Wednesday 23 September 2015

Nothing new to see here: move along

“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.”
Ecclesiastes, 1:9 

I have never before been moved to start a column with a quotation from the Bible. But, freed from the tyranny of print deadlines and editorial oversight, I can see no reason not to allow the Authorized Version to sum up in 31 words what I shall now struggle to convey in a further 800 or so.

Namely the acute sense of déjà vu that accompanies every glance at a newspaper or TV bulletin.

It would be lazy to suggest that the triumphant Jeremy Corbyn is simply a throwback to the 1980s; a reincarnation of Michael Foot. Foot was an intellectual and bibliophile, a brilliant writer and a great Parliamentary orator; I remember sitting in my car in a supermarket car park during the Saturday emergency debate on the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in April 1982, unable to tear myself away from either Foot’s speech or the subsequent contribution from that other Commons star, Enoch Powell.

Much good, incidentally, did this skill do either of them or the other most talented Parliamentary debater of recent times, Jeremy Thorpe.

Foot was also nothing if not a British patriot, unlikely ever to have consorted or sympathized with terrorist groups in Ireland or the Middle East. So the great parallel boils down to both being on the left of their party and a certain sartorial unconventionality – though the donkey jacket that Foot was forever damned for wearing at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in 1981 was, in reality, no such thing.

Just like Mr Corbyn not singing the national anthem in a church full of service grandees and Battle of Britain heroes, he was trying to be respectful.

Surely, you might think, Mr Corbyn must at least have broken new ground is his selection of the shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs. For Kerry McCarthy, the woman tasked with calming down the angry farmers and turning the true blue shires red, is a committed vegan.

Not only that, she is on record as saying that meat eaters should be treated like smokers, nudged by the Government to abandon their dirty and life-threatening habit. Opening up a vision of fillet steaks being sold in plain wrappers adorned with pictures of a cancerous colon, and bacon sandwiches scoffed in the rain outside the doors of pubs.

Yes, this is pretty mad stuff, but some of us are old enough to remember the furore that erupted in 1965 when Harold Wilson appointed as his transport minister Barbara Castle. A woman who could not drive!

As if that were not bad enough, she went on to introduce the breathalyser and a permanent nationwide 70mph speed limit, challenging the age-old right of the Englishman to drive home from the pub at 100mph while completely plastered. A pretty theoretical right, it must be admitted, since in the late 1960s most British cars could only exceed 70mph very briefly, after being driven over a cliff.
But what, then, of Mr Cameron and the small matter of drugs, the Bullingdon Club, Piers Gaveston Society and that pig. Surely this must be unprecedented? Only, I suspect, in the willingness of the national media to write about such things, which would previously have been censored to avoid maiden aunts having to be revived with smelling salts at the breakfast table.

Upper class halfwits have been baying for broken glass at Oxford for as long as anyone can remember, and inventing arcane and vaguely disgusting initiation rites for their absurd societies. 

Regular readers of my columns will have grasped by now that I am no great fan of Mr Cameron; indeed, I have yet to meet anyone who is, and he is cordially detested by nearly all the journalists with whom he had dealings in his brief non-political sojourn as a corporate PR man.

Even so, I have to say I rather admire him for snubbing the billionaire who thought he could buy his way into office by financing the Conservative Party, and for the rhinoceros hide from which the current allegations appear to be bouncing off.

In short, no change, as they like to say on election night. We are blessed with a Prime Minister relatively few regard with enthusiasm until they contemplate the alternative of Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband. Will the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn change that?

Let us just say that I don’t think we will need the assembly of an Argentine invasion fleet to guarantee the general election of 2020 bearing more than a passing resemblance to that of 1983, in the admittedly unlikely event that Mr Corbyn is still around to contest it.

Mr Cameron, of course, has promised that he won’t be hanging around to contest it, either. But then Mr Cameron’s record on promises is probably worth a future column all of its own.

So let me end, as I began, with a quotation: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.”

Wednesday 16 September 2015

So long, and thanks for all the fish

“Well, he had a good innings,” we mutter to the bereaved after the coffin has trundled away at the crematorium, or as we attempt to sustain polite small talk over the subsequent ham tea.

At any rate we say that of anyone who has made it past the age of … I guess around 85 these days, now that 80 is the new 60 and any death short of that is considered an untimely tragedy.

My thoughts precisely

I certainly had a good innings at The Journal: 469 columns over 9¾ years, missing only the odd week through illness. Albeit after a rather longer hiatus in mid-2006 when my then editor and I had a serious disagreement over whether Islamic terrorism was an appropriate subject for comedy. 

