Tuesday 26 March 2013

Fed up with austerity Britain? Sadly, you ain't seen nothing yet

The canny chief executive, on reaching the top of the greasy pole, makes the shock discovery that he has inherited a total disaster.

The company’s profits are immediately trashed by massive write-offs, its workforce slashed and expectations comprehensively lowered to a level from which even a halfwit should be able to engineer some sort of recovery - for which the new boss will naturally be richly rewarded.

This Year Zero strategy was surely the only sensible option available to whoever was unlucky enough to win the UK General Election of 2010: a vote that any sensible politician should have done their utmost to lose.

Losing: something to smile about properly at long last

Incredibly, the incoming Coalition did not seize the golden opportunity to make our lives an utter misery straight away, in the admittedly faint hope that we would have forgiven and forgotten by the time of the next election in 2015.

They have now been in power for almost three years, and the confiscation of my family’s child allowances has only just kicked in. Wealthy pensioners continue to trouser unneeded winter fuel payments, while whole swathes of Government expenditure on health, education and overseas aid remain ring-fenced against cuts.

Small wonder that the deficit remains stubbornly high, the national debt continues to climb, and economic growth remains a fond memory. But not to worry, because our leaders are fixing the things that really matter: imposing yet another reorganisation on the NHS and restricting the freedom of the press (which, in the current state of the industry, seems about as meaningful as slapping a preservation order on a snowman).

Our collective memory is short, and any reminder that this Government is dealing with problems not of its own making is now the cue for loud jeers. Hence the likeliest outcome of the next election is the return to power of those who did so much to create the mess in the first place.

Balls. Nothing more to be said

No wonder that electorates elsewhere in Europe, faced with similar choices, tick the “none of the above” box by voting for comedians instead.

Despite their failure to grasp the nettle in 2010, it is increasingly hard to see what the Government hopes to gain by continuing to pretend that “the medicine is working” and things are going to pick up any time soon. It isn’t, and they aren’t.

This week’s confiscation of bank deposits in Cyprus (an island that still drives on the left but foolishly abandoned its pound for the euro in 2008) could well be the taste of things to come for all of us as the mad European project continues to unravel, with potentially dire consequences not only for prosperity, but for the very peace that idealists proclaim as the European Union’s crowning achievement. 

A typical Cyprus ATM

Retrospectively imposing a 110% tax on all bankers’ bonuses, and perhaps hanging a few of them from lampposts, might help relieve our feelings, but it won’t actually get us out of the economic mire in which we find ourselves. Nor will trying to borrow even more money in the hope that we can somehow spend our way out of the hole.

Sadly we all need to adjust our fond hope that life is going to get steadily cushier. “Living standards” across the board need to come down until we have settled the bill for the criminal folly of the debt-fuelled artificial boom of the Blair years.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Our material expectations have risen massively in my lifetime. We are warmer, fatter, longer-lived and more richly entertained than ever before in human history. But I see precious little evidence that we are any happier as a result.

It will come as no comfort to a better-off Cypriot saver to be reminded of this, but life is extremely short and the important thing is to try and enjoy it to the best of our ability. People can be blissfully happy working for a pittance for a cause they believe in, while even billionaires can fall prey to suicidal misery.

I for one would appreciate the Government finally admitting that we all are going to get considerably worse off for the foreseeable future, so that we can focus on learning how to smile with gritted teeth.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

My cloned son: already let down and never getting better

Have you noticed how the most vehement opponents of the hereditary principle never seem to hesitate about giving their own kids a leg-up in their careers?

I’m thinking of the sort of bien-pensant lefties who line up to sneer at TV programmes like Sunday night’s heartwarming two hours of “Our Queen” on ITV, yet curiously ensure that their favoured professions of acting, broadcasting, journalism and politics are stuffed full of their own sprogs.

The same individuals are usually full of praise for the comprehensive school system, and quick to condemn those who seek to opt out of it. Except in the case of their own children, whose needs must always come first, and who would suffer so terribly if they were sent to the local state school.

I should say right away that I do not condemn their actions, merely the hypocritical disjoint between their words and deeds.

I can also understand how they come to feel that little Tristram is peculiarly suited to following them into a TV studio or the House of Commons if they chance, like me, to have a child who appears to be a perfect clone of themselves.

Firmly ticking the box for 'no publicity', as usual

Charlie Hann, aged 3¾, is currently experiencing a severe dose of his first proper childhood illness, all the other major horrors of my own infancy having been more or less eliminated by vaccination. The NHS website helpfully advises that “Chickenpox in children is considered a mild illness, but expect your child to feel pretty miserable and irritable while they have it.”

