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 http://blogfromthenorth.blogspot.com/ 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.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Not the toughest of choices

The most famous pronouncement of the celebrated modern architect Le Corbusier is that “a house is a machine for living in.” Although the man is actually celebrated only by other modern architects, I do sometimes wish that I could achieve a similar sense of detachment.

I admit that I am prone to falling in love at first sight. Nevertheless, one of the most memorable and intense instances of this phenomenon occurred shortly before Christmas 1987, when I first pulled up outside the then semi-derelict cottages which have been my home ever since. The first thing I took in were the views – of Simonside to the south and the Cheviots to the north – which I found breathtakingly lovely. I knew at once that I wanted to live there, and the property was very much a secondary consideration. Frankly I would have bought a corrugated iron shed in that location.

As it was, there were two listed stone cottages which I had knocked into a single house and subtly extended without, I hoped, detracting from their essential character. Because the prudent Victorians had filled the south-facing walls with windows and placed none at all looking north, I added a conservatory where I could sit and admire the green hills rolling towards Cheviot; still, to my mind, one of the very finest views in the country.

Since early February an estate agent has been industriously trying to sell this treasure on my behalf, attracting about as much interest as the Facebook page proclaiming Gordon Brown to be the greatest Prime Minister of all time.

On the rare occasions I have shown potential purchasers around myself, I have been struck by their total indifference to what I consider the best features of the place, and their eagerness to rip out listed fixtures and fittings. This reached its apogee on Saturday when I was proudly showing my conservatory to a man whose wife had previously toured the place, and he said “Oh, this. We thought we’d knock it down and just build a porch.”

I felt like a father asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage by a notorious wife-beater.

This followed some pretty rude remarks from my visitor about the half century’s worth of accumulated possessions that do, I admit, clutter the place up a bit. Perhaps, like cricket, house buying has become infected by the practice of “sledging”, intended to soften the vendor up for a ridiculously low offer. Clearly I must work on my witty repartee so that I have answers to it more readily to hand.

In my day the accepted form was always to find something polite to say about another person’s home, however hideous it might be. I remember that I even managed to praise something with a straight face when looking around a particularly ill-favoured Lincolnshire farmhouse, which its owners had remodelled in the style of the particularly ill-favoured Spanish hacienda that was clearly their dream home, and in which every room reeked powerfully of damp Rottweiler.

The idea of selling up was rooted in Mrs Hann’s desire to live rather closer to what she deems to be civilisation, either on Tyneside or in Cheshire, where she has a well-paid job awaiting her at the end of her maternity leave. Ironically, the only well-paid employment I have been offered for many years is in precisely the same place.

So there we have the choice. Prosperity in the North West, albeit saddled with a mortgage that will not be paid off until I am 80 or, more likely, long dead. Or relative poverty in the North East, in a blessedly paid-for place I love, with fresh spring water on tap and probably the best view in England from my conservatory. As choices go, I am beginning to feel that it is not the toughest I have ever faced.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Daring to be rude about the NHS

One of the most striking changes in this country during my lifetime has been the almost complete death of respect. Parents, teachers, clergy, police, politicians, royalty; all the traditional authority figures are now routinely abused.

So far as I can see, there are only two notable exceptions to the current British “disrespect” rule: the Muslim religion and the NHS. I think we all understand why few dare to be rude about the former; but why are politicians of all parties falling over themselves to praise the NHS and assure us that it will be exempt from the swingeing cutbacks which are inevitably heading our way, as a result of the decision to spend so much of our money saving bankers from themselves?

I am a child of the NHS, though my only significant direct exposure to it was having my tonsils removed in the old Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in Rye Hill when I was six. An experience so horrific that I was still having nightmares about it four decades later.

It then superintended the decline and deaths of my parents, with mixed results. The things that stick in the mind are my father being stuck in a private room in a spanking new hospital where no-one ever responded to his bell; to the extent that my mother once found him slumped onto a newspaper for so long that a perfect mirror image of the front page had transferred itself to his face.

Or there was the time I went to pick him up after a routine operation to be told that he was not allowed to walk to the car (though that was precisely how he would be getting around as soon as he reached home); no porter would push him in a wheelchair during their sacred dinner hour; and if I dared to push him myself the whole hospital would be closed by a strike.

Fast-forward 20-odd years to 2009, and how have things changed? Our hopes were scarcely raised when, shortly before our baby was due to be born, we found our chosen hospital covered in signs apologising for the restrictions imposed on visitors while attempts were made to control an outbreak of the norovirus.

Despite the site being festooned in banners boasting about a 45% increase in consultant numbers since it became an NHS foundation trust in 2004, my wife only ever saw one during a long series of what were supposed to be consultant appointments prior to the birth, and I never met one at all.

As for as the experience of childbirth itself, and the care of our son during a worrying few days of hypoglycaemia, we were hugely appreciative of the work of some brilliant, kind and dedicated professionals. However, this was counterbalanced by the experience of dirty and horrifically overheated wards, inedible food, surly support staff and a slow-grinding bureaucracy so monumentally frustrating that I was seriously fearing for my wife’s sanity by the time I had arranged her discharge. By which stage, we were able to take our son home with the added bonus of a hospital-acquired infection.

We agreed as we drove out of the hospital grounds that we would not be having any more children unless we could afford to do the whole thing privately, of which there is little sign; pregnancy being one of those conditions which private medical insurance curiously fails to cover.

In short, I remain unconvinced that the countless billions lavished on the NHS since 1997 have been wisely spent, or that they have made it anything like “the envy of the world” it was always cracked up to be. I for one would be prepared to respect the first politician who dared to initiate a genuinely open public debate about why this is, and what can be done about it.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.