Thursday, September 30, 2021

Lunch of the month - Cafe Marhaba

We're supposed to be back to some kind of normal, so this blog is resuming the tradition of picking a 'lunch of the month'. I'm not going to be testing the steaks at Hawksmoor, or trying to make a pitch to be some kind of foodie blogger, it's more of a thing about what you might grab in and around work, pitched at under a tenner.

The variety this time will be that I mainly work from home, so I might pop into Marple and other spots locally. For that reason, the new butty shop in Bredbury - Bread- Brie - is an early strong contender. Their steak canadienne with gravy and onions was sumptuous. I've also had decent bacon butties at both The Locks and Red Pepper in Marple.

I've got a few things going on in Stockport as well, and there's much to commend the Produce Hall, the market area and some other gems. 

Then there's Tameside, where I need to get out and about. As a local radio personality and newspaper columnist I need to know my patch much better. So far, I haven't found one that can top Lily's in Ashton, which the recent Manchester Food and Drink Awards also acknowledged.

Being only a hop skip and a jump from Manchester means there are plenty of choices within easy reach, but it's a slightly different dynamic than when I started this a couple of years ago and I was permanently based near Oxford Road.

I've had a couple of trips into Manchester to try and drum up business and do a day's work, that have also involved food, and my eldest son Joe lives in the city centre. All have been pretty good, but one was outstanding. Gorilla's burger was as good as I remember it. I tried the Levenshulme Bakery shwarma and it was decent. Wing's in the Arndale Market is reliable, and a bit of a guilty pleasure.

But the winner was Cafe Marhaba in Back Piccadilly, an unlikely setting, but their Instagram page has tantalised me for 18 months. It has a deserved cult status amongst those who know of its clay oven, the delicate bread, the taste of texture of the curries. I have really missed it, so much so I couldn't settle on what to have so I went for the trusty rice and three, lamb, chicken and keema. Astonishing. Other places do dependable rice and three, but no-one comes close with bread like this. I had a garlic naan, my pal had a chilli one. Superb.

If you fancy joining me or suggesting somewhere - and I tagged a few potential lunch chums on the Twitter - then let's do this.


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Playing the long game - some big university deals come off

I had a couple of little tickles of pride this week as a few things I'd been involved in at Manchester Metropolitan University came to fruition.

In 2018, I made sure the University was fully part of the Civic University Commission inquiry, led by Lord Kerslake, eventually leading to the signing, with Mayor Andy Burnham, of the Greater Manchester Civic Universities Agreement this week. It covers degree apprenticeships, equipping our public services, contributing to the strategies of the city region. and making sure research has true impact locally.

I wasn't sure where we'd get to when I introduced Health colleagues to officers from Stockport Council, but Stockport's Academy of Living Well looks like a glorious legacy of that ambition.

I picked up National Geographic Traveller magazine today and was really chuffed to see trails for the new Poetry Library as one of Manchester's new cultural jewels. I remember when I first started to talking to the VC about joining back in 2015 and it was his passion for this project that convinced me he was taking the institution on an exciting journey. 

But the pet project I most want to see is tantalisingly close and I wish everyone involved the very best of luck.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Always judge a magazine by its cover

I'm still a sucker for a new magazine, not just as a reader, but as someone who's been into the whole process all of my working life. I love to pick up something I've never seen before and thumb through it, check out the advertisers, think about the production meetings that led to the different design decisions that were made. I always ask, who it is for? And wonder if there are enough of them to sustain it.

A few new titles I've liked recently have included a trendy business magazine called Courier, which feels a bit like Monocle. A men's fashion concept aimed at old hooligans like me, Paninaro. The design style is striking and it has a real clear personality and a curiosity about it. The interview with JJ Connolly in issue 002 is very good indeed. I really liked Faith magazine, a freebie about clubs and house music that was packed with really good interviews and recollections. I've not sat down to read my latest purchase, but it's a niche wee project called Turnstiles, produced by a Blackburn Rovers fan, Chris O'Keefe.

The most important page in any magazine is the cover. It's the one that I would think about first and last whenever I was the editor, and planning ahead or thinking through the bigger message any title needed to say. The first magazine I edited I worked with the fantastically talented Andrea Horwood, who went on to build Australian Style magazine. She was a fabulous stylist and I bowed to her judgement on her choice of interesting looking cover models. I've just found a print of a cover featuring Kylie from 1994 that's on sale at an auction for A$1200, which rather proves the point.

When I worked in the UK Britfilm magazine sector in the 1990s we were spoilt for choices of imagery, given the subject matter, but I tended towards something with an eye-catching visual effects story to draw the eye to the cover lines. Or something from a TV series I liked, such as Cold Feet.

At Insider I was much more interested in conceptual stories and created some great covers with designer Damien Wiehl. I think of only a handful of single personality led covers, I just don’t think anyone in the regional business community could justify that kind of rock star status. In my office now I still have the framed print of the cover from 2007 bearing my award-winning story of the collapse of retailer Music Zone. For me it has everything, it's brash, it's about the story, it projects it accurately and it's remarkably simple.

All of this is pointing towards a trip to Rare Mags in Stockport's Underbanks, a delightful shop with a love of design and print that still gets me excited.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Binge reading

I've written before (yesterday, in fact) how I tend to jump in and absorb everything I can from certain authors. It isn't a recent thing either, in my early 20s I ripped through all the output of Carl Hiaasen, Mark Timlin, Elmore Leonard and James Crumley in a splurge of murder and mayhem. I loved the American literary brat pack - Donna Tartt, Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInernay. In my year in Australia I couldn't get enough of Milan Kundera, which then switched me on to Raymond Carver in pretty short order. Even as a young kid I think I read all of Enid Blyton, Rev W Awdry, Herge and Michael Hardcastle.

It was a good job George Orwell was a set text at English A level, because I'd read everything he'd done by the time I was 16 - diaries, journalism, all his novels and most potently of all Homage to Catalonia. We studied 1984 and it provided no challenge at all.

Sometimes this doesn't leave much space to let others in. Maybe it should.

One of my guilty pleasures is Tony Parsons (the other was Lee Child, but he's basically given up now). I know it's fashionable to diss him and he does himself no favours with his opinionated column in the newspaper I refuse to buy or refer to, but I do like his new series of Max Wolfe dark detective novels. It seems that the hard-boiled crime genre I was so taken with is now the resting place of different types of novelists. 

There is nothing guilty about liking Chris Brookmyre and his excellent Parlabane series, but he's definitely gone darker and more noir. 

I'd say my favourites currently are Val McDermid, Joseph Knox and John Niven.

As a latecomer, I'm a little daunted at Val's output but life will always be worth looking forward to as long as there is another Val to go to; I'm up to date with John Niven though his first book, Music From Big Pink, must have passed me by and I've just borrowed it from the library. I think my favourite is No Good Deed, but nothing prepared me for the sheer unadulterated splenetic joy of the 'gateway Niven' experience of Kill Your Friends

This weekend I binged on Joseph Knox's True Crime Story, set in Manchester, which I've written about in my column in the local paper and will link to it here when it's out. It is one of the most startling and different crime books I've read. Really smart and very well written, just like his previous three, but a real game-changer. 

Next up for me is The Survivors by Jane Harper, an Australian writer who I picked up on a couple of years ago. And as soon as she's got another out, I'm on it.


Sunday, September 26, 2021

Lancashire folk horror - a dark place

Last year, as we lurched into lockdown and I was task-avoiding the final flourish on writing my thesis, I got absorbed in folk horror. It sort of coincided with a ratcheting-up of my enthusiasm for fell walking and discovering the countryside. 

