Wednesday 26 March 2014

Concerning fat and fatheads

I find it hard to decide which gave me greater pleasure last week: Cambridge University announcing that there is no link between consuming saturated fat and heart disease, or George Osborne delivering his well-deserved kick in the teeth to the annuities industry.

George: clearly more familiar with banks than Banks's

It has long infuriated me that I might one day be required by law to hand over my carefully saved pension fund to an insurance company prepared to take a bet on how long I will live.

Gambling is for mugs because the house always wins. As we already know from any dealings we have ever had with insurers, who happily take our money for years and then invariably point out some obscure exclusion clause in our policy when the time finally comes to make a claim.

Mr Osborne’s announcement was made even more glorious by the initial tutting from the Opposition benches that it might be unwise to trust people with their own pension money. Why, they might go and spend it! This seems unlikely to be a massive problem among those who have been sensible enough to save for their old age in the first place.

Added to which, receiving a lecture about financial prudence from Labour is a bit like buying a half in the pub and being treated to a dreadful, slurred warning about the dangers of alcoholism from the cross-eyed, broken-veined drunk in the soiled trousers slumped in the corner.

The challenge in planning for old age is the regrettable absence of a “best before” date stamped on our bodies. None of us knows exactly how long we are going to live, though if Mr Cameron and his EU chums keep ratcheting up the anti-Russian rhetoric over Ukraine, the likeliest answer is “not very long at all”.

But putting aside World War III, another Noah’s Flood, an alien invasion or an asteroid strike, the odds are that we are going to keep living longer. The number of people in the UK aged over 100 has increased five-fold in the last 30 years.

My only worry is that we seem to be rather better at extending the end of life – the bit we spend sitting in a circle in the day room, placing mental wagers on who is going to be next to hand in their dinner pail – than the middle bit that is active and enjoyable.

I don’t particularly want to prolong my life in order to enjoy some additional years of infirmity and confusion.

Well-meaning people keep telling me that I could improve and extend my current spell of modestly active middle age if only I ate and drank less, and took more exercise. I fear, however, that this might merely make life seem longer.

I have not entered a gym since the wonderful day in 1969 when it ceased to be a compulsory part of my schooling, and I am certainly not about to go back.

So I celebrated George’s good news on my pension with a full English breakfast, which I enjoyed so much that I had one the next day, too. I tried to banish from my mind the fact that my aunt, who is the fittest 89-year-old I know, always brushes aside hotel menus with “I never eat a cooked breakfast” before ordering a slice of dry toast.

If you have an idle moment and need cheering up, do take a look at one of the obituaries of Madeline Gins, poet, painter and “visionary architect”, who died earlier this year. No, I’d never heard of her either.

Gloriously, she and her husband concluded that the key to achieving immortality was to construct buildings that were hideously uncomfortable to live in, with uneven floors and electric switches where you would least expect to find them. The idea was that these constant irritations would sharpen up the minds of the occupants and so stave off their deaths.

Obviously, because we all know how old folk can benefit from regularly falling over.

Madeline Gins was 72 when she died. I bet she never ate a cooked breakfast, either. Though I suppose that, believing she was going to live forever, she might well have invested her pension fund in an annuity.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Conferences: just who are they aimed at?

Lectures are for thickoes. That was the blunt warning I received from a sophisticated second year student within days of arriving at arguably the country’s top university in 1972.

His logic was impeccable. Lecturers dumbed down their books into accessible gobbets for the less intelligent students. Those who aspired to the academic top flight should read the complete books instead.

Major advantages of this approach included not needing to get up in the morning, and being able to regurgitate some less familiar quotes when the time came to sit examinations.

So naturally I took his advice and attended virtually no lectures in my time at university, apart from those that promised a laugh or were obvious period pieces. The finest of which was Nikolaus Pevsner’s series on architecture, illustrated with pre-war black and white lantern slides.

This meant that the grand total of relevant “teaching” I received each term amounted to eight hours of individual supervision by a usually moderately distinguished historian, who typically gave me a glass of sherry, listened with a slightly condescending smile as I read out an essay, and suggested which books I should read next.

I am not convinced that I would regard this as fantastic value for money if I were racking up £9,000 a year in student debt to cover my tuition fees, instead of having all my educational and living costs covered by the generous ratepayers of North Tyneside, as was the case back then.

