Tuesday 26 October 2010

From bulbs to earplugs via crocodiles

With the country already reeling under the impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review, it was maybe not the best of times to subject it to the whirlwind of a visiting toddler.

I am writing this in Lewes, where Charlie Hann has reduced a blameless family to the condition of gibbering zombies through sleep deprivation. To be fair, we were not to know that our little tour would coincide with the attempted arrival of one of the last and clearly most recalcitrant of his molars.

But, as responsible adults, we should perhaps have consulted the universally applicable Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) and planned accordingly. Ideally by staying at home in a cork-lined room.

They were taking no chances with Murphy at the small hotel in Buckinghamshire where we broke our journey south. Noting that Mrs Hann’s bedside light did not work, and guessing the most likely reason, I unscrewed the bulb and took it to reception to ask for a replacement.

The woman at the desk looked at me as though I were holding a hand grenade clearly missing its pin.

Not only should I not have touched the bulb, but no-one else on the premises could possibly undertake anything as dangerous as attempting to replace it, which could be tackled only by an electrician with appropriate Elfin Safety certification.

The world has self-evidently gone mad. By the dim light of the one functioning lamp I lay in bed reading the accounts of tube bomb survivors at the 7/7 inquests, where the emergency services allegedly lurked sheepishly above ground while someone in authority completed the necessary risk assessments. Apparently it now has to be deemed safe before anyone can attempt a bit of life-saving.

Then the baby started screaming. By morning, everyone in that hotel knew how he felt and I empathised with all the other hoteliers and B&B owners who had been eager to accept our booking until we asked whether there would be room for a travel cot, and the line went dead. My wife moaned that it would be much easier to stick the baby in kennels and take the dog for a holiday. Currently, this does not seem such a bad idea at all.

In the sleepless hours of the next night, I read two animal stories in the news with a bearing on Murphy’s Law and Elfin Safety. In the first, two young men drowned in the Thames attempting to rescue a pet dog. The second rule of journalism, after the requirement for all air crash reports to include an eyewitness quote that “It was just like a ball of fire” is that the punch line of this story would be “The dog later scrambled to safety.” It did not disappoint.

Less predictable was the story of the Congolese air crash in which 20 people died after someone attempting to smuggle a crocodile in his sports bag (as you do) was unfortunate enough to have it escape on the final approach to Bandundu airport. The resulting mass panic fatally unbalanced the small aircraft. Naturally the crocodile survived the crash, but was then despatched by a bloke with a machete.

I know just how the killer felt. If I had been in possession of a machete in that Buckinghamshire hotel on Thursday night, the reception desk would now be a bit of a mess and I would be in police custody if I had not been gunned down because it was ruled to be too risky to attempt to disarm me.

While if our kind hosts for the last two nights had access to a suitable weapon, I dare say I might have been out of action on the column-writing front for some time, too. We’re on our way to Northumberland as you read this. I predict a run on earplugs.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

The untouchables and the rest of us

This month Germany finally paid the last instalment of its bill for starting the First World War.

The whole concept of war guilt and reparations acquired rather a bad name after the German spiral into hyperinflation in the 1920s, sparking the rise of Hitler and all that subsequent unpleasantness. In the circumstances, it seems surprising that the debt was never cancelled.

Germany now resembles an elderly couple who have finally paid off their mortgage. Perchance they threw a modest celebration, in which beer and sausages were involved.

We in the UK will surely be entitled a cracking party come 2015, if George Osborne meets his target of eliminating our budget deficit within five years. At least tomorrow we will finally know what fate actually has in store, after the months of departmental leaks, counter-leaks, rumours and speculation.

All of which kept reminding me of one deeply satisfying pre-budget broadcast in the 1970s, when Robin Day asked former Tory Chancellor Reginald Maudling what he expected to be in that afternoon’s package and Reggie slurred, “What I think, Robin, is that in an hour we will all know.”

But what if young Gideon, sorry George, has been studying the German example? So far he has given a reasonably determined kicking to natural supporters of his own party (the middling better off to be hit by withdrawal of their child benefit and curtailment of pension tax relief) and of the Liberal Democrats (naive students who will now be clobbered with much higher tuition fees for their non-education in the likes of public relations with dance).

Might this be the week to slap a large reparations bill on those who actually got us into our present mess? Namely anyone who was daft enough to vote Labour in the three elections from 1997, despite the incontrovertible evidence of history that this was bound to end, sooner or later, in an almighty financial mess.

Perhaps a special levy could be imposed on Labour Party, Fabian Society and trade union members, owners of whippets or pigeons, patrons of kebab shops, purchasers of red-top tabloid newspapers and possessors of tattoos. Of course, some people would be hit several times over, but then they got to vote more than once for Ed Miliband, too, so it’s just swings and roundabouts, isn’t it? And a valuable reminder, if one were needed, that life just isn’t fair.

Then what of the other geniuses to whose star Labour hitched their own to create the present exquisite horlicks? I refer to the bankers whose lottery-sized bonuses continue to be paid in the midst of our present chaos, and who cannot be upset lest – heaven forfend – they remove their world class paper-shuffling skills from the City of London and huff off to make their unearned squillions elsewhere.

Returning to Britain, presumably, only for brief shooting, stalking and fishing holidays, to occupy the £2,012 best seats at the London Olympics, take in a spot of opera at Glyndebourne and publish reports on how the UK could be run more efficiently.

And what would be so wrong with that? Some of my best friends are investment bankers, but I could live without them if they were forced to choose between their country and their cash. Though I could also do nicely without the scarcely credible irony of asking a billionaire whose own wealth is carefully sheltered in Monaco to tell us where we have been going wrong.

Of course, it will never happen. We can be sure that the bankers will somehow find themselves on the right side of that ring fence supposedly surrounding international development and the NHS. Because just about everywhere now there seem to be two main classes of people: the untouchable super-rich and the rest of us. And nothing short of another Stalin, Hitler or Mao looks likely to change that.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Alwinton helps me to live in the past

April may be the cruellest month, but I still reckon that October holds it to a photo finish.

Mists, mellow fruitfulness and wood smoke may be all right for some, but for me the rapid shortening of the days invariably sets off a small avalanche of seasonal depression.

It has taken me the best part of half a century to work out that the early signs of this are that I stop living in the present. I may look like a sad, grey-haired bloke sitting ineffectually at a desk in 2010, but in my head I am a short-trousered schoolboy swaying down Benton Road on the smoke-filled top deck of a trolleybus, or an aspiring young PR man enjoying some of the admittedly infrequent personal and professional triumphs of the 1980s.

Nothing about Alwinton Show on Saturday was calculated to shock me into the present, and the rich fug of cigarette smoke that greeted me as I walked into the beer tent almost induced a Proustian return to the Tyneside pubs I began frequenting in about 1970. To this day, one of my proudest moments came as I was slinking out of a favourite Jesmond boozer with a crowd of other youngsters who had just been expelled for rowdiness, when the landlady suddenly called “Not you, Keith! You’re a regular.” I was 16 at the time.

This was the first time I have ever been to Alwinton Show and recognised absolutely no-one, though at least that favour was returned several thousand times over. And I suppose it was an improvement on last year in that no-one congratulated me on my handsome grandson, then laughed when I pointed out that he was actually my son.

I took with me a couple of Australian friends who were devoting less than 24 hours to seeing Northumberland, en route between the ruined abbeys of North Yorkshire and Berlin (don’t ask). It was either Alnwick Castle or Alwinton. Luckily they adored it as it helped to widen their already substantial knowledge of sheep breeds, though they weren’t really with a guide who could help with such tricky questions as “What’s a gimmer?” I only really felt on sure ground when we reached Class 44: black sheep.

