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 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.