Newgate News

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

Thursday, 2 July 2015

' 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 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 steals a BMW and drives it into a wall at 70km/h....
or Biology?
How can Shanice and Ami 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 love brightly-coloured progress charts and graphs - 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!

Sunday, 3 May 2015

'A Little Princess'

Back in the 1970s, when I was a child, princesses came in two varieties. There were the fairy-tale ones in books, whose royal status unaccountably enabled them to spin frogs into gold or identify stray vegetables in their bedding, and then there was the real-life home-grown version, an energetic outdoor type with a no-nonsense style and an HGV licence who was not above telling intrusive photographers to "Naff awf!"

Even her wedding, that ultimate opportunity for frills, furbelows and fantasy trimmings, was relatively devoid of fairy-tale razzmatazz; as she walked up the aisle to the sound of trumpets, it would not have been a surprise to learn that, under the severe lines of her dress, she was wearing comfortable boots and possibly even a pair of jodhpurs. The fairy-tale stuff, it was clear, had no place in the real world.

Then, in the early nineties, an insidious invasion began. As new parents, we started receiving mailshots advertising toys, lurid home furnishings and videos with such slogans as "Disney was part of your childhood, now make it part of your baby's too".

It was all rather odd; beyond the 'Disney Time' television programmes and rare trips to the cinema, Disney had been conspicuously absent from both of our childhoods and those of our friends. Unless we were very unusual, this was a startlingly cynical attempt to rewrite history in an attempt to drum up trade for the soon-to-be-opened EuroDisney Resort.

A key part of this mass marketing strategy was the 'Disney Princess' - a concept designed to sell merchandise, costumes, makeovers and, above all, the idea that this bedizened, doe-eyed fantasy figure in a long dress was a role model for little girls to aspire to on a daily basis.

Mothers who should have more sense have bought wholesale into this culture of all-things-pink-and-sparkly, indulging their daughters in ways that must have Disney's accountants rubbing their hands in glee - from the toothbrush and cereal bowl to the ballet bag, lunchbox and duvet cover, the stamp of the Disney princess brand can pervade a child's life from dawn to dusk.

Along with the glittery trappings goes a more sinister element - a sense of entitlement and imperious self-importance all too familiar to many teachers. Self-styled 'princesses' expect special treatment and, all too often, the material indulgence is symptomatic of undue deference to the child's wishes on the part of working parents too tired, busy or absent to argue. It's the perfect way to turn potentially sensible young women into appearance-obsessed chronic consumers with an inflated idea of their own abilities.

The apotheosis of this hideous cultural infiltration must surely be the official birthday party merchandise, a pink plethora of branded sparkly banners, tableware, 'chair bows', confetti, 'table sprinkles', tiaras and wands to celebrate the 'special day' in a fashion that Liberace would have dismissed as nauseatingly over the top. (There is a certain amusing irony that my source is the Middletons' website, which offers 'Gorgeous partyware to suit all little princesses' *.)

It remains to be seen whether the media will try to cast the latest addition to the royal family in the same mould by virtue of her paternal heritage or whether she will be seen as something separate. Her older brother's much-imitated appurtenances being more in the style of Ernest Shepard than Walt Disney, it will be interesting to see whether there is a rush on the part of new mothers to abandon the plastic glitz in favour of a classier image, re-evaluating the role in the eyes of the next generation.

*If they really believe this, the Palace staff might be advised to stock up on popcorn when the child's birthday approaches a few years hence; I suspect the paternal relatives may not be entirely in agreement. (for those of a strong stomach).

Saturday, 2 May 2015

'Victorian Poverty' - Spectre or Chimaera?

Teachers are bringing an extra packed lunch for poor pupils, washing their clothes and even cutting their hair as they warn of a return to Victorian poverty.
This, via the Telegraph, is according to a survey by the NAHT, which reports that, by their calculations, schools are spending an average each year of £2000 (primary) to £3000 (secondary) on basic school equipment, washing clothes and feeding children.

And who is to blame? Why, the evil Tories!
"This is money that schools are having to find to help families who have been left high and dry by cuts to public services."
Though the union spokesman is generous enough to share the responsibility around;
“We know that whichever political party holds power after next week, deeper cuts are coming.”
Now, I admit I am slightly puzzled. This country has a long history of people who, in conditions of abject poverty, kept the doorstep spotless and the children well-scrubbed, while more widely-travelled members of clan Macheath have seen youngsters in immaculate school uniform issuing from tiny mud huts in the African bush or slum dwellings in India.

What, then, are we to make of this?
He cited a case of a teacher in Hackney, east London, who had to teach a child how to brush her teeth after the pupil came to school with food in her teeth and toothache. 
Other teachers had to provide their students with toothbrushes and monitor that they brushed their teeth during school hours.
Or this?
“Teachers give pupils new clothes while they wash their dirty clothes and prepare breakfast for them..."
According to the NAHT spokesman, poverty and poor parenting are inextricably linked:
If you’re a poor child growing up in what seems like Victorian Britain at times, schools have to provide basic parenting and other services.”
With a certain interesting irony, I could, if I were to borrow the Left's modus operandi, protest that this is deeply offensive to the many parents who, despite desperately straitened means, manage to give their children breakfast and bring them to school as clean and neatly-dressed as possible without any outside help.

