Tuesday 30 November 2010

Thank heavens for global warming

Are you wondering just how bad the weather must have been in the olden days, before the onset of global warming?

Then wonder no more. Because I sat next to my aunt at her 86th birthday lunch in Morpeth on Sunday, and was able to ask her to cast her mind back over the decades. And the word is that, throughout her childhood, she fervently hoped for a “white birthday” on November 28 each year, but it never happened.

The Wise Woman of Morpeth
Yes, I know that true believers will hasten to point out that cold snaps will still occur within their sacred warming trend, which also allegedly makes extreme weather more likely. But for lousy timing, it would be hard to beat the Met Office’s announcement on Friday that 2010 is shaping up to be one of the two warmest years on record.

Unless perhaps someone in authority presented a “garage of the year” award for mechanical excellence to Coco the clown, seconds before his own exhaust blew up and all his car doors fell off.

Still, at least as I surveyed the growing accumulation of snow outside my house I was able to console myself with the thought that the drifts customary on my hilltop were completely absent. Because there was no wind.

My back gate: not easy to open
Some sheds. With snow on them.

So in a few years’ time when the Northumbrian uplands are festooned with wind turbines and everyone’s electric heating is turned to maximum, we may be in a little bit of a pickle.

Has Coco the clown perhaps moved on from cars and wallpapering to the formulation of official energy policy?

I have a new all-purpose theory on the Government’s strategy, and am increasingly convinced that the turbines are simply going to be erected as a warning to us sinners, and will not actually be connected to the National Grid. It’s precisely in tune with the novel plan of building two aircraft carriers but not having any planes to put on them, and keeping nuclear submarines but scrapping the newly procured Nimrod aircraft that provided their air cover.

You watch: they may build the new (and unnecessary) high speed rail link from London to Birmingham, but will they buy any trains to run on it? Why not save money by just hiring the replacement buses that will be used most of the time anyway?

Egg yields heading the same way as Irish bank bonds
Similarly, when I was out and about at the weekend, in defiance of police instructions, I came across a number of tractors with snowploughs and nifty, well-stocked gritting trailers, but not one of them was actually spreading any grit. Clearly no-one is prepared to run the risk of admitting that they have run out of the stuff after last winter’s debacle.

Those tractors looked like they should really have been delivering hay to snowbound sheep or flailing hedges to make sure there were no winter berries left for the birds. What happened to those big yellow council lorries we used to see? Sent to the scrapheap with Ark Royal and its Harriers? Were their drivers unable to get work because of the snow? Or are the authorities just roping in the farming community to show us all the Big Society in action?

But let this not be a piece of unalloyed cynicism. Snow can provide glorious fun for some, and I could hardly sleep for childlike excitement last Thursday night as I looked forward to getting out with my young son to build my first snowman in almost half a century.
We could not even buy a carrot for his nose: talk about hardship
Unfortunately Charlie rapidly decided that snow was a cold, wet, unpleasant nuisance rather than a source of joy. Let us hope that he comes to see it in a more positive light in the next few years, before global warming really kicks in and he relapses into the long haul of Meldrew-like moaning about it that is his paternal genetic inheritance.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Honour our saviour from the euro

Last week brought a flurry of anniversaries, several triumphs of social mobility and a disturbing sense of déjà-vu.

It all began on Sunday 14th, which would have been my parents’ 74th wedding anniversary and was the Prince of Wales’s 62nd birthday. Can you also remember when Charles was the future?

On Monday my father would have been 102, while on Tuesday my next-door neighbours, Andrew and Etta, celebrated 64 years of marriage. I was minded to crack open a bottle of something fizzy in their honour even before I heard the news of the long-anticipated engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which clearly demanded a proper celebration.

The only sour note for me came not from the legions of left-wing columnists churning out their entirely predictable critiques of the monarchy, but from Prince William’s father. Doorstepped by the media in Poundbury, he claimed to be “thrilled” but looked anything but, adding glumly that “they have had enough practice”.

The next day I read suggestions that Kate Middleton’s father bore a passing resemblance to Gordon Brown, both physically and in his evident discomfort as he read out his notes on how happy he and his wife were about the engagement. And as I did so, it occurred to me with mounting horror that the real parallel lies elsewhere.

An intelligent man with passionate enthusiasms who really believes he can do good for his country and is forced to wait far too long to fulfil his destiny. That would serve equally well as a description of both our last Labour Prime Minister and our King-in-waiting.

And given that The Queen is by all accounts much fitter than her mother was at 84, Prince Charles might have to kick his heels not just for another decade, which was long enough to leave Gordon Brown with no real clue what to do when he finally achieved his lifelong ambition, but until he is an octogenarian himself.

Meanwhile William and Kate seemingly resemble Dave and Samantha Cameron. Not appealing to all, no doubt, but clearly rather more in tune with the Zeitgeist.

With the coins already minted to mark the Duke of Edinburgh’s 90th birthday next year, a monarchy with longevity genes on both sides has important questions to consider on how it can continue to project the glamour that seems the key to popular appeal in any walk of life.

