Thursday 30th April 2015

There’s no pint of beer quite so delicious as one offered free by a landlord. It happens rarely enough! But, when it does, there’s a magic about it.

The same’s true of a free drink from the boss. When I was a young teacher there was a special pleasure in seeing the head pour a drink or get a round at the bar.

It’s not about meanness: after all, most of us can afford to buy ourselves a drink. But somehow that free one tastes extra-good.

So I thought it was a great idea when I learned that fast-but-nonetheless-terribly-healthy-food-chain Prêt A Manger had given employees a quota of free drinks to give away during the course of a day. No rules: just decline to take money for the coffee from that smiley guy, pretty girl, lonely-looking fella, whoever.

That charmingly customer-centred gesture was revealed by journalists as new Company Policy and denounced as cynical. All right, perhaps it might have been nicer still if the baristas (as we now call them) had proved spontaneously generous: but I doubt they earn enough on a shift to start handing out freebees from their own income! No, a no-strings-attached, just-make-a-gesture approach gets my vote: sadly I haven’t got into Prêt yet to try it out.

I prefer that idea to the irritating habit of many such chains of handing out loyalty cards. Cards are a bit demeaning: I don’t really need to save up 10 little stamps in order to get a free coffee: besides, I always lose them.

My vote stays with Prêt! I’m sorry for them that an understandable policy to make customers feel good became the subject of such critical comment.

After all, we’re all about giveaways these days. Look at the election campaign. At every party HQ there’s clearly a strategist locked in a dark cupboard working out which tiny, targeted sector of the electorate hasn’t been bribed yet. So sophisticated is the whole election business nowadays, I’m awaiting a giveaway from Labour or Tories aimed precisely at me: me, not even the couple next door. Imagine the conversation: “We’ve a middle-aged professional guy here with an ageing Mercedes, a wife and a passion for jazz. Any giveaways for him?” I can’t wait.

You think I’m getting carried away? I’m not alone. A correspondent on the letters page of The Times the other week wrote dryly, “Would one of the parties give me a horse, please? They’re giving away everything else.”

They are. The NHS is playing badly for the Tories. Solution? Promise it £8bn. Time to reach out to those renting property? Labour offers a rent-freeze: notwithstanding the fact that government interference in the rental market generally adds to the housing shortage.

Who’s going to pay for these wheezes?

Easy. Whatever the bright idea, they all seek the same cash-cows. Everyone except the Tories will raise zillions from the mansion tax. Up here in the North we might laugh: few have houses over £2 million here, so we can watch those rich Londoners squeal as they’re squeezed.

Only it won’t work like that. It never does.

The other fools’ gold the parties seek is unpaid tax. Every party is pledged to target those disgusting tax-evaders for the squillions they owe us.

Hang on! They’ve never tracked down the loot before: what’s changed now? Will they arrest oligarchs and waterboard them down in the bowels of HMRC headquarters? I doubt it.

This election campaign’s offering the greatest series of giveaways since Woolworths closed down.

But be sure of this. Whichever party wins will quietly ditch every one of those unaffordable hand-outs. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and they know it (though they pretend not to).

That really is cynical! Remember that when you next go to Prêt, smile warmly and attempt to charm a free latte.

Against the backdrop of politicians’ empty promises, a free coffee from an appreciative vendor seems pretty harmless to me. Enjoy!

Thursday 23rd April 2015

Some people about are hard to live with. Take 66-year-old tycoon Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring who owns a three-storey Georgian house in Kensington (naturally worth squillions). She took umbrage when neighbours blocked her application to demolish the house and rebuild it, adding a vast double basement with swimming-pool and cinema. In retaliation she’s painted the house in red-and-white candy stripes.

This kind of thing drags down a neighbourhood: next door might be hard put to get £10 million if they put their house on the market.

This is, I’m assured, a common problem nowadays. All over London billionaires are insisting on moving half their houses underground. By the way, pools and cinemas are old hat: nowadays whole living-rooms and kitchens are going subterranean.

I’m puzzled. Just how big a house does anyone need, however wealthy they are? If they live in a huge metropolis, why expect to have a swimming-pool? Come to that, who needs a “home cinema”? I marvel at the picture-quality of the 40-inch TV in my sitting-room, great for watching DVDs. For a big screen, I go to a real cinema.

It’s not about keeping up with the Joneses: it’s life as a cosseted hermit. These people put everything they could possibly want in their colossal, luxuriously-appointed home (even if daylight’s rare in the basement) so they need never mix with ordinary people.

I have a solution for this problem. Whoever wins the forthcoming election should pass a law requiring everyone who wants to excavate a basement in the London area, however wealthy they are, to do so in a designated area of Kensington (a patch of London I’ve never cared for). There they can dig holes with impunity: and if their houses start to tumble into one another’s caverns, no one else will give a damn.

Everything I’ve written so far suggests that Ms Lisle-Mainwaring is an obnoxious neighbour. Actually, I’m not sure she is. The stripes on her Georgian house are rather cheery, giving the appearance of a gigantic deckchair. Frankly, much of wealthy London is so po-faced that her bit of mischief-making adds a light-hearted tone to a rather serious street.

Someone else branded obnoxious in the media is Jeremy Clarkson. Interestingly, he rehabilitated himself to some extent by coming clean in the Sunday Times, if not about the punching incident, then about the background to it.

The obsession that is Top Gear (much as I like fast cars, having always lusted after an Aston Martin, so far without success), does nothing for me: but it’s now such a cult that it had been ruling his life, Clarkson says. His marriage failed and he never had time to grieve properly for his late mother. He was working himself into the ground. Finally, a doctor told him a lump on his tongue might be cancerous. The Incident happened after a bad day’s filming in a bad week for him.

Clarkson doesn’t excuse what he did: he just tells how things were frankly, honestly and with commendable self-knowledge.

Though he’s now out of a job, he knows he doesn’t have to worry about where the next meal’s coming from: he’s not crying for our sympathy.

But he does claim to understand one aspect of being unemployed: he has nothing to do. There’s an empty diary when he gets up. He spends a whole morning filling in an application for a tennis-club: because the whole day’s appointment-free. As a result, he’s bereft. The loss of the workaholic lifestyle is a bereavement.

Reading his very personal account, I warmed to Clarkson as I’ve failed to hitherto.

Nonetheless, I had a mischievous thought.

With time on his hands, and a few million to spare (which surely he has), why doesn’t he move into Kensington, annoy neighbouring oligarchs by excavating underground swimming-pools and televise the ensuing dramas?

Clarkson’s Basement Wars: surely a winner.

I might have just found him a new career.

Thursday 16th April

Gregory Walcott has died, aged 87. He had a forty-year Hollywood career, but was famous for just one movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space.

That 1959 black-and-white science-fiction movie featured some of the clunkiest cardboard special effects ever to infest the silver screen and later received the accolade of being the worst film ever made.

