Tuesday 26 November 2013

Goodbye, cruel world

They say that all good things must come to an end, though happily the British monarchy is testing this theory to its limits.

However, I feel sure we can all agree that there comes a time when we should bid farewell to the seriously mediocre.

So it is with this Tuesday column, which concludes today after a run of 387 over 7¾ years. A distinct advance on the nine months that Journal editor Brian Aitken predicted would be the longest I could possibly keep it going when I started.

At least I had a good innings, as they like to say in the day rooms at twilight homes.

I realise that my departure will come as a hammer blow to my beloved aunt and the handful of mainly elderly enthusiasts who buy The Journal every Tuesday simply to keep up with my ramblings.

On the other hand, it may lead to a modest spike in sales of Aldi budget champagne to fans of wind turbines and Gordon Brown (if he has any left).

While the world at large will naturally receive the news with the massive indifference I deserve.

I knew I was on to a good thing personally after my second column, published fortuitously on Valentine’s Day 2006, won me a hot date with an attractive PR woman plus a letter of sympathy from someone in sheltered accommodation in Rothbury.

In those days I was a solitary curmudgeon, winding down in the depths of the countryside after some years of toil in the City of London, and was able to prove my “green” credentials by having no children. This more than offset the fact that I burned lots of coal, ate huge numbers of animals and drove a Range Rover.

Then several remarkable things happened. A column I had written for the business pages called “The Chief Executive’s Handbook” went modestly viral enough to bring me to the attention of a youngish female accountant at Iceland Foods’ head office in Flintshire.

The fact that I knew her chief executive prompted me to ask him whether the e-mail she sent me had come from a fictitious troublemaker or a genuine eccentric, and he confirmed that she was the latter.

This touched off a correspondence that was supercharged by the fact that I had started writing a blog – a development that had prompted several derisive messages from Journal readers ridiculing me for wasting my time in such a futile manner.

Yet it played no small part in the chain of events that ultimately led to our marriage in February 2009 and the subsequent birth of two healthy sons.

All of which goes to show that you should always expect the totally unexpected, and never accept conventional wisdom about what constitutes a productive use of your time.

Of course, it has its downsides. I turn 60 in June next year and had been looking forward to paying off my mortgage, putting my feet up and doing a bit of pottering around on my senior citizen’s railcard.

Now I am scrabbling for more work and hoping that my sadly defective heart may keep going for another 20 years or so, to see my boys through university.

Luckily my wife’s employers have sprung to my aid, as viewers of the recent reality TV series on Iceland will have noticed, by granting me the use of a refrigerated broom cupboard as an office, and allowing me to pretend that I am in charge of their PR.

However, it is not pressures of work or the lure of short-lived TV stardom that have led me to call a day on this column. It is simply a change in production scheduling which creates a deadline I cannot meet.

It is sad that The Journal will no longer host the country’s premier agony aunt and most obscure misery uncle on the same day, but it was great while it lasted. Thank you so much for your readership and support.

Luckily for me I’ve landed a new job, starting next week. I’m going to be writing a Wednesday column for The Journal. But don’t despair, wind energy cheerleaders. Brian confidently predicts that it will last an absolute maximum of nine months.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

The crazy, drug-fuelled world of ethical banking

Before it became a “campaigning” newspaper with an alleged penchant for testing the legal limits of news-gathering, the News of the World’s stock in trade was exposing naughty vicars.

Could there be any more enjoyable way to fill the interlude between a bracing sermon and a fine roast dinner than by reading about some dog-collared hypocrite who was dallying with one of his parishioners’ wives, or interfering with his choirboys?

Nothing, surely, except reading about the well-deserved come-uppance of a politician or bank manager.

So it seemed peculiarly sad that the News of the World was not around last weekend to devote its front page (and several further spreads inside) to the exposure of someone who is not only a Methodist minister but a politician and banker as well.

I refer, of course, to the Rev Paul Flowers, Labour party stalwart and former Chairman of the Co-operative Bank, who was amazingly captured on film by the Mail on Sunday trying to buy crystal meth, cocaine and other assorted hard drugs.

He texted of his plans for “a two-day, drug fuelled gay orgy” to provide some much-needed light relief after his grilling by a committee of MPs, to which he had demonstrated a startlingly profound ignorance of banking in general, and of the bank he was supposed to have been chairing in particular.

