Friday, 17 October 2014

Daddy, you don't understand

I don’t know which idiot introduced my children to the world of Milkshake on Channel 5. Until recently they had seemed perfectly happy with CBeebies, which offers a similar mix of cartoons, interspersed with commentary from preternaturally cheerful young adults. I enjoyed observing these to see if there were any conceivable diversity box that the HR department had failed to tick when making their selection of the “talent”, but I never managed to catch them out.

Critically, being on the BBC, CBeebies also contains no advertising breaks.

Now my boys benefit from Peppa Pig and Thomas and Friends, the undoubted highlight of their morning viewing, which even a trainspotter like me has to admit captures many essential aspects of British steam railways very accurately. If one can overlook the fact that locomotives, carriages and wagons don’t actually speak.

However, they also get bombarded every fifteen minutes or so with an intense burst of advertising, from which I deduce that the campaign for gender neutral toys really does have a very long way to go.

This morning I noticed that the evil capitalist advertisers had already started sowing the seeds of what might constitute an ideal Christmas gift. So, as a distraction technique from something that looked likely to prove particularly expensive, I interrupted my elder boy’s consumption of his boiled egg to ask whether he had given any thought to what he might like for Christmas this year.

“Yes, I’ve made a wish,” I thought he replied.

“A wish, eh? Well, I hope your wish comes true.”

He gave me a penetrating look. “No, Daddy, I’ve made a LIST.”

“Well, the thing is, Charlie, Mummy and Daddy have just bought this house and we haven’t got any money, so you might not be able to get everything on your list this year.”

He had been sitting some way off on the pew we inherited when we bought our converted chapel, having left space for Mummy to sit down between us. Only she was too busy making his packed lunch to do so.

But now he moved along right next to me, and brought his face unusually close to mine. He was wearing the pitying look of someone addressing a very confused elderly person, and he spoke clearly and slowly.

“You don’t understand, Daddy,” he asserted. “You don’t NEED any money to buy Christmas presents.”

“Really. Why’s that?”

“Because Santa makes them.”

Having thoroughly depressed myself by taking a look at my bank balance this morning, I very much hope that he turns out to be right.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Curls are for girls

Obviously the Hanns occupy a progressive household in which huge efforts are made to avoid sexual stereotyping. Nevertheless our boys manfully persist in playing with model trains, cars and farm animals rather than dolls. Though they do at least make an occasional stab at cooking, both with plastic ingredients and with the real thing.

Reports from families blessed with daughters suggest that they face far greater challenges in persuading their little charges to eschew pink and take an interest in things mechanical rather than furry and frilly. One of Mrs Hann’s contemporaries was reduced to mild despair last week when her five-year-old daughter announced, with the know-all air of everyone her age: “Don’t be silly, Mummy. I can’t be a doctor. I’m a girl. I have to be a nurse.”

Still, at least we continue to strike one outstanding blow for equality. Best described by the long-suffering Northumbrian who had the misfortune to follow my family around a series of shops in Rothbury a couple of weeks ago. As the circus created havoc in the queue for the till at the Co-op, he said to Mrs Hann sympathetically:

“Ye knaa, it could’ve been worse. Ye could have had two boys!”

“I have got two boys,” Mrs Hann replied rather coldly, at the same time making a mental note that it was probably time to do something about the younger boy’s hairstyle, which lies at the root of the recurring confusion.

Like his elder brother (and indeed his father at a similar age) young Jamie had at that time a full head of winsome blond curls. Charlie and I both had haircuts that did for ours when we were two or thereabouts. Up to now Jamie has resisted, clasping his hands to his head and crying “No my hair!” when anyone suggests applying some clippers to it.

The photograph that graced my last entry was actually taken as long ago as last September, and was chosen because it was the only photograph I had to hand of him with his chief comforter Ni-ni (pronounced to rhyme with pi or, for that matter, pie. He chose the name himself because his mother handed the thing to him last thing every evening with the words “Night night” and he reasonably assumed that this was the name of the toy.)

