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

Thursday 26 February 2009

Rebuilding Herod's Temple - in Suffolk

It’s not often that a news photograph literally takes your breath away, but the images of Alec Garrard’s scale model of King Herod’s Temple must come pretty close (slide show). The 78-year-old has spent 30 years so far on the project, re-creating the entire structure in meticulous and painstaking detail using thousands of hand-baked and painted clay bricks and tiny, hand-crafted figures.

This admirable feat of dexterity and scholarship has caused some anxiety in Newgate, however. As fans of fantasy writer Mary Gentle will be aware, the reconstruction of such a building is heavily imbued with symbolism. Borrowing heavily from Masonic lore and 16th Century philosophy, she has the characters in one of her novels reconstruct an ancient Temple to prevent the imminent disintegration of their city.

Some traditions hold that the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s Temple will herald the end of the world. While literal-minded types may take comfort in the fact that it's really Solomon's temple that counts and experts are, in any case unable to agree on the exact site of the original First and Second Temples, leaving aside the political and religious complications in the area, might it not be possible that, as in Ms Gentle’s book, an exact scale model would suffice?
Perhaps the model should be left unfinished in one small detail, just in case.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Browsing for Bikinis

Guest post by Polly Peachum
It’s official; shopping brings out your inner cavewoman. According to the latest academic research from the department of the bleeding obvious (aka Manchester Metropolitan University, who must have been dancing in the aisles when the brief came in), the gathering skills inherited from our ancestors (or ancestresses) enable us to select our preferred items from the vast range on offer. 

Browsing the lingerie racks is, apparently, a direct link with Ms BC (although she probably didn’t have quite such a wide choice on offer). Meanwhile, spare a thought for the blushes of female shoppers in traditional areas of Saudi Arabia who, because women are discouraged from working, have to buy their lingerie in male-staffed stores. Although a law in 2006 permitted the employment of female sales staff in lingerie departments, few shops have so far employed them; with male unemployment at 13% and opposition from traditional clerics, the policy is surprisingly unpopular. 

 College lectureer Reem Asaad is campaigning on Facebook for female sales staff to be employed in lingerie departments and for fitting rooms to be installed; at present women are not allowed to undress in the shop and cannot be measured by male staff. It seems that, for some of the traditionalists of Saudi Arabia at least, a woman's place is in the home wearing ill-fitting underwear. 

 So Women of Britain, make the most of your freedom. Go forth and gather - but watch out for sabre-toothed tigers!

Tuesday 24 February 2009

A Man Ahead of His Time?

Ormskirk rollerblader Geoff Dornan’s 2700 Facebook friends will be disappointed to hear today that he has been fined £300 plus costs for two counts of dangerous skating. Police confiscated his in-line skates after he demonstrated his moves in a crowded Southport shopping street last October.

His hobby has led in the past to acrimonious encounters with the police and pedestrians; the court was treated to a selection of Mr Dornan’s epistolary opinions, notably that ‘jealous skater-haters should hobble back home to take their medication and watch Countdown.’

This week, neuroscientist Susan (Baroness) Greenfield told the House of Lords that, thanks to computer games and sites like Facebook, “the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity".

Sk8er Boi Geoff Dornan is 71 years old.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Yet another naked emperor...

Once more, with a horrible inevitability, the financial world is reeling from the shock as investors discover they have been, for want of a better word, had. If it was all a con, this was one on the grand scale. Forget Madoff's country club golf amateurs; Stanford had the real deal on the payroll (and the polo players, the footballers and the pop stars).

Not for him a hired limo and a briefcase full of plain paper hidden under real money; Stanford settled for nothing less than a flashy helicopter and a vast perspex crate with more notes on view than most of us see in a lifetime. With 20/20 hindsight (no pun intended), what we were seeing could have been a supersize version of BBC 1's 'Hustle'.

