Newgate News

Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Ironic posteriors and the Cotton-Spinners' Gazette

We have been musing this week on the topic of feminism. While this is territory already visited in the Tavern, the chance discovery of an article in the Guardian - where else? - has led to a certain amount of boggling of minds.

It concerns a French artist and a series of drawings inspired by the work of one Nicki Minaj, a hip-hop artist whose performances are something of an eye-opener for those of us who had stopped watching music videos by the late 80s. Camille Henrot has 'reworked' the single 'Anaconda' into 'a piece of social commentary' described in vintage Guardian style:
One of the drawings is called 'My Anaconda Don’t' – a lyric repeated throughout the song. Each snaky, filigree-like ink line seems as if it's a riff on postcolonialism, adding up to a poignant collision of high art and pop culture.
Those of you who have been paying attention to the youth scene will doubtless know already that there was a public rift between Minaj and pop princess Taylor Swift (nope; me neither) when the video of 'Anaconda' missed out on some kind of award. Minaj appears to have suggested it was 'cos she is black' but, having taken a look (here, if you really must - but don't say I didn't warn you), I can think of other reasons.

I can appreciate, for example, that Minaj wishes to ridicule the objectification of women, but I have to admit to some difficulty in seeing exactly how this is achieved by writhing around slathered in baby oil and pouting at the camera, patting the rear of a shapely bikini-clad dancer or crawling on all fours around a seated man, however ironic the intention.
“I like to think she created Anaconda to evoke criticism. She has abused the typical ‘black music-video girl’ archetype to the very end, to catch attention and create hate – if only so we too can realise our aversion to the sexualisation of women.
Now I can't speak for the male of the species, but it seems to me that, presented with four and a half minutes of Minaj's ample and impressively mobile buttocks undulating in a variety of insubstantial garb alongside a quartet of equally callipygian acolytes, the response is not necessarily going to be "Ah, I see it now; the objectification of women is a terrible thing!"

While the lyrics - as far as I understand them - are full of mordant, if crude, irony directed at men who judge women by their physical attributes, this message seems to have entirely escaped the visitors to a Las Vegas waxwork exhibition who amused themselves taking a variety of inventive and explicit pictures of each other with a replica of the singer depicted, mid-twerk, on all fours .

Henrot - along with, presumably the Guardian - is in no doubt, however, hailing Minaj as a feminist icon. In fact, the Guardian seems to have something of a Minaj obsession, which suggests that its journalists believe an oiled and gyrating posterior can have impeccable feminist credentials as long as it is intended ironically - it's a very long way indeed from the earnest articles I devoured back in my boiler-suit days.

As it happens, another issue altogether may be tipping the balance in Minaj's favour (a tip of the tricorn to JuliaM); given the paper's perennial preoccupations, it is perhaps something of a giveaway that, even in the piece on Henrot's drawings, the critic manages to shoehorn in a load of post-colonial guilt for good measure.
In her new work, the elegant line drawings inspired by the sweatiest, most sexualised scenes from Minaj’s video play with the ghosts of colonialism and racial stereotyping in contemporary culture.
The Manchester Guardian as was - there's nothing quite like it!

(If you did watch the video, you might enjoy this parody as an antidote.) 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Corbyn addresses the faithful

It's good to see Jeremy Corbyn's commitment to recycling: full marks to Alex Massie at the Spectator for listing the verbatim borrowings from a 2011 speech written for (and rejected by) Ed Miliband.

Personally I'm not sure how much it matters. In the great tradition of party conferences, no-one there really bothers too much about the minutiae of  the leader's speech; they just join in when they like the tune.

Since I have decided I am allergic to politicians (or perhaps it's just an intolerance), I shall, at this point, refer you to Caedmon's Cat, who comments at length on the rise of Corbyn far more stylishly than I ever could -  I invite you to join me in a raising a glass to the author of phrases such as 'a boil on the buttock politic'.

Meanwhile, having taken the tongue-in-cheek (I hope!) quiz from the Telegraph (back in August), I have been told that
"You don’t like Corbyn, or his ideas. No matter who you vote for, extremist Corbynistas condemn you as an Evil Tory."
I can't say it comes as a complete surprise - though coming from the Telegraph, I do rather wonder whether that is the default response.

Actually, there is one idea of Corbyn's I do find palatable; the end of the Punch-and Judy PMQs - although I'm not so sure about the 'Housewife's Choice' sourcing of his questions. Still, whatever else he brings to the table, anything that makes Westminster less infantile is alright in my book.

