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 NestlĂ© 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.