Thursday 31 December 2009

2009: not all bad

It may not have been much of a year for MPs, Newcastle United, National Express, Kerry Katona, Threshers, Corus or freedom and democracy, whether in Britain or Afghanistan. But at least it turned out reasonably well for South Shields singing sensation Joe McElderry and his many fans in the region; for Lord Mandelson, as he continued to accumulate titles and offices; and less importantly for the North East’s would-be representative in the surprisingly still-to-be-commissioned WhyohWhy Factor, as I belatedly acquired a wife and son. So it could have been even worse.

Even if you were among the vast majority for whom it was a thoroughly rotten year, there was at least the consolation of finally having some official objects for your Orwellian Two Minutes Hate: bankers. How we loathe them and their undeserved bonuses, while secretly wondering how we could grab a slice of the action for ourselves.

They now make even ginger people feel loved. And what do they do to try to claw back a toehold in the people’s affections? Announce that they are going to deprive us of our cheque books to increase their profits still further. These people don’t need to think again; they just need to start.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Peering into our mediaeval future

Analysing the past is a lot simpler than predicting the future. That is why historians are, on the whole, more reliable authorities than clairvoyants.

While history was always my favourite subject at school, I was also an avid viewer of Tomorrow’s World and am pretty sure that we were all supposed to be travelling in flying cars by now, wearing silver foil instead of tweed or denim, and subsisting on vitamin pills.

I do not recall anyone warning me, when I began assembling a vinyl record collection in the late 1960s, that I might as well hang on as the technology would soon be overtaken by cassette tapes, then CDs and now internet downloads. In fact, I do not remember anyone forecasting the life-changing phenomenon that is the World Wide Web.

Or, for that matter, the rise of celebrity culture, Islamist terrorism and manmade global warming (though I do vividly recall the dire warnings that a new Ice Age was just around the corner).

Despite this depressing track record of failure to see into the future, the media have become obsessed with trying to predict it. We cannot even wait until 3p.m. on Christmas Day to find out what the Queen might wish to convey in her annual message; we must hear an uncannily accurate resumé of what she is “expected to say” the day before. Today almost the only “news” that is straight reportage rather than short range forecasting involves deaths, whether of elderly celebrities in their beds or of ordinary folk in accidents, natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Or, with luck, the avoidance of deaths because said terrorists have again failed to strike their target. At least the weirdly perverted religion that drives the desire to blow us out of the skies seems to be associated with an encouragingly high degree of technical incompetence. Having said that, it would clearly be wrong to pin our hopes on the fanatics’ continued failure.

While history shows that those who keep up sustained campaigns of violence often get their way in the end, they normally have some vaguely rational underlying political agenda. That is lacking in the current generation of would-be mass murderers.

What we can surely safely predict is that the progression from shoe bomber to underpants bomber will be followed up by the development of some even more fiendish and presumably ingested explosive device, and that ever-more intrusive attempts to detect these will make boarding an aircraft even more of a living hell than it is now.

At least if this results in a catastrophic collapse of the global airline industry, it will please the adherents of that other growing world religion, the true believers in manmade climate change.

Look on the editorial and letters pages of any newspaper, and you cannot fail to notice that the sceptics about the benefits of European integration and the causes of global warming are precisely the same people. This seems logical enough, since both are founded on a healthy cynicism about movements tending to diminish individual freedom.

In the case of Europe, one can study history and know that the anti-democratic federalist agenda was based on a noble ideal (the prevention of war) but has been pursued with a reliance on the Big Lie that would make even Hitler or Saddam Hussein blush. On climate change, we are into the realms of futurology and it seems reasonable to apply precautionary principles just in case the science turns out to be right for once.

But it is surely a complete coincidence that those prepared to blow themselves up in the name of religion and the environmental opponents of air travel should turn out to be batting for the same side, too. Or is it? After all, the desired caliphate and wind power are both, in their different ways, profoundly mediaeval concepts.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

The case for an independent Berwick

Before it collapsed in acrimonious failure, the Copenhagen summit at least provided fifteen minutes of fame for Tuvalu. It was wonderfully appropriate to see this small nation making waves in the early days of the conference; because, if the doomsters are correct, waves are what its nine islands will soon be vanishing under.

I know a tiny bit about Tuvalu for two reasons. First because I once wasted some time pretending to write a doctoral thesis on British imperial history, and encountered it in its colonial guise as part of the Gilbert and Ellice (not Sullivan) Islands.

Secondly, as a monarchist anorak, I recognise it as one of the 16 independent realms of which Her Majesty the Queen is head of state. These range in size from serious countries like Canada and Australia to, well, Tuvalu.

Because perhaps the most striking thing about Tuvalu is that, at the last count, its population amounted to 11,636. No, I have not missed some noughts off that. Most of them scrape a living from subsistence agriculture. Its big overseas earners are the sale of stamps and coins, and the licensing to the global television industry of its memorable internet domain name, .tv.

So here is a country containing around a third of the number of people living under the former Alnwick District Council, which had to be abolished because there just weren’t enough of us to make it viable. Yet somehow Tuvalu supports the full panoply of Governor-General, Prime Minister, Parliament and seat at the United Nations.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the presence of Tuvalu at Copenhagen with the recent insistence of Javier Solana, the outgoing EU foreign policy supremo, that it is futile for any of the member states to imagine they can still act unilaterally. “I hope very much that people are sensible, and realise that it is a fantasy to think any EU country can do anything alone,” he said.

So no independent voice for the UK, France or Germany, then, but we will at least pause to listen to Tuvalu before we vote to drown it.

All this made me think again how eminently reasonable are the claims of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, of which I wrote recently. It also reminded me of the many obituaries published last month of His Tremendousness Prince Georgio I of Seborga, a chain-smoking former mimosa grower who somehow persuaded the other inhabitants of his small Ligurian village to elect him as their head of state.

His claim for independence was founded on an alleged clerical error, as a result of which Italy had failed to register its title to the place on the break-up of the Holy Roman Empire. Although less successful than Tuvalu in securing formal diplomatic recognition, Seborga (population 364) certainly punches above its weight in terms of worldwide publicity.

I fear that some climate change fanatics may seize on the fiasco at Copenhagen to press for some sort of global dictatorship to save the planet, but my own thoughts are running in precisely the opposite direction. Why not bring on a new age of the responsible, vocal but peaceable micro-state?

The idea of Alnwick making a bid for independence is quite appealing, particularly as it has a ready-made head of state already in residence in its castle.

But Berwick-upon-Tweed, with its claim still to be at war with Russia over Crimea, is surely even better placed to follow the Seborgan route. All it needs is a plausible prince or president. Or maybe, if Tuvalu gurgles beneath the briny, Her Majesty would be prepared to take on Berwick as a replacement realm and it could assume a satisfying new role as head of the international awkward squad. Who knows, it might even have the clout finally to get its very own dual carriageway. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Friday 18 December 2009

My big new business drive

Public relations: it’s not rocket science. Nor brain surgery, nuclear physics or Chinese algebra. Between you and me it’s more like, well, common sense.

For a start, try being polite to people and answering their questions, ideally without telling them a pack of lies. It’s not that hard, is it? Unless, of course, you are one of those individuals who “does not suffer fools gladly” as they always write in obituaries (in the past tense) as code for “he was a complete and utter bastard”.

Some years ago I had a client who was, without question, the rudest man in the world. We used to try and excuse him by saying “He’s really just shy”. The more perceptive analysts and journalists would throw this claim back at us with some more colourful descriptions of what he really was, none of which is suitable for printing here.

The funny thing is that I’ve been using the same excuse about myself for decades. I don’t like talking on the telephone full stop (always a bit of a handicap for a PR man) and I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than cold call a potential client. The resulting comparative lack of business success I have always attributed to shyness rather than the real cause, which I now recognise to be simply laziness of absolutely colossal proportions.

This did not matter when I was quietly winding down to a retirement of steadily increasing poverty, made bearable by the prospect of premature death. Now, thanks to a column published in this very slot, I find myself required to keep earning until I am at least 80 to support my frighteningly young family.

“So you want some more work?” people ask encouragingly. The only snag is that my commitment to being Britain’s most honest PR man compels me to reply “No, I want more people to pay me for not doing anything.”

As a new business pitch, it’s not working too well up to now, even when I point out how much better off we would all be if we had paid our bankers for doing nothing rather than letting them pretend to be rocket scientists.

