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

Monday 30 December 2013

Toast of the week - a Herculean task

In the previous post, I mentioned a man dressed as Santa Claus on behalf of a Canvey Island charity, whose sleigh was undeservedly run out of town at the behest of some over-zealous citizens (JuliaM has the story too).

He is, in fact, the chairman and founder of the charity 'The Friends of Concord Beach', an organisation formed with the laudable aims of maintaining the salt-water pool there and promoting 'good citizenship, civic responsibility and good habits' in those visiting the area and using the facilities.

The group are also busy arranging for sponsored benches along the front and a pool-side shower, together with murals to cover unsightly graffiti and some very polite notices:

But it doesn't stop there; these valiant souls have a far more challenging objective in their sights:
To promote the education of those who visit the beach in sea water and beach safety as it applies to the tidal estuary of the River Thames.
One has to admire their ambition; as a trawl through the Tavern archives makes abundantly clear, Britain's coastline is the destination of choice for an alarming number of Darwin Award hopefuls every year. In fact, an appropriately seasonal example was reported this week:
Two men who were in a toy inflatable boat and wearing penguin and Santa costumes have been taken to a Cornish harbour by the RNLI after they were seen drifting out to sea.
These intrepid mariners set out to paddle across Mount's Bay from Marazion to Penzance, a distance of about 4km, in voluminous fancy dress and without the benefit of life-jackets or a seaworthy craft; what a good thing we've been having such calm weather recently!

If the Friends of Concord Beach seriously intend to tackle the Augean stables of public ignorance of even the basics of beach safety, they certainly have their work cut out, which is why we are raising a glass to them and their endeavours.

Friends of Concord Beach, your very good health!

Saturday 28 December 2013

A Festive Selection Box

Well, it looks like normal service may soon be restored at the Tavern at last, following absence, midwinter festivities and downed telephone lines.

The seclusion enforced by the latter has meant that several news stories have passed by without comment here. The treat-sized asteroid 2013 YB, for example, flew by just a whisker under 15,000 km away on the 23rd, though at somewhere between 1.5 and 3 metres in diameter, the most it could have done would probably have been an impromptu firework display in the upper atmosphere.

Meanwhile, a tale of not-so-goodwill from Canvey Island gave us a quote positively dripping with Zeitgeist:
"All we know is somebody in a yellow tabard went and asked them to stop because it was apparently traumatising children."
What dreadful deed could possibly have justified such a dramatic intervention? The culprit was a volunteer dressed as Santa Claus on behalf of a local charity; he turned up at the town's Christmas Event and fell foul of some hi-vis jobsworths, who told him to sling his festive hook because the officially approved version was on his way.
"A town council officer told us we had to take our Santa away as the Rotary Club Santa had arrived at the other end of the Christmas market round the corner."
Apparently, the prospect of seeing two Santas in the same place was considered too much for Canvey Island's impressionable youngsters, though, oddly enough, the spectacle of an 'aggressive' man in a fluorescent jacket shouting at a beloved childhood icon appears to have been deemed quite acceptable.

Personally, I'd have thought that today's children are familiar enough with celebrity lookalikes and fictional distortions of the space-time continuum to take it in their stride and, in any case, the local infants do seem to be made of sterner stuff than most.

Finally, since we are in Canvey Island, it seems fitting that another recent news story has awakened the long-silent muse and provided a merry tune to whistle while next out shopping in a popular high street store.

This is not just a song parody...

Saturday, in town,
Food shop, look around:
Basket, I put in
Pork pie, bottle of gin.
The headscarfed woman in the cashier's seat
Takes one look and gets to her feet;
"I can't handle pork and alcohol."

Says that she's gotta go;
Why work where you know
There’ll be liquor and pork?
You knew it right from the start.
How bad can scanning the barcodes be?
I ain’t asking you to taste it for me;
I just want some pork and alcohol.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Toast of the week - thumbs up!

This week, we ask you to raise a glass to objectivity, in the shape of a young man with a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude.
 As a way of remembering his best friend, Chris Scullion has set up The Thumb Fund which involves people getting the word ‘Thumb’ tattooed on a big toe.
So far, I admit it's not promising...
Mr Scullion said: “Jay lived with Danny Desmond, who was a tattoo artist. After a few too many beers, Jay decided to get a tattoo of the word “Thumb” on a toe.
Oh dear! Though I suppose he's not the first - and certainly won't be the last...
As a tribute to Jay, his closest friends will be recorded getting the same “Thumb” tattoo on their toes.
Yes, it's another memorial tattoo - that strange phenomenon which is covering Britain's youth in human graffiti and helping to make tattooing a major growth industry.
The toe is notoriously painful to get tattooed, but it is nothing compared to the pain we have gone through since he died."
And I suppose it beats cutting off a finger, like the Dani people of Papua New Guinea or the Sioux. While I understand wanting to make some kind of gesture after the murder of a friend, self-mutilation does seem an odd way to go about it.

But they do seem to be maintaining a resolutely upbeat attitude in spite of it all; what I liked about the story was this:
“The support has been unbelievable. I think Jamie would think we are all idiots, but that is why he was friends with us,” he added.
You have to admit, there is a certain charm in such clear-eyed self-awareness, which is why, even though he does now sport a truly ridiculous tattoo, Chris Scullion is our toast of the week.

Things will be a little quiet around here for a week or so as I am taking a short holiday away from the lure of the internet - please feel free to pour yourselves a drink and browse the Tavern archives (this might be a good place to start) and do keep leaving comments, which I shall answer when the opportunity arises.

Friday 13 December 2013

Festive quote of the day - it's not big and it's not clever

‘In today’s youth society the F word is used as an adjective to creative emphasis on the phrase/situation/circumstance.’
These, apparently, are the words of the 'Senior buyer home & lifestyle' at Urban Outfitters, in response to complaints from a Roman Catholic customer upset by the shop's seasonal merchandise.

Items include wrapping paper, cards and bunting emblazoned with the words 'Happy F***ing Christmas', the ideal accompaniment for their gifts of piggy banks in the form of the Virgin Mary and hip-flasks printed with an image of Jesus and the words 'Holy Water'.

It is, as the article's writer points out, unlikely they would do the same with Ramadan or Hanukkah, but, since I can't abide offence-seeking on behalf of others and the Catholic religion has long been associated with a certain element of kitsch, I'll avoid the religious aspect; what strikes me here is the paucity of imagination implied by the use of language.

The clear intention is to shock, and to enjoy the sense of doing so. The problem with this approach, as Miley Cyrus found recently, is that current aesthetic and moral standards have sunk so low that, in order to be noticed, you have to plumb ever-greater depths of tastelessness in a race to the bottom (or other body part of choice).

It's nothing new, of course; the more egregious antics of Caligula or Heliogabalus - minus the overt sadism and bloodshed - would fit seamlessly into today's TV schedules, along with the exploits of the Hell Fire Clubs or the Bright Young Things.

What is interesting is that such behaviour, until relatively recently, has largely been the preserve of the wealthy and privileged - everyone else has been too preoccupied with the necessity of earning a living to waste time and resources in this way.

Bad language and behaviour have long been associated with the less well-off too, but using it purely to shock someone else was once the preserve of childhood; for it to have the desired impact, there must be someone there to be shocked - someone older, wiser or more morally staid and responsible.

This merchandise is as good an indication as any that today's young people are being fed a cultural diet designed to keep them young and impressionable by a myriad of vested retail interests, as demonstrated by the breathtaking cynicism of the Urban Outfitters' spokeswoman:
‘It has not been used as a direct insult to any person or religion. It has simply been used to capture the minds of our youth market and celebrate the season.'

Thursday 12 December 2013

Not playing with a full deck?

Many years ago, a friend of mine, who flew regularly with a Southern Africa-based airline, gave me a pack of their complimentary playing cards.

As our first game progressed, I noticed she was struggling with suppressed laughter, the reason for which became clear when she triumphantly played a fifth ace.