Walcott took a part in it to oblige a friend and, though he also did TV as well as films alongside such names as Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood, his fame rests on being part of that legendary Tinseltown turkey.

What I like about this story is what the modest Walcott told the LA Times in 2000: “I didn’t want to be remembered for that, but it’s better to be remembered for something than for nothing.”

That sounds to me like the utterance of a grounded and realistic man. It’s also at odds with the relentless self-promotion of party leaders in this feverish election season. No matter that manifestos have now (finally) been published: no one reads them anyway. Leaders are busy defining themselves as, well, the right person to lead the country.

All but one will be disappointed, though a coalition might provide consolation prizes. Moreover, most of the losers will also lose their leadership position: parties deal harshly with those who fail to bring victory at the polls.

Then, like Gregory Walcott, they might be left with only the legacy of their “fifteen minutes of fame”, as Andy Warhol described it. What will be their equivalent of starring in the world’s worst movie?

Will Ed Milliband will be remembered for his bacon sandwich? Hell, yes! Nigel Farage for his pint: or for his promise to be tough on “health tourists”, especially AIDS victims?

That went down badly with viewers of last week’s TV debate, offering Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood a moment of glory when she told him he should be ashamed of himself. Of course, here in the North East we’ll naturally continue to mock Farage’s conviction that Scotland starts at Hadrian’s Wall.

The Greens’ Nicola Bennett will be remembered not for that debate but for her earlier “brain fade” on radio when she couldn’t recall the costing of her party’s housing policy. Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon wowed the English (sic) in the televised debate… although none of us south of the border can electorally influence her powerbase.

David Cameron is notoriously easy to caricature in countless cartoons as a posh boy in tails: by curious contrast, TV or radio satirists imitate him only unconvincingly. Rather than worthy platitudes about economic responsibility echoed throughout this campaign, I wonder if he’ll be more readily remembered for that 2010 mantra: “I agree with Nick.” Sadly, that may be Clegg’s only memorial, too.

Last weekend, in a Devon pub with my old Dad, I encountered a poorly maintained hand-drier in the gents. It made a horrendous racket, blew hot air in all directions but signally failed to achieve any visible effect: it was a fine metaphor for present-day politics.

Dad was in reminiscent mood, revealing a story new to me about my Granny. The most miserable woman I’ve ever known (mercifully her daughter, my Mum, didn’t inherit that trait), she eventually needed more nursing than my long-suffering parents could provide: they found her a suitable place.

All seemed to be going well, despite Granny’s complaints about “too much bloody religion” in the home, run by nuns and carefully chosen to reflect her religious faith. Out of the blue, Dad received a call from the Mother Superior. “Dr Trafford,” she said, “ I don’t know how to put this delicately. I’m afraid you’ll have to take your mother-in-law away. She isn’t fitting in.”

Poor Granny was too grumpy and stroppy for even the saintly nuns to cope with.

To my mind the expulsion of a ninety year-old former teacher from a retirement home is as memorable an achievement as a movie disaster or any number of political platitudes!


Thursday 9th April 2015

The other day I read an obituary for Christopher Wynn Parry. Heard of him? Nor had I. He was a physician who, with a colleague, started a medical charity to treat struggling performing artists and ended up caring for the world’s top musicians.

Many performers live with pain that they can’t admit even to their agents and managers: violinists get cramp; Wynn Parry described the flute as “a devil for musculo-skeletal problems”; and rock guitarists wreck their backs through bad posture.

Some symptoms professional musicians encounter stem from the sheer physical labour of their work. It doesn’t look much, does it? But long rehearsals and recording sessions are tough. Wynn Parry used to say that, to a soloist, performing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto was equivalent to shovelling three tons of coal.

Wow! There I was, a former music teacher, feeling I merely lacked the dexterity to tackle big piano pieces. Now I know I didn’t have the strength or stamina either: I’m sure I couldn’t shovel three tons of coal.

I remember how exhausting it was conducting a big concert. Though I was conducting routinely, day in, day out, the big event left me shattered and, next day, painfully stiff: I guess that, like the singers or players, I put that much more into the performance itself.

I prided myself on having a good heart: waving your arms about is great cardio-vascular exercise! Mind you, Wynn  Parry used to warn conductors that repeated friction of the tendons against the collarbone could lead to inflammation or even rupture.

And there I was thinking my former career was a pretty safe one: apart, that is, from the musician’s common pitfalls of nerves, stage-fright, drug abuse and alcoholism!

“No pain, no gain”: that old saying (too often repeated to me as I wage my lonely war of fitness against fatness) was anathema to Wynn Parry who described it as “the pernicious exhortation”.

Wynn Parry died in February, aged 90. Thanks to his work, and that of others, young musicians training to enter the profession (through one of the country’s elite music schools, for example) nowadays learn a great deal about the physical side of playing or singing: they know pain now means a career cut short later.

I hope that contestants in The Voice or The X-Factor, when they undergo that boot-camp training that seems now an inevitable ingredient, are also taught that vital (self-) knowledge.

Reading about Wynn Parry reminded me of the old and inevitable lesson that, however talented you may be, you cannot cut corners on the long learning of your trade that brings mastery. In his influential book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reckons it takes 10,000 hours. He analyses a disparate a group of exceptional achievers that includes The Beatles and Bill Gates: though all his subjects were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, they also spent that huge amount of time building and developing their talent.

I always admire those “old stagers” in music who not only survive but behave like a fine wine, actually improving with age. Sure, they adapt the demands of live performance to suit their age: but they bring wisdom and remarkable endurance to it too.

Last July we saw Sir Elton John perform in Newcastle, on stage for fully two and a half hours. Even when his band took a break (mostly old hands with him for more than 40 years), he stayed and played few solo numbers… at age 70! (It’s worth adding that he abandoned a wild, drug-fuelled lifestyle decades ago: he’s still at the top as a result).

Classical pianist Alfred Brendel retired at 70. Elton and Cliff Richard soldier on. Reading about the musicians’ doctor reminded me not to take them, or their long careers, for granted. Those who hang in there, still fill concert venues and even attract new fans deserve our respect.

Power to their elbow: perfectly bent and postured, of course!


Thursday 2nd April 2015

And… they’re off. The race is on. Five weeks today the country will vote for the next government, coalition, unholy alliance, or downright fudge.

The media tell us it’s going to be the most exciting election in decades. They have a point: with no clear water between the two major parties; the ScotNats and UKIP threaten to hold the balance of power; even the Ulster Unionists, the Greens and Plaid Cymru may for the first time steer national policy by lending their weight to a minority government (or by withholding it). The tired old two-horse race has become a thing of the past. All the old certainties are gone. It should be an election when everyone’s vote will really count. Surely that could be exciting?

There are many constituencies (key marginals) where a swing of 1% or less would change a hold to a loss: so just a small shift to a minor party such as UKIP could cause a major upset to the big beasts.

