Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Music and (mainly mis-heard) Lyrics

We're hurtling towards the crowning of the Christmas number one. In recent years, it's not been quite the event that it used to be, thanks to the dominance of the X Factor singles. In my humble opinion, X Factor is doing a grand job of ruining popular music by ripping out any vestige of soul from it and replacing that with nicely packaged absolute dross. We're all responsible for this, by letting ourselves get carried along by it and not doing enough to counter it (though I wonder what it is that can be done to combat the Simon Cowell juggernaut).

Of course, a bit of extra interest has been injected this year, through the social media campaign to get Rage Against The Machine's 1992 track, Killing In The Name Of, to the top spot. For no reason other than my dislike for all that the X Factor represents, I'm backing RATM (yes, I know that both tracks are on the Sony label, but I believe that RATM sales will be contributing to homeless charity Shelter, which is a very worthwhile cause at this time of year). I'd be delighted, if surprised, if RATM gave Joe McElderry a potty-mouthed, sage and onion, Christmas stuffing!

I was at university when Killing In The Name Of was first released as a single and I used to listen to the top 40 singles countdown on BBC Radio One. I can still clearly recall DJ Bruno Brookes introducing the single as a new entry and then playing the entire, uncensored track. Oh, how I laughed, though I'm not sure Bruno was as amused by the complaints that then flooded in to the BBC.

Talking of lyrics, I’ve always believed that however eloquent/profound/entertaining the words, it is the melody that defines a song. Basically, come up with a decent tune (preferably a musical combination of verses and a chorus) and the job is essentially done. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the recorded work of a fine wordsmith, but if the music doesn’t get to me, then the words never really will.

However, there are many lyrics that do stick in the memory.

There are the sublime:
"And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time"
"Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly"
"Teenage kicks, so hard to beat".

There are the ridiculous:
“Dancing at the disco, bumper to bumper, wait a minute...where’s me jumper”
“I don’t want to see a ghost, It’s a sight that I fear most. I’d rather have a piece of toast andwatch the evening news.”

And then there are the downright strange:
“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking through the streets of Soho in the rain.”
“I was lying in a burned out basement, with the full moon in my eye. I was hoping for replacement when the sun burst through the sky.”

I’m a big fan of mis-heard lyrics. Having followed REM for over 20 years, that’s no great surprise. Legend has it that Michael Stipe recorded the vocals for the band’s first album, Murmur, in a cupboard under the stairs. Not only that, but when listening, he appears to be mumbling a series of barely connected half-words. It’s still one of the greatest debut albums.

Elsewhere, there are many examples of mis-heard lyrics that have entered popular culture in their own right, and some of them are very funny.

Did Steve Winwood really sing “Bring me an iron lung” or was he looking for love?

Was Neil Diamond really paying tribute to the “Reverend Blue Jeans”?

Did Hendrix genuinely want us to excuse him while he “kissed this guy”?

Was Diana Ross expecting a rugby league inspired chain reaction when she sang “tell Eddie Waring there’s no salvation”? (The rumour mongers among us might wonder whether there was something going on between Diana and Eddie. The former did once perform at the opening ceremony of the Rugby League World Cup, at Wembley in 1995
. Did the latter entice her to appear?)

And was Van Morrison really lifted up by the Lord like a “fool’s foreskin”?

There are so many more - these are just some that stick in my mind.

But having stated everything above, there are some lyrics that for me are as good as the music they are attached to. Dylan, Young (Neil), Jagger, Lennon/McCartney, Wyatt, Martyn, Morrissey and the rest, fair play to you all, but make way for the masters - Young, Young and Scott. For Touch Too Much, the fourth track on AC/DC’s sixth album, Highway to Hell, the three rock ’n roll maestros combined to write what for me are perfect lyrics. Okay, they are more than a little ‘dinosaur’ in attitude (!). They’re downright dirty (even offensive to some people I imagine), with barely disguised innuendo, and I’m not sure that they’ll appear in many poetry anthologies of the future. However, I think that they’re the perfect match for the music and the group in question and they make me smile every time I hear them, especially the first three lines of the second verse. Genius.

"It was one of those nights,

When you turned out the lights
And everything comes into view.
She was taking her time,
I was losing my mind,
There was nothing that she wouldn't do.
It wasn't the first,
It wasn't the last,
She knew we was making love.
I was so satisfied,
Deep down inside,
Like a hand in a velvet glove.

Seems like a touch, a touch too much,
Seems like a touch, a touch too much.
Too much for my body, too much for my brain,
This damn woman's gonna drive me insane.
She's got a touch, a touch too much.

She had the face of an angel,
Smiling with sin,
The body of Venus with arms.
Dealing with danger,
Stroking my skin
Like a thunder and light-e-ning storm.
It wasn't the first,
It wasn't the last,
It wasn't that she didn't care.
She wanted it hard
And wanted it fast,
She liked it done medium rare."

For more classic mis-heard lyrics, it’s worth having a look at the KissThisGuy website.

I'd love to hear other gems from the music world - please add your favourites as comments.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Tiger, Tiger (after William Blake)

Tiger, Tiger burning bright (red).
After tree and hydrant of the night,
What intrusive media spy

Could frame thy apparent infidelity?

Enough said.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

A tribute to Margaret Lines

This is a more sober post than usual, but there’s a good reason.

Life has been pretty good to me. I enjoyed a very happy childhood, growing up in the midst of a loving family. My parents worked hard and my siblings and I were well provided for. I was fortunate enough to attend decent schools in a great community and the rest sort of followed. On the way, among other characteristics, I think I inherited the hard work ethic that was always exhibited by my mum and dad. That, I believe, is a good thing. For some years, my biggest complaint was that I had nothing big to complain about.


Well, I’m not going to start complaining, because my life is still very good. However, there is now a huge gap in it. Just over two weeks ago, my mum died, after a typically courageous, yet pragmatic, fight against aggressive brain tumours (secondary tumours from a primary malignant melanoma that we all thought mum had successfully seen off a while ago). The early, unfortunate circumstances of that original melanoma constitute another story. During her final illness, mum received wonderful care in the University Hospital of North Durham, the Northern Centre for Cancer Care (within the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne) and, finally, in Sedgefield Community Hospital. She retained her character, her humour and her dignity to the end.

Anyone who knew mum well won’t need reminding that she was an amazing person. For those who didn’t know her, or would have liked to have known her better, I have reproduced below an appreciation of mum’s life, put together and delivered at her funeral last week, with help from family, friends, colleagues, and of course the lady herself. On the whole, it’s not at all a mournful piece, so I hope you read it and that it paints a striking picture in your mind of Margaret Lines, a wonderful human being.

And if you then feel inclined, please do pop over to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation website
and make a donation to assist the ongoing research and treatment in the battle against cancer.


I may be saying the following words and expressing the sentiments, but they are those of the whole family, former colleagues, and friends – in fact, I am sure they represent all of us here today.

Stella Margaret Smith, Margaret, Maggie, Mags, Mum, Martha, Mrs Lines. For the purpose of this, I will use mum.

I really cannot adequately articulate how much I admired mum. In summing her up, I’m afraid I will have to start by resorting to a list.

