Bernard's weekly Journal  pieces January - April 2012

In the end, people do what's right when it matters

Thursday 26th April 2012

I’m sorry. If, early on Tuesday morning, you saw an overweight middle-aged man in running shorts standing in the middle of the Town Moor cursing, it was I. (Note the perfect grammar: many people would say it was me, but they shouldn’t.)

I had an excuse. I’d just pulled a calf muscle and had hobbled to a halt. I was uttering imprecations against all the gods of runners and the overweight, because a muscle popped means a month off running, just when the mornings are light but not too hot, the winds have dropped and running is almost (I say almost, because it is never really) a pleasure.

My exercise regime had been going so much better since, last autumn, the missus agreed to run with me. One lazy man can always find excuses for not running: but when two go, we encourage one another. We’ve managed a couple of miles three times every week without fail, even through the winter.

I might have known something would go wrong. Just the night before, the chiropractor had been trying to sort out a painful stiff neck, twisting and clicking me into place. The top end cured, a leg failed.

It’s not fair. Don’t start asking whether I do all the stretches and warm-ups first. My wife reckons I spend longer warming up, warming down, stretching and bending than I do running: and she’s right! When the family get to know about the latest setback to my fitness drive, they’ll tell me off as usual. “Dad, you’re hopeless. You spend hours sitting at the computer writing stuff (such as this column), never get up for a break, eat and drink too much, and then overdo it when you try to take exercise. You’ve only yourself to blame.”

And, of course, they’re not wrong. So, in truth, I shouldn’t be surprised by my latest little disaster.

That leads me to think how rarely we are surprised by anything these days. I wrote the other week about the absurdity of Chancellor George Osborne’s claim to be “shocked” by the amount of tax evasion he found among the rich. This week newspapers are printing shock horror stories about the collapse in popularity of the coalition government: meanwhile David Cameron seeks (unconvincingly) to reassure us, and commentators observe (rightly, as it happens) that such slumps always occur mid-term.

The opposition makes hay, of course, and on Tuesday Labour found itself a staggering five points ahead in opinion polls. That will be until the hapless Ed Miliband and his team, all of whom seem to have undergone personality bypasses at some point in their careers, open their mouths and lose support again. In local elections we can arguably vote for personalities, for people whom we know on our patch. When it comes to national elections, by contrast, it looks a pretty dismal choice between (in American movie parlance) Dumb and Dumber.

One of the Sunday papers claimed surprise and shock at the fact that, while the purchase of tickets for the Olympics (and particularly the sought-after 100m final) was meant to be entirely by lottery, anyone with enough money can take their pick. Holiday firm Thomson, it appears, will do you a ticket for something in the region of £1300, to include an overnight stay in a hotel. If that isn’t just a posh sort of ticket-touting, I don’t know what is.

The negative and the miserable are rarely surprising. By contrast, instances of goodness and generosity are like hen’s teeth. Yet when hairdresser Claire Squires, 30, collapsed and died in Sunday’s London Marathon, public response to the tragedy was truly astonishing. A real runner, as far from me as can be imagined, she’d been raising funds for the Samaritans: by yesterday more than £500,000 had been donated in tribute.

When it really matters, people still do what is right and generous. Let’s be thankful for that.

 

A patronising view of society from our very own Culture Secretary

Thursday 19th April 2012

In 1942, American vice-president Henry A Wallace made a speech proclaiming "the Century of the Common Man". He saw a future when the people of America would not only defeat Hitler: the common man, hard-working, industrious American would also rebuild prosperity - not for himself alone, nor just his country, but for the world.

US composer Aaron Copland felt inspired to write a piece of music in honour of that vision: his “Fanfare for the Common Man” became an instant classic.

In the UK of 2012 the term “common man” doesn't have the same resonance. There are problems with the gender: “man” and “mankind” don’t embrace male and female alike anymore. But we Brits have greater difficulty with the word "common". This struck me while reading about Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s proposal to ensure that the plum seats to view the Jubilee celebrations in London aren't snapped up by the rich and powerful. One of the Sunday papers reported Hunt as being keen that “common people" would be able to get the best tickets.

Common, as opposed to rich and influential: why does that opposition of terms sound so wrong? Certainly “common” used to be part of the language of snobbery. Upper-class parents (or those with pretentions to status) would bewail their son’s involvement with a common girl. Or admonish their child: “Don't speak like that, dear. It’s so common.”

George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion (adapted into that wonderful musical, My Fair Lady), describes how Professor Higgins teaches a poor Cockney flower-girl to speak so perfectly that he can pass her off in high society. Shaw’s is a cautionary tale, though. Eliza's transported from her roots into an alien world, and no longer knows where she belongs. And it's not as if it's done for generous reasons: merely as a bet between a couple of posh, clever geezers, at her expense.

From the same kind of stable, and being performed at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal this week in Stephen Daldry’s stunning production, comes JB Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls”. A mysterious figure invades the home of a powerful, complacent family and makes them see how their selfishness has encompassed the ruin, prostitution and ultimate suicide of a poor – indeed, a common – girl. Written close in time to Wallace’s Common Man speech, but set in 1912, it was challenging stuff: it still asks powerful questions.

The Culture Secretary's proposal is well-meant, I think.  But is it, in our still class-ridden society, not so much a blow for social mobility as something rather patronising? And who are “common people”, anyway? Does the label mean anything now?

Whatever the answers, I can’t help feeling it would be good if this country could generate the modern equivalent of Wallace’s Common Man of 1942 America. In the Land of the Free there was, and still is, a belief that the ordinary guy from humble origin can rise to the top, even become president, the most powerful person in the world.

Do we share that belief here? I don't think so. People in leading positions in all our political parties overwhelmingly come from, and move in, pretty privileged circles. Those who have fought their way up – John Prescott in the last administration and perhaps Baroness Warsi in this – encounter ridicule and snobbery, even from their own party.

No, I fear the odds are still stacked against common people.  Look at any queue: at the front, you’ll find the cronies, the donors, the well-connected, the super-rich, the possessors of duck-houses, moats, wealth and privilege. Actually, that’s not true: you won’t find them in the queue at all. They’ll already be inside, occupying the best seats.

I hope Jeremy Hunt’s plan works, and that some common people (whoever they are) enjoy a grandstand view of Elton John and Jessie J singing God Save the Queen at HM’s Big Bash.

It won’t change the world. But it might be a start.

 

 

Could life on Zarg be any more ridiculous than it is on Earth?

Thursday 12th April 2012

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy spotting life’s little ironies - especially when they’re big, painfully obvious ones in public or political life.

So when, on the day the South-East’s hosepipe ban came into force, the rain was sweeping horizontally across rural Northumberland, I couldn’t help but smile. I know: that was here, not there, and even if it did rain equally hard down south it was probably the wrong kind of rain.

