Wednesday, 31 December 2008

2008: a year to forget?

If nothing else, 2008 confirmed that the North East continues to lead the world. Northern Rock proved to be to bank failures what the Stockton & Darlington Railway was to transport. So much for those who sneered that this was what happened if you let people try to run a bank from the Regent Centre rather than Lombard Street or Canary Wharf.

It was also a year that demonstrated the total uselessness of forecasters. Twelve months ago the derided Bottler Brown was heading for disaster as the Tories coasted to an easy landslide victory. Now he is implausibly repackaged as SuperGord, saviour of the planet. People have even started saying that maybe Mike Ashley is not so bad after all. It’s strange how abject terror can affect our reasoning.

Although 2008 may seem like a year to forget, it has all the makings of “the good old days” if the relentless scaremongering about the cliff we are about to fall off proves even partially correct. For me, financially, it was the worst year I have experienced since 1987. It was also the happiest of my life to date. The best advice for these times is surely to remember that money isn’t everything.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

One small reason to be cheerful in 2009

I can hardly type this column because my hands are trembling with excitement at the prospect of reading Gordon Brown’s New Year message.

Luckily most of it has already been leaked, and we are told that it will contain a stirring invocation of the spirit of World War Two. We are all going to be urged to pull together to defeat the current economic challenge to our survival, just as we successfully overcame the Panzers, U-boats and kamikaze pilots of 1939-45.

The good news is that we can apparently do this simply by giving regular outings to our credit cards, which only requires the courage to ignore those bishops fretting about the morality of debt. This seems an altogether less unpleasant sort of war than crouching in a fetid trench under shellfire clutching a rifle. Or more likely, in my case, a white flag.

The bigger challenge is visualising Mr Brown as an inspirational war leader. Churchill might have been a depressive, but he had a ready wit and the capacity to raise the spirits of the nation through his rhetoric. Gordon just seems to reside under a permanent black cloud of Calvinist gloom. Small wonder that he is so eager to ally himself with the new US President in his proposed “global coalition for change”.

The snag with trying to pull this particular stunt is that Brown, unlike Obama, is far from new. He has effectively been in charge of British domestic policy since 1997 and one cannot help feeling that, if he is so keen on change, he should have done rather more about it before now. If he aspired to be a Churchillian saviour in our darkest hour, he should also have spent the last few years in the political wilderness, issuing dire warnings that things were about to go horribly wrong, not in power constantly boasting that he had abolished boom and bust for good.

While it would no doubt add immeasurably to our limited gaiety if the Prime Minister started chain-smoking large cigars and drinking life-endangering quantities of champagne, whisky and brandy, I fear that one key difference will remain: Churchill made V-signs at the people to cheer them up, while with Gordon it is precisely the other way around.

Luckily I care less and less about Gloomy Gordon as I focus on my own prospects in 2009. Because, if all according goes to plan, I shall become a father for the first time in the early summer, at the advanced age of 55. Yes, I know that nothing is more boring than other people’s children. But just imagine my delight as I emerged beaming from the hospital on Christmas Eve clutching our successful scan results, with my fiancée’s words that “this is the only Christmas present I wanted” ringing in my ears. Though she was, as it turned out, rather less than impressed when I took all the others back to the shops and demanded refunds.

But enough about me. Gordon’s the thing, and how he is going to get us out of this mess which arose in the economy, when he was in charge of the economy, but is miraculously nothing at all to do with him. For the sake of my unborn child, I hope he proves me wrong and leads us to another improbable British victory. I also trust that we will then show our appreciation for his efforts at the next general election, just as we did to Churchill in 1945. Though we went on to vote Winston back in again when he was 76, an age which Gordon will reach in 2027. Just when the babies born in 2009 get the vote, have no memories of the great economic crisis of the Noughties and are minded to rebel against their parents. It might be worth a modest bet.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Remembering when things were made in England

As a boy I was taught to look for the words “Made in England” on anything I bought, as a reliable hallmark of quality.

My personal favourites were Hornby trains and Dinky cars, always die-stamped on their underside “Made in England by Meccano Limited”, usually with the addition of the mysterious words “Patent Pending”. Until I was about 25 I assumed that this was the name of a particularly prolific Irish toy designer.

In those distant days “Made in Japan” was synonymous not with the most advanced electronic goods but with cheapjack rubbish, maybe just a step or two up from “Empire Made”, the preferred euphemism for Hong Kong.

The only memorable exception to the rule came when my father, who sold drawing office stationery for a living, advised me that “Made in Germany” actually stood for the very best in pens and precision instruments. I thought this showed a commendable and entirely unexpected spirit of forgiveness, in the light of the unfortunate misunderstanding that had led to him being used for target practice across North West Europe a few years earlier.

Having picked up the habit at an early age, I still check the labels of everything I buy for its country of origin, but I cannot remember when I last encountered “Made in England” on anything non-perishable. Nowadays the chief interest in examining manufactured goods lies in spotting those rare exceptions where the almost universal “Made in China” is replaced by the name of some other low-cost economy in the Far East.

I was a keen supporter of Marks & Spencer in the days when it boasted that over 90% of its goods were British made, but the policy had to be abandoned as the public voted with their feet for newer and cheaper arrivals on the high street. Now my underpants are constructed in China or Sri Lanka, just like everyone else’s.

It also becomes ever harder to define what is actually British. In food, the familiar tractor logo may apparently be applied to imported produce that meets the required quality standard. Meanwhile globalisation has placed the ultimate beneficiaries of many “British” businesses far overseas. The supreme example of this is surely the Government’s recent sale of the plant producing our supposedly independent nuclear deterrent to a company in California; a truly astonishing development that seems to have attracted less opprobrium than the plan to sell a stake in Royal Mail to the Dutch.

The European Commission has predictably attempted to sweep away all national designations in favour of a universal “Made in EU” label. Admittedly the idea was quietly shelved in 2004, after a tsunami of protests from luxury goods producers, but on past EU form it is surely not dead, only sleeping.

So I am left wondering how, exactly, the recent precipitate fall in the pound is going to be “good news for exporters”, given the very limited evidence that we actually make anything in this country any more? Since SuperGord abolished boom and bust forever, our prosperity seems to have been based entirely on ever-rising house prices and manic consumer spending on imported goods. Oh, and our “world class” financial services sector, generating lots of lovely “invisible earnings” through what proves to have been the banking equivalent of the three card trick.

Are there really British manufacturers that have somehow survived in a state of suspended animation through the long years of cheap import mania? And are they now ready to spring back into life and take advantage of the sudden increase in Britain’s international competitiveness? Needing only some cheap and easy bank finance to fund their immediate requirements for working capital and a rapid expansion of their productive capacity. Oh dear. Back to the drawing board, then. Do remember to insist upon those top quality German instruments.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Time to take a stand against elitism

Another week, another voting scandal. Yet again people foolishly imagined they were being invited to make a democratic choice, then found that they had been conned into casting meaningless votes because only the views of the so-called experts actually counted.

In the case of Strictly Come Dancing, the internet is abuzz with suggestions that the judges might have engineered Saturday night’s debacle as their revenge on the public for backing John Sergeant in previous rounds, in defiance of their instructions.

At least there is no need to waste time dreaming up conspiracy theories in Ireland. Anyone there who believed that voters’ rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum earlier this year would kill the project stone dead, as legally it should have done, would have had to be even more stupid than the stereotypical characters in those jokes we are no longer allowed to tell.

To absolutely no-one’s astonishment, the Irish people are to be required to vote again, after some small amendments to soothe their feelings. Just as the voters of Denmark were made to reconsider after they rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

Only the Dutch and French votes against the European Constitution in 2005 caused the juggernaut to brake, and then only until its drivers had the brainwave of smuggling 99% of the Constitution into an unreadable Treaty with a different name, which would not require a second vote. Brilliant.

What else would you expect, when the founding assumption of the whole European project is that the people of the continent cannot be trusted to govern themselves?

The same cast of mind was all too evident in EU Commission Predident Barosso’s recent claim that “the people who matter in Britain” are warming towards membership of the euro. A move that should certainly become psychologically easier as the brilliant economic management of our world-saving Prime Minister and his Treasury satrap leads the pound to dive to parity with the euro, and quite possibly below.

The person who matters most in Britain today, Lord Mandelson, is certainly a long-term enthusiast for the euro. As for Gordon Brown, it has never been clear whether he is a genuine sceptic or was simply determined to obstruct Tony Blair’s strange desire to go to down in history as the man who abolished the pound and, with it, our last vestiges of national independence: a sort of counter-Churchill.

The reckoning is that mounting panic about the economy will make the voters of Ireland more compliant next year, and there will surely never be a better time to ask the British electorate to sign themselves over to Brussels than when millions of us are staring personal financial ruin in the face. Always assuming that a convenient loophole cannot be found that would permit euro membership without a referendum: making it a general election issue, perhaps?

From unitary councils to the naming of Blue Peter cats, the will of the people counts for nothing. Is there anyone out there who believes that they will be able to drive into Manchester in ten years’ time without paying some sort of congestion charge, despite the overwhelming vote against one last week? It is as likely as John Sergeant winning a beauty contest, let alone a dancing competition.

We are governed by an elite that treats our views with contempt, even as they insult our intelligence by preaching against elitism. Understandably, we return the compliment by increasingly tuning out of politics and ignoring elections. Just remember that this gives them an even freer hand. Their reckoning is that the most we will do is grumble in the columns of our newspapers or in our smokeless pubs. Perhaps they are right, but I long for the day when we have the courage to stand up to them en masse and declare that we have had enough.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The ever-expanding universe of junk

I never expected to leave my home of the last 20 years, except in a wooden box, and it may yet come to that. Suicide begins to seem quite a painless option compared with the Herculean task of sorting through a lifetime’s accumulated possessions before moving.

There are essentially two sorts of people: hoarders and chuckers. My parents comprised one of each and I took after my mother, the hoarder. She was the sort of person who carefully folded the Christmas wrapping paper for re-use next year, and kept tins full of odd buttons and short pieces of string, convinced that they would come in handy.

As luck would have it, I moved into my current house just as she was moving out of hers, so all the accumulated junk that my chucker brother failed to divert to the tip ended up here. Complementing my own world class collection, which has been expanding at a slightly faster rate than the universe ever since. When I started to run out of space I expanded the house with a couple of attic conversions, then bought the old smithy next door.

All to make room for a vast agglomeration of old clothes, toys, essays, letters, postcards, theatre programmes, magazines, unpublished novels, draft profit warnings, press cuttings, paintings, photographs, mementoes, commemorative mugs, unwatched videotapes and, above all, thousands of unread books. Believe me, I could go on.

One particular gem is a complete run of Railway Modeller from 1966 to 2007, when even I had to admit that I had no more shelf space. I have not been particularly interested in model railways since my teens, but once I take out a subscription I am very loth to cancel it.

It would not be so bad if I had the faintest hope of making a killing on the Antiques Roadshow, but I only collect things that depreciate in value. The last time I went to my friendly local dealer with some surplus books, including several first editions for which I had searched long and hard and paid quite highly, they offered me £20 for the lot, and I think that was mainly because they quite fancied the box I had put them in. Suggestions that they might have got their decimal point in the wrong place were greeted with mild hilarity.

The temptation to dig my heels in and make my wife-to-be live here is almost overwhelming, but for the fact that she could not bring more than a change of underwear with her unless I clear some of this stuff out. Added to which, it seems a bit unfair to ask a sociable career woman to relocate to the middle of nowhere.

Objectively, I can see that it would do me good to move. In fact, I suspect that it would do most people good to move, and do not quite understand why the Government is bending over backwards to prevent this happening through the normal process of mortgage repossessions. It is doubtless frightfully hard luck on anyone who was seduced into the property market for the first time in the last couple of years of the bubble, but they were presumably adults who read the statutory warnings before signing on the dotted line.

Surely the only way that the housing market is ever going to stabilise at a realistic level is if those who have bought properties they cannot afford vacate them and allow them to be re-sold at more sensible prices?

Though there may be a simple way to avoid this harsh and cruel fate: reclassify your house as a business, since these regularly seem to go bust only to be bought back by the original owners for a token sum, minus their inconvenient debts. I shall take a lead by registering mine as a junk shop.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Failed marriages I have known

The recent demise of MFI reminded me of my own tiny role in one long-forgotten episode in its corporate history: its doomed merger with a well-known supermarket chain.

The only tangible benefit of this short-lived mid-1980s alliance was that it spawned a half decent joke: “I don’t know about this Asda-MFI merger. I bought a chicken yesterday and, as soon as I got it home, its legs dropped off.”

My contribution was to be summoned to a leading merchant bank with my chairman one Sunday afternoon, where we found the happy newly-weds toasting each other with champagne, and started trying to construct a plausible story about the benefits of the get-together. It swiftly became apparent that none of the principals could help us, as they referred all our enquiries to the guru who had come up with the idea. He in turn told us, with disarming honesty, how much money his firm was making out of the deal.

Nevertheless, as dedicated professionals, we worked hard to come up with a plausible explanation and to coach our clients in it. How well this had worked was brought home to us when their response to the first question at the following morning’s press conference was “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

That was not the most unsuccessful merger in which I have been involved. The following year the proposed get-together of the textile companies Dawson International and Coats Patons fell apart before it could be consummated, after an even more disastrous press launch.

In fact, I cannot think of a single successful corporate marriage I have helped to publicise. Certainly not the 2000 merger of Iceland and Booker, which created the ill-fated Big Food Group, though Iceland itself has gone from strength to strength since obtaining a divorce in 2005.

Some would argue that the whole concept of a merger is flawed; the outcome is always a takeover by one party. Sadly most takeovers also fail to deliver the value expected from them, and even in the most successful instances one can usually argue that the same result would have been achieved, perhaps more slowly but with less grief, through organic growth.

But if everyone accepted that, how would bankers, brokers, lawyers and even PR men ever earn another bonus?

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant with his own wedding to pay for, generating a wholly unaccustomed appetite for work.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Another bubble of crazy hyperinflation

At the weekend I was reminded of a very uncomfortable truth for a man about to embark on the great adventure of matrimony: I simply loathe weddings.

Not the service itself, I hasten to add, which I found joyous and uplifting. Surely no-one could fail to a warm to a couple who chose “He would valiant be 'gainst all disaster” as their opening hymn, and made its singing all the more enjoyable by hiring the local brass band to accompany it.

No, what gets me down is the apparently endless palaver after the important bit is over. In my adult lifetime, weddings in this country have been subject to the same sort of crazy hyperinflation as house prices, with similarly deleterious effects.

It was all right when my contemporaries started getting married in the 1970s. We all dressed up, the happy couple got hitched in her local church, we had a decent lunch at a nearby hotel, they cleared off on their honeymoon to a respectable seaside boarding house and everyone else went home. Job done.

Then someone – could it by any chance have been a hotelier? – decided that no wedding was complete without an evening party in addition to the afternoon reception. Why? I had never actually attended such an event until Saturday, as my reaction to most recent wedding invitations has been to despatch a generous present and a half plausible story about a vital prior engagement. I see no reason to regret this.

There has been a similar bizarre inflation of expectations regarding those hideous affairs known as stag and hen nights. I am happy to say that I have never actually been on one, but I have had quite enough encounters with spectacularly drunken participants to know what they involve. What astonished me during my City career was observing the way in which they gradually expanded from single nights of life-endangering binge drinking to “stag weekends” enlivened by assorted dangerous sports, and in some cases even “stag weeks”. What next?

At the other end of the process, a few nights in Scarborough apparently no longer pass muster as a middle class honeymoon; it has to be a big game safari or a tropical island, and preferably both.

Can it be a pure coincidence that, as weddings have become ever more elaborate and expensive, marriages have grown progressively less likely to endure? Nearly all my friends who married 25 to 30 years ago are still together. Yet I know one bitter father who, not so long ago, invested almost £50,000 in his daughter’s dream wedding only to have her back on his hands as a divorcee within two years. He spent many sleepless nights scouring the small print, but could not find the hoped-for money-back guarantee.

Perhaps, in the olden days, people gave more thought to the important question of whether they had actually found the person they wanted to spend the rest of their life with, and less to holding a colossal party that capped the excesses of their friends.

I am absolutely sure that I have finally found the right woman, but I could tell that it did not go down a storm when I turned away from the spectacle of Saturday’s bride and groom finally taking their first dance to the flashes of countless cameras, and suggested that we did not need any of this. Indeed, her practical response to my bright idea of elopement was to point out that I had signed a contract committing me to pay an 80% cancellation charge whether we went ahead with the reception or not.

Comprehensively outwitted again, and we have not even got to the altar yet. I sense a pattern emerging. Clearly the only way forward is to keep telling myself, as they almost say in those cosmetic ads, “because she’s worth it.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Assume nothing: what could go wrong?

On Saturday I met a priest who had perhaps the perfect catchphrase for these troubled times: “assume nothing”. He kept repeating this mantra throughout a long and rather sticky interview in which he challenged every reason my fiancée and I could advance to persuade him to marry us.

