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

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Looking on the bright side of life

If I suspected middle age was creeping up on me, now I know for sure; my first reaction to this was, "Well done that man!"

(For those lucky enough to have no knowledge of the brand, Hollister is a purveyor of trendy clothes to affluent youth, known for a) in-store models of astounding pulchritude and b) shops so dark that it is virtually impossible to see the price tags - or, indeed, the clothing, which, come to think of it, explains a lot.)

Tuesday 26 February 2013

The final playlist

This week has presented the fascinating task of playing 'Desert Island Discs' on someone else's behalf, albeit in rather sombre circumstances.

I am, frankly, amazed at the variety of pre-recorded musical accompaniment available for one's last journey - as well as being somewhat baffled at some of the options on offer.

The local crematorium has thoughtfully provided an online catalogue of all the tracks they can play for you. All the usual suspects are there; classical greats and plenty of hymns and sacred music.

So far, so spiritual, but then we come to some odder choices, all of which genuinely feature on the list. One could understand a good film score - after all the work of Vaughan Williams or Maurice Jarre is no less significant for having been attached to moving pictures - but what about TV themes?

There have been some stirring ones, certainly, but would you really want to meet your maker to the accompaniment of the theme from 'Deal or No Deal' or 'Countryfile', let alone the 30-second burst from 'Countdown'? Meanwhile, sporting tastes are catered for with 'Match of the Day', the Wimbledon theme and Channel 4 racing, among others, though, under the circumstances, I assume it would be considered bad form to clap along with the music from the 'Horse of the Year Show'.

And, while one can understand and admire the fighting spirit with which those left behind might choose 'Another One Bites the Dust' or 'Bat out of Hell', it's hard to imagine why someone would wish to be remembered for having the Wurzels' 'Combine Harvester' or Benny Hill's theme as a final goodbye.

And then there's the real puzzles, not least among which is Frankie Laine's 'Jezebel' or Chas'n'Dave's immortal classic, 'Rabbit'; "You won't stop talking, Why don't you give it a rest?", and you really have to wonder about anyone who would be seen to their final repose to the strains of a Rabelaisian offering from the Antipodes entitled 'Mick, the Master Farter'.

In fact, those looking for a light-hearted experience are very well catered for, particularly if they happen to be of a cockney persuasion; it would be possible to conduct a service based on 'Lily the Pink', 'A Luverly Bunch of Coconuts' and 'Knees Up Mother Brown', ending up with a rousing rendition of the 'Hokey Cokey', while Northerners are also catered for with 'When I'm Cleaning Windows' and 'My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock'.

All in all, it's been an enlightening experience and provides some much-needed comic relief from an otherwise solemn business, not least in wondering just how some of the more egregious selections made it onto the list - is the driving force supply or demand?*

And if the latter, what sort of person, I wonder, first approached the crematorium and asked that their loved one should vanish to the accompaniment of  'Great Balls of Fire'.

*Update: I asked them; it turns out that if you have a special request, they will find it for you and add it to the list. Odd as it may seem, someone has specifically asked for all of the tracks listed above.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Le mot juste?

Something peculiar from the local paper website; is it me, or does the word 'browse' strike a slightly odd note in this context?

Death notices

Browse all the latest Death notices
View all notices

Saturday 23 February 2013

Habebunt Corpus

Three cheers today for Sir Tony Baldry, MP for North Oxfordshire, who has hit on an unconventional way to repay the nation for years of living it up on Parliamentary expenses. As the Oxford Mail announces in the best possible taste:
Medical students in the distant future could find themselves scalpel-deep in the body of Banbury MP Sir Tony Baldry.
The Conservative MP has left his body to the Oxford University anatomy department.
The MP himself demonstrates admirable pragmatism in explaining his decision:
“I have a body. When I die, it’s not going to be much use to me. I think you will find that anatomy students nowadays don’t find it very easy to get hold of cadavers on which to practise."
But he also seems to view the matter with a certain wry amusement, incidentally confirming what many of us have long believed about the lifestyle of Honourable Members:
“I suspect the liver of anyone who has served more than 30 years as a Member of Parliament is probably worthy of anatomical study."
This is certainly a novel PR coup and it will be interesting to see whether any of his fellow MPs follow suit. One might argue that it is also a necessary gesture, given that his most recent foray into the headlines, apart from his opposition to same-sex marriage, was the mishap memorably described by Anna Raccoon.

For connoisseurs of conspiracy theories, this was a car malfunction that occurred just hours after Sir Tony had clashed with Nick Clegg in the Commons. Sir Tony's car, you may recall, overshot a barrier in the Matalan car park at the back of Poundland (next door to MacDonalds and Wilkinson's, where Peacocks used to be) and demolished a portable toilet in what must hold some kind of record for the classiest accident ever.

