Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Jolley guide to gatecrashing

Truth is nearly always stranger than fiction. Even so, my credulity was stretched to the limit by recent media coverage of the so-called Jolley Gang of professional gatecrashers.

You might have thought that this was a phenomenon of the Facebook generation, whose teenage parties are so often overrun by hundreds of total strangers, to the severe detriment of their unfortunate parents’ houses and treasured possessions.

But it seems it is not so. The eponymous Terrence Jolley, an implausibly Dickensian former magistrate and convicted fraudster, may be only 35, but his supposed comrades in arms are mainly retired people from well-heeled and respectable professions. And banking.

They allegedly amuse themselves by systematically gatecrashing events at which free drink and food is likely to be served, such as book launches, wine-tastings and funerals. The writer and broadcaster Victoria Coren was so mightily hacked off by their appearance at her father Alan’s memorial service that she arranged another for a completely fictitious character called Sir William Ormerod, and waited for them to fall into her trap.

Sadly she did not go through with her original plan of subjecting them to a long sermon on the evils of gatecrashing, then serving them sandwiches laced with laxatives.

But the story goes that one member of the Gang, a retired banker called Alan MacDonald, nevertheless received his come-uppance earlier this month by choking to death on a canapé at the Dorchester Hotel, after gatecrashing a party held to celebrate the national day of Kuwait. An Islamic state, so perhaps not the natural choice for anyone looking for an evening of free booze. It sounded suspiciously like an early April Fool spoof.

Personally, I have always been inclined to side with Jane Austen’s Mr Woodhouse in feeling that “the sooner every party breaks up, the better”, so I find it hard to enjoy events of this sort even when invited to them. What could motivate anyone to be there when actively unwanted?

Yet I watched in amazement last year as my own wedding reception was invaded by some obese, middle-aged grotesques who hoovered up what was left of the evening buffet and then became a major hazard to shipping by hurling themselves crazily around the dance floor. Even when politely asked to leave by the management, they appealed for a stay of execution on account of their close friendship with the bride and groom. Apparently they did this every Saturday.

In my days in the City, company annual general meetings provided many fertile opportunities to observe the besuited, elderly, middle class freeloader in action. It was not enough to return from the customary buffet with teetering stacks of free food; if they thought no-one was looking, trays full of sandwiches and sausage rolls would be tipped into capacious handbags, while showcases of company products would be stripped as though by locusts. I seem to remember RHM once employing bouncers to stop a riot breaking out over a particularly fine display of Sharwood’s pickles.

One saw the same hungry faces time and again. Those who took the thing seriously scanned the financial press for meetings with a promising lunchtime kick-off, and some even bought a single share in each company to justify their presence. Young & Co, the London brewer, held an annual meeting that became a legendary all-day booze-up; until, inevitably, it was scaled down because the brashest freeloaders had spoiled it for everyone, as they always do.

In these hard times, companies increasingly find excuses to hold their meetings well before lunch – if outside London, ideally before the first train from the capital reaches town. Shareholder democracy suffers as a result.

As for funerals and memorial services, when considering whether to offer refreshments afterwards the question can only be this. Would the deceased have seen the funny, or indeed the Jolley, side of gatecrashing?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

P.S.  If you think the whole story of the Jolley Gang sounds wonderfully unlikely, as do I, follow this  link to today's entry in my Bloke in the North blog, from which I have provided further links to coverage in some supposedly reputable newspapers.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The mouse and the Hitler moustache

In a week full of surprises, the mouse running out of the restaurant kitchen was only narrowly trumped by the chauffeur sporting an Adolf Hitler-style toothbrush moustache.

He claimed to have done it for a bet – the chauffeur, that is, not the mouse. And, when I told my wife how much he stood to make if he kept ignoring the jibes of angry passers-by until Christmas, she vowed to grow one herself. Now all we need is someone to wager that she cannot do it. I would step up to the plate myself, but that would rather defeat the object of enriching us as a family.

My first surprise came before all that on Monday, when we arrived in north Norfolk for a few days of rest and recuperation. I have long been fond of the area, since in my years working in London something about its remoteness and emptiness evoked memories of my beloved Northumberland.

Now, however, Sleepy Hollow has become the Klondike. The excellent Crown Hotel in Wells-next-the-Sea had commissioned a large extension to its restaurant since I last passed by, and on an out-of-season weekday I anticipated no need to book. But the place was busier than I had ever seen it, with many of the tables occupied by parties of middle-aged males. Had it become the unlikely setting for a greybeard gay encounter group?

Discreet enquiries soon established that this was not the case. The men were pioneers constructing the massive Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm, to service which a dredger was industriously creating new berths in the quiet harbour. A local property owner told me that all concerned in the project were so awash with cash that they were happily paying double the going rate to rent his house.

I pointed out that this was because they were being drenched in public subsidies to create this ludicrous “saving the planet” PR stunt, an analysis with which he readily agreed. “But it’s like getting a tax rebate,” he said. “You know they’re only giving you some of your own money back, but it’s still nice.”

