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

Saturday 6 December 2014

The Drey of Reckoning

Julia's blog brings us, in her inimitable style, the tale of the squirrel-induced panic that engulfed a primary school recently. From the Mail:
A teacher at Chater Infants School in Watford, Hertfordshire, had to herd the youngsters back into the safety of the building after an 'unusually aggressive' grey squirrel disrupted their afternoon playtime.
It follows a week in which squirrels have been in the news rather a lot, what with causing traffic accidents in Essex...
A pensioner collided with a motorcyclist after swerving onto the wrong side of the road to avoid a squirrel.
...attempting robbery in Northern Ireland....
A red squirrel has been apprehended after going on the rampage at a jewellery shop in Ballycastle, Co Antrim. 
...and sabotaging the power supply on a grand scale in Florida...
The squirrel infiltrated the system at a TECO substation at about 9:30 a.m. and knocked out the power for about 7,000 area customers. 
...California ...
Power was knocked out for almost 2,000 residents of Silicon Valley after a squirrel was zapped by electrical equipment.
and Oklahoma...
An overly-curious squirrel is being blamed for a power outage that left 2,000 persons — including several businesses — without electricity for nearly an hour and a half on Saturday morning in Claremore.
... to say nothing of the many fires started by squirrels munching on the household electrics. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, not content with merely chewing or stealing the wiring, they have been unscrewing bulbs from the zoo's Christmas light display:
The problem has gotten so bad that zoo officials took to spreading hot sauce on the strands as a deterrent.
Though, to be honest, the measure wasn't exactly a success:
"They kind of laughed at it. I think we felt good about it, but it didn't do much." 
The articles explain that the damage is the result of squirrels seeking material to line their winter nests or mistaking the light bulbs for oddly-coloured nuts, but what if there's more to it than that? Could it be that these little furry chaps actually have designs on humanity?

After all, the grey ones that came here have ruthlessly set about displacing the indigenous population, reducing them to skulking in isolated habitats or island locations from where, as we've seen, they occasionally venture forth to engage in a spot of breaking and entering.

In a single century, grey squirrels have colonised virtually the whole of our countryside while their relatives fill the same ecological niche almost worldwide; what if these little fluffy mammals are actually plotting world domination?

Maybe the lone playground invader was merely testing the water; staging a small skirmish to see how the enemy reacts. If they judge our capacity for resistance by what they saw at the school, their morale must now be sky-high.

After all, they already know they can disrupt traffic, take out our power supply and, for all we know, disable our phone masts at any time, especially given all that practice unscrewing light bulbs. For the chefs who extol the virtues of squirrel meat, it might not be long to payback time.

Still not convinced? Take a close look at this cute piece of anthropomorphic footage currently doing the rounds; that's not a twig the squirrel is nibbling...


If the premise of this seems familiar, you may already know the excellent short story 'Skirmish' by Clifford D Simak; if you don't, it can be found in sections online here, though I don't have any information on copyright.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Fly-by night

After a quiet few weeks, the Tavern doors are open again to celebrate the 27-metre wide 2014 WC201, which passed a mere 540,000km above our heads this morning too early, in the UK at least, for anything but a bleary wave.

For those sorry to have missed it - though you could always have a drink to speed it on its way - there may be consolation on the way in the shape of the 2014 WX202, a mere 5m tiddler in cosmic terms but due to pass 380,000km away on the 7th at the decidedly more congenial time of 7.56pm.

I say 'may' because, rather embarrassingly, its low relative velocity and trajectory suggest that this latter visitor may not be quite as extra-terrestrial in origin as originally thought.

Along with the space-rocks, there's a fair bit of our own litter out there and it's quite possible that 2014 WX202 is actually a bit of orbiting scrap like the one temporarily mistaken for an asteroid last year in the spacegoing equivalent of an angler landing an old boot.

If Professor Hawking's predictions about artificial intelligence are accurate, our future robot masters are likely to find us more than a little risible (always assuming they have developed something that passes for a sense of humour); we shove a load of metal into an interesting variety of orbits, then get all excited thinking it's an asteroid when it sails past - at least until we discover it's coated in titanium paint.

And should ET and his chums be out there, it's a fair bet they will take one look at the assorted scrap metal that litters our immediate environment and decided that we really aren't the sort of beings they want to get acquainted with, at least until we've done some housework.

Update: The Astronomer Royal, former astronaut Ed Lu and Queen guitarist Brian May have just unveiled plans for a global Asteroid Awareness Day on 30th June 2015. While we like to think that, here in the Tavern, every day is Asteroid Awareness Day, we certainly aren't going to pass up the excuse for a massive party!

Sunday 16 November 2014

Why I Am No Longer a Feminist

(Are you sitting comfortably? I fear this is going to be a long post....)

Feminism has been much in the news recently so this is, I suppose, a good time to admit that I have been there, done that and bought the boiler suit.

In the high and far-off times, I talked the talk, walked the walk - still do; I can't shake off a determined stride that is death to kitten heels - and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Sisterhood, Reclaiming the Night, subscribing to Spare Rib and running a university Women's Group (through which I achieved my sole claim to media fame; being (mis)quoted in Private Eye's 'Wimmin' column).

So what happened? Well, for one thing, many of the issues for which we marched have been resolved - in Britain, at least - through legislation, rule changes and the natural wastage of residual misogyny among those in high places, some of whom, back then, had been born to mothers who could not vote until the age of 30.

Today's young British women are looking at a world where very few doors are closed against them, and most of those for medical or anatomical reasons, as legal and economic pressure opens their way into such former bastions of masculinity as sporting clubs, the Church of England, public schools and even, potentially, front-line combat.

Like racism, discrimination is apparently a one-way street, making it acceptable - if not desirable - to select all-women shortlists and promote women in preference to men; equality is clearly not a consideration.Thus Gordon Brown could announce in 2010 that  'Under Labour, there are more students at university than ever before and I'm happy to say the majority of them are women'.

With the demise of these time-honoured establishment targets, feminists might have turned their attention to those British women whose freedoms are still curtailed by cultural and religious attitudes or by their own low expectations and early single motherhood were it not for the small matter of politics.

For left-leaning feminists, the idea of reform from the top down was a pleasing one; criticising potential working-class Labour voters or confronting the less agreeable aspects of the multiculturalism we were told to 'celebrate' was quite another matter. In the same way, many feminists are strangely reticent on the subject of women's status in less enlightened parts of the world.

In any case, liberation is relative: as Robbie Coltrane's character in the TV series 'Cracker' once pointed out, "While you're out lecturing on Women's Studies and career opportunities, some poor cow's got her arm half-way round your U-bend". There are plenty of high-flying self-styled feminists who apparently see nothing incongruous in their household outsourcing the domestic chores to an assortment of low-paid females.

What was needed was a less contentious target, which brings us to the elephant quietly gestating in the corner of the room; as Lynne Featherstone helpfully explained, “One of the main barriers to full equality in the UK is the fact that women still have babies" (some have even managed to outsource that to other women but surrogacy is, as yet, comparatively rare).

Until we reach Huxley's Brave New World, biology still has the upper hand and modern feminists are really, really annoyed about it. Motherhood is, of course, their right and prerogative, but how dare this helpless infant require their presence when they could be climbing the promotion ladder and hammering on the glass ceiling!

Fortunately childcare, too, can be outsourced, thanks to a host of feminist-approved government policies subsidising nursery places for babies as young as six weeks. The doctrine of 'quality time' theoretically allows mothers to return to work with a clear conscience, reassured that two days with the baby at the end of a busy working week is enough.

