Tuesday 30 June 2009

Changing by accident, or design?

One of the most important lessons any father can teach his son is surely this: you can’t win.

No matter what you say, write or do, you are sure to upset someone. And even if you read 99 ecstatic reviews of something you have produced or performed, it will be the single negative comment that sticks in your mind forever.

So it was last week, with my admittedly soft-hearted (but not, I hoped, soft-headed) piece about the birth of my boy Charlie. Several people kindly wrote to tell me they had enjoyed it, but two said quite the opposite. One of my few remaining clients claimed that it had even made the agenda of a board meeting, at which “We all agreed you are going soft and missing so many political opportunities. What about the Speaker, hostages, Gordon Brown etc?”

That was easy enough to deal with. I have seen ample evidence that my views on the current Prime Minister have delighted some readers quite enough (though I am right, by the way) and I can think of nothing useful to say about the fate of the Iraq hostages (though I agree that this consideration has not prevented me from tackling a number of other issues over the years).

As for the Speaker, my opinion could be expressed in a single sentence: if you don’t want to wear the uniform, don’t apply for the job. Or perhaps two: in what way does it add to the dignity of the Commons to have its chair partially occupied by a midget dressed like the colour-blind second master of a slightly dodgy preparatory school, whose wife has distinctly suspect taste in ties as well as husbands?

Yet we have something in common, Mr Bercow and I, because the reason he is so detested on the Conservative benches is that he has changed: from Enoch Powellite “send them back” right-wing hard nut to gay-hugging liberal, either under the soothing influence of his relatively Amazonian partner or as part of a naked, long-term pitch for the prize he has now attained. And the burden of the complaints against me is that I have changed, too.

My second and more disturbing critic last week put it thus. “I don't know if you've noticed it but you've now done an almost complete role exchange with Wife in the North. She is basking in her success as a literary personality and writing about her speaking engagements and career; while you are writing sentimental columns about spouse and family.”

If we believe Mrs O’Reilly (and why not?) she started her instantaneously successful Wife blog to stop herself going stir crazy when faced with the horror of relocating to rural Northumberland with three young children and an absent husband. Though, given her professional background as a journalist and TV producer, it would have made equal sense for her to begin it as a carefully researched and brilliantly targeted literary money-spinner.

I began mine shortly afterwards with mildly satirical intent, to amuse myself and in the very faint hope of perhaps one day appealing to a passing publisher. There has been absolutely no luck on that front, but it did reel in something I had never budgeted for: a beautiful young wife, closely followed by a handsome son. I have not consciously changed any of my views, but it is the sort of thing calculated to adjust the perspective of even the most dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon.

I would be prepared to bet that “It’s funny how things turn out” was not a phrase on Mr Bercow’s lips as he was “dragged reluctantly” to the chair last week. I would not dream of speculating whether my fellow North blogger has changed, if at all, by accident or design. But I can claim for this Bloke a most conspicuous lack of careful forward planning.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

It's true: your own are different

I have long accepted the platitude that nothing is more tedious than other people banging on about their children, apart from meeting the little darlings in person.

I dreaded the piping of infant voices in trains, pubs and restaurants, and had no idea what to say when I encountered them in my friends’ homes. Almost the only green claim I could make for myself was that I had no offspring, and was most unlikely ever to do so.

Then my fiancée announced that she was pregnant, and exhaustive interrogation failed to identify anyone else who could be to blame. But still I drew firm lines in the sand; I was most certainly not going to be present at the birth, and envisaged the sort of domestic set-up in which the nursery lies behind a thoroughly soundproofed green baize door, and a well-scrubbed child is ushered into father’s study for ten minutes every evening, to be patted on the head and given a few words of warning or encouragement.

It was the birthing aspect of my plan that seemed to excite the most outrage, particularly among feminists of a certain age. I particularly enjoyed their reaction to my wife’s well-rehearsed reply: “To be fair, I wouldn’t be present at the birth either, if I didn’t have to be.” Male reactions were invariably one of two extremes: I would be missing the most wonderful experience of my life, or “You lucky [insert expletive of your own choice]! How on earth have you got away with that?”

