“Well, fine, you know, Paxman, I mean he’s lost his teeth anyway, he’s like Russell fucking Hearty these days.”

Cynicism about politics has existed since the first Greeks picked up some pebbles. Democracy, as wise men have said many times before, is the worst of many evils, and just plain doesn’t work.

Fresh from calling panellists and audience members “mate”, “that fella” and “Dave” on Question Time, Russell Brand faced Newsnight attack dog Jeremy Paxman for what appeared to be something of an old-fashioned slice of television, a long and characteristically sprawling interview during which Brand took apart (or tried to) every piece of scaffolding built around the country by Establishment & Sons, Ltd. Like the well versed man he is, Brand pebble-dashed objections, observations and general opinions with little regard to reason. This was not outrageous, nor was it Occupy; it was a proven performer performing.

The reaction has been immense, both on the largely pro- side, who consider Brand and politics to be the new Dawkins and religion, and from the anti- side, for whom the interview was little more than an exploration into the world of a badly dressed sixth former. Somewhere in the middle, surprise surprise, is where you currently find me. I am not subscribing to Brandism, nor do I dismiss everything he says as fluffy idealistic nonsense. As the man himself told Paxman, he can’t create utopia in a hotel room.

Not participating in the democratic process, as Brand advocates, is not a solution. Turnout at many elections, particularly local authority elections, are meagre enough as it is without celebrity-backed boycotts. The fewer people vote, the greater risk of one of two outcomes happening; the incumbent party holds on through lack of opposition; or extremists from either side of the political spectrum sneak through. Ah, people say, but we don’t agree with the electoral system at all, so such concerns don’t matter. I agree that the volunteer sector is proving that people can create opportunities for people to seek and provide help without local authorities’ direct involvement, but no town or city, however small, can survive on support networks created without some form of democratic organisation overseeing the results.

Unelected, unaccountable groups to whom local councils fob off services or decisions, the nameless “vision boards” and the like, are more unacceptable than volunteer groups running the local library. Rather than promoting non-participation in governance, Brand should encourage pressure being put on central government to award or return genuine power to Town Halls – abandon the use of arm’s reach boards and consultancies, and fire up true devolution through councillors to the people. I accept that not voting can, in itself, be a valid democratic act, but far more can be achieved by being within the process than always being outside.

The machinery of national politics needs rewiring, from lobbyists and pressure groups and how they work within the parties and not just outwith government, to the electoral administration of the country. Fix one element and the machine will purr again. Yes, your eyes can glaze over at the sound of the words “voting reform”, but lack of trust in the democratic process stems from members of the public knowing that it makes no sense for Britain not having a truly representative parliament. All those of you who complained – to me, with vigour – that your vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 somehow helped create Hell on Earth need reminding that your votes and millions like them, meant tiddly squat in a country where fewer than 100 of the 650 seats in parliament actually mean something. Far too many ‘safe seats’ created by First Past the Post can only – and has – encouraged apathy in millions of people who know that they can never change the government of the day.

Fewer government departments and less MPs would help reduce the cost of Westminster, and true devolution to the regions would loosen the London-centric media grip on covering ‘politics’. Our politicians are not representative of the nation at large – not those Labour front benchers who claim to be ‘on your side’ whilst backed by healthy donations from Unions, and who don’t earn, or would ever claim, anything approaching the average in their predominately working class constituencies; not Conservative members from the leafy shires who still do not understand the anger over expenses claims for comfy country pads and ample gardens. We need to open up Town Halls and Westminster to genuine representatives of the people, not just sharp suited bores straight from Uni who have only known a life of bag-carrying for MPs and climbing ladders within the system. If Westminster is to represent real people, those chosen as candidates by any of the main parties must stop choosing oiks who think The Thick of It was a lifestyle programme.

