Sunday, July 29, 2012

St Frank of North Liverpool

The awesome Olympic ceremony was a spectacle made and conceived by two proud sons of the North West, Danny Boyle and his mate Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer. Frank has written an incredibly warm and wonderful account of his Olympic opening ceremony adventure and how he kept it all a secret for the last couple of weeks.

We went to the Hay Festival in June and met with Frank, firstly because after we watched his talk we queued up to get a book signed (pictured). Our kids love his writing and his sense of humour. I thought he did an amazing job of 24 Hour Party People - remember, "faced with the truth and the legend, always print the legend." And of course he was part of the team on Brookside when it was good. Personally, I love how he also articulates his Catholic faith in such a profound way. Not easy, not comforting, but almost ... obvious.

We then bumped into him again at Hay and stopped for a chat. He was even more lovely and impressive in person than I possibly imagined him to be. I asked him if he'd do a couple of things for projects I'm involved in. Long story short, he's agreed to. 

To see the universal acclaim for the opening ceremony makes me so proud of our tolerant and creative country and the embrace of a loving and diverse population. Even the nasty wing of the Guardian and Daily Mail and the keyboard warriors trying to be sage just reinforce the core of what Danny Boyle and Frank were pointing out. It was a piece of audacious, obvious, courageous genius. So do read the link, but if you can't be bothered, then my highlight is this:

"As Danny wrote in his introduction to the brochure: "We can build Jerusalem, and it will be for everyone." He'll hate me for saying this but he has a very Catholic sense that yes, this is a fallen world, but you can find grace and beauty in its darkest corners – even if you chop off your arm to do so."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Joe Birrell - Olympic Hero

Our kids had to do a presentation on an Olympic hero. Louis and Elliot chose a guy who competed in the 1948 "austerity" Olympics in London called Joe Birrell. He was my maths teacher at school and got me through my O Level resit. He never boasted about his sporting achievements, in fact he was a bit of an enigma to be honest. Here's a story about 'Joe Biz' from the Lancaster Guardian.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Steve Kean and Rovers - my concern over the Kean Out abuse

Of unknown origin, but borrowed from a fansite
To the Crown Ground, home of Accrington Stanley today for two Blackburn Rovers pre-season friendly matches. One against Fleetwood and another against the home side. I went out of curiosity and to chalk off a new ground, my 132nd.

Two totally different Rovers teams turned out. The first game was more of a practice match which Rovers won. The second was turgid and niggly with loads of mistakes. Rovers lost. You learn very little from a pre-season, but it is a good barometer of the mood around the club.

The fans are still feeling very raw. The abuse of Steve Kean, especially when the pubs emptied for the second game, was unrelenting. I have a worry about this. Were he to be sacked, the Venky's would immediately prick a bubble of protest. Hooray, they'd all celebrate, the problem is gone. But of course it hasn't. We have negligent, ignorant, hopeless owners. It is they who have destroyed the club. Sure, Kean has been a willing and atrocious accomplice, but all this is a diversion and lets Venky's off the hook.

Venky's must go, and they must take clueless Kean with them, but if people are in the mood to be angry, remember the real culprits. There are enough people who care about our club, we will also be "the club that won't die" but I'm still not prepared to give the club a penny while Venky's, Anderson, Kean and the whole shower remain. Aways only until then.

And no appearance for Myles Anderson either. Maybe he's off to Manchester United, now that Chris Smalling is injured?

The Purple Pakora - a cut above the average curry house

Picture of Purple Pakora taken by Ted of Mellor View
Maybe all curry houses are starting to get smarter, especially in the suburbs. Maybe I just need to get out more. Even though we were warned by pals that the Purple Pakora wasn't that good, we went anyway. And I liked Ted Stockton's review on the Mellor View blog. I've also sniffed its aromas enough times when I've arrived home at Marple station.

The popadoms were a little lifeless - but the accompaniments were excellent, especially the coleslaw.

We didn't order starters as we sometimes overdo it on my favourite - mixed tandoori grill. Our mains were off the special menu - lemon tikka chicken, a big chunky prawn bhuna, bhindi bahji, mutter panneer, pilau rice and a peshwari nan.

Everything was really fresh tasting and not too oily. The chicken was a particular surprise, very distinctive.

