Wednesday, December 24, 2008

No smoke without fire

All around us is the sound of things going pear-shaped. The season of good cheer is fast becoming a chaotic mess, at least for one Bath family.

First in the list of Christmas catastrophes was the Great Advent Candle Disaster.

The Advent Candle is a flammable version of the Advent Calendar: it's marked from top to bottom with the numbers from 1 to 24, and every evening you light it and count down the days to Crimbo. It's all jolly festive and enhances the seasonal excitement no end.

It's also a valuable educational tool: it teaches numeracy (very basic, it must be confessed. Adding up and taking away just about covers it); it teaches elementary physics (How many ways can you think of to extinguish a flame while producing as much evil-smelling black smoke as possible?); it teaches diplomacy and debating skills (Whose turn is to watch it burn down? Whose turn is it to blow it out? Mine. No mine. No it's mine, you did it yesterday. No I didn't, you did. You get the picture.)

But the great flaw with the Advent candle is that it isn't self- extinguishing, and if some bright spark (hem hem) forgets to blow it out, then all of a sudden you've missed December 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22, and instead of family joy round the dinner table every Advent evening you're faced with the accusing stares of a wife and two kids. "You did it," they seem to be saying. "You did it, and we'll never let you forget."

Never was there more need for a hole in the ground into which to creep away.

Then there was the incident with the bathroom tiles.

These, as Mrs D had been pointing with increasing urgency for the past couple of months, needed someone husbandly to remove the nasty brown stains all over the grouting before the relatives descended on us for our annual feeding frenzy. Oh, and perhaps someone husbandly could sort out the mould on the windows while they're at it.

Ho for Homebase, not for their own-brand mould remover (historically and scientifically proven to do absolutely zilch except encourage the stuff to breed) but for the industrial-strength variety in the professional-looking white squirter, liberally decorated with skulls, crossbones, DO NOT DRINK warnings and the address of the nearest casualty department.

"This product is bleach-based," said the small print on the back. You'd better believe it.

It worked a treat: what was green and slimy is now white and shiny. The downside, though, is that the whole house smells of chlorine, and not all the frankincense, pine and rosemary aromatherapy oils and pine essence in Mr Culpeper's sparkly emporium will put it right.

And so, it would seem, we are about to discover what it's like to spend Christmas in a swimming pool.

It gets worse. It would be nice if we could forget the whole episode of a certain husband who took the car keys to work on the day his wife wanted to do the shopping.

It would be nicer if we could ignore the fact that half the family appear to be going down with a virulent and debilitating form of the dreaded lurgy.

And it would be nicest if we could avoid the lurking suspicion that the credit crunch is having its own little Christmas break but will back with a vengeance on January 2.

Then there's the weather. TV, radio and online forecasters all say it's going to be a cold one, with temperatures dropping to -4 and wall-to-wall icicles.

Empirical evidence (ie looking out of the window) would suggest otherwise. It's damp, it's drizzly, it's unseasonably mild.

Just as well really, given the propensity of our boiler to stop producing hot water when the central heating's on.

Still never, mind, brother-in-law's a plumber, he'll fix it. Or at least, he would if he wasn't one of the ones who'd gone down with the aforementioned lurgy.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

This post first appeared in my Bath Chronicle column on Wednesday December 24. Ho ho ho.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Won't be long...

It's good to see that the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his feeling that he might not be entirely against the the idea that the Church of England should be disestablished.

Not because the contortions of his one-hand/other-hand arguments give me any hope that we common folk will ever be able to understand the finer points of the relationship between Church and State.

To quote Dr Rowan Williams in full flow:

"My unease about going for straight disestablishment is to do with the fact that it's a very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society. I think the motives that would now drive disestablishment from the state side would be mostly to do with . . . trying to push religion into the private sphere, and that's the point where I think I'd be bloody-minded and say, 'Well, not on that basis.'"

Got that? Me neither.

No, the reason that this is good news is that it gives me a chance to use, quite legitimately for the very first time, the alleged longest word in the English language.

Dr Rowan Williams is not wholly committed to antidisestablishmentarianism.

My work here is done.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

You can't polish a turd

Especially not the dog turd that's been sitting on the pavement in Julian Road outside St Andrew's School for the last three days. Even last night's rain hasn't washed it away, and nobody seems keen to move it.
I hope the person who owns the dog who left it there has a very unpleasant Christmas, and my hope for 2009 is that Bath's street cleaners will not just concentrate on the tourist traps in the city centre.

Rules were made to be broken

Nearly there... nearly there...
The kids are counting down the minutes to the end of term. Mrs D is writing a list of all her lists. Yours truly is watching money flow away from him in a passable impression of the mighty Orinoco.
That’s the river, not the Womble.
But nagging away at the back of the mind is that age-old question: once presents are opened, joints carved, corks popped and crackers cracked, how do we keep ourselves occupied in the festive limbo between the heaven that is Christmas and the credit-crunched hell that stretches away past New Year’s Day?
Traditional games, that’s what. Never mind all these flashy Wiis and XBoxes and PS3s – although truth be told we shall probably be having more than a few goes on the electronic cosh between now and January 1 – but proper, old-fashioned, gather-round-the-table family fun.
Take Monopoly. It’s great for gatherings of kids and adults alike, it doesn’t last too long, it teaches elementary skills such as adding up, taking away and large-scale fraud. It passes the acid test of all good parlour games: it has lots of bits to fiddle with and get lost inside the cat.
The only trouble with Monopoly is the rules. Let’s face it, they’re a bit on the complicated side, and can lead to arguments when players start going broke and try to claim rent on mortgaged properties.
And some people (step forward, Mrs D’s brother) seem to think you can build houses on the water works or King’s Cross Station, stay in jail indefinitely and have more than one hotel whenever you can afford it.
The fights that break out as a result are the main reason why ten times more games of Monopoly are started than are ever brought to an official conclusion.
Last Christmas one of the younger brethren got given a Golden Compass board game. It made Monopoly look as simple as Snap.
The board had colour-coded edges and the rules changed when you moved from one side to the next.
As you went round you had to collect different bits of cardboard associated with the themes of the original book/film (alethiometers, dust, you know the sort of thing...), which you could swap at a later stage for magic stars.
Memory is a hazy thing but some sort of Victorianesque flying machine was involved in the proceedings as well. Unfortunately, though, they left out the polar bear wrestling.
But the most annoying part of the game was the fact that every time we played it, Dixon Junior won by a country mile. After four of five games (each of which lasted a good hour) we parents lost a lot of our original enthusiasm and started to make excuses, which have continued to this very day.
Maybe Scrabble would be a better bet. What could be more enticing on a cold winter’s afternoon than to sit around cracking the nuts, munching the Quality Street and trying to persuade one’s nearest and dearest that there is such a word as ZJEIPAO and all right it may not be in our dictionary but it’s in the one at work and you can’t quite remember what it means but everyone’s heard of it and...
No, you’re better off sticking with simple words like AM, BE and TO, or a lexicographical obscurity like ID, a genuine word that’s guaranteed to annoy the hell out of your opponents. And hope you get the occasional triple word to boost your score out of the 40s.
When it comes down to it, though, Scrabble is just a bit too intellectual at a time when the mind has been turned to mush by festive over-indulgence. What you need at Christmas is a game that rewards steadiness of hand and animal cunning, with rules simple enough for a five-year-old.
The name of the game is Jenga. You build a tower of wooden blocks, then tease out the lower ones and stack them on the top. When the whole lot tumbles down with a loud and satisfying crunch, do as we do: shout "Jenga!" at the top of your voice and start all over again. Sheer heaven in a cardboard box.
This stream of consciousness first appeared as my Bath Chronicle column on 18 December 2008.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thinking outside the envelope

