Tuesday 28 June 2011

The Greeks have done nothing wrong

Who is the most influential Briton in the important field of global financial regulation? Chancellor George Osborne, perhaps? Bank of England Governor Mervyn King? No, I’m afraid not.

Ed Balls, then? Robert Peston? That bloke from the FSA, or whatever it’s called this week?

No. Do you give up? It’s Sharon Bowles.

Our top financial expert. Apparently.

“Who?” do I hear you ask? Let me enlighten you. She is a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England. (Hmm, not sure about that “England”, bit – more work clearly required on constituency names in the interests of integration. How about “Very North West France”?) She also chairs the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee.

Ms Bowles “has fast made her name as a financial expert” according to the BBC, or at any rate according to the BBC as quoted on her own website. And last week she shared some of that expertise with listeners to Radio 4’s The World at One when she pronounced that “the demise of the euro is far too expensive for all member states to contemplate.”

So far, so predictable. The sacred goal of “ever closer union” requires the euro to be preserved at all costs. Because, while the Eurofanatics and their useful idiot allies banged on about the huge economic advantages it offered, and why Britain was mad to pass up the opportunity to join, the reality has always been that it is a strictly political project designed to drag the countries of Europe into a single state.

While anyone with the vaguest understanding of economics (and I did not even get as far as ‘O’ level) correctly predicted that the attempt to bind wildly disparate economies within a single currency would end in tears.

The Irish, treated to the low interest rates appropriate for Germany, would inevitably go on a lunatic property spending spree, and even my two-year-old knows what happens to bubbles.

While certain southern Europeans would continue their proud national traditions of lying in the sun, drinking retsina, dodging taxes and moaning about certain national treasures currently residing in the British Museum, while the Stakhanovites of the north got on with some work.

A Greek tradition: no wonder they need help from China

But here’s the insight from Sharon Bowles that I had not expected. None of this is the fault of the Greeks, who were just doing what Greeks do. No, the root cause is the “macro-economic imbalances” caused by those pesky Germans working too hard and making their economy grow too fast. They were the ones who lent money to the Greeks so that they could all buy BMW cars. Even worse, the scheming “Germans save a lot of money and those savings also went hunting around Europe for higher returns, which is all part and parcel of the banking crisis”.

Thanks for that, Sharon. I like it when it’s all the Germans’ fault, as we used to say during those little misunderstandings in 1914 and 1939. It makes life simpler. I suppose we could try to resolve the problem in the traditional way, but Bomber Harris is long dead and the RAF is down to a couple of squadrons, patched up with gaffer tape, which seem to be currently fully engaged in Libya and Afghanistan.

At least, thanks to that towering genius Gordon Brown, we can stand on the sidelines watching the unfolding fate of the euro rather than being trapped in the burning building ourselves. But I imagine that it is probably going to be like being a spectator at one of the legendary Fred Dibnah’s chimney demolitions. Listen out for the siren and be prepared to run like hell.

In the meantime, reassured by our leading financial expert that our Greek friends have done nothing wrong, I’m going to chuck all future correspondence from HM Revenue & Customs on the fire and uncork another bottle. Glass of retsina, anyone?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

My wedding memories go up in smoke

For at least half a century, the guiding principle of my life has been thinking: “What could possibly go wrong?”

But my light is clearly dimming now. Because it never occurred to me, until I pitched up for my Trolleybus Driving Experience last week, that it would have a power pedal worked with the left foot. This created something of a challenge as I have driven automatic cars for decades, and come to regard my left leg as a completely useless appendage when behind the wheel.

The result was a certain jerkiness in the ride which I thought might at least have kept my passengers awake and on their toes (or their backs, if they were rash enough to stand up). However, my son managed to sleep soundly in his mother’s arms throughout. Daddy driving a trolleybus seems unlikely to feature strongly in his early memory bank.

Another thing I never foresaw, though it seems obvious with the benefit of hindsight, was the desirability of formulating a watertight Plan B in case a disgruntled bridegroom took it into his head to burn down my wedding venue shortly before the event.

