Wednesday 11 December 2013

A brief glimpse of the high life

The depression that really troubled me last week was not the Atlantic one that caused a storm surge over Newcastle Quayside, but the personal one imprisoning me in a black fog of self-centred gloom.

This always happens at this time of year. I used to put it down to the approach of another lonely Christmas, usually spent totting up my non-achievements in another wasted year.

Yet now I have two delightful little boys who very much believe in Santa Claus, and all the joys of a family Christmas to come. Including Charlie’s first ever school nativity play, in which he is playing the key role of a sheep.

(We seem to have got over his initial violent objections to his costume, centring on his refusal to wear tights “like a GIRL”.)

So I tentatively conclude that my depression is purely seasonal in character, related to the lack of daylight. My London doctor came up with this diagnosis years ago, and prescribed a winter break somewhere dry, hot and sunny. He suggested Arizona or Dubai.

Unfortunately I detest going abroad even more than I dislike being depressed, so I have never taken his sound advice.

I realised last week that the invention of email is a decidedly mixed blessing for the depressive. On the one hand I can just about muster up the energy and mental clarity to dispense advice electronically, even when I am far too miserable to answer the phone.

On the other hand, it is all too easy to ping off a costly “I resign” message when one is simply too enfeebled to drive to a meeting.

A change of scene often helps to lift my mood, I have found over the years, so much hung on a planned brief glimpse of the high life in London over the weekend. Unfortunately my East Coast rail tickets mysteriously got lost in the post, a hurdle that almost induced me to give up.

Though, to be fair, they did organise replacements after a certain amount of bureaucratic palaver.

Then not only was the station car park full, but also the only obvious alternative car park. I was all for going home, but Mrs Hann would have none of it, and we did eventually find somewhere to leave the car, with no more than an average chance of finding it up on bricks with the engine removed when we got back.

Saturday’s lunch at the celebrated Wolseley restaurant in Piccadilly lifted my spirits more than a bit, though I enjoyed equally outstanding (and, in the case of pudding, distinctly superior) fare at Jesmond Dene House the previous weekend, at around half the price.

Then I took Mrs Hann to Covent Garden to see the Royal Ballet’s classic production of Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet, as choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, with the famed Carlos Acosta and a Russian newcomer called Natalia Osipova in the title roles.

Both were fantastic. As were the company, sets, costumes and orchestra. I wrote in my Bluffer’s Guide to Opera that the Royal Opera’s Turandot is the ultimate test for those who claim to dislike opera, because if that does not win them over, nothing will. Romeo and Juliet is its balletic equivalent.

Yet it did not work on all. Before us in the stalls sat an immensely fat man who slept soundly through the first act until jerked awake by the famous dance of the Montagues and Capulets, an intrusion he clearly found most unwelcome.

He spent the first interval swearing loudly at his immensely fat wife, apparently on the edge of reinforcing his points in a Saatchi-Nigella sort of way.

Mercifully at the second interval he stormed off, never to be seen again.

Meanwhile to our right during the first act were two empty seats, occupied for the remainder of the evening by a woman loudly informing her male companion that it was “ruined” and “all spoilt” by his failure to get her there for the start.

So much talent on the stage and in the orchestra pit; so much misery in the auditorium. I can’t quite decide which cheered me up more, but either way it was worth every last penny of the ticket price!

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

I have seen the future, and it does not work

It does not seem to be the start of April, so I guess Amazon must be serious when they claim to be exploring the possibility of having their products delivered by unmanned drones.

This creates the attractive possibility of having the latest best-seller precision-dropped through the panes of your cold frame, or your beloved dog cut to shreds by an Octocopter as it descends onto your lawn. 

But it’s progress, isn’t it? And surely exactly what the City’s teenage scribblers had in mind when they trashed Greggs’ share price during the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, on the grounds that the whole idea of a “shop” was dead.

They will surely have the last laugh as miniature helicopters fly through our office windows bearing sausage rolls and cups of coffee.

Even if the Air Traffic Control implications seem more than a little disturbing.

This was the future as predicted in the pages of my favourite childhood comic, in which a lucky boy called General Jumbo had a vast miniature air force, army and navy at his command.

I always related to him, not so much because I had a particular interest in model armed forces, but because I shared his tendency to stoutness.

Who would have expected The Beano to turn out to be a more reliable predictor of the future than Tomorrow’s World?

If the futurologists of the 1970s were to be believed, by now we would be working no more than 20 hours a week, retiring at 50, enjoying limitless free nuclear power and subsisting on vitamin pills.

None of which seems likely to come to pass apart from not working very long, as pretty much every job in the country is outsourced to India.

Still, not to worry. “Dave” Cameron and an assortment of his family and friends are out in China as I type, opening up a new golden age of export-led growth. Though his decision to put Jaguar Land Rover at the forefront of promoting UK plc does make me wonder whether he is not secretly in league with the Dalai Lama to bring the Chinese weeping to their knees, if personal experience of my hugely expensive and totally unreliable Land Rover Discovery is anything to go by.

Sorry. I should have put a warning at the top of this column for my new Wednesday audience. (Which, research tells me, is larger, richer and more business-orientated than the bunch of dullards who pick up the paper on Tuesdays.) This is the weekly update from the bloke who hates “progress” in all its manifestations, from Ed Miliband to trendy church services by way of wind farms.

A fine example occurred last week when I received a letter from my four-year-old son Charlie’s school informing me that he would no longer be required to wear a shirt and tie. Even though the pleasingly reactionary dress code had been pretty decisive in my choice of school in the first place.

