Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Turning the clock back

Evelyn Waugh complained that the Conservative Party had been in office for years but had never succeeded in putting the clock back my so much as one minute.

Well, I’ve done better than the Tories, which admittedly isn’t saying much. A little while ago, after a certain amount of correspondence, I succeeded in getting the electricity distribution people to remove a line of poles and wires that impinged on the otherwise uninterrupted view from my house to The Cheviot.

This doesn’t mean that some other poor rustic is sitting in the dark, trying to get their TV to run off a car battery. The poles weren’t actually serving any useful purpose, since they’d been erected to serve a Women’s Institute hut that had long been recycled as firewood. Its site has been back under the plough for years, though they do say that if you stand there on a quiet late summer evening you can still detect a distinct whiff of boiling jam, and the sound of ghostly voices singing Jerusalem.

I also feel modestly pleased about signposts. Round where I live we still have a lot of those attractive cast iron signs, which look indestructible but are in fact surprisingly easy to smash with a carelessly deployed hedge trimmer. The Government issued some new guidelines last year, saying that they ought to be cared for and preserved, though naturally they didn’t provide any additional money for hard-pressed local authorities to do so.

I’ve yet to see any positive results from my correspondence with the county council about repairing them, though they have come and collected all the missing arms that I had placed for safekeeping in my shed. However, the powers-that-be have at least started painting them, after a lapse of many years when they were simply left to rust. This is making them once again legible and fit for purpose.

The clock put back another minute or two there, then. So why do I end up feeling like that poor publican in Essex who has spent years working with officials from English Heritage to ensure that every repair and alteration to his ancient, listed, half-timbered pub complies with their multifarious rules? Then suddenly BAA come along and announce that they are going to bulldoze the whole thing to build a second runway at Stansted, and apparently that’s quite acceptable. National policy, you see.

Some years ago BT, as it then probably wasn’t called, put the clock back by removing the long line of telegraph poles and wires that used to run alongside the single track road from North Charlton to Chillingham. I’ve always thought it is one of the finest drives in the county, and usually take visitors so that we can try to count the seven (is it?) castles visible from the top of the ancient hill fort at Ros.

It’s peaceful, empty and beautiful. So where better to stick up a load of those things I’ve decided not to mention for a while, but they’re 400 feet tall and totally useless as a reliable source of energy. You know what I’m talking about.

One of the local farmers defended the scheme to this paper on the grounds that the area wasn’t particularly scenic, and it involved ‘agricultural, industrial land’. Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I think it’s a real shame he can’t see it.

More to the point, ‘agricultural’ and ‘industrial’ are not, or should not be, synonymous. Agriculture involves working with Nature to grow food crops in a sustainable way, showing due consideration for wild flora and fauna. Yet in the last 30 years many farmers have been tempted to move into ‘agribusiness’, involving aggressive monocultures that are distorted by subsidies and leave too much of their land effectively sterile.

It’s not the way to go, chaps. It never was. It’s high time to put that clock back.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 21 March 2006

The perils of insulting your customer

Earlier this year some national newspapers caused offence by printing photographs of a troubled corporate lawyer leaping to her death from the fourth floor of a Kensington hotel. Outraged readers wrote to ask what public interest was served by publishing such intrusive and distressing images.

Committing professional suicide, by contrast, seems to be considered fair game for blanket media coverage and general merriment. We have seen many examples from the ranks of the present Government (Mandelson, Blunkett, Jowell – oops, sorry, no, she’s still hanging on at the time of writing.) While in corporate life the best-known example is, of course, the legendary Gerald Ratner.

Now, as it happens, Gerald was a long-standing client of the PR firm for which I used to work, though I never advised him myself. He is an engaging character, with a nice line in self-deprecating humour, and he had two favourite jokes: one explaining why his eponymous shops were able to sell a crystal decanter and six glasses, complete with silver tray, at such an incredible price; and the other comparing the longevity of Ratners’ earrings with a similarly priced Marks & Spencer prawn sandwich.

He’d cracked these jokes on many occasions and they’d appeared in print, notably in a profile of him in the Financial Times. Then came the fateful day when he was due to make a keynote address to an Institute of Directors conference at the Royal Albert Hall. He circulated his script to his fellow directors for their comments, and they suggested it was a bit light on jokes, so he added his two favourites. The rest is history.

Not only did the screaming tabloid front pages - ‘Ratner sells crap!’ - lose Gerald his job, they even led to the Ratners name disappearing completely from the high street. He now leads a fairly low-key existence, selling jewellery online.

I was powerfully reminded of all this recently when I read another profile in the Financial Times, of one Carl Michel. Mr Michel is an expert on camping. Which is to say that he is chief executive of a firm called Holidaybreak, of which Eurocamp is a division. Despite an inescapable tendency to snigger and adopt a Kenneth Williams voice when pronouncing the name, Eurocamp remains his principal brand.

