Saturday, January 30, 2010

Supporting Blair on Iraq

There's an assumption about Tony Blair and his appearance before the Chilcot enquiry that you cannot hold any possible opinion other than the one that says he was a liar and a war criminal and Bush's poodle.

I don't hold that view, indeed any of those views. In 2003, for what it's worth, I supported the invasion of Iraq for the purpose of removing an evil tyrant from power. Saddam Hussein was a beast who ruled his country through fear and who had used weapons of mass destruction against the Kurds and had invaded Kuwait. The great tragedy of the first Gulf intervention was the failure to finish the job.

Like most supporters of the invasion I hoped the removal of Saddam would not have been followed by such bloodshed, obviously, naively, perhaps. Recall too that it was not the British and Americans who were planting bombs in markets or cutting heads off and broadcasting it on the internet. It was the work of blood thirsty death cults that took their butchery to Iraq. It was also the Shia militias of Najaf, Basra and Sadr City who caused such mayhem thanks to their sponsorship by the Iranian government.

That there was unsufficient preparation for the aftermath is without question now. But the basis for the invasion remains. I'm less clear on the real purpose of the Chilcot enquiry. As Martin Kettle says here there are places where a show trial is what is really wanted: "Just as during the Hutton inquiry, there is a demand, often media-led, for a simplistic version of events that is simply not supported by the evidence as a whole."

And forget not the bravery of Iraqis who voted in greater proportions than we did in their election of 2005, and this in the teeth of intimidation, not just the apathy and cynicism we have to overcome. Think too of those who want a better future of peace and security.

But some core thoughts remain about the conventional wisdom that has come to pass for a consensus on Iraq.

Firstly, more people than care to admit it held that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Even Saddam Hussein believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Who would dare tell him the infrastructure of his rag bag regime was crumbling around him?

Secondly, due to the rotten state of the crumbling and corrupt state, was it not inevitable that the time would have been up for the regime anyway? And such was the depth of fear and violence that the Ba'athists, the Islamists of Fallujah, the Shia militias and the tribal chiefs would have been in a state of civil war whatever the trigger for the change. Put another way, heartbreaking though Iraq's situation was from 2005 to 2008, was the suffering of Iraq inevitable?

Thirdly, this was not a war for oil. Iraq could and should be a wealthy country because it has such reserves of oil, but the contracts have been auctioned off and the winners have been French, Russian, Malaysian and Angolan. There's more on this here from Christopher Hitchens.

Fourthly, Fraser Nelson in the Spectator this week says the real failure was to "look the other way" in Basra and concede control to the Shiite thugs.

And finally, there's a lot of sophistry and mock indignation about all of this, as Denis McShane says here. The lack of support and running for cover by senior civil servants and cabinet members is woeful and cowardly. At least Robin Cook had the courage to resign. And through all of the conflict Gordon Brown was nowhere to be seen. What will he say when he appears before the enquiry? At least Blair has been consistent.

Make your own David Cameron poster

Here's mine:

Here are some others.

Do your own here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

University challenge

This blog isn't about work and so it shouldn't be about other professional concerns of mine. Discretion and confidentiality are important. I've joined the General Assembly of the University of Manchester, where I studied for 3 years in the 1980s. So, I'm not reporting on today's meeting at the Whitworth Art Gallery, nor am I telling you what a hugely entertaining lecture Dr Brian Cox delivered afterwards.

What I will do however is pay a fleeting tribute to Professor Alan Gilbert. He is retiring as President and Vice Chancellor for health reasons. He has been a towering figure for the merged university. He has given the whole place a sense of focus and ambition to be a great seat of learning. There has been scant attention given to this important figure in public life, save for a rather mean spirited piece here.

Manchester muscial deniers

I don't endorse this site here, but there is a lot of anger and emotion going into the destruction of lazy myth making in Manchester's musical hinterland.

Ring my Bell

Podcasting is a lot of fun. And given that my first attempt at doing one recently was, er, a bit rough around the edges, I can but take consolation that we're going to get better and better.

The Word podcast is just great and is so much better than when I first discovered it. I look forward to new ones with such enthusiasm now. This morning I very much enjoyed listening to David Hepworth interviewing Idris Elba, the English actor who played Stringer Bell in The Wire. There's a link here. Or you may be able to make this player thing work below.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Talking about Blackburn Rovers

Had a good laugh on Saturday taking part in a Blackburn Rovers podcast with a couple of enterprising chaps - Stuart Grimshaw and Jon Hindle. We did it over Skype, which in itself was a new experience for me. I suspect this has effected the quality of my contribution. The link is here.

