Tuesday 11 December 2012

The practical joke: never practical and never funny

I pride myself on my catholic sense of humour, so am looking forward to some belting jokes when the Pope finally starts Tweeting as @pontifex.

(We must hope, incidentally, that His Holiness saw the funny side when his aides broke it to him that his real title of @pontifexmaximus had already been claimed by some would-be comedian from East Kilbride with 43 Twitter followers.)

I find that I quite often cause confusion when I use “catholic” its sense of “comprehensive” or “universal”, rather than to make any religious distinction. So, to be clear, I am prepared to laugh at most things: from the childish antics of Mr Pastry through the mainstream laughter-making of Eric Sykes, Benny Hill or Morecambe & Wise to the shock tactics of Frankie Boyle.

Like everyone, I have my blind spots. As a child, I found Laurel & Hardy utterly hilarious and Charlie Chaplin almost completely unfunny. I remain of the same view, though over the years I have had arguments with several intelligent people who feel exactly the opposite. They remain wrong, but I respect their right to be wrong.

Other assessments change over time. As a schoolboy and undergraduate, I used to be rendered literally helpless with laughter by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Today, if I catch a repeat, I wonder what I ever found funny at all.

Hancock’s Half Hour, Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army, by contrast, seem as amusing today as when they were first broadcast.

My one total and lasting sense of humour failure concerns the practical joke. I did once, as a small boy heavily influenced by Dennis the Menace, try balancing a bag of flour atop our kitchen door on April Fools’ Day. But my mother explained to me in no uncertain terms why this was a thoroughly bad idea and the lesson stuck.

Even back then, I used to cringe as my parents chuckled at Candid Camera (practical jokes played on others apparently fell into a different category to pranks played on them). I never willingly watched its 1980s incarnation, Game For A Laugh, and until the day he died I struggled to suppress a desire to put my foot through the TV screen every time Jeremy Beadle’s sinister, grinning face appeared on it.

Far more likely than Crimewatch to give me nightmares

So I cannot even begin to understand the thought processes of those who decided that it would be a great idea to make a broadcast phone call to or about a sick woman in hospital, whether she be a pauper or a princess. And I would have written that even if it had not led to the tragic consequences we now all know so well.

If anything even faintly positive can emerge from the desperately sad death of nurse Jacintha Saldhana, please let it be a universal acceptance that the “prank phone call” is not funny, and that anyone attempting to raise a smile by making one is not just barking up the wrong tree, but is in the wrong forest on the wrong planet.

As I was saying: NEVER a funny idea

Perhaps we might also pause to reflect on what purpose is likely to be served by tying the UK print media in fresh knots of regulation, when goons from every corner of Earth can subject us to their half-baked attempts at investigation, analysis and entertainment through the World Wide Web.

For myself, I find that threats of dire personal consequences are quite effective at keeping would-be practical jokers at bay. They even managed to see off the bunch of grinning idiots who were intent on making my wedding night one to remember for all the wrong reasons.

So, if you ever find yourself in need of a best man who can make a reasonably amusing speech but is guaranteed not to subject you to an apple pie bed or a kipper tied to your exhaust manifold, you now need look no further.

I think we may safely assume that the Vatican is a whoopee-cushion-free zone, too. On which basis I shall add the Pope to the select list of people I follow on Twitter. Well, at least until my favourite religious joker Rabbi Lionel Blue gets on there.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Why dearer booze and free news are both seriously bad ideas

The proudest moment of my life was opening last Friday’s Journal and finding myself described by former Fleet Street editor David Banks as a “journalist”.

Up until then I had thought of myself as simply a misplaced PR man with an unprofitable hobby.

It is entirely typical that I should finally gain this longed-for recognition just when journalism is under a three-pronged attack of unprecedented ferocity.

First from the internet, and the growing assumption that all news and comment should be available instantaneously, and completely free of charge.

Secondly from the alliance of crime victims and celebrities who would impose tighter regulation, backed by statute, on the printed media. Just when the floodgates of the worldwide web stand open to disseminate limitless quantities of tittle-tattle and misinformation with almost zero prospect of correction or redress.

And finally from the threat to impose minimum pricing on the hack’s traditional relief and recreation: alcohol.

Let me deal with the last first. Apparently we all need to pay more for our booze because the centres our major cities have been made a “living hell” by cheap drink.

Really? Might it not have more to do with the halfwitted decision to abolish traditional opening hours, and the oversight of licensing by magistrates, in the vain hope of creating a sophisticated “continental café culture” rather than having the young lying around the streets in pools of their own vomit?

Not that it is just Yoof that Nanny cares about. According to campaigners, this more expensive drink will also “save the lives” of 50,000 pensioners over 10 years and massively reduce the burden on the NHS.

Except that, in the real world, those pensioners will surely die of something else that will almost certainly prove every bit as expensive to treat.

On this logic, we should also be imposing massive new price hikes on food to counter obesity, and on skis, horses, motorbikes and rugby balls to save the NHS from treating the resultant accidental injuries.

There are already laws against serving alcohol to those who have plainly consumed enough, and against being drunk and incapable or disorderly. Just as there are laws against the unlawful interception of communications through phone hacking.

Rather than holding inquiries and adding more pages to the already bulging statute book, why not first have a try at enforcing the laws we have already got?

Meanwhile the relentlessly increasing domination of nearly all our lives (not you, Auntie Leslie) by the internet makes the attempt to impose fresh rules on newspapers as relevant as the actions of those courtiers who egged on poor old King Canute to plonk himself in the path of the rising tide.

