Tuesday 25 October 2011

Football: I've now tried it twice, but still prefer the opera

I gathered from the news that there was a football match of some historic significance at the weekend. Unfortunately it was not the one I attended on Saturday, when I went to St James’ Park for only the second time in my life.

Best photo I could find taken from roughly were we were sitting - though it wasn't dark at the time

I was there because a London-based but Newcastle-bred friend of mine had won two tickets to the match, simply by obtaining some cash from a Barclays’ hole in the wall. If the object of this giveaway was to generate customer goodwill, it might surely have been achieved more economically by simply adding a bonus £20 note to the sum he had requested.

Not just a cash machine: it awards prizes, too, like a one-armed bandit

As it was, the “prize” cost more to use than it was actually worth, after transport to and from Newcastle was factored in.

There was also the curious fact that my friend appeared to be as interested in football as I am, though he did ramble on a bit about going to the Leazes end in the 1960s, and cheering on some players I had vaguely heard of. Which was more than either of us could say of the current team.

We were even more spectacularly ignorant about Wigan Athletic, words that seem to fit together as naturally as “David Cameron” and “common” or “Mike Ashley” and “poor”.

The official attendance was announced as 48,321. I made a note of this because it was at least 47,000 more people than would typically turn out to see an opera, my more usual leisure activity of choice.

But despite their numbers, the supposed fans seemed curiously lacking in enthusiasm and even stamina. They only had to sit down for two stretches of 45 minutes, for heaven’s sake – less than half the typical duration of an act in the opera house, before I even start on the subject of Wagner – yet it proved utterly beyond many of them.

We were constantly performing a localised Mexican wave as people fought their way in and out to keep urgent appointments, presumably with a meat pie, pint of bitter or the lavatory.

If any of them fancy trying Opera North’s Madama Butterfly at the Theatre Royal next month, let me advise that it is not at all the done thing to shuffle out ten minutes before the end because you suspect the final aria won’t be up to much. Nor to enquire loudly during the performance whether the conductor is blind.

Pinkerton? Send him off!

I genuinely appreciated the technical skill with which both teams passed the ball around among themselves. However, they did appear to be under the instruction of a politically correct primary school teacher who had advised that the top priority was for every boy to have a turn at kicking the thing, rather than to focus on getting it into the opposing team’s goal.

Talking of political correctness, while its forces may have done a cracking job in stamping out racist abuse, the tone of critical comment from the crowd led me to think that there is probably a way to go before the more sensitive members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community would necessarily feel entirely comfortable attending a match without earplugs.

But I do not knock; I enjoyed the banter from the row behind about the days when they used to stand in a tin shed, warmed only by other fans relieving themselves down the back of their legs. In fact for me it was the most entertaining feature of the whole afternoon, which must rank on a par with going to an opera where the highlight was a laugh at malfunctioning surtitles.

On the evidence of Saturday, the key similarity between football and the opera is that most of the players on the pitch or stage are not English. And the critical difference is that, in football, you end the fixture with a result. Most of the crowd seemed to leave the ground content enough with that. As for the performance, I wished that Eric Morecambe were still alive to pose the question: “What do you think of it so far?”

In view of my admitted ignorance of the game, I wonder whether I would have been quite alone in giving him the traditional answer?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

And the bad news is: my son is not a psychic

My mother was almost 45 when I was born, so there was never any chance that I might acquire a younger sibling. Which was nice, so far as I was concerned.

Indeed my principal objection to my early domestic arrangements was that they included a grown-up brother who still lived at home, preventing me from being the sole focus of my parents’ attention.

I longed to be an only child, and conversations over the years with sibling-free acquaintances have revealed few complaints; except among those who have found themselves responsible for the care of two ill and aged parents, with no one to share the practical or emotional burden.

I have nodded sympathetically to their tales of woe, while privately thinking that it constituted a reasonable payback for the undivided parental interest they enjoyed during childhood.

So I cut articles out of newspapers and magazines about how happy only children can be, and left them strategically positioned around the house in places where my wife was likely to see them.

