Wednesday 31 December 2014

I never said that

Years ago I had a client whose catchphrase was “I never said that.”

Twice a year, as regular as clockwork, his now long vanished company would present results falling well short of the optimistic projections everyone remembered him making six months earlier. 

Everyone, that is, apart from the person who had actually uttered the words.

This was a much easier trick to pull off in the days before nearly everyone wandered around with a phone that doubles as an audio and video recorder.

Though the shifting sands of our memories distort even words that have been captured on camera. Witness “Play it again, Sam” becoming the most famous line from Casablanca even though it is never uttered in the film.

There are people who seem dedicated to sucking the pleasure from life by debunking famous quotations. Look up any great wit’s most hilarious sayings and you will almost certainly find a leaden, spoilsport footnote advising you that there is no proof that Churchill, Wilde or whoever it might be ever uttered any such words.

This is particularly hard on those who have come up with one amusing saying in a lifetime, like the recently deceased Mandy-Rice Davies, whose unoriginal but perfectly timed “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” earned her a place in every dictionary of quotations.

Only for a distinguished barrister who had made extensive notes during the relevant hearing to write to The Times last year claiming that she had never said it, despite its being widely reported in the media at the time.

I prefer to sustain myself with the belief that every wit really did make all those lightning fast ripostes, just as I delude myself that I used the hilarious line that nearly always occurs to me shortly after a conversation has ended.

Currently, like most parents, I derive most pleasure from the utterances of my own children. Mrs Hann, determined to make our offspring understand that there is more to Christmas than Santa and presents, announced that we would attend the crib service in Whittingham on Christmas Eve.

Charlie, aged 5½, was aghast. “I can’t believe you’re making me leave the house on Christmas Eve,” he said.

When Mummy explained why, he continued: “Yeah, I already know that story. With God and everything.”

Then, after a pause for reflection: “Mummy, you do know the baby Jesus is dead, don’t you? He died at Easter. So what’s the point of celebrating the birth of someone who’s already dead?”

He may attend a Church of England school, but I can’t help feeling that there is some way still to go in his religious instruction.

Still, we dragged him to the service anyway, sang some mercifully traditional hymns with appropriate gusto, and returned home in plenty of time to remove the fireguard and leave the appropriate offerings for Santa and Rudolph.

Few things in life have given me more pleasure than seeing that small boy beam as he ripped open the first small parcel in his stocking and declared “Wow, I’ve been hoping for this all year!”

Even if for now the credit all goes to Santa rather than his thoughtful parents.

The major change I detect since the 1950s is that toys, like furniture, have moved into the realm of the flatpack. I used to unwrap my presents and then simply play with them (usually, to my parents’ irritation, deriving more pleasure from the empty boxes than anything else).

Now Christmas morning is but the start of a major construction project which, like those begun at the same time by Network Rail, has horribly overrun.

We have a model stud farm taking up most of the sitting room, a vehicle racing tower loosely based on Gateshead’s Get Carter car park dominating the bedroom, and several full boxes of Playmobil and Lego yet to tackle.

I could be getting on with those now, rather than writing this column or, as I shortly intend, heading out for a large lunch at the pub.

“But Daddy, you promised!” a little voice just claimed from somewhere near the carpet.

“Really?” I say, and a useful phrase rolls in like cloud from across the years. “I’m sure I never said that.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

The power of social media

What use are social media? Are they any more than time-fillers for the chronically underemployed?

Personally I am sceptical about Facebook, which seems to be a platform for sharing hilarious cat videos and photos of your family with people who have little interest in either.

Though my wife seems to organise most of her admittedly limited social life through Facebook quite satisfactorily.

It’s more business-orientated equivalent LinkedIn delivers regular endorsements of skills you haven’t got from people you have barely heard of, plus valuable reminders to congratulate contacts on the anniversaries of taking up jobs from which they have long since been sacked.

To be fair, those of my acquaintance who have not rendered themselves unemployable through age, infirmity or incompetence tell me that it is a useful channel for both finding work and then recruiting younger and cheaper people to do said work for them.

Then there is Twitter, surely the greatest time-waster of them all? Tuned to the gnat-like attention span of the young with its ludicrously tight 140 character limit in which to convey your message, and full of inconsequence and bile.

Well no, actually, not entirely. As a much Tweeted Christmas card points out, in 2014 the angel of the Lord would find that his glad tidings of great joy were old hat to the shepherds, who’d already have read all about it on their smartphones.

Nearly every piece of breaking news in the last year has reached me through Twitter rather than broadcast media. Indeed on more than one occasion I’ve tuned in to the TV news to learn more about some event widely reported on social media only to find no mention of it all, as broadcasters presumably sought corroboration through official channels.

Then there is the great boon of enhanced customer service. Let me give you an example. At the beginning of December I ordered some parts to rebuild my elder son’s electric train set, after it had been comprehensively trashed by his younger brother.

I heard nothing for 10 days, so I sent a polite email and received, in return, an automated reply apologising in advance for the long delay I would experience before they got back to me, because they were frightfully busy. (The electronic mail equivalent of that maddening recorded message that begins “Your call is important to us …”. Only not important enough for us to employ enough people to answer our phones.)

So after a few more days I posted a Tweet containing the firm’s name and the words “shocking customer service”. Within half an hour I’d had a personal email from a director of the company (unknown to me, but acquainted with one of my Twitter followers) and very shortly after that my order was on its way.

