Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Awed by the sheer randomness of existence

It seems that the most dangerous age for rock stars is 27. While for baby boomers like me, born in 1954, 57 is starting to look less like an English summer pasture, filled with gorgeous wildflowers, and more like a tropical swamp infested with mosquitoes and crocodiles, and surrounded by heavily armed fanatics.

In the last few weeks I have learned of the deaths of three of my school contemporaries, all from natural causes rather than as the result of some freak accident. They were not friends of mine, but with my elephantine memory I naturally remember them well. And in my mind they are still smiling miniatures in blazers and short trousers, full of life and promise.

I really must learn how to scan those black and white form photographs from the 1960s ...

None of them, curiously, was the sort of overweight and physically inferior specimen that one might have marked down for an early exit. In my class, that was undoubtedly me. The fat kid squatting glumly on the floor of the gymnasium as his schoolfellows swarmed nimbly to the top of the ropes. The one who always landed on the near end of the vaulting horse with a groin-shattering crunch, and who somehow endured eight years of swimming classes without ever learning to swim a stroke.

No, these were normally proportioned, fit and healthy lads who should have been actuarially good for whatever average life expectancy is these days (and remember that it will have increased by three hours in the day that has passed between my writing these words and your reading them).

Yet they are gone and I am somehow still here. Which is handy given that, after an apparently rather precocious start, I somehow lapsed into a state of lazily suspended animation for about four decades, and have only recently emerged from my chrysalis as one of the world’s ultimate late developers.

Here I am slowly and rather reluctantly learning the rudiments of parenting at an age when most people are indulging their grandchildren (or, in less privileged postcodes, great grandchildren). And being told by my headshaking financial adviser what a great pity it is that I did not have the foresight to take out a whacking great life insurance policy before I was known to have a heart condition, albeit at a time of my life when I had no dependants and could see no earthly use for such provision.

The dreadful news of this last weekend powerfully underlines the complete randomness of existence and the utter folly of attempting to discern patterns or draw conclusions from it. Alerted by Twitter to the unfolding catastrophe in Norway, I turned on the BBC news channel where an American “expert” banged on at inordinate length about how the attacks bore all the classic hallmarks of being planned and perpetrated by jihadists.

Even when it was pointed out to him that all the reports spoke of a blond-haired, blue-eyed gunman, his confidence did not skip a beat. Surely his interviewer was aware of the increasing sophistication of these organisations in recruiting individuals who were less likely to arouse suspicion?

The idea that this might be the dastardly work of some home-grown loon simply never occurred to him, any more than I anticipated my late fatherhood or the premature departure of the boys I grew up with.

It is very hard to draw any useful conclusions from all this, other than that the one thing in this life on which we can bet with confidence is its complete unpredictability. But I shall make these admittedly unoriginal resolutions: to enjoy life while I can, and try living every day on the assumption that it will be my last. With any luck it won’t be, but it might make me behave more kindly to the people I meet along the way, and that can never be a bad thing for any of us.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Farewell to a fine old countryman

We know that nothing is forever, not even the sun and stars. Yet death always comes as a terrible shock, however old or poorly the deceased. So I was duly stunned on Friday morning when news reached me of the passing of my next-door neighbour of 23 years, Andrew Beresford.

Etta and Andrew, 2005

It would be idle to pretend that Andrew (or “Mr Beresford” as I always called him) and I had a huge amount in common, beyond the proximity of our living arrangements. We did not get off to the best possible start when he hailed me aggressively over the garden wall as I inspected the semi-derelict cottages I had just acquired. Few people could invest the words “Can I help you?” with quite so much menace.

But after an introductory period of chilly mutual misunderstanding, I began to develop a huge respect for the man and his lifestyle. He and his wife Etta kept goats, pigs, turkeys and chickens, and grew vegetables and fruit. Many country people enjoy eggs from their own hens; few also cure the bacon to go with them. A series of chest freezers allowed them to enjoy their own produce all year round. (Never believe anyone who tries to tell you that frozen food is rubbish.)

