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 31 March 2012

Sans moi, le déluge

Honestly! I only leave the country for a week or so and you manage to get yourselves into a right pickle over petrol.

As far as I can see from the reports, it's a national version of the Local Toilet Roll Crisis which I inadvertently precipitated in 2004, when a friend asked me to collect two bumper packs for her from the supermarket and I added one for myself.

I barely noticed the odd looks I was getting as I continued my shopping, but by the time I reached the checkout, every trolley was piled high with toilet rolls and the shelves were starting to look bare; a few days later, the whole town had been denuded of stock.

I have no doubt that the same people who observed the mountain of rolls in my trolley and, drawing their own conclusions, scuttled off to secure some for themselves would react to a petrol station queue in much the same way.

According to the BBC, areas badly hit include Surrey, Berkshire and Hertfordshire - surely toilet-roll hoarding territory if ever there was.

Meanwhile, I see that a certain loose cannon has got himself elected in Bradford*. Galloway, it turns out, has recently published an open letter highly critical of the practice of postal voting which, coincidentally, has surfaced in the French news this week.

The Presidential elections - delightfully celebrated by delit maille (see sidebar link) - taking place during the school holidays, the authorities have realised that some people may be away from home.

They are thus publicising the procedure for securing a postal vote; in advance of the election, citizens must apply in person at their local police station and present proof of identity and address, together with a valid reason for absence.

French bureaucracy being legendary (and the French Police most certainly not an organisation with which to trifle), this is not something to be undertaken lightly; what a contrast to the British system, where, according to the Electoral Commission website, "You do not need a reason to vote by post".

Since the British system relies on self-declaration and the sort of pointless questions you get asked at airports - "Did you pack this ballot paper yourself?" - there seems little to prevent law-abiding citizens discovering that, according to the electoral roll, they are apparently sharing their tiny flats with a dozen or so other people.

*Or Blackburn, according to a tweet spotted by Galloway-watcher Spinoza at Rational Islam?, where the question of postal votes also raises its head. I followed it up: Galloway later dismissed the tweet as a hoax, but as Diane Abbott shoved her oar in at that point, I lost all will to continue reading.

Abbott, incidentally, tweets as HackneyAbbott. On a grammatical hunch, I looked that up too: sure enough, "hackney (adj.): banal, trite". Sometimes serendipity is a wonderful thing.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

The unbearable smugness of Bercow

Tom Chivers' comparison of John Bercow's speech to the performance of a drunken uncle at a provincial wedding has inspired the Tavern regulars to the following effort:

(with apologies to the Beatles)

Picture yourself in a row all a-quiver
As a speech for the Queen becomes politicised;
Everyone cringes as Bercow gets going,
Hyperbole piled to the skies.

Members of Parliament Bercow has seen
Towering over his head
Look at him oddly or narrow their eyes;
He goes on…

Should the Speaker hijack the limelight?
Should the Speaker hijack the limelight?
Should the Speaker hijack the limelight?

What have we here in the paean he’s spouting?
His clear propaganda is quite a surprise
Mrs B smiles as Cameron glowers
How could he let that one go by?

Newpaper pundits appear to be sure,
Wouldn’t let that slip away;
Kaleidoscope’s shorthand for ‘Rainbow and Proud’
He goes on…

Should the Speaker hijack the limelight?
Should the Speaker hijack the limelight?
Should the Speaker hijack the limelight?

Picture yourself purple with indignation
Like Cameron staring through hostile eyes;
Suddenly Bercow has seized the advantage
And grabbed a kaleidoscope prize.

Saturday 17 March 2012

"You can go your Rowan way..."

Oh dear, what can the matter be?
What can this frenzy of media chatter be?
Williams resigns as Archbishop of Canterbury
Under the full public gaze.

He’s known as a liberal ecclesiastic
Unworldly enough to be seen as monastic;
Perhaps it’s a shame that divisions so drastic
Have prefaced the parting of ways.

Should he have borrowed the boldness of Becket
Opposing a policy, tried hard to wreck it?
It’s not as if he’d get a sword in the neck, it’s
Just not how we do things these days.

He staunchly supports ecumenicalism
Though less of a liberal when wielding the chrism;
His treatment of bishops may yet lead to schism
At least when they’re women or gays.

He tried very hard with his bishops “co-ordinate” -
Fuss from the feminist wing was inordinate -
Doubtless he felt the support of the Lord in at-
Tempting to have it both ways.

Amid all the media squabbling and warbling
You certainly cannot accuse him of dawdling
He’s bagging a billet as Master of Magdalene;
Long may the old sheep safely graze.

