Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Elves One, Trees Nil

I’d always thought of elves as quite robust little creatures, so it was a rather puzzle to me when Elfin Safety began to dictate so much public policy in this country, and intrude on so many aspects of daily life. Just lately I’ve been doing a bit of research on the subject, and it turns out that the root of the trouble is twin elves called Blame and Compensation – names that would never have appealed to Tolkien, let alone Disney.

We don’t have accidents any more. Acts of God are a thing of the distant past. Now, when anything goes wrong in your life, someone else is to blame and, by golly, they’re going to have to pay for it. The effects of this are far-reaching, and round my way we’re currently seeing their impact on trees. Yes, trees.

A while back, yellow numbered tags started appearing on nearly all the mature roadside trees in the area, and the word went round that they were all going to be felled in the interests of Elfin Safety, in case they blew down and squashed us as we were driving by. Or shed one of their substantial branches onto our unprotected and unsuspecting heads.

Then came a letter from the land agent to the local estate, nailing that ugly rumour once and for all. The tags did not mean that all the trees were going to be felled. Dear me, no. Many would merely be monitored, others pruned, some removed. Only then did we get to the point: a combination of disease-prone species (mainly those English favourites, ash and beech) and ‘a previous long term policy of non intervention’ did in fact mean that a ‘significant number’ were for the chop, in whole or in part.

There’s a phrase there, incidentally, that every man should cherish. Next time the missus is having a go at you for not cutting the hedge or painting the bathroom, remember that you are not merely lying on the sofa scratching yourself, as it might appear. You are pursuing ‘a long term policy of non intervention’. Sounds so much better, doesn’t it?

Now, as it happens, I have considerable sympathy with the landowner whose trees these are. A couple of months back I had lunch with a genial chap who told me his bill for public liability insurance on just over 100 acres of Northumberland was nudging £2,000 a year. And that was for a small farm containing no public roads or footpaths, and no ‘right to roam’ access land. In other words, that’s merely to cover him in the event of accidental injury to someone who had no right to be there in the first place.

Extrapolating from this, the costs of insuring a large country estate, criss-crossed by public rights of way, must be truly horrific. It is not in the least unreasonable for the owner of such a property to try and minimise his risk. But ask any Elfin Safety expert, in any field, whether something might be dangerous, and they will always err on the side of telling you that it might be. Why would they do anything else, when they could be the one to receive a surprise visit from Blame and Compensation if the tree, electrical appliance, factory or whatever they have just declared to be safe falls down or blows up the next day?

So my advice to you is this. If you enjoy traditional English landscapes, with mature trees lining the roads, do so while you can. Maybe take some photographs to remind yourself what they were like, or to show your grandchildren. Because as the cotton wool of Elfin Safety slowly stifles us, I predict that they won’t be with us anywhere for too much longer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Oh why can't they leave us alone?

All writers specialise in displacement activity. It doesn’t matter whether the day’s task is a novel, a shopping list or a column for The Journal. We’d rather be sharpening pencils, making a nice cup of tea or sorting our books into alphabetical order. Anything rather than actually putting pen to paper or, nowadays, fingers to keyboard.

In business, the displacement activity of choice is meetings. Long, tedious opportunities for the self-important to expose their vacuity, and for the work-shy to hibernate.

For the public sector, though, meetings just aren’t enough. Why get on with the job when you could be reorganising? I’ve lost count of the number of reorganisations the NHS has endured over the last ten years, but I think they can be summarised as follows: Mr Blair wasted the first half of his time in office dismantling the market reforms introduced by those wicked Tories, and the second half putting them back. At the same time, undisputed and unprecedented extra billions have been poured into the service, to precisely what effect? The headlines are still full of hospital and ward closures, cash crises, redundancies, inadequate hygiene and new drugs denied by cash constraints.

Our police authorities wasted over £11 million planning their aborted reorganisation into super-forces designed to make them fit the EU model of regional government. I do hope they haven’t just chucked those plans in the bin because two things the drivers of the EU agenda are not short of is stamina and patience, and I’m sure they will be back.

Which brings us to regional and local government. Like many other naïve fools, I voted ‘no’ in the referendum two years ago, thinking that I was voting against the EU-decreed Regional Assembly when I was actually only being asked whether I wanted it to be elected.

Not the least of the reasons I voted ‘no’ was that the elected assembly came packaged with another totally unnecessary local government reorganisation, which would have removed all decision-making from my council in Alnwick to Morpeth or even Hexham.

