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

Thursday 25 August 2011

L'Etat, c'est moi!

JuliaM has a fine piece on Jacqui Smith's use of day-release prisoners to paint her house - or, as the Mail inevitably has it, her £450,000 house - in exchange for a donation and some plants.

It's an interesting little coda to the expenses scandal - from which, come to think about it, Smith didn't exactly emerge smelling of roses - and the reasons for which senior politicians helped themelves to public funds.

I suspect there is a particular form of hubris here - become a political animal and eventually you can no longer distinguish your public and private personae. Thus our MPs trotted merrily off to buy top-of-the-range furnishings at our expense, believing it was part of their inalienable right to life, Liberty prints and the pursuit of valances.

Perhaps it's seeing the grace-and-favour accommodation given to those in high office - look at the Bercows, after all - but the expenses affair served to illustrate the way many MPs felt entitled to have their homes improved at public expense without performing the public functions that explain our funding of Chequers and its ilk.

Leaving aside the interesting image of the Obamas or the Portugese Ambassador popping round for an evening chez Smith and Timney - probably best not to ask what's on the television - this story somehow sums up the arrogance that confuses the office with the person doing it.

Judging by Jacqui Smith's choice of painters and decorators, it's a hard habit to break.

Sunday 21 August 2011

A degree of ignorance?

What can you get for £25,000 these days? Well, if you're off to university this September, that amount should more or less cover your term-time fees and expenses for the three years if you're careful.

If the end result is a degree in a recognized subject from a well-known university then it's probably worth the money, but a glance through what's on offer for candidates in clearing shows plenty of the sort of thing that might raise the eyebrows of a prospective employer.

Tony Blair's intention of getting vast numbers into university may have been an attempt to match the increasingly well-qualified workforces of the tiger economies but the sad reality is something rather different.

Without the school system to back it up, the result has been a vast increase in degrees of doubtful academic merit attracting candidates struggling with the demands of A-level. According to a report published in February of this year,

Some four-in-10 newly-admitted students had grades no better than two Es at A-level... [and] ...an increasing number of applicants were being given places despite lacking “the intellectual attributes needed for higher education”.

These will be the students most likely to drop out before the end of the course - England's record in that department already being a decidedly unenviable one - and be left with massive debts and nothing to show for it. Even if payment is deferred until they are earning a reasonable amount, the debt remains as a financial and psychological burden.

'50% to university' belongs in the same category as 'all must have prizes' - it produces a system that ultimately breaks down under the strain, harming the very people it was meant to benefit.

Friday 19 August 2011

Hanging on the telephone

It's front page news today - the chaos caused by a crashing computer at UCAS and 135,000-odd applicants chasing 45,000 places in clearing*.

With £18,000 at stake in increased tuition fees, it was a no-holds-barred race for those who didn't get the expected grades, the Urchin among them. In the Tavern, as in thousands of other households, every computer was pressed into service, leaving no time for such trivial pursuits as blogging.

The same applied to telephones; if I had 10p for every time a redial button was hit across the nation yesterday, I'd be paying the Urchin's fees up front and heading off to the Seychelles for a month to get over the strain.

It's the perfect modern example of the Tragedy of the Commons. That's what UCAS didn't consider; there may be 135,000 applicants for clearing, but a substantial proportion of these will have press-ganged the laptops and mobiles of all their nearest and dearest into the effort, on the basis that every additional computer and phone increases your chances of logging on or getting through successfully.

With most households in possession of several telephones and computers, the result was jammed switchboards at every university with places still on offer. Whether you secured a place was largely down to  luck - getting through at the precise moment that a line became free. The end result is that many of those who narrowly missed the top grades will have lost out to those with inferior results.

There's a sort of January sales atmosphere about the whole business; desperate candidates grabbing any course they can to beat the rush and universities accepting on a first-come first-served basis rather than selecting students on their potential suitability for the course.

It will be interesting to see what the drop-out rate is over the next year.

Update: The Urchin, I am infinitely relieved to say, has secured a place at a reputable northern university.

*UCAS allows applicants to hold only two offers; those who fail to meet the requirements of either must log in to receive their Clearing number before scanning the lists of available places online. Having found a suitable course, they must then phone the admissions tutor on the number supplied by UCAS to apply for a place.

Thursday 18 August 2011

The importance of correct spelling...

From a cookery forum:

A coffee mouse with cream cheese. GREAT RECIPE. Impresses your guests. And even yourself. I got it from Kraft Canada's Whats Cooking magazine.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

We're not going on a summer holiday...

Thanks to the recession, the Tavern staff are staying put in the UK this Summer. For anyone else in the same situation and longing for Mediterranean sun and to remind myself of what I am missing, here's how the last foreign holiday went...


Well I didn’t get much sleep here last night,
I got the feeling that something ain't right,
I'm so hot I feel I need some more air,
My head aches and I am close to despair;
Bugs to the left of me,
Mosquitoes to the right, here I am,
Stuck in a villa with flu.

Yes I'm stuck in a villa with flu,
And I'm wondering what it is I should do,
I’ve got all the right drugs but who needs
A Lemsip when it's ninety degrees?
Bugs to the left of me,
Mosquitoes to the right, here I am,
Stuck in a villa with flu.

Well you started out with a snuffle,
And the shivers though you’re more burnt than tanned,
And your skin, it’s all a-crawlin’,
And you’ve started to cough and to wheeze….wheeze….

Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see that it makes no sense at all,
Is it cooler if I sleep on the floor?
'Cause I don't think that I can take anymore…
Bugs to the left of me,
Mosquitoes to the right, here I am,
Stuck in a villa with flu.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Boredom for Dummies

Boredom has been in the news a lot this week as a result of some young people's attempts to alleviate it. The mother of a 12-year-old who smashed up a shop with a golf club was clear whom she blamed for the looting:
''The government,'' she replied, her son by her side, adding: ''There is f*** all for them to do.''
It is interesting that the woman - who, as a lone parent with 10 other children, presumably has little time to spare for her wayward son - seems to believe it is entirely the government's responsibility to keep him entertained; perhaps she expects David Cameron to pop round on a Thursday afternoon to kick a ball about with the lad.

Meanwhile, liberal commentators are lining up to deplore the fact that disaffected youngsters find school 'boring, innit'*, criticising teachers for failing to make their subjects entertaining enough to grab the attention of their pupils.

That is easier said than done, given today's media culture. With the best will in the world, if the 14-year-old sitting (I use the term loosely; lounging, sprawling... take your pick) in front of you has been playing Grand Theft Auto since he was seven, I doubt he's going to find 'To Kill a Mockingbird' riveting, however gifted his teacher.

And if the girl at the next desk has been up all night watching hard-core porn with her 20-year-old boyfriend, it is unlikely that she will be moved by the wistful lyricism of Wendy Cope.

Many teachers do try, but Health and Safety have taken the bangs and fizzes out of the science lab and all the adrenalin out of outdoor activities, while the omnipresent inhibiting spectre of political correctness hovers over every Humanities classroom.

And, of course, anyone who tries the currently fashionable  'Down wit' da kidz' approach - "Dat Fortinbras, 'e's well 'ard!" or "Ophelia's a nutter wot topped 'erself, innit."* - deserves all the contempt and scorn they will undoubtedly receive from the class - and the justified anger of those parents who want their children properly taught.

A disturbing number of these children are effectively adrenalin junkies, reared on a constant bombardment of visual and auditory input to such an extent that they are desensitised to all but the strongest images and emotions; no teacher can hope to match the flood of sensation they need to register something as entertaining. And on the back of this brainwashing ride the messages of consumerism that allegedly fuelled the looting last week.

What is needed goes against all that their viewing habits - including the notorious 'MTV Cribs' - have been telling them since early childhood; they need to learn that life isn't fair, that simply wanting something badly enough isn't going to make it happen and that you can't expect to be entertained and amused day in, day out for the rest of your life.

And above all, if they are ever to become employable, they need to learn that boredom isn't what someone else does to you; it's all your own work.

* Does 'innit' require a question mark? I'm never quite sure.

Monday 15 August 2011

Blurring the boundaries

From today's Times TV listings:

8:00 Eastenders
After an argument with Tanya, Vanessa flies into a destructive rage.

8:30 Panorama
John Sweeney reports on the recent civil unrest that has led to death, injured policemen and millions of pounds worth of damage and looting.

Sunday 14 August 2011

On Her Majesty's Cheapest Service

Something a little more light-hearted this evening, with apologies to Ian Fleming...

