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

Saturday 22 December 2012

Still here...

...despite the combined predictions of the Mayans and Nostradamus - 'Gangnam Style's' YouTube video having notched up the prophecy-fulfilling nine zeros (see previous post).

And there's been another reprieve too; remember 2011AG5? That's the catchy name they gave a 140m-wide chunk of rock on course to pass close by in 2040 - so close that, earlier this year, it was announced (by Americans, naturally)  that we were in a 'non-zero impact probability situation'.

It turns out that the phrase - though a delight in itself - was a little premature; further observation has confirmed that it will get no closer that 890,000 miles away.

So - what's new? Well, despite the optimistic forecasts of the hopeful, I can't imagine that there will be any less of Man's inhumanity to Man and I very much doubt that the potential end of the world brought about any  Damascene conversions - though I do wonder whether it played a part in causing the gridlock at my local supermarket on Friday morning; "Quick, Daphne; go and get some more bread in - the world's about to end!"

The combination of approaching festivities, forecasts of bad weather and pay-day would, I suppose, have produced a perfect storm even without the added frisson of a sense of impending doom, however unlikely.

It's odd, when you come to think of it, how this supposed festival has become a major theatrical production with all the worry and problems that entails. Type 'Christmas stress' into Google and you'll be offered a choice of 176,000,000 entries.

Not surprisingly, the Guardian has homed in on this:
Dr Orla Dunn, senior lecturer in health psychology at Coventry, added that there were health risks at Christmas too.
 "In terms of the health effects of stress, people who spend weeks worrying about Christmas can suffer a breakdown in their immune system, leaving them susceptible to colds. Coming into contact with more people at Christmas exposes people to more infections."
And that's without the threat of norovirus and flu - ironic that some will be brought low by an infection that prevents them consuming any of the excessive amount of food they have run themselves into the ground to procure, like songbirds struggling to feed a ravenous cuckoo chick.

Meanwhile, talking of food, in case the Righteous needed a heads-up, Dr Dunn continues with her message of peace and goodwill:
"Eating fattening foods, taking less exercise and stressful situations between family members can really take its toll on your health."
She and her team are 'surprised at the lack of research on the effects of Christmas on mental well-being' - which I think translates as 'we've run out of research projects to do - anyone fancy funding this one?'

Here at the Tavern, we discovered the solution long ago thanks to a timely major power-cut one Christmas Eve; if you don't get the preparations done, it doesn't matter in the least. There is no deficit or omission that cannot be remedied with a hug and a laugh (or - in the case of toilet rolls - a trip to the all-night petrol station).

These days, as soon as getting ready ceases to be enjoyable, everyone downs tools and gathers round the fire with his or her drink of choice and the unspoken agreement that we don't care whether it's finished or not as long as we're all happy and the sherry/whisky/wine supply holds up.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Now this is starting to get creepy...

Basking in yesterday's unaccustomed glory of a posted prediction being proved right thanks to Ed Miliband, I happened to stumble across this in the Huffington Post:
December 21: Mayan's End Of World Calendar Linked To Gangnam Style's Psy
It was a slightly unnerving moment, given that back on the 28th of November - 'Gangnam Style: the beginning of the end?' - I was pondering the baffling global success of this musical homage to Korea's version of the Sloane Ranger and idly speculating about its significance:
And now it's become the most watched YouTube video ever. While eschatology isn't my specialist area, something about this ubiquity is uncannily reminiscent of the kind of inexplicable global phenomena that are supposed by major religions to herald the end of the world. 
Maybe the Mayans were onto something after all....
Now, it seems, that old apocaholic Nostradamus is getting in on the act. According to an interpretation permeating the blogosphere, 'Gangnam Style' uncannily matches a typically cryptic prophecy from among the thousand he published in 1555:
”Du matin calme la fin viendra
 Une fois le nombre de cercles alignés à 9 sera,
Du cheval qui dansera”. 
"From the calm morning, the end will come, once the number of aligned circles from the dancing horse reaches 9."
'Calm Morning' is, it appears, an approximate translation of the performer's name, the 'dancing horse' refers to his signature galloping moves and (a bit tenuous, this one) the number of YouTube visits is getting interestingly close to 1,000,000,000 - nine zeros, see?

Michel de Notre Dame - aka Nostradamus; any self-respecting astrologer needs a catchy handle  - had what must be the ultimate lucky break for a would-be prophet during his lifetime when one of his verses seemed to have predicted the death of Henri II in a jousting accident - at least once he had helped his readers sort out all the allegorical references to lions and cages.

Largely on the basis of this, and the endorsement of his No. 1 fan, the Dowager Queen Catherine de' Medici, he built a reputation as a seer which has lasted over five centuries, leading devotees into fantastical intellectual contortions in their hindsight-fuelled attempts to make his verses correspond to real-life events.

That being so, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone tried to link him to the Mayan calendar, but the way it seems to have surfaced at about the same time as my facetious post seems just a little odd.

I can't say that I am personally expecting the end of the world at 11.30am on the 21st - among other things, it would be particularly galling for the Urchin, who would then have spent his last few minutes in the dentist's chair - but you have to admit the coincidence is a striking one.

And if the world does end on Friday, how frustrating it will be to have belated proof of a previously undiscovered gift of prophecy!

Saturday 15 December 2012

A case for the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can't cope with. 
The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. 
It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it.
(Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)
I hope Ed Miliband's advisors have a copy of Dr Streetmentioner's book handy, because things are starting to get grammatically complicated.

Yesterday the Tavern deplored the BBC's premature factual reporting of his words in a speech on immigration; 'I'm sure Mr Miliband intends to say these things, and that his autocue is primed and ready, but who can really say that he will?'

Today we are reeling from the unaccustomed shock of being proved right.
Ed Miliband is under fire on immigration after he dropped an admission that Labour’s open door policy had left communities across Britain ‘struggling to cope’.
Despite the BBC's grammatically definite assertion that, among the other points to be made in the speech, he would admit the faults of Labour's immigration policy, the statement was never made.
He had been expected to say: ‘We did too little to tackle the realities of segregation in communities that were struggling to cope.’
Since it was the lack of an appropriate conditional tense that caught our attention in the first place, I doubt the BBC or the spin doctors involved will be able to handle the grammatical implications of this unexpected omission.

So what happened? Did he forget about that bit or, looking round at his distinctly multicultural - sorry, vibrant - audience, did he decide that discretion was the better part of valour? "Look, it's great that you're all here, but it was, you know, a bit of a mistake letting you in".

Naturally the spin doctors are already out in force on this one:
Labour insisted Mr Miliband ‘stands by’ the omitted section of his speech and had simply forgotten to say it.
Though, to be perfectly honest, an admission like that about an aspiring Prime Minister smacks somewhat of damage limitation. 'Oops, sorry!'  is not what you want from a potential leader in any walk of life.

And the BBC? Well, they are just ignoring the whole business and presumably hoping it goes away - either that or a roomful of editors are still busy wrangling over exactly which tense you should use to describe an event you reported as definite before it actually failed to take place.

Friday 14 December 2012

A load of crystal balls

I think it's fair to say I'm not a morning person - though if the Mail is to be believed (as ever, a very big 'if'), I am certainly not alone.

And, as I try to work up the resolve to face the day, there is one thing that is guaranteed to put me in a bad mood; premature prognostication.

The BBC's lamentable habit of regurgitating political party press releases as news is bad enough, but there is an irritating tendency for this to stray into the world of predicting the future:
Ed Miliband will acknowledge... He will emphasise... But he will also say...
Among his proposals will be...
The piece from the Today programme and the BBC website quoted at OoL by the Quiet Man, who has much to say on the actual content of the speech, is typical of the practice.

