Thursday 27th August 2015

One of the privileges of being a columnist is the opportunity it affords to be wise with hindsight. We often end with a hint of “I told you so”.

Another thing we’re prone to say, as the latest crisis leads to demands that “something must be done”, is to warn from the side-lines that we should be careful what we wish for.

I came back from holiday feeling I could regard many current issues from both standpoints.

One story was the revelation that Cedric Belfrage, a government agent in America during the Second World War, had spent years sending military secrets to the Russians.  Yet after the war there was no prosecution. Such action would cause such embarrassment to our secret services that it was deemed best to let that sleeping dog lie.

To overlook such treason seems incredible: except that cover-up and turning blind eyes remain commonplace. Think credit-crunch: in the corridors of the City or Whitehall, chaps merely have bad apples up to lunch and tell them chaps can’t behave like that.

Notwithstanding my cynicism, I’m encouraged that, by and large, modern society is becoming ever more open, opportunities steadily diminishing even for the most powerful to hide away the things they’d rather we didn’t see.

So on one level I was mischievously pleased when it was revealed that computer hackers had torn into the Ashley Madison website and made public details of all its subscribers.

I’m old-fashioned about things like marriage, though I know Mrs Trafford and I are fortunate to have held it together for 34 years (my grown-up daughters observe a little too often that I couldn’t function without Mum to organise me). Not all marriages work out: things change for one or both partners, and separation or divorce becomes inevitable.

So I try not to be judgmental: but a website designed to help people set out with expressly to commit adultery is repugnant. Well done, those hackers!

Or was it? I don’t like what Ashley Madison does or did: but who has the right to say, “I don’t like this, so I’ll destroy it”? Is that not a form of digital or business terrorism? And what about those, exposed as adulterers, who have taken their own lives?

Those questions led my thoughts on to the current travails of the Labour Party. It’s clear a slim majority of Labour supporters want to see the party move to the left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. For the moderates/centrists/Blairites who have held sway for 20 years, that’s unthinkable: the mechanism the outgoing Ed Miliband set up is leading to “the wrong person” being elected.

The plot thickens. Opponents of the party are joining to vote for Corbyn: if they succeed, it’s claimed, the party will render itself unelectable, condemned to decades in the wilderness.

Of course the party wants to defend itself against fifth-columnists: but that raises more questions. Who decides whether an applicant is a genuine Labour supporter? What if you genuinely wanted to join the party because you sought to change it democratically form within? Would you be allowed in?

Surely the Labour party must be open and democratic: yet if it remains so it’s apparently vulnerable to wreckers.

I’m not a party-political animal, and if anything a centrist. It grieves me to see any party become extreme: but the democrat in me says it must be permitted to, if its members desire that move. For Labour’s right wing to seize back control and stop the leftward swing would surely be undemocratic: unless that dramatic lurch to the left is proved to be a wrecking tactic by those inimical to the party.

I don’t know the answers. I hope the dilemma’s resolved in the Labour party: democracy demands it.

I remain a passionate advocate of openness: but I can see how, from time to time, we need to be careful what we wish for.


Thursday 6th August 2015

Who’d have thought it? Fancy a magazine titled Glamour creating a media storm! Yet Glamour US did just that by posting on its website thirteen tips for a woman to keep her man happy.

It opened: “If you’re wondering about what would make a guy swoon – as in, romantic little gestures that would make him fall even more in love with you – take a look at these 13 ideas that are all but guaranteed to lock him down.”

The tips that caused widespread fury included giving him a cold drink as he steps out of the shower: swotting up statistics of his favourite sports team to show interest; pretending to enjoy the rubbish TV he watches; serving him fast food (hot dogs) in bed; and answering the door naked.

Critics around the world slammed the article as “promoting a patronizing and outdated view of dating”. The Twittersphere was humming, complaining that the advice encouraged women to “be a living sex doll who makes sandwiches and laughs at his jokes”. Even blokes found it “insulting to men and women”.

Glamour’s hot tips are by no means glamorous: they’re cringe-making. Hints about lovemaking are coyly saucy, the least embarrassing suggestion to “make him a snack after sex”.

Apparently men like fixing things (actually, I do like playing with the house electrics, to my wife’s consternation): the list encourages the woman to let her man feel needed by helping “solve her petty work problem”.

Number 5’s just peculiar: to misquote Reginald Perrin’s infamous boss, CJ, neither Mrs Trafford nor I has ever felt the need to answer the door naked. Besides, what if it’s the postman knocking, rather than the anticipated lover?

The final tip I simply didn’t understand: “taking him back to third grade with a gentle tease over anything from how you’ll dominate him on the basketball court to the weird way he just styled his hair.” What?

It’s tempting to become smugly parochial and dismiss this rubbish as cultural difference, something acceptable in America but not here: but remember, it wasn’t acceptable there either. Nonetheless I’m reminded of writer Alan Bennett, dragged along by a friend to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in New York. In time-honoured AA fashion, the participants took turns flaying themselves with their personal confessions.

When the circle reached our National Treasure, he managed only to say: “I’m Alan. I’m English, and we don’t do this kind of thing.”

Really, we don’t. While I’m always willing to be indulged, pampered or spoiled, I don’t expect it. A successful relationship is a partnership, and based on rather deeper foundations than 13 embarrassing tips for the allegedly weaker partner to pander to the stronger.

You’ll find the list online, but not on Glamour US’s website. They took it down with an apology: “we understand that the list read like a 1950s marriage handbook – and nobody wants to go back there.”

Are you so sure? I can’t help wondering whether sheer self-preservation shouldn’t lead us men, useless, feckless and gullible as this list defines us, to encourage a return to 1950s priorities.

After all, it’s a well-known fact that women are taking over the world (not before time). The glass ceiling, so skilfully engineered by men for so many years, is finally cracking as women steadily take over the boardroom. Even in Parliament women are becoming more numerous and powerful (and, for the most part, far more effective).

Understand this. We men will soon be an endangered species. In relationships and marriage, we’re mercifully still regarded as essential to the procreative process: for now. In time even that will be sorted, and we shall be obsolete.

When that happens, don’t expect the “little woman” any longer to indulge our slobbish TV-watching habits or laugh at our pathetic jokes. It’s the knacker’s yard for us.

