Sunday 31 December 2006

What could possibly go wrong?

For as long as I can remember, my catchphrase has been ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ With the addition of the word ‘now’ at the end, it is the perfect line for cheering up one’s fellow passengers as the plane hurtles down the runway. But it is not merely designed to irritate: it is quite simply the most important question anyone in business can ask themselves. Imagine how different the fate of GNER might have been if they had thought through the possible downsides when they framed their winning franchise bid.

Although there have been times when I have cursed them, GNER were undoubtedly the best of the privatised train operators, and their recently advertised departure was perhaps the saddest news of 2006. Vying only with the non-departure of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the Captain Mainwaring of Downing Street. His demise has come to resemble one of those never-ending death scenes played by a comic great of the 1960s: Eric Morecambe, Frankie Howerd or Tommy Cooper. Or maybe Bernie Winters: the one who wasn’t actually funny. Will he go in 2007? I’m not holding my breath. And what a shame his replacement won’t be genial Sgt Wilson or even the boy Pike, but brooding Private Frazer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 26 December 2006

Not waving, not drowning

If you asked me what this column was for, I’d be hard pressed to give you a coherent answer. But I can tell you exactly what it’s not: a cry for help. So while I am grateful to everyone who e-mailed me last week, offering a share of their sumptuous Christmas dinner in place of my own modest snack, I really wasn’t aiming for that. Particularly as you all made it abundantly clear that the invitation only extended to Craster the Border terrier, and not his master.

Craster wouldn’t have wanted to have a wonderful time without me. Mainly because I almost never let him out of my sight, so he has absolutely no idea what a wonderful time is. He hasn’t been helped, either, by that unfortunate misunderstanding with the vet when he was a puppy. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel a big pang of guilt about it, even though I know that my own life would have been so much simpler if I’d had the same small operation during adolescence.

He’s called Craster, incidentally, because he’s a world class kipper. If they make it an event in the 2012 London Olympics, I reckon he’ll be a shoo-in for gold. He’s up to 22.5 hours per day already in training, and there’s still over five years to go before the grand opening (and seven years until the main stadium is completed).

Anyway, we had a marvellous day yesterday. I read my book: the new, 959-page authorised biography of Kingsley Amis. Someone who accidentally got through the security, and called for a seasonal drink, picked it up and asked, “Why on earth would anyone choose that for Christmas reading? Amis was a miserable, curmudgeonly, right-wing, drunken … good Lord, is that the time?”

I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s always good (though extremely difficult, in my case) to read about someone whose views and neuroses are more extreme than your own.

What I’d really like is to be a novelist. But I’m advised that publishers these days are only interested in new novelists who are young, glamorous, female and ideally from an ethnic minority. It’s typical of my luck that they apparently don’t get more enthusiastic about the disabled, which is the one condition to which I can reasonably aspire.

So now I call myself “a writer”. Partly because it sounds better (and is quicker to get out) than “a PR man who has no clients because he’s too lazy to do any work”. And partly because a survey reported in The Journal earlier this month rated it as the second most attractive career for a man, after doctor. (Blast. If only I’d finished that PhD I’d be officially irresistible.)

I went out on the pull last week with Craster and my traditional sprig of mistletoe, but the old patter just doesn’t cut the mustard any more. “Hi, do you work in insurance? Oh, I just thought you looked like you could be pretty good as an underwriter. Me? I’m a writer. Ow!”

Craster got off with a very nice cat, but he wasn’t happy. He was hoping for a sheep.

So here we are, stuck in the middle of nowhere with a log fire hurling enormous sparks at the highly flammable old sofa, while failing to make any discernible impact on the temperature of the room. A portrait of the old Queen Mother looks down benignly as Craster thoughtfully sucks a left-over turkey foot, I struggle to turn the pages of my book while wearing thick, woollen gloves, and an old 78 of Al Jolson croaks and crackles in the background. It is hardly the vision of “Young Britain” that Tony set out to fulfil when he walked across the threshold of 10 Downing Street amid such rampantly high hopes a decade ago. And for some reason just thinking that cheers me up no end.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

Turkey feet and chips

This time next week it will all be over. Well, not the turkey, obviously, which you will be eating cold as a prelude to enjoying it in rissoles, curry, sandwiches and broth. But you’ll have survived, if you’re lucky, that great family get-together which reminds you why you try to avoid seeing most of your relatives on the other 364 days of the year.

Now it will just be a matter of sticking all the wrapping paper in the recycling bin; desperately trying to find the receipts so that you can take the broken toys back to the MetroCentre and demand a refund; and ensuring that you don’t miss out on the unrepeatable bargains in the DFS Boxing Day sale.

Don’t you just hate it when newspapers try to predict the future like that? Every morning I am brought to the verge of apoplexy by Radio 4 telling me, not what happened yesterday, but what is expected to happen today. So much so that, if I were in that sort of PR, I’d be tempted to be a little bit mischievous with them. For example:

“Hello, is that Radio 4? I thought you might like a heads up on the Stevens Report. Yes, it is a bit of a surprise, actually. The Duke of Edinburgh’s coughed. “It’s a fair cop, guv. I done it. You got me bang to rights. It’s bird for me this time. Society is to blame.” Yes, straight up. I’m quoting directly from the Report. Hello?”

Well, I might need to be a bit more subtle than that, but you get the general idea. And, let’s face it, it is the only answer that would have satisfied the people who wanted the inquiry in the first place. As it was, all over Britain conversations took place like the one I overheard on the 13.30 from King’s Cross last Thursday, as one Geordie couple pored over their evening papers:

Him: “You see? I told you so.”

Her: “Come on, you don’t really believe that, do you? It’s a cover-up. Of course she was murdered.”

Thereby demonstrating, as might have been safely predicted, that the whole exercise was a colossal waste of everyone’s time and our money. Like all public inquiries unless they demonstrate that the barmy conspiracy theorists were actually right.

So if constantly looking forward drives us mad, and looking back achieves nothing, where does that leave us? With the present. Which in six days’ time will be the Christmas present, which surely has its compensations. No less an authority than the Buddha prescribed the following recipe for contentment: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

In the modern world, we seem to have lost sight of this entirely. Just look at the TV schedules, filled with nostalgic “100 Greatest …” clip shows and “another chance to see” treats. These are interspersed with endless clips for the few new programmes which ensure that you will have seen the very few good bits at least a dozen times before you get to the real thing, thereby guaranteeing that it will prove a disappointment.

So we pass from eager anticipation to fond reminiscence without ever really enjoying the moment in between. When did you last do anything which made you think, ‘”Wow! This is terrific! This is what living is all about!” That’s what we should all be aiming for every day.

I’ve got modest hopes for my own Christmas, which I shall be spending alone with a Border terrier, what I hope will prove to be a good book, and a microwaveable economy dinner for one: turkey feet and chips. I don’t think I’m likely to go “Wow!”, but at least I’m not wasting time looking forward to it, and I reckon the chances of nostalgia are decidedly limited. So at least it’s one small step in the right direction.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 12 December 2006

Growing up

What do you want to be when you grow up? It would be as fair a question to put to me now as when it was posed by the headmaster of Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School in the very early 1960s. Then, the real answer was driving one of those magnificent steam engines that still hauled crack expresses through Little Benton. Or, failing that, one of the stately yellow trolleybuses that used to glide along Newcastle’s major thoroughfares. (I’ve always had an eye for the technology of the future.)

But too many boys had opted for those by the time he reached “H” in the alphabet, so I just said I wanted to work in an office like my dad, on the grounds that it beat being out of doors in all weathers with a pick and shovel. I can still vividly recall Jack Russell Perry’s horrified reaction: “Good heavens, boy, you must want something more from life than just being comfortable!”

No, actually. It would be nice to have been a great lover, a proud father, a competent PR man, even a vaguely amusing newspaper columnist. But having enough to eat, a fire in winter, a comfy sofa and a warm bed still come right at the top of my list of priorities.

Meanwhile, other people have got on and done things. When my contemporaries started breeding in serious numbers 25 years ago, I remember thinking what a frightfully grown up thing it was to do. Now the first of them are becoming grandparents, which seems even more so. I imagine I will be thinking the same thing in another two decades or so, when it’s our turn to die.

I’m confessing to this extreme case of arrested development because even someone in my pitiful condition is beginning to wonder at the babyish antics he sees around him. The other night I sat through a very moving concert next to a man who, from his greyish hair, I judged to be about my own age. Yet every five minutes or so he reached beneath his seat and proceeded to suck greedily on a bottle of water, like a baby demanding its teat. I know we are warned about the dangers of dehydration, but surely we can get through three hours of Handel without these sort of antics?

I don’t know whether the growing illusion that we are all infants was created by government or merely aggravated by it, but there can be little doubt that the growing stream of nannyish precepts is making things worse. Eat this, don’t eat that, take exercise, don’t smoke, turn your heating down, don’t speed, kill Patricia Hewitt. No, sorry, that wasn’t the government, that was the voices in my head. But you know what I mean.

Since I don’t have any children and don’t own shares in Halfords, I regarded this year’s introduction of compulsory child booster seats with a fair degree of indifference. But I did pause to wonder how a nation of adult electors, with one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies, came to have this sort of pettifogging rule imposed on it by an unelected bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels. Their next mad idea, speeding down the track, is to make us all drive with our headlights on at all times. Something which might make a bit of sense on the forested roads of Scandinavia but hardly seems necessary in Britain, still less Malta or Cyprus.

