I interviewed Ramsey Campbell last year for the SevenStreets Almanac – a short-lived print version of SevenStreets that lasted for about as long as we had the energy and interest to keep ploughing hundreds of hours into something that paid us less than it needed to.
I became aware of Campbell years ago as I’ve always dipped in and out of the wider horror genre, feasting on short stories when younger and buying up Stephen King, James Herbert and Dean Koontz. I’m a particular fan of short stories, being brought up on MR James, Saki and O Henry, and the form lends itself well to science-fiction and horror genres with macabre reveals. That led me to stuff like JG Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell.
I saw Campbell speak at a Twisted Tales event in around 2010 and was struck by his knowledge and humour, so I was chuffed when he subsequently started posting comments on SevenStreets – usually talking his favourite Chinese restaurant. I’d long earmarked him for a proper sit-down interview about his relationship with Liverpool so the Halloween edition we did (at the bottom) was a good opportunity.
Ramsey was as hospitable as I expected, with a big, rambling house – little stacks of DVDs and books everywhere – filled with curios. But I liked how he basically sat and talked to me in his slippers. Matt Thomas took a great pic of Ramsey sat on the sofa which we both instantly thought was the image to use. The interview itself is not vintage stuff, which is my fault, but went some way to exploring the idea that a writer’s physical location – and formative experiences in a particular place – can affect their writing, whether consciously or unconsciously.
I included a reading list at the bottom for those interested in reading Ramsey’s Liverpool-flavoured work, but it’s an awesome canon, to which I can’t really do justice. I’m continuing to tick them off – and re-read a few through the lens of a couple of hours with the author. And I continue to look at Liverpool’s buidings, roads and waterways – and ponder what’s behind, beneath and beyond them.
I look on from the bay window onto the front lawn and leafy street in Wallasey.
“Do you neighbours know what you do?”
“Yes, I haven’t been run out of town yet!” replies Ramsey Campbell, a man often referred to as the country’s greatest living horror novelist.
I was pondering what it might be like to have a well-known author as a neighbour, but Ramsey answers the question as if I’d suggested that perhaps a man of his profession should not be allowed to live among other people. His warm greeting, an Escher-print t-shirt and pair of comfy slippers indicate that nothing could be further from the truth. Unless you really dislike Escher.
Campbell, a writer for half a century, started off writing in a fictional universe; namely a Lovecraftian town called Brichester, but as time passes and Campbell moves away from Lovecraft to a more subtle MR James idiom, it becomes more recognisable as Liverpool, before being ditched altogether in favour of the author’s hometown.
By the time of Creatures of the Pool – described by Campbell as his ultimate Liverpool novel and ultimate SevenStreets novel – it’s clear that Liverpool has become as much a character as any of Ramsey’s human, or non-human, cast. In his short stories and novels the city takes on a whole new aspect: a city haunted by shadows, connected with its past, harbouring people and things to be avoided who may or may not be phantoms of fevered minds.
Campbell’s journey to authorship started with a chance encounter with a copy of Weird Tales, a pulpy anthology that was something of a gateway drug to youthful minds attracted to the escapism of science-fiction and horror.
“It was one of those places that sold sweets and books in Southport on Seabank Road, including these American imports with a half-crown sticker on the front. The cover had a birdlike grotesque in the foreground in this black desert, being approached by two monstrous skeletons with huge skulls. If that was the cover what would it be like inside? At seven I was too young for it and my mother wouldn’t let me buy it but the memory of it stayed with me.
“I picked it up a few years later to find that it’s a vulture that’s painted quite badly with two human skeletons in the background. But my mind latched on to the original image and wanted it to be stranger – it invented this even more bizarre image. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
This is something of a trend in Campbell’s work; stories rooted in the everyday and brought to life through detail where the protagonist gradually realises that something rationally inexplicable is taking place. Whether it’s all in the mind of the narrator or main character is often left for the reader to decide.
“The writing that I enjoy – and the writing that I try to create – is something that makes you look again at something you take for granted. One of my first stories, The Cellars, is essentially a historical document now of Liverpool city centre as the characters walk this route between Bold Street and to Old Hall Street. And I did the walk – I always go and look again, noticing details I’d never seen before that I could use.
In his earlier works Campbell describes a Liverpool not seen for decades; a Liverpool down on its luck – full of blasted landscapes and joblessness. It was fertile ground for a writer who melded the physical landscape with unconscious terrors.
“In those days I would go to cinemas – The Homer in Great Homer Street and another in Kensington. To get to them you would pass these derelict streets; through this wasteland that Liverpool was in the war. This entire new city opened itself out to me as I was discovering Lovecraft, and the two came together.
“A lot of the stories come out of the location. With Mackintosh Willy I was walking in Newsham Park and found these fading footprints in some new cement. And then I noticed on the park shelter was written Mackintosh Willy; when I looked closer I realised it was three guys’ names – Mack, Tosh, Willy – who had graffitied their names on the wall. And that was all I needed to write the story – the idea of Mackintosh Willy.”
Campbell accepts that Liverpool has very much shaped the writer he has become and though it’s tempting to speculate that there is something in the city that has spawned several more renowned genre writers – not least Clive Barker, who has used Liverpool in much of his writing, most obviously in The Forbidden, the story that became Candyman – he seems inclined to regard of it as coincidence, while acknowledging this part in aiding Barker’s rise to the top table of horror. However, another luminary of the genre hints at something more fundamental between Liverpool and the writers it spawns, as Campbell says:
“Stephen King says something in Danse Macabre to the effect that in my first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Liverpool is the main character; this slumbering beast.”
Can a city – its architecture and race memory and scar tissue – affect the minds of the people who live, write and work there; somehow turn their conscious and unconscious minds into a conduit for things only understood instinctively? Campbell’s work frequently feels like a synthesis of influences – the city of Liverpool speaking through him.
Having digested much of his work over the last 18 months I have begun, as Campbell says, to look again; looking up at the rooftops and facades and down at the flooring and paving, pondering what lies beneath the streets and the rolling Mersey.
Liverpool’s rich, deep, febrile history is evident in its buildings, its road names and peculiar topography: slavers and slaves, rogues, murderers, lunatics – even its own mischievous spirit in Springheel Jack, the fleet-footed gremlin of Everton’s rooftops.
Whitechapel, Princes Avenue and James Street look different to me now with the added context of Campbell’s insidious prose, which lends the suspicion that there is something else at the edge of our perception; something we might glimpse if we were to look again. The creeping suspicion that, somehow, something is vaguely wrong.
Many Ramsey Campbell stories are set in specific Liverpool locations. Here are just seven.
An old shelter in Newsham Park is the setting for a disturbing tale concerning an old tramp, to whom there is more than meets the eye.
A youth is pursued through a fairground in New Brighton by a gang of ne’er-do-wells, taking to a ghost train to escape.
An insomniac is unnerved by an old woman standing underneath a lamppost outside his flat on Princes Avenue and resolves to investigate who she is – and why local pets are disappearing.
The Man In The Underpass
A young girl forms a connection with some unusual graffiti in an underpass off West Derby Road.
Creatures of the Pool
Gavin’s father has gone missing. As he searches for him and begins to piece together Liverpool’s myth and history he starts to realise that the city’s connection with what lies in the ground and the water has formed its present. The book is crammed with real-world historical detail on Liverpool.
The Face That Must Die
A homophobic killer stalks the streets of Aigburth and Toxteth in this bleak, hallucinatory thriller.
A miserable tour of Liverpool lends no respite for a woman who lives on Lark Lane, seemingly haunted by a ghost of Christmas past. Commissioned by the Post, it was initially unused, having been deemed too horrible.