Imagine the outcry if zoo staff walked into the primate cages on weekday mornings and removed every infant chimpanzee or gorilla from its mother's arms to a distant crèche until the zoo closed for the night. While human mothers may not suffer - consciously, at least - in the same way as their ape counterparts would, what of the helpless infants persistently deprived of their mothers' presence throughout their waking hours?

Many of the feminists of my day, celebrating centuries-old traditions from a variety of cultures, embraced the idea of motherhood as an equal and alternative assertion of female power and identity; for today's colder, harder activists, it has become a lifestyle choice which must not be allowed to get in the way of advancement, even if the mother herself would prefer to stay with the child.

My brief official involvement with feminism coincided with the last years before Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman unleashed their progressive ideology and overturned the idea of the traditional family in the political arena. While men are viewed with hostility, some of today's feminists reserve their fiercest criticism for well-qualified stay-at-home mothers who have chosen, whatever the financial sacrifice, to take a career break.

I firmly believe that a woman is the intellectual and social equal of a man and should be treated as such - with the proviso that a dependent infant is biologically more important than either man or woman and its needs should come first. With the exception of a few physically demanding jobs, the mind is what matters in the workplace and the hardware that accompanies it should be irrelevant.

But when the term 'feminist' is applied, seemingly without irony, to callipygian celebrities famed for suggestive dance routines or to politicians who seek to separate mothers from their children, and when self-styled feminists celebrate women being promoted over the heads of equally-qualified men, those of us who merely seek an amiable parity and mutual respect need to find another name.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Wild Women of Wonga

You know those scenes in post-apocalyptic films where the survivors of some global catastrophe battle desperately to secure the few remaining resources?

It seems the phenomenon is closer to home than you might think:
Women were seen fighting over Disney 'Frozen' merchandise during the opening of a new Poundworld store in Merthyr Tydfil.
Since there was already a pound shop in town, the managers had to come up with something special to attract bargain-hungry locals and their Disney-themed opening certainly seems to have done the trick .

Hundreds of customers queued in the rain for over an hour before the doors opened on Wednesday and the company expected 'a record 10,000 shoppers' over the opening weekend.

The truly startling statistic, however, is to be found in the company policy for allocating the sought-after Disney merchandise:
Due to high demand the stock was limited to 50 items per customer...
Fifty items? Fifty? Even in a pound shop, that surely represents a substantial outlay by most people's standards, particularly when spent on ephemeral tat.
... and goods including 'Frozen' lip balms, money tins and stationery sold out in less than 40 minutes.
We're often told that hard-pressed customers are driven to pound shops by the high prices of essential items elsewhere; for some, at least, those 'baskets piled high' with film tie-in merchandise tell a different story.

Always assuming the whole article wasn't concocted by Poundworld's PR department to drum up trade (though it's not a great slogan - 'shop here and get into a punch-up!'), I wonder where the money is coming from...

If the title sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because you saw this back in the 1980s...

A bonus helping of Schadenfreude has appeared to brighten the start of the working week in the shape of the souped-up Toyota bemired by a boy racer in the tidal mud of Burnham on Sea.

It has now been recovered,but I don't think its owner is going to be very happy...
Five days after it sank, rescuers pulled it free, shovelling mud from the vehicle's interior and fixing chains to the frame after knocking holes in the windscreen.

Finally, if you haven't already done so, I recommend paying a visit to Caedmon's Cat for a Dark Ages feline perspective on the current industrial action.

Friday 31 October 2014

Quote of the Day - Roger Hargreaves, where art thou?

Some time ago, we discussed the (many) shortcomings of Junction 10 of the M40, an intersection which is clearly the brainchild of someone who hates motorists with a passion and must take great pleasure in the daily queues that build up there.

A few miles further on lies Junction 11 on the north side of Banbury, where a planned retail park, industrial development and a vast quantity of new housing are set to cause traffic chaos in a few years' time.

Thinking ahead, a group of concerned residents have started - inevitably - a facebook and twitter group calling for a new junction to be built between 10 and 11.

There is, however, a slight problem, possibly related to the spontaneous late-night genesis of the 'Banbury needs 11A' campaign, as its charmingly aptly-named founder explains:
Mr Muddle added that the group, which was set up in a hurry, is technically calling for junction 10A but, once he realised the mistake, it had too many likes and followers to change the name.
As a bonus, this is, I think you'll agree, an excellent example of the media tail wagging the dog in true 21st-century style.

Monday 27 October 2014

Of mud and stars

Oh dear; decisions, decisions!

Returning from a few days of bracing (if somewhat muddy) walks in one of the more picturesque parts of the country, I am faced with not one but two irresistible topics.

Firstly there is 2014 UF56, a bus-sized asteroid passing by a mere 158,000 km above our heads just after 9pm tonight - have your glasses filled and ready!

And secondly, to brighten up a dark October evening, there is the boy racer who spent yesterday watching his pride and joy sink slowly into the mud near Burnham on Sea.

We have, of course, reported from the area before;  despite warning signs and publicity, a combination of Britain's biggest tidal range and vehicle access to the beach is clearly too much temptation for some.

Just a few months after a father-and-daughter team discovered the hard way that coastal mud makes a less than ideal driving surface, a 22-year-old from Bristol decided that his Saturday night would not be complete until he had taken his souped-up Celica for a spin on the beach.

Finding himself inextricably embedded in mud over the axles with an incoming tide, he abandoned the vehicle (and his chances of a Darwin Award - this time, at least) and escaped to shore. Recovering the car, however, has proved considerably more problematical, as the pictures show.

And there's more to enjoy in the comments:
It's got a GT-Four boot spoiler on it but DVLA states that it's a 1762cc car, which means it's not actually a GT-Four (they were 2 litre).
So, a Saturday night boy racer and a poser; our cup of Schadenfreude runneth over!

Speaking of which, it's about time for our annual musical comment on Sober October; after a sparse few months, we are entering a reasonable crowded part of the orbit - last Friday produced the undeniable convenient 2014 SC324 - and can look forward to plenty more close approaches in the near future.

The man who drinks cold water pure
And goes to bed quite sober
Falls as the early leaves do fall
So early in October,
But he who drinks just what he likes
Until he's half seas over
Shall live until, until he dies
And then lie down in clover.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Quote of the day - "I'll just need to photocopy the baby..."

Spare a thought - if only a small one - for the problems of law-abiding tattoo artists beset by unreasonable demands.

We've already met the unfortunate chap in Wolverhampton whose attempt to deter would-be customers who don't understand English earned him a slap on the wrist from the authorities, multiculturalism being, apparently, more important than the ability to communicate with the person about to ink a permanent design into your skin.

Now it's the turn of a Birmingham tattooist to attract media attention with a notice in his window:
"I don’t care if it’s your 18th next week. The answer is still no – and your children are not ID. Most of the girls in Northfield have a child by the age of 13."
The last statement is, by his own admission, hyperbole* - though that may not prevent a torrent of abuse heading his way in the near future - but the underlying intention is clear:
“I put up the notice because I kept getting young mums coming into the shop for a tattoo and when I ask them for an ID they try and use the child as a form of ID.
This was, he says, happening on a weekly basis, which offers food for thought when you consider the costs involved; the teenage mothers of Northfield clearly have money to burn**.

In any case, the 'House of Pain' tattooing studio hardly seems an appropriate environment for a small child - though opinion on that may differ; regular readers may remember that a mock advert for specialist children's tattoos - 'a gift for life at pocket money prices' - apparently received ten genuine enquiries from parents.

The oddest thing about this story, however, is the suggestion that the child should somehow constitute a valid proof of age. Do the mothers likewise brandish their unfortunate offspring while buying a round in the pub or purchasing age-restricted DVDs or fireworks?

