Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Rocky Place

Did you have a special place you visited as a kid? We did. In fact, we had a few. My parents were no fools; not for us were the arcades of Blackpool or Morecambe, and their temptations to take your money for slots that were stacked against you and piles of ice cream, no way. We would spend Sundays at local beauty spots in the "area of outstanding natural beauty" beyond Quernmore and towards the wilder moors.
For my Dad's birthday weekend we took a stroll down Nostalgia Way with a clamber up this outcrop on Littledale Road between the Scout camp and Quernmore. The view and the light were magnificent on Sunday, something magical and special, it rekindled memories of childhood and adventure and quite how loved we were as kids. I still can't find a name for it though, so we still just call it The Rocky Place.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Marple shops in 2012

There is very little to disagree with in the major findings of the Mary Portas review of High Streets. And the points in her recommendations about public consultation and compulsory purchase powers over empty shops are of particular interest. Much of the underlying problems, however, are caused not by estates management, but an economic imbalance between the numbers of retail units and the amount of money in the economy that people want to spend in shops.

My eldest son and I had a lovely coffee and teacake in Portobello recently, the newish cafe on Market Street. I admire the courage of the owners, especially with plenty of local competition - particularly with Costa opening on Stockport Road.

Thoughts quickly turned to how the ideas Mary Portas has expressed may play out in our community, in particular in Marple centre. On one hand there are empty shops and new businesses trying to make a go of it with wafer thin margins. On the other hand there are ever more plans to bring in new supermarkets to increase the space to shop in and a proliferation of national brands.

The discussion on the Marple website about the recent opening of Costa and the plans for Chadwick Street, as well as Hibbert Lane, have been categorised by rumour and bickering - just as it does in cafe's homes and pubs, I expect - but the misinformation is damaging and counter productive.

So, good luck to Portobello, good luck too to everyone prepared to give it a go. It is for their sake that we must continue to oppose Asda, but we also have to be grown up enough to ask - what else would work around here? What are we lacking? This is a truly important time, we must not waste it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

David Miliband makes the case for Mayors

pic courtesy of Coral Grainger + instagram
David Miliband was in Manchester last night for a Labour Party event where he was interviewed by DJ and writer Dave Haslam. Much as I felt like a fish out of water in such company, and grimaced that I'd fed their coffers by a few quid, I actually really enjoyed it.

There's a decent review here on Manchester Confidential, so I won't attempt to repeat that. But a few additional thoughts occurred. The first is over the issue of public engagement in politics and the second is linked to that - the issue of city Mayors.

What I like about David Miliband the thinker, the backbench MP and the activist, is he has a very analytical view of the way the world is changing. The reason I joined another 150 people on a wet Wednesday night at the Mechanics Institute was because I was very impressed with his contribution to a debate on the world a decade after 9/11 I heard in London last year - there's a link to a bit of it here and I have been particularly impressed with some of his non-partisan thinking on issues like youth unemployment.

Also, to be fair, his Movement for Change sounds very grand - get community groups who are involved in political (with a small p) campaigns and issues and work alongside them. By engaging with them the Labour Party can renew itself by listening as well as learning. At least I think that's how he defined it.

I liked his analysis of politics and how to find political solutions in stages -"empathy, analysis, vision, policy and implementation." To illustrate by example he cited the problem of youth employment, and was both logical and creative.

In answer to a question on Mayors for Britain's cities he held his hands up in deference to Manchester Labour people and said he was in favour. The political establishment in Manchester is opposed. At an event I chaired last week Sir Richard Leese mapped out his reasons for opposing - Manchester has evolved a political structure where the 10 local authorities have combined some key functions. They come under the control not of Manchester City Council, but the Combined Authority, made up of all of the boroughs. That is led by the elected leaders and organisations to administer these joint functions. Manchester is not being offered the opportunity to elect a Boris or a Ken.

