Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The case for the spontaneous wedding

This time next week I shall be a married man, for the first time in my fairly long life. Either that or a disgraced bachelor on the run, looking over his shoulder while desperately trying to grow a beard.

The last three months have taught me much. Not least about the crazy pressures which lead many people to spend such a bizarrely long time organising their weddings. I gather that two years is the norm. At every turn we have had people tutting at us for doing things at short notice. Though pregnancy, obesity and doomed attempts to diet all seem to be powerful arguments against arranging the wedding outfits months in advance, to take but one example.

I consulted an authoritative book of etiquette which pronounced that invitations should be sent out six weeks before the ceremony. Which would have been perfect, if the hotel where we are holding the reception had not insisted on being told final numbers, and receiving payment in full, a month in advance. Even before then, my fiancée was able to counter all my attempts at backsliding by pointing out that we were committed to paying for the reception whether it actually took place or not.

We compromised by sending the invitations out seven weeks ahead, with a hectoring covering letter. It seemed to do the trick.

The expense is undeniably damnable. I read recently that the average British wedding now costs over £21,000. This seems an implausibly high figure to me, given the vast numbers of the underclass who must get spliced for nothing more than the price of a few pints, a tray of jumbo sausage rolls and a taxi home from A&E after the traditional punch-up, but our own costs were certainly alarming. My darling wife-to-be helpfully pointed out that we could have saved a fortune by just booking a party and then surprising the hotel when she turned up in a wedding dress, but unfortunately she did not have that insight until after I had signed the documentation.

Only last week I heard the sad story of a couple who, after the traditional 18 months of planning, had recently sent out invitations to their dream wedding in July. Days later they received a letter from the receivers of their chosen fairytale venue, regretting that they would be unable to honour the booking. This sort of thing can only increase as the Great Depression strengthens its grip on the country.

So let me make the case for spontaneity. For reasons doubtless not unrelated to the above-mentioned costs, marriages in the UK have slumped to the lowest levels ever recorded. But wedlock is a good thing for children, and for society as a whole. So if you are thinking about getting hitched, just do it. You will be amazed by how quickly you can get it organised if you put your mind to it. And you will probably also be pleasantly surprised by the bargains you can screw out of increasingly desperate couturiers and hoteliers, though you might want to think about having your honeymoon in Scarborough (my own first choice, though sadly not my bride’s) to avoid the impact of our plummeting currency.

In case you are wondering why this column is still here, spontaneity is also our watchword in planning our life together. It would be convenient for many reasons to live close to my wife’s job, family and friends in Cheshire. But we have a perfectly viable Plan B to live in Northumberland while she is on maternity leave. The response to recent efforts to publicise my house suggests that this is where we are most likely to end up.

So if you are longing for me to disappear, you know what you have to do. Surely it has got to be a bargain?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Will the turkeys vote for Christmas?

Civilisation is under grave threat on all fronts, and one of the greatest treasures in the North East now stands right in the firing line.

George Orwell is proving eerily prescient about most things, just 25 years out in his timing. Today you need to be very complacent indeed not to spot that a surveillance state is tightening its grip on almost every aspect of our lives, and doing its utmost to extinguish any institution likely to encourage independent thought.

Everywhere public libraries are closing, or following the example of many schools in lobbing their outmoded books into skips to make more room for up-to-the-minute, interactive, multi-media experiences. Encouraged right from the top by “Culture” Secretary Andy Burnham, who told the Public Library Authorities conference last October that "Libraries should be a place for families and joy and chatter”, offering coffee and snacks, videos and computer games, and even welcoming the already ubiquitous idiot talking on a mobile phone.

Ironically, the threatened treasure to which I alluded at the outset was at least 40 years ahead of its time. Because when I joined Newcastle’s Lit & Phil as a schoolboy in 1969, it was already the world’s most welcoming library, offering the opportunity to enjoy a lively chat over a cup of tea and a chocolate Dundee biscuit in its Reading Room, and even to smoke a soothing cigarette.

But that did not detract in any way from its seriousness as a learned institution. The Lit & Phil is the largest independent library in the country outside London, and poring through its superb collection did more to get me though my A-levels and university exams than anything else. I owe it a truly great debt.

Despite the competing attractions of cyberspace, the Lit & Phil has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, greatly increasing its membership and benefiting from some generous legacies. So it is rather surprising that some now think its days as an independent and self-governing institution are over. Using the self-same language of inevitability and cost savings used to promote every baleful idea from unitary councils to European union, proposals are being brought forward to amalgamate it with the neighbouring Mining Institute to create a new North East institution. This will be more in tune with the Government’s “culture” agenda, doubtless focusing on “social inclusion”, “diversity” and “economic regeneration”.

