Tuesday 18 April 2006

Nature, love and Willy

There are two possible ways of starting the day in my house. One involves blearily turning on the Today programme, so that by 9 o’clock mass annihilation by bird flu looks a pretty attractive option. Compared with the imminent possession of the atomic bomb by people who believe that the resulting Apocalypse will provide ideal conditions for the return of the Twelfth Imam. Though at least the resulting nuclear winter will relieve the survivors of worrying too much about global warming.

The other and preferable course involves flinging back the curtains with a joyous shout and marvelling in the annual miracle of Nature’s renewal. Where I live our feathered friends are still singing rather than coughing, and the fields are full of those little, white, woolly things that specialise in that attractive pursuit known as gambolling. It’s enough to make even a middle-aged man’s fancy turn to thoughts of … why did I come into this room anyway? Isn’t that how it started with Mike Baldwin on Coronation Street?

In fact I’m still very much inclined to fall in love at the drop of a hat (though a hat would not necessarily be the first article of clothing I’d choose to have dropped to precipitate this reaction). Which is nice. Since, in my new incarnation as a guru (see last week’s column), I’ve come to realise that love is what it’s all about.

Love is the basis of all the great world religions, though it’s sometimes ever so slightly difficult to spot its workings in parts of the Middle East. The problem with religion is that either it’s true, in which case absolutely nothing else matters at all; or it’s not true, in which case it’s a waste of time (except in so far as it makes people feel marginally better about their lot, and perhaps behave more kindly towards others).

I don’t suppose I’m alone in having concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, it’s not true. But deciding to go on paying a sort of lip service since otherwise I might end up looking mighty silly when I wake up after I’ve died. My elderly aunt rather pleasingly refers to her weekly attendance at church as ‘keeping up the fire insurance’.

Last week I went to see a splendid production of Present Laughter in Newcastle, where I had a leaflet thrust into my hand by a shining-eyed Christian with a fervour that may have seriously compromised her chances of inheriting the Earth. It was a protest against the staging of Jerry Springer: The Opera, which I saw at the National Theatre shortly after it opened. It struck me as an entirely hilarious evening, and it never occurred to me that the grotesques pretending to be God, Jesus etc in the second half were actually meant to be literal representations, or were designed to cause offence.

Of course, the protestors are quite right to say that no-one would dare to stage a similar show involving Mohammed. I regret that self-censorship, since I believe that a faith worthy of the name should be more than capable of shrugging off criticism or ridicule. The alternative is to go down the path of hedging everyone’s beliefs with legal protection, however outlandish they may be. This ends up with no-one being able to suggest that the Moon probably isn’t made of green cheese, or that putting yourself down as a Jedi Knight on your census form is anything other than a pretty feeble joke.

Anyway, I’ve decided that what we need is to test the limits of artistic freedom with a show that combines a real appreciation of the glories of Nature with a full frontal assault on political correctness. Preliminary enquiries suggest that the enlarged stage being constructed at the Theatre Royal this summer will be more than capable of accommodating a full pack of hounds, and I’m about to start auditioning foxes. Willy Poole: The Musical should open early in 2007. Start saving for your tickets now.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 April 2006

Getting precious

While monetary inflation may have been under pretty tight control for the last decade, the inflation in British people’s aspirations and expectations has continued unabated. In my own parasitic trade of PR, I always worked on the assumption that the client’s needs came first. I gave them honest advice – telling them what they wanted to hear would have rendered my service worse than useless – but if they wanted something practical, like a cup of tea or some urgent photocopying, I went and did it.

Now PR agencies are multi-layered specialists in delegation. Because if even your account management trainees come equipped with honours degrees in PR from Bridport University (formerly the West Dorset Institute of Further Education and Turnip Grading), do you seriously expect them to degrade themselves by nipping out and putting the kettle on?

Something remarkably similar seems to be happening in most other walks of life. In the NHS, when every nurse is a graduate, should it be any surprise that there isn’t a rush to perform the bottom-end tasks involving bedpans and wiping? Or taking a mop and bucket to the dirty corners of a ward that have been neglected by the cleaning contractors? Where the needs of the patient were once paramount, one gets the niggling feeling that the object of healthcare is increasingly to provide rewards, status and job satisfaction for its providers.

In the apparently sacred cause of social mobility, we’ve created a situation where everyone seems to pass exams (and most of them get As), thereby rendering the exams worthless. Where half the population go to something that at least calls itself a university, and emerge expecting a nice, cushy job behind a desk, ordering other people around.

To address this surplus of chiefs over Indians, we end up importing hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are prepared to do the things that we consider to be beneath our dignity, but which still need to be done. Nothing wrong with that, so long as we appreciate that it’s a never-ending spiral as the new arrivals assimilate our culture and realise in turn that they are far too important to be a cleaner or a barmaid.

I’m not a xenophobe, though I am enough of a sexist to think that importing lots of beautiful, blonde women from the former Communist bloc is actually a pretty neat idea. It adds to the gaiety of existence for all of us sad old men. But if this country as a whole is to be a happy place, we really need to get away from the idea that life is a ladder to be climbed.

The key facts that the young need to remember are that their time here is remarkably short, and needs to be enjoyed. If you can help others and leave the world a marginally better place than you found it, that will be all to the good. But don’t be conned into thinking that a degree and a glittering career are all that matters. No-one ever wasted their last breaths wishing they’d spent more time in the office.

