Tuesday 29 October 2013

The St Jude's Day storm ... about bad language and a tie

The St Jude’s Day storm broke out in the Hann household with full force yesterday morning, though it had nothing to do with the weather.

Instead it was over my elder son Charlie’s return to school after the half term break and his switch to a “winter uniform” including a crisp white shirt and a smartly striped tie. This was in place of the monogrammed polo shirt he had been happily wearing since he started school last month.

A very grumpy boy (can't think where he gets it from)

For me, his new clothes brought back fond memories of my own garb at Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School in Jesmond 55 years ago. The only real difference being that his outfit is blue, whereas mine was in a shade of dark brown specified in terms now so politically incorrect that I cannot even hint at them in a family newspaper.

Charlie, however, took violent exception to his tie. Not as an act of youthful rebellion against convention, but because it was a “totally rubbish” clip-on tie, not “a proper tie like Daddy’s”.

The key difference here is that I don’t think Akhurst’s occasional spells away from our desks for unenergetic bursts of “rhythmics” and Scottish country dancing ever required us to take our ties off after Mummy had put them on for us in the morning. Whereas Charlie and his classmates regularly change into PE kit, and the prospect of helping 20-odd four-year-olds back into proper neckties must seem rather daunting for their teachers.

Charlie had already shown encouraging signs of harbouring old-fashioned tastes two years ago, when we bought him a well-cut miniature suit to wear at a wedding, and he refused point blank to be seen wearing it in public unless we also got him a smart spotted silk handkerchief to sport in his top pocket.

At least I need have no worries about finding a suitable inheritor for the gold watch and chain handed down to me from my great-grandfather William Hann, who was born in Whittingham in 1836. This conveniently allows me to focus all my energies on worrying about whether I will ever work again as the current TV series about Iceland continues to unfold.

There does not seem to be a lot of obvious upside in being the PR adviser during what is already widely cited as a textbook PR disaster: Horsegate.

I have been unkindly described by one reviewer as “looking like a Werther’s Original granddad”, on which the only consolation I received was the e-mail from a friend pointing out that they could have substituted “Operation Yewtree suspect” with equal accuracy.

Given that I spent the best part of a year toning down my usual robust vocabulary because of the presence of cameras, it seemed ironic that I spent Saturday lunchtime in the Joiners’ Arms at Newton-by-the-Sea being lectured by my 88-year-old aunt about my “dreadful” language.

I do hope she heeded my strong advice not to tune in last night, when I quoted some irate people who had achieved simply dizzying new heights of colourful invective.

Perhaps I may yet carve out a niche as an author and lecturer on PR and how not to do it. After all, someone who is consistently wrong is as useful a guide to any subject as a person who is always right. The value of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in our national life lies precisely in our ability to find out what they are saying on any issue, so that we may then confidently assert the opposite.

One consolation if I do find myself unemployed, in the wake of this TV exposure of my professional limitations, is that my wife has finally conceded that Low Newton’s beach is her “favourite in the whole world” and she would not mind living nearby.

I suppose we might just about be able to afford a small caravan.

What’s more, I strongly suspect that the children at the local primary school don’t wear “totally rubbish” clip-on ties, though this may well be because they don’t wear ties of any sort.

And the way Charlie is going, in another year he will be sporting a Fedora, wing collar and spats, which may make fitting in a little bit of a challenge.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

A 1950s childhood: starving Africans versus Captain Manners

Like every child of the 1950s, I simply loathe waste.

The Hann household is enlivened by regular inquisitions into why we cannot make greater efforts to close windows and doors, turn down thermostats and pull on more woolly jumpers and socks.

As for chucking out food, it is a dagger to my heart every time a black banana or a mouldy crust of bread heads into the bin.

So I was naturally depressed by yesterday’s revelation from Tesco that it has managed to waste nearly 30,000 tonnes of food in the first six months of this year – and that its customers have chucked away yet more.

Given the scale of the problem, Tesco’s bright idea of ending multi-buy promotions on large bags of salad sounds like a drop in the proverbial ocean.

For the customer one vital key to avoiding waste, in my experience, is never to go shopping – either in a store or online – when one is actually hungry. Things I fancy but am never going to get around to eating always seem to creep into my basket when I am feeling peckish (which is, to be fair, most of the time).

