Peter Rhodes on coalmine canaries, banking bullies and wonderful Welsh place-names

Read the latest column from Peter Rhodes

The singing sentinel
The singing sentinel

It may have struck you recently that high-street banks exist for three purposes. Firstly, to sack large numbers of their own employees. Secondly, to make expensive TV adverts proclaiming how much they cherish their customers, while sometimes caring for herds of black horses. Thirdly, to drive as many customers as possible out of bank branches and on to the internet.

About 20 per cent of UK bank customers refuse to be lured into the joys of internet banking. Are they being lined up for special bullying? Here's a sinister little story. A reader tells me: “A relative of mine was accused recently by a bank cashier of spreading Covid-19 by coming into the bank to conduct a payment. Is this the future for non-technical customers?” I would not be at all surprised. Of course, we cherish you, folks. Just so long as you don't cross our threshold.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, reached into the working-class dictionary of capitalist nasties to accuse the Government of treating people in his region like “canaries in the coalmine” over the experimental Covid-19 shutdowns. Younger readers start here: Back in ye olden days, miners carried caged canaries into the pits to detect lethal gasses. The canaries did this by obligingly dying at the first whiff, before the gas affected humans. Until that moment, the canaries, officially known as a “sentinel species,” probably thought they were pets, although it must have puzzled them that they were the only creatures down t'pit who were not union members.

The surprising thing about coalmine canaries is how long the practice endured. The last ones to serve in British pits were retired in 1986 when they were replaced by some high-tech detection gizmo. After the birds had gone, the only non-humans left in the coal industry were pit ponies, the last of which were released from their toil at a private mine in Wales as late as 1999.

This last pair of pit ponies worked at a place which proves that, long before Dylan Thomas invented the seaside town of Llareggub (read it backwards) for his 1954 radio play Under Milk Wood, the Welsh were past masters at creating names to make us smile. The last mine with pit ponies was at Pantygassed. More mature readers may find themselves reminded of that lovely traditional ballad, The Old Red Flannel Drawers That Maggie Wore.

Still in Wales, police warned they were unable to intercept and turn back visitors from high-risk parts of Britain. On the other hand, is there anything to stop them examining, say, 10 per cent of vehicles registered in certain parts of Britain in “routine” road-safety and insurance checks?

Under the gimlet eye of an experienced copper, there is no such thing as a 100 per cent roadworthy vehicle. An old favourite (spoiler alert) is a loose battery. That'll be sixty quid, sir. And England's back that way . . .

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