The moment has come: the deed must be done. It’s time to write the Christmas cards.
Task one: find the address book. This is a tough one, as the book migrates between the kitchen and the home office with monotonous regularity and is always guaranteed not to be in the place where you last saw it.
Task two: try to remember the friends and relatives whose addresses aren’t in the address book itself, but are in the computerised contacts book to which only you know the password and which gets synced with your internet profile every other week despite repeated attempts to stop it.
Now ‘syncing’ your contacts is a process which may sound, to the terminally naive and innocent, as though it could possibly have something to do with co-ordinating and organising your vital data. But in fact it involves a sociopathic program which compares two slightly different lists of people and their mailing addresses and phone numbers and then deletes all of them without asking you, leaving you only with the phone numbers (but not the addresses) of an old work colleague you lost touch with years ago and never liked anyway. And mad Uncle Nigel.
The same thing happens with downloaded music tracks: you copy them to your iPod or MP3 player of choice, and the next time you connect said player to your computer all the tracks vanish. Try to download them again from the music store and you’ll be told you’ve already got them and will be re-charged.
Decision time: how badly do you want to walk to work to the beat of obscure 1970s disco hits? Pretty badly, truth be told.
Franz Kafka’s nightmarish visions of bureaucratic rigor mortis had nothing on what a computer will do with your musical tastes if you give it half a chance.
Back to the Christmas cards. (Thought you’d got away with it, did you, wittering on about computers and music and synchronisation and all that stuff? No chance, mate: it’s Christmas cards or nothing.)
Task three: make a list. No, actually, let’s make several lists. One list for Mrs D’s friends and relatives, postage required. One list for yours truly, ditto and likewise. Ruthlessly exclude potential recipients who are suspected of (a) moving; (b) not intending to send a card to you; or (c) snuffing it.
A bit later, after we’ve made good the Post Office’s annual trading deficit, we’ll draw up another list for local friends, postage not required. Plus another list for everyone else who doesn’t qualify for inclusion on lists one, two or three.
Let’s make these lists on four separate pieces of paper. (Can you guess where this is going yet?)
Task four: write out the cards that need posting. Discover that constant use of a computer keyboard over the last year for all written communications apart from notes to the milkman has struck down your writing muscles with a distressing case of the atrophies, and that after five cards and envelopes your once elegant cursive script is indistinguishable from the tracks of a drunken sparrow on an icy path.
Task five: waggle hand furiously, get on with it.
Task six: stick on the stamps. This is the best bit, because the introduction of those new-fangled self-adhesive jobbies means you no longer end up with a mouth tasting like a fishbone reprocessing plant. But worse is to come.
Step seven: out into the Arctic wastes to post the finished cards. Easy – a brisk walk down to the postbox, a slip, a crunch, a bruise the size of Belgium. Nothing to it.
Step eight. Start to draw up list three, for the hand deliveries. Realise that you’ve lost lists one and two, and have already posted half the cards. You now have two choices: send a second lot of cards and risk confirming to your nearest and dearest that you are a total idiot, or send no more cards and make them think you’re a Scrooge-mongous skinflint.
Step nine: sit back and wait. Because the one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the last delivery before Christmas will bring a card from the one person you left off all four of your lists.
This first appeared in my Bath Chronicle column on Thursday December 11.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The sound of silence

One of the pleasures of working at Chronicle Towers is getting to watch Sky News with the sound turned off. All day long.

While Sky was showing footage of Cliff Richard getting back together with The Shadows this afternoon, I was reading the sub-titles and hoping that Sir Cliff, looking splendiferous in his trademark Granddad scarf, wouldn't go off on one and attempt the deeply disturbing rubber-legged dance that brought him Eurovision ignomy in 1973 with Power to All Our Friends.

Working out the instant subtitles on Sky is a bit like trying to play Scrabble with your head in a bucket of custard. There must be some fairly serious voice recognition software that makes the whole thing possible, but when it goes wrong it goes spectacularly wrong.

Samples from today:

"A woman who spent 20 tears in Comber has died." (20 years in a coma).

"An amazing skateboard jubber." (jump).

Just waiting for the Commons pantomime that will be the Damiangate debate. (Oo, that rhymes). Little productive work looks likely for the rest of the afternoon.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Curtains for Crapland

It's closed. Lapland New Forest, otherwise known as Crapland or Blunderland, has shut up shop and gone home.

Which is a great shame, really. Because there's nothing we need more at the moment than a good long laugh at something truly, craply, British. A melting ice rink, dispirited elves, two mangy huskies and a Santa's grotto ruined by chavvy violence - just the thing to take the kids to of a winter weekend and forget those credit crunch blues.

Sorry we missed you, Crapland.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What a star

One thing I didn't mention in my Bath Chronicle column this week is how well my daughter Laura did in the St Andrew's Primary nativity play on Tuesday.

Laura was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder when she was three. She's 11 now and has come a long way, but she still has a lot of difficulty coping with social situations and loud noises.

But as Mary's Mum she was a real star, saying her lines clearly on a real stage in a real theatre in front of an audience of about 100. She joined in with the other children and really enjoyed herself.

Well done to St Andrew's not just for the play but also for helping Laura get to a stage where she was able to take part confidently.

What a shame though that our local authority, Bath and North East Somerset, doesn't even appear to have responded to the National Autistic Society's I Exist survey. Two thirds of councils across the country have now replied to the NAS.

The NAS asked all local authorities in England if they have a system in place to record the number of adults with autism in their area and if, in line with Department of Health guidance, they have appointed a named individual or team with responsibility for autism.

The entry for B&NES appears with two purple blobs of shame against its name, which means that along with one third of local authorities in the country, they haven't replied yet.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Snow joke

If the thought of a visit to Bath's annual (and allegedly traditional) Christmas Market leaves you cold, why not take the kids to Lapland New Forest.

With a couple of disconsolate reindeer and a less-than-bustling market of its own,
it sounds like a holiday in hell.

Full story at the beeb. Check out the slideshow with the stuffed polar bear.

And then there's Lapland New Forest's own website. The images don't seem to be too keen to load, but if you do ever get to see them there's a disclaimer at the bottom of their home page:

*Images and videos currently displayed on this website and our other advertising campaigns are for illustrative purposes only. We are certain the live show will far exceed these representations.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

A hard man is good to find

The usual pre-Christmas letters are starting to arrive in the office from ladies desperate to find something fresh for their hubbies or boyfriends this festive season.
“Dear Mr D,” they invariably ask. “What can I buy for the man who has everything?”
Well, ladies, this year the solution to your present-buying problems lies in just one name: Bear Grylls.
Bear Grylls is today’s top TV hero, and he’s well hard. So hard he makes Chuck Norris look like John Sergeant, and Lemmy out of Motörhead like Little Jimmy Osmond. He makes The Professionals look like The Amateurs, and Ray Mears (of whom more later) like Bill Oddie.
Bear Grylls came into the world with two great disadvantages: (a) his first name; and (b) his second. His natural survival instincts soon kicked in, though, and after an early life struggling against adversity he became the youngest Briton to climb Mount Everest. A TV series followed and it, like he, is Born Survivor.
Without wishing to spoil the plot (although you could probably guess it), each programme sees Bear travelling to the world’s least hospitable regions, accompanied only by a director, a camera operator, a sound technician, a lighting gaffer, a key grip and quite probably a focus puller too.
On arrival in darkest Outer Whatsitland he sets out on foot with one aim in mind: eating the indigenous wildlife. Raw.
Such activities have earned him a place in the pantheon of TV heroes, especially among those viewers whose ideal evening’s entertainment doesn’t involve ballroom dancers with two left feet and aspiring Beyoncés with adenoids the size of Glasgow.
Success follows success, and Bear Grylls has even started his own online store selling outdoor gear – fleeces, waterproof jackets, thermal undies and the like, all emblazoned with his distinctive signature.
And now, in an exclusive deal with Mr Grylls, the Opinion desk can offer the presently perplexed woman-about-town a new range of Yuletide goodies for the hard man in her life: The Bear Grylls Festive Collection! Choose from:
Bear Grylls Tropical Socks
Look just like ordinary socks, but have special pockets filled with a thick slimy fluid which gradually oozes out into your shoes, giving you that authentic wading-through-mangrove-swamp experience as you stroll down to the shops.
Bear Grylls Matching Tie and Handkerchief
The tie unfolds into a 40ft abseiling line. The hanky is made of sandpaper. Available in practical, stain-concealing desert beige.
Bear Grylls Arctic Swim Set
An empty box, to commemorate Bear’s notorious naked televised dip in glacial meltwater.
Bear Grylls Aftershave
A classic fragrance inspired by the lifestyle of the man who drinks his own wee on telly.
Bear Grylls Scalextric
Two Land Rovers in zebra-stripe camouflage, one with a miniature plastic Bear in the driving seat, the other piloted by survival rival Ray Mears. Ray is kitted out in his trademark multi-pocketed combat jacket, Bear is stripped to the waist (as usual). This weight advantage can be evened up by putting Bear on the longer outside track. But he still wins. Every time.
Bear Grylls Electric Toothbrush
Powered by two car batteries, it comes with its own special abrasive paste to give your mouth that just-hiked-30-miles-through-the-Desert tingling freshness.
Bear Grylls Cookbook
Packed with recipes you wouldn’t really want to try at home, even if you had the ingredients. Raw snake, raw lemming, raw scorpion and raw gudgeon are among Bear’s signature dishes, and make this one of those cookery books that are good to read but tougher to digest.
And that’s it, ladies! Your present problems solved, thanks to TV’s Mister Survival.
More gift ideas next week: the Alistair Darling Investment Opportunity and the Gordon Ramsay English Dictionary. Watch this space.

