Monday, 31 December 2007

2007: annus mirabilis

This was the year that the North-East finally earned its rightful place on the map. Prior to 2007, there was only a white patch in most atlases, with a drawing of a man in a flat cap smoking a tab and leading a whippet, and the inscription “Here be working class people with funny accents”.

As soon as the MP for Sedgefield retired (what was his name again?) the region at last fulfilled its manifest destiny by becoming the place where everything important happened. The first run on a British bank since 1866, the loss of the personal details of half the population, the bizarre Labour donations scandal; even the strange case of the amnesiac canoeist. All born and bred right on our doorstep. Every time I picked up a newspaper, my heart swelled with the same sort of local pride I get whenever I see a Greggs pasty commercial.

Spookily, a year ago I was pointing out that my catchphrase “What could possibly go wrong?” really was the most important question anyone in business could ask themselves. I hate to say “I told you so”, but all this year’s disasters could have been avoided if those concerned had applied their minds to that very question.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Not you, Gordon

One of the curious features of the ageing process is that I have no idea where I was yesterday, or what I am supposed to be doing tomorrow, but I can recall the 1960s with crystal clarity. (I know it is the decade of which they say, if you can remember it, you weren’t there, but I don’t think that applies to children.)

Thus I was one of the few sad people who instantly spotted that last Friday’s “Name the Year” picture could not possibly have been taken in 1965, as claimed, since in the foreground was a 34A trolleybus heading for Walker; and any spotter could tell you (at scarcely believable length) that trolleybuses were withdrawn from that route on June 1, 1963.

A tedious obsession with buses and trains was by no means my least attractive feature at that stage of my life. I was also a bit of an attention-seeker. Clumping into the Akhurst carol service in over-sized wellies so that everyone turned to stare; holding onto the last note of “Away in a Manger” just a fraction longer than all the other boys; that sort of thing. I cringe to think of it now. But, in my defence, I was about six at the time.

Gordon Brown is 56 and he’s still doing it. For a decade as Chancellor, he systematically offended the City by turning up to formal dinners in a crumpled lounge suit, conveying the message “Look at me! I’m much too important to play your silly dressing-up games when I could be sitting at my desk instead, doing extra-hard sums.” But mainly, of course, just “Look at me!”

Now he’s upset the other 26 leaders of the EU by initially refusing to turn up for their treaty signing ceremony, then turning up late, just as everyone else was leaving, and asking to be allowed to sign the thing in private. As though it were something of which he should be ashamed. Funny, that.

I’d have given a loud whoop if he’d refused to sign the treaty at all. I’d have applauded if he’d asserted that it was a nonsensical waste of air miles for every EU leader to go all the way to Lisbon just to put their names to it, when they were meeting in Brussels anyway two days later. I’d start cheering immediately if he acknowledged Labour’s 2005 manifesto promise and held a referendum.

But once again his childish petulance has achieved the worst of all worlds, upsetting opponents and supporters of the treaty in equal measure. There are few precedents for such an indecisive and undiplomatic figure achieving high office anywhere in the world.

I have been trying to find out what the Browns have planned for Christmas, but have drawn a blank, probably because he hasn’t been able to decide yet. Ignore the festivities altogether in the Scots Puritan tradition, or go for a big bash to demonstrate his “Britishness”? Hold the party in Downing Street or Kirkcaldy? Surely we can rule out Chequers, at least: much too Tony and Cherie. On the other hand, it was Maggie’s favourite, and apparently she is an acceptable role model.

Lunch or dinner? Turkey or goose? Christmas cake or panettone? A real or a fake tree? A star or a fairy on the top? It’s enough to drive anyone insane. At least, I hope it is. By 4 p.m. on Boxing Day he’ll probably have agreed to turkey (non-white meat only), and to opening his presents so long as he’s allowed to do it in a private room after everyone else has gone out.

I hope he appreciates my well-intentioned gift: a copy of “How to Make Friends and Influence People”. Admittedly I’d had it for decades, but it had never once been opened.

Do have a very merry 1960s-style Christmas, one and all. Excluding Scottish politicians who can’t manage a credible smile, let alone merriment.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Bah, humbug!

What are the two most depressing words in the English language? I reckon it’s a toss-up between “awards dinner” and “office party”.

The awards dinner invariably features terrible food, tedious company and not quite enough to drink, right up to the point where you realise that you have in fact drunk far too much. The normal consequence is a night awake with terrible indigestion, followed by a major hangover.

It gets far worse if you actually win an award, which will bring with it the sort of curse that makes Tutankhamen look like a rank amateur. I’ve never actually won one myself, but I’ve picked up a few for clients who thought they could avoid the curse by not laying their own hands on the trophy.

Wrong. I’ve had Northern Foods’ award for the best corporate communications of 1992 sitting on my piano ever since, and it certainly didn’t stop everything going to hell in the proverbial handcart.

The formula for the office party is similar to the awards dinner, except that one is usually conscious of having overdone the drink much earlier in the evening. Its disastrous consequences also have the advantage of being technically avoidable. There may be no way of stopping someone from giving you an award, but it is possible to decline an invitation to snog your secretary (or boss) under the mistletoe, or to make amusing photocopies of your body parts.

In fact, it is perfectly possible not to turn up at all. I can say this with confidence as it was the policy I adopted for 20 years, even when I was supposed to be running the company that was holding the party. It never did my career any harm.

Apparently fewer businesses are holding office parties because they are worried about falling foul of the sexual harassment police. This just goes to show that even the most baleful of modern phenomena have their upsides.

Strangely enough I am holding an office party this year. Just me, my remaining Border terrier and a bottle of malt whisky. I’m even going to present him with an award for “Best Dog That Isn’t Dead.”

Think of us as you don your glad rags for your own Christmas celebrations. I hope it adds a little to your merriment.

Keith Hann is an increasingly retired PR consultant.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Not for prophet

Audience feedback isn’t always welcome. Just ask any English comedian who ever appeared at the Glasgow Empire. “Awa’ an’ bile yer heid!” is the only traditional shout from the gallery likely to make it past the Journal censor.

Nevertheless I sometimes find my total obscurity rather depressing. David Banks is always writing about public reaction to his column. Tom Gutteridge was apparently carried shoulder-high through the Central Station by cheering GNER staff after he wrote some nice things about them.

I’ve mentioned GNER on several occasions, nearly always positively, and never even been offered an extra complimentary biscuit. Perhaps I didn’t lay it on thickly enough. Sadly, it’s too late for that now. (Incidentally, did anyone else notice that GNER launched an exciting new website last week, which must be the oddest timing since … well, ever, really? I know IT departments have a bit of a reputation for being self-obsessed, but you’d think someone might have told them the franchise was ending.)

Maybe it’s my tone of voice that’s the problem. Apparently I always sound sarcastic, even when I’m being entirely sincere. Over the years I’ve enjoyed (no, better make that “endured”) a number of relationships with women, and whenever a culinary triumph has inspired me to say, “Mmm, this is really nice”, the response has never been the expected “Thank you, darling” but an angry “What’s wrong with it?” Saying “I love you” usually provoked a slap round the face that sent me flying across the room.

Let me say now, with the utmost sincerity, that the ladies behind the counter of Barclays Bank in Rothbury combine beauty, charm and attentiveness in proportions that could not be bettered anywhere. And if they’d like to show their appreciation for this plug, £50 notes will do nicely.

However, the real point of this piece is to share my triumph last week when I finally got some feedback on a column. Mainly from church-goers of a certain age who shared my views on the awfulness of the modern liturgy. One told me that she had enlarged the piece and pinned it on her church notice board. I started proudly telling a neighbour that my column had been blown up, and he said “That’s way over the top. Just screwing it up and chucking it on the fire does it nicely.”

I also got one complaint, from the gentleman who inspired the article. I’d failed to include the precise date of the end of the world, which is apparently December 23, 2012. It suits me, as I’ve never cared for Christmas, though it does seem a bit of a shame that we’ll have to endure the tedium of the London Olympics and the post-mortems about Britain’s miserable place in the medals table.

Unfortunately my friend is unable to specify whether the world will be ending in the morning or the afternoon, so we’ll just have to sit around all day waiting tensely. If my experience of delivery drivers is anything to go by, the trumpets will sound about ten seconds after one has nipped to the lavatory, and there will just be a card on the doormat saying “We called but you were out.”

Should you feel inclined to brood about this end of the world stuff, I suggest you take a look at Channel 4 tomorrow night, where a self-styled Messiah called Michael Travesser will be explaining why Doomsday failed to arrive on 31 October this year, as he had confidently predicted.

Old Mother Shipton was equally sure, writing that “The world to an end shall come, in nineteen hundred and ninety-one", presumably because it rhymed. Hers was just one of twenty-odd forecasts of doom in the last decade of the twentieth century.

As a devout Catholic friend pointed out, it will definitely happen one day, because the Bible says so. But not, I reckon, on a date that anyone has predicted. Let’s keep those prophecies coming!

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

When, how and why?

