Sunday 31 December 2006

What could possibly go wrong?

For as long as I can remember, my catchphrase has been ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ With the addition of the word ‘now’ at the end, it is the perfect line for cheering up one’s fellow passengers as the plane hurtles down the runway. But it is not merely designed to irritate: it is quite simply the most important question anyone in business can ask themselves. Imagine how different the fate of GNER might have been if they had thought through the possible downsides when they framed their winning franchise bid.

Although there have been times when I have cursed them, GNER were undoubtedly the best of the privatised train operators, and their recently advertised departure was perhaps the saddest news of 2006. Vying only with the non-departure of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the Captain Mainwaring of Downing Street. His demise has come to resemble one of those never-ending death scenes played by a comic great of the 1960s: Eric Morecambe, Frankie Howerd or Tommy Cooper. Or maybe Bernie Winters: the one who wasn’t actually funny. Will he go in 2007? I’m not holding my breath. And what a shame his replacement won’t be genial Sgt Wilson or even the boy Pike, but brooding Private Frazer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 26 December 2006

Not waving, not drowning

If you asked me what this column was for, I’d be hard pressed to give you a coherent answer. But I can tell you exactly what it’s not: a cry for help. So while I am grateful to everyone who e-mailed me last week, offering a share of their sumptuous Christmas dinner in place of my own modest snack, I really wasn’t aiming for that. Particularly as you all made it abundantly clear that the invitation only extended to Craster the Border terrier, and not his master.

Craster wouldn’t have wanted to have a wonderful time without me. Mainly because I almost never let him out of my sight, so he has absolutely no idea what a wonderful time is. He hasn’t been helped, either, by that unfortunate misunderstanding with the vet when he was a puppy. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel a big pang of guilt about it, even though I know that my own life would have been so much simpler if I’d had the same small operation during adolescence.

He’s called Craster, incidentally, because he’s a world class kipper. If they make it an event in the 2012 London Olympics, I reckon he’ll be a shoo-in for gold. He’s up to 22.5 hours per day already in training, and there’s still over five years to go before the grand opening (and seven years until the main stadium is completed).

Anyway, we had a marvellous day yesterday. I read my book: the new, 959-page authorised biography of Kingsley Amis. Someone who accidentally got through the security, and called for a seasonal drink, picked it up and asked, “Why on earth would anyone choose that for Christmas reading? Amis was a miserable, curmudgeonly, right-wing, drunken … good Lord, is that the time?”

I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s always good (though extremely difficult, in my case) to read about someone whose views and neuroses are more extreme than your own.

What I’d really like is to be a novelist. But I’m advised that publishers these days are only interested in new novelists who are young, glamorous, female and ideally from an ethnic minority. It’s typical of my luck that they apparently don’t get more enthusiastic about the disabled, which is the one condition to which I can reasonably aspire.

So now I call myself “a writer”. Partly because it sounds better (and is quicker to get out) than “a PR man who has no clients because he’s too lazy to do any work”. And partly because a survey reported in The Journal earlier this month rated it as the second most attractive career for a man, after doctor. (Blast. If only I’d finished that PhD I’d be officially irresistible.)

I went out on the pull last week with Craster and my traditional sprig of mistletoe, but the old patter just doesn’t cut the mustard any more. “Hi, do you work in insurance? Oh, I just thought you looked like you could be pretty good as an underwriter. Me? I’m a writer. Ow!”

Craster got off with a very nice cat, but he wasn’t happy. He was hoping for a sheep.

So here we are, stuck in the middle of nowhere with a log fire hurling enormous sparks at the highly flammable old sofa, while failing to make any discernible impact on the temperature of the room. A portrait of the old Queen Mother looks down benignly as Craster thoughtfully sucks a left-over turkey foot, I struggle to turn the pages of my book while wearing thick, woollen gloves, and an old 78 of Al Jolson croaks and crackles in the background. It is hardly the vision of “Young Britain” that Tony set out to fulfil when he walked across the threshold of 10 Downing Street amid such rampantly high hopes a decade ago. And for some reason just thinking that cheers me up no end.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

Turkey feet and chips

This time next week it will all be over. Well, not the turkey, obviously, which you will be eating cold as a prelude to enjoying it in rissoles, curry, sandwiches and broth. But you’ll have survived, if you’re lucky, that great family get-together which reminds you why you try to avoid seeing most of your relatives on the other 364 days of the year.

Now it will just be a matter of sticking all the wrapping paper in the recycling bin; desperately trying to find the receipts so that you can take the broken toys back to the MetroCentre and demand a refund; and ensuring that you don’t miss out on the unrepeatable bargains in the DFS Boxing Day sale.

Don’t you just hate it when newspapers try to predict the future like that? Every morning I am brought to the verge of apoplexy by Radio 4 telling me, not what happened yesterday, but what is expected to happen today. So much so that, if I were in that sort of PR, I’d be tempted to be a little bit mischievous with them. For example:

“Hello, is that Radio 4? I thought you might like a heads up on the Stevens Report. Yes, it is a bit of a surprise, actually. The Duke of Edinburgh’s coughed. “It’s a fair cop, guv. I done it. You got me bang to rights. It’s bird for me this time. Society is to blame.” Yes, straight up. I’m quoting directly from the Report. Hello?”

