Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday 25 March 2010

A Song for Baroness Uddin

The song parodies that feature here from time to time owe much to the influence of Pa Peachum, a master of the art. I was working on this before events intervened so it's not as topical as it should be, but it seems fitting to publish it anyway.
Regular posting will be resumed in a week or so, but in the meantime...

She keeps hoping and wondering,
Will she be in the cabinet?
'Maybe one day,' she says,
‘Just as soon as they forget
My claims on a property
They say weren’t what they ought to be;
If Gordon sends an invitation I shan’t decline.’

Privilege, the inside set,
Parliamentary etiquette,
Extraordinarily nice;
She's Manzila Uddin,
Baroness of Bethnal Green,
House of Lords expenses queen;
Her arrant greed will blow your mind,
Even peers have a price,
Insatiable in appetite
Worth a try.

To avoid ‘complications’
She said she had her main address
In central Maidstone,
But it looks just like the Baroness
Took the Central Line up
To Spitalfields, to wind up
Every evening in a rental flat our tax subsidised.

But she is naturally unembarrassed
Because she couldn't care less;
Fastidious and precise,
She's Manzila Uddin,
Baroness of Bethnal Green,
House of Lords expenses queen;
Her arrant greed will blow your mind,

Drop of a hat she's a Kentish lass,
Safely in the Maidstone flat,
Proving to your satisfaction,
She's definitely out of Town;
Marvel at the woman’s guile, guile -
She's out to get you!
She's Manzila Uddin,
Baroness of Bethnal Green,
House of Lords expenses queen;
Her arrant greed will blow your mind,
Even peers have a price,
Insatiable in appetite
Worth a try.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Blogging Hiatus

Posting suspended for a few days due to family illness; hope to be back soon.

Saturday 13 March 2010

No school place? Blame Billy Bunter

'Private School Pupils Blamed for Lack of Secondary Places' ran the headline above an article announcing that 'council leaders say that they will struggle to accommodate hundreds of children who would previously have gone to private schools'. The article went on to say that 'some children [...] were left without a place at any school in their area.' Pretty damning stuff, and, judging by the headline, all because of posh kids whose parents can't afford school fees any more

But this salvo in the pre-election class war turned out to be a damp squib. Two days later, the headline had been amended to the less contentious 'Schools struggle to place pupils who used to go private'. Perhaps someone helpfully pointed out that these ex-private pupils had previously saved the state the cost of the education to which they were entitled.

Or perhaps a more conscientious journalist actually did some research. It turns out the worst affected areas include Birmingham, Barnet and Hackney - not exactly the main recruiting-ground for the playing fields of Eton - and in any case, the private sector reports no significant decline in pupil numbers.

A more convincing - but politically explosive - theory surfaced in the School Gate column, where Edward Upton, founder of a teaching resource site, writes,
'There are actually 793,000 spare school places across the English state school system. The shortages are only in city areas such as London, due to a higher than expected number of young, immigrant families raising higher-than-average numbers of children.'

And he's got evidence to back it up from the Office of National Statistics. Oops! It looks like a very large elephant has just walked into the classroom.

Better stick to expressing sympathy for the plight of the schools, or alternatively indulging in righteous indignation at the toffs and class traitors who, now the money's getting tight, are ruthlessly elbowing their prep-school-educated offspring into the local comp.

Friday 12 March 2010

History is so last year, innit

Optimism is a wonderful thing. Oh to share the sunny outlook of David Dimbleby, who claimed this week that 'History programmes on television are filling in the gaps in children's knowledge of the subject'!

I'm sure they are, in homes where enlightened parents discuss homework with their children and frequent the local library to research projects. But in an age where, according to much-promulgated statistics, most children have televisions in their bedrooms, David Starkey is wrestling with Christina Aguilera and coming off worse.

We are, after all, talking about generation X-box, the spawn of the electronic age. Last month? That was, like, so ages ago; last year? Practically the stone age, dude. All that matters is the here and now: as far as they are concerned, 'history programmes' means the first series of 'Skins'.

They might pick up a bit of historical knowledge from 'Lark Rise to Candleford' - rural soap with bonnets - or 'The Tudors' and 'Rome' - raunch and ananchronism in equal measures - but, when it comes to the crunch, the lure of 'Strictly X-factor Find Me A Talented Nancy Boy On Ice' is apparently irresistible.

Sorry , Mr Dimbleby, but I think you're preaching to the converted. The huge surge in demand for history books and television programmes is actually fuelled by those of us who remember first-hand the primitive, far-off times before the internet and mobile phones; the young have far more important things on their minds.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Ed Balls - Who?

Ed Balls has had another tantrum: Ann Treneman in the Times describes an undignified exchange between him and Michael Gove over the number of children receiving free school meals who then go on to Oxbridge.
"What both should have been concentrating on was the life chances of children with free school meals. But this basic point was entirely missed." 
Sadly that's inevitable when education is in the hands of a career politician.

Every weekday you’ll see young boys,
Playing truant in the mall;
There’s a minister whose job it is
To educate them all.
But initiatives proliferate;
Attendance figures fall
And guess who’s behind it...
Surely you mean Ed Balls.

His fingers on the switches
In the Downing street machine,
He employed McBride and Whelan
To keep his own hands clean.
Some slight intimidation
And Brown’s opponents fall
And guess who’s behind it ...
Surely you mean Ed Balls.

He thinks he’s a wizard
Of spin and hype and twist.
But Brown’s pet lizard
Could go and not be missed

Why do you think he does it?
We all know
He’s up to no good.

He plays the man of action,
He’s got Gordon in his spell
So was it Eddie’s faction
That unleashed the force of hell?
Things were getting sticky
Though Alistair stood tall
And guess who's behind it...
Surely you mean Ed Balls.

'There’s no class war
The policy’s the thing'
But it seems our Ed’s
Got lots of mud to sling.

With his feet under the table
He’s aiming for the best.
He climbed up through the Treasury
And now he wants the rest.
He's crazy with ambition;
One day Brown will fall,
And who’ll be behind him?
Surely you mean Ed Balls.

Update: A follow-up to the exchange with Michael Gove courtesy of Guido Fawkes. Enjoy.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Wanted - Robocop (must be good with animals)

Good news for postmen! Plans are afoot to ensure dog owners have their pets microchipped and take out third party insurance.

New legal powers - inevitably dubbed 'dogbos' - could require a dog to be fenced in, neutered, muzzled or kept on a lead, and for an owner to attend a dog handling course - an encouraging though if you're among the 92 postmen attacked each week.

(Ma Peachum, my infallible source of homespun wisdom, suggests an olefactory solution for that particular problem - in her village, the visiting butcher has never been attacked by a dog on his weekly rounds; in fact he is regularly greeted with much doggy enthusiasm. Give every postie a pork pie in his bag and you might see a change.)

With 5,221 people needing hospital treatment after dog attacks last year, there is obviously a serious problem; Alan Johnson - himself the victim of two dog attacks in his postman days - seems confident it can be tackled with legislation.

So all dog owners will henceforth obediently queue up to pay for a licence, training courses and £300 p.a. insurance; all in, it's not far off the cost of running a car. And of course no one would drive a car without a full current licence and paid-up tax and insurance, would they?

And while you can check a car numberplate at a distance, to read a microchip (or detect its absence) means getting up rather too close and personal for comfort. If the stories in today's papers are anything to go by, if the dog doesn't get you, the owner will.

So it's nice and easy to inspect a lady's lapdog or check the details of a family labrador. But the ones you ought to be checking will, naturally, be those presenting an apparent threat. So the big question is not what the new powers will be, but who will actually be enforcing them and how.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Mind your manners - the EHRC are in town

Have you oppressed a vegan recently? Or discriminated against an atheist? If so, you'd better watch out.

The Witchfinders General - sorry, Equality and Human Rights Commission - have drawn up a code of practice to accompany Harriet Harman's Equality Bill. The draft code states that vegans, atheists and members of new religions such as Scientology should have the same protection against discrimination as religious groups.

The watchdog also interestingly warns that 'advertisements giving preferential treatment to men or women could be illegal. This could mean the end of “ladies’ nights” at clubs, when women receive cut-price drinks or free entrance but men pay full price'.

According to a spokesman from the commission, “Parliament makes the law, the courts interpret it and the commission offers factual and proportionate guidance to organisations where necessary. We are providing guidance on the implications of the equality bill.”

So the Commission, with its oh-so-trendy rainbow mission statement, is actually a fifth wheel. And not a very welcome one at that, if the govenment response is anything to go by: 'The government distanced itself from the code of practice and said it never intended “views or opinions” such as veganism to be covered by equality law. '

Oops! Looks like someone just exceeded their remit. At least they all agree that the final decisions will be made by courts and tribunals, but in the meantime it's all a bit confusing for us poor proles - are we likely to be hauled into court for offering a ham sandwich to a vegan or saying 'Bless you!' when atheists sneeze?

It's probably best to be careful. So no more jibes about tree-hugging lettuce-munchers or poking fun at Richard Dawkins, forget any cynical thoughts you ever had about Scientology or criticism of Tom Cruise. From now on it's best behaviour or Trevor will be sending the boys - oops, sorry - humans round.

NHS = Nanny Has Spoken

So you’re having problems getting about, a bit unsteady on your pins. Anno domini and all that, plus a little local difficulty that set in recently. And your bones aren’t exactly in good nick, so a fall would be a disaster.

And one day you wake up with a real mobility problem. Luckily there’s a solution out there. A walking frame’s what you need – a simple answer to a straightforward problem.

Well, not if you’re dealing with the NHS it isn’t. First of all, you have to convice a clerical officer that you need a frame. If you're lucky and they like you, they’ll put you on a waiting list to be assessed. So far so good – but there’s more.

You finally get to the assessment and – hooray!- you’ve hit the jackpot. You’re assigned a walking frame – and a good thing too; your condition has worsened substantially while you were waiting. But there’s a catch.

Before they let you out with the nice shiny frame, you have to be trained in its use. Never mind that you have a first class degree in engineering, you have to be taught the correct use of NHS equipment. So you’re put on another waiting list for training.

And then, at last, you’re let out to walk again.

If you live that long, that is.

Of course you can always buy your own - provided you're computer literate (or near the right shops) and know in advance that you will need it. In an emergency you have to rely on the NHS, which is not a comforting thought. (H/T Witterings from Witney)
Update: looks like it's open season on the NHS - and about time! (More at my post 10 ways the NHS is killing people)

Saturday 6 March 2010

A question of probability

‘I'm a reliable witness, you're a reliable witness, practically all of God's children are reliable witnesses in their own estimation, which makes it funny how so many versions of the same affair get about.’
(John Wyndham: The Kraken Wakes)

Seems the Met Office got it all wrong – forecast a mild winter and then watched us all freeze for weeks. And it’s not the first time – remember the barbecue summer predictions?

Well, yes I do. As it happens, I consulted the seasonal forecast pages for both summer and winter 2009, and I recall something a little bit different. The predictions in each case were clearly expressed in terms of probability and illustrated with helpful graphs – as far as I remember, 60% chance of this winter being milder than average and 40% chance of average or colder.

But hey, who wants to hear about percentages? What the public want is a good story, so the news media reported that it would be a mild winter, tout court. What a pity there wasn’t a handily-coined pithy phrase to match the ‘barbecue summer’ a Met Office spokesman unwisely mentioned earlier in the year.

So the Met office helpfully rounded things off for the media, and the media helpfully simplified it for the public - after all, this is a nation where millions of people believe they have a good chance of winning the national lottery. It's worth bearing all this in mind when the papers produce yet another figures-based story.