I’ve never actually tried sailing a small yacht through a Force Ten storm, but I imagine that it requires the same sort of superhuman effort that a friend and I had to apply to steering the conversation at lunch on Saturday. I was lashed to the wheel while my first mate frantically hauled in sail as we endeavoured to tack away from the big revelation that our guest was clearly determined to share with us. I could have sworn that he was going to “come out”, but the reality was far more surprising: he has found God.

Not only that, but God’s agents down here have revealed to him a number of helpful details of the forthcoming Apocalypse. I’m afraid I can’t share them all with you, since at this point I adopted my Plan B avoidance strategy and got spectacularly drunk. However, I do recall that the end of the world is scheduled for some time in 2012; and that it will be heralded by a catastrophic global economic collapse, starting in the USA. Sounds frighteningly plausible, doesn’t it?

I was remarkably unfazed by this information because I have long had Saturday, February 4, 2012 inked into my diary as the date of my demise. I got that information from a laugh-a-minute website called which calculates life expectancy from one’s Body Mass Index and smoking habits.

It also used to take into account something called “attitude to life”, and I evidently got a heavy markdown for being so relentlessly cynical and negative. Because I’ve just tried the new, simplified version and find that I’ve been granted an extension until March 14, 2028. This rather conflicts with my friend’s theory that the trumpets will have sounded and the four horsemen appeared 16 years earlier.

Such uncertainty is doubtless a good thing. If I really believed I’d be off in a bit over four years, I wouldn’t devote my remaining time to prayer and good works, but waste it in an orgy of appalling self-indulgence. For a start, I’d be off down to the garage to buy 200 cigarettes and a case of whisky rather than sitting here writing this column.

My own religious views can be simply stated. I am a member of the group described by Sir John Mortimer as “Atheists for Christ”. We recognise that all the greatest achievements of western civilisation are rooted in Christianity. We adore ecclesiastical architecture, art and music, and revere the Latin Mass, King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer. We are never happier than when lustily singing traditional hymns. Our problem is that, whenever we fancy going to church to indulge in a bit of that, we find it full of shining-eyed fanatics intent on ripping out the pews, giving us the “kiss of peace” and encouraging us to sway along to karaoke-style sub-Eurovision pop songs, accompanied by twanging guitars.

However, I recognise that we are the ones who are out of step. Religion is on the march almost everywhere in the world, and the Christian fundamentalism that is gaining so much ground in the USA seems at least as strange (and potentially dangerous) as militant Islam.

As I’ve doubtless remarked before, I think that the only answer is to take nothing whatsoever too seriously. Seize every opportunity that comes your way to laugh at Fate. Fortunately, it requires a heart of stone not to laugh at the mess in which Mr Abrahams has landed the Laurel and Hardy of our day, the legendary double act of Brown and Harman.

And if your sense of humour about that is a bit strained, perhaps because you are a Labour Party official, let me draw your attention to a job advertisement from this paper on Friday, seeking an embalmer, the first line of which read: “Applicants must possess good communication skills.” Now make yourself a nice cup of tea and sit down for five minutes to ponder the question: why?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The abominable showman

Has there ever been a time when the North East so completely dominated the national news agenda? Yesterday morning’s bulletin led with the latest chapter in the Northern Rock saga (of which more anon), followed by the strange tale of the Newcastle property developer who channelled his generous donations to the Labour party through two employees to protect his privacy. (That worked a treat, didn’t it?)

Then there were some ongoing rumblings about the disappearance of the personal records of half the population, courtesy of HMRC in Washington. If only a Northumberland-based right-wing extremist could have been added to the slate at last night’s Oxford Union debate (or, as we will no doubt be calling it by now, “riot”), our region would have had a full house. I did send the organisers word that I was available, but they turned me down. Apparently David Irving and Nick Griffin have their reputations to consider.

Of course, it would be rather better for our image if all these North East stories did not revolve around alleged incompetence and inattention to rules. I’ve begun to fear that the Geordie story may be about to displace the traditional Irish joke in the canon of national humour. There are some disturbing parallels, not least in the way that likeable Tyneside voices have become so popular in the broadcast media, as those at home with the Dog displace an older generation who had enjoyed a touch of the Blarney.

We can’t laugh at the Irish any more, not out of deference to political correctness, but because they have actually achieved a per capita national income higher than ours. Their economic miracle owed nothing to the power of prayer, and their traditional, Church-dominated, agricultural society is in what looks like terminal decline. How ironic, then, that the great white hope of the North East should turn out to be a Virgin, and that the business should be headed by a man whose personal grooming makes him look uncannily like a religious icon.

I cannot disagree with the claim on the group website that Virgin is “one of the world's most recognised and respected brands”. I just find it surprising, as I’ve always considered it a thoroughly tasteless name, whether it alludes to the Blessed Virgin or just someone lacking sexual experience. I thought the idea of the British happily boarding a plane or train with “Virgin” blazoned on the side was as likely as any of us walking into a confectioner’s and requesting a “Snickers” with a straight face. Which just goes to show what a hopelessly out of touch old fogey I am.

The only one of Sir Richard Branson’s many branded operations of which I have direct experience is Virgin Trains. It is also the only one of the privatised train operators to make me yearn for good old nationalised British Rail. I did a little jig when they weren’t awarded the East Coast franchise.

I didn’t think their cola was up to much, either. As for the rest of the massive business empire (comprising airlines, holidays, balloon flights, space travel, online gaming, publishing, wedding dresses, entertainment retailing, health and fitness, wines, cable TV, mobile telephones, radio and Saving The Planet, to name but a few), it is a closed book to me and I fear that it is sadly destined to remain so.

The pained expression worn by the Virgin King after his recent abseiling exploit suggests that the world’s number one self-publicist may try something less physically demanding when he arrives as the saviour of Northern Rock. Walking across the lake in Leazes Park may seem an irresistible temptation, but it would be so much better if the rescue could be accomplished without any cringe-making stunts. The employees of Northern Rock deserve no less, while the region as a whole urgently needs to start rebuilding its reputation for serious and quiet competence.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Always look on the bright side of death

I’ve got a face which inspires people to say, “Cheer up, mate! It may never happen!” This always sets the conversation on a downward spiral, since I react very badly to being addressed as “mate” by people I don’t know from Adam. Just ask any van driver who has ever paused to ask me for directions.

Yet the curious thing is that, as I grow older and more miserable, I find myself less inclined to hearken to the prophets of doom. I read here only yesterday that the greatest threat we currently face is the replacement of President Musharraf by religious fanatics who would target Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal on Israel.

I regret to say that my only reaction was to smirk about the jealousy this would cause in Iran, whose regime has been working so industriously to develop its own bomb for that very purpose.

It actually feels quite cosily nostalgic to start worrying again about nuclear Armageddon. It takes me right back to the 1960s. Since then, we’ve had the great Ice Age scare of the 1970s, and the predicted end of electricity through the imminent exhaustion of world copper supplies.

In 1987, the Government sent every household a leaflet entitled “Aids: Don’t Die of Ignorance”, implying that anyone who had sex with a stranger was signing their own death warrant. I’ve followed their advice through two decades of strict abstinence, but can’t help wondering whether it was worth it.

Less than ten years later, we were told that consumers of British beef in the 1980s had probably had their chips. By now, half a million of us were forecast to have died of new variant CJD. Do you know even one of them?

All this paled into insignificance compared with the Millennium Bug, which was going to wipe out civilisation as we knew it. Apparently some $300 billion was spent worldwide on counter-measures. Far be it from me to suggest that this was a total waste of money, given that a sort of civilisation is still with us.

Then there was SARS, necrotising fasciitis, MRSA and bird flu, especially “the deadly H5N1 strain”. This certainly proves deadly to the poultry which contract it, because men in ludicrous white jump suits come along and gas them. Human victims, however, seem to be remarkably thin on the ground.

Every day brings a new food scare, so that by now eating almost anything can be expected to result in painful and premature death. If we don’t expire first from an asteroid impact, or the supreme terror of “irreversible” global warming.

The good news is that “experts” are onto all of these things. The Government apparently has detailed contingency plans for a flu pandemic, including warehouses full of coffins. The climate change intelligentsia are all going to slash their carbon footprints by getting together in Bali to save the planet.

The bad news is that the key feature of disasters is their unpredictability; otherwise there would have been no passengers on the first voyage of the Titanic or the last train over the Tay Bridge.

I don’t believe many people were sitting at their desks in the World Trade Center on 9/11 saying, “Aha! Just as I expected!”

I’m going to die pretty soon in the normal course of events, and I wouldn’t mind at all if everyone else went at the same time. It would avoid that niggling feeling that I might be about to miss something really good, like the episode of Coronation Street in which one of his family finally snaps and bludgeons David Platt to death.

But whether humanity ends with a bang or whimper, sniffle or sizzle, I’ll bet you anything you like it won’t be down to something the “experts” predicted. I do hope we’ll have the strength of character to smile as we draw our last breaths, and say, “Well, who’d have thought it?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Not walking backwards for Christmas

I’m slightly hesitant about raising this week’s topic, after the mauling my new colleague Tom Gutteridge received in Voice of the North for being a terrible name-dropper. (Which, frankly, was a bit like complaining because the Pope wrote a column that kept mentioning religion.)

