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.