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 12 December 2015

Back soon...

Due to circumstances beyond your host's control, the Tavern bar is currently unmanned.

Having found your way here, you are clearly a reader of discernment and excellent taste and can be trusted to help yourself from the barrels in my absence.

You are therefore cordially invited to pour yourself a drink and peruse the archives  - I expect to be back in just over a week's time. A good place to start might be the attached label 'Seasonal Insanity' - some things never change.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Holey argumentation, Batman!

The reappearance of Camila Batmanghelidjh in the public arena has, as ever, brought some wonderful turns of phrase such as Civil Society's suggested motto,'Never knowingly understood', or Quentin Letts' memorable comparison of Alan Yentob, seated at her side, to "a junior pudding waiter next to an urn of fruit salad".

Such verbal delights are merely the icing on a cake made from such rich and diverse ingredients as £150 shoes, brown envelopes of cash, tax payments being 'conceptualised' into thin air and 'abusive limericks' (for which, I should perhaps assure regular readers, your humble host was not responsible - despite the temptation).

Yentob was, his unsavoury attempts at shroud-waving notwithstanding, comprehensively upstaged by the sartorial migraine that is Batmanghelidjh in full battle dress - one wonders, now Kids' Company is no more, who has replaced the organisation's accountant as her dressmaker-in-chief - and quelled into a supporting role beside her truly astounding self-belief and looking-glass logic.

One can certainly sympathise with - and secretly envy - Paul Flynn's exasperated protest at the “spiel of psychobabble" and "verbal ectoplasm,” that constituted Batmanghelidjh's circumlocutory obfuscation over issues such as the notorious brown envelopes full of cash:
“It has turned into the notion that it was handed out willy-nilly,” she said. “It wasn’t. It was accounted for.”
All very reassuring - except that the issue was never whether the payments were recorded but rather why they were made at all; even the 'client' who described the scene during the handout on Fridays was happy to say she and the others signed for the cash:
'Then we would go to the shop and buy whatever we wanted with that money. It was weed heaven on a Friday, you could smell it coming down from the landings.'
Amid the Protean coils of Batmanhelidjh's convoluted rhetoric, however, this somehow became “The myth that we handed out cash in envelopes”. By this point, the committee were clearly struggling:
“But it’s not a myth, is it?” said Jenkin.
“No, it’s not a myth,” said Batmanghelidjh happily, and carried on, her point proved.
Somehow I can't help thinking of this...
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory'," Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't - till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
While a fair number of Kids Company office staff seem to have been occupied - like the accountant - with the important business of stitching together the Empress' new clothes, some were clearly not so devoted; Batmanghelidjh's assertion at the enquiry that the money was for essentials is undermined by the assertion by a member of the accounts staff that
...money is not given according to need but, more often than not, because “people turn up and cuss and make a noise until they get their money”.
In any case, the way Humpty Dumpty - sorry, Batmanghelidjh -  herself viewed these payments is, perhaps, indicated by her comments in a BBC radio interview some months ago:
“Middle-class parents give their children pocket money. Why does it become a problem when it’s a poor child that’s being given money?”
Er... because it's money donated expressly to tackle the damaging effects of poverty and deprivation rather than for recreational spending? This, remember, is the woman who, by her own account, regularly gave 'clients' Christmas and birthday gifts of  'big bags of clothes' bought from John Lewis and Selfridges.
They get so excited when they open them, it always brings tears to my eyes.
Presumably she derived the same warm glow from giving out weekly 'pocket money', however it was spent. Like Batmanghelidjh herself, the monstrous cargo cult she created represents the supreme triumph of sentiment over reason - a dangerous thing indeed when applied to the serious business of raising and educating children,

The enquiry was never going to achieve much - beyond supplying material for facetious bloggers - when it depended on getting straight information from Alan Yentob and Camila Batmanghelidjh; all we can hope is that the Great and the Good walk away from this with the determination never to be fooled again.

Friday 16 October 2015

Trick or Treat?

No, it's not the reappearance in the media of Camila Batmanghelidjh - don't worry; we'll have more on her soon - but a Hallowe'en Special in the form of 2015 TB145.

Data released this morning show that this asteroid, estimated at between 290m and 650m in diameter will fly by around 450,000km away - a mere whisker in cosmic terms - at an 'unusually high' relative velocity of 35km/s.

For those of us near the Greenwich meridian, the closest approach will be around teatime on Saturday October 31st - too early, perhaps, for the Tavern's traditional fly-by carousing but about the right time for a celebratory slice of cake.

At such proximity, there is always an outside chance that some unforeseen perturbation in its orbit may nudge it Earthwards - the Express is doubtless even now preparing its 'DOOMSDAY!' headlines - to send some of us, at least, the way of the dinosaurs.

If that is the case, what better day for the fire and flood to strike than the annual festival of tat and pointless consumerism that has swollen in recent years to a monstrous, bloated retail extravaganza?

What makes it even better is that, should the alarm genuinely be raised that day, the public response might well be the reverse of that inspired by Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds' - secure in their assumption that it must be a seasonal hoax, countless thousands would, instead of retreating to higher ground, spend their final hours on Earth clad in scratchy polyester costumes eating themselves sick on chocolate eyeballs.

Sunday 4 October 2015

Ironic posteriors and the Cotton-Spinners' Gazette

We have been musing this week on the topic of feminism. While this is territory already visited in the Tavern, the chance discovery of an article in the Guardian - where else? - has led to a certain boggling of minds.

It concerns a French artist and a series of drawings inspired by the work of one Nicki Minaj, a hip-hop artist whose performances are something of an eye-opener for those of us who had stopped watching music videos by the late 80s. Camille Henrot has 'reworked' the single 'Anaconda' into 'a piece of social commentary' described in vintage Guardian style:
One of the drawings is called 'My Anaconda Don’t' – a lyric repeated throughout the song. Each snaky, filigree-like ink line seems as if it's a riff on postcolonialism, adding up to a poignant collision of high art and pop culture.
Those of you who have been paying attention to the youth scene will doubtless know already that there was a public rift between Minaj and 'pop princess Taylor Swift' (nope; me neither) when the video of 'Anaconda' missed out on some kind of award. Minaj appears to have suggested it was 'cos she is black' but, having taken a look (here, if you really must - but don't say I didn't warn you), I can think of other reasons.

I can appreciate, for example, that Minaj wishes to ridicule the objectification of women, but I have to admit to some difficulty in seeing exactly how this is achieved by writhing around slathered in baby oil and pouting at the camera, patting the rear of a shapely bikini-clad dancer or crawling on all fours around a seated man, however ironic the intention.
“I like to think she created Anaconda to evoke criticism. She has abused the typical ‘black music-video girl’ archetype to the very end, to catch attention and create hate – if only so we too can realise our aversion to the sexualisation of women.
Now I can't speak for the male of the species, but it seems to me that, presented with four and a half minutes of Minaj's ample and impressively mobile buttocks undulating in a variety of insubstantial garb alongside a quartet of equally callipygian acolytes, the response is not necessarily going to be "Goodness me; the objectification of women is a terrible thing!"

While the lyrics - as far as I understand them - are full of mordant, if crude, irony directed at men who judge women by their physical attributes, this message seems to have entirely escaped the visitors to a Las Vegas waxwork exhibition who amused themselves taking a variety of inventive and explicit pictures of each other with a replica of the singer depicted, mid-twerk, on all fours .

Henrot - along with, presumably the Guardian - is in no doubt, however, hailing Minaj as a feminist icon. In fact, the Guardian seems to have something of a Minaj obsession, which suggests that its journalists believe an oiled and gyrating posterior can have impeccable feminist credentials as long as it is intended ironically - it's a very long way indeed from the earnest articles I devoured back in my boiler-suit days.

