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

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Putting the Danegeld on plastic

It's four years since I wrote this on the subject of taxpayer-funded Council credit cards, following hot on the heels of the MPs expenses scandal:
Councillors up and down the land have been hitching a ride on the gravy train – and the gravy in question is rich, meaty and laced with truffle-oil. Luxury hotels, lavish meals and gifts from high-end retailers abound, along with tables at award ceremonies and champagne receptions.
Now it seems there is yet another tranche of spending to investigate at the next level down. The Bristol Post has obtained a breakdown of the City Council's expenditure on payment cards for the past year and it makes very interesting reading indeed (there's a list at the end of the article).

These cards are issued to, among others, senior managers, head teachers and 'managers of residential care homes and social workers who need to supply goods to vulnerable people'. That being so, one could reasonably expect a certain amount to be spent on food, clothing and basic furniture to cover emergencies and there are, indeed, substantial payments to Ikea and Asda.

Likewise, shoes, haircuts, cinema trips and inexpensive restaurant meals for youngsters in Council care would probably not be deemed excessive - though eyebrows might be raised at 'multiple trips to Rileys Snooker Club for pupils at the St Matthias Pupil Referral Unit'.

Some of the payments, however, are rather more baffling: £686 on 'iTunes downloads', for example, and '£44 in what appears to be a tattoo parlour', not to mention...
....a one-off £189.50 payment to Gay Times magazine. The council insisted this figure was incorrect, and it actually spent £33 on a subscription to Diva magazine, a lesbian magazine, for its library service.
I should have thought that, in this day and age, you could be a lesbian on the internet for nothing. Certainly the only people I've ever seen reading magazines and newspapers in my local library are elderly gentlemen in flat hats who are not, I assume, 'Diva' magazine's target audience.

Most contentious of all are bills for £100 at Ralph Lauren in Spain and £170 for a pair of Ugg boots. Mention of these items brought the Council to the comment section to explain:
 - We've tracked down some more detail: the Ralph Lauren purchase wasn't from Barcelona, it's from their UK website which is billed via Barcelona, and was to buy Christmas presents for children in a residential home. The Ugg boots were another online purchase; to replace a stolen pair which a child in a residential home had got for Christmas.
Now I know that children in care are probably having a rough time and, in modern parlance, may need to enhance their self-esteem, but Ralph Lauren? A quick visit to the website in question reveals that the cheapest children's accessory - a baseball cap - will set you back £20. Is it really sensible to endorse and indulge (at public expense) an appetite for designer labels among children who, a few years hence, will have to learn sensible management of a limited budget?

I'm not, of course, advocating Dickensian levels of oppression and uniformity, but surely you don't have to desire the return the workhouse to suggest that gifts should be of a less overpriced and superficial nature (though perhaps the impressive £37,800 - over £3,000 a month - spent on Amazon included books and educational toys; we can but hope!). Some of the comments on the article, however, suggest a very different point of view:
 - As I understand it a number of these items were bought for looked after children and the boots to replace some for a child whose boots were stolen. Nothing like making a scandal out of the needs of vulnerable people. The journalist should apologise and give the days salary to charity! 
 - I can't believe that people on here begrudge a Christmas present for someone in a childrens home and to replace some stolen Ugg boots for a child in a childrens home.
Try as I might, I can't quite square designer clothing and £170 Ugg boots with 'the needs of vulnerable people'. While it is reasonable that children in care should receive gifts where culturally appropriate, I would never buy Ralph Lauren branded goods for my own children and I have every sympathy with taxpayers objecting to such wanton extravagance being exercised on their behalf.

As for the stolen boots, there are not enough details to make a judgement, but was it really necessary to replace them (assuming they were indeed the genuine article - '99% of all Uggs on ebay are fakes') with something expensive enough to be a liability in a communal setting? Unless council staff were to blame, there is surely no obligation on the taxpayer to do so.

All in all, it looks rather like someone here is playing Fairy Godmother at other people's expense and enjoying a nice warm glow of generosity while the public foots the bill.

