Sunday, 8 April 2018

The antithesis of entrepreneurship

I know many entrepreneurs, and have worked for several highly successful ones, but I have always known that I could never hope to become one myself.

Anyone who has ever met me will have recognised immediately that I lack the requisite energy and ‘never give up’ determination. But, above all, I lack the basis killer instinct to make a buck whenever the opportunity arises.

I recognised the true extent of this deficit earlier today, when I turned to Amazon to remind myself of the price of the one and only book I have published to date. (Yes, I have got a shelf full of them in my study, but just as it seems easier to consult Wikipedia rather than the painstakingly assembled library of reference works directly behind my desk, so I instinctively clicked the link.)

I had forgotten that The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera is out of print. (There is a new edition, from a new publisher, coming out in June.) Consequently some chancer, sorry entrepreneur, was taking the opportunity to try to shift a copy for an eye-watering £189.83.

My response on Twitter was instantaneous. Come to me and I will sell you one for the cover price of £6.99. I even felt a bit guilty about this, because I enjoyed a 50% author’s discount when I bought them.

It took me several hours to realise that anyone with an ounce of business sense would have tried to knock them out on Amazon at £189.82.

Sadly, I simply haven’t got the trader’s mentality. My one undoubted and entirely theoretical commercial success was in the far bygone days when I used to travel overseas, and would invariably attract envious glances from my fellow tourists as I became a magnet for absolutely amazing offers in every street market we visited.

The stallholders having mistaken my total lack of interest in ever buying their carpets or whatever for the possession of world class haggling skills.

I have had an eBay account for years, but never sold a thing, despite currently being in possession of two houses positively groaning at the seams with unwanted tat. This includes a large collection of vintage model railway equipment that I have been repeatedly assured was a strongly appreciating asset through the 1980s and 1990s, but is now more or less worthless.

I can follow the logic of the dealers and auctioneers: this sort of thing was collected by men (and only men) who were children in the 1950s, prosperous in the closing years of the century, but are now dying or downsizing. Understandably enough, there is no one else motivated by nostalgia to buy it from them.

Since I am in the rare position of being an old man with young children, I concluded that I might as well cut my losses and let them play with the trains, instead of trying to sell them. Yet here is a curious thing. I recently built my elder son a larger train set, and have been trying to buy a few additional antique Hornby Dublo accessories to brighten it up. (Being made of metal, they are vastly more durable than the contemporary alternatives.)

Every time the desired items come up on eBay I add them to my watch list, and adopt my proven strategy of bidding extremely late and unpredictably high. Yet every time I do it I find myself outbid, usually by a substantial margin.

So clearly someone is out there, in defiance of all logic, paying Big Money for old Hornby Dublo. As usual in life, things are only head-shakingly worthless when I am the seller.

By the same token, perhaps there really is someone on this planet mad enough to pay the thick end of £200 for an old edition of my Bluffer’s guide. I shall find out when my career in corporate affairs comes to its inevitable and surely imminent close, and I am thrown back on selling stuff to try and sustain my family.

Come on. I’m not asking £189.83. I’m not even asking £189.82. It can be yours for just £150 (plus postage and remarkably expensive packing) and I won’t even devalue it with my signature.

Then again, you could just hang on until June …

Friday, 11 August 2017

You are old, Father William

To each of us who is fortunate enough to live long enough, there comes a point when we must reluctantly recognise that we are old.

It is usually quite sudden. I can remember it happening to my father when he was taking my pet Sheltie for a walk around the block in Longbenton in the 1960s. Some lads paused their kickabout, saying “Let’s wait until this old bloke has gone past.” Dad looked around for the old bloke, only to realise that he was it. I suppose he would have been in his late 50s at the time. He came home thoroughly dispirited. I can remember laughing at him.

For me, it happened on the afternoon of Wednesday, 9 August 2017. I’d had an agreeable lunch with my wife and two sons, aged eight and five, before they headed for a matinee at the open air theatre nearby. (Amazingly, it did not rain.) On my way back to the office I thought I’d call in at B&Q to pick up some paint I’d promised to buy to enhance the appearance of our summerhouse. I also added four bags of potting compost to the legendarily unmanoeuvrable flatbed trolley and headed towards the checkout, where I was intercepted by a solicitous, orange-clad matron with the words:

“Are you all right, dear? Would you like someone to help you with that?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Come to this till, I can open it up for you.”

Never before in many years of shopping at B&Q have I ever known more than one or two tills to be open, and have often wondered why they installed the other four in the first place. So this was a genuine first.