I’m not sure whether the new Royal Mail stamp celebrating the Tyne and its bridges with an out-of-date picture is a case of irony or sheer incompetence, but I suspect there’s been more laughter than fury about it on Tyneside. Rather like the hosepipe ban, it’s just what we come to expect from people “doon there”: they (whoever they are) don’t understand us and don’t know what makes us tick up here.

It’s generally money-men (and I do mean the male gender) who, when they go public, most clearly demonstrate their own lack of awareness and imagination and their total inability to see the irony of their situation.

Take Chancellor George Osborne, for example, who earlier this week declared himself “shocked” to discover than some of the wealthiest people in the country pay virtually no tax.  HMRC reckons that the average rate of tax paid by the country’s mega-rich is only around 10%.

Shocked? Where has George been? On another planet? (Actually, he probably has). We PAYE slaves, from whom the tax is whipped away before pay-day so we never even see it, aren’t just shocked: we’re outraged, but not surprised. As for those on the minimum wage or none, their feelings must be too deep for words - or for repeatable ones, at any rate. All ordinary people have been furious for years that politicians are so blind.

For years? Yes, literally. A twenty-second Google search informed me that as long ago as June 2007, under Gordon Brown’s Labour administration, a private equity boss (Nicholas Ferguson, chairman of SVG Capital) admitted to the Financial Times: “Any commonsense person would say that a highly-paid private equity executive paying less tax than a cleaning-lady or other low-paid workers can’t be right.”

At the time it was reported that the Treasury was going to “look into” the loopholes that allow so many fat cats to take advantage of what Osborne described this week (just five years later) as “aggressive avoidance schemes”. So now George is swinging into action.

What does he do first? Put a limit on what the super-rich can give to charity. The one loophole that does some good to society is the first to be closed – probably because it’s the easiest. BBC News yesterday featured a world-class cancer research centre in London: entirely funded by donations, it’s been warned by its major donors that its income will be slashed. Nice one, George!

Still, even our myopic Chancellor has been outclassed by some breath-taking lunacy from across the Pond this week. Actually, the story broke in the FT in February but the BBC, possibly short of news, picked it up on Easter Monday. Apparently Wall Street executives and traders fear they’re losing their edge.

Poor dears, they’ve had a tough few years of it since the crunch. No one loves them any more, and it’s much harder now than it was a few years ago to make zillions of bucks without even getting off their backsides. So, in search of extra get-up-and-go, they want testosterone additives to turn them (back) into alpha males.

Hold on! Wasn’t it testosterone-fuelled arrogance and greed that led those same traders to lend recklessly, gambling not with their own money but with whole economies, bringing about near-global financial meltdown?

Stop the world! I want to get off! In fact, I’ll head for the planet Zarg where, apparently, George Osborne has been for five years. It must be nice there.

 

Achieving hero status is a walk in the park after dog takes a dip

Thursday 5th April 2012

I became a hero last weekend.  Just for a day.  Well, for about ten minutes, in truth.  I rescued a drowning dog.  I'm not a dog lover, and I'm certainly not a man of action.  But I did save a pooch from a watery death.

I was down in Wells, the ancient Somerset city that is home to a magnificent cathedral, bishop’s palace and countless historic houses. It’s so old that even modern shop-fronts tend to hide extraordinary architectural gems. In the High Street there’s a toy-shop in the middle of which (and probably inconveniently for the retailer) is a complete Jacobean oak staircase. And how many fish-and-chip shops contain, just by the deep-fat fryer, a medieval arch and stone spiral staircase, assuredly a remnant of some monastic building?

I was visiting my parents who retired there twenty years ago. They’re both now over 90, and still in their own home, good going on both counts. Still, Wells is very much a retirement zone, stuffed with former archdeacons and bishops: I reckon Mum and Dad are still bringing down the city’s average age.

Cast your mind back to last Sunday: you’ll have a memory of hot sun and a gentle breeze – if this week’s gales and yesterday’s sleet and snow haven’t obliterated it. So warm was it in Wells that, after Sunday lunch, we thought we should take a turn around the beautiful bishop’s palace in search of ice-cream. I pushed my Mum along in her wheelchair while Dad pottered along as ever, walking-stick in hand.

As we skirted the bishop’s moat – it’s not only Tory MPs who have moats, you know – we saw a black and white terrier lean over the edge for a drink, misjudge it and fall in. The water’s probably a metre deep, so the little tyke couldn’t touch bottom anywhere. Undismayed it paddled round (doggie-paddle, I suppose, reminiscent of my own unimpressive swimming style) and looked for somewhere to clamber out.

That’s when things started to go wrong for it. All the sides are steep and kerbed, and there was nowhere for it to gain purchase and climb out. It swam up and down, and was obviously starting to panic.

There were plenty of bystanders in that tourist-trap, all quick to pass comment. Then the muttering started. “Someone ought to get it out.” But no one moved. To be fair, a good number were elderly. Had my Dad tried to help, for instance, he’d have had difficulty getting down to reach the dog’s collar, let alone get up again, and might have ended up paddling around with it!

As I’ve said, I’m not a man of action. But no one else was moving, so I climbed over the fence, reached down and hauled the creature out. It promptly thanked me by shaking itself dry all over me.

There’s nothing extraordinary about this story so far (sorry if you’ve nodded off along the way). But then the dog’s owner appeared. A woman with a lot of facial piercings and curiously retro waist-length brown/grey dreadlocks emerged from a group sitting on the grass - and largely enveloped in a haze of Special Brew fumes and sweet-smelling smoke - to express her astonishment that her pet had gone near the water (“’Cos he never does”) and, once she realised he’d been in danger of drowning, her gratitude to its saviour.

“It was nothing,” I said modestly, with just a hint of James Bond in the tone and smile. She clearly agreed it was nothing, and staggered away, just a little more quickly than politeness strictly demanded.

Still, the point of this story is not about when you decide to act instead of watching: nor is it about the adequate expression of gratitude.

What I really want to know is, how come my ninety year-old mother was worldly-wise enough to say, “My goodness, that’s a strong smell of marijuana”?

 

How a nice meal with Mr Cameron turned into a dog’s dinner

Thursday 29th March 2012

So who was astonished by the revelation that zillionaire Peter Cruddas, a man who having made his pile became unsurprisingly Treasurer of the Tory Party, was caught out  promising “access” to the Prime Minister and government policy-makers in return for large donations? No one, surely. He was just the latest in a story is as old as the hills.

Power attracts people who cluster like moths around a candle – or, more aptly, like pigs around a trough. There is something exciting about having access to the great and good: and being able to control or channel that access is, I guess, still more sexy. The temptation to use or abuse that power is irresistible.

So, following the Sunday Times revelation and inevitable resignation, what happens? No. 10 blusters - then caves in and publishes a list of everyone who’s had dinner with the Camerons. Labour’s front bench foam at the mouth.

