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 31 January 2009

Where Did They Hide the Bodies?

A new party game emerged this week after a futile search of my local bookshop. Susie (Fat is a Feminist Issue) Orbach’s ‘Bodies’ came out on Monday; which section had they put it in? The assistant had no idea, and so began a bizarre guessing game.

Was it Psychology, perhaps, or Popular Psychology? Nope. Mind Body and Spirit? Wrong again! Women's studies? Sociology? Health? Popular Culture? The assistant finally found a copy in the window, so we’re still none the wiser.

Since then the regulars at Peachum’s Tavern have been considering a category name for books of this kind, designed to be read with a certain smugness by those who are aware of the issues and ready to enjoy a bit of righteous indignation while feeling reassuringly intellectual.

After much deliberation, it was the Artful Dodger who came up with the best solution; here in Newgate, Ms Orbach’s opus will join those of Eric Schlosser, Naomi Klein and Mark Lynas on a shelf clearly labelled ‘Mummy’s Moral High Ground’.

Friday 30 January 2009

Zombies, Sewage and...Piers Morgan?

We were treated to a valuable insight into the psyche of the computer hacker this week as the good folk of Austin, Texas were warned by their highway signs of an imminent zombie invasion. Given the potential havoc a skilled hacker could wreak, it comes as a reassuring surprise that their ultimate goal was relatively harmless fun.

Unless, of course, anyone took it seriously. After all, Orson Welles sparked a nationwide panic with 'War of the Worlds', and a worryingly large proportion of US citizens (unlike our own David Cameron) are convinced that aliens are among us. Still, if it turns out to be real, we are, thanks to Newgate's resident Artful Dodger, relatively well-briefed on how to survive a zombie uprising (stockpile food and remove your staircase, apparently).

Finally, spare a thought for the unfortunate inhabitants of Dubai; as though raw sewage and toxic waste were not enough to contend with, they have also been visited by Piers Morgan (I'm sure there's an analogy in there somewhere).

Thursday 29 January 2009

Dubai - Sun,Sand and Sewage

Hubris, Nemesis and Schadenfreude are available in one handy package this week as Dubai's beaches fester in a tide of raw sewage.

It seems the worm has turned; the low-paid immigrant workers whose menial labour props up the opulent lifestyles of Dubai's wealthy residents and tourists are - quelle surprise! - not doing their jobs sufficiently diligently. Instead of undertaking the long (and smelly) drive into the desert to queue up at the nearest sewage plant, lorry drivers have simply been tipping the contents of cess-pits into storm drains debouching directly into the sea on the exclusive Jumeira Beach.

Dubai's spectacular new developments - familiar from a host of programmes like 'Megastructures' and 'Building the Biggest' - attract a host of hubristic superlatives but don't, apparently, include sufficient sewage treatment works to serve the increasing population. One hopes, given the levels of e. coli measured on the beach, that they have provided adequate hospital facilities for all.

The situation is complicated by the amount of new tourist accomodation being built along the coastline, and that's where our Schadenfreude comes in. Remember the new Versace Hotel? The one with the refrigerated beach? Designed to attract supermodels and top investment bankers and Paris Hilton? Now think of its fastidious designer-clad clientele ankle deep in raw sewage and mad as hell, and smile!

Tuesday 27 January 2009

David Cameron in UFO Shock

Aliens in UFOs have visited Earth, says David Cameron

David Cameron said he "was convinced" the Earth had been visited by aliens and has vowed to publish any secret files that may exist on UFOs if he becomes prime minister.

All is not quite as it seems, dear Reader. In fact Cameron was making what we on Earth call a joke, in response to a question at a 'Cameron Direct' meeting in Tynemouth, but this did not prevent the Telegraph embellishing the article with links to an assortment of UFO stories - my favourite being 'Tentacled UFO's at Turbine Site' - presumably to keep the X-files fan-club happy.

Despite beginning his answer with a joke - albeit one straight out of Billy Bunter; ' I know we've been visited by aliens; Jenkins Minor is one of them!' - he marred the effect by earnestly promenading once more his belief in freedom of information and openness. Placed on the hook by his questioner, he gave a delightful display of wriggling ambiguity as he neither confirmed nor denied belief in the existence of intelligent alien life out there, but insisted that he 'would always be entirely open and frank about these things'.

