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

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The bank that likes to say "F*** off!"

Picture the scene: it's a rainy Tuesday morning in the high street and you have a list of things to do, the first of which is a trip to the bank.

Fate, however, has other plans. The bank doors are firmly shut, the night safe sealed and the windows blanked out inside. Taped to the door is a single torn sheet of A4 with a printed notice: the bank will be closed for refurbishment for the next two weeks.

You are, it helpfully adds, welcome to visit any of the branches in the neighbouring towns, a mere 20 miles or so away. Judging by the expressions of the customers reading the notice, this is a rather less than satisfactory arrangement.

A quick straw poll makes it clear that none of these customers - some of whom make weekly visits to the bank - has been notified by letter, text or telephone call that the closure was imminent and neither was there any public indication in the branch itself.

Instead, the bank staff took advantage of the bank holiday weekend to 'fold their tents, like the Arabs, and quietly steal away', leaving  behind one functioning cash machine and a great deal of resentment.

A clue to the motive behind this moonlight flit may be found in the notice on the door, which recommends using the bank's online service instead. Though I doubt that they contrived the closure expressly to force their customers to adopt it, the way online banking has been pushed recently by cashiers and other staff suggests that the management saw this as a golden opportunity to increase the take-up rates.

This is, perhaps, the beginning of the end for those who cannot or will not embrace the new technology and commit their savings to the dubious security of cyberspace. Banks already offer favourable interest rates and extra benefits to online customers in a clear bid to hasten the day when they can dispense with an expensive and inconvenient real life presence on the high street for good.

The same phenomenon is creeping into other spheres; discounts for online bill payment or official registration - occasionally followed by notification that their database has been hacked and 'it is important that you change all your passwords immediately' - as ever more organisations increase their profits by removing any semblance of human interaction with their 'valued' customers.

"We are" said the Tavern's resident Wise Woman recently, "being farmed - it's the only word for it."

Sadly, I have to agree.

Monday, 25 August 2014

"It's much too dangerous to keep that plant alive..."

Run! Run for your lives!
Flowers deadly enough to kill humans were reportedly planted in a public park by a group of well-meaning girl guides.
It's the perfect B-movie scenario - the innocent youngsters unwittingly sowing the seeds of humanity's doom, the plant that attacks without mercy...
As well as death it can also cause stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, weakness and slow breathing.
...and, of curse, the plucky hero who tries to tell the world that the attractive flowers hide a terrible threat to mankind:
They were only discovered to be dangerous when curious photographer Mike McKee alerted authorities on August 14.
Be afraid! Be very afraid!

Or, alternatively, consider that this is the corn-cockle, agrostemma githago, a feature of the British countryside for centuries and, until modern farming methods changed the agricultural landscape, a common plant in the wheat-fields from which it derives its name.

The RHS even gives helpful advice on how to cultivate the corn-cockle, 'an upright annual to 75cm, with narrow grey-green leaves and open funnel-shaped magenta-purple flowers 5cm across in summer', and sells the seeds on its website.

So why the panic? Well, it appears we have our intrepid hero to thank for that:
‘I looked in my flower book and it said these were scant and very rare, so I did a bit more research on them. When I Googled them I found out they could be deadly.’
Deathly peril from an unlikely source? Internet stories spreading unnecessary panic? You've guessed it; step forward the Daily Mail:
The flower that can kill: Deadly British plant thought to be extinct is discovered by a lighthouse (16th July 2014)
How confusing English prepositions can be! The plant was actually found by a National Trust assistant ranger who clearly hadn't read the Mail's script:
'I have never seen one before. I am delighted. If it disperses, we might get a small population of them which would be great.'
The RHS spokesman wasn't exactly on message either:
'They are poisonous and harmful - but as long as you wash your hands thoroughly you should be okay.'
Still, why let the details get in the way of a good headline? Thus this once-commonplace plant becomes a threat and its presence in a public park a matter for reporting to 'the authorities'. Predictably enough,
...after being alerted by Mr McKee earlier this month, contractors quickly moved in to remove the plants before they could seed.
But Mr McKee and the Mail will surely not stop as long as our gardens contain such murderous predators as aconite, bluebell, celandine, daffodil, euphorbia, foxglove, hellebore, hyacinth, laburnum, laurel, lily-of-the-valley, lupin ....