As it happens, another issue altogether may be tipping the balance in Minaj's favour (a tip of the tricorn here to JuliaM); given the paper's perennial preoccupations, it is perhaps something of a giveaway that, even in the piece on Henrot's drawings, the critic manages to shoehorn in a load of post-colonial guilt for good measure.
In her new work, the elegant line drawings inspired by the sweatiest, most sexualised scenes from Minaj’s video play with the ghosts of colonialism and racial stereotyping in contemporary culture.
The Manchester Guardian as was - there's nothing quite like it!

(If you did watch the video, you might enjoy this parody as an antidote.) 

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Corbyn addresses the faithful

It's good to see Jeremy Corbyn's commitment to recycling: full marks to Alex Massie at the Spectator for listing the verbatim borrowings from a 2011 speech written for (and rejected by) Ed Miliband.

Personally I'm not sure how much it matters. In the great tradition of party conferences, no-one there really bothers too much about the minutiae of  the leader's speech; they just join in when they like the tune.

Since I have decided I am allergic to politicians (or perhaps it's just an intolerance), I shall, at this point, refer you to Caedmon's Cat, who comments at length on the rise of Corbyn far more stylishly than I ever could -  I invite you to join me in a raising a glass to the author of phrases such as 'a boil on the buttock politic'.

Meanwhile, having taken the tongue-in-cheek (I hope!) quiz from the Telegraph (back in August), I have been told that
"You don’t like Corbyn, or his ideas. No matter who you vote for, extremist Corbynistas condemn you as an Evil Tory."
I can't say it comes as a complete surprise - though coming from the Telegraph, I do rather wonder whether that is the default response.

Actually, there is one idea of Corbyn's I do find palatable; the end of the Punch-and Judy PMQs - although I'm not so sure about the 'Housewife's Choice' sourcing of his questions. Still, whatever else he brings to the table, anything that makes Westminster less infantile is alright in my book.

(I am indebted to the Tavern's resident Wise Woman for the picture, a serendipitous find in an old book of Irish Folk Tales. The resemblance is striking, don't you think?)

Sunday 27 September 2015

Down Memory Lane to Dolphin Square

Let me take you back to the time when 1970s brown-and-orange was about to give way to the brave electric-blue world of the 1980s.

Like most teenagers, I spent much of my time day-dreaming. Camped out in the spacious attic of my parents' rural bungalow with Radio 1 and a bag of sherbet lemons from the newsagent's shop, I eagerly devoured the Sunday papers and imagined life in the fast lane hundreds of miles away.
All things were grist to the mill, from reviews of films I would not see for years (our local flea-pit had by then reinvented itself as a bingo hall) and descriptions of up-market restaurants to avant-garde fashions which, had anyone ventured out in them in my local high street, would have rendered the townsfolk helpless with laughter.

In my mind's eye, far from my sagging corduroy beanbag in the loft, I happily trawled the bookshops of Charing Cross Road and listened to records in HMV, then headed for the South Bank for coffee or browsed the rails in Oxford Street, choosing an outfit for supper round the corner at the Wardour Street Pizza Express and a trip to the Screen on the Green for the latest must-see film.

Naturally, at the end of such a busy day, I would need a place to lay my head - a sophisticated city pad with all the amenities - and I had already chosen the address. Dolphin Square had it all; a central location, concierge service and historical significance, not to mention the reflected glory of the rich and famous then in residence.

It was, as far as it could be at such a distance, an informed choice; I knew the layout of the complex and had a good idea of what some of the flats looked like inside thanks to the newspaper's property section and a detailed article or two. Fascinated by the stern 1930's architecture and design, I could have described the entrance halls or the corridors with a fair degree of accuracy or drawn from memory the central fountain which appeared in every property advertisement.

That familiar image still catches my eye whenever I see it, although it is more likely now to appear in the News section. Research has shown that teenagers are capable of absorbing and retaining a phenomenal amount of information and some of it, at least, was still there thirty-five years later when Dolphin Square acquired its sudden public notoriety and tarnished my innocent juvenile aspirations.

I neither intend nor want to delve into other people's darker territory with this post but, in the context of certain allegations dating back to the 1970s, I think it worth pointing out that, to my certain knowledge, it was possible at the time for a fourteen-year-old who had never seen London to construct an imaginary life there in meticulous detail from nothing but the Sunday papers, television and a tattered AtoZ.

(Footnote: Reader, I did not pine in vain. I'd like (albeit belatedly) to thank my wonderful mother for my sixteenth birthday treat - a day in London, bookshops, coffee and all, culminating in a blissful spree in the Oxford Street TopShop.)

Sunday 30 August 2015

"I predict a riot."

"Without a functioning space for hope, positivity and genuine care, these communities will descend into savagery due to sheer desperation for basic needs to be met."
Thus spake Alan Yentob (if BBC News is to be believed) in an e-mail to the Cabinet Office explaining why a further £3 million should be poured into the gaping maw of Kids Company, the only thing standing between us and criminal dystopia.

The author of this Jeremiad leaves no doubt of the consequences should funding not be forthcoming:
...a "high risk" of looting, rioting and arson attacks on government buildings...."increases" in knife and gun crime, neglect, starvation and modern-day slavery
This, apparently, is what London will be like without Kids Company - read it and tremble! No wonder civil servants have described the language used as 'absurd' and 'hysterical'. Interestingly, the document bears more than a passing resemblance to the literary style of Batmanghelidjh herself; a blend of psycho-jargon and self-importance (not to mention the odd dangling preposition):
Our cause for concern is not hypothetical, but based on a deep understanding of the socio-psychological background that these children operate within.
This last quote raises an intriguing point; if the beneficiaries of Kids Company can be repeatedly described as 'children', for whom it fills the role of 'primary care-giver', who exactly is going to be out rioting and burning down government buildings?

Surely it will not be the well-groomed and photogenic pre-teen girls marched under escort to Downing Street in matching t-shirts to tug at the nation's heartstrings - though I wouldn't put it past some of the mothers vociferously complaining on television about the derailed gravy train of free meals, clothes and residential activity holidays for their offspring.

Instead, I suspect the potential rioters belong to an altogether different stratum of  'clients' who came to light in the Mail today thanks to files leaked by 'a Kids Company insider'. By Batmanghelidjh's own admission elsewhere,
‘Because we have been going for 19 years, some kids that we had in the early days are now older. [...] To give them a daily routine we get them to do things round the place so they are hanging round.’ 
In real terms, this translates into adults - some into their thirties - on the premises on a regular basis and being given substantial cash handouts from Kids Company funds despite evidence of criminal activities and drug abuse.

Personally, I'd have thought that having a number of adult male drug users, some with a record of violence, constantly 'hanging round' would have severely compromised the charity's aim of providing vulnerable children with a place where they could feel safe.

Certainly it must have been more than a little traumatic for youngsters to witness the abuse of kitchen staff by a 26-year-old 'crack den landlord' angry that queuing for food reminded him of being in prison. There was an even worse ordeal in store for one girl:
A handwritten note claims he sexually assaulted a girl on Kids Company premises and worked for the charity in return for cash in hand.
Presumably he qualified for personal attention from Batmanghelidjh herself, like the 29-year-old drug addict, alcoholic and convicted thief banned from seeing his children because of his 'aggressive behaviour' - though it has to be said Kids Company's lengthy (and expensive) involvement in the latter case does not appear to have steered the man away from a life of crime:
 A note says he received a total of £70,000 last year from Kids Company – and stole a further £10,000 from it
It all begs the question, what has Kids Company actually accomplished if, twenty years on, some of its earliest 'clients' are still battening onto it for financial gain at the expense of today's children? Although Yentob's e-mail looks like a threat, it may also be an admission that the charity has - whether through misguided optimism or fear of recidivism (or reprisals) - been bankrolling a group of disaffected career criminals, giving them a common focus and a monstrous sense of entitlement.

Like the clueless women who bought 'handbag pigs' only to find themselves responsible a few months later for large, hungry and destructive boars with distinctly antisocial tendencies, Ms Batmanghelidjh appears to have ignored the possibility that some of the children in receipt of her much-publicised vicarious generosity could, if indulged and encouraged in their dependency, one day grow into something she and her organisation could not control.

