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

Monday, 27 October 2014

Of mud and stars

Oh dear; decisions, decisions!

Returning from a few days of bracing (if somewhat muddy) walks in one of the more picturesque parts of the country, I am faced with not one but two irresistible topics.

Firstly there is 2014 UF56, a bus-sized asteroid passing by a mere 158,000 km above our heads just after 9pm tonight - have your glasses filled and ready!

And secondly, to brighten up a dark October evening, there is the boy racer who spent yesterday watching his pride and joy sink slowly into the mud near Burnham on Sea.

We have, of course, reported from the area before;  despite warning signs and publicity, a combination of Britain's biggest tidal range and vehicle access to the beach is clearly too much temptation for some.

Just a few months after a father-and-daughter team discovered the hard way that coastal mud makes a less than ideal driving surface, a 22-year-old from Bristol decided that his Saturday night would not be complete until he had taken his souped-up Celica for a spin on the beach.

Finding himself inextricably embedded in mud over the axles with an incoming tide, he abandoned the vehicle (and his chances of a Darwin Award - this time, at least) and escaped to shore. Recovering the car, however, has proved considerably more problematical, as the pictures show.

And there's more to enjoy in the comments:
It's got a GT-Four boot spoiler on it but DVLA states that it's a 1762cc car, which means it's not actually a GT-Four (they were 2 litre).
So, a Saturday night boy racer and a poser; our cup of Schadenfreude runneth over!

Speaking of which, it's about time for our annual musical comment on Sober October; after a sparse few months, we are entering a reasonable crowded part of the orbit - last Friday produced the undeniable convenient 2014 SC324 - and can look forward to plenty more close approaches in the near future.

The man who drinks cold water pure
And goes to bed quite sober
Falls as the early leaves do fall
So early in October,
But he who drinks just what he likes
Until he's half seas over
Shall live until, until he dies
And then lie down in clover.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Quote of the day - "I'll just need to photocopy the baby..."

Spare a thought - if only a small one - for the problems of law-abiding tattoo artists beset by unreasonable demands.

We've already met the unfortunate chap in Wolverhampton whose attempt to deter would-be customers who don't understand English earned him a slap on the wrist from the authorities, multiculturalism being, apparently, more important than the ability to communicate with the person about to ink a permanent design into your skin.

Now it's the turn of a Birmingham tattooist to attract media attention with a notice in his window:
"I don’t care if it’s your 18th next week. The answer is still no – and your children are not ID. Most of the girls in Northfield have a child by the age of 13."
The last statement is, by his own admission, hyperbole* - though that may not prevent a torrent of abuse heading his way in the near future - but the underlying intention is clear:
“I put up the notice because I kept getting young mums coming into the shop for a tattoo and when I ask them for an ID they try and use the child as a form of ID.
This was, he says, happening on a weekly basis, which offers food for thought when you consider the costs involved; the teenage mothers of Northfield clearly have money to burn.

In any case, the 'House of Pain' tattooing studio hardly seems an appropriate environment for a small child - though opinion on that may differ; regular readers may remember that a mock advert for specialist children's tattoos - 'a gift for life at pocket money prices' - apparently received ten genuine enquiries from parents.

The oddest thing about this story, however, is the suggestion that the child should somehow constitute a valid proof of age. Do the mothers likewise brandish their unfortunate offspring while buying a round in the pub or purchasing age-restricted DVDs or fireworks?

And, more seriously, what is likely to become of children raised by immature mothers whose disregard for the law is matched by their willingness to abuse shop staff when their unreasonable demands are thwarted?

*But not complete fiction; official figures show that over 100 13- and 14-year-olds in the Birmingham area have given birth over the past 5 years.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Blackened toast

Politicians generally get short shrift in the Tavern but we are always prepared to be open-minded; this week, therefore, we are raising a brimming tankard to none other than David Cameron.

The Prime Minister was photographed at a folk festival on Saturday amid a Border Morris side complete with traditional costume trappings including - and here's the rub - black face paint.

