Tuesday 31 January 2012

Pregnancy: on the whole, I am glad to be a bloke

Unexpected discoveries on the brink of old age include this: being pregnant with a breech baby is very like voting in a British General Election.

Despite appearances, I am not pregnant myself; but my wife unmistakably is. And our baby, due in February, is resolutely refusing to adopt the approved position for a conventional delivery, despite increasingly voluble encouragement to do so.

Mrs Hann reckons that this can only be because he is stubborn to the point of self-defeating bloody-mindedness, like his elder brother. I am genuinely unaware of anything in their genetic inheritance that could account for this profound flaw in their characters.

A small boy reluctantly obeying instructions he does not agree with

In case you are wondering, the similarity to voting in a General Election is that medics keep outlining various ways of dealing with the problem, and my wife’s reaction is the same as mine when confronted with a ballot paper: she does not fancy any of the above one little bit.

Whether that be performing origami on her womb before delivery, extracting the baby by Caesarean section or simply allowing nature to take its course (with special emphasis on how they would respond if the infant got stuck on his way out, as breech babies are apparently more prone to do).

Sadly, Mrs Hann does not have the option of spoiling her ballot paper and walking out of the polling station in disgust. One way or another, a decision has to be made quite soon on how to bring young Jamie into the world.

So tomorrow we are going to hospital for our consultant’s Plan A: attempting to turn the baby around inside his mother.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy: what could possibly go wrong?

This comes with plenty of caveats. It will be painful. It may distress the baby or damage the placenta. It could even induce premature labour and require an emergency Caesarean section. Best of all, even if it is successful, there is every chance that the baby could simply turn straight back round again. Particularly, I suppose, if he has already shown form as an awkward little so-and-so.

Luckily the doctor was quick to set my wife’s mind at rest when she said that she had read that the chances of this happening were as high as 50%.

“No, no, it’s much closer to 40%”, came the confident reply, as though that made it pretty much a dead cert.

The baby is scheduled to be induced before full term in any case, because Mrs Hann has gestational diabetes, and this happy event has already been pencilled in for Friday week.

I saw the light bulb clicking on above my wife’s head.

“Here’s an idea,” she said. “Why don’t you just wait until you are ready to deliver him anyway, and try to turn him around then?”

“Oh no, we can’t do that.”


“Er, logistical reasons.”

“Such as?”

“The bloke who knows how to turn babies around only comes in on Wednesdays.”

So are the great life-and-death decisions of our wonderful health service arrived at. For some reason my mind wandered off at this point to that South African hospital where unexplained deaths in the intensive care unit turned out to due to a cleaner disconnecting the life support machine to plug in her vacuum cleaner. Though that is probably an urban myth, as most good stories turn out to be.

I do not know why women willingly put themselves through all this, and I certainly do not know why so many of them volunteer to do it more than once. Particularly in our case, when I kept leaving all those magazine articles about happy only children so prominently lying around, and even made one the home page of our computer.

All I can do is hold my wife’s hand, smile reassuringly and think, as I so often do when I run into the participants in elections: “Rather you than me.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Let's build a new Royal yacht - and bring the old one here

One thing is for sure: Tony Blair is really going to struggle with delivering Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” when it comes up on the karaoke machine at party nights in his twilight home.

So far he has publicly regretted the (admittedly nominal) abolition of foxhunting and the Freedom of Information Act. Under pressure at the Chilcot enquiry, he also said he was sorry for the loss of life in Iraq.

However, he is on record as having no regrets about removing Saddam, befriending Gadaffi or indeed remaining silent about baby Leo’s MMR jab.

What else, in the fullness of time, might he come to see as a mistake? The most recent example of the benefit of hindsight came in the debate about a possible new Royal yacht, when it was revealed that Mr Blair now regretted getting rid of Britannia. An unsurprising revelation to all of us who pointed out at the time that it was an egregious error.

The value of Britannia for projecting British prestige and promoting trade around the world was incalculable, though arguably it could have been worked harder for this purpose. I can vividly recall the surge of pride I experienced each time I saw her, even when being rudely awoken by a destroyer’s 21-gun salute as the yacht appeared through the mist at the start of Cowes week.