Well, that's nice to know. It's always a risk when politicians appear in public that someone with a really wacky idea can put a spanner in the works. In this case, I'd love to know whose crazy notion it was to take the laudable concept of regular meetings with the general public and curse it with the label 'Cameron Direct'.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Obama's oath - the Roman solution

So Obama fluffed the oath. The supreme orator is as fallible as the rest of us. In a system priding itself on following the Roman structure - Capitol, Senators and all - there can be only one possible course of action.

The tiniest error in a state ceremony in ancient Rome meant repeating the entire ceremony from the beginning, even if it lasted several days. So, instead of the quick remedial swearing-in behind closed doors - in itself, food for conspiracy theorists - let the whole triumphal progress be reconstructed and run through once more (only without Bono this time - please!)

That'll teach them to subject us to endless footage of crowds being herded about and chilly reporters breathlessly indicating the spot where 'something will be happening in about 4 hours time' (at the expense of any real news). Sure, we're interested in Obama's presidency, but it's about time the Americans (and the BBC) learned to separate the office from the spectacle.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Twilight Vampires - the fall of the House of Poe

Drape yourself in black velvet! Dig out those funereal lace veils! Tomorrow we celebrate the 200th birthday of master of the macabre, Edgar Allen Poe. All over the globe, cognoscenti will be croaking ‘Nevermore!’ and raising a glass of amontillado to the man who put the ill in spine-chilling.

Poe’s florid and suffocating tales of aristocratic death and decay – think ‘the Addams Family’ rewritten by Baudelaire – have left their indelible mark on the classier type of horror fiction since the mid 19th century. In fact, it would not be too far-fetched to lay at his door the entire Goth subculture; black clothing, pancake make-up, obligatory miserable expression and all.

Now here’s a question – do Goths grow older? What happens when they reach their 20s and beyond? Do they simply wake up one morning and discard their carefully constructed wardrobes in favour of mainstream clothing? Is the Goth in fact a larval form, ready to hatch one day into a well-scrubbed adult of normal hue? I think we ought to know.

Perhaps the hard-core ones simply retain their youthful looks forever, like the vampire siblings in teen chill sensation ‘Twilight’. America's West Coast being distinctly short of ruined castles to waft around in designer nightwear, the local Undead have had to have a bit of a rethink, so, despite being 80-odd years old, they have taken a leaf out of Wendy Brown’s book and enrolled in the local high school (although, being moody and magnificent, they presumably didn’t try out for the cheerleading squad).

Saturday 17 January 2009

Musings On the Obama train

On a chilly January day a triumphal procession takes place. At its centre is a gifted orator and skilled politician who inspires the crowds with well-chosen phrases at the various halts arranged along the way. As well as the insiders in attendance, there are also ordinary people, carefully picked to show the universal appeal of this new regime.

Washington 2009? No, dear reader, you are 450 years too late. The year is 1559 and the city is London, England. Queen Elizabeth I, like Barack Obama, is a master of spin and the art of public performance and her coronation procession is choreographed to the last detail, every element calculated for maximum political impact.

American presidential set-up has more than a touch of the renaissance court at any time but this seems to have reached its apotheosis in Obama’s inauguration. A cult of personality is emerging which could be disastrous if he fails to live up to expectations.

The USA may be the land of the free, but this is starting to look a lot like a coronation.

Friday 16 January 2009

Uderzo sells out

Why let a little thing like death stand in the way of your career? Albert Uderzo (81) – the surviving half of the duo who created Asterix and Obelix – has authorised publisher Hachette Livre to continue the series of 33 books after his death.

When story-writer Rene Goscinny died, Uderzo took on the task of producing text as well as pictures. Although an undeniably talented illustrator, responsible for some of the most memorable comic creations ever, Uderzo lacked Goscinny’s literary touch and the subsequent stories were lacklustre imitations of their predecessors.

Now we see the prospect of an ersatz Asterix; the Gauls reduced to little more than creations in an ongoing soap opera bereft of the wit and style that endeared them to millions. It remains to be seen whether these, like the ones written by Uderzo alone, will continue to bear the names of Uderzo and Goscinny.

Southern gothic novelist Virginia Andrews, for example, has been particularly busy since shuffling off this mortal coil in 1986. Her eight novels, featuring such salubrious plot devices as child abuse and incest, were standard teenage fare in the 80s for those who avidly consume misery memoirs today. So successful were they that, after her death, her family employed a ghost writer to continue the sagas under her name and the canon now stands at 50 books and counting.