Though strangely enough he did not even mention the elephant in the room: the fact that my bride-to-be was born a Muslim. Albeit the sort of Muslim who shuns the veil, eats pork, drinks alcohol and is looking forward to Christmas with an enthusiasm I have never been able to muster.

I had assumed that this might present a bit of a problem. How wrong I was. Just as the Tories were wrong when they assumed that they were coasting effortlessly towards a landslide election victory, only to find the graceless Scotch architect of most of our economic woes implausibly reincarnated as the saviour of the entire global economy.

Here we are in a massive crisis caused by banks lending too much, and all I hear are ministers leaning on them to lend more. And, as Government borrowing smashes all records, Gordon Brown’s stooge announces the sort of tax cutting package that the Tories never dared to put before the electorate for fear of being accused of gross irresponsibility.

Assume nothing. It is the only answer. It is also makes a lot more sense as the secret of life than E.M. Forster’s “Only connect”, which my headmaster imparted as the ultimate wisdom when I left school in 1971. I have spent the best part of four decades trying to work out what on earth he meant, and how to reconcile it with Douglas Adams’ subsequent revelation that the answer to life, the universe and everything is actually 42.

Rick The Vic, as my fiancée and I have named the priest who finally agreed to marry us, seems slightly out of place in an English country parish. He claims to be 62, but looks at least 20 years younger. He wears his hair long, and flies a piratical flag outside a vicarage packed with the latest technological gizmos. I imagine that he spent much of his earlier life driving along the hippy trail in a Dormobile painted in the psychedelic colours that adorned the stole he wore for Sunday’s morning service.

Here I expected swaying and clapping, the beating of drums and the twanging of guitars. Instead we got something bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Book of Common Prayer, old hymns I knew and could sing along with, a sermon that made sense and held my interest, and handshaking with the friendly parishioners at the end of the proceedings rather than as a cringeworthy interruption of one’s own contemplation and prayer.

There was reverence, laughter and even applause, not to mention some remarkably delicious homemade cake. It was not at all what I expected, but it did make me wonder why I have shunned church in favour of The Archers Omnibus every Sunday morning for the last 30 years.

Assume nothing. In particular, do not spend today’s tax cut until you have actually got the money in your hand. Except for those like me who were lucky enough to receive it in advance by email from an internet café in Lagos. All I had to do to claim the money was supply my bank details. How marvellous. It will come as a small but welcome help in meeting the expenses of my wedding, which is probably going to be the main driver of the British economy in 2009, along with the construction of a couple of aircraft carriers and the employment of consultants to produce another report explaining that there is no need to dual the A1.

To quote my own favourite catchphrase: what could possibly go wrong now?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

How to get the economy back on track

All my life I seem to have been out of step with the rest of humanity: a one-man Awkward Squad.

So now, as the economy spirals downwards because of the abject terror paralysing other consumers, I find myself spending money I have not got like there is no tomorrow. I have become the J.P. Morgan of the Great Crash of 2008.

For a start, I am chucking money at two houses in the doubtless vain hope of making them saleable, so that my fiancée I can set up home together. Which would be a more convenient arrangement, on the whole, after we are married.

Then there is the wedding itself to be paid for. (When the groom is almost as old as the bride’s father, it seems unfair to land him with the bill.) It is genuinely delightful to see the smiles lighting up the faces of gloomy retailers and service providers as we wander into their lairs. I particularly love the way they ask hopefully “Is it for a wedding?” so that they can add an automatic 150% mark-up to their quotes.

This has powerfully reminded me how much weddings cheer people up – potential guests and mere spectators, as well as the suppliers of goods and services. We clearly need more of them; and one in particular. After all, what lifted the national mood from the intense gloom of the early 1980s but the marriage of Charles and Diana? Well, that and our triumph in the Falklands War. But with the current overstretch in the armed forces it would surely be imprudent to look for a re-run of that, even if we could find an obliging South American dictator to kick it off.

I hate to disagree with my counterpart in this space yesterday, but there are two snags with his idea of a coronation as a national mood lifter. First, by tradition (and what use is a monarchy if it does not stand up for tradition?) a coronation must be preceded by a funeral, which is hardly a barrel of laughs. Secondly, and much more importantly, the heir to the throne is vastly less popular than his mother, and equipped with a wife that a large chunk of his people evidently cannot stand.

Charles’s misfortune has been to marry the right woman, but to get round to it about 35 years too late. I can well relate to that.

So I fear that a coronation would be the occasion for much divisiveness and a sharp upsurge in republican sentiment. A royal wedding, however, need raise no such difficult issues.

The only obstacle is the failure of the younger generation of royalty to propose. One can well understand why Prince William would not wish to rush into marriage with, say, a neurotic, manipulative virgin who was determined to eclipse him in the public’s affections. Though I cannot help feeling that he has now known Kate Middleton long enough to satisfy himself on at least some of those points.

So let us sort it out for him by finding a suitable bride with the aid of Simon Cowell or Bruce Forsyth in one of those Saturday night TV contests that seem to be the only other thing standing between the nation and mass suicide. We could call it Search for a Queen or The R (For Regina) Factor. Or maybe Strictly Come Plaque Unveiling.

It would obviously be dangerous to entrust it to the BBC, as the voting might be rigged to land us with a differently-abled, asylum-seeking lesbian as the winner. If not a dancing dog.

So all that stands between us and the return of financial sanity through good cheer and free spending is tracking down an independent TV producer with the skills to make it happen. Is there anyone out there who fancies the job?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A totally unexpected triumph for love

Writing a column for The Journal completely changed my life. Not a lot of people can say that.

The column in question appeared on the business pages in 2006, and was entitled “The Chief Executive’s Handbook”. A characteristically cynical piece about the motivation and capabilities of some business leaders, I realised that it had struck a chord when people from several different organisations congratulated me on my insight into their own particular company.

One client liked it so much that he copied it onto his own corporate website, where it was read by a female employee. She in turn forwarded it to a number of people. Months later, one of these followed the link at the end of the article, then emailed the sender to ask “Have you ever looked at that bloke’s website? He’s as mad as a box of frogs.”

So in due course she did, and was amused by the vacancy I had jokingly advertised for a wife, girlfriend or carer. Though she spotted that I was not entirely serious; and that, in any event, I was far too old for her. However, she mentioned it to a friend who had just split up with a much older man, and who then urged her to contact me on her behalf. When the email arrived in April, I frankly doubted whether either party really existed. How many 30-somethings in the UK today need to get a friend to write their emails for them because they cannot use a computer?

In due course a seven page, handwritten letter arrived from the friend explaining why I would be her ideal partner. I did not agree, but in the intervening exchange of emails I had found myself curiously drawn towards the person who had attempted to introduce us. Meanwhile this matchmaker had begun reading my curmudgeonly Bloke in the North blog and was coming to the bizarre conclusion that we had a surprising amount in common.

Our first telephone conversation felt like the reunion of two very old and dear friends. Our subsequent first date went surprisingly well. Six months on, last Monday we went to see a deservedly obscure Rossini opera called Matilde di Shabran, about a fierce and solitary misogynist who is won round to love by the lady of the title. Inspired by this story, and suitably fortified by strong ale, I proposed marriage early on Tuesday and she instantly accepted, making November 4 a historic triumph for me as well as Barack Obama.

A former colleague emailed to say that if anyone had told him a few years ago that an African American would win the White House, Lehman Brothers would go bust, Peter Mandelson would return to the cabinet and I would get engaged again, he would have bet heavily against all of them – but particularly the last.

Another so-called friend wrote after dining with us last week that my fiancée is “charming, amusing, beautiful, unbelievably young and clearly utterly deluded. Well done!”

Now, I am not mentioning all this to boast or because I am too mean to pay for a conventional small ad, but because there are lessons in this saga for everyone, and particularly for the older and grumpier elements amongst you.

First, we really cannot know what lies around the corner, and it may not necessarily be the out-of-control steamroller we have always been inclined to fear. Secondly, love can bridge the unlikeliest gaps: my fiancée and I are 17 years and 200-odd miles apart, and from completely different backgrounds, religions and cultures.

Thirdly, never underestimate the awesome power of the internet to change lives, in my experience usually for the better.

And, finally, never think that columnists and bloggers are just sad, lonely people with bees in their bonnets. Sometimes, contrary to all expectations (including their own), they can achieve truly remarkable results.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Finally learning from reader feedback

A clearly angry contributor to Voice of the North last week accused me of being, among other things, “a second rate comic”, “a master of crude assertion” and “a pathetic plonker” because I had the nerve to suggest that the BBC might be ever so slightly biased in favour of Barack Obama and against the dynamic duo of McCain and Palin.