And, more seriously, what is likely to become of children raised by immature mothers whose disregard for the law is matched by their willingness to abuse shop staff when their unreasonable demands are thwarted?

*But not complete fiction; official figures show that over 100 13- and 14-year-olds in the Birmingham area have given birth over the past 5 years.

**Interestingly, subsequent research has turned up this memorable quote on the subject:
'The amount of gold worn by people in Northfield could probably redecorate Tutankhamun’s tomb twice over.'

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Blackened toast

Politicians generally get short shrift in the Tavern but we are always prepared to be open-minded; this week, therefore, we are raising a brimming tankard to none other than David Cameron.

The Prime Minister was photographed at a folk festival on Saturday amid a Border Morris side complete with traditional costume trappings including - and here's the rub - black face paint.

Given that, these days, an image can travel halfway round the world while the text is putting on its shoes, this could be seen as a somewhat courageous move, in the time-honoured political sense of the word. In the words of one Canadian academic,
"...it seems unlikely that North American audiences who encounter Morris [...] would see in blackface dances anything other than a white peoples' representation of black culture."
Sure enough, even on this side of the Pond, knees are apparently jerking in a veritable Riverdance of protest - at least according to those newspapers doing their best to fan the flames. The Independent, for example, merrily relays this charming example of liberal intolerance:
"If you're a Morris dancer and you want to black up, ask yourself if it's really appropriate. If the answer is yes, you're wrong.”
Never mind over four hundred years of documented practice and the stated aim of disguise, for which soot long provided the cheapest and most effective medium; someone has decided to be offended so it has to stop.

Thanks to recent media fuss over the Bacup Coconutters, whose blackened faces adorned, successively, Will Straw's twitter account and the label of a guest beer in a House of Commons bar*, Cameron must have been fully aware of the implications of posing for the photograph.

While it's unlikely to have lost him any votes - it certainly won't be the Tory faithful carping away on Twitter - it shows a certain moral courage to ignore the critics and publicly embrace a tradition that has been so emphatically misinterpreted.

And a Prime Minister prepared to stand up to the offence-seeking mob and their ill-informed revisionist prejudice is a welcome sight to see.

So, just this once, David Cameron, your very good health!

*Regular readers may remember being subjected to a longer post containing which contains much rambling historical detail and comment.

Saturday 11 October 2014

One (more) night in Clacton

Dedicated to JuliaM, for inspiring me to resume work on this - an earworm shared is, it turns out, an earworm doubled.


Clacton, Northern Essex setting,
And I think we all know what Westminster's getting;
The delectable sight of Carswell in the
Role of spectre at the Tory dinner.

Time flies, doesn't seem a minute
Since Nigel Farage said he’d help him win it;
All change, don't you know that when you
Piss off the electorate they turn against you?

In Eastleigh, Heywood and Middleton
Or Rochester or, or this place...

One night in Clacton and the world's his oyster;
Carswell got a mandate for the world to see.
He left your ship, now you can watch him hoist a
Purple skull and crossbones there beside the sea;
Cameron, here’s a taste of how it just could be.

One town may yet lead to another;
Are you really sure of those places, Brother?
It's a drag, it's a bore, it's really such a pity
You Tories ignored the world outside the city.
What do you mean
'It's just one unimportant provincial town'?
Get out, walk in any street;
Ask some questions of the people that you meet.
You’ll find they’ll say it’s too late to restore the myth your motives are the purest;
No chance - expenses scuppered that line, Sunshine!

One night in Clacton and the Tories humbled;
Media portray despair and ecstasy.
One night in Clacton, now which seat will tumble
To Nigel Farage and his company?
I can feel that Devil walking next to me!

Friday 10 October 2014

One night in Clacton

A busy week continues to keep me away from the blog but this seems a good time for an updated version of of this post from May 2013...

This song was somehow inevitable, given the quasi-mythical status that the media seem to be attributing to this larger-than-life character.

With apologies to Stan Ridgway...

I was sitting in my local, feeling rather down;
I’d been drinking on my own since half past five.
It was visiting the polling station left me without hope
When I'd seen the parties hanging around outside.
I was looking for the courage to go back and see who'd won
And I sighed as I contemplated Britain’s fate;
Just then a chap in a fedora with a shocking purple tie
Appeared there at my shoulder and said "Wait."

 He offered me a pint and said "Don't worry, son, I'm here;
If Cameron wants to tangle now, he'll have me to dodge."
I said, "Well, thanks a lot!" I told him my name and asked him his
And he said to me "The name’s Nigel Farage".

'Oh, no, no, no!' said Farage;
'The English aren’t as docile as they seem;
Oh, no, no, no!' said Farage;
'Things are going to change now UKIP’s on the scene.'

Well, we talked all night, side by side, while the votes were counted in
And I wondered how the drastic shift began
'Cause now support for UKIP seemed to spring up everywhere
And I wondered if this was all Farage’s plan.
"They called us clowns and fruitcakes, but UKIP have the last laugh," he said,
"Perhaps the government now understand
That Britons may be tolerant but we’ll only take so much
Of the EU wanting to keep the upper hand -
Just let them try..."
And I knew this was somethin' we'd seen in Brussels,  'cause I remember how he was pullin' a metaphor right outta thin air and swattin' von Rompuy with it from here to kingdom come...
When the count was nearly over we shook hands and said goodbye;
He just winked at me from the door and then was gone.
When I got back to my family I told 'em about my night
And about the time I'd spent with Nigel Farage.
When I said his name, the others gulped and then they took my arm
And said to me, “That really can’t be right”,
And they pointed to the television; “There’s Nigel Farage
And he's been right there on News 24 all night!
(Feels like he's been there all week long...)"

 Well I know I must have imagined it – I’d been drinking like a fish –
Though as hallucinations go, it’s pretty large,
But it’s certain UKIP’s won a seat and it looks like they're here to stay,
And we’re all going to see much more of Nigel Farage.

(It's been drawn to my attention that iPads and phones don't always display the embedded videos; if you spent the mid-80s doing more worthwhile things than listening to the top 40 on a Sunday night - "No, honestly, I am doing my homework!" -  you can follow the 'Stan Ridgway' link to Youtube to hear the tune.)

Thursday 2 October 2014

Holding up the mirror

(LONDON, 1751, about tea-time...)

"'Ere, are you Mr 'Ogarth?"

"Yes, I am. What can I do for you?"

"'S about that picture you got in your window."

"Ah yes, 'Gin Lane'. A satirical portrayal of modern society. I'm rather proud of it, actually; in fact, I'm planning to make a print of it to sell."

"It'll 'ave to go, squire."


"It's a bad influence, see? All that drunkenness and so on; it's offensive, like. The Beadle's on 'is way and 'e wants you to get rid of it; it's all part of 'is new plans for a sober October. Burning's best - it'd go up lovely on the fire!"

"You can't do that - it's a work of art!"

"Don't matter, squire; can't have a picture like that where people might see it and get the idea they wants a strong drink."

"But... but... the whole thing is meant to show the evils of drinking cheap spirits instead of good honest beer. It's satire!"

"Couldn't say anything to that, squire; Beadle's against beer too, he is. In fact, 'e's dead set against all that sort of thing. Now 'and it over before 'e gets 'ere and we'll be on our way. I'm sure you don't want any trouble now. After all, it's 'ardly as if it's a loss to future generations, is it?"

(Inspired, of course, by recent events in Clacton.)

Thursday 25 September 2014

Occupational hazard?

The Labour leader told the BBC he "did not deliberately" drop the passages on the deficit and immigration but his approach was to write a text in advance and use it as the basis for his speech - which meant things were added in and left out on the day. 
Well, he does have form in this area...

