Tuesday 28 August 2012

Like many men, I have a confession to make

This column comes with a health warning: it has not been easy to write and will not be altogether pleasant to read, particularly over breakfast.

However, in the light of the many thousands of words already written about the strange case of Julian Assange, it seems right to offer my own perspective on the delicate subject of rape. I doubt whether any man can write about this without causing offence to someone. But the issue of where to draw the line profoundly affects us all.

It's all too easy for a man to make a tit of himself when pontificating about rape.

My closest personal acquaintance with the issue arose almost 30 years ago, after I recruited a pretty young secretary over the twitching corpse of the colleague with whom I was meant to share her services. He correctly pointed out that her previous work experience as an air hostess, demonstrating her ability to serve drinks from a trolley and to swim 50 yards without a buoyancy aid, was not directly relevant to the demands of a PR consultancy.

Can't type? Who cares? When can you start?

But then my killer question at her interview had not been about her shorthand skills or typing speed, but simply “Have you got a boyfriend?” We did things differently in the 1980s.

After a few post-work drinks and a trip or two to the theatre, I invited her away for a weekend. She accepted. Ever the perfect gentleman, I booked two rooms in a nice country hotel. But when we arrived, we found that these were not only far apart, but in separate buildings. My guest expressed nervousness about this, and said that she would prefer us to share a room.

My reaction can be summarised in one word: “Wa-hey!”

I assumed then that a young woman removing her clothes and getting into bed with a man constituted an invitation to have sex with her. I now know that it does not. She made her reluctance clear. I carried on.

This, I now realise with crystal clarity, could have landed me in extremely serious trouble. To be fair, I also had my doubts about it at the time. Luckily for me, it became clear early the next morning that my companion had had an overnight change of heart in precisely the opposite direction from the one that has got Mr Assange into so much bother.

This was naturally a great relief to me, even if the glares we received over breakfast made it clear that it was not an equal source of delight to the occupants of adjoining rooms.

We went on to enjoy a happy and loving relationship until it was terminated, as usual, through my own selfishness and stupidity.

At least the experience changed my attitudes so comprehensively that, 20 years on, when another pretty young secretary invited herself back to my flat and started taking her clothes off, I gave her a stern talk about the inappropriateness of her behaviour and ordered a taxi to take her home.

To say that our professional relationship never recovered from this slight would be an understatement of epic proportions, but I have no doubt that it was the right thing to do.

After the extensive media debate of recent weeks, we should all know by now that “no” means “no”; and that even a clear agreement to sex covers a single serving, not an all-you-can-eat buffet; one game, not an entire season.

By the time I need to explain all this to my infant sons, we may well have reached the point where no young man will risk embarking on a weekend trip without a sexual consent form ready for signature in his pocket.

With any luck, this should avert the ludicrous spectacle of one of them blinking in the unaccustomed daylight as he embarks on a self-justifying speech on the balcony of some dubious Latin American embassy.

Of course, the consequences for human reproduction will be simply horrendous. But then, given the growing numbers of us bearing down on this small planet, who can argue that this will be anything other than a force for good?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Facing up to that overwhelming sense of time running out

I once found it ridiculous that nearly every mention of anyone in a newspaper should be followed by a bracketed reference to their age. Why on earth did that matter?

Today, Keith Hann (58) is completely nonplussed in the rare instances when this detail is omitted, because age provides the essential context for my reaction. An accidental death at 19 is almost always going to seem sadder than at 91.

Though if the 91-year-old met their end surfing on top of a train after downing a case of alcopops, it does make for a more unusual and arresting story.

I remember being mildly amused by the fact that my parents’ first port of call in their Journal and Evening Chronicle was always the “deaths” column; but it has now been mine, too, for many years.

I cannot recall exactly when death changed from being a vague, theoretical possibility to the central consideration of my life, but I suspect that it was somewhere around the age of 40. Perhaps it comes later for women, because Mrs Hann just laughs when I try to explain that some element of her forward planning is of limited relevance to me because I won’t be around to see it come to fruition.

It does not seem so long since I found myself similarly frustrated when suggesting improvements to a family property and being met with indifference on the grounds that “it will see me out”. Though in that instance the pessimists proved correct, as pessimists so often do.