And yes, candidate selection and proper representation does go back to the dry electoral administration talked about earlier. Open primaries, proportional representation, recall elections, electronic voting, open hustings, votes at 16 – if we are a grown up democratic country, let us fix the machinery. There have been failed attempts at reinvigorating elections – the Referendum Party in 1992, the Jury Team, an ITV reality show to pick an independent candidate. Such ideas don’t necessarily have to fail if used as basis to try again.

Yes, Brand looked beyond such tinkering to a much wider, radical, less democratic revolution, but I’m a believer in representative democracy, and I don’t believe I could any easier create utopia in my room than he could in his. No functioning country in the western world could survive without corporations or democratic institutions. I know far more people who hang on every word of unaccountable, unelected corporate suits – Apple, Rockstar Games, the FA – than those who could name their MP. That’s a failing of the democratic system. That’s not to be ignored as a problem, but it cannot be resolved by the dream-world candyfloss created by a very smart, very clever dreamer. Brandism is but suggestions for a better world already in the mix of debate, particularly in a country of Whigs and Liberals, Churchill and Mills, Dawkins and Hitchens. Let us use Brand’s ideas to form a new structure for the country – but let’s not use his blueprint for the future. It won’t work.

Plating up

Cooking was a minority interest sport in my house when I was a child. My mother needed to learn the top and bottom of a kitchen following the death of her father when she was just twelve years old, resulting in her being the only person of the four of us who knew a saucepan from an egg cup. Of all the memories of my mum – who sadly passed away herself three years ago – I can see and smell most clearly the kitchen with its constantly in-use oven and piles of cook-books, mostly the hardback glossy front cover Delia’s of course..

Her mother came to Preston in 1945 and worked at every low-paid factory job the place had to offer, and as a result her cost-cutting in the kitchen became something of a family legend (I know little about the genuine classics, mind, something involving bread in milk and actual sugar butties.) Both mum and gran would cook for the rest of the family/the men almost every day from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve, and although the bad sticks with me (oh my gran’s hate/hate relationship with deep fat fryers) it’s the good which I remember most fondly. Amongst those good are two items of food that often send people hurrying to the bathroom at the very sound of their names, but I learned to love and still eat them today; the humble black pudding and the even more humble tripe.

I know that these days the former is most likely found in stacked form inside gastropubs, but gran was far more simplistic and ordinary. To this day I still love taking a boiled black pudding straight from the pan, covering it with vinegar, and filling myself up with all that wonderful stodge. Yes nostalgia comes into it, but I’ve heard enough from ‘sleb chefs and TV cookery types to know that the enjoyment of food comes from feeling good, so one plate of hot black pudding swimming in vinegar chef, please, I need my hit.

The latter food stuff needs a lot more justification and pleading, I suspect. Food writer Jay Rayner gives it a very good go with his plea for people to give tripe just one more go. As with black puddings, my introduction to tripe was not through something fancy (insofar as one could, in 1980s Lancashire, do anything particularly grown-up with offal.) Many years later an A-Level English tutor would fall into fits of laughter as I tried to explain the concept of “Friday treat nights”, during which I would settle down after school to watch CBBC with a wide plate on which sat honeycomb tripe covered in vinegar and salt. Back then there was also tripe and onions, of which I have had mixed attempts to revisit down the years, which leaves the tried and tested basic straight-from-the-fridge version my go-to fave (and go-to I still do, although the 250g of honeycomb is these days bought alongside various cheeses and meats to avoid looking quite so destitute. I am, it has to be noted, by far the youngest person at the counter ordering tripe, and at 33 that’s quite the observation.)

Perhaps obviously, my continuing love of fresh, cold tripe smothered in malt vinegar does not compute with friends who did not know my family very well. It sort-of, kind-of, almost became normal to see a teenager in the 1990s surrounding the modcons of the era with the whiff of post-war make-do-and-mend. How close did I skirt the opportunity of abandoning school for a life of writing poetry about the forlorn youth scoffing the lining of a cow’s stomach in front of Byker Grove or whathaveyou, how near to being the Prestonian Morrissey did I become? I may never kno…Well I do know, because I’m here, and for all my eating northern classics, such fate did not fall upon me. (There you go, that’s how you start writing Smiths lyrics.)

