Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas quiz

It happens every December: in  media organisations from the  BBC to the humble Bath Chronicle, the news runs out before the end of the year.

Newspapers, radio stations and TV channels across the world are left with nothing to fill the gaps, except for that hoary old standby: the Christmas quiz.

And this column is no exception. We’re out of facts and opinions (not that we had many of either to start with) and we’re staring at a deep hole of the purest white.

So draw up an elf, throw another Yule log on the central heating and strain your brain with our festive brainteasers.


  • The Eskimos are purported to have at least 40 different words for snow. But can you name the sort of snow that disappears from roads within two days but lingers for three weeks on the pavements in a salty, slushy mess? (2 points)
  • What is the correct medical term for that ghastly sinking feeling you get when you order most of your Christmas presents online and they still haven’t arrived at 5pm on December 23? (2 points)
  • Which is worse, man flu or woman flu? (2 points)


  • Blue Quality Streets. What’s all that about then? Nobody likes them, they always end up left at the bottom of the tin in all their nasty coconutty grittiness. Why does Nestlé even bother putting them in to begin with? Why not give us extra purple ones instead? (5 points)
  • Brussels sprouts and parsnips. What are they actually for? (10 points)
  • Where did the wine go?  (100 points)


  • How do you wriggle out of a promise not to increase university tuition fees? (0 points)


  • This is part of an everyday household object, photographed from an unusual angle: . Can you work out what it is? If so, please let us know as soon as poss, because we found it on the floor on Tuesday and since then we’ve only been able to get Channel 5 on the telly. (5 points)

  • You know that book you gave Aunty Flo last Christmas? You’ve given it to her again. And it’s too late to do anything about it. (-7 points)


  • Can you remember exactly what you were doing on Boxing Day morning last year? If so,  award yourself an extra... 10 points


  • Where is the rampire? And was it worth the bother? (5 points)


  • All sporting activity except tea-tray tobogganing has been cancelled until further notice. (0-0 points)


  • How many generals do you know? (1 point for each)

There, that should keep you going through a couple of cold winter evenings. Of which there are plenty  on the way.

There are no prizes. A good score is reward enough. Answers will be published as soon as  we’ve worked them out ourselves

Happy Christmas, everyone. And take it easy on the mince pies.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Turn it off, turn it on again

Ten days to go, eh? Bought all your presents yet? Thought so. In October, wasn’t it, when the streets were empty and the queues were short?

You felt jolly pleased with yourself then, and you feel even more pleased with yourself now as you watch from the comfort of a cosy pub as hordes of shoppers trudge through the gathering gloom.

Your tree’s up and dressed, your lights are gleaming, your cards are sent. It’s mulled wine and mince pies all the way from here to New Year’s Day.

That’s not really you though, is it? You’d like to think it was, but in fact you’re no better off than the other 99 per cent of the population: totally unprepared for Christmas.

The realisation that the Dixon family were in just the same boat came at precisely 8.43 on Tuesday evening, when it became clear that Christmas trees are not compatible with home networking.

We originally had a fairly simple system at Dixon Towers. The internet came in through the telephone wire to a router in what could loosely be described as the study. Then, by the power of radio, it went in a series of short hops to the bedroom in the roof and various games consoles, laptops and touch-screen devices liberally scattered about the house.

There was another radio network which broadcast music to the stereo system and grovelling letters of apology to the printer.

And all of this was fine and dandy, until the XBox 360 stopped talking to XBox Live.

Now any teenage boy reading this (and there are lots) will understand that if he can’t go on COD War IV and repeatedly kill and be killed by other teenage boys whom he has never met in his life, then that life isn’t worth living, and his parents need to sort it out. Fast.

A quick call to our internet service provider established that they couldn’t believe that our system had ever worked in the first place, and that they certainly weren’t going to offer to fix it.

Their only suggestion was to move the router downstairs and hard-wire it to the XBox.

And if that sounds complicated, then you might as well stop reading now. Because from here on things get really technical.

We moved the router. We bought special short wires to link it to the XBox. We reconfigured the wi-fi gizmos so that the internet would go upstairs from the router and then back downstairs to all the other gadgets and the music would go downstairs from the computer and then back upstairs to the stereo along with the letters to the bank and the pictures we were supposed to post to overseas relatives two weeks ago. And we turned it all off and we turned it all on again. Twice, just to be sure.

And the only thing that worked properly was the XBox. The music sounded like an early experiment by Marconi. The printer would  have disappointed William Caxton. The internet was like treacle. But Dixon Junior could take potshots at like-minded warriors across the globe, so that was all right.

Then we got the Christmas tree.

And the only place it would fit was right next to the XBox. And Dixon Junior, quite justifiably, didn’t want pine needles getting into his electronic pride and joy. There weren’t enough sockets for the fairy lights. And Caxton needed his printer back. So we put everything back the way it was, as far as we could remember it. And it worked.

The moral of the story? If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it. If it is broke, then fix it properly. And if you don’t think you can fix it, then don’t break it in the first place.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Sprout me no sprouts

A report from the BBC earlier this week suggested that the rather chilly weather we’ve been having may lead to a shortage of Brussels sprouts this Christmas.

No real surprise about that, you might think. What is a bit surprising, though, is that the Beeb should have presented this as if it were bad news.

Anything that hastens a sprout on its journey between field and dustbin is a good thing as far as this blogger is concerned.

And cutting out the intermediate stages of boiling them and dishing them up for lunch seems like just the sort of energy-saving measure we should be embracing in these sub-zero days.

Mrs D takes a different view. One of the few things left growing on her allotment after the summer gluts are several sturdy purple sprout plants, which are hanging on to their treasured leafy globules like grim death. So perhaps there will still be the chance for us staunch anti-brassicans to refuse even a “token sprout” with the big bird.

There should be a few parsnips coming home too: another festive vegetable more honoured in the breach than in the observance. What’s so wrong with a handful of frozen peas to go with your turkey and trimmings?

As you may have gathered, Christmas preparations are well under way in the Dixon household, and to keep us on schedule we have all been issued with advent calendars of various designs.

Only one of these has the traditional religious motifs: seraphim and cherubim and kings on camels peering out from behind the windows.

We also have a robustly secular version, with a half-eaten mince pie, an pair of oven gloves and a box of hankies among the treasures behind the cardboard flaps. This acts as a salutary reminder that Christmas isn’t just about the fun things, it’s also about tidying up the mess afterwards.

Guess who got that one?

Then there’s the posh chocolate one, with the numbers printed in pale gold on a multicoloured background, making them even more difficult to find on a freezing December morning than those on the common-or-garden picture-only Advent calendar.

For the younger brethren (or sistren, to be more accurate but less grammatical) we have the gigantic pink Japanese cat calendar complete with even more chocolates in vaguely festive shapes.

And of course we all share that regular Christmas treat: the Advent Candle That Doesn’t Burn Properly.

It has the days of the month printed down the side, and the idea is that you light it in the evening and burn down one number a day.

So chunky is the candle, though, that the burning wick vanishes into the centre, leaving a waxy crust of unburned numbers on the outside.

It offers the perfect excuse for being late with anything from buying presents to writing cards to wrestling with a seven-foot refugee from a Norwegian pine forest: “But it’s only December the fifth – we’ve got tons of time.”

It isn’t, and we haven’t. Best look busy before it’s too late.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sorry, Brian Sewell: we're not selling Lady Celia

Challenging news this week as Brian Sewell, top art critic and purveyor of cut-glass accents to the gentry, pronounces from his cosy London clubroom that Bath should sell off some of its undisplayed works of art  from the Victoria Gallery in order to shore up its finances.

One is reminded (as soon as you think of Mr Sewell you start to write a bit like he talks) of the oft-misquoted phrase of Sir Harold MacMillan (that’s Lord Stockton to you, madam) about selling off assets in times of trouble: “First of all the Georgian silver goes. And then all that nice furniture that used to be in the salon. Then the Canalettos go.”

Lord Stockton was talking about the sell-offs of the big public utilities in the ’80s, and he later said he had no objection to taking them out of public ownership, but what he questioned was using the money raised as if it were income.

Because once those artworks have gone, there’s no way you can get them back.

Now Mr Sewell hasn’t heretofore (told you) been noted as a commentator on matters of public finance, and he may not have considered that windfalls don’t work when it comes to budgeting.

Let’s do some sums. The B&NES art collection of more than 11,000 items is valued at £10.3 million.

(To put that into some sort of context: this May, a single 1932 Picasso called Nude, Green Leaves , and Bust sold at Christie’s New York for £70 million.)

And some 77 per cent of the Victoria Gallery collection is on display at any one time.

There’s a nasty smell of burning plastic, and wisps of smoke rise from the calculator ... Even if the council sold off all its undisplayed works of art, it probably wouldn’t raise more than about £2.4 million.

Which is about two per cent of its budget for 2010/11.

To use a deeply plebeian analogy, it would be a little bit like winning a non-life-changing prize on the National Lottery. You might be able to have a bit of a splurge, but you wouldn’t be able to retire on it.

Mr Sewell singled out one particular painting which he said should be sold: a 1905 portrait by the English impressionist Walter Sickert of Lady Celia Noble, the grand-daughter of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

It has strong Bath connections. Brunel of course built the railways around here. Lady Celia lived at 22 Royal Crescent, where she held salons and concerts before the Second World War. She donated the portrait to the gallery in 1948. Sickert himself lived in Bathampton from 1938 until his death in 1942.

