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

Saturday 31 December 2011

Traffic jam of the vanities

The paper's description of 'a ticking timebomb' might be putting it a bit strongly, but it's true that things got badly out of hand at Bicester Village on Boxing Day.

More than 30,000 people visited the shopping centre on December 26, causing some drivers to abandon their cars on the A41.
Tailbacks stretched back to Junction 9 of the M40 while the inconsiderate parking forced police to shut one side of the road between the Oxford Road and London Road roundabouts.

Pause a moment to consider that figure; over thirty thousand people dragged themselves from the bosom of their family on a December day to join the queue for parking spaces and cram themselves into a grossly overcrowded feeble pastiche of a New England shopping street.

And then consider that Bicester Village is a shopping outlet for last season's collections and the lines that didn't sell - it seems to have escaped the notice of the teeming hordes that the stuff in the stores is permanently marked down; this was an entirely irrational feeding frenzy.

It's a measure of how the name on the label has eclipsed the product that, in these supposedly cash-strapped times, so many ordinary people considered this a worthwhile enterprise - and ordinary people they must have been; the affluent foreigners who form Bicester Village's target clientele arrive by train from London, no traffic jams for them.

Incidentally, I'm intrigued by the Oxford Mail's choice of language; these shoppers were 'caused' to leave their cars at the roadside, as if, on finding the 1800-odd spaces full, they were in some way obliged - or entitled - to abandon their vehicles and continue on foot into the temple of Mammon.

It reminds me of the woman who set up a facebook page to draw attention to the fact that residents of her town were ‘fed up having to travel to Northampton or Milton Keynes to view films in a modern big cinema’ - this despite the fact that her town already has a two-screen cinema in the centre.

Of all the bizarre January (ha!) sales stories, this mass migration and the stranding of vehicles along the A41 is surely one of the most peculiar and inexplicable, given current economic circumstances - though there could be a certain hip-pocket or (dare we say it?) demographic factor at work.

With the possible exception of Clarks shoe shop (a leftover from the Village's 1990s infancy) Bicester Village sells virtually nothing that could be considered essential to normal life - unless, that is, your continued survival depends on designer labels and overpriced luxury goods.

Perhaps there are now people who genuinely believe it does.

Friday 30 December 2011

Satirical knitting

Here at the Tavern, we preserve a childhood nostalgia for knitted social commentary thanks to The Clangers, Oliver Postgate's little woollen aliens learning from experience the dangers of unwise agricultural practices ('Sky-Moos') or industrial over-production ('Goods').

You could knit your own Clanger if you have the time and the skill - instructions here - but, as the BBC reports today, a French blogger has gone one better and produced a whole range of instantly recognisable public figures who appear on her charmingly witty satirical website, Delit Maille (loosely, 'Outlaw Knitting') - which by happy chance sounds a lot like Daily Mail.

If you have not already encountered this bizarre but utterly inspired phenomenon, the BBC has a memorable slide show of the best bits here.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Whup! Whup! merrily on high.

It was twenty years ago today that the first commercial wind-farm went live in Delabole, Cornwall.

It caused something of a stir in those parts - much of the talk at parties over the festive season centred on whether you had yet been out to see 'them thurr turboines'.

The local garages had their hands full too, as drivers, transfixed by the sight of the spinning blades, shunted into each other or the local scenery.

Meanwhile, seabirds met a nasty end and the residents complained of the irritating thump and hum - shades of what was to come on a grand scale.

Twenty years so far - how long, I wonder, before the shine wears off for the PTB?

Posting will be light for a while, partly because of seasonal commitments but mostly because I'll be busy stripping.

The Tavern's getting a long overdue makeover, so years of accumulated woodchip and paint have to be scraped from the walls. With that ahead, there's little time to do much save wish you all all a merry Solstice, Saturnalia, Yule, Christmas or celebration of your choice. Cheers, one and all!

Sunday 18 December 2011

"Is it 'cos I is a lay-dee?"

Bless her, just when you thought all was done and dusted and the fat lady was taking a deep breath, Baroness Uddin surfaces again - it's like Fatal Attraction but with ermine.

Despite the best efforts of the Lords to shake her off, at least until she paid back the £125,000 she pocketed in dodgy expense claims, legal advice had it that a permanent exclusion would 'infringe her right as a peer to be called to the house by the Queen at the start of a new parliament'.

Worming her way back in thanks to this technicality would enable her to claim the full attendance allowance and - oh, the irony! - use it to pay back the money she owes. As an illustration of the difference between the law and justice, that would take some beating.

Thwarted on that front, their Lordships are now, according to the Sunday Times, proposing to suspend peers who fail to repay until the end of the current parliament and repeat the vote at the start of each subsequent parliament until the sum is repaid in full.

This raises the prospect of a vote specifically to exclude the Baroness, thereby opening a whole new can of worms. It is hardly to be expected that a professional Asian woman - in the sense of one who has made gainful employment out of the description - will sit back and allow that one to go ahead.

I suspect that left-leaning discrimination lawyers are even now beating a path to the door of her subsidised London flat, pleading to be allowed to take up a case in which a charge of institutional racism and/or sexism could be argued to trump the mere bagatelle of a missing £125,000.

We have, of course, celebrated the Baroness in song elsewhere, but this seems as good a time as any for a nostalgic and appropriate reprise of another expenses ditty:

The People's flag was deepest red,
But now its guiding lights are dead;
Their principles and lofty aims
Demolished by expenses claims.
New Labour came to rule the roost
And give their private funds a boost
And with a supercilious sneer,
To plant their skull and crossbones here.

While we worked hard to pay our tax,
These parasites upon our backs
Indulged themselves in luxury
At the expense of you and me.
They've tried to water down the rules,
And play us for a bunch of fools;
It's time to shout it loud and clear,
No more expenses scroungers here!

Saturday 17 December 2011

Toast of the week - Mr Pickwick edition

This week, we are raising a glass to Ken Atack of Cherwell District Council, whose bonhomie and benevolence belies his name and provides a minor but refreshing example of seasonal goodwill.

The Occupy protests, in the UK at least, have predictably suffered as a result of the weather - some rather more spectacularly than others: the spirit lives on, however, in the shape of a contender for the Christmas number one single.

A North Oxfordshire folk rock band is hoping to land a Christmas number one with a protest song about Government cuts.

The song 'draws inspiration' from the TUC march last spring, describing anarchists occupying Fortnum and Mason and invading the Ritz, and 'is believed to be the first pop song to make reference to quantitative easing', along with some scurrilous attacks on Cameron and the present government.

Billed as an 'anti-austerity song', it is accompanied by a video filmed at locations which include the Occupy protest outside St Pauls - keep an eye out for the dancing elves at 1.17 - and featuring demonstrators there carrying placards bearing the song's title: 'We're all in this together'.

Given the politically provocative nature of the song, the local news reporter who approached Cllr Atack was clearly hoping for some newsworthy hang-'em-and-flog-'em soundbites and a lively bit of controversy. What he got instead was this:

'Conservative Ken Atack, lead member for financial management on Tory-run Cherwell District Council, said he was more of a Roxy Music and Cream fan.

He said: "I'm sure the song will resonate with many young people and older ones, and if they get on 'Top of the Pops', if that's what it's called, then good for them."

Cllr Atack, we salute your magnanimity; your excellent health!

I can't say the question of what's number one at Christmas matters to me, though it would be good if Subrosa is right.

However, on the basis that real music matters more than manufactured pop bands and we are always ready to respect lyricists with something to say, whatever their point of view (though not, of course, to contribute financially to a cause condoning trespass and criminal damage), here is Leatherat's offering:

Friday 16 December 2011

Deep and crisp and even?

Despite the excitable prognostications of the Met Office's finest last night, quite a lot of us didn't wake this morning to a Winter wonderland.

True, there was a bit of soggy-looking snow lying about apologetically in a morning-afterish kind of way, but it's a far cry from that incredible satellite image of the British Isles unbroken white from edge to edge.

However, BBC news had decided the weather would be a major story, so when I tuned in this morning (courtesy of the treadmill at the gym), a shivering reporter was standing on top of the Brecon Beacons to interview a spokesman for Mountain Rescue.

