Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tesco takeover

Also pottering round the shops this morning, I discovered that the Somerfield store in Weston High Street is to be taken over by Tesco. Hang on in there, friendly local shops!

Naked lunch

Pottering round the shops as you do of a Saturday morning I noticed the teaser on the front page of the Daily Mail advertising a free DVD of the "costume drama" Lady Chatterley's Lover.

I always thought the main reason for watching films like that was because of the lack of costumes. Have the Daily Mail developed a sense of humour?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Survival of the fritterest

It has been a week plagued with spam.

Not so much the electronic sort, promising easy-to-earn academic qualifications, unfeasibly large amounts of money, dubious medical enhancements or instant closure of your online banking facilities unless you immediately go to a Brazilian website that looks just like the Abbey National (even if you don’t bank with them) and fill in a form giving them your personal details, with ID number and passphrase thrown in for good measure.

Not the enticing offers of undying love from Natalia, who has “seen your profile on the internet” and has decided on a whim that she wants to spend the rest of her life with you. Sorry, Natalia, you’re much too late.

Not even the transparent chain letters that purport to be warning you of some devious – and completely fictional – credit card scam that has already been perpetrated on hundreds of people around the country and will soon be practised on you and your friends, if you don’t pass this message on.

No, electronic spam has become such a part of life that you hardly notice it any more. But this week has seen the comeback of the original Spam.

Spam with a capital “S”. Spam pink and jelly-swathed. Spam of school trip sandwiches, Spam savoury and toothsome, Spam chock-a-block with pork shoulder, ham, sugar, water, salt and sodium nitrite. Spam in a dark blue tin with a key that you turn to release the meaty goodness. Spam made in Denmark by a company called Tulip under licence from Hormel (who would prefer us to call it SPAM® Luncheon Meat but that would be too much like shouting).

It all started when we were watching the box one night last week. The name of the programme is forgotten and really quite immaterial: it was the adverts that grabbed us. Because there it was, large as life and twice as natural (or three times as natural if you’re comparing it with that sanitised bulldog who sells car insurance): an advert for ready-made Spam fritters.

We gazed into each other’s eyes and a frisson of reminiscence sparked across the room. “Do you remember...” we said as one.

Because in the early days of our courting, your humble columnist nearly blew it by inviting the young lady who was later to become Mrs D back to his seedy basement flat and cooking up a Spam fritter supper.

It did not go down well.

Those parts of the batter which weren’t glutinous were badly burned. The meaty content lost its appetising pink sheen and turned grey and viscid.

The accompanying frozen peas could, if memory serves, have doubled as ammunition and did nothing to cut through the nasty aftertaste of greasy cooking fat.

(Young bachelors, here’s a tip: if the way to your true love’s heart is through her stomach, then a nice piece of halibut works a whole lot better than Hormel’s finest.)

Anyway, one thing led to another, Miss W became Mrs D and took serious control of the cooking, and some years later there we were watching telly and wallowing in an unseemly bout of nostalgia.

A couple of days later Mrs D – who generally only buys pork products if they have a Union Flag on the packet along with a picture of their source material romping merrily in a sunlit meadow – announced brightly that it would be a cheap food shop this week.

And indeed it was. For what should appear in the kitchen cupboard on Monday but a tin of the self-same meaty kitchen staple that so nearly rent us asunder all those years ago?

We’re in good company. On the Japanese island of Okinawa, Spam is incorporated into stir-fries. In South Korea they sell it in gift packs and use it to make “Army Base Stew”. In America’s 50th state, childhood home of Barack Obama (who says this column doesn’t keep up with current affairs?) they enjoy it as “Hawaiian steak”.

The past has come back to bite us: or perhaps we are about to take a bite out of our past.

Because for one Bath family, Spam is back on the menu, and you can smell the frying all the way down the street.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Green and blue and red all over

Here’s a little puzzle. (No prizes for the winners: just think of this as a pure mental challenge in which getting it right is the only reward you can expect. A bit like life, in many ways.)

What is blue, red or silver when it’s with glass and red, green or blue when it’s with plastic?

Well, you can pour it on your breakfast cereal, you can pour it into your coffee, and if you’re not looking what you’re doing you can even pour it over the cat. The answer, fact fans, is milk.

And those colours? They’re the bottle tops. Depending on whether you get your milk from your friendly local delivery operative or from the shop, it’ll come in traditional glass bottles or the squidgy plastic equivalent.

And if you get the former, skimmed milk has a blue top, semi-skimmed a red top and full cream a silver top.