Meanwhile, the list omitted the most important tip: what about making sure my shirts are ironed?

 

Thursday 30th July 2015

“The rain it poor'd aw the day 

 

an' myed the groond quite muddy…”

 

Thus starts the last verse of George Ridley’s immortal song, The Blaydon Races. These last few days inevitably brought it to mind, and also made me think about the way we English cope with our appalling summer weather. 

 

On Monday I found myself a participant in a uniquely English pastime: spending several hours in a cricket pavilion watching pools form on the immaculately-kept pitch as the rain fell in stair-rods. 

 

I was at the handsome Jesmond Ground, home of Newcastle Cricket Club, formally opening the new practice nets (already heavily used by adult, youth and school players alike). It was an opportunity to thank funders and sponsors and take pleasure in how good both ground and pavilion are looking these days, a valuable amenity in that bit of the city.

 

We’d hoped also to enjoy a T20 match between England’s Physical Disability team and NUSC (an organisation for top club sportsmen based in northern universities). This should have been a cracking contest: sadly, with not a ball bowled all morning, the players posed for TV cameras at lunchtime and departed for training.

 

That left us supporters staring at the sheets of rain and wondering whether they would play on Tuesday instead: they didn’t.

 

When I moved North full-time in 2008, I loved the fact that Northumberland is one of the driest parts of England, albeit windier and somewhat cooler than others. Prolonged periods of rain jar with my mental image of our adopted home. 

 

How do holidaying families cope when rain descends? My now-grown-up family assembled in Northumberland this week, and the cards and Mah Jong came out as of old while we waited for a gap in the clouds. Bruno the Labrador, now 18 months old, would normally have been bursting to get outside: but he’s had a tummy upset so was below par, happy to trot out gently between showers rather than rampaging over the hills.

 

For adults there’s a worthwhile alternative occupation for wet summer days: the good old English pub. A lengthy lunch accompanied by excellent conversation can get us through the middle period, avoiding any subsequent guilt about missing the (notably absent) sunshine.

 

In north Northumberland we Traffords cunningly combine the pub with necessary exercise. We often find that, if it’s raining in the hills, it’s drier on the coast. Thus a walk along Bamburgh Beach is followed by lunch in the marvellous Olde Ship Inn in Seahouses and generally a trip round the corner to Swallows, the amazing fish merchants/smokers!

 

Children grow up, families change, and we gain such additions as Bruno (who, even in a weakened state, loved the beach and sea): but we have been following this ritual for more than two decades.

 

Still, when the rain’s incessant, the English are never stuck for conversation. We can talk the hind leg off even the wettest donkey about our weather. And thus we cope. 

 

We’re practised at coping. I may experience that wet-cricket phenomenon only rarely, but keen test-match followers are immured to it. In their glory days, the BBC radio-commentary team, led by John Arlott and Brian Johnston (“Johnners”), filled days of rain-enforced inactivity with hilarious reminiscence and comparative analysis of the chocolate cakes listeners sent in. What’s the main topic nowadays, I wonder?

 

If we were senior peers, it appears we could occupy ourselves with cocaine and prostitutes, seemingly on parliamentary expenses: fortunately, perhaps, we’re not.

 

Meanwhile, if it’s still raining while you read this (I fear it will be), you might like to fill the time discussing the following: (i) weren’t summers better when we were young? (ii) isn’t it something to do with the Jet Stream being in the wrong place? (iii) if we give it another hour, do you think there’ll be any play?

 

It’s what we English do. And we do it so well.


Thursday 23rd July 2015

Leaders (or, at any rate, people in leading positions) don’t have it easy. Take our Prime Minister. David Cameron was democratically elected to run the country according to our system: but less than half the population voted for him. Thus, whatever he tries to do for the country will receive praise from some but only brickbats from the majority.

Well, that’s politics. Public reaction is much more fickle when it comes to ephemeral leaders. Take those who, by dint of exceptional achievement (generally in sport), occupy the spotlight for a brief time, enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame: how quickly they’re often transformed from hero to villain.

In the first Ashes test in Cardiff, England’s cricket team was confident, commanding, inspired. They never let their opponents into the game: the win was decisive. Yet last Sunday saw the same team abject in defeat.

Full marks to the Aussies who, instead of whinging and recriminating (something we Brits do far too often), got stuck in and regained their self-respect in the best possible way: by achieving a knockout win. England in their turn simply caved in, one batsman even forgetting the old schoolboy rule of running his bat into the crease while grabbing a quick run. It was laughable: or tragic, depending on your view. Heroes became not villains but clowns.

Sometimes it seems we resent others’ success, picking away at it like a scab to find something nasty underneath. As I write this, cyclist Chris Froome is steadily extending his lead in the Tour de France. That particular race is, I think, longer and tougher than any other on the cycling circuit. I don’t know how the wearer of the yellow jersey manages to beat all comers in mountains, long distance and short time trials: but that’s what he must do.

Yet what greets Froome? A cup of urine thrown in his face as someone spits the word “cheat” at him.

To be fair, he’s in a dodgy sport. Lots of us admired the extraordinary Lance Armstrong who came back from cancer and produced unparalleled performances in the mountains. Only years later were those wins revealed as being achieved through doping.

But why must apparently popular opinion consider Froome considered guilty until proved innocent? How can he demonstrate he’s not taking drugs? Despite a rigorous dope-testing regime, the fact that Armstrong fraudulently won seven Tour wins proves there’s still much to do.

I believe Froome’s clean. It’s no accident he’s leading the Tour, having previously won in 2013: indeed, Sir Bradley Wiggins’s 2012 triumph was slightly diminished by everyone knowing Froome could have won himself instead of loyally supporting, always on Wiggo’s back wheel. 

It takes teamwork to win the Tour. Success lies in the preparation: not the weeks before the event but the years of building necessary skill, strength and stamina. It lends added credence to the now widely-accepted view that exceptional success stems from 10,000 hours’ work.

In my job I spend a lot of time wishing boys and girls luck: before exams; before a big sports fixture; before a play or concert. Then I can’t resist spoiling it by adding that they make their own luck by being supremely prepared.

