Tuesday 29 June 2010

The best thing anyone can teach you

The first rule of reunions is this: never, ever accept an invitation to one unless you have pre-arranged a quorum of congenial friends to shelter you from the crashing bores who are drawn to such events like moths to a flame.

Luckily I had taken this precaution on Saturday night, or I would have ended up sharing dinner with quite possibly the most boring man in the world, and three of his almost equally dull friends. A scenario which would, by around halfway through the first course, almost certainly have pushed me over the edge in quite spectacular fashion.

As it was, I also had three of my old chums within shouting distance, though I would have greatly benefited from an old-fashioned ear trumpet, as sported by Evelyn Waugh.

The occasion for which we were all gathered was a reunion at my college in Cambridge, which every few years invites its old students back for dinner, chiefly to remind us of the debt of gratitude we owe to it and might like to think about repaying. Wills were probably uppermost in their minds on this occasion, given that their oldest guest had come up in 1934, and celebrated his 95th birthday on Sunday, while the youngest was me or one of my contemporaries from the intake of 1972.

Consequently this was an all-male and pretty much all-white occasion, or grey in the case of hair. Even so, the guest speaker might have slightly misjudged his audience when he spoke of our shared memories of the war and national service, and ventured that “even the youngest amongst us have entered the grandparent generation”. I fear that my resultant cry of “Not me, mate!” might well have been a serious breach of etiquette.

Now, the reason for bringing this up is that I have met many people who consider that they or their children have missed out one of life’s most glittering prizes by failing to get into Oxbridge. It would be idle to deny that once or twice it has proved a useful addition to my CV. But be under no delusion that the majority of people who go there, or teach there for that matter, are particularly clever or interesting. Many, like my unchosen companions at dinner, are world class dullards who are now on the final descent to retirement looking back on lives remarkably empty of any meaningful achievement. They, no doubt, could say the same of me.

By contrast, the most interesting and successful people I know nearly all left school at the first opportunity, with minimal qualifications, and went on to work hard to better themselves in what snobs used to deride as “trade”.

Universities are great places to go and have fun for three years, and develop the extra-curricular interests that may sustain you in later life or, if you are lucky, give you an opening to a career you might actually enjoy. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I now realise that I should have devoted my time at Cambridge to student journalism and writing bad comedy. Instead I wasted it reading the occasional history book and drinking too much beer. I did so because in those days I lacked the confidence to be myself.

It might make life unbearable if we all ended up as braying Hooray Henries, but it seems to me that the best thing the new generation of academies can do for their pupils is to give them the sort of self-confidence with which the products of our great public schools have always been far too amply supplied.

Oh, and it would also add greatly to the sum of human happiness if they could instil enough self-knowledge to know when one is being unbearably boring, and the time has come to give the caravanning anecdotes a rest.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Wrong about Gordon and the Garden

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned. To find peace, I must now recant and proclaim to you all that Gordon Brown is an absolutely cracking chap, and the Alnwick Garden is not pants.

To be fair, the Gordon Brown I have in mind is not the famed genius who abolished boom and bust, but a distinguished local solicitor of the same name. He is one of the old school chums I wrote about last week (and not, I hasten to add, the one with a mail order bride).

His fate was apparently sealed by a late change of name from Stephen to Gordon on the grounds that the latter “could not be mucked about with”. This must have been something of an obsession in the North East of 1954, because I was christened Keith for precisely the same reason. Ironically my wife calls me “Keitho”, so it is surely only the fact that we had them cremated that prevents me from being kept awake at night by the sound of my parents turning in their graves.

Local Gordon has amused himself for the last few years by replying to emails intended for his slightly more famous namesake, including ones asking the then Prime Minister why, when his main workplace was in London and his constituency in Kirkcaldy, he also had an office in Newcastle.

Geordie Gordon has also been moved to write occasional letters to Downing Street, packed with helpful advice. Since he has a high regard for paternity, as the end approached he naturally urged the beleaguered PM to lay down his painful burden and focus on the joys of parenthood.

Advice which Scottish Gordon duly followed when he announced that he was stepping down to focus on the most important job in the world, being a father and husband. Thereby guaranteeing one last burst of unfavourable comment from those outraged that he had been sending other people’s sons to die in Afghanistan in a job that was not even his top priority.

As for the Alnwick Garden, I am not entirely sure that I have ever shared with you my long-standing view of it as a bit of a disappointment. Very occasionally, I do hear faint echoes of my mother’s advice: “If you haven’t got something nice to say, don’t say anything.”

But the fact is that I went not too long after it opened and comprehensively failed to see what the fuss was about. There was not much to see apart from a big, bare waterfall, and frankly that was not a patch on the other ducal cascade at Chatsworth. I came away scratching my head at where all the money invested in the project had actually gone.

Now, I know that I was not alone in this feeling because I mentioned in the village shop last week that I would be spending the afternoon in the Garden, over my own dead body, and was greeted with a general shaking of heads. “It is,” one customer observed, “the sort of place that people from out of the area want to go.”

I duly trudged along in a spirit of resignation and came out hugely uplifted. The planting has matured beautifully, the Treehouse is magnificent, and the treetop walkways huge fun if you come equipped with a baby buggy and a nervous wife.

My one-year-old was entranced by the water sculptures, the blossoms and the white doves billing and cooing by their cotes. In short, we had an absolutely terrific afternoon. I realise that this will not be news to many of you, but some of us never appreciate the treasures on our doorsteps and others, like me, simply need to give them another go.

It’s not a bad principle to apply when approaching most things in life.

Though not for you, obviously, Scottish Gordon.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Foot in mouth disease strikes again

Out of step with the national mood as ever, I sat happily watching the highlights of Trooping the Colour on Saturday evening, while the rest of the country was glued to England’s inglorious World Cup performance against the United States.

As my elderly neighbours remarked when I called upon them during the live broadcast of the parade that morning, “There’s no other country in the world can put on a show like this.” The same might be said of the football, of course, but for sadly different reasons. On Horse Guards Parade, everyone looked smart and knew their roles to perfection. No-one made any risible mistakes, and there was no sign of any of the participants feeling the urge to hug and kiss each other when it came to a successful conclusion.

I was reminded of my late father’s ritual declaration at the start of each FA Cup Final that the best players on the pitch that afternoon would be the Guards band entertaining the crowd at half time.

Soldiers’ wages seem remarkably good value compared with those of footballers, too. And who would you rather have on your side if you came under terrorist attack? The Brigade of Guards or Fabio Capello’s finest? I rest my case.

My son Charlie, who will be one on Friday, was enthralled when I showed him edited highlights of the royal birthday celebrations on Sunday. He particularly liked the men shouting orders, the big drums, the slow marches, the horses and the gun salute. He also seemed quite chuffed to see the Queen and Prince Philip, though a little puzzled that they looked so different from their appearance in his favourite picture, a cinema poster on my dining room wall for Flight of the White Heron, the film of their Commonwealth tour of 1954.

That was also the year I was born. Since then Britain has changed almost beyond recognition, though some of us can shelter from that reality by living in favoured rural areas where some aspects of traditional life survive; and by carefully choosing our TV viewing to focus on those few unchanging rituals that the BBC still feels obliged to cover.

Most of this sea change has taken place since I left school in 1971, a fact of which I was reminded on Thursday night when I went to the Bacchus in Newcastle for a reunion drink with a couple of men I have not seen since then. (Even at 56, it seems a bit unnatural to be writing “men” rather than “boys”.) We had taken the precaution of exchanging a couple of photographs beforehand, but I still found them surprisingly recognisable. Apparently the main difference in me is that I am a lot less reserved than I was 39 years ago, which may not be an unqualified blessing.

I should certainly have kept my mouth shut when one of them explained that he too had waited until he was over 50 to start a family, following his marriage to a lovely Russian lady, and I jokingly piped up “You did not find her on www.russianbrides.com, did you?” Only for him to reply “I did, actually.”

First prize for tactlessness to Hann, as usual. Trooping the Colour is not the only thing in national life that never changes, but I dearly wish that I could learn to engage brain before opening mouth. However, recent disturbing signs of failing memory and increasing confusion make it increasingly unlikely that I ever will.

So if there is anyone else out there who has not seen me since 1971 and feels that they would like to get together to be accidentally insulted over a pint or two of real ale, may I urge them drop me a line immediately, while I might still have some vague idea who they are.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

The fine art of not giving offence

Last Wednesday, when I first heard about the dreadful events in what I still call Cumberland, I made two predictions: a knee-jerk reaction by the Government on gun ownership, and the cancellation of that evening’s climactic episode of Coronation Street.

I was delighted to be proved wrong on the first point. Tony Blair would surely have offered a moving soundbite followed by a variant on the last Prince of Wales’s hand-wringing declaration that “something must be done”. The polite version of David Cameron’s analysis seems to be the more realistic “bad things will always happen”. Though those Tory newspapers celebrating the move away from Labour’s nanny state should remember that the notorious Dangerous Dogs Act was a Conservative creation.

I did not really expect my other forecast to prove correct, and duly took my place on the sofa at 9p.m. only to find that Coronation Street had indeed been taken off the air. Though replaced not with solemn classical music but a repeat of Harry Hill’s TV Burp, which seemed a mildly eccentric way of showing respect.