Mum was all of the following: a phenomenal force of nature; a concentrated ball of energy and enthusiasm; an intelligent person who got things done; a formidable organiser; a wise and honest counsellor; an expert practitioner of common sense in a world in which it is increasingly rare; a withering critic of the nanny state who was the best nanny imaginable; a communicator without compare; a hard worker who was absolutely committed to her profession and fiercely loyal to her team; a frustrated rally driver who was possibly the only person ever to get a speeding ticket in an Austin A35; a devotee of camping, caravanning and the great outdoors; a passionate sports fan (especially tennis – Mum used to regularly go to Wimbledon until the year she came home to find her young daughter Kate in hospital with a fractured skull!); she was kind and generous in spirit and deed; blessed with an irreverent sense of humour; flirtatious as a youngster and always gregarious; very patient and yet also very impatient; a great hostess who enjoyed fine food and fine wine; a campaigner; a pillar of the community in all the right senses; a dog lover and frog hater; incredibly family minded; a beautiful and devoted daughter, sister, wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother (sorry, I mean Martha); and a wonderful friend. She was a very special human being indeed and that list doesn’t begin to do her justice.

One of mum’s greatest characteristics was her conviction. She was quickly able to assess a person or situation, draw her own conclusion, and then take the appropriate action or use the necessary words with the absolute confidence that she was right. And she usually was, much to our admiration and, let’s face it, occasional annoyance! All of mum’s family and friends frequently witnessed her in full flow and so, clearly, did her many colleagues over the years.

Although the family certainly had an idea, I don’t think we ever fully appreciated how much mum contributed to a wider community and to her profession, until the cards started to flood in during her illness. Many former colleagues, a large number of whom the rest of us have never met, have sent cards and tributes. Almost without exception, included within these cards have been very personal stories about how mum helped the sender in one significant way or another.

Mum qualified in Edinburgh in 1967 and soon began work as a speech and language therapist in the North East, starting at the Percy Hedley School in Newcastle, before joining the NHS. During the 1970s, while we children arrived one by one, she worked part time in Stockton, with a group of young therapists who were struggling to provide a service across Teesside. From the start, mum was a team player who was always supportive of her colleagues, something that endured throughout her career.

In the late 70s, she became a senior therapist in Durham and developed her skills in working with people with learning disabilities. She was a very successful and caring therapist who was skilled in supporting her clients. In the mid 1980s, mum took on a head of service post in Middlesbrough and used her skills to develop that service for both children and adults with learning disabilities.

She went on to become the Speech and Language Therapy Manager for the whole of the Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland service. She proved herself very able and innovative in the role. She was a keen member and supporter of the North East Speech and Language Therapy Management group and was always happy to help and advise new members and support her colleagues.

Mum was an excellent administrator, getting in to work very early and getting on with the job, invariably with a strong black coffee to hand. She became a Commission for Health Improvement visitor, which meant she looked at NHS services throughout the country. This gave mum a national role in supporting her profession. In 2002, she was on the Education and Workforce Planning Board of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. The board informed government of the need for increased numbers of speech and language therapists to provide better services. I suspect that mum’s brand of informing was fairly assertive!

Mum had a great interest in the education of the next generation of speech and language therapists and worked with Teesside University to establish a foundation course for people who wanted to go on and train as a therapist. I am reliably informed that mum had a unique capacity for finding her way through the maze of the NHS structure. And, crucially, she got results. As a colleague, she was up front, always enthusiastic, very amusing and above all dynamic!

So, mum’s career, which believe me I have not covered exhaustively, was something to be very proud of and I know that she took great satisfaction from the fact that over the years, she helped thousands of people to communicate, something that she very rarely had any difficulty doing herself!

Given the fact that family and friends never wanted for attention or affection, this begs the question – where on earth did mum find the time? But find it she did, and the results and legacy are remarkable. It is incredibly challenging to be very successful in both career and family life, yet mum appeared to manage it with relative ease. She formed the perfect partnership with dad, born of deep love, and marked by mutual support and respect, many shared interests and a healthy and often amusing dose of bickering (the bickering was amusing to witnesses at least). The four children, and the wider circle of family and friends, always benefited hugely from that partnership.

I could stand here all day relating stories that illustrate mum’s many qualities, but she would tell me in no uncertain terms to get on with it. However, I can’t resist two that I think offer the perfect illustration of the person that she was.

When Kate, Richard, Michael and I were young children, our house was a place of very well organised chaos. The chaos was inevitable, thanks to the presence of four children, two to three dogs, a hamster, the stray cockatiel that Richard brought home one day, several guinea pigs, goldfish, rabbits and a cat, and of course dad. But mum had a system and it worked. And every year for our summer holiday, in usual organised fashion, she would set off with the children as the advance party (dad would arrive later).

A holiday that always sticks in my mind was one of our trips to Sandyhills in Dumfries and Galloway. Mum crammed herself, the four kids, the two dogs and all of our luggage for about a fortnight into an old, very yellow Datsun Cherry and set off with great fortitude for south west Scotland. And there’s not much more to the story. We got there, eventually, after a couple of car sickness related stops, and we stayed in our grandparents’ caravan and we had a wonderful time, which we always did. It was mum’s determination and love, and a more reliable Datsun than we expected, that made it achievable, but the point is that all of those holidays, there in Scotland or latterly in Northumberland, became the source of some of the Lines family’s fondest memories. It was mum who made them possible.

And then there was the time that mum tackled Brian Clough. Old Big ’Ead had brought his Nottingham Forest side to play in a fundraising friendly match against cash strapped Darlington. Mum took Mike and me to the match and afterwards we hung around patiently outside the dressing rooms, along with loads of other kids, all waiting to get Mr Clough’s autograph. Long after the players had climbed onto the coach, the great man finally emerged and immediately and loudly stated that he wouldn’t be signing any more autographs. Stunned silence followed and then a clear voice cut through the chilly air – “You rat.”

Cloughie turned to face his new opponent, Margaret Lines, who continued with words along the lines of: “How dare you. These children have travelled here especially to watch your team and they’ve waited a long time to get your autograph. You should jolly well sign all of their books.” A second stunned silence followed and the growing crowd watched on in anticipation of a withering response. Cloughie looked mum up and down for a few seconds, realised he had met his match and made a very sensible decision. “You’re quite right madam.” And he stopped and signed every single autograph. That was mum through and through – she was ready to take on anyone if she thought that was required, especially for her family, and she usually got the right result.

Mum gave us all so much and I don't think we ever really got the chance to thank her properly. So mum, if you're watching and listening, first of all, apologies if any of today's arrangements don't meet your very exacting standards (I can almost hear the cutting yet somehow constructive comments echoing through this building). Second, rest assured that your legacy will be profound and will be reflected in thoughts and deeds for generations, especially through your grandchildren who adored you, just as you doted on them. And finally, thank you so very much for enriching so many lives in so many ways. Although cut cruelly and unnecessarily short, yours was a life that was extremely well lived and you will endure, through all of us. Tomorrow, we will have to contemplate the void that you have left. But today, we will commemorate and celebrate your life in the manner that you would both expect and appreciate.


