Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The sooner every party breaks up ...

How I ever made a living out of public relations is as huge a mystery to me as it must be to all my current and former clients.

Once again on Saturday I found myself at a party where a succession of people came up to resume conversations we had apparently enjoyed in the past, while my face all too clearly proclaimed that I did not have a clue who they were.

The fact that it was a private party made it worse. At least at a business event I would have issued all attendees with name badges which I might have stood a chance of reading, if they had not put them on upside down, back to front, inside their coats or hung unhelpfully from their belts, so that the absent-minded PR has to grovel for a non-existent contact lens to take a surreptitious glance.

It did not help that it was my wife’s 40th birthday bash, and all those present were her closest colleagues and dearest friends. She had drawn up the guest list herself, and booked the splendid room in a local hotel, when it finally became clear that her heavy hints about how much she would enjoy a 1930s themed surprise party in a marquee in our garden were destined to fall on stony ground.

Mrs Hann prepares to greet her guests, and Master Hann begins to nag his grandmother to take him home
Because I hate parties, me. Always have, since I was a child and we had to play musical chairs (now mercifully banned by Elfin Safety) and spar with someone’s faintly sinister uncle, who would desperately try to inveigle us into saying a forbidden word like “sausages”.

My favourite character in the whole of English fiction is Jane Austen’s Mr Woodhouse, for his pronouncement that “The sooner every party breaks up, the better.”

Bring on a bowl of gruel and a nice warm blanket over my knees.

The trouble is that I married someone who is not only vastly younger than I am, but also infinitely nicer and more sociable. This makes me, I am constantly reminded, a very lucky man. The question that periodically exercises me is: what on earth made her do it?

It is not as though I am particularly rich or successful. After 55 years without any dependants, I don’t even have a decent life insurance policy she can look forward to cashing in. Later this week we are going to London to see the Royal Opera’s new production, Anna Nicole, about the tragic 26-year-old Playboy model who married an 89-year-old Texan oil billionaire. You do not need to be a genius to work out the attraction on both sides there. My own case seems considerably harder.

I endured my utter social ineptitude for a couple of hours, and three pints of bitter, then went for a little lie-down, from which my poor wife had to rouse me to propose a toast while she cut her own birthday cake. Then I went back to bed until the joyous hour when the taxi arrived to take us home. I believe that the young people devoted the intervening period to dancing. I shudder at the thought.

The birthday cake, making it a bit pointless to lie about her age

The birthday girl and friends, apparently having a Good Time

The really worrying thing from my wife’s point of view is not so much my own miserable behaviour, which she has come to expect, but the fact that our son matched it with an equally urgent desire to be taken home and put to bed at the earliest opportunity.

The puzzle is that we sang “Lord of the dance” at my mother’s funeral in memory of her youthful enthusiasm for a good party. She was nearly 45 when I happened along so I never saw this side of her character. Perhaps that is where we have been going wrong. Clearly I must encourage Charlie to marry young in the hope of eradicating the Hann anti-party gene before it passes on into the 22nd century.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The day they confiscated our history

The past may be a foreign country, but at least it is a territory well supplied with guide books and maps.

Opinions may differ on precisely what happened at Suez in 1956, say, but the facts are out there and we are much more likely to reach a sensible conclusion about those events than we are to predict “what next” for Egypt and ex-President Mubarak.

For me, the Suez crisis of 1956 has always been tantalisingly out of reach – within my lifetime, but before I began to take the slightest interest in anything beyond a bottle. Some things remain remarkably constant, when put like that, but Britain has changed almost beyond recognition in my lifetime, and our humiliating withdrawal from Egypt in 1956 seems increasingly like the tipping point.

It led to a crucial loss of self-confidence: the rapid withdrawal from the remains of Empire, the rundown of our armed forces, the first application to join the Common Market. We ceased to be a country that went its own way and did not care what the rest of the world thought, and embarked on a programme of trying to fit in.

There was no sadder example of this, to my mind, than the abandonment of our distinctive and glorious currency 40 years ago today on “D-Day”, where “D” stood for “decimalisation”. Like that von Trapp girl in the Sound of Music, I was 16 going on 17 at the time, and naïve enough to feel excited by the novelty of it all. I remember volunteering to do the rounds of the Benton shops for my mother, to save her fiddling with the unfamiliar new coins.

We had been softened up for weeks beforehand by The Scaffold singing repetitive dirges to us in public information films: the chorus “Give more, get change” ran through my dreams for years afterwards. This was all based on the premise that there was going to be a prolonged transition lasting up to 18 months, during which “decimal shops” would co-exist with “LSD shops”, disappointingly not specialising in hallucinogenic drugs but simply continuing to use the old currency.

In fact, like most Government forecasts, this proved to be hopelessly inaccurate. The change was almost instantaneous everywhere, with only the Corporation buses continuing to use the old money for a week until they felt confident that most passengers would possess the right change.

It was only later that I began to reflect on what we had lost: a unique coinage that offered a history lesson in every handful of change, with the coins of five reigns in everyday circulation, including pennies showing Queen Victoria as a young woman as well as a veiled widow.

From the halfpenny to the majestic half crown, via the octagonal brass threepenny bit, there was something of beauty and interest in every transaction. The coinage proclaimed that this was an ancient nation with a proud history that took its symbols seriously and attached importance to good design.