The reason for these reminiscences was my decision last week to accept an invitation to a two-day conference, widely acclaimed as the most interesting and exciting event in its field. Within little more than an hour on the first day I felt an urgent need to pop out for some fresh air. Shortly afterwards I found myself in the comforting embrace of a pub. It was just like Cambridge 40 years ago all over again, except with staggeringly higher beer prices.

Why do people pay large amounts of money to hear people recite edited versions of stuff you could read on their websites any time? One major advantage of the technological revolution is that one no longer even needs to trudge around to a library to access their work, or run the risk of someone else having borrowed the critical book.

For some, I suppose, the answer will be the “networking” opportunities between talks. These have no appeal to me as I’ve always loathed networking, not least because people invariably have a much higher opinion of my abilities before they’ve actually met me.

This was borne out by my experience earlier this year when I was approached to give a hilarious conference talk of my own on great PR disasters I have known. The organisers asked their agent to propose it on the strength of my appearances on the Iceland Foods TV series. It only took a few minutes talking to me on the phone for them to realise that I was nothing like famous or amusing enough for their purposes after all.

Still, at least my years studying history appear to have given me a better grounding in public relations than the many students now doing degrees in the subject, at no doubt huge personal expense. Some of them write to me asking for my help. Their English is usually execrable: one recently used the words “you was” more than five times in a list of questions.

Another was clearly shocked when her request to me to explain why Iceland’s response to Horsegate had been so utterly useless received a short and dusty response.

I am strongly tempted to write a book on the first principles of public relations to point these poor souls in the right direction, but I don’t imagine they would ever read it. They would no doubt much rather go to lectures for thickoes, delivered by people who couldn’t actually make a go of public relations so decided to teach it instead.

I imagine that they will go on to spend much of their working lives in meetings or at conferences, where they will fit in brilliantly. Because, let’s be honest: conference speeches appeal to precisely the same constituency as university lectures.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Memo to the NHS: we're all going to die

The NHS does not seem to offer anything as simple as a mission statement on its website, preferring instead to outline seven principles and a longish list of values.

Nowhere among these can I find the words, “To make the nation’s flesh creep, like the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers”.

Yet that is undoubtedly the effect on me of their current advertising campaign: “Be Clear on Cancer”.

I nodded knowingly as I watched the TV ad showing that bloke picking up his indigestion pills every time he left the house. Then came the punchline: “If you suffer heartburn most days for three weeks or more, it could be a sign of cancer”.

Stone me, I’ve suffered heartburn most days for at least 25 years. I felt an urgent need to kick the hearth to make sure that I wasn’t already dead.

I was about to pick up the phone and make an appointment with my doctor, when I remembered three salient facts.

First, he already thinks – with some reason – that I am Northumberland’s biggest hypochondriac. 

Secondly, he has prescribed me some pills for heartburn, which I take nearly every day, and presumably wouldn’t have done that if he suspected I was suffering from cancer.

And, thirdly, you can never get an appointment with my doctor. Sometimes I go online and book one a couple of months in advance just in case I happen to feel poorly then. (Before anyone complains, I always cancel these in good time, thereby creating a golden opportunity for someone who is genuinely ill.)

Ever since a colleague died of skin cancer many years ago I have been boring my local medics into catatonia by subjecting every new bodily growth (apart from my disgustingly expanding stomach) to their informed inspection.

Once the legendary and now retired head of the practice looked at the single word “Moles” on my record card and delivered a very full disquisition on the state of his lawn, before asking why I was bothering him with my problem, rather than a pest controller. I don’t think he was trying to be funny. 

The problem with running advertising campaigns encouraging more people to go to their doctor is that those who prick up their ears will be alarmists like me. No doubt reinforcing the GPs’ inclination to treat such worries with suitable scepticism.

In recent years I have known two people who went to their doctors convinced they were suffering from brain tumours. Both were repeatedly informed that they were imagining their ailments and advised to relax and stop Googling medical websites. One is now dead, and the other happily in remission following brain surgery and chemotherapy. We shall never know whether a less sceptical initial response would have made any difference to these outcomes.

Perhaps the time is ripe for a full merger between the NHS and the Daily Mail, so they could focus their mighty combined resources on frightening the living daylights out of us.