I've also found a Rovers blog - Rovers Return - from a lad called Dan Clough. Permanent link is opposite too.

It's all intelligent stuff. If you want moronic nonsense, there's the Lancashire Telegraph messageboard.

Shameful Burns Night display in Tesco

Tesco are encouraging shoppers to embrace Burns Night with sales of haggis, Scottish cheese and super strength Tenants. Shocking. I mean, where's the Buckfast?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Very confidential now

Website Manchester Confidential has just even more confidential. From now on certain content will only be accessible from behind a paywall. It's not expensive - £3 a month, but it's a brave move and one fraught with complexities.

Some people really don't like the new look, like blogger David Quinn, here, who describes it as "nauseating".

George Dearsley, commenting on David's blog has another concern: "I have serious doubt’s about Mark Garner’s business model, which turns traditional media on its head. How has this affected what advertisers pay him (or DO they pay?) now? The number of eyeballs falling on ManCon’s pages is fewer, so their ad revenues will surely shrink drastically. He needs a lot of subscriptions to pay for the content and I just don’t see it. I think it might be like watching an iceberg melt with time lapse camerawork. But then they probably told Christopher Columbus he was an idiot for trying to sail to the “New World”."

I don't think it's just about the numbers, or whether anyone wants to read my review of Pizza Express, by the way. It's also about the unique offers that membership can give to subscribers that they couldn't get elsewhere. That's going to be the hard part. But good luck to them.

Time flies by when you're the spotter of a train

Trainspotting. No, not the film, but the much mocked activity of writing down the numbers of trains you have seen in service. It's one of those activities that is now associated with grubby men at the end of Crewe station platform with gadgets and anoraks. Back in the 1970s it seemed most of my mates were ardent spotters. Even though we missed the age of steam by a few years it was an obsession of the young. We had a Railway Society at school, but much more fun were unofficial trips which would be taken to sheds at Derby, Crewe, Wigan and Carlisle to try and spot rare diesels. Guerilla raids would be made on hard to reach depots like Toton in the East Midlands to see the engines that only worked goods lines. Incredible times.

I always felt I missed out because I'd never seen a class 76 Electric which ran on a back line between Manchester and Sheffield. I now see the old electric gantries every day on the line between Guide Bridge and Piccadilly.

At different times all of our boys have really liked trains, which has been good fun and a focus for trips to York and to the East Lancashire Railway. Suffice to say, I have not complained.

And why the nostalgia for this today? We're down to just the one child this weekend. I asked Elliot what he'd like to do with this special Daddy and Mummy time, coaxing him towards a trip to Ramsbottom to step onto the footplate of a Black 5 steamer. His response: "No thanks, Dad."


My mate.... Jane Wolstenholme #4 in a series

And a random shuffle of my address book today pops out... Jane Wolstenholme. I first got to know Jane, properly, in 2006 when me, Rachel, Jane and her husband Jon Brown got sloshed together at the Grand National as guests of United Utilities. Oh, for the days when conservative PLCs did things like entertainment for journalists.

Back then Jane was editor of the Liverpool Daily Post, the youngest person to hold that position. She's since become a successful chick lit novelist under the name Jane Costello. I've read Bridesmaids, her first, and liked it a lot. She's got an easy style and a good ear for how middle class northern people communicate and think. She's currently working on her 4th novel; the third is due out soon, preview here. But why the name change? Apparently it's easier to get noticed on bookshelves the earlier in the alphabet you are. I'll take her word for it, but has anyone told Tom Wolfe?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thoughts of Icarus

On Wednesday I interviewed Nigel Wray, a big hitting business guy, live on stage. It was at a terrific event called RAW 2010. His analysis of the banking crisis conjured up the image of Icarus - he who flew too close to the sun. It gave me a chance to say this: "If you get it, great. If you don't, that's fine too. But you should probably read more."

If you get that, great. If you don't, that's fine too. But watch this again.

Four goals

So, Blackburn Rovers contribute four goals to the Thriller at the Villa. On balance, I'm proud and pleased we had a go. Would it have been better if each of the four goals had been scored in the games against Stoke, Hull, Liverpool and Wigan? If we had, we'd be 9th. Big deal.

But what did I say? Wingers, Kalinic, Olsson, play football. Easy see.