But here goes: I spent last Tuesday in the company of Her Majesty The Queen. Oh, all right: only a little bit of last Tuesday, and there were a couple of thousand other people there as well. A friend in the House of Lords (whoops, there I go again) kindly sent me an invitation to the State Opening of Parliament, and it would have been churlish not to show up.

The occasion has become so familiar from television that actually seeing the Queen in State, wearing her dazzling crown, no longer has the impact that the “shock and awe” strategy of Majesty must have had when it was devised by Henry VIII. No-one fell spontaneously to their knees; indeed I was surprised by how few of the spectators in the Royal Gallery felt the need to bow or curtsy as their Sovereign passed by.

Even more shockingly to me, the Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain no longer perform their world-famous party trick of walking backwards; an ancient tradition which survived the Blairite streamlining of the ceremony in 1998, but was apparently quietly abandoned in 2003.

Still, it was undoubtedly impressive. Unforgettable, even. Which is saying something given that my brain has been full and failing to register most experiences for at least a decade.

I wish the same could be said for the Gracious Speech. This used to include quite a lot of stuff pertaining to the duties of the Queen herself, such as making and receiving State Visits, plus an overview of international affairs. The inaugural speech of the Brown era was true to form in being monstrously dull and containing absolutely nothing new. Written in short, staccato sentences like a Sun editorial, it was largely concerned with domestic “aspirations”.

At a time when Her Majesty’s forces are engaged in two wars, the fact that they received no mention whatsoever seemed little short of amazing. Wondering whether this was some long-established convention, I looked up the speech that the Queen’s father made to open Parliament in November 1942. Then, the exploits of “My Army, Navy and Air Force” featured prominently. Comparing it with the 2007 version was like trying to find similarities between Shakespeare’s Henry V and an Ant and Dec script.

In the intervening years, we have surrendered not only an Empire and our place among the Great Powers, but all meaningful independence across huge areas of national life. The Parliament that was opened in such style now amounts to little more than a glorified parish council, rubber-stamping instructions from Brussels.

The question is: how did this come about in my lifetime without anyone ever asking whether it was what we wanted? We have had long and furious debates about frankly trivial things like foxhunting, yet massive changes in the very nature of the country proceed apparently inexorably.

At the beginning of her Speech, the Queen announced her Government’s intention “to entrust more power to Parliament and the people”. Towards the end, she said that “Legislation will be brought forward to enable Parliament to approve the European Union Reform Treaty”. So, whatever power may be heading our way, we certainly aren’t going to be allowed to decide on anything important, even if that means reneging on an explicit promise.

No wonder politics is so discredited. The truly radical modernisation would be to let the Prime Minister tell his own lies in future. Then the Queen could make a speech of her own, sharing some of the wisdom she has accumulated in 55 years as Head of State. And if there’s any shortage of people willing to walk backwards before you, Ma’am, The Journal has my phone number.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Change for change's sake

Gordon Brown has proclaimed this as the Age of Change, but it’s not like that where I live. Try handing over a £20 note to pay for The Journal in my village shop, and see how far you get.

Joking apart (because Robert at the shop is a pushover, really), one of the big changes coming up really does involve our small change. I had an ominous email from the Royal Mint last week, announcing that next March they will implement “the biggest design change in British coinage since decimalisation … reflecting a more contemporary, twenty-first century Britain.”

They suggested that I might like to buy a final reminder of the cherished old designs in a limited edition proof set, available in silver, gold or even platinum (the last a snip at just £4,995.00).

I don’t know why my heart sinks at this news. Like most people of my age, I have always considered the decimal coin designs foisted on us in 1968-71 to be embarrassingly babyish, compared with the unique and glorious coinage they replaced. You only had to handle an old penny or half crown to know that this was a country sure of its place in the world. Better than all the others, that is, with their lightweight, tatty currencies.

The nation’s aptitude for mental arithmetic was founded on having four farthings to the penny, twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound. Everyone also enjoyed a free history lesson in their purse or pocket, with every handful of copper likely to yield coins from five reigns.

The images on the reverse of the coins, such as Britannia on the penny, changed little over the centuries. Surely that is how it should be? The symbols of national identity and royal authority are timeless. The most respected British coin around the world, the gold sovereign, has borne the same Pistrucci image of St George and the dragon since 1817.

What will feature on the new coins of switched-on, tuned-in, hip New Britain? Hoodies, crack addicts, asylum seekers? Polish plumbers, Big Brother winners? Verses from the Koran or multi-headed Hindu gods, to demonstrate our much-vaunted cultural diversity?

The downsizing of nearly all our “silver” coins in the 1990s was doubtless intended to soften us up for the introduction of the Euro. But in any case, it fitted smoothly into the multi-front campaign of disorientation that has been waged against us for the last 40 years. One of its most important objectives has been to make us feel that the traditional symbols of Britain are somehow shameful, and eliminate them from national life. When did you last receive an envelope bearing that once ubiquitous legend, “On Her Majesty’s Service”?

Oddly, this latest redesign was conceived in 2005, when the Master of the Mint was one Gordon Brown. A man who suddenly discovered the wonderful value of Britishness, when he realised how hard it was going to be for an MP from a largely autonomous Scotland to govern England.

A further puzzle is that, if the designs on the reverse of our coins are impossibly old fashioned, surely they are less offensive than having the head of an old white woman on the other side? Unveiled, which must seriously upset one important constituency, and underlining the fact that the highest position in the land is denied to virtually all of us (though she is, at least, the descendant of immigrants). Was it coincidence that her latest portrait not only made her look considerably older, but almost changed her tiara to one that did not feature an outrageously Christian cross?

What’s the betting that some favoured New Labour think tank, once it has finished expunging Christmas from our national life, will publish a pamphlet entitled “Off with her head”? I just hope that is only the currency that they will be talking about.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

A candle in the wind

I apologise for my absence last week. Oh, you didn’t notice? While not being under the delusion that you care one way or the other, I was unwell. I had one of those bugs that give you, in random order, a sore throat, hacking cough, streaming nose, aching joints and an overpowering feeling of lassitude. I didn’t bother the doctor. Just went to the post office and obtained assurance that there was a lot of it about.

It’s been going on for a fortnight now, and I still wouldn’t put any money on myself in an arm-wrestling contest with a week-old kitten.

It’s been really lousy timing for two reasons. First, I’m one of those people who is programmed to become depressed anyway as the days grow shorter. Add a bout of physical illness, and I quickly slip over the line from miserable to suicidal.

Secondly, there was something I really wanted to write about last Tuesday, namely the Wandylaw wind farm planning application. Thank goodness I didn’t. A few cynical barbs from me might just have prompted Berwick’s brave councillors to back their planning officers and approve the thing.

I pulled out all the stops for Wandylaw Moor 20 years ago, trying to stop it being dug up for opencast coal. It did precisely no good. In an admittedly sparsely populated area, the majority of locals seemed to be firmly on the side of the developers. Then it was all about “jobs”, which were few and far between, as I recall, and mainly filled by immigrants. Though in those days they only came from County Durham, not Poland.

Of course, I had a personal interest. At the time I was living in a small cottage that looked out onto Wandylaw Moor, writing the definitive comic novel about “Big Bang” in the City. (It’s still waiting for a publisher, 20 years later.) My family had rented the place as a holiday home for most of the 20th century. My mother even claimed to have been born there. It was certainly the place where I’d spent my happiest holidays. I loved it with a passion. Unfortunately I was in a pathetically small minority.

So it was with great delight that I read that this unjustly neglected stretch of moorland between the coast and the Cheviots had finally gathered a respectable fan club, and that the doomed councillors of Berwick-upon-Tweed had decided to go down in style, with flags flying proudly and nearly all guns blazing. Grey men in Whitehall will have reflected how wise they are to eliminate these nuisances and concentrate decision-making power in the hands of reliable Labour stooges from the urbanised parts of the county.

Those who wish to despoil the open, rolling uplands of Northumberland with wind farms have precisely the same mindset as those who burst into the great mediaeval cathedrals intent on smashing their stained glass, whitewashing over their wall paintings and decapitating their icons. Both are motivated by the same spirit of self-righteous do-goodery: then to get back to the true word of the Bible, now in the name of the new religion called “Saving The Planet”.

Behind these well-intentioned vandals lurk exactly the same sort of cynical fat cats. Indeed some of the landowners who have allied with developers to cash in on the ludicrous subsidies for “renewables” are physical as well as spiritual descendants of those who profited so hugely from the stripping of the altars.

Like the Terminator, they will undoubtedly be back. And heaven knows there is enough bad news on other fronts to make me sure that the last thing I want is a long life. But still, for a few minutes last week, the cloud of depression lifted enough to justify cracking open a bottle of champagne and raising a glass to the planning committee of Berwick-upon-Tweed Borough Council. As I believe they say in Australia, “Good on yer, mates!”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The thin and worthless red line

There is apparently no truth in the rumour that a couple in Connaught Square have been threatened with an ASBO by Westminster City Council. This allegedly followed complaints that their neighbours had been kept awake all night by uproarious laughter, as the Blairs repeatedly watched a recording of Gordon Brown’s humiliation at Prime Minister’s Questions last week. Still, it must have been a dream come true, particularly for Cherie.