Yes, I know they call him King Cnut these days, but I couldn't risk a misprint

We need a free and unfettered press that asks awkward questions, highlights injustices and exposes wrongdoers, without outrageously invading the privacy of those who have never sought to be public figures, or otherwise breaking the law. For that to happen, we also need people willing to pay a few pence each day for a newspaper or its online equivalent.

Becoming a writer was my lifelong ambition, in admittedly lazy recognition of the fact that stringing words together is the only small talent I possess. I am delighted that it is now easier than ever before to get my work published; but considerably less happy that it is also increasingly difficult to make any money by doing so.

Yes, there are J.K. Rowling and that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, but they are to the mass of authors as lottery jackpot winners are to the other mugs who fork out for a ticket.

In my ideal world, reasonably priced alcohol would be served principally by responsible landlords who would ring a closing bell at 10.30 or 11pm, and send home before then anyone who was clearly the worse for wear.

Those patrons who were not engaged in conversation or traditional pub games would while away their evenings happily reading newspapers, or perhaps my latest book.

The really sad thing is that, well within living memory, something very like that earthly paradise actually existed, and it is never coming back.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

A non-believer in search of a church that does not change

I wanted my younger boy to become a household name, but my wife refused to have him christened Cillit Bang.

That’s not strictly true, though we did have both our sons baptised in the Church of England, which also married us. All in services conducted by a delightful reverend gentleman using the wonderful language of the Book of Common Prayer.

A 1662 BCP christening in 2012. Now you don't see a lot of those about.

No small achievement these days, when the Church’s desire to “get with the programme” and be “down with the kids” so often means ditching words as beautiful as anything in Shakespeare in favour of something with all the majesty and mystery of an online shopping list.

Going to a parish church these days is a lottery. One may find a group of well-dressed elderly folk mumbling their way through a 1662 Holy Communion, or a church so filled with bells, smells and genuflections that even a Renaissance Pope might wonder whether things were not going slightly over the top.

Or one may chance upon a crowd of shining-eyed enthusiasts in leisurewear swaying and clapping to the twanging of guitars.

The last is naturally my pet hate. Because what I want above all from the Church of England is that it should not change. That it should be all Prayer Book and Hymns Ancient and Modern, bicycling vicars wearing proper dog collars (and Panama hats in the summer), and dear old ladies cutting fresh flowers and polishing the brasses.

Technically this appears to be a motorbike - but it's the best Google could come up with

And really I should have no say in any of this because, while I happily recite the creed and tick the “Christian” box on any form that comes my way, I do not in my heart believe the pillars of the faith to be literally true.

I would very much like it to be so, and hope my religious convictions may yet strengthen on my deathbed, but right now my belief in the virgin birth and resurrection is not much above par with my confidence in the reality of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.

Which I would very much like to be true, too.

I suspect that most of us, in Britain in 2012, are in a similar place with regard not just to the Church of England but to religion in general, though we carefully steer clear of saying so to those faith groups that threaten to kill us if we disagree with them.

No such danger with the sweet old CofE, of course, which bears the added burden of being an established, State church. So that Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu and atheist commentators all feel entitled to submit their two pennorth on its little local difficulty in the matter of women bishops.

Rarely can so many words have been generated on an issue that matters so little to most of us. I have seen angry letters to the press condemning “dinosaur” male bishops (who were almost universally in favour of the change) and supposedly intelligent columnists feigning ignorance of the apparently comical concept of “Laity”.

Most, including right-on Dave our Prime Minister, seem to regard it as a simple issue of progress and equal opportunities, paying scant regard to the fact that some of the staunchest opponents of female bishops appear to be women.

As if things weren't bad enough, pedants assert that the new Archbishop doesn't know how to wear a mitre properly

Having looked into the Byzantine structure of the General Synod, and the requirement for a two-thirds majority in all its three houses to pass any substantive change, the puzzle is surely not that women bishops failed to pass over the hurdle but that it has ever managed to agree on anything at all.

As one of nature’s conservatives, I feel that it is a model that might usefully be adopted more widely in local and national government.

But it surely cannot be right for those of us who do not truly believe to criticise those who do, and who are doing their best to act in accordance with what they imagine to be God’s will.

I have no confidence that it will do the slightest bit of good, but I feel that I should now seek out a suitably quiet and happily unmodernised church, and offer up a little prayer for them all.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Useful results of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections

Despite my well-publicised misgivings about the usefulness of the post, I did cast a vote in last week’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

In fact I cast two, the Government having chosen to interpret our decisive rejection of the Alternative Vote in elections for MPs as not applying to any other elections they might dream up.

I imagine that if the nation ever votes in a referendum against our continued membership of the European Union, that result will be similarly construed in a way that means we remain members of the EU after all.

On the other hand, if a “first past the post” contest had been run last week, we would have been deprived of the joy of seeing Humberside reject John Prescott, which many felt was the only thing that prevented the £100m spent on the poll being a total waste of money.

My own voting did not go smoothly. Turning up at the polling station early in the morning, and receiving the undivided attention of the four council staff on duty, I was told that I could not vote as my name did not appear on the electoral register.

Which was odd, as I knew for a fact that I had renewed my registration online back in August. Subsequent telephone conversations with the local council confirmed that this was indeed the case. But, before I had done so, a canvasser employed to chase up registrations had called at our house and demanded that my wife sign a form and hand it back there and then.

Which she declined to do. Partly because she was busy, partly because no one likes being bullied by officialdom on their own doorstep, but mainly because we were going to look at another house to rent in another part of the county the following day, and it surely made sense to know where we were going to be living on the due date in October before adding our names to an electoral roll.