Contrary to his own assertion, even I am not so deranged as to have declared my support for the Republican candidate. I merely observed that the joy of upsetting the BBC was the only good reason I could think of for hoping to see Mr McCain pull off a most unlikely (and undeserved) victory.

My challenge now is to produce some convincing evidence to support my belief that the BBC is institutionally biased. Not just against the Republicans in the USA but in favour of the Republicans in Northern Ireland; against capital punishment, but for abortion; and a fan of the Palestinians, immigration, multiculturalism, European integration, metrication and a just about any other “progressive” cause you care to mention.

Let us start with the words of former BBC political editor Andrew Marr (a man known as “Red Andy” in his Cambridge days), who described the BBC as “a publicly-funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large” all of which “creates an innate liberal bias inside the BBC”.

Or the great Robert Peston’s predecessor as BBC business editor, Jeff Randall, who described his time there as “a bit like walking into a Sunday meeting of the Flat Earth Society. As they discuss great issues of the day, they discuss them from the point of view that the earth is flat. If someone says, ‘No, no, no, the earth is round!’ they think this person is an extremist. That's what it's like for someone with my right-of-centre views working inside the BBC.”

How could the BBC be anything other than The Guardian of the airwaves when it invariably advertises its job vacancies there rather than in the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph?

Yes, the Corporation is required to be strictly impartial during election campaigns (British, not American) and it faces accusations of bias from some on the left as well as most of those on the right, but the fundamentally left-of-centre inclinations of the vast majority of its staff keep seeping through. I maintain that a visiting Martian watching its US election coverage would be left in little doubt that it always hoped for an Obama victory today, at any rate once Hillary Clinton had pulled out.

But this is not why a great debate about the future of the BBC rages as I type. The complainant was certainly right to castigate my judgement in one respect, in that I led my last column with a story about biased voting on Strictly Come Dancing when I should clearly have focused on the Manuelgate scandal, which has banished the collapse of capitalism from the nation’s front pages ever since.

I was deeply shocked, albeit mainly by the discovery that Radio 2 is no longer just the station for chairbound pensioners who enjoy humming along to Sing Something Simple. I had no idea that it ever attempted any comedy edgier than The News Huddlines. But then, until I did my usual exhaustive research for this piece, I thought that “plonker” was an offensive slang term for the penis. Now I learn that it has been rehabilitated by the BBC’s great Del Boy Trotter to mean simply an individual who is stupid or inept. Reasoning backwards, someone has even justified this by inventing an acronym: Person of Little Or No Knowledge.

So many thanks for the BBC-style abuse, which has at least taught me one useful lesson.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Does Auntie really always know best?

The lead story in Britain’s best-selling paper on Sunday was the shock news that we are all racists. Apparently we are failing to vote for the black contestants in Strictly Come Dancing, despite the judges telling us that they are absolutely terrific.

As a matter of fact I am completely innocent of this charge, because I have never watched the programme, and would rather go to a cocktail party on a yacht with Lord Mandelson than do so. But that will surely not spare me a stern lecture from the BBC about my disgraceful behaviour. And what if the electors of America pull the same stunt and have the temerity not to elect Barack Obama next week, after the Beeb’s months of cheerleading for the man? What it might have to say about them, in those circumstances, really does not bear thinking about.

I have believed for years that the simplest way to arrive at the correct opinion on any issue is to listen to the BBC’s view, then adopt the opposite one. The US election therefore presents me with a bit of a problem because, if forced into a corner with a cattle prod, I would have to admit that my only reason for wanting Senator McCain to win would be the simple joy of seeing industrial quantities of egg all over the face of our national public service broadcaster. Obama is undeniably the more inspiring orator, and it is hard to mount a convincing defence of any party in office which has made such a truly monumental mess of both economic and foreign policy.

The other big reason for reluctantly admitting the case for Obama is the dread prospect of Governor Palin inheriting the presidency. In Britain, her selection seems an error of judgement as egregious as George Osborne’s in thinking he could beat the Prince of Darkness at mud-slinging. In fact, it seems almost as bizarre as the idea of Dave Cameron sacking young George and replacing him with Kerry Katona.

Which might not be so crazy after all, come to think of it, as she is well used to going to Iceland and is probably scary enough to secure a full refund of our money from all those collapsed banks.

Yet, despite all the hilarity at her expense, Mrs Palin clearly wows rather a lot of Americans. There is even talk of her running for president herself in 2012. At a time when classic national stereotypes are crumbling all around us, with the traditionally prudent “bang went saxpence” Scotsman replaced by ones who run banks into the ground and bail them out with countless billions of our money, it is comforting to know that our friends across the pond remain so reliably dumb.

Obama is Bambi Blair all over again; the one ever so slightly black, the other almost imperceptibly socialist. Let us hope that his brave new dawn, if it duly breaks next week, does not prove to be quite such a crushing disappointment as the one in 1997.

But we have other delights closer to home before the big day in America, including Halloween and the Glenrothes by-election. There is apparently no truth in the rumour that the Northern Rock repossessions team will be taking to the streets on Friday, disguised as grim reapers on a trick or treat mission. However, there is every chance that the bloke in the unconvincing rubber Gordon Brown mask, desperately knocking on doors in Fife, really is the Prime Minister.

Will he defy the experts and pull of a surprise victory? As with Senator McCain, it does not seem the way to bet. But it is probably only fair to wait for ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox to send several jumbo jet-loads of pundits across the Atlantic to tell us what we should be thinking.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Please stick to the day job, Tom

I am still reeling from the shock I received on opening yesterday’s Journal and reading the first line of Tom Gutteridge’s column, which announced that he was giving up TV production. Surely Cilla Black’s eagerly awaited Loveland could not be destined for the great lumber room of televisual might-have-beens?

Then I read on and realised that it was one of those meaningless rhetorical flourishes beloved of certain columnists and public speakers, like Gordon Brown boasting every week for 11 years that he had abolished boom and bust.

This towering genius had apparently torn up the normal rules of economics and led us onto the broad, sunlit uplands of ever-increasing prosperity for all. Only that scenario now proves to have been a cruel delusion, built on dangerously unstable mountains of public and private debt. In the circumstances, surely a little schadenfreude is permissible?

The contention that Gordon Brown bears no responsibility for current events is simply risible. This was the Iron Chancellor, the control freak who held all the reins of domestic power under Tony Blair and was credited with delivering a decade of steady growth and low inflation. But who, in reality, laid the foundations for the present crisis by creating a new and patently inadequate system of financial regulation, massively increasing public spending and racking up huge amounts of dodgy off-balance-sheet debt.

How can anyone refer disparagingly to “Cameron’s City cronies” when Labour has been every bit as close to the financial sector since the “prawn cocktail offensive” of the early 1990s, and has famously derived much of its funding from “fat cats”? This is the party whose new Business Secretary Peter Mandelson announced a decade ago that Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” and which has duly presided over a massive widening of the gap between rich and poor.

To blame Mrs Thatcher for all this is like putting the research scientists who first split the atom on trial for causing the devastation unleashed on Hiroshima. Yes, she established the initial framework of economic liberalism and, having lived through the unbelievably depressing era of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan in the 1970s, I remain intensely grateful that she did.

But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown came to power in 1997 with a massive majority and the capacity to reshape British society in the way that Attlee did after the landslide of 1945. Instead they simply grabbed the reins of the Tory chariot and drove it ever faster to destruction. Mr Blair will indeed go down in history, but as the man who squandered a massive opportunity and led his country into two avoidable and unwinnable wars.

Mr Brown might yet win a more interesting footnote by finally fulfilling the hard left dream of nationalising the banks. Though I suspect that he will be marked down a touch for doing so in defiance of all his declared principles, just as the Conservatives received zero credit for the impressive economic recovery they engineered after the collapse of their core policy on Black Wednesday in 1992.

You would have to be a much more dedicated Tory than I am to claim that the boys Dave and George have covered themselves in glory during the present crisis. Nor do I have any answers of my own. Though since my trade is based on common sense, I am naturally suspicious when the Government announces that the only way out of the deep hole caused by excessive borrowing and spending is for it to spend and borrow even more.

Perhaps Gordon Brown will indeed call and win a snap election based on his handling of recent events. But, if he does, it will be as massive an injustice as an arsonist winning the George Medal for trying to save the victims of one of his own conflagrations.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Far from quiet on the Peston front

For days now I have been waiting in vain for Robert Peston to appear on the BBC in full clown make-up, wearing a revolving bow tie, and attempt to lighten the tone by cracking one of those “I’ve got some good news and some bad news” jokes.

