Tuesday, 26 May 2009

This is no time to blame the fans

I watched grown men crying at Villa Park on the Sunday evening news, and was surprised to find that I knew exactly how they felt.

This is partly because I have begun to take a mild interest in Newcastle United for the first time in my life, after recently waiving my principles to accept a kind invitation to St James’ Park. Luckily for me I witnessed the thrilling victory against Middlesbrough, and it would take a much stonier heart than mine not to share some of the passion of that amazing crowd.

I have also come to know a thing or two about humiliation and inadequate leadership during 55 years as an often disappointed but still dedicated fan of the United Kingdom.

A typing error in a Google search recently transported me back to 1959, and the Hansard record of a House of Commons debate about the constitution of Malta. It made compelling reading, in a way that Parliamentary speeches no longer do. Politicians of real stature and genuine principles (the terminally ill Nye Bevan was the leading voice of the Labour opposition) were arguing about the policy of what they still called, with a straight face, “the imperial Government”. Both sides clearly shared the conviction that what they said and did actually mattered.

Fifty years on, we have in their place a collection of pygmies who seem chiefly interested in enhancing their personal comfort, and whose debates are ignored because they have so little power to affect anything at all. This is chiefly down to Britain’s transformation from world power into mere province, with most important decisions taken for us in Brussels.

Most of us failed to spot it at the time, but our entry to the then Common Market in 1973 really was, exactly as Hugh Gaitskell had predicted, “the end of Britain as an independent European state … the end of a thousand years of history.”

The good thing about being a Toon supporter at this sorry juncture is knowing that your team can and surely will rise again to the Premiership. The bad thing is that you have little power to influence when and how it will happen; Mike Ashley may have a pretty lousy hand, but he definitely holds the cards.

Thinking nationally, it is hard to resist the conclusion that our relegation from the top flight is permanent; but our many good qualities surely mean that we deserve much better than our present status as a near bankrupt international laughing stock.

Again, the problem is how to effect the necessary change. Virtually the whole of our political team urgently needs replacing, but emphatically not by turning the Commons into a sort of Big Brother house full of past-their-use-by TV presenters and other minor celebrities. What we need are more independently minded, usefully experienced and ideally largely self-financing men and women of principle with a sense of public duty. The sort of people who used to sit in the House of Lords until it was “modernised” by that nice Mr Blair.

Boycotting the elections to the so-called European Parliament next week will do precisely nothing to shame those looking to board a far richer and even less useful gravy train than the one to Westminster. Vote for the people who look least likely to mug us, and give us back some real say in our own affairs.

If the result is a surge in support for the lunatic fringe, grown men may weep about another tragic own goal, and curse the electorate for their stupidity. But in politics as in football, you cannot blame the fans. The real responsibility will lie with the mainstream parties who colluded for so long to conceal the true nature of the European project, and now urgently need to realign their personnel and policies with the wishes of the people.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Common sense always beats compliance

The current tide of public opinion suggests that it would be good for both Parliament and the British penal system if we gave more MPs some direct experience of prison.

Up to now, in my lifetime, nearly all of them have got away with it. Notable exceptions include John Stonehouse, the former Labour Postmaster-General who blazed a trail for Reggie Perrin and the Hartlepool canoeist by faking his own death, but whose luck ran out when he was mistaken for Lord Lucan by the Australian police.

Then there was Jonathan Aitken, the sometime Conservative cabinet minister who famously promised to wield “the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play” in a libel action against The Guardian and Granada TV, and landed himself an 18-month jail sentence for perjury.

Ironically, it was Mr Aitken who made one of the most intelligent comments I have heard on the apparently never-ending Parliamentary expenses scandal, when he appeared on Radio 4 to assert that our fundamental error as a society has been to replace conscience with compliance.

Hence the sorry queue of about-to-be-ex-MPs appearing in the media to bleat that they have done nothing wrong, as it was “all in accordance with the rules”. Rather than giving a moment’s thought to whether what they were doing was bad and wrong, or would appear so to almost any reasonable person.

The same process of detachment from common sense and basic morality has afflicted the world of business. After some scandals in the 1980s (which appear mild enough, with the benefit of hindsight) a whole new industry was born called “corporate governance”. As a result, company annual reports have swelled towards the thickness and readability of telephone directories as businesses strive to demonstrate their compliance with a web of ever-more complex rules.

