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

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Darwin Awards - Bank Holiday Special 2

News of another Darwin Award hopeful reaches us from Clacton, where a gripping man-vs-spider confrontation had a spectacular conclusion.

‘The man was summoned by his wife to deal with a spider she had seen scuttling behind the lavatory on Bank Holiday Monday. Not being able to reach it, the man decided to kill it by spraying it with the aerosol can.’

So far so good – although he’s probably screwed up his chances of a good reincarnation next time round – but there’s a certain poetic justice in what followed; the bathroom light wasn’t working and our hero wanted to see if the beast was indeed dead, so

‘At this point he turned to a cigarette lighter to illuminate the room, but in the process ignited the gas fumes and caused an explosion. The blast was so strong it blew the man off his feet and lifted the loft door off its hinges.’

Fortunately for him, Essex Fire Service were on hand to administer first aid and assess the situation. One has to admire their thoroughness; a spokesman later said, "We're not entirely sure whether the spider got away or not but there was no sign of it at the scene."

Regular readers* will remember the valiant Mancunian who liberally sprayed air freshener round the inside of his van before lighting a cigarette; perhaps the Darwin Awards should start a special category for this kind of thing.

*What is it with Darwin Awards and Bank Holidays?

Monday 30 August 2010

B*llocks on a triple word score

There's a rift in the lute. An unbridgable gulf has opened up in the Tavern and its name is Scrabble.

Ever since the official Scrabble magazine published its list of two-letter words, the battle lines have been drawn. The Purists insist that Scrabble is, above all, a game of verbal dexterity. No abbreviations, no proper nouns and a word is only valid if the player can not only define it but also use it in a plausible context.

On the other hand, we have the Pragmatists,who see the list as an essential tool and have gone to the lengths of memorising all 94 combinations. "What does the meaning matter?" they say, "it's the score that counts", smugly placing 'zo' on a triple letter score.

The Purists have been fighting a valiant rearguard action but it's a doomed struggle. All but the most principled are liable to cave in when 'aa' or 'st' opens the way to a high-scoring word, especially when the two-letter lobby are pointing out that the list is officially endorsed by the game's makers.

There's an unlikely lifeline, however, in the News of the World* this week. It seems the Scrabble dictionary and electronic versions of the game have upset anti-racism campaigners by allowing pejorative terms for ethnic groups, or, as the NotW has it, 'vile racist insults'.

The chief executive of Show Racism the Red Card says the words should be removed immediately but, according to the paper, 'A spokeswoman for Scrabble's maker Mattel said: "These words are in the English language, they are legitimate. We're not about censoring words."'

Now I'd like to think the Tavern inmates are unlikely to use racist insults (which are presumably proper nouns anyway) but the list of offensive words also included a selection of the more familiar Anglo-Saxon anatomical terms - to which the above statement could also be taken to apply.

So the Purists at last have a strategy for counter-attack. The next Pragmatist to put down 'ch' or 'ky' will, letters permitting, be assailed for the remaining duration of the game with a stream of profanity guaranteed to offend - and all with official endorsement.

*Not the Tavern's usual stamping ground - the story surfaced at Unenlightened Commentary with an entertaining angle by Ross.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Sink or Swim - Darwin in the Big Brother House

Fans of modern Britain's very own Bedlam show were disappointed last night to tune in and find the inmates had escaped.

They hadn't gone far, though - only to a nearby hotel after the house flooded in torrential rain. Four hours later they were back, but half the house is still out of bounds; the good folk at Channel 4 have to make sure it's completely safe before allowing their pets back into the cage.

Here's how the Daily Mail describes the 'Amazing moments as housemates are caught in a freak flood downpour INSIDE the house'.

Josie told John James: 'Do you think that's the sound of the rain or the air conditioning?' When Australian John James, who was lying next to her in the same bed, told her it was the rain, she said: 'Oh my God, that's amazing isn't it? It's nice to be snuggled up when it's like that out there.'