To give just a few examples from the last two weeks alone, eating too much protein is as dangerous as smoking 20 cigarettes a day; while eating too much sugar will kill us (though fat, which “experts” been telling us to avoid like the plague for decades, turns out to be not so bad after all).

Even the salmon the authorities have been advising us to tuck into with gusto, because oily fish is good for you, turns out to be contaminated with microscopic amounts of DDT. Which pose no known risk to health, but when has that ever stood in the way of a screaming headline?

I am old enough to remember when DDT was hailed as a saviour for controlling malaria. Then people started worrying about its impact on wildlife and side-effects like cancer.

That’s reputations for you. Up one minute, down the next. Just look at fat and sugar.

The key facts are that we’re all going to die of something, and the best way of deferring that unhappy day is to eat, drink and do all things in moderation. Oh, and please don’t trouble your doctor unnecessarily. He’s almost certainly got quite enough on his plate dealing with hysterical mole-watchers.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Scotland: England's Ukraine?

I am doubly fortunate to be married to someone who loves Art Deco above all other styles, and to be the son of parents who married in 1936.

So the wedding presents with which they furnished their first home, and then passed on to me, are cherished as things of beauty; rather than resented, as they might so easily be, as someone else’s cast-off tat.

Mrs Hann’s excellent period taste also enabled me to score some easy points by taking her to a restaurant famed for its Art Deco ambience to celebrate our own fifth wedding anniversary last Friday. 

The sense of living in the 1930s was equally powerfully reinforced by the supporting cast of mainly elderly fellow diners and by the day’s rolling news.

An elected dictator holds a famously lavish Olympic games designed to impress the world, then invades a neighbouring country “to protect his own nationals”, while other states collectively tut and wrings their hands ineffectively.

Sounds awfully familiar, does it not? It just needed people digging trenches in the London parks as rudimentary air raid shelters to complete the effect.

The most telling difference seems to be that Hitler was seeking to re-draw a map of Europe created by the victorious allies in 1919, while many of Mr Putin’s little local difficulties have been caused by Russia herself, most notably by Khruschev’s quixotic decision to hand Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. 

What can he have been thinking of?

It’s almost as though Churchill, after a one late-night whisky too many, had signed a decree to hand Hampshire or Devon to Scotland.

At the time the Unions of the USSR and the UK looked equally imperishable, so why not?

Anyone who thinks that such a crazy scheme would have been stymied by vociferous local opposition in Britain might like to consider how meekly we all rolled over in the face of the ghastly Heath-Walker local government reforms of 1973, which obliterated several historic counties and arbitrarily redrew the boundaries of many others, including Northumberland and Durham.

It does seem extraordinary that any major power would cheerfully hand over territory containing one of one its principal naval bases (Sebastopol, home of the Russian Black Sea fleet) to an entity that might have the temerity to secede one day, and even dream of joining a completely different power bloc.

But then with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it probably wasn’t the smartest move to base Britain’s nuclear deterrent at Faslane in Scotland, either.

The UK declared 20 years ago that it had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland, whose shipyards, airfields and anchorages had come in so handy during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II.

Presumably the men in Whitehall who know best feel equally relaxed about allowing the Scots to vote on their independence in a few months’ time, despite the fact that our naval shipbuilding as well as Trident are based up there as part of our long-standing benevolence in the matter of public sector job creation for the Jocks.

Mr Salmond says he wants to keep the Queen, the pound and Scotland’s membership of NATO and the EU, but we already know he doesn’t really mean some of what he says, and has no hope of getting his way in other areas.

We keep thinking that the world has moved on and we have learned from the past. Armies mobilising, tanks rolling across frontiers, people being rounded up and murdered because of their ethnicity or their religion: that was the dark side of the 1930s and its lovely Art Deco. It doesn’t happen now. Yet sadly it does and it will because human nature does not change. And, depressingly, almost certainly never will.

It was widely believed in 1914 that nearly a million “Russian soldiers with snow on their boots” had landed in Scotland and were being transported through England to join the fight on the Western Front in France.

I would dearly like someone to tell us just what strategic plans have been drawn up for the defence of England when the spurned and bullied Prime Minister of an independent Scotland turns for fraternal aid to his new best friends in Moscow.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.