I also lost no opportunity to tut about the Earth’s population approaching the seven billion mark, the looming energy crisis and the collapse of the global economy. All making it very undesirable for us to bring more children into the world, and pretty much guaranteeing that they would have a miserable time if we did.

This worked as well as most of my schemes, and Mrs Hann somehow managed to get pregnant, against staggering odds. We then felt compelled to introduce two-year-old Charlie to some of the basic facts of life, at least a decade before anyone tried to do so with me, in an attempt to stop him bouncing on his expanding mother while shouting “I squish mummy”.

This worked a treat. He continued to behave in exactly the same way, but now yelled “I squish the baby” as he leapt on top of her.

He also announced to anyone who passed his way that “Mummy’s got a girl baby in her tummy”. And, despite his evident immaturity and the fact that he had no track record whatsoever as a clairvoyant, we started to believe this to be true. No doubt partly because, in his mother’s case at least, it chimed with her own wish to have a daughter.

Just over a week ago, in the absence of any suitable volunteers for babysitting duties, we had the pleasure of Charlie’s company when we went to hospital for a 20 week anatomy scan. Throughout the journey we tried to maintain his interest by telling him that we were going to take a look at his little brother or sister.

“Sister,” he corrected us pointedly each time.

He made friends with a little girl of around his own age in the waiting room and they rampaged around in the noisiest possible fashion. It was obvious from the facial expressions of some spectators that this was making those experiencing their first pregnancy wonder what on earth they had let themselves in for.

Then we had the scan and the sonographer pronounced, after confirming that we would like to know the outcome, that our second child was going to be another boy.

At which all hell broke loose as Charlie wailed “I don’t want a brother!” Hoping, presumably, for a response along the lines of “Oh, sorry, I hadn’t realised. In that case, it’s a girl.”

Mrs Hann has, on the whole, borne any resulting disappointment much more stoically than her son.

As for me, study of the Hann family tree suggested an inherent bias to the male, so it was the conclusion I expected. And I am naturally attracted to the economies we will be able to realise by passing Charlie’s old clothes, toys and other impedimenta on to the new baby.

That’s on top of the huge savings I am already making now that I have accepted that Charlie has no psychic powers, and have stopped giving him a crayon and each day’s racing pages in the hope that he will pick me a winner. He has been a consistent disappointment in picking Lottery numbers, too; but at least I can now hope for more profitable gifts in his brother.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Hann Perspective: The Coming Apocalypse

I have a friend who has not yet been certified insane, owing to a series of regrettable oversights by the overworked medical profession, yet still purports to believe that the world will be coming to an end on 21 December next year.

The timing could be worse, I suppose. Royalists like me will have enjoyed the uplift of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, while those who care for that sort of thing will have been able to watch their money cascading down the world class gurgler of the London Olympics. And we will all be spared yet another excruciating Christmas lunch with the in-laws as well as those always daunting winter fuel bills.

The important question is whether it is really going to happen. Because, if it is, we might as well all stop worrying about our shrinking pension funds and start ticking off achievements from the list of 50 things to do before we die. Or in my case, five things, four of which will almost certainly be ruled out by my inability to secure the willing participation of a lingerie model suitably qualified by her ownership of a main line steam locomotive.

In her case, I'd have settled for a narrow gauge locomotive

Common sense, of course, decrees that the end of the world is not about to take place. But then I am pretty sure that common sense dismissed the Black Death, the huge death toll of the First World War and the horror unleashed on 9/11 as alarmist fantasies until they actually occurred. And if they had been slightly more intelligent, the dinosaurs would no doubt have enjoyed a good chuckle about the huge odds against their far from cosy world being blown apart by a massive asteroid impact.

Famous last words:"What the f... was that?"

Wikipedia is packed with laughable stories of those who made a wrong call on the timing of the Apocalypse, and I don’t have a lot of faith in my friend’s burbling explanations about the Mayan calendar. But I know from my own years as an investment analyst that once in a blue moon even a total idiot can turn out to be almost right, albeit for completely the wrong reasons.

