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.

Tuesday, 13 June 2006

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be

Ms Allana Shell recently took me to task in Voice of the North for a column in which she felt that I had been unduly scathing about the old Alnwick Ale. I plead not guilty, ma’am. I couldn’t be rude about the product myself, because I’d never had the pleasure of tasting it. What I did do was report the pithy opinions of a couple of old gadgies I encountered in my then local 20 years ago.

Now, there are two reasons why I was able to recall their exact words with such uncanny accuracy. The first is that their comments struck me as very funny. (Clearly not a universal view.) The second is that they were the precise opposite of what I expected. I had been looking forward to a long, nostalgic wallow in the subtle delights of a vanished local brew. Instead I found it dismissed in about six words, only two of which were fit to print.

This is far from being the typical reaction when one asks the elderly to reminisce. Our senses fade with age, so things naturally tended to taste better when we were young. And our memories are selective, bathing the past in a rosy glow where summers were always hot and scented with Cooltan, while every winter brought ample snow for sledging. (Actually, with global warming, the bit about winters not being what they used to be is probably accurate.)

We lament the passing of things that disappeared because we never bothered to use them when we could. Like the village shop, which we deserted in droves for the new-fangled Tesco on the ring road. Or the branch line railway, where the trains ran so reliably, but were always empty.

There is now a huge nostalgia industry in this country centred on the steam train, with a large and growing number of preserved lines. I have found the sight, sound and smell of steam engines irresistible since boyhood, but I never actually travelled behind one when they were in daily use. My parents hadn’t worked their way up the social ladder to car ownership so that they could go places behind some slow, dirty, clanking locomotive. Millions of their fellow citizens felt the same, even if they could aspire to nothing more reliable or desirable than a Ford Anglia or Hillman Imp.

There are very few things in life that happen through the operation of unseen forces, otherwise known as the machinations of the political elite. Ever-closer European integration might just be one of them. Virtually every other much-lamented change comes about because we collectively willed it, either through our actions or omissions.

One day we will be looking back fondly on the youthful promise of Tony Blair. And as soon as we have finally hounded him from office, we will doubtless be saying what a cracking chap John Prescott … no, maybe not. There has to be an exception to prove every rule.

Whether it’s politicians, foods, clothes, music or any other form of entertainment, everything reaches a peak of popularity and then fades away, only for people to start producing Channel 4 talking heads programmes about how great they used to be. I’m hoping it’ll be a good long while before the new Alnwick Ale features on one, because I want to be a roaring success. And I fully intend to put my ample drinking boots at its disposal.

They tell me that what I still think of as the hit parade is currently headed by a young lady called Sandi Thom, with a nostalgic number lamenting the passing of the 1970s and punk rock. I was at university at the time, and remember it well as a time of hyper-inflation, industrial chaos and pitifully low national morale, exacerbated by truly dreadful music. My views on anyone who feels sorry to have missed it would make those old men’s comments on their beer sound like something from a vicarage tea party.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 7 June 2006

The small world of Frank Gitt

Business people tend to approach PR consultants for one of two reasons. Either they believe that their company is misunderstood and undervalued by the outside world, and want to raise their profile in the media to address this. Or they know that what they do is understood all too well, and want to keep it out of the papers at all costs.

The latter always presents the bigger challenge, not least because it is hard to justify the usual huge bill when the evidence of success is a completely empty cuttings file. This partly explains why I have always been inclined to refuse assignments of this sort. The other reason is that if the media have got it in for a company, I find it’s usually for a pretty good reason.

Like all City people, I typically make a judgment on whether I like someone, and want to work with them, within a minute of meeting them. At the risk of sounding smug, I’m rarely wrong. The only snag is that it is a two-way trade, and the number of people who instantly like and want to work with me has always been pitifully small.