This could not be more spot on (no pun intended), but Charlie adds to it a quality of existential despair that is surely quite unusual at his age. So every attempt by his mother to dispense some helpful medicine or soothing lotion is rebuffed with a firm assertion that it is not going to work.

Similarly, her repeated assurances that he will soon be well again, like his convalescent younger brother, provoke a shake of the head and the bleak certainty: “Mummy, I’m never going to get better.” 

A statement capped only by his recent sad pronouncement, in response to his mother’s guarantee that she would keep a promise: “The thing is, Mummy, you’ve already let me down.”

In this context as in so many others, my wife assures me that it is spookily like talking to me. Indeed, the only difference she can discern is that Charlie has yet to obtain an encyclopaedic grasp of the major dread diseases, and so does not tack on the words, “It’s cancer, I know it is,” as I am prone to do when contemplating anything from a small spot to a mild cough.

Meanwhile Mrs Hann herself has been ill with an infection that four courses of antibiotics so far this year have failed to shift in the sense of eliminating it, though they have been quite successful in moving it around a bit between her sinuses, throat and chest.

Suggesting that there might be more than a little truth in the Chief Medical Officer’s recent suggestion that we can all stop worrying about terrorism and global warming because the thing that is actually going to kill us is our growing inability to cure infections because of antimicrobial resistance.

Though within a couple of days of that chilling warning a report from the House of Lords, whose members know a thing or two about old age, predicted that half the children born in 2007 would live to be 103. It is hard to avoid the feeling that both these forecasts cannot be correct.

Perhaps, if Charlie defies his own predictions and overcomes his current brush with disease, he will indeed live for a century. But it will be 100 years of acutely argumentative pessimism, in which a red cross will regularly be painted on his front door and an undertaker placed on stand-by.

Unless, that is, I can somehow divert him from my own career path of bumblingly amateur attempts at historical research, public relations and journalism, and persuade him to become a funeral director instead. Because, on the evidence to date, no one since Walmington-on-Sea’s Private Frazer has been better qualified to pronounce “We’re all doomed!”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

My very own bid for immortality as a model Selfless Spender

It amuses me to reflect that neighbours and casual acquaintances once used to sidle up to me and shyly request my financial advice.

I was always swift to put them right. “You need a financial adviser,” I’d say.

“I thought that’s what you were,” they’d reply.

“No, I’m a financial PR adviser.”

“What’s the difference?”

“A financial adviser tells you how to lose all your own money. A financial PR adviser helps public companies to explain how they have lost all the shareholders’ money.”

I’d then add something along the lines of: “I shouldn’t be doing this but, since it’s you, if you’re thinking of taking out an endowment mortgage or a payment protection policy, I wouldn’t bother.”

It doesn’t look like any of them listened. Presumably there is one person somewhere in the UK for whom PPI was an appropriate purchase, but the billions set aside for compensation suggest that he or she is proving exceedingly hard to find.

I will state for the record that I never had any PPI myself, in the hope that this column may be read by at least one of the claims management companies that pester me on the subject every day.

But that was one of the few personal financial matters on which I ever made the right call. A fact of which I have been brutally reminded by spending the entire morning in my attic, frantically searching through papers to find the documentation on a transaction of more than a decade ago, which suddenly looks like unravelling rather expensively.

At times like these, hoarders like me feel a modest glow of satisfaction at having religiously kept every bank statement since the first, from Barclays in Clayton Street West, in 1972.

The depressing thing was realising that at the turn of the millennium I was, if not stinking rich, more than comfortably off. I might not have had the bank balance of a lottery winner, but could have been mistaken for someone who had copped the prize for five balls plus the bonus in a draw that threw up some pretty unpopular numbers. 

And now it’s all gone. I am truly, absolutely skint. Which has led me to reflect on how on earth I allowed it to happen.

I have paid off a small mortgage, bought an old blacksmith’s forge and a modest patch of land, and paid for one wedding and a honeymoon, but no funerals. That might account for half of it, I suppose, but what about the rest?

I don’t take expensive foreign holidays, or British ones if I can avoid it. I dress like a reasonably fragrant tramp. My kids were born on the NHS. The only past extravagances I can readily identify are a penchant for buying books and opera tickets – the former now abandoned because I have run out of shelf space, and the latter severely curtailed by the difficulty and expense of arranging childcare.