Who would have predicted that the man with the Big Clunking Fist would land it so unerringly on his own chin? It took Tony Blair years and a hugely unpopular war to destroy his credibility; Gordon Brown has accomplished it in little more than two weeks. The longest courtship in British political history has been followed by the shortest honeymoon.

The divorce, however, could prove a longer-running saga than the current Mills-McCartney bust-up. Mr Brown has a secure majority in Parliament, and no-one can force him to hold a General Election before 2010. So let’s turn our attention to another vote he is determined not to give us – no, please don’t turn over. This may make your eyes feel heavy, but it’s really important.

However much we may dislike Gordon Brown or David Cameron, can’t we at least agree that we’d prefer to be governed by a British politician we stand a chance of removing, rather than some unelected and faceless bureaucrat in Brussels? (There is another issue, about whether a Scot should be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom under the present constitutional settlement, which is hugely unfair to the English, but that is a subject for another day.)

We must all hope that Mr Brown is on rather better form this week, as he defends Britain’s “red lines” at the summit with other European leaders in Lisbon, than he was against Mr Cameron last Wednesday. But we also have the word of the Labour MP who chairs the Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee that these “red lines” are worthless because they will “leak like a sieve”. The same Committee last week confirmed what every other European leader has been saying all along, namely that the Reform Treaty is indeed the rejected Constitution under another name.

Now, since British supporters of the European project are not exactly renowned for telling the plain, unvarnished truth, it is only fair to acknowledge that they are right on one point. This new treaty does not cede as much power to Brussels as the Single European Act, passed with comparatively little fuss in the 1980s, or the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. The latter, shamefully rammed through Parliament by a nominally Conservative government, made us all citizens, without our consent, of the newly created entity called the European Union.

The significance of the new Reform Treaty is that it will complete the transformation of the EU into a state. Once that is done, it will be possible to go on tightening the ratchet of “ever closer union” without ever again seeking the approval of national governments through treaties, let alone consulting their occasionally troublesome electorates.

That is not just the view of some maverick right-wing columnist, going quietly insane on a Northumberland hilltop, but of Gisela Stuart: the German-born (so presumably not naturally Europhobic) Labour MP who was one of Britain’s two official representatives on the Convention that drew up the Constitution.

So, just for once, that cliché about “drinking in the last-chance saloon” is absolutely accurate. No-one under 50 has ever been offered a chance to vote directly on this most important of political issues. And most of us who did vote “yes” in 1975 were conned into believing that we were signing up to a free trade area, not giving away our right to self-government.

We the people must be given the final say that we were explicitly promised at the last General Election. Lobby your MP and sign up now at

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

With a flap and a cluck, his fate was sealed

I shall refrain from the obvious comparison because it is so unfair to the poor old chicken. It has its good name dragged through umpteen unflattering clichés; yet, even when confined under conditions of unimaginable cruelty, it is one of the world’s most efficient generators of protein. It has thereby contributed vastly more to humanity than Gordon Brown has done, or is now ever likely to achieve.

For this was the day when he was scheduled to see the Queen to request a dissolution of Parliament, and make a national broadcast explaining why he needed a fresh mandate for his “age of change”. When a friend asked for my predictions last week, I said that the election would definitely go ahead as the campaign had already gathered so much momentum. In the event of a U-turn, Mr Brown’s credibility would plummet and was unlikely ever to recover.

I was wrong on the first point, but this serves only to reinforce the remainder of my forecast. I do not have space here to run through the complete Blairite charge sheet on why G. Brown was unfit to be Prime Minister, but indecisiveness and political cowardice were high on the list. (They were, after all, the reasons he ended up playing second fiddle to Mr Blair in the first place.) Both accusations have now been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.

For the last few weeks, the Prime Minister had taken his eye off running the country in order to indulge in a series of political stunts. The most egregious of these was his visit to Iraq for the sole purpose of trying to upstage the Tory conference. This was surely the most cynical and odious such manoeuvre since Jo Moore pronounced that 9/11 was “a very good day” to bury bad news. It will go down in history as the moment that the man who came to office promising an end to spin fatally over-reached himself. I look forward to the footage being replayed 30 years’ hence, like Jim Callaghan serenading the TUC with that music hall song back in 1978.

Because although a November election would have been nail-bitingly close, Douglas Alexander and the other “teenagers” in Mr Brown’s team were right; it was the best chance he was ever likely to get. By 2009 the wheels will have come off the remarkable British economic bandwagon that has miraculously kept on rolling since the mid-1990s, and it is hard to see how even Macavity Brown is going to shake off the blame for that.

He has been prodigiously lucky so far, winning approval for his crisis management skills even when behind the Northern Rock drama lay an ineffective system of banking regulation introduced by one G. Brown in 1997. The problems at the Institute of Animal Health, from which the foot and mouth virus escaped, were rooted in budget cuts imposed by G. Brown. Even expenditure on flood defences had been hacked back by … well, you get the picture.

Indeed, almost the only bad news stories of the summer that did not have his fingerprints all over them were the never-ending Diana saga and the abduction of Madeleine McCann. But watch this space: investigations in both cases are continuing.

Although Tony Blair was allowed to strut the world stage for a decade, cosying up to George W. Bush and getting involved in ill-judged overseas adventures, domestic policy was always firmly under the big clunking fist of G. Brown (within the tight limits allowed by our real masters in Brussels). He was also well-known to be the principal roadblock to radical action, particularly in the NHS.

Against this background, how can he now rebuild any credibility as a principled statesman or the agent of much-needed change? I do believe that those distant clucking and flapping noises are the sound of a worn-out metaphor heading home to roost.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

It just isn't fair

In aviation, it is considered that the best way of aligning a pilot’s interests with those of his passengers is to have him sitting right at the front of the plane without a parachute, ensuring that he will be the first to perish if he flies carelessly into a mountain.

I don’t think even the pilots’ union has ever suggested that it would be better to equip him with an ejector seat that would shower him with banknotes as he floated serenely to earth, admiring the vivid colours as his craft exploded.

Yet those are precisely the rules that apply in business, where a failed chief executive can usually anticipate a well-cushioned retirement as his shareholders’ savings and employees’ job prospects crash in flames.

I know several rich and apparently respected individuals whose only claim to fame is that they have brought a public company to its knees. Sometimes, amazingly, they have been given the chance to prove their ineptitude more than once.

Of course, their independent non-executive directors ticked all the right corporate governance boxes as they authorised the compensation package they needed to attract and retain the very best person for the job.

But then they would, wouldn’t they? Given that they almost certainly hold an equivalent executive position elsewhere. Unless they are one of those people whose own career ascent stalled some way short of the summit, prompting them to “go plural” instead.

Theoretically, boards take collective responsibility for failure. Though when it looked like the non-executive directors of Equitable Life might be sued into bankruptcy a few years ago, their squeals of protest were probably picked up by alien spacecraft on the outer fringes of the galaxy.

It amazes me to find myself well to the left of that old socialist Gordon Brown on the issue of executive pay.

In my book, entrepreneurs who have original ideas and risk their own money deserve every penny they get. Those who genuinely transform the performance of an established plc (rather than manipulating financial smoke and mirrors) should also be properly rewarded for the wealth and opportunities they create. But why shouldn’t the price of abject failure be personal ruin and shame?

You don’t need to be a schoolboy to know that anything else just isn’t fair.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who doesn’t court easy popularity.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

No jokes about rocks

Why does anyone ever complain about anything in the media? A few may sense the distant jangle of a sure-fire, jackpot libel payout, but there are plenty of bankrupts and convicted perjurers to attest that this is a strategy fraught with risk.

Like all PR practitioners, I spent a fair chunk of my career trying to persuade angry clients to rise above it. “Hardly anyone will have read it. It’s tomorrow’s chip wrapper.” (It’s not any more, thanks to the Elfin Safety fanatics, but it still sounds more poetic than “already in the recycling bin”.) “They’ll end up reprinting the story to correct it, and it will get far more attention that way. Papers hate admitting they got it wrong. Much better if I have a quiet word with them and they make a note on the file so it never gets repeated. That way, they’ll end up thinking they owe us a favour.”

Most times, it worked. Sometimes it didn’t, and you’d see a note buried away in a corner of page 74. “In our profile of Sir Richard Buggins, chief executive of Gubbins plc, on pages 42-43 on September 26th, we did not intend to imply that he was in the habit of beating his wife. We regret that some readers may have misinterpreted the article in this way, and are happy to confirm that Sir Richard has never laid a finger on Lady Buggins except for approved matrimonial purposes, duly sanctioned by both Church and State.”

And for the rest of his life, whenever two people are gathered together and the name of Buggins crops up, one will wink at the other and lean forward confidentially to say, “Ah, you mean the wife-beater.”

These reflections were inspired by last week’s furore about Ant and Dec. I realised that I was eminently qualified to become a High Court judge when my first reaction to reading about them was to ask “Who are Ant and Dec?” I have never knowingly seen them on the box, and am amazed to learn that they are among the medium’s highest-paid stars. I can’t even begin to imagine why, but I’ll take the showbiz columnists’ word for it that they are “much-loved”.

Or at any rate they were, until they cracked their very lame “joke” about Northern Rock. Which would have passed me by completely if some people had not complained about it, leading it be re-shown on the local news and described frame-by-frame in every national newspaper.

