Tuesday 27 April 2010

The most dangerous age is now 43

How do you tell when you are getting past it? For my parents the key marker was policemen, whose increasing youthfulness caused gloomy comment every time they fired up the Ford Consul for a weekend run to Druridge Bay.

With me it is business leaders and politicians. Never mind new appointments; these days people far younger than I am are retiring as chief executives after hugely rewarding stints at the top.

As for party leaders, when Gladstone made his great comeback in the Midlothian campaign of 1879-80 he was 70 and had been in Parliament since 1832. The current head of Gladstone’s party is 43 (though he looks younger) and has been an MP for five minutes, sorry, years.

While Gladstone barnstormed to victory through a series of lengthy open-air speeches reaching maybe 90,000 people, Mr Clegg has attained pole position in this election with just two 90-minute TV appearances.

If the Young Pretender really does have the keys to Number 10 at his disposal, how will he play his hand? I think we can guess the quality of his negotiating skills from the fact that Mr Clegg is an atheist and his wife a Catholic; their three children are being raised as Catholics.

Similarly, Mrs Clegg (as she apparently prefers not to call herself) is Spanish, while Mr Clegg is at least partially British (his own website draws attention to his Dutch mother and half-Russian father); their sons are called Antonio, Alberto and Miguel.

If his evident assertiveness with his very own European partner is anything to go by, we may surely conclude that “yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir” is one of the better polished phrases in the four EU languages in which Mr Clegg prides himself in being fluent.

Yet being an accommodating “New Man” seems to be considered a sure-fire turn-on for the voters. David Cameron, also 43 and from an eerily similar privileged background, works hard to project himself as young, hip and cool, getting down with the kids and surrounding himself with babes, whether for kissing in their prams or as Tory candidates in winnable seats.

Where is the voice of experience when you need it? Oh yes, there is Gordon Brown, but then his experience was creating the mess we are all in now, which is hardly the strongest argument for giving him our support.

It seems ironic that, as the average lifespan stretches out towards 100, we apparently believe that people will do their best work before they are even halfway there. Tony Blair entered Downing Street at 43: a truly alarming precedent.

Will we ever again have an octogenarian Prime Minister like Gladstone, Palmerston or Churchill? It is certainly not the way to bet, particularly after the going-over suffered by Mr Clegg’s geriatric predecessor Sir Menzies Campbell, forcibly retired at 66. Would that be why the long-serving Sir Alan Beith (67) seems to have become more or less invisible in this campaign?

Whether you are appointing a PR man, financial adviser, chief executive or Prime Minister, choosing someone who cannot remember the last time that things went really horribly wrong greatly increases the chances of it happening again. This time, someone with experience of getting things surprisingly right should be in pole position. What a shame Kenneth Clarke is both 69 and an unabashed euro fanatic.

I must conclude with a sincere apology to Mr Clegg for my egregious error last week in suggesting that he attended the same school as that unbearable toff George Osborne. I knew that Mr Clegg went to the academically distinguished and socially exclusive Westminster School. My lazy error was to believe that Mr Osborne did, too, when he actually went to St Paul’s. Which is no doubt why his nickname in Oxford’s deeply unlovely Bullingdon Club was “Oik”.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

If only I could vote for the ash cloud

My battle with pneumonia last week had a decidedly Franco-Italian flavour: lying down, conceding defeat and waiting for outside intervention. Mercifully it arrived in the form of powerful antibiotics, normally reserved for elephants with rampant septicaemia. These have so far taken me to the Battle of the Bulge phase of the campaign, with the cough of doom currently staging an improbable but determined fight back.

Still, at least it gave me time to think, for a change, and to reach one important conclusion. If the cough wins, the perfect epitaph for my gravestone will be “If only”. This should prove less controversial with the authorities than my previous choice, “Not sleeping, only dead”.

If only I could have predicted that the Elfin Safety worriers would prohibit all air travel for the best part of a week (with more to come) and that Nick Clegg would become the most popular British political leader since Winston Churchill, and if only I’d had the wit to place an accumulator bet on it, I could now be looking forward to a very comfortable retirement.

