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

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.