Their righteous indignation was mere posturing. Such outrage from politicians of all shades is disingenuous. For decades it’s been possible for supporters to buy expensive dinner tickets at any political conference, graced by party leaders on genial top form. And think back to Tony Blair, “Cool Britannia” and cosying up to celebs and tycoons.

Remember George Orwell’s Animal Farm? The pigs have led the revolution that removes the tyranny of the farmer’s rule. But, a few years on, the pigs have learned to walk on their hind legs and are doing deals with the humans on the neighbouring farms. As Orwell famously concludes, the animals look from the pigs to the humans and back again, and cannot tell the difference.

So let’s ignore party games and look at the problem. It’s threefold.

First, parties are desperately short of money. They fund-raise tirelessly in order to operate. Why should we be surprised if their operatives overstep the mark in offering donors more inducements than they should?

The second problem flows from the first. Why do only rich people become Prime Minister? Does the Prime Minister’s salary stay conveniently under the £150K tax threshold because we only value the person who runs the country that highly, at the level of a reasonably (but not very) senior civil servant? Or is it that we know PMs always have private means, so it doesn’t really matter how they’re paid?

We’ve been quick to clamp down on the abuses of MPs’ expenses, and rightly so: but one thing that encouraged that scandal to happen was the fact that politicians aren’t paid enough to take the sort of responsibility that they do (or should), to live in two places and work horrendous hours.

As a result we get either people who aren’t very good – on the basis that paying peanuts attracts monkeys – or people for whom politics is in effect a hobby, because they have another source of income, whether earned or inherited. Can an ordinary hard-working professional make it to Prime Minister in the UK? Not on present form.

So that’s the third problem. If the funding of political parties is so problematic, and leads so easily to abuses where privilege and influence are for sale, there is only one way out: we taxpayers will have to fund political parties centrally.

Ouch! I dislike that third problem even more than the other two. I feel so badly let down and so unsupported by politicians so much of the time that I’d resent paying still more tax to fund their ineptitude, greed and personal ambition.

No easy answers, then. But I’ll make an offer. You needn’t pay £250,000 to have dinner with me! Bung me a grand and I’ll ask you round. I’ll even open an extra bottle of wine (bought on a Tesco-deliver-to-your-door half-price deal, of course). Tell you what, for £2000 I’ll even make a speech!

No takers yet? As teachers used to say in schools, I can wait here all day …..

 

Just what we’ve all been waiting for – a tour of the M25

Thursday 22nd March 2012

I first heard it on the radio. The latest English tourist attraction, recently launched, is a tour of the M25. Yes, that horrendous, enormous, endless (it’s circular) car-park built to encircle London. Among the high spots are the longest slip road on any motorway; the queue for Heathrow Terminal 5; and the spot where Tyneside musician Chris Rea wrote his hit, “The Road to Hell”.

Of course, one person’s tourist attraction is indeed another’s road to hell. For example, how many of us have dragged their children kicking and screaming round stately homes? We’ve dissuaded them from fingering and then shattering the priceless Ming vases by promises of ice-cream and chocolate afterwards. We’ve then sought out the tea-room, invariably converted tastefully from the old stable-block, and wandered around the adjoining museum of farming implements and wagons, the exhibits gleaned from the old rubbish that the dynasty that previously owned the stately pile stored in ruinous outhouses until death duties and tax demands forced them to sell up.

I guess we Traffords inflicted as many such trips on our children as other well-meaning middle-class families. Our girls, when little, were keen gymnasts. They loved an Elizabethan long gallery or perfectly-manicured lawn to practise their cartwheels and tumbles on. They were hugely put out by “keep off the grass” signs, and built up a repertoire of castles and stately homes they could have fun in and rampage through: they blacklisted those others with a sniffy “It’s a do-not-touch place”. Fortunately Northumberland, with its splendid old fortresses, scored highly.

This M25 launch made me think of other tedious tourist traps we might create. I wondered if there might be a museum of concrete anywhere in the world. Well, there is. It’s not, however, devoted to the history and development of stone substitute, but is the civic museum for the town of Concrete in America’s Washington State.

What about museums dedicated to unattractive, humdrum objects? To sink-plungers? Ballcocks and cisterns? Okay, I was fishing for gratuitous lavatory humour: and I did find a plumbing museum, situated in the appropriately named Watertown, Massachusetts.

What a great feature of American civilisation that is! We Brits are saddled with historic names dating back to Viking or Saxon times, changed and corrupted over the years. In the States (when they’re not borrowing European names) they call a town after what’s made there. So plumbing grew up in Watertown and concrete in, er, Concrete.

This reminds me of an architect I once knew. He designed a block of flats held together by dodgy semi-experimental cement. It collapsed. He ended his career not in ignominy but in highly-paid consultancy, an acknowledged global expert on concrete problems. That’s the way to do it!

In my researches of dismal tourist traps, I found a recently published book (you can buy it from Amazon) called “Crap Days Out”. It was disappointing: it wasn’t about totally inappropriate places to visit so much as well-known sites that are damp squibs – among them Stonehenge, The Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and the Bronte Museum in Haworth.

So instead here is my recommendation for a pointless, tedious tour - not of one site, but of a series spread across the UK. Go to Britain’s remotest seaside wildernesses and visit our great (and nowadays creaking) nuclear power stations. You can see to the celebrated wildlife sanctuary around Dungeness. You can enjoy the grandeur of the North-West coast at Sellafield, or the flatlands of Suffolk at Sizewell. Most have a museum and exhibition, extolling the virtues of power generation via nuclear fission.

Does that not excite you? Then remember one thing. They are always by the seaside. So there’s bound to be a beach. And you must try the local seafood. Lobsters in particular are enormous: okay, so they may have three claws and emit a curious greenish glow. But they’re big enough to feed a family of four!

Enjoy!

 

Starstruck by a TV newsman we should all be very proud of

Thursday 15th March 2012

Why are we so odd about faces that we recognise from the television? I mean, why are we always astonished when we see them in the flesh? I was guilty of that reaction last weekend, attending my school’s annual London reunion dinner. There was the usual range of blokes of all ages and, a few years into coeducation, some young women too. Before dinner I looked across the bar and saw someone who looked just like a well-known BBC correspondent.

“Isn’t that Alastair Leithead?” I asked.

I got a strange look in return. “Of course it is,” came the reply. “He’s speaking tonight.”

Oops! In my defence it was a Friday evening and I’d had a hell of a week before leaping onto a train to London. It wasn’t as if I only knew his face “off of the telly”. I’ve met him before: Alastair’s one of the school’s more high-profile former pupils. I’d just forgotten that he was down to speak. And, of course, I didn’t expect to see him in London. We all know where Alastair Leithead is these days: he’s the BBC’s Man in Los Angeles.