And all the while the probability graphs were there for all to see - 60% chance of a warmer than average winter. How much would you bet at those odds?

Friday 5 March 2010

Vermin in Westminster - again

What do you do when you've got mice? Get a cat, of course. At least that was the suggestion Lord Elton put forward to deal with a rodent infestation in the Palace of Westminster.

There's a pleasing touch of Schadenfreude in considering that all those expenses-guzzling MPS may be getting a £1,000 pay rise, but they've also got free-range mice in their offices, tea-rooms and subsidised bars.

So last week, Lord Elton asked the Chairman of Committees 'whether consideration will be given to acquiring a number of respectable cats to reduce the rodent population of the Palace of Westminster'.

Not, you will notice, any old moggies or battle-scarred toms - only the best for our ruling elite. Sadly for this picturesque image, Lord Brabazon of Tara was adamant:

The possible use of cats, respectable or otherwise, to control the rodent population in the Palace of Westminster has been considered and rejected on a number of practical grounds. For example, the cats would ingest mouse poison when eating poisoned mice; there would be nothing ...to stop them walking on desks in offices and on tables in restaurants and bars; they can carry fleas and other parasites; and many people are allergic to cat hair.

His Lordship is, I suspect, not a cat-lover. Sadly we are to be denied the delightful concept of cats - honest, decent and beyond reproach - patrolling the corridors of power and removing intrusive vermin, since the problem is to be tackled with poison instead.

I feel there may be some kind of metaphor there.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome..

No time to post yesterday or today, but for those of you who enjoyed Cabaret last night, an audiovisual treat...

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Why the voters like a bit of rough

Seen any trailers for Eastenders recently? A kaleidoscopic medley of people shouting at, pushing and occasionally murdering each other, all designed to attract viewers in much the same way as bear-baiting or the Roman circus.

That the formula is successful cannot be doubted - the soap opera's recent anniversary confirms it - and Gordon Brown's publicity machine has merrily jumped on the bandwaggon.

Addressing the Welsh Labour conference in Swansea, Brown laughed off recent allegations that he had bullied staff at Number 10 saying he had been accused of everything short of killing Archie Mitchell in EastEnders.
He added: “I promise you, I didn’t even lay a finger on him.”

And therein, perhaps, lies the key to Brown's inexplicable rise in the polls. While Cameron continues his stiff-upper-lip old Etonian politeness, Brown secures the misery-memoir vote with a public display of grief, then sweeps in the Eastenders fan club by offering - allegedy - real-life aggro in Number 10.

We've had the sit-com and political drama of the expenses scandal - now we're being treated to a soap opera with all the personality clashes, rivalries and aggression the viewers have come to expect and relish. And of course they're going to want more.

Monday 1 March 2010

Moving the GCSE goalposts

Oops, we did it again! Too many A grades and passes at GCSE means talk of grade inflation and we don't want that.

Luckily for Ofqual, there's an easy answer. Just downgrade the science papers at the last minute. After all, that sort of statistical jiggery-pokery is used all over the place.

'The number of candidates awarded a grade C or above was predicted to rise by 2.4 per cent, and the number achieving an A grade to increase by 0.8 per cent, based on marking by exam boards.'

Until Ofqual chief executive Isabel Nisbet stepped in, that is. A little billet-doux to the exam boards was all it took.

'When the results were published, the rise in grades C and above in science had been scaled back to 0.9 per cent, and the increase in the top grades of A and A* was up by 0.2 per cent.'

This translates across the board into a cohort of sixteen-year-olds whose qualifications cannot now be fairly judged against those of, say, the year before. And here I have to admit to grinding an axe - when the Urchin applies to university, decisions will be made by comparing the GCSE results of candidates from different year-groups.

It's not a matter of precision - just how many A and A* grades the candidate clocked up. And who's going to consider how many they could have had if politics had not intervened?