Thursday 15 January 2009

Man City+Kaka+£100m = fantasy football

So you’ve got a spare £100m burning a hole in your pocket. What do you do with it? Invest to revitalise recession-hit industry? Start a charitable foundation? No, you buy a footballer. For £100m, he’d better be pretty damn' good!

Those in the know tell me Kaka is, indeed, a gifted player, but for that sort of money I’d expect him to dash off the odd string symphony in his spare time while solving Fermat’s last theorem and finding a cure for cancer.

How did things get this far out of proportion? An average salary of £1.1m (in the Premier League) to play a game while the country slips further into economic crisis is performing a full violin concerto while Rome burns. Perhaps that’s no coincidence – bread and circuses distract the populace from the worsening situation.

The emotional blackmail of a lifetime supporting a club means fans won’t boycott. Instead, they cough up for ever-pricier tickets, TV subscriptions and merchandise, like parent birds struggling to feed an overweight chick.What will it take to make them finally crack? Perhaps Manchester City are about to find out.

For comments on the issue (and a lesson in the value of proofreading headlines) see Paul Kelso's Telegraph blog.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

A Fairytale of New York

After all his adventures Toad now found himself under house arrest in his $7m Manhattan penthouse.
“He must never be left an instant unguarded,” said the Badger.”We shall have to take it in turns to be with him. The important thing is to make sure he doesn’t try to dispose of any of his property.”

“Like the jewellery and watches he sent to his friends,” said the Mole, “We can’t let that happen again.”

“No indeed,” said Badger, “Toad is truly a devious character. When he’s quiet and submissive, he’s at his artfullest.”

“Then we must hope that the court sees reason and sends him to jail,” said the Rat. ”I don’t see how we can prevent him disposing of his assets otherwise. If something’s missing from the inventory, then it’s too late.”

“And then we can get back to England, “sighed the Mole. “ I don’t think New York agrees with me.”

“Blame the Toad” retorted Badger, “If he hadn’t started selling in the City, we should never have got involved in the first place. Now all we need is for him to cough up the $50bn and we can go home. This has been a very rum business indeed; why, it’s just like something out of a book!”

With apologies to Kenneth Grahame

Wendy Brown - the big, busted cheerleader

'Ya-a-a-ay!' News from the always surreal world of cheerleading this week that a 34-year-old stole her daughter's identity to enrol in high school and try out for the cheerleading squad.

In Hollywood you could be sure of a happy ending ('School of Rock', anyone?) as she and the girls achieved acclaim and success, but real life is sadly rather more complicated.
A truant officer sent to investigate the absence of the supposed 15-year-old found Wendy Brown in a police cell charged with unrelated forgery. Following a long history of fraud and criminal activity, she was committed to a psychiatric unit yesterday after a court accepted a diagnosis of mental impairment.

Brown claimed she wanted to make up for a lost childhood but this failed to convince a local public safety officer, who said, "I can only guess if history repeats itself her motive has something to do with money. Unless we take it at face value that she wanted to go and relive her childhood. I personally don't buy that."

I'm not so sure. American TV is full of idealised images of attractive youngsters in high school settings; the epitome of this is the cheerleading squad, a guarantee of popularity, romance and social success. Now imagine going back and reliving your adolescent years, but doing it better this time with 20/20 hindsight and no zits - wouldn't you be tempted?

I leave the last word to one of her classmates; she did, he said, look a bit older, but they didn't question it because "You just go, ' Aw, alright, whatever'."

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Fast food notion...

McLitter is blighting Britain's high streets, the Telegraph reports today. An earnest bunch from Keep Britain Tidy have been out wombling through 10 cities over the past weekend and have concluded that 29% of the fast food litter was from McDonald's.
Since most fast food chains helpfully customize their packaging for better litter recognition, researchers could tell at a glance that fellow culprits were Greggs (18%), KFC (8%) and Subway (5%), with anonymous chip and kebab wrappers making up another 21%.
A McDonald's spokesman pointed out (presumably in slightly hurt tones) that his company 'had done more than most fast food companies to tackle litter', but the fact remains that, after cigarete butts (is something of a picture emerging here?), fast food wrappers are the single biggest constituent of street litter.
Based on observation, I have come to the conclusion that the abundance of McDonald's wrappers is because it is possible to enjoy (is that the right word?) one's meal while walking along the street; the burger occupies one hand while the other holds a drink, a phone or the front of one's trousers, depending on local custom - not so easy to accomplish with a box of chicken nuggets.
So come on, McDonald's; either cut all the burgers into little pieces or encourage your customers to bin their rubbish before we are totally submerged in a sea of greasy cardboard.

