Sunday, December 27, 2009

Seasons Greetings

One of the few disappointing aspects of life in Southern California, where I spent half the last decade, was the absence of seasons. The weather went from hot to stifling and back again; roses flowered in the garden most of the year and we wore shorts almost every day.

Admittedly, every August brought terrible bush fires; desert winds whipped up the flames, brought out the news helicopters and sent clouds of black choking smoke into our back yards. Then, just when we feared the fires would consume entire communities, the October rains would come: three weeks of continuous downpours sent homes cascading down hillsides in giant mudslides. Those were our three seasons: Heat, Fire and Mud. How I longed for good old English spring. Even a few days of our chilly, wet summer would have been welcome; snow would have been miraculous.

When I returned to London, though the leaves came and went, the warmth from the city’s pollution somehow disguised each season’s true identity. We knew it was summer because there were hosepipe bans; every October our basement would flood in the storms. Even when we moved back to Northumberland, we were surprised by how mild the seasons were; we had precious little snow for the first two years.

That’s why I find this long cold spell particularly gratifying. It’s the first time I can remember waking up to a white Christmas, in a proper winter: everything lying dormant and waiting for the warmth of a fresh start. What more appropriate way to start a new decade?

I greeted the last one with feigned celebration in an absurdly opulent overpriced hotel in Mauritius. Despite it being the dawn of an entire millennium, I sensed no particular global optimism or sense of renewal. It was the most anti-climactic page turn, from one image of certainty to the next.

What a difference a decade makes. From the moment the twin towers collapsed, the safe, overindulgent world we knew began to fall apart, ending with the disintegration of our financial system and the exposure of our politicians’ greed and corruption. The long summer of confidence became an autumn of insecurity and fear. Now, though, things appear to be in stasis. It’s time for reconstruction.

I find myself anticipating 2010 with confidence. Even though, thanks to a combination of the stock market and my own profligacy, I have rather less material security than in 1999, I am seriously looking forward to the “tens” (please, let’s not call them the teens).

As I write, one cause of my optimism has just crawled under my desk. If, ten years ago, when I was 47, I’d been told I’d become a father again, I’d have laughed at the absurdity of an unnecessary distraction to my comfortably materialistic world. Now I have a wonderful giggling daughter who celebrates her first birthday next week. I race to her bedside each morning to catch her first smile; I savour every milestone. On Christmas Day she stood for the first time.

This morning I took Izzy into the garden to show her the birds eating the seeds we put out yesterday. I pointed to the snow covered ground. “Look, Izzy, snowdrops”. The new shoots are already poking through the melting snow. By the time they flower she’ll be toddling. When the roses bloom she’ll be saying “Daddy”. Next winter we’ll build a snowman together.

But my sense of optimism springs from more than just my own transformed life. Our world has changed forever and we now have a chance to make it a great deal better. My hope is for a new order in which family values and local community are placed alongside mutual respect and social responsibility; a less selfish, more concerned decade. Well, that’s my seasonal wish, anyway; and with it, my very best regards to you all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Farewell Terry Wogan

When Sir Terry Wogan signed off his last breakfast show on Friday with the words “thank you for being my friend”, there must have been a run on Kleenex up and down the land.

Terry has been breakfast companion to millions since 1972. It’s an extraordinary achievement: no wonder our prime minister took time off from saving the planet in Copenhagen to pay him a eulogy, speaking of how much he and Sarah will miss him. Actually, I suspect the Browns are more likely to have the Today programme on over their porridge, but the tribute would have gone down well with Wogan’s potential 8 million voters. Such is Wogan power. But what was special about Terry was not his influence or vast audience but his unique sense of responsibility and humility towards his listeners.

“This is the day I have been dreading”, he said, as he told of his pride that his audience thought of him as “a friend, close enough to laugh with and occasionally, when the world seemed just a little too cruel, to shed a tear with”.

Radio is an intensely personal medium. Those who tune in at that time of the morning, with their radios in their kitchens or their bedrooms, are inviting a stranger into their lives. The morning show is vitally important because the person you share your first cup of tea or coffee with is the most important person in your life. Which is why the appointment of Chris Evans as Wogan’s replacement is such a risk for Radio Two.

Most radio presenters are just that, “presenters”: the listener tunes in and is presented to. There’s an obligation to treat the audience to a performance, ranging from the arrogant to the bland. In America they call presenters “hosts”; they expect the audience to come and enjoy their party. Wogan was neither. He alone understood the special relationship that can be forged between listener and broadcaster. He became, for a few magical hours each morning, a “friend”.

Chris Evans is a great host, but he’s nobody’s friend. His self-importance and contempt for his listeners was evident on Friday when he was asked about the Wogan succession. “He’s not a hard act to follow; he’s a hard act to beat and compete with,” crowed Evans, clearly seeing it as a competition for ratings and redemption. “This is the ultimate chance,” he claimed excitedly, “the drive in the Ferrari”. When Evans takes over in the New Year, the BBC has given him an extra half hour on air, presumably in order to increase the audience “reach”, and thereby cushion his ratings, the only way Evans measures his own rehabilitation.

Like any great event in history, Terry’s final fadeout was a memorable moment so I was determined to record what I was doing at the precise moment of his departure.

He was just saying the words “thank you for allowing me to share your lives with you”, as I was driving underneath the Tyne Bridge. Suddenly I spotted a large body splashing in the river. It was breaking the surface and appeared to be waving frantically towards the shore. Sensing a call for help, or at the very least a scoop for the local paper, I pulled over to call the emergency services.

Then I realised that it was in fact a large grey seal, triumphantly sporting an enormous salmon in its mouth. I felt the urge to share this sight with someone and realised that if I’d been one of Terry’s Old Geezers, I would have dialed up his studio and be put straight on air. Whereupon I would probably have been gently teased by the great man for having imbibed too much nectar the night before. Whereas the Evans team would have launched a competition called “Weirdest Sightings”. That’s the difference.

Wogan will indeed be dearly missed.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Freezing Through A Global Warming

“What’s the difference between a Hungarian goose and a Russian one?” I asked the lady in the duvet department.

The fact that I was buying a duvet at all was an admission of defeat. After five years in Los Angeles, Jo and I have been experiencing extreme climate change since our move to the northeast. Having shipped all our summery clothes and bedding with us, being a stubbornly proud northerner striding out in all weathers without a jacket, I had refused to accept that we might need more than our 2 tog Beverly Hills model.

As a result Jo has shivered through the last two winters clad in thick socks, thermals and pyjamas. Quite how her tender Californian skin has survived was beyond me until, last week, I caught her secretly sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to press the “Always On” button on the central heating. That explains the oil bills: we could have bought a 300-metre high wind farm for half the cost. So it was off to John Lewis to pick up a 13.5 tog special.

Duck down, feather, microfibre, Polyester: when faced with too much consumer choice, I automatically assume that expensive is best. This put the goose way out in front, but what of its nationality? I couldn’t remember ever seeing a picture of either a Hungarian or a Russian goose. Were they the ones that made such a mess of the paths around Bolam Lake? No, they were Canadian: why were there no Canada geese duvets on sale?

“The colder the country, the warmer the duvet”, the shop assistant explained, in that slow, patient way that parents speak to children who ask awkward questions.

“But isn’t Russia much colder than Hungary?” I ventured. “Oh, no”, she insisted, “parts of Hungary are colder than Russia”. This was getting really complicated. I’ve been to Hungary and it wasn’t particularly cold. Grey, dull, terrible food, but not particularly cold. Whereas Russia: “Isn’t Siberia in Russia?” I asked. “Well, we do have a range of Winter Snow Goose duvets from the Altai region near Mongolia, but they’re £1,000 for a Super-King”.

“If only global warming could happen a bit more quickly,” I murmured, rather too loudly, and heard a loud tut-tut behind me. Definitely not a comment for a nice liberal shop like John Lewis in the week of the Copenhagen climate conference. I quickly grabbed the hottest Hungarian I could find and headed for the checkout.