Even worse was the reason for the change. The pupils had requested it at the “school council”. The oldest of them is 11, for heaven’s sake. If you consult them you will end up with whole classes in Spiderman costumes and school lunches supplied entirely by Cadbury’s.

It’s the daftest thing I have heard since Alex Salmond extended the vote to 16-year-olds as part of his attempts to rig the Scottish independence referendum, with the hugely pleasing outcome that their teenage contrarian instincts apparently make them one of the groups likeliest to vote “No”.

Where will it all end? In five years’ time I expect that Charlie (aged nine) will be voting in a referendum on Northumbrian independence, all our high streets will be boarded-up and filled with tumbleweed, and the news websites will be dominated by heartbreaking stories of all the Christmas presents destroyed as “Cyber Monday” segued seamlessly into “Drone Crash Tuesday”.

Of course it’s never going to happen. At least not until they have perfected an Octocopter guaranteed to flutter down in the five minutes you have chosen to nip to the loo. And trained it to write a “Sorry You Were Out” card and leave it wherever you are least likely to find it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Goodbye, cruel world

They say that all good things must come to an end, though happily the British monarchy is testing this theory to its limits.

However, I feel sure we can all agree that there comes a time when we should bid farewell to the seriously mediocre.

So it is with this Tuesday column, which concludes today after a run of 387 over 7¾ years. A distinct advance on the nine months that Journal editor Brian Aitken predicted would be the longest I could possibly keep it going when I started.

At least I had a good innings, as they like to say in the day rooms at twilight homes.

I realise that my departure will come as a hammer blow to my beloved aunt and the handful of mainly elderly enthusiasts who buy The Journal every Tuesday simply to keep up with my ramblings.

On the other hand, it may lead to a modest spike in sales of Aldi budget champagne to fans of wind turbines and Gordon Brown (if he has any left).

While the world at large will naturally receive the news with the massive indifference I deserve.

I knew I was on to a good thing personally after my second column, published fortuitously on Valentine’s Day 2006, won me a hot date with an attractive PR woman plus a letter of sympathy from someone in sheltered accommodation in Rothbury.

In those days I was a solitary curmudgeon, winding down in the depths of the countryside after some years of toil in the City of London, and was able to prove my “green” credentials by having no children. This more than offset the fact that I burned lots of coal, ate huge numbers of animals and drove a Range Rover.

Then several remarkable things happened. A column I had written for the business pages called “The Chief Executive’s Handbook” went modestly viral enough to bring me to the attention of a youngish female accountant at Iceland Foods’ head office in Flintshire.

The fact that I knew her chief executive prompted me to ask him whether the e-mail she sent me had come from a fictitious troublemaker or a genuine eccentric, and he confirmed that she was the latter.

This touched off a correspondence that was supercharged by the fact that I had started writing a blog – a development that had prompted several derisive messages from Journal readers ridiculing me for wasting my time in such a futile manner.

Yet it played no small part in the chain of events that ultimately led to our marriage in February 2009 and the subsequent birth of two healthy sons.

All of which goes to show that you should always expect the totally unexpected, and never accept conventional wisdom about what constitutes a productive use of your time.

Of course, it has its downsides. I turn 60 in June next year and had been looking forward to paying off my mortgage, putting my feet up and doing a bit of pottering around on my senior citizen’s railcard.

Now I am scrabbling for more work and hoping that my sadly defective heart may keep going for another 20 years or so, to see my boys through university.

Luckily my wife’s employers have sprung to my aid, as viewers of the recent reality TV series on Iceland will have noticed, by granting me the use of a refrigerated broom cupboard as an office, and allowing me to pretend that I am in charge of their PR.

However, it is not pressures of work or the lure of short-lived TV stardom that have led me to call a day on this column. It is simply a change in production scheduling which creates a deadline I cannot meet.

It is sad that The Journal will no longer host the country’s premier agony aunt and most obscure misery uncle on the same day, but it was great while it lasted. Thank you so much for your readership and support.

Luckily for me I’ve landed a new job, starting next week. I’m going to be writing a Wednesday column for The Journal. But don’t despair, wind energy cheerleaders. Brian confidently predicts that it will last an absolute maximum of nine months.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

The crazy, drug-fuelled world of ethical banking

Before it became a “campaigning” newspaper with an alleged penchant for testing the legal limits of news-gathering, the News of the World’s stock in trade was exposing naughty vicars.

Could there be any more enjoyable way to fill the interlude between a bracing sermon and a fine roast dinner than by reading about some dog-collared hypocrite who was dallying with one of his parishioners’ wives, or interfering with his choirboys?

Nothing, surely, except reading about the well-deserved come-uppance of a politician or bank manager.

So it seemed peculiarly sad that the News of the World was not around last weekend to devote its front page (and several further spreads inside) to the exposure of someone who is not only a Methodist minister but a politician and banker as well.

I refer, of course, to the Rev Paul Flowers, Labour party stalwart and former Chairman of the Co-operative Bank, who was amazingly captured on film by the Mail on Sunday trying to buy crystal meth, cocaine and other assorted hard drugs.

He texted of his plans for “a two-day, drug fuelled gay orgy” to provide some much-needed light relief after his grilling by a committee of MPs, to which he had demonstrated a startlingly profound ignorance of banking in general, and of the bank he was supposed to have been chairing in particular.

Inevitably inviting questions as to how an overweight clergyman with a Mr Pastry moustache came to be in nominal charge of the country’s leading ethical banking institution.

You may recall similar questions being asked about the qualifications of some members of the board of Northern Rock after its collapse, though none ever seemed as hopelessly out of his depth as the portly minister.

It seems clear that the Rev Flowers attained his position through political manoeuvring within the co-operative movement. But his appointment still had to be approved by the regulators at the FSA, charged with ensuring that the banking system is run by fit and proper persons.

Whatever were they thinking? Surely they can’t have been imagining that a man of the cloth would at least be above the bonus-driven machinations of a money-obsessed professional banker?

While the tale has all the ingredients of high comedy, a profoundly serious point arises from it. Namely that if banking has now become so complicated that only professional bankers can understand it, who can we get to supervise them in a non-executive capacity?

Clearly you should not be on a board of any kind if you struggle to understand accounts, but I suspect that cynical common sense could still get the averagely intelligent lay person quite a long way.

If the returns on an acquisition or investment seem too good to be true, that will be because they are too good to be true. Forget it and move on to the next item on the agenda.

If people who are motivated purely by greed and fear can attain even more stratospheric bonuses by bending the rules, you can be sure as day follows night that they will bend the rules. So increase the fear element by making doubly sure they will be caught and punished if they do so.

Running banks and building societies should be a simple enough business, securing the deposits of those who have more cash than they currently need and lending it to those who have a use for it. 

Instead it has become dominated by vastly over-rewarded individuals obsessed with slashing jobs and costs, lending only to those who don’t need the money, investing in impossibly complex wheezes and forcing the genuinely hard-up into the hands of Wonga and its kin.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, with his strong business background, would clearly make a fine addition to any bank board, but we cannot expect the poor man to sit on all of them in the absence of a great leap forward in cloning technology.

So what I feel we need are more hard-headed northerners prepared to tell these greedy fools a few home truths about what banks are for; and, in the case of the Co-op, to restore my Christmas divi while they are about it.

Would anyone without a serious drug habit care to volunteer?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

What could possibly go wrong?

We are told that the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that measures risk – is not fully developed until the age of 25.

This is apparently why teenagers are so vulnerable to making inappropriate connections on the internet, and disproportionately liable to die in car crashes.

It seems, on the face of it, a serious design misjudgement. Unless it was reckoned that there might be a shortage of volunteers for traditional high-risk youth activities such as warfare and childbirth if potential participants were equipped with a “Hang on a minute …” control.

The odd thing is that the Hanns are clearly exceptionally late developers in almost every respect. Hence I find myself living with a nappy-wearing toddler at an age when I should really be looking at compact retirement flats and glumly calculating how long it may be before I need to wear a nappy myself.

Yet a major part of the explanation for this is that I have always been preternaturally risk averse, and found that my brain was completely full long before I had completed the list of “what could possibly go wrong?” in the matters of marriage and having children.

It is interesting to observe my elder son, now four, following precisely the same path. His school has already had to invest in a padlock for one of its gates because young Hann was fretting so much about the risk of a little boy or girl running out into the road.

And it was seriously spooky to hear his howls of distress on Sunday as he begged his mother not to force him to go to his swimming class: an activity I similarly loathed with a passion.

He is very worried indeed about what might happen to him in the deep end, which strikes me as entirely reasonable.

In my first or second lesson at school I was knocked over in the shallow end by a boy called Shaun Corry, propelling himself smartly backwards in a tyre inner tube. My whole short life flashed before me as I began the process of drowning, and I have never since been able to enter a swimming pool with anything like equanimity.

After some discussion between us my wife gave in and was relieved to find that Charlie’s preferred alternative activity was a trip to a public baths, so he clearly has an aversion to a particular teacher rather than to the concept of swimming in general.

The only place in which our boy does not seem to be massively cautious is the car. His mother’s slow and careful driving provokes a constant back seat commentary. “Can you get past that truck for me, please, Mummy? Go on, you can do it!”

Having undermined her already fragile confidence on the road, he has now set himself up as a fashion critic, too. Dressing up for a rare night out recently, my wife made the silly mistake of asking Charlie whether he thought she looked nice. He shook his head.

“No, Mummy. For so many reasons.”

He then flung open her wardrobe door and said: “Let’s see what else we can find you!”

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the prime achievement of my life to date. Producing a child who appears to be a weird amalgam of me, Sebastian Vettel and Gok Wan.

But mainly me, as he will find when he is pushing 60 and similarly regrets that there are so few photographs of his early years, because he has the same resolute aversion to the camera that I felt at his age.

It has taken me decades to get over it, and I still much prefer to be behind the camera rather than the subject of a photograph.

As for moving pictures – well, I successfully evaded those for a lifetime until a TV crew started following me round and I felt that it might be a career-ending move to tell them to clear off (though I did drop a number of hints).

Luckily Charlie hasn’t seen my appearances, which he would no doubt regard as letting the side down. 

“Daddy on the TV? Don’t be silly, Mummy!” was absolutely his last word on the subject.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

I'm A Very Minor Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here

Surveys regularly reveal that the overriding ambition of the young is to be famous, even if it is only for the 15 minutes that Andy Warhol proposed as everyone’s due.

After a 59-year wait I have just had my own small ration of notoriety as a result of BBC2’s Iceland Foods documentary. Let me tell you now, kids: it is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

For a start, being vaguely recognisable from the television gives total strangers the impression that they are licensed to greet you by your first name. No problem for the youth of today, I suppose, but absolute anathema to those of my generation who have a strong preference for being addressed by our title and surname. Except when writing envelopes, where I am one of the last people left alive still using “Esquire”.

Far worse than that, though, is the fact that the aforementioned strangers then feel entitled to let you know exactly what they think of your performance on the box. This is, I will admit, moderately pleasant when they are flattering, but thoroughly depressing when they take the opposite view. And, human nature being what it is, people are far more likely to treat you to their opinions when they have something nasty to say.