(I am indebted to the Tavern's resident Wise Woman for the picture, a serendipitous find in an old book of Irish Folk Tales. The resemblance is striking, don't you think?)

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Down Memory Lane to Dolphin Square

Let me take you back to the time when 1970s brown-and-orange was about to give way to the brave electric-blue world of the 1980s.

Like most teenagers, I spent much of my time day-dreaming. Camped out in the spacious attic of my parents' rural bungalow with Radio 1 and a bag of sherbet lemons from the newsagent's shop, I eagerly devoured the Sunday papers and imagined life in the fast lane hundreds of miles away.
All things were grist to the mill, from reviews of films I would not see for years (our local flea-pit had by then reinvented itself as a bingo hall) and descriptions of up-market restaurants to avant-garde fashions which, had anyone ventured out in them in my local high street, would have rendered the townsfolk helpless with laughter.

In my mind's eye, far from my sagging corduroy beanbag in the loft, I happily trawled the bookshops of Charing Cross Road and listened to records in HMV, then headed for the South Bank for coffee or browsed the rails in Oxford Street, choosing an outfit for supper round the corner at the Wardour Street Pizza Express and a trip to the Screen on the Green for the latest must-see film.

Naturally, at the end of such a busy day, I would need a place to lay my head - a sophisticated city pad with all the amenities - and I had already chosen the address. Dolphin Square had it all; a central location, concierge service and historical significance, not to mention the reflected glory of the rich and famous then in residence.

It was, as far as it could be at such a distance, an informed choice; I knew the layout of the complex and had a good idea of what some of the flats looked like inside thanks to the newspaper's property section and a detailed article or two. Fascinated by the stern 1930's architecture and design, I could have described the entrance halls or the corridors with a fair degree of accuracy or drawn from memory the central fountain which appeared in every property advertisement.

That familiar image still catches my eye whenever I see it, although it is more likely now to appear in the News section. Research has shown that teenagers are capable of absorbing and retaining a phenomenal amount of information and some of it, at least, was still there thirty-five years later when Dolphin Square acquired its sudden public notoriety and tarnished my innocent juvenile aspirations.

I neither intend nor want to delve into other people's darker territory with this post but, in the context of certain allegations dating back to the 1970s, I think it worth pointing out that, to my certain knowledge, it was possible at the time for a fourteen-year-old who had never seen London to construct an imaginary life there in meticulous detail from nothing but the Sunday papers, television and a tattered AtoZ.

(Footnote: Reader, I did not pine in vain. I'd like (albeit belatedly) to thank my wonderful mother for my sixteenth birthday treat - a day in London, bookshops, coffee and all, culminating in a blissful spree in the Oxford Street TopShop.)

Sunday, 30 August 2015

"I predict a riot."

"Without a functioning space for hope, positivity and genuine care, these communities will descend into savagery due to sheer desperation for basic needs to be met."
Thus spake Alan Yentob (if BBC News is to be believed) in an e-mail to the Cabinet Office explaining why a further £3 million should be poured into the gaping maw of Kids Company, the only thing standing between us and criminal dystopia.

The author of this Jeremiad leaves no doubt of the consequences should funding not be forthcoming:
...a "high risk" of looting, rioting and arson attacks on government buildings...."increases" in knife and gun crime, neglect, starvation and modern-day slavery
This, apparently, is what London will be like without Kids Company - read it and tremble! No wonder civil servants have described the language used as 'absurd' and 'hysterical'. Interestingly, the document bears more than a passing resemblance to the literary style of Batmanghelidjh herself; a blend of psycho-jargon and self-importance (not to mention the odd dangling preposition):
Our cause for concern is not hypothetical, but based on a deep understanding of the socio-psychological background that these children operate within.
This last quote raises an intriguing point; if the beneficiaries of Kids Company can be repeatedly described as 'children', for whom it fills the role of 'primary care-giver', who exactly is going to be out rioting and burning down government buildings?

Surely it will not be the well-groomed and photogenic pre-teen girls marched under escort to Downing Street in matching t-shirts to tug at the nation's heartstrings - though I wouldn't put it past some of the mothers vociferously complaining on television about the derailed gravy train of free meals, clothes and residential activity holidays for their offspring.