Wednesday, 16 September 2009

A Sporting Life

Sport is at the heart of much of what I do, in both a professional and personal capacity. At Press Ahead, we have worked on numerous sports related projects over the years, and at the moment we’re heavily involved in Sunderland’s bid to bring World Cup football to the region in 2018. Working closely with Sunderland AFC, Sunderland City Council and other partners, I think we’re making a strong case for the city and for the North East. There are 16 cities vying to be part of the England 2018 proposal that will go to FIFA in December and this list will be whittled down to 12 by the national bid team.

NewcastleGateshead is also submitting a bid and it would be fantastic if both cities make it to the final list. We certainly have the facilities up here and just as important, we have the passionate people who will make World Cup games in this region really special occasions.

It’s been extremely enjoyable to be involved in this campaign and it has been marked by some great visual stories that have been featured widely in the regional media. Levels of public support for individual cities will be taken into account by the England 2018 team, so we are encouraging people to visit
www.sunderland2018bid.com and register their support or text “Sunderland2018” followed by their name, house number and postcode, all to 62299. Hint, hint…

Away from work, I’ve really enjoyed the 2009 international and domestic cricket season. The Ashes series was probably the highlight and it was a privilege to be at the Oval on the third day of the final Test, as England edged towards victory. I wasn’t there for the finale, but I was listening to the ever excellent Test Match Special while watching Durham CCC play out a rain affected Pro 40 game at the fantastic Riverside Stadium. Most of the crowd who were there with me were also tuned in to the Ashes, judging by the cheers that erupted every time England took an Australian wicket. This latest home series may not have had the quality or nail biting intensity of its predecessor in 2005, but it was consistently entertaining and of course England managed to secure the right result.

Back in the domestic game, the Durham story is remarkable. A first class county for less than two decades, Durham has just wrapped up the County Championship for the second successive year and the club is already planning its campaign for three in a row. In the longer form of the game, Durham has undoubtedly become the county powerhouse, while at the same time developing one of the best venues in world cricket and providing a production line of players for the national team. These really are astounding achievements and huge credit is due to everyone at the club, from chairman Clive Leach and chief executive David Harker, to coach Geoff Cook and of course the players.

I (along with my family) was able to get along to the Riverside on 12th September to see Durham wrap up the title with another comprehensive victory, over their nearest ‘challengers’, Nottinghamshire. It was a great afternoon. The club offered free entry to everyone, the sun shone throughout and Steve ‘Grievous Bodily’ Harmison fittingly took the final Notts wicket just after the tea break. Cue a formal presentation of the trophy and some great celebrations in front of the main stand.

The club can now also celebrate being awarded an Ashes Test for 2013, which is fantastic news. In my opinion, it will be four years overdue as the Riverside should have hosted a match this year rather than Cardiff (though to be fair, the Swalec Stadium did stage a great Test). Nevertheless, this is very exciting and by the time we get to 2013, the Riverside will have been further developed into what I am sure will be an even more outstanding 20,000 capacity ground. I can’t wait.

There’s a person who nicely links all of the above stories - Paul Collingwood. ‘Colly’ comes from the production line I mentioned and has been a great servant and ambassador for England and Durham in all forms of cricket. He sometimes gets a negative press for his style of play and always seems to be on the verge of losing his England place (at least as far as the media are concerned).
I for one am a huge admirer of Colly and to all the critics who point to his poor form this summer after the Lord’s Test, I cite the fact that if it wasn’t for his heroics on the last day at Cardiff, Monty Panesar and James Anderson (who took most of the headlines) wouldn’t have had the chance to hold out for a draw and England would have most likely lost the Ashes.

Colly may actually now be drawing towards the end of his England career, but he still has a huge amount to offer cricket in England and Durham, and I will watch his next steps with interest. He’s also a big Sunderland AFC fan and took time out from his preparations for that great first Test to offer his support to the Sunderland 2018 bid. So, I salute you Paul Collingwood, a man with a surname steeped in North East heritage, who is currently creating his own place in the region’s history.

Right, I’d better make my final preparations for this year’s Great North Run. As ever, I am looking forward to the sense of occasion at the start and the first pint after I reach the finishing line. The 13 miles, 192 yards and 18 inches between the two are slightly less appealing. I’m going to be raising money for a great cause and all sponsorship support will be very welcome. You can find out more on

Friday, 11 September 2009

Still alive, and kicking, and writing...

Lines from Lines has had a somewhat extended summer break. I've not been idle (honestly), but holidays, loads of work and life in general have conspired to keep me busy elsewhere. I'm going to try and make up for that 'silence' over the next few weeks with some concise posts on a range of subjects that have been exercising my mind and occupying my time. This is the first of those concise posts.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

An annual outdoor pilgrimage (inside)

As I type, I’m sitting on the Berghaus stand at the OutDoor trade show in Friedrichshafen, in the south of Germany. The event takes place in July each year and sees all of the major outdoor brands gather under one very large roof to showcase their latest product developments. I tend to wear several hats while out here, but spend the majority of my time meeting journalists on the Berghaus stand and giving them an overview of the spring/summer 2010 collection.

It’s been a very busy few days and there has been plenty of interest in the new clothing, footwear and rucsacs. Highlights include a comprehensive collection of base layers, a great selection of low cut outdoor footwear and some really exciting new daysacs. And the colour palette across the range is fantastic – it’s really vibrant and perfect for summer.

One of the other big stories for Berghaus in 2010 revolves around some significant anniversaries. Next year will mark 25 years since Sir Chris Bonington reached the summit of Everest. It will also be 60 years since the first successful summit of an 8,000 metre mountain, when Maurice Herzog climbed Annapurna, and the 50th anniversary of Chris’ own first ascent of Annapurna II. And Chris will be 75, in a year during which he is heading back out the Annapurna region to lead a trek to commemorate all of the above.

Sir Chris features prominently in Berghaus’ communications plans for 2010 and even appears on some really nice ‘heritage’ t-shirts that the company has designed. His association with Berghaus goes back to the early 1980s and he is the living embodiment of the brand, still exploring unclimbed peaks and new areas over 50 years after he started to make a name for himself in the world of climbing.

During the show, I have also been talking to journalists about developments at the Outdoor Industries Association. Since her appointment as association director, Louise Ramsay has made a big and positive impact, and is delivering some dynamic plans that will really help the OIA achieve its long term objective to effectively represent and promote the UK outdoor sector. The latest step has just gone live, with the launch of the new OIA website. It already looks great and there’s much more that will be added to it in the near future, as it develops into an essential resource for outdoor brands, retailers and other businesses.

Finally, I took the chance to introduce a few of my contacts to the Adventure Generator for North East England. Interest in this great online activity break planning tool is building fast. Recently, former Olympic athletes Steve Cram and Allison Curbishley gave the Adventure Generator a spin and enjoyed a range of activities across the North East. And now, several of the outdoor magazines that I met at the show have expressed an interest in featuring it.

