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?