“Have you got one of our cards, dear?”


“Would you like one? You are over 60, aren’t you?”

“Yes I am, as it happens. But I haven’t got anything on me to prove it.”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that, dear. I can see you are. Only it’s 10% off on Wednesdays for our Diamond Club members.”

So there I stood, with £80 worth of goods on my trolley, and a straight choice to make between my self-respect and a saving of eight quid (which actually proved to be only six quid, because the compost had already been discounted).

Naturally I went for the six quid, but still returned to the office feeling far, far older than I had been when I set out, and contemplating a future in which “a nice cup of tea and a sit down” will feature extensively, along with pensioners’ specials at lunchtime, whist drives in the day room, and lively discussions about the deaths column in the local paper.

To be fair, the ticket office staff at Newcastle Central station regularly asked me “Have you got a card, pet?” when I was still in my 40s, after the stress caused by my demanding clients turned my hair grey somewhat prematurely. But back then I could always kid myself that they had mistaken me for a student.

Now there can be no doubt. I am a Diamond Club member, my foot is poised on the edge of the grave and the ground feels distinctly slippery. But at least I’ve got Wednesdays sorted for my few remaining months, and I’ll be able to put the savings on home improvement products towards my funeral expenses.

Everyone to whom I have retailed this story in my search for sympathy has laughed at me, just as I laughed at my father half a century ago. So I have also finally learned the true meaning of karma. And all thanks to B&Q.

Friday, 3 February 2017

If you go down in the woods today

Last week Mrs H volunteered to drive our elder son and two his school friends to an eighth birthday party. It didn’t seem too much of a challenge, on the face of it: the party was being held within a few minutes’ drive of our house, albeit at an address Mrs H had not visited before. But she had said address, the benefit of verbal directions (“we live in the woods”), and the support of a fully functioning sat nav. What’s more, she had taken the precaution of calling en route at the office of the local estate, from which the house is rented, to make absolutely sure she went to the right one of the two identically named cottages in their possession. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s what:

Yes, we’ve all read about the people who have driven into canals, onto railway lines, or got their HGVs irretrievably jammed between two ancient and fragile buildings because “the sat nav told me to do it”, but this is the first time I have encountered this phenomenon quite so close to home.

I don’t think I can do better than to let Mrs H’s White Knight tell the story in his own words:

I’m not quite sure I can express my sheer delight/awe/dismay in a word that summarises all of the emotions I felt when I realised the true extent of Mrs H’s predicament. I can say, though, that one of my initial reactions was relief: if only that I am not the only man alive with a wife capable of making such a manoeuvre.

When I first got the call to duty (4.15pm) we still had failing daylight. The message was as clear as it was urgent: three 7/8 year olds and a distraught mother stuck in the deepest, darkest depths of the woods, and the mist was closing in fast.

[It surely goes without saying that Mrs H had got stuck in a spot with zero mobile reception, and had had to walk some way from the car before she could despatch a text message pleading for help.]

After about 20 minutes “off–roading” I happened on a gaggle of desperately waving children in the near dark of the woods shouting excitedly “Are you in a four-wheel drive?” and “Thank God - we thought we were going to die!” “Thank Christ!” etc. All very biblical anyway … 

[This is good, as it shows that their education in a Church of England school is delivering at least some of the hoped-for benefits.]

Behind the young Christians was a fraught-looking Mrs H, obviously downplaying the youngsters’ prophesy of doom had I not found them…. “I’ve got my car stuck up there” (gestures into the jungle). “It’s not badly stuck though!”

All very Hansel and Gretel, actually, come to think of it.

On that cheerful note they all, relieved, jumped into the car and we got back to the house so they could be duly terrified by tarantulas and snakes, this being the order of the day apparently. 

I took the opportunity to steal away from the frivolities of the killer animals in our kitchen to see if I could free the vehicle from the mud…… not being “badly stuck” etc.

Having picked them up in the woods off a moderately muddy but not impassable path (if you happened to be in a tracked vehicle, that is) I had assumed that where I had been pointed towards to find the stuck vehicle must have been on a similar woodland path. I took myself back towards where I had picked them up, to realise that where the car was actually stuck appeared to be on a track further up into the woods, and not accessible by line of sight…….. 

Mrs H had in fact decided (because the Sat Nav had dictated) that she turn off what must have been a questionable track in the first place into the woods literally off road. The SAS would have struggled to navigate the course she/the Nav had chosen to take.

