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.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 - I've had a great year thanks

In the Spring of 1992 Labour lost an election, Rovers looked like blowing their promotion push and I was single and skint. I sat in the pub around the corner from work before heading out on a US trip to cover a trade show, which I was mildly dreading, and one of our grumpy subs told me to pull myself together and that these things didn't matter, life goes on. To a 25-year old in London it really felt like the worst of times. The following week, while in Las Vegas, where things went better than I feared, I heard the devastating news that my dear friend Julie had been murdered in New Orleans.

Nothing could ever make right what happened to Julie, nothing ever has, but as regarding the other things - they really didn't matter. Life did go on, but if I learnt anything that summer it was that there are some things you can control, take responsibility for and change and some things you can't. You also can't do it on your own. I realised how much I loved my friends and family. I went on to make many more catastrophic mistakes and rode with the highs and lows of life with all its relative triumphs and disasters.

So, to 2016. I look back as everyone does and think of Trump and Brexit and Corbyn and Venky's. I read back through this blog and it occurs to me that because it focuses on Rovers and Labour then it must seem like I live my life in a perpetual state of existential disappointment. I really don't. There is so much more to life than what we choose to display on the surface.

Well, this time last year I was sizing up a new start and a new job at Manchester Metropolitan University. I've enjoyed it more than I dared to dream. It's made me realise how much I appreciate smart people, new challenges and a strong sense of mission. Same with the two businesses I'm on the board of - Liberty won SIPP provider of the year and New Charter Housing crowned a year of resilience with an honour for our chief executive Ian Munro.

Beyond that this has been a momentous year for our peer group from back in 1992 - we've hit 50, John and Rachel Dixon had a tremendous party in July, Chris's stag hike and wedding were joyous occasions. As was my own special day with my Rachel watching New Order and then having a day with my parents, sister and family.

So, do have a happy new year. Things can get better. Some things matter and others are more in the background than we probably appreciate.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Barnsley away - the tipping point for Owen Coyle

Our pre-match prediction ritual sees us each have a stab at the score. We all thought Rovers would lose 3-2 today. It would have been the fourth such score in a row. As it was, it would actually have been a pretty fair result.

Barnsley worked out our weaknesses and used what they had to beat us. No problem with that.

But once again this season Rovers looked like the parts just don't fit together properly. As the remaining 10 players left the pitch, a few people screamed the cry of the angry - "you're not fit to wear the shirt". I don't agree with that. It wasn't for lack of effort that we lost the game, but that the team is set out all wrong, they aren't fit enough and substitutions only serve to disrupt what cohesion the team has. Charlie Mulgrew looked decent in both positions, but his excellent long weighted passes found the two players least able to outpace and weave past a defence to score. Had Sam Gallagher been played in the position he excels - centre forward - the chance of a goal would have been far greater.

Inevitably much of the post-match discussion has centred on the fans who gave the manager a hard time at the end of the game. Owen Coyle has never been liked by the fans, but this was the first game I've been to where the hatred was fully vented. Make no mistake, he's always been on a sticky wicket, but a fourth straight defeat on top of everything else we've seen over the last five years isn't likely to prompt any other response than anger. His response in the post-match interview was that they came "with their own agenda". Oh dear.  In an answer straight out of the Jerome Anderson playbook he tried to isolate the most vocal fans from the rest. It's hardly as if fans protesting against the owners are new, nor is it likely that 1400 people would fork out £23 each and travel on a cold Bank Holiday because they're plotting a new sinister agenda that means they'll fail to support their team if we were to score, or heaven forbid, to win.

This isn't going to end well for anyone. Under any other circumstances Coyle would be on his way out by now. The only thing likely to ease the hostility towards the owners is either a winning streak, or a manager to absorb all that frustration. But as we've been here before under these wretched Venkys, the circus of the absurd just rolls on.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dear Rovers, sorry, but I'm not not coming on Saturday, I'm sick of you

Dear Rovers,

I'm not not coming on Saturday, I've had enough of you.

Put it this way, Brighton and Hove Albion are top of the league and therefore the best team in the Championship right now. Trouble is, on the evidence of last night, I thought they were bang average. Player for player they weren't that much better than Blackburn Rovers. They were better enough though, and on the night a few players of ours had real stinkers - Evans (just had a rotten game), Marshall (body language and attitude all wrong), Steele (at fault for the third goal), Greer (for getting sent off). Add to that - Emnes made no impact, Gallagher was wasted on the wing.

The difference almost every week is courage and strategy. Once again last night, faced with a Brighton midfield standing there being midfield players, Jason Lowe, Corry Evans, Hope Akpan and Ben Marshall did what they must have practiced in training every night, they turned backwards, or passed it sideways. It wasn't even what you would describe as a pressing game. But logic surely dictates that if you are going to foresake the hoof up to the forwards and play through the middle, you will at some point have to take a player on, or make a forward pass.

And frankly, when Liam Feeney is the answer, it must have been a stupid question.

Rovers, I am sick of it. I really can't face it this Saturday, and the 10,345 crowd you will announce for the home game against Reading will actually not include the three seats we won't be occupying.

Hope you win, see you at Barnsley.

Monday, December 12, 2016

This is the day

Make a diary note, get out the popcorn and get ready for the change.

A year from now, the 12th of December 2017, Labour will have closed the gap on the Conservatives in the polls, Jeremy Corbyn will be on course for 10 Downing Street.

It's true, Diane Abbott and Ken Livingstone have said so yesterday. A 17 point lead isn't acceptable and it will have to change. It's a marker, an ambition, a hope, but it's also a threat.

These things aren't coincidences. Two close allies like that don't come out with things like this randomly.

But really? It's not just that the gap will be narrowed. It will be closed.

Honestly, do you really think that's going t happen? No, me neither. Corbyn will limp on as ineptly and as dismally as he has since he was elected. The only difference is the Parliamentary Labour Party will let him get on with it. The polls won't narrow, if anything they will widen. He will then be under pressure. But the PLP won't be the ones to wield the axe, for the most part they are currently playing a safe strategy, or as Andrew Rawnsley called it a "shut up strategy" shoring up Labour's base in their constituencies, circulating ideas to renew social democracy - examples include Chuka Umunna and Alison McGovern's paper on the economy.

There's a realisation across the party that he's here to stay, that the leadership challenge merely strengthens Corbyn, gives him a purpose to define himself by what he's against, rather than having to actually come up with anything meaningful on his own.

A putsch will come then, and the marker is down. I don't know whether Abbott means it or not when she says he will prevail. But the moves will be from within the clique of Abbott, McDonnell and Livingstone. They will realise what is so obvious, Corbyn is a liability, even by their narrow standards. He won't be given the chance to own his own electoral failure, but don't for one moment think I believe this is in any way a disaster from which Labour can recover.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Me and my Dad at Deepdale, 1972 - 2016

The crowd around Deepdale was excitable for the derby game, boisterous rather than violent, beer had been drunk, the police were very much in evidence. After an incident where rowdy fans blocked the view when they should have been more considerate, family duties being what they are, the father and son moved to a safer spot for a better view. The role of protector requires wisdom, experience, but more than anything a firm desire to make this experience a treasured one, placing comfort and enjoyment of the match ahead of a desire to bounce around with the lads.

My Dad could have written that about taking the 6 year old me to Deepdale for Preston North End v Burnley in April 1973, my first ever match. As it is, I'm writing today after taking him, aged 72, to see the Rovers. We missed the first goal, due to boozy young lads blocking the gangway, so moved, just as we shifted to the front in 1973 when North End fans flooded onto the pitch to celebrate the goal that ultimately kept them up (pictured).

We've shared so many memories of watching football together over the years - there's a link here about my 20 strongest football memories - but as Rovers have got worse, and as Dad's got older, we've been to fewer games together.

Before the game Dad explained to his North End supporting pals that we used to come to Deepdale, but I chose Rovers. I shuffled from foot to foot as I would being introduced to a girl I used to go out with in my school days. Not shame at having caused hurt, or embarrassment, just a shrug and a look as if to say 'it's not you, it's me'. That was then, and this is now.

Running my Dad through the unrecognisable Rovers team yesterday I quoted Jim Wilkinson's description of Jason Lowe and Corry Evans:

They are the generic, faceless, run-around-a-lot but contribute-little, jobbing 21st century huffers and puffers who will leave no indelible mark whatsoever on the memory save for the pub-quiz moments when they contrived to score their once/twice a decade goals. 

Keep your eyes on Graham though, he's a poacher, a cut above, I said. The ball can stick to Emnes' feet if he gets the chance, Williams is a decent defender. Both our centre halves are playing out of position, Charlie Mulgrew's getting better, I hope he stays fit, I said. Liam Feeney wouldn't have got in the Rovers Full Members Cup Final side we watched lift the trophy in 1987, let alone the Wrexham team we saw draw with Roma in 1984.

We know how it worked out. Rovers are a team with goals in them, but are a couple of players short and lack a proper game plan.

Before the game all the songs were about Burnley, obsessively, defiantly so. As if to say to Preston, we don't care about you. "What do this lot think of having an ex-Burnley manager in charge?" my Dad asked.

At the final whistle, with him long gone back to meet his lift back to Lancaster and me reunited with my teenage lads, I saw the response to Owen Coyle as he made an attempt to applaud the travelling fans. Put it this way, it's not language I'd use in front of my Dad.