Tuesday 30 April 2013

If we can't go back to mining coal, how about making our own pants?

In the spring of 1974 I took a break from university and spent around six months driving a thread van. Yes, thread not bread: for J & P Coats, to be precise.

My job introduced me to a world I never knew existed, of small factories beavering away turning out a wide range of garments, from ladies’ knickers to men’s pullovers. Many of them in former or then still active mining communities in Northumberland and Durham.

A high proportion of those factories supplied Marks & Spencer, which used to boast until the 1990s that 98% of its goods were British made. I was one of many loyal St Michael shoppers who kept going back partly because I felt reassured that my regular purchases of underpants and cardigans were keeping the nimble fingers of seamstresses gainfully employed on my home turf.

But then M&S found themselves under growing pressure from the new breed of clothing retailer that sourced its products from the cheapest sweatshops of the Far East. And, before long, I found that my Marks & Spencer underpants were coming from Sri Lanka, my suits from Mauritius and pretty much everything else from China. I would gladly have paid a bit extra to keep buying stuff made in the UK, but I was never offered that option.

Indeed, it is extremely hard these days to be sure of getting genuinely British-made clothing of any description, with even some “Jermyn Street” brands quietly having their stuff made overseas. (Like Apple, they make much more of where their products are designed than of where they are produced.)

The irony is that this shift of production does not seem to have done Marks & Spencer much good, with the City pages reporting its “general merchandise” clothing business continuing to lurch from one disappointment to another. Meanwhile its altogether more upmarket food arm, which largely does source its products from UK manufacturers, goes from strength to strength.

Those textile factories I remember from the 1970s were not, perhaps, the most exciting places to work but they provided skilled and so, I presume, reasonably paid employment. Perhaps more importantly, I do not recall any of them ever collapsing in a heap, trapping the luckless workforce in the rubble.

It always seemed a little strange to me that their disappearance at the hands of “globalisation” attracted none of the publicity or angst attendant on the closure of the coalmines they operated alongside.

It would be nice to think that we as consumers could exercise a little more direct power over the companies that flog us our clothes than over, say, the fuel purchasing policies of the electricity generators.

As the dead in Bangladesh continue to be totted up, I dare say that many of us will wring our hands for a day or two and tell ourselves that we really must stop buying stuff that is run up under dangerous conditions by poorly paid workers in far-off lands.

Just as we reacted for a few days when a TV programme exposed the fact that our sportswear was being made by children.

Then we will doubtless carry on exactly as before, because all experience suggests that, for the great British consumer, price ultimately trumps every other consideration.

Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to afford to do so already do our bit to support local food producers, farmers’ markets and independent retailers wherever we can. But, as I have already observed, it is extremely difficult even to try to buy locally made clothes.

So this column is less of an appeal to the consumer than to the retailers, and to one retailer in particular. Have you ever thought, Marks & Spencer, of giving that old “Made in Britain” line another try? Surely it can’t be that hard to find a suitable space and some sewing machines, and I feel sure that there must be a few people in the North East who remember how it used to be done.

Or am I the only man in Britain who would sit a little more comfortably if he knew that his underwear had been made in a British factory by British workers, earning a living wage?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

A St George's Day lament for the lost England of play-proof toys

Before last year’s Olympics and Jubilee, many commentators agonised over whether the Union Flag could ever again symbolise national unity, because of its attempted appropriation by various far right groups.

Yet New Labour’s hijacking of the red rose for party political purposes has been calmly accepted with a shrug.

Admittedly this only really troubles me once a year: but it is today, St George’s Day. When I shall proudly wear an English rose in my buttonhole and wait resignedly for some bright spark to say: “Well, I never had you down as a Miliband supporter.”

Luckily only a pale pink rose was available at Hann Towers this morning

To which I shall doubtless reply with a variant of my standard response to Labour canvassers: “I’m not, I just look stupid.”

It is something of a challenge being a patriot these days, particularly as the unlikely father of young boys. I was brought up in the 1950s to believe that British was always best. Nearly all my toys were proudly stamped “Made in England by Meccano Limited”, usually followed by the mysterious yet somehow reassuring “Patent Pending”.

I once made the serious mistake of thinking that “Empire Made” also counted as British, until my Dad pointed out that it was a polite euphemism for “Made in Hong Kong” and therefore rubbish. As was anything emanating from Japan or other points east.

