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 8 November 2010

Stitch! stitch! stitch! In poverty, hunger and dirt...*

Sometimes it's not much fun being right. Back in January 2009, I wrote this: 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.

Today brings a press release (via the Independent) from Channel 4 ahead of tonight's Dispatches: Clothing on sale in the high street is being made in Britain in dirty, dangerous and “appalling” conditions.
An undercover reporter has found clothing made for New Look, Primark, Peacocks, Jane Norman and bhs being made by workers -  many of them working illegally - paid half the minimum wage in “dangerous, pressurised sweatshop conditions”.
We shouldn't be surprised, though; when a large cappuccino will set you back more than the cost of a T-shirt, there has to be something badly skewed in the economics of supply and demand. Disposable fashion has become the norm, with a rapid turnover matched by rock-bottom prices.
There's a powerful lobby that argues sweatshops are a necessary stage on the ladder of economic development and a poorly paid job is better than no job at all, but no worker should have to put up with this:
“The basement unit was cramped, over-heated and inadequately ventilated, with unsanitary toilets, dirty staircases and poorly lit corridors. With the greatest risk being fire, his only fire exit was completely blocked.” There were no clean facilities for providing drinking water.

The retailers involved have since launched their own investigations. Perhaps the first thing they should look at is the wholesale price charged by their suppliers - if the garments are cheap enough to be sold on at a profit for less than the price of a coffee, there should surely have been some questions asked.

We're in Dickensian territory here - according to a Sikh elder in Leicester, “It’s like slave labour, it’s like going back a hundred years in the way they treated. The people are so helpless they just got to do whatever they can... the bosses can shout at them or they can insult them, and these people can’t do anything about it.”

There's something monstrous about poorly paid men and women hunched over sewing machines for many hours at a time producing disposable fashion for the momentary amusement of an over-indulged generation conditioned to see cheap clothing as an entitlement.

It's bad enough when these workers are on the other side of the world out of reach of UK legislation - when they could be living in the next street to their oblivious customers it becomes downright immoral.

*The Song of the Shirt by Thomas Hood (1843) Plus ca change...

Monday 1 November 2010

Keep on passing the open windows...

It had to happen. Marketing has progressed so far beyond irony that there is no longer a word for it. An air freshener manufacturer is selling 'green fresh fragrances inspired by open windows.'

So you can now sit in your hermetically sealed, double glazed home (in accordance with new building regs), and rely on an electrically operated gadget to pump out regular doses of chemically generated 'open windows, newly mown grass and morning breeze.'

Sounds lovely, doesn't it?

Contains citronellol and bourgeonal. May cause sensitization by skin contact. Harmful to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment. Avoid contact with skin. If swallowed, seek medical advice immediately and show this container or label. Wear suitable gloves. Spillage of the liquid might cause damage to surfaces. People suffering from perfume sensitivity should be cautious when using this product. Air fresheners do not replace good hygiene practices.'

Neither do they replace chemical-free air - unfortunately something of a rare commodity these days. From the florist Demetrius observed spraying perfume on her wares to the youngsters strutting about town in a suffocating miasma of spray-on 'fragrance', the chemical-mongers are everywhere among us.

And so is childhood asthma, affecting an estimated 1.1 million children in the UK. Concerned parents may well check NHS Choices, to be told that common triggers for attacks in susceptible children 'include house dust mites, animal fur, pollen, tobacco smoke, cold air and chest infections.'

So you take your fags outside, wrap up warm and don't let the cat sit on the baby. No mention of three different combinations of chemicals electrically pumped into the air every 45 minutes, in rotation 'so you always notice them'. Perhaps they mention it further on:

'Environmental factors that may trigger asthma include exposure to air pollutants, such as cigarette smoke, and certain substances that can cause allergic reactions (allergens) such as pollen and animal fur.'

That would be a 'no' then. And even when other suspects are brought in later - fungi, aspirin and sulphites - the nearest it gets is 'chemical fumes', which hardly suggests that parents might want to open a window instead of resorting to air freshener - a misnomer so blatant it almost passes unnoticed.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Winter is icumen in...'

It’s funny how a single object can bring back vivid memories. In a drawer in my parents’ house in Scotland is a small yellow armband - a reflective strip backed with white elastic just the right size for the arm of a five-year-old. It’s a permanent reminder of the experiment of British Standard Time.

Forty years ago this week, the children at my primary school were issued with these armbands as we prepared for a winter of walking to school in the dark. They were part of an intensive safety drive as Scotland geared up for the darker mornings.

By the end of the Autumn term, this meant arriving at school in the dark and, at break time, watching the sun come up over the hill as we drank our morning milk. This could be the experience of future generations in Scotland if the proposed change succeeds in bringing us in line with Europe.

It’s interesting that the Spouse, educated in southern England, has no recollection of this happening. In mid-December, London’s day is almost over an hour longer that the scant seven hours separating sunrise and sunset in Edinburgh.

The experiment was over by October 1972, when the clocks were once more being put back and everyone got an extra hour in bed. This must have been particularly welcome in a remote part of South-west Scotland, where filming of ‘The Wicker Man’ was under way – one of my favourite behind-the-scenes stories.

Despite the plot hinging on rites of spring, financial problems held up shooting until the autumn and the unintentionally significant date of October 31st; artificial leaves and flowers were attached to the orchard trees and those poor wee lassies cavorting naked round the Beltane fire must have been chilled to the bone.

And on a bleak Dumfriesshire hilltop, as Christopher Lee - who must have been very glad of his rather dubious tweed-jacket-and-polo-neck combo - unleashed his sinister rendition of ‘Summer is icumen in’ and the flames licked at the base of the Wicker Man, the unfortunate Edward Woodward, imprisoned inside, nearly succumbed to hypothermia.

I hope someone reminded him of Ezra Pound's parody:

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

Incidentally, does anyone else out there think the Bonfire of the Quangos should involve a capacious Wicker Man?

Saturday 30 October 2010

The Writing on the Wall

A week or so away from the Tavern has mean a couple of landmarks passing unnoticed, so, for the record, the previous post marked the blog's second anniversary and, with a pleasing symmetry, this is post number 333.

The recent hiatus is not unconnected with the onging struggle I have been having with an unnamed branch of Social Services on behalf of a relative. For the past eleven months, this department has continually sent forms to the wrong address and made telephone calls to the wrong person; repeated e-mails and letters have been ignored.

Even telephone calls are unsuccessful - usually they don't answer the phone at all but, on the rare occasions they do pick up I give my details, the phone inexplicably goes dead or the call is tranferred without explanation to someone totally unconnnected with the case.

Meanwhile, despite a council undertaking to provide interim funding, I found myself responsible for a debt of £15,000 in care home fees before my relative's family home could be sold to pay it off.

But this post is not about the shortcomings of the finance department - it is in praise of someone for whom the term public service is more than just a handy label for a cushy job. This mental health nurse, who once carried out an assessment of my relative's needs, called me last night at 7pm.

Although she has no ongoing connection with the case, she says she always checks the department files before going home for the weekend - seeing that no-one had returned my call, she did so, even though everyone else had gone home. And it wasn't the first time either - even though she has only met my relative once.

Her first question is always about the welfare of the patient - then she asks whether there is anything at all she can do to help. Polite, friendly and unfailingly positive, even when phoning from an empty office at 7pm with an hour's commute ahead of her - if all public sector staff were like her, we wouldn't be looking at draconian cuts.

I though of her when I read Pavlov's Cat's description of his own modus vivendi: 'Do unto others as you wish to be done by' - if we as a nation are serious about public service, that phrase should be written up in large letters on the wall of every council office, school and hospital in the land.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Trouble with Bunnies

In its time-honoured tradition of printing press releases verbatim and claiming they are news, the Telegraph reports the planned comeback early next year of London’s Playboy Club.

The original London version opened in 1966, catching the Zeitgeist of Swinging London – Groovy, Baby! – but closed down after its gaming licences were revoked, to the manifest approval of the feminist lobby.