Given that, these days, an image can travel halfway round the world while the text is putting on its shoes, this could be seen as a somewhat courageous move, in the time-honoured political sense of the word. In the words of one Canadian academic,
" seems unlikely that North American audiences who encounter Morris [...] would see in blackface dances anything other than a white peoples' representation of black culture."
Sure enough, even on this side of the Pond, knees are apparently jerking in a veritable Riverdance of protest - at least according to those newspapers doing their best to fan the flames. The Independent, for example, merrily relays this charming example of liberal intolerance:
"If you're a Morris dancer and you want to black up, ask yourself if it's really appropriate. If the answer is yes, you're wrong.”
Never mind over four hundred years of documented practice and the stated aim of disguise, for which soot long provided the cheapest and most effective medium; someone has decided to be offended so it has to stop.

Thanks to recent media fuss over the Bacup Coconutters, whose blackened faces adorned, successively, Will Straw's twitter account and the label of a guest beer in a House of Commons bar*, Cameron must have been fully aware of the implications of posing for the photograph.

While it's unlikely to have lost him any votes - it certainly won't be the Tory faithful carping away on Twitter - it shows a certain moral courage to ignore the critics and publicly embrace a tradition that has been so emphatically misinterpreted.

And a Prime Minister prepared to stand up to the offence-seeking mob and their ill-informed revisionist prejudice is a welcome sight to see.

So, just this once, David Cameron, your very good health!

*Regular readers may remember that this was the subject of a longer post back in May, which contains further historical detail and comment.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

One (more) night in Clacton

Dedicated to JuliaM, for inspiring me to resume work on this - an earworm shared is, it turns out, an earworm doubled.

Clacton, Northern Essex setting,
And I think we all know what Westminster's getting;
The delectable sight of Carswell in the
Role of spectre at the Tory dinner.

Time flies, doesn't seem a minute
Since Nigel Farage said he’d help him win it;
All change, don't you know that when you
Piss off the electorate they turn against you?

In Eastleigh, Heywood and Middleton
Or Rochester or, or this place...

One night in Clacton and the world's his oyster;
Carswell got a mandate for the world to see.
He left your ship, now you can watch him hoist a
Purple skull and crossbones there beside the sea;
Cameron, here’s a taste of how it just could be.

One town may yet lead to another;
Are you really sure of those places, Brother?
It's a drag, it's a bore, it's really such a pity
You Tories ignored the world outside the city.
What do you mean
'It's just one unimportant provincial town'?
Get out, walk in any street;
Ask some questions of the people that you meet.
You’ll find they’ll say it’s too late to
Restore the myth your motives are the purest;
No chance - expenses scuppered that line, Sunshine!

One night in Clacton and the Tories humbled;
Media portray despair and ecstasy.
One night in Clacton, now which seat will tumble
To Nigel Farage and his company?
I can feel that Devil walking next to me!

Friday, 10 October 2014

One night in Clacton

A busy week continues to keep me away from the blog but this seems a good time for an updated version of of this post from May 2013...

This song was somehow inevitable, given the quasi-mythical status that the media seem to be attributing to this larger-than-life character.

With apologies to Stan Ridgway...

I was sitting in my local, feeling rather down;
I’d been drinking on my own since half past five.
It was visiting the polling station left me without hope
When I'd seen the parties hanging around outside.
I was looking for the courage to go back and see who'd won
And I sighed as I contemplated Britain’s fate;
Just then a chap in a fedora with a shocking purple tie
Appeared there at my shoulder and said "Wait."

 He offered me a pint and said "Don't worry, son, I'm here;
If Cameron wants to tangle now, he'll have me to dodge."
I said, "Well, thanks a lot!" I told him my name and asked him his
And he said to me "The name’s Nigel Farage".

'Oh, no, no, no!' said Farage;
'The English aren’t as docile as they seem;
Oh, no, no, no!' said Farage;
'Things are going to change now UKIP’s on the scene.'

