Friday, February 27, 2009

Don't stop the carnival

It has been a week of strangely named days. First off there was Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, or Mardi Gras, or Carnival, or (if you happen to be of an Icelandic persuasion) Bursting Day.

Why Bursting Day? Possibly because, it is alleged, this is the day when Icelanders stuff themselves with salt beef and peas. Mum's gone to Iceland, and she'll not be buying mini-pizzas.

In tropical climes they dress up in 20ft ostrich- feather plumes and cavort half-naked in the streets. Quite often James Bond runs around shooting people, which adds to the fun.

In Finland, apparently, they drill a hole in a hambone and make a whistling noise by whirling it around their heads.

At Chronicle Towers the sub-editors vie with each other to bring in the tastiest cakes.

And elsewhere in normally strait-laced England, we beat together eggs, flour, milk and water, fry them in a pan and throw the results at the ceiling. Who says we don't know how to have fun?

Hard on the heels of Shrove Tuesday (so called because it's when you're supposed to get shriven, fact fans) comes Ash Wednesday, which marks the end of the carnival (whatever the Alan Price Set may try to do about it) and involves the serious practice of feeling very sorry for yourself indeed.

Especially if a pancake falls off the ceiling and lands on your head when you come down for breakfast, and even more so if you indulged in the Polish practice of consuming pickled herring and lots of vodka the night before.

Even Monday, otherwise ordinary Monday, was the feast day of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. But the only truly interesting thing about Polycarp is his name, and the celebrations passed unremarked in most households.

But now we're into Lent, and it's time to think about what to give up.

Some people choose to give up chocolate biscuits, some choose to do without beer.

But what better luxury to eschew, if you want to purge yourself of evil and prepare yourself spiritually and bodily for a better life to come, than Chris Tarrant's new game show: The Colour Of Money?

For anyone who had better things to do last Saturday night (how lucky you were), here's how it works.

Chris wants to give away some of his money – around £64,000 to each of two contestants. Not a totally life-changing sum, but enough to tide you over when times are tight.

Chris has divided his money in unequal amounts between several machines. Each machine has a different colour, from ordinary shades like red and blue to more exotic tones of pumpkin and khaki.

To win the wonga, each contestant has to choose a machine in turn, give a sentimental but ultimately unconvincing explanation of why they picked that particular colour, and then wait for as long as they dare while the machine spews out £1,000 every second.

Their task – which is down to luck and nerve and not a jot of skill – is to stop each machine before it runs out of dosh, and gradually build up their winnings. But if a machine runs out before they stop it, they don't get any of its money, and their target becomes all the more difficult to reach. And if they don't reach the target in 10 tries, they get nothing.

One contestant was a mum whose reservist husband had been recalled to Afghanistan. The other was a Brummie chancer who wanted to treat his girlfriend to the wedding of a lifetime. Guess who won?

The Colour Of Money is billed as the most stressful game show on TV, but it's hard to tell who suffers the most stress – the contestants or you.

Your fight-or-flight instinct tears you between smacking Chris Tarrant on the conk and turning off the telly and having a bath. But your horrified fascination with the sheer cupidity of the contestants keeps you glued, right to the very end.

Even the two young Dixons, who will normally watch anything, have made it their Lenten vow not to watch The Colour Of Money again.

Which leaves them free to schnarf up all the chocolate biscuits, while Dad will drink more beer. Result!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Smoking Prince

Just seen Prince Charles blow his green credentials at the ceremony to unveil the memorial to the Queen Mum in The Mall.

He and Camilla climbed out of an ancient limo which appeared to be belching exhaust fumes from every orifice. Of course it may have been condensation but I don't think so...

Meanwhile the Queen herself appeared wearing an enormous fluffy peach hat that looked heavier than some of her many crowns. Still remarkably chipper, though.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hundreds and thousands

Have you ever wandered into a bookshop and considered, instead of a novel or a biography or a cookbook or a computer manual, buying one of those gigantic tomes entitled One Thousand Somethings You Must Do Before You Die?
Like 1,000 Books you must Read; 1,000 Films you must Watch; 1,000 Albums you must Hear (as long as they haven’t been smeared with strawberry jam); 1,000 Recipes you must Try but then Find You’re Missing One Vital Ingredient When All The Shops are Shut; 1,000 Paintings you must Nod Wisely at and Pretend You Understand Modern Art; 1,000 Buildings you must Dash Round While the Kids Complain that this is So Boring and When are we Going to the Beach?
Do. Not. Buy. A. Single. One.
For they will take over your life.
Take the first of the breed: One Thousand Books... Now let’s do the math. Assume a reading speed of a book a fortnight, with War and Peace and Thomas the Tank Engine averaging each other out. With 52 weeks in a year, that makes around 25 books a year (you get time off for birthdays and Christmas) or 100 books in four years.
And after this Charles Atlas course in world literature you’ll reach The End of that very last book after 40 years of solid reading.
Unless it’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino, in which case you’ll never get past the beginning.
Assuming you started your trek at the age of 10, you’ll now be an incredibly well-educated 50-year-old. And assuming you live on to a good age (and let’s face it, you’re not going to have much time for life-shortening debauchery with all that reading to get through) you’ve got another 30 years left to get polish off the Albums, Recipes, Paintings and Buildings.
It’s not going to happen, is it?
Maybe albums would be a more manageable challenge. They take less time to listen to than books do to read, and thanks to the power of iTunes you can download all 1,000 of them for the trivial sum of £7,990.
Come to think of it, you might not even have to spend that much. In our house we already have pretty much every single album in the book. Or we do up to around 1980.
Then there’s a gap of about 15 years which is the main cause of your humble columnist’s embarrassed silences during the music round at the pub quiz, when he sits staring into his pint and hoping that the landlord is old enough to remember Steely Dan.
And from 1995 up to the present day, our musical tastes are represented for the most part by the collected works of Now That’s What I Call... supplemented with a couple of ambient trance CDs which were freebies from work and whose perpetrators are probably now gainfully employed as Pontins Bluecoats. (No shame in that: these days you’ve got to follow the work.)
Let’s face it, though, there hasn’t been much good music since 1980 in any case. Thrash metal, death metal, Britpop, grunge – they all sound more or less the same when you’ve reached 536 in the top 1,000.
As for all those recipes, well everyone in our house prefers Dad’s toad in the hole to pigs’ trotters en feuilleté robed in their own aspic and strewn with a whortleberry and lilac jus. Just.
And as for the iconic cultural artefacts, given the present strength of every other currency in the entire world against the pound, nobody is going to be travelling further than Somerset this year. And the last time we looked there wasn’t a Taj Mahal in Minehead, unless it was an Indian restaurant.
No, these thousand-item lists are no more than a great big con.
They shame you into buying them by giving you an uneasy sense of intellectual, cultural or culinary inferiority.
And it’s only after you’ve shelled out that it dawns on you what you’ve actually spent good money on: an advert for back-catalogue albums, for preposterously complex dinner party failures, for exotic destinations way outside your budget, or – the most cunning con of all – for even more books.
This is the bloggy version of my Bath Chronicle Column.