Friday, 31 December 2010

2010 assessed

My contribution to the double page spread in The Journal's nebusiness section featuring Thoughts on 2010” from the Great and Good of the North East business community ... and, for some reason, me:

As usual, 2010 was a year mixing the entirely predictable with the genuinely surprising. Some events, like the emergence of a Mr Miliband at the head of the Labour Party, managed to combine both.

I regret that I failed to include the Icelandic ash cloud in my helpful list of forecasts a year ago, but at least I was spot on in characterising the 2010 General Election as one not to win. It turned out that the great British public did not want anyone to win it, either, setting the scene for the first coalition Government of my lifetime.

My estimation of “Dave” Cameron as a political operator has shot upwards as he has deftly saddled Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats with the blame for so much of the ensuing unpleasantness, though admittedly they have not helped themselves either by breaking explicit election promises or choosing to shimmer around the Strictly Come Dancing floor in white tie and tails while rioting students are running amok in the capital. Louis XVI and Versailles spring to mind.

One thing I got badly wrong was expecting the pain of tax rises, spending cuts and job losses to impact straight after the General Election. Clearly we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Turned out nippy again, hasn't it?

Let us be clear on one thing: “the Met Office no longer issues long-range forecasts for the general public”.

It says so on their website, explaining that they have reached this strategic decision “following public research”. Though I think what they actually mean is public derision, after the “barbecue summer” they cheerfully predicted for 2009 turned out to be chiefly memorable for floods.

So the press reports that appeared back in October, suggesting that the Met Office was predicting “an unusually mild and dry winter” were not their official word at all, but merely some journalists’ interpretation of the probability maps churned out by their new £33 million supercomputer.

All clear?

It’s a shame, really, because if the Met Office had indeed forecast a mild winter it would have been a sure signal to go out and invest in rock salt, heating oil, woollen combinations, snow shovels and sledges. Rather as a “buy” note from me, in my years as an investment analyst, could be taken as a reliable indicator that the time had come to unload the stock concerned at almost any price.

But the fact that they did not make any such prediction sadly rules them out as a scapegoat for Spanish-owned BAA’s decision to spend twice as much on its chief executive’s salary as it did on snow-clearing equipment for Heathrow this year.

We don’t need to waste money on all that nonsense any more, do we? Haven’t you heard of global warming?

Similarly, the end of the Cold War provided a brilliant excuse to scrap all those strategic reserves of food and rescue equipment that had been kept topped up in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Not going to happen now, is it?

Well, we may sincerely hope not. But the one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that life is uncertain. The weather constantly changes and is full of surprises. International relations and the obsessions of fanatics are similarly fluid. If I had lapsed into a coma for the last 40 years I would now be coming around to think that at least all those worries about the forthcoming Ice Age had proved to be well founded.

There is no shortage of serious scientists prepared to deride as a crank the long range forecaster Piers Corbyn of Weather Action, who claims that global warming is over, CO2 levels have nothing to do with temperature levels and that the chief driver of our climate is solar activity.

Clearly a wild eccentric, then, but for the slightly troubling fact that his long range forecasts have proved more accurate than the Met Office’s did, when they deigned to make them. Now they have given up on that, while Mr Corbyn has been banned by the bookies from betting on his own predictions. What does that tell us about their respective levels of self-belief?

I have no idea whether the planet as a whole is getting warmer; all I can say with confidence is that I am not. And I know that large numbers of well-rewarded public servants are flying around the world at my expense for regular junkets at agreeable resorts like Cancun (always strangely ignoring the attractions of, say, Sunderland) to agree on the need to force me to cut back on my carbon emissions by paying much more for my energy.

While others are pocketing lots and lots of lovely money from my taxes to help erect huge and largely useless wind turbines or to generate power from rotting vegetation.

Still, at this of all times I suppose it ill behoves us cynics to sneer at others’ deeply held religious beliefs. So since I forgot to mention it last week, I hope that you have all enjoyed a suitably restrained winter holiday and wish you the very greenest of recycled New Years.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Geordies lead the world in judging

Say what you like about the North East, we certainly know our stuff when it comes to the business of judging.

From the late Lord Chief Justice Taylor in the High Court to the nation’s sweetheart Cheryl Cole on The X Factor, Geordies have repeatedly proved their ability to weigh the evidence and come to the right conclusion. Or a conclusion, at any rate, in the case of the TV talent show.

Nor is this by any means a new phenomenon. The two Royal Grammar School educated Scott brothers, sons of a Newcastle coal merchant, both became distinguished judges, and were raised to the peerage in the nineteenth century as Lords Stowell and Eldon – the latter becoming famous as one of England’s longest-serving and most reactionary Lord Chancellors.

The great Eldon. Worth it? How dare you, sir?

Let us pause to wonder just how long it will be before Cheryl has a street full of ethnic eateries or a shopping centre named after her.

Peter Cook’s famous sketch in which he lamented that he had to become a coal miner rather than a judge because he “never had the Latin for the judging” has clearly been overtaken by events. Which is handy given both the limited opportunities for mining in today’s North East and Cook’s astute observation that “I would much prefer to be a judge than a coal miner because of the absence of falling coal.”

There were certainly no witty classical allusions in the quotes attributed last week to the latest addition to the pantheon of Northumbrian judicial greatness, Judge Beatrice Bolton of Rothbury, after her conviction at Carlisle Magistrates’ Court for failing to control her dangerous dog.

Judge Beatrice. Worth it? F*** off!

In fact, she used precisely the words that so often spring to mind when her more senior colleagues make pronouncements involving “human rights”, for example when they conclude that it is not possible to deport someone who has, say, knifed a headmaster to death or snuffed out a 12-year-old girl’s life in a hit-and-run incident.

Yes, it is highly amusing to hear a dispenser of justice reacting so badly when she experiences the rough end of it herself. Almost as perfectly ironic, in fact, as reading Julian Assange’s squeals of protest at the leaks about the nature of the sex crimes alleged against him in Sweden.

A saying popular with my parents sprang to mind: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.”

But it would be sad, I feel, for such an admirably plain speaker to be deprived of her position because of one inappropriate outburst. After all, some of our greatest judges have made grave mistakes and been gone on to redeem themselves. Just think of Wor Cheryl’s drunken fracas with that Guildford lavatory attendant, for a start.

Wor Cheryl. Woath it? Coase Ah am, pet.

While Lord Eldon hardly got his career off to the most promising or conventional of starts by eloping from Sandhill with the banker’s daughter Bessie Surtees.

If, God forbid, I ever find myself standing in the dock before one of Her Majesty’s justices or Simon Cowell’s talent scouts, I would be happy to think that I was appearing before a fallible human being like myself, who would see the funny side when I reacted with an outburst of choice language on being sent down or kicked off the show in favour of someone even less talented than myself.

Yes, I really believe that such people do exist, but then I believed in Santa Claus until I was eight.

In fact, I would not mind having a go at training for a crack at this judging lark myself, but for the fact that the Government has just decided to close down all our local magistrates’ courts. Given my minimal knowledge of leeks, dogs, dressed sticks and singing, and with beauty contests ruled out on the grounds of political correctness, I wonder where I should start?
 Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Singing the praises of the musical

I first realised that Simon Cowell had achieved world domination when I invited two cultured friends to an opera and they replied “We can’t possibly go out that night – it’s the start of The X-Factor!”

Even more amazingly, the opera concerned was one of those summer country house affairs, which means that Mr Cowell’s TV money-making machine must have been churning away every weekend from balmy late August through to polar mid-December.

The strangest thing to me was that I knew for a fact that my friends possessed one of those Sky Plus Box gizmos and could perfectly well have watched the show later, with the added bonus of being able to fast-forward through the ads. Apparently, though, it’s just not the same.

Indeed, for complete satisfaction I understand that you must not only see these things live, but share your views of them with the world every few minutes via Twitter and Facebook. A great service for the likes of me, because an occasional glance at these has enabled me to pretend to be in touch with what is going on not only on The X-Factor, but also The Apprentice, Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here without wasting great chunks of my life actually watching them.

Not that I have anything against popular entertainment. I spent almost every evening last week glued to the unfolding drama that was the 50th anniversary of Coronation Street, even though ITV had done their utmost to drain it of any surprises by emailing me months beforehand with previews of their tram crash and details of which actors had decided to leave the series or been sacked by its new producer.

