Tuesday 29 March 2011

A world much in need of an agony aunt

Dear Auntie

I was driving past my favourite chip shop the other evening when I spotted the two brothers who run it having the most tremendous fight.

Naturally I did what anyone would have done in the circumstances. I pulled up, charged in and killed the elder brother who, in my opinion, had been throwing his weight around for far too long and seemed to be about to gain the upper hand.

Naturally I expected the younger brother to welcome my intervention and show a bit of gratitude, ideally in the form of free chips for life. But in fact he now seems distinctly sullen and resentful, claiming that he quite liked his brother, really, and certainly preferred him to me.

He also seems suspicious of my motives, and has emptied the deep fat fryer because he imagines for some reason that I was “just trying to get my hands on his oil”.

To make matters even worse, it now turns out that they were arguing because the younger brother has turned into a bit of a religious fanatic and wants to run things on a strict scriptural basis. He has now cancelled the shop’s orders for potatoes and everything else apart from five loaves and fishes, which he seems to think will last indefinitely. He just keeps looking at me in shining-eyed sort of way and asserting that “God will provide”.

Finally, he has thrown out all the shop’s materials for cleaning and pest control, making a bit of a nonsense of my attempts to smarten it up by instituting a “no fly” zone.

In short, the whole situation seems to be a complete mess and I am now wishing that I had just driven by instead of getting involved. What should I do?

Dear Keith

I am sorry to say that I receive letters like this all the time, usually from politicians and military chiefs after they have got themselves embroiled in troublesome conflicts in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Sooner or later it usually becomes clear that the one thing the people concerned have in common is their dislike of foreign intervention. Even though British politicians piled in, like you, simply to be helpful, they find that people are ungrateful and suspicious that the real motive is to get hold of their assets on the cheap.

It also often turns out that the people we hoped to assist are even less malleable than the evil dictators they ejected. Say what you like about Saddam Hussein, for example, but at least he kept a lid on militant Islam.

It’s going to be a frightful mess whatever any of you decide to do. Walk away and the odds are that everything will descend into total chaos, the price of oil will shoot through the roof, the world economy will collapse, and you will run distinctly short of chips. Stay on, and we will rack up huge bills at a time when we keep being told there is no money, servicemen will continue to die and there will be not one shred of gratitude in return.

Personally, I’d shout something like “Look at that, a cat playing the piano!” and run away as fast as you can while the surviving brother is distracted. Sadly this trick will be harder to pull off when it comes to extricating thousands of troops from Afghanistan.

But then it’s like the choice between accepting nuclear power, shivering in a cave or drowning as a result of the icecaps melting. There is no good solution. In simple terms, we’re all up the proverbial gum tree whatever we do.

But next time it is probably going to be best, on the whole, to remember the law of unintended consequences, put your foot down and keep on going.

Love, Auntie.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Wishing you a Happy Iranian New Year

Sorry if this column seems a bit patchy but I am still recovering from the New Year celebrations. Persian New Year, that is, which started yesterday.

You might have thought you’d seen it all, what with the fireworks on Hogmanay and those Chinese shimmying down Stowell Street under a paper dragon last month (no cracks about how the Year of the Rabbit may affect the one child policy, please). But in fact you still have plenty of time to book a flight to Thailand to have water slung all over you in celebration of their new year on April 13, if that is your sort of thing.

You have missed the Iranian opportunity, though. We went to the pub, drank beer and ate pork scratchings, which seemed strangely out of tune with the Islamic Republic to me, but what do I know? I only married into it.

Not yet two, and washing down his pork scratchings with gin Note to Social Services: this is a JOKE

My wife said that we also needed to mark the occasion by putting on our table seven things whose names all began with “S”. These would help to ensure a year of plenty and happiness. So I did what I thought was a great job with sugar, Shake ‘n’ Vac and so on, until she gave me a withering look and pointed out that they had to begin with an “S” in Persian.

Hyacinths (or “shyacinths” in Farsi, I presume) were an important part of this mix, but sadly Mrs Hann had forgotten to buy any. She claimed it did not matter too much because she had forgotten last year, too. But then, as I pointed out, the cat died. Maybe I shouldn’t keep putting off making that appointment for an angiogram, as my consultant recommended several weeks ago.

It’s the start of 1390 in Iran, so at least they won’t have so far to travel when the West sets about bombing the place back into the Stone Age, as it no doubt will once the current little local difficulties in Libya and the like have all been settled. I looked up what was happening in England in 1390 for comparative purposes, but it seems to have been a rather dull year.

Though in Scotland, the well-known King Robert II dropped off the perch and was succeeded by his equally famous son, Robert III.