I wonder whether modern medicine and psychology can offer a gentler cure for idleness than the traditional boot up the backside?

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant with time on his hands.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Eating pork scratchings to save the planet

Even after the great medical advances of the twentieth century, human life still seems pathetically short – particularly when you get to my age. So speaking up for death is not an easy way to court popularity.

It helps that I have never much cared for people (and, yes, I do know that the feeling is mutual). Even so, the hardest question in my postbag this year came after a column in which I was wittering nostalgically about the world into which I was born, when the UK’s population was about 45 million. How exactly, enquired my correspondent, did I propose to select and despatch the 15 million or so who have joined us since 1954? I had no answer.

However, that would be a modest proposal compared with the aspirations of the Optimum Population Trust, the “green think tank” which calculates the sustainable population of the UK as between 17 and 27 million, depending on how successful we are in meeting our individual carbon reduction targets. While the sustainable population of the planet as a whole is estimated at 5.1 billion “assuming that one could live with the fact that around half the world's people were malnourished and about 800 million were hungry”; or, ideally, something less than half of that, compared with getting on for seven billion today.

If the Optimum Population Trust sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because it grabbed a few headlines in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit by asserting that contraception was a better investment than wind turbines, solar power or hybrid cars. Their solution is a scheme that allows individuals and organisations in rich countries to “offset their carbon footprint” (a flawed concept, if ever there was one) by funding family planning programmes in, you guessed it, the Third World. Even a notorious right-winger like the present writer thinks that sounds ever so slightly inequitable.

Population control presents other problems. If it works, it will take generations (or lack of them) to have an impact, whereas we are warned that the dangers of climate change are immediate. Furthermore, it almost certainly won’t work. The biggest experiment to date, China’s single child programme, has been running since 1979 and has apparently prevented over 300 million births; but the population of China has still grown, helped by a wide range of exemptions (no doubt including the commissars who dreamt up the policy in the first place).

I never particularly wanted children, and used to boast that not having a family was my greenest achievement. But now that I have one, I would not have missed it for the world. It is hard to see much of humanity being persuaded to forego reproduction, even by offers of shiny baubles or MP3 players.

Added to which, if the population ever did go into sharp decline, the economic and social consequences of imposing huge numbers of elderly dependents on a shrinking workforce might well make us feel that there was something to be said for Nature’s way with floods, famine and pestilence.

So, as a small step in the right direction, how about simply reversing the universal policy of encouraging everyone to cling onto life for as long as possible? I am not talking euthanasia here (though I predict that it will come to that, if current population and longevity trends continue). But maybe we could each do our bit by having that extra packet of pork scratchings, eating another slice of pie, downing a few more pints and perhaps cracking open a packet of fags to round off our meals. At least, that is what I intend to do.

And, if anyone asks what I think I am doing hanging around in the smoking shelter with telltale crumbs all down my pullover, I shall reply with a straight face “I’m saving the planet”.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Hellfire and hypocrisy: it was ever thus

For the religious zealot, nothing really matters apart from their faith. And why should it, if this life is just a fleeting trial before an eternity of bliss?

The problem is that no-one has ever come back from the other side to give a decisive thumbs-up to that theory, so the rest of us tend to have quite a low boredom threshold when the preaching starts.

So it is with the new, officially recognised religion of man-made climate change. It may hold out no promise of heaven, but it certainly threatens us with hell on earth if we do not quickly repent of our environmental sins.

The snag is the same as with longer established belief systems. Where is the evidence? Anyone with the slightest knowledge of history knows that there have been disastrous storms and floods since the beginning of recorded time, and that parts of the planet (including England) have been both warmer and colder than they are today.

The earnestness of the tree-huggers and eating-ruminants-haters is also enough to turn anyone against their case, however sound it might be. The weekend’s anti-climate chaos demonstrators (ironically all warmly wrapped up against the cold) inevitably called back memories of those face-painted harridans who used to ululate outside the Greenham Common air base, and the unwashed fanatics who tried to prevent the construction of assorted by-passes. Even though naturally sympathetic to the latter cause, I soon found myself siding with the bulldozer operators.

Then there is the sheer, monumental hypocrisy and inconsistency of the world’s politicians. Just as the more sophisticated mediaeval peasants must occasionally have wondered why the leaders of a religion that preached the virtues of poverty needed to live in palaces brimming with fine art and jewels, so the mind boggles that arresting climate change requires thousands of delegates from 192 countries to board jet aircraft to Copenhagen and be chauffeured around it in gas-guzzling limousines.

And no sooner has the Prime Minister administered a tongue-lashing to the “behind-the-times, anti-science, flat-earth climate sceptics” than up pops a committee of MPs to confirm that building a third runway at Heathrow is a cracking idea. Yes, aircraft emissions may be destroying the planet, but we have got to put the UK economy first.

As I understand it, the world is currently getting cooler rather than warmer, and is likely to continue to jog along in a reasonably bearable condition until about 2030 when, unless we completely transform our casual attitude to carbon dioxide emissions, all hell will suddenly break loose.

Compared with some of the things we are currently asked to swallow, this does not sound entirely barking. Residents of Morpeth or Cockermouth will need no reminding of how quickly benign rivers can turn into destructive torrents, and researchers assure us that the last Ice Age ended so suddenly, in a single year, that it was like a cosmic button being pressed.

Then those of us who fought against modifying our lifestyles may look pretty silly, just as we secretly dread graduates of the Alpha course mouthing “I told you so” as the archangels’ trumpets sound and the Lord returns to judge us.

I have long believed that the only sane approach to any religion is to apply the common sense test: does it do more good than harm? If it preaches consideration to others and living frugally and responsibly, it passes. If it advocates flying planes into buildings, it fails.

I am quite prepared to believe that the near seven billion people on this planet cannot all live in the style of rich Americans without putting unbearable strain on its finite resources. So, if the religion of man-made climate change helps to promote some self-restraint it may not be a wholly bad thing, whether the hellfire it preaches turns out to be real or not.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

The world turned upside down

An old man recently asked whether I thought we would still be driving on the left when I reached his age. “Because,” he added, “it’s just about the only thing they haven’t changed in this country in my lifetime.”

He had been born into a white, Christian, English-speaking nation in which fathers exercised authority, divorce was exceptional, the monarchy and Parliament were respected, and it was naturally assumed that British was best.

Somehow, without anyone ever consulting him, he had seen it transformed into a multi-racial, multi-cultural society in which every religion (apart from Christianity) has to be carefully respected “to avoid giving offence”; women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities are sometimes given preference over heterosexual white males to improve representation, balance or simply compensate for centuries of alleged wrongs; children can no longer be disciplined; traditional institutions and values are relentlessly mocked; our armed forces have been run down and the essential attributes of national sovereignty quietly transferred to the European Union; and we have had to adjust ourselves to foreign weights, measures and even place names.

Education, for example, has been turned upside down. When I went to university I could have said, like Neil Kinnock, that I was the first member of my family in a thousand generations to do so; though unlike him I am well-educated enough to know that this is mainly because universities did not exist for around the first 975 generations in question.

In my day, if seeking admission to an Oxbridge college, it was a distinct advantage to have had a parent there before you; today it is a positive handicap. Both positions are equally unfair. Access to education at all levels should be based simply on ability, not manipulated to give a leg-up to the badly taught or thick.

My wife recently obtained a new British passport in which I noticed that some of the key information was translated into two sorts of gibberish. Not foreign languages that might actually be useful overseas, like French, Spanish, Russian or Mandarin, but what I finally worked out were Welsh and Gaelic. This is surely madness, because anyone so hopelessly monoglot in Gaelic that they cannot understand the English word “passport” is completely unequipped to leave their croft, let alone the country.

How long will it be before passports become 100 pages thick with translations into Cornish, Kurdish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Lallans, Swahili, Tagalog and every other conceivable minority language that might be spoken somewhere in this country?

Yet the clamour for change remains relentless. Open any national newspaper and you will read the whinges of self-appointed pressure groups complaining that our society is insufficiently adapted to their needs, say because BBC Radio 4 is still fronted by too many people who sound potentially white and middle class.

There are conspiracy theorists who argue that what has happened to Britain since the Second World War is the result of a carefully co-ordinated campaign by the Left. Having failed to achieve the glorious new dawn of communism, they turned to destroying society by systematically undermining and reversing all the assumptions on which it was based.

