Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My top post-Christmas diets

“Woke up this morning, feeling bloated as can be. Yeah, woke up this morning, feeling bloated as can be. Yeah I was feeling so bloated, I fell into the Christmas tree.”

If that little snatch of Christmas Tree Stomp by master bluesman Hugh “Stoutboy” Dixon (lyrics based on his own personal experience) strikes a familiar chord, then it’s time to  start thinking about your New Year resolutions and planning a diet.

And “planning” is the operative word here. There’s no point in setting yourself unreasonable goals which you have no possible expectation of living up to.

If your body has become accustomed to five mince pies and a bottle of red wine a day for the last three weeks of festive over-indulgence, then going cold turkey isn’t really an option. (See what we did there, readers?)

Wean yourself off slowly: by mid-February you should be down to one sticky pie a week and just the occasional glass of the good old Shiraz Pinotage.

Your waistline will have reduced from a portly 42 inches to a more svelte 40, you’ll only get a little bit out of breath when you climb the stairs, and you’ll feel rather less like you’ve been hit on the head with a nine-pound hammer every time you wake up in the morning.

But if this approach to dieting sounds a bit too laid-back to you, here a couple of other suggestions you might like to try.

First off, the No Sleep Diet. Simply rig up your mains-powered smoke alarms to go off repeatedly, starting at four in the morning, for three days in a row.

A short dose of stress, coupled with REM sleep deprivation, will quickly trim your figure to Kate-Moss-like proportions.

We tried this one just before Christmas and it really worked! The only side-effects were a facial expression more gaunt than Dracula’s great-uncle and a tendency to tremble uncontrollably when required to engage in intelligent conversation.

Surely a price worth paying, though, for the ability to slip into those skinny jeans you haven’t worn since your mid-20s.

If that doesn’t appeal, maybe the No Carb Diet would be more up your street.

Doing without crustaceans for weeks may seem like too much of a sacrifice, but you’ll soon reap the benefits as you notice a spring in your step and a distinct lack of fishy smells from your dustbins.

Oh, wait a minute. That’s the No Crab Diet. Still, never mind, it might be worth a try.

Finally, there’s the good old High Protein Diet. This involves stuffing yourself with large quantitites of roast beef for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a weekly “treat”:  full English breakfast.

If it doesn’t reduce your waistline, it’ll certainly do the trick for your bank balance. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stuffed at Christmas

Right. That's it. No more shopping. Mrs D has gone out and bought so much festive grub that the supermarket shelves are empty, the checkout conveyor belts have ground to a halt under the load and the Dixonmobile has pinged a shock absorber trying to ferry the whole lot home.

We will have to survive on what we've got, although luckily what we've got would probably feed the population of a small Alpine principality into 2010 and beyond.

Even culinary items which some might consider quite counter-indicative to Christmas cheer – sprouts, dates and parsnips spring to mind – are oozing from under the pantry door at Dixon Towers.

It's a bit worrying when you start to consider how much of our traditional festive fare seems to come from overseas. Sprouts from Belgium, nuts from Brazil, swedes from Sweden, cabbages from Savoy, turkeys from Turkey – it's all some ghastly international plot to keep us regular over the Christmas period.

And at Dixon Towers there's one more ingredient to throw into the cross-cultural gastronomic mix – Mrs D's Polish Christmas Eve special.

This is an Anglicised version of the traditional Wigilia festive meal. Some of the more exotic elements of the original are substituted for more easily obtained ingredients. Your average Sainsbury's doesn't go big on carp, and your columnist vowed many years ago that he wasn't going to go out and catch one. But smoked salmon makes a reasonable and less bony replacement.

There's stuffed cabbage leaves, there's vodka, there's cheesecake, there's more vodka, there's prunes in chocolate and there's even more vodka, though not necessarily in that order. And then there's vodka.

There's even a curious ceremony in which the head of the household (i.e. your humble columnist) gets a spoonful of a dubious-looking concoction made of honey, wheat and poppyseeds and throws it at the ceiling. Whatever sticks is an indicator of what will be plentiful in the coming year. Whatever doesn't, ends up in the vodka.

But the metaphorical icing on the cake of all this middle-European bounty is the unpronounceable beetroot soup, barszcz. Just try saying that with your mouth full of szczupak.

Much stress goes into the preparation, for barszcz must be clear, red and tangy.

The tanginess comes from kwass, a pungent brew of fermented beetroot and rye bread which Mrs D started three weeks ago and is now sitting in the fridge, staring balefully at anyone who comes near it.

The redness comes from not boiling the soup.

The clarity comes from... well, let's not go into too much detail about the clarification.

Suffice it to say that you won't find methods like it in the pages of your average Jamie Oliver, and that Mrs D rarely manages to accomplish it without swearing.

It ain't half good, though. So Merry Christmas, one and all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bath Chronicle End of Term Examination

Quieten down, students, and pay attention. This is the Bath Chronicle end-of-term exam, and attendance is compulsory.

Sharpen your pencils, grease up your dividers and stop chewing at the back there.

Candidates must answer all the questions in the allocated time of 30 minutes. No talking, no peeping and don’t write on more than one side of the paper at the same time.

1: Physics
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was recently injured by an attacker wielding a model of the notoriously spiky Milan Cathedral. Use your knowledge and understanding of mass, density and materials to explain which of the following would be the best to use in model form if you wanted to carry out a similar attack. Give reasons for your choice.
(a) Bath Abbey;
 (b) The Guildhall;
(c) The Busometer.

2: Applied Mathematics
Construct an orthographic projection to show the optimum angle of attack using the instrument you chose in question 1. You may use a protractor, but not compasses.

3: Current affairs
Name the politician you would most like to wallop using the method of attack you described in question 2. Explain why, in elaborate detail.

4: Greek
Translate the following Greek phrases into good plain English:
(a) Public Realm Consultation;
(b) Regional Spatial Strategy;
(c) Infrastructure Modelling.
Extra marks will be awarded to candidates who answer in words of less than two syllables.

5 (a): Physical Geography
A family  is approaching Bath from the east by car. Unusually, traffic towards the city centre appears to be flowing somewhat slowly. Use your knowledge of Bath’s transport network to explain how this could possibly be the case, and suggest what the family should do next. Turning round is not an option.

5 (b): Mental Geography
Use your coloured pencils to draw a detailed map of Bath, outlining long-term solutions to the problem in question 5 (a). Be as imaginative as possible: your answer may include such elements as dedicated bus lanes, park and ride schemes, cycle routes, trams, monorails, jet-boats and unicopters, but it must not offend or inconvenience a single landowner or special interest group.

6: Home economics
Explain, with the use of diagrams, how to remove Christmas tree needles from (a) the car; (b) the sofa; (c) your socks; (d) the cat.

7: Creative writing
Candidates who have answered questions 1-6 to the satisfaction of the examiners will be deemed also to have answered question 7.

That is all. You may begin.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas enemies, featuring Kirstie Allsopp and Delia Smith

Hurry up, hurry up. It’s time to write your Christmas list. No, not for cards. You should have done that in October.

And if you haven’t already written your cards, addressed the envelopes, sealed the envelopes, unstuck the envelopes, put the cards in, stuck the mangled envelopes back down with Sellotape, gone out for stamps, come back with lightbulbs and Maltesers, gone out for stamps again, stuck the stamps on the cards you meant to deliver by hand... then to be quite frank you’re far too late.

Just forget it for this year, and try to do better in 2010.

No, the kind of list you need right now is a Christmas enemies list: a list of things and people that get right up your festive nose and rattle your Yuletide cage.

The kind of thing or person you want to avoid until January 14  at worst, and forever at best.

Top of this list for any right-thinking person is the sprout.

Let’s not drag up its association with  the capital of Belgium: it only starts pedantic arguments about spelling it with a capital or lower-case “b”.

And there’s no need to constantly remind the Belgians that the sprout is their national shame. (And bad driving, but let it lie.)

The sprout is a puny excuse for a cabbage and a huge waste of culinary effort. What normal vegetable has to have a notch cut in its sprouty stalk before it can be cooked to the satisfaction of the tiny number of people who actually like it? And what normal vegetable attempts to avoid capture by disguising itself as a Morris dancer’s jingly hand bell shaker?

Enough said.

Next on the list is that Christmas DIY show on the telly. You know, the show that belittles your own festive efforts by suggesting that the only good Crimbo tree is one you’ve cut down yourself.

The show that makes you feel a failure because you don’t have the wherewithall to blow your own glass baubles for said tree.

The show that suggests, if you want to make a Christmas garland, that all you need to do is scour your “back yard” for evergreen sprigs.

Presented by Kirstie Allsopp.

Kirstie has her very own Christmas house, which  exists in some sort of time warp in the hills of Devon, its floors unsullied by children, fur-shedding pets, old video games and two-week-old copies of the TV guide.

In Kirstie’s house, everything is colour co-ordinated. In Kirstie’s house, you just have to say “I want red ribbons and evergreens. Everywhere.” And it will happen.

Kirstie’s house is a TV set. It goes on the list.

(Our house has a holly tree. With yellow berries, not red ones. Whoever planted that goes on the list too.)