Only on Wednesday did I rely on my old-fashioned video recorder to keep me up to date as I slithered through the snow-covered streets of Jesmond to see the Royal Grammar School’s production of Oklahoma! A show I had always viewed with the utmost suspicion because it was my mother’s favourite, causing her to go slightly weak-kneed whenever Edmund Hockridge appeared on TV variety shows singing the one about the surrey with a fringe on top.

I had to dig my way into my house before I went out to the show
Hoping the performance would take my mind off the weight of snow on my conservatory roof
 In the early 1980s a production of Oklahoma! at the Palace Theatre tempted mum to visit London for the first time since she had accompanied her father there on a business trip some 60 years earlier. I took her to the show over my own dead body and absolutely loved it, and have been a keen fan of musicals ever since.

I have seen other professional stage productions of Oklahoma!, along with the classic film, but the energy and enthusiasm of the 16 to 18-year-olds of the RGS carried all before them. I sat with a big, silly grin on my face from the opening bars of the overture to the closing reprise of the title song, and drove home humming happily.

The brilliant cast ... and a probable breach of the Data Protection Act, now I come to think of it
A fortnight's snow layered like something out of a geology lesson
 Four days earlier I had spent rather a lot of money to see the glamorous diva Angela Gheorghiu perform the title role in the operatic rarity Adriana Lecouvreur to a packed house at Covent Garden. I enjoyed it, but Oklahoma! was infinitely greater fun – and yet there were empty seats in the RGS auditorium.

It is good to be reminded that there is a wealth of talent all around us, both amateur and professional, and that a live show on stage provides a true reality and immediacy that television can never match. So if your life is a desert now that The X Factor is over, why not try taking in a different sort of pantomime at your local theatre or village hall? You could even extend the slapstick beyond the stage by trying to use your iPhone to post irritatingly frequent updates on the performance for your followers on Twitter.

All together now: “Oh no, you couldn’t!”
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Wanted: MPs with some convictions

The defining image of last week was surely the one of those disconsolate boys, England flags painted on their faces, hearing FIFA’s verdict on the 2018 World Cup.

“Get used to it, lads,” I thought. “You’re English. There’s a lot more disappointment like that coming your way.” It is probably best to grasp that sooner rather than later.

Despite my total lack of interest in football, I was so monumentally bored last Thursday afternoon that my internet surfing brought me to the BBC’s live news feed just as Sepp Blatter was joking about whether he had been handed the right envelope for the big announcement. God forbid that it should be one stuffed with banknotes, I thought to myself, along with about half the population of the planet.

Shortly afterwards, I wandered into the adjacent office of a client who is vaguely interested in ball games, and told him the two verdicts. Russia he accepted with resignation, but Qatar he simply refused to believe. “You are having a laugh,” he said. I agreed that someone definitely was, though for once it was not me.

No really, I explained. The 2022 World Cup is going to be played on a sand-covered gasometer where daytime temperatures nudge 50ºC, but that’s all right because a British (hurrah!) firm of architects has come up with a revolutionary new air conditioning system that works a treat in their scale model of the new stadia. Surely you don’t need to be particularly cynical to start musing “What could possibly go wrong?”

Then there is the promised suspension of the normal rules of Islamic behaviour to allow intermingling of the sexes and the consumption of alcohol. Plus, presumably, a bit of a clampdown on anyone minded to have a pop at killing the infidels while they are in the area.

I shan’t be going, but then I wouldn’t have gone if the matches had been played at St James’ Park and the Stadium of Light. But I think I will try to put together a little tour for the Wooler and Whittingham Lesbian Gay and Transgender Christian Limbo Dancing and Real Ale Club, and see how they get on.

At least we don’t need to wait for the brave Mr Assange of WikiLeaks to reveal the fatal flaws in the England bidding process. But what a shock his disclosures to date have turned out to be. The Gulf Arabs don’t much like Iran, while Prince Andrew is patriotic, politically incorrect and a bit of a buffoon. Hold the front page. Coming soon: America’s Ambassador to the Holy See makes stunning revelation about the religious affiliation of the Pope.

Should anything be allowed to stay secret any more? FIFA deliberations and MPs’ expenses? Clearly not. International diplomatic negotiations? The focus group jury still seems to be out.

However, bringing up the issue of Parliamentary expenses reminds me that we have in our midst a group of men and women who have proven, world class skills in working questionable systems. So perhaps Mr Chaytor and anyone else convicted of wrongdoing might be set a novel form of community punishment, putting forward Britain’s proposals for future international sporting events.

Because unless we make a major strike of natural gas in the next few years and come to grips with the prevailing culture, we are clearly going to struggle to hold onto the rights to stage Wimbledon, the FA Cup and the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race, never mind anything more “iconic” on the global stage.

And don’t forget some generous backhanders for the troublesome British media, too. Because I for one don’t want to see my son’s flag-painted face crumpling when the very rich man in charge of FIFA decides that Afghanistan is a better bet than England for 2030 because of some short-sighted column in The Journal.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Thank heavens for global warming

Are you wondering just how bad the weather must have been in the olden days, before the onset of global warming?

Then wonder no more. Because I sat next to my aunt at her 86th birthday lunch in Morpeth on Sunday, and was able to ask her to cast her mind back over the decades. And the word is that, throughout her childhood, she fervently hoped for a “white birthday” on November 28 each year, but it never happened.

The Wise Woman of Morpeth
Yes, I know that true believers will hasten to point out that cold snaps will still occur within their sacred warming trend, which also allegedly makes extreme weather more likely. But for lousy timing, it would be hard to beat the Met Office’s announcement on Friday that 2010 is shaping up to be one of the two warmest years on record.

Unless perhaps someone in authority presented a “garage of the year” award for mechanical excellence to Coco the clown, seconds before his own exhaust blew up and all his car doors fell off.

Still, at least as I surveyed the growing accumulation of snow outside my house I was able to console myself with the thought that the drifts customary on my hilltop were completely absent. Because there was no wind.

My back gate: not easy to open
Some sheds. With snow on them.

So in a few years’ time when the Northumbrian uplands are festooned with wind turbines and everyone’s electric heating is turned to maximum, we may be in a little bit of a pickle.

Has Coco the clown perhaps moved on from cars and wallpapering to the formulation of official energy policy?

I have a new all-purpose theory on the Government’s strategy, and am increasingly convinced that the turbines are simply going to be erected as a warning to us sinners, and will not actually be connected to the National Grid. It’s precisely in tune with the novel plan of building two aircraft carriers but not having any planes to put on them, and keeping nuclear submarines but scrapping the newly procured Nimrod aircraft that provided their air cover.

You watch: they may build the new (and unnecessary) high speed rail link from London to Birmingham, but will they buy any trains to run on it? Why not save money by just hiring the replacement buses that will be used most of the time anyway?

Egg yields heading the same way as Irish bank bonds
Similarly, when I was out and about at the weekend, in defiance of police instructions, I came across a number of tractors with snowploughs and nifty, well-stocked gritting trailers, but not one of them was actually spreading any grit. Clearly no-one is prepared to run the risk of admitting that they have run out of the stuff after last winter’s debacle.

Those tractors looked like they should really have been delivering hay to snowbound sheep or flailing hedges to make sure there were no winter berries left for the birds. What happened to those big yellow council lorries we used to see? Sent to the scrapheap with Ark Royal and its Harriers? Were their drivers unable to get work because of the snow? Or are the authorities just roping in the farming community to show us all the Big Society in action?

But let this not be a piece of unalloyed cynicism. Snow can provide glorious fun for some, and I could hardly sleep for childlike excitement last Thursday night as I looked forward to getting out with my young son to build my first snowman in almost half a century.
We could not even buy a carrot for his nose: talk about hardship
Unfortunately Charlie rapidly decided that snow was a cold, wet, unpleasant nuisance rather than a source of joy. Let us hope that he comes to see it in a more positive light in the next few years, before global warming really kicks in and he relapses into the long haul of Meldrew-like moaning about it that is his paternal genetic inheritance.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Honour our saviour from the euro

Last week brought a flurry of anniversaries, several triumphs of social mobility and a disturbing sense of déjà-vu.

It all began on Sunday 14th, which would have been my parents’ 74th wedding anniversary and was the Prince of Wales’s 62nd birthday. Can you also remember when Charles was the future?

On Monday my father would have been 102, while on Tuesday my next-door neighbours, Andrew and Etta, celebrated 64 years of marriage. I was minded to crack open a bottle of something fizzy in their honour even before I heard the news of the long-anticipated engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which clearly demanded a proper celebration.

The only sour note for me came not from the legions of left-wing columnists churning out their entirely predictable critiques of the monarchy, but from Prince William’s father. Doorstepped by the media in Poundbury, he claimed to be “thrilled” but looked anything but, adding glumly that “they have had enough practice”.

The next day I read suggestions that Kate Middleton’s father bore a passing resemblance to Gordon Brown, both physically and in his evident discomfort as he read out his notes on how happy he and his wife were about the engagement. And as I did so, it occurred to me with mounting horror that the real parallel lies elsewhere.

An intelligent man with passionate enthusiasms who really believes he can do good for his country and is forced to wait far too long to fulfil his destiny. That would serve equally well as a description of both our last Labour Prime Minister and our King-in-waiting.

And given that The Queen is by all accounts much fitter than her mother was at 84, Prince Charles might have to kick his heels not just for another decade, which was long enough to leave Gordon Brown with no real clue what to do when he finally achieved his lifelong ambition, but until he is an octogenarian himself.

Meanwhile William and Kate seemingly resemble Dave and Samantha Cameron. Not appealing to all, no doubt, but clearly rather more in tune with the Zeitgeist.

With the coins already minted to mark the Duke of Edinburgh’s 90th birthday next year, a monarchy with longevity genes on both sides has important questions to consider on how it can continue to project the glamour that seems the key to popular appeal in any walk of life.

My own thinking on this weighty issue was interrupted by another night of celebration on Thursday to mark the 40th birthday of Iceland, the frozen food chain. A charity ball featured amazing pyrotechnics, performances by Dame Edna Everage and Tom Jones, and helped to raise £1.5 million for Help for Heroes. At the time of writing, the only attention this has received from the media has been through an anonymous e-mailer complaining that the fireworks disturbed his horses. As William and Kate surely already know, some people are never happy unless they are moaning.

Meanwhile on Friday, the heady social ascent of Miss Middleton was followed by the elevation to the House of Lords of a load of people no-one other than those passing around the party collection hats had ever heard of, plus Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. A mere life peerage is surely far too little for a man who is the essence of poshness and has done so much for national morale.

On past form Prince William will be made a duke on his marriage. Why confine this bounty to your own family, Ma’am? Surely the time is ripe for Earl Fellowes?

And, as we watch the precipitous downward mobility of the entire Irish nation, let us also give appropriate recognition to the man who may have failed as PM but performed the truly historic service of keeping Britain out of the euro: Gordon Brown, Duke of Kirkcaldy.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Age slows us down as time speeds up

With age comes the sense that time is passing more quickly, and the certainty that routine tasks take ever longer to perform.

I got up to write this column at 6.30 yesterday and reached my desk two hours later, after a bath and a simple breakfast of porridge. Once the process would have taken 45 minutes, and even then my girlfriend used to chide me for being a terrible slowcoach.

On Saturday I took advantage of the splendid weather to take a favourite circular walk in the Breamish Valley. Ironically, I started recording the times taken to complete my walks because the authors’ estimates in my guidebooks always seemed so wildly generous. In 1997, it took me 3hr 10min. By 2006, this had increased to 3hr 40min. In 2010, it has become a 4hr 20min hike.

Soon it will be an all-day expedition, rendered impossible because I won’t be ready to leave the house until mid-afternoon.

Having a young child renders my deterioration all the more depressing, particularly since he is already starting to outperform me right across the board.

Charlie has sadly been a bit poorly of late, and his doctor prescribed an antibiotic to supplement the ubiquitous Calpol. The first time he approached us with an open bottle of medicine and a spoon, the Strict Blame Culture operating in the Hann household swung into action and I duly interrogated my wife on who had dispensed the last dose and failed to secure the cap properly.

By the third time it happened, I had been forced to concede that our one-year-old son can open supposedly childproof closures that often defeat his parents. Though why should this surprise us, when six months ago he had already comprehensively reprogrammed my wife’s mobile phone?

The penicillin proved an unnecessary precaution, since the shock news finally emerged some time after our consultation with the GP that Charlie is actually suffering from foot and mouth disease. I was on the Internet trying to track down a captive bolt gun and some old railway sleepers for the pyre when my wife arrived with a print-out from the NHS website listing the symptoms (with a large red tick in her own hand against each item) and the reassurance that, in humans, this is normally a mild viral infection.

The final successful diagnosis was reached through mothers’ gossip in the office. Which was at least cheaper than the staggering £369.73 that it cost me last week to be informed that my dog has an enlarged heart. “Stone me!” I gasped at the vet’s when his receptionist announced this total, causing a ripple of merriment around the waiting room, though I soon lost their sympathy by pointing out that I could have had the dog put down, bought a new puppy, paid for it to be microchipped and vaccinated, and still had change for a good night out.

I don’t even know whether the diagnosis is correct. I was shown what was supposedly an X-ray of my dog’s chest, but it could just as easily have been a black and white Luftwaffe aerial photo of French defences along the Maginot Line.

The good news is that the alleged problem can be treated with drugs. And the one helpful tip to be gained from this column is that it is never a brilliant idea to embark on a four hour drive with a dog that has recently swallowed a diuretic pill unless you want to find yourself doing 70mph on the M62 wondering where that noise like running water can be coming from.

I think the long walk on Saturday did him good. It certainly energised this sufferer from an enlarged stomach. And at the pace I can manage these days, could there be a better companion than a valetudinarian Border terrier or an ailing toddler?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A barren life without Downton Abbey

I write this in the complete despair of one whose life became a meaningless wasteland when Downton Abbey ended on Sunday night.

By the time you read this they will also have killed off Jack Duckworth on Coronation Street. Cue tumbleweed blowing across the desert of my existence, and serious questioning of the point of going on.

Why is ITV persecuting me like this? Though perhaps the more interesting question is why I, as a would-be middle-class person, have started watching ITV at all?

I was brought up to regard it as common and second rate compared with the dear old BBC. As a child, it is true that I always used to try and catch the magnificent blast of “Blaydon Races” that Tyne Tees TV played at the start of each evening’s broadcasting, but then it was straight over to the other side for Blue Peter, Animal Magic and Look North with Frank Bough, or later Mike Neville and George House.

As well as adopting just the right tone on State occasions, the BBC could always be relied upon to appreciate the crucial importance of airing a good costume drama on Sunday evening. From the black-and-white Forsyte Saga at the start of BBC2 through an apparently endless series of Jane Austen bonnet-fests, they hit the spot time and again.

Yet now ITV has seized the crown with a series that began with one well-worn cliché (the sinking of the Titanic) and ended with another (the outbreak of the First World War) and in which frankly nothing much happened in between. While the press has been buzzing with suggestions that large elements of the plot, such as it was, were lifted straight from the likes of Little Women and Mrs Miniver, and pedants found that the meticulous period detail was slightly marred by the intrusion of TV aerials and double yellow lines.

Admittedly these trifles pale into insignificance compared with the scene in The Tudors where Henry VIII bedded one of his many ladies in a house with two red Calor gas bottles outside.

Still, we snobs can forgive such lapses because Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes is proper posh (married to the niece of Earl Kitchener, don’tchaknow). Quite how he follows up his addictive success in the promised second series is open to question, given that so much went to hell in a handcart for the aristocracy from 1914. Fast forward to the Bright Young Things of the 1930s (though Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess would then be about 100) or try a prequel set in the Naughty Nineties? I can hardly wait.

Meanwhile the BBC has been on strike. When I turned on Radio 4 last Friday morning and they announced that they were airing a programme about birds of the Wash in place of Today, I naturally took this for further sabotage by the National Union of Journalists, or a homage to that running joke in the recent Harry and Paul comedy series about two blokes with a microphone making the dullest radio documentary in the world.

I switched channels immediately, and was later surprised to read that the public actually preferred the birdsong of the estuary to John Humphrys. Though perhaps I should have expected it, because Radio 3 also dropped its usual schedule (though why waffling a bit between CD tracks counts as “journalism” is beyond me) and played instead a long programme about my favourite composer, Handel, which made my usual morning car journey fly by.

