Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Social mobility - sadly, it cannot be a one-way street

Everyone seems to agree that social mobility is a good thing, but we focus only on increasing the opportunities to move upwards.

Though since we can’t all be dukes or plutocrats, this is clearly only possible if other people are simultaneously moving in the opposite direction.

The post-war political settlement sought to achieve this with punitive death duties on the rich, balancing the grammar school ladder of opportunity for clever children from poorer backgrounds.

Direct grant schools like Newcastle RGS were, in the words of one Cambridge don I knew, “Powerful engines for turning lower-middle-class boys living in the north of England into upper-middle-class men living in the south.”

Which was perfectly true. Remarkably few of my own Oxbridge-educated RGS contemporaries ever returned to live in the North East.

Though this was balanced by the Durham and Newcastle graduates of my acquaintance who were born in the south, but loved this region so much that they could never bring themselves to leave.

I bucked the trend and returned to Northumberland because we Hanns don’t really do mobility. We have been hanging around the Alnwick area since at least the 1600s, and quite possibly longer (but we were not socially elevated enough for me to be sure).

Mrs Hann, on the other hand, is definitely from mobile stock, her immediate antecedents being Iranian or, as she prefers, Persian (because it conjures up warm images of cats and carpets, rather than bearded fanatics).

Having said that, there might be a touch of the fanatic here ...

She also continues to believe that holidays are best taken abroad, despite the tremendous break we enjoyed in Northumberland earlier this month.

Nevertheless, I would unhesitatingly place my wife in the “credit” column in the debate about that aspect of social mobility known as immigration. Though that, too, must come with the caveat that the entire human race cannot live in the UK, and those moving inwards and upwards must be balanced by others heading down and out.

These reflections are inspired by the fact that I am facing, with extreme reluctance, some potential moving of my own. I put my much-loved Northumberland house, with its marvellous views of the Cheviots and Simonside, on the market six weeks ago.

I did so because of the remorseless logic that my elder son starts school in Cheshire in a week’s time. And, once he does, our ability to spend time in the North East as a family will be greatly reduced.

It also reflects the lack of forward planning that can frustrate even the most determined would-be social climber.

The American songwriter Eubie Blake famously observed in his 90s: “If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Similarly, if I had foreseen that I would have two young sons at close to what I always fondly imagined as my retirement age, I’d have taken care to save some cash rather than squandering it all on opera tickets and champagne (the rest, as George Best once said, I simply wasted).

On the plus side, this profligacy has equipped me to write the new edition of The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera, available from all good bookshops and tax-evading online dealerships just as soon as the ink dries.

So I have, late in life, finally achieved my ambition of getting a book into print, albeit not the blockbuster comic novel I have squandered a lifetime pretending to be writing.

I also find that I am deriving steadily increasing satisfaction from fatherhood, which may finally be edging me towards that elusive condition known as happiness. Which I already knew, from my wide-ranging acquaintance with both multi-millionaires and the comparatively poor, has nothing whatsoever to do with the size of one’s bank balance. (Though at least the millionaires get to be miserable in comfort.)

To date there has been an encouraging lack of interest in my house, though I await my estate agent’s feedback on today’s scheduled viewing with appropriate trepidation.

If it does sell, so far as I am concerned, it will definitely represent downward mobility of the worst sort, but at least it creates a golden opportunity for someone else to move up in the world. Does anyone fancy placing their foot upon the ladder?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

From Clattery to Wandylaw: I should have seen it coming

My favourite place in the whole world, surpassing even Venice, was a damp two-room cottage on the moors above Warenford in Northumberland.

It was called Clattery or, on the maps, Clattering Houses. My family rented it as a weekend retreat for most of the last century, and my mother was born there in 1909.

My family at Clattery, circa 1909
My grandfather (in Panama hat) and the family business from which he apparently needed a weekend retreat: the Lion Garage in Alnwick Market Place
Clattery in July 1986, when I moved in

I was lucky enough to live at Clattery full time for two years in the 1980s, while I pretended to write a book. I will never forget the magical view down to Bamburgh and the Farnes, or the sweep of the Longstone light in the evenings.