Delia Smith is another one. Yes, she’s a national treasure and has her own football team. And your humble columnist risks getting drummed out of the Boys’ Brigade for saying it.

But she doesn’t half go on, especially at Christmas time.

We watched Delia’s Classic Christmas the other day. She didn’t give out the quantities: perhaps you have to buy some sort of book to find out how you actually cook all this festive fare. And the best thing that can be said about her roast collar of bacon with blackened crackling is that the kids would scream if you served it up to them, and the grown-ups would probably mutter something like  “Interesting” and not come back for seconds.

All right, we’ll leave Delia off the list. But her crackling stays on.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Christmas mysteries

Here we go again. It's December. For a brief moment the sky clears, the temperature drops and the frost does whatever frost does. Frosts, probably.

Give it a day or two and we'll be back to torrential unquenchable rain, but in the meantime we are, at last, officially allowed to start talking about Christmas.

Christmas, of course, is a time of mystery and wonderment. And the mysteries start right now.

Mystery number one: how can the unique and fragile Christmas decorations Mrs D has brought back from Poland have made it safely through baggage handling at Heathrow but still look too vulnerable to hang on the tree?

Mystery number two: by what hitherto undiscovered osmotic process have the boxes containing last year's decorations, fairy lights, festive CDs and other assorted baubles managed to migrate to the far end of the loft behind a whole load of other boxes that you know for a fact haven't been touched since October 2007?

Have the mice been on a Charles Atlas course or something?

Getting the boxes out of the loft is a bit like one of those puzzles where you have to slide blocks around a grid in the hope of releasing a single block. The sort of puzzle you get given as a Christmas present, fiddle with once and then chuck at the cat in sheer frustration.

If you're having trouble picturing it, just imagine Sainsbury's car park on a Saturday afternoon. Plus you're scrabbling around on your knees, in half darkness, with a musclebound mouse polishing its fangs somewhere close. Welcome to your winter wonderland.

Mystery number three: how many Advent calendars does a normal family need? At the last count, our place can boast six in all: three common-or-garden ones with kitschy pictures behind cardboard flaps; two of the chocolate variety to be consumed after breakfast BEFORE YOU BRUSH YOUR TEETH; and one allegedly traditional candle marked off with a 25-day countdown.

If you ever need reminding about how few days you have left to panic about how unprepared you are for Christmas, then Dixon Towers is the place to be.

Mystery number five: how many times will you be able to stand playing through Now That's What I Call Christmas before it goes back in the loft? Even if you're allowed to skip A Spaceman Came Travelling and Kylie Minogue's toe-curling remake of Santa Baby?

Mystery number six: the same goes double for such festive delights as Carols from King's, The Messiah on Ice and Miriam Margolyes Tells The Story Of The Snowman.

(Incidentally, some of these are not real CDs. And anyone still nursing lingering fantasies about the Cadbury's Caramel bunny should be aware that she was voiced by the aforementioned Ms Margolyes, who was also the puritan in Blackadder II. Just thought you'd like to know.)

Mystery number seven: what's Miriam Margolyes got to do with Christmas? And what happened to mystery number four?

Mystery number eight (which for some reason ended up as a second mystery number seven in The Bath Chronicle): who comes to your staff Christmas lunch when you're a department of one?

Anyway, that's quite enough mysteries for one Christmas, and the wonderment will have to wait for a different week. Preferably some time in April, after the dust has settled.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mrs D and the Large Hadron Collider

It is with a heavy heart that this column returns to a topic that last vexed its mind more than a year ago – the Large Hadron Collider.

Regular readers (and there are many, we know) will no doubt remember that in September 2008 the LHC, as its friends call it, blew the subatomic equivalent of a piston ring and was shut down for repairs, just a couple of days after it started its mission to probe the inner secrets of the Big Bang by shooting tiny particles round a 27km loop buried under the Swiss/French border.

Don’t ask how it does it. Don’t ask why. And don’t ask how much it costs. It just does, OK?

A couple of weeks ago the LHC, its gaskets newly fettled and its trunnions roundly swaged by a high-energy Man Who Can, was all ready to surge back into action and create an infinite flow of Higgs bosons, superstrings and Q mesons. But then a passing bird dropped a baguette down its cooling ducts, and the whole concern ground to a shuddering halt for a second time.

How preposterous does this sound, exactly?

Preposterous enough to make some apparently sane people start to believe that at some time in the future the LHC will develop its own transdimensional consciousness and attempt to manipulate its own past: to stop itself from working.

Why would it want to? Maybe to stop us hubristic humans from destroying ourselves – and indeed the whole universe – by poking our noses into things we don’t rightly understand.

Because if God had intended us to discover dark matter, he would never have given us powered flight

All of which brings us, in a rather round-about fashion, to Mrs D and her forthcoming solo jaunt to Warsaw.

Not, you understand, that one is in any way comparing one’s good wife to the Large Hadron Collider.

Especially not the “Large” bit.

But if her UK-based nearest and dearest are to stand any chance of survival during her absence, she is going to have to start manipulating us from the future.

The timeline will work something like this: Friday am, Mrs D heads for Heathrow, laden with prezzies for her relatives. Monday pm, she returns, laden with prezzies for us lot, only to find we have vanished into the domestic equivalent of a black hole.

Tuesday am, Mrs D sends back message to us lot on Saturday with full instructions for: loading washing machine; unloading same; reloading  using washing powder and conditioner this time; mopping floor after inexplicable washing machine explosion; defluffing tumble dryer;  cooking food; getting ready for school on Monday.

Back on Saturday morning, time passes through a tachyon non-conformity, twists round on itself and delivers the message from Mrs D.

Husband and kids get down to the household chores, black hole disappears up its own quantum singularity, bells ring, a flock of doves is released and Mrs D returns home on Monday to three happy Dixons, faces scrubbed and clothes clean, domestic tasks accomplished and never a cross word spoken.

So what will really happen? Will Mrs D send a message from the future to mend the past? Is the LHC deliberately trying to shut itself down? Only time will tell. But it might make a plot line for Paradox.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Recipe for sardines on toast

You will need: two slices of bread, one tin of sardines in oil, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, dried basil, butter, medium tomato.

Open tin, drain sardines, discard oil. Mash sardines in a bowl with salt, pepper, cayenne and basil. Proportions to taste.

Slice tomato thinly.

Grill bread on one side. Before it burns, take it out and spread the ungrilled sides with lots of butter. Spread the sardine mixture on top, then strew sliced tomato on top of that.

Put the whole lot back under the grill, sardine side up. Grill until bread is nearly burnt.

Eat with knife and fork.

Real bachelor food. Yum

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My hell in the Quiet Carriage

The long, sleek, purple train pulls into Bath Spa railway station, pretty much on time. You climb into the Quiet Carriage, find your seat and settle down, ready to head west.

It’s late morning and the train is practically empty. It swishes along merrily, the only distraction being those strange semi-literate arrival announcements from the train manager.

“Arriving into”? Where did they drag up that particular prepositional distortion?

It’s  “arriving at” or (at a pinch) “arriving in”. The phrase “Arriving into” is downright, and unnecessarily, wrong.

But don’t let it bother you. The English language is a flexible beast and can cope with anything that First Great Western Trains throws at it.

Onwards, ever onwards.

Things are pretty quiet in the Quiet Carriage. You take advantage of the fact that you’re allowed to use a quiet personal stereo. You stretch yourself out in a quiet sort of manner. All very civilised. All very quiet.

Read a magazine, in the words of the song, and you’re in Baltimore. Well Exeter, actually, but never mind.

Somewhere around Taunton, though, the trouble starts.

“Oooh look,” comes a voice from a couple of seats in front of you. “We’re in the quiet carriage! Look at that sign on the window! It says we’re in the QUIET carriage! That sign’s got a picture of a crossed out mobile phone! Does that mean your mobile phone won’t work in here? Because we’re in the QUIET CARRIAGE!!!”

Now from the general Tiggerish over-excitedness and sheer technological witlessness of the above, you might assume, dear reader, that these are the innocent ramblings of a precocious two-year-old, perhaps being taken on its first railway jaunt by its doting parents.

But no. These words spring from the mouth of an ordinary looking middle-aged lady, who yammers away to her travelling companion about the QUIET CARRIAGE!!! for the next 20 minutes, while he grunts and tries desperately to make it look as though he’s not with her. So much for quiet.

Business concluded, it’s time to head back. And this time we’re on CrossCountry Trains rather than FGW.

Now for those who are interested, CrossCounty trains look a bit like Eurostars, with automatic doors rather than the kind you have to be a contortionist to open from the inside.

They don’t go quite so fast, though. Especially round Bedminster.

To add to the air of international chic the staff address their customers as “Folks” rather than “Ladies and Gentlemen.” And there’s a Quiet Zone, not a Quiet Carriage.

But do your fellow passengers take the slightest bit of notice? Well, the six nattering businesswomen and the bloke on his mobile phone certainly don’t. Any chance of a post-meeting doze are blown out of the window in a stream of  inconsequential chit-chat.

What can you do? Sigh huffily? Stare pointedly or point (pointedly) at the Quiet Zone signs? It'll only make your fellow passengers think you’re a nutter. So the only solution is to pump up the volume on your previously quiet iPod Touch and attempt to drown them all out. Which rather misses the point.

