Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Selfless courage shines a light of hope in the war on terror

As its few survivors commemorate the Battle of the Atlantic 70 years ago, I cannot help wondering how they would have felt if Churchill had gone to “chillax” in Ibiza while they were facing the German U-boats.

The “war on terror”, clearly, is played by different rules.

Still, at least our glorious leader will have leisure to reflect that the real swivel-eyed loons he needs to worry about are not those in his local Conservative associations.

They are the ones out on the streets quoting the Old Testament under the apparent delusion that it is the Koran, and wielding meat cleavers and butchers’ knives.

I have asked myself what steps I would take if I were ever confronted by such fanatics, and regret to say that they would almost certainly be very large and fast ones in the opposite direction.

Hence my boundless admiration for those brave women in Woolwich who stopped to try and reason with the killers and to comfort their victim.

I have read suggestions elsewhere that this marks the critical difference between the male and female of our species, but I do not believe that to be strictly true. Yes, men may be statistically more susceptible to murderous lunacy, but there are also women who claim to hear voices in their heads telling them to kill. One female was jailed only last year for the random knife murder of a 13-year-old girl in a Doncaster park.

The only difference is that those behind last week’s killing appear to think themselves motivated by some monstrous perversion of religion, and our response occasionally seems to be hamstrung by hand-wringing concerns to avoid giving offence.

It is fortunate that the Conquistadores took a more robust approach to Aztec human sacrifice, and the British to the Indian customs of thuggee and suttee, or we would still have widows flinging themselves (or being flung) onto their husbands’ funeral pyres and no doubt be warned not to judgemental about the customs of other faiths.

Now, let's not be judgemental here ...

Though oddly enough it is fine to offend many Christians, whether through legislating on gay marriage or banning the display of their symbols, because with any luck they will have read enough of their Bible to know that the line about “an eye for an eye” is updated in the Gospel with advice to “turn the other cheek”.

The good news is that madness can be defeated, just as the apparently unstoppable forces of Nazism and Soviet communism were. Only last week I rejoiced as the European Commission hurriedly withdrew its proposed ban on olive oil jugs and dipping bowls in restaurants, in the face of a positive tsunami of ridicule from across the continent.

True, on past form this may prove to have been a tactical retreat by the Commission, rather than an outright defeat, but it is at least a sign that the forces of sanity may occasionally bring even the European juggernaut shuddering to a halt.

We must now aim for a similar and much more important triumph against those forces that prey on the vulnerable and frankly thick to convince them that they have grievances that are worth killing and being killed for.

Because no offshoot of any religion that preaches this deserves to survive even for a nanosecond, and should be stamped out with all the forces of logical argument and ridicule at our disposal.

Faith surely only has value when it makes the inevitability of our own deaths seem a little more bearable and reinforces in us a desire “to do the right thing”, as Ibiza Dave likes to say.

Whenever a natural disaster, major accident or horrible murder comes along, perfectly ordinary people emerge from the shadows displaying quite exceptional reserves of selflessness, decency and eloquence. 

Illustrating that there are ultimately only two kinds of people on this planet: those who always put themselves first and those who care about others.

Some of the good among us may be motivated by a religious upbringing or teaching, but many of no faith at all display equally outstanding selflessness and courage. Let us thank God for that (if we believe in Him) and wish that more of us could be like them. I know I do.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

How the world looks this week to a swivel-eyed loon

Despite the denials, I feel sure that David Cameron and his Cabinet cronies would have no hesitation in categorising me as a “mad, swivel-eyed loon.”

The face and voice of sanity

And I must swiftly concede that they may well have a point, as I was mad enough to vote for their party at the last election. Though I foolishly thought of it at the time, as for the previous 40 years or so, as MY party: the one most closely aligned to my interests and ideas.

In much the same way, I suppose, as thousands of ex-miners and former shipyard workers across the North East kept voting for the Labour party of Tony Blair under the delusion that it might be on their side, rather than that of the international bankers.

David Cameron truly is the fabled “heir to Blair” in his belief that the way to get and cling onto power is to stick up two fingers at his natural supporters. At least it can be argued in his defence that the energetic pursuit of gay marriage is doing rather less practical damage than cynically engineering mass immigration or invading foreign countries on contrived evidence of wrongdoing.