Burn them! Burn them all!

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The wages of sin

'Death by misadventure' is, predictably enough, the verdict of the coroner in the case of the would-be thief restrained by members of the public outside an Oxford jeweller's shop.

During the hearing, a Home Office pathologist said that death was caused by 'brain damage due to prolonged cardiac and respiratory arrest'.

The deceased weighed 18 stone and, though only 33, had serious coronary heart disease which meant that death could have occurred 'at any time', according to the pathologist:
“If I was to come across an individual with that amount of heart disease who died in bed I wouldn’t hesitate to give that as the cause of death, assuming there were no extraneous factors."
The adrenalin surge, one imagines, associated with preparing to commit a potentially violent robbery and wielding a sledgehammer would in itself present something of a risk to someone in Townsend's condition even without the stressful consequences of his actions, whether arrest and imprisonment or a speedy getaway under hot pursuit.

And if he read the local papers, he was probably not unaware of the chance that the general public might intervene and restrain him. Only six months earlier, with a strikingly similar modus operandi, four men with mopeds attacked a jeweller's shop in nearby Banbury with a sledgehammer in broad daylight.

While three of the robbers escaped with thousands of pounds worth of watches (and have yet to be caught - unless, of course the two cases are connected), the fourth was chased along the street by onlookers as numerous passers-by - including an elderly lady with a walking stick - tried to impede his progress.

He was finally caught by two men, both in their 50s, who, with the occasional help of other bystanders, sat on him for seven minutes until the police arrived, ignoring his repeated threats that they would 'end up dead'.

According to the presiding judge, passing a sentence of five years in prison,
“This was a determined smash and grab raid on a high street jewellers and it failed only because of the courage and presence of mind, not only of those working in the shop, but also a number of members of the public.”
Restraining the perpetrator in a case like this is effectively society policing itself and I doubt that anyone - with the exception of career criminals and woolly-minded liberals - would think it better than standing back and allowing crime to take place unhindered.

While Clint Townsend's grieving family gave made their presence felt at the inquest with numerous questions and are 'still considering the coroner's verdict',  the sad fact remains that this 'loving father' - and potential role model - set out to commit a criminal offence, and to do so in a busy shopping street a few months after passers-by chased and pinned down the author of an identical crime in a nearby town.

Knowing that this public reaction could be a distinct possibility, an overweight man with a heart problem who dons a full-face motorcycle helmet and smashes a shop window with a sledgehammer in broad daylight must surely bear at least some responsibility for the tragic outcome.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Profit of doom

If you're planning to jet off for a late-August holiday abroad, it might be an idea to work out an overland route home just in case.
Iceland's Met Office on Monday raised its risk level to the aviation industry for an eruption at its Bardarbunga volcano to orange, which is the fourth level on a five-grade scale.
The alert has been prompted by an 'earthquake swarm' in the area. While there's no sign of an imminent eruption, the local authorities are concerned enough to have closed roads in the area as a precaution against floods caused by melting of the Vatnajokull glacier.

An explosive eruption could produce an ash cloud similar to the one that grounded European aircraft in 2010 (regular readers may remember the saga of the nephew stranded in Sicily after a field trip to study a resolutely uncooperative Mount Etna - should have gone to Iceland!).

It was a massive eruption in the Vatnajokull area that led to catastrophic famine in Iceland in the 1780s and arguably contributed to the French revolution by causing crop failures in France; while the Icelanders are now far better equipped to survive, the impact of a similar event on the aviation industry today would have far-reaching economic consequences.

