Wednesday 28 December 2011

2012: a year to remember

This promises to be a financially painful year for many of us, as unemployment rises and tax increases bite. Though these will not worry me if is correct in its prediction that I will die on 4 February. Irritatingly, it does not specify at what time.

If it proves to be wrong (and the same website did advise my older brother that he had already been dead for a decade) I look forward to the birth of my second son later in February, and to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June. Creating a welcome boom for Chinese producers of bunting and commemorative plates.

Which brings me to an uncharacteristically serious point. We do not have to accept the inevitability of globalisation exporting our jobs. We could all do more to buy locally made and grown stuff from local retailers, and to tighten our focus on buying only what we actually need.

The ‘savings’ made by cashing in on special offers at distant hypermarkets are every bit as illusory as the claims of constantly improving academic attainment, risk-free defence cuts or the affordability of free health care from the cradle to the grave when these are now around a century apart. Though maybe not for me ...

Keith Hann is a financial PR from Northumberland, a regular Journal columnist and a born optimist:

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

2011: not a vintage year

Never mind the Arab Spring, the summer riots, the autumn anti-capitalist occupations and the looming winter of discontent. Forget about the deaths of bin Laden and Gadaffi, and the birth of Southern Sudan.

Ignore the tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, potential nuclear meltdowns and the relentless retreat of glaciers and polar ice caps.

Put from your mind, if you can, even the happy images of the royal wedding, including that arresting rear view of the bride’s sister.

Because none of those was the key event of 2011. That took place all the way back on January 1, when Estonia joined the euro. The first instance in recorded history of a rat commissioning a fast launch to get it on board a rapidly sinking ship.

The political class of Estonia are thus elevated to that pantheon of geniuses who can be relied upon to show the rest of us what not to do, alongside the Financial Times, the European Commission, the Labour and Liberal Democrat front benches, and virtually anyone called Bercow.

A quick internet search confirms this with the telling headline “Estonian wind power sector faces rapid growth”.

My top tip: keep a close eye on Tallinn to determine your business and investment strategies for 2012 and beyond.

Keith Hann is a financial PR from Northumberland, a regular Journal columnist and a born optimist:

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Just another Christmas with a two-year-old

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is nothing more tedious than other people’s children – not even columnists recycling opening lines from Jane Austen.

If this is your view, I can only repeat what newscasters say when they turn to the football results shortly before Match of the Day: look away now.

Because Christmas is undoubtedly a time for children. (Yes, that is three major clichés already.) Even for those of us who would have done most of our festive spending in the off licence, if only it had not been closed down by supermarket competition. Ho, ho, ho. (Four.)

So the chances of a memorably happy Yuletide looked pretty slim around 7pm on Christmas Eve when the exhausted teenager in charge of A&E announced that our two-year-old son should be admitted to hospital for observation.

This had a cathartic effect on young Charlie, who immediately burst into floods of tears. I sternly explained that it was his own fault for taking one of Mummy’s pills, carefully hidden in an apparently inaccessible part of the kitchen.

“But I didn’t,” he sobbed. “I didn’t.”

Which was interesting, because he had spent the previous three hours insisting precisely the opposite, and it is another of those aforementioned universally acknowledged truths that very young children never lie. All investigations of child abuse rely on this premise.

In the car home Mrs Hann proudly recalled an article she had read somewhere which claimed that the sooner a child starts telling porkies, the more likely it is to become a senior executive. (That figures.) I hope there are some talent scouts from the FTSE-100 reading this.

Charlie did not comment, though he was with us in the car because the (very) young man at A&E had gone on to say “Of course if you want to act against medical advice and take him home, that is up to you.”

For which I heard “That’s us covered against a compensation claim if the brat dies. Next please!”

So we decided to take the risk. Because the pill Charlie claimed to have taken, designed to control his mother’s gestational diabetes, was rather too large for him to have swallowed. While his adamant refusal to eat a huge range of delicious things, other than sausages and fish fingers, made it improbable that he would have gone to the trouble of chewing it.

It was our second visit to A&E in less than a week. Prior to becoming a father I had only entered a hospital emergency department once in my life, after a hilarious mishap involving a trouser zip when I was still only an apprentice drunk. Actually, I did not find it at all amusing, but I defer to the universal opinion of the nurses at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, who fell about with mirth. I have been a staunch advocate of button flies ever since.

Our previous visit was occasioned by the boy developing a grotesquely swollen eye after bumping it on a shopping trolley in Tesco. Not their fault at all, of course, though that did not stop me drawing up plans to build a new conservatory with our compensation cheque. Until his eye got better.

So mum endured a sleepless night keeping him under observation of her own, then we enjoyed a delightful Christmas morning unwrapping presents and walking the dog. Charlie quite liked the pedal-powered tractor that I had spent hours assembling, though he was seriously disappointed that I would not allow him to use its front loader to dig up the lawn. But he declared that it was outshone among his gifts by the model Land Rover from the splendid toyshop in Rothbury.

After which I confiscated the matches yet again, dragged him away from the cooker for at least the tenth time, and came close to a seizure of my own in the face of a massive tantrum about the lack of gravy on his Christmas dinner, even though its solid content was barely visible above a Lake Superior of the stuff.

Kids, eh? Who would be without them? (Clichés? I’ve lost count.)

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne. A fuller account of Charlie Hann's Christmas may be found at

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Nearly time to rejoice in the return of light

Nature dictates that this is the most miserable time of year, I reflected as I walked the dog in almost pitch dark at close to eight o’clock yesterday morning.

The list of things on which I agree wholeheartedly with Alex Salmond is far from long, but he can certainly count on my support in opposing the prolongation of this gloom for a further hour by shunting Britain into the same time zone as Berlin.

... or not, as the case may be

On the plus side, in just two days’ time the Earth will begin to swing those of us in the northern hemisphere back towards longer days. It is only natural that we should celebrate.