But a second later, as the rain poured in, she shouted: 'Oh my God, John, John." Jumping out of her wet bed, she turned to Mario, who shouted: 'The house is leaking.'

Now can anyone give me one good reason why these characters should not be left to sink or swim (or electrocute themselves) in a perfect manifestation of natural selection? Here's a clue; if you're tempted to answer in the affirmative, I'd advise you to read the rest of the Mail article before committing yourself.

Monday 16 August 2010

'I had walled the monster up within the tomb!'

What a day for fans of Edgar Allan Poe!

'England cricketer Graeme Swann was on his way to buy screwdrivers to help rescue his cat when he was arrested for drink-driving, a court has heard. The off-spinner told police he had been out with friends when he returned to his West Bridgford home to find his cat trapped under the floorboards.'

Yes, it's the 'Black Cat' defence*. Only in this case, finding the moggy imprisoned in the woodwork, the animal-loving sportsman was so distressed that he immediately set off in his Porsche to buy some screwdrivers.

Now F Scott Fitzgerald was probably right when he said the rich are different, and I suppose millionaire sportsmen don't sully their lily-white hands with DIY like the rest of us, but it is surely an unusual household that can't run to any sort of cat-freeing implement at all.

Whatever the actual screwdriver situation, Mr Swann was unlucky enough on his errand of mercy to be intercepted by the police who, it seems, wanted to know why a chap in a Porsche was driving down Loughborough Road at 3am.

'Giving evidence, Pc Denniss told the court he decided to pull Mr Swann over because he was driving a high-performance car in an area where there had been a spate of burglaries.

"Mr Swann stated he had been out that evening and had come back to find his cat trapped under the floorboards in his house. He had gone to Asda to fetch some screwdrivers to remove some floorboards."

I was under the impression floorboards were nailed down, and anyway, an all-night garage might be a better source of tools, but then what do I know? And Asda? In a Porsche? Obviously this is a far cry from the branch frequented by the unfortunate Mayor of Ellesmere Port.

*I should point out to die-hard fans of the Gothic and macabre that Mrs Swann is, to the best of my knowledge, alive and well, although she may not have been exactly delighted to receive a visit from a police sergeant in the early hours to check her husband's story.

Saturday 14 August 2010

On yer bike, Sunshine!

There’s a novel bit of thinking going on in Suffolk. A member of the CID has spotted a way of killing two birds with one stone by taking some of the hundreds of unclaimed stolen bikes recovered by the police and lending them to offenders on probation.

'The Integrated Offender Management (IOM) and PPO schemes aim to control offending behaviour of persistent offenders through a combination of rehabilitative interventions, compliance support, and robust enforcement in order to reduce re-offending and the commission of crime.'

Right, got it (I think). The idea is that the bikes will help offenders living in rural areas to travel to work, making them more likely to find jobs and thus reducing the re-offending rates. The scheme is being overseen by the Probation Service (who will, one hopes, screen out persistent bicycle thieves) and any bona fide owners who turn up will have their property restored to them.

So far so constructive, but something truly dreadful is being perpetrated here.

'Detective Inspector Richard Crabtree of Ipswich CID who came up with the Re-cycling Cycles scheme said, “Bikes will not be given to every PPO and are not to be seen as gifts. They will be on loan from the probation service to the PPO who will be responsible for their own cycle safety.

This is a well-intended scheme and a holistic approach to assist individuals who, for whatever reason have been on the wrong side of the law gain meaningful employment. If this trial is successful it may be rolled out across the county.”

Cringeworthy punning title? Check. Obscure acronym? Check: PPOs are Prolific and other Priority Offenders, of course – do try to keep up at the back! Touchy-feely caring terms? Check – holistic and meaningful to you too! And pointless management-speak? Check: why does it need 'rolling out' - it’s not a bloody Axminster!

