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.

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