From December 2012:
'Labour insisted Mr Miliband ‘stands by’ the omitted section of his speech and had simply forgotten to say it. 
So what happened? Did he really forget about that bit or, looking round at his distinctly multicultural - sorry, vibrant - audience, did he decide that discretion was the better part of valour? "Look, it's great that you're all here, but it was, you know, a bit of a mistake letting you in".
Miliband admits he left out details which appeared in the published versions circulated to the faithful but believes that his 'style' works even at the expense of content:
"There are perils that come with that obviously but what people got a sense of yesterday was a plan to change our country."
That has the authentic ring of 21st-century politics; never mind the quality, feel the pitch. Either he is genuinely so disorganised that he can't follow notes or he is cynical enough to omit a potentially awkward element from a live speech while including it in the printed record.

Whichever is the real reason, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in his abilities as a leader.


Meanwhile, as the Labour conference draws to a close, I always like to remember that the writer of  their final song never meant his words to be set to the solemn and ponderous German tune of 'Tannenbaum', memorably described by George Bernard Shaw as 'a funeral march for a fried eel'.

He intended 'The Red Flag' to be sung to the altogether more sprightly melody of the Jacobite song 'The White Cockade', which, I think you'll agree, would have given a far more festive air to the closing ceremonies.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Independent minds

So it's 'better together'; the people have spoken.

It had been suggested in several quarters that the wording of the ballot incorporated an element of pro-Nationalist bias - it's been shown to be much easier, said the commentators, to campaign with a positive outlook and generate forward-looking enthusiasm when you are asking people to vote "Yes!".

Personally, I'm not so sure. I have a feeling that the theories are based on the emotion-fest that is American politics, where optimistic euphoria is the essential driving force behind electoral success, and may not translate so easily to this side of the Pond.

Scots are, by and large, made of sterner stuff. This is, after all, the country where my my primary school blazer badge bore the words 'Do or Die', a motto which, with hindsight, seems a rather uncompromising mission statement for a class of mixed infants.

Scotland has a rich and diverse musical heritage but it is somehow typical that, even before the purpose-built anthem 'Flower of Scotland' made its appearance in 1967, many of the traditional songs harked back to ancient battles and days of glory - or crushing defeat and the need for vengeance.

And, while I doubt many English schoolchildren in the 1960s could have rattled off a marching song from the Napoleonic wars or, once the progressives got at education, even a verse or two of  'The British Grenadiers', their Scottish counterparts were learning 'All the Blue Bonnets are bound for the border' or Burns' oft-misquoted rallying-cry*.
Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!
The struggle in question is, naturally, against the English and, although it is as obsolete as the notorious reciprocal line in 'God Save the Queen', the continued popularity of the song serves to illustrate that this is a nation which admires and celebrates defiance:
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow!—
Let us do or die!
It's hard to imagine a generation reared on those words succumbing to the Pollyanna Principle and gravitating unthinkingly towards consent. While Salmond & Co may have envisaged a great leap forward on a wave of sentiment, it seems that his compatriots are for the most part, creditably immune to positive bias.

*I am pedantic enough to be deeply irritated by the misuse of the opening words as if they constituted a meaningless, self-contained shout of enthusiasm, usually by the same people who insist on holding hands throughout 'Auld Lang Syne'. 

Thursday 18 September 2014

"...and two sugars while you're about it,"

There was a truly delightful moment this week, while writing a tongue-in-cheek apologetic e-mail to a colleague, when Autocorrect stepped in with 'mea maxima cuppa'.

Of course, being a machine, it has no intelligence to apply to the situation; it simply follows its programming, however inappropriate to the circumstances. Oddly enough, you could say much the same thing of the staff at my recently refurbished local branch of 'The bank that likes to say "F*** off!"'.

Having failed in my bid to take my business elsewhere during the lengthy closure (see previous post), I reluctantly found myself in a gleaming new atrium complete with rows of hole-in-the-wall machines to put your money in, take your money out, do the financial hokey-cokey and move your cash about so that, with any luck, the staff don't have to bother with you at all.

Those unwelcome customers who do venture between this robotic Scylla and Charybdis must now head deep into the windowless rear of the building to where four tellers sit in judgement behind raised desks. Although they look human, yesterday's experience has given me cause for doubt.

Having established that I wanted to pay several cheques into a savings account, the cashier asked me whether I was happy with the rate of interest.

"No, I'm not, but it doesn't matter; once the cheques have cleared, I'm thinking of moving my account to another bank."

The response to this was a blank stare for several seconds, a vague, "Oh. Alright then," and, after another pause, a brightly artificial, "And is there anything else I can help you with at all today?"

I'm sure this cashier must have passed some kind of training in customer service but, faced with a real live dissatisfied account holder, her instructions simply did not equip her to react. Instead, she clearly dismissed the problem from whatever she was using for a mind and carried on according to her programming.

During the long trek back to the door, I stopped to ask one of the suited managerial types lurking complacently on the sidelines why there had been no prior notification of the four-week closure. There was no need for it, he replied, with a barely concealed sneer, because all facilities were available through the bank's online service.

It appears that I was right when I suggested the omission was a deliberate attempt to force unwilling customers into online banking. Having seen Leg-Iron's passing mention this morning of computerised payment methods allowing us to be tracked and monitored, I am starting to think that this is why the bank is so intent on driving us into the arms of cybertechnology - it's not so much about cost-cutting as keeping us under control and, preferably, in debt.

Those who still persist in using cash, passbooks or cheques will presumably be increasingly regarded as dangerous subversives and, as such, will be reduced to a second-class service, something already happening with interest rates. There are still plenty of us around  - a recent discussion with friends suggested that this is because more than a few are haunted by what happens to female bank customers in 'The Handmaid's Tale'.

Visitors to the refurbished branch yesterday were obliged to skirt a table festooned with banners and bearing dishes of crisps and bottles of orangeade, while each of the counters at the rear was furnished with a large bowl of Haribo sweets, all presumably intended for the consumption of customers - another manifestation of how they try to infantilise us and a thought-provoking indication of the taste and maturity of the new manager.

This ostentatious welcome would have been far more convincing had there been any effort to find out why a customer was sufficiently dissatisfied to want to close an account - any one of those idle men and women in suits could easily have taken a few minutes to sit down in a side office to discuss what was wrong. An apology for the inconvenience would have been a good start.

And they might at least have offered me a cup of tea.

Sunday 14 September 2014

'Shut up and take my money!'


I just want to open a savings account. Today.

I do not want to be assigned an interview three days hence with a 'customer welcoming operative' or whatever you call that bored, over-groomed harpy in the corner drumming her talons on the pseudo-Scandinavian office furniture.

Neither do I wish to be given details of your online banking service. If that suited my needs, I would be sitting comfortably at home instead of bandying words with an intellectual eunuch amid a festival of slogan-ridden posters depicting happily grinning customers who, I can only assume, hail from some alternate universe where your bank actually provides a decent service.

Smartphone banking? My phone is not smart. It hasn't a clue. It's a mindless half-wit; in fact, the two of you seem to have a lot in common.

Is it really so difficult? I just want to park a few spare quid where I can get at it, preferably earning interest somewhere near the current inflation rate. I have no desire for 'solutions' or 'advantages' or 'plus accounts' and you aren't going to impress me with complimentary magazine subscriptions and theatre booking services either; ultimately it's still the customer who pays.

And now you know what I'm after, it's clear I'm not the sort of customer you want. It's odd, isn't it? A cheque to deposit - yes, some of us still use them - and yet you are giving me the sort of brush-off your predecessors would once have saved for an habitual defaulter asking for yet more credit.

So you stand there, a symphony in StayNew polyester with a face to match, and tell me 'there's no one available today', even though there are more staff in here than there are customers. Having established that I don't want any of your myriad complex 'financial products' and 'packaged accounts' - sales targets to meet, perchance? - you have clearly decided I am not worth bothering about and I can tell you the feeling is mutual.

In fact, here's an idea; why don't you take your Ultimate Privilege Platinum Flexi Select Classic Account package complete with fringe benefits and transfer it to a location about your person utterly devoid of solar activity?"

...is what I wish I'd said, instead of smiling politely, accepting a business card and walking away, never to return.

(This is a follow-on post to 'The bank that likes to say "F*** off!"'.)

Tuesday 9 September 2014

A bad case of asteroids

A busy week, but I couldn't let a passing space rock go untoasted even though it seems to have attracted a media frenzy - many happy returns, 2014 RC!

In the best churnalistic tradition, if one science editor picks it up then all the rest follow - never mind that other very close approaches go unmarked save by astronomical websites and the occasional obsessional blogger.

Once again, I feel rather peeved; it's like being a die-hard fan of an obscure indie band which has inexplicably gone mainstream and appeared on Saturday night television, complete with gyrating dancers and laser displays.

Perhaps this is something to do with the opportune appearance of the media-savvy Professor Brian Cox as (appropriately enough) honorary Chicken Licken to the nation, a position left vacant thanks to Lembit Opik's apparent desertion of the cause for rather more earthly attractions.

The media coverage inspired the Express, in particular, to hyperbolic flights of fanciful prognostication:
ASTEROIDS could rain down on the earth for 100 years, shocked experts have just warned.
which in turn, prompted this excellent debunking at Slate Magazine.

Meanwhile, investigators have been called in to assess a new crater in Nicaragua, which has raised the interesting question of fragmentation, bane of the Bruce-Willis-and-the-Nukes school of asteroid impact prevention.

According to JPL and NASA:
For those wondering, the event in Nicaragua (poss meteorite?) is unrelated to asteroid 2014 RC. Different timing, different directions.
which brings to mind the recent coincidence (?) of the Chelyabinsk meteor and DA14; will we one day be blindsided while all our attention is centred on another rock passing overhead?

All in all, it's a salutary reminder of our own insignificance in the face of whatever is hurtling round out there. In the words of John W Campbell (as quoted by Arthur C Clarke):
'Meteorites don't fall on the Earth. They fall on the Sun, and the Earth gets in the way.'

Sunday 31 August 2014

Bells and Whistles

I think it is fair to say that Sully Island, off the south coast of Wales, is never going to be a hot tourist destination for the masses.

For those who like their landscapes unspoiled, however, this former smugglers' refuge boasts an Iron Age fort and a Victorian shipwreck as well as panoramic views out over the Bristol Channel.

There is, however, one small problem: the island stands at the end of a 400m rocky causeway, cut off by the tide for all but a few hours a day, a situation which, regular readers will not be surprised to learn, appears to be beyond the comprehension of some visitors.

Over Bank Holiday weekends in particular, the local Penarth lifeboat crew must barely get a chance to sit down to a nice cup of tea and a slice of bara brith.
“We are repeatedly called out to rescue people cut off on Sully Island, despite constant warnings about the dangers of the incoming tide"
In  bid to cut down the number of incidents - and enable the crews to get on with the rest of their lives - the RNLI installed a pilot scheme in mid-June using tide powered traffic lights:
The traffic lights will use a tide gauge and indicate when it is safe for people to cross, when time is running out and when it is unsafe to walk along the causeway.
The yellow phase provides a countdown on how much time is left on the causeway as a return trip takes about 40 minutes on foot.
So, over two months on, was the scheme a success?
AN RNLI text service warning visitors about safe crossing times could be introduced to the Sully Island causeway in a bid to stop visitors getting stranded on the island.
Er... that'd be a 'no', then.
A sound warning system, and another traffic lights warning system based on the island, are also being considered by the RNLI in an effort to cut the number of call-outs to the volunteer lifeboat crew.
In fact, the number of call-outs this summer appears to have been basically unchanged, with stranded walkers claiming not to have seen the lights - the suggestion that they might, of their own initiative, have ascertained the tide times beforehand doesn't appear to enter into it - although evidence elsewhere points to a minority who feel such warnings somehow do not apply to them.

So the RNLI are planning another set of lights on the island - somewhat to the detriment, one feels, of this scenic Site of Special Scientific Interest - and a sound warning, as well as sending tide times to anyone who texts them to ask.

And when that doesn't work, and Mr and Mrs Cnut and their little dog still end up marooned, what then?

One reassuringly certain thing about the tide is that it goes down again. By my calculations, it's never going to be more than about seven or eight hours until the causeway is passable again, and, if they were fit enough to undertake the 20-minute walk across the rocks, a night in the open isn't going to kill them.

The problem is that their stupidity just might:
“People are unaware off just how quickly the tide comes in and when they realise they are being cut off, they tend to panic and try to make it over the causeway to the mainland."
Which, given the depth of the channel and the fierce local currents, is a seriously bad idea. It's the perpetual problem faced by the RNLI; manpower and resources diverted from real emergencies into rescuing people from the consequences of their own foolhardiness or ignorance.

And it's horribly symptomatic of a society in which we are all subjected to ever more interference because some people cannot or will not accept responsibility for themselves.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

The bank that likes to say "F*** off!"

Picture the scene: it's a rainy Tuesday morning in the high street and you have a long list of things to do, the first of which involves a trip to the bank.

Fate, however, has other plans. The bank doors are firmly shut, the night safe sealed and the windows blanked out inside. Taped to the door is a single sheet of paper with a printed message: the bank will be closed for refurbishment for the next four weeks.

You are, it helpfully adds, welcome to visit any of the branches in the neighbouring towns, a mere 20 miles or so away. Judging by the expressions of the half-dozen or so customers reading the notice, this is a rather less than satisfactory arrangement.

A quick straw poll makes it clear that none of these customers - some of whom make weekly visits to the bank - has been notified by letter, text or telephone call that a month-long closure was imminent and neither was there any public indication in the branch itself.

Instead, the bank staff took advantage of the bank holiday weekend to 'fold their tents, like the Arabs, and quietly steal away', leaving  behind one functioning cash machine and a great deal of resentment.

A clue to the motive behind this moonlight flit may be found in the notice on the door, which recommends using the bank's online service instead. Though I doubt that they contrived the closure expressly to force their customers to adopt it, the way online banking has been pushed recently by cashiers and other staff suggests that the management saw this as a golden opportunity to increase the take-up rates.

This is, perhaps, the beginning of the end for those who cannot or will not embrace the new technology and commit their savings to the dubious security of cyberspace. Banks already offer favourable interest rates and extra benefits to online customers in a clear bid to hasten the day when they can dispense with an expensive and inconvenient real life presence on the high street for good.

The same phenomenon is creeping into other spheres; businesses and the public sector increasingly offer discounts for online bill payment or official registration - occasionally followed by notification that their database has been hacked and 'it is essential that you change all your passwords immediately' - in a bid to maximise their profits and efficiency by removing any semblance of human interaction with their 'valued' customers.

"We are" said the Tavern's resident Wise Woman recently, "being farmed - it's the only word for it."

Sadly, I have to agree.

Monday 25 August 2014

"It's much too dangerous to keep that plant alive..."

