What I read during the great lockdown

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How was lockdown for you? Did you write the next great American novel, nail that Triathlon or lean to play that piano concerto?

My aim was simple, survival with a toddler. We did OK. No-one got ill, we kept our jobs and I’m not buried under a patio, so I’ll count all of those as a win.

One thing I did do during lockdown was listen to audiobooks, because for reasons of time and motivation – I don’t have much of either – I’ve stopped picking up the paper versions.

So here’s my lockdown listens in the order I tackled them

Facebook, The Inside Story by Stephen Levy

An exhaustive story of the Social Network, this was good on the early stuff, in particular founder Mark Zuckerberg’s middle class beginnings and student attempts to create what was then called The Facebook while at Harvard. It also outlines the company’s later ruthlessness in snapping up potential rivals like Instagram and WhatsApp and how it succeeded where others – for example Myspace – failed. But the book struggles to maintain its pace in later chapters, particularly when we reach the 2016 US election and allegations of Russian interference, where things get very complex. However, Levy successfully describes the power and workings of the Facebook algorithm and its ability to keep its users addicted, underlining the fact that reports of the network’s decline are likely exaggerated.

The Great Successor by Anna Fitfield

Next followed this biography of North Korean despot Kim Jong Un. It’s easy to see North Korea as comic and almost a parody of a totalitarian state, but the Great Successor describes a grimly efficient and corrupt regime ruthlessly ruled by a dynasty of autocrats with little regard for the North Korean people. It’s the small details of life in North Korea that make this book fascinating. For example, in Pyongyang, neighbourhood inspectors watch for signs that citizens are watching television after 10pm, with persistent offenders sentenced to time in a labour camp. This is because North Korea state TV finishes at ten, so anyone still watching is likely to be viewing either an illegal imported DVD or, worse, forbidden South Korean TV. Orwellian stuff.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

The best novel I’ve read in ages, My Dark Vanessa is the story of a young woman’s recovery from sexual abuse. That sounds grim, and at times it is, particularly in its detailed descriptions of a college lecturer’s manipulation of his prey and the effects of his behaviour on others. But the book also illustrates the complexity of those relationships, how victims sometimes refuse to see themselves as victims and how they don’t behave how we expect the abused to behave. It’s a book for our times, brilliantly written without compromise.

One Two Three Four by Craig Brown

Another Beatles biography? This one is different. Craig Brown does to the Beatles what he did to Princess Margaret in 2017’s Yes Maam, takes a subject and plays with time and characters to build up a fresh and often funny picture from a number of loosely connected angles. One Two Three Four is great at capturing the essential oddness of the Beatles phenomenon, arguing that Beatlemania was akin to a mass hysteria, particularly in the US where it followed just months after the national trauma that was the assassination of John F Kennedy. It also describes how the death of Brian Epstein allowed malign influences to gain access to the Fab Four, hastening the split of a band whose members were only in their late 20s when it all finished.

Bored self-isolating? Play the Greatest Video Game of All Time…

We’re all going to be spending a lot more time indoors, so why not play the greatest video game of all time…

Super Mario Odyssey is the greatest game of all time. Fact. Forget box sets, this will give you more joy, more entertainment and a greater sense of achievement than all six seasons of the Sopranos.

If you are locked down, self isolating or socially distancing you need to buy a Nintendo Switch, order a copy and play this till your fingers drop off. Even if you’re not a fan of videogames, and I know a lot of people aren’t, it will astound.

As with all Nintendo games there’s a strange, hackneyed story that provides some narrative. Bowser, a villain who looks like some kind of deranged cross between a turtle and a dinosaur, has kidnapped Princess Peach – blonde heroine with a dash of girl power – with the intention of marrying her against her will. You spend the game travelling between worlds, chasing Bowser and his unhappy would-be bride and collecting Power Moons to keep your airship moving.

Along the way there is some of the most beautiful level design I’ve ever seen in a video game, times when the sheer invention overwhelms. With a shake of your controller, Mario can turn into everything from a high jumping frog to a destructive T Rex. He can sprout wings, turn into a fizzing bolt of electricity or transform into some kind of Easter Island-style Moai and wobble to his goal. It’s colourful, cheerful, surreal fun, executed brilliantly.

Every so often there is a nod to Mario’s 2D roots, when you enter a pipeline and end up in mini platform games that look like Mario’s Super Nintendo heyday, jumping flaming barrels and punching your way through walls.