And has all that resulted in a moderation of directors’ expectations for pay, benefits and bonuses, or in capitalism being better run? Just inspect the smoking wreckage of what was once our banking sector and the question answers itself.

It is the same in schools, hospitals and every other walk of life. I had dinner last week with a hugely experienced headmaster who was about to waste two days on a course to prove that he knew how to spot any pervert minded to apply for a job in his school. My wife struggles to ask questions about her advanced pregnancy as every meeting with midwives and doctors is devoted to the ticking of myriad boxes to demonstrate that they have issued her with all the currently recommended warnings.

As I tried to imply last week, I do not actually blame our greedy MPs too much. Any organisation daft enough to create a system allowing expenses of up to £24,000 a year is going to receive an awful lot of claims for £23,999. While they have had so much practice in lying to the rest of us, most notably about the aims and consequences of our European Union membership, that it must be very hard indeed for them to kick the habit.

Still, there will be time for therapy and quiet reflection behind bars. In fact, the only real objection I can see to pursuing some criminal prosecutions is my doubt as to whether we have the resources to cope with the rioting that would doubtless break out if our existing prison population thought that the tone of their establishments was about to be lowered by a major influx of less than honourable members.

Meanwhile, on the outside, it is to be hoped that the disgraced of all parties will be replaced by independently-minded individuals who can see that we need much thinner rule books, many fewer box tickers and much greater reliance on those fine old mainstays of common sense, honesty and a clear conscience.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Time to pose the Wooler question

Five years ago Wooler basked briefly in the national media spotlight after its Barclays cash machine began paying out double the amount requested. A midnight queue snaked down the high street, with one lady allegedly arriving by taxi, still in her nightdress and curlers.

This was reported as an amusing “and finally” story, replacing the usual skateboarding duck, and the participants were compared with the loveable rogues in Whisky Galore. I heard no suggestion that it actually represented fraud or terminal degeneracy. Even more remarkably, those involved apparently got away with it, since a Barclays spokesman announced that they could not be absolutely sure who had benefited, and their security company was to blame for putting the wrong notes in the machine.

I asked myself at the time whether I would have taken advantage of this glitch, if anyone had let me into the secret, and concluded that I would not. Primarily because I would have been too lazy and / or drunk to make the 28-mile round trip, but also because of a strong sense that it was bad and wrong. In addition, my chronically pessimistic outlook on life would have engendered a near certainty of being caught, having to pay the money back and perhaps garnering some unwelcome personal publicity along the way.

Unfortunately no such moral or practical considerations appear to have given most of our Members of Parliament pause before they formed an orderly queue in front of the defective machinery dishing out free money in their Fees Office. They forgot Hann’s First Rule of Life, which is to ask yourself the question “What could possibly go wrong?” before embarking on any course of action.

In this case, that would have involved thinking about how it would look to your constituents and the wider world if they ever found out that you had claimed for a load of ludicrous domestic and personal expenditure that clearly had nothing at all to do with the perfectly legitimate provision of a place to kip if you live too far from Westminster to commute there on a daily basis. And, more seriously, that you kept changing your mind about what constituted your second home with the clear objective of maximising your takings. Plus, infuriatingly, evading or reclaiming the taxes you impose on the rest of us, from capital gains to council tax and stamp duty.

Like many of you, I suspect, I am now bored with the whole saga, though sneakily looking forward to hearing about the Liberal Democrats and nationalists; and hoping that some mole is burrowing into the accounts department of The Daily Telegraph with a view to publishing all the expenses receipts of its journalists, which I dare say would demonstrate creativity on a par with the MPs’.

It would be nice to be able to say that this whole mess is the result of the professionalization of politics, and that it would not have happened in the days when men of substance sat in the House. Yet we find people who have made or married a great deal of money (such as Francis Maude for the Tories and Shaun Woodward for Labour) on the list of claimants along with the lifelong political geeks.

Greed and stupidity when faced with the lure of free money may be all but universal, but they are not exactly helpful to those of us who want the House of Commons to be stronger, not weaker: to reclaim much of the power it has ceded to Brussels, and to hold the executive to account. Perhaps the answer is an early General Election in which all candidates would be subject to the following lie detector test: “What would you have done if you had been passing through Wooler in April 2004, and heard the news about the dodgy cash machine?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Cheer up, mate - oh dear, it's happened

If scientists ever bring us a time travel machine, they will surely leave the 1970s off the destination dial. Who would ever want to go back there?