A French philosopher once said that Hell is other people. A French friend said the other day that France would be great if not for the French.

And grumpy old Dixon says train travel would be an absolute dream.

If it weren’t for the other passengers.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The day they cloned my debit card

Deeply, deeply scary.

You get home on Friday evening and settle down on the sofa for a well-earned nap in preparation for gin o’clock a little later on.

The eyelids start to droop, a drowsy numbness, all that stuff. And then the phone rings. It’s an automaton, from the bank. They’ve made most of the real people redundant.

“If this is Mr Hoooough Dixon, please press the hash key.” Well, it is Mr Hugh Dixon, so we’ll excuse the mangled vowels and press away. Because this sounds like trouble.

(On the subject of hash keys, did you know that the official name of the symbol that looks like a nought-and-crosses grid is the “octothorpe”? Which might be because it bears a slight resemblance to a village with eight fields around it. But then again, it might not.)

Get to the point, Dixon. It’s more than likely this chronic lack of concentration that got you on to the receiving end of a disturbing phone call from a humourless banking android in the first place.
Said cyborg, meanwhile, is asking probing questions about the second and ninth letters of your mother’s maiden name.

You cast your mind back over several decades of family history scrabbling for an acceptable answer, and eventually the drone gives you security clearance. “Please listen to a list of five recent transactions on your account,” it says in its robotic way. Ooh heck.

Even to someone whose hold on his personal finances is about as tight as that of Jedward on a musical note, words like “ATM”, “withdrawal” and “Colombia” spell trouble.

Especially when combined into a single sentence with sums like £17.36, £65.32 and (bizarrely) £1.01.
You press the hash key like mad to indicate that you don’t recognise any of these subtropical transactions. Never mind octothorpes, this is serious. Because someone, it appears, has taken your bank card for a spin on the mean streets of Bogotá.

It’s been cloned.

When the robot learns that it isn’t you who took a quick shopping trip to Latin America, its tone becomes even more businesslike.

“Please hold while you are transferred to one of our staff,” it drones, tacitly admitting what you knew all along: it’s a protocol droid, and you’ve got a walk-on part in Attack of the Clones.

Oh, and while you’re waiting, here’s some classical music. And some more, and some more, and some more. With recorded interruptions from a real person telling you how busy all the other real people are.

The worry levels increase as the wait stretches from five to ten minutes. It’s lucky for the bank that Bach isn’t around any more to collect the royalties: it’d take more than a further round of quantitative easing to pay off that little lot.

And the stress cranks up further when the family get home to find you with the phone glued to your ear and the word “fraud” on your lips.

Eventually you get to speak to that real person. They cancel your card and they reassure you: all dodgy transactions have been declined, the Dixon millions haven’t vanished in a haze of Bolivian marching powder, and they’ll send you a new card in the next two to three working days. Which they do.

All very quick and efficient, but it leaves you wondering: who cloned the card, and how did the bank find out?

Deeply, deeply scary.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Remembrance: fighting for our freedoms

A couple of years ago we went on holiday to northern France, just south of Boulogne.

It’s a quiet, unpretentious area for the most part, with a few seaside towns quite reminiscent of their English equivalents (kiss-me-quick hats, stalls selling fatty food, not a lot of sand). But even today there are reminders of the human tragedy that unfolded 20 miles inland, nearly 100 years ago, in the low, rolling hills of the Somme.

Some of the First World War trenches are still there – preserved, but their edges gradually softening with the passing years.

There is the 200ft-wide Lochnagar mine crater, where sappers attempted to drive back the opposing Germans with nearly 27 tons of high explosive: the 1916 equivalent of shock and awe.

In many ways life has moved on – the people of the small country towns go about their everyday business, the former battlefields have been turned over to agro-industry, their boundaries grubbed up to allow easy passage of tractors and combine harvesters.

But at almost every turn of every road is a graveyard, with its neat rows of white stones commemorating servicemen who fell in battle during the War to End All Wars.

In the Contay British Cemetery near Amiens is the grave of Private Henry Einar Dixon – great uncle Einar – who died on the Somme on September 19 1916, two months after the July offensive, when a trench caved in on him. He was 29, and like all his close relatives was a member of the Religious Society of Friends.

Einar was born in England, but had emigrated to Canada some years before. Family history is too hazy to tell us why. But he volunteered to return to Europe, and fight, with the Third Battalion of the Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment).

Einar had a brother – grandfather Hugh Dixon – who survived the war with honour. Conscientious objection wasn’t really an option then, even for Quakers. Einar’s gravestone is different among the uniform rows of 1,133 others because it has no cross – the Quakers don’t allow religious iconography, however simple.

Even as volunteers Einar and Hugh probably had little true choice about going to war, but there’s little doubt about what they believed they were fighting for.

They were fighting for their future – in other words for their families, for their descendants, for their compatriots, and for their freedoms.

Freedoms that we may sometimes find distasteful.

The freedom, for example, to write to The Bath Chronicle, as Tony Culver did last week, claiming that “the armed forces... have a bloody, unpleasant, nasty, brutish, barbaric, insensitive, stupid, idiotic heritage of slaughter and butchery.”

And the freedom of The Bath Chronicle to publish his letter without fear of censorship or suppression.

We should be proud that we can enjoy both of those freedoms, and more. We should be proud of those who have fought and died in our names, and who continue to do so. We should be proud, every November, to wear the poppies that commemorate them, and to respect the two minutes’ silence at 11am GMT on Armistice Day, November 11.

And Mr Culver should be grateful that he lives in a country which, whatever its imperfections, allows its citizens to write in the way he did.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When the ghosts walk and the pumpkins are nervous

Here we go again. The shops are full of orange, black and purple tat, grocers are cancelling their regular orders for flour and eggs, and frightened householders are stocking up on Haribo Fangtastics.

Yes, folks, it’s nearly Halloween, when ghosts will walk, and Mrs D’s pumpkins are getting justifiably nervous.

Once upon a time, believe it or not, Halloween was quite fun. There was apple bobbing. (Try that on a PS3.) There was sticky toffee. There were genteel games of wink murder. There was the sure and certain knowledge that the real fun started a few days later, on Bonfire Night.

Although truth be told, given the laxity of the firework-selling regulations in those golden years, eight-year-olds could buy a ready supply of bangers from about the middle of October, and would be pretty much fed up with explosives-related mayhem by the time the real thing came along.

Then things tightened up. Firecrackers became damp squibs, you could only buy Fairy Fountain roman candles three days before November 5, and then with an obligatory certificate of pyrotechnic competence from your friendly local chief constable. Trick or treating became a much more viable option for early autumnal thrill-seekers.

But now things are starting to get extra silly. The accustomed domestic bliss chez Dixon has been shattered by one half of the family’s insistence on nightly three-hour sessions of Most Haunted, a TV show which features psychic non-entities scaring themselves silly by walking round darkened houses whispering under monochrome green lighting.

It’s one of life’s little ironies that this turgid stream of dross about dead people should go out on a channel called Living.

The other half of the family either take themselves off to bed or cower behind a book with the iPod on full, happy in the knowledge that at least their brains won’t be ready- softened for the impending zombie attack.

It’s all the Americans’ fault, of course. They commercialised Halloween, and they had a hand taking the fun out of fireworks.

Witness NASA’s first attempt to launch their whizzy new Ares I-X rocket earlier this week: a bit too much of a breeze and the whole shebang gets postponed. For heaven’s sake, there weren’t even any astronauts in it. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Back in the day they just strapped Tom Hanks to the top of a Saturn V. Crossed their fingers. Lit the blue touch paper. And retired.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Humpty Dumpty, CBeebies and cultural vandalism

Gather round, little ones, and Uncle Hugh will read you a nursery rhyme.
Or at least, he’ll download a CBeebies version from BBC iPlayer and play it back to you while he sneaks off to the kitchen for a quick snifter.
It’s an old favourite, so you can sing along. It’s all about a friendly organic egg called Humpty Dumpty. Poor Humpty! He accidentally fell off a wall, but luckily some kind soldiers were riding by and they – according to CBeebies – made him happy again.
That’s right, darlings. Made. Humpty. Happy. Again.
What’s the matter, children? Why are you crying? Did cruel Uncle Hugh spoil the nursery rhyme for you? Did you want Humpty to end up in eggy shards on the floor? Or was it the nasty CBeebies' wanton cultural vandalism that made you cry? What’s cultural vandalism? I’ll tell you when you’re older. Now, off to bed.
Time for a reality check. Yes, a CBeebies programme called Something Special has mangled the words to Humpty Dumpty. Yes, a few newspaper columnists are up in arms about it.
Not this one, though. He’s more concerned about the BBC playing fast and loose with Her Majesty’s Own Capital Letters. And anyway, they’ve got the words right on the Teletubbies website, so there’s still some hope for our literary heritage.
No, this is but a storm in a cultural teacup, and if you think differently then you should take a trip to Carpentras in south-eastern France, where the town council has voted to rename one of its nurseries.
No longer will la crèche Émile Zola take its name from the 19th-century novelist responsible for the gritty naturalism of Germinal and La Bête Humaine.
You know the sort of thing. Penguin Classics. Black covers. Eight hundred pages of novel, 40 pages of scholarly notes. Alcohol. Unemployment. Violence. Misery piled on misery. A bit like Bath on a Friday night. Not exactly holiday reading.
The works of Zola, it would appear, are too “demoralising” for nursery staff and their tender charges. So henceforth, the Émile Zola nursery will be known as Little Sweeties. And this in a town which houses one of the first and greatest municipal libraries in the country.
In France, it would appear, political correctness doesn’t go mad. It goes stark raving bonkers.
And yet, and yet... If Humpty Dumpty were alive today, and had fallen off a CBeebies-style wall, he wouldn’t have broken. Because he’d have landed on an impact-absorbing, slip-resistant, non-inflammable playground surface conforming in every respect to British Standard EN 1177:1998. And he’d have bounced.
But if he’d been in a French playground, he’d have landed smack bang on the gravel and been cooked in an omelette. They toughen them up early, across the Channel.
And those soldiers: they may have been helpful enough in the nursery rhyme, even if they couldn’t put Humpty together again.
But travel to Paris, as the grown-up Dixons did last weekend, and the military are on the streets, guns out, patrolling the entrances to such cultural hubs as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. (We didn’t just go for the food.)
So there you have it. On the one hand, Vive la différence. On the other, Plus ça change.
Just don’t let CBeebies mess with the Grand Old Duke of York, is all.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Subs in Hubs by Dr Heuss: how subbing hubs work