Even though Lady Celia’s portrait isn’t currently on public display, it is available to view by appointment. (I'm hoping B&NES will let me publish it here. If they do I'll update this blog.)

It’s a delightful and informal study of a “strange beauty”. Lady Celia’s eyes avoid the painter’s, a hint of gold glistens in her hair. Sickert captures a mystery and elegance that doesn’t sit well with talk of council budgets.

It would be wonderful to see the painting on display.

Meanwhile, let’s be grateful that whatever Brian Sewell may suggest, Lady Celia is very much Not For Sale.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why the mo will have to go

You can tell from all the instruction manuals that something’s afoot. Mrs D has dragged out from the dark recesses of the kitchen cupboard the collected works of Delia, Nigella, Jamie, Kirstie and even the sainted Constance Spry, and is starting to Plan For The Big Day.

But before we can really get stuck in to the steaming of puddings, the roasting of hams, the garnishing of Yule logs, the winding of wreaths and the curling of dainty little ribbons, there’s a certain amount of domestic preparation to be accomplished.

The sort that you don’t read about in books like Jamie’s Pukka Xmas Dinners, Delia’s Countdown to Catastrophe or Kirstie’s Home-Made House of Horrors.

For a start, the oven needs cleaning. A horde of distinguished friends and relations is descending on us for the festive season, and they won’t take kindly to a turkey that tastes like last August’s pizza.

Or last April’s, come to that.

Here’s how it works. Mrs D buys some evil-looking, but apparently award-winning gloop and announces that she’s going to clean the oven.

A day or two later, she announces she may need some help, which is gladly offered. And on the scheduled cleaning day (everything’s on a schedule) it appears that she’s going to be sidetracked into the more glamorous projects of making the Christmas pud, and the decrustation of the cooker will devolve in its entirety to You Know Who.

Ah well, we live to serve.

Here’s a question, though: if chaps were really meant to clean ovens, how come oven-cleaning kits don’t come with chap-sized disposable gloves?

Don’t all shout at once.

Next job: get rid of the moustache.

Over the past four weeks the Dixon upper lip has become gradually bushier and bushier, all in aid of Movember, the international project which aims to raise awareness of – and funds for – men’s health issues such as prostate cancer.

There’s been mockery and sympathy. There’s been some sponsorship for my mo, though more would be welcome.

Me and my mo: please sponsor me for Movember

There’s also been amazement from friends and colleagues alike at how a mild-mannered blogger and columnist has swiftly transformed himself into a ferocious Mexican bandit.

But the riot act has been read, and the fun is nearly over. There will be no point in even buying any mistletoe, let alone hanging it up, unless that thing comes off.

On December 1, the mo must go.

Which is a shame, really. You can get attached to a moustache: you nurture it, you fiddle with it in moments of tranquility or tension, you admire its reflection in every shop window.

There’s a real art to shaping its ends so they balance up and don’t make you look all lopsided.

And it’s also very handy at the end of restaurant meals – who needs a doggy bag when you’ve got a ’tache to collect the left-overs?

It’s been a creative project on a par with Kirstie’s hand-blown baubles or Delia’s blackened gammon, and it seems sad to bring it to a close.

Never mind, though: there’s always next Movember. And at least we're ready for Christmas.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hail to our future king and queen

Well here’s to the happy couple! Just for a moment, we can forget the banking crisis, the toxic debt, the lengthening dole queues, the benefit cuts and the imminent arrival of Christmas 2010 – The One You Can’t Afford.

(Shortly to be followed by Holiday 2011 – The One You’ll Be Taking At Home.)

Prepare yourself instead to be whisked away from sordid reality to a faraway world of fantasy, glamour and eternal happiness.

A world where true love runs deep, where the sun shines every morning and where fluffy lambs gambol forever across rolling fields with never a thought of mint sauce.

It happened before our very eyes, in a moment made magical by the crystal ball of television.

As his eyes met hers it was so easy to sense the mutual attraction, the longing for togetherness, the unspoken but certain knowledge that this time it was going to last for ever.

He was the charmer: suave, debonair, silver-tongued. She was the girl next door with a cheeky smile and a heart of gold.

It happened on Tuesday, and those of us who were privileged enough to watch it will treasure the memory in our hearts for as long as we draw breath: that moment in the Australian jungle when Britt Ekland met Nigel Havers on I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here.

They were drawn together for an innocent game of Bonkers Conkers, a trial of strength in which the two contestants launch massive artificial chestnuts at another massive artificial chestnut in an attempt to smash it and retrieve a key which will open a chest which will reveal a question which if answered correctly will give the winner’s team-mates the chance to eat something  a little more appetising than witchetty correct grubs.

Don’t worry, it was far less complicated than it sounds.

It was perhaps understandable that romance should have blossomed. Britt had been stuck in the girls’ camp with Gillian McKeith, whose grasp on the concept of teamwork seems shaky to say the least. And Nigel was already daggers drawn with former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, who gives his occupation on the I'm a Celebrity website as “comedian”, and lists his special skill as “wooing the ladies”.

 Stay classy, Lembit.

Anyway, with irritations like that in their respective camps, it was little wonder that Nigel and Britt sought solace, however briefly, in each other’s arms.

Naturally there will be obstacles to their romance. It doesn’t help that Nigel is already married and appears to have something of a short fuse. It doesn’t help that Britt dated a string of pop stars in the 1970s and still enjoys what might loosely be described as a rock and roll lifestyle.

No, from the moment their eyes met their fate was cast: Nigel and Britt are destined to be king and queen of the jungle, and their love will serve as a beacon to light us on our way through the dark months that lie ahead.

William? Kate?

Never heard of them.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It's movember - splash some cash for my tache!

Now here’s an interesting fact. All right, perhaps it’s not  that interesting, but it’s a free fact, and you don’t get many of those to the pound these days.

You know that little double-ridge type thing between your nose and your upper lip? It’s called your philtrum.

It comes from the ancient Greek word for “love potion”, and a prominent philtrum purportedly makes its owner more attractive to members of the opposite sex.

All of which leads us, inevitably and inexorably, to our topic this week. Which is not sex, opposite or otherwise, but the condition of yours truly’s philtrum.

It may come as a shock to some of our more sensitive readers, but said philtrum has, over the past ten days or so, been getting bushier and bushier, and far less susceptible to frostbite.

Why, you may well ask? Why has the Dixon upper lip, previously known for its billiard-ball-like smoothness, suddenly started sprouting bristles?

Well, it’s all in a good cause: Movember. You can find out more about it on the Movember website, but the idea is that during the month of November, men grow a “mo”, or moustache, to help raise awareness of men’s health issues.

Sadly, one man every hour dies of prostate cancer in the UK, and much like the commitment to run or walk for charity, the gentlemen of Movember commit to 30 days of subnasal hairiness.

Given this blogger's general stoutness and associated lack of enthusiasm for running anywhere further than the nearest bus stop, this sounded like an effortless way raise some money for charity.

Reactions around the house were mixed. Mrs D went off in mild hysterics at the thought of having to snuggle up to the human equivalent of a Brillo Pad.

Miss D, who has never been slow to comment when dad’s five o'clock shadow gets to half past eight, looked dubious to say the least.

And Dixon Junior made a disparaging comment on Facebook.

Growing a moustache, it must be said, doesn’t require quite as much energy as running a marathon. But it does demand some fortitude on the part of the grower.

First off, there’s the nagging doubt that your upper lip may not be able to grow anything more than bumfluff without the application of industrial quantities of Growmore. Especially if you’re aiming for a more florid style like the Dali, the handlebar or the Fu Manchu.

Then, there’s the growing fear that those around you are sniggering at the incongruous efflorescence on your physiognomy (here it is after eight days' growth).

There’s also a slight worry that you’re starting to use unnecessarily long words to match the promised grandeur of your mo.

Finally, there’s the gradually increasing itchiness, coupled with the constant desire to look in mirrors or shop windows to see how much your prized Zapata has progressed in the past ten minutes.

It’ll be worth it, though. Hope sprouts eternal on the upper lip.

And if you can help by sponsoring me, get along to Hugh Dixon's MoSpace Page and splash some cash!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Interview with the Rampire

You’ve got to hand it to NASA. Just when you thought they’d discovered everything there was to discover about the universe, they come up with something new.

This time it’s a Gamma Ray Bubble. Details so far are a little bit sketchy, but if we combine the few facts they have so far released with a healthy dose of journalistic speculation we can draw the following conclusions.

First, it’s big. Not as big as a galaxy, maybe, but NASA don’t use words like “giant” and “enormous” lightly.

Second, it’s a long way away, in the general direction of the centre of the Milky Way. Which means that you couldn’t get anywhere near it with a Bonfire Night rocket.

Third, even if you could hit it, it wouldn’t burst. Why not? Because, that's why.

Fourth, nobody really understands what it’s there for. NASA is holding a press conference next week to explain a bit more about it, but don’t expect it to make the Ten O’Clock News.

(Update: NASA's Fermi telescope finds giant structure in our galaxy.)

Now, one of the difficulties your average columnist faces when trying to explain all this high-powered cosmological shenanigans to the lay reader is how to make it understandable on a human scale. Sometimes, though, metaphors and parables can help.

