Tuesday 25 January 2011

Making notes for Charlie

If I had any principles at all, this is the one by which I would have governed my life: leave well alone.

If you spot a suspicious mound of earth in the garden, or a mysterious pile of papers in the attic, do not think, “Ooh, I wonder what’s in there?” Avert your eyes and pass on. The alternative will undoubtedly lead down a clichĂ©d path involving cans and worms.

For example, I believed until quite recently that my maternal grandfather, a respectable Alnwick garage proprietor, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1936 while on a fishing holiday in Wales. But then a cousin’s cousin began researching the family tree and uncovered an altogether more lurid cause of death.

Vainly scrabbling for respectability, the last survivor of my parents’ generation observed that lots of men picked up exotic diseases during their service in the First World War. Which might have been a satisfying explanation if my grandfather had not spent the entire war tinkering with cars (among other things, by the sound of it) in Northumberland. I suspect he rarely if ever ventured beyond Gateshead, though that in itself may explain a lot.

My other grandfather was also oddly spared the trenches, even though he volunteered for them. I still have a letter of appreciation from Lord Kitchener’s PA’s PA’s PA, regretfully turning down his application because of his vital work on the home front, and enclosing an armband bearing a crown.

Wearing this was presumably designed to stem the flow of white feathers from war-hungry ladies as he plodded around the centre of Newcastle, putting the fear of God into the Kaiser as one of His Majesty’s postmen. Why this work could not have been delegated to one of the eager feather distributors remains a mystery.

In case you are thinking wistfully of what might have been, I should perhaps add that even the despatch of both my grandfathers to the Western Front would not have saved you from this column, for my parents had already been born in the Edwardian glory days of Downton Abbey (though not, sadly, in quite such privileged circumstances).

These reminiscences are prompted by a flagrantly stupid departure from my principles of laissez-faire. In my book (which I inherited from my father) doctors are to be avoided at all costs. Yet now that I am a married man with family responsibilities, I allowed myself to be nagged into consulting one after a mildly worrisome incident a couple of weeks ago, when I turned to leave after standing through a half hour presentation and found that I had temporarily lost the use of both my legs.

Predictably enough, the resulting medical investigations have so far shed no light whatsoever on that incident, but have definitively established that I have suffered a heart attack – albeit a heart attack I never even noticed. Cue medication, further unpleasant tests, possible surgery and a massive adjustment of diet and lifestyle.

Male Hanns have never made old bones. Indeed my father, who had his fatal heart attack aged 73, was the longest-lived of us since at least 1700 – a fact rather glumly pointed out to me last year by my brother, now aged 72 ¾.

I shall do my best to improve on that, but do not feel inclined to bet on it. So I now propose to occupy much of my remaining time writing a big, fat, square book for my son distilling everything I know about the history of our family, country and the world at large, and any other advice that I think might prove useful when I am no longer around for consultation.

I doubt that it will become a best-seller, but so long as one particular person reads it to the end I shall not feel that my life has been completely wasted.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Where did all the fish and money go?

Britain is famously an island built on coal and surrounded by fish. It helped to make us the greatest and richest power on Earth. So how come we now find ourselves running out of seafood, energy and cash?

The chattering classes currently seem to be more exercised about fish than by their personal trainers. Television coverage has belatedly drawn their attention to the scandal of half the fish caught in the North Sea being thrown back dead to comply with EU quota rules.

It is easy (and enjoyable) to blame this on Edward Heath’s decision to offer up the British fishing industry as a sacrifice to secure the great prize of Common Market entry in 1973.

The argument that joining this apparent trading club would make us all more prosperous seemed pretty persuasive to anyone comparing the relative progress of the British, French and German economies at the time, and came with the assurance that there was “no essential loss of national sovereignty” involved.

This was, we now know, a lie to rank among the biggest of a century that generated more than its fair share.

We foolishly threw open our once rich fisheries to other nations’ bottom-scraping trawlers, which essentially hoovered the seas clean of life.

There is sadly no guarantee that we would not have created this same mess all by ourselves, if left to our own devices. We are guilty, too, of ignoring repeated warnings not to eat endangered species such as tuna and cod, to which we apparently remain as addicted as the Chinese are to the non-existent medical benefits of rhino horn and tiger bones.

In energy, the EU crops up again as the organisation forcing us to close down our coal power stations, though it can reasonably be pointed out that successive British governments had ample warning to come up with an alternative, whether the sane one of nuclear or the crackpot one of covering both land and sea with intermittently wafting windmills.

Then there is the whole cash thing. You will have noted that we no longer have enough of the stuff to fund luxuries like local courts, libraries and municipal flowerbeds, and it can surely only be a matter of time before our council’s only role is to allocate us a time to bring our own rubbish to the recycling centre, and ask whether we would mind stopping to fill in the potholes along our way.

Where has all the money gone? Sucked up in huge trawl nets by rapacious bankers, politicians and Eurocrats? Well, up to a point, though here again sadly many of us are guilty of allowing the lure of easy credit to encourage us to live beyond our means.

Now the day of reckoning has arrived, and some take pleasure in pointing out that the euro zone is in an even bigger mess than we are. This is to misunderstand the whole nature of the euro project, which was never intended to create the economic benefits lauded by its more gullible fans.

It was and is a political project to advance the cause of creating a United States of Europe so that a few well-nourished individuals can strut the world stage claiming parity with the US, China and the other emerging great powers. Disasters affecting peripheral economies saddled with inappropriate interest rates were an entirely predictable consequence, designed to ease the transfer of power from national governments to the centre.

Our politicians continue to dodge the uncomfortable fact that semi-detachment from the European project is untenable in the long run, and we will have to submit ourselves to rule from Brussels or break free. Either course will be painful and dangerous, but only independence can restore Britain’s self-respect. And with it the right to take charge, like grown-ups, of our fisheries, energy policy and money.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

We need less rage and more debate

The truth of that ancient saying about old dogs and new tricks is currently being demonstrated every day behind the wheel of my car.

Along with the falseness of that other well worn claim that resorting to foul language is a sure sign of a limited vocabulary and lack of education. I happen to be exceptionally well educated, and somewhere I have the certificates to prove it.

Yet over 40 years of driving I have developed the habit of expressing my views on the deficiencies of other motorists, and our declining standards of road maintenance, with the happy economy of words that rarely contain more than four letters.

The new factor I have to contend with is the presence of a car seat containing an 18-month-old observer with many of the characteristics of a particularly cute sponge. He is now starting to repeat words that appeal to him, and I recognise that it would be wildly inappropriate if he began addressing the staff of his day nursery with some of the choicer expressions I use about those who speed along the narrow country roads of Northumberland with scant regard to what might be approaching them around the corner.

But how to reform? A nanny friend says that she can relieve her feelings quite substantially by judicious use of the word “Noodles!” One of her small charges asked her why she kept saying it and, at the end of the explanation, the little girl observed, “Oh, right. My mummy says [expletive deleted].”

The question currently interesting me is whether it would be better for my health to find a suitable word that sounds like swearing, but isn’t, as a way of channelling my anger, or to attempt to suppress it altogether.

I can be abusive in the car because I am safe in the knowledge that I am enclosed in a largely soundproof bubble. While offending motorists will no doubt get the gist of my thoughts from my contorted face and accompanying gestures, they will be gone in a flash as we continue to speed in opposite directions.

Would I actually be anything like as rude to another human being face to face? Absolutely not: cowardice would prevail. Those who tip over the edge into violent road rage are mercifully few in number.

The internet was once known as the information superhighway and has many of the characteristics of the road, including the tendency for participants to be massively offensive about each other from the safety of a cocoon – in the virtual world, that of anonymity, sheltering behind some fatuous pseudonym.

No respectable newspaper will publish anonymous letters, except in circumstances where the safety of the writer might be at risk, and even then the editor will insist on knowing the true identity of the author. Yet look at almost any story on a newspaper website or blog and you will find that it has attracted a series of often vilely abusive pseudonymous comments.

We all seem to be increasingly angry with a whole range of other people, from bankers to politicians, royalty to climate change sceptics, and given to venting our feelings. The important question is whether this serves as a safety valve or leads us down the path to the sort of physical violence currently dominating the headlines from Arizona. A useful reminder, incidentally, that political friendships across party boundaries are not a sign of hypocrisy, but of civilisation.

The academic consensus seems to be that venting anger is better for us than bottling it up, so long as it is released in ways that do not harm others. But before I shout even “noodles” in the car, in future I shall try pretending that the person who has annoyed me knows my full name and address, and can continue the debate in any way he chooses.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Surely things can only get better?

My 2011 television viewing began with Morecambe and Wise and I can only echo their classic verdict on the year to date. “What do you think of it so far? Rubbish!”

And rubbish plus 20% VAT, too.