We quickly decided not to move because the estate agent marketing our possible new home had omitted to mention, among its many attractions, that it was located on a busy main road. But that unsigned form duly made its way back to the council some time later, and it may be useful to others to know that “refused to sign as may be moving” apparently trumps having actually registered online in the meantime.

Having sorted that out, I was at least comforted by the warm personal greeting I received from the staff at the polling station in the evening. Almost as though they had not received any other visitors since I left them ten hours earlier.

And, in truth, the turnout showed that there had been few enough. Though my wife had pitched up during the afternoon, accompanied by a baby and a very excited little boy.

“Where are we going, Mummy?” Charlie had asked as he was buttoned into his coat and strapped into the car.


“Oh great, I love voting!” he announced enthusiastically, which thoroughly puzzled Mrs Hann right up to the moment when she had put her form in the ballot box and announced that it was time to go back home.

Charlie’s face fell and his bottom lip trembled.

“But Mummy, we haven’t even been out on the water,” he complained.

So a three year-old boy learned the important difference between voting and boating, and a 74 year-old with two Jags failed to land a second job to add to his representation of the Labour party in the House of Lords.

Oh, and 41 people around the country gained roles that almost no one particularly wanted them to have, paying up to £100,000 a year, setting the priorities for cutting crime in their areas.

I would have been happy to give my advice to the Chief Constable on this free of charge, but I imagine that nicking the bad people who murder, maim, steal and vandalise would have been deemed overly simplistic.

Northumbria's new Police and Crime Commissioner and scourge of bogus charity bag collectors Vera Baird - sadly not in the uniform for her new job

And I suppose it is good to know that, in Northumbria at least, bogus charity bag collectors are now quaking in their boots.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Dumbing down politics to the level of "I'm A Celebrity"

The great British public loves voting: the entire weekend TV entertainment schedule, from The X-Factor to I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, is based on that simple fact.

More than 11 million of us tuned in on Sunday evening to enjoy the self-inflicted humiliation of Conservative MP Nadine Dorries in the Australian jungle, no doubt particularly looking forward to the appearance on the menu of the customary marsupial unmentionables. There will surely never be a better excuse for a heartfelt nationwide cheer of “Go Nad!”

And yet, at the same time, the great British public hates voting when it comes to trekking out to some dimly hit church hall on a dank November evening to make a cross on a piece of paper with a blunt pencil stub.

Which is why it is so widely predicted that turnout for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections this Thursday will make the notion that the winners possess a democratic mandate completely laughable.

The mechanics of this election have been dreadfully handled. The timing could hardly be worse unless they had chosen to hold it on Christmas Day.

Because my work takes me away from home a great deal, I have long been on the electoral register at two different addresses. As I write three days before the vote, I have not received a polling card at either of them.

I have no idea whatsoever who is standing in one area, and am only dimly aware of two candidates in the other, though I believe that there are others.

What has the Government done to inspire me or anyone else to go out and vote? Indeed, what is the point of this exercise at all?

Where was the popular demand for us to vote for the people in charge of our police forces? Did some bright spark in a think tank note that the Americans vote for their sheriffs, and conclude that we should import the concept here?

Where is the evidence that the current system of oversight by police authorities is failing, or that their replacement by individuals is going to achieve anything useful?

Particularly when the brilliantly designed system has managed to debar some seemingly promising independent candidates on the grounds of trifling childhood misdemeanours, while holding the door ajar for superannuated Westminster politicians we fondly imagined we had dismissed from public life forever.

Vera Baird, defeated as MP for Redcar in 2010 on the biggest anti-Labour swing in the UK; now Labour's candidate as Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria

The only explanation I can see is the same one underpinning the Government’s desire to inflict elected mayors on as many communities as possible (and don’t imagine for a moment that having voted against this once will be the end of it).

We are assumed to be far too thick to see beyond one high profile individual, or to understand the workings of a council, committee, cabinet or Parliament.

Why settle for a dull old Watch Committee when you could have another Boris?

It is the application to the world of politics of the same shallow celebrity culture that dominates the TV schedules and the popular press, and I loathe it as fervently as I detest the sort of creepy-crawlies whose starring roles ensure that I will never willingly watch I’m A Celebrity.

I am old enough to remember when Clive James used to mock exactly this sort of thing by running clips from a hideous Japanese TV game show called Endurance, which I used to watch through clasped fingers with the horrified superiority of one who mistakenly believed that his own culture would never stoop so low.

Perhaps, of course, our leaders are right, and we really are this dumb. In which case, may I respectfully suggest that the next round of Police and Crime Commissioner elections is held on prime-time TV, with candidates afforded an opportunity to explain themselves and voting lines opened so that we may express an opinion from the comfort of our armchairs?

Because if they are determined to make public service a branch of celebrity culture, that is surely the only way to go. We might even introduce a bush tucker trial and induce Nadine Dorries to stand for election.

Because, let’s face it, she is highly likely to be looking for another job if she ever returns from Down Under.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Collect things only for pleasure, not for profit

Every time I glance at the Antiques Roadshow they seem to be fetching smelling salts for some delighted old biddy who has just discovered that the chipped bowl she uses to serve the dog’s dinner is worth several thousand pounds.

I always think “That could be me”, in the same deluded spirit that keeps me buying National Lottery tickets.

Because, over the years, I have accumulated vast quantities of old tat that I always believed I could sell at a profit one day. After all, they were usually limited editions, in the case of books, coins and prints. Or implausibly well preserved examples of rare, collectable toys.

It turns out that Bernie Madoff was offering far better and safer returns on investment than my loft full of this stuff

I discovered my mistake in the matter of books a few years ago, when I carefully conveyed a box of duplicate titles to a local dealer. When I had been buying, many of these had been very valuable first editions in exceptional condition. Now I was selling, there was no demand and most of them were only good for recycling: since it was me, they could stretch to £20 for the lot.