Children in Need appeal organisers: you read it here first, but do help yourselves to the idea.

At least I have now grown so used to his distinctive delivery that I have stopped trying to re-tune the radio whenever he comes on in the morning, imagining that the extraordinary noises he makes are some sort of interference.

Robert Peston’s is truly the voice of today. Or rather yesterday, since I am writing this on the Monday when the world teetered on the brink of a new dark age of mass unemployment, poverty, fury, criminality and dictatorship. Or on the historic date when some technical difficulties in the capital markets were decisively corrected, and everything muddled on much as before.

It is hard to know which way to bet, though regular readers will know that I am not one of nature’s optimists. The fact that it has all come to a head on October 13th is also a bit worrying for the superstitious.

It must be so much easier to keep smiling, boozing and spending when you have got nothing much to lose. The great crash of 2008 is proving a splendid leveller as those who have put money aside for a rainy day discover that the dampness is actually arriving in the form of a tsunami. A year ago I was fretting because my pension fund was worth less than a third of what it needed to be. Now it has halved and retirement has become an impossibly distant fantasy.

I made the simple mistake of investing my savings in the stock market, because all analyses show that it delivers superior returns in the long run (in which, sadly, we are also all dead). What I should have done, with the benefit of hindsight, is put it all in some dodgy Icelandic bank offering an implausibly high rate of interest, ignoring the conventional warning that higher returns imply greater risk. That way I’d have got the Government to hand me my stake money back, with a friendly pat on the head.

Did it never strike you as odd that a country with a population little larger than that of Newcastle, and no obvious natural resources beyond gesyers and cod, should be supporting a huge banking sector and buying up every other retail chain on the British high street? It always seemed a bit fishy to me (no pun intended).

Now Iceland is on its back with its legs in the air, and our thoughts must turn to another sparsely populated, ill-favoured, gloomy little country on the fringe of the Arctic circle, whose banks have also just turned their faces to the wall. Yes, it’s Scotland, home of the Royal Bank, HBOS and Lloyds TSB. The last may not seem like a Scottish bank in any meaningful sense, but it does have its registered office in Edinburgh as yet another example of our decades of pandering to our chippy Celtic fringe.

Now is surely the time for bold and radical action. Let us give Alex Salmond the independence he so craves, and let the Scottish taxpayer pick up the entire bill for that little lot. By way of compensation, we could let them have Robert Peston to tell them cheery stories as they huddle around their wind-up radios, eating cold porridge by the light of a single guttering candle.

At last, for the first time since the crisis broke, I have managed to conjure up an image that has really cheered me up.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The pure hell of the Great North Run

This is the column that nearly did not get written.

I have come close to chucking in the towel several times in recent weeks, dazed by the sheer pace of events. Added to which, in a real world where Gordon Brown invites Peter Mandelson to join his cabinet, how can anyone hope to raise a smile by conjuring up some surreally implausible fiction?

But these challenges were not the thing that so nearly defeated me. No, I was simply utterly exhausted after the Great North Run.

I apologise for the fact that anyone who knows me will now have tea all down their shirt, and be gasping for breath. I should make it clear straight away that I did not actually do the run. Dear me, no. If you had suggested that before Sunday I would have fixed you with a Paddington Bear stare and said something predictably sarcastic like “I only look stupid.”

But after attempting to get to South Shields and back by public transport to see the end of the race, I can finally see the point of covering the distance on foot: it’s easier and quicker.

You might think that a wiseacre like me would just have watched it all on television. And so I would, if I had the remotest general interest in running. But when your beloved is actually taking part in the event and has handed you her bag full of post-race essentials, with strict instructions to meet her near the finish, you don’t have a lot of choice.

I was at the start, too, and surprised myself by being bowled over by the truly fantastic atmosphere. What a publicity triumph for Newcastle, I thought, and what a pleasant change from the media focus on St James’ Park and Northern Rock.

But that was before I had failed to get on the overcrowded Metro, been turfed off a bus in Heworth, talked to some Welsh ladies in the resulting queue who were close to tears about missing their daughters crossing the finishing line, and foolishly tried looking for some helpful signage when I finally made it to South Shields.

I am even less convinced that we have the right infrastructure to move 52,000 people and their families, friends and supporters out of South Tyneside on a single afternoon. Even the mobile phone system could not cope; I have not had so much difficulty making a call since I found myself in the West End of London on the day those bombs went off in July 2005.

On the other hand, it is only fair to say that my partner enjoyed it so much that she wants to do it again next year. And this despite hobbling across the finishing line with one foot so swollen that she did not dare take her running shoes off before fighting her way onto her standing-room-only train to York.

She had made the critical mistake, a couple of weeks before, of going to a rugby club ball with a partner who cannot dance to save his life, and taking to the floor alone. Whereupon 15 stone of drunken rugby player stamped on her foot with the sort of enthusiasm he presumably normally reserves for flattening opponents’ hands in collapsed scrums.

No point going to the doctor, she said. He’ll only tell me not to run on it. And that’s not an option when Maggie’s Centres are relying on me to help raise money for their wonderful work supporting people living with cancer. She’s not wrong, either. It’s a great cause.

Almost good enough to get me in training for 2009. But not quite, I think, given that my participation would almost certainly cost the healthcare system more than I could ever hope to raise. I’ll see you in the bus queue instead.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Suckers 0, Masters of the Universe 4

I worked in the City for more than 25 years but never received a mega-bonus, and could have been relied upon to invest it unwisely if I had.

The only major gain I ever made on the stock market was selling a load of Railtrack shares at their absolute peak. This was a pure fluke because no bank would lend me the money I needed to raise at the time. Otherwise I would have hung onto them all the way down. Just as I have this week written off my investment in Bradford & Bingley, which I could once have unloaded for over £1,300.

On the other hand, the shares were handed to me for nothing and I collected almost £300 in dividends along the way, so who am I to complain?

Such laid-back indolence is definitely not the hallmark of the successful investment banker, who is always hungrily on the lookout for ways to make himself unfeasibly rich. In the Tory years it was all about enticing thrusting entrepreneurs and sleepy mutuals into floating their businesses on the stock market, then enlarging them through costly takeover bids.

When that could go no further there were deals to be done creating focus through demergers, or taking public companies private.

There is no point even hoping that the current financial crisis will see the investment banking industry getting its richly deserved come-uppance. Yes, some may need to find new careers growing organic food on their hobby farms, and bonuses will not be what they were. But where does the Government need to turn for expensive advice on how to nationalise a former building society? You’ve got it in one.

The same organisations that so many business people will soon be asking for advice on how to downsize, restructure and buy their assets back cheaply from the receivers. And so the merry-go-round will continue until things pick up again and the bankers scent an opportunity to unload shares in these slimmed-down businesses onto the children of British Gas’s Sid.

Perhaps it will not always be true that there is no new thing under the sun, and that investment bankers have permanent rights to the mastery of the universe. But, as of today, it still looks the way to bet.

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant who eschews (does he mean exudes? – Ed) bitterness.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

From the edge of the abyss

Doesn’t global warming seem much less of a worry since we began teetering on the edge of the financial abyss?

Our current situation can be likened to taking a hiking tour of Colorado in dense fog. The fact that we can feel nothing immediately in front of us could mean that our next step will plunge us 5,000ft into the Grand Canyon. Or it could just indicate that the end of our state-of-the-art carbon fibre walking pole has dropped off.

If this situation ever arises in real life, I would recommend deciding the issue by exploring whether you can feel anything behind you, either. But the regrettable importation of US-style ambulance-chasing (or, in this case, hearse-chasing) lawyers means that I would then have to fill the rest of this page with a disclaimer explaining that The Journal and I can accept no liability if it all goes horribly wrong.

Crack teams of lawyers are already at work updating all the other disclaimers you see on advertisements for financial products. Share prices can go up as well as down. Failure to keep up the payments on your mortgage may result in the loss of your bank, and the entire global financial system going down the plughole.

How well are the world’s leaders responding to the crisis? With all the calm thoughtfulness of rabbits reacting to fast approaching car headlights. But at least our own Government has belatedly discovered an ability to take decisions. Compared to the months of dithering over Northern Rock, the takeover of Bradford & Bingley has been swift and brutal, and they have even apparently rediscovered that banned “N” word, previously replaced by the euphemism “temporary public ownership”.