What of the LibDems? Are they doomed to decades in the wilderness? They seized their chance of sharing power in 2010 but have lost support as a result.

The pundits and forecasters will be in overdrive for the next five weeks, wielding swingometers and hopping up and down on politically coloured UK maps. That really should be exciting, shouldn’t it?

Sadly, I find the mud-slinging and point-scoring more depressing than exciting. Even this week, as they launch their campaigns, there’s precious little sign of the parties’ articulating a genuine vision for the country. Politicians rubbish their rivals’ policies as extravagant, unworkable, reviving class war, privatisation by stealth, taxing the rich, taxing the squeezed middle, taxing the poor, taxing everyone. But I hear little intelligent debate.

Tonight sees the seven-way political debate that Prime Minister David Cameron insisted on. Will that furnish us with real debate, some true excitement? Maybe.

Cameron resolutely declined a head-to-head with his rival, Ed Milliband. Like most people, I thought he was politically unwise to avoid it. Having watched the two of them with Jeremy Paxman last week, though, I’ve a feeling he was right after all.

Both suffered in last week’s format. With the studio audience both leaders gave a fair impression of being open, listening and really wanting to help the people in the room.

The individual interviews with Paxo, by contrast, were dismal, and far from exciting: not the interviewees’ fault. Paxman was full of himself, discomfiting Cameron with an opening salvo about the 700,000 people on zero-hours contracts: but could you even call it a debate (or truly an interview)?  Paxman constantly reiterated the same question, hectoring his victim more and more loudly. It was rude and overbearing, not exciting.

A straight answer might have extricated the PM from that fix: but it was a complex question masquerading as simple.  Zero-hours contracts encompass all kinds of part-time employment: most are legitimate, but others are used to exploit workers. Paxman sprung a trap, asking a question on which Cameron floundered, and in response became even more obnoxious than usual.

Milliband fared similarly. Paxo went for the jugular, accusing him of shafting his brother and chipping away at the relations between them. Ed fended him off pretty well: but it didn’t move the election debate forward. And it wasn’t exciting.

Did I say five weeks? It will feel longer. Meanwhile, anything will be better than the news channels and papers. Walking in the Cheviots will help. On Sunday evenings, Poldark still smoulders along (I’m not going there again!) and I’ve saved up recorded episodes of Channel 4’s rival Sunday show, Indian Summers.

Actually, I’m more likely to read a book.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited about democracy. It’s the dismal, negative politicking that kills the excitement for me.

I wish all those commentators joy of it: but, for all their enthusiasm, I fear they’ll leave me cold.

Thursday 26th March 2015

Royal remains reinterred. Multitude mourns as maligned murdered monarch entombed.

Why don’t they employ me to write the headlines? Everyone else has been at it. Richard III frenzy rules. Fellow-columnist Keith Hann stole my thunder by writing about him yesterday.

Today those five-centuries-old bones will finally be sealed beneath a stone slab: everyone might calm down.

Not the citizens of Leicester, however, for whom this is a tourism triumph. There’s never been much reason to be a tourist in Leicester before. I know: a couple of decades ago I spent a lot of time on the road between the West and East Midlands, learning to hate Leicester’s ring road and one-way system. Turning up as he did a few years back, Richard certainly did Leicester a favour.

The story’s threatened to push the General Election off the front pages, a blessed relief. There have been moments of unconscious humour, too: gaudily dressed heralds strutting around Bosworth Field, reminiscent of Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice; hardy riders in full armour for the whole length of Sunday’s cortege; and unconsciously ironic cries from people lining the route: “Long live King Richard!” they cried, as they cast white York roses onto the gun-carriage bearing his coffin, overlooking the fact that he’s been dead for 530 years.

Richard usurped the throne, reigned for only two years and was eventually deposed and killed in battle by another usurper, Henry VII. Instead of acting as protector to his nephew Richard, Duke of Gloucester, he stole his throne and probably killed him and his brother Edward.

Now he’s a celebrity, though, history’s being wilfully rewritten by those who want to love him.  Channel 4’s coverage lined up historians to say that he had no need to kill the young princes: he’d already established his power. Only that acerbic doyen of television historians, David Starkey, wasn’t having it: “When you’ve got yourself a throne, you eliminate all the risks. Of course he killed them.”

Nonetheless, Richard’s rehabilitation continues. Even the physical attribute, the bent spine that Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare emphasised to underline his wickedness, becomes a virtue in our 21st Century eyes. Despite suffering from scoliosis, he could still wear armour and fight well. At Bosworth he charged his enemy, Henry Tudor: he lost the battle, but he didn’t lack courage.

On Sunday we were told he was a scholar, a pious man, a true Christian. Okay: so all that murdering stuff was just politics, then, nothing to do with his moral nature?

Don’t worry. I’m not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. Nowadays we don’t believe in a sovereign’s divine right to rule: we gave up on that when we chopped Charles I’s head off in 1649. But we’ve located the bones, hidden for centuries, of an anointed king. Their discovery, subsequent skillful forensic analysis (including the fatal wounds), facial reconstruction from a bare skull, all created a captivating detective story with the added romance of ancient heraldry and long-lost royalty.

If I’m honest, I’m as excited as everyone else.

I’m charmed by the very British character of the phenomenon we’ve been watching.  Only the Brits, surely, would welcome an old loser, reviled for centuries, back into the fold and treat his mortal remains with such reverence.

We’ve even conceptually transformed that skeleton from a casualty of battle to a symbol of reconciliation. I’m not sure Richard was the reconciling type: he was a pretty ruthless enemy. But we’ve forgiven him, and it was touching if incongruous to see Leicester’s Sikh community banging their drums and honouring a Christian who never even knew that India existed, and died around the time that the Sikh religion was being formed.

Maybe we’ve witnessed in action what politicians currently insist on terming British values. I suspect those archaeologists and the people of Leicester have taught us more about them this week than we’ll ever learn from our elected leaders.

Thursday 19th March 2015

Poldark. Poldarrrrk. The name’s ringing in my ears.

 Clearly it’s the new TV sensation. Move over, Downton, with your aristocratic airs and graces, your rebellious randy daughters and lascivious revolutionary chauffeurs. Your stiff upper lips, your stuffed-shirt butler and your domineering Dowagers: all have been supplanted in a bare couple of weeks by an upstart.

And what an upstart: unshaven, hirsute indeed, with a facial scar (heroically won in a messy wartime skirmish) furnishing a rakish air; penniless inheritor of a run-down farm, two lazy retainers and a defunct tin mine; no, Ross Poldark would hardly be thought a catch.

Still, he is a “gennelman” (I’m trying to capture the Cornish accent here). And on Sunday he contrived to set respectable young ladies’ hearts a-quivering at a society ball. 

You’d have thought well-bred young fillies of good stock and gentle birth would have been trained to flutter their eye-lashes only at well-heeled, elegantly dressed young men, not a near-bankrupt who looks as if he’s been round the block a few times too many. Dammit, Sir, he doesn’t even like dancing.