DI Crabtree is obviously destined for higher things if this is a typical example of his mastery of the English language. He still has a way to go to match the experts in the field of what JuliaM calls ACPO-friendly jargon but meanwhile it’s a pretty good haul for buzzword bingo.

Not exactly the pineapple of politeness

A surreal moment last night; an announcement from the stewardess on a flight into Luton:

"We have available for onboard purchase rail tickets to London St Pancreas station."

And, do you know, no one batted an eyelid. No one, that is, except the Spouse, whose sotto voce suggestion that this must be the patron saint of organs whose purpose you aren't quite sure about sent us both into fits of ill-mannered merriment.

I'm still wondering if she says it every time, and will continue to do so until someone less rude than us helpfully points it out.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Sarah Palin's nearly-in-law strikes again

Remember ‘The Palins’ – the soap opera that gripped the US in 2008? Well, they’re back for a new series.

It’s almost beyond parody. From today’s Telegraph online:
'The 20-year-old father of the grandson of Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 US election, will run for mayor in his hometown as part of a reality TV show, his manager, Tank Jones, said.

Mr Jones said Mr Johnston, whose career thus far has included stints in the Alaskan oil fields and posing nude in Playgirl, is serious about politics.'

Of course, there’s a media angle in this; the charming Mr Johnston - self-styled f***ing redneck - is far from averse to any form of publicity. Even Bristol Palin, a woman so devoid of judgement she allowed this waste of space to impregnate her and then got engaged to him - twice – has decided enough is enough and broken it off again.

In fact, in what is hardly a ringing endorsement of Levi Johnston, she’s now a vociferous campaigner for sexual abstinence among teenagers. Meanwhile he’s setting off on the political campaign trail, hoping to be elected Mayor of Wasilla. After all, they once elected Sarah Palin – how hard can it be?

Stripping off for the middleman

Fancy a nude rollercoaster ride? 102 brave souls did last week; they raised an impressive £22,000 for Southend Hospital's Breast Care unit and got themselves into the Guinness book of Records into the bargain, smashing the previous total of 32 people.

Getting your kit off for charity is pretty mainstream these days thanks to the ground-breaking Calendar Girls, but this was nature in the rawest form - no strategic cupcakes or rugby paraphernalia here to preserve the modesty of participants* (and some interesting gravitational effects too).

So why do it? In this case it was in the highly laudable cause of helping to buy two digital mammography machines - a snip at £750,000. People came from all over the UK to take part, so many they had to be sent round in 3 batches in the 40-seat train.

Now, I don't pretend to understand the economics involved in the purchase of this sort of equipment, but I do know that, in many cases, hospitals and schools pay well over the odds for equipment that could be sourced more cheaply elsewhere.

By the time it has passed through the Byzantine workings of purchasing departments and agencies, a straightforward transaction can accumulate a substantial weight of surcharges and premiums to cover the manpower costs - and that's without the action of market forces.

I sincerely hope that the nude roller-coaster riders of Southend will get full value for their £22,000 and didn't bare their all to pay the wages of some administrative middleman in a purchasing department somewhere.

*This is amply demonstrated elsewhere: the Metro performs what it obviously feels to be a vital public service by publishing an extensive photo gallery of the event.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Not-so-magic roundabouts

Following the previous story of traffic chaos, here's one from just down the road - Junction 10 of the M40, to be precise.

For those fortunate enough never to have passed through this abomination, and all who have sped by and wondered about the seemingly endless queues, there is a full explanation here, which can easily be simplified - essentially everyone gets in everyone else's way. A lot.

"Slip road" - the term was devised to suggest a seamless transition onto the new-fangled motorway (where a smiling AA man will salute when he sees your radiator badge - happy motoring!). How different from the daily situation at Junction 10, where almost anyone going almost anywhere has to cross a seemingly unbroken stream of traffic.