Well, we talked all night, side by side, while the votes were counted in
And I wondered how the drastic shift began
'Cause now support for UKIP seemed to spring up everywhere
And I wondered if this was all Farage’s plan.
"They called us clowns and fruitcakes, but UKIP have the last laugh," he said,
"Perhaps the government now understand
That Britons may be tolerant but we’ll only take so much
Of the EU wanting to keep the upper hand -
Just let them try..."
And I knew this was somethin' we'd seen in Brussels,  'cause I remember how he was pullin' a metaphor right outta thin air and swattin' von Rompuy with it from here to kingdom come...
When the count was nearly over we shook hands and said goodbye;
He just winked at me from the door and then was gone.
When I got back to my family I told 'em about my night
And about the time I'd spent with Nigel Farage.
When I said his name, the others gulped and then they took my arm
And said to me, “That really can’t be right”,
And they pointed to the television; “There’s Nigel Farage
And he's been right there on News 24 all night!
(Feels like he's been there all week long...)"

 Well I know I must have imagined it – I’d been drinking like a fish –
Though as hallucinations go, it’s pretty large,
But it’s certain UKIP’s won a seat and it looks like they're here to stay,
And we’re all going to see much more of Nigel Farage.

(It's been drawn to my attention that iPads and phones don't always display the embedded videos; if you spent the mid-80s doing more worthwhile things than listening to the top 40 on a Sunday night - "No, honestly, I am doing my homework!" -  you can follow the 'Stan Ridgway' link to Youtube to hear the tune.)

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Holding up the mirror

(LONDON, 1751, about tea-time...)

"'Ere, are you Mr 'Ogarth?"

"Yes, I am. What can I do for you?"

"'S about that picture you got in your window."

"Ah yes, 'Gin Lane'. A satirical portrayal of modern society. I'm rather proud of it, actually; in fact, I'm planning to make a print of it to sell."

"It'll 'ave to go, squire."


"It's a bad influence, see? All that drunkenness and so on; it's offensive, like. The Beadle's on 'is way and 'e wants you to get rid of it; it's all part of 'is new plans for a sober October. Burning's best - it'd go up lovely on the fire!"

"You can't do that - it's a work of art!"

"Don't matter, squire; can't have a picture like that where people might see it and get the idea they wants a strong drink."

"But... but... the whole thing is meant to show the evils of drinking cheap spirits instead of good honest beer. It's satire!"

"Couldn't say anything to that, squire; Beadle's against beer too, he is. In fact, 'e's dead set against all that sort of thing. Now 'and it over before 'e gets 'ere and we'll be on our way. I'm sure you don't want any trouble now. After all, it's 'ardly as if it's a loss to future generations, is it?"

(Inspired, of course, by recent events in Clacton.)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Occupational hazard?

The Labour leader told the BBC he "did not deliberately" drop the passages on the deficit and immigration but his approach was to write a text in advance and use it as the basis for his speech - which meant things were added in and left out on the day. 
Well, he does have form in this area...

From December 2012:
'Labour insisted Mr Miliband ‘stands by’ the omitted section of his speech and had simply forgotten to say it. 
So what happened? Did he really forget about that bit or, looking round at his distinctly multicultural - sorry, vibrant - audience, did he decide that discretion was the better part of valour? "Look, it's great that you're all here, but it was, you know, a bit of a mistake letting you in".
Miliband admits he left out details which appeared in the published versions circulated to the faithful but believes that his 'style' works even at the expense of content:
"There are perils that come with that obviously but what people got a sense of yesterday was a plan to change our country."
That has the authentic ring of 21st-century politics; never mind the quality, feel the pitch. Either he is genuinely so disorganised that he can't follow notes or he is cynical enough to omit a potentially awkward element from a live speech while including it in the printed record.

Whichever is the real reason, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in his abilities as a leader.


Meanwhile, as the Labour conference draws to a close, I always like to remember that the writer of  their final song never meant his words to be set to the solemn and ponderous German tune of 'Tannenbaum', memorably described by George Bernard Shaw as 'a funeral march for a fried eel'.