With that on his record, it's not surprising that he should be on the lookout for ways to recover his bespattered reputation, but I applaud his willingness to tackle the awkward issue of mortality head-on and do something for the common good.

Admittedly this public announcement, apparently confirming a long-standing private arrangement, was made in a debate about hospital A&E units and in the context of Sir Tony's support for a local hospital, so it's hardly surprising, MPs being what they are, that there's an element of political capital involved:
“...when they open me up they will find inscribed on my heart the words “Keep the Horton General”.
but it is surely no less significant for that; well done that man!

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Quote of the day - squirrel edition

"You'd need one and a half squirrels for a main course; that's why we are serving it as starters." 

Full marks to the sous-chef at River Cottage Canteen, where diners with twitchy sensibilities need not apply. This was a one-off,  but there are plans to add squirrel to the menu again in the Autumn, when they will be nice and fat.

It's no more than you would expect of an establishment under the aegis of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (or, as my mother calls him, 'the bloke who eats dead owls') and, what's more, there's a sound ecological reason for doing it, these being grey interlopers rather than our native red ones.

The long-overdue investigation into what goes into burgers and ready meals shows just how detached the general population has become from the source of its meat. For those who never shop at a  butcher's, there is no apparent connection between the packaged ready-meal or takeaway and a real animal; it's something many consumers prefer to ignore completely.

This is, of course, largely a product of urban living and a sentimentalised view of the animal kingdom; I shall never forget the horrified reaction of a town-bred family friend who arrived unexpectedly one day and was offered rabbit curry for dinner (unorthodox, I know, but pies and casseroles do get boring after a while).

But I suspect that we are now seeing a generation grow up who just don't care. 'Watership Down' and the like have been largely forgotten (or dismissed as too middle-class to be allowed) - in any case, few children read much these days - and, where 1990s teenagers embraced vegetarianism along with all things green, their modern-day counterparts are more likely to say "Whatever" and tuck into a burger in front of the X-box.

Having been forced by recent news stories to consider the source of their meat, perhaps people may start to question whether it really matters that their food once had big eyes or a fluffy tail, especially if it's cheap, low-fat and sustainable into the bargain.

The newspapers have doubtless published this non-story in the hope of sparking a storm of outrage from the fluffy brigade amid accusations of  'a wildlife massacre' (it's happened before: 'Another Slice of Squirrel, Julia?'), but, taking into account the misleading meat labels and unidentifiable imported ingredients in processed food, they might just find it's the start of something new.

Sunday 17 February 2013

Now Tesco are hunting them down...

Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for Tesco...
A horse was put down in a village street after its back legs were broken when it was hit by a Tesco delivery van.
There may be no such thing as bad publicity, but I'd say this is a fairly close thing. After all, it's one thing to have your horse delivered in anonymous lumps round the back but quite another to go out and mow it down in person.

And, in any case, the horse in question belonging to the Warwickshire Hunt, the Tesco driver didn't get a chance to sweep his ill-gotten roadkill into the van:
“Fortunately hunt staff were less than half a mile away and were down there to deal with it as quickly as 
...which, presumably, involved swift euthanasia followed by nature's own recycling process via a pack of hounds in the time-honoured tradition.

It's a distressing story all round - particularly for the rider and the driver (both apparently unhurt, I am happy to say) - but spare a thought for Tesco's PR department, who must be living on their nerves by now.

After all, no amount of proposed DNA testing, traceability of stock and grovelling full-page apologies in the national press can make up for this gift of a story for bloggers and tweeters everywhere.

(courtesy of cheezburger)

Friday 15 February 2013

Flying tonight

Regular readers may have been surprised at the recent silence here on the subject of 2012 DA14, not all of which has been due to such half-term obligations as taking a nephew to the zoo.

To be honest, I've been in a bit of a sulk. I feel rather like a die-hard fan of an obscure indie band which, after years in the musical wilderness, has an unexpected number one hit.

Suddenly asteroid is the mot du jour and everyone's an expert - well, nearly everyone (my thanks to Nourishing Obscurity for that one).

On all sides, the media are eagerly imparting details of tonight's close approach, along with, at the more irresponsible end of the coverage - and in spite of the repeated assurances of experts - lurid speculation about the damage that an impact might cause.

And then, to top it all, the cosmos sends us a timely reminder of our fragility in the form of the Russian meteorite, supplying the sort of spectacular footage that will be distinctly lacking from tonight's flyby - though I can't be the only one who found, in the news footage of witnesses whose bandaged eyes were injured by shattering windows as they watched the display, a chilling reminder of 'The Day of the Triffids'.

The Russian strike is a reminder, along with the passing asteroid's chronological designation, that we are always vulnerable to a bolt from the blue; Newtonian mechanics and supercomputers may enable us to calculate trajectories with remarkable precision but that's no good if we haven't yet spotted the celestial body barreling towards us on a collision course.