It's all about credibility, about establishing a brand; Sir Allen Stanford used sport (and sportsmen) to make himself - and by extension his companies - a household name. It's an old game but it works every time; as Paul Newman tells Robert Redford in 'the Sting',
"You can't do it alone, ya know. It takes a mob of guys like you and enough money to make 'em look good."
Trouble is, that's standard business practice these days - everyone's at it. Straight or crook, there's no way to tell until the heads start to roll. We've had our collective fingers burned twice already; who knows how many more business empires may yet end up on the Emperor's catwalk?

Friday 20 February 2009

Teenage mothers - a tale of two worlds

There was a horrible irony in the juxtaposition of two particular news stories this week.

Two 15-year-old mothers appeared on the front pages; one the mother of twins born last year, the other the mother of - allegedly - Alfie Patten's child. Both girls were allowed to sleep with boyfriends under the parental roof despite being 14 years old. The news stories suggest they are not isolated examples; teenage motherhood rates are on the increase across the country - as a glance into Max Clifford's postbag would doubtless confirm.

Meanwhile in Nigeria and Ethiopia, to name but two, health workers campaign tirelessly for an end to child marriage. In both countries, girls can be married as young as 12 and many teenagers die or suffer serious injury as a result of giving birth too young and with inadequate health care. The authorities are reluctant to legislate against this, citing cultural and religious imperatives as justification.

A reporter interviewed a young Ethiopian girl who expressed her delight and relief that her wedding had been postponed because a doctor said she was too physically immature. "Now I am happy that I can go back to school." she said, "I want to study and take my exams. Perhaps one day I too may be a doctor." Education for her is a prized commodity, while in Britain it is, like universal free healthcare, taken for granted.

Thus it is that, while in some countries girls in their early teens are coerced into leaving school and facing the risks of early motherhood, their British contemporaries play truant and rush headlong into sexual activity, with all the associated risks of disease and under-age pregnancy, secure in the knowledge that, whatever happens, the NHS and the welfare state will pick up the pieces.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

The Alfie Patten Circus

Newgate is no stranger to the seedy side of life, but even the rakes, harlots and highwaymen of Peachum’s Tavern have been choking on their gin at this week’s tabloid news sensation. The most hard-bitten chroniclers of life in the stews of Hogarth’s London would be unlikely to dream up a scenario as bizarre as that surrounding 13-year-old Alfie Patten and his baby daughter.

Before the welfare state, an unplanned teenage pregnancy meant another mouth to feed, providing families in straitened circumstances with a strong incentive for curtailing the sexual activity of their unmarried resident children. The families involved in this case, however, seem to have no such compunctions. The result of allowing two under-age children to sleep together on a regular basis has been a massive financial windfall in the proceeds of a bidding war between the tabloids, courtesy of, inevitably, Max Clifford. To complicate matters, up to eight alternative potential fathers have emerged from the 15-year-old mother’s somewhat murky past, presumably attracted by the vast payouts on offer.

Meanwhile, like Karen Matthews, the baby's relatives are well-versed in the potential benefits of mass publicity. The next development (according to the boy's father) could be the unveiling of the paternity test results live on a TV chat show, a spectacle which rivals even the Tyburn public hangings for cruel and ghoulish entertainment and will doubtless attract the same kind of baying mob for an audience.

When the Department of Health's Teenage Pregnancy Unit instructed teachers to tell their pupils about the "enjoyment of early fatherhood" and inform them that teenage boys could be "proud and able parents", one fervently hopes that this was not the outcome they had in mind.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Stanford Given the Finger

Is Robert Allen Stanford the new Bernard Madoff? As the dust settles on the Madoff case and Treasury officials hold him upside-down to make him "disgorge his ill-gotten gains"(as the indictment so picturesquely put it), another scandal is emerging in the allegedly dodgy dealings of Stanford’s various eponymous banks and companies. The press release from the US Securities and Exchange Commission states that he has been charged with orchestrating a fraudulent multi-billion dollar investment scheme.

Stanford is, of course, the gallant gentleman who, in the apparent absence of sufficient chairs, kindly allowed the wives and girlfriends of the English cricket team to sit on his knee. His companies, employing his family and friends in senior positions, solicited investment by offering unfeasibly large interest rates.... hold on, haven’t we heard all this somewhere before?

Yet again, the well heeled and supposedly finance-savvy (remember Nicola Horlick on Madoff?) have succumbed to the blandishments of the jet-set conmen and let greed triumph over common sense. Who in their right mind could believe in consistent double-figure annual returns for over 15 years? Yet SIB allegedly sold $8billion in ‘certificates of deposit’ through a network of financial advisors.

To quote Rose Romero, regional Director of the SEC’s Regional Office, “We are alleging a fraud of shocking magnitude that has spread its tentacles throughout the world."
Sir Allen, it's just not cricket.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Cosmic Kerplunk

It seems we’ve all been walking about oblivious to the risks of collisions over our heads. In a sort of orbital pinball, thousands of satellites have been zooming round the earth missing each other for years – until now, that is.

The collision of a Russian satellite with a privately owned American one was the mass equivalent of a Ford Fiesta skidding into an MG Midget – a spectacle easily imagined by anyone who has visited a supermarket car park during the recent freeze – and has littered Earth's 500-mile orbit with debris. Some of this may eventually burn up as spectacular meteors but most of it will rather inconveniently hang around up there for years to come, ready to collide with other satellites.
With 17,000 known pieces of debris already whizzing about in orbit, collisions, already the single biggest danger to space flight, will be increasingly common in years to come. Add to this the inevitable decay of earlier satellites and it may eventually become too risky to send manned craft into space at all, leaving us ironically marooned inside a cage of our own creation.

Anyone familiar with the works of the late, great John Wyndham could be forgiven for feeling a little uneasy about all of this; in ‘The Day of the Triffids’ , the survivors eventually concude that it must have been the release of optical and biological weapons from accidentally damaged satellites which ultimately paved the way for the destruction of human civilization as we know it.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Angelina's little angels...

It's been a bad few days for Angelina Jolie. Not only was she pipped at the post by Audrey Hepburn for the title of ultimate Hollywood beauty, but while she and Brad Pitt were at the BAFTAs, their children set about winning friends and influencing people by running amok in the hushed surroundings of the Dorchester Hotel.

It appears that Maddox, Pax, Zahara and Shiloh Pitt (haven't these people heard of spoonerism?) spent more than an hour running up and down in the corridor and shouting, provoking complaints from other guests. While the good folk of Newgate sympathise with the nanny left to supervise four over-excited children in a foreign hotel, surely a better outlet for their energies could have been found.

The cult of celebrity is thriving through the sustenance of the internet and the children of the famous have never before been subject to so much scrutiny and publicity. It remains to be seen whether this generation of gilded moppets can progress through adolescence and the transition from designer-clad accessory to independent adult while still developing a sense of social responsibility and good manners.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Storm in a (M&S) Teacake

Phew! Sighs of relief all round as Law Lords uphold the findings of the European Court of Justice on the legal status of the M&S chocolate-coated teacake. After thirteen years of litigation the byzantine baked goods and confectionery tax laws have been interpreted to classify the teacake as a cake and not a biscuit, entitling M&S to a refund of the £3.5m they paid in VAT between 1973 and 1994.

One doesn’t know whether to envy the lawyers the thirteen years worth of fees from this case or to commiserate with them over a third of their working lives spent embroiled in the minutiae of tax law and bakery products. Did they fret for hours about chocolate coatings or wake at night in a cold sweat over the exact definition of millionaire’s shortbread?

And what of the £3.5m? Well, Customs and Excise felt it would ‘unjustly enrich’ M&S, since customers had paid VAT as part of the retail price. Now the store is to receive the windfall, it will be interesting to see whether it is translated into benefits for customers in the current retail climate. If there are any free teacakes, I'll be first in the queue.