Alastair is a great journalist. If you watch BBC News 24, you’ll have seen him till recently in that title sequence just before the news on the hour, every hour, putting his helmet on. That’s surely how we all picture Alastair: he rose to fame on our screens as a forthright and brave frontline war correspondent in Afghanistan.

It seemed odd to see him in a suit! In fact, some of his mates heckled him when he stood up to speak: “Where’s yer flak-jacket, Alastair?”

Alastair spoke well. You’d expect that from someone who speaks to cameras for a living - though he says an audience is far scarier than a camera.  (That’s interesting, because many of us would feel the opposite).

He talked about his early career. His first job was as a reporter on the “Ronnie Gill”. Ronnie Gill? Alastair explained: it’s what newsvendors shout on street corners to advertise the Journal’s evening sister-paper.

His first overseas assignment was as a radio correspondent covering a solar eclipse in Madagascar. Radio? The media training I’ve received told me to “paint a picture in words”. How did the young Leithead describe the eclipse? “It’s getting dark - it’s light again!”

Since it was an after-dinner speech, Alastair felt he could talk about the seamier side of work abroad. For example, in Eastern cities where there is a thriving sex trade, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd”.

Finally he recounted some of his experiences embedded with the army in Afghanistan. How he had a bad night sleeping in the open, haunted by an unpleasant smell that he couldn’t place. In the morning he remembered what it was from when he’d covered earthquakes: it was the stench of a decomposing body and he’d been sleeping on top of a shallow grave. Eeurgh!

He dwelt more on the humour of living with soldiers. In everyday life we routinely use TLAs, three-letter acronyms: we speak of DVDs, SUVs, CEOs, CFOs. But the army runs entirely on TLAs, and Alastair found himself referred to as FRK. FRK? “Fat Ross Kemp, sir,” a squaddie explained.

While in LA, Alastair does his best to look suave in a suit at the Oscars: but somehow it doesn’t suit him. He’s in the mould of Kate Adie, who cut her journalist’s teeth in the Libyan Embassy siege in 1980 and became famous reporting on the American bombing of Tripoli, genocide in Rwanda and the Bosnian conflict. She told things how they were, and infuriated politicians who had things to hide.

That’s the job, isn’t it? We need those fearless commentators who enter trouble-spots, expose humbug and spin and tell it how it is. And we need the BBC to send them in. Alastair, power to your elbow!

 

Our democracy may be weak but at least we can speak freely

Thursday 8th March 2012

Years ago I worked with a school governor who had spent the 1970s, 80s and 90s selling high-pressure valves. His job was unaffected by Iron Curtain or Cold War: East and West may have been divided by mutual suspicion, but both sides needed valves. So Eddie travelled regularly to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (as they were still called), Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary – to name just a few.

Eddie was amused when told that a subject department in the school had achieved 100% A grades for the fourth year running.

“On my travels”, he said quietly, “I have always learned to distrust 100% results, particularly those of elections.”

What refreshing scepticism! Nowadays dictatorship is largely out of fashion. Uzbekistan and North Korea are among the few remaining dictatorships in the world. The Arab Spring has seen off a few tyrants, not without cost: and the world holds its breath to see what will happen in Syria.

Nonetheless, suspiciously overwhelming majorities are apparently alive and well. Vladimir Putin is set to return to Russia’s presidency. As the former KGB boss announced a massive victory, just 17% voting against him, tears of emotion (or of relief) streamed down his face.

His opponents take a less positive view. More than 20,000 protestors took to the streets of Moscow following the result. TV pictures showed it’s still bitterly cold there at this time of year, so they weren’t out there just for the fun of it. In scenes reminiscent of the old Communist Bloc days, protestors were arrested and bundled into police vans.

But this is 2012. A leading protestor gave a commentary and radio interview by mobile phone from within the police van: that didn’t happen back then! A great benefit of modern technology is that it’s so much harder nowadays for totalitarian regimes to suppress dissent.

Still, some manage it. In the West we seldom view President Ahmadinejad of Iran as a modernising force: but, compared to Supreme Leader for Life Ayatollah Khomeini, I guess he is. The Supreme Leader pushed the turnout of voters up to 64% this time round, and succeeded in marginalising Ahmadinejad’s support. The opposition Green Party denounced the elections as a sham, refusing to participate. It was a pragmatic decision: as a result there should be less bloodshed than last time when the Revolutionary Guard gunned down protestors in the streets.

Goodness! When you see how whole populations can still be duped, silenced or otherwise controlled, the world remains pretty grim politically. It reminds me of Churchill’s famous dictum that democracy is a damned bad system – until you look at all the others.

Our UK democracy is feeble in many ways, but I’m nonetheless pleased to have a coalition in charge. It doesn’t command overall popular support: but neither did any preceding single-party government, all of which – enjoying only a minority mandate - lurched from one extreme to another.

American democracy is struggling currently: the Republican Party’s inability to find a credible candidate to stand against President Obama would be comical if weak opposition weren’t so bad for a democracy’s health. But at least in the US, as here, there is freedom of speech.  We can protest, complain about useless politicians and denounce the bent ones. Whenever we become too complacent about our democracy, we should look East and be grateful.

Let’s finish with a dictator story from the Stalin era. Visiting a Warsaw bar, a British journalist asked a Pole what he thought of Stalin. “Not here: too dangerous,” he muttered. So they walked out into the street. “Not here”, he said again. “Too many spies”. This went on until they had driven out into the country and tramped across to the middle of an enormous ploughed field. Exasperated, the journalist finally asked, “So now will you tell me what you think of Stalin?”

The Pole looked around nervously and then whispered, “Actually, I quite like him.”

 

What is wrong with our society that we need code of caring?

Thursday 1st March 2012

The National Pensioners Convention has drawn up a 19-point code described as “making dignity and respect a right for our elderly”. It’s backed by politicians, regulators and charities. Care Minister Paul Burstow wants it displayed in every GP surgery, social services department, hospital ward and nursing home.

Like motherhood and apple pie, this code is impossible to argue against. But I was indignant when I read about it. At the forefront of my mind was the question: why?

Why do we need a dignity code? What’s so wrong with our society that we need first a code and now a commission on how we should treat old people?

I can tell two contrasting stories. Six years ago my late mother-in-law suffered a catastrophic stroke. When we visited her in hospital we found her neglected and lying in her own filth. We were outraged. We made a formal complaint to the hospital, receiving a mealy-mouthed apology that just made us angrier: ‘We’re sorry if you feel the care she received was inadequate’. Sorry ‘if we feel’? No responsibility was taken. The dignity code was needed there.

On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago my 91-year-old father suffered a minor stroke and spent three nights in hospital while they checked him out. He received excellent care. They had him walking up and down, practising motor skills, standing on one leg: they took him into a kitchen to make coffee and toast: it was proper analysis and assessment of his ability to cope before he was allowed home.