But that’s not how the EU works. It thrives on creating uniform rules and regulations for every aspect of life. The only element of variety being created by the fact that we choose to implement them with the utmost ferocity. Whereas, as Willy Poole observes in his bulletins from deepest France, our neighbours simply ignore the ones they find inconvenient with a Gallic shrug.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all grew up and went back to running our own lives?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 6 December 2006

'Tis the season for profit warnings

Some of my best friends are retailers, so it pains me to think of their little faces crumpling in disappointment as they unwrap their December profit and loss accounts. But it’s like denying that wailing fat kid his third Whopper. You just know it has to be done.

Christmas made some sort of sense in that old world where winters were cold, decent meals rare and clockwork toys a source of wonder. What exactly is its point now, when most of us are able to eat, drink and make merry throughout the year?

Yes, I know, it’s a great religious festival, conveniently tacked onto a much older celebration of the fact that the days weren’t going to continue getting shorter indefinitely.

What I’m proposing is that it should be wrested from the retail industry and reclaimed by Christians, who have a much better sense of proportion about the whole thing. I mean, you don’t go into churches in October and find them bedecked with tinsel, the vicar wearing a red hat and Slade blasting out over the PA system, do you?

Some people will say I am bitter because I went to the trouble of growing a white beard in the hope of gaining some seasonal work, and then found no suitable openings. It’s true that I cooled on the idea when I was told that I would have to be vetted, thinking it involved something unpleasant with cold steel rather than a simple police records check. By the time someone put me right, all the grottoes of the North East were fully staffed. But that has nothing to do with my stance.

I’ve just got tired with the months of relentless advertising. This year Asda’s commercials have come closest to making me put a heavy boot through my TV screen. I’ve managed to restrain myself chiefly because I know I’d end up going out to buy another set, which would be rather playing into their hands.

I’m sick of the constant incitement to spend ever more on things you neither need nor want, in the belief that this will guarantee you a marvellous time. It won’t.

Weaning retailers off their dependence on Christmas won’t be easy. It will be like relieving Tony Blair of power, or getting a rock star off drugs. But I contend that it needs to be done. And if we consumers stick together and make this, as predicted, the worst Christmas on the high street for 25 years, it will be a valuable step in the right direction.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who secretly has a bit of a soft spot for turkey twizzlers.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 5 December 2006

How stupid can you get?

Dangerous things, fireworks, as the residents of Lewes have just been reminded in a tragic and spectacular fashion. The reports reminded me of this paper’s tally of North East casualties from Guy Fawkes Night, which included a 22-year-old from Sunderland who had been “left with serious internal burns after launching a rocket from his backside”.

I have been lying awake at nights wondering just what combination of circumstances could lead anyone to conclude that this was a good idea. It’s the sort of behaviour that so often leads to a citation in the annual Darwin Awards, presented to those people (actually, let’s be honest, men; it’s always men) who have done most to enhance the human gene pool by removing themselves from it in an extravagantly stupid manner.

In a world increasingly obsessed by Elfin Safety, as I wrote last week, one has to ask: was he properly warned? Did he buy the rocket from one of the major retailers who were being lambasted by the Chief Constable of Northumbria for having fireworks on sale? If you buy a bottle of milk from Tesco, it comes with a small, bright red warning on the back: “Allergy advice: contains milk”. Just in case you missed the same word in much larger but less luridly coloured letters on the front of the pack.

Did the rocket carry an equivalent panel saying “Safety advice: do not ram this projectile it into any part of your body before lighting the blue touch paper”? If not, I sense that some wholesaler or retailer could well be in a lot of expensive trouble as the lawyer elves Blame and Compensation set to work.

On the bigger issue, just how do fireworks depots come to be Iocated on small industrial estates near houses? It’s a mystery on a par with that warehouse full of priceless art in east London which proved to be sharing its premises with a whole host of highly flammable small workshops. Or the Buncefield oil storage depot, surrounded by housing and a huge range of businesses including, surreally, a leading supplier of secure off-site back-up for companies’ IT systems.

I visited a fireworks factory once, in the far-off days when we actually made things in this country. This was very sensibly positioned on an island in the River Trent, and comprised a series of well-separated brick buildings to localise the risk of any explosion. Raw materials were transported very slowly around the site on the back of ancient tricycles. I am not making this up.

The highlight was a demonstration of the firm’s recent diversification into crowd control, which was basically a big firework that discouraged rioters by pelting them with ball bearings. It blew large holes in the cardboard cut-outs they’d assembled for display purposes. Invited to develop a positive PR campaign for this exciting new development, I made an excuse and left at the speed of a rocket exiting from a milk bottle or, indeed, a backside.

Now products like that, and the location of dangerous enterprises near people’s homes, are definitely the sort of thing that any Government should be clamping down on. My well-developed “bah, humbug” instincts tell me that fireworks generally are an anti-social nuisance. But as a libertarian, I feel that it is wrong to prevent people buying them. In general, we should have the freedom to spend our money however we like, so long as we behave responsibly.

The problem is that we have moved into a world where no-one is considered to be a responsible adult any more. Our personal freedoms are ever more constrained as huge teams of officials work around the clock to eliminate even the slightest risk that we might harm or kill ourselves. Yet on a vastly larger scale, oil and fireworks depots continue to go up in flames. Can we really claim to have got our priorities right?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 28 November 2006

Elves One, Trees Nil

I’d always thought of elves as quite robust little creatures, so it was a rather puzzle to me when Elfin Safety began to dictate so much public policy in this country, and intrude on so many aspects of daily life. Just lately I’ve been doing a bit of research on the subject, and it turns out that the root of the trouble is twin elves called Blame and Compensation – names that would never have appealed to Tolkien, let alone Disney.

We don’t have accidents any more. Acts of God are a thing of the distant past. Now, when anything goes wrong in your life, someone else is to blame and, by golly, they’re going to have to pay for it. The effects of this are far-reaching, and round my way we’re currently seeing their impact on trees. Yes, trees.

A while back, yellow numbered tags started appearing on nearly all the mature roadside trees in the area, and the word went round that they were all going to be felled in the interests of Elfin Safety, in case they blew down and squashed us as we were driving by. Or shed one of their substantial branches onto our unprotected and unsuspecting heads.

Then came a letter from the land agent to the local estate, nailing that ugly rumour once and for all. The tags did not mean that all the trees were going to be felled. Dear me, no. Many would merely be monitored, others pruned, some removed. Only then did we get to the point: a combination of disease-prone species (mainly those English favourites, ash and beech) and ‘a previous long term policy of non intervention’ did in fact mean that a ‘significant number’ were for the chop, in whole or in part.

There’s a phrase there, incidentally, that every man should cherish. Next time the missus is having a go at you for not cutting the hedge or painting the bathroom, remember that you are not merely lying on the sofa scratching yourself, as it might appear. You are pursuing ‘a long term policy of non intervention’. Sounds so much better, doesn’t it?

Now, as it happens, I have considerable sympathy with the landowner whose trees these are. A couple of months back I had lunch with a genial chap who told me his bill for public liability insurance on just over 100 acres of Northumberland was nudging £2,000 a year. And that was for a small farm containing no public roads or footpaths, and no ‘right to roam’ access land. In other words, that’s merely to cover him in the event of accidental injury to someone who had no right to be there in the first place.

Extrapolating from this, the costs of insuring a large country estate, criss-crossed by public rights of way, must be truly horrific. It is not in the least unreasonable for the owner of such a property to try and minimise his risk. But ask any Elfin Safety expert, in any field, whether something might be dangerous, and they will always err on the side of telling you that it might be. Why would they do anything else, when they could be the one to receive a surprise visit from Blame and Compensation if the tree, electrical appliance, factory or whatever they have just declared to be safe falls down or blows up the next day?

So my advice to you is this. If you enjoy traditional English landscapes, with mature trees lining the roads, do so while you can. Maybe take some photographs to remind yourself what they were like, or to show your grandchildren. Because as the cotton wool of Elfin Safety slowly stifles us, I predict that they won’t be with us anywhere for too much longer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 November 2006

Oh why can't they leave us alone?

All writers specialise in displacement activity. It doesn’t matter whether the day’s task is a novel, a shopping list or a column for The Journal. We’d rather be sharpening pencils, making a nice cup of tea or sorting our books into alphabetical order. Anything rather than actually putting pen to paper or, nowadays, fingers to keyboard.

In business, the displacement activity of choice is meetings. Long, tedious opportunities for the self-important to expose their vacuity, and for the work-shy to hibernate.

For the public sector, though, meetings just aren’t enough. Why get on with the job when you could be reorganising? I’ve lost count of the number of reorganisations the NHS has endured over the last ten years, but I think they can be summarised as follows: Mr Blair wasted the first half of his time in office dismantling the market reforms introduced by those wicked Tories, and the second half putting them back. At the same time, undisputed and unprecedented extra billions have been poured into the service, to precisely what effect? The headlines are still full of hospital and ward closures, cash crises, redundancies, inadequate hygiene and new drugs denied by cash constraints.

