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.