This was, she explained, standard for the airline's cards; there were 52 of them in the pack, but, instead of the usual run of four suits, they always seemed to be a random assortment - deeply frustrating for passengers trying to play anything more complicated than 'snap'.

We never found out why this should be - perhaps staff muddled them up during the manufacturing process, or maybe they were procured second-hand from a casino somewhere - but, according to my friend, they provided a strikingly apt metaphor for some aspects of South African organisation.

I was vividly reminded of this by the outcry over the bewildering inconsistencies of the sign language interpreter at the Mandela memorial ceremony:
Asked if he was pleased with his performance, he told South Africa’s Talk Radio 702: “Absolutely, absolutely. I think that I've been a champion of sign language.”
He now claims to have suffered a schizophrenic episode - though it's hard to see how that could have caused him to fail to complete such essential sign phrases as 'Mandela' or 'thank you' - which raises some interesting questions about what he was doing there in the first place.
The government, responsible for organising the mass memorial, said it had no idea who he was.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) also denied knowing about him – even though footage from two large ANC events last year clearly showed him signing on stage next to Zuma.
Accusations of being 'offensive' to the disabled are already flooding the internet; disowned by the event's organisers, his claim of mental illness may be the only way to avoid worldwide condemnation.

If you're publicly caught out with a random pack of cards, the only game you can play is Victimhood Poker.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Contains moderate peril

We don't tend to get excited about asteroids unless they pass within the Moon's orbit but, in the case of 2013 XY8, we're prepared to make an exception.

2013 XY8 will be zipping past a mere 750,000-odd km away later today - or two lunar distances -  but, according to NASA's Near Earth Object Program, after a few more passes, the 40m wide asteroid has a 1-in-1,120 chance of an Earth impact on the 12th of December 2095.

This gives NASA & Co plenty of time to investigate ways to deflect it should the odds shorten further, though it is, in a way, disappointing that current reports suggest the favoured option will not be painting it white to increase solar deflection.

Unless someone comes up with an equally elegant and ingenious solution, we're back to Bruce Willis and the nukes.

All this talk of asteroid deflection may, of course, be rendered entirely academic if things start hotting up at Yellowstone's volcano. New measurements released this week show that it's about 2.5 times bigger than early estimates suggested:
The team found that the magma chamber was colossal, reaching depths of between 2km and 15km, the cavern was about 90km long and 30km wide.
The BBC report includes a spectacular simulated satellite view of a massive ash cloud emanating from the area, then spoils the effect by adding a caption which helpfully states the bleeding obvious:
It is unclear when the Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt again
Since all the calculations are based on three known eruptions, and the margin for error is in the order of millennia, the chances of anything kicking off in the lifetime of this blog are remote - though I promise I'll post on it the minute I hear of something happening there.

It's a reminder that, in the geological scheme of things, we are about as important as bacteria on the surface of a football; if enough of us act together we can cause some unsightly blemishes and bad smells but the football, by and large, ignores us.

I have a great respect for geologists, who somehow navigate the existential perils of what is essentially Douglas Adams' Total Perspective Vortex:
The prospective victim of the TPV is placed within a small chamber wherein is displayed a model of the entire universe - together with a microscopic dot bearing the legend "you are here". The sense of perspective thereby conveyed destroys the victim's mind.
Here in the Tavern, we  prefer to retreat to the immediate certainties of a brimming tankard and a worthy toast.

Ladies and gentlemen, let us drink to 2013 XY8 - many happy returns!

Tuesday 10 December 2013

'Oh what a circus! Oh what a show!'

Picture the scene, if you will; it is a Thursday evening in the mid-1980s in the home of a venerable seat of learning, and the smallest bar in town is hosting 'Red Shift', the weekly club night of University Left.

This political umbrella group embraces socialists of every hue, from earnestly myopic Fabians in ethnic scarves to donkey-jacketed hard-line Trotskyites, and this is where they all go to let their hair down among like-minded souls. It's not always easy - men can't ask women to dance because it upsets the feminists ('Don't you oppress me!') and, in any case, nobody wants to look as if they are having fun and ignoring the suffering millions.

But one thing is certain; as the strains of one particular track fill the room, the tiny dancefloor will suddenly be packed. This is the spiritual communion; the seemingly disparate united in song and dance, exhorting a detested regime to 'Free-ee Nelson Mandela'.

For three short minutes, everyone there is an honorary black South African, sharing the pain of an oppressed people and shouting their cause to the rooftops. The true cognoscenti alternate the lyric with 'Free Walter Sisulu', smugly demonstrating - albeit to the already converted - that their knowledge goes further than a mere song title.

It is, of course, compulsory; no one would dare sit this one out and risk the accusing looks and the taint of indifference to the cause or, worse, potential racism. It is the anthem that defines a generation of socialists, a manifestation of their political credentials as much as a genuine expression of belief.

This, I believe, is what is at the root of the BBC's all-encompassing coverage of Mandela's death, a juggernaut so unstoppable that it displaced not only the usual Friday night TV comedies but even the harmlessly soporific 'Book at Bedtime' on Radio 4.

For those 1980s left-wing undergraduates, the ecstatic unity of purpose evoked by 'Free Nelson Mandela' may well have provided their closest approach to a  religious experience, now imbued with an added glow of nostalgia for their gilded youth and the heady days of revolution and camaraderie.

Given the number of them who must now be in influential positions in the media, the extent of the coverage was surely as inevitable as the response to a Pavlovian dinner-bell.

As a remedy, for those weary of the crass media bombardment,  I heartily recommend the elegantly satirical prose of Caedmon's Cat.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

For a supposedly seafaring nation with a strong maritime tradition, it's odd how many people each year get into trouble because they have failed to grasp the idea that the sea goes up and down twice a day and that waves generate considerable force.

And that is without the extra hazards of water-borne stones and debris caught up in rough seas and propelled with enough force to cause serious injury or kill.

This week's tidal surge, unsurprisingly, brought out the Darwin Award contenders in droves. One particular example sticks in the mind; according to a policeman in Southwold (quoted in the BBC live coverage):
"We had to drag a photographer off the prom that was laying there with his legs wrapped around a metal railing, photographing the waves going over the top of him."
And amid the myriad examples, as I've said before, there really ought to be a special category for those who, having reproduced, appear to be doing their best to rectify the situation by disposing of themselves and their progeny in one fell swoop:
Police in Yarmouth urged 'sightseers' to stay away, saying they were placing themselves at 'significant risk'. 
They said crowds, including people with small children on their shoulders, had been seen gathering close to the seafront.
Meanwhile, in Scarborough, a photographer recording the predictable foolhardiness of White Van Man scooped an unexpected bonus; yes, that really is someone pushing a pram along the notoriously dangerous seafront in a storm.

(photo: Reuters via Daily Mail)

And finally, if you will forgive a bit of uncharacteristic whimsy, amidst the formulaic coverage by tired reporters who already knew that, even if they gave their all, the results would be eclipsed by the media Mandelafest and relegated to an edited slot on the local news, this was a welcome breath of fresh air.

Be patient - the presenter doesn't appear until 30 seconds in - and do watch to the end for a charming display of incipient apocaholism.

(credit to Sky News for the discovery)

Friday 6 December 2013

And in other news...

...nah, only joking!

What, you wanted to know about the biggest storm surge since 1953 and the thousands evacuated from their homes? Or the Al-Qaida bombing in the Yemen that killed 52 people including foreign medical personnel? Or even the latest on the Chancellor's Autumn Statement?

Tough! You'll have to wait while the BBC wheel out dozens of carefully-prepared tributes - he's been ailing a  long time - and chat to studio guests who spoke to Nelson Mandela for thirty seconds in 1996. I fully expect Charlie Dimmock to pop up any minute now to discuss his taste in herbaceous borders.

And then you'll have to sit patiently while every major politician on Earth seizes the chance of some reflected glory with some well-chosen words of tribute - naturally Tony Blair has come rushing out of the woodwork to bestow his wisdom upon us - and a host of BBC reporters add their own experiences of reporting on the struggle against Apartheid.