Monday 17 August 2015

Who ate all the pies?

Cruel, perhaps, but she's got to be living on something.

Hot on the heels of Ms Batmanghelidjh's assertion that she needs a personal chauffeur because she can't drive and public transport is impossible as she 'can't walk long distances' comes her latest claim:
"I'm a dire cook. I've never even turned on my oven."
It is, of course, possible that she was indulging in a spot of self-deprecating hyperbole for dramatic effect; if so, this is more than a little unwise at the moment, given the intense scrutiny currently directed towards her and Kids Company. On the other hand, if true, such assertions should surely call into question whether she actually has the practical skills and experience to help her 'clients' become productive members of society.

There is something odd about her repeated insistence that she does not do such everyday things as using an oven or taking a bus or tube, or her claim 'never' to have worn off-the-peg clothes; it rather suggests she considers such mundane matters to be somehow beneath her, fit only for lesser mortals.
"Even when I have surgery I refuse to wear the ugly hospital robes and I delight the operating theatre team with my avant-garde pyjamas."
It's clear she regards herself as entitled to special treatment and attention. I understand that she must be very busy at work - although not too busy to comb John Lewis and Selfridges for designer-label gifts - and might need some assistance, but, as more revelations emerge about Kids Company, she is starting to look like a one-woman job creation scheme.

First we have the chauffeur (receiving not only his salary but a contribution towards his children's private education), and his sister-in-law, recruited ‘not because she is a crony but she is an extraordinarily brilliant accountant’, which is presumably why the organisation is in such great financial shape.

Let's be charitable, though; perhaps the accountant's mind wasn't always entirely on the job since she, together with her niece, is apparently also responsible for sewing Ms Batmanghelidjh's elaborate outfits from random fabric pieces brought in by staff and children. Another staff member supplies the earrings and turbans, while two more work on her signature fingerless gloves (a clear sartorial indication that, whatever needs doing, she won't be getting her own hands dirty).

By my reckoning, that's six employees devoting at least part of their time to her personal service (to say nothing of the staff and children roaming the streets and picking a pocket or two finding ownerless pieces of fabric) along with the half-dozen or so personal assistants needed to do all the paperwork due to her dyslexia - although they may, like the multi-tasking accountant, be numbered among the seamstresses too.

And now, it seems, we need to add to the roster whoever it is who is providing her with food, since she is, by her own admission, almost certainly not self-catering. Whether she takes all her meals at Kids Company or subsists on daily takeaways at home, a pattern is emerging of someone unwilling - or too self-important - to take care of her own needs rather than imposing on others.

There's something very familiar, at least to a beekeeper, about a female who is waited on, groomed and fed by a coterie of dedicated workers. The hive exists primarily to maintain the Queen Bee as she produces the next generation; it's starting to look as if, substituting hugging for egg-laying, the ultimate purpose of Kids Company was much the same.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Invasion of the Brummie Snatchers

There's proof today, it if were needed, that the silly season is well under way. A Freedom of Information request by staff at a Banbury newspaper (who surely have better things to do) has revealed a fascinating fact:
It may sound out of this world but Thames Valley Police has dealt with 15 reports of aliens in just four years.
This includes sightings in Milton Keynes, Oxford, High Wycombe and Chipping Norton, where 'residents claimed to have spotted little green men twice'.

Here at the Tavern, we like to keep an eye out for tales of visitors from beyond the void, particularly since I was one of a number of people who saw an unexplained object in the sky over rural Scotland one night in the mid-70s. (Occam's razor - always a useful tool when dealing with the paranormal - suggests it was a prototype drone from a nearby military base).

According to the news article,
Back in 2007, UFO expert Michael Soper claimed the Thames Valley area was becoming an alien hotspot.
Which is quite odd, because back in March, Birmingham Mail readers were told....
Back in 2010, UFO expert Richard Lawrence claimed Birmingham was becoming an alien hotspot.
,,,in an article beginning:
It’s out of this world – West Midlands Police has dealt with 23 reports of ALIENS in just four years.
Spooky! Or, alternatively*, lazy journalism; "It's summer, half the staff are off on holiday and we need a front-page article by midday on Tuesday - see if you can nick a piece from someone else's archives".

It's not even as if Thames Valley can compete with Birmingham's grand total of 23 sightings:
Three of the cases concerned alien abduction plots while two others claimed attacks were mounted by extra terrestrials. 
Four more were reports of people talking to or hearing aliens, while the majority – 14 – were sightings of little green men.
According to the police, five were registered as false alarms and advice was given in three cases - sadly, the report does not say what it was, although I'm guessing it had something to do with laying off the illegal substances - leaving fifteen presumably unaccounted for; heady stuff for local UFO enthusiasts.

I'm particularly intrigued by the 'alien abduction plots'; I must admit that I am having some difficulty anyway with the idea of the West Midlands as a point of first contact, and why extra-terrestrials would want to make off with the locals there, as opposed to, say, CERN (assuming their intentions are intellectual) or their usual remote rural USA (for more fundamental purposes) is more than a little baffling.

Surely they would be better off in Chipping Norton, where it would actually make sense to say, "Take me to your leader".

*Unless, of course, it is an orchestrated campaign for an as-yet-undisclosed purpose and we are being softened-up by advertisers (or aliens).

Friday 7 August 2015

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

At the risk of seeming somewhat trivial, one tiny element of the Kids Company debacle has stuck in my mind.

Much of Ms Batmanghelidjh's recent rhetoric has centred round assertions that her organisation is aimed at helping children who are suffering untold amounts of abuse in the home.
The catastrophic abandonment of children who are suffering is a testimony to our collective moral failing. I hope one day the childhood maltreatment wound, that is so deeply hurting this country, will heal.
That being so, it seems odd that a posse of mothers (see Ambush Predator) has voluntarily come forward to state that their children are regular 'clients', parading for the media their anger at the loss of an organisation which, they say, provides activity holidays, homework clubs and meals for their children and 'gives them clothes'.

This last point is reminiscent of the Bristol Council employees using Council funds to buy Ralph Lauren gifts and Ugg boots for children in care; the mindset responsible can be clearly seen in in the comment responding to criticism thus: " I can't believe that people on here begrudge a Christmas present for someone in a children's home".

Straw men aside, there is something flawed about the whole notion; it is not only irresponsible to use public money in this way but also surely unrealistic - if not downright immoral - to encourage a taste for and expectation of designer goods in young people who will, in the near future, have to manage a limited budget.

With that in mind, I invite you to consider the words of Camila Batmanghelidjh in an interview with the Design Museum:
The only time I buy clothes is for the children of Kids Company - many of them don't have any parents or family members. I like to buy personally for them for Christmas and their birthdays. I also buy stuff if I see something that would suit them. 
The scale suggests this is be paid for not out of her own pocket (funded by the charity in any case) but from donations secured for the welfare of vulnerable children. Doubtless the words 'self-esteem' will figure somewhere in the justification, given the source of these gifts:
Christmas Eve, I am usually between John Lewis and Selfridges buying everything that's in the sales...
John Lewis? Selfridges? Even at sale prices, I would have been unlikely to buy clothes there for my own children. Such shops are surely well beyond the (legitimate) means of most people living in the areas where Kids Company plies its trade.
...because on Christmas Day we have some 4,000* children, young people and vulnerable adults coming to us for lunch, and I like to give all the ones who don't have family a big bag of clothes as presents.
How nice! And, judging by the mother bewailing the loss of free clothing on the TV news, it's not only the ones without families who benefited from this largesse. There's benefit for Ms Batmanghelidjh too; a gratifying glow of sentiment:
They get so excited when they open them, it always brings tears to my eyes. 
Funnily enough, my eyes are watering too at the potential cost of several hundred 'big bags of clothes' from Selfridges  - to say nothing of the extra shopping trips 'for their birthdays' and impulse buys 'if I see something that would suit them'. 