That is much the smooth way that the Gadaffis expected things to work out, I imagine, until the fickle West turned on them at the weekend. It must be very confusing being a crazed dictator. One minute you’re quietly starving or murdering your people, squirreling billions into your offshore bank accounts and being feted by the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And the next moment your old pals are firing rockets at you.

Unless you’re Robert Mugabe, say, and are inconveniently far from European air bases and don’t happen to be sitting on a huge great pool of oil.

Personally I am a great fan of non-involvement. Just so long as the bloodshed does not spread to Tyneside, I’d be quite content for the Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Bahrainis, Iranians etc to be left to work things out for themselves. One of the few definite advantages of having the ever-wet Liberal Democrats in Government seemed to be the likelihood that they would put a hand-wringing brake on the recent tendency of British administrations to join in gung-ho armed adventures (and you might have thought that consigning most of the arms to the scrapyard would have that effect, too).

But it would seem not. I know that bloke who was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was in all probability an innocent fall guy, but wouldn’t it be wonderfully ironic if a stray missile landed on his house?

Though it’s much more likely to land on mine, to be realistic, thanks to those missing hyacinths. Happy 1390, everyone.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Hann Perspective: My Mission

The camel has been famously described as a horse designed by a committee, so the duck-billed platypus was presumably the product of many long sessions around the whiteboard by wildfowl consultants “thinking outside the box”.

Er, what was my mission again?

The trouble with most corporate announcements these days is that they are similarly constructed through the collective efforts of those with too much time on their hands. Even though I make a living of sorts out of ghosting the things, I often find myself longing for the days when a Chairman’s Statement was just that: an autocrat’s personal and sometimes colourful account of how he (and, let’s face it, it was nearly always a “he”) saw the world.

Mission statements seem particularly inclined to suffer at the dead hand of the committee. When someone first came up with the idea back in the 1980s, I was all for it: a few simple and well-chosen words on the first page of an annual report that would allow the reader to grasp in an instant what the company did and how it intended to prosper. Once a name like “Jones the Butchers” on the cover would have provided a bit of a clue, but after the branding consultants had transformed that into Arriva, Aviva or Aveva, some further help seemed appropriate.

Then the groups with no ear for English and absolutely nothing better to do set to work, trying to come up with something inspirational and memorable that would bring a warm glow to all their “stakeholders”.

I recently wrote a brochure describing a technically complex business in what I thought were simple and accessible terms. A couple of attempts were required to correct my initial misunderstandings, but if I say so myself the third draft was as near to a good read as anything on this particular subject was ever likely to be.

Then the final version destined for the printers came through and I found that the inevitable committee had been at work, randomly inserting passages of total gibberish, laced with incomprehensible acronyms and couched in jargon that only an industry expert with a PhD in gobbledygook could hope to understand.

Few things seem harder than writing plain English. Researchers (presumably organised into a committee) recently came up with the breakthrough of rewording medicine labels, because the previous warning to “avoid alcoholic drink” apparently led to many people carefully skirting around the licensed aisles in Tesco, but cheerfully washing down their medication with a large tumbler of Scotch.

Now that will be replaced by “do not drink alcohol while taking this medicine”. Which, as any hardened boozer could have told them, will be taken to mean that you should not swallow the pills with the whisky, but that there is no reason not to have just the couple before or immediately afterwards.

Corporate statements can be short and pithy, for example “Google’s mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Which at least makes sense, even if it isn’t half as memorable as the informal company motto “Don’t be evil”.

Alternatively, they can be succinct and laughable, like Royal Mail’s “Our vision is to be demonstrably the best and most trusted postal services company in the world.” No mention there of their real mission of making deliveries ever later, collections earlier, and scattering red rubber bands in their wake.

My telephone and broadband provider proclaims that “BT’s mission, our central purpose, is to provide world-class telecommunications and information products and services, and to develop and exploit our networks, at home and overseas, so that we can meet the requirements of our customers, sustain growth in the earnings of the group on behalf of our shareholders, and make a fitting contribution to the community in which we conduct our business.”

Strangely this makes no reference at all to outsourcing virtually all customer contact to call centres in India, programmed to respond to complaints with assurances that you don’t have a problem at all; and to advise those with no broadband to seek help online.

And that, fundamentally, is the problem with mission statements. They don’t matter one jot if your organisation has not embraced the fundamentals of delivering excellent products or services through the efforts of well-trained and committed people.

I have read suggestions that the committee approach to producing a waffling mission statement is a great way of team-building, but if that’s what you’re after I’d just send them off to one of those places where they will be challenged to get across a lake with two planks, an oil drum and a ball of string.