I have not heard one snippet of good news since Big Ben chimed midnight on Friday, and a lot of public money promptly went up in smoke. Every time my phone rings or inbox lights up it is with news of another friend or neighbour suffering a broken limb, heart attack, swine flu or potential cancer diagnosis.

And to cap it all Nigel Pargetter has plunged from the roof of Lower Loxley Hall, with a bloodcurdling scream so prolonged that it sounded more like a fall from Blackpool Tower.

For those who do not share my addiction to Radio 4’s famously 60-year-old soap, Nigel is (or was) a character in The Archers. A stereotypical silly ass in the P.G. Wodehouse mould, he inherited the rundown local stately home, married the slightly shop-soiled Elizabeth Archer and settled down to a life of domestic bliss with their twins. He also manifested a huge if slightly unlikely enthusiasm for BBC-approved green causes such as ditching his 4x4 for a bicycle, and providing land for allotments. You can bet he had an organ donor card in his pocket when he fell.

Latterly, though, he has been leaning on the twins to study hard to get into a private school, rather than the local state secondary strongly favoured by Elizabeth’s mother. Clearly his reactionary genes were getting the better of him and he had to go. Or has he?

At the time of writing Archers editor Vanessa Whitburn was still teasing her listeners with the fact that she chose to end Sunday night’s episode with the Barwick Green theme music rather than the splat of toff hitting tarmac, so optimists could still cling to the hope that he landed on a luckily placed bouncy castle, or indeed that he was still gripping the end of the New Year banner he had been egged onto the roof to take down by his normally dull and responsible brother-in-law David Archer.

This story harked right back to The Archers’ roots as a Government-driven public information service for farmers, contrasting sensibly progressive Dan Archer with the incompetent halfwit Walter Gabriel. Because the important underlying Elfin Safety message was this: never attempt to remove a hanging advertisement from an icy roof, after dark, in a stiff breeze, after drinking several glasses of punch. A message about as stunningly helpful as advice not to lay your head on a railway line, or dip your fingers in water before stuffing them into a live electric socket.

There is a theory that, for a relentlessly right-on rural community with an appropriate quota of gays, an obsessive single mother conceiving through sperm donation, and a vicar married to a Hindu, Ambridge is a bit light on the disabled, and that poor old Nigel might yet be allowed to survive as a hopeless cripple.

Though presumably only if comatose, since allowing an able-bodied actor to speak the words of a differently abled character would surely be as unacceptably non-PC these days as permitting a white man to black up to play Othello.

You will presumably have the advantage of me, by the time you read this, of knowing how things actually panned out, but I reckon Nigel is a goner. Because toffs are in the ascendancy right now, and need to be brought down to earth. Literally.

Nigel Pargetter is surely the luckless proxy for “Dave” Cameron, after the BBC tried and failed to persuade him that it would be a topping idea to nip up onto the slippery roof at Chequers to unfurl a banner conveying his message of hope and good cheer for 2011.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Monday 3 January 2011

2011 revealed

Old Mother Hann takes her traditional look into her cloudy crystal ball and attempts to predict the key events of 2011 for The Journal's nebusiness section:

Jan: VAT rises to 20%; Philip Green issues press release about how much more tax he will be paying as a result.
Feb: Simon Cowell launches new talent contest to find Britain’s most unpopular person; Nick Clegg faces Mike Ashley in final.
Mar: Silvio Berlusconi snatches surprise victory in Italian general election after inviting all male voters to a party.
Apr: Army bulldozers clear snowbound London streets for Royal wedding; Met Office predicts 2011 will be warmest year on record.
May: Britain votes ‘no’ in AV referendum; EU insists it must be repeated until voters give the right answer.
Jun: Duke of Edinburgh celebrates 90th birthday at “Celebrating Multicultural Britain” party; panic attacks put five royal aides in hospital.
Jul: Britain hosts last-ever Wimbledon finals before event moves to Sahara Desert; rumours of bribery strongly denied.
Aug: Reports of wind turbine actually revolving bring thousands of green energy “twitchers” to North East; hoax by tourism bosses uncovered.
Sep: Ed Miliband announces new Labour Party policies; David Cameron rebuked by Speaker for mocking his pronunciation of “policies”.
Oct: Cyber attack stops all online transactions and cash machine withdrawals worldwide; eight-year-old North Shields boy arrested.
Nov: Euro collapses; entire British banking system nationalised.
Dec: Bankers paid record bonuses.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.