Friday, August 19, 2016

Holiday reading review, eight recommendations and one stinker

I'm just finishing the last of my designated holiday reads - Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive - about his life with depression. I hesitate to describe it as a battle, because it doesn't do it justice. It just is. His depression is part of who he is, it doesn't define him. Anyway, he is talking at the moment about what a period of intense reading does for him. For me, that's what holidays represent, that and sunshine and spending time with the people you love the most.

I read two biographies, two factual books, five thrillers, one set in Ibiza and Liverpool, one in Scotland, two in the US, one in Geneva. And then there was one I ditched, which I'll come to later.

So here's a quick review, left to right. The latest Jack Reacher is another stormer. I think I've read them all now and they are like a guilty pleasure, a comfort blanket, a familiar journey involving bad people bullying good people and the satisfying dishing out of rough justice.

Jon Ronson's So You Have Been Publicly Shamed was on the reading list for a debate I hosted at the International Festival of Business in Liverpool. The social media apprentices at Juice Academy wanted to thrash out whether social media is out of control. After reading Ronson's book and after seeing the destruction of civil debate before our very eyes, I am convinced it is, especially the way the algorithms continually serve to amplify our prejudices and fill our echo chambers with more and more noise.

Kevin Sampson's The House on the Hill sees the return of Detective Billy McCartney. I liked his attention to the musical and cultural detail of Ibiza 1990 that peppered and then lit up a sharp and urgent writing style. I loved that he has the brass neck to retrospectively write a terrorist plot based on what we know now, rather than what was going on back then. Flawed characters and plausibly but outrageous bad guys permeate the pages. I loved it.

Tim Marshall's medley of football songs and culture, mixed in with his early life, was a bit of a ramble, but I lent it to a football mad teenager who lapped it up. I was pleased he identified this fantastic Stockport County song as one of the best.

Robert Harris' Fear Index picked up on the terror of a world led by machines out of control. I devoured Dave Eggers' dystopian Silicon Valley tale The Circle last year, this Hollywood movie script in waiting was every bit as good and brilliantly researched.

I gave up on Martin Amis' Lionel Asbo. Disgraceful poverty porn masquerading as irony.

After randomly ploughing through James Crumley, Mark Timlin, Kevin Sampson and now Lee Child, I've found a new author to immerse myself in. Christopher Brookmyre's Scottish noir is rapier sharp and lightning quick. Full of knowing references to football, politics and Scottish culture, I think I'm going to like Jack Parlabane almost as much as Jack Reacher.

Having seen New Order on my special birthday for the first time, it seemed right to get Bernard Sumner's take on the evolution of one of the greatest bands of my lifetime. It's an extraordinary early story, jaw dropping at times. But the edited highlights of the New Order story seem to be as fascinating for what's left out as much as what is in. That said, he doesn't seem to leave much out of his account of the deteriorating relationship with Peter Hook.

Finally, Gone Girl was a strange experience. A skillful manipulation of the loyalties and emotions in the story, veering between the perspectives of the two characters. Rarely comfortable, sometimes shocking.

That's a pretty good catch up on where I'm up to book wise at the moment. I have to read a lot for work, so fiction and biogs are a nice complement to industrial strategies, sector reviews and political tracts. Any recommendations gratefully received.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Face - the magazine from 1983 that defined my life

Back in early July, I finally managed to track down a copy of the ultra rare July 1983 edition of The Face magazine. Reading it now it is such a treasure trove of personal memories and cultural totems.

Foremost is Kevin Sampson's splash on football terrace fashion, probably the first such piece in the media. A chronicle of something I knew, something that lived, but was truly of the street and not in any way media made. But there is also a rare interview with New Order, pre-Blue Monday, which massively opened my eyes and ears to them and what they were all about.

But it's also got so many of the staples of my journalistic and cultural upbriging, Robert Elms, Julie Burchill and one of those random Face delights about horror films. 

I bought mine at WH Smith's in Lancaster, providing a massive vindication to my sartorial leanings back then, but I lent it to one of the Blackburn lads when we went to Swansea away and I never got it back. Maybe I influenced a movement, maybe it just got binned.

I was a habitual Face reader, later migrating on to i-D and Arena, but this was the starting point. I simply can't overstate how influenced I was by The Face, and subsequently all that was inspired by the publisher Nick Logan and his crew - it shaped not just what I consumed, but how I approached journalism, ideas, politics, design, aesthetics, fashion, music. Even my university dissertation in 1988 was about male sexuality and the modern media (I'd have got a first if my approach hadn't been so 'journalistic').

I have searched for ages for this particular copy and am embarrassed to say how much I paid on eBay, but it's going in a glass case.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Leaked scouting report on Blackburn Rovers

Leaving the DW stadium yesterday I found a copy of the scouting report on Blackburn Rovers prepared for the Wigan Athletic manager Gary Caldwell.

"OK lads, this should be a piece of cake. We know Owen's teams won't be as fit as us, so make that count. All that table tennis and card schools get you so far. Think of them like a League One side. Put pressure on their weakest players and it'll work for us.

