Friday 31 December 2010

2010 assessed

My contribution to the double page spread in The Journal's nebusiness section featuring Thoughts on 2010” from the Great and Good of the North East business community ... and, for some reason, me:

As usual, 2010 was a year mixing the entirely predictable with the genuinely surprising. Some events, like the emergence of a Mr Miliband at the head of the Labour Party, managed to combine both.

I regret that I failed to include the Icelandic ash cloud in my helpful list of forecasts a year ago, but at least I was spot on in characterising the 2010 General Election as one not to win. It turned out that the great British public did not want anyone to win it, either, setting the scene for the first coalition Government of my lifetime.

My estimation of “Dave” Cameron as a political operator has shot upwards as he has deftly saddled Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats with the blame for so much of the ensuing unpleasantness, though admittedly they have not helped themselves either by breaking explicit election promises or choosing to shimmer around the Strictly Come Dancing floor in white tie and tails while rioting students are running amok in the capital. Louis XVI and Versailles spring to mind.

One thing I got badly wrong was expecting the pain of tax rises, spending cuts and job losses to impact straight after the General Election. Clearly we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Turned out nippy again, hasn't it?

Let us be clear on one thing: “the Met Office no longer issues long-range forecasts for the general public”.

It says so on their website, explaining that they have reached this strategic decision “following public research”. Though I think what they actually mean is public derision, after the “barbecue summer” they cheerfully predicted for 2009 turned out to be chiefly memorable for floods.

So the press reports that appeared back in October, suggesting that the Met Office was predicting “an unusually mild and dry winter” were not their official word at all, but merely some journalists’ interpretation of the probability maps churned out by their new £33 million supercomputer.

All clear?

It’s a shame, really, because if the Met Office had indeed forecast a mild winter it would have been a sure signal to go out and invest in rock salt, heating oil, woollen combinations, snow shovels and sledges. Rather as a “buy” note from me, in my years as an investment analyst, could be taken as a reliable indicator that the time had come to unload the stock concerned at almost any price.

But the fact that they did not make any such prediction sadly rules them out as a scapegoat for Spanish-owned BAA’s decision to spend twice as much on its chief executive’s salary as it did on snow-clearing equipment for Heathrow this year.

We don’t need to waste money on all that nonsense any more, do we? Haven’t you heard of global warming?

Similarly, the end of the Cold War provided a brilliant excuse to scrap all those strategic reserves of food and rescue equipment that had been kept topped up in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Not going to happen now, is it?

Well, we may sincerely hope not. But the one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that life is uncertain. The weather constantly changes and is full of surprises. International relations and the obsessions of fanatics are similarly fluid. If I had lapsed into a coma for the last 40 years I would now be coming around to think that at least all those worries about the forthcoming Ice Age had proved to be well founded.

There is no shortage of serious scientists prepared to deride as a crank the long range forecaster Piers Corbyn of Weather Action, who claims that global warming is over, CO2 levels have nothing to do with temperature levels and that the chief driver of our climate is solar activity.

Clearly a wild eccentric, then, but for the slightly troubling fact that his long range forecasts have proved more accurate than the Met Office’s did, when they deigned to make them. Now they have given up on that, while Mr Corbyn has been banned by the bookies from betting on his own predictions. What does that tell us about their respective levels of self-belief?

I have no idea whether the planet as a whole is getting warmer; all I can say with confidence is that I am not. And I know that large numbers of well-rewarded public servants are flying around the world at my expense for regular junkets at agreeable resorts like Cancun (always strangely ignoring the attractions of, say, Sunderland) to agree on the need to force me to cut back on my carbon emissions by paying much more for my energy.

While others are pocketing lots and lots of lovely money from my taxes to help erect huge and largely useless wind turbines or to generate power from rotting vegetation.

Still, at this of all times I suppose it ill behoves us cynics to sneer at others’ deeply held religious beliefs. So since I forgot to mention it last week, I hope that you have all enjoyed a suitably restrained winter holiday and wish you the very greenest of recycled New Years.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Geordies lead the world in judging

Say what you like about the North East, we certainly know our stuff when it comes to the business of judging.

From the late Lord Chief Justice Taylor in the High Court to the nation’s sweetheart Cheryl Cole on The X Factor, Geordies have repeatedly proved their ability to weigh the evidence and come to the right conclusion. Or a conclusion, at any rate, in the case of the TV talent show.

