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

Sunday 28 February 2010

Does Gordon Brown really hear what you say?

Back in the early days of this blog, when the only readers were a few Newgate inmates and the Tavern cat, we put forward a suggestion that may, perhaps, bear repeating at this juncture, when Gordon Brown's behaviour is being minutely scrutinised by all.

For anyone with hearing loss, a dinner party is a refined form of torment, featuring constant background noise and the need to make polite responses to questions you have only half understood. This becomes far worse if, for some reason, you cannot admit to your deafness.

Now read Minette Marrin's description of Brown's behaviour at a dinner party - her evidence for describing him as 'a dangerous weirdo':
'At times he fixed a broad, exaggerated smile to his face, almost randomly it seemed, and directed it at someone, but he kept getting it wrong — the wrong moment to smile, the wrong person to smile at and occasionally the wrong place to smile at. When challenged by one guest on some difficult economic point, he kept baring his teeth in the opposite direction, at the lovely bosom of a guest on his other side who was not part of the conversation. He made me think of an android with faulty programming.'

Consider a man of dour temperament placed at a table where he must show he is entertained by the company but is unsure when and whether he has heard a joke - a table, moreover, surrounded by journalists and London chatterati whose collective sense of humour is almost entirely alien to a manse-born Scot.

Add to that the removal from his side of his wife and accomplice - a supportive dinner partner in the know can help effectively disguise a substantial hearing loss from the assembled company; all it takes is constant attentiveness and the ability to repeat relevant information without seeming to do so.

I don't say this is at the root of all Brown's behaviour - far from it, although it does help explain his well-documented habit of ignoring people when they speak to him (see the link above for other examples). It may, however, be an unconsidered factor in the complicated picture now emerging from Downing Street.

Saturday 27 February 2010

Lies, Damn Lies and Unemployment Figures...

...in Michael Blastland's BBC magazine article 'How one woman can cause economic boom or bust'.

Blastland describes a hypothetical worker whose redundancy leads to a 0.1% rise in unemployment figures. The media, ignoring such boring matters as standard deviation and margins of error, jump on the figures and produce headlines that trigger financial panic and crisis.

Blastland argues that even increasing the raw data by a small fraction may lead, via rounding off, scaling up or standardisation, to a significant difference in the end result - something the more responsible climate change scientists have been trying to convey to the media for years. Like food, if data is processed, it usually needs seasoning with a pinch of salt*.

His final caveat - 'Economic data is never a set of facts; it is a set of clues, some of which are the red herrings of unavoidable measurement error' - is a salutary reminder that in the run-up to the election we will be bombarded with facts and figures, all purporting to tell a story.

One wonders how many of the electorate will know or care that the story in question may well be total fiction?

* Although Consensus Action on Salt and Health (H/T Ambush Predator) might have something to say about that.

Friday 26 February 2010

Where is Everybody?

H/T Witterings from Witney and Mark Wadsworth

How many politicians does it take to have a debate?

If you can tear your eyes away from the person of Nigel Farage in mid-tirade (at about 1.11), you will notice the tiers of empty seats in the chamber. Either they had 'evacuated' the area to spare people the spectacle of Tilly - sorry, Farage - in attack mode or most of the delegates had better things to do that day.

The sight of rows of empty seats in parliament is nothing new - remember when we first heard of 'doughnuting' - but there are times when television makes it all too clear that the lights are on but there's practically no-one at home.

All of which led to Tavern regulars wondering if there's a critical mass. For instance, if there are six people there apart from the Chair, then a speech will surely be made. And five. And even four. But what about three? Slightly embarrassing, perhaps - do you make eye contact? - but you've still got enough for a vote, after all, local quorum rules aside.

But what happens when you get to two? An involuntary intimacy where the interlocutors trade opinions and insults only with each other, while the Chair looks on. No chance of a decisive vote here unless protocol allows the Chair to play. Does that mean that if only three are present and one leaves, the others have to pack up their toys and go home?

And what if there is only one? Does he or she make the speech even if nobody has turned up to hear it? After all, there may be millions of taxpaying television viewers out there waiting to hear - it's hardly fair to lose your chance of raising an issue just because everyone else fancied a lie-in or an early night. It's one of those 'Does-the-light-stay-on-in-the-fridge?' questions.

And in the case of the European Parliament, do the interpreters have to sit in their box all day on the offchance the absent delegates decide to attend - rather in the manner of harem ladies awaiting the arrival of the Sultan? And how did the ones in attendance during Farage's speech translate his picturesque imagery?

Doubtless there are readers out there more knowledgeable than the Tavern regulars about political procedure and we eagerly await enlightenment on all these matters.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Ernest Rutherford Seagull - a Cautionary Tale

A piece of fiction today, with sincere apologies to Richard Bach.

Staff at Sellafield are
considering a cull of seagulls as the site is overrun with birds, cats and mice, representing a substantial risk of contamination. Meanwhile, natural wildlife deaths on site mean they have 350 little frozen carcasses in storage as 'putrescent' nuclear waste pending proper disposal.

Ernest Rutherford Seagull hovered in the updraught from the cooling tower, watching mice scurry over the brickwork. The faint glow from his extended wingtips was matched by the eerie luminescence of the waste water lagoons where his friends were swimming.

He knew there was something different about the mice – something new about the way they gathered in small groups, then moved on decisively. Things were changing around Sellafield. Certainly the cats he had seen looked thinner, more desperate. Some of them were even hungry enough to tackle a seagull.

His friend Robert Oppenheimer Seagull manoeuvred into position beside him. Ernest Rutherford Seagull pointed downwards with his beak. “Do you see anything different about them?” he asked.

“So you’ve noticed too.” Robert Oppenheimer Seagull didn’t sound surprised. “I think they’re evolving intelligence. They’ve already learned to evade the cats.”

“Poor little things,” said Ernest Rutherford Seagull. “They probably wish they could fly.”

At that moment there was a loud bang and Robert Oppenheimer Seagull crumpled into a ball, plummeting downwards towards the ground and landing in an untidy heap. A man in a biohazard suit picked him up with tongs and placed him carefully in a freezer bag.

Behind the man the grass stirred, although there was no wind. There was a glimpse of fur, the twitch of a tail, a slight hissing sound. The mutant feral cats were gathering. And they were hungry.

Ernest Rutherford Seagull wheeled on the updraught and flew sadly away towards Whitehaven, his wings still glowing faintly.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

At My Command, Unleash Meat Loaf

A reminder of my misspent youth: I've deviated from the rhyme scheme more than usual here because Darling's own words fitted uncannily well...

Alistair's Hell

Oh, Whelan was screaming and McBride was howling
And in Downing street the knives were all out;
There was Brown in the shadows with a glint in his eye -
It was a weekend I could do without.
I don’t know why the briefers did what they did,
One day maybe they will explain,
What I do know, and it’s not a great source of pleasure,
What I said, unfortunately, turned out to be true;
We were bound for a recession again.

Well, maybe there’s no better thing in this whole world
Than knowing you've been right,
And wherever you are and wherever you go
There's always gonna be a fight.
And I know there have been some robust exchanges
Between me and Gordon Brown,
But there’s more that unites us than will ever divide us;
Without me, you know,
He’d really be alone.

And the forces of hell
Were unleashed by Number Ten,
When Brown’s two enforcers
Were let loose and set on me again, again, again.
Yes, the forces of hell
Were unleashed by Number Ten;
But now the day is done
Then Messrs Whelan
And McBride you’ll see it’s true
That I’m still Chancellor of the Exchequer
And there’s only one left of you.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Hey Christine, Can You Keep a Secret?

So Gordon's in trouble for picking on the wee kiddies and his mum - sorry, wife - has decided to stick up for him and tell everyone he's a lovely boy, really.

Guns blazing, she's come out to defend him in public - how embarrassing is that! - and, in a typical move, has decided to do so from the comfort of the GMTV sofa. Piers Morgan, Tesco magazine then GMTV - I suppose that indicates some sort of logical progression.

Meanwhile, Christine Pratt gives a whole new meaning to the word confidential with this update:
“I have even received an email from someone who is alleging that they have [an] issue with Gordon Brown also, but we will be addressing that confidentially.[...] I have received an email. I cannot discuss the detail. It does name Gordon Brown but I'm not able to go into that."

