Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The heirless way to save the planet

Regular readers of this column will know that I have never been afraid to state the obvious. However, I am unable to do so about my first choice of subject this week, following the coroner’s threat to charge critics of the Diana inquest with contempt of court.

This has deprived you of some pithy but tasteless remarks about possible candidates for sectioning under the Mental Health Act, or indeed for bumping off if MI6 were actually in the business of doing that; plus some gloomy observations on the likelihood of the conspiracy theories ever being laid to rest.

So let us turn instead to the less gripping question of the future of humanity as a whole. I have been saying for years that it is obviously a mistake to muck around with nature, and that those who are not naturally blessed with children should shrug their shoulders and get on with something else. Imagine my delight when scientists recently backed me up by warning of the “infertility time bomb” being created by the spread of IVF.

It has long been known that infertility has a strong hereditary component. Many great British aristocratic families found to their cost that the snag with marrying a wealthy heiress is that she only attained that position because her parents had difficulty conceiving, and that the problem is often passed on.

So the odds are stacked in favour of the products of artificial conception also needing the help of specialists to reproduce. The doctors do rate it “highly unlikely” that the entire human race will ultimately become incapable of conceiving naturally, but one might wonder whether it is a risk we need to run. Though only if one assumes that the survival of the species is a good thing.

A few weeks ago I fell victim to brilliant salesmanship and upgraded my car. This has restored my enjoyment of motoring, but troubled my conscience as well as my bank manager, given that it now costs £70 every time I fill my petrol tank. I confessed my guilt to a friend, who promptly assured me that I was entitled to the odd indulgence as I was just about the most environmentally responsible person he knew.

I thought this was a reference to my sustainable wood-fuelled heating (actually based on a taste for the old-fashioned rather than green principles) or my refusal to fly (due to laziness and an aversion to airports). But he went on to spell out that it was because I do not have any children “which is the most important contribution to saving the planet that any of us can make”.

It has been a pure accident rather than a deliberate and principled decision; which is ironic, given that so many pregnancies seem to start precisely the same way. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to learn that I have inadvertently done my bit. While it might be possible in theory for me to change my mind and get cracking on the reproduction front, the resounding lack of response to my annual Valentine’s Day appeal leads me to conclude that it’s not going to happen.

From now on, I shall pretend that my lack of offspring is not the chance product of selfish idleness, but a fine example of environmental good practice. Perhaps instead of putting up a statue of Harry Hotspur in Alnwick, they should consider erecting one to the Unknown Non-Parent: the hero who helped to save humanity as a whole by becoming a Works Exit Only from the great motorway of life.

There’s a lot to be said for following my example. A Border terrier makes an excellent child substitute, being more attractive, considerably cheaper and equally entertaining. Sadly I can’t claim that it will look after you in your old age. But then there are many lonely care home residents who can testify that there’s absolutely no guarantee that kids will do that, either.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The strain of the train

I had a rather annoying experience the other day, when I caught the 09.00 National Express train from King’s Cross to Newcastle. It departed and arrived on time; I had a secluded, reserved seat where I could write in peace, except during the frequent ministrations of the attentive trolley service; there was a well-advertised restaurant car if I had wanted one; and the lavatories were spotless. All of which militated against my plan to spend the journey composing a searing indictment of my uniformly awful experiences on the East Coast Main Line since the sad demise of GNER.

On reflection, though, a customer dissatisfaction rate of 75% probably deserves an airing. Why should three of my recent journeys between the North East and London have proved memorable for all the wrong reasons?

I tried to embark on my first trip with a genuinely open mind, banishing the prejudice created by the rather sad and shoddy look of the train since it was stripped of its GNER insignia. However, no-one could dispute that travelling on the 09.00 from Newcastle was distinctly marred by the unexplained absence of reservation tickets. This guaranteed a round of heated argy-bargy after each of the numerous calling points. Worse still, there appeared to be evidence of overbooking; two angry people brandished pieces of paper at me, demonstrating that we had all reserved precisely the same seat.

On the return journey on a Friday evening, the overflowing lavatories recalled the darkest days of British Rail. More disturbingly, numerous people to whom I have mentioned this distasteful fact have nodded eagerly in recognition, suggesting that it is becoming quite typical. Still, at least action had been taken to reduce demand for the loos by making it hellishly difficult to obtain refreshments. The team providing the trolley service seemed to be training hard for the 2012 Olympics, achieving something like warp speed as they hurtled through the carriage, carefully avoiding all eye contact.

Worst of all was the loud mantra on the tannoy: “Attention train crew, disabled passenger alarm operated”. This played constantly for the last quarter of the journey, while the train crew huddled together in the restaurant car, manfully ignoring it.

For my next journey from Newcastle, National Express actually cancelled my train (a vanishingly rare event, in my experience, under GNER). The crowded alternative service onto which I crammed myself arrived in London more than an hour late owing to “animals on the line in the Morpeth area” (a splendidly nineteenth century excuse) and “a failed train in the Bawtry area”, though we had to hang around in York for some considerable time before anyone came up with that explanation.

Have I been incredibly unlucky, or are standards on the slide? I’ve been talking to as many regular travellers as a recluse can manage, and found only one person who professed himself happy with the new regime (and even he agreed about the toilets). As well as declining service levels, I’ve encountered recurrent complaints that it has become impossible to obtain discounted fares, particularly for weekend travel. I haven’t experienced that myself, but it makes sense given that National Express have committed themselves to paying even more for their franchise than the daunting sum which led GNER to chuck in the towel. The only obvious ways to achieve this are by raising fares, increasing train utilisation and cutting staff.

One formidable North East businesswoman put it to me like this: “I used to really look forward to catching the train home after a day’s work in London, and having a decent meal in the restaurant car. Now it’s just three hours (if you’re lucky) of total misery. But it’s the same trains and the same staff, so how on earth have they done it?”

I’d certainly love to know. Perhaps someone in charge would care to tell us?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Hope triumphs over experience yet again

February is the cruellest month, whatever claims the well-known Cats lyricist T.S. Eliot may have made for April, and this Thursday is its cruellest day. All over the North East, male readers will now be scratching their heads, wondering why, then consulting their diaries. Shortly afterwards, they will be frantically scrabbling for the Yellow Pages, looking for florists and restaurants where there might be the faintest chance of swinging a table for two on the busiest night of the year.

All this togetherness seems frightfully cruel to those of us who can only look forward to a supperless evening on the sofa with a Border terrier and Ashes to Ashes on the telly. On the other hand, it’s probably like Christmas. We hermits get all maudlin around mid-December, thinking of the loving, fun-filled family gathering we are about to miss. Then afterwards we experience intense relief as we hear the annual horror stories of ghastly relatives and blazing rows.

One of the incidental pleasures of writing this column is that it has brought me back in touch with several people I have not spoken to since we were boys at school together 35 years ago. When we compare notes on how we have filled the intervening time, my old friends always express surprise at the fact that I have never married, then make a tactless enquiry about whether I am gay. Having established that the answer is a most definite negative, their faces become suffused with naked envy before they utter a three-word phrase beginning “You lucky …!”

Still, it seemed needlessly cruel of Tom Gutteridge to point out last week that I was always likely to win our weight loss challenge because I don’t have a gorgeous partner who is also a brilliant cook, making a hearty evening meal unavoidable. I intended to take him further to task for having lost touch with his Tyneside roots to such an extent that he no longer calls that evening meal “tea”. However, I’ve just worked out that his description of my weight reduction plan as “the no-D [for Dinner] Diet” will allow me to patent it as “the Keith Hann Iet™”, finally providing the launch pad for the best-selling book I have been dreaming about for years. “Diet” without the “T” seems to have rather negative connotations.

In reality, going easy on food after dark requires no special effort after two decades in public relations, where I like to think that I raised what Tom would call “lunch” to something of an art form. I am certainly not “starving”. This will soon put me in a select minority among the aspiring classes of north Northumberland, following the shock announcement that Roseden farm shop is to close down on Friday. Ann Walton’s pies, pastries and patés were far more than a local legend, and over the years I have enjoyed many superb meals centred on a Roseden joint, and parties made bearable only by her excellent canapés.

With no-one obviously lining up to fill the gap, and the nearest Waitrose more than 40 miles away, I foresee hungry middle class refugees streaming southwards. It could be the biggest population movement since the partition of India. As a handy hint to my male neighbours, I wouldn’t try to fill that tearful gap in your Valentine’s dinner by saying “Never mind, darling, you’ll just have to learn to make your own pies.” Your partner may not be able to cook with a Le Creseut pan, but she is almost certainly capable of deploying it as an offensive weapon.

Yet, despite the theoretical joys of singularity [sic], hope always triumphs over experience in matters of the heart. So any half-presentable lady who expects to be at a loose end on Thursday evening is warmly invited to get in touch. Enquiries from individuals who like dogs and Ashes to Ashes will be particularly welcome.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

A bunch of total bankers

Bankers are traditionally mocked for being risk averse; the sort of chaps who will cheerfully agree to lend you an umbrella, but expect you to pay an exorbitant hourly rent for the privilege, and to hand it back the minute it actually starts to rain.

