Tuesday 25 November 2008

Assume nothing: what could go wrong?

On Saturday I met a priest who had perhaps the perfect catchphrase for these troubled times: “assume nothing”. He kept repeating this mantra throughout a long and rather sticky interview in which he challenged every reason my fiancée and I could advance to persuade him to marry us.

Though strangely enough he did not even mention the elephant in the room: the fact that my bride-to-be was born a Muslim. Albeit the sort of Muslim who shuns the veil, eats pork, drinks alcohol and is looking forward to Christmas with an enthusiasm I have never been able to muster.

I had assumed that this might present a bit of a problem. How wrong I was. Just as the Tories were wrong when they assumed that they were coasting effortlessly towards a landslide election victory, only to find the graceless Scotch architect of most of our economic woes implausibly reincarnated as the saviour of the entire global economy.

Here we are in a massive crisis caused by banks lending too much, and all I hear are ministers leaning on them to lend more. And, as Government borrowing smashes all records, Gordon Brown’s stooge announces the sort of tax cutting package that the Tories never dared to put before the electorate for fear of being accused of gross irresponsibility.

Assume nothing. It is the only answer. It is also makes a lot more sense as the secret of life than E.M. Forster’s “Only connect”, which my headmaster imparted as the ultimate wisdom when I left school in 1971. I have spent the best part of four decades trying to work out what on earth he meant, and how to reconcile it with Douglas Adams’ subsequent revelation that the answer to life, the universe and everything is actually 42.

Rick The Vic, as my fiancée and I have named the priest who finally agreed to marry us, seems slightly out of place in an English country parish. He claims to be 62, but looks at least 20 years younger. He wears his hair long, and flies a piratical flag outside a vicarage packed with the latest technological gizmos. I imagine that he spent much of his earlier life driving along the hippy trail in a Dormobile painted in the psychedelic colours that adorned the stole he wore for Sunday’s morning service.

Here I expected swaying and clapping, the beating of drums and the twanging of guitars. Instead we got something bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Book of Common Prayer, old hymns I knew and could sing along with, a sermon that made sense and held my interest, and handshaking with the friendly parishioners at the end of the proceedings rather than as a cringeworthy interruption of one’s own contemplation and prayer.

There was reverence, laughter and even applause, not to mention some remarkably delicious homemade cake. It was not at all what I expected, but it did make me wonder why I have shunned church in favour of The Archers Omnibus every Sunday morning for the last 30 years.

Assume nothing. In particular, do not spend today’s tax cut until you have actually got the money in your hand. Except for those like me who were lucky enough to receive it in advance by email from an internet café in Lagos. All I had to do to claim the money was supply my bank details. How marvellous. It will come as a small but welcome help in meeting the expenses of my wedding, which is probably going to be the main driver of the British economy in 2009, along with the construction of a couple of aircraft carriers and the employment of consultants to produce another report explaining that there is no need to dual the A1.

To quote my own favourite catchphrase: what could possibly go wrong now?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

How to get the economy back on track

All my life I seem to have been out of step with the rest of humanity: a one-man Awkward Squad.

So now, as the economy spirals downwards because of the abject terror paralysing other consumers, I find myself spending money I have not got like there is no tomorrow. I have become the J.P. Morgan of the Great Crash of 2008.

For a start, I am chucking money at two houses in the doubtless vain hope of making them saleable, so that my fiancée I can set up home together. Which would be a more convenient arrangement, on the whole, after we are married.

Then there is the wedding itself to be paid for. (When the groom is almost as old as the bride’s father, it seems unfair to land him with the bill.) It is genuinely delightful to see the smiles lighting up the faces of gloomy retailers and service providers as we wander into their lairs. I particularly love the way they ask hopefully “Is it for a wedding?” so that they can add an automatic 150% mark-up to their quotes.