I have taken no great pleasure in Christmas for the half century or so since some smart alec at Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School pointed out that Santa Claus did not exist. But now, with a two-year-old in the house, memories of the innocent magic of my own childhood come trickling back.

Helped by the Hann hoarding instincts which mean that we are still hanging precisely the same decorations on our Christmas tree, though even I have drawn the line at plugging in the 60-year-old fairy lights.

Somewhat knackered angel. Probably Woolworths, circa 1955
Distinctly sinister Santa. Allegedly an heirloom from my grandparents, he looks much more likely to dispense a good hiding than presents.

It is heartwarming to see young Charlie’s face light up each morning as he plucks another treat from his advent calendar (an invention that my own parents kept very quiet). I am hoping for a similar reaction to his main present, which has already been the cause of much sweating and cursing while its intended recipient has been peacefully asleep in his cot.

DIY Advent calendar, with pockets full of assorted treats. Nothing like this in my day.

Naively ordered online in the expectation that we would receive something resembling the attractive ride-on toy pictured on the website, I was surprised to be confronted by a kit of parts that presented the most exacting construction challenge I have faced since I started buying my furniture from antique shops instead of MFI (RIP).

It now looks exactly like the picture on the box but, rather worryingly, there are two screws left over. After a morning spent at A&E on Sunday, following a minor disagreement between my son’s eye and a supermarket trolley, I shall keep my fingers firmly crossed that they are not critical to the product’s safety.

What else has changed about Christmas since the days when I could look forward to receiving a Dinky toy and a couple of tangerines in one of my grandfather’s old shooting socks? Selection boxes of chocolate bars and drums of fags seem to have dropped off the list of acceptable gifts, and little boys are no longer encouraged to sit on the knee of a drink-sozzled tramp with a cotton wool beard to whisper their innermost desires into his NHS hearing aid. Who says there is no such thing as progress?

Santa as I remember him from the store grottoes of my boyhood

The other big difference is simply one of temperature. Ours was quite a posh house by 1950s standards, with a car in the garage and a telephone in the hall. This meant that we heated two rooms instead of just one, with a coal fire in the lounge as well as the kitchen range.

Bedrooms were freezing cold, with sleep only to be achieved in winter by wearing a pullover and woolly socks as well as pyjamas, and spreading an overcoat over the bed. Now my son has a baby alarm that nags us if his nursery is not within the “Goldilocks zone” of optimum warmth.

In short he is more comfortable, better fed and infinitely more generously supplied with toys than I ever was, just as my father and considerably older brother looked on with amazement at the material richness of my childhood compared with theirs.

Has this massive improvement in “living standards” over the last 50 years made its beneficiaries any happier than I was as a child? Of course not. Which is why I suspect that the end of the fat years of economic growth in the West need not fill any of us with too much regret. But this is hardly the time to dwell on that. Rejoice in the return of the light and have a very merry Christmas.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Next challenge for the new giant of statesmanship

This column must begin with an unreserved apology to all my reader(s). In the past, I may occasionally have given the impression that I viewed David Cameron as a callow PR spiv who would not recognise a true Conservative principle if it transmogrified into a Border terrier and bit him smartly on the ankle.

However, I now realise that he is a genuine patriot and towering statesman worthy to rank alongside Wellington, Palmerston or Churchill. Unless, or more likely until, he reverts to the type of British politicians of all parties for the last 40 years, and rolls over to have his tummy tickled in return for conceding whatever the rest of the EU desires.

I found it immensely reassuring that one of the first people I heard on Radio 4 attacking Mr Cameron for his exercise of Britain’s veto was the editor of the Financial Times – a paper that is worth every penny of its £2.20 cover price because its editorial line is so consistently wrong. This makes it an invaluable contra-indicator, as I would have been in my days as an investment analyst if only I could have upped my game from being 80% to 100% mistaken.

The plain fact is that Friday’s moment had to come because the members of the EU are like passengers on a bus trip who have been lured aboard by wildly different prospectuses. There are 26 passengers who think they are off to Disneyworld, and one anticipating an agreeable ramble around the grounds of some National Trust property followed by a nice afternoon tea.

Everyone else has known all along that the final destination of the “ever closer union” of Europe was a United States reducing national governments to the status of county councils, and certainly with less freedom of manoeuvre than the constituent states of the USA. Only we British were conned into signing up for what we imagined was some sort of free trade area.

In the circumstances, exactly how much “influence” is the one passenger who wants to go somewhere else ever likely to be able to exercise over the rest?

And when the destination abruptly changes from Disneyworld to Beachy Head, surely the only sane course is to step off and let them get on with it? What exactly is the downside of isolation from an economic suicide pact?

The rise and fall of the euro: an allegory
I do not doubt for a moment the genuine idealism of many of those who support the European project. That old warhorse Lord Heseltine was another quick to the microphone to bang on about Churchill’s vision of a United States of Europe, and of it being the only way to save the continent from the ravages of recurring wars.

A noble aim, though the strains of imposing a fundamentally undemocratic supranational authority on ancient states seem much more likely to foment conflict than prevent it.

For other British politicians, the EU appears to fulfil a similar function to President Sarkozy’s platform heels, providing the chance to walk a little taller on the global stage than they would as representatives of a sometime great power experiencing the inevitability of relative decline. What is wrong with just governing Britain? If it is not enough for you, kindly step aside.

The solution must be to level with the people. Explain honestly just what subordination to a United States of Europe would mean for Britain; realistically outline the alternatives to that destination, then let the electorate decide. The referendum of 1975 cannot be held to have settled the issue forever because it was fought on fundamentally dishonest grounds.

For me, the right of a free people to govern themselves trumps all other considerations. Just as it did when Britain granted independence to its former colonies, regardless of whether they might have been more benevolently governed by us.

If the British people ever vote yes to European union in an open and honest referendum, I promise to shut up or leave the country. Quite possibly both. But, should the great day come, please do not let this be the decisive consideration in how you cast your vote.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

However much we may dislike politicians, they still beat management consultants

Last Thursday night I stepped briefly through the looking glass into the world of the super-rich. They really are different from you and me.