Instead, I suspect the potential rioters belong to an altogether different stratum of  'clients' who came to light in the Mail today thanks to files leaked by 'a Kids Company insider'. By Batmanghelidjh's own admission elsewhere,
‘Because we have been going for 19 years, some kids that we had in the early days are now older. [...] To give them a daily routine we get them to do things round the place so they are hanging round.’ 
In real terms, this translates into adult men - some into their thirties - on the premises on a regular basis and being given substantial cash handouts from Kids Company funds despite evidence of criminal activities and drug abuse.

Personally, I'd have thought that having a number of adult male drug users, some with a record of violence, constantly 'hanging round' would have severely compromised the charity's aim of providing abused children with a place where they could feel safe.

Certainly it must have been more than a little traumatic for youngsters to witness the abuse of kitchen staff by a 26-year-old 'crack den landlord' angry that queuing for food reminded him of being in prison. There was an even worse ordeal in store for one girl:
A handwritten note claims he sexually assaulted a girl on Kids Company premises and worked for the charity in return for cash in hand.
Presumably he qualified for personal attention from Batmanghelidjh herself, like the 29-year-old drug addict, alcoholic and convicted thief banned from seeing his children because of his 'aggressive behaviour' - though it has to be said Kids Company's lengthy (and expensive) involvement in the latter case does not appear to have steered the man away from a life of crime:
 A note says he received a total of £70,000 last year from Kids Company – and stole a further £10,000 from it
It all begs the question, what has Kids Company actually accomplished if, twenty years on, some of its earliest 'clients' are still battening onto it for financial gain at the expense of today's children? Although Yentob's e-mail looks like a threat, it may also be an admission that the charity has - whether through misguided optimism or fear of recidivism (or reprisals) - been bankrolling a group of disaffected career criminals, giving them a common focus and a monstrous sense of entitlement.

Like the clueless women who bought 'handbag pigs' only to find themselves responsible a few months later for a large, hungry and destructive boar with distinctly antisocial tendencies, Ms Batmanghelidjh appears to have ignored the possibility that some of the vulnerable children in receipt of her much-publicised vicarious generosity could, if indulged and encouraged in their dependency, one day grow into something she and her organisation could not control.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Who ate all the pies?

Cruel, perhaps, but she's got to be living on something.

Hot on the heels of Ms Batmanghelidjh's assertion that she needs a personal chauffeur because she can't drive and public transport is impossible as she 'can't walk long distances' comes her latest claim:
"I'm a dire cook. I've never even turned on my oven."
It is, of course, possible that she was indulging in a spot of self-deprecating hyperbole for dramatic effect; if so, this is more than a little unwise at the moment, given the intense scrutiny currently directed towards her and Kids Company. On the other hand, if true, such assertions should surely call into question whether she actually has the practical skills and experience to help her 'clients' become productive members of society.

There is something odd about her repeated insistence that she does not do such everyday things as using an oven or taking a bus or tube, or her claim 'never' to have worn off-the-peg clothes; it rather suggests she considers such mundane matters to be somehow beneath her, fit only for lesser mortals.
"Even when I have surgery I refuse to wear the ugly hospital robes and I delight the operating theatre team with my avant-garde pyjamas."
It's clear she regards herself as entitled to special treatment and attention. I understand that she must be very busy at work - although not too busy to comb John Lewis and Selfridges for designer-label gifts - and might need some assistance, but, as more revelations emerge about Kids Company, she is starting to look like a one-woman job creation scheme.

First we have the chauffeur (receiving not only his salary but a contribution towards his children's private education), and his sister-in-law, recruited ‘not because she is a crony but she is an extraordinarily brilliant accountant’, which is presumably why the organisation is in such great financial shape.

Let's be charitable, though; perhaps the accountant's mind wasn't always entirely on the job since she, together with her niece, is apparently also responsible for sewing Ms Batmanghelidjh's elaborate outfits from random fabric pieces brought in by staff and children. Another staff member supplies the earrings and turbans, while two more work on her signature fingerless gloves (a clear sartorial indication that, whatever needs doing, she won't be getting her own hands dirty).

By my reckoning, that's six employees devoting at least part of their time to her personal service (to say nothing of the staff and children roaming the streets and picking a pocket or two finding ownerless pieces of fabric) along with the half-dozen or so personal assistants needed to do all the paperwork due to her dyslexia - although they may, like the multi-tasking accountant, be numbered among the seamstresses too.