Cash-strapped MoD sells off its spies’ luxury watches – and thousands of other items – to plug £36bn ‘black hole’ Daily Mail

James Bond sipped his drink and looked at his wristwatch again. The digital dispay read 10:25. He got to his feet, pushing aside the polystyrene box that held the last few crumbs of his Big Mac. Carrying his large 7-Up, he went to the door of the restaurant and looked out.

It was still raining. His imitation Converse would be soaked through long before he reached the Premier Inn where he had left his Timpson suitcase. If only M would let him take a minicab on expenses.

Turning up the collar of his Burton jacket, Bond stepped out into the street and walked the ten yards to the Silver Dollar Amusement Arcade. Two girls in the doorway made way for him to pass; a hint of Burberry Touch lingered in the air where they had been standing.

Bond selected a slot machine and started to feed in 50p coins. He was gambling with his own money now; M had been very firm about allowances. One of the girls from the door had followed him and now stood beside the machine, watching him. He looked up and caught her eye.

"Gum?" she said, offering a packet of Wrigleys Extra.
"Don't mind if I do." Bond took a piece. "What's your name?"
She leaned closer to him and giggled, her Elizabeth Duke earrings chiming in sympathy. Her breath was warm on his neck and smelt of Bacardi Breezers.
"It's Lauren, but my friends call me Chardonnay," she said.
"Chardonnay? I like it. Smooth, and with a touch of oak. Tell me, Chardonnay, where would you like to wake up tomorrow morning?"

The girl looked up at him from under eyelashes heavy with Rimmel Volume mascara.
"Dunno, really," she said, "'S long as I get to school in time. I've got Food Tech first thing and it's the only GCSE I'm goin' to get, innit."

"B***er!" said Bond. Turning on his heel, he walked outside onto the pavement and lit a Lambert & Butler.

Since the Ministry cuts, the job just wasn't the same, somehow.

Update: After I had written this, the Urchin drew my attention to this take on a similar theme...

Marshmallows, Money and Middle-class Morals

A K Haart today has a post about the Marshmallow Test, designed to assess a child's ability to resist immediate gratification for a deferred reward. Although he is actually making a thought-provoking point about the role of the observer, the experiment's test of the power of self-restraint is not far removed from this week's news.

I have already argued that many of the looters were not suffering from material deprivation - the fact that they communicated on Blackberries being one example - and in fact had an abundance of consumer goods already. Even so, confronted with a broken shop window and the cornucopia inside, the prospect of immediate gratification proved an overwhelming one.

Some of those convicted - the ones who 'couldn't sleep' for remorse - claimed this was a momentary aberration; it was only the sight of the goods lying there for the taking that prompted them to steal, even though they knew it was wrong and would never normally behave that way.

Pavlov's Cat - my usual point of reference for matters Japanese - recounts the tale of a friend who dropped a large denomination banknote in a busy part of Tokyo and, to his astonishment, recovered it at the local police station where someone had handed it in - standard practice, apparently, in Japan.

This story - appropriately enough - rang a bell. Some years ago, I was talking with a class of 14-year-olds about what constituted stealing. The hypothetical case - based on a class reading book - was a £20 note found on the floor in a shopping centre, and the response of the class varied surprisingly.

From the answers I got, only a few would take it to the police station. Some of the others would hand it in to the nearest shop or the centre staff but the vast majority felt that, if they found it, it was theirs to spend. The original owner had lost it through carelessness and thus forfeited his rights.

Even if they were told they would ultimately receive the note back if it were not claimed, or a reward for finding it, most of them said they would rather keep the note and spend it there and then.

One boy went further; his mother, he said, had actually found £20 on the floor in a local shop a few years before. She took it to the till, changed it for two £10 notes and gave one each to him and his brother to buy toys and sweets (this boy's father, incidentally, was a policeman).

This effectively ended the lesson, which was probably a good thing. It was not long after that that I read an article in which a self-righteous Guardianista declared that teachers should avoid at all costs 'imposing their own middle-class values' on pupils - values such as the idea that helping yourself to other people's property is always wrong - and that schools should henceforth monitor lessons to prevent it happening.

Quite apart from the insulting suggestion that non-middle-class families are incapable of instilling a sense of what constitutes acceptable behaviour in society, there is something frightening about the way honesty and respect for other people's property can be seen as irrelevant to the process of educating future citizens.

Saturday 13 August 2011

You do the maths....