All right, I’d jumped the queue and as an Englishman I naturally have my reservations about that, but it seems to be a trick that most of us can pull. Because every business cares far more about its public image than it does about you as an individual customer.

So complaining about your lousy train journey on Twitter is the equivalent of having your private conversation with Customer Services relayed over the tannoy at the Central Station.

Their Twitter feeds suggest that even notorious offenders like the energy companies are far more effective at dealing with complaints presented to them through Twitter than with those that arrive by more conventional channels. Which admittedly isn’t hard, since my experience of writing letters and sending emails to my electricity provider is strangely akin to dropping a brick down a bottomless well.

As I write I am still waiting to see whether Twitter will help me track down the important Christmas present that I supposedly signed for at 17.01 on Sunday, but which in fact never arrived at all.

Even if it ultimately fails, I know that both the sender and the courier are on the case, and I’ve been spared hours listening to hold music on the phone.

So give it a whirl yourself. Don’t say this column never tells you anything useful, and have a Christmas so merry you’ll want to go on Twitter to tell the world about it.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Foot-in-mouth disease strikes again

Chris Tingle sounds suspiciously like a 1970s Radio 1 DJ, currently on bail as part of Operation Yewtree.

In fact it is the name of a seasonal church service. Albeit one that can never feel like a proper tradition to me, because it wasn’t around when I was growing up.

If Wikipedia is to be believed Christingle was introduced to England in 1968. Making it a full five years later than sexual intercourse, according to the poet Philip Larkin.

I was only dimly aware of Christingle, as of many things, through years of listening to The Archers. There it forms part of the December fabric along with “stir up Sunday” and the traditional switch-on of the illuminations around Ambridge village green.

But I only started attending the service when I had children and, more particularly, one of them began attending a Church of England primary school.

Hence we dutifully trooped along to our parish church on Sunday morning and my two boys, like a plague of locusts who have spent too long on the 5:2 diet, stripped the sultanas and dolly mixtures off their oranges before their candles were even lit.

In keeping with the spirit of 1968, the rector leading the service seemed to me to bear an endearing resemblance to a Gerry Anderson marionette. I suspected he might have some underlying happy clappy tendencies, but if he did they were held in check by the uncomprehending stares of a bunch of irregular worshippers and his organist.

Perhaps those looks were what threw him so thoroughly off his stride in his address to the assembled children about the Advent candles.

“And who do you think we will light this last white one for, next week? I’ll give you a clue. His name begins with a G … I mean J.”

A vicar who does not know how to spell Jesus seemed like the gaffe to end all gaffes until I found my wife, after an alcohol-free lunch, referring to our elder son as “Whatsisname”.

But they both seem pallid amateurs compared to the weekend’s supreme champions of the foot-in-mouth world, UKIP. How did we fill our days with mirth before this shower came along, with their unbelievably rich cast of fantasists, apparent racists and homophobes, and all-round world-class loons?

Whenever I feel depressed about my current job, which is most days, I can at least pause to reflect, “It could be worse, you could be doing PR for UKIP or the Keystone Cops.”

I think, on the whole, that it would be easier to big up the latter as a credible law enforcement agency than the former as an alternative government, or even as a desirable holder of the balance of power.

I don’t write this without regret, being a traditional Englishman who favours tweed three-piece suits, the monarchy, the Book of Common Prayer and the old ways of doing things in general.

But I can more believe in Nigel Farage as a potential Prime Minister than I can really have faith that today’s CofE is going to offer me the secret of eternal life.

And even if it were, a heaven that consists of clapping, swaying and waving my arms around to the accompaniment of twanging guitars is one I would rather do without.

My idea of Hell

I wish UKIP could be displaced by a truly Conservative party that bothered to check what its name actually meant in a dictionary before setting out its policy agenda.

And that the Church of England could revert to being a provider of hard pews, rousing hymns, ancient rituals and thoughtful sermons, rather than a branch of the social work industry always embarrassingly keen to “get down with the kids”.

I’d like to believe that the son of God was born of a virgin in Bethlehem a couple of millennia ago, and I’m happy to go through the traditional motions of worship. But then I also put out sherry, mince pies and carrots for Santa and Rudolph.

Even so, I do value the church for helping to provide some excellent schools, preserving our architectural heritage and generally meaning well, in addition to providing some incidental entertainment.

Whereas with UKIP, I really cannot see beyond the laughs.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The present is also a foreign country

In 1953, the year before I was born, a novel with one of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century was published.

It was L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, and I’m sure you know the words: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

That usually prompts a nod of recognition. But if one ponders the logical consequences, aren’t we all creatures of the past? And does that not make each and every one of us immigrants in the foreign country that is Britain today?

Because they certainly do things very differently here and now, compared with the black and white, steam-powered, pounds, shillings and pence, “never had it so good” world in which my generation grew up.

Since then it has been pretty much a perpetual revolution, disguised only by the fact that the young woman who was crowned in 1953 still has her image on the currency today.

Many of the things I read and hear each day seem as alien to me as they must to a non-English speaker who has just arrived in Dover clinging to the underside of a lorry.

I miss half crowns and remain equally baffled by metric measurements and the way that English names for foreign places keep changing, but those of the foods associated with them (Peking duck, Ceylon tea) do not.

