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.