A revolution has undoubtedly been achieved, but it seems far too organised and brilliant for the Left as we know it ever to have effected it. The old Britain was simply asking to be toppled because it was a fundamentally decent place in which those in charge always thought it reasonable to listen to the other person’s point of view.

Now fears of being accused of racism or bigotry have silenced opposition so effectively that even the leadership of the Conservative Party is quick to condemn proponents of traditional values as “dinosaurs”. And so, oddly enough, our bright new “rainbow” society looks certain to be altogether less tolerant of dissent than the monochrome, patriarchal, deferential one we have lost. Is anyone surprised?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Two nobodies and a local somebody

Few things are more frustrating than sitting through a long joke, novel, play or newspaper column, eagerly expecting a satisfying denouement, only to have it lamely fizzle out.

My wife was rather aggrieved recently after we invested five hours watching ITV’s drama serial Collision, only to discover that the catastrophe was caused simply by a wasp.

Yet the selection of an insect to be the first President of Europe would have been a positively enthralling result compared with the one we got last week, the haiku-writing Belgian Herman Van Rompuy. Risking great confusion in all the capitals of the world apart from Brussels, given that the President of China’s name is also pronounced “Who?”

The former French head of state Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the prime mover of the EU Constitution, hoped that Europe’s first President would be a figure like George Washington (or, as he was just too modest to say, Valery Giscard d’Estaing). Instead we have got a George with all the charisma of the one who was married to Mildred in the 1970s sitcom.

As for the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, I do not count myself a political obsessive, but I do read at least two quality newspapers and listen to several news broadcasts every day, and I had never heard of her. Knowledgeable commentators snigger that our Prime Minister has been conned by those wily Continentals Merkel and Sarkozy into accepting the external affairs job for this nonentity so that they can insert their own nominee into the EU’s key economic role, and proceed with their mission of destroying London as the world’s leading financial centre.

This is highly credible, given that Mr Magoo could probably outmanoeuvre Gordon Brown on his recent form, though after the recent triumphs of our banking industry I am not sure I care too much about the City’s fate. Even so, I prefer the alternative theory that Baroness Ashton of Upholland owed her elevation to fanatical support from the Dutch, who mistook her title for a declaration of intent.

But can this really be the conclusion of the decade-long saga of the European Constitution, for which ways had to be found to defy the wishes of the voters of France, the Netherlands and Ireland? Can it really have been so vitally in the interests of Britain and Europe to install these two nobodies in grandly titled and well-remunerated positions that Labour had no alternative but to renege on its manifesto commitment to a referendum?

A little hard to believe, is it not? Leading one inexorably to the conclusion that the political leaders of Europe must have some other motive that we are deemed too stupid to be told about.

Last week I attended a fascinating and highly entertaining talk in Newcastle by another leader few people have heard of, His Most Eminent Highness the Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ (a title even Lord Mandelson might envy).

Fra’ Matthew Festing, as he is also known, is a most distinguished Northumbrian elected by his fellow knights to head this enormous global charity dedicated to giving practical help to the needy: running hospitals and homes for the elderly, and assisting refugees and the victims of natural disasters across five continents.

The Order maintains diplomatic relations with 104 states that acknowledge its sovereignty. It is not recognised by Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom, though curiously Her Majesty the Queen of Canada has no such scruples.

My modest proposal is that we should recognise Fra’ Matthew’s Order immediately, and tell President Van Rompuy to take a running jump. After all, which of them is the greater force for good in this world, and has our best interests closer to his heart?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Reflections from the life laundry

You know how it is when you start tidying up. As soon as you begin delving into cupboards and clearing shelves, you create a mess at least 100 times worse than the one you were trying to tackle in the first place.

If, like me, you are foolish enough to have thrown away virtually nothing for 20 years, the results of embarking on what I believe is called a “life laundry” are truly horrific.

I can barely move for stacks of books, videos (remember those?) clothes, toys, crockery and pictures, despite having occupied most of my spare time for the last week making repeated, heavily laden trips to the Alnwick household waste recycling centre.

The good news is that I have uncovered numerous interesting things I had completely forgotten acquiring. The bad news is that, after a couple of decades lurking at the back of slightly damp cupboards, most of them are too mildewed or rusty to be worth keeping.

There is a simple lesson here: do not buy things you do not really need. And, if they come as gifts, do not hesitate to recycle them swiftly through a charity shop, ideally one that is not frequented by the person who gave you the present in the first place.

I am belatedly taking my own advice now, though struggling to apply the necessary ruthlessness to books and papers. I feel attached to my extensive collection of reference books, though I never actually use them since it became so much easier to find the answer to everything on the internet. And I cannot quite face admitting the futility of having made and kept so many press cuttings, which I never look at again after they are filed.

There are well over a thousand unopened biographies, novels and historical works I bought because I was mad keen to read them. Indeed, five years ago I gave up my job in London primarily so that I could devote more time to this. What I was overlooking is the fact that the books you read in your teens and twenties stay with you forever, but by my time of life the brain has reached full capacity and little sticks.

Around the age of 40 I felt the need to start defacing my books with little notes to remind myself that I had actually read them, in the hope of preventing myself from doing so again. Now, like a castaway on Desert Island Discs, I really only need one book that I could read again and again, with a goldfish-like delight. Something by Evelyn Waugh or P.G. Wodehouse, I fancy. There’s no point taking anything too seriously when your mind is going.

Albums of family photographs covering four generations also take up yards of shelf space, though at least that has stopped growing since the invention of the digital camera; a great boon given that more images must have been captured of my son in his first five months than of any of the previous generation of Hanns in all their three score years and ten, or thereabouts.

I was just going to sit here surrounded by my piles of junk until I expired, then let my unfortunate heirs sort the mess out. Now I have had to become my own executor before the baby starts crawling, to enable him to move around in relative safety.

Everyone told me that it would be really hard to do, but that I would feel much better afterwards. A bit like climbing Everest or stopping banging my head against a brick wall. It is perhaps too early for me to say, but I think I am beginning to see their point.

Possessions really are a burden. They tie us down. Memo to last week’s big lottery winners: buy nothing apart from a really good digital camera and one outstanding book.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Would a Sanilav rose smell as sweet?

Whatever became of Phyllosan? Not so long ago you couldn’t turn on the telly without someone telling you that it fortified the over-forties (without, as I recall, ever explaining how).

Then you turn your back for a second and find it has vanished into that great brand lumber room in the sky, along with the likes of Spangles and Oxydol.

That’s my first idea for selling the naming rights of my house knackered, then. I thought it had just the right ring to it after I passed a youngish couple in the road discussing “that old bloke who writes for The Journal” who lived nearby.

I entertained a brief flash of hope that David Banks might have moved into the neighbourhood, before reluctantly concluding that they meant me.

Still, I see that Sanatogen tonic wine is still being manufactured, so I suppose I had better fire off an email inviting them to bid. The challenge is to think of some others to make it a meaningful competition. Grecian 2000? Stannah stairlifts? Dry For Life incontinence pants?

At least if I end up living at DryForLife House it will cause less confusion to delivery drivers than The Old Smithy, of which there are at least four within a three mile radius.

Fortunately selling the sponsorship rights for my clothes should be much simpler. I feel sure that the marketing departments of Greggs and Weighwatchers will soon be engaged in a frenzied bidding war for the right to have their names blazoned across the back of my straining suits.

The car will have to become the DFSmobile, because it boasts really comfy leather seats and I would like to be associated with the original and best rather than some three-initialled clone competitor.

Similarly it is no contest for our other home, which simply has to be MumsGonetoIceland House given that mum does actually work for Iceland when she’s not on maternity leave.

Finally, I’m close to signing with a well-known contraceptive manufacturer on the naming rights for the baby’s buggy, or for the baby himself if they can meet my asking price. This will provide a timely warning that it’s never safe to assume you’re too old for something like that to happen.

Not a bad morning’s work, really. I’m certainly making more progress than those characters at St James’ Park. Though even that sorry tale pales into insignificance compared with the news that the authorities at my old university are to mark its 800th anniversary by offering “the ultimate commemorative naming opportunity” to re-brand Cambridge University Library in honour of the highest bidder.

I cling to the very faint hope that this might be some dry, donnish joke. But one Cambridge college recently adopted a new, double-barrelled name at the behest of a benefactor, so I fear not.

The difficulty, once you start down this road, is finding anywhere to draw the line.

In a few months’ time, we may perhaps see the Nike Queen driving from Kraft Buckingham Palace in the Nestlé State Coach to open the new session of the Tesco Parliament by reading the speech prepared for her by the Smythson of Bond Street Prime Minister.