I don't mean to belittle the achievements of the man who managed the seemingly impossible - though there seems to be a certain amount of glossing over some elements of his past ideology and an interestingly laconic treatment of Winnie - and, as Donne said, 'Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind', but why this hagiography to the exclusion of all other news?

He is, after all, no less of a significant historical figure than he was last week or will be a century hence. His death simply provides a convenient hook to which the media can attach everything accumulated to his account in one giant package, at least until the the broadcast tributes themselves become the story.

Which is, presumably, the whole idea.

Update; if you haven't already done so, I urge you to visit Velvet Glove, Iron Fist for a beautifully-curated collection of self-serving tweets on the subject.

A deluge, viewed from afar

It is amazing to think that, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I can sit in the Tavern and watch events unfold miles away; in this case, the impending flooding of Jaywick in Essex.

Firstly the emergency services are out and about; the expected tidal surge is bad news for a low-lying coastal community, so all 2,500 residents have been asked to evacuate their homes.

Not everyone has cooperated, though:
BBC Look East's Gareth George says: "If the householders say they staying, they are asked to sign a declaration saying they have had the risks explained to them." 
But he added most residents he spoke to were "staying put".
Which seems distinctly unwise in the face of the Environment Agency warning of 'danger to life' but might be explained by this tweet from the Gazette:
Also just been stopped by a diligent @EssexPoliceUK officer who said there are reports of ppl driving around Jaywick looking for empty homes
There is something particularly despicable about the idea of opportunistic looters converging on the scene of a reported emergency evacuation - who would ever have thought this would one day be the use to which mankind would put mass media and the internal combustion engine?

As a result, the police have stepped up their patrols, so, all in all,  the place must be getting pretty crowded, what with the local news reporters out in search of a good location shot or human interest story - though perhaps the official warnings will mean they are excused the usual piece to camera standing ankle-deep in water.

And, just to add to the confusion, there's another bunch of people wandering around too; the prospect of a record-breaking storm surge has brought the Darwin Award hopefuls out in force, to judge by the weary tone of this late-night announcement:
WARNING: Residents are urged to stay away from the flood risk areas as they could be putting themselves in danger.
Police are receiving information people are going to the area to watch the flooding. The high seas and rising water is unpredictable and the emergency services do not want to have to rescue people who have put themselves in potentially dangerous situations.
And to think that all of this rich tapestry of humanity is being relayed live for the benefit of a potential audience of millions (including one insomniac blogger who really should stop and try to get some sleep)! In a way, it's reassuring that what happened in 1953 can never be repeated, thanks not only to improved coastal defences but also to abundant and detailed information about the threat.

But it's also frustrating that, along with preventing (one hopes) loss of life, this mass communication has brought out the imprudent, the foolhardy and the downright dishonest.

It all sounds like a cross between 'Assault on Precinct 13' and 'Dawn of the Dead' with a touch of '2012' thrown in for good measure - I'm very glad to be heading for a quiet night a long way away.

Monday 2 December 2013

Quotes of the day

First, a headline from the BBC, whose staff really ought to be able to proof-read:

Plymouth student talks of

drink-drinking regret

We can all identify with that, I think. And secondly this, from a 'close friend' of Blair on the rumours concerning Wendi Deng:
“I believe Tony. He would never do such a thing and he is not a liar.”
Admittedly it's from the Mail, which is doing its utmost to fan the non-existent flames of conflict. To be honest, it looks as if its staff are letting their collective imagination run away with them.
A sensational note written by Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng that reveals she had a ‘crush’ on Tony Blair has been found, it was revealed last night.
The idea that Ms Deng would sit down and write a note to herself expressing 'warm feelings' for Blair and then leave it lying around for staff to find is so preposterous that it could surely originate only in the fevered brain of a Mail journalist, unless, of course, the woman herself has lost all reason.

Sunday 1 December 2013

ISON is off

I have a confession to make.

Rather than watching with bated breath as Comet ISON grazed the sun on Thursday, I sloped off to the cinema. There are few films that would tempt me to sample the delights of our local flea-pit - it's always too loud and I hate the smell of popcorn - but 'Gravity' in 3D was one.

The Stigler also saw it this week and describes its impact with admirable clarity so I'll say only that the 3D immersive experience is breathtaking and that, given the large pizza I had eaten beforehand and the vertigo-inducing perspective, I was extremely glad it it wasn't 'The Perfect Storm'.

(As a short aside, the backs of the premium seats are so high that customers under 5'8" are advised to sit only in the front row of the section; it's an interesting business strategy that potentially inconveniences a significant proportion of the female cinema-going public (though, by way of compensation, the front row is definitely the best place to enjoy the bit where it looks as if George Clooney is about to land in your lap)).

However, it now appears that ISON, having attempted its solar flyby without my supervision, is now a fragmentary shadow of its former self. Oh dear! I feel somehow responsible; I should have looked after it properly.

Still, there is some more positive news; while ISON was frying and I was in the cinema, a bunch of astronomers at Mount Lemmon were busy documenting the passage of 2013 WH25, a truck-sized asteroid detected only a few hours before its closest approach to Earth, a mere 133,500 km away.

It's an indication of the number of the things spotted this year that there has been no squeak of news coverage, though I don't think that we should let the increased frequency affect the Tavern's practice of drinking to each and every one of them as it passes.

Though a day late - yesterday was far too busy for blogging - I invite you to raise a glass tonight in honour of 2013 WH25.


Thursday 28 November 2013

Comet ISON

While the asteroid close approach register is offering thin pickings for the next few months, we are about to be treated to the spectacle of comet ISON's approach to the sun.

While I had this in draft, Julia sent a comment - thanks! - to the effect that the BBC are getting excited about it but, for dedicated footage, you can watch NASA's footage of the 'Thanksgiving Flyby' at space.com here from 6pm to 8.30pm tonight.


Tuesday 26 November 2013

We will all fry together when we fry

You might like to give a cheery wave today to asteroid 2013NJ as it heads off into the distance following its close approach last night.

Of course, when I say close, I mean a mere 960,000 km away - two and a half times as far as the moon - but, when you're talking about a lump of rock up to 250m across, that's just a whisker in astronomical terms.

If there seem to have been a lot of the things about lately, that's largely because of the recent efforts of a number of observatories; of the ten close approaches last week (less than 30 million km away), five were by asteroids discovered in 2013.

The aim is to ensure that, should the Big One be headed our way, we get enough notice to do something about it. Former astronaut Ed Lu, CEO and co-founder of the B612 foundation dedicated to this cause, is optimistic that, given time, human intervention could deflect an earthbound asteroid.

After all, as he points out in an interview for Slooh.com, it's not as if we have any alternative:
"If you only have weeks or months, our only real practical thing we can do is evacuate the area. Now, if it's a large enough asteroid, we can't evacuate the earth. It's tough luck. And I personally think that as citizens of planet Earth we can do better than that."
Unfortunately - at least for those of a cynical disposition - Dr Lu seems to be of the opinion that that answer lies in global cooperation in the face of a mutual threat to humanity. To a scientist, it makes perfect sense:
"When something big - half a kilometer across - is going to hit the Earth, it's in everybody's best interests to move it."
I wish I shared his faith in human nature and the ability of politicians to see reason and act in concert for the good of mankind. The threat of global thermonuclear warfare may have abated but it's a sobering thought that we could all go the way of the dinosaurs because our political masters can't agree.

Monday 25 November 2013

Ryanair - Coup de Grace

More than one historical novelist has bewailed the fact that history requires him or her to kill off the villain of the piece.

Much the same mood has overtaken the Tavern this week with the announcement that our occasional muse Michael O'Leary is to step out of the public eye.
After recently promising an end to Ryanair's "macho" culture and to "stop unnecessarily pissing people off", O'Leary confessed on Thursday he was "getting in the way of the brand stuff".
For the past few years, regular as clockwork, O'Leary has produced a carefully-timed outrageous idea in the first week of November - coinciding with the announcement of the winter schedules and Ryanair's annual financial reports - in an obvious attempt to secure headline coverage.