In fact, if global warming is going to happen, sometimes I do wish it could get a move on. Now it looks as though we might have to wait a bit longer, if the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia are anything to go by. Could it be that the scientists who supply the world with its official climate figures have been cooking the books?

Whatever the truth, I’m glad that the Climategate scandal has at least generated a little scientific debate on the subject of human-induced global warming. I can’t stand one-sided arguments. Sometimes I infuriate people at dinner parties by taking a viewpoint utterly opposed to common sense, just to see how far I can push it. People who utter such tosh as “science has proved that global warming is man-made” have always got up my nose. Now it’s nice to have a little spanner to throw into the argument.

But of course this doesn’t actually change a thing. You don’t need scientific proof to know that our society wastes too much of everything. And it shouldn’t need a conference in Copenhagen to persuade our world leaders to tackle overconsumption – of fossils fuels and everything else. Meanwhile, if the world is actually cooling not warming, it’s time to switch off the Aga and start breeding winter snow geese.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

How To Kill A Mouse

Fearless jungle survivor Gino D’Acampo, winner of I’m A Celebrity, is to face animal cruelty charges after killing and cooking a rat on the ITV show. The chef decapitated the creature with his kitchen knife before running up a tasty little ratatouille for his junglemates. Now the Australian RSPCA is to take action: it turns out the rat was tame, and, like the other crawly things in the programme, put into the scenery for effect.

Mind you, if it had been wild, he wouldn’t have got near it. Rodents are elusive little critters. We had our share of them last week. After one night of heavy frost, every fieldmouse in the neighbourhood made straight for our Aga-warmed farmhouse. You can see little scratchmarks near the door where they queued to register at mouse reception.

At the hardware store I shunned the humane traps. A friend’s father had bought one and released six mice back into the wild on successive nights. Until he realised that each had a torn ear: it was the same mouse who couldn’t believe his luck that he could get a free meal and a courtesy limousine back home. I needed a killer device.

The man in the store recommended The Big Cheese. Lightweight and powerful, it certainly did its stuff. Three nights running we sat bolt upright, woken by the loud “snap” in the bathroom. In the morning Jo would order me in to retrieve the body. Three nights, three ex-mice. But on the fourth, things didn’t go so smoothly. At 3am the familiar “snap” forced us into consciousness. Then we heard “clunkety-clunkety-clunk”. “It’s alive”, screamed Jo, turning on the light. “Do something”.

This is every towny’s nightmare. I can cope with corpses, but a live mouse in a trap: where could I find a celebrity chef to deal with it at this time of night?

I pulled on my slippers and trudged sleepily to the bathroom. “Shut the door behind you” she warned. There was no going back. This was real country living – man versus mouse.

I saw him straightaway, cowering beneath the stool, The Big Cheese attached firmly to his front foot. That’ll teach you to put your foot in it, I said wryly, trying to make light of the situation. As I approached, he backed away, the trap clunkety-clunking behind him. Apart from this unfortunate encumbrance, the little chap seemed rather chipper. I pondered ways of dispatching him: frying pan (too bloody), meat cleaver (too wriggly), flushing him down the loo (too cruel).

I knelt down, and pulled the trap towards me. Immediately the mouse tugged it back. You’re a plucky little chap, I said, staring into his big brown eyes. After tugging to and fro a few times, I began to feel respect for his resilience. So I decided to release him.

I popped him in a plastic bag with the trap still attached. By now he was not only wild, he was furious. Outside it was pouring with rain as I crossed the drive to the edge of our wood and emptied the bag on the ground. But before I could bend down to set him free, he shot off into a pile of dead leaves.

What followed was like a scene from a cartoon as the mouse tore through the leaves, trap clunking behind him, with me in my pyjamas chasing after him into the darkness. Eventually it was too dark to see, so I ran indoors for a torch. When I returned, there was no sign of mouse or trap.

Words can’t express my guilt at that moment, or the absurdity of the situation: standing in slippers and pyjamas in the pouring rain in the middle of a dark wood at 4am, mourning a mouse I’d been trying to kill. I’d be so useless in the celebrity jungle.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Two Life-Changing Experiences

On the day the Iraq inquiry opened in London last week, coincidentally two palpable weapons of mass destruction were unleashing themselves at home.

Mabel was first. The younger of our two working cockers, she’s always fancied herself as a proper gundog. Now nearly two and despite having no formal training, she races across the kitchen to retrieve her favourite toy and deposits it, saliva encrusted, into whichever lap wears the most expensive trousers. The louder the shriek of the recipient the more she takes it as praise for her extraordinary talent. She doesn’t just wag her tail, her whole lower body heaves from side to side in jubilation.

But despite her golden spaniel cuteness, Mabel’s real ambition is to become a rabbit killer. She and her sister Truffle spend hours in the garden sniffing them out, and occasionally they stumble over one and give chase. Which is fine by me: rabbits are the scourge of any garden. Having just planted several hundred specimens from the Northern Ark nursery in Longhorsley (no imported polytunnel plants there, just naturalized Northumbrian herbaceous stock) I had visions of our local rabbits summoning the entire county to sample our juicy shoots on the first day of spring. Our problem is, despite running themselves ragged and trampling all the borders, our wretched dogs have never caught a thing.

Until last week. It was a wondrous sight: Mabel on the doorstep proudly straddling a monster over half her size. I accepted the gift with genuine pleasure, then shooed her away in case Jo threw a fit: my Californian wife has tolerated quite enough north east wildlife already, including mice in her bathroom and bats and frogs in the hall, without having bunny blood on the carpet. I watched Mabel outside, head held high, strutting the rabbit in triumphant circles round our big yew tree, with Truffle following miserably behind. When I went out half an hour later, they had obviously reached a compromise, because I saw Truffle carrying just the head. Gross, as Jo would say.

I was about to go over and retrieve the carcass when I heard a scream: “Tom, come quick”. Not another mouse, I thought, and dashed inside.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Izzy, after ten determinedly lazy months where she wouldn’t even turn over in her cot, had suddenly taken it upon herself to crawl. From the sitting position she keeled over and, instead of collapsing in her usual sprawl on the carpet, gave first one, then two wobbly little shuffles on her knees. She paused, look up at me and gave me the biggest grin. I broke into spontaneous applause and she giggled hysterically, then, as if to show this was no one-off achievement, proceeded to race across the room towards the television remote lying on the floor. Whereupon Jo and I realised life would never be the same again.

As I write this Jo is unloading gates, fencing, and samples of new carpeting to cover exposed bare boards throughout the house. The saucepans in the kitchen have been raised to a higher shelf – everything below three feet has been elevated out of harm’s way. The DVD player already has butter smeared around its slot and the cat has taken cover under the sofa. Mabel and Truffle are licking Izzy’s face in welcome to their new four-legged playmate.

What a difference a day makes. In one small step she’s left her innocence behind. I’m watching her now as she grabs the remote again and C-Beebies switches to News 24. Some pundits are discussing Iraq. I wonder what Izzy will make of the lies of our generation’s politicians when she’s old enough to understand. She grimaces, then bashes the remote until C-Beebies returns.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

John Cleese and the Politics Lesson

[Today's MORI poll in The Observer puts Labour just 6 points behind the Conservatives. Could this mean that neither party will have an overall majority after next year's General Election?]

The odds appear to have shortened on our parliament being hung after the next general election. While many of you may wish to add the words “drawn” and “quartered” to the above sentence, I’m not referring to the fate of our dishonourable MPs, but to the increasing possibility that the Conservatives may not get an overall majority in the forthcoming election.

As a wet and windy winter settles in, the price of fuel rises and our local Wine Racks go bust, morale couldn’t be worse. Yet, according to today’s MORI poll, the Tories only have a 6% lead over what is supposed to be a party with the least popular leader in history.

What happens if, miracle of miracles, we get a whiff of warm Spring air before May and Britain’s economy revives itself with the daffodils? Could the unthinkable happen and we end up with small parties holding the balance of power?