This seamless elision of poor personal hygiene with government policy is at best simplistic. Teachers report that there are children arriving in Reception class unable to use a knife and fork or hold a pencil and some are barely toilet-trained (possibly the real reason for installing school washing machines); the level of support required to overcome such monumental parental inadequacy is surely beyond the means of any UK government.

Meanwhile, far from the 'extra mouth to feed' of Victorian times, nearly every British child has become a goose that lays golden eggs. For some low income households, the weekly child benefit (£20.70 for the first and £13.70 each for the rest) may be doubled or trebled once benefit payments and tax credits are taken into account; under the circumstances, although poor money management undoubtedly plays a part, the term 'Victorian poverty' is hardly appropriate, however appealing to headline-writers.

There have, sadly, always been parents who neglect their children. In previous centuries, poor sanitation and malnutrition compounded the damage done by parents too busy, idle or intoxicated to care or whose mental or physical incapacity rendered them unable to meet the needs of a dependent child. Where possible, relatives or neighbours might step in to help - plenty of today's pensioners can testify to the once-common practice of taking in someone else's children.

The advent of the Welfare State quite rightly ensured that, along with healthier living conditions, practical help and support were available to those on the margins of society but, however well-meaning its founders, the twin evils of unwieldy bureaucracy and poorly-targeted benefits have conspired to undermine its function as far as child-rearing is concerned, complicated by the vast burden placed on the system by early parenthood, fragmentary family structure and deliberate exploitation.

Throwing money at the problem is not the answer, however. My own dealings with Social Services and benefits offices (as both 'client's representative' and temporary employee) revealed a monstrous logo-ridden, Left-leaning, meetings-with-biscuits office culture (which, though it would definitely benefit from substantial pruning, is likely to have been preserved as a safe haven for those wielding the knife while front-line services bear the brunt of 'government cuts').

In any case, according to a document from HomeStart* (a charity which arranges for volunteers to work with families in difficulties):
The volunteer thought that it did not matter how wonderful an array of services you can have on offer for families. If they do not have the emotional ability to be in a place to recognise that they need them, or how to actually go and ask for help, it can be a waste of time.
That the Welfare State is fallible is undisputed; that teachers or schools will quietly step in to help deprived children in genuine emergencies is, I should hope, a given. However, such necessary assistance cannot and should not be conflated with regular measures to counteract ongoing parental inadequacy, incompetence or laziness, least of all in the interests of generating political capital.

*The document provides case studies of families in crisis - a sobering catalogue of teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness, sometimes repeated over several generations. The State simply could not afford to fund what HomeStart volunteers are doing unless other public services were cut to the bone.
I know someone who, having been helped by HomeStart, has herself become a volunteer now that her own children have left home - that is surely the way forward, rather than relying entirely on an overstretched welfare budget. The crucial thing is to break the cycle so that the children can avoid the same problems and a formal welfare system is not necessarily the way to accomplish it. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015


Another opportunity this week to indulge in a favourite pastime; it seems someone forgot to put on the handbrake of a Russian spacecraft and, as it begins its slow but inexorable descent - currently predicted (for the UK, at least) to end in the early hours of 9th May (+ 48 hours) - those inclined can enjoy speculating where it would do the most good, should it arrive down here as an assortment of red-hot fragments.

In general, I try to be well-disposed towards my fellow man, but I have to admit there are several people I should be very happy to see on the receiving end. Actually, I like to envisage an asteroid strike which, unaccountably, finds them all gathered together in the impact zone, but I'd settle for some Russian space junk in the meantime.

Once the MSM get hold of it, this will doubtless lead to a repeat of the speculation which, during the 6.5-tonne UARS satellite's decaying orbit, led to entertaining headlines like 'Britain in path of falling satellite' - an assertion owing rather more to dramatic effect than to accuracy.

Though there has been little time for posting recently, we have been diligently drinking to the near-Earth asteroids of the past few weeks - including the house-sized 2015 HD10 passing by at 627,000km today - and keeping an eye on the treasure hunt that has resulted from Sunday night's Irish fireball.

Over the next few days though, we'll mostly be following the runaway space freighter's orbital path and current altitude at Satflare, where the tracking display proves strangely hypnotic.

4/5/15 Update: New estimate:  Fri, 08/05/2015 19:26:00 +/- 24 hours UTC

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Cnuttery? There's an app for that...

With the onset of warmer weather around these shores, we are girding our metaphorical loins to document the usual quota of beach rescues.

Along with the foolhardy who either fail to appreciate the lunar influence on our seas or believe that the laws of physics apply only to other people, the rescue services are frequently called upon to assist the hubristic unwary who think they can walk on water - or rather, water-saturated mud.

Those members of my family who grew up within spitting distance of the Sands of Dee were, to a man (and woman) reared on the poetic fate of Mary, who chose the wrong time to fetch the cattle home across the estuary and thereby met an untimely and soggy end. Such cautionary tales have, for countless generations, been used to teach impressionable youngsters the dangers of coastal mud and a rising tide.