Making the Lit & Phil hip to the groove, daddy-o, will apparently increase its appeal to both public sector and private funding bodies which can churn out lots of lovely money for, no doubt, more professional fund-raisers and challenging creative projects. Not, one suspects, to spend on more books or conserving the many thousands the Lit & Phil has already got.

Ours is an age of oligarchy, where essentially self-appointed cliques are gaining control of all the levers of power, at the expense of genuine representative democracy.

People have a tiresome habit of rebelling against this sort of thing if they are consulted, so the oligarchs like to make sure that no-one gets a chance to vote on their proposals, or simply ignore “wrong” results. Witness the regional assembly vote here, and the European constitution referendums elsewhere.

No doubt infuriatingly for the proponents of change, all the members of the Lit & Phil will soon have a chance to take part in a postal ballot on its future. Far be it from me to offer advice, but if they approve the merger, I think I can safely predict that it will be the last chance they get to vote on anything at all.

It looks to me as though the apparatchiks of the North East “culture” industry see a fat Christmas coming, and the members of the Lit & Phil have been cast in the role of turkeys. Which way will they vote?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Grab a lifeline while you still can

As the decks begin to tilt, it behoves us all to throw lifelines to those already struggling in the water.

So I am naturally delighted, as a taxpayer, to be able to contribute to this year’s bonuses for those towards the top of the Royal Bank of Scotland. God forbid that Tristram and Jemima should have to forego yet another new kitchen, or their fourth exotic holiday of 2009.

But I have not stopped there. Angered beyond reason by the BBC’s refusal to broadcast an appeal for the nation’s endangered estate agents, I have commissioned one to try to sell my house.

Luckily I do not need to pervert this column into an advertisement as I have already paid for one in Saturday’s homemaker (page 46, if it is still lying around).

I had my first viewing on Thursday. A pleasant young man turned up and asked why I wanted to leave such an evident earthly paradise, with its stunning views in all directions, and I explained that my pregnant fiancée did not fancy trying to bring up a baby quite so far from a supplier of fashionable shoes. Shortly afterwards he was joined by his wife, holding a six-week-old infant in a carrycot. More work is needed on my sales pitch, I think. Heaven knows how I ever managed to earn a crust in PR.

Meanwhile I have great news for the talent scouts from Northumberland’s funny farms, who have been keeping an eye on me for some time: my house has started talking to me. I first noticed it as I was drifting off to sleep the other night, and assumed that I had left a radio playing softly somewhere downstairs. I tried to ignore it, but the noise woke me in the early hours and I went all round the house to investigate where it was coming from. I finally tracked it down to the bedroom chimney, which has continued its nightly murmuring ever since.

Meanwhile various things that have worked perfectly for 20 years have suddenly developed mysterious malfunctions, culminating on Saturday in my treasured grandfather clock ceasing to work with an alarming crash of weights and splintering of wood. An old Val Doonican song about his deceased grandfather sprang ineluctably to mind.

I am not mad enough yet to be able to detect what the house is saying, but I think I can guess after reading an extract from the new book by arch-doomster earth scientist James Lovelock. Forget about cutting back on air travel and building wind turbines; the real problem is that there are simply far too many people and animals for the planet to support. That is why it is about to save itself by self-regulating most of us out of existence by becoming unbearably hot. The bush fires in Australia are but a foretaste of what awaits most of humanity.

The good news is that, in addition to the currently frozen wastes of Canada and Siberia, the places most likely to remain habitable are “lifeboat islands” like New Zealand and Great Britain. It will be a materially poor life, to be sure, and we will have to contend with countless millions of refugees from Europe, Asia and Africa seeking to climb aboard.

But Lovelock’s message is clear: just about the best place you can be is living on a hilltop in Northumberland with enough land to grow your own food, while childlessness is the only responsible way forward. If only I had remembered I was doing everything right before I fell for the siren voice of the woman of my dreams.

Oh well, I am going under now. There is no escape. But I can offer a way out for one lucky and farsighted punter. Buy my house. Because, you see, it’s not just a lifestyle choice; it’s a veritable lifeline.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

An unplanned romp in the snow

This column is the unexpected result of news management. It is also like one of those scenes from the TV news of children playing in the snow, though obviously a lot less fun.