His only concession, made with the teeth-gritted reluctance of one who had been shelled on the Normandy beaches, was that the Germans could be relied upon to make some things even better than we could.

When I acquired a level crossing for my Hornby train set, it came out of the box ready to use and was made of solid metal so indestructible that I still have it to this day, along with many of my Dinky cars and trucks.

True, they have sharp edges and kiddies probably die of lead poisoning if they are foolish enough to treat them as ju-jubes, but you can subject them to repeated multiple pile-ups without so much as scratching their paintwork.

Compare and contrast the Hornby trains of today which are my three-year-old’s pride and joy. All “Made in China”, naturally. I keep meaning to buy a stopwatch and take modest bets with myself on how long each addition to his layout will last. The level crossing I installed on Friday made it a creditable 24 hours before the plastic barriers were snapped.

On the one hand nearly all this stuff is labelled as not being suitable for the under-threes. However, no one should interpret this as meaning that it is suitable for the over-threes. It merely means that the Elfin Safety experts consider that children who have passed this milestone are less likely to shove the small parts in their gobs and choke to death.

The reality is in the very small print on the engine shed I recently acquired, precisely because I was impressed by its apparent robustness: “Detailed scale model for adult collectors. Scale model not designed for play.”

Not suitable for children

Let me tell you, Mr Toy / Model Company Mogul, playing is all any of us want to do with miniature trains, whether we are coming up to four or 60, and however much we may try to pretend that we are really constructing scale model dioramas to provide an educational insight into our industrial past. 

Following recent revelations about the true value of my “investment grade” model collection, I think I may as well give it to my boy Charlie to enjoy. The Hornby Dublo 3-rail diecast models would probably emerge unscathed from a North Korean nuclear attack, so it will be interesting to see how much damage he can inflict on them.

His mother may veto the spring-loaded rockets on the Tri-ang “Battle Zone” military train in case they put his eye out, but I feel sure that the circus train with the giraffe which ducks down before low bridges will afford hours of innocent pleasure.

Well, it certainly will to me, at any rate. After all, that is what toy trains are for.

Playing with and having fun. It just seems a shame, on this red letter and red rose day of English identity, that they cannot be “Made in England” any more.


Written for, but not published in, the Newcastle Journal of 23 April 2013. Though, to be fair, it was published in the Newcastle Journal of 24 April 2013.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Those who fail to respect Lady Thatcher are the real nasty party

I could have written about Margaret Thatcher in this space last week, but I was too sad.

Saddened less at the passing of a sick, old woman than by the nauseating joy of the unreconstructed Left on her demise. One need not contemplate their antics for long to know who is, and always has been, the real “nasty party” in British politics.

Before Thatcher good socialists surely drank light ale, not champagne
Arguably too young to know any better

I was 24 when Mrs Thatcher came to power and frankly unsure that this new-fangled idea of putting a suburban housewife in control of the levers of Government would get us very far. I was pleasantly surprised.

I find it hard to believe that any sane person who grew up amidst the turmoil of never-ending strikes, or endured the utter uselessness of our Soviet-style State-owned utilities and manufacturing industries, could fail to welcome their end at the hands of the Iron Lady.

For me and many others, she turned despair at Britain’s apparently unstoppable decline into hope that we might yet enjoy growing prosperity and freedom, and play a useful role on the international stage.

The immense and, outside Argentina, overwhelmingly positive international coverage of her life over the last week underlines the huge respect that she enjoyed worldwide for helping to bring down the Soviet Union and free the nations of eastern Europe after nearly half a century of subjugation.

Reagan/Thatcher 1   Soviet Union 0 (after extra time)

Ah but, her critics say, even the good things she did went sour in the end: the council house sales of the 1980s begetting the credit crunch and housing crisis of today, victory in the Falklands laying the ground for subsequent, less successful interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Really? Surely a woman who left office in 1990 cannot be blamed for what went so horribly wrong under the leadership of her much less talented successors 10 or 20 years later?

If any criticism can be made, it might be that the sheer dominance of her personality and policies apparently deprived those who followed her of the power of independent thought, turning the stark choice of the 1983 general election between Thatcher and Michael Foot into the bland, middle-of-the-road capitalist consensus of Blairism and the Coalition.