Peckforton Castle ablaze
My fiancée and I originally planned a civil ceremony at Peckforton Castle in Cheshire, part of which went up in smoke at the weekend, but were luckily upgraded to a religious service in the parish church through the spirited and spiritual intervention of Rick, the splendid vicar.

Of course, when we made that arrangement we did not know that Peckforton boasted a trained barn owl that could swoop down to deliver the rings, Harry Potter style, at the high point of the ceremony. If only we could have combined that with the 1662 Prayer Book and three rousing hymns, our happiness would have been truly complete.

As it was on our wedding day, February 2009

As it was, we had a glorious reception in the Drawing Room of the Castle, apparently the seat of Sunday’s fire, and spent our wedding night in the now collapsed bridal suite above. It seems slightly surreal to read that rooms so firmly fixed in our long term memories have simply gone.

The Drawing Room awaiting our wedding guests

We organised our wedding quite quickly – because you cannot hang around at my age – and were only able to hold it at Peckforton owing to a late cancellation. Without such a stroke of luck, it is hard to understand how anyone manages anything other than a long engagement, given that every decent wedding venue is booked up literally years in advance.

Knowing how much work goes into planning, my heart went out to those who must have been panicking about the need to find somewhere else to host their big day, until the glad news came through that, in true Blitz spirit, Peckforton would be keeping calm and carrying on.

Continuing to think positive, those at the wedding party on Saturday all had a night to remember (as they called the original film about the sinking of the Titanic) and no humans or owls were injured in the conflagration. Though with the groom helping police with their enquiries, the honeymoon presumably did not get off to the smoothest possible start.

Apparently it all started with a dispute about the bill. The interesting thing is that I distinctly remember having to pay for our wedding in full six weeks before it happened, so there was not much scope for argument on the day. I assumed that this was standard practice, but am now wondering whether they did an internet search that exposed my long history of broken engagements, and decided that it was not worth taking a chance. Even the bride wondered until the very last minute whether I would actually turn up.

Which pleased me, because it showed that both the hotel and my new wife were following that very sound policy of thinking: “What could possibly go wrong?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Hann Perspective: My Number is Up

The most regrettable business development of my lifetime has been the relentless drive to downgrade the skills and wages of the average worker so as to maximise corporate profitability, and hence the related salaries and bonuses of top management.

I recently did some work for a restaurant company and encountered a research report lambasting it for falling behind its peers by not “deskilling” its kitchens.

Because why go to the expense of having a meal cooked by a trained chef when someone with the IQ of a rather backward Border terrier could just slam it in a microwave?

Not that you the customer would receive any discount for that, obviously. The saving would simply enhance the company’s bottom line.

Similarly, having long ago trained us to select our shopping ourselves, why should supermarkets employ several workers to scan the stuff at the tills, when you could pay just one to glower at us doing it for them?

The supreme example of ‘deskilling’ is, of course, the automated call centre. Mrs Hann was literally reduced to tears by one the other day as she ran the apparently endless gamut of multiple choice questions. She pleaded loudly just to speak to a fellow human, though soon wished that she had stuck with the robot.

A friendly Indian call centre
It was all to do with personalised number plates: a vain and stupid affectation, I know, but handy for those of us with failing memories.

I have one on my own car that begins ‘AI’. This seemed uncontroversial until I went to stay with a vet friend recently, and he asked what on Earth I knew about Artificial Insemination. Not as much as he does, that’s for sure. I once made the mistake of asking if he could lend me a cool box for a picnic, and ended up walking across the lawn at Glyndebourne bearing a large polystyrene box across which was blazoned in large red letters ‘Semen: Handle With Care’.

I bought another number containing the initials ‘XPR’ to celebrate my retirement from the public relations business. When I had to re-apply my nose to the grindstone, I donated this to my wife, who has been vainly trying to arrange its transfer from her old car to a new one she is buying. Dealing with our insurance company’s call centre has all but destroyed her will to live. And the bottom line is that the new car, which she hasn’t got, is now insured. While the old one, which she actually needs to drive, is not.

I have waged an equally wearing battle with my electricity supplier’s call centre for years. They consistently refuse to believe my own meter readings. Often they won’t believe their own meter reader’s efforts, either. The last time he gained access to my house they insisted on sending someone else around shortly afterwards to install a brand new meter, but it hasn’t helped. A month ago they sent me an estimated bill for several thousand pounds, with a proposal to settle this by increasing my direct debit by 400% to around £700 per month.

