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.