Right now, Mrs Hann and I are juggling my desire to live and die in rural Northumberland with our work commitments elsewhere, and the knowledge that where we are living this December will determine where our older son starts his first school next September.

Buying a new home is not the simple option it once appeared, when a 25-year mortgage would run until I am 83 or, on the evidence of 300 years of Hann family mortality statistics, long dead. A fact that is evidently not lost on potential sources of such finance, judging by their marked reluctance to provide it.

The revolutionary iCoffin: surely the perfect last word for a PR man? (With acknowledgements to onceuponageek.com)

I have no life insurance, because what was the point of spending money on that when I had no wife or dependents to benefit from it? (Added to which, I hoped that more distant relatives and godchildren might greet the news of my demise with unadulterated sorrow, rather than as the harbinger of a lucky windfall.)

While my pension provision, thanks to the feeble performance of the stock market as well as my own improvidence, makes my retirement seem a more implausible fantasy than my three-year-old’s current concerns about the ogre that apparently inhabits a tree in our garden, or the tiger that regularly takes up residence beneath his bed.

The bottom line is that I find myself with responsibility for the future of two small boys and a strategy for their housing and education almost entirely based on winning the National Lottery.

Or, after 40 years of mainly scribbling for a living, suddenly coming up with the latest answer to Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey. Realistically, I think we have far more chance of winning the Lottery.

But, as you read this, I will be sitting at my desk with my phone off the hook and my email inbox disabled, staring at a blank screen as I try to start the short book that someone recklessly commissioned two months ago, and which now needs to be delivered in just five short weeks.

I will be breaking off only for my long deferred annual check-up at the doctor’s tomorrow, which can surely only add fuel to my slow-burning fire of fatalistic gloom.

My book? Oh, it is a supposedly humorous short guide to opera, about which I know a little. Though my main hope, if I get it done, is naturally for a follow-up commission on my specialist subject: trying to work out how much time I have got left.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Can we keep up that Olympic spirit? Yes, we can

I am writing this week’s column with a post-Olympics hangover – so for once, perhaps, find myself in tune with the spirit of the nation.

Just as all those bills roll in after Christmas, we are surely about to wake up to the fact that the economy is still contracting and the Government that is meant to be sorting it out is riven by deep ideological divisions, exacerbated by disagreement on such burning issues as who should sit in the House of Lords.

Meanwhile we are about to demonstrate our gratitude to those charming soldiers who stepped in at short notice to handle security so capably by handing many of them not medals, but P45s.

And all this before we begin to ponder what exactly we are supposed to do with world class facilities like a Velodrome when there isn’t an Olympics to be hosted.

Nevertheless, I shall miss the Games, despite my total lack of interest in sport. They clearly made so many people very happy.

I enjoyed the “buzz” of collective satisfaction and the sense of community that led a bright-eyed, black-tied stranger to approach me after the country house opera I saw on Saturday night to inform me that “we” had won another two gold medals.

Even though my own contribution to “our” Olympic success, in reality, has been restricted to buying the Lottery tickets that have helped to fund so much of Britain’s sporting renaissance, and which should be remembered as one positive legacy of the much derided government of John Major.

Attaining political consciousness in the late 1960s, it always seemed to me that key to Britain’s undoubted sense of failure at the time was a simple lack of self-confidence. We were still turning out world-beating inventions, but the combination of inept management, bloody-minded unions and feeble government meant that we seemed completely unable to translate these into economic success.

Meanwhile those pesky Continentals we had helped to flatten in the war were clearly doing much better than we were. It is not hard to understand why we were ready to turn our backs on our natural friends and allies in the Commonwealth and throw in our lot with what was then billed as the Common Market.

If EU fanatics had their way, we would never know how well Great Britain’s athletes have just performed in London because they would have marched out as part of a single European team under the EU flag.

On the Continent, newspapers have been pointing out that the EU collectively trounced the US and China, with Germany’s Die Welt noting that Europe is “doing pretty well for a continent in decline”.

