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.