Wednesday, 28 December 2011

2012: a year to remember

This promises to be a financially painful year for many of us, as unemployment rises and tax increases bite. Though these will not worry me if is correct in its prediction that I will die on 4 February. Irritatingly, it does not specify at what time.

If it proves to be wrong (and the same website did advise my older brother that he had already been dead for a decade) I look forward to the birth of my second son later in February, and to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June. Creating a welcome boom for Chinese producers of bunting and commemorative plates.

Which brings me to an uncharacteristically serious point. We do not have to accept the inevitability of globalisation exporting our jobs. We could all do more to buy locally made and grown stuff from local retailers, and to tighten our focus on buying only what we actually need.

The ‘savings’ made by cashing in on special offers at distant hypermarkets are every bit as illusory as the claims of constantly improving academic attainment, risk-free defence cuts or the affordability of free health care from the cradle to the grave when these are now around a century apart. Though maybe not for me ...

Keith Hann is a financial PR from Northumberland, a regular Journal columnist and a born optimist:

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

2011: not a vintage year

Never mind the Arab Spring, the summer riots, the autumn anti-capitalist occupations and the looming winter of discontent. Forget about the deaths of bin Laden and Gadaffi, and the birth of Southern Sudan.

Ignore the tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, potential nuclear meltdowns and the relentless retreat of glaciers and polar ice caps.

Put from your mind, if you can, even the happy images of the royal wedding, including that arresting rear view of the bride’s sister.

Because none of those was the key event of 2011. That took place all the way back on January 1, when Estonia joined the euro. The first instance in recorded history of a rat commissioning a fast launch to get it on board a rapidly sinking ship.

The political class of Estonia are thus elevated to that pantheon of geniuses who can be relied upon to show the rest of us what not to do, alongside the Financial Times, the European Commission, the Labour and Liberal Democrat front benches, and virtually anyone called Bercow.

A quick internet search confirms this with the telling headline “Estonian wind power sector faces rapid growth”.

My top tip: keep a close eye on Tallinn to determine your business and investment strategies for 2012 and beyond.

Keith Hann is a financial PR from Northumberland, a regular Journal columnist and a born optimist:

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Just another Christmas with a two-year-old

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is nothing more tedious than other people’s children – not even columnists recycling opening lines from Jane Austen.

If this is your view, I can only repeat what newscasters say when they turn to the football results shortly before Match of the Day: look away now.

Because Christmas is undoubtedly a time for children. (Yes, that is three major clichés already.) Even for those of us who would have done most of our festive spending in the off licence, if only it had not been closed down by supermarket competition. Ho, ho, ho. (Four.)

So the chances of a memorably happy Yuletide looked pretty slim around 7pm on Christmas Eve when the exhausted teenager in charge of A&E announced that our two-year-old son should be admitted to hospital for observation.

This had a cathartic effect on young Charlie, who immediately burst into floods of tears. I sternly explained that it was his own fault for taking one of Mummy’s pills, carefully hidden in an apparently inaccessible part of the kitchen.

“But I didn’t,” he sobbed. “I didn’t.”

Which was interesting, because he had spent the previous three hours insisting precisely the opposite, and it is another of those aforementioned universally acknowledged truths that very young children never lie. All investigations of child abuse rely on this premise.

In the car home Mrs Hann proudly recalled an article she had read somewhere which claimed that the sooner a child starts telling porkies, the more likely it is to become a senior executive. (That figures.) I hope there are some talent scouts from the FTSE-100 reading this.

Charlie did not comment, though he was with us in the car because the (very) young man at A&E had gone on to say “Of course if you want to act against medical advice and take him home, that is up to you.”

For which I heard “That’s us covered against a compensation claim if the brat dies. Next please!”

So we decided to take the risk. Because the pill Charlie claimed to have taken, designed to control his mother’s gestational diabetes, was rather too large for him to have swallowed. While his adamant refusal to eat a huge range of delicious things, other than sausages and fish fingers, made it improbable that he would have gone to the trouble of chewing it.

It was our second visit to A&E in less than a week. Prior to becoming a father I had only entered a hospital emergency department once in my life, after a hilarious mishap involving a trouser zip when I was still only an apprentice drunk. Actually, I did not find it at all amusing, but I defer to the universal opinion of the nurses at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, who fell about with mirth. I have been a staunch advocate of button flies ever since.

Our previous visit was occasioned by the boy developing a grotesquely swollen eye after bumping it on a shopping trolley in Tesco. Not their fault at all, of course, though that did not stop me drawing up plans to build a new conservatory with our compensation cheque. Until his eye got better.

So mum endured a sleepless night keeping him under observation of her own, then we enjoyed a delightful Christmas morning unwrapping presents and walking the dog. Charlie quite liked the pedal-powered tractor that I had spent hours assembling, though he was seriously disappointed that I would not allow him to use its front loader to dig up the lawn. But he declared that it was outshone among his gifts by the model Land Rover from the splendid toyshop in Rothbury.