How many thousands a year, would you say? Perhaps a drop in Kids Company's multi-million pound ocean, but a significant one nonetheless, it serves to illustrate, however benevolent her intentions, just how impractical and naive a clothes-obsessed millionaire's daughter - 'Every day for me is a fashion treat' - can be when entrusted with other people's money.

* Really? Who does the catering? And at what cost? Or is this another example of numerical sleight-of-hand, like the still-ubiquitous assertion (included in the Design Museum piece) that Kids Company 'reaches 36,000 children a year with therapeutic care' - a figure since revealed to include the classmates, parents and teachers of any child in receipt of Kids Company services.

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Quote of the week - didn't we try that already?

One of the Sunday papers offers this, from a young Eritrean who has been in the migrant camp at Calais for two months:
We want to go to Britain only because of our bad governments and dictators. I would like to see Europe civilise Africa and the Middle East.
What form, I wonder, would this hoped-for civilisation take? Peacekeeping forces? Regime change? A permanent presence, at least until the population feel safe?

It's hardly as if anyone thanked us last time:
Take up the White Man's burden 
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
"Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"

Tuesday 4 August 2015

A legal flaw, or how I could have stolen a small fortune

Every now and then, a news story comes along where I think I may actually have something useful to add to the debate. In this case, it is on the unsavoury topic of predatory relatives exploiting their nearest and dearest:
The number of adult children stealing from their elderly parents has shot up. In the first half of 2015, crown courts dealt with £2.1 million worth of cases of families stealing from one another - almost four times more than the same time last year. Fraud against elderly relatives made up 80% of it.
It turns out that some people, at least, have all the family feeling of scorpions or sand tiger sharks. 'Frustrated' by waiting for their aged relatives to shuffle off this mortal coil and pass on their inheritance, over-45s have been plundering the bank accounts entrusted to them.

Naturally checks exist to prevent this sort of thing, at least in the case where a family member has applied to take control of a dementia sufferer's finances as court-appointed Deputy when he or she no longer has the mental capacity to nominate a Power of Attorney.

Quite rightly, the Deputy must submit annual accounts for scrutiny; this involves a lengthy form on which all assets, income and expenditure must be accounted for to the last penny - no easy task for an amateur, especially when, with care home fees, savings and property sales (also the responsibility of the deputy), the sums can run into tens of thousands each way.

Incredible as it seems, there is a serious loophole in this system.When the person for whom the Deputy is acting dies, the court order immediately ceases to apply and there is no further contact. Meanwhile, the solicitor handling the estate is only interested in the account balances from the moment of death onwards. There is nowhere to submit the accounts for the final few months - all that careful bookkeeping impresses no-one - and nobody wants to know what the previous year's assets were.

As a Deputy, had I been so inclined - and had I previously been less open with other family members about the estate - I could easily have withdrawn money from the bank accounts in the months before my relative's death and given his solicitor a drastically reduced balance to distribute (although, after several years of care home fees, my 'cut' would have fallen very far short of the £100k threshold for the statistics above).

Admittedly, there might have been an outside chance of my relative living until the next year-end but the ultimate demise can often be predicted some weeks before - easily time enough to extract a large windfall from the bank rather than waiting to receive a fraction of the estate after probate.

I appreciate that this post lacks zing - it's difficult to be anything other than turgid when dealing with legal and financial technicalities - and that my audience is limited, but it seems to me worth pointing out that the current system is offering an open door to a Deputy who wishes to defraud other relatives or steal from a dying family member.

Monday 3 August 2015

Women and children first

A newspaper picture today shows a three-year-old child being held by a man sitting atop a wire fence. According to the story, her mother has brought her to the migrant camp at Calais where, night after night, she is passed from hand to hand over razor wire fences as they try to get into the Eurotunnel compound.
'I tell her it's a game,' said Mary 'I tell her that if we win, she is going to meet Daddy'.
And if they lose? How safe is a three-year-old amid mass attempts to breach a security perimeter in the middle of the night, let alone trying to board a lorry or train? Previous nights have ended with mother and child being turned away by police or removed from the enclave and returning to camp - they may not be so lucky next time.

They are apparently trying to join the child's father who, having left Eritrea before her birth to avoid military service, is now working in London  as an 'odd-job man', which presumably means that either he has been granted asylum or other official status - in which case there are channels through which they can apply* - or he is working illegally.

If it is the latter, surely he could rejoin his wife in France and apply for asylum there (UK officialdom might well be persuaded to help) instead of waiting in London while they risk their lives trying to reach him. Something here is definitely not right.

Media accounts suggest that, in recent weeks, the camps in Calais have swollen with an unprecedented number of women and children. It is hardly surprising, then, that tactics are changing - instead of individuals climbing barriers and racing for lorries or trains, we are seeing fences flattened by mass movement and collective action.

Whatever the professionally offended think (Longrider and Anna Raccoon have tackled their objections admirably) the term for this is 'swarm intelligence'. As one path closes, the swarm seeks out new ways to overcome an obstacle; in the analogy that David Cameron didn't steal , I likened it to wildebeest crossing a crocodile-infested river, driven on by the arrival of cows and calves joining the advance guard of males.

There is, however, one important difference. Hungry crocodiles actively seek out helpless young wildebeest to attack; police and border guards will surely be particularly averse to using force on children. Unless something is done to remove them from the nightly onslaught, we may yet see babies and children forming an involuntary human shield in the fight against increasingly beleaguered defences.

Last night, in what seems to be a new development (swarm intelligence again), a group of men blocked a road by lying down in the path of lorries, only moving when the riot police arrived at dawn. How long, I wonder, before there are children lying on the roads and train tracks or held up in the vanguard of a stone-throwing mob storming the ferry or Eurotunnel terminals?

And who would willingly give the order to use tear gas and batons - or, given the likely escalation, water cannon and plastic bullets - against a little girl in pink leggings?

*Once a person is granted protection in the UK, they have the right to work, claim benefits and be re-united with their spouse and children (under 18). 

Friday 31 July 2015

Blue Moons and Giant Squid

It is somehow typical that, with the illegal immigration problem at crisis point, Labour's worthies have allowed themselves to be caught up in a veritable can-can of knee-jerk protest at a single word. Meanwhile, amid all the speculation on what is drawing migrants to our shores, the black economy repeatedly raises its ugly head.

It's a subject we have looked at here before, albeit on the local level of businesses which appear surprisingly robust despite the town having, according to one national newspaper, 'three of the most deprived council wards in the nation'.

If you will forgive some timely recycling:

In just two short streets, you can count six hairdressers - of the unisex trendy and expensive kind - as well as a tanning salon, two tattoo parlours, four nail bars and, as of this week, a fish pedicure shop.

Few of these establishments cater for the shy and retiring; the emphasis in on treatments in the shop window under the public gaze - perhaps part of the attraction is being seen to have your roots/nails/feet done in a bizarre form of conspicuous consumption.

After all, none of these things comes cheap - and there's the puzzle. In a town where, we are told, belts have been tightened to wasp-like proportions, where do these customers come from? For customers there are in abundance, smirking out from their shop window vantage points with their hair in foil or their feet in a fishtank.

There is only one conclusion; that the official figures don't even begin to tell the story. That, far removed from the headlines, a black economy is thriving and expanding so fast that businesses like these can open up in prime locations in the current economic climate and be sure of a steady income via the hip pockets of the locals.

The scale of it is a classic 'known unknown' - we are aware it's out there, but the size of it is a complete mystery and there's no way to deal with it; like the giant squid of legend, the monster lurks in the depths of society, extending its tentacles in every direction - unknowable, unquantifiable and potentially dangerous.

On another topic, I am indebted to James Higham for reminding me (via a comment) of tonight's blue moon - the second full moon in a calendar month.

This seems as good an excuse as any for a piece of music so I have chosen an old favourite; although the artist has long since jumped the shark of pretentiousness and embraced the dark side of solipsistic celebrity, he is still capable of a great piece of orchestration.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

A lesson from natural history

There is, perhaps, no small irony in French demands for British help in maintaining the fortifications of Calais; it is, after all, only a few centuries since a massed assault on Sangatte paved the way for the conquest of the town and its surrender to the French army, ending over 150 years of English occupation.

