Thursday 24th April 2014

I don’t know about you, but over the Easter period I did a lot of eating. I guess for our family much of the enjoyment of being together at holiday times focuses on meals around the dining table. We didn’t stint ourselves. Wonderful Northumbrian beef, fresh and smoked fish from Swallow’s in Seahouses, all particular favourites, were relished and washed down with some decent wine.

Regular readers will know that I love my food and drink: all too much, indeed. As a result I wage a constant and generally losing battle with my expanding waistline.

Our daughters, now teachers in their late twenties, often talk about old school friends: who are getting married, starting families, building careers, changing jobs. It’s not always good news, of course. We talked about one daughter’s brilliant school contemporary who entered a high-powered profession after a successful Oxbridge university career but has now been off work for a year with anorexia.

This led to discussion of mental health issues in general (all teachers are concerned about the undoubted rise in mental health difficulties among the young) and eating disorders in particular. Aware of the irony as we enjoyed our convivial family meal, we recalled one case from a time when both our kids were still at school. One of the loveliest, most talented girls in the school took the lead in a school musical aged 14. After a stunning last night on stage she wasn’t seen in school for the next six months: she was in a residential unit dealing with eating disorders.

She managed to beat anorexia and, some 12 years on, is married and a primary school teacher. A happy ending there, one hopes, after several worrying years. Those of us who taught that popular, gifted but afflicted girl reckoned we could trace a link between her bouts of anorexia and her father’s ultimately unsuccessful fight against cancer. Were we reading too much into it? Probably: such complex issues aren’t helped by such amateur psychology.

One factor that helped her through was the proximity of her residential unit to home and school. We could work jointly to help her put her life back together and eventually to thrive as she had before.

These stories come from years ago in a school 200 miles away: probably better that way. Nonetheless as both teacher and school leader I know just how important in-patient beds are to the treatment of eating disorders.

You’ll see where I’m coming to. Regular Journal readers will know that in Newcastle the RVI’s Richardson Eating Disorder Service (REDS) is under threat: currently there are no adult in-patient beds.

It’s not just adolescents who suffer eating disorders: but at any age the support of family, friends (and, where appropriate, school) is vital.  Hospital treatment must be close and available to sufferers. Tyneside and its people need REDS to stay open. Sending adults to Darlington (or to York, Sheffield or Leeds if Darlington’s full) is not a viable alternative.

I generally avoid using my column for campaigning: that’s not its role. But this is important. Government, local and national, and NHS managers, similarly neighbourhood or regional, might give us all kinds of rational and economic reasons for cuts. We know the country is not yet out of the economic woods, though things are improving.

But the public shouldn’t be presented with “no alternative” statements, nor with either/or choices as the people of Newcastle were, a couple of years ago, when told that either arts subsidy had to go or children’s and old people’s services would suffer. Policy-makes sometimes like to preach to us about “hard” decisions: but the offer false choices. They shouldn’t play political games.

Tyneside needs in-patient beds for treating the eating disorders that blight and take lives. I’ve signed the online petition: why don’t you? Just follow this link:

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-the-richardson-eating-disorder-inpatient-service-in-newcastle

 

Thursday 17th April 2014

“It’s time to stop wasting money. Let the pandas go with a degree of dignity. We can’t save every endangered species.”

So pronounced naturalist Chris Packham just at a time when it seems we’re about to start the ritual of waiting with baited breath to see whether Edinburgh Zoo’s pandas manage to procreate successfully. Will they do it? Have they done it? Is she yet? And how can you tell in any case?

I guess that, if they are successful this time, they will become a symbol for a newly independent Scotland: if the vote goes the way of separation, then they’ll be proclaimed some kind of national mascot. You know the sort of thing: Edinburgh pandas couldn’t breed successfully under English rule,  but look what the Scot Nats can do. Edward I eat your heart out.

Given the current furore about pandas, Chris Packham’s apparently dismissive quote is understandable. Perhaps he’s right, you may say. If you are a creature that’s insisted on going up so blind an evolutionary alley that you only live on a particular type of bamboo that doesn’t grow every year and, even when it does, grows only in a tiny area of China which, remote though it is, is constantly being eroded by human development, Ladbrokes wouldn’t give great odds on your survival.

I might have gone along with Chris Packham. Pandas are doomed. Get over it: move on. But I’ve changed my view recently, having learned a new sympathy for endangered species. For I have discovered that I have myself become an at-risk species. It seems I am (or, at least, my ilk is) likely in time to go the same way as the dodo, woolly mammoths, the great moa and the sabre-toothed tiger.

I’ve written about this before, but never with such urgency. I thought people just made fun of my name because it was unusual: now it turns out it’s on a list of at-risk monickers. According to registers of names given at birth, Bernard, along with Arnold and Clarence, is now on the brink of disappearing. It could be worse: Bernard and other names have apparently “fallen in prevalence by 98% since 1905”: add one more per cent and names such as Clifford, Horace, Harold and Norman become “endangered”. Meanwhile Cecil, Rowland and Willie are extinct.

And that’s just the blokes! For the girls, Bertha, Blodwen, Fanny and Gertrude are extinct: Doris, Edna, Ethel and others are endangered; and Ann, Dorothy, Evelyn, Gwendolyn and Irene (and a whole load more) are at risk.

Commentators are having a field day at our expense. India Knight, in The Sunday Times on 6th April, felt that such obsolescent names make “absolutely brilliant names for pets: imagine hamsters called Cecil and Edna, a puppy called Cyril and kittens called Phyllis, Bernard and Evelyn”.

No, no no: I’m not sure that I want my distinguished name to become something of a trendy label for pets. I don’t want to hear exasperated dog-owners yelling “Bernard” in the park. I get enough of that at home! Though I would at least gain some savage pleasure from hoping that the Bernard in question proved a particularly badly behaved, ill-favoured and overweight pooch.

However, I’ve spotted one advantage in being “at risk”: there’s surely money in rarity value. It’s time to cash in. Watch this space: you’ll find me advertising for sale limited-edition, signed copies of the handsome photograph at the top of this column (you’ll notice a new picture has been adopted recently, making me look younger than the last one – which isn’t true, merely a trick of the light – and thinner, which is possibly accurate).

If this wheeze takes off, maybe I could hire myself out as a rarity presence at christenings, bar-mitzvahs and the openings of supermarkets.

Now I think of it, perhaps I’ve finally achieved celebrity status.

Need a Bernard? Buy now while stocks last.


Thursday 10th April 2014

When I was a boy, I used to enjoy reading Billy Bunter stories. The so-called “Fat Owl of the Remove” (how politically incorrect that is now, making fun of a fat boy!) was a schoolboy character created by Frank Richards (real name Charles Hamilton) who holds the record as the most prolific writer ever. Between 1910 and the Second World War, he knocked out some 50,000 words a week for The Magnet and The Gem, comics my parents’ generation grew up with.

