Tuesday 27 July 2010

Tolerance is surely the right answer

I am married to a Muslim who resolutely refuses to wear a burka, no matter how often I point out that black is terribly slimming.

This should come as no surprise, given that the principal celebration she organised for our son’s first birthday was a hog roast. Or the fact that we share our bed with a Border terrier, in defiance of anything that the Koran might say about the uncleanliness of dogs (on which, let’s be honest, it’s probably not wrong).

As usual, I blame the parents. My Iranian mother-in-law refuses to eat lamb on the irrefutable grounds that it ‘tastes too lamby’ and substitutes pork in her otherwise traditional Persian dishes.

Even making allowances for Mrs Hann’s unconventional upbringing, I am struck by the fact that whenever the latest shock horror story about Muslim intolerance hits the media, it is usually her rather than me who launches into the standard reactionary rant about ‘how dare these people come over here and expect us to change our ways to suit them’.

Most of the recurrent accounts of uniformed servicemen being turned away by Muslim shop staff are, I strongly suspect, urban myths. It would be comforting to believe the same of the tales of dog owners being turfed off buses because their companions offend drivers or passengers. But, since the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association confirms that this is indeed a common problem, I suppose it must be true.

How do sightless Islamists find their way around, I wonder in passing?

Then there is the vexed question of the veil. Is it an instrument of male oppression or a genuine symbol of faith? We have at least one outspoken imam telling us that it is simply an ancient Byzantine or Persian custom, and that there is nothing whatsoever in the Koran that enjoins its wear.

Whenever the media go out to interview burka wearers, they invariably seem to happen upon eloquent, intelligent and happy fans of the garment, keen to explain how much it means to them. (Hint for interviewers: anyone who has been forced to wear the thing probably isn’t going to feel free to tell you all about it).

In encouraging my wife to adopt it, I was mainly hoping to contribute to the family economy drive, but she assures me that beneath those flowing robes there is no skimping whatsoever on expensive make-up or designer labels. I guess my secondary aspiration of creating a new, post-Moat talking point in the shops of Rothbury is destined to come to naught, as usual.

Underlying all discussion of the burka issue is the following serious dilemma. On the one hand it is clearly profoundly unBritish to go around covering your face, but on the other it is equally obviously unBritish to order anyone not to do so. We are a tolerant country, after all.

Our problem is accommodating a tiny minority of people who are profoundly intolerant. As I recall, one group last year threatened to kill anyone who dared to suggest that Islam is a violent religion. Who says it’s just Americans who don’t get irony?

For most of us, faith has become an irrelevance. The last Government was fond of talking about Britain being ‘a secular society’, overlooking the fact that it is in fact an institutionally Christian monarchy whose anointed head of state proclaims on each coin that she reigns ‘Dei Gratia’- by the grace of God.

The behaviour of followers of other religions may occasionally seem like appalling cheek, but the correct Christian response is to turn the other one. Yes, it is a challenge in the face of fanaticism and bigotry, but the right answer surely has to be tolerance. Maybe my wife should offer a master class in it. God knows, the poor woman gets enough practice.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Faltering first steps towards economy

It has been a week of faltering first steps in my household, as one-year-old Charlie discovered that he could let go of the furniture and boldly go across the middle of the room towards the smiling adult with the outstretched arms.

Naturally there have been mishaps along the way, and I have belatedly come to appreciate the origin of that useful phrase “trying to run before you can walk”. Words that spring to mind every time Education Secretary Michael Gove pops up in the media, stuck in the bottom of his hole yet still ferociously digging.

Not that I am without sympathy for those in the Government charged with finding savings in their departmental budgets. It finally dawned on me a couple of weeks ago that I have been living vastly beyond my means for years, and that the only solutions were to increase my income by about 60pc or cut expenditure by a third.

That will be the spending cuts, then, won’t it?

I duly drew up a list of things I could do without, but none has yet got past the family vetting committee. Cancelling my eye-wateringly expensive private health insurance looked like a no-brainer to me, particularly as the small print carefully excludes pretty much any problem I seem likely to develop, but Mrs Hann remains to be convinced. I might go down with blackwater fever right after cancelling my direct debit, and it would be like forgetting to buy a lottery ticket on the day when your usual numbers finally hit the jackpot.

The only foreign holiday I have taken in the last decade was my honeymoon, and I would gladly never take another, but my wife feels the urge to go somewhere reliably sunny in September and even I cannot claim that she is necessarily going to get through a bottle of Soltan in Scarborough towards the end of the summer season.

But tough choices, as they say, are going to have to be made. Memberships of clubs I rarely visit; donations to good causes (and political ones); expensive indulgences like nights at the opera are all in line for the axe. But just looking at my list of potential economies reminds me what a hugely privileged, middle class life I lead.

I may no longer be able to progress, like a mediaeval monarch, between two comfortable homes, but we are some way off worrying about not having a roof over our heads. More of the food shopping may have to come from Iceland and less from Marks & Spencer, but we will not starve (and frankly it would do me no harm if I did, at least for a while).

Dieting is a dreadful prospect, but becomes curiously enjoyable once you have started, as you become obsessively focused on shedding the pounds and feel the benefit of not carrying all that surplus weight around with you. With luck, economising will prove equally addictive. I am just hopelessly out of practice, having been lucky enough to remain reasonably prosperous since the early 1980s.

Never rich, though; never saving for the future; in fact, never really giving a thought about tomorrow. Could there have been a worse preparation for late-life parenthood?

I did notice, in my years as a trustee trying to raise funds for musical charities, that the genuinely wealthy were often pathologically mean. This, I have finally realised, is their secret.

So this week I finally embark on my first unsteady steps to slash spending, just like a proper toff. I hope that anyone trying to touch me for a few quid in the coming months will note that my sudden close-fistedness is not the result of suddenly acquiring a fortune: quite the opposite. With lottery tickets also on my list of cuts, contracting blackwater fever seems a much more likely prospect.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

The mad axeman becomes a reality

In the mid-1980s I lived alone in a totally isolated cottage, a mile up a grass track out on the moors north of Alnwick. Having moved from central London, I felt totally secure there. But people kept calling me brave, and asking what I would do if a mad axeman came to call.

The answer to that is short and almost certainly unprintable, but I never saw it as an issue. Because, as I kept pointing out, there simply weren’t any maniacs lurking in the remoter parts of Northumberland, where potential victims were in such short supply.

I now live in a small hamlet some eight miles from Rothbury. It seems positively metropolitan compared with my previous home, but my wife will not stay there alone overnight because she fears that no one would hear her scream if the local murderer came to call.

My reassuring mantra about there being no lunatics on the loose in Northumberland had little effect, even before there was one. Ironically, I had joked that Raoul Moat would be heading our way when the story of his first attacks broke. I little thought that he would.

Perhaps fortunately, work called us away from the North East just over a week ago, so we watched the unfolding saga on TV with the wonderment we all reserve for totally unexpected events taking place in terribly familiar surroundings. I was glad when it ended, not least for the typically selfish reason that Mrs Hann had decreed that I was not allowed to return home until it did, and I feared for the welfare of my house plants.

I should add that she is not quite as paranoid as I may make her sound. She just knows the sort of luck I usually enjoy.

If I had been home alone, I might have slept a little uneasily, though I doubt whether my terror would have reached the heights of the most uncomfortable night I have spent in Northumberland to date.

It was all the fault of this column. I was single in its early days, and a plaintive appeal on Valentine’s Day provoked a sympathetic response from an attractive young lady who, after a couple of what I suppose we must call “dates”, enticed me back to her remote cottage after a night at the theatre in Newcastle.