But if you buy your milk in a plastic container, the lids are red for skimmed, green for semi-skimmed and blue for full cream.

If you want to live dangerously, there’s also gold top, that nectar of the gods which comes with its own European cholesterol warning and the childhood ingestion of which is largely to blame for your correspondent’s current stoutness. But we’re not worried about that at the moment. Much.

Now, it’s all very well if you only buy one sort of milk. But if you’re the sort of family that runs out of bottled on a Sunday afternoon and has to make a run for the shops, then come Monday breakfast you are in for chaos and confusion.

Because (just in case you weren’t paying attention earlier) glass skimmed is blue, plastic semi-skimmed is also blue, and glass semi-skimmed is red.

(Look, you were promised a mental challenge, and you’re getting one. Just hang on in there and there may be some kind of explanation later. Just remember that nobody said there would be a point to this.)

Right. Imagine for a moment that you’re on the sort of health kick which involves you drinking only skimmed while the youngsters get the semi-skimmed variety, and your mind is in its usual state at seven o’clock on a dark and murky Monday morning.

Blue? Red? Red? Blue? Glass? Plastic? Plastic? Glass? Arrgh.

It’s no wonder you’re grumpy by the time you get to work and decide to enjoy rich, creamy, non-healthy semi-skimmed in your warming morning beverage. And your grumpiness is not improved when you find the fridge at Chronicle Towers packed with plastic milk cartons topped with a bewildering range of red lids (skimmed) and green lids (semi-skimmed), plus the occasional blue one for those playing Extreme Artery Challenge.

There is a sort of serious point to this. And it’s not about the fact that the aforementioned fridge has recently been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Because all this labelling is pretty confusing even for those of us who aren’t colour-blind, and must be even more so for those who are.

Red-green colour-blindness is the most common form, blue-green much rarer. And what colours do those bottle tops come in? Red, green and blue.

Yes, of course you can read the label or the printing on the foil top – or at least you can if your hand is steady enough to hold the bottle still at the ungodly hour when you rashly promised to get up and make Mrs D’s tea.

But beware when you next open the milk: it could affect your blood pressure in more ways than one.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Colour blind

Overheard this lunchtime in Kingsmead Square, Bath:

"That White Stuff shop, the colours in there are gorgeous."

Which particular shade of white was she thinking about?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ideas above our station

So that was Christmas, and this is 2009. Welcome to the icebox.

Most home and work conversations over this first week of the Year of the Crunch have centred around the temperature, and who has managed to record the lowest.

It seems almost to be a badge of honour to be the official First Person Who Saw Minus Six Centigrade And Lived To Tell The Tale, rather like the days when boys filled their leisure hours collecting steam engine numbers.

In the Dixon kitchen we have one of those electronic weather station things, which is a smart piece of kit.

You may have seen them advertised in those gadget catalogues that fall out of all the weekend newspapers.

You plonk a sensor out in the garden, connect it to the base station by the power of radio, and hey presto! you have an instant read-out of temperature, pressure, phases of the moon, the time accurate to the last millisecond and your Chinese horoscope for the next three weeks.

Actually, we’ve never managed to get that bit to work, but never mind.

Anyway, in the last few days the weather station has more than earned its keep, providing more entertainment than the telly, the Nintendo and the cat put together.

Until this week, it was generally ignored as it told its perpetual tale of mildness, cloud and continual drizzle.

But now it has come into its own, and never let it be said that family life is under threat from modern technology.

Picture, if you will, the Dixons, gathered round this meteorological altar of fun, watching and waiting for the temperature to drop another tenth of a degree so that we can all look at each other wisely and say: “Well, at least we’ve got a proper winter this year: it’s minus six point seven degrees.”

Beat that, temperature-watchers. And even if you can’t it’s probably time to start thinking about some awaydays.

A couple of youngsters in Germany had the right idea. Fed up with the cold and desperate to get married (they’re five and six, so time is clearly against them) they enlisted the help of big sister (aged all of seven), packed up their swimming togs, sunglasses and Lilos and headed to Hanover station en route for Africa.

Fortunately for them, and quite contrary to the widely-held belief that Germans are ruthlessly efficient by birth, they left home without passports, tickets or money. (Sounds like the same sort of in-depth planning involved in a certain Bath family’s typical holiday experience – at least we remembered the sun cream).

Anyway, all our latter-day Hansel and Gretel got out of their failed transcontinental adventure was a guided tour of Hanover police station, which probably isn’t quite as ominous as it sounds, and they were soon returned to their parents.