Yet I've heard David Cameron make the same case for a Mayor being the accountable and elected office that you can knock on the door of. Great cities need one. The difficuty about what is on offer so far is way removed from that. Salford is voting on the issue today - I'm hearing a turnout of less than 15 per cent will reject the idea - but this is no way to deal with the issue. The cities of Manchester and Salford, let alone the towns of Stockport, Bolton, Wigan, Oldham, Rochdale and Bury aren't big and powerful enough to require a big and powerful charismatic leader - let alone made-up entities like Tameside and Trafford. I actually like the idea of the elected Mayor at the head of Greater Manchester, driving policy and having some vision to deliver it. The city region has been blessed by the stable double act of Sir Richard Leese and his chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein, but you cannot enshrine in the constitution of a city region for "remarkable civic leader who gets things done by hook or by crook". I don't look forward to the day when these very able men choose to do something else in their advancing years. They are virtually irreplaceable. But it is their success that has made the Mayoral issue a non-starter.

But who outside of Greater Manchester and outside of policy making knows of these two? When was Richard on Question Time last? When was he on Newsnight? If he had the office of Mayor for a city region of 2.5 million people he'd have power and clout to be on all the time. He has the right to be as high profile as the tedious Alex Salmond. And the point David Miliband was making was that these examples of good practice in the cities have the potential to reshape the narrative of national politics.

POSTSCRIPT - there was a low turnout in the Salford referendum, but there was also a yes vote. Seems like the politically active voted for another body that has no popular enthusiasm.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Make Venky's History

The Venky's have been a blight on Blackburn Rovers. Their ownership has been disastrous. There are good people working against all the odds to prevent a total meltdown, some of them as employees of the club, most of them as supporters trying to broker a solution.

When you analyse why they bought a Premier League football club - you have to deduce it was for the promotional possibilities. That seems to have amounted to getting the players to take part in a humiliating chicken commercial, promotional trips to India (where the club captain came over all Iraqi Minister of Information) and a few hoardings around Ewood Park. Even they have failed.

All the protests against Steve Kean have achieved have been to get the football establishment rallying round him and our fans portrayed as oafs. The element of the protests against Venky's have either been ignored, dismissed as ungrateful or just plain racist. So far.

The thing with people who crave good PR is that they can't deal with bad PR. A few corporate fans at Wigan told Venkatesh and Balaji the facts of life and that was the last we saw of his pony tail and bling.

Jerome Anderson is distancing himself from them. They have no allies in England at all. And now their business judgement is being questioned in their home country by this terrific summary of their comedy ownership in the Economic Times of India.

Slowly the message is starting to get through.

Momentum is slowly building too for Rovers fans here to grasp the nettle and see them off. Of course, they have to want to sell, but the first thing is making them not want to own any longer.

Beyond that the options are emerging. Wayne Wild, a forthright and willing businessman and sponsor of the Darwen End, has articulated his view, here. Ian Battersby has spoken to the Independent, here, about what the Venky's need to do as a matter of some urgency. And then there's a detailed business plan here, prepared by a Swedish based Rovers fan to establish a mutual trust. All of them amount to the same thing I've been saying here for a while - leave this club. Give it back. Go away. You have wasted money, don't waste any more.

These are all positive steps forward to ridding our football clubs of these owners. Make Venky's history.

What are the chances?

The strangest things happened last week. 

Firstly, on Friday, on the Marple flyer, I squeezed into my seat and popped open my latest book - A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, a book published in 2010. The guy across from me was not only reading the same book, but the same edition and was only marginally further into the 392 pages than me. "What are the chances of that?" I asked him, holding the book up. He was about my age and was dressed in a similar way too.
Logic, rather than magic, deduced that the chances of two similar men reading a Faulks book are still longish, but not impossible. Novels can take time to catch on. Faulks is everywhere at the moment, with the TV adaptation of Birdsong appearing on Sunday night. My book was passed on by a mate at work, he thought I'd really like it, and I do. Maybe the other bloke had the same encouragement, its themes are current and modern. It's not quite like the One Day phenomena, where word-of-mouth saw interest explode, but it's not a surprise.