Still, eat, drink and be merry is the best philosophy; as ever, we at the Tavern will be roistering tonight in honour of 2012 DA14 even if it's not such an exclusive celebration as usual, so please pour yourselves a drink and join us in spirit.

Every cloud ...

'Horse burger sales have surged in the last fortnight with one retailer reporting a ten-fold increase since the horse meat scandal broke.'

Monday 11 February 2013

Mitigating statement of the day; is it really relevant?

'The family planned a trip in October 2011 to the Hajj pilgrimage having embraced religion, to ask God for forgiveness. That had to be cancelled because their passports were seized.'
For those who have not read the story (Mail, so usual caveats apply), two brothers and their wives spent 15 years indulging in a version of what, in the days when I worked in a Housing Benefit department, was known as the Camellia Avenue scam.

This was operating virtually wholesale along a particular road in town; homeowners and tenants nominally swapped houses, grown offspring or - occasionally - wives in order to claim the maximum housing benefit payments on offer, while the council inspectors did their best to disentangle the whole sorry business.

No matter how many were caught, the claims kept on coming in, swearing blind that No. 34's 16-year-old son was paying sky-high rent for a room at No. 42, while No. 42's teenage daughter claimed housing benefit for a bedsit ten feet away at No. 44, despite actually living with her boyfriend at No. 26.

And the inspectors worked tirelessly to bring them all to justice, with regular dawn stake-outs and relentless enquiries. Most bogus claims were identified within a matter of months; might so many years of unchecked activity suggest undue reticence in this case on the part of those charged with detecting such frauds?

The two couples involved in this case - with their 11 children - clocked up an impressive £314,452.25 in benefit payments:
'Each couple swapped houses and made claims for housing benefit and income support,' Mark Himsworth, prosecuting, said. [...] 'It went on for a long time an.d there was a great deal of manifest dishonesty.'
So far, so cut and dried. The crime was detected - eventually - and restitution has been made, and so we come to the question of mitigation and a bizarre intrusion into the proceedings of something that should be a personal matter irrelevant to the judicial process.

This is a case of financial fraud, pure and simple. Why, then, should 'asking God for forgiveness' come into it? These people were prepared to lie, cheat and steal - which casts some doubt on the 'fervent' religion of Ahmed's wife (as does her prior conviction for fraud) - but divine forgiveness is surely a matter between them and their deity of choice.

Whatever the religious beliefs of defendants, they surely have no place being wheeled out in the hope of eliciting sympathy or favourable opinion from an objective judiciary.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Creepy is as creepy does

It's been a long time since we had a tattoo story here, but this is one I'd really prefer hadn't happened.

Remember Kimberley Vlaeminck? She was the Belgian teenager who claimed to have peacefully slept through the process of having a major facial tattoo.

Her initial assertion that she had only asked for three small stars near one eye but woke to find 56 of them covering half her face made international headlines, and the resulting furore made things so uncomfortable in Belgium for the tattoo artist, Rouslan Toumaniantz, that he decamped to Russia.

Now he's in the news again, having decorated the face of his (very) new girlfriend with his own name in four-inch black gothic script, making Kimberley's constellation look positively tame by comparison.

Objectively speaking, it's a fine piece of artwork; the trouble is that something like this never can be viewed purely objectively. Leaving aside the obvious question of what happens if - or when - the relationship ends, this girls has now been permanently and irrevocably marked as part of the tattooing sub-culture.

What I find most disturbing about this story is the weasel word that creeps into the reporting; 'persuaded'. The girl - Lesya - was already interested in tattoos (her sister is a tattoo artist) before she met Toumaniantz on the internet but had never had one done.

Within 24 hours of meeting him, she had agreed to have his name permanently emblazoned across her face and a few days later, she had taken his surname and was planning a career working alongside him in the expectation that he would tattoo the rest of her body in due course.

It raises interesting questions about the Belgian case; one the one hand, we have an inexperienced teenager and, on the other, a man who appears to combine a liking for spectacular facial tattoos with extraordinary powers of persuasion.

There's something very odd about his involvement in the disfigurement (as most people would see it) of these two young women and the current story is a salutary reminder of the internet's potential role in uniting perpetrator and victim, of which this is, at least, a relatively benign, if startling, example.

Kimberley Vlaeminck was, it seems, brought to her senses by her father's reaction to what she had done; it is to be hoped that Lesya does not experience similar regrets when she escapes from Toumaniantz' sphere of influence.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

We can dance, we can dance, Doing it pole to pole...

An update on 'Leading Horses to Water', 19th January.

Well, Dalkeith Public Library has had its 'Love your Library Day', complete with pole dancing - sorry, pole fitness - and there's footage to prove it.