Now, however, with schools more likely to teach the exploits of Anansi the Spider (spelling amended - see below) or Rama and Sita than the sad story of Mary and her cows (or the local equivalent), and with easy travel bringing droves of unwary landlubbers to the seaside, the rescue services have their work cut out.

This weekend brought a particularly up-to-date version of the problem, thanks to a mobile-phone based craze doubtless conceived by urban technophiles who don't see much of Mother Nature in the raw, so to speak:
The coastguard had to be called out after 15 people got stuck in mud while taking part in a hi-tech seaside treasure hunt.
Someone appears to have had the bright idea of hiding the 'treasure' near the low water mark during a spring tide on a stretch of coastline notorious for quicksand. According to the coastguard Operations Officer:
"We have since discovered that they were undertaking the hobby of geocaching. This was in an extremely dangerous place and we would not encourage others to search in these areas because there are complex tidal patterns and deep mud."
Geocaching is, as I understand it, running around with a GPS-enabled smartphone looking for clues; self-preservation, it seems, is optional. The impressive cast called out out by concerned passers-by and credited in full in the Telegraph consisted of:
Clevedon Lifeboat, the coastguard helicopter from Portland, a search and rescue helicopter from RAF Chivenor, the Portishead RNLI inshore lifeboat, teams from the Weston-super-Mare and Portishead Coastguard Rescue and the Somerset Fire and Rescue Firefly Hovercraft.
Along with one for the ultimate selfie fail, it's probably about time they set up a special Darwin Award category for those who, abandoning all common sense, may blithely follow their own pocket-sized Pied Piper into oblivion.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Hot Air, Harman and Hogging It All

Demetrius, as always, hits the nail squarely on the head:
"The sweltering heat in the South and East of England arises from a plume of high pressure caused by hot air movement unusual for this time of year. This is due to a surge of political manifestos."
Foremost among the noxious emissions is the flatulence emanating from Harriet Harman's Big Pink Battle Bus under the guise of a 'Women's Manifesto' - surely as clear an illustration as white facepaint on black celebrities of the principle that discrimination is, for some at least, definitely a one-way street.

Among other gems, this document apparently promises guaranteed childcare from 8am to 6pm, to 'set a goal for fifty per cent of ministerial appointments to public boards to be women' - nothing like ensuring you always get the best person for the job! - and to double paid paternity leave.

It also includes the bright idea of four weeks of unpaid childcare leave for working grandparents; having brought up their own children without the benefit of recent childcare subsidies and tax credits, grandparents are now being invited to forego a month's wages so their grown-up offspring can get to work.

This is apparently because grandmothers "give up their work when the kids are little in order to help the mothers and fathers balance work and home" - in other words, to enable mothers to leave their new babies and find career-based fulfilment in the workplace in the approved feminist fashion.

This, it turns out, is less than ideal for the grandmothers, who put their own careers on hold while youth has its day "and then find that they can't go back to work once the children are back at school because once you're in your late 50s and early 60s it's really hard for a woman to get a job then."

Really Harriet? Could this, perhaps, be because the posts for which they are they are suitably qualified and experienced are already occupied by mothers who have farmed out their children on a daily basis in order to get straight back into the workplace?

It all reminds me of 1990s City superwoman Nicola Horlick, interviewed in her kitchen on how she successfully managed her career and family while her mother silently tackled a sinkful of washing-up in the background. According the the Mail, 'Research suggests 1.9 million grandparents have given up a job, reduced their hours, or taken time off work to look after their grandchildren.'

It appears that the 'having it all' generation of career women, encouraged by the likes of Harman, not only want the taxpayer to fund their childcare but also expect their mothers to sacrifice their own careers to take up the slack; how fortunate, then, that Harman's happy compromise means the grandparents only lose a month's salary instead!

As a bonus, this issue has given us a contender for the most meaningless soundbite of the campaign so far - though, as ever, there's plenty of competition:
"When asked about whether he was assuming that older women could afford to work for free, Mr Miliband said that this was "about going with the grain of people's lives" and that the modern workplace needed to reflect "the reality of family life"."

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Do you think anyone was pleased to see them?

A little more recycling today (with apologies to Thin Lizzy...)

Guess who just got back today?
Them wild-eyed Blairs that have been away;
Haven't changed, have much to say,
But man, I still think them cats are crazy!

They’ve been asking what’s going down
Asking where all the cameras could be found
Now the election's come around
Driving all the voters crazy.

The Blairs are back in town

You know Cherie that used to smile a lot?
Any sniff of a freebie and she’d be there takin' all you got
And then off for a break on some millionaire's yacht,
I mean she was schemin'.

And all that time Tony was about the place,
‘Cool Britannia’ and that smug grin on Tony’s face;
Man, he made politics a disgrace,
As they said - “Things can only get better”.

Spread the word around
Guess who’s back in town

Every night they'll be dressed to kill
Down at the Ivy or the Ritz grill,
The drink will flow and money will spill
And if the people want to bitch, just let them.

And the satirists in the corner blasting out the same old song;
The Blairs’ll ignore it, so hope it won't be long,
Won't be long till summer comes
And then the Blairs are gone again.