Thursday, July 30, 2015

Summer reading special - are the characters in 40 by 40 real?

Roger Cashmore, the central character in 40 by 40, is obviously fictional. But there are truths in his persona. People tell me they know who it is based on. And they are right. Even if it's a different person every time.

One of the key lines in one of my favourite films is: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, was convincing the world he didn't exist."

Some of the other characters are also "inspired" by people I've come across, there's also an "easter egg" in the naming of all the minor characters. There's a lunch at San Carlo, or a coffee in Costa in Alderley, for the first person who can spot it.

I was asked another great question for a piece in The Big Issue in the North. Why include real people and situations?The answer is in the interview below.

And if you'd like to order the book, pop into your local bookshop - including Waterstones, or order from Amazon. We have a few events lined up - hopefully one at Waterstones in Wilmslow and another in Alderley Edge.

Where did the idea for the book come from?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but on the basis you should write about what you know, the subject matter jumped out at me. I had a ringside seat for the biggest story of my journalistic life. I loved Kill Your Friends by John Niven, which is about the music industry in 1997, it tells so many truths, as you’d expect from a former A&R man, despite being a work of fiction. Truly, 2008 felt like it was the last days of Rome, fortunes were lost, reputations trashed, people died. I also wanted to weave together some extra jeopardy by putting the twin worlds of hooligan gangsterism and serious business together.

What’s the key to creating a monstrous character who will still engage readers?
Two things, making him darkly funny and letting the reader know that he’s not as clever as he thinks he is. Flag up a few obvious clues that he’s heading for a fall. If you think about, that’s what made Wolf of Wall Street watchable. With my central character,  Roger Cashmore, he’s got his money in an Icelandic Bank on the Isle of Man, it’s 2008, you know that isn’t going to end well.

Why did you decide to include real people in among the fictional characters?
As it’s set in a real time and place, Manchester and Cheshire in 2008, where real events happened and I was a witness to them, it seemed mad not to. It roots it in reality and makes it all the more plausible. Why invent a moment when everyone was warned about the looming global financial crisis when one actually happened. A conference in May 2008 at the Yang Sing restaurant,  where Jon Moulton predicted it all, I was there, I took copious notes, I have his slides, I have the guest list, all the other people in book who were there - football managers, property developers, big hitters - all add colour. You literally could not make it up.

There’s insider detail on everything from corporate espionage to complex financial instruments. How did you go about your research?
Talking to people, lots and lots of people. It’s my job to understand corporate finance and understand the way that world works. The money laundering and the espionage stuff came from a detailed briefing from a real spy. I also interviewed Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, but she didn’t tell me any secrets as such.

Was it easy to find your fictional voice after a career in journalism?
I did write a spoof column for a few years where the voice was honed. In many ways it was easier to tell this story through that prism, as I could take liberties. I do really admire long form journalism and the sketch portraits of a crisis that Michael Lewis does so well in the Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour. I could have done something similar but there are fewer outlets for that.

Are women really as sidelined in North West business as they are in the business world portrayed in the book?
Less so now, happily. But just look at the Rich Lists and the Power 100 – overwhelmingly male, pale and stale. But although the book is centred on Roger Cashmore as a sexist arse in a world of “good lads” it is also a book about redemption and lessons learned. It has to be, doesn’t it?

Will Roger Cashmore be the progatonist of another book?

Absolutely. I’d like to fast forward to 2015 in a slightly different world, where a bruised and confused Roger is up for something new and stands for election in an unwinnable seat, for the Tories. I’ll call it; “We’re all in it together”.

Do buy the Big Issue in the North off one of the vendors when you're out and about. It's a great social enterprise originally set up by my friend Ruth Turner and now edited by my former super sub Kevin Gopal.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

For the party, for the country, Deputy Flint

Caroline meets the Taylors
I was deeply honoured to be asked to chair a rally for Caroline Flint on Saturday in the council chamber in Manchester Town Hall. She is the stand-out candidate for the deputy leadership. An impressive roster of Labour politicians - Hazel Blears, Peter Dowd, Richard Leese, Claire Reynolds, Jonny Reynolds, Nick Bent - all gave short speeches about why they are supporting her and what we need to do when she wins.

Here is mine.

We have much to take from this election, if nothing else some valuable lessons about why people DON’T consider voting Labour. Afterall, in Hazel Grove we talked to many more Tories than most Labour campaigners and so feel we understand some core issues about what cost us.

Jonny Reynolds MP, also with family
But you realise what Labour needs to do for people when you knock on someone’s door, or they respond to you in the street and they  say THANK YOU for being Labour in our area – an area they felt had been colonised by the Liberals and we’d given up.

We can’t give up – we must never give up.

Because there was something Caroline Flint said which struck with me – Labour must have a 650 seat strategy.

