Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Two nobodies and a local somebody

Few things are more frustrating than sitting through a long joke, novel, play or newspaper column, eagerly expecting a satisfying denouement, only to have it lamely fizzle out.

My wife was rather aggrieved recently after we invested five hours watching ITV’s drama serial Collision, only to discover that the catastrophe was caused simply by a wasp.

Yet the selection of an insect to be the first President of Europe would have been a positively enthralling result compared with the one we got last week, the haiku-writing Belgian Herman Van Rompuy. Risking great confusion in all the capitals of the world apart from Brussels, given that the President of China’s name is also pronounced “Who?”

The former French head of state Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the prime mover of the EU Constitution, hoped that Europe’s first President would be a figure like George Washington (or, as he was just too modest to say, Valery Giscard d’Estaing). Instead we have got a George with all the charisma of the one who was married to Mildred in the 1970s sitcom.

As for the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, I do not count myself a political obsessive, but I do read at least two quality newspapers and listen to several news broadcasts every day, and I had never heard of her. Knowledgeable commentators snigger that our Prime Minister has been conned by those wily Continentals Merkel and Sarkozy into accepting the external affairs job for this nonentity so that they can insert their own nominee into the EU’s key economic role, and proceed with their mission of destroying London as the world’s leading financial centre.

This is highly credible, given that Mr Magoo could probably outmanoeuvre Gordon Brown on his recent form, though after the recent triumphs of our banking industry I am not sure I care too much about the City’s fate. Even so, I prefer the alternative theory that Baroness Ashton of Upholland owed her elevation to fanatical support from the Dutch, who mistook her title for a declaration of intent.

But can this really be the conclusion of the decade-long saga of the European Constitution, for which ways had to be found to defy the wishes of the voters of France, the Netherlands and Ireland? Can it really have been so vitally in the interests of Britain and Europe to install these two nobodies in grandly titled and well-remunerated positions that Labour had no alternative but to renege on its manifesto commitment to a referendum?

A little hard to believe, is it not? Leading one inexorably to the conclusion that the political leaders of Europe must have some other motive that we are deemed too stupid to be told about.

Last week I attended a fascinating and highly entertaining talk in Newcastle by another leader few people have heard of, His Most Eminent Highness the Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ (a title even Lord Mandelson might envy).

Fra’ Matthew Festing, as he is also known, is a most distinguished Northumbrian elected by his fellow knights to head this enormous global charity dedicated to giving practical help to the needy: running hospitals and homes for the elderly, and assisting refugees and the victims of natural disasters across five continents.

The Order maintains diplomatic relations with 104 states that acknowledge its sovereignty. It is not recognised by Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom, though curiously Her Majesty the Queen of Canada has no such scruples.

My modest proposal is that we should recognise Fra’ Matthew’s Order immediately, and tell President Van Rompuy to take a running jump. After all, which of them is the greater force for good in this world, and has our best interests closer to his heart?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Reflections from the life laundry

You know how it is when you start tidying up. As soon as you begin delving into cupboards and clearing shelves, you create a mess at least 100 times worse than the one you were trying to tackle in the first place.

If, like me, you are foolish enough to have thrown away virtually nothing for 20 years, the results of embarking on what I believe is called a “life laundry” are truly horrific.

I can barely move for stacks of books, videos (remember those?) clothes, toys, crockery and pictures, despite having occupied most of my spare time for the last week making repeated, heavily laden trips to the Alnwick household waste recycling centre.

The good news is that I have uncovered numerous interesting things I had completely forgotten acquiring. The bad news is that, after a couple of decades lurking at the back of slightly damp cupboards, most of them are too mildewed or rusty to be worth keeping.

There is a simple lesson here: do not buy things you do not really need. And, if they come as gifts, do not hesitate to recycle them swiftly through a charity shop, ideally one that is not frequented by the person who gave you the present in the first place.

I am belatedly taking my own advice now, though struggling to apply the necessary ruthlessness to books and papers. I feel attached to my extensive collection of reference books, though I never actually use them since it became so much easier to find the answer to everything on the internet. And I cannot quite face admitting the futility of having made and kept so many press cuttings, which I never look at again after they are filed.

There are well over a thousand unopened biographies, novels and historical works I bought because I was mad keen to read them. Indeed, five years ago I gave up my job in London primarily so that I could devote more time to this. What I was overlooking is the fact that the books you read in your teens and twenties stay with you forever, but by my time of life the brain has reached full capacity and little sticks.

Around the age of 40 I felt the need to start defacing my books with little notes to remind myself that I had actually read them, in the hope of preventing myself from doing so again. Now, like a castaway on Desert Island Discs, I really only need one book that I could read again and again, with a goldfish-like delight. Something by Evelyn Waugh or P.G. Wodehouse, I fancy. There’s no point taking anything too seriously when your mind is going.

Albums of family photographs covering four generations also take up yards of shelf space, though at least that has stopped growing since the invention of the digital camera; a great boon given that more images must have been captured of my son in his first five months than of any of the previous generation of Hanns in all their three score years and ten, or thereabouts.

I was just going to sit here surrounded by my piles of junk until I expired, then let my unfortunate heirs sort the mess out. Now I have had to become my own executor before the baby starts crawling, to enable him to move around in relative safety.

Everyone told me that it would be really hard to do, but that I would feel much better afterwards. A bit like climbing Everest or stopping banging my head against a brick wall. It is perhaps too early for me to say, but I think I am beginning to see their point.

Possessions really are a burden. They tie us down. Memo to last week’s big lottery winners: buy nothing apart from a really good digital camera and one outstanding book.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Would a Sanilav rose smell as sweet?

Whatever became of Phyllosan? Not so long ago you couldn’t turn on the telly without someone telling you that it fortified the over-forties (without, as I recall, ever explaining how).