Dad enjoyed chatting to the staff in the hospital about his life as a village doctor half a century ago. He was hugely impressed by how hard the nurses worked in what he described as a ward full of poorly and difficult old men. He noted that the consultant spent a full half-hour with every patient, with a team around him working long hours.

We teachers tend easily to fall into the trap of telling children what they think instead of allowing them to tell us! Carers of the elderly are perhaps still more prone to it. In his memoir ‘Writing Home’, Alan Bennett describes visiting his mother in her nursing home: her dementia was so advanced that she barely recognised him. A bright and breezy care assistant says, “Come on, Lily. Let’s do your hair.” Bennett intervenes: “Her name’s Lilian. She’s always been called Lilian.”

“Well,” comes the reply “Lily’s what I call her, anyway.”

It’s that kind of insidious talking-down to the old and vulnerable that strips the dignity from them. BBC Radio 4 used to run a programme called “Does He Take Sugar?” For and about people with disability, it was a clever title highlighting precisely the same problem, our tendency to talk about them as if they aren’t in the room.

Nonetheless I’m profoundly uncomfortable that a modern civilised society should need to publish a 19-point code to ensure that the elderly are treated with dignity. Perhaps it’s the flipside of the welfare state. Maybe in the national psyche there is still a little of the old Victorian workhouse mentality, where the poor (think of Oliver Twist) were fed and clothed (both badly), worked and disciplined brutally - and expected to be grateful. When care is institutionalised, because the state organises it, it still falls into that level of impersonality. Well-meaning, busy, often overworked people do the basic job but all too easily forget that compassion must come first.

And why is this code only for care of the elderly? Don’t all people in the care of others need to be treated with dignity? Children, for example, let alone vulnerable adults and all kinds of other groups, the sick, the damaged, refugees: we could make an extensive list.

So I propose a code for treating everyone with dignity, whatever their age or status.

Anyone else want to sign up?

 

 

How could a brawl between boxers be deemed ‘surprising’?

Thursday 23rd February 2012

Monday saw a flurry of newspaper headlines proclaiming what Basil Fawlty would call the bleedin’ obvious. We had variants of “Doctors Furious at Exclusion from Health Service Talks”; “Peers Resist Lords Reform”; and, best of all, “Boxers In Fight Shock”.

None was surprising! Government is pushing ahead with NHS reform, claiming that the 340 amendments to the Bill so far show they’re listening. They’re less keen on the alternative interpretation that it was abysmally drafted and needed improvement. They also dislike accusations of ignoring key groups, such as doctors: in doing so they’ve scored a massive own goal in PR terms.

Members of the House of Lords are vehemently against reform. David Cameron is pushing for a fully elected Upper Chamber. I’m in two minds about that. The kind of patronage where governments pack the Lords with their own appointments so they can force their legislation through is unattractive at best. Peers are unelected, unaccountable and thus undemocratic.

On the other hand, in the North-East we have excellent and hard-working peers, members of all three parties who laboured for decades in local or national politics and, now ennobled, toil away doing exactly what an upper chamber should do: honing and fine-tuning legislation, and mitigating the worst effects of rushed policy-making from ministers in a hurry. Also living locally is Lord Stevens, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, someone else who can draw on vast experience to curb the wilder bits of proposed policing law. There’s a lot of wisdom in the Lords!

As for the boxing story, I had to laugh at the public outrage over two heavyweights brawling in a press conference. Unable to slake his blood-lust with his fists, Dereck Chisora is reported as saying at least four times that he would shoot David Haye. The British Boxing Board of Control described the scuffle as “one of the lowest moments in British boxing history”.

Well, who’s surprised? We may take a different view about amateur (and Olympic) boxing where contestants wear protection, knockouts are rare and wins are achieved by the skilful placing of punches on the target area. But a professional boxing match is about beating an opponent into submission in front of an audience.

It’s beyond me how promoters and managers can portray the sport as normally controlled and civilised when boxers are pumped up, testosterone-fuelled and focussed on only one thing – smashing their opponent. Okay, pre-match exchanges between fighters are generally confined to boasts and insults rather than blows. But it’s still all about winding up the competitors’ aggression and hyping the event. Why we call professional boxing a sport I’ve never understood. It’s licensed brutality for violence-voyeurs.

Here’s a random thought. It’s a fact that when male elephants are ready to mate, they enter a state called “musth”. They are so over-dosed on testosterone that, if they were human, they would be certifiably insane.

So, two bits of advice from me this week. First, keep out of the way of an elephant in musth.

Second, don’t claim to be surprised or shocked when professional fighters revert to type - and fight. To expect otherwise would be like training up a pack of hounds and expecting them not to kill foxes. Oops! That’s precisely what’s meant to be done nowadays.

You will gather I’m not a boxing fan. I can’t see the point in something that appeals to all of our basest instincts and none of the higher ones. But it’s a free country, and the fighters are consenting adults, so let them do it. If an industry wants to generate fortunes around it from television rights, merchandising and betting, that’s up to the people who pay.

But please don’t come all over horrified and outraged when boxers behave badly and attack one another.

Sunday wasn’t “a black day for British sport” as headlines complained. In boxing terms, it was just a bad day at the box(-ing)-office.

 

Teaching our family to hit the high notes in half-term holiday

Thursday 16th February 2012

“What did you do over half-term?” It’s the sort of question teachers will ask one another next week, back at work after this week’s welcome break.

We teachers have something of a blind-spot in this regard. I’m not going to start justifying school holidays here. I can appreciate both how they look to other workers and how annoying it is for them when we teachers assume that everyone lives (and works) as we do - and when we complain about the fact that we can never book cheap holidays.

Our grown-up daughters are visiting for half-term, and there have been two major areas of activity around the kitchen table, (apart from catering, that is). First, they agreed, somewhat heroically, to help with a little project of mine that has become ever more time-consuming: I’ve written a stage musical.

At least, when I say I’ve written it, until a few months ago it existed in the form of a rough script and some twenty songs scribbled on scraps of music paper (how old-fashioned, a throw-back to the days of Mozart and Schubert!). Since a colleague suggested, nearly a year ago, that we stage the show in school this summer, more than a decade after I first started playing with the idea, I’ve been busily knocking it into shape, one revision following another. And that’s just the words (it’s a traditional-style musical with dialogue between the songs).

Musical scores are nowadays created on a computer. The industry-standard software, Sibelius, functions on a laptop and (almost) at the click of a mouse creates all the separate parts for the band from the score. That score still has to be created first, note by note: it remains a laborious process, although the software makes amendments and edits effortless – and even plays the music back so you can hear what you’ve written.