And if you really must have something on your website about what makes your company so great, why not slip a few quid to a needy professional writer? Do contact me if you need some suggestions on where to look.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who amazingly makes a living mainly from writing English – www.keithhann.com

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

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Anyone know about teeth and speak English?

The low point of last week was the blazing row that culminated in the sacking of my dentist. Oddly enough, the argument had nothing to do with my teeth.

It arose because, a month or so ago, I received a demand for £70 for an allegedly overdue bill for dental treatment. There were several reasons why I could not understand this, one of which was that the money was supposedly owed by my wife, who has only visited my dentist once and certainly not on the date claimed in the statement. But more importantly because I have always paid for our treatment before leaving his surgery, mainly in the belief that I would be rugby tackled to the ground if I tried to do anything else.

So I rang up to query it, forgetting that my dentist has made the business-limiting move of employing a receptionist who can neither speak nor understand English particularly well. After five minutes of mutual incomprehension that seemed more like a long weekend in an offshore call centre, I gave up.

Then I made the critical mistake of thinking that I really ought to put matters straight. So I wrote a nice, clear letter to the dentist himself, foolishly ignoring the near inevitability of its interception by the aforementioned receptionist. Who promptly rang me up and began blithering unintelligibly all over again. I suppose I must have lost my temper. At any rate, an HR lady for the client in whose offices I was working at the time told me that I would have been sacked for the resulting outburst if I had been one of her employees, which luckily I am not.

Is it safe? Trust me, Dustin, it's nothing compared with the agony of dealing with my ex-dentist's receptionist

Interestingly, the objection seemed to be simply to the volume of my comments rather than their content, or even to the colourful obscenity with which I rounded them off. So luckily I did not need to cite our great national treasure, the polymath Stephen Fry, in support of my contention that the hackneyed claim that using bad language denotes a limited vocabulary is complete expletive deleted.

Others in the area of the explosion were more sympathetic, particularly the man who regularly rings a contact centre in India because his broadband has stopped working, to be asked “Have you tried using our online support service?” To which he replies, according to mood, “What part of ‘my broadband has stopped working’ do you not understand?” or “Is that your idea of a really funny joke in Bombay?”

Apparently the latter always brings the phone crashing down at the other end. I suggested he tried saying “Mumbai” in future to see if that improves matters.

I relieved my feelings by writing another letter to my dentist explaining why I would not be using him any more, and taking the precaution of marking the envelope “Strictly Personal”.

The effects were instantaneous. First his receptionist rang up to offer a grovelling apology, though she had to do so in a voicemail message as I could not bear to pick up the phone when I saw who was calling me.

Then the dentist rang in person, leaving another message in which he explained that the bill had been sent to me in error and that he could not be sorrier that I had been inconvenienced in this way. He added that he would be writing to me, so it came as no surprise when a letter from his surgery landed on my doormat yesterday morning.

The content was a bit of a surprise, though. It was another statement of account reminding me that my wife has owed them £70 since October 2010 and demanding that I pay it by return of post.

Can anyone recommend a dentist who is good with nervous patients, employs staff who speak English and has a rather more robust system of accounting?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Give us a vote on who makes our laws

I couldn’t get very excited about last week’s Barnsley by-election. Nor, judging by the feeble 35% turnout, could the electors of Barnsley themselves, who obediently placed their usual signatures against the name of the Labour candidate, as they have done since time immemorial.

Notwithstanding the apparently inconvenient fact that the Labour candidate they had elected only last May subsequently turned out to be an expenses-fiddling crook.

What did get me very exercised last week were the astonishing statements made by two previously unheard-of judges at Nottingham Crown Court who, in the course of barring a Christian couple from fostering children because of their unfashionable views on homosexuality, proclaimed “We sit as secular judges serving a multi-cultural community of many faiths” and “the laws and usages of the realm do not include Christianity, in whatever form. The aphorism that ‘Christianity is part of the common law of England’ is mere rhetoric.”

And there was I fooled into thinking that I lived in a Christian country because we have a head of state anointed in an ancient religious ceremony, two established churches, bishops sitting in the House of Lords – oh, and because nearly 80% of the population of England and Wales defined themselves as Christian, when asked in the 2001 census.

The judges themselves presumably delivered their shocking words in a court adorned with the royal coat of arms, and in which the proceedings usually kick off with participants being invited to swear an oath on the Bible. So how could they so easily conclude that Christian beliefs count for no more in Britain today than those of the islanders of Vanuatu who worship the Duke of Edinburgh as a god?

Memo to judges: the bit at the bottom means 'God and my right'. Quiz: Why might Peter Cook be turning in his grave?

