Tuesday 29 August 2006

Things can only get better

Don’t tell me, it’s been the worst fortnight of your life. You turned up at the airport with the family just as all hell broke loose on the security front, and were stuck in a queue for over three hours. At least that gave you plenty of time to re-pack all your hand baggage into the big suitcases destined for the aircraft hold. How relieved you felt when those eventually shuffled off down the conveyor belt, never to be seen again.

Determined to make the best of things, you persuaded the kids that they’d find a nudist holiday a refreshing and mind-broadening experience. And it wasn’t going too badly, either, until the forest fires forced you out of your hotel to huddle by the waterline, trying to recover from the effects of smoke inhalation.

Yes, it was unfortunate that you got kicked off your plane home for making those politically incorrect remarks about the two Middle Eastern gentlemen who were sitting next to you, wearing heavy coats and constantly looking at their watches. But surely you must have realised that they were only having a bit of fun when they inflated their sickbags and burst them with a satisfying pop? At least the taxing overland journey back to Britain was more environmentally responsible.

As you finally staggered into the house, what a comfort it was to pick up the newspaper and read Sir Ian Blair’s pronouncement that his boys and girls are doing such a terrific job that it is now safe to leave your doors unlocked. Which you duly did when you went out for a celebratory dinner. Now you find yourself studying an insurance claim form which makes it clear that they won’t be reimbursing you for the entire contents of your house, since it was your own fault for failing to secure it.

Of course, you should have read the small print more closely. And realised that Sir Ian, as Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, was talking about the crime-free paradise that is London. Not Newcastle or Sunderland. Mind you, not wishing to be outdone, the Chief Constable of Northumbria may well be poised to tell us that it is now quite all right to leave our cars out on the street with a full tank of petrol and the keys in the ignition. Though I don’t think I’d risk it if I were you.

Any pronouncement from that unfeasibly PC PC, Commissioner Blair, needs to be treated with a fair amount of caution. He is, after all, the genius who went on Radio 4’s Today programme to boast about his force meeting the ‘gold standard’ for preventing terrorism, about an hour before the 7 July suicide bombs last year. Then there were his unfortunate comments about Jean Charles de Menezes, executed at Stockwell station in what turned out to be a disastrous case of mistaken identity. It is quite hard for the casual observer to work out how on earth he keeps his job.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder if he isn’t actually a spoof figure, dreamt up by our own local hero Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, to make his own stint as head of the Met seem like a golden age of commonsense coppering.

Still, it could have been worse. If you’d been away a bit longer, you might have come back to find that your house had been deemed empty by one of Ruth Kelly’s gauleiters, and confiscated to provide much-needed accommodation for some of those half million economic migrants from eastern Europe. You remember, the ones that the Government said would never come here, attacking those who suggested they might as xenophobes and racists.

Now they say that they’re ‘good for the economy’, which means that they’re keeping wages down for the rest of us, including you. And this from what was once the party of organised labour. No wonder you’re starting to think that perhaps a bomb really did go off on the first day of your holiday, blasting you into an unrecognisable parallel universe.

© Copyright Keith Hann, 2006.

Written for The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, but deemed unsuitable for publication.

Tuesday 22 August 2006

Must the terrorist always win?

I owe my reader(s) an apology. Yes, I know that’s true every week, but this time there is a specific reason. Last month I suggested that the chronic unreliability of the East Coast Main Line train service meant that flying might be a feasible if environmentally irresponsible alternative. How wrong I was.

I booked four flights, but only took one. Things got off to a bad start when I made the idiotic error of pitching up at Newcastle International Airport at 1.30pm, thinking that this was a time at which one might be able to obtain something resembling lunch. How silly of me. Still, the hour’s delay in the departure of my BA flight to Gatwick gave me plenty of time to muse on my folly over a very expensive fizzy pint and packet of crisps.

The only refreshing thing about the journey itself was that, instead of the litany of implausible excuses conveyed by tannoy on GNER, the pilot cheerily announced that he had as little idea as we did why the flight was late, as he’d only just got onto the plane himself.

Then there was the insufferable young prig in the next seat, the bus from the plane to the terminal, the transit to the other terminal, and the train journey to where I actually wanted to be. When I finally got there, I looked at my watch and reflected that I could have driven from home just as quickly, with considerably less stress and discomfort, and at lower cost. ‘Right,’ I said to myself, ‘That’s it. I shall never fly again.’

