Tuesday 26 April 2011

The royal filling in my wedding cake

The only thing that prevents me from spending Friday at a patriotic street party is the fact that I do not live on a street.

Otherwise I would undoubtedly be out there hanging bunting above the trestle tables in preparation for a hog roast and a lively debate with my Jewish and Muslim neighbours.

As it is, I shall have to be content with decking myself in Union flags and remaining glued to the television all day, as I have done for every royal wedding since Princess Anne’s in 1973.

The fact that nearly all these unions subsequently ended in divorce does not detract from my enthusiasm: hope springs eternal in the monarchist breast.

But what of the rest of the great British public? I accept that I was probably in a fanatical minority in making my 22-month-old son stand to attention in his cot for the 7a.m. airing of the national anthem on Radio 4 to mark the Queen’s birthday last week.

The media, as usual, are attempting to hedge their bets, on the one hand producing supplements and programmes about the happy couple and their day of days; and on the other predicting that no one is really interested and it will all turn out to be the most ghastly flop.

I wonder whether it was slapdash proofreading or subtle Murdochian republicanism that led to the main drag of Westminster Abbey being labelled “the naïve” rather than the nave in the little booklet that dropped out of The Times on Saturday morning?

Cynicism is as time-honoured as any British tradition. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle probably carried a gloomy editorial on the day before King Canute did his thing with the waves, forecasting that none of his courtiers would turn up.

Yet there were many predictions of public indifference before the Queen’s golden jubilee and the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state, and somehow vast crowds materialised. Surely they can’t all have been off-duty policemen incentivised from a secret palace slush fund?

I spent last Saturday at a joyous family wedding in Oxford, and I shall be off to the marriage of some friends next weekend. The royal event is but the sandwich filling in my personal wedding cake. This is just as it should be.

You see, I told you it was joyous

Because only one thing has really changed in the 144 years since Walter Bagehot coined his famous axiom that “A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and, as such, it rivets mankind.” Public interest in the weddings of princes, or indeed other celebrities, has not diminished, but marriage is now anything but universal.

If there is any argument to be made against the increasing grandeur of royal weddings during the twentieth century, it is that it helped to raise the bar for all of them. Walking down to the church then raising a glass with your witnesses in the local pub will no longer do.

But weddings need not cost thousands, or take years to arrange. The only really important thing is finding someone you feel that you could bear to face across the breakfast table in the twilight home 60 years hence.

As Shakespeare observed “Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle's compass come: love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

I have no hopes of living to see the accession of Prince William to the throne. Given that the Queen seems vastly fitter at 85 than her mother was at that age, I see little chance of even witnessing an octogenarian Prince Charles tottering to his coronation.

But I very much hope to see William and Catherine enjoying a happy marriage for as long I am around, and that many others may be encouraged to follow their example.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Give us a referendum that matters

I consider horse racing even more tedious than most normal people find politics. So the fact that I spent Sunday at a point-to-point meeting says much about the ‘miserable little compromise’ that is marriage.

Very firm ground meant that the fields were sadly diminished: to such an extent that the first race was a one-horse walkover (I always vaguely wondered where that expression came from).

But at least it was all mercifully quick once the racing finally started. When the horses crossed the line, people knew the result and could tear up or cash in their betting slips. They did not have to wait a couple of days while boffins with electronic counting machines worked out the real result based on the second, third and fourth preferences of those who had backed the most egregious losers.

Which is the way our electoral system will be heading if the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign triumphs in the forthcoming referendum. This is a system no one really wants, and has been put forward with the same sort of care and consideration that attended Mr Blair’s brilliant reform of the House of Lords.

The only real object of the change is to place more Liberal Democrat bottoms on the benches of the House of Commons. Though admittedly that looks a pretty long shot now that the Lib Dems have made themselves so monumentally unpopular through their participation in the Coalition.

And would more Lib Dem MPs, in any case, be a good thing? Did most of the people who voted for them in the past ever understand what they actually stood for? Is there any solid evidence that they have proved, on average, less expenses-hungry or sexually incontinent than their peers in the two larger parties?

More of these? Former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik
More of these? Former Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten
More of these? Sitting Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock

True, they tend to work hard in their constituencies, because they don’t feel the God-given right of Labour or Tory MPs in ‘safe seats’, but that just encourages the regrettable trend for MPs to become glorified social workers.

What is wrong with our politics is not the system of voting, but the fact that it has become a career choice. Oddly enough, we were better served when the Labour benches were stuffed with thick ex-trade union officials, who found their Parliamentary salary a nice little earner, and the Tory side with thick knights of the shire who were too rich to care about remuneration. Both groups viewed going into Parliament as a public service rather than a way to advance their own interests.

Today’s brighter careerists expect to match the rewards and recognition achieved by their contemporaries who went to work as high-flying local authority administrators or investment bankers. The problem has only been made worse by insisting that becoming an MP must be regarded as a full-time job.

Those dutiful thickoes somehow helped to run the largest empire the world has ever seen. The present shower do little more than rubber stamp the instructions issued by the Brussels-based empire of which our country has, in another one of its periodic fits of absence of mind, become a province.

