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

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...

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Stolen - fifteen minutes of fame

A worthy role-model for our times has emerged in the story of Rob Sloan, who came in third in the Kielder Marathon last weekend.

Mr Sloan, who clocked up an impressive 2 hours 51 minutes, told TV reporters he had given it 'everything he could' as he posed with his medal for the cameras.

All was not as it seemed, however. At the 20-mile mark, Sloan had flagged down a passing spectator bus and hitched a lift for the remaining six miles, hiding behind a tree near the finish line until the other runners came into view.

Waiting until two had passed him - presumably coming first would have led to too much scrutiny - he simply joined the race in their wake, coming in ahead of the runner who had been in third place since the start.

There is something familiar about this for us in the Tavern; the Urchin's school has an annual cross-country competition in which his ability to get soaked, mud-encrusted or completely lost while attempting illicit short-cuts has become legendary.

Had a bus been available, I am certain the Urchin would have flagged it down at once, though I doubt Sloan was also equipped with the Urchin's running accessory of choice - a large packet of Kettle Chips hidden in his tracksuit hood (also useful for bribing staff at checkpoints).

But it is not Rob Sloan, lazy and deceitful as his behaviour was, who embodies the spirit of 21st-century Britain. Consider the order of priorities in this quote from the man who actually came third:

‘At the end of the day, as funny as it seems, he’s stolen my spot on the podium, my TV interview and my third place medal.’

When Warhol predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, he didn't foresee that people would come to regard those minutes on TV as their personal property - indeed as a right.

It's not, these days, the winning that counts; it's the TV interview afterwards.

Monday 10 October 2011

Lashings of SASS

We at the Tavern have no cause to love Professor Sir Nicholas Wald, purveyor of pills and potions to all regardless of casualties from side-effects; the needs of the many may outweigh the needs of the few but that's small consolation if you happen - through no fault of your own - to be one of the few.

And now he's back; according to the Sunday Times, he is proposing a 'SASS' tax - on Salt, Alcohol, Sugar and Saturated fat; anything the Danes can do, it seems, we can do better.

He believes that if manufacturers are compelled by taxes to take all the 'unhealthy' ingredients out of processed food, they will produce 'healthier' alternatives, thus working to prevent obesity.

It's not entirely clear what is to replace the SASS; perhaps he intends manufacturers to increase the use of artifical sweeteners such as aspartame. A minority of people would suffer unpleasant side-effects from the chemical but, as the Professor has amply demonstrated, that's fine as long as they aren't statistically significant.

What baffles me is why he thinks this would work. After all, taxes on cigarettes have been rising for years, yet the fag-and-pushchair combo is ubiquitous in what we are constantly told are seriously deprived areas. People eat SASS because they like the taste; put up the price and they'll grumble, but they'll still search out food they like.

It's the over-consumption of fast food, fizzy drinks and confectionery that has to be tackled if malnutrition is a problem - that and the lack of cooking skills among today's young adults. Insisting that manufacturers make taste-free diet versions of everything (the sort of food known in the Tavern as FOFF [F*** Off Fat Free]) will simply increase production costs so avoiding the tax will have no financial benefits.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why the Professor has stuck his oar in on this one; after all, he's planning to mass-medicate the lot of us with polypills anyway, whether we like it or not. As a Professor of medicine, tax is surely outside his remit - let alone deciding which of our small pleasures should be taxed beyond our reach; St Emilion? Vintage Cheddar? Sachertorte?

In any case, I'm not going to trust a man who's happy to write off a proportion of patients for what he considers the greater good.

Saturday 8 October 2011

On weighty matters

I am a Cheddar cheese.

No, honestly! Just bear with me for a moment.

With all this talk of 'fat taxes', I had a highly topical experience this week. I've been advised to join a gym to sort out a dodgy shoulder, so I duly unearthed a dusty pair of trainers from the back of the wardrobe and trotted along in my best lamb-to-the-slaughter fashion.

I have to admit that the gym is not my natural habitat; I find myself pondering awkward questions like "If I'm making all this effort, why is the machine plugged into the mains?" or "Wouldn't it be nicer to go for a walk outside?" or, mostly, just "Why?"

However, on my best behaviour, I walked into what Jeremy Clarkson once described as 'a room crammed with Steves busy lifting things up and putting them down again' to meet my 'Fitness Consultant' (who was, inevitably, a superbly-honed specimen expressly designed to lower the self-esteem of most of us mere mortals).

I wasn't allowed to play with the iron bars and hamster-wheels straight away, though; the first thing they wanted was a 'fitness assessment', for which I was wired up to an assortment of nameless and expensive-looking gadgets. Then it was back to the office for what I believe in lifestyle TV is called 'the reveal'.