Secondly, the CD I have on in the car at the moment is This is the Life by Amy MacDonald. Again, it's an older product - 2007 - and has been a success for a while. My artistic son's art teacher Sean Wood had the same CD on in his studio on Saturday. Again, what are the chances? Again, it's not a surprise. He is a man of good folky musical heritage. I like that kind of music and have been dabbling of late. Sean would tend to play music that the kids would like to draw to, but that he likes too, but would be the easier end of that spectrum. She is therefore ideal. Subconsciously too, I suspect I was subliminally drawn to her music when scanning Sean's collection.

I am occasionally inspired and awestruck by serendipitous moments, but these weren't them. Just a load of middle class white people all liking the same kind of stuff.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Labour's drift towards irrelevance

Labour have had very little to say about enterprise and business since Peter Mandelson's industrial intervention in the death throes of the Brown administration. It was surprising therefore to digest a report recently called Labour's business - why enterprise must be at the heart of Labour's politics in the 21st century put together by Alex Smith and Luke Bozier. 

All political parties need to do this. Enterprise is at the centre of modern life, too often a private sector policy centres on the degree to which a party sucks up to the city, or holds big summits with hand picked business leaders. Usually it's all an exercise in semantics and grandstanding that Gordon Brown excelled at. Yet help for start-ups, simplifying taxation, access to finance and addressing abuse of monopoly position in supply chains are critical for small businesses.

This report has some good analysis in it and some useful ideas. 

Luke Bozier today resigned from the Labour party and is joining the Conservatives. His statement is here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Steven O'Riordan - still missing

Steven O'Riordan is still missing from the Whaley Bridge / Stockport area. His family and police are very concerned for his welfare. He was last seen in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire, and he regularly walked along the canal to Marple and also worked at Lyme Park.

It must be desperately worrying for his family, but they should never give up hope.

Anyone with information should call 0800 555 111.

It was wrong to target Steve Kean and still is

A year ago Blackburn Rovers stuffed Liverpool in a thrilling game. The crowd cheered the new manager Steve Kean and even chanted his name. That night I sat in the director's area at Ewood close to Jerome Anderson and the Rovers board. I asked chairman John Williams how he was and how things were going. He wasn't happy. I blogged about it here. He was gone within the month.

Thanks to the excellent research of Nick Harris on the Sporting Intelligence site we now see the detail of quite how the whole unravelling was taking place at Ewood Park. In an extraordinary and explosive letter to the owners the concerns of the three executives running the business - John Williams, Tom Finn and Martin Goodman - laid bare their frustrations. They were being frozen out of big decisions and feared the worst. This is what they said about the manager: ‘Steve is an inexperienced manager who needs day-to-day support and assistance from people experienced in the running of the football operations.’

Last week we were treated to a quite dreadful interview on Sky Sports News with Jerome Anderson of sports agency SEM. He used phrases like "certain issues" "things happened" about the Venky's and what was going on at the club without ever being challenged as to what they were or what the problem was to which he was the solution.

Anderson also makes a statement here defending himself and attempting to correct the widely held belief that he is involved in running the club.

"At the conclusion of the January 2011 transfer window I ceased to assist Blackburn Rovers Football Club in any capacity and I can confirm that I have not had any role or influence in their transfer policy or any other business of the club whatsoever since that date."

The letter from the three executives reads to me like the first step in a move towards the exit door. An expression of frustration, yes, but also a legal step in a potential case of constructive dismissal. It also paints a picture of owners who are utterly without a clue, but are relying on advice from SEM, but not their own board.  It also refers to a meeting at the Liverpool game with Barclays Bank. Now, if John Williams was telling me, a journalist, that he wasn't happy with his personal situation then it must have been equally difficult for him to confidently convey a good message to the bank. And as we now know, that relationship is crucial.

A year on, there has been nothing at all to reassure the bank that this is a sound business. The accounts made for grim reading and the Barclays are after assurances if they are going to support the business as a going concern.