The edition of the Almanac the interview featured in…
I’ve long suspected theguardian.com of essentially trolling its own readership and, by extension, any passing social media visitors that come their way. That’s no surprise given that Grauniad.com is restyling itself as a global news source to compete with HuffPo and in direct opposition to the notionally right-wing Daily mail Online. But the reporting over Dr Matt Taylor’s supposedly misogynistic t-shirt and resulting fallout proved it for me.
I don’t want to get into the sexual politics on this issue – nor any of the articles written by Jessica Valenti, Bidisha, Barbara Ellen or Hadley Freeman that are churned out at an astonishing rate – as any resulting debate detracts from my core opinion on this: much of it is open trolling.
I can’t comment on whether these beliefs are genuinely held or not as I don’t know any of the writers – and it’s hardly unreasonable to suggest that clickbait is unthinkable in this day and age, despite my reservations. But I’ve come to the conclusion that whoever is commissioning these articles from certain writers, on certain subjects and in such large volumes is basing it on intelligence that shows the traffic, sharing and interaction resulting from such ‘battle of the sexes’ articles is where the money is.
Work in any digital media and you’ll come across advertising brokers who will speak of the vast sums of money that are open to sites that hit enormous monthly uniques – if you don’t hit them you don’t even get in the door. So the internet arms race really bears little relation to the quality, interest or demographic data of your readership.
In that context, The Guardian is looking at a six-year drop of almost 50% on daily sales, to 180,000 copies a day. Compare the digital readership and you’re looking at 40m uniques per month, making the site the fourth-highest English-language news site in the world – that change from guardian.co.uk to guardian.com and editorial strategy of hiring bags of American writers is obviously paying off.
The traditional readership then is of comparatively little value compared to the potential riches of wielding daily unique visitor numbers in the millions. And for for the news division, losing close to a million quid a week, a global audience hoovering up manufactured Guardianista outrage is more valuable than a dwindling domestic market. Hence articles that amount not only to clickbait, the realistic value of which is weak, and flamebait, which not only attracts clicks in the first place, but brings with it social media shares from diametrically-opposed readers but plenty of return visits as people deliver their latest comments in ongoing arguments, account creations and – conceivably – app downloads, leading to more data harvesting.
The Guardian isn’t alone in this. While Mail Online is predicated on celebrity gossip and scantily-clad women, it ploughs a similar furrow in trolling its readers with articles like this. Both are chasing online profits that have long appeared elusive – and conceivably illusory in the case of the Mail, but massive increases in ad yields over the last year seem to indicate that the long-hoped-for maturing of online revenue-generation platforms has finally arrived. Not only that, but people have adapted at a lightning pace to the arrival of smartphones and tablets, opening up huge new frontiers in subscription models and data harvesting. Harvest data and you can sell it – or use it to leverage across a wide range of platforms, such as the platform that Guardian Media Group affords.
This is the second element of why this content is being pushed in such large volumes. If someone downloads your app, you can upsell all your other services. You get access to lots of demographic data on them. You might sell that data on – or use it to create bespoke campaigns aimed directly at them. Conceivably you can read their text messages and emails, depending on how intrusive your app is. Then you can sell that data – or use it at your own leisure. There’s cash in code.
I believe the print version of the Guardian’s days are numbered, as a daily newspaper anyway. Although print is massively more profitable per reader, the writing is on the wall in terms of how we consume media – just look at Autotrader, which disappeared as a physical proposition in 2013 and now exists in online-only format. It also happened to be owned by Guardian Media Group until very recently and basically bankrolled their push into other English-speaking markets.
With online, it’s not just about the numbers – and engagement isn’t simply about giving people something they like. Give them something they don’t like and it’s of similar, if not greater value. In this environment, the newspaper-as-troll has an important role to play: you’re not simply trolling your existing readership, you’re attracting new readers to your site; complete new demographics who might never buy the paper – or choose to click on a website they know to represent political opinions they don’t share.
Throw a story in their face – a relatable story they recognise – and throw a controversial spin on it, such as blasting they guy who landed a satellite on a comet for his choice of shirt, and you open up the potential audience enormously. And because gender politics are truly universal, it affords a scope that’s simply not open to domestic or less inflammatory subjects.
The row over Dr Matt Taylor’s shirt – and resulting article, which makes some reasonable points in s way that seems designed to attract opprobrium – is a micrcosm for how The Guardian works in an international, online journalism economy. It’s has global reach and you can spin a supposed gender battle out of it. It’s shareable, it’s digestable and it reads like naked flamebait. Currently it has around 5,000 social media shares and 1,000 comments.
Over on social media it’s lighting up the boards. The following tweet caught my eye – it’s another microcosm of the gender polarisation in this debate, though plenty of women have decried the article in question. More than that, it neatly highlights how the axis of controversy-share-traffic plays out for The Guardian. Write something you know to be controversial, package it up in a way that appears designed to kick off a huge argument in the comments section and push it out on the social networks.
Clickbait is dead, says Buzzfeed. Long live flamebait.
— Alice Bell (@alicebell) November 14, 2014
Lord Attenborough’s recent death took me back to an afternoon in 2000 when I went to interview the director, who was promoting Grey Owl – his penultimate work and probably not his best. For some reason, which still baffles me, I had been chosen to interview Attenborough by whatever company had been retained to deal with these things. Alongside Joe Riley of the Echo, I was the only one afforded any time with the great man.
The do took place at what is now the Radio City tower with much food and booze laid on for the occasion – it was like walking into an episode of Sex and the City. Having headed straight from the office where I was laying out the next newspaper, under orders to pretend I’d seen the film at a screening and probably looking like a complete scruff, I was rather out of place. Attenborough clearly spotted this while doing the rounds and made a point of coming over to me to engage me in conversation.
It was a lovely gesture, though I would have warmed to him anyway. I was very chuffed with the interview, where Attenborough nursed me through with interesting and thorough answers to what were probably unimpressive questions and hushed the people telling him he had to make time for other interviews (there weren’t any more as it transpired, we’d talked for so long no-one else got to speak to him). Afterwards he asked: “Was that alright, Robin?”. I was thrilled with that too. He essentially sacrificed the time reserved to promote his new film to be nice to someone who he obviously thought needed it.
I’ve reprinted the interview that resulted below, which is rather shot through with an angsty pessimism that reflected my mood at the time but reflects a style that I have adopted to a lesser degree ever since: a little bit gonzo, emotive, personal. I quite like the interview, despite the lack of quotes, looking back but it wouldn’t have amounted to much without the help of the subject. Those 20 minutes with Lord Attenborough were a wonderful treat and instructive too.
Lord Attenborough. The name itself is so thick with meaning, gravity and grandiosity that the prospect of meeting the man is quite unnerving.
I’m also surrounded by so much decadence at Radio City headquarters at the top of St John’s Beacon, while surveying some of the city’s seamier quarters of Liverpool that it’s impossible not to be struck by the juxtaposition. As I enter the building I am entreated to buy a Big Issue; as I enter the room chosen to host the launch party for Grey owl, Attenborough’s new film, I am faced with plates full of food, a lobster perched slightly sadly on top, as several people try to force wine into my hand.
Slightly fazed by it all and the roll-call of people who move on to another victim once they learn that I’ve come from the student newspaper, I sit by the window to admire the view. Realising there’s someone standing next to me who hasn’t moved away once they’ve noticed my whiskers, I turn to make a comment on the scenery when – inevitably – I’m faced with the man himself: “Magnificent view!”
Lord Richard Attenborough looks like my Grandpapa.
After a fat man from the Liverpool Echo creeps to Attenborough for an eternity, I am maneuvered through the gaggle of journos – “Janet Bland from the Daily Post…” – and get to spend some time with him in a side room. He looks tired [Attenborough was 77 at the time] but that doesn’t seem to dim his enthusiasm.
“Louis B Mayer always said that films have nothing to do with messages, I don’t agree with that, I don’t accept that. I believe that movies are essentially entertainment, but I also believe they are about things that people care about: totalitarianism, racial concerns, religious persecution – things that are worth talking about.
