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

Tuesday 28 February 2012

"Flash, I love you - but we only have twenty-eight years to save the Earth!"

Well, you knew I wasn't going to let it go unremarked, didn't you?

Nasa has identified a new asteroid threat to our planet and calculated that it could potentially impact on February 5th 2040.

2011 AG5 is a 140m-wide chunk of rock that, according to current calculations, has a 1-in-625 chance of impacting with the Earth. This has worried enough people to prompt a discussion of impact prevention strategy at the 49th session of the (deep breath!) Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The resulting press release means, of course, that the Mail has helpfully trotted out a still from 'Armageddon' (Bruce Willis & Co jetting off in a testosterone-fuelled rocket to nuke an asteroid) to give us the idea*, while a host of other news headlines fully exploit the dramatic potential of the situation.

The European Space Agency, however, are really not entering into the spirit of the thing, pointing out that 2011 AG5 has not yet been observed for the full orbit necessary to calculate its future position with any confidence. The interval and the need to gather more observational data make this 'news' story something of a damp squib.

Still, on the bright side, the coverage has produced a phrase that, even by the excruciating standards of US jargon, is a humdinger: according to CBS news website, we are currently in a situation of 'non-zero impact probability'.

*Although the picture editor has, for some unknown reason, chosen a dramatic scene showing a member of the space-suited crew holding the others at gunpoint, which I don't think is quite what the UN committee had in mind.

Monday 27 February 2012

Word of the Week

A delightful accidental neologism, courtesy of one of the Elders of Clan Macheath:

Titify (v.), to get ready for an evening out; a portmanteau of 'beautify' and 'titivate'

as in "Your mother will be down in a minute; she's just titifying herself."

Update: I have just noticed that this marks the 500th post at Newgate News; perhaps I should have done a more serious and substantial piece to mark the occasion!

Sunday 26 February 2012

Bias at the BBC

No surprise in that, of course, but one doesn't usually expect it to rear its ugly head in the Drama department.

Anyone who, like me, considers 'The Cruel Sea' to be one of the finest pieces of fiction on the subject of WWII, will surely have been appalled at what Radio 4 has seen fit to do to the book in today's Classic Serial.

Not content with shearing it of every vestige of the subtlety and dry wit that permeates Nicholas Monsarrat's prose and replacing the carefully-drawn relationships between characters with crude soap-opera sensationalism, the adaptation has managed to shoe-horn in a startling amount of 'original' material, including some distinctly pointed social comment.

Among the glaring examples, when a sailor finds his wife is pregnant as the result of an affair, the adaptation includes a lengthy and unlikely dialogue in which the wronged seaman discusses with an officer whether the child needs the love of two parents if it is to thrive. This intrusion completely contradicts the rather less emotionally incontinent novel, in which the unhappy man simply answers an unspoken question with terse and pathetic dignity, "The kid'll be mine, sir, and that's all there is to it."

In the book, the sailor goes AWOL so he can stay at home to guard his wife until her lover leaves the country a week later. This attitude obviously doesn't suit the dramatist, who rewrites the story to have the seaman miss his ship's departure - potential desertion with severe penalties attached - in order to to change and feed the baby until he thinks his young wife has learnt to care for it properly.

Worst of all, though, is the piece on oil tankers. Writing from the heart - the heart of an experienced Naval Officer rather than a media luvvie with an axe to grind - Monsarrat's narrative voice comments on the men who crew the flammable ships:
'Aboard Compass Rose, as in every escort that crossed the Atlantic, there had developed an unstinting admiration of the men who sailed in oil-tankers.[...] The stuff they carried - the life-blood of the whole war - was the most treacherous cargo of all; a single torpedo, a single small bomb, even a stray shot from a machine-gun could transform their ship into a torch.[...]
It was these expendable seamen who were the real 'petrol coupons' - the things one could wangle from the garage on the corner; and whenever sailors saw or read of petrol being wasted or stolen, they saw the cost in lives as well, peeping from behind the headlines or the music-hall joke, feeding their anger and disgust.'
In the BBC's version of the same piece, the spivs and Flash Harries of the music-hall jokes have vanished, replaced by more fashionable hate figures for the benefit of today's listeners. The reaction to the waste of petrol, completely rewritten to a new agenda, now runs thus:
'I recall those letters to our more upmarket papers, such as the Times, from readers, almost invariably snug in the Home Counties, vociferously denouncing the Government for their 'socialistic' policy of petrol rationing, demanding their perfect right to drive in their fat, fast cars to whatever race track or pheasant shoot they chose to attend.'
If, as A. A. Milne once said, dramatising another writer's work is leaving your own fingermarks in someone else's bread and butter, the BBC has thrown the plate on the floor and trodden the lot into the carpet with muddy boots.

Update: Turns out I wasn't the only one to spot this and think it deserved a post; the perceptive Paul Marks at Counting Cats has documented and commented on several of the other instances in that episode of what he rightly calls 'socialist propaganda'.

Saturday 25 February 2012


...just having a difficult few weeks.

My thanks to those who continue to drop in; topicality isn't on the menu at the moment, but if you fancy passing an idle few minutes browsing through some of the 500-odd ramblings in the archive, please be my guest.

Normal service will be resumed in the near future.