Over dinner, my host explained how he needed an income of at least £20 million a year (before tax, which he sportingly pays, unlike so many of his peers) to maintain his houses, yacht, staff and overall standard of living. Since he is a billionaire this should not present too much of a challenge, even at current interest rates.

Then a multi-millionaire fellow guest mused that he could happily give up almost every aspect of his lifestyle tomorrow, without regrets. Only one thing would be a real wrench to lose: private flights.

Having hitched one or two lifts on private jets over the years I can confirm that avoiding the hell of public airports is indeed a deep joy, though personally I find the economical alternative of never flying anywhere equally acceptable.

Did I feel resentful of the wealth of these two men? Far from it. The richer is an entrepreneur who started life with no advantages at all. He turned a simple idea and a capacity for hard graft into a huge fortune, creating many jobs along the way. Even the most ardent campaigners against excessive pay seem willing to make an exception for those who build great businesses from scratch.

The other is the chief executive of a public company, but a notably successful one that has rewarded its shareholders well over the years. He also charmed me by revealing that one of his small pleasures is allowing his PA to put through calls from the heads of management consultancies, who invariably introduce themselves with a well-worn spiel about the matchless expertise their organisation can offer.

“Really,” he replies disarmingly. “Are you experts in all those things? What a remarkable coincidence. So are we!”

And then he quietly replaces the receiver.

I warm to this approach because, to me, the single most annoying thing about the massive inflation in executive salaries in recent years has not been the way it has been organised through cabals of “independent non-executive directors” who are actually all members of the same self-interested club. No, it is the way so many business leaders seem unwilling to make their own decisions, even though that is surely precisely what they are being paid so generously to do.

Instead they call in management consultants to outline the options and advise on the optimum course of action. In my experience this will either be a blinding statement of the obvious or a recommendation that the application of only a few moments’ clear thought will show to be laughably and dangerously wrong.

And all for a mere seven figure fee. No wonder that management consultants are so widely derided as people who borrow your watch to tell you the time, then walk off with it in their pocket.

This may seem rich coming from one who scratches a living as a consultant himself, and in a field (public relations) which most honest practitioners will admit is principally about the liberal application of common sense.

All I can say in my defence is that at least I have never been greedy, or seriously damaged the prospects of my clients. So far.

As for my super-rich pals, there is clearly no need to worry about them as a private jet will always be on hand to whisk them off to some more tolerant part of the world if Britain turns seriously resentful, as it may well do as the screw on general living standards tightens in the years ahead.

Our politicians are only brave enough to hint that there might be a temporary blip in the upward march of prosperity, not that the good times are gone for ever. But if they told us the truth and we rose up against them, what would be the alternative? Technocrats. Or, to put it another way, experts. Management consultants.

If it ever comes to that, the top National Lottery prize should surely not be cash, but a place on the last private jet to leave the country.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Remember that it will all be the same in a hundred years' time

As Europe teeters on the brink of an almost unimaginable economic catastrophe, one that may make the events of the 1930s seem like a perfect summer of cream teas and croquet on the vicarage lawn, my thoughts keep returning to a valuable saying of my mother’s: “It will all be the same in a hundred years’ time.”

Bearing this in mind, one of the many things I cannot get worked up about is pensions. Partly, I will admit, because my personal late breeding programme makes it highly unlikely that I will ever be able to retire. Though the other thing making retirement totally inconceivable is the dreadful performance of the investments that I was persuaded to make over the years in a pension fund.

I remember that this concept was sold to me with various projections based on differing growth rates. But I do not remember ever seeing these include the reality of no growth at all, or at any rate growth so low that it barely covers the fat fees of the towering geniuses managing my fund.

My pension fund: how it was meant to be

The image "My pension fund: how it turned out" has been removed to avoid potential charges (financial, not criminal) from the money-grubbing image copyright police. But imagine the one above with the arrow pointing the other way and you will be pretty much there.

I was financially sophisticated enough to see through the great endowment mortgage scan, even though I was called a fool for insisting on a dull old repayment mortgage when I could have this fantastic product that would not only pay off my debt at the end of its term, but leave me rich as Croesus, relaxing in a hot tub in the Caribbean with a minimum of three bikini-clad babes. It was like choosing a penny farthing when I could have had a top-of-the-range Rolls Royce.

I was even bright enough always to tick the “no thanks” box when persuasively offered Payment Protection Insurance, though this does not stop me receiving repeated automated phone calls from helplines eager to pursue my mis-selling claim.

But a pension I fell for, hook line and sinker. Tax relief on the money going in, and a tax-free environment in which my money would surely grow. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for a start Gordon Brown (peace be upon him for saving the nation from the euro) came along came along and concluded that we were all having it too good, so reduced those tax breaks. Then piles of onerous and expensive regulations were heaped upon funds to prevent another Robert Maxwell craftily using them to line his own pockets. And to cap it all, the stock market went to hell in a handcart.

Not to worry, though, because my pension fund managers kept coming up with brilliant new wheezes for putting money into bright, shiny new things that offered so much more potential than dull old shares. For all I know, they could have included packages of mortgages on trailer parks in Detroit, dressed up as Triple A bonds. Because I made the critical mistake of getting so bored with the whole thing that I broke my lifelong golden rule of never investing in things I did not understand (which basically restricted me to a portfolio of pubs, breweries, hotels, restaurants and bakers) and saying the grown-up equivalent of “Whatever”.

So now I find myself with untouchable pension savings that were originally supposed to fund a comfortable if not luxurious retirement just two years hence, and would now buy me an annuity best described as pitiful.

Do I feel sympathy with those public sector workers who are going on strike tomorrow because their contributions are going up and their prospective pensions coming down? Of course I do. But I also feel that, to coin a phrase, “we are all in this together” in the face of inconveniently rising life expectancy and lousy investment returns. And the one thing I don’t feel inclined to do, as I contemplate the ruin of my own hopes of retirement, is to pay a penny more in tax to support their hopes of putting their feet up at my expense.