Quite why the Conservatives are doing so badly is a mystery. Some blame The Sun newspaper: its constant pillorying of Gordon may have helped him. Friends of mine, normally to the right of Genghis Khan, are openly feeling sorry for the poor man. Or maybe people are finally getting suspicious of the dough-faced Etonian and the appalling Osborne, reciting their menu of opportunistic platitudes devoid of real policy?

Yesterday’s poll, published in the leftie Observer, could have been just a blip, but could it signify uplift in national confidence and a feeling that, after all, the Labour devil you know is better than the Tory devil you suspect?

If the resurgence holds, would a hung parliament be so dreadful? People point to the walking wounded Labour governments of the 1970s, desperately struggling to survive with the help of the Liberals. Sure, everyone says that what the country needs to get out of the recession is strong government, but is a hung parliament necessarily a weak one? After all, it’s a natural consequence of all electoral systems that use proportional representation, or PR. Does PR lead to political impotence?

I know a little about the subject thanks to John Cleese. In 1987 he rang me out of the blue and asked if I would help him make a party political broadcast for the SDP-Liberal Alliance. In the previous election 28% voted Labour and were represented by 209 seats, whereas 26% had voted Liberal and were represented by just 23 seats. This was clearly unfair: would I agree to help him?

I could hardly say no to the opportunity of working with the comedy genius, even though I had no idea how we could make an amusing programme out of something so innately dull. I recall we started with Cleese asleep, bored by the fact that he already knew what he was about to say. Nearby a stagehand was snoring loudly. It was the first time a comedian had presented a political broadcast and it caused a furore. But the truths within it hold true today.

Britain is virtually the only civilised country in the world (apart from the United States) without PR. Strong economies like Germany, Holland, and all Scandinavia have successfully used it for decades. Over there, everyone with a vote has a voice. It seems iniquitous to me that in most British parliamentary constituencies a vote for anyone other than the incumbent is a waste of time. In our system, the only real democracy lies within marginal seats.

If the LibDems agreed to share power, it might be on condition that Britain finally adopts PR. I can imagine why both Brown and Cameron would hate the idea. It gives power to the people and encourages consensus rather than autocracy. It avoids extremism and swings of policy. It promotes cooperation and is both fair and democratic.

Now wouldn’t that be a great way to start the next decade?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Joanna Lumley is going to be our neighbour!

Estate agents in Northumberland must have been popping the Cava this week. In a gloriously luvvie moment, national treasure Joanna Lumley declared that she had so enjoyed opening Morpeth’s new shopping mall, she was going to buy a house in Northumberland and come and live here.

Property values in the Wansbeck valley immediately doubled, although the following morning my bank manager wasn’t entirely convinced by my suggestion of a loan secured on the possibility that Ms Lumley might have been serious. I suspect she uses the same speech for every shopping centre she opens, in which case she must own a lot of houses. Mind you, she can probably afford them: the owners of the new Sanderson Arcade must have paid for quite a few bottles of Bollinger to entice her up here.

I know I shall ruffle some feathers, but personally I’ve never found anything I actually want to buy in Morpeth. For me, every self-respecting town needs three essentials: a Waitrose, a well-stocked delicatessen and a fresh fish shop; Morpeth has none of these. So, nicely designed as it is, I don’t quite get the point of the new arcade. It has a Marks and Spencer for underwear and for people who can’t cook and a Laura Ashley for people who like to pretend they live in the 70s. There does appear to be a very nice homemade chocolate emporium, but I’m supposed to be on a diet.

I’m happy for the new face of Morpeth to prove me wrong. In fact, on Saturday I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and was about to set off with my M&S card when I bumped into some disappointed friends who had just returned from the town having failed to find a parking space. Now that’s British planning for you: build a brand new shopping precinct, but don’t worry about the parking. No wonder Tesco and Sainsbury see Morpeth as a prime target for out of town superstores. According to my friends, normally reserved residents were desperately screeching round Morrison’s car park, screaming at each other for precedence over the elusive spaces.

Britain doesn’t really get shopping malls. In most civilised countries they build them on top of big multi-storey car parks; Morpeth’s is built around a bus station (or, as it’s now called, a “transport interchange”). This is despite the fact that most people like to go shopping by car – it’s one of the few benefits of the modern age. Towns that want to be taken seriously as shopping destinations should take note, particularly Newcastle, which is soon to open its new improved Eldon Square shopping centre. Having had the vision to provide the region with some of the best transport infrastructure in the country complete with a nice fat motorway streaming right into the centre, Newcastle goes and spoils it by having some incompetent planner inventing “No Car” lanes and making parking as difficult as possible.

In London’s Shepherds Bush, the BBC is located right next to the best-designed shopping centre I’ve ever encountered. You enter the parking lot and follow the signs for the store you want; a series of red and greed lights guides you straight to an empty parking space. I was admiring it earlier this week while I there to pitch a new idea for a television series in which rocket scientists and other assorted geniuses try to solve society’s most irritating problems. Top of the list would be how to find a parking space in Morpeth. The BBC loved the idea.

Rather than hiring a genius, there’s probably a simpler solution for Morpeth. Persuade Joanna Lumley to stick to her word and become a resident. She sorted out the Gurkhas: I’m sure it would take her just a couple of hours to sort out the parking.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What's In A Name?

[In the week that Newcastle United consolidated its position at the top of the Championship with a 3-1 victory over Peterborough, club owner Mike Ashley announced he was renaming our historic venue "". It caused a seismic revolt on Tyneside]

The most dramatic moment during Newcastle United’s mauling of Peterborough on Saturday was when some fans produced a large banner proclaiming “notwanted@StJamesPark” and pointed it at the directors’ box. The cheers and laughter from the crowd soon turned to angry boos as an official was sent to confiscate the offending banner and remove the guilty from their seats.

His decision to offer up the revered name of St James’ Park for commercial sponsorship was unpopular enough: the announcement that for the time being he’s going to call it the “ Stadium” has brought the club into national ridicule. During the game radio commentators were heard reporting from the “Hereinthepouringrain@StJamesPark” Stadium.

Mind you, the banner incident did cheer up a dull second half. Unlike David Haye’s extraordinary victory over the Goliath Nikolay Valuev, the underdogs of Peterborough never stood a chance. At one point I thought they’d accidentally left their 8-year-old mascot on the pitch: it turns out they have a very small captain called Dean Keates.

A few days after Ashley dropped his bombshell, one of the richest clubs in the land announced that it would also be offering naming rights to its ground. Unlike Ashley, Chelsea’s chief executive handled the PR well, saying that “retaining Stamford Bridge’s heritage is paramount to considering such a move” and that any deal would have to be with “the right partner”.

Sponsorship isn’t just about money. In my own business of television, the sponsor’s credit at the front of the show has to fit in with the image of the programme, just as the sponsor uses the content of the show to enhance its own product. Newcastle United’s partnership with Northern Rock and before that with Scottish & Newcastle was totally appropriate. What happens if London Pride makes Ashley an offer he can’t refuse? Or if the fans at the Stadium of Light clubbed together to buy SunderlandFC-Are-A-League-Above-You@StJamesPark?

If he really wants to add a few bob to the bottom line, why doesn’t Ashley nurture his biggest asset, namely 40,000 captive consumers? While the entire leisure industry has hauled itself into the 21st century, why are football grounds run as if they are still in the 1980s?

My season ticket is in a part of the ground with a facility grandly called the 1892 Bar. You mingle with all types in there, and most of us have paid up to £900 a year for the privilege. So why does the club assume that we only want to spend a couple of quid in the interval on a sausage roll or a steak pie of dubious provenance? Sure, for many people pies and football go together. But if there were a decent alternative, surely some of the bankers, lawyers and entrepreneurs in there would happily cough up?

As it is, it’s quite hard to spend any money at all in the ground. This week many of us who ordered their half-time drinks found they hadn’t been set out by the interval, so we angrily queued up to complain. Unless you leave your seat well before half time, there’s no way you can get a hotdog by the start of the second half because the cafĂ© service is so poorly organised that the queue snakes on forever. Elsewhere in the ground, friends tell me there’s scarcely any service at all.