Luckily for me The Journal rarely posts my columns on its website, or I would no doubt long since have been driven into a despairing silence by vicious and always conveniently anonymous trolls.

Funnily enough, my first ambition in life was to be a TV presenter. My role models were Eamonn Andrews off Crackerjack! and Mike Neville on Look North. Luckily I soon grew out of it because I realised that I am naturally shy and have a personality with somewhat specialist appeal.

The most enjoyable aspect of the programmes for me has been receiving lots of emailed pitches from serious PR and media training companies, eager to point out where my client and I have been going wrong.

But in a world where every chief executive, like every minister and MP, sticks rigidly to well-polished, politically correct and endlessly repetitious soundbites, isn’t it refreshing to hear from some people who say what they actually think and do so with a touch of humour?

The only major political figure who has dared to adopt such a cavalier approach is Boris Johnson and it does not seem to have done him conspicuous harm so far, though I expect we will keep reading that he is “not serious enough” to be Prime Minister until the day he enters No 10.

Asked in the early 1970s about the impact of the French revolution of 1789, the Chinese premier Chou En-Lai reputedly said that it was far too early to tell. Similarly, I imagine that the jury will be out until long after I have retired on whether allowing in TV cameras for reality documentaries confers any real benefit on the participants.

One might think, as with televised talent shows, that the well was exhausted by now. However, there is no sign of any reduction in the pressure from TV companies eager to bring us a slice of life from an airline, train operator, retailer, school or hospital near you

I had thought it would all be over by the time I filed this column but in fact the final episode has been held over until tonight to make room for BBC2’s new series of The Choir (which is why, if you tuned in yesterday, there was less swearing and fewer PR gaffes than you had been expecting, but a significantly better standard of singing*).

As a stickler for tradition, which means that the Hann family completely ignores the ghastly Americanised trappings of Halloween but goes big on celebrations of thwarted Catholic plots 408 years ago, I intend to spend this evening outdoors letting off fireworks and writing my name in the air with a sparkler. My last name, naturally, since that is the one I prefer.

That will be quite enough of having my name up in lights for one year, and tomorrow I shall be very happy to return to the total obscurity that is my natural habitat.

* I wrote that before I actually watched The Choir, where the standard of singing in fact made Iceland's own head office choir sound like the chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

The St Jude's Day storm ... about bad language and a tie

The St Jude’s Day storm broke out in the Hann household with full force yesterday morning, though it had nothing to do with the weather.

Instead it was over my elder son Charlie’s return to school after the half term break and his switch to a “winter uniform” including a crisp white shirt and a smartly striped tie. This was in place of the monogrammed polo shirt he had been happily wearing since he started school last month.

A very grumpy boy (can't think where he gets it from)

For me, his new clothes brought back fond memories of my own garb at Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School in Jesmond 55 years ago. The only real difference being that his outfit is blue, whereas mine was in a shade of dark brown specified in terms now so politically incorrect that I cannot even hint at them in a family newspaper.

Charlie, however, took violent exception to his tie. Not as an act of youthful rebellion against convention, but because it was a “totally rubbish” clip-on tie, not “a proper tie like Daddy’s”.

The key difference here is that I don’t think Akhurst’s occasional spells away from our desks for unenergetic bursts of “rhythmics” and Scottish country dancing ever required us to take our ties off after Mummy had put them on for us in the morning. Whereas Charlie and his classmates regularly change into PE kit, and the prospect of helping 20-odd four-year-olds back into proper neckties must seem rather daunting for their teachers.

Charlie had already shown encouraging signs of harbouring old-fashioned tastes two years ago, when we bought him a well-cut miniature suit to wear at a wedding, and he refused point blank to be seen wearing it in public unless we also got him a smart spotted silk handkerchief to sport in his top pocket.

At least I need have no worries about finding a suitable inheritor for the gold watch and chain handed down to me from my great-grandfather William Hann, who was born in Whittingham in 1836. This conveniently allows me to focus all my energies on worrying about whether I will ever work again as the current TV series about Iceland continues to unfold.

There does not seem to be a lot of obvious upside in being the PR adviser during what is already widely cited as a textbook PR disaster: Horsegate.

I have been unkindly described by one reviewer as “looking like a Werther’s Original granddad”, on which the only consolation I received was the e-mail from a friend pointing out that they could have substituted “Operation Yewtree suspect” with equal accuracy.

Given that I spent the best part of a year toning down my usual robust vocabulary because of the presence of cameras, it seemed ironic that I spent Saturday lunchtime in the Joiners’ Arms at Newton-by-the-Sea being lectured by my 88-year-old aunt about my “dreadful” language.

I do hope she heeded my strong advice not to tune in last night, when I quoted some irate people who had achieved simply dizzying new heights of colourful invective.

Perhaps I may yet carve out a niche as an author and lecturer on PR and how not to do it. After all, someone who is consistently wrong is as useful a guide to any subject as a person who is always right. The value of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in our national life lies precisely in our ability to find out what they are saying on any issue, so that we may then confidently assert the opposite.

One consolation if I do find myself unemployed, in the wake of this TV exposure of my professional limitations, is that my wife has finally conceded that Low Newton’s beach is her “favourite in the whole world” and she would not mind living nearby.

I suppose we might just about be able to afford a small caravan.

What’s more, I strongly suspect that the children at the local primary school don’t wear “totally rubbish” clip-on ties, though this may well be because they don’t wear ties of any sort.

And the way Charlie is going, in another year he will be sporting a Fedora, wing collar and spats, which may make fitting in a little bit of a challenge.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

A 1950s childhood: starving Africans versus Captain Manners

Like every child of the 1950s, I simply loathe waste.