Hoewever, like the planetary engineers of Magrathea, it seems Hugh Hefner’s British operation had merely retreated into suspended animation, awaiting the development of a new civilization with abundant cash and a desire for tasteless ostentation.

And now, it seems, the time is right; Hefner is quoted as looking forward to returning to London and “again sharing the notions that are celebrated in the magazine, the concept of good food and drink, pretty girls, and exciting entertainment.''

Any record of what the ‘pretty girls’ might feel about being stuck between the food and the entertainment as an amenity? Since Hefner’s minions have announced that ‘Playboy Bunny hostesses, croupiers and cocktail servers will be part of the new set-up’, they must expect to have some on the payroll.

At last, all becomes clear. The controversial Playboy Bunny pencil-cases and bags carried by little girls in primary school and the Playboy-branded pink tracksuits worn by their older sisters were all part of a softening-up campaign; the ultimate in sly recruitment.

As the press release – sorry, news report – says, the return of the club has been trailed for at least a decade – long enough to brainwash a new generation of girls into believing that career fulfillment can consist of fawning on rich businessmen while wearing pink satin ears and a leotard.

If successive governments had ever really been serious about improving the role of women, that’s where they should have been looking. Changing from the top down just won’t work – you can have all the all-female shortlists and pro-women policies you like but it is unlikely to have much impact on the celebrity-fuelled day-to-day culture of the playground.

In 1960, the same year Hugh Hefner opened his first Playboy club, John Wyndham described in 'Trouble With Lichen' the difficulties facing teachers of bright girls:
'You not only teach and attempt to educate a child; you conduct a kind of jungle warfare on her behalf  - and the better-looking the child, the more slender are her chances of survival, for the partisans of ignorance enfilade your route in greater numbers 
The touts for dead-end jobs slink along beside you...the miasma of the picture-papers taints the air, the sticky webs of early marriage are spun close by the track, hen-witted mothers dart suddenly out of the bushes...'
Fifty years on, it seems all those hazards are still out there, compounded by the insidious drip-feed of Facebook and the mass media. A generation of feminists overturned the real inequalities years ago and there's nowhere left to go but backwards.

If our schools are still turning out aspiring Bunny girls, then there’s something very wrong indeed.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

The cruelty of the curious

How many skeletons are there in your family closet? None? Can you really be sure?

In the high and far-off times before the People’s Princess, the stiff upper lip reigned supreme. From Victorian stoicism to the dogged determination to Keep Calm and Carry On, the British played down the traumas and disasters that afflicted them.

And that meant ‘not in front of the children’. As far as possible, children were protected from knowledge of tragic accidents or violent death affecting the family, aware, perhaps, that something was wrong but spared the grisly details in a way unthinkable in today’s media-saturated culture.

The children of that era have grown up largely unaware of their family skeletons – until now, that is. Thanks to the growing popularity of tracing family history and the avenues opened by the internet, amateur genealogists are researching family history and news stories from the last century with painful consequences.

Imagine learning for the first time of an older sister murdered before you were born, or being told the horrific details of the industrial accident that killed your grandfather, in a letter from a complete stranger, a distant and hitherto unknown relative who has found the story and wants to know more.

Not being personally involved in the events they describe, the researchers cannot begin to appreciate the impact of their enquiries and find it hard to take no for an answer. And some of them, at least, their expectations shaped – or warped – by tabloid journalism, are clear about what they want; gory details, intimate secrets and scandal.

In the words of one victim, bombarded with persistent letters and e-mails demanding to know about a traumatic incident from her distant past, “The information explosion has all the sensitivity of a battleship running down a small craft.”

There is a burgeoning and profitable industry producing software to help unearth these stories and track down distant relatives but it’s doubtful whether its creators or users have ever given a thought to the demons they may be unleashing in other people’s lives.

Monday 18 October 2010

Log on or else...

Bad news for all those recalcitrant ‘nonliners’ out there - they’re coming to get you.

‘A major drive to get more people to use the internet has started, with the aim of persuading reluctant users that the web can save them money and time. Among the events, companies including Google and McDonalds will descend on Bridlington in Yorkshire to offer free web training'.

 Lucky Bridlington! Meanwhile, the BBC has jumped onboard the Get Online campaign, signing up an assortment of celebrities and shoehorning a particularly cloying story-line into The Archers; the reason? It seems there are people out there who simply will not see the light:

‘More than nine million Britons have never used the internet, and they tend to be more elderly and less well-off. BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones says the campaign will hammer home a simple message, that the internet can save you money’.

Very laudable I’m sure, but I smell a hidden agenda; there's a big difference between using the net for reference and for financial transactions and this campaign is deliberately blurring the boundaries. After all, is it really worth all this effort to coax reluctant people into a course of action they have consciously rejected so far?

Well, it is if it cuts your costs. Already some major companies are making it very hard for customers in the real world to access information freely available in cyberspace - why bother with a shopfront or call centre when you can do everything via a website?

How many years, I wonder, before meals on wheels disappear because ‘everyone can shop online’ or before social services require elderly ‘clients’ to contact them exclusively by e-mail?

In fact, apart from the irksome necessity to have them physically present for medical care, the sick, unemployed and elderly needn’t bother public sector officials with their unwelcome presence at all if they can be dealt with online from a nice, comfy office.

Meanwhile, if that really is the future they want, they had better prepare for the consequences of online fraud on a grand scale. Large numbers of inexperienced computer users being encouraged to carry out major online financial transactions is surely a recipe for disaster.

And that's without the risk of important information being hacked, leaked or left in a taxi somewhere. There are many people who, for good reason, do not wish to entrust personal or financial information to the internet and that decision should be respected.

Instead, campigners are ready to drag them kicking and screaming to the sunlit uplands of internet access for all - whether they like it or not.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Why is Facebook like the back end of a bus?

Do you or don’t you?

The nation, it seems, is divided into ardent social networkers and those who wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole. It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I fall into the latter category, so I admit I'm slightly biased.

While not necessarily subscribing to the view that Facebook is the fifth horseman of the apocalypse and we’re all going to hell in a handcart designed by American college kids, I have to admit it makes me distinctly uneasy.

And I’m not alone – this week’s Telegraph carries a piece by headmaster John Newton outlining his concerns about the effects of Facebook on the young: ‘Children believe that the imprimatur of the internet gives a statement an authority and a value that are unquestioned’.

I dare say that, when William Caxton and Johannes Gutenberg demonstrated their cutting edge technology, there were dark mutterings about it giving equal validity to sacred and profane content – “Nothing good will ever come of this printing – you mark my words!” – but nevertheless the printed word inexorably acquired precedence over handwriting.

Now we are seeing the same phenomenon at work, as children attach more significance to what they read on the internet than to what they are told in class. They are bombarded with so much information – and misinformation – that they no longer recognize their own limitations.

The authority of teachers and respect for their superior knowledge have been undermined to the extent that a twelve-year-old, looking at the word ‘whom’ on the board, can point out with utter conviction and a distinctly triumphal air: “You’ve made a mistake – there’s no such word as ‘womm’.”

He knows there’s no such word – he’s never seen it before, ergo it does not exist. As Newton puts it,
‘By unleashing a monster which encourages young people to learn from each other armed by their inevitably limited perspective...we will raise a generation who do not love learning but simply see the screen as a source of opinion – any opinion – or nuggets of information, poorly digested, that will suit their point of view.’

He also highlights the problems of teachers using facebook to communicate with their pupils – a favoured strategy among some progressives: ‘An instruction to do the questions on page 17 sitting next to a photo of a drunken moment in Ibiza can have dire consequences’.

Personally, I feel there’s a trade-off here – teachers need the respect of their pupils and to keep their home life entirely out of the school domain and that means exercising extreme caution over Facebook and its ilk. Any teacher who posts personal details on the internet where pupils – and parents – can see them is taking a grave risk.