If re-writing the Brothers Grimm for the 21st century doesn’t appeal, though, why not take your awayday at home?

Because if you’re going to throw a sickie, this is the week to throw it.

Apparently, people working in certain privileged industries and services have it written into their contracts that if they are ill while on leave (like at Christmas) then they can take a day off in lieu when they are fit, well and back at work (like this week).

Nice work if you can get it, and we tremble to list the industries concerned lest their personnel departments be stampeded by hordes of applicants.

But even if your employers aren’t that bountiful, a well-known purveyor of cough mixture has launched, where you can get all the help you need to produce convincing-
sounding excuses for your boss while you snuggle up with a hot water bottle and a bottle of said purveyors’ finest soothing syrup.

Start the year as you mean to go on: lie back and take your medicine.

This post will also be my Bath Chronicle column on Thursday January 8th.

Mind your language

I got an email this morning from someone called Arshi. It had a pretty picture of an iceberg attached which as far as I can see is all signifier and no signified. And Arshi's words are no easier to understand:

After reading many technology articles, thought would like to show you how the process-driven SOA Vendors like IBM, Oracle, Tibco, Software AG… delayed deployment cycles after software purchase and huge hidden costs can be eliminated using the message-driven SOA approach.

I think Arshi is trying to sell me something. But I'm damned if I know what, and I'm damned if I'm going to buy it.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Birth of an urban myth

There was a very short letter in last week's Bath Chronicle, and a post on the thisisbath forums a couple of days or so before. Both were from the same writer, and both said more or less the same thing:

"I have recently discovered that central government has issued instructions (maybe even a legal requirement by now?) that the use of the term 'black eye' is no longer allowed. One must refer to the said infliction as a 'bruised eye'. Where is our once great country going?"

When questioned on the forum about where or when he'd heard this, the writer said: "This information was given to me by an employee of the council's child support team. Instructions had been issued that 'black eye' was no longer correct when referring to children in their care. 'Bruised eye' must now be used. I admit I have not bothered to investigate further, but reflecting on the record of the past decade regarding such issues, it certainly has a distinct ring of truth."

The unfortunate fact is that it has absolutely no ring of truth about it whatsoever. You can Google till you're blue (or black) in the face and you'll find no association between "black eye" and "banned", or indeed between "bruised eye" and "political correctness".

Indeed, you can search the B&NES website (presuming that B&NES is the "council" the writer was referring to), and you'll find no reference to "black eye" or to "bruised eye". It doesn't actually look as though the council has made much of an effort to publicise its achievements in promulgating this alleged Government directive either.

All right, just because you can't find it on the internet it doesn't mean it isn't true, but there's not even a trace of a mention: if this really is a "central government directive", then it must be the least publicised one of all time.

So what exactly is going on here? The clue may be in the last line of the letter: our "once great country", it implies, is going to hell in a handcart because PC New Labour social worker villains are trying to appropriate our language.

They want to take away our sovereignty, they want to Eurofy our currency, they want to straighten our bananas and they want to give traditional British delicacies like Bombay Mix anti-colonial names like Mumbai Savoury Confection.

And if they can't get away with that, we're expected to believe, they'll do their best to remove every possible trace of the words black, white, yellow and brown from good old English phrases like "black eye", "white Christmas", "yellow belly" and "Gordon Brown".

All in the name of political correctness.

Rumours like this certainly send the non-PC, non-New Labour, non-social-working classes into a right old tizzy about the decline of once Great Britain.

But in this case, it looks like something different is going on.

Tread softly, because we are present at the birth of an urban myth.

It's a bit like being the astronomer who is the first to see a supernova or to discover a new planet.

It's a bit like being the biologist who discovers a new species deep in the Cambodian jungle (just hope it isn't one of those poisonous pink centipedes).

Now most urban myths – like the story that you swallow eight spiders every time you sleep, or that you have to wait half an hour after eating before going for a swim – don't have any sort of verifiable source.

As soon as you start to track one back to its origin, you discover that the person who told you heard it from someone in the pub who heard it from their cousin who emigrated to America three years ago who heard it from the milkman... You get the picture.

But in the case of this new urban myth – that the phrase "black eye" has been banned by some anonymous Government agency – there can be no doubt where it originated: on the letters pages of your very own Bath Chronicle. First with the news, and first with the myths. Happy new year!

This column first appeared in The Bath Chronicle on Thursday January 1 2009.