Having started out providing holidays under canvas in Brittany more than 30 years ago, Holidaybreak now offers tent and mobile home holidays on more than 200 European campsites, promoting the idea with a touch of sophistication as ‘hĂ´tellerie en plain air’. (You can ask Willy Poole for the translation.)

It also sells adventure holidays, and short breaks in UK and European hotels. Surely, thought the FT, the last area is the one that must be most vulnerable to online competition, with all manner of great deals obtainable through Google? Not so, argued Mr Michel. First because the scale of his operation meant that he could negotiate better prices with hotels, and second because of the loyalty of his typical customers, whom he described as ‘Mr and Mrs Northumberland, coming down to London on a GNER train.’

Am I alone in finding that description somewhat insulting? And am I right to detect a presumption that dear old Mr & Mrs Northumberland – which is you and me, or would be if I could ever get a Mrs Northumberland to the altar – are too thick or too lazy to shop around?

If I am right, then the risk is illustrated by countless businesses that failed because they took their customers for granted, or failed to treat them with due respect. In fact I only know of two men – both publicans – who made that a successful career strategy, because the entertainment value of watching them berate other customers vastly outweighed the risk that they might turn on you. If I were Mr Michel, I’d be biting my lip in future, and hoping that not too many Mr & Mrs Northumberlands read the newspapers the way I do.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Got a light, mate?

I love smoking, but I don’t smoke. Which is odd, given that I’m not noted for denying myself any of life’s little pleasures, as even the photograph of my much slimmer and fitter body double at the head of this column might lead you to suspect.

So why don’t I smoke? It’s not a financial issue, as I’m sure I could afford it. When I gave up my packet-a-day habit 30 years ago, I was never conscious even for one minute of being so much as a single penny better off. Other ex-smokers tell me that this experience is universal, so surely the reverse must apply. Taking it up again ought to be virtually cost-free.

Except, as our protectors in Parliament would say, for the Human Cost.

Given that virtually all human actions are motivated by either greed of fear, it has to be fear of that human cost which has corralled me into the non-smoking camp. A personal human cost since, as we all know, a pain in our own little finger is vastly more important than the deaths of thousands of our fellow beings.

I freely admit that my moral courage has always been matched by huge physical cowardice. When I was a child, it was said that I only needed a glimpse of a hypodermic needle to make me a dead cert for the British & Empire title in the Under-13s 100 yard dash. But what exactly have I got to be afraid of?

I’ve never watched anyone die of lung cancer, which is pretty lucky given the number of fags that must have passed through the nicotine-stained fingers of my father and most of his generation. But I’m quite prepared to accept the word of the specialists, sufferers and bereaved that it’s a pretty unpleasant way to go.

On the other hand, is reducing life expectancy by an average of seven years, as smokers are said to do, a completely bad thing? Quite apart from the looming pensions crisis, we need to remember the scenario painted in a cherished cartoon, which an old lady of my acquaintance had framed in her sitting room. Two very elderly people are sitting in the day room of a particularly dismal old folks’ home, surrounded by other moribund inmates, and one is shouting at the other: ‘Just think – if we hadn’t given up smoking, we’d have missed ALL THIS!’

Needless to say, the old lady with the cartoon was a heroic smoker until her dying day. And we all know someone like her. In the professions devoted to saving us from ourselves I believe it’s known as Uncle Fred Syndrome, because nearly all of us have an Uncle Fred who smoked 40 Capstan Full Strength every day for 80 years, and only died then because he had a nasty fall off a Swedish aerobics instructor.

Which could happen. Though it’s not very likely.

As smokers are consigned to the outer darkness of pariah-dom, let’s try to remember one fact. The largest single cause of cancer is breathing oxygen, and I’m greatly looking forward to seeing the present Government trying to legislate against that. Indeed, the only man-made variables that are of any statistical significance in the incidence of cancer are smoking and spending too much time in the sun. So watch out for the coming crackdown on thongs and high-cut swimsuits: you read it here first.

None of the other things that the neurotic middle classes of the first world bother their heads about, from nuclear power stations and overhead lines to mobile phones and GM foods have any detectable effect at all.

So, yes, you’re probably right not to smoke. On the other hand, think of the prim voice of the upper class Australian schoolmarm who is currently our Health Secretary, presumably under some Commonwealth exchange programme that has gone horribly wrong. Wouldn’t it be worth lighting one up just to annoy her? I know I’m tempted … oh, go on then. I don’t suppose it’ll kill me …

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 7 March 2006

Don't panic, Captain Mainwaring

So we finally get to meet the first horseman of the Apocalypse, and he turns out to be a sneezing duck. How’s that for bathos? I have naturally been as shocked as anyone by the way the bird flu panic has begun to take hold. But at least it hasn’t all been bad news, as I remarked when Keith Harris and Orville were stoned to death by a frightened crowd in Stoke-on-Trent the other night.