After voluble protests, they finally agreed to use my own meter readings, but then transposed the day and night numbers (for I have the old-fashioned Economy 7 rate for storage heaters) with the result that my debt went up by another few hundred pounds and my monthly direct debit to £800.

Eventually they acknowledged this mistake and sent me an accurate bill, but were still proposing to charge me the £800 a month. Which, the latest call centre person admitted, was more than she earned in a month.

This at least demonstrated that I was dealing with someone here in the UK, rather than one of the overseas call centres so beloved of banks, insurers and BT (Bangalore Telecom) where £800 per annum would probably be considered an enviable wage.

I liked it when you could go into an old-fashioned bricks and mortar building and sort things out with an old-fashioned flesh and blood human being who knew what their customer was talking about.

If I have to speak to a call centre at all, I want to deal with well-trained, well-informed and charming people. The sort I could share a pint with after they have solved all my problems for me. And, above all, I want to talk to a Geordie. So let’s all commit ourselves to North East job creation by affecting accents so thick that only a fellow Geordie can hope to understand us.

The nation's sweetheart: howay, pet!

People from other regions consistently report that they find the accent reassuring. And why stop at UK domination? Once Wor Cheryl has won over the doubters in the US, we should be aiming to take over call centre duties for the whole of North America, too, before giving our friends in India a taste of their own medicine.

Keith Hann is currently a PR consultant, but is likely to be seeking work in a call centre quite soon – www.keithhann.com

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

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Fulfilling a lifelong ambition

When I was a small boy I fell deeply in love with five things: my Mum’s cooking, steam trains, gaslights, trolleybuses and pre-decimal currency.

This was unfortunate because, by the time I was 16, all had vanished apart from the food. I compensated by eating far more of it than was good for me: a lifetime of self-destructive behaviour I blame on 1960s “progress”.

I often wish for a time machine to whisk me back for a 3d ride on the number 38 to Swarland Avenue, a big slice of Mum’s steak and kidney pie for lunch, then an afternoon jotting down locomotive numbers at Little Benton sidings.

Little Benton North: I did my childhood trainspotting at Little Benton South

I have grown out of trainspotting, let me assure you. I look in bafflement at those grown men one occasionally sees on station platforms, urgently whispering the numbers of passing wagons into Dictaphones in the intervals between cramming sandwiches down their throats from the huge Tupperware boxes that are the other essential tool of their trade. But I confess that a steam engine can still turn my head.

And yesterday, when I would normally be writing this column, I finally took delivery of my Christmas present from my wife and went to fulfil a boyhood ambition by learning to drive a trolleybus at the National Trolleybus Museum near Doncaster.

You probably did not know such a place even existed, and are stunned by the originality of my wife’s gift selection. Believe me, you have no idea of the number of remarkably detailed hints that were required, given that her starting point was “What’s a trolleybus?”

A Newcastle trolleybus at Delaval Road - right by my Auntie Maisie's house
The trolleybus I actually got to drive

Well, I said, it’s like a tram but without tracks, and two power wires instead of one because a tram returns current through the rails … but her eyes had already glazed over.

Bless her, she’s coming with me and bringing our son, who luckily really likes buses. I’m hoping that they will allow her to dress up as a conductress and wield the long bamboo pole that is needed to put the trolley heads back on the wires when some idiot has steered too far away from them.

Mrs Hann didn't get to do this - but I did

I have written before about the romance of the trolleybus, and received puzzled messages from readers who just did not get it. Perhaps my psyche is strangely wired. Because huge chunks of my brain are occupied by the flash and crackle of the trolleys on the wires on frosty mornings, the rumble of the overhead booms passing through junctions, the purr of the number 39 on its fast run down the Great North Road, and the swaying mass of nerds occupying the seats in front of me on the 35c from Byker to Delaval Road on the last day of operations in 1966.

All of which must be taking up many megabytes of memory that could have been devoted to subsequent triumphs in the boardroom or bedroom. Perhaps this explains why I never actually had any of those.

