Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Olympics are all about sport, like socialism is all about fairness

Hands up everyone who believes that the head of IT at RBS-NatWest will not be in line for a whacking bonus this year.

I see. And do you also, by any chance, believe in fairies? Hold that the moon is made of green cheese and that the euro is a great engine of prosperity? Have you already placed a bet on England to win the 2014 World Cup? Do you eagerly look forward to the London Olympics and imagine that socialists are keen to pay tax?

I do not have space to tackle all these delusions, but let me deal with a few. The person in charge of computer systems at our favourite state-owned bank will surely deserve an exceptional reward for giving us a real taste of what life will be like if and when the euro finally implodes and takes our banking system with it.

Plus, of course, some additional bunce for sorting out the mess, if and when they ever do. Personally, I’d try turning it off at the plug and leaving it for a minute or two. That nearly always works for me.

As for England’s sporting prospects, I know nothing whatsoever about football, except that every recent humiliation seems to involve our players’ inability to score penalties. So here’s an idea. Why not try practising that a bit before the next tournament? There is no charge for this advice.

Then there are the Olympics. Could anything be more ludicrous than the half dozen or more police motorcycle outriders I encountered on the M6 last Wednesday, escorting not some head of state but a common or garden van and bus containing the sacred flame?

Which trundles around in this inflated convoy until it reaches a centre of population where it can be handed to a “runner” who will, on the evidence so far, almost certainly be unable to run either because they are even fatter than I am, or lacking the usual number of legs.

No wonder they commissioned those shapeless white torchbearer costumes, apparently sharing a designer with the orange jump suits worn at Guantanamo Bay.

Actually, something could be much more repulsive than that. Namely the cordoning off of “Olympic lanes” in London, making our capital resemble that of some totalitarian state, and the equally loathsome crackdown on everyday commercial activities to protect the investment of official sponsors.

The Olympics are all about sport in the way that socialism is all about fairness.

One of the joys of being self-employed is retrospectively handing over large chunks of money to HM Revenue and Customs twice a year. I have never pretended to enjoy it, or believed for a second that the Government has a better idea what to do with my earnings than I do myself.

Yet I have a number of diehard Labour-voting friends who assure me that I am wrong, and that the secret of a happy and fair society is for me to pay even more tax to support those less fortunate than myself.

Only it never seems to apply to them personally. Obviously. I still reel at the hypocrisy of a lifelong socialist who cheerily described over lunch how he had saved himself a million pounds in tax through some jiggery-pokery involving transfers between jurisdictions with different year-ends.

In the same way that these types rejoice in the destruction of state grammar schools, because they were unfair on the kids who could not get a foot on the ladder out of the sink estate. Then send their own kids to private schools rather than the local comprehensive. Because they’re worth it.

So it came as a delightful surprise to find that yesterday’s column by that inveterate left-winger Tom Gutteridge came to exactly the same conclusion that I have been arguing for years. Namely that taxes should be made low, compulsory and ideally flat.

Except on bonuses for IT chiefs at banks that have dropped millions of customers in the proverbial, where a marginal rate of at least 110% should apply.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

On the evidence so far, nature beats nurture every time

As the fates of Europe and Egypt hung in the balance in elections at the weekend, I was more preoccupied with the turnout of three-year-olds who had taken over our house to celebrate my elder son’s birthday.

Charlie is coming on very nicely as a Mini-Me. His extremely modest list of present requests included a spotted handkerchief “just like Daddy’s” to sport in his top pocket, oblivious to the facts that it is a hopelessly old-fashioned affectation even in me, and that he does not actually possess a suit of his own.

When his mother delivered the glad news that a little girl he particularly likes had become a late addition to his party guest list, his reaction was to let out a deep sigh and shake his head before warning: “Mummy, there won’t be enough room for all these people.”

While by the time that party games were in full swing after lunch on Saturday, he was closeted in the sitting room by himself, stubbornly refusing to join the fun, insisting that: “I want to play with my toys ALL ON MY OWN.”

When did I last come across such an obstinately antisocial child? Only in my fading memories of what I myself was like 55 years ago. And while I acknowledge that I can now face my own death completely without fear, knowing that a perfect duplicate of me should be walking the Earth for most of the rest of this century, it was certainly not the outcome I had anticipated or planned.