Holidays never stopped me – not even my honeymoon. And amazingly I am still married.

It all started a couple of years earlier, in October 2004, with a monthly column in the paper’s well-regarded business section. I persuaded the business editor to add me to his roster because I had recently moved back to the North East full time and felt I needed a hobby.

I also hoped to raise my local profile in the hope of winning some new clients for my alleged PR business. Even then there was no budget to pay me for my efforts, but I was content with that. I learned a new craft, different from the financial copywriting that had long been my mainstay, and I enjoyed it.

By the time I graduated to the main paper in February 2006 I had begun to harbour deluded hopes of earning a living from writing rather than PR, so I insisted on being paid a fee for my work. This was set at a token £50 per week and remained so until a couple of weeks ago, when I was advised that “Trinity Mirror’s new fee structure” would mean writing for nothing in future, or not writing at all.

I would have given sympathetic consideration to such a request from a not-for-profit organisation running a community newspaper. For a ruthlessly bottom line and bonus-focused plc like The Journal’s owner Trinity Mirror, whose chief executive Simon Fox is currently jogging along on a feeble £1.8 million per annum, I felt there could only be one answer.

A fat cat

It pains me to break with The Journal, which I have read for as long as I have been able to read at all. It was delivered every day to my childhood home, along with its sister papers the Evening Chronicle and Sunday Sun; and, rather eccentrically, the long defunct Daily Sketch.

It was a broadsheet in those days and much more of a national and international newspaper than it is today. Unusually, the Hann family was not watching television on the evening of Friday, November 22 1963, so the first my parents knew of the dramatic events in Dallas was when I woke them the next morning, clutching a copy of The Journal with the biggest banner headline I had ever seen, and asked, “Mummy, what does ‘assassinated’ mean?”

I had not encountered the word before, though as an intelligent nine-year-old I had already grasped that it was far from good news for that nice Mr Kennedy.

Today the front page splash would be something like “City mum vows to beat cancer” with a small box to the right: “US President killed: see page 5.”

The paper was still a broadsheet when I used it to announce the deaths of my parents in 1982 and 1992, and I’d always assumed that it would be where my own funeral arrangements would be publicised. But unless my cardiac disease gets its act together in the next few weeks I now feel pretty confident that the obsequies of The Journal will precede my own.

This is a crying shame but I have no answer. Every round of cost-cutting removes another few reasons to pick up the paper and there are now scarcely any left. I certainly shan’t be buying it again. But the underlying problem of an ageing and inevitably declining readership is not one that could be solved by throwing money at it, either.

Still, I certainly cannot complain. My second weekly column appeared on February 14 2006 and was unoriginally entitled “Be my Valentine”. It prompted an attractive young woman to e-mail me and initiate and intriguing if short-lived relationship.

That alone might be considered a pretty good return on 700 casually dashed off words, but a later column actually found me a wife, and led to the totally unexpected arrival of two intermittently delightful children.

Rarely in the entire history of global journalism can any writer have been better rewarded for his work. On top of this there have been the many kind words I have received from readers who have written, e-mailed or stopped me in the street to say that they have enjoyed something I have written.

I am grateful to absolutely everyone who has ever read my column, and particularly to Iain Laing for giving me my first opportunity and Brian Aitken for making it a weekly event.

Now I have got into the habit of writing a column every seven days I am going to find it very hard to stop, so this website is a godsend.

But for The Journal, I can only echo Douglas Adams’ dolphins. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Refugees welcome?

There are many excellent reasons for not attempting a column on the refugee/migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East.

For a start, my own wife was once a refugee from the Iran-Iraq war, and if I offend her I will surely end up cooking my own dinners for the foreseeable future.

Even if by some miracle I avoid upsetting her, I am sure to outrage someone. The left-leaning bodies from which I receive most of my news (the BBC and Twitter) assure me that there is a massive groundswell of public support for allowing many thousands more refugees into the UK.

A picture from The Independent

Yet while only the most notorious internet trolls would dare to suggest that a certain number of drowned children are an acceptable price to pay for ring-fencing our own home comforts, I suspect that there is a large and largely silent section of the populace regarding Mr Cameron’s latest PR-driven U-turn with deep suspicion.

The same sort of people who nod enthusiastically when they hear Jeremy Corbyn speaking, then quietly vote Tory in the privacy of the polling booth.

However, the most powerful reason of all for keeping shtoom is that I have absolutely no idea how this crisis can be resolved. Unfortunately, neither has any government, opposition or supra-national authority I have heard pontificating on the issue.

The best we seem able to come up with is dropping more bombs on an already bombed-out country. Because clearly we made a mistake two years ago when Parliament would not let us bomb the evil dictator Assad.