Our police authorities wasted over £11 million planning their aborted reorganisation into super-forces designed to make them fit the EU model of regional government. I do hope they haven’t just chucked those plans in the bin because two things the drivers of the EU agenda are not short of is stamina and patience, and I’m sure they will be back.

Which brings us to regional and local government. Like many other naïve fools, I voted ‘no’ in the referendum two years ago, thinking that I was voting against the EU-decreed Regional Assembly when I was actually only being asked whether I wanted it to be elected.

Not the least of the reasons I voted ‘no’ was that the elected assembly came packaged with another totally unnecessary local government reorganisation, which would have removed all decision-making from my council in Alnwick to Morpeth or even Hexham.

And what happens now? The sixth form public schoolboy masquerading as Ruth Kelly invites councils, if they wish – let it be said loud and clear that this was not, for once, a central diktat – to apply for unitary status. Within hours, Northumberland County Council leaps in with a self-aggrandising claim for greater power. And then, shamefully, our district councils, instead of sticking up two fingers and chanting that old mantra ‘it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, cave in and start backing counter-proposals for two unitary authorities, one a rural behemoth stretching all the way from Blanchland to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

I’m sorry, but I fail to see how making local government more remote in this way can possibly make it better. They say two tiers are confusing and expensive. Really? My bins are emptied by the district council, the roads are mended by the county. How thick do you have to be not to be able to grasp that?

As for saving money – yes, I expect some people will lose their jobs if this reorganisation goes ahead, and much needless anguish will be caused. But I’m equally sure they will all be replaced by new recruits on higher salaries, to reflect the bigger organisation for which they are now responsible.

In the meantime, numerous parasitic consultants will cream off millions designing palatial new head offices, identities, logos and all the other prerequisites of a large local authority.

Where is the demand for this? Where are the locals demonstrating for change? And what are the chances that, if either unitary option is adopted, our local government will be one penny cheaper, our school standards higher or our roads any less potholed? Exactly. Surely it can’t be too late for us taxpayers to deliver a short and simple message to our councillors: just say no. And get on with the jobs we voted you into.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 14 November 2006

Happy anniversary

Oah Noah! They told us it was going to be the most dramatic evening on radio since Grace was burnt to a crisp in that stable fire in 1955, but sadly episode 15,000 of The Archers proved to be the ultimate damp squib. Ruth realised that she could not go through with her planned night of passion with the dullest man in the world, because of her sense of duty to her kiddies. A cruel blow to all of us who had prayed that she and Sam would walk off into the sunset together, so cleansing Radio 4 of perhaps the least convincing North East accent in the history of British broadcasting.

Instead we face the tedious prospect of her working to rebuild her marriage to David, the second dullest man on the planet. But, hey, at least it gives Heather Mills McCartney a clear run at the ‘most unpopular Geordie of 2006’ title, barring a late rush of support for Freddie Shepherd.

In an age when marital break-up seems to be the norm, is The Archers in any way like real life? It certainly seems more like it than Coronation Street, where elderly men expire of strokes on their wedding day and another love triangle envelops Frankie Baldwin, her ex-husband and her stepson. And a brief survey of my married friends shows that nearly all of them are still together after 20 years or more, against all the apparent odds.

True, there have been victims of that calculation by the stay-at-home wife that if she can’t have it all, she can at least have the house and the people carrier and a good 50% of everything else. And free herself of the occasional company of that boring bloke who is clearly happier in the office anyway, judging by the amount of time he spends there.

I realise this cuts both ways, so let me add that I know few less edifying sights than the orchestra stalls of the Royal Opera House on a night when they’re performing something with a few decent tunes in it. There you will find row upon row of silver-haired captains of British industry alongside their blonde, trophy, second wives. They usually look about 20 years younger than their husbands, though this might of course merely testify to the effectiveness of the beauty regimes to which they clearly devote about 50% of their time. The other half being spent in planning their long and happy widowhoods.

Even before The Archers blew up, or rather fizzled out, I’d been pondering on the durability of marriage, as today would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary. Tomorrow would have been my father’s 98th birthday, and my mother was only a year younger, so the chances of them reaching this date together were always pretty slim. But stranger things have happened. Earlier this year, a British couple claimed a place in the Guinness Book of Records by having stayed married for over 76 years. They attributed their success to having a daily argument, probably about exactly the same thing every time.

Sustaining a relationship for longer than the design life of a normal human being is a truly extraordinary achievement. But think how much easier it must have been to make a lifetime commitment when there was a sporting chance of death breaking things up quite quickly, through any one of a wide range of revolting dread diseases, or the high risk annual ritual of childbirth.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my limited experience of divorce, it’s that the children of broken marriages hate it. So maybe when today’s young rebel against their healthy new school dinners and go on smoking and drinking to excess, there is an element of logic to it. After all, if they insist on shortening their lives in this way, perhaps their own marriages really will last until death us do part.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 November 2006

The times they are a'changing

Every year they come out of the woodwork, as regularly as, well, clockwork. The clocks go back, and various campaign groups pop out like cuckoos to tell us how many kiddies’ lives would be saved if only we didn’t do it; how much more efficient it would be if we were in the same time zone as the rest of Western Europe; and what a wretched, fiddling waste of, er, time it all is. Then, equally predictably, counter-claims are made that the suicide rate among Scottish farmers would soar to 100% if we did any such thing.

This year, the Local Government Association of England and Wales anticipated that objection by suggesting that Scotland could stick with GMT while the rest of us moved forward an hour. True, there are countries that function perfectly well across more than one time zone, but they tend to be ones that span continents, like Russia and the USA, not small ones like Britain. You don’t need to be a resident of Berwick-upon-Tweed to feel your mind boggling at the fatuousness of this idea. Its only obvious advantage would be to provide GNER with an increasingly rare opportunity to put out a good news press release, since it would instantly lop an hour off the quoted journey time between London and Edinburgh.

As a diehard reactionary, I naturally savour an annual ritual that gives me the only opportunity I actually get to put the clock back. I also relish that extra hour in bed. People tell me that sailing westwards across the Atlantic, where one gains an hour every night, would be my ideal holiday. If only it didn’t have America at the end of it.

I’m also old enough to remember the last time we experimented with year-round Summer Time back in the 1960s, as part of Harold Wilson’s efforts to drag Britain kicking and screaming into the white heat of the technological revolution. My recollection is that it was universally unpopular. Certainly, I remember thinking that it was bad enough having to get up and go to school at all, without having to do it in the dark.

The grumblers from the ‘let’s stop fiddling with the clocks altogether’ school are, of course, wasting their breath. Virtually every country in the developed world practises ‘daylight saving’ and, while I hate to lose an opportunity to advocate defiance of our masters in Brussels, putting ourselves wilfully out of step with our major trading partners strikes me as barmy.

That leaves us simply with the question of what should be our base line: GMT or BST?

Greenwich Mean Time, as the name suggests, is the right time for a country located on the 0° meridian of longitude. Historically, every town and village worked out their own time from the sun, and it was only the coming of the railways that required nationwide standardisation. So far as I know, the last bastion of such localism in Britain is Christ Church, Oxford, which resolutely rings its nightly curfew at Oxford time: about five minutes or 150 years behind London, depending on how you look at it.

I think it’s the pleasure created by such little quirks like that makes life worth living. So, instead of moaning, let us rejoice in the biannual ritual of moving the clocks round. Join with me in remembering the childhood excitement at their going back, which heralded spookily dark evenings, gaslights, wood smoke, fireworks, Christmas and snowmen. While their move forward in spring meant long evenings playing out of doors, greenery, sunshine and days out by the sea.

Yes, that may be childlike thinking, but I don’t think it’s actually childish in the pejorative sense. That’s the preserve of people who’ve got nothing better to do than trying to badger the rest of us into changing our customs and practices, usually for the sake of change itself.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 1 November 2006

The easy way to make a million

Who wants to be a millionaire? Well, me for a start, though I’ve never had the energy to do much about it. Luckily, the relentless rise in house prices means that I will probably realise my dream before too long. But so will everyone else in the country living outside Teesside, Rotherham or Bootle, which will rather take the edge of it. And, unless I sell up to live in a makeshift shelter on some common land, the prospects of actually enjoying my wealth look pretty limited.

Thirty years ago, I thought that the path to riches was to become a stockbroker. I swiftly learned that the easiest way to become a millionaire in the City was to be a multi-millionaire when you started. For a monumentally idle fellow like me, it seemed natural to move into a business which majored on lunch. As a financial PR adviser, I got to know many successful entrepreneurs who were bringing their companies to the stock market. So rather than pursuing the usual self-obsessed ramble, I thought it might be more useful to consider what success factor they all had in common.

Sadly, for those of you hoping for an easy answer, the formula seems to be exactly the same as Edison’s for genius: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. You start off with a moderately bright idea – often nothing too original. Then you apply at least 150% of your maximum possible effort to making it work. You look upon the EU’s drive against our ‘long hours culture’ with derision. In fact, although you’re doing this to make a better life for your family, you probably don’t see much of them for several years, unless they are employed in your shop or factory on slave wage rates.

You regard your inevitable mistakes as learning experiences and you never, ever fall back on the secondary motto of my old school: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, give up.’

You never set out to be seriously wealthy, just to do a little better than you would have done as someone else’s employee. When the serious money starts to arrive, and you buy the mansion, flash cars, yacht and helicopter, you can’t quite believe your luck. You may not be happy, but at least you can be miserable in serious comfort, resenting only the parasitic advisers who latch onto you, and the fact that you can’t buy immortality.