Until Saturday morning he looked like this, with curls so long that they could easily be made into a pigtail:

And then on Saturday Mrs Hann took him to the hairdresser, with her heart hardened to resist his protests and turn him into a stereotypically short-haired boy.

At this point I intended to follow the above “before” shot with an “after” photo. But as it turns out I don’t actually need to bother you with that, because only a real expert would be able to tell the difference.

This is because Jamie kicked up such a monumental fuss that it was decided by all concerned that it would be easier just to leave his hair long until he himself decides the time is right to make it otherwise.

Shoppers of Rothbury and Malpas please be warned that the pretty little blonde girl in the dungarees may actually be a boy, particularly if he is holding hands with a white-haired Operation Yewtree suspect who is pretending to be his father.

Friday, 25 April 2014

The rest of you are all rubbish

Time is no longer gently trickling away, like sand through an hourglass. It is going in a roaring gush, like a lavatory supplied by a Thomas Crapper high level cistern with a knackered ballcock.

In little more than a month I shall be 60, and drawing my pension. Admittedly only the occupational pension of £728 per annum I apparently earned in five years’ hard labour at a City stockbroking firm between 1978-83. The partners’ Antipodean heirs and successors sportingly went to some considerable trouble to track me down and advise me of this windfall, which was very decent of them. It must, I suppose, have been a non-contributory pension scheme as I certainly wouldn’t have volunteered to set aside any of my meagre income to provide for an old age I was convinced I would never live to enjoy.

At that time nuclear war still seemed a very real possibility. One of the incidental attractions of relocating from central London to north Northumberland in 1986 was that it seemed to afford a slightly greater chance of surviving the inevitable holocaust. Shortly after I moved The Guardian published a map showing the USSR’s nuclear targets in the UK, in order of priority. Number one was Heathrow airport, from whose shadow I had just escaped. Number two was RAF Boulmer, linchpin of the UK’s air defence system, located on the Northumberland coast about ten miles from my cottage. I realised then that I was doomed.

But life is full of surprises and so I now find myself approaching the happy day when I can get my hands on a Senior Citizen’s railcard, yet with two children under the age of five.

They delight me much more than I delight them, on the evidence of recent conversations.

A couple of weeks ago the elder boy announced that he loved Mummy and my wife and I thought it would be a good idea to explore whether such sentiments were more widely shared. So I asked two-year-old Jamie whether he loved Mummy and received an unequivocal “no”.

Pursuing the theme, I asked for his view on Daddy, his brother, grandparents and the family pets, all with the same result.

“So who does Jamie love?”

There followed a long pause.

Eventually, after much thought, he ventured. “My love Ni-ni.” (His name for the Jellycat toy leopard from which he has been inseparable almost since birth.)

“My love Iggle Piggle.” (Another soft toy.)

“My love Old Piggle.” (Iggle Piggle contains some electronic gizmo that means it can’t be machine washed and it is, in consequence, absolutely filthy. So I took him to Toys ‘R’ Us and bought a new one with a view to putting the original in the bin. Predictably, we now have two filthy Iggle Piggles which have to be carted around with him at all times.)

“My love Peter Rabbit.” (A fourth soft toy borrowed from his brother.)

“My love Becca.” (One of his key workers at nursery.)

Then silence.

“Anyone else?” I asked, hopefully.

“No. The rest of you are all rubbish.”

A view confirmed when I went to collect him from nursery the other evening (something I rarely do) and was greeted by tears and a thrust-out lower lip.

“Not you! Mummy!”

“Come on Jamie,” said an emollient nursery worker. “It’s Daddy! You love Daddy!”

“No my don’t! Daddy’s stupid rubbish!”

I had to bribe him with two miniature Milky Bars to get him into the car.

So if you see a suspicious elderly man in a three piece suit with a watch chain laying a trail of sweets to tempt a sweet, curly-headed child into the back of his car, please don’t call the police straight away. At least not until you have checked that it isn’t me.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Depression? What do I know?

I have just filed my first newspaper column in four weeks. I could not produce one for 18 December because I was too depressed to think, let alone write. Then 25 December was out, for obvious reasons, and on 1 January I was still pretty depressed (it’s enough to get anyone down, New Year) and fundamentally couldn’t be arsed.