This reinforces that Odyssey is a post modern take on Mario, endlessly recycling iconic game moments – you can even buy costumes and items from the Italian plumber’s previous console outings – culminating in an ending that isn’t really an ending. The final boss battle passes and you just keep on playing as Odyssey continues to throw ever more difficult challenges at you, including some you play online against other players from around the world.

At one point, midway through the game, Mario enters a world that looks very much like ours. A modern urban environment called New Donk City where he can climb tall buildings, go to a concert, ride a scooter or take part in a jump rope competition. It looks beautiful, sun reflects off pavements, bored office workers chat on street corners and car horns honk distantly, think of it as Grant Theft Auto but without the violence and bad language.

Of course, there are faults with Odyssey. The two-player mode doesn’t really work and at times the camera angles are slow to catch up to the action, but these are soon forgotten.

I’ve played nothing quite like it. Super Mario Odyssey is less a video game and more a work of art.

It’s another piece on why Labour didn’t win the 2019 election

polling-station-2643466_1920Was it Brexit, Jeremy or Antisemitism? There’s been an orgy of soul searching on the British left over recent days, so here’s my neutral quick take on Labour’s defeat  – some of it picked up from stuff I’ve read or listened to over the last few days.

1. Labour tend to win when they talk about a bright future. For example, Clem Attlee’s 1945 campaign slogan Let Us Face the Future or Harold Wilson’s famous 1963 White Heat of Technology speech. I felt the manifesto didn’t have this big idea, shared future, narrative. In fact, in some cases it could be seen to be harking back to the past. There were loads of ideas and policies – some of them appearing to be panic pledges in response to bad headlines – but no grand-arching theme and no hint of a progressive future.

2. Labour’s manifesto was written with the wrong audience in mind. At times the party’s description of Britain appeared little short of apocalyptic. Most people don’t get groceries from food banks, live off a minimum wage, travel regularly on crowded trains or are employed on zero hour contracts and making them suddenly care about the growing numbers that do is a tough ask. It’s important for a progressive party to talk about that stuff, but I imagine a lot of ordinary people – the Just About Managing classes – were thinking ‘what about me?’ And when there were universal consumer offers, like Broadband, they seemed too good to be true.

3. I think getting a parliamentary majority is not that central to the Corbyn project. What Corbynism is ultimately about is changing the balance of British politics and achieving a wholesale shift to the left. That’s where the whole – and deeply flawed – ‘we won the argument’ stuff comes from and explains why neither Corbyn or McDonnell didn’t appear to share the devastation of many of the party’s followers on Friday the 13th. Labour ultimately lost because elements in the party leadership see winning as a short term, secondary pursuit.

Hit the North

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When I was in my late teens I used to listen to a show called Hit the North, which was on the newly launched BBC Radio Five – note it was not called BBC Radio Five Live, the ‘Live’ bit came later.

Presented by Mark Radcliffe it showcased bands and guests from the North, well mostly from Manchester to be honest. In a lasting testament to my utter failure to get a girlfriend, I used to spend evenings in my room listening to the crackly AM broadcast on a Roberts Radio that my mum and Dad had bought me for my birthday. Rock and Roll.

Anyway, I don’t remember much about the show, but I do remember how good it felt that a broadcaster was giving airtime to the North on a national broadcast station.

If I had to pull out one trend in politics and public affairs over the last three years – apart from the dysfunction caused by Brexit – it would be the growing political capital of the North.

I was struck by this at the grandly-titled Convention of the North earlier this year. Hundreds of us packed into a former steel mill on the outskirts of Rotherham listening to Prime Minister Boris Johnson – in one of his first speeches as PM – talking about how there was ‘no limit to the innovation, ingenuity and leadership in the North’.

The PM’s speech, interrupted by a heckler who was manhandled horizontally out of a fire escape while shouting about Brexit, was actually pretty underwhelming but it did get me thinking about why the idea of the North as a political concept is becoming more and more established.

Firstly, I think the post Brexit electoral maths help. As old political allegiances shift, the North has a number crucial marginal seats that the Conservatives believe they have a chance of winning in and Labour certainly don’t want to lose. Electorally the North is more ‘in play’ than ever.

Secondly, the North is blessed by strong local political leadership. I’m professionally biased because I work for a few of them, but figures like Sir Richard Leese in Manchester, Cllr Judith Blake in Leeds and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham are recognised by Whitehall and Westminster as figures not to be messed with.

