Friday, July 25, 2014

Bath grass grows long

Mankind has always had a  rather ambivalent relationship with grass.

No, not  that kind of grass, silly. What we’re talking about here is the sort of grass that grows in gardens, and parks, and meadows, and prairies, and cricket pitches.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

We seed it, we scare off the birds that come to eat the seeds, we water it, we nurture it, we cosset it, we feed it.

And then we come along with a great big noisy mower and give it the horticultural equivalent of a Number One crew cut.
Notice about long grass, Royal Victoria Park Bath
That notice

And the grass, quite uncomplainingly, just keeps growing under our feet.

But now things are changing, at least in Royal Victoria Park, Bath, where  the grassy banks and other less-used areas are being allowed to grow long.

The reason, as it says on the little signboards that the council has posted up and down Royal Avenue, being to make the park “more visually in keeping with an 1850’s setting” and to “increase wild flower numbers (over time) and habitats for invertebrates, birds, and mammals.”

And whatever the cynics may say about it just being a cover for spending cuts, this can only be a good thing.

(Come on, how much money are they going to save by not trimming a few square metres of grass? Everyone knows that the real savings are going to be made in closing down all the public loos and a children’s centre here and there.)

Long grass, Royal Victoria Park, Bath, distant magpie
The wild bit: uncut grass in Royal Victoria Park, with flourishing birdlife
Now, anyone familiar with the Bath-based works of Jane Austen will have a special fondness for her detailed descriptions of the wildlife that once roamed and gambolled in the city’s open spaces in the days before the city corporation began to cut the grass in the parkland to the west.

In Persuasion, for example, she refers on several occasions to the magnificent herds of spiny anteaters that once added animation to our rolling greensward.

And who can forget the dramatic scene in Northanger Abbey when romantic heroine Catherine Morland is rescued by the urbane Henry Tilney from the chitinous claws of a giant stag beetle?

Perhaps strangely, Austen makes no mention of the flocks of flamingos that once nested in the stately pines of Lower Lansdown, or the screech owl that was reported to have made its home in the Abbey bell tower in 1803.

Floral display and gardener, Royal Victoria Park, Bath
The tame bit: Royal Victoria Park, with parkie
But she can hardly have been unaware of their existence, given the habit, then as now, of opinionated Bathonians to write scathing letters to the Chronicle and Herald about the annoying habits of the city’s bird life.

All of which goes to show that grass deserves to be taken as seriously now as it was back in the days of the inimitable Jane.

So the next time Mrs D hints that the paths round the allotment are in need of a trimming, then yours truly has the perfect excuse.

Those unsightly looking tussocks are actually a vitally important wildlife habitat, and to molest them with the trusty two-stroke strimmer would be nothing less than a crime against nature.

And if she’ll believe that, she’ll believe anything.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why allotmenteers have to carry the can

It’s nearly crunch time up at Mrs D’s allotment. And we’re not talking about the crunch of freshly picked peapods or sumptuously succulent strawbs.

No, we’ve got a problem with our waterworks, and it’s going to take some fixing. Here’s why.

In the beginning was the Tap.  And the Tap was good, for it had a Handle which turned, and a Spout upon which to attach a Hose.

And the Allotmenteers rejoiced, and thronged unto the Tap, and fixed their Hoses upon its Spout, and spread its Water even upon the Face of their Onions.

For verily, they said one unto another, we have no need to fill a Multitude of Watering Cans, nor carry them unto the Plot, and sprinkle the Water thereunto, and then stagger back for more.

For lo, they said, we can run a Hose from the Tap unto our Crops, and swiftly bring the Water unto them, like as the River that floweth in the Desert and succoureth the Date and the Olive.
But the Board of Water, yea even the Water that is Wessex, saw the Tap and waxed exceeding wrath.