I pick them up whenever I come across a reproduction or even an original on a bookstall, and still laugh out loud. Let me offer some reassurance: no school I’ve worked in or run bears any resemblance to Greyfriars. And even the scariest teacher I’ve known was but a pale imitation of Greyfriars’s fearsome Mr Quelch in gown and mortarboard, cane constantly twitching in his hand.

 “In matters of food,” Richards would write, “Billy Bunter was a Bolshevik”. Hopelessly addicted to sweet things, he grabbed and wolfed down everything he could. Questioned under Quelch’s “gimlet eye”, he was a hopeless liar. He’d protest: “I didn’t take the cake, sir! Besides, I wasn’t even there when I ate it!” It always ended the same way, Quelch’s cane imprinting itself on Bunter’s over-filled trouser bottom.

You’ll have guessed where I’m going with this: I’m talking about 32-second apologies. Kathryn Hudson, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, recommended that Culture Secretary Maria Miller should repay around £44,000 in money she had over-claimed for the mortgage on her second home which allowed her (but apparently also her parents) to live in London as well as in her constituency.

However, Hudson was not backed by the Commons Standards Committee which comprises 10 MPs and three non-voting (!) lay members. It ignored her recommendation, and instead instructed Miller to repay just £5,800 and apologise to The Commons.

Miller’s apology was at best perfunctory. Public opinion was outraged. This week Miller bowed to the pressure and resigned. She’d have gained more credit it if she’d gone sooner.

But that isn’t the end of the fallout. Sir Ian Kennedy, who chairs the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, has been highly critical of the whole episode. Against most expectations in Westminster, he now has to apply for his own job which is up for renewal in November: apparently Speaker John Bercow insists.

It’s not for me to suggest that the advertisement of Sir Ian’s job last Sunday is a consequence of his criticism of the Commons’ enthusiasm for self-regulation rather than opening up to proper scrutiny. He commented, “MPs marking their own homework always ends in scandal”. Another school metaphor there.

Kennedy suggests MPs should pay themselves better and cut back on the expenses: only that way will honesty and clarity be achieved. But Parliament, terrified of the press and of public opinion (which rarely bothers it otherwise), hasn’t the nerve.

This mess dates all the way back to Margaret Thatcher who refused to allow a sensible pay rise for MPs. And the solution? They were encouraged instead to claim anything and everything they could on expenses. It’s gone on ever since.

I’ve no especial brief for MPs, but their dislocated role, split between constituency and London, is both expensive and demanding: until we pay them a salary that reflects the difficulties, the Commons will still be dominated by wealthy people coming from lucrative jobs in the City or living off inherited income.

These rich boys (mostly) will continue to puff and posture sanctimoniously about not taking pay rises: they might sack Kennedy for rattling their cage; they’ll hold MPs’ pay down; they’ll cynically, laughably, regulate their own behaviour; and fiddling expenses will continue.

They want to have their cake and eat it. Perhaps, like Billy Bunter, they need a Mr Quelch to police cake-related matters. Sadly, those wilful parliamentary schoolboys don’t want him, and won’t have him.

Cripes! Yaroo!


Thursday 3rd April 2014

One benefit of being a columnist is that it furnishes me with ample opportunities for smugness when I’m proved right. Last week I suggested we’ll only win the fight against obesity through moderation and self-control since we aren’t helped by all the contradictory health advice issued.

As if in response, Tuesday brought new guidance that is, if not contradictory, sure to complicate life. Those five portions of fruit and vegetables a day are no longer enough: now we need seven, principally vegetables. 

There’s only so much broccoli I can face. Actually, We Traffords eat a lot of veg, and it’s a rare day we don’t start and finish with fruit. But seven?

That challenge reminded me the last time, some years ago, it was declared that five portions weren’t enough: we were urged to consume a staggering nine. I came across a colleague looking bleakly at a banana. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “I thought you liked bananas”.

“I do, or at least I did”, he responded. “But this is my third banana today. I can’t stand much more!”

Last week saw an announcement bizarre in both form and delivery. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay’s Chris Martin told the world they’re splitting up, but not through a press release, nor on Twitter. It was semi-concealed somewhere in the pages of Paltrow’s lifestyle advice website.

I suspect most of us can live our lives without worrying about the Paltrow/Martin relationship: but the startling wording they used, that they’re “consciously uncoupling”, has given rise to speculation.

Is it just a euphemism? Or is it some kind of New Age philosophical reconstruction of marital dissolution in which the couple still hold the strongest feelings for one another (in which case one wonders why they need to separate at all).

If consciously uncoupling is hard to get one’s head round, wags in the North-East have been wondering whether it has anything to do with “unconsciously coupling”, which is the sort of thing one might expect to see very late at night in Newcastle’s Bigg Market.

That unattractive mental image was forced on us this week by no less a figure than the Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal, Philip Bernays, leading the charge in opposition to a licence application for two Grey Street bars to serve alcohol till 2.00 am: worse, the basement under the new Harry’s Bar may want to stage nude dancing.

It’s not prudishness fuelling the opposition: Mr Bernays says his staff already have enough vomit and other mess to clear up from their elegant 18th Century steps in the morning, without late drinking right opposite adding to it.

I see his point. Moreover, while I’m no prude, I do have a problem with so-called gentlemen’s clubs where blokes (whom I picture as overpaid, overweight and distinctly seedy) sit drinking while a naked girl gyrates in front of them. I haven’t space here to go into the whole issue of sexism and the exploitation of women, but  I’ve never been in such a club, and I don’t intend to: I’m at least true to my principles.

I guess a free country must permit such places if all the parties are willing and no one’s abused. But the stately surroundings of Grey Street, genuinely a jewel in the city’s crown and a feature of which any city would be proud, shouldn’t be home to such ventures.

Nor should they suffer the brawling and puking that too often accompany excessive late-night drinking. I don’t think I’m being a misery or pretentious if I claim that an architectural gem should be the preserve of businesses (including restaurants and bars) that fit its ambience and the ambitions of those who built it.

Call me an old git, but I believe we should do better: Grey Street deserves better. Perhaps we need to think about “consciously uncoupling” architectural elegance from licensed seediness. I do hope we can.


 

Contradictory advice can be bad for your health

Thursday 27th March 2014

How many times have I complained in this column about the contradictory advice we receive, especially about health? They’re at it again. During the past week opposing bodies of medics have been arguing about statins. Millions of us (not me, yet) take them to lower our cholesterol levels and avert heart disease or stroke. That makes sense.

Except the camp opposed to statins is alarmed about side-effects. I share that fear, for no coherent reason. I dislike taking more pills than absolutely necessary to keep blood pressure, cholesterol or everything else under control.

