Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Looking forward to nothing much

Kelvin MacKenzie, when editor of the Sun, famously sacked the paper’s astrologer in a letter beginning “As you will have foreseen…” Was this cynicism justified? The notion that anyone can provide meaningful predictions for the entire population in twelve short paragraphs each day is patently absurd. Yet whenever anyone recites a list of supposedly classic Gemini characteristics, it does sound uncannily like me.

A gipsy selling clothes pegs door-to-door once seized my mother by the arm and announced that she would live to be 82. As mum was in her 40s at the time, and both of her parents had dropped dead of heart attacks aged 61, this seemed much more of a promise than a threat. She herself adhered strongly to this view until she was 81, when it began to assume an altogether more sinister aspect. I spent hours trying to convince her that the prediction did not exclude the possibility that she would continue to 83 or beyond. But, in fact, she didn’t. A self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps?

Despite occasional successes like that, peering into the future defeats nearly all of us. Every highly-rewarded specialist, whether an investment analyst or a climate change scientist, essentially just maps a past trend and projects it forward. Generals and admirals always plan for a re-run of the last war, so that the challenges of the next one come as a complete surprise.

Every now and then, though, one comes across a decision with unintended consequences that should be obvious to a moderately intelligent three-year-old. When Britain announced in 1981 that it was massively cutting back the Royal Navy, and withdrawing its presence in the South Atlantic, did it really require 20/20 hindsight to know that Argentina would respond by invading the long-coveted Falkland Islands?

If you decree that every NHS patient must be able to see a GP within 48 hours, should it really come as a surprise when many doctors respond by refusing to allow appointments to be made in advance, so that obtaining medical attention becomes a mad lottery when the telephone lines open at 8.30 each morning?

And when you decide to award a knighthood to an author who has lived for many years under an Iranian death sentence, surely a huge wave of Muslim anger around the world is exactly what you would expect?

Is it now our official policy to reward people who cause needless offence? If so, why was there never a peerage for Bernard Manning, who would have cheered the House of Lords up no end? And how much longer am I going to have to wait for mine?

I once pushed Salman Rushdie down the staircase of a top London restaurant. I suppose it must have been after the Ayatollah’s fatwa was formally lifted, as I wasn’t immediately pinned to the ground by gun-toting Special Branch protection officers. And I regret to say that it was an entirely accidental collision, rather than a deliberate act of revenge for reading Midnight’s Children. The only good thing about that was that it inoculated me against any urge to buy his subsequent books.

Unreadable, unbearably smug-looking and equipped with an unfeasibly beautiful fourth wife (I suppose those two last facts might just be connected), what is there not to like about Salman Rushdie? Apart from the fact that we can all think of at least ten English writers more deserving of becoming a knight or dame. Or reflect that Waugh died unhonoured, Kingsley Amis was not knighted until he was nearly 70, or Wodehouse until shortly before his death aged 94.

But why single out Sir Salman for a gripe? Only one honour in the whole of the long Birthday List gave me any pleasure, and that was the MBE awarded to the splendid supervisor of Alnmouth station. Atholl, you were robbed: the knighthood should have been yours. Oh, and can you foresee whether the 08.07 to Edinburgh on Thursday will be running on time?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

A throwaway line

I don’t know whether my next-door neighbour ever reads this column. I suspect not. I take him the paper every day, but I don’t think he gets much beyond the deaths. It’s funny how the over-80s seize on that page with the sort of eager anticipation more usually associated with a National Lottery draw. With the key difference that they have their fingers crossed that their own number won’t come up. If there is ever an outbreak of bird flu, I suppose that will qualify as a rollover jackpot.

I hope he’s not reading the disclosure of the following dark secret: I’ve just bought another lawnmower, in flagrant defiance of his advice. This means that I have now owned five of the things since I moved here 19 years ago. My neighbour, meanwhile, is still using one that was at least a decade old when I arrived. It periodically backfires and emits sheets of flame, but it can’t half shorten grass.

My problems with lawnmowers seem to parallel my love life. I just want the result to be neat and tidy, like everyone else’s, but the wheels keep falling off. The result of persistent collisions with walls and raised beds, I fear. (We’re back on the subject of grass here.) I borrowed a friend’s hover mower last week, which eliminates the vulnerable wheel problem, but it took me about three hours to complete what is normally a 40-minute job. I also felt like I’d fought several rounds with a handy middleweight. For the first time in my life, I fully appreciated the genius of the advertising agency which came up with the slogan about a Qualcast being a lot less bovver.

I then tried following my neighbour’s advice to the letter, and went to see the people who had quoted me £175 for repairing my own mower. I told them it was blanking ridiculous, and that they needed to get the blanker fettled right away for an altogether more reasonable price. But unfortunately I lack an appropriately menacing physical presence, so I didn’t get very far. Within minutes, I was agreeing to buy an allegedly robust new model for a mere £306.