Since this column was recently maligned as Tory propaganda, let me concede that her demise was not Mr Blair’s fault. The decision to decommission the ship was taken by the Major government, which then decided in 1997 that it would spend £60 million on a new yacht, scheduled to enter service in time for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.

Even Denmark can run to a functioning Royal yacht - and it is 20 years older than Britannia

Cue outrage from Labour in general, and Gordon Brown in particular, who had not been consulted prior to the announcement by then defence secretary Michael Portillo. It is good to note that he has since moved on to a career evidently more suited to his talents, spotting trains on TV.

Look out! No, on second thoughts ...

How could a country in Britain’s dire economic state waste that sort of money? That was the question being asked as we poured £800 million down the useless black hole of the Millennium Dome.

Now the cost of a new yacht has apparently risen to an eye-watering £80 million. Precisely what we are about to squander on opening and closing ceremonies for the London Olympics that will be over in a flash and doubtless occupy little space in our collective memories.

The London Olympic mascots apparently hanged. Not at all a bad idea.

For comparative purposes, it might also be interesting to tot up the countless billions of taxpayers’ money wasted over recent years on endless reorganisations of the health service and education, grotesquely overpriced private finance initiatives and defence procurement projects that have delivered nothing but scrap metal.

You could buy five new Royal yachts for the price of one Nimrod, scrapped before entering service

But who needs taxpayers’ money? I for one would be happy to contribute to the cost of a new national flagship, if someone opened a bank account for that purpose. Come to think of it, I am surprised that those industrious gentlemen in West Africa, who are forever e-mailing me about my lottery wins and deceased relatives, have not already got in on the act.

It would be a nice gesture if a certain lightly taxed, globetrotting, multi-millionaire retired PM with an uneasy conscience could chuck in a few quid, too.

Personally I would simply confiscate Britannia from those ungrateful Scots in Leith, bung in some new engines and set her back to work. But if a new vessel that also provides sail training opportunities for young people has more appeal to the popular imagination, then that’s fine with me, too.

Though I would still tow Britannia somewhere a bit more attached to the concept she is named after. Like the Tyne, for example. Perhaps with a grand re-opening featuring ex-Prime Ministers performing karaoke. That should make Her Majesty smile.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Insurers? Don't you wish some disaster would befall them?

There are very few people we are allowed to hate or abuse these days, without calling down the wrath of the thought police.

Even the Welsh, the morbidly obese and people with ginger hair seem to be creeping within the safety net of protected species. Though apparently it is still all right to loathe bankers for their obscene rewards, and for expecting us to pick up the bill when their bets go wrong.

But if a banker is a man who cheerfully lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, then demands it back when it starts to rain – well, at least you’ve had the pleasure of holding an umbrella for a while. This to my mind, puts him several steps ahead of the insurer, who takes your money in return for a solemn promise to provide an umbrella when the heavens open, then comes up with 101 reasons why he cannot supply it.

Usually boiling down to some incredibly small print on page 38 of his policy document, pertaining to the definition of “rain”.

A typical insurer in action, apparently. You will note that it isn't actually raining.

I suppose my mind was warped by over-exposure to TV advertising in the 1950s. When we weren’t going to work on an egg and not forgetting the fruit gums, mum, we were all taking careful note of Fred, who had the reassuring strength of the insurance companies around him.

As a result I have faithfully insured all my belongings ever since I was a student. In 40 years I have made just one claim on my home policy, following a visit from a very unambitious and undiscerning burglar in London. The hassle involved in persuading the insurer to accept the claim was out of all proportion to the sum recovered.

Yet I kept paying the premiums, while occasionally wondering why. After all, which belongings would I actually rush to save if the house caught fire? The things that are most precious to me are those that hold memories, which means mainly photographs: priceless to me, worthless to anyone else.

I possess literally thousands of books, but I doubt whether I would replace more than a handful if they went up in smoke. That goes for most of my other belongings, too.

So the temptation not to insure at all is strong. But I live in a listed building which, if it disappeared, I would be obliged to restore exactly as it was. So some sort of cover against disaster seems prudent.