I cannot keep up with the ever-changing rules on acceptable language. A few weeks ago I listened in astonishment to an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Any Answers that was dominated by fury with Lord Heseltine for having used the word “handicapped”. This is apparently about as offensive as anyone can be to a disabled person in 2014.

It came as news to me and, reassuringly, to my younger and much more switched-on wife. Though the caravan will surely move on again, rendering the currently approved word completely unacceptable within another few years.

Meanwhile the most offensive words of my childhood are now the mainstays of popular comedy shows.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this, and expecting the name of Nigel Farage to crop up, so I won’t disappoint you. He doesn’t like being late for events because the motorways are so crowded, and cites “open door” immigration as one factor driving population growth.

My dad was saying much the same thing in 1960, outraged by the growing number of cars on the road and particularly by people on the neighbouring council estate having the temerity to take up driving.

His views were formed by around 1915, as mine were by the end of the 1950s, and thereafter we were both lost somewhere abroad without a guide book.

But it’s not just me, my dad and the entire membership of UKIP. Most of us appear overwhelmed with nostalgia for a golden age that never existed. Witness the recent YouGov survey that found a huge majority of the public in favour of renationalising the energy companies and railways.

Clearly forgetting the epic, soviet-style inefficiency of the old electricity boards and British Rail.

The simple, sad reality is that you can’t combine a generous welfare state with open borders; you will inevitably be overwhelmed by demand.

But equally you can’t maintain a functioning welfare state when your own population is ageing, and you rely on those in work to pay the pensions of the elderly. Those moaning immigrants from the past who irritatingly insist on living longer and longer as each year goes by.

The only remote hope of squaring that particular circle seems to be allowing the working population to be topped up with younger people from overseas. Maybe our leaders could try spelling this out a bit more clearly.

Ultimately this conundrum is all the selfish fault of us baby boomers, famously obsessed with sex yet bizarrely failing to breed in adequate numbers. I belatedly tried to make amends by adding two potential workers to the national pool. And my reward? A lecture the other day that began: “You silly old man, you don’t know anything. I’m two. I know things.

Actually my younger son Jamie is all of 2¾. I’m seriously thinking of entering him into a debating contest with Mr Farage.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Psst! Here's a nice little earner!

This column comes with a health warning. Actually, make that more of a wealth warning.

You know the sort of thing: “Investments may go down as well as up, and you may not get back in full any money you are daft enough to lay out as a result of reading this. Your home may be repossessed, your cherished personal effects sold at auction for a fraction of their true value, and your children placed in indentured servitude. Really, it’s all fine. Sign here, here and here.”

The thing is, I feel that I have spotted a sure-fire, can’t-fail, money-making opportunity. However, I also have form. As an investment analyst in the 1980s, I was definitely fully compliant with Woody Allen’s famous definition of a stockbroker as “someone who invests other people’s money until it’s all gone.”

Still want to know my brilliant idea? OK, it’s this.

Buy property in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Alnmouth. Why? Because they are handily located for fast train services to Edinburgh, and will be natural commuter territory for better-paid workers in the Scottish capital when its inevitably socialist government takes advantage of its new freedom to whack up income tax rates.

Alnmouth. Now, there's lovely...

Why hang around and pay a confiscatory rate of tax up there, when you could enjoy English rates for just the price of a season ticket on East Coast Trains? Even putting your journey to work in the hands of a failed balloonist and would-be space traveller might seem a price worth paying.

Unless, of course, the Scottish government also chooses to impose penal new corporate taxes, in which case the companies the about-to-be exiles work for will also up sticks and relocate to England. But presumably they are based in Scotland because they have a taste for the cold and long winter nights, so with any luck they won’t head any further south than Newcastle, and property investors in north Northumberland should still be quids in.

If only they still made these ...

It won’t take the Scots too long to discover that increasing personal taxes is – forgive this parallel if you are reading at the breakfast table – a bit like suffering incontinence. It may impart an initial warm glow but the medium term consequences are wholly negative.

Because all experience shows that higher rates stimulate avoidance and actual tax receipts go down. Requiring more borrowing, which in turn will lead to a lower credit rating and ultimately to some sort of financial disaster.

Rather sooner than one might expect on the traditional 300 year cycle between the collapse of the Darien scheme that prompted the Act of Union in the reign of Queen Anne, and the downfall of the Royal and non-Royal Banks of Scotland in the reign of Gordon Brown.

As wealth and talent flee south, a balancing caravan of claimants and bedroom tax dodgers will presumably head north up the partially dualled A1, to take advantage of the more generous benefits on offer in the Scandinavian-style high-tax welfare state across the border.

Unless and until someone decides that it is necessary to impose restrictions on the free movement of people to stop them taking advantage, as the Soviets had to do to protect their former workers’ paradise in East Germany.

When the Salmond-Sturgeon vision inevitably implodes, I can easily see Berwick-upon-Tweed emerging as a sort of new West Berlin, its bright lights mocking the grim, deprived jocks to the north.
Of course, there is a potentially fatal flaw in my theory. Namely that English taxes may also go spiralling up.

Though that only seems likely if Scottish MPs are allowed to continue sitting in Westminster and voting on our taxes, even though they have no say over their own. And we would never allow such manifest unfairness. Would we?

So go on. Buy yourself an investment property in Berwick and wait for the bawbees to roll in.