We must operate in a different way – be there for people.

Becoming a social movement isn’t just about knocking on doors, but getting people to knock on your door too.

In every council ward in the country there are probably 100 people who make a community tick, sometimes they are known as community organisers – sometimes they would never dream that such a moniker could be attached to them.

They organise sports teams, kids activities, church events, carnivals and festivals. But also food banks, home helps and credit unions. They may not even be overtly political, but they care.

Hazel Blears
We have to be these people. And be amongst these people in our communities. Not for cynical electoral advantage, but to provide leadership when it is needed. 

We have use the skills and talents of each and everyone. Learn lessons from the very best practices of community organising and growing organisations.

The Women’s Institute, the Churches who provide comfort and social assistance in our communities. How organisations embrace technology to coalesce and organise.

Let me end by telling you a story about Joe.

A first time voter and a party member. He’s built a business doing something called the Teenage Markets.  

I contacted him and got him involved in our election campaign. His Dad stuck a massive Correx board up – in fact I think Jonny gave it to him when he popped into the office in Market Street in Hyde.

I could have handed him a bag of leaflets and gone round Mill Lane Estate with him as I did with many of the volunteers who joined our junior army in the campaign.

Caroline Flint MP thanks her supporters
But Joe also loves making films and has that talent and so he did one with me (the link to YouTube is here) – I’ve no idea how many votes that gained us and I know not every party member can do that. But if you start from the perspective that as Labour we wish to develop the potential of every human being, then it is incumbent on us to nurture the talents within our party and amongst our activists too.

I love the vision Caroline has for creating a party that finds more Joe's – that’s why I’m proud to be with you all today.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Blair this week - correct in every possible way

I was fortunate to be back on my old stomping ground of Chartered Accountants Hall on Wednesday for a seat in the audience for a change to listen and to watch Tony Blair.

The whole thing is here.

Jason Prince of the neighbouring parish has written a superb and deeply personal summary - Change, or we consign ourselves to the wilderness. I can't better it, so won't.

From that same stage I've humbly provoked debate about theories of the future with audiences of accountants and businesses and encouraged a new way of looking at the world, while putting together the Tomorrow's Practice project. There is indeed, as Blair said, a huge market out there for ideas about the future. But you have to want to hear it. There was no doubt the true believers in the room did, but outside?

I was with business colleagues yesterday talking about change in one of our businesses we run - iterating, adapting, thinking about how technology and shifting regulation is shaping what we do in different areas. We have to constantly adapt. But we have core values, a strategy and goals in mind.
"Labour shouldn’t despair. We can win again. We can win again next time. But only if our comfort zone is the future and our values are our guide and not our distraction."
Footnote. Quentin Letts of the Mail made the following observation: "Yesterday’s audience included a lot of 40-something men in black suits and unbuttoned shirt collars, Blakeys in their heels so that their shoes clicked when they entered." Nice to be noticed.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Our non-charter charter for Discuss

I've been tweaking the website for our remarkable debate and event business DISCUSS.

I'm slightly proud of the copy for the "about us" bit on our website, so I thought I'd share it here.

Discuss doesn't have anything as snooty as a charter. But we do have a starting point. 
We take our inspiration from Manchester’s celebrated history in progressive thinking, invention and the free trade of ideas.  
Our debates will always be challenging and provocative, but we are never high-brow, intimidating or ‘glitterati’. 
Our debates aim to be inclusive, authentic and delivered with integrity.

Foremost, they will be fun.

No fuss, no clutter, no messing about, just a good old fashioned ding-dong. 

 The rest is here...

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Penistone Literary Festival and a few questions about the book

There's something really exhilarating about book festivals and author events - I go to a fair few myself, so it was great today to be at the front doing a reading from my book, 40 by 40, and taking questions in my slot at the Penistone Literary Festival.

I'm going to be speaking at an event called Darkness and Decadence with Lynn Gerrard on the 24th of July at the Nexus Cafe as part of the Manchester Fringe Festival.

I've also done an interview with local author Paul Beatty.

1. Please tell us something about yourself. 
As it says on my Twitter: Marple dwelling father to 5, writer, business thinker, debate curator. Catholic. Stood for Labour in 2015. Arte et Labore. A lover not a fighter.  Or as some prefer: “Vacuous careerist and Mandelson crony”.

2. Your new book 40 by 40 is your debut novel. What’s it about?
Redemption and feminism. Actually, it’s a bawdy comic thriller about a vile sexist business bad boy set in Alderley Edge and Manchester in 2008, the year it all came on top. "A riotous skewering of the worst excesses of laddish business culture, with full due diligence done" according to The Big Issue in the North.

3. Where did your inspiration and motivation come from to write 40 by 40?
I had a ringside seat for our era defining year as a business journalist. Everything in the book is sort of true, even the bits that aren’t real.