For me though the real test comes the next day when we eat what we couldn't finish for breakfast. Warmed up in the Aga it was just as delicious, and again, not greasy at all.

So yes, I would heartily recommend the Purple Pakora, a really good dinner. Others have suggested the Blue Nile in Hazel Grove is excellent, and the Indigo in Romiley is even better than that. Neither however have the advantage that they are walking distance from my new office and right outside Marple station.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The death of The Word magazine

It's sad when a magazine closes. All of the effort and emotional commitment coming to an end. It seems especially sad when the publication is well loved, but not by quite enough people. And so it was with The Word magazine, the August issue will be the last.

I've been a subscriber for six years and have found something to enjoy in each issue. The circulation at the back end of 2010 was 25,000, a new iPad edition had just been released and the podcasts were a regular delight. Their strapline, a friendly American accent pronouncing "The Word, a magazine, a podcast, a way of life" was an accurate depiction of a brand extension. Indeed, their foray into live events attracted fierce loyalty from "the Word massive" and the True Stories Told Live evenings were fully subscribed.

The news of the demise is covered on the BBC and Media Guardian and follows the line that the falling circulation made it a difficult business to sustain. Declining circulation for a print title is nothing new. Yet I rather suspect something else forced the issue at this moment in time.

First, all magazines make money from advertising and copy sales. The Word's advertising team seemed to consist of one person. But a metropolitan readership with higher than average discretionary income should be able to attract higher spending advertisers in greater numbers than they did. The problem seemed to be a sales strategy built on the content of the magazine - festivals, CDs and books. That worked very well in the era of "Fifty Quid Bloke" the demographic which the founders identified back in 2001. But successful consumer magazines also feature adverts for products that the readers will like irrespective of whether they are written about. There was rarely a sponsor for the podcast, which amazed me. At a time when a lot of brands do get the importance of Long Tail marketing, there are worse parts of the long tail to own than a hub of middle class culture vultures.

Second, the founders and popular talismen for the title, publisher David Hepworth and editor Mark Ellen, always contributed the better features in the magazine, but my feeling was they've lost their love of new music. The things they contributed to Radio 4 about and wrote about on blogs expose such a rich hinterland, I suspect this is where their love lies. There is only so much you can write about music after a lifetime of doing just that. The best of the rest of the features in The Word were always the non-music ones to my mind, or Eamonn Forde's epic rants about the changing economics of the industry, and it became the strength of the magazine and what provided regular moments of serendipity.

Thirdly, owner Development Hell is a lean business but has experienced media industry investors like Chris Oakley. Like David Hepworth, he has sharp antennae for what is going on and what needs to be done, and a rather gloomy view of print media's future. The trouble was, they didn't have the energy to do what they know needs to be done to do it properly. What surprises me is there isn't at least a plan to take The Word online only. Maybe it's an experiment in human nature to see how self sustaining the Massive can be. Which I suppose takes me back to the first two points.

I'll miss it hugely and hope that the incredible array of talent involved in its production and writing will find a place somewhere else. I note with some interest that Andrew Harrison, formerly of this parish is brightening up Q magazine these days.

Monday, July 09, 2012

On getting an Honorary fellowship from UCLAN

I was awarded an honorary fellowship today, my birthday, by the University of Central Lancashire. It was a really special day. My Dad and his wife were there, so was Rachel. I had to do a short speech to the students and their parents, which I include here.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, recent graduates, parents and friends.

First of all, could I thank the University of Central Lancashire for this award.

50 years of running the journalism course is some achievement and I am honoured and humbled to be here today.

The kind words bestowed on me made several references to the journey I’ve been on through my career.

My hero, my inspiration to get into journalism, was Hunter S Thompson, the Godfather of Gonzo journalism. This was a quote attributed to him that fuelled my fire in the late 1980s:

“Journalism is a money trench, a long plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free and good men die like dogs. It also has its downsides.”

I’ll come back to that.

But I am mindful today of the uncertainties that confronted me on my graduation day in 1988. And at many other occasions at crucial turning points in my life over the last 24 years.

None of what has happened to me was part of a masterplan.. Some things I fell into. Others I made happen.

Sometimes, I’ve been lucky. And you will be too.

But it’s hard out there, I know that.

But if I may, I would like to address my brief remarks to those of you receiving your first degrees and MA certificates today.

As an external marker and guest lecturer at this university, I know how hard you have worked to achieve your degrees today.

And I recognize too that many of you will be looking for careers in industries where the structures have crumbled and the very foundations of the media sectors you want to work in are in undergoing a constant period of change.

When I did a series of mock interviews with students from this university recently I was struck by a number of things.

Firstly, I was impressed at the lengths to which Cathy Darby (left), a wonderfully generous and devoted course leader had gone to extraordinary lengths in order to make you even more employable.

Secondly, it really struck me what a fantastic education you have received here. As I said to the group afterwards, I saw something in all of them that would have made me want to employ them and help them along.

But thirdly, I emerged with a certain sadness from the day because of the reluctance many of them displayed in wanting to show off their remarkable achievements.

The one skillset I never learnt at University, or I properly gripped until my second job, was entrepreneurship and enterprise. Don’t confuse that with selling your soul to the advertising devil. Or compromising your values and journalistic integrity.

And don’t think I mean becoming a big head.

But sell your achievements. Be proud of who you are and what you have done. Make the person sat opposite think that you can make their life easier and better by working with you. The same applies to a film graduate pitching an idea, or those of you with business degrees looking to raise funds for a business idea.

Realise that old people like me need young people like you, to understand how the emerging generation use social media tools like Facebook and Twitter as instinctively as we use our thumbs.

But think too what advertisers want, but create for yourself a space to do what you do best – to tell stories and speak truths.

But how you do that is changing too. Like at no other time in the 50 years of this course.

Rightly, this University, through the Journalism Leader’s Programme, is at the forefront of research and debate about the future of media. Get involved and stay close to that work.

The most successful amongst you will start to work out a new and different economic model for content. I’m sure you are doing that already.

A friend of mine used to have a suitcase full of contact cards that he’d drag around between the Sunday Times and the Manchester Evening News and, God help him, the Daily Star.  Now of course they’ll be his contacts on LinkedIn, or saved on his phone – and backed up on a cloud.

It shows the power of networks, the connections between people that make things happen.

Contacts are currency – so work hard on building your own networks, starting today on this day where all of you in the room, from countries all over the world, have something that links you for the rest of your lives – your graduation day.

Back finally, to Hunter S Thompson. That quote I shared at the start is made up. It’s a composite, a twisting of the truth. These things often are.

Don’t rely on Google and Wikipedia. Talk to real people and get real quotes.

But there is a further skill you will all need. 


You just never know who will be able to help you. So in everything you ever do, remember these three things. Be honest, be loyal, be kind.

And remember the old Chinese proverb, which may also be made up, but it still stands – “the wise man knows everything, the shrewd one knows everyone.”

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Doing the radio with Gordon Burns

I really enjoy reviewing the papers on the Sunday morning programme on BBC Radio Manchester and BBC Radio Lancashire. It's hosted by the peerless Gordon Burns, who at 70 years of age has lost none of his wit or analytical skills. I've been on about 7 times now. Each one has been different, sometimes the stories that dominate have been uniform across the papers, sometimes they've been wildly different so we have to pick out the nonsense as well as the scoops.

It's also great fun working out the interests and complementary strengths of whichever other journalist is in that day. The last one was with Cerys Griffiths, the brilliant former editor of BBC North West Tonight and who now works at BBC Learning. She was super quick and knew how to summarise a story perfectly.

I enjoy the spontaneity of radio and the ability to project real emphasis to an idea. I also like the interaction around an idea with other people. Next time I'm doing should be in the thick of the silly season. Should be brilliant.

A cool video from the Learning Journey event

Asda reveals Marple plans

Asda have unveiled their plans for a supermarket on Hibbert Lane in Marple on the site of the sixth form college. The exhibition of the plans mainly highlight that the sale of the site will enable the construction of a new college on Buxton Lane just around the corner (pictured).