Now it seems we mainly want to bomb the evil dictator’s opponents in ISIS, ignoring the ancient and Churchillian dictum that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, however repulsive we may find him.

Given that military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and (in a smaller way) Libya all seem to have made things worse rather than better for the bulk of their people, I cannot help wondering what useful lessons have been learned along the way.

There are two key emotions driving all human conduct: greed and fear. Politicians and commentators attempt to divide those currently on the move into refugees driven by fear, with whom we are meant to sympathise; and economic migrants driven by greed, who can be sent back whence they came without compunction.

Yet the distinction can never be so clear. It is evident that the preference for Greece over Turkey, Germany over Hungary and Britain over France, for those encamped at Calais, has nothing to do with fear of persecution if they stay put.


Family ties apart, the motivation can surely only be the hope of a materially better life in their country of choice.

It is also a plain fact that those on the move are far from the poorest of the poor.

Revolutions rarely occur when people are cruelly oppressed, but when the oppressor lifts their yoke. Similarly, mass migrations are not undertaken by those with no money, but by those with smartphones to see the better life available in the West, and enough cash to pay people smugglers to get them here.

I feel a bit queasy about part of the foreign aid budget being redirected from the poorest in the world to those with the pluck and push to get themselves into the UK. Though admittedly not as queasy as I would be if I did not suspect that a fair chunk of the aid budget simply flows into the Swiss bank accounts of assorted Third World tyrants.

I really am not unsympathetic to those fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea or any of the other failed and failing states that are currently fuelling mass migration. I dare say I would do the same in their shoes.

But all of us already here, whether of Celtic or Norman stock or first generation immigrants, must recognise that a free-for-all on our borders is not compatible with the continuance of a functioning welfare state.

Where we come down on that issue is a matter for our individual consciences, and I wish those hashtagging #refugeeswelcome and offering shelter in their own homes the very best of luck.

My own conscience is clear. I have done my bit. Reader, I married her.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Rejoice! School's back from summer!

Today is a true red letter day in the Hann household. Festal garments will be worn, jigs danced, barrels broached and bells rung.

Because where I live this is the first day of the autumn school term.

Newspapers are missing a trick. Girls jumping for joy about their A-levels could be matched by yummy mummies leaping outside primary schools on the first day of term.

I do feel a bit mean about my elation. I may be old, but I still remember the intense resentment I used to feel as a child about the constant bombardment of “back to school” advertisements, which seemed to begin the day after we broke up.

I don’t remember being a massive amount of trouble to my parents during the holidays. But then people were much more relaxed about leaving young children on their own in those days, despite the much greater number of dangers abounding in the average house, from open fires and floor level gas taps to dodgy wiring, mousetraps and mangles.

I grew up in a house built in 1939, but it still had a coal-fired range like this.

I remember that I read a lot, once I had mastered that skill, and was able to wander off and play with other kids in the street.

Sadly my children aren’t growing up in that sort of suburban community and, if they did just wander out of the front door as I used to do, they would stand a high chance of being mown down by a speeding car.

So, despite a panoply of entertainment I never even dreamt of at their age, from DVDs to iPads, they are bored. And, in the case of my elder, worried about the return to school and the move to a new class.

Throw in a slug of separation anxiety and a touch of paranoia about people being locked in rooms and unable to escape, and you have the perfect recipe for days spent “working at home” while keeping an eye on my son being transformed into a living hell.

Last summer we had relatively few problems. On the days when Mum and Dad were both working, the boy went happily enough either to an out-of-school club at his old nursery, or a rather wonderful project in the local forest.

There he climbed trees, made dens, and crafted catapults and peashooters like a child from an Arthur Ransome novel, returning home each night filthy, exhausted and elated.

The deep dark wood

But the organisers decided not to repeat it this summer because they had had a bellyful of Elfin Safety, the requirement for an OFSTED inspection and the plethora of rules we put in place in the name of child protection.

While the nursery out-of-school club holds no attractions because all of his old friends have moved on elsewhere.

The only good thing that has come out of my summer of occasional childcare is the realisation of how incredibly lucky I am in having an office to which I can escape. Never again will I sit behind my desk thinking, like a six year old, that I am bored. Or wishing, like a 60-odd year old, that I could retire.

Never happier

Retirement may present a fine vision of regular ocean cruises and beach holidays, sipping pina coladas as the tropical sun goes down. But the reality for most is eking out a meagre pension, worrying about their deteriorating health, and looking after the grandchildren who are dumped on them during the school holidays while their parents enjoy a quiet day at the office.

