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.