Tuesday 30 August 2011

A true confession: weddings make me ill

I have a shameful confession to make: I have always hated weddings. For the further good of my soul, I suppose I may as well admit that I have never much cared for christenings, either.

Indeed, the only one of life’s conventional ceremonies that I can just about bear is a decent funeral, not least because no one has yet suggested that it might be a good idea for the congregation to mill around for a couple of hours while a professional photographer takes pictures of the deceased.

I cannot remember when I developed this aversion, but I must have worn it like a badge because most of my close friends, when they began to get married 30-odd years ago, did not include me on their invitation lists. Why would they? Socially inept, disastrously lacking in small talk and liable to say something shockingly inappropriate to a delicate maiden aunt, I must be every wedding planner’s worst nightmare.

Then I finally got married myself at the age of 55, and must reluctantly admit that I quite enjoyed the day. Mainly, I suppose, because it afforded me the opportunity to make a 15 minute speech to an audience who were drunk enough to laugh at some of my jokes.

One wedding I did quite enjoy

I know no better feeling in the world than this, and if I ever win the Lottery I shall hire the refurbished Theatre Royal to perform a night of stand-up comedy, offering a free half bottle of spirits with every ticket given away.

But one of the few downsides of marrying a much younger and more sociable woman is that wedding invitations start flooding in. We have been invited to more of them in the last couple of years than in the whole of my previous life.

I haven’t attended that many, it is true, excusing myself from a number on the grounds of illness. And not a diplomatic sniffle, either. On several occasions, I have genuinely been laid up in bed when I should have been making polite conversation outside a church in morning dress or waiting, with one eye on my watch, for the usually pretty gruesome spectacle of “the first dance”.

For a supposedly intelligent man, it has taken me a surprisingly long time to twig this simple fact: weddings actually make me ill.

We spent last weekend at one: a handsome couple, clearly much in love, getting hitched in a reassuringly small and simple ceremony. Being a civil event, it was also amazingly short. Even so, I managed to behave with such curmudgeonly ill grace in the course of the day that my wife has forbidden me to accompany her to the next wedding we were scheduled to attend on Saturday.

I have been doing my best to look suitably contrite, rather than punching the air and shouting “Result!”

But the plain fact is that I have always been an abominably selfish, party-loathing social pariah, and it is too late to try and change that now.

The secret, a happy old lady told me, is just to go on getting older. “Once you are over 80 you can get away with anything. If you want to go somewhere, people say ‘Ooh, isn’t she wonderful, doing that at her age!’ And if you don’t fancy something, you can excuse yourself on the grounds of infirmity and no one thinks twice about it.”

I always knew it. When I was 14, and other boys’ role models were football players and rock stars, I always wanted to be the prematurely aged John Betjeman, pottering about with a walking stick and a Panama hat.

Henceforth I shall declare myself an honorary 80-something, a Betjeman without the talent. Thinking of sending me an invitation to a wedding, or indeed any other sort of party? Please save yourself the price of a stamp.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Another big win in the lottery of life

I never had much time for Father’s Day, being inclined to dismiss it as a bogus invention of the greetings card industry. A line I almost certainly picked up from my own cynical dad.

After he died 30 years ago the event did not impinge on my consciousness at all until 2009, when I first received a card and present, and naturally started thinking that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

But even this softening up process did little to prepare me for the shocking impact of Father’s Day 2011, which will be seared on my memory forever. Because that was the morning when Mrs Hann entered our bedroom wearing a big, silly grin and brandishing a positive pregnancy test.

Last time she brought me this news I had high hopes that it was a technical error, until her GP advised us that commercial pregnancy tests may sometimes yield false negative results, but never false positives.

So this time I rapidly resigned myself to my fate, keeping shtoom until the end of her first trimester as conventional prudence recommends. While marvelling at the tact with which so many of Mrs Hann’s friends and colleagues were diplomatically ignoring the clear evidence of her expanding waistline. I suppose, once you have endured the embarrassment of saying “When’s it due?” to a fat lady, you take extra care not to repeat the mistake.

But now it is deemed safe to broadcast the news because we have been to the hospital and had one of those scans, which at least revealed that there is only one bun developing in the oven, with the timer due to “ping” for its release into the world in February 2012.

A random foetus (for illustrative purposes only): I'm much too dumb to scan our own scan picture

Mrs Hann is wearing a big, silly grin again and happily showing off one of those black and white scan images that looks for all the world like a faint picture of ET viewed on a 405 line black and white television in an area with notoriously poor reception, during a particularly powerful electrical storm.

It is not often that I look at the products of modern technology and reflect on how primitive they will surely seem half a century on, but this is one instance where I certainly do.