It's a salutary reminder that Nature has plenty of surprises up her sleeve for those who rely too heavily on modern technology. Still, at least it appears that the recent rumours circulating of an imminent Yellowstone supervolcano eruption - also based on seismic activity - have been dismissed as a hoax.

We predicted a few months ago that, with the summer dearth of asteroid close approaches and nothing scoring more than 0 on the Torino Scale, apocaholics would be looking elsewhere for thrills 'so look out in the coming months for dire predictions of mega-tsunami, solar flares and the release of methane clathrates'.

Sure enough, in recent weeks we have been treated to
Killer solar superstorm could destroy Earth at ANY MOMENT, scientists warn (Express)
along with the interestingly forthright
'We're f*****': Climate change will be catastrophic for mankind after study reveals methane leaking from the Arctic Ocean, scientist warns (Daily Mail)
and, although no mega-tsunami scares have emerged recently, the media have been making up for it with exciting headlines about the 'killer asteroid headed straight for us' which actually translates as 1950 DA's 1-in-300 chance of impact eight centuries hence.

The prospect of a potential volcanic eruption in the near future must therefore have been greeted with delight in many newsrooms, however grimly it may be viewed by those potentially on the receiving end. In short, disaster sells.

Meanwhile, in the Tavern, it's been a long time since we toasted a passing space rock and the next one isn't due until mid-September.

Perhaps we should start drinking to volcanoes as well.


Update: The Cynical Tendency takes a more intellectual approach and examines the political implications of a serious eruption.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

'I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide..

...is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.'

Well, we expected this week's unusually high tides to bring some interesting examples of Man (and Woman) failing to grasp the fact that the sea goes up and down and we certainly weren't disappointed.

Coastguard and RNLI reports show a predictable host of unwary day-trippers managing to get cut off in a variety of scenic shoreline locations but special mention must go to the woman stranded at the old breakwater in Lyme Regis with her six children, potentially making somewhat belated amends for having contributed so generously to the gene pool.

Also worth noting are the two drivers whose vehicles had to be extracted from the sea at Redcar beach yesterday. In one case, rather than wading to shore, the occupants were initially seen perching on the roof of the vehicle as the tide came in around it, like two true latter-day Cnuts.

Similar automotive woes awaited an unfortunate fisherman whose boat broke down off Dunbar. Finally rescued by the RNLI, he returned to the harbour to find his car under five feet of water (in the great tradition of local headlines, The East Lothian News gives us 'It's park and tide').

Forget the dour stereotypes, Dunbar's finest are clearly compassionate souls...
Gary Fairbairn, coxswain of Dunbar RNLI, said: “We didn’t have the heart to tell him about his car until we got back to land." 
...well, either that or they are veritable connoisseurs of Schadenfreude:
"To say he wasn’t happy is an understatement.
 There was less sympathy, however, in the comments:
'A full moon, highest tides, and he leaves it on the slipway to get in the way of other users? Sell yer boat son and stick to dry land.'
Meanwhile, we've become familiar with youngsters outsourcing their thinking to phones which, in some cases, appear to be smarter than their owners. There is certainly a growing tendency to rely on the things at the expense of common sense, as three holidaymakers from Essex found out when they set up a barbecue on a remote part of a Devon beach.

They had no idea of tide times, so it must have come as something of a shock to find themselves marooned on a fast-diminishing patch of sand at the foot of a sheer cliff. It was at that point that they realized - oh, the horror! - that they had no mobile signal to call for help.

Natural selection was thwarted by some distant observers calling out the rescue teams who airlifted them to safety, but even these Darwin Award hopefuls are presumably more of an asset to the gene pool than a group of teenagers from Norfolk.

With a high spring tide and a surge predicted, Hunstanton's Environment agency teams spent Tuesday night testing their flood defences. Patrolling the beach in the early hours of the morning, they found a cheerfully coloured tent pitched well below the expected high-water mark and containing five happily snoring teenage boys.