Actually I'm not in such bad shape; all the figures in the glossy report were printed in green - all but one, that is. It turns out I have the same percentage fat content as a good Cheddar cheese. As a result, there were angry announcements in red all over the printout saying, basically, "Watch out, the Grim Reaper's on his way!"

Amid all the dire warnings about diabetes and heart disease was the actual percentage figure, so when I got home, naturally I googled it. And here's the thing; I exceed the 'healthy percentage' of body fat for my profile by a mere half a per cent, rounded up.

0.3% less and I would be in the 'acceptable' range; no red lines, no dire warnings, green lights all the way. And what's the margin for error for a calculating machine that gets all its data from sticking electrodes to the wrist and ankle of the recumbent victim and measuring the resistance?

Small wonder, then, that my 'Consultant' hardly batted an eyelid at these woeful prognostications; after all, I'd managed to squeeze in through the door without a struggle and - using the other fashionable statistic - my BMI is unequivocally normal.

Now, I'd like to believe that all these parameters are determined by dedicated, white-coated lab rats hunched over their microscopes for the good of humanity but I suspect that, somewhere, there is a roomful of state-funded statisticians who have arbitrarily decided that a fraction of a percentage more or less will divide the sheep from the goats.

If you have the body fat percentage of cottage cheese, you're among the ranks of the saved; if it's Roquefort, then you're on the road to perdition. Forget St Peter and the pearly gates; we're right back to Ancient Egypt and the Weighing of the Heart.

In view of which, it's probably a good thing that, according to the bizarrely omniscient Frankestein electrode machine, my skeleton and internal organs apparently weigh exactly what they should.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Flushed with entitlement

More details have been emerging of events in Bretch Hill, where residents hijacked a lorry-load of water bottles sent in after the mains supply failed (see previous post), including the somewhat pointless headline:

'Banbury’s water supply nearly back on'

Thames Water have been criticised for failing to organise distribution properly - though the best research for the operation would probably have been watching 'Mad Max 2'.

It certainly sounds as if it was every man for himself once the driver had been stopped; according to an eye-witness, "There were people filling cars and vans with bottled water, and then coming back for more".

The total amount delivered in 24 hours equates to 47 litres for every household - surely enough for a family to survive and be riches beyond belief for the thousands globally who have to walk for miles to find clean drinking water (and who, moreover, don't have the option of abundant soft drinks available in the local shops).

So why the piratical assault on the emergency supplies? It turns out that, despite their novel notions of fair play, the inhabitants of Bretch Hill are mighty fastidious:
"You don't realise how much water you need to do everyday things. It takes three two-litre bottles just to flush the toilet."
Now I understand that flushing is not always optional, but the suspiciously exact match to the capacity of modern cisterns suggest that the speaker carefully topped up the plumbing to its full capacity with bottled water every time - meanwhile, I wonder what happened to his used washing and washing up water.

Would he, one wonders, be so profligate with clean drinking water had he had to buy it himself from the local shop like the intended recipients thwarted of their delivery? And isn't this just the perfect example of the attitude engendered by something for nothing?

Wednesday 5 October 2011

We're nine meals away from anarchy...

..but only one drink, it appears.

When pumps at a local reservoir failed, depriving a large housing estate of its supply, the authorities in Banbury responded by supplying 68,000 bottles of water to the area - the equivalent of twelve litres for every man, woman and child living in the estate.

Remember the '76 drought? All those people standing patiently in line, waiting to fill their bottles from the bowsers at street corners? Think again; welcome to Great Britain, 2011 AD*.
A water delivery driver in Oxfordshire was forced to abandon his supply of emergency bottles after he was threatened by a group of residents.
The contractor concerned was outnumbered by a group who verbally abused him and refused to allow him to take his delivery to another part of the estate - physically removing the bottles from his truck.
Desperate people taking desperate measures, perhaps? Well, not exactly; other areas of the town were unaffected and there was plenty of bottled water in the local supermarkets. In any case, according to an eye-witness“Kids have been coming down the street nicking water and throwing it over themselves.”

Bretch Hill does, it's fair to say, enjoy a certain notoriety; bus shelters traditionally have an average life of around two weeks, and elderly ladies returning from their weekly bingo night need security guards to protect them from being robbed of their meagre winnings by feral youngsters.

This, however, is something new and more sinister; the original estate population, once a proud and self-sufficient community (and I use the word in the real sense), is aging fast and what were a minority group of teenage thugs have grown up and passed their lack of social responsibility on to their numerous offspring.