Last week it was model railways and coins. My extensive collection of the former is apparently now worth less than half what I paid for it 20 or more years ago, while the best thing I could do with most of my cherished coin collection is prise open the presentation cases, take the coins down to the shops and spend them.

This seemed odd, when the insurance company “expert” who insisted on coming to my house a year or more ago sucked through his teeth at all the immensely valuable stuff I owned, and how desperately underinsured it was. He even insisted that I install a burglar alarm as a condition of my continued and inflated cover.

Surely it cannot be the case that insurers are in league with the conmen who peddle this stuff in trying to persuade us that we are making an investment rather than simply squandering our money?

There is, I confess, one exception to the general rule. The few gold sovereigns I have acquired over the years have appreciated very nicely indeed. Though it turns out – surprise, surprise – that I was a mug to pay a premium for the Royal Mint’s beautifully presented proof sets, because they are worth not a penny more than the bog standard bullion versions of the self-same coins.

Quite possibly the only useful advice ever contained in this column: don't pay the extra for the polished coin in the nice box

Now I do, as it happens, know a man who wanted to get rid of the tiresome collection of Japanese miniatures that his late father had picked up in junk shops for a song over many years. And discovered, to his utter amazement, that it was worth more than a million pounds.

What’s more, that was the sum the collection realised at auction, not that ascribed to it by some wildly over-optimistic insurance assessor.

But that is as much the exception to the rule as the couple who buy a ticket for only the second time in their lives and scoop the Euromillions jackpot.

For the rest of us, the rule must be to laugh at those vendors of the “heirlooms of tomorrow” as heartily as we do at the spoof versions of their advertisements in Viz.

Only buy things because you like them, and feel that your enjoyment of life will be enhanced by having them around you. Never because you fancy for a moment that you may one day be able to make money from them.

The same rule should be applied, with added emphasis, when choosing a place to live.

Luckily it is not all doom and gloom. Two small boys will no longer be denied the pleasure of playing with vintage Hornby Dublo trains that I wrongly thought were much too valuable to be used for the purpose for which they were intended. In due course they may also look forward to inheriting a moderately interesting coin collection, too.

I also expect to make a huge saving on next year’s household insurance bill that I look forward to investing in something with truly lasting value. Like a lottery ticket, for example. 

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

The North East on TV: full colour yet still black and white

When I was a boy television was a tiny box offering two channels in fuzzy black and white for just a few hours each day.

You couldn’t even hope to watch it for a whole evening without fiddling around with the horizontal hold and worrying about the distinctive smell of valves overheating.

Now we have 24-hour, multichannel, high definition, full colour, surround-sound, widescreen broadcasting and the only thing still stuck in black and white is the opinions of the viewers.

I say this after puzzling over the very polarised reactions to the new BBC2 sitcom Hebburn, which strikes me (and, importantly, my non-Geordie wife) as one of the funniest things we have seen on the telly in years.

Hebburn's Big Keith. No relation, so far as I know.

Yes, it is a gross caricature delivering knockabout music hall one-liners, not a sophisticated, intellectual comedy. I might also think that it had failed to do my hometown full justice if I actually lived in Hebburn. The overall effect is a bit like Shameless starring a reincarnated Tommy Cooper.

Yet it is warm, affectionate and I find it very amusing. Indeed the only weak link to my mind is Gina McKee playing, as she always does, Gina McKee. But then that’s just my personal blind spot about a regional if not yet national treasure.

The Hebburn family of cliched but, to my mind, amusing stereotypes

What seems strange to me is that all the comments I have seen on the series are either wildly enthusiastic or totally condemnatory. There is no middle ground. This is true, oddly enough, even on the Hebburn Facebook page, where a minority apparently “like” the show just to provide a platform for sounding off about how hopeless the scripts and actors are, and attacking the inauthenticity of the accents and locations.

I might as well have thrown a strop about the episode of Vera that was partly filmed at Tod-le-Moor, just around the corner from where I live, yet dared to give the impression that this was a stone’s throw from the seaside.

Calm down, dears, it’s only television. A certain suspension of disbelief is required.

TV's Vera. Not at Tod-le-Moor.

I found exactly this same polarisation last week when doing some background research on a restaurant chain for which I supposedly work. Nearly all the reviews on those traveller guide websites are either five star, praising flawless food, locations, décor and service; or one star, suggesting that the self-same restaurant offers one of the worst experiences on the planet.

Years ago I noticed just this dichotomy in reviews of a hotel owned by someone I know. He let me into the secret. All the five star plaudits were written by his staff and friends, while all the damning reviews were planted by rival establishments in the area.

This, of course, renders such websites completely useless for the genuine seeker after truth, hoping to get an unbiased idea of whether a particular hotel or restaurant is worth booking.

How did everything end up so black and white? Partly it can be explained by the invisibility cloak of anonymity. Almost no one posts on review sites under their real names, so there can be no comeback however outrageously they express themselves.

Most people on social media sites do reveal their identities, but something encourages them to be far franker and ruder tapping away on their phones or tablets than they ever would be if they were speaking in public.

Is all this ultimately filtering down from our cherished but frankly increasingly wearing tradition of knockabout adversarial politics, now reduced to the chanting of learnt-by-rote dumbed-down catchphrases about the uselessness of the opposition?

In principle, I would love to see a more nuanced approach setting out the pros and cons and arriving at a balanced conclusion. Because the right answer is rarely black or white, but a shade of grey – and I am sure we all know how many of those there are around these days.