4. How did you get away with adding real actual people into the story, like Sam Allardyce, Jon Moulton, Tom Bloxham and Rio Ferdinand?
They’re the backdrop, the background noise to the events of the year. I got some permissions, some I took out on legal advice. As long as you don’t degrade their persona, what harm could it do?

5. Is the central character actually based on a real person?
At least half a dozen high profile Cheshire dwelling entrepreneurs seem to think it’s them. So obviously, no.

6. What books do you read for pleasure and why?
Crime noir (Raymond Chandler, James Crumley and JJ Connolly), great American novels (Cormac McCarthy), long form journalism (Michael Lewis), I’ve read everything by Christopher Hitchens and George Orwell. Helps me see the world as it is.

7. What book would you like to consign to room 101 and why?
1984, for inspiring crap TV formats.

8. What is your writing process?
Fits and starts, then a final flourish.

9. What will be your next writing project?
The follow up is already in play – We’re All in it Together, where our guy stands in the General Election in a challenging seat, for the Tories.

10. What tips would you give to someone writing their first novel?
Write about what you know.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Interviewing Roger Cashmore

Launched the book tonight. I've been to plenty of launches where not much happens. Also been to a few signings and public events where the author does an intervew and a reading. So far, so good.

Tonight I actually interviewed the lead character of my own novel. Seriously. My friend Graeme Hawley, a proper professional actor, performed the role of greedy, grotesque Real Businessman of Cheshire Roger Cashmore so well, it was actually quite unnerving. It reminded me why and how I wrote the book. The experiences of horror at the hands of egotistical pyschopaths. "Great Lads" who think they are funny and clever who are used to getting their own way and force feeding their opinions on supine acolytes. Yes, them. Graeme was Roger tonight. 

We effectively played it as a straight interview - scripted to a degree but with some really good ad libbing from Graeme who "got" the look, the tone and manner perfectly.

He was even accompanied by his security minder Alan Townley, played with great accuracy by, er, Alan Townley and his long suffering PR played by Lisa Ashurst, who is a PR.

I'd like to do this again, get some people from Graeme's world in, agents, producers and script people who could see what a brilliant performer Graeme is and how this would make great TV or theatre.

It's not for me to say if the book's any good or not, but I'm pleased that people seem to be enjoying it and it's selling well. After the first bit, we swapped roles and Graeme moderated a Q&A about the book and I loved reliving the experience of writing it - what the characters and plot devices related to. The role of journalism now, the difficulties of building empathy for a horrible character, the three act structure, how the book is ultimately about redemption and forgiveness. 

Everything has to be doesn't it? 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Deputy Flint has found her voice

There comes a point in any political campaign when a candidate finds their voice, their rhythm and it clicks. Unsurprisingly I don't think any of the Labour leadership contenders are there yet. They're too cautious, too keen not to commit a gaffe. I say it's not a surprise because frankly they must be wrung out after an exhausting General Election and are right back in the thick of it with barely a moment to conduct the kind of campaign that plays to the disparate parts of the party as well as the country. 

But on the deputy leadership issue my mind is firmly made up to support Caroline Flint. On John Piennar's politics show on Radio 5 and on Question Time this week I was mightily impressed with Caroline. She has that cadence, that connection with people and a fearless confidence I want a deputy leader (and a leader) to have. The very fact she's got on with it rather emphasises her own qualities of resilience.

Of course we have to connect beyond making ourselves feel good. Of course we have to think beyond being a protest movement - which were just a couple of messages from today - but I think she's in listening mode as well.

She also has that authentic certain something about her - maybe even a few eccentricities, like a love of Games of Thrones - a family, a story, a way of talking to people across this varied and quirky country that doesn't patronise or demur.

The candidates aren't going to provide all the answers, neither must the party swing behind the anointed in September in a show of faux unity, but dig in for a deep and dirty understanding of what it takes to get back to power in council chambers, in Mayoral contests and in the General Election of 2020.

Writing my first novel - the how, the why and the when

Each generation has an era defining time. The summer of love of 1968, the Arab Spring, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Ours wasn't a summer of love though, more an autumn of fear. 

In 2008 it felt like the world was truly turning upside down. I can remember vividly the day when my savings account in a bank in Iceland was wiped out. How friends saw their businesses turn to dust. When our advertisers pulled plugs on everything.

I sat and watched it from the editor's chair, hearing stories of real drama, real fear and that feeling that this was a seismic, epoch changing time. This was our time and my novel, out now, is my attempt to tell this amazing tale.

I've always wanted to write creatively. Journalism is great, but sometimes news journalism doesn't give you that sense of perspective. As time went on and my job was more managerial, I had fewer and fewer outlets for that long form, investigative, exploratory story telling of human struggle. The kind of thing Michael Lewis is the absolute master at. And the kind of thing that if we managed to do three of them a year we'd enter them for awards, creating the illusion we do this all the time. 

