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 29 November 2008

Bah Humbug (shoo-shooby-doo)!

Somewhere out there is the person responsible for the compilations of Christmas music played in shopping centres throughout the land and I want his head on a plate. He (or she) has collected together some of the most nauseating, mawkish and tasteless Christmas songs possible and unleashed them on a defenceless public already at the mercy of the retail behemoths.

A recent foray in search of socks and pyjamas exposed your correspondent to rather too much of it this week - a particular irritation being Debenhams' endlessly repeated 'Santa Baby' (verb. sap. - all that 'put a sable under the tree' stuff doesn't go down too well in the current economic climate).

Anyone who has spent time shopping recently will be familiar with the subcategories - syrupy renditions of the cuter and fluffier carols, a cod 1950's American earmuffs-and-cosy-log-fires vibe and, of course, the Band Aid single (sorry, St Bob and the blessed Midge, but they probably didn't care whether 'It's Christmas time', on account of a substantial proportion of them not being Christians, as well as not having enough to eat).

If the single were doing its job, customers would be flocking round the corner to the Oxfam shop, where a veritable cornucopia of cards and fair-trade presents awaits the shopper with a social conscience but instead, they just merrily hum along while filling their baskets with overpriced gifty tat.

Since the recession-hit holiday season bears as much resemblance to 'a merry little Christmas' ('next year all our troubles will be out of sight?' Yeah, right!) as the November fog does to a 'winter wonderland', we need something to replace this crass jollity.

Suggestions would be welcome; meanwhile, I'm going shopping to buy myself some earmuffs.

Friday 28 November 2008

Advent Calendars For Dogs...

..and cats are being sold in a local pet shop, according to a sign outside.

Now, I checked in the dictionary, and Advent is defined as 'the season before the Nativity'. The idea of a calendar to count down the days until the birth of Jesus has already been secularised to a startling extent by Disney and Spice Girl versions and we have reached a stage where a child is likely to feel short-changed if the windows don't contain chocolate, but an advent calendar for pets takes it to a whole new level.

Only the most blindly devoted anthropomorphist could maintain that a dog or cat has any understanding of the concept involved so we must assume that, far from a demonstration of the intelligence of pets, these calendars are a manifestation of the besottedness of owners - unless, of course, you are buying one in a delightfully post-modernist ironic way*.

Counting the days until the arrival of presents rather than the earthly manifestation of Christianity's supreme being did, of course, greatly increase the potential market for advent calendars beyond the actively religious (and the chocolate must have helped) but it has yet to be seen whether manufacturers will beat the credit crunch by tapping into an as yet unexploited market.

*It's one of those irregular verbs; I make a post-modernist ironic purchase, you have more money than sense, he is just a vulgar idiot.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Santa's a Sexist


Alice (9) shocked family and friends yesterday by revealing that she had asked Santa for a train set. As horrified parents covered the ears of younger children, she also admitted to wanting meccano, a chemistry set and a bow and arrow. "I don't know what's come over her" sobbed her mother, "she used to be such a nice little girl! She loved her dolls and her Disney princess outfits."

Relatives are now worried about her brother Neil (5) who has expressed an interest in a toy kitchen. "It's probably because of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver," said an expert, " but we will be monitoring the situation closely in case there are any signs of an interest in housework- or nurture-related toys."

No wonder Britain is short of female scientists - take a look at the toy catalogues cascading through your door this season and see the way they portray children playing. Argos go one better, placing all science-based toys in a section labelled 'Boys' toys' while the 'Girls'' section contains Bratz and Barbie.

Not that this would deter any sensible parent; it is simply pandering to the limited outlook of adults whose own aspirations and expectations prevent them understanding that children are individuals and, in modern British society, should be able to escape the restrictions that bound previous generations.

Unless some seasonal sharing goes on - 'Ralph, did you change the labels on the presents again?' - then many potential future scientists will spend another Christmas surrounded by pink fluffy things while their brothers happily mix up sulphates and scan the night sky.