It’s dogged hard work and resilience that create truly lasting success, something very different from the fleeting fame of so many reality TV shows. So when an authentic star emerges, like Chris Froome, we should honour and admire him, not seek reasons to knock him off his pedestal.  This Sunday should see him crowned winner, hopefully silencing his critics. He deserves no less.

Meanwhile, those would-be Labour Party leaders who endure cringe-making TV debates, perched awkwardly behind lecterns like quiz-show contestants, might usefully recall how swiftly Red Ed, the Hope of the Left, became Hapless Ed, cursed by that bacon sandwich. 

They might find their own party even more fickle and hard to please than the electorate.


Thursday 16th July 2015

When I was 10 I suffered a prolonged illness. To cheer me up in hospital my parents brought me comics and joke-books. Restored to health, I’d regale family and friends with jokes I didn’t understand. Mum and Dad squirmed with (mercifully tolerant) embarrassment as I’d recount the old chestnut: “Do you smoke after making love?” “I don’t know. I’ve never looked”.

I was reminded of that one by recent headlines about “Californication”. A new law in California and New York requires university students to gain written consent before having sex.

If that sounds cumbersome, help’s available. Young American would-be lovers can buy a “consent kit” comprising a pen, a certificate both parties sign to affirm their shared willingness, a condom and some mints.

Now, I understand that, as a middle-aged man, father of two and headteacher, I am generally considered by definition ignorant of real life and, particularly, of the intricacies of sexual shenanigans.

Nonetheless, rushing in where angels fear to tread (as ever), here goes.

First, don’t think I’m trying to trivialise the serious issues behind Californication. Over the years, many previously male-dominated university campuses have, notwithstanding almost universal change to co-education, perpetuated a culture that routinely views young women as sex objects.

Press reports have uncovered a similarly disturbing undercurrent in UK university life: male Cambridge undergraduates “scoring” their female peers for attractiveness; London School of Economics rugby club promoting sexist (and homophobic) attitudes; young men regularly encouraged to chat up “slags and trollops” in the expectation of receiving carnal favours.

Too often young women find themselves coerced into sexual activity that, if not actually rape, is at best barely consensual.

We certainly have a problem.

But is a written contract the solution?  For whose benefit is that consent written down? You could regard it as a male establishment ploy to ensure that, after pressuring a girl to sleep with him (has he been plying her with alcohol or drugs too?), the bloke is protected against any comeback.

Maybe this contract is all about the male of the species covering his backside (while uncovering everything else).

Where does that leave romance? Many physical liaisons (hopefully, the majority) are truly loving, arising naturally from mutual desire. Can romance withstand the requirement to sit down first and sign a form? (It could have been worse. US legislators might have required a third party to witness the contract: That would be truly weird).

We inhabit a litigious world nowadays. In the public sector, the response to past tragedies that stemmed from a deplorable absence of care, risk assessment or safeguarding has given rise to complex paper-trails. School heads countersign countless forms to signify approval for all kinds of activities, while teachers can barely take children outside the classroom without completing forms in triplicate.

Does paperwork make children any safer? Actually, it probably does: but there’s a danger that, when endless boxes have to be ticked, completion of the paper trail assumes more importance than exercising common sense in the real situation.

Still, that’s all to do with society and public institutions. What about the legalistic intrusion of Californication into private lives?

It’s surely a sad world that requires a paper-trail even for the intensely intimate act of making love.

There must be better ways. Learning from past wrongs, which I don’t underestimate, recent damning exposures of campus sexism, proper attention accorded to the voice of women, and laudable attempts in universities to enlighten young men will in time combine to bear fruit. Awareness, empathy and appreciation of the point of view of others will prove more effective weapons than a written contract in the battle to change human behaviour.

I hope the rest of the world’s universities won’t follow New York and California but will trust instead to reason, education, common sense and sensitivity.

Meanwhile, I’m still puzzled about that consent pack. Where do the mints come into the whole thing?


Thursday 9th July 2015

A hero of mine died last week. Sir Nicholas Winton, often termed the British Oskar Schindler, was 106.

A stockbroker by profession, Winton was working in Czechoslovakia in 1939. Almost by accident, it seems, he found himself organising trains (Kindertransport) to take hundreds of Jewish children to safety away from Nazi persecution.

669 children were saved in all. Their descendants now number some 6,000. 

It wasn’t all happy endings. Only children could go: partings on the Prague platform must have been grievous, few escaping youngsters ever seeing their parents or families again.

The last Kindertransport never left Prague. With some 200 more children on board its departure was prevented by the outbreak of war as Germany invaded Poland, demonstrating how life or death balance on a knife-edge in such perilous situations.

Winton’s ancestry was Jewish-German, his father having taken a British name: Winton claimed he saved the children not because they were Jewish, but because they were children, persecuted and in great danger.

Indeed, he followed no religion in adult life and was characteristically abrupt when, back in Britain, members of the Jewish community criticised the way that some of the children he rescued were placed with families that would bring them up as Christians. “Mind your own business,” he replied. He was busy saving lives. That brusque intolerance of bureaucracy and of those who create obstacles was surely what enabled him to achieve what he did.

He was awarded an MBE in the 1980s: but not for his work with the Kindertransport. That was for his part in founding Abbeyfield homes: they house many elderly people, including nowadays my 94-year-old Dad. 

Winton never told anyone what he achieved in 1939. For him he’d just done something that needing doing, now in the past. But in the eighties his wife found the diaries and scrapbooks in which he had recorded the names and details of the children whom he saved.

Esther Rantzen ambushed him on her That’s Life TV programme, and his remarkable story began to emerge. He was finally knighted in 2002 and, over the next decade, received other recognition, including honours in the Czech Republic.

Once his secret was revealed, it seems he didn’t mind talking about it, so I take it that his earlier silence stemmed from natural reticence, not a particular desire for secrecy. I admire that.

One of his many newspaper obituaries quoted the 12th-Century Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar, Maimonides, who said that, in the best kind of giving, “One gives alms to the poor in such a way that the giver knows not to whom the alms are given, nor does the poor person know from whom the alms are received”. That was certainly Winton’s style.