So all that time I invested in cutting out articles from the papers about how happy only children can be has come to naught, and my wife’s long-standing wish that Charlie should have a sibling looks set to be realised. The woman has her way. How surprising is that?

I thought my secret weapons in this conflict of wills were great age, dedicated inactivity and the awesome power of statistics. Just look at the sharply declining lines on charts of age versus fertility for both men and women, and you will see instantly what I mean. But sadly all these proved to be as much use as Britain’s Great Panjandrum revolving rocket bomb on D-Day.

Sharing my secret with an older, wiser and infinitely richer friend over lunch shortly after Father’s Day, he took a sharp intake of breath and observed that I had had more chance of winning the lottery. Then he pondered for a moment and said, “But then you’ve already won the lottery, haven’t you?”

I frantically racked my brain for the evidence. I know I always tick the box for no publicity, but surely even I would not have forgotten a life-changing event like that?

Then I realised that he was talking about meeting my wife and having my son, rescuing me from the life of a solitary curmudgeon. Which is an undisputed boon, even if the new arrival looks certain to push my retirement date well past my 80th birthday. In consequence, all suggestions for profitable employment and foolproof casino-beating wheezes will be received with the utmost gratitude.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Hann Perspective: The Inconvenient Truth

How are public companies meant to explain their performances when they are mocked for telling the truth?

So I reflected as I read the gibes directed at local hero Greggs in some quarters of the media for daring to mention, before and after the event, that their recent interim profits would have been £2 million higher if there had not been two more bank holidays in the first half of 2011 than in the equivalent period last year.

How could two days out of 365 possibly have such a disproportionate effect, the cynics enquired? And aren’t bank holidays – like the weather – regular events that good managements should be able to take in their stride?

In fact, Greggs has always been a model of honest and transparent reporting. For them, bank holidays mean reduced sales because some shops are closed, and higher costs as those that are open pay premium holiday wage rates. It is a simple fact of life.

The difficulty that some commentators have in grasping this is no doubt increased by the fact that there are no other quoted companies with a similar business model.

Ironically, in many ways, the best point of comparison for a retailer of sandwiches, savouries and drinks is a newspaper publisher. Because if, say, the weather is so appalling that regular readers do not make it to the newsagent to buy their daily paper, they do not compensate by buying two copies next day. The sale is lost forever. The same applies to lunch.

Every retail business I have ever encountered has been sensitive to the weather, yet the media and investor mantra that “only bad retailers blame the weather” has become so pervasive that most will bend over backwards to avoid mentioning it at all.

And it is pleasant, no doubt, for a pub company that has benefited from a long, hot summer and a successful England World Cup run (a pretty unlikely eventuality, I will grant you), to put the surge in sales down to their incisive strategy and brilliant management. But it is also less than honest. And it creates something of a problem in explaining the entirely predictable slump in the face of tough comparatives next year. Though if fortune is smiling the management will simply have collected their long term incentives and cleared off to sip pina coladas on the beach, leaving that little difficulty for someone else.

It does not take a genius to spot that customers may not be rushing to garden centres in their usual numbers in an August when it chucks it down pretty much every day. Though on the flip side, more people than usual will no doubt be seeking shelter by browsing sofas and other large ticket purchases in nice, dry, out-of-town retail sheds.

Wet summers are bad for vendors of ice cream, but good for those selling umbrellas. When I started work in the City, the traditional business school response was to recommend diversification, to ensure a smoother profit progression. But then conglomerates became a dirty word and had to be broken up in the name of the new mania for “focus”.

Which leaves us with the problem of how to explain variations in performance that are genuinely outside management’s control. In less news-packed Augusts than this, at least one national newspaper usually runs a filler column mocking the most ludicrous excuses put forward by companies in their results announcements, from frozen cockle beds in the Zuider Zee to a shortage of furniture buyers on the weekends of Princess Diana’s death and funeral.

The strange thing is that, however laughable they may sound, on closer inspection these claims all turn out to be true. If you are in the cockle fishing business (and there is certainly room for debate on the wisdom of that) you won’t sell a lot of them if freak weather means that you are unable to harvest any for weeks.

So what is the answer? Make up stories that aren’t actually true, but will have a more pleasing ring to uninformed commentators? Or simply “never apologise, never explain” and take the undeserved brickbats when your weather-sensitive business underperforms one year, hoping that you can bask in equally unmerited praise when the pendulum swings back? (A high risk strategy, given the way that the British weather has been going of late.)

