Tuesday 28 February 2012

My new alarm may not deter burglars, but it certainly scares me

For a man whose default setting is one of constant concern about “what could possibly go wrong”, I reckon that I take a reasonably phlegmatic approach to the everyday risks of accident, fire and theft.

Back in 1988, when I moved into my current house, I remember asking the splendidly unflappable John Woodford, who had overseen its restoration, whether I should be concerned about the fact that the nearest fire hydrant was a couple of miles away.

“No,” he replied. “Because by the time a fire engine gets out here they won’t be able to do anything apart from damp down the ruins. The trick is not to set fire to it in the first place.”

Similarly, when an insurance company insisted a few years ago that I must fit window locks, and I commissioned the great and sadly late Len Gregory’s firm to carry out the work, he made it very clear that I was wasting my money. “If somebody really wants to get in, they’ll get in,” he opined, outlining a range of possibilities that I suppose it would be imprudent to repeat in print.

So it was a bleak day for me last December when an insurance assessor pitched up at my home in what I blithely imagined was a peaceful rural backwater. Because he spotted right away that it actually represented a bigger risk than an inner city terraced house sandwiched between a hostel for allegedly reformed arsonists and a pub noted for late-night binge drinking and the circulation of Class A drugs.

My house: an insurance assessor's view

In consequence, I am now the reluctant possessor of something I never wanted: a burglar alarm. I have no idea what these things do to burglars, but it scares the proverbial out of me every time the warning siren blares as I enter the house. While leaving home has become a nightmare, given that I am one of those people who always likes to pop back at least three times for the vital things they have left behind.

I have had to distribute sets of spare keys to kindly neighbours, as required by the police, vaguely wondering how doubling the number of keys in circulation actually makes my property more secure.

And far from enabling me to sleep easier at night, I am now lying awake worrying about how long it will be before the wretched thing goes off because of a passing mouse or moth catching one of the system’s many electronic eyes.

I would have much preferred to give the insurance industry its marching orders. However, one downside of living in a listed building is the hypothetical risk of a disaster that could land me with a bill for twice the property’s market value in order to reinstate it to the satisfaction of English Heritage. As a “what could possibly go wrong” man, I could not bear to take that risk.

At least twice a week I witness the normally placid Mrs Hann suffer a meltdown as yet another website refuses her order, or one of her credit cards is cancelled, because she cannot remember her password or PIN.

Between you and me, I am not sure that this is because she has religiously followed the official advice to use a completely different password for every site, a different PIN for every card, and never, ever to write any of them down. Frankly I don’t see how anyone, with the possible exception of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man, could ever comply.

“I bet a fraudster wouldn’t have this trouble!” I hear my wife cry, and of course she is absolutely right. I am under no illusions that my new alarm will be the slightest practical use, either. I just hope that it does not disturb my neighbours or their livestock. And, if it does, please accept this apology and know that the risk-averse insurance industry is entirely to blame.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

The miracle of new life that made me grow up - well, almost

The physical ageing process is inexorable, but for most of us intellectual development reaches a full stop quite early in our lives.

In an extreme case, Nancy Mitford nicknamed her sister Deborah, now the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, “Nine” in honour of her mental age. When I visited my mother in her nursing home shortly before she died, wheelchair bound after losing two legs to diabetes and with her sight now failing, she said sadly, “The worst of it is, inside I still feel like I did when I was 17.”

While my wife, like every girlfriend who preceded her, repeatedly points out that I have the mind of a 14-year-old boy trapped in the body of a middle-aged man.

Yet on Valentine’s Day 2012 I thought I had finally overcome my limitations when I strode nervously into the operating theatre where a crack team of obstetricians stood ready to perform their version of that popular old conjuring trick of sawing the lady in half.

When first asked whether I would like to accompany my wife during her Caesarean, my instinctive reaction was to ask how much she would fancy being present if I were having my appendix out. I thought pacing a corridor like a 1950s father was much more my style.

Fortunately a friend with vastly more experience in the wives and children department advised me that, from the male point of view, a Caesarean is an altogether less stressful experience than a natural birth. How right he was. I did not feel a thing (and, more importantly, nor did Mrs Hann) as the surgeon went to work. We could not see anything, either, though our prayers for the baby definitely alternated with ones that the gaffer tape holding our screen in place would not come loose.