And now, it seems, we need to add to the roster whoever it is who is providing her with food, since she is, by her own admission, almost certainly not self-catering. Whether she takes all her meals at Kids Company or subsists on daily takeaways at home, a pattern is emerging of someone unwilling - or too self-important - to take care of their own needs rather than imposing on others.

There's something very familiar, at least to a beekeeper, about a female who is waited on, groomed and fed by a coterie of dedicated workers. The hive exists primarily to maintain the Queen Bee as she produces the next generation; it's starting to look as if, substituting hugging for egg-laying, the ultimate purpose of Kids Company was much the same.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Invasion of the Brummie Snatchers

There's proof today, it if were needed, that the silly season is well under way. A Freedom of Information request by staff at a Banbury newspaper (who surely have better things to do) has revealed a fascinating fact:
It may sound out of this world but Thames Valley Police has dealt with 15 reports of aliens in just four years.
This includes sightings in Milton Keynes, Oxford, High Wycombe and Chipping Norton, where 'residents claimed to have spotted little green men twice'.

Here at the Tavern, we like to keep an eye out for tales of visitors from beyond the void, particularly since I was one of a number of people who saw an unexplained object in the sky over rural Scotland one night in the mid-70s. (Occam's razor - always a useful tool when dealing with the paranormal - suggests it was a prototype drone from a nearby military base).

According to the news article,
Back in 2007, UFO expert Michael Soper claimed the Thames Valley area was becoming an alien hotspot.
Which is quite odd, because back in March, Birmingham Mail readers were told....
Back in 2010, UFO expert Richard Lawrence claimed Birmingham was becoming an alien hotspot.
,,,in an article beginning:
It’s out of this world – West Midlands Police has dealt with 23 reports of ALIENS in just four years.
Spooky! Or, alternatively*, lazy journalism; "It's summer, half the staff are off on holiday and we need a front-page article by midday on Tuesday - see if you can nick a piece from someone else's archives".

It's not even as if Thames Valley can compete with Birmingham's grand total of 23 sightings:
Three of the cases concerned alien abduction plots while two others claimed attacks were mounted by extra terrestrials. 
Four more were reports of people talking to or hearing aliens, while the majority – 14 – were sightings of little green men.
According to the police, five were registered as false alarms and advice was given in three cases - sadly, the report does not say what it was, although I'm guessing it had something to do with laying off the illegal substances - leaving fifteen presumably unaccounted for; heady stuff for local UFO enthusiasts.

I'm particularly intrigued by the 'alien abduction plots'; I must admit that I am having some difficulty anyway with the idea of the West Midlands as a point of first contact, and why extra-terrestrials would want to make off with the locals there, as opposed to, say, CERN (assuming their intentions are intellectual) or their usual remote rural USA (for more fundamental purposes) is more than a little baffling.

Surely they would be better off in Chipping Norton, where it would actually make sense to say, "Take me to your leader".

*Unless, of course, it is an orchestrated campaign for an as-yet-undisclosed purpose and we are being softened-up by advertisers (or aliens).

Friday, 7 August 2015

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

At the risk of seeming somewhat trivial, one tiny element of the Kids Company debacle has stuck in my mind.

Much of Ms Batmanghelidjh's recent rhetoric has centred round assertions that her organisation is aimed at helping children who are suffering untold amounts of abuse in the home.
The catastrophic abandonment of children who are suffering is a testimony to our collective moral failing. I hope one day the childhood maltreatment wound, that is so deeply hurting this country, will heal.
That being so, it seems odd that a posse of mothers (see Ambush Predator) has voluntarily come forward to state that their children are regular 'clients', parading for the media their anger at the loss of an organisation which, they say, provides activity holidays, homework clubs and meals for their children and 'gives them clothes'.

This last point is reminiscent of the Bristol Council employees using Council funds to buy Ralph Lauren gifts and Ugg boots for children in care; the mindset responsible can be clearly see in in the comment responding to criticism thus: " I can't believe that people on here begrudge a Christmas present for someone in a children's home".

Straw men aside, there is something flawed about the whole notion; it is not only irresponsible to use public money in this way but also surely unrealistic - if not downright immoral - to encourage a taste for and expectation of designer goods in young people who will, in the near future, have to manage a limited budget.