As anyone who has ever given houseroom to the species will know, teenage boys can sleep through alarm clocks, ringing phones or determined hoovering - almost anything, in fact, except the smell of frying bacon - so it's highly likely that without intervention, the youngsters would have been swamped inside their sleeping bags.

I hope their parents - and future progeny - are duly grateful.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

'Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'...'


The 15-second clip has gone viral and there's a price on their heads; now we know why a stranger just happened to be filming when those two men kicked a squirrel over the edge of the Grand Canyon:
A Virginia resident on his first trip to the Grand Canyon started recording when he saw a squirrel approach two men, thinking they would be bitten.
I can't hep thinking there's considerable room for moral improvement on both sides of the lens here.

(For anyone who missed it, the incident was reported with unseemly relish by the Daily Mail.)

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Risking life and limb

'Against stupidity', says a character in a Schiller play, 'the gods themselves contend in vain.'

What hope is there, then, for the men and women of the RNLI and coastguard service, faced with this sort of thing?
Warnings about the dangers of boozing and swimming have been issued after a man was found clinging to a post in Swansea Bay as darkness fell.
The 24-year-old was eventually found holding onto an outfall post, which at high tide is around half a mile out to sea.
One hopes he has learnt a valuable lesson; in any case, given where he was picked up, I doubt he'll be socialising at close quarters with anyone for a while.

More recently, the much-publicised tail-end of a hurricane last weekend caused organisers in Cowes to postpone the start of a round Britain sailing race because of the poor weather conditions in the Channel and led to 41 cars being damaged on a ferry to Guernsey.

Such dramatic weather conditions, naturally, sent Darwin Award hopefuls scurrying in search of their surfboards and inflatables:
Coastguards rescued dinghies, kitesurfers and windsurfers as strong winds blew along the Jurassic Coast.
Sunday turned out to be quite a busy day there; in between fishing out several wind- and kite-surfers who had lost control of their contraptions, the coastguard, RNLI and ambulance were all needed to help an adult and child who had been blown out to sea in a small inflatable boat. Two more people in a second inflatable boat had to be rescued soon afterwards when it started shipping water.

Even on land, the stupidity continues unabated:
Safety warnings have been issued after a weekend of risk-taking on Dorset’s beaches. Beachgoers still continue to risk their lives near unstable cliffs – sunbathing just metres away from a warning sign.
While we are all familiar with the many unnecessary warning signs that clutter up our green and pleasant land, cliff collapses are surely sufficiently frequent and serious to give any rational beachgoer pause for thought, especially after a spell of wet weather. The Darwin Award contender, however, clearly feels the laws of nature should not apply to him (or her).

The same mentality is doubtless responsible for the situation reported by an exasperated Brixham coastguard last month, after a woman with a broken ankle had to be rescued from a closed-off section of coastal path:
“It was noted during the course of this rescue that more than a dozen people ignored signs and climbed over barriers to use this section of the coast path which is closed due to safety reasons.”
While once could argue that these people should be free to endanger themselves in any manner they think fit, it would be a very good thing if they could be brought to realize that the rescue services do not have the choice.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Quote of the day - 'not now!'

Before we finally leave the Torquay Herald Express, this story caught my eye:
BREAKING NEWS: Child and parent stuck in mud
The emergency services are working together to rescue a young child, and what is understood to be a parent, who are both stuck in mud at Combeinteignhead near Newton Abbot.
The reporter was clearly quick off the mark but this is 21st-century journalism; rather than racing to the scene, he or she seems to have set about phoning around for quotes while the rescue was going on.

The first source was a fruitful one:
A spokesman for the police said...“The fire service have launched a raft on the river and are pulling them out.”
...but things went downhill from there: the Fire Service wouldn't comment because of industrial action and the local pub denied any involvement, which is fair enough, and finally I invite you to consider the unspoken subtext behind:
...the coastguard confirmed they were involved but were too busy to give further details.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Talking Torquay

With this weekend's 'supermoon' expected to bring higher than normal spring tides, we will doubtless be spoilt for choice by next week's haul of rescue-related news stories.