And luckily enough, right here in Bath, we have our very own metaphor for the Gamma Ray Bubble: the pavement at the junction of James Street West and Westgate Buildings otherwise known as the St James Rampire.

Like the Gamma Ray Bubble (let’s call it the GRB to save a few photons) the Rampire is more than just big: it’s both “giant” and “enormous”. Indeed, it would not be stretching a point to call it “ginormous”. Thus saving a few more photons.

Just like the GRB, it’s a long way away. Or at least, it’s as far away from the GRB as the GRB is from it, which is saying something. Not quite sure what, mind. It’s all to do with the General Theory of Relativity. Keep up at the back, there’ll be a test later.

Like the GRB, it wouldn’t burst if you hit it. In the last four months they’ve poured so much hardcore, concrete, Tarmac, paving slab, sett, cobble and other assorted road-making materials over the spot where once grew a harmless and unassuming patch of grass that it would take a head-on collision with an aircraft carrier to cause it any damage. If we had any aircraft carriers left, that is.

And like the GRB, no one really understands what the St James Rampire is for. Especially the raised lip near the bus stop, around which hover such august institutions as InjuryLawyers’R’Us, Vultures4U and WeSueAnyCouncil. Dot Com.

What is a rampire anyway? Top (dead) poet John Dryden said: “The Trojans round the place a rampire cast.” Sixteenth-century geographer Richard Hakluyt added: “Let no man thinke that culverin or demy-canon can sufficiently batter a defensible rampire.” No one born any later was prepared to comment.

There’s little more to add. Gamma Ray Bubbles and Rampires are two sides of one coin: aged, mysterious, massive, impenetrable, unknowable.

We ignore them at our peril.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

RIP Paul the psychic cephalopod

So, farewell then, Paul the Psychic Octopus. The eight-tentacled, three-hearted cephalopod – whose FIFA World Cup 2010 predictions entertained us last summer as Capello’s Heroes limped out of the competition at a much later stage than they deserved – has died and gone to invertebrate heaven.

Paul was born – or rather, hatched – in an aquarium in Weymouth, but his natural wanderlust soon took him further afield.

At an early age he moved to Oberhausen in Germany and found a berth in the Sea Life Centre.

There, Paul accurately predicted the outcome of several Euro 2008 football matches  by choosing which of two boxes, labelled with the flags of the competitors, to open first. Inside each box was a tasty mussel or oyster as a reward.

Paul really hit his stride with this year’s World Cup, though, when he correctly foretold the result of every single match of Germany’s World Cup campaign.

 The football establishment closed ranks against him and lesser pundits such as Lineker, Hansen, Shearer, Tyldesdley and co shook in their collective boots.

Paul’s predictive skills were questioned in academia as well as the world of sport. Chris Budd, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Bath, was quoted by the BBC as saying that Paul’s success rate was no better than you’d get from tossing a coin.  “Mathematics can be spooky,” he said. You’re not wrong there, professor.

Be that as it may, all gritty rationalism got swept under the carpet when Paul hit the jackpot by predicting Spain’s triumph over the Netherlands in the final.

Paul was subsequently invited to make a victory tour of Spain, but his owners declined the offer, presumably fearing that the octopodophagous Spaniards might get carried away with the excitement of their win, and devour him in a stew of his own ink.

Not everyone was delighted with Paul’s predictions. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, claimed he was a tool of “western propaganda and superstition”.

And a hit squad from the Oxford English Dictionary was dispatched to Bath to deal with a certain blogger who was going round indiscriminately inventing words like “octopodophagous”.

Paul’s management team put him out to grass after the World Cup. But even now, before the mourning is over, conspiracy theorists are claiming that he actually died before the final in Soccer City, and that his last, most glorious, prediction was made by a double.

Why can’t they let the dead rest in peace? Paul was a true aristocrat among football pundits. (He had the blue blood to prove it – caused by haemocyanin, a copper-based respiratory protein, fact fans.) His memory should be left unsullied. De mortuis nil nisi bonum and that sort of thing.

Who now remembers Leon the porcupine, Mani the parakeet or Apfelsin the African red river hog, all of whom tried to emulate Paul’s predictive feats and failed?

No-one, that's who. Paul was the greatest. We shall never see his like again.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Eight Things You May Not Have Known About Paul the Psychic Octopus

  1. He was psychic.
  2. He is dead.
  3. He had EIGHT TENtacles. Spooky.
  4. I predicted his demise in July 2010.
  5. He was born in Weymouth, UK but emigrated to Germany.
  6. Actually, he wasn't born. He hatched.
  7. He had three hearts. One for everyday, one for Sundays, and one just in case another was broken by a lady octopus.
  8. He knew more about football than most of the telly pundits put together.
RIP Paul the Psychic Octopus. We'll miss you.

And an extra ninth thing: he was called "Paul" because of its phonetic similarity to "Poulpe", which is French for Octopus. Or Pulpo, which is Spanish for Octopus. (I have no evidence for this whatsoever, but it sounds convincing.)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Golden chilli saffron vodka

I had a glut of chillis this year, mainly very hot Paper Lanterns - a sort of Habanero.

Some are drying, some have been chopped up, blitzed and frozen in the ice-making tray.

But this was a worthwhile experiment.


70cl bottle of vodka (I used Smirnoff Red Label rather than supermarket)

Three hot red chillis

Large pinch of saffron strands


  • Cut the stalks from the chillis, slice in half and remove the seeds. Be careful not to touch your face or other sensitive areas after cutting chillis - wearing rubber or latex gloves is a good precaution.
  • Open the vodka bottle and push the chilli pieces and saffron down inside.
  • Close the bottle and leave in a dark place for 3 weeks, giving it the occasional gentle shake. The vodka will take on a rich golden yellow colour - the more saffron, the more golden the finished product.
  • Strain the contents of the bottle into a jug through a piece of muslin. Discard the old saffron strands, and remove the chilli pieces from the bottle (I had to tease them out with a skewer).
  • Pour the golden vodka back into the bottle (use a funnel to avoid any wastage).
  • Freeze the bottle.
  • To serve: pour into small shot glasses and knock back in one. Throwing the shot glasses over your shoulder into the fireplace is entirely optional.

The colour is glorious, the taste is like honeyed rocket fuel with a vanilla finish.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Learn to stop worrying and love the CSR

So this is it. The party’s over, the fat lady has sung, Elvis has left the building and it’s time to clean up the mess and pay back the billions that have been borrowed in our collective names.

The cuts are coming, and they’re going to hit hard. We’ll soon find ourselves steering into what one newspaper terrifyingly described as “uncharted social and economic territory”.

The dark clouds of austerity are gathering on the horizon, and none of them has a silver lining. 24-carat lead, more like.

Life in the UK for the next few years doesn’t look as though it’s going to be that much fun.

So what are your options in this new world of enforced belt-tightening? We consulted a panel of experts and distilled their wisdom into your Official Guide to Surviving the Cuts, as first published in Ye 250-year-0lde Bath Chronicle.

Here are the highlights.

  •  Adopt the French position. Whatever the economic climate, our Gallic neighbours always seem to be enjoying themselves. If they’re not guzzling a four-course meal with a selection of fine wines and cheeses, they’re closing petrol stations, pouring milk down the Champs-Élysées and calling out the riot police. So follow their example: go on strike, and stay on strike.

  •  Adopt the Greek position. As above, but with retsina and halloumi.

  • Become a hermit. Sell all your possessions, cash in what you can on the house and give the money to the poor (you won’t have much trouble finding them). Then wrap yourself in an old sack and find a nice damp cave. Be warned, though: long queues are already forming at Cheddar and Wookey Hole, so you may have to look further afield. Like Greenland.

  • Take your mind off the crisis by starting a time-consuming hobby. You’ll be using candles instead of electric light for most of next three years, so collect all the spent matches and use them to build a model of a well-known landmark – Bath Abbey or Pulteney Bridge, say, or even the Busometer if you fancy a real challenge. Faithfully reproducing all those curves and sticky-out metal bits should keep you going right past the end of this recession and well into the next one.(Picture: Kevin Bates, The Bath Chronicle)

  • Take a leaf out of ’70s chart-toppers Wizzard’s book: pretend it’s Christmas every day. It’s already happening in Bath: the lights started going up at the beginning of October, and they’re unlikely to come down until May 2011 at the earliest. By then it’ll only be five months until they’re due to put them up again, so why not just leave them where they are and let people enjoy a festive frisson every time they go to the shops? They won’t have any money to spend, mind you. But at least the streets will look pretty.

  •  Grin and bear it. Let’s face it, there’s not really any other option.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Double yellow peril

It started more than a year ago, with a circular from the council. There was a proposal to extend the parking restrictions up from the bottom of our road.

It was called the Various Roads, Outer Area, Bath: Prohibition & Restriction of Waiting Order 2009.

And as is right and proper in a democratic society, we were offered the chance to comment.

Which we did. And delivered our comments by hand to the wrong letterbox in Keynsham, two hours before the deadline. (Thanks, kind Keynsham person, for sending them on.)

The months passed, the council considered the views of objectors and supporters, and eventually ruled in favour of the original proposal. Not only was democracy done, but it was seen to be done. All very right and proper, even if our objections were overruled.