Back to normal service yesterday, I listened to the usual self-righteous waffle about the Burmese general election (their chance to vote for the usual generals), then heard that the NUJ were threatening to strike again over Christmas. Oh no! Could this mean a schedule packed with repeats of classic costume dramas? Maybe life is not looking so bad after all.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A screamingly good cure for obsession

“You can understand why people batter babies, can’t you?” my old friend asked last Tuesday morning, as toddler Charlie rampaged around her pristine Surrey kitchen, uttering what she accurately described as “really quite piercing” squeals.

My wife was quick to disabuse her of that notion. But then, as another helpful lady friend had already warned me, Mrs Hann is completely obsessed with her child. So the real seismic shift that has occurred over the last year or so is that I did not agree, either.

I have hated children, and their associated noise and mess, ever since I stopped being a child myself. And I will admit that, after a week driving around the country with my little family, I did kiss the ground in the style made famous by the late Pope when we finally reached home.

Yet on Friday in Bainbridge’s (as it remains in my world) I willingly invested in a carrier so that I can take Charlie on my back when I go hill-walking, despite the certainty that he will use his elevated position to hurl my cap into the mud and then beat out a drum tattoo on my skull.

I then took him to Fenwick’s toy department and smiled indulgently as he went “Ooooh!” at a series of unerringly expensive plastic gizmos, including the miniature farm that he three times manhandled off the shelf and started dragging towards the till, despite the fact that it was almost as large as he is.

After which we visited the stationery department to buy a selection of “thank you” and “sorry” cards for the people we had stayed with during our so-called holiday. Charlie immediately grabbed a handful each of “wishing you joy in your new home” and “deepest sympathy” cards and performed a lap of honour around the fixture, waving his prizes in the air and cackling like a maniac accidentally treated with a powerful stimulant instead of his usual sedative.

Not so long ago I would have reacted to this sort of incident with a mixture of anger and acute embarrassment. Now I can face it with the stoic calm that must surely be one of the prime lessons to be learned from parenthood.

Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who was attempting to do a bit of shopping in the Eldon Square area that day, and found the quiet contemplation of their purchases disturbed by a small but energetic tornado.

The Master of Disguise before his haircut
Taking appropriate evasive action is made more difficult by the fact that the child is a master of disguise, making Carlos the Jackal look like a rank amateur.

Master coiffeur Tom O'Malley in action
Already he has run through periods with jet black straight hair and luxuriant blond curls. Now, thanks to the attentions of Gosforth master coiffeur Tom O’Malley of Michael Dominic, he is a little boy with short, fair hair. This was a statesmanlike compromise between my “run the clippers all over on number two” and my wife’s “maybe you could just stop those front curls hanging over his eyes.”

After - all right, it's out of focus, but you get the gist

One consequence is that he now bears absolutely no resemblance to the photo in the passport we recently obtained for him. Does this mean that our next holiday will also have to spent driving around the UK? I sincerely hope not, to the point of being prepared to sabotage my own car.

As for Charlie’s own car-shaped baby walker, I was informed on Sunday that it is now redundant. “Tip or e-Bay?” I enquired. “Attic,” came the reply. “We might have another one.” According to that oh-so-helpful friend we visited, this is the only sure-fire cure for being dangerously obsessed with an only child.

On the surface my new super-calm persona was smiling benignly as I digested this idea. But just beneath it I was modelling for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

From bulbs to earplugs via crocodiles

With the country already reeling under the impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review, it was maybe not the best of times to subject it to the whirlwind of a visiting toddler.

I am writing this in Lewes, where Charlie Hann has reduced a blameless family to the condition of gibbering zombies through sleep deprivation. To be fair, we were not to know that our little tour would coincide with the attempted arrival of one of the last and clearly most recalcitrant of his molars.

But, as responsible adults, we should perhaps have consulted the universally applicable Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) and planned accordingly. Ideally by staying at home in a cork-lined room.

They were taking no chances with Murphy at the small hotel in Buckinghamshire where we broke our journey south. Noting that Mrs Hann’s bedside light did not work, and guessing the most likely reason, I unscrewed the bulb and took it to reception to ask for a replacement.

The woman at the desk looked at me as though I were holding a hand grenade clearly missing its pin.

Not only should I not have touched the bulb, but no-one else on the premises could possibly undertake anything as dangerous as attempting to replace it, which could be tackled only by an electrician with appropriate Elfin Safety certification.

The world has self-evidently gone mad. By the dim light of the one functioning lamp I lay in bed reading the accounts of tube bomb survivors at the 7/7 inquests, where the emergency services allegedly lurked sheepishly above ground while someone in authority completed the necessary risk assessments. Apparently it now has to be deemed safe before anyone can attempt a bit of life-saving.

Then the baby started screaming. By morning, everyone in that hotel knew how he felt and I empathised with all the other hoteliers and B&B owners who had been eager to accept our booking until we asked whether there would be room for a travel cot, and the line went dead. My wife moaned that it would be much easier to stick the baby in kennels and take the dog for a holiday. Currently, this does not seem such a bad idea at all.

In the sleepless hours of the next night, I read two animal stories in the news with a bearing on Murphy’s Law and Elfin Safety. In the first, two young men drowned in the Thames attempting to rescue a pet dog. The second rule of journalism, after the requirement for all air crash reports to include an eyewitness quote that “It was just like a ball of fire” is that the punch line of this story would be “The dog later scrambled to safety.” It did not disappoint.

Less predictable was the story of the Congolese air crash in which 20 people died after someone attempting to smuggle a crocodile in his sports bag (as you do) was unfortunate enough to have it escape on the final approach to Bandundu airport. The resulting mass panic fatally unbalanced the small aircraft. Naturally the crocodile survived the crash, but was then despatched by a bloke with a machete.

I know just how the killer felt. If I had been in possession of a machete in that Buckinghamshire hotel on Thursday night, the reception desk would now be a bit of a mess and I would be in police custody if I had not been gunned down because it was ruled to be too risky to attempt to disarm me.

While if our kind hosts for the last two nights had access to a suitable weapon, I dare say I might have been out of action on the column-writing front for some time, too. We’re on our way to Northumberland as you read this. I predict a run on earplugs.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The untouchables and the rest of us

This month Germany finally paid the last instalment of its bill for starting the First World War.

The whole concept of war guilt and reparations acquired rather a bad name after the German spiral into hyperinflation in the 1920s, sparking the rise of Hitler and all that subsequent unpleasantness. In the circumstances, it seems surprising that the debt was never cancelled.

Germany now resembles an elderly couple who have finally paid off their mortgage. Perchance they threw a modest celebration, in which beer and sausages were involved.

We in the UK will surely be entitled a cracking party come 2015, if George Osborne meets his target of eliminating our budget deficit within five years. At least tomorrow we will finally know what fate actually has in store, after the months of departmental leaks, counter-leaks, rumours and speculation.

All of which kept reminding me of one deeply satisfying pre-budget broadcast in the 1970s, when Robin Day asked former Tory Chancellor Reginald Maudling what he expected to be in that afternoon’s package and Reggie slurred, “What I think, Robin, is that in an hour we will all know.”

But what if young Gideon, sorry George, has been studying the German example? So far he has given a reasonably determined kicking to natural supporters of his own party (the middling better off to be hit by withdrawal of their child benefit and curtailment of pension tax relief) and of the Liberal Democrats (naive students who will now be clobbered with much higher tuition fees for their non-education in the likes of public relations with dance).

Might this be the week to slap a large reparations bill on those who actually got us into our present mess? Namely anyone who was daft enough to vote Labour in the three elections from 1997, despite the incontrovertible evidence of history that this was bound to end, sooner or later, in an almighty financial mess.

Perhaps a special levy could be imposed on Labour Party, Fabian Society and trade union members, owners of whippets or pigeons, patrons of kebab shops, purchasers of red-top tabloid newspapers and possessors of tattoos. Of course, some people would be hit several times over, but then they got to vote more than once for Ed Miliband, too, so it’s just swings and roundabouts, isn’t it? And a valuable reminder, if one were needed, that life just isn’t fair.

