Tuesday, 29 January 2008

It's not over till the fat lady sings

My invisibility last week was sadly not the result of an excessively successful diet. We encountered one of those tiresome glitches which can occur in the best-run organisations, by which I mean The Journal. My own office makes the Peter Hain deputy leadership campaign HQ look like a model of smooth-running efficiency.

As it turned out, the replacement column in this space by 14-year-old Olly Lennard made a most refreshing change. He is an infinitely better writer than I was at his age, and I await the emails pointing out that he is also a considerably better writer than I am now, almost 40 years later.

I agreed with him completely about the relative attractions of cinema and the theatre. I only saw one film on screen during 2007: The Flying Scotsman at Alnwick Playhouse. And I only went to that because it was written by a friend of mine. Oh dear, you will now think I am biased when I say that it was wonderful and you should all buy the DVD. (Note for anorak wearers: it’s about speed cycling, not steam trains.)

Theatres, on the other hand, were responsible for nearly all my most memorable moments of the last year (or at any rate the printable ones). I saw some truly great comedies including Spamalot, Boeing Boeing and Rafta Rafta (maybe a repetitive title is the key to hilarity); and much superb acting including Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, Sir Ian McKellen in King Lear, and Simon Russell Beale in Much Ado About Nothing.

I also saw far too many excellent operas to list here, though Britten’s Death in Venice at English National Opera deserves a special mention, along with their production of Handel’s Agrippina and Macbeth at Glyndebourne.

Only two nights linger in my mind for the wrong reasons: an alleged comedy at the Hull Truck Theatre and Waiting for Gateaux, one of whose co-authors wrote to Voice of the North last week, taking Kevin Keegan to task for saying that Geordies went to the match like southerners went to the theatre. I’m sorry, I hate football, but give me a kick-about on a muddy recreation ground any day.

Having said that, it is only fair to concede that it played to a packed Theatre Royal and that everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves hugely. The bloke behind me had already seen it so often that he was able to shout out every punch line to his wife about ten seconds before it was delivered on stage, where it was drowned by his uproarious laughter.

It’s a sad fact that everything on my personal list of highlights, apart from the RSC’s King Lear, took place in London or Sussex. Even Olly recommended a London musical, the stage adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, which was brave given the appalling reviews it attracted. My personal favourite was the one from the Evening Standard, headlined “What on Middle Earth?” which began “They said it couldn’t be done – and they were right.”

This seems curiously reminiscent of the things that have been written on the sports pages about Newcastle United’s performance this season. I hope Kevin Keegan succeeds in turning that round, just as I sincerely hope that more of my top class performance memories in 2008 will be generated much nearer to home.

Luckily there is one imminent, world class theatrical event to which we can all look forward. Opera North return to the Theatre Royal in March with a programme that includes the best production of Peter Grimes I have ever seen anywhere, and a new version of Madam Butterfly that is, by all accounts, absolutely terrific. Please don’t be deterred by opera’s elitist image: if you like theatre or music, I can promise you an evening you won’t forget, for all the right reasons. You might even find it more gripping than a big match; I know I do.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The peculiar lure of game birds

I was born in Newcastle but always wanted to live in the Northumberland countryside, from the moment in childhood when I fell in love with my uncle’s remote holiday cottage. The yearning became particularly acute in the mid-1980s, after a period of working frenetically in London.

The clincher was attending a dinner party in Kensington, where a striking young lady from the Northumberland “county set” said “Oh yah, the Borders: that’s real 3D country.” I thought she was talking about the fabulous, Cinerama landscapes of the Cheviots, and proceeded to wax lyrical on the subject. She interrupted me to say, “No, I mean 3Ds as in Drunkenness, Debauchery and Divorce. It’s all they do up there.”

Two of those were then high on my list of interests, so I sold my London flat and made the move. While I have made my share of trips to the bottle bank over the succeeding 20 years, it’s only fair to say that my debauched experiences could be described on the back of a postage stamp. And I don’t mean one of those big, commemorative jobs they used to issue for Royal weddings and the like, and now churn out to promote James Bond or Harry Potter.

Even so, I have adored living here. But while I have occupied the same house for two decades, and am descended from generations of local agricultural labourers, I would never dream of describing myself as a countryman. Because I do virtually none of the things that countrymen are supposed to do.

In fact, I share many of the standard prejudices against the sort of people who hunt and shoot. The difference is that I’d defend to the uttermost their right to do so.

I have a particularly deep-rooted suspicion of riders, even though my heart melts whenever I see a woman wearing a stock and jodhpurs (and the rest of the kit, too). There seems to be something about mounting a horse that automatically endows people with an air of arrogance. Inevitably, they look down on you. Horsey friends tell me that what their expression usually conveys is not snobbery, but mild nervousness about the intentions of the bloke in the approaching car. Somehow that seems about as credible as the classic excuse for extreme rudeness: “He’s just very shy.”

Yet I stood on top of Cateran Hill in the glorious sunshine on Saturday, watching a hunt in full cry below me, and felt that there could be no more glorious sight or sound. They deserve an Arts Council grant.