Surely just investing in one catering expert at let’snotbothertotrythefood@StJamesPark might pay for quite a few extra players. Indeed, if Ashley could persuade every spectator to spend just two pounds a week extra on improved services, he would immediately pocket the £2million he wants without wrecking the heritage of our stadium’s proud name.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Getting High

[This week the Government rejected the report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which concluded that marijuana is not as dangerous as Class B drugs, and should therefore remain as a Class C drug]

I rather envied my friends who smoked marijuana. Looking back at old photographs of myself at university, bearded with wild curly hair, I could easily have been taken for a pothead, sitting in a circle on a Flokati shagpile rug with Grateful Dead on the record player. Trouble was, when it came to the passing of the joint, I never knew quite what to do.

There was always some terrifying new-fangled way of smoking it: cupping it in your palm, up your nose, through a bong: every week a new gimmick. Petrified of being found out for the goody-two-shoes I was, at parties I dreaded this illicit game of Pass-The-Parcel and watched the thing approach with growing terror. In the end I turned round, put it in my mouth like a cigarette and took a surreptitious puff.

Then I waited for the euphoria, the relaxation, even a bit of cloud floating. Whilst my friends were giggling like maniacs, I went into the kitchen and unscrewed a bottle of Hirondelle. Half a glass of terrible red wine later, and I could really join the party.

Mind you, it wasn’t the smoking of the joint I found most scary so much as the thought that I might be asked to roll one. It looked straightforward enough: stick three Rizla cigarette papers together; fold up a bit of cardboard for a roach; mix some tobacco and marijuana toegether; then deftly roll the thing up with your thumbs. Like all my failed attempts at woodwork, I knew that if I tried the whole thing would go horribly wrong, disintegrate and set fire to the shagpile.

The truth is, I was the world’s worst hippy. Even when I spent my summer vacation in flower-powered California I never really felt part of the club, man. Maybe it was my terrible purple corduroys and striped brown polyester shirt; perhaps I had too many showers: I neither looked nor smelt the part. Frankly, I never saw what the fuss was about, for my brain stubbornly refused to intoxicate itself. Probably because, like Bill Clinton, I never learnt how to inhale.

Despite the accusations of drug-infused iniquity surrounding the television industry, I only ever once tried cocaine. That was on the night of my 40th birthday when a very good friend of mine, who happens to be a fairly well-known comedian, decided that I really ought to give it a go.

It was 4am and after a very drunken party in a local restaurant about a dozen friends retired to my flat for a nightcap. After my glass coffee table was duly prepared, I did as I was told, snorted like a horse and ignored the assembled groans when I sneezed most of the remaining powder onto the floor. I waited: not a sausage. Until 9am, that is.

I had just crawled into bed when I had a strange, eery sensation that my entire bedroom was upside down. In a cold sweat I switched on the light.

It was real. The room was upside down. But it wasn’t the drug. The wardrobe, dressing table, armchairs and lamps had been upended – it was my comedian friend’s parting joke. That’s the closest I’ve ever got to a psychedelic high.

So I’m not the best person in the world to offer advice on the marijuana debate. However neither, I suspect, is Gordon Brown. I can’t imagine him rolling a “Saturday Night Special” when the Darlings pop round for supper. I guess that’s why the Government set up the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the status of cannabis — because they wanted real experts to tell us the true story.

Now they have: marijuana is far less dangerous and addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. But we knew that before, didn’t we? So why aren’t fags and beer classified as Class B drugs? Ask the taxman. And why has yet another expert report been ignored? Ask Gordon Brown.

Monday, October 26, 2009

But What Happens Next (Question) Time?

[The biggest story in Britain this week was the appearance by ultra-right wing politician Nick Griffin of the British National Party (BNP) on the BBC's flagship debate show Question Time. It caused a nationwide uproar.]

In the mid nineties I bought the company that produced Question Time. In doing so my company Mentorn acquired bragging rights to one of the most revered brands on British television.

In those days Question Time had its own question mark hanging over it. After 15 years of Conservative government and with Labour still looking unelectable, politics and political programmes were dull as ditchwater. Ratings were at an all time low and the only reason for the programme’s existence seemed to be to provide a platform for MPs’ egos. There was even talk in BBC corridors of trying to kill off the dinosaur once and for all.

In 1995 we’d tried out a potential successor to the show. It was called You Decide, hosted first by Jeremy Paxman and then for its second season by John Humphrys. It was a radical format: 24 hours before the show went on air we posed a single question and asked viewers to vote. We chose hot topics like Should Handguns Be Banned? Then, whichever way the vote went, the programme presented the contrary view. In other words, on the grounds that there are two sides to every argument, we tested the viewers’ knee-jerk reaction to a sensitive subject and then put it to the test. With two opposing sets of experts lined up we only confirmed the guest list a couple of hours before the live show. Afterwards we took a second vote to see if viewers had been swayed by the counterarguments. They usually had.

The series demonstrated just how volatile public opinion can be and how, despite thousands of years of public education, prejudice still triumphs over perception. A fact that keeps some of our tabloids in business.

I doubt our format could have coped with some of the issues aired on this week’s Question Time. Would the BBC have dared to put questions of race and homosexuality to a public vote, and then spend an entire hour arguing the other way? You Decide ran for two years until New Labour arrived and saved Question Time’s bacon.

Now Nick Griffin of the BNP has given the old warhorse the biggest boost any television programme could desire. Eight million viewers tuned in to see Thursday’s car crash: few could have been disappointed. Even though I sold Mentorn some time ago, I still felt a glow of pride when I saw the credits at the end. It was skillfully produced, riveting entertainment. Rarely has a single television programme been so at the heart of current events. Celebration wine will have been flowing through the BBC hospitality room.

But what will be the fallout? The point most commentators seem to have overlooked is that wasn’t a one-off appearance. They were invited not by choice but by right, because of their success in the polls. Unless the public votes them off the guest list, the rules say that Griffin can return, in common with the other minority parties. That’s a huge problem for Mentorn’s producers and for the BBC executives who have ultimate editorial control. This week they legitimately made the BNP the subject of most of the debate because the press had already ensured that people were talking about little else. But they can’t do it twice. Griffin effectively neutered himself when he tried to justify his policies and his history. He was exposed as the nasty racist he really is and he almost certainly damaged his party’s cause. But what happens when he faces normal mainstream questioning?

I fear the odious man’s oily smile may begin to look a little more genuine to some when he’s allowed free rein to spread his disgusting doctrines amongst the rabble. And then it’ll be the responsibility of all of us to stand by with the counter arguments. And hope the nation listens before it decides.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Education, Education, Education

Izzy’s fourth tooth broke through today. It’s been signaling its arrival for weeks: red cheeks, roof-raising screams and diarrhea were clear warning of another milestone on the road from “baby” to “child”.

Elsewhere Izzy is determined to retain her baby status. At nine months she still stubbornly refuses to crawl: not even a bumshuffle. Jo and I find that rather a blessing – a moving target is less controllable – but certain elderly relatives have raised eyebrows in disapproval. You know the kind of thing: Little Johnny was walking at this age; Jenny was reciting Shakespeare by the time she could crawl.

Why are we so obsessed with accelerating our children's learning process? No sooner are babies ingesting solid food at one end than their parents start talking about potty training the other. Crawling, talking, walking, reading, writing: they’re all going to happen at some time. Why this compulsive boasting and one-upmanship, as if speeding through childhood were something desirable or useful? It’s not exactly a triumph of human progress to perform something every one of us is ultimately programmed to achieve.

As I write this Izzy is saying “Yadadaga”, clear as anything. Surely you can hear the “dada” in there, even though she’s looking at the dog?

Ben’s first real word was “duck”. He’s 28 now and has done many things in life to make me glow, but nothing quite matches the achievement of pointing at three flying Donald Ducks we had on the wall and saying “Duck!”. A word he then applied for the following two months to every flying thing: “No, darling, that’s an aeroplane – say “Concorde”. “Duck!”.