Leaving the children at home also helps, so long as they don’t ransack the fridge and / or burn the house down while you are out.

Then there is adopting a common sense approach to “use by” dates, and only binning stuff when it has actually gone off rather than when the packet tells you to. If God had intended us to rely on “best before” advice, he wouldn’t have equipped us with noses as well as eyes.

(Having said that, I face an ongoing uphill struggle to convince Mrs Hann that certain products such as sugar, honey and golden syrup do not carry “use by” dates for the apparently incredible reason that they never go off.)

Then there is the potential to make intelligent use of the freezer – and, no, this column isn’t an incompetently concealed advertisement for my clients at Iceland.

I lived for more than 20 years next door to a couple who adopted “The Good Life” long before anyone thought to make it into a TV series, and their entire lifestyle depended on the complex of chest freezers that accommodated their seasonal hauls of home-reared meat, local game, and fruit and vegetables from their garden.

Yes, the best-tasting produce is the stuff that you grow yourself and eat fresh out of the ground. But if you can’t manage that, quick-frozen vegetables are highly likely to contain more vitamins and other nutrients than “fresh” food that has been in the supermarket supply chain for days (and probably in the salad drawer of your fridge for even longer).

The middle class intelligentsia love to rubbish convenience food in general, and frozen convenience food in particular, but the clue to its appeal is in the name: it’s convenient.

And despite the complaints of the British Heart Foundation about increasing portion sizes fuelling the current obesity epidemic, I for one have found that my only successful diets were those based around a carefully controlled intake of calorie-counted ready meals.

Starting to cook from scratch, with the almost inevitable temptation of “seconds”, is for me the high road to disaster.

It will not have escaped the attention of anyone who watched the BBC2 documentary on Iceland last night that I am currently immensely fat.

N.B. The banana is an ironic tribute to David Miliband, NOT a gaffe. Though the spelling of "it's" (not by me) clearly is.

This is not a reflection on frozen food but on my own lack of self-control and one other legacy of my 1950s upbringing.

Faced with a straight choice between clearing my plate and tipping an unwanted surplus into the bin, I’m always going to go for forking it down. To do otherwise, my mother assured me, was to administer a kick in the teeth to the starving children of Africa.

I never did understand why.

I have also met exact contemporaries whose parents dispensed the directly contrary advice that you should “always leave something for Captain Manners”.

But I suspect that Captain Manners moved in more exalted social circles than ours around the Four Lane Ends. What’s more, I bet the cad never once pulled on an extra pullover or sorted out his newspapers for recycling.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

TV documentaries and wind turbines: an essay on the grotesque

Do you remember the hall of distorting mirrors that used to come to the Hoppings every year?

Admittedly a bit scantily dressed for the Hoppings

That, I discover, is very much the experience provided by an appearance on TV. I realised that I had put on a little weight since my engagement five years ago. In my more honest moments, I might even admit to being rather fat. But it took a documentary film crew to make the staggeringly unflattering revelation that I am not only possessed of a vast corporation, but that it actually moves about independently as I walk.

This is, for me, the most depressing aspect of Iceland Foods: Life Inside The Freezer Cabinet, which begins its run on BBC2 at 9pm next Monday, October 21st.

My own bit part in this series as Iceland’s PR adviser was somewhat inflated by the fact that filming coincided with the Horsegate food “crisis”. The robust language I used at the time is apparently mainly responsible for the programme’s post-watershed slot.

Overall, I think the impact on my future career prospects was neatly summarised by the Iceland director who assured me that it would be a great break. “There will be lots more people wanting to work with you once they’ve seen this,” he said. “Not doing PR, obviously.”

The “reality documentary” is, it seems, a great growth area for broadcasters, perhaps because the “talent” performs for free. They have already shown us everything we could possibly want to know about airports, airlines, railways, call centres and Greggs the bakers. Next comes Iceland, and soon every retailer will want one.

I think there is a lot to be said for shedding light on the workings of businesses, but I’d be glad if the film-makers spread their net to other areas, too. In particular, I would simply love to see a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the process of building a wind farm.