Would it really matter all that much, given that it will be an increasingly empty charade as real power continues to gurgle down the plughole to the Gazprom European Union under the terms of the EDF Lisbon Treaty?

And would any of us object too vociferously, if reminded that sponsorship was easing some of the burden of increased taxation that we are otherwise going to face in the years ahead? Why not “go with the flow” and remember that there is no reason to fear the secret police of our new dictatorship. Their PR advisers will almost certainly ensure that they are sponsored by a kiddie-friendly company with a smiling face.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Conservatives Anonymous: I own up

My name is Keith Hann and I am a conservative. I feel better for having got that off my chest.

A conservative is someone who broadly liked things the way they were whenever he or she attained political consciousness, and would have preferred to keep them that way. There is only limited overlap with the party branded with a capital “C”, which in my lifetime has been a force for radical change.

True, I have been a party member and have voted Conservative in every election since the early 1970s, but often with some reluctance, like a lifelong Newcastle United fan renewing his season ticket. David Cameron is my Mike Ashley.

I was born 55 years ago into an independent country at the heart of a rapidly contracting empire, still basking in the glory of having apparently won the Second World War. The buildings of Newcastle were black with smoke, yellow trolleybuses glided down quiet suburban roads and ancient steam engines hauled long trains of coal wagons from the pits. The countryside was matchlessly beautiful and even the colliery winding gear and waste heaps had their fascination.

Family life centred around the hearth in the one room in the house that was actually heated, where entertainment was provided by a tiny, fuzzy, two channel black and white TV. Electronic communication for the privileged was a black, Bakelite telephone, always installed in the freezing hall.

This was also a homogenous and peaceful society in which parents, teachers and the police were respected, and children could play safely. True, they might come home from school with cane stripes across their backsides, but their parents were not frantic with worry about paedophiles, drug dealers or muggers lurking behind every tree.

That dull, patriarchal, deferential, mono-cultural and materially poorer society is the one that I was accusing Labour of hating, in my column last week. And, yes, the Conservatives have proved almost equally committed to wiping it off the map. But I must confess that I rather liked it.

Absurd though it may seem to Labour Parliamentary candidate Antoine Tinnion, who responded to my column on Friday, I did and do have huge respect for the British constitution as it evolved organically over the centuries. The House of Lords as it existed for the best part of a thousand years worked effectively as a check on the excesses of Conservative as well as Labour administrations, and I always felt myself better represented in Parliament by my local hereditary peers than by my MP, charming and well-intentioned chap though I recognise him to be.

As for Mr Tinnion’s point that Labour cannot be blamed for the bureaucracy visited upon farmers; well, yes, they can, actually, and it was jolly bad luck that his letter was printed bang next to an editorial headlined “Farmers have every right to feel let down.” The CAP is a rotten system, but Labour decided to make it even worse by setting up a uniquely complex system for distributing EU farm subsidies in England, and then failing to deliver them so comprehensively that the result has been officially described as a “masterclass of maladministration”.

But, to be clear, all the mainstream political parties have been guilty of failing to provide any effective voice for those who quite liked their country the way it was. That is why the BNP is proving able to draw support from disaffected Labour supporters and, in apparently even greater numbers, from people who have previously not voted at all.

If there is a significant body of electors in this country who feel that the only person standing up for them is Nick Griffin, then that is, in my view, an uncontestable indictment of the failure of all the main parties to connect with the real desires of the people they claim to represent.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

How hatred really built the BNP

Much has been written lately about the BNP and the politics of hate. Yet I have always seen hatred as rather a speciality of the Labour Party.

They hate the ancient institutions of this country, which is why we have abortions like the “reformed” House of Lords and the swish new Supreme Court, which sprang into life on a whim of Tony Blair’s without even being fleshed out on the traditional fag packet.

They hate the people of the countryside and their ways, hence the crushing burden of bureaucracy on farmers and the huge waste of time to create an unworkable Hunting Act.

They hate “toffs” like David Cameron and George Osborne, but they also hate their own natural supporters getting above themselves. So they snapped the principal ladder by which working class children of my generation achieved social mobility: the grammar schools.

In fact, these days they do not seem to like the British proletariat at all. One of the striking things about Chris Mullin’s diaries, which I praised a few weeks ago, was just how much he seemed to prefer dealing with distressed asylum seekers (polite, educated and grateful) to the mass of his constituents (usually none of the above).

It should come as no surprise, then, to discover from weekend press reports that the floodgates of mass immigration were deliberately opened by Tony Blair and Jack Straw in 2000 to achieve a fundamental and irreversible shift in the make-up of the British population, for their own electoral advantage. The calculation apparently being that industrious and appreciative immigrants were more likely to support Labour than the idle and benefit-addicted denizens of the nation’s council estates.

The true brilliance of the wheeze was this: if anyone dared to suggest that this headlong rush to “multi-culturalism” was a questionable idea, they could be branded as a “racist”, the one thing that instantly puts any politician beyond the pale.

In economic matters, Mrs Thatcher wrenched the centre ground of politics to the right, so that the major parties have spent the last two decades trying to outdo each other with ever more radical schemes of privatisation and in their willingness to pander to the super-rich.

But on social and cultural matters, the entrenched consensus means that anyone who dares to speak up for traditional British (and particularly Christian) values will be shouted down as a bigot.

The new religion of man-made climate change is fast becoming another belief that cannot be challenged, so that anyone who loves the countryside and does not wish to see it industrialised with essentially useless windmills can be presented as wicked and self-centred, prepared to sacrifice the poor people of the Maldives and Bangladesh to protect their own “chocolate box” views.

Add to the mix the European Union, which now makes most of our important decisions for us, and which no mainstream political party dares to oppose effectively, and you end up with a system in which it is hard to put a cigarette paper between the serious contenders for office on most matters of policy, and in which the elite’s values have come seriously adrift from those of the mass of the people.

Most of whom, I would hazard a guess, still take some pride in their country, think it better on the whole than most of the others in the world, and quite liked it the way it was before their leaders decided to give away their sovereignty and completely change the character of their homeland without consulting them.

The predictable backlash, in these circumstances, is extremism of the type represented by the BNP. It is worth remembering that the key to their rise is not the peculiar political genius of Nick Griffin and his colleagues, but the fact that our existing leaders give the impression of, if not actually hating us, at least disliking us quite intensely.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Broon fans should snub the accountants

It is a brave man who seeks to improve an aphorism coined by Oscar Wilde, but if he were alive today I suspect that he might refine his well-known definition of that individual who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He is clearly not just a cynic; he is an accountant.

Day in, day out accountants beaver away identifying “cost savings” and “efficiencies”, oblivious to the fact that they may well end up destroying the very essence of the product on which they are working. Nowhere is this truer than in the brewing industry.

Time and again technicians demonstrate that they can replicate the water and other ingredients of a particular beer so precisely that even the bushiest-bearded real ale aficionado cannot tell the difference between a pint lovingly brewed in that fine, old, Victorian family brewery occupying a prime piece of development land in the town centre, and a hyper-efficient, computerised new plant three counties away.

Yet every time they close a traditional ale brewery drinkers somehow do tell the difference, and sales dwindle as surely as night follows day.

Brewers of English ale have been in a fix since the 1970s, when people started acquiring the taste for lager on foreign holidays, and the traditional, thirst-generating heavy industries closed down. Some local brewers responded by creating fine, distinctive lagers of their own, about which specialist beer writers often rave, but sadly the great British public only seems to want bland, fizzy, tasteless stuff backed by massive brand advertising.

The issue of authenticity matters profoundly to real ale enthusiasts, because they care passionately about what they are consuming. It evidently matters not a jot to the average lager drinker, who just wants it to be cold and probably the best in the world, or reassuringly expensive, or the one that Australians prefer. The fact that the stuff brewed under licence over here bears scant resemblance to the foreign original seems irrelevant.

So where does that leave Newcastle Brown Ale as it moves south in obedience to the accountants’ dictates? Its fate has been utterly predictable ever since Scottish & Newcastle was allowed to remove its protected area designation, which ensured that it was as likely to be brewed in Tadcaster, Amsterdam or Minsk as in Dunston.

The reassurances of accountant-run corporations are as worthless as those of politicians. Commitments to preserve breweries usually carry as much weight as those of property developers who promise to cherish the fine listed building on their site, shortly before it mysteriously catches fire and has to be demolished in the interests of public safety.