We sat down (metaphorically) to wait for the yellow lining lorries to arrive and lengthen the existing double yellows.

Then the winter came, and the snow, and the potholes. And still the yellow liners didn’t come.

Spring passed, and summer too. The potholes got worse, the yellow lines stayed the same length.

Then, in late summer, a second notice arrived from the council: the road was to be resurfaced. Regular readers will know all about that episode: casual browsers will be spared the gripping details.

Anyway, the road was resurfaced, and we waited for the double yellow lines to be replaced. In our naivety we thought that someone might do some joined-up thinking and implement the Various Roads Order.

They didn’t. Here’s what actually happened.

The coning people coned off an area which didn’t match the  order but did bear a vague resemblance to what had been there before.

On one side of the road, a driver parked their car at the top end of the  cones.

The lining folk came along  and painted a one-foot double yellow line behind the car, then left a car-length gap, then continued the lines down to the bottom of the road.

They painted more double yellows  further up the road, and then painted white Access Protection Markings parallel with them, so bits  of the road with dropped kerbs had two yellow lines and one white.

They left most of the opposite side of the road unlined. Drivers used the car-length gap as a parking space.

The coners came back and coned the gap and the opposite side. A driver parked among the new cones. (Can you guess what’s coming?)

The lining people came back and painted in the first gap and most of the opposite side, leaving a second car-length gap  opposite the place where the first one had been.

They covered up the white lines they’d painted a week previously with a thin layer of black gunge.

And then they went away, presumably feeling pleased with a job well done, and as of Wednesday morning they hadn’t come back.

Who said the circus had left town?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

One good thing about cold callers

First, the answers to the mini-quiz. The genuine dark red paint colour, as opposed to the fevered imaginings of a deadline-beset columnist, was Boot Red from Fired Earth.

Or Fried Earth, as Mrs D insists on calling them.

We’re not going to use it, mind. Opinion on the ultimate decorative finish for our bedroom walls has swung away from sombre reds and browns towards duskier shades like Smoked Trout and Poached Turbot.

This one will run and run. But for now there are bigger fish to fry.

How many times recently have you heard the phrase, “There’s nothing to worry about”? It seems to be the latest ploy of foot-in-the-door salespeople  and telephone cold callers.

Some genius of a sales trainer has probably worked out that the callers’ victims  need a bit of reassurance before they will part with their money.

We had a variation on the theme a couple of days ago. A greasy youth from one of the energy companies rang the doorbell, and fired off with the immortal line: “Evening sir, nothing to worry about, don’t get the boxing gloves out.”

Quite what sort of reassurance that was supposed to give is doubtful. The door was shut firmly but politely in his face.

And then there was the telephone marketer who started her spiel with “Don’t worry, Mr Dixon. This isn’t a sales call.” Yeah, right. And we’ve opted out through the Telephone Preference Service, so you can take us right off your so-called database.

The most offensive cold calls, of course, are the ones when the line goes dead for a couple of seconds, and then you’re asked if you’re the “named user of your computer system”.

The person calling doesn’t tell you not to worry. They tell you that there’s a problem with your computer, that they’re from some sort of service centre – or even from Microsoft – and they want to help you sort it out.

They don’t want to do anything of the sort.

They’re criminals, and they’re trying to plant viruses, bots or keyloggers on your system so that they can steal your personal information or otherwise subvert your PC. (It doesn’t work on Macs.)

Microsoft doesn’t ring people up out of the blue asking for information. Its staff have better things to do with their time, and they don’t have your phone number.

Now with most cold callers there’s always this residual urge to be polite. They’re only doing their job, after all, and not a very gratifying or rewarding one either.

But  if one of these cyber scum ring you up one evening, and you’ve have a bad day, and you need to release some stress, and you’ve got the gift of the gab, then no one’s going to mind if you take out your frustrations on them by being as rude as you damn well like.

It ain’t half therapeutic.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Just like watching paint dry

Decisions, decisions. The moment has come at Dixon Towers when we can prevaricate, procrastinate, shilly-shally and vacillate no longer.

Although we can’t do it tonight because it’s the cat’s birthday. And tomorrow we’ve got to do the weekly shop. And then it’s the feast day of Saint Remigius, Bishop of Rheims, Apostle of the Franks. And you know what that means?

Exactly. No windows in our family calendar for at least another week.

Anyway, once we’ve got that little lot out of the way it will definitely be time to decide.

On what, you may ask. What decision can be so important, yet so avoidable? Out with it, Dixon.

It’s time to come clean. The master bedroom at Dixon Towers is in dire need of redecoration. The once pristine cream on the walls is now a murky shade of yoghurt. The woodwork is flaking. There’s still a horrible patch of bare plaster from when we had the loft conversion done six years ago. Hey, we don’t rush things at Dixon Towers. But we can put it off no longer.

The brief is for dark red, but Mrs D’s conditions are strict: not too dark, and not too red. And thick enough to cover up aforementioned plaster in no more than three coats, seeing as how she’ll be doing most of the painting.

Yours truly’s conditions are less taxing. Nothing that will require a second mortgage to buy. And nothing that looks too much like Germolene.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Germolene in its place, you understand. It’s just that it has an unnerving resemblance to dead salmon, and it smells far too much like Doctor Pepper. Or maybe Dr P smells like Germolene. What was that about procrastination?

Tally ho for Homebase, where your columnist has been dispatched to pick up some test pots.

Where to begin? Well, the paint counter, obviously. But there’s one paint counter for the fancy stuff, and another for the Eezy-Klene Wun-Cote common-or-garden household emulsion.

Let’s split the difference: four from the posh aisle, four from the cheap zone. And from there on in it’s a lucky dip, because the names don’t offer much of a clue.

Burnt Raspberry. Carmine Blush. Deepest Scarlet. Vicar’s Crimson. Boot Red. Fox’s Bloodstain.

(Only one of these is a real paint. Any guesses which?)

A sharp intake of breath as you realise that just shelling out for the test pots will set you back almost as much as what you’ll end up paying to cover the walls, and then it’s home with your spoils.

From a first glance at the lids, Mrs D is not convinced. All too dark, all too red, in her judgment. Except for the Ruptured Salmon, which looks too much like the well-known ointment. And smells worse.

Never mind. The Dixon bedroom is now festooned with sheets of lining paper painted with squares of the samples. Unfortunately, though, they all look exactly alike, barring the nasty accident with the fish.

So we still can’t make up our minds, and next week it’s the memorial day of St Denis of Paris and his companions the martyrs. The painting will just have to wait.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wild, wild Weston

High noon in the Badlands. Small white empty clouds float motionless in a steel-blue sky. A harsh sun beats down on a dried-out gulch. Not even the tumbleweed stirs as the long hand of the town clock ticks, ticks, ticks towards 12.

A curtain twitches and a face appears briefly at the window, casts a worried glance towards town, then vanishes. The curtain flicks back and the dusty street is still once more. They’re coming. And they mean business.

Actually, if you believe anything you’ve read in the last 80 words or so, you’re the victim of what is known in the trade as journalistic licence. It’s time for a reality check.

We’re not in the Badlands of South Dakota: we’re in leafy Weston Village, Bath on Sunday lunchtime. It’s not a baking hot day: it’s about average for the middle of September. And it’s not even high noon: it’s one in the afternoon. Although strictly speaking it would be midday if we were on GMT and not BST. Let’s not lose track, though...

Because last Sunday, they were definitely coming, and they certainly did mean business.

“They” in this case meaning the road re-surfacers.

Ever since the cold snap last winter, our road has suffered from a bad case of the potholes. Driving down the hill has subjected the Dixonmobile (and every other  vehicle) to the suburban equivalent of a spin round the tank training grounds on Salisbury Plain.

Suspensions have twanged, shock absorbers have boinged, passengers have bounced and unrestrained parcels have flown through  windows every time a car went by.

But all the time, the promise has been there: “One day,” the handouts from the council have assured us, “we’ll come and mend your road.”

So at last the contractors arrived. All the parked cars mysteriously vanished (except for one), and a sweeper lorry trundled up and down clearing away the early autumn leaves while purposeful looking blokes in reflective jackets taped over the ironwork.

And everyone on the street came out to have a look. The excitement was palpable, we all had a  chat, and waves of community spirit drifted upwards into the September air.

At last the big moment arrived and a gigantic machine started spreading the micro-asphalt.

(Which, for the non-technically-minded, is a combination of aggregate and bitumen emulsion that restores skid resistance quickly and with minimal disruption to the carriageway user. Or so it says in this leaflet. What it doesn’t say is how to get the bits off your carpet.)

First the machine did our side. Then it did the middle. And then it went away, along with the road-sweeper and all the yellow jackets.

An eerie hush descended and we all started to wonder: whose was that car at the bottom of the hill? Would the asphalteers ever come back and finish what they’d started?

Of course they did, on Monday, and we now have a lovely new road.

It may not be the wild, wild west. But it certainly livened up Weston.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Karrottenstein will rise from the grave

Readers slavering in anticipation after last week’s mention of comedy vegetables will be delighted to know that our preposterous carrot won first prize at Weston Flower Show last weekend.

An in-depth trawl through Mrs D’s carrot patch produced a specimen of such ugly weirdness (or indeed weird ugliness – there’s not a lot of difference between the two) that it didn’t take much imagination to come up with a winner.