I alluded to my depression in my last column of 11 December. I have suffered from it for more than 40 years and during that time I have tried pretty much every therapy available apart from electric shock treatment and a frontal lobotomy. I have seen psychiatrists, psychotherapists, cognitive behavioural therapists and counsellors; taken Prozac and at least two other anti-depressant drugs; read countless articles and books on the subject; and tried a wide range of self-help measures from teetotalism and a tightly controlled diet to binge eating and getting monumentally pissed. So I think I know a fair bit about depression by now.

And yet, every single time I write a word on the subject, up pops at least one angry letter to the editor asserting that I am not taking the subject seriously enough, and have no idea what I am talking about. 

To me, frankly, this is like some slurring bloke in a Cambridge pub telling Stephen Hawking that he knows fuck all about cosmology.

This time the letter to the paper came from a Newcastle city councillor, lumping together my column with something written a few days later by the self-styled poet Kate Fox: “Both writers I felt seriously under-estimated the impact that this condition has on the individual, their family, friends and employer. Eating a bar of chocolate is no solution to this devastating illness as Kate implies.”

Well, he’s right there. Eating a bar of chocolate won’t cure your depression, but it may well raise your spirits temporarily – as the trip to London I described on 11 December did for me, before the dark clouds descended once more.

On the whole I have found that a complete change of scene is one of the more effective specifics against depression. The difficulty is the complete unpredictability of the condition. There have been times when drinking a couple of pints of beer with a friend has lifted me out of the deepest pit of gloom; many more when I simply could not face drinking with anyone; and others when I have accepted the drink and the well-intentioned company and left the pub far more miserable than when I went in. And done nothing at all for the mood of the person or persons I was with.

I THINK, after all these years, that I discern some patterns. I am much more likely to succumb to depression in the winter months, when daylight and sunshine are in short supply. The prospect of events I loathe, like conferences and parties, always induces gloom (so the combination of winter and the festive season is invariably bad news).

I have also formulated the following simple self-help rules, which I have shared with others and know that they have proved positive for them, too:

1. Get up early. Don’t lie in bed feeling sorry for yourself. It only makes things worse.

2. Take exercise. The single most positive thing anyone can do to drive away depression is to take a long, brisk walk – ideally in the hills.

3. Don’t overeat. (Says the 16 stone porker with a lifetime’s supply of chocolates stacked up by the sofa at home.)

4. Don’t drink – though, as noted earlier, moderate tactical intakes of alcohol may help to shift a stubbornly low mood.

5. Read a good book: it’s got harder and harder to find the time, as we all become more and more addicted to social media, but getting really involved in a genuinely “unputdownable” book has proven itself time and again as a wonderful way to raise morale.

Now, I know all that from long and bitter experience, but it did not stop me from spending the best part of December lying around feeling miserable, unable to kick-start myself out of my torpor. As a fellow sufferer remarked to me over Christmas, it’s like walking in treacle. You can’t think straight, you can’t work, you don’t want to socialise, you know you’re going to be lousy company and it seems fairest all round to stay at home alone.

Getting out of the house for a walk seems like torture. The first half mile or so is almost unbearable. But persevere and I guarantee that you will start to feel better.

Similarly, going back to work is hell. I did it yesterday morning, and every single task I attempted took at least twice as long as it should have done, and left me convinced that I had made a complete hash of it. In the days when I worked as part of a team I would shout and scream at people on the slightest provocation on first days back like this, and reduce them or me (or both) to tears.

Yet the reality is that the quality of my written work does not suffer if I can just force myself to produce it. Bizarrely, I have come up with some of my best humorous material at times when I have been almost prostrate with depression.

And, as with the walking, perseverance brings its rewards. It is now the afternoon of Day 2 and I am feeling better, able to answer the phone without dread, engage in a spot of banter and work my way through many of the tasks that I have now been putting off for a month because I could not face them.