During a prolonged bout of email tennis, Simon Copp, a sub-editor in the Bristol subbing hub, challenged me to re-write Dr Seuss's Fox in Socks.

Never mind why, but this is the result:

Subs in Hubs by Dr Heuss


Subs in hubs.

News on booze.

Subs in hubs sub news on booze.

News in news room, subs in booze room.

Boozy subs in hubs sub booze news.

Newsy news room booze in snooze room.

Look, sir. Look, sir. Mr. Sub, sir.
Let's do tricks with news in hub, sir.
Let's play tricks on subs in hub, sir.

First, I'll make a quick trick sub hub.
Then I'll make the hub subs news sub.

You can make the slick subs sub, sir.
You can make a quick slick hub, sir.

And here's a new trick, Mr Sub...
Subs in hub and news in pub.
News on booze and subs in hub.
Boozy news makes snoozy sub.

Now we come to booze and subs, sir.
Try to say this, Mr Sub, sir...

Subs in sub hub.
News on booze snooze.
Six slick subs sub.
Six quick subs booze.

Please sir. I don't like these tricks, sir.
My tongue isn't quick or slick, sir.
I get all those pubs and hubs, sir,
mixed up with the booze and subs, sir.

I can't do it, Mr Hub, sir.

I'm so sorry, Mr Sub, sir.

Here's an easy game to play.
Here's an easy thing to say...

Oh well. Back to work.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

College reunion: catching up with the lost youth

Advancing age brings its special rewards. Was it really 30 years ago, for instance, that a fresh-faced young Dixon started at college?

Well, the college seemed to think so – although the not-so-fresh-faced Dixon was initially less keen to believe it had been quite that long.

But last weekend those of us alumni (there weren't any alumnae, it was that sort of college) who've managed to survive this long in the real world without utterly disgracing ourselves were awarded a dinner in celebration.

Not a bad deal, you may think. Free food and drink, scintillating (if mostly male) company, historic surroundings. A chance to reminisce and to look back over happier, more innocent days.

Well, maybe so, but first there's the preparation. It's a black tie job, which means burrowing to the back of the wardrobe and digging out the good old Moss Bros surplus suitings. There's a moment of trepidation: has the not-quite-so-much-butter diet been enough to maintain sufficient clearance in the waist area? Amazingly, it would appear so.

Where are the shirt studs? Where you put them five years ago, dear. How do you tie a bow tie? Google it, dear.

Sartorial elegance assured and a not-too-stressful train ride later, we find ourselves in the halls of academe, swapping notes about the past with those we shared it with.

In the course of the conversation it becomes apparent that most former fellow-students have led useful, productive and profitable lives as financiers, lawyers and captains of industry.

Doubts start to form about the wisdom of working life as a walking word processor. You miss out on quite a lot: one- day trips to New York, architect-designed pads in Bavaria... you name it, the other blokes have earned it, and you haven't.

On the up side, you're spared the attentions of the college's fundraising committee, who home in on the money men like killer bees, but studiously ignore those of us who picked up the wrong folder in the careers office all those years ago.

And there is some comfort in the fact that the general public now trust bankers even less than they trust journalists.

Another equally important 30th anniversary is being celebrated this year: that of the birth of hip-hop.

But let's just say that if anyone present last Saturday evening actually remembered Rapper's Delight from 1979, they were keeping pretty damn quiet about it. They (no, we) were greyer, rounder and a lot more world-wearier. But hipper? Maybe we never were.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Jane Austen spreads her tentacles

Jane Austen’s back. Sunday nights, on your telly. And you miss Emma at your peril, because on Monday morning when you get to work you’ll very likely be probed on the details of the inconsequential plot and the jaw-droppingly lush production values.

Probed. Mmmmm. Now there’s a word. It’s quite a Jane Austen word, actually. She’d probably have found a way of slipping it in somewhere, mistress as she was of the double entendre. For it was the sainted Jane who describes, in Emma, Mrs Goddard’s school, “where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity”.

And it was the same Jane, at the beginning of Northanger Abbey, who wrote: “Such was Catherine Morland at ten. At fifteen, appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls.”

She was a bit of a naughty one on the side, was Jane. And if you were made to study her works at school, trying to spot those fnarr-fnarr moments was probably one of the few things that kept you going (oo-er missus) among all the fie-ing and wherefore-ing and for shame-ing.

And while we’re on about it, can anyone explain, in words of fewer than three syllables, what’s the difference between Sense and Sensibility?

From the aforegoing you may have picked up a certain ambivalence in this writer’s feelings towards Miss Austen and her works.

The problem is that everything in her world seems just a bit too perfect. Especially, it must be said, in the new TV adaptation of Emma.

Just look at the job titles in the credits at the end of each episode. They don’t just have Gaffers and Best Boys (stop it, Jane). They have Lawn Manicurists. They have Daffodil Wranglers. They have Electric Fan Operators to blow the clouds away from the sun so that early 19th-century England looks spick and span for the American market.

All right, you say. Behind the romantic escapism there’s acerbic social commentary, incisive characterisation, a dash of irony thrown in for good measure. And those double entendres. True enough, and there’s not much wrong with that.

But what grates slightly is that these days the escapism has completely overshadowed the wicked wit. The original characters have married and danced a minuet into the sunset, and we’re left with a candy-coated mother lode for TV and film producers to mine repeatedly.

Without having to pay royalties.

Then there’s the Bath connection. True enough, Jane Austen lived here for four or five years. But Bath wasn’t her favourite part of the world, and she had a fairly unhappy time while she was here.

Yet walk up Gay Street on a sunny Saturday and everyone’s toting an “I Heart Mr Darcy” bag or a “Kiss Me Quick I Bear A Passing Resemblance To Keira Knightley” hat. A bit too ironic, perhaps, even for Jane.

Maybe parody is the cure for an Austen overdose. High on the best-seller list at the moment is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which starts off: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” And goes on in that vein for two or three hundred pages.

On second thoughts, perhaps you’re better off sticking with the real thing. It’s so much more comforting, really.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Getting nowhere fast

"All hope abandon, ye who enter here." Those are the dreadful words emblazoned on the gates of Hell in Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy. "Through me you pass into the city of woe," wrote Dante. "Through me you pass into eternal pain: Through me among the people lost for aye."

Now it might be dismissed as journalistic licence, but if you're in Bath city centre over the next few months, then you might start thinking very much along the same lines.

In the not too distant future (February, to be exact), there are plans to close North Parade Road for repairs to the pavements, restricting access to the sports centre and car parks.

One can only wonder if, when that set of roadworks starts, bemused drivers of cars, buses, lorries and taxis will still be frantically working out which lane to choose as they approach Southgate (sorry, SouthGate) from St James's Parade.

Drivers, here's a clue: if you want to get ont o the A36, don't follow the lane marked "A36". If you do, you'll end up pointing back west along Green Park Road, or trying to cut into the left-hand lane to get across the river at Broad Quay. Simples.

Here's another queue (sorry, clue): come February, you'd be a fool to try to get on to the A36 in any case. Because of the aforementioned hoopla in North Parade Road, you'll be going nowhere fast round Widcombe. Which may please the people round there who want a traffic-calming scheme, but not for the right reasons.

To return to the classics for a moment, there was once this prophetess called Cassandra. (We're using the word "was" in a mythological sense here.) She rejected the advances of the god Apollo and as a result he placed a curse upon her: in future, no one would believe her prophetic pronouncements, even though they eventually came true.

Harsh, you may think. But fair.

Among the other things that Cassandra foretold was the fall of Troy (that's the ancient city, not the DJ). The Trojans weren't having any of it, and ten years into the siege they forgot to look a gift horse in the mouth. The Greeks burst in and sacked the place.

