Tuesday 30 October 2012

The North East on TV: full colour yet still black and white

When I was a boy television was a tiny box offering two channels in fuzzy black and white for just a few hours each day.

You couldn’t even hope to watch it for a whole evening without fiddling around with the horizontal hold and worrying about the distinctive smell of valves overheating.

Now we have 24-hour, multichannel, high definition, full colour, surround-sound, widescreen broadcasting and the only thing still stuck in black and white is the opinions of the viewers.

I say this after puzzling over the very polarised reactions to the new BBC2 sitcom Hebburn, which strikes me (and, importantly, my non-Geordie wife) as one of the funniest things we have seen on the telly in years.

Hebburn's Big Keith. No relation, so far as I know.

Yes, it is a gross caricature delivering knockabout music hall one-liners, not a sophisticated, intellectual comedy. I might also think that it had failed to do my hometown full justice if I actually lived in Hebburn. The overall effect is a bit like Shameless starring a reincarnated Tommy Cooper.

Yet it is warm, affectionate and I find it very amusing. Indeed the only weak link to my mind is Gina McKee playing, as she always does, Gina McKee. But then that’s just my personal blind spot about a regional if not yet national treasure.

The Hebburn family of cliched but, to my mind, amusing stereotypes

What seems strange to me is that all the comments I have seen on the series are either wildly enthusiastic or totally condemnatory. There is no middle ground. This is true, oddly enough, even on the Hebburn Facebook page, where a minority apparently “like” the show just to provide a platform for sounding off about how hopeless the scripts and actors are, and attacking the inauthenticity of the accents and locations.

I might as well have thrown a strop about the episode of Vera that was partly filmed at Tod-le-Moor, just around the corner from where I live, yet dared to give the impression that this was a stone’s throw from the seaside.

Calm down, dears, it’s only television. A certain suspension of disbelief is required.

TV's Vera. Not at Tod-le-Moor.

I found exactly this same polarisation last week when doing some background research on a restaurant chain for which I supposedly work. Nearly all the reviews on those traveller guide websites are either five star, praising flawless food, locations, décor and service; or one star, suggesting that the self-same restaurant offers one of the worst experiences on the planet.

Years ago I noticed just this dichotomy in reviews of a hotel owned by someone I know. He let me into the secret. All the five star plaudits were written by his staff and friends, while all the damning reviews were planted by rival establishments in the area.

This, of course, renders such websites completely useless for the genuine seeker after truth, hoping to get an unbiased idea of whether a particular hotel or restaurant is worth booking.

How did everything end up so black and white? Partly it can be explained by the invisibility cloak of anonymity. Almost no one posts on review sites under their real names, so there can be no comeback however outrageously they express themselves.

Most people on social media sites do reveal their identities, but something encourages them to be far franker and ruder tapping away on their phones or tablets than they ever would be if they were speaking in public.

Is all this ultimately filtering down from our cherished but frankly increasingly wearing tradition of knockabout adversarial politics, now reduced to the chanting of learnt-by-rote dumbed-down catchphrases about the uselessness of the opposition?

In principle, I would love to see a more nuanced approach setting out the pros and cons and arriving at a balanced conclusion. Because the right answer is rarely black or white, but a shade of grey – and I am sure we all know how many of those there are around these days.

50 shades: what's all the fuss about?

Though in the case of Hebburn, I am happy to put my real name to saying it has cheered me up as much as anything on TV since the demise of Tony Hancock. Come on, trolls: do your worst.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Another unpleasant surprise we can blame on a banker

I am renowned for always expecting the worst to happen, so my progress through life is rarely jarred by unpleasant surprises.

It therefore came as a deep shock on Saturday morning when I caught sight of something so completely and utterly unexpected in my peaceful corner of Northumberland that I literally could not believe my eyes.

But sadly I had to concede that there could be no mistaking the bushy tail of a grey squirrel as it leapt into the roadside ditch just in front of my car.

I had never caught sight of such a thing in these parts in 25 years. Our native red squirrels rank alongside the call of the curlew as one of the chief natural attractions of the locality.