And this, let’s not forget, is one of the main access routes to Silverstone, Britain’s flagship Grand Prix circuit. While the important racegoers are flown into Kidlington and taken by helicopter to the track, the rank and file coming up from the South sit in increasing tailbacks on the M40 and wonder why they bothered.

Between them and the A43 are three roundabouts which, even in normal traffic, generate queues of several hundred yards. The first, where virtually all northbound traffic must turn hard right, has a camber so extreme that HGVs topple over on a regular basis.

At the second, which also leads off to the local services, you are stuck in a mass of jammed traffic and have to rely on clairvoyance to select the correct lane to the third, where, in defiance of all logic or common sense, the streams of north- and southbound A43 traffic cross at a single point. Oh, and that point is at the bottom of a steep slope, so there is a very real possibility of lorries failing to stop when they reach it, regardless of oncoming traffic.

One can only conclude that the whole arrangement was designed by a planner who cycles to work (doubtless in sweaty lycra and a filthy temper) and has a serious grudge against motorists in general and motorsport fans in particular.

The Highways people have just announced a major expansion at Junction 9 - close but no cigar. Until they work out what to do about the monstrosity that is Junction 10, my advice is to do what the locals do and avoid it at all costs.

Here endeth today's rant - thank you for your patience!

Friday 6 August 2010

It ain't easy being green....

...especially if someone's trying to make you do it.
Today’s Local Government conundrum: You are building offices for 300 council workers in a rural town of 45,000 residents. How many parking spaces should you provide?

Well, you’re doing your best to be green, so surely all these workers will be too. And there are buses from the surrounding areas (as long as they don’t want to travel before 8.15 or after 5.45) and a railway station nearby.

But some of these workers need to go out and about as part of their jobs; oh dear – that means they’ll need their nasty polluting cars!* So you’d better give them a few spaces. About 55 should do nicely.

After all, you’ve sent round plenty of e-mails extolling the virtues of car-sharing and public transport and proclaiming the health benefits of cycling (never mind that the office is at the bottom of a hill that would have hardened veterans of the Tour de France muttering darkly about ‘√©tapes de montagne’).

Fast forward a year, and there is parking chaos. Practically all 300 of those ungrateful workers are coming to work by car on the flimsy excuse that they need to drop off children at school in the morning or pick up groceries on the way home, or that their village bus only runs on Tuesdays.

And the lack of on-site parking means they are using nearby streets – in fact competition for spaces is so fierce that residents emerging from their front doors in the morning have found themselves facing an armada of impatient council workers waiting for them to drive away and release a space.

The Council confirms that it ‘has some onsite parking for staff who need to travel and other staff have been instructed not to park in residential areas’, so things aren’t much better in the local supermarket, where customers now complain they can’t park between 9 and 5.

The Council is finding out the hard way that you just can’t force people to be green - particularly if it makes their lives more complicated and difficult.

*Don’t worry – they’re planning a fleet of electric cars plus charging points at a mere £100K each.

'Too little too late' for dementia

If you start losing your marbles, you'd expect someone to notice. After all, even if you are blissfully unaware, your nearest and dearest will surely notice something is wrong.

But not, it seems, your GP. A report in the British Medical Journal accuses doctors of doing 'too little too late' to diagnose dementia. The Chair of the Royal College of GPs agrees, calling the study a 'wake-up call for GPs'.

So what happens when a relative gets more than a a bit forgetful and the family try and get something done?

First of all you ask the sufferer to go to the GP, but that's no good; they may get as far as the surgery, if you're lucky, but once they're in there, they forget what they were supposed to ask.

So you try again - ring the surgery and ask for help. Tough luck - there's the Data Protection Act: "We can't talk to you about another patient - it's confidential". The same thing happens when you ring Social Services, the local hospital and anyone else you can think of.

Eventually you've managed to convey the idea that something's badly wrong - so a GP actually turns up unannounced on the doorstep (not so good if you've advised your vulnerable elderly relative not to let strangers into the house).