It is a given that any extreme weather event means an interminable series of live reports from regional newsreaders dragged from their warm comfortable desks to the edge of a motorway, a sea-wall or a flood - if it's the latter, they are, of course, contractually obliged to stand ankle-deep in the water.

In this case, editors have had to exercise a certain amount of imagination to make a major news story out of an inch or so of slush and ice; this seemed largely to consist of finding a suitable hilltop - I imagine the rescue services will be less than delighted should they be called out to the aid of the camera crew intent on finding a snowdrift into which they can deposit their hapless reporter.

Two years ago, when a few inches of snow brought the UK to a virtual standstill, I was in Alberta (with downtown Calgary under 5 feet of snow and daytime temperatures of -30C in the Rockies). The valiant attempts by Canadian news teams to politely suppress their mirth as the news of UK airport closures rolled in is a spectacle I shall always cherish.

I'd love to know what they would make of today's reports.

For a reminder of just how spectacular snow can be, there's an astounding collection of Snow Sculptures over at Nourishing Obscurity.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

It has been pointed out by some - the Spouse among them - that I have been somewhat gloomy of late. My previous post, I admit, was particularly misanthropic, so, in advance of the festive season, I'd like to cheer things up a little.

First of all, Christmas music; while I stand by my loathing of sentimental Americana (see previous post), I am happy to admit that our highly-accomplished local brass band playing carols in town is a sound to gladden even the must curmudgeonly heart.

Meanwhile, there's a seasonal helping of Schadenfreude in the fate of the Occupy Brighton camp; first some of their tents blew away in a gale, then some genius decided to light a bonfire in a high wind and accidentally set light to the rest of them. You couldn't make it up!
And then, in the process of researching another post, I came across this gem which I can do no better than give in its entirety:
BURLESQUE comes to Fenny Compton on December 17 when Creme De La Creme Cabaret brings the latest craze in evening entertainment to the The Wharf Inn.

The compere for the evening will be Kate McGann of TV dating show Take Me Out fame, and entertainers will include the truly hysterical Nanny Dora, the Dita von Tease of the hula hoop world, Franky Fire, cheeky Hollywood siren Miss Scarlet Cuffs, vintage beauty Miss Bettie Wishes and the mesmerizing Belles Burlesque troupe. 
There will be a prize for the best dressed competitor and plenty of opportunities for audience participation.
Why does this make me laugh? Well, for those unfamiliar with the area, this is Fenny Compton.

All of it.

Reasons to be cheerful, indeed!

Saturday 10 December 2011

Christmas shopping - no thanks!

One of my favourite Giles cartoons features the family at breakfast. As Grandma descends the stairs, Mother reaches out to turn off the radios on the table:"Off transistors!" she says, "Nothing puts Grandma in her 'let's-hang-everybody' mood quicker than Wonderful Radio 1."

Regular readers will know that, for me, Christmas music has roughly the same effect. I don't mean the classical stuff; I'm very happy with the odd oratorio or a traditional carol, but the nauseating drivel that fills your ears in virtually any enclosed public space at this time of year makes my blood boil.

Prime offenders are, of course, the Americans; lacking a sensible tradition of wassailing*, yule logs or holly and ivy (all, incidentally, good Norse pagan customs), they have invented the cult of Christmas, an amalgam of drippy pseudo-nostalgia and ersatz emotion where sentimentality is viewed as a positive attribute.

Those of us who decline the invitation to rock around the Christmas tree or have ourselves a merry little Christmas are probably no great loss to the retailers pumping out this stuff; I'd like to think we have more sense than to spend unreasonable sums on overpriced tat.

As a timely antidote to the crass jollity and commercialism of the season, I'd like to offer one of my favourite alternatives, Tom Lehrer's Christmas Carol, dedicated to Longrider and his aversion to organised fun:

* Memorably described thus by Bill Bryson:
In Anglo-Saxon times, it was customary for someone offering a drink to say 'Wassail!' and for the recipient to respond 'Drinkhail!' and for the participants to repeat the exercise until comfortably horizontal.

Friday 9 December 2011

Exam cheating - everyone's a loser

The news this week that exam boards have been running courses at which teachers were told which subject areas would come up in exams is, alas, less of a surprise than it should be.

The existence of rival exam boards competing for custom means the system is inherently flawed. There is far more at stake than the simple exam fees; when a school adopts a particular syllabus, it will then buy appropriate textbooks and teaching materials (to say nothing of pupils buying past papers and revision guides) and send staff on courses run by the board - all of them nice little earners.

This willingness on the part of both exam boards and teachers to cut corners is an illustration of the way education in this country has been undermined; the undignified scramble to an end result inevitably means compromising the vital process of education and instruction.

It's reminiscent of the rival undertakers in Dave Allen's sketch:

This matter has been written on with more inside knowledge and eloquence than I could ever muster at Going Fast, Getting Nowhere - if you haven't already done so, I urge you to read the post.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Losing the swings - and the roundabouts too

The Mail is exercised this morning about a children's playground dismantled because the equipment failed to meet European safety requirements.

Perhaps the most striking thing about it*, for those of us on the downhill side of 40, at least, is that the offending equipment illustrated looks distictly tame by the standards of our childhood.

When I was young, our local park featured a slide of such vertiginous altitude and gradient that users regularly overshot the long horizontal run-out; a cage at the top of the ladder was the only protection against plummeting to the tarmac ten feet below.

Meanwhile, the swings described vast and graceful arcs from a massive frame and the see-saws were long planks of wood balanced on a central pivot; no springs or rubber matting - if you didn't get your feet down in time to break the fall, the end would hit the ground with a spine-jarring crash and your opposite number would be flung wildly into the air.

Best of all was the roundabout, a flat octagonal arrangement of planks on a central pedestal strangely reminiscent of our dining table at home. The resemblance ended there, however; in the hands of determined ten-year-olds, this contraption could generate sufficient centrifugal force to catapult its gleeful occupants a distance of several yards.

It is, perhaps, a good illustration of how expectations of children's behaviour have shifted over the past four decades. Certainly we sported an interesting variety of grazes and bruises, but the incidence of serious injury was, if anything, lower than today.

Regardless of European directives, we have seen an increased insistence on monitoring and restricting children's ability to decide for themselves or to take responsibility for their actions - small wonder, then, that a generation has grown up expecting to be provided for and entertained by others.

And just as the relaxing of discipline in schools has led to appalling behaviour as pupils try to find the limits of what's allowed, so the reduction of risk has taken all the fun out of the playground and surely contributed to risk-taking behaviour elsewhere.

*apart from the blatantly misplaced apostrophe of the caption - 'Before: The playground with it's full complement of equipment'.
I mean, we're all vulnerable to the occasional typo but they get paid to produce this stuff.

Incidentally, a trawl through the Mail also turned up this festive headline:
'Father has finger bitten off in parents' brawl at school NATIVITY PLAY'
I can't wait to see what JuliaM makes of that one!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Cancer statistics and the blame game

There's been a distinctly statistical flavour to this week, what with the question of lessons in gambling and The Moose's musings on child poverty.

I'll be the first to admit that, while I can more or less follow the reasoning of such Titans in the field as Mark Wadsworth (at least as long as he keeps explaining things so clearly), my grasp of the finer points is a little shakier than I'd like - I don't gamble, but if I did, I'd be the one standing in the bookies muttering "Each way? Er, is that r factorial divided by n minus r?"

Even I, however, have no difficulty working out from today's headlines that if just over 40% of cancers could be prevented by lifestyle change, then nearly 60% are determined by factors beyond the patient's control.

Unfortunately, this reasoning still seems to be beyond the grasp of some of those who work in the field. I make no apology, therefore, for recycling part of this post on the subject from last May, when similar statistics were published for breast cancer.


The other 58% of cases may be linked to environmental or genetic factors or other causes not yet established. Information like this, however, proves a logical step too far for many NHS staff, for whom the mantra runs thus:

Cancer is caused by unhealthy lifestyles.
You have cancer.
ergo You have an unhealthy lifestyle.

In the past few years, several of my friends and family have been diagnosed with so-called ‘lifestyle cancers’, and, to a man (and woman) subjected to lengthy instruction by medical staff about their supposedly unhealthy habits despite a clear family history of the disease in each case.

Thus a friend who walks her dog several miles every day was advised to take more exercise; a lifelong non-drinker was repeatedly told to cut down on his alcohol consumption and, most bizarrely of all, a woman who has the healthiest diet I know of was constantly lectured on cutting down on fat and sugar and avoiding junk food – she weighs less than eight stone.

And each of these reported, with varying degrees of fury, a clear and consistent implication by hospital staff that they must have brought the cancer on themselves by their own failure to lead a healthy lifestyle. Their remonstrations were brushed aside - the cancer was proof enough.

It is no secret that doctors receive a ridiculously small amount of training in the interpretation of statistics, given the relevance of probabilities and incidence – I have mentioned before the GP who excused his diagnostic failure with the words, ‘97% of people with this cancer are obese; you aren’t even overweight, so there was only a 3% chance of you having it.’

That being so, how likely is it that the lower echelons of the medical hierarchy can correctly interpret statistical information, given the standard of maths in today's schools? It is a matter of record that numeracy skills are at a frighteningly low level across the population, and I doubt that hospital staff are any exception.

Tell them that cancer is linked to poor diet and lack of exercise and, unless it is clearly explained, some, at least, are going to go on with complete self-assurance to tell cancer patients that it is all their own fault.

Update: via Longrider, this BBC article includes an interesting show-trial interview with a woman brought out to make a public confession that her cancer was lifestyle-related.
Watch out for the interviewer posing the loaded question:
"Why was it you? What was it in your lifestyle that was wrong?"

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Secret Santa - a product of derangement*

It being the feast of St Nicholas for those who do that sort of thing, I thought it would be the appropriate time to fulminate against one of the more pointless activities carried out in his name.

Several bloggers have already posted on the abomination that is the employees' Christmas party - enforced crass jollity with a bunch of people whose only common factor is that they work in the same building. I'm off the hook this year - the plan for a beer-tasting at a local brewery has once again been shelved, happily confirming my metaphorical opinion of my employers.

There is, however, no escape from the horror of Secret Santa. The workplace variety is probably the most monstrous of all; soooner or later, a member of staff will get the bit between his (or more usually her) teeth and you are dragooned into the whole sorry business.

For anyone fortunate enough to have missed this creeping phenomenon so far - just wait; they'll come for you in the end - each person in a group draws the name of another and buys them a present to a pre-arranged budget. The presents are given anonymously; thus everyone receives a gift and participants have the sense of universal generosity while only making one purchase.

Now that's all well and good - and even pleasantly economical - in families, say, or groups of close friends where presents would be customary. But how many people, particularly in the current climate, want to spend money on presents for their work colleagues? How do you even know what they would like?

And don't even think about refusing; if everyone else has caved in - or, worse, is enthusiastic - you'll never hear the end of it. Politeness dictates that you agree, so you find yourself obliged to buy a meaningful gift for someone you hardly know.

Unless you a) are highly creative and b) have plenty of spare time, this will probably mean heading for one of the major retailers, who have not been slow to cash in on the practice; there are Secret Santa sections springing up on all sides on retail websites and in the high street.

So the day arrives; the spirit of St Nicholas is celebrated with a vast heap of plastic ephemera, unwanted items and cross-purposes - the law of averages dictating that every group contains someone whose idea of a joke is a mankini or furry handcuffs and a grown-up who will have taken it seriously and given a bottle of good wine.

Should you find yourself entangled in one of these schemes and unable to make a graceful exit, it's no good trying to get away with an empty box - unless you want to upset the instigator. I recommend an alternative present so bizarre and out of keeping with the consumerist spirit that you'll never be asked again.

My current favourite is Oxfam Unwrapped's £5 load of manure, but I'm open to suggestions...

*For statisticians, this means a permutation of names on a list such that everyone is paired with someone different. For the rest of us, it just means what it says.

Monday 5 December 2011

Be careful what you wish for...

In the high-and-far-off-times, O Best Beloved, when the Coalition was so-new-and-all, I exhorted them thus on the subject of gambling, in a post on punters taken for a ride by dodgy fairground stalls:
Here's an idea for Michael Gove & Co.; if you want lessons in school to be relevant and useful in later life, you could forget about Citizenship GCSE's and teach some basic probability and a realistic calculation of the chances of winning.
And behold, not eighteen months later, a plan is afoot to introduce lessons on gambling. But it isn't what I meant at all!

Instead of incorporating into maths lessons the ability to work out odds and calculate risk, the proposed course will be part of PSHE and include a class discussion in which pupils are asked 'to identify some of the more positive aspects of gambling'.

This, together with the stated objective - "to enable students to increase their knowledge and understanding of gambling" - is, I suppose, hardly surprising, given that the project is the brainchild of an industry-funded organisation specifically to tackle problem gambling and its given aim is to teach "responsible gambling" instead.

Since my main area of concern is the 'tax on stupidity' aspect of the situation, I don't hold out much hope that this will improve matters; according to The Times, 'In its submission, Gamcare admits that an initiative in Canada left pupils more aware of how gambling works but 'not more likely to know about the signs of problem gambling''.

Now I ought to declare my position on this - I have a long-standing aversion to gambling. This is due in part to generations of Calvinist ancestors glaring down from the hereafter (even atheists sometimes find themselves looking over their shoulders) but mainly to my experiences at school.

The annual bazaar was the province of Sister Patrick, who ran a bottle stall from which nearly all the winning tickets had been extracted in advance. Pupils also had to run the gauntlet of Sr Mary's dartboard (blunted darts), Sr Seamas' coconut-shy (glued down) and Sr Clare's tombola (you've guessed it). Most of us had worked it out by the time we left, but by then there was always a new crop of bright-eyed youngsters, eager to win and well-supplied with pennies.

The nuns had it nicely calculated - just enough pupils won prizes to keep everyone's hopes up while extracting the maximum amount of profit. I may not have derived much spiritual benefit from that education, but being thus parted on an annual basis from my hard-earned pocket-money gave me a lifelong aversion to risking cash ever again.

One of the problems with lessons on gambling is that teenagers' brains are hot-wired for risk-taking and primed to respond to the prospect of reward. Some never grow out of it; the same phenomenon sells millions of scratchcards and Lottery tickets every week, even when the purchasers are struggling to make ends meet.

Instead of appealing to a judgement and reasoning ability pupils are unlikely to have, surely it would be better for government initiatives to use maths to illustrate exactly how remote are the chances of winning.

But then, of course, no-one would play the National Lottery*.

(*Nick M at Counting Cats sums up the situation admirably in a comment)

Saturday 3 December 2011

The price of compassion

It would probably be fair to say that teachers do not rank highly in the public sympathy this week, which is unfortunate for this man.

Teacher Martin Davis was suspended for giving a lift home to a 17-year-old pupil who had forgotten his bus fare.

Mr. Davis, a maths and science supply teacher for 23 years and a father of two, was employed by an agency to give one-to-one support to boys with dyslexia in a Newcastle college.

One afternoon in November, one of his pupils approached him and said he had no money for the bus fare home; as he would be passing the boy’s house on his way home, Mr Davis offered him a lift.

“A week later one of the office staff at the college pulled me to one side, having heard about me giving the boy a lift, and said it was a stupid thing to do because I was opening myself to all sorts of allegations.

I said I was sorry and she just told me not to do it again, and that seemed to be the end of the matter.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Davis, it was not; the agency, presumably alerted by college staff, promptly removed him from his job there and suspended him without pay pending further investigation. Official statements have been produced and the words ‘safeguarding’ and ‘procedures’ bandied about in justification.

Career-wrecking events like this happen with depressing regularity, although in this case, at least, there is no question of malicious allegations by a pupil; in fact, according to Mr Davis, the boy concerned was ‘upset and angry’ about the dismissal.

Quite apart from the incongruity of applying child protection policies in this case – the 'child' was old enough to be in full-time employment, join the army or be legally married – I’m shocked by the lack of respect and trust for someone who has dedicated his working life to educating the next generation.