All right, on a Richter scale of one to ten in terms of general city-wide mayhem, Troy comes in at ten and Bath probably makes it to about 1.5.

But even Cassandra would be believed – if she were alive today, and weren't a mythological character, and all that stuff – if she predicted that February in Bath is going to be a traffic nightmare.

So what's the solution? Well, there isn't one. It won't last for ever, and opening up alternative routes that are usually closed is hardly going to help. Two-way traffic on Pulteney Bridge, anyone? And tons of people already drive through the bus gate (or should that be BusGate?), so opening it up to all and sundry isn't going to make a huge amount of difference really. As usual, we'll just have to grin and bear it.

Back to the classics one final time: King Sisyphus was a nasty piece of work and was punished in the afterlife by having to push a boulder up a hill. Before he got to the top, it would roll back to the bottom, and he would have to start again. An allegory, some say, of the absurdity of human existence.

Now why does that suddenly sound strangely familiar?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bunty, Tammy and the Marquis de Sade

Those who lived through them remember the 1970s as dark and dismal days.

Dark because of the power cuts, because it was always raining, and because everything was in black and white. Dismal because if anything managed to escape being monochrome, it was brown. Just look at the pictures in any cookbook from the era: brown rice, brown bread, brown salad. Brown crockery, brown tablecloths, brown serviettes. QED.

It was in the 1970s that Princess Anne married Captain Mark Phillips in what still holds the official record for the dullest royal wedding ever.

And it was in the 1970s that they used to put the TUC conference on the telly all day long.
It even rained on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, when everyone had the day off. Except the Queen.

The only bit of brightness in the 1970s was when Mr Dixon senior – worried about the three-day week, the miners’ strike and the inability of the government to sort it all out – nearly blew up the house and his terrified offspring by short-circuiting a car battery that he’d rigged as part of a temporary lighting system.

So why has the Guardian newspaper decided to drag its readers back to the Decade of Dreariness by reprinting a selection of kids’ comics from the era? Well, if nothing else, it gives us some insight into our formative years.

To a chap who never read them, the girls’ comics answer that eternal question of why girls acted the way they did in that grim and murky past.

Because in the ’70s, it seemed, girls were either unapproachable, or mad, or both. And these free glimpses into the world of Jackie and Bunty at last give us males an insight as to why.

First off, there were the teenyboppers. The centre spread of Jackie is taken up with a soft-focus portrait of David Essex, riding high in 1975 with such memorable ditties as Gonna Make You A Star and Hold Me Close. (“Is that George Best?” asked Dixon Junior.)

The comic strips mainly involve fantasies about copping off with Donny Osmond. And the quiz – perhaps understandably for a Valentine’s Day special – is designed to find out How Romantic You Are.

Interspersed with the fiction are adverts. Not just for make-up and spot cream, but for jobs too. Jobs in the Army (peeling spuds), in the Navy (peeling spuds), or with Barclays Bank (clearing cheques).

Then there’s Bunty. Aimed at a slightly younger readership, and published a couple of years earlier, it concentrates almost entirely on fiction. There’s the story of Thomasina, whose mum sends her off to school to be trained as a boy in the interests of women’s lib, but who ends up crumbling when Tommy the Tomboy comes into an inheritance – if she can prove she’s a “really feminine female”.

There are the Four Marys, who aren’t ashamed of being working class, and enjoy doing housework. And there’s a quiz about the dangers of going on a country walk, one of which is a jellyfish. No kidding.

So if teenage girls in the 1970s were a bit confused by this heady blend of fantasy and reality, it’s hardly surprising if those of us who were boys at the time had a hard job making head or tail about what girls were all about. And it’s taken until now to work out why.

Since writing this for The Bath Chronicle we've been treated to Tammy from 1978. Best comic strip was Slaves of War Orphan Farm. Most of the other tales involve working-class girls being thrashed by their betters. The writers were clearly in thrall to the Marquis de Sade.

(And yes, there was a heatwave in 1976. But that was an anomaly. It still rained most of the time in the 1970s.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Big Boy's hot date

He was big, he was red and he was hot-looking. He was a cayenne chilli, and he was one of your humble (and hopefully horticultural) columnist’s best hopes at the Weston Village Flower Show last Saturday.
He had been tenderly nurtured from seed, coaxed through spring frosts and summer rains, protected from greenfly and sheltered from slugs and snails. He had been fed, watered, coaxed and cosseted from tender bud through burgeoning fruitlet to green, swelling pod to his final, fiery, glowing glory.
His name was Big Boy. And boy, was he big. At least for a cayenne. But then, he had a big job to do if he and his two slightly smaller companions were to win against all those other capsicums.
The show, which can trace its history back to 1892, goes from strength to strength, this year attracting around 500 entries from 100 or so people.
The title “flower show” doesn’t really do it justice, because not only are specimen flowers on show but also fruit, vegetables, paintings, photographs, floral arrangements, handicrafts, home-made wines, cakes, scones, pies and marmalades. There’s even a class for Humorous Vegetable.
The procedure for entering the show is nerve-wracking but scrupulously fair. Entries close on the Wednesday, when you have to make your initial decision about how much of your produce, cookery or craftwork is going to be ready to face the public on the Saturday. Mind you, with each entry costing the princely sum of 20p, if you misjudge the ripeness of your fruit or veg you’re hardly going to be out of pocket.
Bright and early on the Saturday morning you spring from your bed, gather your entries and trundle down to the All Saints Centre. It’s a bit of a scrum because every gardener, cook and craftsperson in Weston has got there before you and is busy setting up their display.
It’s a great chance to compare your offerings with those of your friendly rivals, and to indulge in a bit of pre-judging banter. And it’s now that doubts start to form in your mind. Is Big Boy really that big, especially compared with three chunky sweet peppers and some sturdy-looking jalapeños? Never mind, you think: size isn’t everything.
At 10.30 the doors close and the village enters a sort of vegetable purdah. While the judges go about their work you wait for the grand opening, courtesy of Weston farmer and poet John Osborne MBE.
The band plays, the raffle raffles, the tombola spins, and you walk the displays, putting off for as long as possible the moment when you find out if Big Boy has made the grade.
All life is here, with the exception of Dixon Junior, whose teenage cool disqualifies him from attending for more than a token ten minutes.
As you wander, you realise that it’s not you but your spouse who was first in line when they were handing out the green fingers.
Mrs D, in her second year of competition, comes away with a tidy haul of prizes including the official titles of Carrot Queen, Onion Lady and Chutney Mistress of Weston.
Eventually you get to Big Boy. There he sits, forlorn on his paper plate, without even a Highly Commended to his name. You console yourself (and him) with the thought that taking part counts more than winning. There’s always next year, and meanwhile Big Boy has a hot date. With a chicken Madras.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

When the going gets tough, the tough go camping

Now here’s a question. What is it that makes a normal, easy-going, well-family unit decide to up sticks and spend the weekend (or at least part of it) in a tent?
The spirit of adventure? A sudden desire to get back to nature? Or a general feeling that we’ve had it too easy up till now this year and it’s time for a bit of outdoorsy self-punishment to put us back in touch with our true selves?
Whatever the motivation, we make the booking and get ready to load up the car.
Lurking in the loft since the last time we went camping (only last year, but distance lends enchantment to the view) are the bags. Bags with bulges. Bags with bulges on their bulges. Bags with bulges so bulging that they could carry the gross national product of Bulgaria. In small change.
We lug them down, murmuring a prayer to the god of waterproof spray that we put the pegs back in the right place all those months ago, go back upstairs for a final check, dig out the gas cooker from under a pile of old magazines and hit the open road.
Fast forward to a field, somewhere in Wiltshire. A field into which have migrated, by some sort of magmatic sedimentary continental drift, the pebbles that weren’t good enough to be pebbledash, the rocks that couldn’t roll, and the boulders that never made it to Colorado.
Into which me must plunge our tent pegs, and upon which we must sleep.
More questions: why do the tent pegs that come with tents have rounded ends rather than spikes, and why are they made of bendy aluminium? And why are the standard-issue mallets, tent pegs for the bashing of, made of rubber? Ensuring that your temporary abode isn’t going to blow away in the middle of the night should be a process at once quick, effective and manly. It shouldn’t be like whacking a drinking straw with a lump of fudge.
Forewarned is forearmed, though and we have with us a far more sturdy implement, the club hammer from the garage, which will knock seven colours of resistance out of any rocky surface in no time flat. The fact that it does likewise to any fingers or thumbs that get in its way need not concern us here.
Extremities bandaged, sausages fried, wasps fought off, camp fire sing-song rejected by offspring on the grounds that it’s too embarrassing, a few hours’ agitated sleep on top of three or four of the more aggressive rocks, another fry-up for breakfast (you can get pretty fat in the great outdoors) and it’s time to strike camp, as the professionals call it.
And that’s when those bags come back to bite you.
Next door to the factory where they make tents is a little school. It’s where people go to learn how to fold up a tent and fit it into its bag. And all these people end up working in the factory next door.
Which means that when a brand new tent is put in its bag for the first time, it gets folded perfectly, competently and space-savingly. But when you put it away again after its first airing, it gets folded by you.
Which means that rather than a neat, symmetrical package you get a something that looks like a rejected garlic sausage. And probably smells like it, after all that frying earlier.
No matter. Camping, it seems, is in one way at least like childbirth. You eventually forget the pain, or you’d never go through it twice.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The way of the worwyur