My own happiest surprise came on Saturday morning, when I surfaced from my Norfolk sickbed after 24 hellish hours sharing it with a winter vomiting bug, and my nine-month-old son nodded at me and distinctly said “Dadda”: his first intelligible utterance. Admittedly he has been rehearsing the sound to himself in his cot for weeks now, but hitherto all invitations to repeat it at an appropriate moment had been greeted with his all-purpose response “Guck”.

The mouse incident occurred during a brief visit to London on Tuesday, when I had lingered over lunch for long enough to be prepared to dismiss it as a Burgundy-induced hallucination, until another rodent appeared by our table to give us a close inspection. The management dismissed it humorously; we were in a very old building, right by the river, so what else did we expect?

Very fair points, though I could not help thinking that if we had been in a commercial establishment rather than the dining room of the House of Lords, Elfin Safety officials from Westminster City Council would have had it closed down and sealed with “scene of crime” tape before you could say “men in tights”. Still, as we know through every story from the smoking ban to the expenses scandal, different rules apply in the Palace of Westminster.

I was just glad that Mrs Hann was not with me, as she would undoubtedly have leapt onto her chair and screamed in the style made famous by the maid in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. In the unlikely event that I am ever invited back after this, I must remember to try to take her so that I can report whether the experience sets her new moustache bristling.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Depression - speaking as I find

It may be hard to believe, but this column never sets out to cause offence.

Not even when discussing Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or (in the interests of balance) “Dave” Cameron. The pain occasionally caused to their diehard fans is, as American commanders mumble when apologetically surveying the ruins of another innocent party’s home, “collateral damage”.

Critics might be on a sounder footing if they complained that I do not know what I am writing about. My usual specialist subjects are British history and public relations (and when did the latter ever feature in a pub quiz?)

But then there is also clinical depression. Claiming that I am offensively ignorant of the subject, as one angry correspondent to Voice of the North did last week, is a bit like accusing the Duke of Edinburgh of not knowing the first thing about tactlessness.

I would rather not bang on about it, but for the record I was first diagnosed with clinical depression as long ago as 1973, and have been treated for recurrences ever since.

Drugs, counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and psychiatry: I have tried them all, to greater or lesser effect. The pills proved the most successful, helping me to hold down a reasonably stressful job for a couple of decades, but I gave them up six years ago because I was taking so many daily prescription medications that I could sense myself rattling.

Over the years I have found various practical measures that, at least for me, help to combat depression. Getting up early in the morning, having something practical to do, taking exercise and not eating too much are all good ideas. Avoiding alcohol, a noted depressant, is generally sound advice, though there have been occasions when a couple of pints of beer proved to be just what the doctor ordered to achieve a positive mood swing.

Getting really deeply involved in a good book, or an exceptional film, can do the trick for me, as can writing – a diary, blog, letters, emails or even a column. A change of scene is also usually helpful, if it can be managed.

The frustrating thing is having almost 40 years of such useful knowledge at one’s fingertips and still ending up on a sofa completely disabled by despair, which is how I spent the weekend before last. That is why I was a bit angry with myself when I wrote last week’s column, and perhaps inclined even more than usual towards the “Pull yourself together, man” school of thought on the subject.

I know that I am by no means the only depressive to have some sympathy with this approach. However, as I have written before, it is not a helpful way to deal with depressives in general, and particularly those encountering the condition for the first time. They need your sympathy, support and encouragement to seek medical help.

The best excuse I can offer for returning to the subject this week is that increasing openness about depression can only be a good thing. The fact that high achievers like Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell now talk and write so freely about their experiences helps to remove the stigma traditionally associated with any form of mental illness, while anyone with five minutes to spare and a working internet connection can easily assemble a list far longer than this column of statesmen, writers, artists, composers and performers whose depression was a key component of their characters.

Last week my wife hauled me out of the pit by almost physically dragging me onto a train to London. Today I have risen early and written this column. The sun is shining, spring is here. What could possibly go wrong? The knowledge that depression will almost certainly return is balanced by the assurance that it will also pass. No offence intended.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Can history be about to repeat itself?

It was the perfect weekend: the sun shone, birds sang, spring flowers bloomed and early lambs no doubt gambolled in the fields. Not that I appreciated any of this, as I was holed up indoors continuing my exhaustive trawl through a selection of suicide websites.

Frankly, I have no idea how anyone who has embarked on this quest ever comes to end it all. Every site I have found manages to be profoundly discouraging, asking whether the reader has given adequate thought to the impact on others, the irreversible nature of the act, the possibility that intense regrets will arise halfway through, and the fact that it is likely to hurt. A lot. So far, the last has proved the clincher in my case.

So why I am even making enquiries into the subject? Depression, that’s why. The sort of completely unjustified depression that even possession of a beautiful young family apparently cannot lift. It is a strange affliction, in my experience usually striking those who have nothing in particular to be depressed about. Those who are really stricken with critical illness, disability or poverty are usually far too busy coping with their practical difficulties to allow themselves the luxury of wallowing in misery.

