Tuesday 23 February 2010

Whistling to keep my spirits up

What will be the theme song of the 2010 General Election campaign? The tune that will bring it all back, like Proust’s madeleine, as “Things can only get better” encapsulates the crazed and, as it turned out, hopelessly misplaced optimism of 1997?

With my usual taste for the obvious, I am quite drawn to Noel Coward’s “There are bad times just around the corner”, but I fear that The Master’s cut glass tones would not be acceptable to any party in this demotic age. Like Sir Nicholas Winterton’s spirited defence of first class travel, even those of us who quietly agree with him must concede that it is a lost cause.

So how about “Smile, though your heart is aching”, a huge hit for Nat King Cole in the year I was born, 1954. Not only does Nat tick all the right ethnic boxes, but the tune was actually written by Charlie Chaplin as the theme music for his 1936 classic Modern Times, a silent film bravely released nine years after The Jazz Singer had ushered in the age of the talkie.

This is surely a movie for today not only because of its theme of the awfulness of modern industrial society, but also because Chaplin unfailingly reminds me of the present generation of politicians: always getting things hopelessly wrong, rarely if ever raising a laugh, yet ultimately proving maddeningly indestructible.

What could be more appropriate than “Smile” playing gently in the background as the candidates emote before hard-hitting interviewers like Piers Morgan or Fern Britton about the private tragedies they never like to talk about? At least the nation’s greengrocers must be getting a bonus from soaring sales of onions to help deliver their tears on cue.

I am sure I am not alone in being so sick of the present, and the three months of blindingly insincere electioneering still to come, that I find myself increasingly retreating to live in the past.

Which is no doubt why the other tune that has been running through my head since the sad death of Ian Carmichael is “What would I do without you, Jeeves?” The theme song of The World of Wooster, televised from 1965-67, this transports me back to an enchantingly batty black-and-white world of silly asses, dippy girls, fearsome aunts, silver cow creamers and the valet with a mighty, fish-fed brain.

From the moment I watched the first episode, and began devouring the books, I wanted to be Bertie Wooster. A drone who did nothing but sip cocktails, smoke gaspers and drive his two-seater to country house parties where something always went horribly wrong.

Sadly it proved not to be a career option without a formidable private income, so I decided that I wanted to be his creator P.G. Wodehouse instead, until I realised that I lacked not only his comic inspiration but also his formidable self-discipline as a writer.

What would Wodehouse have made of this bizarre world in which Calvinist Scots political obsessives try to pretend that they are warm, normal human beings while throwback upper-crust Tories flaunt their “change” credentials by assiduously offending their natural supporters?

Just thinking about it is enough to make anyone wish that they were back in the world of the menacing Roderick Spode and his Blackshorts, preparing to transform Britain in their swish uniform of black “footer bags”.

Yes, the outlook for the coming months is singularly depressing. But keep humming “Smile” to yourself, because it’s set to get an awful lot worse when whoever it is finally parks himself behind the Prime Ministerial desk in May or June, and feels able to come clean about the depths of the mess we are really in. Then we might all start thinking of another popular song from the last great depression of the 1930s, Leslie Sarony’s “Ain’t it grand to be blooming well dead.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Risk and elitism in the firing line

All-out war continues, not just in Afghanistan, but against domestic enemies as diverse as risk, elitism, racism, sexism, obesity and drunkenness. Almost the complete range of my interests and enthusiasms, in fact.

I was powerfully reminded of the campaign to eliminate risk by a report on Saturday that no fewer than nine fire engines had raced to Newcastle’s Mansion House so that firefighters (not, God forbid, firemen) in gas-tight suits could deal with a deadly seepage of mercury from an antique clock.

Forty years ago, just across Osborne Road at the Royal Grammar School, my schoolmates and I regularly amused ourselves by shunting globules of mercury around the railway lines carved in the ancient desks of the science department by previous generations of bored youths. Clearly we are lucky to be alive.

I returned to the school on Friday, in response to a kind invitation to lunch from its governors, and found that the passage of time had not erased a feeling of mild foreboding on entering the premises.