If you have nothing better to do at 10pm on a Tuesday evening you might well find yourself idly switching on the telly and turning to Bravo.
What you’ll find, depending on your outlook on life, will either amaze you or leave you completely cold.
Because the idea behind Deadliest Warrior is to pit against each other historical and modern-day soldiers, who never actually fought in real life, in a computerised face-off to see who’s the hardest. Spartan vs Ninja, Viking vs Samurai: you get the idea.
Bio-medic nerds and techno-geeks called Max and Geoff (and Armand, but let that pass) compare weapons, fighting techniques and military ethos, and at the end of the show a bunch of beefy-looking actors get to dress up as the opposing forces and pretend to duke it out to see who’s the deadliest.
Max and Geoff and Armand (snigger) have a staccato, shouty delivery that will give you a headache in no time flat.
Max and Geoff and Ar-“I’m changing my name to Kurt”-mand use the word “warrior” quite a lot. But they have a transatlantic way of enunciating it that makes it come out more like “worwyur”. Don’t try saying it at home: it’ll make your tongue feel like a cold wet towel that’s just lost a fight with a mangle.
Deadliest Warrior is rather like a cross between Gladiators, Horizon and a gory war movie. With extra testosterone. Testosterone by the bucketful. More testosterone than a lady South African athlete. And more fake blood than a Harlequins winger.
Deadliest Warrior smacks you in the face with the facts. Repeatedly and loudly. For. Viewers. With. Very. Short. ATTENTION! SPANS!
From that brief description you may get some idea of the sort of person Deadliest Warrior is aimed at, and you may even have the beginnings of a hint as to whether you are that sort of person.
But unless you’re a teenage lad who probably ought to be in bed at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday evening, the chances are that you aren’t.
Even if screaming Ninjas and grunting Vikings leave you cold, though, there’s something to be said for using the basic premise of Deadliest Warrior as part of your daily decision-making process.
Can’t decide between watching Star Trek or Doctor Who? It’s Klingon versus Dalek! Special weapons? Weird curvy knife, meet sink plunger. Secret powers? Mad staring eyes, say hello to grinding electronic voice. Weaknesses? Klingon has propensity to topple over backwards in the heat of battle, thanks to top-heavy skull. Dalek can’t go upstairs without cheating. Klingon wins by an edge.
Choosing a new pet? Cat takes on dog! For special weapons, both have a fearsome set of teeth and claws, but Moggy’s retractable kitchen knives are a strong point. Secret powers? Cat induces paranoia in intended victim with fixed stare, subtly conveying the suggestion that victim has no clue what he or she is doing and couldn’t run a whelk stall. Dog slobbers. Cat wins by a whisker.
Car insurance up for renewal? Here comes the series finale: a three-way face-off between a meerkat, a gurning cartoon bulldog and a sad Plymouth Argyle fan. Their weapons are their catchphrases: “Simples!” vs “Oh yes!” vs “Green Arrrrmy!”.
And is there a winner? Computer says no.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Don't bust a glut

Settle down, little ones, and hark to a lovely story. Once upon a time there was a brave but somewhat dimwitted lad called Jack, who swapped the family cow for a bag of magic beans (to the great disappointment of his mum), and sowed them, and grew a mighty beanstalk. At the top of the beanstalk lived a rich giant...
What do you mean you’ve heard it before? And what do you mean the panto season doesn’t start for at least another four months? This is serious stuff, as long as we don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Because what we’re talking about here is glut of vegetables, very much à la Jack up a Gum Tree. Or maybe even several gluts. What’s the collective noun for a glut? We already have a flock of seagulls, a parliament of owls, a piteousness of doves (look it up if you don’t believe it). Logically and self-referentially, it ought to be a glut of gluts.
Regular readers will already have been astounded by the report of the 25ft courgettes in Mrs D’s allotment, an effusion of journalistic licence which is already the subject of close scrutiny by the Press Complaints Commission. The effusion, not the allotment.
And every day it gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view. Because we now have runner beans coming out of our ears, potatoes tumbling around us every time we open the airing cupboard, onions making the mattresses all lumpy, mange-touts that aren’t getting manged. And the Attack of the Ten-Ton Pumpkins is becoming more of a reality by the day.
We’ve even heard of cases where friends have visited others’ houses and not been allowed to leave without taking at least a bushel of beetroot with them. At gunpoint.
This grow-your-own malarkey is all well and good. You commune with nature, you spend the kids’ inheritance on seeds, some of them grow, you save loads of money on greengrocers’ bills. But why does it all have to come to fruition at once?
Why can’t they use some of this gene-splicing technology that everyone’s on about’s all the rage these days to give a controlled flow of organic abundance throughout the year, rather than concentrated into a six-week period between the middle of August and the end of September?
The timing’s pretty damned inconvenient when you come to think about it, what with the kids going back to school and the ongoing redecoration programme. (On which subject, let’s not get into who has locked themselves into the bathroom how many times this week. It will only end in acrimony.)
If you still don’t recognise the extent of the horticultural glut problem, just turn back to page 22: it’s direct action time.
Last Saturday, The Bear pub on Wellsway is held the Bear Flat Glut, which as well as having a certain gloopy-sounding poetry to its name was also a sort of vegetable Swap Shop at which those with a copiousness of carrots could offload them in exchange for someone else’s munificence of marrows.
What a commendable idea. Next time they have one, if we could swap a couple of our overflowing carrier bags of runner beans for any spare beer that the pub might have lying around, then at least one of us would go home happy.
Hope, like carrots, springs eternal...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

True Brit

So that’s it then. You scrimp, save and slave for 50 weeks of the year for a holiday, and before you know it, it’s all over.
Nothing left to show for it but fading memories, peeling shins (the only part of your body to have got much exposure to the elements over the last two weeks) and half an inch of sand in the boot of the car.
Before the memories fade completely, though, it’s perhaps worth noting for the record that credit-holidays in the UK can indeed be just as much fun as full-on Euro-funded beach-ball-extravaganzas – as long as you keep your upper lip stiff and your sturdy waterproof top and trousers within arm’s reach.
And even if the weather really does turn offensive, every British holiday resort worth its salt has its own swimming pool or leisure centre, and in some, the queues of prospective paddlers sheltering from the rain may only stretch a mere two or three times round the building.
What’s more, many of said resorts also offer their own hi-tech white-knuckle thrill rides and interactive entertainment zones: normally in the shape of a squeaky narrow-gauge steam railway and a dilapidated crazy golf course.
Ah, crazy golf: the saviour of many a holidaymaking parent with bored children in tow and a few pounds in their pocket.
Everyone gets a differently coloured golf ball, forestalling arguments about whose went furthest but starting them about who gets which.
Not that such arguments will be anything but academic. Because every time you whack yours with your (obligatorily bent) golfing stick, it bounces back off the windmill, tunnel, or garden gnome you’re supposed to be using your mad golfing skillz to negotiate. And hits you smack in the chops.
Even if you do somehow manage to score (20 on a par 3 if you’re lucky) you then have the delightful task of fishing for your ball in the cup, which already contains either yesterday’s rainwater or the previous players’ dog-ends.
And wherever you play, it’s always nagging in the back of your mind that the course in Victoria Park is the best in the world (official), and has a special chute to return balls to the kiosk when you finish.
No matter. On days of at least partial sunshine you can get some free entertainment by jumping in the sea. Remembering first to lever yourself into a wet suit to fend off hypothermia for the five minutes it takes you to realise that you’re never going to be any good at bodyboarding, let alone proper surfing. Whatever it was the Beach Boys were singing about, it didn’t happen in Frinton-on-Sea.
And what’s changed when you get back home? Well, there are some subtle differences. All those jobs that needed to be done before you left for two weeks of R&R have got slightly more pressing, especially as Mrs D has announced her intention to repaint the upstairs bathroom.
(Hope she doesn’t get locked in like a certain columnist did when he worked his decorative magic on the downstairs loo.)
And sticking with Mrs D for a moment longer, in her absence the courgettes have grown and grown, in some cases reaching lengths of 25 feet (subs please check, this sounds a bit too long). Before us stretches an autumn of soup...

Friday, July 24, 2009

A day at the races

Off to Bath Races with a small but select group of colleagues for an evening of fun and – we hope – profit.

The weather isn't propitious. Low storm clouds scurry over the heights of Lansdown. Flaming June has mutated into wallowing July, there's a pre-autumnal chill in the air, but are we downhearted?

Not a bit of it. We're under cover and the going is relatively good, even if our equine prediction skills are somewhat shaky.

Fascinating fact about Bath Races Number One: at 780 feet above sea level, it's the highest (or perhaps most elevated) racecourse in England. So it's scenic, but it's also exposed to the elements: strong gusts of wind off the Bristol Channel hold back horses and riders in the stiff uphill finish.

And because rainwater drains away quickly through the limestone, the going rarely gets heavy.

All this and much more needs to be taken into account as we settle down with our form guides and pens to work out how we can convert our humble journalists' salaries into a little something extra through the magic of charging horseflesh.