Sunday 23 November 2008

Scents and Sensibility

Fans of Peattie and Taylor's 'Alex' comic strip will recall Vince the wide-boy city trader Christmas shopping in the perfume department- "a bottle of 'Brut' for Dad, some 'Tramp' for my sister and I'm looking for some 'Silly Old Bat' for my gran".

The perfume counter this season may not have exactly that, but it offers some pretty bizarre alternatives; from the insufferably twee ('Be delicious') to the downright peculiar ('RWD PLAY FFWD'), there has never been such choice of over-packaged celebrity-endorsed pongs with peculiar, not to say off-putting titles.

While honourable mention goes to 'Notorious' and 'Unforgivable' (which conjures up the spectacle of a furtive-looking pet and a suspicious dark patch on the carpet) the prize for all-out weirdness this year goes to Thierry Mugler for 'Alien' - I've seen the movie and I really don't want to smell like that!

Still, full marks to Mugler for pioneering the refillable bottle - you may smell like something slimy from the outer galaxy, but at least it'll be green.

Friday 21 November 2008

A Sale of Two Titties...

... made of bright pink nylon, 20% off; also a breast-shaped face flannel, a soap hilariously inscribed 'bum' on one side and 'face' on the other and a bow tie designed to be worn on what the Elizabethans called the privy member. All of these can be found this weekend at 20% off the marked price in a popular high street store.

Tacky, tasteless and sexist, these articles are being marketed as 'stocking fillers' according to the sign on the display - a perfect example of the infantilisation of the British male. Even at 20% off, they weren't exactly flying off the shelves and will probably end up in the January sales with a non-existent profit margin (the more frugally minded among you might like to note that the bow tie would admirably suit a small teddy bear).

Quite apart from their inherent vulgarity, the price of £3-£5 makes it highly likely that this exploitative tat was assembled by low-paid workers in a third world sweatshop, quite possibly in a region where they hold strict religious beliefs. Oh, to be a fly on the wall as they discussed the products and their eventual purchasers!

The astounding thing is that in this summer's financial climate a buyer actually thought it was a good idea to order hundreds of bow ties for bits and have them imported from the other side of the world. One silver lining to the cloud of global recession and a sinking pound is that it may make retailers a little more discerning about what they choose to import for next Christmas.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

An All-night Party With Laura Attic

63 Times readers so far have commented on the story of the boy who collapsed after 24 solid hours of World of Warcraft -a predictable mix of 'shouldn't be allowed' and 'never did me any harm' (many of the latter showing an interesting variety of grammar and spelling at odds with their assertions that computer gamers do well in class).

Since we in Newgate are somewhat behind the times and have not yet entered the era of online gaming, we have to make do with the adventures of Lara Croft - or Laura Attic, as she has been dubbed by a relative even less 'down with the kids' than us. Compelling as the delectable Ms Attic is, I find it hard to imagine anyone going without food or sleep for 24 hours for her sake.

It seems that online gaming is insidious in its continuity - leaving the game is like going home just when the party's at its most exciting, only this party goes on 24/7. As with Second Life, reality can take a back seat while you get on with living on-screen (and yes, I'm well aware of the irony of sitting here writing this post in the guise of character from an 18th Century dramatic work).

If you discard most of the knee-jerk comment, the case of the collapsing teenager is really a question of a refusal to acknowledge his physical limitations - hands up anyone out there who has never stayed up inadvisably late - and the best thing to do about it is teach him how and when to say goodbye and leave the party.

Sunday 16 November 2008

(Second) Life's but a walking shadow

The talk of the Newgate taverns this weekend has been of marital infidelity - 200 years and nothing changes! The novelty in this case is that the husband was not merely in flagrante delicto, but also in cyberspace, caught in a compromising position on a sofa composed entirely of pixels.