Sunday 11 January 2009

Of Mothers-in-law and Fishponds

Mothers-in-law have received something of a bad press recently in the usual media Christmas silly-season. Most entertaining, perhaps, is the poll suggesting that mothers-in-law named Margaret provided the most cause for complaint. Now why should this be?

Well, it's wonderful example of a statistical anomaly; leaving aside the numbers named after the Queen's sister, it should perhaps be pointed out to southern journalists that if you shout 'Margaret!' in any Scottish town, you are in danger of being trampled to death. With so many of them around, it's highly likely that some of them must have ruffled a few feathers even before you consider the strong mother-daughter bond in Scottish culture.

The tyrannical mother-in-law is, however nothing new. In perhaps the least topical story ever, I recently came across an account the arrival of Princess Ingundis in 6th century Toledo. She had come to marry the king's eldest son, but, instead of submissively adopting her future husband's religion, the princess steadfastly insisted on remaining a Roman Catholic.

In a scene worthy of 'Dynasty', the king's wife Goisuintha pulled the girl's hair, threw her to the ground and kicked her before taking her outside and throwing her in the fishpond. History, alas, does not report the reaction of the assembled courtiers to this unorthodox form of religious instruction and one is left wondering whether the child was indeed a shining example of religious fervour or - whisper it quietly - a bit of a brat.

Primark in the dock?

More controversy for high street giant Primark as the Observer reports that illegal workers are being paid £3 an hour for 12 hour shifts 7 days a week. Undercover reporters have been working at a knitwear firm which supplies the store with 20,000 garments every week.

My last post on the subject concerned embroidery and beading work sub-contracted out in India and in this case the supplier is far closer to home, but in each case the question is the same; is it possible to sell cheap clothes and ensure fair pay and conditions for all involved in their production?

There has never been more pressing need to educate the shoppers of today and tomorrow about the minimum ethical standards we should expect of suppliers. With exchange rates signalling the end of cheap imported fashion and unemployment once more stalking the streets of our cities, there is a serious risk that sweatshops will multiply in Britain to fill the gap.
Ultimate responsibility for policing suppliers has to rest with the retailers themselves; Primark and other stores have in the past blamed foreign sub-contractors for breaches of ETI standards, but with these breaches increasingly likely on British soil there will, in future, be nowhere to hide.

Saturday 10 January 2009

News 24 - Judgement Day

"We were in uncharted territory, making up history as we went along..."

News 24 is in serious danger of creating the very news it craves. As I write, reporters are bringing live footage of a riot developing out of today's supposedly peaceful protest against the military action in Gaza. There is some dispersal, they say, as those who want to avoid violence leave the scene; now consider the converse for a moment.

Discontented, bored or outraged, anyone who wants to get involved can see at a glance where to go for a piece of action. That such people exist has, alas, been shown again and again throughout history and 24 hour live news coverage gives them the means to identify trouble spots and arrive there within minutes.
In 1973, Larry Niven's novella 'Flash Crowd' featured rioting and looting as the unforseen consequence of teleportation; in the near future, we may see it happening as a result of 24 hour rolling news. If this seems a little far-fetched, consider Robert Peston's reports on the Northern Rock crisis; within minutes of the first report, people who saw the queues on television had rushed out to withdraw their savings in their turn.

Rich pickings in Norwich Council Trough

A blow was struck against town hall corruption today with the news that Kristine Reeves has been sacked. For those who missed the original Times report, Ms Reeves, Head of Neighbourhood and Strategic Housing at Norwich City Council, evicted 25 elderly residents from their city centre bungalows in October then moved into one herself at a greatly reduced rent.

To add insult to injury, the previous residents, many in their late 70s or 80s, had been required to live alone, but 37-year-old Ms Reeves moved in with her partner, a fellow housing officer, at a rent of £47 per week (her salary being £52,000). Although the city has a housing waiting list of 7,589 households, the bungalows were offered for rent to council employees on an internal website; 18 of them moved in, half of whom work in the housing department.