The carrot in question was broad and sturdy. It already had a knobbly protuberance that would make a passable nose, and markings suggestive of a mouth. We rifled one of the children’s old craft kits for a couple of googly eyes, and stuck them on with Evo-Stik. We grabbed a pair of spare stainless steel coach screws from the stainless steel coach screw cupboard and drove them into the sides of his neck.

A jubilee clip for a collar and a brass curtain ring round one of his carroty ears completed the ensemble.

(Money spent on DIY is money well spent. QED.)

Then we simply connected some electrodes to the carriage screws, awaited a passing thunderstorm, and faster than you can say “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley”, Karrotenstein was born.

To quote unashamedly and at length from our inspiration, Mrs S:

 “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

Scary stuff. And Mary Shelley could just as easily have been writing about the Dixon kitchen on the night before the show as about Frankenstein’s gloomy laboratory at the University of Ingolstadt.

On reflection, “born” is the wrong word to describe the arrival of Karrottenstein. His roots are in the ground (or they were until Mrs D pulled him up). Maybe it would be better to say that he was propagated.

Be that as it may, The Big K presented a frightening prospect to his creators, the latter-day Victor and Igor.

We did take some pictures, and offered them to the editor of The Bath Chronicle for publication. But he felt that they were a little too disturbing to see the light of day in a family newspaper.

If you have a strong stomach, though, and a stronger internet connection, you can see Karrottenstein's picture here.

Like Frankenstein’s monster before him, Karrottenstein met an early and unnatural fate. Following his triumph in the humorous vegetable stakes, the only way was down. None of us fancied eating a carrot covered in glue, so we removed the screws, the clips and the rest of the metalwork and consigned him to the compost heap.

But don’t sleep easy: his vital force lives on among the potato peelings.

Be warned, gentle reader: Karrottenstein will rise from the grave, and walk the earth once more.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

When vegetables go get weird

So that’s it then. No more bank holidays between now and Christmas. A three-and-a-half-month desert of work, weekend, work, weekend, work…

Meanwhile, of course, the clouds have parted, the wind has dropped, the sun is shining and it’s summer at last, just in time for the kids to go back to school.

You get the picture. We need something to cheer us up. Now and every weekend between until the festive season.

Well, we can start with the Weston Village Flower Show. It’s this Saturday, and it should provide enough fun and jollity to get us through the first week of the Long Hard Slog Through Autumn.

Wallace and Gromit fans will remember the climactic scene in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Rotten cad and all-round bounder Victor Quartermaine chases Wallace, who has been transmogrified into a gigantic and voracious rabbit, through the village fruit and vegetable show. Quartermaine has armed himself with an ancient blunderbuss, loaded it with golden bullets supplied by the vicar, and is out for bunny flesh.

Meanwhile, in the skies above the show another chase is going on. Gromit and his arch enemy, Quartermaine’s slavering hound Philip, are slugging it out in an aerial dogfight (geddit?) in planes untethered from a fairground ride.

It’s not spoiling the story too much, if you’re one of the few people who don’t know it already, to reveal that the good end happily, the bad unhappily.

Don’t imagine for a minute that anything quite as dramatic as that will be happening in Weston on Saturday. The show is a generally calm affair, with more than 100 classes for produce, crafts, cooking and art.

With one exception: the Humorous Vegetable competition.

Quite possibly this part of the show was inspired by Blackadder II. (Remember the turnip that looked like a thingy?) It may equally well have its historical roots in the odd-looking produce that were such a memorable feature of That’s Life.

Be that as it may, if you want to see contorted carrots and preposterous potatoes in abundance, Weston All Saints Centre is the place to be this Saturday afternoon.

Mrs D was going to enter her secret weapon: a tromboncino. For those who don’t know – and there’s no reason why you should –  a tromboncino is a monstrously mutated cousin of the courgette, with a curved body and a club-shaped blobby bit at the business end.

The specimen that Mrs D has nurtured lovingly from seed is now more than 120cm from nose to tail, and threw a system error when we tried to weight it on the electronic kitchen scales.

It also causes spontaneous and uncontrollable laughter in all who see it, and is quite rude into the bargain. We don’t really feel we can take it out of the house during daylight hours without causing a breach of the peace. So for now we’ll just stick with a comedy carrot.

Weston Village Flower Show, Saturday September 3, 2.30pm in the All Saints Centre, Weston High Street, Bath.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

'Tis the season to be jolly silly

August. The dog days. The hottest, stickiest time of the year. A time so called because of the ancient observation that Sirius, the Dog Star, is at its closest to the Sun in August, and is thus responsible for hot weather.

Or, as one ancient put it, a time when: “the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.”

Palpable nonsense. Those ancients may have known a thing or two about waving swords about and singing roundelays and giving each other  the plague, but they didn’t have a clue when it came to explaining the weather.

Neither, though, do we. For the last week most of southern England has been under attack from a small hurricane, which has battered us left, right and centre  – especially Dixon Junior who has been swooping up and down the Channel on a yacht – and triggered off potato blight alerts on Mrs D’s mobile.

So much for ancient wisdom. No doubt we’ll have a warm, dry January to make up for this month’s windy wetness.

But the other name for August, especially in and around newspapers, is the silly season. And that tradition of printing implausible stories, often concerning animals, carries on whatever the weather.

Earlier this week, for example, it was reported that a crocodile had been spotted circling round sailing boats near the port of Boulogne.

Some bright spark christened it Croc Monsieur, and for a day or two the coastguard, police and army went onto high alert.

Le croc français turned out to be no more than a floating log. It would be inappropriate to call it a frog log, but it just kind of slipped out.

And the original eyewitnesses, whom we know only as Pierre and Laurent, are probably now enjoying the traditional hospitality of the gendarmerie. Which as far as we’re aware doesn’t include much in the way of tea and biscuits.

And now Bath has its very own silly season story to rival other papers’ tales of 30-inch Ratzillas and other prodigies.

At the bottom end of the evolutionary scale, it appears that microscopic worms have forced the transfer of this weekend’s racing at Chepstow to the Bath course.

The worms, or root gall nematodes as they’re known to their friends, have caused instability in the Chepstow soil, which is obviously pretty dangerous on a racecourse.

And in the jargon of the newsroom, it’s the sort of story that has legs. Even if the worms haven’t.

Could this be the start of something much bigger?

Maybe the sneaky nematodes are hatching plans for world domination, or undermining England’s 2018 World Cup bid by destabilising the soil of sporting venues across the country.

Maybe they’re in the pay of an evil cartel of artificial turf suppliers. Maybe they don’t want their Bank Holiday disturbed by the horses.

Or maybe not. Because that would be a bit too silly, even for the silly season.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

No surrender to the big cheese

It was Charles de Gaulle who said of his native France: “How can you govern a country which has 246 different cheeses?”

History does not tell where he got the number from. Indeed, some sources claim that le général put the figure at 258. But judging from our recent  holiday across the Channel, he probably underestimated.

Visit any self-respecting French hypermarket and it’s not just the cheese counter that’ll have you staggered. Twenty-five different types of ham. A bewildering range of natural yoghurts. Three different sorts of pizza-flavoured cracker.

And the wine. Let’s not get started on the wine. (Too late, unfortunately. We already have.)

No, there’s a colossal difference between the English concept of choice and the French idea of choix.

To your average Sainsbury or Tesco, choice means either (a) own brand or (b) expensive.

To its French counterpart, la choix seems to a passing Brit to be synonymous with abundant variety.

And the only problem with that is that it leads to indecision among those who are doing the buying and mutterings of rebellion from those who are traipsing along behind wishing they were still at the beach.

The differences don’t end there, of course. You won’t find many English supermarkets in which a live spider crab glares balefully at you from a glass tank, knowing that the only thing preventing a dinner date is a certain squeamishness on the part of the designated cook in the matter of grabbing said crustacean and bumping it off.

On the other side of the coin, you won’t find many French supermarkets that do cashback. Big swing, small roundabout.

No, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. And the cheese is always smellier.

As we discovered when, seeking to bring back a little souvenir of de Gaulle’s administrative nightmare, we plumped for a Camembert with the unlikely sounding name of Jort.

Jort is made of unpasteurised milk. Jort is moulé à la louche. Which would take an entire blog to explain. Follow the link instead. Jort is supposedly best eaten with a wine of the 1984 vintage. Fat chance on our budget.

(Quick break here for our Word of the Week slot. Tyrosemiophily: collecting the labels of Camembert cheese. Strange, but nonetheless true.)

Anyway, Jort was so smelly it had to be put in the rooftop box on the way home to forestall a full-scale revolution on the part of the smaller passengers.

Thinking about it, we should probably have acquired an export licence before attempting to drive on to the ferry.

And once we were back in good old Blighty, Jort had to be transferred to a holding cell in the garage, whence it now exudes a malodorous warning to anyone rash enough to approach it with a cheese knife. According to one French supplier, a good Camembert should give off  "odours of farmyard and stable". If that's the case, Jort is good in spades.

Still, it will meet its fate, sooner rather than later, at a dinner for two in celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary.

And it will undoubtedly taste a heck of a lot better than it smells.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

You can't lick the bowling

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Mrs D plans a jaunt during the the school holidays, and muggins here must needs take a day off to ensure that children (a) get out of bed before 11.30; (b) don’t burn the house down when they do get up; and (c) maintain at least a basic level of nourish-ment.