I’d certainly do the same myself but for the fact that I’ve lost nearly all my money following my brilliant hunches that the London property market had reached its peak in 1986 and that hilltop residences near the Cheviots would be a fast appreciating asset when sea levels started to rise in earnest. Though surely one day they will.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Are you sure you've made the right career choice?

If you really hate serving customers, maybe you should think twice about staying in shopkeeping as your line of business.

That was my thought as I was shepherded towards the loathsome self-service till when I went to buy a newspaper at the station for my journey to London on Monday.

The young woman in charge resolutely refused to soil her hands with my money. Her designated role was solely to advise people how to use the robot that is ultimately designed to put her out of a job altogether.

I tried hard to be as slow and stupid as possible, but still managed to complete the transaction eventually. Only to remember, when I boarded my train, that its operator hands out free copies of my newspaper of choice anyway.

I recognise that I am on shaky ground in criticising people for pursuing trades that don’t match their personalities and capabilities. I am one of the few tongue-tied misanthropes ever to have made a moderately successful career out of public relations.

Rarer than hen's teeth: a picture of me smiling, courtesy of the BBC

I have been helped by the advance of technology, which means that most enquiries these day arrive by e-mail, so I can be reasonably articulate (and faux polite) when writing my responses, instead of über-grumpy on the telephone.

But what possesses people to go into politics when they hate voters? Labour before Tony Blair always hated toffs and the sharp-elbowed middle class, and never seemed particularly fond of those members of the working class who sought to better their lot by, for example, buying their council houses or getting their children into grammar school.

After all, where might that lead but to those offspring joining middle class professions and voting Tory?

Last week, thanks to Lady Nugee (a.k.a. Emily Thornberry), we received proof positive that Labour also despises that large chunk of the white working class who drive white vans and take pride in their flag.

This should have been no great surprise. It’s pretty much de rigueur among our metropolitan elite to loathe the closet racists and would-be clock-turner-backers who think that they and their forebears fought two world wars to keep Britain independent, and might feel minded to support a party with that as its top line objective.

White Van Dan’s subsequent tabloid interviews suggested that he might indeed have some sympathy with such quaint old notions.

I know I’m biased, but I have never felt that the Tories are in quite the same league as Labour when it comes to hating. Some of us may be a bit suspicious of foreigners and new-fangled ideas, and impatient with those we traditionally described as feckless.

But the drivers of the sort of Conservatism with which I identify were always a strong commitment to personal freedom, and an arguably patronising desire to help those who wished to advance themselves to get a foot on the social mobility ladder.

I understood it when people became Labour MPs through their work in the trade union movement, driven by a desire to help their own communities. For Tories, there was often a sense of noblesse oblige. Getting their ample behinds on the green benches of the Commons was what landed gentry did for their county if they did not qualify for the red benches next door.

Now most of our would-be leaders seem to be making a career choice of politics before they leave school, following a pre-ordained path through special adviserships to Parliament and, with astonishing speed, ministerial office.

I still find it amazing that David Cameron’s principal rival for the Prime Ministership entered the Commons only in 2005. Might it not have been a good idea to work through some sort of apprenticeship in good governance?

Spot the potential Prime Minister

It does not matter what party badge these people wear. They are clones, living in the same parts of London, paying homage to the same principles of political correctness and enjoying little real connection with their constituencies.

I wish we could break the mould and tempt some older, wiser, more experienced and genuinely rooted individuals into front line politics. And I don’t mean Nigel Farage.

Failing that, we might consider following the managerial example of our best-known news retailer, and have them all replaced with robots.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

A memo to the Caliph

I can’t rid myself of the image of a woman I saw in the supermarket on Sunday. Not because she was particularly good looking (though she certainly beat Kim Kardashian) but simply because I have never seen anyone more radiantly happy.

This is a pretty unusual phenomenon among the self-service tills at Sainsbury’s.

Still, it wasn’t hard to work out why and it had nothing to do with her Nectar points. The presumably expected item in her bagging area was a new-born baby, snoozing contentedly in its car seat.

Can anything beat the joy of having a wanted child? And can anything cap the grief of losing that child, whether to a dreadful disease, accident or war?

My generation, the baby boom that followed the Second World War, has been extraordinarily blessed. True, we spent a fair chunk of our time living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, and may have developed more hedonistic tendencies than our parents as a result.

But we have enjoyed steadily rising material living standards, astonishing technological progress and significant improvements in medical science and life expectancy.

Most important of all, we have never been conscripted to don khaki and provide target practice for the Queen’s enemies.

I sincerely hope my young sons will be equally lucky.

Because I take a keen interest in history, and regretted that my parents never thought to do as much for me, I have put aside some mementoes for my boys to ponder in the years ahead. These include sets of coins from the years of their birth, and newspapers from the days they were born.

I wondered if the joyful lady in the supermarket had done the same, and whether she had paused to wonder about the sort of world into which she was bringing her child.

While it all looks undeniably grim, the good news is you could depress yourself equally thoroughly by looking at any newspaper since the dawn of print, or for that matter at wax tablets, runic inscriptions and cave paintings.

The horrors perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State are utterly repellent, but sadly nothing new. Read an account of that fine old English custom of hanging, drawing and quartering, and thank the Lord video had not yet been invented.

Bird flu and even Ebola must surely pale into insignificance compared with the Black Death.

Warnings of global economic crashes and disastrous climate change recur with equal regularity. Even in my lifetime we have been earnestly warned to brace ourselves for a new Ice Age.

