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.