Tuesday 24 July 2012

The perfect eco-friendly business - and how we destroyed it

Imagine that you have secured a slot on a special “green” edition of Dragons’ Den and want to devise a business proposition completely in tune with the spirit of 2012.

You surely could not improve on offering a wholesome, natural product in fully recyclable containers, conveniently delivered direct to the customer by environmentally friendly electric vehicles.

Which is precisely what we had in the doorstep delivery of milk, a system that we as consumers have happily conspired with the supermarkets to destroy.

Through high water if not necessarily hell, the doorstep milkman battles through

When I was a boy two competing milk floats clattered down our street each morning. My mother, in her belt and braces way, patronised both of them, believing that this might give her a competitive edge if rationing were ever reintroduced.

They competed, I should add, only on promptness and reliability. Both sold at the same price and the option of buying milk from a shop seemingly did not exist.

We needed a service like this because, until I was around ten, we did not own a fridge. Even delivered daily, milk was pretty unpalatable for half the year for those of us with delicate sensibilities. I spent many morning breaks at school ducking and weaving to avoid my free third of a pint, crates of which always seemed to be deposited in full sun in the hottest corner of the playground.

Yum or yuck? It had its fans, but they definitely did not include me

But then came our first refrigerator and I belatedly discovered a real taste for delicious fresh, whole milk, always delivered in bottles with a distinct layer of yellowish cream towards the top. This provided the perfect complement to strawberries in the summer.

Like so much else, milk has never been as good as it was in those halcyon days of childhood. Even whole milk, which we have to buy again now that we have small children in the house, is “standardised” and homogenised so that being able to pour fresh cream off the top is only a happy memory.

The coming of almost universal domestic refrigeration put the first nail in the coffin of doorstep milk delivery. The demise of the stay-at-home mum contributed the second, because who wants to come home from work to pick up milk that has been sitting on the doorstep all day?

Then the big supermarkets identified the milkman, along with the family baker, butcher and greengrocer, as a soft target and relentlessly pursued their quarry with prices that were literally a fraction of the doorstep pint.

Ernie the milkman, R.I.P.

As if that were not enough of a headache, most of us now choose to buy our milk semi-skimmed or skimmed, creating a surplus of cream that has to find its way onto unforgiving global commodity markets, further driving down the returns to our hard-pressed dairy farmers.

Small wonder that three quarters of the UK dairy farms in business 30 years ago have given up. Many more will surely follow. I feel sorry for them, really I do. But sadly I fear that the future is no brighter for them than it was for the UK coalminers or textile workers, many of whom had also followed the same calling for generations.

If world market forces prevail, the future is more indoor mega-dairies like the monstrosity that the grasping Brian Aldridge aims to inflict on Ambridge in The Archers; and, for us consumers, more of our milk coming in UHT cartons from abroad.

Brian Aldridge: "One day, my boy, all this will be a bloody great shed."

Is this inevitable? No, nothing is inevitable apart from death and taxes. But, if we want to avoid it, many more of us need to think long and hard about the quality and provenance of the food we buy, and the welfare of the animals and people in the supply chain.

Seeking out and supporting local producers may always be a middle class luxury, in a mass market relentlessly focused on the lowest possible price. But for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to afford a few pence more, it really is the least that we can do.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Cheer up: it's great training for the British space programme

To look on the bright side, the English summer of 2012 is surely providing us all with absolutely perfect training for long distance space travel.

So something positive may yet come of all these weeks cooped up in confined spaces going slowly insane as Vitamin D deficiency and seasonal affective disorder take rampant hold, like the weeds now choking my dripping garden.

Why are we so intent on ruining the glorious Northumberland landscape with gigantic wind turbines, instead of investing in less obtrusive waterwheels? Yes, they might also only generate electricity intermittently, but on recent form a steady supply of rainfall looks a much safer prospect than the right sort of wind.

The great news for all opponents of wind turbines is that the Church of England is on the other side

I am also beginning to wonder what effect the conspicuous absence of anything recognisable as summer is having on my three year-old son, who has now entered that period of life when enduring memories form.

Like every other grown-up, I remember enjoying consistently fantastic summers when I was little. My parents took me to the sands at Druridge Bay nearly every Sunday in summer, accompanied by a black-clad Granny who must surely have been the model for those classic Giles cartoons.

