Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Mummy says: "It's only weather"

Among the blizzard of emails from online retailers last week was one that boldly proclaimed, “Dads never stop being dads”.

I felt compelled to reply, pointing out that the fatal heart attack he suffered in February 1982 seemed to have stopped my own dad playing his paternal role quite effectively.

Never a highlight of the Hann social calendar even before that unfortunate turn of events, Father’s Day then slipped into total obscurity for a full 30 years until my own children were old enough to take an interest.

For a time at least I shall never go short of handmade cards and shop-bought mugs proclaiming their devotion.

Modern, bogus, commercial, American invention though it is, I cannot deny that there is something rather pleasant about being the family’s centre of attention for a day – all right, for an hour or so in the morning – even if my place as an old and wise voice has already been supplanted by our just six-year-old budding Einstein.

“They’re very dangerous, you know,” he observed the other day when his younger brother became mildly hysterical following the discovery of a daddy longlegs in his bedroom. “Look, it’s already started building a web!”

We tried pointing out that daddy longlegs construct webs about as often as elephants practise macramé, but it did no good.

Not made by an elephant to the best of my knowledge

Events followed a similar course a couple of days later, when the boys returned home from nursery and school just as the sky was darkening.

“This is actually true, Jamie,” the Sage informed his brother. “When it goes dark like this it means there is going to be an actual storm. It really does.”

Jamie howled. Though like Greece leaving the euro or the UK quitting the EU, the threatened storm never actually arrived. Jamie accordingly perked up, and was heard observing, “Mummy says it’s only weather, Charlie.”

Naturally and appropriately, Father’s Day was but a footnote to the main event of the weekend, a “Knights and Princesses” birthday party for my elder son and heir, luckily held at a local soft play area rather than at home.

This avoids all the embarrassment of stress-related drunkenness leading to the sort of behaviour likely to result in one’s children being taken into care.

Even better than that, when I asked whether my presence was required at the party, I got the response, “You can come if you want, Daddy, but you wouldn’t like it.”

I was impressed to find so much wisdom in one so young, though slightly less bowled over when he approached his mother the morning before the event, after she had been up half the night baking, and announced, “Mummy, someone’s eaten a bit of my birthday cake.”

Looking and sounding innocent is quite difficult when you also have chocolate crumbs around your mouth. This tends to focus suspicion, in much the same way as walking into a police station to report a murder while clutching a blood-drenched knife. Luckily Mummy discovered that it is amazing how much damage you can conceal with icing.

While they were out at the party I applied myself to setting up the travelling post office on the boy’s model railway. The sort, long since vanished from real main lines, that picks up and deposits mailbags as the train goes around.

I always wanted one myself as a child, and envied the cousin who did. Bearing in mind that this is a toy designed for kids, and came with a reasonably comprehensive set of instructions, I suspect that the two and a half hours it took me to get it working may be some sort of record.

Still, it was worth it to see his face when he got home.

You may wonder why I am waffling on about my family when Europe’s currency is on the brink, extremism and terrorism are rife, benefits are being slashed and many thousands are marching against austerity.

It’s because I can do little to influence any of those and because, as David Cameron once said (though it is hardly an original thought), “Nothing matters more than family.”

Being a parent is the single most useful and important thing any of us is ever likely to do. I recommend it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Are you foreign?

At the start of last week’s rather grand dinner the posh old lady to my left caught my eye and gestured across the circular table.

“Is that your wife over there?” she asked.

Mrs Hann had made a bit of an effort for the occasion, so I felt a certain pride in confirming that it was.

A previous occasion on which some effort had been made. Not by me, obviously.

“She looks foreign? Is she foreign?”

“Well, she was born in Manchester. But both her parents are from Iran. Or as they would say, Persia.”
There was a short pause for browsing and sluicing before conversation moved on. This time it was the place card in front of me that engaged her attention.

“Hann. Is that your name? It sounds foreign? Is it foreign?”

I could have reeled off my spiel about how I can trace my direct ancestors in my corner of Northumberland to the 1630s, and that I used to correspond with a nice old boy in the New Forest who could produce evidence of Hanns there back to the twelfth century.

I could have further explained that experts claim “Hann” is a mediaeval diminutive of “Jonathan” though, if that is indeed the case, I have never understood why Hann should be so rare and the other obvious surnames derived from Jon so very common.

So I just developed an extraordinarily keen interest in talking to the lady to my right instead.

The fact is, though, that we can all be what we want to be and see what we want in others.

Presented with one of those pesky official forms that ask about your ethnicity, my wife will tick “white British”.