The technical aspect of the offence evidently fascinated (to a slightly worrying degree) a BBC journalist, whose website article asked an expert exactly how cyber-infidelity is accomplished and was told, 'First you need to purchase some genitals....' The detail which followed was a bit too much for breakfast-time reading so we shall move swiftly on.

What happens when Second Life couples subsequently meet in the real world? Imagine it - after cavorting in the virtual surf and exchanging meaningful dialogue with a six-foot bronzed beach god/voluptuous sloe-eyed houri (delete as applicable) you decide to consolidate your relationship with a real-life date. What are the chances that the avatar of your dreams will walk into the bar?

Exactly. The real surprise is that Pollard and Taylor did just that and then lived together for four years - despite the fact that neither of them - how shall I put this? - quite measures up (or down) to their online persona.

The good folk of Newgate wonder how many more virtual Dorian Grays are out there, parading their perfect bodies in designer clothes and sipping champagne in digital villas while their all-too-3-dimensional portraits eat, sleep and pay the broadband bills.

Friday 14 November 2008

A sick society

A story is emerging in the courts this week which has us wondering whether we have all been returned to 18th Century Newgate - a mother (partial to bawdy jokes about policemen) who conspires to kindnap and hide away her drugged child in order to secure a reward from well-meaning benefactors could have come straight from the easel of Hogarth or the pages of Swift or Defoe.

In fact it has been alleged that the plot was inspired by an episode of 'Shameless' broadcast a few weeks before. While Hogarth sought to document and combat social evils as well as to entertain, it seems his modern-day successors might actually be helping to create them.

Meanwhile in Haringey Baby P dies of ill-treatment and neglect. For some people the slums of Hogarth's London are very near indeed.
(William Hogarth; Gin Lane)

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Wishing on a Starbucks

Bad news for fans of the Seattle-based purveyor of caffeine to the masses - profits fell by 97% in the fourth quarter of the year, partly due to their attempt to saturate the market by opening branches everywhere - or as satirical journal 'The Onion' announced back in 2000, 'New Starbucks Opens In Rest Room Of Existing Starbucks'. We even have a branch here in Newgate, squeezed between the oakum-picking room and the gallows storage shed.

There's something of a fine irony in the plight of this modern-day coffee-house as the financial descendants of its 18th century counterparts totter and shake. It brought a touch of transatlantic glamour to the British high street, and what a catchy name! Slightly exotic, and with interesting subconscious associations depending on your age and literary taste*.

Unfortunately, what it tried to do in response to the downturn was bombard us with bizarre concoctions of fruit and strange ingredients - vivano, anyone? The hapless customer arrives at the counter in a state of utter bewilderment and, in response to the multitude of suggestions, asks plaintively 'Can I just have a cup of coffee, please?'

*Starbuck was, of course, the name of the second officer in the original Battlestar Galactica, or, if you prefer, the chief mate of the Pequod in 'Moby Dick', whose most memorable line to Captain Ahab was immortalized in 'The Art of Coarse Acting',
'Was't not the same Moby Leg took off thy...er...'

Monday 10 November 2008

Coming to a High Street near you...

A warning this week from PwC that high streets may become ghost towns (all together now - This tow-own.....) as the recession hits chain stores. The shiny new malls opening round the country will only exacerbate the problem as retailers fight for the best locations in a game of retail musical chairs.

While those who have money to spend will be happily strolling round the air-conditioned temples of conspicuous consumption, what will happen to the poor neglected high street, exposed to the elements and the traffic? Last time, it was the coffee shops which moved in to fill the void, as we became a nation of latte drinkers delightedly emulating the transatlantic chic of Friends and Sex in the City - albeit in slightly less glamorous surroundings.

This time, PwC say nothing is waiting in the wings, but a saunter through the local neighbourhood tells a different story. Where once there was a thriving collection of independent retailers of everything from furnishing fabrics to photography, we now have the dubious benefits of two fast food joints, a betting shop and a pawnbrokers - well it is Newgate, after all! - and a sign announcing the arrival of another gambling establishment.