This already has all the ingredients that made the Alien film franchise such a box office success. The structures are repellent and it seems all but impossible to kill them off.

In August my stomach and I were photographed among a happy band of local residents outside County Hall, after Northumberland’s planning committee unanimously rejected an application for a large industrial turbine at Follions in Whittingham Vale, on the edge of the National Park.

The committee had heard eloquent speeches by our own councillor Steven Bridgett and by Tim Stienlet, whose nearby holiday cottage business faces ruin if the beauty and tranquillity that draws in his customers is shattered by this grotesque development.

Those members of the Committee who spoke against the proposal made it clear that they did so from intimate personal knowledge of the area, and the damage that a huge turbine in this location would do to a unique and precious landscape.

Yet now the developer has slapped in an appeal, with a demand for costs, on the grounds of the council’s “unreasonable behaviour” in turning down the application without a site visit.

Allowing members of the public to clap and cheer opponents of the scheme apparently also threatened the impartiality of the committee, which seems to have overlooked the fact that there is a “presumption in favour” of “sustainable” developments of this sort.

Well, God forbid that democracy should prevail and that the feelings of those who actually know and love an area should have the slightest bearing on planning decisions of any kind.

But if Eric Pickles’ recent pronouncements about giving due weight to the views of local communities have any meaning at all, the Follions application should be booted swiftly back into the bin to which the council rightly consigned it just two months ago.

In the meantime the costly appeal grinds on, and I would urge anyone who cares for Northumberland, and has the slightest interest in keeping its tourist industry alive, to visit the website http://www.fightfollionswindfarm.co.uk/ and view the page on the planning appeal process.

The deadline for representations is October 23rd, which means that you will be cutting it a bit fine if you leave it until 9pm on the 21st to start composing your letter. But you will find something else to fill the time, won’t you?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

When a man is tired of London ...

We can normally rely on Dr Johnson to hit the aphoristic nail on the head, but I feel increasingly unsure about his assertion that a man who is tired of London is tired of life.

Mrs Hann and I spent the weekend there, and on Saturday evening I felt a tsunami of weariness engulf me as we struggled to make our way through the vacant, drugged and drunken multinational hordes occupying every square inch of pavement around Leicester Square.

I have never seen the place busier, nor more detached from the life of the rest of the country.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War Evelyn Waugh was already complaining that London was no longer an English city.

By the time I took my mother there in 1985, for her first visit since 1922, she was memorably observing that even the few people on our river boat who looked like they might be British were all “jabbering away in foreign”.

Today we have an undeniably vibrant, crowded, international city with a soaraway property market fuelled by City bonuses, and no detectable signs of recession, while a rather depressed little country bobs along, dinghy-like, in its wake.

We went to London to see an operetta. It was a sophisticated metropolitan take on Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Which meant, naturally enough, that it featured goosestepping Nazis and an excess of totally uncalled-for undressing and sexual innuendo.

I had a fair inkling of this because I had read the reviews in the national newspapers and all had been totally derisive, with the sole exception of the Daily Express. Which was small consolation, given that the Express is known for opera criticism in much the same way that the Chief Rabbi is always my first port of call when I want an informed opinion on pork sausages.

I have learned, over the years, to pay only limited attention to reviewers because I have often been pleasantly surprised by shows they have slammed, and disappointed when those they have raved about have failed to live up to my heightened expectations.

However, this one proved even grimmer than billed, which was saying something. Transforming the comic gaoler Frosch into an epileptic, sadistic, psychopath in SS uniform was the supreme masterstroke, for which the director frankly deserved not to be merely booed, but slapped.

Christopher Alden is his name, by the way. My heart sank as soon as I realised that the production was by the same man who not so long ago reset Britten’s delightful A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a grim and inevitably paedophile-dominated inner city boys’ school.

This relentless search for uncalled-for novelty truly depresses me. A recent reviewer of the Royal Opera’s well-worn but still marvellous production of Puccini’s Turandot could find no fault with singing, playing or staging, but still felt compelled to mark it down because it had “nothing new to say”.
Of course it didn’t, you idiot. Any more than Stonehenge or the Cheviot Hills have anything new to say, either. Their beauty is timeless, or at least it will be until some greedy chancer dumps a clump of whacking great wind turbines in their midst.

