Saturday, February 11, 2017

This has been Jeremy Corbyn's worst week yet

It wasn't just the abject surrender over the Brexit vote, the resignation of a close ally, or the rumours of his planned retirement. No, it was the statement that the fightback starts here, and then what followed.

It should also be worth mentioning that he had a relatively good performance at Prime Minister's Questions, with a series of leaked texts about the Surrey Council social care funding deal. These minor victories only count for something if you then dominate the narrative thereafter. Pushing the government on their weak spots - that they are unfair, sneaky and look after their own.

As Jonathan Freedland said in the Guardian:

"In a tweet both tragic and comic, Corbyn reflected on this disaster with a declaration that the “real fight starts now” – as if the parliamentary decision to trigger article 50 were a pantomime, and what really matters is waving placards and all the shouting into a megaphone in Hyde Park that now follows. That’s his comfort zone, and he should be allowed to retreat to it. But it leaves the rest of us in a zone of discomfort and distress, watching as a government cruel enough to shut out the world’s most helpless children leads our country off a cliff, unchecked by an opposition that isn’t worthy of the name."

The very next day he started on the BBC sofa by attacking a legitimate question as "fake news" with the same insolence he greets any attempt to point out the hopeless situation he is in.

He then headed up to Ashton-under-Lyne to meet New Charter Homes, the Housing Association I am on the board of. I wasn't involved at all, I didn't even know about it. But colleagues had the expectations that he would be open to conversations about how Housing Associations can contribute to solving the homes crisis.

This is where Corbyn supporters claim he is at his best, with ordinary people talking about their challenges. And, to be fair, I hear from colleagues that they enjoyed his visit.

But here's the thing. He doesn't listen. He doesn't learn. He doesn't understand the world as it is.

His tweets that followed said he had enjoyed his day and that he was pleased to see a Labour Council supporting the building of more council houses. He also tweeted that he spoke about the need for more council homes. It might seem a pedantic question of words, that council housing and social housing are interchangeable. They're not, of course, but there is something else here. Housing Associations have a whole range of challenging issues that the leader of the opposition needs to understand and should be able to assist with. Nor was there any recognition of the wider social mission that a non-state actor provides in a community like Ashton. The local MP who was with him will also have told him that.

In his reshuffle he has sacked the elections co-ordinator two weeks before two by-elections Labour could lose. I fear for Andrew Gwynne, given an almost impossible job as the replacement. Corbyn has lost the support of Owen Jones, one of his important critical friends. Poll ratings are still falling. This is, as Matthew Engel writes in the FT magazine today, the behaviour of a party on a slow death march.

Labour is in many ways clueless, disunited and perhaps in terminal decline. Whatever happens in the by-elections, it faces another crisis in the mayoral elections in May: the Tories are now favourites to win in Birmingham and there are worries even about Corbyn’s former rival Andy Burnham in Manchester.

The tragedy of this situation is that Andy Burnham's campaign is seeking to do all the right things that a listening, responsive and modern Labour candidate should be doing to address the challenges of Greater Manchester. I don't make this point to rerun the 2015 leadership but to illustrate the dire position Labour is in, even when it says and does the right thing.

If this is the fightback, I dread to see the state of a surrender.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

T2 - nostalgia ain't what it used to be

Last year we saw the Stone Roses, New Order and James at emotional and celebratory events held in cathedrals of praise to the god's of our past. Last night I indulged in more of the same with a swim through the messy memories of the last twenty years since Trainspotting hit the screen.

Danny Boyle has a sure touch for what's current and able to make an emotional connection with his audience. That Olympic opening ceremony captured it beautifully. So it's no exaggeration to say the whole exercise of T2, aimed at the right here and right now, is far more than moving the story of Edinburgh junkies along.

It's a film full of Easter "Road" Eggs - knowing references and in-jokes - Hibs shirts, posters and references are in virtually every scene, as are constant flashbacks, references and retellings of the original story, so much so that one of our lads who hadn't seen Trainspotting found it incomprehensible at times. Also, Edinburgh as a changed city plays a far more prominent role than the more claustrophobic environment portrayed in the original. It's a casual but important acknowledgement that you notice the world beyond your immediate gaze as your own mortality hits mid-life.