This has powerfully reminded me how much weddings cheer people up – potential guests and mere spectators, as well as the suppliers of goods and services. We clearly need more of them; and one in particular. After all, what lifted the national mood from the intense gloom of the early 1980s but the marriage of Charles and Diana? Well, that and our triumph in the Falklands War. But with the current overstretch in the armed forces it would surely be imprudent to look for a re-run of that, even if we could find an obliging South American dictator to kick it off.

I hate to disagree with my counterpart in this space yesterday, but there are two snags with his idea of a coronation as a national mood lifter. First, by tradition (and what use is a monarchy if it does not stand up for tradition?) a coronation must be preceded by a funeral, which is hardly a barrel of laughs. Secondly, and much more importantly, the heir to the throne is vastly less popular than his mother, and equipped with a wife that a large chunk of his people evidently cannot stand.

Charles’s misfortune has been to marry the right woman, but to get round to it about 35 years too late. I can well relate to that.

So I fear that a coronation would be the occasion for much divisiveness and a sharp upsurge in republican sentiment. A royal wedding, however, need raise no such difficult issues.

The only obstacle is the failure of the younger generation of royalty to propose. One can well understand why Prince William would not wish to rush into marriage with, say, a neurotic, manipulative virgin who was determined to eclipse him in the public’s affections. Though I cannot help feeling that he has now known Kate Middleton long enough to satisfy himself on at least some of those points.

So let us sort it out for him by finding a suitable bride with the aid of Simon Cowell or Bruce Forsyth in one of those Saturday night TV contests that seem to be the only other thing standing between the nation and mass suicide. We could call it Search for a Queen or The R (For Regina) Factor. Or maybe Strictly Come Plaque Unveiling.

It would obviously be dangerous to entrust it to the BBC, as the voting might be rigged to land us with a differently-abled, asylum-seeking lesbian as the winner. If not a dancing dog.

So all that stands between us and the return of financial sanity through good cheer and free spending is tracking down an independent TV producer with the skills to make it happen. Is there anyone out there who fancies the job?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

A totally unexpected triumph for love

Writing a column for The Journal completely changed my life. Not a lot of people can say that.

The column in question appeared on the business pages in 2006, and was entitled “The Chief Executive’s Handbook”. A characteristically cynical piece about the motivation and capabilities of some business leaders, I realised that it had struck a chord when people from several different organisations congratulated me on my insight into their own particular company.

One client liked it so much that he copied it onto his own corporate website, where it was read by a female employee. She in turn forwarded it to a number of people. Months later, one of these followed the link at the end of the article, then emailed the sender to ask “Have you ever looked at that bloke’s website? He’s as mad as a box of frogs.”

So in due course she did, and was amused by the vacancy I had jokingly advertised for a wife, girlfriend or carer. Though she spotted that I was not entirely serious; and that, in any event, I was far too old for her. However, she mentioned it to a friend who had just split up with a much older man, and who then urged her to contact me on her behalf. When the email arrived in April, I frankly doubted whether either party really existed. How many 30-somethings in the UK today need to get a friend to write their emails for them because they cannot use a computer?

In due course a seven page, handwritten letter arrived from the friend explaining why I would be her ideal partner. I did not agree, but in the intervening exchange of emails I had found myself curiously drawn towards the person who had attempted to introduce us. Meanwhile this matchmaker had begun reading my curmudgeonly Bloke in the North blog and was coming to the bizarre conclusion that we had a surprising amount in common.

Our first telephone conversation felt like the reunion of two very old and dear friends. Our subsequent first date went surprisingly well. Six months on, last Monday we went to see a deservedly obscure Rossini opera called Matilde di Shabran, about a fierce and solitary misogynist who is won round to love by the lady of the title. Inspired by this story, and suitably fortified by strong ale, I proposed marriage early on Tuesday and she instantly accepted, making November 4 a historic triumph for me as well as Barack Obama.