In Devon, however, they are planning to put the rising waters to excellent use. According to the grandly-named Torquay Herald Express (which is clearly no stranger to the obligatory headline pun),
Entries are flooding in for a new competition to Beat the Tide in Paignton.
Today's contest, in aid of muscular dystrophy charity Action Duchenne, is the first of what organisers hope will become an annual event in which teams of six to eight people are given an hour to build a mound of sand on the beach.

When the tide comes in, all the team members must climb onto their giant sandcastle and stay there as the water rises around them.

The winners will be the last team left standing; all the fun of being cut off by the tide without having to bother the emergency services and a valuable lesson on fluid dynamics into the bargain, all while helping a worthwhile cause.

Forget 'Strictly X-factor Find Me a Talented Nancy Boy on Ice'; this is the competition that should be broadcast to the nation tonight - and every subsequent year until the RNLI stop having to fish out would-be Cnuts at every spring tide.
...........................

As a bonus, the same edition of the local newspaper provides the delightfully paradoxical headline:
Is the 89p pound shop in Torquay the cheapest in the country?
It appears that two rival discount outlets have been systematically undercutting each other over the past few weeks in a sort of economic limbo dance of 'tactical marketing'. Last week, 'The 99p Store' in Torquay was selling everything for 92p, while 'Poundland' was pricing its merchandise at a mere 90p.

'The 99p Store' has now retaliated by dropping its prices to 89p. This price-cutting is, presumably, subsidised by some kind of central fighting fund designed to put rivals out of business. If it carries on until one of them blinks, it will become a test of which business can afford to sell below cost for longest.

The same thing has happened in other towns, albeit with less media attention - the Daily Mail picked this up while I had a post in draft (which is always annoying!) - but this seems to be the longest and toughest price battle so far and must be putting other retailers under strain.

If this is the future, we can surely look forward to high streets filled with the ubiquitous phone shops and nail bars and a multiplicity of discount outlets selling whatever they have managed to acquire on the grey market that week.

Oh brave new world, that has such retail in it!


(There is, of course, only one soundtrack for a story like the latter one; happy earworm, everybody!)


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Darwin's selfies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you give Generation X-box a hand-held device capable of taking and instantly transmitting photographs of what they see, they will use it the wrong way round.

All over the world, visitors in places where our forebears would stand and gaze in awe now turn their backs on the monument or landmark and grin inanely for the benefit of a phone held at arm's length in front of them.

Some have gone further; on a recent trip, I noticed that many of the younger Far Eastern tourists carried small extending poles which enabled them to snap their own faces from a greater distance. How many selfies do you have to take for it to be worth investing in a gadget like that?

Meanwhile, such is the ubiquity of the genre and its more dubious spin-offs that schools are now devoting entire lessons to explaining to children why it is inadvisable to photograph one's genitalia and send the results to other people, a practice which I don't recall being mentioned back in the days of the Kodak instamatic.

Since the idea of taking endless photographs of oneself is likely to appeal most to the immature and the terminally narcissistic and the process is far from foolproof, the internet abounds with examples which mine a rich vein of idiocy.

'Is this the most dangerous selfie fail?' asks the Telegraph, reporting on the man who tried to take a selfie in front of half a ton of angry pot-roast at the bull-running in Bayonne last week. Well, no, actually; a sad little collection of Google entries testifies to the foolhardiness of taking selfies on the edge of a cliff or at the wheel of a car.

And at the weekend, in what should be a shoo-in for a Darwin award, a Mexican managed to shoot himself in the head while posing with a loaded gun; his intention, apparently, was to load 'cool' pictures of himself with the weapon onto facebook.

