Tuesday 29 January 2013

If fast trains are the answer, why isn't Doncaster Eldorado?

If I spent what little is left of my savings on a magnificent new train set, rather than on fixing the leaks in my roof, people might well question my priorities if not my sanity.

What exactly is different about the Government finding that it has £33bn to splash out on a new high speed rail link at a time of economic stagnation, widespread cuts and still relentlessly rising public sector debt?

It is the same logic that has us building two new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy even though we can only afford to run one of them, may not have any aircraft to put on it and certainly cannot provide it with appropriate escorts.

The big vanity project always seems to stand a far better chance of getting through the selection process than the smaller and more sensible ones that might actually bring some real improvements to our lives.

If fast and frequent rail connections to London were the key to economic success, Doncaster would be Eldorado.

Booming Doncaster, courtesy of The Guardian

There is a persuasive case that, rather than boosting regional prosperity, high speed rail will simply suck yet more economic life out of provincial cities into the capital.

Personally, I would much rather be able to get reliably and speedily across the Pennines and back than to London. Questioned about this issue on Radio 4 yesterday morning, the leader of Manchester City Council responded that it wasn’t a matter of either or: we could invest in both.

Well, good luck with that. In reality, whether in transport, the NHS or any other area of Government spending, it is always going to be a question of either or. Unless, perhaps, fracking miraculously releases so much natural gas that it transforms the UK into another Qatar. Which might have its upsides, but is not the sensible way to bet.

Back in the 19th century, politicians spent an inordinate amount of time debating railway construction bills, whether a man should be permitted to marry his deceased wife’s sister, and Irish Home Rule. 

Scroll on to 2013 and we now have the eerily similar line-up of HS2, gay marriage and UK Home Rule, as the promised in-out referendum on the European Union might be characterised. All guaranteed to cause huge ructions among those on both sides who care passionately about the issues, and bemusement if not outright boredom for the rest of the population.

As in 1975, I suspect that most people who vote in the European referendum, if it ever happens, will plump for the option that seems likely to make them a little more comfortably off.

Hence we shall be driven to screaming point over the years ahead by hearing over and over again how many jobs depend on Britain’s membership of the EU, and the dangers of all those lovely multinational companies refusing to invest here if they believe there is a real risk of us voting to pull out.

Presumably those would be the very same terrible multinational corporations we are simultaneously urged to hate because of their marked reluctance to pay tax.

The central irony of this debate will be that the EU is simply the biggest politicians’ vanity project of the lot, in which any claimed economic benefits are massively subordinate to the holy grail of “ever closer union”, as Greece, Spain and Ireland have already found out to their cost.

I often wish that the optional approach to taxpaying extended beyond multinationals to the self-employed like me. Particularly today, on which I must meet the eye-watering demands of HMRC for the last tax year as well as making my first payment on account for the current one.

I seem to be paying for about half of HMS Queen Elizabeth plus Abu Qatada’s housing benefit for the next 12 months.

HMS Queen Elizabeth. An artist's impression, obviously. Particularly the planes.

Maybe the Government should pull into a siding and pause for thought on what those who actually pay their bills might like from those in authority. My advice would be to forget the vanity projects, whether in transport, defence, Europe or anywhere else.

Some simple, quiet competence in protecting and improving basic services, cutting red tape and encouraging entrepreneurship would get my personal green light.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Just my luck: living with someone who knows it all

I am constantly being told that I am a very lucky man - usually by my wife, though other, perhaps less biased, observers do chip in from time to time to back her up.

But even at my most cynical moments, I can see how fortunate I am to share my life with someone who knows the answers to absolutely everything. Which is all the more remarkable when one considers that this repository of omniscience is only three.

Mrs Hann recently tried to give our elder son some helpful advice on how to handle our new puppy, but he cut her short with: “The thing is, Mummy, I know all about dogs.”

The child who knows everything - including the fact that he doesn't like having his photograph taken

Similarly, our attempt to improve his understanding of the food chain was dismissed with the assertion, “Don’t be silly, Mummy. I don’t eat animals. I eat food.”