To explain, I have time to write this only because I cancelled a meticulously planned trans-Pennine journey after seeing those red warning triangles plastered all over the weather forecast for Tuesday, predicting falls of another 40cm of snow. This turned out to have been more like a spot of rain.

Which counts as brilliant PR: the sort of outcome for which the Met Office has been striving ever since Michael Fish laughed off the idea of a hurricane in 1987. Now they forecast disaster with monotonous regularity, so that we can all be hugely relieved when it does not turn up.

One of the first things I learned on entering financial PR 25 years ago was that companies should never drop a bombshell of bad news. The answer was to soften the blow by leaking something truly appalling, so that the market would breathe a sigh of relief when the real announcement came through. Years of ever-tighter regulation are supposed to have stamped out this sort of malpractice. Yet how often do you hear an early morning news story about massive losses and redundancies followed by the surprising punch line that the share price of the company concerned has gone up?

The other stock advice was that if you simply had to have a bad news announcement, make it a big one. Think of everything that could go wrong and chuck it in now, because investors hate nothing more than recurrent profit warnings (the rule of thumb for CEOs being “three strikes and you’re out”).

Ever since the advent of New Labour the British Government has been obsessed with PR: burying bad news or, if that is impossible, leaking something so toe-curlingly awful that the real story will play reasonably well. Every time I read another gloomy piece about the horrors of the deepening recession, I cling to the slender hope that it is all part of the game, and that the reality will turn out to be no worse than a snowball on the neck during an impromptu day out of the classroom.

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant and late convert to optimism. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Confidence is the last trick we need

The Prime Minister has asserted that all Britain needs to conquer recession is confidence in itself. I beg to differ. It was precisely an excess of misplaced confidence that landed us in this mess in the first place.

What else motivated Sir Fred Goodwin to make the final acquisition that brought the Royal Bank of Scotland to its knees, or Chancellor Brown to predict in his last budget that 2009 would be another year of stable growth for the British economy, and that there would be no return to the bad old days of boom and bust?

Who would have expected the authors of so much of our economic misfortune to come from Scotland, a land long noted for its prudence and caution, particularly when it comes to opening a wallet or purse?

Well, I would, as it happens, but only through naked prejudice. And, to be fair, excessive confidence is most commonly associated with the products of our great, mainly English, public schools. As a grammar school boy from the North East competing in Cambridge and the City, I was constantly in awe of the huge, unjustified faith in their own abilities evinced by those whose parents had paid heavily to have them subjected to a decade of sexual abuse and casual violence in boarding schools.

(I am sure it is not like that now, I had better add before angry letters start coming in, but for the historic validity of my summary, I refer you to the memoirs of almost any product of the public school system born before about 1960.)

Ally such overweening confidence with charm, and the consequences can be fatal. Look no further than Anthony Blair, who timed his arrival and departure from the national political scene with such dazzling brilliance, and who must hope that his years in office will be fondly remembered as a new Macmillan era of “Never had it so good”, endowed with a Ready Brek glow as the years of lost content and ever-increasing prosperity.

Clearly Mr Brown has been doing his homework on the 1930s, and is searching for a catchy update of Franklin Roosevelt’s great line about having nothing to fear but fear itself. But, as is so often the case, the memorability of the words obscures the fact that they were tosh. When they were uttered at his inauguration in March 1933, there were many more tangible things to fear in the world, not least the toothbrush-moustached maniac who had become Chancellor of Germany two months earlier.

Could we be headed for a repeat dose of 1930s racist demagoguery, protectionism and global conflict? There are some worrying signs, not least the recent protests made inevitable by Mr Brown spouting that populist line about “British jobs for British workers” while conveniently ignoring the fact that many of them would be “British” only in the sense of living here after being imported from Italy, Poland and other points east.

The proper counter to all this is not more confidence but realism. A bit of humility from those in charge would not come amiss, either, particularly in conceding that this country is likely to be worse affected by the recession than any other partly because of our own Government’s misjudgements and lax regulation, and not simply because we are the innocent victims of global events beyond our control.

But be realistic. It is certainly not the end of the world if we find ourselves temporarily out of work, unable to indulge in binge drinking, buy a new high definition television or take the kids to Disneyworld. Indeed, judging by the obesity statistics, even having less food on the table should positively do us good.

Yes, we will get through this crisis, just as Formerly Gloomy Gordon says. And, to look on the bright side, if there is any justice in this world, he won’t.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.