I have strongly believed from the outset that these owners are the real problem, Steve Kean is a symptom of that ineptitude. His inexperience was clear from the outset, but everything else I have heard this week backs up the depth of the problems here. You even detect in Anderson some fast paddling to get as far away from these owners as possible.

It has never been established how the deal to buy Rovers was funded. The ultimate holding company is in India, where borrowing costs are high, so I suspect they borrowed internationally. My contacts on the deal were surprised when Venky's showed evidence of funds, as they suspected, as I do, that Venky's are nowhere near as wealthy as everyone has been led to believe. It was one of the many questions Sky Sports didn't ask Jerome Anderson.

So, to the present and the next few important games. For what's it worth, I think the whole BRFC Action campaign needs a rethink. All that passion and commitment needs a new direction.

The personal abuse of Steve Kean is wrong on a human level. But it has also been wrong on a tactical level too. I've heard the conspiracy theories about him as well, and I'm sure they fuel the hatred. In this kind of atmosphere untruths will fill the void of silence from the absentee landlords. Some of his public statements in support of the owners have been ill-judged, but the Kean Out protests have allowed the campaign to be portrayed as one man against the mob. With better support from a board and a proper infrastructure, who knows what he could achieve? But it's hard to construct a slogan out of that.

Any campaign for action has to have a conclusion in mind. The heat needs to increase on the owners to sell to someone who can do something with the club and who cares, but this lot have proved they are buffoons who are not fit to own a football club.

And in the middle of all of this I still have one other question - what's Bob Coar for?

A ramble round Manchester

There's a ramble round Manchester on the The Casual Connoisseur Blog: by my pal Bill Routledge. Some good tips on ale and clobber.

Bill has a good nose for decent pub and has written a few of these city guides on the CasCo site.

The photographs are pretty good as well - the one opposite is of Bill and LS Lowry in the bar of Sam's Chophouse.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Viva la Madness - a bonkers book about gangsters

This book is absolutely bonkers. While the title of Connolly's debt novel Layer Cake took some explaining, right up until the main character's final denouement, this name is clear from the outset. The story is set in summer 2001 and takes up the tale of two of the main men from Layer Cake, the anonymous narrator and Morty, his link to the criminal underworld. They inhabit a world of drug dealing and crime, but this is also mixed up with international high finance, computer hackery and even the military industrial complex. Illiterate but street smart villains plotting up with duplicitious toffs. It gets stranger and stranger, which is good. The plot twists are good, and the portrayals of the lengths crims will go to are staggering.

He's also very good on dialogue - can you believe the words being said? Well, given that we'd seen Daniel Craig in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo recently, and that he played the same character in the prequel to this tale, you can't fail if you place his dry delivery and brooding insolence as you go, indeed, he is so clearly at the forefront of Connolly's mind again too. There are other unstated reasons why all the ugly gangsters dislike him - he's a stunner, right? There's lots of detail about London's layers, from Mayfair to East Acton, but on the whole it's just a mental story. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Boys are Back in Town - QSG book reviewed

The Quality Street Gang is part myth, part untold story of street legends. Who was in the QSG and who owe their respectable fortune to such early adventures is still the subject of rumour and conjecture.

This books is a welcome addition to the narrative of Manchester's colourful social history. That shouldn't be seen as an endorsement of what they got up to, or even that Jimmy Donnelly comes across as a nice guy, because he doesn't really. But it has some good insights, even if a lot has been left out.

The style of the narrative has a good pace to it, the stories are well told. That doesn't come as a surprise given it's been written and edited by Peter Walsh, author of the authority on Manchester gangs, Gang Wars.

I always maintain an understanding of the criminal margins of society give a valuable insight into how social order is kept.

In all the time I've been the editor of Insider I've always kept an eye on the "alternative business networks". It's surprising how often they touch the mainstream - the clearest account in this book is the tale of Kevin Taylor, the man who was accused of corrupting former deputy chief constable John Stalker. All nonsense, as it turned out. But Donnelly then tells another tale. His next door neighbour in Manchester was chief constable Michael Todd, who asked for help from Donnelly when his case was robbed. Bizarre.

