Tuesday 25 September 2012

Life in Britain today: a never-ending episode of The Thick Of It

It is increasingly difficult to discern any difference between the real political world and that presented in my favourite Saturday night TV viewing, The Thick Of It.

That great word “omnishambles”, which so aptly summarises the Government’s performance most days, was coined not by Ed Miliband but by The Thick Of It’s fictional (yet, in most respects, horribly real) Labour spin doctor Malcolm Tucker.

Tucker: not a misprint

Two Saturdays ago the plot of The Thick Of It centred on the Government slashing funding for school breakfast clubs; this weekend it was about the creation of a new business bank. On both the following Mondays, real ministers popped up to announce that they were doing just that.

This revelation of the programme’s astonishing predictive powers will no doubt boost its audience next Saturday, as we eagerly wait to find out which minister will be guilty of some fresh act of blinding stupidity or duplicity, and will issue a grovelling apology for the same (with or without a musical accompaniment).

He's sorry, he's sorry, he's so so sorry ...

The one thing that puts me off unreservedly recommending The Thick Of It to everyone is the unremitting foulness of its language, which is calculated to offend a certain sort of pleb.

Not a prole, who drives a white van, enjoys the Page 3 girl in The Sun and wants to bring back hanging.

Nor a toff, who will also swear all the time, as Government Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell so ably demonstrated last week.

Those f***ing gates again

But the sort of aspirational pleb who thinks that swearing is unacceptable and is also well educated enough to know that anyone who calls him or her a pleb almost certainly intends it as an insult.

The most staggering thing to me about the whole Mitchell Gategate saga is that, in our supposedly intrusive surveillance society, a location as massively sensitive as the main gate of Downing Street apparently does not possess CCTV cameras and recording equipment to put a swift end to the unedifying saga of who actually said what to whom.

Clearly Mr Mitchell and the police officer he insulted cannot both be telling the truth. So soon after the results of the Hillsborough inquiry, it would be foolish to assert that the police never tell lies. On the other hand, it is abundantly clear which party in the altercation has the greater incentive to be economical with the actualité.

The fundamental problem here is a lack of respect. Virtually none of us respect the toffs in charge of us, though it is scarcely their fault that almost the only way to get on in British society these days is to be born in its upper echelons and to receive a private education.

The toffs, in their turn, have little respect for the rest of us; though curiously they tend to have more for the proles at the bottom of the heap than for us plebs in the middle. The alliance between the squire and his forelock-tugging cottagers and servants is as old as England itself.

But at least no one has to die due to our lack of respect. The worst thing our transport minister has done in recent times is seriously annoy Sir Richard Branson by handing the West Coast main line franchise to someone else.

Compare and contrast the situation in Pakistan, where the railways minister, presumably stepping a little outside his usual brief, has promised $100,000 to anyone who kills the director of that American film displaying a lack of respect for Islam.

Respect again: it’s what we all want for ourselves, our work and our beliefs. But if you are running an omnishambles, insulting public servants, breaking election pledges or inciting murder there seems precious little reason why those concerned should get it from any of us.

The best that can be said for living in an ongoing episode of The Thick Of It is that it gives most of us a few laughs along the way. I wonder whether the team behind it has considered exporting the format to Pakistan? Now, that might make for a really interesting news story.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

My Great North Run: a record time waiting for fish and chips

This column nearly did not get filed owing to the serious injury I sustained at the Great North Run.

Not actually running it, you understand. I could not run 13.1 miles even with a lion bounding along behind me. In fact, I have serious doubts as to whether I could even walk it these days, unless there happened to be an agreeable pub offering a decent lunch approximately halfway through.

But I did sustain an injury, nonetheless. I was the fat bloke in the tweed jacket who sprained his ankle making an undignified scramble down that grass bank from Claremont Road to the starting line.

Or, to be more accurate, the pen full of less gifted runners about 38 minutes trudge back from the start. What a gift that tumble would have been if I had been down to run the race, providing me with an entirely legitimate excuse to limp off home.

But, as it was, I was merely there to offer encouragement and support to Mrs Hann, who was looking to repeat her triumph of 2008, when she managed to complete the course – eventually – despite an unusual pair of undiagnosed conditions: pregnancy and a broken toe.

The broken bone was, on the whole, the more troublesome of the two.