In my memory, over-mighty trade unions, inept government, high taxation and advancing world communism combined with terrible fashion and hairstyles to make it the decade from hell. Made even worse by personal poverty and the sense that an era of unprecedented sexual liberation was passing me by.

It was all brought flooding back by spending the bank holiday weekend in Cambridge, where I wasted most of the 1970s, and by the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory. Despite her cringe-making debut, quoting a prayer wrongly attributed to St Francis of Assisi, that seemed a ray of light after the years of strikes, inflation and general misery.

Today we are in a far bigger hole, where even the option of calling in the International Monetary Fund may be closed to us. I envisage a gloomy official shaking his head, like a typical British builder, saying “Wouldn’t touch it, mate. What cowboy done this?” While Gordon does his cheesy YouTube grin and points at Alistair Darling, like the bear in the hunter’s gun sight in my favourite Gary Larson cartoon.

Remembering the unreconstructed attitudes of the time, it surely took a mood of true national desperation to put a woman into No 10. Opting for a smooth Old Etonian PR man next year seems decidedly tame by comparison. Yet despite our truly appalling financial plight, morale now seems perversely higher than it was after the Winter of Discontent. Those of us who are still in work are far richer than we were then, mortgages are cheaper than ever, and even the tax rises are deferred. Hotels and restaurants still seem busy, and retail sales nowhere near as bad as the pessimists predicted.

The fact that every big media scare, of which swine flu is but the latest, turns out to be massively overblown, must surely be encouraging a mood of “Cheer up, it may never happen.” Perhaps we will look back and realise that it had but we simply failed to notice, like cartoon characters continuing to run long after they had crossed the edge of the cliff.

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant who really enjoyed the 1980s.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Clear vision of a nearly blind man

This time last week (assuming that you read The Journal at breakfast) I was on my way to London for the memorial service of a man I hardly knew.

Patrick Pierre Max Wiener was what would now be called vertically challenged, and almost perfectly spherical. His curly hair was so blond that many took him for an albino, while at close quarters his breath smelt powerfully of garlic and Turkish cigarettes. And you always did get close if you wanted to conduct a conversation with him, because the most striking feature of the man was that he was practically blind.

I only discovered the precise nature of Patrick’s condition from his son’s eulogy last week. It was a form of exceptionally severe myopia combined with an acute sensitivity of the eyes to light. This meant that he peered at the world from behind a very thick pair of tinted glasses, and could read documents only when they were held about two inches from his face, or inspected through a large magnifying glass.

In many ways he resembled Mr Magoo, the chronically nearsighted cartoon character who was a popular figure of fun in my childhood, but has now been banished by the forces of political correctness.

His handicap naturally prevented Patrick from driving a car. But it also meant that, whenever he hailed a bus, he had not the slightest clue where it was going until it had stopped and he had spoken to the conductor or driver. This sort of behaviour attracted a certain amount of unsympathetic abuse, to which he was splendidly impervious. Indeed at all times he exuded total confidence that he was doing, saying and wearing the right thing, underpinned by an encyclopaedic if quirky knowledge of correct etiquette.

My own slight acquaintance with Patrick began 30 years ago when I was pretending that I wanted to be a stockbroker, and he was my employer. Although occasionally critical (“Hann, you are not intelligent enough to be an atheist!” was one of his more memorable pronouncements) he was encouraging, and he gave me the largest percentage pay rise I had ever received. It was so generous, in fact, that I wondered whether he had made a terrible mistake as he squinted at the papers in front of him. But, if so, it was honoured and it enabled me to buy my first flat. It was gratitude for this that led me to make the long journey to pay my respects.

Our careers diverged in 1983 and I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we met after that. Yet each time our paths crossed, I was struck by the fact that a man who could barely see had such a remarkable memory for faces. That was all part of what the priest who gave the homily described as Patrick’s “tremendous natural courtesy”.

