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.