I'm sure Mr Miliband intends to say these things, and that his autocue is primed and ready, but who can really say that he will?

Those of a religious persuasion often formally acknowledge this uncertainty; the interjections 'deo volente' or 'insh'Allah' exist because of a long-standing and widespread acknowledgement that no one can say for certain that something will definitely happen.

Whether you attribute it to chance or divine intervention, it seems somehow arrogant to ignore the possibility of illness, say, or a traffic jam or - admittedly a long shot - a meteor strike, as if your certainty guarantees that the described event will take place.

It's a subject that has been aired here before (see Mystic Ed and his Crystal Balls) and, since it springs from the arrogance of the BBC and the political machinations of spin doctors, will doubtless surface again (and again, and again....).

Wednesday 12 December 2012

What's next - an offer they can't refuse?

This week's 'Do you know who I am?' award goes, by proxy, to the Culture Secretary:
Maria Miller's advisers warned The Telegraph to consider the minister’s role in implementing the Leveson Report before this newspaper published details of her expenses.
Mrs Miller, it seems, claimed as her second home the Wimbledon house which she and her city lawyer husband shared with her parents. Not surprisingly, given the location and the size of residence this implies, the allowances she claimed for the house between 2005 and 2009 amount to some £90,000.

Despite her assertion that her parents live with the family as 'dependants', this case appears to be identical to that of Labour's Tony McNulty, who was required to pay back £13,000 after the Parliamentary Commissioner described the situation as 'unacceptable'.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has previously ruled that second homes must be “exclusively” for the use of MPs in fulfilling their parliamentary duties and that housing a politician’s parents was “specifically prohibited” by the rules.
It's interesting to note that, having previously claimed £90,718 out of a maximum allowable £90,833 in second home allowances, Mrs Miller stopped claiming for the property altogether when the expenses scandal came to light and has since designated it her main residence.

When a reporter from the Telegraph - which is understandably anxious to retain its crown as Britain's foremost expense-fraud-busting paper - contacted the Culture Secretary's office, Mrs Miller's aide was ready with a thinly-disguised warning worthy of Cosa Nostra:
“Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about.”
It is probably fair to say that Telegraph staff won't be the only ones thinking long and hard about the implication of her words.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

By Toutatis, the sky will not fall on our heads!

Asteroid time again - this time it's Toutatis, an old friend who drops by every four years or so.

The number of close approaches combined with its size - 4.5km long -  officially makes it a Potentially Hazardous Object but don't get too excited - current calculations put the chance of a collision within the next six hundred years as 'essentially zero' and it doesn't get much more likely after that either.

And in any case, 'close' is, of course, a relative term; astronomers start talking about 'proximity' when anything gets with a few million miles of Earth. Toutatis will actually be zipping by a comfortable 6.3 million miles away.

It's comforting, somehow, to know that Newtonian mechanics make some things, at least, predictable; there's quite enough uncertainly about already. To be honest, the chances of an asteroid wiping out civilization as we know it must be rather less than us bringing it about all by ourselves.

Though if the theory is right that human intelligence has been declining ever since we started practising agriculture and living in cities, the end will probably be less than spectacular, accompanied by the much-quoted whimper - or possibly the inane drivel of a world of radio show hosts.

Still, any flyby is a reason to raise a glass or two, so, tonight, we will be drinking a toast to Toutatis - a few days too early to put the wind up the Mayan prophecy lot but a good excuse for a party nonetheless.

Monday 10 December 2012

"Shattered... gutted.... heartbroken..."

The words chosen by one of the Australian radio hosts who perpetrated last week's hoax phone call are, I think, unintentionally revealing.

The phrase is, admittedly, taken out of context, but it looks very much as if, now his thoughtless action has had consequences far beyond those he envisaged, his first concern appears to be for himself and how he is affected by them.

The victims, meanwhile, are relegated to an afterthought: "...and obviously, you know, our deepest sympathies are with the families and the friends of all those affected."

Given the striking linguistic contrast, it would take a generous soul not to see the hallmarks of a management briefing in the formal expression so awkwardly tacked on after the visceral reactions.

This is, effectively, the vocabulary of a hurt child; if he truly feels guilt or remorse, he has couched it in the egocentric terminology of his generation, placing the emphasis firmly on his own suffering.

His excuse - 'everyone does it'  - is childish too; an abdication of individual responsibility which he serves up with the inevitable accompaniment; 'we didn't mean any harm'. It may well be true, but it's a sad confession that they lacked the intelligence or maturity to see anything wrong at all in making a joke phone call to a hospital at 5.30am.

Of course, Mel Greig and Michael Christian do have reason to feel sorry for themselves; a hail of extreme abuse has rained down on them, while we have seen little trace of the senior staff member who apparently approved the tape for broadcast despite no consent having been received from the hospital.

I have to admit to an intense dislike of prank phone calls; inviting a crowd to laugh at the humiliation of an unsuspecting victim is far too much like bullying for my liking. The popularity of such antics has a depressing lowest-common-denominator air, appealing to the baser instincts of the audience for a cheap laugh.

As Mel Grieg explained: "We just wanted to be hung up on. We wanted to be hung up on with our silly voices and wanted a 20-second segment to air of us doing stupid voices."

That is, of course, exactly what the radio station hired her for; this 30-year-old woman has spent over a decade being paid to behave, talk and think like a child, so it's hardly surprising that she and her co-host demonstrate a clear lack of maturity.

There were, undoubtedly, many mistakes made here. From what I have seen and heard of this pair, I doubt they even considered the time difference that meant they would be intruding on tired nurses at the end of a long night shift.

More significantly, though, they seem to have lacked the imagination to understand that, while radio prank calls are, by all accounts, a well-known practice in their own locality, a call made across the world might well be answered up by someone who was ignorant of the phenomenon and unable to recognize their 'silly voices'.

For the next few months at least, it's likely that Australian radio stations will think very carefully about allowing presenters to make prank calls, especially to foreign destinations where the reactions might be less predictable than at home.

Friday 7 December 2012

'Make some criminal’s Christmas miserable'...

... is the headline of the Oxford Mail's current crime-fighting initiative.

In conjunction with Thames Valley Police, the paper is publishing details and photographs of two dozen wanted criminals from the local area in what is memorably designated the 'Badvent Calendar'.

For the third year running, every day until Christmas Eve, the paper will reveal a new 'festive fugitive' suspect and details of his or her crimes.
Oxford area commander Supt Chris Sharp last night said: “It ties in with the advent calendars that are a tradition at Christmas. [...] We want to make sure we gather these people before the end of the year."
Thus, along with the 'Cinderella' shoplifter who left his own shoes behind at the scene and the robber who held up a cosmetic counter with a pair of scissors,
Lurking behind door seven of our criminal Christmas calendar is an Oxford woman suspected of shoplifting and staying at a “high quality” hotel without paying
Now I can't speak as a Christian, but isn't there something just a little odd about linking this rogues' gallery with the expectation of the Nativity?

I have to admit I'm enough of a linguistic pedant to be annoyed at the whole concept of 25-day 'advent' calendars that have less to do with Christianity than with the products of industrial confectioners or Walt Disney, implying that the eagerly awaited arrival in question is that of a materialistic shower of gifts.

And one of the earliest posts on this blog was prompted by the 'advent calendars' for dogs and cats being sold in a local petshop, which take anthropomorphism to a whole new level - although St Francis of Assisi might have approved.