The basis of my niggling concern is the way that the whole world economic system increasingly resembles one of those gigantic boulders precariously balanced on the top of a crumbling pinnacle of rock: the pinnacle in this case being the Everest of global debt. It will only take the failure of one or two meaningful sovereign states to bring the entire thing crashing down, taking with it the banks, what is left of our savings, and our ability to make payments with cash, credit cards or cheques.

Even if the trumpets have failed to sound and the four horsemen have not made their scheduled appearance the previous day, this financial scenario could make 22 December 2012 the occasion of some smugness among those who have invested in a bit of land suitable for vegetable cultivation, a large stock of tinned food, some chickens, a gun and maybe a few gold bars for conducting transactions with their neighbours.

Being one of the world’s foremost pessimists, I was certainly thinking along these lines when I bought my current home in Northumberland. Though I have never actually grown anything more ambitious than mint and chives, and the modest tinned food stockpile is covered in rust and swelling disturbingly at the seams; while the hens remain a pipe dream and I have yet to feel even remotely tempted to give the constabulary a laugh at my expense by applying for a firearms licence.

My little patch of land (though sadly not my sheep)

As for those gold bars, the only thing glistering in my house, now that I have had the crown on my back tooth replaced in porcelain, is the fake guinea dangling modestly at the end of my great-grandfather’s watch chain.

It is rather a shame that I haven’t had the courage of my negative convictions, or made any like-minded friends to reinforce them. We could have held a splendid Christmas lunch of tinned all-day breakfast in 2012, and smirked over the irony that one of the few growth sectors on the high street in the years before the crash was those shops devoted to parting the gullible from their precious metals and converting them into now worthless folding money.

However, I imagine that the smiles would probably be wiped off our faces quite quickly when rampaging mobs of the hungry urban underclass arrived on our blessed plots and started helping themselves to anything that took their fancy, in the popular Tottenham style.

I suppose if I really believed in the imminent economic Apocalypse, I would currently be looking for a small offshore island with fertile soil and scope for fortification. Though for a lazy man like me, it seems easier simply to take the advice so often shouted at me in the streets: “Cheer up, it may never happen!”

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who likes to prepare for the worst 

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

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Follow your heart and nothing else will matter

Perhaps the strangest advice I have read in the last week was the recommendation that lonely single people should acquire a dog to attract the opposite sex.

I can tell you from bitter experience that this does not work, partly because dogs really do take on the personalities of their owners. The low point for me, some years ago now, was walking in the hills above Alwinton on a gloriously sunny summer morning, and observing the approach of a vision of loveliness in shorts. She was accompanied by a bouncing collie.

As we drew closer I could see that the young lady was smiling broadly at me, or perhaps at my ever-so-cute Border terrier. Clearly a potentially life-changing conversation was on the cards. But it never took place because, at the critical moment, Arthur the Border terrier adopted his usual course with strange dogs and bit a lump out of her companion.

We passed in an awkward silence broken only by my well-worn attempt at an apology, as Arthur gave me his traditional “Sorry, Dad,” look, which I knew meant that he was not sorry at all.

The late Arthur in benign repose

But at least the “get a dog” advice acknowledges in the small print that it may not bring you the love of your life, but it does guarantee that you will be less lonely. Because you will have a dog.

The address to Stanford University graduates by Steve Jobs, much quoted after his death last week, contained great advice on the matter of work. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.”

The important sub-text to which is that your work will almost certainly never bring you the sort of fame and wealth enjoyed by Steve Jobs. But that won’t matter. Because at least you will be filling your days doing something that you love.

For me, the other particularly striking feature of Jobs’ address was the remarkable chutzpah he displayed in standing before a class of eager young graduates and reminding them that they would all soon be dead.

It is perfectly true, of course. The best lesson that the old can pass on to the young is that it only seemed like yesterday when they were similarly full of youthful promise. I can remember my parents trying to teach it to me. But like youngsters through the ages I ignored them, because I believed I had all the time in the world.

Very few of us have the great gift of being entirely original thinkers, able to conjure up products that no one has the slightest idea that they want until they appear on the market, then realise that they absolutely must have. Such inventiveness has been the great contribution to the world of Apple Inc.