And who can blame him? The focus groups make clear that “the young”, after the benefit of years of state school brainwashing on the merits of diversity, are all for homosexuals gaily tripping down the aisle together. And “the young” equal “the future”, while all the old fogies like me will soon be dead.

The only snag being that the elderly will, in the meantime, probably go on voting, while the young will be far too busy with their Xboxes (or whatever the 2013 equivalent of those may be). The traditional argument that we have nowhere else to turn also looks a bit threadbare when the affably blokeish Nigel Farage seems to pop up every time we turn on the news.

Now I, as it happens, am a libertarian, who could not personally care less about gay marriage unless they decide to make it compulsory. But I find it surprising that a supposedly Conservative administration should be expending so much political capital on a contentious piece of modernisation that was not proposed in their manifesto.

I would be equally surprised if they suddenly brought forward a Bill to abolish the monarchy, because it would not fit with what I consider to be a “conservative” view of the world. Making the schoolboy error of confusing the word, which accurately describes what I am, with the radical party of professional politicians that has usurped the name.

But if you really want to see swivel-eyed lunacy, take a look at last week’s EU directive banning olive oil bottles and dipping bowls from our restaurants. Observe the views you have cherished all your life being wrecked by all but useless wind turbines, or watch HMS Ark Royal being towed off to a Turkish scrapyard.

Consider the fact that we cannot afford to fill the potholes or repair the landslips on our roads, subsidise rural buses or provide adequate seating capacity on local trains. But we can apparently find £35 billion to build a new high speed railway that will suck yet more economic vigour out of the English regions by bringing more of them within the London commuter belt.

The worst of all this is the feeling of impotence: that “nothing can be done” because “they’re all the same”. As, in truth, the pole-climbing lifelong political monkeys of our major parties appear to be.

Change must come. I shall welcome the chance to vote “no” to European Union membership if a referendum ever comes, which I very much doubt, but why waste yet more time legislating for that theoretical possibility?

Focus on the needs of the people that elected you. Get on with fixing the economy and the infrastructure we have already got. Forget about huge vanity projects. Try treating ridiculous EU directives with the same contempt that you currently reserve for your own most loyal supporters.

Unless you do that, Mr Cameron, you certainly will not deserve to be re-elected in 2015. And if you really want to take a close look at swivel-eyed lunacy, you’ll just need to invest in a mirror.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

There is nothing remotely sexy about turning into a sexagenarian

It is the role of the old to dispense wisdom to the young, and the nature of the young not to pay much if any attention.

I cannot recall exactly when I passed the tipping point between having all the time in the world and knowing that I was about to hit a brick wall at high speed, but it must have been some time in the last decade.

The sensation is beautifully summarised in a Gary Larson cartoon of a sprightly fellow stepping of a kerb with a merry tune on his lips, then lying face down on the road with tyre marks across his back. With the caption: “The old age truck: you never see it coming”.

All of which came back to me very forcefully on Saturday at a grand 60th birthday dinner in Cambridge, where our host gave an excellent speech expressing his personal amazement at reaching this milestone, and counselling his children and their contemporaries to make the most of their time “because it will run through your fingers like grains of sand”.

Truer words were never spoken. I have succeeded in wasting most of my own life through a peculiar combination of conscientiousness and sheer bone idleness, meaning that I worked reasonably hard at narrowly defined tasks, whether schoolwork or paid employment, and shamefully neglected my personal relationships and leisure opportunities.

The only saving grace for me was an abortive attempt to retire at 50, which finally gave me the time and energy to find a wife (or, rather, allow a wife to find me) and produce two children. Because “father of” is going to provide much better reading on my gravestone than “half competent PR man, failed novelist and sometime columnist for The Journal”.

I started school a year earlier than most Geordie children in the late 1950s, and had my education accelerated by a further year through a madcap “flyer” scheme at the Royal Grammar School designed to get their brighter pupils to university 12 months earlier, for reasons never successfully explained to me or, I strongly suspect, anyone else.

As a result, many of my school and university contemporaries are a year or two older than I am, and have already embarked upon their seventh decades. It is easy to discourage them by saying: “So, old chum, if your life is a week, do you realise this is now Sunday?”

It is striking, therefore, that this weekend’s was the first and only invitation to a 60th birthday celebration that I have ever received. It is probably no coincidence that it came from a man who was a dear friend at Akhurst school from 1958-62, but then completely disappeared from my life until a couple of years ago. As a result, he lacked the crucial knowledge of how much of an asset I am likely to prove at a dinner, or indeed any other social occasion.