All the stacks and crusts and foams of modern day cookery have been awarded to the black pudding, leaving tripe to be marginalised to the point of ticking all the boxes for a culinary industrial tribunal. I believe tripe can be treated in tempura batter, or so the Internet may have told me once. However it is saved for future generations, I hope it is. A plate of tripe can always make me feel better, and always more proudly northern. Nowt wrong with that, however you feed theesel’ doing it.

Orbit again

For part 1, see here

The main justification for creating the “Orbital” was as a response to concerns that the Royal Preston Hospital was too out of the way, particularly as getting there required changing at least once (at that recently Grade II Listed building I don’t talk about very much any more). The route of the “Orbital” (numbered 88A for the anti-clockwise service, 88C for clockwise) is predominately through built-up housing estates and the suburban outcrops, and for those on the fringes, it does provide convenience of a sort..
In the last post, I stopped approximately halfway through the route, the RPH itself. Set in the low reaches of Fulwood’s sprawl, the Hospital is an accidental celebration of architectural lowlights from the 1980s onwards, it having been opened in 1983. Its entrance has developed, if that’s the right word, into a congested confluence of traffic, bus stops, ambulance bays and higgledy-piggledy car park. Safe? Possibly not. To be resolved shortly? Heck no.

Preston College is nearby (now rebranded as Preston’s College, if anybody fancies writing 1,000 words on that sort of thing). The service of choice for students leaving PC in either direction is the dedicated hospital number 19, which diverts somewhat from the “Orbital” route but lessens the case for having the anti-clockwise service bobbling around. I can’t possibly snap a queue of young people at a bus-stop, so I scurry on by (although, sidebar note: if you like to know this sort of thing, it seems lads are still perfectly fine with looking like this, so I clearly don’t know anything about society.)

I am told that, when very drunk at a bar in Manchester recently, I began banging on about Preston Bus’ number 23 service with ASDA on its display screen, and that makes me want to go out and punch a cow. Or never drink again. Anyway it exists and I use it for ice-breaking anecdotes so that’s me for you. The 23 and 88s follow each other through Sherwood, newbuild estate with rabbit-warren roads, all faux-red brick and pampas grass and what-have-you. The passengers for this part of the route are a quiet and polite bunch; three young folk wearing various degrees of fashion leave at an unremarkable part of the vast estate of businesses and offices that curl around the M6 motorway, including the HQ of the Lancashire Evening Post.  What that newspaper doesn’t know about chip pan fires, car boot sales and failed planning permissions is nobody’s business.

ASDA is the final big landmark on the route, a vast supermarket bounded by car parking on every corner. Everybody alights, so I do too, as it’s better to be considered strange than completely off-the-tree. Here is where the 23 also terminates, taking on board frazzled looking shoppers. A redundant ‘Real Time’ display stands impotent beside the three shelters for the 23 the two “Orbit”s, as they do alongside numerous bus-shelters across the city. Having persuaded bus companies to sign up to real-time displays, Lancs CC needed to find cost cutting somewhere, so off they went switching them all off, and off they have remained ever since. 20131011_170555

The next stage is the most convoluted, taking in what left over bits of the city exist between ASDA and the Ribble Valley. This begins with the straight path through well-to-do suburbia, built to fill in the gaps Fulwood needed to find during the housing boom. Homes on Squires Wood, one of the rabbit warrens passed on the way, will set you back between £142,000 and ‘offers over’ £155,000. From here it’s over the M6 and faraway, or at least cutting through the many adverts for the single Starbucks Drive-Thru {{sic}} that cannot, surely, attract that much passing trade. This could be just more misunderstanding of modern society on my part of course.