I would welcome another Thatcher, whether from Left or Right, who would once again offer us a really meaningful choice at the ballot box.

As for the appropriateness of tomorrow’s funeral arrangements, let me offer a rare word of praise for Gordon Brown: because all the essential details of Lady Thatcher’s funeral were agreed with the Government four years ago when he was in power.

The notion that this is some sort of party political stunt devised by David Cameron is simply incorrect. 

When objective history comes to be written, I am sure that Lady Thatcher’s achievements will be ranked amongst the most important of any peacetime Prime Minister of the 20th century, fully justifying the honours that were bestowed upon her in life and, tomorrow, in death.

Yes, Attlee also transformed Britain and did not receive a State or ceremonial funeral. But, with respect, Labour’s crowning achievement of 1945-51, the NHS, has been so hugely successful that it has been copied precisely nowhere. While the key tenets of Thatcherism from monetary policy to privatisation have been adopted throughout the world.

At least the modest Earl made it to Westminster Abbey

The fact that Lady Thatcher was, in the BBC’s favourite word of the moment, “divisive”, is irrelevant. Few 19th century politicians were more divisive than Gladstone, who even split his own Liberal party over Irish Home Rule, yet he was rightly accorded a full State funeral on his demise in 1898. Disraeli turned one down.

Gladstone lying in state in Westminster Hall: a marked absence of a flag

Oddly enough the only politician I ever loathed enough to feel moved to crack open a bottle of champagne on his death was another Tory, Edward Heath. I was deeply upset by the total dishonesty with which he initially pretended that our membership of the Common Market involved “no essential loss of sovereignty”.

Even so, I was wrong to celebrate his passing, as those who are planning to demonstrate against Lady Thatcher tomorrow will be on the wrong side not just of history, but of humanity.

Death is the one certainty for us all, and every death diminishes us. The only proper response to it is sympathy and respect.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

The least the Great Bank Robbers can do is hand back their loot

A crowd screaming for revenge is never a pretty sight, whether it is on the streets of some foreign city or the pages of the British press.

Nevertheless, it seems unfair that those convicted of the £2.6 million Great Train Robbery in 1963 copped 30 years in jail, while those responsible for the trillion pound Great Bank Robbery of 2008 remain not just at large but enjoying honours and plutocratic lifestyles derived from their entirely illusory “success”.

Running a bank hardly seems the most challenging job in the world, provided one applies a bit of common sense. Such as only lending money to individuals and companies who stand a sporting chance of being able to pay it back, even if the economy takes a turn for the worse.

In this context, it helps to be experienced enough to know that any politician who claims to have abolished boom and bust is utterly delusional.

As that damning Parliamentary report observed last week, Halifax Bank of Scotland was not a complicated business brought down by too-clever-by-half investment bankers or felled as collateral damage from the global financial collapse. It would have gone bust anyway because those in charge took irresponsible risks.

Since all of us are going to be paying for this mess through our taxes for years to come, it does not seem entirely equitable that one of the individuals chiefly responsible should be allowed to walk away with a cool £25 million in his pension fund, having retired at the implausibly early age of 50 a couple of years before the wheels fell off.

Sir, sorry Mr, James Crosby

The cult of comparative youth gives us chief executives at 40 who cannot possibly be expected to hold such high pressure jobs for more than a decade. And Prime Ministers of a similar age who have never held any real job outside politics and reach the top after less than ten years in Parliament.

With the utmost respect, how can anyone without the experience of things going wrong the last time around be expected to make the right decisions to prevent it happening again?

One of my first assignments as a junior PR executive was the flotation of a computer leasing company. I met huge scepticism from cynical old hacks who explained to me why this sort of business was doomed to go bust. I was well equipped with a sheaf of counter-arguments on why it was all going to be different this time around.

And guess what? It wasn’t.

All the fuss about corporate governance in recent years has completely failed to stop top executive pay being ratcheted up to such an extent that it has completely lost touch not only with the rewards available to the average worker, but with reality itself. But it has ensured the compulsory retirement of experienced non-executive directors on the grounds that they have been on boards too long to be “independent”.

Instead of fussing about boardroom diversity, the focus should be on making more room towards the top for those with experience, scepticism and an aversion to greed. At the very least these older folk could play the role of the slave in Roman triumphs, whispering reminders of their mortality in the ears of the people in charge.