Even if the weather looked unpromising at home in Longbenton, Dad would ring RAF Acklington for a chat about conditions on the coast, which often proved better. I can only recall one occasion when we ended up spreading our picnic rug on the dining room floor rather than the beach.

The sun also always seemed to shine on our two week summer holiday in St Abbs.

I keep repeating to Mrs Hann the sound advice of other parents that there is really no point in taking small children abroad, as the journeys will prove a nightmare and they won’t appreciate the destination when they get there. They just want sea, sand and, ideally, a bucket and spade.

All of which young Charlie Hann enjoyed at Bamburgh on Saturday, warmly wrapped up in waterproofs and with Dad on hand to help dig the moat around his sandcastle, and wipe his constantly streaming nose.

And that, poor soul, was the high point of his whole week off nursery in beautiful Northumberland, watching the rain tip down.

There is rebellious talk of a holiday in Majorca in September, though obviously without me as I do not like going abroad.

But then, over lunch on Sunday, a new danger emerged when our hostess revealed that she had been researching holidays in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Which are a British overseas territory, so technically not really “abroad” at all.

Flag of the Turks and Caicos Islands

Worse still, there are other potentially warm and welcoming Caribbean treasures including the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Anguilla and Montserrat.

Bermuda, more temperate and closer to home (though still much too far for my liking) is another theoretical possibility.

But then so too are the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and British Antarctic Territory, all of which should help to put the UK summer of 2012 in some sort of perspective.

As should the fact that my mother, who was Charlie’s age precisely a century ago, pitied me because the summers in the late 1950s were nothing like as good as they had been when she was a girl. I seem to recall that people blamed the atomic bomb.

Yet the summer of 1912, when she was three, was by all accounts the worst of the twentieth century, with the great floods of August causing widespread havoc after some places saw three months’ worth of rainfall in a single night.

Sadly I shall not be around to witness Charlie pitying the lousy summers endured by his children. That is assuming that they are not on a long distance spacecraft in search of a planet with a rather more agreeable climate.

Flag of the British Martian Territory
A long shot, I know, but I think any sensible bookie would probably give you shorter odds on that than on my ever visiting what is left of the British Empire in the tropics. 

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Is it time for politicians to get more intimate with Hoares?

Barclays not only gave me my first bank account, but my first pay slip, too.

In 1972, between school and university, I spent six happy months working for them at 40 Clayton Street West in Newcastle: a branch, like so many hundreds of others around the country, long since closed.

The Barclays branch in Belford, Northumberland: RIP

I was there because, in yet another disgraceful example of privileged networking, the Royal Grammar School traditionally placed a couple of its less brilliant Oxbridge entrants with Barclays for a spot of work experience.

I spent my initial weeks shuffling cheques in the company of a bevy of mini-skirted young women in the first floor “machine room”, home to a single, gigantic adding contraption. Then I graduated to being allowed to serve customers at the counter.

The manager was a figure so stratospherically important that I think I spoke to him twice during my time in his branch, on both occasions to explain who I was and why I was there.

The experience did give me a nerdish lifelong interest in banking. At weekends, I would drive around Northumberland with my school chums, admiring particularly attractive banking outposts and reflecting that there would be many worse fates than to be a rural bank manager: a respected figure in the community, comfortably if not excessively rewarded, getting to know one’s customers as a good banker should.

The still functioning branch of Barclays (formerly North Eastern Bank) in Rothbury, Northumberland

But when it came to the end of my attachment and I had to write a letter to the local directors of Barclays thanking them for the experience and explaining whether I hoped to return to the bank after university, I felt obliged to say “no”.

Mainly because, in those days, I dreamt of being a writer or a bachelor don, holed up in a book-lined room coining incomprehensible academic quips over a glass of dry sherry.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would have been far better employed stamping cheques and counting banknotes – and who knows where it might have led? The late Sir Derek Wanless, only a few years ahead of me at the RGS, started his career as a humble clerk at the NatWest.

Though admittedly that was a more meritocratic institution than Barclays, where in those days the top job was invariably reserved for a descendant of one of its founding Quaker families, with a name like Barclay, Bevan or Tuke.

