Sunday, January 29, 2017

When Mark Guterman called about his appearance in 40 by 40

I got a call at the back end of last year from a businessman who I included by name in my 2015 novel 40 by 40. I don't know Mark Guterman well, but met him a few times, through various friends, when he was the owner of Wrexham Football Club. That experience didn't end well for him, or the club. The point of including him was as a warning to the central character about the risks of buying a football club and the fans coming after you if it goes wrong.

Mr Guterman's polite enquiry seemed to be about how a work of fiction can include real people. He also wanted to put me right on his ownership of Wrexham and how it was represented in the book. I explained that what was always important to me was to capture accurately the time and the place - Cheshire 2008. It's not pivotal to the story, but it includes a reference to "the boys" who piled in to join his investment consortium to buy Wrexham. I heard this quite a few times myself at the time. The truth was, Mr Guterman stressed, there were no boys. He did it all by himself, but with some involvement from another investor who he fell out with, Alex Hamilton. There was no consortium and no deal done at the bar of the Stag's Head in Great Warford or after a round at the Mere Golf and Country Club.

My argument, which stands, is that the book wasn't inaccurate. The purpose wasn't to report accurately on every deal that got done and who was involved, but to reflect the myths and bravado of the time too. As Tony Wilson used to say, "faced with the choice between the truth and the legend, always print the legend."

Out of the blue I've had a few more calls and reviews about the book recently. No literary agent has called begging to sign me up, no producers asking for the rights to adapt it for TV, or Hollywood, or a major publisher offering me a mega-deal on the follow-up. Just readers who enjoyed it, who liked the story and more than anything, the linkage between the real world and the one I invented.

It's still available at Amazon for £5.99.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Walking Dead isn't fascist - Rick Grimes is a Churchillian inspiration

Rick eyeballs Negan - and lives
Steadily, and quietly I've become a devotee of the post-Apocalyptic TV series The Walking Dead. At first I just thought of it as the traditional cowboy film format, but with zombies. But it's far more profound than that.

Slow as it can sometimes be, and frustrating as it has become, especially in the first half of the current series, the 7th!, it serves as a searing existential commentary on the human condition.

Each scene, each episode, each character asks the most important question of all - what lengths would you go to in order to survive?

There is a frustrating treadmill that the series needs to step away from at the moment. Group gets together again, finds a haven, calamity falls, haven disrupted, new depths are sunk, new depravity exposed, innocence and cowardice challenged, bad guys confronted and overcome - and on it goes.

I've also read the graphic novels, which sometimes dictate the plot trajectory, yet in other ways they walk a completely different path. The character of Andrea is central to the comics, but she died in series two. The character of Daryl (or Derl) isn't in the comics at all.

But we are up to a point now where the most complex and mesmerising bad ass of them all is on the scene - Negan. We first heard his name when a bunch of creepy bikers tried to rob Derl and Abraham, saying that their property "now belonged to Negan". Derl blew them up with a rocket launcher. As you do.

When we finally meet him - played with swagger and verve by Jeffrey Dean Morgan - it is with a violence rarely seen in mainstream TV. We see plenty of zombies being crushed, but not the actual skull of another human - especially not one of our most loved characters. Add to that, he rules over his community with draconian rules and extreme theatrical violence. He is a despicable sadistic villain, but he's also witty, charismatic and difficult to second guess what he's going to do next.

He's far more interesting than the Governor, played by David Morrissey and who dominated two seasons of gruesomeness. But though he swaggers and teases, claiming "I can be reasonable" he's also in command of a particularly nasty crew of bullies and sycophants who seem to delight in dishing out a kicking because they can, whereas Negan at least does so because, he says, he's been left with no choice.

Which brings me to the core moral flaw of the series and the accusation that the default fall back position for all groups is one form of fascism or another, as described in this piece from The Vulture website which makes the point thus:

"For years, both The Walking Dead and its spin-off series, Fear the Walking Dead, have portrayed survival in the post-apocalypse as a triumph of the will — a state of constant conflict in which the preservation of “our people,” however they may be defined, is paramount. The preservation of this in-group, and the destruction of all who threaten it, both living and dead, is the ultimate moral end. This end justifies — even necessitates — the most brutal means at each group’s disposal. Trusting others, treating others with mercy, is all but invariably portrayed as weak, stupid, self-destructive. In a world where the only moral barometer is survival, establishes a binary in which the only choice for Rick Grimes and his fellows is to kill or to be killed, to slaughter or to be slaughtered. deal from strength or get crushed every time."

