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. www.keithhann.com

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.