Mr Davis is an experienced teacher whose background must have been repeatedly scrutinised by all the usual CRB checks, yet the protocol treats him as a potential risk to the young man he offered to help. What’s more, one of the office staff at the college considered it acceptable to describe his action as ‘stupid’ and admonish him for it.

What would have happened, I wonder, had Mr Davis followed the approved course of action and the boy, walking home alone after dark, been attacked or met with an accident? It’s a matter of record that young men are far more likely than any other group to be victims of urban violence.

Sadly, I have no doubt that officialdom would shake its collective head in sorrow while affirming that Mr Davis had done the right thing in abandoning him to his fate. However, had the boy failed to make it home that night, I am certain that Mr Davis would not have seen it that way.

Teachers who want to stay in their jobs these days must, like Caesar’s wife, be seen to be above suspicion at all times. Unfortunately, it seems that it sometimes means being above compassion too.

Friday 2 December 2011

Divide and Conquer

Unison. Unite. I'm part of the Union. One out, all out. United we stand.

Once upon a time, there was a point to all this. Combination - acting as a united group to withdraw labour - allowed poorly-educated and exploited 19th century factory workers to negotiate fair pay and conditions by hitting the mill owners where it hurt.

But what did this week's strikers achieve, beyond illustrating exactly how little difference the withdrawal of their labour would make to the country? Well, I suppose they can congratulate themselves on a mass demonstration of support - at least by those who weren't spending the day Christmas shopping.

Certainly the BBC was happy to carry repeated interviews with staff who had never considered strike action before, and who were now being provoked into it by the actions of the coalition; the subliminal message was clear; these are decent, honest workers forced into an uncharacteristic joint rebellion.

But the united facade covers a world of differences. Take for example the staff I have been dealing with recently at a major hospital. One is an administrative officer; last time I saw her, she arrived half an hour late (wiping chocolate crumbs off her face), filled in the wrong form and insisted on telling me all about the birthday party she was planning for her child.

In the same building, in a secure dementia ward, I met a male nurse who works tirelessly with his confused and sometimes violent patients; breaks are few and far-between, but he appears to maintain a calm and reassuring presence throughout, however difficult or unpleasant his tasks.

The work these two people do has very little in common; the desk-bound administrator will probably be able to keep doing her job (or, more accurately, occupying her desk while surfing the net and eating biscuits) to a greater age than the nurse could meet the demands of his, and thus retire on a far larger pension.

Meanwhile, those head teachers who closed their schools have salaries that are, in some cases, double those of the classroom teachers they led out - with accordingly higher pensions. An average salary-based scheme will hit them hardest, since senior management entails a massive salary hike in most areas.

Those striking Victorian mill-workers, by and large, were doing the same kind of work and stood to lose or gain together. By contrast, some of those marchers last Wednesday (not to mention the thousands of public sector staff who went to work as usual) have far more to lose than others, and some are already putting in their all while others idle along.

So here's a thought; why not allow certain public sector workers to keep their current pension rights because they do jobs too difficult, unpleasant or stressful for the majority of workers to tackle and because they are likely to burn out earlier? These people are generally among the lower-paid in any case.

That takes care of the front-line staff who, according to Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, 'care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly. They wipe bottoms, noses, they help children to learn, and empty bins.'

Meanwhile, office staff, managers and administrators adopt the new proposals and save the state a fortune.

Of course, it would never happen; the unions wouldn't hear of it.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Quotes of the day - Clarkson hyperbole edition

No, it's not the out-of-context comment that launched a thousand angry outbursts* (and 5,000 complaints to the BBC), but the Unison response. After the general secretary demanded that Clarkson be reported to the police - and wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall in that interview? - a spokeswoman weighed in with this objective analysis:

'It's disgusting. It's like something Colonel Gaddafi would say about a demonstration.'
(Courtesy of Radio 4 news at 6.30pm)

And the ever-acerbic Longrider has just posted this memorably phrased opinion on the same topic:

'No one – except a compete fool with their head shoved so far up their arse they can do their own dental checks – seriously believes that he was actually suggesting anyone be killed.'

*If you haven't seen the footage, it's on view at Angry Exile, who finds a side order of extra amusement on camera.

Monday 28 November 2011

The tide is high (but the IQ's aren't)

...Here we go again!.

This time, we're off to JuliaM's stamping-ground of Southend for a startling tale of man vs nature.

We've mentioned here before that, despite our island nation status, there are still Britons who appear totally baffled by the fact that the sea goes up and down (see 'Roll on, thou grate and restless ocean').

One might, though, expect rather more awareness from those actually involved in seashore construction work...

Workers building flood defences on a beach were left red-faced after returning from a break to find their construction vehicles underwater.

They had parked their digger and nine-tonne dumper on the shore at Chalkwell in Southend, Essex but were caught out by a high spring tide.

As it happens, one of our favourite haunts is a beach further along the same coast, where maintenance work on the sea-wall and breakwaters must be done on a regular basis to prevent beach erosion and flooding.

The contractors we have observed there have it down to a fine art; during the spring tides, they arrive in force as the sea is receding, drive down the beach to work at full stretch throughout low tide and then retreat before the oncoming waves.

And here's the clever bit; those contractors are local chaps and, knowing that the lowest tides - which uncover a maximum area for them to work on - are also the highest ones, they remove their equipment completely from the beach until the next low tide.

So why should this lot have lost the plot so completely? Well, there's a clue at the end of the article (complete with authentic Daily Mail typo):

Council contractors North Cotts Civils were unavailable for comment.

Once you decipher it (with the help of the photos), it turns out that this coastal engineering was being carried out by North Notts Civils, based in - you've guessed it - the distinctly landlocked town of Nottingham.

Carried out under the aegis of Southend Council's Deputy Leader with responsibility for Regeneration and Enterprise (now there's a title to conjure with!), this has all the hallmarks of another triumph of competitive tendering over common sense.

Thursday 24 November 2011

DIY post

I'm going away for a few days - which is annoying because there's a matter I really want to post on but don't have time.

It was inspired by reading this post at Ambush Predator, on a woman who seems to think the only reason not to behave appallingly would be the prospect of being found out, closely followed by Angry Exile's look at the letter written by a teenage burglar blaming his victims for their stupidity in leaving a window open.

It's the sense of inevitability about their attitude that struck me, as if they perceive their default setting to be aggression and criminality. While most of us - or so I'd like to think - try to treat others as we would like to be treated in our turn, they seem to regard their fellow-man as prey. Maybe there's something after all in the idea of Original Sin.

There's much I want to say on the matter but the taxi's due; regualar visitors to the Tavern must know my style by now, so I invite you, if you haven't already done so, to visit the links and imagine for yourselves the wordy and incoherent ramblings I would have attached if I could.

A bientôt!

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Empty Vessels

Flushed with pride at the forthcoming strike, Patrick Roach, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, has seized the moment for some inflammatory rhetoric.

Channelling his inner orator, he proclaimed to the Socialist Education Association, a group formed in the 1920s for far left-leaning Labour-supporting teachers,

‘The Education Act is a crime against humanity, a smash and grab raid that will tear apart our schools and our communities.’

Even allowing for the fact that he was preaching to the converted (this particular audience would probably be happy to join him in a resounding chorus of 'The Red Flag' while urging on the tumbrils) it does seem to be something of an overstatement.

In certainly appears so to MP and human rights lawyer Dominic Raab, who claims it is 'offensive' - that word again! - to anyone who has experienced genuine abuse of their human rights, though I'm inclined to think that anyone unfortunate enough to have suffered under one of the planet's nastier regimes is hardly likely to attach much importance to the rantings of a former sociology lecturer.

Roach is, of course, only following the standard demagogue script; Humanity (crimes against) is right up there in the rabble-rousers' handbook, sandwiched between Hegemony (bourgeois) and Hyperbole (use of). It's a very good indication of how far the union management is removed from the day-to-day reality of the classroom.

Teaching unions are, after all, a contradiction in terms. It is essentially a solitary profession, requiring a considerable degree of autonomy and self-reliance. And good teachers - the ones we should be encouraging - are dedicated professionals with a vocation to instruct, inform and educate. There are plenty of them out there - it's just that they tend not to make much noise.