I confess I’m frequently repelled by the razzamatazz that surrounds major fundraising. Of course, it would be ungracious to criticise such enormous events as Children in Need or Comic Relief that raise tens of millions of pounds for good causes. Nonetheless the shrill and self-congratulatory tone so often adopted contrasts painfully, to my mind, with the quiet admonition of Jesus (echoed centuries later by Maimonides) that, when giving alms, the left hand shouldn’t know what the right hand’s doing. 

It’s no use being naïve about this. The massive publicity and media frenzy surrounding those huge telethons are central to generating such colossal sums:  they’re not about to reduce the hype that brings such rewards.

Nonetheless, a man like Nicholas Winton who did such significant good so quietly is a rare example to us all. The plaudits and honours came to him late in life after his story became public knowledge: he was amused by much of it and remained quietly modest.

If the reward for such transparent goodness was a long life, he received it. I suspect a reward awaits him in heaven too.

The world has lost a great man and a powerful force for good.


Thursday 2nd July 2015

Television interviewers ask inane questions at times: one I heard last week took the biscuit. Amid the horror of the Jihadist outrage in Tunisia, a reporter quizzed a number of Brits returning home as quickly as they could:  “Why are you leaving Tunisia?”

I can’t remember if any coherent answer was given. I doubt it.

What could they reply? Was it to do with the beach and deckchairs bathed in blood? The horror on everyone’s faces? The tales (inevitably) of heroism and sacrifice as selfless individuals placed their bodies between the gunman and someone they loved? Why wouldn’t they get the hell out of there?

It seems that inane comments are spreading inexorably. Whenever I travel to London, an announcement welcomes me to “my” train. Not yours, not someone else’s: apparently that enormous vehicle is running for me, and me alone.

You don’t believe me? Listen to the guard announcing: “Welcome aboard your 0729 service to London Kings Cross”.

That same possessive adjective is repeated at each subsequent station, where new arrivals on the train are welcomed to “their” 0855 train, taking precedence over the buffet (“no trolley service in Standard Class due to staff shortages”) and even over apologies for the lateness of the service (rarely, in truth, on recent journeys).

This notion of personalisation (they do it on planes too) is a wheeze presumably dreamed up by a marketing executive at head office.

I’m not fooled. It’s not my train. It doesn’t belong to any one of the hundreds packed on board. It’s an illusion, designed to make us feel good.

Now supermarkets are at it. We’re constantly urged to make the most of “your” Tesco, Waitrose, whatever. Simple loyalty cards are old hat. The big chains now urge us to design our own special offers.

No longer need we wait until our favourite cheese, breakfast cereal or washing-up liquid is on special offer, and then load up. Nor do we necessarily suffer any longer the embarrassment of carrying 48 loo rolls home because we got a BOGOFF with the first 24.

We’re informed that we can identify our favourite products and then negotiate a discount on them for the next x months. Frankly, I lose the will to live.

We’re hectored at checkouts. Why, they demand, aren’t I personalising my loyalty card so that my local supermarket is now truly “mine”?

I’m not an unfriendly bloke. I’m prepared to have a chat: indeed, I’m pretty affable. But I don’t want to negotiate my own personalised customer service deal. I just want to find what I want, pay for it with relative anonymity and go.

Thank goodness bars and restaurants don’t badger us in the same way. Well, not quite. Nonetheless Mrs Trafford and I are becoming a little tired of being referred to as “you guys” by cheery waiters and waitresses who insist on being chummy.

I don’t need to be called Sir: I get enough of that at work. But why do we have to be lumped together as “you guys”? Moreover, when leave the restaurant, we don’t understand the admonition to “have yourselves a great evening”.

We’ve had the evening: we’ve gone out to eat, and enjoyed the meal. We’re not heading on to several nightclubs, dancing and drinking till 3am. I mean, look at us! You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that we’re going home for the late news and Horlicks.

The point is, really good service makes any of us feel special. So we’re not “you guys”, and we’re not on “our” train shared with hundreds of other travellers.

Really sharp marketing makes us feel uniquely welcome and special: it doesn’t follow a formula.

That takes effort. Sadly, like the mindlessly questioning journalist in Tunisia, businesses find generic questions and wishes easier, contradictorily ignoring the individuality of the customer.

Everything all right with this column, guys? Great! Have yourselves a nice day!

See what I mean?

 

Thursday 25th June 2015

It’s midsummer. You can tell because it’s so blooming cold. I started the Longest Day in Yorkshire, where the weather was chilly and blustery. Returning to Newcastle, I found it brighter, the sun having struggled through: but the wind kept the temperature arctic.

An unseasonal midsummer is, I guess, as traditional as us Brits complaining about it. It has the comfort of familiarity.

Over the past fortnight leafy Jesmond, where I live, has (as usual) been holding its breath in anticipation of the Hoppings. As we Traffords puff across the Town Moor on our early-morning run (only on alternate days), we’ve been observing the enormous fairground taking shape.

Residents and local businesses become twitchy during the Hoppings. The normally quiet area is invaded by huge numbers of visitors. The streets between Jesmond and West Jesmond Metro stations and the Town Moor witness little processions of families slightly bewildered and lost as they wander down one wrong turning after another, knowing vaguely where the Hoppings must be but not quite able to locate it.

They need only use their ears! The Hoppings is raucous and noisy, every stall or ride competing with its neighbours to attract customers. As you walk around, you can also appreciate the conflicting smells: sweet stalls up against fish and chips, candyfloss next to burgers, a confusion of competing odours almost as cacophonic as the noise.

I confess I like the Hoppings. In these days of 24-hour global news, and of video-games so sophisticated that children playing them can believe they’re in the computerised control room of a real theatre of war or sports stadium, I find it charming that there is still something for families to love in those garish, old-fashioned rides.

There remains a thrill in clanking up to the top of a rollercoaster before hurtling down the slope and whipping round those tight bends, in the pure Victorian adrenalin-rush of descending a wooden helter-skelter. From the big wheel you see Newcastle stretched out below you. And if you’re brave (which I’m not) you can go on those crazy rides that whirl you around at heights which make me sick and speeds that scare me witless.

Despite the fact that a small modern family car easily tops 100 mph (if you want to risk the cameras), we shriek with excitement as we bang around the dodgem cars or spin around, dizzy and nauseous, on the Waltzers.