Run for your lives!
Flowers deadly enough to kill humans were reportedly planted in a public park by a group of well-meaning girl guides.
It's the perfect B-movie scenario - the innocent youngsters unwittingly sowing the seeds of humanity's doom, the plant that attacks without mercy...
As well as death it can also cause stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, weakness and slow breathing.
...and, of curse, the plucky hero who tries to tell the world that the attractive flowers hide a terrible threat to mankind:
They were only discovered to be dangerous when curious photographer Mike McKee alerted authorities on August 14.
Be afraid! Be very afraid!

Or, alternatively, consider that this is the corn-cockle, agrostemma githago, a feature of the British countryside for centuries and, until modern farming methods changed the agricultural landscape, a common plant in the wheat-fields from which it derives its name.

The RHS even gives helpful advice on how to cultivate the corn-cockle, 'an upright annual to 75cm, with narrow grey-green leaves and open funnel-shaped magenta-purple flowers 5cm across in summer', and sells the seeds on its website.

So why the panic? Well, it appears we have our intrepid hero to thank for that:
‘I looked in my flower book and it said these were scant and very rare, so I did a bit more research on them. When I Googled them I found out they could be deadly.’
Deathly peril from an unlikely source? Internet stories spreading unnecessary panic? You've guessed it; step forward the Daily Mail:
The flower that can kill: Deadly British plant thought to be extinct is discovered by a lighthouse (16th July 2014)
How confusing English prepositions can be! The plant was actually found by a National Trust assistant ranger who clearly hadn't read the Mail's script:
'I have never seen one before. I am delighted. If it disperses, we might get a small population of them which would be great.'
The RHS spokesman wasn't exactly on message either:
'They are poisonous and harmful - but as long as you wash your hands thoroughly you should be okay.'
Still, why let the details get in the way of a good headline? Thus this once-commonplace plant becomes a threat and its presence in a public park a matter for reporting to 'the authorities'. Predictably enough,
...after being alerted by Mr McKee earlier this month, contractors quickly moved in to remove the plants before they could seed.
But Mr McKee and the Mail will surely not stop as long as our gardens contain such murderous predators as aconite, bluebell, celandine, daffodil, euphorbia, foxglove, hellebore, hyacinth, laburnum, laurel, lily-of-the-valley, lupin ....

Burn them! Burn them all!

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The wages of sin

'Death by misadventure' is, predictably enough, the verdict of the coroner in the case of the would-be thief restrained by members of the public outside an Oxford jeweller's shop.

During the hearing, a Home Office pathologist said that death was caused by 'brain damage due to prolonged cardiac and respiratory arrest'.

The deceased weighed 18 stone and, though only 33, had serious coronary heart disease which meant that death could have occurred 'at any time', according to the pathologist:
“If I was to come across an individual with that amount of heart disease who died in bed I wouldn’t hesitate to give that as the cause of death, assuming there were no extraneous factors."
The adrenalin surge, one imagines, associated with preparing to commit a potentially violent robbery and wielding a sledgehammer would in itself present something of a risk to someone in Townsend's condition even without the stressful consequences of his actions, whether arrest and imprisonment or a speedy getaway under hot pursuit.

And if he read the local papers, he was probably not unaware of the chance that the general public might intervene and restrain him. Only six months earlier, with a strikingly similar modus operandi, four men with mopeds attacked a jeweller's shop in nearby Banbury with a sledgehammer in broad daylight.

While three of the robbers escaped with thousands of pounds worth of watches (and have yet to be caught - unless, of course the two cases are connected), the fourth was chased along the street by onlookers as numerous passers-by - including an elderly lady with a walking stick - tried to impede his progress.

He was finally caught by two men, both in their 50s, who, with the occasional help of other bystanders, sat on him for seven minutes until the police arrived, ignoring his repeated threats that they would 'end up dead'.

According to the presiding judge, passing a sentence of five years in prison,
“This was a determined smash and grab raid on a high street jewellers and it failed only because of the courage and presence of mind, not only of those working in the shop, but also a number of members of the public.”
Restraining the perpetrator in a case like this is effectively society policing itself and I doubt that anyone - with the exception of career criminals and woolly-minded liberals - would think it better than standing back and allowing crime to take place unhindered.

While Clint Townsend's grieving family gave made their presence felt at the inquest with numerous questions and are 'still considering the coroner's verdict',  the sad fact remains that this 'loving father' - and potential role model - set out to commit a criminal offence, and to do so in a busy shopping street a few months after passers-by chased and pinned down the author of an identical crime in a nearby town.

Knowing that this public reaction could be a distinct possibility, an overweight man with a heart problem who dons a full-face motorcycle helmet and smashes a shop window with a sledgehammer in broad daylight must surely bear at least some responsibility for the tragic outcome.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Profit of doom

If you're planning to jet off for a late-August holiday abroad, it might be an idea to work out an overland route home just in case.
Iceland's Met Office on Monday raised its risk level to the aviation industry for an eruption at its Bardarbunga volcano to orange, which is the fourth level on a five-grade scale.
The alert has been prompted by an 'earthquake swarm' in the area. While there's no sign of an imminent eruption, the local authorities are concerned enough to have closed roads in the area as a precaution against floods caused by melting of the Vatnajokull glacier.

An explosive eruption could produce an ash cloud similar to the one that grounded European aircraft in 2010 (regular readers may remember the saga of the nephew stranded in Sicily after a field trip to study a resolutely uncooperative Mount Etna - should have gone to Iceland!).

It was a massive eruption in the Vatnajokull area that led to catastrophic famine in Iceland in the 1780s and arguably contributed to the French revolution by causing crop failures in France; while the Icelanders are now far better equipped to survive, the impact of a similar event on the aviation industry today would have far-reaching economic consequences.

It's a salutary reminder that Nature has plenty of surprises up her sleeve for those who rely too heavily on modern technology. Still, at least it appears that the recent rumours circulating of an imminent Yellowstone supervolcano eruption - also based on seismic activity - have been dismissed as a hoax.

We predicted a few months ago that, with the summer dearth of asteroid close approaches and nothing scoring more than 0 on the Torino Scale, apocaholics would be looking elsewhere for thrills 'so look out in the coming months for dire predictions of mega-tsunami, solar flares and the release of methane clathrates'.

Sure enough, in recent weeks we have been treated to
Killer solar superstorm could destroy Earth at ANY MOMENT, scientists warn (Express)
along with the interestingly forthright
'We're f*****': Climate change will be catastrophic for mankind after study reveals methane leaking from the Arctic Ocean, scientist warns (Daily Mail)
and, although no mega-tsunami scares have emerged recently, the media have been making up for it with exciting headlines about the 'killer asteroid headed straight for us' which actually translates as 1950 DA's 1-in-300 chance of impact eight centuries hence.

The prospect of a potential volcanic eruption in the near future must therefore have been greeted with delight in many newsrooms, however grimly it may be viewed by those potentially on the receiving end. In short, disaster sells.

Meanwhile, in the Tavern, it's been a long time since we toasted a passing space rock and the next one isn't due until mid-September.

Perhaps we should start drinking to volcanoes as well.

Update: The Cynical Tendency takes a more intellectual approach and examines the political implications of a serious eruption.

Thursday 14 August 2014

'I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide..

...is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.'

Well, we expected this week's unusually high tides to bring some interesting examples of Man (and Woman) failing to grasp the fact that the sea goes up and down and we certainly weren't disappointed.

Coastguard and RNLI reports show a predictable host of unwary day-trippers managing to get cut off in a variety of scenic shoreline locations but special mention must go to the woman stranded at the old breakwater in Lyme Regis with her six children, potentially making somewhat belated amends for having contributed so generously to the gene pool.