The current attempts by 1500 people or more to breach port security were wholly predictable - at least if you remember that you are dealing with animals and that this is, to all intents and purposes, a mass migration similar to the annual movements of caribou or wildebeest.

(At this point, when I expounded the theory over a large gin earlier this evening, the Spouse observed, "It's a jolly good thing you aren't a journalist!". But, however politically incorrect it may be to say so, there's no escaping the fact that they are animals. So am I. So are you. Forgetting this simple fact - or deliberately ignoring it - is at the bottom of a host of problems in education, business, politics and society in general.)

A familiar spectacle from wildlife documentaries, the wildebeest migration, according to one safari company, goes something like this:
'MAY: Wagons roll! The massed herds are on the go, huge columns of up to 40km in length can be seen as the wildebeest funnel up into the central and western Serengeti. 
JUNE: Head for the central and western Serengeti - the herds are there and beginning to get a bit jittery ... trouble is coming. 
JULY: Book early - it is the Big Event: river crossings. The herds have reached the western Serengeti and Grumeti Reserves and are nervously peering at the brown waters of the rivers they have to cross. Why? Five-metre-long crocodiles, that is why. 
AUGUST: The survivors stumble up into the northern Serengeti and begin crossing back into Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. You need a passport to cross; the wildebeest are exempt.'
Substitute the English Channel for the river and border guards for crocodiles and there you have it in a nutshell. The herds build up in number until there are enough to attempt the crossing en masse, thereby ensuring that, even if some are picked off, the majority will get through while the crocodiles are occupied. As Wikipedia has it:
Numerous documentaries feature wildebeest crossing rivers, with many being eaten by crocodiles or drowning in the attempt. While having the appearance of a frenzy, recent research has shown a herd of wildebeest possesses what is known as a "swarm intelligence", whereby the animals systematically explore and overcome the obstacle as one.
Current estimates put the number of would-be immigrants in the Calais region at around 5,000, but, given the estimates of those currently crossing the Mediterranean, this could yet increase dramatically over the summer and, as the French so amply demonstrated in 1588, the Calais region is remarkably short of natural defences and has to rely solely on fortifications to keep out unwanted invaders.

Even without the less-than-helpful antics of the French Trade Unions, this has the makings of a futile and escalating struggle, as would-be immigrants repeatedly threaten the ever longer fences and barriers. The mass onslaught of the past two nights suggests that critical mass has been reached and that 'swarm intelligence' is taking over.

What we do about it, I don't know. Perhaps we may, in the end, be obliged to accept the lesser evil of identity cards and checks in this country in an attempt to identify and deport illegal immigrants; what is certain is that, thanks to the tunnel and, to a lesser degree, mass transportation of goods by ferry, our island status has been irretrievably compromised.

I wish I could be certain that this development did not come as a surprise to those in charge (certainly it looks like I'm not the only one who saw it coming) and that politically correct orthodoxy has not prevented them from foreseeing and anticipating the full potential of the situation. Yes, these people are individuals and human beings, but they are also now part of a collective swarm.

Moving our border checkpoints to Calais at least allows the Border Police to contain the problem on French soil. Now all we can do is hope that the British have learnt a thing or two about dealing with mass incursions since 1558.

Update: Well, how about that? Having written this and headed off for a couple of days R&R, I return to find that the PM has, in my absence, caused a furore by using the word 'Swarm'. Does my blog have readers in higher places than I ever imagined?

Or is the coincidence, in the words of a quote I find myself in danger of overusing but which fits our modern world so well, 'neither accident nor design, but simply unavoidable'?

Friday 24 July 2015

A reluctance to be tolled

This is a story that will strike a chord - or ring a bell - with anyone who has had a reasonable proposal shot down in flames at a meeting.

One Biff Vernon set out recently to pitch an 'unusual piece of public art' to East Lindsey District Council Planning Committee in Lincolnshire:
The £30,000-plus project would have accommodated within an oak frame a brass bell that would have chimed (at various pitches) according to the movements and heights of the tide.
The so-called tide-and-time bell [sic] would have been the sixth in a series of 12 proposed for British coastal locations, with five already having been installed.
The five existing bells are in Appledore, the Isle of Lewis, London, Aberdyfi and Anglesey, with others planned for Orford Ness and Aberdeen. Mr Vernon explained that the proposed bell, designed by Devon artist Marcus Vergette, would provide a 'talking point' and potentially attract tourists to the beach at Anderby Creek, a windswept coastal hamlet north of Skegness.

Personally, I'm not sure I would make a special trip from outside the area, but there's no denying that the bells are an elegant and intriguing concept, a corrosion-resistant doubly-flaring hollow tube, cast using traditional bell-making techniques, containing a clapper activated by waves as the tide rises.

The Council Planning Committee, it seems, were not so impressed.
...councillors refused the application, noting ‘noise pollution’ objections from villagers and further claiming the installation would be a threat to swimmers and marine craft users.
Since the bells are designed to be covered at high tide, that second point does make some sense, although it is certainly not an insurmountable problem and has clearly been successfully tackled at the other sites. The Councillors, however, had not yet finished with Mr Vernon:
Coun Jim Swanson described the idea as ‘a folly’...
...and committee chairman Coun Neil Cooper said oak was inappropriate because it ‘rots like hell’ after contact with water - which was why elm, when available, was used in harbour construction. 
Not surprisingly, after this all-too-public mauling, the local newspaper describes Mr Vernon as 'crestfallen'. In his own account, he speculates that he might have been 'caught up in some internal feud' - a highly plausible explanation to anyone who has observed the collateral damage inflicted by turf wars in such public bodies as NHS trusts and Housing Benefit offices.

I'm not so sure, though. You see, back when the project was in its infancy, it seems to have been intended primarily as a celebration of British tradition, maritime heritage and craftsmanship. The matter of climate change was mentioned by the bell's creator almost as an afterthought:
"Being an island, we have a close relationship with the sea and this is a positive way of looking at our relationship with the sea and the environment." 
The bell is a piece of art, but there could be a practical element as well: "If the bell starts ringing more and more, it's a sign of rising tide levels and global warming. In which case it would be a warning bell."
Over the intervening years, however, the climate change aspect appears to have been seized on and promoted by other agencies until it has become a defining element:
The Time and Tide Bell Project was a finalist for the Climate Change Awards 2011, Best Artistic Response to climate Change.
"Devon artist Marcus Vergette is ringing out a poignant warning on climate change with a permanent installation of 12 giant bells at high tide points around the UK. Rung by the waves, Vergette's seven foot-high bronze bells will strike more often as climate change raises sea levels, and their pitch changes as they become submerged."
Add in the fact that Mr Vernon is known to be a Green Party member and environmental blogger and you have a combination likely to trigger a reflex reaction in the sort of people who don't like to feel they are on the receiving end of a sermon or being used to further someone else's political agenda.

If so, it's a great shame, since, regardless of environmental considerations, the Time and Tide Bell has much to recommend it. With a few tweaks to the design - it's not clear why the oak frame was chosen in preference to the metal or wire supports of the other bells - it could have become a noteworthy feature of Lincolnshire's coastline.

And, as Tavern regulars have doubtless already surmised, bells like these could have a valuable role to play in alerting the unwary to the action of the tide. A modified version could even be installed at locations notorious for walkers cut off by rising water - a trip through the Tavern archives could furnish a handy list - in preference to the threatened electronic warning lights and sounds.

While such an expensive project should not be charged directly to the long-suffering taxpayer - sufficient that its genesis was Arts Council funded - perhaps it would be possible, along with external grants, to encourage subscription among local residents and businesses, particularly if the bells were sited in areas where they would draw visitors and add to an area's amenities.

My own nomination for a potential site (and one where the Council might well be persuaded to chip in)? Definitely Dunwich (the real one in Suffolk, UK; sorry, H P Lovecraft fans), where the sea has engulfed the former medieval city. I haven't recorded any errant littoral pedestrians there, true, but, given local tradition, the place is surely crying out for it:
As the legend goes, if at certain tides you stand upon a bleak stretch of Dunwich beach, its possible to hear the ghostly peals of church bells tolling from beneath the waves. 

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Sense at last!

Double cause for celebration today; not only will 2015 OQ21 soon be whizzing by a mere 568,000 km away but a journalist has, at long last, said the hitherto unsayable.

History, they say, is written by the victors. Mainstream media opinions on working mothers, in the same way, tend to be written by women who have delegated at least some of their childcare to other women (men, of course, would not dare to pronounce on such a contentious issue and childless women tend to keep their own counsel).

While full-time mothers hover around the edges in comment threads or the blogosphere, the floor of mainstream media and political coverage is firmly held by working mothers intent on justifying their own course of action.

It's also worth noting that we hear little from women who have returned after a full career break; the reason for that becomes lamentably clear when trying to get back into the workplace after a prolonged absence.

I've made my views on this issue known here before* but it is a breath of fresh air to read this from Sarah Vine (or, as she is also known, Mrs Michael Gove):
...the whole concept of childcare has a way of short-circuiting our internal feminist wiring. On the one hand, it’s our right to have meaningful careers; on the other, it’s also our right to have children. 
There’s just one tiny problem: who’s going to look after the kids? 
That is the great paradox of feminism: for every woman forging ahead in the workplace, there’s another taking her place in the home.
Regular readers may recognise more than a little similarity to a post which appeared here last November: '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.' 

Admittedly, it's taken her a while to see the light - she describes having been, in effect, a 'benign but distant' fifties-style 'father' to her young children for years - but better late than never; the response of her children has clearly convinced her that being there for them is the right thing to do and, to her credit, she has admitted it publicly.
Fact is, nannies make life possible for working mothers, but they are no substitute for being a parent. That, I’m afraid, is the one thing you simply cannot delegate.
Two glasses will therefore be raised in the Tavern this evening; 2015 OQ21 and Sarah Vine, your very good health indeed!

*Essentially this:'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.'

Update: As a bonus, this URL from the Express surely qualifies for some kind of award:

Sunday 19 July 2015

Sunday Soundtrack - "My God - it's full of stars!"

In honour of the Pluto mission this week and the awe-inspiring photographs from the outer reaches of the Solar System, we are revisiting '2001: A Space Odyssey' and Kubrik's inspired pairing of classical music with space-age action.

From the dramatic opening fanfare from Richard Strauss' 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' to the visceral keening of Ligeti's 'Requiem', the pared-down visuals and the music combine to convey the immensity of space.

Given the close collaboration of Arthur C Clarke in the film-making process - a man who must have known his science fiction classics - I wonder whether it is not too fanciful to assume that somewhere behind at least one selection is the 1956 short story 'A Work of Art' by James Blish, in which Richard Strauss is brought back to life in the distant future and invited to compose works on the themes of space-flight and time travel.

Another, unrelated, Strauss is responsible for perhaps the most hypnotic sequence in the film; I invite you to sit back and enjoy 'An der Schönen Blauen Donau' in a context its composer could never have imagined.


Saturday 18 July 2015

Saturday Ruminations

Here at the Tavern, we like to think we are always up to date with the latest squirrel news. However, when two separate stories appeared this week, your humble host was occupied elsewhere and unable to post.

Fortunately Leg-Iron's new partner in crime was much quicker off the mark, citing both of them in a piece on scary animals - an inclusion with which I heartily concur. Don't be fooled by pictures of impossibly adorable babies falling out of trees; it's all part of their sinister plan to put us off our guard.

Each of us presumably has a similar rogues' gallery of animals to be regarded with deep suspicion - or is it just me? My own list, based on past experience of being besieged in a remote cottage by an implacable herd of them, would definitely include cows, so I was intrigued to hear someone on the radio this week talking about 'Cow Appreciation Day'.

This seemed a rather un-English concept, despite his exhortation to cherish and value our dairy herds, so I did some research. It turns out to be part of an advertising campaign by an American fast food outlet called - brace yourselves - Chick-fil-A (try saying it aloud in its native Southern accent to get the full impact).

I vaguely remember this from a visit to the States in the late 90s: the adverts feature cows displaying hand- (or hoof-)painted signs saying 'EAT MOR CHIKIN'. Cute, perhaps, and certainly memorable, this slogan is so important to the firm that it has to date successfully prosecuted 30 other companies for infringement - as Wikipedia has it, with no small irony, 'Chick-fil-A vigorously protects its intellectual property'.

On 'Cow Appreciation Day', it seems, customers turning up dressed as cows receive a free Chick-fil-ATM meal - though you have to be thorough; anything less than head-to-hoof costume only gets you a free 'entree'. (My source of information is an American website dedicated to bargain-hunting which invites readers to 'Mark your calendar for these upcoming freebies'; treats in the near future include 7-11's 'Free Slurpee Day', though it doesn't say whether you have to dress up for it.)

Meanwhile, back in the UK, while I can appreciate cows as a source of milk and meat and as a scenic addition to the countryside, albeit preferably at a respectful distance, I hope you will understand if I say they remain at the top of my list of 'animals that creep me out'.

Thursday 16 July 2015

The Old Boy Network in action

This week brought an interesting coincidence; just as I was pondering the end of my fifth decade and considering what I had - or had not - achieved so far, an e-mail arrived from my alma mater.

On leaving school, by a set of curious chances, I found myself in the hallowed halls of an ancient and prestigious seat of learning. In this august environment, I embarked on an unexceptional academic career and thence to a vocation-led commitment to the chalkface, well away from any public forum.

If I were less contented with this obscurity, I might feel a certain envy when the annual college magazine announces that yet another member of my cohort has taken silk, been elected to Parliament or achieved high status in the world of banking, journalism or the BBC. While I have been enjoying a quiet and uneventful existence, my former fellow-students have, it seems, permeated virtually every aspect of British public life.

That being so, I invite you to consider the circular e-mail I received this week, bearing in mind that its content is addressed to former members of a single Oxbridge college, an enclave within the wider University.

It begins innocently enough, with an invitation to join a new alumni network with four aims; firstly to 'Reconnect':
Find and reminisce with fellow graduates, see what they have been up to and stay in touch.
So far so good, though I can't say I'm exactly tempted; I am so far removed from my 20-year-old self as to be virtually another species and I have no desire to meet anyone who knew me back then. In any case, I doubt I would find anything to match the wealth of experience, expertise, humour, creativity and warmth that exists in the blogs listed on the left.

Next comes 'Give Back':
Introduce, employ and offer to act as a mentor to our graduating students.
Altruism, yes, but also a leg up for the boys (and girls) in the career market, a hint of what is to come next under the heading 'Expand':
Leverage your professional network to get introduced to people you should know.
I'm not sure what that actually means, but, under the management-speak, it certainly sounds remarkably like the Old Boy Network, at least in the context of uniting graduates of the same college online. I'm reminded of a fellow-student who switched place cards at a formal dinner to put himself next to the Master on High Table - now there's someone I really don't want to 'find and reminisce with'.

 Finally, there's 'Advance':
Advance your career through inside connections working in top companies.
And that, in a nutshell, is what everyone who didn't attend this college or one like it is up against in the search for jobs and promotion, at least in circles where such a background is seen as desirable - and this, remember, is before networking on a University level kicks in.