A former colleague emailed to say that if anyone had told him a few years ago that an African American would win the White House, Lehman Brothers would go bust, Peter Mandelson would return to the cabinet and I would get engaged again, he would have bet heavily against all of them – but particularly the last.

Another so-called friend wrote after dining with us last week that my fiancée is “charming, amusing, beautiful, unbelievably young and clearly utterly deluded. Well done!”

Now, I am not mentioning all this to boast or because I am too mean to pay for a conventional small ad, but because there are lessons in this saga for everyone, and particularly for the older and grumpier elements amongst you.

First, we really cannot know what lies around the corner, and it may not necessarily be the out-of-control steamroller we have always been inclined to fear. Secondly, love can bridge the unlikeliest gaps: my fiancée and I are 17 years and 200-odd miles apart, and from completely different backgrounds, religions and cultures.

Thirdly, never underestimate the awesome power of the internet to change lives, in my experience usually for the better.

And, finally, never think that columnists and bloggers are just sad, lonely people with bees in their bonnets. Sometimes, contrary to all expectations (including their own), they can achieve truly remarkable results.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Finally learning from reader feedback

A clearly angry contributor to Voice of the North last week accused me of being, among other things, “a second rate comic”, “a master of crude assertion” and “a pathetic plonker” because I had the nerve to suggest that the BBC might be ever so slightly biased in favour of Barack Obama and against the dynamic duo of McCain and Palin.

Contrary to his own assertion, even I am not so deranged as to have declared my support for the Republican candidate. I merely observed that the joy of upsetting the BBC was the only good reason I could think of for hoping to see Mr McCain pull off a most unlikely (and undeserved) victory.

My challenge now is to produce some convincing evidence to support my belief that the BBC is institutionally biased. Not just against the Republicans in the USA but in favour of the Republicans in Northern Ireland; against capital punishment, but for abortion; and a fan of the Palestinians, immigration, multiculturalism, European integration, metrication and a just about any other “progressive” cause you care to mention.

Let us start with the words of former BBC political editor Andrew Marr (a man known as “Red Andy” in his Cambridge days), who described the BBC as “a publicly-funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large” all of which “creates an innate liberal bias inside the BBC”.

Or the great Robert Peston’s predecessor as BBC business editor, Jeff Randall, who described his time there as “a bit like walking into a Sunday meeting of the Flat Earth Society. As they discuss great issues of the day, they discuss them from the point of view that the earth is flat. If someone says, ‘No, no, no, the earth is round!’ they think this person is an extremist. That's what it's like for someone with my right-of-centre views working inside the BBC.”

How could the BBC be anything other than The Guardian of the airwaves when it invariably advertises its job vacancies there rather than in the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph?

Yes, the Corporation is required to be strictly impartial during election campaigns (British, not American) and it faces accusations of bias from some on the left as well as most of those on the right, but the fundamentally left-of-centre inclinations of the vast majority of its staff keep seeping through. I maintain that a visiting Martian watching its US election coverage would be left in little doubt that it always hoped for an Obama victory today, at any rate once Hillary Clinton had pulled out.

But this is not why a great debate about the future of the BBC rages as I type. The complainant was certainly right to castigate my judgement in one respect, in that I led my last column with a story about biased voting on Strictly Come Dancing when I should clearly have focused on the Manuelgate scandal, which has banished the collapse of capitalism from the nation’s front pages ever since.

I was deeply shocked, albeit mainly by the discovery that Radio 2 is no longer just the station for chairbound pensioners who enjoy humming along to Sing Something Simple. I had no idea that it ever attempted any comedy edgier than The News Huddlines. But then, until I did my usual exhaustive research for this piece, I thought that “plonker” was an offensive slang term for the penis. Now I learn that it has been rehabilitated by the BBC’s great Del Boy Trotter to mean simply an individual who is stupid or inept. Reasoning backwards, someone has even justified this by inventing an acronym: Person of Little Or No Knowledge.

So many thanks for the BBC-style abuse, which has at least taught me one useful lesson.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.