Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas mysteries

This Christmas, as always, is a time of mysteries. One of the more mysterious of which being the news that a young grey seal has fetched up in a field in Merseyside, 20 miles from the coast and looking extremely grumpy.

Sammy, or Suárez, or Cilla, or whatever they ultimately decide to call him (or her), appears to have taken a wrong turning during a Christmas shopping expedition to Liverpool from his (or her) home on the River Dee, swum up the brook to Newton-le-Willows, and eventually got stuck against a fence post.

(And we’ve all been on shopping trips like that, haven’t we, readers? Sounds like The Mall at Cribbs Causeway. On a good day.)

Sammy/Suárez/Cilla was eventually persuaded on board a trailer by animal rescuers equipped with brooms and a chunk of mackerel, and hopes were expressed that he (or she) would soon be gambolling once more in the choppy waters of the Irish Sea.

If only Christmas at Dixon Towers could be sorted out as simply as that. We don’t need a broom, though: we need an industrial strength vacuum cleaner to pick up the pine needles that are already falling in drifts to the sitting room floor.

And we cannot live by a slice of mackerel alone. Mrs D’s festive preparations demand smoked salmon, crab meat and several jars of Elsinore lumpfish caviar. Which, if you’re interested, is a bit like real caviar, but smaller, blacker, and significantly cheaper.

Which leads leads us to a second mystery: where can you buy it? Two days before Christmas? In Bath?

OK, it’s the biggest middle-class, first-world non-problem since the lady on Twitter who couldn’t find mini-pannetone. But when it’s your problem, it’s serious.

There is an answer, though, to the missing fishy bits crisis: Keynsham. And such is yours truly’s devotion to family bliss and harmony this festive tide, that he got in the car and drove there to pick some up.

Pausing only to look at the ingredients on the side of the jar and to discover that one of them “may have an adverse effect  on activity and attention in children”. So who needs brandy butter when you’ve got E110?

The third mystery presents itself on the way back from the Bath/Bristol borderlands: what are those two blokes from Wessex Water doing, standing at the bottom of the road, tapping the Tarmac with long metal rods with the general demeanour of people who are about to cut off your supply?

The mystery deepens with the arrival of the massed pipes and drums of the band of the Scots Guards, who proceed to muster at the corner and drill. Assuming they’re not an advance scouting party for David Cameron’s Own Highland Frackers, then the chances of extracting even a drop of water from the taps come Christmas Day look vanishingly slim.

Mystery piles upon mystery. What was it Mrs D asked for when she made up her Christmas list back in October? And can you still buy it at 3.30 on Christmas Eve?

Will the Amazon van get through on time?

And what will we do without Hugh?

This, sadly, was my last published column for The Bath Chronicle. Goodbye, and thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Let there be light. Please...

Christmas, as well as being a time for rejoicing, for celebrating, for  four- and even five-bird roasts, is also a time for remembering.

Especially, in our family’s case, for remembering where you put the Christmas lights last year when you packed them away so neatly and tidily in a labelled box up in the loft.

In the intervening months, through some supernatural force that only inhabits the upper storeys of family homes, that box has somehow got mislabelled. And  your task is to find it, or Christmas  won’t be Christmas chez Dixon.

So, after a neck-twisting, knee-piercing, elbow-scraping scramble through the outer recesses of the attic, you  retrieve three boxes.

The first looks quite promising. It has “Xmas Stuff” scrawled on top in thick red felt pen, but when you  delve inside all you find is a couple of baubles and   the kids’ old soft toys.

The second box is tagged “Miscellaneous”, and is most definitely not the one you’re looking for, containing as it does embarrassing pictures of yourself when you were 20 and didn’t know any better, which must remain hidden from the rest of the family at all costs.

The third box is labelled “Bank Statements 1995-7”, and deep within – Gloria in Excelcis! – are the Dixon festive illuminations.

Ignoring the protests from your maltreated joints, you stagger downstairs and proudly present your spoils. “That’s funny,” says Mrs D. “What’s happened to the ones we hung over the mantelpiece last year?”

After a brief but vain struggle to recall what they even looked like, let alone where they might be, you offer manfully to put up the special weatherproof strand that traditionally garlands  the spindly shrub by the front door.

But the malevolent force that switched round the labels on the boxes has another trick up its sleeve.

Some time last summer it must have got hungry, because it has chewed through one of the wires, with the result that only about half of the lights actually come on, and those that do  work don’t twinkle, pulse, glimmer or throb, but simply flicker despondently.

Two solutions spring to mind. The first involves a soldering iron and a lot of swearing; the second a trip to Homebase and a lot of money.

Not wishing to sully the air with expletives, you pile into the car. Everyone else comes along too. Ostensibly just for the ride, but more likely to make sure  yours truly buys the right sort. And there, amid a festive electronic menagerie of warbling penguins, gurning bears and flatulent  reindeer, you find a replacement.