A friend helped us pull the car out with his tractor in the dark after we gave up digging it out and trying to move it with his pick-up truck: having exclaimed on first sight “It looks like it’s fallen out of that fucking tree - how did that get there?!”

I have told my wife never again to describe where we live as “in the woods” in case anyone else takes it quite so literally!

Brilliant. Simply brilliant. Lifelong comical material.

I find it hard to disagree with that verdict. Mrs H described it all as “a bit of a ‘mare with the car” while my son’s verdict was slightly more dramatic: “Daddy, we nearly died in the woods!”

By way of a postscript, over the subsequent weekend one of Mrs H’s front tyres developed what appeared to be a slow puncture. I pumped it up, but it kept losing pressure, so on Monday Mrs H took it to those nice people at the local Kwik Fit.

Their first question, after examining the car, was “Do you do a lot of off-roading?”

Because obviously, if you did, your first choice of motor would be a two-wheel drive Nissan Qashqai. We wanted a four-wheel drive model, as Mrs H had before, but at the time of order Nissan had decided that its customers could have a 4WD Qashqai or an automatic Qashqai, but not both in one car, and the automatic gearbox won.

I would say that we had made the wrong choice, but my own car is supposed to be one of the most capable off-road vehicles on the market, and I don’t think it would have fared any better in the circumstances.

I am currently on eBay looking for a competitively priced second hand tank.

I conclude with many thanks to Mrs H’s rescuers, narrator and photographer, and the assurance that I will, without fail, report here with equal fullness and frankness any car-related misfortunes that may occur when I am behind the wheel myself. How’s that for making myself a hostage to fortune?

Monday, 12 December 2016

Having Santa arrested

Yesterday Mrs H took the boys to the traditional Christingle service in our parish church, then on to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Lowry in Manchester, while I lay on the sitting room sofa attempting to pull myself together from the total exhaustion that has afflicted me since Friday.

Luckily a friend of our older son was able to use the theatre ticket I had bought for myself.

The boys having made donations to the Children’s Society during the church service (which is to say, having handed over the candle-shaped cardboard collecting boxes that Mummy had filled for them), Mrs H attempted to interest them in another good deed: buying extra Christmas presents for needy children.

“Will that be with our money?” Charlie, the elder, asked suspiciously.

“No, Mummy will pay for them.”

“But why do we need to buy presents for other people?”

“Well, because these are for children who might otherwise have nothing at all on Christmas Day. How would you feel, Jamie, if you came down on Christmas morning, and Santa hadn’t left you anything?”

Jamie, aged four, had no doubts about that.

“I’d ring the police and have Santa arrested,” he replied.

Continuing a robust turn of phrase for which he has become noted in the Hann family. Indeed, we can recall only one recent concession.

Jamie has a particular aversion to having his hair washed and, subsequent to that, receiving the attentions of a nit comb. (Head lice, a phenomenon completely unknown to me and my childhood friends in 1950s Newcastle, are now commonplace even among the denizens of overwhelmingly middle class church schools in Cheshire; which seems odd given the vast improvement in standards of personal hygiene over the intervening half century).

In the course of these regular bathroom battles, a certain amount of personal abuse tends to be directed at Mummy.

During one of these recently, Mrs H provided a summary: “Yes, I know, I am the worst, unkindest, most cruel and evil Mummy that ever lived.”

Jamie looked at her coldly and replied: “I never said you were evil.”

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

This is all your fault, Mummy

Today we lunched at home and took our walk at the far end of the beautiful Breamish valley. It must have been getting on for 20 years since I paid my last (and only) visit to the waterfall called Linhope Spout, but I was conscious that it was pretty and, more importantly, that the three-mile round trip there and back should be within the walking abilities of both the children and our 15-year-old Border terrier.

Though, to be honest, I seriously doubted whether we would actually make it to our intended destination.

These doubts seemed well-founded when we reached the bridge in the little hamlet of Linhope, about 20 minutes after starting our walk, and the boys noted the water tumbling over a few rocks in the stream below.

“That’s it. We’ve seen the waterfall! Let’s go back!” they announced.

But Mummy was made of sterner stuff than that, and insisted on persevering. So we secured their reluctant agreement to walk up the grassy hill on the path that led away from the tarmac road. Towards the top of this we came to a well-worn sign that read “Linhope Spout ¼”. The inaccuracy of this became clear some way further on, when we passed another sign pointing in the opposite direction that read “Hartside 1”, Hartside being the place where we had parked the car, close to a sign that correctly declared the total distance to Linhope Spout to be 1½.

“Come on, team Hann!” said Mummy, enthusiastically. “It’s only a quarter of a mile! We can do this!”

So we set off, with the expedition naturally dividing into two parts. The first, or pathfinder, group comprised me, my seven-year-old son and heir, and our three-year-old Border terrier. The second consisted of Mummy, the four-year-old child and the aforementioned geriatric dog, who has the turn of speed you might expect from a 105-year-old blind human.

As the ground descended on the approach to the Spout the boy lost sight of me and began to doubt his mother’s sense of direction.

“Mummy, we need to go straight on!”

“No, we turn right. I saw Daddy go this way.”

“No, it’s straight on!”

“Look, there’s a sign. It’s pointing this way.”

“No, no, no! You’re going the wrong way! We’re lost! Lost in the hills! I’ll never see Charlie or my house ever again! Ring Daddy!”

“I can’t ring Daddy.”

“Oh for God’s sake don’t tell me you’ve forgotten to bring your phone!”

“No, it's just that the reception isn't very good here and ...”

“This is all your fault! If you hadn’t walked so slowly we wouldn’t have lost them in the first place!” 

And so on and so forth until the Spout finally hove into view with an elderly man and a small boy standing beside it, and a smaller boy started trying to hurl himself down a rocky slope to join them.

We took a commemorative photograph and made our way back to the car shortly before nightfall, with approximately half of us moaning all the way as we went.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Pining for the truant catcher

The rural local authorities of Cheshire, in an act of collective madness, decided that this week would be their school half term. A week after everyone else’s. Which was no doubt good news for those teachers and parents looking to secure cut-price tickets to jet off to somewhere slightly warmer than the UK. But it was decidedly bad news for those of us who had elected to stay here, given that pretty much all the preserved railways, castles, country houses, petting farms and other child-friendly tourist attractions that had been enthusiastically touting for business all last week put up their shutters and closed for the winter at dusk on Sunday.

This left us with two main options to keep our little darlings entertained during our holiday break in Northumberland: pub lunches and healthy walks. A key objective of the latter being to tire them out in the hope that they might sleep slightly later than their traditional 6am BST (or, as it became yesterday, 5am GMT).

Today we went to an establishment in Newton-by-the-Sea that bills itself as a “gastropub”, something I have always found more than a little off-putting. Many years ago I observed from the top deck of my bus to and from school the opening of a modest little shop by the Cradlewell in Jesmond that billed itself as a “high class tailor”. Even as a schoolboy, I harboured grave doubts about that business. Would an establishment that really was “high class” need to proclaim the fact on its fascia? I was very surprised when, years later, a friend from a more prosperous family than mine told me that his father had all his suits made there, and it was actually pretty good.

The “gastropub” had its pretensions quite effectively deflated by my friend The Secret Diner (food critic of The Journal in Newcastle) more than a year ago.  At the time I thought he was being frightfully unfair as I only ever ordered the fish and chips or seafood chowder, both of which were ace. I also appreciated the reliably prompt and efficient service, which becomes of critical importance when one is in charge of two small human beings who will become “hangry” if their needs are not satisfied at high speed.

Considerable disappointment thus ensued when the pub proved to have seriously downgraded both its signature dishes, and I ended up paying £16.95 for an absurd (and dangerously hot) “bin lid” thinly smeared with a “chowder” in which the main ingredients appeared to be flour and undercooked, sliced potatoes.

Perhaps it wise, in the circumstances, that the staff had also developed new skills in the avoidance of eye contact.

Still, no one has yet managed to spoil the beach at Low Newton and we spent a pleasant and surprisingly clement afternoon watching the children running around and getting as much of the North Sea as possible inside their wellies.

Though it was a little disappointing that we did not receive a visit from the uniformed individual who featured with such regularity in the comics of my childhood: the Truant Catcher. I could, of course, have patiently explained that my children were enjoying a legitimate holiday, in much the same way as I explain nearly every day that I am not, in fact, their grandfather. On the other hand if he had come all that way with a big net and a van with barred windows, it might have been cruel to deprive them of an educational experience of unjustified incarceration.

Tonight, for the first time in my life, I carved a pumpkin lantern. It took about ten minutes, compared with the couple of evenings I used to spend attacking a turnip (as we call swedes on Tyneside) with a blunt kitchen knife 50-odd years ago. We lit the candle and awaited callers, having armed ourselves with a couple of bags of fun-size chocolate bars from Iceland in Alnwick.

Unsurprisingly, in the middle of nowhere in rural Northumberland, absolutely no one came.