With that in mind, I invite you to consider the words of Camila Batmanghelidjh in an interview with the Design Museum:
The only time I buy clothes is for the children of Kids Company - many of them don't have any parents or family members. I like to buy personally for them for Christmas and their birthdays. I also buy stuff if I see something that would suit them. 
The scale suggests this is be paid for not out of her own pocket (funded by the charity in any case) but from donations secured for the welfare of vulnerable children. Doubtless the words 'self-esteem' will figure somewhere in the justification, given the source of these gifts:
Christmas Eve, I am usually between John Lewis and Selfridges buying everything that's in the sales...
John Lewis? Selfridges? Even at sale prices, I would never have bought clothes there for my own children. Such shops are surely well beyond the (legitimate) means of most people living in the areas where Kids Company plies its trade.
...because on Christmas Day we have some 4,000* children, young people and vulnerable adults coming to us for lunch, and I like to give all the ones who don't have family a big bag of clothes as presents.
How nice! And, judging by the mother bewailing the loss of free clothing on the TV news, it's not only the ones without families who benefited from this largesse. There's benefit for Ms Batmanghelidjh too; a gratifying glow of sentiment:
They get so excited when they open them, it always brings tears to my eyes. 
Funnily enough, my eyes are watering too at the potential cost of several hundred 'big bags of clothes' from Selfridges  - to say nothing of the extra shopping trips 'for their birthdays' and impulse buys 'if I see something that would suit them'. 

How many thousands a year, would you say? Perhaps a drop in Kids Company's multi-million pound ocean, but a significant one nonetheless, it serves to illustrate, however benevolent her intentions, just how impractical and naive a clothes-obsessed millionaire's daughter - 'Every day for me is a fashion treat' - can be when entrusted with other people's money.

* Really? Who does the catering? And at what cost? Or is this another example of numerical sleight-of-hand, like the still-ubiquitous assertion (included in the Design Museum piece) that Kids Company 'reaches 36,000 children a year with therapeutic care' - a figure since revealed to include the classmates, parents and teachers of any child in receipt of Kids Company services.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Quote of the week - didn't we try that already?

One of the Sunday papers offers this, from a young Eritrean who has been in the migrant camp at Calais for two months:
We want to go to Britain only because of our bad governments and dictators. I would like to see Europe civilise Africa and the Middle East.
What form, I wonder, would this hoped-for civilisation take? Peacekeeping forces? Regime change? A permanent presence, at least until the population feel safe?

It's hardly as if anyone thanked us last time:
Take up the White Man's burden 
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
"Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A legal flaw, or how I could have stolen a small fortune

Every now and then, a news story comes along where I think I may actually have something useful to add to the debate. In this case, it is on the unsavoury topic of predatory relatives exploiting their nearest and dearest:
The number of adult children stealing from their elderly parents has shot up. In the first half of 2015, crown courts dealt with £2.1 million worth of cases of families stealing from one another - almost four times more than the same time last year. Fraud against elderly relatives made up 80% of it.
It turns out that some people, at least, have all the family feeling of scorpions or sand tiger sharks. 'Frustrated' by waiting for their aged relatives to shuffle off this mortal coil and pass on their inheritance, over-45s have been plundering the bank accounts entrusted to them.

Naturally checks exist to prevent this sort of thing, at least in the case where a family member has applied to take control of a dementia sufferer's finances as court-appointed Deputy when he or she no longer has the mental capacity to nominate a Power of Attorney.

Quite rightly, the Deputy must submit annual accounts for scrutiny; this involves a lengthy form on which all assets, income and expenditure must be accounted for to the last penny - no easy task for an amateur, especially when, with care home fees, savings and property sales (also the responsibility of the deputy), the sums can run into tens of thousands each way.

Incredible as it seems, there is a serious loophole in this system.When the person for whom the Deputy is acting dies, the court order immediately ceases to apply and there is no further contact. Meanwhile, the solicitor handling the estate is only interested in the account balances from the moment of death onwards. There is nowhere to submit the accounts for the final few months - all that careful bookkeeping impresses no-one - and nobody wants to know what the previous year's assets were.

As a Deputy, had I been so inclined - and had I previously been less open with other family members about the sums involved - I could easily have withdrawn money from the bank accounts in the months before my relative's death and given his solicitor a drastically reduced balance to distribute (although, after several years of care home fees, my 'cut' would have fallen very far short of the £100k threshold for the statistics above)*,

Admittedly, there might have been an outside chance of my relative living until the next year-end but the ultimate demise can often be predicted some weeks before - easily time enough to extract a large windfall from the bank rather than waiting to receive a fraction of the estate after probate.