One can also be forgiven a sense of déjà vu as Bob Geldof and his pals again trot out the old mistruth that there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas, and politicians claim that they are about to dual the A1.

OK, not Christmas, but I liked the sign. Google Atlas Mountains and Kilimanjaro for more accurate seasonal images.

The pop stars are at least acting altruistically, though maybe we’d need to buy fewer downloads if some of them put less effort into reducing their personal tax bills.

The politicians are, amazingly, manoeuvring to secure their re-election next year and it will, as ever, pay to study the small print attaching to their pledges.

Yes, the A1 will undoubtedly be upgraded to dual carriageway throughout Northumberland. Eventually. In short bursts. With announcements of the next phase typically emerging every five years in advance of an election, to be followed by the regrettable discovery that there is, owing to the incompetence of the outgoing government, no money left.

A typical day on the single carriageway A1 "trunk road"

There is much wisdom in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

We are born, then we die. The older one gets, the more conscious one becomes that the time between the two is pathetically short, and that nothing really matters much at all. Except one thing.

Using the short while we have got to be as happy as we possibly can be, like that lady in the supermarket. And grasping that the best way to make yourself happy is by making other people happy, too.

Sadly I don’t suppose Islamic State’s self-styled Caliph is likely to read The Journal and take note.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

The man in the bed next to the door

I have a fairly stony heart but even so there are times when I simply have to laugh, no matter how inappropriate the circumstances.

"The RVI": Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne

A prime example occurred at visiting time at the RVI 25 years ago. I was trying to cheer up my late mother, who had just lost her second leg to Type 2 diabetes. Next to her, in the traditional bed next to the door, lay another old lady who patently wasn’t destined to witness another sunrise.

Her entire extended family duly trooped in to say goodbye, two by two, only they did no such thing. Each new arrival attempted some uplifting line like, “Eeh, you’re looking so much better, nan!”

The only one who spoke the truth did so with the splendidly ambiguous words, “Mind, you’ll soon be getting out of here!”

As for the rest, I am ashamed to say that their lack of realism was so ridiculous that my mum and I both got the giggles. We had to draw the curtains around her bed to avoid giving offence.

I am reminded of this melancholy saga – and, yes, there was another lady in the bed next to the door on the following day – by the succession of senior Labour figures turning out to confirm that Mr Miliband really does have what it takes to be Prime Minister.

Some, perhaps, are speaking the truth by not being too specific about which Mr Miliband they are talking about.

We are fortunate in having the dignified part of our nation’s leadership in the practised and capable hands of Her Majesty The Queen. But surely few of us can seriously imagine that it would be a good idea to put our key economic levers, never mind the nuclear codes, in the hands of Mr Bean.

Yes, of course we shouldn’t devalue a person because he looks a bit weird, and speaks strangely, and can’t manage normal things like eating a bacon sandwich or giving some change to a beggar without inviting ridicule.

She's not the only one in need of change

But I’ve been waiting for four years to find out what on Earth convinced Ed Miliband that he had a mission to be Prime Minister so overwhelmingly strong that it was worth knifing his own brother to achieve it, and I am still completely in the dark.

An energy price freeze, was that it? Possibly a mansion tax? Pushing the top rate of income tax back up to 50%? Committing never to take Britain out of the European Union, regardless of the future path it may take?

Harold Wilson famously asserted that: “The Labour party is a moral crusade, or is it nothing.” Well, if those are the only alternatives, I am really struggling to see the moral crusade right now.

Reminder: this is what a crusader looks like

I have waited in vain to hear a compelling vision of how Mr Miliband would change this country for the better, and it seems increasingly reasonable to conclude that he hasn’t got one. In which case, surely the Labour Party should bring an end to the admittedly entertaining farce of his leadership and install someone who can project one with greater credibility.

I don’t write this out of self-interest. I’m a natural Conservative, though no great fan of the party’s present leadership and direction. I certainly have no desire to see a majority Labour government next year. And there is no better chance of avoiding that outcome than by leaving the present Mr Miliband in place.

But British politics is already discredited and disillusionment can only grow if we are denied a credible choice between parties with grown-up leaders who can make a convincing fist of presenting themselves as potential Prime Ministers.

On current form, Ed Miliband would struggle to win a mock election in a school debating society.

I know that writing this will win me no new friends in the North East, which started voting Labour a century ago because it felt deprived and neglected. And never seems to question why it still feels exactly the same in 2014 despite its staunch and commendable loyalty.

But please be aware that those of us outside the ward are struggling to suppress our mirth over your man in the bed next to the door.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Who can be trusted to tell the truth?

You would not think it now, but I was a very trusting child. I believed my parents when they told me you could always trust a British bobby.

Evening, all. A classic octogenarian British PC.

I even believed my first headmaster when he told us, at the time of the 1961 census, that its secrecy was so complete that one could put down one’s occupation as “burglar” without any fear of retribution.

Scroll on to 2014 and it seems that you can report as many thefts as you like without anyone lifting a finger, though the European Union presumably marks them down as further evidence of burgeoning economic activity, justifying another whacking increase in its membership fees.

After all, it has just slapped in a £1.7 billion demand that seems to be largely based on previous under-recording of such vibrantly healthy UK economic sectors as tobacco smuggling, prostitution and drugs. By which I guess they mean the sort favoured by that “crystal Methodist” banker rather than my own statins and low dose aspirins.