I thought its peace and beauty were timeless, but the place is a ruin now. I left when the neighbouring Wandylaw estate decided to try its luck at opencast coal mining. Since then a much bigger profit opportunity has emerged in the form of a wind farm.

Today's view of Wandylaw from Adderstone, where my great-grandfather was the local blacksmith

With hindsight, I should have seen all this coming. Clattery got its unusual name from the racket of the primitive drift mines once worked on the moors, while you probably don’t need me to explain that “Wandylaw” means “windy hill”.

The fact that I never go back to my favourite place is sad for me, but of no consequence to anyone else. Those moors were the opposite of a tourist hot spot. Many years ago my uncle introduced me to Ros Castle, the hill fort a little further inland, and pointed out the seven castles one could see from its top.

Now visitors to this favourite resort of the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey seem much more likely to end up counting turbines.

Looking east from the roadside near Ros Castle

Which is another shame, though Ros has never drawn the huge numbers of visitors its breathtaking views merit. But then a major part of the attraction of Northumberland has always been the ability to go hill walking or sit on a stunning beach, and feel that one has the place almost to oneself.

Sadly this becomes a serious handicap when attempting to stir up opposition to those who would transform the character of the place in the pursuit of profit.

My own position is unusual in that, for most of the last 25 years, I have had my home in Northumberland but earned my living elsewhere. Hence I tend to see the county from the semi-detached perspective of a frequent visitor rather than that of a permanent resident.

I have never wanted to take my holidays anywhere else, and have spent the last five years battling with a series of dreadful summers to bring my wife round to my point of view. Last week I felt we came close to a breakthrough as the children played happily on the sun-drenched sands of Newton-by-the-Sea, fortified by truly excellent fish and chips from the village’s Joiners’ Arms.

Family holiday fun at Newton-by-the-Sea

Driving around the county, the intrusion of huge wind turbines into the views I have loved all my life upsets me, and the prospect of many more seems simply appalling. But I am well aware that my views are not universally shared. Even my four-year-old son disloyally announced that he found them “pretty”.

I haven’t yet been able to ascertain his views on the alternatives, though I hope he will share my joy in the irony that those who shouted loudest to defend the miners from “the Tories” now seem to be the most vociferous opponents of the new fossil fuel technology of fracking.

Personally, I’d prefer some fracking rigs and the odd fully functional nuclear power station to serried ranks of intermittently operative wind turbines. I’d also like to explore the potential for a revival of coal, plus wave and tidal power.

But, at the end of the day, the will of the people should prevail. If those who share my son’s perception are in the majority (and I hope not, because he’s been wrong about most things up to now) let us proceed with a wind farm free-for-all.

If not, neither central Government nor local planners should be trying to impose them on unwilling communities.

If I prove to in the minority, I’ll sadly move on from Northumberland as I did from Clattery and never come back, though I hope I may continue to enjoy some very precious memories.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Now there's a thing

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‘It’s not what you know, it’s what they think you know.’

Out Now | The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera by Keith Hann

‘An essential pre-season read for anyone attempting to navigate the pitfalls of post-performance drinks.’

Never again confuse a castrato with a contralto, a prima donna with sopratitoli, or O Sole Mio with an ice cream advert. Bask in the admiration of your fellow opera lovers as you pronounce confidently on the merits of Donizetti’s bel canto over Wagner’s leitmotiv, and hold your own against the most sneering of opera buffs.

‘A very amusing, knowledgeable and enjoyable introduction to opera by someone who has spent far too much time at Glyndebourne and not enough at Grange Park Opera.'

A 5-million-copy bestselling series, The Bluffer’s Guides® have been helping people out of sticky situations for over four decades. Now relaunched, they’re back – and not just in paperback. E-books are available from all major online bookstores.

The Bluffer’s Guides’ mission is to eradicate social embarrassment from this world, and (with the help of their witty and erudite experts) they’re well on their way to doing that.