But while this tendency towards the secular and the introduction of chocolate are relatively harmless - if somewhat depressing as a reminder that, for Generation Entitlement, every day is a treat day - I can't help feeling that something about this Thames Valley Police initiative seems just a little bit tasteless.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Darwin Award TV

Television talent shows entered a whole new era this week in Germany, when emergency help was needed for three separate incidents on their equivalent of 'Britain's Got Talent'.
First 16-year-old singer Laura Pinski almost choked to death on glitter confetti as it showered down on her just as she was breathing in to hit the high note for her big finish.
You may detect just the merest whiff of journalistic hyperbole here (the source being the Daily Mail), but you have to admit that it would have been a demise with Zeitgeist written all over it; I wonder whether the 'Casualty' scriptwriters have thought of it yet.
Then opera soprano Simone Ciccarese lost his voice because stunt technicians on the Supertalent show had flooded the stage with too much dry ice.
Stop sniggering at the back there! Though if the Mail is actually correct about Herr Ciccarese's vocal range, I'd have thought that a bit of dry ice was the least of his problems - he was a tenor last week. Perhaps he had an unfortunate encounter with these chaps:
Finally, firefighters had to rescue contestants Leo and Christian from a blaze when their act - smashing up a car on stage - sparked a blaze as the petrol tank went up in flames.
I have to admit I'm struggling to equate this one with the word 'talent'; I'm assuming that it's something to do with angle-grinders, which have unaccountably become a fashionable source of entertainment, at least if you add enough loud music and scantily-clad women.

It is, of course, thanks to this last 'act' that the phrase Darwin Award springs to mind, although anyone who is prepared to risk the slings and arrows of a televised talent show is likely to have a rather higher Darwin Quotient than the general population.

And, to be honest, an audience ready to applaud two men applying power tools to scrap metal suggests that, somewhere out there, a thousand villages are lacking their idiots; had the theatre gone up in flames, some kind of collective Darwin Award nomination would surely have been called for.

Although the presenter of 'Das Supertalent' sounded afterwards like someone trying to make lemonade out of life's lemons - 'Well at least it proves the show is 100 per cent live' - the producers may be viewing things very differently.

This was the first in a new series of a programme that had 'come under criticism of late due to dwindling viewer numbers'; I can't see that being much of a problem next week, as millions tune in expectantly awaiting the next themed mishap to befall an unfortunate contestant.

It's bound to be a sure-fire success.

Monday 3 December 2012

Physician, heal thyself (and thy administrative staff)

In today's news of hospitals 'full to bursting', one figure in particular caught my eye.
Up to 3% of beds are occupied by those with dementia and hospital care would have little effect.
While I can't claim extensive experience in the area, it entirely bears out what I have seen of a system that is far from ideal.

In the first place, the pressures on the system and the fact that some of the agencies concerned function on a geological timescale mean that it can take years to arrange help for someone with dementia, assuming you have actually managed to get a diagnosis.

As a result, the majority of admissions to dementia wards, at least according to nurses I have spoken to, are via A&E, after a fall or being found wandering outside in cold weather. Once they have been restored to physical health, the fun begins.

For those patients who need secure residential care, a place must be found in a suitable nursing home. Thus it was that I had the dubious pleasure of meeting a woman whose job was to match patients with care home places.

It began in a less than auspicious fashion. With a two-hour drive home ahead of me, I was looking forward to getting things sorted quickly; I didn't know then that she and her sort run on what I have since come to think of as 'public sector time'.

More than half an hour after the appointment was due, she finally hove into view at reception, brushing chocolate crumbs from her face. I was ushered into her office, where she resumed her half-drunk cup of coffee and unhurriedly produced a stack of forms.

Over the next quarter of an hour or so, I appear to have got the better part of the deal; while she managed to fill in barely three pages - mostly tick boxes - of my relative's details, I acquired a positive cornucopia of information on the small doings of her four-year-old daughter thanks to her constant chatter on the subject.

At 3pm precisely, she finished her (third) biscuit, drained her cup and stacked the forms on the desk, announcing she had to collect her child from pre-school.

"But what about a care home place?" This was, after all, the whole reason I was there.

She handed me a brochure from the desk drawer: "There's a list of homes in here," she said, "Just phone me when you've made up your mind which one". And with that, she was gone.

Fortunately the story ended well, but she left her mark on the case; one of those boxes she ticked so blithely - I think she was answering her phone at the time - turned out to have been the opposite of what I had told her; had we not been able to find interim funding, the care home place I arranged would have been lost as a result.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that the dementia ward, according to the nurse I spoke to, was full of patients who should have left hospital long before.

I  wish I could say my experience was unique; sadly that 3% suggests otherwise.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Extracurricular activities, Essex style

Oh dear; looks like the silly season for Christmas stories has begun.
A primary school has outraged parents by doing “away with the manger” in its annual nativity play and making children act out a "politically correct" jewellery heist.
This, you may not be surprised to learn, is from Canvey Island, where staff have apparently decided that grand larceny is more relevant to their local community than the traditional shepherds and stable.
The “Christmas Tale” stars a pair of robbers, named Bob and Bill, who raid a jewellery store in broad daylight to steal a manger full of rubies and emeralds.
You've got to admit they may be right; according to the Telegraph, there have been seven violent armed raids in the area in the past six weeks, making it - probably - a more common occurrence than a teenage mother giving birth in a garage to a baby of dubious parentage.

And, since many of the 'traditions' of primary school nativity plays owe more to sentimental embellishment and renaissance iconography than to biblical sources, one might argue that the story is fair game for a substantial rewrite - if, indeed, it is performed at all.

But isn't it just a little odd, in a community that has seen so many armed robberies recently, to appoint two children to act out the part of modern-day criminals while the rest of them sing a distinctly unorthodox version of 'Away in a a Manger' (with some very dodgy scansion) about their raid on a high street shop?
“They knocked off the jewellers,
Though it was broad daylight,
They stole loads of diamonds,
To their utter delight.”
I fervently hope that the director of this theatrical masterpiece is not a devotee of the Stanislavski Method of acting, where actors seek out real-life experiences in preparation for their roles; in view of the recent spate of armed robberies nearby, perhaps it would be worth taking a closer look at the CCTV footage to look see if the perpetrators were less than four feet tall.

Friday 30 November 2012

Sea-level of ignorance

Here at the Tavern, we have a great deal of respect for the men and women of the RNLI, ready to drop everything at a moment's notice and risk their lives on behalf of those in peril on the sea.

Some shouts, however, are less critical than others...
Staff from a Sea Life aquarium had to be rescued from the sea after they were stranded by an incoming tide.
Oh dear! Though you have to admit that it is rather funny...
The group of four from Southend Sea Life Adventure Aquarium were out near the town's pier head taking samples when they were cut off on Thursday.
....actually, it's very funny....
They ended up knee-deep in water and were unable to get back to shore.
...Stop! It's too much!
A volunteer Hovercraft crew from the Southend RNLI brought them back to shore and gave them safety advice.
*wipes tears from eyes*

Unbelievable! Though the RNLI do seem to be spending a disproportionate amount of their time rescuing latter-day Cnuts from the incoming waves, you'd have thought these people, at least, might have some inkling that the tide goes in and out.

According to the Sea-Life Centre's website:
'We like to call this Edu-tainment because we can guarantee that not only will you find the themed displays entertaining but we are sure you will go away knowing something new about the life that lives in our planet’s seas and oceans.'
Just don't expect them to know anything about the sea itself.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Overtaken by the tide;
As out from Southend he did wade.
Past the pier we watched them range,
Their lack of knowledge passing strange
That with the hours the tide would swell:
What's this?
The water's rising - bloody hell!