Yet other options are clearly available, given that the disgraced Iran-born police commander Ali Dizaei managed to rise to the top of the National Black Police Association.

When one of my friends told me that I was the last person she’d have expected to marry a black woman, and I replied that my wife wasn’t black, I got: “I know, but you’re not allowed to call them coloured these days, are you?”

Even I was shocked when a colleague only last week described his personal trainer as “a half caste”, blissfully unaware that this is a term long since consigned to the banned list along with quadroon and octoroon, Mongol and spastic.

Apparently their training sessions are enlivened by regular arguments about why this gentleman chooses to define himself as black, when he could equally validly claim to be white. As, indeed, could President Obama.

But why should it matter either way?

Our hearts were surely all warmed last week by the tale of the Sikh traveller at Cologne airport who was delighted to be described as “a fellow Englishman” by a Geordie who stood him a cup of coffee, most appropriately on St George’s Day.

At the same time we were apparently meant to be outraged by reports of the US civil rights activist who has spent years pretending to be black when she is, in fact, white.

What harm exactly has that done? Whatever turns you on, baby, as they used to say.

Personally I’m with Lord Palmerston who reacted to the intended compliment “If I were not a Frenchman, I should wish to be an Englishman” with the immortal “If I were not an Englishman, I should wish to be an Englishman.”

Palmerston’s title was Irish and his estates there included Mullaghmore, where he built the castle and harbour from which Lord Mountbatten sailed to his death.

But Palmerston no more saw himself as Irish than the first Duke of Wellington who, in reference to his birth in Dublin, famously observed “Because a man is born in a stable, it does not make him a horse.”

As a Northumbrian as well as an Englishman, I consider myself a member of two of the finest clubs in the world; truly a double rollover jackpot winner in the lottery of life.

As in all decent clubs, a waiting list for membership may be appropriate, but they should not be exclusive on any prejudiced grounds.

Any time Alex Salmond wants to call himself English, I shall welcome him with open arms. If only I can reach that far.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Little Englanders: right again?

During the last referendum campaign in the UK, in which we in England were denied a vote, did you ever hear the advocates of Scottish independence derided as “little Scotlanders”?

No, me neither. Yet we will surely hear a lot in the months ahead about how “little Englanders” threaten our future prosperity and security by advocating British withdrawal from the European Union.

How did Scottish independence come to be marketed and widely accepted as a progressive aspiration, and British independence as an entirely reactionary one?

It clearly represents a failure of leadership and communication by those tending towards the “no” camp before the referendum starting gun is fired.

And I fear that this failure is all too likely to continue if the loudest voice in the “no” campaign is that of Nigel Farage.

UKIP is brilliantly typecast to play the role of Labour’s “loony left” in the referendum of 1975, convincing moderate voters that if they are on one side it would be better to be on the other.

Nigel Farage with pint, 2015
Tony Benn with pipe, 1975

How easy it will be to characterise the advocates of independence as backward-looking, fearful xenophobes, and the EU’s supporters as optimistic representatives of the future.

Which is ironic, given that little could be further from the truth. The EU is a sclerotic 20th century creation, fixated on building a single nation called Europe.

They didn’t invent the euro to make our continent richer, but to drive it towards their obsessive political goal of “ever closer union”.

The current shenanigans with Greece are duly demonstrating that you cannot have a single currency without a single treasury and tax system, just as they were designed to do.

Fear will be the “yes” campaign’s weapon of choice in this referendum, just as it was the main asset of the “no” camp in Scotland.

Not sure about the chains imagery, to be honest

Prepare to hear much about the four million jobs at risk, regional development funding that will be lost, new trade barriers erected, a fatal loss of influence and dangerous isolation in the world.

All of which is cobblers, since the rest of the EU sells more to us than we do to them, and the funding they so generously dish out is but a fraction of the money we pay to them in the first place for the privilege of membership.

The “we will have to obey them anyway so we must have a seat at the table when they are drawn up” argument about EU rules and regulations does not stack up because there is ample evidence that our influence is already minimal.

We have to comply with US regulations to sell to America, and Chinese regulations to sell to China, and I don’t recall anyone arguing that our non-participation in devising them is a fatal barrier to trade there.

Throughout my lifetime we have been beset by the belief that Britain is in terminal decline and that we need to cling to the skirts of nanny EU for fear of something worse.

It is high time we took stock of our many advantages as the world’s fifth largest economy and the home of its most widely spoken language and premier financial centre.

