Bill Shankly Red or Dead

I remember the shock of Bill Shankly’s resignation. I was 10 years old. I’d been to just one league football game. (Cardiff City 0-1 West Brom.) Yet even I realised this was an important moment.

My mind went back to that summer 1974 bombshell this week as I read David Peace’s book about Shankly, Red or Dead. Forty years ago. It was the summer I became truly interested in the game. Travelling back from a family holiday in Dunoon, Scotland, I was intrigued by Shoot magazine’s league ladder. I used it to track Carlisle United’s brief spell at the top of the first division. (I recounted this in my blogpost about the closure of Shoot magazine in 2007.) 

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The Ordnance Survey map addict

One of the joys of browsing in a real, rather than online, bookshop is coming across a brilliant book on a subject you’d never think of reading about. So I was chuffed to discover Map Addict by Mike Parker, published by Collins, during a holiday visit to Waterstone’s in Dorchester, Dorset.

OS metric 50:000 map Rhondda

Ordnance Survey goes metric: the Rhondda, 1970s

I’ve blogged before about my love of maps and the map’s evolution from a printed sheet to an icon on a smartphone. Parker’s book brought back many more memories – such as the lack of any photo on the cover of the original Ordnance Survey maps that replaced the much-loved one inch series. And the fact the 1:50 000 series index map, showing which map covered which part of Great Britain, was cut by a line across the country indicating that the northern maps would only appear two years later, in 1976.

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In praise of Great Missenden’s Roald Dahl museum

Willy Wonka wall

Willy Wonka wall

Roald Dahl was a wonderful storyteller. Over 20 years after his death, millions of children and adults still love his tales of the unexpected. So it’s no surprise that the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden is so popular.

It’s a wonderful place, with storytelling sessions, displays telling Dahl’s life story and even a wall with fighter planes screaming across the sky. (Dahl was a pilot in the second world war, and was badly injured when he crashed in the desert.)

I’ve always had a soft spot for Roald Dahl. He was born in my own home town, Cardiff, growing up in Llandaff. He was christened in Cardiff’s Norwegian church in 1916. His stories are dark rather than sugary confections. Great Missenden has done him proud.

Measuring up against the BFG

Measuring up against the BFG

See my earlier post about the museum here.

Review: Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden's Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden is a brave man. The Great Western Railway is the most chronicled railway in Britain, if not the world. So any additional book about it has to be very good to justify its existence. The good news is that Roden has risen to the challenge, although a series of irritating factual errors spoil what would otherwise be an outstanding history.

My Nan gave me Frank Booker’s one volume history of the GWR as a Christmas present in 1979. Booker’s account was a much easier read than McDermott’s legendary account, published by the GWR over 80 years ago. Roden takes a different approach, giving a vivid insight into the lives of ordinary passengers and railwaymen, as well as the social impact of the railway. This alone makes his book a worthy addition to GWR literature.

Roden is particularly strong on the GWR’s troubled years in the 1860s. He explains how the broad gauge had become a millstone at a time when financial crisis brought the company almost to its knees. Yet the GWR bounced back, with the extraordinary achievement of the Severn Tunnel and the 1892 gauge conversion: an engineering and organisational triumph.

It’s a shame that this fine book is riddled by factual errors. Wootton Bassett is misspelled repeatedly (odd, given that town’s current high profile). Roden claims the Severn Tunnel to be eight miles long (it’s actually half that). He describes 20th century GWR chairman Viscount Churchill as Winston’s father – bizarre, as WSC was just 10 years younger, and was in fact the son of 19th century politician Lord Randolph Churchill. ASLEF is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman, not Enginemen and Footplatemen as Roden suggests. (Where did he get that howler from?) There are others…


How social media can win your brand friends for life

Companies around the world are waking up to the power of social media. They’re looking for the magic sauce that turns customers into fans. So it was no surprise that today’s Social Media for Results conference in London revealed some great examples of the best of social media practice.

I spoke about how organisations can use social media to help their customers, especially when things go wrong. I quoted an amazing finding from the United States: 47 percent of social media users had turned to social for help (this rises to 59% of people aged 18-24). And 71 percent of people who have had a positive experience will recommend that brand, compared with 19 percent who got no response. [Source: NM Incite: State of Social Customer Service 2012.] Incidentally, the figures are remarkably similar for men and women. In short, handling complaints well on social could turn an unhappy customer into a friend for life.

I spoke of my own experience as a Vodafone customer: how I enjoyed outstanding customer service after the social customer service team contacted me after I blogged and tweeted about my unhappy experiences. I also cited the example of Vodafone’s rival, O2, which did a great job keeping people informed with humour (and allowing critical comments) on its social channels after service interruptions recently.

My favourite experience however was Chiltern Railways. Last year, I got on the wrong train at London’s Marylebone. I tweeted about my stupidity. Within minutes, Chiltern’s excellent social team tweeted back the best train to return home on. Experiences like this make you feel special.