This time her excuses, registered well in advance, were giving birth by Caesarean just seven months ago and having done remarkably little running (except after disobedient toddlers) since 2008.

I noted that the last two runs in her rigorous training schedule were cancelled on the grounds that it was a bit wet and windy. I wondered whether I should mention the possibility that it might also be like that on the big day, but thought better of it. This meant that I was not in a position to say “I told you so” as we damply awaited the start on the Central Motorway, which in turn no doubt saved me from a considerably worse injury than a mere sprained ankle.

It would be invidious of me to cite Mrs Hann’s time, though you will find it in the NE66 section of yesterday’s paper if you can still read it on the floor of your budgie’s cage. And she raised more than £2,000 for the excellent cause of brain tumour research.

So many good causes and so many nice people running for them: it would be hard for even the most determined cynic, like myself, to be anything other than wildly positive about the Great North Run. The logistics of baggage buses and so forth also work with Olympic-like precision.

Mrs Hann’s only small reservation last time was about the hours it took to get on board a bus back to Newcastle. This time, thinking laterally, she decided to make her way home on the Shields ferry.

Having spent the best part of three hours waiting for her in the vicinity of the Fish Quay, tortured by the aroma of fish and chips from shops that had inevitably closed by the time she made it across the river, I can confirm that this was not her best strategic decision of the day.

The whole concept of the sponsored run (walk, or anything else) is, to my mind, severely undermined by the modern habit of getting one’s sponsorship money in advance through the internet. Where exactly is the incentive, beyond conscience, actually to perform the promised task?

Since the PA system at the start was talking about a record 55,000 entrants, and yesterday’s Journal cited 39,953 actual runners, I wonder whether 15,000 others came to the same conclusion?

Next year we will do it properly. Mrs Hann will train hard for months, wear an animal costume, strap a fridge to her back and haul me and our two sons in a suitable rickshaw. Plus we will book a hotel in South Shields so that we don’t have to worry about the journey home.

I am looking forward to it already. And luckily my wife and I will be 240 miles apart when she learns of my cunning plan.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

That strange sense that one has been here before

Do you ever get the feeling that you have been here before? I have had it for years, latterly joined by the much more worrying sense that I may not be here now.

My younger son Jamie, now a strapping six months old, clearly remembers some infinitely superior previous existence, to judge by the despairing look he gave us when he first opened his eyes, and which he has been repeating several times a day ever since.

This clearly conveys: “Oh God, it’s not still you lot, is it?”

Meanwhile his elder brother Charlie seems to have pulled off the disturbing trick of becoming a reincarnation of his father without waiting for me to die.

Like me, he is profoundly conservative and intensely suspicious of anyone or anything new. This makes for a wearying afternoon at events like Saturday’s Ingram Show, where every attraction from the pony sports to the falconry display was summarily rejected as “bad”.

He was eventually persuaded to board the miniature roundabout so long as Mummy came too. I have a classic picture of them crammed onto a miniature John Deere tractor, my wife grinning and waving happily while Charlie maintains a white knuckle grip on the steering wheel and looks for all the world like a condemned prisoner en route to the scaffold.

Actually a classic composite picture, now I come to look at them

When did I last witness anything like it? Oh yes, when I used to drag my 50-something mother to the top of the helter skelter at the Hoppings half a century ago.

The nearest thing on offer at Ingram was a bouncy castle slide, which was completely out of the question until we returned to the car to go home, when he announced that he simply had to try it.

Could that be ... a smile?

I apologise to anyone who was traumatised by witnessing an elderly couple dragging a screaming and struggling three-year-old away from this attraction when our money was finally exhausted.

Before divorce proceedings start, I should swiftly add for clarity that the second elderly person involved was my aunt rather than my wife.

Having my face badly scratched in the course of this battle would have been the low point of my afternoon if I had not earlier made the schoolboy mistake of picking up an ice cream on my way to the pens full of prize sheep.

The dog made a lunge for his favourite playmates, his lead snapped the bottom off my cornet and my 99 landed splat on the grass. When I was Charlie’s age I would have sat down and cried. Believe me, it was a close run thing.

Nothing short of a tragedy

Overall, though, the combination of familiar events and distinctly unfamiliar good weather made Ingram a delight, despite the best efforts of half my offspring. (The other just sat in his buggy, gurgling happily and showing off his party trick of cramming his feet in his mouth.)