I’m a biddable patient, and go along with what my excellent NHS GP tells me. But we can’t leave it all to doctors. Our ups and downs in health and weight are influenced not by prescriptions but by the day-to-day choices we make. And all these contradictions make such decisions a lot more difficult.

We’ve all known for years that saturated fats are bad for us. These killers create the wrong kind of cholesterol (yes, apparently there are right and wrong kinds). But now experts are claiming we actually need saturated fats in our diet: it’s not good for us to live entirely on Flora and other polyunsaturates.

Meanwhile red meat, that other deadly substance, a source not only of heart attacks but allegedly also of cancer, has gained a clean bill of health too. I guess it’s only a matter of time before bacon (you’ll remember when processed meats were pronounced bad for us) also gets the thumbs-up:  then we can go back to a good old diet of white bread and dripping, fried breakfasts, and two-pounder steaks Florentine with chips cooked in animal fat.

How can we hope to pick our way through the labyrinth of conflicting food advice? Yet find it we must: we’re sitting on a societal time-bomb, storing up self-inflicted health problems for our ever-lengthening old age. Obesity has assumed plague proportions: we’re a nation of wobblies, waddling from chip-shop to pie-shop and producing children who weigh 20 stone at age seven.

Health authorities are advocating the use of text messages to counter this disastrous trend and encourage sensible eating. My fellow columnist Keith Hann suggests such texts should simply read, “Oi, fatty! Put that burger down!”

We’re useless at helping ourselves: but it’s the only way that can work. I’m weak-willed and love my food. Yet I know (as even hearty eaters are starting to understand) that wonder diets, slimming pills, fasting days or even gastric bands aren’t going to do the trick for me. What I need is to develop self-control so that I make better decisions from day to day.

I like a bit of butter, though I usually stick to margarine. I love a juicy steak, but nowadays eat it with veg, not chips. I’m far from virtuous: but maybe I’m finally becoming realistic.

There never was much wrong with red meat, but there was always a problem in eating too much of it: it’s excess that does the damage. If we lose control and splurge one day, we have to take the pain the next in order to restore that elusive, healthy balance.

There’s some good news. If we stop claiming that one foodstuff or another is a killer: lurching from one faddy diet to another; kidding ourselves that we must live like pre-civilisation hunter-gatherers, berry-eating bears, or mermaids; if we truly strive for moderation, we will win the battle.

But the last word lies, inevitably, with my dad, now 93. Some years ago, while Mum was still baking, we visited for a proper “granny tea”. As I reached for the homemade scones, Dad asked if I’d seen this new cholesterol-reducing spread. “Marvellous stuff,” he said. “We use it all the time.”

I questioned an octogenarian’s need to watch his cholesterol, but offered him the tub anyway. “No thanks, old boy,” he replied. “Scones require clotted cream!”


Thursday 20th March 2014

You read it here first. It’s clear I’m becoming some kind of prophet, at least when it comes to unfolding world events. Only a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the fecklessness of so many men: among other symptoms I talked about small-man (or Napoleon) syndrome, that condition where males who lack physical stature are driven to become overbearing, driven, aggressive, even megalomaniacal.

Now it transpires that the current holder of the title of Worst Strutting Aggressor, Vladimir Putin, is indeed a short man. So, too, was Stalin. What do both Russian leaders have in common? Apart from cosy relationships with the KGB, they have both behaved disgracefully in Crimea. Stalin deported and committed genocide against hundreds of thousands of Tatars. Putin hasn’t done anything so drastic, but has engineered a dodgy referendum whereby Crimea is now set to become part of Russia.

This may suit the many Crimeans who have strong links to Russia; but it’s unlikely to please the estimated 650,000 Tatars who have lived peacefully in their native Crimea since democracy triumphed there in the 1990s. For them, the old enemy has returned and taken over.

Is the moral, then, to beware small men, especially when possessed of awesome power? No: what nonsenses we create when we over-generalise! It’s not about small men: there are plenty of tall dictators and despots, Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, Muammar al-Gaddafi, to name but three. Power-hungry, crazed and wicked such monsters may be, but that condition’s not necessarily connected to their height!

I finished my column two weeks ago by urging us men to get the hell out of politics and leave things to women, because they’re much more sensible. But I've since discovered some women are touchy about such comments.

Facebook’s female Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, is surely the embodiment of glass-ceiling smashers: she’s impressive holding such a senior job in a mega-organisation. But she’s become sensitive about the way high-achieving women like her are frequently dubbed bossy. She’s launched a website, banbossy.com, persuading famous women (ranging from Beyoncé to Condoleezza Rice), in the website’s words, to “take the pledge”.

Urrgh!

The accusation is that we men use the term “bossy” to put down and generally undermine any ambitious or relatively successful woman. She reckons that calling little girls “bossy” puts them off wanting to assert themselves. No one likes a bossy girl, they say.

I take issue with this. I confess that my wife and I, when our daughters were young, both laughed about how bossy they were. Some might observe that they’re both teachers now: perhaps it was inevitable that their genes programmed them towards bossiness, and bossiness led to that career choice.

But I don’t buy the bossiness theory. Plenty of men are bossy too. I am, for one: being bossy is what I do for a living. Only that’s not quite true. I am the boss, but spend most of my time attempting to avoid appearing bossy. Most people in a senior position, male or female, do the same, if they have any sense: better to use empathy and lead by consensus than seek to obtain results by yelling at people.

Moreover, in any group of people there’s a mix of personalities: that’s what you want. There are the group members who want to roll their sleeves up and get things organised. Others will wait to follow their lead. Others again will be negotiators, planners, fixers. 

We need the bossy one who gets things moving: and it makes no difference whether it’s a man or a woman. The job must be done, and action needs to be instigated.

To be sure, plenty of inadequate males are intimidated by assertive and effective women. So be it: let them be intimidated! 

It's their problem. We need leader personalities in all walks of life: and if lots of them (the majority?) are women, so much the better.


Are you even listening?

Thursday 13th March 2014

I have a colleague who, when he hears people speaking (particularly in public), likes to talk about their “noise to signal ratio”. In other words, how much of all that verbiage actually conveys a useful message?

I used to think he was over-critical: now I think it’s a fair observation. But then, it’s not all about what people are saying. As important is the extent to which their audience listens. And, even when they do, how much do they take in?

There was sound good sense in what used to be described as the traditional Methodist sermon. The plan goes like this: tell them what you are going to say; then say it; then tell them what you’ve just said. It’s like the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark who avers: “What I say three times is true”.

Neither scheme is as daft as it sounds: repetition helps get your point across and persuades listeners to take notice of your argument.

Noise is distracting: speakers themselves need to avoid distracting their audience from their main point by adding extraneous elements. Even one to one, such interference can be problematic.