Then what of the other geniuses to whose star Labour hitched their own to create the present exquisite horlicks? I refer to the bankers whose lottery-sized bonuses continue to be paid in the midst of our present chaos, and who cannot be upset lest – heaven forfend – they remove their world class paper-shuffling skills from the City of London and huff off to make their unearned squillions elsewhere.

Returning to Britain, presumably, only for brief shooting, stalking and fishing holidays, to occupy the £2,012 best seats at the London Olympics, take in a spot of opera at Glyndebourne and publish reports on how the UK could be run more efficiently.

And what would be so wrong with that? Some of my best friends are investment bankers, but I could live without them if they were forced to choose between their country and their cash. Though I could also do nicely without the scarcely credible irony of asking a billionaire whose own wealth is carefully sheltered in Monaco to tell us where we have been going wrong.

Of course, it will never happen. We can be sure that the bankers will somehow find themselves on the right side of that ring fence supposedly surrounding international development and the NHS. Because just about everywhere now there seem to be two main classes of people: the untouchable super-rich and the rest of us. And nothing short of another Stalin, Hitler or Mao looks likely to change that.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Alwinton helps me to live in the past

April may be the cruellest month, but I still reckon that October holds it to a photo finish.

Mists, mellow fruitfulness and wood smoke may be all right for some, but for me the rapid shortening of the days invariably sets off a small avalanche of seasonal depression.

It has taken me the best part of half a century to work out that the early signs of this are that I stop living in the present. I may look like a sad, grey-haired bloke sitting ineffectually at a desk in 2010, but in my head I am a short-trousered schoolboy swaying down Benton Road on the smoke-filled top deck of a trolleybus, or an aspiring young PR man enjoying some of the admittedly infrequent personal and professional triumphs of the 1980s.

Nothing about Alwinton Show on Saturday was calculated to shock me into the present, and the rich fug of cigarette smoke that greeted me as I walked into the beer tent almost induced a Proustian return to the Tyneside pubs I began frequenting in about 1970. To this day, one of my proudest moments came as I was slinking out of a favourite Jesmond boozer with a crowd of other youngsters who had just been expelled for rowdiness, when the landlady suddenly called “Not you, Keith! You’re a regular.” I was 16 at the time.

This was the first time I have ever been to Alwinton Show and recognised absolutely no-one, though at least that favour was returned several thousand times over. And I suppose it was an improvement on last year in that no-one congratulated me on my handsome grandson, then laughed when I pointed out that he was actually my son.

I took with me a couple of Australian friends who were devoting less than 24 hours to seeing Northumberland, en route between the ruined abbeys of North Yorkshire and Berlin (don’t ask). It was either Alnwick Castle or Alwinton. Luckily they adored it as it helped to widen their already substantial knowledge of sheep breeds, though they weren’t really with a guide who could help with such tricky questions as “What’s a gimmer?” I only really felt on sure ground when we reached Class 44: black sheep.

They were also greatly impressed by the prize-winning ginger cake and dressed sticks, though concerned that, in many classes, one person seemed to have scooped nearly every prize. They took this as a sure sign that shows like this must be on the way out. Who of the younger generation is going to bother making their own jam or chutney when they can order it online and have it delivered?

I set a very poor example, having long intended to grow my own fruit and vegetables, stock up my freezer and fill my cupboards with preserves and pickles, and always proving far too lazy to do any such thing. It is probably too late to start now, but perhaps I could train the boy Charlie to be more use than his father (which is, after all, a pretty low bar to clear).

He certainly looked interested as he was tottering around the display tents on Saturday. For a short while I found myself living in the future as I day-dreamt about his early entries to the children’s classes, but the seasonal mists soon came rolling back. I am currently watching steam engines shunting rows of coal wagons at Little Benton sidings while I wait for an Edinburgh-bound express to come puffing up the bank.

Only such reminiscences seem to offer me any comfort this October, so it is lucky that my long-term memory has not yet vanished down the gurgler that has claimed my ability to remember what I am supposed to be doing today. Oh yes, writing a column for The Journal. Now what could that be about?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Now, what was I trying to remember?

Somewhere in my filing cabinet of curiosities lies the death certificate of a great-grandparent who apparently expired of “old age and decay”. He was around the same age that I am now.

I was reminded of this when an eager young stockbroker visited me on Friday to fill in one of those almost endless and certainly mindless box-ticking forms that regulators in every field now demand to save us from ourselves.

“Would you still describe yourself as semi-retired?” he asked. I shook my head and, in answer to the obvious follow-up, gestured around the bombsite that is my sitting room, strewn with toddler-related detritus.

He did not even bother to wait for a reply to the question “When do you plan to retire?” He just smiled sympathetically.

I am doing my best to earn more, but as I do so I am increasingly struck by the following paradox. On the one hand we are all being told that we must work for longer, as life expectancy steadily increases and pension funds buckle under the combined strain of longevity, lousy stock market performance and Gordon Brown’s half-witted tax raid on their resources.

Yet at precisely the same time, the optimum age for earning serious money grows ever lower. Every major political party in this country is now led by someone (a man, harrumph, or rather harriet-umph!) under the age of 45. More relevantly to me, the average age of a FTSE-100 chief executive is 52. Why would anyone choose an adviser older then themselves, when they could so easily find one who is younger, fitter and considerably more attractive?

The traditional answer used to be: experience. There is good reason to think that our current financial hole would be considerably shallower if there had been more people around who could remember that property and other financial bubbles always burst one day, and that the proper reaction to any claim to have abolished boom and bust is hollow laughter followed by a robust swipe with a blunt instrument.

But sadly it appears that my analogue experience has little relevance in the digital world, where the relentless advance of technology requires a cult of youth because only the young understand it. They may have a point. My son Charlie is not yet 16 months old and has already discovered functions in our mobile phones and remote controls of which we were blissfully ignorant.

However, it does raise the problem of how on earth we are supposed to keep working until we drop if we aren’t actually equipped to do anything useful. I have only ever possessed a modest talent for stringing words together, combined with a ferociously good short-term memory. This gave me a wholly unfair advantage in passing the sort of exams by which intelligence used to be indexed.

Now my memory is fading as fast as the snows on Kilimanjaro. My doctor quickly gave me a comforting diagnosis when I went to see him the other day about some skin blemishes. I repeated his words to myself on the 15-minute drive home, but when my wife asked me what they were I could still manage nothing better than “umm … something to do with carrots”.

I had to go on the internet to look up the real name of my non-cancerous growths: seborrhoeic keratoses. And I was only able to track that down because my doctor had laughingly mentioned the name by which they used to be known before political correctness took hold: senile warts.

So here I am, clearly well advanced on the path to old age and decay, my mind palpably going, but still in need of paid employment until I’m 80, in competition with all those people who are about to be downsized from the public sector or eased off benefits.

Any bright ideas, Prime Minister Whatsisname?
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Too little, too soon in Labour's opera?

The prize for the most useless text message of all time must surely go to the one I received at teatime on Saturday, reading “Miliband wins!”

Since the sender is a fan of both textspeak and The X-Factor, I wondered for a nanosecond whether a military band had scored an unlikely victory in Simon Cowell’s latest talent contest. But I swiftly realised that the timing was all wrong, and fired up the news on my BlackBerry to satisfy my intense curiosity about which of the geeky north London political obsessives had seized the glittering prize of leadership of the Labour party.

At the time, I was on my way to see a Baroque opera of almost incredible obscurity: Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe (first staged in 1688, next performed in 2008 and only now receiving its British premiere). This was a bizarre and hugely complex tale involving a two-timing queen, her world-weary and indecisive husband and assorted gods, priests, a winged magician and malevolent underworld spirits. Much like the Labour party conference, in fact.

It culminated in a most convincing fire engulfing the palace of Thebes, killing all the royal children, whereupon the king committed suicide and Niobe herself turned to stone in despair. And I could only think: yes, that will be pretty much like the atmosphere at Ma Miliband’s house next time they all get together for a big family gathering, only with better music.

It is as though the Archbishop of Canterbury were about to place the crown on the 80-year-old Prince of Wales’s head, and Prince Andrew swanned up and grabbed it for himself.

Not being a Labour supporter myself, I naturally rejoice in the party’s selection of the more left wing candidate for the post, and one whose name so conveniently rhymes with “red”. But as a Briton, I deeply regret that our alternative Prime Minister is now a 40-year-old who has only five years’ experience in Parliament and has never held down a job outside politics. It is all too little, too soon.

