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

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: