Tuesday 26 August 2008

The power of words on paper

Like most people, I hardly ever write letters these days. And when I do, the recipients nearly always ring me up to ask what I was hoping to convey, as my handwriting has deteriorated into an indecipherable scrawl through lack of practice.

I have long been handicapped by shyness on the telephone, so communicate mainly by email and text message. I was saddened when a recent computer crash wiped out all the emails I had sent and received over the last four years; the ones I had not deleted because they contained something amusing, and which I hoped to enjoy reading again in my old age (probably next month).

This is the fourth such hardware failure I have experienced in the last decade, and each time I have been told that it would be hopelessly uneconomic to retrieve my data. Apparently my only hope of seeing any of it again is to strike up a friendship with Gary Glitter, and await the inevitable police search.

All of which underlines the evanescence of anything preserved electronically, compared with the amazing endurance of paper. It seems such flimsy stuff. Yet I have a cache of correspondence from previous generations of my family which looks as fresh as ever, while the big, solid people who wrote it have long since returned to dust.

Fortunately, there are some people sensible enough to adhere to the old ways. Like Councillor Mick Henry, leader of the Association of North East Councils (ANEC), who last month fired off a “strongly worded letter” to President Mugabe, telling him in no uncertain terms to step down. Where the UN and virtually every government on the planet had failed, ANEC succeeded and Mugabe soon opened talks with Morgan Tsvangirai.

This continues a well-established pattern. Documents recently released by the National Archives of Japan revealed that their war leader General Tojo was eager to continue the fight even after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Apparently the country only surrendered when Emperor Hirohito received a blunt postcard from the chairman of Norham and Islandshires Rural District Council.

I hope Councillor Henry has not taken a summer holiday, or the crisis in South Ossetia could drag on for months until the Russians and Georgians receive the authoritative guidance they require.

The thing I find surprising is that our local authorities have time to fret about Zimbabwe, but so little to communicate with their own residents. In fairness, Northumberland County Council does send me an infuriating glossy magazine from time to time, but that naturally goes straight into the recycling bin. I thought it was precisely what they had in mind when the blue bin recycling scheme was launched, with instructions to include “leaflets, junk mail and envelopes”.

I have been following those rules for years. Now a comprehensively revised set of instructions has finally turned up, warning that one of the main contaminants jeopardising the success of the whole recycling scheme is “window envelopes”. What, like the ones all the junk mail comes in?

Heaven knows what you can do with these instead. I keep being told that I could be fined £2,500 for chucking a window envelope on the fire, under some EU directive about the disposal of plastics.

So here is an idea for a way forward. Instead of writing pointless letters to foreign heads of state, why do our evidently under-employed local representatives not make themselves useful by campaigning for a complete ban on non-recyclable window envelopes, and tighter controls on junk mail?

Oh, and maybe they could drop us all a pithy line every now and then to keep us abreast of things like changes to the recycling rules? They might find most of us more inclined than Robert Mugabe to take a polite hint.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

On the whole, I'd rather be in Sunderland

I wonder whether pictures of the last Grand Central trainload of evacuees from Sunderland in 2010 will ever conjure up such poignant feelings as the images of the final inhabitants of St Kilda being taken off the island by HMS Harebell in 1930.

St Kildans apparently developed unusually thick and strong ankles by climbing the sheer cliffs of the outlying sea stacks in pursuit of seabirds and their eggs. Makems (as they were never called when I was a lad) presumably once had immensely strong arms as a result of all those years hammering rivets into ships. Though one imagines that these must have withered a bit since the yards closed, and the principal manual activities have become signing on, lifting pints and making obscene gestures at visiting Tory politicians and think tank researchers.

As a Northumbrian, I can think of few places I would less like to live than Sunderland. Though, funnily enough, one of them is a place that Policy Exchange suggested as a suitable receiving centre for the pitiful refugees from the north: Cambridge.

I lived in Cambridge for six years in the 1970s, while nominally pursuing my education, and it was without doubt the most miserable time of my life. Not only because of the embarrassing lack of sophistication resulting from my grammar school education; or the distressing lack of, er, social opportunities in what were still almost entirely single sex colleges; or the poverty engendered by the Heath-Barber hyperinflation of the mid-1970s, capped by the candle-lit misery of the Three Day Week.

It was a time when the country really did appear to be going to hell in a handcart. There was even bizarre talk of a military takeover under the leadership of Lord Mountbatten. But it was undoubtedly made worse by experiencing it all in the midst of the flat, dull fenlands, where the winter winds sweep in directly from Siberia, with a viciousness I had never experienced in the North East.

There is a small area of central Cambridge which is duly famed throughout the world for its beauty. But the bulk of the town has nothing whatsoever to recommend it. The average resident of Southwick would feel justifiably short changed if compelled to move there.

Similarly, Cambridge undoubtedly houses a small number of very bright people. At least half of the greatest advances in human knowledge since the birth of Christ were made within a mile of King’s College Chapel, from the formulation of the law of gravity via the splitting of the atom to the discovery of DNA. But the bulk of the population, at least in my day, comprised hereditary college servants of preternatural slowness, as splendidly captured in Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue.

Of course, I write of distant times. Cambridge is now a “science city”, prospering from the commercial spin-offs of its academic research. The isolated small town I knew is also well linked into the broader South East economy via the M11 and fast electric trains, which take a mere 45 minutes non-stop to King’s Cross.

Indeed the main blight on this earthly paradise seems to be the overwhelming pressure of tourist numbers on the tiny historic centre. Could there be more a effective way of dealing with this problem than the construction of some unsightly pigeon crees and the dumping of a load of old fridges and mattresses on the college lawns, while filling the streets with whippet-walking, chain-smoking, wife-beating, flat-hat-wearing Andy Capp lookalikes, wrapped in red and white mufflers and burbling incomprehensibly about the Black Cats?

Bring it on, I say. And as New Sunderland withers by the Cam, we can redevelop the old one with a splendid combination of landfill, nuclear power plants and wind turbines. Box ticked, problem solved. Another British gold for blue sky thinking.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne. After being ever so slightly censored to make it less offensive to their esteemed readers in Sunderland.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

The silliest month of the year

One of my mother’s imperishable sayings was “You’re frightened of the death you’ll never die.” Why worry, when fate can be relied upon to deliver something completely unexpected?

Having watched her whole generation shuffle off into eternity, I can confirm that she was absolutely right. There was the odd case of a fatty dropping dead of a heart attack, or a chain smoker succumbing to lung cancer. But, by and large, the causes of death in her social circle were surprising enough to provoke cries of “Eeh! Never!” when the survivors gathered in the Conservative Club to drink beer, smoke tabs and discuss why the flag was yet again flying at half mast.

As with individuals, so with nations and even planets. We are all now conditioned to expect the human race to end gasping for water in the desert created by global warming. It came as a shock to hear a sonorous and authoritative Russian voice on the wireless at the weekend, explaining how we could so easily go up in a big mushroom cloud instead.

The war between Russia and Georgia he was talking about is a classic example of what Neville Chamberlain, in an equally dangerous context, called “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. Hands up anyone who had even heard of South Ossetia before last week, remembering that no-one likes a swot.

It seems like a throwback to another century, and we may be forgiven for not having seen it coming. But perhaps we could have anticipated something pretty unpleasant, given the time of year.

Already this month we have passed the anniversaries of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914 and the first Al-Qaeda attacks on US targets on 7 August 1998. The list continues right up to 31 August, when in 1939 Hitler precipitated the Second World War by ordering the invasion of Poland.

There is some logic to European wars kicking off in August. The harvest is safely gathered in to feed the troops, and there should theoretically be a few months of decent campaigning weather before winter bogs everything down.

Memorable battles this month include Bosworth on 22 August 1485, which won the English throne for the Tudors, and the great English victory at Crécy on 26 August 1346. The Battle of Britain reached its height in August 1940 and the Second World War was brought to an end by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The long and painful British military deployment in Northern Ireland began on 14 August 1969, and the murders of Lord Mountbatten and his sailing companions, and of 18 soldiers at Warrenpoint, took place on 27 August 1979.

In short, far from being “the silly season”, this month has actually generated far more than its share of grim news. Royal conspiracy theorists have been buzzing around it like flies since the mysterious death of King William Rufus in an alleged hunting accident in the New Forest on 2 August 1100, all the way through to the car crash that killed Diana in Paris on 31 August 1997.

For pub quiz fans, it was also the month of the Great Train Robbery (8 August 1963) and the death of Elvis Presley (16 August 1977).

So please avoid the mistake that those foolish grouse make every year of thinking that nothing bad ever happens in August. Do keep in touch by buying The Journal every day, but do not brood. The good news, as my mother pointed out, is that the awful fate you fear for yourself is, in one sense or another, absolutely the last thing that will happen.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

The ultimate PR challenge

Say what you like about Gordon Brown, at least he’s not Robert Mugabe. David Miliband has not disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and even desperate silly season columnists can only moan about the lacklustre design of our new pennies, not the replacement of the entire currency because it was costing $1.8 trillion to buy a beer.