Or for that matter at the building site, coke works, scrapyard or glass bottle production line, all of which would offer more restful environments than my house did last week.

Years ago I knew a chief executive who was made redundant when his business was taken over. His wife did not read the business pages so he continued putting on his suit, leaving the house at the usual time and driving around until he felt able to go home.

At the time I thought he was barking mad. Now I realise that he most probably had young children, and I understand exactly where he was coming from.

I have taken a vow that by summer 2016 I will have identified a suitable holiday club for seven year olds, even if I have to found and fund it myself. Failing that I shall be seeking a quiet refuge for myself in a suitable old folks’ home.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

The Millwall FC of British retailing

I have a sneaking admiration for companies whose approach to public relations mirrors that of Millwall football supporters: “No one likes us, we don’t care.”

It’s a bold strategy and obviously one that works best for businesses that offer some unique advantage – exclusive products, exceptional prices or outstanding convenience – that will keep the customers coming anyway.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who much likes Amazon, whether on the grounds of alleged tax avoidance, claims that they overwork their staff, or simply because of the way they sneakily keep trying to add an annual Prime subscription at the checkout.

Yet overwhelmingly we keep using them anyway because they are keenly priced, efficient, and it’s a whole lot easier just to click on their website than to re-enter all our information on someone else’s.

The continued survival of WH Smith is altogether harder to understand, in a world where high street bookselling is on the ropes, and news sales are declining.

I used to handle financial PR for Smiths 30 years ago, when it was a patrician company run by chaps who had been to top public schools and served in decent regiments. Said chaps included some scions of the founding family.

The company once treated me to a night on a newspaper train from Euston, on which I marvelled at the way the sorters grabbed handfuls of different papers to prepare the orders for individual newsagents, which were picked up by vans from the stations en route. This is a world that has now completely vanished.

On another occasion I took a leading investment analyst to the country house where Smiths honed their rising talent, putting them over military style assault courses to develop their management skills.

“Have you ever thought,” the analyst asked, “of just incentivising them according to the financial performance of their stores instead?”

The look on the HR expert’s face made it clear that this was just about the grubbiest and silliest idea he had ever heard.

How different it all is now, when Smiths is renowned in the City as a company that single-mindedly keeps profits moving ahead in a generally unpromising market place.

One of its weapons is the self-service till, of which they became an early and dedicated exponent. On several occasions I have abandoned shopping baskets out of sheer frustration at being compelled to queue to serve myself while staff lurk about chatting.

At least I thought the self-service tills would not try to offload a giant bargain bar of chocolate on me with a simple newspaper purchase. But no, they have programmed them to do that, too.

They also famously operate a network of stores in motorway service stations where everything seems an awful lot more expensive than one would expect them to be at a supermarket, though maybe quite compelling once one has factored in the time and fuel costs of diverting to a supermarket to buy them there instead.

Then there are the airport stores and the famous “show your boarding card” VAT scam which has attracted so much publicity of late. Smiths were asked to comment on this when they recently issued a trading update, but showed no such inclination. “No one likes us, we don’t care.”

Instead they attributed their continuing financial success to book launches, including the latest “Shades of Grey” pulp fiction, that thing from Harper Lee’s bottom drawer, and a craze for colouring books for grown-ups.

No, really. Who knew?

I’m planning to cash in on the best of both worlds by writing a tedious, mildly pornographic novel targeted at the “ladies who lunch” market, with the added bonus of outlines of all the climactic scenes that they can colour in with crayons.

I can see it doing very well in WH Smith, where I have belatedly realised that the self-service tills are not a cost-saving measure after all, but an attempt to spare the blushes of its soft porn-loving clientele.

How much simpler life would have been if only they had been around when I was a teenage buyer of Parade magazine.

I shall call my masterpiece “Would You Like a £1 Bar of Chocolate With That?” and sit back to wait for my royalties to flood in.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

The good old days of State monopolies and Michael Foot

We all love a good moan about how everything used to be so much better in the old days.

No one more so than farmers, who are currently up in arms about the falling price of milk.

To keep their PR pitch simple, they heap most of the blame on price cutting by British supermarkets, when the reality is one of global supply exceeding demand.

Milk production around the world has soared at the same time as Chinese demand growth has slowed and Russia has banned EU imports. To add to the misery, the natural reaction of many dairy farmers to lower prices is to buy more cows and increase output in order to maintain their income.

Once upon a time farmers were sheltered from the harsh realities of global capitalism by the existence of the Milk Marketing Board: a statutory monopoly that guaranteed the same price to the dairyman with five cows halfway up a mountain in the Lake District and his counterpart with several hundred beasts on the Cheshire plain.