Maybe it was the shrinking of our world to what was within reach that made me deeply yearn for what lay beyond. My morning walk and cycle ride saw me become fascinated with things that hadn't caught my attention - a disused piece of farm machinery became my companion and I would stop and speak to it every day, an emotional crutch and a recipient of dark thoughts. I even gave her a name - Darkness. I would also seek out abandoned barns and remote dwellings, sometimes off the beaten track, but also sometimes just tucked away, and let us remember here, they all had a Greater Manchester postcode.

I'll lay my cards on the table. Folk horror is a sometimes shocking but always dramatic film genre, never passive, never unchallenging, I can take it in small doses, but horror still works better in film than in literary fiction. The origin story starts with Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) but the most shocking modern film that can trace a line back - particularly to the latter classic - is Midsommar (2019), directed by Ari Aster, also responsible for the seriously terrifying Hereditary (2018).

Here's the thing though, seeing something grotesque, otherworldly and weird is terrifying and the tricks of light and sound make it all-consuming. Reading about it is just a bit odd, but far harder to accomplish as a writer. 

I say this because in fairly short order I read all three of Lancashire writer Andrew Michael Hurley's novels - the Loney, Devil's Day and Starve Acre. What I liked about all three were the dramatic descriptions of place. All three were set in locations I know a little of - the Lune Estuary, the Trough of Bowland and, less so, the Yorkshire Moors. Life feels hard for all of the characters in them, the plots are all tight, odd, and well-paced. Hurley told my friend, the writer Mark Sutcliffe, that the greatest compliment he could receive would be that if you felt you were there, in the mud, on the moors and feeling the rain, then he's done his job. I'd agree with that, and he is very, very good at atmospheric descriptive writing.

Yes, there's a but coming. 

I couldn't quite buy the supernatural elements, yet in each story they are the things I remembered most vividly, and it's what gives me the shivers. I wonder out loud whether stripping them out would make them well-told thrillers, worthy of something a writer of the output and pedigree of Val McDiarmuid would do, but otherwise just bleak Northern noir. 

I note that Hurley has a contribution to a horror collection out soon, and maybe, just maybe, a writer of his skill and growing confidence could win me over to the deeply weird and the terrifyingly eerie.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Right hammerings - and how I never enjoy them until they're over

I am really, really enjoying the FACT that we beat Cardiff City 5-1 today. I will watch the highlights over and over. I will be texting Louis in Majorca and Joe at work in Manchester and sharing the after match joy on Twitter. It was also a nice birthday present for Rachel, who made good use of the spare seat today.

I will run over every incident I can recollect in my mind, over and over. Even Cardiff nearly taking the lead after a rare Kaminski fumble, and producing a more familiar tip over the bar in the second half. But I will joyously recall how it felt when each and every goal rattled in, through sheer force of will. I have already chipped in the odd comment about how Mowbray got the game plan right, noticing from the off that Mick McCarthy's men in pink were a big muscular outfit, but that Dolan and Brereton can run them ragged, and that Buckley and Travis love a scrap. The back four I would back all day long at the moment. Moore never gave Ayala or Lenihan much to worry about, did he?

I can enjoy it now, but I genuinely never enjoy it when it's happening, because it raises the stakes of embarrassment and disappointment. 

Memories of being 2-0 up and dominant against Luton still linger, when their abject shithousery earned them a draw they didn't deserve. 

But I've ALWAYS been like this. 

When Rovers beat Norwich 7-1 to go top of the Premier League in 1992, I was running through in my head (at 5-1) the humiliation of drawing 5-5 and facing the office on Monday morning. Same with slotting six past West Ham in 2001, seven past Forest in about 1996, seven past Sheffield Wednesday on TV in 1997, which at the time felt quite a close game for a while. I enjoyed Simon Garner's goal-fest against Derby in 1983, but I never thought it was going to have a happy ending until it did. 

So to today, the doom set in for the period after Cardiff's goal, Leninhan going off, a period of pressure and frankly, I was in bits. I could even visualise the away supporters bouncing around and singing "4-1 and you mucked it up", or something. 

I have very little evidence that statistically Blackburn Rovers are prone to doing this, or that this team could capitulate so easily. 

Maybe I'm just innately pessimistic that one day we will and the pain will be unbearable. 

Maybe it's part of my risk-averse character. Careful now. Don't fuss.

Maybe it's also a humility check, not to be too cocky that we're playing a professional and decent side that on another day could turn us over and therefore we shouldn't rub their noses in it.

There is an exception though. There is one game where Rovers dished out an absolute lesson in football to a team who had nothing left to offer, except to plead for mercy, and I loved every minute of it, soup to nuts. It was Burnley at home, April Fool's Day 2001. 5-0. Two from Jansen, one each from Hignett and Short, and a Steve Davis Own Goal.

Happy birthday Rachel and have a great night everyone. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

The blogathon story so far

This is going to be quick. After a busy week in Ireland and walking from Langsett onto the moors today, this is just about all I've got time for today.

With a week to go to the end of the month, I'll tackle some of the bigger issues relevant to what I'm trying to do long term. Then, there's a sweep of reviews of books and films that need updating. 

I could say something profound about time, what we do with it, who we spend it with and why there doesn't seem enough of it. 

Or an appreciation of friends who make those times special. Like James Torry who took that amazing picture of us today.

Maybe that's for another time. Goodnight.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Francis, Kevin and Rachel

We pack a lot into our little holidays, and we always seem to learn a thing or two.

Full Irish breakfast to start a busy day, comes without baked beans, and soda bread is better than two slices of holy ghost. 

We had a lovely chat to Pat Casey, the manager of the Glendalough Hotel, who enjoyed learning about our visit to the former seat of one of his predecessors, Francis Slefer, Rachel's great grandfather. He showed us around the documents and the hotel diary, the reason why the name lost its Royal in the 1980s. 

Pat also pointed us along the way to the ruins of Derralossary Church, a Protestant chapel, where Francis and his wife Agnes and son Karel are buried. The grave is right next to the family resting place of Erskine Childers, the only President of Ireland to die in office in 1974, and his author and rebel son who wrote The Riddle of the Sands, and was killed by the Black and Tans in the Civil War. 

We took in St Kevin’s Church and read of the story of a blackbird nesting in the outstretched hand of the imprisoned Kevin of Glendalough, immortalised in a Seamus Heaney poem. It's self-sacrifice, doing untold good for others, no matter the personal cost, which on the occasion of the special birthday for the most generous soul I know is remarkably appropriate.

Maybe because I was raised tantalising close to the sea I have a thing for seaside towns, closed down, forgotten, or revived. Bray looks like the latter. Lovely, tidy Bray. The seaside town that refused to shut down. Inevitably, ill-equipped and under-estimating, we cracked on and walked a sharp route to Bray Head Cross on the headland above the town. Maybe I missed something dark, a few streets back from the shore, but I loved Bray and I think it's the town Morecambe could be.

We watched the sunset on a beautiful trip as the sky lit up red over Dublin Airport. 

Happy birthday,  Rachel. I don't think I could love you any more, but I'll keep trying. Keep stretching out that hand.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A special day in the Wicklow Mountains

Early alarm call, Ringway, Ryanair, hire car palaver and 45 minutes south of Dublin and we’re having a mid-morning drink and a packet of Tayto’s in beautiful Glendalough, County Wicklow.

“This place is an absolute jewel,” we’re told a few hours later at the summit of Lugduff (689m) by 75 year old Mary from Dublin, one of the few hikers we met on this glorious day. Mary was right, and like most of our unguided walks it took a few twists and turns.