Leaving aside the woman's tortured grammar (and the dubious relationship between the helpline and her business consultancy), there is something distinctly unsavoury about this disclosure; you can see its counterpart in any primary school playground - 'I know something about Gordon, but I'm not telling you what it is!'

In fact, what with Gordon's tantrums and Christine's stories, combined with a fair amount of name-calling from the sidelines by each of the rival gangs, the whole affair is becoming distressingly juvenile.

What it boils down to, after all, is whether Gordon's a bully and whether Christine should have kept a secret; perhaps the best thing would be to call in an experienced primary school head teacher to sort the whole thing out.

And I think I know just where to find one...

Monday 22 February 2010

Britain's Got Bread and Circuses

Well, actually the bread's in pretty short supply at the moment - what with the global recession and all - but we've sure got circuses. The opiate of today's masses is a ghastly amalgam of glitz, sequins and sob-stories, heavily seasoned with viewer participation.

Thus the Prime Minister, aiming for popular support in an election year, must be seen to endorse this farrago to the extent of public pronouncements - what price dignity these days? - but does it go deeper than that?

In the Sunday Times this week, Rod Liddle interviewed Piers Morgan :

I ask Morgan how well he knows Brown. He says he has always liked him, thinks of him as a friend. They speak once every three or four weeks; Brown will ring for a chat, or ask him over. He says he speaks to Sarah Brown once every week, sometimes he offers advice, same as he might do to Gordon. Advice about how to get the message over to the public.[...]
Crucially, he speaks to the prime minister about the programme he does, Britain’s Got Talent. “Gordon is obsessed with Britain’s Got Talent,” Morgan says, laughing.

Allowing for the fact that this is Piers Morgan relayed by Rod Liddle, think about the implications of Piers Morgan with the confidential ear of the Prime Minister and of Brown actively seeking contact with Morgan. And above all about the Prime Minister being 'obsessed' with a show featuring trampolining pigs and someone farting 'The Blue Danube'.

After all, they do say you can judge a man by the company he keeps.

Sunday 21 February 2010

A Slow Bicycle Race to No. 10

Like one of those magic eye pictures, the events of the past week, when viewed in a slightly different way, suddenly present a whole new political vista. Sir Nicholas Winterton channelling Marie Antoinette, Heseltine's gloomy prognostications and Portillo's doubts, all surfacing at once, add up to one inevitable question.

What if the Tories don't want to win the election?

Think about it - whoever ends up in Number 10 will be tackling a mess of epic proportions with a side order of chaos. It's difficult to identify any area of the public sector which does not constitute a ticking time-bomb, from our unemployable young to future pensions crises, from elderly care to childhood obesity.

Far better to let Gordon et al. return with a perilously slender majority to face inevitable decline and fall, Gotterdammerung and votes of no confidence, after which Cameron can ride in on his white charger and pluck the helpless Britannia from the jaws of disaster to riotous applause.

Meanwhile, Gordon's cronies don't want to have to clear the mess up either. Gordon himself may be clinging on to power with both hands and his teeth, but I can't see his minions relishing the prospect of years of public vilification as chickens come home to roost.

So Gordon and Sarah are given free rein to make use of their organs of choice, Piers Morgan and a supermarket magazine, to court the misery memoir generation. It's hard to imagine the sort of person who contentedly 'shares Gordon's pain' with a nice cup of tea actually getting out there to vote, so no danger there.

And we're likely to end up not only with a hung parliament, but with the undignified spectacle of both leaders trying to avoid power while pretending to campaign for it sincerely. And if that happens, we might even get Clegg for PM.

Saturday 20 February 2010

With Friends Like These...

You have to feel sorry for Dave 'Man of the People' Cameron; first there's Nicholas Winterton's spectacular foot-in-mouth, now it's Heseltine lumbering out of hibernation and foretelling doom to all and sundry, like something out of the darker recesses of Greek mythology.

According to the Times, 'The former deputy Prime Minister said he would "put money" on a hung parliament, with the Tories the largest party. Mr Cameron would then be forced to call a second election later this year to seek a proper mandate to govern.'

With new research showing Cameron's poll lead eroding fast, things could be looking bleak for his party. It's a sobering thought that the electorate may actually be swayed by Brown's media antics, but even without them, the Tories are hardly helping their own cause.

No sooner has Winterton raised the spectre of moats and duck houses - could he really have been unaware of the impact his remarks would have? - than a senior figure casts doubt on their hopes for victory in the forthcoming election.

Self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?
Update: Michael Portillo has added his pennyworth to the debate with an article in the Sunday Times deploring the indecisiveness of the Tory party and claiming "The Conservatives are failing the grit test".

Friday 19 February 2010

It's My Party (And I'll Cry If I Want To)

I wasn't going to post this one on the grounds of taste but when I read this at Plato Says I decided it was probably fair game after all....

(To be sung in a lugubrious Scots accent)

Nobody knows where my mojo has gone,
But Mandy and Ed say it’s time
For baring my soul on the Piers Morgan show;
Then the hearts of the voters will be mine.

It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to,
Cry if I want to, cry if I want to,
You would cry too if Ed and Mandy said to.

Say that one fails, then I’ll still be alright,
I can still win through with style,
Using Tesco’s store magazine
And my irresistible smile.

It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to,
Cry if I want to, cry if I want to,
You would cry too if Ed and Mandy said to.

To pursue my campaign there’s no loss I’ll ignore,
No heartstrings I won’t try to wring,
Hoping the voters won’t realise
That New Labour’s wrecked everything.

It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to,
Cry if I want to, cry if I want to,
You would cry too if Ed and Mandy said to.

Thursday 18 February 2010

The Winterton Manoeuvre 2: Set to Music

A coda to Expenses - The Musical

This is livin', this is style, this is elegance by the mile... 

Oh the posh, posh travelling life, the travelling life for me,
Comfy seats and lots of tables, complimentary tea;
If you can’t enjoy the benefits then why be an MP?
Proles Out, Stewards at Hand, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh

The people there in second class will always make me frown,
Their noisy children anger me, they never settle down
But I am on expenses so ta-ta and toodle-oo
As I board first class and never have to sit with any of you.

Oh the posh, posh travelling life, the travelling life for me,
Comfy seats and lots of tables, complimentary tea;
And all the other passengers are people just like me,
Proles Out, Stewards at Hand, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh

In first class I am sure to find an atmosphere to suit me
If there was any justice then the public would salute me;
They’d understand why I avoid all peasants great and small;
When crowded out by hoi polloi one just can’t work at all.

Oh the posh, posh travelling life, the travelling life for me, 
Comfy seats and lots of tables, complimentary tea; 
When I'm travelling at your expense I do it stylishly 
Proles Out, Stewards at Hand, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, P-O-S-H, P-O-S-H, P-O-S-H... 

Update; sad news of the death of Lionel Jeffries today - 19th Feb. Astoundingly, Wikipedia have already updated their page - do they have someone on permanent obit. duty?

The Winterton Manoeuvre: Open Mouth...Insert Foot...

You can always rely on the Wintertons for a bit of light relief - remember Lady Winterton's ironing board? This week it's the turn of Sir Nicholas, who justified his first class rail journeys by explaining that there was a "totally different type of people" in standard-class train carriages.

It seems that, were Sir Nicholas forced to travel among the proles, he would be unable to work becuase "people would be looking over your shoulder the entire time, there would be noise, there would be distraction."

Moreover, the lower orders would actually have children with them so "there's noise, there's activity. I like to have peace and quiet when I'm travelling." It rather begs the question what do MPs do with their own sprogs when on the move? - perhaps they are consigned to sardine class with the (expenses-funded) nanny.

Unfortunately for Dave Cameron, Man of the People, the spectacle of Winterton defending the frontiers of privilege has played right into the hands of Brown's class warriors. HMS Tory has been quick to distance itself from this man overboard - "the out-of-touch views of a soon-to-retire backbench MP" - but the damage is done.
Update: you'll find a good post on this subject at the Diary of a Geek in Oxfordshire.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Go, Nutkin!

There's a new thrill-seeker hanging about at Alton Towers, it seems. A daredevil squirrel has been riding a newly refurbished roller-coaster to the consternation of the management. The intrepid rodent, first attracted by the packed lunches brought by workmen, has taken to riding in the cars on morning test runs and joining the volunteers trying out the ride.

Mindful of the risks involved, the management have installed the sort of high-pitched noise generator used to deter alcopop-wielding teenagers from hanging around shopping centres at night. A sonic device, in other words so the squirrel has inevitably been nicknamed 'Sonic'.

And there's something slightly disappointing when you find out that the ride is, coincidentally, the 'Sonic Spinball' and the source of the information is Alton Towers' director of sales and marketing. And the newly-refurbished ride opened to the public on Sunday.

So there you are; the sum total of the evidence for the regular rides is a single picture of a squirrel in a stationary roller-coaster car and a story from a marketing director. Is it true? You decide.

Monday 15 February 2010

Dick Francis: Rest in (Unproductive) Peace

Perhaps the most original testimonial to this late, lamented author is the popularity of his books among the swordboat fishermen of the Grand Banks. Sebastian Junger ('The Perfect Storm') describes the way increasingly dog-eared copies of Francis' novels are eagerly passed among the boats of the fleet.

Junger suggests an interesting reason - that men exposed to the dangers of line-fishing for swordfish enjoy reading about other forms of jeopardy, written by a man who understands risk. It probably helps, when you're at the mercy of the North Atlantic, to lose yourself in the distinctly land-bound world of racing.

The same explanation probably accounts for the fact that, according to a geologist friend, Dick Francis novels abound on North Sea oil rigs - although it's less easy to see what made them a hit at my school in the late 70's. Whatever the reason, it's hard to think of an author whose fan-base has extended quite so widely - from oil-rigs to pony clubs, from Parkhurst to Balmoral.

If Felix, his son and collaborator, continues the family business, there is only one thing I would ask; that he writes under his own name, eschewing the morbid tendency to continue an author's titular output from beyond the grave. The name Felix Francis on the cover should be sufficient recommendation for any fan.

Sunday 14 February 2010

For Whom, the Bell tolls

Whom, it seems, is dead. It's been fading for some time now - not out and about as much as it used to be, failing to turn up on occasion - and there have been concerns about its survival prospects.

And now the front cover of the Sunday Times Style section has administered the coup de grace. There it stands, in black and white; "Who do you love?" Not whom, but who. Subject, object, who cares? We're all stylish and fashionable and now.

The imminent demise of this lamented interrogative pronoun was foreshadowed some years ago when I found myself addressing a group of twelve-year-olds. One of them looked at the words written on the board - 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' - and exclaimed triumphantly, "You've made a mistake! There's no such word as 'womm'".

A quick vox pop found that several more shared this opinion, although a couple of them, on reflection, 'might have heard it somewhere before'. Anyway, it was all far too much effort to try and understand it.

I expect they all went on to have careers in journalism.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Patron Saint of Painted Babies

A guest post by Polly Peachum

This brief return to the Tavern is prompted by a recent foray within the unfamilar portals of the Mail, where following a link led us to stumble across a monstrosity. Prize for the most repulsively unsettling image of the week goes to the picture of Jordan's two-year-old daughter tricked out in foundation, lipstick and false eyelashes.

We have not reproduced or linked to it here for fear of upsetting readers of a sensitive disposition (or attracting dodgy googlers), but her mother has happily placed it on her Facebook page, presumably for the world to see. And for anyone who missed that, the Mail has helpfully obliged by reproducing it in gruesome technicolor.

The article was followed by a piece showing Tom Cruise's daughter - she of the high heels and designer wardrobe - shopping for bright red lipstick, encouraged by her mother. Suri Cruise, it appears, is all of three years old. It's as bad as those women who dress their chihuahuas in diamante, or the Roman aristocrat Hortensius putting earrings on his pet fish.

It is in the light of images like these that the ban on Valentine cards at a primary school makes perfect sense. It may once have been a harmless tradition but parental interference and media hype renders even the simple giving - or not giving - of a token of affection a potential emotional minefield, quite apart from the distraction it causes in the classroom.