The extract from Insider is here.

The Milo books site is here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

David Cameron strikes a chord in Manchester

David Cameron was in Manchester last week. I met him at the Vermilion restaurant at a reception organised by Iqbal Ahmed, successful businessman, the restaurant owner and a Conservative Party supporter. I was invited as a chum of Iqbal and his friend Sajjad Karim one of the Conservative MEPs for the North West, and not in any kind of press capacity. For that reason I'm not supposed to mention the event, or even to quote the PM.

What I will say though is that Cameron was very impressive. I always think he is at his best when he freestyles and speaks from the heart. As he's proved this week with his challenge to the SNP over the Union, he knows which battles to fight and the ground on which to fight them. He spoke for ten minutes without notes, something I don't see him doing enough.

There were only about 50 of us at the reception and I was in the racial minority of white people present. The PM spoke to those there with a real sense of Conservative history and tradition and as a real One Nation Conservative. The values he stands up for are, he says, enterprise, family values, country. Not surprisingly it struck a real chord.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Rovers fans statement - almost in agreement

A group of Blackburn Rovers fans have put together a well considered statement, which shows them to be far wiser and more articulate than the media give them credit.

Anyway, it's here. All the stuff about negligent owners breaking promises and threatening the club is good. So is the stuff about being realistic - bigger clubs have been relegated, etc.

Where I disagree is the conclusion, which ultimately comes down to more hounding of Steve Kean and calling for his replacement. Wrong question. He's NOT the problem, he's a mere symptom. Venky's are the problem.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Book reviews - two faces of Northern Ireland


Two books, one presenting an utterly hopeless view of a city gripped by collective madness and hatred and the other offering a glimpse of a better future. The double door and room metaphor providing this reader with too complex a metaphor.

Journalist Kevin Myers is not a sympathetic chronicler; neither does he seek your approval for his motives. Nevertheless, his selfish and needy character flaws lays bare an honest "as I saw it" account of 1970s Belfast with few concessions to the usual prejudices. He can also be quite funny at times. 

It makes the achievements of Jonathan Powell all the greater. As Tony Blair's right hand man he spent an enormous amount of time trying to solve the seemingly insoluble problem of the smallest part of the United Kingdom. This detailed diary of the protracted peace talks leaves you with massive amounts of respect for Blair and for a number of key players in Northern Irish politics. All the while there is the sense that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness, David Trimble and Ian Paisley wanted peace but had to bring the wilder warriors amongst their people with them. To do so needed patience from the British government side and a number of brave acts of faith in the goodwill of all sides.

Both books are a valuable contribution to understand divisions in society - but also for how they can be overcome. 

Monday, January 02, 2012

Truce at Rovers - to no avail

The kids persuaded me to take them to see the all conquering Rovers today. And for our return to Ewood, we were at least relieved that the win at Old Trafford seemed to have taken the sting out of the fans protests against manager Steve Kean and the owners Venky's. So the fans weren't the reason Rovers lost.

The performance never lacked effort, but it always seems the way against Stoke. They attack everything, they pressure the physical threat - meaning, they fouled Samba at every set piece. But that wasn't the reason Rovers lost either.

For me, it came down to the service to the strikers - Yakubu looked a handful and it speaks volumes that Huth wellied it whenever Yak came close to him. But he didn't get any kind of service from a very functional and frustrated midfield. Wheras Stoke had the threat of Etherington, our flat midfield 5 just passed it to each other and back again. Pedersen wasted his throws and his corners, and a late free kick, but got the biggest cheer of the day for a slide tackle on Steve Kean. I wasn't impressed with Petrovic at all and Formica was ineffective.

Would it made much of a difference if someone had played off the Yak from the start? Who can tell? But it's this defeat, like the losses to West Brom and Bolton that will count for a whole lot more in May than a shock win at Old Trafford.

We took the flag, it was examined at the gate, and was allowed in as the words aren't offensive to the manager or the owners. I am genuinely thinking of getting the top line changed - any suggestions gratefully received.