We started out thinking we’d do the moderate Hill Walk in the local guide booklet, starting from Upper Lake, past the Poulanass waterfall, but the weather was so good we just kept going for 35,000 steps, up 182 floors and covering 28km. We climbed steeply through a logging forest, then onto a heather covered fell and up, and up to the summits of Lugduff, Mullacor (709m) and Cullentragh (520m). It is spectacularly beautiful and very well tended by the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service. 

We’re here because of the family connection. From 1898 to 1938, the Glendalough Hotel was managed by Francis Slefer, Rachel’s great grandfather, an emigre from Cerhovice in Central Europe, an employment tradition that this delightful hotel has preserved, or more likely, revived. 

The setting is glorious, the food has been sumptuous and more than anything the occasion has been just perfect.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Why most networking is rubbish and how we can make it better

I've been thinking a lot lately about networks, networking and building up your own social capital. 

In my Freshwalks profile (here) I talk in zealous terms about my visceral rejection of what I used to think of as a networking event. We know the cliches, that dry mouth and raised anxiety level as you step into a room full of strangers, feeling unworthy of being in any way interesting enough for someone to want to talk to, then that sinking feeling as you get pumped and dumped, when the friendly face you thought you'd found gets visibly bored with you and spots someone over your shoulder and leaves you with another bewildered soul who's also questioning why they've bothered coming out.

It might surprise people who have known me for the last 25 years in journalism, politics and business that I get those terrors. People often say to me that they think I'm 'well networked' and that all this chit chat is part of the patter. 

But that's not networking is it? That's just a crappy experience of an event, the business equivalent of getting back in the dating game. But unfortunately, we pump and dump the idea of getting out and meeting people precisely because the experience has become such a metaphor for networking.

As you'll see from everything I've been writing over the last month or so, we're desperate to get out and live again after being locked away. I have genuinely really missed being in and amongst people and meeting new faces and old, and experiencing culture and sport, yes, and meeting people with my professional head on.  

Better sages than me will have urged you to start with asking "why?"

Do you need to build sales? Maybe it's to find better clients, more clients, a new job, a mentor, or just friends who you can relate to because you share things in common. Either way, I think we need to strip it back down and revisit the premise of building your network for your own sake. 

I struggle to accept that collecting business cards and shoving your card into someone's hand at an event, then reporting those numbers back to your boss the next day is proper evidence of building a network. Maybe this is a ludicrous 'straw man' argument and that no one actually says it is, but there is enough evidence that the whole premise of the fleeting encounter is still measured and evaluated. I'm a great believer that the more you put in, the more you get out. In life, in business. 

So the real depth to conversations, the real building up of trust and shared agendas can start in these places and spaces, but it can't solely exist in them. It's usually in the follow-up that magic happens.

How then do we build on these encounters? How do we fast track meaningful human relationships that can shape fruitful and enjoyable experiences of doing business with one another? 

If we truly want this pandemic and lockdown to be a reset, then maybe we need to rethink how we relate to one another in a much broader sense. What kind of person do we want to be, how do we want to lead people, show an example, make a difference, or make a mark? 

Maybe we need to start from a more generous mindset of thinking about how you might be able to do something good for someone. Pay it forward, give something, and just see what flows. Maybe this is just the hopeless meanderings of a middle-aged gadfly, but more than ever, I find myself offering this advice to people I meet from all ages and walks of life, and my own sons and their friends.

It might not rid you of the terrors of a networking event, but it might liberate you from the expectation that this is what networking is.

Footnote: the picture above is chosen entirely at random and in no way is used an example of a rubbish networking event. I think it's from an event in Scotland I went to in about 2013, which was quite good actually.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Saint Etienne - I've Been Trying To Tell You - Official Trailer

We went to the film premiere of Saint Etienne's new album last week, followed by a delightful Q&A with the band's Bob Stanley and the film maker Alasdair McLellan. 

Jason Wood from Home is very good at this, and not only asks the questions you want him to, but brings his own passions and knowledge to the conversation. It feels very natural and comfortable.

Bob Stanley has to be one of the most interesting men in pop music, constantly experimenting and delving into his love of pop culture. Maybe I'm biased, but I think it's because he's basically a journalist. 

I like the story told by Alasdair McLellan, a fashion photographer of some standing, that they started with one idea and settled on another, partly constricted by lockdowns and practicalities of the band having to record remotely. "When we met, we found we shared so much in common – after all, Saint Etienne’s music has always conjured beautiful images for me and influenced my own visual style – the project became something bigger."

There's something very Balaeric about the new album, lots of dreamy loops and smart samples. The intent is to create a melancholic sense of longing - nostalgia, as Bob correctly said on the night, is a disease - but this is some tonic.

The film features lots of implausibly beautiful young people hanging out together, intended to make you half-remember your own summers gone by. It's all stitched together like a strange road trip around Britain: from Southampton to Portmeirion to Blackpool to Grangemouth to Scunthorpe to London.

I'm not sure how you get to see the film at the cinema now, but the whole package of the album, vinyl, booklet, is available in all kinds of gorgeousness, here.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Muscle and the menace of Craig Fairbrass

A few years ago (here) I made a confession that my guilty pleasure was British gangster films. Not just the good ones, but the rank bad ones too. The good ones are really very good and stand on their own as great British dramatic films, irrespective of the criminal content - Long Good Friday, Get Carter, Layer Cake, in particular, because they help us to understand Britain in a time and place, as well as being compelling stories; far more than the Lock Stock geezer flicks of the 1990s. But it’s the straight-to-DVD, formulaic, sweaty, expletive-laden, violent, ludicrous and overblown films of the burgeoning genre that fascinate me. The Rise of the Footsoldier franchise is now at stage five, and I am genuinely looking forward to seeing how Craig Fairbrass rinses the story of the Essex Range Rover murders even more, in his muscular menacing portrayal of Pat Tate, by all accounts a horrible bully undeserving of his cult status.

There’s a great piece from the Guardian in 2015 here that gives some insight into the economics of these films, popular with a male demographic. I’d be fascinated to see the data behind the algorithm-driven commissioning of Netflix and Prime Video, because even with declining DVD sales there still seems to be an active market for more of this stuff. 

But the one constant that makes many otherwise dire films compelling and edgy is the presence of Craig Fairbrass, who is also fiercely aware of his own persona and how he’s become the go-to big guy. I’m thinking here of two films centred on errant brothers with Fairbrass as the bigger scarier sibling, Villain and Avengement. He not only looks the part, whenever he's cast in roles like these but knows how to act.

Yes, the point of this preamble is a proper and deserving tribute to the under-appreciated and possibly underrated talent of Craig Fairbrass. It's time to say this because of one of the most unsettling and atmospheric films I’ve seen in a long while. Gerard Johnson’s Muscle is a gruelling deep dive into the crisis in masculinity, with Cavan Clerkin’s central character of Simon drawn in by the intimidating charisma of Fairbrass’s Terry, who he meets down at the gym. Things escalate badly, and never reach a satisfactory or obvious conclusion. The high point is the claustrophobic menace that Fairbrass brings to every scene he’s in. You can’t just do that by direction and set design, but by proper acting. 

And that’s my way of saying, by the way, that Muscle is very stylishly directed and designed by Gerard Johnson, gifted the support of his brother Matt from the band The The, and their mesmerising contribution to the score of the song I WANT 2 B U. Gerard Johnson's previous film Hyena was grim, effectively and deliberately, but by shooting Muscle in black and white he took it up a notch. Shifting the action to Newcastle, it also included a cast of extras that looked so authentically seedy you could practically smell them. 