If you want to be remembered with real affection, as opposed to the sort of contumely that is the lot of most of our former leaders, being a loving parent is probably the most important thing to which you can devote your time and energy. Good teachers and caring nurses also score highly. How many of us look back fondly on an inspirational chief executive?

Time is much more precious than money, so if you can trade lower earnings for more leisure, grab that chance. I did it myself two years ago, and can’t recommend it too highly. And when you’re wondering how to fill all that newly free time, remember the wise words of Philip Larkin: ‘What will survive of us is love’.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 5 April 2006

Professor Cocohunk NFG

Of all the many ways of turning old rope into folding money, none strikes me as more perfect than becoming an image and branding consultant.

I’m sure I’ll make a big impact as I stride into presentations wearing chaps and a Stetson hat, holding a red-hot iron with the mark of the Lazy C.

But once we’re over that inevitable joke, and assuming security don’t physically toss me out of the building, what next?

From the 1960s through to the early 1990s, acronyms were the way forward. Remember BTR (the former Birmingham Tyre & Rubber) and its ilk? Unless your firm’s real name was something like British United Molasses, it gave you a short and snappy title that had the advantage of being completely meaningless, and allowed you to diversify to your heart’s content.

I remember that Northern Foods toyed with the idea, but a man with Chris Haskins’s impeccable liberal credentials couldn’t stand the thought of being confused with the National Front. I suggested that one way round it would be to add ‘Group’ into the title, then remembered that the N and G of NFG might also be taken to stand for No Good.

The only snag with this approach was that journalists would keep insisting on adding in brackets what the initials stood for. Over the years I’ve taken countless calls asking for the real meaning of DFS. To which the honest answer is that no-one really knows, as it was a business acquired along the way by a company that actually started life as Northern Upholstery.

Fast forward to the dawn of the 21st century, and us top image and branding consultants really came into our own with the invention of the totally meaningless but ‘exciting’ new name – e.g. Accenture, Arriva, Aviva. Just think of the possibilities that will open up when we work out that there are actually 25 more letters in the alphabet!

Does ‘Aviva’ say ‘insurance’ to you? It sounds to me more like something a Mexican might shout after dropping a heavy object on his foot. Though the risks of that are presumably quite small when one spends all day snoozing under a tree with a sombrero tipped over the eyes.

My first project is me. I want something that sounds strong, manly, witty, intelligent and irresistibly attractive. Keith it ain’t. What do you think of Professor Cocohunk?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant with a monosyllabic name and pretensions. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 April 2006

A new use for the Lotto

It’s like a Greek tragedy, isn’t it? The embattled Prime Minister, mired in sleaze, desperately clinging to office. A decade ago it was Major, today it is Blair, and the only real difference is that under Major the sleaze involved a few relatively junior members of his team. Whereas in the present Government’s case it appears to have become party policy at the very highest level.

At the time, we all thought that John Major had been hopelessly over-promoted, and that he was terminally, mind-numbingly dull. Subsequent revelations by Edwina Currie helped to clear up the latter misconception. I don’t hold out much hope of similarly racy disclosures about the current incumbent of 10 Downing Street (well, at the time of writing, anyway). First because of a due regard for the laws of libel. And secondly because he shows every sign of being happily married. I just can’t imagine how.

John Major’s legacy is the fiasco of Black Wednesday, which destroyed confidence in the economic competence of the Tory party for more than a decade, and perhaps for a whole generation. Never mind that it laid the foundations for an unprecedented period of national prosperity, which even Gordon Brown’s relentless meddling and tax-raising hasn’t yet managed to bring to an end.

No matter how much he bleats about schools ‘n’ hospitals, Tony Blair will be remembered chiefly for leading this country into wars which served no obvious British interests, and which made bad situations worse. And for attaining office by denying nearly all the principles on which his party was traditionally based.

In this he has set a trend. Dave Cameron is to traditional Toryism what Tony Blair is to Old Labour. We old believers can’t stand his tieless matiness, his relentless political correctness and his right-on green credentials, but we’ve despaired of getting elected on the sound old platform of cutting taxes, stringing them up and sending them back.

On the strength of his past career in corporate communications, Dave has been described by a noted right-wing columnist as a ‘PR spiv’. While his expected opponent at the next general election is variously described as ‘dour’, ‘obsessive’ and ‘borderline autistic’. What a stimulating choice!

When one thinks back to the mood of optimism that genuinely seemed to grip the country in May 1997, what can one feel but sadness, pity and despair? Surely no-one can believe that we are represented and governed by our brightest and best people? Or that most of them have attained their present positions because they felt deep convictions, or a selfless desire to serve, rather than because they were personally on the make?

In the age of the career politician, experience of real life is too narrow. Instead of focusing on efforts to make Parliament ‘more representative’ – which is to say younger, more ethnically diverse and more feminine – we should be trying to fill it with people who are there out of duty rather than ambition, even if they happen to be white and male.

We used to have men of no great intelligence on both the Tory and Labour benches – the ‘knights of the shires’ and their trade union counterparts. Whatever their defects, they were generally there to serve their people rather than to feather their nests.

We had an even finer example of a system that brought people into Parliament who had nothing to gain from their presence - the hereditary House of Lords that was destroyed by Tony Blair without any idea of how to improve on it, other than by allegedly providing seats in exchange for non-declared loans.

Now they tell us that the only way we can stop them being sleazy is to fund their party political activities from our taxes. I say no. Personally, I’d rather be represented by the Duke of Northumberland than by Alan Beith. And if bringing back the real House of Lords is a step too far, let’s choose our representatives by lottery, like jury service. What could be more democratic than that?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.