This article first appeared in The Bath Chronicle on November 27 2008.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fast food rockers

Bath and North East Somerset Council have said they want to set up their own cafe in premises currently occupied by Binks restaurant. The council own the property, and don't want to renew the lease.

The full story's here at

Binks has a prime site in Bath city centre, but offers contrasting fare and ambience to the slightly-more-famous Pump Room on the opposite side of Abbey Church Yard.

Binks trades in fish and chips, cheezburgers and chips, sausages and chips, scampi and chips, mushy peas, pizzas and sundaes, at what might be called "tourist rates". Cheap and cheerful, if you're being polite.


If reader comments on are anything to go by, it won't be missed by the locals. It has to be said that after one visit you're unlikely to be drawn back again.

That part of Bath has been screaming for a decent inexpensive restaurant for years, and years, and years. If the council want to force the issue, then bring it on.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Beware of the squirrels

Whenever anyone starts talking about the forces of nature, you tend to think of hurricanes. Or volcanoes, or tsunamis, or blizzards, or heatwaves.
You remember tales of mankind's iconic and indomitable struggle against the elements: the mail must get through, the bridge must not fall, the boy stood on the burning deck...
You think of Captains Scott, or Cook, or Kirk, or Ahab. You think of explorer heroes like Doctor Livingstone or Amelia Earhart.
You get the picture: mighty struggles against powers far greater than ourselves.
But the forces of nature also move in smaller, more mysterious ways, insidiously burrowing away at man- (and woman-) kind's delusion that we have some sort of control over our environment.
Let us digress for a moment. (As if we ever would.)
Readers who experienced the punk revolution in late 1970s Buckinghamshire (and there are lots of you, we know) may just recall a couple of fringy figures called John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett.
Put it this way: they weren't quite up there with The Stranglers.
Otway, who by his own admission was "rock'n'roll's greatest failure", had a stage act which involved throwing himself off high scaffolding towers, generally breaking a couple of limbs in the process and bringing his act to an untimely halt.
Luckily, he was normally the support rather than the headliner, so the punters didn't complain too loudly.
He was quite a figure in the so-called "Aylesbury Scene", an upswelling of musical talent and poseurship that never really spread far beyond... well, Princes Risborough. Unless you were Marillion, but that's another story.
Barrett was a less physical performer, and generally hid behind his beard and long greasy locks as he noodled on fiddle or slide guitar.
They're still performing today, and in 2002 Otway got to number nine with disco novelty track Bunsen Burner. Some of you may remember it, some may not, because many shops refused to sell it.
Back in the day, though, their best-known ditty (calling it a tune would be over-generous) was a little number called Beware Of The Flowers 'Cos I'm Sure They're Going to Get You Yeah.
It reached number nothing in the charts, but it was eventually voted the seventh best lyric of all time.
Why the belated success? Why the recognition? Because John Otway was right. The flowers are up there among a whole host of small natural phenomena that are most definitely out to get you – they're just as much a force of nature as your cyclones or your maelstroms.
Just take the squirrels. Please take the squirrels, before they take us.
Because, as reported elsewhere on this website, they've already made their first move.
In the dead of night they swooped on Queen Square, nibbling through the wires of the Christmas lights and causing untold damage to Bath's seasonal "aah" factor.
Nothing in our full and accurate report suggests that they were electrocuted, you'll notice: their squirrelly super-powers must have insulated them from the festive voltage. And once the evil deed was done they regrouped by way of Charlotte Street in the bosky groves of Victoria Park, where even now they plan further destruction.
Walk along Royal Avenue of a bright November morning and you'll see them, snickering and pointing at you from low-hanging branches. Step a little closer and – if you can avoid being peppered with nuts – you'll hear them whispering about their plans to invade the Guildhall, find out who hasn't paid their council tax and launch a campaign of bribery and extortion.
Nutkins they ain't.
And if all that sounds bad (what do you mean it sounds rubbish?) then consider this: we have it on good authority that the squirrels are now in league with the seagulls.
Attack from the air, attack from the trees: the forces of nature are marshalling, and no-one can feel themselves safe.
This column was first published in The Bath Chronicle on Thursday November 20 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Turning over an old leaf

Over the last few centuries the woods, fields and parklands of this great country of ours have faced wave after wave of animal invaders.
Close in the wake of the Romans came the glis glis, a plump edible dormouse barely distinguishable from the domestic guinea pig, which still roams the Chiltern Hills in Hertfordshire, terrorising all who stand in its path.
The Romans also introduced edible snails, and to this day you can find their ancestors (the snails', not the Romans', silly) sunning themselves on limestone walls. They're a protected species, despite (or perhaps because of) being edible, and as they soak up the sun they give the air of knowing, in some slimy invertebrate sense, that they have the backing of the full panoply of the law.
Just touch us, they seem to be saying as they wiggle their beady little eyes, and we'll have English Nature on your case faster than you can say "garlic butter".
Move on quietly, gentle reader. Who wants to eat snails anyway?
Then there's the grey squirrel, a cheeky sort of chap whose penchant for schnarfing up nuts in our parks and forests has gradually edged his redder, but less bumptious, cousin into smaller and smaller environmental niches.
There's the feral mink, an escapologist by trade whose fine glossy coat belies its appetite for native fish and riverside mammals. If this were the Wind In The Willows, the mink would be best mates with the stoats and the weasels.
(By the way: how do you tell a stoat from a weasel? Well, a weasel is weaselly recognised because a stoat is stoatally different. Sorry.)
That's not the end of it. Muntjac deer, red-necked wallabies, zanders and asian topmouth gudgeon have made their homes in our hedgerows, moors and streams. And if you suggest to them for one minute that they've got silly made-up names, they'll have your guts for garters.
And if you believe some people, England's green and pleasant land also plays host to bigger beasts: pumas, leopards, lynxes and lions have all allegedly been sighted in recent years. Usually from afar, it must be said, and just after closing time. So it's hard to tell how many of these sightings are genuine. But at least you can identify a lynx by the pong of aftershave that wafts after it.
But now a new invasive force has reached our towns, parks and gardens. Not this time of sentient beings, but of inanimate machines, in the shape of the common or garden leaf blower.
But are leaf blowers really machines? Consider the evidence. The leaf blower is clearly a close relation of the greater alpine snow blower, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the lesser spotted bouncy castle pumper-upper.
It has a distinctive mating call which has been likened by zoologists to the sound you might get if you sat Hattie Jacques on a moped and pointed her up Widcombe Hill.
It has a questing snout for tracking its prey, and enjoys a symbiotic relationship with humanity.
Animal or machine? You decide.
And does anyone know what leaf blowers are actually meant to do?
Because for starters, they don't seem to work very well.
Take a walk in the park over the next week or two and you'll be sure to see one in its natural state, puffing away as it garners its hoard of winter supplies and orders its golden treasure into tidy piles.
But it's pretty inefficient: it only ever seems to blow two or three leaves at a time, and as soon as it gets a big enough pile together, the wind blows them all away. Plus it converts two-stroke fuel to greenhouse gases at a speed which suggests it cares little for the fate of the Arctic ice sheet.
No, it's an invader, and not a friendly one. So if we want to clean up leaves (not that we really do – at least not this weekend, might do it next weekend, have to see...) then we have perfectly good native tools in the shape of the broom and rake. Sturdy, reliable and definitely inanimate, these traditional denizens of the English garden deserve our protection.
Before it gets too late.
This post was first published in The Bath Chronicle on Thursday November 13 2008.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Explaining the credit crunch

A number of readers have written or emailed asking for a clear explanation of why the world economy is in its current parlous state, what they can do about it, and whether it would be a good idea to invest their life savings in a buy-to-let apartment in Greenland.

Frankly, in the immortal words of Patrick Moore, we just don't know. But that won't stop us in our mission to explain. At no small expense we have retained the services of respected investment analyst George Imallright- Jacques, and here, for the benefit of that dwindling group of readers who still have more money than sense, is his Bath Chronicle Cut-Out-And-Keep User Friendly Guide to Surviving the Credit Crunch and Global Banking Crisis.

Q: What is a hedge fund?

A: Suppose that Bank A is in debt to the tune of £1bn, while Bank B owes £2bn. This means that Bank A is £1bn richer than Bank B, and thus acquires what we bankers call leverage, which it can use to buy long-date Government bonds, offsetting the cost by liquidating its existing assets in Bank C and placing them on the Far East currency markets.

At this point the hedge fund facilitates the arbitrage on the operating surplus and recharges it to Bank B, making its own profit on the transaction by capitalising on the gearing ratio between short-term fluctuations in the inter-bank lending rate.