A couple of years ago, I mistakenly listened to the newly appointed ‘Director of Human Resources’ at a long-standing client for all of 15 minutes, as he told me where I had been going wrong, before I told him where he could stick his job. A complete waste of 14.5 precious minutes of my life. I am gratified to note that the subsequent performance of his business amply demonstrates that I should have been the least of his worries.

Paul, my image and branding consultant, believes that my dull, nondescript and non-alliterative name is a serious professional handicap. He thinks I should re-brand myself as Frank Gitt – the PR who tells it like it is. But I tend to answer the phone by saying my surname, and the consequences of opening every conversation with the word ‘Gitt’ are too awful to contemplate.

On the same subject, I once suggested to a client in the bus sector that they should re-brand themselves as Slick Transit and hire a receptionist called Gloria Mundy, just for the joy of hearing her answer the telephone. Unfortunately none of the management had benefited from a classical education, so it fell on rather stony ground. A bit like this column, probably.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who’d welcome some small change for a cup of tea. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 6 June 2006

Vision, passion and service

I had a cracking day out at the Entrepreneurs’ Forum Conference in Gateshead last month. Well, almost a day out. I missed the first speaker, Brian Souter of Stagecoach, because my bus was late. But all the other contributors were excellent – entertaining, informative and incredibly open in sharing the secrets of their success.

I came away feeling, like Del Boy Trotter, that I would be a millionaire by Christmas. But unfortunately that’s where I keep going wrong. I’m focused on the money, whereas the key to success is to regard it as a welcome incidental. Your real passion has to be for a product or service that your intuition tells you the public really needs, probably in defiance of market research and conventional financial advice. Oh, and it helps if you are prepared to work all the hours that God sends, and cope with horrific levels of stress. So that’s me back to the National Lottery, then.

One thing on which all the speakers were agreed was the vital importance of getting all your employees to share your vision and passion – particularly the junior ones who are most likely to have direct contact with the public. Tim Waterstone told a heartbreaking story about how the positive effect of millions of pounds of airline advertising had been undone by just one member of checkout staff, and her rude and uncaring reaction to his deafness.

By contrast, and pure coincidence, I was browsing in Waterstone’s in Grey Street that very evening, and heard one of their staff dispensing some of the best-informed and most enthusiastic customer service I have ever heard. And that’s despite the original ethos of the business allegedly having been diluted since Tim sold it for the second time.

Retailers occupy a very peculiar position because they all acknowledge that service is important, yet end up manning their stores, at the busiest times, with people whose knowledge is pretty much restricted to what day of the week it is: the dreaded ‘Saturday girl’. To ensure equality of misery, some appear to have decided to dumb down service throughout the week to the same execrable level. This is particularly common practice in the electricals sector. Small wonder that growing numbers of customers are migrating to shopping on the Internet, which is at least reasonably informative.

With an on-line retailer, your key personal contact becomes their delivery driver. I have had excellent experiences with some, and terrible ones with others. A potentially good customer was lost forever to johnlewis.com when a time-critical van-load of domestic goods failed to turn up on the appointed date, allegedly because their contractor had called at the wrong house. Though as it was a snowy Friday afternoon, another explanation did suggest itself.

Equally important is the call centre operator. What a job, knowing that every person who gets through to you will have been hanging on until they have almost lost the will to live, listening to some music they don’t like and being assured that their call is important. So even if they weren’t angry when they picked up the phone, they are by the time they get to talk to you.

Every month I receive a bill from Britain’s leading cable company for a phone line I’ve never had and never ordered, at a London address I’ve never occupied. I’ve tried ringing, I’ve tried writing, but still they come, each one inflated by penalty charges for non-payment of the previous invoice. The call centre never answers in less than 45 minutes, then a ‘customer service’ operative says that I need to speak to some specialist department that only functions from 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, provided there is an R in the month. Get through to them, and they tell you that you have been misinformed, and really need to speak to … aaarrgh!

I just wonder: where did the original passion and vision in that company come from, where did it go to, and how on earth do they stay in business?

Originally published, in slightly edited form, in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.