How it used to be

Fast forward 40 years, and traditional branch banking is all but dead. It is impossible to speak to a human being at the bank where one’s account is nominally held, unless one pitches up in person. Nearly every paper-shuffling task I learned to perform has been computerised, centralised and then exported to India in the name of efficiency.

Interest rates on savings are practically non-existent and the fact that they remain high on loans is of limited relevance given that virtually no individual or business can get one. Not least because no one with what little remains of local knowledge or customer understanding can apparently be trusted to take sensible decisions.

It is clearly far better to be “risk averse” and concentrate all the power and money in a tower at Canary Wharf, where instead of helping a budding entrepreneur to buy some machine tools, it can all be splurged on stratospheric rewards for the tiny few charged with maximising returns by the equivalent of sticking most of the bank’s capital on an outsider in the 3.30 at Pontefract.

The only traditional bank left in Britain is called C Hoare & Co, and in 340 years in business it has magnificently grown from a single branch in London to a grand total of two. It is still owned by the founding family, in an unlimited liability partnership: always a powerful constraint against reckless adventures.

There are obvious risks in suggesting that politicians should get more intimate with Hoares. But when Ed Miliband talks, sensibly enough, about the desirability of more new “challenger banks”, I suggest that he takes a long, hard look at replicating this business model.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Here's a truly radical idea: let's value tradition

Amidst all the millenarian gloom arising from last week’s Biblical deluge, it was good to be reminded on Saturday of the helping hand that God extended to Noah, and to the children of Israel at the Red Sea.

The occasion for these reflections was the baptism of my younger son, James. Yes, I know I wrote that I had given up trying to organise this, but I reckoned without the steely determination of my Muslim wife.

Not that Mrs Hann ever demonstrates any of the conventional signs of adherence to Islam, like attending a mosque, reciting the Koran, praying to Allah five times a day, wearing a burka or eschewing pork. But she does have Iranian parents and invariably announces, “I’m terribly sorry, I’m a Muslim,” when the Jehovah’s Witnesses pay us a call.

Suitably fortified by wifely insistence, I somehow managed to arrange a service that stuck rigidly to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, over the twitching corpse of the rector whose church we were borrowing.

“Surely you would prefer the modern service,” he quibbled. “I find there is far too much sin in the BCP.”

So, just as the church now likes to omit the traditional bit about the prevention of fornication in the marriage service, and would no doubt prefer to skirt around anything as downbeat as death during funerals, it strives to avoid the whole point of baptism, which is the mystical washing away of original sin.

And it is not just me. All present agreed that it was a thoroughly uplifting spiritual occasion, replete with “tingle factor” phrases that have echoed down the ages such as “Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”; and “Suffer little children to come unto me.” 

What could possibly be better than hearing three godparents solemnly promise to “renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh”?

In its attitude to its liturgy, the Church resembles a stately home owner who feels so embarrassed by his riches that he is moved to store all the Old Masters in a basement, whitewash the walls and put up some polystyrene tiles to hide the frescoes on the ceiling.

We might as well ban Shakespeare from the theatre, because the words of Eminem or Frankie Boyle would be more accessible.

It is the same possibly well-intentioned but ultimately vandalistic spirit that motivates Nick Clegg (who would make a perfect modern vicar if only he were prepared to undergo a sex change) when he seeks to destroy another institution that has worked perfectly well for hundreds of years, the House of Lords. 

No one disputes that the current mode of entry to the Lords is a touch eccentric, but it has produced a revising chamber that combines unparalleled specialist expertise with robust common sense.

It could once be argued that it suffered from inbuilt bias, but even when it was stuffed with Conservative hereditary peers, it defeated Mrs Thatcher’s government on more than 170 occasions, while the Commons did so only four times.

When discussing Tony Blair’s attempts to reform the constitution, I recycled Evelyn Waugh’s aphorism about it being like seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee. With Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, it is more like being trapped in a small room with a troop of howler monkeys and a live hand grenade.

What sort of nonentity is going to stand for election to the reformed Lords? Oh yes, the many Lib Dem MPs who will be made redundant come the next election.

We should treasure and rejoice in the great riches we have in our language, culture and institutions. And amongst these, there can surely be none greater than the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the dear old House of Lords. Please just let them be. Amen.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.