Well, I might need to be a bit more subtle than that, but you get the general idea. And, let’s face it, it is the only answer that would have satisfied the people who wanted the inquiry in the first place. As it was, all over Britain conversations took place like the one I overheard on the 13.30 from King’s Cross last Thursday, as one Geordie couple pored over their evening papers:

Him: “You see? I told you so.”

Her: “Come on, you don’t really believe that, do you? It’s a cover-up. Of course she was murdered.”

Thereby demonstrating, as might have been safely predicted, that the whole exercise was a colossal waste of everyone’s time and our money. Like all public inquiries unless they demonstrate that the barmy conspiracy theorists were actually right.

So if constantly looking forward drives us mad, and looking back achieves nothing, where does that leave us? With the present. Which in six days’ time will be the Christmas present, which surely has its compensations. No less an authority than the Buddha prescribed the following recipe for contentment: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

In the modern world, we seem to have lost sight of this entirely. Just look at the TV schedules, filled with nostalgic “100 Greatest …” clip shows and “another chance to see” treats. These are interspersed with endless clips for the few new programmes which ensure that you will have seen the very few good bits at least a dozen times before you get to the real thing, thereby guaranteeing that it will prove a disappointment.

So we pass from eager anticipation to fond reminiscence without ever really enjoying the moment in between. When did you last do anything which made you think, ‘”Wow! This is terrific! This is what living is all about!” That’s what we should all be aiming for every day.

I’ve got modest hopes for my own Christmas, which I shall be spending alone with a Border terrier, what I hope will prove to be a good book, and a microwaveable economy dinner for one: turkey feet and chips. I don’t think I’m likely to go “Wow!”, but at least I’m not wasting time looking forward to it, and I reckon the chances of nostalgia are decidedly limited. So at least it’s one small step in the right direction.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 12 December 2006

Growing up

What do you want to be when you grow up? It would be as fair a question to put to me now as when it was posed by the headmaster of Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School in the very early 1960s. Then, the real answer was driving one of those magnificent steam engines that still hauled crack expresses through Little Benton. Or, failing that, one of the stately yellow trolleybuses that used to glide along Newcastle’s major thoroughfares. (I’ve always had an eye for the technology of the future.)

But too many boys had opted for those by the time he reached “H” in the alphabet, so I just said I wanted to work in an office like my dad, on the grounds that it beat being out of doors in all weathers with a pick and shovel. I can still vividly recall Jack Russell Perry’s horrified reaction: “Good heavens, boy, you must want something more from life than just being comfortable!”

No, actually. It would be nice to have been a great lover, a proud father, a competent PR man, even a vaguely amusing newspaper columnist. But having enough to eat, a fire in winter, a comfy sofa and a warm bed still come right at the top of my list of priorities.

Meanwhile, other people have got on and done things. When my contemporaries started breeding in serious numbers 25 years ago, I remember thinking what a frightfully grown up thing it was to do. Now the first of them are becoming grandparents, which seems even more so. I imagine I will be thinking the same thing in another two decades or so, when it’s our turn to die.

I’m confessing to this extreme case of arrested development because even someone in my pitiful condition is beginning to wonder at the babyish antics he sees around him. The other night I sat through a very moving concert next to a man who, from his greyish hair, I judged to be about my own age. Yet every five minutes or so he reached beneath his seat and proceeded to suck greedily on a bottle of water, like a baby demanding its teat. I know we are warned about the dangers of dehydration, but surely we can get through three hours of Handel without these sort of antics?

I don’t know whether the growing illusion that we are all infants was created by government or merely aggravated by it, but there can be little doubt that the growing stream of nannyish precepts is making things worse. Eat this, don’t eat that, take exercise, don’t smoke, turn your heating down, don’t speed, kill Patricia Hewitt. No, sorry, that wasn’t the government, that was the voices in my head. But you know what I mean.

Since I don’t have any children and don’t own shares in Halfords, I regarded this year’s introduction of compulsory child booster seats with a fair degree of indifference. But I did pause to wonder how a nation of adult electors, with one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies, came to have this sort of pettifogging rule imposed on it by an unelected bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels. Their next mad idea, speeding down the track, is to make us all drive with our headlights on at all times. Something which might make a bit of sense on the forested roads of Scandinavia but hardly seems necessary in Britain, still less Malta or Cyprus.

But that’s not how the EU works. It thrives on creating uniform rules and regulations for every aspect of life. The only element of variety being created by the fact that we choose to implement them with the utmost ferocity. Whereas, as Willy Poole observes in his bulletins from deepest France, our neighbours simply ignore the ones they find inconvenient with a Gallic shrug.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all grew up and went back to running our own lives?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 6 December 2006

'Tis the season for profit warnings

Some of my best friends are retailers, so it pains me to think of their little faces crumpling in disappointment as they unwrap their December profit and loss accounts. But it’s like denying that wailing fat kid his third Whopper. You just know it has to be done.