If they turned up on Tyneside tomorrow, one suspects that they might be greeted by a lynch mob rather than a crowd of autograph hunters. It’s all a bit like the McCanns. One minute they’re a tragic (if possibly ever so slightly careless) couple which the nation had taken to its collective heart. The next minute we knew all along that they were a pair of wrong uns and were swamping phone-ins and websites with vitriol. Until we learned that the alleged DNA evidence was actually wafer thin, and began to suspect that the Portuguese police probably just named them as suspects in the hope that they would clear off and stop their media circus blighting what was left of the local tourist trade.

I daren’t take a view in this column whether Ant and Dec or the McCanns are heroes or villains. Not because I’m worried about complaints, but because I have to file this the day before publication, and who knows where public opinion might have shifted in the space of 24 hours. I hope that Gordon Brown bears this fickleness in mind when he is contemplating his massive opinion poll advantage and gnawing down what is left of his nails as he ponders whether to call an election. His lead may look rock solid now, but we all know … No, no jokes about rocks. Just look where they can get you.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

On the rocks

Why was there a run on Northern Rock? Because the Bank of England announced that it was providing it with emergency support. Predictably enough, this had the same calming effect as a pilot telling his passengers that the engines have failed.

Why could Governor Mervyn King not sort the problem out quietly behind the scenes? Because, he says, the European Union’s Market Abuse Directive forbad him from doing so.

What happened when Chancellor Alistair Darling first urged calm? The rush for the emergency exits turned into a stampede. Most commentators attributed this to our loss of trust in politicians, so that we are inclined to believe the opposite of anything they say.

This is a desperate state of affairs. But our leaders have brought it upon themselves by lying to us. Frankly, I don’t know how any of them can keep a straight face when they trot out that line about the EU Reform Treaty being a completely different document from the Constitution, and therefore not requiring the referendum every major party promised at the last election.

They lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, though that could have been a spectacular failure of intelligence rather than a deliberate attempt to deceive. What is certain is that they have been lying about Europe for more than 30 years, since Ted Heath first proclaimed that there would be “no essential loss of sovereignty” in joining the then Common Market.

In every headline issue of the last few weeks, from Northern Rock to foot and mouth disease, we find that real authority rests not with our elected Government but with Brussels. Our only contribution seems to be taking absurd rules and regulations and making them even worse.

The prime example usually cited here is the spectacular mishandling of the farm payments scheme in England, but I think an even better illustration is Home Information Packs (HIPs). These are required to comply with yet another EU Directive on Energy Performance Certificates. As usual, we have managed to make this even more complicated than the EU prescribed.

It was only in May that then Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly was forced to make the humiliating announcement to Parliament that the introduction of HIPs was not going ahead as planned. The word “fiasco” was widely used, and many pundits pronounced the scheme dead. Yet it is already in place for properties with three or more bedrooms.

That’s how anything driven by the EU works. It has no reverse gear. No matter how unpopular or unnecessary a proposal may be, it will be brought back endlessly until resistance is worn down.

Why won’t our political leaders come clean with us on why are tied up in this corrupt, anti-democratic and unaccountable Union? They talk about prosperity and jobs, which had some credibility when the British economy was on its knees in the 1970s, but won’t wash today.

Whenever I’ve argued Euro-enthusiasts into a corner, they usually admit that the economic arguments are bogus and that it’s really all about peace. They say that the EU has preserved it for 50 years. (Untrue: NATO did that.)

It seems to me to take an excessively gloomy view of the German character to believe that the only way to stop the Panzers once again rolling into Poland and France is to allow them to throw their weight around as the biggest player in a new country called Europe, which incidentally fulfils many of Hitler’s most cherished dreams.

But if that really is the reason, and if our acceptance of it is based on an assessment that Britain cannot hope to defend itself against a united Continent, then for heaven’s sake just tell us that. We are grown-ups. We can take it.

Though we might question the wisdom of spending billions on updating our nuclear deterrent, when all essential aspects of our independence have already been surrendered.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

More balls

I had a pint recently with another Journal columnist, who told me that he opens the paper every Tuesday with a shaking hand, in case I have stolen his idea for the week. In the way that one can so easily steal someone else’s parking space by simply driving into it before them.

I told him to think himself lucky. I open The Journal with a shaking hand every single day. But then I am an alcoholic.

I only appreciated the true horror of his position on Saturday, when I found that our beloved Wife in the North had filled half a page with an account of the Conservatives’ Grand Ball I had attended the previous weekend, for the sole purpose of having something to write about.

Of course, I should have covered it last Tuesday, but was unable to do so owing to the massive hangover that I was nursing for 48 hours after the event.

Still, I feel I can’t simply let it go. These things may be a regular event in the O’Reilly household, but the last one I attended was a May Ball at my college in Cambridge 30 years ago. They served swan, because they can. It isn’t up to much. Say what you like about the grimness of life Up North, but we certainly have better ingredients. As well as bigger breasts.

Because Judith O’Reilly, not being a paid-up, die-hard Tory like myself, has unfortunately blown the cover on our secret weapons. We have a massive advantage in the bust department. (And we’ll have no jokes about that being where George Osborne would lead us.) The phone lines have apparently been red hot all week as Alan Beith has desperately contacted glamour modelling agencies in an attempt to shore up his campaign team. But in his heart he must know he’s doomed. Mention Jordan to him and it’s a penny to a pound he’ll think you’re wanting a serious discussion about the geopolitics of the Middle East.

The world’s largest unsupported bosom wasn’t actually at my table at the Ball. Its owner was located in the grander surroundings of the castle itself, surrounded by assessors from a well-known Book of Records. But there was a fine if slightly less ambitious display in my corner of the adjoining marquee. Maybe the organisers of the Alwinton Show might like to consider making this an additional category, between the giant leeks and the dressed sticks, to maintain public interest in the face of the livestock movement ban.

The fact that one of the blokes on my table had a shaven head confused the picture a little as the evening wore on, but apart from that it was just heavenly. I fell madly in love with a lady opposite, but I don’t think it can have been reciprocated as I definitely gave her my card and I’ve been checking my answering service and emails every ten minutes for well over a week now, with precisely no result.

Of course, she might have been put off by my accidental presence in the epicentre of the scandalous kissing incident. Where I live, you don’t often see two attractive women snogging each other, unless you caught the Theatre Royal’s recent production of Aspects of Love. In Dave’s inclusive new Tory party, we take this sort of thing in our stride. Though obviously it’s a bit discouraging for the lucky chaps who had brought the participants along as their partners. Rather like being the England football coach and having your promising new signing turn up for his first training session dressed in whites and pads, with a bat gripped under his arm.

So there you have it. We Conservatives have larger breasts, racier girls and bigger Balls. Oh, and better policies, obviously. Come on Gordon, don’t be shy. Bring that election on.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Why tasting beats wasting

Wartime food rationing in the UK finally ended on 4 July 1954, a month after I was born. It would probably have been better for me if it had continued. We know that the general health of the population improved during the war. The suicide rate also plummeted, and there was allegedly a spirit of national solidarity that we have been seeking to rebuild ever since. There is a whole generation, comprising the young adults of 1939-45, who will gladly tell you that it was the best time of their lives. Though this could just prove that young adulthood is the best time of anyone’s life, however unpromising the conditions.

Whilst people of my age were brought up in a country that had “never had it so good”, we were raised by parents whose experiences meant that they simply loathed waste. Food never ended up in the bin. If I didn’t clear every scrap from my plate, I got a lecture about starving children in Africa.

How times have changed, I reflected as I read a leaflet delivered by the council last month. Apparently in Alnwick District alone, 3,400 tonnes of food each year is consigned to landfill. In order to cut this down, the authorities make a series of staggeringly patronising suggestions: “Before you shop, try and have some idea of the meals you are going to make over the coming week; check what you already have in the house; make a list of what you need …”

Blimey, who’d ever have thought of that? It goes on: “Stick to your shopping list; don’t be tempted to buy things that you don’t need or will not be able to use (the biggest culprit is buy one, get one free offers); check the use by dates on the products and avoid buying if you will not use them within that date.”

Coming soon from your council: an illustrated guide demonstrating the right way to sit on a toilet, with handy hints to reduce paper usage.

Quite apart from my indignation at paying tax to fund the production of this litany of the unbelievably bleeding obvious, I was struck once again by the contemporary tyranny of the “use by” date. I subsisted through most of last winter on a stockpile of tinned soup that either bore use by dates between 1994 and 1996, or had been produced before anyone even thought of adding use by dates to tinned food. I regularly retrieve things from the freezer that have been there for a decade, and find them perfectly palatable. Amazingly, I am still very much alive at the time of writing.

Over the years I had defended my soup collection against numerous relationship-threatening assaults by passing girlfriends, determined to consign them to the bin. Once, when my back was turned, one actually succeeded in emptying my fridge, throwing out a superb range of jams and marmalades. This was particularly galling as the use by dates on their lids related to the original contents and not their actual ones, all of which had been lovingly handmade by my aunt. I still wake up with a start at nights sometimes, reliving the awful sense of loss.