All, no doubt, to fund the sort of hedonistic urban lifestyles so much in evidence around Covent Garden and Soho at the weekend.

Increasingly I feel that we don’t need a high-speed rail link to suck yet more life out of the provinces into the maw of what William Cobbett presciently called The Great Wen. We need a latter-day Hadrian to knock up a socking great wall to protect the rest of England from this ghastly metropolitan contagion.

Labour endlessly lambast the Tories as “out of touch” but the reality is that all our political leaders are equally out of touch because they live in the London bubble of prosperity, where traditional standards count for little and novelty is valued above all.

Despite my advanced years, I have young children to keep up my overall interest in life. But I’m sorry, Samuel. It’s a wrench to break with you after all these years but it has to be said: when a man is tired of London in 2013, he is absolutely right.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Party conference season: an ideal time to accept reality

So far the annual party conference season seems to have been dominated by issues of energy.

Whether those be Labour’s promise of a short-term gas and electricity price freeze, or the Tories’ efforts to energise the long-term unemployed back into work.

A cynic might observe that a key driver of the high energy prices charged to consumers has been the generous subsidies introduced for basically uneconomic forms of electricity generation like wind turbines and solar farms.

All founded on a policy of “carbon taxation” that was powerfully reinforced on the watch of a certain Labour Energy Secretary called Ed Miliband.

But it would be unfair to make this a party political point. Because everyone outside the always entertaining UKIP circus seems to take huge delight in pointing out what a brilliant job Britain has done in reducing its carbon emissions; while conveniently forgetting to mention that we have only achieved this by exporting most of our manufacturing industry to China.

Which may, in turn, have some bearing on the numbers of long-term unemployed.

In the overall scheme of things, taking credit for this makes about as much sense as a man boasting that he has eliminated his overdraft, while omitting to mention he has put it in his wife’s name instead. 

Reading the acres of coverage of last week’s UN report about the 95% certainty of manmade climate change, I found myself reminded of a friend who kept going back to her doctor with a debilitating chronic ailment.

Fed up with the lack of action to cure her, she finally asked in no uncertain terms why medical science was letting her down so badly. At which the doctor outlined in great detail the courses of treatment potentially available to her.

“But those sound even worse than my disease!” she protested.

“Exactly,” her GP calmly replied.

We can all observe that the climate is changing, as it always has, and we may accept that human activity is a factor. But where is the evidence that requires us to spray money like an unmanned fire hose in a futile attempt to cure the problem?

Every farmer and landowner in the country with an eye for a financial killing, and no appreciation of beautiful landscapes, is being powerfully incentivised to whack up ugly great wind turbines on their property, though these will make a minimal contribution to our overall energy needs.

The new view from St Cuthbert's Lindisfarne, courtesy of Tony Meikle
Last year my local council installed cavity wall insulation, completely free of charge, in the house I rent in Cheshire. Even though, if it actually worked (of which I have seen no evidence to date) it would clearly have paid me to do this at my own expense.

In the long run I and everyone else will be paying for these “green energy” developments and “energy saving” initiatives through higher bills, whether from our power companies or in local or national taxes.
There is never any such thing as a free lunch. No, not even for those primary school children Nick Clegg is so keen to feed. Why on earth does he want to supply free meals to the offspring of middle class parents like me who are perfectly capable of paying for them? Particularly when the coalition only recently (and reasonably) abolished my child allowance.

But then one might equally well ask why Ed Balls is now promising to reintroduce the 10p rate of income tax his mentor Gordon Brown abolished in 2008.

We appear to be going around in ever decreasing circles of political unoriginality, culminating in the ultimate dumb idea of reverting to the sort of price controls that failed so spectacularly in the 1970s.

Even reactionaries like me, whose ultimate goal in life is to put the clock back, would never choose to stop it there.

Every party should stop striving for the next news soundbite and pause to reflect on what really matters, whether for their cherished “hardworking families” or lazy so-and-sos like me.

They might well conclude on energy costs and climate change, as my friend did on her illness, that it is best to stop looking for non-existent miracle cures and simply accept reality, then adapt to it as best we can.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.