It helps, as one of my clients always says, if you’re a little crazy.

Now you have the secrets. What are you waiting for?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who believes in Premium Bonds.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 31 October 2006

Things that go bump in the night

I blame The Dick Van Dyke Show. Or possibly Bewitched. At any rate, I’m sure that it was one of those wholesome, 1960s, American family comedies that introduced us to the dreaded transatlantic concept of ‘trick or treating’.

In my childhood we just used to wander round the Fairways estate in a disconsolate sort of way, holding turnip lanterns. I realise now that this must have been an authentic folk custom because we met the crucial test that Thomas Hardy set to identify genuine West Country morris dancers from Victorian revivalists: we exuded misery as we went about it.

It wasn’t seen as a fund-raising opportunity. That was reserved for ‘Penny for the Guy’. What a contrast with 2006, when 31 October brings you the annual convenience of being mugged on your own doorstep.

All over the country tonight, terrified pensioners will be huddled behind their sofas with the lights off, pretending to be out, while the bolder spirits will be lurking behind their own front doors with Army surplus flame-throwers poking out through their letter boxes, preparing to cackle in an appropriately maniacal way as they yell ‘How’s that for a trick, kid?’

The supernatural itself will, as usual, not be much in evidence. In 50-odd years, I’ve only had three encounters that seemed to defy rational explanation, only one of which could be deemed vaguely scary. So the occult comes pretty low down my league table of terrors, well below Gordon Brown, Osama bin Laden, teenagers and dentistry.

Shortly after I moved to my current home, I pulled over on a narrow road to allow an old man to pass with his horse and cart. Only when I looked up after completing the manoeuvre, he wasn’t and never had been there.

A couple of years later, shortly after my mother died, my then partner and I were walking our dog when he ran off, wagging his tail furiously, and gave an effusive greeting to someone or something that neither of us could see. My mother loved that dog. Who else could it have been? And, yes, he has done a number of other mad things over the succeeding 14 years, but he’s never pulled another stunt even vaguely like that.

More recently, I was sleeping soundly in an Oxford college when I was rudely awoken by the bedside lamp apparently being hurled at me. It was 2 a.m. on an uncomfortably clammy midsummer night, yet the room was as cold as a walk-in freezer. Having dined well, I didn’t spend too long thinking about this, but pulled the covers over my head and went back to sleep. The following day, I discovered that it was but the latest in a long series of similar incidents reported over many years, often at precisely the same time of night. Though mercifully less dramatic than some of them, which tended to involve doors being opened unexpectedly by disembodied hands.

All these things had been reported by intelligent people who had probably drunk more than is good for them. Maybe that explains it. All I know is that, although I have been back to that college for other dinners, I’ve always spent the night in an hotel.

According to a TV documentary last week, some of us will never have the opportunity to walk the earth again on Hallowe’en, because we shall never die. Just hang on until 2029, presumably pass some hugely divisive test of suitability, and your brain will be downloaded to a computer so that you can think great thoughts or play snap for all eternity. At least until some passing cleaner pulls your plug out. Listening to the wide-eyed scientists who are so looking forward to this – the sort of men whose idea of work is controlling rats by putting electrodes in their brains – it is hard not to agree strongly with Evelyn Waugh’s dictum: all fates are worse than death.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 24 October 2006

The Real History Boys

At the start of this month I went to a London preview of the film of The History Boys. The author himself was there, doing his celebrated impersonation of Alan Bennett. And it was a good night out – if not quite as gripping as the original play. It was also a strangely eerie experience for someone who actually spent an extra term in the sixth form of a northern grammar school preparing for the Oxbridge scholarship examinations in history, albeit a decade before the film is set.

They don’t have entrance scholarships at Oxbridge any more, of course. Far too elitist in an age that prefers to focus on dumbing down, increasing diversity and improving access. Though, funnily enough, more northern working class children got into Oxford and Cambridge in my day than now, thanks to those dreadfully divisive grammar schools. A system that was enthusiastically smashed up by politicians of both major parties on the grounds that, if an opportunity can’t be made available to absolutely everyone, it must be denied to all.

Here I’d like to state a few controversial facts. First, academic education is inevitably elitist. Second, some children are too thick to benefit from it. Third, sending the thickoes to fringe institutions re-branded as ‘universities’ and handing them BSc degrees in lawn maintenance or macramé is achieving absolutely nothing for this country either socially or economically, and risks making us an international laughing stock.

Having got that off my chest, how accurate is The History Boys? Well, it’s not much like the Royal Grammar School in 1971. We didn’t work like navvies all term. Sauntering in for one lesson per day was more like it. Nor did we receive the attentions of any serial gropers. (Yes, I know I could have been the exception, as no-one wants to grope the fat one, but I’ve checked with a number of my contemporaries and they all say the same.)

But the real difference is this. The most daring thing anyone does in the film (apart from the groping and ‘coming out’) is to light a cigarette. Not a drop of alcohol crosses anyone’s lips. There could hardly be a greater contrast with my own days in the sixth form, which were positively awash with beer.

At the RGS in the early 1970s, we had a civilised understanding: the boys went to the Collingwood about 400 yards from the school, and the masters went to the Brandling next door. Every lunchtime, every evening. We must have spent the afternoons reeking of beer, though I don’t recall anyone being obviously the worse for wear.

The proudest moment of my school career – far better than being handed the lower sixth history prize by Lord Robens – was the day that some act of petty vandalism led to the Collingwood temporarily barring schoolboys. As we walked disconsolately towards the door, Betty the landlady called me back. ‘Not you, Keith. You’re a regular.’ I was 16 at the time, and I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling of social acceptance ever since.

It must have been so for generations. At a school reunion dinner many years later, I ran into a man who had gone up to Cambridge, in the early 1950s. On his first day, a friendly don told him to come to his house if he found himself out of college after hours, rather than risk impaling himself drunkenly on the railings. He asked whether the don made this offer to everyone. ‘Oh no,’ he replied. ‘Just the boys from your school.’

The RGS is all changed now: co-educational, forward-looking, brimming with high-tech facilities. The desks on which we were taught are literally in Beamish museum, and there is a powerful rumour that they have even painted the lavatories. There are no Oxbridge scholarships for the boys and girls to win. So what I’d like to know is: does this allow them to spend even more time in the pub?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 17 October 2006

What have you got to hide?

It’s quite difficult to write a vaguely topical column that doesn’t risk offending someone, and these days there are so many sensitive minorities one has to worry about. Virtually everyone, in fact, apart from fat people, who are apparently fair game for anything. Though this may be a special editorial dispensation because I am, as my tailor kindly put it last week, ‘a little portly’ myself. After all, comedians from minority groups seem to be free to describe themselves in words that would provoke riots if they were used by outsiders.

During the eight weeks that I’ve been away, pondering on these matters, I’ve channelled all my creative energies into growing a beard. I knew it had worked when I spent an hour or so having lunch at the next table to the esteemed editor of this paper, and he completely failed to recognise me. So I reckon I should be pretty safe if this article results in the declaration of a fatwa by, say, the members of the Alnwick & Rothbury Secret Eaters pie-guzzling club. With my beard and newish multi-focal glasses, the biggest risk I now run will be from bowler-hatted extremists mistaking me for Gerry Adams.

I’m a bit of a pognophobe myself, ironically. Whenever I see another man with a beard, I think (a) lazy so-and-so, and (b) what has he got to hide? Similar arguments apply to other forms of facial and head covering, whether it be the ubiquitous hoodie, the balaclavas favoured by animal rights fanatics, or the Muslim ladies’ veil. As a libertarian, I think that everyone should be allowed to wear what they like. And if the veil annoys the more rampant female liberationists among us – well, too bad. They could always assert their freedom and independence by wandering around topless, to show the less progressive how it should be done.

Alternatively, if we want to avoid civil war, we could all adopt that old maxim: if you can’t beat them, join them. I mean, which would you rather encounter in Narrowgate as you try to make your way round Alnwick? A Secret Eater in tight leggings and an fcuk T-shirt, or one in a voluminous burka? Exactly. Very slimming, black is. Added to which, extensive tests have proved that it is impossible to insert a pie into the mouth while wearing an outer garment that covers the entire body, apart from a narrow slit for the eyes. Over time, this could prove to be the greatest advance in public health since the discovery of penicillin, and the salvation of the NHS.

We could also crack the whole ‘oppression of women’ issue if men started wearing them, too. I’m quite prepared to take a lead on this, if only for the pleasure of thinking how much use the billions of pounds worth of CCTV cameras dotted around the country will be once the burka becomes our universal uniform. It’ll also be great fun when we turn up at our local cop shop to be registered for the Dear Leader’s cherished ID card scheme, and explain that it is against our deepest principles to take them off.