Nonetheless, they were all over him (by 19th Century standards) and, when he danced a quadrille with his early and lost love Elizabeth, her eyes glistened and her all-too-obvious pleasure caused scandal.

The show is based on a real book. Somehow, that fact, to me at any rate, illogically confers on it more respectability than a pure TV confection such as Downton Abbey. It’s even been dramatised before.

It was a smash hit in the mid-seventies. I never saw it, because I was always working Sunday nights in the West Country pub where I earned cash during my university vacations. I worked Sundays because Jilly, the barmaid who covered Friday and Saturday nights, would never do Sunday. “Oy gotter stop in and watch Poldarrrk,” she’d whine.

It did the trick for the BBC’s Sunday-night schedule back then, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s been revived now. It’s “period” (always a winner): the scenery and camera-work are beautiful (how marvellous such shows are in High Definition!); and, when the writers can’t think of anything else to create continuity between scenes, they can simply slot in yet another panoramic shot of Ross romantically galloping along a cliff-top.

Originality: nul points. Atmosphere and meaningful glances: top marks.

It’s given rise to a media frenzy. Ross Poldark (or, at least, the actor who plays him, Aidan Turner) is filling the pages of newspapers and dominating what the Americans call water-cooler conversation.

Women are swooning over Turner, and even respectable male newspaper columnists (obviously not the Journal’s) are admitting to having a crush on him, worshipping him in the way a young boy might when he meets his sporting idol and writing cringe-making articles about it.

Yet, he does very little. Indeed, all he does is smoulder. This means he talks little, hardly moves and does things with his eyes. These actions (or inactions) alone exude an animal magnetism that, so far in the series, have caused one woman to put her marriage at risk, all the debutantes at the ball to throw themselves at him and Demelza, the grimy urchin rescued from the gutter to become his greasy kitchen-maid, to scrub herself endlessly under the farmyard pump (calling for significant bodily contortions) and spy on him from the cliff-top when he goes skinny-dipping.

I reckon there’s not much to this smouldering thing. I tried a bit myself while we were out doing the weekend shopping. I stood in Northumberland Street and, yes, smouldered. All that happened was that passers-by gave me suspicious looks and hurried on anxiously… until Mrs Trafford intervened (rather sharply, I felt).  “Stop making faces and rolling your eyes in that peculiar way,” she ordered. “Just carry those bags home.”

Animal magnetism? She was entirely oblivious. Still waters run deep, though: I’ll just keep smouldering till she notices.

Thursday 12th March 2015

Last Sunday was World Women’s Day. As usually happens to me with days allocated to national and global themes, I only realised it was happening too late to organise anything: how else could I have also missed National Pie Week?

It’s often said that the glass ceiling is still in place. It was clearly engineered by men, and skilfully done, or it would have shattered long ago. But there’s no doubt much smarter women engineers are gradually dismantling it.

After all, all middle-aged males like me know women are already largely in control. It’s certainly true at home and, increasingly, they are appearing on company boards and even in CEO jobs. So is there any need for a day focusing on women (and, by implication on women’s rights and equality of opportunity)?

Sadly, yes. The glass ceiling may be cracking and on the point of disintegration, but male prejudice, sexism and sheer oafishness nonetheless prevail.

They certainly survive in sport. One evening last week I happened to catch the 15-minute sports slot on the BBC News Channel. We may take pride in the strength of UK women’s football, rugby and cricket, previously male preserves: but the sexism witnessed within men’s football (from fans, not players) is more than merely disgusting.

The news report showed film of a Manchester United game, among others. Female assistant referees and medics alike were subjected to chants and catcalls that were graphic, sexual and anatomical, and so predictable I don’t need to reproduce them.

Fans were interviewed. Female supporters felt it was time it was stopped. Most blokes questioned shrugged off the comments as “banter”: you’ll never stop it, they said, and it’s harmless.

Hardly harmless. I was depressed to read new evidence that such abuse starts early. Most readers will have seen the Sport England campaign to get more girls playing sport. Posters and TV adverts on the theme This Girl Can portray many different women, real women, getting sweaty in the name of health and fitness.

It’s powerful stuff, and arguably long overdue. But Nadine Pittam, a researcher assessing the impact of the campaign, found that well over 1600 responses to the YouTube video were “thumbs down”: all the negative posts she read were written by people using male usernames.

A Girl Guiding survey (Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2013) reported 41% of girls confessing that embarrassment about wearing school sports kit put them off playing sport. And that was because 87% of girls think women are judged more on appearance than on ability.

There’s a long way still to go. Such behaviour is too often excused on the grounds that boys will be boys. It’s time those boys grew up: as it happens, it’s clear that grown men are frequently still worse.

Don’t push the problem and its solution onto schools! While rap artists glorify the objectification and abuse of women: while pop videos project a smart guy as looking cool surrounded by bikini-clad, shapely girls; when a girl who makes herself look good is labelled a slag while one that objects to being insulted is dubbed gobby as a result, our society still has a real sexism problem.

Let’s not forget, though: that glass ceiling really is coming apart at the seams. Girls and women are more powerful than they know. I hope increasing numbers of confident women will decline to be treated in negative or demeaning terms. I wish still more that, when they speak up, those of us who are too often bystanders (yes, blokes too) would find the courage to speak, to declare: “That is unacceptable”.

Most bullies, louts and oafs back down when confronted. It’s the silence of the everyone else that too often allows them to get away with it.

Power to the women (and girls): their Day has come!  As Harry Potter actress Emma Watson demanded recently, let’s line up, men and women together, and support them.

Thursday 5th March 2015

“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” I’ve quoted that saying before, attributing it to French playwright Jean Giraudoux. He published it in 1980, the same year in which American comedian George Burns put it in his memoir. However, Wikipedia tells me both probably borrowed it from a 1962 newspaper column by Leonard Lyons quoting actress Celeste Holm.

Who cares? It’s a great line, and I was reminded of it by that national treasure, Alan Bennett, asked on Radio 4’s The World at One to name Britain’s greatest achievement.

Bennett considered Swaledale (loyal Yorkshireman), mediaeval churches and the National Trust. In the end, though, he decided that the thing the English are best at is hypocrisy.

“We glory in Shakespeare, yet we close our public libraries … A substantial minority of our children receive a better education than the rest because of the social situation of the parents. Then we wonder why things at the top do not change or society improve. But we know why. It’s because we are hypocrites … Our policemen are wonderful, provided you are white and middle-class and don’t take to the streets.”

I’m sorry the writer I’ve always admired, and over whose works I have cried with laughter, is becoming pretty sour nowadays. (Note to self: now you’re middle-aged, check that you’re not getting grumpy or cynical).

Hypocrisy: it’s a strong word, and not one I generally level at politicians, though I often talk about their lack of self-awareness. They certainly have a knack of failing to see the irony in their ill-considered pronouncements: only a high-profile few become truly hypocritical.