“I do believe that the environment is of great concern. There was a statement out yesterday that said within 70 years we will have plundered the planet, there will be no natural resources left: trees, water. It’s terrible, terrifying.”
Quite what the throng of hacks outside would make of this is anyone’s guess, but there’s no stopping him.
“Now, here’s a tale that deals with these issues, but with a fabulous tale behind it. A guy who was a total phone; a liar, drunk and bigamist…”. Ah, this will be Grey Owl, the true story of the Red Indian who renounced his life as a trapper in Canadian forests to become the leading figure in global environmentalism prior to WWII, only for it to be discovered, upon his death, that he was a chap from Hastings called Archie.
Attenborough’s delight at this story is evident – and his passion when talking about environmental issues evident. Indeed, Grey Owl shares many characteristics with many of the director’s other films: tolerance, harmony and respect chief among them. Looking at the critical and box-office receptions for Ghandi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom it’s hard not to conclude that Louis was wrong after all. But where does all this come from?
“Mike Parkinson said to me: ‘Your parents were committed to good causes’. They weren’t good causes – they were committed to helping people live and breathe, everyday things. It seemed unthinkable to them that you were not concerned with people less fortunate than yourself, or people who were being persecuted. You can’t just stand by. It isn’t something special to me; it’s perfectly ordinary behaviour.”
I’m with him, but the executives who refused to bankroll Attenborough’s films when he was transitioning from Hollywood leading man to director didn’t seem to agree. They laughed Attenborough out of the room for wanting to make a film about ‘a little brown man, dressed in a sheet and carrying a beanpole’. They had reckoned without his eye for telling a good story and his tenacity. Having spent 20 years trying to get the funding together to make Ghandi, he promptly won eight Oscars.
“My monstrous behaviour was that I gloated over the fact that all those buggers who turned me down then started to bid for it,” he admits a little ruefully, but with a definite twinkle.
Attenborough clearly loves making films, despite the difficulties he has encountered – he has also had to raise the cash to make Grey Owl privately – but it seems to me the overriding reason is to convey messages of humanitarianism in a format that people find palatable. The spoonful of sugar in Grey Owl is the love affair between Piers Brosnan’s eponymous lead and his wife, but the message behind it is hard to miss.
It’s a passion that has led Attenborough behind the camera more and more as his career has progressed, but it’s worth remembering that he was one of Hollywood’s key leading men during the golden age, starring in classics such as Brighton Rock, I’m Alright Jack, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and 10 Rillington Place. More recently he has appeared in Jurassic Park, where Steven Spielberg asked him to direct portions of Schindler’s List – he was too busy working on Shadowlands, a critical smash that was showered with Oscar nominations and BAFTA wins.
I waste some precious time musing on his early film career – “William Hartnell was a wonderful man!” – Brighton Rock being one of my favourite books and a strong film to boot. Attenborough’s anti-hero Pinkie is one of the most fearful, most violent figures in literature. He can’t stop himself though; a gentle chat about the films of the 40s becomes an impassioned statement about film violence: “We become inured to violence, we accept it as the norm. We should be horrified by it and we should be horrified by war.”
Time ticks by and we have to make way for Lord Attenborough’s next engagement. I leave the interview and seek out more booze. Everywhere people are chattering into mobile phones, taking wine from pretty waitresses without acknowledging them and networking furiously. What will these people take away from Grey Owl, Cry Freedom or Ghandi?
“What was he in?”
“You know, the one with the dinosaurs.”
• Image via Creative Commons, Flickr
What I’m currently up to in a (largely) professional capacity.
I am currently teaching at the University of Salford and the University of Sunderland. I am module leading on Digital Journalism and Magazine Journalism at Salford and teaching on MAC297, the NCTJ-accredited magazine production module at Sunderland.
I contributed four pages of content to the Q3 edition of Professional Manager, including my ‘best of’ top ten and an article on MPVs – and followed with my regular column (on execs) and car reviews for the Q4 edition.
Recent car reviews and press cars include: Infiniti Q50 Hybrid, Jaguar XF, Suzuki S-Cross and Citroen C4 Cactus. You can hear the PetrolPod podcast on the latter below with me and Gav.
The City Tribune was a huge success and plans are afoot for further editions nationally and internationally. You can read my featured articles on the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Liverpool’s gaming and automotive sectors. Dealing with the usual people in Liverpool’s public sector was a typically dispiriting and fruitless affair so I doubt we’ll do any more in the city.
I’m writing some stuff for Bitten, a magazine about food and drink in the North-West created by Dave Lloyd who I founded SevenStreets with.
I’ve written some more stuff for All About History Magazine, most recently on Casanova. It’s nice to know that editors come to me when they want an expert on famous historical playboys.
Some more spreads from the articles I’ve written appear below.
A DPS I wrote for Professional Manager for fleet managers and user-choosers on choosing a new car across the sectors
Deciding on a new car is hardly easy at the best of times. With a dozen factors to bear in mind it can be a fiendishly difficult task – with a rapidly-changing marketplace and a fragmenting sector it’s harder than ever. But if you know what you need – small car, big car, posh car, cheap car – we have some suggestions that might just make your job easier.
There are some surprises in there alongside some old favourites; some so new they’ve still got that fresh smell and some that have been around the block. They’re not selected by their notional jargonistic sector – they’re chosen to fit your needs, whatever they may be. Fleet cars needn’t be dull – and neither should choosing a new car. This is the the fun stuff – and with cars like these there’s never been a better time to test drive a new car…
Best for city driving: (Mini/Supermini) – Suzuki Swift
I’m not quite sure how Suzuki has done it, but the Japanese brand has made something big fit inside something small, TARDIS-style. With a punchy, versatile 1.3-litre diesel engine the Swift never feels outpaced, nor underpowered or noisy on the motorway, but it is brilliantly nippy around town. Factor in a genuinely-possible 60mpg and, for £15K for the high-spec with most of the toys you’d want, the Swift is impossible to ignore.
Best for fuel economy: (Family Car) – Peugeot 308
Finally reinjecting some good looks and genuine VW-matching quality into its volume range, Peugeot comes up with the good on the new 308. Peugeot engines are always good but the exterior styling and interior quality – including the smallest steering-wheel ever and a dashboard so clean you could eat your dinner off it – mean you can have German quality without the prices. Go for the 1.6 HDi and you get an incredible 91.1mpg and emissions of 82g/km – that makes it the most efficient car on the road today.
Best for shifting people: (MPV) – Citroen C4 Picasso
At higher specifications the new C4 Picasso – or Grand C4 if you really need to move a lot of people – is a classy piece of kit. Long gone are the days when MPVs were mutton dressed as, well, mutton – inside the car belies its size while inside the French people-carrier has genuine je ne sais quoi. Which is French for lots of interior space, top-range trim and all the toys. Citroen worked hard on the C4 Picasso and, with countless clever interior touches, it paid off in spades.
Best All-Rounder: (Crossover SUV) – Nissan Qashqai
The Qashqai may hard to get excited about; but it’s impossible to ignore. Currently being garlanded with Car of the Year awards, with Summer barely upon us, the new Qashqai follows in the footsteps of the car that defined the crossover segment and immediately goes back to the top of the tree. A quantum leap in interior quality, strong engines and impressive versatility – and all Made In Britain – the Qashqai is almost a no-brainer in the sector if you’re looking for a comfortable, versatile people-carrier.
Best off-roader: Volvo XC60
No, the XC60 isn’t the best mud-plugger out there but if you’re genuinely driving across fields on a daily basis go and buy a Land Rover Defender and have done with it. The XC60 has plenty of off-road chops but you won’t need a new spine after cruising down the M1 for three hours in it either. It’s also very spacious and endlessly practical. The SUV is the best car in Volvo’s range, offers a stylish alternative to the Germans in the sector and goes beautifully with roll-neck jumpers and minimalist furniture.