Also worth noting are the two cars which had to be extracted from the sea at Redcar yesterday. In one case, rather than wading to shore through a few inches of water, the occupants scrambled up to the roof of the vehicle and sat there in state like two latter-day King Cnuts.

Similar automotive woes awaited an unfortunate fisherman whose boat broke down off Dunbar. Finally rescued by the RNLI, he returned to the harbour to find his car under five feet of water (in the great tradition of local headlines, The East Lothian News gives us 'It's park and tide').

Forget the dour east-coast stereotypes, Dunbar's finest are clearly compassionate souls...
Gary Fairbairn, coxswain of Dunbar RNLI, said: “We didn’t have the heart to tell him about his car until we got back to land." 
...well, either that or they are veritable connoisseurs of Schadenfreude and wanted to savour the look on his face when he saw his submerged vehicle:
"To say he wasn’t happy is an understatement.
 There was less sympathy, however, in the comments:
'A full moon, highest tides, and he leaves it on the slipway to get in the way of other users? Sell yer boat son and stick to dry land.'
Meanwhile, we've become familiar with youngsters outsourcing their thinking to phones which, in some cases, appear to be smarter than their owners. There is certainly a growing tendency to rely on the things at the expense of common sense, as three holidaymakers from Essex found out when they set up a barbecue on a remote part of a Devon beach.

They had no idea of tide times, so it must have come as something of a shock to find themselves marooned on a fast-diminishing patch of sand at the foot of a sheer cliff. It was at that point that they realized - oh, the horror! - that they had no mobile signal to call for help.

Natural selection was thwarted by some distant observers calling out the rescue teams who airlifted them to safety, but even these Darwin Award hopefuls are presumably more of an asset to the gene pool than a group of teenagers from Norfolk.

With a high spring tide and a surge predicted, Hunstanton's Environment agency teams spent Tuesday night checking their flood defences. Patrolling the beach in the early hours of the morning, they found a cheerfully coloured tent pitched well below the expected high-water mark and containing five happily snoring teenage boys.

As anyone who has ever given houseroom to the species will know, teenage boys can sleep through alarm clocks, ringing phones or determined hoovering - almost anything, in fact, except the smell of frying bacon - so it's highly likely that without intervention, the youngsters would have been swamped inside their sleeping bags.

I hope their parents - and future progeny - are duly grateful.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

'Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'...'

The 15-second clip has gone viral and there's a price on their heads; now we know why a stranger just happened to be filming when those two men kicked a squirrel over the edge of the Grand Canyon:
A Virginia resident on his first trip to the Grand Canyon started recording when he saw a squirrel approach two men, thinking they would be bitten.
I can't hep thinking there's considerable room for moral improvement on both sides of the lens here.

(For anyone who missed it, the incident was reported with unseemly relish by the Daily Mail.)

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Risking life and limb

'Against stupidity', says a character in a Schiller play, 'the gods themselves contend in vain.'

What hope is there, then, for the men and women of the RNLI and coastguard service, faced with this sort of thing?
Warnings about the dangers of boozing and swimming have been issued after a man was found clinging to a post in Swansea Bay as darkness fell.
The 24-year-old was eventually found holding onto an outfall post, which at high tide is around half a mile out to sea.
One hopes he has learnt a valuable lesson; in any case, given where he was picked up, I doubt he'll be socialising at close quarters with anyone for a while.

More recently, the much-publicised tail-end of a hurricane last weekend caused organisers in Cowes to postpone the start of a round Britain sailing race because of the poor weather conditions in the Channel and led to 41 cars being damaged on a ferry to Guernsey.

Such dramatic weather conditions, naturally, sent Darwin Award hopefuls scurrying in search of their surfboards and inflatables:
Coastguards rescued dinghies, kitesurfers and windsurfers as strong winds blew along the Jurassic Coast.
Sunday turned out to be quite a busy day there; in between fishing out several wind- and kite-surfers who had lost control of their contraptions, the coastguard, RNLI and ambulance were all needed to help an adult and child who had been blown out to sea in a small inflatable boat. Two more people in a second inflatable boat had to be rescued soon afterwards when it started shipping water.

Even on land, the stupidity continues unabated:
Safety warnings have been issued after a weekend of risk-taking on Dorset’s beaches. Beachgoers still continue to risk their lives near unstable cliffs – sunbathing just metres away from a warning sign.
While we are all familiar with the many unnecessary warning signs that clutter up our green and pleasant land, cliff collapses are surely sufficiently frequent and serious to give any rational beachgoer pause for thought, especially after a spell of wet weather. The Darwin Award contender, however, clearly feels the laws of nature should not apply to him (or her).

The same mentality is doubtless responsible for the situation reported by an exasperated Brixham coastguard last month, after a woman with a broken ankle had to be rescued from a closed-off section of coastal path:
“It was noted during the course of this rescue that more than a dozen people ignored signs and climbed over barriers to use this section of the coast path which is closed due to safety reasons.”
While once could argue that these people should be free to endanger themselves in any manner they think fit, it would be a very good thing if they could be brought to realize that the rescue services do not have the choice.

Sunday 10 August 2014

Quote of the day - 'not now!'

Before we finally leave the Torquay Herald Express, this story caught my eye:
BREAKING NEWS: Child and parent stuck in mud
The emergency services are working together to rescue a young child, and what is understood to be a parent, who are both stuck in mud at Combeinteignhead near Newton Abbot.
The reporter was clearly quick off the mark but this is 21st-century journalism; rather than racing to the scene, he or she seems to have set about phoning around for quotes while the rescue was going on.

The first source was a fruitful one:
A spokesman for the police said...“The fire service have launched a raft on the river and are pulling them out.”
...but things went downhill from there: the Fire Service wouldn't comment because of industrial action and the local pub denied any involvement, which is fair enough, and finally I invite you to consider the unspoken subtext behind:
...the coastguard confirmed they were involved but were too busy to give further details.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Talking Torquay

With this weekend's 'supermoon' expected to bring higher than normal spring tides, we will doubtless be spoilt for choice by next week's haul of rescue-related news stories.

In Devon, however, they are planning to put the rising waters to excellent use. According to the grandly-named Torquay Herald Express (which is clearly no stranger to the obligatory headline pun),
Entries are flooding in for a new competition to Beat the Tide in Paignton.
Today's contest, in aid of muscular dystrophy charity Action Duchenne, is the first of what organisers hope will become an annual event in which teams of six to eight people are given an hour to build a mound of sand on the beach.

When the tide comes in, all the team members must climb onto their giant sandcastle and stay there as the water rises around them.

The winners will be the last team left standing; all the fun of being cut off by the tide without having to bother the emergency services and a valuable lesson on fluid dynamics into the bargain, all while helping a worthwhile cause.

Forget 'Strictly X-factor Find Me a Talented Nancy Boy on Ice'; this is the competition that should be broadcast to the nation tonight - and every subsequent year until the RNLI stop having to fish out would-be Cnuts at every spring tide.

As a bonus, the same edition of the local newspaper provides the delightfully paradoxical headline:
Is the 89p pound shop in Torquay the cheapest in the country?
It appears that two rival discount outlets have been systematically undercutting each other over the past few weeks in a sort of economic limbo dance of 'tactical marketing'. Last week, 'The 99p Store' in Torquay was selling everything for 92p, while 'Poundland' was pricing its merchandise at a mere 90p.

'The 99p Store' has now retaliated by dropping its prices to 89p. This price-cutting is, presumably, subsidised by some kind of central fighting fund designed to put rivals out of business. If it carries on until one of them blinks, it will become a test of which business can afford to sell below cost for longest.

