"No they don't." "Yes they do". "Of course they will." "No they won't"...
It's like Statler & Waldorf, the two old hecklers from The Muppet Show, as we have, let's say, a difference of opinion on most things happening in Salford.
Over two very long mornings we disagree amicably for hours, first in John Merry's lair in Swinton Civic Centre, and later on a tour of the City's contentious hot spots. It's hard to understand why the Leader of Salford Council wants so much to appear in the Salford Star, given that he's been instrumental in blocking our community committee funding applications, removing minutes off websites to stop us getting info, and generally getting hammered on our pages.
"I do get hammered on the whole in the Salford Star" he agrees "There are people who think I am taking a risk talking to you this way but I think that by communicating at least we can come to some understanding of what's driving us both."
What's driving us both on the tour of Salford is the clapped out Salford Star `limo'. But before then we sit in John Merry's over large, over neat office and the talk comes around to Muppets. Some people might argue that John Merry is just a puppet for those making pure profit out of the city's regeneration, that behind his Mr Fix It façade there's some real hard faced, hard hearted consultants, money men and developers hoovering up the City's assets. Some people might say that John Merry is just the front man who takes all the stick, all the hatred. "Obviously I don't like it" he reveals "I'd like to be loved."
Loved? Loved? We get poems, letters, graphics, everything bar voodoo dolls sent to the Salford Star, aiming total vitriol at the man heading up what many see as Salford's surrender to fat cats. For these people it's not some political game, it's Salford getting transformed into a real life giant Monopoly board with them as the victims. We hear it every day from Salford families who have been here for generations, saying they're being marginalised. Don't think Merry-love is on their agenda somehow.
"I don't think I'm totally unapproachable" he says "a lot of the same people who talk to you also talk to me and I don't think they would say "He's a really horrible person." They might say "He's not got it right" but I don't think anyone would say I've got some ulterior motive in what I'm trying to do. I think you have to have some convictions and stand up for what you believe, not just what happens to make you popular."
So what are John Merry's convictions? Is there a human being or a Slitheen running Salford Council? A brief nose around his office bookcase reveals no Dr Who connections but an array of obscure hard core geek sci-fi and fantasy books. They date back, he tells me, to when he managed a Games Workshop store in Manchester selling Dungeons and Dragons stuff, and when he later opened his own sci-fi shop in the Corn Exchange and Back Piccadilly.
Merry gave up the parallel universe to go into planet politics, following in the Labour footsteps of his father, now 88, who, for many years was a councillor in Birmingham. West Brom supporting Merry junior was brought up in Handsworth, then Cumbria. and describes his social background as "not privileged, working class/middle class". He followed the dull career path of studying at Liverpool Poly and then working on the Co-op's graduate management scheme, before succumbing to otherworld fantasy forces.
A psychologist might explain Merry's life motivation as seeking escape and glamour, firstly through the phantasmagorical world of sci-fi, and secondly through big fish in a small pond politics. Any ulterior motives don't seem to be related to backhanders.
"I am not corrupt, I'm certain of that" he says "And I am certain that corruption does not exist at the highest level."
John Merry has lived in Salford for 26 years, been a Broughton councillor since 1990 and Leader of the Council for four years, with another two to go before having to stand again.
He is certainly more approachable than his predecessors, and will actually face up those who slag him off, be that a critical community group or an angry demo on the Town Hall steps. He's also one of the few Labour councillors who doesn't leg it when he sees the Salford Star coming.
Indeed, late last year OFSTED produced a report absolutely slating Salford Council concerning its record in looking after the most vulnerable children in the City, children on the "At Risk" register. We called for Jill Baker, the Head of Children's Services, to resign. We got no answer. We asked questions and got two pages of guff from councillor John Warmisham, Lead Member for Children's Services, trying to squirm out of it with no whiff of an apology. Ask John Merry what he's done wrong, and, without prodding, he holds his hands up straight away.
"For a brief period we didn't safeguard children in the way that we should have done" he admits" and I'm making changes to make sure that never happens again. I'm sure we could have handled that better."
The "brief period" was about three years but that's another story (maybe next issue eh?). But at least John Merry isn't frightened of home truths.
Face to face, certainly today, he is easy going, personable and, dare it be said, sincere. But whether this is just a media show or not we'll never know. The words `politician' and `lying, cheating and conniving' usually sit well together. If this charm offensive is an act, it's perfected. And it's easy to see why John Merry has climbed the slippery pole to become Leader.
"I think Salford people are fantastic and when my wife died they helped me and sustained me through a very difficult period and I want to put something back" he says "I felt that we had a serious issue about whether the City continued to decline, continued to lose population and continued to go down the spiral. I'm very conscious that we're reversing that process and I think that on the whole we're doing a reasonably successful job for the City…"
He pauses for a moment and adds…"I appreciate that you tend to disagree". It's not so much us, it's everyone we speak to…like, everyone. We certainly never see anyone skipping around Seedley or Broughton saying what a brilliant job the Council is doing. Yet John Merry argues that he's bumping into them all the time…people who are happy with their houses in Broughton, people who love what's happened to Langworthy…he even says he gets letters applauding him for shutting St George's school. Planet politics is one fab place.
Describing himself as a socialist…"still"…he argues that he's driven by his personal principles of "social justice" and "trying to do things for the benefit of the people... what I don't want is this fatalistic idea that it will never get any better – it will get better"
So does he think that all the people from the community who are criticising him now will come back in five year's time and say `Oh well, we were wrong'? "I hope so" he smiles.
And does he think they'll love him? "What I think most people may do, regardless of whether they love me or not…and I'm not going to get into how many people love me…but a lot of people think that I'm trying to do the best for Salford and a lot of people respect me for that….A lot of people would say that someone had to come along and make some difficult decisions, and it's not been easy and in some cases it's attracted a lot of controversy and a lot of flak…But I think that in five year's time people will come to see the wisdom of the decisions that we actually made…"
Doesn't it just warm your heart? No.
Words: Stephen Kingston.
For four more pages of this interview please buy a back copy of issue 7 from our shop.