On the way home, you can’t help but notice the house down the road. Snow-effect illuminations tumble from  every windowsill. Santa’s sleigh has landed on the garage roof  and is strobing fit to bust. The tree in the front garden is wreathed from trunk to crown with a thick rope of incandescent finery that  must have needed a crane to put up, and puts your low-wattage LEDs to utter shame.

Somewhere in your head, a switch goes off.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Nightmare before Christmas

It wasn't so long ago that if you wanted to get into a fight with a total stranger, there was really only one to go about it: head down to the pub on a Saturday night, neck seven or eight pints of Old Goatstrangler and start casting aspersions about some other bloke's parentage.

Cue a bloody nose, a swift ride in an ambulance and an awkward chat with two sturdy representatives of Her Majesty's constabulary.

These days we have Black Friday. To enjoy the same experience, without the debilitating after-effects of the Goatstrangler, just visit your nearest retail mega-centre and try to buy a 40-inch curved-screen LED TV. The sort that normally sells for £1,599.99 but – today only! – is a mind-bendingly cheap £1,299.99.

Cue a violent entanglement with a similarly-minded bargain-hunter, a long wait in A&E and an embarrassed telling-off by a PCSO who is clearly five years younger than yourself.

Then there's Cyber Monday, when you sit yourself down in front of your computer (nursing a sore leg, and wondering what to do with a boxful of loose LEDs), and try to order all your Christmas presents. Online, in one go.

Only to discover that everyone else on the planet has had the same idea.

The internet has slowed to the pace of a reluctant tin of treacle. The electronic whoozits that your kids have set their hearts on sold out three weeks ago. And all there is left to buy on Amazon is pre-owned CDs of Now That's What I Call Music! Part Six.

Sadly, that's the way the modern festive season crumbles, and there's no point in moaning about it. Instead, you should prepare yourself for the days that lie ahead. Days like:

Sylvan Saturday. You book your family on a sound and light woodland walk experience at a nearby national arboretum. Printing the confirmation and e-tickets consumes seven sheets of paper. You wonder idly how many more trees they'll have to plant to offset that little lot.

Blue Sunday. You settle back, after a splendiferous festive repast, and reflect that a Quality Street would round it off nicely.

You reach for the sweetie bowl, only to find that there's nothing left but the horrible blue ones, and that persons unknown have decorated the floor with discarded wrappers from your favourite purple, green and red varieties.

Damp Tuesday. This is the day you booked off back in September, in a wholly uncharacteristic fit of forward planning, so that you could support small local businesses by doing your Christmas shopping in town.

It rains. And it rains. And it rains.

Sleepy Wednesday. Work. Zzzzzzzzzz...

Nightmare Thursday. You managed to order at least some of your presents on Cyber Monday, and since then you've been feeling just a little smug. But this is the day the truth finally dawns: the goodies won't be delivered until January the 8th, and you most definitely do not have Christmas all wrapped up.

So where's Santa when you need him?

Thursday, November 13, 2014


So there it was. The most shared, most read, most commented on article on the BBC website: “Why typos and spelling mistakes don’t really matter.”

A shiver ran down the grizzled old sub-editor’s back. He pushed aside his battered em-rule and wiped away a tear from the corner of his eye with the greasy, ink-stained sleeve of his well-worn, much-darned and utterly shapeless fawn cardigan.

“Does no-one else really care?” he thought to himself. “Am I really the only one left in the world who knows the difference between ‘their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’?

“Am I the only person who still understands when to put an apostrophe into ‘its’ and when to take one out of ‘it’s’?

“Or when to use double quotation marks and when to use singles?

“Does anyone else actually know when to use ‘affect’ and when to use ‘effect’? Or that both are verbs, and both are nouns?

“Does anyone still know what a noun is, for that matter?

“And am I the only one left who still thinks it’s wrong to start a sentence with ‘and’?”

He reflected for a moment, realised his mistake, took out his glossy briar pipe, filled it with his favourite mix of Old Clarendon’s Finest Shag and lumbered off to the far corner of the office car park, the only place left where he was still allowed to smoke it.

He didn’t care much for websites, anyway.  Or for Twitter, where people wrote about “sneaky peaks” when what they meant was “sneaky peeks”. Or for Facebook, where  “friends” you’d never met complained about  “lightening” when what they meant was “lightning”.

Who cared, he thought, about people who sent emails to the paper saying they were “defiantly” going to stop buying it? When what they meant was “definitely”?

What was the point of living in a world where the old boozer had become a gastro-pub?

When the only thing people used dictionaries for was propping up computer screens?

Where people relied on spell-checkers, and where the spell-checkers and their dotted red underscores couldn’t spot the difference between “Queen Square” and “Queen’s Square”, between “Lansdown” and “Landsdown”?

Why, finally, bother with auto-correction, when it turns “You’re great” into “Your grate”?

In the good old days, he’d have dealt with a mistake like that with a caustic comment and a swipe of a sharp blue pencil. These days, he reflected, that sort of behaviour would get you accused of harassment. One r, two s’s.

The fug from his pipe grew ever denser, and rose to merge with the leaden sky. A passing health and safety inspector donned mask, gloves and protective yellow coveralls and went to investigate. But when he fanned away the fumes, the sub-editor was gone.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How to get your password right

An ominous message flashes up on the computer screen at Chronicle Towers. From the System. Your password, says the System Message, will expire in 14 days. Do you want to change it now?

Well no, actually. It would be preferable never to have to change it again, and the idea of “wanting” to change it is philosophically akin to the idea of “wanting” to change one’s toes.

But the System is relentless. The next day, the count is down to 13. Today, it’s 12.

The System is clever, almost to the point of sentience. The System can count backwards, among other things.

It can also recognise that the passwords you, in your insignificance, try to set up, are utterly beneath its tentacular, Systemic, dignity.

Still, you give it a try.

1234 you type, more in hope than in expectation. Insufficient characters, says the System.

password you tap in, more in desperation than in hope. Insufficient upper case letters comes the reply.

Password Nope. Must contain a punctuation character.

Password? Nice try, sucker. Must contain at least one numeral.

Password1? You must be joking. You used that one  in August 2011.

Let us get this absolutely straight, continues the System, conversationally. For acceptable security, your password must be at least 10 characters long, and  contain at least one upper case letter, one lower case letter, one punctuation character and one numeral. Would you like to try again?

AsQlll4&X? That will do nicely.

Pausing only to reflect that while the System may be quite clever,  it’s not clever enough to use apostrophes, you proceed to commit your new password to memory. Which is where the trouble really starts.

Because it is a truth universally acknowledged, that for a password to be secure it must be complicated, and for it to be memorable it must be simple. Yours may be secure, but it’s utterly unmemorable. So you write it down, defeating the entire object of the exercise.

And when you get home and try to do a bit of cyber-banking, the fun starts all over again.

The System at Funds “R” Us has even more questions than the System at work. And the two of them  appear to be talking about you behind your back. Perhaps they’re Facebook friends.

Key in the second, fourth and ninth characters of your passphrase, says the System at the Bank.

b 8 % you type, referring  to the dog-eared notebook in which you keep it easily to hand. Along with your mother’s maiden name and where you were when you first had a snog.

Thank you. And your password?

AsQlll4&X? Try again. That is the password for Chronicle Towers.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Small sinkhole in Bath: no-one hurt. Yet

As natural disasters go, it wasn’t much to write home about. But as the local paper of record, The Bath Chronicle was duty bound to record it.

“A small sinkhole has appeared in Bath’s Sydney Gardens,” ran the report. And beyond that no one seemed to know very much.

Councillor David Dixon (Lib Dem, Oldfield, no relation) took to Twitter in his official capacity as deputy leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council.

he twote. Which proves that (a) at least some of our civic leaders have a sense of humour; and (b) the old jokes are the best.

The hole, according to Mr Dixon, is “about a metre wide and three or four feet deep”.

Crikey. Let’s hope he sticks to deputy leading the council, and doesn’t take it into his head to launch any interplanetary space missions.

Because in 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter plunged to the surface of the red planet after NASA and Lockheed mixed up their metric and imperial measurements.
Mixed measurements: Mars Climate Orbiter before its prang

And in 2002 our bathroom was flooded to the depth of three inches when yours truly fitted a 15mm coupling to a half-inch pipe and turned on the mains without due care and attention.

Go carefully, Councillor Dixon, the next time you do any DIY. Disaster is but a step away, so measure twice, and cut once.

Back to the Bath sinkhole, and now that B&NES has put a fence round it, let us reflect for a moment on how truly pathetic it is. (The sinkhole, that is. The jury’s still out on B&NES.)

For comparison, take the monstrous chasm that opened up earlier this year in Yamal, Siberia. A town you may not have heard of before, and which even the locals call the “end of the world”.

Which is better than “fundament of the universe.” But only just.

The Yamal sinkhole is 30 metres wide and at least 50 metres deep. It may have been caused from within, by methane bubbling up through melted permafrost. Or from without, by a meteor. Or by something else, from somewhere else. But definitely not by fracking. Oh no siree.

Take the Great Blue Hole in Belize. It’s 300 metres wide and 124 metres deep. It’s underwater. And it has its own collection of stalactites and stalagmites. Put that in your pipe, Sydney Gardens Sinkhole. And smoke it.

Heck, even the limestone swallets up on the Mendips are wider and deeper than the burst pimple at the far end of Great Pulteney Street.

If it were a football team, it would be lowly Hartlepool United, currently propping up the bottom of League 2.

If it were a car, it would be a lowly Lada Riva, currently propping up the bottom of a scrapheap in Penge.

And if it were a tourist attraction... Wait! Set up a ticket office and plug in the cash registers. This could be Bath’s very own Wookey Hole!

Just don’t stand too close to the edge – because if you fell in, you could easily sprain your toe.

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.