It is, by and large, a disaster for the structure of the profession that many of the brightest and best want to stay where they can do the most good - in the classroom - while the power-hungry and self-important set about climbing the greasy pole, knowing that, if you get high enough, you may never have to teach another lesson.

And over and above this, there are the unions; while there are many union reps at school level who are also dedicated and hard-working teachers, I think it's fair to say that, in the higher echelons at least, you will find few people who were ever likely to have made the best interests of their pupils their first priority.

'O wad some Power the giftie gie us...

To see oursels as ithers see us!'

At least next week, when, according to media predictions, hundreds of schools will close due to striking teachers.

While the union activists see themselves protesting their just cause in a glorious, banner-waving amalgam of the Jarrow March and Les Miserables, it's doubtful, to say the least, whether the rest of the population will be viewing them in the same light.

Teaching unions are, as I've said here before, an anomaly; a significant proportion of teachers care nothing for union politics but need the legal protection insurance against possible allegations against them by pupils.

Many teaching union members treat it like joining the RAC or AA; pay up and then forget about it. The few active members muttering over mugs of bad coffee in the corner of the staffroom at breaktime are a far cry from the mass shop-floor meetings of Britain's industrial past.

In this case, however, the rank and file have been roused by the fact that, having paid heavily into the superannuation scheme, in some cases for many years, they may see their final pensions drastically reduced. It's a reasonable point - particularly for part-timers and women who've had a career break - but closing the schools is not the way to win friends and influence people.

There is already much resentment among the general population about teachers' long holidays and job security; when it comes to a strike, it seems that being on a comfortable salary may have prevented the union types appreciating the plight of parents who will lose their hourly wage if they take the day off for childcare.

If the union officials are hoping for parents to give a mass display of solidarity and wholehearted support for their cause on Thursday, they may be sorely disappointed.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Quote of the week

'You don’t believe in fairy tales do you?’

The Duke of Edinburgh, on being told by the managing director of a leading wind farm company that 'onshore wind farms were one of the most cost-effective forms of renewable energy'.

Friday 18 November 2011

Toast of the week - Ilkley edition

Three cheers this week for Gordon Eddison, leader of Otley Brass Band.

Mr Eddison is dismayed at the decline of the iconic Yorkshire song 'On Ilkley Moor baht 'at'. Shocked at the realisation that only a tiny minority of his school music pupils know the song, he has decided to do something about it.

It's an issue dear to our hearts at the Tavern because it enshrines one of our founding principles - there's nothing like a good song set to a well-known tune. A picturesque tale is told that the first line originated at a Wesleyan picnic, when a knowing question to a courting couple caught the imagination of one of the choir.

This choir member, who should also be included in today's toast  (though as a Methodist he - or she - would certainly not have approved), then went home and - here's the clever bit - set to a well-known hymn tune the now-familiar tale of the young man who goes courting sans headgear and meets a nasty end.

The tune chosen was one widely used for the Christmas carol 'While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night'. A stroke of genius inspired the lyricist to replace the repeated triumphal line 'And glory shone around' with the refrain 'On Ilkley Moor baht 'at', a marriage of memorable imagery and euphonious articulation that was a joy to sing.

The result was a resounding success - not least because local choirs could immediately perform it with the harmonies familiar from their Sunday services. I'm inclined to think that, addictive as the practice is, those choristers probably made a habit of such compositions and this particularly ingenious example is the only survivor of a larger repertoire.

I have no personal claim on this song - though my sister, as an honorary Yorkshirewoman, has sung it many times - but I heartily support Mr Eddison's campaign to save from oblivion one of the classic examples of its type. Though his preoccupation is with the borrowed tune rather than the words, the whole deserves to be preserved as a model of the art.

Wheear 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee?
On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at
Wheear 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee?
Wheear 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee?
On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at
On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at
On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at

Tha's been a cooartin' Mary Jane
Tha's bahn' to catch thy deeath o` cowd

Then us'll ha' to bury thee
Then t'worms'll come an` eyt thee up

Then t'ducks'll come an` eyt up t'worms
Then us'll go an` eyt up t'ducks

Then us'll all ha' etten thee
That's wheear we get us ooan back

Tuesday 15 November 2011

A horrible coincidence

First there was this, from JuliaM in answer to a comment on her blog suggesting, "if you can't actually be a victim, try being "vulnerable"..."

'Quite! It's got to the point now that when I see that word, I think 'OMG! What have they done?' rather than 'OMG! What have they had done to them?'...'   

...and then, a few hours later, there was this, from the BBC report on the 10-year-old boy abducted in Oldbury and imprisoned in a nearby flat:

'The address where the boy was found is owned by Adullam Homes Housing Association Limited which houses vulnerable people who are difficult to find accommodation for.'

Monday 14 November 2011

A Song for Baroness Uddin - Reprise

I love the expenses scandal - it's the story that just keeps on giving!

The latest twist in the tale is the ruling that Baroness Uddin cannot be prevented from taking her seat in the Lords when her suspension expires in April, even though she has not yet paid back any of the £125,000 to which she helped herself in dodgy expense claims, saying she cannot afford to do so.

Her intention, it seems, is to trot back to Westminster next Spring, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and claim £300 a day in tax-free allowances, out of which she could repay the lot in three years without touching her own substantial assets.

Since one assumes the allowances are meant solely to reimburse the Lords for out-of-pocket expenses incurred in attendance at the House, this would surely imply recidivism on a monumental scale.

It's been a while since we first immortalised her in song; I think another verse is called for...

She keeps a home down in Wapping,
Where subsidies help pay the rent,
A mansion in Bangladesh,
And don’t forget the flat in Kent,
Pressed for a remedy, she says she’s in penury,
But once she’s back in Westminster then all will be fine;
Three hundred quid a day she’ll get,
She’ll use your cash to pay her debt
Extraordinarily nice!
She's Manzila Uddin,
Baroness of Bethnal Green,
House of Lords expenses queen;
Her arrant greed will blow your mind.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Blistering Barnacles, your Holiness!

In the midst of this week's financial Sturm und Drang, a surreal note was added by the official Vatican newspaper's ringing endorsement of Tintin as a 'Catholic hero'.

'Tintin is a Western knight of modern times, an unstained heart in an invulnerable body... Tintin is now all alone in initiating children into the values of chivalry.'

It's quite a publicity coup for the film that has had at least one die-hard fan frothing at the mouth; the Guardian's critic left the cinema 'too stunned and sickened to speak' at the violence perpetrated on his childhood favourite.

He is, however, something of a lone voice crying in a wilderness of merchandise, promotional tie-ins and media hype designed to bring to a wider British audience a character whose adventures have hitherto been largely confined to the bookcases of the francophile middle class.

This has opened a festering can of worms in the form of the reporter's earlier adventures - and in particular 'Tintin in the Congo'. For many years this book was unavailable in the UK - now, with massive sales expected on the back of the film, the publishers have issued the entire canon, leaving retailers with something of a problem.

Like an elderly uncle with embarrassing racist views, this book needs close supervision in the company of the impressionable young; it has thus been banished to the top shelf and forced to wear a sash proclaiming that it reflects the 'colonial attitudes of the time' and the 'stereotypes of the period which some people may find offensive'.

This is a red rag to the bull of L'Osservatore; 'can the book really perturb the young Britons of today, who live off the internet, video games and fish and chips ?'

The answer is, almost certainly, a resounding 'no', because it's doubtful that many will actually read it; have you tried to get the average child to read a book recently - even a comic-strip one? They're far more likely to immerse themselves in the Tintin console games - when they're not glued to the X-factor or facebook.

I suspect that the vast majority of people reading 'Tintin in the Congo' this week are journalists, activists and the professionally offended - and I wish them joy of it. Actually, as I remember from reading it long ago in France, the story's pretty weak - Herge didn't really get into his narrative stride until 'King Ottakar's Sceptre', eight years later.

As Herge matured - 'Tintin in the Congo' was, after all the unaided work of a 22-year-old - his hero metamorphosed into the character the Vatican praises, assisting left-wing rebels in South America, defending natives against colonial oppression and risking his life to rescue a Chinese friend.