I’m teaching Izzy to say “dog” by holding our two spaniels and repeating the word incessantly. One day she’ll probably point at the television and say “Paxman”, but for now she just ignores the dogs and gives me a pitying smile. I know what she’s really thinking: Just give me a break, Dada, I’ll get to it in my own time. Thank God there are no SATs for one-year-olds.

This national obsession with standards and milestones is the underlying theme of the Cambridge Primary Review, the report that took some of our country’s top education experts three years to write and our education minister precisely 45 seconds to reject, presumably because it’s the most damning criticism of government education policy yet articulated. “The apparatus of targets, testing, performance tables, national strategies and inspection (distorts) children’s primary schooling for questionable returns”, it concludes. It criticizes the “disenfranchising of local voice; the ‘empty rituals’ of consultation; the authoritarian mindset”: in short, it utterly rejects the policies of this and the previous (Tory) government.

In most other civilised countries where formal teaching starts at six, universal educational standards are higher than in the UK. How can this be? Sure, numeracy and literacy (what you and I would call Maths and Reading) are important, but so too are knowledge and skills. And here, tragically, our country’s standards have fallen through the floor.

Middle England’s kneejerk reaction to the report is that children should read and write as soon as possible. Not so. An appallingly high proportion of five year olds are turned off school and simply never recover. The majority are from disadvantaged backgrounds and the feeling of inferiority can last a lifetime.

Meanwhile, there’s no indication that those unfortunate children pushed by middle-class parents through hoops of early learning end up happier than their peers. On the contrary, last Friday I went to my old school reunion, where many of the brightest “fliers” seem to have led the dullest lives. By contrast, those of us whose reports always warned they “could do better” ended up having a ball.

So Izzy, just take your time. Apart from the potty training.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why I bought Chris Evans a car

According to Chris Evans, I once bought him a car. It was a 1956 MGA Roadster in old English white with red leather interior. He thanks me for it in his autobiography, which he’s been touting all week and which I picked up for half price in WH Smith.

Chris writes that he bought the car with £10,000 that I gave him for doing nothing except agreeing to have his name on a piece of paper. He adds, “Out of all my experience with the media and money thus far, this was the craziest I’d encountered to date.”

It was in 1992. My company Mentorn was competing for the breakfast franchise on Channel Four. We’d been supplying part of the Channel Four Daily for a number of years, which was pretty lucrative for us even though almost nobody watched it. When the network announced they wanted a completely new show they invited us to pitch. Our team came up with a long list of ideas: I felt none of them clicked with the brief for something revolutionary to wake the nation.

Then I heard about Chris Evans from a friend called Nik Powell, who’d started Virgin Records with Richard Branson and was the personification of cool by being married to Sandie Shaw (she of the bare feet and Puppet On A String). Chris had hosted a pop video programme on Nik’s ill-fated satellite Power Station and was currently presenting a weekend show on BBC local radio.

I listened: Evans was awesome. His freshness, irreverence and unpredictability seemed perfect for a Channel Four audience. We met in my office in Wardour Street. I couldn’t believe this ginger geek with the terrible glasses, who looked and sounded about 15 years old, could transform into the charismatic bundle of energy I heard on the radio. Yet I somehow sensed he could become huge on television so, against the better judgment of some of my colleagues, I ditched all our conventional programme ideas and hung the entire bid on a wild, anarchic breakfast “zoo” radio show called Good Morning Chris Evans.

Then I found out that another consortium led by Bob Geldof was also trying to woo him, so I offered Chris £10,000 to sign with us exclusively. I didn’t know that he went out and bought a car – or (until I read Chris’s book) that Geldof’s bid still included his name.

You can imagine that I was more than a little miffed when I discovered that not only had our bid been rejected but that instead Channel Four had chosen The Big Breakfast, hosted by Chris Evans.

I checked our contract. I didn’t want to get in the way of a man and his career and there was no doubt the Geldof consortium’s idea of setting the show inside a real house was inspired, but our exclusivity deal was watertight. So I simply asked for my money back. When Chris’s agent refused I called in the lawyers. I duly got the cheque, not from Chris but from Geldof’s company. Chris evidently kept the car.

My view of Chris has always been slightly tainted by this experience, though we’ve been perfectly friendly to each other ever since. In the 90s he was the most influential and inspired onscreen talent in the UK. When, in 1998, my new series Robot Wars was scheduled against his megahit TFI Friday, my heart sank: nothing could take on that battleship. But when, within the first six episodes we’d matched them and by the end of the second season we’d knocked them off the air, I felt just a little avenged.

I’m sure Chris hardly noticed, because, as frequently happened in his rollercoaster career, he’d already moved on to bigger things.

I sincerely wish him luck with the Wogan slot. Doubtless the fee will buy him a fleet of cars.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The High Life

I'm writing this in a dingy French basement. Outside, the sun is baking the cafes on the promenade; with the temperature in the eighties, the Mediterranean is gently lapping the shore, the glamorous beach restaurants are polishing their champagne glasses before lunch. I'm sitting here surrounded by 10,000 delegates sweating in suits, all desperately trying to close their first big deal of the week. It’s that time of year when the world’s television producers and distributors make their way to Cannes to try to sell programmes and formats to each other.

It’s the antithesis of the Cannes Film Festival, where bright young wannabes mingle with the genuinely famous; where helicopters fly celebrities into the Hotel du Cap, tickets for premieres are fought over and everyone feels important just being in town. Here there isn’t a starlet to be seen. This is all about business. However big you are in our industry, it’s impossible not to feel just a little intimidated by the scale of the event.

MIPCom (as it is called) takes place within the bowels of a building rather grandly called the Palais des Festivals: in practice, it's just a glorified car park. It’s depressing to realise that the programmes you make, carefully crafted in edit suites back home, are being hawked in suitcases round the international marketplace as mere product, sold by the hour and only as valuable as the ratings they can generate. It’s a sobering experience; though sobriety isn’t much in evidence as the overpriced champagne flows through the packed bars lining the Croisette. As the alcohol takes effect, the most tentative discussions are talked up into lucrative deals. I’ve long since stopped believing a single word anyone says. So much bullshit in one short week.

I’ve been a regular here since the late 1980s. In the early days I used to think I was terribly grand because I would charter a yacht for the week: a 137-foot steamer called Fair Lady with a British crew of six and a skipper we called Captain Pat. I commandeered the "master stateroom" with a four-poster bed and huge cast-iron roll-top bath. The whole ship was paneled with dark wood and I used to throw grand parties and dinners on board to impress the buyers. One year Robert Wagner and his wife Jill St John joined us as we sailed up and down the coast. That’s when I smoked my first really big cigar, then promptly turned bright green and threw up over the side. I have to admit I enjoyed my brief flirtation with the highlife. Occasionally I would extend the hire beyond the week of the festival and take the boat down the coast.

The first time I did this, I got my first taste of what it must be like to be super-rich. I was sitting on the back of the boat (sorry, stern) having breakfast with my friends with the boat heading out beyond the harbour. Suddenly we became aware that we were going round in circles. I went upstairs (again, I apologise for my complete lack of nautical vocabulary -- some may say I went topside: I went upstairs) and found Captain Pat waiting for me on the bridge. "Why are we going round in circles, Pat?" I asked. "Waiting for instructions, sir. Where would you like to go?"

Then I realised that with an ocean-going yacht at my disposal I could go literally anywhere I wanted. He laid out the map - or "chart" as he called it -- and I pointed to St Tropez. "Good idea", said Pat. "The Nioulargue is taking place tomorrow". The Nioulargue is a race for classic yachts, beautiful vintage sailing boats, some 60 or 70 years old. Off we went, with the chef cheerily killing lobsters down below and the champagne clinking in the ice buckets. From time to time we pulled over close to the shore and Pat lowered a speedboat over the side so that those stable enough could go water-skiing. I had drunk far too much champagne to be a candidate.

