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 30 March 2009

New Labour - The Rich Pickings of Power

‘Tory mole leaks Home Secretary expenses claim!’ is the cry in New Labour circles as the papers gleefully report the state-subsidised viewing habits of the Smith/Timney ménage*.

Their immediate conclusion that the whistle-blower must be a paid-up member of the political opposition is revealing to say the least and has led the good folk of Newgate to draw the following conclusions:

a) The glitterati of Nulab cut their political teeth in the early 80’s, when dirty tricks were de rigeur in student politics – the evil that was Thatcherism justifying extreme measures in opposition. They therefore assume all politicians are similarly devious and unscrupulous and that the only motive for exposure is to gain political advantage.

b) They believe firmly that they are on the side of righteousness and therefore anyone who seeks to expose them must by definition be on the side of wrong ie Tory.

c) They are so detached from the real world that they cannot envisage anyone acting from motives that are not party political.
d) All NuLab have their snouts so firmly embedded in the trough that they know none of them could possibly be in a position to expose dubious expenses claims, hence their certainty that the mole is a Tory.

Remember the 80’s Labour rallying cries of ‘End Tory sleaze!’ and ‘Fat Cats Out!’? Like the unfortunate inmates of Animal Farm, we can now peer in through the windows of expense-funded second homes to see New Labour on their hind legs chanting their altered slogan; ‘Two legs good, four legs bad!’

*While we are inclined to believe Ms Smith’s assertions that she never intended the taxpayer to fund the films in question, it is difficult to remain charitable about the fact that they were presumably watched on the £1,100 home entertainment system she claimed on expenses.

Saturday 28 March 2009

Stormy Weather and a Great British Invention

A tribute this week to the genius of Dr George Merryweather and his Tempest Prognosticator, as featured in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Having observed that animal behaviour could be used to predict changes in the weather, the good doctor devised a mechanism whereby twelve glass jars of water, each containing a leech, were arranged in a circle. In stormy weather, he reasoned, the leeches would become restless and dislodge whalebone stoppers attached to a central bell to give audible warning of the forthcoming storm.

Showing a concern for animal welfare somewhat ahead of his time, Dr Merryweather explained that the twelve bottles were placed in a circle in order that his ‘little comrades’ might see one another and ‘not endure the affliction of solitary confinement.’ He predicted that his ‘Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct’ (mercifully later shortened to ‘Tempest Prognosticator’) would be distributed all over the world.

Alas, it was not to be. Mercury barometers, though less decorative, proved far more practical and not a single Prognosticator was sold, although devotees can see reconstructions in museums in Whitby and Okehampton and read more at http://www.victorianweb.org/technology/packer/merryweather.html.

Dr Merryweather, the world of Steampunk salutes you!

Tuesday 24 March 2009

The Funeral Pyre - a time-honoured tradition

Government lawyers will tell a High Court judge next week that allowing an elderly man’s last wish [a natural cremation on a funeral pyre] would be abhorrent to the majority of the British population.
The Times March 21, 2009

Yet again, the Government presumes to second-guess the opinions of the people. On what grounds do they base their assertion? And even if they are right, should the opinions of a majority have any legal force in this matter?

I, for one, do not consider the practice per se abhorrent and, judging from the comments attracted by news reports, I am not alone. The funeral pyre is a tradition that has featured for millennia in many cultures across the world, a simple way of returning the constituent elements of the human body to nature via a process of combustion.

Since ‘indoor’ cremation is common practice, one can only assume the ‘abhorrence’ lies in the open-air nature of the ceremony and the fear of contamination by smoke; perhaps, too, there is more than a touch of xenophobia in their statement. Would the majority of the British population describe the public funeral pyres of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi as ‘abhorrent’ or do they apply different standards to the developing world?

In fact, although I do not share the religious beliefs of Davendar Kumar Ghai, I can see no real objection to a scheme whereby those wishing to be cremated in this way subscribe to purchase land and build a Government-approved burning ghat in a remote area where there are no residents to be inconvenienced and where relatives of the deceased would be free from harassment.

I can appreciate that lawyers may be obliged to oppose the ceremony under the terms of the 1902 Cremation Act – designed to legalise and regulate the process of cremation - but to bring in a spurious moral argument and claim majority opinion is neither necessary nor relevant.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Baby stilettos - a joke too far?

Posted by Polly Peachum

Isn’t it just the cutest thing? Don’t you just want to die laughing? High heels for babies! How ever did they think of that?

The answer can be found at the website of Heelarious, purveyors of satin stilettos for babies and now patent leather cowboy boots as well. It seems the American founder, taking her child to a party, had the Damascene revelation that it “would have been hilarious if I could have brought Kayla to a party in high heels when she was a baby.”

I suppose it depends on your interpretation of hilarious, but it seems enough mothers share her somewhat dubious sense of humour to enable the brand this week to introduce to the UK a range of cowboy boots in patent leather; black for boys and – predictably – pink for girls. They sell at £30, which seems a little steep for something designed solely to ‘bring hilarious laughter to mother and baby’.

The images of these monstrosities bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the exquisitely crafted silk slippers made for the bound feet of women in Imperial China and they are designed with much the same aim in mind – presenting the onlooker with an incompatibility of body and footwear designed to intrigue and titillate.

An infant decked out in these shoes is like a Chihuahua in a tuxedo, degraded to nothing more than a fashion accessory, a toy to dress up in fantasy garb. The director of Kidscape has condemned them as totally inappropriate and said ‘Parents should have more sense.’ I couldn’t agree more.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Comic Relief - a Counterblast

Will somebody please tell me what’s happened to Comic Relief?

I know it raises vital funds and helps save lives, and I appreciate that people dig deeper into their pockets when prompted by such an incentive, but does it have to be a national festival of inanity spreading its unwanted influence into every sphere of life?

Don’t get me wrong – I have the greatest respect for Lenny Henry and the other celebrities who have worked hard for the cause for many years and I wish them well in their fundraising endeavours – but enough is enough; I am happy to participate by choice but less so when it is forced upon me.

Now it’s over and the danger of red-nosed lynch mobs is past, I can say I am not a fan of being accosted by someone dressed as a chicken rattling a collecting bucket – how much does he have to take just to cover the costume hire? - or of the slogan ‘do something funny for money’. The problem is that one person’s ‘funny’ is someone else’s ‘bloody stupid’ or worse.

We are in danger of creating a sort of All Fools’ Day, giving license to the most puerile and tasteless pranks as long as money can be made from it. As an example, I offer the 6-weeks ‘celebrity’ Speaking Clock; Chris Moyles et al using silly voices, blowing raspberries and generally messing about – 10p per call to Comic Relief.

They obviously hope Radio 1 fans will call in in droves to listen, which would have been fine had the joke recordings used a separate telephone number. The continued existence of the Speaking Clock suggests that people still use the service; someone who needs to know the exact time badly enough to pay 30p for it is hardly likely to want it embellished with infantile pranks.

What next? Customer services staffed by the cast of Eastenders? Tax helplines manned by footballers? 999 calls answered by Jonathan Ross? By all means raise money for charity, but leave the country’s infrastructure alone.

Monday 16 March 2009

Dystopias Unlimited

The water lapped slowly above the parapet and against the sandbags. Here and there it began to trickle through onto the pavements....Presently there could be little doubt what was going to happen. Some of the watching crowd withdrew, but many of them remained, in a wavering fascination. When the breakthrough came, it occurred in a dozen places on the North Bank almost simultaneously.

So begins the account of the flooding of London from John Wyndham’s 1953 science fiction classic The Kraken Wakes, inspired by the storm of March 16, 1947, when a combination of melting snow, heavy rain and a tidal surge caused severe widespread flooding in East Anglia. Wyndham describes the disintegration of British society as sea levels rise; the futile attempts to build ever higher flood barriers, the abandoning of London and other low-lying cities and the eventual breakdown of law and order.

Now we hear that sea levels may rise by up to a metre by 2100 and go on rising at increasing speed, Wyndham’s description may become unintentionally prophetic. We have already experienced the Orwellian doublethink of modern politics – Big Brother’s chocolate ration, anyone? – and the arrival of soma a.k.a. ecstasy and a host of legal anti-depressants. Now once more we find ourselves facing the dystopian visions of half a century ago – only, thankfully, minus the invading aliens.

‘O brave new world, that has such people in it!’

A nod to JM, who referred to this last year.

Saturday 7 March 2009

What's wrong at the Fat Duck?

It’s been a bad week for the Fat Duck, with 400 punters so far queuing up to compare queasy symptoms. Although tests have shown no cause for the illness, still the hapless diners stand up to be counted.

Heston Blumenthal graced our TV screens this week to produce what the inimitable Caitlin Moran called ‘MSG-spritzed widdle-soup’. Is it possible that some of the celebrities rounded up to partake of luminous absinthe jelly and deep-fried mealworms inter alia felt a little off-colour afterwards? And by extension, might it be that there is nothing whatsoever wrong at the Fat Duck? No pathogens, no viruses, but simply the normal reaction of sensitive stomachs to bizarre concoctions of nitrogen-frozen this and vacuum-foamed that?

The Fat Duck has been lauded to the heavens and a meal there has become a significant life event for many, something to be boasted about afterwards in fulsome terms. You’re hardly likely to go round saying, ‘I had the £130 tasting menu and the next day the world fell out of my bottom’; it makes you look as if you aren’t sophisticated enough to cope with fine dining. Now it’s OK to admit it, it’s a different story.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Heston Blumenthal is a culinary genius and deserves a place in British cultural history. But his work is the edible equivalent of haute couture, and, just as I am physically unsuited to wear a Dior catwalk sample, I doubt my ability to digest a collection of the Fat Duck’s specialities without some ill-effects. Doubtless Heston himself is immune, or blessed with a constitution to rival that of Bear Grylls (with whose catering arrangements, come to think of it, he has more than a little in common).

Thursday 5 March 2009

Quantitative Easing - a universal remedy?

Perhaps I have spent too long in the confines of 18th century Newgate, but Quantitative Easing sounds to me like a dubious euphemism from 'the Harlot's Progress', or perhaps something out of Pepys diary – “To my Lord Admiral’s for Dinner, where I did partake over-heartily of Boiled Fowls, with the result that I am much troubled with Stomack Pains and in great need of Quantitative Easing”.

As I see it, the Bank of England sidles up to some other banks – possibly in a camel overcoat and brandishing a cigar – and murmurs "I’ll buy some bonds off you, if you like. Thing is, I ain’t got any of yer actual cash, but if we all pretend I have, then Bob’s yer uncle". (I tried the same thing in Sainsbury's, but they weren't having any of it.)

And since the other banks agree to pretend, they feel a bit richer and more inclined to lend out the odd sov here and there and so the economy recovers. Unless, that is, everybody gets carried away with pretending they’ve got money and the next thing you know, you need a wheelbarrow full of notes to pay the milkman.

And who is in charge of all this pretending and lending? Bankers, that’s who. I know they’ve had a bad press recently, but it wasn’t all undeserved and I for one find the prospect of letting them loose with a giant game of ‘let’s pretend we’ve got lots of money’ a bit worrying, to say the least.

Frank Lampard - the Sage of Stamford Bridge

A guest post by Polly Peachum

A rare foray into the word of Premier League football this week as we hear that Chelsea's Frank Lampard is said to have scored over 150 in an IQ test, putting him in the same league as Carol Vorderman (154).

Lampard has always been something of a favourite in Peachum's Tavern, the Artful Dodger being a lifelong Chelsea supporter; when the Urchin and his friends first discovered that players could be bought and sold, they saved their pocket money for weeks in the hope of putting in an offer for Lampard in the next transfer window.

Now we hear that he's not just a pretty face (and a nifty pair of feet), the question is why does he keep it so quiet? Surely a bit of Cantona-esque philosophising is called for - seagulls and trawlers, all that sort of thing. For those of us who only watch Final Score to see what colour shirt Garth Crooks is wearing this week (I like the pink one best), a bit of intellectual diversion would be very welcome indeed.

And on a more serious note, is he hiding his light under a bushel because even the dizzy heights of the Premiership are not immune to the anti-intellectual bias that is the scourge of our classrooms? Does he risk arriving in the dressing room to find his bag emptied out on the floor or his kit in the shower? Would they call him 'boffin' or 'swot' and laugh at him behind his back?

Instead of treating him as some kind of curiosity, why not make the most of this opportunity to show that academic ability is nothing to be scared of? There are thousands of boys out there underachieving at school; Lampard could be just the role model they need - "Sing it Loud, I'm Bright and I'm Proud!"