For generations of the past, the feast of St Valentine - once a whimsical Victorian conceit - was an innocent affair but, thanks largely to the media, it has grown sophisticated and cynical, embracing marketing opportunities and acquiring a veneer of carnality entirely inappropriate for children of primary age.

Unless, that is, you are the sort of mother who delights in putting make-up and high heels on your infant daughter, in which case it provides you with an opportunity to exerience a vicarious thrill at exciting - and inciting - the admiration of the opposite sex, and to pass your warped priorities on to your children.

Small wonder then , that a significant number of under 14's express a desire to grow up to be Wags, glamour models or pole dancers. If the action of one brave head teacher (it's a risky business, upsetting parents these days) can go some way to lifting the horizons of his pupils beyond these dismal depths, it will not have been in vain.

Update - Some interestingly varied opinions on this story at Ambush Predator and Mark Wadsworth and a wonderful take on it by Giles Coren in the Times.

Friday 12 February 2010

Blaze Away, Mon Ami...

It seems that privilege is alive and well in the home of Liberty, Equality and Fratenity and the President is using it to get a leg-up on the world stage. In a bid to entice the world's rich and powerful to his door, Nicolas Sarkozy (portrait by Mark Wadsworth here ) has revived the chasse presidentielle and is inviting selected guests to shoot boar and stag at a chateau on the Loire.

Ever careful to preserve his public image, the great man himself does not join the party but delegates the role of host to his adviser Pierre Charon, who defends the shoots as a way of cultivating goodwill with corporate bosses, senior politicians, civil servants, ministers and ambassadors. “I bring back to Nicolas Sarkozy what I pick up at Chambord".
Charon goes on to add, in a slightly sinister manner, that the hunts "render many services in making people obliged to us”. I'm sure they do, what with the £175-a-head catering and the opulent surroundings of the renaissance chateau, not to mention the opportunity to rub shoulders with senior police and judicial figures.
Under Mitterand, these shoots 'became venues for deal-making, sometimes involving unsavoury characters who have since served time in prison'. Oh, to be a fly on the wall while these individuals joined judges and officers of the law in archaic torchlit rituals and banquets!

Chirac abolished the shoots as unfitting for modern democracy, and therein lies the problem for Sarko. It was only this week that the media discovered that the chasses had been taking place since December and there has been an outburst of indignation on several levels.

Obviously the sans-culottes rail first about the manifestation of privilege at public expense but, for those of us outside France, perhaps the major concern is the secrecy surrounding these meetings involving diplomats and heads of multinational corporations.

A century ago, England's Edwardian shooting parties formed the backdrop of high-level financial and political discussions the effects of which would be felt throughout Europe and America; now, it seems, Sarko is making use of the same tactics. Plus ca change...

Thursday 11 February 2010

Trapped in a lift...

There's a disaster movie scene which has stayed with me for over thirty years - a group of people trying to escape from a skyscraper unwisely get into a lift which, after a brief inexplicable halt, plummets all the way down the shaft to a messy conclusion.

It's a fair bet that a similar scenario was running through the minds of at least some of the 15 people trapped in the high-speed lift in Dubai's Burj Khalifa - that and wondering whether it would help if they all jumped into the air at the moment of impact. After all, when you've just got into a lift on the 124th floor, anything unexpected is probably going to make you a bit jittery.

And all the more so given the financial circumstances surrounding the edifice in question - the result of world-class hubris that had to be bailed out by the neighbouring United Arab Emirates. The consequent change of name - in honour of the UAE president - from Burj Dubai doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

This is, after all, the place where the lack of properly planned sewage facilities led to disgruntled truck drivers dumping effluent into the city's storm drains and where an army of low-paid construction workers provide an unstable and shifting polyglot workforce - not exactly optimal conditions for building the sort of precision machinery needed by a project on this scale.

In fact, it says a lot about how much we take technology for granted that people are prepared to get into a metal box and be whisked upwards at 40kph for the pleasure of looking at, well, a lot of desert. And, of course, a sort of real-life Sim City (most of which, according to the Times, is still under construction).