Indeed, we have done our very best to eradicate the worst Hann hereditary traits by sending him to nursery, encouraging him to interact politely with other children, and taking him to swimming and music classes plus a range of other activities precisely so that he will not end up a bookish, curmudgeonly, overweight couch potato like his Dad.

Charlie can’t actually read yet (though he resolutely insists that he can) and he remains encouragingly slim so far, but otherwise nature seems to trump nurture at every turn. Discussing this with other parents at his party, I found most of them equally baffled by the way their offspring were turning out. Particularly those with more progressive inclinations than mine, who were bending over backwards to avoid traditional sexual stereotyping, yet found their daughters determinedly interested in dolls and their sons contemptuous of pretty much anything apart from cars, lorries, tractors, trains and aeroplanes.

One thing that has changed since my own childhood in the 1950s is a distinct absence from the toybox of anything overtly militaristic, but at the end of the party the entertainer we had hired to stave off a miniature re-run of last summer’s riots presented each guest with a piece of balloon art of their own choice. All the boys opted for swords and enthusiastically whacked each other with them while the girls peacefully contemplated the flowers they had chosen instead.

I forgot to take any photos of Magic Philip's balloon swords or flowers, but here is a cute small dog he knocked up for Charlie's younger brother

It could be worse soon, since Charlie’s godfather thoughtfully observed, later that afternoon, “When I was his age, I had a double-barrelled pop gun and a pea-shooter,” and promised to seek them out.

Still, I can play one card that my own father had before me. Enjoined to play hide and seek before the party guests arrived, I waited a very long time to be found and heard Mrs Hann asking Charlie whether he could see me. “Yes,” he replied, “He’s behind the curtains, but I’m just waiting over here because I’m a little bit scared of him.”

The birthday boy ticking the box for 'no publicity'

I suppose I should not have put that in print in case it comes to the attention of social services, but I privately hope that a little bit of wariness and respect may long continue.

Though if his godfather does come up with that popgun, the balance of terror in the Hann household will no doubt be reversed as swiftly as a Greek or Egyptian election result that fails to deliver the required answer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Intensive care: the right place for the euro, not the UK

There comes a point for many of us when life seems to consist of a series of hospital admissions: each leaving the patient looking and feeling weaker than the last, and sadly allowing little doubt about the final outcome.

That is very much the condition of the euro today. We may, if we wish, utter a sigh of relief at markets’ positive reaction to the Spanish bailout, but should be under no illusion that it constitutes any sort of cure.

In Germany, Frau Merkel keeps warning darkly that the survival of the single currency is “an issue of war or peace”, which should worry all of us who remember some basic history. She may well be right.

The conundrum is that eminent specialists take diametrically opposed views on whether drastic action to try and save the euro will make war less or more likely. Kill or cure? It’s not an issue one wants to settle with the toss of a coin, whether that be a euro or a pound.

I personally find it hard to fathom why our supposedly Eurosceptic Government is urging members of the Eurozone to forge ahead with creating a single state to save their currency, regardless of the wishes of their electorates, while at the same time contending that Britain will have nothing to do with any of it.

Apparently this went much better than the follow-up: "Look, Angela, it's an elephant!"

Particularly when, at the same time as encouraging the Continent to unite (probably against us, on all past form), it seems to be doing precious little to prevent Britain itself from breaking up.

Doomsters gleefully predict that the United Kingdom is another terminal case, and that the fine displays of Union flags turned out for the Queen’s Jubilee will never be seen again. Not because they are about to be replaced with the EU stars, but because the blue and white Scottish component will have to be removed following Mr Salmond’s independence referendum.

Given that the flag was created to symbolise the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, rather than the union of governments in 1707, it is not immediately obvious why it should be doomed by a reversal of the latter, given that the SNP seems to have abandoned its plan to make Scotland a republic.

Along with its plans to join the euro and make Scotland part of that great “arc of prosperity” embracing Ireland and Iceland. Remember that?

Let us pause to reflect on exactly how much of its hard-won independence Ireland enjoys today. It simply has its austerity medicine prescribed by Berlin rather than London.