But I also quite like comedy writing, but have never done anything about it, despite having always knocked out the funnies page. Way back when I was a student at the University of Manchester I used to contribute stories to the Mancunion diary page at the back - often about Derek Draper, if I remember rightly. Wherever I worked, I always fell into the "back page" role rather well. I also developed fictitious characters to tell truths: Arty Tosh, Corporate Raider and Lucretia De Bitch.

In the course of my time I also wrote a column called Roger Cashman. He was a grotesque caricature of a greedy and sexist Cheshire businessman. He became a minor sensation on Twitter, even finding a nemesis in his wife, Doris, which was absolutely nothing to do with me. 

For a while I kept it a secret that it was me. The chairman of the board highlighted it as his favourite part of the magazine and I had to come clean. We'd even get occasional letters of complaint, but more questions as to whether he was for real. My reply was always that he may or may not be real, but that everything he said was true. 

But Roger Cashman is dead. He disappeared over the edge of his boat off Puerto Banus in 2011, only for someone to try and scam his Twitter account for personal gain in 2013. He is dead. Long live Roger. Another truth about business, cowardice and crime.

And so it is with my first novel - 40 by 40. The premise is simple. Here's our guy, rich, bored, on the brink of greatness and huge wealth in order to stave off a mid-life crisis. Setting himself up for a life of reality TV stardom, more easy money, sex on the side and of course the dalliance with football club ownership. You know that moment in Goodfellas, at the end of act two, when Ray Liotta's character has it nailed: "We were wise guys, Goodfellas, we had it all." Well, that's my central character of Roger at the start.

WARNING. Roger Cashmore is appalling. A monster. From the first words - "You can't go wrong with sick white children" - the calculating cynicism of charitable giving writ large - to his dismissal of his wife's concerns, his self-centred avarice, lack of loyalty and the essential split personality - wanting to be taken seriously by those he fears most. All of it makes him hard to love. But I hope you will end up rooting for him, hoping for a redemption of some kind, even if he doesn't get what he wants. 

I know I did so with Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street, Steven Stelfox in Kill Your Friends and John Self in Money.

The jeopardy is the real world. This is 2008, we know what's going to happen in April when the tax rate changes. In September when Lehman Brothers crashes. In October when the UK government has to bail out RBS. And when Man United win the Champions League Final in Moscow in May, or when Manchester City get taken over by Arabs in September. That much we know, but where were you? How did those real events make you feel? Oh, and who do you think was behind Panacea in Alderley Edge getting burnt down?

I also wanted to weave in real people, real situations I witnessed - MIPIM, a conference where Jon Moulton spelled it out, a decadent birthday party I went to as the world crumbled. No real person in the book has words put in their mouth that they didn't say, or is placed in a situation that misrepresents them. They are as part of the physical backdrop as San Carlo Restaurant in Manchester, the Europa Hotel in Belfast and the Alderley Bar and Grill.

The one exception I ought to clarify is Simon Binns. Part of Manchester's business scene at the time was a spiky newspaper called Crains. To airbrush that from the picture of the year would be dishonest, much as I despised it at the time. With Simon's help I actually wrote a scene with him in it, having lunch and interviewing the main character. Although Roger is phenomenally rude about Simon, I think I know him well enough to know he'd take the confected affront at his nosiness and contrary opinions as a compliment. It was certainly intended as one.

The book isn't just a ramble through the archives either. I spent a bit of time talking to people who dealt with builders, helicopter leases, TV companies, banks, lawyers, phone hackers and football club owners. Explaining how quite complex financial instruments worked, but also how criminal gangs sometimes operated. I couldn't resist weaving in a reference to the Learning Journey I did to California.

In the credits I do thank the following fine folk for helping me with the research: Nick Carter, Alec Craig, Andy Shaw, Steve Hoyles and Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5. But there are many many more.

There will be inevitable speculation about who the characters are based on. None of them are a direct lift. None. Some are just inventions, some are amalgams of at least two or three people. An acquisitive Indian food conglomerate called Chunky's doesn't leave much to the imagination. But it's a work of fiction - a way of telling a truth through invention.

I would say it's one of the most incredibly exhilarating and challenging things I've ever done. But then I said that about being part of an MBO, setting up a new business and standing as a parliamentary candidate. It's all true.

I'm now working on the follow up. It's called We're All In It Together, set in 2010, and Roger is standing for parliament in a challenging seat. Not that I'd know anything about that.

If you fancy coming to the launch on Friday, click below and reserve your personalised copy.

Eventbrite - An audience with Roger Cashmore - 40 by 40 book launch