How it could so easily have turned out
Relaxing on the bus after my drive
Receiving my certificate of ... er ... it did not actually say 'competence'
There were training opportunities for smaller boys, too
And the coffee cake was very good

I would like to think that my enthusiasm was a sign that I was an environmentalist before it came into fashion. As well as trolleybuses, I warmed to milk floats and the whispering electric vans from Provincial Laundries. In short, clean and quiet electrically powered road vehicles struck me as a rather wonderful idea. It has only taken half a century for the wheel to come full circle and for nearly everyone else to agree with me.

Idly tapping “Newcastle trolleybus” into a search engine the other day, I was gutted to find that I had just missed my chance to bid for an original Newcastle trolleybus destination blind on eBay. Hint to Mrs Hann: I simply cannot think of a better Christmas present.

Now what can I do to convince the world at large of the merits of gas street lighting and pounds, shillings and pence?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

The best shopping street in Britain?

What do the following have in common: (a) Sharon Shoesmith and Spanish cucumbers; (b) Alnwick’s Bondgate Within and London’s Bond Street?

Clearly the answers are not the obvious ones: (a) “not a lot”, and (b) the word “Bond”.

Ms Shoesmith, the combative former head of Haringey’s children’s services, was first in line when the late, unlamented Labour Government was looking for someone to blame, apart from his murderers, for the tragic death of baby Peter Connelly. While Spanish cucumbers sprang to mind when the German authorities were seeking a culprit for their current E.coli outbreak.

As a result of this unseemly rush to judgement, both Ms Shoesmith and the Spanish salad industry are now in line for substantial compensation. The former because she was denied the elementary human right to say a word in her own defence before she was fired; the latter because the source of the infection has now been identified as German-produced beansprouts. Or so it was at the time of writing; by the time this column appears the allegedly lethal salad ingredient may well be something completely different.

But at least this brings a little light into the lives of pasty, overweight salad dodgers like myself. “I’m sorry I can’t touch that: it might kill me. I’ll just have a pork pie and a couple of Scotch eggs instead. Oh, and a family bag of salted crisps. That must be at least two of my five a day.”

Could there be more joyous news than that salad kills you? Well, the discovery that chocolate makes you slim would be good, as would alcohol turning out to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and tobacco to promote longevity. Oh, and wind farms being proven to cause insanity (rather than merely being a consequence of it). But at least it’s a start.

Tiffany and Prada have not yet grasped the potential of Bondgate Within

As for Bondgate Within and Bond Street, let me begin by saying that I have absolutely nothing against the former. My mother was born and raised in Bondgate Within, at the address where the Iceland store now stands. I am a regular visitor and shopper; indeed, I bought my wife’s last Christmas present from Jobsons’ splendid country store by the Hotspur Tower. But the notion that this is, as voters in the Google Street View Awards have decided, “The Best Shopping Street in Britain”, seems frankly bizarre.

I can think of better equipped shopping streets in Morpeth and Newcastle, for a start, before turning to opportunities further afield. And while Mrs Hann seemed rather pleased with her tweed coat from Alnwick, the shops of Bondgate Within feature decidedly infrequently when she is dropping little hints about what I might like to think about getting her for birthdays and anniversaries. Unlike, I regret to say, establishments in Bond Street.

But then the voters in the Google Street Awards are the same bunch of eccentrics who decided that “The Hippest Street in Britain” is South Shore Road in Gateshead. Ever heard of it? Me neither. Apparently it’s the strip of tarmac running by the Tyne in front of the Sage and on to the Baltic and the Blinking Eye. Desperately searching for its other attractions, yesterday’s Guardian added that it enjoyed a fine view of the waterfront in Newcastle. That probably says it all.

We live in an age when PR people like me (though admittedly ones who are a good deal more creative than I am) dream up absurd Days and Awards to promote their clients, bang out press releases, then watch contentedly as the free advertising clocks up.

I’d rather like to do to the inventor of the Google Street View Awards what Ed Balls did to Sharon Shoesmith and the Germans to the Spanish cucumber producers. But at least this particular non-story has one great virtue: nobody needed to die to bring it our attention.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.