Maybe this is the sort of British success story George Osborne has in mind when he bangs on about his “Northern powerhouse”, led by a directly elected mayor. You remember, the sort that the people of Manchester (and many other places) rejected in a referendum only two years ago but are now apparently going to have anyway, whether they like it or not.

Among his or her many other useful functions this new mayor will take over the role of the police and crime commissioner that a handful of people bothered to vote into office a few months later.

It all seems eerily reminiscent of voting ten years ago against both a North East assembly and a unitary authority for the whole of Northumberland. One of which has already been imposed upon us while the other is clearly trundling down the tracks once again, thinly concealed by more waffle about “city regions”.

Really, what is the point of voting for anything at all when no notice is taken of the outcome?

How would it go down if I adopted the sort of approach to the Government that it takes with me? Maybe sending my tax demand back with an offer to pay a token amount because it’s all I can afford (which has the virtue of being true).

Oh, and I’m terribly sorry, HM Revenue & Customs, but you won’t be able to check my records yourselves because I’ve shredded them all to comply with the Data Protection Act, as the House of Commons has done with all those dodgy expenses claims.

... apart from the ones we shredded

Regardless of election results, politicians of all parties display a shared and cynical determination to plough on with policies they have never deigned to explain properly, whether those be elected mayors or the encouragement of mass immigration.

Small wonder that the result has been a collapse of trust in authority over the last half century, which means that most of us no longer look up to anyone or accept what they say at face value.

In some instances, this is entirely beneficial. For example, if you were crazily thinking of buying a ticket to outer space from a music industry entrepreneur with a proven track record of failure in the technologically less demanding task of running a reliable train service into London Euston.

In others, the results are more questionable. Virtually no one but the most gullible green fanatics believes that there is a case for massively increasing our reliance on wind and solar power. But then virtually no one readily accepts the case for massive increases in fracking or nuclear capacity, either. 

If the UN’s scientists are right, and we need to get used to the idea of doing without gas and oil completely by the end of this century, a lot of us are going to need to do some pretty radical rethinking about who we can trust quite soon.

Either that or prepare to spend rather a lot of time sitting in the cold and dark. On the plus side, though, we won’t be able to hear George Osborne banging on about powerhouses. And, if the scientists are right, it won’t be quite as chilly as it might have been.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Who needs money? We've got Santa!

I received my final warning on Saturday morning, and as usual I only had myself to blame.

Our two young sons had joined us in bed, uninvited, and were happily flicking through a Lego catalogue, because they really love Lego.

Even though the two-year-old is too young to play with the stuff, while the five-year-old seems to regard his role in construction projects as very much a managerial one.

I live in dread of some evil person telling them that there is place called Legoland. Almost as much as I fear the day when they get to hear of Disneyworld.

On the whole I'd even rather be at Chester Zoo

For now, though, I merely felt the need to dampen expectations of what might be in their Christmas stockings, so I made a light-hearted reference to the dire state of the Hann family finances.

The comeback from Charlie (5) was instantaneous and lethal. “For the last time, Daddy! You don’t need ANY money to buy presents. Father Christmas makes them!”

I should have known better as I had already received an almost identical put-down earlier in the week, when I foolishly raised the subject of presents as the world’s worst distraction technique.

The pair of them were sitting on the kitchen sofa open-mouthed during an ad break in Channel 5’s Milkshake, the commercial rival to the BBC’s CBeebies, and something had just been described as “an ideal Christmas gift”.

If only they had this on CBeebies ...

I realise now that it is worth every penny of the licence fee not to have their minds poisoned with the desire to own yet more battery-powered plastic tat, to add to the skip-load of it they already possess.

I casually asked if they had anything in mind for themselves and thought Charlie said, “I’ve made a wish,” which sounded suitably modest. So I replied cheerfully: “I hope your wish comes true.”

He gave me a penetrating look. “No, Daddy. I’ve made a LIST.”

“Well, the thing is, Charlie, Mummy and Daddy have just bought this house and we haven’t got any money, so you might not be able to get everything on your list this year.”

He brought his face unusually close to mine and wore a pitying look as he very clearly and slowly spelt out the above-mentioned facts about Santa Claus, which I was clearly too dim to grasp. It must have seemed scarcely credible, in the circumstances, that I should need telling again within 48 hours.

I have no desire to mar his innocent enjoyment of the coming festive season by bringing him face to face with reality. Any more than I propose to book a visit to an abattoir to solve the puzzling question of “how the cows make the beef”.

I am regularly charmed by his inability to distinguish fantasy from fact and by his total lack of historical perspective, resulting in the belief that there may be a fairy circle, dragon or jousting match just around the corner.

We took him to ride his bike around the grounds of the local castle the other day and he was massively excited when told that people still lived there, but deflated when we had to admit that they weren’t knights, or at any rate knights as he pictures them.

I have already introduced him to two absolutely genuine knights, who were pronounced “rubbish” because they weren’t riding horses or wearing armour.

I suppose we’ll just have to do our best with his present list as the last people who tried to give him a nice surprise were the friends visiting from Australia who kindly bought the boys their very own prehistoric kingdom in a large box. Charlie looked at them coldly and said: “We don’t even like dinosaurs.”

For half term next week we cannot stretch to seven days in the sun, unless it happens to shine on north Northumberland, but I intend to make the most of the theme park full of genuine fairy tale castles on our doorstep.