As for the rest of the genre, I genuinely don't want the conveyer belt of geezers and grafters to ever stop. I want more Footsoldiers, follow-ups to The Business, I want JJ Connolly's Viva La Madness, I want gangs, drugs, hitmen, geezers and old lags still doing it the old way. But after Muscle I think what I really want is Craig Fairbrass to get a few more breaks and directors to take risks to get the very best out of a fine acting talent and lift this genre to greater creative heights.

hat tip: Neil and Macca.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Radcliffe to Wembley, next stop Mossley

I don't think there's a prettier view in all of football than the setting of Seel Park, Mossley. 

I was there for the Second Qualifying Round of the FA Cup today, to see Radcliffe again, and for a second time they ended up comfortably overcoming opposition from a lower division, this time it was Mossley from the Northern Premier League West Division.

It was a good crowd on today as well, taking advantage of another extension to our summer, drinking pints in the sun and enjoying a decent game. A good following from Radcliffe swelled the attendance too, with both teams really up for a cup run and all that it brings to a shoestring operation like this. 

I had a good chat to my pal Alan Townley before the game, a Radcliffe director, who filled me in on some of the team news. The story of Kole Hall, Radcliffe's wide attacking star fascinated me. In June he played for Bermuda in a World Cup qualifier in Florida against the Cayman Islands. He was one of a number of Radcliffe's young team that look like they could play at a higher level. The winning goalscorer Andrew Owens gets himself into good positions and the two centre backs - Olly Thornley and Joe Cummings - look assured. 

The score was 2-1 and although the home side took the lead in the first half, played with real guts and spirit, in the end, the division of difference between the sides started to look obvious. 

I don't have any skin in this game, I'm not supporting one team over another. As much as I enjoyed another trip to beautiful Seel Park, all I hope for in the next round is somewhere interesting to go with Radcliffe's ball in the velvet bag for Monday's draw. 


Friday, September 17, 2021

Big Sleep Out


So many of us have had something of an epiphany over recent months. A feeling that we have to think about others, wake up to the terrible circumstances many people find themselves in and do something positive.

Rachel is sleeping out tonight as part of the Big Sleep Out, the major fundraiser her charity, Caritas, is organising, particularly to raise money to continue the amazing work of the Cornerstone Day Centre in Manchester, providing practical help and support for people that are street homeless, sofa-surfing, and those without the security of a permanent home. 

It would be great if you could sponsor Rachel, or donate to the appeal. You can do that here.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

On my bus

As part of the onward movement to being fully human again, I’ve spent today on an Army base in Yorkshire as a Fellow of the Forward Institute. It has been life-affirming, helpful, thought-provoking and has given me a particularly strong sense of mission again.

In a nutshell, Forward was formed by my friend Ruth Turner (above) to promote responsible leadership. In many ways it’s oxymoronic for me; I’m not currently in a leadership role, and even when I was, I would hardly express that with irresponsible leadership. However, did I always value diversity? Did I always care enough? Think for the long term? Be honest? Be brave? Of course, I’d like to think so, but when I’ve come up short it’s often against that set of principles.

I was enrolled on an Exchange programme with them through the lockdown. I got an enormous amount from the sessions, even if they were conducted over Zoom. My exchange partner was a senior Army officer, and I learned a lot from him and about what makes his world tick.  We observed one another in meetings in our work, supported one another, and took part in wider group exercises, where we'd share thoughts and stress test our ideas. Here’s the thing though, while I was obviously massively taken by his world, he says with all sincerity that he got a lot from walking in my shoes for a while.

Since then I’ve spoken in several discussions with other Fellows from different organisations, public, private and charitable sector. So many of us share the same challenges, which obviously I can’t go into great detail about, but it was all conducted with incredible candour in a place of profound psychological safety.

Today was a significant step up in our collective working relationship. It felt all the more special because we were physically together in one space. There were other Fellows in different locations around the country, and we hooked up for a guest speaker, beamed to us all in the manner to which we've become accustomed.  It felt like we were fully in the moment. That we devoted ourselves to the tasks at hand. Some of the heroes amongst us really valued this time and space to practice truly reflective thinking, given what they've been required to do over the last two years. 

I’ll cut to the chase, my two big learnings and actions are remarkably small scale in comparison. I’m journaling (which this blog is a part of, but a lot is private), and working generously. That’s easy to do when I literally don’t have a full-time job, but I have set a mode of thought and operation that I just have to believe in; that helping others, applying what I know, what I have passion for, will find its place. Part of that long-term thinking is taking responsibility for my own actions and those who I work with. To do that seriously requires a proper alignment in values.

There are other societal issues, business observations I have at the moment, but this main burning platform is largely reflective. My friend Penny Haslam speaks about getting the right people on your bus. I look around and see who’s on my bus, and I’m phenomenally grateful. People who keep you honest. People who tell you what you sometimes don't want to hear.  Among them, I realised today, are the Fellows of the Forward Institute.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Blackburn Rovers, touching from a distance

There's a very good reason why I should never tweet, blog, or even speak about a Blackburn Rovers match in its immediate aftermath. On Saturday I was murderous with rage about Luton Town, their manager, their tactics, the referee and Sam Gallagher's party trick of taking the ball into the corner to waste time. 

It was as sick as I've felt walking off Ewood. And it was just an early-season game against Luton bloody Town. But I was also probably wrong to feel like that. Fine margins, and the ability to put good clear chances away, meant we should have been out of sight way before the 98th minute. But it didn't feel like it at the time.

On Tuesday night it was like watching a different sport. The first half, and the opening few bars of the second, were like casually observing a band tuning up their instruments. I could say a number of things that are self-evidently true: Thyrhys Dolan is an incredible talent, but needs to improve a few aspects of his game; Thomas Kaminsky is probably our best keeper since Brad Friedel; Buckley and Rothwell are played out of position and seem unhappy about that. I prefer Ben Brereton Diaz to Ben Brereton. They are my opinions, and I may be wrong.

I also had absolutely no idea what the system was, apart from to give Hull City more time on the ball. Richie Smallwood has never had so much space and time inside Ewood Park as he did last night. So, when the subs were coming on at the 54th minute mark I had no idea who was going to be coming off, and for what purpose. That both Khadra and Butterworth had an immediate disruptive impact proves either that Mowbray totally knows what he's doing, or that he had it badly wrong with his first eleven. He was right about Butterworth's fitness though, for the last ten minutes he looked spent.

Another theory I've long harboured is that the Peter Jackson the Jewellers man of the match award is made by corporate sponsors with a bleary view of football, who tend to favour show boaters and goalscorers. Last night for Darragh Lenihan, and on Saturday with Dolan, they were absolutely spot on. I have an irrational leaning towards our captain. I think he could be playing comfortably at a higher level, certainly if Scott Dann can, he can, and if Grant Hanley's your man, then so's Lenihan. Yet on a different view, he was lucky not to get sent off against Luton for a rough challenge, which probably made a tetchy situation worse still. That he dusted off the criticism and scrutiny to turn in a captain's performance like last night tells you all you need to know.

So we sit 7th in the table and I still look at this team as a collection of underachievers playing for a jaded fan base, much of which is due to a distinct lack of dynamism from the leadership of the club. It reminds me so much of the early 80s. We had a decent team then, but it wasn't until much later that we realised quite how good they were. There are also more recent ghosts of Jordan Rhodes, Tom Cairney, Rudy Gestede, Grant Hanley and, ahem, Ben Marshall. Genuinely gifted players who together should have forged a promotion-winning team. This is a young team, full of promise and yet somehow drifting, more likely to be caught out for lack of nous, than tearing up the Championship. 

So far though, it's a decent start on paper. Taking stock and weighing up the positives is always a better way of forming a view than a hot take. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

More Mayors are coming, but what works and why?

More Mayors are coming. In an interview with the Financial Times (£) yesterday, housing and local government secretary Robert Jenrick put the possibilities of city deals and devolution agreements back on the table. 

