Friday, March 26, 2010

Car wash won't wash

"You might not ever get rich..." Replace the "might" for a "will" and you've got a pretty accurate statement of one particular columnist's financial outlook, even after Chancellor Darling's generous/swingeing/prudent/ election-winning fiscal fit-up yesterday afternoon.

Sorry, can't be more precise about the Budget due to lack of crystal ball ahead of impossibly tight deadline. But seeing it came from a man with the same name as a character in Blackadder Goes Forth, it was probably a Very Cunning Plan.

Anyway, that isn't the point. The point is that if you were ever of a stacked-heel, spangly-top-wearing persuasion then you'll recognise the quotation as the first line of Rose Royce's 1976 disco smash Car Wash.

No, not the 2004 remake by Christine Aguilera and Missy Elliott. That was pants, as was Shark Tale, the film it came from.

And that isn't the point, either. The point is: what's the point of a car wash?

Your trusty motor is grubby. It's caked with winter mud, rimed with salt from the gritters, and it's in need of a bit of spit and polish.

Ah, the gritters. Sounds like some nasty affliction that carries off the heroine of a 19th-century novel.

"Oh do come quickly, Doctor Trueblood! Mistress Stella is stricken with the gritters and I fear she will not see the dawn!"

And no, that isn't the point, either. The point is that given the state of your car, you have a choice. You can spend an afternoon in a howling gale with bucket and sponge and chamois leather, with tepid soapy water running up your sleeves.

Or you can head to the car wash.

By some bizarre coincidence, every driver within a 15-mile radius seems to have had exactly the same idea. A crafty count of the queue, times the length of a wash, suggests you're in for a 20-minute wait. No matter, it beats doing it yourself.

So, quick in-and-out job, or the works, with hub scrub, underbody hot wax and turbo dry? It's got to be the five-star treatment to stand a chance of shifting the incrustations from the bottom of the Dixonmobile.

As you wait, every driver in front appears to have bought an even deeper cleansing programme than your Gold MegaWash®. Rather than taking the projected two minutes, each cycle seems to take at least ten. Are they in on some secret?

Your turn at last. Stretch out of the window, can't quite reach, hop out, key in the number, hop in, hop out again to unscrew the aerial, hop in again while the machine makes impatient whirring noises. Drive in. And relax, as brushes whirl and soap squirts. Close the window. Fast.

You ponder a mystery. Why does everyone else's wash take twice as long as yours? Why do their cars come out three times cleaner? And where did you put that aerial?

"Better than digging a ditch," sang Rose Royce about her '70s disco car wash. Only just, Rose. Only just.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Smile, you're on Google Street View

Last week’s ramblings about the imminent Digital Switchover brought a flutter of comments on www.thisisbath/, and some fascinating extra information –  including the fact that the Mendip Transmitter pumps out 500,000 watts of power while its poor Bathampton relation only manages 250 (little more than a couple of old-style lightbulbs).

Be that as it may,  Mr Jenkins has taken up the digital baton this week and we shall have to find other grist to our mill.

And it’s good news, folks: a silver lining without a cloud. Because, at long last, we can now look at Bath (and most of the UK for that matter) on Google Street View.

It was last April that the Google camera cars were first spotted in Bath, and only now can you go online and see a street-level panorama of the city.

It’s like reality, but through a 12-month timewarp. You check your house: yes, it’s there and the front door needs painting. Your car (number plate nicely blurred, thanks Google) looks a heck of a lot cleaner then than now. Who’s that in your front room? Phew, just the cat.

It’s when you start looking at the streets themselves that things get slightly weird.

Over that past couple of months we’ve got used to permanent salt coverage: a thin pinkish-grey coating sitting there until the rain comes along and fills up our gardens and watercourses with brine. But when Google was here, the streets looked – well, dark grey and normal.

Staying at street level, you can marvel at the lack of potholes. Check it out for yourself here at the junction of Weston Park and Weston Park East. Early last summer it was smooth as the proverbial. Today, it’s Bath’s  very own Grand Canyon, around which someone has  spray-painted a white rectangle. Which even this complete duffer at highway maintenance can tell you won’t stop it spreading.

Then there are the shops. In April 2009, SouthGate was a building site, the Busometer was shrouded in blue plastic, and there was still a Somerfield in Weston High Street.

Now if Google Street View was just that little bit better, we could point our interweb device in through Somerfield's front window (you can find it here) and settle once and for all the arguments about whether or not the new Tesco has fewer products but shorter queues. As things are, we’ll just have to rely on our memories.

But the best  - and weirdest - thing about Street View isn’t in Bath at all: it’s in an unassuming residential area in West Bromwich in the deepest Midlands.

It’s one of those things that’ll probably disappear fairly soon once the powers that be at Google find out about it, but while you have the chance, it's here, floating in the sky above the junction of Compton Road and Whitehall Road. A gigantic pair of wire cutters.

