Thursday, December 22, 2011

The ultimate last-minute Christmas survival guide

Ultimate. A much-misused word. A word that doesn’t mean “best”, or “finest”, or “taste the difference”, or any of those other tempting phrases the supermarkets use to package fancy-looking ham or overpriced chicken gizzards.

No, “ultimate” means “last”. It means “final”. It means “done”. And it means “dusted”.

So, if you’re one of those people who idly leafed through the so-called Last-Minute Gift Guides that fell out of the posher daily papers a couple of weeks ago...

And if you’re one of those people who laughed slyly, used the supplement to line the hamster cage and said to yourself “Ha! There’s tons of time left till Christmas...”

And if you’re one of those people who really does wake up on Christmas Eve and realise you haven’t bought a turkey – then this one’s for you: the Ultimate, Final, Left-It-Too-Late Guide To Those Last-Minute Christmas Conundrums.

Q: When I look in the window of a jewellers’ shop, why are all the price tags always face-down so I can’t read them?

A: Because if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. There are, even here in Bath, some lesser jewellers who do show the prices of the trinkets in their displays. But you probably can’t afford them either.

Q: What is the point of Brussels sprouts? Be honest, I can take it.

A: The Brussels sprout is a symbol of seasonal regeneration, a green shoot amid the murk and mire of darkest December, a token of Dame Nature’s infinite bounty...

Q: You’re making this up as you go along, aren’t you?

A: No. Oh all right, yes. Ask me an easier one.

Q: Why do they make blue Quality Streets when no one eats them?

A: To fill in the spaces between the purple ones.

Q: All, right, I’ll come clean. It’s Christmas Eve, I haven’t bought a turkey, and the whole family, including rich Auntie Agnes, is descending en masse for lunch tomorrow. What’s my next move?

A: Run for your life. Alternatively, invest in one of those four-bird roast things that are all the rage this year. As an added bonus, you’ll have enough unidentified avian leftovers for at least three weeks’ worth of sandwiches.

Q: Right, I need to get back to the shops. Most of them have double doors, don’t they? So why do the people who are trying to get in always use the same door as the people going out?

A: What’s that got to do with Christmas?

Q: Not a lot really, just idle curiosity. And how come you’ve started asking the questions and I’ve started answering them?

A: Good point. Ask me another one before anybody notices.

Q: What should I buy for the man who has everything?

A: Nothing. But he won’t thank you for it.

So there you are. The gold mines may be empty, the frankincense trees may be wilting and the myrrh bushes may be down with the blight, but for you, Christmas is ultimately sorted. Have a good one!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The day they found the Higgs boson

What’s the best present you could get this Christmas? A diamond as big as the Ritz? World peace? Financial stability in the Eurozone? An XBox 360?

Well, for this writer the ultimate festive treat is a bit of unexpected good news, and this year it arrived a couple of weeks early.

“What good news?” we hear you ask. “The world is falling apart at the seams, the weather outside is frightful and the we can’t remember where we put the spare bulbs for the Christmas lights.”

Fret not, dear reader. These things are indeed bad, but there is nevertheless a light on the horizon,  a tiny crumb of good news in the stale bad news baguette.

Because a couple of days ago it was announced that our favourite particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, had at last detected the elusive “God Particle”, known to its friends as the Higgs Boson.

Or had it? The physicists who run the LHC aren’t committing themselves just yet.

“We need more data before we can reach any firm conclusions,” said top boffin Fabiola Gianotti, hedging as many scientific bets as it’s possible to hedge in one short sentence.

What it boils down to, apparently, is that they think they’ve found the place where the Higgs boson might be hiding, but they haven’t quite found the boson itself.

Which is probably rather  like finding a small piece of hay in a very large haystack when you’re looking for a minuscule needle. And may  have something to do with  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Or may not. No-one’s really sure.

Not that it matters, though. When news of the discovery hit the media, it was greeted with the sort of uncomprehending joy normally associated with royal weddings and England winning the World Cup.

The graphic artists sharpened up their pencils along with their imaginations, and produced hundreds of diagrams explaining what the Higgs Boson might look like –  if you could actually see it.

The finest example of what might be called speculative illustration was on the front page of Wednesday’s Guardian. It depicted an orange swirly thing wrapped in a light grey tube thing with a thick red line thing going through it. Plus a few speckly bits round the outside.

(That sound you hear is Piet Mondrian spinning in his grave.)