All good. Right, I’m leaving the show this afternoon and travelling back by boat, train and airplane. So, I need to go and catch a ferry.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Olympic Adventures in North East England

It’s been a hectic few weeks at Press Ahead towers (a familiar refrain). The pace has been hotting up on the Outdoor and Active front, very literally in some ways. As I type this, a thunder storm is skirting by Sunderland, but we’ve had some very decent weather in the North East lately, and people have been getting outside in large numbers. The region’s Adventure Generator is there to help people discover some great outdoor activities across North East England. It’s even got its own page on Facebook – become a fan and you could win a great prize when we launch an exclusive competition there very soon.

Now that we have this great application, we thought we’d seek out some willing volunteers to put it through its paces. Step forward Olympians Steve Cram and Allison Curbishley. Steve and Allison spent some time with us trying out a few of the adventures that can be found on the Adventure Generator. During an action packed journey around the region, they got on their bikes and the boulders at Summerhill Visitor Centre in Hartlepool, tried a spot of kayaking at Sunderland’s Marine Activities Centre, went for a stroll and picnic with a ranger at Causey Arch in County Durham, and finally took to the treetops at Go Ape at Matfen Hall in Northumberland.

Steve and Allison thoroughly enjoyed themselves and we captured some great photos and film footage of them in action. It will all start to appear on the Facebook page and on visitnortheastengland.com
very soon. Meanwhile, we’re working hard to encourage people near and far to try out the Adventure Generator, and we’re busy arranging visits for journalists who have agreed ready to experience some great outdoor activities in the region for themselves.

Our first guest arrives this week, with more to follow soon. A warm North East welcome awaits all of them and anyone else who heads here for adventure.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The ‘Adventure Generator’ has landed

My feet haven’t touched the ground during the last few weeks. Following the Berghaus spring/summer 2010 sales conference and a great camping break with my family, it’s been all hands on deck at Press Ahead. In fact, the outdoor theme is continuing, and then some. We’ve been working flat out on the development of an online application to help people plan visits to North East England and try their hand at outdoor activities. That is now ready and live and we’re proud to announce the launch of the Adventure Generator.

I reckon that the timing for this couldn’t be better. Terms like ‘staycation’ and ‘glamping’ are becoming common parlance and domestic outdoor activity providers and venues are reporting huge demand for their products and services. Research published earlier this year by the Outdoor Industries Association (OIA) revealed that 49% of the British adult population is more likely to eschew a foreign holiday and go on a UK based outdoor break during 2009, due to the economic downturn.

As well as this current trend of holidaying in the UK, for several years now there has been a consistent growth in the public’s appetite multi-activity outdoor adventures. Whereas in the past, someone might describe themselves as a walker or a cyclist, people these days want to try a multitude of outdoor activities, and sometimes all in one weekend or short break. This has implications for brands like Berghaus who make outdoor products, as people want items that will work for a range of pursuits. Kit such as the hugely popular Paclite Jacket is an example of how to get multi-activity product right. And so, in a different way, is the Adventure Generator.

The Adventure Generator clearly caters for the ‘staycation’ audience, but it also includes such a wide range of activity options from all over the North East that it’s perfect for anyone who’s ready for a weekend of varied outdoor adventures. All you need to do is ‘spin the wheels’ and find out what adventures the region has in store for you. You can spin again if the options don’t appeal and then the website provides you with all the information you need to plan your trip and your activities. You can even challenge your friends and family through the website.

Here at Press Ahead, we’re really pleased with the Adventure Generator. Based on our original concept, the actual design and programming was completed by our colleagues at
Different. They’ve done a fantastic job (in my humble opinion) and the final product looks great, is really easy to use and wonderfully showcases the huge variety of outdoor activities available in North East England. Now comes the job of spreading the word as far and as wide as possible – feel free to play a part in that!

Friday, 22 May 2009

Outdoor adventures - global and local

I’ve had quite an ‘outdoorsy’ week, which has been very enjoyable. It began with me collecting this beast, which the Family Lines has just invested in. We looked at loads of great tents, but this was the one that really took our fancy – the size, layout, headroom and general quality all appealed. So, we made the choice and look forward to a bit of camping, or maybe even ‘glamping’, very soon.

Anticipating future nights under canvass I then set off for the unashamedly plush Carden Park near Chester, to attend the Berghaus spring/summer 2010 sales conference. There, delegates representing about 30 countries in which Berghaus products are sold, were presented with details of the range that will be available to consumers around the world from next February. I can’t spill the beans on all of that here, but suffice it to say there are (as there seem to be every season these days) some very exciting developments and plenty for Press Ahead to get its PR teeth stuck into.

Berghaus has an outstanding team of sponsored athletes and many of them attended and contributed to the conference this week. Sir Chris Bonington, Mick Fowler and Leo Houlding all gave inspirational presentations about their exploits and demonstrated very clearly how they are the personification of everything that is great about the Berghaus brand. Also at the conference were Anniken Binz, Rob Jarman, Leah Crane and Carlos Suarez – they are all very much part of an extended Berghaus family.

On Tuesday, I led a workshop that Berghaus marketing director Sarah Wilson and I put together for the international representatives. It was designed to give them an insight into how sponsorship can be used to build the brand (and subsequently sales) in their market, and to give them tips on how to create their own sponsorship strategies. Our magnificent seven Berghaus athletes were also involved in the workshop and it was a thoroughly enjoyable session that the audience seemed to both enjoy and find very useful.

One of the best aspects of a Berghaus sales conference is that it gives people involved in the business around the globe the opportunity to get to know each other and share best practice and ideas. At every conference, the company lays on some sort of team activity. This time delegates were split into mixed groups and then set a series of challenges in the grounds of Carden Park. My team included a few from the UK, including Berghaus brand president Richard Cotter, along with representatives from Spain, the Czech Republic and South Korea.

Over the course of a couple of hours, we tried a range of activities and challenges, with varying degrees of success. Our team ‘excelled’ at archery and climbing, but was less successful when it came to ‘laser’ clay pigeon shooting and building a tower of crates. It was all great fun and the sight of Richard Cotter and European sales director Simon Roberts racing each other up a telegraph pole was pretty entertaining. Simon, with reckless disregard to his career prospects, reached the top first and was then given the charming title of 'tree monkey' by Richard!

The images below were taken during the crate building exercise and provide an idea of the fun that was had. The guy balancing at, and then falling off, the top is Mike Clark, Berghaus' retail operations manager.

Overall, the conference was a big success, thanks to a huge amount of work put in by people across the business, from product design and development, sourcing and logistics, and of course the marketing team who co-ordinated the whole event. Well done to everyone involved – now comes the work of selling and promoting the new range!

I returned to the North East to find that the Outdoor and Active campaign up here is really starting to gather momentum. The media coverage in the region is starting to roll in, with a lot more activity in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the team at Press Ahead has been picking up the ’phone to national journalists and visits are being arranged as I type. We’ve got a really cool (can I use that word at my age?) initiative lined up to launch in June, that I think is going to have very wide appeal. I won’t reveal all now, but watch this space for more news on that soon.

So, yes, the outdoors has been the dominant theme of my week. And with the Bank Holiday weekend weather forecast looking quite promising up here in the glorious North East, I dare say I’ll be heading outside quite a bit more over the next few days.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A guide to alienating the nation, by the House of Commons

“The Mother of Parliaments” is a phrase sometimes used to describe the House of Commons. It was actually coined to refer to something else and anyway, at the moment, a more accurate description of that part of Westminster could be “The Mother of Expense Accounts”.