Thursday 29 November 2012

Quote of the day - Dracula Rises from the Tomb

A brilliantly-phrased gem from Caedmon's Cat today describing the recent doings of one Tony Blair, or, as he is known in the Cat's Kingdom of Northumbria, 'Tondvig the Bleurgh':

Eager to exercise his finely-honed skills in mendacity, oratory and sincere guile, he's been travelling over the many waters of the earth, giving lectures to adoring window-lickers, knuckle-draggers, lickspittles and anyone deranged enough to part with several million Holy Groats for the privilege of hearing diatribes of magic-mushroom-fuelled fantasy and folly drip from his amply proportioned chops.

Actually, this one was entirely predictable; even when he was in Downing Street, the fervour with which Blair proclaimed the importance of the role of EU president was a clear indication of his ambitions in that direction.

If he does manage to fasten his teeth into the Presidency and ensure that we are, once again, maintaining him in the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed, at least there's the small consolation that he may, once again, inspire others to memorable flights of oratory...

And a bonus quote today: from JuliaM at OoL, on the power of advertising:
I’ve watched quite a lot of advertising this week, but so far I’ve managed to avoid:
a) taking a meerkat to bed,
b) bungee jumping off a bridge with my identical twin,
c) strapping a bulldog into a motorcycle sidecar, or
d) setting up a relationship counselling agency for snowme…err, snowpeople?
So I think we can safely say that normal adults can distinguish between real life and advertising scenarios.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Gangnam Style - the beginning of the end?

At the risk of being accused of fiddling while Rome floods, today seemed a good time to share this:

The satirical tricoteuse of Delit Maille* has turned her attention to the ubiquitous Gangnam Style video in her own unique fashion.

Actually, I have to admit I've never knowingly heard the song - when I watched the video for research purposes I had to do so without sound - so I apologise if I have inadvertently inflicted an earworm on anyone.

What interests me is the way this phenomenon has swept the media world, with amateur tribute performances in settings as diverse as international sports matches, Google HQ, Eton College and Chequers. Covers and parodies abound, while Ai WeiWei, Amnesty International and Free Tibet have all enlisted the dance for political purposes.

That being so, it's hardly surprising that the Righteous have jumped on board:
The American Council on Exercise estimated that dancing "Gangnam Style" will burn 150–200 calories per half hour and the song was used by Northampton General Hospital to promote hand washing as part of the 2012 Global Handwashing Day on October 15.
And now it's become the most watched YouTube video ever. While eschatology isn't my specialist area, something about this ubiquity is uncannily reminiscent of the kind of inexplicable global phenomena that are supposed by major religions to herald the end of the world.

Maybe the Mayans were onto something after all....

*roughly translates as Outlaw Knitting as well as sounding like Daily Mail - un vrai coup de génie linquistique. For those who prefer a rather more cultured subject, I recommend her recent post, Tricote ton Manet.

Monday 26 November 2012

Have you seen this man?

Not exactly the Napoleon of crime, is he?

British Transport Police CCTV image of dog collection box being stolen
(Photo from BBC News)
Three dog-shaped charity collection boxes have been stolen from Oxfordshire railway stations.
This charming specimen was filmed walking out of Bicester station at 3.50am carrying a three feet tall model Labrador containing funds collected for a guide dog charity.

We've seen the theft of a depressing number of Royal British Legion collecting boxes this year and an RNLI tin stolen by a fisherman who, barely a few weeks later, was part of a crew rescued from a sinking boat by lifeboatmen (I bet some of them secretly wished they had thrown him back again when they found out).

But this is on another scale altogether, at least in terms of risk vs gain; how much is ever allowed to accumulate in those boxes? Hardly enough, I'd suspect, to pay for the petrol to get there: I'm reminded of the thieves who took £30 worth of lead from a model village in Great Yarmouth.

Though all thefts are the result of the same lack of scruples and conscience, stealing a charity collection box seems somehow even more reprehensible; like the recent theft of a child's wheelchair or the removal of metal lettering from a war memorial, it strikes a chord of outrage with the general public.

For the perpetrator, of course, that distinction doesn't exist; there is only opportunity.

Pointless, vile and despicable; I'm going to need a new label for criminals like this. Sadly, the way things are going, I think it's probably going to get a lot more use in future.

Saturday 24 November 2012

"The cherry tree, Father? I never touched it!"

A moral tale, this week, of dastardly doings in deepest Dorset, pieced together from half a dozen BBC reports. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin...

Our story begins in the middle of a June night, when Poole resident Steve Bransgrove was woken up by the sound of an engine followed by a loud bang that shook the house.

He looked out to see a 40ft pine tree at the end of his garden lying on the ground, clearly sawn through in violation of a preservation order as well as the owner's rights.

The Council's planning enforcement officer visited the site the next day. Like any good detective, he looked around for clues and soon discovered a trail of flattened grass leading up the hill and into another garden:
"I saw recently purchased sun loungers and a new hot tub and I realised the occupants now had uninterrupted views of the Purbeck Hills and harbour."
Pretty conclusive, you might think, but no; the owner of the hot tub, Neil Davey, flatly denied any connection between its recent installation and the suspiciously convenient felling of the 52-year-old tree, pointing out that he had been away on honeymoon on the night it was cut down.

Enter, at this point, one Thomas McGuire, tree surgeon, who just happened to be working at Mr Davey's property at the time. McGuire denied cutting down the tree on Davey's instructions, while Davey continued to insist the matter had nothing at all to do with his newly-purchased patio furniture and hot tub.

This, then, is what led up to a fascinating court case this week which saw Davey and McGuire's defence unravel like an old sock.

First the prosecution debunked Davey's claim to police that he and the tree surgeon were 'passing acquaintances' of a few months standing, making it clear that the men had been friends for ten years.

Then an examination of phone records showed that Davey had made a call to McGuire just before being interviewed by the police, and finally came the coup de grâce: on the night in question...
...McGuire's phone signal had been registered by a mast in Parkstone, close to where the tree had been felled, despite him claiming he had been in Yeovil at the time.
Not surprisingly, McGuire chose not to appear on the witness stand at all, while Davey was obliged to eat humble pie in a most gratifying manner, admitting that he 'panicked' and lied to the police about his connection with McGuire:
"I've been an absolute fool," he told the court. 
Well, I don't think anyone would argue with that.

However, it's not as if he's the only one with nefarious designs on the local vegetation. Back in 2010, the BBC and the Telegraph reported that, according to Poole Council, there had been up to 15 attacks in the area on trees subject to preservation orders:
It said offenders are prepared to risk a fine of up to £20,000 to profit from a sea view or extra development space.
Presumably Davey took this into account and considered it a price worth paying for the privilege of wallowing in his hot tub with his new bride while looking out over the harbour.

Honesty, it would seem, is a commodity in short supply these days, at least when a sea view is at stake.

Update: £20,000 is the maximum fine a magistrate's court can impose, but, fortunately for connoisseurs of Schadenfreude, the nature of this case meant that it ended up in the Crown court instead. Following a guilty verdict, Davey was instructed to pay a record fine of £75,000 for the offence.

And it gets better; under 'proceeds of crime' legislation, he was fined an additional £50,000, corresponding with the estimated increase in the current value of his house (which will, of course, last only until the replacement tree fills the gap). And no one has yet mentioned legal costs. [News just in; another £14,500 on Davey's slate]

Meanwhile, and most entertaining of all, a passing remark in the BBC video report suggests that McGuire felled the tree as a 'wedding present' for Davey's wife at his request - I think it's fair to say that's one gift that won't be forgotten in a hurry.

Friday 23 November 2012

Fine arts; one to watch...

A time-lapse video by 18-year-old artist and photographer Oli Wheeldon.