The Sunday Telegraph described the original series as containing ‘an amazing amount of solid fact disguised as frivolous observation’ and Daily Mail hailed the guides as providing a ‘means to apparent instant erudition without actually having to know or study anything.’

‘Keith Hann's whistle-stop opera tour brims with his passion for this great art form – and contains many more laughs than any opera I have conducted so far.’

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1954, Keith Hann grew up in a household devoted to the music of the two Maxes, Jaffa and Bygraves, but luckily introduced himself to opera shortly before leaving school. Over the last 40 years he has watched the curtain rise on more than 1,000 operatic performances, and waited until it fell on 997 of them. In order to fund this addiction, he has been variously employed as an unsuccessful stockbroker and an incompetent but occasionally entertaining public relations consultant. Decades of skilful bluffing brought him to the brink of retirement without any lasting romantic entanglements, until a momentary lapse of concentration one evening at Covent Garden led to his marriage at the age of 54, and the subsequent arrival of two children. Keith currently devotes most of his time to not writing a novel and staring forlornly at his bank statements. In consequence, he values his now strictly rationed excursions to opera houses more than ever.


Emma Smith | 0207 2057 815 | esmith@bluffers.com
Review copies available on request.

E-book available for Kindle and iPad at Amazon.co.uk and iBookstore. Print edition in stores and at online retailers now (RRP £6.99).

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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Whingeing in Northumberland's noble cause is no conspiracy

This column believes that variety is the spice of life, and was hoping to move on from wind energy to opera (not least because I have a book coming out on the subject).

However, it is hard to resist the appeal for enlightenment from Mr Ian Kerr of Chapel House, who enquired last week why wind farm “whingers” like me never seem to “name and shame” the “wealthy landowners” who are “really gaining the most from these developments”.

As one who loathes balls and has never been invited to Christmas drinks at any “big house” in his life, I can assure Mr Kerr that no sinister conspiracy is involved.

If I have not swung my sword of truth and justice at greedy and selfish landowners in the last couple of weeks, it has mainly been down to shortage of space.

Plus the fact that most take care to keep their identities well out of public view when turbine planning applications are made, preferring to shelter behind the energy companies or their agents.

I have seen three names so far attached to the Follions application about which I have written lately, and a fourth person turned up to speak in favour of the plans to a stonily silent council meeting. None was the farmer whose land is involved.

Given the level of anger aroused among his immediate neighbours, so evident in their objections to the planning application, it would be fascinating to know what degree of financial need drives anyone to pursue a course so likely to make him a pariah in his own community.

But I believe that Mr Kerr is wrong about the division of the spoils. Wind farms rob money from all of us, through the huge subsidies that are ultimately added to our electricity bills. They particularly steal cash from those who have invested in businesses like holiday cottages and other tourist attractions whose entire appeal is based on being located in unspoilt and peaceful countryside.

They then transfer this money chiefly into the pockets of the largely foreign-owned “green energy” companies and turbine manufacturers, who have latched onto Northumberland as a county too sparsely populated to mount an effective resistance to their cynical and calculating efforts.

In which category one must undoubtedly place Energiekontor’s recent submission of their planning application for the Belford Burn wind farm at a time when so many potential opponents may miss the two week window to file objections, because they will be enjoying their summer holidays.

Yes, landowners are beneficiaries, too, and the sums involved can be very substantial. If you own a chunk of Northumberland moorland but live in Mayfair or Monaco, the temptation to cash in is obvious.

But those “wealthy landowners” who actually live on and care for their estates seem, on the whole, worthy custodians of our shared heritage. The Duke of Northumberland’s views on wind farms are well known, while among the most cogent arguments against the Follions application were those filed by the trustees of the late Lord Armstrong.

In our still semi-feudal county society, there may well be eager “greens” who feel browbeaten into silence about the wonderfulness of wind turbines because the local squire is against them. Just as there are certainly others who feel they cannot speak out against applications on their landlords’ farms for fear of eviction.