Yes, this has been a pretty awful week for the reputations of British politicians and our political institutions. The scandal of MPs’ expenses has been the elephant in the room for a while now and it finally started trumpeting loudly from the moment that the Telegraph published the first instalment of the leaked information it had acquired.

I won’t repeat the details here – there’s too much of it and it leaves such a bad taste that I’m not going to waste my energy. The point is that the sleaze that in the past tended to be associated with one party at a time, has on this occasion tainted them all. Each of the three main parties has culprits among its MPs. Collectively, the British public has witnessed this story develop with disgust (though interestingly I have not detected much surprise in the voxpops I have seen and heard) and has decided that politicians are collectively corrupt. That label can be added to all of the other less than flattering terms that we use to refer to them.

This really is not good and on this I have to take issue with Stephen Fry, much though I agree with some of his comments on the matter. Mr Fry is absolutely correct to point out that we should in general be more concerned with the macro political decisions that our MPs get right or wrong. However, although this whole brouhaha may be of little consequence in the broader context of war, poverty, health, education and global economic meltdown, I fear that the long term fall out could be profound and seriously harm engagement with our political system.

While the truth is that a large number of MPs have nothing to be ashamed of, they are all now well and truly tarred with the same brush (the cost of which was claimed back as it was used to creosote a garden fence at the second home of an unnamed backbencher). The consequences are going to be far reaching and their impact extends well beyond Westminster and the changes that will have to be made there.

We are privileged to live in a democracy and we can choose who governs at pretty much every level of our society. The problem is that more and more people are voting with their feet, rather than with a ballot paper. Since 1992, turnout in General Elections has dropped from 77% to 61% in 2005 (with a record post war low of 59% in 2001).

What can we expect next time? Younger voters are already disinterested in politics, while people who have consistently voted throughout their adult lives are disillusioned. I know – I’ve spoken to them (and they include my parents). Will the public be inspired by their French counterparts and take to the streets in a more concerted campaign of direct action? Will parties from the far right and far left benefit from the public belief that the centre is rotten (the imminent local and European elections will be an intriguing bellwether)? More questions than answers from me I’m afraid.

Meanwhile, how appealing is a career in politics today? MPs used to be among the most respected members of a community – not now. It was accepted that they worked to serve the public and lived by a political doctrine that was in fact a calling (okay, I know this was not a universal state of affairs, but I hope you take my point). Today, they are perceived to serve (and help) themselves.

Young people who are already unimpressed and uninterested in politics are becoming even more disengaged and dismissive. So far, the UK has not benefited from an Obama lightning rod, and our politicians appear to more disconnected from ‘real’ society than ever. I really worry about the future make up of Parliament in the UK, and if that institution is compromised further, the cascade to all levels of Government will inevitably happen and the effects could be disastrous.

But I am a glass half full person and I still know many good people for whom politics is a real vocation; people who hold genuine, fervent political beliefs and who strive for office for the ‘right’ reasons.

My eldest son’s godfather, Ed Fordham, is one of them, and he is not alone. There are many others from across the political spectrum and they give me hope. But their job is going to be significantly more difficult thanks to the greed and, in my opinion, stupidity of some of the current crop of MPs. And Ed is my age (late 30s), so what about the generation after him, and his colleagues and opponents of a similar vintage? Someone reassure me that they will emerge. Please. Here's Ed expressing his views on the expenses saga, 27 minutes and 28 seconds into this episode of Newsnight.

I am a layperson when it comes to politics, but that makes me no less passionate than the ‘professionals’ about what Aristotle described as the most authoritative science. According to Aristotle, politics governs the other sciences and their ends serve to meet its end, which is nothing less than the human good. Here in the UK at the moment, the science of politics feels a lot less dignified and worthy than that. I hope that will change for the better again soon.


Thursday, 30 April 2009

Heading for the hills...and the valleys, and the forests, and the water...

The UK outdoor industry has always been fairly resilient during an economic downturn. It’s not recession proof of course, but certain factors work in its favour. When people have to tighten their belts, they tend to eschew holidays abroad and instead spend leisure time closer to home (an Outdoor Industries Association survey from as recently as January established that 49% of the UK public is now more likely to consider an outdoor break in this country, rather than head overseas). The great outdoors offers a handy venue that is generally low cost, while camping and caravanning are also budget alternatives to hotels. Similarly, consumers tend to cut back on luxury fashion products but will continue to invest in practical, durable kit such as that designed for the outdoors.

In the current economic climate, there is even more happening that indicates that 2009 will turn out to be a strong year for the outdoor industry. For a start, from January to March the country experienced something close to a proper winter, which had an immediate positive impact on sales of products like waterproof jackets, insulation layers, and hats and gloves. Meanwhile, the Pound was at its weakest against the Dollar and Euro, so many people chose to stay in the UK to enjoy their winter outdoor adventures, keeping money in the country’s economy.

As we head towards the summer, the situation continues to favour the outdoor industry. In recent weeks, we have enjoyed bursts of warm, dry weather which has focused eyes on outdoor horizons. Campsites are enjoying a boom time and the Camping and Caravanning Club has reported a huge increase in advance bookings for sites across the country (27% up on the same time last year). As well as sunshine, there have also been cloudbursts, so the need to be properly equipped with waterproof kit has remained at the forefront of minds.

And now the Met Office has announced that we can expect a hot, dry summer. This is going to do no harm at all to business for campsites, outdoor activity providers and manufacturers of tents, warm weather performance outdoor products, and especially footwear. At the same time, the general interest in and appetite for outdoor activities has been on a steady upward curve for several years. This trend is not about to change and is actually being accelerated by numerous central and regional government initiatives designed to get people into the outdoors.

So, it makes absolute sense for different parts of the UK to promote the outdoors as a key part of their tourism offer. This week, North East England started its own campaign to do just that. The Outdoor and Active initiative has kicked off by encouraging the region’s public to move around the North East to try out the many outdoor activities that are available really close to home. Press Ahead arranged a day of fun for the bosses of three outdoor tourism businesses from different parts of the region. They tried out each other’s specialist activities and visited various locations, all in one busy day.

Amy Craggs from Beamish Wild Ropes Activity Centre, Simon White from Tees Active watersports and Andrew Straw from Saddle Skedaddle cycling tours were our three adventurers. They really got stuck into the task and I think they enjoyed their day – the photos certainly seem to indicate that they had a good time.

We’re looking forward to getting the North East into the outdoors over the next few months, but we have also been tasked with bringing visitors from elsewhere to the region. We have some phenomenal outdoor locations up here and they are generally really accessible. However, many of these are relatively unknown, so there’s a great opportunity to show off this wonderful part of the world to a huge audience that is absolutely ready to head for the outdoors and open to suggestions. We’ve got some exciting, and I think innovative, ideas up our technical wicking fabric sleeves, so expect to see and hear much more about Outdoor and Active in North East England soon.