They do talk nonsense though! In this season of pre-election rubbish, I was amused to see both major parties absolutely committed to increasing the amount of housing. The Tories will build 200,000 homes in every year in a new government. Not to be outdone, Ed Milliband is promising a Labour project of building (wait for it) 200,000 new homes a year.

Still, there is clearly a difference between the two parties. Labour says the Tories only look after the rich: the Tories accuse Labour of planning the next class war. One is the unattractive flipside of the grotesque other. Given constant finger-pointing, counter-accusation, and the unremitting misery of the BBC’s Question Time programme on a Thursday night, I’m unsurprised Bennett’s disillusioned.

Here’s a thought! Perhaps he’s got writer’s block. A newspaper article this week reported that nostalgia has been proved to be a cure for that condition. Southampton University researchers gave two groups of Irish undergraduates a writing task. One had to write about an ordinary event in their life, the other about a nostalgic experience.

Those indulging in nostalgia wrote more fluently and imaginatively. Now I think of it, Bennett’s most popular works are nostalgic, harking back to his youth and dealing with old-fashioned attitudes and characters comically bewildered by a changing world.

Where would television drama be without nostalgia? Perhaps there’s so much nowadays (including forthcoming re-makes of Poldark and Dad’s Army) because writers can’t think of anything new to say in the modern age. How else do we account for the phenomenal success of Downton Abbey?

I wrote a few years ago that watching it was like wallowing in a bath of warm chocolate. At that stage we were only on Series 2. Now I’m bored with it: even the wonderful Dame Maggie Smith can only deliver so many withering one-liners before becoming predictable.

Still, she remains the best bit. In a disarming interview last week she confessed to amazement that they keep writing her into each new series. After all, she admitted, to her knowledge her character must by now be 110 years old.

Well, the Queen Mother passed 100. Let’s see if the Dowager Duchess can make it to 120. Meanwhile, let’s look back, cheer up, and avoid becoming grumpy!


 Thursday 26th February 2015

Apparently we’re getting too stupid for the theatre. Playwright Tom Stoppard says so. He’s cross because audiences for his latest play, The Hard Problem, don’t understand his literary allusions. He keeps having to re-write it, cutting those clever bits, because his audiences are just too thick to appreciate the intellectual jokes.

Others have entered the debate. According to Times theatre critic Kevin Maher, “two West End heavyweights, Patricia Hodge and Janet Suzman, have also castigated the swinish hoard for being undereducated”. Hmm.

To be fair to them, it does sometimes appear that there’s less and less serious drama to be seen in theatres: instead, increasing numbers of frothy, lightweight “smash-hit” musicals sell out night after night in the West End.

I don’t entirely accept either criticism.

Stoppard’s complaint is arrogant. He may have been writing plays with more erudite jokes in them 30 years ago: perhaps they suited audiences then. But humour, social and cultural attitudes and just about everything else have changed since: if he wants to entertain (and get bums on seats in the theatre), he needs to consider his contemporary audience, get with the times, and stop complaining.

What about the second accusation? Is theatre dumbing down? It can seem so. Certainly many stage musicals in London’s West End (also seen on tour in Sunderland and Newcastle) are movie-adaptations, not original works.

In addition, so-called “karaoke musicals” dominate: in these, a flimsy story is flung together to connect a succession of classic pop covers. Thus the tribute to the band Queen is We Will Rock You: Mamma Mia revives Abba songs; and all kinds of other shows (Jersey Boys, Save the Last Dance for Me) are synthetic concoctions relying on music and nostalgia, largely eschewing plot, drama or characterisation.

There is a bit of the snob in me that dislikes being talked down to. I hate films, TV programmes, and stage shows written to a formula, with content and spectacle slotted in to fit.

Yet even that argument falters: working a formula is arguably what crime-writers do, not least the immortal Agatha Christie. Bernard Cornwell’s hugely popular historical novels, the Sharpe books and the series based around Alfred the Great and Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), are shamelessly formula-based, built around a hero-outsider, someone set apart: they make great reading.

In the end, if we had no intelligent drama, no broader range to choose from, I might fear some dumbing down. But there is fantastic, ground-breaking drama, if you look for it. In Newcastle there’s new and experimental work all the time at Live Theatre and Northern Stage.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night filled two weeks at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal earlier this month. It’s a sparkling dramatisation of a thought-provoking book, intellectually intriguing, funny, entertaining and visually stunning.

Overcoming my dislike of stage adaptations of films, I loved the West End hits Brief Encounter and The 39 Steps: I saw both in Newcastle. They make hilarious theatre by caricaturing some of the dated aspects of those old films.

My favourite film-to-stage transformation remains Billy Elliot: its tenth anniversary performance was screened live across the world from London’s Apollo Theatre in September and is now out on DVD. A clever, thought-provoking movie has grown into one of the most powerful stage shows I’ve witnessed, full of raw emotion and dramatic irony, contrasting art and aspiration with the grinding misery of the miners’ strike and the death of the Easington pit.

 Moreover, it shows a fresh audience every day just what young people can achieve, the 11-year-old leads leaving their audience gasping in awe at their acting, singing and (above all) dancing.

 So is there a problem? No. Playwrights like Stoppard should meet their audience half-way and remember that, if we don’t like a show, we don’t have to go to it.

The customer is always right. So is the audience (well, most of the time).

Thursday 19th February 2015

It’s all been about fish recently. I’m not referring to such unfunny puns about Scottish politicians as Nicola Sturgeon following Alex Salmond. When you make puns as feeble as that you tend to skate (sorry) on thin ice. But there has been a piscine slant to recent news.

What on earth was actress Helena Bonham-Carter thinking of when she allowed herself to be pictured nude clutching a huge big-eye tuna? Officially she was drawing public attention to the plight of the tuna, dreadfully overfished (like so many other species, but I’m avoiding cod theorising on fish stocks or European policy).

I guess we can only wonder what Bonham-Carter was thinking of while she pressed a cold wet fish to her naked flesh: feeble puns were least likely to be on her mind. It’s hard to imagine her thoughts were pleasant, since she reportedly had to overcome a lifelong phobia of fish before trapping the hapless fish between her thighs.

Her picture was one of a series:  other celebrities have adopted similar poses. What I don’t understand is how that fish, which must have been dead, adds strength to the argument. I mean, I’m sure it was ethically caught from a sustainable stock, but it was still dead. Maybe it died happy, knowing that by giving its life it was doing its bit to win the argument against over-fishing, but I’m not convinced that tuna are that capable of conscious or rational thought. As campaigns go it strikes me as dodgy, not to say fishy.

 Then I read a newspaper report that the National Marine Aquarium was under fire for serving fish and chips in its café. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights charity campaigning on behalf of “all the fish in the sea”, accused the aquarium of double standards, comparing selling seafood at an aquarium to “serving monkey nuggets at a zoo”. PETA suggested the aquarium should take all fish dishes off the menu, replacing them with vegetarian alternatives.