"Too bad" according to our self-appointed critic

We shall do our utmost to repeat the experience at Thropton on Saturday and Alwinton next month.

Less welcome was the déjà vu of Relatively Speaking at the Theatre Royal on Saturday evening, when I realised as soon as the curtain went up that I had seen the play before, and not that long ago. In 2008, to be precise, when Peter Bowles was the star attraction rather than Felicity Kendal. Even the programme notes were identical. A statement that can only be made by someone sad enough to have kept every theatre programme he has bought since 1973.

At least some of these are finally coming in genuinely useful as aides-mémoire for the book about opera that I am currently writing. It is just as well I am not relying on my actual memory, which is vanishing like a burning sheet of paper, with the most recent things going first.

Soon I fear that I will remember nothing more recent than my surly behaviour as a small boy. Which will be hugely ironic given that it is the one thing of which I have a permanent and active reminder on hand, with a small displaced person keenly understudying the role.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

The best dog in the world? It has to be the Border terrier

What do I have in common with Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow, Andy Murray, David Walliams and Elton John?

I suppose I would have to allow you “boring” as my link with the soap character, and “grumpy” with the tennis ace, but the intended answer is that we all own Border terriers.

An official snap of Deirdre Barlow [L] and Eccles
Andy Murray and Olympic medallist Borders, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph
David Walliams and Border en route to Sir Elton's

Recent articles in Country Life and the Daily Mail have sung their praises – but can it really be news that the Border is the best dog in the world? My Borders and I have never been in the slightest doubt.

Possessing a face with more than a passing resemblance to a teddy bear gives the Border a massive advantage in any cuteness competition. But, for me, it is its personality that is the clincher: playful yet dignified, gentle but rumbustious, a small dog that clearly has no sense of its size or any resulting limitations.

My current dog, Craster (because he is a world class kipper, obviously) turns 11 on Friday.

The birthday boy
Until he was seven, he had hardly even met a child. Now he shares his life with a boisterous toddler and a baby, and does so with the patience of a saint.

He may have been bred to subdue foxes, but savaging the occasional squeaky toy seems to provide an adequate outlet for his instincts.

Borders possess apparently boundless energy: in half a century of close acquaintance with the breed, I have only once succeeded in tiring one out, and he recovered long before I did.

Yet both Craster and his predecessor Arthur have also been lazily undemanding. Many times I have donned my wellies and waterproofs and reached the back door with a lead in my hand, only to find a Border terrier staring at me with a face that clearly conveys the thought: “Have you gone raving mad?” 

Arthur, 1991 - 2007
They are very good at expressing themselves, Borders. Their high sense of their own dignity means that they can never admit to doing anything wrong so, if observed taking a tumble or otherwise fouling up, they will draw themselves up to their limited full height and give a haughty look that conveys: “I meant to do that.”

If you offend them, their deadliest insult is to turn their back on you. I once watched Arthur perform several revolutions on his bottom on the platform of Alnmouth station, as he made clear how disgusted he was with me for catching a train to London rather than taking him out into the hills.

The Border is obedient, and will always do exactly what you ask it, so long as it happens to coincide with whatever it was planning to do anyway at the time. Otherwise you can forget it. Craster will rarely come when called and cannot believe that anyone will not be utterly delighted to meet him. Because he is, after all, the cutest dog anyone ever saw.

Although they can sit comfortably on your lap, Borders are not toy dogs. They do not yap. Indeed, their bark is sufficiently like that of a large dog for my wife to insist, laughably, that I should leave Craster behind as a burglar deterrent when we are apart.

Borders do not require effete tartan coats to face the rigours of winter: they grow their own, and then shed them on your carpet. Around my way I often see working Border terriers that live in Spartan outdoor kennels. Mine regard their natural habitat as our bed and the sofa.

Small wonder that when DFS recently decided to adopt a softer image for their advertising, they should have chosen to have it fronted by an appealing small boy with a Border terrier.

Could I recommend acquiring a Border terrier? Unreservedly, so long as you are not doing it as a slave to fashion. The walks will keep you fit, and their antics will lift your spirits. Just remember always to laugh with them, not at them, or you will find yourself staring at a hairy brown back for a very long time.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.