Which is why, if £90 million can be found in these cash-strapped times to hold a referendum, it would have made a lot more sense to devote it to clearing up the running sore of our European Union membership. An ‘in or out’ vote on that would surely arouse the sort of passions on both sides that seem singularly lacking in the AV campaign. It might even get the public re-engaged with politics, as politicians claim to want.

But God forbid they should hear from us on anything important. AV matters only a little bit to just some of them, and will do nothing at all to improve life for the rest of us. The simple, first past the post answer can only be this: just say ‘no’.
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Hann Perspective: Human Resources

The nastiest piece of work I have ever had the misfortune to encounter called himself a director of human resources. Short, stocky and bullet-headed, he exuded the poorly repressed anger of a fanatical rugby forward who has had his career cut short for causing one fatality too many in the scrum.

I only listened to him for about ten minutes, but he managed to pack into them more gratuitous abuse than I would have thought humanly possible – and I write that as something of an expert at dishing it out myself. He even beat the colourful soliloquies on my total inadequacy dispensed each week by my would-be PT instructors at the Royal Grammar School 40-odd years ago.

Naturally I stood up and told him where he could stick his consultancy agreement. So ended what had been, until then, a harmonious relationship of more than two decades with one of my larger and more profitable clients.

It was only as I was sitting on the train home, enjoying my sense of liberation, that I realised how easily I had fallen into his trap. The man had been engaged to undertake a spot of “downsizing”, and reducing the impressionable to jelly with an exaggerated account of their deficiencies was provoking widespread resignations and so saving the company a fortune in redundancy pay. No doubt he pocketed a significant performance-related bonus for his excellent work.

The irony was that he wasn’t actually meant to fire me, as subsequent messages from his superiors made clear. He did it partly because he had summoned the wrong PR adviser to a meeting, but mainly because he could not stop himself. He just adored his work. Come to think of it, he bore a striking resemblance to that deranged American commander in Apocalypse Now who loved “the smell of napalm in the morning”.
The HR Director of a typical British food company

At least I could understand the blunt Anglo-Saxon of this uncharacteristically non-PC HR director. Unlike the first time I ever met anyone who professed to work in “human resources”. This was back in the 1980s over lunch with a departmental head and his deputy, with a view to conveying their viewpoint in a forthcoming annual report.

I was accompanied by a member of their company’s finance team, which was lucky because his presence enabled me to escape the conviction that I had wandered into a parallel universe. Comparing notes afterwards, it swiftly became clear that neither of us had understood a word that the HR supremos had said.

I wrote a page of gibberish, peppered with authentically modish buzzwords, which I intended principally as a joke. To my surprise, the HR department told me that I had captured their ethos to perfection.

This was in a company, I feel compelled to add, that also boasted a famously incomprehensible finance director. Recognising that only a fine line separates genius from lunacy, his board colleagues concluded that his oracular pronouncements denoted utter brilliance. Sadly his later career demonstrated that this was a serious misinterpretation of the facts.

To this day I baulk at writing about employees as “human resources”. They are people. Colleagues, if you wish. Partners, if you can back up that claim with real participation in the style of John Lewis. Staff, if you must. But never “resources”, which is a noun that surely sits naturally only with the verb “exploit”.

And just because it is a terrible, numbing cliché to say that people are the most important assets of any company (with the possible exception of Acme Elephant Hire), it does not alter the fact that it is profoundly true.

Yes, your people need training if they are to do their jobs properly, but surely the answer is to keep it relevant and succinct. Ideally dispensed by someone who has made a huge success of actually doing the job in question, rather than devoting themselves to “blue sky thinking” and dispensing advice.

This might seem rich coming from a PR man, though nothing has ever worried me more than being shown around a business and thinking that even I could run it better than the incumbent management (a judgement that subsequent developments have usually tended to prove correct).

The happiest and most successful companies I know have all been run by people with a touch of madness in their make-up. It takes one to know one, which is no doubt why we got on so well. Their insanity tended to manifest itself in a willingness to take risks and to defy conventional wisdom.

Such organisations are likely to take a more than averagely relaxed approach to corporate governance and the best of them don’t have anything to do with “human resources”. They have people, and they treat them with care and consideration, reward them fairly, recognise their successes and have among their corporate objectives one very important intangible: having fun.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who is barely human, let alone a resource – www.keithhann.com

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

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Red mist mars the spring sunshine

When my wife and I got married early in 2009, the vicar presented us with an outsize candle and advised us to light it every time we had a row.

Most observers bet that it would not last until Easter, but in fact it has not been lit once. And now it never will be, because someone foolishly stuck it on a windowsill, where the recent heatwave has melted it into a grotesque lump.

It definitely reminds me of something ... the more than faintly obscene remains of our row candle after someone (who shall remain nameless, but we all know who it is) left it standing in the sun
A taste of the somewhat unconventional ceremony where the candle was handed over

I eagerly awaited my wife’s return from her “hen weekend” so that we could discuss this, in line with the strict blame culture applied in the Hann household. But luckily we still failed to have a row, even when my hopes of a goodly supply of eggs were cruelly dashed. Wrong sort of “hen weekend”, apparently.