"When they've got possession press them at every opportunity in midfield, or even in the forward positions, none of them can turn and create space, so just keep pushing them and the ball will go further backwards. If they're daft enough to play Stokes and Marshall behind Graham it will open up the whole midfield for us, especially down our left where Feeney will be. He's fast, but never tracks back.

"Lenehan will charge into challenges, but make sure you're quickly in the space that he leaves. Byrne can't cover it on his own and as long as we press across the middle he'll soon realise the only option is to go backwards.

"Defensively just keep putting pressure on Henley and Lowe, neither have any confidence. Both are out of position. 

"If we get a free kick in the final third, have a go. They've no clue how to build a wall and there's a good chance the keeper will fluff it.

"If you have a chance to get it in the box, give Duffy some stick, or get the ball near him, there's always the chance he'll spoon it in his own net, handball it or rugby tackle one of you.

"As you were lads. Three easy points."

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Honestly, it would have been better if we'd been relegated last season.Grim reflection on Rovers loss to Norwich

I always feel optimistic at the start of a new football season. The sun is shining, the horrors of the previous season are long forgotten and every team starts afresh. We'd also moved to superb new seats right on the half way line, no restricted view and perfect for keeping that Maltese tan topped up.

In our usual pre-match prediction I even shed my nauseous negativity and predicted Blackburn Rovers would beat deflated and relegated Norwich City, expecting they'd be unused to the rough and tumble of Championship football, just as Newcastle proved by surprisingly losing to Fulham the night before.

Joe and Louis, far better readers of football than I, went for a loss and a draw respectively.

We shouldn't really have been surprised. Why on earth a team consisting of 10 of the same team that were crap last season, plus a new signing from relegated Bolton, would find a winning mindset should be obvious. Norwich, relegated they might have been, seemed to assert their collective superior quality in order to prove a point. Rovers, frankly, have no point. Even before the opening goal I couldn't work out a game plan that played to the collective strengths of the team. 

If there is a sliver of optimism it is that the three subs who were introduced, three new signings to boot, were the three stand out performers. Gordon Greer can potentially boss this team, Anthony Stokes shook off the curse of wearing Chris Brown's lead lined number 9 shirt by scoring and Jack Byrne looks like the first Rovers player since Tom Cairney who can do the unexpected AND turn an opponent in midfield. 

They are also the only three players who are winners. Once the first goal went in the rest of the squad did what they did all of last season. They fell to pieces. They have no collective belief. No options. No answer to the constant puzzle about what Ben Marshall's best position is. No confidence in each other to grip a game of football.

Part of me suspects the manager knew all of that. He wanted the team he inherited to prove what they were all about and they stooped to that challenge. 

In many ways it would have been better if we'd been relegated last season. I know that sounds dreadfully negative, but I don't think we can bounce back until we hit our floor and we haven't yet. We're sliding down the pecking order in the Championship, outspent, out thought and out supported by more and more clubs. A club in perpetual decline with no real plan to arrest it.

It's going to be a fairly grim season I'm afraid. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Corbyn's hopeless performance at PMQs is a willful act of trolling

Just watch the video above. There is no spin required. There is no mainstream media manipulation, neither is there any plot from Blairite backstabbers failing their leader that has created this pitiful display. Just a woeful performance from the worst opposition leader I have ever seen.

I have constantly scratched my head at the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn. I just don't get it, so I'm probably the worst person to even try. It's not that I wasn't prepared to give him a chance, I just never thought it would go well. When I said that the party had given up being a serious party of opposition in favour of being a protest movement (five minutes after his election), I was accused of spouting bitter rubbish. I was right though.

Even his plea for kinder gentler politics - something I would support, but didn't believe - has been a failure, especially when you see the bile that his acolytes come out with. Last night Chris Williamson (not an MP) said there were Labour MPs who were "sleeper agents" activated by Tory campaign chief Lynton Crosby. A brick through an office window becomes a trigger for an entirely alternative narrative, based on whatever set of unknowns they want to construct or believe. There are literally no words. 

His barmy army of followers always have an excuse. Someone is out to get him, his words are taken out of context, it's the MSM, or the Blairites. It is deluded paranoid nonsense.

I just think he's trolling the PLP now. He is basically saying: 'I really don't give a toss about this, just watch me win, just wait until you see me at the Momentum rally with my adoring crowds, yes I'll ramble on about "austerity" and "human rights" and "peace" with the same stump speech I always give, but just you watch them lap it up. Watch the cult of Jeremy sweep me back to be leader of a party that you've screwed up.' 

He's not even attempting to lead them. He's going through the motions. He wants them all gone. He could stop even pretending to go to PLP meetings, he could go to Cuba Solidarity rallies instead of campaigning on something relevant and it would still achieve his aim, to wind up the rest of the MPs and anyone who doesn't support him. He wants them all deselected, replaced with more like Richard Burgon and my former MP Diane Abbott, possibly the worst politician I have ever voted for.

So, you either think that PMQs matters, because a good performance on it will lead the news that night, or that doing any media interview matters, that communicating with the public is worth doing, that developing a policy platform to win over former Tory voters matters, or you don't. And if you don't then maybe you just want to build a protest movement and go on marches and shout about the wicked Tories. I don't. I want Labour to be a serious party again.