Despite its many evils – the proliferation of Facebook-linked divorces, the risk of meeting unsavoury characters online, the potential for lynch mobs and the devastation of ruined reputations or careers – social networking is here to stay and schools will have to take a stand.

The first step should be to remove all implicit endorsements in schools – unbelievably, there are school websites containing direct links to Facebook and similar sites. There is much to be said, too, for a ban on internet-enabled mobile phones in schools.

And, above all, schools need to get across the message that anything published on the internet is immediately beyond your control. The best advice I’ve heard is ‘Don't put anything online today unless you’d be happy to see it on the side of a bus tomorrow’.

It’s a rule I try to follow – although tomorrow, at least, it would have to be a bloody big bus.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Welcome to the Middle End!

Once upon a time I hated Thursdays.

Thursday was the day when the PE teacher would mercilessly drive a horde of shivering children before her into the chilly horror of the school swimming pool, where we were assigned to groups according to ability.

Those who could not swim, or who lacked technique and stamina, were despatched to the Shallow End, where they could stand securely on the bottom or cluster round the railing at the edge of the pool while the teacher gave out floats and armbands.

The strongest swimmers went to the Deep End, where they could dive in freely and practise their strokes, or rest against the surrounding railing; from time to time, the teacher would visit them and make encouraging remarks.

And that left the third group – in what was traditionally (if somewhat illogically) known as the ‘Middle End’, squeezed into a narrow section delineated by ropes slung across the pool.

Crammed into this small area, unable to touch the bottom, the unhappy ‘Middle Enders’ splashed miserably back and forth from side to side of the pool for half an hour or frantically trod water waiting for a space to open up on the few feet of railing.

And to add to their misery, on her way to and from the deep end, the teacher would pause to order them back to swimming their relentless widths – and, on rare but unpleasant occasions, ‘accidentally’ tread on fingers clutching the side of the pool for support.

Coverage of the forthcoming cuts, for me at least, is inextricably linked to dripping pipes, peeling paint and an overpowering smell of chlorine.

Friday 15 October 2010

The 66% rule

Blogging as a science/art form/menace - depending on your point of view - is still in its infancy, culturally speaking. There's no official written protocol - nobody gives lessons in it; most of us are making it up as we go along (or at least I am).

Since recent events and journalistic opinions have highlighted the issue of integrity - or the lack of it - in the blogosphere, I though I'd set down the rule of thumb that usually governs posts here in the Tavern.

Socrates, rebuking an Athenian for spreading gossip, advised asking three questions before saying anything:

- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it necessary?

It is my firm belief that a pseudonymous blogger can maintain personal integrity as long as any two of those three conditions apply.

An unkind statement - or accusation - must always be checked for accuracy and there should be a good reason for publishing it. Where there is doubt, a caveat or attribution is needed to warn readers of the fact.

An untrue statement is acceptable as long as it harms no one and there is a perceived purpose to it - which, lest we get too po-faced about it, can be to make people laugh.

And I doubt anyone would have a problem with a statement that is both true and kind, however slight the reason for including it.

In the words of Meat Loaf, "Two out of three ain't bad" - or, according to the sleevenotes of a Chinese bootleg CD, "Sixty-six percent is alright".

Thursday 14 October 2010

Anna Raccoon - gratias atque vale

In the previous post, I suggested that some of the great 19th century novelists would have been prolific and entertaining bloggers - Dickens, at least, was part-way there with his social commentary combined with comedy, pathos and witty asides.

If Dickens had a spiritual descendant among today's bloggers, it was surely Anna Raccoon - tireless researcher, indomitable campaigner, witty satirist and gifted raconteuse. The blogosphere will be much poorer for her absence, though I suspect she will be happy to put recent events behind her.

I don't pretend to understand all the issues that escalated into a full-scale campaign against her - all I know is that, even under the pressure that eventually caused her to call it a day, she took the time to offer me advice - and to follow it up with kind enquiries later - a generous gesture much appreciated.

It seems I'm not alone - other bloggers, too, have found her a source of inspiration and support. The anxiety caused by her abrupt disappearance suggests that her absence will be keenly felt by many and that her well-wishers greatly outnumber those trying to do her harm.

Now she has abandoned blogging, I hope their efforts will cease and that she can enjoy a well-earned rest. And perhaps, if we're lucky, in the fullness of time there will be a memoir incorporating some of the tales that have made us marvel at her talent for story-telling.

For anyone who has not yet read it, her final message is here (courtesy of GOT) and some of the regular contributors to her blog can now be found at http://a-nest-of-procyon-lotor.blogspot.com/

Fame - at any price?

"The time was once when thou, unurged, would'st vow
That never words were pleasing to thine ear,
That never object pleasing to thine eye,
That never touch were welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savour'd to thy taste
Unless I spake, or looked, or touched, or carved to thee."

The unhappy Adriana, in A Comedy of Errors, describes the all-encompassing love her husband used to profess for her. To modern eyes, the expression may sound rather florid, but the concept is alive and kicking. The British public have an insatiable appetite for the endorsement of the famous - at least if the news media are to be believed.

Consider, for example, the 'Delia Effect', or Jamie Oliver promoting Sainsbury's food, or perhaps the lustre added to perfumes and cosmetics by a smiling celebrity. Even breakfast cereal gets in on the act; no product, it seems, is so mundane that a sprinkle of stardust won't help it sell.

Almost anything the advertising industry tries to sell us has a celebrity on hand, to speak, or look, or touch, or carve for us. And when we're not being enticed to buy, we're bombarded by the media with endless personal information. Even the supposedly highbrow BBC has a good line in celebrity gossip cropping up in unexpected places.

Take for example a series from the news pages in 2006 - linked to in an article about Claire Rayner. Entitled 'Celebrity Health', the features interviewed such diverse characters as Sir Stirling Moss, Rabbi Lionel Blue and Britt Eckland about their health. Now call me a cynic, but are someone's gallstones really more interesting if they have been on TV?

The development of mass media in the 20th century means that many of today's celebrities were born to the purple, children who neither achieved fame nor had it thrust upon them but who were simply born famous. Trying to compete with the offspring of Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger et al drives aspiring youngsters into ever more extreme behaviour to get noticed.

All of this is fed by a public avid for more information, and it's getting nastier, if the covers of the magazines are anything to go by. 'Overdoses!' 'Divorce!' 'Cellulite!' the headlines shriek - human life played out for entertainment to accompany a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit.

The whole thing reached its apotheosis in 'famous for being famous' - the darlings of the gossip column who enjoy a brief ubiquity with no-one knowing exactly why (although a cynic might make some shrewd guesses).

The unexpected result of this is a generation of schoolchildren whose stated ambition is 'to be famous' - nothing more, not 'famous' for anything - just 'famous'. Ask them to define fame, and - along with a fair few blank stares - you'll get the answer 'it's everybody wanting to know all about you' - a truly horrible concept.

All of which is a long-winded way of getting round to the concept of anonymity; in the days when the Bronte sisters were Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell and books were written by 'A Lady' or under pseudonyms such as 'Saki', 'BB' or 'Sapper', no one seemed to mind that some writers preferred not to be publicly recognised, now it's almost unimaginable.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not suggesting bloggers are the equivalent of the great 19th century novelists, though I bet Mrs Gaskell or Anthony Trollope would have been prolific and entertaining bloggers - but in this fame-obsessed society, Andrew Marr makes the common mistake of attributing a sinister motive to all of us who choose to hide behind a pseudonym, whatever the reason.

(H/T for inspiration to The Appalling Strangeness and The Cynical Tendency)

Fascinating Aida have their own take on fame - though, in the words of Dillie Keane, "Those of a sensitive disposition - leave now."

Tuesday 12 October 2010


Westminster’s gravy train may have slowed to an ignominious crawl but it hasn't stopped yet – at least some honourable members have made sure their pockets are well-lined, with directorships and outside legal work bringing in up to £18,000 a month.