Plus Bath Chronicle Towers was scheduled for one of its occasional technological meltdowns, and home was a far better prospect than an unequal struggle with the many-tentacled octopus that is our computer system.

Mrs D’s awayday? Well, it was a bit hush-hush. Suffice it to say that it involved a very posh garden: so posh that she needed photo ID to get in.

Need another clue? Arrange these letters into a well-known acronym: RHH. More than enough said.

How to fill the day without tears, though? No amount of electronic sedation from Messrs Nintendo, XBox and Co was going to be enough. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

Welcome, therefore, to the world of ten-pin bowling. Welcome to a building with the floor area of an aircraft hangar and the ceiling height of a small shed. And welcome to the home of utter humiliation.

First challenge: getting the scoreboard to work properly. (There’s no escape from technology, even on your day off.) Just type everyone’s name on a keypad that seems to have been drenched in cola and then sprinkled with the dregs from a crisp packet. And then apologise to the people in the next lane for messing up their scores.

Second challenge: choose your ball. There appear to be two sizes: extra small and extra large. Choose the former and you’ll need the fire brigade to extract your fingers from the holes. Choose the latter and you’ll end up in hospital with a dislocated shoulder and a broken toe. Eventually you find the one large-sized ball. It’s pink.

Third challenge: the bumpers. These are the rails down the sides of the lane that stop the children’s ball dropping into the gutter. You need an advanced degree in computer science to work out how to program them, and even when you crack it,  one side doesn’t work properly. Adjust the scores accordingly.

Fourth challenge: aiming. The first few times you take your kids bowling, they’re still quite small and need to use one of those special ramp things to point the ball in the right direction. You, on the other hand, have to rely on your natural bowling skills. And thus get beaten hollow. Nowadays the youngsters are big enough to wield the ball themselves. And still whup you.

Fifth challenge: inconsistency. How is it possible to score zero on your first two goes and then a strike on the next? Just asking.

Halfway through the whole sorry episode you spot what they should have given out at reception: the instructions, in the form of a leaflet entitled How To Bowl! This blithely informs you that “The art of ten-pin bowling really is quite simple to master” and then goes on to demonstrate that it isn’t. With copious illustrations. Art means practice. And practising is what you haven’t done enough of.

Still, the children have fun. And that’s what holidays are all about.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The man with the keys to the world wide web

Excellent news. Bath entrepreneur Paul Kane has been entrusted with one of the keys to the world wide web. And if it all goes pear-shaped, he’ll be the man to turn it off and turn it back on again.
Or to be slightly more accurate, in the event of a terrorist attack or hacking exploit that threatens the integrity of said web, he would travel to the US to meet five of the other six keyholders. Together they would reboot the Domain Name Security System and reboot the www.
All of which sounds like a jolly good thing, on the face of it. Even if you don’t quite understand what it means in practical terms.
It does leave a few questions unanswered, though.
First off, how is Mr Kane supposed to buy himself an airline ticket to America if the entire world wide web has gone into hacker-induced meltdown?
And what happens if he loses his personal key down the back of the sofa? Has he got a spare? Has he put it on a keyring? Preferably one of those electronic jobs that warble back at you when you whistle at them?
And how many times has he heard most of these wisecracks before in one form or another?
So there’s absolutely nothing for us to worry about. Especially those of us who don’t know the difference between the world wide web and the internet, and probably never will. Because Mr Kane has got it all under control.
A bit like Bath and North East Somerset council, really. (He wrote, going off at a complete tangent.)
After last Sunday’s Sky Ride Bath, questions were asked on about how much money, if any, the council made from the event.
One regular contributor discovered that it would cost £550 to get a Temporary Traffic Regulation Order to close all the roads, plus an additional cost for advertising.
Following the link (shortcut: provided by our reader takes you to the Licences and Street Trading page on the council website that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that B&NES does indeed control everything.

Want to start a zoo? B&NES will sell you a licence, for £534 plus vets’ fees.

Want to trade as an acupuncturist (or a tattooist, or indeed any sort of -ist that involves piercing the skin)? The permit is a snip (ouch) at £72.

Want to put up a banner across the highway? Be prepared for a world of bureaucratic pain.
Want to store fireworks, or poisons, or petroleum? Want to breed puppies, or keep a sloth, or a tapir, or a crested porcupine? Fancy your chances as a chaperone for children involved in a theatrical performance? B&NES has the licence or certificate you need, or can tell you where to get one.

Just remember though, that if you want to start a new career as a pedlar, pushing a wheeled trolley is not acceptable.

You can even find all the forms you need to set up a sex shop. But you didn’t want to know that, did you?

Bureaucracy gone mad? Not really. Whether it’s the web or the real world, we all need someone to keep us safe from the mutters.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

If you're bored, you're boring

Right. That’s it. The lessons are over. The postmortem about school report has been held and concluded to nobody’s complete satisfaction.

The blazers, sweatshirts, dark trousers and sensible shoes have been scrunched up in a heap or left to fester in a dark corner.

For a couple of moments a veil of peace settles on the household.

In that brief stasis, the relief they feel at having no more maths, French, geography, food tech, whatever, just about outweighs the horrific realisation that they’ve got nothing to occupy them for six whole weeks.

Then all hell lets loose.

School is the only thing that really keeps kids busy. And being busy is the only thing that keeps them from either throttling each other or thinking up smart comebacks to any instruction from their parents.

All right, they probably throttle each other at school too, and cheek the teachers while they’re at it. But isn’t that the main reason you pay your council tax, to stop them doing it at home?

“Mum, Dad, I’m bored,” say the not-so-little ones.

“Well, find yourself something to do,” says the increasingly frazzled parent.

“But there isn’t anything to do,” comes the well-practised response.

 “Well read a book, or go for a walk, or tidy your room,” says parent, playing for time.

“But that’s B-O-R-I-N-G. Why aren’t we on holiday? All our friends are on holiday.”

“Well we’re going next week,” says parent, playing the trump card.

“But everyone else has gone this week. That means we won’t see our mates for ages.”

“Well it’ll be all the more fun when you get back together, won’t it? And anyway, you can Facebook them.”

“But they can’t get on Facebook in the Rocky Mountains. And why can’t we go to Canada? Why are we going camping in Devon? Again?”

Perceptive readers will have noticed that the conversation has already descended into one of the classic modes of parent/offspring non-communication: what psychologists call the But/Well Interface.

Child starts every sentence with “But...” Parent answers every objection with “Well...” And there are no winners. Ever.

When your columnist and his brother were young, we were looked after by Grandma Dixon (you remember, the one with the odd theories about women’s lifespans).

Her response to any hint of an “I’m bored” scenario was a pre-emptive strike with some Rudyard Kipling:

“The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump/ Which well you may see at the Zoo;/ But uglier yet is the hump we get/ From having too little to do...”

Neither of us had a clue what she was on about, but she did instil in us the love of literature which has continued to succour us in our later years.

Of course we didn’t have video games in those days. All we had was a stick. But what might loosely be called the electronic cosh is definitely the modern parent’s truest, bestest, closest friend.

Plug in, turn on and wait for the electricity bill. At least it saves on arguments.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ringo Starr and the psychic octopus

One of The Beatles' lesser-known numbers is a jolly little ditty called Octopus's Garden.

It's not exactly what you'd call a classic. It wasn't written by John Lennon, or Paul McCartney, or even by George Harrison, but by drummer Ringo Starr, whose talents as a lyricist are hardly up there with the greats.

He sings it too, on the album Abbey Road, in those lugubrious tones that he was later to put to good effect as the storyteller in the Thomas and Friends animated TV series.

"I'd like to be, under the sea, in an octopus's garden in the shade," warbles Ringo at his most Liverpudlian. And somehow you can tell he means it.

Funnily enough, if you should ever chance to visit the website of the Daily Telegraph, you can find a picture of Ringo visiting this year's Chelsea Flower Show.

The caption identifies him as the narrator of the tales of anthropomorphised locomotives, but there's not even a mention of his job with the Fab Four.

Whether that says more about the Telegraph web site or about popular culture is a question we shall leave to the reader.

Anyway, cephalopods. They're back in the headlines after the astonishing success of Paul the Psychic Octopus's World Cup 2010 predictions. And rightly so.

They're fascinating creatures. They have eight legs (no surprise). They have three hearts (big surprise: one for each set of gills, one for their body).

They're pretty brainy, too, for an invertebrate mollusc. So brainy in fact that Sam Holliday has started contractual negotiations with Paul with a view to assuring the continued success of The Bath Chronicle's all-conquering Brain of Bath quiz team. Although it remains to be seen how Paul will cope in the infamous "smells round".

It's a bit like the old joke. "My octopus has got no nose." "How does he smell?" Oh never mind.

Paul is a bit of a turncoat, though. He was hatched in a tank in Weymouth, but early in his career emigrated to a sea life centre at Oberhausen in Germany. And since then he has taken an unhealthy interest in the fortunes of the German football team.

He correctly predicted four of their six Euro 2008 results, but it was at the World Cup that he really got into his stride. (Do octopuses have a stride? Subs please check.)