As many customers of Egg discovered at the weekend, bankers are also liable to issue press releases announcing that they are withdrawing your credit card because of your poor risk profile; when in fact you have consistently paid your balance in full each month.

When I was an impoverished student, and later in my first badly-paid job, banks were falling over themselves to issue me with new credit cards. Which was handy, because I relied on the next one to make the minimum monthly payments on the ones I’d already got. Whenever I accidentally exceeded my credit limit by a few pounds, I’d get a letter explaining that they were increasing it.

Since I’ve been mortgage-free homeowner who never borrows on credit cards, quite the opposite applies. I’m always getting letters threatening to reduce my credit limit or cancel my cards because I don’t use them enough. On the very rare occasions that I apply for a new card, I am invariably turned down.

One well-known American bank used to send me a monthly invitation to apply, and eventually made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a card which would not only enhance my prestige, making me at long last an irresistible babe magnet, but also give me a handy amount of money back on each purchase. It was the height of fashion: all my colleagues had one.

So I applied and was duly rejected. I was irritated enough to write to them, pointing out that they’d already issued the self-same card to a load of people whose salaries I set and who were definitely less well-off than I was. They sent a stiff reply emphasising that I still failed to meet their demanding criteria, which at least provided some much-needed hilarity around the office.

Bankers risk averse? No, just guilty of greed, poor judgement and lousy public relations. But surely the sub-prime mortgage debacle, credit crunch, burgeoning bad debts and Northern Rock crisis can’t all be explained as simply as that?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who prefers cheques and cash. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Where horror film meets pantomime

Life seems to become ever more like a screening of Alien. You think the thing is dead, and settle back in your seat with a nice Kia-Ora and a bucket of popcorn. And the next minute they’re all over your trousers as the monster comes bursting out of John Hurt.

So it was with Tory sleaze, officially pronounced dead in the late 1990s. Only it proved merely to have mutated, and infected large swathes of the Labour Party instead. Then last week a particularly virulent strain of the original disease came roaring back, carried by the Conway family.

The only good thing to be said for this was that it represented a return to form by the North-East. Having been responsible for every disaster that hit the nation’s front pages in the last half of 2007, I feared we had rather lost our way this year. Despite extensive research, I could identify no meaningful connection between this region and either Peter Hain or rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel.

Derek Conway, however, is definitely one of our own: a working class boy made good, I mean bad, from Gateshead. Politicians of all parties agree that social mobility is desirable, and there could hardly be a more a shining example of it than his rise from Beacon Lough council estate to would-be Speaker and father of Queen Sloane. But mobility is a two-way street, since we can’t all cluster around the pinnacle of society like angels on the head of some mediaeval theologian’s pin. So that distant sound you hear, strongly resembling a sack of flour being hurled from the top of a factory chimney, is Del Boy plummeting back towards his roots.

Still, at least it means that Neil and Christine Hamilton won’t have a clear run when auditioning for the parts of Baron Hardup and his wife in forthcoming panto seasons. With Mickey Rooney pushing 90, I am sure that this influx of new talent will come as a relief to theatre managements everywhere.

Personally, I’m slightly less concerned about the £260,000 siphoned out of taxpayers’ pockets to fund the Conway boys’ bizarre nights on the town than I am about the billions being trousered by the European Union for equally unworthy and usually more damaging purposes. At least Derek’s former Conservative colleagues will honour their commitment to vote for a referendum on the European Constitution, another deceased alien life form now resurrected as the Lisbon Treaty. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who made exactly the same manifesto pledge in 2005, intend to renege on it on the grounds that the Constitution and the Treaty are radically different. This defies both common sense and the verdict of every other European leader.

If this Treaty is ratified (as, without a referendum, it surely will be) we will wake up in 2009 living in a country called Europe. With a better than evens chance that our President will be Tony Blair, ably supported by his First Lady, Cherie. You see what I mean about Alien? If that prospect is not enough to send you running out of the cinema screaming, I don’t know what will.

True, it will be simply delicious to watch Gordon Brown’s agony as he once again has to kowtow to the great ham actor who has done so much to blight his life. But it’s surely not the happy ending any of us were hoping for when we bought our tickets. So now is the ideal time to write to our MPs and remind them of the referendum commitment they made when they were elected.
They may not reply, because they’ve just felt obliged to sack the family member who formerly handled their correspondence. Or they may spin us the above-mentioned pack of lies about the nature of the Treaty. But if they do that, surely at least it must help to nudge them towards the fate they so richly deserve at the next General Election.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.