20 September 2017

Mark Blackstock Obituary



Born: November 20, 1961 Ballymoney, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland
Died: August 3, 2017 Walsall, England

MARK BLACKSTOCK was a publisher, editor, internet pioneer, property developer, video maker, musician, mentor, media consultant, cat-lover and unofficial brand ambassador for Olbas Oil.

In addition, in what was probably his least publicised but most significant achievement, he safeguarded the social lives of thousands of journalists with his innovative formulas for scheduling seven-day production rotas which he developed for the Telegraph Group and later News International and which have since been extensively copied and used all over the world.

Mark was one of the most charming and gracious human beings any of us is ever likely to meet. He had the priceless and rare talent of being able to put people at their ease the moment he met them. This quality, allied to his ability to make people laugh at their own foibles with his gentle but ironic sense of humour, made him instantly your friend and confidant.

He was born in Ballymoney, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland which, if not within sight of, is certainly within sniffing distance of the world-famous Bushmills distillery where the whiskey Mark championed throughout his life is created.

At Dalraida Grammar School he excelled at virtually everything. He passed his O and A levels with flying colours, won the school cross country, played in the rugby team, was awarded the Victor Ludorum for Athletics and Water Sports and was a mean double bass in the school orchestra. He was also a member of the school Drama Society and Mark’s mother Rosemary has very fond memories of him spending hours practising tap dancing in the kitchen – although, as she admitted to me recently, the sound of Mark’s twinkle toes on the hard stone floor did get a bit wearing after a while and she was quite relieved when the show finally closed. He left school having been a very popular Head Boy.

In 1980 he came to Birmingham to continue his studies, completing his Foundation in Art and Design at the Polytechnic before starting his BA in Visual Communication at West Midlands College, Walsall, which he completed in 1984.

Thus began a life-long association with Walsall, a town that held a very special place in Mark’s affections. It was in Walsall that he developed the skills that were to serve him so well in the world of media.

It was also where he began to sort out some of the confusion in his mind about his sexuality. Walsall was where he came of age as a gay man.

West Midlands College in the early 1980s was one of the country’s leading centres for studying the visual arts, and attracted some very talented students. But Mark was not just a visual artist, and he put his musical training to good use as well, swapping the double bass for a guitar and forming a musical alliance with Kevin Williams that resulted in the notorious group Ron’s Neighbours,

Ron’s Neighbours were a band without a name until a practice session led to an infamous incident of neighbour rage. They were due to record a single in support of the miners’ strike in 1984. Mark had a contact at the Trade Union Resource Centre in Birmingham – where did Mark not have contacts? – and had managed to persuade this contact that the band was good enough to be included in this project. So, lyrics were provided and the band set about composing the music.

Mark, Kevin and fellow band member Allan were sharing a house in West Bromwich Road in Walsall. They rehearsed in the living room with the volume turned up, screaming and wailing, according to Kevin, like Jimmy Hendrix meeting a troupe of baboons. Suddenly, at one of the early rehearsals, the cacophony was interrupted by a thunderous hammering on the front door. It was their neighbour, a middle aged man called Ron accompanied by his wife, both in a state of high dudgeon.

“Open this bloody door. It’s Ron, who’s going deaf. I’ve phoned your landlord and after this you’m ewt.” “You’m shaking the bloody ornaments off the shelf,” added Ron’s wife.

The band apologised, Mark’s charm went into overdrive and Ron and his wife went away pacified, but inevitably from that day on they were known as Ron’s Neighbours. In the following 12 months or so Walsall was to be treated to many Ron’s Neighbours gigs. They are, I understand, still fondly remembered by aficionados of thrash metal.

In 1984 the band members left college and were all looking for work, a scarce commodity in the dark days of Thatcher’s Britain. Mark had met Brian Bennett, a local Community Organiser and activist who had managed to set up a Community project in Pleck, employing more than 100 local people. Mark got involved with attempts to set up a cable TV channel in the Pleck high rise flats complex. The idea was to create a citizen-owned TV channel. Hyper local TV, in fact. It was an early indication, as Kevin reminded me, of Mark’s ability to get involved in new ideas, good causes and opportunities to change things for the better.

It was at this time that Mark joined forces with Clare Robertson to form the folk duo Plecktrum that played in folk clubs and pubs around the West Midlands. Both Kevin and Clare are here today and will be performing later at the reception at the Irish Centre, I understand.

Mark established his freelance business, Mark Blackstock Associates, in 1985. Over the following decade he directed, produced, scripted and researched scores of projects, sometimes putting together his own production team, at other times working as part of someone else’s unit. He worked with and for Coventry Cable TV, TVAM, Central TV, First House Productions, Metro TV and many others. His client list was equally as varied and he moved effortlessly between multinational corporates and local community groups.