In popular mythology this beneficent institution was abolished by the evil Thatcher, clearly not content with snatching milk from schoolchildren in the 1970s and closing all the coalmines in the 1980s.

In reality the Board was abolished in 1994, four years after Mrs Thatcher left office.

Still, some clearly see instructive parallels between those who feel a hereditary calling to milk cows and those communities where sons once followed their fathers down the pit to hew coal.

Only farmers naturally tend to get a better press because our idealised image of England tends to feature green fields, peacefully grazing cows, bee-filled hedgerows and farmhouses with roses around the door.

Despite the best efforts of the Pitmen Painters, this has rather more general appeal than blackened terraces, winding gear and slag heaps.

The British coal industry died because the stuff could be produced more cheaply elsewhere, and because of pressure from the global warming lobby to phase out its use.

The same fate is unlikely to befall the British dairy industry so long as we consumers stubbornly insist on buying our milk fresh, rather than as longlife UHT. This makes it impossible to import the stuff in sufficient quantities even when the Channel Tunnel isn’t under siege from would-be migrants.
It will help if we also read the small print on packets of butter, cheese and other dairy products, and prefer the British option; and ignore the calls of those who would rid us of flatulent cows to help save the planet.

We have the freedom and the power to do this. In Morrisons, we will soon also have the option of paying an extra 10p per litre (that’s 23p on the usual four pint bottle) to help out the farmers.

It will be interesting to see how many take this up, because polls showing overwhelming support for dairy farmers seem to bear some parallels with those predicting a strong showing for Labour at the last election.

In practice, we have a long-standing tendency to vote with our feet for the cheapest option, and to mark a cross for the safest and least radical one in the polling booth.

Not so long ago we could have fresh milk delivered to our doorstep every day in re-usable containers on an ultra environmentally friendly zero emissions electric float. The milkman also performed a valuable social service in keeping an eye on the elderly and deterring crime.

But most lost their jobs not because of the evil supermarkets but because you chose to buy your milk there in bulk, at a lower price. No one forced you to do that.

Perhaps all this is about to change as Labour makes a headlong rush back to the 1980s under the widely predicted leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. A man who is definitely in favour of mining more coal, though not of actually burning it, and is the best chance we are likely to get of bringing back state monopolies for agricultural produce.

As traditionally conservative farmers blockade supermarket depots with their tractors, I wonder how many of them have also invested £3 to vote for the Labour leader most likely to turn the clock back?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

How not to do public relations

What does public relations have in common with speaking French, swimming and making love?

Simply that I have a perfectly sound theoretical knowledge of how to do all of the above, but struggle to put it into practice.

I can read French without too much trouble, but am immediately struck dumb if anyone asks me the simplest question in the language.

An entire decade of RGS tuition has left me unable to swim a stroke.

As for love … well, at least one of the chief compensations of marriage and old age is being able to pull over into the pits in the great human race for carnal fulfilment.

(I am surprised that advocates of equal marriage have not done more to outflank their opponents by pointing out that it is pretty much guaranteed to bring gay sexual activity to a non-grinding halt.)

And then there is public relations, at which my hopelessness was cruelly exposed by that “Life in the Freezer Cabinet” TV series a couple of years ago.

Fortunately I am held back from total despair by the abundant evidence that so many alleged practitioners of PR are even more useless than I am.

Because it certainly does not require the sort of skills you need to send a spacecraft to Pluto or repair a potentially fatal bleed on the brain.

In essence, it requires no more than the application of a healthy dose of common sense. Present your client positively, without resorting to untruths, and treat people as you would like to be treated yourself.

As an example of how not to do PR, let me cite the pre-performance drinks invitation I once received from the country’s best-known country house opera venue.

They said they wanted to show their appreciation for the donations I had been making to support their work for a number of years.

So my wife and I were duly ticked off a list by a lady with a clipboard and ushered into a room where we were handed a glass of champagne (each, to be fair) and then comprehensively ignored for half an hour.

We were not alone in this, because the entire fundraising team was eagerly clustered around another couple, who evidently had pockets of Marianas Trench deepness, in a far corner of the room.

My, how they drank in the plutocrat’s pearls of wisdom and chortled appreciatively at pretty much everything he said.

As an exercise in anti-PR it was up on a par with inviting someone to dinner and then turning your back on him and talking exclusively to the person on your other side.

And, yes, I have had that happen to me, too. Unfortunately when I was too young and shy to make a stormy exit with some choice observations on my host’s behaviour.

I tried desperately to engage the attention of someone – anyone – from the opera company’s PR team but it was like trying to catch the eye of a waitress in a particularly busy and badly-run restaurant.