Despite all the excitement, though, the big question remains: what will the Large Hadron Collider actually do after it’s tracked down that pesky boson?

Well, one test of its powers would be to come round to Dixon Towers and sort out the trumpet-like racket that shakes the entire house every time anyone flushes the loo.

Last week’s DIY crisis with the smoke alarm (keep up at the back there) has been averted, but the grinding from the piping is a much tougher nut to crack.

And if the LHC is smart enough to detect the particle that underpins the big bang theory, then fixing our plumbing should be a piece of cake.

Some time before Christmas would be nice.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Chirpy chirpy beep beep


Beep beep.Beep beep beep.

Beep beep beep. Beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep. Beep beep.

Beep. Beep. Beep.


Not the type of noise you   want to hear from just  outside your bedroom door.  Especially at three o’clock in the  morning.

But that was the sound that greeted the slumbering denizens of Dixon Towers last Monday.

What could it have been, you ask? A faulty alarm clock? A badly programmed reminder on a mobile phone?  A long-abandoned child’s toy announcing its presence from the dusty recesses of the wardrobe?

No, dear reader, it was none of those. It was of course the sound of the rechargeable backup battery in a mains-powered smoke detector, finally losing the will to live.

And this particular smoke detector (beep) just happened to be situated right at the top of our stairs.

After a short and enlightening discussion (beep) about which gender is best at doing electrical things even though they have a bit of a bad back, yours truly was volunteered to make it stop.

Easier said than done. First, retrieve steps from kitchen (beep)  and lug them upstairs.

Clamber up steps for initial inspection and realise that you need a screwdriver to get the thing off the ceiling (beep).

Down steps, find screwdriver, back up steps. Detach offending alarm from ceiling, breaking small plastic bit (beep) in process.

Take alarm downstairs (beep) out of earshot of no-longer-slumbering family, wondering if plastic bit (beep) is essential for continued safe operation of alarm (beep beep beep).

Read label underneath . “This is a sealed unit (beep) – no replaceable parts inside.”

Leave sealed unit in kitchen, retire to bed and to a fitful sleep.

Return at 6am. Alarm is still protesting about unfair treatment (beep). So is the cat, which has had to put up with the (beep) for the last three hours (miaow). Sorry, cat.

Read label again (beep). “To deactivate, insert screwdriver HERE and cut red wire HERE.”

Done and done. No more (beeps).

But now the race is on to find a new one, before the family seat succumbs to a pre-Christmas conflagration.

Not an unlikely prospect, given the quantities of festive candles Mrs D has left dotted around the place.

So off we go to the internet. Where we soon discover that the sealed unit is not only defunct, but also discontinued.

And where we also find that the manufacturers aren’t exactly fast to respond to inquiries posted on their website by potential customers.

Well, faint heart never won fire protection. Scrabble around the good old internet once again. Oh joy, replacement models are available.

But whether or not they can be fitted without the intervention of a qualified electrician (as opposed to a hubristic homeowner who thinks he can do it himself and is never averse to a challenge) we shall just have to wait and see.

Sparks may fly...

Thursday, December 01, 2011

LIttlewoods have messed with my memories

What goes around comes around, they say. And the run-up to Christmas, apart from anything else, is a good time for dredging up ancient memories. And shuddering.

Readers of a seriously middle-aged persuasion may recall spending Saturday and Sunday mornings listening to the dulcet tones of Ed Stewpot Stewart as he presented kids’ request show Junior Choice.

It was that magical time before teenage lie-ins, when you still woke up at a sensible hour to go to the shops and spend your pocket money.

(Or you did on the Saturday – Sunday shopping wasn’t even a glint in Tesco's eye in those days, and anyway, one-and-sixpence a week didn’t stretch far beyond Saturday lunchtime.)

One of the regular favourites on Junior Choice was a song/monologue by Terry Scott called My Brother. It’s quite hard to track it down these days – the original isn’t even on iTunes, which is one in the eye for anyone who might be tempted to argue that Apple and all its works are perfect in every way.

But you can find My Brother on YouTube. And the lyrics, if you look hard enough. Google is your friend.

Big Tel sings/monologises at length about his naughty little brother, thuswise: “Who put salt in the sugar bowl? Who put fireworks in the coal? Who put a real live toad-in-the-’ole? My brother!”