Being depressed is unforgivably self-indulgent, as is writing about it here. Unfortunately this only adds to the self-disgust which fuels the condition.

How to snap out of it? Well, left to my own devices I would still be lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself, but Mrs Hann has insisted on getting us on board a train to London. Months ago I booked to see Placido Domingo singing in Handel’s Tamerlano – an opera by my favourite composer, and a great chance for my wife to hear one of the world’s greatest tenors in the autumn of his career. Naturally he has cancelled.

The following night, someone kindly invited me to a dinner with the Tory polemicist and biographer of Enoch Powell, Simon Heffer. Naturally he has cancelled.

I originally intended to base this column on a dinner last week with Sir John Major. I still find it hard to believe that the man was Prime Minister of this country for six and a half years; he will always seem like a feebly unsuccessful footnote to the Thatcher era. I do not know whether he cancelled or not, as etiquette seems to demand for any event I am scheduled to attend these days; but we certainly did, owing to the indisposition of our babysitter.

A shame, as it would have been handy to explore the parallels with current events. An unelected and uncharismatic Prime Minister, with a reputation for touchiness, succeeds a wildly successful leader who has delivered three thumping election victories in a row. The incumbent at 10 Downing Street is regarded with contempt and the country is yearning for change: how can the opposition possibly lose?

As I recall, John Smith managed it by announcing detailed plans for thumping tax increases, while his leader Neil Kinnock went raving mad and held a triumphalist rally in an arena in Sheffield that turned the nation’s collective stomach. Every Tory in Britain breathed a huge sigh of relief, then realised shortly afterwards that it would have been much more in the party’s interests to have lost the election.

Can Gordon Brown repeat the Major trick? Since I confidently predict that whoever wins the coming poll will shortly afterwards plumb record-breaking depths of unpopularity as they embark on the necessary budget-balancing spending cuts and tax increases, part of me feels that it is only fair that he should be charged with sorting out the monumental mess he has created.

Come on, Dave, get that rally booked and remember the crucial catchphrase, “Well, all right!” Despite the grim outlook, just picturing that scene has almost cheered me up.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Nothing to hide, plenty to fear

Do you sometimes wonder whether the human rights of the transsexual community might be commanding a disproportionate amount of our legislators’ attention?

Already this year there have been suggestions that it might be in breach of transsexual rights for skirts to form part of school uniforms, and for full body scanners to be installed at airports.

My problem with working up to a full-blooded rant about the latter is that frankly any excuse will do if it puts a spoke in the revolting plan to subject every air traveller to a “virtual strip search” before they are allowed on a plane.

Ah, the objection will come, so you’d rather be blown up mid-flight by some loon with half a pound of Semtex sewn into his undercrackers? Obviously not, but the fanatics have already progressed to smuggling explosives internally, so where do you stop? X-rays and CAT scans for every traveller, complementing those smart new ticket gates at the Central Station?

As I recall I was still at primary school when I was introduced to the traditional question put to would-be conscientious objectors during the world wars: how would you react if you found a group of German soldiers about to rape your sister?

I won no marks for my smart response: with considerable surprise, since so far as I know I haven’t got a sister.

Last week I was fortunate to attend a dinner at which the charming Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, attempted to deal with the 2010 equivalent: how would she respond if terrorists had planted a ticking nuclear bomb and torture might help to persuade a suspect to reveal its location?

With great honesty, she concluded that she could not say exactly how she would react if she found herself charged with that grave but vanishingly unlikely responsibility. But since it is vanishingly unlikely, how can it possibly be right to frame public policy on the off-chance that it might arise?

The whole apparatus of extraordinary rendition, torture and extra-judicial killing simply erases the difference between us good guys and the baddies we are supposed to be combating. And quite apart from this moral case, there is the simple practical one that it stirs up resentment in a way perfectly calculated to win more recruits to the terrorist cause.

In all the arguments about CCTV surveillance, identity cards, DNA testing and ever-tighter security, you will hear the siren voice proclaiming “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.” Few things have shocked me more over the years than attending functions full of well-fed, middle class people at which politicians and law enforcers have assured us that planned inroads into traditional liberties are not intended to affect People Like Us.

Dear me, no. Of course cracking down on yobboes swilling lager in the streets will not prevent you enjoying a civilised bottle of champagne with your picnic at Glyndebourne. Except, of course, that the universal law of unintended consequences usually means that each small erosion of someone else’s freedom tends to have knock-on effects that no-one thought through.

Every premature death is sad, whether it results from terrorism, dodgy street furniture, careless driving, inadequate parenting, the employment of a homicidal maniac or excessive consumption of lard, fags and ale. But the reaction to each such fatality is now the demand that “something must be done”, resulting in a culture of legislation, monitoring and preaching that is ultimately depriving us of our dignity as a free people as surely as being inspected naked on an airport scanner.

The control society steadily encroaching upon us will ultimately fail by alienating vast numbers of naturally law-abiding people to the point where they take a stand and say “No more”. With politicians allegedly in listening mode before the General Election, let 2010 be the year we begin to recover a sense of proportion.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.