Sadly, there is another answer. Take your business private so that you can run it for the long term, never again needing to bother about how the teenage scribblers will react to a temporary profit blip. Management rewards will receive much less scrutiny, too. But that deprives the rest of us of the opportunity to invest in good companies that will reward us well. So perhaps what we need is a touch less cynicism and rather more understanding that some managements actually tell the truth.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who believes in telling it like it is – www.keithhann.com

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

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Two-year-olds want it "right now" - and they're taking over the streets

I returned to my desk yesterday morning, after a two week “holiday”, and felt moved to kiss the furniture in the style made famous by the late Pope whenever he touched down on a new stretch of airport tarmac.

Of course, I have it easy. My “work” consists, by and large, of juggling letters about on a computer. I might feel differently if I had to spend my days breaking up big rocks with a sledgehammer. But frankly I doubt it. On the whole I reckon that deep-sea fishing, lion taming and cesspit emptying probably compare quite favourably with being stuck in the house with a bored two-year-old.

The low point was the Callaly riot, admittedly overshadowed in the media by events elsewhere. But when the friends we were visiting advised young Charlie that there was no apple juice in their fridge, he hurled his toy car across their antique-rich drawing room with as much venom as any hoodie stoving in the window of JD Sports.

The total meltdown that ensued when he was invited to play with his remaining car on the floor rather than the furniture still makes me wince with shame.

Obviously I am hoping that all this is merely a manifestation of what experienced parents describe as “the terrible twos” and that he will grow out of it. But the evidence of the recent outbreak of extreme shopping in our major cities is that many people never do. They want it and they want it right now (as Charlie likes to put it) without the inconvenience of having to work to earn money to pay for it.

We have heard much of the blame for this laid at the door of absentee fathers. Clearly it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to claim that I am or aspire to be a hands-on parent, but I do hope to be around often and long enough to give my son a realistic understanding of what he can reasonably expect from life, with special emphasis on his responsibilities as well as his “human rights”.

The great experiment of the last half-century has been to deride and tear down all the traditional building blocks of society: respect, patriarchy, marriage, the family, religion and traditional education. In their place has grown up, fungus-like, a diverse, materialistic and wholly inconsiderate anti-culture that looks up to stupidity and adores celebrity and fashion. All this was driven by the Left, but the Conservative Party was regrettably complacent and complicit throughout.

Civil disorder cannot be viewed as an accidental and regrettable side effect of this process. Like the entirely predictable economic crisis in the eurozone, it is almost certainly exactly what the designers hoped to achieve.

And where can we turn for leadership out of the mire, when so many of the MPs who expressed their horror in the recalled House of Commons last week were equally guilty of looting, albeit with civilised expenses forms rather than firebombs and baseball bats?

If we draw up a league table of the most impressive figures to emerge from the crisis, with Theresa May obviously at the bottom, surely the undisputed number one is the eloquent Tariq Jahan, father of one of those young men murdered in Birmingham for trying to do the job of the police in defending their community.

Like Colin Parry, another “ordinary” person whose son Tim was murdered by the IRA in Warrington in 1993, Mr Jahan speaks for every decent person in this country when he seeks forgiveness and peace.

There must be millions more like them out there, which should give us all hope for the future. But how sad that it takes a personal tragedy to project such people briefly into public life to shine a light on the inadequacy of our usual self-serving political elite.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

In denial about the weather: the best approach to a summer holiday at home

Yesterday was Day Eight of the Hann family’s summer holiday in Northumberland and two-year-old Charlie was simply in denial. “No, not rainy” he announced firmly as I helped him to update the symbols on his stick-on calendar, ignoring the audible evidence of yet another shower stotting off the conservatory roof.

The Boy's is blue, naturally

He would not even concede that it was cloudy, despite the fact that we were eating breakfast with electric lights and heaters going full blast. The worst he would admit was that it might be a little bit windy. “We go beach, build sandcastle,” he asserted, as he has done every day of his vacation without a single new turret arising anywhere along the coast.

Partly because his enthusiasm, like that of Craster our Border terrier, tends to wilt once he gets outdoors and is confronted with the reality of determined precipitation. I once went out with a Westmorland lass for whom driving rain merely added to the joy of hillwalking. “Come on, you won’t melt!” she would announce in the tones of an old-fashioned hospital matron, adding that the dog needed his exercise whatever the weather might throw at us.

Unfortunately the dog did not see it like that, and used to dig his claws into the back doormat when I tried to take him out under inclement conditions, fixing me with a look that clearly said “Have you finally gone completely mad?”

Walks? Who needs them?

To be fair to Northumberland’s reputation as a holiday destination, there was one absolutely glorious day last week that would have been perfect for the beach, if only I hadn’t arranged to spend a large chunk of it in a gastropub in Newcastle with a couple of other elderly men, putting the world to rights.