It is ironic that one of the accusations levelled against Ed during the campaign was that he had been dithering and indecisive in office, when his brother might well have been Labour leader today if he hadn’t bottled a series of opportunities to dethrone Gordon Brown. True, there is the saying that he who wields the dagger rarely gains the crown. But the political career graveyard is also full of those who let “I dare not” wait upon “I would”.

Is a bit of dithering indecision at the top necessarily such a bad thing, in any case? It might have spared us Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a younger brother myself, I have some sympathy with Ed Miliband’s defiance of the convention that the older sibling should be the brighter high-achiever, with the number two being dimmer, nicer and ready to step into the elder’s shoes if he should go under the proverbial bus.

But isn’t it a bit odd that, in a nation of 60 million people, the choice for leadership of one of our great political parties should ultimately came down to one between two brothers? What does that say for Labour’s success in widening opportunity for all over the last 110 years?

The track record of younger brothers in political leadership does not seem all that impressive, but might the world have been a better place if Ted Kennedy, Raul Castro or Jeb Bush had been first to the top? No, probably not.

The obvious British precedent is of a most distinguished foreign secretary who never made it to Number 10, despite being leader of his party in the House of Commons. He was called Austen Chamberlain and he had a younger half-brother called Neville who did ultimately claim the prize. Remind me, how did that one turn out?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Hell is good business for religion

I wonder how the world will look to those unfortunate Chilean copper miners when, God willing, they finally emerge blinking into the daylight after four months or more trapped underground?

They may well be shocked by how attitudes have changed during their incarceration. Heaven knows I was uncharacteristically busy for just four days last week, so not paying my usual close attention to the media, and the chattering world transformed itself.

When I tuned out, the Pope was about to arrive for a visit that was unequivocally billed as a disaster in the making. An unholy alliance of national treasure Stephen Fry, atheist archbishop Richard Dawkins and serial human (but particularly gay) rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had all declared him wholly unwelcome.

Prof. Dawkins, indeed, had slated him as "the head of the world's second most evil religion", curiously without spelling out the proud holder of the number one spot, though he probably did not have Buddhism in mind.

The press was full of the prosecution case from AIDS to women’s rights, via contraception, child abuse, homosexuality and the Hitler Youth. Congregations were dwindling, seminaries closing, stacks of tickets for the set-piece events left unsold, and the whole circus a vast and expensive irrelevance to secular modern Britain.

Imagine my surprise when I turned on the TV news on Sunday evening and found a series of smiling people pronouncing that Benedict’s stay had been “a triumph”, a view which even the BBC did not attempt to contradict.

This seemed strange when, in the interim, all I had caught was Lord (Digby) Jones on Radio 4 that morning, complaining that the Pope had failed to say “sorry” for clerical child abuse. Did he or didn’t he? He expressed “deep sorrow”, and English is not even his second let alone his first language, so should we give the old boy a break? Or is he playing a deep and cunning game to shirk responsibility, like (say) Tony Blair on Iraq? Suspicion of such dastardly Catholic plots has been rooted deep in British consciousness for almost 500 years now.

During his stay, did the Pope and Mr Cameron exchange thoughts on the concept of deterrence? Religion is, after all, in possession of the ultimate deterrent: the prospect of an eternity of unspeakable torment, which makes Britain’s ability to vaporise some enemy cities with Trident missiles look decidedly puny.

Benedict’s present problem is that fewer and fewer people in this country believe in Hell, or in the upside alternative of Heaven. Just as ever more of us wonder whether the British nuclear deterrent is independent or useful in any meaningful sense, unless the occupant of 10 Downing Street is an obvious nutcase (as has been known).

Personally, while not a fervent believer, I recognise that Christianity is the rock on which the whole of western civilisation has been built. I greatly value the beauty of our ancient churches, the wonderful language of the King James Bible and the Prayer Book, and the splendour of a Latin Mass or an Anglican choral evensong.

All things which, ironically, current worshippers are doing their best to sweep away in the name of greater “relevance”. Even so, it is surely far from game over for Christianity. Religious faith has waxed and waned over the centuries. Who predicted the current resurgence of Islam?

Few atheists, I am told, adhere rigidly to their non-faith in the face of an impending plane crash. As human numbers continue to grow and the planet creaks ever more menacingly beneath the strain, surely religion can only benefit as Hell comes closer to hand right here on earth?

All of which may make the canny old Pope’s line on birth control just what Protestant cynics used to call it in my childhood: good business sense. May God bless or forgive him as appropriate. If He exists, that is.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be

The older you get, the faster time passes. So it is comforting to have occasional interludes in which the pace slows, the predictable always happens, and one can bask in happy memories of simpler days.

For many years now, Sunday night TV has provided just this in the whimsy of Last of the Summer Wine from Holmfirth, the gentle police drama of Heartbeat filmed in and around Goathland, or its hospital spin-off The Royal set in Scarborough.

To be honest, I have not watched any of them regularly in years. Summer Wine lost much of its appeal when Bill Owen (Compo) died, and Heartbeat was never the same after Bill Maynard had to be invalided out of the role of Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Even so, it was comforting to know that they were still there in the schedules, providing work for British character actors and film crews, income for owners of wheeled bathtubs and classic cars, and a massive boost to the Yorkshire tourist industry.

Now, all of a sudden, they are gone. I have never knowingly missed a final chance to see anything since my father let me stay up especially late one night when I was seven, to catch The Last Night of the Crazy Gang from the London Palladium. So naturally I was glued to the screen on Sunday to watch the very last episode of Heartbeat, which exited not so much with a bang as a groan and a lot of sobs, as cast and audience alike were left wondering whether Oscar Blaketon would survive being impaled on a very large pitchfork. Given the Hitchcock-like appearance of the Grim Reaper in an earlier scene, I did not feel inclined to bet on it.

When Heartbeat started back in 1992, there seemed to be a fairly direct connection between the chronology of the series and real time. But then someone no doubt spotted that they would soon have to move on from the steam trains, Bakelite telephones and pounds, shillings and pence that contributed so much of its appeal. And so it ended up stuck for years in the late 1960s, repeating itself like a cracked vinyl record as the regular actors aged but their characters supposedly did not.

Current television convention clearly required a final, wrap-up episode in which it would have been revealed that Aidensfield had actually been wiped out by a surprise Soviet nuclear strike on RAF Fylingdales in 1965, and that everyone had been hanging around in purgatory ever since. Well, it worked for Ashes to Ashes and Lost.

Instead we got a cliff-hanger that could only be resolved in the next series that is never going to be made. Disappointing, or what?

I turned for light relief to BBC4, and what was billed as “Michael Smith’s Deep North: the novelist returns to his native city of Newcastle upon Tyne.” Given that I have never heard of any such person, I had high hopes that this might turn out to be a hilarious spoof. But, in fact, the only fiction proved to be the claim that the man was a Geordie. It eventually emerged that he had been an occasional childhood visitor, escaping from his upbringing in Hartlepool. As you would. The BBC clearly needs to do more work on its geographic understanding of this so-called “deep North” beyond White City.

This, sadly, is the sort of cheap-to-make “fondly looking back” programme of which we can expect to see much more as the old, expensive, period comedies and dramas vanish from the airwaves.

Still, with 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine and 372 of Heartbeat available for endless recycling, why bother making new stuff when we can all wallow in fond memories of the way we used to enjoy our Sunday night fix of nostalgia back in the good old 1990s?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Pigs and politicians cannot win

My cousin’s roof was blown off by a tornado last month.

That is surely not a sentence many people get to write, unless they have a very large extended family in Kansas. But my cousin lives in the sleepy village of Great Livermere in Suffolk, which experienced this freak weather event on August 23.

The wind also flattened the outbuildings in which, until that very morning, had lived three contented pigs. They escaped being crushed because my cousin’s husband had roused them at five o’clock and driven them to the abattoir to meet their destiny as sausages.

I mused for some time as to whether this constituted good or bad luck. I also considered whether the tornado might be seen as retribution by a vegetarian deity, but dismissed the possibility since my cousin’s husband is a priest. I finally concluded that it was simply one of the very few classic lose-lose situations not currently involving a politician.

Last week, despite myself, I bought a copy of Tony Blair’s autobiography. It came with two dust jackets, and I exposed the second one with some trepidation, half expecting it to reveal the image of the shape-shifting giant lizard which, former sports commentator David Icke assures us, is the reality behind our royal family and political leaders.

The more I read of Blair, Mandelson and Brown, the more credible that theory becomes. However, the only difference between the two covers was that the inner one lacked the “Half Marked Price” sticker slapped on the first. This presumably slashes the take of the Royal British Legion, to which Mr Blair has announced that he is donating his profits.

Another classic lose-lose situation because it produced gales of abuse for his hypocrisy that were surely just as great as the howls that would have gone up if he had simply pocketed the money.

On the other hand, it is possible to have only limited sympathy for someone who, when asked if he has any regrets, skirts around those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that he is sorry he tried to abolish foxhunting. Oh, and maybe we should have a crack at Iran next.

Incidentally, I have not read a word of the book yet but the cover picture is haunting me as I type this and making me think that the Tories’ much derided “demon eyes” poster campaign of 1997 actually hit the nail squarely on the head.

I felt rather more sympathy for William Hague in his lose-lose dilemma with his young adviser. Share an expensive hotel room and face accusations of impropriety, or book two and be rubbished for wasting money? After the expenses scandal, what would you do?

The resulting personal statement was the second time Mr Hague has made me cringe, the first being his understandably jejune performance on Radio 4’s Any Questions immediately after his debut as a 16-year-old at the Conservative Party conference. The fact that this is not constantly replayed to embarrass him can only suggest that the BBC has wiped the tape.

My principal client regularly holds managers’ conferences at which all participants are expected to share hotel rooms with colleagues of the same sex. The implications for their reputations are apparently now mind-boggling. Except, of course, that totally different rules apply to politicians.

Back in the 1980s Spitting Image portrayed the press as pigs – trilby-wearing porkers spreading porkies. Today politicians have become the lowest form of human life. How we all hate them – and that’s before they have even started on the real spending cuts.

Dave Cameron will no doubt look back on his paternity leave with young Dandelion, or whatever she is called, as a brief lull before the tornado struck. I hope it does not take his roof off, but if I were him I would not bank upon it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Is NHS Direct the wrong prescription?

As a stern, unbending Tory, I naturally applaud the idea of cutting Government spending. But the cuts need to be made with the keen eye and steady hand of a top surgeon, not by a half-blind madman wielding a scythe.

If you had asked me a year ago whether it was right to scrap the NHS Direct helpline, as the Government plans to do, I would instantly have agreed that it was a huge waste of money, providing cushy jobs for nurses and succour for hypochondriacs.

But that was before I took the huge leap into the unknown of becoming a first-time parent, and faced the endless succession of coughs, rashes, swellings, bumps and abrasions that probably amount to nothing but might just be the herald of that potentially fatal condition you would never forgive yourself for failing to detect.

My wife has found the nurses of NHS Direct invaluable at providing timely advice and reassurance. Her many friends with year-old babies all speak highly of the service, too.

How can it possibly save money to get rid of it, when in most instances the alternative would be a visit to a GP or an A&E Department, at infinitely greater cost to the NHS?

The minister concerned says that the same service can be provided more cost-effectively through the new “111” non-emergency number, now being piloted right here.

And the key, money-saving difference? Apparently fewer qualified nurses manning the phones and more “trained telephone operators”. I am pretty sure that is what they also call those helpful people manning the telecoms and IT helpdesks; the ones who can’t actually answer any question that isn’t on the cards they’ve been given to read out. These provide precisely the same information as the “frequently asked questions” that anyone with half a brain will have read on the website before picking up the phone.

The only value I have found in these services is the entertainment of asking a wholly unexpected question such as “What’s the weather like in Bangalore, then?” and listening to the frantic shuffling of paper at the other end.

Apart from cost, NHS Direct apparently has to go because GPs don’t like it. The Government’s Big Idea is that GPs are the linchpin of the NHS and should basically run everything. Well, Coco the Clown may well be the linchpin of the circus, but that does not mean we should take his advice on how to erect the big top.

And have you actually tried getting to see an NHS GP lately? Once upon a time I had a doctor who knew me and my medical history; now I see a different locum every time I go to the surgery, and usually have to wait a day or more to do that.

My practice has gone down the route of allowing appointments to be booked online, weeks in advance, so that every slot with one of the partners is filled by forward-thinking repeat visitors, rather than patients with chaotically unplanned illnesses.

Many friends face the alternative madness of the 8.30a.m. telephone roulette, with the phone on permanent redial, because appointments can only be booked on the same day.

House calls? You must be joking. My sick neighbour waited most of a day for the out-of-hours service to chauffeur a mainly German-speaking locum all the way from Penrith.

I don’t blame GPs. If someone had offered me a vast pay rise to work 9-5 Monday-Friday instead of being on call 24/7, I would have grabbed it, too. But unless we can recapture something of the spirit of my parents’ Dr Gilchrist from the 1950s, prepared to turn out at all hours and in all weathers to take a look at a sickly child, I would urge the Government to think long and hard before flicking the “off” switch on NHS Direct.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Newcastle beats Manchester every time

There was a large contingent from Tyneside in Manchester last Monday night, and not all of us were there to watch the football.

Those of us who went instead to see Corrie!, the stage play celebrating 50 years of Coronation Street, were almost certainly better entertained, at lower cost, and left for home in a much better mood.

The play brilliantly condensed into a couple of very funny hours half a century of complex plot lines, including Ken’s aspirations, Deirdre’s incarceration, Peter’s bigamy, Tracy’s cruel hoax about who had fathered her baby and her subsequent well-planned descent into murder. And that was just the Barlows.

There was also the plain speaking Ena Sharples, the beehived Bet Lynch, Gail with her consistently appalling taste in men, Richard Hillman’s murderous rampage and the death of Alan Bradley beneath the wheels of a Blackpool tram.

True, there weren’t actually any of the stars of the show on stage, apart from a narrator played by Liz McDonald’s jailbird husband, but more than adequate compensation was provided by having about half the cast, past and present, in the audience. Mrs Hann only focused on characters whose names begin with “R”, and came away with our programme autographed by David Neilson and Barbara Knox. Feel free to feature the question of who they play in your next pub quiz.

All this was greatly appreciated by the row of Geordies behind me, and by the audience as a whole, who kept nudging each other excitedly as another familiar face hove into view. It would be fair to say that, on the evidence of the evening’s attendance, the typical Coronation Street fan is female, and in receipt of an old age pension. Though surely this cannot be true of the viewing audience as a whole, or the advertising slots would all be filled by purveyors of stair lifts and incontinence pants rather than retailers of bargain sofas.

Coronation Street only became a passion of mine about five years ago, after a lifetime of treating it and every other soap with patrician contempt, when I reluctantly got into the habit of watching it with a former fiancée. I gradually came to realise that the quality of the writing is surprisingly high and the convoluted plots compelling. I also began to wish that my own life could be filled with as much unlikely incident, and was seriously disappointed when our wedding did not feature an arrest or punch-up, or the surprise arrival of someone claiming to be already married to me or my bride, ideally with a string of children in tow.

Still, as I said to Mrs Hann, better luck next time.

The only criticism I could possibly make would be this. Why do the designers of British arts complexes habitually make them so difficult to reach, leave and navigate while there? The Barbican in London is a well-known nightmare, but The Lowry in Salford runs it a very close second. After the show we found ourselves wandering aimlessly around with a crowd of other people looking for colour coded car parks, which had not offered the slightest hint of their shade on the way in.

Still, we need not have worried because the clever plan of having multiple bottlenecks between The Lowry and the nearest motorway meant that when two theatres, several cinemas and Old Trafford all disgorged their crowds at the same time, complete gridlock resulted. It took us over an hour to cover the first mile of our journey home, including 45 minutes just to exit the car park. The words “never again” were uttered repeatedly, and with feeling.

Once again I was moved to reflect how much I prefer catching my theatre in Grey Street. Do go and see Corrie! if it comes to Newcastle. But Manchester? I’d stick with watching Weatherfield on the telly.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

An old man's strange idea of heaven

Two issues are currently dominating the silly season columns of the national press: the decline of topless sunbathing and the fate of the British pork scratching.