Finally, on the way out, I managed almost literally to grab hold of the man who had invited us, and present him with a proof copy of the short book on opera I had just written.

I was canvassing recommendations for it at the time, and had already collected some very supportive quotes from other country house opera chiefs.

Could his company possibly take a look, correct any errors where they themselves were mentioned, and let me know what they thought of it?

But of course they could. He would be delighted. That was in summer 2013 and, despite an email reminder or two, I am still waiting for a response.

Do you think that, in the meantime, I have (a) continued, (b) increased or (c) cancelled my financial support for this great institution?

Take a wild guess.

So here is the first lesson in my occasional series on PR and how not to do it. Never invite people to anything if you aren’t prepared to make an effort to engage with them if they turn up.

Because they’d probably much prefer to be curled up with a good book, improving their theoretical knowledge of Balzac or the breast stroke.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

The best thing about The Railway Children

You can read reams of debate online about exactly what Sartre meant when he wrote “Hell is other people”.

My own frequent use of the phrase is altogether less ambiguous. Specifically, hell is a hot weekend spent in a crowded London at the start of the peak tourist season.

The one potentially redeeming feature was a chance to visit the club that e-mails every week, teasing me with offers of child-friendly entertainment while their parents enjoy a delicious Sunday lunch.

Naturally last week’s e-mail merely advised that the club is shut on Sundays until mid-September.

So the best part of last weekend for me was undoubtedly the car crunching onto the gravel as we arrived home. Only a timely reflection on what our dogs might have done there held me back from kissing the ground in the style of the late Pope.

The highlights for the children included frolicking in the fountains in Granary Square at the regenerated King’s Cross, and in a sandpit in St James’s Park. Making it rather like a day out at Druridge Bay, but at 1,000 times the price.

Inevitably we also went to see the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum, along with hordes of visitors from every Continent, with the probable exception of Antarctica.

As we queued to get in an enthusiastic staff member proudly announced that 50 million people have entered the museum for nothing since admission charges were abolished in 2001. Leading me to wonder why it doesn’t reintroduce a £10 charge immediately. Even if this led to a 50% slump in visitor numbers, it should still raise £250 million over the next 14 years, as well as making it possible to move and see the exhibits.

I would generate further substantial revenues by completely banning photography, creating a massive increase in demand for postcards of the star attractions.

Perhaps a natural history expert could explain to me when and why human beings lost the ability simply to look at things, and came to believe that something is not really happening unless you take a photograph or video of it, ideally with yourself centre stage. The invention of the ludicrous “selfie stick” is the perfect symbol of this evolutionary cul de sac.

When not shuffling around in crowds that seemed far more bored than enthralled, we ate our meals in a hotel full of American tourists. Families who had seemingly stepped out of the 1950s, with their perfectly dressed and perfectly behaved children. All perfectly appalled at the table manners of my own little brood. Who are, to be fair, no worse than the English average.

I wondered whether US Christian fundamentalism might have some bearing on their superior behaviour, but my wife felt that it could only be down to regular physical chastisement behind closed doors.

Knowledge that Daddy probably has a handgun at his disposal if he is pushed too far may also exert a beneficial influence.

In our house, it is my sons who regularly threaten to shoot me or, memorably, to smash me to pieces with a hammer.

We took them to see a production of “The Railway Children” at King’s Cross which was, contrary to my expectations, very well done indeed. Despite variously sleeping or squirming throughout the performance, both boys described it as the highlight of their trip. Better even then fighting through the dead-eyed crowds in Hamleys on Sunday afternoon.

The star attraction of the show is a real LSWR steam locomotive, propelled onto the set ingeniously enough to convince those who know nothing about railways that it is arriving under its own power. 

When we asked our sons to name their favourite part of the show, we confidently expected this engine to be the answer. But both surprised us.

You may recall that the family in Edith Nesbit’s story end up living in reduced circumstances by a railway line in Yorkshire because their father has been wrongly convicted of spying. His release provides the requisite happy ending and the usually unsentimental Charlie, 6, duly announced that the best bit was “When their Daddy came back”.

And his younger brother, aged 3? Rather less encouragingly for me, he answered coldly: “When their Daddy got taken away.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Every day is Groundhog Day

I no longer wake groggily from my drunken slumbers wondering what day of the week it is. Because now every day is Groundhog Day.

The evidence that we are trapped in a time loop is evident in the headlines: Greece battling with its never-ending financial crisis, doctors wanting to tax sugar, and idiots proving incapable of reading the warnings at the end of the Holy Island causeway.

The Greek people thought they had been offered a way out through a referendum, giving them the opportunity to say “no” to EU-imposed austerity.