Best Family Car – BMW 3 Series
The 3-Series has long been a benchmark in the sector and that’s not changing any time soon – not for nothing is BMW still known as the Ultimate Driving Machine. It’s certainly the best to drive but has engines, refinement and technology to match anything in the sector. Fuel economy is strong and BIK is as low as 17% meaning you won’t pay through the nose for a genuinely desirable car.
The Head Turner (Large Executive) – Jaguar XF
The XF has assumed something of the role of the pride leader – perhaps it’s getting on a bit and there are some younger cats snapping at its heels, but it’s still unquestionably the Daddy. The car that saved Jaguar still oozes quality from the second its vents rotate into place and offers stunning fuel economy with the excellent 2.2-litre turbodiesel engines. Sleek looks, controlled power and a badge that’s the envy of every motorist on the road.
Best Alternative Car (Alternative fuel) – Vauxhall Ampera
With Chevrolet set to leave the market in 2015, Vauxhall’s Ampera will be the default E-REV of choice. Drive it as a petrol car; drive it as a hybrid; drive it as an electric car – the Volt looks like nothing else on the road and is good to be in either way, transporting four in style and space. Depending on your commute you could save a bundle too. Ever wonder what happened to the car of the future? Wonder no more.
Best for posing (Luxury Car) – Range Rover
If you must have a huge car that turns heads and speaks for itself, there’s really only one way to go. The Range Rover is the ultimate in luxury cars: a mud-plugging beast than isn’t out-of-place on The Mall. If such things are consideration there are economical diesel engines available but it’s the plush elegance, startling technology – the dual-screen infotainment system will make your jaw drop – and serene performance that make the Rangey what it is: unbeatable. It is big – and it is clever.
Best for load lugging (Van) – Ford Transit
When brand names attain the status of the colloquial – think Hoover, Sellotape or Google – you know they’ve gone big. The Transit’s reputation is based on being the van of choice for tradesmen over many decades. The fabled white van beloved of builders, bakers and candlestick-makers across the land is still going strong and in more variations that you can shake a rolled-up copy of The Sun at. Versatile, clever and surprisingly good to drive, the Transit does it all.
My column for the 2014 Q4 edition of Professional Manager magazine on buying executive cars
People often ask me for car advice – generally just prior to ignoring it in favour of buying the car they’d had their eye on all along. That’s fine by me because the fact of the matter is that there aren’t any bad cars anymore. There just aren’t. Sure there are cars that are less suitable for some people than others – and many cars I believe are overpriced – but no true duffers in this day and age.
Recently a colleague asked me for my car recommendations for him and his young family. Two children, a dog, a wife with whom he shares the car. Immediately my thoughts turned to some of the larger cars – MPVs, estates and large family cars that I’ve spent time with recently. Cars such as the Vauxhall Insignia Sport Tourer, Citroen C4 Picasso, Peugeot 2008, Suzuki S-Cross and Nissan Qashqai.
He nodded his head slowly as I explained the various benefits of these cars – different but all perfect for his needs. Eventually he shook his head and, a little bashfully, added: “No, I need a badge – for the car-park.”
Sound familiar? In the industry it’s known as badge snobbery – the need to show off to friends, neighbours and colleagues how successful you are by displaying a little logo on the front of your car, be it BMW, Mercedes or Jaguar – or even Bentley, Porsche or Maserati. “Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends,” sang Janis Joplin. It’s a sentiment echoed today on forecourts around the country.
The concept is perfectly understandable and a part of the automotive landscape since houses were built with driveways, yet among car journalists and others I meet in the industry a badge means very little. These people are impressed – or otherwise – by the competencies of a car, regardless of the logo on the bonnet. And while some cars made by these manufacturers are more impressive than others, there’s scarcely a car in the Executive segment that isn’t superb.
This segment is defined by cars such as the BMW 3-Series, a ‘compact executive’ and perennial best-seller and favourite of company car drivers and the Jaguar XF, a ‘large executive’ that has left everyone else in its wake since 2008. The cars made by these manufacturers – along with Audi, Lexus, Infiniti, Mercedes and Volvo – constitute the models generally referred to as Executives: large saloons designed to ferry important people around the country in style, comfort and with all the toys you could want for in a car.
Owning one of these cars needn’t be an expensive business however. Executives used to be big petrol-engined behemoths. No longer. All now offer relatively small diesel engines that will return up to 65mpg and emit under 110g/km or more and cost. Those lower CO2 models will become increasingly important in the next five years as the government ramps up Benefit-In-Kind on more polluting models, and while the recent era of generous finance and lease packages may be coming to an end, there are some incredibly good deals out there.
Because owners of cars in this sector tend to be more demanding of a car’s handling ability, executives tend to offer magic-carpet-soft rides, to soak up the motorway miles in the most comfortable manner possible. A recent drive in an Audi S8 and Mercedes CLS confirmed how astonishingly refined cars in this class have become, while the Jaguar XF offers the most stunning interior of the lot. BMW models have the most dynamic handling, while the likes of Infiniti, Volvo and Lexus offers something a little different to the Teutonic monopoly.
My advice, if you’re looking for an Exec, is much the same as my advice to any car-buyer. Ignore your preconceptions and find the one that’s right for you. They may look fairly similar – buyers in this market tend to be more conservative than in others – but there’s a world of variety under the bonnet and behind the doors.
In the same way that you wouldn’t buy a bottle of wine in Oddbins based on its price, you shouldn’t choose a car for its badge. Wine is far too important to buy on the label; it’s the same for cars.
Finding the Exec that’s best for you
Executive saloons are built for transporting groups of colleagues around the country; famously they’re all built to swallow two bags of golf clubs to boot. But the difference between a Mercedes C-Class and S-Class is vast – don’t buy a big car for the sake of vanity.
Small Is Beautiful
As restrictions on CO2 have kicked in, even Executive cars have had to downsize. All are now available with a sensible diesel engine around the 2.0-litre mark. If you’re going bigger you should have a very good reason – running costs could become crippling in three years’ time.
Ride And Handling
Most Execs are built primarily to be comfortable, on the basis that they’re designed to do a lot of miles for business purposes. Consider the make of car, the size of its wheels and whether you can live with run-flats in tandem with a stiff suspension.
The Most Toys
Of any car on sale, Execs are designed to be workplaces as much as transport. Factory-fit satnav, telephony and internet connectivity should be serious considerations with a new Exec. As should the latest active safety aids such as collision warnings, adaptive cruise control and accident mitigation.
The Fleet Special
If facts and figures baffle you, look for a derivative designed for the fleet or business market. It should be easy to find and should tick most of the boxes in terms of running costs and gadgetry. Look for models named Business Edition or similar.
My Q3 2014 column for Professional Manager on the modern-day people-carrier
Very rarely are people impressed by MPVs, forever referred to in the vaguely Stalinist technobabble of the car industry as the Multi-Purpose Vehicle. Received wisdom dictates that MPVs are too big, costly, boring, hard to drive, ugly and even vulgar to take their place in the company car-park.
But I have been impressed recently by what manufacturers are doing with their MPVs. Incredibly the sector is introducing innovations that are new to the industry and reviving bonkers ideas that were once the preserve of sports cars.
Take the Ford B-MAX and Vauxhall Meriva, for example. The former has a rear sliding door; the latter has rear-hinged doors that were recently only seen elsewhere on the Rolls-Royce Ghost and Mazda RX-8. Why? Well, because they make ingress and egress (otherwise known as getting in and getting out – see what I mean about jargon?) a whole lot easier, especially if you’re trying to manoeuvre child seats or the less mobile into the back of your car.