Then there was the day that would have been bearable if we had wrapped up and invested in a windbreak, plus a Primus stove on which to heat up reviving mugs of tomato soup. (My father always considered this essential kit for our summer excursions to Druridge Bay half a century ago.) But sadly I found myself chained to my desk writing something for a client until it was too late to head for the coast.

I mainly blame Caroline “Jonah” Spelman, the Government’s forestry expert and weather supremo. Have you noticed how it has chucked it down pretty much every day since she stood up in Parliament and officially announced that the country was suffering a drought?

She brought us the wettest drought since records began

All we can do is clutch at small pieces of consolation. There is no need to worry about a ban on garden hoses or automatic car washes. Arriving in Alnwick on Thursday afternoon to find the town centre full of ambulances, we could only share the general relief that torrential rain had kept so many people out of the market place when that car ran out of control.

Perhaps, as you read this, we will finally be out on the sands with our bucket and spade; the forecasters seem to be unanimous that Tuesday is going to be the best day of this week.

And surely things can only improve from the nadir of the local TV news on Sunday night, when the story of a tragic cliff accident in Seahouses was followed by one about a walking party being airlifted off Cheviot, apparently suffering from hypothermia. Mrs Hann fixed me with a beady eye and asked if there was any good news hereabouts.

Well, I observed, there had been no rioters burning down shops in Alnwick or Rothbury, attractive though they might well have found the resulting heat. And I was pretty sure that no one anywhere in Northumberland had yet been attacked by a polar bear. She graciously accepted these points for the defence, though I could sense her thinking that it was surely only a matter of time.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

The fathomless stupidity of humanity through the ages

As I have pointed out before, making no claim to originality, August is the polar opposite of the silly season. Throughout history, it has been the month when crises traditionally came to a head and wars broke out.

In the northern hemisphere, this makes simple, practical sense. The harvest has been safely gathered in to feed the troops and the ground is nicely firm to facilitate swift advances by cavalry or tanks, in the age-old hope that it will all be over by Christmas (though it so rarely is).

War - it's a laugh a minute!

So far August 2011 looks true to form. The conflicts bubbling away in the Middle East may not set off World War III before September (though it is never wise to make such predictions – just look back on all the embarrassed luminaries who confidently asserted that “there will be no war” in the summers of 1914 or 1939).

Your chance to see the world
It wasn't like this in the brochure

But in the potential default of the US Government on its debts we have an economic cataclysm in waiting that could yet have us all back to wearing animal pelts and smearing ourselves with woad. (Not so very different from the current scene on the Bigg Market of a Saturday night, now I come to think about it). Or at least significantly reduce our chances of eating unless we happen to own a patch of land or keep a handy supply of gold bullion under our mattress.

The news bulletins are proclaiming that catastrophe has been averted as I write, but there are still halfwits on both sides hankering to snatch economic meltdown from the jaws of sanity and salvation. Which at least prompts the comforting reflection that Britain is not alone in being led by people no one should trust to run a bath, let alone a country.

Everywhere, the higher up the ladder of authority one climbs, the greater the apparent incompetence of those in charge. I often read perfectly sensible comments from parish councils. But by the time one reaches county level, up pop the sort of power-crazed and proportion-free dolts who threaten prosecutions over the two temporary signs advertising my local village show.

Clearly a major hazard on the dead straight A697

A very large banner bearing the words “Haven’t you got anything better to do?” should be hung forthwith across the front of County Hall as its new official motto, and our employees there encouraged to meditate upon it, in the style of the Beatles’ Maharishi (though preferably without the use of consciousness-enhancing substances) for at least an hour each morning before picking up their phones or turning on their computers.

Similarly, the electors of Britain should pause to think deeply about how we managed to replace a government mad enough to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, in defiance of every lesson of history, with one deranged enough to get embroiled in Libya while simultaneously scrapping great chunks of the armed forces and preparing to offer many gallant servicemen and women the terrific new opportunity of life on the dole.

I find it hard to listen to William Hague explaining why it is right to try and stop Colonel Gadaffi slaughtering his own citizens, but simply hard luck on those being murdered by President Assad in Syria, without feeling the urge to bang my head against the nearest brick wall.

Which is pretty much the only way to react to the US debt crisis, too. For who would be the biggest loser if America did default? Why, the largest investor in US Treasury securities, naturally. Which is the US Government itself, trying to fund its social security and pension programmes. Now what sort of fool would imperil all that just to make some sort of half-baked party political point?

So perhaps the silly season is well named after all. Because behind all of August’s world-shattering events lies simply the fathomless stupidity of humanity through the ages.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.