This of course is only a simple example, but it goes a long way towards explaining why some people are very rich and you aren't.

Q: If all you bankers are so clever, why are you broke?

A: It's not us bankers that are up the creek, it's our banks. Individual staff members have continued to enjoy large bonuses, all-expenses- paid skiing holidays and champagne hospitality at premier sporting events throughout the current crisis. There's no point in being envious, it's just the way things are.

Q: Why has no one been round to empty the bins this week?

A: The stagnation of liquidity in the local government sector is an indirect result of the freezing of Icelandic investment opportunities.

Q: Isn't that just a load of hot air?

A: No. Have a Glacier Mint.

Q: So what is a hedge fund? Really?

A: How simple do we have to make it? Look, everyone borrows from everyone else. Money makes the world go round. All's well that ends well. Too many cooks spoil the broth. End of story.

Q: I'm a 35-year-old man with a £100,000 mortgage. With property values going through the floor, what steps should I be taking to ensure I don't fall into the negative equity trap?

A: The National Lottery isn't such a bad punt. Alternatively, if you have a soon-to-mature Cash ISA or a woolly sock filled with £1 coins hidden away under the mattress, you might consider purchasing a stake in a Personal Toxic Debt Recovery Fund, which should see a higher return in direct proportion to the fall in value of your house. But this is a long-term option and will be tied firmly to the Bank of England base rate.

Q: What does that mean in layman's terms?

A: It means it might work or it might not. Listen, mate, there aren't any laymen in the financial sector. As soon as you open your first Kiddisave Account with your friendly high street bank you're swimming with the sharks. And don't even think about dabbling in property unless you've got the cunning of a sewer rat and the killer instinct of a wolverine.

Q: I bet you don't sleep much with this crisis on your conscience.

A: Maybe not, but I am solvent.

Q: You don't actually know what a hedge fund is, do you?

A: Not telling.

The value of your investments may go up or down as result of following or not following the advice in this article, either fully or in part. Can't be certain, really. Anything could happen in the next couple of weeks. You should consult your financial adviser before taking any decision which might affect your future prosperity. You already have? Oh.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Eat your veg before it eats you

An hour and a half north up the M5 (on a clear Sunday at a steady lick) is the turn-off for the M50, gateway to the Malvern Hills and the Three Counties Showground.

There it was that the Dixons and young friend made their way, in search of horticultural inspiration – and maybe a bargain or two – at the annual Autumn Show.

Vegetables are big at the Autumn Show. Big in the sense of verging on the monstrous. It takes a special sort of gardener to grow carrots as long as your arm, leeks as long as both your arms and parsnips as long as your arms, your mum's and dad's arms and your Auntie Mabel from Droitwich's arms laid together end-on-end.

Mind you, by the time you got three or four inches down the tuber, the parsnips were pretty spindly and wouldn't have offered much to roast come Christmas.

But on they stretched, their thread-like taproots folded up and down the trestle tables in the competition marquee.
Click here!

One of the most noticeable things about giant vegetables, apart from their very size, is their sheer irredeemable ugliness. This is particularly so, we discovered, in the case of the swede.

Now your common-or-garden buy-it-at-the-greengrocers family- runabout swede is an unassuming sort of creature. Yellowy-orange with a few purple bumps, and embarrassed by its close consanguinity with the turnip, it sits in your vegetable rack waiting for its chance to be boiled, mashed with butter, left uneaten, made into soup, left again and eventually tipped down the drain.

But your Formula 1 competition swede is a vegetable of a different water. For starters, it's the size of a small suitcase. For seconds, it looks for all the world as if it's been rough-hewn from the trunk of a gnarled tree and then liberally doused in blue paint.

Edible it is not (and that's about the only thing it has in common with its smaller and smoother brothers and sisters). Uncanny it most definitely is.

Then there was the pumpkin.

Or Mongo the Pumpkin Monster, to give it its full name. Grown by two proud Brits, Mark and Frank Baggs, this was the new European record-holder, weighing in at 1,341.7lb. That's more than 600kg if you think in metres. By the time we got to it the stalk had fallen off, but even so it was a staggering example of man's ability to wrestle with nature and tame it.

There were of course smaller-scale encounters of the fruit-and-veg kind: rosy apples ready for the scrunching, succulent pyramids of tomatoes, earthy, glistening potatoes: all guaranteed to inspire the visitor to greater feats of growing next year.

But there was far more to see than just veggies. There were antique petrol engines of vaguely agricultural extraction, chugging away as they pumped water from one basin to another, at once purposeful and aimless and doing heaven knows what for their owners' carbon footprints.

There was the man on his ancient lawnmower, pootling up and down a narrow patch of greensward and entertaining an audience of maybe one or two.

There were the stands, selling everything from tatty toolkits to expensive whirlpool baths.

(Who goes to a country show to buy a whirlpool bath? The vendors were far from busy, except for a huddle of children, mostly of the Dixon party, trailing their fingers in the warm bubbling water and dreaming of the day when Dad would be able to afford one for each of their bedrooms. Dream on, dears, dream on.)

There were miracle cures for everything from dry skin to galloping gut-rot. There were country-style hats, country-style coats, country-style trousers.

Mrs D exercised amazing self-control when it came to buying plants. The young friend bought one of those sprinkler things that looks like a sunflower but whips around like a demented snake when you attach a garden hose. Won't his parents be pleased?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

Amid all the explosions, fireballs, airborne gas canisters, 250ft plumes of black smoke and general conflagration- related excitement that has filled newspapers, websites, TV and radio over the last day or so, you would easily be forgiven if you'd missed one of the more important news stories of the week.

So in case it passed you by, here it is again: the Large Hadron Collider has broken down, and won't be working again until the spring.

For those readers who haven't really cared up to now, the Large Hadron Collider (let's call it the LHC so we don't use up too many words) was launched on September 10 this year with the purpose of investigating the state of the cosmos in the moments immediately following the Big Bang.

The LHC is basically a whopping great underground doughnut with a circumference of 27km. It lives under a mountain on the Swiss/French border and fires subatomic particles at each other at unfeasibly high speeds.

When they hit each other they transmogrify into even smaller particles (or perhaps bigger ones – subs please check), in ways which are supposed to tell us everything we never knew about the origins of the universe and were always afraid to ask.

Click here!

You can't actually see with your own eyes what's going on inside – at least not not unless you've got spider-senses or you've guzzled too much Kryptonite – so the only video they could show on the telly when they fired it up was a load of physicists whooping and partying.

And if you've ever met a physicist, you'll know exactly how televisual that was.

However, the whole thing is now temporarily bust, thanks to a coolant leak in the electrical system.

And somehow that brings this failure of an almost inconceivably complicated gadget a whole lot closer to home. Because we've all experienced something similar, when the fridge makes things warm instead of cold, or the central heating does the opposite.

It's always the same question: do you chuck it out and buy a new one, do you get it repaired by a professional, or do you mend it yourself?

Now with our friend the LHC, the options are limited. You can't just walk into Currys, whack your 6.2bn euros down on the counter and say "A new Large Hadron Collider, my good fellow, and make it snappy." And you won't find an LHC Repairs section in any edition of the Yellow Pages this side of Alpha Centauri.

So our physicist chums have a whole lot of DIY ahead of them before the protons can dance and the Higgs bosons can sparkle once more under the bosky slopes of the Jura.

Some months ago an equivalent catastrophe struck the Dixon kitchen. The microwave started doing impressions of Guy Fawkes Night, and the Comptroller of Budgets decided that we couldn't afford a new one – or a repair service.

It was time to head online to find out (a) why the thing was making warmed-up ravioli look like it had been struck by cosmic rays that had taken a wrong turning somewhere outside the orbit of Jupiter and (b) what we could do about it.

And so it was that we stumbled across The Only Really Useful Piece Of Information On The Internet (official).

If you're interested you can find it here, but basically it involves taking out the old waveguide cover (you knew that already, didn't you?) cutting out a slice of fresh mica to the same shape and slotting it back in. You get the mica from a mica shop, natch.

We saved so much money by using this web-inspired wheeze (no trip to Currys, no teeth-sucking repair person) that we were able to pay for two foreign holidays and an iPod Touch with the change.

But now a new challenge awaits, of more LHC-like proportions. Last week Dixon Junior was on Bebo or some such when the computer made a noise like a train wreck and wouldn't reboot.

A helpful chap at Farpoint Developments in Walcot Street said it should be easy to fix: all you need is a new disk drive (£50), a screwdriver, and a certain amount of self-confidence. Roll on the weekend.

But if this column doesn't appear next Thursday, you'll know why. Either its writer has had an unfortunate entanglement with a very high voltage, or he has sold himself into slavery to pay for a new computer. Watch this space.

