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

Monday, June 15, 2015

I get why Labour needs a debate - but not why Jeremy Corbyn is standing for leader

The Labour Party is going to elect a leader. And a deputy leader. And the Labour Party is going to debate the policies and strategies that the winner can take to the electorate. That may take some time. Quite why the first and the third have to be entwined remains a mystery to me.

When Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper are after our vote, we can ask them what they will do about Trident, about tax rates, about a Living Wage, about anything we want. We will ask them such questions because one of them will be our leader. We will not have any kind of expectation that Jeremy Corbyn is going to be elected leader, but amazingly he's going to be asked the same questions. As he was here.

This is the reason he gave Total Politics magazine as his reason for standing: "My entry into all of this was because a number of us on the left of the party thought there ought to be a debate about the economic strategy and how we deal with the issue of austerity…"

We will have a debate. We could always have a debate. It will doubtless spark constituency parties calling meetings, attended by a small number of activists, who will then declare that the massed ranks of the party locally have decided to back one or other candidate. And the local people will look at us and go, "Eh? Who are these people?" I've nothing against an exchange of ideas, of debate, of policies. As a party that process needs to be deep and wide and tall.

But surely, surely, we have to get past this shallow gesture politics, the resolutionary road to socialism.

And while I'm trying to cathartically lift myself from a slumber today, I have another real fear.

Raise this on any number of Labour blogs - as Jonathan Reynolds MP has done today - and look at the comments underneath. Abuse, hysteria and the default response to any suggestion you engage with people who voted Conservative - "You're just a Tory". You can get depressed about social media activity, just as you can get over-excited when it goes in your favour. But this is one lesson we don't need to import from Scotland: if you don't like what someone has to say, just call them a Tory. I don't think Jonathan could have been clearer about where Labour policies, values and campaigns should differ. But no, just chuck the abuse. Worked for the SNP, afterall, I just hoped we were better than that.

I hope we have reached what Jamie Reed called "peak bullshit" in this campaign and won't see any more of the ludicrous Taliban comment in the Telegraph today or we're in for a depressing summer of not getting anywhere at all, whoever we end up electing as leader.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Why I don't drink

A few years ago I stopped drinking. I started moderately again. But I realised I didn't really enjoy it. I got roaringly drunk after a friend's funeral, whilst at a particularly low ebb, realising it was both a sedative and a release. I thought back to my younger days, to the desperate hangovers, the swaying, the failure to keep up on a bender and wanting to sleep in nightclubs, the awful things I said to people when sozzled. 

So I stopped for good. It's been three years now.

I've now become one of those weird people who doesn't drink. In the past, when I did socially have a bevy, or had a bottle of wine, no-one ever asked me why I did it. And yet now it is me not drinking that always has to justify it. Including the answer to the well-intentioned observation: "I didn't realise you had a problem". By the measures of many, I really didn't, but as a society, I really think we all do.

So, here are three reasons why I don't.

1. Horror. It's a point that's been made this week as Alastair Campbell has been touring the studios in the wake of Charles Kennedy's death. The awful sights of drunk teens at a prom in Edinburgh, student parties, stags. I could add my own stories of carnage at all-day cricket and concerts. It's a fairly unattractive picture of our our rather drink-sodden culture.

2. Health. Since I stopped I have lost weight. I do more, I feel well. I don't think I would if I was absorbing the calories like I was. There is a different debate about alcoholism and the disease that killed Charles Kennedy. But hard as it sometimes is to have judgement, enthusiasm and professionalism - I can't imagine how I could manage that with a thick head. There is another health risk, falling over, losing things, getting beaten up because you misread situations.

3. The kids. There have been some occasional surveys that show how young people are turning their backs on a culture of excess. But one of the thoughts in the back of my mind was the effect it has on the kids. Now my eldest is 16 and experimenting with independence, I have to be there in the background. What if the call came - "can you come and get me, I'm in trouble?" Sorry son, I've had a drink. I shiver at the thought. And how can I hope my kids don't get stuck into the rut of benders if our example is the rowdy middle-aged version of that?

The thing that mitigates against me talking about this more is coming over as a pious bore who won't go for a drink with someone. One of the nicest things said about me during the election campaign was that I was a normal bloke you could have a pint with. I chuckled at the irony. But I hope I still am, and if anyone does want to go out for one with me, mine's a cheeky lime and soda.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why I'm backing Peter Mandelson to be Chancellor

There's another election campaign underway, but it's relatively low key.

The position of Chancellor of the University of Manchester has attracted three strong nominations from poet Lemm Sissay, Sir Mark Elder of the Halle orchestra and Peter Mandelson.

As I sit on the General Assembly and am an Alumni board member I've been involved in several discussions for some time about the role of Chancellor and the process of electing a replacement for the excellent Tom Bloxham.

I have a good grasp of what the University needs.

This is nothing to do with the Labour Party, by the way.

But this is everything to do with where Manchester is going, where the University faces challenges and this is why I'm supporting Peter Mandelson.

I was concerned that some of the names being encouraged to stand were either too frivolous or too academically obscure. Let's be clear, none of the three candidates fit into that bracket. I am really pleased that there is such a strong field.