So I drove my wife to the maternity unit on Thursday morning with a light heart and a good book to read while she was doing her stuff. Having been assured that an induced delivery tends to be a long process, I even nipped home at lunchtime to take the dog for a walk and have a bite to eat.

I returned in perfect time to witness the first serious contraction, after which my wife turned to her mother, her chosen birthing partner, and advised that she had better make the most of her coming grandchild as there most certainly wasn’t going to be another one. Shortly afterwards all hell broke loose and I made the critical mistake of accompanying the ladies into the delivery room to afford some initial encouragement.

I had not reckoned on my hand being seized in a vice-like grip that left me no hope of extricating myself, and made me wonder whether I would ever be able to type again. There was more than one Hann’s cries of pain echoing down the hospital corridor that afternoon.

Given that Mrs H is not noted either for doing things quickly, or for taking advice, I was amazed by how readily she accepted the midwife’s suggestion that screaming is a waste of good energy that could be applied to pushing. In less than an hour I was looking in amazement at a perfectly formed baby. And yes, reader, I cried, as all the textbooks told me I would.

The placenta looked like something dreamt up by the props department of a particularly low budget 1960s British horror film, and I would not mind at all if I never saw another one, but other than that it was a perfectly civilised and hugely uplifting experience. Though with hindsight, the most remarkable departure from plan was not my presence but Mrs Hann’s failure to consume the shed full of painkilling drugs she had promised herself, since it was all over so quickly that she forgot to ask for them.

Now I am spending a lot of time cradling a tiny son on my knee, something I never expected to write, and can provide authoritative confirmation of another of those sayings directed at sceptics about the joys of parenthood: it really is different with your own.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman

It has been a long time coming, but yesterday I finally woke up feeling smugly confident that I would offer be able to my readers some well-informed insights into one of the leading issues in the news.

After all, I reasoned, there surely cannot be another Journal columnist who is married to an Iranian; or, at any rate, the holder of an Iranian passport as well as a British one. Admittedly only last week my wife advised an upmarket hospital consultant, who kindly observed that she hardly sounded foreign at all, that this might have something to do with the fact that she was born in Manchester.

However, Mrs Hann did spend her formative years in Iran until that nice Saddam Hussein started trying to bomb her home every night, encouraged by his allies in the West, whereupon her father concluded that it might be a good idea to play the joker of his own British passport and clear off.

I therefore felt that I was on reasonably safe ground when I started the day by pulling out the notebook I always keep by the bed, in case of interesting dreams, and asked her for a few informed insights into whether or not President Ahmadinejad had rigged the recent Iranian election.

She blinked and looked at me balefully, before asking what I wanted for breakfast. I suppose I should have taken a hint from the fact that she is as likely as I am to call him President I’m-a-dinner-jacket that my wife is not an expert on the political scene of her erstwhile homeland.

Indeed, if pressed on the subject she even prefers to call her heritage Persian, preferring to be associated with cuddly cats rather than religious extremism and terrorism. Which is understandable, given that she has only been to a mosque once in her adult life, and is perfectly comfortable belting out traditional English hymns in a country parish church.

It is all rather a disappointment to me. I had high hopes that choosing a slightly exotic partner might help to counter any suspicion that my usually robustly right-wing views might make me a racist. But I tried advancing this theory to a friend who supports the BNP (a claim I always took for a joke until he showed me his party membership card) and he simply snorted in derision. “Don’t be ridiculous, man,” he said. “Don’t you realise they are more Aryan than we are?”

Indeed, it is rather a kick in the teeth for those who lean to discredited ideas of blond-haired, blue-eyed racial superiority that Iran actually means “land of the Aryans”.

I can only say from my own experience that Iranians are good-looking, kind, generous, humorous, understanding and really excellent cooks. As far removed as possible, in fact, from the chanting fanatics one usually sees on the news. I am also reliably informed that Iran is a very beautiful country and that visiting it is nothing like the trial I would imagine. Despite the best efforts of the Islamic Republic, I am assured that the rules on women’s dress are not enforced too onerously, and even obtaining alcohol is not a massive challenge.

I shall not be rushing to test these theories out, but I am certainly prepared to concede that marrying someone from a different background and culture has substantially broadened my mind, even if it has by no means eradicated all my ancient prejudices.

