Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 in review

Here is my review of 2011 based on the most frequently used labels. It reads like it was quite a poor one to be honest, but it doesn't reflect what I feel. MediaCity has opened, I've become a school governor and joined a board of my old University. I've been to Northern Ireland for the first time, I took Rachel to Rome, and visited the Isle of Man and London a few times. There have been big changes in my working life, big developments with the kids, achievements and firsts as well as challenges, but on the whole our life is a happy one.

Blackburn Rovers - the downward spiral feels like it is running out of control. In every way 2011 has been one of the worst years in the history of the club.

Marple - the biggest issue locally has been the prospect of Asda putting in a planning application for the college site on Hibbert Lane and the council urging Waitrose to develop in the centre. More local shops have closed, more chains are creeping in. Marple is fighting the tide stronger than other places, but it is a hard road.

Book review in a lift - Finally got round to reading Any Human Heart by William Boyd, which was my favourite novel of the year, but my favourite factual book was probably Harold Evans' memoir.

Food - If you ask the kids they rave about Red Hot Buffet. We liked the Grill on New York Street. Still disappointed by Manchester's so-called fine dining establishments.

Politics - Cameron is at his best when he is bold - he has done well enough over Libya and on Europe, and he has seen his Chancellor win the argument over the need to cut the public sector. Many in the party are now urging an election in 2012. It would be a gamble, but he'd probably get a majority. I think he's still got more to do to change the party and needs the Clegg to do more for him.

Commuting - It's been generally OK, but when it's bad, it's very, very bad. But Rose Hill is a nicer station while Marple is to get more improvements.Telly - This was the year we discovered Inbetweeners. Old favourite Spooks finished, which was probably necessary. Enjoyed Shadow Line on DVD boxed set.

Blogging - Kept it up, discovered that linking to Twitter is the biggest driver of traffic. Blog posts about Rovers are still the most popular stories, with an astonishing hit rate for the post about the Steve Kean hatred and tears for Gary Speed.

Music - I did a fair few concerts this year with a wide range - the Halle, the BBC Phil, Take That, I Am Kloot, The Specials, Elbow and Sinead O'Connor. Edited playlists avidly to a top 100.

Friends - this has been a tough year. Losing Tim Edwards and Uncle Pete have clouded everything. If they are to mean anything, it has really made me appreciate those I love dearly. Life is precious.

Film: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

We were lucky enough to get another rare night out this week and so headed for the Cornerhouse in Manchester to see this film.

We must be the only people who haven't read the Stieg Larsson books, but can safely say the film was a rollicking good thriller. An interesting range of characters - notably Lisbeth - but also a compelling cast, working faithfully to the exciting plot. Very stylish too.

Today I was the "I like trains" kid

In that strange period between Christmas and New Year one is often tempted to do strange and new things. Today I joined less than a dozen other men and one woman in travelling on our local ghost train, the 09:22 from Stockport to Stalybridge. This is a weekly service, yes weekly, and is the only train that stops at the otherwise defunct and deserted stations at Reddish South and Denton.

I was ready to categorise my fellow travellers as trainspotters or rail enthusiasts, (you know the cliche's - not a wedding ring amongst them) - but detected just a few curious blokes looking to check out something they'd heard about on Radio 4 recently, or had read this lively piece by Michael Williams in The Independent.

The train edges out of Stockport heading north, turning right (very slowly) at Heaton Norris junction and snaking through towards Reddish and then Denton on a single track. I'll be thinking of this underused line the next time I sit in traffic on the A57 as people from Denton drive to Manchester as a commuter service to the city hasn't proved to be within the wit of any rail planners. Both stations are just grey platforms served by this train. Presumably the cost of decommissioning them is greater financially and politically than keeping them notionally open. Andrew Gwynne MP mentions it here.

Top blogger Stuart Vallantine alerted me to the service when he blogged here about the service when it used to run on Saturday, which may have made some kind of sense. Now it just runs on a Friday and arrives in Stalybridge before the legendary buffet bar has even opened, but in time to get back on a crowded train to Manchester Victoria within minutes. There being nothing to keep me in Stalybridge at this time of day I opted for this and then hiked back across Manchester to Piccadilly.

This is one of the so-called Parliamentary trains - a route that is kept open for unclear motives, either political or for more Kafkaesque bureaucratic reasons. Maybe there lies the possibility of doing more with the line and these stations in the future, but for now the train operating company keeps this rather pointless service going.