Thirdly, it’s unfashionable to thank George Osborne for anything but we shouldn’t forget that he did drive Northern Powerhouse into the national conversation. The powerhouse has turned from a vague manifesto pledge into a cohesive brand that gave business, local media and political leaders something to unite around.

My last point is harder to evidence, but I wonder whether the Northern agenda has benefited from the rise of identity politics. I’d argue more people see the concept of the North or being Northern as part of their identity and therefore something to be proud of rather than to hide. Sometimes the region is even talked of in terms of  a new nation – that’s certainly the theme of a few of the speeches I heard at the Convention.

Three decades on from Hit the North, this agenda is growing fast. The key is to harness the national political interest and bring long and lasting change.

The day I (almost) went viral during silly season

The other day I took a picture of a horse on a station platform. This sounds ridiculous, and it was – the tweet is below.

BTW, the pony didn’t use an escalator or have to negotiate contactless payment. This is a suburban above ground station on the Tyne and Wear Metro that I tend to pass through at least three times every week. Only this morning there was a horse on the platform and I took a picture as it seemed unusual.

Here’s some context. I’m a regular twitter user, but my stuff is pretty nerdy.  Mostly I’ll use it to talk about policy and politics. I tend to generate the Twitter equivalent of tumbleweed, liked by only a few dedicated and equally nerdy followers. However, policy and politics is what I do for a living and, luckily, it’s what I’m actually interested in.

I’m not that interested in horses, in fact I’ve never even ridden one, but a tiny one – a Pony to use a technical term – standing at a light rail station in South Tyneside on a Monday morning seemed pretty strange to me.

So I tweeted it using the Twitter handle of @my_metro who run the customer service account for the light rail network. At first there was quiet, just a few likes from a couple of mates, but after half an hour my phone was buzzing regularly with notifications.

Twenty minutes after tweeting I got my first request from media to use the picture. No payment of course, but the promise of a credit. Being an ex-journalist with dreadful memories of generating content during Silly Season I said ‘yes’.

At this point I’ll mention that at no point did I expect to get paid, but I did ask for a credit and to stress that passengers were amused and called the control room for help.

And just while we’re on the subject of payment, does it not seem strange that I gave media organisations free content belonging to me that they then use to generate profit? How’s that for an abusive relationship?

Whatever. It then went a bit crazy. Local radio, BBC Online, and the Press Association also got in touch via DMs and asked for permission to use the picture. At one point Russia Today – I kid you not – rang up the Metro press office, presumably seeing the horse as a symbol of inevitable Western decline.

All this media coverage just made the original tweet grow in popularity. I’d gone my equivalent of viral. People just kept liking and replying. I received dozens of jokes from strangers along the ideas of how the pony had ‘neigh idea’ where it and how it was ‘having a mare’.

And I apologised to the media lead at Metro, whom I know professionally, for causing him so much work. I definitely owe him a drink.

But what did I learn about Twitter as a result of (almost) going viral? I learned that people like silly pictures of animals in unusual places – particularly on a rainy August Monday morning – and they also like a pun.

And I learned that, ironically enough, it was interest from mainstream media, including radio, that drove the popularity of the tweet across the UK.

It received close to 100 likes, 25 re-tweets and 19 comments. In new money that works out at more than 8,000 impressions and over 1,300 engagements. Rock star stuff for me.

But what happened to the pony which should be the star of this story?

Well, it was caught and returned to the field from whence it came – presumably unaware of its short-lived social media celebrity status. Meanwhile, I’m back to tweeting about Beatles album covers and transport policy. Farewell viral, it was fun while it lasted…

(This blog piece originally appeared on Comms2Point0).

In Event of Moon Disaster

One of my favourite ‘What If?’ moments, this is the speech that Richard Nixon would have given to the American public and the world if the Apollo 11 Moon mission had failed, condemning the astronauts to a certain death 240,000 miles from home.

The fact that it was even prepared underlines just how fraught with danger the first landing was and how it could easily have gone wrong.

There could be no Plan B, no rescue mission. Armstrong and Aldrin would have either committed suicide or starved to death. As the second memo makes clear a priest would have performed a ceremony similar to a burial at sea before NASA cut off all communication.

It’s hard to predict just what effect a failed moon landing would have had on the rest of the US space programme. Would America have continued to try, or would another country have taken up the baton as opinion against NASA hardened in the wake of the disaster?

Also unclear is the fate of Michael Collins, would he have been able to get back to earth on his own from orbit above the moon?