There’s still a pleasure in stumbling nervously through the Haunted House or Ghost Train, shrieking in mock horror as a sheet brushes your face in the darkness, masquerading as a cobweb, and a far-from-convincing skeleton points its bony finger at you under a flashing light as a siren honks.

Thank goodness we haven’t lost our childlike pleasure in these quaint, simple temples of fun. To be sure, most adults feel they need to take a child or two as an excuse for going to the Hoppings. Those of us past that stage but without grandchildren wander round somewhat disengaged, observing the human race at play.

It’s all a pose. We too get caught up in the excitement, the colours, the lights, the noise and the smells. We delight in it, wonder at the long queues for the fortune-tellers (all claiming descent from the original Gypsy Rose Lee) and then indulge our particular fancy, for Mrs Trafford an irresistible fudge stall.

Next week will be very different: the Hoppings will be gone; the students are leaving; and schools will soon finish. Jesmond will utter a sigh of relief, and over-anxious residents will be less obsessive about locking windows and setting alarms. The area will resume its summer aura of suburban sleepiness.

Nonetheless, it’s good to live dangerously occasionally, isn’t it? Brandling is charmingly old-fashioned, but distinctly staid. The Hoppings furnishes its annual walk on the wild side, a moment of louche self-indulgence: Jesmond and Newcastle are the richer for it.

 

Thursday 18th June 2015

“King John was not a good man –

He had his little ways;

And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days and days and days.”

So wrote AA Milne in his charming second book of children’s poems, Now We Are Six. In Milne’s poem the king isn’t concerned with affairs of state: he just wants Father Christmas to bring him “a big red india-rubber ball”. In the poem he gets his wish (eventually): he didn’t in real life. Moral: be careful what you wish for.

King John wasn’t a good man. Monday saw the 800th Anniversary of his come-uppance, delivered by the barons: it’s important we celebrate it.

Magna Carta wasn’t the first time justice was enshrined in law. Alfred the Great’s grandson Aethelstan, arguably the first King of all the English, was a legal reformer. He considered it wrong, for example, to execute young boys merely for stealing.

Nonetheless Magna Carta, the barons’ Great Charter, attempted for the first, faltering time to protect the rights of everyone in law: and it enshrined the fact that not even the king was above the law. It was hardly a modern bill of rights, nor a universal declaration, but it was a start.

We do well to remind ourselves how hard-won are the rights we take for granted. While celebrating the seventieth anniversary of VE Day we heard testimony from ex-soldiers who liberated the Nazi concentration camps, and from their few remaining survivors.

The Holocaust was permitted to take place because a totalitarian regime was able to decide that Jews should have no rights. Even after that horror, even today, we still see around the world examples of persecution and genocide where particular racial groups are casually denied the protection, dignity and safety the rest of us enjoy.

After WW2 Britain was understandably one of the chief architects of the European Convention on Human Rights. So it worries me when politicians talk glibly of withdrawing from it because it doesn’t entirely satisfy us Brits.

Yes, it’s irritating when, say, a convicted criminal from overseas cannot be deported because he has started a family here and a judge rules that to separate him from them would deny his human rights.

It’s aggravating. But if we want real human rights we have to accept some frustrations. Try this out. Revisit the sentence above, replacing the phrase “convicted criminal from overseas” with “person we don’t like”: if we still disagree with the judge, we’re starting down a very slippery slope.

There’s media outcry whenever judges in Brussels overrule a court here. But we shouldn’t confuse upholding fundamental rights with low-level bureaucratic meddling from Brussels of the sort that determines the shape of cucumbers or how we install our plumbing.

Legal process can be clumsy, expensive and infuriating. Charles Dickens lampooned it in Bleak House, whose perpetual court case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce eventually collapses because the money in dispute has been swallowed up in costs.

Last weekend’s Sunday Times bewailed the dozens of expensive barristers lined up for the Rotherham child abuse enquiry, costing millions. Outrageous! Surely someone sensible could simply sort it out, without wasting money on lawyers’ arguments?

I could do it! I’d do a good job, because I’m such a reasonable guy. Sadly, to others I might by contrast appear a dangerous lunatic.

No. Such things cannot be entrusted to one person (however wise!). Our protection lies in fair legal process: in justice, indeed.

It’s a wilful deceit to claim that human rights law, protected by the courts and due process, are too cumbersome. It was shameful that David Cameron took a swipe at the European Convention at Monday’s Runnymede commemoration.

When we take shortcuts, we snip away at the edges of justice. The inhuman excesses of the 20th Century demonstrate what happens when we do that.

A UK Bill of Rights? Who decides what rights? Whose rights?

Like King John, be careful what you wish for.


Thursday 11th June 2015

This is the time of year when any walk in the country takes you past enormous bulls looking more than a little contented. Farmers tell me the month of June is the bulls’ big moment when they get to run with the herd, a polite euphemism for not doing much running at all: they’re too busy impregnating the cows to produce next year’s calves.

At least they get their moment of glory. A few years back I feared bulls were on their way out, farmers instead opting for artificial insemination: as the schoolboy howler goes, “AI is when the farmer does it to the cow instead of the bull.”

Now it seems those massive Northumberland bulls that spend most of their year on their own surrounded by sheep are allowed once more to do what they were born for. I was reminded of them when I read yet another report about how the human race evolved.

It seems that, although we Homo Sapiens have been around as a recognizable species for some 150,000 years, we were pretty hopeless for the first third of that period. Only some 50,000 years ago did we start behave like creative, imaginative beings for the first time. It was about then that the first carvings and cave painting started to appear, early artifacts we can still see and appreciate today.

So what changed? According to a 2012 study by anthropologists at University College, London, it was we males. We stopped copying those bulls in the field, eschewed roaring and pumping our barrel-chests, slimmed down and became, well, more feminine.

As testosterone levels fell, blokes stopped fighting and banging their heads together, became more sociable and, cooperating with the females, became the hunter-gatherers that have ruled creation ever since.

It’s clear what happened. Prehistoric Eve had had enough. “I’m fed up with you going down the pub, getting out of your skull, fighting over a woman and rolling home here to sleep it off. From now on we’re doing the hunter-gathering together.”