And what happens now? The sixth form public schoolboy masquerading as Ruth Kelly invites councils, if they wish – let it be said loud and clear that this was not, for once, a central diktat – to apply for unitary status. Within hours, Northumberland County Council leaps in with a self-aggrandising claim for greater power. And then, shamefully, our district councils, instead of sticking up two fingers and chanting that old mantra ‘it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, cave in and start backing counter-proposals for two unitary authorities, one a rural behemoth stretching all the way from Blanchland to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

I’m sorry, but I fail to see how making local government more remote in this way can possibly make it better. They say two tiers are confusing and expensive. Really? My bins are emptied by the district council, the roads are mended by the county. How thick do you have to be not to be able to grasp that?

As for saving money – yes, I expect some people will lose their jobs if this reorganisation goes ahead, and much needless anguish will be caused. But I’m equally sure they will all be replaced by new recruits on higher salaries, to reflect the bigger organisation for which they are now responsible.

In the meantime, numerous parasitic consultants will cream off millions designing palatial new head offices, identities, logos and all the other prerequisites of a large local authority.

Where is the demand for this? Where are the locals demonstrating for change? And what are the chances that, if either unitary option is adopted, our local government will be one penny cheaper, our school standards higher or our roads any less potholed? Exactly. Surely it can’t be too late for us taxpayers to deliver a short and simple message to our councillors: just say no. And get on with the jobs we voted you into.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Happy anniversary

Oah Noah! They told us it was going to be the most dramatic evening on radio since Grace was burnt to a crisp in that stable fire in 1955, but sadly episode 15,000 of The Archers proved to be the ultimate damp squib. Ruth realised that she could not go through with her planned night of passion with the dullest man in the world, because of her sense of duty to her kiddies. A cruel blow to all of us who had prayed that she and Sam would walk off into the sunset together, so cleansing Radio 4 of perhaps the least convincing North East accent in the history of British broadcasting.

Instead we face the tedious prospect of her working to rebuild her marriage to David, the second dullest man on the planet. But, hey, at least it gives Heather Mills McCartney a clear run at the ‘most unpopular Geordie of 2006’ title, barring a late rush of support for Freddie Shepherd.

In an age when marital break-up seems to be the norm, is The Archers in any way like real life? It certainly seems more like it than Coronation Street, where elderly men expire of strokes on their wedding day and another love triangle envelops Frankie Baldwin, her ex-husband and her stepson. And a brief survey of my married friends shows that nearly all of them are still together after 20 years or more, against all the apparent odds.

True, there have been victims of that calculation by the stay-at-home wife that if she can’t have it all, she can at least have the house and the people carrier and a good 50% of everything else. And free herself of the occasional company of that boring bloke who is clearly happier in the office anyway, judging by the amount of time he spends there.

I realise this cuts both ways, so let me add that I know few less edifying sights than the orchestra stalls of the Royal Opera House on a night when they’re performing something with a few decent tunes in it. There you will find row upon row of silver-haired captains of British industry alongside their blonde, trophy, second wives. They usually look about 20 years younger than their husbands, though this might of course merely testify to the effectiveness of the beauty regimes to which they clearly devote about 50% of their time. The other half being spent in planning their long and happy widowhoods.

Even before The Archers blew up, or rather fizzled out, I’d been pondering on the durability of marriage, as today would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary. Tomorrow would have been my father’s 98th birthday, and my mother was only a year younger, so the chances of them reaching this date together were always pretty slim. But stranger things have happened. Earlier this year, a British couple claimed a place in the Guinness Book of Records by having stayed married for over 76 years. They attributed their success to having a daily argument, probably about exactly the same thing every time.

Sustaining a relationship for longer than the design life of a normal human being is a truly extraordinary achievement. But think how much easier it must have been to make a lifetime commitment when there was a sporting chance of death breaking things up quite quickly, through any one of a wide range of revolting dread diseases, or the high risk annual ritual of childbirth.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my limited experience of divorce, it’s that the children of broken marriages hate it. So maybe when today’s young rebel against their healthy new school dinners and go on smoking and drinking to excess, there is an element of logic to it. After all, if they insist on shortening their lives in this way, perhaps their own marriages really will last until death us do part.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

The times they are a'changing

Every year they come out of the woodwork, as regularly as, well, clockwork. The clocks go back, and various campaign groups pop out like cuckoos to tell us how many kiddies’ lives would be saved if only we didn’t do it; how much more efficient it would be if we were in the same time zone as the rest of Western Europe; and what a wretched, fiddling waste of, er, time it all is. Then, equally predictably, counter-claims are made that the suicide rate among Scottish farmers would soar to 100% if we did any such thing.

