Tuesday 29 July 2008

Bunker mentality

While this column has always taken pride in being out of step with the modern world, I am beginning to be embarrassed by my inability to keep up with my peers.

If this were the Tour de France, I’d be the sweating bloke in a tweed suit slowly pushing his Edwardian boneshaker up some Alpine foothill about three weeks after the chap in the yellow jersey flashed by.

Compared with my fellow regular columnists, I labour under the huge disadvantages of never having edited a newspaper, or finding my sex life splashed all over one. In fact, I’ve struggled for decades to get one person (preferably female) interested in my sex life, never mind the entire readership of the Daily Mail.

His historic foul-up on the matrimonial playing fields had completely passed me by until Tom Gutteridge relived its horror yesterday. But then I am the man who had never heard of Max Mosley until he took legal action to protect his privacy. Incidentally, isn’t being pained by media intrusion into your sadomasochistic orgy something of a bonus, if you are that way inclined?

Rather than dwelling on that thought, perhaps we should move swiftly on to another piece of cruel snooping by the cameras, to which I can at least relate on several levels.

In my days working in the City, one of my more printable nicknames was “Smiler”, on account of my perpetually lugubrious expression. My girlfriend is currently trying her damnedest to entice me out of the suits and ties in which I feel most comfortable and into some sort of contemporary leisurewear. So when I saw the Prime Minister on TV on Sunday, grimacing as he strolled through Suffolk wearing a clearly brand new sports jacket and open-necked shirt, I felt a wholly unexpected surge of recognition and sympathy.

It came to me in a flash that I am Gordon Brown, and vice-versa. No wonder the country is in the proverbial.

I also really like Southwold, where I have spent many happy weekends over-indulging in Adnams’ real ale and walking it off over the surrounding beaches and marshes. The place is still caught in the 1950s time warp which Michael Palin brilliantly captured in his 1987 film, East of Ipswich. Quintessentially English and middle class, it seems a surreal choice of holiday destination for a Scottish champion of the disadvantaged.

If the rumours of bloody autumn coup plots are true, perhaps it will gain a name as “the last resort”. Frankly, I am more concerned by the admittedly remote possibility that Mr Brown may return to Downing Street “refreshed, renewed and ready” after his break, as his spinners claim. If it can achieve that, Southwold will gain a reputation for miraculous powers to rank alongside Lourdes, and the resulting hordes of coach-borne pilgrims will destroy its peaceful charm.

Let us hope that the poor bloke does get a bit of a rest this year, and is not constantly pestered by all those people from around the world ringing to seek his advice on how to tackle the economic crisis, as Harriet Harman revealed at the weekend. He selflessly delayed his departure to give Barrack Obama a few hints on how to court popularity and win elections, but now sitting on the beach with a knotted handkerchief on his head and a book of extra hard sums for mental relaxation must come first.

At all costs he must avoid the fate of that other leader who famously remarked in April 1945 that it was bad enough being holed up in a bunker with a flatulent Alsatian, as bombs and shells rained down, without being rung up at all hours by spongers looking for free tips on how to win wars.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Jaw jaw is always better than war war

The rising tide of violence in British society was really brought home to me on Saturday evening, when I witnessed a completely unprovoked attack on an entirely innocent walker by two much larger bullies.

Luckily I was able to rescue my dog before he suffered serious injury. What really surprised me was that, instead of the expected fulsome apology from the attacking mongrels’ owner, I received a tirade of unimaginatively foul-mouthed abuse.

It led me to wonder why the default setting of so many people in this country is hate rather than love, and rudeness instead of courtesy.

Now you may well be thinking “He can’t talk.” And it is true. If one is trying to raise a smile over the region’s cornflakes, it is much easier to attempt it through a sarcastic rant than an affectionate paean.

I tend to confine myself to abusing politicians in this column because they are generally considered fair game, and are not known for suing their detractors. I also reason that anyone who stands for public office must have the hide of a rhinoceros.

I am slightly less circumspect in my blog, though I try to avoid criticising named individuals. However, I made a recent exception when attacking the BBC’s efforts to challenge and offend its core Radio 4 audience by introducing more announcers with regional accents. Despite knowing full well that we are really only happy when listening to posh blokes, ideally dressed in dinner jackets and with names like Alvar Lidell.

To avoid charges of racism, I decided to overlook the bloke who sounds exactly like a 45rpm recording of Paul Robeson, accidentally played at 33rpm, and focus on a lady called Kathy Clugston, whose rich Irish voice is the last thing I want to hear delivering the daily litany of bad news.

I had overlooked the fiendish efficiency of Google in disseminating almost anything one writes to its subjects. So I soon received an email from the lady herself expressing shock at the ferocity of my views, while adding diplomatically that she had found the rest of the blog a very entertaining read.

A correspondence ensued, the net result of which is that I do not like her voice any more than I did but now smile when I hear it, because I know that its owner also possesses a very fine sense of humour.