And I'd love to see what the Daily Mail makes of 'The Castafiore Emerald', in which Tintin meets a group of gypsies forced by the authorities to camp at a rubbish tip and offers them free use of the meadow at the Captain's stately home, later defending them when they are unjustly suspected of theft.

But amid all the fuss over racist portrayal of the Congolese, something arguably more sinister has escaped notice. None of the recent articles deploring Herge's racist depiction of Africans has mentioned that there are some decidedly unflattering portrayals of Jewish bankers and financiers in the books - take a look, for example, at the sinister Bohlwinkel in 'The Shooting Star' (1942).

In the original version the character was a New York financier named Blumenstein; a subsequent revision relocated him to a fictitious country but could not eliminate the stereotypical caricature of the illustration - potentially as offensive, one might think, as the large-lipped African natives.

Although Herge later explicitly expressed regret about some of the opinions he held in his youth, the illustrations remain. It's an interesting lesson in victim hierarchy and the changing fashions of political correctness - and it raises some difficult questions in the Vatican's readiness to claim Tintin as a Catholic hero and a role model.

By bizarre coincidence for fans of the genre, Asterix has surfaced today in a fine post by Pavlov's Cat.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Leering O'Leary knows There's Always the Sun

Oh dear! Michael O'Leary's done it again. In a perfect storm of tackiness, O'Leary chose an interview with the Sun - on the City pages - to put forward the idea of pay-per-view in-flight entertainment of a distinctly adult nature.

What Ryanair passengers need, according to O'Leary, is a pay-TV service allowing them to watch TV, play games, gamble or watch 'erotic movies' on smart-phones or tablets:
"I’m not talking about having it on screens on the back of seats for everyone to see; it would be on handheld devices. Hotels around the world have it, so why wouldn't we?"
It's not the first time O'Leary has put forward a controversial idea - remember his suggestion for all-standing flights? Or getting rid of the co-pilot? - but this one sets a new standard for grubbiness, particularly given next year's Ryanair calendar, now on sale.

In a departure from the usual swimwear, the calendar features a bunch of Ryanair cabin crew so eager to play tennis or take a walk in the park that they appear to have left most of their clothes at home. Lingerie-clad young women are familiar territory for Sun readers, however, so, to be sure of the front page, O'Leary has had to go one better.

Because it's clear that O'Leary is not so much getting in touch with his inner Hugh Hefner as making sure of his continued place in the media spotlight. It's just that his method of choice - and his chosen vehicle - this time happens to be particularly sleazy.

In fact, I think this calls for another song (with apologies to The Stranglers):

Did you hear about O’Leary,
And his innovative idea
For the in-flight entertainment;
On discreet hand-held devices
The passengers get TV,
While films of an adult sort are
Played to order -
Mike O’Leary does it!

O’Leary he decided,
There’s no catering for the traveller,
With a charge for any luggage;
He spoke of savings many,
No co-pilot, porn aplenty,
Getting media attention
For his story,
Nice 'n' sleazy,
Mike O’Leary does it,
Mike O’Leary does it,
Mike O’Leary does it,
Does it every time!

So near and yet so far!

Apocaholics around the world might just be forgiven for heaving a secret wistful sigh as the catchily-named asteroid 2005 YU55 passes by a mere 325,000km away tonight.

We've known about this one for a while, unlike the two that took everyone by surprise when they came much closer last year; I suggested then that a fly-by was an excellent excuse for a party but, frankly, in the middle of the working week in November, I'm not sure I can summon up the enthusiasm.

In today's climate of austerity, it's almost surreal to think that Lembit Opik once drew up realistic plans for a National Asteroid Agency to scan the skies for approaching doom - although, as I remember, he wasn't particularly clear on what, exactly, we could have done about it.

Global news coverage has shown up some interesting variations in tone; while the Boston Globe is decidedly upbeat - Big asteroid to make close, harmless zip by Earth - the Wall Street Journal is far less sanguine - Asteroid to Just Squeeze Past Earth.

Meanwhile the Irish Times is milking the situation for all it's worth - Astronomers focus on asteroid hurtling towards Earth - and the New Zealanders are in full prophet-of-doom mode with Close-call asteroid would have devastating impact if it hit - either there's a closet apocaholic on their editorial staff or someone's having a really bad day.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Emotional vampires and corporate bonding

Somewhere in Hell, I hope there is a place reserved for the people who dream up corporate bonding strategies.

I'm not talking about Kriss Murrin and her freshness cupboard or the 'stir-fry' role-play (see "Today, Home Secretary, you're going to be a beansprout") - grisly as that sort of thing can be - but the really nasty ones, who persuade their victims to share their most traumatic childhood experiences with the group.

There's an example quoted in Sally Brampton's advice page in today's Sunday Times concerning a work course at which participants were required to 'talk through the highs and lows of our lives from as far back as we could remember'; in this case, reliving an old tragedy had a serious and lasting effect on the reader.

The emotional incontinence that characterises popular culture has spilled over into the corporate sphere where, I suspect, it is doing untold damage. Managers fall for the new-age psychobabble of catharsis and re-birthing, secure in the knowledge that they won't be the ones hot-seated for simulated playground bullying or parental abuse.

This whole idea of repeatedly raking over unpleasant experiences rather than letting the passage of time bury them away has become the norm - barely is the ink dry on reports of a catastrophe before counsellors are being bussed in from all sides to 'help' the survivors; in our secular society they have rushed to fill the void left by the consolation of religion, as Subrosa has eloquently described elsewhere.

And it's a short step from there to the assumption that all trauma must be relived; that there is something wrong with those who try to ignore it and carry on. In the same way, amateur genealogists are mercilessly stripping away years of oblivion to bring to light events best left forgotten.

And finally there's the Jeremy Kyle effect - emotional voyeurism. I'm sure his audience feel a sense of bonding as they vicariously wallow in the pain paraded on stage for their delectation, but it takes a special sort of mind to conceive of using the same phenomenon in a corporate setting.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Bottoms up!

Here at the Tavern, we have been celebrating the harvest season with a succession of cider-brews. Now the last few apples are dropping from the trees and we have a dozen or so gallons already bottled ready to see us through the winter.

And, following an entertaining and informative exchange of comments on home-distilling courtesy of the redoubtable Leg-Iron, we have been considering turning some of it into something more interesting.

This is, of course a civil offence - though not a criminal one; unless we blow ourselves up in the process, the knock at the door won't be the boys in blue but HMRC's finest demanding their pound of flesh (or rather £20 duty a litre plus a £250 fine).

Leg-Iron suggests freeze-distilling, the method used in New England to make their notorious applejack; this seems to be a method popular with scientists, presumably because they have access to large freezers and, being of an experimental turn of mind, are less likely to worry about the potential methanol content.

Should winter temperatures be suitably severe, we might give it a try. However, the spouse has found, in a book on self-sufficiency, an alternative method involving beer heated in a large copper, a bowl on top to condense the vapour and a floating basin to catch the drips of what it optimistically calls whisky.

It then goes on to warn that distillation may not be legal in your part of the world. Fear not, however; the book has some helpful advice on the subject:

"If some inquisitive fellow comes down the drive, it doesn't take a second to be boiling clothes in the copper, making porridge in the floating basin and bathing the baby in the big flat dish."

It might, admittedly, take us a bit of time to borrow a baby from somewhere, but I feel the writer's attitude to authority strikes exactly the right note - after all, where is the justification for fining householders for preparing their own garden produce for their own consumption?

Whether in sparkling cider or home-made apple brandy, I'll continue to raise a glass to the freedom of the individual and confusion to the revenue men.

Cheers, one and all!

Friday 4 November 2011

One small step for man...

Don't get me wrong; I think the Mars 500 mission has an important role to play in the development of long-range space-travel - after all, this blog was in on the start of the mission 520 days ago. It's just that...well... I mean for goodness' sake!

Watch LIVE as the hatch is opened! See six men step out from a converted submarine in a Moscow car park!

After all, it's hardly Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, is it? As far as I can see, the only people interested in seeing them emerge, blinking, into the daylight would be their families and friends.