Nor is this by any means a new phenomenon. The two Royal Grammar School educated Scott brothers, sons of a Newcastle coal merchant, both became distinguished judges, and were raised to the peerage in the nineteenth century as Lords Stowell and Eldon – the latter becoming famous as one of England’s longest-serving and most reactionary Lord Chancellors.

The great Eldon. Worth it? How dare you, sir?

Let us pause to wonder just how long it will be before Cheryl has a street full of ethnic eateries or a shopping centre named after her.

Peter Cook’s famous sketch in which he lamented that he had to become a coal miner rather than a judge because he “never had the Latin for the judging” has clearly been overtaken by events. Which is handy given both the limited opportunities for mining in today’s North East and Cook’s astute observation that “I would much prefer to be a judge than a coal miner because of the absence of falling coal.”

There were certainly no witty classical allusions in the quotes attributed last week to the latest addition to the pantheon of Northumbrian judicial greatness, Judge Beatrice Bolton of Rothbury, after her conviction at Carlisle Magistrates’ Court for failing to control her dangerous dog.

Judge Beatrice. Worth it? F*** off!

In fact, she used precisely the words that so often spring to mind when her more senior colleagues make pronouncements involving “human rights”, for example when they conclude that it is not possible to deport someone who has, say, knifed a headmaster to death or snuffed out a 12-year-old girl’s life in a hit-and-run incident.

Yes, it is highly amusing to hear a dispenser of justice reacting so badly when she experiences the rough end of it herself. Almost as perfectly ironic, in fact, as reading Julian Assange’s squeals of protest at the leaks about the nature of the sex crimes alleged against him in Sweden.

A saying popular with my parents sprang to mind: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.”

But it would be sad, I feel, for such an admirably plain speaker to be deprived of her position because of one inappropriate outburst. After all, some of our greatest judges have made grave mistakes and been gone on to redeem themselves. Just think of Wor Cheryl’s drunken fracas with that Guildford lavatory attendant, for a start.

Wor Cheryl. Woath it? Coase Ah am, pet.

While Lord Eldon hardly got his career off to the most promising or conventional of starts by eloping from Sandhill with the banker’s daughter Bessie Surtees.

If, God forbid, I ever find myself standing in the dock before one of Her Majesty’s justices or Simon Cowell’s talent scouts, I would be happy to think that I was appearing before a fallible human being like myself, who would see the funny side when I reacted with an outburst of choice language on being sent down or kicked off the show in favour of someone even less talented than myself.

Yes, I really believe that such people do exist, but then I believed in Santa Claus until I was eight.

In fact, I would not mind having a go at training for a crack at this judging lark myself, but for the fact that the Government has just decided to close down all our local magistrates’ courts. Given my minimal knowledge of leeks, dogs, dressed sticks and singing, and with beauty contests ruled out on the grounds of political correctness, I wonder where I should start?
 Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Singing the praises of the musical

I first realised that Simon Cowell had achieved world domination when I invited two cultured friends to an opera and they replied “We can’t possibly go out that night – it’s the start of The X-Factor!”

Even more amazingly, the opera concerned was one of those summer country house affairs, which means that Mr Cowell’s TV money-making machine must have been churning away every weekend from balmy late August through to polar mid-December.

The strangest thing to me was that I knew for a fact that my friends possessed one of those Sky Plus Box gizmos and could perfectly well have watched the show later, with the added bonus of being able to fast-forward through the ads. Apparently, though, it’s just not the same.

Indeed, for complete satisfaction I understand that you must not only see these things live, but share your views of them with the world every few minutes via Twitter and Facebook. A great service for the likes of me, because an occasional glance at these has enabled me to pretend to be in touch with what is going on not only on The X-Factor, but also The Apprentice, Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here without wasting great chunks of my life actually watching them.

Not that I have anything against popular entertainment. I spent almost every evening last week glued to the unfolding drama that was the 50th anniversary of Coronation Street, even though ITV had done their utmost to drain it of any surprises by emailing me months beforehand with previews of their tram crash and details of which actors had decided to leave the series or been sacked by its new producer.

Only on Wednesday did I rely on my old-fashioned video recorder to keep me up to date as I slithered through the snow-covered streets of Jesmond to see the Royal Grammar School’s production of Oklahoma! A show I had always viewed with the utmost suspicion because it was my mother’s favourite, causing her to go slightly weak-kneed whenever Edmund Hockridge appeared on TV variety shows singing the one about the surrey with a fringe on top.