There are plenty of empty shops in Alnwick (though not as many as there will be once Aldi and Sainsbury’s open up) and as a public service and a money-making opportunity, I’m going to take one on as the first north of England branch of Burkas Are Us. We’ll stock a full range of sizes (extra large, huge, enormous) and colours (black, coal, incredibly dark grey). And as a special opening offer, I’ve just procured an unusual line in burkas from the USA. These ones are white, and come complete with a funny pointy hat. I reckon they’ll be just the thing to wear when participating in that other ghastly American import: trick or treating on Hallowe’en.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 29 August 2006

Things can only get better

Don’t tell me, it’s been the worst fortnight of your life. You turned up at the airport with the family just as all hell broke loose on the security front, and were stuck in a queue for over three hours. At least that gave you plenty of time to re-pack all your hand baggage into the big suitcases destined for the aircraft hold. How relieved you felt when those eventually shuffled off down the conveyor belt, never to be seen again.

Determined to make the best of things, you persuaded the kids that they’d find a nudist holiday a refreshing and mind-broadening experience. And it wasn’t going too badly, either, until the forest fires forced you out of your hotel to huddle by the waterline, trying to recover from the effects of smoke inhalation.

Yes, it was unfortunate that you got kicked off your plane home for making those politically incorrect remarks about the two Middle Eastern gentlemen who were sitting next to you, wearing heavy coats and constantly looking at their watches. But surely you must have realised that they were only having a bit of fun when they inflated their sickbags and burst them with a satisfying pop? At least the taxing overland journey back to Britain was more environmentally responsible.

As you finally staggered into the house, what a comfort it was to pick up the newspaper and read Sir Ian Blair’s pronouncement that his boys and girls are doing such a terrific job that it is now safe to leave your doors unlocked. Which you duly did when you went out for a celebratory dinner. Now you find yourself studying an insurance claim form which makes it clear that they won’t be reimbursing you for the entire contents of your house, since it was your own fault for failing to secure it.

Of course, you should have read the small print more closely. And realised that Sir Ian, as Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, was talking about the crime-free paradise that is London. Not Newcastle or Sunderland. Mind you, not wishing to be outdone, the Chief Constable of Northumbria may well be poised to tell us that it is now quite all right to leave our cars out on the street with a full tank of petrol and the keys in the ignition. Though I don’t think I’d risk it if I were you.

Any pronouncement from that unfeasibly PC PC, Commissioner Blair, needs to be treated with a fair amount of caution. He is, after all, the genius who went on Radio 4’s Today programme to boast about his force meeting the ‘gold standard’ for preventing terrorism, about an hour before the 7 July suicide bombs last year. Then there were his unfortunate comments about Jean Charles de Menezes, executed at Stockwell station in what turned out to be a disastrous case of mistaken identity. It is quite hard for the casual observer to work out how on earth he keeps his job.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder if he isn’t actually a spoof figure, dreamt up by our own local hero Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, to make his own stint as head of the Met seem like a golden age of commonsense coppering.

Still, it could have been worse. If you’d been away a bit longer, you might have come back to find that your house had been deemed empty by one of Ruth Kelly’s gauleiters, and confiscated to provide much-needed accommodation for some of those half million economic migrants from eastern Europe. You remember, the ones that the Government said would never come here, attacking those who suggested they might as xenophobes and racists.

Now they say that they’re ‘good for the economy’, which means that they’re keeping wages down for the rest of us, including you. And this from what was once the party of organised labour. No wonder you’re starting to think that perhaps a bomb really did go off on the first day of your holiday, blasting you into an unrecognisable parallel universe.

© Copyright Keith Hann, 2006.

Written for The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, but deemed unsuitable for publication.

Tuesday 22 August 2006

Must the terrorist always win?

I owe my reader(s) an apology. Yes, I know that’s true every week, but this time there is a specific reason. Last month I suggested that the chronic unreliability of the East Coast Main Line train service meant that flying might be a feasible if environmentally irresponsible alternative. How wrong I was.

I booked four flights, but only took one. Things got off to a bad start when I made the idiotic error of pitching up at Newcastle International Airport at 1.30pm, thinking that this was a time at which one might be able to obtain something resembling lunch. How silly of me. Still, the hour’s delay in the departure of my BA flight to Gatwick gave me plenty of time to muse on my folly over a very expensive fizzy pint and packet of crisps.

The only refreshing thing about the journey itself was that, instead of the litany of implausible excuses conveyed by tannoy on GNER, the pilot cheerily announced that he had as little idea as we did why the flight was late, as he’d only just got onto the plane himself.

Then there was the insufferable young prig in the next seat, the bus from the plane to the terminal, the transit to the other terminal, and the train journey to where I actually wanted to be. When I finally got there, I looked at my watch and reflected that I could have driven from home just as quickly, with considerably less stress and discomfort, and at lower cost. ‘Right,’ I said to myself, ‘That’s it. I shall never fly again.’

Having consigned the tickets for my next journey to the bin, imagine my delight when the would-be terrorist incident of 9 August led to the flights concerned being cancelled, so that I qualified for a full refund. Thanks, lads.

Although I am one of the few beneficiaries of this alleged plot, I do wonder whether they ever actually intended to carry it out. After all, as things turned out, they garnered as much publicity and caused as much chaos and inconvenience (if rather less grief) as if they’d actually consigned a thousand fellow travellers to oblivion. And conveniently avoided that presumably buttock-clenching moment when the suicide bombs had to be detonated.

It would have been much more of a victory over the terrorists if we’d just shrugged our shoulders and carried on as usual, rather than having our airports filled with armed police and a host of restrictions imposed that make flying even less of a joy. Last week we were only a step away from making every air passenger strip naked and submit to an intimate body search before stepping on board the plane. And as soon as some fanatic devises an ingestible bomb, I dare say they’ll want X-rays, too.

Instead of the Government issuing edicts to every airline, why not allow a little consumer choice into the equation? WhatTheHell airlines could be set up with the unique selling proposition that you could take whatever you liked on board as hand luggage, with the downside that you stood a greater risk of being blown to smithereens mid-flight. It would be interesting to see how it fared.
In more phlegmatic times, when the air raid warning sounded, theatres and cinemas would warn their audiences so that those who wished to head for the shelters could do so, and then the show went on. It would be good to get back some element of free choice, otherwise the terrorist will win every time, even if the outrage is aborted.

Of course, it’s jolly convenient for governments who want to keep tabs on us to have these terrorists as an excuse for ever-increasing curbs on civil liberties – an outdated concept, John Reid announced, literally the day before the alleged plot was uncovered.

No wonder some cynics are asking: are the Government and terrorists really fighting each other, or are they in league against the rest of us?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 August 2006

A drug off the market

Say what you like about Harold Shipman, he did wonders for waiting lists. But he didn’t do a lot for the trust that patients place in their doctors. Now it is apparently becoming harder to obtain effective pain relief, as many GPs are unwilling to carry morphine-based drugs in case they end up fingered as the next stethoscope-wearing mass murderer.

Even before that blew up, it was alleged that some British cancer patients are dying in agony because of a shortage of diamorphine, the most powerful painkiller. This has apparently been a problem since early 2005, when production problems arose in the Merseyside factory that met 70pc of UK demand.

The odd thing about this particular NHS crisis is that diamorphine is merely the proper, medical name for heroin, which seems to be freely available on the streets of virtually every town and village. What sort of administrative genius does it take to create an official shortage of something the country is awash with?

The answer, according to various campaigning websites, is that the British health authorities insist on buying their injectable diamorphine only from two licensed suppliers, and in the most expensive form. As a result, we end up paying many more times for the stuff than health authorities overseas, and still can’t get a reliable supply.

I don’t know whether those claims are true, but anything about the NHS that suggests wastefulness always seems to have the ring of truth to it. How else can an organisation which has had such massive additional funds poured into it over the last nine years still be failing to deliver patient satisfaction in so many areas?

If I had my way, the supply of diamorphine would improve overnight because I’d legalise its supply. I can’t see what we achieve by making drugs illegal, thereby placing the weak-minded in the hands of criminal suppliers. These provide them with products of dubious quality which are often more dangerous than the real thing. They also charge outrageous prices which create a whole new cycle of criminality as addicts steal to fund their habit.

Instead of trying to ruin the poppy farmers of Afghanistan and the coca growers of Colombia, why not make the whole thing legal and subject to tax, as we do with other drugs like alcohol and tobacco? Victorians from the Queen down were frequent users of laudanum, a tincture of opium sold freely over chemists’ counters, and I don’t recall society being brought to its knees. At any rate, it was certainly in no greater a mess than we are today.

The only time I might have taken an illegal substance was at university in the 1970s, when peer pressure led me and countless others to smoke what was alleged to be cannabis. Also then popularly known as dope or … a rude word for excrement. I remain convinced that what my friends were actually sold was the latter, as it had never had the slightest effect on me. The claimed reactions of others were, I believe, just a form of mass hysteria.

One of my chums decided to secure an undoubtedly authentic supply by growing his own marijuana plants from budgie seed. By the start of the Easter vacation he had quite a promising collection of little seedlings, and asked his landlady if she’d mind watering them while he was away. When we got back, they’d been transformed into a collection of thriving tomato plants, suggesting that they had come to the attention of someone in authority with a knowledge of botany and a sense of humour. They weren’t much of a smoke.

So I won’t be rushing round to Mr Tall’s pharmacy in Rothbury to buy some heroin in the unlikely event that the Government takes my advice and makes it legal, thereby putting a fair chunk of the police force out of a job. However, if I am ever unfortunate enough to develop cancer, it would be jolly comforting to know that I could.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 August 2006

Who ate all the pies?