I'll give the last word to a delightfully terse comment from the Times article:
bob bob wrote:
True justice: Stupid people get trapped in faulty elevator in world's tallest mistake.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Cremating Taxpayers' Money

At last - some good news!

Davendar Kumar Ghai has won his appeal to be cremated according to his religion. Regulars at the Tavern will recall our indignation that government lawyers opposed Mr Ghai's request for a burning site in a remote part of Northumberland on the grounds that it would be 'offensive to the majority of British people'.

Admittedly open-air cremations haven't figured largely in British tradition - the damp climate may have something to do with it - but it's not as if Mr Ghai planned to do it in a built-up area or on the Millenium Bridge. In any case, his wishes can be satisfied within walls providing there is an opening in the roof; the presence of open air and the scattering of ashes at sea are, I believe, the critical requirements here.

Mr Ghai's reaction was dignified: "I always maintained that I wanted to clarify the law, not disobey or disrespect it. The Court of Appeal understood my request was consistent with both the spirit and letter of the law and my only regret is that tax payers' money would have been saved had that been recognised in 2006".

Too true! For the record, I should like a full Viking's funeral at Blyth with gallons of beer and a burning longboat (and ideally a selection of my enemies despatched at the same time). Not for any religious reason, you understand; just to annoy the hell out of Newcastle City Council.

Update: This from Birmingham City Council's somewhat menacing plans -
" The council has also identified several areas where it can increase its revenue. These include looking at what can be done to increase revenues at its cemeteries and crematoria..."

It's the Drama that Counts

You have to feel sorry for MP's - no sooner do they have their expenses seriously curtailed and several carriages lopped off the gravy train than another of their institutions is under threat. That long election night of adulation and attention from hyped-up party faithful and the media could be a thing of the past.

Some killjoy returning officers were actually having the audacity to to begin counts the following day "for their own convenience". Well, what a nerve!

Never mind the distance the ballot box has to travel and the welfare of people counting votes into the early hours, forget the rising staff costs and the potential inaccuracy of exhausted tellers working by artificial light; all that matters, it seems, is the 'excitement and drama' of election night.

Honourable members from all parties stampeded to support Jack Straw's amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill to ensure that votes are counted by tired people in the early stages of sleep deprivation.

To be fair, some have also raised the spectre of market uncertainty (not a new idea; Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels refer to it), which is an area I prefer to leave to experts, but the main thrust of their argument has been that they, and by extension the public, would miss out on a lot of drama.

This, I assume, is the same kind of drama they claim we all enjoy in PMQ - we enjoy it so much, it seems, that the whole experience has to be broadcast live on BBC Parliament and News 24 and Sky News. Simultaneously.

And some of us are sick of it. Sick of their schoolboy jibes, the triumphal paper-waving and jeers, the whole Yah-boo! Nyah-nyah! Punch-and-Judy lot of it. For goodness' sake, just get on with running the country rather than spending hours in advance closeted with your advisors thinking up new and exciting insults!

(A particular aspiring politician from my student days springs to mind; in Union debates, he would consult a small notebook containing alliterative insults filed alphabetically by college/birthplace/political orientation in order to bring out an appropriate jibe once he found out his opponents' affiliations.)

I'm sure there are members of the public who do enjoy the spectacle of election night (and a lot of happy news crews on time-and-a-half), but to give the last word to David Monks, head of the returning officers' organisation, 'We are not in the business of entertainment'.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

All Aboard the Amfibus

"It's a good idea, Q, but I can't see it replacing the Aston Martin."

With apologies to the folk of the fine city of Glasgow...

Oh the river Clyde, the wonderful Clyde,
You can hop on a bus to the opposite side,
And then when it breaks down you can drift on the tide,
And float out to sea through the mouth of the Clyde.

If your bus breaks down in Sauchiehall on the way to Blythswood Square
You can disembark and you can walk it all or you can take a taxi there,
If the engine fails at Kelvingrove or on Breadalbane Street
You’re still on dry land with the use of your feet.

But break down half-way over the wonderful Clyde
And there’s nothing to do but be swept by the tide,
Watching beer cans and turds bob along by your side
As you float out to sea down the turbulent Clyde.