From all-standing planes and scrapping the co-pilot to salacious in-flight entertainment, the enfant terrible of the aviation world came up with ever more outlandish propositions to generate column inches, along with the collection of choice remarks listed by the Huffington Post.

This year, though, he may have overstepped the mark:
"I think we should ban burkas here in the UK. If you go to Saudi Arabia and they say the ladies have to veil up, you respect the local culture. Over here we are leaning over far too much for some of these minority religions.
If you want to come and live in Western society, I don’t think you should be allowed to walk around with some inalienable right to cover yourself up with only your eyes looking out.”
Offending the general public is one thing, but the enfant terrible of the aviation industry may have over-reached himself with that one; as other public figures have found recently, this is territory you enter at your peril.

This followed the much-publicised 'charm offensive' on twitter, for which O'Leary effectively ignored the 'charm' bit and landed himself with his usual accusations of sexism combined, for a change, with disability discrimination, so it may have effectively tipped an already wavering balance.

But it's interesting that a man who has been so outspoken in so many ways over the years should vanish from the scene immediately after pronouncing publicly on what has effectively become a taboo subject, particularly given the implied dissociation from the brand with which he has been identified for so long.

Of course, this retirement, too, may be an elaborate publicity stunt and O'Leary may yet be back next year as usual. For the purposes of the Tavern, I certainly hope so; it would be sad to lose such a rich source of inspiration for good.

Meanwhile, since O'Leary's antics seem to have a natural affinity with the men in black, by way of farewell.. or, perhaps, au revoir...

Michael O'Leary, they don't want him around...

Sunday 24 November 2013

There. Could. Never. Be. Enough. Popcorn.

Yes. I know we've heard it before, but, mining its usual vein of news-that-isn't-news, the Mail has brought up a story which has a certain fascinating potential:
Relations between Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair have collapsed over reports of Mr Blair’s friendship with the media mogul’s ex-wife, Wendi Deng.
The paper's anonymous sources claim that Ms Deng and Mr Blair stayed overnight together at several of Murdoch's homes without his knowledge, leaving the Mail to do its best to fan the flames of back-stairs gossip into a full-blown partisan feud.

The protestations of friends and allies provide have a certain piquant interest but - and I suspect it's what the Mail journalists are secretly hoping - these may yet prove to be mere appetisers for the main event.

You see, whether or not his wife believes that he actually strayed - one assumes she knew where he was all the time (though I can't imagine that protestations of innocence carry much weight from the mouth of a consummate politician) - there must surely be a temptation to react with hostility towards any perceived interloper, however slight the incursion.

We know that Mrs Blair is a woman of strong personality and events at the Leveson enquiry suggest that Ms Deng, too, is a force to be reckoned with (and, perhaps relevantly, a newly-single woman who acquired both her husbands through extra-marital affairs).

So far, the principal actors in this drama - unlike their alleged allies - have maintained a dignified silence; should it be broken, this would surely be a conflict of epic proportions - Alien v. Predator on stilts.

And there would, it has to be said, be more than a little entertaining irony in two women, who have, in their separate ways, gained much indirect material benefit from the dubious practices of spin, PR and the media, finding their own private feud laid bare for the masses.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Geology fail

From, of course, the Mail...

Europe's largest and most volatile volcano Mount Etna spews molten lava from the earth's core thousands of feet above the Sicilian countryside

...but then, why let the facts get in the way of a spectacular headline?

You heard it here first

From last week's post here:
Once upon a time, there were teachers who devoted heart and soul to introducing their pupils, however poor or deprived, to classical culture, correct grammar in speech and the kind of general knowledge and manners that would equip them for any social situation... 
If social mobility is to be increased, the answer is not to abolish private education but to give state school pupils the opportunity to experience what the progressives took away.

From today's Sunday Times:
Children at state schools should be taught manners, "how to speak in coherent sentences", foreign languages and team skills  from as young as seven if they are to get to the top and improve their social mobility, a leading independent school headmistress will say tomorrow... 
"Social mobility in Britain will not change until the education system changes."
An interesting coincidence, perhaps (unless this blog is far more influential than I thought), but inevitable in the sense that the conclusion is such an obvious one - at least to those without a vested interest in the educational status quo.

And there's more - Janet Daly in the Telegraph this weekend, writing about progressive education :
Schooling was no longer about encouraging children to escape from the milieu that would sink their feet in the concrete of low expectations. It was consciously designed not to do that: not to imply in any way that the child’s background was inferior – however impoverished or genuinely deprived it might be. To impose correct grammar, or academic content, or “bourgeois culture”, on working-class children was a form of social imperialism.

Thursday 14 November 2013

An independent thinker

Whenever I hear wailing and gnashing of teeth over the lack of social mobility in today's Britain, I think of the 1980s theorists who told aspiring teachers not to correct pupils' - or rather learners' - regional dialect, impose on them our own cultural and moral values or mention the works of over-influential Dead White European Males such as Mozart, Da Vinci or Dickens (Shakespeare is still more or less acceptable, I understand - but only in modern dress or rendered in Jamaican patois).

It was not always thus. Once upon a time, there were teachers who devoted heart and soul to introducing their pupils, however poor or deprived, to classical culture, correct grammar in speech and the kind of general knowledge and manners that would equip them for any social situation - anathema to the progressive educationalists, whose socialist hackles rose at the idea of the noble working class aping the aristocracy.

It was not unusual for such teachers to lend books to children, invite them into their own homes on a regular basis or even take them to theatres concerts or art galleries (at their own expense), making sure that even a child from a deprived or barely literate family could acquire the cultural background then considered necessary to pass a University entrance interview - imagine the reaction if a teacher tried that now!

Before the progressives took control and weeded out those who wouldn't toe the line, and in the days when career opportunities for women were considerably more limited, the teaching profession attracted many intelligent and rational people with a strong independent streak. One of them was a great-aunt of mine whose personality made her a force to be reckoned with; she would never have been prepared to conform sufficiently to fit in with modern expectations but, in her day, she did a great deal of good in a deprived industrial town.

A born educator with no children of her own, she saw it as her role to instruct the younger members of the family at every possible opportunity;  I've been reminded of one particular childhood lesson by both the question of foodbanks and  by Julia's post today.

It was the mid 1970s and we were out shopping in her home town, where a substantial number of the inhabitants were overweight and clearly unfit. When one particularly large young woman lumbered by sipping a fizzy drink, my great-aunt sighed and said that that it was a shame that malnutrition was such a problem in a supposedly civilized country.

I was baffled; I had seen pictures of starving Ethiopians on Newsround - wasn't that what malnutrition looked like? My great-aunt patiently defined the term and explained that we were seeing the effects of a poor diet, with a lack of vitamins and protein and the over-consumption of sugar and starch, a diet at odds with the cheap and plentiful produce in the market where we were.

The worst thing about it, she said, was that those young women, through either ignorance or idleness, would be unlikely to ensure that their children or grandchildren had a proper diet and learned not to over-indulge in treats; the consequences for future generations would be painful for them and expensive for the rest of us. Government intervention would accomplish nothing; they - and their children - should be taught to think and act for themselves.

Four decades on, it looks as if she was absolutely right. She died before I was old enough to appreciate it, but I owe her a great deal; she taught me never to trust politicians or journalists and to regard with deep suspicion any religion that requires of its followers a combination of blind obedience and large families.

While teachers like her can still be found, many of them are now in the private sector, away from the demands of state bureaucracy, ideological imperatives and unreasonable management policies - though it was once common practice, what teacher, now, would dare offer individual help outside school to a promising pupil from a deprived background? The teacher training establishments have ensured that a high proportion of those who reach the classroom under their aegis are herd animals rather than independent thinkers.