On with the old, and in with the new

Paul Weller and Bruce Foxton are playing together again, according to the NME, but there's no chance of a reunion. Drummer Rick Buckler left From The Jam last year, which always had a hollow feel without Weller. I enjoyed seeing them the once, but enough already.

On other musical news I tried some of the tips I got from Marple Leaf readers. Piccadilly Records top band of 2009 The Phantom Band, were, I concluded, nothing special. One of their other high fliers however - The Xx - are much better. Bold tunes and lots of atmosphere.

I've also downloaded a few tracks by Delphic. I'm hugely delighted that they are 3 lads from Marple Bridge and were placed third in the BBC’s Sound of 2010 list.

And though I defended the Twang from abuse I did laugh out loud at the new podcast. Steve Lamacq was asked who he has seen who didn't make it and deserved to, and who made it who was rubbish. The Twang were in the last category: "I was told to expect Mike Skinner fronting Oasis and got Frank Skinner fronting Flowered Up." Link to more here.

Jimmy Burns and his Dad

You can't beat a tale of daring from the 1930s and 1940s. There's a link here to an event I wasn't able to go to last night - Jimmy Burns talking about his Dad, a British spy in wartime Spain. He's written a book about it based on detailed research, because, bizarrely, his Dad didn't talk about it much.

If it's anything like his book on Maradona, it should be a cracking read.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Nice surprises

I've had a few nice surprises this week.

Went to Manchester City on Monday night as guests of, er, Manchester City. Although the football (from Rovers) was awful, the food was good, it was great to catch up with friends and our lovely comfy seats were warmed.

We've found a new babysitter.

Lunched at the Panoramic restaurant in Liverpool on Tuesday with some interesting people. The view across Liverpool was amazing, the food was terrific, but these gourmet lunches don't really fill you do they?

Met the newly born daughter of my friend Lisa. What a bonny baby.

On Thursday night I left my mobile phone on the roof of my car. I turned out of Bloom Street, into Minshull Street and was about to turn left onto Aytoun Street when a couple tapped on my window and handed it to me. It's a sign of the regeneration of the area that they didn't rob it. But isn't that lovely?

At Rovers on Thursday I arrived a bit late due to heavy traffic. My seat in the Jack Walker Upper was in the middle of a row which would have required several well-upholstered men to stand and make way. The steward shrugged his shoulders and pointed my way to the posh comfy seats.

Although this blog is resolutely not about work, I can report we had a phenomenally brilliant breakfast event on Friday morning to launch a next generation fibre network in Manchester. It was wonderful to be there at the start of something very special.

And on Friday a design agency called Music sent me a book. It is really quite breathtaking. Like opening a box of sweets with all your favourites in and not quite knowing where to look next. Extraordinary.

Blackburn Rovers - the nightmare scenario, part one

I like to think of myself as a "glass half full" person. But I am profoundly gloomy about Blackburn Rovers at the moment, so much so, I am starting to have bad dreams. In a nutshell the problem is the long ball, hoof and hope, one-up front style of football the team has been playing.
  1. It alienates the creative players - Benni McCarthy and Franco di Santo are not Kevin Davies-style target men, MGP is not Rory Delap, Steven N'Zonzi is too frail to be a Patrick Viera. Enough, I'm depressing myself again.
  2. It is unattractive to watch - crowds are down, enthusiasm is low.
  3. And most of all: it doesn't work.
It seems to me that Sam Allardyce is already dug in for a relegation fight. Chances are we will stay up - which will then feel like a positive outcome. But where is the ambition to strive further? Reaching a semi-final didn't feel great. And playing Nicola Kalinic on his own up front against Aston Villa at home was another failed tactic that stunk of negativity.

Is this all we fans deserve? Is a small town club destined for this kind of fare in order to stay in The Best League In The World? I'd hope not. I'd hope we demonstrated in the Hughes and Souness years that a bit of creativity, togetherness and strong board support could produce a decent team that captured the imagination and support of the fan base.

The first nightmare I have had is for a foreign takeover. But rationally, there is *no* prospect of a takeover at all. None. The Walker family trustees want to sell up, but Jack Walker stated in his last will and testament that everything shall be done to preserve the long term future of the club. You only have to look at Portsmouth, West Ham, Derby, Liverpool and Manchester United to understand the risks involved in taking the silver dollar of wealthy foreign investors looking for an ego-purchase. No thanks.

You only have to look around at the owners of Bolton and Wigan to know that there are limits to the generosity of a rich benefactor in this new world order. You only have to look at the owners of Preston and Burnley to see what happens when the fortunes of a wealthy fan take a turn for the worse. The same outcome applies: there is no money to splurge, and to do so on the never-never would be folly.

All I hope now is we get lucky in the transfer window: get shut of some dead wood like Pedersen and Diouf, concede that McCarthy off the wage bill is better than him failing to deliver. Get a strong midfield player in who isn't injury prone (like Dunny and Grella), and play with wingers and a holding forward (Beattie?) who can provide some tap ins for the ever-improving Kalinic. Olsson looks better, by the way. Chimbonda has quality in that position. And our defenders are not, bizarrely, our defensive problem. It's lack of protection from a fragile midfield.

But more than anything else a very real nightmare haunts me and it is this: Owen Coyle, requiring leeway to remould his Bolton team into footballers offloads Kevin Davies to us. Please, no.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Magic of the Cup

I predicted that Liverpool would win the FA Cup. Oh dear.

Well done Reading.

Surviving Survivors

There is considerable expectation about post-apocalyptic drama at the moment. There's the film of Cormac McCarthy's The Road out at the moment, the Book of Eli coming soon. Having blogged about good TV drama yesterday, it was a rude awakening to have to sit through last night's Survivors on BBC1.

The story was slow, plodding and ponderous. The look of it was poor too: it had really crap CGI, loads of close up interior shots betraying its low budget. Only until the last five minutes did you get any of the group tension that made the last series worth watching. The lingering subplot about the bad guys in the lab with their army of black clad soldiers and Inspector Chisholm from Minder in a videolink in a suit and tie - come on! Get on with it!

The supporting cast were weak actors too. And maybe I'm picking hairs, but do all white working class male characters in BBC drama have to be violent scumbags? And all black males neurotic outsiders?

Apart from that it was ace.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

TV drama at its best

There is a worthy stab at a top 50 TV dramas list in the paper today, here.

Most of my favourites are on it: The Wire (14), State of Play (9), Our Friends in the North (3), Twin Peaks (12) and The Sopranos (1).

And here are some that weren't, but should have been:

One Summer (Channel 4, 1983)
Johnny Jarvis (BBC, 1984)
Between the Lines (BBC, 1994)
Holding On (BBC, 1997)
Cold Feet (Granada, late 1990s)
Spooks (BBC, 2002-present)
NYPD Blue (Fox, 1994)
ER (ABC, 1994)

Anyway, it's only telly, eh?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Get a job you like!

Given how many children we have it's not uncommon for us to ferry one or more of our clan to a birthday party of one of their pals on any given weekend. We've been to football parties, fun palaces (the worst), bowling, cinema, swimming, go-karts, gymnastics, discos in church halls, old fashioned 'at homes' and even a horse riding party for a 6 year old (surprisingly fun, despite my deep loathing of horsey people).

This is not going to be a blog about pushy parents and competitive parties - I don't pick up much of that round here. But I'm more often than not shocked at the lack of generosity of spirit from those in the business of running special days for kids.

Fun palace staff are the worst. Miserable buggers, all of them. Get a job you like!

Then today Rachel witnessed a proper dust up between a parent and the Go-Kart man at a party. We've hired this same bloke for Matt's 6th and he was good, the exception to my emerging rule. But then we only had six kids at our party to share the 4 Go-Karts. Today there were 18 - so some organisation had to go into who could race and when. One kid forfeited his race because he needed a wee. Cue Mum going off on one, with some justification.

For the climax the birthday boy had to pick 8 mates for the run off. Stressful enough for a 6 year old, but more so when the bloke said under his breath - "get a move on, I haven't got all day".

If it was a scene out of Phoenix Nights you would scoff that it was unbelievable.

Holiday in Cambodia

There's a strange tale in the Observer magazine today by Andrew Anthony, here. It concerns the fate of a British academic called Malcolm Caldwell murdered in Pol Pot's Cambodia.

Caldwell was a political tourist in Cambodia there to observe what he thought was the creation of the perfect communist society. He was somewhat blind to the mass killing and torture that underpinned a paranoid and ideological state. It's a grisly tale where Andrew returns to a number of themes he touched on in his excellent book Fall Out - How a Guilty Liberal Lost His Innocence.

Notably: "The link between Marxist-Leninist ideology and communist terror has never been firmly established in the way that we understand Nazi ideology to have led inexorably to Auschwitz."