Yes, we can certainly learn from Iran. I just hope that the lesson is not too keenly absorbed in Downing Street, or about a year from now we may be rubbing our eyes at election results which show Labour celebrating a surprise landslide victory following divine intervention, with the Conservatives scoring only pitiful minority votes even in their ancient heartlands like Buckinghamshire and Surrey.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Why top salaries keep going up

If you were born in 1954, as I was, it is bad enough to start feeling your age. It is even worse when you begin to identify with people for whom D-Day is still a vivid memory.

But that is exactly how I felt at dinner last week, when I met a man with a plan for a baffling new career. His mission is to become a Global Remuneration Planner, news that I greeted with the same sort of sympathetic understanding I expect to display if my son ever announces “Daddy, I want to be an actuary.”

“Never heard of it,” I said. “What does it involve?” And, amazingly enough, it proves to be all about planning people’s salary and benefits. On a global basis.

It came as news to me that any such industry existed, but if you are similarly ignorant do go to your favourite search engine and type it in. You will be directed to page after page of consultant-speak waffle on the subject, using long words and technical jargon to conceal in expensive magic what seems, on the face of it, a perfectly simple job.

Most of it, as you would expect, is about Them: the top executives who can move so readily across national boundaries and must be retained at all costs. Imagine how silly we would feel now if Adam Applegarth or Fred Goodwin had been poached by the Chinese.

Funnily enough, globalisation seems to work in favour of Them, driving senior executive remuneration up to the highest levels. While for the rest of Us mugs, it pulls in precisely the opposite direction. How can you expect to be paid a decent wage on a production line here when there are people in India prepared to do the same work for £25 a week?

When I asked what appealed to my friend about his new calling, he gave me a very simple answer. A former colleague, of whose talents he had no particularly high opinion, had already become a global remuneration planner for a major multinational and was earning a basic salary of £450,000. Plus a bonus, last year, of 80%.

I wonder who planned that particular remuneration package? And what are the chances of anyone in that position doing anything to narrow the ever-widening and increasingly dangerous gap between Them and Us?

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant who has never become one of Them. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

A baroque tragedy played for laughs

To look on the bright side, the fact that our pilots are currently fighting to the death in the cockpit is at least taking our minds off the unprecedented economic turbulence through which we are flying.

And, really, there is no need to worry now we have Sir Alan, sorry M’Lord, Sugar stepping up to the plate as our “Enterprise Tsar”, whatever that is. Since he is a man chiefly famed for saying “You’re fired”, we can at least understand why a Prime Minister whose continued employment hangs by a gossamer thread might want to keep him on side.

However, I cannot help feeling that an opportunity has been missed to widen the appeal of the administration by bringing in that “really, really nice person” Susan Boyle to run Culture, or possibly Health. Simon Cowell would make a more convincing Chancellor than either Alistair Darling or Ed Balls, while Amanda Holden could excel as a new Secretary of State for Nice Frocks and Empathy.

Is that any more surreal than the actual events of the last week? We are miles past the point where “you could not make it up” and I eagerly await the inevitable denouement. Closely followed, I hope, by the book, the play and the opera about how it all went so spectacularly wrong.

Opera has always been my favourite performing art, and last Thursday I had the rare privilege of attending the very first British performance of a work that was rivetingly topical, being all about the plotting and scheming of the political elite. Only it was written as long ago as 1667 by Francesco Cavalli and focused on the bizarre, brief reign of the little-known Roman emperor Heliogabalus, a sex-obsessed, cross-dressing teenager who made Caligula look like a model ruler. (If only I hadn’t promised not to mention Gordon’s name in this column again, I could now insert a witty comparison with the respective records of Messrs Brown and Blair.)

Inevitably the director felt compelled to update the action, to make it more relevant to us thickos in the audience, so we had one Roman riding a motorbike, kitted out as one of the butcher members of the Village People, and a memorable scene in which the senate was completely filled with scantily clad bunny girls. Plus a dinner party ruined by a couple of birds of ill omen (stuffed owls on strings, the budget clearly not running to animatronics) and a final gladiatorial contest that culminated in a yellow Porsche being driven onto the stage, its bonnet laden with bloody corpses. Luckily the music was good.

