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trolleybus heading for Walker; and any spotter could tell you (at scarcely believable length) that trolleybuses were withdrawn from that route on June 1, 1963.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.