I arrived on the dot of 12.30 to avoid the risk of being slammed in late detention, carefully checked that my tie and trousers were properly fastened, and felt vaguely guilty that I was not wearing a crested blue cap.

Perhaps it is because the place has undergone such a comprehensive physical transformation since I left in 1971 that I feel strongly tempted to send my own son there, when he reaches the appropriate age in around 2017. All I will need is a full-time job in the North East paying enough to cover the fees, with a minimum retirement age of 75. All offers gratefully received.

My own parents faced no comparable concerns, because I enjoyed a Northumberland County Council scholarship; one of those devices designed to promote social mobility (still very good, apparently) but abolished because they were also redolent of elitism (now thoroughly bad).

On Sunday, my wife and I found another front opened in the war against risk at the church where we were married, which had been transformed into a building site. Contractors were busily levelling the floor, which had served perfectly well for two or three hundred years, because Elfin Safety now deemed it to pose an unacceptable “trip hazard”.

Later that day, I found myself in a restaurant opposite a man who shockingly observed of the passers-by “There are a lot of foreigners around here.” Ordinarily this would have been the cue for a visit from the diversity awareness police, but it merely raised a slightly puzzled laugh because the speaker was my Iranian father-in-law. A man so comprehensively assimilated that he answers the question of whether he prefers to be known as Iranian or Persian with “Actually, I prefer to be called British.”

I did not dare to ask how he felt about the news that the BNP was now prepared to admit (“welcome” might be pushing it, I guess) ethnic minority members. But I was interested to find that my wife’s uncle thoroughly approved of some distinctly non-PC remarks I had posted on my blog about that Iranian “criminal in uniform” Ali Dizaei, who rose almost to the top of the Metropolitan Police by relentlessly playing the “racism” card against anyone who stood in his way, and somehow became president of the Black Police Association despite what many might have seen as the fatal handicap of not being the least bit black.

This Persian feast was not quite the romantic meal à deux I had envisaged for my first Valentine’s Day as a married man, but it certainly beat the previous 40 years of moodily chewing a TV dinner for one, and regretting the lack of mawkish greetings cards on my mantelpiece.

Yes, even I am prepared to concede that, once in while, some things do change for the better.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

The best car in the world

The best car in the world is a Toyota. Fact. The highest build quality, most reliable, safest, least likely to rust. The man who told me this did so with the air of one who could hardly believe that I was so stupid as not to know it already.

I remember the conversation vividly, even though it must have taken place 15 years ago. We were at a corporate dinner in a top London restaurant and, in a desperate attempt to make conversation. I had mentioned that I was about to take delivery of a new car.

In those days I still had ambitions and aspirations, and was quietly chuffed about trading up to a Land Rover Discovery, a vehicle I had coveted for years. I told my neighbour and he performed the nose trick with a glass of extremely expensive claret, before spluttering “Are you mad?”

He then regaled me with a long series of stories about the appalling quality and unreliability of my dream motor. Tales lent a touch of credibility by the fact that my informant had been, until recently, the managing director of Rover. Oh dear.

Still, it was too late to cancel the deal so I just hoped I might strike it lucky. And I did. There was a worrying moment on my first outing when it began accelerating up The Peth in Wooler, despite the fact that my feet were nowhere near the pedals, but after this minor cruise control glitch was sorted out it gave me years of trouble-free motoring. I even managed to replace it with an equally unproblematic Range Rover, before trading that in for a newer model that finally conformed to my informant’s stereotype of wholly reliable unreliability.

I have been with the Japanese ever since, though not with Toyota. I knew by chosen marque was second best, but Toyota did not run to a dealership in Alnwick. I always believe in going for the best of what is available locally, whether I am shopping for groceries or a car.

It undoubtedly takes a heart of stone not to laugh because it now turns out that Toyota is “the car in front” because the accelerator pedal is jammed fully open and the driver is screaming blue murder. While there is no shortage of smug smart alecs eager to point out that it is still perfectly possible to control a vehicle under these conditions.