I am well old enough to remember dealing with the nationalised utilities of yesteryear: lumberingly inefficient bodies, starved of investment, which seemed to exist primarily for the benefit of the surly jobsworths who staffed them. But at least anyone with a modicum of intelligence could understand what these entities did. The thought of any government trying to run financial institutions that have been brought to their knees by their own complexity and self-delusion should be enough to fill us all with horror.

Not that the present administration does not have form in this area. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown was famed for his love of complicating the taxes and benefits system. And if the root of the financial black hole into which we are all staring has been excessive borrowing, foolish lending and the dressing-up of bad loans as blue chip investments, surely there are obvious parallels in the world class scam known as the Private Finance Initiative.

Whether this crisis turns out to be Gordon Brown’s “get out jail free” card will depend on whether people remember who steered the ship into the iceberg in the first place, while constantly asserting that icebergs had been banished forever. If he is still in place by then, the next election could see him in the position of John Major either in 1992 (snatching an unexpected victory because “better the devil you know”) or in 1997 (utterly, hopelessly doomed). To me, the latter outcome seems much more likely.

I am therefore happy to accept the £50 bet offered in a recent email from that lifelong socialist Tom Gutteridge, who believes that Gordon Brown is on course for victory. I foresee quiet satisfaction either way - because, if we really are about to step into the abyss, the lucky party in 2010 (as in 1992) will be the one that loses.

Of course, in those circumstances, £50 won’t actually be much use for anything. But at least every factory chimney that gives up smoking helps to prolong the survival of the human race. Let us spin it as going fashionably green: poverty is the new prosperity.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Buy a pint and save the planet

Be careful what you joke about; it might come true. The warning has been ringing in my ears for half a century now, to precisely no effect.

So last week I jested about the entirely hypothetical black hole being brewed up by Europe’s physicists, just as a very real black hole was greedily consuming our savings and attempting to devour the world’s financial system.

I was torn between delight at the sudden and spectacular impoverishment of the spivs and speculators in the City, and the numbing realisation that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life shopping in discount stores, and perhaps also stacking their shelves.

One of my nuttier friends has long been predicting that the world will end shortly before Christmas 2012. One of the portents he told me to watch out for was the US dollar becoming as worthless as the currency of Zimbabwe. It seemed an extremely long shot 10 days ago. Now I am not so sure.

The proposed bail-out which prompted Friday’s spectacular market rally may do the trick, unfair though it will be. It is as if we all went to a bookie and placed massive bets on something offering ridiculously long odds, like Gordon Brown winning the next general election. If we won, we would pocket the winnings and rejoice in the fact that we could now afford to emigrate. While if we lost, we would ask the taxpayer to refund our stake money.

I worked in the City for more than 25 years and count myself a reasonably sophisticated investor, yet even I have been bamboozled by my advisers into putting some of my pension fund into complex, structured financial products which I do not even begin to understand. Nor, I now suspect, do they.

Left to my own devices, I preferred to buy shares in companies that made and did things I understood. Then I watched their share prices plummet at the turn of the century as the teenage scribblers pronounced that the old economy was finished. If you weren’t trading on the internet, you were toast. As a PR man, I spent many hours asking just how many people were going to buy a lunchtime pasty and doughnut online, rather than from the shop on the corner, but to no avail.

Similarly I instinctively preferred companies which owned freehold properties and had cash on their balance sheets, rather than towering debts. I watched in helpless dismay as the City persuaded so many of them that this was inefficient and that the only way forward was to gear up to fund reckless acquisitions or just to buy back the shares they had been urged to issue only a few years before.

Shamefully, I helped some companies in intrinsically cyclical industries to explain why boom and bust was now a thing of the past. To be fair, they were taking their lead from the very top, in Downing Street.

It was never going to happen. The longer and bigger the boom, the more painful the bust. That is the nature of capitalism. Which, like democracy, has absolutely nothing to recommend it, except that it is better than any other system yet tried.

We were mad to believe it could ever be any different. Now we must rely on common sense and maintain a sense of proportion. If we all stop spending, the wobbly wheels really will come off and Private Frazer’s doom-laden predictions will come true.

So buy that pie and pint, and maybe some new shoes or a sofa. You will be doing your bit to save humanity from catastrophe. Remember that if my eccentric friend is right, you only have four years left to spend it anyway, and you can’t take it with you when you go.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The well of utter hopelessness

So we are all still here, then. Despite my innate pessimism, I had a hunch we might be.

Last week’s switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN has so far generated only the latest in a long series of end of the world scare stories which have come to nothing. Remember the Millennium bug? I have a sneaking suspicion that we will somehow muddle through the credit crunch and global warming, too.

Mind you, so far the scientists have done nothing more with their gigantic machine than powering it up. As the recent purchaser of a new computer, I can testify that this is the easy bit. Actually getting it to do anything will be much more of a challenge.

When the protons do finally start crashing into each other, the main fear of the scaremongers is apparently not a restart of the Big Bang, which would at least be mercifully quick. They are talking instead of the possible creation of a black hole which could swallow the Earth over a period of years.

Nothing much to chuckle about there. Well, apart from the fact that it would start with Geneva and reach Sunderland before it got to Newcastle, perhaps expiring with a cosmic belch after it had eaten Monkwearmouth bridge. On the other hand, we would almost certainly get Robert Peston on the news every night throughout the process, gurning and waving his hands as he talked us through the dire economic consequences.

It’s enough to make you lose the will to live, isn’t it? Particularly if yours is as fragile as mine, which nearly collapsed in the face of a mere Edith Piaf impersonator on Saturday evening.

Compare and contrast this with Professor Stephen Hawking, whose synthesised voice was all over the airwaves last week, as the giant atom smasher was turned on. I used to run into him nearly every day in Cambridge 35 years ago, and even then he was in a dreadful state. I did not know who he was, but any fool could see that he was not long for this world.

Imagine my surprise to discover many years later that he was not only still alive but one of the cleverest men on the planet, who had managed to beat even Salman Rushdie’s impressive record in flogging completely unreadable best-sellers.

I think that identifying what gives the Professor his truly colossal will to live, in the face of such horrific disabilities, might contribute more to the happiness of the human race than answering the question of what the universe is for.

Perhaps he has already shared the secret with Gordon Brown, who gamely soldiers on despite being right at the bottom of an infinitely deep well of utter hopelessness, which is rapidly filling up with something considerably less pleasant than water. While his Cabinet colleagues shout down “Chin up, mate, we’ll have you out of there in a jiffy!” before glumly shaking their heads at each other.

Sceptics ask why the Government is spending millions on theoretical scientific research when there is so much simple human misery left to tackle.

The obvious answer is the unexpected spin-offs. It is possible to be cynical when we are told that we would never have had the non-stick frying pan if man had not set foot on the moon. But CERN has already spawned the World Wide Web, which has done more to transform our lives than any other invention since the wheel.

No, crack on, I say. With one important caveat. Surely the only thing that is keeping Professor Hawking going is the desire to be still here when the key to the universe is finally discovered. So in order to keep this national treasure with us, we must all pray that no-one ever actually finds out.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Is your journey really necessary?

So where were you during the great Biblical flood of September 2008? And, much more importantly, who do you blame for it?

Normally I would have been sitting smugly in my hilltop home; a location which causes occasional palpitations during severe gales, but is blissfully comforting in torrential rain. I just watch the water gurgling merrily down the road, not greatly caring where it might end up.

However, on Saturday I found myself in Morpeth for lunch; just about the worst possible place, at the worst possible time. I had tried to excuse myself, but my aunt had gone to a lot of trouble in the kitchen, the occasion was a seventh birthday party, and I was bringing the guest of honour.

Yes, it would be a brave man indeed who would deny a seven-year-old his or her birthday treat. Only this was a party for a dog, whose appreciation was confined to hoovering up the scraps, howling along to “Happy Birthday” and receiving a present of a marrowbone rather larger than he is, which he has been regarding with total bafflement ever since.

I spent much of the tortuous return journey, in which we took two and a half hours to cover 25 miles, wondering whether any of the other vehicles jammed onto the blocked A1 were making a more pointless trip than ours. Since the throng included a large number of motorcyclists out for a jolly Saturday rev-up, I concluded that even this prize was probably beyond my grasp.

Still, it was good to be reminded of the awesome power of Nature and our own insignificance in the greater scheme of things. Now I just need to show more determination when cancelling future travel plans in the light of adverse weather forecasts. It would not harm any of us to spend more time posing that old question from the wartime posters: “Is your journey really necessary?”