At last a subject on which I can write with real authority: fatness. I have been on the plump side all my life. As a schoolboy, I was one of the two boys in my class who sometimes enjoyed the soubriquet ‘Fatso’. Yet looking at the pictures of us from 40 years ago, I realise that we were positively slim compared with the lard-buckets waddling through today’s school gates.

Tootling around the national motorway network at the start of the current school holidays, during a period of exceptionally hot weather, I was repeatedly appalled by the sights that greeted me in motorway service areas: grotesquely fat and horribly underdressed parents feeding fizzy pop, burgers, chips and sweets to their revoltingly obese children, many of whom looked like they might well burst before they got back onto the road.

Why would anyone do this to a child? Surely even someone of the meanest intelligence must realise that it is damaging their health? Nor is it doing anything for their prospects of happiness, in a culture where, as the mass of the population has got steadily fatter, the ideal of beauty and sexual attractiveness has become ever more scrawny. There’s no place now for Rubenesque curves. What we want is ribs that you can play like a xylophone.

I’ve yearned for years to have the sort of body that would enable me to walk boldly onto a beach and hear beautiful women sighing ‘Phwoar’ rather than ‘Ugh’. Yearned, but never quite enough to do much about it, at least since I came to the conclusion about 20 years ago that I actually preferred a good dinner and a bottle of fine wine to a night of passion. Mainly because the head chef and sommelier don’t expect you to stay awake for a couple of hours after the meal, listening to them describe their neuroses and hopes for the future.

Still, my doctor keeps telling me that I will almost certainly contract that Type 2 diabetes if I don’t do something to get my weight down. Of course, developing the condition and having both my legs sawn off – as my mother did – would be one sure-fire way of losing a couple of stones, but it would probably take some of the fun out of life. So I’m making a few efforts, like taking the stairs rather than the lift (not a hard choice, since I don’t actually have a lift), and riding a bicycle on the 10-mile round trip to collect my daily Journal. True, it’s one of those bikes with a tiny electric motor to assist it, but then I do live at the top of a ruddy great hill and, as Messrs Tesco are always telling us, Every Little Helps.

The important thing is to encourage the dieter, as my schoolmates did all those years ago, through consistent, ritual humiliation. Don’t be fooled by any of that stuff about obesity being something to do with glands or genes. It’s caused by shoving more pies through the cakehole than the body requires for its normal functions, and the solution is to eat less and take more exercise.

So next time you see a really fat adolescent in a motorway service area, or a rather chubby man wobbling up a Northumberland hill on an electric bike, feel free to enquire who was responsible for clearing out the local pie stall. Make them feel small, and maybe they’ll find the willpower to become smaller. You may get a certain amount of abuse back, particularly if you’re talking to me, but remember that you’ll be doing them a favour and performing a wider public service. After all, where on earth are we going to find the money to rebuild all our trains, theatres, hospitals, mortuaries and crematoria if we can’t find a way to stop our descent into a nation of the morbidly obese?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 2 August 2006

The Chief Executive's Handbook

The classic 21-point career plan for a new Chief Executive goes like this:

1. Agree an amazingly generous salary, bonus, perks and LTIP package.

2. Settle your bottom comfortably in a swivelling chair behind a very large desk.

3. Order an even bigger desk and a better-padded chair in a more luxurious office suite.

4. Recruit a surprisingly attractive PA.

5. Announce that you have inherited a company in crisis. Issue a shock profit warning accompanied by massive provisions, setting a conveniently low base for recovery.

6. Appoint highly paid management consultants to conduct a top-to-bottom strategic review.

7. Sidestep questions on what exactly a Chief Executive is for, if management consultants need to be appointed to determine the company’s strategy.

8. Replace your finance director and auditors, to help cover your tracks.

9. Negotiate an even more generous salary to reflect the massive challenge of turning round the company that you now unexpectedly face.

10. Agree new LTIPs to reflect the enormous drop in the share price since your appointment.

11. Announce results of the strategic review, which has cost over £1 million and taken six months to state the bleeding obvious.

12. Botch its implementation, so that the expected recovery does not take place. Issue a series of further profit warnings (traditionally, a minimum of three).

13. Start sleeping with your surprisingly attractive PA to alleviate stress.

14. Bring in a new set of management consultants, who recommend ‘focusing’ the business through the sale of any remaining assets that actually make some money.

15. Achieve lower than expected returns from this fire sale.

16. Recommend acceptance of a derisory takeover bid for the rump of what was once a half decent business.

17. Exit the smoking ruins with a £1 million pay-off to cushion the pain of redundancy, and the thanks of grateful shareholders for getting the appalling company you inherited into a saleable condition.

18. Join a Government taskforce to advise on why British business is not fulfilling its potential.

19. Gain a suitable honour (CBE or above) for your important contribution to public life.

20. Apply for a new job as Chief Executive.

21. See 1.

This is, of course, a completely theoretical scenario, and any passing resemblance to any actual Chief Executive, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant with few clients and even fewer friends.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 August 2006

A parish that's really going places

While the eyes of the world are on Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon, another power is expanding by stealth. Yes, the forces of Whittingham are on the move again, and this time they have in their sights the remote and beautiful parish of Alnham, in the glorious Cheviot Hills.

A letter I have just received from Alnwick District Council informs me that the residents of Alnham have not had a parish council to represent them in recent years, so Whittingham thought it would be a good idea if it took them over. As imperialists through the ages have tried to fill any power vacuum that comes to their attention.

Whittingham has been quietly and successfully pursuing its strategy of Lebensraum for some years now, having already absorbed the neighbouring parish of Callaly without a shot being fired. Quite an achievement, really, given the number of guns owned thereabouts, albeit for the pursuit of game birds and vermin rather than self-defence. Well, on paper, anyway. It’s probably best not to enquire too closely into how they define vermin in Callaly. Let’s just say that they don’t get a lot of successful burglaries.

The fortunate residents of Alnham clearly have better things to do than sitting around in parish council meetings, preferring to devote their time to more exciting things like drinking beer and watching their crops grow. I envy them, since by the same token they presumably don’t have to pay an inexplicable Whittingham Parish Council precept as part of their annual tax bill. True, it only amounted to 1.5% of my council tax last year, but it had gone up by an incredible 47.1%. And for what?

The parish and the county are the traditional units by which England is governed, and I wish I could find it in my heart to love parish councils more. But they do give a very good impression of being comprehensively useless. They are also all too often self-appointed, undemocratic and unrepresentative.

The recent parish council elections may have caused great excitement in Ambridge, as Lynda Snell fought it out with Lilian Bellamy, but it’s not that way round here. Indeed, as Alnwick District Council point out in their letter, at the last parish council non-election, only half the ten seats allocated for Whittingham were actually filled. And that was before the parish council’s chairman resigned in a modest blaze of publicity earlier this year, because the district planning authority takes not a blind bit of notice of his council’s views on local developments. Which, I think, rather proves my point about how much use it is.

If Callaly was Whittingham’s Austria, then Alnham would be its Sudetenland. And who can tell what might be in line to be its Czechoslovakia or Poland? Glanton, to the north, occupies commanding heights where it should be possible to deploy artillery to good effect. But to the south lies the sparsely populated parish of Cartington and beyond it the fertile pastures of the Coquet valley. Can this possibly be the manifest destiny for which Whittingham yearns?

In the usual way of democracy in this country, the takeover – sorry, I mean the ‘grouping proposal’ of Whittingham, Callaly and Alnham – is subject to consultation with ‘all affected residents’. If you don’t bother to write a letter of objection, you are deemed to consider it a cracking idea. In the unbelievably unlikely event that the majority of residents do object, does that mean the plan will be dropped? Of course not. But ‘details of such objections [will] be submitted to the [District] Council for further consideration’.

I’ve already posted my letter of objection, but when a land-hungry power is at loose, sometimes only direct action will suffice. I’ve already found a suitable headscarf and I’m now looking for a convenient cave to serve as the headquarters of my resistance movement. Something out beyond Ewartly Shank would do me nicely. Any offers?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 25 July 2006

Phew, what a scorcher

Is it me, or is it hot in here? Living as I do on a perpetually windy Northumbrian hilltop, in a house without central heating, one of the few things I have never needed to worry about is being too warm. But last week I found myself compelled to abandon my usually rather dank study and take a siesta. This is unprecedented. Afternoon naps are extremely well precedented, but they usually follow the sort of alcohol consumption that we keep being warned against by that prissy Australian kindergarten teacher who allegedly runs the Health Service. This one wasn’t.

Clearly something is happening to the weather, but then something is always happening to the weather. Every time an apparently amazing bit of it crops up, we discover that we’d have seen it all before if only we’d lived long enough. Thus the Great Storm of 1703 caused devastation across southern England on a far greater scale than the hurricane of 1987, now memorable chiefly for making Michael Fish a national laughing stock. The dreadful winter of 1963 wasn’t a patch on those of 1684 or 1740. And so on.

What does seem to be clear is that England enjoyed a pretty attractive climate at the time of the Norman Conquest, when vineyards flourished, and that it deteriorated from about 1300 with the onset of a ‘mini ice age’. This cooling meant poorer crops and more disease, including the Black Death, so life expectancy fell. They may be sticking heatwave warnings on the telly now, but the fact is that humans tend to do better when it’s warmer, if doing better is measured by their span of healthy life.

