Thursday, March 26, 2009

When the diet went to pot

Regular readers of this column (and there are some, or so we’re led to believe) may still be recovering from the trauma induced last January when we went into a little bit too much detail about Spam fritters, and the role they once played in the courting rituals of your humble columnist when he was a younger, although possibly a wiser, man.
For anyone who missed it or would like a second bite, as it were, just Google Dixon fritters. That’s the power of Search Engine Optimisation, and there’s money to be made from it if you know what you’re doing. Although none of it seems to be coming into the Dixon family coffers.
What’s frightening, though, is that Dixon Senior’s predilection for what might be called paradoxical cuisine – foodstuffs which are at the same time both savoury and unsavoury – has been passed down to Dixon Junior.
He, at the tender age of 13, went out with his Scout troop last Friday and spent the night, in temperatures which dropped to -4°C, in a field just outside Bath with nothing to protect him from the elements but an orange plastic survival sack, a thick sleeping bag and several layers of thermals. It was all in aid of Julian House, and very commendable too.
But what was his chosen food to sustain him through this ordeal? A Pot Noodle. Chicken and mushroom flavour, if you please.
His request shocked his parents to the core. Had he become a university student five years too early? Because Pot Noodles are, if nothing else, the ultimate student fare. Had all our hard work during his formative years promoting a healthy diet of carrot sticks and wholemeal bread come to naught?
To be quite honest, it didn’t really matter, because anyone who is prepared to sacrifice a comfortable night in a warm bed for a freezing one in a muddy field deserves whatever they want when it comes to an evening meal that’s going to keep them warm inside until breakfast.
But this week there’s been some sort of synchronous serendipity going on. (Or possibly serendipitous synchronicity. Only time will tell. And possibly a large dictionary too.)
Because a couple of days after the Scouts’ survival sleep-out, noodle extruders Unilever announced the launch of a new flavour to complement traditional chick and mush or beef and tom, and more adventurous curry and chow mein: the Doner Kebab.
Gastronomic multiculturalism, thy name is Pot Noodle. Only the chicken tikka masala pizza can come close to thee in the New World Order of food combinations that one wouldn’t necessarily describe as “natural”.
(Yes, such pizzas do exist. We saw them on sale once in Portsmouth. What better introduction to British cuisine for all those continentals fresh off the ferry? And what better welcome home for us Brits?)
The real problem with Pot Noodles, though, isn’t that the name of the flavouring on the outside of the pot bears only a tenuous relationship to the toothsome chunks of soya protein that lurk within.
And it isn’t that no matter how much you stir your noodles, and no matter how long you leave the hot water to infuse, you always end up with a dry and inedible mess of broken noodles and intensely salty grit at the bottom of the pot.
No, the real problem with Pot Noodles is that once you’ve begun to write about them – or even begun to read about them – the temptation to eat one gets stronger and stronger.
Because when all’s said and done, you can take the noodle out of the man – but you can’t take the man out of the noodle.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Escape from the smallest room

There comes a time in every householder’s life when unwelcome tasks can be ignored no longer.
In our case it was the smallest room in the house, the downstairs loo, which after five and a half years of occupation finally got scheduled for redecoration.
All the other rooms in the house had been done. The previous owner’s taste in acid shades of apple green had been washed over in more Bathonian tones of cream and white, courtesy of those jolly expensive paint people at Farrow and Ball. (No doing things by halves in our house.)
We’d even added a loft extension and decorated that, but somehow the loo had escaped the loving attention of the sandpaper, brush and roller.
But your ever-willing columnist had a week off at home, and top of the list of Hugh’s Jobs put together by Mrs D in celebration was the inevitable: Pull Your Finger Out and Sort Out the Downstairs Loo. Nothing for it but to break out the decorating kit, chisel the lids off the half-empty paint tins that have been cluttering up the garage for the last three years, and get splattering.
It’s a well-known fact that the painting bit of home decoration takes up the least time: what really bites into your day is the preparation, which in the case of our loo meant getting the old school and college pictures off the wall (it’s quite eerie doing the necessary with the beady eyes of PKB Noseworth bearing down on you), and temporarily removing all the door furniture, ready for a light zapping with the orbital sander.
Now here’s a top tip for aspiring loo decorators everywhere, gleaned from personal experience: do not, under any circumstances, take the inside door handle off, leave it outside the loo, go back inside and close the door.
Can you guess what’s coming? You’re right. To paraphrase that lovely old song: “Oh, dear, what can the matter be? One middle-aged man locked in the lavatory.”
Inside the loo were the spindle thing which turns the latch, a screwdriver and a berk.
Outside, in no particular order, were freedom, lunch, Mrs D who needed picking up from work at 4pm, and various smaller Dixons who had to be collected from educational establishments all over town.
The spring in the latch was too stiff to be turned with the fingers, even using the spindle thing. The screwdriver wouldn’t go in far enough to push the catch back. And barging the door down wasn't really on the cards, as the potential damage to the hall would have meant further redecoration projects stretching away for at least to the middle of 2015.
Initially the only way out seemed to be shouting. But the loo window is at the back of the house, and even if anyone heard there was the nagging fear that letting the neighbours know about the situation would clear up any doubts they might previously have had about the complete and utter idiocy of him next door.
Eventually, after a bit of digging and poking around in the door frame with the screwdriver, the latch worked loose. Freedom at last, but at what cost? Embarrassment, extra filling round the door frame, and complete paranoia about letting the same thing happen twice.
(The trick is to keep the door handle inside the room, and slide it back onto the spindle thing when you want to get out. But then you knew that, didn’t you?)
The project is finished, bar a couple of small patches of acid green still grinning through the subtle Dorset Cream, and yours truly has got over his sudden fear of confined spaces. But all further decoration projects are on permanent hold.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Quantitative Easing