It says much for Mrs Hann’s saintly nature that we manage to live so peaceably when I am in a permanent state of badly suppressed fury. On Friday I was angry because I spent five ghastly hours driving to a dinner where no one wanted to speak to me.

While on Thursday, the red mist rose because I had exactly the opposite experience of not being ignored while simply trying to pick up a prescription from my local pharmacy.

To my amazement, I was ushered into a consulting room with the pharmacist and invited to take a seat to discuss my medication. I demurred, being on a tight schedule for lunch in Newcastle, but naturally asked what it was all about.

And the answer was that “rather than simply handing the drugs over, we now like to make sure that our customers know why they have been prescribed them and how to take them.”

I wondered whether I looked like a man who would not know the difference between a pill and a suppository. My doctor prescribed the tablets, so why would I want supplementary advice from a pharmacist? Is this a ploy to fill the 95% of their time that must have been saved by medics prescribing by computer, rather than in an illegible scrawl?

And where will this sort of thing end? Will I be called into a consulting room with my butcher so that he can tell me how the pig felt about being made into sausages, what they are likely to do to my arteries, and how best to cook them?

If the practice spreads to off-licences, I will need to write off half a day every time I want to buy a bottle of Scotch.

So I fixed the chemist with one of my withering looks, informed him that I could read, and flounced off.

It served me right when I got home and read the thousand-word leaflet with the heart medication three times without being able to fathom whether I was supposed to take it in the morning or evening, and with or without food. But since the manufacturer did not think to mention this among all the guff about possible side-effects, most of which I am currently suffering, it seems reasonable to assume that it does not matter.

Then I took my pristine car for a service at my local garage, and it returned with a large, ugly chip out of the driver’s door, which apparently they can produce hours of CCTV footage to prove was not their fault. The red mist was positively billowing by this stage.

So that is two local businesses I probably won’t be using again. Slowly but surely the horizons of the irascible narrow. I would go on an anger management course but it would almost certainly give me another heart attack.

There is clearly no point buying a replacement row candle that we never light, so I am going to try ordering an anger candle instead. No, on second thoughts, make that a gross.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

The clowns take over the circus

Like every decent parent on the planet, I want my son to be better off than I was as a child.

Materially, it is no contest. He is growing up in a centrally heated house that does not have ice on the inside of the windows in winter, for a start.

Although not yet two, he also owns at least ten times more toys than I had accumulated by the time I deemed myself too mature for that sort of thing, and re-categorised myself as a model railway collector.

In the same spirit of improvement, on Friday his mother and I took him to Chester Zoo. Zoos never featured in my education, since there was not a convenient one on offer. My parents filled the gap with circuses on the Town Moor, where I saw pretty girls riding elephants, foolhardy men entering cages with lions, seals playing horns and dressed-up monkeys performing tricks.

Given that the animal rights activists now have zoos in their sights, it would not surprise me if they go the way of the animal-based circus in another half century or so.

I am not sure how much the boy got out of it. The lion’s roar clearly made the biggest impression, closely followed by the big digger removing the elephants’ dung.

The lion: before it started roaring
Some elephants, wisely keeping out of the way while the digger man scooped up their dung
Though his favourite exhibits were undoubtedly the remarkably tame wild ducks that have volunteered to make the zoo their home.

The best bit of the whole Zoo, which he could have seen at home

I found myself chiefly interested in the other visitors, most of whom wore a uniform of grey tracksuits and sounded as though they came from Merseyside. Despite deliberately picking a weekday during school term for our visit, we found the place reasonably busy. And it is not by any means a cheap day out.

It also receives no public subsidy, leading me to ponder on the mystery of how the split between public and private finance of various activities evolved in the first place. Whenever I take my dog to the vet, I am struck by the apparent ease with which people who look relatively poor hand over wads of cash to pay for the treatment of their pets, yet expect their own healthcare to be provided free.

Isn't God brilliant, though?  Having the foresight to provide his giraffes with perfect camouflage against Cheshire stonework

Why is it, in so many people’s view, a good thing for the state to subsidise the provision of live theatrical performances in remote rural areas? If you want access to a theatre, surely the simple answer is not to live in the back of beyond, and to pay for it yourself.

I am a great fan of opera, but can think of no reason at all why those on low pay should be taxed to indulge my hobby.

Libraries have been a great source of public good in the past, but I honestly question their relevance as technology moves ever onwards. Living a two hour round trip from the Lit & Phil, it seemed sensible to assemble a pretty good collection of reference books of my own. But now, even when I know that the answer can be found in one of the volumes shelved right behind my desk, I almost always find it quicker and easier to search for information I need online.

So should the state’s focus now be less on keeping libraries open than on making high-speed internet access available to all?

I merely ask the question. Increasingly I fail to see the logical connection between such Government policies as deciding that elite universities may charge up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees, but only if they simultaneously make it easier for those from deprived backgrounds to gain access to them.

Sack RAF pilots, scrap aircraft and then bomb Libya. Where is the joined-up thinking there? Increasingly it’s not so much a zoo as a circus, and it looks as though the clowns have taken charge.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.