Of course, the North East is not the only region or nation that is promoting its outdoor assets this year, which is even more good news for the outdoor industry in general. Taking all of the above into consideration, it is no wonder that brands like Berghaus remain relatively bullish about prospects for 2009. Although there is no complacency among firms and there are previously successful retailers and brands in the sector that are really struggling (or worse), this particular business landscape is in generally better health than many others at the moment.

In short, heading for the hills (and the rest) has never been more popular. As Richard Cotter, Berghaus brand president, stated recently:
“Over the next few years, outdoor participation will increase massively, not in its original sense, but in the widest context. More than ever, people want to find a route of escape from everyday life and outdoor activities offer that. They choose to do something active, but not just one activity. These days, the opportunity to try out a wide range of ‘adventure sports’ is massive and this is one of the fastest growing sectors in the whole leisure industry.
“Huge numbers of people are heading outdoors every weekend looking for their definition of adventure – camping, hiking, scrambling, biking, climbing and much more. Crucially, many of these people have never previously been aligned to the outdoor industry and only now do companies like Berghaus really have the chance to communicate with them."

Amen to that. Right, I’m off to find a map, a compass and plan an adventure or two of my own.

Friday, 24 April 2009

iROC Rocks in Weardale

Congratulations to Morgan Donnelly (right) and Nicola MacLeod who were the men’s and women’s overall winners of the inaugural iROC adventure race event last weekend. Morgan won the first race of the event on the Saturday morning and finished in the top three of each race he competed in. Similarly, Nicola achieved top three finishes in all of her races, so both achieved aggregate scores that put them ahead of their respective fields. The full results can be found on the iROC website.

The sun shone for iROC, which ran on the 18th and 19th April, and the race director Shane Ohly was delighted with feedback from competitors and spectators. Visitors from as far afield as Plymouth, Ireland, Holland and Germany attended, some turning up to take part in just one of the races.

The Lafarge site in the heart of Weardale was hailed as the perfect venue thanks to its spectacular views and challenging terrain. Entertainment on the Saturday night included local groups New Era, Christian and Georgia, Ashleigh Maddison, and Two Foot Maid. The evening was topped off by Rick Jackson, a one man Irish rock band.

So, all in all, iROC definitely seems to have been a success. I await news of future plans with much anticipation.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

A new outdoor adventure races North East

After the slightly unfulfilling 'outdoor' experience of the Outdoors Show a few weeks ago (see blog post from 28 March), I was delighted to be on hand to witness the start of a proper grass roots event on Saturday. iROC introduced a new concept in adventure racing and made its debut over the weekend in the beautiful surroundings of the Durham Dales.

iROC, sponsored by Weardale based outdoor brand inov-8, used a new format that combined a series of different races across three different disciplines that included fell running, mountain biking and orienteering. On Saturday and Sunday, there were six individual races, with varying periods of down-time (hours or minutes) between each. The close succession of these six races made iROC a true adventure racing weekend and the different skill sets required to complete the various disciplines meant that only a true all-rounder could become outright winner. The organisers also staged races for novices and families, so iROC offered something for all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts.

iROC marked the start of a summer in the North East that will be packed with outdoor events and initiatives. North East tourism organisations have put the theme of ‘Outdoor and Active’ at the heart of their plans for 2009 and attractions across the region will be playing their part in a sustained push to encourage the public to explore the great outdoors that surrounds them. Press Ahead has been hired to promote Outdoor and Active, so look out for much more on this during the next few months.

iROC certainly got the region's outdoor programme of activity off to an energetic start and was based in an ideal location, at the heart of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Upper Weardale and the Durham Dales in general deserve the well worn phrase 'hidden gems'. That neck of the woods is a wonderful part of the world - lovely villages, a gorgeous landscape and not too many people. Don't get me wrong - I'm no misanthrope, but it's sometimes a real pleasure to go for a walk in the hills without bumping into anyone else (or at least very few others). You can do that in Upper Weardale and part of our job this summer is to encourage more people to try the experience. Success in the latter might seem to make the former less likely, but in truth there is loads of empty space up there.

I took my two sons along to see the start of iROC on Saturday. The first race of the weekend was a 13km fell run, which was well contested by a strong field. Watching the runners as they made their way along the horizon, we were amused to spot a herd of cows who took an interest and started to criss cross the hillside, following the runners back and forth. I think they provided as much of a natural obstacle as the steep climb, rapid descent and the river.

The winner of the first race was Morgan Donnelly (right) and afterwards, the organisers were getting plenty of positive feedback about the course. I'll update this post with more results when I have them. I had to leave after that race, but based on what I witnessed, I think that iROC will be judged a big success and I hope that it becomes a regular date on the outdoor calendar - I may even have a go at one or two of the races myself next time.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The lost art of communication?

On the curve

I read an article in the Newcastle Journal last week that made we wonder where I am on ‘the curve’. This article reported a presentation in which a digital media ‘expert’ called Joanne Jacobs claimed that bloggers are ‘old and finished’. Great – I only started mine recently and already I’m at the wrong end of the curve, or worse, behind it. That’s if Joanne Jacobs knows her onions of course. The report in which she was quoted came from a conference held at The Sage Gateshead called re:boot re:place. According to the Journal, Joanne went on to say that, because bloggers are finished, ‘people are moving towards Twitter’. Well now, I tweet too, so perhaps that puts me back into a better position on the curve.

You know what, I shouldn’t worry about this too much. I have never been desperately concerned about how ‘on trend’ I am – anyone who has witnessed my choice of hairstyle (and I use the second syllable here cautiously), music and ties over the years will understand that. The choices I make about my use of digital media are based on whether a) I can understand and engage with the platforms myself, b) I think that they can add something of value to the communications mix for my business and the businesses of my clients and, c) I have something of interest to communicate through them. Reading this, you may judge that I have mis-calculated on that last point. But I hope not.

This all brings me neatly to Twitter. Fad, phenomenon, irritant, viral nirvana. All of these and the rest. I use Twitter a lot and I believe that it has real relevance now to my trade, but I’m not obsessing and I aim to always use it responsibly and in a communal way. There is an ethos of sharing that is integral to Twitter, allowing information and insight to pass quickly to many people – I hope that fundamental principal remains a constant and it is what I mean when I refer to responsible use. Someone from the world of PR who has consistently been ahead of the curve when it comes to social media is Ste Davies, founder of 3W PR.

Ste recently spoke about the relationship between Twitter and PR at a conference and then kindly shared his thoughts with the rest of us via Twitter. The presentation,
Twitter and Public Relations, is still online on Ste's own blog site. It’s definitely worth a read and, along with a lot of sage practical advice, includes a few great ‘car crash’ examples of people using Twitter without due care and attention – slides 44-46 had me wincing instinctively.

I have embraced several forms of social media and will continue to use them extensively. However, there is a big part of me that is a traditionalist and I worry about the impact that these new forms of communication are having on society and in particular the written word. Suddenly, the point that someone wants to make has to be synthesised and distilled into a mere 140 characters in order to be communicated to the world. Incidentally, that last sentence came to 151 characters, so is too long to qualify as a tweet.