Like New Order ending their 2016 set with a montage of Ian Curtis images and their own version of Love Will Tear Us Apart, T2 is splattered with its own indulgences - Irvine Welsh pops up again - and though I had to look it up, there's a cameo by a gangster character that's the equivalent of a backing vocal from one of the Happy Mondays at a Stone Roses gig.

It's a good film, an enjoyable journey, with differing versions of the way the story could be told competing with one another. My favourite three scenes were the scamming of a Loyalist social club in Glasgow (original), the meeting of Renton and Begbie in adjacent toilet cubicles (well shot) and the ending (won't spoil it).

The best and most important character in the film is Veronika, the Bulgarian "friend" of Simon, or "Sick Boy". She tells the others they are tourists in their past, while she has no past worth recalling, so only has a future. It's the line that defines the film and almost every detail of it.

Friday, February 03, 2017

My mate #22 Mark Webster

Jonny Owen, Webbo and Me in London 2016
So, to the revival of the "my mate" series where I say something nice about one of my mates after a random shuffle of the address book, telling a tale about how we met, etc. 

This time it's Mark Webster, broadcaster, writer and Whistleblower.

Webbo and I worked together at a doomed TV station in the early 1990s called Wire TV. He was one of the best things about it. He was smart, funny, sharp and above everything else in broadcasting - he was good to work with. The reason Alan Partridge works as a TV character is because it's such an accurate parody of the worst kind of media personality. Mark is the total opposite of that, he works hard on getting the programmes right, but he is always as quick to share the love, as others can be to place the blame.

As a sports broadcaster Webbo also brings a much wider cultural hinterland. He writes for Jocks and Nerds magazine, used to be a writer on Blues and Soul, was a main DJ on Kiss FM and I think this brightens his writing about Sport on TV for the Mail. I think football has required that wider world view of its burgeoning media and I sense his success with his work reflects that. Partly that also comes from having a great address book. In the times he's invited me onto his Whistleblowers podcast I've met brilliant fellow guests - Kevin Day, Andy Smart, Alan Alger, Stuart Deabill and Jonny Owen (apologies if I've missed anyone out).

Here's another measure of what kind of bloke he is. When I did the podcast last summer (pictured) Webbo and Jonny were so good with my eldest lad, Joe. I can imagine Joe was dreading taking time out from our day in London by going to a pub to meet one of his Dad's mates. Jonny, I ought to mention, has made the brilliant I Believe in Miracles about Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest and on St David's Day will be releasing a film about the Wales' adventure in France last summer, Don't Take Me Home.

So, thanks Webbo, see you back in the pod soon.

It's been a while since I updated the "my mate" series. I haven't stopped because I've run out of friends or anything, but it was born in the pre-social media era when this blog was a far more vibrant place. So, I'm reviving it. It's basically a chance to get some more variety on here as well. to do a little bit more than just moaning about Blackburn Rovers, Jeremy Corbyn and trains.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

When Mark Guterman called about his appearance in 40 by 40

I got a call at the back end of last year from a businessman who I included by name in my 2015 novel 40 by 40. I don't know Mark Guterman well, but met him a few times, through various friends, when he was the owner of Wrexham Football Club. That experience didn't end well for him, or the club. The point of including him was as a warning to the central character about the risks of buying a football club and the fans coming after you if it goes wrong.

Mr Guterman's polite enquiry seemed to be about how a work of fiction can include real people. He also wanted to put me right on his ownership of Wrexham and how it was represented in the book. I explained that what was always important to me was to capture accurately the time and the place - Cheshire 2008. It's not pivotal to the story, but it includes a reference to "the boys" who piled in to join his investment consortium to buy Wrexham. I heard this quite a few times myself at the time. The truth was, Mr Guterman stressed, there were no boys. He did it all by himself, but with some involvement from another investor who he fell out with, Alex Hamilton. There was no consortium and no deal done at the bar of the Stag's Head in Great Warford or after a round at the Mere Golf and Country Club.