Marred a little, if the polls do not move, by having another five years of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister even if Labour comes third in the number of votes cast. Though at least such monstrous unfairness might finally provoke the supine taxpayers of Britain into meaningful revolt against their political system.

The trouble with the Clegg surge is that it is a meaningless revolt; an anti-politics gesture provoked by that televised non-debate which reduced the election to another episode of “Britain Lacks Talent”. It serves David Cameron right for pressing for these events in the belief that they would show up Gordon Brown for a fool, without pondering long and hard on the other possibilities.

My first problem with Mr Clegg is that I cannot hear his name without thinking of Last of the Summer Wine, and that nice old boy whose national treasure status has been consolidated by providing the voice of Wallace and Gromit. It would greatly increase my engagement with the electoral process if the next Prime Ministerial debate could be filmed in Holmfirth, with Clegg, Foggy Cameron and Compo Brown careering down a hillside on a souped-up DFS sofa, then being chased by a brush-wielding Harriet Harman in the role of Nora Batty.

Next, he unfortunately shares his name with those large horse flies that inflict such painful bites and are the best argument, apart from the climate, for avoiding the exposure of flesh while walking the Northumbrian moors.

Apparently no-one minds that he went to precisely the same “posh” school as that unbearable toff George Osborne, though admittedly he had the wit not to join the Cambridge equivalent of the Bullingdon Club, or at least not to get photographed in its uniform. But then going to the Eton of Scotland never did Tony Blair any electoral harm, did it? Different rules apply to Tories.

Finally, at the heart of Mr Clegg’s political philosophy lies enthusiasm for the project of European integration. I am sure the vast majority of the British people are not of the same view; so perhaps, as the focus turns to policies rather than personalities, this clegg may yet be swatted. One can but hope, remembering that Churchill reached his peak of personal popularity just weeks before he was ejected from office in favour of the anti-charismatic Clement Attlee.

Ask yourself this. If Mr Clegg really is the new Churchill, why has he not already commandeered a flotilla of small ships to sail to Dunkirk and bring our stranded compatriots home from the Continent?

Personally, I feel an increasingly soft spot for the invisible ash cloud that has stopped all those pesky carbon-emitting flights and may yet cool the whole northern hemisphere. How green is that? If only it were standing for election …

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 13 April 2010


I regret that I cannot make the usual Tuesday entry in this blog because I did not file a  Journal column this week; I did not feel well enough to write one. True, I could have made the same claim for the last several weeks, but now at least I have the backing of an official (if figurative) Doctor's Note certifying that I am suffering from pneumonia. Which is what you get, now I come to think about it (because I have been around this particular course before, hard though it is to believe that anyone would be stupid enough to do it more than once), if you try to ignore a hacking cough for weeks on the grounds that your NHS doctor will sniff "it's only a virus" and send you home without any treatment. Keep that up for long enough and you will end up, like me, scarcely able to move and swallowing the sort of antibiotics normally reserved for elephants with rampant septicaemia.

That is only my layman's interpretation, mind. The NHS doctor I finally consulted believes that I am actually suffering from Legionnaires' Disease. The test results are due tomorrow, and may open up the exciting possibility of wasting the next several weeks trying to track down some poor sod with a dodgy air conditioning system and then suing the backside off them.

Anyway, that's all, folks. The column may return next week or at some more distant date - though, like banging your head against a brick wall or indeed working in general, I have to say that it is lovely when you stop. In the meantime, I hope that this note may serve as an explanation and apology to any of you who have been wondering about my unexpected non-appearance at your office, meeting, church, pub, shop, club, political rally, dinner party or other social event; or why I have been so uncharacteristically dilatory in responding to your letter, e-mail, phone call etc etc.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

The ghost in the baby's bedroom

I am trying to be nicer, truly I am, though finding it more of a Brian Blessed Everest attempt than a mere uphill struggle. But I really must endeavour to set a decent example to the baby.

With his powers of imitation improving by the day, my wife and I are also striving to adjust our vocabulary so that, for example, the most shocking F-word in our repertoire is “Fiddlesticks”. This too is not without its challenges, particularly given the standards of other people’s motoring nowadays.