I spent last weekend with my nonagenarian parents. My mum, now 92, asked if I thought she was going deaf: “They’ve given me this hearing aid, but I’m not sure I need it. I can hear you perfectly well without it.”

I responded that, as the youngest of five children who always fought to make himself heard who now frequently addresses large numbers of people, it wasn’t surprising that she could hear me. How did I compare when she turned the hearing aid on?

“You’re just the same, dear, only louder,” she replied.

Anyone in a management or leadership position must share my periodic doubts as to whether anyone is listening to anything I say: laudable humility and self-questioning are topped up with a measure of pathetic insecurity. I’m sometimes tempted to walk around with a megaphone in hand in the hope that people might then take notice of what I’m saying.

It’s important to keep messages clear, whether or not the hearing is good. Mum and I had a hilarious misunderstanding which had to do with neither her hearing nor her extreme age. I was talking about “the way ahead”: she thought I was describing a means of measuring the weight of school leaders. It was a pardonable error: moreover, at the time she was probably trying to persuade me to have a third slice of cake.

If only people would listen! Look at the state of the world, at the non-conversations by telephone between Presidents Putin and Obama. World leaders and international bodies are posturing, pronouncing, making an awful lot of noise: but is anyone paying attention to anyone else?

While all generate chaff, Russia continues to act in disregard of every international convention. While Ukraine/Crimea is unable to decide what or who it is, we should worry that everyone’s talking and no one’s listening: so many pronouncements, so few of any value or even sincere. Despite the rhetoric and the shouting, there’s no progress. I fear for our world: these events serve to demonstrate just how fragile is the peace that prevails in Europe, and in so much of the globe.

So much noise, so much distraction.

Every Monday morning I hold a short meeting with all my staff to brief them on what’s happening in the week. For some reason I can’t fathom, the moment I start speaking a leaf-blower invariably starts up outside the window. To be sure, it’s good to have the premises kept tidy and free of fallen leaves: but the timing is unfortunate.

Indeed, only the other day I heard a colleague comment, “You know, all that puffing, blowing and hot air are really off-putting: I just can’t hear the leaf-blower!”

 

Short shrift for hairless lips

Thursday 6th March 2014

How hopeless we men are! I’m not talking about the geopolitical messes we make of things, although in face of multiple conflicts worldwide it’s tempting to note that all the leaders of warring factions are indeed male.


No. The source of this latest despair for my unfortunate gender stems from closer to home. Recent research by Oxford University claims to demonstrate that “short man syndrome” (popularly known as the Napoleon complex) is real, not just a wheeze invented by tall people. It can make some such people (mercifully not all) “paranoid, distrustful, and scared of others”.


Other studies have even claimed that men who are about 5ft 4in are 50% more likely to be jealous and distrustful of their partners than those who are 6’ 6”. Since I’m roughly half-way between the two heights, I’m not sure where that leaves me.


We all know someone who suffers from short man syndrome: in the workplace at least, their subordinates secretly suffer from it too. On the other hand, I’ve known many colleagues and some very close friends who fall below the average male height of 5’ 9”, are unaffected and can even joke about it: the ability to laugh at themselves generally indicates that they have no problem with it: and they’re first-rate people.


That makes me query whether Napoleon complex sufferers are actually affected by their height: perhaps the syndrome is just something we attribute to people who are aggressive and overbearing and would have been the same whatever their height. Trouble is, we can’t test that theory.


I wouldn’t bother to mention this but for the fact that last week saw another story that serves to demonstrate a widespread lack of confidence and self-esteem amongst men. It came from across the Atlantic, as such things often seem to. And it’s all about men and their desire (or even need) to grow beards.


Maybe it started with Movember. Since someone had the bright idea of getting men sponsored to grow a moustache in aid of Prostate Cancer UK there have been many unsightly hairy things creeping across top lips during that month, all in a good cause. I’ve never felt the need to join Movember: but then, I know that my moustache, let alone any attempt at a beard, would be a feeble and largely transparent affair.


That doesn’t worry me. But it seems high-flying executives in Brooklyn, let alone further afield, are nowadays desperate to sport a beard. Plastic surgeons, far from filling their appointment books with facelifts and Botox injections for women, are nowadays concentrating on hair transplants to chins so that hairless men can become hirsute and macho, emulating (I’m told) Indie bands or famous actors.


I’m probably as vain as the next inadequate male. Certainly I’m unhappy that the picture the editor insists on using at the top of this column was taken when I had some two or three chins more than I possess nowadays.


I have a fine head of hair, so don’t fear baldness, and I wage an ineffectual on/off war against the flab. But I can’t say I’m concerned about my inability to grow a successful moustache or beard. As for spending money to achieve that end, either I’m too mean or those would-be beardies are plain daft.


It’s important not to extrapolate one small piece of dodgy research into a global generalisation. Some people feel inadequate because they’re short or can’t grow a beard: but they’re not necessarily the guys who find themselves running countries, and end up starting wars or creating the political tensions that currently bedevil the world.


Nonetheless, given that we men are clearly so inept and so prone to developing deep personality defects, maybe it’s time for us just to stay at home, mind the kids (if we can be trusted with them) and leave women to run the world.


It just might become a safer place.


Thursday 27th February 2014 

I have vivid memories of the night of Friday 9th November 1989. The world changed for me. Around 5.00 pm that day I was offered a school headship, my first.


At the back of a teacher’s ambition lies that desire to make a difference, to make the world a better place. Suddenly I had that opportunity to expand the scope of my vocation.


Family and friends celebrated, and phone calls were coming in: nonetheless we had an eye on other news. We interrupted the partying to watch the Berlin Wall come down – live on television.


Like a house of cards the old repressive Russian communist empire was collapsing. Massive demonstrations took place in the capitals and major cities of the former Soviet bloc. Mercifully limited bloodshed marked what the former Czechoslovakia called the Velvet Revolution before the old regimes realised that the game was up and relinquished power.

 

They were heady times. I was facing a new challenge at the same time as the world seemed to be shaking off tyranny and looking forward to new freedoms, to justice, to democracy for all.


Let’s be honest: there was some unpleasant if understandable settling of old scores. On Christmas Day 1989 Romania’s new government put former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife against a wall and shot them. Yet, despite the terror and torture that had been carried out by Communist secret police forces for so many years, in most countries such retribution was fairly limited.


By contrast the Balkan States descended into vicious civil war: a new term was coined, “ethnic cleansing”: atrocities were widespread. The UN sent in peacekeepers, but too few: too late to prevent massacres which are still the subject of trials in The International Court of Justice at The Hague.