The only thing I can find in my pantry now that is apparently not destined to become lethal after a certain date is a packet bearing the following legend: “Sugar is a natural preservative and if stored in a cool dry place will keep indefinitely”. I can’t help feeling that someone in Silver Spoon’s marketing department is missing a trick here, and that they will soon wake up to the fact that they might sell more of the stuff if people could be persuaded to chuck it away.

So I’ll end with another patronising thought: if it looks and smells edible, it probably is. Go on, use your common sense. Taste it before you waste it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Princesses and pontificators

I’d like to begin by offering a few words of consolation to all those readers who are still mourning the demise of the people’s Princess. Unfortunately, however, I am completely unqualified to do so, because I’ve never once set foot on the Tuxedo Princess in all its 23 years tied up at Gateshead Quay.

You may think that it would be impossible for anyone to confuse a rather tired leisure venue by the Tyne Bridge with the sainted ex-wife of Prince Charles, but stranger things have happened. My lunch last Thursday was marred by accidentally sitting next to the ultimate pub bore, who was set off by a passing mention of Diana to deliver a defect-by-defect account of the Austin Princess he had owned in the 1970s, with special reference to the fundamental error in the production process that made the model particularly susceptible to rust. I was so crazed with boredom that, if a completely paralytic Frenchman had staggered in and asked if anyone fancied a high-speed run through the Tyne Tunnel in his Mercedes, pursued by a white Fiat Uno full of paparazzi, I’d have been the first to volunteer.

Diana’s end may have been tragic and untimely, but at some point it was inevitable. Indeed, people used to say that nothing in this world was certain apart from death and taxes, though admittedly that was before our beloved hedge fund managers and non-domiciled billionaire community found a way round the little local difficulty of handing over money to the Government. I believe they’re still working on death, though they may have found the answer to that, too. Let’s face it, if they have, they certainly won’t be sharing the secret with the likes of us.

Nevertheless, one still finds a lot of rather dim people pontificating about things being “inevitable”. Not so long ago, we were told that about Britain’s entry to the euro, fans of which seem to have gone strangely though delightfully quiet in recent years. I am old enough to remember when the global triumph of communism was widely considered to be inevitable. So too, in their day, were the triumphs of Hitler, Napoleon and the invincible Spanish Armada.

Last week the North East Chamber of Commerce weighed into the battle on unitary councils, calling on the district authorities not to pursue a legal challenge that could only “delay the inevitable”. The phrase “Chamber of Commerce” may conjure up for you a room full of well-fed and faintly comical local businessmen in the mould of Captain Mainwaring or Arkwright the grocer, but this body is one of the “key stakeholders” whose views apparently count for so much more with Government than those of ordinary electors.

The Chamber is no doubt right in saying that unitary councils are what the Government wants, to entrench its own party political advantage and destroy proper representation of those irritating people who live in rural backwaters and stand in the way of what the French call “grands projets”.

But that doesn’t alter the fact that it is one of the two most outrageously anti-democratic decisions of our time. The other being the denial of the promised referendum on the European Constitution on the grounds that re-branding it as a Reform Treaty makes it something completely different. This is what is technically known as a big fat lie.

If politicians persist in doing precisely the opposite of what we have voted for, how on earth do they ever expect to recover public respect or encourage greater participation in elections?

It behoves all of us to just say no, as frequently and loudly as we can, to these fundamental denials of our rights. I’m not known for my optimism but, if we make a big enough fuss, they may yet turn out to be no more inevitable than a grimly maudlin tenth anniversary memorial disco night to commemorate the Tuxedo Princess being towed down-river.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Because we really care

Why on earth do they do it? “They” being large corporations whose mission statements emphasise that they care for their customers above all else.

Yet how do they treat us if we try to get in touch with them? First they make us run a ludicrous, multiple choice obstacle course on our telephone key pads. And if that does not shake us off, they put us through to a call centre on the other side of the world where the poorly paid staff are equipped only to read out pre-determined answers to a handful of blindingly obvious questions.

They know that customers hate this. That’s why “a direct line to your branch” and “UK only call centres” feature so prominently in the advertising of certain banks and insurers. So the others can only be persisting with it because it’s cheap; and because not enough of us are summoning the energy to take our custom elsewhere.

For the last few weeks I’ve had a problem with my emails: rather a lot of them simply vanish, and are neither delivered nor returned. It’s a bit of a lottery, like checking a bag onto an airline, only with even worse odds. I’d stand a much better chance of getting through by old-fashioned snail mail, but I’ve got attached to the principle of instant communication, so I wanted to get it sorted out.

I knew it would be a hellish process. The last time I had a serious IT issue I spent two solid hours on the phone to a very charming young man in India, who finally concluded that my problem was insoluble and regretfully hung up on me. Remarkably enough, given my technical illiteracy, I worked out the solution myself about ten minutes later.

While I was looking up the right phone number on the Internet, I came across reams of postings from aggrieved customers. Amongst these were many claims to have discovered the Holy Grail of IT problem-solving: a number that would get you straight through to a customer support centre in the UK with knowledgeable, interested and helpful staff. “They” had swiftly responded by making all these numbers unobtainable.

I’d wonder if the British IT support centre were not simply another urban myth, if I did not have a friend who got transferred to one after she had been reduced to tears by the uselessness of the overseas operation. The next time she rang, she naturally asked to speak to the same individual and was told that no such person or facility existed, before being treated to a stern lecture about racism.

By some mischance, I got through to sales rather than technical support. Well, I thought, they keep advertising fabulous broadband packages that sound much better value than mine, so why don’t I have one of those? You’ll know the answer already, of course. They’re for new customers, like those amazing interest rate offers you see from some banks. Why should we give it to you, sucker, we’ve got you hooked already? But amazingly, after long periods listening to music while consultations took place, it was agreed that I could upgrade. Yippee!

I then got transferred to technical support and started explaining my problem. “Ah,” he said very slowly, “It’s because you’ve ordered an upgrade.” I patiently explained that I had done that about five minutes earlier, while my email problems had been going on for weeks. But he just kept repeating the answer on his card: I must expect my broadband service to be intermittent or even non-existent while they were in the process of upgrading it. (A bit of an issue for someone like me in the communications business, and one that sales might just have mentioned in passing, don’t you think?)

I gave up at that point and am sitting at home with my fingers crossed. I wonder if this email will ever reach The Journal?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Passing Titans

Today I’d like to mark the passing of two huge British institutions, whose demise was foreshadowed last week: Dawn French and GNER. People wept openly in the streets after one announcement, but greeted the other with shoulder-shrugging indifference. I certainly did. But then I’ve long had rather a soft spot for GNER, while finding Ms French about as funny as a broken pelvis.

Dawn French herself broke the news that she is retiring to Cornwall to die. She’s only just coming up to 50, though a glance in the mirror would tend to confirm her supposition that she will not make old bones. Apparently she’s known it since the age of six. Once one has been granted that revelation, I suppose the temptation to say “what the heck” and have that extra slice of pie must be irresistible.

She did not actually set a date for her death, so her many fans will have plenty of time to pray, and to lay in stocks of beer and snacks for the inevitable re-runs of her finest work when she does hand in her dinner pail. Here’s hoping that the BBC majors on The Vicar of Dibley, which was redeemed even for me by its brilliant supporting cast, rather than the excruciating Wild West or Jam and Jerusalem.

The end of GNER, by contrast, will follow a strict timetable. (Now there’s a first.) The Department for Transport has decreed that new franchisee National Express will take over the East Coast main line on 9 December. Could there be a better time to change the entire management of the country’s premier rail route than immediately in advance of the Christmas rush?

National Express will apparently be spending a lot of money repainting trains in a more contemporary style, ditching those irrelevant old crests, and giving their onboard staff some snappier togs. I can’t help wondering whether all the investment in paint jobs and new uniforms since rail privatisation has been the best possible use of funds. But then I’m an old fogey who rather liked GNER’s midnight blue livery and its attempt to recapture the spirit and style of the great days of train travel.

I commuted between Alnmouth and King’s Cross every week for nigh on 20 years. In that time I had many more chuckles out of GNER than I’ve ever had from Dawn French, though admittedly they were usually in circumstances where one either had to laugh or cry. It’s funny how disaster always struck when one was in a tearing hurry to get to a meeting, lunch or show, and never when one had all the time in the world.

Still, at least GNER gave the impression of caring about their customers in a way that made a refreshing change from the jobsworth mentality of British Rail. And I’ve also seen enough of the UK’s other train operators to know that GNER were much the best of an admittedly questionable bunch.

So I shall miss them. Along with the numerous anorak-wearing nerds who will undoubtedly be crowding platforms and trains in the final weeks. I’d book your seat now, and maybe take your own mug with you. Those crested cups, glasses and cutlery will be in strong demand from souvenir hunters.

I do empathise with Ms French in one respect. I also retired to the country to die shortly before my 50th birthday. Not only have I failed to do so, but my health has improved exponentially since I cut out the weekly stress of travelling to London. Maybe Cornwall will have the same positive effect on her, particularly if she also goes a bit easier on those Terry’s Chocolate Oranges.