In tackling a critic head-on, Ms Clugston was following the advice I have given to PR clients over many years, when journalists write disobliging things about them. Don’t threaten to sue or demand a retraction, just ask the writer out for a coffee or a drink so that you can explain your point of view. Some surprising and enduring friendships have sprung from this approach, and I cannot think of a single instance where it has ended up making things worse.

So my thought for the day is that we should all try to talk to each other more, in a calm and reasonable way, and to understand the other person’s position. This applies equally to householders in Northumberland who are being driven to distraction by next door’s Leylandii hedge, and to superpowers worried about the nuclear ambitions of smaller states under apparently eccentric leadership.

Accordingly, I derive great comfort from the fact that the US and Iran have started talking to each other, rather than posturing and issuing threats. Who knows, perhaps I might even have had a civilised and productive exchange with the owner of those violent dogs on Saturday if I had followed my own advice and started off the conversation with a polite “Excuse me” rather than swearing at him.

Though given his uncanny resemblance to Biffa Bacon’s dad from Viz, I’d say the odds were heavily stacked against it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Applying The Auntie Test

The great Duke of Wellington is usually credited with inventing the pronouncement that “Because a man is born in a stable, that does not make him a horse.”

He was responding to what he regarded as the appalling suggestion that being born in Dublin made him an Irishman. His line subsequently found favour with the likes of Bernard Manning, and is beloved of racists everywhere.

It was brought to mind by a reader’s letter last week suggesting that I had erred in describing Tony Blair as an Englishman, when he is in fact a Scot. I could make the weaselly point that I was actually writing about Tim Henman and Andy Murray when I contrasted the charming Englishman with the dour Scot, and left readers to infer that I thought the same of Messrs Blair and Brown. But the truth is that, while I knew that Mr Blair was born in Edinburgh and educated there at Fettes (“the Eton of the North”), I have never thought of him as Scottish.

I am by no means alone in this. When in doubt on any common sense issue, I apply what I know as “The Auntie Test”, asking an elderly relative for her opinion. She firmly believes Mr Blair to be as English as they come.

In his published diaries, Alastair Campbell amusingly recalls the antagonism that both he and Mr Blair experienced in Scotland because they were assumed to be English, even though Campbell himself is 100% Scots and actually plays the bagpipes in his spare time.

Genealogically, Mr Blair’s case is complicated by the fact that his father is English by birth, though he was adopted by Scots, while his mother was Irish. In any sane world, we would just say that their son is British, and move on. But because of the mad (and hugely successful) efforts by Scottish Nationalists to drive wedges between Scotland and England, the issue of Mr Blair’s true nationality becomes of some interest and importance.

On the one hand, he never wantonly exposed his hairy knees, grew a full ginger beard nor tossed a caber while in office. On the other, he adhered to the Barnett funding formula and pushed through the Scottish devolution settlement which is so manifestly unfair to us English. But there has never been any suggestion that he did so out of any great conviction or principle. He was just “fulfilling the legacy of John Smith”. Historians will doubtless search for years to identify what he did do out of conviction or principle. Lance Price’s book, The Spin Doctor’s Diary, exposes a Number 10 in which most policies were made up on the hoof, which conveniently explains how we got into our current mess in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The plain fact is that Tony Blair looked, sounded and acted like an Englishman, and sat for an English constituency. He therefore never faced any of the West Lothian questions that dog his successor, as a proud Scot representing a Scottish constituency in a Parliament which no longer has responsibility for most of the crucial issues affecting everyday life north of the border, such as health and education.

By the same token, Mr Blair looked, sounded and acted like a Tory, as I believe that Sir Edward Heath gruffly pointed out to him when they first met at Westminster.

So my view is ultimately conditioned by appearances. Tony Blair achieved his three great election successes because he convinced middle England that he was one of their own, and safe to vote for. Like his claims to have been a committed Anglican and a lifelong Newcastle United supporter, it may not have been strictly true. But he conveyed the impression with such brilliant actorly conviction that most people believed him. I wonder what he believes himself?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Setting the record straight

Willy Poole’s ample frame always made me think of him more as a bulwark than a lightning conductor, but he filled the latter role to perfection in Voice of the North.

By grabbing the attention of the letter writing public, he seemed to enable the likes of me to make occasional unchecked assertions without obvious comeback. Now his provocative voice has been stilled, and readers have lost no time in challenging my claim that Gordon Brown is the most reviled Prime Minister in living memory.

I appreciate that Margaret Thatcher will always have a very special place in the hearts of those living in the former coalfields of Northumberland and Durham. However, I was relying on a recent opinion poll which found that Mr Brown had achieved a satisfaction rating even lower than that of John Major, who was I thought by common consent the most useless and unpopular Prime Minister of the post-war era.

Since then, a “poll of polls” in The Independent of 3 July has reached the more balanced conclusion that “The Prime Minister's popularity rating is worse than those of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, almost as poor as Baroness Thatcher's in 1990 and not much better than Mr Major's.” I am happy to set the record straight, while feeling that it must take a pretty special talent to get close in just one year to the Marianas Trench of unpopularity that it took the Blessed Margaret 11 years of humourless handbagging to dig for herself.