My kids just laughed when they found out what I'd done and kept singing this mildly irritating song called "I like trains" at me. Apparently it's some kind of YouTube sensation.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tintin movie - a reminder of how good Herge was

I was disappointed by the Tintin movie. The overblown CGI, the fights with cranes, the chase down the mountainside were all modern additions and a concession to young audiences who crave such action. That is as maybe, but the Tintin stories have been so enduring for their realism and low tech drama. Yet all that was good about the film was all that Herge created - realism, subtle touches, kind characters and stories with multiple layers. If the next film is to be Tintin's moon adventure (realism, yes, I know), then hopefully there will be enough of the personal drama to sustain a modern sci-fi kids film. But I doubt it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Where did we go on that big black night?

We don't get out much. But park that thought for a moment. For one reason and another I've found a song trapped in my head like an ear worm for the last two weeks, it's not particularly new either. It's I Am Kloot's Northern Skies, from their Mercury Music Prize shortlisted album The Sky At Night - here's the video too, which is pretty good as well.

I was delighted then to discover that vocalist John Bramwell was performing on Sunday at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. We went along and massively enjoyed a posh concert experience. He was sort of supporting a folk singer called Thea Gilmour who is touring with her band. Now, she was brilliant too. But I found myself drawn to the tragi-drama and warmth of John Bramwell. From the moment he walked on with glasses of wine and beer in one hand, guitar in the other, he struck a chord as a fundamentally honest performer. His guitar playing was incredible too - filling the strange space of the in-the-round theatre with a wide range of often complex notes and chords.

He didn't even play Northern Skies, but that didn't matter. His voice, a lush, throaty Mancunian mix - part Richard Hawley and even Glen Campbell, brings to life these amazing songs, these authentic tales of a life lived. More than once he said the song was about "drinking, and disaster". I Am Kloot have never made it big, they probably won't, but I'm pleased they've got recognition, support and a loyal following. But you find yourself in that awkward position of wanting them to accelerate alongside Elbow's slipstream and carry on with these songs that have been produced painfully and carefully amidst a backdrop of fighting demons. You don't do that kind of work from a mansion in Oxfordshire. You may do a different kind of good work, but it's not this. The new album is out in 2012, sometime.

Link: I Am Kloot.

We want our Rovers back

I can't bear to go to Ewood Park any more. So I apologise for pontificating from the comfort of my home 35 miles away as passionate fans protest outside the ground. I simply don't want my children subjected to a hostile and poisonous atmosphere. My love for football has seriously waned anyway, but what Venky's are doing to Blackburn Rovers is nothing short of disgraceful. I always feared that new foreign owners could clumsily make poorly thought through decisions, but these clowns haven't got a single decision right. Not one. Even if they sacrifice their appointed manager tonight or tomorrow, it won't matter. I have always said he wasn't the whole problem. They are.

We had something special for a while. We could have even have kept something special too. In this scenario we may even have seen the club getting relegated eventually, but as I sit here brooding over tonight's loss to Bolton I feel acute pain because it's worse than just being bottom at Christmas. Something else has gone.

Why didn't we, as a group of fans, have the balls to say to the Walkers and to Rothschild, we'll take it off your hands and run it as a mutual trust? There's enough good people with skills and connections to have made it work at some level for the long term. All we have now is decline.

But it would at least have been our Rovers and not the plaything of mysterious foreign owners being manipulated by shady agents.Why, oh why, has this happened?

This is what Venky's should do now. They should turn round to the protesting fans, and to John Williams, and to Tom Finn, to Ian Battersby, Ian Currie, Wayne Wild and Roger Devlin and say, "Sorry, we just didn't understand English football. We cocked up. Have your club back. We're sorry."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, an appreciation

This is a bit of a rehash of a book review I did of Hitch 22, the memoir of Christopher Hitchens, who has died.

Christopher Hitchens was a profound and prolific writer for whom I had a consistent and enormous regard. His features in Vanity Fair were always the best thing in that impressive magazine. He intentionally and deliberately got up people's noses, so, when you agreed with him, such as over his storming book on the Clintons, No-one Left to Lie To, you cheered at his searing wit, his savage pen and his withering turn of phrase. When you disagree, as I do over his outright dismissal of anyone of faith anywhere, I just thought he came across as oafish. Even more bizarrely, though I find less to agree with his brother Peter Hitchens about, I find his civility more endearing.