It was nightfall by the time we arrived in St Tropez. Pat decided that rather than go into the harbour, we would moor a little way off, close to a beautiful yacht lit up like a battleship. We all got dressed up and took the speed boat (it was far too big to be called a tender) into town. Big mistake: my friend Debbie had got dressed up to the nines. We weren't aware that on the night before the Nioularge the locals had a jolly custom of arming themselves with hosepipes and drenching the people from the smart boats as they came ashore.

The following morning I groggily looked out of the window (you couldn't really call it a porthole) and saw the most amazing sight. Pat had moored us right on the start line for the race and we were being circled by about twenty amazing antique yachts. They saluted us as they came past: for we were also one of the grande dames of the ocean. Despite our hangovers we managed to wave our croissants at them as they came up to the start, then chased the race in the speedboat. I confess that the experience was so utterly intoxicating I very nearly succumbed when the owner of the boat called me a few weeks later and offered to sell Fair Lady to me for a mere couple of million pounds. Those definitely were the days.

As a young Turk of a producer with a couple of hit series under my belt I really thought I’d made it. In fact, of course, I was nobody, for unless you own your own broadcasting company like Rupert Murdoch, no one, however grand, can ever really be truly powerful in the television industry. It’s the most transient, temporary world. One moment you’re president of a network, the next you’re just a salesman, carrying your little briefcase with your promo tapes and your brochures. Whether you’re Jonathan Ross or David Letterman, Michael Grade or Mark Thompson, nobody is indispensable in our world of hiring and firing.

So here I am this morning, the travelling salesman from Newcastle clutching some of the formats we’ve been working on for the last six months: created in Byker, now on sale in Cannes. Last year we did rather well: a broadcaster bought one of our shows and gave us half a million pounds to make a single pilot. I've just had my first meeting: with a buyer from a cable network in the UK, who absolutely loved our new dating show project. It means nothing till the cheque's in the bank, of course. By the time I get back next weekend I’ll either be euphoric or resigned to more hard slog back at the drawing board. Who thought that life in television was glamorous?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Indian Summer

It could so easily have been a disaster. Thankfully Saturday night turned into an evening of delicious surprises.

I’m not referring to Kevin Nolan’s hattrick in Newcastle United’s 4-0 trouncing of Ipswich, or the removal of Richard Dunwoody from Strictly Come Dancing, pleasant as both incidents were in themselves. It was the fact that our party actually worked.

It certainly might have been a different story. Three months ago, on a particularly warm late spring day, Jo and I decided that as we were getting married in California, we should throw a little shindig for our closest friends and family back home in England. Dreaming of chilled pink champagne and strawberries in the garden, I unilaterally decided to write “4.30pm start” on the invitations.

As the months passed and we discovered that the Meteorological Office’s promised “barbecue summer” was just a fantasy, Jo berated my absurd optimism. What on earth were we to do with 70 people in a chilly windswept Northumbrian farmhouse in the pouring rain in late September? As usual, I stubbornly refused to accept she might be right.

Last week, as the BBC weatherman was still insisting it was sunny and warm, we were lighting the Aga and bringing in the winter logs. I buttoned up my jacket against the cold drizzle and defiantly trudged round the local wine shops. Apparently there isn’t much demand for pink bubbly right now. Eventually a nice man at Ponteland Wine Rack managed to track some down in Sheffield. Just in case, we’d booked heaters and a marquee. Then, to really warm people up, we ordered curry.

It wasn’t just that we wanted fine weather for our party, it was that we’d invited so many friends from London who were utterly convinced we’d moved to the North Pole. This was their first sight of our new home and for some it was their first taste of our region. As self-appointed North East ambassadors to our unfortunate city cousins, we wanted the whole county to make a good impression.

We needn’t have worried. On Saturday morning we woke up to blue skies and warm air. Somebody was smiling on us – and on Northumberland. The September roses were at their peak in the garden, the sheep were bleating in a major key, and the guests arrived with smiles, gifts, and a determination to party.

Theatre directors, television producers and showbiz agents mingled with farmers, doctors and landowners. It was the most eclectic mix. But the highlight of the night was the curry. Our dear friends at Rasa really pulled out the stops and threw us a full-scale Keralan wedding banquet, complete with music and dancing. Even Jonathan Shalit, agent to stars like Myleene Klass, Jamelia and Kate Silverton, and hitherto a terminal curry-hater, was won over.

Jonathan’s been a good friend since the day we stood side by side in the urinals of The Ivy and he offered me a television exclusive with his new signing, a 12 year old Welsh opera singer that he thought was going to be huge. I politely declined the opportunity and the fact that I’d turned down Charlotte Church is a story he retells with great relish at every party he comes to.

Jonathan had rung me on Monday to say that he simply couldn’t bear curry, so we prepared him a separate meal. But in the middle of the banquet, surrounded by the wonderful smells and sounds of Kerala, he couldn’t resist. The conversion was instant. Everyone in the room pronounced it the finest curry they had ever tasted, and were shocked to discover that it had been cooked by an Indian restaurant in Newcastle. The Londoners were even more shocked to find out that they could get precisely the same cuisine in several Rasa branches in London.

It was one of many surprises that night. David Cottrell, my old schoolfriend and one of the country’s top eye surgeons, discovered that the Indian dancer performing astoundingly exotic and sensual moves right in front of him actually worked in his ophthalmology department at the RVI.

As I write this on Sunday, the weather is back to its gloomy chill and the garden is a forest of empty bottles. Ah well, back to reality.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Product placement on UK television

Last week’s announcement by culture secretary Ben Bradshaw that Britain is to have product placement on its television screens came not a moment too soon.

It’s always been a major source of revenue for broadcasters in America and Europe finally caught up last year. Only Britain has remained stubbornly opposed, employing dinosaur arguments like “damage to editorial integrity”. From the New Year our most popular programmes will resemble the real world rather than having fake brands or products turned with their labels facing away from the cameras.

In fact, we’ve had product placement in the UK for years without realising it. Think of the last time you saw a travel documentary or a gameshow. When you see the tailfin of a plane, a check-in desk, or a luxury resort offered as a prize, do you seriously think the producers have paid the full price? When a celebrity drives a high performance car in a series, do you imagine he actually owns it? Most female television presenters have their outfits provided by a fashion house – either free, or at a discount. In future companies will pay commercial broadcasters hard cash to have their products featured rather than those of a rival.

Even though it’s excluded from the new provision, product placement isn’t exactly unknown on the BBC. My old series Challenge Anneka had more commercial branding in it than will be permitted next year. We had a researcher whose primary job before transmission was to check that every company that helped us had a “name check”. In each episode up to fifty utterly superfluous shots of lorries and workers in company tee shirts were added just to keep the suppliers happy and everyone was listed in the credits. Of course, it was justified because it was for charity – but the BBC never actually confessed to the arrangement.

Likewise Children In Need: can you imagine all those companies being quite so generous if the BBC didn’t allow their smartly dressed chief executives to sit in the studio with six-foot long cheques? Product placement on the BBC is every commercial organisation’s ultimate goal. It’s advertising you can’t buy, which makes it priceless – and even more valuable now you’ll be able to legally buy space within ITV programmes.

This change in legislation is not just because ITV is in dire straits, but also because the nature of media advertising is changing. People don’t watch the adverts anymore; they switch between channels during the breaks. So advertisers need their commercials inside the programmes themselves, so they can surreptitiously sell to viewers without them realizing it. You’ll probably notice it first in Coronation Street. The most publicized beer in the country is Newton & Ridley – the fictitious brewery used by the programme because it can’t feature real brands. Can you imagine the bidding war already taking place for control of the bitter in The Rovers Return?

Sadly the new rules won’t extend to the BBC or to children’s programming, so the wonderful anachronism of the “washing-up bottle” will remain on Blue Peter. Everyone knows it’s Fairy Liquid, but the words are blanked out, so generations of children have grown up to recognise the brand by the colour of the lid and the shape of the bottle.