What has happened since is almost too sad to contemplate – and surely it isn’t just coincidence that a pound today is worth roughly what a shilling was in 1971?

For 40 years we have kept slithering down the slope of meek conformity. Yes, we may still muster a ragged cheer when the House of Commons declares that prisoners shall not have the vote, but we know that the next act will be a humiliating cave-in and climb-down. Meanwhile another barmy European Court looks set to confiscate a sizeable chunk of my pension on the grounds that it discriminates against women if insurers allow for the fact that men die more quickly.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the world went mad, but February 15, 1971, was undoubtedly an important milestone on our descent, and deserves to be remembered today with an appropriate sense of loss.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Keith Hann is unwell

My apologies for the absence of a column this week, owing to illness.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Toffs protest for the 'lower class'

Unfortunately this week’s column demands a prefatory apology and explanation. The apology is for the egregious schoolboy error of claiming that descendants of Charles I still have their official residence in St James’s Palace. As anyone with the faintest knowledge of British history will realise, the present Royal family are descended not from him but from his father, James I. The direct and legitimate male line of descent from Charles I ended with the death of Henry, Cardinal York (to Jacobites, King Henry IX) in 1807. Franz, Duke of Bavaria, who is descended from Charles’s youngest daughter Henrietta Anne, is the current head of the House of Stuart, and has indeed made the career-limiting move of being a Roman Catholic.

I know all this because I am a fanatical monarchist and a bit of an anorak. But I wasn’t feeling well when I wrote my column, and clearly had a momentary brainstorm. That is the best I can offer by way of explanation.

Sadly for me, it does not provide much of an advertisement for a grammar school education, or indeed for having a first class degree in history. I hope that it will not be seen as a reflection on my excellent education either in Newcastle or Cambridge. My embarrassment is only increased by the fact that The Journal has chosen to run my column under the headline “Be repulsive if you must, but be right.”

I am on the side of liberty and jollity, colour and glamour, cakes and ale – so I have always loathed the “right but repulsive” Roundheads and admired the “wrong but wromantic” Cavaliers.

Strolling through London last Sunday morning, I was therefore pleased to encounter the mainly well-nourished and grey-haired Royalist members of the English Civil War Society, clad in 17th century fancy dress and equipped with muskets, pikes and even horses to commemorate the last journey of Charles I from St James’s Palace to the scaffold in Whitehall.

A 'two shirt' January Sunday in London
Marching past St James's Palace
Another fine Stuart tradition: pelicans on the lake
It was a bonus for the tour guides, attempting to explain what was going on to the foreigners who had turned up to see the usual changing of the Queen’s guard – our 11-year experiment with republican government by the 1650s equivalent of Gordon Brown having been ranked such a rollicking success that the executed king’s descendants (though not, of course, his most direct descendants, who made the career-limiting move of embracing Roman Catholicism) still have their official residence in St James’s Palace.

The day before I had overheard other guides trying to explain an English tradition with rather less tourist appeal, as placard-wielding youngsters in hooded tops, with scarves pulled over their faces, jogged through Trafalgar Square chanting “Fight back!” Luckily they had neither pikes nor muskets to hand.

Viewing the many cordoned-off streets and the faintly menacing crowd assembling in Bloomsbury from our taxi from the station that morning, I had experienced the same sense of unease that an aristocrat must have felt as his carriage skirted around the mob advancing on the Bastille.

Yet we did not see or hear any more of the student protesters until the early evening when, walking to the theatre, we encountered a small mob advancing down Charing Cross Road, gesticulating at the traffic and chanting a very rude word about the police. They were escorted by a few stoic officers whose poker faces successfully concealed any suggestion that this sentiment was heartily reciprocated.

The British media understandably felt that the protests in Cairo had rather more brio and potential import than this, so I had to consult a search engine to find out what else happened in London at the weekend. Not a lot, apparently. All I could find was a single report on a Bournemouth newspaper’s website, quoting 20-year-old Harriet from Sussex University who “invoked the memory of how popular protests overthrew the poll tax, said demonstrations needed ‘a certain amount of agitation’ and added ‘The lower class people won’t be able to afford to better themselves. It’s terrifying.’”

The lower class people? I kid you not. The language less of Socialist Worker than of the Dowager Lady Grantham, circa 1911.

A grammar school boy like me is naturally inclined to point out that schools like ours were a very effective way for select members of the “lower class” to better themselves until politicians kicked the ladder away on the grounds that it was not available to everyone. With the unsurprising result that the leadership of the country is once again concentrated in the hands of privately educated toffs.

As, on all the evidence to date, is much of the protest movement against them. I can’t see the likes of Harriet bringing down this Government. The cause of continued taxpayer funding for three years drinking and watching daytime TV while acquiring a BA in Public Relations with Dance hardly inspires the passions of the poll tax or the miners’ strike, let alone the Civil War.

While Cameron and Clegg are certainly not romantic or glamorous enough to be classed with Charles I, their opponents have the fatal disadvantage of being the offspring of Cavaliers, masquerading as Roundheads, behaving badly in a not particularly compelling cause. It’s bad enough being repulsive. If you are, it is important at least to be indisputably right.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.