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Monday, 28 October 2013

Me and The Lancet



Seems amazing that I had this published all those years ago, given my own history with drink, and the subject matter of other pieces on this blogspot, such as this and this. Was certainly one of my proudest moments at the time to have the article appear in such a prestigious journal.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Birmingham Back on the Map: Peaky Blinders




No Brummie with a heart could be failed to be moved by BBC 2’s recent six-part drama ‘Peaky Blinders’. Others from outside Birmingham have poured a certain amount of scorn on the apparent inauthenticiy of the accents, despite the fact that they know nothing about the city, nothing worthwhile, anyway. Take a look at most of the spurious reviews that have abounded in the national press. Grace Dent, from The Independent, who apparently hails from Cumbria, has cast doubt on the validity of the second city’s intonation as depicted in the series. Lazy journalism from the increasingly downmarket, militantly PC liberal press, as usual.

Cillian Murphy, an Irish actor, who could probably have done much more, albeit superficially, with his pretty boy looks, doesn’t  just look the part of a Small Heath villain, he sounds like one to a tee as well.  When he struts down the terraced streets, his dead eyes always ready for combat, he makes people run, not towards him but well away. Good looks and incipient violence can have that effect. I have seen his type many times in Birmingham. The charm mixed with menace. It is Birmingham personified.

His biggest achievement, as well as that of writer Stephen Knight, is to make Birmingham look like an epic environment around the post-World War 1 period. This has come as a shock to many, who still perceive my city as something of a shithole, if I may be frank. Spaghetti Junction, the old Digbeth coach station, ‘landmarks’ such as the cylindrical Rotunda building, have frequently been mocked as evidence of an ugly urban landscape.

Peaky Blinders puts that all into a wider historical context. Because we are an industrial city, the ‘workshop of the world’ at one point and one which produced the Spitfire during World War II,, as well as thousands of cars from British Leyland’s Longbridge plant. We have been presented as a dull city, with which the apparently grating tones of our accents have tended to dovetail. But there has always been drama in Birmingham, some of it tragic, some of it uplifting, and not just on Broad Street on a Saturday night,

It was one of the main centres of the Chartist movement in the 19th century, which fought bravely to win working men the right to vote.  We became the car manufacturing centre of the world in the early 20th Century and one of the most heroic moments of that legacy was when 30,000 Birmingham engineers marched down to Saltley Gates in solidarity with striking miners to close down the coking plant there at the time. Aston Villa also won the European Cup in 1982. I was there during the celebrations. The roof tops were replete with the teaam's colours, claret and blue. Tom Hanks is also a big fan of the club, part of strange coterie of well-known names that follow the team's fortunes.

There have been very bad times too. The Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 were sickening. They took many innocent lives. Worst still it happened in a city where many Irish-born people had made their homes, my parents included. I was only seven but I remember the unbearable pain. The loss of life was dreadful but the backlash against the Irish community was a nightmare too.

Peaky Blinders is an eye-opener, not only because it presents my home city as an epic environment: a crashing, thudding arena of constant industry amid bloody vendettas but also because 1919 Birmingham is a ethnical melting pot. There is a large Chinese community, the Italians have a marked presence and of course the Irish abound in their numbers.

The Irish will always be a part of Birmingham but the Asians and Afro-Caribbean’s have joined the rest of what is one of the UK’s truly multi-ethnic centres of excellence. I particularly enjoyed the presence of locally-born Benjamin Zephaniah, towards whom the Shelby family are utterly colour blind. If that is not a lesson in which life does not move inexorably forward, I don’t know what is.

I have many fond memories of Peaky Blinders. Polly’s toughness, hand on a most wonderful curvaceous hip, Billy Kimber’s arrogance until Tommy got him one straight between the eyes but above all my home city, Birmingham, in all its wondrous historical majesty.

Tonight I was passing an off-licence on Vigarage Road, Kings Heath near where I live. There was a row going on with empty bottles waving around. Unfortunately, not an unusual sight in these parts on a Saturday night but part of me wished that Thomas Shelby might turn up to put an end to it.. There is violence of one kind, mindless you might call it, and then there is violence of another ilk altogether, that of protection. Peaky Blinders errs towards the latter. A staunch defender of the UK's second city.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A Charlatan of a Publisher



Back in November last year I met up in London  with  the owner of a Zagreb-based real estate research company, named Red Star (http://www.redstar.eu.com/), who I had previously contributed articles to his blogspot. I was there to discuss an idea both he and I had to launch a new real estate magazine covering Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

We brain-stormed some ideas and agreed that I should go away and think of a structure for the new publication. Through a fair bit of trial and error, as is the case in these situations, I came up with one, which divided CEE into three sub-regions, North-Eastern Europe, Central Eastern Europe and South Eastern Europe. I also set about recruiting another two journalists, one based in Budapest, who would write about Central Eastern Europe – Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania – and the other South Eastern Europe, consisting of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria. My own patch, North Eastern Europe, would involve following developments in the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine. Having worked for other commercial property magazines I knew this structure was an original one. During this time I was also engaged in other preparations for the magazine: liaising with the publisher and helping to get a sales representative on board. This lasted for a period of some months during which I received no pay.

Admittedly, when the first issue did come out, I was well remunerated but given the efforts I had put in leading up to that I didn’t think it unjustified. The magazine was also very well-received.

Real estate is a tough sector to write about, more difficult than covering other parts of the business world. As one source once said to me “in some languages the name for it is ‘immobilia”, that is it doesn’t move much”. Finding news on the market can be frustrating. But that did not prevent me from trying and I thought we came up with some original and varied articles, focussing on the different sectors of office, retail and logistics from as many of the countries on our beats as we could muster. Getting hold of company representatives to do interviews with us was by no means easy half the time, given that many were on business trips or were on holiday. The publisher also had a habit of disappearing without notice for weeks at a time as well, only then to turn up expecting everything to be in full swing.

With the third issue, which was due to coincide with an annual event Red Star held every year, things took an alarming turn, at least for me as a journalist. After being away from work for several weeks the publisher contacted me on a Tuesday and said he wanted us to arrange an interview with a company within the next few days before the CEO went on holiday on Friday. This, after I had already given the other journalists and myself a set of assignments. I told him that this was a very tall order to arrange at such short notice, which he acknowledged.

What I did not realise at the time was that this article was supposed to be paid for by the company being interviewed. In magazine publishing this is not uncommon but it invariably involves informing the reader that the article has been ‘sponsored’. However, in this case, the publisher had no intention of pointing this out and was happy for it to be presented as a normally-researched article. This contravenes all the ethics of journalism, which anyone with a modicum of intelligence will be aware of.

That particular article went unpublished and now the owner of the company appears to be reluctant to pay me for the four articles I wrote for that issue, as well as three others I spent a good deal of time editing. He has accused me of wasting his money, when this situation should never have arisen in the first place. Had things continued in the same vein, my job as editor would have become redundant anyway, as he seemed perfectly willing to go over my head in order to fulfil his squalid, money-grabbing aims. What had begun as a decent magazine was in the process of becoming a mere brochure.

All businesses need time to flourish and perhaps magazine publishing more than most. Not realising this is, in my view, a route to disaster, one the head of Red Star seems ever keen to follow.