In the United States, product placement is taken to extremes. Simon Cowell and his American Idol chums sit in front of bright red Coca Cola cups, which the producer has to keep turning so the logo faces the camera. The performers are interviewed in a bright red room which looks like the inside of a Coca Cola vending machine, and all the contestants have to take part in a Ford commercial which is shown during the programme.

I can’t imagine what The X-Factor will look like next year.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mr & Mrs

Jo tugged at my arm excitedly. “Look!” she whispered.

I’d spotted the woman as we emerged from the hotel reception. A dark-haired, sullen, pouty, predatory type dressed in dark brown and standing with her back to the grey-haired man loading luggage into the boot of a small saloon car. I hadn’t given the couple a second glance.

“It’s Mel Gibson”, she hissed. I looked back. He was much shorter than I’d expected, but the face was unmistakable. There was Braveheart, slamming down the boot lid as his new Russian girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva slinked into the passenger seat.

I can understand why celebrities like the Post Ranch Inn, a modest title for one of the most exclusive hideaways in California. Set high on the clifftops of Big Sur, sixty miles of scary hairpin bends away from any sort of town, the hotel is a collection of secluded chalets carved into the hillside. From the outside they look like little hobbit homes with grass roofs; inside, walls of glass display an expanse of Pacific Ocean a thousand feet below. Without television, internet, mobile phones or children, it’s more rustic than luxurious. New age music plays from the stereo – pan pipes and piano evoking opulence and exotic spa treatments. Perfect for a honeymoon, it’s evidently also a celebrity love nest.

“I know, let’s ask him if he wants to do a reality series,” Jo said suddenly as we walked up the hill towards our infinity pool jacuzzi. “He needs rehabilitating after his anti-semitic outburst in Malibu – tell him I’m a Jewish television producer.” I think she was only half joking.

Both Jo’s parents are Jewish, and our wedding had been held in the garden of their home. This was nothing like my previous experiences: the Tibetan Buddhist ceremony set in the Himalayas, or the Church of England affair, complete with bishop. Our ceremony was performed by Cantor Yonah Kliger of the Emanuel Temple in Beverly Hills, synagogue to the stars. A delightful man, who has been Jo’s close friend for nearly twenty years, Yonah also has the most beautiful singing voice, which is why people like Steven Spielberg book him for their children’s bar-mitvahs.

I liked the way the cantor does all the singing – no communal grunting through unfamiliar hymns, the hundred or so guests simply enjoying the sea view and the romance as Jo and I plighted our troth under the chuppah – symbol of our home – with my two sons as best man and “ringbearer”.
It was a moving, intimate wedding and, as it will undoubtedly be my last, I was determined to enjoy every moment. I loved the unfamiliar rituals: Jo circling me seven times, the stamping on the glass, baby Izzy waving at the crowd with a tiny yamacha perched on her head, and the laughter and tears as Jo and I read out the vows we’d written ourselves.

Jo looked so breathtakingly beautiful I think in the heat of the moment I even vowed to obey her – but as I’ve been doing that for the past six years I guess it won’t make too much of a difference back home.

After all that excitement, the honeymoon hotel was a moment of tranquility on the way to the Napa Valley for some wine tasting and fine dining with my divorce lawyer Gary and his wife. Although the legal fees in my last protacted settlement can’t have come close to Mel Gibson’s £640 million divorce from the mother of his seven children, Gary and I became very good friends during our three-year battle.

At The French Laundry, said by some to be America’s finest restaurant, somewhere around the eighth course I toasted Gary and formally discharged him from service.

“I no longer need a divorce lawyer — you’re fired.” “L’chaim!”, he said, raising his glass: “To Life!”.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Drama In Dana Point

It’s been an emotional couple of weeks.

Weddings are supposed to be stressful affairs, but Jo and I have been fortunate. Instead of the customary panic with caterers and table plans, we’ve quietly enjoyed our Northumbrian summer while the real pressure lay with our generous hosts, my future (now present) in-laws. They’re a delightful, warm couple living in an opulent gated community overlooking the sea in Southern California.

Nothing much happens in Dana Point. The local paper, the Orange County Register, must have the most bored crime reporter in America. “Thousands attend food and fun fest”, declared its front page the day we arrived, referring not to our forthcoming wedding, but to the Orange International Street Fair. On the inside pages, a short paragraph about an unidentified homeless man found dead in nearby marshes (“Police do not believe the death to be suspicious”) was eclipsed by reports of charity fund-raising events. The community is a million miles away from the fires belching black smoke into the atmosphere on the other side of Los Angeles. Here the air is cooler, the sky always blue.

The Pines scarcely blinked when the Gutteridges descended on them: baby Izzy, my boisterous children, and their 88-year-old grandmother. We’re not exactly the quietest of families, but they welcomed us with open arms.

However I think the stress of the occasion finally got to my father-in-law the first night we all got together. He’d commandeered a local Italian restaurant and, inspired by several glasses of Merlot, stood up and made a moving speech welcoming the union of our two large families. Like a scene from The Godfather, his tears flowed with the red wine as he sat down to appreciative applause.

Unfortunately the occasion must have been a little too much for him. His eyes closed and we all watched transfixed as, in agonisingly slow motion, his head lowered itself onto my mother’s chest. She scarcely blinked, but, with calm English aplomb, gently turned to the side, thereby allowing the head to continue its journey downwards into a plate of warm spaghetti. It was a momentous sight.

Jo, of course, was mortified, and immediately ordered me to carry her father to the car and drive him home. It was there that the drama really started. Declaring himself perfectly fit, he stood up, whereupon his legs crumpled, he fell forward and demolished a valuable antique coffee table, then lay moaning on the floor.

Not sure whether her father was injured or dying, Jo dialed 911 and within minutes the sleeping neighbourhood was woken to the sound of fire engines and ambulances. I counted 11 paramedics in the room as they thoroughly checked their patient, then pronounced a good night’s sleep as the best cure for what they politely diagnosed as an allergic reaction to the wine.

The following morning Billy was utterly remorseful. He needn't have been. Generous and open to a fault, we love Billy and I'm proud to have him as a father-in-law, even with his head in the spaghetti. He and his lovely wife Lisa gave us the wedding of our dreams, for which we're truly grateful. More of which later. Whether Dana Point has recovered from either event yet is another matter.

All the excitement must have rubbed off on the rest of the town, for the following morning my son and I were calmly collecting our suits from the dry cleaners when we heard gunshots, the screeching of tyres, and more than a dozen police cars surrounded the motel across the street. Within a few minutes we were in the middle of a scene from CSI. A police helicopter circled overhead, a fat detective with a loud Hawaiian shirt barked orders at officers with fearsome-looking rifles. The Orange County Register reported next day that a man, upset over a breakup with his girlfriend, had opened fire at nothing in particular from his motel room. Now that kind of thing doesn’t happen too often in Morpeth.

After that, the wedding itself was comparatively calm: a warm, loving family occasion with the sun setting on the sea behind us, and a honeymoon shared with my divorce lawyer and Mel Gibson - really (see the next post).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

In Sickness and In Wealth

On the first morning of my new job in California, the head of HR came into my gleaming office with a shopping list.

What sort of dental cover did I require? How many of my children needed insurance? My job status brought top-of-the-range medical cover, but did I want any extras? Prescription glasses? Chiropractors? I could even set aside a proportion of my salary towards additional “uninsurable” costs, like therapy, or the cost of babysitting. They’d send me a credit card and I could buy whatever I wanted, tax-free.

This was an eye-opener. I’d expected the system to work a bit like private medical insurance in the UK, where you pay an annual premium and they give you a list of what’s not covered and which hospitals you can’t stay in. In Britain, if you’re lucky and your employer pays the bill, you’re taxed on value of the benefit. By contrast, in America it’s a highly sophisticated, complex and expensive industry. In the US the number of insurance administrators and advisors comes close to the number of doctors.