Hitch's stance on Iraq was the one issue he became the most notorious for. I supported the case for regime change in 2003, even though the WMD issue was the one used here in the UK, and Hitchens provided ballast for an argument that became almost unarguable through the so-called "insurgency" and throughout the horror that Iraq became. Yet, he did this well, he's a closer observer and a longer chronicler of Iraq than most and predicted a horrific collapse of Iraqi society, post-Saddam Hussein and his murderous sons, with or without an invasion. Where Hitchens was at his best was in his journalism, such as when he told the story of Mark Jennings Daily, a young American who enlisted in the army and died in Iraq after being convinced of the nobility of service by Hitchens' writings. This was heavy grown-up stuff. Proper choking accounts of a proud family deep in grief, but accepting into their home the man who so inspired their son to fight and die.

There are some wonderful tributes today. This from Norman Geras, and this from Ian McEwan. But the best of all is this from his brother Peter.

Sunday addition: Christopher Buckley in the New Yorker.

On the theme of death, which has concerned me lately, I liked this line from Peter: "Much of civilisation rests on the proper response to death, simple unalloyed kindness, the desire to show sympathy for irrecoverable loss, the understanding that a unique and irreplaceable something has been lost to us. If we ceased to care, we wouldn’t be properly human."

I hope Christopher is being pleasantly surprised right now.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Celebrating Christmas

Those slightly hysterical stories that scream - "political correctness gone mad" - usually make me think the writer is actually enjoying stirring up a bit of indignation. Offence is taken even when it is not intended. The reader's prejudices are then fulfilled, and everyone feels validated that the world has truly gone mad. More often than not there is a wilful misunderstanding at the heart.

I had to stop and look at this press release I got recently for that very reason. To put it in context, it's from an employment consultancy and they want to "warn" or "safeguard" or maybe "scare" employers about what to do at this time of year.

Here is the first of four questions in full.

"Can we still refer to 'Christmas' or should we use a generic term such as 'festive season'?"

That's a fair question and probably representative of the kind of paranoid paralysed management thinking that the HR industry thrives on.

Here is the answer they gave.

“This question is still up for debate but employers should avoid fostering a working environment in which employees feel that the term ‘Christmas’ is forced on them. In the same way that Christmas may continue to be celebrated by Christians, other religious celebrations throughout the year should also be able to retain their identity. For example, Muslim employees should not be discouraged from celebrating Ramadan, or Jewish employees from celebrating Hanukkah. As long as various religions and beliefs are considered and accounted for, employers do not need to refrain from using the term 'Christmas'.”

I think that is absolutely disgraceful advice. The question is not "up for debate" at all. It is Christmas.

Please advise me as I think I may have missed a subtle hidden meaning here. This national celebration, throughout the world, has deep significance. As for forcing it upon anyone, then it is simply not up for debate whether this country, a Christian country, a tolerant Christian country, celebrates a public holiday called Christmas Day. There isn't even a reason to justify celebrating the gift that God gave us at this time of year. Or even creeping secularisation. No, the question appears to be even more crass than that. Who can deny the existence of Christmas? And really, who is actually offended by the celebration of Christmas? No-one. The last thing people of other faiths want to do is quash the main festival at the centre of the Christian faith.

As I tried to think through the rising anger, I slowly came to the conclusion that it was me that was missing the point. There's no debate. There really isn't, but the company pimping such nonsense want to have one. If me and other gullible media are dumb enough to react then here they are, proclaiming honest broker status, in order to arbitrate at the centre of a row they themselves are at the centre of. This is just PR spin for an industry peddling fear. And for that reason I'm not going to dignify the sender or the client with a name check.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Quick video about social media

Social media, some rules

It's surprising to think that there are rules to social media, given how fast moving and new it all is. But I think the etiquette of it is a personal thing. Here are a few of my rules, let me know if I've called it wrong.