All together now: "Aaahhh!"

And, ironically, I have seen more red squirrels out and about by the local roads in the last few months than I have ever seen before, suggesting that the population is thriving even as their nemesis closes in. 

A common - and necessary - road sign in my neck of the woods

Subsequent enquiries established, predictably enough, that I had just not been paying enough attention. Grey squirrels have been sighted many times in my area, and a trapping programme is well under way to try in a brave attempt to keep them under control. I hope that mention of the fact in this column may inspire a few more locals to keep their eyes open and also to report their sightings.

The great hope for the future is apparently a vaccination against the squirrel pox carried by the greys that currently proves fatal to the reds. Though somehow I doubt that the red squirrels will queue up for this as obediently as the older folk of Rothbury did at the clinic to which I was driving for my annual flu jab when I had my close encounter with that grey arriviste on Saturday morning.

I should add right away that I do not actually qualify for this vaccination on grounds of age, but have crept within the NHS’s beneficent net on the strength of my alleged infirmities.

Having suffered bronchial pneumonia in the past, I was particularly pleased to be offered an additional bonus “once in a lifetime” vaccination that would afford lasting protection against the pneumococcal form of the disease.

“Are there any side-effects?” I blithely enquired as I rolled up my second sleeve of the morning. I was briskly assured that there were not, though this turned out to be not strictly true. My arm hurt a great deal for the next 36 hours and I entered one of those periods of decline in which the only possible course of action seems to be snoozing on the sofa before a roaring fire.

Still, that must be considered short term pain for long term gain if I can now laugh in the face of “the old man’s friend” when pneumonia next beats a path to my door.

It is a rather more complex equation in the squirrel world, where even short term relief for the delightful red variety can only be procured by killing the greys – provoking the usual animal rights objections that this is needlessly cruel to a species that is only doing what comes naturally, and that in any event it is unlikely to save the reds in the long run.

Any excuse for another cute picture

Sadly, a natural pessimist like me feels that this may well turn out to be true. But I am so in thrall to the charms of the red squirrel that I feel that it is only right to offer full support to those who are giving it a go on their behalf.

Above all, this should be a valuable reminder of the perils of tinkering with nature, when someone next thinks that a non-native species might make an attractive addition to our fauna or flora.

The grey squirrel invasion started with the release of a single pair in Cheshire parkland in 1876. Now there are millions.

It seems that the bloke who had the bright idea was a banker, too.

Macclesfield banker Thomas Brocklehurst: it's all his fault

Now there is one fact that should occasion absolutely no surprise whatsoever.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

The successful Union that really deserved to win a prize

The chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee sighed deeply. He had now been spent three solid days stuck in a room with four equally obscure Norwegian politicians, arguing about who should receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Apparently.

They had finally identified the ideal candidate in the shape of indefatigable British charity worker Jimmy Savile, until someone Googled him and discovered that he was inconveniently dead.

The same difficulty that had done for the otherwise promising candidacies of Osama bin Laden, Harold Shipman, Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Bashar al-Assad had been running strongly, until deadlock resulted when one awkward member of the committee insisted on advancing the rival claims of the King of Bahrain.

Then it had started looking good for the relatively uncontroversial retired statesmen Tony Blair, who could clearly use an extra $1.2 million if anyone could. But then they remembered the risk of him bringing his wife to the prize ceremony, so it was back to the drawing board again.

“I know,” said the newest member of the committee. “Why don’t we stop searching for an individual, and award it to some well-intentioned organisation?”

“Like the Papacy, for example?”

There was a sharp intake of breath and some muttering about the Crusades and the law of unintended consequences in regard to priestly celibacy.

Another member remarked that this was where they always ended up when they hadn’t got a clue, which was why the Red Cross and the United Nations kept cropping up on the list of past award winners.

“OK, but how about a Union that has secured a long peace between warring nations, and is a model of successful political and monetary integration? What’s more, it is currently under threat and the prize might just help to hold it together.”

The five members of the committee gave a powerful demonstration of synchronised nodding, and reflected that this could be the breakthrough that would get them out of a room now beginning to smell quite unpleasantly of fermented trout.