By choosing food from two boxes, one with the German flag and one with their opponents', he accurately foretold Die Mannschaft's progress from defeat against Serbia to defeat against Spain.

(OK, they had some wins too. But let's just remember the good times.)

And now the Spaniards have invited him to an annual octopus festival, at which they have promised not to eat him. Paul (and his minders) have wisely declined.

Sadly, Paul's career as a football pundit will only be short-lived. The natural lifespan of the common octopus is only two years, so he's close to retirement. A pity really: he'll never get to see his original homeland's success in Brazil 2014.

Never mind, though. We've always got Alan Hansen.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Why women live longer than men

It’s always heartening to read that things in this neck of the woods are better than they are elsewhere in the country.

Crumbs of comfort, maybe, but it does give you a slightly self-satisfied feeling to know that you were either born here or could afford to move here at some time in the past. You couldn’t now, but let that be.

Anyway, a report from the Association of Public Health Observatories adds grist to that particular mill.

(What is grist, while we’re on the subject? Has anyone ever seen it? Can you buy it from the market? Can you set fire to it? Does it bounce? Answers on a postcard...)

Anyway. “People in Bath,” we read, “live up to two years longer than the national average.

“Life expectancy for men in Bath and north east Somerset is 80, while for women it is 83.5.

“Which is significantly higher than the averages for England of 77.9 years for men and 82 years for women.”

So, as far as men are concerned, is 80 “significantly” higher than 77.9? Well maybe. The trusty Chronicle Towers calculator (it’s one of those ones with mechanical buttons and a hand crank and it doesn’t need batteries) was pressed into action to do a bit of statistical analysis.

Let’s crunch some numbers and find a percentage: 80 minus 77.9 is 2.1. And 77.9 divided by 100 is 0.779. And 0.779 times 2.1 is 1.6359.

Rounding up, men in Bath live 1.64 per cent longer than the national average. For women, the percentage is smaller: just 1.23.

(Guess who’s been helping the kids with their maths revision? Guess who’s got a brain like a bowl full of mashed potato? So please don’t trouble to write in if you think these sums are wrong. Enough tears have been shed already.)

There’s no obvious reason why women should live longer than men. Grandma Dixon, of blessed memory, used to claim that it was because women sit down and stand up every time they go to the loo.

This means, she theorised, that over an average lifetime women do more exercise then us chaps, and are therefore haler, heartier and more prone to bouts of longevity.

Several hours of internet searches have produced no confirmation of this breakthrough in medical thinking.

(There were a lot of pictures of cute kittens though, and a video of someone falling over. Grandma Dixon wouldn’t have approved of the World Wide Web.)

Be that as it may, there is good news in Bath and north east Somerset Health Report 2010 . (PDF, 600Kb).

We eat more healthily, we’re less likely to smoke or binge drink. Our children are less likely to be obese, although strangely they’re also less likely to be physically active than the average English child.

For more information, download a PDF file of the complete report from

It treats statistics in a far less cavalier fashion than the present writer, and suggests that those differences in life expectancy are indeed significant.

But on the theories of Grandma Dixon, it remains mercifully silent.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Lost in space - with a dodgy boiler

Technology has two very different faces.

A bright, shiny face and a grim, grumpy face. As events earlier this week will illustrate.

First, the bright and shiny bit: the International Space Station, or ISS to its chums.

Just look at its vital statistics.

 At nearly 51 metres long and 109 metres wide, and weighing 370 tonnes (that’s 407 tons in old money), it’s the largest and heaviest artificial satellite ever to orbit the earth. It travels at an average speed of 17,239mph, at a height of up to 286 miles above the ground, and completes 15.7 orbits per day.

It currently carries a crew of six people, who for all sorts of very good reasons aren’t allowed to indulge in any kind of interplanetary rumpy-pumpy, according to a recent  interview with NASA Commander Alan Poindexter.

(Now there’s a good square-jawed- New-Frontier-Buzz-Lightyear-style American surname if ever there was one. Just the right sort of star-spangled hero to lead humanity to infinity and beyond. No cosmic nooky on his watch, you can be sure of that.)

The ISS is big enough to be seen from Earth with the naked eye, and for the last few nights it’s been passing almost directly over Bath. You can find predictions for the next ISS passovers for Bath at

There’s something just a little bit awe-inspiring, and humbling too, about standing outside on a clear summer’s evening as it tracks across the sky, taking just four or five minutes from rising in the west to disappearing into the east.

Catch it if you can – it’s quite a show. And remember as it goes by: it’s not flying, it’s falling with style.

So that’s the exciting side of modern technology. Now for the dark, grubby downside: our hot water system.

Imagine: you stroll in from an inspiring five minutes watching the ISS zoom past, to find Mrs D with her special doom-laden face on.

And you know you’re in for a spell of protracted misery when she utters those dread words:  “Hugh, I can’t get the boiler to work.”

Which sounds uncannily similar to “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Except about six times worse.

Kids will go unshowered. Washing will go un-upped. Towels won’t dry on the towel rail. But that won’t matter because we won’t be having a bath any time soon.

Of course, there’s a hi-tech solution: engage diagnostic skills, repressurise the warp coils, calibrate the quantum flux generator and stand by for ignition. But no. The green light is flashing and the yellow light won’t come on, and let’s face it, you don’t have the slightest idea why not.

You can bet your booty they don’t have this sort of trouble on the ISS. But then, nor do they have the eventual cure. Which is to open up the innards and give everything a good wiggle. Turn it off, turn it on again, run the hot water and bingo.

Stand back and modestly accept praise from assembled family members. You have boldly gone where no man has gone before.

Until the whole damn lot goes wrong again the following morning. Time to introduce the chequebook to the boiler man.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Large Hadron Collider goes to Glastonbury

Have you ever had one of those mornings when inspiration refuses to come?

When words – never mind whole sentences –  flow from your brain to the tip of your typing finger with all the grace and alacrity of Emile Heskey chasing a through ball?

When ideas are as rare as English women tennis players after the first round at Wimbledon?

(And yes, we know the men won’t do much better either. So don’t bother writing in.)

When your vvv is as www as an xxx’s yyy in the middle of a zzz with two qqq’s? (Fill in gaps later.)

If you’ve ever tried to get words on to paper for a living, the chances are that you know the feeling.

So what do you do to get the creative juices flowing again, to lubricate the brain/paper interface, and to ensure that the remaining two legs of this week’s outpouring are at least half literate?

Well, whatever you might think after this week’s Budget from the Black Lagoon, the answer is not cider. Especially not at 9.15 in the morning, mister Osborne sir.

No, if you need a dose of inspiration, just look eastwards, to the Franco-Swiss border, under which runs the giant torus that is the Large Hadron Collider.

Yes, we’ve been there before. Usually when the good old LHC has inexplicably broken down because a pigeon has dropped a chunk of quantum baguette into its insides.

This time though, it’s different.

Because a radio news report earlier this week suggested that the boffins in charge of the LHC are trying to get it started on the road to musical superstardom by converting its heretofore silent subatomic womblings into sounds.

It’s rather like when you buy a new computer. It comes with all sorts of fancy toys that you never get round to using – film editing software, website creation tools, the first level of a game that stretches the graphics card to its limit and crashes just as you’re getting the hang of the controls.

Instead you use it as intended – for emails, web browsing and writing to the bank explaining how you’re going to pay back the money you borrowed to buy it in the first place.

But one lazy day your discover that hidden away under the bonnet is a full 32-track recording studio, with instrument samples, graphic equalizers, flangers and other  incomprehensible sonic effects.

A few minutes fiddling – a cowbell here, a horn stab there – and you’ve got a hit on your hands.

Or nor. What you’ve actually got is an out-take from Hot Chip.

But what does all this have to do with the LHC? Well, its everyday work (renormalising Higgs bosons, mixing quark-gluon plasma) was  getting a bit dull, and it needed its own creative outlet.

And now the LHC has found that outlet: the music within itself.

So be warned. If you’re at Glastonbury  this weekend, and 1,600 superconducting magnets appear on the Pyramid Stage, then you’re about to hear the sound of protons colliding at the speed of light.

A bit like Kraftwerk, by all accounts. But without the tunes.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bath Regency Detective: sneak preview

“City in line for own detective show” reads the headline in The Bath Chronicle. And what better sort of TV detective for Bath than one from the Regency period?

For it is, to paraphrase a novelist who stayed in Bath for a bit,  a truth universally acknowledged, that a city in possession of a gang of villains, must be in want of someone to give ’em a proper sorting.

Yes, coming soon to a screen near you is what can only be imagined as an Empire-line version of every hard-hitting Mockney detective series you’ve ever seen on TV.

Here’s a sneak preview:


A well-appointed  apartment in the Paragon. Miss Betty Smallpiece has met an unpleasant end. Her friend, the fashionable Miss Abigail Cavendish, is being grilled by Inspector Nasher, a rough diamond with greasy hair and yellow fingernails bitten to the quick. Sergeant Trotter, his sidekick, lurks menacingly at the back of the room.

MISS CAVENDISH: We have had a most delightful evening, an excellent ball.

NASHER: Shut it, slaaaaag!

MISS CAVENDISH: For shame, sir! Would you toy with my affections?

NASHER: Are you ’avin’ a laugh? You are, you’re ’avin’ a laugh, ain’tcha?

MISS CAVENDISH: Upon my word, you overstep the bounds of propriety.