Thursday 22 November 2012

It gets better...

Yesterday, JuliaM posted on the jewellery-shop robber sentenced to five years after being caught and held down by passers-by; the comments include a link to video footage of the robber being well-and-truly sat on by his captors.

Julia's response to this public contribution to maintaining law and order was "If I ever open a shop, it'll be here!" She may be even more convinced, now that details of the incident are emerging:
Ali Shehan, 50, from Banbury, heard shouts and saw Stringer bearing down on him. 
“The guy came running at me and had a hammer in his hand,” he said.“Everybody was behind him and chasing but he was fast.

I don’t think anybody would have caught up with him, but I saw him coming, and I saw the smoke coming out of the shop, so I went and tackled him."
And he wasn't the only one doing his bit for law and order:
Other members of the public also tried to stop Stringer, including former Albanian police officer Rremzi Skepi, 55, who picked up a metal advertising sign and hurled it at one of the suspects.
Evading the sign, according to another (printed) source, Stringer found himself dodging more would-be interceptors including an elderly lady who "swung her walking stick in his direction".
When Mr Shehan managed to wrestle Stringer to the ground he was helped by Mr Skepi, despite shouted threats that they would end up “dead”.
Charming! I don't know whether making death threats in the presence of witnesses counts as confidence or stupidity on a monumental scale.

They held him down for seven minutes until the police arrived, during which time, as the video shows, a succession of helpful passers-by joined in with the sitting - like Kipling's Neolithic ladies - or, in the case of a woman accompanied by a small child, stopped to put the boot in.

While I don't, of course, in any way condone acts of violence towards a man already effectively immobilised, I think the scale of involvement here could be a sign that the public are sick and tired of criminals appearing to get things all their own way.

It may not be exactly what David Cameron meant by the Big Society, but it's definitely sending the right message to would-be offenders.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Toast of the week - the Duke of Edinburgh

Oh dear - it's open season on the Duke of Edinburgh again.

The publicity juggernaut has been set in motion for a new book of the Duke's gaffes out in time for Christmas so the media  royal-watchers have been put on high alert to capture any fresh, headline-worthy lapse in word or deed.

And, sure enough, he's come up with the goods again:
Prince Philip spotted with finger in his ears during Royal Variety Performance
Quite understandable, really, given a line-up that includes the shrill, nasal tones of one Alicia Keys, presumably performing her latest single (here on youtube, if you must), a work of staggering monotony at a level of amplification designed to enhance the Bacchanalian frenzy of the short-skirts-and-stilettos Saturday night crowd.

And it gets worse:
She performed alongside British favourites Rod Stewart, Girls Aloud, One Direction and Britain’s Got Talent winners Pudsey and Ashleigh Butler.
In  the unlikely event of this assortment performing for the royals alone, Prince Philip's actions could have been seen as a slight, but as part of a huge audience, he should surely be allowed more leeway - after all, how many octogenarians would have chosen to sit through that lot?

What's more, I doubt that many of the performers or their agents were more thrilled at the prospect of Her Majesty's presence than at the TV exposure and column inches the event would give them.

I have to admit, I'm rather puzzled by the inclusion of the New York born-and-bred Ms Keys in any case; shouldn't the emphasis be on home-grown talent? Or is promoting the latest single in the hit machine the real purpose behind it all?

Frankly, the Royal Variety Performance is a bit of a mystery all round these days, given the diversity of entertainment on offer. What we are left with is a kind of national celebration of the convention that obliges grandparents to greet the antics of their infantile descendants with slightly baffled but indulgent and affectionate applause.

That being so, is it really a matter for comment when the nation's proxy grandfather finds the children just a bit too noisy for comfort? For goodness' sake, go and find some real news to report!

Here in the Tavern, we are raising our tankards to a man with a wicked sense of humour, a sharp tongue  and a thoroughly impressive dedication to duty.

Monday 19 November 2012

Britain in the EU; a matter of Persuasion?

An opinion poll published in the Observer found more than half of British voters (56%) would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held.
(BBC news)

EU officials have begun work on a plan to create a long-term budget without the UK in a move that reflects mounting frustration that Britain’s demand for a spending freeze cannot be reconciled with the rest of the bloc.

"Oh! Mr. Bennet, you are wanted immediately; we are all in an uproar. You must come and make Lizzy marry Mr. Collins, for she vows she will not have him, and if you do not make haste he will change his mind and not have her."

Mr. Bennet raised his eyes from his book as she entered, and fixed them on her face with a calm unconcern which was not in the least altered by her communication.

"I have not the pleasure of understanding you," said he, when she had finished her speech. "Of what are you talking?"

"Of Mr. Collins and Lizzy. Lizzy declares she will not have Mr. Collins, and Mr. Collins begins to say that he will not have Lizzy."

"And what am I to do on the occasion?—It seems an hopeless business."
(Pride and Prejudice; Jane Austen)

Sunday 18 November 2012

Martyrs to the causeway

Regular readers will remember that, last month, a total of eight vehicles were stranded on the causeway that links Mersea Island to the rest of Essex after trying to cross at high tide.

But if you thought the resulting publicity would deter any would-be Canutes from recreating the scenario with this month's spring tides, you obviously have rather too much faith in human intelligence:
The Mersea Coastguard team was on a routine patrol when it came across a Ford Fiesta partly submerged on the Strood on Friday.
And there's more...
The previous day a 4x4 and Toyota van were stuck on the causeway that links Colchester to Mersea Island and the police towed both vehicles to safety.
At least it was the police that time; the coastguard (and, on other occasions, the RNLI) have quite enough to do with keeping Darwin award hopefuls out of trouble on the water without having to sort out motorists as well.

It would be interesting to know something about these drivers who fail to grasp the significance of the terms 'tidal causeway' and, for that matter, 'island'. I doubt, somehow, that locals would get caught in this way (though I might be wrong).

A quick trawl through comments on the subject at the Gazette suggests that the Romford Navy may be well represented among the stranded motorists, which, as well as offering an agreeable sense of Schadenfreude, sounds quite plausible; anyone whose idea of fun is driving for 90 minutes up the A12 to blast around on a jest-ski is surely more likely than most to consider himself superior to the laws of nature.

Whoever they are, their persistence in the face of unprecedented tide table availability and local news coverage suggests that, despite the media storm that greeted his opinion last week, Professor Gerald Crabtree may have a point when he says that human intelligence is in decline because a lack of it is no longer fatal:
"the need for intelligence was reduced as we began to live in supportive societies that made up for lapses of judgment or failures of comprehension."

Saturday 17 November 2012

Cometh the hour, cometh the tune

The ever-cynical Demetrius has Christmas in his sights this week - or, more particularly, the excessive consumer spending increasingly promoted as the appropriate way to celebrate the birth of a man who advised his followers to give away their material possessions.
"It is possible that this year it may go beyond simple hyperactivity into manic warp drive of persuasion and almost bullying to make us buy. Governments will need the figures to look “good” that is in a way that suggests that they can buy a little more time before making difficult decisions. Business and banking need our spending as never before."
His post - do read it in full if you haven't already - reflects what I was thinking this afternoon on a rare foray into our local shopping centre, so I shall limit my own contribution to commenting on one aspect of shopping that has made several previous appearances here.

Although it is only November, the usual suspects are already beginning to put in an unwelcome appearance - an exhortation to rock around the Christmas tree or have myself a merry little Christmas is just what I need to enhance my loathing of my fellow man on a foggy afternoon.