The event has been declared a 'great success' and attracted plenty of interest, some of it from unexpected quarters:
Among the participants was community beat officer Lindsey Hughson from Lothian and Borders Police, who tried her hand at pole dancing.
Well, it certainly puts a new spin on community policing, though I can't see it going down well in some of our more ...er....vibrant areas.

Given the unashamed way the Library has exploited the pole-dancing for publicity purposes, the best bit of the news footage (apart from a uniformed officer of the law twirling on a pole) has to be the po-faced spokeswoman sternly insisting that it's all about 'a healthy mind in a healthy body' - a triumph of respectable Calvinist virtue over salacious imagination.

I admit I remain to be convinced that those who came to gyrate will remain to read, but if it works, it raises the interesting question of other libraries following suit. With the healthy eating and exercise lobby becoming more vociferous by the day, we may yet see an outbreak of pole dancing enlivening the rest of the nation's libraries.

Sunday 3 February 2013

One man's meat pie is another man's haram

Last week, BBC2 treated viewers to the spectacle of Professor Brian Cox spitting into a test tube and, with the help of some washing-up liquid and vodka, extracting a sample of DNA containing the genes for brown eyes, floppy hair and a cheeky grin.

(Recent conversations with friends suggest I should, for some readers at least, at this point leave a short pause for reverential contemplation. Meanwhile, everyone else can use the brief interlude to savour Prof. Cox's contrived but memorable phrase: "The chicken is radiating disorder out into the wider universe...".

OK - shall we carry on?)

Now, I know very little about the mechanics of the process, but it did strike me that DNA must be fairly robust stuff to survive all that chemical bombardment and agitation. That being so, what are we to make of the news that 'traces of pig DNA' have been found in foods labelled halal in prisons?

Contrary to the impression given by slick police dramas, DNA cross-contamination must surely be rife in our everyday environment - consider the rapid spread of viral and bacterial infections or the way that pet hair transfers itself to clothing ad infinitum as examples of how traces of material can move around.

And what of the shopper who picks up a leaky pack of bacon in the supermarket and transfers traces of the residue to the trolley handle and everything else he or she touches? Contamination at a microscopic level cannot be entirely ruled out anywhere we go. Common sense suggests that, aside from good hygiene practices, we shouldn't concern ourselves with something so small and inevitable.

But common sense and religion are not always easy bedfellows. An avoidance of certain foods on religious grounds for fear of contamination implies a lack of pragmatism when it comes to accidental contamination at a microscopic level, so it's no surprise that this is a major news story, even though the Qu'ran explicitly states that, if there is no other food available, a Muslim may eat non-halal food; 'If one is forced because there is no other choice, neither craving nor transgressing, there is no sin on him' (Surah 2:173).

And it's not going to help that the 'traces of DNA' - 0.01% by volume, according to Channel 4 - have, in the tabloid headlines, become "Pork found in halal meat" (Mirror) or "Halal meat pies [...] contained pork" (Sun), as if there were large lumps of the stuff lurking within the crust. The media like nothing better than conflict, and, if they continue to fan the flames as hospitals, schools and care homes inevitably enter the fray and tempers rise, they may well have plenty to report.

Given modern methods of food production and the scale of the supply chain, it would be very surprising if some form of cross-contamination were not occurring in the system. Even with a highly conscientious workforce (and the wages paid in the food industry are not conducive to this end), it would be difficult to eliminate completely the traces of previous products handled by the machinery or on the premises.

Since almost any institution now offers a vegetarian option which would meet the requirements of those wishing to avoid pork, it makes little sense to provide halal meat products at public expense as well. In fact, the ideal solution - proposed by Woman on a Raft at Anna Raccoon's post on the matter - would be to make all prison food vegetarian and prepare it on site; cheaper, safer and unlikely to offend anyone's religious or ethical sensibilities*.

We  have, as a society, become so accustomed to over-processed food that we have lost sight of the risks posed by every successive part of the process.The real issue here is that food labeling has been shown not to be trustworthy but there is now a very real risk that the religious element of this story will be allowed to fog the issue; there was a real sense of inevitability about this from the moment the horsemeat story broke.

As Prof. Cox's chicken demonstrates, energy degrades with each stage in its separation from its original source. Much the same thing can be said of our food; the challenge now is to ensure the religious issue does not sidetrack those in charge from the importance of reducing the number of processing stages from ingredients to plate.

*Except, perhaps, Jains, though I doubt there are many of them in the UK prison population, what with their strict avoidance of violence and lack of interest in material possessions.

Meanwhile, as the Quiet Man points out at OoL, a convicted prisoner in the UK insisting on his right to halal food has already broken the law of the land and, at least in cases of theft, would probably prefer to be dealt with under our own system of punishment rather than that prescribed by the Qu'ran.