Many of those invited to join the college network can be found in the higher echelons of industry, banking, medicine, government, the media and countless other branches of the Establishment where, if this e-mail achieves its purpose, they will doubtless be joined by others simply by virtue of having passed through the same medieval gates.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

They that go down to the sea in blow-up dinghies (Part 2)

A matter of days after the RNLI fished out a couple of lads adrift with their beer cans in the Bristol Channel, another rescue took place off the Kent coast (apparently a favourite spot for maritime Darwin Award hopefuls, as a trawl through the Tavern archives shows).
A dad has told of the terrifying moment he and his family lost control of their dinghy and drifted out to sea.
In this case, the accidental seafarer was accompanied in the 6ft dinghy by his wife, their nine- and seven-year-old children and their seven-month old baby.
The Gillingham resident, who has asked not be named, said his intention was to “go back and forth” in the shallow water near the beach.
“Families all the time take a dinghy out and have a paddle with their children, we were just unfortunate."
Unfortunate, perhaps, in the fact that the engine failed - although they only bought the boat two days before and were unlikely to be familiar with its management - and the subsequent breaking of an oar, but to set out with a full load and (to judge by the photos) only two life jackets between them was surely unwise, to say the least, especially with an outgoing tide (easily checked online) and a steady offshore wind (according to the RNLI).
“The funny thing is that when the oar snapped, I could have jumped out and pulled the dinghy towards shore because we were so close; it’s hard to explain, but the panic just set in."
Instead, they called for help as they drifted a mile out to sea in worsening conditions - the accompanying video shows the craft riding hazardously low in choppy water - using the mobile phone they had with them. This last precaution absolves them, perhaps, of seeking full Darwin Award Hopeful status despite entrusting themselves and their progeny to a fragile and unfamiliar vessel.

Stung by social media criticism, the father contacted the local press to give details of the rescue, including a gratifyingly thorough tribute to the RNLI crew, and a statement that, somehow, has Zeitgeist written all over it:
“In hindsight, we definitely shouldn’t have done it, trust me the lesson has been learnt. But it was never our intention to go anymore than a matter of feet from the beach, events just took over."

Saturday 11 July 2015

Half a century

Back in the early 1970s, thanks to the wonder of television, we knew what the future would look like.

By the 21st century, the Space Age would be well and truly under way; ordinary men and women (the latter, for some obscure reason, invariably clad in form-fitting bodysuits or miniskirts) would be going about their daily business in moonbases and interplanetary spacecraft, while back on Earth, families would subsist on daily protein pills and pursue a life of leisure while robots did all the work.

Contemplating these wonders, it was daunting to think that, when the millennium rolled around, I would be approaching the inconceivably advanced age of 35; anything beyond that was so remote as to be hardly worth considering so I never gave it much thought.

Somehow, over the intervening 40 years, it feels as if I've never quite got round to the business of growing up; it is thus with some astonishment that I now find myself staring down the barrels of my 50th birthday. Here I am in the distant future and, to be honest, it isn't at all what I expected. Where, I ask myself, is my personal jet-pack? What happened to those robots to take over the housework?

Granted, I have at my personal disposal better communication equipment and more processing power than than the Apollo space programme. There are computers hidden in my household appliances, I scan and pack my own groceries (though the robot servant would come in very handy there) and I can manage my finances or buy virtually anything I want over the telephone or internet at any time of the day or night.

But - although I appreciate the ability to download pictures of cats doing silly things in Anchorage, Alaska - much of the rest of life is business as usual. What has changed is my own attitude, and it's made me wonder how much of that has been formed by those early aspirations.

For those of us born in the summer of '65, just as the first space-walk was taking place and Bob Dylan upsetting his fans by 'going electric', progress was a given; emerging from the Winter of Discontent, we came of age in Thatcher's Britain where, whatever your politics, it was impossible not to feel the impact of technological advances (remember your first Walkman?) or to compare our bright new electric-blue youth culture with the perpetually brown-and-orange 1970s.

Then came the 1990s - grunge and recession - and, before we knew it, the magical 2000 was upon us with the 'River of Fire', setting the scene for the arrival of middle-aged cynicism and disappointment. On top of that, 24-hour news coverage has given us the ability to see our political masters as never before, warts and all, and it's not a pretty sight. At the same time, we are old enough to recall the failures of successive administrations and see the pitfalls and hidden agendas of every new government initiative.

With the potential of the internet, this growing cynicism was able, for some, to manifest itself in blogging, which leads me to an interesting (for me at least) observation; of the dozen or so general-interest blogs I read regularly and with which I frequently find myself in agreement, often with a shock of recognition at an opinion that precisely matches my own, at least two are written by my exact contemporaries.

That being so, I should like to raise a virtual glass to Kath and Pavlov's Cat, both of whom turned fifty in the last fortnight, and to any other bloggers hovering around the half-century mark (I suspect at least one more, which would make it a significant proportion of my sidebar born in 1965 or thereabouts).

Given the political, social and technological developments of the last 50 years and they way they have shaped my generation, I wonder whether this affinity is, in the words of Heinrich Böll, 'neither accident nor design, but simply unavoidable'.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

They that go down to the sea in blow-up dinghies

As the coastal Darwin Award Hopeful season continues, we have the slightly baffling story of two would-be mariners picked up by the RNLI off the Somerset coast.

The lifeboat crew, scrambled from work when the Coastguard spotted the child-sized boat drifting a mile out to sea, arrived to find the leaking 5ft dinghy occupied by two full-grown men 'oblivious that they were out of control and at the mercy of the very strong tides'.

The intrepid amateur seafarers had been at sea for three hours already, having drastically underestimated the distance to their intended destination of Steep Holm, a rocky island five miles offshore in the Bristol Channel.

What they expected to do there is, it has to be said, something of a mystery:
It is a nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest famed for its beautiful May-flowering wild peony. It is home to the remains of a 12th century Augustinian priory.
While it also boasts the remnants of wartime military installations and a Victorian barracks (now a 'Visitor and Education/Exhibition Centre'), it is hard to see this plethora of aesthetic and intellectual stimulation appealing to the bare-chested duo - one sporting abundant tattoos and a back-to-front baseball cap - pictured in the RNLI report.

Even if I am wrong and their motives were of the loftiest, they chose an odd way to go about it. Regular day trips are on offer and, given that Steep Holm is 'in the middle of a busy shipping channel, isolated by brisk tidal currents and a difficult landing place', it takes a special sort of mindset to purchase a toy boat from a beach shop and set off merrily into the blue.

Sadly for the men and women of the RNLI, there's a lot of it about.

Update: The Mail has since got hold of the story - claiming in its inimitable style, that they were 'five miles out' and 'without a paddle', despite the oars clearly visible in the accompanying video and the article stating 'a mile'- and identified the pair:
Mr Hole - a tattoo artist - said: 'It was going well until we got a small puncture and the boat started slowly going flat. We were miles from where we set off. I'm not sure how we got the puncture, but I think it might have been off one of the beer cans cutting the inside.

Thursday 2 July 2015

'...it fell: and great was the fall of it.'

With the advent of warmer weather, we are bracing ourselves for the seasonal surge in the number of citizens of our island nation who set off for a spot of littoral recreation blissfully unaware that the sea will not necessarily stay put for the duration of their visit.

We are, of course, familiar with tales of Foolish Virgins plucked to safety after ambling along the water's edge or driving onto the sand with no thought for the rising tide but occasionally the inundations are on a grander scale, where freely available tide tables have somehow been overlooked.

This week furnished a particularly entertaining and cheerfully harmless example:
A long-awaited sandcastle competition on Cleethorpes beach had to be abandoned after the tide came in, and washed away the exhibits.
 It seems, according to the organisers, that there had been 'some misunderstanding about how early the tide would come in'. So who was in charge?
Organised by the British Architects (RBA) Love Architecture programme, the event was staged in front and to the side of the Pier.
This may not come as a surprise to anyone who has had to endure the inconvenience and impracticality of living or working in an 'award-winning' building - the sort where the architect has won prizes (or lucrative public sector contracts) for an assortment of radical features in drawings and scale models without the faintest idea of how to make those high-flown 'concepts' work in the real world.

Five teams of architects and nine teams from the general public were involved, making this a reasonably large-scale enterprise and one the organisers presumably hoped would be an excellent public relations exercise for their profession.
The competition was to finish around 3pm but with an hour to go all hope was lost as the tide came in which surrounded and then swamped the creations.
Stop! It's too much!
There were only four castles still standing on dry land by the end.
While less euphonious that the usual piss-up/brewery analogy, you have to admit that the inability to organise a sandcastle competition on a beach must confer some sort of distinction.