Vauxhall has a number of innovations on the flex theme. For instance, the Flex7 system on the Zafira Tourer means the family can choose between a five-seater or seven-seater; or fold the middle seat in the middle row down to make a 2+2 formation; or even fold up all six seats for a flat load-space.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that MPVs are flexible and versatile – that is pretty much their raison d’etre after all. But there’s more. What continues to impress me about modern MPVs is how manufacturers have acknowledged the historic problems of people carriers.
First-generation MPVs were more akin to vans than cars; big, gruff things that were physically difficult to drive with manual gearshifts that were harder to move than Excalibur lodged in rock. They were wholly undesirable – like a concession to middle-age, an unfavoured compromise candidate or admission of defeat to those who take pride in their cars.
Car-makers have addressed these problems in two ways. Firstly they’ve made them enjoyable to drive by dialling up suspension and refining grumbly diesel engines into the quiet, smooth and torquey powertrains we have these days. Dynamics have improved enormously since early MPVs, to the point where the large Ford S-MAX is a genuine pleasure to drive.
Secondly, MPVs look good. No really, they do. Take a look at the Seat Alhambra, Ford Galaxy or Vauxhall Zafira Tourer large MPVs. They’re smart, streamlined cars with knock-out interiors and plenty of gadgets to keep employees happy on their trips up and down the motorways. In short they’re excellent fleet vehicles, having thrown off the dull associations of yesterday’s MPV.
Still there’s a lingering suspicion that any big car – apart from SUVs – is something of a hair shirt. The fact that it’s largely budget or volume manufacturers making cars for this market doesn’t help. There’s a reason BMW, Audi, Jaguar and Lexus shy away from making a multi-purpose vehicle – and that subtle message pervades the minds of car-buyers and suggests to them that there’s still something vaguely shameful about owning an MPV; a kissing cousin of the badge snobbery that compels people to eschew excellent cars from the likes of Ford or Vauxhall.
My message is this. There is no reason in 2014 to ignore the humble MPV. There are sporty SUVs such as the Ford S-MAX; a hybrid seven-seater from Toyota; MPVs-in-disguise such as the SUV-like Chevrolet Orlando; mini-MPVs such as the Ford B-MAX and Renault Scenic; high-end MPVs such as the Mercedes B-Class; oddities such as the Citroen C3 Picasso and van-orientated MPVs such as the Citroen Berlingo Multispace.
There are even fleet specialities such as the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer Tech Line, rammed with technology, attractive details such as large alloys and privacy glass and equipped with engines that will emit as little as 119g/km and return fuel economy as high as almost 63mpg.
Like much of the car industry over the decade, the sector has diversified into niches to suit emerging customer profiles. What constitutes an MPV – beyond manufacturer blurb – is no longer especially clear; the DNA cross-fertilised with estates, SUVs and hatchbacks. What is clear is that the sector has thrown off its historic connotations.
Received wisdom has a habit of lingering in big-ticket industries like automotive, but just look at Skoda. As with the Czech car company – once derided, now offering some of the best cars on the road – if you listened to the man on the street when it came to MPVs, you’d be wrong.
Carrier Signals – Five MPVs
Impossible to ignore for the money, the Alhambra is a more affordable version of the VW Sharan, which means strong build quality and a good range of modern engines.
A compact MPV with five seats, the B-MAX is notable for not having a central pillar between front and rear doors to improve access. Excellent range of diesel and petrol engines too.
One of the cars that relaunched a flagging Peugeot range, the mighty 5008 boasts a practical, spacious interior with plenty of useful touches around the cabin.
Europe’s first full hybrid seven-seat MPV emits under 100g/km and returns almost 70mpg. Running costs, high specifications and green branding are worth weighing up.
Citroën C4 Picasso
Perhaps the car that kickstarted the MPV revolution, the Picasso is sleek and different, while the interior is airy and quite massive.
Paradigm shifts don’t frequently occur in the car industry, a sector so conservative that it still thinks The Rolling Stones are what the young kids are listening to. Which is why it’s taken the Cittoen C-Cactus six years to make the transition from coo-able concept car to double-take road merchant.
When it was first announced, back in 2007, the C-Cactus concept was so radical that it appeared to have a dock for a Sonic Screwdriver. Looking back it’s equally difficult not to be impressed by Citroen’s foresight – the concept looks remrakably similar to the current trend for jacked-up supermini SUV cars such as the Renault Captur, Vauxhall Mokka and Range Rover Evoque – as it is to not be amused by the sometimes-wonky visions of the future. Ford Nucleon? Aston Martin’s Lagonda SUV? Renault Avantime?
At the time, along with an all-electric powertrain, a diesel-electric drivetrain with a combined fuel economy of 69mpg was mooted. Such a figure seemed the stuff of a Bond villian’s dream at the time, so it’s odd seven years later to look at the raft of new cars that are capable of such figures from petrol engines. The new C1, for example, officially returns up to 74mpg without any diesel or electric trickery. This figure, it transpires, will crop up again later.
What’s interesting is that these seachanges in the industry rarely happen by accident, or without an imperative. The economic crash of 2008 brought with it a sudden new awareness of CO2 and MPG that had little to do with saving the planet and more to do with saving a few coins when it came to renewing tax and filling the petrol tank.
EU emissions targets – fought tooth and nail by the industry at the time and written off as dangerous, unachievable and possibly insane – forced manufacturers to think differently. Hybrids became a serious consideration, as did electric cars (as did biofuel, but let’s move swiftly on). More significantly, for the C4 Cactus, came a rethinking of what a modern car needed and didn’t need. Clever-clever new powertrains were all well and good, but what if the unthinkable happened – a new car was actually lighter than the ones it replaced?
The C4 Cactus concept also boasted panels made of recycled material, and while the car industry hasn’t quite gone that bonkers, the production model does have rubber panels along the sides to protect against scrapes and bunts in supermarket car-parks. What’s more they’re easily replaceable at a nominal cost, so theoretically they’ll save money on potential repairs. Opinion seems split at the moment on the airbumps, but why the heck not?
The ‘Airbump’ technology consists of pockets of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) filled with air and will protect against errant supermarket trolleys, says Citroen. Quite who will be brave, stupid or important enough to test this out remains to be seen – for now my money is on a young, thrusting blog called TorqueSteer! or The Sun’s motoring correspondent.
One of the things that marks this car out as a Citroen is the ability to choose two-tone body panels. For example, there are Cacti that wear bright lemon, deep purple or a lovely pearl white metal, but have contrasting Airbumps. Amusingly I found myself in one car that boasted a Shark Grey body colour with Stone Grey Airbumps, bringing to mind an episode of Red Dwarf where Rimmer paints and repaints the ship in Metallic Grey and Gunmetal Grey to the point where he can’t tell which is which.
All of this does beg the question as to whether we’ll see the likes of Airbumps adopted more and more on cars – as we have with the DS3’s personalisation – and I can’t see why not. It’s presumably cheaper than steel, it’s a smart way of styling a cost-saving and it will cut down on weight. And as our cities get more and more crowded – and resources more scarce – why not kill several birds with one stone? Without actually killing birds – or polar bears for that matter.
My money is on a new Citroen sub-brand, rather like Dacia is to Renault, even if it’s unofficial. Think BlueMotion and the like that volume marques went with a few years ago to delineate their ultra-efficient models. With the DS range already selling to the premium end of the market and in the process of being spun-off as a brand in its own right there’s a further opportunity to refocus Citroen as an mid-level brand while having a new budget brand. It’s having cake, eating it and then buying another cake.
Ultra-efficient, funky and inexpensive variations of platforms already used across the Peugeot, DS and Citroen brands make sense from a volume perspective and a brand perspective – particularly in the current business climate. It’s interesting that, following years of European brands trying to head upmarket to escape the squeeze from the likes of Hyundai and Kia, the volume players are now embracing the high-volume, low-margin sector and developing genuinely interesting cars.