This column first appeared as a column on on September 25 2008.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

We shall have music wherever we go

A few Christmases ago Mrs D received a wonderful present from her loving spouse: a waterproof radio/CD player of the sort that you can hang in the shower. Once it's been attached to the wall, the idea is that you can enjoy all your favourite tunes as you attempt to scrape yourself clean under the icy dribble.

And after an episode of Dixon's Extreme DIY Challenge involving a power drill, ceramic tiles and a whole lot of swearing, the radio was indeed installed semi-securely to the shower wall and ready for action.

In theory it's quite a cunning device: not only does it work in a steamy atmosphere, but it also offers long wave, medium wave and FM, and the top of the CD tray doubles as a mirror so you can face up to the evidence of your own over-indulgence even as you scrub yourself rosy-cheeked and fresh.

In practice, though, if you do ever try to load up a CD, it slips from your fingers and tumbles into the swirling torrent below, where it is rendered unplayable by the same invigorating blend of natural oils and herbs you've just been slathering all over your torso.

Powerful stuff, that Lynx body wash.

On long wave there are four or five European stations which would probably be quite informative if you had actually ever got round to doing those Serbo-Croat evening classes you always promised yourself.

On medium wave you have a choice of hiss, crackle or pop.

And on FM there is just one station: Classic FM.

All the other stations: Radios 1 through 4, Kiss FM, Cuddle FM, MakeUp FM and even "local" stations like Bath FM, just bounce off the outside of the bathroom wall and scatter harmlessly into the troposphere.

But for some reason Classic FM has super-powers which let it refresh the parts other radio stations cannot reach.

The most likely explanation for this is that the Look No Nails glue which was used to fix the tiles back onto the bathroom wall - during the concluding spasm of the original DIY extravaganza - was in fact a technological spin-off from the B-2 stealth bomber project, and that it blocks out all radio frequencies with the exception of 100-102 FM.

It does rather leave you wondering, though, what a USAF pilot would make of a sudden blast of Flight of the Bumble Bee as he focused his targeting computer on some unsuspecting Third World state.

Be that as it may, it leaves the abluting Dixon with something of a problem: turn it on or leave it off?

Because the trouble with Classic FM is that it brings so much blandness into your life that if you listen to it too much you'll end up blander than Mr Bland of Bland Street, Blandford Forum.

Presenters like Jane Jones and Simon Bates appear to be under strict instructions to d-r-a-g o-u-t t-h-e-i-r v-o-w-e-l s-o-u-n-d-s in order to make the listeners feel more relaxed. In fact, the effect is rather like Mogadon.

The adverts, for products like All Bran and Nytol, are targeted at those who need easing into the day (literally) and then easing out at night.

Audio compression makes the quiet bits and the loud bits all sound nice and average, not dynamic. And during the day they only play the well-known bits: single-movement extracts from their Hall of Fame playlist, or film themes of the classical kind. Think Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings...

Not the sort of intellectually challenging soundscape you would hope to enjoy while you're having your morning shave, moisturise and floss.

But in our bathroom there is no alternative: any attempt to fiddle with the dial on the radio leads to the generation of the sound you get when you drag a cat tail-first through a thorn hedge (don't try it at home, readers).

So it looks like we're stuck with washing to the accompaniment of Music for the Royal Fireworks, Pachelbel's Canon and Ravel's Bolero. Marvellous in themselves, but rather done to death on Classic FM.

This column was first published in The Bath Chronicle on March 6 2008. Copyright Bath News & Media 2008.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Slather me with butter

Emails and leaflets have been doing the rounds at Chronicle Towers this week suggesting that the younger and fitter among our number should get a team together to take part in the annual Bath dragon boat race next June.

Last year the race raised more than £32,000 for leukaemia sufferers, and a good time was had by all in a very good cause.

We mentioned the race a couple of weeks ago in the paper, but it never really sank in (geddit?) that we might actually be expected to take part.

Now it could be argued that your humble columnist, being neither particularly young nor in the least fit, doesn't qualify to take part in the race.

But it would be churlish to refuse the invitation. And there is a role in a dragon boat team that doesn't involve paddling, straining or otherwise dealing out grief to muscles which haven't been used recently for anything more strenuous than waving a Wii remote control: the drummer.

If you've ever seen one of those 1950s Roman-Empire-type blockbusters that usually seem to star Charlton Heston, James Mason or Antony Quinn (born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn, fact fans) then you'll know the score.

Quintus Maximus, disgraced son of senator Severus Jugularis, has spent the last 15 years exiled to darkest Parthia, but is now returning triumphantly to Rome on a quinquireme with his smouldering barbarian concubine Lollia, after routing the empire's foes left, right and centre all over Asia Minor.

But a curse has been laid on them: as the mighty galley plies its way west to Rome, the wind falls, the sails droop and a merciless sun beats down on passengers and crew.

As sea monsters circle and pirates prepare to pounce, we hear the blast of a trumpet. The galley slaves take up their oars, and from the bowels of the ship comes a rhythmic pounding.

It is Mongo, the egg-shaped slave driver, thumping his tub and urging his rowers to ever greater feats of exertion.

Mongo is huge; Mongo is bald; Mongo is shiny. Mongo is probably afraid of mice. Mongo's mother loves him, although everyone else gives him the sort of berth normally afforded to a demented bull elephant on the day that Prozac stopped working.

But on this particular voyage, Mongo is the hero of the day. The galley gives the pirates the slip, does a back double round the sea monsters and sweeps back to Rome in time for Quintus to forestall the plot that will oust mighty Glutinus Caesar from the throne and leave Rome at the mercy of the Gothic hordes.

Lollia renounces the life of a concubine, marries Maximus and becomes a card-carrying Roman matron. Maximus himself is adopted as Caesar's heir. Mongo gets a nice cosy villa with an extension for his mum, and the Roman Empire goes on forever.

Humorous Pictures

All of which is quite contrary to history as related in the works of the great Edward "Funky" Gibbon.

He believed that the fall of Rome came about because its citizens had become lazy and soft and laid themselves open to barbarian invasion through a love of luxury and lark's tongue soup.

Later writers have claimed that it was to do with all the lead from the water pipes. It's an interesting debate and one we may take up in a future edition.

Anyway, let's get back to the point. And yes, dear reader, there is a point.

Because every dragon boat needs a Mongo, or at least his spiritual descendant, to renounce his life of luxury, slather himself with butter (for that shiny effect all good slave drivers need), shave his head and sit at the pointy end of the boat, rolling his mad staring eyes, drumming like crazy and keeping the rowers in rhythm.

And if you come down to the river on June 29, you may be surprised. There's a place on our boat for even the least athletically inclined, and this columnist is already in training for it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Digital futures

There was a bit of a discussion a few days ago on The Bath Chronicle’s new online forum about digital TV, when it was coming and what it would be like.

Because for every lucky Bath household which can currently get Freeview, there are quite a few more who can’t, unless they’re prepared to shell out for cable or satellite.

That’s because some people (including we Dixons) pick up their TV signals from the mighty Mendip transmitter, which already caters to viewers’ every digital need and will also come round to your house and cook the Sunday roast if you ask it nicely; whereas others (including we Dixons before we moved out of Walcot – sorry, Lower Camden) have to get by on the not-quite-so-mighty Bathwick mast, which at present churns out four of the five standard channels and gets grumpy if you just ask it for a cup of tea in the morning.

But now the big digital switchover is coming (even if it doesn’t reach Bath until 2010). And when it does, all of us stand to benefit from those bright, bubbly, information-rich digital channels that you may possibly have seen being promoted just the teensy-weensiest bit on the existing terrestrial networks.

However – there’s always a however – there will be some limitations.

The Bathwick transmitter will only be obliged to carry the “public service” elements of the brave new digital world, which means that for those people who live in the shadow of Alexandra Park some unavailable commercial channels may still be unavailable.

So here, for those without the benefit of 20/20 foresight, is your Official Guide To The Digital Channels You May Not Be Getting in 2010.