It all took my mind off events in the real world for several hours, though turning on the car radio after the show and hearing James Purnell’s murderous letter of resignation made me realise how little has changed across the centuries. True, even if Labour’s women remain “window dressing”, as Caroline Flint has alleged, no-one has yet suggested kitting all Blair’s Babes out in bunny costumes, though one wonders whether this was only because of the difficulty of sourcing one small enough to fit Hazel Blears. But the owls of doom are circling over Downing Street, hooting mournfully, and I am sure I can hear a yellow sports car being revved up to carry off its baroque cargo of the politically deceased.

Meanwhile outside our frail craft the lightning flashes through the towering cumulonimbus clouds of impending economic doom, thick ice forms on the airspeed monitors, the autopilot disengages and, just as you reach screaming point, the bloke in the next seat turns out to be the BNP’s Nick Griffin, who smiles and says “Turned out nice again, hasn’t it?”

If this were a bad dream, we would all wake up now. I wonder what there is left for the Prime Minister to have nightmares about?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Speaking up for my son and heir

On my birthday tomorrow I shall be just five years short of receiving a bus pass, and only 30 days away from the scheduled birth of my first child. His inheritance is therefore much on my mind.

To say that I never expected to breed would be an understatement worthy to rank alongside “Michael Martin wasn’t the best-ever Speaker of the House of Commons”. My traditional attitude mirrored that of Philip Larkin’s famous poem with the unprintable first line, that went on to the doleful pronouncement that “Man hands on misery to man.”

Defenders of Mr Martin always asserted that his detractors were motivated by snobbery, but my own objections had much more to do with his catastrophic inadequacy. That word “Speaker” in the job title should surely have been a bit of a clue that the ideal candidate is not completely inarticulate. I doubt that Mr Martin was even qualified to be a “The.”

To me, the most objectionable thing about the man was the frequently repeated story of how his “dream” was to hang on to the next election so that his son could inherit his safe Labour seat in Glasgow. How eighteenth century is that?

I also keep reading that it is Lord Mandelson’s ambition to become Foreign Secretary so that he can follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Herbert Morrison. The Business Secretary, incidentally, made a little bit of history for me last week when he was introduced by a radio interviewer as “Peter Mandelson” and immediately insisted that he should be addressed as “Lord”. Every other peer I have met nudges people in the opposite direction. His attitude seems appropriately redolent of the last days of the Ancien Régime.

It should perhaps be no surprise that Conservative MP Nick Hurd is the fourth generation of his family to sit in the House of Commons; Tories were traditionally supposed to believe in that sort of thing. But Hilary Armstrong and Hilary Benn on the Labour benches have far more in common than their first name; they are both also the children of MPs. Labour turned to Gwyneth Dunwoody’s daughter Tamsin to defend her late mother’s seat in a by-election last year, while with splendid irony Mr Blair’s ejection of most of the hereditary members of the House of Lords was masterminded by Baroness Jay, the daughter of Jim Callaghan.

Consider the traditionally left-leaning callings such as acting and the media, and the same dynastic principles apply. Just look up Polly Toynbee on Wikipedia.

There is nothing wrong with this, in my view. I would like my son to have the same sort of cushy, desk-bound life that I have enjoyed, rather than doing something arduous, dangerous and badly paid.

What upsets me is hypocrisy: people who preach equality of opportunity while ensuring that their own offspring are fast-tracked up the ladder. These are the same individuals who fought so hard to ensure that genuine avenues of advancement for the talented children of the poor, like state grammar schools, were done away with; and who, when they are found with their hands in the till of the House of Commons, say that what we need is radical constitutional reform, starting with an elected House of Lords.

I say that at least you know where you are with a duke, and can reasonably hope that someone who owns half a county isn’t going to bother fiddling his travelling expenses. Now that the Hann genes surprisingly look set to last another generation, I am seriously thinking of devoting my declining years to a crusade for honest recognition that the hereditary principle has always been with us, and always will be. I shall seek no reward but a modest bauble to pass on to my son; Viscount Callaly has a pleasant ring to it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.