How to decide on the steed that will carry your hopes to glory? The form guide tells you all you need to know about every horse in every race – but in so much detail that things do start to get just a little confusing.

The initial impression is of a jumble of numbers: each horse's previous performance, its age, the weight it will carry, its BHA rating, which has something to do with handicapping but none of us can work out what.

Then there's its parentage and ownership, its trainer and breeder, and whether it's won here before.

Throw all that together with a pithy pen portrait of each horse's past achievements and an assessment of its chances – couched in positive terms like "Not without a chance," "Shouldn't be inconvenienced" or "It was reported that the horse ran flat" – and you have all the data at your fingertips to make an informed decision about who's going to win.

The trouble is, of course, that you don't have to scan all this info for just one horse, but for every single horse in every single race. And with six races over the course of the evening, and up to 10 horses in some of those races, you're going to be hard-pressed to make any sense of it all, unless you've got previous experience.

Which none of us has.

It's time to follow our hearts, not our heads. One horse has lots of threes next to its name in the Form Guide: surely it stands a chance. La Fortunata? Hah!

One horse's jockey sports fetching cerise and purple hoops: your favourite colours, and definitely worth a punt. No again – serves you right for your lack of taste.

One horse is heavily backed by a colleague who won £18 on the first race: maybe they know what they're doing. But their luck doesn't last, and yours hasn't even got started.

One horse has a preposterous name – Quaker Parrot – and thus can't have a chance. It wins by a good length.

Nothing seems to work – Tote Placepots fizzle out after two races, each way trebles are too confusing to be countenanced – until the last race.

The horse is Desperate Dan. Course and distance winner, odds tempting at 10-1. And we know a Desperate Dan, don't we? A couple of quid on the nose, and a winner in the end.

Fascinating fact about Bath Races Number Two: you may not get rich, but you will have a lot of fun.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fixing a hole

It’s been a week of random and sometimes downright odd occurrences – and random and downright odd roadworks too.
They started digging up the pavements in Weston Park a couple of days ago, having stuck in some shiny new street lamps a couple of weeks before. It’s a bit hard to work out what the plan of campaign is here: there are a couple of small notices attached to the lampposts warning anyone with a powerful enough magnifying glass to read them that the road’s going to be closed for a few days some time in July. But they’re not letting on exactly when.
What we can be sure of is that the RUH overspill car park will have to be moved somewhere else for the duration.
The weirdest thing about the whole Weston Park affair, though, is the warning sign at the eastern end of the street.
Whoever wrote it has a great and apparently undiscovered talent: stating the downright obvious. “Road Works Start Here from 06/07/09. Due to roadworks.” You can see it at twitpic.com/9i85e if you’re of a web-browsing persuasion.
Now aside from the fact that the author of this gem is in two minds about how to spell “roadworks” and is more generous with their capital letters than the ambassador with their Ferrero Rocher, what a gem of concision and self-reference. A haiku for our times, a gnomic ripple in the pond of prolixity, a truly spectacular attempt to create order out of chaos.
Because in Weston Park, as everywhere, chaos and roadworks walk hand in hand.
More excavation news from Guinea Lane, which, as the estimable Mr Jenkins pointed out a couple of weeks ago, has been closed while the water/gas/electricity/telephone//sewage people (cross out whichever options do not apply this week) burrow once more for the Inca gold rumoured to lie below.
On the rare occasions that Guinea Lane is open to through-traffic, its surface is decorated with arcane hieroglyphics which are soon to be used as the basis for a new Dan Brown novel.
And when it’s closed, as it is right now, don’t rely on any signs in Julian Road to warn you about it. It’s much more fun to choose an alternative route right at the last minute.
In fact, what with these and all the other roadworks that seem to have sprouted up just in time for the last three weeks of the school term, you might be better off staying at home.
Apart from anything else, if you’re a Sky broadband customer it’ll give you a chance to read the small print in their latest mailshot which claims you’ll soon be getting a “new and improved” service.
New, undoubtedly. Improved? Not so sure. Especially if you’re on their “Mid” package, which has now been renamed as the far-more-catchy “Everyday”. Sky promises marginally faster speeds, but if you live any distance at all from your exchange you’ll already know that your broadband connection speed never gets close to the theoretical maximum figures in the adverts.
Plus – and here’s the rub – Sky has quietly reduced the monthly usage cap to a quarter of what it used to be, from 40Gb to 10Gb. So if you download a lot of games, videos or music, you may have to be more careful about going over your limit.
Either that, or you’ll have to brave those roadworks and get to the shops.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Get to the back of the NHS queue

A letter arrives from the doctors. Your optician has referred you to an NHS consultant to get your eyes checked out, pronto. Do not pass go, do not collect £200.

Ah, the delights of growing middle-aged. Rationally, after nearly five decades on this planet one has to expect some wear and tear on tendons, nerves and other working parts. When it hits home, though, you can be as rational as you like but there's still an element of worry.

At times like this, recourse to the internet is probably not the best idea.

Because as soon as you start Googling your symptoms (headache, yellow tongue, shaky hands, blurred vision, general disinclination to get out of bed – can you tell what it is yet?) you start to believe the worst. Plague, dengue fever and beriberi, all rolled into one, is what you've got. And the only consolation about this eye business, you tell yourself, is that at least they've caught it early.

The worst thing of all about the whole situation, though, is the Kafka-esque NHS bureaucracy that you have to go through to get a hospital appointment. Attached to the doctor's letter is a "Choose and Book" form to guide you through the process.

Section 1 is Your Details: name, number and surgery. So far, so good. Section 2 tells you go to Section 3 to choose your hospital. Well, the Royal United United Hospital, Bath, is just round the corner and the other option is in deepest Bristol, so RUH it is. Back to section 2. And would you like to book by: (a) phone; (b) textphone or (c) internet? It might be fun to choose options b or c, if only to find out what a textphone is. But there's a whopping great sticker over all the details telling you that there is in fact only one option: ring the NHS number in Bridgwater.

Easily done, and you're soon listening to a recorded message telling you that not only can they sort out your appointment for you but if you ask nicely they can offer you help to give up smoking.

After a not-too-prolonged wait, a real genuine person comes on the line and checks your details. Name, address, telephone number, date of birth, shoe size: the usual stuff. And are you a smoker at all? This is damn intrusive. No, not at all, and if you want a top tip for giving up, try nicotine patches, Werther's Originals and raw carrots to keep your fingers busy. It worked perfectly well 13 years ago and there's no reason why it shouldn't still work now. And what's it got to do with lining up an NHS ophthalmologist to have a poke around inside your eyeballs, anyway?

Final question from real live person (who is not to be blamed for the above, she's only following a script): where would you like to go for your appointment? The RUH, please.

Ah well, in that case, you have to ring them on a Bath number. And you can't book online.

Now hang on. We've just spent the last ten minutes going over all these details with someone who doesn't actually need them, and all we've got is another phone number? Right.

There's nothing for it. Ring the Bath number, and be entertained by early Beatles hits while you float slowly to the top of the queue. Eventually the music stops, and you hear the rattling of keyboards, quiet coughs, general office noise. After 20 seconds, the line goes dead. Ring again, back to the bottom of the queue, more 60s chart-toppers to remind you how old you are, more bureaucracy at the end of the line. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The only good thing about tennis is the strawberries

Can you ever get sick of strawberries? This is probably the wrong time of the year to ask, given that we’re about halfway through “How far can a Brit get at Wimbledon?” fortnight, and that the most popular pastime for the spectators in SW19 is schnarfing down as many as they can in as short a time as possible.
And chez Dixon is also the wrong place to come out with a dislike of the shiny scarlet berries, because Mrs D’s allotment is in full fruit and they’ve been coming home, if not by the bucketful then at least by the large plastic boxful.
So far, no complaints, and some members of the family have even overcome their vegetable-
avoiding tendencies to the extent that they’ve started eating freshly shucked peas. Wonders will never cease: it’ll be curly kale next.
Tennis, though, is another matter. The relationship we Brits have with the game isn’t so much love-hate as love-ignore.
For two weeks in June and July we fret and fuss about why Great Britain can’t produce a Wimbledon champion of any gender or age. We race home early from work and slump in front of the Centre Court action on telly rather than getting out into the garden and enjoying the sunshine.
We wonder why half the women in this year’s first-round draw were from eastern Europe. There must be something in the air in the Balkans or the Urals, because even one of the few Brits to get through the first round, Elena Baltacha, has Ukrainian parents. Perhaps it’s the same stuff that helps them win all those Eurovision Song Contests.
But for the rest of the year we don’t really think much about tennis, except in its more surrogate forms. Chez Dixon, for example, we are strangers to the proper game, instead investing our energies either in the Wii Sports version or in swingball.
Wii Sports, you may or may not be interested to know, is the best-selling video game of all time. As well as tennis you can play virtual versions of bowling, boxing, baseball and golf.
The tennis element is the most dangerous, involving as it does swinging the motion-sensing Wii Remote around manically, hitting your lovely wife round the back of the legs, smashing a standard lamp to smithereens and volleying the cat through the sitting room window.
It is then decided that only people who can demonstrate a basic level of skill at it (the kids) are allowed to play. Game over.
Swingball isn’t much more successful or satisfying. The first challenge here is to drive the metal pole deep enough into the compacted clay in the back garden to stop it falling over as soon as you smite the ball. The next is to find the bats (calling them rackets would give rackets a bad name) in the DIY disaster zone of the garage. And the final challenge is to engage in a rally of more than three returns without tangling the string so inextricably round the pole that further play is impossible without a large pair of scissors. Andy Murray we are not.
One place they certainly won’t be playing tennis any time soon, though, is Beauford Square by the Theatre Royal. Here the lawn has been taken over by the Bath-Argentina Twinning Association and is being developed as a home from home for lonely gauchos pining for the pampas. Residents prone to hay fever are not so happy.
New balls, please.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How to show you love your dad