Colin Brown, Chief Executive of another aquarium (Hull’s “The Deep”) was unimpressed by a similar letter. He’s careful to serve only sustainably caught fish, but asks, “Morally, how can you differentiate between selling fish or selling a burger or sausage? To be honest, it’s a matter of opinion”.

That’s just what it is. I like my meat and fish. I don’t knowingly buy fish or meat that has been inhumanely or unsustainably farmed or fished, though I confess I don’t demand to see documents proving the fact. In the same way, I don’t condone tax evasion by small operators such as plumbers or window cleaners, but I do pay them cash if that’s more convenient to them or me, and I don’t demand a VAT receipt or proof that they are paying tax. That’s none of my business: but if I thought they were cheating, I wouldn’t use them again.

It’s too easy to mount campaigns in this digital age. Some can be wonderful, others shrill and tiresome: they can be worse and threaten livelihoods. I believe we should all behave ethically: if we know a supplier or service-provider isn’t, we shouldn’t use them. But it’s not my job as an ordinary citizen to check up, to act as some kind of tax or ethics police. I just make a judgement and get on with my life.

Fishy? I don’t think so. I think it’s about keeping things in proportion. Talking of which, and to finish as I began, in the unique Swallows fish shop in Seahouses, a small postcard is displayed. On it is a period (century-old?) photograph of a small boy holding up a large wet fish which is as tall as he is. Underneath is the caption, “Harry’s parents were too poor to buy him a dog.”

Not that funny? Well, it’s more entertaining than the current obsession with Fifty Shades of Grayling.

Thursday 12th February 2015

I have something to confess. I was taught by nuns, and ever since I have maintained a long-running joke, describing myself as “harbouring a lifelong terror of nuns”.

The Catholic infant school I attended was run by (I think) an order of Belgian nuns. It disappeared decades ago, so I can’t check my facts. I retain a hazy half-century-old memory of large women in all-enveloping dark-blue habits: mind you, when you’re only four, all adults seem enormous. Though my memory may play tricks, I recall a fearsome nun in charge of the kitchen, wielding a huge ladle and massive cooking pot, doling out lunches we didn’t like but dared not refuse.

It’s too easy, and far from kind, to poke fun at nuns: so, given my history, you might say I should hesitate to criticise Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt who made a fool of himself on the subject. On BBC 1’s Question Time last Thursday, Telegraph journalist Cristina Odone described her education in a mixture of state and private schools, including a religious one: she said she’d been very well taught by teachers with “real values”.

Hunt airily dismissed her experience, commenting, “They were all nuns, weren’t they?”

The following Sunday, on his morning show, Andrew Marr asked him seven times whether nuns could be good teachers. Eventually he conceded: “I’m sure there are brilliant teachers who are nuns”.

Where did this high-handed, dismissive attitude come from? Hunt’s a former TV historian. Has he forgotten that, centuries ago, all teaching and nursing were done exclusively by religious orders? Governments assumed responsibility for such things only late, and slowly: in this country it took two World Wars and the advent of the Welfare State before services were professionally staffed throughout instead of relying to a greater or lesser extent on the religious who had taught or nursed by vocation, without salary or pension.

Did Hunt’s sweeping assumption betray a trendy liberal-left view of the religious vocation to service, a view which is, in fact, illiberal and despises both?

Maybe. Actually, his greatest sin wasn’t to presume (till he backtracked furiously) that nuns couldn’t be “proper” teachers. Worse: he’s turning into a bore.

Six times Marr tried to nail him down: six times he responded with incoherent pseudo-professional claptrap: “I think parents will be shocked to know that we see more and more unqualified teachers in our classroom. But then to make sure we have the continuing professional development with them, so year on year on year (sic).”

His obsession with teachers having to be qualified is boring, as well as dogmatic. By “qualified” he’s talking not about subject knowledge but about completing teacher-training. Take him as an example: he wouldn’t be deemed competent to teach, despite a history degree, unless he’s done teacher-training.

The vast majority of teachers are classroom-qualified, as well as in their subject specialism. They should be. If I appoint teachers to my (independent of government) school who don’t have a teaching certificate, I help them get one. It generally makes them better teachers and gives them a go-anywhere qualification. But sometimes, just sometimes, I interview amazing natural-born teachers who outshine even those who have been through the formal training programme.

Hunt wants to ensure that no one teaches children without that qualification. I find politicians like him insisting on everything being black and white just as bigoted and out-of-step as those private school heads who aver that teacher-training somehow prevents teachers from being inspired and original: that’s rubbish too.

Hunt’s insistence on conformity leaves heads and schools no flexibility (which we need when there’s a teacher-supply crisis), outlaws the unconventional genius and risks imposing a dull orthodoxy on all our schools. But then, I fear that’s what he wants.

 This story isn’t about nuns, but a lack of humility and open-mindedness. A modicum of either would have prevented him from uttering a silly, insulting generalisation, and saved him considerable embarrassment. 

Thursday 5th February 2015

I’m sorry if I bring my day job into this week’s column: generally I try to avoid discussing education.  However, though this one starts with education, it’s really about politics, and the world we inhabit nowadays.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s getting tough. Taking over from the combative Michael Gove, she began in conciliatory mood. That angered Tory backwoodsmen, so now she’s showing some steel.

Last week she announced she’d excised from government performance tables all those “valueless” qualifications that she reckoned some schools had been using to boost their points performance. Amongst those rejected were several international GCSEs taken by such dodgy institutions as Eton and Westminster who plummeted to the bottom of the league tables. Hmm.

Next came a powerful pronouncement: children must learn their times tables, up to 12, before secondary school. If they can’t do those, read a novel and do proper spelling and grammar, they’ll … well, what will happen?

Ah, I know. The primary school will be placed in special measures, the head sacked, and the school will become an Academy.

What if it’s already an Academy? The Department for Education didn’t tackle that question. The maths doesn’t add up.

Don’t get me wrong. My privileged education was patchy in parts, but I learned my times tables at school, still use them in mental arithmetic, and think most children should do the same. But two things trouble me.

First, the Secretary of State for Education is no specialist. How does she know how things should be taught, and when? Professional teachers certainly know, but I’m not convinced the DFE is stuffed with them. As a school head I try not to boss subject specialists around, though I hope to engage them in professional discussion. But the way to achieve high standards is not to tell experts what to do when they know more than I do.

Second, what happens to children who can’t learn their 12 times table by the age of 11, or read a novel? No one ever seems to answer that. We’ll be back to the old complaint from the most disastrous Education Secretary of modern times, John Patten, in the early 1990s: he was furious that so many children were below average.  His maths didn’t add up.

Children who can’t learn those things by age 11 need extra support: but will they get it? Or just become a problem for the schools whose results they drag down? Bad for them, bad for the schools.