One of his most successful and creative projects was as a researcher and script editor for a documentary celebrating the centenary of Birmingham achieving city status in 1989. Mark dug up scores of fascinating stories about the history of the city. It was where I first found out about the Peaky Blinders, who are now, of course, the subject of an internationally known drama series. He also ‘discovered’ the historian Carl Chin and it was the platform provided by this programme that really launched Carl’s career as a popular historian and media guru.

 Alongside his freelance media work during the 1980s, Mark also devoted a great deal of his spare time to cultural activities which included becoming a member of the editorial group publishing the Arts Council-funded photography magazine Ten.8.

Although Mark and I had met several years earlier when Mark moved into a small office in the Sidelines building in Handsworth where both myself and cartoonist Steve Bell had previously worked, his arrival at Ten.8 was the start of a great creative partnership that lasted the best part of 20 years. Mark’s organisational ability helped transform Ten.8 into an internationally recognised and celebrated cultural journal. The magazine had never been short of creative editorial ideas but had always lacked someone with a meticulous attention to detail in terms of marketing, distribution and cash flow forecasts.

In fact, I think its safe to say that before Mark arrived on the scene, no one involved in the magazine had the faintest idea what a cash flow forecast was. Mark, changed all that. But by emphasising his abilities in marketing and finance, I don’t mean to imply he was not active in the creative editorial side of the business. Far from it. He edited one edition of the magazine, was an ever-present at the weekly editorial meetings and a creative force in the expansion of the business.

In the five years from 1988 to 1993 when Ten.8 ceased publication, Mark played a major role in everything we did. From the converted jewellery workshop in Hockley which my wife Merrise and I had obtained to house her educational publishing business and which also provided a base for Ten.8 and many other creatives, came a stream of ground-breaking publications and project initiatives.

David A Bailey, who along with Darryl Georgiou and myself, worked very closely with Mark at this time, has described the office in Key Hill Drive as Birmingham’s equivalent to Andy Warhol’s Factory. By this he didn’t mean that it was a world of glamorous parties and bacchanalian debauchery – that tended to take place offsite – but that it was a place where artists, photographers, writers and creative people of all persuasions from all over the world came to work.

In a few brief years Mark created a five-year subscription marketing plan for Ten.8 that was so detailed, so well-constructed and epic in scale that the Arts Council had to employ Price Waterhouse Cooper to explain it to them. At the same time he co-authored a business plan for Birmingham City Council Economic Development Unit that, for the first time, highlighted the economic potential of the city’s creative industries. It is only now, nearly 30 years later, that the visionary nature of that work is being fully understood.

He was closely involved in mentoring young photographers, in developing the Ten.8 exhibition touring service and formulating plans for the Birmingham International Photography Festival in 1992. It should not be forgotten that Mark was a major influence and inspiration for the work that Rhonda Wilson went on to initiate with her Seeing the Light and Rhubarb Rhubarb projects.

I mentioned at the start that Mark was a cat lover. In point of fact, Mark was much more that a person who likes cats, he was actually a cat whisperer. You know the saying when someone is trying to describe an impossible task and they say it’s like herding cats? Well, Mark could actually herd cats.

My favourite, and probably the most famous of his cats, was Sharon. I first met her when Mark brought her into Key Hill Drive shortly after we had moved in and were being overrun with mice. Mark left her one night with strict instructions as to what she should do, and, sure enough, the following morning, when I opened up, I was greeted by Sharon and about a dozen dead mice lined up with military precision. After a few weeks our mice problem went away, and Sharon took up permanent residence. Soon her fame as a mouser spread throughout the Jewellery Quarter and neighbouring businesses would come round and plead to have Sharon stay the night at their place. There was no finer sight, when we were working late, than to see Sharon prowling along the ridge tiles of one of the local roof tops, Queen of all she surveyed. Sharon went on to have a distinguished career in Hackney and later in Walsall.

For reasons too tedious to go into now, Ten.8 never fulfilled the vision we had jointly shared and it closed in 1993. The demise of Ten.8 was not the end of my and Mark’s association, however. By chance I was offered a job at The Daily Telegraph and in 1994 I was part of the launch team of the UK’s first internet newspaper, the electronic telegraph. When I became editor in 1996 I knew my first appointment had to be Mark.

In fact he took a lot of persuading – he wasn’t sure that the rather stuffy image of The Telegraph was his cup of tea. But when he saw we were building something new and exciting, from the ground up, he couldn’t resist. In addition, the hours suited Mark down to the ground because he didn’t have to get into work until 4 in the afternoon. He was, as we all know, very much a night person. Clocking off at midnight was perfect.

Mark’s career at The Telegraph from 1995 to 2006 was stellar by any standards. Those were heady days. The internet was the new big thing and we were at the leading edge. We won countless awards and Mark progressed from Production Editor to Assistant Editor to head of the Money channel, where he combined commercial and editorial roles, in the space of a few years.