And it spake unto the Council, whose Name is called B&NES but whom Everyone knoweth as BANES, saying: Take away the Tap with its Spout and its turnable Handle, for it irketh us, like unto the Cockatrice that irketh the Lion in the Plains of Judah. For it wasteth the Water that belongeth rightly unto Us. And say ye unto the Allotmenteers: No more Hoses for you Lot.

Now when B&NES comprehended the Anger that was upon the face of the Water Board it was sore afraid, and replaced the Tap with a different Kind. Yea, even the Kind with a Knob, that must be pushed in else it springeth out and stoppeth. Yea, like unto a tap from a Public Convenience (before said Convenience was closed  by said Council), and upon which no Hose might be attached.

And the Allotmenteers beat their Breasts and wept, and asked of one another: What shall become of us, for we must needs squeeze the Tap until our Watering Cans are full, and make a Score of Journeys from Tap unto Vegetables. And verily our Hands will be calloused and our Feet besplattered.

And they mentioned this privily unto the Council, and the Council replied unto them, saying: tough. Which is to say, deal with it.

And then Mrs D rose up, and went unto her Chest of Drawers, and brought forth a Belt of many Holes, and girded it about the Tap. And the Belt did squeeze the Tap mightily, and the Water continued to flow. And the Allotmenteers shared the Belt amongst them, and were exceeding(ish) glad.

And then spake Mrs D unto her Spouse, saying: Go thou even unto the Website that is called Amazon, and buy thou therefrom a mighty plastic Bag, which will ride upon the Wheelbarrow, even as Nebuchadnezzar rode in Triumph through Babylon. And fill thou it from the Tap, that we may carry four or five Canloads at once.

And then spake Mr D unto Mrs D, saying: What about my bad Back? But she heard him not.

And when the Allotmenteers saw the Bag, they marvelled at its Capacity, and lo, Mr and Mrs D used no more nor less Water than they did in the Days of the Hose. And they saw that their Vegetables were good.

Thanks be to B&NES.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Choosing a present for Father's Day

Here it comes again – Sunday June 15 2014, Father’s Day. A day on which to honour the paterfamilias, the man about the house, Big Daddy, He Who Must Be Obeyed (Or At Least Ought To Be). 

And not, as some cynics may suggest, a cheap marketing ploy invented by card manufacturers to drum up trade in the lull between Easter and Christmas.

Oh no sirree boss, Father’s Day is the real deal, and don’t you forget it, because if you do, your dad will think you don’t love him.

However many times you may call him “Popsicle”.

Right, that’s enough moral blackmail. Onwards to the presents. And what do you get for the man who has everything? Or would have everything, if certain offspring hadn’t borrowed it, covered it in paint and dumped it at the bottom of the garden?

Perhaps Mrs D’s magazines will point the way. In among the sofas, soft furnishings and sconces that grace the pages of the country-home-and-garden-style glossy periodicals strewing the floors of Dixon Towers, there must be something suitable for Popsicle on his own special day.

Let’s see now... Fabric cleaner... Nerve tonic... Wait, how about a shepherd’s hut? They’re all the rage, you know. Tastefully painted in rustic shades of sage, slate, or russet, they trundle around your garden on wooden wheels and offer the put-upon Pa a haven from the incessant demands of family members for him to fix the printer for the third time this week.

“Let your soul breathe,” says the advert. If only. That printer won’t fix itself, and if we ever did get a shepherd’s hut there’d be no room left in the garden to swing a cat.

Speaking of which...

How about an electronic cat tracker? This ingenious device uses the power of GPS, 3G and who knows, maybe USB too, to log your moggie’s wanderings in the great outdoors and relay them to your computer, tablet or smartphone.

All of which would be fine and dandy, and would no doubt offer hours of instructive fun, if it weren’t for two things.

First, the cat that condescends to live at Dixon Towers would consider a tracking collar an infringement on its liberty almost as heinous as being decked out in a big pink bow, and would react accordingly: claws first.