I will admit that it may not work. I spent much of the weekend trying to instruct my three-year-old on how to operate his electric train set. As usual, my warnings were dismissed with the confident assertion that “The thing is, Daddy, I know all about trains”. A spectacular crash duly ensued.

But at least when the Parliamentary report on the next British corporate train wreck comes to be written, there will be a few more greybeards around to utter the words “I told you so”.

As for those who baled out at 50 from a high-flying business that then plunged spectacularly to earth, the only honourable course is surely to hand back the loot. As an elderly striver myself, I can assure you that you are not too old to make a fresh start, ideally in an area more suited to your talents.

I haven’t seen a whelk stall in years so a highly suitable gap in the market clearly exists.

Originally NOT published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, because it was due to appear on Tuesday 9 April and wasn't about Margaret Thatcher.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

A fascist takes charge of Sunderland? Yes, it's April Fools' Day

I have always loathed April Fool jokes, but even I managed a smile at the obviously spoof story that Sunderland AFC had recruited a self-proclaimed fascist as their manager.

Luckily one from the right (or should that be far right?) side of the north-south European divide that ensures Hitler a permanent place in our collective memory as the supreme example of total evil; yet permits a rather more indulgent view of his Italian counterpart Mussolini as a vaguely comic incompetent, except in the matter of making the trains run on time.

Perhaps, if Signor Di Canio fails to save his new club from relegation, fans might refrain from hanging him upside down from a lamppost and allow him to apply his skills to running East Coast Trains instead?

But the Sunderland appointment, and resulting shock departure of David Miliband (whose resignations apparently come, like buses, in appropriately banana-like bunches after a long and tedious wait) was by no means the only hilarious moment of the last week.

There was the original Miliband departure for an organisation called International Rescue (stop now, my sides are aching), which can presumably only be capped next April by his brother going off to fly Fireball XL5.

Spot the difference: Miliband (D) and Brains from the real International Rescue

Then there was that obviously comical loon in North Korea declaring war on his neighbours and threatening the United States with nuclear annihilation, in the manner of a small boy with a pea-shooter squaring up to a Challenger tank.

My, how we shall chuckle about that in a few weeks as we crouch in the cupboard under the stairs with a meagre supply of tinned food, waiting for the fall-out “all clear” from sirens that were scrapped as part of the Government’s civil defence cuts of 1991.

It set me thinking of other great April Fool spoofs of the past, from Richard Dimbleby’s spaghetti trees on Panorama to the classic BSE scare – as a result of which, you may recall, we are currently supposed to be dying by the million from an incurable brain disease called new variant CJD.

Except that, in reality, the highest death toll exacted by BSE seems to have occurred in the 1990s, among beef farmers driven to suicide by stress.

Then we were all going to die of salmonella in killer eggs, listeria in killer cheese, the total collapse of civilisation as a result of the Millennium computer bug, dioxins, asbestos, lead in petrol and the deadly HN51 bird flu pandemic, in the unlikely event that we survived childhoods blighted by ritual Satanic abuse.

Luckily all these grave threats were somehow averted, after the expenditure of many billions of pounds on tighter regulations and improved procedures. Supervised by armies of civil servants and consultants, who have all done a fantastic job of keeping straight faces and never letting on that it was all a huge joke at our expense.

Similarly, I marvel at the way applicants for wind turbines manage to stop themselves giggling as they spout their regulation guff about how they are doing society a favour and helping to save the planet by wrecking our glorious unspoilt landscapes in pursuit of a quick profit for themselves.

Sadly not a spoof

But sadly we cannot dismiss global warming as yet another April Fool joke, despite the evidence of the remaining snow outside my window as I write this, because the beauty of this particular mega-scare is that we will all be dead before anyone can pronounce authoritatively on whether it had any basis in reality.

This is the true genius of the climate change scaremongers, and one that should be taken on board by all would-be April Fool jokesmiths of the future.

There is no point coming with a threat that we can see through by 12 noon on April 1, or even a year or a decade later. Make it one that threatens to wipe out humanity in a century or more, so that the gullible can fret about their grandchildren and insist that we all turn our lives upside down trying to protect the interests of the unborn.

Surely this has to be a far better jape than pretending to organise a fascist rally at the Stadium of Light (or should that now be Night)?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.