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.