I ain't wearing no damn collar

Second, said cat spends 99.37 per cent of its time in bed, only occasionally stumbling through the catflap to make sure the sun is still shining before mooching back to bed for another prolonged nap.

The cat tracker sounds rather like the techno-feline equivalent of watching paint dry, and it won’t be making it onto our Father’s Day gift list.

No, Mrs D’s aspirational reading matter is no help at all when it comes to choosing the perfect paternal present for June 15.

So perhaps it’s best to stick to the novelty stuff. That Darth Vader “I am your father” T-shirt was well received a couple of years ago. Anything that says “40%” on the label and can’t be bought by kids is just great. And there’s a chap at work who is very proud of his “Who’s the Daddy?” coffee mug.

Oh, and some shower gel would be nice, too.

Last year’s has nearly run out.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

World Cup 2014 - Ultimate Survival Guide

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or so, you can hardly be unaware that the World Cup kicks off today.

And if you want a chance to join in the fun, here it is at last...

Your Essential – Nay Ultimate – Cut-Out-And-Stick-To-The-Fridge-Where-It-Will-Gather-Dust-Until-The-European-Championships-In-2016 Survival Guide to Brazil 2014.

Getting There: If you haven’t bought your tickets and booked your hotel by now, forget it. Brazil is a very, very long way away (a member of the Bath Chronicle staff went there once and can confirm this), and is not a country to be visited lightly. Especially if your passport needs renewing, which in the current chaos will take at least six months. By which time, they’ll think it’s all over. And it will be.

Watching It On Telly: At home, or down the pub? Your choice, but at least you can be assured that almost everyone in the pub will actually want to be watching, whereas at home there may be the occasional dissenting voice.

Who To Support: England, obviously. But beware of divided loyalties. Mrs D’s ancestry means there’s always a bit of a frisson whenever England play Poland. Luckily, though, we got that out of the way in the qualifying rounds. Which means that the only cloud on the horizon is Australia, by way of Grandma Dixon. The upside is that we’ll have another team to support if England go out early.

The Office Sweepstake: The rules are simple: You will pick a team without the slightest hope of reaching the last 16, let alone the finals. Your team will lose. You will complain that the whole thing is rigged, and that the bloke who ran the sweep kept the best teams for his mates. You will be ignored.

What To Sing: England doesn’t have an official song this time round. Which is probably just as well for those of us who remember watching a succession of squads on Top of the Pops, all dressed up in their best suits, miming to a ludicrously over-optimistic dirge, shuffling nervously from foot to foot and wondering if they were going to meet Pan’s People.

Instead, there’s an official World Cup anthem by Pitbull (because nothing says “football” like a slavering attack dog), or an unofficial, and actually rather catchy, little ditty called Kick That Soccer Ball by spoof Twitter user @usasoccerguy.

Neither of which is doing very well in the download charts right now, being beaten hands down by Noble England, by the late, great and sorely missed Rik Mayall.

Which brings us to...

What To Wave: Dismiss any doubts you may have that it’s in some way beneath you to fly the cross of St George while Our Boys are giving their all in the steamy Amazonian jungle. We will proudly be dangling our ginormous red and white flag from the front bedroom window at Dixon Towers, and will remain resolutely proud.

England expects, and all that.

How To Celebrate If We Win: When we win, more like. If we can draw 0-0 with Honduras in the warm-up friendlies, what can possibly stand in our way?

Come on, En-ger-land!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Jupiter's Great Red Spot - why is it shrinking?

If Jupiter were a teenager, it would probably be feeling rather pleased with itself right now.

Because according to reports from NASA, the mighty gas giant’s most prominent feature, the Great Red Spot, is rapidly shrinking.

Shrinking red spot: Jupiter's mega-zit could soon be a thing of the past
Quite why that should be, no one seems to know. The monstrous zit on the face of the biggest planet in the solar system has been rotating majestically around the upper Jovian atmosphere for hundreds if not thousands of years.

