Robin Brown

Doing journalism. Teaching journalism.

May 2015 update

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I’ve finished teaching for the year at Sunderland, Salford and the University of Central Lancashire. I taught for 400 hours in 2014/15 – the fact that I teach at all often takes me by surprise.

I’m in the middle of two big copy-writing gigs, one of which is for Professional Manager. I had a new sketch drawn for the magazine, which I prefer to the old one. See if you can guess which is which.

The other is for a company I used to freelance for years ago.

I’m planning to record a one-off PetrolPod podcast at the annual SMMT day later this month. Here’s last year’s

Actual writing you can read online include:

My piece on Jeremy Clarkson’s steak-induced meltdown, published on Medium, which got a lot of attention from the motoring industry.

My piece on Jonathan Trott for Opening Up Cricket, a campaign on mental health and sport I’m proud to support.

My ongoing blog on the 50 Best Doctor Who stories.

If you want more you can subscribe to Professional Manager for more Fleeting Thoughts, my regular column and car reviews on motoring for the fleet and business sector.

Written by Robin Brown

May 14th, 2015 at 10:32 pm

Posted in Robin's News

This Is Why Banks Should Stick To Numbers

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Not a penny more, not a penny, er, fewer.

• See less/fewer for context and more on this

Screenshot 2015-04-01 15.55.48

Written by Robin Brown

April 1st, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Posted in Journalism

January 2015 Update

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I’m currently working at three English universities. I’m teaching the module on Digital Journalism I wrote for the University of Salford, while I’m teaching news and Online Writing at Sunderland and Digital Journalism at UCLan.

I’m writing my latest column for Professional Manager magazine on new technology in cars, along with three reviews, and recently attended the Suzuki Celerio launch.

Written by Robin Brown

January 29th, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Robin's News

Ramsey Campbell Interview

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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.



ramsey campbell interview

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.

Ramsey Streets

Many Ramsey Campbell stories are set in specific Liverpool locations. Here are just seven.

Mackintosh Willy

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.

The Companion

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.

The Brood

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.

Calling Card

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…

Written by Robin Brown

December 6th, 2014 at 1:11 am

Posted in Journalism,People

Tagged with ,

Why TheGuardian.com Trolls You Every Day

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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.


Written by Robin Brown

November 16th, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Journalism

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Richard Attenborough Interview

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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.

Godspeed, Dickie.



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.

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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

Written by Robin Brown

October 29th, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Journalism,People

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October 2014 update

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What I’m currently up to in a (largely) professional capacity.

Lecturing

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.

Automotive

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.

Liverpool

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.

Miscellaneous

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.

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Written by Robin Brown

October 23rd, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Robin's News

Perfect Ten: Choosing Your New Car

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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.

Written by Robin Brown

October 22nd, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Car reviews

Joining the Executive Class

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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.


Executive Summary

Finding the Exec that’s best for you

Size Matters

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.

Written by Robin Brown

October 22nd, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Posted in Car reviews

When an MPV is the MVP

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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

SEAT Alhambra

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.

Ford B-MAX

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.

Peugeot 5008

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.

Toyota Prius+

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.

Written by Robin Brown

October 21st, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Posted in Car reviews

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