First, an enormous thank-you to everyone who visited Dixon Towers last Sunday as part of Weston Village Open Gardens day.
They sold 283 tickets in all, and our part of the event saw some 215 visitors treading the hallowed lawns. Thanks to the sterling efforts of the tea and cake volunteers, we raised nearly £200 towards a total of nearly £1,900 in aid of Dorothy House Hospice Care and other local charities.
All credit to Bernard Rymer and the committee for ensuring things went so smoothly, to Mrs D for making our own garden look lovely, and to those perspicacious visitors who realised that the funny-looking bloke sitting outside the gate wearing a straw hat and counting people off was none other than your humble columnist.
Anyway, onwards and upwards to much more serious stuff. Father’s Day. This Sunday. Whatcha gonna do?
Before we go any further, let’s be quite clear about one thing: this column isn’t supposed to be any sort of hint that the aforementioned bloke in a straw hat might be on the cadge for presents or anything like that.
Far from it: this is more by nature of a general Father’s Day warning: What Not To Buy For The Dad Who Doesn’t Quite Have Everything.
Let’s make a start with peripheral items of clothing. In other words socks. Now, there are two sorts of socks: socks that have been lost, and socks that have not been lost yet.
Within those two major categories lie a number of sub-divisions: for example socks which look black when worn with shoes, as is right and proper, but actually have candy-coloured stripes on the heels and toes (Why? Why?); socks with Homer Simpson on them; socks that are too thin; and socks that leave nasty red pressure marks as they cut off the blood supply to your carefully-
pedicured toes. Avoid all of these and you’ll do well.
Perhaps music would do the trick. The risk here is that you end up buying the same compilation CD you bought for Mother’s Day, only with different packaging. Yes, the ’60s were a period of burgeoning musical creativity, but there’s only so much Tom Jones you can listen to at any one time.
So how about a book? A visit to any bookseller will immediately prove that they’ve seen you coming: tome upon volume upon compendium, all stacked up on a special Father’s Day table and all thematically linked to what the vendor imagines to be your typical Dad’s literary interests: war, mayhem, criminality and golf.
If your Pa isn’t into any of those, well maybe a personal grooming product will fit the bill.
The only problem here is that whatever you give him carries with it a tacit and maybe unwelcome message: “You smell” (aftershave); “You look old” (gentleman’s moisturising products); or “You ought to do more exercise” (invigorating after-sport body gel).
Check in the bathroom cabinet before you buy any of these creamy unguents. If last year’s offerings are still on the shelf, you’ll be throwing good money after bad.
Gadgets aren’t a bad idea, but you must satisfy yourself before you buy that your paternal relative isn’t so cack-handed that he’ll either electrocute himself or slice off the tips of his fingers. Anything too dangerous and he may start to suspect that you’re making an early grab for the inheritance.
What inheritance?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Everything in our garden's lovely

It's been a long time coming, but this Sunday is officially Mrs D's Big Day.

No, not a round-number birthday like 20 or 30 (must be careful here). Not the day when her ever-loving and devoted husband eventually gets round to taking her out for dinner without being plaintively hinted at or otherwise cajoled.

Nor indeed the day when the younger Dixons miraculously acquire the skills to cook their own meals and wash their own clothes, leaving their Mum to pursue the glittering showbiz career she denied herself to minister to their needs when they were babes in arms.

No, it's none of these things. Sunday is Weston Village Open Gardens day, and for the past six weeks Mrs D – along with the proprietors of eight other venues around the village – has been buffing up the begonias and organising tea rotas in preparation for her (and indeed our) role in this annual event, which raises funds for Dorothy House and for local voluntary groups.

The horticultural details are a little sketchy to this reporter, whose only endeavours in the field of cultivation lie in turning chilli seeds into insect-riddled twigs. But the disruption to the normally gentle flow of family life is plain to anyone who walks into the house.

First, the cat. Resident feline must be caught and groomed in order to present attractive appearance to paying visitors.

Cat does not mind being caught, and rather fancies the idea of chatting flirtatiously to a series of paying visitors who are as yet unaware of its essentially vicious nature; but objects vociferously and violently to application of comb to fluffy undercarriage. Normal fluff disposal, believes cat, is done by self-grooming and subsequent chucking up on sitting room mat.

Grooming operative (your humble columnist) dons thick leather gauntlets, manhandles cat to bottom of garden and makes with the comb.

Cat calls at top of voice to RSPCA, Cats Protection League, Blue Cross and everyone else in a 500-metre radius, pierces gloves with fangs and claws, and runs for cover under bush.

Cat 1, Columnist 0.

Next, the guinea pigs. Each, it has been decreed, must be individually photographed and labels made up so that the aforementioned paying visitors can identify which is which.

(Luckily, same idea does not apply to the plants, or we'd be here till Christmas. Mrs D is supposed to remember what they are, although she looks doubtful when asked about the botanical credentials of that big green one with all the leaves on it.)

Guinea pigs decline offer of free publicity and lurk under straw in darkest recesses of hutch. Paparazzi- style doorstepping brings unsatisfactory results: all pictures are identical, with cavy red-eye suggesting quite convincingly that the three fluffy creatures are actually the spawn of hell.

Finally, the family. Staff briefing at 10:00 hours sharp. Dixon Junior and Pa, one step forward. Man the gate, take money, repel boarders. Excellent maths revision opportunity for one. Excellent sunburn-on-bald-patch opportunity for other. Because it's bound to be warm and sunny.

Whatever the weather, Weston Village Open Garden Event runs from 1pm to 5pm on Sunday, June 4. Please come along: it's in a very good cause and it's a jolly afternoon out.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Talking rubbish again

Have you ever had the feeling that everyone around you has got something wrong, while you and you alone have got that very same something absolutely and completely right?

The warm feeling of self-assurance, nay schadenfreude, for example, as you walk to work in the morning and observe that everyone else in the road has put their recycling out when you know for a fact that B&NES’ Council’s much-trumpeted Waste Day Change means that your neighbours are two days early, and that they’ll have to bring all those bottles, tins and newspapers back inside, while yours (including an embarrassingly large number of empty stubbies) sit behind the garage waiting for the space-age everything-in-one-go-style rubbish classification and atomisation module to arrive outside your front door at 7am on the dot and automatically sort it for you before beaming it directly to a waste processing centre orbiting round Mars, to the everlasting benefit of your environment and the council’s finances?

And have you ever found that you were wrong? Horribly, smugly, over-confidently wrong?

Waste Day Change is next week, folks, not this week. It starts on June 9, not on June 2.
All of which means that one particular Bath household, which should have put out its recycling last Tuesday but didn’t, will be hanging on to the evidence of its boozy misdeeds for a lot longer than it actually needed to.

All of which also means that one particular Bath wife and mum has every right to smack one particular Bath husband and dad upside the head with a folded, and unrecycled, newspaper. Because he got it wrong.

So much for trying to be clever.

Every cloud has a silver lining, though. In one of the still-to-be-recycled newspapers (perused while lurking in the shed waiting for the righteous anger to subside) was one of the most extraordinary adverts ever to appear in print.

It was on page 2 of MediaGuardian on Monday, June 1. It was placed by Keep Britain Tidy. And it was for a “celebrity ambassador to help give England a facelift”.

Among other things, candidates must hate litter, be willing to give two days a year for free, and be “famous not infamous”. Previous incumbents have included Abba, Morecambe and Wise and the Queen Mum.

The mind reels. Does Keep Britain Tidy really think that the ideal celeb will read MediaGuardian? The job ads are for Media Sales Executives, Media Sales Professionals (there’s a difference, apparently) and Editors, Real-Time Analysis. The editorial is about Digital Britain and why you should be pulling your finger out.

Not the sort of thing your average Jordan, Posh’n’Becks or Susan Boyle would necessarily spend much time thumbing through, one imagines.

Anyway, the job spec is pretty restrictive. Especially that famous not infamous bit. Because let’s face it, you’re not a proper celebrity unless you’ve spent at least a fortnight in The Priory. Which more than likely means that you won’t have the squeaky-clean image that Keep Britain Tidy is looking for.

No, eco-friendliness and celebhood rarely go hand in hand. Unless, of course you’re Sting.
And the Stingmeister would definitely be up for the job. He could stroll up and down our street busking Roxanne and pointing out to the thickest resident (ie yours truly) that while you may not have to put on the red light, you do have to put out your recycling on the right day.


This was formerly the column known as my Bath Chronicle column.