NASHER: Give us a fag, love. I’ve got a mouth like a fireman’s boot.

MISS CAVENDISH: I most certainly will not. My father shall hear of this!

NASHER: That’s it, darlin’, you’re nicked. Cuff ’er, Trotter.


Nasher and Trotter peer in through the door of a cell at the headquarters of the Bath Watch. Filthy straw lines the cobbled floor. Miss Cavendish languishes in chains.

MISS CAVENDISH: I swoon, I swoon!

TROTTER: Is this some kind of fit-up, guvnor? You’re not tellin’ me it was her what done it?

NASHER: Nah, she’s ’ere for ’er own protection. If we ’adn’t ’ave brung ’er in  she’d ’ave woke up in Twerton with a chalk line round ’er.

TROTTER: You’re a sharp ’un guvnor and no mistake. Whadda we do now?

NASHER: We’re the Sweeney, son, and we ’aven’t ’ad any dinner!


Miss Cavendish has returned to her family lodgings with her betrothed, the dashing Mr Lower-Lansdown.  Nasher has uncomfortable news.

NASHER: That’s our villain. As soon as I laid eyes on the smarmy git I knew something weren’t right.

MISS CAVENDISH: But Inspector, Mr Lower-Lansdown is heir to a thousand acres in Hampshire. What possible desire could he have to do poor Betty to death?

NASHER: Search me, darlin’. But his prints was all over the blunderbuss. And his real name ain’t Lower-Lansdown. It’s Walcot. We’ve got ’im bang to rights.

LOWER-LANSDOWN: You’ll never take me, copper. I can’t do time again.

NASHER: Yeah, right. Take ’im down the nick, Trotter. And if you ’ave  to ’urt ’im, don’t mark ’im.

MISS CAVENDISH: How can I  thank you enough, Inspector? Maybe we will meet again at the Assembly Rooms next Friday forenoon?

NASHER (TO HIMSELF): I hate this place. It’s a holiday camp for thieves and weirdoes. All the rubbish...


Next week: Jamie’s Regency Dinners

Friday, June 11, 2010

Waiting for the fur to fly

 The appearance of last week’s ramblings got yours truly into a certain amount of trouble.

Some colleagues felt that the shameless and extended plug for a certain Open Garden event in Weston this Sunday was in some way an abuse of its writer’s position.

And a female member of the Dixon household was, perhaps justifiably, a little bit miffed that her gentle and forbearing nature had been misrepresented both in print and online. Misrepresented to such a degree that, she contends, it amounts to defamation of character.

Yes, our cat is suing The Bath Chronicle for libel. With particular reference to the suggestion that she regularly lurks in the flower beds waiting to sink her claws into unsuspecting passers-by.

Now any hack worth his or her salt will have more than a passing acquaintance with McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists.

The current, 20th, edition covers such essential topics as court reporting, copyright, protection of sources and defamation.

But nowhere in its 570 pages does it suggest that a moggy may take her owner – or indeed her owner’s employer – to court. And even if she could, we’d have – courtesy of McNae’s – any number of defences.

Take your pick from justification, innocent dissemination, fair comment, privilege, qualified privilege and “other”. The cat hasn’t got a leg to stand on, litigation-wise.

 She can roll on her back and look cute all she likes, but at the end of the day we know she’s a lean, mean, ludicrously fluffy biting machine.

And rather than wasting her time and money dragging us through the courts, she’d be far better off going to the assistance of some of her larger feline cousins.

The San Francisco Fudge Factory, in Church Street, near Bath Abbey, is one of the sponsors of the Lions Of Bath 2010 project.

Their lion sculpture, The King of Fudge, took pride of place (geddit?) on the roof above the shop. The work of artist Gareth Sayers, The King is one of the simplest and most distinctive of the sculptures appearing across the city: a shiny chocolate head revealed by a peeled-back “mane” of gold foil.

He looks regally distinguished and good enough to eat, both at the same time.

Or at least he did, until some scumbag pushed him off his perch last Saturday night.

You wouldn’t really want to get inside the mind of the peasant who did it. It must be a rather dank, sweaty and unpleasant place if its owner’s idea of a good time is going to the trouble of climbing onto a roof and vandalising an attractive and valuable work of art. Enough said – anger is bad for the heart.

King of Fudge has been taken back to Lions’ Den central for repairs.

And let’s just hope the culprit doesn’t have a midnight encounter with the man-eater outside the Cork Vaults in James Street West. Because our cat would be more than happy to lend a paw.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Everything in the garden's lovely. Well, it will be...

It's shameless and gratuitous plug time. It comes round every year with monotonous regularity, and we make no apology for returning to the subject once again.
On Sunday week, 11 keen gardeners in Weston village – including Mrs D – will be opening up to the public in aid of Dorothy House Hospice Care and voluntary groups in Weston and Newbridge.
Last year the event raised £1,900, and gave visitors the chance to enjoy a glimpse behind the garden wall and maybe gain some inspiration for their own plots.
The great news is that because of this year's cold winter and slow spring, everything in our back patch is only just coming to fruition and, according to the Head Gardener – Mrs D, and she's got one of those mugs that say so – will be in perfect nick on the day.
(On the subject of mugs, yours truly is considering getting one that says Under Gardener. Hopefully it won't be taken too literally.)
Anyway, if you do decide to come along, we can promise a horticultural treat at least as thrilling as any Chelsea Flower Show. Here are just a few of the treats in store:

  • THRILL to the burbling of our incredible solar-powered fountain. The bloke in the shop knocked £30 off the original asking price; he said he was fed up with staring at the boxes on the shelf. *
  • GUZZLE the lollies and ice-creams sold for a minimal fee by the willing band of "volunteers" press-ganged by Mrs D for the occasion.
  • GASP as the cat, apparently comatose under the foxgloves, leaps into action and takes a swipe at anyone foolhardy enough to stick their hand in her general direction.
  • WONDER at the extraordinary medieval doo-dah

    which Mrs D lugged home from the Chelsea for hanging lavender from, and which yours truly was ordered to suspend from the kitchen ceiling at considerable risk to his person.
There are some lovely flowers, too. And that's just our place. Who knows what other wonders will await you as you stroll around the streets of Weston? Do come along – it's a very worthy cause.
Weston Village Open Garden Event is on Sunday, June 13. It runs from 1pm to 5pm. Admission is by programme, which costs £5 on the day or £4 in advance from Kit Johnson estate agents and Weston Fruit Stores, both in Weston High Street. A full list of  Weston open gardens is available online.

* Potential visitors please note: fountain only works in full sunlight. Anyone found obstructing the solar panel will be asked to move. Fountain is not directly comparable with similar installations at Versailles, Blenheim Palace or the Trevi in Rome. Your statutory rights are not affected. Not a flying toy.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How many more stoats must die?

The biggest unanswered question in the aftermath of the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday wasn’t “What happens next at Oldfield School?”

It wasn’t “You know those national ID cards? How would you feel if you were a young person who’d forked out £30 on one so you could buy booze easily, and now you can’t get a refund? Because we’re just about to scrap them?”

It wasn’t “What did the Duke of Edinburgh do to win all those medals? And is he going to stay awake this time?”

It wasn’t “How soon can we book a holiday to avoid election fever in May 2015 once they introduce fixed-term parliaments?”

It wasn’t even “How can David Cameron and Harriet Harman be so chummy one minute while they’re walking into the House of Lords and then rip seven colours of whoopsy out of each other a couple of hours later in the House of Commons?”

No, what everyone was asking – well, some people, anyway – was this: “Why did half the people at the State Opening of Parliament look like they were extras in a costume drama set in the far-away kingdom of Ruritania?”

If you have the time and the inclination, take a quick look at the website of Messrs Ede and Ravenscroft, robe-fettlers to the gentry.

Here you will discover that at the tippy-top of the tree of ennoblement, dukes wear robes with four rows of ermine and gold, followed by marquesses with three-and-a-half rows. Mere barons bring up the rear with just two.

There’s a load of stuff about coronets too but it’s all a bit too complicated and technical.

The robes, you will be intrigued to learn, are made from scarlet superfine faced cloth, and “rarely need replacing”.

All of which sounds a bit like a certain lumberjack shirt which makes occasional appearances at Dixon Towers when the proprietor is called upon to undertake wintry DIY duties. And just as smelly.

Here the similarity ends, though. Because when the duking day is done (or marquessing, or baronising), the wearers don’t just stick their robes in the back of the dukely (or marquisly, or baronial) wardrobe. They send them back to Ede and Ravenscroft for safe keeping. E&R wouldn’t touch the Dixon plaid with a barge pole.

But before you become too entranced with the day-to-day romance of the British nobility, remember this: uncounted stoats died to supply those trimmings.

Isn’t it time for the killing to stop?

And then there’s Black Rod.

Bloke in funny britches gets door slammed in face. Bloke knocks three times on door. MPs open door and come quietly. What’s all that about? Don’t answer, please: life’s too short.

Space prevents us from going into the duties of Black Rod’s four counterparts, the Rods Green, Scarlet, Blue and Purple. They do exist, though, and they don’t live on Cloudbase with Colonel White.

It’s 2010, and we’re broke. And in the Houses of Parliament, once a year at least, they’re partying like it’s 1859. Does anyone really care?