The GP has a cursory look, checks blood pressure and asks whether your relative smokes (got to get those boxes ticked!), and then comes the crucial question; "Do you know who's Prime Minister?" Quick as a flash, back comes the correct answer. Excellent - job done! No need for more, all's well, goodbye.

Only News 24 is on in the background - and loathing of the current PM is one of your relative's favourite and more lucid topics. Had the GP enquired further, he might have been surprised to learn that Bobby Robson captains the England team - on a scandalous wage of £300 per week - and that beer has gone up to 8p a pint, but you mustn't grumble because the Secret Police are listening.

Off the record, a health worker tells me that almost all of the patients in his Dementia Unit come in via A&E, having had a fall, injured themselves or been found wandering the streets in a state of confusion.

If you hear about a dementia sufferer in this situation, spare a thought for the family who let things get that far; they may not be neglectful, indifferent or unkind, but just victims of seemingly unbreakable NHS red tape.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Hell's Grannies (and Grandpas) Unite!

I seem to be on very good terms with other people's muses this week - first an idea from the Urchin and then this from Ma Peachum, the Tavern's resident Wise Woman.

Care for the elderly, reasons Ma Peachum, is in something of a parlous state in Britain. Therefore, many of those approaching their twilight years have less to fear from imprisonment than younger folk - at least prison would guarantee them hot food, clean clothes and access to recreational facilities*.

Now it's not hard to find someone of advanced years who bears a grudge against the public sector or the financial institutions - a lifetime's experience of petty bureaucracy and startling incompetence breeds more than a little discontent, compounded by the way officialdom mistakes politeness for passive acceptance.

So Ma Peachum suggests that today's Oldies should rise up and take direct action when they feel the hand of time weighs heavily. The bank swallows your money while the bosses reap huge bonuses? March up and down outside with a banner! The hospital loses your records yet again? Chain yourself to their front door and shout about it!

After all, what's the worst they can do - send you to prison? It's probably a damn sight more comfortable than some care homes and, what's more, the government pays, allowing you to preserve your remaining hard-earned assets for your children and grandchildren**.

*Coincidentally, this idea was posted on recently by a fellow blogger, but since he has withdrawn the post, I shan't credit him unless authorised to do so.
**For those who have not yet encountered this situation, anyone with assets over £23,000 (including property) must pay for long-term nursing care in full until the money is reduced to that level.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Well done that man!

Why let a little thing like death get in the way of a good protest?

Readers may rememember Tony Fuller, a retired aircraft fitter, who led an anti-HGV protest in Chideock, Dorset after residents' complaints against traffic levels went unanswered by the authorities.

Led by Mr Fuller, the villagers carried out the protest two days a week for an hour at a time, repeatedly pushing the button on a pelican crossing to halt the stream of lorries passing through.

Sadly, Mr Fuller is not a well man, but he's determined to have his say after he's gone. He has added a codicil to his will requiring the funeral cortege, led by a horse-drawn cart, to crawl back and forth through his home village once for every year of his life.

"I am hoping it will take a very long time and that it will hold up the traffic up. If that happens I hope people will take along their banners to my funeral."

Some years ago, I sat in a traffic jam of epic proportions on a busy ring road. The traffic crawled round to the final roundabout, where I was at last able to see the cause of the hold-up.

At the head of a procession, which must by now have been several miles long, was a hearse. In front of it, in full mourning rig, walked an undertaker's mute at a dignified slow-march, presumably enacting the last wishes of a resident who had suffered years of heavy traffic.

I may have been inconvenienced by the delay, but I couldn't help admiring the kind of spirit that keeps fighting in the face of the great leveller.

So good luck to Tony Fuller and his final protest, and may it take place a very long time hence!

Tuesday 3 August 2010

"You're a load of useless bloody loonies!"