My first thought when I saw the leaflet was, oh , that looks alright. Then you read it with a more sceptical eye and it adds up to the same thing you always feared, a dirty great supermarket close enough to a town centre to threaten it, not close enough to complement the offer. As a piece of public affairs lobbying it contains all the depressing hallmarks of a slick corporate operation ticking all the right boxes and using buzz words like "community". A series of leading questions at the back of the leaflet make it seem like they're going to solve all the problems of traffic, sick children, sports provision, education and cheap food. You can read a well argued destruction of all this sophistry on the Marple in Action website.

There is no doubt that things will change forever round here. A developer has also purchased a car park site in the centre of Marple with a view to another supermarket opening closer to the centre and within the retail core, while the Asda plan is outside of it. It is more likely than not to be Waitrose.

There are plenty of empty shops in Marple, and a few really crummy businesses which lower the bar of expectation. But what is the centre for? What more can do done to add to the attraction of the place and sell stuff that people actually want. Allowing an Asda to come in, where their customers won't touch the rest of Marple's other stores will be a disaster.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Boomerang - The Meltdown Tour by Michael Lewis

Great book this, for the most part. Michael Lewis deals with the banking crisis of 2008 with detailed reportage from countries at the centre of the storm, but with mixed results Iceland (harsh), Ireland (fair), Greece (harsh and fair), Germany (over obsessed with scat). And then there's a very bizarre final chapter on California, which doesn't fit. It doesn't feel like a book, more a collection of associated long Vanity Fair magazine pieces, which it is.  But for my money, the journalism and analysis on the Iceland and Ireland pieces is peerless.

Monday, July 02, 2012

A month off blogging to get my head straight

Hello - and greetings from my new office at Lockside Mill in Marple.

I have really enjoyed doing this blog over the last few years. It's been a useful and valuable release to comment and pontificate on things of importance to me. But since I started Think More at the start of the month, I've left the Marple Leaf alone in order to work out what it's for and what I should include on here.

Well, I've got a different set of priorities now. I always said, this blog isn't about work, it's about the other stuff. That's slightly changed now, as so much is now so integrated into everything else.

Even though I never updated this blog during office hours at Insider - access to Blogger is banned, along with Facebook and Friends Reunited - running my own business absorbs all that extra capacity in the evenings and weekends, as does having five kids.

But I am going to carry on with it and include relevant content. This is what this post is about.

The most popular topics on the blog are Blackburn Rovers, Marple and Manchester. The other subjects I like to drop in here are shameless namedropping, daft lists, cultural observations and something of an archive for concerts we go to, books I read, friends we share time with, and a few things about TV programmes.

All of them have changed their role in my life to varying degrees.

Firstly, I am totally fed up with Blackburn Rovers and will not be setting foot inside Ewood Park while Venky's are in charge. I despair of what has happened and cannot think of another way of expressing my disgust. I will go to away games occasionally, as I still support my team. There will be occasional blogs and I will be changing the inscription at the top of this blog's flag to something that captures my stubborn hostility to Venky's and yet the love for what still might be. However, what I will say is this: as I am now involved in a business with Ian Currie, who has tabled a bid to buy the club, I will be very careful on what I say and be mindful of how that will be interpreted. We'll see. Just don't expect any leaks.

Secondly, Marple, the small town where I live, is on a real knife edge at the moment. The Portas bid is in. The pre-planning consultation process on Asda's plan for a new supermarket on Hibbert Lane is well underway. Shops are starting up and closing down, local facilities are in need of upgrade. I will be blogging on all of this regularly. The added spice is I'm also working from Lockside Mill, an amazing business premises in Marple.

Now that I'm no longer working in frontline journalism I also have an opportunity to say a few more things about where the media is going, especially on some of the deeper issues around morality and commerciality. I've backed off previously for fear of my comments being made into a story on How Do. That said, I'm gutted that The Word magazine has folded and that has upset my thinking somewhat.

Fourthly, I've also taken on a new role as chairman of Downtown Manchester in Business, a fantastic business lobbying group that exists to channel private sector views on the development of the city and broker connections between members for new business relationships. I'll link to Taking the Michael, my weekly chairman's blog which will focus on many of the subjects about my favourite city.

Finally, there's the guiding mission of my new business Think More. It is this: to get the people of the North to think more, to take part in debates that are shaping our lives, through the forum of live events that stimulate and inspire. There will be blog content on that site which serves that purpose.