It’s a classic example of an administration planning for the grimmest of eventualities. Thankfully, this was a speech that was never delivered.

 

 

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Why on Earth do they all want this job?

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Remember one of the maxims of Theresa May’s disastrous premiership – that she hadn’t been challenged because no-one else wanted the job?

Well, that turned out to be nonsense. At one stage early in the contest 12, yes 12, people of varying degrees of ability, were up for becoming the next Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury of the United Kingdom.

There were so many people going for it that the Conservative party literally had to change the rules to narrow down the field quicker. As I write, there are six people left and one, overwhelming, favourite. I’d argue this isn’t just blonde ambition, but blind ambition.

As the current MP for Maidenhead Theresa May pointed out at a recent Cabinet meeting – nothing has changed. In fact, things might actually have got a little bit worse for whoever gets the top job next. Here’s why:

Imagine you are the next Conservative PM. You will inherit the current government’s wafer-thin majority of five seats and that’s with the support of the DUP. The first thing you have to do is to reach another deal with our friends in the North of Ireland.

I’ll wager they’ll want a. Even more money and b. A guarantee over the backstop, further tying your hands with Brussels.

Plus, the DUP will still hold those ‘unreconstructed’ views on social policy, enough to embarrass any Conservative leader with liberal sympathies.

Labour will want to cause trouble, so they’ll probably hold a vote of no confidence in your new government within hours of you getting the job.

Lose the vote and two things could happen. Jeremy Corbyn could be PM by mid October having gathered together an anti No Deal alliance of SNP and Lib Dems. Or there will be a General Election, which will take a huge amount of time and energy and which you might lose.

But say you survive the No Confidence vote and there’s no election, there is still loads of trouble ahead. You’ll have a matter of weeks to agree a deal with the EU and remember, they say they won’t shift at all on the withdrawal agreement.

You could just go for a No Deal Brexit, but merely announcing that will lead to even more trouble on the home front, including members of your own back benches, and any pro-remain ministers, resigning.

You could push for an extension, but that would lead to a massive drop in your political credibility – especially if you’ve told everyone that we will leave on the 31st come hell or high water. Not leaving by the deadline would likely be a resigning issue.

And then there’s the likely economic shock after Halloween, probably enough to cause you some severe political difficulties in the short term.

Oh and you’ll have the SNP on your back, badgering for another referendum. Find a way to put them off the scent, or you’ll be remembered as the Conservative and Unionist PM who presided over a split in the union.

And there’s also an horrific in-tray, full of all the stuff that Theresa May failed to do on key issues like adult social care and local government finance. Not that you’ll get the time to look at anything remotely connected to domestic policy during those first few months, but it’ll still cause you political problems.

The chances are you won’t be PM for very long. In fact, it could all be over by Christmas. Your honeymoon period literally lasted hours and your administration barely got off life support. Congratulations, you helped put a Marxist into Downing Street!

Strap in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Janesville – An American Story

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Amy Goldstein’s moving and compelling Janesville is about a small Wisconsin city whose main employer – a General Motors car plant – shuts down in the wake of the global recession.

Unlike many reporters, Goldstein doesn’t just show up for the closure announcement, do a few Main Street Vox Pops and then leave. She stays in touch with people over the next few years, chronicling their successes and set-backs as they start new lives.

Janesville is about a lot of things, the end of the American middle class dream, the limits of politics and politicians and how people cope when their lives are changed by forces beyond their control.

But primarily it is a story about how people cope, and also fail to cope, with change. How families manage when their incomes halve almost overnight, how politicians promise much but deliver little apart from rhetoric and how urban policy dreamed up in universities or think tanks often doesn’t work on the ground.

For example, Janesville benefits from immediate Government funding once the closure is announced, much of which pays for college courses so autoworkers can retrain.

But most ex car plant workers don’t even complete the courses because they are sucked back into the labour market, for wages well below what they earned at General Motors.

Those who don’t get diplomas actually do better than those that do complete college who find their new white collar roles can pay less than half what they used to earn at the auto plant.

And while some families struggle, others manage OK or even do well. Some people amaze with their resilience while others crumble. Some people don’t miss the back-breaking drudgery of the factory, others feel lost and without a sense of purpose.

This is a book that up-ends conventional wisdom and challenges simple explanations. Life in post-industrial Janesville is complex and solutions are not easy to find.

But the genius of Janesville is how it tells moving human stories. Stories that give a unique insight into how policy and politicians can fail people who are struggling to adapt to a harsh new world.