After which I confiscated the matches yet again, dragged him away from the cooker for at least the tenth time, and came close to a seizure of my own in the face of a massive tantrum about the lack of gravy on his Christmas dinner, even though its solid content was barely visible above a Lake Superior of the stuff.

Kids, eh? Who would be without them? (Clichés? I’ve lost count.)

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne. A fuller account of Charlie Hann's Christmas may be found at

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Nearly time to rejoice in the return of light

Nature dictates that this is the most miserable time of year, I reflected as I walked the dog in almost pitch dark at close to eight o’clock yesterday morning.

The list of things on which I agree wholeheartedly with Alex Salmond is far from long, but he can certainly count on my support in opposing the prolongation of this gloom for a further hour by shunting Britain into the same time zone as Berlin.

... or not, as the case may be

On the plus side, in just two days’ time the Earth will begin to swing those of us in the northern hemisphere back towards longer days. It is only natural that we should celebrate.

I have taken no great pleasure in Christmas for the half century or so since some smart alec at Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School pointed out that Santa Claus did not exist. But now, with a two-year-old in the house, memories of the innocent magic of my own childhood come trickling back.

Helped by the Hann hoarding instincts which mean that we are still hanging precisely the same decorations on our Christmas tree, though even I have drawn the line at plugging in the 60-year-old fairy lights.

Somewhat knackered angel. Probably Woolworths, circa 1955
Distinctly sinister Santa. Allegedly an heirloom from my grandparents, he looks much more likely to dispense a good hiding than presents.

It is heartwarming to see young Charlie’s face light up each morning as he plucks another treat from his advent calendar (an invention that my own parents kept very quiet). I am hoping for a similar reaction to his main present, which has already been the cause of much sweating and cursing while its intended recipient has been peacefully asleep in his cot.

DIY Advent calendar, with pockets full of assorted treats. Nothing like this in my day.

Naively ordered online in the expectation that we would receive something resembling the attractive ride-on toy pictured on the website, I was surprised to be confronted by a kit of parts that presented the most exacting construction challenge I have faced since I started buying my furniture from antique shops instead of MFI (RIP).

It now looks exactly like the picture on the box but, rather worryingly, there are two screws left over. After a morning spent at A&E on Sunday, following a minor disagreement between my son’s eye and a supermarket trolley, I shall keep my fingers firmly crossed that they are not critical to the product’s safety.

What else has changed about Christmas since the days when I could look forward to receiving a Dinky toy and a couple of tangerines in one of my grandfather’s old shooting socks? Selection boxes of chocolate bars and drums of fags seem to have dropped off the list of acceptable gifts, and little boys are no longer encouraged to sit on the knee of a drink-sozzled tramp with a cotton wool beard to whisper their innermost desires into his NHS hearing aid. Who says there is no such thing as progress?

Santa as I remember him from the store grottoes of my boyhood

The other big difference is simply one of temperature. Ours was quite a posh house by 1950s standards, with a car in the garage and a telephone in the hall. This meant that we heated two rooms instead of just one, with a coal fire in the lounge as well as the kitchen range.

Bedrooms were freezing cold, with sleep only to be achieved in winter by wearing a pullover and woolly socks as well as pyjamas, and spreading an overcoat over the bed. Now my son has a baby alarm that nags us if his nursery is not within the “Goldilocks zone” of optimum warmth.

In short he is more comfortable, better fed and infinitely more generously supplied with toys than I ever was, just as my father and considerably older brother looked on with amazement at the material richness of my childhood compared with theirs.

Has this massive improvement in “living standards” over the last 50 years made its beneficiaries any happier than I was as a child? Of course not. Which is why I suspect that the end of the fat years of economic growth in the West need not fill any of us with too much regret. But this is hardly the time to dwell on that. Rejoice in the return of the light and have a very merry Christmas.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Next challenge for the new giant of statesmanship

This column must begin with an unreserved apology to all my reader(s). In the past, I may occasionally have given the impression that I viewed David Cameron as a callow PR spiv who would not recognise a true Conservative principle if it transmogrified into a Border terrier and bit him smartly on the ankle.

However, I now realise that he is a genuine patriot and towering statesman worthy to rank alongside Wellington, Palmerston or Churchill. Unless, or more likely until, he reverts to the type of British politicians of all parties for the last 40 years, and rolls over to have his tummy tickled in return for conceding whatever the rest of the EU desires.

I found it immensely reassuring that one of the first people I heard on Radio 4 attacking Mr Cameron for his exercise of Britain’s veto was the editor of the Financial Times – a paper that is worth every penny of its £2.20 cover price because its editorial line is so consistently wrong. This makes it an invaluable contra-indicator, as I would have been in my days as an investment analyst if only I could have upped my game from being 80% to 100% mistaken.

The plain fact is that Friday’s moment had to come because the members of the EU are like passengers on a bus trip who have been lured aboard by wildly different prospectuses. There are 26 passengers who think they are off to Disneyworld, and one anticipating an agreeable ramble around the grounds of some National Trust property followed by a nice afternoon tea.