Having consigned the tickets for my next journey to the bin, imagine my delight when the would-be terrorist incident of 9 August led to the flights concerned being cancelled, so that I qualified for a full refund. Thanks, lads.

Although I am one of the few beneficiaries of this alleged plot, I do wonder whether they ever actually intended to carry it out. After all, as things turned out, they garnered as much publicity and caused as much chaos and inconvenience (if rather less grief) as if they’d actually consigned a thousand fellow travellers to oblivion. And conveniently avoided that presumably buttock-clenching moment when the suicide bombs had to be detonated.

It would have been much more of a victory over the terrorists if we’d just shrugged our shoulders and carried on as usual, rather than having our airports filled with armed police and a host of restrictions imposed that make flying even less of a joy. Last week we were only a step away from making every air passenger strip naked and submit to an intimate body search before stepping on board the plane. And as soon as some fanatic devises an ingestible bomb, I dare say they’ll want X-rays, too.

Instead of the Government issuing edicts to every airline, why not allow a little consumer choice into the equation? WhatTheHell airlines could be set up with the unique selling proposition that you could take whatever you liked on board as hand luggage, with the downside that you stood a greater risk of being blown to smithereens mid-flight. It would be interesting to see how it fared.
In more phlegmatic times, when the air raid warning sounded, theatres and cinemas would warn their audiences so that those who wished to head for the shelters could do so, and then the show went on. It would be good to get back some element of free choice, otherwise the terrorist will win every time, even if the outrage is aborted.

Of course, it’s jolly convenient for governments who want to keep tabs on us to have these terrorists as an excuse for ever-increasing curbs on civil liberties – an outdated concept, John Reid announced, literally the day before the alleged plot was uncovered.

No wonder some cynics are asking: are the Government and terrorists really fighting each other, or are they in league against the rest of us?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 August 2006

A drug off the market

Say what you like about Harold Shipman, he did wonders for waiting lists. But he didn’t do a lot for the trust that patients place in their doctors. Now it is apparently becoming harder to obtain effective pain relief, as many GPs are unwilling to carry morphine-based drugs in case they end up fingered as the next stethoscope-wearing mass murderer.

Even before that blew up, it was alleged that some British cancer patients are dying in agony because of a shortage of diamorphine, the most powerful painkiller. This has apparently been a problem since early 2005, when production problems arose in the Merseyside factory that met 70pc of UK demand.

The odd thing about this particular NHS crisis is that diamorphine is merely the proper, medical name for heroin, which seems to be freely available on the streets of virtually every town and village. What sort of administrative genius does it take to create an official shortage of something the country is awash with?

The answer, according to various campaigning websites, is that the British health authorities insist on buying their injectable diamorphine only from two licensed suppliers, and in the most expensive form. As a result, we end up paying many more times for the stuff than health authorities overseas, and still can’t get a reliable supply.

I don’t know whether those claims are true, but anything about the NHS that suggests wastefulness always seems to have the ring of truth to it. How else can an organisation which has had such massive additional funds poured into it over the last nine years still be failing to deliver patient satisfaction in so many areas?

If I had my way, the supply of diamorphine would improve overnight because I’d legalise its supply. I can’t see what we achieve by making drugs illegal, thereby placing the weak-minded in the hands of criminal suppliers. These provide them with products of dubious quality which are often more dangerous than the real thing. They also charge outrageous prices which create a whole new cycle of criminality as addicts steal to fund their habit.

Instead of trying to ruin the poppy farmers of Afghanistan and the coca growers of Colombia, why not make the whole thing legal and subject to tax, as we do with other drugs like alcohol and tobacco? Victorians from the Queen down were frequent users of laudanum, a tincture of opium sold freely over chemists’ counters, and I don’t recall society being brought to its knees. At any rate, it was certainly in no greater a mess than we are today.

The only time I might have taken an illegal substance was at university in the 1970s, when peer pressure led me and countless others to smoke what was alleged to be cannabis. Also then popularly known as dope or … a rude word for excrement. I remain convinced that what my friends were actually sold was the latter, as it had never had the slightest effect on me. The claimed reactions of others were, I believe, just a form of mass hysteria.