Then I discovered at the weekend that it may not be only our input we have to worry about. Although after midnight, I was still wide awake when the whispering voice came clearly over the baby monitor, causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end in the way that happens so often in bad novels, but very rarely indeed in real life – or mine, at any rate.

I urgently shook my beloved awake to tell her that someone – or something – was talking to our son, but by the time she had come round enough to take it in, it had naturally stopped. Luckily she did not immediately ring for the men in white coats to take me away, because the previous day she had been puzzled to find his nursery light switched on when she went in to him in the morning – and not by either of us.

Added to which, we had both heard footsteps in his bedroom on more than one occasion when we were downstairs. In fact, I have been hearing those footsteps regularly since 1987, but as a hardened sceptic I have variously dismissed them as the noise of expanding hot water pipes, the dog, mice wearing hobnail boots or simple hallucinations.

Now, when we hear the baby happily chattering away in the early morning, we will no longer be able to assume that he is simply talking to his teddy bear.

I just hope his invisible friend comes from an age when higher standards of politeness prevailed. While yielding to few in my enthusiasm for the benefits of the internet, I am regularly depressed by one baleful side-effect: the plague of barely literate abuse from people sheltering behind the comfortable anonymity of pseudonyms. The venom to be read on the average website’s message board makes me feel like a thoroughly nice person already.

At least I knew the identities of the people who shocked me so profoundly on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday morning news flagship Broadcasting House, when newspaper reviewer Omid Djalili announced between chortles “I can’t keep a straight face” while discussing the murder of South African white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche, and Guardian columnist Marina Hyde chipped in “He was still alive when the police found him in his remote farm, so I suppose at least you could say it was slow.”

My, how they all laughed. I sat astonished, waiting vainly for the programme’s host to ask the obvious “So, you’re in favour of the death penalty, are you?” And trying to imagine the fuss that would ensue if a group of right-leaning people had similarly rejoiced in the death of a black political leader. Not that there is the slightest chance of any such thing being allowed on the BBC this side of hell freezing over.

Thoroughly nasty piece of work though he no doubt was, a human being had just been brutally hacked to death. Even I, who am constantly getting into trouble for my inappropriate sense of humour, can see that is not a fit subject for comedy.

There is much to be said for my late mother’s precept: “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, say nothing at all.” Now I just need to hope that the ghost in the baby’s bedroom reads The Journal.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Monday 5 April 2010

The art of the AGM

Like most things, company Annual General Meetings are not what they were. However, this is probably a genuine improvement.

Traditionally, boards sparred with their shareholders for a few minutes, then took themselves off to a private room for a long, booze-fuelled lunch with their advisers. As an adviser who always enjoyed a drink, I found this reasonably agreeable, though it is hard to deny that it was an egregious waste of time.

The funniest AGM I ever attended was one held by Brooke Bond at the CafĂ© Royal in the early 1980s. I think they must have employed the famous PG Tips chimps to set up the public address system, because it deafened the audience with horrific feedback until the chairman ordered that it be turned off. Whereupon it began playing, at top volume, an apparently unstoppable recording of the previous year’s AGM.

I had taken with me a young graduate trainee who was rendered literally helpless with laughter. Eventually she asked, between sobs of mirth, whether all AGMs were as funny as this. It was my painful duty to inform her that this was sadly not the case. Most were enlivened solely by the chance to observe the outrageous behaviour of hungry and thirsty freeloaders whose ages, clothes and accents all suggested that they should know better.

In the early 1990s an entrepreneur friend of mine floated his business on the stock market and prepared for his first AGM with his customary attention to detail. First he chose a hotel in the middle of nowhere in Yorkshire, and a 9.30 kick-off that held out no promise of free food or drink. Then he asked his advisers to prepare a comprehensive brief covering every possible difficult question he might be asked.

The one shareholder who actually turned up naturally raised an issue that did not feature in the script. But luckily all was not lost. Along the table my chairman friend could see a non-executive director, who had himself chaired a successful public company for many years, hastily scribbling a note. He waited for it to be passed along the table and looked confidently at his questioner as he prepared to read out the words of wisdom it contained: “Tell him to [expletive deleted] off.”

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant who has not attended an AGM for a while.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.