How will we know that we're feeling the effects?

None of my quantities appear to have been eased yet, although I did put up some raspberry supports for Mrs D which involved the use of straining bolts.

Strain... ease... strain... ease...

That's better.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Seen but not heard

On the wall at Chronicle Towers hangs a flatscreen TV that almost constantly keeps the resident newshounds informed of the world’s goings-on, with BBC1 first thing in the morning and Sky News for the rest of the day.

But there’s a fine line between being informed and being distracted, and for this reason the sound is always turned down, with the instant subtitles kept on.

Sometimes the newshounds get so immersed in their work (it does happen) that we end up half-way through Cash in the Attic before anyone gets round to changing channels.

But when it does eventually get switched on, Sky New can lead to some odd misapprehensions.

First off there are the adverts for the iPhone 3G. It’s a jolly desirable piece of kit, with a touch screen and all the shiny smoothness you’d expect from Apple.

Just shake it, the adverts imply, and you’ll be instantly in touch with your Facebook friends, you’ll be Tweeting like a second Stephen Fry (as if one wasn’t enough) and you’ll have at your fingertips all the data you need to make an informed decision about where to eat at what price within 500 yards of your current location.

As long as that location is London.

And then comes the televisual equivalent of the small print, in very spidery low-contrast letters at the end of each ad: “Steps removed and sequence shortened”.

Ah, those cruel words. Remember the moment in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear, whose self-confidence and swagger are founded upon his conviction that he’s a real spaceman with a flying jetpack, collapses into depression after he sees a TV advert – for himself – that ends with the words “Not a flying toy”?

So it is with the iPhone ads: it takes a lot more fiddling about to get the most out of an iPhone – or indeed any electronic device – than the publicity would have you believe.

Then there are the bizarre adverts for old pennies, polished up and enamelled in red, white and blue. They’re fronted by a man who exudes deep and unnerving psychological menace: not the kind of qualifications you’d normally associate with salesmanship. He has dark, staring eyes, hair that appears to be carved from plastic and a complexion modelled on offcuts from Madame Tussauds. He does not smile; he does not even appear to blink.

Get one of these pennies, he seems to be saying, or your grandchildren will suffer. Even if you haven’t got any grandchildren.

But what are the pennies for? Why does the robotic hive culture represented by the quasi-human in the advert want us to have them?

Even in their heyday, when you could buy a tanner’s worth of gobstoppers and still get change from fourpence, old pennies were only worth 1/240th of a pound, and they haven’t exactly appreciated in value since then. So they’re not exactly future heirlooms – you could rustle up your own in five minutes with a can of Brasso and some poster paints.

And in terms of patriotic significance they’re hardly up there with a ten-foot Union Flag and a CD of Rule Britannia.

So it’s far more likely that all these reconstituted coins of the realm are the physical manifestations of a global communication network. They're not friendly or fluffy like an iPhone, they're a conduit for beaming robotic instructions direct to your brain: resistance is futile, join the Collective.

Sky News gets even weirder, though, when the adverts finish and the subtitled news starts over again. Because the subtitling software, clever though it is, doesn’t always get things right.

Earlier this week we were told about some people in Tasmania battling to “Keep Wales wet with water and Howells.” The mind began to boggle: Who is this Howells character? And isn’t Wales wet enough already?

When the boggling had boggled, it transpired that what these kind-hearted people were really trying to do was save nearly 200 beached whales by covering them with wet towels.

Now there’s usually an unspoken suggestion in reports about stranded whales that somehow it’s All Our Fault, but this time it seems more likely that they got caught out on their annual migration by a very low tide. Luckily, most of them were returned to the sea: an accident of nature with a happy ending.

Either that, or they were trying to warn us about the robots and the pennies. Before they take over the world.

This (or something like it) will be my Bath Chronicle column for March 5 2009.