Tuesday 30 January 2007

An enemy of authority

How do you pay your bills? (Darras Hall and other readers who don’t actually pay their bills may prefer to stop here, and turn to the death notices on page 12.)

I pay an ever-increasing proportion of mine by direct debit, a concept sold to me by numerous organisations as being much simpler and more convenient than cheques. And so it is. For them. I feel rather pathetic for having been bribed and bullied into doing something so much against my better judgement, but at least I’ve got a fine collection of £50 discount vouchers off holidays and the like, handed out to thank me for signing direct debit forms. Most of these vouchers expired on or around 31 December 1994, but at least they gave me a brief warm glow of feeling that I was getting something for nothing.

I feel quite nostalgic for the old standing order, which worked a bit like a pump. Primed to push a predetermined amount of money out of your bank account into someone else’s, at intervals of your choosing. The direct debit, by contrast, converts your account into a sort of well, into which a bucket may be dipped for variable amounts whenever it takes the dipper’s fancy.

I think annual dippers are the most insidious. Or do I mean invidious? Both, in fact. You spot the payment on your bank statement (if you bother to check it), sigh and think you really must get round to cancelling it. But, hey, there’s 11 months to go and the pubs are open. So, one year on, you open your bank statement, sigh and… Go on, do it now. Write to the bank. You know it makes sense.

But if direct debits are bad, they’ve got nothing on the ‘continuous credit card authority’, a sort of direct debit on your plastic.

Years ago I cancelled a particularly useless credit card, knowing full well that I used it to pay my annual subscription to a particularly useless motoring organisation. Two birds with one stone, I thought. Only when the subscription fell due, the card company paid it anyway and started demanding that I reimburse them. A long and heated correspondence ensued. I won the battle eventually, but it was one of conflicts with no real victor: both sides lay bloodied, impoverished and exhausted.

Then a few months ago I cancelled another card, completely forgetting that I used it to pay my subscription for the dial-up Internet connection I’ve never actually used since I got broadband. An angry letter duly came through from the Internet service provider, threatening me with closure of my account and the attentions of a debt collection agency if I did not pay up. I checked and they’d closed my account anyway, without waiting for a response. So I dropped them a line to point out that I didn’t need their service anyway, thank you and goodbye.

That’s when the threatening missives from the debt collectors started arriving. I won’t bore you with the details, but the pièce de resistance was a solicitor’s letter threatening me with a County Court action if I did not immediately send them a cheque for £82.25. I checked with my own solicitor, who pointed out that it would cost me more than that to present my cast iron defence, so I most reluctantly paid up.

Within a couple of weeks, I’d received a sheepish letter from the Internet service provider admitting that I’d overpaid them by £90.77, and asking if I’d like to give them a valid credit card number so that they could use it to reimburse me. Well, no, funnily enough, in the light of experience, I wouldn’t. But I would accept a cheque. If it ever turns up, I’ll add it to the Josie Grove Appeal.

And if you’re thinking of signing a continuous credit authority to pay for just about anything, take my advice. Don’t.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 23 January 2007

The hand of history

He’s felt the hand of history on his shoulder, and now it’s breathing hotly on his neck. Mr Blair’s quest for a legacy increasingly resembles the frantic scrabbling of man in an airport departure lounge who has comprehensively mislaid his passport and boarding card. As he searches, the tannoy keeps repeating his name and even the dozy bloke on passport control is finally twigging that it sounds vaguely familiar, and wondering whether he shouldn’t check it against the long list of master criminals that the Home Office sent through (by second class post) only last week. It’s not a happy scenario.

The real cause for wonder is why Mr Blair apparently cares so much for the verdict of history. For one thing, he’s patently never read any of it, or he would have known that invading Afghanistan and Iraq is always a seriously bad idea. For another, surely a man who really cared about posterity would have used his massive Parliamentary majority to do something truly earth-shattering ten years ago, rather than remaining in thrall to his beloved focus groups?

It’s a puzzle, and one I am not well placed to solve, given my own political prejudices. So I convened a lunch with three people who are far to the left of me, out of the 40 million or so who occupy that position in England alone. What, I asked, has Tony ever done for us?

After some thought, one of them suggested that a ten year run without plunging Britain into an economic crisis was a pretty remarkable achievement. True. It’s a unique one for a Labour government, and would be a source of pride and wonder to any other party that has held power in the last century. But if that were the verdict of history on the Blair era, I suggested, wouldn’t the dignity of the court be somewhat compromised by a Mr G. Brown from Fife being noisily ejected from the public gallery, protesting that it was all down to him?

They conceded that point and moved on to Northern Ireland. The fact that people were no longer killing each other there definitely constituted statesmanship of a very high order. Well, up to a point. The foundations were firmly laid by Thatcher and Major, and wasn’t the key really 9/11 and Americans’ sudden realisation that funding terrorism maybe wasn’t such a neat idea after all?

They struggled a bit after that. Yes, “ordinary people” have by and large got better off since 1997, though their pleasure in that has doubtless been mitigated by awareness of the vastly greater pay increases enjoyed by top managers, “wealth creators” and assorted City spivs (whose bonuses have got even me reaching for that word so beloved of 1970s trade unionists: obscene).

Vast sums of money have been ploughed into the National Health Service, without making the slightest impact on the number one British malaise: moaning about the NHS. Education too has enjoyed something of a bonanza, without kids getting obviously cleverer or their parents more satisfied.

Perhaps the time has come for Mr Blair to accept that he has blown his chance, and to reflect how small a difference even the real titans of the past made on a 50-year view. Churchill’s principal war aim was the preservation of the British Empire, yet it had all but vanished by the time he died in 1965. We may still be speaking English rather than German, but every important decision on our lives is now made in Brussels, and all around us we see being assembled the apparatus of an authoritarian surveillance state.

Face it, Tony: all political lives end in failure. Even yours. Though as I write that, I’m conscious of a feeling I would not have thought possible. It was the same when I saw that dreadful film of Saddam Hussein being hanged. I’m beginning to feel sorry for the man.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 16 January 2007

It should be banned

Every year at about this time, I receive a courteous little note through my front door from the Whickham & District Motor Club Ltd. This advises me that a “car navigation event” will be passing my house between 3 and 4 a.m. one Sunday this month, involving up to 60 (but, in practice, probably only about 40) vehicles.

The organiser writes: “I realise any automobile event, however well run, may cause some disturbance to residents along the route”. Which naturally begs the question: why do it, then? Exactly what useful purpose is served by 40 motorists haring (or, as the case may be, crawling) around single track by-roads in rural Northumberland in the small hours, when the only people who should be up and about are poachers, police officers and registered insomniacs?

Once upon a time, it might have been useful to hone one’s navigational skills. But although the news may have been slow to reach Whickham, there is now this marvellous invention called satnav. The gizmo is easily obtainable for less than £200 in the January sales. Or there is the more traditional and much more expensive alternative: the wife in the passenger seat with a road map. Being a woman, she also has the advantage of not being too crippled by pride to roll down the window and ask passers-by for directions. (I do recognise that this may not be a particularly practical option at three in the morning.)

Since I’ve been getting one of these notes for umpteen years, it does seem to me that the event might be getting ever so slightly predictable; so much so that participants could do it with their eyes shut. (For all I know, that could be part of the challenge.)

And in all those years, has it ever actually disturbed me? No, not for a second. Sometimes I’ve been away, and surprisingly often the planned excursion has coincided with the worst blizzard of the winter, and has presumably been cancelled. (I think I’d have heard if it had gone ahead and 40 fearless Whickham adventurers had perished in a snowdrift.) But I can’t believe that it’s happened every time. Even though I am a very light sleeper, it must have taken place on several occasions without disturbing my slumbers.

Since it’s not doing me any harm, why am I forming the Campaigning League Against Motoring Pointlessly (CLAMP) and lobbying all political parties for this sort of thing to be banned? It would be a divisive waste of our legislators’ time, a needless assault on other people’s harmless pleasure, and a further erosion of our already battered civil liberties.

However, there are excellent precedents for just this sort of thing, particularly involving cross-country chases in rural areas. We must never forget that there are important issues of principle involved. At a time of growing concern about global warming, we all have a duty to ensure our diminishing fossil fuel reserves are used only for essential journeys. We cannot afford to put additional pressure on potholed rural roads, which relentless Treasury cash squeezes have left our local authorities unable to repair. Last but not least, there is Elfin Safety to consider. While the chances of innocent children being mown down are considerably reduced by the timing of the event, there are risks to nocturnal animals and to the participants themselves, not least from all the homicidal trees still lining the local roads at the time of writing.

No, I’m sorry, but it’s got to stop. It may be a bit of fun to the Whickham & District Motor Club, but to me it’s frankly nothing short of evil. I shall not rest until Parliament has spent at least 700 hours debating the subject, and passed a draconian ban so full of loopholes that I can look forward to not hearing several dozen cars zipping past my house in the small hours for many years to come.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 10 January 2007

Improving shareholder understanding

Are you feeling depressed now that the after-effects of Christmas have settled firmly around your waist, and the bills have started to come in? If not, here’s a foolproof way to make yourself as miserable as I am. Just consult one of the many helpful guides to the Business Reviews that companies will soon have to produce as a consequence of the EU Accounts Modernisation Directive. You know, the new things that replace the Operating and Financial Reviews that our next Dear Leader briefly made mandatory in the interests of improving shareholder understanding, then made voluntary again in the interests of reducing the regulatory burden on business.

There’s going to be an awful lot of stuff in these new-style reports about KPIs. Not a Saudi Arabian savoury snack, but Key Performance Indicators. Even if you choose a blindingly simple one like market share, you’re going to need to provide masses of legalistic gobbledegook explaining how and why this has been calculated.

Then you must tell shareholders about all the risks and uncertainties affecting your business, on the assumption that they’re too thick to work these out for themselves. No, don’t make me laugh, it’s dangerous for a man in my condition. I’ve actually been trying to do this for my clients for years, but as I’ve mainly worked for food, drink and clothing businesses, I’ve come across the slight problem that the key risk, apart from blithering managerial incompetence, is actually the weather.

And try telling that to shareholders or the media. Because when things go badly, they all share a fixed, smug belief that “only lousy managements blame the weather”. Small wonder that most therefore bend over backwards to avoid mentioning it at all. As a result, you get statements like this: “Successful implementation of our long-term growth strategy and excellent tactical promotional initiatives delivered impressive like-for-like sales growth of 7.5% in the final quarter.”

When the reality was: “Since this was the hottest and driest summer since records began, it would have required ineptitude on a truly Prescottian scale to fail to shift more beer / ice cream / bikinis than in the same period last year, when it chucked it down every day. So, although we underperformed the market by our usual impressive margin, even we managed to do moderately well.”

I’ve only one remaining ambition in PR. To write a Business Review containing a truly comprehensive analysis of ALL the risks and uncertainties affecting a business, up to an including thermonuclear war and an asteroid impact. Anyone out there willing to let me have a crack at it?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who feels that laughter is, on the whole, preferable to uncontrolled rage. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 9 January 2007


When people say that the Warburton family are in bread, they naturally mean that they are leading British bakers; not that they are drawn from an unduly narrow gene pool. But the firm has recently done something so brave that it could almost be barmy: running TV adverts that put various directors’ e-mail addresses right there on the screen, and asking the public to send in their ideas. Thereby inciting the electronic equivalent of those letters that traditionally come to companies and newspapers in green ink on the back of fag and cereal packets.

I was particularly struck by this as I’d just been trying to work out how I could persuade people not to e-mail me. Over three days at Christmas, the quietest time of the year, I received 364 e-mails. Only 4% of these were genuine messages from friends or businesses. The other 96% were spam: unwanted trash.

Since I had absolutely nothing better to do, I decided to analyse these unwelcome messages to see what they were about. In first place, comprising nearly 40% of the total, were invitations to access pornography so vile that even I wouldn’t be tempted to take a look at it. A further 19% were trying to sell me Viagra and other related drugs, presumably to help me take a suitable interest in the pornography.

Ranking equal second, also on 19%, were dodgy share tips for various small American companies. These nearly all included two phrases: “major PR campaign just started” (so the senders clearly don’t know that I worked in financial PR for over 20 years, and have a very shrewd understanding of what it can do for share prices); and “this one is going to explode” (an odd choice of wording given that nearly all the tips were for energy companies).

The remaining 22% were an eclectic mix, including (in descending order of frequency) advertisements for online gambling, replica watches, dating sites, bogus degrees, reductions in overall weight, very localised increases in the size of body parts, computer software, dream jobs and anti-depressants. Three people more or less straightforwardly invited me to download a virus that would destroy my computer. And two spoof banks invited me to send them my account numbers and passcodes for security clearance.

One wonders exactly what the senders hope to achieve, since one would have to be criminally stupid to respond to any of these messages, even if so many of them didn’t include a few lines of total gibberish to underline their absolute worthlessness. But I guess that every now and then someone, somewhere must be daft enough to send off their bank account details to the Nigerian with the multi-millions he needs to find an urgent home for, or he’d have given up by now.

More importantly, how on earth does one stop it? I dealt with unwanted post and phone calls long ago through the very effective preference services (www.mpsonline.org.uk and www.tpsonline.org.uk if you haven’t yet tried them). It is also possible to opt out of receiving unaddressed junk mail from your postman, though Royal Mail claim that they would have to charge you even more for delivering genuine letters if they weren’t making money out of these unwanted mailshots. Surely it is high time someone devised an equivalent service to stop unsolicited e-mail?