The other fatal flaw in what is left of Mr Salmond’s great scheme is that he now proposes to retain the British (or English) pound as his currency. Just as, thanks to the brilliant demonstration provided by the euro, it is generally agreed that having a single currency without a single government is a non-starter. 

Why are we entertaining the prospect of this nonsense running on until the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn in 2014, when there are so many bigger issues in the wider world to worry about?

The Jubilee surely gave a welcome boost to British identity and, if we can avert our eyes from no doubt embarrassing events in Poland and Ukraine over the next three weeks, this should be back on course as the country rallies behind Team GB at the Olympics.

What sort of showing would an independent Team Scotland make there, in the absence of recognition for caber-tossing and bridie-eating as Olympic sports?

With the world around us getting more dangerous by the day, it is surely high time that our friends across the border recognised how well off they are under our current constitutional and financial arrangements, and abandoned their sentimental longing for something better.

We may not be able to stop the European dream expiring, but at least moving the United Kingdom out of the bed next to the door would be a brave-hearted step in the right direction.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The decline and fall of the BBC: from Richard Dimbleby to Alan Partridge

I remember when the BBC could move me to tears with its coverage of great national events. Yet so far this Jubilee it has provoked only derisive laughter and occasional spluttering rage.

I was born a year and a day after the Coronation, so the first state occasion that really gripped me was the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. The impeccably researched and perfectly delivered commentary by Richard Dimbleby sticks in my mind to this day.

For me, the most poignant moment was when all the cranes in the Pool of London dipped in salute as the barge carrying the great man’s coffin passed by.

That very barge reappeared in the spotlight on Sunday, as one of the thousand or so vessels taking part in the Thames pageant. I could imagine no happier way to spend my birthday afternoon than watching coverage of this once in several lifetimes event, but reckoned without the utter uselessness to which our national broadcaster has been reduced.

Never in the field of outside broadcasting can so many inanities and inaccuracies have been spouted by so many to so little purpose.

One should have known how it would develop when they referred to the Queen, early on, as “HRH” rather than “Her Majesty”. The principal commentator, who sounded like Alan Partridge on an off day, burbled on with a constant stream of cringe-making clichĂ©s, interspersed with such insights as that a view embraced “so many iconic landmarks that litter London”. I am not making that up.

An “expert” informed us that the Duchess of Cambridge’s headgear came from Lock’s, who also made “the hat that Nelson wore at the battle of Waterloo”. As he might have done, had he been a soldier rather than a sailor, and not died at Trafalgar ten years earlier.

The depth of research into matters maritime was further underlined by the introduction of HMS Belfast as a “90,000 ton” cruiser, an overestimate of approximately 800%.

Perhaps it was consciousness of this almost unbelievable ignorance that prevented anyone from the BBC attempting to tell us a single useful thing about any of the vessels in the pageant, or the people aboard them, except when a camera lighted upon some minor celebrity and they could point out that it was Pippa Middleton or Boris Johnson. As we could see for ourselves anyway.

They informed us that each section of ships in the pageant was preceded by a group of musicians, but could they let us listen to any of them? No. Far better to keep up an endless stream of mind-numbing prattle, losing no opportunity to cut away from the Thames for irrelevant interviews with the parents of “Jubilee babies” or random observers by the riverside.

Note to producers: anyone who has stood in the pouring rain for several hours to watch the Queen pass by is going to tell you that she is absolutely marvellous, so there is no need to ask them the question.

As the afternoon wore on, I noted that many people on Twitter shared my anger and frustration at the BBC’s unremitting drivel. Most felt that Sky was making a vastly better job of it, which seemed ironic given that it is owned by one of the world’s most committed republicans and staunch enemies of hereditary privilege, except when it comes to the management of his own media empire.

When I was small, people still talked about the BBC’s coverage of the Spithead naval review of 1937, when the commentator was so spectacularly drunk that he could only repeatedly slur “The fleet’s lit up!”

But compared with most of the stuff I heard on Sunday, the man was a towering genius. I don’t own a Sky dish, and I do want to see the rest of the Jubilee events, but in the interests of my blood pressure I shall be doing so with my finger poised over a “mute” button at all times.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.