Of course, Mugabe may have the edge in clinging to office through a blatantly rigged election, rather than attaining power without one. But I’d still much rather be living under Gordon, unless he emerges from his Southwold retreat sporting a toothbrush moustache.

Some defenders of Mr Brown say that his core problem is terrible PR. This seems ironic given that he has is married to a successful PR guru and has appointed another leading PR executive as his chief of staff.

Mugabe appears to attach more weight to brute force than any gentler arts, but even he employed a PR company to mastermind his “re-election”. We know this because it turned out to be partly owned, to their huge embarrassment, by the British WPP.

In these difficult times, all PR firms are having to look at bigger and more distant challenges in order to earn a crust. I recently had dinner with one PR executive in London who is spending a lot of his time advising Russian oligarchs, trying to make out that they are gentle, cuddly people who have been much misunderstood.

I wondered cynically when he would be pitching for the Radovan Karadzic account. But since even those accused of the most heinous crimes are entitled to competent representation in court, why should that not apply in the media, too?

Shortly afterwards I identified one possible attraction of working in Russia, when a judge threw out a sexual harassment action on the grounds that the human race would die out if men did not make passes at their employees. It brought back shaming memories of my London office in the 1980s.

On the whole I think I’ll resist the temptation to emigrate, but I could definitely use an amusing new challenge. I’ll duck the hopeless cases like Karadzic, Mugabe and Brown. But fingers crossed that a much misunderstood Russian judge will spot this on the internet and drop me a line.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant with limited horizons.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Change in Northumberland

For the last week my thoughts have been dominated by change – never something I favour in principle, except when handing banknotes over a bar.

On the small change front, I received a couple of the Royal Mint’s shiny new-style pennies in the village shop. My first reaction was to reject these foreign interlopers, but on closer inspection the Queen’s head at least looked mercifully familiar. The other side depicts a fragment of the royal arms forming part of the designer’s jigsaw concept, and looks like a piece of abstract art. I suppose it could have been a lot worse.

Perhaps the strangest thing is the fact that the only indication of the coin’s value is the words “one penny” inscribed around the edge in impenetrably small print. Naturally I am wholly in favour of reverting to the fine old English tradition of doing our utmost to confuse foreigners at all times. This latest attempt falls far short of the masterly standards set by our pre-decimal coinage, but the absence of numerals does seem mightily strange in the era of globalisation and mass immigration, where every piece of public signage has been changed to infantile pictograms which can be understood by anyone, however thick they are and whatever language they happen to speak.

Although I have never been a great believer in conspiracy theories, I find myself beginning to sympathise with the idea that the new coins are primarily designed to make us feel that the introduction of the euro would be a welcome simplification of our lives.

Similarly, it is hard to read anything about the new unitary council for Northumberland that does not bring the word “shambles” to the forefront of one’s mind, and make one think that it is all about ensuring a warmer reception for the European model of regional government when that is next put to the vote.

I have been looking at the website designed to explain the changes to us hapless voters. Even after decades spent dealing with politically correct human resources departments in major public companies, I have never encountered anything written in such impenetrable management speak. From the “baselining team” to “service cluster groups” and “belonging communities”, everything appears to have been described in gibberish by visiting aliens who think that Stanley Unwin was a genuine professor.

Even the job titles of the newly appointed and no doubt highly paid officials of the new authority seem to have been encrypted by an Enigma machine. What, for the love of God, is one supposed to make of an “Executive Director of Place”?

In fairness, I would probably be equally rude about this change if its proponents were capable of describing it in plain English, since I along with most residents of the county did not want it to happen. The irony is that, thanks to the punishment handed out to Labour at the ballot box in May, neither did most of the people elected to run the thing.

So why are we pressing on with this wretched project which can be guaranteed to waste millions in the “transition process”, inflate the salaries of everyone apart from those in the front line actually delivering services, produce none of the billed economies and make local government less responsive and more remote?

Politicians are always banging on about “listening to the people”, so why do they not try thinking inside the box for a change and stop it now? Just say no. I think I might. The way things are going, I will not understand a word of my council tax demand next April and will have no alternative but to sling it in the bin. With the nation’s prisons already bursting at the seams, what could possibly happen next?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.