Inevitably inviting questions as to how an overweight clergyman with a Mr Pastry moustache came to be in nominal charge of the country’s leading ethical banking institution.

You may recall similar questions being asked about the qualifications of some members of the board of Northern Rock after its collapse, though none ever seemed as hopelessly out of his depth as the portly minister.

It seems clear that the Rev Flowers attained his position through political manoeuvring within the co-operative movement. But his appointment still had to be approved by the regulators at the FSA, charged with ensuring that the banking system is run by fit and proper persons.

Whatever were they thinking? Surely they can’t have been imagining that a man of the cloth would at least be above the bonus-driven machinations of a money-obsessed professional banker?

While the tale has all the ingredients of high comedy, a profoundly serious point arises from it. Namely that if banking has now become so complicated that only professional bankers can understand it, who can we get to supervise them in a non-executive capacity?

Clearly you should not be on a board of any kind if you struggle to understand accounts, but I suspect that cynical common sense could still get the averagely intelligent lay person quite a long way.

If the returns on an acquisition or investment seem too good to be true, that will be because they are too good to be true. Forget it and move on to the next item on the agenda.

If people who are motivated purely by greed and fear can attain even more stratospheric bonuses by bending the rules, you can be sure as day follows night that they will bend the rules. So increase the fear element by making doubly sure they will be caught and punished if they do so.

Running banks and building societies should be a simple enough business, securing the deposits of those who have more cash than they currently need and lending it to those who have a use for it. 

Instead it has become dominated by vastly over-rewarded individuals obsessed with slashing jobs and costs, lending only to those who don’t need the money, investing in impossibly complex wheezes and forcing the genuinely hard-up into the hands of Wonga and its kin.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, with his strong business background, would clearly make a fine addition to any bank board, but we cannot expect the poor man to sit on all of them in the absence of a great leap forward in cloning technology.

So what I feel we need are more hard-headed northerners prepared to tell these greedy fools a few home truths about what banks are for; and, in the case of the Co-op, to restore my Christmas divi while they are about it.

Would anyone without a serious drug habit care to volunteer?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

What could possibly go wrong?

We are told that the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that measures risk – is not fully developed until the age of 25.

This is apparently why teenagers are so vulnerable to making inappropriate connections on the internet, and disproportionately liable to die in car crashes.

It seems, on the face of it, a serious design misjudgement. Unless it was reckoned that there might be a shortage of volunteers for traditional high-risk youth activities such as warfare and childbirth if potential participants were equipped with a “Hang on a minute …” control.

The odd thing is that the Hanns are clearly exceptionally late developers in almost every respect. Hence I find myself living with a nappy-wearing toddler at an age when I should really be looking at compact retirement flats and glumly calculating how long it may be before I need to wear a nappy myself.

Yet a major part of the explanation for this is that I have always been preternaturally risk averse, and found that my brain was completely full long before I had completed the list of “what could possibly go wrong?” in the matters of marriage and having children.

It is interesting to observe my elder son, now four, following precisely the same path. His school has already had to invest in a padlock for one of its gates because young Hann was fretting so much about the risk of a little boy or girl running out into the road.

And it was seriously spooky to hear his howls of distress on Sunday as he begged his mother not to force him to go to his swimming class: an activity I similarly loathed with a passion.

He is very worried indeed about what might happen to him in the deep end, which strikes me as entirely reasonable.

In my first or second lesson at school I was knocked over in the shallow end by a boy called Shaun Corry, propelling himself smartly backwards in a tyre inner tube. My whole short life flashed before me as I began the process of drowning, and I have never since been able to enter a swimming pool with anything like equanimity.

After some discussion between us my wife gave in and was relieved to find that Charlie’s preferred alternative activity was a trip to a public baths, so he clearly has an aversion to a particular teacher rather than to the concept of swimming in general.

The only place in which our boy does not seem to be massively cautious is the car. His mother’s slow and careful driving provokes a constant back seat commentary. “Can you get past that truck for me, please, Mummy? Go on, you can do it!”