The public-spirited Tessa Jowell (she of the super-casinos and cafe-culture licensing hours) once said that to object to gambling because of its impact on the poor carried a 'whiff of snobbery' - but who apart from the poor ever ended up in Newgate Prison for debt?

Friday 7 November 2008

Obama: still considering choice of dog for White House

Hold the front page! As the BBC news strapline said, in answer to a question from one of the highly-trained political journalists at this evening's press conference Barack Obama revealed that they had still not chosen the future First Puppy.

He explained that this is because the dog must be hypo-allergenic (?!) and secondly - here's the good bit! - they would like to get a dog from a shelter, and they can't name a breed because "most shelter dogs are mutts, like me".

Parental concern, social responsibility and racial integration all rolled into the answer to a trivial and facetious question - that man is one skilled political operator!

Back in the UK, a cursory glance at tonight's television schedules shows that the Friday night slot left unexpectedly vacant following a certain resignation is to be filled by a screening of 'Armageddon'.

Last week, the hastily-found replacement for the show was 'Speed', in which an out-of-control bus causes havoc. Is the BBC trying to tailor its programming to the tastes of those newly deprived of Ross' sophisticated repartee or is someone trying to make a not-so-subtle comment on his career?

Wednesday 5 November 2008

A Call to Arms

There has been much debate among the inmates of Newgate about the trend-bucking increase in profits at a certain budget high street fashion chain recently voted least ethical clothing retailer in Britain. Now the credit crunch is biting we can see just how much impact the welfare of third world garment workers will have on British shoppers and it's not a pretty sight!

The chain in question has created a website promoting its ethical record and attributes its low prices to to simple styles and economies of scale. However, much of the clothing on sale at the cheaper end of the market features hand-sewn beads and sequins - as seen in a BBC documentary being sewn on by children - which are highly labour-intensive.

While it has often been argued that buying sweatshop-produced clothing gives developing countries an economic boost, it seems likely that recession in Britain will put manufacturers under further pressure to reduce costs and lead in the long term to more outsourcing to child labour and unsafe or illegal factories. This applies even more to intricate embroidery and beadwork.

If we must have inexpensive fashion, we need a new 'austerity chic' featuring well-cut simple styles which can be made cheaply by skilled machinists - after all, who needs sequins on their pyjamas? Unfortunately we also need a better-educated public; consider this recent comment from a fashion website - '18 squids for a sequin shift?! I am *so* having it!'

Looks like we're facing an uphill struggle.

Sunday 2 November 2008

The Rich Are Different

Here in Newgate we know a thing or two about debt, so it was with interest that we read about the repossession of luxury homes in Dorset's Millionaires' Row, Sandbanks. In fact the total number of repossessions was two and, since one is owned by an investment company and the other is a third home, it's a safe bet that nobody is being left homeless.
The Times included this helpful quote from the author of several well-known guides to house purchase and buy-to-let;
"High borrowing is not just the preserve of the poor or those on modest incomes. The wealthy or aspirational have often taken on the biggest mortgage they could get....it can all come crashing down if a job is lost or bonuses vanish, and it can be even more distressing because of the previous perception of wealth."
Even more distressing than what, we ask? The impact of repossession on the 'poor or those on modest incomes'? How does one measure distress? Do the 'wealthy and aspirational' feel disappointment more? Was Scott Fitzgerald right; are the rich different?

Meanwhile, I am grateful to jonny mac's finely honed intellect for pointing out that the city traders mentioned in my last posting must have been on minimal salaries for their kind. It would indeed appear that they were aspirational rather than wealthy, and, what's more, bad enough at arithmetic to be completely surprised by the size of their monthly repayments, which probably goes a long way to explaining why neither received a bonus this year.