Then you turn your back for a second and find it has vanished into that great brand lumber room in the sky, along with the likes of Spangles and Oxydol.

That’s my first idea for selling the naming rights of my house knackered, then. I thought it had just the right ring to it after I passed a youngish couple in the road discussing “that old bloke who writes for The Journal” who lived nearby.

I entertained a brief flash of hope that David Banks might have moved into the neighbourhood, before reluctantly concluding that they meant me.

Still, I see that Sanatogen tonic wine is still being manufactured, so I suppose I had better fire off an email inviting them to bid. The challenge is to think of some others to make it a meaningful competition. Grecian 2000? Stannah stairlifts? Dry For Life incontinence pants?

At least if I end up living at DryForLife House it will cause less confusion to delivery drivers than The Old Smithy, of which there are at least four within a three mile radius.

Fortunately selling the sponsorship rights for my clothes should be much simpler. I feel sure that the marketing departments of Greggs and Weighwatchers will soon be engaged in a frenzied bidding war for the right to have their names blazoned across the back of my straining suits.

The car will have to become the DFSmobile, because it boasts really comfy leather seats and I would like to be associated with the original and best rather than some three-initialled clone competitor.

Similarly it is no contest for our other home, which simply has to be MumsGonetoIceland House given that mum does actually work for Iceland when she’s not on maternity leave.

Finally, I’m close to signing with a well-known contraceptive manufacturer on the naming rights for the baby’s buggy, or for the baby himself if they can meet my asking price. This will provide a timely warning that it’s never safe to assume you’re too old for something like that to happen.

Not a bad morning’s work, really. I’m certainly making more progress than those characters at St James’ Park. Though even that sorry tale pales into insignificance compared with the news that the authorities at my old university are to mark its 800th anniversary by offering “the ultimate commemorative naming opportunity” to re-brand Cambridge University Library in honour of the highest bidder.

I cling to the very faint hope that this might be some dry, donnish joke. But one Cambridge college recently adopted a new, double-barrelled name at the behest of a benefactor, so I fear not.

The difficulty, once you start down this road, is finding anywhere to draw the line.

In a few months’ time, we may perhaps see the Nike Queen driving from Kraft Buckingham Palace in the NestlĂ© State Coach to open the new session of the Tesco Parliament by reading the speech prepared for her by the Smythson of Bond Street Prime Minister.

Would it really matter all that much, given that it will be an increasingly empty charade as real power continues to gurgle down the plughole to the Gazprom European Union under the terms of the EDF Lisbon Treaty?

And would any of us object too vociferously, if reminded that sponsorship was easing some of the burden of increased taxation that we are otherwise going to face in the years ahead? Why not “go with the flow” and remember that there is no reason to fear the secret police of our new dictatorship. Their PR advisers will almost certainly ensure that they are sponsored by a kiddie-friendly company with a smiling face.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Conservatives Anonymous: I own up

My name is Keith Hann and I am a conservative. I feel better for having got that off my chest.

A conservative is someone who broadly liked things the way they were whenever he or she attained political consciousness, and would have preferred to keep them that way. There is only limited overlap with the party branded with a capital “C”, which in my lifetime has been a force for radical change.

True, I have been a party member and have voted Conservative in every election since the early 1970s, but often with some reluctance, like a lifelong Newcastle United fan renewing his season ticket. David Cameron is my Mike Ashley.

I was born 55 years ago into an independent country at the heart of a rapidly contracting empire, still basking in the glory of having apparently won the Second World War. The buildings of Newcastle were black with smoke, yellow trolleybuses glided down quiet suburban roads and ancient steam engines hauled long trains of coal wagons from the pits. The countryside was matchlessly beautiful and even the colliery winding gear and waste heaps had their fascination.

Family life centred around the hearth in the one room in the house that was actually heated, where entertainment was provided by a tiny, fuzzy, two channel black and white TV. Electronic communication for the privileged was a black, Bakelite telephone, always installed in the freezing hall.

This was also a homogenous and peaceful society in which parents, teachers and the police were respected, and children could play safely. True, they might come home from school with cane stripes across their backsides, but their parents were not frantic with worry about paedophiles, drug dealers or muggers lurking behind every tree.

That dull, patriarchal, deferential, mono-cultural and materially poorer society is the one that I was accusing Labour of hating, in my column last week. And, yes, the Conservatives have proved almost equally committed to wiping it off the map. But I must confess that I rather liked it.

Absurd though it may seem to Labour Parliamentary candidate Antoine Tinnion, who responded to my column on Friday, I did and do have huge respect for the British constitution as it evolved organically over the centuries. The House of Lords as it existed for the best part of a thousand years worked effectively as a check on the excesses of Conservative as well as Labour administrations, and I always felt myself better represented in Parliament by my local hereditary peers than by my MP, charming and well-intentioned chap though I recognise him to be.

As for Mr Tinnion’s point that Labour cannot be blamed for the bureaucracy visited upon farmers; well, yes, they can, actually, and it was jolly bad luck that his letter was printed bang next to an editorial headlined “Farmers have every right to feel let down.” The CAP is a rotten system, but Labour decided to make it even worse by setting up a uniquely complex system for distributing EU farm subsidies in England, and then failing to deliver them so comprehensively that the result has been officially described as a “masterclass of maladministration”.

But, to be clear, all the mainstream political parties have been guilty of failing to provide any effective voice for those who quite liked their country the way it was. That is why the BNP is proving able to draw support from disaffected Labour supporters and, in apparently even greater numbers, from people who have previously not voted at all.

If there is a significant body of electors in this country who feel that the only person standing up for them is Nick Griffin, then that is, in my view, an uncontestable indictment of the failure of all the main parties to connect with the real desires of the people they claim to represent.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.