I feel that I may as well also draw up a Christmas wish list of my own and shove it up the chimney with Charlie’s. Statistically, it must stand about as much chance of success as my alternative strategy for financial redemption by winning the National Lottery.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

The horrific killer that succumbs to soap and water

I have never much cared for horror films myself, but their huge box office appeal attests to the deep and widespread human need to scare ourselves witless.

Whether it is ghosts, terrorists, alien invaders, zombies, microbes, velociraptors, sharks, mad axemen or dear old global warming, most of us love to fret that there is something lurking out there that is going to get us.

And in the long run, of course, something will. But I suspect it won’t be Ebola, despite the feverish interest it is currently arousing in the British media.

Exactly why are our news bulletins currently being led by an outbreak of a disease that has so far claimed around 4,000 lives, nearly all of them in places far, far away? Particularly when, as our man on the spot David Banks pointed out on Friday, it comes well down the running order of bulletins in West Africa itself.

To put the Ebola death toll in some sort of context, malaria kills over 600,000 people every year. Influenza, which you are somewhat more likely to contract in the UK, typically kills 250 – 500,000 people annually, rising into the millions during its regular pandemics.

True, there is no cure for Ebola and it sounds a very unpleasant way to die. But it is far from invariably fatal and, having made the mistake of reading a book called “How We Die” a few years ago, I can tell you with some confidence that there aren’t many ways to go that make you think “Ooh, I rather fancy a bit of that.”

There are other reasons for positive thinking, not least the fact that it is really quite hard to catch Ebola. The key way to protect yourself is to take great care not to touch anyone who has already got it. And, if you fail on that front, the critical back-up is to remember to wash your hands afterwards, with soap and water.

If I were pitching this as a plot outline for a top ranking horror movie, I think I might give up at this point and move swiftly on to my other brilliant idea about a giant man-eating Venus flytrap.

I have reached the point when my school contemporaries are starting to succumb to the ravages of age. One is currently recovering in hospital following major heart surgery. Another recently announced his early retirement following a stroke.

Both were and are considerably slimmer and fitter than I am, but then those who have already handed in their dinner pails were, without exception, “the last person you would expect”.

One of my mother’s favourite bits of Alnwick folk wisdom was “You’re frightened of the death you’ll never die”. Having observed the departure of her entire generation, born in the decade before the First World War, I can vouch for the almost universal truth of this claim.

Yes, there was the odd grotesque fatty who keeled over with a heart attack and one or two smokers who duly succumbed to lung cancer, but she and most of her contemporaries lost their lives to things that had never even registered on their worry radars.

Luckily death seems to be something that absolutely all of us can manage, when the time comes, without unduly embarrassing ourselves or those around us. Thus putting it, in my case, in a considerably easier box than drinking soup.

It has faded of late, but for years the thing that made me wake up in a cold sweat was not the prospect of extinction but the thought of having to take my A-levels again. Surely death will be easier than that, with the added bonus that there will be no danger of marking errors or re-sits.

The real stuff of nightmares

Until then, I shall continue trying to follow my late mother’s advice that death will get us whether we worry about it or not, so we might as well not worry.

However, if you absolutely insist on worrying, may I suggest that you focus on excessive consumption of meat pies, cigarettes and strong lager rather than Ebola?

Book yourself a flu jab, arrange your holiday somewhere other than Sierra Leone and always, but always, take care to wash your hands.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.


First, someone asked me what the title of last week's column had to do with its contents. Not a lot, really, but I was inspired by this sketch from the Secret Policeman's Ball, which always raises a smile:

I remain as convinced as the late, great John Fortune that there is only one correct way to pronounce certain words, including troll.

Secondly, another correspondent queried how on Earth anyone can possibly mispronounce "Hann". Ah, reader, let me count the ways! You might think, particularly if you happen to be called Cholmondeley, Featherstonehaugh or Postlethwaite, that you could not go far wrong with a nice, simple surname comprising just four letters. Yet it still needs to be spelt out every single time I give it to anyone, is frequently recorded as "Mann" (though that is no more common a name if the telephone book provides any sort of guide) and is regularly misspelt and mispronounced as "Haan" or "Hahn". What really gets me is the invincible conviction of their own rightness that drives some people to continue calling me "Hahn" even after I have politely pointed out that it's "Hann" and rhymes with "pan".

Having K as a solitary initial creates the added complication that it is also from time to time misrendered as Khan. Indeed, when I opened an account with the NatWest many years ago they went so far as send me a debit card in the name of Mr K Khan.

Finally, it was suggested that "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" would make an appropriate addition to the short list of maxims with which I concluded. I agree, and it was another favourite saying of my late mother. However, I fear that strict adherence to this precept would result in Wednesday's Newcastle Journal regularly going to press with a large blank space where my column ought to be.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

You say tomato, and I say tomato

I like to see things in black and white. For there to be a right and a wrong answer to every question.

How frustrating, then, to find that so many issues in the news dissolve into more than 50 shades of grey.

These reflections were prompted by listening to Radio 4 on Monday morning, experiencing mounting irritation as some pundit droned on about internet trolls.

Only he insisted on pronouncing the word to rhyme with “dole” instead of “doll”.

Imagine how deflated I felt when I looked it up in search of vindication and found that either pronunciation is considered correct.

I shall have to confine myself to being annoyed with those who continue to mispronounce my surname, and the name of the village where I live, even after I have politely put them right.

