Tuesday 25 March 2008

A brief moment of happiness and fulfilment

Joy was unconfined in the Hann household early on Easter Day. Sadly not because of a sudden access of religious belief, finally enabling me to make sense of the meaningless sequence of events we call life. But simply because I stepped onto my bathroom scales and found them registering 14st 0lb for the first time since those happy (for me) days when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

True, they have recorded that weight before in the intervening years of Major-Blair-Brownism. But only when I fiddled with the little wheel at the back before I climbed aboard, creating a benchmark well below zero. Or leaned heavily on the lavatory cistern, either to cheer myself up or because I was too drunk to stand unaided. But this time it represented a genuine loss of 21lb since early January.

Luckily the Hann household consists only of me and a Border terrier called Craster (because he is a world class kipper), who takes no interest in my weight, or indeed anything apart from food, walks and an irritating red, rubber toy shaped like a World War Two mine. So there is no danger that all the whoops of glee will lead to an ASBO for disturbing the neighbours.

I’ve made many attempts in the last two decades to lose a serious amount of weight, but all have failed. Even when an alluring young lady made me a theoretically attractive proposal, conditional on shrinking my body to an acceptable size, I found myself weighing up the potential delights of her boudoir against the known ones of another Greggs steakbake; and the steakbakes won every time.

So what has been different in 2008? Quite simply, the prospect of public humiliation if I failed. Setting a target in print, with the added spice of some competition from yesterday’s columnist Tom Gutteridge, finally gave me the motivation I needed. This was reinforced by writing a daily blog in which I felt obliged to record every relapse, of which there have been more than a few along the way.

The publicity route doesn’t seem to have worked quite as well for Tom, or indeed for certain other Journal columnists who pledged to lose half their body weight for charity, then went strangely quiet. But I do recommend it. Maybe there is a real opportunity here for the classified advertising department.

Like the apparently fictional RAF officer who came up with a cunning plan to secure repatriation from Colditz by feigning madness, only to be consigned to a British mental hospital, I find that I have become strangely addicted to my new lifestyle. (Consuming lean meat and fish, lots of fruit and vegetables, wholemeal bread, almost no dairy products, and rather less alcohol, though I’m still a dipsomaniac according to the official Government guidelines.)

So I’m now going to set another public target of losing a further 21lb over the next three months, taking me down to what the Body Mass Index table tells me is the correct weight for my height. I last got there when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, in the summer of 1974.

If anyone would care to bet that I cannot do it, that would no doubt add to the pleasure of the journey. For now, I have £210 from Tom Gutteridge and the further £100 I pledged for his 10lb weight loss to give to charity. We have decided to donate it to the Royal Grammar School’s Bursary Fund, in the hope of helping an underprivileged North East child along the educational route we travelled to cushy jobs in TV and PR.

In parallel with this, I shall be pursuing a quest to expand the Hann household by finally tracking down the partner of my dreams (though I’ll probably settle for one who does not give me recurrent nightmares). Whales and Heather Mills need not apply. Must have own teeth.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Laughter may be the only answer

Whenever news of a gruesome tragedy breaks, I check my watch and make a modest bet on how long it will take someone in the City of London to email me a tasteless joke on the subject. I’m eagerly awaiting the first on Bear Stearns, but so far my inbox is empty. I hope this reflects my dodgy broadband connection, rather than the financial markets losing their famously black sense of humour.

As Charlie Chaplin observed, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” It seems strange to derive such wisdom from one of the least funny people ever to make a living from comedy, but it’s hard to disagree. What else is going to get us through the developing financial meltdown?

Last week I went to three events calculated to lift morale. The first was a preview screening of Mike Leigh’s new film Happy-Go-Lucky, centred on a mindlessly jolly primary school teacher. Her relentless prattle is presumably intended to raise the spirits of the audience, though it had precisely the opposite effect on me. Then there was Shaw’s 1905 play Major Barbara, which used comedy to make some serious and surprisingly topical points about the international arms trade, and the corruption and powerlessness of politicians.

Finally I attended a dinner with 450 assorted Tory activists and supporters, held with delicious irony in the gigantic working men’s club attached to the former Federation Brewery. The guest of honour was William Hague, the funniest man in British politics and a brilliant Parliamentary orator. His recent Commons speech describing Gordon Brown’s agony as the motorcade of Europe’s new President Blair pulls into Downing Street was both piercingly accurate and as hilarious as anything ever dreamt up by Ken Dodd.

As Conservative leader he regularly got the better of Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions, yet led his party to a further disastrous defeat in 2001. This led me to wonder whether a politician can be too funny for his own good.

