manchester talking to Mike Sweeney about whether Salford should call itself Manchester.

We covered a lot, summing up I'd say: The University of Salford attaching Manchester to its brand was wrong and wasn't thought through properly. The BBC, however, should make far more of the fact that Media City is in Manchester - a part of Manchester called Salford Quays - just as White City is in London, a part of London called Shepherds Bush.

Manchester's local leaders are in France this week at a show called MIPIM, promoting a global metropolitcan city - not Tameside, Salford, or Trafford  but Manchester, which is known globally. There is a global football brand known the world over - they are Manchester United, not the Trafford Red Sox.

If you were a Londoner from Islington, you'd be proud of it. But you'd be a Londoner first.

Mike asked me where I'm from and I said: "Marple - where Manchester meets the Peaks." It's a question of identity I think we need to consider. Notice I didn't say Stockport.

This is a debate that has been sparked by Evan Davis and his excellent programme Mind the Gap - London Versus the Rest and some additional points made in the pre-publicity for tonight's programme, aimed at getting a rise out of Ian Stewart. I blogged on the first episode - Mind the Gap - forget gimmicks like Manpool, the cities of the North need to be better connected.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Race with the Devil by Joseph Pearce

Those of us of a certain age and of a certain political persuasion will have had some run-ins with the far-right. Marching against the National Front in the 1970s and 1980s was an important part of your political education. Those of us who took an even more detailed interest in the people and personalities of the struggle will remember the name Joe Pearce. He was the leader of the Young National Front and the editor of Bulldog. One of the enemy.

I was a subscriber to Searchlight magazine for many years and rather enjoyed seeing the far-right fragment as bitterly as the far-left was capable of doing. It was also good to read of whistle-blowers and further startling revelations from deep inside the beast. Former fascist street warriors like Matthew Collins and Ray Hill properly turned the tables on their former comrades. Other names faded from view. One was Joe Pearce, who later resurfaced a biographer of GK Chesterton and had undergone a journey to the Catholic faith.

At this point some have thought that journey isn't a particularly long one. Indeed, Gerry Gable in Searchlight doesn't believe Pearce is for real. There's a piece where he describes the christian thinkers that Pearce has written about as notorious anti-semites. Frankly, this is bollocks.

Personally, I enjoyed most of the book. I wasn't impressed with how he referred to those protesting against the Front as "Marxists". The leadership of the Anti-Nazi League may have been, but most people who hated what he stood for were just ordinary decent youth.

One of the best tales was when Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers took Pearce for a beer and tried to talk a bit of common sense to him. By showing him a bit of human love, he lit something in a life consumed by hatred and prejudice.

I'm a Catholic, but I can't claim to understand theology or the liturgy in the way Pearce does. Instead I do rather respect how he's chosen a path of life that boils down to the simplicity of the message.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Good luck to Rovers new signing Alan Myers

I see on Prolific North today that Alan Myers has joined Blackburn Rovers as communications chief. Every fan, I'm sure, wishes him well and hopes that he's able to do the job he's been employed to do. 

I remember him speaking at the 2012 North West Football Awards about the disgraceful treatment of Steve Kean by the Blackburn Rovers fans. Hopefully as his stated aim is to "engage" with the fans, he will have the opportunity to understand recent history a little better.

He said: "One of my first tasks will be to engage with the Rovers fans. I think it’s fair to say they’ve had a difficult time over the last few years, but that is changing now and I want to be part of that."

Maybe he could pop into the Darwen End and meet with the BRFC Action Group, who I was amazed to discover have an office in the Enterprise Centre, maybe that's where Shebby Singh is hiding.

I keep being asked if things have settled down at Rovers. Whether the Venky's have stabilised the ship. On one level, they have. There's no sign of Shebby Singh, loads of dead wood and high earners have been shipped out, though Rovers are still paying their wages, I hear. But the cost base is far in excess of any projected turnover. There will be a day of reckoning for all of this at some point.

Performances are patchy. Beating Reading offers a false dawn, but then losing to Bolton draws the curtains on that again.

I just hope Alan Myers doesn't have to open the excuses draw for anyone this weekend. There's an important game to win on Sunday. Quite how a new spin doctor is going to help us achieve that is beyond me, but it's the only meaningful game left this season.