I think we were a bit blindsided by Boris Johnson's levelling up speech in July. His delivery was unconvincing (well, it was a shambles, actually). Buried in it however was a commitment to extend devolution, something he hasn't mentioned for a long time, and was kicked firmly into the long grass by Theresa May.

Here's what Johnson said:

"As I say, we will not be proceeding with a one size fits all template. One possibility is a directly elected mayor for individual counties but there are other possibilities. We could devolve power for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses. So my offer to you – and I am talking to all those who see a role for yourselves in this local leadership- come to us, come to Neil O Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services."

As I've watched the government's front bench team lurch from one shambles to another I've constantly questioned whether there are actual grown-ups somewhere in the room. People who make decisions based on reason and good policy, rather than just winging it and bumbling from one day to the next. A couple of years ago I went to a few fringe meetings at Tory conference in Manchester and - OK, I may be clutching at straws here - Neil O'Brien MP came across as one of those decent, thoughtful, practical,  One Nation Tories that saw the merits of the extension of devolution. His current berth in the government is vague, he was a forceful counter to anti-lockdown lunatics on the Tory benches over the last year and now he's been asked to drive ideas for levelling up. He's either being set up for a fall, or his intellectual talents are being put to use to get stuff done. This, from Politico, is very good.

Whispers I heard from Whitehall were that the standoff with Andy Burnham last year spooked the government. He didn't get what he wanted, but Burnham achieved a status (King of the North) that gave him a moral authority few other leaders have achieved. To create more Kings and Queens in the regions is a gamble that they have other people to play off against one another is the cynical view. The other agenda, highlighted by Michael Heseltine last week, is systemic reform of local government, removing two-tier authorities forever. 

Each region, each city, comes at it from their own historical and relational place. Greater Manchester kept many of the logical loose ties that survived the abolition of the County Council in 1986. A narrative persisted of a city-region that could absorb towns and districts and make them better. Though it sometimes fractures, there is a broad consent of the 10 that they are stronger together.

In the course of researching my thesis on Devolution and Democracy, I spoke to lots of people in other cities about their relationship with a Mayor. There was a reason Andy Burnham spent so much time doing media appearances and glad-handing around Greater Manchester during his first term. It's not just because he's a presentable and polished performer in his comfort zone, but without civic and external buy-in the convening power of a uniquely networked role as Mayor can't work. Delivery is never just about the legislated structures, but the ability to make change outside as a convenor of people and groups. Dan Jarvis can't yet click his fingers and pull together a coalition of willing businesses to tackle a compelling local challenge in South Yorkshire, more so for Tracy Brabin who has only just been elected in West Yorkshire. It's not just about building a case for holding up the begging bowl, but understanding where internal alliances within devolved city regions can come together to create improved outcomes and a shared strategy people believe in.

Politics is always a delicate balancing act, especially when dealing with a government as focused on self-preservation as this one. The next phase of Mayors will not be a rerun of the first act, but it has the potential to reshape decision making in this country for good.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Long Live the Regent Cinema Marple

One of our particular local Marple treasures is the Regent Cinema. Since it reopened we've made an effort to go as much as we can. It first operated as a cinema in 1931, and I for one will do everything I can to see it celebrate its centenary.

I hadn't appreciated that the operator of the cinema, David Lillis, had been doing so uninterrupted for 52 years. It is a wonderful, comfortable, time-shifting experience. I learned from the website that since April 2020, David decided to retire from the managerial position and handed the baton over to Edwin Gnanaprkasam. Before taking over as the managing director, Edwin had been learning about the business and assisting David Lillis in the cinema for 5 years since 2014. During this time, he developed an enthusiasm to carry on the legacy. He's doing a great job.

It so deserves your support and totally has ours. 

This is at a time when some aspects of the modern leisure industry seem to be pricing themselves in a whole new category of chiselling and money-grubbing. Chief culprits are Center Parcs, festivals and cinema chains.  You know that it's true when observational comedians are all over the larceny that is pick and mix, popcorn or hot dog prices.

Forgive me then that I get giddy with joy when I buy a perfectly manageable carton of popcorn for a quid at the Regent, and some M&Ms and a can of pop for the same, after parting with no more than a fiver to see a film. Stopping the film in the middle to serve ice cream is also the most civilised thing you can do, just ahead of only charging a quid for a choc ice or a wee tub.

The Guardian did a review of the Regent in 2013 which captures the place very well, that it still feels so welcoming and has the same reliable lovable quirks is a great testimony to how Edwin is doing under David's guidance. But equally, I love too that they've embraced online booking now.

There's a certain type of film that seems very appropriate to the whole experience and target demographic of the place and I reckon "Peak Regent" would be The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Whenever we see a trailer for a film featuring any of the cast from that - Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Dev Patel - we just say, "that'll be on at the Regent".

It's like an extension of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. The closer you get to members of that cast, the more likely it's a Regent type film.

The last two films we saw there were the Cold War epic The Courier, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, then The Last Bus with Timothy Spall. Both were very, very strong central performances. The Last Bus lost its way with some overdone hammy cliches which even The Guardian thought was overblown woke.

But do you know what? I don't care. I've long been of the view that not every book and film or record has to be amazing to be appreciated, sometimes it makes you just think about the process, the integrity, the compromises, the ways in which an artist can learn from one piece of art and make the next one even better, and improve your own critical faculties when you next see something brilliant. 

Long live the Regent.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Sunday rest

Today’s blog is a quick stock take. I’ve genuinely really enjoyed the discipline of writing something substantial every day this month. I’ve even started a bit of a grid to plan posts on working days and to avoid letting current events dominate. Case in point, I’ve not done one about 9/11, even though it had a profound and important impact on my life, as I explained here.

On September the 10th 2001 I looked around the Capitol building in Washington DC, visited Arlington Cemetery and gazed over in awe at the Pentagon building. Without illusions, but with great pride I enjoyed a few days steeped in the best traditions of a multi-cultural democracy. I flew home from Dulles Airport where I may well have been within feet of the murderous crew who hours later were flying the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 to Los Angeles into the Pentagon.

As it’s Sunday, and we’re getting back to normal, I’m in my Mum’s living room in Lancaster, surrounded by love, tea and chicken sandwiches. We’re joined by Sally, my Mum’s best friend, who has been filling my life with laughter since I was born.  If it’s OK, I’m going to get back to them.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

New Order at Heaton Park

Pics by Jim Dyson from New Order on Twitter

That we were part of something magical was apparent way before we even turned the key in the ignition to set off to Heaton Park to see New Order in front of 35,000 grateful, appreciative and adoring fans. Way before.

That we ever doubted it was worth the effort was even more apparent as we sat in the car park at Heaton Park at just around midnight, tired, and not a little emotional, waiting to go home and seeing how so many friends were also there and similarly blissed.

I think I love what New Order routinely create, not because of their obvious and inherent strengths - and there is no better drummer on the planet than Stephen Morris, by the way - but because they make the absolute very best of what they have, within the confines of their own limitations. And today is not the day to be picky about those.

The choice of the setlist last night was pitch-perfect for the setting, the size of the audience, what everyone needed to feel, to hear and to move to. It had something for everyone, touching everything important they've ever done. It was a reminder of a band that knows its audience, knows that standing a few hundred yards back is as deserving of an immersive experience as those who could see the whites of Bernard's knuckles as he played the melodica on Your Silent Face. The lights, the video. Denise Johnson. And Ian.

A guy who stood near us shared a moment during Temptation. It was the song he fell in love with his wife to, but that she's dead now. "And I've never met anyone quite like you before." Oh my.

That was special, extraordinary even. Thank you New Order, thank you, Rachel, Rachael, Neil, Jim, and thank you Manchester. 