Working until we all drop sadly seems the only answer. Just like it was a hundred years ago before people started living long enough to make the whole idea of a pension industry worth dreaming up in the first place.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Dictatorship seems a more pressing danger than global warming

This column has never made any claim to omniscience. How could it? I am a half-employed PR man, for heaven’s sake. Though at least this makes me less of a threat to the nation than the former PR man currently resident in 10 Downing Street.

The sharpest knife in the box. Apparently.

But I did work in the City of London for almost 30 years after somehow picking up a first class honours degree in history. So I do know a tiny bit about both the world of high finance and the lessons of the past.

In “Views of the North” last week, Mr Derek Robertson of Gateshead took me to task for claiming in my last column that “our current financial woes are basically down to the EU and the euro”. I did no such thing. I merely pointed out that the creation of the euro had, quite unnecessarily, made an already extremely bad situation potentially catastrophic for democracy and peace.

At the risk of repeating myself, the euro was and is an economically illiterate construction, designed to drive the political union of Europe so that a tiny elite could strut the world stage as representatives of a superpower, claiming parity with the US or China.

Our beloved President van Rompuy

The fact that its creation was dressed up in the language of peace and prosperity made it all the more annoying. That is why I drew a parallel with wind power, which is a classic moneymaking scam designed to benefit a relatively small number of developers and landowners at the expense of the rest of us. Yet it similarly comes infuriatingly wrapped in self-righteous claims that it is all about “saving the planet”.

Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that the Earth is getting warmer. Let us further concede that this may be driven by population growth and industrialisation. I have no difficulty in believing that, while the world may be able to support more than seven billion human beings, it is going to be placed under some strain if they all aspire to the lifestyle of rich Americans.

But bearing in mind the UK’s tiny share of world industrial output, consigning 515 people around Lynemouth to the dole queue by raising taxes to cut carbon emissions seems to me a disproportionately high price to pay for Chris Huhne’s occupation of the international moral high ground.

So, farewell then: Alcan Lynemouth

Meanwhile the Government’s own chief scientific adviser on energy pointed out at the weekend that we will need to cover vast swathes of the country in wind turbines, solar panels and biofuel crops to “go green” and will still only be able to generate a relatively small fraction of our energy needs from renewable resources. Of which wind is much the least satisfactory because of its intermittent nature.

As for allegedly failing to name and shame those guilty for our current economic predicament, even I grew bored with writing week after week that the claim to have “abolished boom and bust” defied all the evidence of history.

The ultimate responsibility of bankers, and those who failed to regulate them, is beyond dispute. It is indeed maddening that they have gone unpunished, their unjustified bonuses neatly laundered into agreeable town houses in Chelsea and country estates in the Cotswolds. I have pointed out in the past that, if it happened in China, at least a representative sample of them would have been shot.

Bankers: the way forward?

But this isn’t China, and I hope it never will be, however much the Chinese economy may prosper. Because the bottom line is that I would like my sons to grow up in a free country where they have a chance to sack the government every five years, rather than being ruled by “technocrats” or commissars who can only be deposed by taking to the streets and facing down people armed with batons, rifles or tanks.

Call me dumb if you wish, but right now that seems a much greater threat to their future than rising sea levels, and is also something that we might be able to take some meaningful action to prevent.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Hann Perspective: In Praise of the Personal Assistant

In the unlikely event that I ever merit an obituary, I have little doubt that it will note that my principal vice was an exceedingly bad temper, luckily moderated by extreme laziness. It is only this that allows me to be writing this column rather than serving an exemplary sentence for a road rage attack.

Both anger and idleness are hereditary failings. My grandfather, a prosperous Alnwick garage proprietor, was ruined when he was successfully sued for libel by one of his competitors, after writing an intemperate letter to the Northumberland Gazette. Family legend has it that he blamed his downfall on my aunt, who acted as his secretary, for typing and delivering the outburst in accordance with his instructions. Instead of divining that he was just letting off steam and consigning it to the dustbin where it belonged.

The first lesson from this is that it is probably never a good idea to employ members of your own family. And the second is that there is surely no greater asset to any business than a good Personal Assistant, who can read the boss’s mind, anticipate his or her reactions, and head off disaster with a timely “Have you thought of …” or, in extremis, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

In a longish career offering advice to chief executives, I have often been struck by the symbiotic relationship between outstanding CEOs and brilliant PAs. Indeed, as the flawed system of remuneration committees has ratcheted up executive rewards to indefensibly stratospheric levels, I have occasionally been moved to wonder whether it would not be in shareholders’ best interests to let the PA run the business. She (and, let’s be honest, it is almost invariably a “she”) often seems to have a rather better grasp of many key facts about the company than her boss. Despite the distraction of taking responsibility for such important personal matters as paying her employer’s bills, booking his restaurants and holidays, and remembering his family birthdays and wedding anniversary.

Secretary recruitment errors No 1: probably crap at PowerPoint

As a tip to aspiring PRs and others in the service sector: if you are looking to win or retain business, there is no better person to befriend in any company than the CEO’s PA, who also usually has the advantages of being better-looking, more charming and considerably more accessible than her employer. In very large organisations, start with the PA’s PA and work your way up from there.

I know that I owe a great deal of whatever success I have had in my career to PAs: both those of my clients and the long-suffering and surprisingly long-serving employees who shielded them from the worst of my idleness and irritability. Though I don’t suppose for a minute that any client ever actually believed their traditional “He’s in a meeting” line as my lunches dragged on late into the afternoon. Particularly as they all knew exactly how I felt about meetings.

Secretary recruitment errors No 2: Home Secretary

For the last seven years I have been entirely self-employed, acting as my own PA. No wonder the growth of my business has stalled. My inadequate mechanical substitutes have been BT Call Minder, to shield me from unwanted telephone callers, and the Internet.