Prehistoric Adam issued the eternal and universal signal of defeat, “Yes, dear,” and the rest is (pre-)history. Ancient Man became New Man.

I’m something of a New Man myself, at present. Regular readers will recall that I was busy setting myself up as a rival to Poldark hero Aidan Turner. My technique was to stand and smoulder in Newcastle’s Northumberland Street, hoping passers-by would spot me.

They didn’t. I reckon Geordies are an unobservant lot.  Perhaps I was expecting too much: I had no scythe, not having the skill, and kept my shirt on.

Now my smouldering days are over. I have a new toy. For a recent birthday my wife and a daughter conspired to buy me a bizarrely-named Nike+ Fuelband. This hi-tech programmable fitness bracelet measures my physical activity (steps taken and calories burnt) and calculates a “Nike+ Fuel” measure.

I was sceptical. I feared it would irritate the hell out of me. The girls reckoned I’m such a gadget-fiend I wouldn’t be able to resist it.

Annoyingly, they were right. I’m obsessed with hitting my daily target. If I haven’t reached it by mid-evening, I insist we go out for a walk. When I surpass the target, the wristband illuminates and flashes a message: GOAL!

It even talks to my phone: I can read a little graph of my week’s exercise, and record my best days. How obsessive! How childish! How tiresome that a silly little machine actually motivates me!

Worse still, I don’t even understand what the “Nike+ Fuel points” actually mean: but I nonetheless insist on meeting my target every day! 

I now know precisely how humankind evolved. When Early Woman couldn’t stand Primitive Man being primitive any longer, she teamed up with her sisters and sorted him out.

It was a cunning plot: just like the one my family hatched for me.

Evolution? If you ask me, nothing’s changed.


Thursday 4th June 2015

Here follows an apology. In the past I have denounced politicians and leaders who, when things go wrong, cling on to their position of power at all costs, and rarely if ever show any willingness to take the responsibility and step down. Furthermore I may have suggested that there is no longer honour amongst parliamentarians and that they set a poor example.

I’ve extended that opprobrium to bank bosses who presided over catastrophe but still took the bonus and the fat pension, happy to let the victims of their misjudgements go hang. To read my columns in the past you’d think some of these people were the worst examples of humanity to crawl out from under a stone.

I was wrong. There is worse. There’s FIFA.

Incredibly, Sepp Blatter got himself re-elected as world football’s president for another term. I’m not ageist: nothing wrong with a 79-year-old staying at the helm of an international organisation if he’s up to it. Now he’s resigned, abruptly: for real, or doing a Farage? Time will tell.

Blatter ran an organisation whose reputation was destroyed not by any sudden and surprising revelation but through endemic and systemic corruption over many years. He steadfastly refused to accept that anything was amiss, even suppressing the findings of FIFA’s own investigation.

Last week, bullish in his re-election campaign, he appeared to acknowledge there had been wrongdoing. But FIFA’s a big organisation, he said: how could he know everything that’s going on?

You’ve got to hand it to him.  He’s thick-skinned! He turned up to the election with someone else’s wife: she didn’t appear to be with him simply to take shorthand. (What was it that attracted you to the discredited 79-year-old billionaire, my dear?)

When the FBI arrested ten senior FIFA officials days before that vote, Blatter claimed a personal vendetta against him, orchestrated by UEFA, the European football federation.

Blatter himself may be interviewed by Swiss police. So is he corrupt? If he behaved criminally, the FBI will prove it.

But that’s not the central issue for me. In my view his fault lies in glorying in that super-national status, relishing the way in which prime-ministers, presidents and royalty paid court to him, while wilfully and knowingly ignoring wrongdoing.

The re-election proved, moreover, that the mire of deception and corruption could not be laid at the door of one man, however powerful.  In re-electing him, in spite of a small (one-third) protest vote, FIFA proved itself content to be revealed as bent, crooked and complacent: it told the world it didn’t give a damn, cocking a snook at both fans and the national associations.

With or without Blatter, FIFA should be dismantled, cleaned up and built anew.

Therein lies the difficulty. Times columnist Matt Ridley, that wise commentator rooted firmly in Northumberland, observed on Monday that international quangos such as FIFA, sprawling across the world and accountable to no one but themselves, are almost impossible to control or police.

They’re supremely effective at dividing and ruling opposition. Thus Blatter characterised UEFA as the villain: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, delighted to host the World Cup in 2018, denounced the FBI’s investigation as politically-motivated interference; Mother Russia played the victim card again.

Prince William and Gary Lineker alike, and perhaps surprisingly, spoke for the FA, the entire European Federation (UEFA) and, indeed, all of us when they expressed their disgust at FIFA’s behaviour. Blatter’s departure must not prevent pressure being brought on the organisation. If it continues to resist that pressure, we should be prepared to boycott the next World Cup and every successive event until it’s cleaned up.

It’s a big ask. Fans love the great tournament which brings together the globe’s finest teams. But if that Cup is tarnished, stinking of corruption, the joy has departed from it: we’re better off out of it.

How depressing. And there we were, thinking that football was just a game.


Thursday 28th May 2015

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. So the joke goes: in fact, it’s alive and well. How else to explain the continuing popularity of Downton Abbey and Inspector George Gently?

We had a brush with nostalgia over last weekend. Driving to West Wales for a 60th birthday party, we negotiated Bank Holiday weekend traffic-jams around Manchester, Chester and Rhyl, before discovering just how far Wales extends along slow roads through mountainous Snowdonia.

Six hours into our journey we needed tea. A short way beyond Llangollen we spotted a sign to Carrog station and tea-room. We stepped back in time. Carrog, the penultimate station on the Llangollen railway (proclaimed as “the only standard gauge heritage railway in North Wales”), boasts a quaint Victorian station with original waiting room and old carriages awaiting restoration. Its authentic accoutrements would render it a perfect set for any period movie, if it weren’t so remote.

Enthusiasts informed us the last train of the day was on its way to the end of the line (Corwen, only a few minutes away), and would return shortly.

It did. Four or five carriages were pushed in by a mighty 4-8-0 British Rail steam engine (number 3802, for enthusiasts!). Carrog station boasts two lines and two platforms and, on its arrival, the loco disconnected, changed lines, chugged to the front of the train and reconnected.