"...a brave man and an English gentleman"

I was contemplating a post on how and why values have changed in the hundred years since Captain Oates walked out into the Antarctic blizzard - touching, perhaps, on the fact that progressive educators threw the concept of honourable self-sacrifice out with the bathwater of Empire, associating it inextricably with the now-despised 'officer class'.

There are times, however, when deploring the state of things becomes tiresome - and irrelevant in the face of something essential. Instead, for those of you who don't know it, I offer Derek Mahon's villanelle, which expresses that truth far more eloquently than I ever could:

by Derek Mahon

‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
The others nod pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced with vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time –

In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Thought the night yield no glimmer, there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go.
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

In memoriam:
Captain Lawrence Edward Grace Oates (17 March 1880 – 16 March 1912)

Thursday 15 March 2012

An unholy alliance

Even by the Mail's standards, this is a good one:

The world’s obese people could help stop global warming by going on a diet, scientists claimed today.

Help stop global warming, no less; lose weight and save the planet! I can see it has the makings of a best-selling book. But wait, there's more...

Obese and overweight people were said to be contributing to climate change just by breathing.

We've got used to being lectured about our air miles and car use, but that's going to be a hard one to cut down on. In any case, who's to decide what constitutes overweight? The parameters are, to say the least, somewhat blurred.

The Mail has the scientific 'facts' to back this up; according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, scientists at Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University:

if all the world’s heavyweights dropped 10kg, C02 emissions would fall by 49.560 metric tonnes a year. That’s the equivalent of 0.2% of the CO2 emitted globally in 2007.

Now I don't claim to be much good at statistics, but that seems to me an unfeasibly large figure, particularly as there's a whole other issue, so to speak, that the researchers didn't take into consideration:

They did not include methane gas emissions from flatulent large people, despite evidence about cows contributing to greenhouse gases, which is a shame, because it opens up a whole new set of interesting possible campaign slogans*.

So where is all this going? Will a fat tax be combined with a climate change levy on foodstuffs? Will the Nanny State use the findings as an excuse to impose draconian diets and exercise regimes under the terms of the Kyoto protocol? It's a frightening thought, given the energy and single-mindedness with which the PTB pursue the green agenda.

We've already seen measures in place to round up overweight 'clients' for government-sponsored 'healthy eating' programmes and attempts to instil guilt over CO2 generation, now imagine the two combined - it would certainly be the end for drive-thru burger joints (which is, admittedly, something I personally would welcome on linguistic grounds).

It's a perfect storm of righteousness waiting to happen; we just have to hope, for the good of humanity, that no-one in power suddenly decides to take the Daily Mail seriously because it happens to suit their agenda.

*Some years ago, the strong regional accent of a BBC reporter discussing the appointment of a 'Fat Czar' to tackle obesity led to the Spouse mishearing the title as 'Fart Czar', a designation the Tavern gleefully adopted henceforth for any government-appointed interfering busybody.

Thursday 8 March 2012

"A man's soul can be judged by the way he treats his dog."

The diverse unpleasant doings of the underclass have long been the preserve of the indefatigable JuliaM, whose blog is well-equipped with labels for their various nefarious antics.

That said, occasionally a story comes along that prompts even the more reticent among us to comment.

Remember the prison van that made a 96-mile trip in order to transport a suspect 60 yards because, it was claimed, to walk from the police station to the magistrates court next door in handcuffs would 'breach his human rights'?

Naturally the song-and-dance over avoiding the 60-yard walk to court attracted far more attention than the walk itself could ever have done, and, in any case, turned out to be something of a red herring; it was the security contractor who chose to send the van - at public expense - citing human rights as justification*.

The charges against the suspect at that initial appearance were described only as a 'public order offence' - as opposed to his conditional discharge for shoplifting and the robbery charges he was facing in Oxford at the time:

The 27-year-old threatened to stab student Emma-Jane Pring if she didn’t hand over money. Thomas, who has 19 previous convictions for 30 offences, admitted attempted robbery.

Judge Corrie said: “You don’t seem to feel any shame... you have been smiling throughout the proceedings.”

The case in Banbury has finally been heard - the 60-yard van journey having resulted in a plea of 'not guilty' - and, if you thought your opinion of him couldn't get any lower, think again.

Drunken Oliver Thomas tossed a neighbour’s pet dog out of a third floor window because he was angry with it, magistrates heard yesterday. The Bichon Frise died in pain after plunging more than 50 feet.

Actually, the headline is not quite accurate; according to the article, Thomas grabbed the dog, walked to the open window and held the struggling animal outside for several seconds before letting go. The only statement offered in mitigation was that he was so drunk he did not know what he was doing and now feels remorse, which suggests even his defence team were struggling with this one.