Then came that first cry which, as every new parent will tell you, is simply the most moving and wonderful sound you can possibly hear. Shortly followed by the first sight of a tiny but perfectly formed human being, seriously hacked off at having his rest so cruelly disturbed.

In that amazing moment, I knew at once that nothing else in life mattered in the slightest. I was still marvelling at my new sense of perspective as I drove into my office the following morning. I was also trying to pin down that other unusual sensation I was experiencing. I finally worked it out: I was happy. Perhaps, at long last, I had finally and belatedly graduated into adulthood.

After visiting the hospital that evening, I spent a very long time slaving away with an Allen key to assemble the cot I had left in its packaging until baby Jamie was born, for fear of tempting fate. As a result I was still awake when my phone rang shortly before midnight, and a client reported that he had just signed a £1.5 billion deal. We hoped to announce it at a civilised hour the next morning, but it proved to have already leaked.

In consequence, I found myself welcoming a newborn baby into the house after a night on my own in which I had managed just three hours’ sleep, wondering whether this set some sort of record.

James George Frederick Hann is a delightful little chap, even if he does bear a disturbing resemblance to the octogenarian Queen Victoria, and has touched off a slightly wearisome upsurge in attention-seeking behaviour by his elder brother.

After a long first day with both our boys at home, my wife and I flopped gratefully on the sofa in front of the television, holding hands and revelling in our great good luck. Then the appearance of a female weather presenter prompted me to make a light-hearted but typically politically incorrect comment.

My wife sighed, as she has so often done before. “Are you ever going to grow up?” she enquired.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

If only we had the sense or luck to quit while we were ahead

You might think that a crusty, opera-loving reactionary like me would recognise Whitney Houston only as a misspelt entry in a particularly unlikely town twinning contest. But you would be wrong.

I was a great admirer of the lady and her work. However, I am sadly ill equipped to fill a column with tales of “the Whitney I knew”. My closest non-encounter was being almost thrown out of a London pub in the 1980s for staring rather too longingly at someone who bore a striking resemblance to her.

So let us move on instead to some more general reflections on the lessons we may learn from her sad passing.

Despite its occasional tragedies, I view this existence essentially as a comedy. Not least because both share the same fundamental secret: it is all about timing.

Whether in the arts, business, sport or life in general, the hardest reputational trick to pull off is quitting while you are ahead.

In our current obsession with “sustainability”, which is now displacing “corporate social responsibility” as the most fashionable buzzword in business, we risk losing sight of the fact that ultimately nothing is sustainable. In the long run, all will be dust and ashes.

This is supposed to represent "sustainability". I look forward to the "After" shot with a fully grown tree.

People, industries, economies, nations and empires rise; and then they decline. It is an immutable law. We must remember this so that we can respond with appropriate speed and brutality the next time some halfwit claims to have abolished boom and bust.

No one stays at the top forever. And, as the friend who climbed most of Everest last year kept reminding me, getting to the summit is actually the easier bit; 80% of fatalities occur on the descent.

"Green boots": one of the less gruesome shots of the 200 bodies littering Mount Everest

The art is knowing when to step off the Paternoster lift of your career before you end up mangled in the mechanism, as poor Whitney did.

One who managed this brilliantly was Sir Terry Leahy, who retired last year aged just 55 after 13 years as Chief Executive of Tesco, masterminding its transformation into the UK’s largest and most successful retailer.

He left with general adulation ringing in his ears. Yet within months “The Big Price Drop” turned out to be not just the name of Tesco’s latest marketing campaign, but the City’s unamused reaction to its post-Christmas profit warning.

At the opposite extreme, the former Sir Fred Goodwin (shortly to be compelled by the Forfeiture Committee to change his surname to Badloss) demonstrates what happens if you are left holding the ticking parcel when it goes off.

He's got the gun, but apparently it has proved impossible in Scotland to find the traditional bottle of whisky

I am not questioning his culpability for the almost unbelievable mess that RBS became. But I feel sure that there are many others who played key roles in the ruination of British banking, yet managed to sneak quietly away to enjoy their bonus-fuelled riches untroubled by public demands for retribution.