I mentioned at the start the work he undertook creating a seven-day rota. At first glance, this might not seem like a big deal. But when you move to a continuous, seven-day, 18-hours-a-day production schedule it becomes incredibly difficult to arrange rotas that give workers a reasonable working pattern, with at least an occasional day off at the weekend. It is to Mark’s eternal credit that he developed – in conjunction with the heads of the various sections, who all had differing requirements in terms of deadlines, publishing bottlenecks and so on – such a system. It was all contained on a monster spreadsheet that took up several yards of wall space when printed out. It was quite simply a thing of wonder, mirabile visu, wondrous to behold.

In 2004 Mark and I embarked on a new project taking charge of the editorial and production elements when The Telegraph began phasing out the newspaper’s old analogue production system and replacing it with a new digital one. Mark took responsibility for developing new editorial work flows, rotas – of course – and staff training. Many of the old hacks were terrified of the new system and very resistant to change. It was yet another occasion where Mark’s charm and interpersonal skills were crucial in making the transition a success.

By now Mark’s fame as the king of the spreadsheets, allied to his keen appreciation of planning and reorganising workspaces – something I believe he owes to those hours he spent in his youth helping his father Cyril with his Quantity Surveying business – was legendary at The Telegraph.

It was no surprise, therefore, when the Head of Operations at The Telegraph recruited him to plan the reorganisation of all 1,000 staff at the newspaper’s HQ in Canary Wharf. Mark was in his element. He reduced the occupied floorspace by 20 per cent (something that pleased Conrad Black, the owner at that time, enormously) whilst massively enhancing the working environment, introducing new ergonomic workstations and creating a variety of new spaces for meetings, training, a surgery, a new library, and much more – which pleased the long- suffering staff enormously as well.

No one who was around at that time will be able to forget the detailed, scaled, architectural plans he created of all the floors then occupied by The Telegraph Group in the main tower in Canary Wharf. For the first time, everyone could see and locate everyone else, whatever their department, either via the massive print outs which were displayed on all floors or via the interactive searchable version on the intranet.

It might seem incredible, but until Mark’s plans appeared there were hundreds of people working in Telegraph towers who had absolutely no idea who worked on the floor above them or what they did. Visitors to Mark’s house in Walsall will probably have seen one of the plans framed on the living room wall. They are really works of art. In short, the impact Mark had on the development of one of Britain’s most famous newspapers was incalculable.

But his achievements were not without some cost to his own personal well-being. Mark was a workaholic and would often push himself too hard. By the time he had helped organise The Telegraph’s removal to a new office in Victoria in 2006 he was ready for a break. He had by then bought the house in Rowley Street, Walsall and he and Amos were busy renovating and decorating it, along with scouring antique shops and markets to furnish it.

By 2007 he was ready to re-enter the media fray and he took on the post as Head of Operations for Out There News, a TV production company focusing on the Middle East. Although he enjoyed the hectic pace of running the operation on a day-to-day basis, he was developing his own project in the background.

 He had become increasingly interested in the idea of hyper local news, feeling that the cutbacks in staffing in local newspapers and media organisations had left communities like Walsall without adequate and much needed local news and information. His solution was an audacious plan to aggregate news, blogs, press releases and sports and other local information from as many sources as possible, and through using keyword filters, publish internet news sites with very specific local content.

Thus, in early 2009, the YamYam was born. I can’t begin to tell you how much sheer hard work Mark put into developing this concept, his persistence and tenacity in insisting it could be done, and the way, through the sheer force of his own belief, he inspired others to believe in it as well. I know he would have wanted me to mention the work done by Lee Jordan, Paul Daniel and especially Tim Brown, all of whom were coerced in the nicest possible way to spending hours of their time helping Mark realise his vision.

 The YamYam was, and is, a brilliant concept. The fact that even today, several weeks after Mark’s death, it continues to be published like clockwork – six news sites covering the West Midlands, Birmingham and East London – is a testament to the brilliance of his concept. 

I remain convinced that, as with many of Mark’s ideas, it was at least a decade ahead of its time, and that sooner or later his vision will be recognised.

 I’m aware that I’ve spoken for quite a long time but I feel it is important to put on record some of Mark’s many achievements that are perhaps not as widely known as they should be.

I want to end with a personal tribute.

Without Mark’s loyal friendship and support my own life – both personal and professional – would have been much poorer. I loved Mark. I know that everyone here loved Mark. There’s not many funerals where you can, hand on heart, say that about the deceased.

I feel very strongly his spirit is with us here today. Mark was a one-off, a left-field genius, and a gracious, gentle, generous, and giving person. Let’s remember and celebrate that and allow those thoughts to uplift and inspire us on what otherwise is a very sad and desolate day. 

Pin It on Pinterest