I'd hate to be putting ideas into their heads, but it strikes me that Thomas, like Karen Matthews, suffers from an almost pathological lack of maturity. His attack on the dog was the unthinking cruelty of an angry child, while his many and varied previous crimes - including assault and damaging a car - suggest infantile levels of reasoning and self-control.

There's something childish, too, in his denial of 'causing unnecessary suffering'. Despite the evidence of the dog's owner and another witness, Thomas initially claimed the dog had slipped out of the fanlight window, only changing his story when he was confronted with overwhelming testimony - or 'found out', as he probably sees it.

Thomas (now with 20 previous convictions for 31 offences) has been jailed for 18 weeks - I can hear Julia sighing from here - which, even allowing for early release, should at least give him time to find out how his fellow-inmates feel about cruelty to small, fluffy dogs; I understand even the most hardened criminals have a sentimental side.

Oh, and the attempted robbery last year? That got him a suspended sentence. Sorry, Julia!

*Even the prisoner thought it was ridiculous: "surely they could have just walked me there in handcuffs".

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Quote of the Day - Stanford trial edition

Alex Dalmady, who blew the whistle on Texan fraudster Allen Stanford:

"He had Forbes saying he had two billion dollars, when he had basically minus seven billion dollars; he was probably the poorest man on the planet."

Tuesday 6 March 2012

A worm in your ear

What makes a coincidence?

For most of Sunday, I had a tune stuck in my mind for no reason I could identify; in fact, I considered putting it in a post on Sunday evening - I reckon, with earworms, that you might as well get some mileage out of them while they're with you.

We're all prone to the odd repeating tune so I thought no more of it, until yesterday's Six O'Clock News announced the death of Philip Madoc; the tune that had been running through my head since the day before was the theme music for the BBC Wales series 'The life and Times of David Lloyd George,' in which Madoc played the title role.

And then, to cap it all, the BBC news website this morning has a feature on - guess what - earworms. A widespread phenomenon (the term is, like so many vividly descriptive terms, a literal translation from the German), earworms have been linked to a bewildering variety of stimuli and associations, often triggered by seemingly unconnected factors.
Sometimes it's an emotion that sets it off; the BBC article mentions the case of an unfortunate woman who got a Bananarama song stuck in her head when she was taking an exam at 16;

"She now gets that song at every single moment of stress in her life," says Williamson. "Wedding, childbirth, everything."

The article concludes by asking an expert how to get rid of earworms; his advice - "Just think of another song and hope that'll push out the first one." - may ring a melodious bell with regular visitors to the Tavern, who may well remember the same advice being given here eighteen months ago.

Youtube has since withdrawn the only clip of my suggested replacement, so I haven't bothered to link to the piece, but remember, folks, you really did hear it here first!

Since I've mentioned it, here's Enrico Morricone's Chi Mai - the Loyd George theme; pure 1980s nostalgia!

Sunday 4 March 2012

A serious gripe

It's a measure of parental desperation - bottles of Gripe Water, priced at £2.49, are changing hands on ebay for as much as £9.99.

The manufacturers have confirmed today - according to the Mail - that production stopped 4 months ago, leading to previously unexplained shortages in shops. According to a (surprisingly vague) spokesman:

‘I understand we stopped producing it last year because of some kind of licensing issues but we hope to start selling the product again in a few months.

I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of what the licensing issues are but it may have something to do with the wording on the packaging.’

For anyone unfamiliar with the product, it contains dill extract and sodium hydrogen carbonate and, in my experience at least, is about the most effective of the over-the-counter remedies for babies with colic.

It's been in use for generations; I was, by all accounts, particularly fond of it as a baby, back in the days when it also contained sugar and alcohol - although the formula has been altered since then to satisfy modern sensibilities (giving rise to an inspired Giles cartoon).

Since the offspring graduated to solid food nearly two decades ago, it's not something I've had occasion to buy since - although I must admit to the odd swig from the bottle left in the medicine cabinet in the years afterwards in an optimistic bid to combat indigestion.

I do however, sympathise with the parents - and retailers - who feel they have been kept in the dark. As a matter of fact, I have recently found it nearly impossible to find a particular combination painkiller I take for migraines - the shop staff cannot tell me why it is no longer stocked (though one chemist will still order it in specially - so far).

To add to the puzzle, a French pharmacist recently told me, in answer to an agonized plea, that the same tablets could no longer be sold over the counter in France - "C'est la loi, Madame". (Migraines being what they are, I'm afraid I proceeded to make an involuntary protest against 'the law' by being violently sick in the municipal flower-bed outside.)