But it was a new addition to the well-worn repertoire that caught my ear today and prompted  thoughts of Demetrius' post; a bluesy number sung by B B King (I googled it when I got home, so striking were the words):
Christmas time comes but once a year,
I'm so happy, my kids are happy too,
It'll take the next six months to pay my bills -
When I think about it folks it gives me chills
But I don't care 'cause Christmas comes but once a year. 
There's another verse about having fun - 'I don't care what I have to pay; Let the good times roll' - and the whole thing is on a loop, dripped into the receptive ears of shoppers as they browse the rails of disposable fashion for all the family with a message eerily similar to the consumption-promoting sleep-teaching of Brave New World.

If Demetrius is right, this, along with the much-vaunted, high-profile television adverts, may be the first sign of a brutal softening-up process aimed at brainwashing consumers into unprecedented levels of spending.

(Christmas Comes But Once A Year; lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. )

Friday 16 November 2012

Shameless! (part 2)

I've said it before, but the expenses scandal really is the gift that keeps on giving.

It's not been a good week for Lord Hanningfield; details of his corporate credit card spending have revealed not only a taste for the high life distinctly at odds with his courtroom claim to be a man of simple tastes but also that he was claiming for overnight hotel accommodation in London on the same night that taxpayers were funding his stay in 'the best luxury hotel in India'.

But if you thought last year's prison sentence might have shamed him into paying his own way these days as a form of recompense, think again! House of Lords figures released on Wednesday show that he pocketed the maximum tax-free attendance allowance for the 12 days he turned up in June - a total of £3,600.

You may remember that he and Baroness Uddin (another inspiration for 'Expenses-the Musical!'), despite initial claims of penury, both had a rummage down the back of the sofa and conveniently managed come up with sufficient cash to repay their dodgy claims - £30,000 and £125,000 respectively - and hop back on the gravy train along with Lord Warwick (a mere £24,000).

In fact, the Baroness went one better, initially asking to be re-admitted to the House of Lords straight away so that she could use her expenses allowance to pay back the money she owed, a gesture brazen enough to give Lord Hanningfield's 'two-continents-at-once' accommodation claims a run for their money.

And why are these paragons of virtue back in the Corridors of Power at our expense? According to the Independent's diarist, there was an attempt to reform the system on the part of David Steel, who proposed legislation to expel from the Lords those found guilty of dishonest practice.

A sensible idea, you might have thought, especially given the details that have emerged of expenses claims from the Upper House, but it met with opposition:
The idea has support in every political party, but Nick Clegg has blocked it because he fears that small reforms will weaken the case for abolishing the Lords and creating an elected chamber.
Which is, if you ask me, a bit like refusing to deal with a nasty rat problem because that would prevent a big enough outbreak of plague to justify burning the city.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Shameless! (Part 1)

“I am relieved that this chapter has closed and that the police and Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed I did nothing wrong."
Those were the words of Lord Hanningfield (remember him?) on learning that the City of London Police have confirmed he has no case to answer over expenses incurred during his leadership of Essex County Council.

This, of course has nothing to do with the nine weeks he spent in prison last year for Parliamentary expenses fraud, but it's an interesting conflation of 'nothing illegal' and 'nothing wrong', given figures released by the council from his taxpayer-funded council credit card:
The peer's card use from 2005 to 2010 lists thousands of transactions, including spending on flights, train journeys, meals and hotel stays which amount to £286,000 in total.
He may have been cleared of fraud this time, but all that presumably means is that he did spent the money on what he declared and that it was legally authorised spending on council business - conveniently signed off by Hanningfield himself.

Fair enough, I suppose - but the items suggest he wasn't exactly roughing it when he travelled the world at public expense:
£42.94 spent on a single breakfast at the Little Chef in Wisley South, £5,266 on flights to India for a "business event" and £6,652 spent on flights to the Bahamas for a conference. 
Other expenses include £150-a-head dinners chez Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein, a day at the races (£230), a £1,180 spa break in Hampshire and '£107 on drinks for four in Hot Springs, USA' - His Lordship was obviously feeling generous that night.

Legal, maybe, but not necessarily what you would call fair dealing with the hard-pressed taxpayers footing the bill; can this really be the same man who told a jury last year,“I do not lead an extravagant lifestyle. [...] I enjoy the occasional glass of wine but that’s about it"?

Meanwhile, his successor as Council Leader has taken advantage of the end of the investigation to publish five years' worth of corporate credit card charges in detail:
"We are committed to being open and transparent and I am pleased that we are now able to make this information available for the public to view."
Which I think roughly translates as "Take that, scumbag!"

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Quis custodiet custodes IPSAe?

Well, if Bercow gets his way, prospective members of the board of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority - including those currently sitting - must be vetted and approved by his own pet panel.
Four members of the watchdog which polices MPs' expenses are to stand down after a row with Commons speaker John Bercow.
Mr Bercow decided not to back the automatic re-appointment of the four IPSA board members when their contracts end in January.
Naturally this isn't going down at all well in some circles, but an interesting defence of Bercow has appeared at Conservative Home, where Paul Goodman has been mulling things over thanks to a personal interest in the story:
'I was approached recently to apply for a place on the IPSA Board, and saw on reading the conditions that the Speaker would play a part in the selection process.
I thought that it was unlikely that I would be successful if I applied, and decided that since I've no confidence in the Speaker it would be wrong to do so in any event.'
Come on, Paul - surely a lack of confidence in the Speaker is exactly why you should apply!

Someone's got to keep an eye on him; if he's on the level, you have nothing to fear and, if he really is after placemen, it won't be exposed unless someone objective gets involved in the process.

And, more importantly, if a lack of confidence in Bercow acts as a complete deterrent to would-be applicants, what sort of people will we be left with?

Meanwhile,  remember this from Dizzy Thinks?
'Frankly, even a very shiny arse with neon lights on it saying "I'm a shiny arse" would find it hard to make more of an arse of itself on Twitter than Sally Bercow has in recent months.'
More than two years on and she's still at it,  not to mention that photo, and those TV appearances. Now, I wouldn't normally be so insensitive as to bring up the indiscretions of a man's wife in relation to his professional career, but John Bercow has chosen to share bed and board with this woman of his own free will (at least I assume so).

And if that's any indication of his judgement of character, perhaps we should look very carefully indeed at his choice of appointees.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

"Where's the foetus going to gestate? ...

...Are you going to keep it in a box?"

Lynne Featherstone has put her elegantly manicured finger on what is stopping today's women achieving their full potential:
“One of the main barriers to full equality in the UK is the fact that women still have babies.” 
Er...yes - I mean, who else is going to do it?

By popular demand:

Monday 12 November 2012


It appears, in some circles at least, to be a truth universally acknowledged that

a) a senior executive is entitled to a massive golden handshake, however short or incompetent his tenure of the post (Pavlov's Cat)

b) it is right and proper to spend public money hammering square pegs into round holes (Orphans of Liberty)


c) mothers of under-5s should be encouraged to go out to work (The Anger of a Quiet Man)

Does anyone ever actually stop to ask why?

Sunday 11 November 2012

11th November

Pomp and collective solemnity have their place today, but sometimes the smaller things can move you almost  beyond words:

His Mate
from Rough Rhymes of a Padre
by G A Studdert Kennedy MC
("Woodbine Willie")

There's a broken battered village
Somewhere up behind the line,
There's a dug-out and a bunk there,
That I used to say were mine.

I remember how I reached them,
Dripping wet and all forlorn,
In the dim and dreary twilight
Of a weeping summer dawn.

All that week I'd buried brothers,
In one bitter battle slain,
In one grave I laid two hundred.
God ! What sorrow and what rain !

And that night I'd been in trenches,
Seeking out the sodden dead,
And just dropping them in shell holes,
With a service swiftly said.