As an aside, anarchist rockers Crass made the same point in what is possibly their only decent track, Bloody Revolutions, the lyrics of which are in Love Songs, a collection of poems and lyrics published by Pomona, here. "Transportation details will be left to British Rail, where Zyklon B succeeded North Sea Gas will fail." etc etc

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Music obscura

The wonderful Ian Wolfendale distributed multiple copies of the Piccadilly Records End of Year Review around the office on Monday. There's a link to the web version here. It is a lovingly produced and, in places, a brilliantly written piece of musical history worth savouring. I regret to say I hardly recognised anything. Music can really pass me by these days. I enjoy what I've got, often rediscovering old favourites and classics.

In the spirit of discovery I've dipped into the free CDs I get with The Word and tested out some of the Piccadilly recommendations.

Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career - very good, then realised I still haven't given the last album a proper spin yet.

Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest - I've got some of their older ones, yes, a bit like Fleet Foxes.

The Phantom Band, Checkmate Savage - yes, good. Worth exploring, slight hint of Violent Femmes.

Then there are the Word recommendations:

Richard Hawley - yes, I like him. He's very good. Reminds me of Roy Orbison.

I've also just put Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther on. It's lovely, but it's from 2006. And do I need another Radiohead like band to get to know when I've slipped so behind with the real thing?

And all this in a year when two of my favourite ever bands have released new albums that I've not even listened to: Prefab Sprout and Flaming Lips. I've also been told I must check out the new Madness effort The Liberty of Norton Folgate. I've heard one track - Idiot Child - and yes, it's great.

I simply don't have the dedication, or time, for all of this music hunting, if I'm brutally honest. Should I just give up?

Snow patrol

So, Marple featured on BBC News 24 quite a lot, so the nation could see the brave citizens panic buying milk and amusing their children.

According to an official document from Stockport MBC, here, we live in priority route 8, which includes most of Marple's other roads. The main roads from Offerton, up through Stockport Road, then up Station Road and over Brabyns Brow are on priority route 4, which should get grit first. The rest can just struggle along, it would appear.

It really has been fruitless with the volume of snow. It is almost not worth salting and gritting. The only way to clear snow is to shovel it.

My point I failed to make yesterday, but which occured today was how the weather bulletin focuses so heavily on roads. And yet, the trains were running fine. Clearly so many people just don't even factor in a train journey as an option unless there is extreme circumstances.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Snow business

The snow has truly brought out the spirit of the blitz in us Brits. Well, not really, the kids have enjoyed not going to school and it's probably delayed a few people from getting back into the work groove after a lengthy Christmas break.

One thought occured to me this morning on Rose Hill station. There must have been 100 people waiting as the 08:15 was ready to leave at 08:30, a massive increase. Normally these are people who sit in their cars in traffic, but as the roads out of Marple were impassable they joined us. “I’m going to try and catch (this rather primitive thing called) a train.”

Northern Rail get a load of stick, some justified. Their trains are often dirty and draughty, especially the 142 trains. My heart hangs a little heavier when I see one of these buses on rails arrive. Their communication is poor, their website a joke.

But, they've done a good job today. I just hope they can keep it together tomorrow.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

In praise of risk

From the age of 11 to 16 I used to play in woods near our house in Lancaster. We built treehouses, slid down hillsides, watched trains go by and probably were a nuisance from time to time. I think about what our boys do and should be allowed to do all the time.

Near our house in Marple is a dense thicket of woodland and bushes. The kids call it "the forest" and we have have told them they mustn't go there. They do, of course, because they are boys. They like adventure.

When the snow fell over the Christmas holidays the boys wanted to go sledging. The best place nearby was Marple golf course. I'm sure the greenkeeper will be appalled, but some of the slopes, particularly on the edge of greens were popular with local kids. For our three older boys the best one was a steep drop with a stream running at the bottom. Note to greenkeeper: this slope was "out of bounds" so no green was harmed in the production of this fun activity.

The first mad surge of youth saw a bold attempt to reach the golf course by navigating the forest. However, it ended in success for three, injury to one and very cold hands for the youngest who attempted it gloveless. A rescue operation had to be embarked upon by me.

On another occasion one of the lads found his way back home through the forest. Part of me was cross, but mostly I was impressed at his ingenuity. The others retreated when they were shouted at by a grown up. I don't blame the person concerned, but am pleased my boys are doing this close to home. This is part of growing up, I have a pride in their spirit, however much danger they expose themselves to.

There are also rough older kids round here. Some tried to set fir trees on fire on Saturday close to where our lads were mucking about in the snow. My greatest pride of all was the reaction of our lads to that: "how stupid can you get?"