  • Price Crash: the televisual equivalent of a dodgy-looking geezer driving into a supermarket car park, rolling up the side of his van and flogging off unbranded DVD players and cutlery sets at unbelEEEvably low prices. You’ll be amAAAzed at the bargains: you’ll also be amazed at how it always seems to be the same five people from Cleethorpes taking part in the Dutch auction. The presenters all have deep orange tans and are apparently on their way back from the sort of party you hope your daughter will never get invited to.
  • TCP: Not associated with Price Crash. Oh no: much, much nicer. Sells craft kits, lavender velour trouser suits and miracle beauty products from a studio tastefully decorated with marbling and tie-backs to look like a front room circa 1987. The presenters dress to match the decor and are hoping to get onto GMTV.
  • Nigel: Following the trend of giving TV channels men’s names, Nigel will offer wall-to-wall repeats of Have I Got News For You, A Question of Sport and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Viewers will find themselves whisked into a deeply confusing temporal vortex in which Tony Blair is Prime Minister, England has high hopes of winning an international sporting trophy and petrol costs less than £1.20 a litre. Special guests will include Rick Wakeman. The jokes will be of a similar vintage.
  • 4KIDZ: animated fun for the under-fives. From Latvia. Bobo the Bear is sad because Snitch the Wizard has hidden the Rainbow Leaves from the Happy Tree. All very educational, and everything will be fine by bed-time. Which is at 7.00pm. As if.
  • Hitz From Da Hood: this week’s top 40 R’n’B bangaz, presented by Dizzy Rimes, Busta Jam and/or Da Basement MC.
  • Hoodz Wid Da Hitz: same but subtly different, with a PA from MC Dizzy and Jam Busta live in da basement.
  • Teachers’ TV: On between 4am and 6am, when all teachers of this writer’s acquaintance are either fast asleep or kicking said writer for snoring. Don’t even think about recording it: not even the techiest tech teacher knows how to work the DVD.
  • Top Cops: More repeats, this time of all those action series your dad wouldn’t let you watch because they were supposedly too violent. Relive the 70s stylings of The Professionals and The Sweeney. Marvel as grown men with lapels the size of Belgium say “manor” and “slag”. Gasp as the same yellow ochre Ford Capri smashes repeatedly into the same wall on the same disused airfield. Be amazed that anyone ever found Hammer House of Horror even remotely scary. Reel incredulously at the string vests of the submarine crew in UFO. Wonder if you should get out more.

Yes, there’s more choice for all in the new digital future. But in the meantime, it’s Friday, it’s five to five, it’s...

This column was first published in The Bath Chronicle on February 21 2008. Copyright Bath News & Media 2008.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Battle of the bags

Much ink has been spilled and many trees have died over the past few years in the cause of political correctness and non-sexist writing.

It is no longer acceptable, we are told, to use terms such as "manhole", "fireman" or "housewife", as they reinforce gender stereotyping and reflect outdated and paternalistic attitudes to today's social dynamic.

Instead, we must find new terms that embrace and celebrate cultural diversity.

So the next time BT comes round to play cat's cradle under your street, they'll be gaining access via the staff ingress portals.

If there's a fire, it'll be the conflagration operatives who come to put it out.

And if you leave your dirty washing all over the floor, don't expect the Laundry Fairy to sort it out for you; pick it up and put it in the basket, or suffer the consequences.

Because just as dark grey is the new black, you are the new Laundry Fairy.

Latterly, though, a new and more insidious form of thought control has extended its tendrils deep into the fabric of our society.

Now that we're all well on the way to being politically correct, the newest cultural shibboleth is the carrier bag.

Carrier bag correctness is sweeping the high streets and malls of Britain in heaving waves of oatmeal-coloured hessian, and shoppers must beware.

Because if you get caught out with a plastic carrier these days, you're as good as confessing that you're a four-wheel-driver with a carbon footprint as big as Bigfoot's when he's trodden in some charcoal.

Men are most frequently the targets of this new form of social dirigism.

Picture the scene: you head out to the shops, empty-handed, hoping in your innocence to pick up a few necessities.

As you open the door, a voice calls you back: "Have you got a bag?"

Why would you need a bag? You're not carrying anything yet.

But take one you must, because to bring home your purchases in a fresh plastic carrier is tantamount to declaring war on whales, glaciers and the ozone layer all wrapped up into one. These days, the only good bag is a re-usable one.

Politely and with grace, you accept that this is a lost battle. But now there is the choice of bags.

Do you take the flowery one which encourages its readers (and yes, people do read bags, or else they wouldn't have writing on them) to eat five raw vegetables a day and then return the peelings to the council?

Would you perhaps prefer to tout that souvenir of last summer's cross-Channel jolly, covered in French marketing-speak which probably says something like "Look at me, I'm green"?

Or you could be like Tinky Winky, and get a special bag, one which makes a statement about your personality.

A quotation from John Stuart Mill, for example, will mark you out as a shopper who is not be trifled with.

"The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people." This sort of stuff quite often gets printed on the bags you get in bookshops: it works well at keeping pavement cyclists at bay.

Whichever you take, you have to put it somewhere on your way to the shops.

And that means cramming it into a pocket and suffering the ultimate indignity: wrongly bulging trouserage.

(Although some of us, it must be confessed, are already martyrs to that particular complaint.)

Ho for the shops, where you find that your simple list of requirements has been mysteriously added to, probably by a relative of the Laundry Fairy.

For man cannot live by beer and pork scratchings alone; he must also bring home tomato puree, unsalted butter and the right sort of pasta.

And even your trusty cotton bag isn't big enough to carry all of that lot.

So that means the acquisition of yet another plastic number, which in turn will probably end up as most bags do: as the wrapping for this week's recycling.

Sometimes you just can't win.

This column was first published in The Bath Chronicle on January 31 2008. Copyright Bath News & Media 2008.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Year of the Rat

Welcome, one and all, to the Year of the Rat.

The first animal in the Chinese zodiac system, the Rat is a sign for pioneers, leaders and conquerors.

Rats, we are reliably informed, are charming, practical, charismatic, passionate and hardworking.

They have good leadership skills and make good friends. They are energetic and versatile with a natural charm.

There’s a downside, of course: rats can also be cruel, calculating, vengeful, obstinate control freaks.

Rats have played an important part in popular culture: in the cinema, for example, when Jimmy Cagney delivered that immortal line: “You doidy Rat, you killed my brudder.”

(To which the playground riposte is: “You doidy brudder, you killed my Rat.”)

Their gemstone is garnet, their lucky number is 11 and their favourite foods are pork, peas and cabbage.

Know anyone like that? Were they born in 1960? or 1972? or 1984? Then they’re a card-carrying Rat.

(Sums fans can work out what the other years would be, although there’s a bit of variation because the Chinese New Year moves around relative to the Western calendar. It’s all to do with Shrove Thursday and the Procession of the Equinoxes.)

Cynics might say that a Rat can be almost anything you want it to be, as can a Boar, a Snake, a Virgo or a Sagittarius.

Because if you know someone with those characteristics who was actually born in the Year of the Ocelot or the Muntjak, then the whole thing starts to fall apart.

And as The Boss will say to anyone who’ll listen, you could pick up anyone’s horoscope, read the good bits and decide it’s about you.

It’s a very persuasive argument: how can your character or your future possibly be determined by something as random as the position of the stars or the little furry animals on the day of your birth?

However – and there’s always a however – there may in fact be something in it.
Because as announced in the paper this week, Chronicle Towers is being pioneering (a Rat-like characteristic) and moving premises.

Some people may call this synchronicity. Others might argue that the rat connection is stretching a point. Be that as it may, we shall continue.

Those with long memories will be aware that our new home in James Street West will be the third earthly manifestation of Chronicle Towers.

The Towers Mark I was in Westgate Street, where Boots and Superdrug are now. It was what is euphemistically known as a “traditional newspaper office”.

This means that the basement was subject to floods, the third floor was the second floor except when it was the fourth floor, and search parties often had to be sent out to find junior reporters who had lost their bearings while navigating the rickety stairs between the front office and the newsroom.

It was at Chronicle Towers Mark I that your humble columnist started his Bath career, in a converted garret which housed the delightfully-named Special Publications Unit.

It was perhaps inevitable that he became known as “Hugh from SPU”, a sobriquet that has blighted his promotion prospects ever since.

In 1997 we upped sticks and moved to Chronicle Towers Mark II, our present open-plan bungaloid home.

There are many things we shan’t miss about the current incarnation of The Towers. The heating and ventilating have always been a bit wonky. The view wouldn’t feature on any picture postcard, stretching panoramically as it does from the three gas holders via the water treatment plant to the Waste Transfer Site.

And then there’s that smell...

The Towers II does have its good points. It boasts the best coffee machines in the world, ever. You can quite often get Mini Cheddars from the snack dispenser. There’s an ever-changing parade of wildlife outside the windows, including, yes, the occasional rat.

But what this place doesn’t offer, with the exception of Argos just across the bridge, is retail therapy. And whatever the powers that be may tell you, this is the real reason for relocation.

Because journalists need shops like fish need the sea, and the stars say that this move promises a retail resurgence in the heart of the city. Bring it on...