As Broon is not a real ale, and its international success owes much to the same sort of marketing techniques that have created the global lager brands, I fear that in overall commercial terms they may well get away with it. But not, one hopes, in this region.

Because the cynical relocation of its most famous ale is a truly shocking snub to Tyneside, and one which I do not think it should take lying down – any more than I can believe that Dubliners will keep happily quaffing the black stuff if the accountants ever get their way and close the original Guinness brewery there.

The Dutch brewing conglomerate Heineken may well own the brand, but surely Newcastle, the Tyne Bridge, castle and cathedral belong to all of us. So can’t we register some sort of protected area designation and force them to remove our name and local symbols from the labels of “The One and Only” and make them call it Tadcaster Brown Ale, as it is now to become?

It is the only recourse I can think of, apart from never buying a bottle of the stuff again. Which, come to think of it, is not at all a bad idea, either.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Changing times in Alwinton and Brussels

Alwinton Show is over, and the evening of the year has begun. So I always reckoned, as I marked the second Saturday in October in my diary, though it has been some time since I made the short journey to the show ground.

Until last weekend, that is, when I had a new wife and son to introduce to one of the undoubted highlights of the Northumberland countryman’s year. But whatever happened to all those smart old men I used to see, impeccably turned out in tweed jackets or suits, with matching caps?

Sadly I think we know the answer to that.

Turning back to the first show catalogue I can find, from 1991, and comparing it with Saturday’s, there has been a noticeable slump in entries across nearly all the agricultural, horticultural and domestic classes – though more people than ever are having a go at producing loaves of bread, cheese scones and jars of chutney, so perhaps all is not lost.

Elsewhere, do we no longer have the skills, time or inclination for this sort of thing, or are the incentives simply inadequate? Although prize money has doubled in the last 18 years it is still only £4 for first place in most classes, which is perhaps not enough to set the pulse racing.

Still, we enjoyed what we saw and can only applaud the innovative thinking behind the new (to me) category of “Baking Gone Wrong”, providing a welcome fall-back position with its encouraging note “Entries taken on day”.

One thing that has not changed is the appealing directness of my fellow Northumbrians, perfectly illustrated by the Show secretary commiserating with me in the queue for the chip van because my Border terrier was too fat to be worth entering for the dog show. This came as news to both me and the dog.

Then there was the steady stream of people who approached me to admire my son, snoozing peacefully in his sling on my chest, then addressed me sympathetically as “Granddad”. I felt compelled to put them right, but it clearly did no good. I could tell by the shaking of their heads that they now had marked me down as pathetically confused as well as terminally decrepit.

I was a bit saddened by the decline in sartorial standards in the Cumberland & Westmorland wrestling ring, where I waited in vain to see someone turned out in the traditional white combinations and coloured trunks. Was I just too impatient, or has this get-up finally gone the way of admirals’ tricorn hats and the Speaker’s wig?

That is the problem with traditions. You take them for granted, comfortably assuming that they are continuing just as they always did, then find that some bright spark has done away with them in the name of “modernisation”.

We will be seeing an awful lot of that on a much broader canvas once the European Union secures its new Lisbon Treaty, through its usual unattractive mixture of lies and intimidation, and the small elite who alone can be trusted to make decisions get on with their mission of abolishing what is left of our national independence.

Yes, the quality of British politicians of all parties is such that we might well feel inclined to allow someone – anyone – else to do their job, but I will still miss my once in five years opportunity to have an indirect say in sacking the man in charge.

This is very much the evening of the United Kingdom and the political and legal systems we have known all our lives. Eurosceptics pin their final hopes on the Czech President, as the Czechs in 1938 placed their hope in us. The precedent is hardly encouraging. Still, perhaps the red glow from the bonfire of our ancient liberties will at least give us an autumn sunset to remember.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

My heart was always in the North East

Overweight, mildly stressed, 50-something male who likes a drink has heart attack. As a news headline, it ranks right up there with the latest shock revelations about the Pope’s religious affiliation and the lavatorial preferences of bears.

Nevertheless, it came as a mild surprise to be told in Wansbeck Hospital last Monday that I had almost certainly suffered a heart attack. More unnerving was the verdict that this was some historical event that had passed me by, and not the cause of the chest pains that had taken me to casualty in the first place.

A disturbingly pretty doctor kept looking at the results of my electrocardiogram and muttering about “depressed PR”; which, in view of my trade and usual mental condition, struck me as the perfect cause of death. I resolved to have it inscribed on my tombstone in any case, in place of the words specified in my last will: “Not sleeping, only dead”.

My short stay in the Wansbeck was my first experience of being a hospital patient since I had my tonsils removed in the old Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in Rye Hill 50 years ago. In those days the nurses wore uniforms much closer to those now only obtainable from Ann Summers, but that is the only point one could possibly cite in favour of the past.

As an occasional sceptic about the virtues and value of the NHS, I would like to put on record that I was most impressed with the cleanliness of the premises, the quality of the equipment, and the unfailing charm and cheerfulness of the ever helpful staff. Even the much maligned food was tasty and piping hot, though I dare say Michael Winner might have shaken his head over the sogginess of the toast at breakfast.

Having said that, I would strongly advise anyone who feels in need of sleep not to get themselves marooned overnight in the Medical Admissions Unit, where the steady stream of ex-miners suffering breathing difficulties did lead me to wonder how much of a disservice Mrs Thatcher really did this region when she arranged that another generation should not follow them down the pits.

Foolishly, no doubt, I pressed for my discharge on the grounds that I had a wife and three-month-old son who needed me at home, and that I could easily return as an out-patient to have the remaining diagnostic tests I was told that I required. Time has never passed more slowly than during the ensuing three days of sometimes intense pain before an appointment card dropped through my letterbox. On the other hand, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the condition from which I am suffering is pericarditis, and the many hypochondriacs’ websites I have consulted tell me that it is normally treated only with strong painkillers, which I have anyway.

One indisputably good thing has come out of all of this. The onset of my illness prevented us from devoting last week to the planned clearance of my Northumberland house prior to its sale, scheduled for completion next month. As the days wore on, it became increasingly clear not only that we had no hope of meeting that deadline, but that the inevitable stress of moving house was just about the last thing I needed. So I contacted the unfortunate buyer and told him that I was withdrawing my acceptance of his offer. He was very nice about it, all things considered.

So the next time I hear someone embark on that wise old saying “You can take the boy out of the North East …” I shall be able to interrupt them with “Not this boy!” Even better, if they ask me why, I shall be able to produce a sheaf of medical evidence to support my contention that “My heart wasn’t in it.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Consider what lies behind the label

This is the golden age of the brand, when simply attaching a fancy label to almost any product can inflate its value to a multiple of its intrinsic worth.

Ask a food industry professional which mass market retailer in the UK sells the best meat pies, and they will almost certainly give you the name of one of those German-based discounters, which famously sets manufacturers a higher specification than any of the so-called “quality” retail chains.

A former client of mine at the cheap and cheerful end of the fashion industry used to give City analysts an arresting presentation comparing the price and quality of his garments with those of more mainstream high street chains. Often the clothes were absolutely identical, even sourced from the self-same factories in the Far East; yet the price differentials were huge, and all based on the relative snob appeal of each retailer’s label.

I have listened to marketing experts present case studies of products that failed completely until they were re-launched at much higher prices, because consumers then reckoned that they must be something special. The entire cosmetics industry is based on investing millions in brands to convince the gullible that they are “worth it”. When the EU insisted that manufacturers start disclosing ingredients on their bottles, they opted to use the Latin “aqua” in the hope that most mugs would not twig that they were mainly buying ludicrously expensive scented water.

Meanwhile in the car market, I saved myself thousands by buying an excellent Nissan 4x4 rather than a remarkably similar vehicle with a more coveted badge on the bonnet.

All value retailers struggle to convince investors of their merits because they are simply not places that City types would be seen dead shopping themselves. A few years ago a food retailing client of mine was amazed by an exchange over lunch in which a very senior stockbroker (and former Government minister) asked him to justify his characterisation of Waitrose as “upmarket”. Baffled, he turned the question around to ask the grandee which food shops he thought would answer that description, and the answer was naturally the establishments where his wife bought all their own groceries: Fortnums and Harrods.