I have pondered long and hard on the rights and wrongs of this, and read many of the comments on Coronation Street’s Facebook page following its non-appearance on Thursday and Friday as well as on the evening of the massacre. Most were written with the vituperative single-mindedness that seems to be the default setting of those moved to share their thoughts on the internet, and a clear majority were mightily hacked off to be deprived of their promised entertainment.

Sure, they conceded, it was bad luck that Corrie should have come up with a story line about a gun siege that reached its climax on the day of an actual shooting spree, but surely anyone could see that it was fiction, filmed months in advance, and bore no relation to reality?

Ranged against this view were those sensitive to the feelings of those directly affected by the Cumbrian tragedy, who clearly should be first in our thoughts. Oh yeah, came the heartless reply, won’t they actually have something better to do this evening than watching a TV soap?

The most telling comment I read was from an American, who simply observed that if the US networks started pulling shows every time there was a shooting, it was unlikely anyone would ever see a scheduled programme.

For once I do not have a strong view on any of this. My late mother took offence at most depictions of crime on TV, on the grounds that “it is just giving people ideas”, but if you follow that logic you would do better to ban the news than Midsomer Murders.

I do not for the life of me understand why TV and radio soaps have to be recorded so far in advance that it is all but impossible for them to reflect current events – though the dear old Archers occasionally tries, when a member of the Royal family drops off the perch or the nation is gripped by some natural disaster, and a brief conversation about it is clunkingly inserted.

I have no idea who is responsible for reading the national mood at our major broadcasters, and no understanding at all of the thought processes by which they deem some programmes to be unacceptable in the light of the news, while others that I find offensive at the best of times carry on regardless.

But if a gun siege at the Underworld knickers factory was too upsetting to be shown on Wednesday night, why was it OK for it be screened yesterday evening, presumably without being re-edited to show the gunmen realising the error of their ways? Those directly affected by last week’s events in the real world will never forget them. Do the memories of the rest of us really last just five days?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

The PR pathway to the very top

Hands up everyone who felt that “a new dawn has broken, has it not?” after last month’s general election. Were you not seduced by the promise of a youthful, innovative coalition, drawn from a squeaky clean new House of Commons, purged of expenses fiddlers by popular anger?

Those of us of a right-wing disposition looked forward to being able to buy the Daily Telegraph again, without being bored rigid by daily accounts of some unknown MP’s furniture purchases and the fact that he shockingly had the stuff delivered to his constituency home, where someone was in to sign for it, rather than an empty Westminster flat.

And what do we find? The news is so much like Groundhog Day that I keep thinking of that badge I used to see during the elections of the 1970s: “If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it.”

Although it attracted little comment at the time, I was struck during my long and pointless post-election vigil by the number of MPs returned with comfortable majorities despite having been at the very heart of the expenses scandal. For some reason the name of Hazel Blears springs immediately to mind.

Perhaps Liberal Democrats escaped closer scrutiny because they were drawn from a joke party seen to stand no chance of actually taking office. But now the Treasury has become a sort of shooting gallery, with David Laws already despatched because of his undeclared partner, and Danny Alexander in the firing line because of his alleged avoidance of capital gains tax.

If this ploy works, the process will presumably continue until the supply of Liberal Democrat candidates is exhausted, and Mr Cameron is forced to appoint a Conservative who shares the Telegraph’s prejudice against raising capital gains tax. Which would be ironic, to say the least. It would also be likely to precipitate the break-up of the coalition, but maybe that is the true objective.

The other argument being advanced against Mr Alexander is that he knows nothing about economics, and his previous biggest responsibility was as head of communications for the Cairngorms National Park.

Can this really be a valid objection when the Prime Minister’s only job outside politics was a seven year stint as director of corporate affairs (or chief spin doctor) for the ITV company Carlton Communications, in the course of which he acquired something of a reputation among financial journalists for not always telling the whole truth?

Nick Clegg, too, is a former lobbyist, which is the badge PR men like to wear when they are operating in the field of “public affairs”.

Far from being a new dawn, casting aside the black arts of spin employed by the likes of Lord Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, the election of 2010 marks the very apotheosis of PR.

According to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (of which I am not a member) there are now more than 48,000 people employed in PR in the UK and “the rate of growth in the number of jobs in PR at all levels has been higher than that of any management function over the last fifteen years”.

So that’s where we have been going wrong. Maybe the promised referendum on PR should address public relations rather than proportional representation.

There are currently 262 university courses in PR on offer in the UK, including such dazzling combinations as PR and dance at the University of Sunderland and PR with sports massage and exercise therapies at the University of Derby. Mind you, the latter also offers PR combined with culinary arts, which would have been just about the perfect grounding for my City career, assuming that it includes a decent wine-tasting module.

I wonder if there is any chance of signing up for a PhD to take my mind off our current political and economic morass?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.