Most spectators were blokes older than me, every one an expert. Phone-videos were taken, images recorded. Children enjoyed the train, too, smuts smearing their faces from hanging out of the train windows (no decapitation hazards here!) as the train puffed gently along the bank of the River Dee.

Here’s a confession. I grew up beside the last steam-powered British Rail line in England. As a little boy I watched trains on the Somerset and Dorset line (known as the S & D, or the Slow and Dirty) from my bedroom window. When it was closed under Dr Beeching’s axe in 1966, we witnessed the last train out of Evercreech Junction: I burst into tears.

I still struggle to resist squealing with pleasure when close to an engine hissing steam, oozing oil and smelling, well, wonderful. There was always a magic about steam: there still is.

Recently we saw that new film, A Royal Night Out, an affectionate evocation of the spirit of VE Day in 1945. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, brilliantly played by actresses Sarah Gadon and Bel Powley, are permitted by their protective royal parents to mingle with the crowds. That much is fact: the remainder of a cleverly crafted script is imaginary.

The King, desperately insecure, is eager to know how his victory speech is received: in a touching scene, the pub Elizabeth finds herself in falls respectfully silent as his voice comes over the wireless.

The wayward Margaret gets herself into all kinds of trouble, ultimately saved by her elder sister.

Elizabeth is rescued in turn by Jack, a rebellious airman who’s gone AWOL. Their brief, finely drawn friendship illustrates the social gulf between them. In a cleverly contrived moment of foresight the future queen observes quietly that the future belongs to Jack’s class, not hers.

My Mum and Dad, married in 1944, joined the crowds in Trafalgar Square on VE night. After stealing a few hours’ sleep in a bed in the bombed-out St Thomas’s Hospital (where he’d started his medical training), they caught the first train back to Woking War Hospital. Late for her nursing shift, Mum was sentenced to a week on nights: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” Matron demanded.

Nostalgia does us good.  Certainly it fills the carriages on steam railways.  The Llangollen Line is running a Real Ale day in June. Transparently aimed at old gits like me, it cunningly links two oft-shared passions: the smell of steam engines and the taste of proper traditional beer.

Will I go? It’s tempting. But a 500-mile round trip? Too much.

Besides, who would drive home?


Thursday 21st May 2015

I wonder if it’s a sign of ageing that I read so many obituaries. Or maybe it’s just that a generation of interesting people is reaching its end.

Last week I read about the architect of the new City of Milton Keynes: Derek Walker.Blessed with so many historic city centres, we Brits tend to sneer at new towns. Milton Keynes is frequently portrayed as a soulless modern horror dropped into the middle of the countryside, the image not helped by someone’s (not Walker’s) bright idea of placing concrete cows in the middle of the city to synthesise a rural aspect.

Few who deride Milton Keynes have actually been there. Derek Walker was a visionary architect who built a modern commercial city that’s also people-friendly and pleasant to live in. There are tree-lined boulevards, and no high-rise blocks. And, far from being arbitrarily dropped into the middle of a greenfield site, its 20th-Century curtilage encompasses some charming old Buckinghamshire villages boasting pubs, greens and historic churches.

Don’t worry! This isn’t a hymn of praise for the city of Milton Keynes, love it or loathe it, but for its architect. Two stories struck me.

First, he was a stickler for quality. One day he came across a wall that had been built incorrectly. The builder was obstructive, saying it was too late to change it. Walker was dismayed. In the middle of the night he got up, drove down and took a sledgehammer to the offending wall.

The other story concerns sewers. If you’re building your own house, you lay the drains first. In building a whole city there’s a massive infrastructure to create. In the early stages Walker tore up the plans for the city sewers and redrew the lot in one weekend, using the route of an ancient ley-line he’d just walked.

When he finally left the Milton Keynes project, he took with him an elaborate silver and chrome model of the sewers. A sign read: “If this is what we can do for s***, think what we can do for people.”

In modern Rome you can still see the Cloaca Maxima, the ancient Romans’ Great Sewer. London’s waste still gets away (largely) thanks to a network of drains built after the cholera-inducing Great Stink of 1858. Great engineers have always understood the basic need for unglamorous but thorough, fundamental work.

We take these things for granted. But visionaries don’t. Those who think really big, and successfully, consider the basics first: those may be dull, but they have to work.

As the defeated political parties seek post-election to rebuild their leaderships, their strategies and their very principles, they should remember that fact. It’s not enough to dream up policies that voters might like. You have to get the fundamentals right, get to the bottom of what you’re about.

We should bear that fact in mind if, in this region as in other cities, we end up with an executive mayor. In London, many feared Boris Johnson, once elected Mayor, would prove an out-and-out Tory, slavishly pursuing national Conservative policies.

He’s surprised Londoners. In April his satisfaction rating was 61%, a figure a present-day Prime Minister would die for. Why? He puts London first: makes things work; grapples with transport and housing issues; promotes tourism; backs systems and structures that work. He’s a maverick: but he’s London’s maverick.

Saturday’s Journal listed possible mayors for the North-East. Would those candidates rise above party politics? Or rather, maintaining my sewerage analogy, keep below politics, concentrating on the fundamentals; jobs, transport; housing, health; poverty; education; even getting the drains to work (they didn’t work during the 2012 floods).

Good leaders aren’t afraid to reach for the proverbial long-handled shovel and deal with the messy stuff. They get the basics in place, do what works,

Derek Walker offers a useful motto for would-be political or civic leaders.

“If this is what we can do for s***, think what we can do for people.”


Thursday 14th May 2015

As election fever gripped, if not the nation, then the media, I started to feel sympathy for Lucas Hinch. Heard of him? He’s an American who’s been charged with firearms offences after taking his computer into an alleyway and shooting it five times.

Mr Hinch said he’d been having problems with his PC for months and carried out the dastardly act when a red mist descended. The act of pulling the trigger was a moment of great release for him: “It was glorious”, he said.

Not being in possession of a gun, as poll madness reached its height I wasn’t equipped to drag my television outside and end its life: nonetheless, every time I spotted the axe in my Northumbrian woodshed my hand twitched. It was getting bad.