The same thing has happened in other towns, albeit with less media attention - the Daily Mail picked this up while I had a post in draft (which is always annoying!) - but this seems to be the longest and toughest price battle so far and must be putting other retailers under strain.

If this is the future, we can surely look forward to high streets filled with the ubiquitous phone shops and nail bars and a multiplicity of discount outlets selling whatever they have managed to acquire on the grey market that week.

Oh brave new world, that has such retail in it!

(There is, of course, only one soundtrack for a story like the latter one; happy earworm, everybody!)

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Darwin's selfies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, if you give Generation X-box a hand-held device capable of taking and instantly transmitting photographs of what is in front of them, they will use it the wrong way round.

All over the world, in places where our forebears would stand and gaze in awe, visitors now turn their backs on the monument or landmark and grin inanely for the benefit of a phone held at arm's length in front of them.

Some have gone further; on a recent trip, I noticed that many of the younger Far Eastern tourists carried small extending poles which enabled them to snap their own faces from a greater distance. How many selfies do you have to take for it to be worth investing in a gadget like that?

Meanwhile, such is the ubiquity of the genre and its more dubious spin-offs that schools are now devoting entire lessons to explaining to children why it is inadvisable to photograph one's genitalia and send the results to other people, a practice which I don't recall being mentioned back in the days of the Kodak instamatic.

Since the idea of taking endless photographs of oneself is likely to appeal most to the immature and the terminally narcissistic and the process is far from foolproof, the internet abounds with examples which mine a rich vein of idiocy.

'Is this the most dangerous selfie fail?' asks the Telegraph, reporting on the man who tried to take a selfie in front of half a ton of angry pot-roast at the bull-running in Bayonne last week. Well, no, actually; a sad little collection of Google entries testifies to the foolhardiness of photographing oneself on the edge of a cliff or at the wheel of a car.

And at the weekend, in what should be a shoo-in for a Darwin award, a Mexican managed to shoot himself in the head while posing with a loaded gun; his intention, apparently, was to load 'cool' pictures of himself with the weapon onto facebook.

When ET and his chums show up a few millennia hence and study what remains, it's quite likely that they will date the decline of what was once human civilization to the invention of the phone camera and social media.

Saturday 26 July 2014

I smell a rat

The Quiet Man this week spotted yet another manifestation of aggressive puritanism masquerading as public concern:
A Lancashire school has been slammed for commissioning and selling a beer for two extra-curricular events as part of its centenary celebrations.
The plan - to market a local beer labelled with the school crest - was squarely aimed at selling to former pupils a perfect marriage of personal and regional nostalgia. Brewing is, after all, a fine old British tradition that has long combined aesthetic pleasure with hydration and B-vitamin intake (with the added bonus of helping to avoid some of the nastier water-borne diseases of bygone days) and Lancashire is home to some excellent practitioners of the art.

This, however, was of no concern to the lone dissenter trying single-handedly to bring this worthy enterprise to a halt:
A concerned resident lodged a complaint to the Portman Group, Britain's independent body in charge of promoting responsible drinking regulations.
One single unsupported objection to a beer intended for consumers over the age of 18? Surely the recipient would be wise to consider the possibility that it could be the work of a disgruntled employee or the result of personal animosity towards the school or the brewery.
To the disbelief of the school, the Portman Group then upheld the resident's complaint.
The objection centred on the use of the school crest on the label and the implied association of alcohol with school-age children, though I think it's fair to say that the majority of today's teenagers aspire to more heady concoctions than a bottle or two of real ale.

In any case, this matter seems, if you'll forgive the term, rather small beer compared to the myriad injustices with which our society and the world in general abounds. Where is this Utopia in which a 'concerned resident' can find no more pressing cause for protest?
The BRGS centenary ale was brewed by the Irwell Works Brewery, in Ramsbottom, Lancashire.
Wait a minute - that rings a bell...
A bar in the House of Commons refused to serve beer featuring the black faces of the Britannia Coconut Dancers.
Following hot on the heels of the twitter storm caused by Will Straw's photo opportunity with the same black-faced dancers, this recently publicised tale of a label which 'may have caused offence' opened the door for knee-jerk vilification and possible harassment of those responsible.

And who were those potentially racist brewers?
Irwell Works Brewery in Ramsbottom dropped the image of the Coconutters from the beer pump and replaced it with the Bacup crest, which will accompany the ale in the Strangers Bar.
An interesting coincidence, I'm sure you will agree.

Friday 18 July 2014

"You say black, I say white..."

Here we go again:
An MP has slammed this weekend’s controversial naked bike ride through Clacton as “offensive exhibitionism”.
Yes, it's Clacton's naked bike ride again. According to the subsequent online edition of the Gazette, opinion on last year's one was divided to say the least:
Clacton's first naked bike ride was such a success it could pave the way for the UK’s first naked fun run.
Outraged councillors are calling for a clampdown on naked events, which they said could harm tourism in Tendring.
So, good or bad? And why do it at all? Some supporters describe the ride - last year's was a not insignificant 17km - as an “environmental protest against car culture and a celebration of the bicycle and the body”, placing it firmly in the counter-culture camp, while others attach a more safety-conscious message, claiming it highlights the vulnerability of the cyclist on the road.

Even so, Carswell does have a point, at least about the exhibitionism; it's likely that the event will primarily attract those already accustomed to appearing naked in public. Few people, after all, would want their first tentative dabble in naturism to take place in the middle of Clacton with the local press photographer on hand.

On the other hand, if people want to take their clothes off and aren't breaking the law, are they really doing any harm? It is, apparently, entirely legal to participate in a mass bike ride while totally harry-starkers, though I wouldn't advise stripping off and hopping onto the nearest Boris Bike in a built-up area to test the rules.

This means that those in opposition - which, according to the press, include the council and the police (who, since they will still accompany the riders, have presumably been ordered to keep their eyes averted) - have no way to prevent the ride going ahead. They have, however, decided to do what they can.

The ride has therefore been re-routed so that the cyclists do not go through the town centre and, in an unusual variation of pre-event publicity:
The council has published the route so people can avoid the bizarre spectacle.

Thursday 17 July 2014

'The Harem Shuffle'

I can't lay claim to the title (though I wish I'd though of it first); it was an inspired comment at 'Underdogs Bite Upwards' which irresistibly led to the following...

(Image from Daily Mail)

(With apologies to Bob & Earl)

You move to the left,
Put Gove on the shelf.
You move to the right, 
Ken Clark’s out of sight.
Get those women; you know
They do well in the polls
Elections looming fast;
You can’t be last.

You'd sign up a monkey,
If it made you look cool;
With the old guard in limbo,
Your squad's good to go
So call all the papers
Tell them ‘look at me now!”
As you groove it right here
To the harem shuffle.

Update: (with thanks to Mark Wadsworth in comments) Or, if you prefer:

Wednesday 16 July 2014

That sinking feeling (again)

Another day, another car. The search and rescue team at Brean Beach must be getting sick of having to dig out the stranded motors of people who think the laws of physics don't apply to them.

The driver of the latest unintentionally amphibious vehicle had taken it half a mile down the beach heedless of warnings to the public not to approach the water's edge at low tide because of soft sand and mud.
"I'd just been driving along the beach with my daughter enjoying the sunshine and didn't think I could get stuck."
This is, presumably, the same mindset that causes school run parents in 4x4s to pull out across two lanes of traffic without looking; the hubristic sense that your vehicle makes you somehow indestructible.

Fortunately for the driver and his daughter, they didn't get the opportunity to qualify for a multiple Darwin Award by discovering that quicksand is more than just a handy plot device in adventure films.

Connoisseurs of Schadenfreude can find photos and some highly satisfying video footage at the Burnham news site.