I may come across in print as being unsympathetic about depression, because I am quite unsympathetic to myself. Fundamentally, I know that I am a lazy sod who hates parties, so saying “I can’t go: I’m depressed” is almost too convenient an excuse. But like the bloke who set out to get himself repatriated from Colditz by pretending to be mad, and duly ended up in a British loony bin, the symptoms are no less real and painful for perhaps, to some extent at least, having wished them upon myself.

Why am I writing this? Because I do know about depression, and I thought it might be useful to set out why, and some of the lessons I have learned. If you are feeling as miserable today as I was a few weeks ago, try getting up and going for a walk. And if you really can’t face it, maybe think about trying it tomorrow.

The other reason is that far too many people are too embarrassed to acknowledge their condition. I used to be that way myself, blaming my absences from work on stomach upsets or flu (with the inevitable result that I would be stricken with a genuine stomach upset or flu shortly thereafter, and would be bereft of a convincing explanation). It is so much better to be honest and upfront. You’ll be amazed how many people respond by saying that they have suffered from depression themselves, or have first hand experience of it in their families.

At any rate, I have never encountered anything but sympathy and have somehow managed to hold down a reasonably pressured and well-rewarded job for 35 years despite my periodic bouts of misery. 

But then, as my wife likes to remind me at least once every day, I am a very lucky man.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

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Thursday, 10 October 2013

Like a bad penny

Since a couple of people have asked, in response to my last post: yes, my car has been returned.

This was obviously a bit of a blow to me personally, though its delivery proved a very exciting experience for two small boys.

So far it has made it the six miles to my nearest railway station and back, and successfully completed one 50 mile round trip to my office. I don't wish to jinx things by saying anything more positive than that. I did notice this morning that the rear windscreen washer no longer worked, but I can say with confidence that Hell will freeze over before I take it to my local Land Rover dealer to be looked at.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

You could not make it up

I have not seen my car for more than two weeks now. Unfortunately it hasn’t been stolen. It has been towed away for repair by the geniuses at Land Rover, whose technician pitched up at my house in the wilds of Northumberland on Saturday, 21 September, plugged in his little computer and immediately identified two faults: one relating to fuel pressure and the other suggesting a faulty sensor on the crankshaft. It was this, he thought, that was sending messages to try and stall the engine. Occasionally it was succeeding in doing so, which is why I had spent the previous fortnight lurching and jerking around the roads of northern England, and periodically gliding to a halt. Never a pleasant experience if one happens to be cruising in the fast lane of a motorway at the time.

On the one hand I was pretty furious with Hunters Land Rover of Chester for having failed to diagnose and fix these faults when I took the vehicle in for repair the previous Tuesday. All the more so because they had not only permitted me to drive away in a clearly unsafe car, but had now caused me to waste pretty much an entire Saturday, and to miss the friends’ wedding that was my sole reason for making the 240 mile drive to the North East in the first place. But, on the other hand, I was relieved that someone had finally agreed with me that there was a problem, and that steps were going to be taken to put it right. I was also glad to have my car temporarily replaced with one that actually worked, though Land Rover’s insistence on providing me with an identical Discovery 4 was probably misplaced, as by that stage I would have felt more comfortable behind the wheel of almost any other vehicle, with the possible exception of a steamroller.

So time wore on. I had a vague idea where my car had ended up when the AA man towed it away, because someone from Land Rover had rung me up to say that they couldn’t take it to my nearest dealer, Stratstone in Newcastle, because they were “too busy”. So, if it was all right with me, they were going to dump it outside a closed Land Rover service centre on the Team Valley Trading Estate in Gateshead, and post its keys through the letter box. I explained in no uncertain terms why this did not strike me as a great idea, and they rang back with a Plan C: delivering it to Stratstone in Houghton-le-Spring, wherever that is. I concurred.

There followed several days of silence, so I thought perhaps I should ring Land Rover and check on progress. But they could not help; they had no record of where my car had been taken, and I would need to ring the dealer direct if I wanted to know more. In the circumstances, it was quite handy that I at least knew where it was supposed to be.