The earnest Gladstone was as dull as ditchwater, while the opportunistic Disraeli did jokes. Churchill was a legendary wit. Throughout history, the right tends to lead in the comedy stakes, though I remember Harold Wilson coming out with the odd decent quip, while Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher famously had no sense of humour at all.

Critics of Gordon Brown constantly lay into him for being dour, as well as obsessive and chronically indecisive, but would we have him any other way? The attempts to coach him in the lighter social skills have had truly gruesome results. As was said of Sir Robert Peel, his smile resembles the silver plate on a coffin.

Alistair Darling’s Budget speech last week was universally excoriated for its soporific dullness. He certainly missed the opportunity created by his distinctive colouring, which gives him a natural head start as a clown. But would we respect him any more if he had leavened his depressing material with a few jokes?

Everyone liked Charles Kennedy, and he led his party to its greatest electoral success since the 1920s. Yet even before his drink problem became public, would we really have trusted such an accomplished entertainer with power? Despite Ken Livingstone’s many alleged character flaws, will the voters of London ditch him in favour of a man better known for knockabout quiz show buffoonery than tangible political achievement?

It’s a very brave strategy that the Tories have adopted there, as is their refusal to promise tax cuts despite the evidence of rampant waste in Government and all the huge, freedom-crushing schemes in the pipeline just crying out for cancellation.

The reality is that things look pretty grim for this Government and its successor, whoever is in power, and indeed for all of us. So perhaps the only sane strategy is to focus on keeping a smile on our faces, and to vote for the party with the better jokes.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 March 2008

An audience crying out for a happy ending

With the disturbing developments in Jersey remaining high on last week’s news agenda, it seemed a peculiarly appropriate time for Opera North to fill the Theatre Royal with three works about child abuse.

In Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San is a mere child of 15 when she joyously enters her arranged marriage with the worthless American Pinkerton, who then abandons her. The eponymous anti-hero of Peter Grimes is a Suffolk fisherman whose young apprentices have an unfortunate habit of dying, while The Adventures of Pinocchio sees the boy puppet being abused by just about everyone (though it must be said that he does ask for it).

Both the classic productions were every bit as good as I confidently predicted in this column a few weeks ago. I only wish that I had possessed the foresight to make an equally strong recommendation of Pinocchio. It proved fantastic in every sense of the word, and played to too many empty seats.

In addition to the theme of maltreated children, all three operas shared an unexpected common factor: they kept reminding me of our political leaders, and their roles in the other big news stories of last week. The most striking parallel was between Peter Grimes and Gordon Brown, another obsessive outsider for whom everything goes horribly wrong. But the total insincerity with which Pinkerton took his sham marriage vows also recalled the way that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties pledged to the electorate that we would have a referendum on the European Constitution and then cruelly left us in the lurch.

When Pinocchio’s nose started growing as he told lie after lie, I thought of David Miliband and Nick Clegg protesting that the Lisbon Treaty bore no resemblance to the “abandoned” Constitution, and Jacqui Smith explaining that the national identity database and card scheme was all about making our lives easier. Though the strongest image was of Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions parroting the tired old line about how 3.5 million British jobs depend on our membership of the European Union, and “Tory intransigence” (i.e. not rolling over and doing anything our partners want) would put them all at risk.

Why do our leaders insist on maintaining the deception that the European Union is all about jobs, trade and prosperity, when from the start it has been a political project designed to remove power from the nations and peoples of the continent and place it in the hands of unelected commissioners, running a single new state? Why do they lie to us about the nature of the Treaty even though we all know that they are lying, and that the reason we cannot have the promised referendum is simply that it would not deliver the result our masters want?

That’s why the only vote on Europe we can be allowed is the one on our entry to the Eurovision song contest.

Politicians, in short, are treating us like children. We see it in their nannying instructions on every detail of our lives from eating, drinking and smoking to cars, plastic bags, patio heaters and rubbish disposal. They pretend to be interested in our views, but treat them with contempt if we do not give them the answer they want on everything from unitary councils to immigration, as well as European integration.

In the operas, the misfit Grimes (like the innocent dupe Butterfly) is driven to suicide. I have no desire for the Prime Minister to share that fate, though I do wish him an early and prolonged retirement to brood in Kirkcaldy. As at the end of The Adventures of Pinocchio, let us replace the puppet with a real person: one capable of ending the abuse of the electorate and restoring this country’s freedom and independence. That’s a happy ending that would truly merit a standing ovation.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Will Darling be daring?

What was the greatest achievement of John Major’s government? Against admittedly feeble competition from Black Wednesday, the Maastricht Treaty and the cones hotline, the answer surely has to be the creation of the National Lottery; a tax which achieved regressive perfection by confiscating money from the thickest and poorest members of society, and splurging it on toff-friendly projects like the construction of art galleries and the refurbishment of opera houses.