Everyone else has known all along that the final destination of the “ever closer union” of Europe was a United States reducing national governments to the status of county councils, and certainly with less freedom of manoeuvre than the constituent states of the USA. Only we British were conned into signing up for what we imagined was some sort of free trade area.

In the circumstances, exactly how much “influence” is the one passenger who wants to go somewhere else ever likely to be able to exercise over the rest?

And when the destination abruptly changes from Disneyworld to Beachy Head, surely the only sane course is to step off and let them get on with it? What exactly is the downside of isolation from an economic suicide pact?

The rise and fall of the euro: an allegory
I do not doubt for a moment the genuine idealism of many of those who support the European project. That old warhorse Lord Heseltine was another quick to the microphone to bang on about Churchill’s vision of a United States of Europe, and of it being the only way to save the continent from the ravages of recurring wars.

A noble aim, though the strains of imposing a fundamentally undemocratic supranational authority on ancient states seem much more likely to foment conflict than prevent it.

For other British politicians, the EU appears to fulfil a similar function to President Sarkozy’s platform heels, providing the chance to walk a little taller on the global stage than they would as representatives of a sometime great power experiencing the inevitability of relative decline. What is wrong with just governing Britain? If it is not enough for you, kindly step aside.

The solution must be to level with the people. Explain honestly just what subordination to a United States of Europe would mean for Britain; realistically outline the alternatives to that destination, then let the electorate decide. The referendum of 1975 cannot be held to have settled the issue forever because it was fought on fundamentally dishonest grounds.

For me, the right of a free people to govern themselves trumps all other considerations. Just as it did when Britain granted independence to its former colonies, regardless of whether they might have been more benevolently governed by us.

If the British people ever vote yes to European union in an open and honest referendum, I promise to shut up or leave the country. Quite possibly both. But, should the great day come, please do not let this be the decisive consideration in how you cast your vote.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

However much we may dislike politicians, they still beat management consultants

Last Thursday night I stepped briefly through the looking glass into the world of the super-rich. They really are different from you and me.

Over dinner, my host explained how he needed an income of at least £20 million a year (before tax, which he sportingly pays, unlike so many of his peers) to maintain his houses, yacht, staff and overall standard of living. Since he is a billionaire this should not present too much of a challenge, even at current interest rates.

Then a multi-millionaire fellow guest mused that he could happily give up almost every aspect of his lifestyle tomorrow, without regrets. Only one thing would be a real wrench to lose: private flights.

Having hitched one or two lifts on private jets over the years I can confirm that avoiding the hell of public airports is indeed a deep joy, though personally I find the economical alternative of never flying anywhere equally acceptable.

Did I feel resentful of the wealth of these two men? Far from it. The richer is an entrepreneur who started life with no advantages at all. He turned a simple idea and a capacity for hard graft into a huge fortune, creating many jobs along the way. Even the most ardent campaigners against excessive pay seem willing to make an exception for those who build great businesses from scratch.

The other is the chief executive of a public company, but a notably successful one that has rewarded its shareholders well over the years. He also charmed me by revealing that one of his small pleasures is allowing his PA to put through calls from the heads of management consultancies, who invariably introduce themselves with a well-worn spiel about the matchless expertise their organisation can offer.

“Really,” he replies disarmingly. “Are you experts in all those things? What a remarkable coincidence. So are we!”

And then he quietly replaces the receiver.

I warm to this approach because, to me, the single most annoying thing about the massive inflation in executive salaries in recent years has not been the way it has been organised through cabals of “independent non-executive directors” who are actually all members of the same self-interested club. No, it is the way so many business leaders seem unwilling to make their own decisions, even though that is surely precisely what they are being paid so generously to do.

Instead they call in management consultants to outline the options and advise on the optimum course of action. In my experience this will either be a blinding statement of the obvious or a recommendation that the application of only a few moments’ clear thought will show to be laughably and dangerously wrong.

And all for a mere seven figure fee. No wonder that management consultants are so widely derided as people who borrow your watch to tell you the time, then walk off with it in their pocket.

This may seem rich coming from one who scratches a living as a consultant himself, and in a field (public relations) which most honest practitioners will admit is principally about the liberal application of common sense.

All I can say in my defence is that at least I have never been greedy, or seriously damaged the prospects of my clients. So far.

As for my super-rich pals, there is clearly no need to worry about them as a private jet will always be on hand to whisk them off to some more tolerant part of the world if Britain turns seriously resentful, as it may well do as the screw on general living standards tightens in the years ahead.

Our politicians are only brave enough to hint that there might be a temporary blip in the upward march of prosperity, not that the good times are gone for ever. But if they told us the truth and we rose up against them, what would be the alternative? Technocrats. Or, to put it another way, experts. Management consultants.

If it ever comes to that, the top National Lottery prize should surely not be cash, but a place on the last private jet to leave the country.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.