One of my chums decided to secure an undoubtedly authentic supply by growing his own marijuana plants from budgie seed. By the start of the Easter vacation he had quite a promising collection of little seedlings, and asked his landlady if she’d mind watering them while he was away. When we got back, they’d been transformed into a collection of thriving tomato plants, suggesting that they had come to the attention of someone in authority with a knowledge of botany and a sense of humour. They weren’t much of a smoke.

So I won’t be rushing round to Mr Tall’s pharmacy in Rothbury to buy some heroin in the unlikely event that the Government takes my advice and makes it legal, thereby putting a fair chunk of the police force out of a job. However, if I am ever unfortunate enough to develop cancer, it would be jolly comforting to know that I could.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 August 2006

Who ate all the pies?

At last a subject on which I can write with real authority: fatness. I have been on the plump side all my life. As a schoolboy, I was one of the two boys in my class who sometimes enjoyed the soubriquet ‘Fatso’. Yet looking at the pictures of us from 40 years ago, I realise that we were positively slim compared with the lard-buckets waddling through today’s school gates.

Tootling around the national motorway network at the start of the current school holidays, during a period of exceptionally hot weather, I was repeatedly appalled by the sights that greeted me in motorway service areas: grotesquely fat and horribly underdressed parents feeding fizzy pop, burgers, chips and sweets to their revoltingly obese children, many of whom looked like they might well burst before they got back onto the road.

Why would anyone do this to a child? Surely even someone of the meanest intelligence must realise that it is damaging their health? Nor is it doing anything for their prospects of happiness, in a culture where, as the mass of the population has got steadily fatter, the ideal of beauty and sexual attractiveness has become ever more scrawny. There’s no place now for Rubenesque curves. What we want is ribs that you can play like a xylophone.

I’ve yearned for years to have the sort of body that would enable me to walk boldly onto a beach and hear beautiful women sighing ‘Phwoar’ rather than ‘Ugh’. Yearned, but never quite enough to do much about it, at least since I came to the conclusion about 20 years ago that I actually preferred a good dinner and a bottle of fine wine to a night of passion. Mainly because the head chef and sommelier don’t expect you to stay awake for a couple of hours after the meal, listening to them describe their neuroses and hopes for the future.

Still, my doctor keeps telling me that I will almost certainly contract that Type 2 diabetes if I don’t do something to get my weight down. Of course, developing the condition and having both my legs sawn off – as my mother did – would be one sure-fire way of losing a couple of stones, but it would probably take some of the fun out of life. So I’m making a few efforts, like taking the stairs rather than the lift (not a hard choice, since I don’t actually have a lift), and riding a bicycle on the 10-mile round trip to collect my daily Journal. True, it’s one of those bikes with a tiny electric motor to assist it, but then I do live at the top of a ruddy great hill and, as Messrs Tesco are always telling us, Every Little Helps.

The important thing is to encourage the dieter, as my schoolmates did all those years ago, through consistent, ritual humiliation. Don’t be fooled by any of that stuff about obesity being something to do with glands or genes. It’s caused by shoving more pies through the cakehole than the body requires for its normal functions, and the solution is to eat less and take more exercise.

So next time you see a really fat adolescent in a motorway service area, or a rather chubby man wobbling up a Northumberland hill on an electric bike, feel free to enquire who was responsible for clearing out the local pie stall. Make them feel small, and maybe they’ll find the willpower to become smaller. You may get a certain amount of abuse back, particularly if you’re talking to me, but remember that you’ll be doing them a favour and performing a wider public service. After all, where on earth are we going to find the money to rebuild all our trains, theatres, hospitals, mortuaries and crematoria if we can’t find a way to stop our descent into a nation of the morbidly obese?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 2 August 2006

The Chief Executive's Handbook

The classic 21-point career plan for a new Chief Executive goes like this:

1. Agree an amazingly generous salary, bonus, perks and LTIP package.

2. Settle your bottom comfortably in a swivelling chair behind a very large desk.

3. Order an even bigger desk and a better-padded chair in a more luxurious office suite.

4. Recruit a surprisingly attractive PA.

5. Announce that you have inherited a company in crisis. Issue a shock profit warning accompanied by massive provisions, setting a conveniently low base for recovery.

6. Appoint highly paid management consultants to conduct a top-to-bottom strategic review.

7. Sidestep questions on what exactly a Chief Executive is for, if management consultants need to be appointed to determine the company’s strategy.

8. Replace your finance director and auditors, to help cover your tracks.

9. Negotiate an even more generous salary to reflect the massive challenge of turning round the company that you now unexpectedly face.