I disagree. If anything, the choices facing the disparate communities who are bullied and threatened by Negan and his Saviours isn't to become like them, but to resist. The choice from our history isn't to face evil with evil, but to confront it for what it is and to pursue a better alternative. That choice is appeasement, or war.

Understandably, the American counter-narrative is seeking parallels with the President elect and the rise of intolerance. I don't see that. Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, is building up to a role as a Churchill, not any kind of Trump or anti-Trump.

We've already seen glimpses of other adversaries with a far more animalistic sense of survival, contemplating violence as instinct, or accepting of the truly primal and desperate sense of the world and what it has become - think the cannibals of Terminus or the feral and desperate Wolves.

But no, bad as Negan is, powerful as he seems, there isn't even the beginnings of a moral debate to be had, just a practical one of weapons and tactics.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Left to rot on a siding in Iran - where Northern Rail's hated Pacer trains belong

Pacer train, rotting in Iran, but still used in Northern England
You can raise a laugh when you tell people that the trains used by Northern Rail, our train operating company, are so bad they were rejected by Iran and Vietnam. 

But it’s not funny. It is actually an outrage.

These buses on rails, the diesel Pacer trains we are expected to commute into Manchester on, at least along the unelectrified lines (Tameside, Hope Valley, Sheffield, Liverpool, Lancashire, Bolton), are over 30 years old.

This morning, like every morning, I travelled on one into Manchester and it was dangerously overcrowded and clammy. And late. Words were exchanged between rail staff and passengers about standing room. The trains leak when it rains, they are cold in winter and too hot in summer as the heating is still on, even when it was 30 degrees outside. I pointed this out to the driver once we had arrived and he corrected me. It wasn’t on, it’s just that the train’s heat generates such power it appears to heat the system inside the carriage.

Another driver has told me that the trains don’t have fuel gauges, so it’s impossible to do anything but guess when they are low on diesel. They aren’t even really trains, they are buses, built onto a chassis, but they were only ever a temporary measure. Disgracefully, they are still in service more than a decade after they should have been scrapped.

Some units were donated to the Islamic Republic of Iran, presumably safely within the sanctions imposed on that regime, but have since been withdrawn from service (pic, above).

 Here’s what the Office of the Rail Regulator says about the Pacer trains, in the 2012 annual report: “Rolling stock failures, such as the loss of a final drive, or bearing failures, could result in multi-fatality incidents. We flagged these concerns in the annual report for 2010-11 in relation to Pacer trains. We still have concerns about the planned continued use of these trains because their age means they can be more susceptible to failures and they often require more maintenance and monitoring.”

In short, these trains could kill you. And even the regulator is worried. But do you know what the main priority of Northern Rail appears to be at the moment? Intimidating passengers with heavy handed ticket inspection procedures, which they admit are complex and arbitrary.

I have an annual season pass, which some days I can have it checked six times by guards or by bouncers from G4S. Other days, not at all. I notice that on some days passengers can buy a ticket on the train (not today, too crowded), other days you can be issued with a failure to purchase notice when attempting to buy a ticket at Piccadilly station.

As an experience, Manchester Piccadilly station at peak times is getting better, but is still barely managed chaos. Communication is erratic, trains are overcrowded and platform changes always handled badly, though these are less frequent than they used to be. However, some annoying habits continue, one in particular is to leave passengers shivering on the platform while the driver revs up the diesel engine, opening the doors at the last possible moment. A lung full of diesel fumes doesn't warm you up, strangely.

Should you need help getting on a train, or if the platform is crowded and it is not clear which train is which, you generally get a shrug of the shoulders from one of the men on the station in a Northern Rail or Trans Pennine uniform. They aren’t paid to help, or care, just to bust fare dodgers.

What this company has done, under its new owners Arriva, and under the previous regime, is get our backs up. They are regarded as a joke by the commuters and travellers I know. The only solace people have is in a pathetic guerilla war on Twitter by referring their failings alongside a hashtag #northernfail.

New trains could be delivered to Arriva by the end of next year. And I understand they are being built by a company called CAF in Spain. In fact, it was a condition of the award of the franchise that they need to be in service by 2020. But welcome as that commitment is to new trains - and they look great - this has effectively prolonged the use of Pacers until then, rather than exploring the option of refurbished cast-offs from other networks in the south. Or Iran.