Friday, February 01, 2008

Space cargo ship near completion

Space cargo ship near completion

Thought grenades

Those readers who turn to the opinion pages before they read anything else in the Bath Chronicle – and we know there are many of you – may have missed a heinous accusation aimed at this column and others like it in today’s letters pages.

All of us, with the exception of The Boss and Mister Oswick nestling down below, stand accused of falling some way short of the mark in our column-writing duties.

A scabrous allegation about electric kettles has hit particularly hard.

Let it be known that this column hasn’t had a new electric kettle for years, and wouldn’t write about such mundane matters even if it had.

However, never let it be said that we don’t listen to criticism.

Indeed, we have already hired a top team of consultants to sort out our deficiencies in language, style and grammar, and they have come up with a master plan based on the latest thrusting office-speak, as defined by the nice people at recruitment consultants Office Angels in their annual survey of workplace jargon.

The first thing we did was set up an Information Touchpoint – that’s a meeting for those of you who aren’t In The Loop – at which we committed ourselves to regular Blue Sky Thinking sessions.

Any Thought Grenades (aka good ideas) that come out of those sessions will be Sent On A Cruise To See If They Come Back With A Suntan.

This is similar in many ways to the familiar process of Running An Idea Up The Flagpole And Seeing Who Salutes It, although the consultants are at pains to point out that it’s quite different from Shaking The Parcel And Checking What Falls Out. That only happens at Christmas and on birthdays.

Thinking Outside The Box will be positively encouraged, although we’ll be Sunsetting anything that doesn’t meet our new and rigorous quality control standards.

From now on, Chronicle columns will be produced by dedicated teams rather than individuals. And as we all know, There’s No I In Team – although there is a me tangled up inside it somewhere.

Once we’re all Singing From The Same Hymn Sheet then we’ll all be Opening Up Our Kimonos and Taking It Offline.

If you’d like to come and watch, you’ll be most welcome.

But for now, let’s Park That Thought. Because this radical internal restructuring is only our first step in making certain that we offer readers an Opinion page that is Fit For Purpose in the 21st century.

McDonalds restaurants, Network Rail and airline Flybe, it has been announced, will soon be able to offer their staff full academic qualifications, equivalent to GCSEs and A-Levels, at the end of their training courses.

Similarly, the Opinion pages of this newspaper are working on plans for Getting Down With The Kids.

We intend to offer positions as interns to a select group of promising youngsters, who after an apprenticeship of just seven short years will qualify for an NVQ Diploma and Bar in Contemporary Column Management.

The development programme will offer modules in Noun Manipulation, Synonym Methodology and Practical Padding.

More advanced students will be encouraged to broaden their skills base by taking options in Random Ideas, Top-Of-The-Head Thinking and Flogging Dead Horses.

End-of-year exams will focus on assessing the students’ skills in areas as diverse as Circular Argument and Wild Imaginings, while at the same time offering our trainees the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities in the fields of Lexical Redundancy, Reader Irritation and Creative Use of Cliché.

There’s a brave new world just around the corner, and this column isn’t going to Raise The Anchor And Let It Drift.

Little ‘r’ us if you’d like to be a part of this intriguing new experiment in contemporary journalism.

This column was first published in The Bath Chronicle on January 31 2008. Copyright Bath News & Media 2008.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Very pleasant

What does it mean (if anything) if a medical consultant refers to you as a "very pleasant gentleman" in a letter to your GP?

I've been called this twice now by two completely different consultants (one gastro-enterology, one ENT) on two completely different occasions, separated by some five years.

Is it code? Is it a compliment? Is it a coincidence?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Man Flu

"January brings the snow," goes the nursery rhyme, and like so many ancient rhymes, it is downright wrong.

Because the only thing that January has brought to this neck of the woods, apart from shed-loads of rain, is evil and unmitigated disease.

Not, fortunately, the type of disease that makes your feet and fingers glow - that sort involves repeated exposure to nuclear waste, of which there isn't a great quantity around Chronicle Towers as far as we're aware - but the dreaded Man Flu.

A virulent plague of said malady has swept through the Towers, starting with the boss and working downwards, and threatening the very fabric of newspaper production as we know it.

After recent advances in medical science it is now recognised that there are several very different types of Man Flu.

Some practitioners describe a syndrome in which the sufferer calls in to work sick on Monday complaining of having the flu.

Recovery is swift and is generally brought about by the arrival of Tuesday, when the patient can normally be expected to be right as rain bar a few snuffles.

This form of the disease is also transmissible to children of school age, particularly those who haven't bothered to do their homework.

Its correct medical name is skivertitis, and it is definitely not what anyone has had around here.

The second identifiable strain of Man Flu is a far more serious affair. Or at least it is for those who have to put up with the patient.

In the early stages of the disease the man (it's always a man) displays all the symptoms of the common cold.

However, after a few hours he enters a delusional state in which he becomes unshakably convinced that his symptoms are those of influenza.

They aren't, but he takes to his bed and whimpers uncontrollably for lengthy periods, litters the floor with tissues and is of little or no use to man nor beast.

A gradual cure can be effected by the regular application of sympathy and mollycoddling, normally from the patient's mother or spouse.

But the speed of recovery is inversely proportional to the patient's skills at amateur dramatics, particularly in the field of moaning. The more convincing his performance, the longer the disease will take to run its course.

The old Latin name for this disease was hypochondria thespiana, but most doctors nowadays consider it as simply a mutated form of skivertitis.

Worryingly for the future, though, medical researchers have recently discovered a third and more virulent strain of Man Flu: one which affects women.

The medical symptoms are infinitely more severe (and more genuine) than those of Man Flu proper, and cannot be completely alleviated even by the introduction of small bunches of flowers and gentle cooing noises.

No-one yet understands how this type of Man Flu made the inter-species jump, but what is known is that the initial infection has severe knock-on effects on men who come into close proximity with the patient.

In a recent well-documented case, a man whose wife had succumbed to the virus felt obliged to take on domestic tasks which in normal circumstances would not have been entrusted to him.

And while his motives were honourable, he soon discovered that there is little point in loading up the tumble drier with damp laundry if you don't know which button you're supposed to press to start the thing.

Similarly, a weekly supermarket trip put him under such severe stress that he lost his ability to read shopping lists, interpreting the phrase "lots of bananas" as "two bags of bananas", a misunderstanding so grave that he has still not been allowed to forget it even after the patient's near-complete recovery.

Children are affected, too: they suddenly find themselves watching far more telly than usual, and complain that simple grilled bacon "tastes funny" because Mum hasn't cooked it.

No, January is a cruel month with nothing whatsoever to recommend it.

And not even the promise of February just around the corner is particularly enticing.

The ancient rhyme promises rain, which "thaws the frozen lake again". But we've already had two months' worth of precipitation in the first three weeks of the year, so what can be next?

Plagues of boils, most likely. They can't be any worse than the Man Flu.

This column was first published in The Bath Chronicle on January 24 2008. Copyright Bath News & Media 2008.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Wafted here from Paradise?

Last Friday morning conversation at Chronicle Towers took a turn for the nostalgic.

It was all prompted by the unwise decision of a couple of members of staff to sample some dusty and neglected bottles at the back of the bar of the pub where they just happened to find themselves the previous evening.

This serious scientific endeavour led not only to a much fuller understanding of why very few people drink Dubonnet these days, but also headaches all round for those who were foolish enough to partake.

All of which is a roundabout way of asking that age-old question: “Were you truly wafted here from Paradise?”

Anyone of a certain age (self included) will know the answer to that one.

But for those who need some background or are less than hem-hem-hem years old and don’t remember the ’70s, the question was first asked in an advert for Campari.

Campari was (and still is) a strange orangey-red alcoholic tincture which was mixed with soda water and sipped in sophisticated surroundings by men in safari suits.

It is also one of the few mysterious drinks we didn’t try last Thursday.

Anyway, in the ad itself, a suave young Lothario, played by an actor who might or might not be Nigel Havers, entertains a glamorous-looking young lady on the terrace of a stylish Mediterranean villa.

He mixes her a Campari and lemonade and then asks her the immortal question about wafting and Paradise.

And then comes the punchline.

For the glamorous seductee is none other than Lorraine Chase – later known as Stephanie Stokes out of Emmerdale – who replies, in a Cockney accent so strong you could jelly eels with it:
“Nah, Luton Airport.”

Now the printed word is a powerful instrument, but it can’t do justice to Lorraine’s Force Eight glottal stops. So if you want to hear them in full effect, either for the first time or to relive old memories, go to and search for Campari.

The advert spawned a hit single and a host of playground imitations.

It probably also put the mockers on future sales of Campari, whose makers were apparently trying to re-position it in the marketplace by broadening its appeal. It would seem that they failed.