The task we’ve been engaged in is recording the songs. In the old days when I was a music teacher, long before the digital age, we taught kids the tunes around the piano. Now they expect to load recordings on their iPod and learn them by listening. That’s a challenge when the music hasn’t been performed yet!

To our rescue comes another miraculous piece of software – a free download called Audacity. In effect it turned my little laptop into a recording studio, so we could create one track after another, building up the songs with digital instruments generated by Sibelius and real voices – my daughters’ and mine.

It was hard work, nonetheless, recording 22 songs in two days, but we managed it! And while I was fiddling, organising and editing all those music tracks, what were my girls doing? The second main area of activity – they were marking books.

In the past six months both young women have become teachers. It wasn’t in the original life-plan of either to join the second-oldest profession. After university one ended up working in property, the other in management consultancy. A few years on, both have sought what one described as “something with values” and become teachers.

So this week, when I’m ready with the next musical task for one or other, I have to drag them away from the piles of exercise books they’ve brought with them from Leeds and Berkshire respectively: both hope to get the marking finished by the end of the week, and take Sunday off!

As parents we’re fiercely proud of both, but sense some alarm at their doing so much assessing, reporting and feeding back in their holiday week. At night we hear one shouting at a dreamed-of class: the other’s started sleep-walking!

We know the territory only too well. When one or other describes a particularly horrendous week, demanding, “Do you know how hard I’m having to work?” we reply with a wry smile, “Yes.” We’ve been teachers for 34 years.

They certainly need their half-term. They’ve earned it, too.

 

What’s to fear about Facebook? Answer: The people using it

Thursday 9th February 2012

Last Friday evening I took my courage in both hands and ventured south of the Tyne, travelling all the way to Durham. I was a guest of the Durham University Union Society for a debate. Paired with the BBC’s Jeremy Vine I was proposing the motion, “This House Fears Facebook”. It’s fair to say Jeremy and I were the only people in the room with grey hair, so it’s not surprising that we were lined up to express concerns about the new media. On the other side were two young, clever and terrifyingly articulate journalists, Jamie Hall (previously with WikiLeaks and now The Guardian) and Willard Foxton, blogger and investigative television reporter/film-maker.

Jeremy managed to be very funny about being pursued by stalkers and describing how Facebook and other social networks have destroyed the reputations of people unwise enough to upset the public and then suffer PR annihilation through the Web.

I drew myself up to my full Headmagisterial height and talked soberly about the dangers to children, and the difficulties schools encounter through cyber-bullying. The latter is a real problem, because even the brightest, most imaginative youngsters sometimes forget (or choose to overlook) the fact that offensive or humiliating comments written on someone’s virtual wall are not virtual at all, but there for the world to see.

As it happened, the Sunday papers the previous weekend had drawn attention to the new development coming from Facebook in a few weeks. “Timeline” will enable your friends to search through all your pictures on Facebook by date: so they will be able effortlessly to dredge up those embarrassing pictures from your youth.

I reckoned this was a pretty damaging thing, given that employers often trawl through Facebook to see whether applicants for their jobs have suspect histories. The younger Opposition, more in tune with the student audience, mocked me gently. All kids and students make fools of themselves at some stage: why be so prissy about it?

How I wish I’d thought of the killer response! The opposition were at university in the 90s or more recently. But think for a moment about those of us who were of student age in the 1970s: shoulder-length hair; flares; tie-dyed skinny t-shirts. I think I’ve suppressed all pictures of me from that era: I desperately hope so. Some things should never be seen again, and they include pictures of hairy young men looking like extras from the Village People.

I’ll come clean. Jeremy Vine and I were defeated in the vote – but not by a huge amount. A good-natured and hilarious debate ended as amicably as it had started. The Durham students were charming afterwards. A Swedish student called Christopher said he didn’t realise headmasters could be funny: I could have hugged him.

So what do I really think of Facebook? Cyber-bullying is deplorable, vicious and wrong. We might argue that some people should spend less time on Facebook and get a life. But in both cases people are to blame, not the medium.

I wouldn’t ban Facebook, even if I could. This is a free country and the internet brings vast benefits: we just need to get better at using it wisely and curbing the negative effects of its misuse.

Besides, what do I know about Facebook? I don’t use it. Our children have banned my wife and me from it: they are probably right to say we’d embarrass them. Moreover, I get so many e-mails flooding in every day that I don’t I need more digital pressure to communicate: by preference I’d make more effort to get away from the Web - preferably up in the Cheviots.

I’m sometimes asked why I’m not on Twitter. My answer is simple: why limit myself to 140 characters? I prefer 650 words (count the words in this column!).

Or, to misquote an old proverb, why use a few words when a thousand will do?

 

 

So lucky to be able to reach out and touch history all around us

Thursday 2nd February 2012

Drive from Kirknewton towards Wooler in North Northumberland and you pass the site of Gefrin, one of the royal palaces of the Saxon kings of Northumbria. The memorial stone records that in 627 AD Paulinus, having travelled up from York where he was archbishop, preached to King Edwin’s court for thirty-six days before they accepted Christianity and were baptised in the nearby river Glen.

I have a recurring mental image of these converts, moved not so much by religious fervour as an overwhelming need to silence this preacher who had barely paused to catch breath for a whole month. If they’d moved quickly and chopped his head off at the start, they might have got away with it: a month on, though, such bloodshed would have broken all the rules of hospitality. Instead I see them groaning, “Okay, okay: we’ll do anything you want. We’ll even become Christians – if you’ll only shut up!”

Paulinus got around. Visit the historic St Peter’s School in York and you can see its list of headmasters: at the top is the same Paulinus.

The 7th Century falls into what we nowadays call the Dark Ages. The Romans were long gone from Britain, their magnificent stone buildings falling into decay. In cities like York, Cirencester, Bath and London, Saxons and Vikings alike squatted in huge Roman edifices, occasionally patching them up with wood and wattle, in awe of the skills of their builders, far beyond their comprehension, and fearful of their ghosts.

There is nothing left of Northumberland’s Palace of Gefrin, of course. It was built entirely of wood and we only know its location and layout because post-holes are still visible from the air in that extraordinary way in which archaeology reveals itself.

We don’t see many relics or artefacts from the 7th Century, but a visit to Hexham on Monday, albeit a sad one, reminded me of the long history of our region. Gathering with hundreds of mourners for the funeral of a much-loved local man, Simon Rowarth, I renewed acquaintance with the Abbey’s sheer grandeur and beauty.

Most of the building is medieval, of course, with Victorian renovations and additions.  Yet, sitting in the Choir, right in front of me was the seventh-century Frith Stool, or bishop’s throne, a squat, chunky stone seat – almost certainly used by that key figure of early Northumbrian Christianity, St Wilfrid. Moreover, the crypt of the original Saxon church still lies beneath the Abbey, its walls punctuated by carved Roman stones, recycled by the Saxons as they built their first church of stone.