Five months earlier, in June 1989, students had gathered in vast numbers in Tiananmen Square in Beijing: but there a vicious government crackdown ended protests despite the heroism of the single protestor (his identity remains uncertain to this day) who stood in front of the column of tanks rolling into the square.


In the quarter-century since then China has modernised in many ways: but grave concerns remain about human rights and lack of freedom of speech.


My spirits soared to see events transpire in the Ukraine last week. People-power once again toppled an undoubtedly corrupt presidency. It seems people can still end oppression by taking to the streets even as government snipers open fire on them, willing martyrs to the cause of freedom.


I’m not as starry eyed as I used to be, however. The Ukraine is another of those intrinsically divided countries. People in the East of Ukraine cherish and cling to hopes of close links with Moscow: those in the West lean towards Europe. Will those tensions be resolved, or simply breed violence?


In recent years we’ve witnessed the Arab Spring: further south in Africa, the creation of the new state of South Sudan. The Central African Republic was released only some twenty years ago from a dreadful dictatorship: but in all three, democratic peace has given way to religious or ethnic conflict.


Maybe it takes more than even hundreds of thousands of brave, principled people taking to the streets to achieve lasting democracy and justice. My heart goes out to those who’ve died in the Ukraine: I hope and pray that the nation finds a peaceful and prosperous way forward.


There’s little we ordinary Brits can do to help, except to press our leaders to use international bodies and coalitions to persuade other nations (such as Russia) to desist from pressure or intervention. And they need to ensure that the UN is ready and clearly mandated to send in peacekeepers when necessary.


It would be tragic if yet another reborn country’s high hopes were to turn swiftly to bloodshed and misery. Yet, for all my long-held, hopeful democratic idealism, I fear it might.

Thursday 20th February 2014

Two stories in last week’s news represented medical breakthroughs, though in powerfully different ways.

First, it was intriguing to read of Newcastle-based consultant orthopaedic surgeon Craig Gerrand using a 3D printer to make half a pelvis to replace the portion lost to cancer by a 60-year-old patient. This represents an awesome advance in the application of new technology.

When it was first developed, I’m sure we called this clever machine a 3D copier. It copies (“prints”) any object, creating the replica out of whatever materials you choose: the new pelvis was created from powdered titanium.

Of course, there have also been 3D printer horror stories. It appears you can use a fairly basic device (probably only £2000 to £3000-worth) to build a gun. By contrast this life-saving, rather than murderous, Newcastle-based application is reassuring.

Hitherto heavy users of conventional copier-printers have been waiting, fascinated, to see how the new 3D copier/printer would change office life. Schools, for example, print millions of pages per year. Many subjects don’t use a traditional printed textbook nowadays: they buy or create printable resources and children stagger around school under weighty bags filled with files containing all the paper their teachers hand out.

As a result, printers create pressure-points in a school. Teachers are collegial and easy-going creatures, except when fighting over the single functioning copier. The tension is palpable when the main machine breaks down. As for the fury caused when a teacher needs “just a few copies for next lesson” but discovers a technician running off a thousand copies of the head’s letter to parents - I leave that to your imagination.

I wonder whether the medical team at Newcastle encounters similar difficulties with its 3D printer? It took seven hours to build that new pelvis: what happens when, at 6 hours 57 minutes, some fool slips in and presses the stop button in order to print off a quick couple of copies of something? The resultant howls of anguish would, I suspect, eclipse all ever seen in a school print room.

And what about the other office idiot (you know who you are!) who accidentally programmes it to make 100 copies? The machine will churn away for a month, wasting as much titanium is it would take to rebuild the Starship Enterprise. This lofty technical speculation threatens to do my head in, so I’ll move to the other medical story.

It was charming to hear of a doctor in one of the many flooded parts of the country who, having lost his surgery to the waters, set up business in the upstairs room of a pub. Customers wait downstairs, courtesy of the landlord, and can buy tea and coffee. This sounds distinctly more congenial than the usual surgery queue.

The GP in question, interviewed on the radio, warned listeners that there’s a lot of flood-stress about. If my living room were awash I’m certain I’d be far from relaxed. But this innovative doctor’s just one step short of a stroke of genius.

Who needs Valium when instead, awaiting your appointment, you can down a couple of pints of the soothing amber liquid? It might not do much to solve the looming national obesity crisis: but such “appintments” could save the NHS a load of medicines. Moreover, a sociable beer might be more congenial and more effective than pills popped in private.

It’s clear that the titanium pelvis is a medical advance that will really go places: I think I’ve outlined a solution in pub-based patient care, too. But one question continues to nag at my mind.

When we all have 3D printers (they’re appearing in schools and workplaces as I write), what’s going to happen at the Christmas office party? You know you’re wondering about it, too, so don’t pretend.  I keep picturing that Christmas-party prank when the office junior photocopies his/her bottom.

The 3D equivalent is frankly too horrific to contemplate.


 

Immigration Minister shows rare example of decency

 

Thursday 13th February 2014

 

“Minister takes honourable course and bows out.” There’s a headline you don’t often see! But it’s actually happened: Immigration Minister Mark Harper resigned at the weekend after admitting that he had been employing a cleaner who was in Britain illegally.

Harper hadn’t broken any laws: he’d been misled about the woman’s right to live and work in Britain. In fact, it’s clear that he went to quite some lengths over the years to check that his employee did have the right to work here. But he wasn’t sufficiently thorough, and got it wrong. Feeling that, as Immigration Minister, he should live up to higher standards than the rest of us, he decided to do the honourable thing and tendered his resignation.

Well done, then, Mark Harper, a rare example in our modern political world of someone having the decency to fall on their sword when they’ve got something wrong. He’s covered himself in glory of sorts, rather more glory indeed than the political heavyweights seen in considerable numbers in the last few days, but rather too late, paddling around in their wellies, making sympathetic noises about those flooded out of their homes and farms and, in rare cases, finally declaring that they are going to do something about it.

Until now most people in charge of floods and the environment have demonstrated all the effectiveness of a chocolate teapot. It remains to be seen whether the Environment Agency will get around to dredging rivers in order to reduce flood risks, and not just in the south: last Friday’s columnist, David Banks, claimed Northumberland’s Till river is almost as much in need of dredging as the Somerset rivers: it certainly floods much of the farmland in the Milfield Plain.

The Immigration Minister’s resignation raises questions. Clearly a busy man such as Mark Harper wasn’t as thorough as he might have been. Does that put him at fault? I’m not convinced it does. For goodness sake, it was one cleaner, a pretty informal arrangement!

New, tougher immigration laws will place additional obligations on employers and landlords to complete immigration checks. What’s new? Over the past 20 to 30 years governments of all colours have deftly passed on countless jobs to employers rather than carrying out their own checks. Schools, factories, businesses of all kinds, shapes and sizes nowadays deal with an enormous regulatory burden.