But so too have the Commonwealth realms of Queen Elizabeth II, with Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Canada, the Bahamas and Grenada together bagging a total of 145 medals, including 48 golds.

Call me old fashioned, but I always find that I have more in common with those people with whom we share a head of state, language and laws than with those who have been our enemies for centuries, but just happen to live next door.

I know that Bob the Builder’s “yes we can” slogan has been somewhat devalued through its adoption by Barack Obama, who has demonstrated that he can’t to such an extent that Mitt Romney is apparently in with a serious chance of winning the US presidency.

But, even so, the best Olympic legacy for Britain would surely be retain that sense of “yes we can” take on the whole world and win. Let us broaden our horizons, hold on to our recovered self-confidence and keep remembering that we are right up there with the very best on the planet.

Now all we need is some genuine leaders capable of harnessing that feeling, rather than focusing on the detail of ensuring more hours of PE in primary schools while timidly kow-towing on the big issues to the whims of our neighbours, who so rarely have our best interests at heart.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

If the Olympics save Great Britain, they will be worth every penny

I was incredibly lucky in the great Olympics ticket scramble. Alone among my friends, I got precisely what I wanted: nothing at all.

Early experience as the fat kid schoolmates fought not to have on their teams left me with a lifelong total indifference to games so hard to beat that I rather wish it qualified as a gold medal event.

So how does a sport-loathing freak like me feel about the way that the nation is currently gripped by Olympics mania? Surprisingly, quite delighted.

I will admit that the only bit of the Games I have actually watched, apart from the highlights featured in the news (and isn’t it lucky that there has apparently been no other news to report for the last ten days?) was the opening ceremony.

Once again, The Queen expresses the feelings of the whole nation - or was this before McCartney started 'singing'?

Because, as a devoted monarchist, I always watch Olympic opening ceremonies performed by Her Majesty The Queen. Hence the last one I saw was at Montreal in 1976. (Technically speaking, as head of state, HM should also have opened the Sydney Olympics of 2000 but the Governor-General of Australia did it on her behalf, so I did not bother to tune in.)

Montreal, 1976

What I chiefly noted, from my perhaps unique perspective of detachment, was that opening ceremonies have grown a great deal more spectacular over the last 36 years.

While I doubt that a political discussion between Danny Boyle and myself would see us reach agreement on many points, and his grasp of history would surely have consigned him to the remedial stream at my old school, it was without question one of the most stunning bits of theatre I have ever seen.

I freely admit that, along with many who actually care for sport, I was extremely sceptical that the fortunes spent on bringing the Olympics to London could ever be remotely worth it. But I may now need to back-pedal for perhaps half a circuit.

I certainly feel very proud to belong to a country that can stage such a tremendous show without – at the time of writing – any of the cynically anticipated foul-ups.

I am also pleasantly surprised to find that we can now compete seriously with the best athletes in the world on so many fronts. The achievement is truly astonishing to one who, as a bookish child, only looked up at the TV during the Olympics on hearing the familiar strains of “God save the Queen”, and almost invariably found it being played in honour of Australia rather than the mother country.

How every flag raising ought to look

If, as we are told, one additional bank holiday for the Diamond Jubilee was enough to plunge the country into recession for the last quarter, the economic reckoning for having the entire nation at home glued to the TV for a fortnight seems unlikely to be pretty, but who cares?

There is more to life than money and raising national morale to its present pitch, in the face of the worst summer I can remember, is a staggering and worthwhile achievement.

I have always loved my country for its greatness on so many fronts: language, laws, institutions, arts, science, industry and popular culture, to name but a few. If the Olympics are helping more people to identify with Great Britain, and to make the national flag and anthem the proud possession of us all, and not just reactionary old fogies like me (plus some even less attractive fringe groups on the right), then they are truly one of the very best things that has happened in my lifetime.

It remains to be seen whether any of this will last longer than the seasonal sporting crazes that used to grip my schoolmates half a century ago. But if the present welcome upsurge of sporting patriotism ultimately helps to defeat the hopes of the separatists, regionalists and Eurofanatics who would wipe Great Britain off the map, Sebastian Coe will deserve not just another gold medal, but a dukedom and a permanent place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.