I only block real nutters on Twitter, the spirit of it to me is it should be open and free.
I know you're not meant to take stats seriously, but I'm very pleased to have broken the 2000 followers barrier.
I don't follow everyone back, and 800 or so is rather unmanageable.
I try and thank, or talk back with, anyone who mentions or responds.
If I'm not following someone who makes the effort to converse, then I follow back.
When I ReTweet something I source the person who did it first.
I don't do mass #ff follow Friday things. I tend to state a reason and single someone out.
I use Twitter to link to my blog.
My Twitter is more about the me beyond work, it's not about my job and what the business is doing.
I also use it a source of research as well as reading all the nonsense.
I don't abuse people. Except during Question Time. If I have, I've regretted it.
I try not to be too intensely personal about family life, but I do enjoy doing the Saturday morning plan - hat tip @adventurebaby.
Be honest, be loyal, be kind.

This is much more businesslike and is about very much about work stuff.
I don't accept requests from anyone who says they are a "friend" but aren't. That's cheating.
I tend not to accept requests from anyone who I've never heard of, but if they've taken the time to introduce themselves beyond the standard LinkedIn message, then I do.
I don't like the standard LinkedIn request, I prefer it when people personalise.
I don't feed my Twitter through LinkedIn. It's not always appropriate.
I comment in groups, but not enough. Who reads them?
Be honest, be loyal, be kind.

Google +
I haven't made my mind up about this, but the same rules as LinkedIn should apply, I think.

This blog is about everything I'm interested in beyond work, so I don't blog about anything work related. That can be tricky as I'm a journalist and I write about business at a time when business and finance is the biggest story of the modern era.
I use all these other tools to promote this site. Hence the Twitter name.
I'm not hooked on stats, if I was I'd blog about the news and football all the time.
The most read story on this blog was about the abuse of Steve Kean and the thin veneer of humanity that followed Gary Speed's death.
Be honest, be loyal, be kind.

I think Facebook is the devil. I really don't like it.
I have edited it right down to close friends, friends abroad and family.
I think it's hidden from general view.
I pretty much use it as a photo sharing service and hold back from the sharing of nonsense.
I don't join groups or sign petitions.
The kids are all obsessed with getting on Facebook, but none of them are old enough to. So they can't.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

A big list of my 100 favourite songs

When I get the Rose Hill rattler home on a wet night in winter, the last thing I want for company is a random selection of new music to try and get into. No, I want the familiar comfort blanket of what I know I like. In a very male and very anoraky way I have compiled a list of my 100 top songs. To make the editing easier - and there is also a top 1000, a top 500, a top 250 and a top 150 - I've restricted each artist to one track each and bent the rules with the New Order and Moby thing. But there's more to this list than just 100 songs I like; each one has a particular memory. At least three throw up cherished emotions about friends who've died, many others evoke memories of special times and places. I'm slightly embarrassed that the list is overwhelmingly white and very male biased, but I think the span and range is pretty varied. Given all of these, if you have any suggestions for new stuff that you think I might like, let me know - maybe have a go yourself.