My morale was not improved when I got back home and spotted, amongst the rusting wreckage in my garage, my last wheel-less lawnmower but one. It’s identical to the one I’ve just bought. Doesn’t augur too well, you might think. But it’s given me a bright idea. If I smear the new one with mud and grass cuttings, and kick a few lumps out of it, I’ll be able to pretend that I’ve resurrected the old model rather than wasting another load of money. Quite frankly, it’s either that or trying to kid my neighbour that it isn’t a lawnmower at all. A very noisy pram, perhaps. But life around here is already far too much like a Monty Python sketch, without going down that route.

There is a serious underlying point in all this. Thanks to the rise of cheap Chinese manufacturing and the relentless advance of technology, it’s become more cost-effective to replace just about anything than to get it repaired. This does not just apply to machinery and electrical appliances. Unless you treat yourself to a particularly high standard of luxury, you will probably find it cheaper to buy a new duvet than to get your existing one cleaned. And when did you last hear of anyone darning a pair of socks? This throwaway culture is at the root of all the major challenges we face with landfill and recycling.

I’d like to take a stand against it, really I would. But my technical ineptitude weighs powerfully in the opposite direction. More money than sense, my neighbour will no doubt say. And he’ll be right, though in my defence I must assert that it has much more to do with an extreme shortage in the sense department than with any over-supply of cash.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Can bad taste prolong life?

I was sitting in the window of my London club early on Thursday evening, sipping a glass of champagne, when my companion suddenly announced, “I feel just like Beau Brummell.” I looked at him closely, and was about to observe that he certainly didn’t bear any physical resemblance to that legendary paragon of elegance, when he continued, “I mean I’ve come over all 18th century.”

He gestured towards a grotesquely fat and luridly clad woman in the street outside, who was attempting to attract the attention of a taxi driver. Despite her considerable natural advantages, she had decided to increase her visibility still further by stepping well out into the fast-moving traffic.

“If someone hits her,” he said, “I fear I shall have to propose a bet on how many other cars will run over her before the traffic stops.” I stared at him with a mixture of astonishment and disgust. Finally I managed to stutter, “Just cars, or vehicles of any sort?”

Luckily at that point a cab drew up and bore her off. It was leaning crazily to one side as it did so, so we had a quick wager on whether we would hear the crash as it tipped over, attempting the sharp, left-hand turn by St James’s Palace. It did not happen.

The tasteless bet is a fine English tradition, and many Oxbridge colleges and gentlemen’s clubs contain betting books that make the goings-on in the Big Brother house seem like a Mothers’ Union tea party. They can have useful consequences, too. I know someone who beat a usually aggressive form of cancer after a friend helpfully bet him a tidy sum that he would be dead by Christmas, providing just the incentive he required. Similarly, the nation rejoiced in April when Alec Holden reached his 100th birthday to win a 250/1 bet with William Hill.

I should therefore like to propose that all the UK’s major gaming companies open books on whether John Prescott will recover from his pneumonia sufficiently rapidly to permit him one last outing to the despatch box as Deputy Prime Minister. I won’t make the mistake of saying that I detect a strong sense of nostalgia about him, as I recently read an authoritative letter from Evelyn Waugh pointing out that it actually means homesickness, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the past. But I do sense a general feeling that we shall all miss him, unlike the other fellow who is stepping down in two weeks’ time.

Over-promoted, randy, blitheringly incompetent and occasionally incomprehensible he may have been, but the national treasure affectionately known as Prezza is also a fine example of an old school (not in the David Cameron sense) working class politician who rose to the top through the trade union movement. In these days where the career path goes direct from university through policy wonkery to the backbenches, we shall not see his like again.

For me, his finest moment was the promotion of regional government, billed as “John Prescott’s Big Idea”, even though you only had to look at the man to know that he had never had a big idea in his life that did not involve pies or secretaries, and that the whole scam was simply giving effect to a European Union edict framed on the good old principle of “divide and rule”.

We in the North East should be ashamed of voting against it so ungratefully. We let the Big Man down and it did not do us a ha’porth of good, as we got regional government anyway. If only we had shown we could be trusted, maybe we would have been granted that promised referendum on the EU Constitution, about to be smuggled through under the new badge of a Treaty.

Of course, if Gordon Brown really is a man of iron principle, he will call a referendum anyway. Anyone like to bet?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Words versus half-naked action

I’d hoped to spin a column out of my attendance at last month’s Entrepreneurs Forum in Gateshead. This excellent business conference has grown like Topsy and attracted a record 238 delegates, in the ratio of about eight genuine entrepreneurs to 230 would-be advisers, keen to part them from their money. Not me, though: I’m long past all that.

Unfortunately it all involved a bit too much audience participation for my taste. At the outset, we were enjoined to stand up and get to know our neighbours, something I’m inclined to resist as I consider hand-shaking a most unhygienic habit (I’d rather do kissing; with tongues). I also remembered that in a prior year some motivational woman speaker encouraged delegates to jump on their chairs, then asked how we ever expected to get anywhere if we were such a bunch of suggestible idiots.

All in all, it felt like a bit of a cross between a happy-clappy communion service and roll-call at a special needs primary school, but I stuck with it and was richly rewarded with some outrageously non-PC comments about global warming and disabled rights activism from the opening speaker. A lady who has made a fortune out of supplying hotels with branded toiletries then furnished the valuable information that 74% of us take the lot with us when we check out; and that hotels set their room rates on the assumption that we will. So if, like me, you are still in the other 26%, you really are a fool to yourself.

The after-lunch session proved to be a troupe of half-naked Maoris instructing delegates in how to perform a haka, which will no doubt come in very handy at all those advisers’ next pay reviews. I was more than a little peeved, as I’d misheard the rumour and skipped the official buffet to spend an hour in the Crown Posada composing what I felt sure would be a prize-winning haiku. So I went back to the boozer in a huff, thereby missing the inspirational Gerald Ratner and the opportunity to plagiarise his no doubt excellent jokes.

I think that’s me finished with business conferences for ever, unless someone invites me to give my own talk on the meaning and purpose of financial public relations. This has the virtue of extreme brevity, if nothing else.

If anyone could use a three-line Japanese poem about entrepreneurship (in translation), feel free to give me a call.

Keith Hann is a better poet than a PR, though this is not saying much: www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Another year, another date

It was my birthday on Sunday. Thanks for all the cards. Actually, make that “both the cards”. Despite the complaints I receive about my terrible grammar, I do know that “all” implies three or more.

Still, I’m not complaining. I stopped making much of my birthday long ago, when I entered that infertile middle ground where each year brings consciousness of a further slight reduction in one’s mental and physical powers; and the reluctant awareness that one is another step closer to the bottomless, dark chasm of eternal oblivion.

If I last another 25 years or so I’ll doubtless start celebrating again, out of sheer amazement that I am still alive. I love the way that coffin-dodgers revert to the mental level of kindergarten pupils, kicking off every conversation with a proud announcement of their age.

I was kindly offered two options to mark my birthday. The first was a lunch party with my extended family, ranging in age from 11 days to 82 years, and in IQ from … no, perhaps best not to pursue that one. The food would have been of the most excellent quality (my aunt is a great cook) and in ample supply, despite our recent co-option by marriage of a world class trencherman called Dave. However, inviting a man in my condition to celebrate in this way seemed to me like handing a recovering addict a large bag of heroin.

Few things vary more crazily than humans’ consciousness of their weight. At one extreme there are those who feel vastly fatter than they are: hence anorexia, bulimia and the rest. At the other, there are those wobbling lard-buckets who imagine that they are going to look really appealing in leggings and a tight T-shirt, ideally with a bit of midriff on display between the two. I have always tended to the former camp. At any rate, I’ve felt a bit chubby since childhood, even though the ancient black-and-white photos reveal a perfectly normal-looking boy. Nothing like the spherical horrors one sees these days, little piggy eyes peering out through their rolls of adipose tissue as they lean comically on the handlebars of their specially reinforced bikes, wheezing.

But the norm back then, in the aftermath of rationing, must have been exceptionally skinny. Because I can distinctly remember little old ladies inspecting me and saying to my mother, “He likes his food, doesn’t he?” I commend this form of words to you as a way of conveying disgust at the appearance of someone’s offspring without attracting an immediate punch in the face.

Anyway, all things considered, I decided that food was out. I mean, who would want to lag behind Journal editor Brian Aitken in the weight and fitness stakes? Willy Poole has left a big gap in these parts since he emigrated to France, but I have no ambitions to fill it entirely literally.

So I moved on to consider the second option: going for a longish hike with the latest woman to seek me out after mistaking this column for an extended, right wing version of one of those Dating Point ads. It appealed on multiple levels. Apart from anything else, I’ve always admired the symmetry of those, like Shakespeare, who manage to make their dates of birth and death the same (not the year, obviously). I felt a timely heart attack halfway up some Durham hill would do me nicely.

The only snag was that she fancied going out with an organised rambling group, and I couldn’t bear the thought of my last sight on earth being the knobbly knees of a crowd of 70-somethings who know all the verses of “The Happy Wanderer”. Luckily she relented and I ended up spending a perfectly delightful day in the hills with just two brown-eyed beauties: her and my Border terrier. Combining healthy exercise with harmless flirtation is surely the perfect recipe for elevating the spirits and restoring the will to live.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.