Over the M6 we go again into the Ribbleton citadel. Homes on Ribbleton Avenue are currently on sale for £180k (3 bed semi) and £239,500 (4 bed detached),  The “Orbital” has to take a detour away from the leafier bits as it takes in the post-war estate of Brookfield, where the streets are set out in elongated rectangles with the familiar industrial brown-brick of the time.

The word “Deepdale” is perhaps best known for being the home of Preston North End, where football was first placed in 1878. Insert wags suggesting the food/seating/team have not improved since then here. Deepdale is amongst the most economically challenged parts of the region, not just Preston, ranking highly in the deprivation statistics. Additionally it has one of the highest numbers of Muslim residents in the city, over 3,200 at the 2011 census. Deepdale Road is one of Preston’s most congested, particularly on match days, bringing to a standstill not just the road itself but the grid-pattern terraces to the west (named St George’s Road, St Cuthbert’s Road, St Matthew’s, St Martin’s, St Anne’s and so on) and to the east (names Linnet Street, Goldfinch Street, Falcon, Dove and so on and so on).

A smattering of coat and hat wearing people remain on the bus for the final stretch, some tapping away at their smartphones. This journey has taken me many hours, as I’ve nipped on and off, but for £3.30 it should take the average normal person who wants to stay on the same bus for no reason around 70 minutes. It may serve little tiny purposes for specific passengers, rather than being the Hospital runner it was planned to be, but it is clearly well used and popular. At the bus station, where the service runs around the enforced H&S fencing and one-way-system, passengers could even take advantage of the original intention for the building and walk straight over to a regional or national service without breaking sweat. But it seems everyone has a city centre place to go to, and plod away in the damp to get there. As do I, and this is where the journey ends.

The 88A and 88C, alongside numerous other services, travel across the former Preston to Longridge railway, about which you can read more here via BlogPreston.

On the Orbital (1)

Launched in the early 2000s as a response (partially) to concerns that the Royal Preston Hospital was too difficult to visit for people in the outer suburbs, the Preston Bus’ “Orbital” is formed by buses travelling either clockwise or anti-clockwise through the city and into the outposts.and fringes. It is popular, although specific passenger numbers are not easy to confirm.

Whilst succeeding in linking some parts of Preston with some other parts; I don’t think the “Orbital” has quite mastered  convincing people of the benefits of a journey which could last over 40 or 50 minutes (the entire loop can take ninety) and cost £3.30 if buying an all-day ticket, as Hospital visitors may find necessary to do. Logic dictates that people living on the anti-clockwise route can get to the Hospital far quicker, and far less expensively, by taking the dedicated Hospital service. Nonetheless, the “Orbital” has patched over gaps in the original services to the northern communities, particularly the new-build estates encroaching into the rurals and greenbelt, turning into a regular commuter service for some.

Taking my lead from such blogs as Diamond Geezer and London Buses:One At A Time, I chose to spend an early Friday afternoon taking the “Orbital” on its clockwise route. Unlike those blogs however, I broke up the journey in three places – I trust that one of these being for the purchase of a Morrison’s salad bar selection is considered both valid and not an “accidental Partridge.”

I don’t think anything else has to be said about THAT BUILDING other than to confirm that, yes, it has been awarded Grade II Listed Status, and that beauty is 20131011_144528in the eye of the geek (or, to quote the Leader of Preston Council, the nerdy sociopath).

Preston Bus Station is the start and end of the “Orbit”, for both clockwise and anti-clockwise services. They run very regularly, and one follows the other, to allow for the limited number of actual buses to maintain the service even when rush hour and Preston’s notoriously cramped roads conspire against them. One complete loop probably could cost less than £3.30, but my decision to break up the journeys into chunks meant there was little choice but to pay the full amount for what is a “hop on, hop off” ticket.
From the building of which I will no longer speak (….for now) the clockwise 88C makes its way into the city centre towards the Docks.