How did they get there? Perhaps it’s best not to know. Because for this, dear readers, was the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” made up.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bath digital switchover - when less is more

Is Bath about to become a city of haves and have-nots? From some of  the grumblings about the forthcoming switchover to digital telly you might think we were.

It’s all down to Bath’s hilly geography and the position of the two transmitters that serve us.

Ten miles south of the city, cresting the Mendip Hills, towers the “mighty” Mendip Transmitter, a colossus of guyed steel tubing, at 305 metres (that’s 1,001 feet in real money) the 15th tallest structure in the UK. After 14 other, slightly higher, TV masts.

A couple of miles to the east of us is the Mendip Mast’s stubbier relative, sometimes referred to as the Bathampton Transmitter but officially known as just Bath. And unless you’re one of the lucky few Bathonians with a clear line of sight to the Mendip transmitter, Bath is where your TV signal comes from.

In its previous incarnation, Dixon Towers was served by the punier of the two towers. We got the two main BBC channels, Channel 4, and ITV1. If you stood on your head in the loft with a transistor radio clamped to your ear you could just about pick up Classic FM. Not that you’d necessarily have wanted to. There was no Channel 5, let alone any of the digital channels. And that’s the way it still is today.

When we moved to the west of the city our viewing horizons opened up. Even before we bought a digital box, there was Channel 5 (although we’ve never watched it). With the box we got price-drop tv (the ghastly fascination of watching other people max out their credit cards soon wanes). And there was digital radio (or a disturbing bubbling sound, depending on the phase of the moon). TV and radio heaven.

What didn’t change when we moved, though, was the amount we had to pay for our TV licence. And because of that we felt rather chuffed: whether or not we watched them, we did get a whole load of extra channels for no extra money.

(We also got a phone call from the new proprietors of Dixon Towers East asking why their telly wasn’t working properly. But they’d moved from Bristol and didn’t understand...)

So let’s go back to the question about Bath’s haves and have-nots.

If we still lived in Dixon Towers East, we’d be rather looking forward to the digital switchover. From March 24 we’d be getting good digital reception on eight channels, in place of the current dodgy analogue signal on four.

And a couple of weeks after that, on April 7, we’d be getting an extra 10 channels, including BBC3, BBC4 and limitless re-runs of Tinky Winky on CBBC. Without spending anything extra on the TV licence.

Yet some people seem to think they’re being hard done by, and even that they deserve a licence rebate because they’re not getting a full set of channels. Are they right? Or are they just moaners?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

How to survive World Book Day

One of the rites of passage that every child  – and every parent – has to go through as they grow from wide-eyed pre-school tot to slack-jawed partied-out teenager is that jamboree of literacy that is World Book Day.

This year’s WBD is on Thursday, March 4. Which is today, if you’re reading this on time. And if you’re not, then shame on you.

By time-honoured tradition, children keep WBD a secret from their parents until the very morning of the day itself.

And this is why one of the more charming aspects of this annual festival of literary consciousness-raising is the screams of mums and dads at 7.30 in the morning of World Book Day as their little ones leap from their beds and announce cheerfully: “Mummy, Daddy! I’ve got to dress up for school today!”

It’s at times like this that parental resourcefulness and initiative are stretched to their absolute limit.

First you have to persuade your offspring that even though they’ve got a ready-made costume, the Incredible Hulk is not in fact a character from a book. Or at least not the right sort of book for World Book Day.

Then, once they’ve got over that little disappointment, you have to make them realise that converting them into Mrs Tiggy-Winkle or Peter Rabbit is going to take more (a) time and (b) fake fur than you can conjure up between now and the beginning of school.

As you wipe away the inevitable tears, inspiration strikes: Harry Potter. The kids in JK Rowling’s money-spinning wizard-fest look and dress just  like ordinary schoolchildren. All right, rather posh ordinary schoolchildren, but something’s got to give.

So all you have to do is put your child into their everyday school uniform, slap on a lightning-flash scar with some lipstick, take the lenses out of an old pair of specs and Albus is your Dumbledore.

The howls of protest have to be heard to be believed. “But everyone’s going as Harry or Hermione!” they shrill. “Can’t you think of something better?”

Eventually you stick a cushion down their fronts and pack them off to school as half-convincing Fat Controllers. Honour is satisfed, at least until next year.

Luckily for parents, World Maths Day, which this year was one day before WBD, doesn’t arouse quite as much enthusiasm.

Not because of its unfortunate initials, but because it involves visiting a website and doing lots of sums. And in any case, who wants to dress up as a quadratic equation?

Eventually, of course, like Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, these childhood rituals slip into the past. But next time you see a bunch of kids looking like Tracy Beaker or Captain Underpants, please spare a thought for their parents.