The end of the ‘mini ice age’ around the middle of the nineteenth century happened to coincide with the onset of really serious industrialisation. We can all agree that it has been getting steadily warmer ever since. Whether there is a causal relationship between human greenhouse gas emissions and global heating is more debatable, but I’m inclined to the commonsense view that, even if the alarmists have got it wrong, there’s no harm taking some sensible precautions.

Personally, I like it a bit hotter and think that Northumberland with a Mediterranean climate would be a very heaven. If that meant that the actual Mediterranean got a Saharan climate, that would also be all right with me. So long as our national preparations for the great warm-up included heavy investment in both improved sea defences and coastal surveillance, to keep out the hordes seeking refuge on this favoured isle.

There might be significant population movements within the country, too. A few weeks ago I enjoyed a long and sumptuous Sunday lunch under a garden pergola in Slaley, and everyone agreed that it was just like being in Tuscany. Including me, even though I have never been to Tuscany in my life. But it strikes me that with Waitrose opening in Hexham, the Tyne Valley is going to become absolute paradise for the middle classes. No doubt we shall soon see hordes of them coming as refugees from drought-stricken Surrey, with a few pathetic belongings strapped to the roofs of their Chelsea tractors. I am sure we shall give them the welcome they deserve.

The only snag with this climate change lark is that there’s no telling where it will stop. If the real pessimists on global warming have got it right, the polar ice caps will melt and the Gulf Stream will stop, so we’ll end up with the temperatures of Canada rather than Umbria. The only saving grace I can find in this is that it will also disrupt the current global pattern of trade winds, so with any luck there will be nothing to turn the gigantic windmills with which the eco-fanatics wish to adorn our loveliest hills. At least that will give the next generation something to laugh about as they hunker down in their igloos.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 July 2006

Come fly with me

I hate flying, me. Actually, I rather like the bits up in the sky, when you can look down on the passing landscape or the tops of clouds. Just so long as I can manage to dismiss from my mind the fact that I am in a powerful flying bomb, which is considerably heavier than the surrounding air. I worry whether I will be able to avoid screaming or otherwise embarrassing myself when it starts plummeting back towards the ground, as it surely must.

The sister of a friend of mine survived the horrific crash of a hijacked plane off the coast of east Africa in 1996, in which 123 people died. Her descriptions of the event suggest it was a true foretaste of hell. On the other hand, she said that it had completely cured her own fear of flying, as she reckoned that it was statistically impossible for her to experience anything similar ever again.

Apart from the crashing in a fireball bit, I hate the hanging around in airports, the ever-more intrusive and time-consuming security checks, the overcrowding and the ghastly food. Oh, and that bit during take-off when the wheels are about to lift off and I always start thinking ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ Sometimes I can’t stop myself saying it out loud, making me about as popular as Margaret Thatcher at a Durham miners’ reunion.

For years my reluctance to fly, if there were any plausible alternative available, had me earmarked as a pathetic wimp. What a delight it has been to cover it all up in recent years with the cloak of environmental concern and political correctness. ‘Oh no, I never fly, you know. It’s destroying the planet.’

Which of course it is. Not just through the damage to the ozone layer from jet exhausts, but by dumping hordes of people in places which appeal to them because they are unspoilt. Or were, until they and the supporting paraphernalia of global tourism turned up.

There are quite a few places I’d like to have seen before I died, but I shall never be able to justify the trouble and expense of getting there, not to mention the annoyance to the locals from having a fat git from Northumberland poking around. What are David Attenborough and the miracles of high definition TV for, if not to enable us to experience the best of the whole planet from the comfort of our own armchairs?

As one who has always hated meetings, except perhaps over a lunch involving at least one bottle of wine per head, I also greatly welcome the marvellous new technology of video-conferencing, and look forward to a world in which we can all do our jobs as well as enjoy our leisure without going anywhere at all.

Having said all that, it will doubtless seem the most appalling hypocrisy when I say that I have just been onto the BA website and booked myself a couple of cheap returns to Gatwick. But the unreliability of the train service that cuts off Northumberland from the south of the country has finally become more than I can bear. True, the last disaster I experienced was the work of the Provisional London Fire Brigade, and their closure of King’s Cross, rather than the usual combination of Network Rail and GNER. But I’ve had it up to here with their train breakdowns, overhead line failures, extended engineering works, potential suicides on bridges, cows on the line and other incidents too bizarre and numerous to mention.

Of course, I could just stay at home, but then I’d miss the operas at Glyndebourne that are one of life’s few reliable little pleasures. Though I wouldn’t want to discourage any eccentric Northern aristocrat who fancies adding an opera house to his pile, to bring the experience rather closer to home.

Until then, it’s the air for me. Hello plane, goodbye planet. Does it make it any better if I say I’m really sorry?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 July 2006

Double standards

I hate pinching other columnists’ catchphrases, but you really couldn’t make it up. Here we are, with an exploding jail population (not literally, unfortunately) and a proven inability to keep dangerous foreigners under lock and key. So what does the Government do? Only volunteers to provide a cell for Charles Taylor, sometime President of Liberia, if he should be convicted of war crimes at his forthcoming trial.

You might like to go onto the Internet and look at a picture of this character, as there is every chance that he could be stacking shelves or flipping burgers near you sometime soon, after one of those ‘I can’t think how it happened’ incidents for which the Home Office is renowned.

Even if he can’t work up the energy to abscond from his open prison, and is released through due process at the end of his sentence, we can be sure of one thing. If Mr Taylor ever gets to Britain, he won’t be leaving it in a hurry. We certainly won’t be sending him back to Liberia. It would be far too dangerous for him.

Some of us have difficulty with the whole concept of war crimes. Those of which Mr Taylor is accused arise from his support for a rebel group in Sierra Leone, which committed some foul atrocities during the 1990s. Though the key which makes these into war crimes is, of course, the fact that the rebels lost. The world doesn’t prosecute a lot of war criminals from the winning side.

There is little doubt that those who unleashed the destruction of Dresden or Hiroshima could have been charged with war crimes if the Allies had lost the Second World War. I say ‘could’ rather than ‘would’, as I don’t imagine for a moment that the victorious Axis powers would have thought it worth while setting up any such tribunal. Their approach would surely have been the more robust one favoured by Churchill: that any survivors of the enemy leadership should simply be shot out of hand.

Meanwhile, as ex-President Taylor is on his way into Britain (should he be found guilty in The Hague), three former NatWest bankers are on their way out. Unless sanity has prevailed by the time you read this, these gents are probably heading for two years in a Texas penitentiary, while they await trial for allegedly defrauding their former employer. They’re UK citizens, accused of a crime against a UK company, committed in the UK. And NatWest, the British police and the Serious Fraud Office have shown no interest in taking action against them. But since the NatWest asset they sold at an allegedly cut price went to that celebrated US corporate failure, Enron, the Americans are very interested indeed.

It’s all the more iniquitous that they can be whisked off like this because our new extradition treaty with the US, designed to combat terrorism, only works in one direction. The US Senate has declined to ratify it, because many Americans make a distinction between Muslims who blow up US citizens (evil criminals who must be eliminated) and Irish people who blow up British citizens (valiant freedom fighters who deserve to be feted at the White House and sent generous financial assistance). And it would clearly never do if some of the latter ended up being extradited here to face our notoriously biased courts.

Some of us are old-fashioned enough to believe that the first duty of any government is to protect its own citizens. If they have committed a crime here, you put them on trial here. You don’t send them off to any foreign jurisdiction that decides to take an interest. But then, perhaps that’s just too simplistic. After all, we can hardly prosecute them when we all know that there isn’t any room to spare in our prisons if they should turn out to be guilty. Particularly when we have to keep space free for assorted national leaders from around the world who end up on the losing side.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 5 July 2006

The glamorous world of public relations

I had an unusually full and interesting response to my last contribution in this space.

First there was the lady who accused me of trying to murder her husband, as he had almost choked on his breakfast while reading my column. (I really am sorry, my dear, and shall try to do the job properly this time.)

Then there was the bloke who e-mailed me to ask whether I was a real person or a fictional construct. Having settled that point, he proceeded to take me to task for my ‘quite bizarre’ views, and for failing to use my media access to present public relations in a better light.

He felt that my website must be a spoof because it says that I aim to do the smallest possible amount of work for the largest amount of money. He may well be the first human ever to have undergone a completely successful sense-of-humour bypass operation. But like all decent jokes, mine has a solid foundation in truth.

This critic boasted an impressive ‘blog’ of his own, on which he put the letters ‘CIPR’ after his name. I had always thought this was an acronym for the trans-Canadian railway, but it turns out to be something called the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Apparently an organization for people who like to think of PR as a profession. Personally, I have always thought of it as a trade, and a rather grubby one at that.

The ‘blog’ also boasted four contact telephone numbers including New York, London and Skype. Not an island off Scotland, it seems, but something to do with that Internet thingie.

I have to tell you, I was impressed. But then my image and branding consultant took it upon himself to e-mail my correspondent a few home truths about the meaning and purpose of PR, and received a rather meek reply along the lines of ‘actually, I’m only a student’.

Perhaps doing one of those degrees in public relations, which are every bit as highly regarded as those in media studies and golf course management.