If social mobility is to be increased, the answer is not to abolish private education but to give state school pupils the opportunity to experience what the progressives took away.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Let them pull crackers!

Foodbanks, we are told, provide essential sustenance to those in dire need and are a last resort for desperate people struggling to feed their families.

What, then, should we make of this appeal in a local paper soliciting donations to a foodbank of (this is the complete list):
'selection boxes, crackers, tins of biscuits, savoury items, non-alcoholic drinks and crackers for cheese'?
This triumph of sentimentality over reason is a gesture with 'Zeitgeist' written all over it, made for a generation reared to the strains of 'Do they know it's Christmas time at all?' Since the popular culture of a nation now dedicates several days of the year to over-consumption, everyone should be enabled to take part in this seasonal communion.

It's an argument which, taken to extremes, led to an interview I once heard on the radio - sadly, I have been unable to trace it since - in which an indignant woman condemned Oxfam Unwrapped for sending 'gifts' of tools and household utensils to needy families in Africa.
"They don't want spades! They want the same things as you; iPods, phones, nice clothes. If you're going to give them a gift, give what you would have given to your relative or friend."
Assuming that the supply of aid is not unlimited, should charity really consist of giving luxuries to someone who lacks the basics for survival? I suspect, in the case of festive foodbank items,  the answer has more to do with a warm glow of satisfaction for the donor - and the appeal sponsors - than with providing essential assistance to those in need.

And that is, of course, without the interesting element of health concerns. The foodbank in question is in a town where, according to a friend who works in healthcare, many of the poorest inhabitants are seriously overweight and unhealthy and there is a high incidence of diabetes; surely the last thing they need is more 'recreational' food.

The oddest item on the list, though, has to be 'crackers'. Since they later stipulate 'crackers for cheese', it appears that they are asking for party ones, surely an unusual item for a foodbank to be distributing and an expensive one for the donors when the same amount of money would buy a respectable amount of protein or fresh produce.

Christmas has long since lost its religious significance for a large part of the population - assisted by the Hanukkah-friendly 'holiday season' TV, films and music of the USA - and been replaced by an ever-increasing consumerfest of vanities in which everyone is entitled to join, even if it is at someone else's expense.

This is, I should add, an indirect appeal by a local firm rather than by the foodbank itself; I can't say it has done much to enhance my opinion of their staff's intelligence, but what can you expect, given the norms dictated by constant seasonal bombardment of retail advertising?

Cosmic roulette

No sooner do we hear that TV135 has been downgraded to 0 on the Torino scale - something that would embarrass the writers behind such headlines as 'Asteroid will hit Earth in 2032', were tabloid journalists capable of feeling shame - than we are alerted to a satellite falling from orbit this weekend.

The experts are keeping their options open:
Professor Heiner Klinkrad from the ESA said: "At present we can not say where the re-entry is going to happen except that it is not going to happen north of the 85 northern latitude or south of 85 southern latitude."
Which, while presumably reassuring for a number of penguins, doesn't exactly narrow it down; a shower of debris falling on a turning sphere could, in theory, make quite a mess, although those experts seem to think the chances of human casualties are remote.

The news that a ton or so of metal is about to disintegrate in the upper atmosphere provides a chance to repeat an exercise prompted by the impending abrupt descent of the UARS satellite in 2011.

Since there's not much you can do about the possibility of a 90lb chunk of steel landing on your head, you might as well amuse yourself by considering where, in an ideal world, you would like it to fall.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Sheep may safely graze...

 A flock of sheep has been blamed for destroying flowers and cards left by relatives in a graveyard in Berkshire.
This is the aptly-named Grazeley Churchyard; the church there was last used in 2006 so, lacking the means to pay for grass-cutting, the Parochial Church Council decided to allow sheep to graze within the walls. After all, it is, as the local vicar says, 'a traditional way of managing churchyards'.

This pastoral solution is, however, not to everyone's taste; relatives of some of those buried there have expressed their distress at finding the flock ruminating peacefully among the headstones, not least because the animals have apparently been tucking into the floral tributes left on the graves.

It's not the first time churchyard sheep have caused problems; elsewhere, back in 2008, a relative objected to the sheep 'literally trampling over the graves' as well as leaving droppings and uprooting plants, though other local people expressed support for the idea or even a desire to be 'buried with the sheep'.

In previous cases, the church has given in and removed sheep or built electric fences around the graves (after one family threatened to exhume their loved one and move him to another churchyard) but it looks as if Grazeley Parochial Council are made of sterner stuff, flatly insisting that there is no money to employ a human being to cut the grass.

Since the cards and tributes - or sheep droppings, for that matter -  make no difference to the departed, the case provides an interesting study in the attitudes and sensibilities of those left behind, and, perhaps, another indication of how far removed from nature our society is in its approach to death.

And, of course, no 21st century story of this kind would be complete without a statement like this:
Vic Jerrom, who has ancestors buried in the graveyard, described the damage as "very disrespectful". 
Well, that's sheep for you - no sense of what's fitting!

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Come Hell or high water...

Sometimes a story appears which, however trivial, reminds you that life in these islands is not all bad....

Thanks to a combination of strong winds and 5m spring tides in the Chichester area this week, Bosham pub 'the Anchor Bleu', was flooded with several inches of seawater.

Even so, according to the bar manager,
'We have had a few of the die-hard customers wade through and sit on the patio with the tide around them.'.
There is something irresistibly appealing about the idea of these hardy souls sitting contentedly amid the flood waters, pint in hand.

Drinkers of Bosham, your very good health!

Sunday 3 November 2013

Quote of the week

From veteran astronaut Rusty Schweickart, speaking at a US conference on our current ability to cope with a potential major asteroid impact:
“If we don’t find it until a year out, make yourself a nice cocktail and go out and watch.”
No news to some, of course, but I like his style!

Saturday 2 November 2013

Lessons may be going to have been learned...

Abandoned babies are, alas, nothing new in the story of humanity, though not all of them are as lucky as the day-old girl discovered in a park this week.

'Jade', named after the dog who found the baby wrapped in a plastic bag under a bush, is being cared for in hospital and is expected to make a full recovery, despite being left in the open air in late October.

Harnessing the wonders of modern technology, West Midlands Police have released video footage of the child, as well as a lengthy announcement on facebook, in an attempt to trace the mother.

This, of course, makes perfect sense; the mother has recently given birth and may well need medical attention in addition to help with whatever personal circumstances led her to take this drastic and potentially infanticidal step.

What follows, though, is surely beyond the bounds of reason. In the words of Chief Inspector Ian Green:
"...of course what she really needs is to be in her mother’s arms. I’d urge Jade’s mum to make contact with us on the 101 police number so we can reunite them and get her medical attention and emotional support.”
What kind of continuing support will be needed for a mother who walked away and left her new-born baby to die of exposure? If pre-natal drink or drugs are involved - by no means out of the question - the child may well turn out to have the kind of complex behavioural or educational needs which can place strain on the most stable and secure of parents, let alone a mother who clearly needs help herself.

Several of my school and college contemporaries were adopted as infants, as were two of my cousins; all have enjoyed happy and successful lives with a stable and loving family background. Three decades later, thanks to a change of policy, friends were told that adopting a new-born baby was a virtual impossibility and they should expect a potentially disturbed and neglected toddler or older child whose parents had, despite every effort by the authorities, finally been unable to cope.

It is an undeniable fact that there are women out there who are incapable of looking after a child properly even with official support, as recent high-profile cases of child abuse have illustrated all too well. Reuniting 'Jade' with her birth mother rather than allowing her to be adopted is surely against the child's best interests, whatever the rights of the mother.

The policy of keeping such mothers and children together until the child's safety becomes an issue serves to keep a myriad public servants in work but at what cost to the child?