I appreciate that this post lacks zing - it's difficult to be anything other than turgid when dealing with legal and financial technicalities - and that my audience is limited, but it seems to me worth pointing out that the current system is offering an open door to a Deputy who wishes to defraud other relatives or steal from a dying family member.

*Power of Attorney involves less scrutiny so I imagine the opportunities may be similar and more extensive.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Women and children first

The child in this picture is three years old. According to the papers, her mother has brought her to the migrant camp at Calais where, night after night, she is passed from hand to hand over razor wire fences as they try to get into the Eurotunnel compound.
'I tell her it's a game,' said Mary 'I tell her that if we win, she is going to meet Daddy'.
And if they lose? How safe is a three-year-old amid mass attempts to breach a security perimeter in the middle of the night, let alone trying to board a lorry or train? Previous nights have ended with mother and child being turned away by police or removed from the enclave and returning to camp - they may not be so lucky next time.

They are apparently trying to join the child's father who, having left Eritrea before her birth to avoid military service, is now working in London  as an 'odd-job man', which presumably means that either he has been granted asylum or other official status - in which case there are channels through which they can apply* - or he is working illegally.

If it is the latter, surely he could rejoin his wife in France and apply for asylum there (UK officialdom might well be persuaded to help) instead of waiting in London while they risk their lives trying to reach him. Something here is definitely not right.

Media accounts suggest that, in recent weeks, the camps in Calais have swollen with an unprecedented number of women and children. It is hardly surprising, then, that tactics are changing - instead of individuals climbing barriers and racing for lorries or trains, we are seeing fences flattened by mass movement and collective action.

Whatever the professionally offended think (Longrider and Anna Raccoon have tackled their objections admirably) the term for this is 'swarm intelligence'. As one path closes, the swarm seeks out new ways to overcome an obstacle; in the analogy that David Cameron didn't steal , I likened it to wildebeest crossing a crocodile-infested river, driven on by the arrival of cows and calves joining the advance guard of males.

There is, however, one important difference. Hungry crocodiles actively seek out helpless young wildebeest to attack; police and border guards will surely be particularly averse to using force on children. Unless something is done to remove them from the nightly onslaught, we may yet see babies and children forming an involuntary human shield in the fight against increasingly beleaguered defences.

Last night, in what seems to be a new development (swarm intelligence again), a group of men blocked a road by lying down in the path of lorries, only moving when the riot police arrived at dawn. How long, I wonder, before there are children lying on the roads and train tracks or held up in the vanguard of a stone-throwing mob storming the ferry or Eurotunnel terminals?

And who would willingly give the order to use tear gas and batons - or, given the likely escalation, water cannon and plastic bullets - against a little girl in pink leggings?

*Once a person is granted protection in the UK, they have the right to work, claim benefits and be re-united with their spouse and children (under 18).

Friday, 31 July 2015

Blue Moons and Giant Squid

It is somehow typical that, with the illegal immigration problem at crisis point, Labour's worthies have allowed themselves to be caught up in a veritable can-can of knee-jerk protest at a single word. Meanwhile, amid all the speculation on what is drawing migrants to our shores, the black economy repeatedly raises its ugly head.

It's a subject we have looked at here before, albeit on the local level of businesses which appear surprisingly robust despite the town having, according to one national newspaper, 'three of the most deprived council wards in the nation'.

If you will forgive some timely recycling:

In just two short streets, you can count six hairdressers - of the unisex trendy and expensive kind - as well as a tanning salon, two tattoo parlours, four nail bars and, as of this week, a fish pedicure shop.

Few of these establishments cater for the shy and retiring; the emphasis in on treatments in the shop window under the public gaze - perhaps part of the attraction is being seen to have your roots/nails/feet done in a bizarre form of conspicuous consumption.

After all, none of these things comes cheap - and there's the puzzle. In a town where, we are told, belts have been tightened to wasp-like proportions, where do these customers come from? For customers there are in abundance, smirking out from their shop window vantage points with their hair in foil or their feet in a fishtank.

There is only one conclusion; that the official figures don't even begin to tell the story. That, far removed from the headlines, a black economy is thriving and expanding so fast that businesses like these can open up in prime locations in the current economic climate and be sure of a steady income via the hip pockets of the locals.