Consider the Citroen C5 – a car so forgettable that I seriously doubt most car-buyers even know it still exists. Now consider the C-Cactus – a car as individual as it is fascinating. Which one speaks of Citroen – the brand as it is understood by car buffs and even the general public – more?
The answer is as plain as the nose on Gerard Depardieu’s face. None of this means anything, however, if the car is rubbish. Previous models that speak of design insanity – the Nissan Cube and Daihatsu Materia to name but two – have flattered to deceive. Sure, the Cube turns heads, but get inside and you’re faced with the insipid mid-Noughties Nissan fascia underpinned by the Sunday-afternoon 1.5 dci. Mutton dressed as Snail Porridge.
I was cautious when I got to sit inside a C-Cactus – indeed, I conducted a whole podcast from within the Cactus with MajorGav of PetroBlog – as I suspected this might be the case. For all the airbumops and lovely clean console and luggage-inspired grab handles I suspected a weedy engine and rough transmission and a driving experience less interesting that being a passenger in a Hyundai Sonata. And without going for a Clarkson-style bait-and-switch, I was wrong.
The Cactus is rather lovely to drive, if you accept that there will be no hooning and simply enjoy it for what it is. There are problems. Of course there are problems – there are with any car. But that shouldn’t put you off, just as indigestion is unlikely to put you off demolishing a delicious meal.
So, the rear pillars are incredibly thick – as thick as the rear screen is tiny – and make rear vision very difficult. Rear visibility is horrendous when parking as a result.
Look up and there’s a lovely blue vista of sky, assuming you’re in the UK during one of the few days when the sun is out. If it is, ultra-violet screen or no, you’re going to get hot. Whether it’s driven by the need to save weight, open up the cabin or it’s designed by a man who yearns to feel the sun on his bonce while at the wheel, the C-Cactus will get rather warm with the sun streaming in. Thus far I have been very hot both times I’ve been in a Cactus.
What else? Well, there’s no spare tyre and the rear bench doesn’t splitfold. Instead it folds down as one in a style that’s bound to stir memories of the nineties as efficiently as Wayne’s World. There is more, depending on which model you choose. My friend, should you go with the autobox, you and the Cactus are not going to remain on good terms, airbumps or no.
The autobox in the Cactus is the worst I’ve ever come across. Every gear change is accompanied with the sort of rocking motion you might try and woo child to sleep with, only rather more vigourous, while the pause as the gear disengages suggests a toddler sucking in a breath prior to a huge screaming fit: you brace yourself.
The overall sensation is literally nauseating as you roll back and forth. Meanwhile the car’s wafty suspension means that lateral movement is akin to a rollercoaster. It’s quite the most unusual, unpleasantly unusual, experience I’ve had while driving a car – certainly one I’m willing to admit to anyway.
While the sideways rocking that accompanies any sort of tight cornering is still present with five-speed manual transmissions, the jerking of changing up or down is not. It’s not a particularly direct or precise gearchange, but it doesn’t need to be in a car like the Cactus. This is a car built for comfort and to buy one – with it’s ickle engines and Posh Spice kerbweight – and then whinge about the driving dynamics would be as fruitless as a hot-hatch Prius.
Get up to any speed on a B-road and the Cactus takes on a character not unlike I’d imagine driving a runaway tea-trolley would be like. It’s simply not set up for it, which makes the ability to turn off stability control even more bemusing. All becomes clear within seconds of disengaging the active safety aid, however. Reach any sort of revs – or seemingly speed – and ESP simply re-engages itself. It’s a definite Gallic finger-wag, but it probably has the right idea.
Oddly enough, the powertrains feel up to a bit of abuse. The 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol engine has 110bhp but an eye-catching 151lb-ft that propels the water-retaining legume along at a fair lick. While the gearing is quite long, meaning it has to be worked quite hard during overtaking or any thrashing, it doesn’t feel strained when the revs are up.
It will happily coast along at around 30mph in fifth gear too and anti-stall means you can gentle the car along at a shade above tickover without the car complaining. If you have a mind to you could probably hypermile all the way to the 60mpg that is claimed in mixed driving. I still managed 40mpg after some fairly expressive driving, so suspect that mind-50s will be possible. There are 107 CO2s, which is impressive for a car of this size and good for running costs. Big ticks for this powertrain.
The real gem in the engine range, however, is the Blue HDi 100 – a four-cyinder 1.6-litre diesel engine mated to a five-speed manual. The stats speak for themselves: 88mpg on the combined cycle and 89g/km. Should that prove insufficient you can spec the Cactus with smaller, low-rolling resistance tyres that eke another three MPGs out of the engine. 91mpg. I am wont to scoff at claimed mileages, which are not the fault of manufacturers who make the most of an impossible job in homolgating fuel efficiency figures, but tend to be absurdly overstated. As a rule of thumb, if you’re getting two-thirds to three-quarters of claimed fuel economies in everyday driving you’re doing well.
I managed just over 74mpg in normal driving conditions – a mixture of curvy B-roads and swooping A-roads with some urban driving in beautiful Aylebsury and moderate traffic – without really trying. 74mpg. That is stupendous. On a full tank – not a large one especially at under ten gallons – you could travel almost 750 miles. From Elgin to Penzance – a gnat’s chuff shy of the fabled Land’s End to John O’Groats – for £65. Quite possibly for less, depending on the weight on your car, your driving style, traffic, route and more. If you cycled it would cost more to refuel you over that distance.
Where the Citroen C4 Cactus succeeds isn’t really in its nifty touches – scratch the admittedly lovely surface and you start to notice some nasty hard plastics, gaps between materials, poor rear legroom, vast rear pillars, no splitfolding rear seats… there are things that could get on your nerves here though I suspect the baggage-strap-like handles, surface bevels and lovely unadorned dashboard will always pull you round. The trim levels are called Touch, Feel and Style – they should be Touch, Feel and Fondle.
No, where this works is in the fact that it does work. That name isn’t simply a handy bit of greenwash marketing. If ever a car deserved a name that promises so much it’s the C4 Cactus. Personally I’m hoping it’s joined by a larger model called the C4 Camel. Either way, this is a car that sips petrol like I drink Laphroaig (neat, slowly and while flirting with a Russian spy – neat and slowly, anyway).
There are issues, to add to the flea bitings I mentioned above. To buy the Citroen C4 Cactus will cost from 12,990 to £18,190, the latter for the worst of the lot – the abysmal ETG6 autobox with the less frugal of the diesels. Realistically to spec it to the levels that I enjoyed during a day’s driving around the Chilterns you’d pay closer to £20K – all three cars that I drove cost a smidge shy of that landmark.
Most of the cars I drove came with a lovely metallic paint job (£495), insulated sunroof (£395), leather trim (£695), different-coloured Airbumps (£150), City Park (an absolute must at £325), Citroen’s eTouch Emergency & Assistance System (£250), body-coloured mirrors (£50) and a spacesaver spare wheel (£75). Two-and-a-half grand’s worth of extras on a car that starts at £13K. And I wonder what the stripped-out model will be like. Alas, the three cars I drove were all of mid- or top-range spec – Feel and Flair respectively – so I can’t enlighten. But I’d like to drive that base spec model before I committed completely to the Cactus.
But I do love the car for what it is and what it looks like. It looks different and it’s been built by people who have managed to drag themselves out of the the same headspace to which aerodynamics, cost, weight, fuel economy, drivers safety, pedestrian safety, prevailing design tastes and a dozen more factors anchors them. I celebrate cars that are different and I celebrate cars that are genuinely good at what they do. Citroen’s Cactus falls into both of those categories.
Some people ask me how I can think that a silly Citroen is a better car than a Porsche Cayenne, or why I’m more interested in curios than exotica. It’s because I’m a fan of genuine innovation, wit and flair rather than a slave to horsepower and cock-waving design. How many cars do what they say on the tin?