My argument, which stands, is that the book wasn't inaccurate. The purpose wasn't to report accurately on every deal that got done and who was involved, but to reflect the myths and bravado of the time too. As Tony Wilson used to say, "faced with the choice between the truth and the legend, always print the legend."

Out of the blue I've had a few more calls and reviews about the book recently. No literary agent has called begging to sign me up, no producers asking for the rights to adapt it for TV, or Hollywood, or a major publisher offering me a mega-deal on the follow-up. Just readers who enjoyed it, who liked the story and more than anything, the linkage between the real world and the one I invented.

It's still available at Amazon for £5.99.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Walking Dead isn't fascist - Rick Grimes is a Churchillian inspiration

Rick eyeballs Negan - and lives
Steadily, and quietly I've become a devotee of the post-Apocalyptic TV series The Walking Dead. At first I just thought of it as the traditional cowboy film format, but with zombies. But it's far more profound than that.

Slow as it can sometimes be, and frustrating as it has become, especially in the first half of the current series, the 7th!, it serves as a searing existential commentary on the human condition.

Each scene, each episode, each character asks the most important question of all - what lengths would you go to in order to survive?

There is a frustrating treadmill that the series needs to step away from at the moment. Group gets together again, finds a haven, calamity falls, haven disrupted, new depths are sunk, new depravity exposed, innocence and cowardice challenged, bad guys confronted and overcome - and on it goes.

I've also read the graphic novels, which sometimes dictate the plot trajectory, yet in other ways they walk a completely different path. The character of Andrea is central to the comics, but she died in series two. The character of Daryl (or Derl) isn't in the comics at all.

But we are up to a point now where the most complex and mesmerising bad ass of them all is on the scene - Negan. We first heard his name when a bunch of creepy bikers tried to rob Derl and Abraham, saying that their property "now belonged to Negan". Derl blew them up with a rocket launcher. As you do.

When we finally meet him - played with swagger and verve by Jeffrey Dean Morgan - it is with a violence rarely seen in mainstream TV. We see plenty of zombies being crushed, but not the actual skull of another human - especially not one of our most loved characters. Add to that, he rules over his community with draconian rules and extreme theatrical violence. He is a despicable sadistic villain, but he's also witty, charismatic and difficult to second guess what he's going to do next.

He's far more interesting than the Governor, played by David Morrissey and who dominated two seasons of gruesomeness. But though he swaggers and teases, claiming "I can be reasonable" he's also in command of a particularly nasty crew of bullies and sycophants who seem to delight in dishing out a kicking because they can, whereas Negan at least does so because, he says, he's been left with no choice.

Which brings me to the core moral flaw of the series and the accusation that the default fall back position for all groups is one form of fascism or another, as described in this piece from The Vulture website which makes the point thus:

"For years, both The Walking Dead and its spin-off series, Fear the Walking Dead, have portrayed survival in the post-apocalypse as a triumph of the will — a state of constant conflict in which the preservation of “our people,” however they may be defined, is paramount. The preservation of this in-group, and the destruction of all who threaten it, both living and dead, is the ultimate moral end. This end justifies — even necessitates — the most brutal means at each group’s disposal. Trusting others, treating others with mercy, is all but invariably portrayed as weak, stupid, self-destructive. In a world where the only moral barometer is survival, establishes a binary in which the only choice for Rick Grimes and his fellows is to kill or to be killed, to slaughter or to be slaughtered. deal from strength or get crushed every time."

I disagree. If anything, the choices facing the disparate communities who are bullied and threatened by Negan and his Saviours isn't to become like them, but to resist. The choice from our history isn't to face evil with evil, but to confront it for what it is and to pursue a better alternative. That choice is appeasement, or war.

Understandably, the American counter-narrative is seeking parallels with the President elect and the rise of intolerance. I don't see that. Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, is building up to a role as a Churchill, not any kind of Trump or anti-Trump.

We've already seen glimpses of other adversaries with a far more animalistic sense of survival, contemplating violence as instinct, or accepting of the truly primal and desperate sense of the world and what it has become - think the cannibals of Terminus or the feral and desperate Wolves.

But no, bad as Negan is, powerful as he seems, there isn't even the beginnings of a moral debate to be had, just a practical one of weapons and tactics.