This year, the Local Government Association of England and Wales anticipated that objection by suggesting that Scotland could stick with GMT while the rest of us moved forward an hour. True, there are countries that function perfectly well across more than one time zone, but they tend to be ones that span continents, like Russia and the USA, not small ones like Britain. You don’t need to be a resident of Berwick-upon-Tweed to feel your mind boggling at the fatuousness of this idea. Its only obvious advantage would be to provide GNER with an increasingly rare opportunity to put out a good news press release, since it would instantly lop an hour off the quoted journey time between London and Edinburgh.

As a diehard reactionary, I naturally savour an annual ritual that gives me the only opportunity I actually get to put the clock back. I also relish that extra hour in bed. People tell me that sailing westwards across the Atlantic, where one gains an hour every night, would be my ideal holiday. If only it didn’t have America at the end of it.

I’m also old enough to remember the last time we experimented with year-round Summer Time back in the 1960s, as part of Harold Wilson’s efforts to drag Britain kicking and screaming into the white heat of the technological revolution. My recollection is that it was universally unpopular. Certainly, I remember thinking that it was bad enough having to get up and go to school at all, without having to do it in the dark.

The grumblers from the ‘let’s stop fiddling with the clocks altogether’ school are, of course, wasting their breath. Virtually every country in the developed world practises ‘daylight saving’ and, while I hate to lose an opportunity to advocate defiance of our masters in Brussels, putting ourselves wilfully out of step with our major trading partners strikes me as barmy.

That leaves us simply with the question of what should be our base line: GMT or BST?

Greenwich Mean Time, as the name suggests, is the right time for a country located on the 0° meridian of longitude. Historically, every town and village worked out their own time from the sun, and it was only the coming of the railways that required nationwide standardisation. So far as I know, the last bastion of such localism in Britain is Christ Church, Oxford, which resolutely rings its nightly curfew at Oxford time: about five minutes or 150 years behind London, depending on how you look at it.

I think it’s the pleasure created by such little quirks like that makes life worth living. So, instead of moaning, let us rejoice in the biannual ritual of moving the clocks round. Join with me in remembering the childhood excitement at their going back, which heralded spookily dark evenings, gaslights, wood smoke, fireworks, Christmas and snowmen. While their move forward in spring meant long evenings playing out of doors, greenery, sunshine and days out by the sea.

Yes, that may be childlike thinking, but I don’t think it’s actually childish in the pejorative sense. That’s the preserve of people who’ve got nothing better to do than trying to badger the rest of us into changing our customs and practices, usually for the sake of change itself.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

The easy way to make a million

Who wants to be a millionaire? Well, me for a start, though I’ve never had the energy to do much about it. Luckily, the relentless rise in house prices means that I will probably realise my dream before too long. But so will everyone else in the country living outside Teesside, Rotherham or Bootle, which will rather take the edge of it. And, unless I sell up to live in a makeshift shelter on some common land, the prospects of actually enjoying my wealth look pretty limited.

Thirty years ago, I thought that the path to riches was to become a stockbroker. I swiftly learned that the easiest way to become a millionaire in the City was to be a multi-millionaire when you started. For a monumentally idle fellow like me, it seemed natural to move into a business which majored on lunch. As a financial PR adviser, I got to know many successful entrepreneurs who were bringing their companies to the stock market. So rather than pursuing the usual self-obsessed ramble, I thought it might be more useful to consider what success factor they all had in common.

Sadly, for those of you hoping for an easy answer, the formula seems to be exactly the same as Edison’s for genius: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. You start off with a moderately bright idea – often nothing too original. Then you apply at least 150% of your maximum possible effort to making it work. You look upon the EU’s drive against our ‘long hours culture’ with derision. In fact, although you’re doing this to make a better life for your family, you probably don’t see much of them for several years, unless they are employed in your shop or factory on slave wage rates.

You regard your inevitable mistakes as learning experiences and you never, ever fall back on the secondary motto of my old school: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, give up.’

You never set out to be seriously wealthy, just to do a little better than you would have done as someone else’s employee. When the serious money starts to arrive, and you buy the mansion, flash cars, yacht and helicopter, you can’t quite believe your luck. You may not be happy, but at least you can be miserable in serious comfort, resenting only the parasitic advisers who latch onto you, and the fact that you can’t buy immortality.

It helps, as one of my clients always says, if you’re a little crazy.

Now you have the secrets. What are you waiting for?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who believes in Premium Bonds. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.