Andrew's goats
The henhouse with the finest view in England

Indeed, they seemed to have little need of shops except to buy the odd bottle of whisky. A fire burned in their grate 365 days a year and the smell of home baking regularly filled their kitchen. It was exactly the sort of life of rural self-sufficiency I had always dreamt of for myself, but will almost certainly never realise.

But Andrew also had skills that I could never dream of mastering. He was a man of prodigious strength, whose ability to drive a fence post into hard ground with his bare hands never ceased to amaze me. He had an immense knowledge of horses, having begun work on farms in the days when they were the principal source of power. He broke horses to harness and drove them in traps and carts he had built himself. He also carved beautiful walking sticks, one of which I shall treasure as a memento of his skill.

Some of Andrew's horses
Some of Andrew's carts

Above all he was, beneath his occasionally forbidding exterior, a warm and generous neighbour with a great love of children. For years I took him a daily copy of The Journal when I was not working away from home (which was, I regret to say, all too frequently). I had only recently handed on that baton to my two-year-old son, and will never forget him proudly walking up the garden path with a copy of the paper tucked under his arm, repeatedly rehearsing his line, “Ayo, Mr Beresford, I bring you paper!”

A line which somehow got shyly abbreviated to “Paper!” at the moment of delivery, but still raised a smile.

Andrew with the Hann family, November 2010

Although he was 87 and had been in poor health for some time, I never imagined that I had seen the last of Andrew. And, as usual when someone departs, there are regrets: in this case that I never told him what a very high regard I had for him. Perhaps it would have been better to put it in a column before he died, though more likely it would just have caused embarrassment all round.

So let me conclude this uncharacteristically uncynical piece by offering my most sincere condolences to his widow Etta, sons Neville and Scott, and all his extended family. Andrew, it was a privilege to have known you.

And if there is anyone out there – whether in your family or among your friends and neighbours – that you really admire, respect or even love, and you have never let them know, take a tip from me. Tell them today. Because tomorrow may turn out to be too late.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Is Rupert Murdoch the real Lord Voldemort?

The so-called English summer has barely started, yet there seems to be a distinct feel of autumn in the air. Perhaps because so many recent stories are of endings rather than beginnings: the Harry Potter film franchise, the space shuttle and the News of the World, to name but three.

Perhaps all are linked. It does not take the imagination of a J.K. Rowling to wonder whether Rebekah Brooks might secretly be a Weasley, or to see Rupert Murdoch as a dead ringer for the dark lord Voldemort.


Like many others, I deplore the obeisance paid to Mr Murdoch and his acolytes by politicians from both major parties, and for many years I staged my own, personal and entirely ineffectual boycott of his titles and TV channel.

Yet I also love newspapers, and felt real regret as I flicked through the final News of the World, before placing it in my memorabilia cupboard with the last editions of such titles as the Daily Sketch, News on Sunday and Today.

It is easy to be cynical and point out that this is not so much a death as a temporarily suspended animation. The young women who sleep with Premiership footballers will surely only to have to scrape by on a single source of income for a few weeks before the paper is miraculously resurrected as the Sun on Sunday (the sainted ncjmedia luckily having a long-established prior claim on the Sunday Sun).

The shape of things to come?

Is the Murdoch empire peculiarly wicked? Other newspaper proprietors, from Horatio Bottomley to Conrad Black by way of Robert Maxwell, have included a statistically astonishing preponderance of what can only be described as wrong ‘uns.

Nor, one may suspect, are the methods that got the News of the World into such terminal trouble confined to Mr Murdoch’s stable. Most of the great scoops that have set the media agenda of the last few years have been obtained by legally questionable means, such as the Telegraph paying for computer files of MPs’ expenses claims.

Much of the content of the News of the World I personally found irrelevant, where it was not revolting. And, yes, it is easy to despair of a paper whose readers included some so thick that they attacked the home of a paediatrician during one of its periodic bouts of righteous indignation against paedophiles.