Elsewhere in the Abbey is the Saxon Hexham Century chalice, a tiny copper and gold goblet used for the sacrament – a fragile and phenomenally rare object, linking us directly to that dark and forgotten time.

That’s my point. Within the grandeur of the region’s glorious rolling country, we constantly stumble across amazing bits of history. St Gregory’s Church, Kirknewton (where I started) houses a tenth-century carving of the three wise men bringing gifts to Mary and the Baby Jesus. We can tell the Magi are foreigners, even 1200 years later, because they seem to be wearing kilts.

We need not leave the city to find ancient sites. In the Saxon churches of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, Bede wrote the first history of the English. But after visiting his haunts, still visible, we just have to head north to Holy Island, where (again in timber buildings burnt by invaders long ago) the unique Lindisfarne Gospels were written.

Philosopher Edmund Burke said, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.” He was right. I’m forever complaining that politicians don’t learn from history, and that we are locked in a cycle of repeated mistakes.

By contrast, one reason why I love this region so much is that its history is all around us. We can reach out and touch it.

How lucky we are.

 

 

Children need play to help them develop as rounded individuals

Thursday 26th January 2012

It was an uncanny piece of timing. Two weeks ago The Journal’s J2 section featured “A Place to Play”, a new children’s novel by Natasha Miles. It’s set in a futuristic England (specifically, Newcastle) where playgrounds are banned and the time it takes children to mature is seen as a problem. Government evolves a sinister plan to accelerate the process, getting children into the workforce in a mere four years and saving a fortune. Naturally the story describes the fight-back by a group of brave children.

It’s a work of fiction of course. What a coincidence, though, that the very next week Education Secretary Michael Gove proposed extending the school day from 7.30 am to 5.30 pm. With Saturday lessons, and as much as two weeks added to school terms, pupils could gain an extra year’s tuition over five years.

Gove says it’s all about “allowing them to take vocational subjects in addition to their exam material.” He doesn’t understand that vocational stuff, though Kenneth (Lord) Baker tells him it’s necessary. Gove’s wheeze allows it to be squeezed in without getting in the way of “proper” subjects!

There are so many things we want to squeeze into the school week. I remember talking, years ago, to a senior education mandarin. The new National Curriculum was just kicking in, and it was already clear it would never fit in to the school week. “What’s all the fuss about?” asked the civil servant. “If pupils and teachers did a proper 40-hour week and only took four weeks holiday a year, we could fit everything in that we want to.”

That’s the problem. Children are, well, childish. They just can’t do the honest day’s work an adult can. If they did a solid day’s and week’s work and didn’t keep demanding breaks, playtime and holidays, they could get all that work done: we’d easily squeeze all the subjects and vocational training we want into the timetable.

Sure, summer holidays can be too long for some children: they regress. Many Academies in tough areas are sensibly spreading breaks more evenly over the year. But those children still need time and space to play and grow as people.

The new Ofsted (school inspection) framework downgrades children’s happiness and wellbeing, what Gove calls “peripherals”, in favour of “things that matter”. What Ofsted doesn’t inspect doesn’t count nowadays. Yet the vital parts of growing up, developing emotional intelligence, empathy, team-work and compromise are learned as much outside the classroom as in it, in play and in organised extra-curricular activities.

Treks in the Cheviots; tough hockey or rugby matches; that great performance of “Grease!”; more adult memories stem from those than from any Friday afternoon maths (oops! Numeracy) lessons.

Grow up, get on, get a job. What do you mean you’re only nine? Get on with it!

This utilitarian mind-set has been around for a long time: since Dickens’s Gradgrind, indeed. Successive education ministers have followed similarly personal (and banal) crusades to “drive up standards” ever since I started teaching in 1978. The moral high ground’s pretty crowded there.

A few years ago a new Academy being built in Peterborough hit the Press: it was to have no playground. Playgrounds were deemed unnecessary. First, they simply became breeding-grounds for fighting and bullying. Second, children wouldn’t need breaks because lessons would be so fascinating.

And what about getting a drink? The founder head said, “The pupils could hydrate during the course of the learning experience”. That learning experience would come in handy, I guess, if pupils ended up in Guantanamo Bay or a Siberian labour camp.

Still, Gove’s new scheme brings an additional benefit. Kids kept longer in school won’t have time to hang around on street corners, let alone get involved in crime or rioting. Kill two birds with one stone – it’s brilliant!

Sadly, the stone that kills those two birds risks also encompassing the death of childhood.

 

None of us know if we can be a hero – until we face the test

Thursday 19th January 2012

It seems January is the month of heroes. 600 years ago Joan of Arc was born. A century ago last Tuesday Captain Scott stood at the North Pole. His diary records: “Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.... Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.”

The story ends in tragedy, but with still more heroism, the haunting farewell of Captain Oates creeping out into the blizzard so that he wouldn’t slow his comrades down: “I’m just going outside and may be some time.”

This past week has seen heroism – and its opposite. Confused stories are still emerging about the wreck of the cruise liner Costa Concordia off the coast of Tuscany on Friday night. Several lives were lost, and many more are still missing. Tales are surfacing about members of the crew pushing passengers aside, even women and children, in the scramble for lifeboats. Radio traffic suggests that the captain panicked and behaved like the cowardly villain in an episode of Hornblower.

No heroics or glory there, then - except, apparently, from the purser. He distinguished himself by leading passengers to safety, then suffered a broken leg as the ship turned on its side, lying in agony for 38 hours till rescued. A bit of quiet heroism.

There’s something about January. On 15th January 2009 US Airways flight 1549 struck a flock of birds on take-off from La Guardia Airport in New York. The pilot ditched in the Hudson River. The 155 passengers and crew stood on the wings of the floating plane until rescued. All were saved.

The captain, Chesley B “Sully” Sullenberger III, was proclaimed a hero. He denied he was one. Rather than panicking under pressure, he had simply put all those years of training into practice and executed the perfect emergency landing on water, acting calmly and professionally. In his view, he was just doing his job.

Heroic acts don’t always end happily. On 15th January last year, a 13-year-old boy, Jordan Rice, clung to a rope with his younger brother as floods rampaged through the Australian town of Toowoomba. It was a standing joke in his family that he hated swimming and was terrified of water.

Yet when rescuers came, Jordan insisted that they take his little brother first. Returning for him, they found the rope snapped. Jordan had been swept away: his body was found days later.

Some heroism is momentary, as when a soldier risks or gives his life for his comrades. Some is demonstrated over years: picture the patience of Nelson Mandela in jail for 27 years; the long courage of Aung San Suu Kyi, only recently released after years of house-arrest in Burma, and still bringing justice and democracy to her country.

Heroism is frequently quiet, as well as patient. I remember watching a 12-year-old pupil lose the battle against a brain tumour. I am not sure who was braver: he who faced it, or his mother who had to watch him die.