Now, on the face of it, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t seek extra employment elsewhere – though their constituents might beg to differ. The problem is that they are earning extra income in time that could, perhaps be better spent on constituency and parliamentary matters. I, for one, would like to think my elected representative is concentrating fully on the job I pay him to do.

There is much to be said, however, for doing as one Tory MP has done and declaring £100 for ten hours of agricultural work. In fact, if MPs have so much time on their hands that they can afford to do outside work, why not make them do it in their constituency, among the people they represent?

It’s not a bad idea – make each MP do a few weeks of ‘work experience’ every year in local industries – really getting their hands dirty; not just a morning’s photo-shoot in white wellies and a hairnet - to get an idea of how the other 90% live.

Or instead of dishing out legal advice for hundreds of pounds an hour, why shouldn’t they put in a few shifts in the Citizens’ Advice Bureau or a Jobcentre? It might make them more appreciative of the issues facing local employers and workers in the areas they represent.

That, at least, would be some improvement on having a vested interest in the dealings of big business – if you’ve got a seat on the board, it’s a fair bet you’ll be working for the success of the corporation. And that brings us to another question.

These multi-nationals aren’t paying out vast amounts just for the decorative value of having an MP on board – they must feel they will benefit – now or later – from the deal. What exactly do they expect to gain that’s worth that sort of outlay?

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Monday 11 October 2010

Room for improvement - and a couple of cydonia japonica

Cameron’s Big Society isn’t quite big enough yet, it seems.

Sue Vacca wasn’t happy about the litter and the rats that infested the dense undergrowth on council land behind her garden, so she called her local council and asked them to do something about it.

She was told that pest control would not remove the rats until the area had been cleared. However, the maintenance company responsible for the green space - the grandiloquently named Continental Landscapes -would do nothing more arduous than mow the grass.

Undaunted, Ms Vacca rolled up her sleeves and tackled the job herself, picking up the litter and clearing out the brambles and nettles. In their place, she created a flower bed, using plants offered by supportive neighbours.

What happened next – actually two years later, but council wheels grind slowly - won’t surprise anyone who remembers the fate of a similar urban garden in Cornwall*. It seems Ms Vacca’s over-zealous efforts upset one neighbour, who would have preferred the brambles to remain.

Ms Vacca received a letter ordering her to ‘immediately stop’ her ‘unauthorised’ activities – they’re even sending the boys round:

'The town council’s park ranger service will be patrolling the site to ensure no further works occur.'

Funny how a single complaint can prompt such an energetic response - at least when it involves curtailing the public-spirited horticultural activities of a lone woman.

I can't do better than Demetrius' comment on the last case: "Has anyone costed the time, effort, etc. that the relevant council employees have put into this one?"

(Story from the Banbury Guardian)

*Readers may remember that a retired florist was threatened with legal action for what JuliaM memorably described as 'Aggravated Flower Arranging'.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Another elephant in the classroom

As regular readers may have gathered, I am no stranger to the chalkface; I have therefore followed with interest the voluntary 'outing' of Katharine Birbalsingh at the Conservative conference.

Like her, I started out subscribing to many of the left-wing ideologies but soon saw the damage they were causing in the classroom. One point she made had particular resonance for me; that black boys were underachieving 'because of what the well-meaning liberal does to them'.

Many years ago, I was working in a school in an ethnically diverse area with significant discipline problems and poor exam results (some of the reasons for that are discussed here). Homework frequently presented a problem - I had one pupil who did his at a corner table of the restaurant where both his parents worked until 9pm - and a certain flexibility was often required.

Sometimes, though, it was necessary to complete one assignment in order to understand the next. In one such case, I told a pupil to come back to the classroom to complete the work at lunchtime, when I would be at my desk marking and could give him any help he needed. He looked doubtful:

Pupil: Is this a detention, like?
Me: No; it's so you can finish that work before this afternoon's lesson, otherwise you won't understand what we're doing.
Pupil: So I don't need to report it then?
Me: Report it?
Pupil: To Mr H.
Me: (baffled) Who's Mr H?
Pupil: He runs my Saturday school.

This was the first I'd heard of it, so I asked him to explain. The boy told me he had started attending a Saturday school intended to raise the academic achievement of afro-carribean boys. So far so good - I told him how pleased I was that he was taking his education seriously - but there was more:

'Mr H says that we have to tell him if a white teacher gives us a detention. If there are no white kids in the detention, that's racist. If you tell me off and don't tell any white kids off, that's racist too; Mr H said so.'

I asked for more details; it turns out the boys had been instructed to report back to Mr H, naming as potential racists any white teachers who told them off - a worrying prospect for staff living in the catchment area. The same went for white teachers giving detention and extra work or even asking black pupils to tidy up their appearance.

It was only after I left the school that the full irony of the situation became clear to me; I found out that the Saturday school in question was started and funded by contributions from a national televised charity appeal. Well-meaning people from all over the country had put their hands in their pockets to enable Mr H to pursue his witch-hunt and undermine the teacher-pupil relationship.

To avoid any possible misunderstandings, it should be understood that this post refers to one particular Saturday school, now closed.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Swords of a Thousand Men

Light posting at the moment - too much depressing news around and a houseful of guests - so here's a little Saturday night diversion to bring back some memories.

You may have heard those frustrating little snippets on the game adverts; here's the real thing...

Sound quality isn't great but what a video - 80s punk meets Spamalot!

(Apologies if it doesn't appear - Google and I aren't getting on too well at present...)

Thursday 7 October 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr Prime Minister

What do you give Vladimir Putin for his birthday? Simples, at least according to a bunch of Moscow journalism students; his very own girlie calendar. Twelve of them stripped off to their underwear and posed along with flirtatious messages for the Prime Minister.

However, the calendar - entitled "Vladimir Vladimirovich, We love you. Happy Birthday Mr Putin," is not what you might call a spontaneous gesture; the women were recruited by Maxim Perlin, a producer at an internet TVchannel, who teamed up with publisher Vladimir Tabak for the project.

According to Perlin, who at 22 has a long and presumably sleazy career ahead of him, the girls were not paid. He claimed the the calendar 'had an empowering message' - the battle-cry of twenty-first century exploitation - and the women were recruited because of their political opinions.

Asked why, in that case, they were photographed in lacy underwear, he explained "In my opinion it's more beautiful and more interesting." It would be interesting to know whether Putin shares his view.

It would also be interesting to know what the Prime Minister thinks of sharing his birthday present - far from being an exclusive gift, fifty thousand copies of the calendar are to be sold in supermarkets at 260 roubles ($8.71) each; the story does not say where the profits will go.

Not everyone approves: Journalism faculty spokeswoman Larisa Bakulina described the calendar as a "work of erotic tastelessness."

"We are not happy that they used the brand of the journalism faculty. It is tactless on the part of the publishers."

Tasteless and tactless; at least someone has a sense of perspective. It's a fair bet that Ms Bakulina didn't get where she is without being a forceful character and she certainly doesn't mince her words; it's hard to imagine her showing much sympathy for a student who allows two men to exploit her in this way.

I wonder what sort of reception awaits Putin's calendar girls when they return to Ms Bakulina's faculty for the start of the new term.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Bloggers beware!

The usual hazards of frequent blogging - aching shoulders, eye-strain, a grumpy spouse - have been joined this week by a fresh menace; 'Laptop Thigh'.

Laptop thigh or, to give it its medical term, erythema ab igne (which I think roughly translates as flame-grilled, medium rare), is a discoloration caused by sitting with a hot computer on the lap for extended periods of time.

Since laptop casings can reach a toasty fifty degrees Celsius, it's hardly surprising they can get uncomfortable; most of us, though, would  have the wit to move if that's the case - it's hard to imagine getting so carried away in the white heat of composition that you are willing to fry.

And sure enough, the cases decribed in the BBC article are those of a law student working for six hours a day and a 12-year-old who developed discoloured skin after playing games for hours every day - presumably as obsessively as the boy who collapsed after 24 solid hours of World of Warcraft.

Fortunately for those lacking the wit to move a hot object off their burning legs, it's not the end of the world;

'Dr Bav Shergill, a consultant dermatologist at Brighton University Hospitals NHS Trust, said that people who developed the rash should not be overly concerned.

"I would expect it to resolve fairly quickly, with no long term consequences."'

However, the doctor is a lone voice crying in the wilderness - the media won't let a story like this get away so easily. Consequently, tonight's news websites abound with warnings of skin rashes and discoloration, vying to create a scare story of epic proportions.

And, by popular acclaim, the Daily Mail wins hands down with the inevitable 'cancer risk' and a headline memorably describing the unhappy victim as 'Toasted boy'.

2010 - the space oddity continues

It's nice to be proved right.

In a warehouse outside Moscow, largely forgotten by the outside world, six would-be cosmonauts are sitting in a tin can.

The simulated Mars mission yesterday entered its fourth month, having passed the previous study's 105 days two weeks earlier. Our intrepid heroes are now in uncharted territory, cut off from mission control by the increasing communications time-lag and thrown entirely on their own resources.

When the experiment began, the Tavern regulars speculated about the entertainment that the crew would choose to help while away the 502 days of their mission, concluding that the classic sci-fi films might well be top of the list.

And, sure enough, last week a recent response to a question from a member of the public - anyone can play; there's an e-mail address - confirmed this is the case. French crew member Romain Charles explained;

'We have brought with us a lot of Sci-fi books and movies. Each time that we watch one of them, we always comment it. We are much more sensible to each detail of the film or of the book.

For example, we saw “2001: A Space Odyssee” a couple of weeks ago and I could really feel the loneliness and the monotony that the 2 main characters had to endure. I didn’t experience these feelings the first time that I saw this movie.'
I can't wait to hear what he has to say about 'Alien'.
There's more - much more - at ESA's Mars 500 website.

Monday 4 October 2010

Frightening the horses*

Hold the front page! Research commissioned by the BBC has revealed that ‘two-thirds of the people surveyed said they would be uncomfortable watching a sex scene between two men before the 9pm watershed ‘.

I’m surprised it’s only two thirds. It’s not that I’m homophobic; it’s just that I’m not actually that comfortable watching a sex scene between anyone that early in the evening – even the sight of a randy wildebeest enthusiastically humping away is liable to put me off my gin and tonic.

You used to be sure of your ground with the 9pm watershed. Not only did it mean fewer awkward questions from the children; you could invite your visiting great-aunt to sit down and watch a costume drama knowing that bosoms might heave with emotion but would remain decently clad throughout.

As with the mobile phone that rings at an inappropriate time, the rules of etiquette have yet to catch up with modern technology. We have no established code for dealing with the sudden appearance of unexpected body parts in our sitting-rooms mid-evening.

Sod’s Law, of course, dictates that the more graphic the scene, the more embarrassing the company in which you will be watching it; consequently the startled viewer is obliged to feign a sudden interest in the Radio Times or leap up and offer to fetch the mother-in-law another drink.

Just because sex has been creeping back towards the six-o’clock-news doesn’t mean we should have more of it just to even up the score. Quite apart from the fact that it’s facile and demeaning to define characters exclusively by their sexuality, it’s usually dramatically superfluous to demonstrate in graphic detail.

After all, we assume the characters in a drama eat breakfast and go to the lavatory, but that doesn’t mean we have to spend five minutes watching them chewing their eggs and bacon or excreting the residue. As a rule of thumb, it would be good if pre-watershed drama should restrict itself to what would be acceptable in a public place - say, a railway platform - at that time of day.

Regardless of orientation, there are levels of intimacy most people would consider unacceptable in public and which should have no place on early-evening television. Perhaps it’s because the shared cigarette is no longer available as convenient broadcasting shorthand – lacking the imagination to think of a replacement, broadcasters simply decided to show the lot.

I am quite content for drama to feature characters who happen to be lesbian, gay or bisexual, or using the preferred terminology, LGBTQQIA** (to which I always want to add ‘Cuthbert! Dibble! Grubb!’), but I – and I’m sure many other viewers - prefer them and everyone else (including the wildebeest) to avoid the steamier displays of affection in my sitting room before 9pm.

*Mrs Patrick Campbell on demonstrations of affection between two actors: ‘Does it really matter what these affectionate people do — so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses!’

**lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and allies (straight and actively supportive) – a Google minefield if ever there was one! (I am fortunate to have an information source active in gender politics.)

Sunday 3 October 2010

A girl's best friend

The Daily Mail surpasses itself this week with an article that proclaims 'Third of British women would say no to proposal if they didn't like the diamond'.

And they say romance is dead! Actually, as usual, the headline over-eggs the pudding; the ungrateful baggages in question merely said that they would have second thoughts - though that's still pretty rough on the poor enamoured suitor.

But the article ploughs merrily on, coyly flourishing terms like 'new research' and 'statistics that emerged today'. It appears that 'women are now so desperate to get it just right, 41 per cent would rather choose the ring themselves'.

It even signs up a 'relationship expert' to explain the significance of these findings. Only half-way through does it drop the peekaboo act and reveal the source of the information: a survey by shopping channel QVC.

Now, funnily enough, QVC happen to be in the business of selling jewellery - including engagement rings - and what a lucrative business it turns out to be:

'The average groom-to-be is now having to spend around 930 pounds, with 40 per cent admitting they were forced to spend ‘more than they could afford'.

Consider for a moment the implications of that one little word - 'forced'.

'A further 45 per cent found the process extremely stressful, with 52 per cent saying they’d be happier if there was a more convenient and direct way of shopping for the right ring.’.

You don't say! Teleshopping, perhaps? Combining a blatant piece of advertising with the implication that your readers are grasping, avaricious harpies; even by the Mail’s dubious standards, this is an outstanding piece of journalistic prostitution.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Next week - flying pigs

It's been quite a week for cliches here at the Tavern. On Monday there was an e-mail at work confirming that a planned Christmas outing to a local beer-tasting venue is to be replaced by an in-house party, thereby proving the popular theory that my employers can't organise a piss-up in a brewery.

And now, the Artful Dodger has explained why he cannot come home for the next few weekends. A keen historical re-enactor, he has secured a temporary role as assistant to a seventeenth-century urban medical practitioner.

In other words, my son has managed to get a job as a pox-doctor's clerk.

Friday 1 October 2010

Lord of the Flies caught on camera

We're all going to Hell in a handcart, and the sign on the front says 'Facebook'.

The indications have been out there for a while - Jordan posting pictures of her infant daughter tricked out in lipstick and mascara, for instance, or the jaw-dropping awfulness of  'social networking bingo - and it's set to get worse with the advent of a new system allowing users to find the exact locations of anyone currently online.

And today, there's a horrifying indication of the effect this is having on the young. A group of schoolchildren this week found a dead body floating in a stream near their school - a traumatic experience by anyone's standards, you might think.

But not, it seems, for the children of the media-obsessed 21st century. According to one 16-year-old witness:

'Everyone started crowding around and people had their phones out. We were telling everyone else to shut up because everyone else was trying to take pictures and laughing.’

And as soon as they got home, apparently, they published the pictures on the internet. Photo ergo sum; the ubiquitous phone camera has turned the juvenile population into a pack of amateur paparazzi with a ready-made market for their wares.

The Head Teacher is trying to play this down, saying that one boy took a picture, but deleted it from his phone before teachers spoke to him - an effect somewhat marred by the words of the Detective Chief Inspector:

"I am especially keen to speak to anyone including any school pupils who were at the scene and who may have taken photographs or video footage before the police arrived."

This reassurance may be a necessary one. It's a cliche to say children today have no respect for anyone, but that is surely taking it to new extremes - the schoolboy witness went on to add ‘Some kids were throwing stones at the body'.

Or worse. The man was lying on his back with his head out of the water; the children had no way of knowing for certain that he was dead. In fact, the first teacher on the scene actually went into the river to check for signs of life.

The idea of a generation so inured to death and violence that they not only view a dead or dying man with equanimity but even treat him as a target is a disturbing one; this sort of behaviour is more usually associated with child soldiers or victims of bloody civil war.

But what I find truly frightening is the narcissism of using such a traumatic event to enhance their personal online status.

Update: JuliaM sums it up perfectly in an update to her post on the subject.

Thursday 30 September 2010

'S genetic, innit

The men (and women) in white coats have spoken – ADHD is officially ‘a brain problem like autism’.
'Researchers at Cardiff University ‘compared genetic samples from 366 children diagnosed with ADHD with DNA from 1,047 people without the condition.
They found that 15% of the ADHD group had large and rare variations in their DNA - compared with 7% in the control group.’

Not quite as conclusive, then, as the headlines would have us believe.

Oliver James puts it rather less kindly: "These findings have been hyped in the most outrageous fashion", although, to be fair, Professor Anita Thapar describes it as ‘the first direct genetic link to ADHD’, with the implication that there are more waiting to be discovered.

For many parents, though, this will be reassuring news; the strain of managing a truly hyperactive child is often compounded by uncomprehending and occasionally ill-concealed impatience from other adults.

Unfortunately for these parents, despite their often exhausting efforts to keep things under control, the traits (I won’t call them symptoms) exhibited by their offspring are, at times, virtually indistinguishable from the behaviour of children who are simply spoilt, undisciplined or neglected.

Diagnosis is, at present, a blunt instrument. Typically, a child with ADHD will have had serious sleep problems from birth, with unexplained crying as a baby developing into frequent tantrums and impulsive and occasionally violent behaviour as a toddler.

But in a chaotic household with unstructured bedtimes, who is to say whether a child’s sleep problems or irritability are the result of ADHD or of his home environment? Equally, is repeated pestering of adults – another trait – simply the result of being ignored by indifferent parents?

The problem with this story is that it has gone off half-cocked. It suggests that as-yet undiscovered genetic factors may be at the root of the disorder but gives no certain means of diagnosis and thus no way to distinguish genuine disorder from the results of poor parenting.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Fun in the sun

As anyone who lives or works in an 'Architect-Designed Building' (aren't they all?) knows, awards for innovative and unique design do not necessarily imply that the result is user-friendly. I should know - I spent the last half-hour at work today dealing with the consequences of a roof leak in a 'state-of-the-art' edifice.

But far from Britain's damp climate, another hazard is plaguing visitors to Nevada. As the Daily Mail explains in its inimitable style:

'Guests at a new hotel in Las Vegas have complained of receiving severe burns from a 'death ray' of sunlight caused by the unique design of the building.'

Due to the concave shape of the Vdara hotel, the strong Nevada sun reflects off its all-glass front and directly onto sections of the swimming pool area below.'

'The Las Vegas Review Journal quotes one hotel employee as saying the building's design causes the sunshine to be diverted 'like a magnifying glass that shines down' over a space of about 10 by 15 feet as the poolside.

And as the Earth rotates, the spot moves across the pool area. The 'death ray' can increase temperatures by around 20 degrees.'

In fact, it looks as if they could hardly have managed better if they had tried to barbecue their guests. I remember some astronomers at my alma mater trying the same thing with sausages and a parabolic reflector but the East Anglian climate didn't lend itself quite so well to the process.

Of course, the management are keen to point out this is not the result of monumental stupidity:

'Gordon Absher, a spokesman for MGM Resorts, which owns the Vdara hotel, said they was aware of the issue and designers were working with resort staff to come up with a solution.

In fact it is claimed that the designers foresaw the issue with the reflecting sun but thought they had solved it by installing a high-tech film on the south-facing panes of glass.

You have to admire their blind and trusting faith in the appliance of science; those magic words 'high-tech' probably justified an extra few thousands on the purchase price as well as giving them a nice warm glow - swiftly replaced by a sizzling sensation and second-degree burns.

Meanwhile, guests at the Vdara can rest assured that their future wellbeing is safe in the hands of the management. With a delightful touch of bathos, the Mail tells us that:

'While the designers work on fixing the problem, the hotel is looking at getting some larger, and crucially, thicker umbrellas to provide better shade for guests.'

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Asylum-seeking asteroids

Typical! You wait ages for a near-earth asteroid, then three of them come along at once.

Following NASA’s announcement three weeks ago of the near miss by two asteroids in quick succession, the Daily Mail today trumpets the discovery of another PHO – that’s Potentially Hazardous Object to you and me – by the PS1 telescope from thePan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System).

Don't start battening down the hatches, though - we aren't set to go the way of the dinosaurs just yet. The catchily-named 2010 ST3 may be a hefty 150 metres in diameter but the closest it will get is about four million miles from Earth in mid-October.

The astronomers involved in the project are patting themselves on the back, however, since Pan-STARRS represents a huge development in our ability to spot asteroids on a possible collision course with Earth.

According to the Director of the Minor Planet Centre, 'It is proof that the PS1 telescope is capable of finding potentially dangerous objects that no one else has found.'

Funnily enough, you could say much the same thing about the Daily Mail.

Monday 27 September 2010

Occam's razor and the little green men

Three cheers for the Rendlesham UFO story, which continues to provide us with a rich vein of blogging material. This time it's a senior USAF officer who's gone public:

'An ex-US air force chief has given an astonishing account of an encounter with a UFO at an air force base in Suffolk.

Charles Halt is one of a number of senior former airmen who went public today over claims that UFOs had tampered with nuclear missiles in the US and the UK.

Mr Halt, who retired in 1991, told a press conference that he was working at RAF Bentwater near Rendelsham in Suffolk in 1980 when he had the terrifying encounter.'

What he saw has become familiar thanks to repeated - and imaginative - dramatised reconstructions over the intervening three decades: following reports of unidentified coloured lights in the forest round the base, Halt took a team out to investigate.

'Mr Halt said: 'Milling around, one of the individuals saw a bright glowing object like an eye. It would appear to be winking and was shedding molten metal and silently moving through the trees and at one point it actually approached us.''

Interestingly - if a little awkwardly for Halt - this is part of a post from September 2009:

This week the truth is out there - way out there - in the guise of a 66-year-old lorry driver from East Anglia whose shady dealings apparently led to 'Britain's Roswell'. The 1980 incident achieved notoriety as an encounter with a possible UFO which left behind physical evidence in the shape of scorched trees and traces of molten metal.

Now Peter Turtill has come forward and claimed that on the night in question he found himself unexpectedly in possession of a truckload of stolen fertilizer which broke down on the Rendlesham road.

Not wanting to be caught with his incriminating cargo, he took the truck into the forest and set light to it, generating a spectacular burst of coloured flames as the chemicals caught fire.

When the armed Americans appeared, he took fright and towed the burning truck away - not surprisingly, since being caught with a lorry-load of hooky fertilizer in the vicinity of a US airbase could in no way be described as a good career move.

Many years ago, I was one of a number of people across Scotland who saw a glowing object hovering overhead one New Year's Eve. Initially dismissed as the result of over-zealous Hogmanay celebrations, the sightings were almost certainly top-secret surveillance craft being tested on a night when reports were likely to be dismissed as fireworks.

Occam's razor tells us the simplest explanation is usually the correct one - nowhere is this more likely to be correct than in the strange and intriguing world of the UFO.

Jeggings, treggings and gastric bands

Once upon a time, people had waists. In the days before shell-suits and tracksuit bottoms, the majority of skirts and trousers stopped firmly at a fixed point, held in place by rigid waistbands – none of this trousers-round-the-buttocks business or comfortable elastic.

And the wearers of these garments sat at dining tables to eat all their meals – something so rare these days that there are many homes without a table big enough to accommodate all the occupants.

Those inflexible waistbands had a noticeable effect at mealtimes – if the seated diner ate too much, they became uncomfortably tight, effectively discouraging the wearer from further indulgence. With a limited space to put food in, the result was a reduced intake. Sounds familiar?