The C4 Cactus fulfils on its touchstone promise: it’s economical. What’s more it does it with a cheekiness that’s irresistible and may just redefine a sector as conclusively as the Qashqai did a few years ago. Consider my curiosity pricked by this French succulent.
I stumbled in from the pub tonight and flicked through the channels until I came across an episode of Cracker. It was To Be A Somebody, the incendiary episode starring Robert Carlisle as Albie – a white, working-class scouser-turned-serial-killer – and I watched the last 15 minutes as rapt as I was when I first watched it at the age of 16.
Even then I knew I was watching something important – something that included Hillsborough, racism, working-class socialist bigotry and a host of other issues that send a shiver down the spine of any middle-class liberal. A disturbing confluence of issues – overlapping on a Venn diagram – as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.
Watching it back it’s hard to not view Albie’s call-to-arms in terms of Irish republican violence, 7/7 and even the rise of UKip, BNP and EDL. A touchstone for the disaffected white working-classes, denied the social gravity of work, unions, church and football. It struck me, although the outcomes may be somewhat different, that it’s hard to disagree with the thrust of his script.
I interviewed Jimmy McGovern in 2005 for Black & White Magazine, a Liverpool culture magazine I edited back in the day. At the end of some delicate negotiations I had an email exchange with Jimmy where we exchanged questions, discussion and gossip.
He was incredibly accommodating, polite, funny – I have not a bad word to say about him. Doctor Who was gearing up for a return at the time and he gave me some juicy gossip involving Christopher Eccleston, whom he obviously held in high regard. I also got a lovely Christmas message from him at the end of the year – I like to think he’d appreciated something in the questions I asked.
As is always the case, we lost touch and I doubt he even remembers the exchange ten years on. But I remember his personal kindness to a young journalist to whom he owed nothing – he also allowed me to sell the interview to Tribune – and willingness to engage on subjects we both found interesting. Thanks Jimmy.
Ten years on from that interview – and 20 years from the episode’s debut – the issues of which we spoke are still relevant. And, with The Street and Accused, so is Jimmy McGovern.
The following represents the compiled Q+A I assembled from our email conversations, printed in Black & White Magazine and Tribune. Inevitably I feel I was a little gauche and tactless – and wish I’d pursued certain lines on inquiry, but remain pleased with the exchange.
Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
Right now I’m trying to do final polishes on the Cracker special and a six-parter for the BBC provisionally entitled The Street. As for the six-parter I’ve written only two eps and been a sort of lead writer on the others. The Americans would call it “show runner” but to hell with the Americans and their cultural imperialism. With the exception of a man called James Quirk the writers on The Street have been relatively inexperienced – but they all had good stories to tell and that’s the main thing for me. I’m sick of watching telly and seeing the same old stories being regurgitated. When I’ve finished these polishes I’ll be switching over to a musical about the history of cotton. We’re trying to blend negro-spirituals from the cotton fields with brass band music from the cotton mills. God knows if it will work.
What made you decide to come back to Cracker?
I’ve gone back to Cracker because I used to be co-organiser of the Hillsborough Memorial Golf Day and we needed a sponsor so I went to Granada and told them that if they sponsored the golf, I’d write them another Cracker.
Do the characters you create inevitably stem from aspects of your own personality – even if it’s a small one?
You’re right: if you’re in any way serious as a writer, you will always write characters based upon your own personality. That’s easy to say when it’s people like Fitz [from Cracker] because people like him despite his flaws. Not so easy when it’s characters like Albie [from the episode To Be A Somebody] but Albie was based on how I felt in the aftermath of Hillsborough. I don’t think I could have killed anybody over Hillsborough. In fact I’m sure I couldn’t. But I certainly felt like killing Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher and every single member of the South Yorkshire Police. And as for The Sun… I think every single killer in Cracker has come from somewhere deep within myself.
Hillsborough seems to be something of a touchtone across more than one of your works; something that has deeply affected Liverpool. Is this a fair reflection?
And you’re right again: because of that, some people think I’m a headcase, a hot-headed, angry, frustrated Scouser. But I’m not. I’m fifty-six. I’ve been married for thirty odd years; I’ve got grandkids; I play golf. The secret is, I know I’m nothing special. I know I’m not particularly good. Or particularly bad. I’m just like everyone else. And if I’ve felt like doing horrible things, then I’m bloody sure everybody else has as well. Nobody’s unique. Well, everybody’s unique but you know what I mean.
I have always seen myself as left-wing but, honestly, throughout the eighties it was hard to be a left-wing, white, working class male. We were blamed for everything: racism, sexism, fascism. And, of course, the epitome of the white working class male was the football fan. People hated them, especially people on the left. Hillsborough came out of all that and, after Hillsborough, I said to myself that I would never let people attack us (white working class males) like that again. And Fitz came after that – the first post-feminist, post political-correctness TV series.
I never had any doubts about writing the story of Albie in Cracker. In fact the Hillsborough families came to a screening and supported it. They, more than anyone, understood Albie’s anger. As for the drama-doc itself, I wrote it because the families asked me to write it. As simple as that.
Do you still have a personal faith, or are you a cultural Catholic?
I have never attacked the Catholic faith. I have never attacked any religion. There was one particular journalist who slyly hinted that I might be anti-semitic but I can tell you I’m not. The great religions, when they are properly adhered to, are a force for good. It’s the institutions that sprout up around those religions that get up my nose. And the hypocrites within them. One example, the Catholic Church sheltered child abusers for years. If it had done this out of compassion for the abusers, well that might, just might, be understandable. But it sheltered the abusers because it was frightened of losing its great wealth in the courts.
What would be the worst and the best we can expect to come out of Liverpool winning Capital of Culture?
I’m ambivalent about Capital of Culture. On the one hand, if we ever get my cotton project onto the stage it will probably be because of Capital of Culture money. On the other hand I’m not prepared to be gagged because of that. I think 2008 will pass the vast majority of Scousers by, just as whatever-year-it-was passed the Glaswegians by.
Liverpool has given you a lot of source material in the forms of Hillsborough and Dockers, albeit frequently tragic and terrible. Does this make you ambivalent about living here?
No. I thank God I was born here. I have always loved this city and the older I get, the more I love it. The people above all, their humour and passion and sensitivity, but also the river, the architecture, the parks, the history of the place…
I have always had a soft spot for Ireland. My wife has 100 per cent, pure Irish blood in her veins. And, of course, I have the obligatory great grandad who came over in the Famine. But I see myself as a Scouser, a catholic, white, working class Scouser. That means I’ve plenty in common with the Irish but, no, I am not Irish; I am a Scouser. Lots of people see themselves like that, I think, and that’s healthy surely.
Where did The Lakes come from? Was there an element of it being something that was ‘fun’ to write?
I am proud of the first series of The Lakes. The trouble was the second series. We brought in a lot of very good writers, each with his or her own “voice” so the second series went all over the place. But the first I liked. And a lot of it was autobiographical. As was Hearts and Minds of course.
I know I’ve got this reputation for grittiness but, actually, the first two things I wrote, other than Brookside, were Felix Randal and Traitors. Felix Randal was based on the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, about a farrier in Liverpool in the late nineteenth century and Traitors was about Father Garnet’s involvement in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.
Are there particular actors who you prefer to work with?
Because I write a lot about working class characters, I like to work with actors who are working class. It’s the hardest thing to pull off for an actor, I think: to act outside your socio-economic group. Interestingly, Irish actors can do it. It’s often very hard to spot an Irish actor’s background. But for the English it’s not so easy.
I used to fight like mad to get my programmes made in Liverpool. But I got tired of people accusing me of portraying Liverpool in a bad light. You know, the people of Manchester have never said to me, “Hey, you Scouser, how dare you portray our city as full of headcases and psychopaths!” That’s because they understand that film and TV production brings millions into the local economy.