Last year, tempted by a leaflet through my letterbox, the recommendation of a fellow columnist and the lure of a modest saving, I switched my cover to a new company. They seemed ever so friendly and helpful on the phone. They even offered to send out an assessor to ensure that all my needs were being met.

Only one snag: it was obvious from the moment he walked through the door that the assessor loathed my house. He particularly disliked the combination of open fires, combustible possessions and one battery-powered smoke detector. The insurance company duly rang last week to advise that they would be cancelling my cover unless I installed a remotely monitored alarm that would automatically summon the fire brigade if it detected smoke.

This is, according to the alarm companies I have consulted, a stipulation rarely made even for stately homes, let alone modest country cottages, so it seems calculated mainly to persuade me to take my business elsewhere.

One could argue that it serves me right for hoping to save money on the soaring premiums demanded by my original insurer. Which the company then offered to reduce substantially if I changed my mind about leaving, as though I were bartering in some Middle Eastern souk. This chiefly taught me that loyalty is for mugs. I wonder what dear old 1950s Fred would have made of that?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Apart from the kid with the nuclear bomb, what could go wrong?

Every vaguely intelligent person accepts that you cannot believe everything you see in the media.

Generalist reporters irritate us as they trample heedlessly over our specialist subjects. Train nerds like me seethe at every reference to “a steam train” that actually means a locomotive, or the notion that freight is conveyed in carriages rather than wagons.

If Radio 4’s Today programme foolishly pronounces Alnwick as it is spelt, how many more of its “facts” may be similarly flawed?

Then there are those endless surveys suggesting that the great British public is bestially stupid, and recognises the name of Churchill only as a nodding insurance mascot.

Spot the difference: 1

I console myself with the belief that resentment of intrusive market researchers must tempt people to offer ludicrously wrong answers. At least until the next time I chance upon a TV or radio quiz show.

Then there are reports of the latest research proving that eating meat or drinking tea will give you cancer, or cure it. Usually both, on successive days.

Plus the news of fresh EU directives and European Court judgements, usually calculated to cause something to be thrown across the sitting room with a shout of “Haven’t they got anything better to do?”

At the highest level is live news footage of events that one can’t quite believe are actually happening. The fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and last year’s Japanese tsunami both fell into this category of a reality so dreadful that it seemed more likely to have been invented by a Hollywood studio with all the resources of computer-generated imagery at its disposal.

And then there is North Korea. Can any of us quite grasp the utter weirdness of that closed society: a hereditary monarchy that claims to be communist and whose leaders apparently enjoy lives of almost unbelievable self-indulgence while its people starve? Yet who stage epic displays of public grief when one Kim drops of the perch to be replaced by another, looking even stranger than the last. We have seen nothing like that in Europe outside Enver Hoxha’s Albania and the Miliband family.

Watching film of the elder Kim’s state funeral, I could not help thinking that the whole thing seemed far too much like a spoof conceived as a Christmas entertainment by the CIA. But then the catchphrase of another columnist kept echoing in my head: “You could not make it up.”

Dreaming up the sheer barminess of North Korea would have been beyond the satirical powers of Swift or Orwell, never mind the sort of American civil servants whose most original idea of the last century was trying to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar.

I have only made one New Year resolution for 2012, in response to strong representations from my wife, and that is to spend more time counting my blessings. I shall begin by giving thanks that I do not live anywhere near the Korean peninsula, and in a free and open society.

Those of us of a Eurosceptic cast of mind are sometimes dismissed as “little Englanders” but I, for one, am anything but. I am delighted to live in a country that punches far above its weight in so many areas of art and science, and which has given the great gift of its language to the world. As communications improve, why on earth do some people insist that we must narrow our horizons and hop into bed with the girl next door, particularly when it is Frau Merkel?

Spot the difference: 2

There is only one thing that slightly dents my unusual sense of optimism at this time, and that is the fact that a chubby kid who appears a dead ringer for Timmy Timpson, the legendary spoilt brat from Viz comic, is currently sitting in Pyongyang nursing a nuclear trigger. That and those predictions that the world will end on 21 December, when the Mayan calendar runs out.

But, apart from that, what could possibly go wrong? Happy new year, everyone.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.