Hating telephone conversations as much as I have done since childhood always seemed a pretty fundamental handicap for a PR man, but luckily more and more media enquiries have migrated to email in recent years. Presumably this is because it reduces the scope for misunderstandings, though I have yet to fathom how I can give an “off the record” response in writing that will be saved on my hard drive for all eternity.

Secretary recruitment errors No 3: Cardinal Secretary of State

The other downside of the web is that it vastly increases the risk of making the same dreadful mistake of my grandfather. One only has to glance at the poisonous comments attracted by so many media and social networking websites to appreciate how easy it is to let rip. No amanuensis needed to type your letter, no postman to deliver it: just bang out the vitriol and ping! It is shared with the world.

That is why I always take care to read every outgoing email carefully before I press the “send” button. And, if it is on a sensitive or important subject, usually save it as a draft for an hour or two to consider whether it could be put better, or best left unsaid.

My son, aged two and a half, is currently demonstrating the Hann family traits to perfection, alternating between self-prostrating “It’s all spoilt!” tantrums and “Mummy do it” indolence. He is lucky to have found the perfect PA in his mother, though I suppose before too long I am going to have to give him a serious talk about the inadvisability of employing a member of his own family in such a critical position.

The Iceland Keith Hann is a DFS PR consultant who has already sold his naming rights –

Originally published in nebusiness magazine, The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Small satisfaction in being proved right as the storm clouds gather

I find it hard to believe that almost two decades have passed since the Conservative party was tearing itself apart over John Major’s determination to ratify the Maastricht treaty, despite Britain’s ignominious exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism.


That, it seemed to me, should have been evidence enough of the utter folly of attempting to lock exchange rates between divergent economies. But the ideologues pressed on regardless with their creation of the euro as a means to advance the cause of a single government for Europe.

Turned out well, hasn’t it? Having been castigated as a backward-looking little Englander for opposing this half-witted project, I hope I may be forgiven a moment of quiet satisfaction as I read the recantations of many of the scheme’s cheerleaders; there was a particular corker in one of the Sunday papers from the former editor of the Financial Times.

But unfortunately we are where we are: in the most horrible mess, with deeply depressing implications for prosperity, democracy and even peace.

Images of Greek protesters and rioters have been removed to avoid potential charges (financial, not criminal) from the money-grubbing image copyright police.

All going terribly well

In the early 1990s I had regular arguments with a distinguished client who was one of the leading lights of the pro-euro campaign. When his economic arguments failed, as they always did, he fell back on the spectre of war. Binding Europe together with a single currency was the only way to preserve the peace that had lasted since 1945.

It always seemed to me to be taking an excessively negative view of the Germans to believe that the only way to stop the Panzers once more rolling into Poland or Alsace was to give Germany a pivotal role in the economic management of the whole Continent.

Far more likely, I argued, that the creation and inevitable collapse of a supranational authority with no popular mandate would ultimately cause conflict, rather than preventing it.

It gives me no pleasure at all to note that this is exactly how it looks today, as the elected governments of Greece and Italy are deposed in favour of administrations led by “technocrats”.

This may not sound too bad, particularly as an alternative to a buffoon like Berlusconi. But how would we have felt if Gordon Brown had exited Number 10 not following a General Election, but because he had simply been sacked by the Queen, acting as proxy for the European Commission, and replaced by Baroness Ashton or Mervyn King?

Surely it is worth bearing in mind that the global banking crisis was the creation of the technical experts in that field, and that what we desperately needed was not more technocrats but more lay people with a smattering of common sense saying loudly and repeatedly “Hang on, this is completely mad.”

Right now, the ways forward seem to be the collapse of the euro, causing widespread economic misery; Germany picking up the gigantic bill to keep the euro together, which its taxpayers will not wear; or China backing down on its unsporting refusal to drop a few trillions into the proffered European hat.

Whichever way it goes, the implications look bleak for the future of democracy, and the avoidance of civil unrest and international tension. Yes, those of us who argued against British membership of the euro have done the country a service by keeping us off the passenger list of the doomed liner, but our rather frail craft stands no chance of enjoying a smooth passage as the whirlpool of catastrophe on the Continent does its best to suck us down.

So we sceptics were bang right. Big deal. Move on. But do please bear this lesson in mind the next time someone tries to sell you an idea wrapped up in the phraseology of progressiveness and inevitability.

A rare image of a wind turbine actually doing something

I will take similar momentary satisfaction, a decade or two from now, when the eager proponents of wind power finally admit that they were completely wrong. But by then our finest landscapes will have been desecrated by useless turbines, and we will be sitting in the cold and dark. And there will be no quick, easy and painless solution to that avoidable mess, either.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Remember, it is far better to arrive late than not at all

Of all the many causes of delays on our overburdened motorway system, surely none is more maddening than the long, stop-start crawl that turns out to be due to drivers slowing down to have a good gawp at some mishap in the opposite carriageway.

Accidents clearly have a horrible fascination for many of us. Although one of the many things I learned over the weekend is that we must now refer to them as “incidents”, because “accident” implies an absence of blame that may well not be the case.

Friday's serious incident on the M5

Yet, having taken a leisurely look at the wreckage, we seem to absorb remarkably few lessons. Motorway traffic soon returns to its customary but illegal 80mph and the bad habits of tailgating, undertaking, using hand-held mobile phones and ignoring electronic warning signs all continue exactly as before.

Perhaps that is why the bright idea of leaving crashed cars by the side of the road as a dreadful warning to others never seems to have caught on in the UK.

Now, I make no claims to be a particularly virtuous driver. But my bad habits are certainly moderated by having been tangentially involved in two multiple pile-ups: one on the M62 and the other on the central motorway in Newcastle.

In both cases I crested a rise to find stationary traffic in front of me, and stopped safely, if not without difficulty. Many vehicles behind me did not. In Newcastle I was driving a literally brand new Land Rover, fresh from the showroom, and will be forever grateful to the driver of the large van immediately behind who, as the multiple impacts shunted him forwards, manfully steered away from the rear of my car. I was able to drive away without a scratch.