Which brings me to shooting, and specifically to David Banks’s question of Friday: “Does the pheasant enjoy any better quality of life than the miserable battery hen?” Yes, of course it does. To my shame, I once handled PR for a company that ran battery and broiler farms, and I’ve been inside those sheds. They tried to kid me that the hens loved it in there, all warm and cosy, and wouldn’t go outside even if they could. Despite my staunch opposition to equating animals with humans, I couldn’t help thinking that the guards at Auschwitz probably span a similar line.

However short and unnatural the life of a pheasant reared for the shoot may be, it’s infinitely better than that. Where I live, it also keeps many people in work and provides even more people with pleasure. I may not understand the appeal of shooting, and the noise of distant gunfire certainly doesn’t give me the same atavistic thrill as the sound of a hunting horn. Nevertheless, it seems to me one of the less disturbing aspects of country life and of the way we treat animals.

If it is true that those tweed-clad Hooray Henries are blasting more birds out of the air than they can cope with, there can only be one solution: we must all eat fewer, bland, miserable battery chickens and more delicious, healthy, free-range game.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Broken down by age and sex

A Whitehall planner apparently once asked Alnwick District Council to provide details of its inhabitants, broken down by age and sex, and received the reply: “Nearly all of them.”

At a dinner party I attended many years ago, a former Alnwick GP described his typical patient as a grandmother built like a brick lavatory, with the smoking qualities of an industrial chimney and the drinking capacity of a camel (though without its extraordinary endurance between intakes).

He said it came as a bit of a shock, when signing their death certificates, to realise that they were only 40, but they had lived full lives on fast forward.

How times have changed. Monday’s Journal revealed that Alnwick is now a thriving hub of female entrepreneurship, taking its lead from the inspirational Duchess of Northumberland. Fancy starting out with absolutely nothing and creating a world class tourist attraction from scratch; it’s a heart-warming rags to riches story if ever there was one.

Both sides of my family (because my parents were second cousins, which explains a lot) have been wasting their lives in or around Alnwick for at least 300 years. I am the last in a long line of rustic no-hopers.

The striking thing is that none of us has ever gone far, in any sense. My father only left the country because the Durham Light Infantry shipped him to Normandy on a landing craft in 1944. I went to one of my increasingly rare business meetings in Newcastle on Monday, and immediately started moaning that we could have held a conference call instead.

Although the left like to pretend that we are all the descendants of recent immigrants, the old Northumbrian language actually displayed a remarkable continuity with the Anglian of the Dark Ages. Having somehow made that treacherous crossing of the North Sea, those settlers clearly thought “never again” and put their feet up. It’s not the approach of a lot of go-getters.

So perhaps the key thing about Monday’s successful entrepreneurs is not that they are women, but that all of them are incomers: from Edinburgh (the Duchess), Manchester and Cheshire. Inviting this question: does the survey actually tell us anything useful about female enterprise, or merely illustrate the economic benefits of migration?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who tries to blame his sloth on his genes. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

A memory of cunning lingers

The official start of the Great Weight Loss Challenge with yesterday’s columnist Tom Gutteridge places me at a significant disadvantage; I’ve already lost 8lbs since Boxing Day. Putting me in the same sort of position as a jockey whose horse has run crazily around the Grand National circuit before the race even began, and is now leaning against the starting post trying to catch its breath.

In case you are interested in my secret, it’s very simple. (1) Stuff yourself with every sort of high calorie food and drink for a fortnight. (2) Stop doing that, and watch your weight revert to where it was before you started. The real challenge starts now, as I seek to tip the scales at less than 15 stone for the first time since 1997.

Although I am perhaps the world’s least competitive male, I’m hoping that a bit of rivalry will provide an appropriate incentive. Hitherto I’ve chiefly been influenced by a faint desire to make myself less unattractive to the opposite sex; but, since I concluded more than 20 years ago that the sensual pleasures of a good dinner exceeded those of mere passion, that has not proved a particularly effective motivator.

I did wobble (at my size, it’s an occupational hazard) when I met a particularly striking beauty shortly after the start of the present century. She was a woman who set great store by her own physical perfection. To my surprise, she indicated that we might progress to something more than friendship if I did something about the amorphous mass of blubber south of my neck. I looked at her admiringly and conceded that a crash diet would probably be worth it. Then she added the impossible rider: “Of course, you’ll have to start working out, too.”

Here a red line was reached. Few actions have given me more pleasure than the ceremonial destruction of my gym kit when it ceased to be a compulsory part of my school curriculum in 1969. Nothing could induce me to set foot in one of those hell-holes ever again. So that was that.

I’ve always thought that my greatest achievement at the Royal Grammar School was to attend weekly swimming lessons for seven years, and still be unable to swim a single stroke. But, looking back, perhaps it is even more remarkable that I was never able to raise myself by as much as one foot up the ropes that hung from the roof of the gymnasium; while all my contemporaries swarmed up and down them like cartoon fakirs.

I only came into my own on the last day of each term, when gym teacher “Rocky” Forster allowed us to play a game called “Pirates”. The rules seem slightly hazy now, but two pupils were designated “catchers” and the rest of the class had to evade them by jumping between the wall bars and various items of equipment scattered around the gym. If you were caught, or your feet touched the ground, you were “dead”.

No doubt the remote possibility that a small boy might miss his footing and end up really dead will long since have added this game to the list of harmless school treats banned on the grounds of Elfin Safety.

The only prize was to become a catcher in the next game; and to achieve this you had to be one of the last two survivors of the previous one. Surprisingly, since I was undoubtedly the least fit boy in the class, I achieved that accolade quite frequently. Because instead of being chased around the vaulting horses and so on like everyone else, I’d just attach myself to the wall bars on or around the starting line and keep very quiet. Low cunning doesn’t always beat physical prowess, but it’s generally the way to bet.

I mention this because I intend to adopt very similar tactics in the weeks ahead. It could prove an interesting match.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

2008: annus horribilis?

Old Mother Hann’s crystal ball reveals:

Jan: Gordon Brown toasts Hogmanay with “At least it can’t get any worse!” and his ceiling falls on him.

Feb: Northern Rock sold to lollipop lady from Kenton; questions asked in House.

Mar: First tabloid picture of Fabio Capello with head replaced by root vegetable.

Apr: Government announces loss of all national tax records as morale-boosting “April Fool” jape.

May: Newcastle win FA Cup; Sports Direct wins top corporate governance award; Emirates flight makes “textbook” emergency landing after mid-air collision with Gloucester Old Spot.

Jun: Britain’s oldest man reveals his secret: three fry-ups, a bottle of Famous Grouse and 40 Capstan Full Strength every day; Chief Medical Officer resigns.

Jul: House prices fall for sixth successive month; editor of Daily Mail taken into care.

Aug: Gordon Brown goes on holiday to Dorset and signs up for canoeing course.

Sep: Shock rise in sea level swamps offshore wind farms; Government announces major new commitment to wave power.

Oct: Diana inquest concludes after 248 days with “accident” verdict; Pope re-affirms his Catholicism; largest ever study of bear habits promises shock revelations.

Nov: Cherie Blair wins I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here; Tony comes second.

Dec: Gordon Brown walks into a London police station and says “I think I may be a missing person.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Thongs of praise for 2008

I’m feeling uncharacteristically positive; particularly given that I am writing this on New Year’s Eve, when I normally depress myself by producing a balance sheet of the year’s triumphs and disasters. One side of this typically runs to two or three lines, while the other extends over several pages. I’m sure I need not spell out which is which.

Superficially, the “reasons to be cheerful” chart looks similarly skewed. On the plus side, I am not a supporter of the Labour Party or Newcastle United, or a shareholder in Northern Rock. In the minus column – well, where do I start? My penchant for sacking clients for insubordination means that my business is currently progressing like a Stuka dive bomber with airbrake failure; my novel remains unpublished; I’m about three stones overweight and the last time I volunteered to disrobe in front of a woman (other than a doctor) she declined on the grounds that she had only recently recovered from a nasty bout of anaphylactic shock, and had been warned that any recurrence might prove fatal.

My only companion is a near-comatose yet powerfully flatulent Border terrier, who clearly values me only as the butt for his increasingly perverse sense of humour. I’ve also begun to grasp that my growing list of minor ailments and disabilities will be with me to the grave.

And that’s just me. Casting my net slightly wider, the UK economy is heading for a nasty downturn, house prices are already falling and our enslavement to the EU is about to be set in stone. Kosovan independence will cause massive international tensions in the traditional seedbed of European wars, while the world’s only nuclear-armed Islamic state, and the main base for Al Qaeda, stands every chance of descending into ungovernable chaos following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

All the experts agree that 2008 looks grim; which is precisely why I reckon it could turn out rather well. For the last three years, the Investors Chronicle has constructed a portfolio comprising the most hated shares in London; the ones that all the highly paid analysts agree are raging sells. And guess what? It has outperformed the market every time.

Similar results could be obtained by testing the work of expert forecasters in every field. If you are ever at a press party, remember to seek out the paper’s racing tipster and ask why, if he is so good at picking winners, he is writing for a pittance. Right after you have tipped a glass of wine over the astrologer and asked “Did you see that coming?”

This year I’m going to make a real effort to do something about the things I can affect, and to stop moaning about the things I can’t. Starting with my weight. Writing in this space yesterday, Tom Gutteridge (the North-East’s top Alfred Hitchcock look-alike), promised to lose 21lbs by Easter. Me too. But to make it more interesting, why don’t we each pledge £10 to charity for every pound in weight the other loses? The best performer can choose the fortunate good cause. Oh, and the runner-up gets a new photograph at the head of his column, wearing only a Christopher Dean thong. No, hang on. I’m not sure I’ve really thought that through.

Obviously we must appoint a top law firm to draw up a contract, supervise the weigh-ins and set rules. For a start, I think that any amputations must not count towards the final result. In the virtual word of your Nintendo Wii, Tom, that object on the ground before you is my gardening glove, masquerading as a gauntlet. What do you say?

While I wait breathlessly for an answer next Monday, I wish you all a very Happy New Year. Please remember that if I am wrong about 2008 and the planet explodes, the last words you hear will be those of an expert explaining why it could not possibly happen.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.