Tuesday, 30 May 2006

The wisdom and folly of old age

I officially turned into my mother at 11.14 a.m. on 13 May 2006. At any rate, that was the time when my companion whispered in my ear that I had been talking rather loudly when I drew her attention to the obvious nuttiness of the obvious nutter standing near us at the station.

Naturally I assured her that my decibel level had been modulated with the greatest of care: just loud enough to register with the lunatic, and with luck encourage him to delight someone else with his gibbering and capering. But not so strident as to provoke outrage, whether in the form of a frontal assault or a sly push under the next available train. I had also made a reasonably scientific calculation of my chances in single combat, just in case my first bit of analysis proved as accurate as it usually does.

Nevertheless, it set me thinking. My late mother had a pithy phrase for nearly every occasion, and like all elderly people she was wont to deliver it without too much regard for the consequences. I remember it fondly now, but my first reaction was one of cringing embarrassment when she looked around the crowded cafeteria and commented on our neighbour with the healthy appetite: ‘Eeh, will you just look at that big fat man – digging his grave with his teeth!’

To use another of her favourite catchphrases, I wished the ground would open up and swallow me.

But at least I now have a huge stock of folk wisdom which can be applied in virtually every situation. Except that I have had to admit defeat on what my mother would have thought of our First Lady, after Cherie Blair and possibly the Queen, Lady McCartney. Former underwear models were rather thin on the ground in the Longbenton of my youth, particularly one-legged former underwear models married to legendary pop superstars, so I suppose it falls rather outside her area of expertise.

As a result, I’ve had to start thinking for myself, and have concluded that I rather approve of Lady Heather, as she apparently likes to be called, in defiance of a thousand years of English protocol.

Many people, particularly in her line of work, would simply have given up after that unfortunate encounter with the police motorcycle. But like the unidexter gamely auditioning for the role of Tarzan in the classic Pete and Dud sketch, Ms Mills (not to be confused with Mrs Mills, the big-boned and big-hearted pub pianist) pressed upwards and onwards. In fact, she used her leg-off as a leg-up. She became a Journal columnist – in itself the summit of many people’s ambition – then an energetic campaigner for good causes. And who could doubt the public spirited nature of her crusade against land mines when, as a correspondent to the not-as-funny-as-it-used-to-be Viz letters page pointed out, she is only half as much at risk from them as the rest of us.

Then came the Big One: marriage to a quarter of the Beatles, specifically to the genius who brought us such timeless classics as Yesterday and the Frog Chorus. And if reports of their turbulent engagement are to be believed, he can’t say that he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for.

Yes, I hope Lady McCartney does rather well in the divorce courts, and spends it all on fur coats and sausages made from contented pigs. I’m sure there will be no shortage of former Beatles fans eager to take her place.

And while I may be stumped (no pun intended) on what my mother would have made of Heather Mills, I know that she would have appreciated the exquisite piquancy of the answer to the question ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?’ turning out to be ‘No.’

Oh, and I know exactly what she would have said to Sir Paul if the opportunity arose: ‘There’s no fool like an old fool’.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, slightly edited to avoid outraging public decency.

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Elbow power

Like many people who live near - but not in - Alnwick, I was a bit surprised when Country Life pronounced it the best place to live in Britain. If one happens to live in that big place with the battlements on the northern edge of the town, its attractions must be pretty obvious. But I’m not so sure about those rather grim inter-war council estates that constitute most of the local housing stock.

If one tries to make a checklist of things that the perfect town ought to have, Alnwick scores highly for its fairytale castle, and having superb beaches within a shorter drive-time than most Mediterranean resort hotels. There’s an excellent butcher, an enterprising theatre, a well-stocked pet shop and an implausibly large number of hairdressers, the best of which manages to make even me look reasonably presentable. On the downside, there are rather more charity shops than even the most kind-hearted of us would surely consider necessary.

There is also one very crucial gap. Maybe it’s because I’m the great-grandson of an Alnwick maltster, or just the last in a long line of epic boozers, but I’ve always felt that a proper English town needs a working brewery at its heart. Places like Southwold and Lewes are such a pleasure to visit precisely because they have family breweries quietly steaming away, serving chains of proper pubs.

The Alnwick Brewery Company gave up the ghost in 1986, though it had ceased brewing long before that and supplied Drybrough’s ales to its 20 or so pubs. As one of the first members of the Campaign for Real Ale, I was most interested to know what I was missing. So shortly after I moved back to the area 20 years ago, I asked an elderly gent in my local if he remembered Alnwick ale. I quickly established that he minded it fine, and it was the work of minutes to pose the supplementary question: what was it like?

He took a draught of Drybrough’s and pulled a face (not an uncommon reaction, as I recall). After considerable thought, he answered me in two words, one of which was ‘horrible’ and the other is unsuitable for publication. His companion then ventured that it appeared to have had close contact with the digestive system of a gnat.

Which might seem to present a challenge to Mr Ian Linsley, who has come up with a £2.5 million scheme to bring brewing back to Alnwick. However, his track record gives me confidence that he is the man to pull it off. He has already resurrected Alnwick Rum after a 20-year gap, and the fine product he is selling bears no resemblance to the one that disappeared in the 1980s. I once gave a glass of that to a rum connoisseur, who had travelled widely in the West Indies. He suggested that I should donate the rest of the bottle to NASA for powering one of their rockets.

The trick has been to revert to the original recipe, rather than the one in most recent use. Food and drink companies are notoriously subject to a process of product degradation through tiny ingredient changes, usually for reasons of economy. Each is insignificant in isolation, but in a few years you end up with a product that bears absolutely no resemblance to the original.

Mr Linsley aims to take Alnwick ale back to its roots, and I for one say: more power to his elbow. A reborn brewery could be a great source of local pride, not to mention jobs. Good news for potential suppliers and customers alike. It’s as simple as ABC, as the company’s pubs used to be badged. I only regret that the current focus on responsible alcohol consumption may well prevent him from using the finest possible advertising slogan: ‘Alnwick Ale: it makes you believe you’re in the best place to live anywhere, and forget where it is.’

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Work suspended

I once knew a fellow who became much too fond of the sauce – and I’m not talking about the brown stuff that traditionally complements a British fry-up. Jeremy (not his real name) always denied that alcohol was interfering with his work, and in one sense he was right. It had completely replaced it.

A typical day for Jeremy would start with him coming round, still in his business suit, face down on his living room carpet approximately one pace from the front door. He would arrive at the office late, and spend a couple of hours brooding silently at his desk before that great and glorious moment when the pubs opened.

Approximately four hours later, he would return to his work station for a short break playing computer games – where performance, as in darts, seems to be unimpaired by massive booze consumption. If they had awarded Olympic gold medals for Tetris, the UK would have improved substantially on its tally. After that, it was off to the pub again until closing time.

Jeremy’s colleagues put up with this for an amazingly long time, mainly because he was the owner and theoretically the chief executive of their business. Despite the demotivating effects of his behaviour on the employees, the company somehow managed to stagger along quite prosperously. But eventually they decided that enough was enough. I think it might have been after Jeremy executed a spectacular quadruple somersault down the grand staircase of a hotel in Park Lane, landing in a fuddled heap at the feet of an important client. Or perhaps after another occasion when he interrupted a vital session in the pub to attend a reception, for the express purpose of telling another client that he had always thought he was a word that cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

So they persuaded Jeremy that he needed to take some time off to sort himself out, and have a long, hard think about his future. Jeremy said that he would check into The Priory, and his relieved colleagues assumed that he meant the well-known addiction clinic. Not, as it turned out, a five star hotel with its own vineyard.

This lengthy interlude nearly bankrupted three local pubs, but was considered an improvement within Jeremy’s own business. The only snag was that the junior employees were told that Jeremy was Suspended on Full Pay, and it immediately became everyone’s ambition to attain this status. Minor complaints about timekeeping or performance would be greeted with the response: ‘Can I be Suspended on Full Pay, please?’ When they were gently informed that this was not possible, they often went on to say ‘Not even if I call you something that cannot be printed in a family newspaper?’ Then they would use the word anyway.

In short, this whole Suspended on Full Pay malarkey was terribly bad for discipline. And who can guess what effect it will have on the country as a whole, now that our Deputy Prime Minister has attained this nirvana for the work-shy? Large salary, two grace and favour residences, chauffeured car, but no actual job. What could be more agreeable? In fairness, there is probably a sound health and safety case for him retaining the London flat and country house, as it substantially reduces the chance of him crossing the path of Mrs Prescott.

Eventually Jeremy pronounced himself fit to return to work, and took up exactly where he had left off. Shortly afterwards he was paid to go away for good, which with hindsight was what should have been done in the first place. There may be a lesson here for our beleaguered Prime Minister.

Which leaves us with the question of how dear old Prezza is going to fill his time, now that he has no department and his traditional sport is presumably off limits. Can I suggest that he takes a leaf out of Jeremy’s book and enjoys a refreshing drink or twelve, followed by a challenging game of Tetris?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 9 May 2006

Ain't life grand?

What does the word ‘grand’ conjure up for you? A hotel, a theatre, a race (horse or motor)? A canal in the world’s most beautiful city, or one of its most awe-inspiring natural features in Arizona? A piano, a duchy, a jury, a slam, a final? A Masonic lodge? A thousand pounds? Maybe all of the above. But not, I venture to suggest, a train.

Yes, I do know about that famous station in New York. In fact, if you’re reading this at the end of a platform while equipped with a flask, a huge Tupperware box of sandwiches and a Dictaphone for reading out all those exciting wagon numbers, I even know that the Grand Junction Railway, opened in 1837, was one of the most important constituents of what is now the West Coast Main Line. But I fear we are in danger of losing our other readers by venturing into the esoteric.

For some reason lost in the mists of time, we in this country decided that, on the whole, we preferred our railways to be Great rather than Grand. But all that is about to change as – barring a successful legal challenge from GNER – Grand Central starts shuttling between Sunderland and London at the end of this year.

Now, I’d always assumed that they stopped running direct services between Sunderland and King’s Cross because they got fed up with the trains being entirely empty on the way back, but this is apparently the sort of prejudice that can get a columnist into serious trouble. So let’s suppose the demand is there. Until I looked at their rather impressive website, I’d been assuming that services were going to be provided using cast-offs from longer-established rail companies, but no – we’re talking brand new trains, restaurant cars and all that. And reasonable fares, too. It’s almost – but not quite – enough to make me toy with the idea of relocating to Wearside or Hartlepool.

In fact, my only remaining niggling doubt is about that name. I’ll allow the Grand, but even its greatest partisan would have a struggle claiming that Sunderland is in any way Central. More North and East, really. I guess they just didn’t want to annoy GNER more than they already have by calling themselves the Grand Northern and Slightly More Eastern.

Like all of us, I’ve had moments I’d rather forget with GNER. I particularly didn’t get the joke this April Fool’s Day when we all had to change trains at York owing to the traditional weekend engineering works, and our connecting service to London pulled out just as about 400 of us, laden with heavy luggage, were struggling across the footbridge towards it. But lapses like that apart, it’s only fair to say that the service has got better since it was privatised. And I’ve seen enough of other train operators in other parts of the country to know that GNER is the best of a rather mixed bunch.

I supported the renewal of their franchise, and I hope they keep it, despite the gleeful reports that the ‘financial difficulties’ of their parent company Sea Containers might lead to it coming up for grabs again sooner rather than later. A suggestion hotly denied by GNER’s Chief Executive. At the same time, Grand Central seems like just the sort of exciting innovation that I thought rail privatisation was meant to encourage. What I don’t understand is how one arm of the rail regulation industry came to sell GNER the right to run trains between here and London for over a billion pounds, but someone else can then come along and swipe a chunk of their revenue. And do their payments go down? Apparently not. In the words of the schoolboy through the ages: ‘It’s not fair’. So how about a bit of joined-up Government thinking to come up with an equitable solution? Wouldn’t that be just grand?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 3 May 2006

The Tesco Empire: Roman or Soviet?

I spent May Day plotting the downfall of international labour and devising a foolproof scheme to become a multi-millionaire. Ideally one that would command a bit more public support than my last brilliant plan to open a whisky distillery in Coquetdale.

I wanted something that would strike a chord in the new green age of Dave the chameleon. So a fresh, natural product was a must. Totally recyclable packaging, naturally. Serving customers in their own homes, like the Internet, and using a totally environmentally friendly delivery system.

I was so excited as it all came together that I even missed Coronation Street. The only snag being that, at the end of a hard day of intellectual ferment, I realised I had invented the electric milk float. One of the many theoretically great ideas already killed off by the ruthless onslaught of our caring, sharing supermarket giants.

In my time I’ve written quite a few press releases about all the jobs created by expanding retail chains. We hear less about all the ones lost as milkmen, village shops, butchers and greengrocers fall by the wayside. My sympathy for them is limited by the fact that, for a nation of shopkeepers, we never seemed to be particularly keen on the bit that involved actually being open at convenient times, or providing products and services people wanted to buy.

I do try to support independent retailers whenever I can, and am fortunate to live within reach of two market towns too small to have attracted the attention of one of the supermarket giants. Yet. But the fact that they are already back on the urban high streets they once deserted, peddling their new convenience formats, suggests that it can only be a matter of time.

I find great consolation in the thought that all empires fall eventually. True, it took Rome a thousand years from the first barbarian invasions to the Turkish capture of Constantinople. But the Incas and the Soviets collapsed like packs of cards in no time at all. The question we need to ask is whether Tesco is more in the Roman or the Soviet mould.

It was certainly a Roman triumph that came to mind the other day as I listened to Sir Terry (‘Land bank? What land bank?’) Leahy commenting on his latest excellent results. I just hoped he had remembered to position the traditional slave behind him in his chariot, whispering in his ear ‘Remember, you are only mortal.’

Keith Hann is a PR consultant whose hopes of fame and fortune rest entirely on the National Lottery. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 2 May 2006

Jags, shags and disillusionment

It was one of those moments I shall never forget, like hearing about Kennedy’s assassination or Diana’s car crash. My first reaction was total disbelief, and I had to stop what I was doing and channel-hop until it came up on the news again. Then there was the added complication that the following story was about a new wheeze for carrying economy class air passengers strapped upright on boards. So I felt obliged to do a Google search to ensure that April Fool’s Day hadn’t been moved towards the end of the month as the result of some EU directive.

It had not, so it must be true. John Prescott had been having a two year affair with his diary secretary, a woman young enough to be his daughter. Can there be a middle-aged man in the country whose heart did not soar at the news? For those of us of a certain age and an uncertain beauty, it’s the most cheering thing since David Mellor got embroiled with that actress, even if much of the salacious detail of Chelsea shirts and toe-sucking subsequently proved to be a PR man’s invention. (I forget whether he was hired to enhance Mr Mellor’s reputation or Antonia de Sancha’s.)

Of course, it is not difficult to spot what might appeal to the fairer sex about the rotund, tongue-tied yet physically direct Deputy Prime Minister. It falls into the same category as Mrs Merton’s famous question to Debbie McGee about what first attracted her to the millionaire Paul Daniels. They say that power is one of the best aphrodisiacs, along with money and laughter. I’ve tried to major on the last myself, but to precious little effect. I did point out rather huffily to a friend that women’s laughter has resounded in my bedroom many times over the years. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but they’re meant to be laughing WITH you when you tell one of your charming anecdotes, not AT you when you take your clothes off. You need to be more Hugh Grant, less Johnny Vegas.’ Well, thanks for having a word with God about that when he was handing out physiques.

Still, as our beloved Deputy Prime Minister has demonstrated, nothing’s impossible. Being a former Cunard steward who apparently speaks English as a third language hasn’t stopped him rising to become probably the most powerful man in Britain so far as domestic policy is concerned, presiding over a vast super-ministry that is pressing ahead with a far-reaching programme of regionalisation, even if we in the North East were too thick to put our crosses in the right box when we were consulted. Not to mention demolishing homes up here, spreading new ones across the South and bringing wind farms to a hilltop near you.

At the same time, as I write this we have a Home Secretary who has been happily letting foreign murderers back into the community, and a Health Secretary so far gone into la-la land that she really believes the NHS has been having its best year ever. For incompetence, sleaze and even sexual shenanigans, New Labour has proved more than the equal of anything the Conservatives could manage at their nadir under John Major.

Being less than a fan of the current dictatorship, you might think I find this heartening. But I don’t. Dave the chameleon does nothing for me, other than inspiring wonderment that a party would wait until the whole country was fed up to the back teeth with Tony Blair, then choose a leader modelled on him in putting opportunism before principle, style before substance. As for Ming the merciless – well, at least Charles Kennedy was a laugh.

Our leaders have started worrying about voters switching to extreme minority parties. Perhaps they should pay more attention to the silent majority who won’t vote at all in the important local elections on 4 May, because they reckon politicians are ‘all the same’. I wonder why?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.