50 shades: what's all the fuss about?

Though in the case of Hebburn, I am happy to put my real name to saying it has cheered me up as much as anything on TV since the demise of Tony Hancock. Come on, trolls: do your worst.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Another unpleasant surprise we can blame on a banker

I am renowned for always expecting the worst to happen, so my progress through life is rarely jarred by unpleasant surprises.

It therefore came as a deep shock on Saturday morning when I caught sight of something so completely and utterly unexpected in my peaceful corner of Northumberland that I literally could not believe my eyes.

But sadly I had to concede that there could be no mistaking the bushy tail of a grey squirrel as it leapt into the roadside ditch just in front of my car.

I had never caught sight of such a thing in these parts in 25 years. Our native red squirrels rank alongside the call of the curlew as one of the chief natural attractions of the locality.

All together now: "Aaahhh!"

And, ironically, I have seen more red squirrels out and about by the local roads in the last few months than I have ever seen before, suggesting that the population is thriving even as their nemesis closes in. 

A common - and necessary - road sign in my neck of the woods

Subsequent enquiries established, predictably enough, that I had just not been paying enough attention. Grey squirrels have been sighted many times in my area, and a trapping programme is well under way to try in a brave attempt to keep them under control. I hope that mention of the fact in this column may inspire a few more locals to keep their eyes open and also to report their sightings.

The great hope for the future is apparently a vaccination against the squirrel pox carried by the greys that currently proves fatal to the reds. Though somehow I doubt that the red squirrels will queue up for this as obediently as the older folk of Rothbury did at the clinic to which I was driving for my annual flu jab when I had my close encounter with that grey arriviste on Saturday morning.

I should add right away that I do not actually qualify for this vaccination on grounds of age, but have crept within the NHS’s beneficent net on the strength of my alleged infirmities.

Having suffered bronchial pneumonia in the past, I was particularly pleased to be offered an additional bonus “once in a lifetime” vaccination that would afford lasting protection against the pneumococcal form of the disease.

“Are there any side-effects?” I blithely enquired as I rolled up my second sleeve of the morning. I was briskly assured that there were not, though this turned out to be not strictly true. My arm hurt a great deal for the next 36 hours and I entered one of those periods of decline in which the only possible course of action seems to be snoozing on the sofa before a roaring fire.

Still, that must be considered short term pain for long term gain if I can now laugh in the face of “the old man’s friend” when pneumonia next beats a path to my door.

It is a rather more complex equation in the squirrel world, where even short term relief for the delightful red variety can only be procured by killing the greys – provoking the usual animal rights objections that this is needlessly cruel to a species that is only doing what comes naturally, and that in any event it is unlikely to save the reds in the long run.

Any excuse for another cute picture

Sadly, a natural pessimist like me feels that this may well turn out to be true. But I am so in thrall to the charms of the red squirrel that I feel that it is only right to offer full support to those who are giving it a go on their behalf.

Above all, this should be a valuable reminder of the perils of tinkering with nature, when someone next thinks that a non-native species might make an attractive addition to our fauna or flora.

The grey squirrel invasion started with the release of a single pair in Cheshire parkland in 1876. Now there are millions.

It seems that the bloke who had the bright idea was a banker, too.

Macclesfield banker Thomas Brocklehurst: it's all his fault

Now there is one fact that should occasion absolutely no surprise whatsoever.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

The successful Union that really deserved to win a prize

The chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee sighed deeply. He had now been spent three solid days stuck in a room with four equally obscure Norwegian politicians, arguing about who should receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Apparently.

They had finally identified the ideal candidate in the shape of indefatigable British charity worker Jimmy Savile, until someone Googled him and discovered that he was inconveniently dead.

The same difficulty that had done for the otherwise promising candidacies of Osama bin Laden, Harold Shipman, Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Bashar al-Assad had been running strongly, until deadlock resulted when one awkward member of the committee insisted on advancing the rival claims of the King of Bahrain.

Then it had started looking good for the relatively uncontroversial retired statesmen Tony Blair, who could clearly use an extra $1.2 million if anyone could. But then they remembered the risk of him bringing his wife to the prize ceremony, so it was back to the drawing board again.

“I know,” said the newest member of the committee. “Why don’t we stop searching for an individual, and award it to some well-intentioned organisation?”

“Like the Papacy, for example?”

There was a sharp intake of breath and some muttering about the Crusades and the law of unintended consequences in regard to priestly celibacy.

Another member remarked that this was where they always ended up when they hadn’t got a clue, which was why the Red Cross and the United Nations kept cropping up on the list of past award winners.

“OK, but how about a Union that has secured a long peace between warring nations, and is a model of successful political and monetary integration? What’s more, it is currently under threat and the prize might just help to hold it together.”

The five members of the committee gave a powerful demonstration of synchronised nodding, and reflected that this could be the breakthrough that would get them out of a room now beginning to smell quite unpleasantly of fermented trout.

“I like it,” said the Chairman. “I like it a lot.”

The newest member of the Committee acknowledged his praise with a modest smile.

“Hang on, though,” said the inevitable troublemaker. “Won’t people take the mickey out of us for awarding the prize to something we as a country have taken such pains to keep out of, jealously guarding our independence at all costs?”

The Chairman shrugged, and reminded him that the whole world took the mickey pretty much every year. And with a list of past recipients including Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Al Gore and Barack Obama, there should be no surprise there.

But a Union that had turned war into peace and brought prosperity in its wake: why, what could possibly go wrong?

“It’s brilliant,” said the Chairman. “I’ll ring the … hang on, who on earth do I ring?”

“David Cameron, obviously,” said the new boy.