He intended 'The Red Flag' to be sung to the altogether more sprightly melody of the Jacobite song 'The White Cockade', which, I think you'll agree, would have given a far more festive air to the closing ceremonies.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Independent minds

So it's 'better together'; the people have spoken.

It had been suggested in several quarters that the wording of the ballot incorporated an element of pro-Nationalist bias - it's been shown to be much easier, said the commentators, to campaign with a positive outlook and generate forward-looking enthusiasm when you are asking people to vote "Yes!".

Personally, I'm not so sure. I have a feeling that the theories are based on the emotion-fest that is American politics, where optimistic euphoria is the essential driving force behind electoral success, and may not translate so easily to this side of the Pond.

Scots are, by and large, made of sterner stuff. This is, after all, the country where my my primary school blazer badge bore the words 'Do or Die', a motto which, with hindsight, seems a rather uncompromisingly terminal mission statement for a class of mixed infants.

Scotland has a rich and diverse musical heritage but it is somehow typical that, even before the purpose-built anthem 'Flower of Scotland' made its appearance in 1967, many of the traditional songs harked back to ancient battles and days of glory - or crushing defeat and the need for vengeance.

And, while I doubt many English schoolchildren in the 1960s could have rattled off a marching song from the Napoleonic wars or, once the progressives got at education, even a verse or two of  'The British Grenadiers', their Scottish counterparts were learning 'All the Blue Bonnets are bound for the border' or Burns' oft-misquoted rallying-cry*.
Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!
The struggle in question is, naturally, against the English and, although it is as obsolete as the notorious reciprocal line in 'God Save the Queen', the continued popularity of the song serves to illustrate that this is a nation which admires and celebrates defiance:
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow!—
Let us do or die!
It's hard to imagine a generation reared on those words succumbing to the Pollyanna Principle and gravitating unthinkingly towards consent. While Salmond & Co may have envisaged a great leap forward on a wave of sentiment, it seems that his compatriots are for the most part, creditably immune to positive bias.

*I am pedantic enough to be deeply irritated by the misuse of the opening words as if they constituted a meaningless, self-contained shout of enthusiasm, usually by the same people who insist on holding hands throughout 'Auld Lang Syne'. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

"...and two sugars while you're about it,"

There was a truly delightful moment this week, while writing an apologetic e-mail to a colleague, when Autocorrect stepped in with 'mea maxima cuppa'.

Of course, being a machine, it has no intelligence to apply to the situation; it simply follows its programming, however inappropriate to the circumstances. Oddly enough, you could say much the same thing of the staff at my recently refurbished local branch of 'The bank that likes to say "F*** off!"'.

Having failed in my bid to take my business elsewhere during the lengthy closure (see previous post), I reluctantly found myself in a gleaming new atrium complete with rows of hole-in-the-wall machines to put your money in, to take your money out, do the financial hokey-cokey and move your cash about so that, with any luck, the staff don't have to bother with you at all.

Those unwelcome customers who do venture between this robotic Scylla and Charybdis must now head deep into the windowless rear of the building to where four tellers sit in judgement behind raised desks. Although they look human, yesterday's experience has given me cause for doubt.

Having established that I wanted to pay several cheques into a savings account, the cashier asked me whether I was happy with the rate of interest.

"No, but it doesn't matter; once the cheques have cleared, I'm thinking of moving all the money to another bank."

The response to this was a blank stare for several seconds, a vague, "Oh. Alright then," and, after another pause, a brightly artificial, "And is there anything else I can help you with at all today?"

I'm sure this cashier must have passed some kind of training in customer service but, faced with a real live dissatisfied account holder, her instructions simply did not equip her to react. Instead, she clearly dismissed the problem from whatever she was using for a mind and carried on according to her programming.

During the long trek back to the door, I stopped to ask one of the suited managerial types lurking complacently on the sidelines why there had been no prior notification of the four-week closure. There was no need for it, he replied, with a barely concealed sneer, because all facilities were available through the bank's online service.