Many resent this. They’re doing the government’s job for it, at their considerable expense. Just to cope with that imposition, many medium-sized employers now retain full-time compliance officers in order to produce the government-required paperwork. It adds nothing to their business: neither creates additional employment nor increases the profit margin; generates no more revenue.

I run an organisation that on its scale might be classed as an SME. Like other CEOs running businesses of all sorts and sizes I watch in dismay as lazy government shrewdly cuts its administrative costs by shoving the tasks onto us: it passes the buck, with frequently fearsome penalties if we fail to meet its requirement and deadlines.

If middle-sized employers find it a burden, how can small business keep up? It’s bad enough for a small retailer trying to keep on top of the VAT returns (still, it all makes work for accountants), without getting tied up in immigration checks. We need shopkeepers selling things: schools focussing on teaching; service providers delivering services; manufacturers making stuff. Government does a great job of distracting us from our core purposes.

As for the individual who may employ a single cleaner, Mark Harper is an example to us all: not in his rare and honourable behaviour, but in the fact that the ex-minister is one of us. He’s proved himself an ordinary bloke who couldn’t handle the tiresome paper-chase on top of a busy day job.

To err is human. Just for once, an errant politician has demonstrated his humanity. Good for him.


 

Anger flooding in for Environment Agency chairman

 

Thursday 6th February 2014

 

Poor old Chris (Lord) Smith! The Environment Agency chairman was bound to become as unpopular as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson when he dared to pronounce on the prolonged problems of flooding around the country.

Responding to criticism of the Agency’s earlier decision not to dredge rivers in Somerset, he said: “Flood defences cost money; and how much should the taxpayer be prepared to spend on different places, communities and livelihoods – in Somerset, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire or East Anglia? There’s no bottomless purse, and we need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect.”

Fair point, you might say. We can’t afford to do everything. And, alas, we can’t turn the clock back: if we could, we might have avoided some pitfalls, such as building housing developments on floodplains.

Hold on! It’s easy to be awfully reasonable, say choices are difficult and insist we can’t pay for everything. But there’s a heavy tax burden for anyone in reasonably or well-paid work in the UK: and we all pay council tax as well. Many would feel they pay a hell of a lot, and might justifiably expect more from their taxes.

I don’t know the ins and outs of drainage. Nonetheless it does seem pretty clear that, had the Environment Agency kept all those banked rivers and drainage channels around the Somerset levels properly dredged and clear of silt, the flooding would have been less severe.

Centuries ago people knew what they were doing when they built houses near rivers. Look at the aerial pictures of Muchelney in Somerset: it’s a mediaeval village with a fine old abbey, built on a hill above the floodplains. So (as far as I know) it hasn’t actually been flooded: its problem is being cut off from the rest of the world for more than a month because every connecting road is impassable, except by boat.

Meanwhile farmers there can only sit and watch in impotent fury as their crops rot beneath the waters. I can appreciate why they’re cross.

Governments have to make hard decisions: they always say, as Chris Smith reiterated, that money’s limited. They will inevitably take Smith’s proposed option of choosing town over country, putting the money for flood prevention where greater numbers of people are affected.

That makes mathematical sense. Government can afford to overlook the countryside: there isn’t the density of population (or of votes), so statisticians will talk about value for money, relative expenditure per head of (sparse) population. On such measures the countryside will always lose out.

But doesn’t that view value some people as more important, more deserving of help, than others? If it does, that seems to me to undermine the whole principle of an egalitarian, democratic society which claims to look after its less fortunate members.

We all like to criticise our local councils: providing our services, they furnish endless reasons for moaning. But when Northumberland and Durham alike are so short of cash that they sell off their administrative centres for housing: when Newcastle’s leader feels obliged to present unacceptable cuts on a stark “no alternative” platform; when all government appears able to do for flooded parts of the country is too little, too late, we might be forgiven for wondering (a) whether Westminster has any kind of grip and (b) whether it gives a damn about anywhere more than an hour from the seat of power.

Yes, we in the provinces might feel we have good reason to despair of government.

As for Lord Smith, his less-than-tactful comments have attracted a storm of criticism. He’s now under attack for holding down 11 jobs in total (be fair: not all of them are paid!).

You know, if my crops were ruined or I still had two feet of water in my living-room after a month, I too might be questioning whether Smith had really been focused on his job.


Thursday 30th January 2014

We’re all living longer: that’s beyond doubt. I see myself as part of the generation leading the way. Both my parents are still going strong in their 90s, making me an insurance salesman’s dream. Sadly, though, even if I could command low premiums, I could only collect on life insurance by popping my clogs: I’m far from ready to do that.

Projections of longevity from Public Health England’s Life Expectancy at Birth report are startling, though I’m not sure how the conclusions were reached. Apparently a baby girl in Cramlington (yes, Cramlington) has a life expectancy of 105 years: the highest in the UK. It beats Basingstoke which managed a mere 104.3. I confess that, despite my passion for the North East, Cramlington’s a place I don’t know. One of my work colleagues, who lives there, assures me I haven’t missed anything: maybe that’s just the usual self-deprecation of a native.

As for Basingstoke, that town’s always had its detractors: not as seriously as nearby Slough, of course, which has never recovered from John Betjeman’s famous poem, “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough”. Basingstoke features in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, Ruddigore: Sir Despard Murgatroyd uses the name to soothe his wife, Mad Margaret, whenever she’s about to relapse into madness.

105 years is an impossibly long time to look ahead. Frankly, I wonder if the human race will still exist by 2119. There are two reasons for feeling gloomy about that. The first is our track record of war, genocide and atrocity. I’ll start with that.

Monday was Holocaust Memorial Day. Schools are rightly inundated by information about it. I can’t imagine many institutions failed to mark it. A colleague at my school ended a thought-provoking Assembly by deploring the fact that there was comparatively little about the Holocaust in the newspapers. It seems we’re keen to remind children in schools how such global-scale killing can take place, but there’s not much of an adult media market in it.

My colleague expressed disgust that infinitely more space was given in the papers last weekend to Justin Bieber, the 19-year-old singing superstar who raced his hired Ferrari at twice the speed limit. Poor Justin! In contrast to his near-contemporary Miley Cyrus, whose outrageous twerking antics have successfully established her as A Very Naughty Girl, Justin’s attempts to break out were somewhat mild. To be sure, it’s unclear what he’d drunk or smoked, but he only reached 55 mph in a road that his dad had thoughtfully closed off for his illegal car race.

I’ve no brief for Justin Bieber: frankly, I’m not really his target audience.  I think he’s rather spoilt and regard his coining of the term “beliebers” for his followers as tacky at best, arrogant at worst. But I don’t think he’s seriously off the rails.