The scale of it is a classic 'known unknown' - we are aware it's out there, but the size of it is a complete mystery and there's no way to deal with it; like the giant squid of legend, the monster lurks in the depths of society, extending its tentacles in every direction - unknowable, unquantifiable and potentially dangerous.

On another topic, I am indebted to James Higham for reminding me (via a comment) of tonight's blue moon - the second full moon in a calendar month.

This seems as good an excuse as any for a piece of music so I have chosen an old favourite; although the artist has long since jumped the shark of pretentiousness and embraced the dark side of solipsistic celebrity, he is still capable of a great piece of orchestration.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A lesson from natural history

There is, perhaps, no small irony in French demands for British help in maintaining the fortifications of Calais; it is, after all, only a few centuries since a massed assault on Sangatte paved the way for the conquest of the town and its surrender to the French army, ending over 150 years of English occupation.

The current attempts by 1500 people or more to breach port security were wholly predictable - at least if you remember that you are dealing with animals and that this is, to all intents and purposes, a mass migration similar to the annual movements of caribou or wildebeest.

(At this point, when I expounded the theory over a large gin earlier this evening, the Spouse observed, "It's a jolly good thing you aren't a BBC reporter". But, however politically incorrect it may be to say so, there's no escaping the fact that they are animals. So am I. So are you. Forgetting this simple fact - or deliberately ignoring it - is at the bottom of a host of problems in education, business, politics and society in general.)

A familiar spectacle from wildlife documentaries, the wildebeest migration, according to one safari company, goes something like this:
'MAY: Wagons roll! The massed herds are on the go, huge columns of up to 40km in length can be seen as the wildebeest funnel up into the central and western Serengeti. 
JUNE: Head for the central and western Serengeti - the herds are there and beginning to get a bit jittery ... trouble is coming. 
JULY: Book early - it is the Big Event: river crossings. The herds have reached the western Serengeti and Grumeti Reserves and are nervously peering at the brown waters of the rivers they have to cross. Why? Five-metre-long crocodiles, that is why. 
AUGUST: The survivors stumble up into the northern Serengeti and begin crossing back into Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. You need a passport to cross; the wildebeest are exempt.'
Substitute the English Channel for the river and border guards for crocodiles and there you have it in a nutshell. The herds build up in number until there are enough to attempt the crossing en masse, thereby ensuring that, even if some are picked off, the majority will get through while the crocodiles are occupied. As Wikipedia has it:
Numerous documentaries feature wildebeest crossing rivers, with many being eaten by crocodiles or drowning in the attempt. While having the appearance of a frenzy, recent research has shown a herd of wildebeest possesses what is known as a "swarm intelligence", whereby the animals systematically explore and overcome the obstacle as one.
Current estimates put the number of would-be immigrants in the Calais region at around 5,000, but, given the estimates of those currently crossing the Mediterranean, this could yet increase dramatically over the summer and, as the French so amply demonstrated in 1588, the Calais region is remarkably short of natural defences and has to rely solely on fortifications to keep out unwanted invaders.

Even without the less-than-helpful antics of the French Trade Unions, this has the makings of a futile and escalating struggle, as would-be immigrants repeatedly threaten the ever longer fences and barriers. The mass onslaught of the past two nights suggests that critical mass has been reached and that 'swarm intelligence' is taking over.

What we do about it, I don't know. Perhaps we may, in the end, be obliged to accept the lesser evil of identity cards and checks in this country in an attempt to identify and deport illegal immigrants; what is certain is that, thanks to the tunnel and, to a lesser degree, mass transportation of goods by ferry, our island status has been irretrievably compromised.

I wish I could be certain that this development did not come as a surprise to those in charge (certainly it looks like I'm not the only one who saw it coming) and that politically correct orthodoxy has not prevented them from foreseeing and anticipating the full potential of the situation. Yes, these people are individuals and human beings, but they are also now part of a collective swarm.

Moving our border checkpoints to Calais at least allows the Border Police to contain the problem on French soil. Now all we can do is hope that the British have learnt a thing or two about dealing with mass incursions since 1558.

Update: Well, how about that? Having written this and headed off for a couple of days R&R, I return to find that the PM has, in my absence, caused a furore by using the word 'Swarm'. Does my blog have readers in higher places than I ever imagined?

Or is the coincidence simply, in the words of a quote I find myself in danger of overusing but which fits our modern world so well, 'neither accident nor design, but simply unavoidable'?