Still, I enjoyed myself and Mrs Hann can be relied upon to be the life and soul of almost any party, so I hope that this column may serve as a hint to anyone else drawing up a similar invitation list to at least think about sticking us on it.

I shall now begin to think seriously about how to mark my own diamond jubilee in June 2014, a date which I long had ringed in my calendar as the one on which I would write my last press release and put my feet up for good. A plan that responsibility for two very small boys clearly now requires me to put on hold for another couple of decades.

I was reminded, dawdling through Cambridge on a rainy afternoon, that the undergraduate society at the oldest college, Peterhouse, calls itself “The Sex Club” in honour of the college’s sexcentenary in 1884.

Cambridge: always providing food for thought

Inspired by this, I shall design suitable invitations to celebrate my becoming a sexagenarian. If nothing else, beautifully embossed cards advertising “The Keith Hann Sex Party” should keep my costs down by ensuring an absolutely minimal number of positive RSVPs, and those from people whose sight is too dim to read the words properly. Though I suppose there might be quite a few of those …

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

My prayer for a summer as glorious as the Northumberland scenery

Legend has it that the mandrake plant screams if it is uprooted. I know just how it feels.

I descend from a long line of non-travellers. The only complication in researching my family history is an occasional, regrettable tendency for ancestors to sneak across the Scottish border, so that the relevant records end up in Edinburgh instead of London.

My father only left the country once, in 1944, at the absolute insistence of His Majesty the King. My more adventurous mother waited until widowhood and old age to try her one and only day trip to France, from which she returned with the fascinating discovery that “they eat frozen peas, just like us.”

As a boy, I was desperate to see the world and had a particular passion for old buildings. My father assured me that there were no finer castles than those of Northumberland, and that I had the greatest cathedral in the world just down the road in Durham.

I thought he was making excuses for his own laziness and lack of experience. Sadly he died before I realised that he had been bang right all along.

Now I find myself advancing similar arguments about the delights of Northumberland to my own family. After four years of marriage and workaday residence in Cheshire, “home” for me remains my bachelor house in the North East and I enticed my wife and sons over for the bank holiday weekend on the Met Office’s promise of stunning weather.

Typically, the strongest sunshine beat down upon the car on the way across.

I was reminded that two years ago we spent a whole August fortnight here watching the rain tip down, while a two-year-old agitated to go to the beach and build sandcastles.

True, it was reasonably pleasant, if breezy, on Sunday at the Milfield Festival of Heavy Horse, which failed to live up to my cynical expectations by actually featuring several horses.

Though my tractor-mad elder boy was a mite disappointed when the commentator’s magnificent build-up to a parade of vintage machines was followed by the sheepish confession that it would not be taking place after all, because the tractor drivers were in the beer tent.

Where I had no need to join them because we had just been treated to a truly magnificent lunch in the adjacent Red Lion by Fleet Street legend David Banks, author of the unmissable J2 Friday column.

I naturally hoped to meet at least some of the huge cast of fascinating characters with which Banksy populates his column, but sadly they all proved to be otherwise engaged. Even Mrs Banks had suddenly felt an urgent call to go for a long walk in the Cheviots, which would have been more understandable if she had ever met me.

By the time Banksy exclaimed “You’ve just missed the Byreman!” as we took our leave at the horsefest, I was beginning to experience distinct echoes of my father’s favourite James Stewart film, Harvey. With the obvious difference that Harvey the invisible white rabbit actually existed.

My family are on their way back to the North West as I write, while I am going to try and prune a large holly tree, with potentially fatal results. As I do, I shall pray not to fall off the ladder and that once, just once, my family will return to Northumberland on a perfect sunny day when it is not blowing a hooley, and say, “You and your dad were absolutely right, this really is the most wonderful place on Earth.” 

The late Michael Winner told a story of a man who prayed each eek for a big lottery win. Eventually the voice of God boomed: “Help me out here, Hymie. Buy a ticket!”

Lord, I have invested in a lovely house, so please help me out by sending us a summer in England this year. Otherwise I am going to have to succumb to a ghastly fortnight on some foreign shore and sell the home I love because keeping it is economic lunacy that would make even Gordon Brown blush.

Meanwhile, I really must explore the possibility of adopting a second name by deed poll. Mandrake has a ring to it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.