Still, the numbers speak for themselves. Without really trying, I have clearly become one of those few heroic spenders who are helping to keep what is left of the British economy afloat. In marked contrast to those fish-faced enemies of the people who insist on sticking their mites into savings account, deaf to strong hints from on high like the absence of any interest payments.

If this were Soviet Russia, I expect I would qualify for some sort of “hero of the people” badge to wear proudly on my lapel. As it is, I shall settle for a MBE in the next Honours List, for services to national prosperity. George Osborne please note.

Though if the Chancellor really wants to stimulate the economy through some targeted investment in arts and culture, I would be willing to pose for a new statue of “The Selfless Spender” to be erected in some suitable central Newcastle location.

I envision myself laughing as the wind catches my open wallet and notes cascade out. Given an industrial fan and some real banknotes, this could create a bit of local economic stimulus all of its own. He could call it “Quantitative Easing Mark 2".

Remember that you read it here first when the Budget comes out.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Dealing with British power companies: enough to depress anyone

I apologise for my absence last week. I was a trifle depressed. Or, to be more accurate, a horse burger depressed.

Though at least I had something to be depressed about, namely a substantial dose of work-related stress. Which is less disturbing, as any depressive can tell you, than the tsunami of gloom that occasionally engulfs the sufferer quite unexpectedly, for no obvious reason at all.

I dragged myself back to work after a couple of days and promptly burst into tears when someone said something nice to me, which is never good for my image as a hardened cynic.

A cynic, though perhaps not hardened enough

Cynical, yes, though I hope not unsympathetic, because a certain amount of empathy seems critical to the whole public relations process. A lesson clearly not grasped by the power company that recently upset one acquaintance through its heavy-handed approach to transferring an electricity account into her name after the sadly premature death of her partner.

She felt moved to make a formal complaint, which swiftly elicited a computer-generated letter of apology. Which might have helped had it not been brilliantly addressed to the deceased account holder. So she complained again. Predictably, the dead man then received another, even more grovelling, letter.

This could easily run as long as The Mousetrap. Much like the apparently never-ending pursuit of my dear wife by the same power company and two successive debt collectors over a small bill left unpaid by a former tenant of the house she occupied before we got married.

Mentioning no names, but ...

For some reason these goons failed to acknowledge her notification that she had changed her surname on marriage, then unilaterally accorded her a sex change from Miss to Mr on their files. So whenever they rang her up (which latterly was several times per day) they then refused to speak to her because she was clearly not the man they were looking for. Attempts to correspond by e-mail fell at the self-same hurdle.

Imagine their delight when they somehow got hold of my personal ex-directory number, because I am unmistakably a man and might therefore be just the lead they were after – if not the bill dodger himself operating under an unlikely pseudonym.

The hole in the triangle presumably symbolises the debt which this shower set out to collect for their clients; dealing with them can only be described as Kafkaesque

Reams of documents have been photocopied and despatched by recorded delivery to demonstrate who is actually responsible for the trifling debt at the heart of this dispute, and to provide his last known address. All have been promptly lost, at which point any normal company would apologise and give up. This lot just expect Mrs Hann to go through the expensive rigmarole of sending them all over again.

My wife’s own costs have vastly exceeded the amount claimed in the first place, never mind the hundreds of pounds in fees that must have been run up by the debt collectors. I did suggest that this argued for the simple if unjust solution of simply paying them to go away but, as my wife contends, “It’s the principle of the thing”. If you settle one bill you don’t owe for the sake of a quiet life, where will it end?

But that’s power companies for you. As if charging like the Light Brigade for our energy were not enough, in my experience they feel compelled to add insult to injury by screwing up every attempt at customer communication.

Ditto the laughably named British Telecom, who make it all but impossible for me to work at home because of the unreliability of the feeble broadband connection for which I pay handsomely each quarter. I long ago gave up complaining because I could never get through to anyone who spoke my language.

"I can assure you, sir, that I have checked your line and it is working perfectly. Hello? Hello?"

I refuse to blame this on privatisation. I remember having to stand in Soviet-style queues in bleak utility showrooms to secure gas, electricity and a telephone line when I bought my first flat in 1981, and there was nothing good about those old days.

Yet somehow us customers need to unite against the monolithic service providers of this country and make it clear that they must give some priority to our simple needs for reliability, affordability, responsiveness and politeness, particularly when things go wrong.

Otherwise we might all have good reasons for feeling ever so slightly depressed

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne