Archive for Personal

Join the press gang at Buerk! The Newsical

Buerk The Newsical banner

I’m a sucker for journalism fiction. Wait! Don’t go yet, this isn’t yet another post about the Johann Hari plagiarism row. Instead it’s about those dramatised tales of journalism. If you’re new to the genre, I’d recommend starting with Citizen Kane and Scoop, before moving on The Paper, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, Psmith Journalist and Towards The End Of The Morning.

Everyone thrills at seeing their trade represented on screen, in a theatre or in a book, I suspect, and I find representations of life in a newsroom addictive even where it bears little resemblance to my experiences. I’ve yet to hear anyone shout ‘stop the presses!’ for instance, nor have I seen a newspaper spinning in the way so beloved of Hollywood effects editors.

Given my tastes, I was intrigued to hear of a new comedy musical on TV journalist Michael Buerk, about to be performed in Leeds. I have no idea about the quality of Buerk! The Newsical, but from the title and the blurb on their website it sounds like a winner:

Buerk! The Newsical is a new comedy musical from the minds of Tom Bailey and Greg Jameson. The show whisks us back to the 1980s, a time of hope and innocence when beer was cheap, red braces were in and ska was all the rage. Follow our hero Buerk as he starts his career at BBC News, falls in love with Moira Stuart and becomes the nation’s most beloved newsreader. But it isn’t all jollity and endless refills of Martini Rosso at News Towers. Buerk’s new friend Ian McCaskill appears to be a feckless weather boob, but he has a secret life. What evil plan will he conjure up to get Buerk out of the picture so that he can swoop on Moira?

Of course it would be preferable if it was set in a newspaper newsroom rather than a TV studio. How about a sequel – Robert Fisk The Opera?

Buerk! The Newsical is at the Seven Arts in Leeds on Friday, July 8 and Saturday, July 9. 8pm. £8. Stick it in your news diary. More information from


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Musical navel-gazing

Nostalgia really ain’t what it used to be. Nowadays all those childhood passions can’t just stay as fond recollections: it’s hard to resist revisiting them online. And then when you do, you’ll no doubt find they’re terrible.

So it was with trepidation that I fired up YouTube to see what I now thought of my musical firsts.

First single I owned

Roland Rat’s electro chart smash, a-hand-me-down from my older sister when she’d progressed onto Wham!, was the first record I owned. As quick cash-ins of TV fads go, this stands the test of time far better than I expected. The ‘rapping’ is undeniably ropey, but the lyrics are cheeky enough to look beyond that. Kudos for the pastiche of graffiti and body bopping – an under-rated early UK hip hop gem.

First single I bought

The first seven-inch single I actually shelled out for, it seems, was this joyless cover, where Kirsty Macoll hovers slightly closer to the right notes than Billy Bragg had managed. I was clearly a rather earnest seven-year-old when I plucked this from the display of chart hits on the wall of WH Smith in Skipton. followed closely in later months by other purchases of fun-free records from bands like Tears For Fears, Danny Wilson and Deacon Blue. Like the stereotypical middle-aged salesman trapped in a wimpy kid’s body.

First album I bought

I progressed to the technological wonder of cassettes aged 10 and loved Neneh Cherry’s album Raw Like Sushi so much I was still wearing it out during my first years at secondary school. Buffalo Stance still sounds undeniably ace, though the rest of the album seems very dated. At this time I shared my bedroom with a troubled older foster kid called Chris who was into David Bowie, Dead Kennedys and various 70s punk hangovers. I hated the aggressive noise coming from his record player; in turn he despised the hooks and the synths bleeding out of my Walkman’s foam headphones on the bottom bunk. If only someone could have been made to swap albums until we understood each other’s tastes.

First gig I went to

Despite the threat of detention for sneaking out of school at lunch time, I saved my dinner money as often as I could for more pressing concerns – buying CDs from Mix Music. But my maiden gig was not until I was 14, when I hopped on a coach to see L7 and Faith No More in Sheffield Arena. Once my gig-going cherry had been taken, and my ears stopped ringing a few weeks on, I was heading off to see ropey indie, hip hop, punk and metal bands in Leeds and Bradford most weeks. I don’t recall rating L7 particularly highly at the time but their big single at the time is still a riot of snottiness.

First gig I reviewed

The highlight of my school week as a geeky, music-obsessed teenager was undoubtedly Thursday, when the weekly music newspapers came out and I read them from cover to cover until most of the ink had rubbed off onto my hands and face. So it seems fitting that the first proper article I ever had published was in Melody Maker: a very short, fawning review of the then much-hyped Lo Fidelity Allstars. 15 years on, I like the crescendo of this single but the voice of the singer really grates.

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UK Uncut protests in Manchester

Up to 100 protesters targeted stores on Market Street in Manchester today as part of a national day of action against companies linked with tax avoidance.

Protesters outside Top Man

Protesters outside Top Man

The protests, part of the grassroots UK Uncut movement which aims to put pressure on the Government to tighten up on corporation tax collection instead of cutting jobs and public services, were held in turn outside Barclays Bank, Vodafone, Boots and Top Man. To read why they chose these targets, click here.

While arrests were made at demonstrations in other parts of the country, the action in Manchester remained good-natured, with some banter between police officers and the protesters, who were mainly young but with a sprinkling of pensioners as well as celebrity DJ Dave Haslam. The reaction from passers-by was generally positive too, with few of the protesters’ leaflets being thrown on the floor.

None of the stores needed to close their doors over the two-hour period, with activists seemingly happy to make their point through chants and home-made placards rather than risk having their collars felt, though only the most determined Christmas shoppers were weaving their way past the swarms of protesters. That must have affected trade to an extent, while most of the firms seemed to have hired extra private security to keep a watchful eye on proceedings.

Media-wise, a BBC cameraman attended the Vodafone leg of the protest but only filmed around 30 seconds of footage, while Nigel Barlow of local news website Inside The M60 posted live updates on Twitter when the Orange 3G connection allowed.

When I arrived home, I checked how the protests across the country local newspaper websites for their reports. Full marks must go to the Brighton Argus, the only ones I could find who covered their local protest online.

Not only that, but they did so via a rolling live blog, keeping readers informed of the protests and arrests, while also answering their questions about when the coast was clear to resume shopping. In one fell swoop the Argus became the go-to place for breaking news, essential information and lively local debate.

It’s unclear whether any of the other activities around the country were as newsworthy as Brighton’s – if they were, the local press have missed a trick. The Argus’ blog attracted dozens of comments and even usurped the weather from the ‘most read’ chart. Even minor demonstrations, however, would have been seen by thousands of curious shoppers and required police officers’ time, so it would seem worth recording online at least.

The UK Uncut campaign itself doesn’t seem to need mainstream news coverage to gather momentum, however. Twitter, Facebook and blogs appear to be the way the message is being disseminated and the next activity co-ordinated.

One final thought occurred to me as I scanned Twitter for ‘#ukuncut’ updates and saw dozens of photos and first-person observations from the protesters’ point of view: I wonder how long it will be before the press offices of the targeted firms use that hashtag to post their rebuttals?

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In the studio with avant garde band Stranger Son of WB

Stranger Son of WB are a music group based in Manchester and centred around Gareth Smith. These are just about the only facts we can cling to: everything else – their genre, their line-up, even the instruments they play – is more fluid than Oliver Reed’s diet.

If you asked me to describe SSOWB, I’d propably avoid the question by mumbling something about Captain Beefheart bumping into Can in a lift in a Hulme high-rise, in the manner of those extended metaphors so beloved by music journalists. If you want to list some relevant adjectives, try challenging, abrasive and occasionally ingenious, but not simple or static.

Gareth’s ‘anything goes’ spirit led to me being invited down to their studio. The mission, should I choose to accept it, would be to add my singing voice to part of a track he and his current crop of musicians were recording for their new album. Given that I’m worse than Viv Nicholson at holding onto notes, it was reassuring that I’d be just one of seven singers on the song, and that we were just tackling a simple, breathy refrain.

Rehearsal lasted all of 20 seconds and then the tapes started rolling. We cooed for three minutes, during which time I tried to keep as far away from the microphones as possible to stop my drone ruining it, and rattled off three takes. Nothing will be wasted as every run-through we recorded will be used by layering them on top of each other.

During the third and final stint I managed to prop up my film camera in the corner to record some footage. The result is essentially five minutes of ‘aaah’ notes with various badly-framed singers swaying in out of shot. However, I thought I’d upload the resulting video as it gives a rough idea of the recording process.

Who knows what it will sound like when the rest of the song’s elements have been grafted on? Well, probably nothing like this, the Spotify link for their last album Einstein’s Getaway, but we wouldn’t expect anything less.

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More than just a north-south divide

This week, cuts the coalition Government imposed on the Arts Council were passed down to the organisations it helps keep afloat. Many are putting a brave face on the news for now, but this is just the opening salvo: local councils across the country will no doubt look to slash their own funding to these ‘soft targets’ in the coming months in their attempts to balance the books.

All very depressing for those of us who see culture as a vital eye-opening, life-affirming escape from the hamster wheel of work, and of particularly importance in grim times such as these. That’s not forgetting that investing in the arts makes economic sense, too – the chief executive of Manchester’s Cornerhouse is quoted in the Manchester Evenng News as saying it puts £7 back for every £1 of Arts Council funding received. If fewer people go to theatres and galleries, then ancillary businesses like bars, restaurants and taxis will lose out too.