All of which came deliciously to mind last week when the boss of organic food suppliers Onefood and Swaddles, purveyors of a pie billed as “the best in the UK” to Fortnum & Mason, was jailed after Trading Standards officers uncovered the real secret of his supply chain. He simply bought non-organic products from the likes of Tesco, Waitrose and his local butcher, and repackaged them for sale at vastly inflated prices.

What fools snobbery makes of us, as the black arts of advertising and public relations are applied to the creation of brands we think we can trust. It happens in politics, too, where the Blair brand was a consummate PR creation, delivering three successive election victories despite the product’s self-evident failure to deliver exactly what it said on the tin.

British politicians can only dream of the billion dollars invested to create the Obama brand, but the Cameron brand seems to hold some promise – and, of course, the only job “Dave” has held outside politics was as a PR man. His greatest challenge will be the presence on the other side of that supreme manipulator of public opinion, Lord Mandelson, a person in whose presence even Max Clifford must surely doff his cap and recognise that he is a mere amateur.

From meat pies to Prime Ministers, the challenge to the consumer is to see through the fog of branding to the underlying quality of the product. You do not necessarily get what you pay for. But in political parties as in pullovers, the niggling worry must be that they really are all very much the same apart from their labels.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Savage cuts - and even worse in store?

So, electors of Britain, how would you like your spending cuts? Bold, savage or draconian? What, you were hoping for the usual pre-election promises of more cash for schools ‘n’ hospitals, the faint hope of a high speed rail link in your lifetime, and the even dimmer one of a dual carriageway A1?

Forget it. It isn’t going to happen. Not at the coming election anyway.

No, it looks like your only choice is going to be deciding which party would do the best job of wielding the axe. Which, as Paul Linford was suggesting on Saturday, should hand an advantage to the Tories because they have a reputation for that sort of thing.

An unjustified reputation, as it happens, since Mrs Thatcher actually presided over an increase in the proportion of GDP absorbed by the British State, and record increases in health and welfare spending. But at least we all knew that, in her heart, she wanted to rein things back. That surely needs to be the default setting of anyone aspiring to govern the country. We have tried the alternative of the surprisingly open-handed Scotsman who wanted to spray our cash around like a drunk with a fire extinguisher at a crazy foam party, and we have seen precisely where that got us. In the proverbial, in case you had not noticed.

I can think of no better illustration of the madness of the current regime than the fact that yesterday I sent off the £250 voucher graciously sent to me to open a Child Trust Fund account. Apparently if the little fellow makes it to his seventh birthday they will send me the same again. Only they won’t, with any luck, because it will be one of the egregious wastes of public money that whoever wins the next election will abolish. Along with my £20 per week child benefit and the tax credits paid to couples living on what sound like perfectly comfortable incomes to me.

The Government needs to recognise that most of us can look after ourselves, thanks, and want nothing more than to be left alone. In particular, we have no desire to fork out yet more in tax to pay for bright sparks to dream up ever more complicated schemes to “help” us, which require thick, glossy brochures and well-staffed call centres to explain what on earth they are about.

We can also do without all their efforts to protect us from miniscule risks of harm through their ever-expanding web of databases, surveillance and checks.

I would pledge my vote today to anyone who guaranteed that they would scrap ID cards, the NHS IT scheme and the 2012 Olympics, withdraw from Afghanistan, allow a free and unbiased vote on our continued membership of the European Union, and focus welfare spending on those in genuine need. So, sadly, there is not going to be any candidate in 2010 that I really want to vote for, and many more of us are going to be in the same boat. Thus turnout continues to diminish and politicians keep wringing their hands wondering where they are going wrong.

And why 2010, incidentally? Why not now? According to the conspiracy theorists, because Lord Mandelson is on a mission to prop up Gordon Brown until the Irish have been brow-beaten into rethinking their opposition to the Lisbon Treaty, the new European Constitution is enacted and Tony Blair installed as President, calculating that “Dave” Cameron will lack the bottle to give the British people a referendum on the subject when he is faced with this fait accompli.

I am not normally a believer in conspiracy theories, but this one seems more plausible than most. Could all the talk of vicious spending cuts and tax increases simply be a ploy by the political class to take our minds off something even worse?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

We can change the future, not the past

I studied history at university because I prefer living in the past. Like a photographic print in the pre-digital era, it is developed and fixed. I can wallow comfortably in my memories, free of the pressure to take difficult decisions that always mars the present.

The past is also, as L.P Hartley observed, “a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Britain and the other great empires that have risen and fallen through the ages generally did not achieve their pre-eminence by being nice to foreigners, women or other less favoured groups like followers of minority religions or homosexuals.

Which may be a shame, but is a fact that cannot be altered. So we are on the slippery slope to madness when our leaders start apologising for laws and customs long consigned to history. Our own Prime Minister was at it on Friday, writing (or, more likely, lending his name to) a newspaper article announcing that we were all “deeply sorry” for the “appalling” treatment of the Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing, whose subsequent conviction for gross indecency apparently drove him to suicide.

There were, in fact, a couple of good reasons to welcome this piece. First, because more people should be aware of Turing’s pioneering work in computers, and of the huge contribution that the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park made to shortening the war.

Secondly, because it was a rare example of people power actually working. The apology was prompted by a petition on the Downing Street website; the first time I can recall a blind bit of notice ever being taken of one. If you have a few hours to spare this morning, there are currently 4,403 petitions open for your signature at and you can also view a further 58,603 that have been rejected or closed.

This one clearly escaped the usual fate because it had some celebrity supporters and the backing of the LGBT community (which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, in case you were another dinosaur who mistook it for the acronym of a provincial bus company). One of the alliance of special interest groups on which Labour hangs its slender hopes of re-election next year. The convolutions that will be required to stay simultaneously on side with gays, militant feminists and fundamentalist Muslims should be a source of much amusement in 2010.

You may concede that it is doing little practical good to say “sorry” to a man who has been dead for 55 years, but wonder what harm it causes. Like Tony Blair’s “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in the slave trade, it is putting a foot over the edge of a potentially bottomless pit of grovelling for historical evils: for the children killed up chimneys or down mines, the women burned as witches, the Catholics slaughtered by Cromwell or the Protestants martyred by Bloody Mary. I could go on forever.

Also, when the word “sorry” has been uttered in any case, it will surely not be long before we hear the rumbling bandwagon of lawyers seeking appropriate compensation for the heirs of the wronged.

If the Prime Minister feels the urge to apologise, there are many people still alive who would no doubt be pleased to hear from him. The widows and orphans of those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example; or all those who have lost their jobs, had their pensions devalued or are about to be landed with enormous additional tax bills to pay for his brilliant management of the economy over the last 12 years.

I make that about 60 million letters that will need signing. On the whole, it might be easier to take the hint from the number one petition on his own website, with over 70,000 signatures at the time of writing, and send just one short, contrite note to the Queen.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

How many lives is Afghanistan worth?

In my pessimistic way, I have often dreamt of returning to my house to find it a smoking ruin, as a result of some momentary inattention to detail by the fighter pilots who regularly train overhead.

Luckily, in my nightmare, a policeman always places a consoling hand on my shoulder and assures me that Biggles ejected safely before the plane came down. So that’s all right, then. And at least I feel reasonably sure that the RAF is on my side.

But what if foreign airmen – say Afghans, to pluck an example at random – came along and flattened my house with a bomb? It would also be an accident, “collateral damage” while they were trying to pick off some bloke with a beard and a funny hat who was holed up in a cave in the Cheviots while he masterminded terrorist atrocities overseas.

Would I laugh off their little mistake, accepting that it could happen to anyone, and feel eager to help them tracking down that nasty man? Or would it make me wish more power to his terrorist elbow to get my own back?

Perhaps it is perverse of me, but I suspect the latter. Which rather undermines the main plank of last week’s argument from both Gordon and Dave for our presence in Afghanistan, namely keeping terrorism off our own streets.

There is also the objective of making Afghanistan a functioning, Western-style democracy. After the triumph of the recent, not at all rigged or corrupt, Presidential elections, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website assures us that “Parliamentary and district council elections are scheduled to take place in 2010.”

How strange that we should be spilling blood to create district councils in another country, when the Government has just casually abolished our own. I have tried manfully to picture Afghan councillors politely debating whether to move to fortnightly wheelie bin collections, and working on their expenses claims, but have enjoyed only limited success.

We are also training and supporting the Afghan armed forces until they are strong enough to take over from us, overlooking the detail that the country would never be able to generate the tax revenues needed to pay for them. We are clamping down on the world’s biggest supplier of opium, which will obviously be why drugs are now unobtainable on our streets. We are protecting the rights of women, by keeping out the evil Taliban, who threatened to kill girls seeking education, and replacing them with a cuddly, liberal regime which has just made it legal for men to starve wives who deny them their conjugal rights.

It was entirely understandable, after 9/11, that the world’s greatest military power should feel the urge to give someone a powerful retaliatory kicking, and attacking Afghanistan with its Al Qaeda bases at least made a little more sense than invading Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

But terrorists can and will operate anywhere (it is widely argued that the destruction of the World Trade Center was actually planned in Hamburg) and our continuing involvement in Afghanistan strikes me as being more likely to win converts to the anti-Western cause than to deter them.

In short, I question whether whatever we think we are doing in Afghanistan is worth the bones of one British soldier, let alone hundreds. And when we leave, whether in five years or 40, as one general recently predicted, I suspect that we will do so not with Kandahar District Council happily twinned with Sunderland and beating its recycling targets, but with our tails between our legs and no clear sense of achievement. Just like the Russians did in 1989. Not to mention the previous great power that barged in thinking it could sort the place out once and for all. Who was that again?

Oh yes, it was us.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Celebrating one honest man in politics

Some years ago, on a train from Newcastle to Leeds, I found myself sitting across the gangway from then Health Secretary Alan Milburn and his officials, who were working on their plans to drag the NHS kicking and screaming into whichever century we were in at the time.

Their discussions were subject to occasional irreverent interjections from a balding, posh bloke in the seat behind me. He and the Secretary of State were clearly acquainted with each other, and I deduced that he was another Parliamentarian. The thing that puzzled me for the rest of the day was that I was completely sure there were no Tory MPs in the North East called Chris.

In London the next morning I shared the mystery with a friend much more engaged in the political process than I have ever been. He mused for a few seconds, then said “That will have been Chris Mullin”. And he was right.

I have to confess that I never gave Mr Mullin another thought until I picked up, for bank holiday reading, his published diaries, A View From the Foothills. What a marvellous book they make.

Candid, entertaining and wonderfully self-deprecating, they describe long hours of toil to achieve little of any value as “the Minister of Folding Deckchairs” within John Prescott’s mega-department, which Mr Mullin likens to “the court of Boris Yeltsin”. I have by no means finished the book, but so far our hero’s principal triumphs have been imposing a speed limit on Lake Windermere and making a small advance in the battle against the leylandii hedge.

He is proud of what Labour has done for his constituents in Sunderland South, but frustrated by their widespread failure to recognise this. Chiefly owing to what he memorably characterises as “Chronic Whinger Syndrome”.

I am not a supporter of the Labour Party, so it naturally gave me particular pleasure to read one of their own MPs describing the Millennium Dome as “a symbol of all that is wrong with New Labour: shallow, over-hyped, naff”. And the “useless” official draft of one of his own speeches as “Full of New Labour claptrap about strategies, visions, challenges and opportunities, which I was expected to stand and chant like a Mormon missionary.”

Like all honest political diarists of every party, Mr Mullin is prepared to acknowledge (at least in private) the issues on which the other side is right, and reveals the petty jealousies, selfish interests and inevitable compromises that lie behind all official decision making. How one longs to read an equally frank insider’s account of what really happened in the case of the Lockerbie bomber.

In its exhaustive coverage of MPs’ expenses, the Daily Telegraph could find no stickier dirt on Mr Mullin than the fact that he claims at his London flat for licensing a 30-year-old black-and-white TV, because he cannot bear the waste of throwing away something that still works. I am with him on that, as in his yearning for “a simple life. One where we take pleasure from our immediate surroundings. Produce only what we need. Eat what we grow. Travel slowly. And value friendship.”

Indeed, apart from a certain bias against farmers and foxhunters (of whom I imagine there are few in Sunderland South) I have found little so far on which I am not in wholehearted sympathy with Mr Mullin. Which makes it all the sadder that he has decided to retire at the next election. Parliament needs more openness and honesty by people who are prepared to speak their own minds rather than succumb to the control freakery of party spin machines, endlessly terrified of being skewered for a “gaffe”.

The electors of Sunderland South should cherish Mr Mullin while they can, and anyone who takes the slightest interest in current affairs should enjoy his addictively readable book.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

The lazy and coincidental way to sell

On Friday I made a momentous and entirely unexpected decision: I agreed to sell the house I anticipated leaving only in one of those zip-up plastic bags that have now displaced the traditional wooden box.

Now, you might think that “entirely unexpected” is a pretty strange description, given that my house has been on the market since January. But the fact is that I never actually imagined it would sell. Placing it with an estate agent fell into much the same category as buying a National Lottery ticket, which I do faithfully twice a week, without ever really believing that I am about to scoop the jackpot.

There is, I should emphasise, nothing wrong with the place. It is a solidly built, listed, stone house offering stupendous views of Simonside, the Cheviots and Whittingham Vale. But its appeal seemed likely to be limited both by its remoteness and the fact that I had configured it to meet the specific needs of an eccentric and crusty bachelor who worked at home half the time and spent the other half elsewhere.

The head-shaking reactions of the few viewers of the property seemed to confirm my suspicions. So earlier this month I signed the lease on a rented house in Cheshire, so that my wife and I could fulfil our work commitments there for the next couple of years. I intended to take my place off the market and retain it for weekends and holidays, with a view to moving back to it as our main home in due course. Characteristically, I then made the schoolboy error of being too lazy to tell the estate agent of our decision, so that his “For Sale” sign was still in place to catch the eye of a chance passer-by.

This had very much the random character of a lottery win. Sadly for me the sum involved is rather smaller, and indeed somewhat less than I had hoped it would be. The potential buyer makes his living from property, albeit hotels rather than houses, and so pitched his offer with appropriate professional rigour. In fact, I would have rejected it immediately but for the fact that I liked the man from the moment I met him, and was much struck by the fact that, passing by on a day when I was not at home, he took the trouble to make friends with my next door neighbours of 21 years.

It was an added bonus when I mentioned to an Essex-based friend that I was thinking of selling my house to a baronet from his neck of the woods, and he remarked on the coincidence that his best friend held just such a title. Luckily I am familiar with Anthony Powell’s novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, so was appropriately unamazed when my bloke and his turned out to be one and the same. It instantly moved negotiations onto a new plane of matiness that did little to improve the offer, but made me more inclined to accept it.

I am naturally conscious of the many slips that can occur once lawyers start poring over a contract. But, fortunately, I am now in the happy position of not greatly caring how it all pans out. If the sale proceeds, my house will pass into the hands of a friend of a friend who clearly loves the place for precisely the same reasons that I do: the location and the views. While if it falls through, I shall be able to bring up the next Hann generation in a beautiful spot where his ancestors worked the land a couple of centuries ago.

If we do move away from the North East for a while, I can say one thing with total confidence. We will be back.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

The empty plinth

There is no Keith Hann column in this morning's Newcastle Journal; the first time I have taken a break since, I believe, October 2007. I wonder whether anyone will notice?

I am not taking a holiday as such. But a few things have upset me in the last week or two, and writing about the thing that was top of my mind (usually such a blessed relief) seemed sure to reignite the argument that was one of the things chiefly upsetting me. So, on the whole, I decided that a period of diplomatic silence might be the best course.

There is unlikely to be a column next week since on Monday 17 August, when I would normally write it, Mrs Hann and I expect to be moving into a new house.

Whether there will ever again be a Tuesday column is open to question. It depends on whether the readers or management of The Journal show any signs of missing it, or whether they heave a collective sigh of relief at this respite from what one correspondent recently described as my "self-obsessed shit". It also depends on whether I have the energy to write it, given that the recent arrangements I have made to support my wife and son mean that I will be expected to attend a meeting at 9.30 every Monday morning, in precisely the time slot I have set aside each week since early 2006 for writing.

If I do not reappear, thank you for your kind attention. I shall leave this website as a crumbling memorial to a journalistic career that ambled along the runway for a bit but never really got off the ground.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Perhaps finally starting to grow up

Precisely 95 years ago today, Britain blundered into a world war that destroyed much of the youth and wealth of the nation to little obvious purpose.

Now we are engaged in an equally pointless conflict in Afghanistan that has already lasted almost twice as long as the Great War, while the Government seems to be devoting more energy to clawing back the compensation paid to wounded soldiers than to providing them with the helicopters and bomb-proof vehicles they need to avoid death or injury in the first place.