But there is also no doubt that the press, whether operating from the gutter or the lofty moral heights of The Guardian, on balance does us all a great service by regularly revealing things that our rulers would prefer to conceal. Which is why we must devoutly hope that the inexcusable hacking of a murdered schoolgirl’s mobile phone does not provide an excuse for a crackdown on the media that will prevent it from monitoring the institutions of government effectively, from our local parish councils to 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.

It is equally vital that disgust with the warped standards of a few does not hasten the decline of the printed media in this country by turning yet more people away from purchasing a newspaper. You are holding one of the world’s great beacons of liberty and education. It is also incredible value for money. Please don’t give it up.

Meanwhile Mr Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB, for which the News of the World was so ruthlessly sacrificed, looks set to be kicked into grass so long that it bears more resemblance to the Amazonian rain forest than the hallowed turf of St James’ Park. Perhaps the US will resume manned space flight before it goes through, and he is certainly going to need all the powers of a Harry Potter to overcome the obstacles that will be put in his way.

So summer 2011 may be proving a touch disappointing, but at least it isn’t all bad news.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Pensions: the ideal excuse for an evening in the boozer

My father left school at the first opportunity and saved for a pension all his working life. He retired at 67, invested all his savings in an annuity, and dropped dead at 73.

Which was sad for his family, but good news for the pension system. Because it helped to boost the profits and share price of his insurance company, which in turn increased the worth of its major investors: pension funds.

This may sound too good to be true, like an entire community supporting itself by taking in the neighbours’ washing, but it all worked pretty well so long as people considerately died not too long after they stopped working.

The essential problem today is that too many of us are living too long. Not only that, but our careers are being shortened by spending longer in education, taking gap years and expecting paid leave to be a parent. How can we possibly aspire to retire early, too?

Frankly it’s just not on. Unless you are a successful entrepreneur or have clawed your way to the very top of the greasy pole in business, you have no hope of saving enough to fund decades of comfortable retirement during less than 40 years at work.

While if you’re employed in the public sector, sadly the rest of us just can’t afford to maintain your current pension arrangements, either. Terribly sorry and all that, but you’re going to have to soldier on for longer and boost your own pension contributions, too.

Unless, perhaps, you are willing to enliven your retirement with dangerous sports or other risky pursuits that stand a chance of reversing the relentless upward trend in UK life expectancy, which is currently increasing by three years every decade.

A truly astonishing statistic, given that one cannot open a newspaper without reading how global warming, superbugs, obesity and drink are going to do for as all any minute.

Talking of risk and drink, a 65-year-old non-retired friend of mine recently climbed 23,000-odd feet up Everest, helped along by a supply of fine wines and vintage Cognac. I have not dared to ask how he feels about the recent advice that people of his age should drink no more than 1.5 units of alcohol a day.
That is about half a pint of beer, or less than a standard pub measure of wine. Surely all part of the health professionals’ relentless drive to prove that the only safe limit for booze, as for cigarettes, is a big, fat, round zero.

This is quite a laugh considering that some of the biggest drunks I know are doctors, while nurses are fiercely locked in combat with ballet dancers for the title of most dedicated smokers.

The arguments for reducing our intake of booze are always presented as being for our own good. Cut down on it, and we could all live longer lives. Well, possibly. Then again, they might just SEEM longer. And haven’t we already established that living ever longer is not necessarily an unalloyed good?

Ah, but we would also be healthier and thereby help to achieve that sacred goal of saving the NHS money. Except surely not, in the long run. Because until someone invents a foolproof way of ensuring that we all go to bed in perfect health one evening, then pass away peacefully in our sleep, sooner or later we’re all going to die of something unpleasant and probably lingering, in which the NHS (or its Cameron-Lansley privatised successor) will almost certainly feel obliged to get involved.

It’s a conundrum. My own advice is that we should all discuss it further in the course of a long an evening in the pub. Which will help a threatened local amenity, cheer us up, and might just help to pull the whole pension system back from the brink.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.