The Hann household is enlivened by regular inquisitions into why we cannot make greater efforts to close windows and doors, turn down thermostats and pull on more woolly jumpers and socks.

As for chucking out food, it is a dagger to my heart every time a black banana or a mouldy crust of bread heads into the bin.

So I was naturally depressed by yesterday’s revelation from Tesco that it has managed to waste nearly 30,000 tonnes of food in the first six months of this year – and that its customers have chucked away yet more.

Given the scale of the problem, Tesco’s bright idea of ending multi-buy promotions on large bags of salad sounds like a drop in the proverbial ocean.

For the customer one vital key to avoiding waste, in my experience, is never to go shopping – either in a store or online – when one is actually hungry. Things I fancy but am never going to get around to eating always seem to creep into my basket when I am feeling peckish (which is, to be fair, most of the time).

Leaving the children at home also helps, so long as they don’t ransack the fridge and / or burn the house down while you are out.

Then there is adopting a common sense approach to “use by” dates, and only binning stuff when it has actually gone off rather than when the packet tells you to. If God had intended us to rely on “best before” advice, he wouldn’t have equipped us with noses as well as eyes.

(Having said that, I face an ongoing uphill struggle to convince Mrs Hann that certain products such as sugar, honey and golden syrup do not carry “use by” dates for the apparently incredible reason that they never go off.)

Then there is the potential to make intelligent use of the freezer – and, no, this column isn’t an incompetently concealed advertisement for my clients at Iceland.

I lived for more than 20 years next door to a couple who adopted “The Good Life” long before anyone thought to make it into a TV series, and their entire lifestyle depended on the complex of chest freezers that accommodated their seasonal hauls of home-reared meat, local game, and fruit and vegetables from their garden.

Yes, the best-tasting produce is the stuff that you grow yourself and eat fresh out of the ground. But if you can’t manage that, quick-frozen vegetables are highly likely to contain more vitamins and other nutrients than “fresh” food that has been in the supermarket supply chain for days (and probably in the salad drawer of your fridge for even longer).

The middle class intelligentsia love to rubbish convenience food in general, and frozen convenience food in particular, but the clue to its appeal is in the name: it’s convenient.

And despite the complaints of the British Heart Foundation about increasing portion sizes fuelling the current obesity epidemic, I for one have found that my only successful diets were those based around a carefully controlled intake of calorie-counted ready meals.

Starting to cook from scratch, with the almost inevitable temptation of “seconds”, is for me the high road to disaster.

It will not have escaped the attention of anyone who watched the BBC2 documentary on Iceland last night that I am currently immensely fat.

N.B. The banana is an ironic tribute to David Miliband, NOT a gaffe. Though the spelling of "it's" (not by me) clearly is.

This is not a reflection on frozen food but on my own lack of self-control and one other legacy of my 1950s upbringing.

Faced with a straight choice between clearing my plate and tipping an unwanted surplus into the bin, I’m always going to go for forking it down. To do otherwise, my mother assured me, was to administer a kick in the teeth to the starving children of Africa.

I never did understand why.

I have also met exact contemporaries whose parents dispensed the directly contrary advice that you should “always leave something for Captain Manners”.

But I suspect that Captain Manners moved in more exalted social circles than ours around the Four Lane Ends. What’s more, I bet the cad never once pulled on an extra pullover or sorted out his newspapers for recycling.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

TV documentaries and wind turbines: an essay on the grotesque

Do you remember the hall of distorting mirrors that used to come to the Hoppings every year?

Admittedly a bit scantily dressed for the Hoppings

That, I discover, is very much the experience provided by an appearance on TV. I realised that I had put on a little weight since my engagement five years ago. In my more honest moments, I might even admit to being rather fat. But it took a documentary film crew to make the staggeringly unflattering revelation that I am not only possessed of a vast corporation, but that it actually moves about independently as I walk.

This is, for me, the most depressing aspect of Iceland Foods: Life Inside The Freezer Cabinet, which begins its run on BBC2 at 9pm next Monday, October 21st.

My own bit part in this series as Iceland’s PR adviser was somewhat inflated by the fact that filming coincided with the Horsegate food “crisis”. The robust language I used at the time is apparently mainly responsible for the programme’s post-watershed slot.

Overall, I think the impact on my future career prospects was neatly summarised by the Iceland director who assured me that it would be a great break. “There will be lots more people wanting to work with you once they’ve seen this,” he said. “Not doing PR, obviously.”

The “reality documentary” is, it seems, a great growth area for broadcasters, perhaps because the “talent” performs for free. They have already shown us everything we could possibly want to know about airports, airlines, railways, call centres and Greggs the bakers. Next comes Iceland, and soon every retailer will want one.

I think there is a lot to be said for shedding light on the workings of businesses, but I’d be glad if the film-makers spread their net to other areas, too. In particular, I would simply love to see a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the process of building a wind farm.

This already has all the ingredients that made the Alien film franchise such a box office success. The structures are repellent and it seems all but impossible to kill them off.

In August my stomach and I were photographed among a happy band of local residents outside County Hall, after Northumberland’s planning committee unanimously rejected an application for a large industrial turbine at Follions in Whittingham Vale, on the edge of the National Park.

The committee had heard eloquent speeches by our own councillor Steven Bridgett and by Tim Stienlet, whose nearby holiday cottage business faces ruin if the beauty and tranquillity that draws in his customers is shattered by this grotesque development.

Those members of the Committee who spoke against the proposal made it clear that they did so from intimate personal knowledge of the area, and the damage that a huge turbine in this location would do to a unique and precious landscape.

Yet now the developer has slapped in an appeal, with a demand for costs, on the grounds of the council’s “unreasonable behaviour” in turning down the application without a site visit.