In the early 1940s, with much of the male population away on military service, an army of women went out to work in Britain's cities while their children were left with carers or evacuated to the country. These children often lacked a single constant parental figure or role model in their lives at a formative stage and bonded instead with other children in mutual ignorance.

Twenty years later, this happened:

In the early 1990s, in the wake of Harriet Harman's IPPR pamphlet 'The Family Way', in which she trumpeted the apotheosis of feminism as she saw it - a matriarchal household free from male influence, a radio interviewee could declare proudly:
"I am pleased to say that Britain now has the highest proportion of working mothers with children under five in the whole of Europe."

A massive drive to get mothers of young children into the workplace promoted daycare from as early as six weeks, particularly if the mother was a lone parent. Another generation of children grew up with absent fathers and limited contact with their mothers, learning their behaviour from other children instead.

Twenty years later, this happened:

Update: Turns out I'm not the only one to have thought of this - Guido Fawkes has been thinking along remarkably similar lines.

Friday 12 August 2011

The opposite of deprived

There was a highly significant moment on last night's BBC news - though you might have missed it if you blinked; a father, his back to the camera, explained that he could not control his son or prevent the boy joining the thieves and looters in the street outside.

'I can't stop him going out,' he said, 'I can't even lock him in his room'. His frustration is echoed by parents and teachers across the country, whose efforts to educate and civilize their charges are hampered at every turn by the orthodoxy of the child's 'rights'.

I've heard the same phrases used by affluent middle-class parents when their children have annoyed the neighbours with rowdy behaviour or loud music at all hours: "We can't stop her seeing her friends" or "After all, it's not as if we can take his stereo away from him." Why not? You paid for the thing and it's in your house!

The warning signs were out there when TV presenter Esther Rantzen, in a departure from obscenely-shaped vegetables and talking dogs, strayed into the territory of her reality-documenting spouse Desmond Wilcox and made Childwatch - a programme 'alerting the public to the prevalence of child abuse' (Wikipedia).

This was followed by Childline - founded with the best of intentions to give abused children somewhere to turn in desperate circumstances. Unfortunately one of the founding principles, duly expressed on several occasions by Ms Rantzen in media interviews, was that 'children do not lie about abuse'.

This was a gross over-simplification of the widely accepted finding that 'young children simply do not have the necessary experience or understanding to invent detailed stories of [sexual] abuse' (quoted by Mary MacLeod and Esther Saraga), an over-simplification which had far-reaching and disastrous consequences in childcare and education as those in authority went on to apply it to all children and all forms of perceived abuse.

And the early jokes about calling Childline because there was broccoli for tea instead of chips have now metamorphosed into a climate where parents really do feel that they cannot risk upsetting their children, whether by imposing discipline of any kind or denying them something they want.

What we saw on the streets this week is not the result of material deprivation - despite the best efforts of liberals to make us believe otherwise - but of indulgence, both material and disciplinary. Look at their trainers and the ubiquitous blackberries, to say nothing of the decidedly comfortable backgrounds of some of those appearing in court; many of these young people have grown up expecting to get everything they want.

Looting simply takes that to its natural conclusion.

Thursday 11 August 2011

A sense of entitlement

You've got to feel sorry for Michael Gove; there he is trying to sort out a mess that makes cleaning the Augean stables look like a bit of light hoovering while being systematically undermined by the left-leaning (un)civil servants of the Department for Education or whatever it calls itself these days.

What everyone wants to know is why our young people are emerging from schools with fewer certificates than the Tavern dog and what can be done about it. The rioters interviewed complaining they had no jobs may well be right, but I wonder what skills or qualifications they had to offer a potential employer.

The deplorable level of academic achievement in this country has been blamed on a number of things, among them the lack of role models, celebrity culture and that old chestnut deprivation - though Britain has plenty of examples of academic success from backgrounds of real poverty before the welfare state was born.

However, the behaviour of the rioters and looters in recent days is, I would argue, the result of one of the most significant causes of academic failure - a lack of accountability. These children are completely indifferent to rules or exhortations to behave well becauser they believe they can do exactly as they like.

Pupils in many schools see their teachers powerless in the face of disruption - lacking even the most basic sanctions of detention or extra work as punishment for bad behaviour - and are tempted to exploit the situation. A handful of determinedly disruptive pupils can effectively prevent any learning taking place in the classroom, however well-informed, entertaining or interesting the teacher may be.