So let us move on from pronunciation to consider the issue of trolling in general. Clearly writing disobliging things about other people is not a nice or kind thing to do, whether one does it on the internet or by painting abusive graffiti on their walls.

It is made even less appealing when judgements are passed on named individuals by those not in full possession of the facts, who almost always hide within the comfortable shadow of a pseudonym.

On the other hand (for this is not a black and white issue), how offended can anyone reasonably be by comments about them on Twitter, particularly if they do not actually use Twitter?

How far must freedom of speech be constrained to protect the right not to be offended of people who reflexively take umbrage on behalf of others?

Often on Twitter I read amongst the tsunami of outrage about some controversial post or other, a still small voice saying (in 140 characters or fewer) “actually I am gay / black / disabled / dyslexic / a war veteran / whatever and I thought that was quite a good joke”.

A recent TV documentary on motorways belatedly introduced me to the fact that there is officially no longer any such thing as a “road traffic accident”. We now have “road traffic collisions” because nothing happens by accident: “someone is always to blame”.

If your car crosses the central reservation because of a blow-out it’s your own fault for not checking the tyres or driving too fast; or the fault of the garage who fitted the tyre, or the company who manufactured it; or the farmer whose hedge clipping damaged it; or the Highways Agency for not filling the pothole you clipped.

At its most extreme this thinking ends up with people scouring a runway for the strip of metal that punctured the tyre of the Concorde that crashed in Paris, and taking to court the airline from whose plane it fell.

The blame culture also gives free rein to those who become fixated with the belief that the victims of well-publicised tragedies are the authors of their own misfortune.

I don’t suppose that parents who have lost a child need reminding that things might have turned out differently if they had not left their offspring unattended.

Any more than it is helpful to point out that those placing themselves at risk in war zones, whether as reporters or humanitarians, took a free choice to do so (and if they grievously underestimated the danger they would be in, that too was their own fault).

Islamic State like to see themselves as master propagandists, making full use of social media to attract the gullible to their cause. Small wonder that trolling is officially part of the US State Department’s fight back.

Let us hope that it proves more effective than air strikes in undermining morale.

We can surely all agree that death is a disproportionate response to trolling, whether for the victim or the perpetrator, in a world where even the most heinous war crimes will escape capital punishment.

But ultimately on the greyly murky issue of trolling I find I can get no further than two black and white yet wise sayings of my parents: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

And “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Reckless by name, reckless by nature

What’s in a name? The Conservative MP Mark Reckless will certainly have pleased believers in nominative determinism by defecting to UKIP at the weekend.

If only the victim of the Sunday Mirror’s sting had been called Randy Gullible instead of Brooks Newmark the case for names determining life’s outcomes would surely be completely unassailable.

Perhaps even now Mr Newmark is filling out the requisite deed poll forms that just reached him by email, along with a request for his bank account details.

Leaving aside questions on the morality of entrapment, we must weigh the welcome evidence that MPs and ministers are only human against the worrying reflection that these are the people we trust to make decisions that affect all our lives.

If the rampant expenses fiddling of the recent past were not enough to sow a few doubts about the wisdom of this, we might pause to reflect on the fact that a whopping majority of them were convinced last week that dropping a few bombs on the fighters of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq (though not in Syria, where IS is actually based) will help to make us safer here in the UK.

Just as the best way to protect yourself from a ravenously hungry and mentally unbalanced tiger is always to climb into its cage and give it a playful tug on its tail.

This makes about as much sense as Conservative MP’s Justin Purblind’s belief that the best way to secure the EU referendum that is the be-all and end-all of his political life is to split the right of centre vote at the next election and so hand power to Labour leader Ed Forgetful.

Of course Messrs Reckless and Purblind are right in thinking that Dave Poshboy has no intention of holding a free and fair vote on British membership of the EU. The full resources of the political establishment and business community would be deployed in a “shock and awe” strategy designed to ensure that we voted to stay in.

But I’m afraid that’s the only sort of vote we’re ever going to get on the issue, so surely it would be better to stay put and campaign for it within a party that stands a small (though rapidly diminishing) chance of actually getting elected?

I have been instinctively opposed to our involvement in the European project ever since it dropped the pretence of being simply a “common market”, but I accept that it was my fault for not paying adequate attention to the small print when I was conned into voting “yes” in the last referendum on the subject in 1975.

However, to be honest, while the flow of EU directives is maddening (have you tried buying a mouse killer that actually works lately?), I am frankly a little more concerned about the chances of having my head hacked off by a lunatic next time I pop out to the shops.

Yes, the chances of being a victim of terrorism are always likely to remain low. But why increase the risk by taking sides in the difference of opinion between Sunni and Shi’ite that has been running for centuries and which no one in the West appears even faintly equipped to understand?

Though you might think we would have spotted by now that every attempt to weigh in on the side of the good guys seems to be hampered by severe difficulty in working out who the good guys are, and to end up creating an even worse mess than the one with which we started. Libya springs to mind as an example.

All of which leads to the conclusion that we are in trouble that can only be described as big, and unlikely to get smaller any time soon. Particularly when you consider that in less than a year our national finances could well be in the hands of that prime example of nominative determinism, Ed Balls.

Still, not to worry. It could well be that he is already formulating a foolproof plan to eliminate the deficit by flirting on Twitter with a Nigerian prince who is desperately eager to share the good fortune of his multi-billion dollar inheritance.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.