She plied me with wine over a late supper, and invited me to stay the night. I foolishly accepted. Only at that point did she mention that she already had a boyfriend, an ex-SAS man who now practised his people skills as a sort of admissions tutor for the nightclubs of the toon. She said he made her feel secure. Which was ironic, because he had precisely the opposite effect on me.

“What are the chances,” I asked, when I had finally recovered the power of speech “Of this boyfriend of yours kicking the door down and finding me here in your bed?”

“Absolutely none at all,” she replied, “You can put your mind at rest on that score. He’s got a key!”

Looking back, I have to say that it was a piece of comic timing to rank alongside the best of Eric Morecambe or Tommy Cooper. But as one whose “fight or flight” reflex is set permanently to “flight”, it kept me wide awake all night listening intently for the sound of his key until I felt confident that I could pass a breathalyser test.

It took me a few days to get over that little adventure, just as the residents of Rothbury will no doubt require time to come back down to peaceful normality. But they will get there in the end, no doubt fortified as I was by the wisdom of experience. Let us hope that the same can be said of our police.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

What if I had become Victor Meldrew?

The “what if” game is the historian’s equivalent of “truth or dare”. What if the Salic law preventing female succession to German thrones had not applied in 1837, and Victoria had become Queen of Hanover as well as Great Britain? Would the First World War have been avoided?

More frivolously, and fictionally, what if Victor Meldrew had never married? Just how grumpy would he have been by the time he reached 70? My lovely young wife, as she likes to style herself, constantly reminds me that she has rescued me from a solitary old age in which I would no doubt have made Victor look like an advertisement for drug-induced jollity.

What if I had not opened that fateful email on March 31, 2008, in which she responded on behalf of an improbably offline friend to my website’s spoof advertisement for a wife, girlfriend or carer? Or what if I had simply deleted it, as I almost certainly would have done if she had not mentioned that she worked for a company whose chief executive happened to be a friend of mine, making it easy to check that she was a real human being and not some evil internet fraudster?

All these thoughts ran through my head on Saturday as we celebrated our son Charlie’s first birthday with his family and friends in Northumberland: his second major party and his fourth in all, setting a record likely to be challenged only by our own dear Queen. Admittedly I had taken the precaution of confining the children to a largely art-, antique- and book-free conservatory, but even so several people remarked on my preternatural calmness, as I sat there sipping Cava and nursing the head wound caused by three-year-old Nathaniel’s over-enthusiastic throw of a surprisingly sharp-edged dog toy.

I have certainly become a great deal more relaxed in the last couple of years. Perhaps because, like a man caught in an avalanche, I have stopped trying to grab something solid and simply resigned myself to my fate.

Yet, ironically, the unplanned developments in my private life have also closed off the option of the relaxing retirement I had planned for myself when I turned 50, after the predictable failure of an over-ambitious attempt to retire to the country and write books at the ripe old age of 32. Having spent several years systematically shaking off my loyal and long-suffering clients, I have been forced to spend the last 18 months trying to re-ingratiate myself with them and to broaden my range of contacts and capabilities.

No easy task in the present economic climate, with the added handicaps of my age, looks and gloomy persona. Who would appoint Victor Meldrew as a PR adviser when he could have a bubbly blonde with more up-to-date professional knowledge and infinitely greater charm, not to mention a wardrobe full of designer short skirts and Jimmy Choos?

Even so, my efforts have not been entirely unsuccessful. Except that I realised last week that I have made the classic self-employed mistake of squandering my income and failing to set anything aside for the tax bill that will arrive in January. So, like someone on an ever-accelerating treadmill, I must now try to earn yet more to pay the tax, thus preparing the ground for an even bigger bill in 2012.

What if I had had a proper career instead of drifting along in pursuit of the easiest option, always carefully dodging out of any job just before a large bonus or other serious windfall was about to land in my lap? It’s a question I ponder regularly, as I contemplate working until 80 or death, but I only have to look at the curly-headed one-year-old playing happily with his cousins to know that I would not really wish it any other way.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.