The consquences of misbehaving or failing to complete work are so trivial that the benefits of messing around in lessons and amusing their peers far outweigh them. Much of the blame for this must lie with Head teachers like the one who, in a school where I worked, gave an official warning to a female teacher who had momentarily caught the back of a boy's blazer to stop him punching another boy in the head.

What she should have done, he explained later to the assembled staff, was to allow the blow to land, then, ignoring the attacker, escort his victim to the office for medical attention and then report the incident to the Head - who would follow his usual procedure of inviting the perpetrator to sit down and talk about why he felt the need to punch someone. (It's a fair bet that this character, for example, has a few of these interviews in his past.)

Intervening to prevent harm meant that, while the teacher was still occupied with the victim, the aggressor, accompanied by several friends, was able to visit the Head with a pre-emptive allegation of assault against the teacher*. Standard practice in this situation is suspension pending an enquiry, giving the accuser and his allies a gratifying sense of power - and, of course, leading to his own act of violence being conveniently forgotten in the process.

Small wonder then that false accusations abound - and are usually levelled against those members of staff most likely to enforce what discipline they are allowed to. These potentially career-wrecking allegations are removing effective and experienced teachers from the profession every year; beyond the classroom a similar phenomenon inhibits any adult trying to prevent young people doing something illegal or antisocial - it's not surprising that they seem to think looting or rioting will be consequence-free.

And small wonder that childen, having refused to take advantage of the education on offer in our schools through a lack of respect for their teachers and fellow-pupils, leave school with rudimentary qualifications and an overwhelming sense of their own importance, invulnerability and entitlement.

Update - someone else is thinking along similar lines this week; Patently Rubbish suggests some decisive steps to re-assert the rule of law, including this one:
Pass a law establishing that teachers are indeed in loco parentis and that a punishment inflicted by a teacher is acceptable regardless of the opinion of the parent or guardian, provided that it is not grossly disproportionate. 

* The boy made a total of four visits to the Head, during which his story escalated to claiming that the teacher (a head shorter than him and considerably lighter) had grabbed him by his shirt collar and thrown him against the opposite wall of the corridor. 
Even after the school secretary reported overhearing him, while he was waiting outside, speculating with his friends about how much compensation he would get, the Head continued to insist that the allegations had to be taken seriously - the repeated visits, he said, were simply 'an indication of how traumatised the child had been by the incident'.

A lesson in dignity

A few days absence but it feels like an eternity - though mostly without my computer, I've been watching events unfold on television to leave us with what may be a profoundly altered society.

There are certain images and stories that have represented recent events - the woman jumping from her burning flat, the dazed and injured student being robbed of his possessions, police charging in lines down city streets - but among the most powerful must be Tariq Jahan's challenge to the surrounding crowd:

"I have lost my son - if you want to lose yours step forward, otherwise calm down and go home."

It may be that, with hindsight, the deaths of Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir will be seen as a turning point, the stage at which a game suddenly turned ugly; certainly the previous behaviour of many of the looters had suggested a euphoria at odds with the sententious explanations of 'anger' and 'social exclusion' being bandied around the media.

In the face of a potential flashpoint, Tariq Jahan's restraint in the expression of his grief before the cameras and his refusal to blame the government or police for the actions of criminals stand out as an example of dignity and reason.

Monday 8 August 2011

We're gonna rock down 2 Electric Avenue...

...and then round the corner into Atlantic Street...

"It's not rioting, it's shopping."

That was the opinion of one Brixton shopowner whose business, looted during the 1995 disturbances, survived last night intact. Others were not so fortunate, according to the BBC:

On Atlantic Street, one jewellery shop stood with its broken glass front next to shops, takeaways and cafes that had been untouched.

Residents said the choice of targets - clothes, sports goods, jewellery shops - suggested that the intention of the people who hit the streets after violence spilled over from Tottenham and Enfield was not motivated by any political cause.

Around 200 people descended on Brixton last night with the clear intention of causing trouble and helping themselves to whatever they could grab. A group that large, and at a time when tensions are running high, can only have been assembled with the help of modern communication technology.

That is, of course, nothing new. One September night in 1985, an elderly member of Clan Macheath was among a coachload of venerable ladies who, retunring from a day's outing, unexpectedly found themselves being driven through the periphery of the Brixton riots. Over a restorative cup of tea, our aged aunt later described seeing shadowy figures directing the mob with 'those new mobile telephone receivers".