This first jaunt should give an adequate indication of the myriad problems of travelling through Preston – stop/start, juddery, slow, plagued by congestion, traffic lights and inadequate road layout. Praise be to the heavens, mind, for something is in place to be done! Whether this will work is a point most moot, however, and critics and cynics alike consider the proposals to be inherently flawed. Shared space can work, it has been proven to do so. Not perhaps as Lancs CC envisage, particularly as they foresee each and every existing bus stop congregated outside the railway station, which I see as being just asking for trouble. But what, as so many people are wont to ask, do I know.

Two Mormons(es?) on this bus, incidentally, chose not to use their audience for rapid-fire conversion techniques. One actually fell asleep, his head slowly, slowly dropping down as the rest of us (teenage girl texting her driving instructor, two Cissie and Ada types gossiping, two others keeping themselves to themselves) bobbed about. The Mormons left only five or so minutes later (the fast asleep one waking up as a puppy might, head flicking from window to window in momentary confusion) and by the entrance to the Docks, every seat was taken.

Preston Docks was not future-proofed when it was regenerated for what was, in the 1980s at least, the brave new future of shopping and living. The only road into the Docks sucks everything onto it, cars often  backed up for a mile or longer. There are no passing points along the entire site and no public crossings, for that matter, which forces anyone from child to pensioner to play chicken at day and night. Solutions for either problem? Nothing.

One Morrisions salad later (too few slices of beetroot, too much potato) I wander to Ashton Park, where many of the trees stand taller, prouder and fatter than they were when I was a lad, throwing conkers into the road and whatever else passed for high jinks in my day. The “Orbital” from here takes in the first of the major residential parts, that of Ashton and then Larches, the latter showing all the signs of typical post-war sprawl. This 88c is standing-room only, school children and families at the back, elderly couples up front, and love’s young dream somewhere in the middle.

We pass under the Blackpool railway, one-time site of Lea Road train station. Beeching would say, I assume, that this specific example of bustitution proves his theory right, although, of course, he was not blame for that particular station closing.

Cottam’s well to do and getting by home-owners left for their chocolate box houses with earphones and page-turners close to hand. The change at Cottam has been rapid and remarkable – from grass to garages, from fields to crunchy-gravel driveways, and all within the most boom of all boom times in the British economy. From here the service runs through the comfort of Cadley, all bungalows and two-ups and the church of St Anthony of Padua. This is Fulwood, which strangers can get to by travelling up the A6 and turning left when they feel house prices shooting up. By now I was travelling almost alone, with three gossips and a headphone-guy for company. We passed Fulwood Academy, newly renamed and entirely rebuilt, looking like an office for call-centres and companies that offer ‘solutions’, all curved walls, spot lighting and silver-grey tinted windows.

From here the journey reaches, by and large, its half way point. And so, I suppose, should this post.

Saturday night at the 19th Hole, live on BBC One

The economic health of the nation can be measured through many means. The moral health of the nation, what the Nepalese call the measure of national happiness, is far less easily quantifiable. If you’re a tabloid journalist or a middling member of an ITV daytime chat show with a space to fill, though, take one icon of the British high-street and watch the comment sections fill up with thousands of words time, after time, after time.

Across the country, women of a certain age and income level treat M&S as economists treat the daily updates from the ONS (let us avoid the rare moments of men being concerned with Marks, because that did necessitate me searching for the words “Jeremy Paxman” and “underpants”). Confidence in the High Street (future of which should be a future blog post) seems to rest on whether every element of “Marks'” is doing very well or tanking horribly. The first whiff of an unsavoury gusset gets the Fashion columns pouring out into the Business section within ten minutes. There’s no stopping presenters of moving wallpaper television from coming over all “Massacre of first born in Damascus (Reuters)” when the opportunity arises to ask “Is the Per Una range completely ignorant about the shape of an English woman’s bust?”