Another problem occurs. It’s not just politicians who claim the right to tell schools what to do. Latest up is Barclays boss Anthony Jenkins, outraged that schools are allowing children to leave unable to shake hands: look people in the eye; present themselves properly; in other words to have any chance of getting a job.

I accept that schools have a part to play, as parents do too. But schools cannot solve all the problems of society: though they solve many, when not being bossed around and required to implement one politician’s bright idea after another.

Besides, as we continue to seek recovery from the global meltdown caused by wayward bankers (their maths certainly didn’t add up), some might feel members of that profession should keep their heads down a while longer instead of lecturing the rest of us.

Anthony Jenkins asserts that feckless, hopeless youngsters are leaving school and achieving nothing. How good, then, to see that myth thoroughly dispelled in the past week.

Following the disgusting mugging of disabled Gateshead pensioner Alan Barnes, 21 year-old beautician Katie Cutler used the internet (that thing kids waste all their time on) and crowd-funding website to get him some help.

Her modest target was £500. A week later the amount given by good-hearted well-wishers has passed £320,000. Now, there’s some maths that adds up!

Not bad for a young person: there’s hope for us yet!

Thursday 22nd January 2015

I’m not an economist. Though I run what is by some definitions an SME, can read accounts and follow balance-sheets, I don’t understand how the national financial wheels turn.

Still, over the years I’ve grasped some principles of economics, succinctly defined as “the study of the allocation of scarce resources”. It’s sometimes called a “dismal science”, because it identifies harsh realities. Unlike politicians, economists don’t believe they can have jam tomorrow if they haven’t prepared for it today. They believe in consequences, and in opportunity costs. There’s nothing for nothing: or, as that most famous of economists, the late Milton Friedman, put it: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”.

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good: an economist might have written that old proverb. Current falling oil prices are serving to reduce the cost of living. Heating oil, petrol, diesel, the transport that gets to the shops all the things that we buy: even the cost of delivering stuff we’ve ordered online. All are tumbling.

That should be good news. Prime Minister David Cameron urged employers whose costs have shrunk to share the benefit with their hard-pressed employees: after all, most have had precious few pay rises or good news in recent years. His opponents ridiculed him: I think he might have a point.

Low oil prices are, of course, bad news for the petrol companies. While Saudi Arabia produces more oil than the world needs, forcing the price down, western oil companies are feeling the draught. You might say that’s just business: it’s how the real world works.

UK-based oil companies don’t like it at all, however, demanding that government intervene. They add a thinly-veiled threat. Only last week it was suggested that, if government doesn’t do something to help (for example, cut the duty charged on petrol and oil), they might close down oil wells and sack employees.

It gets worse: once closed down, these wells won’t be reopened even if the price rises. We’re warned they’ll be closed off for good, the untapped oil still trapped in the ground.

Hold on a minute! I thought the basis of thriving capitalism was a market-driven economy. You make lots of money in good times, less or none in the bad: no one bails you out. In the old Bible story, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat and seven thin cows as a prophecy of good times followed by bad: so for seven years Ancient Egypt’s barns were filled with surplus harvest, which carried the people through the ensuing seven years of famine. Job done: a ring and a golden coat for Joseph (a kind of Old Testament banker’s bonus, I guess).

It seems business doesn’t work that way anymore. In good times the bosses and shareholders grab all the profits in dividends and bonuses. In bad times, do they survive through that saved-up profit? Some hope! Nowadays they demand government subsidy.

The big corporations’ attempt to blackmail government with threats of job-losses and oil-field closures is resonant of the credit crunch. Bank profits, in the boom times, were routinely described as obscene: when the whole thing imploded, government was forced to bail them out with tax revenue in order to avoid global financial meltdown.

Capitalism, given proper welfare provision for the needy, can fuel a civilised society. Markets free from government rigging or coercion tend to operate effectively.

But freedom should mean just that. I don’t begrudge successful corporations their profits as long as they behave ethically and pay their taxes (that would be something!). But if they’re too greedy to put money aside for rainy days, to use the fruits of good times to fortify themselves against the bad, I don’t see why we should do it for them.

Next economics question: how can 1% of the world’s population own half of its entire wealth?

No. I can’t do that one either.

Thursday 15th January 2015

Technology: does it rule our lives or make them easier? It certainly catches us out, as Tory Chief Whip Michael Gove found when his phone went off in Cabinet on Tuesday, earning him a prime-ministerial rebuke.

For Christmas I received an ironic present, a selfie-stick. Readers will recall I’m pledged never to take a selfie. So how do I reconcile that powerful principle with showing necessary gratitude by using the gift?

I’ve set strict rules for its use. I still won’t take a picture of myself alone with any particular landmark or objet d’art. But I’ve decided it’s allowable to snap groups of friends, for example at a celebratory dinner: thus I tried it out at New Year, just four of us in a Madrid taberna.

It proved less easy than it sounds. First, you have to extend the telescopic arm and hold it out so as to gain the necessary distance for the picture: that’s the point of the stick. Next, a tiny remote control instructs the phone to take the snap.

Family and friends have been screaming with laughter at the resulting picture. My arm and a significant length of stick are clearly visible: and I’m peering over the reading glasses required to work the remote. As the record of an event it’s passable: as photographic art it leaves much to be desired.

Most ordinary people both love and hate technology. I’m a reasonably even-tempered guy, but I’m driven to incoherent fury by the constant refusal of my printer at home to communicate wirelessly with my laptop, which is right there beside it! It’s even flashing to say that it’s connected: but the laptop refuses to recognise it.

The media are full of technology these days. Television shows us driverless cars parking themselves better than I can do it.  Householders installing new central-heating systems are given an IPad to control it. I’m too lazy and mean to buy a cheap computerised system to allow me to turn the heating on by phone when I’m miles from home: but I’m told I could.

My family used to laugh at my digital weather-station in the kitchen: its outside sensor tells me how cold, windy or wet my morning run will be. Now my younger daughter has to walk Bruno, her 11-month-old Labrador, before work every day, she decided she wanted just such a machine for Christmas. Thus Dad’s earlier eccentricity has become a must-have.

Moving on to digital media, I confess I’m enjoying being on Twitter. I can bore the world with my views even beyond the realm of this column: more to the point, the news and (more important) amusing takes on the day’s stories arrive thick and fast in user-friendly 140-character bites.

I don’t do Facebook. In my line of work there are potential problems with some social media: but the real reason is that the family say I’d embarrass them. In the light of my New Year photos, the world certainly doesn’t need viral coverage of me eating large meals.

As it happens, the visionary founder of Facebook, billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, made news last week, albeit in an unexpected way. He proclaimed he’d discovered a great new medium for disseminating ideas: it’s called a book. He’s immensely enthused by this new discovery and (devoid of irony) thinks it could be the future.

Apparently he read a pretty obscure volume and enthused about it on Facebook: so influential is the Zuckerberg opinion, that justly-neglected little book is now a best-seller.

