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

Wednesday 30 August 2017

They that go down to the sea in blow-up flamingoes...

What is it about Rhyl and inflatables? Rhyl, as regular readers may remember, was where a mother-and-son duo aboard an inflatable rubber ring were fished out of the Irish Sea by the long-suffering RNLI a few years ago and every summer since has brought more examples of pneumatic foolhardiness.

The latest occurred last week, when lifeboats were called out to look for a child who had 'fallen from an inflatable flamingo' some 400m from the beach. According to witnesses, the deflated bird retrieved from the water during the search (the RNLI web page helpfully includes a picture) was originally part of a flotilla of giant blow-up toys which included a 'white flamingo' (or possibly a swan?), a unicorn and a slice of pizza.

While there is no shortage of parents who, having reproduced, appear to be attempting to remedy the fact by casting themselves and their progeny adrift on inflatable toys in in an offshore breeze - the prevailing winds at Rhyl head more or less straight out to sea - and an outgoing tide (the flamingo call-out came an hour and a half after high water), this motley collection surely qualifies for special mention (or possibly an Arts Council grant).

This story comes only a few weeks after reports that the Rhyl lifeboat crew, called out to a small inflatable dinghy in difficulties in an offshore wind, found something strangely familiar about the situation:
The two people in the vessel were immediately recognised as the same ones the crew had been called to on three previous occasions in the last month. 
Although the boat was equipped with an outboard motor, the engine lacked sufficient power to counteract the forces of wind and tide. One can imagine that it was through gritted teeth that the pair were subsequently 'given some strong advice' about basic seamanship; with that level of incompetence and carelessness out there, it must be only a matter of time before there simply aren't enough lifeboats and helicopters to go round.

Perhaps all this is an inevitable consequence of the ubiquitous health & safety culture pervading our schools and society as a whole. Remove the hazards from day-to-day living and the human race, in Gaia-esque self-regulation, is likely to discover for itself other ways of putting natural selection into practice for the good of the species.

Friday 25 August 2017

Pick and mix

Today we are raising a brimming tankard in honour of the rambling Irish Grandad, who has performed the sterling public service of putting online the archives of the Raccoon Arms (see sidebar). Grandad, your very good health!

Meanwhile, I've been doing a spot of housekeeping here in the Tavern, and, among the dust and cobwebs, I found an assortment of notes which never made it online.

For a variety of reasons, these draft (or daft) fragments either resisted further development or proved too insubstantial to make a reasonable post. Rather than throw the whole lot out with the rubbish, I thought I'd offer a few of them for your edification and amusement this Bank Holiday weekend so, in no particular order, here we go:


Every now and then you hear of a demise so bizarre that you can imagine St Peter at the Pearly gates, quill in hand, pausing and looking up from his list in utter amazement: "You did what?"

In keeping with its chosen role as purveyor of exotic and salacious news stories from around the globe, the Telegraph last week brought us the tale of a Michigan woman who was admitted to hospital with a fatal gunshot wound to the eye.
St. Joseph Public Safety Department Director Mark Clapp told the Kalamazoo Gazette 55-year-old Christina Bond was “having trouble adjusting her bra holster and could not get it to fit the way she wanted it to.” 
In an attempt to sort out the problem, she apparently bent forward to have a closer look, whereupon the gun went off; although 55 is probably rather too late in life to qualify for a Darwin Award, this untimely departure surely deserves some kind of honourable mention.


With apologies to readers of a sensitive disposition:

The Clacton Gazette surpassed itself this week with the tale of a couple observed in flagrante delicto on Martello Beach in broad daylight amid the crowds of promenading holidaymakers.

For reasons known only to himself, one witness decided to film their antics and, presumably, share the result with the local paper, leading to this exquisite quote from the article:
The couple’s identity is unknown. Their faces can’t be seen on the video but the woman is believed to have a bulldog tattoo on her back.

And finally, this one just defied any attempt to make sensible use of it but remains one of my favourite headlines:

Giant gorilla made from 40,000 spoons proves popular at Llangollen Eisteddfod

Tuesday 22 August 2017

'Warning! Warning!'

As I write this, there are two gas engineers busy digging a hole in the road outside the Tavern. One of them has just lit a cigarette so, if this post is never completed, you will know why...

Remember Sully Island?

The 400m rocky causeway which connects this tiny outcrop to the coast of south Wales is completely covered by fast-flowing water twice a day. Back in 2014, the RNLI installed warning lights in a bid to reduce the number of visitors cut off by the rising tide.

    (BBC news)

At the time, there was a suggestion that additional measures would be needed - audible warnings, perhaps, or text messages; this does not appear to have happened, although a new warning sign was put up earlier this year to supplement the pleasingly dramatic admonition below.

So, three years on, is the system working?
Thirty people have been rescued near Sully Island so far this year.
Well I'd say that's a resounding 'no' - either that or there are even more potential Darwin Award winners out there than I thought. The RNLI and coastguard clearly have their work cut out - and they're not the only ones:
Gordon Hadfield, who owns the beach at Swanbridge and a cafe, said he and his staff had saved six people from the water in the past four years. Three weeks ago he led a family of eight to safety.
So how do people manage to get themselves marooned or washed off the causeway with such depressing regularity? According to the coastguard service
"The sad fact is, a lot of people come down here and do not know the tide is going to come around them. They don't know it's an island, so there's a lot of education around that."
Now, here I have to hold my hands up and say I have never been there but a quick look at Google clearly shows that, at low tide, the island's crown of vegetation is surrounded on all sides by sea-washed sand and rock; you don't have to be a geographical genius to work out the implications - unless, of course, you have no understanding of the concept of tides.