Personally, I would be happy to give the responsible great landowners a more formal role in the political process, perhaps by offering them seats in a second chamber of Parliament. Why has no one thought of that before?

But anyone who loves and defends the beauty of Northumberland is on my side, very much including the 14 county councillors who last week voted unanimously to overturn the advice of their own planners on Follions.

When Churchill visited Cambridge during the war, it is said that he was bearded by a woman angry because the college grounds had not been turned over to vegetable production.

“Madam,” the great man replied. “Those lawns are what we are fighting for.”

Take a drive out of Chapel House, Mr Kerr, and admire the sheer glory of unindustrialised rural Northumberland while you still can. That is what we “whingers” are fighting for.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Revolt against this madness of the wind turbine blight

Have we all gone completely mad? That is the question to which I keep returning as I contemplate the future of my beloved home county of Northumberland.

On many days the pictorial “View of the North” that graces this paper’s letters page features a glorious, panoramic view of the unspoilt Northumbrian countryside. The one from Auchope Cairn yesterday was a particular gem.

Surely anyone can see that these landscapes, and the precious tranquillity they offer, are our greatest economic asset? They are the reason people move here and spend their leisure time here, and so support a wide range of local enterprises. Why are we even contemplating the utter folly of trashing all this beauty and peacefulness with growing numbers of gigantic wind turbines?

Yes, I know a few people find them beautiful: one person e-mails me every time I write on this subject to tell me so. I also appreciate that others sincerely, though misguidedly, believe that we have no alternative but to make this supreme sacrifice in order to “save the planet” from the effects of manmade climate change.

Such zealots may be relatively few in number, but they seem to have had, up to now, a wholly disproportionate influence on those framing national energy and local planning policies.

Hence we have crazily allowed an array of giant 410ft turbines at Wandylaw and Middlemoor to wreck the once glorious views from the “Heritage Coast” to the National Park. Yet any idea that “enough is enough” seems utterly alien to the subsidy-hungry promoters of these monstrosities, who are now eager to pile on yet more damage to the adjacent fine scenery at Middleton Burn and Belford Burn.

This is the view that St Cuthbert would have enjoyed from Lindisfarne, and one wonders when and how he is likely to react. After all, he has form in these matters, having famously shrouded Durham cathedral in fog to save it from approaching German Baedeker raiders in 1942. Perhaps he will send down 25 years of impenetrable coastal haar.

Meanwhile, as I wrote last week, another applicant is seeking to insert the thin end of the wind farm wedge into Whittingham Vale and Coquetdale, with an application for a 256ft turbine at Follions Farm.
This may be smaller than the behemoths of Wandylaw but it will still dominate local views, plonked in the middle of open countryside designated as of high landscape value and right on the fringe of the National Park. There could be few worse places to erect a turbine unless we intend the National Park to be completely hemmed in by wind farms on every side.

Bafflingly, in view of the overwhelming weight of objections from local residents, visitors, parish councils and the National Park itself, this proposal has been recommended for approval and comes before the Planning Committee at County Hall at 6pm this very evening.

Distributing leaflets to bring this to the attention of my neighbours on Sunday, I found considerable anger that their views are apparently being ignored by those in authority; but also, in some, a fatalistic sense that “there is nothing we can do”.

Well, there is. The ruination of our county by onshore turbines is no more inevitable than the widely predicted triumphs of fascism or communism, or UK entry to the euro. We just need, collectively, to make it emphatically clear to our elected representatives how we feel on this issue, and that they won’t be in office too much longer if they choose to ignore us.

After all, we have even got the substantial figure of Eric Pickles on our side, with his pronouncement of July 29th that: “The views of local people must be listened to when making planning decisions. Meeting Britain’s energy needs should not be used to justify the wrong development in the wrong location.”

Do please join me and my neighbours at County Hall this evening if you can. We shall come in peace, though I may see whether we can borrow the newly recreated banner of St Cuthbert to accompany us.

Even if not, I feel sure that he will be with us in spirit.

We peasants may be growing madder, but surely sanity will ultimately prevail. Won’t it?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.