Ah, you may object, but the Lottery isn’t technically a tax because participation in it is voluntary. Oh yeah? Well, show me a compulsory tax, then. Inheritance tax has long been an optional charge on middle class types who are too inept or badly advised to order their affairs to avoid it. Tobacco and alcohol duties are only paid by those of us who cannot find the time or energy to hire a white van. And it has become horribly clear of late that the super-rich “non-domiciles” have found ways of avoiding such inconveniences as income and capital gains taxes, too.

As Leona Helmsley famously put it, before they sent her to a Federal penitentiary, “Only the little people pay taxes.”

Almost no-one would want to go back to the days of Denis Healey, the would-be pip-squeaking squeezer of the rich. But as a fairly little person myself (at any rate in Leona’s sense), I rather approve of the efforts to make the plutocrats pay a bit more. The snag, I am told, is that they will all clear off to Zurich or Dublin and take a large chunk of our economy with them. Apparently “good riddance” is not a responsible answer.

So the challenge for Alistair Darling in his first (and, on current form, last) Budget must be to find an equivalent of the National Lottery for billionaires; a tax which they will actually queue up to pay. A million quid a ticket, and prizes such as hereditary peerages, holidays in royal palaces or long-term loans of Old Masters from the National Gallery, perhaps?

Alternatively, he could claim his place in history by defying his organ grinder and announcing a truly radical overhaul of the entire tax system based on the following simple principles: taxes should be low, transparent, consistent and, above all, compulsory.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant, and much too lazy to be a tax evader.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Time for some more therapy

I had lunch last week with a friend who responded to the conventional inquiry “How are you?” with the arresting statement “I’m having a breakdown”. I could hardly complain, since I have a terrible reputation for wrongly assuming that people asking me that question actually want an answer. Nevertheless, it struck me how much it is not the English way. We do not announce “I’ve got terminal cancer” but murmur apologetically “I’ve been a bit poorly” or, better still, “Mustn’t grumble”.

Ironically, this exchange took place on the very day that a “major study” pronounced that anti-depressant drugs were completely useless. If you were affected by this verdict, do not fret. I am sure that there will be another “major study” along shortly, proving precisely the opposite.

At the risk of getting into the same sort of trouble with my aunt that resulted when I jokingly claimed in this column to be an alcoholic (as opposed to the bizarrely more socially acceptable reality of a habitual drunk), I can disclose that I have suffered from depression for 35 years. I took various prescription drugs for well over a decade, and can vouch for their effects: some good, some frighteningly bad. They certainly made more of an impact than any of the various “talking therapies”, and the notion that they do nothing at all is simply risible.

Like many depressives, I actually have great sympathy with the “pull yourself together” school of thought on how it should be treated. In my case, I certainly cannot exclude the possibility that it is rooted in nothing more than self-obsessed attention-seeking; and perhaps finding a medically acceptable excuse for inactivity that is rooted in nothing more than sheer laziness.

Nevertheless, I think it is helpful for sufferers to get it out into the open. There should be no stigma attached to depression. It didn’t stop Churchill leading our successful war effort, and a glance at the internet reveals that it would be considerably quicker to assemble a list of famous writers, artists and composers who have not suffered from it. It certainly has not helped me in relationships or my career, but I haven’t starved either, as my current need to diet testifies.

Please learn to spot the characteristic signs of depressive behaviour, and try to help those who are suffering. The alternative may be people you love descending into the sort of despair that leads to teenagers hanging themselves. Sometimes, as with my friend last week, people have really good reasons for being sad, though there may not be any obvious solution to them. For others, as with me, misery may descend out of a clear blue sky when they have no reason to be depressed at all. I don’t think it does any harm to point this out, though the chances of the victim saying “Oh, that’s all right then” and making an instant recovery are vanishingly slight.

I finally weaned myself off pills a couple of years ago by taking the stress out of my life. This also enabled me to stop taking the medications for high blood pressure that I was warned I would always need. There are simple practical solutions to a build-up of gloom: get up early, take exercise, keep busy, don’t eat or drink too much, but do find time to socialise with real friends.

I have found that perhaps the single most helpful thing is what I am doing now: writing. Sadly we can’t all have the immense privilege of a newspaper column, but there are millions rambling happily away on blogs, including me. Self-regarding tosh, no doubt, but I am hard pressed to see that it causes any harm. I look upon it as cognitive behavioural therapy that only wastes one person’s time, representing a productivity increase of 100 per cent.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.