10. Agree new LTIPs to reflect the enormous drop in the share price since your appointment.

11. Announce results of the strategic review, which has cost over £1 million and taken six months to state the bleeding obvious.

12. Botch its implementation, so that the expected recovery does not take place. Issue a series of further profit warnings (traditionally, a minimum of three).

13. Start sleeping with your surprisingly attractive PA to alleviate stress.

14. Bring in a new set of management consultants, who recommend ‘focusing’ the business through the sale of any remaining assets that actually make some money.

15. Achieve lower than expected returns from this fire sale.

16. Recommend acceptance of a derisory takeover bid for the rump of what was once a half decent business.

17. Exit the smoking ruins with a £1 million pay-off to cushion the pain of redundancy, and the thanks of grateful shareholders for getting the appalling company you inherited into a saleable condition.

18. Join a Government taskforce to advise on why British business is not fulfilling its potential.

19. Gain a suitable honour (CBE or above) for your important contribution to public life.

20. Apply for a new job as Chief Executive.

21. See 1.

This is, of course, a completely theoretical scenario, and any passing resemblance to any actual Chief Executive, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant with few clients and even fewer friends. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 August 2006

A parish that's really going places

While the eyes of the world are on Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon, another power is expanding by stealth. Yes, the forces of Whittingham are on the move again, and this time they have in their sights the remote and beautiful parish of Alnham, in the glorious Cheviot Hills.

A letter I have just received from Alnwick District Council informs me that the residents of Alnham have not had a parish council to represent them in recent years, so Whittingham thought it would be a good idea if it took them over. As imperialists through the ages have tried to fill any power vacuum that comes to their attention.

Whittingham has been quietly and successfully pursuing its strategy of Lebensraum for some years now, having already absorbed the neighbouring parish of Callaly without a shot being fired. Quite an achievement, really, given the number of guns owned thereabouts, albeit for the pursuit of game birds and vermin rather than self-defence. Well, on paper, anyway. It’s probably best not to enquire too closely into how they define vermin in Callaly. Let’s just say that they don’t get a lot of successful burglaries.

The fortunate residents of Alnham clearly have better things to do than sitting around in parish council meetings, preferring to devote their time to more exciting things like drinking beer and watching their crops grow. I envy them, since by the same token they presumably don’t have to pay an inexplicable Whittingham Parish Council precept as part of their annual tax bill. True, it only amounted to 1.5% of my council tax last year, but it had gone up by an incredible 47.1%. And for what?

The parish and the county are the traditional units by which England is governed, and I wish I could find it in my heart to love parish councils more. But they do give a very good impression of being comprehensively useless. They are also all too often self-appointed, undemocratic and unrepresentative.

The recent parish council elections may have caused great excitement in Ambridge, as Lynda Snell fought it out with Lilian Bellamy, but it’s not that way round here. Indeed, as Alnwick District Council point out in their letter, at the last parish council non-election, only half the ten seats allocated for Whittingham were actually filled. And that was before the parish council’s chairman resigned in a modest blaze of publicity earlier this year, because the district planning authority takes not a blind bit of notice of his council’s views on local developments. Which, I think, rather proves my point about how much use it is.

If Callaly was Whittingham’s Austria, then Alnham would be its Sudetenland. And who can tell what might be in line to be its Czechoslovakia or Poland? Glanton, to the north, occupies commanding heights where it should be possible to deploy artillery to good effect. But to the south lies the sparsely populated parish of Cartington and beyond it the fertile pastures of the Coquet valley. Can this possibly be the manifest destiny for which Whittingham yearns?

In the usual way of democracy in this country, the takeover – sorry, I mean the ‘grouping proposal’ of Whittingham, Callaly and Alnham – is subject to consultation with ‘all affected residents’. If you don’t bother to write a letter of objection, you are deemed to consider it a cracking idea. In the unbelievably unlikely event that the majority of residents do object, does that mean the plan will be dropped? Of course not. But ‘details of such objections [will] be submitted to the [District] Council for further consideration’.

I’ve already posted my letter of objection, but when a land-hungry power is at loose, sometimes only direct action will suffice. I’ve already found a suitable headscarf and I’m now looking for a convenient cave to serve as the headquarters of my resistance movement. Something out beyond Ewartly Shank would do me nicely. Any offers?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.