Allowing members of the public to clap and cheer opponents of the scheme apparently also threatened the impartiality of the committee, which seems to have overlooked the fact that there is a “presumption in favour” of “sustainable” developments of this sort.

Well, God forbid that democracy should prevail and that the feelings of those who actually know and love an area should have the slightest bearing on planning decisions of any kind.

But if Eric Pickles’ recent pronouncements about giving due weight to the views of local communities have any meaning at all, the Follions application should be booted swiftly back into the bin to which the council rightly consigned it just two months ago.

In the meantime the costly appeal grinds on, and I would urge anyone who cares for Northumberland, and has the slightest interest in keeping its tourist industry alive, to visit the website and view the page on the planning appeal process.

The deadline for representations is October 23rd, which means that you will be cutting it a bit fine if you leave it until 9pm on the 21st to start composing your letter. But you will find something else to fill the time, won’t you?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

When a man is tired of London ...

We can normally rely on Dr Johnson to hit the aphoristic nail on the head, but I feel increasingly unsure about his assertion that a man who is tired of London is tired of life.

Mrs Hann and I spent the weekend there, and on Saturday evening I felt a tsunami of weariness engulf me as we struggled to make our way through the vacant, drugged and drunken multinational hordes occupying every square inch of pavement around Leicester Square.

I have never seen the place busier, nor more detached from the life of the rest of the country.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War Evelyn Waugh was already complaining that London was no longer an English city.

By the time I took my mother there in 1985, for her first visit since 1922, she was memorably observing that even the few people on our river boat who looked like they might be British were all “jabbering away in foreign”.

Today we have an undeniably vibrant, crowded, international city with a soaraway property market fuelled by City bonuses, and no detectable signs of recession, while a rather depressed little country bobs along, dinghy-like, in its wake.

We went to London to see an operetta. It was a sophisticated metropolitan take on Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Which meant, naturally enough, that it featured goosestepping Nazis and an excess of totally uncalled-for undressing and sexual innuendo.

I had a fair inkling of this because I had read the reviews in the national newspapers and all had been totally derisive, with the sole exception of the Daily Express. Which was small consolation, given that the Express is known for opera criticism in much the same way that the Chief Rabbi is always my first port of call when I want an informed opinion on pork sausages.

I have learned, over the years, to pay only limited attention to reviewers because I have often been pleasantly surprised by shows they have slammed, and disappointed when those they have raved about have failed to live up to my heightened expectations.

However, this one proved even grimmer than billed, which was saying something. Transforming the comic gaoler Frosch into an epileptic, sadistic, psychopath in SS uniform was the supreme masterstroke, for which the director frankly deserved not to be merely booed, but slapped.

Christopher Alden is his name, by the way. My heart sank as soon as I realised that the production was by the same man who not so long ago reset Britten’s delightful A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a grim and inevitably paedophile-dominated inner city boys’ school.

This relentless search for uncalled-for novelty truly depresses me. A recent reviewer of the Royal Opera’s well-worn but still marvellous production of Puccini’s Turandot could find no fault with singing, playing or staging, but still felt compelled to mark it down because it had “nothing new to say”.
Of course it didn’t, you idiot. Any more than Stonehenge or the Cheviot Hills have anything new to say, either. Their beauty is timeless, or at least it will be until some greedy chancer dumps a clump of whacking great wind turbines in their midst.

All, no doubt, to fund the sort of hedonistic urban lifestyles so much in evidence around Covent Garden and Soho at the weekend.

Increasingly I feel that we don’t need a high-speed rail link to suck yet more life out of the provinces into the maw of what William Cobbett presciently called The Great Wen. We need a latter-day Hadrian to knock up a socking great wall to protect the rest of England from this ghastly metropolitan contagion.

Labour endlessly lambast the Tories as “out of touch” but the reality is that all our political leaders are equally out of touch because they live in the London bubble of prosperity, where traditional standards count for little and novelty is valued above all.

Despite my advanced years, I have young children to keep up my overall interest in life. But I’m sorry, Samuel. It’s a wrench to break with you after all these years but it has to be said: when a man is tired of London in 2013, he is absolutely right.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Party conference season: an ideal time to accept reality

So far the annual party conference season seems to have been dominated by issues of energy.

Whether those be Labour’s promise of a short-term gas and electricity price freeze, or the Tories’ efforts to energise the long-term unemployed back into work.

A cynic might observe that a key driver of the high energy prices charged to consumers has been the generous subsidies introduced for basically uneconomic forms of electricity generation like wind turbines and solar farms.

All founded on a policy of “carbon taxation” that was powerfully reinforced on the watch of a certain Labour Energy Secretary called Ed Miliband.

But it would be unfair to make this a party political point. Because everyone outside the always entertaining UKIP circus seems to take huge delight in pointing out what a brilliant job Britain has done in reducing its carbon emissions; while conveniently forgetting to mention that we have only achieved this by exporting most of our manufacturing industry to China.

Which may, in turn, have some bearing on the numbers of long-term unemployed.

In the overall scheme of things, taking credit for this makes about as much sense as a man boasting that he has eliminated his overdraft, while omitting to mention he has put it in his wife’s name instead. 

Reading the acres of coverage of last week’s UN report about the 95% certainty of manmade climate change, I found myself reminded of a friend who kept going back to her doctor with a debilitating chronic ailment.

Fed up with the lack of action to cure her, she finally asked in no uncertain terms why medical science was letting her down so badly. At which the doctor outlined in great detail the courses of treatment potentially available to her.

“But those sound even worse than my disease!” she protested.

“Exactly,” her GP calmly replied.

We can all observe that the climate is changing, as it always has, and we may accept that human activity is a factor. But where is the evidence that requires us to spray money like an unmanned fire hose in a futile attempt to cure the problem?

Every farmer and landowner in the country with an eye for a financial killing, and no appreciation of beautiful landscapes, is being powerfully incentivised to whack up ugly great wind turbines on their property, though these will make a minimal contribution to our overall energy needs.

The new view from St Cuthbert's Lindisfarne, courtesy of Tony Meikle
Last year my local council installed cavity wall insulation, completely free of charge, in the house I rent in Cheshire. Even though, if it actually worked (of which I have seen no evidence to date) it would clearly have paid me to do this at my own expense.

In the long run I and everyone else will be paying for these “green energy” developments and “energy saving” initiatives through higher bills, whether from our power companies or in local or national taxes.
There is never any such thing as a free lunch. No, not even for those primary school children Nick Clegg is so keen to feed. Why on earth does he want to supply free meals to the offspring of middle class parents like me who are perfectly capable of paying for them? Particularly when the coalition only recently (and reasonably) abolished my child allowance.

But then one might equally well ask why Ed Balls is now promising to reintroduce the 10p rate of income tax his mentor Gordon Brown abolished in 2008.

We appear to be going around in ever decreasing circles of political unoriginality, culminating in the ultimate dumb idea of reverting to the sort of price controls that failed so spectacularly in the 1970s.

Even reactionaries like me, whose ultimate goal in life is to put the clock back, would never choose to stop it there.

Every party should stop striving for the next news soundbite and pause to reflect on what really matters, whether for their cherished “hardworking families” or lazy so-and-sos like me.

They might well conclude on energy costs and climate change, as my friend did on her illness, that it is best to stop looking for non-existent miracle cures and simply accept reality, then adapt to it as best we can.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Land Rover: a testimonial

I apologise if your smooth progress around Newcastle on Friday was impeded by a blue Land Rover Discovery periodically shuddering to a halt.

That was my car, though it really wasn’t all my fault. Immediate blame must rest squarely with the dealer to which I took it last Tuesday. I clearly explained what was wrong with the vehicle and returned in the evening only to be told that “they couldn’t find a fault”.

I yearn for the days when a man in oily overalls would raise a car’s bonnet and hit things with hammers of steadily increasing sizes until he felt able to pronounce that the problem was cured.

His contemporary successor seems so terrified of getting his hands dirty that he probably thinks Swarfega is the name of a Scandinavian department store. He prefers to plug his little computer into your car and, if he can’t understand what it tells him, conveniently wipes the record and shrugs his shoulders.

I know this because I have twice returned my current car with defects – the first time with a mere 500 miles on its clock – only to be told that they were effectively all in my mind.

Just to have the thing break down on me shortly afterwards.

I would not mind so much but for the fact that this has hardly ever happened to me before, through a long motoring history that began with a 1956 MG Magnette and continued through a traditional Land Rover that had been comprehensively hammered by an apparently psychopathic farmer before I bought it.

A smarter version of my first car

I am so glad now that I gave more than £50,000 of support to the British motor industry by buying what is clearly not only a “Friday car” but one built after the local football team had lost a key match on Thursday night, and the workforce had been further distracted by an outbreak of amoebic dysentery.

I have bought flats and houses for less, and would probably have stood more chance of getting reliably from A to B in some of them.

I wasted pretty much the whole of Saturday waiting for someone to provide me with a replacement hire car. In the meantime I had the pleasure of watching an AA man tow my heap of junk away, though sadly he rejected my attempt to bribe him to do an emergency stop and write the thing off before it could be “repaired”. Apparently he gets an awful lot of requests on similar lines.

None of which would have upset me quite so much if it had not resulted in my missing the wedding of a dear friend in Durham, at which I had been invited to be a witness. This was, ironically, my sole reason for spending the weekend in the North East in the first place.

I tried to explain this to the various people I called for help, but formed the firm impression that none of them really gave a stuff. Which is a shame, because customer care is no more of a dark art than public relations in general.

It just requires the application of a small amount of common sense, and a willingness to treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself.

Still, I must not be too negative about British motor manufacturing. My wife is delighted with her Sunderland-built Qashqai and it has caused her no problems at all. (Though she has caused it one or two, notably when she unaccountably decided to use the hump backed bridge at Wallington as the launch pad for an Evel Knievel-style stunt.)

I think I shall buy a Qashqai of my own next, though I will study the performance of Sunderland AFC carefully before committing myself, and insist on having one assembled on a Tuesday.

I certainly shan’t be buying another Land Rover. Or, indeed, accepting one as a free gift.

My only regret was that my two young sons were not around to witness it being loaded onto the tow truck, a spectacle they would both have greatly enjoyed. Toddler Jamie was shown a photo and sadly shook his head.

“Daddy car uh-oh,” he sighed.

I could not have put it better myself.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Amen to that, Brother Uh-Oh

Within a week of my elder son starting school, 127 so-called education experts had clubbed together to warn me that I was ruining his life.

Because where we are going wrong in the UK, apparently, is sending children to school at the age of four. We should be waiting until they are six or seven before starting their formal education, as they do in Scandinavian countries that “consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing”.

To take this debate forward, I thought it might be helpful to obtain the views of a consumer. Charlie, aged 4¼, reports that he loves school so much that he would like to sleep there and not bother coming home.

(An opinion which raised my hopes of packing him off to boarding school in a year or two, if only I could overcome his mother’s veto and land a major lottery win to pay the fees).

When I was away last weekend, he said “I miss …” and Mrs Hann was surprised when the person in question proved not to be the traditional “Daddy” but “Mrs Tudor”, his form teacher.