There's something deeply depressing about the sight of police supervising the distribution of bottled water because some of the locals are incapable of behaving like civilised human beings; sadly, if the riots are anything to go by, unless something radical happens soon, this may well be the future of Britain.

*For anyone upset by this dating system, I'd like to point out that a) I'm an atheist, but that's the system I grew up with and I'm used to it and b) today is Wednesday, or rather Woden's Day; I don't believe in Woden and I bet you don't either, so what do you want me to do about that?

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Invading the past

Sally Magnusson, what have you done?

Radio 4 has been proclaiming the return of the series 'Tracing Your Roots', a programme which encourages amateur genealogists to investigate their family histories. Their website invites listeners to contact them with 'family history questions'; those selected will have the assistance of programme researchers to unearth hidden details from their families' pasts.

They start out innocuously enough, asking whether you've hit a brick wall trying to find out more about where family money disappeared to, or came from, but there's something slightly sinister about the tone of the next part of the invitation:
We're also interested in stories of captivity - not for crimes, but perhaps a relative was held against their will in an asylum, convent...or elsewhere.
Today's broadcast included one such case; a child placed in a mental institution for life. The listener discovered that the baby's mother - her own grandmother - had had an affair and, to avoid being disinherited for her misconduct, arranged for the resulting illegitimate child (later found to be brain-damaged) to be hidden away and adopted.

One hopes for the sake of family harmony the listener has no living relatives on her grandmother's side:
"I felt a little bit of anger towards my grandmother," she said. "She came out as a calculating, selfish woman."
This wasn't, however, going to stop her sharing the story with the rest of the family - and the listeners of Radio 4. After all, it has all the ingredients the programme is looking for - extra-marital sex, financial machinations, an elaborate deception and plenty of human suffering.

There is a dark side to this prurient desire to unearth bygone sensational events; the resurgence of a story that is intriguing - or even morbidly titillating - for today's curious researcher may mean reliving unspeakable trauma for those who were directly affected by its consequences.

With the blessing of presenter Sally Magnusson and her team, amateur genealogists are bombarding distant relatives with demands to know the details of devastating events from the past. As regular readers may remember, my family has experience of this (The Cruelty of the Curious) and, a year on, I can report that the persistence of these people - newly retired, computer-literate and with plenty of time on their hands - knows no bounds.

One they have wind of a story, they will pursue it regardless of the feelings of those involved and without respect for family privacy; in fact they manage to project an air of outrage and resentment that you may be unfairly withholding from them the gory and painful details of the tragedy you witnessed as a child.

If you have never been hounded by such people, count yourself fortunate and hope that you never will be. The internet has brought it to epidemic proportions and there's more to come as long as people continue to respond to invitations like this:
Finally, is there an intriguing name change in your family history? We'd be keen to find out why.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Ducking and driving

The Quiet Man, prompted by a Telegraph article suggesting that young people are deterred from driving by the behaviour of other motorists, offers an alternative view:

'There may be a few young people put off driving by other angry drivers, but the real reason a lot of young people don't learn to drive is cost.'

With a learner driver in the family and citing people he knows on jobseekers' allowance, he is certainly in a position to appreciate just how much financial outlay is required to get a new driver on the road - a law-abiding one, at least.

For the less scrupulous, however, the burden of tuition, tests, insurance and tax is less of an imposition. A few miles from the Tavern is an estate notorious for collisions involving unqualified and uninsured drivers; this almost certainly explains the extortionate insurance premiums generated by our postcode.

In a scenario that is becoming increasingly familiar in our society, the lawbreakers have free rein while the more conscientious lose out on opportunities because they cannot afford the expense - in part because the costs are higher thanks to those who avoid them.

According to the Telegraph article, Twenty years ago, 48 per cent of those aged 17-20 could drive. Now, it’s 35 per cent. Frankly, I'm surprised it's that high, given the GCSE pass rates and the difficulty of the new theory test; there must be significant correlation between academic performance and the ability to pass a driving test.

Unfortunately for those of us who obey the rules, however, that 35% is presumably the proportion of 17-20 year-olds out there who have full licences (and by extension, probably insurance); the number actually on the roads is quite another matter.

While we're on the subject, spare a thought for a friend whose formidable mother had unwisely laid on a lavish family gathering - plus new girlfriend - to greet his triumphant return from his driving test just before his 18th birthday. Entering to the sound of champagne corks and cheers, he panicked and found himself unable to tell them that he had actually failed.

He went along with the deception for several weeks, having secretly booked a re-test. However, his mother finally insisted on him collecting her from the station and, following an incident in which a signpost definitely came off worst, he was picked up and charged. Fortunately for my friend, his mother (a well-known and vociferous pillar of the local community) appears to have been accepted as mitigating circumstances.