Nonetheless, my colleague’s point stands, a second reason for being pessimistic about the future. Why more column inches for Bieber than for commemoration of arguably the greatest evil in human history? Humanity doesn’t even learn the lessons: the rest of the weekend’s news was full of the torture, wrongful imprisonment and mass killings in Syria: police shooting protestors in Kiev; oh, and more deaths in Afghanistan. So it goes on.

As I said at the start, I’ve nothing against Cramlington: I wish that baby girl (whoever she is) 105 years of health and happiness there. But it’s far too long a timescale to predict positively.

Given the human predilection for carnage, ethnic cleansing, massacre and man-made pestilence, it won’t be plain sailing. Moreover, wind-power will be proved not to work: Government still won’t have made up its mind about nuclear power; so the lights will be going out pretty regularly. Oh, and HS2 still won’t have arrived in the North East.

To borrow an old joke I’ve used before: she may not live to 105, but it’ll probably seem like it.

 

Why should you put faith in the unfaithful?

 

Thursday 23rd January 2014

 

“Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which prime ministers have never yet been invested.” Thus Winston Churchill, who knew all about the exercise of power. A passionate democrat, he’s nonetheless not famed in history as being great on consultation. His unparalleled record as war leader is one of holding together a nation and commonwealth: but he ran a very small war cabinet. In peacetime he was less successful.

I’m sure he employed the term “headmaster” knowingly. Female equivalents, much as all women in senior positions, tend to operate differently! In truth I’ve never felt the awesome power Churchill attributes to my job. On the contrary, I’ve spent a couple of decades being told I can’t change things I want to, the educational equivalent of Yes, Minister.

Every now and then, though, events make me ponder the nature of power, and of powerful people. Take French President François Hollande. He’s in trouble, discovered by the French magazine Closer carrying on an affair with an actress, Julie Gayet, behind the back of his First Lady, Valerie Trierweiler.

Is she the First Lady? She’s not his wife, nor the mother of his children (that’s his ex-wife). Some wags are suggesting the title, First Lady, means in France simply the one at the front of the queue. Besides, now he’s announced he doesn’t even want a First Lady.

Understandably there’s been a furore. We Brits, mocked in France for our lack of interest in sex and our censorious approach to peccadillos which most other nationalities would applaud in a man, have been surprised by French press reaction. We might have expected the French media to take a line equivalent to the Australian expression, “Good on yer, mate!” After all, the Gallic temperament loves a dose of romance, a bit of dash, a sniff of wickedness.

But no. France has been critical, for several reasons.

First, Hollande is unpopular. They just don’t like him.

Second, he’s boring. Possessed of a charisma-bypass, wooden-faced he squandered any chance he might have had of laughing off the situation with a mixture of humour and nudge-and-a-wink. Worse, he made the mistake of refusing to make any comment, attempting instead to bore a press conference into submission with a weighty pronouncement on the economy.

Third, and most damning, he drove to his girlfriend’s on one of those naff three-wheeled scooters. And wore a helmet.

Uncool. National leaders can do many things and get away with it, but looking silly isn’t one of them.

I feel sorry for Valerie Trierweiler: she’s reportedly seriously depressed. But are we nowadays so inured to politicians’ peccadillos that we overlook the one big question, l’éléphant dans la salle? Are we?

I’m not, so I’ll ask it. Why should a country trust as its leader a man who can’t be faithful to his wife – sorry, girlfriend, whatever. Call me old-fashioned, but I reckon someone proved untrustworthy in one major aspect of his life has forfeited credibility in the rest of it. Particularly when it involves something as big as, well, running a country.

Churchill exercised rather more power than he claimed. The free world at war depended on him. Now, admittedly you wouldn’t have trusted him to be sober 24/7: but I’m certain no one caught him cheating on Lady C.  

I confess I have a problem with Holland’s infidelity. Were I a French citizen, he’d have just lost my vote.

Two final questions, then, with relevance to the truly powerful, to people who head countries or massive corporations and similarly indulge in extra-marital affairs.

First, how do they find the time?

Second, where do they get the energy from?

Someone enlighten me, please. Answers on a postcard: I’ll read them when safely, predictably at home with my first (and only) wife, sipping our cocoa.  No scooters for us, no special deliveries of croissants. Just cocoa.

Arguably rather dull: but honest. That’s surely worth something.


 

Acts of ‘war’ becoming more shocking

 

Thursday 16th January 2014

 

It’s a media rule that, to grab people’s attention, you need to shock. I don’t think the BBC’s been deliberately rattling our cages, but numerous recent news bulletins have issued warnings before running reports on a variety of atrocities.

They say one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. But there are times when acts of “war” become outrages, barbaric and unacceptable in any context.

Take the story of the Afghan girl, Spozhmai, whose brother made her wear a suicide vest. A tough little character, she speaks vehemently about the experience. Only ten, she’s nobody’s fool: and she didn’t want to die.

She knew her brother was lying when he said, “The vest will kill those soldiers, not you”. She was intercepted (it appears she chose to give herself away) and the suicide vest defused without harm. A happy ending, then?

Almost. Except she can’t go home. She’s adamant about that. She must build a new life for herself – aged ten.

The latest horror story to come out of the Central African Republic involves a Christian militia fighter – nicknamed Mad Dog – eating part of the leg of a Muslim attacked by a mob and beaten to death, after which his body was burnt and dismembered.

In the interests of accuracy, I should stress that some members of that Christian militia claim to be bulletproof because they wear amulets containing the flesh of their dead foes. I don’t remember such black magic being part of my catechism classes at an early age, and I doubt Christian teaching has moved that far in the interim.

This is crazy stuff: lynch-mobs; children used as suicide bombers; cannibalism. It’s not the media setting out to shock, rather the instigators who calculate and escalate their dreadful acts of aggression precisely in order to render them as harrowing, as repulsive as possible.

As a little boy in the 1960s I spent all my time play-fighting, shooting my friends and creating endless imaginary gun battles between Cowboys and Indians or Brits and Germans. I grew up on a diet of war stories through the comics that I read avidly. I couldn’t get enough of such games.

Nonetheless, it was just play. I still enjoy a Clint Eastwood western on DVD: but the point is that I grew up.

By contrast these unhinged killers haven’t done so. Retarded adolescents, seduced by and believing in their twisted self-image, they play insane, testosterone-fuelled games: but their knives and guns are real, their games played with bloody, fatal consequences.

Sadly, we see shades of such behaviour even in the UK, in gang culture’s macho posturing, coded language, abuse of girls and obsession with weaponry. It’s not just something in a distant country, to be deplored, then ignored.

But what can we ordinary people do about it? I think we can achieve something.

None of us can change the world on our own. But we can follow the New Year advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to emulate Nelson Mandela and try to change our bit of it. In our own circles we can quietly nail the lies and affirm what is good.