An explanation of sorts is, perhaps, to be found in this, from the same author as the second comment quoted above:
There are families around Bristol that have caused trouble. Property has been damaged, anti social behaviour has caused problems and this has perpetuated over time. 
Now lets look at the costs. Council repairing property, council sending officers to sort out anti social behaviour, legal costs with bringing asbos, legal costs when pursuing broken asbos, court costs, prison costs and all of the officer costs to do the above, plus the police costs and the unquantifiable cost of the effect on neighbours and the local community. 
So now lets look at the programme. It's a high touch programme where council officers help these families change behaviour through the provision of support. The programme has been massively successful and all of the behaviour and costs that I listed above have been dramatically reduced. So the public sector has found a far cheaper way of dealing with problem families.
Revealing, I think you'll agree. It will be interesting to have a look at Bristol's crime figures in a few years' time to see how effective this strategy has proved - particularly if this exposure means the supply of Council-funded goodies dries up.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Six of the best

It was the usual Ankh-Morpork mob in times of crisis; half of them were here to complain, a quarter of them were here to watch the other half, and the remainder were here to rob, importune or sell hot-dogs to the rest. (Terry Pratchett, 'Guards! Guards!')
It's been quite a week for asteroids. According to a fellow enthusiast:
...on March 10, 2015, a 12–28 meter asteroid dubbed 2015 ET cosmically “just missed us”, zipping past Earth at 0.3 lunar distances – 115,200 kilometers, or 71, 580 miles.
Then the pocket-sized 2015 EO6 - possibly the subject of this video - whizzed by a similar distance away, followed by 2015EQ and 2015 EK (both between 15 and 33m in diameter) and the slightly smaller 2015 EF and, today, 2015 EO all passing a mere million or so kilometres above our heads.

The startling number of close fly-bys detected recently, even if they aren't of a size to send us the way of the dinosaurs, makes it much easier to appreciate that an asteroid strike isn't a matter of 'if', but of 'when'.

Eschatology aside, I rather suspect most of us aren't exactly prepared for this. True, official bodies have been undertaking mock exercises, which has to be a good thing, but, on an individual level, I don't see much hope for a sensible and reasoned reaction.

Part of the problem is the constant cries of 'Wolf!' from the media. We've become accustomed to a sort of semi-permanent wibble about everything from global warming to imminent food shortages in the Home Counties while life goes on seemingly unaffected; like children dropping crisp packets on their way home from yet another anti-littering PSHE lesson, the population has ceased to take any notice of what is being said.

Occasionally, however, a particularly alarmist message gets through and we are treated to the edifying sight of supermarkets besieged by shoving hordes squabbling over the last baked goods, fearful lest a threatened snowstorm should delay deliveries and plunge them into an appalling carbohydrate shortage. So used are we to instant gratification that even the mildest of deprivation seems to bring out the worst in some people.

Should a diminutive asteroid land on some part of our green and pleasant land tomorrow, I hope the affected population will find some measure of altruism and organised response. Failing that, I fervently hope those most likely to act selfishly or exploit the situation are squarely underneath when it hits (along with a few particularly deserving cases; I have a carefully-maintained mental list).

Meanwhile, every fly-by is an excuse for a drink and this week, in spirit at least, we will be broaching a bottle of Jimkin Bearhugger's finest to drink to all six, before raising a seventh glass in salute to the much-lamented Terry Pratchett.

Monday, 2 March 2015

"Live long and prosper!"

I wonder if Leonard Nimoy ever thought, when he adapted a traditional Orthodox Jewish prayer gesture for his new television role, that thousands of small fingers would be painstakingly coaxed into the same position every school breaktime for years afterwards.

I can't be the only one who, on learning of his recent death, responded with a Vulcan salute, half-surprised that the muscle memory persists to this day.

Gene Roddenberry's vision may look dated now but, growing up in a place where a 'foreigner' was a Southerner from over the English border, a crew of humans of all nationalities united in space exploration was a novel and thought-provoking concept (though we all knew, of course, that Scotty had to be the real hero, whatever Kirk and Spock got up to); add in a character from a distant planet and we were all completely hooked.

The early 1970s were heady times for space-mad nerdlets; real-life moon rockets vied for attention with the fictional exploits of intergalactic travellers and the crew of the errant moon base in the optimistically named  'Space 1999' (a series which, to my delighted surprise, still had a devoted following in Austria in 1982, when British television had moved on to 'Boys From the Blackstuff' and invented Channel 4).

With such a background - not to mention the early influence of the lids protecting the Clangers' underground homes from meteorite impacts and space debris - it's hardly surprising that this blog has retained an interest in extra-terrestrial matters and asteroids in particular.

Today, therefore, we have double cause for celebration in 2015 DO215 and 2015 DS23, two 50-odd metre wide space rocks passing by today at around 1.2 million km. Rather bigger than the Chelyabinsk meteor, they are, as their designations show, relatively recent discoveries, a reminder that NASA's impressive detection equipment is doing well - and that there are plenty of as yet undetected bodies out there.

And tonight, we are not only raising our usual glass in the Tavern to mark the event but also drinking a toast to Leonard Nimoy and to the unforgettable original Mr Spock.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Follow the money

Remember Baroness Uddin? Chucked out of the House of Lords until she paid back the £125,000 she fiddled on expenses and claiming to be penniless, she had the gall to ask to be reinstated in order to pay the money back out of the taxpayer-funded daily allowance.

When that failed, at the end of her 18-month suspension, she had a rummage down the back of the sofa and miraculously came up with the cash in a handy lump sum.

Only it turns out that the sofa in question wasn't her own. According to the Register of Members' Interests (via Breitbart), she received an interest free loan for £124,000 from three sources.

Given all the other investment opportunities out there, one wonders whether these benefactors would really sacrifice the use of that amount out of the goodness of their hearts or the desire to see Baroness Uddin's little face light up in gratitude.

What's more, £10,000 came from 'two businessmen from the Islam Channel' which, according to Breitbart,
...has been accused of giving a platform to terrorist sympathisers and anti-Semitism. In November 2010 Ofcom ruled the channel had breached the broadcasting code after presenters supported violence against women, martial [sic] rape and accused women who wear perfume of being “prostitutes”.
Most of the channel's output appears rather less controversial, which is a good thing, given that 'UK government research [in 2008] found that 59% of British Muslims watched the channel.' (Wikipedia), but I wonder whether Baroness Uddin agrees with the programme stating that women should not be 'permitted to hold a position of leadership in government'  - and what she thinks of the CEO's alleged links to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Islamic finance does not, of course, permit the direct charging of interest on loans. Instead, the lender may effectively acquire a whole or part share of any assets and a share of any income or benefit generated. When the asset in question is a member of the House of Lords, this surely raises some disquieting questions.

In the light of this generous financial backing for the Baroness, the inspiration for our past musical efforts seems even more appropriate...

She kept a home down in Wapping,
Where subsidies helped pay the rent,
A mansion in Bangladesh,
And don’t forget the flat in Kent,
Pressed for a remedy, she says she’s in penury,
But once she’s back in Westminster then all will be fine;
Three hundred quid a day she’d get,
She’d use your cash to pay her debt
Extraordinarily nice!
She's Manzila Uddin,
Baroness of Bethnal Green,
House of Lords expenses queen;
Her arrant greed will blow your mind. 


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A prestigious award

Out with the Oscars! Banish the Baftas! Douglas Carswell, newly-hatched UKIP MP and occasional muse of this blog has been shortlisted for the Westminster Public Affairs’ Political Twitter Awards 2015 (nope, me neither).

He's one of six hopeful contenders for the Funniest Tweet Award with:
“Are there enough Lib Dems left to form a circular firing squad?”
It's not exactly going to have them rolling in the aisles, but I suppose that, in politics, you have to take your laughs where you can find them.

Still, it's better to be known for that than for the fact your daughter used your twitter account to invite all your 28,000 followers to play 'Hello Kitty World'. In any case, Carswell probably needs cheering up, since the other boys in Parliament have been hiding his homework and calling him names:
He said: “The Bufton Tufton element of the Tory party has definitely started to get a bit cross with me.” But he wouldn’t be drawn on how they had expressed their distaste – and insisted he didn’t care. 
Last month, Carswell arrived at his place on the House of Commons benches to find that someone had scrawled “FO” on his prayer card – short for “F*** Off”.
Wouldn't it be nice if the next election brought us a crop of grown-ups - or, even better, a Parliament prepared to work together for the greater good of the British people. No chance of that, of course; the tribalism and point-scoring is far too deeply ingrained.

As for the Lib Dems, with Nick Clegg in charge, the result is surely something more like this...



Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Stranger Danger and Pork Pies

Food for thought this week:
Two youngsters reported being approached by a stranger as they walked to school along Coppins Road on Thursday.
They claimed to have run away from the man and reported the incident to teachers when they got to school.
Schools have strict protocol for situations like this; the other pupils were warned and text alerts were sent out to parents - no doubt causing much fear and alarm.

The police were called and investigated the alleged incident, as a result of which:
A spokesman said: “Officers have spoken to the two boys who reported the accosting incident and are satisfied that it did not take place.”
It would be satisfying to think that the boys were soundly told off for lying and required to apologise to all concerned for the unnecessary panic and the waste of police time but, alas, it may well not be that simple.

As plenty of ex-teachers have found out the hard way, most school policies require pupils' stories of threats to their well-being - however far-fetched - to be accepted at face value, thanks to the grossly-oversimplified orthodoxy that 'children don't lie about abuse'. A false story is thus deemed to be the product of misunderstanding or error.

In an attempt to establish the truth, pupils are likely to be told that withdrawing the story will not result in punishment. However serious or malicious the allegations or wide-reaching the consequences, they can walk away scot free - though they may be offered counselling to address any 'issues' that could have encouraged them to come up with the story in the first place.

There have always been children who have a complicated relationship with the truth; our forebears dealt with it though a combination of chastisement and the fear of God but, in our more enlightened age, the stakes have never been lower.Whether the motive is idle mischief-making or deliberate malice, children know that a lie is unlikely to bring about any serious retribution, whether human or divine.

The idea is for the school to offer pupils an easy way out so they can back down without fear of punishment; the law of unintended consequences says that, a few years down the line, the lesson such children have learned about their own importance and lack of accountability is likely to bear dangerous fruit.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Out of the blue



Next 5 Earth Approaches within 7.5 million kilometers
Feb
15
2015
11 m
2,770,000 km
Feb
15
2015
18 m
1,290,000 km
Feb
15
2015
68 m
2,950,000 km
Feb
15
2015
52 m
3,260,000 km
Feb
15
2015
24 m
775,000 km


http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroidwatch/

I think this counts as a full house; you wait weeks for an asteroid inside the 5,000,000km mark and then five come along at once.

What makes it even more interesting is that four out of the five were detected within the last two days, along with the departing 2015 CH13, a 10m-wide cosmic tiddler which passed a mere 268,000-odd km away on Wednesday.

And, to top it all, today being the second anniversary of the Chelyabinsk airburst, the B612 Foundation (the organisation behind the Sentinel mission) has decided it is an appropriate time to remind us of the dangers of asteroid impact.

It's a warning we've heard before but, this time, the focus is on the small fry - rather like today's visitors, in fact - with former astronaut Dr Ed Lu reassuring us that, for a small asteroid, deflection should be relatively straightforward:
"In most cases, simply running into the offending asteroid with a small spacecraft is sufficient."
Unmanned, one hopes. There's surely a film script in there somewhere but, to be honest, it's not exactly up there with Bruce Willis and the nukes, is it? Perhaps Hollywood will instead turn its attention to the drama of mass evacuation, now that planned detection systems may give enough warning to clear the impact areas in time.

With a matter of hours of warning - if any at all - this week we are certainly not yet at that point; in fact, a cynic might be tempted to wonder whether, had one of the five been heading straight for us, the authorities would have passed on the news at all. The potential for civil unrest and administrative chaos might well make public ignorance the preferred option.

On a more positive note, since every fly-by (or safe departure, depending on your attitude) deserves to be celebrated with a brimming tankard, tonight looks like being a good one - I invite you to join me in a toast to five near misses.

Cheers!