Because, let’s face it, who drinks Campari these days, even in a spirit of scientific research?
If you do a bit of digging on Campari’s own website you’ll find that they don’t even have a UK home page, but that they do market Brazilian Liebfraumilch (another concoction we never got round to investigating) and that they also make Cinzano, the subject of another series of subversive ’70s telly adverts.

These featured the late, lamented comedy star Leonard Rossiter drenching Joan Collins with the herby beverage, against glamorous backdrops ranging from Spanish cocktail bars to first-class airline cabins.

In those days most people’s experience of life in the Med was on a par with that experienced by the merry travellers of Carry on Abroad, and in retrospect you wonder how many more bottles of the stuff were sold.

Those whacky advertising agency types are still trying it today, though.

If you’ve ever used public transport around Bath recently you can’t have helped but notice that most of it is run by First Bus. So why Stagecoach Bus is advertising here is a bit of mystery.
The ads are a spoof of Little Britain, with Tom Baker doing the voice-over as a number of characters make their journeys on what Stagecoach modestly calls “Bus of Britain”.

The night before last a would-be WAG called Tanya Brown (geddit?) took the bus to a tanning parlour and ended up all crinkly. Other ads feature Professor Harold Hooterson, who grows himself a pair of comedy boobs, and Gale Windybottom, a green campaigner whose sorry fate cannot be described in a family newspaper.

All right, they’re good for a chuckle, as were the Campari and Cinzano ads before them.

But they do leave you with the nagging suspicion that if you ever got on a Stagecoach bus you’d end up sitting next to an orange chav, a scatter-brained Frankenstein or a large and flatulent tree-hugger.

That’s the problem with subversive adverts: as soon as you start thinking too closely, the magic is broken.

Still, at least you know where you are with First Bus and a pint of best bitter.

This column was first published in The Bath Chronicle on January 17 2008. Copyright Bath News & Media 2008.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Points mean prizes

Almost every morning at Dixon Mansions a shower of paperwork flutters to the doormat.

And mingled with the red bills, disconcerting bank statements and admonitory letters from Nice Mister Access come tempting offers to spend the Dixon millions (well, tens) on labour-saving gadgets, industrial-strength cleaning products and a bewilderingly wide range of fleecy undergarments.

The latest of these invitations to land enticingly on the sisal was from top thermalwear purveyors Damart, and it was a classic of its kind.

Mrs D, it transpires, is recognised as having a “High Level of Recommendation”.

She has had a Customer Bonus agreed by no less a dignitary than G Hall, Head of Customer Services.

Moreover and to boot, she has been Authorised by the Finance Department and Approved by the Prize & Award Department.

So now she is a proud beneficiary of Damart’s Customer Awards scheme, with a grand total of 1,643 points to her name.

This, of course, entitles her to a Gift from Damart’s Audio-Visual Collection, which is where the fun really starts.

(Incidentally, it’s Damart chucking all those capital letters around, not some system malfunction at Chronicle Towers.)

Number One prize is a Philips 28-inch Widescreen TV, identical in almost every respect to the one currently doing service at the Mansions.

So we know for a fact that it’s so bulky it takes three people to lift it, that it was first on the market four years ago, and that it has since been made pretty much obsolete by today’s gorgeous pulsating flat-screen plasma LCD high-definition 1080p technology.

Which we are not buying at the moment. Until the price comes down. And we’ve finished paying for the old one...

With great consideration, Damart included with their letter a great big chunk of cardboard illustrating Mrs D’s potential prize, with arrows pointing up and down and marked TOP and BOTTOM in case there should be any confusion if we ever do get our hands on it. Very handy, that.

Next on the prize list is a Samsung Camcorder, which on closer inspection appears to be a Hi8 Camcorder.

Now Hi8 is an analogue recording format which, apart from being about as up-to-date as the crinoline, has one distinct disadvantage in this modern digital world: you need to buy extra wires and boxes full of electronic gubbins before you can transfer your movies to your computer for editing.

Spotting a picture here? Damart isn’t exactly giving away the Crown Jewels. And when you get to the small print it all gets much clearer.

Only one person will win each of these top prizes: most customers will receive a small portable radio, of which Damart are so proud that they’ve covered up its picture with a Post-It Note in their promotional literature.

Enough said. It’s the sort of marketing that Reader’s Digest used to excel at (and probably still do, if we weren’t the only family in Britain not to be on their mailing lists).

However, some people may read between the lines and wonder what Mrs D must have bought to rack up her Massive Total of 1,643 Status Points.

Was it, they might wonder, a nostalgic style, fully gathered Wincyette Nightdress in Aubergine Check?

Was it a Short Sleeved Massage Vest that took her fancy, or a Thermolactyl Classic? Or maybe a Shirred Jersey Blouse? Whatever “shirred” means.

Intriguing though these choices sound, the fact is that Mrs D isn’t really into all that Damart stuff, and as far as we can remember has never bought a single item of finery from them in all her life.

She’s simply a Recommended Customer: and if we ever find out who Recommended her we shall have words to say about it.

This column was first published in The Bath Chronicle on January 10 2008. Copyright Bath News & Media 2008.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Triumph of hope over experience

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” wrote top poet Alexander Pope, who clearly knew quite a bit about optimism.
But optimism always needs tempering with reality, and with that in mind we proudly present our Top Six Things To Hope For But Not To Expect In 2008.
Losing weight. Everyone’s new year resolution. How long will it last? Not past Twelfth Night, judging by A Certain Person’s impulse purchase of a gigantic Morrisons’ meat pie (“They were reduced”) and plying your portly columnist with same.
The pies may well have been reduced, but at this rate the waistline is not and never shall be. Looks like M&S will just have to invent a new size of trouser.
Same goes double for pork scratchings. Yes, they taste nice. No, they aren’t healthy. Please. Stop. Buying. Them.
Film stars act their age. India Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This year’s summer blockbuster, allegedly. Yes, Harrison Ford’s back, with his flipping great whip and floppy hat.
Now surely at 65 the Fordster is a little bit past it as an action hero.
Getting into tight scrapes with phobia-inducing creepy-crawlies is all very well when you’re in your prime but for goodness’ sake, he could be drawing his pension along with Sean Connery.
He can’t be doing it for the money, so who’s he trying to impress?
An end to all arguments (Part 1). Debate rages in the Chronicle’s letters pages and about the rights and wrongs of cycling on the pavement.
The cyclists accuse the pedestrians of hating cyclists. The pedestrians accuse the cyclists back. Everyone accuses car drivers of a string of heinous crimes, the least of which is the slaughter of the innocents.
We can’t stop it. There’s no point in asking people to see things from the other person’s point of view: the battle lines are entrenched and no one will give an inch.
But here are some facts. Cycling on the road is a life-threatening occupation. Cycling on the pavement is, strictly speaking, illegal. Pedestrians feel intimidated by pavement cyclists.
At the moment, cyclists are being forced into choosing whether or not to break the law for their own safety.
This is a bad thing, not only because in a rational society no one should have to choose which laws to obey, but also because the poor bloody pedestrian doesn’t have any choice about where to walk, short of scrambling through hedges and over walls to avoid the cyclists.
So what we need is a better system of cycle lanes, tighter controls on motor traffic, more tolerance all round.
Don’t hold your breath.
Traditional weather. What we could do with right now is a decent fall of snow, just to remind us that it’s winter. What we could do with in August is a nice bit of sunshine.
Will we get either? Unlikely, going by 2007’s miserable performance.
Watch this space for news of killer bees, orange frogs, mysterious malfunctionings of the air conditioning system at Chronicle Towers and general global-warming-related mallarkey.
(Actually, calling the air conditioning at the Towers a “system” is a bit like describing recent tactics of the England football team as “coherent”. Enough said.)
An end to all arguments (Part 2). Speaking of winter, a constant topic in the Dixon household is the starting and ending dates of the seasons.
One view (maintained stoutly by yours truly) is that winter begins at the winter solstice, spring is sprung at the vernal equinox, summer... You get the picture.
This leads to a certain amount of confusion about the status of Midsummer’s Day (which is actually when summer begins) but it’s a consistent and logically tenable position.
The other view (held firmly but not stoutly by the Other Half) is that spring begins when the leaves start sprouting, summer is when it’s hot (or not), autumn is when the leaves fall off the trees and winter is an indeterminate period stretching from early November until it’s time for spring again.
Answers on a postcard, please, before it comes to blows.
Bizarre newspaper stories involving animals. Mystery horses trampling our gardens? Golden pigs roaming the streets of Bath?
The year has started well, and can only get better. Now how’s that for optimism?
This column was first published in The Bath Chronicle on January 3 2008. Copyright Bath News & Media 200.