For those whose career choices are going to be inevitably short-lived – there being limited demand for, say, 70-year-old Page 3 girls – there is always the faint possibility of personal reinvention. Brian Cox has successfully turned himself from minor pop star into popular science guru, and Sebastian Coe from successful athlete into Tory politician, now transcending party as the driving force behind the London Olympics. But for most of us, just one fleeting taste of minor success is more than we can reasonably hope for.

Tony Blair famously tried to manage his reluctant departure from office with the aid of Philip Gould’s cringe-making memo recommending him to “leave with the crowds wanting more”. Great advice: terrible timing. But at least he was in good company in failing to grasp that the moment had come when he had delighted the public long enough.

All of us sharing that particular boat with him, and my fellow fans of Whitney Houston, can only muse on those two sad words that often come to mind on Valentine’s Day: if only …

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

The life-changing alternative to a romantic Valentine's dinner

I am sure that when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully, just as Dr Johnson observed.
Though the regrettable abolition of capital punishment in the UK, even for treason, piracy and arson in Her Majesty’s dockyards, sadly prevents me from putting his theory to a practical test.

However, I know from personal experience that there comes a tipping point when any prediction of lifespan stops offering reassurance and becomes a threat.

When I was a small boy a gypsy lady knocked on our door selling clothes pegs and lucky heather. I cannot imagine that my mother departed from the habit of a lifetime by actually buying anything, but the encounter ended with the gypsy grabbing my mother’s hand and assuring her that she was a lovely lady who would live to be 82.

An image of a gipsy fortune teller has been removed to avoid potential charges (financial, not criminal) from the money-grubbing image copyright police.

Mum was initially cheered by this, because her parents had died aged 60 and 63. But when she reached 80, and particularly 81, it became the source of increasing concern. It concentrated her mind all right, though not on anything positive.

Spookily, or self-fulfillingly, 20 years ago last month the prophecy proved absolutely correct.

Demonstrating that good old-fashioned Romany fortune-tellers are a great deal more reliable than the Internet, which forecast that I would be handing in my dinner pail last Saturday.

A last outing for this dear old favourite, now sadly abandoned as my Twitter avatar

True, I always knew that I could buy myself an extra 30 years of life by simply switching my tick from the “pessimistic” box to “optimistic”. But how could someone who has been “a glass three quarters empty – and with a really nasty-looking foreign object at the bottom” man all his life be expected to tell such a thumping lie?

I kept telling myself that it was all a bit of harmless fun until I developed a mysterious lump on my jaw last month, and was referred for various hospital tests. This convinced me that I was indeed on the way out. However, I prudently confined myself to betting my wife £50 that I was dying, rather than squandering my life savings, giving away all my belongings or commissioning a fine memorial.

A number of people diagnosed with terminal cancer have famously gone down the latter route, only to find themselves trying to sue their local health authority for compensation when it later turned out that they were not dying after all.

I'm not making it up: one disgruntled man who was wrongly diagnosed with terminal cancer

I guessed I was in the clear when the lump miraculously vanished shortly before its scheduled biopsy. So now I am embracing life with a new spring in my step, while ever conscious that Fate is probably waiting just around the corner, toying with a sock full of wet sand.

Perhaps in the shape of the 100% increase in my complement of sons, expected a week today.

My last column was sadly misinformed in believing that our Wednesdays-only breech baby turnaround expert was a bloke, and that he achieved success in 60% of cases. In fact we saw a charming lady, who cheerily admitted to a success rate of just 40%, which the determinedly stubborn Jamie Hann swiftly pushed towards 39%.

So Mrs Hann followed medical advice and booked herself a Caesarean section, much against her inclinations. Which at least allowed us to choose the date of the birth. I lobbied strongly for February 29, so that we would only have to buy him a birthday present every fourth year, but apparently he cannot be kept waiting that long.

The hospital recommended February 13, but Mrs Hann superstitiously demurred. And so we ended up with a scheduled delivery on Valentine’s Day. This will save me from buying a romantic dinner not only in 2012 but every year for the rest of my life, since no doubt we will be hosting a kiddies’ birthday party instead.

No more Valentine's Day dinners: such a blow

Already my newly extended life is looking up very nicely.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.