So, farewell then. I’m sure that both these great national icons will be fondly remembered. But I reckon that Hornby will still be turning out replicas of those rather gorgeous blue trains long after the very last Dawn French DVD has been de-listed.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

A window on the soul

I met an angry woman in the village shop the other day. Nothing unusual about that: I meet angry women all the time, albeit less frequently than when I lived with one. This encounter was striking because the lady was incensed by something I thought only I cared about: windows. She’d turned her back for a minute, and yet another of her neighbours had had their old, wooden sash windows ripped out and replaced with hideous uPVC ones. Which stick out on a historic building like a huge comedy red nose on the face of a much-loved grandmama.

The only consolation I could offer was that there aren’t too many more people in the village who can pull this stunt, since the men in unmarked white vans have now conducted their campaign of vandalism and uglification pretty comprehensively.

When it started, I was concerned enough to ring up the council and complain. The village is supposed to be a conservation area, after all. Ah yes, they said, but that doesn’t stop permitted developments, like putting in new doors and windows. In fact I struggled to find out what it did prevent, apart from felling trees without permission, or erecting visible satellite dishes.

This surprised me, as I used to have a flat in a conservation area in London. The main benefit of this was that all the houses retained their original fenestration (as they call windows in Pimlico). The sight of any plastic-mongers in a white van would have brought officialdom down upon the perpetrators like a host of avenging angels.

Not so in Northumberland, I discovered. If you spot a beautiful old farmhouse having its original windows ripped out, just shrug your shoulders regretfully and avert your eyes, unless it happens to be on the register of listed buildings. Then no effort will be spared to ensure that the destruction is prevented or made good.

I cannot even begin to understand the thinking behind this “new windows” craze. If you choose to live in an 18th or 19th century house, it’s presumably because you like old buildings. Would you go and buy an antique chest of drawers, then remove all its original handles and replace them with plastic knobs from Poundstretcher? Would you invest in a classic car for the express purpose of replacing its leather seats with new vinyl ones? I venture to suggest that the only correct answer to these rhetorical questions is “no”. So why should houses be any different?

No doubt some happy customer or rich supplier will write in to point out that uPVC windows offer improved insulation and are therefore playing a valuable part in the “fight against global warming”. So does aluminium secondary double glazing. And both that and good, old-fashioned wood are free from the numerous deadly chemicals involved in the production and disposal of uPVC.

In fact, the angry lady in the shop conjured up a nightmare vision of her neighbours trapped behind their efficiently sealed windows in the event of fire, perishing from the noxious fumes released by the burning plastic. It sounded like Dante’s Inferno, only a lot nastier. If it ever happened, I got the strong feeling that she was looking forward to shouting “serves you right!”

Still, at least I can offer some consolation to those old stick-in-the muds who share my prejudice. Each generation seems to regard the previous one’s “home improvements” with total horror, and spends a fortune reversing them. Back in the 1960s, people had a fetish for ripping out Victorian fireplaces, and nailing sheets of plywood over panelled doors. (Acts of desecration which were at least invisible to passers-by.) Much effort has since been spent repairing this damage. One day, I predict, uPVC windows will be no more than a horrid memory, just like wind farms. It’s almost enough to make me wish for a Government-approved long life.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Seeing conspiracies everywhere

Only three things upset me on Saturday, making it a pretty good day by my standards. The first was the discovery that Powburn Show had been cancelled owing to the foot and mouth scare. I drove home wondering whether this could be yet another wicked Labour conspiracy against the persecuted farming sector, designed to show Gordon in a good light (concerned, decisive and able to return swiftly to return to London to take personal charge of the crisis, since he wasn’t holed up in some superannuated pop star’s villa on the other side of the Atlantic). The subsequent revelation that the virus probably came from a nearby Government laboratory did nothing to lessen this suspicion.

Forced to spend the afternoon reading the press rather than inspecting giant leeks, scrumptious scones and lovingly coiffed sheep, I was then thoroughly upset by a letter in this newspaper from Mr Dave Pascoe, who billed himself as Press Secretary of the Hartlepool Branch of the UK Independence Party. This contained an intemperate attack on the “slavish” pro-New Labour line of columnist Paul Linford, and on The Journal’s editorial policy for failing to reflect the fact that “not everyone follows the liberal-leftist-Guardianista agenda” and ruthlessly confining any such views to the letters columns.

Oh dear. I’ve been called many things in my time (though “rude” and “fat” have tended to predominate, if I’m honest). But “leftist” has never featured on the list before. I pride myself on making this column at least as barking in its Tory anarchism as anything in “Voice of the North”. And then there’s my Thursday counterpart Willy Poole. He used to be almost a neighbour of mine, and it is true that the word “red” often features in local conversations about him. However, this is most definitely a reference to the impressive colour of his face, rather than to any political bias.

I could only conclude that Mr Pascoe does not read our columns, or does not understand them. I agonised for a bit about this. Does anyone actually read this stuff, apart from my loyal auntie in Morpeth? Philosophically speaking, if no-one reads it, does it still exist? Is it pitched on such a high intellectual plane that it eludes normal human comprehension? Why would anyone continue to read a weekly column guaranteed to annoy him, and ignore ones with which he would almost certainly agree wholeheartedly? It’s a puzzle, but at least it’s probably not a conspiracy, which makes a pleasant change.

Funnily enough, I received precisely one response to my column two weeks ago, which concluded with the rhetorical question: “Where should we look for a Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela with the vision and determination to lead England on its own long walk to freedom?” The answer I received (not from Mr Pascoe, who clearly does not know that I exist) was “Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party”. I’ve done a bit of research on Mr Farage, and he certainly appears to have some Churchillian qualities, although in his professed enthusiasm for real ale he seems to have picked the one form of alcohol of which Sir Winston was not an epic consumer.

However, while I agree with nearly all UKIP’s political philosophy, somehow I don’t think I shall ever bring myself to vote for it. It seems to have a track record of spirited infighting far exceeding that of the various Palestinian communist factions so deftly satirised in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Then there’s all that unfortunate PR about illegal donations and current and former MEPs facing charges of fraud. It could be another establishment conspiracy, I suppose. But then again …

The third thing that upset me was an uninvited caller on Saturday afternoon. You move to the middle of nowhere, disconnect your doorbell, unplug the telephone, and still they come. Now surely that’s got to be some sort of conspiracy?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

An outrageous decision

Apparently it’s rained a bit in the south of England. You’d never know it from the media, would you? Actually, I found the saturation (no, stop it) coverage quite encouraging. Despite the relentless efforts of various welly-booted presenters to work their interviewees into a tearful frenzy, most seemed to be reacting to their predicaments with those traditional British qualities of calmness, understatement and good humour.

After that road crash in Paris ten years ago, I was surprised to find myself suddenly living in a country full of flower-strewing hysterics. But clearly some old-fashioned values still prevail, even after the long and emotional “modernising” premiership of Mr Blair.

When he was finally carted off the stage, we were promised two things by supporters of his successor. First, that he wasn’t really the dour, Puritanical Scot of popular myth; and, secondly, that he was going to listen to the people. And so, up to a point, he has. Witness the popular U-turns on the Manchester super-casino and (potentially) the classification of cannabis and 24-hour drinking. All of which are, oddly enough, just the sort of initiatives that might be expected to appeal to a dour, Puritanical Scot. If he were one, which he isn’t.

Perhaps we had better leave the jury out on that, and keep a look-out for tell-tale signs like the smoking ban being extended to prohibit candles on birthday cakes, or the consumption of confectionery in public places.

What is certain is that Mr Brown is only prepared to listen to the people if they tell him what he wants to hear. This isn’t a partisan criticism: the same goes for all our party leaders in certain “no go” areas like capital punishment, immigration and European integration. To which we must now add the structure of local government. Even though I correctly predicted some months ago that the public consultation on unitary authorities was a total sham, and that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, few things have outraged me more than last Wednesday’s announcement from the perennially chirpy Hazel Blears.

Where is this alleged “consensus” on the need for change? Being middle class and childless (as my personal contribution to the fight against global warming), I have no exposure to the really big local authority budgets for education and social services. I can rely only on my experience of refuse collection, which my district council conducts with exemplary efficiency; and of road repairs, in which the county council’s performance can be described as shambolic at best. So how come it is the district council which gets abolished?

On all fronts, decision-making is becoming ever more remote from the ordinary voter. The imposition of elected mayors or cabinets has already reduced most councillors to the level of lobby fodder; now they are to be ruthlessly culled. As if that were not enough, even the urban-dominated unitary authorities will be stripped of their planning responsibilities for major projects like airports, power stations and roads, to ensure that they are fast-tracked in the “national interest”.

Whose interest, exactly? We seem to be falling into the error of believing that anything which makes money for anyone is good. It cannot be stated too often that it does not buy happiness, even if it allows some to be miserable in spectacular comfort. Are we really content to lose all control over our lives so long as we have an ever-growing supply of convenience food, new trainers and flat-screen, high-definition TVs?