Friday 1 November 2013


From today's Mail, a seasonal vignette composed entirely of headlines:
  • Woman wielding fake knife handed trick or treat children real lamb's heart when they knocked on her door
  • Children ran away screaming when they realised the heart was real
  • Nine to 12-year-olds were chased by woman wearing blood-stained apron
  • Angry father confronted woman who said it was a 'bit of fun'
and finally...
  • Mother says her children will not be allowed trick or treating again

It all sounds to me rather like going on the ghost train at the fair then demanding your money back because the ride was haunted.

Like David Duff, I have to say, I'm impressed by the thoroughness of the preparation involved:
'a table set out outside the woman's home was adorned with raw cuts of meat, as well as offal, including intestines'
In fact, I like the story so much that I think the householder should be the Tavern's Toast of the Week.

Ladies and gentlemen, please raise your glasses to the scourge of trick-or-treaters; I give you...

...the Butcher of Orpington and her Table of Woe!

Tuesday 29 October 2013

All the fun of the fair

Amid the chaotic aftermath of the storm, the prize for the most picturesquely bizarre damage has surely to go to North Essex,where the headlines read:
Storm damages orangutan enclosure
Pier's helter-skelter blown down
Yes, it's our old friend Clacton Pier again; while Walton, just up the coast, put in its own bid for media coverage with some dislodged metal sheeting (in a rather nauseating shade of yellow, which gave a distinctly festive air to the photographs), Clacton has romped home with as spectacular and alliterative a bit of damage as you are likely to see for a while.

According to an eye-witness:
“It was quite surreal as it bounced on landing and just looked like a flimsy piece of plastic.”
How reassuring! I can't decide whether this means local parents will, in future, be reluctant to entrust their little darlings to the attractions or whether they will be queuing up to shove their sprogs onto the remaining machinery when the pier reopens.

Or perhaps they'll take them to the zoo in the hope of seeing an orangutan escape.

Meanwhile, in all the recent meteorological fuss, another fly-by might just escape notice: 2013 UV3, discovered last week, will be zipping past today at a mere 280-odd thousand km away.

Time to raise another glass, I think!

A quiet couple of days coming up at the blog:

Every Weekend is Like a Mini Vacation

Monday 28 October 2013

Break Like the Wind

(with apologies to William Shakespeare [and Spinal Tap])

Think you the trains were cancelled for the storm,
Their progress halted by the falling trees?
That while you slept at home, all nice and warm,
The tracks were being blocked by loose debris?
Do you believe that all these long delays
Are caused by an inevitable mess
And that these stormy late October days,
Would not have let us get away with less?
Oh no, my love, according to Bob Crow
The fault lies with the management alone;
'Twas not the storm that hit the schedules so
But staffing numbers pared back to the bone.
     Even the force that Mother Nature sends,
     A union boss will turn to his own ends.

(This week saw the 5th birthday of Newgate News; my thanks to all readers and especially  to those whose comments make blogging a worthwhile and rewarding pastime.)

Sunday 27 October 2013

One down...

A wind turbine has collapsed in strong winds which swept across Devon on Saturday night. 
No-one was reported injured after the 27m (89ft) high turbine came down in a field at Higher Rixdale Farm at Luton, near Teignmouth.
...how many more to go?

There's something we didn't have so many of in 1987. I recently heard an expert on the radio explaining that  turbines were quite safe as they could withstand wind speeds of up to 80mph. Since the Met Office is warning of gusts in excess of that this weekend, things could start getting interesting.

Once the wind gets up, the things are only as safe as the bolts holding 90-odd feet of steel to the ground in a howling gale - or the braking systems that, in theory, stop them fizzing themselves to death in a glorious burst of flame.

Remember, folks, 'Red sky at night; turbine's alight'.

(Update - Not sure whether this one counts as it's only a baby:
Firefighters dismantled a small wind turbine from the roof of a house in Ilfracombe.
Devon and Somerset Fire Service received a call reporting a wind turbine "in a precarious position".)

Your green credentials are slipping

I have been stalking someone called Kurt.

It's not as bad as it sounds. Such are the wonders of modern technology that, having ordered something online, I was invited today to track Kurt and my parcel on their journey via an icon on a google map.

And what a frustrating business it turned out to be. My delivery - no. 35 on the list - was scheduled for 12.30, but when I logged on at 9am, lo and behold! Kurt's icon was at the end of my street making 'delivery no. 5'. If I had been a little quicker off the mark, I could probably have rushed out and ambushed him before he got back into his van, in the manner of a slightly less agile trapdoor spider.

Surely, I thought, he has decided to abandon the computerised schedule and tackle his round with common sense; he'll be knocking at the door in a minute. But it was not to be; the icon showed him heading away from the Tavern en route to delivery number 6, half a mile away.

This puzzled me somewhat so, since I was working at my computer, I periodically checked in to see where he was. Had the Tavern been equipped with a widow's walk on the roof, I could have watched him pursuing an elaborate back-and-forth course never more than about five miles away; according to the icon, he even drove past the front door of the Tavern - twice!

(Incidentally, I've often wondered whether those 19th century New England wives appreciated their watchtowers, in part, at least, as an early warning to heat up plenty of bathwater; after several months boiling up blubber on a whaling ship, I dare say the returning heroes were rather more welcome after a good deodorising scrub).

Eventually Kurt and the parcel put in an appearance exactly as scheduled, after criss-crossing the neighbourhood for more than three hours. Since he was, in the nicest possible sense, the monkey, I didn't bother to ask him about the organ-grinder's bizarre system of priorities or why he had driven over sixty miles when it could have been sixteen.

It was undoubtedly convenient to know exactly when the parcel would be delivered, but I was given the time slot only that morning; in theory, there was nothing to stop the computer designing a single route to take in all that day's deliveries with the minimum mileage, especially since, up until the last minute, everyone on the list had simply been told to wait in all day.

It is, therefore, with wry amusement that I noticed, at the same website that showed the courier's convoluted ditherings, the company's logo-ridden jargon-fest of a presentation explaining that every parcel is 'carbon-neutral', as part of their 'Responsibility strategy'. I bet someone got a fat bonus for masterminding that particular piece of propaganda.

But then that's corporate business in today's Britain; never mind reality, feel the pitch.

Saturday 26 October 2013

The end of the world?

Honestly! I leave the blog unattended for a few days and, while I'm away, we have solar flares, an earthquake off the coast of Japan and a newly-discovered asteroid flying by inside the moon's orbit, not to mention the storm brewing in mid-Atlantic.

So, where to begin? Solar flares seem to have taken a back seat recently, which is odd, given the impact that major solar activity could have on today's technology-reliant society.
When aimed directly at Earth, X-class sun eruptions can interfere with satellite-based communications and navigation systems and also endanger astronauts in orbit.
Although the sat-nav on the Tavern's coach-and-four can cock things up quite successfully without extra-terrestrial intervention - after which she pauses briefly, then huffs 'recalculating' in hurt tones, as if it were all our fault - this is potential disaster territory when applied to major infrastructure.

The Japanese earthquake, although measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale, passed off largely without incident, as did the aftershocks, though I imagine the inhabitants of the Fukushima area had an uneasy few hours. In fact, Friday saw a surprising number of earthquakes, judging by the USGS map (a useful reference for which I am originally indebted to Demetrius, always a fount of knowledge on the subject).

Meanwhile, as if this were not enough, on the same day 2013 UX2 zipped past a mere 150,000km away, having been spotted only the night before, yet another reminder of the known unknowns out there. Admittedly, an impact wouldn't have sent us the way of the dinosaurs - estimates place it between 3.8 and 8.4m in diameter - but it would have been enough to make an impressive bang, nonetheless.

All in all, yesterday was quite a day for those of an apocaholic disposition, and, as if that were not enough, we in the UK  are now being told to batten down the hatches in preparation for the meteorological bomb headed in our direction.

Back in the 80s, global thermonuclear warfare was the name of the game; 'Protect and Survive', they said, which was scant consolation if you lived near a prime strategic target. Still, whitewashing the windows and levering the door off its hinges would probably have distracted the populace from the unedifying spectacle of local bigwigs scuttling for their council-supplied shelters.