Mobile phones were then the latest thing in technology and beyond the means of all but the wealthiest city types - the first UK network went live in January of that year - but it appears they were already being harnessed by the forces of disorder. A quarter of a century later, their modern counterparts are providing a secure means of communication to coordinate riots and looting:

'Away from Twitter's very visible feeds, there are perhaps more credible reports that rioters were using private communication systems to encourage others to join the disorder.

Following Saturday's trouble in Tottenham, a number of BlackBerry users reported receiving instant messages that suggested future riot locations.'

And, presumably, future locations for looting. There seems to be no shortage of the latest technology among those criminally inclined, perhaps because it's likely to have been acquired via a smashed window or a dodgy deal in a pub.

Just as the development of speech made early man into a formidable predator, so this communication network allows his descendants to pillage en masse and even to pose for pictures along with their ill-gotten gains.

To be honest, I'm not sure that really counts as evolutionary progress.

A storm in a pot of ointment

The comments gremlins have struck again, this time at a post by The Moose on Ellie-Maye Wilkins, whose Vaseline was confiscated by her primary school teacher (Bucko, I don't know if it's you or me, but the comments suddenly vanish without trace at the point of posting).

Once one has the commenting bit between one's teeth, so to speak, there's no cure but to let it all out, hence this cathartic post before I return to other topics.

The child in question was sent to school with a small tin of Vaseline to treat her dry lips, as recommended by the pharmacist. A teacher confiscated the tin and, when the mother went to see the Head about it, she was told that the child should have a doctor's note and prescription to apply it.

According to the Daily Mail, 'a spokesman from Cheshire East Council said on behalf of the school: ‘The school has to be one hundred per cent certain that any ointment or medication that a child brings into school is safe to use.

‘Our school policy sets out that any type of oral ointment or medicine to be self-administered in school should be prescribed by a physician.'

Frankly, no-one comes out of this one well. The policy make plenty of sense if applied to inhalers or medicines, but to use it as justification for confiscating a substance more chemically inert than salt-and-vinegar crisps seems something of a over-reaction, to say the least, particularly as a more open-minded teacher apparently allowed the child to use it that morning.

However, what of the mother who, faced with a little local difficulty at her child's school, rushes off to tell the Daily Mail? And then allows her 7-year-old daughter to be pictured in the national press and online? Many parents would go to some lengths to avoid such attention and preserve their child's privacy.

Without wishing to malign the child, there is, perhaps, a suggestion of an untold story; this little girl, with pierced ears and a name redolent of Southern US beauty pageants, is sent in to school with a tin of Vaseline, well-known among schoolgirls as a cheap form of lip-gloss.

Could a hard-pressed teacher, seeing the girl brandishing the tin in front of her classmates, have confiscated it as a potential attention-seeking distraction, later justifying the action with the conveniently apt school policy statement?

After all, would you like to suggest to the evidently redoubtable Mrs Wilkins that it was her child's demeanour rather than school policy that caused the incident?

Sunday 7 August 2011

Smash-and-grab Tottenham style

Summer and rioting - it's one of those inevitable partnerships like strawberries and cream or tabloids and sleaze. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the probability that a tense situation will erupt into violence rises along with the mercury.

And along with the chance to indulge in a spot of gratuitous violence, these days a riot presents something of a commercial opportunity, if the BBC coverage is to be believed.

Shops and homes were raided and cash machines ripped out in Tottenham. There were also thefts from shops in nearby Wood Green.

The front window of Currys electrical store was smashed while Argos's door was also smashed in and broken glass covered the floor inside and out after looters apparently raided the stock room.

Of course, the BBC ought to know, since they and other news organisations carried constantly updated live reports, helpfully including 'get your looted goods here' maps and street references. The word was obviously travelling fast:

Teenagers and adults were said to have turned up in cars and filled their boots with stolen items, unimpeded by police. Others arrived on foot and piled shopping trolleys high with looted electronic goods.'

With commercials for the illegal trolley dash of the year going out on all sides thanks to mobile phones and the internet, small wonder that Tottenham briefly became the destination of choice for the discerning looter while law-abiding locals cowered in terror.

Is this, then, the default setting of urban Britain? With the forces of law and order busy elsewhere, is this consumer free-for-all the natural order of things? The nature of the goods taken suggests a keen eye on the potential resale value - provided the thief can convert the goods to cash.