My other point today was that it’s so important to ask what’s in it for the customer (or council tax payer…) when you’re developing a social media presence. So many companies think: we need a Facebook page. Yet they don’t ask what value it will give. What content will you share? Are you simply going to churn out sales messages and dull news releases? Or do you have something interesting and relevant to say?

I also repeated my favourite subject at any communications conference: the need to use simple, compelling language. I quoted RIM’s apology (during the 2011 service failure) to customers in ‘EMEA’. As the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones mocked, ‘Where on earth is that?’ It doesn’t exist, except on corporate organisation charts.

Finally, a plug for an excellent book raising money for a very worthy cause. Behind the Sofa, compiled by Steve Berry, is a collection of celebrity memories of Doctor Who. All profits from the book will go to Alzheimer’s Research UK. I called Steve after we at PayPal had let him down. I was keen to find out how we could put things right and learn from the experience. Seven months later, I was delighted to read the book. Well done Steve!

[Disclosures: I am Head of PR & Social Media at PayPal UK. Steve Berry kindly gave his permission for me to mention his experience.]

Starting school – the generation game

Starting School: a timeless tale

Owen started school this week, aged four years and two months. It’s a landmark in everyone’s life. We knew it was going to go well when he announced early that morning, “I don’t want Cbeebies, I want to go to school”!

I’m sure this reflects the fact he’s been going to the nursery attached to his new school for the last year.

First day at school: the Ahlbergs’ story begins

Before he started at his nursery last year, we read him Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s wonderful story, Starting School, published by Puffin. It’s a beautifully observed account of a group of children’s first term at school, from the first day to breaking up for Christmas. It helped Owen understand what school is like, including the initial unfamiliarity.

Seeing Owen starting school brought back all my memories of my own big day in September 1968. (It was a long time ago – some three weeks after the end of steam locomotives on British Railways.) A year ago, I took Owen to see my old school, Bishop Perrin in Whitton, Middlesex, with my mum and dad. Bishop Perrin hasn’t changed much in the past 44 years (at least from the outside), so it was easy to imagine myself, aged four, playing with the sand and water on the front lawn in that lovely September sunshine in 1968.

Bishop Perrin was a wonderful school for me. The classes were small. In my first year, you could choose a friend to join you in a classroom wendy house to eat Smarties on your birthday. Headmaster Mr Davies insisted on keeping the traditional ways of teaching reading until the education authorities could show the new ways were more effective.

Last Wednesday, after we dropped off Owen for his first day in school, I drove past Bishop Perrin on the way to work. Happy memories.

My first school: at Bishop Perrin with Owen, 2011

Bishop Perrin, 2011. That lawn seemed bigger in 1968…

In praise of ITV’s A Kind of Loving, 30 years on

Above: Vic Brown (Clive Wood) and Donna Pennyman (Susan Penhaligon) in A Kind of Loving

Spring 1982 was an unforgettable time. Britain was at war with Argentina. I was sitting my A levels. And ITV made Sunday night viewing unmissable with a magnificent adaption of Stan Barstow’s Vic Brown trilogy.

A Kind of Loving was a famous example of kitchen sink drama from the early 1960s. It told the story of Vic Brown, a working class lad who endured a shot-gun marriage after getting his girlfriend pregnant. ITV’s 1982 classic followed his progress in often-painful detail. Barstow oversaw the television version of his play, and ensured that Vic was not seen as an unvarnished hero. Instead, we saw the pain of his wife, Ingrid (brilliantly portrayed by Joanne Whalley) as Vic lashed out at her and her domineering mother. After Ingrid lost her baby, Vic moved south to work with an old workmate in Essex. One of the most poignant aspects of the series was witnessing Ingrid’s pain as Vic distanced himself from her as he relished his new independent life – and his growing relationship with Donna, an actress appearing at the local theatre.

Vic and Ingrid split, and we see the emptiness of his life without a true partner. In time, Vic and Donna meet again, and Vic builds a relationship with her and her son – his son. (Strange to think that I was the exactly the same age as the son in the final episode set in 1973.)

Watching ITV’s 1982 classic shows how TV has changed in the last 30 years. It took 10 episodes to tell Vic’s story – unthinkable now. It was broadcast months after another Granada classic: Brideshead Revisited.

I missed the last episode as my friend Anthony came round. Curiously, I didn’t record the missed finale in my 1982 diary. I was delighted when I discovered the series on DVD – but missed the finale again as the third disc was damaged. I finally watched the last episode on a flight to San Francisco this week, treasuring memories of 1982 and three of my favourite books. Highly recommended.

Now, when will someone release on DVD 1978’s ITV series Fallen Hero about a Welsh rugby player who switches codes to league?

Charles Arthur’s Digital Wars: Microsoft’s lost decade

The Guardian‘s technology editor Charles Arthur is an incisive observer of the tech business world. So it’s no surprise to discover that his book Digital Wars is a revealing account of Apple, Google and Microsoft’s battles for dominance in search, digital music and smartphones.