I’ve begun wondering whether the whole Warburtons ploy isn’t, in fact, an elaborate bluff: make your e-mail address sufficiently accessible, and it’ll take all the fun out of tracking it down and making a nuisance of yourself. I’ll be interested to hear how it works out for them. And in the meantime, if anyone out there has any bright ideas on how to put a stop to nuisance spam, I’d be delighted to hear what they are. In fact, that would be the one sort of e-mail from strangers that I really wouldn’t mind receiving.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 2 January 2007

Where did I go wrong?

I spend far too much of my life wondering where I went wrong: a vice which reaches its peak at the turn of the year.

Sometimes the answer is blindingly obvious. For example, I decided not to start a family until I was absolutely certain of my own destiny as a failure. I reckoned that I could then throw myself into pursuing vicarious success through my children. The snag with this plan is that by the time I was quite sure I had failed, so was everyone else. Making for a distinct shortage of partners in the whole child-producing enterprise.

Maybe this is the male equivalent of those driven women who focus on their careers until their fertility is shot and they are deemed too old to adopt. Or maybe, like so many things, it is peculiar to me.

Consciousness of failure makes for grumpiness. According to the Financial Times of 22 December, I am “the grumpiest man in Northumberland”, which seems a bit unlikely to me. Other claimants are urged to make urgent contact with the paper, to set the record straight. (Wives and girlfriends may act as proxies.)

Those words came in an article referring to something I wrote here about condemned roadside trees. Happily, those ashes and beeches achieved their apotheosis on Christmas Day, when an intense frost left every twig covered with about a quarter of an inch of ice. The effect was simply dazzling, with fallen ice on the roads (another major Elfin Safety hazard, soon to be eliminated), adding a crunchy delight to my afternoon walk.

I can honestly say that they have never looked more beautiful, and deeply regret that I did not have the wit to take a camera with me to capture a truly amazing View of the North. Even extreme cynics can occasionally be wowed by Nature.

Normality was swiftly restored on Boxing Day, when I visited an inexplicably popular seaside pub after a bracing walk with some friends. Here grumpiness was much in evidence, the odd twist being that it wasn’t mine. I was in a surprisingly good mood when I joined the long queue at the bar. I did not sigh or look at my watch when the people in front of me all placed food and drink orders of Baroque complexity. Nor did I lapse into those alarming imitations that I tend to do when bored: the orang-utan with scabies or the nervous plotter with the time-bomb in Hitler’s bunker.

In fact, my only possible offence was waving a five pound note to indicate that I would really quite like to be served when I finally reached the bar after 15 minutes or so, and the two staff decided that that was the perfect moment for a friendly chat with each other instead of pulling pints. At this point, a gorgonian landlady made it crystal clear that my custom was not desired, and added a lecture about ingratitude when all her team had “given up their Boxing Days” to serve others.

I’d like to take this opportunity to point out, madam, that you are not actually running a social service. You opened your pub because you knew it was a great opportunity to make a load of dosh, and didn’t you do well? I hope you were paying your staff well over their normal hourly rate, too. Clearly you can afford to pick and choose your customers, and you’ll doubtless be pleased to know that I shan’t be coming back.

Unfortunately you came along too late to help with my 2006 New Year’s resolution about cutting down on drinking. I’ve just checked the full list of ten: all broken, mostly in the first week of January. This year I’m only trying two: live for the moment and look on the bright side. As I used to say in pubs in the days when they were prepared to serve me: what’s yours?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Monday 1 January 2007

My wishes for 2007

Jan: Parliament resolves to pass no new laws and focus on repealing bad ones.

Feb: Greggs’ sausage rolls proved to prolong active life by up to a decade.
Mar: Prince William announces surprise engagement to veiled Arabian princess, who turns out to be a Romanian slaughterman looking for work in the UK. Prince Harry blamed.

Apr: Scientists demonstrate conclusively that wind farms actually cause global warming. And hurricanes.

May: Tony Blair resigns then changes his mind; Gordon Brown taken into care.

Jun: Tony Blair resigns again; succeeded by Austin Mitchell.

Jul: Patricia Hewitt is caught on camera having a crafty fag in the back bar of the Dog & Methodist off Whitehall, on Day One of the smoking ban.

Aug: Coldest and wettest summer since records began leads to scientific conference on how to combat the new Ice Age.

Sep: Referendum votes for Britain’s withdrawal from EU by overwhelming majority.

Oct: Water companies beg consumers to use their hosepipes, to relieve pressure on overflowing reservoirs.

Nov: Euro collapses; France and Germany adopt the pound and agree to phase in Imperial measures.

Dec: Goldman Sachs announces zero bonus pool and launches public appeal for hampers to ‘save Christmas’ for indigent partners.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.