I had to dig my way into my house before I went out to the show
Hoping the performance would take my mind off the weight of snow on my conservatory roof
 In the early 1980s a production of Oklahoma! at the Palace Theatre tempted mum to visit London for the first time since she had accompanied her father there on a business trip some 60 years earlier. I took her to the show over my own dead body and absolutely loved it, and have been a keen fan of musicals ever since.

I have seen other professional stage productions of Oklahoma!, along with the classic film, but the energy and enthusiasm of the 16 to 18-year-olds of the RGS carried all before them. I sat with a big, silly grin on my face from the opening bars of the overture to the closing reprise of the title song, and drove home humming happily.

The brilliant cast ... and a probable breach of the Data Protection Act, now I come to think of it
A fortnight's snow layered like something out of a geology lesson
 Four days earlier I had spent rather a lot of money to see the glamorous diva Angela Gheorghiu perform the title role in the operatic rarity Adriana Lecouvreur to a packed house at Covent Garden. I enjoyed it, but Oklahoma! was infinitely greater fun – and yet there were empty seats in the RGS auditorium.

It is good to be reminded that there is a wealth of talent all around us, both amateur and professional, and that a live show on stage provides a true reality and immediacy that television can never match. So if your life is a desert now that The X Factor is over, why not try taking in a different sort of pantomime at your local theatre or village hall? You could even extend the slapstick beyond the stage by trying to use your iPhone to post irritatingly frequent updates on the performance for your followers on Twitter.

All together now: “Oh no, you couldn’t!”
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Wanted: MPs with some convictions

The defining image of last week was surely the one of those disconsolate boys, England flags painted on their faces, hearing FIFA’s verdict on the 2018 World Cup.

“Get used to it, lads,” I thought. “You’re English. There’s a lot more disappointment like that coming your way.” It is probably best to grasp that sooner rather than later.

Despite my total lack of interest in football, I was so monumentally bored last Thursday afternoon that my internet surfing brought me to the BBC’s live news feed just as Sepp Blatter was joking about whether he had been handed the right envelope for the big announcement. God forbid that it should be one stuffed with banknotes, I thought to myself, along with about half the population of the planet.

Shortly afterwards, I wandered into the adjacent office of a client who is vaguely interested in ball games, and told him the two verdicts. Russia he accepted with resignation, but Qatar he simply refused to believe. “You are having a laugh,” he said. I agreed that someone definitely was, though for once it was not me.

No really, I explained. The 2022 World Cup is going to be played on a sand-covered gasometer where daytime temperatures nudge 50ÂșC, but that’s all right because a British (hurrah!) firm of architects has come up with a revolutionary new air conditioning system that works a treat in their scale model of the new stadia. Surely you don’t need to be particularly cynical to start musing “What could possibly go wrong?”

Then there is the promised suspension of the normal rules of Islamic behaviour to allow intermingling of the sexes and the consumption of alcohol. Plus, presumably, a bit of a clampdown on anyone minded to have a pop at killing the infidels while they are in the area.

I shan’t be going, but then I wouldn’t have gone if the matches had been played at St James’ Park and the Stadium of Light. But I think I will try to put together a little tour for the Wooler and Whittingham Lesbian Gay and Transgender Christian Limbo Dancing and Real Ale Club, and see how they get on.

At least we don’t need to wait for the brave Mr Assange of WikiLeaks to reveal the fatal flaws in the England bidding process. But what a shock his disclosures to date have turned out to be. The Gulf Arabs don’t much like Iran, while Prince Andrew is patriotic, politically incorrect and a bit of a buffoon. Hold the front page. Coming soon: America’s Ambassador to the Holy See makes stunning revelation about the religious affiliation of the Pope.

Should anything be allowed to stay secret any more? FIFA deliberations and MPs’ expenses? Clearly not. International diplomatic negotiations? The focus group jury still seems to be out.

However, bringing up the issue of Parliamentary expenses reminds me that we have in our midst a group of men and women who have proven, world class skills in working questionable systems. So perhaps Mr Chaytor and anyone else convicted of wrongdoing might be set a novel form of community punishment, putting forward Britain’s proposals for future international sporting events.

Because unless we make a major strike of natural gas in the next few years and come to grips with the prevailing culture, we are clearly going to struggle to hold onto the rights to stage Wimbledon, the FA Cup and the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race, never mind anything more “iconic” on the global stage.

And don’t forget some generous backhanders for the troublesome British media, too. Because I for one don’t want to see my son’s flag-painted face crumpling when the very rich man in charge of FIFA decides that Afghanistan is a better bet than England for 2030 because of some short-sighted column in The Journal.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.