But the list of bodies in the North West in receipt of Arts Council funding, albeit now at reduced levels, depressed me in another way too – namely that they are so heavily skewed towards Greater Manchester and Liverpool. While the MEN article mentioned above listed 47 local organisations losing £850,000 between them, my colleague Tom Moseley had just 5 bodies and £40,000 cuts to write about for East Lancashire.

Rough figures show there are about five times more people in the MEN’s catchment area (2.5m) than the Lancashire Telegraph’s (0.5m), yet it receives more than 21 times the funding from the Arts Council. Even my journo-maths can work that out – there’s four times as much arts funding per capita for Mancunians as Lancastrians.

Of course, there are proportionally more galleries and theatres in Greater Manchester than East Lancashire, and many have higher profiles too. But, while it would be unfair to name names, there are countless examples of contemporary art galleries or youth-focused theatre groups in one area receiving sizeable funding and similar organisations in other areas nothing.

It’s widely acknowledged that the country gives the south most of the cake, and the north is left with crumbs. But within the north itself, the shiny city regions hoover up most of the big crumbs and there’s barely dust left for the rest.

Another example of this imbalance came today, when the Government rejected three separate Lancashire bids to form bodies which would compete for regional growth funding, while the rest of the North West’s plans were waved through. At its best, this decision will mean a delay in Lancashire regeneration projects being able to bid for funds from the Government’s £1.4bn pot. At its worst, it’ll mean all that cash will have already been funnelled to the usual suspects before Lancashire is even in the game.

And the brain drain out of the region will worsen; more people will flee in despair at the lack of opportunities; more terraced streets will lie empty and abandoned; and the south will continue to overheat.

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Travels and travails on tour

Stewing in a van for nine days may not seem like everyone’s idea of a relaxing break from the suffocating grind of work, but I readily accepted the offer nevertheless. Fortunately this was no ordinary trip; rather a chance to visit six cities across Germany and Switzerland with three intelligent, talented and generally hygienic friends on the final spurt of their band’s lengthy European tour.

OK, there were some strings attached. I’d have to read maps, help lug equipment, sell merchandise, police the sound engineers, make apologetic calls and tap my watch at interviewers who overrun. My creaking recollections of A-level German and smartphone with roaming internet access might come in handy as well.

In return for my efforts as one part tour manager to two parts errand boy, I’d wangle a chance to revisit Hamburg, Berlin and Munich and see Zurich, St Gallen and Lausanne for the first time for free, with adequate-to-good hotels, a never-ending supply of premum lagers and two square meals a day all part of the deal.

So it was that I scooped some doorstep-thick novels into a holdall and jumped on the tour bus with LoneLady, or Julie as she’s known off-stage, her drummer Andrew and keyboardist Gareth straight after work on my birthday. First stop the gateway to continental Europe: Hull.

Hull to Rotterdam ferry

Hull to Rotterdam ferry

More to follow.

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My first 10k race – the verdict

The last-but-one post on this very irregular blog concerned my mealy-mouthed preparations for the Jane Tomlinson Pennine Lancashire 10k run in Blackburn.

Frankly, I didn’t up the training routine as much as I should have in the last few months, while my ‘one or two drinks’ the night before turned into a rather more extended session.

But somehow, after just two hours’ sleep, I managed to complete the 10 kilometre route up and down the hills in 48-and-a-bit minutes.

That put me in about 160th place overall, and ahead of all but one of the 11 work colleagues who ran, much to their annoyance given my dishevelled ‘morning after’ appearance and the fact I was filming the race on a Flip video camera while running.

More impressive, though, was colleague Nafeesa Shan’s finish of just over an hour despite having only arrived from Afghanistan the day before having been embedded with Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment troops for an intense week.

And of course most important was the fundraising element. I grabbed organiser Mike Tomlinson, widower of Jane, for a quick Flip interview at the end who beamed with satisfaction as he saw the Pendleside and East Lancashire Hospice tents full of fundraisers. The event will return if those main charities raised enough money.

Personally, I managed to coax £115 out of family (and one fellow blogger) which has gone to the Stroke Association. The combined fundraising effort of work colleagues raised hundreds for the Jane Tomlinson Appeal.

Afterwards, without the race on the horizon to spur me on, I found it even more tricky to motivate myself to go running to keep fit. Solution? Sign up to some more races.

So I’ve since tackled the City Of Salford 10k in 51 minutes, a reasonable effort as I had a heavy cold, and have already pencilled in the Accrington 10k and Whitworth 5k where hopefully I will run without having to start inventing excuses.

If you’re interested in taking part in a race in the North of England, I can thoroughly recommend the events calendar on John Schofield’s athletics website.

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