So I Googled [remember other search engines are available] Stratstone in Houghton-le-Spring and spoke to a nice man called Paul who explained that Land Rover had only just authorised him to replace the vehicle’s high pressure fuel pump: a part which needed to be specially ordered and which would be a major job to fit. He promised to keep me updated and was as good as his word: he rang a couple of days later to report that the work had been done and to ask my permission for one of his colleagues, who lived a good 25 miles away, to take the vehicle home with him to give it a proper test run and ensure that this had fixed my problem.

I was delighted, and noted the contrast with his Chester counterparts, who when asked if they had taken the vehicle for a test drive before pronouncing that they “couldn’t find a fault” assured me that they had. And I might have believed them but for the fact that I noted my car’s mileage on delivery to them as 31,999, and on collection as 32,000.

A few more days drifted by, and on Thursday Paul rang me again and asked me to call him back. I tried to do so, but found myself in the midst of an almost unbelievably strict interrogation about why I was ringing.

“Is your car in the garage?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m calling.”

“But is your car in for repair?”

“It was. I don’t know whether it still is. I imagine that’s why Paul rang me.”

“What exactly was the nature of the problem with your car?”

“Look, I don’t want to be rude, but exactly what part of ‘He rang me and asked me to call him back’ are you struggling to understand?”

“Can you tell me …”

“Oh, fuck off.”

On Friday afternoon Paul rang again, during the 15 minutes while I was away from my desk having lunch, and left another message asking me to call him back. In the circumstances I asked Mrs H, who has infinitely greater reserves of patience than I do, to try and ring Paul for me and just leave a message asking him to call me again. Mrs H always suspects that I exaggerate grossly, so it was a relief to me when she confirmed that the process of getting through was every bit as difficult as I had described. Apparently the dealership uses a call centre that is incentivised according to the number of service appointments they book, hence the relentless focus on interrogating callers’ motives rather than on anything that might pass, in a sane world, for customer service. The man Mrs H spoke to admitted that even members of his own team who were out on the road could not get through to colleagues back at base except through resort to stratagems like claiming “I’m his boyfriend and it’s an urgent personal matter.”

Eventually Paul rang me again and told me how lucky it was that I had permitted his colleague to take my car for a decent test drive, because it had broken down en route. And the problem lay in the faulty crankshaft sensor that had been highlighted by the computer two weeks ago, but which Land Rover had told him not to bother replacing because it was a false result that would be cured by renewing the high pressure fuel pump. The good news was that they had now belatedly agreed that the sensor should be replaced, too. The bad news was that what would have been a 15 minute job while they were replacing the fuel pump would now be the best part of a day’s work as they took the car to bits again to put it right.

All of which tends to confirm my suspicion that Paul and Stratstone Houghton-le-Spring are rare good guys in an organisation where total idiocy seems to be the norm. I don’t actually care too much about how long my car is away. I wouldn’t mind if I never saw it again and I shall certainly be saying a cheery Tata to Land Rover as soon as it is practically and financially possible for me to do so.

I can only assume that the likes of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, who seemed to be competing during the conference season to heap praise on Jaguar Land Rover as the epitome of British (Indian-owned) industrial excellence, have never actually forked out any of their own cash to buy one of its shit awful products. But then you would expect politicians to be dim and disingenuous. What surprises me rather more is the attitude of the thieving community.

One of the incidental annoyances of the last few weeks has been the repeated phone calls from Cobra vehicle tracking whenever my car has had its battery disconnected or been loaded on a trailer. I had one of their trackers installed at the insistence of my insurance company because it was their standard requirement for all vehicles valued at more than £50,000. The other day I pointed out that this could only have been the case for about ten minutes after delivery, before depreciation kicked in, and it must be worth vastly less than that now.

Their answer was that I must keep the tracker because my car is still a high theft risk and very attractive to the vehicle stealing community. Well, all I can say is that they have no discernment whatsoever. So here is my advice to the criminals of Britain: think German or Japanese, boys. After all, if you need to make a quick getaway from the police, it will help to be behind the wheel of something that won’t come shuddering to a halt when you put your foot down.