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.