It appears that I was right when I suggested the omission was a deliberate attempt to force online banking onto unwilling customers. Having seen Leg-Iron's passing mention this morning of computerised payments methods allowing us to be tracked and monitored, I am starting to think that this is why the bank is so intent on driving us into the arms of cybertechnology - it's not so much about cost-cutting as keeping us under control and, preferably, in debt.

Those who still persist in using cash, passbooks or cheques will presumably be increasingly regarded as dangerous subversives and, as such, will be reduced to a second-class service, something already happening with interest rates. There are still plenty of us around  - a recent discussion with friends suggested that this is because more than a few are haunted by what happens to female bank customers in 'The Handmaid's Tale'.

Visitors to the refurbished branch yesterday were obliged to skirt a table festooned with banners and bearing dishes of crisps and bottles of orangeade, while each of the counters at the rear was furnished with a large bowl of Haribo sweets, all presumably intended for the consumption of customers - another manifestation of how they try to infantilise us and a thought-provoking indication of the taste and maturity of the new manager.

This ostentatious welcome would have been far more convincing had there been any effort to find out why a customer was sufficiently dissatisfied to want to close an account - any one of those idle men and women in suits could easily have taken a few minutes to sit down in a side office to discuss what was wrong. An apology for the inconvenience would have been a good start.

And they might at least have offered me a cup of tea.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

'Shut up and take my money!'


I just want to open a savings account. Today.

I do not want to be assigned an interview at least three days hence with a 'customer welcoming operative' or whatever you call that bored, over-groomed harpy in the corner drumming her talons on the pseudo-Scandinavian office furniture.

Neither do I wish to be given details of your online banking service. If that suited my needs, I would be sitting comfortably at home on my own sofa instead of bandying words with an intellectual eunuch amid a festival of slogan-ridden posters depicting happily grinning customers who, I can only assume, hail from some alternate universe where your bank actually provides a decent service.

Smartphone banking? My phone is not smart. It hasn't a clue. It's a mindless half-wit; in fact, the two of you would get on like a house on fire, you have so much in common, and I'm starting to think I wouldn't trust either of you to manage my money.

Is it really so difficult? I just want to park a few spare quid where I can get at it, preferably earning interest somewhere near the current inflation rate. I have no desire for 'solutions' or 'advantages' or 'plus accounts' and you aren't going to impress me with complimentary magazine subscriptions and theatre booking services either; ultimately it's still the customer who pays.

And now you know what I'm after, it's clear I'm not the sort of customer you want. It's odd, isn't it? A cheque to deposit - yes, some of us still use them - and yet you are giving me the sort of brush-off your predecessors would once have saved for an habitual defaulter asking for credit.

So you stand there, a symphony in StayNew polyester with a face to match, and tell me 'there's no one available today', even though there are more staff in here than there are customers. Having established that I don't want any of your myriad complex 'financial products' and 'packaged accounts' - sales targets to meet, perchance? - you have clearly decided I am not worth bothering about and I can tell you the feeling is mutual.

In fact, here's an idea; why don't you take your ultimate privilege platinum flexi select classic account package complete with fringe benefits and transfer it to a location about your person utterly devoid of solar activity?" what I wish I'd said, instead of smiling politely, accepting a business card and walking away, never to return.

(This is a follow-on post to 'The bank that likes to say "F*** off!"'.)

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

A bad case of asteroids

A busy week, but I couldn't let a passing space rock go untoasted even though it seems to have attracted a media frenzy - many happy returns, 2014 RC!

In the best churnalistic tradition, if one science editor picks it up then all the rest follow - never mind that other very close approaches go unmarked save by astronomical websites and the occasional obsessional blogger.

Once again, I feel rather peeved; it's like being a die-hard fan of an obscure indie band which has inexplicably gone mainstream and appeared on Saturday night television, complete with gyrating dancers and laser displays.

Perhaps this is something to do with the opportune appearance of the media-savvy Professor Brian Cox as (appropriately enough) honorary Chicken Licken to the nation, a position left vacant thanks to Lembit Opik's apparent desertion of the cause for rather more earthly attractions.