Charlie is happy to get changed as soon as he comes home so as “not to spoil my beautiful school uniform”. He also cheerfully completes his reading homework each evening and appears to be making excellent progress on all fronts.

However, he has always been eager to learn. Indeed, the only problem we had in getting him to school in the first place was his confident but misplaced assertion that there was no need for him to go as “I already know everything”.

I also started school aged 4¼ and am sure it did me no harm, because I was similarly ready to learn. Indeed, my parents paid for me to go to a private school precisely because the local state primary would not admit me for another year, and they could not face me hanging around the house badgering them with questions.

What did do me harm was later being fast-tracked into taking my A-levels a year earlier than usual so that I could reach university well before I was socially equipped to make the most of it (though, to be fair, on that basis I should probably have deferred my degree course until I was nearer 30).

But then we all develop at different paces. When Charlie was 19 months old he was already addressing us in well-formed sentences. His younger brother Jamie, on the other hand, who is at that age now, says little more than “Mamma”, “Dadda” and “Uh-oh”, which is both his comment when anything goes wrong and his slightly disturbing name for his elder brother.

He also recently started saying “Amen”, which I took to be an early sign of religious awakening, but turns out to be his interpretation of the name of his best friend at nursery, a little girl called Carmen.

The day before Charlie started school my wife gave him his choice of special treat and he asked to be taken to one of those farms where kiddies are invited to stroke bunnies, feed lambs, milk cows and the like. On Saturday he asked us to pay it a repeat visit on the kind pretext of sharing this experience with his younger brother.

In reality, what we mainly witnessed were clear signs of growing confidence and independence as Charlie happily went off alone on the sort of tractor ride that he would previously have insisted on taking only with his mother.

All of which is, I can see, very bittersweet for Mummy, who sees her baby growing up at a pace rarely witnessed since Jack scattered those magic bean seeds in the pantomime.

Childhood and innocence are surprisingly short, and we are doing our best to savour what is left of it. Buoyed up by the knowledge that, at his current rate of progress, young Jamie will indeed be an ideal candidate for the 127 educationalists’ preferred “free play” until he is six or seven.

Which may work out particularly well if I can secure a free transfer of my PR skills to a company somewhere in Scandinavia, where my reputation is as yet untarnished by experience.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

A get well card to a Fleet Street legend

I am writing this in the quiet carriage on Monday’s 06.53 East Coast train from Alnmouth to King’s Cross.

That is in the completely dead and wasted time that justifies lashing out £50bn-plus on HS2 to get busy executives into London a little bit quicker.

It’s not a journey I often make these days, though for two decades it was my weekly routine. Though back then, as I recall, the train left at a psychologically advantageous few minutes past seven, and arrived in London nearly 15 minutes earlier than it does now. It is hard to interpret these changes as an improvement.

It also does not help that I lay awake nearly all night worrying about whether my car would make it to the station. This is entirely my own fault for allowing patriotism and hope to triumph over experience, inducing me to buy another British-made Land Rover product.

The distinctive clunk and jerk of an imminently failing gearbox on the approach to Branxton was the only thing that marred my visit to the “Flodden 500” commemorations there on Sunday afternoon. The floral displays in the lovely church were truly outstanding, and the battlefield itself has acquired some useful interpretation boards since I last paid it a visit many years ago.

Floral tribute to King James IV
"Surrey and his men"

The killing field of Flodden is an amazingly small space to have witnessed the end of so many thousands of lives – and for what? The union of the English and Scottish crowns a mere nine decades later confirms the truth of my late mother’s favourite mantra: “It will all be the same in 100 years’ time.”

Flodden Field, viewed from the English lines

Although Mr Salmond has timed his referendum to coincide with the Scottish victory at Bannockburn next year, I do hope that some will reflect on Flodden, and the pointlessness of division and conflict, when casting their votes.

I am becoming quite familiar with the road north to Milfield, where my aunt and I enjoyed an excellent lunch at the legendary Red Lion to set us up for Flodden.

The Red Lion's unusual bar tariff

This is because my distinguished colleague David Banks, having devoted his column last Friday to our scheduled columnists’ lunch that day in Newcastle, rang me early in the morning with the sad news that he felt too poorly to make the trip.

Later, having compressed half a day’s work into a mere two hours, I rang him back and offered him a lift. I came to regret this when I discovered that the A697 north of Powburn was largely under water, restricting the caravans travelling in my direction to a mere 20mph. (Though lorries and vans coming towards me, oddly enough, still felt that it was fine to try cornering at a terrifying 60mph-plus.)

Banksy devoted the whole similarly unnerving hour’s drive to Newcastle to an account of his recent medical history – and that was just the executive summary. I don’t think I have heard a “looking on the bright side” line to match his “at least having the leukaemia back has got rid of my diabetes” since I heard that fine old joke about the butler ringing his absent employer to report that the grand house and its priceless contents had all been burnt to a cinder, “though on the plus side, sir, all the heat has brought your spring bulbs on a treat.”

It was also no doubt good for my own health that the need to convey the Fleet Street legend back to his Tweedo Paradiso forced me to revise my original plan of getting howling drunk and then wandering aimlessly around the centre of the toon for several hours until I sobered up.

At one point my passenger remarked that it was very kind of me to make a 50-mile detour to give him a lift. I said truthfully that it was a pleasure, but wondered whether he might like to reflect that it was possible for someone to be a Tory and a fairly decent human being at the same time.

He looked at me as though I had asked him to accept that the moon is made of green cheese.

Nevertheless, despite our deep-rooted political differences, this column comes with just one message: get well, Banksy, preferably soon.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.