We have some of the world’s finest universities and a track record of innovation in science, technology and culture that is simply second to none.

Why on earth do you think that so many immigrants from the EU and elsewhere are desperate to be here?

Our many natural advantages mean that we are uniquely well placed to forge new trade links with the faster growing world outside the EU, and to become a more optimistic, confident and successful country than we have been at least since the end of the Second World War.

Unlike this newspaper and the Prime Minister, I have not absolutely made up my mind which way I shall vote, but my inclinations are clear and they are solidly based on hope, not fear.

If anyone dares to call me a “little Englander” I shall politely point out that this was mainly used as a term of abuse against those who opposed the Boer War to expand the British Empire in South Africa.

So from the viewpoint of any self-respecting modern liberal, weren’t the little Englanders absolutely right?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A modest birthday wish

When did Newcastle-on-Tyne become Newcastle upon Tyne?

That was the question posed on a Facebook page I enjoy visiting to look at old photos of the toon.

It was the cue for a lot of fiercely patriotic Geordies to assert that it had always been called Newcastle upon Tyne, at any rate since it stopped being called Pons Aelius.

Reminding themselves, for good measure, that it had been a proud county in its own right and never a mere part of Northumberland.

The finest street in England ...
... leading to the finest riverside in England ...
... via a magnificent railway arch ...
... bearing the world's least likely warning sign

Clearly no one recalled, as I do, a decree being handed down that we should stop calling the place Newcastle-on-Tyne, which was the normal form when I was a small boy.

I can’t remember whether it came from the City Council or the Post Office, and remarkably in the age of Google and Wikipedia I can find no record of he pronouncement being made, but I guess it was around 1960.

I do distinctly remember my father moaning about having to change the wording on our letterhead, and the postmarks on all local mail changing to the longer and grander form of “upon Tyne”.

A few years later my dad had occasion to moan again when the introduction of postcodes demanded another print job, and I was grateful for his blood pressure that the change in the county boundaries in 1974 did not make him print the things again.

Because although we were shunted from Longbenton in the historic county of Northumberland to North Tyneside in the new-fangled and bogus county of Tyne & Wear, our postal address remained “Newcastle upon Tyne”.

We lived yards from the city boundary and I cherished the grand sign bearing the coat of arms and the legend welcoming visitors to the “City and County of Newcastle upon Tyne”.

The road sign was much better than this; shame I never took a photo of it

It was one of those distinctive things, like yellow buses, the Tyne Bridge, singing Blaydon Races, and displaying unquenchable loyalty to an underperforming football team, that set Newcastle apart and gave me a surge of pride in my birthplace.

Which was, indeed, described as “upon Tyne” on my 1954 birth certificate.

I must admit that I have always thought of Newcastle as being part of Northumberland, not least because of the large, white LNER signs precisely halfway across the river on the King Edward Bridge, proclaiming that that was where Durham ended and Northumberland started.

Then there was the fact that Northumberland County Council based itself next to the New Castle, in what is now the Vermont Hotel, until the end of the 1970s. If, as I must accept, Newcastle was recognised as a county in its own right in 1400, it seemed odd that it took the council nearly 600 years to take the hint and move their base to Morpeth.

(They should, of course, have gone to Alnwick, which as any fule kno is the true county town of Northumberland, but that is a story for another day.)

A claim undisputed in Alnwick

Finally, and critically for a royalist like me, Newcastle did not have its own Lord-Lieutenant, but was part of Northumberland for this purpose. Though I note with pleasure that the first Duke of Northumberland, when appointed to this role in 1753, was titled “Lord Lieutenant, Custos Rotulorum and Vice-Admiral of the county of Northumberland, and Lord Lieutenant of the town and county of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.”

It seems a shame, given this quirky history, that we have not managed to create any pleasing apocryphal tales, like the widely-held misconception that Berwick-upon-Tweed is still at war with Russia over Crimea. Maybe we should work on that.

One fact on which we can all sadly agree is that is Newcastle formed part of the county of Tyne & Wear from its creation in 1974 until its welcome abolition in 1986. Why it retains a vestigial existence for ceremonial purposes, such as the Lord-Lieutenancy, is a total mystery to me.

Just plain wrong. Good riddance.

I am very proud to be a Novocastrian, Northumbrian, Englishman and Briton. But I can no more identify with Tyne & Wear or NewcastleGateshead than with the European Union.

Today, coincidentally, is my 61st birthday. If anyone else can remember the official clampdown on “Newcastle-on-Tyne” and let me know who issued that order and when, it would truly make my day.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.