The late Steve Jobs

Who knows what more life-enhancing gadgetry would have come our way if Jobs had lived. Though my own principal regret is that we shall never hear him further develop his intriguing line from that Stanford address: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”

As he pointed out, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there.” But as my late next-door neighbour was fond of saying, in only slightly more colourful language, “No beggar gets out of this one alive.”

It is a shame that Apple have not yet beautifully packaged the inevitable as a must-have iDeath that we could all covet. Until they do, the best advice surely comes from Horace in what the BBC would have us describe as BCE: “Carpe diem”. Seize the day and follow your heart.

So if you’re lonely as you read this, maybe you should crack on and buy that dog. Or possibly try advertising a vacancy for a wife on your business website. That was my one original idea so far, and it certainly worked for me far better than the irascible Border terrier ever did.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

A train is the perfect place for writers and thinkers

I am writing this column on a train, as I often do. I also write emails, letters, speeches – even company reports and presentations when I can secure one of those individual airline-style seats that afford some protection to client confidentiality.

In short, I find rail travel hugely productive and always have done. There are usually fewer distractions than in the office. This is particularly true for those like me who supposedly work at home, where the temptation to make a pot of tea, potter around dusting the bookshelves or take the dog for a walk so often proves irresistible.

If I do say so myself, over the years I have done some of my very best writing on trains. Helped no doubt by the 5.30am start required to get me on the first departure from Alnmouth to King’s Cross. Because like many people I am at my best for work purposes, if not for small talk, early in the morning.

But even late journeys home are rarely a waste of time, enabling me to catch up on much accumulated reading. Before the accountants abolished that civilised institution, I also made more useful and interesting contacts in the restaurant cars of the East Coast main line than almost anywhere else.

An image "The GNER restaurant car, RIP" has been removed to avoid potential charges (financial, not criminal) from the money-grubbing image copyright police. I wish I had taken my own photograph while I had the chance.

Partly, no doubt, because it was one of the few places where one would routinely share a table with total strangers.

Hence I am a great – some who have ventured into my attic might say obsessive – fan of trains and rail travel. Yet according to a study commissioned by the Department of Transport last week, I am in a tiny (well, ten per cent) minority in actually finding train journeys useful.

The other 90 per cent of business travellers apparently waste their time watching other people, staring out of the window, reading trash or surfing the internet. This seems completely at odds with my own experience and observations.

Is he bored? Or is that a light bulb above his head?

But what a helpful coincidence that these timely survey findings should back up the Department’s claim that there is a sound business case for splurging £17 billion of our money to shave a massive 23 wasted minutes off the fastest journey time from London to Birmingham New Street through the construction of the HS2 high speed rail link.

A project which will, at the same time, lead to a marked deterioration in service for those travelling from the current intermediate stations on the West Coast line.

The problem for the Transport Department is that anyone with half a brain can see that high speed rail between London and Birmingham makes no sense at all. This is not to deny that they could make a case for it between London and Glasgow, though only if one believes that faster transport links boost regional economies rather than sucking life out of them to the centre, as all the evidence of the 186 years since the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway suggests to me.

But for PR purposes they surely need to start building the thing in Sauchiehall Street, so that by the time it reaches the West Midlands adding an extension to Euston could be presented as a no-brainer.

The last traditional main line constructed in Britain, the Great Central Railway’s London extension to Marylebone, was developed that way around. Purpose-built to the Continental loading gauge for connection to a Channel tunnel, it was ripped up in the 1960s by a typically forward-thinking Government that assumed trains had had their day.

How useful some of the main lines, diversionary routes and passing loops destroyed by Dr Beeching would be today. Would it not prove more cost-effective to increase capacity by reinstating those rather than embarking on the HS2 project?

Beeching: the prime hate figure of my childhood

Unless, of course, you believe that all time spent travelling is wasted. But if that is the case, why aren’t we all flying on the rocket-powered successor to Concorde?

And are the Department’s researchers really on the right lines when they loftily dismiss the time business travellers spend staring out of the train window as “daydreaming”? Perhaps they are actually indulging in that most important activity for any of us: thinking. It might be helpful if our politicians and civil servants tried it more often.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.