Sadly for humanity (or fortunately for the gene pool, depending on your outlook), such ignorance appears to be far from uncommon, as a trawl through the pages of this blog will show. In addition - and possibly a significant factor at Sully Island - there are the latter-day Cnuts, who somehow believe themselves (and their hapless families) exempt from the laws of nature and regard a tide-lapped causeway as a challenge.

As we have seen on previous excursions to the Somerset coast, the Bristol Channel claims to have the second strongest tides in the world (though some Canadians and Australians might beg to differ). Add in a 40-minute round trip on a slippery rock causeway and a plentiful supply of tourists - either ignorant or foolhardy - and you have a recipe for disaster.


Update: from the RNLI website: and still it goes on...
'We were called just after 8:15pm this evening, Sunday 27th August 2017 to attend reports of people in the water off Sully Island. 
When we arrived on scene the people who had been in the water had made it ashore but a further 4 people (3 adults, one child) required lifeboat assistance to return to the mainland.'

Sunday 20 August 2017

Hoist by her own petard

A recent staple on French news programmes recently has been the investigations which have followed this summer's forest fires in Provence and Corsica. No sooner have the flames died down than the forensic crews are out in force, sifting through the ashes for DNA and chemical evidence.

It turns out that a significant proportion of these fires have been started deliberately, usually prompted by casual vandalism or outright pyromania (although Italy, also badly affected, has produced at least one example of enterprising part-time firemen, paid by the hour in emergencies, attempting to supplement their wages with the odd spot of arson).

Surprisingly - at least to those of us accustomed to the mills of British justice grinding very slowly indeed - the courts seem to be running through these cases at impressively high speed; almost before the ground has cooled, the papers are reporting that the culprits have been identified, arrested, tried, sentenced and taken away to begin prison terms of anything up to three years.

Thus it is that, a scant five days after the incident, we read of one particular exception to the general run of offenders:
A 69-year-old woman has been given a suspended sentence of three months with a fine of 3,000 euros for having unintentionally started a fire in Corsica.
It seems that the woman concerned was out walking her dog when it ran off into the undergrowth and would not come back when called. In a somewhat unorthodox attempt to scare the disobedient animal out of hiding, she fired a distress flare ('un pétard de rappel') into the bushes, igniting a fire which destroyed twenty acres of shrubland.

Realising that she had done 'something stupid', she called the fire brigade, apologised profusely to the emergency services and then went down to the police station in Ajaccio to turn herself in (or, as the French has it, 'pour se dénoncer', which sounds much more dramatic).  Four days later, she received her sentence - one wonders how long a similar case would have taken in Britain.

What makes this case particularly interesting is the reaction of a local association; reporting that several landowners have consistently failed in their civic duty to keep the village area free of undergrowth (the usual fire prevention measure on the island), it suggests that the woman was not entirely to blame for the fire - she was, it says, responsible but not necessarily guilty.


Friday 18 August 2017

Anna Raccoon

Tonight in the Tavern we will be raising a glass or two in memory of the landlady of the Raccoon Arms.

It's seven years since I wrote this (in response to her temporarily closing her blog) but it still applies:

If Dickens had a spiritual descendant among today's bloggers, it was surely Anna Raccoon - tireless researcher, indomitable campaigner, witty satirist and gifted raconteuse. 

The blogosphere will be much poorer for her absence.


Wednesday 2 August 2017

Cracking the whip

While scanning the 'sits. vacant' columns recently, I came across a reference to staff being involved in 'driving customers online'.

Something about the implied coercion rankled and I later tried to find the advert again to investigate further. I didn't succeed but, to my surprise, a quick google of the phrase produced a veritable cornucopia of books, webinars and courses devoted to the subject using exactly that term, along with a collection of self-congratulatory reports (among which was the rather worryingly curtailed boast that:
'We've been a key part of the Sainsbury's Groceries online team for a long time, driving customers online through many traditional channels, including execution...' [sic]) 
Restaurants, retailers, power companies and banks all appear to be utterly unabashed, not to say enthusiastic, at the idea of compelling customers to contact them via the internet. It's not a new phenomenon (see 'The Bank that likes to say "F**k off"') but, judging by the amount of training material out there, it has become a lucrative and widespread business in both private and public sectors.

Perhaps it's just me, but I find this suggestion of 'driving' people into changing their behaviour more than a little repellent and no more so than when it concerns basic services; while customers can choose not to patronise a shop or restaurant which is trying to force them online, the same tactics used by the NHS or local councils are little short of bullying.

In between, there are the banks and utilities, where customers have a nominal choice but cannot easily dispense with the service altogether. It's bad enough for those of us who are computer-literate and can make the change, albeit under protest; customers who cannot comply often end up paying more and finding it hard to access their own accounts.

I'm quite happy to deal over the internet with companies where that was my first port of call but, where I initially chose to contact the organisation in person or over the phone, I expect that to continue where possible and, more importantly, particularly over financial or health matters, I neither expect nor want to be pressurised into putting my personal details online.

I've long thought that the banks and utilities, along with some public services who really ought to know better, are effectively treating us as somewhat recalcitrant livestock, applying the Patrician's principle of extracting money from the populace:
"Taxation, gentlemen, is very much like dairy farming. The task is to extract the maximum amount of milk with the minimum of moo." ('Jingo': Terry Pratchett)
To talk of 'driving' customers anywhere suggests that they see us that way too.


To lighten the mood a little, the same trawl through the listings turned up this little gem of unfortunate phrasing:
'Richmond Vale Academy offers an A-certificate in “Fighting with the Poor” in St-Vincent and the Grenadines.'