“David Cameron? Well, I know he’s done his best by reneging on that promise of a referendum, and has as much chance of ever holding one as he has of closing down Eton College and turning it into a rest home for retired miners. But he’s hardly at the heart of the Union, is he?”

“Of course he is. He’s the …”

“No, no. It will have to be that bloke no one has ever heard of. Or the other one.”

“Nick Clegg?”

“No. Van something or other. Or the one that sounds a bit like an Italian wine.”


“That’s the fellow.”

“No, no hang on,” gulped the newest member. “I think there’s been a horrible misunderstanding. You thought I meant the European Union, didn’t you?”

“Of course. And it’s a great idea. Thank you so much for your inspired thinking.”

“But that’s not what I meant at all.”

“You said a political and monetary Union that had brought peace and prosperity to formerly warring nations. What else could it be?”

“Er, the United Kingdom?”

Edinburgh Castle: keeping up the standard

At which point everyone laughed uproariously, packed up their papers and returned to well-deserved obscurity for another year.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Handwriting and thinking: on the way out together?

When I was a boy, people still let it be known that there had been a death in the family by keeping their curtains closed all day.

Last week, for the first time, I spotted someone announcing his mother’s death on Facebook. This is one “status update” it is clearly a breach of etiquette to “like”, despite the website’s inbuilt encouragement to be the first to do so.

At least this made me realise how very old fashioned I was to agonise for ages about whether I might compose a letter of condolence to a friend on my computer, rather than with pen and ink.

I do most things electronically these days. Where I would once have written a letter of thanks, I now invariably send an e-mail. But I had always drawn the line at expressing sympathy in print.

Partly lest it be thought that I had just cut and pasted my condolences from some previous missive, and partly because it seems rather insulting to address such an important issue in trouble-free laser print rather than painfully neat handwriting.

Pain, sadly, being the operative word. Years of abuse, scribbling rapid notes at meetings, have rendered my once award-winning italic script all but illegible, no matter how hard I work at it. I started sending out Christmas cards with a printed name and address after several people complained that even my signature had become such a scrawl that they had wasted valuable time puzzling over who the card was from.

So I gave in and sent a printed letter that was, I consoled myself, at least several times better than one of those ghastly printed “With Sympathy” cards.

Buy in bulk: there is sure to be another flu epidemic this winter

And a week or so later I was relieved to receive, by e-mail, a message from my friend thanking me for my “perfect” letter, so an unfortunate precedent has now been set.

Handwriting used to be such an important test of character. Many a promising relationship rapidly petered out when I discovered that a potential girlfriend was in the habit of adorning her vowels with hearts or smiles.

How will my sons manage without this quick and easy litmus test for lunacy at their disposal?

This is not to imply for a second that the so-called “science” of graphology is anything other than total bosh. I can state this with confidence because, a few years ago, a client submitted a sample of my own handwriting for such a test, and shared the results with me.

Apparently I am hugely talented and immensely ambitious, with the energy of ten normal men. Anyone who has read one of these columns, let alone actually met me, will know instantaneously that this is the absolute reverse of the truth.

Not only am I monumentally lazy, my attention span has also now atrophied to the point where I felt hugely proud of myself on Saturday when, for the first time in months, I actually sat down and read a whole book.

True, it was a rather short book written by someone I know, and based on a premise so outrageously untrue that I simply had read it.

Even so, where I would once have been literally unable to put it down, I felt obliged to take regular breaks to check the latest developments on my e-mail, Twitter and Facebook.

We are all becoming infantilised by this never-ending stream of news and the instantaneous, crude and usually cynical reactions to it. It now requires a real effort of will to pause, concentrate and really think about an issue before we pronounce on it.

Sadly precious few of our political leaders seem capable of doing so.

Perhaps it would be helpful to them and us if, every now and then, we pulled the plug on the constant storm of electronic chaff; turned our mobiles and computers off, and our minds on. Maybe we could draw the curtains, too, to minimise the distractions from outside.

After all, why should we wait for a death in the family to prompt us to reflect on what really matters? 

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

The only way to retire in comfort is going to be winning the lottery

The greatest obstacle to every well-intentioned Government health campaign, like Stoptober, has always been the Uncle Fred factor.

However convincingly they may present statistics on the terrible consequences of smoking and drinking, nearly everyone can cite in response the example of an Uncle Fred who defied the odds.

Toping and puffing to wild excess from the age of 14, Uncle Fred only died aged 98 when he was knocked off his bike while fleeing from his girlfriend’s house after her husband came home unexpectedly early.

How the nation’s medical profession must have groaned last week when Dorothy Peel from Hull, interviewed as she celebrated her 110th birthday, revealed that one of the secrets of her longevity was giving up smoking … at the age of 104. While the other was never drinking whisky before 7pm, sticking to sherry earlier in the day.

Cheers, Dorothy! [Picture courtesy of The Sun]

The problem with this sort of story, amusing and spirit-raising though it undoubtedly is, is that it falls into the same category as those regular tales of massive lottery wins. It could be you. But it won’t be.

In practice, buying that ticket every week (and I write as a fellow mug who does it himself) just admits you to that not very select club of idiots who have cheerfully signed up to pay an extra voluntary tax. 

Continuing to smoke and drink heroically, in defiance of all official advice, involves a similar willingness to pay additional taxes. And, unlike having a flutter on the lottery, it will also shorten your life.

One of the main reasons cited for making cigarettes beyond the pale is the huge amounts that the NHS will “save” on the treatment of smoking-related illnesses. This will no doubt be true in the short run, but I wonder whether anyone has ever attempted a proper cost-benefit analysis in the longer term.