I used to be so good at it when I worked in London, and regularly cited blizzard conditions in Northumberland as an excuse for failing to get to the office on Monday morning. Having been snowed in for several weeks in aggregate during the 1990s, I was a bit miffed when a Tyneside client let slip to my colleagues that he had not seen a heavy snowfall in years.

As for blame, was it all the result of global warming, a sign of divine displeasure over recent events at St James’s Park, or a slightly mistimed 60th anniversary tribute to the great Border floods of August 1948?

Even before the waters reached their peak, some unlucky fall guy from the County Council was being given a hard time by the BBC for failing to protect Morpeth from inundation. But should the local authority really take the rap for what we used to call Acts of God? All I will say is that the weather definitely seems to have got worse since Gordon Brown took over.

In any case, a bit of rain may be put firmly in perspective by this week’s switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider, the largest and most expensive scientific experiment in history, which is designed to aid our understanding of the Big Bang at the start of the universe by replicating it, albeit supposedly on a smaller scale. Unsuccessful legal bids to block the project have argued that it could re-start Creation from scratch.

So if your life ends in a flash tomorrow, to the sound of a divine voice mumbling “Oh no, not again!”, or Dr Evil cackling, do remember to look on the bright side. At least it will be quicker and cleaner than being flooded out. While in a tunnel under the French-Swiss border, a lot of scientists will be perishing ever so happily as they mouth “Eureka!”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

One tough choice after another

How would you rather the Government spent £100 million of your money: dualling the A1 through Northumberland or buying a couple of Titians for the National Galleries of Scotland?

How about choosing between an opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics that will make the Chinese curse themselves for not having thought of it, or granting cancer sufferers a few extra months of life with absurdly expensive drugs?

I suspect that most readers would tick the box for the last and most humane option, and that buying Old Masters (even at allegedly bargain prices) would come bottom of the list. There cannot be many who would consider it a good use of public funds to help a duke out of a hole (though there may well be some descendants of crofters evicted during the Highland Clearances who would be happy to help him into one).

Which is precisely why the National Lottery was invented, creating a voluntary tax on the most gullible members of society to fund guaranteed vote-losers like the rebuilding of the Royal Opera House. The duke must be cursing himself for not making his bid when the arts and heritage coffers were brimming, before the Government decided to divert funds to subsidise the London Olympics.

I find it hard to decide which of those “good causes” I care about less. I know that an educated bloke ought to appreciate paintings, but sadly for me they are never going to be more than extremely pricey wallpaper. The best I can say for art galleries is that I do not find them as monumentally boring as museums.

As one of those strange old fogeys whose pride is actually stirred by our flag and much maligned national anthem, I realise that I should probably have taken more interest in events in Peking [sic], and the implausible successes which Lottery funding of minority sports apparently made possible.

But the fact is that they passed me by completely. Like certain other columnists in this paper, I was hopeless at all games at school. Unlike them, I extended my resulting dislike of participating in sport into a complete lack of interest in watching it, too.

I remember explaining to a girlfriend that I simply could not feel properly involved in things I was no good at. She swiftly asserted that she could name something at which I was completely useless, but in which I was very interested indeed. I blustered at cross purposes for some time before she revealed that she was referring to opera, not the bedroom.

But while opera moves me in a way that painting and sport do not, there is one thing I rate far above it: the ravishing Northumberland landscape. That is surely the essential heritage of Britain, created through centuries of work and care, not Venetian paintings collected as trophies by the mega-rich.

No-one has yet suggested plonking a wind farm or nuclear waste dump in the middle of my favourite view, but give them time. With Britain on course to become the most populous country in the EU by 2060, according to Eurostat’s predictions last week, few corners will escape the pressure for development.

It seems strange that so many people want to join us on this already crowded island, where life often seems to consist of one tough choice after another. But then perhaps they have spotted that we are unimaginably rich and privileged by the standards of nearly all of humanity throughout history. Or maybe they just want to be part of a winning Olympic team.

In the long run nothing is sustainable, however much Government or Lottery money we may chuck at it. So whether you love the countryside or high culture, enjoy it now. It may be gone sooner than you think.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The power of words on paper

Like most people, I hardly ever write letters these days. And when I do, the recipients nearly always ring me up to ask what I was hoping to convey, as my handwriting has deteriorated into an indecipherable scrawl through lack of practice.

I have long been handicapped by shyness on the telephone, so communicate mainly by email and text message. I was saddened when a recent computer crash wiped out all the emails I had sent and received over the last four years; the ones I had not deleted because they contained something amusing, and which I hoped to enjoy reading again in my old age (probably next month).

This is the fourth such hardware failure I have experienced in the last decade, and each time I have been told that it would be hopelessly uneconomic to retrieve my data. Apparently my only hope of seeing any of it again is to strike up a friendship with Gary Glitter, and await the inevitable police search.

All of which underlines the evanescence of anything preserved electronically, compared with the amazing endurance of paper. It seems such flimsy stuff. Yet I have a cache of correspondence from previous generations of my family which looks as fresh as ever, while the big, solid people who wrote it have long since returned to dust.

Fortunately, there are some people sensible enough to adhere to the old ways. Like Councillor Mick Henry, leader of the Association of North East Councils (ANEC), who last month fired off a “strongly worded letter” to President Mugabe, telling him in no uncertain terms to step down. Where the UN and virtually every government on the planet had failed, ANEC succeeded and Mugabe soon opened talks with Morgan Tsvangirai.

This continues a well-established pattern. Documents recently released by the National Archives of Japan revealed that their war leader General Tojo was eager to continue the fight even after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Apparently the country only surrendered when Emperor Hirohito received a blunt postcard from the chairman of Norham and Islandshires Rural District Council.

I hope Councillor Henry has not taken a summer holiday, or the crisis in South Ossetia could drag on for months until the Russians and Georgians receive the authoritative guidance they require.

The thing I find surprising is that our local authorities have time to fret about Zimbabwe, but so little to communicate with their own residents. In fairness, Northumberland County Council does send me an infuriating glossy magazine from time to time, but that naturally goes straight into the recycling bin. I thought it was precisely what they had in mind when the blue bin recycling scheme was launched, with instructions to include “leaflets, junk mail and envelopes”.

I have been following those rules for years. Now a comprehensively revised set of instructions has finally turned up, warning that one of the main contaminants jeopardising the success of the whole recycling scheme is “window envelopes”. What, like the ones all the junk mail comes in?

Heaven knows what you can do with these instead. I keep being told that I could be fined £2,500 for chucking a window envelope on the fire, under some EU directive about the disposal of plastics.

So here is an idea for a way forward. Instead of writing pointless letters to foreign heads of state, why do our evidently under-employed local representatives not make themselves useful by campaigning for a complete ban on non-recyclable window envelopes, and tighter controls on junk mail?

Oh, and maybe they could drop us all a pithy line every now and then to keep us abreast of things like changes to the recycling rules? They might find most of us more inclined than Robert Mugabe to take a polite hint.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

On the whole, I'd rather be in Sunderland

I wonder whether pictures of the last Grand Central trainload of evacuees from Sunderland in 2010 will ever conjure up such poignant feelings as the images of the final inhabitants of St Kilda being taken off the island by HMS Harebell in 1930.

St Kildans apparently developed unusually thick and strong ankles by climbing the sheer cliffs of the outlying sea stacks in pursuit of seabirds and their eggs. Makems (as they were never called when I was a lad) presumably once had immensely strong arms as a result of all those years hammering rivets into ships. Though one imagines that these must have withered a bit since the yards closed, and the principal manual activities have become signing on, lifting pints and making obscene gestures at visiting Tory politicians and think tank researchers.

As a Northumbrian, I can think of few places I would less like to live than Sunderland. Though, funnily enough, one of them is a place that Policy Exchange suggested as a suitable receiving centre for the pitiful refugees from the north: Cambridge.

I lived in Cambridge for six years in the 1970s, while nominally pursuing my education, and it was without doubt the most miserable time of my life. Not only because of the embarrassing lack of sophistication resulting from my grammar school education; or the distressing lack of, er, social opportunities in what were still almost entirely single sex colleges; or the poverty engendered by the Heath-Barber hyperinflation of the mid-1970s, capped by the candle-lit misery of the Three Day Week.

It was a time when the country really did appear to be going to hell in a handcart. There was even bizarre talk of a military takeover under the leadership of Lord Mountbatten. But it was undoubtedly made worse by experiencing it all in the midst of the flat, dull fenlands, where the winter winds sweep in directly from Siberia, with a viciousness I had never experienced in the North East.

There is a small area of central Cambridge which is duly famed throughout the world for its beauty. But the bulk of the town has nothing whatsoever to recommend it. The average resident of Southwick would feel justifiably short changed if compelled to move there.