As, in both incidents, were the individuals at the front of all the chaos who were observed calmly restarting their cars and leaving the scene, without bothering to hang around to help the police with their enquiries.

Whenever I feel tempted to take risks on the road, I call to mind the image of the blue BMW I watched in my rear view mirror as it became airborne and executed a perfect barrel roll, wondering whether its final resting place was going to be on top of me.

Although both these crashes are still seared on my memory many years later, they were deemed far too ordinary to merit any coverage in even the local media, which I duly scoured for reports. I deduced from this that no one must have been killed despite the large number of vehicles involved.

Though this might be an assumption too far, since the rule of thumb seems to be that it requires several fatalities in a road crash to merit a small fraction of the column inches lavished on a single death on the railway.

I have never understood this. Rail travel is inherently safe, and there is nothing any passenger can do to make it safer. Driving, while rendered much less dangerous over the years by improvements in car and road design, remains a far riskier business than catching a train, and responsibility rests squarely with all of us who get behind a steering wheel.

This seems to me a pretty good reason for giving more publicity to road crashes, and their causes. And, yes, if the bereaved families can bear it, to the “human interest” stories of the lives they have cut short.

Because every one of us who drives a car will surely benefit from a regular reminder that we are piloting something potentially lethal, and that it is ultimately our responsibility to ensure that we are equipped to handle the unexpected, whether that be a bank of smoke, a falling tree, or an animal or child dashing out into the road.

Yes, delays are frustrating, sometimes infuriating. I find that the best recipe for calm is to keep reminding myself that life is already very short and that it is far, far better to arrive late than never to arrive at all.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Making the wrong choice about where to put the clock back

So at last the great moment arrived when David Cameron could claim his place in my pantheon of true Conservative heroes by attempting to put the clock back – and not simply because it was the end of British Summer Time.

True, it was disappointing that he chose to do it by announcing the reincarnation of the British Empire Medal.

For God and the Empire. How very un-Dave

An award for those deemed rather too common to meet the Queen, abolished by John Major in 1993 in his pursuit of a classless society. With his famous cones hotline long closed, this reversal threatens to undo one of the few defining achievements of his administration.

Sadly one small step backwards counted for little in a week when a raft of other measures betrayed Mr Cameron’s continued obsession with that falsest of gods, “progress”.

These included the attempt to “modernise” the monarchy by altering the rules of succession to give equal rights to female heirs. Few seemed to question that this was a good thing. But how can you possibly hope to drag a hereditary monarchy into the twenty-first century? It is, by its nature, a mediaeval anachronism. That is precisely why some of us find it so appealing.

Once you start tinkering with the ancient rules, people will start to wonder why we have to have the first-born son or daughter when the third in line seems so much more personable. Or, indeed, why we have to have a member of that particular family at all.

Long may she reign
The Royal Standard for Australia (never let it be said that this is not an educational column)

I cannot help thinking that this great step forward will look slightly less brilliant when some of the Commonwealth legislatures invited to amend the rules of succession decide to vote for a republic instead.

As if that were not enough, there was the bold decision in principle to defy Nature and put Britain, at least for a trial period, on Berlin rather than Greenwich time.

No need to bother with any of that nonsense - we'll cave in on the time zone issue without even being asked

A piece of craziness to rank alongside anyone ever imagining that they could place a hard-working, efficient and well-governed country like Germany in a currency union with an indolent, shambolic and corrupt one like Greece, and not face major problems.

But then the people who came up with the euro were not stupid. They always knew that it was economic nonsense. But it prepared the ground for the sort of “beneficial crisis” that would advance their goal of creating a single government for Europe.

And so, behold, it is coming to pass. Just as those derided loony Eurosceptics warned it would. And very soon the siren voices of the Europhiles will be raised again, warning that Britain cannot afford to be left behind as this “inevitable” Union progresses.

In fact they are at it already, with David Banks reminding us in his column on Friday about “the £150m Brussels earmarked this year to build jobs and prosperity in the North East”. Only it’s OUR money. Britain is the second largest net contributor to the great EU racket.

Being grateful for handouts we have paid for is a bit like thanking a mugger who considerately hands you a tenner for your cab fare home after he has pinched your wallet.

Take an issue about which a large chunk of the population feel strongly, whether that be capital punishment or the extinction of our independence as a nation, and you can be sure that the reaction of the political class will be to close ranks, stick their fingers in their ears and chant “La la la not listening” until we go away.

Except that, in an attempt to put the inconvenient European issue to bed, they have already passed an act requiring a referendum on any future treaty change that hands more power to Brussels. One of the delights of the coming months will be watching them trying to weasel out of that promise as the United States of Europe emerges unmistakably from the euro crisis.

But why worry? We will all be able to enjoy an extra hour of daylight in which to polish our BEMs and pray that the Duchess of Cambridge may be safely delivered of a girl. Because otherwise an awful lot of valuable Parliamentary time will have been expended in vain.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Football: I've now tried it twice, but still prefer the opera

I gathered from the news that there was a football match of some historic significance at the weekend. Unfortunately it was not the one I attended on Saturday, when I went to St James’ Park for only the second time in my life.

Best photo I could find taken from roughly were we were sitting - though it wasn't dark at the time

I was there because a London-based but Newcastle-bred friend of mine had won two tickets to the match, simply by obtaining some cash from a Barclays’ hole in the wall. If the object of this giveaway was to generate customer goodwill, it might surely have been achieved more economically by simply adding a bonus £20 note to the sum he had requested.

Not just a cash machine: it awards prizes, too, like a one-armed bandit

As it was, the “prize” cost more to use than it was actually worth, after transport to and from Newcastle was factored in.

There was also the curious fact that my friend appeared to be as interested in football as I am, though he did ramble on a bit about going to the Leazes end in the 1960s, and cheering on some players I had vaguely heard of. Which was more than either of us could say of the current team.