While a branch of Aldi was simply torched, looters stripped Argos bare and cleared out electronics, clothes and phone shops. Meanwhile, cash machines were ripped out - something that requires coordination and a certain amount of know-how, according to the police investigating a similar crime near here.

A cynic might deduce a controlling intelligence at work here, giving looters a guaranteed market for their stolen goods; if so, how long before someone decides it's worth actually provoking a riot for the rich pickings of the surrounding district?

Update - about 20 minutes, as it turned out.

Friday 5 August 2011

Get lost, Ivan!

I've wasted more time than I care to think of checking on Blogger's handy stats page, which is how I first noticed the phantom hordes.

Things have calmed down since then but I'm beginning to get a clearer picture. I suspect that the unwary blogger clicking on any of the links to the dozens of phantom referring URLs to see where his visitors came from might be in for something of a shock.

The give-away is that they are somehow bypassing statcounter, which is rather more informative on visitors' locations and IP addresses, suggesting a desire for anonymity in keeping with their presumed content. I'm reminded of John O'Farrell's excellent description of surfing the net as being rather like the sort of surfing you do in North Cornwall:
'You spent a fortune on equipment, you spent ages just waiting around and occasionally something really disgusting popped up to the surface.'
The latest phantom to crash the system doesn't even try to hide behind an innocuous front; if the URL is to believed, a substantial amount of traffic is heading my way from a Russian site of an 'adult' nature.

Now it's nice that people want to drop in and read my various ramblings - and I'm always pleased to see the Tavern regulars - but I can't help thinking that there's little here to entertain a bunch of horny Russians, so on the whole I'd prefer it if they just left me alone.

And, incidentally, if you are the reader who recently turned up looking for pictures of Hallowe'en tattoos while logged onto the server at the 'Ukrainian State Nuclear Generating Facility' - please stop reading blogs and get back to work NOW!

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Saying no to salt?

I can't help feeling that Jesus of Nazareth would get pretty short shrift if he turned up these days in Britain; not only would he have to deal with a lot of immigration paperwork but a certain sector of the population would have some very strong objections.

"Mr ben Joseph, I understand you have been turning water into wine without an appropriate licence. Now, quite apart from the legal implications, we are very concerned about the message this sends. Your actions could be seen to promote the unrestricted consumption of alcohol and run contrary to all our recent national anti-drinking campaigns.

We also hear that you have described your followers as 'the salt of the earth'; this attempt to portray a harmful substance in a positive light is something we regard very seriously indeed..."

Ah yes, salt. While not all the research agrees, the battle lines have been firmly drawn. As NHS Choices - Nanny's preferred organ of communication - explains:

You don't have to add salt to food to be eating too much: 75% of the salt we eat is already in everyday foods such as bread, breakfast cereal and ready meals.

There's a handy article explaining exactly how to cut down on salt particularly if you are elderly (it stops just short of a section on how to extract the nourishment from eggs) and finishes with the coup de grace - a video entitled 'Say No to Salt'.

Now, funnily enough, two people of my acquaintance did just that this year. Both conscientious souls in their eighties, they followed the NHS instructions to the letter and emptied their salt-cellars and banned it from their kitchens forthwith.

And both of them ended up recently needing medical treatment for the symptoms of salt deficiency - not at once, you understand, but after several weeks of increasing illness, debility, dizziness and mental confusion.

You see, the NHS merrily assumes that everyone eats the 'bread, breakfast cereals and ready meals' that supposedly supply 75% of the necessary daily intake. Like so many other NHS policies, it's one-size-fits-all, and I suspect the usual diet of NHS administrators bears little or no resemblance to the home-cooking and baking habits of the previous generation.

And what is truly frightening is that, until both of these people collapsed and the tests were done, all their symptoms were put down to the normal aging process with no further investigation.

This painting-by-numbers approach to healthcare risks damaging those who do not fit the preselected profiles. What is needed is a large helping of common sense in the NHS - but I suspect that would be nothing short of a miracle.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Healthy eating and an odour of sanctity

The recent figures on childhood eating disorders make chilling reading.

Over at Orphans of Liberty, Angry Exile points out - with his customary acerbity - that while the MSM are quick to point the finger at 'size zero' models and the celebrity culture, their own constant reference to the 'obesity epidemic' may well be playing a significant part.