“I like it,” said the Chairman. “I like it a lot.”

The newest member of the Committee acknowledged his praise with a modest smile.

“Hang on, though,” said the inevitable troublemaker. “Won’t people take the mickey out of us for awarding the prize to something we as a country have taken such pains to keep out of, jealously guarding our independence at all costs?”

The Chairman shrugged, and reminded him that the whole world took the mickey pretty much every year. And with a list of past recipients including Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Al Gore and Barack Obama, there should be no surprise there.

But a Union that had turned war into peace and brought prosperity in its wake: why, what could possibly go wrong?

“It’s brilliant,” said the Chairman. “I’ll ring the … hang on, who on earth do I ring?”

“David Cameron, obviously,” said the new boy.

“David Cameron? Well, I know he’s done his best by reneging on that promise of a referendum, and has as much chance of ever holding one as he has of closing down Eton College and turning it into a rest home for retired miners. But he’s hardly at the heart of the Union, is he?”

“Of course he is. He’s the …”

“No, no. It will have to be that bloke no one has ever heard of. Or the other one.”

“Nick Clegg?”

“No. Van something or other. Or the one that sounds a bit like an Italian wine.”


“That’s the fellow.”

“No, no hang on,” gulped the newest member. “I think there’s been a horrible misunderstanding. You thought I meant the European Union, didn’t you?”

“Of course. And it’s a great idea. Thank you so much for your inspired thinking.”

“But that’s not what I meant at all.”

“You said a political and monetary Union that had brought peace and prosperity to formerly warring nations. What else could it be?”

“Er, the United Kingdom?”

Edinburgh Castle: keeping up the standard

At which point everyone laughed uproariously, packed up their papers and returned to well-deserved obscurity for another year.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Handwriting and thinking: on the way out together?

When I was a boy, people still let it be known that there had been a death in the family by keeping their curtains closed all day.

Last week, for the first time, I spotted someone announcing his mother’s death on Facebook. This is one “status update” it is clearly a breach of etiquette to “like”, despite the website’s inbuilt encouragement to be the first to do so.

At least this made me realise how very old fashioned I was to agonise for ages about whether I might compose a letter of condolence to a friend on my computer, rather than with pen and ink.

I do most things electronically these days. Where I would once have written a letter of thanks, I now invariably send an e-mail. But I had always drawn the line at expressing sympathy in print.

Partly lest it be thought that I had just cut and pasted my condolences from some previous missive, and partly because it seems rather insulting to address such an important issue in trouble-free laser print rather than painfully neat handwriting.

Pain, sadly, being the operative word. Years of abuse, scribbling rapid notes at meetings, have rendered my once award-winning italic script all but illegible, no matter how hard I work at it. I started sending out Christmas cards with a printed name and address after several people complained that even my signature had become such a scrawl that they had wasted valuable time puzzling over who the card was from.

So I gave in and sent a printed letter that was, I consoled myself, at least several times better than one of those ghastly printed “With Sympathy” cards.

Buy in bulk: there is sure to be another flu epidemic this winter

And a week or so later I was relieved to receive, by e-mail, a message from my friend thanking me for my “perfect” letter, so an unfortunate precedent has now been set.

Handwriting used to be such an important test of character. Many a promising relationship rapidly petered out when I discovered that a potential girlfriend was in the habit of adorning her vowels with hearts or smiles.

How will my sons manage without this quick and easy litmus test for lunacy at their disposal?

This is not to imply for a second that the so-called “science” of graphology is anything other than total bosh. I can state this with confidence because, a few years ago, a client submitted a sample of my own handwriting for such a test, and shared the results with me.

Apparently I am hugely talented and immensely ambitious, with the energy of ten normal men. Anyone who has read one of these columns, let alone actually met me, will know instantaneously that this is the absolute reverse of the truth.

Not only am I monumentally lazy, my attention span has also now atrophied to the point where I felt hugely proud of myself on Saturday when, for the first time in months, I actually sat down and read a whole book.

True, it was a rather short book written by someone I know, and based on a premise so outrageously untrue that I simply had read it.