The clearest message from the book is that the 2000s were a lost decade for Microsoft. At the time of the millennium, it seemed invulnerable. Its dominance of the PC software market for consumers and businesses made it a hugely powerful and profitable corporation. Windows and Office were huge money spinners. The biggest cloud was the anti-trust actions taken by the United States Department of Justice and the European Commission. By contrast, rivals seemed powerless to confront the Redmond juggernaut.

Yet Arthur makes it clear that the anti-trust cases had a profound impact on Microsoft. In his words, the US case ‘reached down into the company’s soul’. Although Microsoft escaped the threat of being forced to split in two, Arthur quotes analyst Joe Wilcox’s verdict that the actions ‘hugely affected’ the way the company operated. ‘Microsoft was unequivocally less aggressive [and ] there was a lack of certainty and aggression in Microsoft’s response to Apple or other companies’.

There were other factors at work. For Microsoft’s leaders at the turn of the millennium, the internet was something they got used to in mid career, rather than in their formative years at college. They were set in their offline ways, and had to adapt. By contrast, the pioneers at Google were starting out with instinctive understanding of the net, email and networking. Their business was built online.

The other critical factor was the classic symptoms of bloated corporations: poor decisions and internal politics. Arthur explains how Microsoft blew the chance to compete with Google’s fast developing search and advertising business. It failed to buy Overture and even worse overlooked the fact it already owned a company called LinkExchange that enabled small advertisers to bid for their names to appear next to search results. (Exactly what Google was developing with AdWords.) Arthur recounts that Microsoft’s new chief executive Steve Ballmer closed the LinkExchange-based ‘Keywords’ project at just the time Google launched AdWords, because other Microsoft tribes feared it would cannibalise banner sales.

Later, Microsoft ploughed countless millions into search, but the anti-trust actions cast a long shadow: building search into the browser would invite a repeat of those courtroom years. The smart alternative, embedding search into Office was the obvious way to go. But the boss of Office wasn’t interested.

This story was repeated across the other battlefields: digital music (where Apple won the day) and smartphone systems (where Apple and Google, with its Android mobile operating system, shared the prizes).

Commentators have pointed out that Microsoft is largely a business-to-business (B2B) culture. With a few exceptions (Xbox and 1990s triumphs like Encarta spring to mind), the company does not have a consumer outlook. By contrast, Apple has set a new standard in how technology should be designed for everyday people who aren’t geeks. My painful experience with Microsoft’s Pocket PC software persuaded me not to buy a Windows-based smartphone. (My Dell PDA was lovely, but the Windows OS was appalling. How could they make hooking up to wifi such a ghastly experience?) Many will have the same view, yet by all accounts the latest Windows Phone system is a delight. Microsoft’s problem is that so many people have now fallen in love with Apple’s iPhone or Google Android-based phones. Switching will be hard.

It would be foolish to write off Microsoft. Or to assume that Google or Apple are invulnerable. (That’s where we came in – when Microsoft was all-conquering.) The one rule of the tech world is that no-one rules forever. The next chapter of this story will be just as compelling.

Owen loves books – and Waterstone’s

Owen browses in Waterstone's Amersham

I love books. So I’m thrilled that Owen seems to be following in my footsteps.

He had a wonderful time today in Waterstone’s in Amersham. He made straight for the Mr Men and Little Miss books – his current favourites, along with Roald Dahl. He’d have happily stayed for hours.

Books are so important to children and adults. They bring to life the pleasure of the story, often with added impact of illustration. (Anyone who has enjoyed a Julia Donaldson story will acknowledge how much Axel Scheffler‘s illustrations bring the tales to life.) And part of the joy of books is returning to a personal favourite, time and time again.

As I watched Owen browsing the shelves at Waterstone’s today, I pondered again the future of the printed book. You might think that electronic, or e-books, are bound to replace their printed predecessors. Yet I’m not so sure. The printed book remains a thing of beauty – to be read, treasured, lent and re-read. You can flick quickly to an earlier page or illustration. The book itself is relative cheap and doesn’t rely on expensive hardware. It never runs out of battery, and can be read when you’re on a plane that’s taking off. (And in the bath – I’ve not yet been brave enough to read on my iPad in the bath.)

There’s certainly a place for e-books. I’m always pleased to have one with me on the iPad if I’ve nothing else to read on a train. But never assume that new technology will always sweep aside what went before it. The internet hasn’t replaced television, which didn’t replace radio, which didn’t vanquish newspapers. Cinema is still going strong despite TV, DVD and the internet. All have their unique strengths.

But parents still have a crucial role to play in helping printed books to flourish. We’ve read to Owen since he was a baby. (In fact, I made up stories to tell ‘him’ when Karen was pregnant: storytelling to a ‘bump’!) We’ve read to him every night for three years. We each choose a book at bedtime. It’s no wonder he likes books!

It has encouraged him to start to read far earlier than he would otherwise have done. It means that reading won’t be a blank page when he starts school proper in September. It’s one of the greatest gifts we could have given him.

PS: for a brand based on literacy, Waterstone’s seems very confused about its name. It uses Waterstone’s (which must be right, as it was named after its founder, Tim Waterstone) and Waterstones…