I enjoy reading well structured, cleverly composed copy that uses imaginative language, multiple clauses and ‘sparkles’. Even more, I love creating lively prose myself – writing is one of the real pleasures of my job (whether it is a pleasure to read or not!). But Twitter simply doesn’t allow for such elaboration and other social networks certainly don’t encourage it. This approach to communications will become habit and aspects of it will (and already do) infect the written word elsewhere.

Younger (though not exclusively) generations already text rather than email (as opposed to email rather than write a letter). And it's not just written communications that are affected by this developing trend. Use of the spoken word is changing too and a new programme on BBC2 called The Lost Art of Oratory explores this theme. The Beeb has also just launched a search for the UK's best young speaker - that could be interesting.

In the final analysis, I fear that we are losing a lot by gaining Twitter, Facebook and their like. While I accept a degree of the inevitability of that, it is also one of the reasons that I will continue to blog. I can express myself at will and at length – if you decide that what I produce is tedious, then you don’t have to read any more. Meanwhile, I’m already planning future blogs on the state of the media and The State of Play, and what makes a good song (in my humble opinion). I really don’t care where that puts me curve-wise and I certainly don’t feel finished, or too old.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Taking the outdoors inside

I made a brief visit to the Ordnance Survey Outdoors Show last Friday. Every year, I find it faintly ironic that the biggest UK consumer event dedicated to the outdoors is held at the distinctly indoor National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham. The show has been around for eight or nine years now and I’ve been to every one. In fact, I remember attending the meeting at the NEC when plans for the first event were announced. I was representing Berghaus and I’m pretty sure we were the first major outdoor brand to commit to backing the show, which has had the unwavering and substantial support of Ordnance Survey since day one.

The first show was pretty exciting. It was a new departure for the industry and no-one really knew what to expect. How many people would turn up? Would the various features work? Could the show become a regular fixture on the calendar? In short, the answers to those questions were; loads (too many as it turned out), yes and yes.

That year, the event was held in a pretty small hall with limited facilities, but it was a huge success. The organisers (a company called Brand Events) actually had to turn potential visitors away, which was unfortunate, but demonstrated clearly that there was an appetite for a show of this type.

Berghaus built a fairly ambitious stand just inside the entrance. Essentially, it was a square tower, on one side of which the Avon and Somerset Cliff Rescue Team put on live shows each day, demonstrating how they lowered stretchers down from treacherous heights in rescue situations. The Cliff guys were born entertainers and also very resourceful. Hidden underneath the tower, which was decorated with huge canvasses on each side, they conjured up a mini kitchen, complete with kettle, refrigerator and all sorts of goodies. I’m sure that the facilities team at the NEC didn’t have a clue what was going on under there and am equally sure that they would have vigorously waved a few health and safety papers at us if they had discovered it all.

Elsewhere on the Berghaus stand, we had a Gore-Tex testing tent which was a walk through area equipped with a shower. Visitors could use that to test jackets and footwear and experience Gore-Tex fabrics in action. The shower was, alas, a little short on pressure (okay I confess, it was more like a moderate dribble), but it was still a popular feature. And we also hosted an information and fundraising area for legendary mountaineer Doug Scott’s charity, Community Action Nepal.

That first show was quite a ride and the many ways in which visitors could interact with the various exhibitors (and outdoor celebrities such as Sir Chris Bonington) was the foundation of its success that year and for the next few. The Outdoors Show grew and grew and over time extended its footprint across three of the major NEC halls, but I have certainly felt that its lustre has been fading a little over the last three years. It’s a very different beast to the monster that was originally created and although that’s fine, I don’t think it’s as interesting an event as it used to be.

However, I still go every year, as do thousands of other members of the public, and there’s always something or someone there to hold my attention. The 2009 Outdoors Show was, significantly, held in one hall, so was much more compact than in recent years. Partly for that reason, it felt busier than it did in 2007 or 2008. I managed to bump into various friends, colleagues and contacts, including mountaineer Alan Hinkes, Country Walking editor Jonathan Manning, Michelle Daniel (also from Country Walking), Matt Swaine and Graham Thompson from Trail, Gill Wootton from Greenshires Publishing, and Angela Turley and Terry Stephenson from Berghaus.

I’m glad that I went, but I do miss the relative chaos and pioneering spirit of that very first Outdoors Show and I feel that back then, the event did a better job of bringing the true spirit of the outdoors inside.

Below, from left to right: one of many climbing walls at the show that were popular with youngsters; Graham Thompson, gear editor of Trail, dispenses product advice to visitors.
Bottom: Jonathan Manning, editor of Country Walking.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Pressing flesh and sniffing cheese

I’ve just returned from a couple of useful days in London. Along with colleague Louise Robinson, we spent Tuesday and Wednesday presenting the latest Berghaus products to journalists and other media contacts. We based ourselves in Berghaus’ flagship Covent Garden store and arranged a series of meetings with representatives from various publications and organisations. The event was a success – among others, magazines as diverse as Cooler, Zoo, GQ, Men’s Fitness, Travel & Leisure and Wired turned up to find out more about Berghaus products and sponsored athletes.

David Lindo also popped in to say hello and have a look at the latest kit. David, sometimes known as the Urban Birder, is a regular contributor to The One Show, other TV shows and numerous wildlife magazines. He’s been using Berghaus products for a while now and was keen to see whether there are any new bits and bobs that he might find useful.

We noticed that one particular product seemed to be selling very well. The GTX Cascade Hat was recently very much in the public eye, when worn by the nine celebrities who climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for Comic Relief. Demand for the dark green (or Mallard) style has rocketed as a result and there was only one left in the Covent Garden, with enquiries still flowing in. Apparently, more hats are on their way soon - it was very satisfying to witness that PR efforts can have such a direct and positive impact on product sales.

Many thanks to the staff in the store for accommodating the Press Ahead visit. We’ll no doubt be back down there soon to spread the Berghaus word some more.

The Berghaus store is on Shorts Gardens and two doors away from what is possibly my favourite shop in the world – Neal’s Yard Dairy. I remember my first visit to the area many years ago. I walked right past this perfect purveyor of cheese without noticing it, but the aroma from within followed me along the street, grabbed me by the ‘olfactories’ and dragged me back.

I always pay Neal’s Yard Dairy a visit when I’m in the vicinity and it never disappoints. If you like ‘proper’ cheese, I recommend that you make the pilgrimage yourself some day, then pop into Berghaus to buy a bag in which to carry your pungent purchase.

Friday, 20 March 2009

"Brian Clough - football genius!"

Yes, I'm still thinking about Brian Clough, but this time I've been recalling the second occasion I met him, in 1994. For me, the events later that same evening, following our brief handshake, demonstrate once again why Mr. Clough had 'it' in spades, whatever 'it' may be. More of that below.

Brian Clough (who would have turned 74 yesterday) left Leeds United in September 1974 and four months later took up residence down the M1 at unfashionable Nottingham Forest (at the time sitting 13th in the second tier of English football). By May 1980, Forest had won two League Cups, the English League Championship and, most famously, two successive European Cups. I’m a Forest fan so I am biased, but I think it’s the most remarkable story in club football.