Even so, where I would once have been literally unable to put it down, I felt obliged to take regular breaks to check the latest developments on my e-mail, Twitter and Facebook.

We are all becoming infantilised by this never-ending stream of news and the instantaneous, crude and usually cynical reactions to it. It now requires a real effort of will to pause, concentrate and really think about an issue before we pronounce on it.

Sadly precious few of our political leaders seem capable of doing so.

Perhaps it would be helpful to them and us if, every now and then, we pulled the plug on the constant storm of electronic chaff; turned our mobiles and computers off, and our minds on. Maybe we could draw the curtains, too, to minimise the distractions from outside.

After all, why should we wait for a death in the family to prompt us to reflect on what really matters? 

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

The only way to retire in comfort is going to be winning the lottery

The greatest obstacle to every well-intentioned Government health campaign, like Stoptober, has always been the Uncle Fred factor.

However convincingly they may present statistics on the terrible consequences of smoking and drinking, nearly everyone can cite in response the example of an Uncle Fred who defied the odds.

Toping and puffing to wild excess from the age of 14, Uncle Fred only died aged 98 when he was knocked off his bike while fleeing from his girlfriend’s house after her husband came home unexpectedly early.

How the nation’s medical profession must have groaned last week when Dorothy Peel from Hull, interviewed as she celebrated her 110th birthday, revealed that one of the secrets of her longevity was giving up smoking … at the age of 104. While the other was never drinking whisky before 7pm, sticking to sherry earlier in the day.

Cheers, Dorothy! [Picture courtesy of The Sun]

The problem with this sort of story, amusing and spirit-raising though it undoubtedly is, is that it falls into the same category as those regular tales of massive lottery wins. It could be you. But it won’t be.

In practice, buying that ticket every week (and I write as a fellow mug who does it himself) just admits you to that not very select club of idiots who have cheerfully signed up to pay an extra voluntary tax. 

Continuing to smoke and drink heroically, in defiance of all official advice, involves a similar willingness to pay additional taxes. And, unlike having a flutter on the lottery, it will also shorten your life.

One of the main reasons cited for making cigarettes beyond the pale is the huge amounts that the NHS will “save” on the treatment of smoking-related illnesses. This will no doubt be true in the short run, but I wonder whether anyone has ever attempted a proper cost-benefit analysis in the longer term.

Because sadly few of us are destined to pass away peacefully aged 110 or more. The process of dying is more likely to be unpleasant, prolonged and, for the NHS or its privatised successors, expensive.

If we cut out the fags, the effect may be just to defer that cost for, say, 20 years, adding in the meantime to the drain on the nation’s pension funds. The parlous state of which needs no underlining.

The Government’s latest wheeze to deal with that particular crisis kicked off yesterday with the beginning of auto-enrolment in pension schemes. This involves having your pay docked now to build up a fund for your old age which, according to all the examples I have heard, will pay you a pathetically small additional pension and reduce your entitlement to benefits by a similar amount.

A worthwhile win for Government and society as a whole, no doubt, but hardly a great boon to the individual compulsory saver.

This will not make welcome reading for those towards the bottom of the economic heap, but I believe that the underlying reality is that we have simply had it too good for too long.

After Macmillan, no one dared to point out that "You've never had it so good." But he was right ...

The generation that won the equivalent of a double rollover jackpot in the lottery of life was the one just before mine. They were too young to be conscripted for World War II. Those who made it to university not only enjoyed their education entirely free of charge, but received a maintenance grant from the taxpayer. They worked through a period of generally increasing prosperity and benefited from a wholly disproportionate inflation in the value of their property assets.

Then, to cap it all, they retired on the sort of final salary pensions that are now completely unaffordable.

The reality for those of us bobbing along in their wake is that we are likely to go on getting worse off for some considerable time, whoever we vote for at the next election. For us, any sort of retirement, let alone a prosperous one, is probably just a dream.

Rather like emulating the spectacular luck of Uncle Fred or Mrs Peel in smoking and drinking without ill-effects, or picking the right six numbers in the lottery.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.