We were even more spectacularly ignorant about Wigan Athletic, words that seem to fit together as naturally as “David Cameron” and “common” or “Mike Ashley” and “poor”.

The official attendance was announced as 48,321. I made a note of this because it was at least 47,000 more people than would typically turn out to see an opera, my more usual leisure activity of choice.

But despite their numbers, the supposed fans seemed curiously lacking in enthusiasm and even stamina. They only had to sit down for two stretches of 45 minutes, for heaven’s sake – less than half the typical duration of an act in the opera house, before I even start on the subject of Wagner – yet it proved utterly beyond many of them.

We were constantly performing a localised Mexican wave as people fought their way in and out to keep urgent appointments, presumably with a meat pie, pint of bitter or the lavatory.

If any of them fancy trying Opera North’s Madama Butterfly at the Theatre Royal next month, let me advise that it is not at all the done thing to shuffle out ten minutes before the end because you suspect the final aria won’t be up to much. Nor to enquire loudly during the performance whether the conductor is blind.

Pinkerton? Send him off!

I genuinely appreciated the technical skill with which both teams passed the ball around among themselves. However, they did appear to be under the instruction of a politically correct primary school teacher who had advised that the top priority was for every boy to have a turn at kicking the thing, rather than to focus on getting it into the opposing team’s goal.

Talking of political correctness, while its forces may have done a cracking job in stamping out racist abuse, the tone of critical comment from the crowd led me to think that there is probably a way to go before the more sensitive members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community would necessarily feel entirely comfortable attending a match without earplugs.

But I do not knock; I enjoyed the banter from the row behind about the days when they used to stand in a tin shed, warmed only by other fans relieving themselves down the back of their legs. In fact for me it was the most entertaining feature of the whole afternoon, which must rank on a par with going to an opera where the highlight was a laugh at malfunctioning surtitles.

On the evidence of Saturday, the key similarity between football and the opera is that most of the players on the pitch or stage are not English. And the critical difference is that, in football, you end the fixture with a result. Most of the crowd seemed to leave the ground content enough with that. As for the performance, I wished that Eric Morecambe were still alive to pose the question: “What do you think of it so far?”

In view of my admitted ignorance of the game, I wonder whether I would have been quite alone in giving him the traditional answer?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

And the bad news is: my son is not a psychic

My mother was almost 45 when I was born, so there was never any chance that I might acquire a younger sibling. Which was nice, so far as I was concerned.

Indeed my principal objection to my early domestic arrangements was that they included a grown-up brother who still lived at home, preventing me from being the sole focus of my parents’ attention.

I longed to be an only child, and conversations over the years with sibling-free acquaintances have revealed few complaints; except among those who have found themselves responsible for the care of two ill and aged parents, with no one to share the practical or emotional burden.

I have nodded sympathetically to their tales of woe, while privately thinking that it constituted a reasonable payback for the undivided parental interest they enjoyed during childhood.

So I cut articles out of newspapers and magazines about how happy only children can be, and left them strategically positioned around the house in places where my wife was likely to see them.

I also lost no opportunity to tut about the Earth’s population approaching the seven billion mark, the looming energy crisis and the collapse of the global economy. All making it very undesirable for us to bring more children into the world, and pretty much guaranteeing that they would have a miserable time if we did.

This worked as well as most of my schemes, and Mrs Hann somehow managed to get pregnant, against staggering odds. We then felt compelled to introduce two-year-old Charlie to some of the basic facts of life, at least a decade before anyone tried to do so with me, in an attempt to stop him bouncing on his expanding mother while shouting “I squish mummy”.

This worked a treat. He continued to behave in exactly the same way, but now yelled “I squish the baby” as he leapt on top of her.

He also announced to anyone who passed his way that “Mummy’s got a girl baby in her tummy”. And, despite his evident immaturity and the fact that he had no track record whatsoever as a clairvoyant, we started to believe this to be true. No doubt partly because, in his mother’s case at least, it chimed with her own wish to have a daughter.

Just over a week ago, in the absence of any suitable volunteers for babysitting duties, we had the pleasure of Charlie’s company when we went to hospital for a 20 week anatomy scan. Throughout the journey we tried to maintain his interest by telling him that we were going to take a look at his little brother or sister.

“Sister,” he corrected us pointedly each time.

He made friends with a little girl of around his own age in the waiting room and they rampaged around in the noisiest possible fashion. It was obvious from the facial expressions of some spectators that this was making those experiencing their first pregnancy wonder what on earth they had let themselves in for.

Then we had the scan and the sonographer pronounced, after confirming that we would like to know the outcome, that our second child was going to be another boy.

At which all hell broke loose as Charlie wailed “I don’t want a brother!” Hoping, presumably, for a response along the lines of “Oh, sorry, I hadn’t realised. In that case, it’s a girl.”

Mrs Hann has, on the whole, borne any resulting disappointment much more stoically than her son.

As for me, study of the Hann family tree suggested an inherent bias to the male, so it was the conclusion I expected. And I am naturally attracted to the economies we will be able to realise by passing Charlie’s old clothes, toys and other impedimenta on to the new baby.

That’s on top of the huge savings I am already making now that I have accepted that Charlie has no psychic powers, and have stopped giving him a crayon and each day’s racing pages in the hope that he will pick me a winner. He has been a consistent disappointment in picking Lottery numbers, too; but at least I can now hope for more profitable gifts in his brother.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Hann Perspective: The Coming Apocalypse

I have a friend who has not yet been certified insane, owing to a series of regrettable oversights by the overworked medical profession, yet still purports to believe that the world will be coming to an end on 21 December next year.

The timing could be worse, I suppose. Royalists like me will have enjoyed the uplift of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, while those who care for that sort of thing will have been able to watch their money cascading down the world class gurgler of the London Olympics. And we will all be spared yet another excruciating Christmas lunch with the in-laws as well as those always daunting winter fuel bills.

The important question is whether it is really going to happen. Because, if it is, we might as well all stop worrying about our shrinking pension funds and start ticking off achievements from the list of 50 things to do before we die. Or in my case, five things, four of which will almost certainly be ruled out by my inability to secure the willing participation of a lingerie model suitably qualified by her ownership of a main line steam locomotive.

In her case, I'd have settled for a narrow gauge locomotive

Common sense, of course, decrees that the end of the world is not about to take place. But then I am pretty sure that common sense dismissed the Black Death, the huge death toll of the First World War and the horror unleashed on 9/11 as alarmist fantasies until they actually occurred. And if they had been slightly more intelligent, the dinosaurs would no doubt have enjoyed a good chuckle about the huge odds against their far from cosy world being blown apart by a massive asteroid impact.

Famous last words:"What the f... was that?"

Wikipedia is packed with laughable stories of those who made a wrong call on the timing of the Apocalypse, and I don’t have a lot of faith in my friend’s burbling explanations about the Mayan calendar. But I know from my own years as an investment analyst that once in a blue moon even a total idiot can turn out to be almost right, albeit for completely the wrong reasons.

The basis of my niggling concern is the way that the whole world economic system increasingly resembles one of those gigantic boulders precariously balanced on the top of a crumbling pinnacle of rock: the pinnacle in this case being the Everest of global debt. It will only take the failure of one or two meaningful sovereign states to bring the entire thing crashing down, taking with it the banks, what is left of our savings, and our ability to make payments with cash, credit cards or cheques.

Even if the trumpets have failed to sound and the four horsemen have not made their scheduled appearance the previous day, this financial scenario could make 22 December 2012 the occasion of some smugness among those who have invested in a bit of land suitable for vegetable cultivation, a large stock of tinned food, some chickens, a gun and maybe a few gold bars for conducting transactions with their neighbours.

Being one of the world’s foremost pessimists, I was certainly thinking along these lines when I bought my current home in Northumberland. Though I have never actually grown anything more ambitious than mint and chives, and the modest tinned food stockpile is covered in rust and swelling disturbingly at the seams; while the hens remain a pipe dream and I have yet to feel even remotely tempted to give the constabulary a laugh at my expense by applying for a firearms licence.

My little patch of land (though sadly not my sheep)

As for those gold bars, the only thing glistering in my house, now that I have had the crown on my back tooth replaced in porcelain, is the fake guinea dangling modestly at the end of my great-grandfather’s watch chain.

It is rather a shame that I haven’t had the courage of my negative convictions, or made any like-minded friends to reinforce them. We could have held a splendid Christmas lunch of tinned all-day breakfast in 2012, and smirked over the irony that one of the few growth sectors on the high street in the years before the crash was those shops devoted to parting the gullible from their precious metals and converting them into now worthless folding money.

However, I imagine that the smiles would probably be wiped off our faces quite quickly when rampaging mobs of the hungry urban underclass arrived on our blessed plots and started helping themselves to anything that took their fancy, in the popular Tottenham style.

I suppose if I really believed in the imminent economic Apocalypse, I would currently be looking for a small offshore island with fertile soil and scope for fortification. Though for a lazy man like me, it seems easier simply to take the advice so often shouted at me in the streets: “Cheer up, it may never happen!”

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who likes to prepare for the worst 

Originally published in nebusiness magazine, The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Follow your heart and nothing else will matter

Perhaps the strangest advice I have read in the last week was the recommendation that lonely single people should acquire a dog to attract the opposite sex.

I can tell you from bitter experience that this does not work, partly because dogs really do take on the personalities of their owners. The low point for me, some years ago now, was walking in the hills above Alwinton on a gloriously sunny summer morning, and observing the approach of a vision of loveliness in shorts. She was accompanied by a bouncing collie.

As we drew closer I could see that the young lady was smiling broadly at me, or perhaps at my ever-so-cute Border terrier. Clearly a potentially life-changing conversation was on the cards. But it never took place because, at the critical moment, Arthur the Border terrier adopted his usual course with strange dogs and bit a lump out of her companion.

We passed in an awkward silence broken only by my well-worn attempt at an apology, as Arthur gave me his traditional “Sorry, Dad,” look, which I knew meant that he was not sorry at all.

The late Arthur in benign repose

But at least the “get a dog” advice acknowledges in the small print that it may not bring you the love of your life, but it does guarantee that you will be less lonely. Because you will have a dog.

The address to Stanford University graduates by Steve Jobs, much quoted after his death last week, contained great advice on the matter of work. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.”

The important sub-text to which is that your work will almost certainly never bring you the sort of fame and wealth enjoyed by Steve Jobs. But that won’t matter. Because at least you will be filling your days doing something that you love.

For me, the other particularly striking feature of Jobs’ address was the remarkable chutzpah he displayed in standing before a class of eager young graduates and reminding them that they would all soon be dead.

It is perfectly true, of course. The best lesson that the old can pass on to the young is that it only seemed like yesterday when they were similarly full of youthful promise. I can remember my parents trying to teach it to me. But like youngsters through the ages I ignored them, because I believed I had all the time in the world.

Very few of us have the great gift of being entirely original thinkers, able to conjure up products that no one has the slightest idea that they want until they appear on the market, then realise that they absolutely must have. Such inventiveness has been the great contribution to the world of Apple Inc.

The late Steve Jobs

Who knows what more life-enhancing gadgetry would have come our way if Jobs had lived. Though my own principal regret is that we shall never hear him further develop his intriguing line from that Stanford address: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”

As he pointed out, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there.” But as my late next-door neighbour was fond of saying, in only slightly more colourful language, “No beggar gets out of this one alive.”

It is a shame that Apple have not yet beautifully packaged the inevitable as a must-have iDeath that we could all covet. Until they do, the best advice surely comes from Horace in what the BBC would have us describe as BCE: “Carpe diem”. Seize the day and follow your heart.

So if you’re lonely as you read this, maybe you should crack on and buy that dog. Or possibly try advertising a vacancy for a wife on your business website. That was my one original idea so far, and it certainly worked for me far better than the irascible Border terrier ever did.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.