In our small way we can refuse to let pass the racist or homophobic comments we encounter. We can calmly decline to hear asylum-seekers or immigrant workers branded scroungers. We can condemn murder, rape, oppression and genocide where we read about them without being scared to speak out for fear of offending someone’s religious sensibilities.

Instead of keeping our heads down and saying nothing, we can line up with moderate Muslims, Christians, Jews, indeed with all right-thinking and humane people, to speak out against extremism. Eventually the nutters, the truly wicked, the savage and wild will be isolated and seen clearly as the villains and wrongdoers they are.

If we all made our bit of the world better, we might be surprised by how much we can achieve.


Thursday 9th January 2014

Selfies: what are they all about?


I simply don’t understand that current craze for taking pictures of oneself, presumably in order to send them around all one’s friends and followers via the web.


I can see the appeal in some instances. I don’t blame Danish Premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt for snapping herself with Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Even in her exalted position the world’s most powerful man and first black US President is a bit special. Oh, and David Cameron got in too.


Last weekend we celebrated my wife’s birthday with a trip to Paris. Most of our friends and relatives seem to have proposed, honeymooned or celebrated anniversaries there, but in 32 years of marriage we’d never got there. Till now.


Saturday saw us in the Louvre. We started by finding the Mona Lisa. I say “finding”: the stream of humanity heading in that direction would have carried us there with our eyes closed. I don’t fully understand why it’s the most celebrated of all works of art: but the light is fascinating, the girl’s smile enigmatic and it’s old and rare. It’s very good.


Sadly, it was hard to do much in the way of homage to Leonardo’s masterpiece. Indeed, it was scarcely possible to see it. It wasn’t just the crowd: most art galleries in capital cities (including London) get short of elbow-room around their prize exhibits. No, it was the number of people standing in front of the Mona Lisa and… taking selfies.


Apparently visitors feel obliged to snap themselves in front of the most famous painting in the world. Quite why this is so necessary to them I can’t fathom. I mean, if they want to prove they were there, they can just keep their entrance ticket, earned by hard and long queuing. If they want a memento of that smile, frankly they’ll do much better to buy a postcard than keep a distorted, badly angled photo with reflected glare from all the flashes going off constantly.


It wasn’t only the Mona Lisa that was affected, of course. In a quiet corner of the colossal gallery we came across a roomful of Rembrandts. We paused to admire one of his late self-portraits – until a large bloke wedged himself in front of us and took a selfie with the artist behind him.


I like Rembrandt’s mature self-portraits: a wise old bird, he gazes out of a dark background with a quizzical, ironic expression. Who knows? Perhaps some painterly foresight gave him an inkling of how his own “selfie” (rather less instant than its modern counterpart) might be abused 350 years later.


On Sunday we walked to the Eiffel Tower. The length of the queue for the lift made it clear we had no hope of getting to the top. So we paid a modest €5 and walked up to the first level. Even that is spectacularly high, and the process of climbing up through the ironwork turned my knees to jelly: not through exhaustion, I stress, but sheer terror as I watched the gaps between the struts. I’m not good at heights.


There we were, in the heart of beautiful Paris, halfway up its most famous landmark, relishing a weekend of rich experiences. We exchanged glances. Was it time for a selfie, the first ever for the Traffords?


Of course not! For us, selfies are somehow just too self-absorbed, too exhibitionist, so our friends and relatives needn’t fear being bothered by texts or messages with pictures of us grinning above the Paris skyline. Notwithstanding my pride in overcoming my vertigo to get that high, there would be no Trafford selfie. On my own I might have weakened: but together our collective determination was steely.


We looked each other firmly in the eye. “No”, we said, as one. In hindsight I guess we should have said, with the Gallic firmness of a De Gaulle, “Mais non!”


Thursday 2nd January 2014

I like aphorisms, those clever little sayings which sum up a situation so well that you’re left saying enviously, “I wish I’d thought of that.”  I’m insufficiently organised to record the good ones I encounter. Besides, many utterances I come across (especially those of celebrities) are characterised less by their acuity than by their ridiculous self-contradiction.

Nonetheless, as the year drew to a close, I seemed to stumble on a richer array than usual of shrewd, daft or amusing statements. So here’s a selection: most look backward to 2013, but you might feel some could furnish useful wisdom for the New Year.

Before Christmas, at a primary school’s Reception Class Nativity, I overheard an anxious young teacher whisper to the head, “We can’t find Tommy’s trousers anywhere.”

“Have you looked in the manger?” suggested the voice of experience. Amazingly, they were there: I wonder if that constitutes a miracle?

Poor Nigella Lawson could have done with a miracle after her spell in the witness box at the trial of her former assistants. I laughed loud and long last weekend when I read of her latest ambition: “I want my food to bring harmony”. 

I fear it may take more than a tray or two of exquisite vol-au-vents to restore Nigella’s personal inner harmony, but that tawdry case produced at least one memorable quote. A PR consultant commented to the BBC, “I always warn celebrity clients, if you want revenge you should dig two graves”. That consultant’s worth his fee, I reckon.

High-profile deaths should produce plenty of good quotes, but I found Margaret Thatcher’s demise disappointing in that regard. What I heard was mainly the repetitive sound of old axes being re-ground.  The famous “not for turning” speech came out again: I never could see what was so clever about a speech-writer’s painfully contrived misuse of the title of Christopher Fry’s obscure 1948 play, The Lady’s not for Burning”. Oddly, though the quote was surely unknown to the speech’s audience, it caught on.

The departure of Nelson Mandela produced reruns of some of his best lines. Live your life by this: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”.

The teacher in me can’t resist adding another: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” It’s why politicians are frightened of education, of course, and why they always seek to control it.

2013 saw the election of a new Pope: it seems Francis I is prepared to be as radical as the saint whose name he took. He’s sorting out the Vatican Bank and tackling sexual abuse while countering the Catholic Church’s historical homophobia. He’s truly humble, dislikes old-school ecclesiastical authoritarianism, has a sense of humour, and wants a poor church for the poor.

On poverty, Francis pronounced in July: “Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons.”

I was reminded of that statement this week when reading comments by the Roma advisor to the Romanian Prime Minister on UK media paranoia about the expected “invasion” this week: “The Roma begging in the streets are obvious… they ask for one pound.. and they bother us. Yet some of the people in the banks are stealing billions… but nobody sees them… on the 60th floor.” That challenges the prevailing Little Britain xenophobia currently shaming us abroad.

On a lighter note, a delightful news item reached me via Twitter: “A gorilla that escaped from Blackpool Zoo has been found in Fleetwood Wetherspoons where it blended in and went unnoticed most of the day.”  Does that say more about Fleetwood, Wetherspoons or the sociability of gorillas, I wonder?

Happy New Year!