This is not a party political column, incidentally, as I found out over lunch last week when I was disowned by a Conservative prospective Parliamentary candidate for “being to the right of Genghis Khan” and insufficiently appreciative of “Dave”. That probably explains why nearly everyone who expresses agreement with my views starts their second sentence with the mantra “I’m not a racist, but …”

I can’t wait to introduce them all to my Iranian girlfriend. No kidding.

Another leader currently riding the sharp downward stretch of the popularity roller coaster is Sir Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer, who has irritated me for some time with his claims that M&S can help to save the planet with its eco-friendly Plan A, “because there is no Plan B”. There is always a Plan B, and in M&S’s case it is a blindingly obvious one: consume less.

Sadly for Sir Stuart, his customers seem to have gone for Plan B in a big way, to judge from last week’s shock profit warning. His food business has suffered particularly badly, at a time when cut-price rivals are booming.

This is no doubt mainly down to increasing price consciousness as the credit crunch bites. But there is another factor peculiar to M&S. As part of their fight for the future of humanity, they recently became the first major food retailer to ban free plastic bags from their checkouts. So when I called at their Kingston Park branch on my way home from London last week, intent on using the reward vouchers from my M&S credit card, I ended up paying 20p for two “bags for life” which were not quite big enough to accommodate my shopping. Hence I came home with two 49p grapefruit rather than the three I had paid for.

A small enough sacrifice to make to save the Earth from choking on unwanted plastic before it burns to a crisp, perhaps. But enough to make me think that food shopping at M&S is more trouble than it is worth, and resolve not to do it again.

It’s the accumulation of trivial, individual reactions like this that leads both to corporate profit warnings, and to Prime Ministers plumbing new depths of unpopularity. I’m prepared to wager my next batch of M&S reward vouchers that Mr Brown has that post-war record within his grasp.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

The Border terrier, hole specialist

Can it really be just a year since we finally abandoned the charming, boyishly good-looking but ultimately ineffectual Englishman, and pinned our hopes on the dour and undiplomatic Scot?

I freely confess that I know as much about tennis as about any other ball game, which is to say precisely nothing. However, I have read that Andy Murray used to make Gordon Brown look like Nigel Havers. He apparently shares with our Prime Minister a reputation for surliness, and was once provoked into making some anti-English comments. At least Gordon has avoided the latter pitfall, contenting himself with leading a Government that treats us English as second class citizens within this once United Kingdom.

At the time of writing Andy is still a national hero, keeping alive hopes of an improbable British victory in the Wimbledon men’s singles; whereas Gordon is the most reviled Prime Minister in living memory. The status of both could well change, though I would much rather bet on Murray crashing out of the tennis than on Brown pulling off a surprise Labour election victory in 2010.

Last week I laughed myself silly over the Henley by-election result, as I pictured the hapless Labour official who had to break it to the Prime Minister that the only good news was their trouncing of Bananaman Owen of the Monster Raving Loony Party by a massive 824 votes.

When my Sunday paper led its front page with the resignation of another allegedly difficult Scot, Wendy Alexander, I remarked to my girlfriend that, if I were Gordon Brown, I’d be minded to go for the easy way out with a bottle of Scotch and a pearl-handled revolver. She rightly asserted that this was a dreadful thing to say about a man with young children, and that there were many things in life more important than political success.

I had no difficulty agreeing with this proposition, but questioned whether Gordon would necessarily see it that way, given that he has devoted his whole adult life to the single-minded pursuit of the Prime Ministership. She countered by pointing out that my lifelong ambition was to be an amusing and popular newspaper columnist, yet I was inexplicably still alive. Touché.

So how could Gordon capture the support of the crowds who gathered for the last few years on Blair Hill, pathetically yelling “Come on Tony”? From what I read, Andy Murray’s success is mainly down to the acquisition of a nice girlfriend and a 12-week-old Border terrier called Maggie; particularly the latter.

As a Border terrier fanatic of many years’ standing, and the owner of the world’s only PR firm largely run by the breed, I can confirm that they are indeed the answer to most of life’s problems. They are attractive, loyal, affectionate, cheerful and obedient (if what you ask them to do happens to coincide with what they were planning to do at the time anyway). I am told that they were also pretty handy at popping down earths and sorting out foxes, in the days when that was a socially acceptable activity.

Even when he is stuck on the other end of a lead from a menacing curmudgeon like me, my dog Craster often inspires total strangers to come up to us and say things like “Ahhh, he’s so cute!” I am pretty sure that my own nice girlfriend only took me on as a way to spend more time with him.

So maybe when some bright spark suggested that Gordon cosy up to Maggie as a way to court popularity, they had in mind an appealing puppy rather than Lady Thatcher. I’m not saying that acquiring a Border terrier would necessarily reverse Mr Brown’s political fortunes. But when you’re in a hole this deep, surely it has to be worth a try?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.