But the reasons behind its sudden reduction are causing space scientists to scratch their heads.

If not their spots.

Maybe Jupiter stopped eating so much chocolate between meals.

Maybe it started going to bed at a sensible hour.

Maybe it did all the other things parents nag their adolescent offspring about when said offspring break out in spots. Like washing its face more frequently than once a fortnight.

Maybe it switched to a new brand of spot cream – an intergalactic-sized tube of Clearasil, perhaps.

Or maybe Jupiter is simply growing out of its spot, just as parents promise teenagers will happen when nothing else seems to work.

As with humans, though, very little is certain in the field of interplanetary dermatology. Spots can come back to haunt you even when you’re quite grown up, and it already appears that a new crop of  red blemishes may be welling up around the fast-shrinking big one.

So it looks as though Jupiter is going to have to keep up with the interplanetary cleansing, exfoliation and moisturising for a little bit longer yet.

What is certain, though, is that all this upheaval in the swirling clouds of Jupiter has absolutely nothing to do with fracking, or melting ice caps, or deforestation of the rain forest, or any other human interference.

Or has it? Another fascinating science report suggests a more troubling explanation for Jupiter’s recent facelift.

Readers will no doubt be familiar with the Breit-Wheeler Process, by which matter can – at least theoretically – be created by ramming two particles of light together to create an electron-positron pair. If not, where have you been since 1934 when it was first thought up?

A photon generator unit, yesterday.
Messrs B and W never believed it could be done for real. But Professor Steve Rose, of Imperial College London, has other ideas. “We can create matter directly from light,” he says, “using the technology that we have here in the UK.”

It seems that the denizens of Jupiter may have got wind of this.

Deep within the Jovian maelstrom, Academician Tharg is preparing his photon generator. He points one end at the other, closes a switch and stands back, his mauve protoplasm throbbing in anticipation at the prospect of an infinite supply of free matter.

A hideous crash rends the firmament. Technician Groll dashes into Tharg’s laboratory, her tentacles a-quiver.
“Sir, sir!” she screams. “Look outside! The Great Red Spot – it’s shrinking!”

Tharg smiles grimly. In the cause of pure science, he has disrupted the very fabric of the universe. But on the plus side, he has discovered the perfect spot cure.

The only trouble is, we mere humans will have to go all the way to Jupiter to buy it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Digging up the past

The loft at Dixon Towers isn't really worthy of the name. It originally spanned the entire floor area of the house but, after a bedroom conversion it was squeezed out to the edges, where it became three crawl-spaces at the front, the end and the back.

With us so far? Good, there will be questions later. For now, though, the scene is set.

Into these crawl-spaces has been stuffed all the detritus that builds up in the course of everyday life and that seemed at the time too important to chuck away, but too cluttersome to keep out.

Most of it is crammed into large cardboard removal boxes.

So far so good. Old stuff stays in the loft, new stuff stays downstairs, and never the twain shall meet.

Until last Sunday.

That was when Mrs D suddenly decided, for no discernible reason, that it would be a good idea to have a rummage through the vaults and dig out the old photographs.

Now, if you've ever watched The Great Escape you'll have some idea of what happened next.

No, not yours truly zooming away on a purloined motorbike, jumping a barbed wire fence and heading for the hills. Although that might have been preferable to what really did happen.

Remember in the film when they dropped through a hole in the barracks floor, inched on hands and knees through a two-foot tunnel, and extracted the spoil by stuffing it down their trousers?

Well, something similar was going on in our loft last Sunday.

Except that in the film, the tunnellers were fit, flexible, 20-something military types. In our loft-based remake, the tunneller was a portly columnist with creaking hip joints who won't see the right side of 50 again.

Much grunting and straining later, the boxes were extracted and deposited in an untidy heap on the loft bedroom floor.

Due to an outstanding piece of foresight on our part many years ago, they were all neatly labelled – "Memorabilia", "Photos", "Bits and Bobs". Etc. Etc. Etc.