The Urchin has come up with an interesting idea: with the imminent demise of Big Brother, there will, he reasons, be plenty of useless narcissists cluttering up society.

Why not, then, build a Big Brother house – or even a whole group of them – on and under a brownfield site somewhere in an industrial city? Or, in fact, a chain of them throughout the country.

You fill the houses with cameras and employ a skeleton staff to monitor the inmates and set them tasks, including growing and processing their own food* and exercising on an electricity-generating treadmill. You advertise for volunteers and select those whose indefinite absence would most benefit society.

And then you shut the door. Permanently.

To keep the inmates motivated, you could have occasional mock eviction polls – then give the losers ‘another chance’ and send them to a neighbouring house. With a bit of luck, you could keep it going for years as they act up for the cameras, blissfully unaware that no one is watching.

Of course, admirers of the late Douglas Adams will have spotted that the Urchin is merely re-creating the solution devised by an over-populated planet to get rid of a useless third of its population. With a simulated Mars mission already underway, we have the technology (or at least the Russians do) to build a self-contained static vessel.

Think about it; soon we, too, could have our very own B Ark.

*The Urchin had actually devised a way to make them entirely self sufficient which I won’t go into here – I knew we shouldn’t have let him watch Soylent Green. Incidentally – trivia alert! - the title of yesterday’s post is borrowed from Harry Harrison’s story on which the film is based.

Make Room, Make Room!

In the midst of the cuts and austerity of the new regime, George Osborne's come up with a cunning wheeze to save money at the Treasury.

He's planning to sublet office space to other Government departments; Treasury sources say that the building is currently being “under utilised” and there is room for up to 500 extra staff to move in.

It's all breathtakingly simple. To achieve this 'workplace optimisation', the 1700 staff already in residence will be given smaller desks and have to sit closer together to take up less room.

It's hardly a new tactic - after all, the NHS has been moving beds closer together for years, and the advent of round table seating allowed schools to cram far more pupils into the classroom. It was only in Government offices that there was room for green glass peace pods and massage rooms.

So what's new is that this is leading from the top - Whitehall suffering the same inconveniences as the rest of us in the interests of economy. There's plenty of scope: they could move Ed Balls' old department into the Treasury and let out his spectacular office suite for a fortune.

With the Government leading by example, there's no excuse for local authority profligacy and overspending. Who knows, we might even see County Halls following suit - if they consolidated their operations, it would free up plenty of prime office space for hard-pressed local businesses.

And, what's more, with desks closer together it'll be far easier to see who's not pulling their weight - we could even see an increase in efficiency (though I, for one, am not holding my breath).

Monday 2 August 2010

Watch Thou for the Mutant!

Here's a handy hint for any aspiring local politician (and Sally Bercow); if you're going to blog/twitter/post a video diary on youTube, avoid saying anything derogatory about the electorate.

It's a fair bet that the Mayor of Ellesmere Port won't be showing his face in his local Asda anytime soon - at least not after posting a video diary with the comment,
‘My usual visits to Asda would probably be later than this... mostly to avoid the mutants who go in during the day.’
In an impressive display of stable-door-bolting, Anderson explained that he was referring to a particular group of customers who had abused him on two visits to the supermarket and not to Asda customers in general, but the damage was done.

The Daily Mail obligingly found some outraged locals to express their indignation; here's one Ellesmere Port Asda shopper:
‘What an idiot. Next time I see him he’ll be getting a lung full off me. He’s not helping himself get votes for next year.’
And another:
There are a lot of kids hanging around outside the supermarket and we see a lot of drugs, but people like me just come here to do their shopping. How dare he say we are mutants?'
Meanwhile, Labour Councillors have merrily hopped on the bandwaggon:
Mr Anderson says that his comments were taken out of context, but I do not see how that could be the case. He quite clearly calls Asda shoppers mutants in the video. He shouldn’t have said it and he owes an apology to the people of the town.'
As they say, if the cap fits...