Of course, Brian Clough is the reason I am a Forest fan. Growing up in Sedgefield, County Durham, the vast majority of my friends followed one of the North East clubs, but at a young age I was seduced by Mr. Clough’s Nottingham Forest. And it was my support of Forest that eventually led to me choosing to study at the University of Nottingham.

I ended up living in Nottingham for almost five years. It seemed that most people from the city at that time had a Brian Clough story of their own. I am sure that most of these were apocryphal, exaggerated or plain fiction. I have one and it’s absolutely true (I would say that of course, but it really is!).

By early 1994, I was an elected sabbatical officer of the University of Nottingham Union (now called University of Nottingham Students’ Union). A big part of the organisation was the Athletic Union (AU) and each year they held a black tie/posh frocks ball. Many hundreds of students attended this event, representing all sorts of sports and outdoor activities. On this occasion, the AU decided to invite Brian Clough as guest of honour. Mr. Clough had retired at the end of the previous season and it was widely believed (if not confirmed) that he was drinking heavily and not a well man. Therefore, the guest of honour invitation was very deliberately not a speaking engagement.

I briefly met the guest of honour at the pre-dinner reception and I have to say he did indeed not look or sound well. Then everyone sat down for their meal. During the subsequent coffee and mints, the AU president got up on his hind legs and went through the formalities. He welcomed Brian Clough OBE, at which point Mr. Clough rose to his feet to say a few words. No-one was about to stop him, but equally no-one relished the prospect. The microphone was passed along the top table to Mr. Clough and he started to speak. He stated that he was happy that he had retired, as that meant he could spend more time with his grandchildren (a standard Brian Clough soundbite at the time).

Before he could utter anything else, a voice at the back of room called out: “Brian Clough – football genius!” Within seconds, the whole room had taken up the chant. This continued for what seemed like five minutes. Throughout, students were standing up at the various tables dotted around the room, but at the top table, only one figure was upright – Brian Clough.

Eventually, the chanting subsided, the students sat down and the room was completely quiet. Brian Clough slowly raised his head, looked around at the hundreds of expectant faces and said: “Tell me something I don’t know.”

The man was not perfect (who is?), but he was indeed “Brian Clough – football genius” – though that doesn’t tell the half of it.

I often wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t fallen for Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s. I possibly wouldn’t have gravitated towards Nottingham University, or got involved in student politics and communications, or met Ed Fordham (now Godfather to my oldest son), or ended up working for Lynne Franks PR in London, or so on and so forth. And had the Leeds United hierarchy stuck with Mr. Clough, would I now be dreaming of my next pilgrimage to Elland Road rather than the City Ground? That last thought really makes me shudder!

I’ll sign off with another Brian Clough gem: “They say Rome wasn't built in a day, but I wasn't on that particular job." Which reminds me, I’d better get back to work.

"I certainly wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the business, but I'm in the top one."

I've been thinking about Brian Clough OBE a lot lately. In truth, for as long as I can remember, if I need to cheer myself up, all I have to do is trawl my memory for a quotation by Mr. Clough. I don't think I risk veering into a realm of originality by stating that he was a 'one off'. He would have turned 74 tomorrow, but, sadly, died in 2004.

At the moment, Brian Clough is headline news again thanks to the imminent cinema debut of The Damned United, a film adaptation of the book by David Peace. There has been plenty of coverage in the media, from numerous angles.

The book is very ‘dark’ and has been strongly criticised by the Clough family, who believe it to be a mis-representation of Old Big ’Ead (his self anointed alias, not mine). The Damned United is a ‘factional’ account of Brian Clough’s disastrous 44 day tenure as manager of Leeds United, in 1974. While the book may not paint a completely flattering picture of Mr. Clough, everything that I have seen or heard about the film points to it being a real celebration of the life and talent of a unique character.

As a Brian Clough devotee, I have been devouring as much of the coverage as I can, and some of it has been fascinating. Michael Sheen, the actor who plays Mr. Clough in the film, has given many interviews and time and again pointed out that although he completely understands the family’s hostility towards the project, he believes they should see the film as it’s a very affectionate portrait of the man himself.

Earlier this week, I listened to a great debate about the film on BBC Radio 5 Live. It took place during the evening sports show and, along with the presenter, featured Pat Murphy, Tim Lovejoy and a bona fide film critic whose name escapes me. I thought it was a particularly good discussion, because each contributor was able to articulate a distinct and valid take on the issue.

Essentially, it seemed to me that Pat Murphy was representing the Clough family. An excellent sports journalist, Murphy was (I believe) fairly close to Brian Clough and wrote a very readable biography of the man. I understand he remains in regular contact with the family. During the debate, Murphy regularly referred to the ‘17 factual inaccuracies’ in the film and he was, in my opinion, relatively hostile towards it.

Tim Lovejoy, the former presenter of Soccer AM on Sky Sports, represented the ‘average’ football fan (okay, so he’s famous, and probably rich, unlike the vast majority of fans, but you know what I mean). True to his name, Lovejoy loved the film – it took him back to a football era that he can barely remember (he’s 40) and brought one of the legends of the game to the big screen.

The bona fide film critic just did his job. He simply reviewed the movie as a piece of cinema and his conclusion was that it was a highly entertaining film with an outstanding central performance by Michael Sheen.

The discussion flowed well, covered many points of view, and was thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. Personally, I can’t wait to go and see the film and judge for myself. One thing I am sure of – from the clips I’ve already seen, Michael Sheen 'does' a fantastic Brian Clough.

More on Brian Clough very soon and an account of an occasion on which I met the great man. For the moment, I will conclude with his very astute assessment of the long ball game: "If God had intended for us to play football in the clouds he would have put the grass in the sky."

Friday, 13 March 2009

Do all first time bloggers start like this?

So here I am taking my first (and belated) tentative steps into the blogosphere. I wonder if all first time bloggers populate their initial post with fairly meaningless drivel like this? I'm looking forward to making a few schoolboy errors as I blog at will. Hopefully, my posts will become more sophisticated in their use of techniques, links and such like, and more erudite in content. But I can't promise that will be the case.

Hmm, I'm already running short on inspiration (It's Friday afternoon and the week has 'felt' long) - not a very auspicious start. My thoughts turn to tonight and I'm really looking forward to seeing this lot. They are performing at an Irish themed night at Hardwick Hall Hotel and I'm heading along with Catherine (Mrs Double Yellow) and a few friends. I worked at the hotel many years ago and we held our wedding reception there (er, pointless trivia, but it fills a bit of space). More on Hardwick Hall Hotel, Hardwick Country Park and a very controversial planning decision in the future...

Going out tonight means I will miss the Red Nose Day TV marathon. If this clip http://tinyurl.com/adkqkp is anything to go by, it looks like there will be a few bits of comedy gold on offer, so I will probably record it. I've been watching the celebs on Kilimanjaro with some interest, in truth mainly because of the great hats that they were all wearing - http://tinyurl.com/b48z54. As a dyed in the wool Berghaus boy, it was great to see the brand in the spotlight. Note to self (and everyone else) - make a donation!

And so my first blog is virtually complete and I return to the hackneyed phrases of a virgin blogger.

Right, I'll get it posted and have a look.

Double Yellow signing off.