Similarly, Cambridge undoubtedly houses a small number of very bright people. At least half of the greatest advances in human knowledge since the birth of Christ were made within a mile of King’s College Chapel, from the formulation of the law of gravity via the splitting of the atom to the discovery of DNA. But the bulk of the population, at least in my day, comprised hereditary college servants of preternatural slowness, as splendidly captured in Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue.

Of course, I write of distant times. Cambridge is now a “science city”, prospering from the commercial spin-offs of its academic research. The isolated small town I knew is also well linked into the broader South East economy via the M11 and fast electric trains, which take a mere 45 minutes non-stop to King’s Cross.

Indeed the main blight on this earthly paradise seems to be the overwhelming pressure of tourist numbers on the tiny historic centre. Could there be more a effective way of dealing with this problem than the construction of some unsightly pigeon crees and the dumping of a load of old fridges and mattresses on the college lawns, while filling the streets with whippet-walking, chain-smoking, wife-beating, flat-hat-wearing Andy Capp lookalikes, wrapped in red and white mufflers and burbling incomprehensibly about the Black Cats?

Bring it on, I say. And as New Sunderland withers by the Cam, we can redevelop the old one with a splendid combination of landfill, nuclear power plants and wind turbines. Box ticked, problem solved. Another British gold for blue sky thinking.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne. After being ever so slightly censored to make it less offensive to their esteemed readers in Sunderland.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The silliest month of the year

One of my mother’s imperishable sayings was “You’re frightened of the death you’ll never die.” Why worry, when fate can be relied upon to deliver something completely unexpected?

Having watched her whole generation shuffle off into eternity, I can confirm that she was absolutely right. There was the odd case of a fatty dropping dead of a heart attack, or a chain smoker succumbing to lung cancer. But, by and large, the causes of death in her social circle were surprising enough to provoke cries of “Eeh! Never!” when the survivors gathered in the Conservative Club to drink beer, smoke tabs and discuss why the flag was yet again flying at half mast.

As with individuals, so with nations and even planets. We are all now conditioned to expect the human race to end gasping for water in the desert created by global warming. It came as a shock to hear a sonorous and authoritative Russian voice on the wireless at the weekend, explaining how we could so easily go up in a big mushroom cloud instead.

The war between Russia and Georgia he was talking about is a classic example of what Neville Chamberlain, in an equally dangerous context, called “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. Hands up anyone who had even heard of South Ossetia before last week, remembering that no-one likes a swot.

It seems like a throwback to another century, and we may be forgiven for not having seen it coming. But perhaps we could have anticipated something pretty unpleasant, given the time of year.

Already this month we have passed the anniversaries of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914 and the first Al-Qaeda attacks on US targets on 7 August 1998. The list continues right up to 31 August, when in 1939 Hitler precipitated the Second World War by ordering the invasion of Poland.

There is some logic to European wars kicking off in August. The harvest is safely gathered in to feed the troops, and there should theoretically be a few months of decent campaigning weather before winter bogs everything down.

Memorable battles this month include Bosworth on 22 August 1485, which won the English throne for the Tudors, and the great English victory at Crécy on 26 August 1346. The Battle of Britain reached its height in August 1940 and the Second World War was brought to an end by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The long and painful British military deployment in Northern Ireland began on 14 August 1969, and the murders of Lord Mountbatten and his sailing companions, and of 18 soldiers at Warrenpoint, took place on 27 August 1979.

In short, far from being “the silly season”, this month has actually generated far more than its share of grim news. Royal conspiracy theorists have been buzzing around it like flies since the mysterious death of King William Rufus in an alleged hunting accident in the New Forest on 2 August 1100, all the way through to the car crash that killed Diana in Paris on 31 August 1997.

For pub quiz fans, it was also the month of the Great Train Robbery (8 August 1963) and the death of Elvis Presley (16 August 1977).

So please avoid the mistake that those foolish grouse make every year of thinking that nothing bad ever happens in August. Do keep in touch by buying The Journal every day, but do not brood. The good news, as my mother pointed out, is that the awful fate you fear for yourself is, in one sense or another, absolutely the last thing that will happen.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The ultimate PR challenge

Say what you like about Gordon Brown, at least he’s not Robert Mugabe. David Miliband has not disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and even desperate silly season columnists can only moan about the lacklustre design of our new pennies, not the replacement of the entire currency because it was costing $1.8 trillion to buy a beer.

Of course, Mugabe may have the edge in clinging to office through a blatantly rigged election, rather than attaining power without one. But I’d still much rather be living under Gordon, unless he emerges from his Southwold retreat sporting a toothbrush moustache.

Some defenders of Mr Brown say that his core problem is terrible PR. This seems ironic given that he has is married to a successful PR guru and has appointed another leading PR executive as his chief of staff.

Mugabe appears to attach more weight to brute force than any gentler arts, but even he employed a PR company to mastermind his “re-election”. We know this because it turned out to be partly owned, to their huge embarrassment, by the British WPP.

In these difficult times, all PR firms are having to look at bigger and more distant challenges in order to earn a crust. I recently had dinner with one PR executive in London who is spending a lot of his time advising Russian oligarchs, trying to make out that they are gentle, cuddly people who have been much misunderstood.

I wondered cynically when he would be pitching for the Radovan Karadzic account. But since even those accused of the most heinous crimes are entitled to competent representation in court, why should that not apply in the media, too?

Shortly afterwards I identified one possible attraction of working in Russia, when a judge threw out a sexual harassment action on the grounds that the human race would die out if men did not make passes at their employees. It brought back shaming memories of my London office in the 1980s.

On the whole I think I’ll resist the temptation to emigrate, but I could definitely use an amusing new challenge. I’ll duck the hopeless cases like Karadzic, Mugabe and Brown. But fingers crossed that a much misunderstood Russian judge will spot this on the internet and drop me a line.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant with limited horizons.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Change in Northumberland

For the last week my thoughts have been dominated by change – never something I favour in principle, except when handing banknotes over a bar.

On the small change front, I received a couple of the Royal Mint’s shiny new-style pennies in the village shop. My first reaction was to reject these foreign interlopers, but on closer inspection the Queen’s head at least looked mercifully familiar. The other side depicts a fragment of the royal arms forming part of the designer’s jigsaw concept, and looks like a piece of abstract art. I suppose it could have been a lot worse.

Perhaps the strangest thing is the fact that the only indication of the coin’s value is the words “one penny” inscribed around the edge in impenetrably small print. Naturally I am wholly in favour of reverting to the fine old English tradition of doing our utmost to confuse foreigners at all times. This latest attempt falls far short of the masterly standards set by our pre-decimal coinage, but the absence of numerals does seem mightily strange in the era of globalisation and mass immigration, where every piece of public signage has been changed to infantile pictograms which can be understood by anyone, however thick they are and whatever language they happen to speak.

Although I have never been a great believer in conspiracy theories, I find myself beginning to sympathise with the idea that the new coins are primarily designed to make us feel that the introduction of the euro would be a welcome simplification of our lives.

Similarly, it is hard to read anything about the new unitary council for Northumberland that does not bring the word “shambles” to the forefront of one’s mind, and make one think that it is all about ensuring a warmer reception for the European model of regional government when that is next put to the vote.

I have been looking at the website designed to explain the changes to us hapless voters. Even after decades spent dealing with politically correct human resources departments in major public companies, I have never encountered anything written in such impenetrable management speak. From the “baselining team” to “service cluster groups” and “belonging communities”, everything appears to have been described in gibberish by visiting aliens who think that Stanley Unwin was a genuine professor.

Even the job titles of the newly appointed and no doubt highly paid officials of the new authority seem to have been encrypted by an Enigma machine. What, for the love of God, is one supposed to make of an “Executive Director of Place”?

In fairness, I would probably be equally rude about this change if its proponents were capable of describing it in plain English, since I along with most residents of the county did not want it to happen. The irony is that, thanks to the punishment handed out to Labour at the ballot box in May, neither did most of the people elected to run the thing.

So why are we pressing on with this wretched project which can be guaranteed to waste millions in the “transition process”, inflate the salaries of everyone apart from those in the front line actually delivering services, produce none of the billed economies and make local government less responsive and more remote?

Politicians are always banging on about “listening to the people”, so why do they not try thinking inside the box for a change and stop it now? Just say no. I think I might. The way things are going, I will not understand a word of my council tax demand next April and will have no alternative but to sling it in the bin. With the nation’s prisons already bursting at the seams, what could possibly happen next?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.