“Lions led by donkeys” once again. Little changes, except that individual flag-draped coffins now come home in numbers that can be counted on one’s fingers, rather than thousands of corpses being dumped in mass graves overseas. This, at least, is progress, as is the greater awareness of what is being done in our name promoted by such developments as television, the internet and, yes, social networking sites.

Which is why I was initially puzzled when I heard reports of the Archbishop of Westminster’s interview on Sunday, apparently suggesting that such sites are practically works of the devil. Closer examination revealed that he was reacting to the suicide of a 15-year-old girl, allegedly in response to hurtful remarks about her posted on Bebo.

This is undoubtedly a tragedy, though I have to confess that it moves me less than the fate of our soldiers, whether in 1914 or now. And I cannot help wondering whether 20,000 British troops would have been sent to their deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme if they had been able to keep in touch with home through Twitter and texts, rather than just through censored letters and postcards.

I also cannot help feeling that, sadly, some people have always been pushed over the edge through bullying. Little changes. Where the Archbishop has a point is that it is undoubtedly easier to be cruel by proxy, on a website or by text, than it is to do so face to face.

Like many shy people, I took to email with great enthusiasm and would much rather communicate with friends or clients by that means than by telephone, failing the ideal of sharing a bottle of wine with them over a good lunch. There is none of that textspeak nonsense for me, of course. It is all properly written, capitalised and punctuated, and checked before despatch.

Yet it remains impersonal and close to instantaneous. There is limited scope for second thoughts, and the recipient finds it hard to detect the sender’s mood or tone of voice. I still shudder when I think of the time I reduced a lady journalist to tears with a few pertinent observations on a piece she had written, which could have been delivered without offence over the phone. Luckily she remains a friend.

Here, too, comparatively little changes. My grandfather, an Alnwick garage proprietor, destroyed the family fortunes with an intemperate letter to the press about one of his business rivals, which led to a crippling libel action. Apparently he never forgave my aunt for typing and posting it in accordance with his instructions.

Like most things, social networking sites can be life enhancing if used in moderation and with due care and attention to the feelings of others. The crucial objections, so far as I am concerned, are that many users clearly find them as addictive as Class A drugs, and that they can be the most colossal waste of time. That is why I closed my Facebook account a couple of weeks ago. So far as I can tell, none of my “friends” has even noticed and I feel a strange sense of liberation. I would say that I finally feel as though I have grown up, but it is clearly much too early for that.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

The last cheque I will ever write

I am probably the last non-pensioner in Britain to carry a cheque book, despite the fast diminishing range of opportunities to use it.

Perhaps it is because I still remember how grown-up and liberated I felt when I wrote my first cheque in 1972. Until recently I also took pleasure in using cheques that were perfect museum pieces of fine copperplate calligraphy, from a bank that even styled itself “Messrs” (a title once universal in business, but now as defunct as that of Prince Bishop). Naturally, like everything else in this country that is old-fashioned, quirky and uplifting, these have now been modernised into bland conformity.

Because we remained in denial about the demands of parenthood until our son actually arrived, it dawned on us rather late in the day that we needed to replace my wife’s car, since it could accommodate neither a baby seat nor a buggy. We duly went out one Saturday morning, in the teeth of the worst recession in living memory, and clinched a deal in the first car showroom we could find that was not completely overrun with eager customers.

Most regrettably, this was in Cheshire, because that was the location of the car Mrs Hann wished to trade in. Yes, I know that the basic idea of cars is that they are mobile. But while she has very many excellent qualities, driving is definitely not my wife’s strongest suit. She likes to proceed along the crown of the road at a steady 40mph, attracting ridicule on motorways (where she has been known to reach 50mph downhill), anger on single carriageway A-roads, and a steady stream of speeding tickets in town. Couple this with the fact that she has no sense of direction, and you will appreciate why having her follow my car for 220 miles to Northumberland was not top of my list of fun ideas for summer 2009.

I have been buying vehicles from dealers in Newcastle and Alnwick for decades and, being no fan of expensive credit, have always simply gone in, signed some paperwork, handed over a cheque, shaken hands and driven off. The dealer in Cheshire, by contrast, was clearly very put out when I rejected his offer of motor finance and said that I would pay in cash. Then, remembering the sign in an Alnwick garage warning that payments of over £9,999.99 in notes and coins would fall foul of the money laundering regulations, I added that I meant I would pay by cheque. I got much the same reaction as if I had offered to settle the bill in cowrie shells, so I considerately asked if they would like me to hand it over in advance, so that it would clear before I collected the car. They affirmed that they would.

So far, so good. Any fule kno that cheques in this country take three days to clear, as they have always done. Well, not in the wonderful world of my motor dealer. No, there they take “ten working days”, as they informed me on Friday when I tried to collect the vehicle for which my cheque had cleared on Tuesday, according to my bank. Which belatedly added the important lesson that there is no limit to the amount I can pay by debit card so long as I have the requisite funds in my account.

Yet I now find myself in a ludicrous impasse where I cannot stop my cheque and pay by debit card because my bank insists that the garage already has my money; and the garage says that Mrs Hann cannot have her car because they have not been paid for it.

There are two important morals to this little story. Never make purchases by cheque, and always buy your cars in the North East, where the people in the trade are so much nicer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Celebrating a true North East Winner

This week's column will probably make considerably more sense if it is read AFTER the previous day's column by Tom Gutteridge, which should be accessible on unless it has been taken down as the result of threats of legal action from the restaurant he was so rude about.

Few things are better calculated to lift the heart on a Monday morning than the emergence of a new North East winner. Though in truth what grabbed my attention in yesterday’s paper was not so much the Government’s carefully stage-managed leak about the expansion at Nissan as the unveiling on this page of our very own Michael Winner, Tom Gutteridge.

First there was his remarkably acerbic restaurant review, closely mirroring Mr Winner’s weekly contributions to the Sunday Times. Part of this at least earned a smug nod of agreement since, not so long ago, when I was lamenting the demise of GNER’s excellent restaurant cars, Tom sent me a spirited defence of the maintained quality and superior convenience of the National Express at-seat service. I was glad to read that he now agrees with me.

Always a generous host, Tom was once kind enough to treat Mrs Hann and me to one of those South Indian meals about which he wrote so enthusiastically yesterday, and it was indeed delicious. However, it seems only fair to add a warning that this cuisine can have less than desirable after-effects for some of us. I struggle to think of a way of describing these without causing offence, but if the “save the planet” cash-in merchants had erected one of their turbines in our vicinity, the Hann family could probably have powered a reasonably sized village for the next 24 hours.

But all this pales into insignificance compared with the statement that Tom is soon to get married wearing a cream suit a size too small for him. Not so much Four Weddings and a Funeral, then, as a comedy remake of Saturday Night Fever with Mel Smith in the title role, in the regrettable absence of Benny Hill. Time to think again, surely. Let me put on record that I am more than willing to lend Tom the black morning coat I bought in John Blades’ retirement sale for my own wedding. This would at least have the virtues of being appropriate wear for an Englishman and just about fitting him.

Sadly I shall not be able to provide an eye-witness report on how the Gutteridge nuptials turn out, but I sincerely hope that they go rather better than the ones for which I wrote a speech on Saturday. My client reported that it had gone down “like a lead balloon … I ploughed through it in disapproving and stony silence.” He was at least kind enough to conclude that this had more to do with the nature of the guests than the quality of the writing, but it still added to my general depression about my prospects.

Over the years I have enjoyed some modest success as a public speaker, carefully confining myself to occasions when the audience was likely to be sympathetic, on the basis of shared experience, and so howling drunk that they would laugh at anything at all. On the strength of this I have occasionally written speeches for others, which have also reportedly gone down well.

The news that I am apparently losing my touch comes at the worst possible time, when I scrabbling around with increasing desperation for some way of supporting my family in the beautiful Whittingham Vale. If it goes on like this I may have to fall back on doing some actual work. Perhaps I should dust off my talk on “The meaning and purpose of financial public relations”, which at least had the crowd-pleasing quality of being almost incredibly short.

Meanwhile my Monday counterpart can simply look forward to the original Michael Winner dropping off his perch, and then picking up the cheesy insurance commercial contract to go with the outspoken restaurant reviews and the distinctive dress sense. Sometimes life just isn’t fair. I wonder whose shoes I could aim to fill?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.