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 BeyoncĂ©s 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.