There’s really no such thing as a born hero. A hero is someone ordinary like you or me, suddenly faced with a moment of truth. It’s the decision we take: to dare or to run away; to do what needs doing or to panic and freeze.

I am sure all heroes are afraid. It’s often said that the person who doesn’t know fear is not a hero but a fool – or lacking imagination, at any rate!

We’ll never know if we have it in us to be heroic - until we’re faced with that moment and choice: will we deal with the fear inside?

Fortunately, few of us are likely to be tested. Perhaps that’s why we readily celebrate and honour heroes. Just in case we’re called upon to walk in their shoes.

 

I don't need checking up on every time I visit a health worker

Thursday 12th January 2012

I’ve never liked going to the dentist. Memories of childhood visits are redolent of tooth extractions, braces and excruciating pain. I’m not as bad as my wife, who turns to jelly at the thought of it: but I can’t say that I look forward to the next check-up, nice as my current dentist is. So I was alarmed to hear on the news a proposal that all health professionals should indulge in the sort of joined-up thinking beloved of governments nowadays, and advise us about our lifestyle and unhealthy habits at every opportunity.

Now there will be double trepidation about going to the dentist. It won’t be enough to deal with the strange sensation of that spike poking around my teeth, disconcerting vibrations of the polishing machine and the ever-present fear that an injection and drilling might be necessary. No, in future I will also have to worry that, as I slump in the dentist’s chair, she will poke me in the stomach, remark that it seems to be bigger than last time and enquire what exercise I take in a week. Then it will be how much I eat and, worst of all, the number of units of alcohol I consume every week.

I will do what everyone does, of course, and lie unashamedly. But I confess to a sense of real irritation about this. It seems not to matter nowadays what the colour or complexion of the government is. Ignoring their own rhetoric about small government and big society, policy-makers insist on nannying us.

I don’t want my dentist to take my blood pressure: in any case, my fear will have driven it through the roof. I want the doctor to do it (or the practice nurse: I’m not proud). I don’t want the dentist to issue obesity advice, nor the chiropodist to syringe my ears. I go to the opticians to have my eyes checked, not to have my blood sugar checked. Stop ganging up!

I know, I know. It actually pays us all to be a healthier society. Fewer of us get sick, costing the exchequer less, so the tax burden is reduced. If we are fitter and healthier we’ll live longer, too. I understand why government makes us do up our seat-belts: it saves lives and money. Similarly smoking bans are right and logical (though I’m always amused by the irony of government raking in tax from the cigarettes it tries so hard to put people off).

But I don’t need, and I don’t want, to feel that I’m being checked up on every time I visit anyone or any organisation remotely connected with health. Besides, at my time of life it’s never just checking up: it always involves a telling-off of some sort. You think you’ve hit one target, only to find it’s shifted. So this week the booze limit moved again. 21 units a week, sure, but now there have to be two dry days (and I swear the conversation on the radio started with a proposal for three, which then came down).

Don’t get me wrong. I do agree that government, schools and every influential or educational organisation should promote a healthy lifestyle. And I do, I really do, try to live pretty healthily myself. I’ve run three times a week almost without fail since last September. It’s no use telling me that running is enjoyable, because it isn’t. I puff, and I groan, and I hurt and frankly I’d rather be in bed than getting up early to do it. Nonetheless I do it.

But don’t set the health police onto me at every twist and turn. I claim the right to duck and dive a bit. One can’t be angelic all the time, and self-discipline has its limits.

Now I’ve finished typing this, I wonder if there is a box of those Christmas chocolates left? Just a few won’t count...

 

Why there is trouble brewing for the best drink of the lot

5th January 2012

A guidebook for intrepid female travellers first published in 1889 was reprinted last year. A key tip in Hints to Lady Travellers is that a lady should take her own bath with her. It also advises on how to deal with the attentions of raucous men and warns that, “In the North, and more particularly in the vicinity of the large manufacturing towns, they are sometimes extremely objectionable in manners and conversation and so rough that a gentlewoman will feel singularly out of place among them.” So in Newcastle we wouldn’t have seen readers of that volume down Bigg Market “the neet”. Well, they wouldn’t have fitted in: not carrying their bath with them, at any rate.

What struck me when reading about the book (I was too mean to buy it) was the fact that it has one chapter dedicated entirely to tea, and another to teapots. That’s a proper concentration.

Tea, “the cup that cheers”, is one of the great British institutions. Okay, it comes originally from the Indian subcontinent, and is now grown all over Africa. But that refreshing, sustaining drink, imported and adopted into our culture - and still equally welcome on the move, in the office, at home, at the vicarage tea-party or on the factory floor – has been, for a couple of centuries, quintessentially British.

But it’s under threat.  To be sure, despite the economic gloom our high streets and city centres are nowadays alive with cafés and restaurants, tables spilling out onto pavements and looking more continental year on year. It’s pleasant (though pretty chilly in central Newcastle in early January) for us Brits to stop for a beverage al fresco without having to fly to Las Palmas, Paris or Milan.

Those chains with awnings and pavement tables serve wonderful coffee. A small, aggressive espresso (my choice) will peel the skin off your throat almost as viciously as in Rome or Naples. You can order all the variants: macchiato; frothy cappuccino with chocolate mouse-droppings; latte, real or skinny – and even an Americano, which English-speakers think of as a filter coffee but which Italians regard sneeringly as proper coffee watered down for New Yorkers!

Ask for tea, however, and the picture’s less rosy. Almost without exception those same places fill a cup with boiling water (after which it’s not boiling any more) and invite you to drop a tea-bag in. They may offer a few varieties such as Earl Grey, Darjeeling or English Breakfast, plus a few fruit or peppermint equivalents (but they’re not real teas – don’t get me started!). How can such slick, customer-oriented emporia do one product so well and the other so badly?

I can hear the author of Hints to Lady Travellers turning in his or her grave. The teapot has almost disappeared from the High Street; and loose (leaf) tea is frequently considered the preserve of cranks and weirdos – er, like me.

Good quality tea made in a pot with freshly boiled water is a far better drink. But there’s a ritual involved, too.  Just as the big (preferably Italian) coffee machine whooshes and hisses to work its magic, tea must be allowed to brew in the pot, unhurriedly, before being carefully poured into cup or mug, milk in either first or after, however you choose.

It’s a moment of pause and calm, followed by the pleasure of a subtle, refreshing drink that should have a distinctive taste, according to which variety of tea you’ve made.

They say a family that eats together stays together. Call me sentimental, but I’d like to think that’s also true of a family that shares a friendly teapot. I’m sure Hints to Lady Travellers would agree!

Let’s not lose that great institution. Instead, even amid the cuts and gloom, let’s find the energy and resources to raise at least two cheers for the cup that cheers – and for the pot it comes in.