The reason given was that it was a temporary measure, prior to demolition and a new 100 home development on the site - recommended by none other than the delightful Ms Reeves, who described the need to 'decant' the existing tenants. And to cap it all, she was chair of the East of England regional homelessness advisory panel.
Alas, this may be only the tip of the iceberg. I'm sure Ms Reeves sincerely believed she was acting in the best interests of all concerned, and I am equally sure that her like can be found throughout the public sector. All it needs is a complete lack of imagination and an unshakeable belief in one's own (sadly limited) capabilities.

Friday 9 January 2009

(Bulgarian Bush)Baby, It's Cold Outside

Some of the more exotic victims of the Russia/Ukraine gas dispute were shivering in their enclosures in a Bulgarian zoo yesterday. When gas heaters failed in sub-zero temperatures, zoo staff rushed to provide electric heating for 1300 animals including parrots, hippos, elephants and monkeys (reports fail to say whether they were brass ones or not).

Perhaps given a potential shortage off heaters, they could develop a variation on the animal adoption scheme popular in many zoos. For a small fee, you could be adopted by a bush-baby or armadillo and have a seat next to its enclosure, sharing the heat from its cosy electric fire. After all, they've got to pay the electricity bills somehow, or the inhabitants of Sofia may soon be wearing a lot of interesting new fur coats.

Meanwhile, in one of the oddest bits of timimg ever, London Zoo have started their annual census, a roll-call of every specimen in the zoo. It has to be done annually in all British zoos to keep count of births, deaths etc, but whose bright idea was it to do it in the second week of January? All over the zoo, shivering animals are being forced to stand by their beds while keepers with clipboards tick them off the list.

The meerkats, bless 'em, have flatly refused to cooperate. Hours before the survey began, a litter was born in a deep burrow inaccessible to staff where they cannot be counted and the tribe is firmly staying put in support, leaving the census-takers with the sort of unknown variable that gives obsessive bureaucrats everywhere the heebie-jeebies.

I've always felt a certain liking for meerkats - they have much in common with my childhood hero Rikki-Tikki-Tavi; it's pleasing to see they have a healthy attitude towards authority too.

Thursday 8 January 2009

Shoe tree mystery solved!

The £265,000 National Lottery funded project to investigate a tree full of shoes is causing much righteous indignation in Middle England.

A project spokeswoman described the practice of hanging paired shoes in the tree as 'an absolute mystery'. In fact, a quick trawl through Wikipedia offers a plethora of alleged reasons for shoes in trees, ranging from passing-out rituals for local squaddies to drug dens or gang murders, with a short detour into the occult (the departed need them for trips back home, apparently).

Other suggestions include a (very) public declaration of the loss of virginity or a celebration of marriage; the fact that shoes laced together have pleasing aerodynamic properties and you can get home without them (if comfortably intoxicated) makes them eminently suitable for the purpose. Using Wikipedia alone, the research team had enough possibilities to keep them busy for years, with the option of some nice field trips to the various (usually hot and sunny) locations round the world where similar trees are to be found.

The one explanation missing is the most obvious, at least to anyone who has observed the behaviour of human beings en masse (ever watched people at a conference deciding where to put their empty coffee cups?). The desire to conform is hard-wired into our brains at such a basic level that, as long as there are shoes there, other people will add more. The only shoes with a unique human purpose are the first pair put there in the 70's; all the rest belong to sheep.

Now can I have my £265,000 please?

Wednesday 7 January 2009

All Aboard the Ghost Bus

Hands up everyone who has ever complained about public transport being late, overcrowded and expensive.

If that includes you, you might just like to take a trip from London's Ealing Broadway to Wandsworth next Tuesday. For reasons best known to themselves, the Department of Tranport (or rather taxpayers) are funding a 50-seater executive coach (at around £500 a time) to run a return journey once a week. The coach is immaculately clean and invariably punctual - because it never carries any passengers.

Nominally a bus replacement for a section of the Birmingham-Brighton crosscountry route which was 'suspended' on 14th December, the service is not listed on any timetable and station staff at Ealing Broadway are unaware of its existence. Every week, the driver makes the 70-minute journey, waits for two and a quarter hours, then drives his empty coach back again. When the 50-seater coach is unavailable, it is replaced by a 100-seater bus.

Unfortunately for the DT, plucky Times correspondent Ben Webster actually managed to board the bus this week (fare £5.10) and disclosed that this surreal state of affairs covers a situation where a service is officially still running but the PTB want to close it down; the lack of passengers means that in future, the DT can subsequently claim there was no demand for the service and permanently remove it.

Meanwhile, the ghost bus continues to haunt the roads of west London.