Terry goes on to cast aspersions on their mum’s parenting skills – “Every night when we’re wide awake, she makes us go to bed. And then in the morning when we’re fast asleep, she makes us get up!” – before getting back to more of his brother’s crimes and misdemeanours: “Who keeps maggots in a tin? Plays the Twist on ’is violin? Who's been gettin’ at the gin?... My brother!”

All of which was pretty damn chucklesome, especially if you really did have a little brother who really did play the violin. At least, he tried to. But he never got as far as the Watusi, let alone the Twist.

They were happy and (relatively) innocent days, days of bike rides and bruised knees and fishing for tiddlers in the canal and all that stuff that made growing up fun.

And now Littlewoods have come along and spoiled it.

“Who put an XBox under the tree? Who got a Fijit just for me? And who put a laptop on Grandpa’s knee? My mother!”

To the very same jaunty tune as My Brother.

Apparently this paean to buying far too many expensive Christmas presents and then “spreading the cost” (£1,500 at a rough guess) has already prompted several hundred parents to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority that Littlewoods has blown the gaff on Father Christmas.

And the ASA is already trying to wriggle its way out of a very tight corner by claiming that the existence or otherwise of him in the red coat is “not capable of objective substantiation”.

But that nauseatingly coy advert has done more damage than that.

It’s taken one jolly item of nostalgia, mangled it into a TV ad and – before you can say “June Whitfield” – one blogger’s memories are ruined forever.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Frankenstein and the Four Bird Roast

We were sitting around idly the other night watching a Bushtucker Trial on I’m a Celebrity... and waiting for the adverts to come on, when all of a sudden the parallel paths of fantasy and reality took a ghastly wrong turning and became inextricably linked.

One minute a D-list celebrity was chomping on some of the less savoury parts of a camel.

The next moment, one of the supermarkets was trying to persuade us of the virtues of something called a Four-Bird Roast.

Now the Four-Bird Roast, it would appear, is going be the Big Thing this Christmas.

Imagine if you will (or even if you won’t) a tightly pressed sandwich of four different species of avian flesh; a Frankensteinian layer cake of formerly feathered protein.

Never mind the common-or-garden three-bird jobby offered by other supermarkets. This, we are asked to believe, is true celebrity fare: neatly packaged and ready to take pride of place on your very own festive table.

We aren’t told which particular birds have been sacrificed: turkey and chicken are natural shoe-ins, but what then? Duck, maybe, or goose? Swan hardly seems likely: auk, puffin, grebe or avocet even less so.

Sir David Attenborough would have a thing or two to say about that.

They’ve done a similar thing with razors, incidentally. There was a time you could only buy single blades. Then it was twin blades, then three, then four.

And these days no self-respecting fella would scrape his cheeks with anything less than a five-blader.

The logical conclusion will be a razor with so many blades that you’d have to be an Olympic weightlifter to get it anywhere near your face.

But once you got it up there, it would only take one delicate stroke to remove every last bit of stubble.

Back to those food ads, though. Because hot on the heels of the four-bird roast comes a new and rather disturbing promotion for Colman’s gravy paste.

In which a glossy brown, animated ox is squeezed from a tube, boogies around a kitchen table to the strains of I Like The Way (You Moo) and then leaps in to a gravy boat. From which it is promptly poured out on to a plate of meat and two veg.

Dear advertisers, please take note. We Brits don’t actually like to think to carefully about where our food comes from. Just as the Victorians covered up furniture legs with drapes to preserve their modesty, we like our comestibles to be presented attractively, but demurely.

And while we're at it, we'd rather our mince pies tasted like mince pies. And not like Christmas trees, whatever fancy-flavoured icing sugar Heston Blumenthal may be promoting this festive season.

That’s why we cringe at the thought of a Bushtucker Trial. That’s why the Four Bird Roast tweaks and pulls at the dust sheets that normally cover the murkier corners of our imaginations.

And that’s why – although you can find a statue of a merry-looking pig dressed as a chef outside every self-respecting pork butchers in France – when a bull starts dancing around on a British TV screen persuading us to eat it in the form of gravy, we get all rather squeamish and have to go for a little lie-down.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guaranteed trouble

Sometimes it seems like the world in general, and your bit of it in particular, is out to get you.

This week is a prime example. So if you’ve started reading this blog in expectation of the usual frothy blend of dry humour, barbed witticisms and perceptive insights into 20th-century life then you are seriously advised to swallow your disappointment and stop reading right now.

Because sometimes one just has to have a bit of a grumble. And this is one of those times.