Postscript, this from John Robb is great. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Why I'm still proud to call myself a journalist

I was even more excited than usual when I received David Parkin's Friday newsletter today

We'd met up on Tuesday in Stockport and I'd given him the grand tour of my adopted town. He did say it would get a mention in his lively round-up at the week's end.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the headline: "David Parkin meets a true showbiz legend". Aw shucks David, that's too kind, I blushed.

Of course, he didn't mean me. He was talking about meeting Irish comedian Jimmy Cricket last Friday at the Bradford Club.

He did give a very warm account of our trek around Stockport's cobbled streets. Warm, of course, is very much the operative word as we enjoyed the last of our English summer. 

David described me - and thus himself - as "fellow former journalist". In the sense that we aren't editors for well-respect business publications any longer, that description is true. But I enjoy David's company, his writing and his insights precisely because he is very much a journalist, a kindred spirit.

I've just subtly changed my Twitter biog and my LinkedIn description to reflect this sentiment.

I'm working for myself these days - and am available for projects. But the thing that always gives me the most pleasure, the thing I hope I can bring to anything I work on, always comes back to journalism. The importance of a story, the discipline of a structured approach to doing it, and an appreciation of the voices of others. Wrapped around all of that is the cornerstone of being fair and accurate. 

Both my undergraduate dissertation in 1988 and my MSc thesis in 2020 were described as 'journalistic'. On both occasions, it wasn't intended as a compliment, but I'm taking it as one. I'm not an academic, I'm a journalist, who is practising his craft in the academic field. I've done other jobs over the years that haven't been editorial, but the bits that have worked best have been around communicating a story and harnessing a network. Yes, when Neil and I talk between records on Tameside Radio, or when I've written a speech on cyber security and industrial strategy for Peter Mandelson.

I thought the same when I was at Dave Haslam's book launch last night in West Didsbury. Dave has sold his record collection, but it's given him the stimulus to write a short book about it. When I first came across him in the 1980s he was editing a fanzine. He's a classic polymath, skilled and diligent at whatever he does. But he's always been a journalist too and that's a skill he's crafted and a title he's earned.

I'll return to this theme again soon, but in the meantime, as David Parkin says at the end of his peerless weekly missive: Have a great weekend. 

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Live blog - New Statesman conference - Regional Development in the Age of Levelling Up

I'm live blogging today from the New Statesman conference. Opening proceedings is the impressive Michael Heseltine with a keynote address. 

Highlight: He opened by saying how much he regretted getting rid of Metropolitan County Councils in 1986, but praised Greater Manchester's leaders for keeping the practice of them, in the absence of the structure. Manchester too is an example of what real devolution can achieve. He also reminded us that the ambition to reduce the number of councillors and the blockages of local government remains a pressing agenda. He was fairly optimistic and generous about Boris Johnson's recent speech on devolution because it reflects the need for better leadership locally. He ended his formal talk on a more pessimistic note, believing the White Paper on regional devolution is too late to be passed into policy in this parliament. In answer to a question from the audience, he bemoaned the ineffectiveness of business organisations, a subject that has long frustrated me, and how that has impacted the reality of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

A fireside chat with Baroness Verma and Tom Forth from the Open Data Institute highlighted how important digital inclusion is to so many other agendas. I always like Tom's contributions to events and he makes lively observations of everyday life that really bring subjects to life. This time it was about kids jumping on bus company wifi, highlighting the power that comes from access to a scarce resource.

The most impressive and well-articulated contribution to the panel discussion on levelling up was by Lisa Nandy MP. I have heard her before making the same point about how much devolution effort effectively is about getting kids in Wigan better access to the assumed riches in Manchester city centre. Henri Murison from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership said in response that his priority is working to bring high paid jobs to places like Lisa's community, but none of that can happen without the success of a core city (like Manchester). She also made a powerful point about how the social richness and social capital of places is underestimated and misunderstood; their level of ambition isn't matched by government, something we talk about a lot in the People's Powerhouse.

You can't have a regional development conference without a discussion about transport. The talk pivoted around the 'car-based recovery' and the challenge of policy to find another way to get people around. EV charging infrastructure also seems a bit of a mess, patterns of funding aren't clear, with little recognition of how few people can access home charging. My head was turned by hydrogen fuel as a result of working with the team at Manchester Met, a sensible way to fuel buses is a gateway fuel, but I'm disappointed at the lack of knowledge on hydrogen cars amongst policy experts.

Innovation investment starts from the premise that the golden triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and London is a good thing and that we, therefore, need more of them. I took from a pacey and rushed discussion with Lord Bethell that there is more going on in the NHS and in private industry than is possibly given credit. Seamus O'Neill from the Northern Health Science Alliance made the point that the long term commitment to a life sciences cluster in the North requires big system thinking, and its importance can be part of how society matches challenges like global warming, anti-microbial resistance as well as how future viruses can be tackled. 

A common policy theme is how industrial and economic solutions to wider societal issues can solve two problems at once - giving a new sense of purpose and prosperity to a place, but making sure we can quickly reduce carbon and improve health outcomes. Gillian Keegan MP and Henri Murison mentioned this, with Henri making a strong case for Metro Mayors having the resources and levers to deliver skills and investment in their areas. Returning to the theme of sustainable developments, and that lack of joined-up thinking, she cited the failure to harness incentives to create a solar industry a decade ago.

After lunch, the discussion pivoted towards future devolution with a thinker each from both sides of the House, Devolution and Constitution Minister Chloe Smith MP for the Conservatives and Ian Murray MP for Labour. The latter made the point that Levelling Up was pretty thin and not much more than a slogan. Smith made some attempt to define levelling up as spreading opportunity for everyone, not hugely convincingly, or assuaging Heseltine's fear that the timing has slipped. Murray says the English question is now urgent, but that his job is to make it central to Labour's future offer. Obviously, Smith pushed back by saying the government is doing a number of things through the Community Renewal Fund, City Growth Deals, Towns Fund promoting alternative land use, Shared Prosperity Fund as a successor to European Funds, and of course, Levelling Up Funds. All of which adds up to change that people will benefit from, she says.  Here's the issue though, without fiscal devolution it feels like it's all just delegation with strings attached. 

That the pandemic has shone a light on health inequalities, as all the panellists on the next topic agreed, is obvious. But as an earlier speaker pointed out, health outcomes are governed far more by the economic quality of the lives people lead than their local NHS and care services. Both Debbie Abrahams MP (Labour) and Lisa Cameron MP (SNP) were pretty disappointed with the Social Care plan they voted against in parliament yesterday, partly said Abrahams, because of widespread misunderstanding of what public health actually is. Professor Graham Lord from the University of Manchester says the same pushing of resources through the same bodies, local government and public health, and expecting a different outcome won't work. 

The delicate world of running a rural region was put into sharp focus by Cllr Rosemarie Harris, the independent leader of Powys County Council and by the Labour Metro Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Nik Johnson, who admitted he had the advantage of a world-class university, which she did not, nor indeed any HE institution at all. However, it is the potential of an industrially focused institution like Anglia Ruskin in Peterborough that excited him as playing an important partnership with businesses in agri-tech, he said. Powys covers 25% of Wales but has no university, she puts her efforts into working with partners in the neighbouring English county councils and both the Welsh Assembly Government and Westminster. Here's a thought though rural areas have heavier car use, carbon-emitting rural practices, water table damage and it can be very hard to tackle environmental targets. 

My final panel of the day was a lively bounce around skills and development. It's probably an iron rule of policy events that any such discussion has to at some point talk about Germany, but as Toby Perkins MP pointed out if you don't have a German-style economy and deep business engagement in policy, you can't just wish a new system into being. Sellafield's Jamie Reed (an ex MP) said addressing regional inequalities still has to recognise that capital is still hypermobile and places have to be competitive. 