Having undermined her already fragile confidence on the road, he has now set himself up as a fashion critic, too. Dressing up for a rare night out recently, my wife made the silly mistake of asking Charlie whether he thought she looked nice. He shook his head.

“No, Mummy. For so many reasons.”

He then flung open her wardrobe door and said: “Let’s see what else we can find you!”

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the prime achievement of my life to date. Producing a child who appears to be a weird amalgam of me, Sebastian Vettel and Gok Wan.

But mainly me, as he will find when he is pushing 60 and similarly regrets that there are so few photographs of his early years, because he has the same resolute aversion to the camera that I felt at his age.

It has taken me decades to get over it, and I still much prefer to be behind the camera rather than the subject of a photograph.

As for moving pictures – well, I successfully evaded those for a lifetime until a TV crew started following me round and I felt that it might be a career-ending move to tell them to clear off (though I did drop a number of hints).

Luckily Charlie hasn’t seen my appearances, which he would no doubt regard as letting the side down. 

“Daddy on the TV? Don’t be silly, Mummy!” was absolutely his last word on the subject.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

I'm A Very Minor Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here

Surveys regularly reveal that the overriding ambition of the young is to be famous, even if it is only for the 15 minutes that Andy Warhol proposed as everyone’s due.

After a 59-year wait I have just had my own small ration of notoriety as a result of BBC2’s Iceland Foods documentary. Let me tell you now, kids: it is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

For a start, being vaguely recognisable from the television gives total strangers the impression that they are licensed to greet you by your first name. No problem for the youth of today, I suppose, but absolute anathema to those of my generation who have a strong preference for being addressed by our title and surname. Except when writing envelopes, where I am one of the last people left alive still using “Esquire”.

Far worse than that, though, is the fact that the aforementioned strangers then feel entitled to let you know exactly what they think of your performance on the box. This is, I will admit, moderately pleasant when they are flattering, but thoroughly depressing when they take the opposite view. And, human nature being what it is, people are far more likely to treat you to their opinions when they have something nasty to say.

Luckily for me The Journal rarely posts my columns on its website, or I would no doubt long since have been driven into a despairing silence by vicious and always conveniently anonymous trolls.

Funnily enough, my first ambition in life was to be a TV presenter. My role models were Eamonn Andrews off Crackerjack! and Mike Neville on Look North. Luckily I soon grew out of it because I realised that I am naturally shy and have a personality with somewhat specialist appeal.

The most enjoyable aspect of the programmes for me has been receiving lots of emailed pitches from serious PR and media training companies, eager to point out where my client and I have been going wrong.

But in a world where every chief executive, like every minister and MP, sticks rigidly to well-polished, politically correct and endlessly repetitious soundbites, isn’t it refreshing to hear from some people who say what they actually think and do so with a touch of humour?

The only major political figure who has dared to adopt such a cavalier approach is Boris Johnson and it does not seem to have done him conspicuous harm so far, though I expect we will keep reading that he is “not serious enough” to be Prime Minister until the day he enters No 10.

Asked in the early 1970s about the impact of the French revolution of 1789, the Chinese premier Chou En-Lai reputedly said that it was far too early to tell. Similarly, I imagine that the jury will be out until long after I have retired on whether allowing in TV cameras for reality documentaries confers any real benefit on the participants.

One might think, as with televised talent shows, that the well was exhausted by now. However, there is no sign of any reduction in the pressure from TV companies eager to bring us a slice of life from an airline, train operator, retailer, school or hospital near you

I had thought it would all be over by the time I filed this column but in fact the final episode has been held over until tonight to make room for BBC2’s new series of The Choir (which is why, if you tuned in yesterday, there was less swearing and fewer PR gaffes than you had been expecting, but a significantly better standard of singing*).

As a stickler for tradition, which means that the Hann family completely ignores the ghastly Americanised trappings of Halloween but goes big on celebrations of thwarted Catholic plots 408 years ago, I intend to spend this evening outdoors letting off fireworks and writing my name in the air with a sparkler. My last name, naturally, since that is the one I prefer.

That will be quite enough of having my name up in lights for one year, and tomorrow I shall be very happy to return to the total obscurity that is my natural habitat.

* I wrote that before I actually watched The Choir, where the standard of singing in fact made Iceland's own head office choir sound like the chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.