Tuesday 30 June 2015

Happy Asteroid Day!

Here at the Tavern we like to think that every day is Asteroid Day, but today it's official; the word 'bandwaggon' springs irresistibly to mind as the mass media weigh in with exclusives on every side, aiming to outdo each other with tales of near misses and earth-skimming behemoths.

As  it happens, we've had one of these in our sights for a while; July 7th brings us the whopping 65m+ 2015 HM10 a mere 442,000km away - rather less than ten times the length of the Pan--American Highway - which probably justifies some serious carousing.

The Metro, striking out at something of a tangent, has chosen to gratify readers of an apocaholic disposition by outlining an assortment of other interesting ways in which our species could be wiped out and concluding that an asteroid strike might not be such a bad way to go, considering. While sadly lacking in detail, it does, at least, provide a refreshing change to the general hysterical hyperbole over space-rocks passing safely by at nearly 20 lunar distances.

Asteroid Day, meanwhile, largely amounts to a massive public awareness campaign (for those who are not regular readers of this blog) and an invitation to sign a declaration calling for:
  • Employ available technology to detect and track Near-Earth Asteroids that threaten human populations via governments and private and philanthropic organisations.
  • A rapid hundred-fold acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years.
  • Global adoption of Asteroid Day, heightening awareness of the asteroid hazard and our efforts to prevent impacts, on June 30, 2015.
While deploring their slightly iffy grammar and wondering what happens to resolution 2 if there are insufficient asteroids out there to meet the target of 100,000 discoveries a year, I can say that the third of these is an aim I support wholeheartedly - not least because it's an excellent excuse for a party.

Meanwhile, matters astronomical are to the fore today in the form of the leap second to be added tonight to keep atomic clocks in line with the earth's rotation. My favourite coverage of the story is this 'down wid da kidz' version from Radio 1's 'Newsbeat' page:
[Last time it happened]  In 2012 a number of big websites including Mozilla, Reddit, Gawker, LinkedIn, FourSquare and Yelp were caught out and went a bit wrong.
Newsbeat got in touch with Robert Edwards, head of science at the Royal Observatory Greenwich - the place were [sic] time in the UK is kept. 
As a bonus, they helpfully include a picture of  'a clock at Newsbeat HQ' so their readers can be sure what they are talking about.

And, as if that were not enough, Jupiter and Venus are joining forces, at least from our perspective, this evening to put on what out distant ancestors would have seen as a spectacular lightshow - though it's likely to be less of a novelty to our jaded 21st-century visual palates.

All in all, then, I think this calls for a celebration; I invite you to join me in the Tavern (though  you may need to dust off the bar-stools) and raise a glass to Asteroid Day - many happy returns!

Sunday 14 June 2015

Soundtrack Sunday: "Cut, you buggers, cut!"

I've been meaning for some time to start a series of posts on a theme; other people have done poems, music, books and films, so I thought I'd combine two of those and do film music.

Every now and then, a film achieves that perfect combination of soundtrack and story that enhances both. There are plenty to choose from, so I make no apology for selecting according to my own idiosyncratic criteria.

Obviously some of this will make no sense if you haven't seen the film but, at the least, it should provide some interesting listening for a Sunday evening.

I'm starting with one of my all-time favourite films. With a dramatic story by Kipling, a cast headed by Sean Connery and Michael Caine (with an unforgettable supporting performance by Saeed Jaffrey) and imposing scenery shot in grand style under John Huston's direction, 'The Man Who Would Be King' would have been excellent even without Maurice Jarre's accompanying score; add in the music, with its fitting blend of militarism, Victorian bombast and poignancy, and it becomes something great.

(Link to video here)

Tuesday 12 May 2015

"It must be right; I got it off the internet..."

Remember the Canvey Island nativity play?
The “Christmas Tale” stars a pair of robbers, named Bob and Bill, who raid a jewellery store in broad daylight to steal a manger full of rubies and emeralds.
There's a similar theme at work in a grammar exercise recently given to primary school children across the Estuary in Sheerness. We know this because one parent was so 'shocked' that she was apparently obliged to go to the local press and have it reported, complete with carefully posed photographs.

In an exercise designed to test the appropriate use of the pronouns 'I' and 'me', children had to complete the following sentence:
Hand ..... the money before ..... put a bullet through your head.
Could it, perhaps, be part of the continued attempt to reflect modern urban society in the school curriculum? And, if so, can we look forward to the same thing emerging in, say, Maths,
If Liam and Kane steal £140 and divide it in the ratio 3:4...
Sayeed takes a BMW without the owner's consent and drives it into a wall at 70km/h....
or Biology?
How can Shanice and Amii use this graph to record the growth of their cannabis plants...?
Educational orthodoxy demands that work set should be as relevant as possible to the lives and interests of pupils - though it's not clear whether that would extend to a crime-themed nativity play in an area which had recently seen several armed robberies  - which raises some interesting questions about the test paper's provenance.

We do know it was downloaded from the generally respected Times Educational Supplement resource-sharing site. It's an excellent example of the spurious authority lent by the imprimatur of the internet; an unquestioning teacher seems to have handed it out without the proof reading which would have detected the rank illiteracy (or devious trap) of asking pupils to use 'I' or 'me' to complete:
When I asked the Scotsman if he enjoyed haggis, he looked at me and said ‘Och .....’ 
I doubt the 'bullet' sentence caused any lasting damage, though it does seem unnecessarily crass to include it in a grammar exercise for primary-age children. What concerns me more is the idea of teachers indiscriminately trawling the internet for off-the-peg lessons and homework with no guarantee of quality.

Over the past 50 years, the nature of education has shifted from imparting knowledge and skills to teachers being expected to keep pupils - or 'learners' - entertained. The result has been a desperate scramble for novelty while trying to satisfy the demand for constant exhaustive record-keeping - senior management and inspectors do love a brightly-coloured progress chart or graph! - and a corresponding lack of consistency in what some of us would call the basics.

Borrowing back a comment I left at Julia's place recently, on a post highlighting the effects of this degeneration,
Truly we have an education system at which the rest of the world can only wonder!

Sunday 10 May 2015

The Sunday Songbook

A borrowed piece today:

A Pict Song
Rudyard Kipling

Rome never looks where she treads.
Always her heavy hooves fall
On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
Her sentries pass on—that is all,
And we gather behind them in hordes,
And plot to reconquer the Wall,
With only our tongues for our swords.

We are the Little Folk—we!
Too little to love or to hate.
Leave us alone and you’ll see
How we can drag down the State!
We are the worm in the wood!
We are the rot at the root!
We are the taint in the blood!
We are the thorn in the foot!

Mistletoe killing an oak—
Rats gnawing cables in two—
Moths making holes in a cloak—
How they must love what they do!
Yes—and we Little Folk too,
We are busy as they—
Working our works out of view—
Watch, and you’ll see it some day!

No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we’ll guide them along
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves,
But you—you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!

And,in case you thought it was fanciful to connect it with modern politics...

Friday 8 May 2015

Balls gets the snip

We would never normally stoop so low as to celebrate someone's defeat but, in one case, we are prepared to make an exception. As they say, 'Don't let the door hit you on the way out!'

There is one thing I shall miss about him: the fact that, according to in the conventions of headline-speak, his utterances are all reported thus...
Labour not anti-business - Balls
Balls - Labour Government will 'balance the books'
...and somehow I find myself mentally adding an invisible exclamation mark of disbelief each time. I admit it may be somewhat below the belt to poke fun at a chap's name but you have to agree that there has been a rich vein of satire to be mined here.

Given his previous appearances in this blog, there is, of course, only one possible victory song today...
As Labour takes a drubbing in every counting hall,
Let's raise a toast to seeing Brown's old enforcer fall
And cheer as Morley suffers the unkindest cut of all;
Who'd have believed it? Labour have lost their Balls!