These days, thanks to improved detection techniques, we can take our pick of  potential catastrophes ready to wipe us out in a variety of interesting and spectacular ways - I wonder if the local council still have their bunker ready. We are surely overdue for something major - look what happened to the dinosaurs and they hadn't even invented scripted reality or 'Extreme Celebrity Spa'.

The gods may once have played at dice, but I'm inclined to think they have moved on to a cosmic game of Mousetrap or Buckaroo; deep down, we all know that, sooner or later, something's got to give and the world as we know it will all come crashing down - an idea that has been profitably exploited by writers, Hollywood and, for that matter, several major religions.

Still, in the meantime, we invite you to raise a belated glass to 2013 UX2 to speed it on its way.

Carpe diem!

Monday 21 October 2013

Apocalypse 2032

So, once again, we are in, as our transatlantic cousins would say, a 'non-zero impact probability situation'.

This is, of course, our new friend 2013 TV135, a 1,300' wide hunk of rock whizzing about the solar system which was spotted last month.

The news has, predictably enough, sent the tabloids into overdrive:
Nasa admit huge asteroid could destroy Earth in just NINETEEN years (Star)
Huge asteroid 'will hit earth in 2032' claim astronomers (Express)
Which, once you have eliminated the inevitable hyperbole, translates as 'current  observations indicate a 1 in 19,000 chance of striking the Earth in 2032' - those observations providing just ten days' worth of data so far.

What seems to have got everyone so excited is the announcement that TV135 has been given a rating of 1 on the Torino scale, one of only two in that classification at present.

And even that, when you get down to the detail, isn't quite as exciting as it sounds; the scale goes from 0 to 10, and 1 - 'Normal' - doesn't even make it into the yellow zone, let alone orange or red:

A routine discovery in which a pass near Earth is predicted that poses no unusual level of danger. Current calculations show the chance of collision is extremely unlikely with no cause for public attention or public concern. New telescopic observations very likely will lead to re-assignment to Level 0.

Still, why let the details get in the way of a good headline? It's a tabloid editor's dream; too far into the future to spark a mass panic but threatening enough to create a sensation.

It would be pleasant to think that this major global threat - even if it exists largely in the minds of sensation-hungry journalists - might bring about a radical improvement in behaviour and provide humanity with a new sense of purpose, but I suspect much of what we laughably call civilization is too far gone for that.

When the idea of impending doom took hold in plague- and war-ravaged 14th-Century Europe, society polarised into religious fanaticism and hedonism, some groups becoming ever more extreme in asserting their own religious superiority while others descended into a last-ditch Bacchanalian frenzy.

Somehow, we seem to have got to that stage before the threat arrived.

Friday 18 October 2013

Not in my name

     Wilcox said, "Who were you trying to hurt?"
     "A strike has to hurt someone. The employers, the public. Otherwise it has no effect."
     Robyn was about to say, "The Government", when she saw the trap: Wilcox would find it easy enough to argue that the Government had not been troubled by the strike. The Students' Union had supported the strike, and its members had not complained about a day's holiday from lectures. The University, then? But the University wasn't responsible for the cuts or the erosion of lecturers' salaries. Faster than a computer, Robyn's mind reviewed these candidates for the target of the strike and rejected them all.

     (David Lodge: 'Nice Work', 1988)

One might well ask the same question of the teaching Union members who, this week, presented parents with the difficulty of occupying their school-age children between 8.30am and 3.30pm on a weekday, a move hardly likely to garner public support.

While members of the Government may have been mildly worried by the spectacle of massed protesters on Britain's streets, given the involvement of Socialist Worker and the banners exhorting "Strike, protest, occupy", it's hard to see what impact the march had on the machinery of the state.

That didn't stop the NUT's Christine Blower describing the strikes as 'a great success', which appears to mean that a large number of people had an exciting day out (some of them, apparently, rounding it off with a nice bottle of wine at Pizza Express - caveat: Mail) and showed the Government that they objected to current policies.

The people 'hurt' by this 'great success', meanwhile, weren't Michael Gove or the officials of the Department of Education, but working parents and - perhaps intentionally - those teachers who chose not to strike and were left to sort out the administrative mess.

The prevailing attitude was recently summed up by an otherwise intelligent and conscientious young teacher trying to explain his priorities: "That Gove, he only cares about results; he doesn't think about our working conditions at all!"  

It's not that I am indifferent to teachers' pay and working conditions; most of my family has earned its crust that way since the 1920s. For some of us, it's in the blood, and what worries the Unions most, I think, is that there are still teachers out there who would do the job as long as they had enough to keep body and soul together and would never consider deserting their posts for a day.

The progressives have tried to oust such dangerous subversives, of course. I once heard a very senior lecturer in the field openly scoff at the old adage that teachers are born, not made; the only way to achieve excellence in the profession was to follow him blindly to the sunlit uplands of the multicultural classroom and egalitarian methodology.

At the heart of the matter is the question of politics; even though many staff belong to a union solely for the legal protection and advice available (a necessity in today's litigious climate), the union activists take this as a mandate for mass withdrawal of labour and, sad to say, the pre-Christmas strikes last year showed that some of the herd, at least, rather like the idea of a day off for shopping.

If the purpose of the march were simply to show massed support for the unions, it could just as easily have been held during half-term; what difference would it have made to the Government? The fact that it was not is a clear indicator of how little value is placed on education by those directly responsible for providing it.
     "Yes, I was picketing."
What fun it had been! Stopping cars and thrusting leaflets through the drivers' windows, turning back lorries, waving banners for the benefit of the local TV news cameras, thawing one's fingers round a mug of thermos-flask coffee, sharing the warm glow of camaraderie with colleagues one had never met before. Robyn had not felt so exalted since the great women's rally at Greenham Common.

Sunday 13 October 2013

The musical fun continues

Some things are just too good to keep to oneself...

(Dedicated, of course, to JuliaM;
one earworm definitely deserves another!)

Saturday 12 October 2013

And they didn't live happily ever after.

Once upon a time, there was a mother pig who had three little pigs. The three little pigs grew so big that, one day, their mother said to them, "You are too big to live here any longer; you must go and find houses for yourselves".
If an article in one of last week's (paywalled) papers is to be believed, this scene is being played out on a regular basis up and down the country, with young people told to move out of the family home because 'their bedrooms are needed for younger siblings'.

The implication was that the withdrawal of housing benefit for the under-25s would cause great hardship for this reason, which rather suggests that their families were expecting the state to provide a safety net - and accommodation - once the 'child' reached 18, making way for more children in the household.

For those in receipt of the maximum amounts, child benefit and child tax credit combined can represent a significant proportion of the household income. It's a laudable practice when it enables a responsible family to meet their bills and feed and clothe children who might otherwise go hungry but there is a fatal flaw in its application.

In its simplest form, child = income. While those who bear the full financial responsibility for their offspring might hesitate before adding to their brood, there is no financial disincentive to produce large families when someone else is footing the bill; science has long known that mammal populations expand in times of plenty and humans are no exception.

And, just as in the animal kingdom, that expansion brings an increase in predators trying to benefit in their turn. Along with the tattoo artists, beauticians, baby boutiques, high street bookmakers and lottery ticket sellers are men who batten onto young single mothers to profit from their accommodation and child benefits.

This may well be the untold story behind the cohort of newly-homeless teenagers; a mother infatuated or dominated by a potentially hostile partner is surely far more likely to follow her primitive animal instincts to protect and nurture his new offspring and pack the previous litter off into the wilderness to fend for themselves. Like the starry-eyed progressives who wrecked our education system, those responsible for the tax credit structure appear to have ignored the animal instincts that drive human behaviour.

Suggestions of denying payment for children conceived  by parents already on benefits have led to much outcry (and an assortment of straw men - or rather women), as you would expect to happen with a system that allows claimants to generate their own hostages. The Dickensian spectre of child poverty makes a powerful argument; so powerful, in fact, that it appears to have obscured the question of how many children there are and what happens to them when they grow up.