Stranger Things on Netflix - a word to the bad guy

One of the great delights of parenting is sharing your personal predilections with your offspring. I'm lucky, blessed and flattered that I have "something" to share with all my lads. And the real thrill is how much more knowledgeable and better at the things I like they are; to pick a few - football, geography and, as I discovered at the weekend, film criticism.

So, the youngest and I sat down and binged on Stranger Things on Netflix over the weekend. It's a masterclass in tributes and "Easter eggs" to so many threads and genres. Small town America teen films, either romances or horror films, dark conspiracies, the supernatural, even Winona Ryder herself. It shouldn't work, but it does. There's a piece here in the NME that lists the references.

But it's Matthew Modine's depiction of the creepy CIA scientist that stood out for me. In one of those performances where the presence is far more dominant than his screen time suggests, he casts not so much a brooding shadow, but leaves his bad smell of incompetent menace everywhere, not least in the flashbacks of Eleven, the tortured child.

As I've reached the ripe old age of 50 I've seen the different types of bad guy come and go - mafia, Soviets, Nazis, despots, Colombian drug lords and now the one almost guaranteed to get a loud boo from the stalls, a government conspirator. Even though I wholly sign up to the cock-up theory over conspiracy every time, it's a reassuring anchor in any modern thriller. That said, over the last year I've quietly plodded through most of the Jack Reacher books. Lee Child has an uncanny talent for creating even more unpredictable and curious villains, the predictability is Reacher's way of dealing with them.

But unpredictability was never part of the Stranger Things playbook, increasingly we are given a nod to all that we know, whether it's true or not.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Sir Max Hastings at The Strand Group, while history unfolded outside

While history was being made last night, we gathered in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to hear one of our leading historians, Sir Max Hastings, deliver the Sir Michael Quinlan Annual Lecture. The event was curated, hosted and presented by Dr Jon Davis, someone who has been influential in my recent career change, and frankly inspirational in how he has delivered public engagement from his berth at King's College London, the Policy at King's initiative and the Strand Group. 

Alongside former permanent secretarys, ministers, and no doubt representatives from the guardians of our security - to quote Sir Max - the "spooks, geeks and thugs" we witnessed a provocative and timely look at Secret Wars and Future Wars from the prolific author and former Telegraph editor.

I took three things from the lecture, these are my thoughts, not those of either speaker (I'll add a link as soon as it's available).
  • A free society cherishes freedom in how it allows intelligence to operate, and in how it is managed. Churchill got this, the dons and academics who were allowed time and space often challenged him. Despots don't allow this. Intelligence appears to have been manipulated to suit the purposes of the perceived requirements of the commissioner, over weapons in Iraq. But as Orwell said: "Liberty, if it means anything, is telling people what they don't want to hear."
  • State security services, the diplomatic corp and the Ministry of Defence aren't able to recruit the brightest and best. This has been true for a long time. Money talks, but many British public servants are attracted to the sheer professional challenge of Brussels and the work of the Commission. That will all change now. But what of the notion of nationhood, a cause for which so many were prepared to sacrifice so much? A fractured nation, a divided culture, Scottish devolution, post-Brexit Britain. I wonder how vital this now seems. Edward Snowden is regarded as patriotic by many for his whistleblowing; to Sir Max, with whom I agree, he's a traitor.     
  • Statecraft is a serious business. At the end Jon Davis updated us that the news from next door that this great office of state, once held by David Owen, Douglas Hurd and, until he died, Tony Crosland, will be occupied by (pause for a gasp) Boris Johnson. We thought he was having a joke at the expense of the special guest, a piercing critic. But no. I'll give it six months. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

New Order at Castlefield - best birthday ever

I feel so extraordinary, something's got a hold on me. New Order were brilliant. Incredible set, a real journey through their achievements, like a world tour. The Castlefield Bowl is a fantastic venue as well, open air and right in the heart of the city with a video and light show as good as I've seen. Crowd full of old gits like me as well as young lads with pyro. Felt great to be amongst it.

After we saw the Stone Roses, I was thinking which of my favourite songs I still have to see performed live. Obviously won't get to see the Clash or the Beatles. But the obvious one missing until now has been New Order. Just never managed to catch them live. 

The set was:

Your Silent Face
Tutti Frutti
People on the High Line
Bizarre Love Triangle
Waiting for the Siren's Call
The Perfect Kiss
True Faith
Blue Monday
Love Will Tear Us ApartPlay Vide
    I remember when I was writing about music for Xpress Magazine in Perth, Western Australia in 1989 and the editor gave me New Order's Technique to review. It was the coming together of Ibiza party house music with Manchester's finest traditions and I gave it a five star review, it felt like most massive vindication of everything I believed in. I feel goose bumps now remembering Round and Round at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney at the massive Back to RAT party which I spent with my much mourned dear friend Stuart McGavin (RIP).

    So to end with Love Will Tear Us Apart was just a perfect way to end a perfect birthday. Thank you Rachel. Thank you New Order. Music Complete, indeed.