However, many years ago precisely the same thing happened to me in my very first car, a magnificent 1956 MG Magnette, after a botched service. I knew that I could still bring it to a safe stop with the aid of the clutch and brakes, but while I was working on that it piled into the back of an Austin Allegro that had inconsiderately stopped at some traffic lights. It made a small dent in my radiator, and shortened the Allegro by about three feet. It was not an experience I would care to repeat. Nor, I dare say, would the other driver.

So my heart goes out to all you worried Toyota owners today, as it does to all those disillusioned Labour voters who saw 1997 as the dawn of a new era. You both did your market research and went for the best available. How can it all have gone so very wrong?

You may not instantly spot this parallel, but it is screamingly clear to me. Not least because, in the slow and fuzzy response to the little accelerator pedal difficulty and in the swiftly released first line of defence for those Labour MPs charged with expenses fiddling (“You can’t touch us, mate, we’re above the law”) I feel sure that I detect the hand of the same, inspired public relations adviser. Unusually, for once, when things are going horribly wrong, it isn’t me.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Are we really yearning for change?

Nowadays the base assumption of politicians of all parties, in every country, is that people are yearning for change. My suspicion, however, is that many of us want nothing more fervently than to be left alone.

Manufacturers and retailers also believe that they can do better for themselves through the constant quest for something “new and improved”. Even the world’s most powerful brands sometimes get this horribly wrong.

In the 1980s I twice visited the city of Columbus, Georgia. Here, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, druggist John Pemberton dreamt up a medicinal drink flavoured with coca leaves (the source of cocaine) and kola nuts (providing caffeine). He called it Coca-Cola.

Back in 1985, I was proudly presented with one of the first cans of a revolutionary drink called New Coke: like Coca-Cola, only sweeter. It had naturally been launched to replace the original only after a massive programme of market research, which demonstrated unequivocally that it was what the public wanted.

The result was a textbook PR and marketing disaster. However much they claimed to prefer it in blind taste tests, Americans soon made it clear that they were not prepared to drink the new stuff. Within months the old formulation had been reintroduced as “Coke Classic”, and New Coke was eventually dropped altogether.

Clearly having learnt nothing from this story, a couple of years ago Nestlé completely reformulated the 70-year-old Black Magic brand, filling the boxes with supposedly more upmarket square truffles. Once again a consumer backlash led to the reappearance of something called “Black Magic Classic Favourites”, though sadly I can detect little resemblance between these and the original selection my late mother enjoyed so much. On the other hand they have got rid of that Montelimar chocolate that was always left behind at the end, so at least there has been one small improvement.

Compared with New Coke, New Labour has won rather a lot of popular votes and had a decent run on the shelves, but has it ultimately delivered any more consumer satisfaction? The public finances are in ruins, just like in Old Labour days, inequality has increased and for some reason Mr Blair’s performance at the Iraq enquiry reminded me irresistibly of John Major’s cruel line about hearing “the flapping of white coats” whenever he encountered one of his more obsessive critics.

It is head-bangingly frustrating that so much political discourse is devoted to correcting the entirely predictable results of previous Government initiatives. You massively liberalise the licensing laws, then discover that you have a problem with binge drinking. Well, blow me down.

Sell off the playing fields and create a culture of fear in which it is deemed unsafe for children to walk to school, then find that you have an issue with childhood obesity. Who would ever have thought it?

Export the country’s manufacturing jobs to China and rely on the income generated from financial services, then discover that the fantastic results of the number jugglers were actually all achieved with smoke and mirrors. Who would have predicted that? Well, only anyone who had ever read some history.

The problem is that the tyranny of the focus groups gives us, on the other side, the equally flavourless, impeccably socially liberal New Conservatives. Every party is constantly scouring the world for exciting new ideas, and all profess a fanatical commitment to “social mobility” without ever acknowledging that there must be snakes as well as ladders. We cannot all be company chairmen, university professors or members of the cabinet.

I long for someone in British politics with the guts that the Coca-Cola Company showed in admitting that they had got it wrong and reverting to their original formulation.

Bring on an election fought between Classic Conservatives and Labour Classic Favourites, ideally minus that rather sinister ingredient, Lord Montelimar of Foy and Hartlepool.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.