Of more significance, perhaps, is the fact that we can watch the event. In just over 40 years - half a single lifetime - we have gone from relatively few privileged souls huddled round black-and-white televisions to a world population able to watch live action in full colour on TVs, computers and even phones almost anywhere on earth.

There's a certain irony in the fact that, while the moon has returned to its unattainable status, at least for the time being, and we are, in any case, almost enclosed in a cosmic cage of our own making, technology has significantly shrunk the Earth, at least in terms of communication.

However, there's having the power to say something and there's having something worth saying. Had the intrepid six actually been to Mars, there might well be a media frenzy beyond all imagining at their return; as it is, despite the best efforts of the European Space Agency, the story remains resolutely low-key.

Of course, that's before anyone has told the European contingent exactly what's been going on in their absence - perhaps it might be worth tuning in after all to hear the Frenchman and the Italian reacting to that.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The sledgehammer, the rapier or the firebomb?

Spinoza at Rational Islam? today raises the issue of free speech with reference to the fire-bombing of the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Some of the cartoons can be found here - courtesy of the Pub Philosopher; I have to admit that I don't find them particularly funny and the style is one I consider horribly vulgar but that is, of course, not the issue. Meanwhile Longrider has also entered the fray at Orphans of Liberty with a well-considered post on the subject.

Here in the less intellectual environment of the Tavern, our musings have taken a more melodic turn...

To make fun of the Prophet takes men who are bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear;
The latest example is Charlie Hebdo
And its issue concerning sharia.

Of political satire and scurrilous news
The magazine's made a career
But cartoons of Mohammed and critical views
Of Islamists have now cost it dear.

On Twitter and Facebook the faithful complain
Saying editor Charb went too far;
And of course France's free speech allows them a way
To explain just why 'Je ne veux pas...'

Though Monsieur Charbonnier's not one to hide
When it comes to a verbal fracas,
It was not with debate his opponents replied
But with petrol alight in a jar.

There is always a risk when you want to make fun
Of religions that people hold dear,
But who's to decide if a cartoon or pun
Is high satire or merely a sneer?

Whoever it is who is taking a stand
There is one thing that has to be clear;
The unwritten sign of a civilized land
Is the freedom to speak without fear.

For those who were not raised on the strains of Abdul Abulbul Amir (I must get round to a post of Pa Peachum's favourites one day), the tune can be found here:

Friday 28 October 2011

Fish Spas and the Giant Squid

It would be fair to say that our nearest town is not a feast for the eyes. A few misguided tourists do find their way here but, after a fruitless search for historical attractions or picturesque scenes, they generally end up drifting round the shopping centre like everyone else.

It is not a prosperous area; figures show a depressingly low per capita income and a significant number of people on benefits - not surprising when part of the town has achieved national notoriety as 'Chav Central'. That aspect is mirrored in the abundance of pound shops and a prominently-placed pawnbrokers.

And yet a stroll round the town provides an interesting counterpoint. In just two short streets, you can count six hairdressers - of the unisex trendy and expensive kind - as well as a tanning salon, two tattoo parlours, four nail bars and, as of this week, a fish pedicure shop.

Few of these establishments cater for the shy and retiring; the emphasis in on treatments in the shop window under the public gaze - perhaps part of the attraction is being seen to have your roots/nails/feet done, making it the ultimate in conspicuous consumption.

After all, none of these things comes cheap - and there's the puzzle. In a town where, we are told, belts have been tightened to wasp-like proportions, where do these customers come from? For customers there are in abundance, smirking out from their shop window vantage points with their hair in foil or their feet in a fishtank.

There is only one conclusion; that the official figures don't even begin to tell the story. That, far removed from the headlines, a black economy is thriving and expanding so fast that businesses like these can open up in prime locations in the current economic climate and be sure of a steady income via the hip pockets of the locals.

The scale of it is a classic 'known unknown' - we are aware it's out there, but the size of it is a complete mystery and there's no way to deal with it; like the giant squid of legend, the monster lurks in the depths of society, extending its tentacles in every direction - unknowable, unquantifiable and potentially dangerous.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

"Les QI, ont-ils brusquement baissés alors que j’étais absent?"

Remember these chaps?

Six intrepid astro/cosmonauts have spent the past 513 days on a simulated mission to Mars in the interests of space research. For over a year and a half, their only contact with Earth has been through the official communications link.

While they have produced plenty of media-friendly diary entries and accounts of their situation, all their information on events outside has come via Mission Control, where psychologists have been employed to ensure their emotional well-being and equilibrium.

How likely is it, then, that the two Europeans involved - a Frenchman and an Italian - have been allowed to follow the development of the growing financial crisis in the eurozone? What possible good could come of describing the situation to men in their position?

So in a week or so, Romain and Diego will emerge, blinking, into the spotlight of European media attention and find out that it's all been going to the dogs - and just to complicate matters, thanks to an ill-timed grimace captured by the world's cameras, relations between Berlusconi and Sarkozy are less than cordial.

I imagine that, sometime next week, on the outskirts of Moscow, there will be a scene not entirely unlike the one in Aliens when a newly-defrosted Ripley discovers just how disastrously things have gone wrong in her absence.

And like Ripley, one imagines, our intrepid heroes will find themselves asking the question,"Did IQ's just drop sharply while I was away?"

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Rhyl-life drama

Is there, I wonder, a category in the Darwin awards for those who, having reproduced, attempt to rectify the situation by removing theselves and their adult offspring from the gene pool in a startlingly novel and unintelligent way?

If so, honourable mention is surely due to the woman who, accompanied by her 15-year-old son, was picked up drifting off the coast of Rhyl this morning. It takes a truly spectacular lack of common sense to take to the sea in an inflatable ring in late October with an offshore breeze and an outgoing tide.

The RNLI are no strangers to the idiocy of their fellow-man (and woman) over bank holidays and Summer weekends, but they might have thought that by now, with the sea at 11 degrees and the air about the same, they could forget about the terminally incompetent and concentrate on rescuing the victims of genuine emergencies.

Anyway, all this started me wondering whether the RNLI have some sort of award system of their own for this kind of thing - after all, they probably see more of it than anyone else (with the possible exception of staff in A&E). You'll find some of the sort of thing I mean here under the label RNLI or sea rescue.

If they do, I'm sure it is kept under wraps - bad publicity and all that - but I'd like to think that, despite the serious nature of the risks involved, they do see a certain black humour in it all.


Hey - where'd the internet go? Followers of the Tavern gossip may have noticed things being rather sporadic round here, due in part to the internet cutting out every morning for a couple of hours.

We tried re-booting everything in sight repeatedly to no avail; the ISP couldn't help either. Finally, this morning, we worked out the answer and identified the culprit...

It's Peter the Postman! Good morning, Peter, are you having a busy day? Lots of letters for the people of Newgate?

Peter the postman is a very busy man
He parks up his Mazda anywhere he can,
Sets off on his round taking his big red sack
And the Tavern's lost the internet until he marches back.

No more casual surfing, blogging has to stop,
No way to research or browse, to comment or to shop;
With wireless interference or something of the sort
The Mazda blocks our internet and leaves our tempers fraught.

Seriously, though, has anyone else experienced this? Is it something to do with the car electronics or do the Royal Mail have some kind of sinister radio or security device?  Or are they simply trying to make us abandon e-mail and buy a stamp?

For those who don't remember Camberwick Green (and as a nostalgic treat for those who do with affection), here's the original:

Update: It's definitely the car alarm. We've had a chat with him and tried it out; what's more, he's been having internet problems at home for the same reason.

Thursday 20 October 2011

'Make room! Make room!'

Much of the room in question is being rapidly created between Tessa Jowell and the Intergenerational Foundation, who must surely hold some sort of record in the cats and pigeons department.

In a matter of hours, the Foundation's report suggesting that the over-60's should vacate their 'under-occupied' homes for the public good has caused a furore of national proportions, not to mention a certain amount of debate in the blogosphere - see the Moose, Longrider, Angry Exile amd the Cynical Tendency (links in sidebar), to name but a few.