While the vast majority of parents will doubtless continue, as generations before them, to support, house and occasionally be driven to distraction by their grown offspring until they achieve independence, there is a danger that a proportion of teenagers who cease to qualify for child benefit and tax credits will suddenly find themselves evicted from the family home while still young enough to be vulnerable to every passing Big Bad Wolf.

I don't have a solution, though it would certainly help if people could be persuaded to take a more responsible approach to parenthood; in a country where pets are acquired on a whim and abandoned at will, I can't imagine the families in question ever taking on board the idea that a child is for life, not just for tax credits.

Monday 7 October 2013

An honourable estate?

(Warning; this post may contain material of an emetic nature.)

It appears there is a growing trend for readings from children's books at weddings.

Instead of the traditional chapters from the scripture of choice, some couples are now opting for picture books like 'The Velveteen Rabbit' or 'Guess How Much I Love You', or a rendition of 'The Owl and the Pussycat'.

According to the Director of the UK Alliance of Wedding Planners (a job description that surely entitles the holder to speedy boarding for the Golgafrinchan B-Ark):
"That's the big thing with weddings now... it's about [the couple's] personalities. They're trying to choose readings that are easy to understand, that are fun to read and fun to listen to and just bring a smile to people's faces."
It seems rather odd, somehow, that at the point of making what should surely be an adult and mature commitment, couples should be looking for something 'easy' and 'fun'; even if the sacred texts no longer apply, one would hope for an expression of rather more profundity than "I love you all the way down the lane as far as the river".

While religious readings will not suit everyone (and, to be honest, some of St Paul's opinions do raise a few hackles these days), surely there is something out there among the vast canon of serious fiction or philosophy that expresses the requisite sentiments in words of more than one syllable.

The BBC helpfully lists some of the popular choices:
Guess How Much I Love You (Sam McBratney)
The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Winnie-the-Pooh (AA Milne)
The Velveteen Rabbit (Margery Williams)
The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Oh The Places You'll Go (Dr Seuss)
While some of these do at least have a modicum of dignity, it's difficult to see how the (supposedly) lifelong mutual commitment of two adults could be appropriately celebrated with that last one:
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!
One of the reasons put forward is that the inclusion of picture books allows the couple's children to play a part (which does rather seem to be putting the cart before the matrimonial horse), but it seems likely that these 'easy' readings are also symptoms of a malaise afflicting increasing numbers of the population.

In a society where cartoon characters advertise such grown-up products as insurance or estate agencies and adults are expected to spend on toys and games for themselves as well as their children, it's hardly surprising that the institution of marriage itself is becoming trivialised. In the words of one bride, who chose 'The Owl and the Pussycat',
"It was just an opportunity to make everybody smile and something that was familiar to them and also was quite evocative with the imagery in it, and also I'm a huge cat fan."
In the glare of the digital age, that 'ghastly public confession of a strictly private intention' has become a painstakingly costumed and choreographed performance inspired by merchandising, magazines and celebrity culture. The enormity of the undertaking represented by marriage vows has, for many, been eclipsed by the desire to put on a show in keeping with the superficial media-led aspirations of this generation.

As the good Dr Seuss has taught us to say:
With banner flip-flapping,
once more you'll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you're that kind of a guy!...
Fame! You'll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV!

Thursday 3 October 2013

Away with the raggle-taggle gypsies-O

Sad news for the Gypsy and Traveller community; after this month's Horse Fair at Stow-on-the-Wold, the organisers will have to find a new venue.
Its site in a field near Maugersbury Road, is being sold to developers, who plan to build a new medical centre, five houses and a 300 space car park.
Stow fair is a major event which attracts travellers from all over Britain looking for horses, equipment and, apparently, counterfeit merchandise. A spokesman for the Gypsy Council says he is confident the fair will continue:
“I think the important thing is to preserve the heritage and the history.
Surely there will be other farmers around the area who might want to collaborate and hold the fair in a different field.
I wouldn't hold your breath, mate!
The fair has drawn criticism in the past, after incidents of theft and vandalism, and a man was stabbed at the event, in May 2010.
Officers have worked to improve policing after some residents complained of nuisance, litter and traffic chaos.
Once a general country fair, the event was gradually abandoned by everyone except the Gypsies, at which point it was moved out of the town. So why the need to change, all of a sudden? A few months ago, local press reported that the site's owners were 'looking to sell' and it appears they found themselves a good deal.

What makes this story interesting is that, while news reports don't mention the identity of the sellers who are moving the Gypsies on while they turn a handsome profit, back in February, a young visitor to the fair (who seems much taken with the 'designer clothes'; do you think someone should tell her that Messrs Dolce & Gabbana don't usually sell their wares from the back of a white van?) wrote that the fields in question are 'owned by a local Romany family'.

So  much for heritage and 'community'; I wonder if they will find anyone else prepared to host the gathering.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

"He drinks a whisky drink, he drinks a vodka drink, he drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink...."

From the Independent:
Scientists say increasingly boozy lyrics could be encouraging young people to drink 
Researchers analysed more than 600 successful singles from 1981 onwards, with the lyrics of each song assessed independently by two team members to identify references to alcohol and alcohol consumption.
Thanks to our habit of saluting the ever-increasing number of known Near-Earth Asteroids, the Tavern is no stranger to the time-honoured tradition of the drinking song. Since humanity first discovered the secret of producing alcohol, we've been happily singing about it, which suggests that we might be looking at a touch of confirmation bias here.

As Leg-Iron points out, citing an abundance of pre-war drink-related music, 1981 was probably something of a low point in alcohol reference - largely, if I remember rightly, because much of punk and mainstream pop was heading into the realm of politics while the New Romantics were too intoxicated by their own hairspray and narcissism to need any alcoholic assistance.

In any case, I can't imagine today's young people taking much notice of Roxy Music or The Jam - or, for that matter, anything before the golden oldies of 2010, such is the ephemeral nature of popular culture. It seems odd to take a 34-year sample, especially with a starting point that coincides with electronic pop; while booze and guitars make natural bedfellows, the chap with the synth usually has to stay sober.

However, it does amuse me to think of all those po-faced academics sitting round earnestly analysing the minutiae of four decades of trivial pop:
Strict criteria were applied to define a “mention” of alcohol, and the high figures do not even include fairly obvious but indirect references such as non-specific drinking at parties (the study offered “Sippin’ on a different drink,” Snoop Dogg vs. David Guetta – Sweat, 2011, as an example). 
“We’re dancing on the bar”, appearing in The Saturdays’ All Fired Up (2011) was also “deemed too ambiguous for inclusion”.
Somehow, all I can think of is this...

For more, I recommend Mark Wadsworth's post on the subject.

Monday 30 September 2013

Whew - that was close!

Another day, another asteroid.

Russian observers claim to have spotted a 15m wide object that passed the Earth on Friday night at a mere 11,300km from the planet's surface.

Their findings are still awaiting confirmation, but if they are right, this one came out of the blue without warning and passed by an astronomical whisker away, inside the orbit of geostationary satellites - in fact, it was at first believed to be a stray piece of orbital debris.

Meanwhile, the same night, at even closer quarters, a meteroid was filmed burning up in the atmosphere across fourteen states of the USA. Fireballs are a reasonably frequent occurrence, but this seems to have been a particularly spectacular example.

It's likely this will be put down to random coincidence, in much the same way as February's Russian fireball was deemed to have no connection with 2012 DA14 which passed by the same day,

Nevertheless, though the  risk tables of NASA's Near Earth Object Program currently list only one asteroid in the category 'merits careful monitoring' and that won't be along for another 35 years,  it's food for thought and a reminder that, amid the vast emptiness of space, there is bound to be a rock out there with our name on it - or even two.

Still, a passing space rock is always an excuse for a drink; to brighten a Monday evening, I invite you to raise a glass in salute to the as-yet-unnamed asteroid and the eagle-eyed Russian astronomers.

Na Zdorovie!