With the NHS spending an estimated £32 million a year on gastric band operations (to say nothing of the ongoing care costs and potential post-op complications), perhaps it’s time to look at some more practical and less invasive solutions.

A television advert currently proclaims special offers on ‘jeggings and treggings for all the family’ – somehow the bastardised words perfectly suit the infantilised, unstructured pull-on garments with elasticated waistbands forgiving enough to accommodate a full meal and a couch-based evening’s grazing.

While much of the current reported obesity crisis can presumably be laid at the door of cheap junk food and lack of exercise, fashion, too, has played its part. The low-slung trousers seen on every high street are so far removed from the region of the digestive tract as to have no effect at all on the constant throughput of food.

So what’s needed is a form of external constriction – something that makes the overindulgent eater reconsider - and I think I have the answer. It’s even readily available in popular clothing outlets*.

There's no doubt that fashion retailers can engineer clothing trends, so why not get them on board now? Since the inexorable rise of sportswear dictates what is worn on the street, what is needed is a fashion for branded weightlifting belts worn tightly on the waist all the time.

Cheap, easy and safe for all - what's not to like?

*Excellent joke from Hugh Dennis (on 'The Now Show'):
"This train will shortly be arriving at Birmingham New Street. For passengers wishing to change for Wolverhampton, there is a JD Sports opposite the station entrance."

Sunday 26 September 2010

Wielding the Knife and Fork

It's no secret that cuts for Universities were in the offing, but the grim reality presents itself this morning in a Sunday Times article headed 'Tuition fees will rise to £10,000'.

As usual, the headline grossly over-simplifies (there are proposals to remove the fees cap and increase the costs of student loans) but what it boils down to in effect, for us at least, is the prospect of the Urchin leaving university with far higher debts than his older brother.

Since both have chosen similar degree courses and are likely to aim for the same kind of employment, where does this leave us as parents? Can we really stand by and see one of our children lumbered with a lifelong debt while the other one clears his within a few years?

And, even if we could help reduce the Urchin's debt, would it be it fair to his older brother to do so?

It looks as if Browne's Fork* is going to be accompanied by a wooden spoon stirring up sibling rivalry of epic proportions.

*Remember Henry VII and Morton's Fork? Browne's Fork goes like this: 'if you went to a state school, you have paid nothing so far for your education so it's reasonable to ask you to meet the full costs' or 'if you went to a fee-paying school, you obviously have enough money to meet your tuition fees in full'.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Cherchez la femme

A combination of family matters and mild blogging fatigue/Weltschmerz (this from JuliaM succinctly illustrates why) may keep posting light for a while longer.

Pavlov's Cat today reports a conversation he overheard at work (in a jobcentre) which could serve as  a metaphor for our times...

Adviser: Can you explain why you didn’t make your signing time today?
Customer: It’s my birthday, right and I was getting a tattoo innit and it took a while.
Adviser: I hope it doesn’t hurt too much?
Customer: Nah mate. it’s alright, I’m taking cannabis for the pain.

By coincidence, this story from the Daily Telegraph takes us into the same territory:

A woman with 30 tattoos claims she was told to ''put a bag over her head'' when she went for a job interview.
Hayley O'Neil, 23, - who also has 20 body piercings - says was also advised to ''stand behind a wall'' when she asked a job centre official what post she could apply for.

You have to admit, he'd got a point raising the question of her appearance - I mean she certainly shouldn't be allowed near magnets or high voltage cables.

Miss O'Neil, who got her first tattoo from her mother as an 18th birthday present said: ''I just felt so humiliated. I couldn't believe what this guy was saying."

It's stretching our credulity too, to think that someone in his position would expect to get away with that in today's climate. If he did express himself in those exact terms, then he certainly wasn't at home to Mr Tactful that day - and, more relevantly, had decided to kiss his career goodbye.

It's true that, when you're stuck behind a desk day-in, day-out, dealing with the the stroppy and terminally workshy along with genuine cases of hardship, the sight of someone sporting tattoos that must have cost more than your month's salary might well make you see red.

On the other hand, of course - always assuming he really did say something of the sort - he might actually have been trying to make a serious point in a humorous way:

"The guy said: 'on first impressions do you think anyone would hire you?' He said: ' look at it this way if you were to stand behind a wall - or put a paper bag over your face do you think you would have a better chance?' "

Considering the picture above....er, yes? At least with interviewers of a nervous disposition. But Telegraph headline writers et al, please note that, if those were his actual words, then far from 'advising' or 'telling' her to do it, he was asking her a question, using a graphic example to get her to consider the impact of her appearance.

The subtlety of this approach, however, seems to have escaped her and 'look at it this way' suggests that previous attempts at explanation had met with a similar fate; all she understood was that he was telling her to put a bag on her head. You might like to consider the reaction on her part that must have led up to this:

"He then backtracked and tried to say that he was sorry and hoped I wasn't offended but I was."

In fact, she was so offended that she went straight to the papers with her story - or rather several versions of it.

Significantly, the earliest report made no mention of paper bags or walls - simply stating she was upset by being told she would find it hard to get work anywhere other than a tattoo parlour and by being advised to remove her piercings. From today's Telegraph:

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions denied any inappropriate remarks had been made during the interview, adding "Jobcentre Plus offers standard job hunting tips which include dressing appropriately when going for an interview or visiting a potential employer."

So who's right? And why the discrepancy? A clue, perhaps, lies in the Lancashire Telegraph's initial report on the 22nd:

'Her mother Dena, who accompanied her to the interview yesterday, said: “I was very upset.'

How many adults take their mother to the Jobcentre with them? And in the short intervening time, somebody has comissioned a more flattering photograph, lavishly embroidered the story with juicy, headline-grabbing detail and shoehorned it into a national paper, ensuring plenty of publicity. After all, celebrity careers have been built on less.

My money's on Mum.

(Update: this one's obviously touched a lot of nerves - there are plenty of interesting comments on Subrosa's take on it.  Scotland's answer to Boudicca simply replaces my lengthy ramblings with the title 'Today's non-story' - which says it all, really.)

Tuesday 21 September 2010

'ear, 'ear!

The wonderful Gloria Smudd has been sharing her earworm frustrations with us this week.

Update: the link seems to have vanished - Anna/Gloria, any ideas?

Earworms are something we at the Tavern are all too familiar with* - one hazard of writing song parodies is that the necessary repetition fixes them in your mind for ever.

Concensus is that the only way to combat them is to introduce others of your choice; personally I favour the bitter and satirical, or at the very least thought-provoking.

So here's one of my favourites - a cheesy tune with mordant lyrics from Leonard Cohen, whose birthday it is today.

*See also item 7 in this post (and the attached comments - thank you, Demetrius! Sixteen months so far...)

Sunday 19 September 2010

Cut off his X-box!

Romance, it seems, is alive and well on Tyneside. These days, though, the love-struck swain doesn't resort to a ring to demonstrate his commitment, if this touching comment about 25-year-old Keith MacDonald is anything to go by:
We’ve been seeing each other about three or four times a week. He even moved his X-box in”.
Sadly for the girl in question, despite protestations of faithfulness (I think; it’s not easy to tell from his texted assurance: 'I told ya i wud not leave yah hun and i am trying 2 give ya wot ya want'), he moved the X-box out again last week, though he did leave her with a rather more permanent memento - she is expecting his baby.

He’s now planning to move in with another girlfriend, who is also pregnant. Meanwhile, the Sunday Times (paywall – no link, sorry!) has gone to town and rounded up another eight women all of whom claim to have had his children.

In fact, one of his previous partners alleges he told her he already had 12 kids. Her assertion that ‘Men like him should be made to have the snip’ suggests they didn't exactly part on good terms – in fact, he was probably lucky to get away with his X-box intact.

The X-box in question – along with a 28” flatscreen television – is currently housed in the council flat he shares with a friend. Neither of them works -  MacDonald has seldom done so since leaving school: “I never keep a job because it gets too boring for me” – but cigarettes and beer seem to be in plentiful supply.

There’s no incentive for him to get a job; on the contrary, if he stopped claiming benefits, he would be liable for considerably more than the nominal £5 a week maintenance he currently pays towards the upkeep of his children.

If ever there was a case for someone having his X-box removed, surely this is it!

Update: there's more on this (and a novel suggestion for dealing with it) at Burning Our Money.

Quote of the day - relativity special

Light posting at present because of family commitments.

While making the travel arrangements, I stumbled upon this in Transport Direct's website's journey search results:

Note: Certain combinations of outward and return journeys would result in you needing to leave your destination before arriving at it.

Thursday 16 September 2010

"Hi, Jenny, how's it going?"

First they took away the gowns, then the raised desks - too hierarchical - and the right to exclude unruly pupils (or shout at them - or, perish the thought! - make sarcastic comments); now pupils are to address their teachers by their first names.

'The pupils at Boughton-under-Blean and Dunkirk Primary school in Faversham, Kent have been ordered to abandon using teachers’ surnames with the title of either ‘Mr’, ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’ in front of it.'

This sort of thing isn't new, of course - it's long been a feature of schools at the extreme end of the progressive spectrum - but it's a worrying development, particularly in the light of incidents involving cyberbullying or intimidation. Not that that seems to have occurred to anyone:

'School bosses say they hope the trial will “enhance the relationship” between the kids and their mentors.'

Is it me, or do the words 'enhance the relationship' ring alarm bells left, right and centre? The relationship between teachers and pupils is a complex one - for the protection of both parties*, a certain distance has to be maintained at all times. It's clear where the blame lies in this case:

'Headteacher Hugh Greenwood, who came up with the idea, said: 'We hope the pupils really take to the concept. "We think it makes learning a more personal experience and allows teachers to come down to the pupils level."'

You know what? I don't want my children's teachers to 'come down to the pupils' level'. I want them to command respect both for their adult status and their superior knowledge. It's damaging enough when parents try to be the child's best friend - when the teachers are at it too, there's no-one left to emulate except celebrities.

It all goes, once again, to prove the principle that head teachers need to be kept busy or they start interfering with the running of the school.

*It doesn't look as if there's going to be much help from the unions here, if this from JuliaM is anything to go by.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Ofsted report - odd, innit?

That’s O-D-D – Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ‘described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as an ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile and defiant behavior toward authority figures which goes beyond the bounds of normal childhood behavior.'

According to Wikipedia, that is. The article goes on to clarify:

'Temper tantrums, stealing, bullying, and vandalism are some of key symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder. ODD children may present as negative, defiant, unable to take "no" for an answer, deliberately annoying others, easily annoyed themselves, or blaming others for all that goes wrong.’

See anything familiar here? The examples are too numerous to link to; almost every day turns up news stories of court cases featuring one or more of these characteristics in a sort of antisocial behaviour bingo. Once upon a time, it was blamed on parents who failed to instil a sense of right and wrong; these days it’s a diagnosis.

ODD – and its badly-behaved siblings ADHD* and Antisocial Behaviour Disorder – may well have a place in the professional evaluation of otherwise inexplicable personality traits, but exercises to increase awareness have opened the floodgates for assuming a medical explanation for all bad behaviour.

If Jack swears at his teacher and throws his books around the classroom, is he a spoilt, rude child whose single mother can’t or won’t make him understand what is acceptable or does he suffer from a behavioural disorder? It’s far easier to put him on the SEN register than undo fourteen years of indifferent parenting.

And when his mother arrives on the scene, guns blazing, demanding to know why he was given a detention, do his teachers try to establish with her what she should be doing with him or sympathise that she has to cope with his condition? Thus the school establishes its caring credentials and Jack and his mother are accorded the status of victims struggling against the odds.

So Jack and his mother go home satisfied that his poor behaviour is not his fault – or hers – and Jack ends up on the school’s special needs programme. In time, if he doesn’t swear or throw anything for a while, he may even be rewarded with that old standby, a trip to Alton Towers.

Everybody’s happy – except, perhaps his class teachers, who are warned not to damage his frail self-esteem with criticism of any kind and are thus rendered virtually impotent in the face of deliberate provocation. And there's a lot of it about; nearly a quarter of special needs pupils have emotional, behavioural or social difficulties.

When Ofsted blames poor teaching and pastoral care for needless SEN registration, this should not be forgotten. Everyone knows that there are inadequate teachers out there (everyone, that is, except NUT general secretary Christine Blower;

“Teachers do a great job in often very difficult circumstances to meet the needs of all their pupils, and for Ofsted to suggest otherwise is both insulting and wrong.” )

but a bigger problem is the school policies which have led to over-zealous SEN registration crowding the system and muddying the waters for those with real needs. The sooner the numbers are reduced and teachers can concentrate on helping pupils with real learning difficulties the better.

Wiser bloggers than I have also taken up this issue today - readers who haven't yet done so might like to visit Subrosa and the Quiet Man.

*The advent of Audio Description and High Definition in broadcasting mean that 'Skins', rather appropriately, now appears in the TV listings accompanied by the letters ADHD.

Sunday 12 September 2010

'Elf 'n' Safety in the mosh pit

There's been some hilarity in the Tavern this weekend at the expense of a nephew who returned unexpectedly early from a gig on Saturday night, having been thrown out for 'misbehaving in the mosh pit'.

The nephew in question, let it be said, is a generally polite and well-behaved ex-grammar school boy; though well over six foot, he does not weigh enough to present a significant hazard to others.

His misdemeanour, apparently, was to keep pogo-ing when asked to desist by security guards. Though he was not the only one, he was the tallest and thus became the the target for a firm escort to the exit.

In fact, far from the churning, headbanging mass some of us remember - with varying degrees of accuracy - from our misspent youth, it seems the mosh pits of today present a spectacle more reminiscent of a vicarage tea-party, with any infractions immediately suppressed.

It's all very laudable, and a relief to know our young will not be trampled, concussed or otherwise injured in the melee, but if, for you, the phrase 'men in black' conjures up the Stranglers rather than Will Smith, then I'm willing to bet there's a small part of you, however irrationally, asking 'but where are the mosh pits of yesteryear?'*

*Or, as Jean-Jaques Burnel might put it (to the accompaniment of a moody guitar solo), 'Mais où sont les moshs d'antan?'

A propos of which, the French Wikipedia article, unlike the English one, includes no fewer than 17 'précautions' such as 'Ne fumez pas dans les moshs!' and 'Ne portez pas de lunettes' as well as detailed instructions for a properly-conducted mosh.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Being prepared on a grand scale

“It's all very well and good preparing for a giant earthquake, but in the end you might as well plan for a meteor strike or a volcano.”

That was the opinion of an unnamed police officer after a three-day police exercise simulating a major earthquake striking our green and pleasant – and usually very static – land.

The event was officially described as ‘extremely unlikely’ and ‘unthinkable’; Britain may get between 200 and 300 quakes a year but the vast majority are so small that the only people going to get excited about them are seismologists who don’t get out much.

Granted, the £826,000 cost of the exercise is a lot of money, given the fact that we may never see an earthquake measuring 8 on the Richter scale, but one assumes the lessons learned could be applied in other circumstances:

‘The disaster, recreated near Portsmouth, caused motorways and apartment blocks to collapse, oil storage plants to be damaged and cars to start burning. In Merseyside the mock exercise involved creating an “urban street scene” complete with burning buildings, trapped “victims” and 40 smashed up cars.’

It doesn’t take an earthquake to cause any of these, as the inhabitants of Buncefield or Warrington could tell you. And if I’m ever caught in a disaster of that kind, I’d like to know that there was someone out there who had an idea of what should be done.

And, of course, if Lembit Opik is to be believed, there’s always the chance that there is an asteroid out there with our name on it.