Janesville is available from all good book shops. I got my copy from Blackwells.

The Secrets of Being In the Room

RoomCan I be in the room?

If you work in political communications you’ve probably asked this question a few times and had varying degrees of success. You’ve probably said it in a slightly ironic, Thick of It context as well.

You may have been told there’s no room in the room, that it might not be appropriate for you to be in the room or that the meeting, and therefore the room, may be cancelled after all.

I love being In the Room and I like to think I’m good at getting in there. In my job, it’s my chance to see political big beasts in the wild up close. The other week I was lucky enough to attend a meeting that featured not just one, but two, Secretaries of State plus the Mayor of London and the boss of NHS England.

That’s quite a cast list. In these days of Brexit distraction, attracting a Cabinet minister to an event outside either Westminster or their own constituency on a weekend is an event of asteroid strike levels of improbability.

I wasn’t at the table. I got the usual officer posting of a chair at the side of the room. You may be able to spot me in in the accompanying photo, I’m to the right of a pot plant trying to blend in behind the Secretary of State for Health.

However, if you’re a political nerd like me, being at a meeting like this is heady stuff and generates levels of excitement that Little Mix would if they turned up at your average pre-teen sleepover.

Now, I had of course been told days before that there was no space and it probably wasn’t worth showing up and if I did I could always wait outside and have a coffee. No thanks.

Through a combination of turning up ridiculously early, introducing myself to the organiser and generally assuming an air of entitlement – I am a white, middle class man after all – I got to witness and learn from an important discussion between city leaders and their national equivalents.

So my advice is, get in the room if at all possible and try not to take no for an answer. There’s always room in the room – what’s an extra chair after all?

And what’s the worst that could happen? You’ll be asked to leave. And if that happens, at least you tried and hey, you’ll demonstrate a bit of ambition.

And the rules of In the Room follow if you don’t work in politics. There’s no better way of getting a better grip of the issues at hand than seeing senior people – elected or not – talking about the great issues of the day. Soak it up and learn.

Comms people are privileged to see the big decision up close and, on a good day, be able to influence them. So be cheeky, grab that chair and try to look like you belong in the room.

This Post Originally appeared on Comms2Point0.

Turn off, Tune Out, Drop In

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The other day I spent one hour and 20 minutes on Twitter. That’s 80 minutes I could have spent doing something far more useful. To be fair, I was bored, it was yet another heavy news day and I was travelling but I could have used that time to meditate, read the economist or write the next great American Novel.

Instead I was scrolling through the usual tribal and trivial nonsense on an app that I’ve threatened to delete several times but still find hideously addictive.

So how do I know how much time I spent scrolling? My Google phone comes with an app called Digital Wellbeing which tracks my phone usage, encourages me to switch off at night and sets timers on my apps (note, other phones and apps that do similar jobs are also available).

It might strike you as little perverse that the companies that gave us these amazing inventions – you can easily argue that the smartphone is equivalent to the printing press or the steam engine in terms of history-changing importance – now seek to gain corporate PR kudos giving us apps that help us manage the addictions that their relentless marketing has helped to foster.

Anyway, Digital Wellbeing allows you to set a time limit (mine for Twitter is an hour) and then warns you when you reach that limit for the day. You get a five minute warning, then a one minute warning and then it shuts the app down. Kaput until tomorrow. If you want to feel like a future toddler, put on the naughty chair by a robot, this is the app for you.

The trouble is that it’s a bit too easy to override the robot because there’s a link straight from the notification telling you you’re out of time back to the Wellbeing app allowing you to extend your session. If I were Google I’d make this harder, maybe with a password, a quick quiz or maybe a small electric shock.

And while I understand the use of limiting access to certain apps, I wonder what the point of limiting access to all apps – for example the one I use to pay my parking – is.

Digital wellbeing also does other stuff. It can hide notifications, it provides you with a pie chart of your screen time and which apps you’ve the most – Twitter for me, always Twitter – and it’ll even tell you exactly how many times you’ve picked up the phone.

The only thing it doesn’t do is switch the phone off, put it in a drawer and refuse to give it back. For those of you under 15 this requires an invention called a parent.

But Digital Wellbeing and other apps like it do help you realise the sheer amount of minutes you waste staring at a screen. Time that could be better spent on other more meaningful activities, like writing this blog post. It is changing my behaviour, but Google’s app needs a few tweaks before it can match good old-fashioned self-control.

This blog first appeared on Comms2Point0.co.uk