So why the interruption of supply? Internecine strife in the ranks of Big Pharma, perhaps? Or is it something to do with the EU? Has the mighty armament of Brussels now turned its sights on infants with tummy-ache and middle-aged women with migraines?

I wish they'd tell us!

Saturday 3 March 2012

Lunch on Mars

The venue was a coastal golf club that has remained virtually untouched by the passage of the past seventy years. Surrounded by the art-deco panelling of 'the nineteenth' and looking out over the links, amid conversations all but incomprehensible to the non-golfing ear, our hosts lamented the incursions of modern life into their peaceful environment.

One of them had been particularly struck by something she observed in the local High Street the day before; a teenage girl - one of a group - opening a packet of crisps and deliberately dropping them on the ground one at a time, stamping on them as she walked along the pavement.

The matriarchs of Clan Macheath know no fear; where others might have looked away or tutted impotently, our heroine accosted the girl and asked her what she thought she was doing. The response, couched in a series of sulky, incoherent grunts, was that the girl didn't really know why she was doing it but she did know it was wrong to drop litter and would stop doing it now.

It's hard to imagine a scene like that taking place in one of our larger towns or cities these days; few of us now would care to accost a group of unknown teenagers, even in broad daylight in a crowded street, to criticise their behaviour, given the risk of direct retaliation or, more deviously, unfounded allegations of abuse or assault.

It's reassuring to know that there are still places where it can be done - few and far between though they may be. The golf club may be an extreme manifestation - it is certainly an alien environment for those of us who don't indulge in the sport - but it reflects the town that supports it, steadfastly clinging to the manners and customs that have been eroded away elsewhere.

As an illustration of spoilt, decadent behaviour, you could do worse than someone buying food simply to step on it to make a noise, yet, such are the values that permeate popular culture, I have no doubt that the girl and her friends would feel a moral justification in vociferously criticising the members of the golf club for enjoying the excellent lunch we were served on Sunday.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Breaktime: at breaking-point

"This is not a school; it's a municipal bus station!"
It was one of those phrases that hang in the air, as everyone in the staffroom turned, open-mouthed, to look at the forlorn figure hunched in his chair. Odd statements from disenchanted teachers are nothing new, but this time it was different: it took a moment or two, but gradually everyone began to see what he was getting at.
"The kids turn up when they feel like it. They hang around and chat with their mates and occasionally, when they can be bothered, they hop on board and actually go along with a lesson or two."
He was quite right; the fundamentally sound concept of 'child-centred learning' - adapting materials and methods to the individual pupil's skills and abilities - was long ago seized on by uncomprehending jargon-meisters, whose literal interpretation of the phrase wrested power from teaching staff and placed it in the hands of the mob.

When Pink Floyd sang 'We don't need no education', they laid the foundations for decades of hostility towards what was seen as the forcible imposition of unwanted knowledge on impressionable minds - and hence for future generations imprisoned and impoverished by their own wilful ignorance.

The progressives who took away our gowns, replaced our red pens with 'less confrontational' green ones, censored our language for political correctness (woe betide the teacher who mentions a 'blackboard' or corrects a pupil's 'street' grammar) and banned all but the most banal positive comments on reports gave pupils a clear message; 'You are the masters now'.

This approach was embraced with enthusiasm by those who think a school should be run by a 'Head Learner' and departments managed by 'Learning Leaders'; you can always identify these people at staff training days because they clearly get a disturbing buzz from role-playing - especially when asked to be pupils - and consider facebook a valid learning tool.

In practical terms, this egalitarianism causes havoc - teachers now have to join the back of the lunch queue like everyone else, so the choir spends ten minutes waiting outside a locked door while the music teacher finishes his shepherd's pie - but far worse is the damage to the status of teachers and that of the subjects they teach.

Prodicus has an excellent post at Orphans of Liberty on the use of names, and one of the comments, on college students on first-name terms with staff*, sums up the situation succinctly, unwittingly echoing the bus station analogy:
'If education is for the benefit of those who don’t know, then it helps the learning process to respect the process. Treating it all casually suggests learning is just something one one might or might not do as the mood takes you.'
The systematic undermining of the status of teachers has destroyed any respect pupils - and parents - might have had for their superior knowledge, along with the desire to acquire that knowledge and profit from it, replacing it instead with a vague resentment at having to attend school at all.

No wonder some of the most dedicated teachers crack up or burn out early. It's not easy, spending your working life casting pearls before swine.

*The first-name question has, naturally, surfaced in schools as well.