Consumer confidence can be measured from the reaction to “Which” magazine tutting at an M&S trifle in much the same way as earthquakes off the Pakistani coast can be picked up in California. It is precisely because they occupy such a cosy place by the fire that the middle classes use them as both stable go-to confidence boost and easy tut-tut country’s gone to the dogs easy target. Empires fall, politicians waffle, the middle classes have an opinion on M&S maxi dresses.

If ‘cosy’ is the M&S brand as well as its place on the “High Street”, what to choose as its equivalent elsewhere in British life? I think we all know the answer to that…

Placed in the television schedules as something of an unbreakable habit, a comfort in tough times, and guaranteed hangover cure (for the Sunday repeats, and not always successfully), “Match of the Day” is analogue football in a digital world. And that’s not necessarily stinging criticism, just as shaking your head at the sight of four-dozen canary yellow polo necks is not criticism of M&S. As wiser people have commented many times before, “MotD” has not been designed to compete with SKY or ESPN or BT Sport; nor are any of the pundits required to pick apart each move or tactic beyond anything accepted as a talking point or controversy. If “MotD” is considered ‘safe’ then that’s the programme doing its job…

……And yet here’s the “but”. Roy Hodgson is to appear as a guest/pundit this weekend. Promising? Probably not, and nor ‘exciting’, ‘interesting’, or anything else like that. The “safety” of the BBC’s flagship football highlights programme has long since wallowed in ‘complacency’, and that’s never good. For many years the show has struggled to wander out of the golf club/old boy’s network approach to sports broadcasting, stuck in an era of “World of Sport” and “Grandstand”. There’s ‘safe’ (nodding) and there’s ‘safe’ (shaking head).

“MotD” is the closest most blokes have to M&S; that safe, secure, not always agenda setting constant that for generations would always be guaranteed to provide just what you need at no great cost. Unfortunately, and just as with M&S and their dodgy autumn/winter collections, the BBC has considered ‘no great cost’ to mean more than ‘analysis of the weekend games’. With the Hansen/Lawro dream team, that ‘autumn/winter’ collection was always more ‘permanent winter’. When not content with sounding utterly indifferent to the continuing existence of football as a sport at all, Mark Lawrenson was being picked apart on line for failing to predict any weekend games to within 15 goals or so of reality. And yet he, and professional grump Alan Hansen, brought home the five/six-figure pay checks.

Nobody wants “MotD” to undergo too radical a change, least of all the casual fans/viewers who make up the majority of viewing figures. There are so many post-match analysts out there – not just SKY with their massive fuck-off television screens but blogs, podcasts and Twitter feeds – that the BBC knows nothing good would come from wholesale changes in one go, for just like The Daily Mail with Ed Miliband, going all out to prove a point often ends up looking horrific. Changing “MotD” into the Football Ramble in one leap would alienate, not attract.

That said, the BBC should have learned about the dangers by now (Colin Murray, in general, Colin Murray wine-tasting specifically). What many critics want is the end of the BBC’s very smug and often blatantly lazy old boy’s ties. Whilst not stepping into Keys/Gray territory of over familiar chumminess, the Beeb still manages to create an atmosphere of members club bars, the FA itself represented somewhere in the background, ready to cough and splutter if something approaching direct criticism were to drift across somebody’s lips.

M&S survives by understanding the trends of the day, and then suiting them exactly to their audience’s needs. Their televisual comrade appears unable to do that, either not getting anything changed at all, or making too much of a leap in one go. Being bold and brave means picking pundits from outside the usual cast, allowing more controversial opinions, particularly pointed towards the FA, avoiding the ‘golf club’ presenter/pundit pairings every week to encourage different views.

Consumers flit to where they feel most comfortable. Neither institution, M&S or “MotD”, need to change at all, for loyalty will always win out. But not adapting at all took Woolworths and HMV to the sword, and if the BBC insists that even tinkering might be too much of a change, then I suspect there’s sharpening knives just around the corner.