With half a dozen insurance cards stowed safely in my wallet in case I was run over by a bus, I felt secure in the arms of the best system in the world: for those in the system. A feeling not enjoyed by those 47 million Americans who rely on the public hospitals, Medicare (for the elderly) and Medicaid (for the poor). Obama’s dilemma is how to enfranchise the 47 million without lowering the excellent healthcare standards of the comfortably insured.

The republican scaremongers are using our antiquated NHS system to beat Obama’s reforms. I shouldn’t have thought for one moment that his administration was considering using the NHS as a model for US healthcare. There’s much that’s good about the different systems but they are just that: completely different.

When Joanna first came to the UK, she had a blocked sinus that was causing her incredible pain. “How do I find an Ear Nose and Throat specialist?” she asked, picking up the Yellow Pages. “You don’t,” I said, and rang the local GP in Hampstead. “Come on down,” said the chirpy receptionist, and twenty minutes later Jo walked out of the surgery with a prescription and a huge smile on her face. “They said it was free – what amazing service”, she said and has been hooked on the NHS ever since. She excitedly rang her girlfriends in LA to tell them that the day after our baby was born the wonderful GP in our village trekked out to the house unannounced to introduce herself, followed by a number of healthcare visitors.

But when it came to the pregnancy and birth, Jo opted for the private route. You see, in the US you expect a completely different level of service. The thought of antenatal appointments with a succession of complete strangers and delivery by an unknown midwife without the skills and training of a surgeon filled Jo with horror. Sure, it kind of works over here, and most people are happy enough because they know no better. In America you choose your own consultant who sees you right through your pregnancy, and then personally delivers your child.

In my experience, the country with the best and most equitable system is France. Like America, it operates on a private but insured system. Patients choose their own physicians who in turn have autonomy over their own medical decisions. It’s all paid for by a combination of public and private insurance, however basic insurance is compulsory and universal. There’s no wasteful system of GP referrals, no waiting lists and minimal bureaucracy. It costs far less than the American system, but a lot more than ours. My hunch is that Obama will plump for the French model; shame we can’t afford to do the same.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Howay The Lads

On Saturday night BBC1 found itself with a real scoop. For the first time a major network was broadcasting a football manager’s team talk live at half time. The fact that it was in the middle of Newcastle United’s opening game in the Championship made it even more exciting.

Except that, sadly, the team wasn’t there. Alan Shearer was in the commentary box, meticulously unpicking the failings of our team’s first half performance. Bright, attacking football was giving the team good possession, but they were one-nil down because nobody was finishing the job. My namesake Mr Gutierrez was tearing up the left wing and then lobbing poor crosses to nobody. Why, suggested Shearer, don’t our midfielders go up to help out?

I wouldn’t have thought they had BBC1 on in the team dressing room, but thankfully a few minutes later the opposition goalmouth was full of yellow and orange shirts (that’s our ghastly new away strip). Kevin Nolan passed the ball to Damien Duff, who in turn passed it to the back of the net. Told you so, said Shearer, as 1700 travelling supporters went wild. The manager-in-waiting, like the great statesman he is, politely waiting for the team to be sold so he might be hired back to finish the job he started last season, was auditioning for the role in front of millions of viewers. Goodness knows what West Bromwich supporters must have thought of such unashamed BBC bias.

What is it with Mike Ashley’s fear of selling? Earlier in the week the Office of Fair Trading referred his company Sports Direct to the Competition Commission for failing to sell some stores. Don’t they realise there’s a bit of a monopoly going on here in Newcastle as well? We only have one football club to support (sorry, Mackems and Smoggies, after 50 years, a transfer of my allegiance is never going to happen). The damage caused by all this indecision is not just to the club: it generates gloom across the entire region. If yesterday’s rumours are true, and Ashley has decided not to sell and instead install David O’Leary as manager, then that’s fine by me. Please just get on with it: it’s the uncertainty that’s killing us.

Mind you, I’ll say one thing for our current demise: I’ll probably have a better view of the action at the first home game next weekend. As I moved back to Tyneside mid-season a couple of years and five managers ago, I could only get season tickets in the corner near the goalmouth. You needed binoculars or an earpiece tuned to local radio to find out what was happening at the other end. But tickets are like gold dust and I was just pleased to be part of the crowd.

So a few months ago, more in hope than expectation, I wrote to the club to see if there was a chance of moving closer to the halfway line. The day after the deadline for renewals I had a phone call from a nice lady in the box office. “About your request to move seats,” she said wearily. The voice didn’t sound optimistic and my heart sank. “Well, I do have some nearer the centre – in fact they’re right in the middle”. “You mean at the back?” I suggested warily. There was a pause, and I immediately understood why she might be a little stressed. “Well, to be honest, you can have almost any row you want. How about second from the front?”

The fans have voted with their wallets. Nice one. But if next week there’s black and white smoke coming from St James Park and we finally have an owner and a manager, you can be sure the place will be packed and the crowd cheering as loudly as ever.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Stormy Weather

This morning a man in the Meteorological Office in Bracknell is sitting in front of his weather charts with a smug grin on his face. As the rest of us wait gloomily for the next downpour to wipe out the cricket at Edgbaston, or gaze out at the rust forming on our shiny new barbecues, he’s positively beaming.

Only he and I know why he’s so happy. You see, like me he’s invested in a holiday home in England. Not for himself to enjoy – he has more sense than to risk the English weather for his own vacation. He rents it out to those optimistic enough to believe that England can still produce the long hot summers we read about as children. Earlier this year, as the recession bit, his holiday let bookings fell off the cliff along with the value of his property. So I reckon he panicked. Over a cup of strong-to-gale-force coffee in the Met Office canteen, he thought up a wonderful wheeze.

“Let’s announce a long-range weather forecast for the summer”. “That’s impossible”, said Tomasz Shufflepants (a strange name for a British weather forecaster, I know, but his real surname is even weirder). “Nobody can say what the weather is going to be like that far ahead, not even with our squillion pound new computer.” “It’s hard enough predicting the weather for this afternoon”, added Rob McElwee, with that mysterious stare he thinks female viewers interpret as enigmatic charm. “You know how we play spin the coin for next week’s forecast?”, chirped up little Dan Corbett, “We could do the same for August”. “Who cares about the summer?” added Tomasz. “It’s always wet in England. Even worse than Poland”.

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong”, said our man with the holiday home. “What do you think the odds are on a some sunshine in August?” he asked. “A tiny bit better than fifty-fifty, I suppose”, conceded Shufflepants. “Exactly: it’s odds-on, then”. “Well they’re not very good odds”. “Perhaps, but so long as we warn there may be 'heavy downpours at times', we should be covered".

So it was that on 30th April 2009 our Met Office published its famous press release that began: ‘The coming summer is odds on for a barbecue summer’. The following week, I had a flood of enquiries for my holiday home, Barnhill House: the whole of August was sold out within days. Thanks, Met Office. And commiserations to my clients who moved in this weekend to yet another downpour.

Of course I’ve no evidence whatsoever to support this outrageous conspiracy theory but it’s hard to imagine why else the Met Office would have made such a rash announcement about something so clearly unpredictable. Unless, perhaps, someone there has shares in B&Q, whose sales of barbecues have gone through the roof this year. Or maybe one of the forecasters writes cookery books on the side. I’ve been given several “Summer Grilling” books this year and there’s a whole pile lying remaindered in a bin in my local bookshop. Sometimes I open the pages just to slaver over the photographs and imagine the smells that should be emanating from my new patio, built in response to Met Office optimism. Jo and I even got our lovely Californian garden furniture out of storage, dusted it off and waited.

We’re still waiting, along with Alan, our farmer neighbour, who is looking for three consecutive days of rain-free summer to crop our hayfield. Otherwise it will go for silage and the alpacas in the next village will go hungry. But I’ve told him not to worry, because the Met Office has told me exactly what the weather will be like over the next few weeks. They absolutely, confidently guarantee it will be warmish and fairly sunny every single day for the next month. Unless, of course, it rains.