What are you most proud of of your scripts?
No matter how well something has been done, it could always have been done better. I’m proud of Hillsborough of course because it helped people. I’d say the same thing about Dockers, Sunday and Priest. But Heart, a small movie, was a bit of a failure as was the second series of The Lakes. As for Mary Queen of Scots, I wrote it as a big-budget movie and, in hindsight, I should have fought to get it made as such. But failure is good for you, you know. Particularly if you’re Catholic.
A feature on the extraordinary Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, written for The City Tribune (Issuu below).
Time and again, Liverpool’s mercantile background informs its present. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) is no different. Were it not for Victorian merchants heading back from the tropics with all manner of exotic diseases, the issue would never have come up, but when the city’s businessmen went to the government with an idea for an institute to deal with these new threats, London wasn’t interested.
Undeterred they returned to Liverpool and invested their own cash; in 1898 the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was born. Impressed by the idea, the government opened a second, in London, a year later.
106 years later the School has 400 students hailing from 70 countries around the world — and its origins are obvious in the ease with which is negotiates public and private sectors.
“Because of the origins of the LSTM we’ve always been business friendly and influenced by business — looking at real-life issues and problems,” says Professor Janet Hemingway CBE. “That tradition hasn’t really changed since we first started. We’re not blue-sky; we’re very hands on”
Professor Hemingway, the current Director of Liverpool School of TropicalMedicine and Professor of Insect Molecular Biology, to give her full title, initially trained as a geneticist in Sheffield and ended up in Liverpool via London, south-east Asia, the States and Cardiff.
She describes herself as being steeped in tropical medicine for almost 40 years and is polite, assured and unmistakably British — a dash of no-nonsense and stiff-upper-lip pragmatism.
While the School’s activities are many and varied — spread across a number of sectors and carving out a pivotal role between government, business and third sector —the people of Liverpool may recognise just one of its most public-facing services. “We run a travel medicine clinic,” says Professor Henderson. “We also deal with specialist referrals that GPs can’t deal with — if you do get sick while abroad there’s a good chance you’ll be referred here.” Although the people of Merseyside may only know the School as the place they get their pre-holiday jabs, the LSTM has a much higher profile abroad. “We say that we’re one of Liverpool’s best kept secrets, but if you go into the tropics we’re very well known,” laughs Professor Hemingway.
Price Waterhouse Coopers asked people overseas what they knew about
Liverpool. We were third after football and The Beatles.
The School’s awkward positioning — partially academic, part-business and part public sector — makes it in some respects a de facto NGO; without it, Hemingway believes, much governmental and aid work simply could not happen.
“Without us that process would not begin. We help with catalysing that process and we’ve got the ability to test these products within at-risk populations. We’re about improving health in the tropics and you work out what you need to do, how to do it and where you need to do it. “Once they have them, big pharmaceutical companies will give out millions of drugs for free, but there’s no normal distribution system for getting them out so we have to work with various ministries of health to distribute these drugs. At last count we work with 36 different countries; we have a brand name overseas that most organisations would be delighted with.”
With AstraZeneca, the School was responsible for co-developing one of the first anti-malarial drugs — an example of the role the School plays in bringing real-world products to market. But the School doesn’t work exclusively with one industrial partner.
“The consortia we work with might be quite large and involve companies, government agencies and NGOs. We work with many different companies because we have the proper firewalls in place; people trust us with their IP and activities. “We’re in that space between research and generating products — medical devices, diagnostics, drugs, agrochemicals, IT systems, policy and practice — and have always worked in industry.”
Professor Hemingway recognises the unique role the School plays is drug formulation, strategy and logistics — yet it does remain fundamentally a place of learning. “Most of our clinical staff are practitioners but that’s because we need to be at the top of our fields and work with patients — you can’t maintain your clinical practice without doing that; they’re all practising clinicians but will need to balance those activities.
“We’ve got clinicians who want qualifications in tropical medicine — a standard clinical degree in the UK won’t equip you for dealing with tropical diseases. We run a three-month specialist course that brings clinicians up to speed in tropical medicine and have about 280 clinicians who will do that course each year.
“We’re also dealing with parasites and insects that transmit the diseases we’re concerned with and have specialist courses for biologists who want to be on the parasitology or entomology side; public health people who are interested in distribution; nurses coming here who want to work in tropical environments; midwives who will work in resource-poor settings, where you will not be attended by a doctor if you’re having a baby, to reduce the phenomenal maternal and child mortality that still happens in many countries.
“We also run a number of programmes in humanitarian assistance; we train people to go into situations of developing-world conflict and natural disaster because if you don’t know how to deal with the politics and logistics of those situations you’re a hindrance, not a help.”
Professor Hemingway sees the LSTM as a model for how academia and industry can better work together. “I don’t think there’s a great model out there for academia working with industry — we’re different because we were set up wanting to do something in terms of improving health. We’ve always been in that translational space; the drivers coming from government now are pushing academia into that space that we inhabit. It means that we’re a lot more used to talking that industrial language.
“There’s been a push for a very long time for academia and business to work together but it’s been very slow because the drivers for success are poles apart. “Because science in universities tends to be driven by people being inquisitive about how things work, academics in industry are seen as unfocussed; going off at tangents because they happen to be interesting, rather than the most direct route from A to B. You have to get those two cultures understanding each other’s language and drivers.”
The School has recently normalised its relationship with the government to receive its funding and reward degrees directly, rather than through the University of Liverpool — a natural development of the School’s original independence.
Hemingway believes the move will improve the School’s profile nationally and internationally and allow for continued growth and expansion. It comes at a time when the LSTM is expanding into a new building and pushing into new areas after winning millions of pounds in grants to expand its life-saving work — including £650m from the foundation set up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
“The Gates Foundation realised that industry, off its own bat, wasn’t going to develop these products and if they left organisations like us to develop ties with industry, although it would happen, it would happen way too slowly. So they started giving fairly substantial awards to consortia to develop these new products.
“Because we were already working in that space we were able to react quickly in terms of developing new drugs to combat malaria, tuberculosis, filariasis and worm diseases and new public sector insecticides. We follow the industrial process and take these products through to market — some even came out last year as a result of those partnerships.”
Among other projects, the brand new Centre for Maternal and Newborn Health, due to open in October 2014, is doing pioneering work in tackling the appalling number of deaths that result from childbirth every year. It’s an example of what Hemingway describes as the desire among the School’s staff — from clinicians to cleaners — to do something beneficial.
“We’re there to respond to need, so when you look at the big questions it’s blindingly obvious that there’s a big problem around maternal and child health, with unacceptably high levels of child mortality.
“It’s a case of looking at what skills we can bring — and can we get out there and test it so it’s not simply theoretical. We were getting some very good results coming through from the countries we worked in — now we’re getting more requests than we can actually handle. We wanted to build on the success that we already.”
Hemingway is enthused by the opportunities ahead, with a brand new Royal Liverpool Hospital and bio-campus arriving a matter of yards away — in the heart of Liverpool’s so-called Knowledge Quarter — by 2017.
“Within the Knowledge Quarter you will have co-located the LSTM, the University of Liverpool and the new Royal Liverpool Hospital with a bio-campus sitting in the middle. There’ll be a clinical trials unit that has access to patients, the research base and hi-tech equipment. That’s a potent mix and Liverpool needs to attract the right companies to that area. “We’ve got the biggest concentration of infectious disease research going on here — we need to grow that in an academic and industrial sense. We want to work with SMEs in the area and the larger companies — most obviously companies that are sending large numbers of people overseas and look at their healthcare needs. There’s a feedback loop there.”
The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine may be a vital cog in the wheels of international health, research, drug development and policy, but it’s heartening to know that it is still looking after the health of locals who are following in the footsteps of those merchants of Victorian Liverpool.