My own thinking on this weighty issue was interrupted by another night of celebration on Thursday to mark the 40th birthday of Iceland, the frozen food chain. A charity ball featured amazing pyrotechnics, performances by Dame Edna Everage and Tom Jones, and helped to raise £1.5 million for Help for Heroes. At the time of writing, the only attention this has received from the media has been through an anonymous e-mailer complaining that the fireworks disturbed his horses. As William and Kate surely already know, some people are never happy unless they are moaning.

Meanwhile on Friday, the heady social ascent of Miss Middleton was followed by the elevation to the House of Lords of a load of people no-one other than those passing around the party collection hats had ever heard of, plus Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. A mere life peerage is surely far too little for a man who is the essence of poshness and has done so much for national morale.

On past form Prince William will be made a duke on his marriage. Why confine this bounty to your own family, Ma’am? Surely the time is ripe for Earl Fellowes?

And, as we watch the precipitous downward mobility of the entire Irish nation, let us also give appropriate recognition to the man who may have failed as PM but performed the truly historic service of keeping Britain out of the euro: Gordon Brown, Duke of Kirkcaldy.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Age slows us down as time speeds up

With age comes the sense that time is passing more quickly, and the certainty that routine tasks take ever longer to perform.

I got up to write this column at 6.30 yesterday and reached my desk two hours later, after a bath and a simple breakfast of porridge. Once the process would have taken 45 minutes, and even then my girlfriend used to chide me for being a terrible slowcoach.

On Saturday I took advantage of the splendid weather to take a favourite circular walk in the Breamish Valley. Ironically, I started recording the times taken to complete my walks because the authors’ estimates in my guidebooks always seemed so wildly generous. In 1997, it took me 3hr 10min. By 2006, this had increased to 3hr 40min. In 2010, it has become a 4hr 20min hike.

Soon it will be an all-day expedition, rendered impossible because I won’t be ready to leave the house until mid-afternoon.

Having a young child renders my deterioration all the more depressing, particularly since he is already starting to outperform me right across the board.

Charlie has sadly been a bit poorly of late, and his doctor prescribed an antibiotic to supplement the ubiquitous Calpol. The first time he approached us with an open bottle of medicine and a spoon, the Strict Blame Culture operating in the Hann household swung into action and I duly interrogated my wife on who had dispensed the last dose and failed to secure the cap properly.

By the third time it happened, I had been forced to concede that our one-year-old son can open supposedly childproof closures that often defeat his parents. Though why should this surprise us, when six months ago he had already comprehensively reprogrammed my wife’s mobile phone?

The penicillin proved an unnecessary precaution, since the shock news finally emerged some time after our consultation with the GP that Charlie is actually suffering from foot and mouth disease. I was on the Internet trying to track down a captive bolt gun and some old railway sleepers for the pyre when my wife arrived with a print-out from the NHS website listing the symptoms (with a large red tick in her own hand against each item) and the reassurance that, in humans, this is normally a mild viral infection.

The final successful diagnosis was reached through mothers’ gossip in the office. Which was at least cheaper than the staggering £369.73 that it cost me last week to be informed that my dog has an enlarged heart. “Stone me!” I gasped at the vet’s when his receptionist announced this total, causing a ripple of merriment around the waiting room, though I soon lost their sympathy by pointing out that I could have had the dog put down, bought a new puppy, paid for it to be microchipped and vaccinated, and still had change for a good night out.

I don’t even know whether the diagnosis is correct. I was shown what was supposedly an X-ray of my dog’s chest, but it could just as easily have been a black and white Luftwaffe aerial photo of French defences along the Maginot Line.

The good news is that the alleged problem can be treated with drugs. And the one helpful tip to be gained from this column is that it is never a brilliant idea to embark on a four hour drive with a dog that has recently swallowed a diuretic pill unless you want to find yourself doing 70mph on the M62 wondering where that noise like running water can be coming from.

I think the long walk on Saturday did him good. It certainly energised this sufferer from an enlarged stomach. And at the pace I can manage these days, could there be a better companion than a valetudinarian Border terrier or an ailing toddler?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

A barren life without Downton Abbey

I write this in the complete despair of one whose life became a meaningless wasteland when Downton Abbey ended on Sunday night.

By the time you read this they will also have killed off Jack Duckworth on Coronation Street. Cue tumbleweed blowing across the desert of my existence, and serious questioning of the point of going on.

Why is ITV persecuting me like this? Though perhaps the more interesting question is why I, as a would-be middle-class person, have started watching ITV at all?

I was brought up to regard it as common and second rate compared with the dear old BBC. As a child, it is true that I always used to try and catch the magnificent blast of “Blaydon Races” that Tyne Tees TV played at the start of each evening’s broadcasting, but then it was straight over to the other side for Blue Peter, Animal Magic and Look North with Frank Bough, or later Mike Neville and George House.

As well as adopting just the right tone on State occasions, the BBC could always be relied upon to appreciate the crucial importance of airing a good costume drama on Sunday evening. From the black-and-white Forsyte Saga at the start of BBC2 through an apparently endless series of Jane Austen bonnet-fests, they hit the spot time and again.