Ignoring the evidence of all previous history that votes against the EU have no relevance, and cannot be allowed to stand.

The plain fact, obvious to all intelligent observers from the outset, is that you cannot have a successful single currency without a fiscal union, which in turn demands a full political union.

This sort of “beneficial crisis” was always part of the plan to bring that glorious day closer, though if it is happening at all it seems to be doing so in slow motion.

Partly, no doubt, because all pro-EU national governments feel themselves under threat, whether from the growth of left-wing anti-austerity parties in the poorer south or the parallel rise of right-wing Farageiste nationalist ones in the richer north.


The latter show little appetite for wealthier countries subsidising the poorer ones, as political union would inevitably entail. And who can blame them, considering the ungracious response of poorer countries like Scotland to the fiscal transfers they receive in the political union called the UK?

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sir John Major and Gordon Brown for keeping us out of the continuing euro mess, at any rate up to now. Though if we vote to distance ourselves even further in our promised in-out EU referendum, remember that the political elite reserves the right to ignore results it does not like.

Meanwhile the British Medical Association proposes a fiscal transfer of another kind, by taxing the sugary drinks beloved of poor people to subsidise the fresh fruit and vegetables favoured by the middle classes.

I can still remember the first time my mother asked me to nip to the greengrocer and buy her a cabbage, more than 50 years ago. Used as I was to forking out sixpence (2½p) for a bar of chocolate, I queried whether the half crown (12½p) she had handed me would be enough for something so huge. I think it cost tuppence (less than 1p).

I was staggered by what great value fresh vegetables were then, and have been ever since. Their place in the forefront of the supermarket price war pretty much guarantees that this will continue.

We could all feed our families cheaply and more healthily if we bought cheap cuts of meat, and fresh fruit and vegetables when in season (or frozen ones when not), and cooked proper meals from scratch.

But we live in a topsy-turvy world where the poorest in our society are also likely to be the fattest, because they are the most reliant on takeaways and convenience food.

Might better education rather than new complexes of taxes and subsidies not be the answer to this conundrum? And if that is not feasible, why not simply invoke the terrorist threat to declare a state of emergency and reintroduce the ration book, which did so much to improve the health of the nation during World War 2?

There is zero evidence from around the world that attempts to tax particular foods will have any effect at all on their consumption.

But why bother with evidence when you are on a mission, whether that be to create a United States of Europe or to build a healthier, slimmer, fitter society in which doctors would be out of a job. (Has the BMA really thought this through, I wonder?)

It’s surely much more fun to take the approach of those bold individuals approaching the Holy Island causeway to find it underwater.

All previous attempts to cross it under these conditions may have resulted in cars being written off and their occupants ignominiously rescued from refuges. But this particular Groundhog Day will be different, won’t it?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

We are all doctors now

Type the words “English obsession with ...” into Google and its top suggestions are class, tea, weather and Germany.

At the apex of our class structure is the Queen, and below her the various ranks of those with noble titles. These may be held by right or by courtesy, like those of the select band of Ladies who are the daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls, and the many more who are the wives of peers, baronets and knights.

Coronets: a spotter's guide

Only the former, pedants like me delight in pointing out, may properly use their Christian names in conjunction with their titles, like the fictional Lady Mary Crawley of Downton Abbey.

The principle of the courtesy title is well established in medicine, too, where the vast majority of the people we call “doctor” do not actually hold such a qualification, but are mere Bachelors of Medicine and Surgery.

While those who progress up the career ladder to become consultant surgeons confusingly promote themselves to “Mr”.

I could have been a doctor myself if only I had had the stamina to complete the PhD on World War II I began in 1976. As I might have done if there had not a particularly good pub adjacent to the Public Record Office in Kew.

Flogging back to Cambridge after a hard day wrestling with three pints of Young’s Bitter and a steak pie, I used to compare notes with my flatmate, who was completing the long course to qualify as a veterinary surgeon.

Meeting him again at his eldest son’s wedding on Saturday, I was surprised to find that he has suddenly metamorphosed into a doctor.

As have all UK vets who feel so inclined as of March 6th this year when, following a public consultation, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons ruled that its members could adopt the title if they wished. Bringing them into line with vets in other parts of the EU and elsewhere in the world.

Similar arguments about international equity have apparently allowed British dentists to call themselves doctor since 1995, though they have yet to allay all the concerns of the Advertising Standards Authority.

Mrs Hann was quick off the mark with her congratulations, asserting her long-held belief that vets are far cleverer than doctors since their patients can’t explain what ails them.