When ET and his chums show up a few millennia hence and study what remains, it's quite likely that they will date the decline of what was once human civilization to the invention of the phone camera and social media.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

I smell a rat

The Quiet Man this week spotted yet another manifestation of aggressive puritanism masquerading as public concern:
A Lancashire school has been slammed for commissioning and selling a beer for two extra-curricular events as part of its centenary celebrations.
The plan - to market a local beer labelled with the school crest - was squarely aimed at selling to former pupils a perfect marriage of personal and regional nostalgia. Brewing is, after all, a fine old British tradition that has long combined aesthetic pleasure with hydration and B-vitamin intake (with the added bonus of helping to avoid some of the nastier water-borne diseases of bygone days) and Lancashire is home to some excellent practitioners of the art.

This, however, was of no concern to the lone dissenter trying single-handedly to bring this worthy enterprise to a halt:
A concerned resident lodged a complaint to the Portman Group, Britain's independent body in charge of promoting responsible drinking regulations.
One single unsupported objection to a beer intended for consumers over the age of 18? Surely the recipient would be wise to consider the possibility that it could be the work of a disgruntled employee or the result of personal animosity towards the school or the brewery.
To the disbelief of the school, the Portman Group then upheld the resident's complaint.
The objection centred on the use of the school crest on the label and the implied association of alcohol with school-age children, though I think it's fair to say that the majority of today's teenagers aspire to more heady concoctions than a bottle or two of real ale.

In any case, this matter seems, if you'll forgive the term, rather small beer compared to the myriad injustices with which our society and the world in general abounds. Where is this Utopia in which a 'concerned resident' can find no more pressing cause for protest?
The BRGS centenary ale was brewed by the Irwell Works Brewery, in Ramsbottom, Lancashire.
Wait a minute - that rings a bell...
A bar in the House of Commons refused to serve beer featuring the black faces of the Britannia Coconut Dancers.
Following hot on the heels of the twitter storm caused by Will Straw's photo opportunity with the same black-faced dancers, this recently publicised tale of a label which 'may have caused offence' opened the door for knee-jerk vilification and possible harassment of those responsible.

And who were those potentially racist brewers?
Irwell Works Brewery in Ramsbottom dropped the image of the Coconutters from the beer pump and replaced it with the Bacup crest, which will accompany the ale in the Strangers Bar.
An interesting coincidence, I'm sure you will agree.

Friday, 18 July 2014

"You say black, I say white..."

Here we go again:
An MP has slammed this weekend’s controversial naked bike ride through Clacton as “offensive exhibitionism”.
Yes, it's Clacton's naked bike ride again. According to the subsequent online edition of the Gazette, opinion on last year's one was divided to say the least:
Clacton's first naked bike ride was such a success it could pave the way for the UK’s first naked fun run.
and:
Outraged councillors are calling for a clampdown on naked events, which they said could harm tourism in Tendring.
So, good or bad? And why do it at all? Some supporters describe the ride - last year's was a not insignificant 17km - as an “environmental protest against car culture and a celebration of the bicycle and the body”, placing it firmly in the counter-culture camp, while others attach a more safety-conscious message, claiming it highlights the vulnerability of the cyclist on the road.

Even so, Carswell does have a point, at least about the exhibitionism; it's likely that the event will primarily attract those already accustomed to appearing naked in public. Few people, after all, would want their first tentative dabble in naturism to take place in the middle of Clacton with the local press photographer on hand.

On the other hand, if people want to take their clothes off and aren't breaking the law, are they really doing any harm? It is, apparently, entirely legal to participate in a mass bike ride while totally harry-starkers, though I wouldn't advise stripping off and hopping onto the nearest Boris Bike in a built-up area to test the rules.

This means that those in opposition - which, according to the press, include the council and the police (who, since they will still accompany the riders, have presumably been ordered to keep their eyes averted) - have no way to prevent the ride going ahead. They have, however, decided to do what they can.

The ride has therefore been re-routed so that the cyclists do not go through the town centre and, in an unusual variation of pre-event publicity:
The council has published the route so people can avoid the bizarre spectacle.