Yet now ITV has seized the crown with a series that began with one well-worn cliché (the sinking of the Titanic) and ended with another (the outbreak of the First World War) and in which frankly nothing much happened in between. While the press has been buzzing with suggestions that large elements of the plot, such as it was, were lifted straight from the likes of Little Women and Mrs Miniver, and pedants found that the meticulous period detail was slightly marred by the intrusion of TV aerials and double yellow lines.

Admittedly these trifles pale into insignificance compared with the scene in The Tudors where Henry VIII bedded one of his many ladies in a house with two red Calor gas bottles outside.

Still, we snobs can forgive such lapses because Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes is proper posh (married to the niece of Earl Kitchener, don’tchaknow). Quite how he follows up his addictive success in the promised second series is open to question, given that so much went to hell in a handcart for the aristocracy from 1914. Fast forward to the Bright Young Things of the 1930s (though Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess would then be about 100) or try a prequel set in the Naughty Nineties? I can hardly wait.

Meanwhile the BBC has been on strike. When I turned on Radio 4 last Friday morning and they announced that they were airing a programme about birds of the Wash in place of Today, I naturally took this for further sabotage by the National Union of Journalists, or a homage to that running joke in the recent Harry and Paul comedy series about two blokes with a microphone making the dullest radio documentary in the world.

I switched channels immediately, and was later surprised to read that the public actually preferred the birdsong of the estuary to John Humphrys. Though perhaps I should have expected it, because Radio 3 also dropped its usual schedule (though why waffling a bit between CD tracks counts as “journalism” is beyond me) and played instead a long programme about my favourite composer, Handel, which made my usual morning car journey fly by.

Back to normal service yesterday, I listened to the usual self-righteous waffle about the Burmese general election (their chance to vote for the usual generals), then heard that the NUJ were threatening to strike again over Christmas. Oh no! Could this mean a schedule packed with repeats of classic costume dramas? Maybe life is not looking so bad after all.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

A screamingly good cure for obsession

“You can understand why people batter babies, can’t you?” my old friend asked last Tuesday morning, as toddler Charlie rampaged around her pristine Surrey kitchen, uttering what she accurately described as “really quite piercing” squeals.

My wife was quick to disabuse her of that notion. But then, as another helpful lady friend had already warned me, Mrs Hann is completely obsessed with her child. So the real seismic shift that has occurred over the last year or so is that I did not agree, either.

I have hated children, and their associated noise and mess, ever since I stopped being a child myself. And I will admit that, after a week driving around the country with my little family, I did kiss the ground in the style made famous by the late Pope when we finally reached home.

Yet on Friday in Bainbridge’s (as it remains in my world) I willingly invested in a carrier so that I can take Charlie on my back when I go hill-walking, despite the certainty that he will use his elevated position to hurl my cap into the mud and then beat out a drum tattoo on my skull.

I then took him to Fenwick’s toy department and smiled indulgently as he went “Ooooh!” at a series of unerringly expensive plastic gizmos, including the miniature farm that he three times manhandled off the shelf and started dragging towards the till, despite the fact that it was almost as large as he is.

After which we visited the stationery department to buy a selection of “thank you” and “sorry” cards for the people we had stayed with during our so-called holiday. Charlie immediately grabbed a handful each of “wishing you joy in your new home” and “deepest sympathy” cards and performed a lap of honour around the fixture, waving his prizes in the air and cackling like a maniac accidentally treated with a powerful stimulant instead of his usual sedative.

Not so long ago I would have reacted to this sort of incident with a mixture of anger and acute embarrassment. Now I can face it with the stoic calm that must surely be one of the prime lessons to be learned from parenthood.

Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who was attempting to do a bit of shopping in the Eldon Square area that day, and found the quiet contemplation of their purchases disturbed by a small but energetic tornado.

The Master of Disguise before his haircut
Taking appropriate evasive action is made more difficult by the fact that the child is a master of disguise, making Carlos the Jackal look like a rank amateur.

Master coiffeur Tom O'Malley in action
Already he has run through periods with jet black straight hair and luxuriant blond curls. Now, thanks to the attentions of Gosforth master coiffeur Tom O’Malley of Michael Dominic, he is a little boy with short, fair hair. This was a statesmanlike compromise between my “run the clippers all over on number two” and my wife’s “maybe you could just stop those front curls hanging over his eyes.”

After - all right, it's out of focus, but you get the gist

One consequence is that he now bears absolutely no resemblance to the photo in the passport we recently obtained for him. Does this mean that our next holiday will also have to spent driving around the UK? I sincerely hope not, to the point of being prepared to sabotage my own car.

As for Charlie’s own car-shaped baby walker, I was informed on Sunday that it is now redundant. “Tip or e-Bay?” I enquired. “Attic,” came the reply. “We might have another one.” According to that oh-so-helpful friend we visited, this is the only sure-fire cure for being dangerously obsessed with an only child.

On the surface my new super-calm persona was smiling benignly as I digested this idea. But just beneath it I was modelling for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.