So, that's a wrap. It was a good day to get out and meet people in person again. The New Statesman is on a real roll at the moment. This was a highly impressive conference, way better than their last one in Manchester before the pandemic. I liked how they managed to successfully blend speakers over Zoom with those on the actual stage. I expected far more of them to be remote, including big hitters like Michael Heseltine and Lisa Nandy, who it was good to see in person and working the audience effectively in ways you can’t do through a screen.  

The new redesign of the magazine is very classy and makes huge aesthetic sense. It seems much more in keeping with the literary and intellectual style of the product. The driver for it, as editor Jason Cowley explained, is to work across print and digital more effectively and push the expansion of The New Statesman internationally.  

If I’m being hyper critical, the caricatured bylines of the authors haven’t landed on me yet, but then I have probably just got very comfortable with how they were. Designers know what they are doing with this stuff and I'm sure it will all grow on me, but as ever it's a very well-curated and intelligent experience wherever it lands, and as we discovered today, in the live setting too. 

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Sir Richard Leese, a real one-off

Sir Richard Leese announcing that he's stepping down as leader of Manchester City Council is a genuinely seismic, historic and crucial moment. I doubt we will see his like again.

I've written something for Place North West, but this is a slightly more political take.

As I wrote in my Masters thesis, the road to directly elected Mayors as a new form of devolved government in this country owes a great deal to how Leese and Howard Bernstein settled on Greater Manchester's particular Mayoral model, through negotiating and deal doing, but how none of that would have been possible but for a consistent Manchester narrative, rooted in capacity building and competent statecraft, built up over 30 or more years. 

The right calls. Throughout his twenty-five years as leader, Leese has clearly got more right than he's got wrong. The Commonweath Games of 2002, city-centre living, the tram network. He's consistently put Manchester's agenda way ahead of Labour issues, which in a way has insulated the party in the city from the catastrophe it has endured nationally. In the nineties, he continued - and accelerated - a policy of critical engagement with Conservative governments in order to extract good outcomes. He scoffed at the idea of a directly elected Manchester City Council Mayor, the equivalent of which Liverpool foolishly went for, and I was very pleased to support opposition to that at the time.  I said in the Place piece today that he was uncompromising, which he was, especially in pursuit of Manchester's ambitions. But politics is also all about trade-offs and deals and he was a highly intelligent leader who was able to make more right ones than wrong ones. However...

Some wrong calls. Congestion charging referendum, going balls out on HS2, Piccadilly Gardens, traffic in the city centre, local service delivery, housing shortages. But also optics. Quick anecdote, I worked on a potential new branding for Manchester's innovation district, the area along Oxford Road. It has been saddled with a clunky term 'the Corridor' which a decent amount of research amongst stakeholders there - the universities, the hospital, developers, businesses - was that it was time for it to go. Richard Leese just dismissed any change out of hand and everyone else fell in behind him. It wasn't a hill anyone was prepared to die on, it's just a name, but it is a particularly crap one.

A new world. Honestly, I think the election of Andy Burnham, a charismatic retail politician, to the role of Mayor wasn't the outcome or the system Leese wanted. He'd have preferred someone like the late Lord Peter Smith or Tony Lloyd doing the red carpet stuff while he operated alongside doing the hard work. His amusing takes on the Metro Mayor job before Burnham transformed it, was that it was a bauble, a PR man's job, which is why he wasn't interested.

A hard-working political legacy. If the Labour Party wants to know how to win again, there are probably more lessons to be learned organisationally from Manchester Labour than just a shrug about demographics. As red walls collapse everywhere, they don't in Manchester. Councillor contracts for the Labour group in Manchester require a high contact rate. I saw Councillors in Stockport laugh dismissively at the thought of trying to impose that kind of discipline over here, which is why this is a minority administration and Manchester is dominated by Labour.  There are plenty of areas of Manchester that share the same characteristics as places that have gone UKIP, Brexit and Tory, like Stoke, but sheer political will and work keeps them Labour; Manchester Labour. There's a lesson there.

Brutal. I've seen him in full flow in debates and he absolutely spares no quarter. At times he could be egregiously combative. There's nothing polite, forgiving or tolerant about how he engages with people he doesn't agree with when he sees the stakes as high, though sometimes his blood just gets up. Examples: HS2, congestion charging, left wing virtue signalling. I saw him describe calls for a directly elected Mayor for Yorkshire as 'ridiculous' scoffing that Mayoral Combined Authorities only work for functional economic geographies, and you can't build one around "a brand of tea". 

National Labour issues. Even before I rejoined the Labour Party in 2014 and knew him in my capacity as a journalist I was always interested in his takes on national issues and leaders. He was quite candid with me that he was no fan of Tony Blair even at the height of New Labour, but was quite close to Neil Kinnock. He led a highly personal campaign firmly against the decision of Transport Secretary Alastair Darling to cut funding for Metrolink expansion. He told me he voted for Andy Burnham in the 2010 leadership election, he spoke at the rally I chaired for Caroline Flint's deputy leadership campaign in 2015, and shared my view that she should have stood for leader. He was no fan of Corbyn's mob, but I was a bit taken aback when he warmly introduced John McDonnell as the 'future Chancellor of the Exchequer in the next Labour government' at a Remain event in 2016.

A successor. My hunch is the next leader of the City Council will be one of the 50 or so women councillors that Richard has supported and encouraged to step up in the male and pale world of local politics. I can't claim to know a great deal about the personal loyalties across the group - and that's who elects their leader - but I personally really rate Bev Craig (statutory deputy) and know people are urging her to step forward. Failing that, Luthfur Rahman, the current deputy leader, will fancy himself as a strong candidate too. 

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Back to live, back to reality - Richard Hawley at the Piece Hall in Halifax

We're all supposed to be reminding ourselves what it feels like to be normal and human again. You will no doubt be reading blogs and news pieces about the return to the office, about how town centre retail is busy again, and how we're experiencing different social spaces.

Last weekend we went to our first live concert since forever. I had to pause and think when the last gig was, and I genuinely can't be arsed to look it up, to be honest, but it was in 2019. I feel now, more than ever, that I was sleepwalking through life. I was passing opportunities by, saying no to things that we would enjoy, missing out on good times with friends that I so easily thought could be put off until another day. I think we've all been reminded there might well not be another day. Something else could so easily come along and strip us of all these opportunities to be human. 

Let's get the obvious out of the way first. We saw Richard Hawley and John Grant at the Piece Hall in Halifax, a gorgeous open space that on a warm late summer evening felt like a Tuscan hill fort. You couldn't have asked for a better setting. I watched the whole operation unfolding around us, the people putting the stage together, the musicians, the people selling stuff, and just could have wept for how uncertain their life has been over the last two years, being unable to do what they do so well. The audience, for the most part (more later) were nice middle aged people experiencing, like us, that first tentative step into the reset of reality, of life as it's meant to be lived, not cooped up at home. 

We missed Stephen Fretwell (my fault), but John Grant was as emotionally raw and beautifully honest as I would have expected. Richard Hawley too, cool, effortless, humble. He was just viscerally, creatively brilliant. I could honestly not have scripted a better return to the live experience. I think he checked himself before he burst into Tonight the Streets Are Ours and spotted the profound relevance of what he was about to sing to us all:

Do you know why you got feelings in your heart? 

Don't let fear of feeling fool you 

 What you see sets you apart 

 And there's nothing here to bind you 

 It's no way for life to start

The writer Eamonn Forde has come up with some good suggestions for new rules about live music on the Music Business Worldwide website. It's a good indication of how we're all going to have to ease into this new reality. I dare say New Order this Friday at Heaton Park will be a bit different.