That sentence becomes more complex now that it needs to be recast to say that the people calling themselves doctors who treat animals are obviously brighter than the people calling themselves doctors who treat humans.

Vets are enjoined by their Royal College to put a suitable suffix after their names to make it clear that they are, in fact, vets. But I feel we have a lot to learn from this levelling of the playing field.

Heart-warming indeed

Sitting in vets’ waiting rooms over the years, I have long been fascinated by the willingness of people who do not appear conspicuously wealthy to hand over large wedges of cash for the treatment of their pit bull terriers or Persian cats.

These same individuals, I suspect, would be horrified if asked to pay anything at all for a consultation with their GP.

Vets also have the freedom to advise when further treatment seems futile and it would be kinder to bring life to a merciful close. An exit route denied to us mere humans unless we have the wherewithal and the physical strength to get ourselves to Dignitas in Zurich.

In creating more doctors we still have some way to go to catch up with our friends in Dr Merkel’s Germany, where a doctoral title is so de rigueur for anyone aspiring to the top in politics or business that their defence minister famously had to resign in 2011 after being found to have plagiarised his PhD thesis.

In Germany even the pizzas are made by doctors

So I congratulate my old friend on his belated and I am sure well-deserved elevation to the doctoral ranks. I hope to join him, in time, either because it is decided to award the title to senior practitioners of public relations; or because I make it back to university to complete my PhD

Though this time I think my thesis might be about class, tea or the weather rather than the Germans.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Drawing a line under the Power of Frozen

Greatly daring, my mother left the UK for the first and last time in her life for a day trip to France in the mid-1980s.

Naturally expecting to be served a plate of snails and frogs’ legs for her lunch, she reported back with pleased surprise: “And do you know what? They eat frozen peas, just like we do.”

A French onion man in the North East:
my mother's only other known exposure to French food

Even the greatest food snobs are happy to consume frozen peas because they are tastier than the fresh ones, unless you go the trouble of growing, picking and shelling them yourself.

How could it be otherwise, when the frozen alternative goes from field to freezer in less than three hours, locking in all its freshness and goodness?

The same goes for most other frozen vegetables, fish and meat. The food-conscious French are well aware of this. Picard, a retail chain selling high quality frozen food, including gourmet ready meals, is a national institution across the Channel.

In Northumberland, a complex of chest freezers was key to the year-round self-sufficiency of the smallholders who lived next door to me for many years.

But in Britain frozen food is widely dismissed as cheap fodder for those who can afford nothing better: pizzas containing “analogue cheese”, dairy-free ice cream and the massively derided turkey twizzler.

I regularly read middle class mummy bloggers priding themselves on never giving little Tristram and Jemima frozen food, because it is “full of E-numbers and nasty additives” when that is the one thing it is not. Freezing obviates the need to add the preservatives that stop fresh prepared food from killing you.

So, yes, I am a big believer in “The Power of Frozen”, to drop in the name of the advertising campaign currently being run by my friends at Iceland Foods in an attempt to shift British prejudices.

But even I have to draw the line somewhere. And that line is definitely before last week’s lunatic suggestion from “bioethicist” Dr Kevin Smith that all males should bank their sperm at the age of 18 to avoid the risks associated with fathering children in later life.

By which he means not just obvious old codgers like me, but anyone who has made it beyond their 30s.

As the child of elderly parents, and the father of two sons born when I was over 55, I can naturally sympathise with his analysis that the risks of physical imperfection and mental disturbance in children increase as paternal age rises.

But who in their right mind would prefer to go back to some State-run bank to make a withdrawal after a couple of decades, in the hope of creating a healthier family through some cold, clinical process?

Given how well the State has run pretty much everything else ever entrusted to it, who could believe that their own samples would have been successfully preserved, and not mixed up with others in the intervening years?

For some reason I am reminded of the deeply comic but also highly dangerous saga of the top scientists who spent nearly five years testing frozen sheep brains for BSE, until someone pointed out that the samples in question actually came from cows.

One sure fire winner if artificial insemination became the norm in the human population would be the DNA testing industry, as parents and children alike tried to establish the true identity of fathers.

The invention of DNA tests has already established that many children fathered from sperm banks, supposedly stocked by top intellectuals and athletes, actually owe their existence to the small, ugly bloke running the organisation.

The less that government and science have to do with the conception and upbringing of children, the better it will be for the future of us all.

It is an old fashioned view, I know, but I rather like the idea that children should be conceived naturally, by two people who love each other and have some spare love left over to lavish on their offspring.

So in the area of conception, at any rate, I firmly believe that fresh is best. But please don’t hesitate to dip into the freezer to create the romantic dinner for two that so often provides the starting point for the process.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.