At some point one of us is going to have to explain what actually goes into the sausages and fish fingers that are currently just about the only things he will eat, apart from lightly disguised refined sugar and – bizarrely – smoked salmon.

But I am certainly not going to volunteer for that assignment, because I don’t suppose he will be any more willing than the rest of the great British public to believe me when I try to offer reassurance on the quality of processed food.

Having spent the last 35 years mainly working on and for food companies, first as an investment analyst and then as a public relations consultant, I have undoubtedly visited more production lines than the average citizen, and I can offer this insight: I have never once been deterred from eating products like pies, pasties or sausages by seeing what went into them or the way they were handled.

I confess that I always ducked invitations to view that essential part of the process that sees live animals converted into meat. If I had to kill my own, I might well become a vegetarian tomorrow. But since meat exists, and is delicious, it would require much stronger principles than mine not to indulge in it. 

True, I have never visited a burger production line, the focus of so much recent angst, but I cannot imagine that different principles apply there. The food industry has its pirates and corner-cutters, like every other, but no mainstream British food manufacturer or retailer would ever set out to con its customers by deliberately flogging them a dead horse.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Horsegate imbroglio is how hard the media has found it to whip up (no pun intended) hysterically aggrieved consumers. Most of them seem more interested in cracking jokes, some of which have been rather good.

A surprisingly high proportion also seems open in principle to eating horsemeat, if it were properly marketed as such. I am not amongst them, but only because my views on what constitutes acceptable food were set in stone more than half a century ago.

To this day I cannot bring myself to eat rabbit, which my mother ruled out because of then rampant myxomatosis, and I remain childishly sceptical of most seafood that doesn’t come coated in breadcrumbs or batter.

Our 11 month old cheerily shovels down anything he can get his hands on, and would be as unfazed by horse as the hungriest French paysan.

The next Michael Winner in training

But then I seem to remember his elder brother took the same omnivorous approach at that stage, before his focus on sausages and fish fingers developed.

Maybe we could get him some therapy on this when he goes for counselling about the trauma of watching a puppet impersonate Jimmy Savile on CBBC’s Tweenies on Sunday morning. A great cue for more outrage, this time on the failings of the BBC, even though precisely none of CBBC’s target audience would have the slightest clue who Jimmy Savile was.

The simple fact is that, even in the best-run organisations, mistakes occasionally happen. We should calmly find out why, to ensure that they do not occur again. If anyone would like to borrow a small person who knows absolutely everything to help with the investigations, please just let me know.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Fatties like me need a stronger warning than red lights

As the economy falters, Government cuts bite, libraries close and the shutters go up on yet more failing retailers, I feel an increasingly desperate urge to identify something that may cheer us up in 2013.

Last year at least we had the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. Already the hysterical media overreaction to David Bowie’s new single has underlined how desperate we are for the smallest shred of non-bad news.

Searching the Internet for more of the same, I was reminded that this is to be the great year when we are at last blessed with a uniform system of traffic light labelling for foodstuffs. Hurrah!

Well, I say “uniform”, but in fact the system will only definitely apply to the own label products of supermarkets that have been bullied into voluntary compliance by the Government, with the aid of assorted no doubt well-intentioned pressure groups.

Because food labelling is one of the many areas on which our own Government has surrendered its competence to the EU, it cannot actually impose a system that would cover branded food manufacturers as well as retailers.

This raises the possibility that consumers may baulk at all the glowing red lights on a Tesco chocolate bar, and pick a warning-free Cadbury’s one instead.

This will only happen, of course, if we assume that shoppers are terminally thick. But then that does seem to be the principle on which the whole labelling system, like most Government advice, is predicated.

How many of us really need little coloured spots to tell us that an apple will do us more good than a packet of lard, or that a green salad is likely to prove healthier than a stuffed crust pepperoni pizza with extra mozzarella?

Can it really be sensible to plaster red warnings across natural products that have been part of the human diet for centuries, like red meat, cheese, cream and sugar, while green lighting artificially contrived and industrially produced “lite” alternatives?

I write this as an overweight man who has been enjoined by his doctor to eschew such small pleasures as cakes, and to eat bread with only “a scrape” of some ghastly yellow cholesterol-reducing spread.

I ignore this advice as I prepare my toast nearly every morning for the simple reason that butter is absolutely delicious, while the alternative has all the taste appeal of a dollop of lubricating oil.

If my doctor is reading this, I do at least have brown toast

The whole food industry has been working for years to meet assorted targets for the reduction of fat, salt and sugar. Where they have failed, it is almost invariably because the reformulated product doesn’t taste anything like as good as the original.

Admittedly time may help to resolve this. I have not added sugar to hot drinks or salt to pretty much anything for years, and consequently find many prepared foods far too sweet or salty for my taste.

I do appreciate the value of having all the facts about any product’s contents at my fingertips, particularly its calorie count. It came as a revelation when I finally grasped that the lunchtime sandwich I sometimes grabbed as a “light” alternative usually contained many more calories than a proper meal.

Four years ago I achieved a significant and undoubtedly beneficial weight loss that I would never have accomplished without this information. Now, like most dieters, I need to go through the whole rigmarole again. Not because I am inadequately informed, but because I am a greedy so-and-so who cannot consume treats in moderation.

I don’t need telling what is bad for me. I need something to discourage me from eating too much of it. Putting a series of red traffic lights on the front of the pack is not going to be of the slightest assistance.

What might help would be to take a leaf from the anti-smoking campaigners’ book and plaster packs with images of the awful consequences of over-indulgence. Food’s equivalent of a horrific tumour could be an image of the late Sir Cyril Smith.

In miniature, smiling and giving an encouraging thumbs-up on a salad; vastly enlarged and menacing on a meat pie.

Yes, that thought has made me revisit my plans for lunch already. Lettuce, anyone?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Hoist those storm cones: it's the year of the dog

The Chinese believe we are in the year of the dragon, suggesting that they are about as much use as the ancient Mayans at drawing up calendars.

Because you only have to glance at The Journal to see that this is, without question, the year of the dog.

And they call it [remainder of caption vetoed by the cliche police]

You have already been treated to news of Tom Gutteridge’s puppy Boots (not the chemist) and Kate Fox’s Norbert (one can only admire the chutzpah of someone in her line of business selecting a name that is so damnably hard to fit into a rhyme scheme).

I can only apologise for being so pathetically unoriginal after a three week absence occasioned by a seasonal mix of illness and indolence, but on Friday we took delivery of our new Border terrier puppy, Dunstan.

Preparing to leave mum
Getting to know his surrogate Mum
Doing what puppies do best

The spelling is quite important because a number of people have already asked me why I am so attached to that place near Gateshead with the combustible staithes.

The choice is my attempt to continue the Northumbrian coastal theme I began 11 years ago when I named my incumbent Border terrier Craster. He has duly evolved into the world class kipper that I was wittily anticipating, after those first few difficult years of mania, destructiveness and aggression.

A very rare shot of Craster not asleep or drenched in the summer of 2012

My first thought for the new puppy’s name was Warkworth, but I then foresaw a canine lifetime of confusion with the prospect of a refreshing constitutional.

Mrs Hann, who is by nature a cat person, has bought one of those advice books on what to do with puppies, from which I now know that I have been doing almost everything wrong over the last half century of dog ownership.

This is no doubt why my dogs have never respected or obeyed me, only complying with my requests on those rare occasions when they happen to coincide with what they were planning to do anyway at the time.

The worst aspect of this is being congratulated, whenever I collect Craster from kennels, on having such a charming and biddable pet. Making clear that he actually knows all the usual commands and how to respond to them, but simply isn’t prepared to do so for me.

Craster cheerfully ignored his new assistant for the first couple of days, until the true horror of the situation finally dawned on him and he grasped that this might be a permanent addition to the family rather than a casual visitor. At which point he made his views clear by lunging to bite the puppy’s head off when it tried to play with him.

Luckily we have extensive experience of this sort of behaviour after bringing our three-year-old son Charlie the precious gift of a younger brother last February.

In an attempt to reduce the number of random attacks on baby Jamie, Mrs Hann had the bright idea before Christmas of commissioning one of those bespoke online videos from Father Christmas. Santa duly opened his book on Charlie and noted that he had been mainly good through the year, but really needed to be a bit nicer to his younger brother if he wanted to maximise the haul in his stocking. 

Charlie took this in with rapt attention, then fixed his brother with a venomous look that clearly conveyed that no one likes a grass. He faithfully promised to be a model brother to Jamie in the future, then gave him a hearty kick up the backside when he thought we weren’t paying attention.

Mummy warned Charlie that any more of this would land him on the naughty step, to which he calmly replied, “While I’m on the naughty step, will you please make sure that Jamie doesn’t touch any of my toys?”

My brother got a Scalextric set and they gave me THIS?

I have a nasty feeling that the naughty step doesn’t work with Border terriers, while Mrs Hann has vetoed the shouting, screaming and corporal punishment that were the mainstays of both childrearing and pet training when I was growing up myself.

Assuming that UN peacekeepers or a drone strike are also out of the question, prospects for the remainder of the year of the dog look suspiciously like the political forecasts for the coalition: decidedly stormy.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Friday 4 January 2013

2013: the year in prospect

My forecasts for the year ahead (which at least probably stand a better chance than the below-mentioned Radio 4 racing tips):

January: BBC Today programme announces appointment of ancient Mayan racing tipster; Muffin the Mule arrested as Jimmy Savile enquiry enters new phase

February: Silvio Berlusconi re-elected Prime Minister of Italy; satire officially declared dead

March: Shock in Parliament as someone says “I agree with Nick” for first time since 2010 leaders’ debates; Tories blamed

April: New press regulator starts work; all newspapers lead on story of successful lambing in Northumberland

May: First woman bishop enthroned after surprise Synod vote; cathedral rocked by estimate for new curtains on all stained glass windows

June: Queen celebrates 60th anniversary of Coronation; Prince Charles wins Network Rail Lifetime Achievement Award for world’s longest wait

Frankly any excuse will do for a lovely picture of the Coronation

July: Duchess of Cambridge gives birth to a son; feminists demand urgent recount

August: New Bank of England Governor Mark Carney completes initial review of books and returns to Canada, saying he may be some time

September: Alex Salmond slain as local toddlers’ Flodden 500th anniversary re-enactment gets out of hand

October: Last Newcastle public library closes: Tories blamed; Lit & Phil announces first-ever waiting list for membership

November: After knife-edge vote, US Congress approves far-reaching ban on personal ownership of bazookas and howitzers

December: Bankers earn record bonuses; MPs claim record expenses; Tories blamed


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Thursday 3 January 2013

2012: the year recalled

Despite the reliably Apocalyptic weather, the best (if also the most predictable) news of 2012 turned out to be the shock discovery that the ancient Mayans had completely screwed up their calculations, no doubt under the influence of fermented chocolate, and that the vast majority of us are still here.

The Daily Mirror's viewpoint

Although the economic news and prospects remained unremittingly grim throughout, the memories of the year that seem likeliest to prove long term keepers are mostly positive ones, notably those of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Olympics and Paralympics. As if that were not enough, Andy Murray finally won something, and there were even unconfirmed rumours that he might have smiled. 

Meanwhile, from the pasty tax to Hillsborough, there were encouraging signs of those in authority being willing to listen to reason and take action to put wrongs right.

All of which added up to a year in which you did not have to be a potentially UKIP-voting fruitcake to feel proud to be British, wave a flag, know the words of the national anthem and raise the occasional cheer.

On the other hand, I note with concern that a variety of authorities from Nostradamus to Buddha apparently reckon that the end of the world was actually scheduled for 2013 all along …

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.