Friday, 13 February 2015

A toe in the water

Between a frantic few weeks at home and at work and your host being somewhat under the weather, the doors of Peachum's Tavern have been shut for far too long - my apologies to those who have turned up and rattled the handles in search of a virtual pint and a chat.

Forget the usual example of retrieving a banknote from the garden; being unable to face posting even when there's a 320m wide asteroid cruising by is, I reckon, a fair indication that it was flu and not just a cold.

Anyway, there's a lot to catch up on - Harriet Harman's pink battle bus, the Greeks expecting gifts and a host of other startling news stories, some of which I hope to get round to in the near future, though posting may be light for a while yet.

Popular culture has also taken an odd turn recently. Perhaps it's best summed up by a moment I caught by chance while channel hopping a few weeks ago in which one Big Brother inmate opined on the subject of another,

"She's such an exhibitionist in all the wrong ways."

From the simian antics of twerking celebrities to the cloying glimpses of domesticity dished up in a vain attempt to make politicians seem more human, we are living in an age where far too little is left to the imagination - which brings us finally to the cinematic event of the week.

Regardless of the official soundtrack, surely I can't be the only person who has been thinking of this...

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Sunday Songbook - The ballad of Charlie Hebdo

Where have all the grown-ups gone? On one hand, you have a satirical magazine rejoicing in its role as enfant terrible of French journalism and producing cartoons of occasionally spectacular vulgarity and, on the other, a group of fanatics claiming that their Prophet's status is so fragile it can somehow be damaged by a mere drawing.

Although the perpetrators of last week's atrocity and similar crimes are nominally adult and have access to firearms and explosives, we are essentially seeing 'Lord of the Flies' enacted on a global scale; there is something inescapably childish about their arrogant posturing on video and their spurious justification for murder and unilateral violence.

Like all bullies, they need to be met with a united front and a refusal to succumb to their attempts at mass intimidation. I've never been keen on the 'Charlie Hebdo' house style - I prefer my satire rather more aesthetically pleasing - but I heartily applaud the defiance that brought ordinary French people onto the streets in their millions (even if the 'world leaders' did somewhat spoil the effect).

One thing the journalists and cartoonists of 'Charlie Hebdo' had right; it is important that terrorists should never be allowed to assume the status of bogeymen in our collective consciousness or to command the awe and dread they wish to inspire in us.

In that spirit - and with all due respect to the victims of an appalling crime - I offer the following:

To make fun of the Prophet takes men who are bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear;
Just take the example of 'Charlie Hebdo'
And the cartoonists' freedom to jeer.

Of ribald depictions and scurrilous news
The magazine's made a career
But cartoons of Mohammed and critical views
Of Islamists have now cost it dear.

On Twitter and Facebook the faithful complained
Saying editor Charb went too far;
How lucky free speech guaranteed them a way
To explain just why 'Je ne veux pas'!

But no legal means would suffice for the ones
Who tried petrol alight in a jar
Or those whose response consists solely of guns
And a cry of  'Allahu akbar'.

You may well give offence if you want to make fun
Of religions that people hold dear,
But who's to decide if a cartoon or pun
Is high satire or blasphemous sneer?

Whoever it is who is taking a stand
There is one thing that has to be clear;
The unwritten sign of a civilized land
Should be freedom to speak without fear.




Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Drey of Reckoning

Julia's blog brings us, in her inimitable style, the tale of the squirrel-induced panic that engulfed a primary school recently. From the Mail:
A teacher at Chater Infants School in Watford, Hertfordshire, had to herd the youngsters back into the safety of the building after an 'unusually aggressive' grey squirrel disrupted their afternoon playtime.
It follows a week in which squirrels have been in the news rather a lot, what with causing traffic accidents in Essex...
A pensioner collided with a motorcyclist after swerving onto the wrong side of the road to avoid a squirrel.
...attempting robbery in Northern Ireland....
A red squirrel has been apprehended after going on the rampage at a jewellery shop in Ballycastle, Co Antrim. 
...and sabotaging the power supply on a grand scale in Florida...
The squirrel infiltrated the system at a TECO substation at about 9:30 a.m. and knocked out the power for about 7,000 area customers. 
...California ...
Power was knocked out for almost 2,000 residents of Silicon Valley after a squirrel was zapped by electrical equipment.
and Oklahoma...
An overly-curious squirrel is being blamed for a power outage that left 2,000 persons — including several businesses — without electricity for nearly an hour and a half on Saturday morning in Claremore.
... to say nothing of the many fires started by squirrels munching on the household electrics. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, not content with merely chewing or stealing the wiring, they have been unscrewing bulbs from the zoo's Christmas light display:
The problem has gotten so bad that zoo officials took to spreading hot sauce on the strands as a deterrent.
Though, to be honest, the measure wasn't exactly a success:
"They kind of laughed at it. I think we felt good about it, but it didn't do much." 
The articles explain that the damage is the result of squirrels seeking material to line their winter nests or mistaking the light bulbs for oddly-coloured nuts, but what if there's more to it than that? Could it be that these little furry chaps actually have designs on humanity?

After all, the grey ones that came here have ruthlessly set about displacing the indigenous population, reducing them to skulking in isolated habitats or island locations from where, as we've seen, they occasionally venture forth to engage in a spot of breaking and entering.

In a single century, grey squirrels have colonised virtually the whole of our countryside while their relatives fill the same ecological niche almost worldwide; what if these little fluffy mammals are actually plotting world domination?

Maybe the lone playground invader was merely testing the water; staging a small skirmish to see how the enemy reacts. If they judge our capacity for resistance by what they saw at the school, their morale must now be sky-high.

After all, they already know they can disrupt traffic, take out our power supply and, for all we know, disable our phone masts at any time, especially given all that practice unscrewing light bulbs. For the chefs who extol the virtues of squirrel meat, it might not be long to payback time.

Still not convinced? Take a close look at this cute piece of anthropomorphic footage currently doing the rounds; that's not a twig the squirrel is nibbling...

;


If the premise of this seems familiar, you may already know the excellent short story 'Skirmish' by Clifford D Simak; if you don't, it can be found in sections online here, though I don't have any information on copyright.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Fly-by night

After a quiet few weeks, the Tavern doors are open again to celebrate the 27-metre wide 2014 WC201, which passed a mere 540,000km above our heads this morning too early, in the UK at least, for anything but a bleary wave.

For those sorry to have missed it - though you could always have a drink to speed it on its way - there may be consolation on the way in the shape of the 2014 WX202, a mere 5m tiddler in cosmic terms but due to pass 380,000km away on the 7th at the decidedly more congenial time of 7.56pm.

I say 'may' because, rather embarrassingly, its low relative velocity and trajectory suggest that this latter visitor may not be quite as extra-terrestrial in origin as originally thought.

Along with the space-rocks, there's a fair bit of our own litter out there and it's quite possible that 2014 WX202 is actually a bit of orbiting scrap like the one temporarily mistaken for an asteroid last year in the spacegoing equivalent of an angler landing an old boot.

If Professor Hawking's predictions about artificial intelligence are accurate, our future robot masters are likely to find us more than a little risible (always assuming they have developed something that passes for a sense of humour); we shove a load of metal into an interesting variety of orbits, then get all excited thinking it's an asteroid when it sails past - at least until we discover it's coated in titanium paint.

And should ET and his chums be out there, it's a fair bet they will take one look at the assorted scrap metal that litters our immediate environment and decided that we really aren't the sort of beings they want to get acquainted with, at least until we've done some housework.


Update: The Astronomer Royal, former astronaut Ed Lu and Queen guitarist Brian May have just unveiled plans for a global Asteroid Awareness Day on 30th June 2015. While we like to think that, here in the Tavern, every day is Asteroid Awareness Day, we certainly aren't going to pass up the excuse for a massive party!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Why I Am Not a Feminist

(Are you sitting comfortably? I fear this is going to be a long post....)

Feminism has been much in the news recently so this is, I suppose, a good time to admit that I have been there, done that and bought the boiler suit.

In the high and far-off times, I talked the talk, walked the walk - still do; I can't shake off a determined stride that is death to heels - and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Sisterhood, Reclaiming the Night, subscribing to Spare Rib and running a university Women's Group (through which I achieved my sole claim to media fame; being (mis)quoted in Private Eye's 'Wimmin' column).

So what happened? Well, for one thing, many of the issues for which we marched have been resolved - in Britain, at least - through legislation, rule changes and the natural wastage of residual misogyny among those in high places, some of whom, back then, had been born to mothers who could not vote until the age of 30.

Today's young British women are looking at a world where very few doors are closed against them, and most of those for medical or anatomical reasons, as legal and economic pressure opens their way into such former bastions of masculinity as sporting clubs, the Church of England, public schools and even, potentially, front-line combat.

Like racism, discrimination is apparently a one-way street, making it acceptable - if not desirable - to select all-women shortlists and promote women in preference to men; equality is clearly not a consideration.Thus Gordon Brown could announce in 2010 that  'Under Labour, there are more students at university than ever before and I'm happy to say the majority of them are women'.

With the demise of these time-honoured establishment targets, feminists might have turned their attention to those British women whose freedoms are still curtailed by cultural and religious attitudes or by their own low expectations and early single motherhood were it not for the small matter of politics.

For left-leaning feminists, the idea of reform from the top down was a pleasing one; criticising potential working-class Labour voters or confronting the less agreeable aspects of the multiculturalism we were told to 'celebrate' was quite another matter. In the same way, many feminists are strangely reticent on the subject of women's status in less enlightened parts of the world.

In any case, liberation is relative: as Robbie Coltrane's character in the TV series 'Cracker' once pointed out, "While you're out lecturing on Women's Studies and career opportunities, some poor cow's got her arm half-way round your U-bend". There are plenty of high-flying self-styled feminists who apparently see nothing incongruous in their household outsourcing the domestic chores to an assortment of low-paid females.

What was needed was a less contentious target, which brings us to the elephant quietly gestating in the corner of the room; as Lynne Featherstone helpfully explained, “One of the main barriers to full equality in the UK is the fact that women still have babies" (some have even managed to outsource that to other women but surrogacy is, as yet, comparatively rare).

Until we reach Huxley's Brave New World, biology still has the upper hand and modern feminists are really, really annoyed about it. Motherhood is, of course, their right and prerogative, but how dare this helpless infant require their presence when they could be climbing the promotion ladder and hammering on the glass ceiling!

Fortunately childcare, too, can be outsourced, thanks to a host of feminist-approved government policies subsidising nursery places for babies as young as six weeks. The doctrine of 'quality time' theoretically allows mothers to return to work with a clear conscience, reassured that two days with the baby at the end of a busy working week is enough.

Imagine the outcry if zoo staff walked into the primate cages on weekday mornings and removed every infant chimpanzee or gorilla from its mother's arms, not returning it until bedtime. While human mothers may not suffer - consciously, at least - in the same way as their ape counterparts, what of the helpless infants consistently deprived of their mothers' presence throughout their waking hours?

Many of the feminists of my day, celebrating centuries-old traditions from a variety of cultures, embraced the idea of motherhood as an equal and alternative assertion of female power and identity; for today's colder, harder activists, it has become a lifestyle choice which must not be allowed to get in the way of advancement, even if the mother herself would prefer to stay with the child.

My brief official involvement with feminism coincided with the last years before Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman unleashed their progressive ideology and overturned the idea of the traditional family in the political arena. While men are viewed with hostility, some of today's feminists reserve their fiercest criticism for well-qualified stay-at-home mothers who have chosen, whatever the financial sacrifice, to take a career break.

I firmly believe that a woman is the intellectual and social equal of a man and should be treated as such - with the proviso that a dependent infant is biologically more important than either man or woman and its needs should come first. With the exception of a few physically demanding jobs, the mind is what matters in the workplace and the hardware that accompanies it should be irrelevant.

But when the term 'feminist' is applied, seemingly without irony, to callipygian celebrities famed for suggestive dance routines or to politicians who seek to separate mothers from their children, and when self-styled feminists celebrate women being promoted over the heads of equally-qualified men, those of us who merely seek an amiable parity and mutual respect need to find another name.