There was a guy standing near us who clearly enjoyed being back. He looked like a nice bloke who would no doubt enliven any party, especially with a couple of beers in him, and maybe I was forgiving of him because he looked a bit like the Blackburn Rovers player Bradley Dack. All the way through John Grant, and then Richard Hawley, he cackled away, roaring with laughter and taking up a lot of space, entertaining his friends with jokes and quips. After about an hour into Hawley's set I spotted that another bloke's patience had snapped. He had Dacky by the lapels and was telling him in no uncertain terms to dial it down. After that, an awkward stillness descended. I felt a bit sorry for him as he smiled at his friends, who also looked a bit sheepish at having contributed to the buzz, but saw Mr Centre of Attention had copped for a dressing down. At the same time, I was pleased that someone (not me) was prepared to police the boundaries of behaviour with nothing more than a bit of verbals.

We're stepping into new terrain; life feels brittle enough as it is. I hope we manage to hold it all together as best we can, to be tolerant, considerate and happy.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Groundhopping at Radcliffe, a grand day out with Sam and Big Al

In 1977 my Dad gave me a football book that probably changed the way I feel about the game. Called Journey to Wembley, it's a story of the FA Cup, round by round, starting at Tividale in the West Midlands, and ending up at Wembley to witness Tommy Docherty's Manchester United denying Liverpool a historic treble, with the European Cup to follow just a few days later.

I can still remember reading about the grievances of locals in Tividale, annoyed that more cars than usual arrived to watch Geoff Hurst's Telford. The eye for detail, and the observation about everything else that goes on in and around a matchday, fascinated me and probably played a big part in pushing me in the direction of sociology and journalism.  

But I also remember asking my Dad how Brian James knew that starting this path in Tividale would lead to Wembley. I think he just smiled and suggested I work it out for myself. 

On Saturday me and my friend Sam took advantage of the international break to start on our own Wembley trail at Radcliffe v Skelmersdale Town in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup. It was hastily arranged, we probably won't follow through to even the next round, but it's at least planted a few seeds for a daft idea.

We're both in 'say yes and try something new' mode, in pretty much every area of our lives. One of them was to try and see random sporting events and he fancied joining me on some groundhopping. We picked Radcliffe because I've never been before, so can tick it off the list as ground number 162, but also because our mate Alan "Man About" Townley is a director there and we thought we'd turn up and surprise him. 

The game was pretty one-sided once Radcliffe got to grips with Skem's two best players. A late goal in each half was all the scoreboard says separated the two sides, but Radcliffe were good for the win, especially attacking downhill on the sloping pitch in the second period. The win, by the way, was worth £2,250 to Radcliffe, who now face a trip to Mossley in the next round on the 18th of September.

It's a quirky little ground with the only seating areas situated behind the goal and the pitch is on a bit of a gradient from one end to the other. We watched the first half between the dugouts, picking up what the coaches say, then watched the second half from behind the goal where Radcliffe kept up a constant attacking barrage for the final half an hour. Conveniently, we were next to the scoreboard, which Sam pointed out is better than the one at Old Trafford. When I go on my own I love listening to the characters and the comments of the fans, players and coaches at games like this. When I go with a friend it's a slightly different experience, taking it all in, but actually having time for a really lovely conversation with disparate micro dramas going on around us; kids jibbing in, security staff chucking them out, banter from the terraces, and of course seeing the raw frustration and occasional joy on the players' faces from such a close vantage point. 

Thanks to top Tameside blogger Stuart Valentine there's a delightful absolute beginners guide to watching Greater Manchester non-league football here. It's a good reference to show me I'm only 5 grounds away from having every Greater Manchester ground at level 8 and above ticked off. Here's to more days like these, even though we might not get all the way to Wembley, or even Mossley. 

As an amusing postscript, when we got into Manchester afterwards for a mooch about, we found this mural at the back of the Printworks for the charity Forever Manchester, included on it is Captain Manchester, the good deed doing superhero character created by Sam, and next to him was the late Bernard Manning, who's son was chairman of Radcliffe until 2017. 


Sunday, September 05, 2021


There are a dozen things I could write about today, at least. 

Having had such a busy weekend, seen people, done more in two days than we had in two years. So it seems appropriate to take a bit of a step back. In the course of the last half hour, scrolling social media as I come around to start a busy Sunday, I’m reminded of one of the 32 habits suggested in Natasha Jones’ book Mandemic, reminding yourself every day to be grateful for what you have, to properly pause and tally up. 

Life can be hard, things pile up, challenges seem insurmountable. Many people suffer the Sunday Scaries; worrying about the week ahead before the weekend is even over. 

A friend seeing our posts from an incredible Richard Hawley concert last night makes a beautiful complimentary comment about us that is humbling and sad, especially from someone I hold in such high regard. But we all wear a mask to some extent, projecting the best version of ourselves. 

The last thing I’d ever want to do is flaunt a perfectionist profile that forced a comparison. But here’s the point: more than anything I feel grateful today. For all of it. It doesn’t feel right for me to list what that is, but I’d just love for everyone to take time today to just be grateful, to give thanks, to embrace it, channel it, don’t backdate it. I will if you will.

And at a time when I've never felt as disconnected from faith and truth and God, I'll go to church to use that hour to try and give thanks.

 And thank you, whoever you are, for reading this.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Fitness regime - a change of speed, a change of style

I wrote, here, a darkly confessional piece about negative body image and my progress on my own fitness journey. 

Since then I had a few back twinges, shoulder aches, and I was worried I wasn't making as much progress on my abs as I would have liked. 

A couple of things have changed.

Firstly, Rachel has joined me on the daily workouts, has accelerated her own progress and has joined MyGym in Hazel Grove, working regularly with my personal trainer pal Steve Hoyles. I've supported Steve's new gym since he started and have been enjoying going there, it's a lovely environment to train in, and a step up on the weights I shift.

Secondly, those basic routines have had to change.

I went to Marple Physio with the back problem and came away a bit shocked at how I was on the edge of damaging myself in a few ways. 

When I was a kid I used to be quite good at swimming and my stroke of choice was backstroke, but the abdominal action accelerated a hernia. Because of my obsession with improving my abs, I was at risk again of another hernia or a rupture to the stomach wall. I must admit I was really fed up to hear that, but I would be even more upset if I wasn't able to go on a Freshwalks because I'd had a back spasm, which I was in real danger of having. 

Luckily, I was booked in with Leonie Fitzgerald, who really knows what she's doing. The progress I've made since has been remarkable. Both the repair to my sore back, and the strengthening of my core and the impact on my abs. I so rate physios, by the way, they seem to be able to spot the slightest things and impressively diagnose cause and effect. 

The routine she prescribed that has absolutely changed everything is pilates. I must admit I'd never really given it much thought, I just assumed it was a bit like yoga (it is, to be fair). Although I don't throw myself around like I do with High-Intensity Interval Training where I would bang out the sit-ups and the crunches, the breathing and holding movements have been awesome (and exhausting).

Life comes at you fast. I do still love the endorphin burst, the fact that I can push on up the hills and fells with very little trouble. And I like that I look better too, I'm not going to lie about that. As we eased out of lockdown, I played football again. Once. I really liked how my stamina held up for the hour, but I was really worried about getting injured. It was an old fellahs five-a-side, and everyone was dead sensible, but the next day my left Achilles was quite swollen. Scoring a wondergoal, or threading a pass, just isn't worth it if I then miss a Kinder sunset.

It's a reminder why we do this, why we push ourselves and how it makes us feel.