Because sadly few of us are destined to pass away peacefully aged 110 or more. The process of dying is more likely to be unpleasant, prolonged and, for the NHS or its privatised successors, expensive.

If we cut out the fags, the effect may be just to defer that cost for, say, 20 years, adding in the meantime to the drain on the nation’s pension funds. The parlous state of which needs no underlining.

The Government’s latest wheeze to deal with that particular crisis kicked off yesterday with the beginning of auto-enrolment in pension schemes. This involves having your pay docked now to build up a fund for your old age which, according to all the examples I have heard, will pay you a pathetically small additional pension and reduce your entitlement to benefits by a similar amount.

A worthwhile win for Government and society as a whole, no doubt, but hardly a great boon to the individual compulsory saver.

This will not make welcome reading for those towards the bottom of the economic heap, but I believe that the underlying reality is that we have simply had it too good for too long.

After Macmillan, no one dared to point out that "You've never had it so good." But he was right ...

The generation that won the equivalent of a double rollover jackpot in the lottery of life was the one just before mine. They were too young to be conscripted for World War II. Those who made it to university not only enjoyed their education entirely free of charge, but received a maintenance grant from the taxpayer. They worked through a period of generally increasing prosperity and benefited from a wholly disproportionate inflation in the value of their property assets.

Then, to cap it all, they retired on the sort of final salary pensions that are now completely unaffordable.

The reality for those of us bobbing along in their wake is that we are likely to go on getting worse off for some considerable time, whoever we vote for at the next election. For us, any sort of retirement, let alone a prosperous one, is probably just a dream.

Rather like emulating the spectacular luck of Uncle Fred or Mrs Peel in smoking and drinking without ill-effects, or picking the right six numbers in the lottery.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Life in Britain today: a never-ending episode of The Thick Of It

It is increasingly difficult to discern any difference between the real political world and that presented in my favourite Saturday night TV viewing, The Thick Of It.

That great word “omnishambles”, which so aptly summarises the Government’s performance most days, was coined not by Ed Miliband but by The Thick Of It’s fictional (yet, in most respects, horribly real) Labour spin doctor Malcolm Tucker.

Tucker: not a misprint

Two Saturdays ago the plot of The Thick Of It centred on the Government slashing funding for school breakfast clubs; this weekend it was about the creation of a new business bank. On both the following Mondays, real ministers popped up to announce that they were doing just that.

This revelation of the programme’s astonishing predictive powers will no doubt boost its audience next Saturday, as we eagerly wait to find out which minister will be guilty of some fresh act of blinding stupidity or duplicity, and will issue a grovelling apology for the same (with or without a musical accompaniment).

He's sorry, he's sorry, he's so so sorry ...

The one thing that puts me off unreservedly recommending The Thick Of It to everyone is the unremitting foulness of its language, which is calculated to offend a certain sort of pleb.

Not a prole, who drives a white van, enjoys the Page 3 girl in The Sun and wants to bring back hanging.

Nor a toff, who will also swear all the time, as Government Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell so ably demonstrated last week.

Those f***ing gates again

But the sort of aspirational pleb who thinks that swearing is unacceptable and is also well educated enough to know that anyone who calls him or her a pleb almost certainly intends it as an insult.

The most staggering thing to me about the whole Mitchell Gategate saga is that, in our supposedly intrusive surveillance society, a location as massively sensitive as the main gate of Downing Street apparently does not possess CCTV cameras and recording equipment to put a swift end to the unedifying saga of who actually said what to whom.

Clearly Mr Mitchell and the police officer he insulted cannot both be telling the truth. So soon after the results of the Hillsborough inquiry, it would be foolish to assert that the police never tell lies. On the other hand, it is abundantly clear which party in the altercation has the greater incentive to be economical with the actualité.

The fundamental problem here is a lack of respect. Virtually none of us respect the toffs in charge of us, though it is scarcely their fault that almost the only way to get on in British society these days is to be born in its upper echelons and to receive a private education.

The toffs, in their turn, have little respect for the rest of us; though curiously they tend to have more for the proles at the bottom of the heap than for us plebs in the middle. The alliance between the squire and his forelock-tugging cottagers and servants is as old as England itself.

But at least no one has to die due to our lack of respect. The worst thing our transport minister has done in recent times is seriously annoy Sir Richard Branson by handing the West Coast main line franchise to someone else.

Compare and contrast the situation in Pakistan, where the railways minister, presumably stepping a little outside his usual brief, has promised $100,000 to anyone who kills the director of that American film displaying a lack of respect for Islam.

Respect again: it’s what we all want for ourselves, our work and our beliefs. But if you are running an omnishambles, insulting public servants, breaking election pledges or inciting murder there seems precious little reason why those concerned should get it from any of us.

The best that can be said for living in an ongoing episode of The Thick Of It is that it gives most of us a few laughs along the way. I wonder whether the team behind it has considered exporting the format to Pakistan? Now, that might make for a really interesting news story.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

My Great North Run: a record time waiting for fish and chips

This column nearly did not get filed owing to the serious injury I sustained at the Great North Run.

Not actually running it, you understand. I could not run 13.1 miles even with a lion bounding along behind me. In fact, I have serious doubts as to whether I could even walk it these days, unless there happened to be an agreeable pub offering a decent lunch approximately halfway through.

But I did sustain an injury, nonetheless. I was the fat bloke in the tweed jacket who sprained his ankle making an undignified scramble down that grass bank from Claremont Road to the starting line.

Or, to be more accurate, the pen full of less gifted runners about 38 minutes trudge back from the start. What a gift that tumble would have been if I had been down to run the race, providing me with an entirely legitimate excuse to limp off home.

But, as it was, I was merely there to offer encouragement and support to Mrs Hann, who was looking to repeat her triumph of 2008, when she managed to complete the course – eventually – despite an unusual pair of undiagnosed conditions: pregnancy and a broken toe.

The broken bone was, on the whole, the more troublesome of the two.

This time her excuses, registered well in advance, were giving birth by Caesarean just seven months ago and having done remarkably little running (except after disobedient toddlers) since 2008.

I noted that the last two runs in her rigorous training schedule were cancelled on the grounds that it was a bit wet and windy. I wondered whether I should mention the possibility that it might also be like that on the big day, but thought better of it. This meant that I was not in a position to say “I told you so” as we damply awaited the start on the Central Motorway, which in turn no doubt saved me from a considerably worse injury than a mere sprained ankle.

It would be invidious of me to cite Mrs Hann’s time, though you will find it in the NE66 section of yesterday’s paper if you can still read it on the floor of your budgie’s cage. And she raised more than £2,000 for the excellent cause of brain tumour research.

So many good causes and so many nice people running for them: it would be hard for even the most determined cynic, like myself, to be anything other than wildly positive about the Great North Run. The logistics of baggage buses and so forth also work with Olympic-like precision.

Mrs Hann’s only small reservation last time was about the hours it took to get on board a bus back to Newcastle. This time, thinking laterally, she decided to make her way home on the Shields ferry.

Having spent the best part of three hours waiting for her in the vicinity of the Fish Quay, tortured by the aroma of fish and chips from shops that had inevitably closed by the time she made it across the river, I can confirm that this was not her best strategic decision of the day.

The whole concept of the sponsored run (walk, or anything else) is, to my mind, severely undermined by the modern habit of getting one’s sponsorship money in advance through the internet. Where exactly is the incentive, beyond conscience, actually to perform the promised task?

Since the PA system at the start was talking about a record 55,000 entrants, and yesterday’s Journal cited 39,953 actual runners, I wonder whether 15,000 others came to the same conclusion?

Next year we will do it properly. Mrs Hann will train hard for months, wear an animal costume, strap a fridge to her back and haul me and our two sons in a suitable rickshaw. Plus we will book a hotel in South Shields so that we don’t have to worry about the journey home.

I am looking forward to it already. And luckily my wife and I will be 240 miles apart when she learns of my cunning plan.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

That strange sense that one has been here before

Do you ever get the feeling that you have been here before? I have had it for years, latterly joined by the much more worrying sense that I may not be here now.

My younger son Jamie, now a strapping six months old, clearly remembers some infinitely superior previous existence, to judge by the despairing look he gave us when he first opened his eyes, and which he has been repeating several times a day ever since.

This clearly conveys: “Oh God, it’s not still you lot, is it?”

Meanwhile his elder brother Charlie seems to have pulled off the disturbing trick of becoming a reincarnation of his father without waiting for me to die.

Like me, he is profoundly conservative and intensely suspicious of anyone or anything new. This makes for a wearying afternoon at events like Saturday’s Ingram Show, where every attraction from the pony sports to the falconry display was summarily rejected as “bad”.

He was eventually persuaded to board the miniature roundabout so long as Mummy came too. I have a classic picture of them crammed onto a miniature John Deere tractor, my wife grinning and waving happily while Charlie maintains a white knuckle grip on the steering wheel and looks for all the world like a condemned prisoner en route to the scaffold.

Actually a classic composite picture, now I come to look at them

When did I last witness anything like it? Oh yes, when I used to drag my 50-something mother to the top of the helter skelter at the Hoppings half a century ago.

The nearest thing on offer at Ingram was a bouncy castle slide, which was completely out of the question until we returned to the car to go home, when he announced that he simply had to try it.

Could that be ... a smile?

I apologise to anyone who was traumatised by witnessing an elderly couple dragging a screaming and struggling three-year-old away from this attraction when our money was finally exhausted.

Before divorce proceedings start, I should swiftly add for clarity that the second elderly person involved was my aunt rather than my wife.

Having my face badly scratched in the course of this battle would have been the low point of my afternoon if I had not earlier made the schoolboy mistake of picking up an ice cream on my way to the pens full of prize sheep.

The dog made a lunge for his favourite playmates, his lead snapped the bottom off my cornet and my 99 landed splat on the grass. When I was Charlie’s age I would have sat down and cried. Believe me, it was a close run thing.

Nothing short of a tragedy

Overall, though, the combination of familiar events and distinctly unfamiliar good weather made Ingram a delight, despite the best efforts of half my offspring. (The other just sat in his buggy, gurgling happily and showing off his party trick of cramming his feet in his mouth.)

"Too bad" according to our self-appointed critic

We shall do our utmost to repeat the experience at Thropton on Saturday and Alwinton next month.

Less welcome was the déjà vu of Relatively Speaking at the Theatre Royal on Saturday evening, when I realised as soon as the curtain went up that I had seen the play before, and not that long ago. In 2008, to be precise, when Peter Bowles was the star attraction rather than Felicity Kendal. Even the programme notes were identical. A statement that can only be made by someone sad enough to have kept every theatre programme he has bought since 1973.

At least some of these are finally coming in genuinely useful as aides-mémoire for the book about opera that I am currently writing. It is just as well I am not relying on my actual memory, which is vanishing like a burning sheet of paper, with the most recent things going first.

Soon I fear that I will remember nothing more recent than my surly behaviour as a small boy. Which will be hugely ironic given that it is the one thing of which I have a permanent and active reminder on hand, with a small displaced person keenly understudying the role.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.