By now I had concluded that I was dealing with a first class Walter Mitty fantasist, and have no idea which of the above representations of his place in society is correct. But I predict one thing with total confidence. He can look forward to a glittering career in communications, probably sanitizing the telephones in your office.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant with an unusual approach, and an even more unusual exit.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 July 2006

They think it's all over

So England’s dreams of World Cup glory have crashed in flames yet again, leaving me absolutely gutted. I had been so looking forward to another couple of interludes when I could drive on empty roads to refreshingly quiet stores, and get on with the tedious minutiae of my life.

I don’t know why football has always failed to captivate me. It may have something to do with being born shortly before Newcastle United embarked on a 50-year trophy famine, and listening to my father moan about it every weekend. From a very early age, it therefore seemed to me that being a football fan wasn’t necessarily a recipe for personal contentment.

Then there is the fact that I’ve never possessed the basic co-ordination necessary to kick a ball at all, still less to bend it like Beckham. There’s nothing like having two school team captains fight over you (‘You have him’ – ‘No, you have him. We had him last time.’) to put a fellow off a game. Things got no better when I went to a secondary school where they played what they called rugger, for which I displayed an equal lack of aptitude.

I’ve strived for years to enjoy cricket, on the basis that it is quintessentially English and uniquely civilized in allowing 41 per cent of the players to spend half the game sitting with their feet up in the pavilion, enjoying a good book and a jug of Pimms. But somehow I’ve never quite got there, once again deterred by my own lack of ability and the erratic performance of our national side. As for tennis, need I say more than ‘Tim Henman’?

And so I came to spend the never-to-be-forgotten afternoon of the 1966 World Cup Final playing in a Darras Hall garden with my friend Richard, and casually enquired when I got home how much we had lost by. Imagine my surprise. I do recall that our victory was a massive boost to national morale, and within months Harold Wilson was fearlessly sending the RAF to bomb the supertanker Torrey Canyon off the Scilly Isles. Beginning a campaign of recklessly assertive militarism that culminated in the invasion of the Caribbean island of Anguilla by a couple of dozen truncheon-wielding London policemen in 1969.

Thank goodness we didn’t do particularly well in the World Cup of 1982, or Margaret Thatcher might have been moved to follow up her Falklands victory by sending the Girl Guides into Patagonia. And as for 2006, with Tony Blair’s established record of invading other countries at the drop of hat – well, the consequences of an England win don’t really bear thinking about. What might he have attempted in amid a mood of national euphoria unequalled since John Prescott’s diary secretary made those very disloyal revelations about his inadequacy in a certain department, and I don’t mean the ODPM?

Let’s just say that I bet the President of North Korea slept more soundly on Saturday night than he has for quite some time.

As the crosses of St George are detached from their white vans and we start the traditional English four year debate on who to blame – Wayne or Sven – I shall leave you with two thoughts.

First, while admitting my almost total ignorance of football, I do seem to detect a pattern in our ejection from these tournaments. Might it not be a good idea for the new manager to give the boys a bit of practice in taking penalties?

And, secondly, remember that none of it really matters at all. Why on earth should the limited ability of eleven men to kick a ball around some grass really be allowed to set the mood of the other 50 million of us? Give me one good reason why it matters if our football team does well? Oh yes, it really, really annoys the Scots. So that’s all right, then. Enger-land! Enger-LAND! I can’t wait for 2010.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 27 June 2006

A bit rough

It just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it? Not only do I live within shell-firing distance of the best place to live in Britain. (Alnwick, that is. Do try to keep up.) Now I find that I am less than an hour away from the absolute top, not-to-be-missed attraction in the whole country: ‘a night on the town in Newcastle upon Tyne’.

I’ve got the publicity for the new Rough Guide in front of me, and it’s only fair to quote their exact words: ‘Northeastern England’s premier arts and nightlife destination has a scintillating quayside of bridges, bars, galleries and concert halls’. One can quibble that the riverside gallery and concert hall should be more in the singular than the plural, and that they aren’t technically in Newcastle at all. But they mean well, bless them, and at least this gives a somewhat more balanced impression than the accompanying press release on Britain’s Top 35 attractions, which simply lists at number one ‘a night on the town’. And we all know what that usually means.

Or at any rate, what it means now. When I was a sixth former in Newcastle in the early 70s, a night on the town typically comprised a few pints in the pub till chucking out time at 10.30 sharp, with maybe a bag of chips on the long walk home. And this didn’t reflect our lack of enterprise and social sophistication, though we were decidedly short of both. It was because the infrastructure of the party city hadn’t even begun to be developed.

It is a lasting mystery to me how, as the traditional economic base of the region was systematically demolished, and the proportion of youngsters in the population declined, the number of bars, nightspots and fun-loving people to fill them positively exploded. Though not so much a mystery as how, over the same period, the typical drinker’s clothing evolved from overcoat, cap and muffler to virtually nothing at all, even when Spencer Tunick wasn’t on hand to record it.

By the time that Viz was in its million-selling heyday in the 1990s, I was regularly bringing southern fans to Newcastle to prove that it was not actually a work of fiction, and that the Fat Slags could be seen on virtually any night teetering down the Bigg Market on their stilettos, kebabs in hand, while that silver-tongued cavalier Sid the Sexist made vivid suggestions for the better arrangement of their clothing.

If I were a Viz character I fear I’d be Cedric Soft, or one of those modern art critics. Maybe it’s because my mummy always warned me about rough boys, but the name of the Guide leads me to suspect that many more of their readers are going to interpret ‘a night on the town’ as a truly epic booze-up, rather than an opportunity to catch some Schoenberg at The Sage.

Which seems like good brand marketing, as it will guarantee that most readers canvassed about their experience will include the word ‘rough’ in their reply.

Of course, you can do both. A kind lady once took me to dinner at a restaurant in The Side, after an opera at the Theatre Royal. The food wasn’t particularly memorable, but I shall never forget the bare male buttocks repeatedly pressed against the windows, nor the eardrum-threatening shrieks from the various hen parties at adjacent tables. Interestingly, they all went eerily quiet as soon as they got their pizzas, just as if they were fractious babies presented with their bottles.

Yes, Newcastle now has it all. Only 50 minutes from my home, and about 30 years too late.

The next thing to look out for will be the verdict of the new Soft Guide to Britain. A high ranking here could bring train-loads of panama-hatted boulevardiers seeking out the finest avant garde galleries and experimental theatres, and mean that you can’t enter a restaurant without tripping over Michael Winner. Do keep your fingers crossed.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 20 June 2006

A question of identity

We have become so inured to the horrors of Iraq that reports of them no longer carry anything like the impact that they should. Nevertheless, I was particularly struck by one line in the accounts of 21 teenage students being dragged off buses and killed earlier this month. It was the one describing how the gunmen methodically checked their identity cards so that they knew which ones to kill and which to spare.

Now, I don’t think we actually need another argument against the introduction of identity cards here. But if we did, you have to admit that is a pretty good one. And don’t tell me that Britain isn’t Iraq. Iraq wasn’t in the state it is in before we helpfully invaded it alongside the Americans, in the interests of its better governance. Yes, it was a pretty foul dictatorship, and the sectarian killings were the work of the state rather than freelance enthusiasts. Yet overall it was, by current standards, relatively peaceful and stable.

But we have other and better arguments than that. We know that identity cards won’t help to combat terrorism. Spain has had them for years, and a fat lot of good they did in preventing the Madrid train bombs.

We also know that they won’t help to control illegal immigration, not least because you won’t need one unless you are going to be in the country for more than three months.

But most convincingly of all, why would any nation in its right mind hand over up to £19 billion to set up a national biometric database to the Home Office? An organisation that has been politely described as ‘not fit for purpose’, and which has a proven track record of being unable to organise refreshments in a brewery.

That’s before we even start to think about the litany of failed IT projects right across Government, most recently and spectacularly in the NHS.

Of course, the great national biometric database is presented as a boon to us all in helping to protect our own identities, but it doesn’t explain what will happen to those who find that their documentation has been stolen or cloned by someone who turns up before them in the ID card queue. I look forward to regular stories about people desperately trying to prove who they really are, to a State which insists that they are impostors. Just think of all those unfortunates who were wrongly branded as criminals by Home Office incompetence. Think, and prepare to weep.

This is a classic example of what Hitler used to call The Big Lie: ‘We’re from the Government, and we’re here to help’. Identity cards and the database behind them are not a public service. They’re an instrument of social control designed to change fundamentally the relationship between the British subject (or citizen, if you prefer) and Government.

The proposal that we should all queue up at our local police stations to be fingerprinted and iris-scanned like common criminals – and, what’s more, fork out around £100 each for the privilege – is so utterly outrageous that I am amazed we haven’t seen the sort of public protests that would make the poll tax riots look like a nursery school nature ramble.

Perhaps we are all placing our faith in the hopeless ineptitude of those charged with organising this post-1984 nightmare, and believe in our hearts that it will never happen. I hope that is right. But if it does come to pass, I can say with confidence that hell will freeze over before I volunteer to participate. And HM Government will duly retaliate by making it impossible for me to drive a car, leave the country or access my pension or the NHS.

But why worry? There’s always a way around these little local difficulties. As so many in other countries have already discovered, there’s no need to go to the trouble of obtaining an official identity card, when the forged ones are cheaper and every bit as convincing.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.