Obesity has given the Righteous a mighty stick with which to smite the unbeliever and the righteous are wielding it with a vengeance; their new morality - derived, I suspect, from the slimming clubs attended by NHS administrators - is an easy one; fat = bad.

A while ago, I posted on NHS staff berating cancer patients for their supposed alcohol consumption or lack of exercise with no evidence whatsoever, justifying their action with the false syllogism:

Cancer is caused by unhealthy lifestyles.
You have cancer.

ergo You have an unhealthy lifestyle

Never mind that the patient hates alcohol and her last drink was a sherry with the in-laws at Christmas, or that she walks seven miles a day with her dog; the gospel of Healthy Living must be preached.

These evangelical harpies recently struck again; a friend was in hospital when a bright-faced young woman came in and introduced herself as his dietician before launching straight into the First Lesson for the day; 'You have to cut down on red meat".

"How much red meat do I eat, then?" my friend replied. This puzzled her; " I don't know," was the baffled answer, "How could I?" Then she brightened up; "But you have to cut down, anyway."

My friend - a Cambridge graduate who has managed to feed himself well for decades while pursuing an active career - ran logical rings round her as she tried in vain to deliver her creed for Healthy Eating; eventually she gave up and went in search of easier prey.

Our secular society is in danger of creating a whole new priestly caste - the Nanny State embodied in an army of 'experts' loudly proclaiming their revealed truth of 5-a-day and reduced-calorie diets and casting out the unholy trinity of salt, sugar and fat.

The message is pitched at a volume designed to reach those whose lifestyles feature more television and takeaways than home cooking and exercise - subtlety is, I think it's fair to say, not the order of the day.The 'healthy eating' message, complete with graphic portrayals of the fate of non-believers, is delivered with aggressive evangelical zeal to even the youngest of hearers.

And, just as some children in the past became fervently religious, a few over-conscientious, sensitive children are taking this message to extremes. The 'odour of sanctity' reported in the cells of ascetic medieval saints was almost certainly ketosis - which produces sweet-smelling acetone in the breath - resulting from extreme fasting in the name of religion.

Who would have guessed we would see its re-appearance in the 21st century?

Monday 1 August 2011

The tide is high...

There's a horrible inevitability about it. Give homo not-so-sapiens a tidal causeway and a clear indication of when it's safe to cross and he will still end up being fished out by the rescue services.

Despite clear warning signs and tide indications, a Cumbrian couple had to be winched to safety by the RAF this week after trying to drive back from Holy Island an hour and a half after the safe crossing time had passed.

And it's only a fortnight since the Seahouses lifeboat was called out to the causeway for the eighth time this year; this time to rescue an Australian couple whose car was rapidly turning into a submarine. Their spokesman is probably getting fairly tired of having to comment:

Ian Clayton, from the Seahouses station said: "It's incredible that people seem to think they can drive their cars into the North Sea."

"A couple of years ago islanders specifically warned a man to leave the island before the tide came in, otherwise he would get stuck. He pooh-poohed it, saying it was just something to frighten tourists, but half an hour later he was hanging onto the roof of his car and his wife was up to her chest in water, clinging on to their two children."

The locals, meanwhile, are more outspoken on the subject:

Susan Massey, parish council chairman and owner of the island's Oasis cafe, said: "Anyone that gets stuck really has got to be an idiot as there are warning signs with tidal times all over the island. Barriers have been suggested in the past, but if a person wants to cross at stupid time then they will."

An average year sees around a dozen of these call-outs, as yet another visitor to the island thinks he - and it is usually a he - knows better than the locals. One can forgive the RNLI for getting a bit fed up; each lifeboat call-out costs the RNLI 'between £1,800 and £2,000', which equates to an awful lot of tin-rattling on a saturday morning.

So what prompts these latter-day Cnuts* to defy the tide? Perhaps it's a failure to grasp fully the implications of the word 'Island', or an inability to read or understand official notices, but I'm inclined to think that it has much to do with the nature of our society.

After all, as a trip along any British motorway will amply demonstrate, if you bombard a population with endless instructions and warning signs, sooner or later they will stop trying to distinguish between the necessary and the unnecessary and simply ignore them all.

*'Canute' was a rather twee attempt to anglicise the pronunciation of the original (and prevent ill-bred sniggers from the back of generations of classrooms); and of course, being rather more intelligent that these characters, he wasn't actually ordering the tide to retreat but making a point about the limitations of power.