Meanwhile, totalcatholic.com has got something straight from the horse's mouth - or possibly another equine orifice altogether; reading in the Mail that Tessa Jowell had sponsored the launch of the report in a House of Commons hospitality room, Joseph Kelly tweeted  on the subject and was answered by Jowell in person.

"The Intergenerational Foundation is a new charity dedicated to promoting fairness between generations which is located in my constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood. I supported the launch of their first major report in the House of Commons yesterday as their local MP."

Nothing to do with New Labour then - at least not now it's turned out to be a total can of worms and potentially politically damaging. Drawing, perhaps, on the fuss over grammar schools, they must have thought that the huddled masses would rise as one to evict the complacent bourgeoisie, completely overlooking the fact that the elderly dogs in mangers include a fair proportion of the nation's much-loved grandparents.

They also failed to grasp that a substantial proportion of us have an inexplicable aversion to being told what to do - inexplicable, at least, to the Guardian's Comment is Free, where terms like 'hoarding', 'squatting' and 'rattling around' are bandied about with predicatable venom.

Meanwhile, over at the Telegraph, Esther Rantzen has shoved her oar in with a piece describing how she downsized from her family home - nauseatingly described as a 'museum of love' - because she felt she no longer had 'a god-given right to the place'. (I have to admit to being baffled by that one - I don't recall the Almighty being involved in any property transactions I've made.)

If she's trying to ingratiate herself with the IF, she might have done better to leave out the bit about the house being empty now that, her three children having left home, the au pair has moved out too. After all, what is this whole business but thinly disguised class war, as the Guardian comment amply demonstrates?

The Foundation, apparently, will generously allow you to have a spare bedroom. This surely means that a couple ought to be permitted to occupy a three-bedroom house - assuming, of course, that the IF would not go so far as to insist on dictating sleeping arrangements - and pressure to move on would apply only to couples with four bedrooms or more, or, in other words, the better-off.

Meanwhile, the Foundation soundly castigates those who have merely endured the passage of time but says nothing of the increase in the number of divorced parents. I know several children who have two bedrooms each - one with each parent; the arrangement is actually recommended where possible to help children cope with the divorce and avoid friction with step-siblings.

Then there's the matter of second and third homes - some villages round here are virtual ghost towns during the working week; half or more of the local cottages are owned by Londoners, many of whom can be heard in the village pub on Sundays braying about their jobs in the broadcast media. Funnily enough, the news reports haven't mentioned that one.

And Labour's policy of getting 50% of the population into university has meant that vast swathes of family homes have been transformed into student lodgings, sometimes whole streets at a time - no mention of that either, oddly enough. In fact, the whole thing is so biased and highly selective that I initially suspected it might be a practical joke.

Sadly it appears not to be, and I find the implications intensely worrying. The title of this post is from a Harry Harrison novel, in which over-population has led to repeated sub-division of living space as people are forced to move into anywhere they can find.

Hoarding space becomes a crime against the state, and the elderly are put under increasing pressure to downsize, eventually taking it to its logical conclusion. In 1973, they made a film based on the story.

It's called 'Soylent Green'.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Drama at the End-of-the-Pier Show

Sometimes you read a story and the word 'compensation' hovers, unspoken, in the air. This one is crying out for comment all the way through: I'm no JuliaM, but I'll give it my best shot...
A CHILD was inches away from falling off Clacton Pier, a family claims.
*gets popcorn*
Oscar Weston, aged 20 months, was playing at the seaward end of the pier when he came close to a gap in the fence preventing people falling into the waves
20 months - that would be rather less than two of your Earth years. Ye gods! The child is barely out of nappies - or possibly not even that - and he's let loose to run around at the far end of Clacton pier, an environment that has full-grown adults gripping tightly onto the rails (or is that just me?).

Meanwhile, let us pause a moment to savour the poetic flourish of  'the waves'; the Gazette, it seems, is harbouring a reporter who dreams of something altogether more creative. He evidently also has a keen sense of the dramatic:
His granddad Mark was watching and called out to Oscar, before rushing over to block off the gap with his leg and taking him away.
Well, thank goodness for that! A responsible adult intervened to protect a child from a hazard; where I come that's known as childcare, but perhaps they do things differently in Clacton. Meanwhile, the grandfather is in no doubt of his own heroic role in this near-tragedy:
“Oscar is well-behaved and luckily he stopped when I shouted across to him. If I hadn’t been able to put my leg across he would have drowned."
More poetic licence here, perhaps - the gap in question being easily bridged by one man and his leg: I know toddlers aren't very big, but they don't tend to dive head-first through apertures like this...

Handy, isn't it, how the drama of a narrowly-missed drowning prevents anyone - apart from cynics like me, of course - asking the obvious question; why was the child so far from his supervising adults that the nearest one had to 'shout across' and  'rush over'.

Nearly two decades ago, the abduction of Jamie Bulger sparked off a national demand for reins for toddlers; for months afterwards, nearly every small child out walking in public was firmly tethered. We, meanwhile, were ahead of the game - the Artful Dodger* at three was regularly secured with both reins and wrist-link on shopping trips, having extricated himself from each separately on more than one occasion.

The use of such devices seems to have fallen into abeyance once again - in Britain at least; I'm told they are still common in Germany and Holland, though in the freedom-loving US-of-A a passer-by once threatened to report my sister to the authorities for 'keeping that poor child on a leash like an animal'.

Take a trip through any busy town centre today and you'll be treated to the heart-stopping sight of free-range toddlers hopping on and off the kerb while their mothers bulldoze heedlessly ahead with their pushchairs - with supreme irony, you can be sure those same mothers would scream blue murder if they saw a strange adult approach one of their children, even if it were to lift it out of the path of oncoming traffic.

At least in this case, all seems to have ended well; the family have, one hopes, learned a valuable lesson and the readers of the Gazette have enjoyed a little bit of vicarious jeopardy; under the circumstances and in today's sensation-hungry culture, it seems almost churlish of the Pier's management to adopt quite such a low-key response:
"...an incident was reported to a ride operator regarding a hole in the fence of the pier perimeter. Once notified maintenance staff attended the area and carried out repairs immediately."
Still, if, by any chance, you were thinking of putting in an offer for neighbouring Walton Pier - currently on the market: a snip at £2.5 million - it might be best to remember the Weston family and make sure you put up a sign; 'Under-5s should be kept on a lead at all times'.

* Whose Houdini-esque feats included escaping on his first day at playgroup and setting off for home - though, unlike several parents recently, I never felt the need to take the story to the national press. Warhol certainly hit the nail on the head as far as fame is concerned...  

Friday 14 October 2011

Lost, stolen or strayed - the work ethic

It's something that seems to be sorely lacking in Britain today; any foray into the area of health, social services or local government is likely to furnish an abundance of examples of the sort of worker whose output approximates that of the office rubber plant.

It's nothing new; thirty years ago, as an office temp at the local council, I was taken aside and warned not to complete more than a (derisory) set amount of work in a day or the unions wouldn't like it. However, many among the increasing numbers of working mothers (by courtesy of Harriet Harman) have taken the ethos to their hearts, allowing them to concentrate on important matters like arranging their children's birthday parties in office time.

Having had reason to deal with several of these agencies recently, I have overheard far too many office discussions about 'Barbie theme or Disney?' or whether Hayley should have Ugg boots at eight; one woman filled in a vital form in front of me (wrongly) while booking her daughter's haircut on the phone. When I called to complain about the resulting problems (which took me several months and £5,000 to remedy), I was told she had been promoted.

That is not to deny that there are many hard-working and conscientious public sector workers out there. I wonder, though, whether the idle have more time to spare for office politics; those who make the others look sloppy might well find themselves first in the firing line. And as proponents of the procrastinatory art travel further up the food chain, it becomes the office norm, until our public sector makes the notorious 1970s print workers look like a colony of ants.

All this musing was prompted by a recent exchange at Subrosa's on a delightful parody by Tedious Tantrums , which reminded me of this favourite of Pa Peachum's:

The stouter I cobble, the less I earn
For the soles ne'er crack nor the uppers turn;
The better my work the less my pay
But work can only be done one way...