With the European public responding to the crisis with all their usual calmness, we can also look forward to some really excellent bargains on the poultry counters. Even though you appear to risk catching avian flu from sleeping with, or at any rate sharing your house with, poultry. As opposed to cooking and eating it.

Still, can’t be too careful. I understand that the country’s art galleries have been ordered to quarantine all portraits of Leda and the Swan as a precautionary measure.

How can I joke at a time like this? Very easily, as it happens, since there is what is technically known as blank all else to do. It’s one of those moments when you have to choose between being a Private Frazer, helpfully pronouncing, ‘We’re all doomed, aye doomed I tell you!’ Or a Corporal Jones shouting ‘Don’t panic!’

My own aim is to see through the crisis with all the urbane assurance of Sergeant Wilson. Can you imagine John Le Mesurier going round in a face mask, spraying disinfectant? If you’re tempted by that approach, do remember that you’ll not only make yourself look ridiculous, it will also really take the fun out of having a pint and a fag. In the few remaining months when you’re still allowed to do so.

I don’t particularly want to go in the near future, drowning from some ghastly respiratory infection. As a former girlfriend of mine used to say, ‘I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my dear old dad. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.’

But what will be, will be. My uncle narrowly survived the great flu pandemic of 1918, which killed more people than the rather better-publicised first world war, but he had the advantage of being two at the time. Because that particular strain of the disease apparently had one strange characteristic. It didn’t pick off the obviously vulnerable, the very young and the old. Instead, it cut huge swathes through those between 20-40, who should have had the best chance of shrugging it off.

I don’t think we yet know whether our new pal H5N1 has any such bias. Fortunately scientists will be able to compare the two strains quite closely, as they were able to recover a sample of the 1918 flu from a victim who had been deep-frozen in a grave in the Canadian Arctic for the last 80-odd years. I don’t know whether her name was Pandora, but opening that particular box did strike me as a similarly brave or foolhardy thing to do.

So we await our fates, as we usually do. Personally, I have a bit of a bias against the view that an endlessly growing population is an essential national virility symbol. I think this country is overpopulated, as is the planet. More importantly, the planet seems to agree, and it has a rather good self-regulating system to put things back into balance. Whether through disease, floods, earthquakes or ultimately making the place too hot for most of us, or at any rate our descendants.

You might as well sit back, relax, pour yourself a drink and watch the miracle of Mother Nature at work. It may not be very pleasant, but then I don’t suppose it’s a barrel of laughs being an antelope during a close encounter with a lion.

At the end of the day, which may be sooner than you think, we’re all frightfully small and insignificant. Just remember those wise words of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour: ‘Nothing matters very much. And few things matter at all.’

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 1 March 2006

Value for money in the City

Last May I attended a splendidly entertaining talk by my friend and client Lord Kirkham, founder and chairman of DFS, at the North East Entrepreneurs’ Forum.

In case you think that this is a none-too-subtle advert for the keithhann.com speechwriting service, let me say straight away that his words were all his own. Though now we’re on the subject I do write speeches at remarkably reasonable rates, and I can guarantee you’ll get at least one big laugh. Probably when I’m on the phone pleading with you to pay my bill.

Anyway, for the benefit of those of you who weren’t there, his Lordship made some remarkably forthright comments about the quality and value offered by City advisers. These were reinforced with a sprinkling of the Anglo-Saxon words which are one of his trademarks.

Some people told me afterwards that they thought it was all a bit strong. Though funnily enough, as time goes by and more of the attendees gain experience of trying to float or sell their companies, they seem to conclude that his remarks were actually nothing like strong enough.

There is a huge gulf now between those of us who live in what might be called the real world, and those bankers and brokers who say airily, ‘Oh, it’s only another couple of million’ in the way that the rest of us might refer to the price of a newspaper.

Ironically, the fat cats who run British companies and public sector bodies are the ones who attract most opprobrium, because their salaries and benefits are so well publicised. Yet at least the organisations they run usually provide some tangible and / or useful product or service.

City advisers, by contrast, inhabit a private world where seven-figure bonuses are ‘earned’ for what many of us regard as shuffling paper. Which would be bad enough without the evidence that most of the deals they come up with actually destroy shareholder value.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a free-marketeer, a libertarian and a big fan of certain advisers being overpaid. I think people should be allowed to make money any way they like, so long as it’s within the law.

But I hope I won’t be accused of talking my own book again when I say that it’s high time some of our leading financial advisers started paying a bit more attention to their own PR.

Keith Hann is an outspoken and therefore underworked PR consultant. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.