For the bullets rattled round me,
But I couldn't leave them there,
Water-soaked in flooded shell holes.
Reft of common Christian prayer.

So I crawled round on my belly.
And I listened to the roar
Of the guns that hammered Thiepval,
Like big breakers on the shore.

Then there spoke a dripping sergeant,
When the time was growing late,
'Would you please to bury this one,
'Cause 'e used to be my mate?'

So we groped our way in darkness
To a body lying there.
Just a blacker lump of blackness.
With a red blotch on his hair.

Though we turned him gently over,
Yet I still can hear the thud.
As the body fell face forward.
And then settled in the mud.

We went down upon our faces,
And I said the service through,
From 'I am the Resurrection'
To the last, the great 'adieu.'

We stood up to give the Blessing,
And commend him to the Lord,
When a sudden light shot soaring
Silver swift and like a sword.

At a stroke it slew the darkness,
Flashed its glory on the mud,
And I saw the sergeant staring
At a crimson clot of blood.

There are many kinds of sorrow
In this world of Love and Hate,
But there is no sterner sorrow
Than a soldier's for his mate.

Saturday 10 November 2012

"Now pass the blame and don't blame me...."

There have been all too many cases of bad parenting highlighted in the media recently, but this one has to be plumbing new depths.
A father of four, who blamed the theft of expensive designer handbags on his two-year-old daughter, has avoided prison.
The thief made regular visits to a house his wife had been hired to look after while the owner was abroad and, over a period of five months, helped himself to £10,000 worth of clothes, shoes and accessories.

When the theft was discovered, this noble specimen of humanity produced what must surely be one of the most memorable excuses ever, claiming that his two-year-old daughter had stolen the lot.

To support his statement, he even returned some of the handbags with sweet wrappers and dummies in them, suggesting that they had been 'borrowed' for dressing up games.

Unfortunately for him, the police remained unconvinced, possibly because the rest of the missing items had already been put up for sale on ebay; today's children may be frighteningly computer-literate but there are limits.

Interestingly, the report makes no mention of the wife's role in all this, which could mean that she is to stand trial separately - in any case, I doubt anyone will knowingly trust her again. Either she's a wrong 'un too, or her powers of observation are as weak as her judgement of character.

Whichever it is, I'm afraid it's a poor lookout for the offspring of such a union.

Friday 9 November 2012

Quote of the day - Sleazy O'Leary strikes again

You can say this for Michael O'Leary, he's consistent.

Almost a year to the day since his last outrageous proposal to reform air travel (a distinctly dubious approach to in-flight entertainment), he's back with another headline-grabbing idea.
Michael O’Leary claims legislation forcing passengers to wear seatbelts is useless, unnecessary and insisted upon only by authorities he deems “plonkers”.
Unlike his previous schemes - scrapping the co-pilot and coin-operated toilets, for example - getting rid of seat-belts appears to have no immediate financial benefit.

O'Leary, however, is nothing if not a canny operator; this attention-seeking device is merely a Trojan horse to advance an idea we've seen before - standing passengers on aircraft.

Since his initial ideal of vertical backrests seems to have met with engineering difficulties, his plan this time appears to be removing ten rows of rear seats completely to sell £1 standing-only tickets to European flight destinations:
“We don't have heavy landings anymore. "If you say to someone, 'Look, hang onto the handle there, you're coming in to land', they'll be fine."
It is, of course, about as likely as removing the windows and asking passengers to stick their arms out and flap, but O'Leary's got exactly what he wanted: I wonder whether he has a regular entry in his desk diary: "November 7th; wind up the media again."

Must save a fortune on advertising.

Somehow O'Leary and the Stranglers seem to fit uncannily well together; perhaps it's their blend of blatant misogyny and cynicism ...

O'Leary's seeking business,
He goes on reducing prices
And he's got a great idea:
Fly to Brussels* for a pound
By just hanging around.
By just hanging around.

 At the airport early
 And the staff are grim and surly
 And the milling hordes are swelling
 So a seat cannot be found
 They're just hanging around.
 They're just hanging around.

 So tired, by halfway through the
 Flight you wonder why you bothered -
 If you change your mind about it
 Tough, you're high above the ground
 You're just hanging around.
 You're just hanging around.

 *South Charleroi Airport, 29 miles from the centre of Brussels

Thursday 8 November 2012

"You can't start a fire without a spark..."

If there is one device that has 'Darwin Award' written all over it, it is surely the angle grinder (see here and here, for example).

Every now and then, our home is invaded by returning offspring and our normally civilized television set opens a window on a whole new world.

Among the Urchin's favourites is a festival of consumerism known as 'The Gadget Show', in which an assortment of presenters discuss and, more pertinently, demonstrate the latest technology, which seems to necessitate much whooping and shrieking and distinctly antisocial levels of noise.

One of the most jaw-dropping scenes from the last series involved a presenter directing a cabaret performance in which a trio of scantily-clad dancers cavorted onstage in what appeared to be large metal codpieces.

To the accompaniment of a pounding bass track - big speakers are something of a 'Gadget Show' Leitmotif - they then proceeded to apply angle grinders to their steel-clad groins, producing abundant showers of sparks.

Leaving aside the obvious Freudian connotations, this seemed to be a particularly foolhardy and pointless activity; I was thus astonished to learn this week that it is a 'common form of entertainment in many nightclubs'.

My source of information is the BBC report on a fire at an Essex nightclub, where 1,000 people were evacuated after sparks from an angle-grinding act started a fire. Amazingly, only one person was injured; the potential for disaster in such situations is all too well known.

Is there, I wonder, such a thing as a collective Darwin Award? While the performer would obviously qualify in the event of a disaster, there must surely be some contributory element in choosing to be in an industrial-scale nightclub on the outskirts of Basildon at 2am gawping at a load of sparks.

Meanwhile, further research on the subject turned up an unlikely competitive combination of angle-grinder sparking and pole-dancing in a burlesque club, at which point it all got too weird and I decided to leave the story well alone.

However, I should like to commend the BBC journalist for the best use of inverted commas I've seen all week:
A club spokesman said angle-grinding "entertainment" would not be used until the fire investigation has concluded.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Pass the witchetty grubs, Mr Cameron

Why, we ask ourselves, would Nadine Dorries want to take part in a televised spectacle which combines the primitive savagery of the jungle with the attention-seeking narcissism of modern celebrity?

Of course, we might ask the same question of the other 649 more-or-less honourable souls who merrily trotted off to Westminster after the last election to take part in what is surely the apotheosis of reality TV - brief interludes of raucous partisan conflict and occasional vicious back-biting interrupting hours of soporific tedium for months on end.

Someone at the BBC - raised on the 1960s orthodoxy that 'drama requires conflict' - clearly thinks we must all enjoy the unedifying spectacle of Prime Minister's Questions, so much so, indeed, that, in addition to the coverage on BBC Parliament, it is broadcast live on News 24; watch the baying mobs on two channels at once for twice the fun!

Nadine Dorries is likely to feel right at home in the jungle when she gets there, though exactly how she expects her absence to benefit her constituents is not clear. She is, of course, quick to point out that it will let her raise important subjects in a public forum (if not exactly the one to which they elected her), but then, outrageous justification is nothing new to her.