The service underlined my huge ignorance of the man. I was dimly aware that he was a Roman Catholic, but not that he was so devout that he attended Mass almost every day. Nor did I have the slightest knowledge of his consuming passion for horse racing. Could he have chosen a less appropriate hobby than trying to watch animals thundering at high speed several hundred yards away?

Yet it fitted perfectly with his choice of a career that required close attention to figures. As the priest said, Patrick’s greatest contribution was in teaching us all to think positively. Even the most severe handicaps can be overcome: a lesson I thought worth sharing more widely.

He also said that Patrick was “an intensely good man” who will have “gone straight to heaven” and be waiting for us there. Well, we can hope; and there could surely be no more fitting tribute than to place a bet on it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Friday, 1 May 2009

A tale of the unexpected

Do something unexpected. It was never advice that appealed to me, as a lifelong bachelor and dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon. Yet in February I astonished my friends by marrying a beautiful woman who is young enough to be my daughter (though luckily she isn’t). Even more remarkably, I find myself looking forward to the birth of my first child in July, a month after my 55th birthday.

Like many people, I had taken stock of my life as I approached my half century. By then I had worked in the City for 25 years, mainly as a PR consultant to companies in various sorts of difficulty (if they weren’t when they appointed me, they soon were). Thanks to my brilliant insight that the London property market was hugely overvalued by the mid-1980s, I commuted every week between a poky rented flat in Pimlico and a spacious but inexpensive house in Northumberland. I was overweight, over-stressed and taking a daily cocktail of drugs for hypertension, depression and thrush (the last, admittedly, only because of a ludicrous mix-up at the pharmacy).

Sod it, I decided; I’m going to pack this in and spend more time with my Border terrier, walking the hills and finally writing that Big Novel. On the plus side, I lost weight, relaxed and weaned myself off the pills; on the minus, I became relatively poor. Not a word of the Big Novel got written, but the local paper kindly gave me a weekly column and I set up a couple of websites to keep my writing hand in, notably a daily blog about my sad decline called Bloke in the North.

Just before April Fool’s Day last year I received an email in response to a spoof advertisement on www.keithhann.com (a site created in 2004 for the sole purpose of discouraging potential PR clients, and thus one of my few undisputed successes). This contained the unlikely claim that the sender had “a friend” who was interested in applying for the vacant position of my wife, girlfriend or carer.

Yeah right, I thought. Particularly when the writer seriously overplayed her hand by claiming that her friend was a six foot tall, 35-year-old, blonde, buxom nanny. The only thing that prevented me from pressing the “delete” button on this obvious wind-up was the fact that the sender claimed to work for a company that had once been a client of mine. So I forwarded the email to her Chief Executive, who confirmed that she really did exist.

There ensued a bizarre correspondence about the alleged friend – who was, as it turned out, entirely genuine. But I fell in love with my initial correspondent’s way with words, which suggested that she possessed a sense of humour almost as peculiar as my own. Something made all the odder by the fact that she had a name that read like a nasty accident on a Scrabble board, and had spent the first ten years of her life in Iran. How could someone from such a different background and culture have acquired the mindset of a northern club comedian and a repertoire of old jokes that would put even the late Bob Monkhouse to shame?

I simply had to see her to find out, even though we lived 222 miles apart. Luckily for me she had started reading Bloke in the North, and found it amusing enough to think that it might be worth meeting me, even at the risk of upsetting her friend. She later admitted that her reaction on walking into the restaurant for our first date was “Oh God, he looks like someone’s dad!” But she bravely went through with dinner, and by the end of it the first of many subsequent dates had already been arranged. Our shared sense of the ludicrous swept all before it.

Months later, she asked what had first attracted me to her and I explained that it was simply that her first email had been so very funny. “But didn’t you notice?” she said. “I just copied all your own lines off your website and repeated them back to you.”

The important lessons to be learned from this strange little story are therefore as follows. Never laugh at your own jokes. Never dismiss blogging as a complete waste of time. Never assume that you are too old to need contraception. And never dismiss the possibility that even something as completely unexpected as true happiness might be lurking just around the next corner.

Now all I need to do is sell my house, relocate to Cheshire and go back to work until the age of 80 to support my new family. All in the teeth of the worst recession for a century. Still, compared with finding a gorgeous, loving and hilarious wife like Maral that looks like a piece of (wedding) cake.

Originally published in SAGA Magazine.