The problem is that, as the reaction to the floods demonstrated, the English (when sober) tend to be rather passive. We’ve tried politely telling the Government that we don’t want a single unitary authority for Northumberland, or further transfers of our sovereignty to Brussels, and have been treated with total contempt. It may go against our natures, but surely the time to start shouting loudly is right now, before our local and national democracy is gone forever.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Imperial dreams and nightmares

I’m probably the last person in Britain to observe Empire Day, which falls on May 24, Queen Victoria’s birthday. So I’ve naturally been heartened by the revival of media interest in imperial history this year. We’ve had Victoria Wood’s global travels in search of the legacy of her namesake; various retrospectives on the Falklands War and the handover of Hong Kong; and a current Channel 4 series, Empire’s Children, in which assorted worthies relive their colonial childhoods.

Of course, no self-respecting TV producer would lose an opportunity to point out the strangeness of a small, wet island off north-west Europe dominating so much of the planet. (“Barmy” was Miss Wood’s searing insight.) Or to point out how appallingly we treated the people we once called “natives”, who were clearly morally superior to ourselves.

Yes, greed and cruelty were involved in the creation of the British Empire. But for most of its history, those who ran it truly believed that they were doing good; and it is widely acknowledged that our history as colonisers compares favourably with those of the other European imperial powers, or indeed with the United States in its treatment of native Americans. Writing of the archetypal, well-intentioned Englishman in 1922, the philosopher George Santayana concluded “Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master.”

He could so easily have been describing Tony Blair. It was exactly that old, imperial spirit of Christian do-goodery which inspired his many overseas interventions, from Kosovo to Iraq. One of the more successful, in Sierra Leone, even took us back into a West African colony which had fallen into chaos since our departure.

It seems hugely ironic that, just a decade after abandoning our last great imperial possession in the Far East, we find ourselves part of another empire. At least according to European Commission president José Manuel Barosso, who sees the European Union as just that. The parallels are certainly striking. Fans of the EU are always telling us how tiny the Brussels bureaucracy really is. Where have I heard that before? Oh yes, when just 1,500 British civil servants ruled over 300 million Indians.

Even more chillingly, there is the same patronising sense of superiority that did so much to get up the noses of our former subjects. Every European leader except ours is bragging about how they have managed to smuggle through every essential feature of the rejected EU Constitution in their new treaty. Luxembourg’s PM helpfully advised Gordon Brown to avoid a public debate here, as it would draw attention to the transfers of sovereignty involved. A former Italian PM has spoken of how the treaty has deliberately been made unreadable so that it will be harder to conduct popular referenda.

Empires can survive only through collaboration and consent, or the application of terror. The new imperialists of Brussels are fortunate to have secured the collaboration of virtually the whole British political class, who have cast themselves in much the same role as the former maharajahs of India: keeping their status and perks, while real power resides elsewhere.

As for the terror option, Britain is consistently the most sceptical country in the EU about political integration. It is also the one that has gone furthest in creating the Big Brother apparatus of CCTV surveillance, DNA testing and databases. Is that coincidence or forward planning?

Let us freely admit that many supporters of the European Empire are genuine idealists. But their vision is old-fashioned, inward-looking and obsessed with pettifogging regulation. Precisely because Britain once ruled so much of the world, we are uniquely well placed to be open to all of it. It looks certain that Mr Brown won’t give us the referendum we were promised. Where should we look for a Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela with the vision and determination to lead England on its own long walk to freedom?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Misers rule OK

Last week’s Radio Times contained a special supplement: “70 Easy Ways You Can Save The Planet”. This was a misnomer. The planet can take care of itself, and will doubtless continue
spinning merrily away until it is consumed by our dying sun in about eight billion years’ time.

No, what the New Puritans are concerned about is not the Earth itself, but Life. Particularly human life, and the more photogenic animals (though not cattle and sheep, which are methane-generating baddies.)

At a conference not so long ago, I gently mocked a distinguished client for making some remarks which struck me as being only a short step away from hugging trees. In return, he pointed out that I was perhaps a wee bit unusual in not caring whether the human race survived beyond the end of next week.

He attributed his more conventional view to having grandchildren, which I certainly envy. The only snag is that you can’t get them without having children first, and I never had the stomach for that. Or, rather, I did have the stomach and it proved an insuperable barrier to procreation.

Anyway, what did these 70 ways to save our species amount to? A miser’s charter, that’s what. Turn down the thermostat, have showers not baths (but not for more than three minutes, please!), get rid of your car and tumble dryer, don’t waste food, eat less meat, only wash your towels once a fortnight. That’s only 10% of the gems, but you get the gist.

I look forward to the NHS seizing on the many bright ideas to reduce the frequency of cleaning and the temperatures at which it should be done. And to the entirely predictable consequences.

My somewhat cynical and contrarian point of view rests on the following simple observation: whenever the great mass of experts (whether scientists, medics or economists) line up on one side of a question, it is usually a pretty good idea to take a very close look at the opposite viewpoint, however unfashionable it may be.

The odd thing is that, in my daily life, I tick most of the boxes to qualify as a dedicated Green. I don’t fly, I drive as little as possible, I buy locally-produced food whenever I can, and I totally abhor waste. If it weren’t for the minor issue of smell, Alnwick District Council could probably get away with emptying my non-recycling bin about once a quarter.

I believe that this is largely a generational thing. I have inherited the prejudices of my parents, who were born in the Edwardian era, were young adults during the depression of the 1930s, and then survived the Second World War. Hence they were accustomed to scarcity, and threw virtually nothing away. To them I seemed unbelievably spoilt (and no doubt I was) with my wind-up Hornby train and dozen Dinky cars. Their childhoods were the stuff of Monty Python sketches. How they would have gaped if they had lived to see the rooms full of plastic tat and electronic gizmos that my younger godchildren play with (and the older ones, too, if they think that no-one’s looking).

The Government’s latest bright idea is to abolish the conventional geography syllabus, to focus on teaching children how to “Save The Planet”. My old teacher Dusty Rhodes would be turning in his grave, if only he were dead. This is not geography, but Religious Education.

Every human faith enjoins its followers to live frugally and responsibly: it’s the right thing to do. I just wish that the eager zealots for the new religion of “Saving The Planet” would recognise that they are going back to some extremely old ideas, rather than discovering exciting new ones. Once they have grasped that, perhaps they could take the welcome step of preaching to the rest of us with just a little less bright-eyed zeal and self-righteousness.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Was it all some ghastly dream?

Perhaps the most striking thing in last week’s gruesome BBC documentary about Mrs Blair was her account of how the former Prime Minister proposed. Traditionally, it’s the man who gets down on one knee. In the Blairs’ case, Cherie was already on both of hers as she cleaned the lavatory of a villa in Tuscany at the end of their summer holiday. It wasn’t that unappealing vision which really got to me, though, but her weary revelation that they had had to “drive all the way there” because Tony in those days was “terrified of flying”.

This raised the interesting question of when he developed this phobia. Clearly it must have been after the teenage Blair claims to have tried to stow away on an admittedly non-existent flight from Newcastle to the Bahamas. About the time that he used to stand on the Kop at Newcastle Wanderers’ famous St John’s Park, and watch the long-retired Jackie Milburn score enthralling goals.

Another documentary on The Last Days of Tony Blair revealed a man who first got interested in politics around the age of 20, when he also became a committed Christian. Surely faith should eliminate any fear of flying? If God cares, he’ll look after you. And, if not, you’ll have the joy of meeting him all the sooner. The programme also showed us someone who was rarely out of the air, whether on international jaunts, quick trips to Sedgefield, or dropping in on lucky schools by helicopter.

Just imagine how different things might have been if he hadn’t got over his alleged phobia. No regular tête-a-têtes with George W. Bush, unless they had met on a battleship in mid-Atlantic, like Churchill and Roosevelt. No surprise visits to depress the troops on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. No shuttle diplomacy. Many fewer EU summits, and those reached by trains that would have brought him into some sort of contact with everyday reality.

Can it be a pure coincidence that, when Britain was at the apogee of its power, our leaders rarely left the country? It has been downhill all the way since they got into the habit of flying. The most infamous such journey was surely that made by Neville Chamberlain in 1938, when he bravely boarded his first-ever flight to meet Herr Hitler and secure “peace in our time”. Many think of Chamberlain as simply a gullible old fool, but Mr Blair described him last week as “someone who tried desperately to do the right thing by the country”. Suggesting that he knows very well which wartime PM history is likely to compare him with, and it won’t be Churchill.

Chamberlain’s legacy was the belief that it is never a good idea to appease dictators. This led Anthony Eden into the disastrous Suez invasion of 1956, and Anthony Blair into the even more catastrophic operation to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Mr Blair fondly believes that his own legacy is “a different approach to politics which gets beyond the old divisions between Left and Right.” Or, to put it another way, ending up equally loathed by both sides.

It’s never easy to tell which, if any, parts of Mr Blair’s strange story are not pure fantasy. Did he ever really fear flying? If so, he should have stuck with it in the interests of world peace and his own self-preservation. He’d have been able to present himself as so cloyingly Green that neither Gordon nor Dave would ever have got a look-in at 10 Downing Street.

If he did have a phobia, how was he cured? Could it have been through hypnotism? Meaning that, at any moment, someone like Paul McKenna could snap his fingers and we’d discover that nothing in the last decade was Tony’s fault after all, as he’d been “under” all the time. Even better, maybe we’d all snap out if it, and discover that it was just a ghastly dream.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.