As it happens, I am deeply concerned about both, since after many years of reflection I have concluded that heaven for me would be sitting in a deckchair on a beach, drinking a glass of cool (but not cold) English ale, eating a big bag of pork scratchings and watching a group of underdressed young ladies playing volleyball.

If they could be persuaded to sing a bit of baroque opera at the same time that would be absolute perfection, but I recognise that even paradise has its limits.

Where to find such a heaven on earth? Well, certainly not on Bamburgh beach last Wednesday, when the question was not whether it would be proper to shed the top half of a bikini, but whether to wear one overcoat or two while sheltering behind the windbreak. I had bought toddler Charlie his first bucket and spade in Seahouses, along with one of those little windmills I used to enjoy at his age. I sensed that his first visit to the seaside was not going to be a complete success when the top of his windmill promptly blew off.

So we adopted Plan B and went on a rain-lashed cruise around the Farne Islands, where Mrs Hann hoped to fulfil her lifetime’s ambition of seeing a puffin. If we’d gone last month she could have seen 35,000 of them, apparently. Now there were just two left, floating dozily on the sea and wondering where all their mates had gone. But at least they saved my day from being an unalloyed disaster.

True, Charlie also went “wow” at the grey seals. But then he said “wow” when he found an empty coat hanger in the bottom of our wardrobe this morning, so he may be quite easily impressed.

In short, at the end of four days trying to sell Northumberland as the ultimate holiday paradise, it is only my cunning ruse of allowing my passport to expire that is now keeping us from a beach where the sun might actually shine.

At least I thought the scenery on the Continent might have a point or two in its favour, but I read that the pendulum has swung back (as pendulums always tend to do) and topless sunbathing is increasingly considered outré and indecent. Poor little Charlie. By the time he’s old enough to appreciate that sort of thing, the beach babes will presumably all be shrouded in burkas.

Could it be coincidence that some in the health police are lobbying to mass medicate all milk with added Vitamin D, because we are no longer getting enough of it from sunshine? Which might, of course, be related to the health police’s previous warnings about the dangers of contracting skin cancer.

You can’t win, and I’ll tell you why. Because we’re all going to die of something, whether we follow their well-intentioned advice or not.

So what of those pork scratchings, you ask? Articles are being written elsewhere claiming that the health police are trying to ban them, but my usual extensive research has uncovered only a mild suggestion from the Food Standards Agency, in a pre-World Cup advice leaflet, that fans might like to consider nibbling unsalted peanuts rather than scratchings while watching the match in a pub.

But now someone has been daft enough to raise the subject, no doubt an anti-scratchings campaign will soon be hurtling down the slipway. Clearly the only sound advice about this and any other pleasure is to enjoy it while you can. Just as, with the benefit of hindsight, I now wish I had spent more time on beaches with my uninhibited female friends back in the dear old 1980s.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Who really deserves to be famous?

Last week, as every week, the front pages of our national newspapers were dominated by pictures of attractive women. Two in particular caught my eye.

The first was the “supermodel” Naomi Campbell, tragically inconvenienced by being summoned to the International Criminal Court to reveal her mind-numbing ignorance of Liberia, its president and the appearance of uncut diamonds.

The second was the British doctor Karen Woo, cruelly murdered as she went about her selfless work of helping the sick in one of the most godforsaken corners of Afghanistan.

Now, which of those two was more deserving of public recognition and reward? The question is surely a “no brainer” – or a “Naomi”, as I have just decided to rebrand it. But that is not how our system works.

We are told that most of the young these days aspire above all to be famous. Not famous for anything in particular, just a celebrity of some sort. And to think that, in my day, most schoolboys had no higher ambition than to be an engine driver. I certainly didn’t.

If fame is your desire, it is entirely logical to seek it by, say, taking your clothes off, caterwauling or kicking a ball about. Because, let’s face it, the people who try to do some good in the world are only going to make major headlines if they get killed or screw up in some important respect that can be presented as a “scandal”.

This is not the fault of the media, incidentally. They are merely in the business of selling newspapers or TV advertising by giving us, the public, what we want. Which is, apparently, a steady supply of people whose minimal talents we can relate to. We enjoy sharing their early triumphs, then usually turn ever so slightly jealous when they rub our noses in their wealth and reveal how wearisome they actually find us through their attitude to photographers and autograph hunters.

Next comes the best bit: revelling in their inevitable downfalls as they succumb to drink, drugs, financial overstretch, marital disagreements or what the tabloids like to call “The Big C” (which they always pledge to beat, but so rarely do).

None of this is new. It was going on when I was a lad. It was just that the sums to be reaped from attaining celebrity status were massively smaller - but then so were the rewards for being a chief executive or a successful banker.

In the olden days, they had local celebrities to keep them entertained; they sat on a gate in a smock with a straw in their mouth and were known as the village idiot. At the top end of the scale, one fool with a bladder on a stick might rise to the dizzy heights of court jester.

All are dust and ashes now – forgotten as surely as most of the front page celebrities of today will be in 30 years’ time.

I cannot really lecture on this, having done remarkably little good in my own life and clearly hankering after some public recognition by writing a newspaper column. But I would strongly urge the young to consider that their lives are going to be short and uncertain; that they only get one chance at them, so far as we know; and that it might, on the whole, be better to focus on leaving the world a better place than on winning a contract with Simon Cowell.

For as Lord Byron put it, “What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.” And, as one of the most notoriously scandalous mega-celebrities of his day, he surely knew what he was talking about.

Or, if you insist, follow the fine example of Naomi and simply wonder “Who’s Lord Byron?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

What's wrong with some respect, mate?

One of the great milestones of my life was the first time a shop assistant called me “sir”, as opposed to “son” or “ye thor”.

Turners camera shop in Pink Lane was the place, the year 1968 (making me 14) and I was planning a major purchase: a new film cassette for the cheap and nasty “own label” camera someone had conned me into buying, instead of the Kodak Instamatic I really wanted.

I naturally suspected that the assistant was taking the mickey and looked over my shoulder, expecting to see the older figure he was addressing. But blow me down if he didn’t say it again a couple of times, and almost seem as though he meant it. It put me in a good mood for days, and made me a loyal customer of Turners until the business expired.

Compare and contrast my experience of last week, as a white-haired bloke, approaching the till at the PC store in Kingston Park clutching the cable I needed to connect my computer to some other electronic gizmo. The price was an amazing £23.99, for something that can’t have cost more than a quid to make, albeit encased in at least a fiver’s worth of packaging.

“All right, mate?” the youth behind the till enquired. I was sorely tempted to point out that we were neither in a sexual relationship nor friends, making the word “mate” wholly inappropriate. It’s the speech I normally deliver to white van drivers who ask me for directions, shortly before they drive off in a flurry of screeching tyres and unprintable obscenities.

But life is short, so I decided to grit my teeth and let it go. Even when he proceeded to call me “mate” at least twice more during the simple process of ringing my purchase through the till. I just made a careful mental note never to shop there ever again.

Don’t retailers cover this sort of thing during the “staff training” sessions for which they all seem to close for half an hour every week? The only possible commercial justification for addressing a middle-aged customer as “mate” would be if the store had blood pressure monitors on special offer at the point of sale, and a demanding sales target to be met.

Or axes, possibly. If they had had one of those to hand I might well have bought it and used it to underline how I felt about their approach to customer service.

Apparently this is an age thing. My wife informs me that it is completely unrealistic to expect any sort of formality or respect from the young. They’re just not taught it any more.

Well, here’s a business-winning idea for retailers everywhere. Why not follow the fine example of B&Q and recruit older workers instead of spotty youths? (Thinking about it, can it be pure coincidence that B&Q does sell axes?)

In a PC store, the OAPs may not have a clue what they are talking about but then neither do most of the customers, so at least it will be an entirely level playing field.

They probably won’t swear, they certainly won’t wear trousers with the crutch below their knees (though they may have waistbands halfway up their chests), they will have some grasp of mental arithmetic, a smattering of common sense, and they won’t address your customers as “mate”.

Surely that has got to be a win-win situation for retailer and customer alike?

Mind you, when I got home, I realised that I had bought the wrong cable, but could not face going back for a refund or replacement since this would doubtless involve being patronised as a technologically illiterate old moron. So that was £23.99 straight down the gurgler. Back of the net, mate, as a rude young retailer might well put it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.