The media coverage inspired the Express, in particular, to hyperbolic flights of fanciful prognostication:
ASTEROIDS could rain down on the earth for 100 years, shocked experts have just warned.
which in turn, prompted this excellent debunking at Slate Magazine.

Meanwhile, investigators have been called in to assess a new crater in Nicaragua, which has raised the interesting question of fragmentation, bane of the Bruce-Willis-and-the-Nukes school of asteroid impact prevention.

According to JPL and NASA:
For those wondering, the event in Nicaragua (poss meteorite?) is unrelated to asteroid 2014 RC. Different timing, different directions.
which brings to mind the recent coincidence (?) of the Chelyabinsk meteor and DA14; will we one day be blindsided while all our attention is centred on another rock passing overhead?

All in all, it's a salutary reminder of our own insignificance in the face of whatever is hurtling round out there. In the words of John W Campbell (as quoted by Arthur C Clarke):
'Meteorites don't fall on the Earth. They fall on the Sun, and the Earth gets in the way.'

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bells and Whistles

I think it is fair to say that Sully Island, off the south coast of Wales, is never going to be a hot tourist destination.

For those who like their landscapes unspoiled, however, this former smugglers' refuge boasts an Iron Age fort and a Victorian shipwreck as well as panoramic views out over the Bristol Channel.

There is, however, one small problem: the island stands at the end of a 400m rocky causeway, cut off by the tide for all but a few hours a day, a situation which, regular readers will not be surprised to learn, appears to be beyond the comprehension of some visitors.

Over Bank Holiday weekends in particular, the local Penarth lifeboat crew must barely get a chance to sit down to a nice cup of tea and a slice of bara brith.
“We are repeatedly called out to rescue people cut off on Sully Island, despite constant warnings about the dangers of the incoming tide"
In  bid to cut down the number of incidents - and enable the crews to get on with the rest of their lives - the RNLI installed a pilot scheme in mid-June using tide powered traffic lights:
The traffic lights will use a tide gauge and indicate when it is safe for people to cross, when time is running out and when it is unsafe to walk along the causeway.
The yellow phase provides a countdown on how much time is left on the causeway as a return trip takes about 40 minutes on foot.
So, over two months on, was the scheme a success?
AN RNLI text service warning visitors about safe crossing times could be introduced to the Sully Island causeway in a bid to stop visitors getting stranded on the island.
Er... that'd be a 'no', then.
A sound warning system, and another traffic lights warning system based on the island, are also being considered by the RNLI in an effort to cut the number of call-outs to the volunteer lifeboat crew.
In fact, the number of call-outs this summer appears to have been basically unchanged, with stranded walkers claiming not to have seen the lights - the suggestion that they might, of their own initiative, have ascertained the tide times beforehand doesn't appear to enter into it - although evidence elsewhere points to a minority who feel such warnings somehow do not apply to them.

So the RNLI are planning another set of lights on the island - somewhat to the detriment, one feels, of this scenic Site of Special Scientific Interest - and a sound warning, as well as sending tide times to anyone who texts them to ask.

And when that doesn't work, and Mr and Mrs Cnut and their little dog still end up marooned, what then?

One reassuringly certain thing about the tide is that it goes down again. By my calculations, it's never going to be more than about seven or eight hours until the causeway is passable again, and, if they were fit enough to undertake the 20-minute walk across the rocks, a night in the open isn't going to kill them.

The problem is that their stupidity just might:
“People are unaware off just how quickly the tide comes in and when they realise they are being cut off, they tend to panic and try to make it over the causeway to the mainland."
Which, given the depth of the channel and local currents, is a seriously bad idea. It's the perpetual problem faced by the RNLI; manpower and resources diverted from real emergencies into rescuing people from the consequences of their own foolhardiness or ignorance.

And it's horribly symptomatic of a society in which we are all subjected to ever more interference because some people cannot or will not accept responsibility for themselves.