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.