This encourages me to hope. On my study shelf I keep 40 remaindered copies of an education book I wrote in 1997. The family frequently comment wryly, “You haven’t shifted any more copies then?”

Perhaps this is my chance. If I could just get a copy to Zuckerberg, persuade him to read and endorse it, I too could become a global sensation.

Be fair. Everyone needs a dream!

Thursday 8th January 2015

They say travel broadens the mind. It works for me. After a family Christmas, the Traffords went their separate ways and two of us finished the festive season with old friends in Madrid.

The Spanish take New Year seriously. By 3pm on New Year’s Eve shops were closing, not to reopen until 2nd January: the capital was holding its breath.

To see in the New Year we booked a table in a taberna and rolled up for what the Spaniards consider an early start, 9.30pm. Expecting to spin out the evening beyond midnight, we were surprised to be chucked out at 11.45 as all the staff also put on their coats, grabbed a bottle of Cava and took to the streets.

Madrid doesn’t possess a focal point like Trafalgar Square, nor a river like the Thames, so there weren’t spectacular fireworks. But madrileños descend on a central square, the Puerta del Sol, or as close as they can get to it (we were several hundred yards away).

Nearly everyone in that vast crowd followed the Spanish tradition of eating a dozen grapes while the clock strikes midnight. I never heard a clock, but we gulped down our allotted grapes. There was an atmosphere of hilarity, noisy celebration, but not a hint of threat, danger or even excessive drinking. It was entirely good-natured partying.

We also ate at the world’s oldest restaurant, displaying its certificate from the Guinness Book of Records. In continuous operation since 1725, Botín lurks under the massive buttresses of the 17th-Century Plaza Mayor, and still uses its original wood-fired oven which produced us a hearty roast dinner al español.

For lunches we foraged in the nearby Mercado de San Miguel, a cast-iron market building now dedicated exclusively to (fairly posh) food and drink. Madrileños and tourists alike wander round with a glass of wine, purchasing bite-size Spanish delicacies from dozens of stalls.

I realise I’ve talked more about the food than about the cultural experience. The Prado and Thyssen galleries house mind-blowing art collections: but perhaps that mix reflects my idea of a good city-break.

I like meeting people, too. Everywhere we encountered French, Dutch, Germans and Italians, tourists like us. Nonetheless, all seemed to sit comfortably with the city’s easy-going Spanish inhabitants. We enjoyed finding restaurants and cafés that they, not merely we tourists, choose; conducting friendly, interesting conversations in an atrociously ungrammatical mix of our two languages; and finding, as so often, that the city’s inhabitants are simultaneously fiercely proud of their home and nationality, warmly welcoming and ready to talk to visitors. The culture is open and infinitely ready to extend a friendly greeting to outsiders.

Yes, travelling did broaden my mind, as well as my waistline. Madrid’s fine buildings and relaxed friendliness reminded me strongly of Newcastle, where people are similarly ready to talk.

Returning to the UK, I couldn’t miss the contrast. News coverage of fears over immigration, not to mention pre-Election mud-slinging already underway, reminded me that we need to learn from other cultures, not fear them.

We should seek to lower barriers, communicate and share with our European neighbours much more readily. We shouldn’t permit politicians’ agendas to us turn us inwards so we see “outside” as a threat and build our walls higher. There’s a lot wrong with the Europe Union: but the fault lies with a complacent, inefficient political structure whose bureaucracy spreads like bindweed and perpetuates itself, not with people, ordinary Europeans.

Whatever UK government is elected in May, it must cut back Europe’s sprawling inefficiencies and shake off its madder control mechanisms (not human rights, however!). But don’t confuse that strangling political machinery with the righteous desire to create a harmonious European family of nations. That family wants to live with us in brotherhood and share the great richness that is European culture.

Perhaps anti-Europe “Little Britishers” should travel a bit. It might broaden their minds.

Thursday 1 January 2014

Looking back is inevitable at the turn of the year. Recovering from Christmas excess, we scour the media for all those quizzes and reviews of the past year.

Casting my mind over the past year’s columns, I reckon I talked more about politicians and failures of leadership than anything else.

2014 was a poor year for many leaders. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un became reportedly so fat that he disappeared from public view. Vladimir Putin became officially a dangerous lunatic (though not necessarily at home).

French President François Holland became a laughing-stock after conducting an affair with an actress… by moped (unforgivably uncool). Closer to home, leaders of Britain’s major parties were twice upstaged, first by Alex Salmond who, despite losing the Scottish independence vote, is aiming for a Westminster seat in May.

Next came Nigel Farage, that cheeky, beery chappie who, notwithstanding his latest pig-ignorant gaffe of blaming M4 traffic-jams on immigrants, remains so high-profile as to cause Cameron and Miliband nightmares.

Thus it was amusing to read in the Sunday Times that political leaders rank low in the estimation of ordinary people in terms of their moral leadership. A recent survey suggested the Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge provide the best moral leadership for Britons, winning 34% and 30% respectively. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, managed just 15%, pipped by 17-year-old Nobel prize-winner Malala Yousafzai’s 19%.

David Cameron managed just 8%: but he wasn't the biggest loser. Nigel Farage won the negative (worst moral leadership) poll with 39%.

It’s weird. Most of us know dedicated MPs who work hard for the good of their constituents. Yet, when we look to Westminster, and with only five months until a General Election, it’s clear we cannot trust politicians to act on principle on a national scale, to do things that are right for this country, whether they are difficult things to achieve or easy.  

Policy is driven entirely by what will win votes. Indeed, a by-product of the fixed-term parliament established by the Coalition (something I thought a good idea at the time) is that there is currently no legislation or policy-making going on. Tory MPs are even being encouraged to take a day out of Parliament in order to campaign.

So government’s not about protecting the country from financial disaster,  whether you believe in combatting the ongoing effects of the global economic slowdown by embracing Tory austerity or adopting Labour’s growth agenda. It’s all, and solely, about parties getting themselves elected.

As we embark on a New Year, should we be worried that the public lacks confidence in the moral leadership of politicians? I don't think so. We have to elect them and I hope we all do our democratic duty by holding them to account, but we don't have to like or trust them. I wish we could: but in our cynical modern political world that’s just too much to ask.

Conversely I’m cheered by the vote for the Queen and the Cambridges. HM doesn't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from: she doesn't live with the trials and challenges of ordinary life faced by so many. But she does maintain a firm moral compass: she’s generous in praise of those who deserve it; and she and the top royals tirelessly promote good works and causes by acting as patrons, honouring events and raising their status through their very presence at them.

That is true moral leadership, and it's pleasing that a newspaper poll endorses it, even in that relatively trivial format.

My hope for 2015 is that we’ll demand greater effectiveness and better behaviour from our politicians, but won’t feel betrayed when they disappoint. For example and moral leadership we can look to others, such as the Queen: and, while Westminster squabbles, maybe ordinary people can work together to build a more just, tolerant and successful society.

Happy New Year!