Manchester is a progressive institution with great ambitions. While the role of Chancellor is ceremonial, it is also ambassadorial and totemic. Anna Ford and Tom Bloxham did an excellent job doing just that. The University now needs to direct every resource at its disposal towards raising Manchester's name internationally and commercially.

That Peter is an international statesman of some standing is without doubt. He was a first rate EU Commissioner, his industrial activism as a Trade Minister saw him at his very best. To attract the attention of someone of such calibre is in itself a great credit to the University of Manchester.

Peter came to talk to a group of us back in March. We asked him the most obvious question of all  - why are you interested in Manchester now? His humility and grace rather impressed us. He told the story of his enthusiasm for what the Greater Manchester city region has achieved and his admiration of what Nancy Rothwell wants to do for the University and to build its links with the modern world.

He was also refreshingly candid and open about this phase of his life and how the university will fit well with his range of engagements.

A powerful ally, a strategic brain and access to an incredible network. What's not to love?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The best question I was asked during the campaign and the answer was Manchester, not Labour

I did a session with about 100 students at Stockport College during the election campaign. 

On reflection, in so many ways, it was my favourite meeting of all, despite Labour getting a rough ride from some of the audience. Partly this was because I was asked, probably the best question of the whole campaign, and it was this: "why do you think there will be good jobs for people like us?" 

The answer wasn't in the Labour manifesto, but it was the answer I was able to give with more conviction than any other. The answer is Manchester. It is laid out in the Manchester Independent Economic Review of 2009 and the work of Greater Manchester’s whole project of renewal since 1996.

These include, for starters, the BBC move to MediaCity, Spinningfields, Airport City, The Corridor, Graphene, Nanoco, Alderley Park, NCC Group, Laterooms, TalkTalk, The MMU incubator. These are all occurring in a city region with momentum and attraction, culturally confident, competently run, imbued with fairness and as at ease with the language of enterprise as it is with the need for a changing infrastructure and how we care for people.

And who was in charge locally, creating the benign conditions to attract this influx of investment? A Labour council, a Labour council.

Yet somehow Labour nationally managed to concede one of the greatest successes of a progressive Labour project, the Manchester Labour project, to a tactical Tory sound bite.

Elsewhere on the campaign we were asked to fight back against “American style Mayors” imposed by a Tory government, "setting up Greater Manchester to fail".

We still have a lot of growing up to do, but maybe we can build on our successes not just wallow in our defeats. The first leadership candidate to acknowledge this will probably get my vote.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

I found myself thinking a lot during the election campaign about that famous saying from Norman Kirk - that people just want someone to love, somewhere to live, something to do and something to hope for. Well, I'm no different. In the course of doing one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done, I've still had time to consider what I actually do with the rest of my life.

It's been hard to plan for the future when I've been rather publicly applying for a new job, even if it was one that on this occasion I wasn't expected to get. I'm upbeat about the experience, given it was my first shot. As my friend Martin Carr said last night - "I don't lose. I either win, or I learn something new."

But I only had five months as candidate, pity those who were at it for YEARS. Those unsuccessful candidates who stuck everything on Red 6. Giving up jobs and careers in one city to try their luck and be rejected in another, far from home. Or to stand up as the local hero in their own community and have to face the people who turfed you out every day.
You don't get paid to be a candidate either. So many people don't appreciate or know this, they assume the party supports you with a job.

It does become all consuming. I've not been a particular supportive Dad for my eldest son who's now sitting his GCSEs, or my youngest who is doing his SATS. And in the middle of all of this Rachel has completed her final year dissertation at University AND secured her first teaching job in September. All without much help from this myopic political zombie. This incredibly loving family, they leafleted, supported me in public debates and rose to an unexpected level of enthusiasm for the election. I could quite simply not have done it without them. And I'm pretty sure I don't deserve it.

In all of that time I carried on working. One of my big projects came to its conclusion with a launch event at the start of March - a look at the future for the ICAEW, a professional institute. Another reached a natural end, many others carried on, some stalled, probably because I couldn't maintain the momentum. But even during polling week I was signing off page proofs for a magazine I produce for Seneca and meeting a potential new partner for Liberty one of the other businesses I'm on the board of. And proudly, our Discuss debate series secured more sponsorship and we sealed a media partnership with The Guardian. And I've put together a launch event for Gorilla Accounting, a cracking new business serving self-employed contractors, anyway, it's in Manchester next Thursday and you are welcome to come along.

I also put my book on hold, much to the frustration of the publisher. An expletive strewn satire with 95,000 words, many of them starting with F, which required a blizzard of publicity and would have given out a mixed signal to the voters of Hazel Grove at a crucial time. We're launching it on June the 25th.

This isn't a moan, by the way. I wouldn't have it any other way. One of the reasons I gave up my full time job a few years ago was precisely to have that variety and an opportunity to live a more rounded life than the treadmill I'd found myself on. I also wanted to contribute to my community in a meaningful way, to do what I enjoy, but also to earn a better living.

The future
I have absolutely loved this. There are some very exciting political challenges I am interested in pursuing, there is a job to build on what we have created here. But right now, this week, I've got to focus. Starting with a presentation I'm meant to be writing for delivery on Saturday.