The scene switched from Stalag Luft III to Tutankhamen's Tomb as we tore the tape from the first box to reveal the treasures within:

A carrier bag, full of bank statements and pay slips from 1997.

A rolled-up school photo, three feet long, depicting the first-years tottering precariously along the top row, the lower sixth pulling a variety of stupid faces, Jock the caretaker running round the back so he could be in the picture twice, the headmaster smirking unctuously, and a grey blob that might just be the present writer in a pudding-basin haircut.

Old exam papers that would turn today's GCSE students into nervous wrecks.

A marble.

Then we hit the mother lode: photo after photo after photo after photo. Our forebears on holiday, in baggy shorts and smoking pipes. Us on holiday separately, before we were us. Us on holiday together.

Us looking dapper at dances, us looking drunk in seedy dives.

Us with babies, with toddlers, with schoolchildren, with…

With a disgruntled teenager who wanted his bedroom back pronto, and what was the point of going through all these boxes anyway?

It was fun while it lasted. But it was time to get back to the future.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

George Osborne and the new pound coin

As the fallout from the budget statement settles, and families across the country do their sums and realise with joy and gratitude that they could well be £2.37 a month better off – but not until 2016 – it’s time to sit back and reflect on our  Chancellor of the Exchequer’s lasting legacy.

What, when the history books are written and the students of 2114 scribble down factoids about the early 21st century, will be George Gideon Oliver Osborne’s foremost claim to fame?

Will he be remembered as The Iron Chancellor? The Bankers’ Buddy? The Hammer of the Needy? Austerity Man?

No. None of those things. If George Osborne is remembered by anyone, for anything at all, it will be as The Toff Who Invented The Twelve-Sided Pound.

Announcing it on the same day as the budget was clearly a ploy to distract us commoners  from the nitty-gritty of belt-tightening, and it appears to have worked exactly as he intended.

Because here we are, worrying more about the wear and tear on our pocket linings from those extra corners, and reminiscing about the days when the pound was foldable, rather than girding our loins for a few more years of pain.

Where did Osborne get the idea from, anyway? All this talk about the trusty round version being too easy to forge doesn’t really hold water. And don’t think for a minute that he was inspired by the good old threepenny bit.

Because he’d have a hard job remembering a coin that ceased to be legal tender just three months after he was born.

No, the smart money is on the theory that he was sitting in one of those posh cafés where they serve dainty petits fours on hexagonal plates, and  thought: “I can go better than that – twice better”.

Although to be strictly accurate, George didn’t get his sums right in that glorious moment of gustatory inspiration. Because if you count the top and bottom, or the heads and tails, a hexagonal plate  has eight sides, and a dodecagonal coin has 14. And 14 isn’t twice eight but 1.75 times eight. (Guess who’s been helping out with the maths homework this week?)

And if you’re confused by all those numbers, just imagine the effect they had on the Chancellor.

As with any change in economic policy, though, some people will benefit and others will suffer.

Those with the most to lose, of course, are the manufacturers of  chocolate coins. Year in, year out, they’ve been happily churning out sweet circular simulacra of cash and packing them into plastic nets ready to be stuffed into Christmas stockings up and down the land.

But now a new challenge lies ahead for the doughty chocolatiers: digging out their old 12-sided moulds, left mouldering (sorry) since the demise of the thruppence, and retooling.

Vending machine-makers, meanwhile, are rubbing their hands in glee. Because once Osborne has knackered the pound coin,  what’s to stop him fiddling  with the rest of our currency? ATMs and self-service tills will all need updating, to accept rhomboid 2p pieces and triangular £7 notes.

There are even rumours that Osborne has it in for the venerable seven-sided 50p, and is having it redesigned as a four-dimensional Möbius Strip with no sides at all.

Sounds fun? Hah! Try getting one out of your pocket, the next time you want to spend a penny.