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

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!