In fact the Vanuatans would almost certainly be accorded more respect by the English courts, because it seems axiomatic that we must pander to the views of every religious minority for fear of causing offence. Hence the widespread sale of unlabelled halal meat to unsuspecting supermarket customers, and the official efforts to excise Christianity from our traditional public holidays, even though worshippers of other faiths keep asserting that they don’t mind in the least. My Muslim in-laws certainly celebrate Christmas far more enthusiastically than I have ever done.

The really important issue here, however, is not the content of the judgement, but the fact that power seems to be leaching constantly from those we have elected, however reluctantly, to judges who are forever beyond our reach. That applies whether they sit in the British courts or in the ever more powerful European ones, which came up with last week’s infuriating judgement on the illegality of taking account of the fact that men are more dangerous drivers than women, and die sooner (two facts which might just be tangentially connected).

In May we are being granted a referendum on a change to the voting system that absolutely no one wants, because even those campaigning for the Alternative Vote would really prefer proportional representation, which AV certainly isn’t. You only have to look at the estimates of how much it would have increased the number of Labour MPs in 1997, 2001 and 2005, when they were hardly in short supply, to realise that.

It would also have made not a blind bit of difference in Barnsley, where Labour’s Dan Jarvis scooped over 60% of the vote.

We are apparently so strapped for cash that we must sack soldiers returning from the front line of Afghanistan, yet we can afford to invest millions holding a pointless referendum to appease the doomed Nick Clegg. Well, here’s a radical idea. Why not hold a referendum on something that matters, like who actually makes our laws: MPs, British judges, Brussels bureaucrats or the European courts?

Until we are allowed a vote on that, my career advice to my son will be unequivocal: become a lawyer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Doing something mad to beat dementia

I sometimes wonder how different my life might have been if I had ever possessed the slightest ambition for anything beyond a comfortable chair in which to read and write.

Not that I have had the opportunity for any such reflections over the last week, when I have been busier than the proverbial one-armed taxi driver with an embarrassing itch.

The reason? To reveal that I must break my own self-denying ordinance against writing about what I do for a living. But since this is my 250th column in this slot, and I have never yet mentioned Greggs’ delicious sausage rolls or DFS’s fine sofas, perhaps I may be forgiven.

Ever since it floated on the stock market in 1984, I have dispensed PR advice to Iceland, the frozen food retailer. And what has been making me so frantic is their founder and Chief Executive Malcolm Walker’s announcement last Friday that he has finally gone completely off his chump and is off to climb Everest. Aged 65, with almost no previous climbing experience.

The reason for the 'almost' in the previous sentence: Malcolm and Richard Walker on top of Kilimanjaro last month

Why would anyone want to do that? It’s right up there with bungee jumping, skydiving and potholing on the long list of things I have never felt the slightest desire to do. Some people feel they are not properly alive unless they are putting their lives in danger. Me? The most alarming thing I have ever done was going on the creaking old Victorian cakewalk at the Hoppings when I was about eight. I dread the day when my son is old enough to start agitating for a trip to Alton Towers.

I think I know what started Malcolm off. Another client and friend of mine, Lord Kirkham, took him to the North Pole last year, and someone casually mentioned that fewer people had stood at the Pole than on the summit of Everest.

But there is a crucial difference: you can reach the North Pole by helicopter. They cannot operate anywhere near the top of Everest because the air is too thin, which is why there is no hope of rescue if something goes wrong, and why the frozen bodies of around 150 climbers litter the route to the summit.

One of the first of these, George Mallory, was discovered in 1999, 75 years after he and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine were last seen heading for the summit ridge. His wallet was well preserved in the pocket of his tweed jacket, but missing the picture of his wife that he had vowed to leave behind at the top.

Since then, and the triumph of Hillary and Tenzing in 1953, climbing Everest has become rather more routine. Each year commercial tour operators guide parties of climbers to the top. Sherpas renew guide ropes leading all the way to the summit, and check the aluminium ladder leading up the Second Step. (The old joke about the Irish Everest expedition that gave up 100ft from the top because they had run out of scaffolding seems not so far from the truth.)

Disneyland-like queues of inexperienced climbers waiting their turn here can defeat even the most determined summit bid.

But Everest imposes almost impossible demands on the human body and there is no getting away from the fact that it is an incredibly dangerous place to go.

Malcolm and his son are climbing for an excellent cause: to raise at least £1 million for Alzheimer’s Research UK to fund research into early-onset Alzheimer’s, which can wreck the lives of people as young as 40.

With dementia soon set to claim its millionth victim in the UK, few families are immune to its effects. Unless research advances, almost one in four of us will fall victim to dementia ourselves.

So if you have time, do take a look at www.icelandeverest.org.uk and perhaps think of making a donation. I have.
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.