Christmas made some sort of sense in that old world where winters were cold, decent meals rare and clockwork toys a source of wonder. What exactly is its point now, when most of us are able to eat, drink and make merry throughout the year?

Yes, I know, it’s a great religious festival, conveniently tacked onto a much older celebration of the fact that the days weren’t going to continue getting shorter indefinitely.

What I’m proposing is that it should be wrested from the retail industry and reclaimed by Christians, who have a much better sense of proportion about the whole thing. I mean, you don’t go into churches in October and find them bedecked with tinsel, the vicar wearing a red hat and Slade blasting out over the PA system, do you?

Some people will say I am bitter because I went to the trouble of growing a white beard in the hope of gaining some seasonal work, and then found no suitable openings. It’s true that I cooled on the idea when I was told that I would have to be vetted, thinking it involved something unpleasant with cold steel rather than a simple police records check. By the time someone put me right, all the grottoes of the North East were fully staffed. But that has nothing to do with my stance.

I’ve just got tired with the months of relentless advertising. This year Asda’s commercials have come closest to making me put a heavy boot through my TV screen. I’ve managed to restrain myself chiefly because I know I’d end up going out to buy another set, which would be rather playing into their hands.

I’m sick of the constant incitement to spend ever more on things you neither need nor want, in the belief that this will guarantee you a marvellous time. It won’t.

Weaning retailers off their dependence on Christmas won’t be easy. It will be like relieving Tony Blair of power, or getting a rock star off drugs. But I contend that it needs to be done. And if we consumers stick together and make this, as predicted, the worst Christmas on the high street for 25 years, it will be a valuable step in the right direction.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who secretly has a bit of a soft spot for turkey twizzlers.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 5 December 2006

How stupid can you get?

Dangerous things, fireworks, as the residents of Lewes have just been reminded in a tragic and spectacular fashion. The reports reminded me of this paper’s tally of North East casualties from Guy Fawkes Night, which included a 22-year-old from Sunderland who had been “left with serious internal burns after launching a rocket from his backside”.

I have been lying awake at nights wondering just what combination of circumstances could lead anyone to conclude that this was a good idea. It’s the sort of behaviour that so often leads to a citation in the annual Darwin Awards, presented to those people (actually, let’s be honest, men; it’s always men) who have done most to enhance the human gene pool by removing themselves from it in an extravagantly stupid manner.

In a world increasingly obsessed by Elfin Safety, as I wrote last week, one has to ask: was he properly warned? Did he buy the rocket from one of the major retailers who were being lambasted by the Chief Constable of Northumbria for having fireworks on sale? If you buy a bottle of milk from Tesco, it comes with a small, bright red warning on the back: “Allergy advice: contains milk”. Just in case you missed the same word in much larger but less luridly coloured letters on the front of the pack.

Did the rocket carry an equivalent panel saying “Safety advice: do not ram this projectile it into any part of your body before lighting the blue touch paper”? If not, I sense that some wholesaler or retailer could well be in a lot of expensive trouble as the lawyer elves Blame and Compensation set to work.

On the bigger issue, just how do fireworks depots come to be Iocated on small industrial estates near houses? It’s a mystery on a par with that warehouse full of priceless art in east London which proved to be sharing its premises with a whole host of highly flammable small workshops. Or the Buncefield oil storage depot, surrounded by housing and a huge range of businesses including, surreally, a leading supplier of secure off-site back-up for companies’ IT systems.

I visited a fireworks factory once, in the far-off days when we actually made things in this country. This was very sensibly positioned on an island in the River Trent, and comprised a series of well-separated brick buildings to localise the risk of any explosion. Raw materials were transported very slowly around the site on the back of ancient tricycles. I am not making this up.

The highlight was a demonstration of the firm’s recent diversification into crowd control, which was basically a big firework that discouraged rioters by pelting them with ball bearings. It blew large holes in the cardboard cut-outs they’d assembled for display purposes. Invited to develop a positive PR campaign for this exciting new development, I made an excuse and left at the speed of a rocket exiting from a milk bottle or, indeed, a backside.

Now products like that, and the location of dangerous enterprises near people’s homes, are definitely the sort of thing that any Government should be clamping down on. My well-developed “bah, humbug” instincts tell me that fireworks generally are an anti-social nuisance. But as a libertarian, I feel that it is wrong to prevent people buying them. In general, we should have the freedom to spend our money however we like, so long as we behave responsibly.

The problem is that we have moved into a world where no-one is considered to be a responsible adult any more. Our personal freedoms are ever more constrained as huge teams of officials work around the clock to eliminate even the slightest risk that we might harm or kill ourselves. Yet on a vastly larger scale, oil and fireworks depots continue to go up in flames. Can we really claim to have got our priorities right?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.