It’s over now. The people have spoken. Ironically, what the people said, as a whole, was a surprise. Not in Scotland, perhaps: but no one south of Hadrian’s Wall [sic!] expected a Tory majority. It defied the pundits.

It was a relief to move on from the hype and tension (not to say hypertension) to VE Day. I felt for the same party leaders who, after barely a wink of sleep, had to turn out to the Remembrance Ceremony in Whitehall.

Dignity at the Cenotaph: politicians also demonstrated dignity and generosity in victory and defeat. That’s a typically British thing. There are plenty of regimes around the world where incumbent rulers are never defeated: or, if they are, they cry foul, start a riot or stage a coup.

None of that here. Indeed, David Cameron was both statesmanlike and magnanimous in victory. Easy, perhaps: but let’s not take it for granted.

With a majority government the PM can claim with some justification to seek a period of “one nation” government.

He needs to. By 21st Century standards he has a strong government. In contrast, back in the 1990s we’d have deemed his slender majority insecure: commentators have recalled John Major’s constant difficulty in preventing his backbenchers from rebelling.

The election result suggests that, as an electorate, we wobble around the middle: as does Cameron. He must stay there, and keep his right-wingers in order.

He must lay down the law. He’s instinctively a moderate centre-right politician: Maggie Thatcher would have had him down as a “wet”. He’s never belonged to the nasty party side of the Tories: he needs to distance himself from it now and silence his vociferous, Europhobic right wing.

It’s a time for healing divisions. I hate to see politics become entirely adversarial. There are many historical reasons why the North-East remains staunchly Labour. But if we’re to learn the lessons of this election, both sides must stop seeing the other as the enemy.

It’s time to grow up: the opposition parties should stop demonising Cameron’s policies, and eschew silly, extreme accusations of Tories plotting to privatise the NHS or advantage the rich at the poor’s expense.

No decent politician would seek to do either. I think Cameron’s a decent man: but he must do his bit.

Unlike some, I believe a top priority must be to eliminate that deficit: we can’t live beyond our means and must free this country from debt.

But the process must be compassionate, not hard-nosed. Human values must protect the vulnerable. Returning prosperity must be harnessed to obviate the need for food banks, reduce homelessness and create enough housing for everyone: surely some government, some day, will do it?

Those issues are even more urgent than fixing how we govern the four nations that comprise the UK: always keeping people and fairness at the heart of strategy.

I’d like to think Cameron would be in sympathy with my wishy-washy centrist view.  I just hope that he and his new government are up to the task.

If they are, my TV set will be less at risk, and the axe will remain untouched.

 

Thursday 7th May 2015

Today the nation decides.

If you’re over 18, vote: use it or lose it, as they say. Only that’s not true: if you don’t use it well (or at all), you’ll still get a government.

Pundits say we get the government we deserve. We also get the politicians we deserve.

It’s been a frustrating campaign. Parties and their leaders have signally failed to cover themselves in glory. Commentators have been rightly scathing about the empty, un-costed promises, wild allegations and counter-accusations bandied about. It’s all been pretty unedifying.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 70th anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe.

As my fellow-columnist Keith Hann wrote yesterday, present-day politicians are pigmies compared to that great wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill. Straws swaying in the wind of public opinion, they lack both the stature and the firmness, resolve and sheer bulldog spirit that enabled Churchill to carry Britain through its darkest times.  

He believed it was his destiny to lead Britain and the Commonwealth (the world, some might say) through its crisis. But would today’s media, would the public let him get away with that? We’d ridicule such a conviction as hopeless, laughable idealism.

We’d certainly deplore Churchill’s weaknesses as a leader: assets (mostly) in wartime, they were hindrances in peace where he was far from successful; high-handedness; impatience; secretiveness; unwillingness to delegate. And his drinking habits… outrageous!

Nowadays he’d be torn apart for such character-flaws. We’re certainly merciless with modern politicians, so perhaps we shouldn’t blame them for trying to satisfy every whim and demand of a fickle electorate: anything to avoid the feeding-frenzy that breaks out whenever weakness is exposed.  

Perhaps it is we the electorate, and the media who claim to represent us, who do the damage. Think how vicious much of the election coverage has been. A few weeks ago I criticised Jeremy Paxman for acting as self-appointed spokesman for Outraged Britain and rudely hectoring both David Cameron and Ed Milliband. Last Thursday those two plus Nick Clegg faced an extraordinarily hostile studio audience.

Should we show no respect to the Prime Minister or other party-leaders? Is it acceptable to call them, to their faces, liars, hopeless, deluded? I forget the actual adjectives.

So aggressive were their questioners that none of the three leaders dared nail the exaggerations expressed: for example, falsehoods about immigration frequently repeated during all the live debates. They wouldn’t or couldn’t engage with any uncomfortable topic for fear of losing votes, instead murmuring emolliently, “I understand immigration is an issue for many people.”

We get what we deserve. We allow negative rhetoric to spread. Only when someone goes really over the top (as Nigel Farage did when suggesting the NHS is paralysed by foreign AIDS victims seeking free treatment) does anyone (briefly) say, “Enough!”

Opinion polls generally put support for both Tories and Labour equal around 34%. Today’s vote is unlikely to create any overall majority.

A hung parliament’s fine by me: I’ve had enough of allegedly strong ones. The Tory/LibDem coalition hasn’t worked badly: with further practice, MPs might even learn to share power properly. Coalition curbs extremes, requires negotiation. Horse-trading isn’t all bad: and moderation’s usually the best way.

But a coalition government shouldn’t comprise one large party with a ragtag of small ones making up numbers. The two big parties, Conservative and Labour, represent between them some 70% of voters: they should get together. 

Crazy? I don’t think so. Impossible? Only while they characterise coalition as selling out, not as finding a solution: while they mistake pig-headedness for principle, intolerance for integrity.

Yet a split (I’d prefer to say moderate) electorate deserves a government that reflects it: by definition that’s one clustered round the political centre and based on moderation, coalition and compromise.

Shouldn’t politicians put country before party and make it work? Shouldn’t we require them to do so, and at the next opportunity vote out those who refuse to do so?

Democracy demands we give it a try.