They were also greatly impressed by the prize-winning ginger cake and dressed sticks, though concerned that, in many classes, one person seemed to have scooped nearly every prize. They took this as a sure sign that shows like this must be on the way out. Who of the younger generation is going to bother making their own jam or chutney when they can order it online and have it delivered?

I set a very poor example, having long intended to grow my own fruit and vegetables, stock up my freezer and fill my cupboards with preserves and pickles, and always proving far too lazy to do any such thing. It is probably too late to start now, but perhaps I could train the boy Charlie to be more use than his father (which is, after all, a pretty low bar to clear).

He certainly looked interested as he was tottering around the display tents on Saturday. For a short while I found myself living in the future as I day-dreamt about his early entries to the children’s classes, but the seasonal mists soon came rolling back. I am currently watching steam engines shunting rows of coal wagons at Little Benton sidings while I wait for an Edinburgh-bound express to come puffing up the bank.

Only such reminiscences seem to offer me any comfort this October, so it is lucky that my long-term memory has not yet vanished down the gurgler that has claimed my ability to remember what I am supposed to be doing today. Oh yes, writing a column for The Journal. Now what could that be about?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Now, what was I trying to remember?

Somewhere in my filing cabinet of curiosities lies the death certificate of a great-grandparent who apparently expired of “old age and decay”. He was around the same age that I am now.

I was reminded of this when an eager young stockbroker visited me on Friday to fill in one of those almost endless and certainly mindless box-ticking forms that regulators in every field now demand to save us from ourselves.

“Would you still describe yourself as semi-retired?” he asked. I shook my head and, in answer to the obvious follow-up, gestured around the bombsite that is my sitting room, strewn with toddler-related detritus.

He did not even bother to wait for a reply to the question “When do you plan to retire?” He just smiled sympathetically.

I am doing my best to earn more, but as I do so I am increasingly struck by the following paradox. On the one hand we are all being told that we must work for longer, as life expectancy steadily increases and pension funds buckle under the combined strain of longevity, lousy stock market performance and Gordon Brown’s half-witted tax raid on their resources.

Yet at precisely the same time, the optimum age for earning serious money grows ever lower. Every major political party in this country is now led by someone (a man, harrumph, or rather harriet-umph!) under the age of 45. More relevantly to me, the average age of a FTSE-100 chief executive is 52. Why would anyone choose an adviser older then themselves, when they could so easily find one who is younger, fitter and considerably more attractive?

The traditional answer used to be: experience. There is good reason to think that our current financial hole would be considerably shallower if there had been more people around who could remember that property and other financial bubbles always burst one day, and that the proper reaction to any claim to have abolished boom and bust is hollow laughter followed by a robust swipe with a blunt instrument.

But sadly it appears that my analogue experience has little relevance in the digital world, where the relentless advance of technology requires a cult of youth because only the young understand it. They may have a point. My son Charlie is not yet 16 months old and has already discovered functions in our mobile phones and remote controls of which we were blissfully ignorant.

However, it does raise the problem of how on earth we are supposed to keep working until we drop if we aren’t actually equipped to do anything useful. I have only ever possessed a modest talent for stringing words together, combined with a ferociously good short-term memory. This gave me a wholly unfair advantage in passing the sort of exams by which intelligence used to be indexed.

Now my memory is fading as fast as the snows on Kilimanjaro. My doctor quickly gave me a comforting diagnosis when I went to see him the other day about some skin blemishes. I repeated his words to myself on the 15-minute drive home, but when my wife asked me what they were I could still manage nothing better than “umm … something to do with carrots”.

I had to go on the internet to look up the real name of my non-cancerous growths: seborrhoeic keratoses. And I was only able to track that down because my doctor had laughingly mentioned the name by which they used to be known before political correctness took hold: senile warts.

So here I am, clearly well advanced on the path to old age and decay, my mind palpably going, but still in need of paid employment until I’m 80, in competition with all those people who are about to be downsized from the public sector or eased off benefits.

Any bright ideas, Prime Minister Whatsisname?
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.