The Winner Takes It All, ABBA
Blaze Of Glory, The Alarm
Somewhere In My Heart, Aztec Camera
Ticket To Ride, The Beatles
One Last Love Song, The Beautiful South
The Day Before You Came, Blancmange
Union City Blue, Blondie
Tinseltown In The Rain, The Blue Nile
Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen
Nobody Does It Better, Carly Simon
Close To You, The Carpenters
Father and Son, Cat Stevens
The British Way of Life, The Chords
(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, The Clash
Let's Go Out Tonight, Craig Armstrong
Bloody Revolutions, Crass
Weather With You, Crowded House
Life On Mars? David Bowie
Dignity, Deacon Blue
California Über Alles, Dead Kennedys
Little Ole Wine Drinker Me, Dean Martin
I Touch Myself, Divinyls
MacArthur Park, Donna Summer
One Day Like This, Elbow
Getting Away With It, Electronic
Stan (Featuring Dido), Eminem & Dido
Paid in Full, Eric B. & Rakim
Love See No Colour, The Farm
Do You Realize?? The Flaming Lips
The Message, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron
It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry, Glasvegas
November Rain, Guns N' Roses
Silver Machine, Hawkwind
When You're Young, The Jam
Tomorrow, James
Hallelujah,  Jeff Buckley
Annie's Song, John Denver
Ring Of Fire, Johnny Cash
Atmosphere, Joy Division
It's Grim Up North, The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu (KLF)
Sunny Afternoon, The Kinks
Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin
The Life Of Riley, The Lightning Seeds
Aria [with Michael Gambon - Layer Cake speech] Lisa Gerrard
All Woman, Lisa Stansfield
Idiot Child, Madness
Motorcycle Emptiness, Manic Street Preachers
What's Going On, Marvin Gaye
Anchorage, Michelle Shocked
Extreme Ways, Moby
Irish Blood, English Heart, Morrissey
Express Yourself, N.W.A.
True Faith , New Order
New Dawn Fades, New Order Feat. Moby,
Time Of No Reply, Nick Drake
Don't Speak, No Doubt
Don't Look Back in Anger, Oasis
If You Leave, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Being Boring, Pet Shop Boys
She Said, Plan B
Cruel, Prefab Sprout
Purple Rain, Prince & The Revolution
Pretty In Pink, The Psychedelic Furs
Common People, Pulp
Losing My Religion, R.E.M.
Fake Plastic Trees, Radiohead
Orange, Richard Lumsden
Please Read The Letter, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Gimme Shelter, Rolling Stones
More Than This, Roxy Music
In Dreams, Roy Orbison
The Spirit Of Radio, Rush
Run, Baby, Run, Sheryl Crow
Nothing Compares 2 U, Sinéad O'Connor
Itchycoo Park, The Small Faces
How Soon Is Now, The Smiths
I Got You Babe, Sonny and Cher
Ghost Town, The Specials
Up The Junction, Squeeze
Suspect Device, Stiff Little Fingers
I Am The Resurrection, The Stone Roses
Alright, Supergrass
Give A Little Bit, Supertramp
It's My Life, Talk Talk
Reward, The Teardrop Explodes
Heartland, The The
The Boys Are Back In Town, Thin Lizzy
Song to the Siren, This Mortal Coil
I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone,Tom Jones With James Dean Bradfield
Funky Cold Medina, Tone-Loc
Wide Open Road, The Triffids
Bitter Sweet Symphony, The Verve
Story of the Blues, Wah
And A Bang On The Ear, The Waterboys
Baba O'Riley, The Who

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Mike Garry - poet, teacher, hero

I've linked before to Mike Garry's emotional and powerful writing. Well, this account of his encounter with an apparently suicidal man on a bridge is spellbinding. What a hero.

Manchester's finest?

Last week I was with a bunch of friends and we had a guest with us from out of town. She's a big hitter with a big global brand. Obviously we wanted to go to a good restaurant with a lively atmosphere that shows off our home city of Manchester in a good light.

Once again I found myself wincing at the toe-curling provincialism of what passes for restaurant culture in our aspirant city. There was a crooner belting out songs as we arrived - he was OK, but I'm not sure it's necessary. We then waited at the bar for ages. When we got our booked table for 8, it was a round table and a square table pushed together. The service was either in-your-face intrusive, or utterly negligent. I had a tray of drinks spilled down my back - but, hey, accidents happen. The food was of variable quality, some was excellent, while one of our gang just barely touched her salty mush. Mine was alright. Overall though, the portions were just far too big, which sort of summed the place up - flash and brash for the sake of it. The worst thing was the way the waiters brought the food to the table and just shouted the name of the dish and tried to dump it in front of whoever they managed to make eye contact with. They had no idea who ordered what. Basic waiting skills require you know this. It's just good manners. To just pile it all on the table is what I expect at the Star of India in Nelson at 11pm on a Friday, but not somewhere that purports to offer a fine dining experience. In fact, I only  have good memories of that curry house, but you take my point and they didn't take a fraction of the bill here.

And the restaurant? Go on, have a guess.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

On Jeremy Clarkson

Frankly there have been quite ludicrous flights of indignation over Jeremy Clarkson's comments on the One Show that public sector strikers should be shot.

Most people had made their minds up already, probably before they'd heard what he had to say. It struck me as an opportunity for anyone who doesn't like him to say - "ha, there you go". Equally, some responses in his defence brought up comedians who wished death on Margaret Thatcher. Yebbut, he said, she said, yebbut, yebbutt.

If you took every utterance of a celebrity pundit, journalist or comedian as seriously as those of a serious figure in public life then you'd never stop.

I found myself agreeing with a comedian called Dave Gorman. He posted a blog entitled "Jeremy Clarkson should be lined up and shot". Many commenters didn't get past the headline, but you should, especially for the Bill Hicks references and clips.

Here's the essence: "Because if you really think that you and I are entitled to live in a world without offence, then you have to concede that everyone else is equally entitled to the same. And that means that all the jokes you like but they don't will have to go too."