It is, after all, only a few years since she compared the Telegraph's revelation of MPs expenses to a witch-hunt and insisted, with almost Prescottian fluency, that the £24,222 Additional Costs allowance had always been counted as 'part of an MP's salary':
"Actually what it was spent on is possibly even regardless, because the principle is that lump sum of money, particularly for the old guard of MPs, we were told 'that's your due'."
However, her self-proclaimed motivation this time, although casting some doubt on her grasp of her day-to-day responsibility to her constituents (and, for that matter, the taxpayers who pay her salary), might just solve the problem of what to do with all the MPs when the Palace of Westminster undergoes its much-needed planned refurbishment in the near future:
"I'm doing the show because 16 million people watch it. 
If people are watching 'I'm A Celebrity', that is where MPs should be going"

Bad news for Ms Dorries: Lembit 'with friends like these...' Opik has publicly expressed his support. Oh dear!

Monday 5 November 2012

It all depends which way you look at it....

A PROJECT aimed at slashing problems caused by late-night drinkers in Clacton town centre has been scrapped.
This is the unequivocally-named Clacton SOS Bus, which has been a feature of the town centre between 8.30pm and 2.30am on Friday and Saturday nights for the past ten months.

The bus, like its counterpart in Colchester, aims to provide medical and other emergency support to those who run into trouble in the town centre. The organisers' website describes their partnership with 'doctors and emergency care practitioners who can glue, stitch and assess individual cases'.

For those requiring less DIY and more TLC, the staff also liaise with local emergency and support services to help people avoid ending up in A&E, police custody or the pages of JuliaM's blog.

However, while the Colchester emergency staff have been kept busy helping 3,500 people over the past 3 years, the Clacton SOS Bus came to the end of its pilot run last week and will not continue because 'not enough people have used the service'.
Sarah Wright, chief executive of Open Road, said during the pilot only 156 people needed help.
Well, that's a good thing, surely...
“The pilot has been a useful exercise and we have learnt a lot about the needs of people frequenting Clacton on weekend evenings,” she said.
“However, the number of people taking advantage of the facility has been disappointing.
Well, I suppose if you are chief executive of an organisation with a £2.5m annual budget, receiving 'generous funding' for your operations from partners including Colchester Community Safety Partnership, Tendring Community Safety Partnership, Essex Police, North East Essex Primary Care Trust and Essex County Council, you probably don't see things quite the way the rest of us do.

Friday 2 November 2012

Denis MacShane - the musical

Well, it's been a while since we had one of these...

I think I did it again.
Asked you to believe
My tale of expense,
Oh baby;
The BBC's in a rush,
To make it seem that it's serious,
But to fall through my expenses,
Can you really do this to me?

Oops! ... I did it again.
I filed the receipts
And put in two claims
For the same laptop, baby.
Oops!... You think I'm a fraud
But it’s all above board...
I'm mostly innocent.

You see my problem is this:
I've claimed, in a way,
Things I suppose technically didn’t exist
But was it too much to pay?
Can't you see I oppose fascism every day?
And this trawl through my expenses;
That was done for the BNP!

Oops! ... I did it again.
And right from the start
Got lost in the game.
Oh, baby, baby.
Oops!... I'm not really a fraud,
Ed, please keep me on board!
I'm mostly innocent.

(In case anyone thinks I was amazingly quick off the mark with this mirth-inducing story, I should admit that it's an updating of a previous piece which just happened to suit rather well...)

GCSE English - definitely no shades of grey

The GCSE row still rumbles on, with the latest salvo being fired by Ofqual today:
Too much pressure on schools in England to get good GCSE grades led to over-generous marking of coursework by teachers, the exams watchdog concludes.
In its final report on the controversy over this summer's GCSE English exam, Ofqual says external examiners had to raise grade boundaries as a result.
This sweeping statement has sent a predictable ripple round the battlefield as the various parties involved marshal their troops accordingly.
Heads said it was "outrageous" to blame teachers for the fiasco which saw some pupils get lower grades than predicted.
Meanwhile the shadow schools minister naturally demanded that the government sort it out and the unions - most predictable of all - are bandying around words like 'scapegoat' and 'blatantly wrong':
"The accountability measures do place tremendous pressure on teachers and schools, especially at GCSE grade C, but to say that teachers would compromise their integrity to the detriment of students is an insult."
Ofqual's chief executive is clearly aware of the dangers of accusing teachers of professional misconduct and has instead taken refuge in an attitude so patronising it could curdle yoghurt:
Ms Stacey added she believed teachers had marked the test "optimistically", rather than with a deliberate intention to inflate grades. 
"They are doing their level best to do the best for their students and they are bound, given the pressures they are under, to take the most optimistic view."
All of which serves to reduce the battlefield to a chess-board; a simple black-and-white layout of opposing forces.

The unions do as they have always done and follow the classic script familiar from all those years of grade inflation - all our members are above reproach and to imply otherwise is to insult hard-working and dedicated men and women.

Ofqual, meanwhile, 'has evidence' of widespread over-marking, which it attributes to the new GCSE not being 'robust enough'; although it does not go so far as to blame teachers, it firmly lays at their door the inconsistencies that led to the adjustment of grade boundaries.

And lost in the middle is all the grey stuff - that some teachers are more scrupulous than others. Whatever the unions would have you believe, there are some teachers out there who will bend the rules to improve a pupil's grade, just as there are others who, whatever the pressures on them, would be deeply horrified at the very idea of awarding inflated marks for exam work.

Such ambiguity does not suit politics or, for that matter, media-friendly soundbites from Ofqual, who, as we know, are not themselves averse to the odd bit of behind-the-scenes tinkering with results to achieve the desired effect.

This looks very much like an attempt to bury a messy situation behind the kind of dramatic outrage that completely obscures its original cause. Look, the public will say, it's the teaching unions getting hot under the collar again; nothing to do with us.

Thus it is that, regardless of the impact on individual pupils whose teachers marked according to the strictest of criteria, the official regulator has decided to endorse what may yet come to be seen as a landmark example of unjustified collective punishment.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Hey, little goldfish....

...Where you goin' to?
Little goldfish, let me swim along with you.'

Every now and then, a news story comes along that makes me instantly and inexplicably happy. 

In the midst of all the gloom and doom, this week was brightened by news of the safe arrival at the International Space Station of one astronaut, two cosmonauts and 32 fish.

The guppy-sized medaka fish will be living in a state-of-the-art habitat, specially delivered by a Japanese robotic cargo freighter, where they will be studied to observe how they are affected by the zero-g environment.

Fish in space - how cool is that?

In fact, it's even better than the anti-gravity machine for mice.

(And, even more pleasingly, the vocalist lip-synching in this clip of the truly excruciating title song is one Richard Dreyfuss, later to acquire fame in quite another piscine context.)

Friday 26 October 2012

Toast of the week - cosmic paintballing edition

If you believe that we are on borrowed time and that somewhere out there is an asteroid with our name on it, you may be relieved (or disappointed, depending on your view of humanity) to hear of an idea put forward by a graduate student at MIT.

Sung Wook Paek, who works in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (lucky thing!) has just presented the paper that won him the UN's  2012 'Move an Asteroid' Competition.

Possibly inspired by a weekend away from his desk, Paek proposes an interplanetary paintballing mission to blast the approaching asteroid with white pigment, doubling its reflectivity. This, he argues, would change its response to solar radiation sufficiently to alter its course over a period of years.

It's elegantly simple - the paint pellets are delivered in two bursts synchronised with the asteroid's rotation, ensuring complete coverage front and back (I believe the same principle operates in spray-tanning).

The impact of the paint pellets gives the asteroid an initial small nudge to start things off; after that, you just sit back and let the sun do the work, deflecting it sufficiently to pass by at a comfortable distance from Earth.

All we need to do is make sure we get enough warning to send the supercharged paintball gun up there in time - otherwise it's Bruce Willis and the nukes.

Sung Wook Paek, this week's toast of the Tavern, your very good health!