Monday 8 February 2010

The Rise of the Machines

Warfare 101: "Let's keep our guys safe, and kill the enemy."

At least that 's the definition inspiring Bob Quinn of robot manufacturer QinetiQ in his aim to delegate the whole messy business to a bunch of robots.

There's something distinctly unsettling about the idea of a battlefield where lethal robots eliminate each other in the name of human ideologies. It's the apotheosis of the arms race, the ultimate Deus ex Machina. We've already visited this territory through the visions of countless science fiction writers and filmmakers and it's a worrying place to be.

Despite the reassurances of Quinn and his colleagues that humans will retain ultimate control, the processing speed of machines could unleash a counterattack before the operating soldier fully registers the incoming fire. Wait for a human response and you've lost the advantage.

So robot warriors under human control only work against unaided humans; put them up against a similar force and the tiresomely slow human element will soon be removed. The search for advantage will transfer the decision-making to the robots themselves, and thus render it dependent on their programming; and we all know computers never fail, don't we?

Most unsettling of all, perhaps, is the Pentagon's new toy, the EATR. This driverless vehicle can refuel itself in from 'organic matter' scavenged from its surroundings. The interviewer on the Today programme had the same queasy thought as I did and asked the inventor, Dr Robert Finkelstein, whether it might feed on the bodies of fallen soldiers.

Dr Finkelstein reassuringly replied that it would consume "organic material but mostly vegetarian," but then went on to say, "The robot can only do what it's programmed to do, it has a menu."

I'm sure it has; I'm just worried about what - or who - might be on it.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Johnny Wants A Burger

The scene is an upmarket Lebanese restaurant somewhere in the stockbroker belt. A large party is shown to a pleasant table on the terrace, where they settle in for a convivial evening meal.

The waiter arrives to take their orders but there's a problem. One of the party doesn't like the menu and wants a burger and chips. “You can’t, John," they tell him, "It's a Lebanese restaurant. They don’t have burger and chips here.”

But John isn't giving in: “That’s what I want,” he insists. The waiter is apologetic but firm; "Everything we have is on the menu. We serve only Lebanese food.” But it seems this won't do, so the waiter is sent back to ask the chef to produce a burger.

We're all familiar with the notion of the child who refuses to eat what's on offer, but the striking thing here is that the spoilt protaganist is not a toddler or even a stroppy teenager, but an adult in a position of responsibility - captain of England's football team, no less.

This edifying tale, related by Alison Kervin in the Times, sums up the situation which has led to the recent bonanza for the gossip columns - a tribe of young men who expect their every whim to be indulged as a matter of course. Her story ends with the chef arriving in person to give the party a piece of his mind, only to capitulate instantly when he realises he's dealing with John Terry.

Update - If you type 'spoilt child' into Google, the search engine obligingly produces a number of images depicting John Terry and his team-mates.

Saturday 6 February 2010

Who will rid us of these turbulent MPs?

There's a terrible inevitability about it, isn't there?

Faced with the threat of prosecution for their dubious accounting practices, do Elliot Morley, David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Lord Hanningfield put up their hands and utter the immortal words 'It's a fair cop, guv'? Why no, dear reader, they do not.

Instead they plan to hide behind the skirts of parliamentary privilege, claiming that under the 1689 Bill of Rights, the dodgy figures were communicated via 'proceedings' and are therefore exempt from criminal prosecution.

Funnily enough, something of the sort was going on in the 12th century. "Yes, there may be a sackful of someone else's gold under my bed but I'm a priest, so you can't try me in a criminal court - I know my rights!"

So the errant cleric would be tried by his peers away from the King's justice system by like-minded and sympathetic souls. The trouble was that the Benefit of Clergy wasn't exactly a way to win friends and influence people, as Thomas Becket found out.

Meanwhile, speculation in the Tavern that there was an eminence grise lurking in the shadows of the expenses fiasco may yet prove prescient. Jim Devine is the first to blame an 'unnamed Labour whip' for advising him how to carry out the financial manoeuvres that may yet land him in the dock.

Reasons to be Cheerful...

The resurgence of the Expenses saga has prompted the Tavern to collect all the relevant posts into one handy retrospective, now online at Expenses - The Musical.