First off, Dixon Junior’s mobile phone wouldn’t turn on. We only bought it in March, so muggins here naïvely assumed that the first step might be to take it back to the Orange shop for repairs or replacement.

But shop assistant number one is having none of this. “Plug it into your computer, mate, and run the setup wizard.” What, even if the computer is an Apple Mac? “Yeah, it works for my sister.”

Maybe it does. But not for us. The phone stays resolutely stuck on the Orange logo.

Back to the Orange shop. Assistant number one lurks around looking guilty, while assistant number two does at least examine the phone, ascertains that it isn’t working, and directs us to the Orange helpdesk.

Who explain that because we bought the phone from that very same Orange shop more than six months ago, it is no longer covered by the Orange guarantee. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s an Orange-branded handset on an Orange contract.

All we can do, say the helpdesk, is send it back to the manufacturer. And here’s their phone number. At the other end of which, a dithery lady says go to our website.

This counts as progress, of sorts. Fill in an online form, pay £15, wait a few days, and a pre-paid Royal Mail special delivery envelope arrives to send the phone back in.

After ten minutes of merriment with bubble wrap and sticky tape, the phone is securely packed and ready for a round-trip to Scotland.

Meanwhile,  the postie delivers a little red card explaining that they couldn’t squeeze a parcel (unconnected to the phone saga) through the letter box, and would you kindly present yourself at the sorting office at the bottom end of town to pick it up.

A-ha, you think. Let’s kill two birds with one stone. Pick up one parcel, drop off the other.

So you negotiate SouthGate (aka Death Race 2011) without damage to self or suicidal pedestrians. Past the forlorn row of blue bikes and astonishingly – the only bit of good news in this sorry tale – find a parking space by the sorting office.

Collecting the undelivered parcel is a breeze. But dropping off the mobile? Forget it.

The Royal Mail office is quite happy to take the parcel, but they can’t provide a proof of posting. For that, you have to go to the Post Office in the middle of town.

Where you go. And you take a number. And you queue. And a nice Post Office lady tells you that you should have taken a different number.

And you lose... the will... to live...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

To BT Infinity and beyond

It’s been high-tech à gogo at Dixon Towers.

Not just because of the long-promised arrival in our street of BT Infinity.

Which we will of course be getting as soon as possible, if only to stop the continuing battle over internet bandwidth between the four of us: Dixon Junior smiting sundry zombies, Viet Cong and Chechen terrorists on the Xbox 360; young Miss Dixon conducting an in-depth study of Japanese cartoon cuteness on YouTube; Mrs D downloading the complete works of Monteverdi; and self emailing the bank explaining how we intend to pay for all this technology.

It’s a bit mystifying why some people from bosky Fairfield Park have complained about the arrival of the dark green BT street cabinets in their own area.

They’re pretty unobtrusive, they don’t make a noise and they don’t frighten the birds. Even better, with their promised 33Mbps download speeds, they look as though they’ll finally put an end to our incessant broadband bickering. Job done.

But the real technological revolution chez Dixon isn’t anything to do with the internet. It’s all about in-car entertainment.

In the good old days (if they ever actually existed – the memories are fading), we used to pass long car journeys with a friendly game of Pub Cricket.

We split the kids into two teams of one each, and got them to count the legs associated with the name of each pub we went past on their side of the road. Each leg scored one run.

Thus The Duke of York scored two runs. The Black Horse scored four. The George and Dragon scored six (assuming of course that dragons have four legs – there was some debate about that one).

The rules became more and more arcane. The Fox and Hounds scored an innings victory. The King’s Arms scored no runs at all because arms aren’t legs. And The Drunken Sailor scored a big fat duck because he was legless. Oh, the fun we had.

Sadly, as more and more roadside pubs closed and the children got older and cannier, Pub Cricket went the way of Musical Chairs and Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

But now we have an even better game: iPod Anagrams.

Last week we got a wonderful new gadget. You plug one end into your iPod and the other into the lighter socket and somehow it lets you play your tunes on the car radio.

As an added bonus, though, it also flashes up the track title and artist in the radio display.

Or at least it does for a couple of minutes. Then it gives up the unequal struggle and jumbles up all the letters, to the great hilarity of passengers and driver alike.

Thus is was that on a recent trip, Love Hangover by Diana Ross became Roana Loss singing Have Dingover. Motorway favourite Autobahn by electro-wizards Kraftwerk somehow transmogrified into Krautwahn by Aftoberk.

As for Rikki Don’t Lose That Number by Steely Dan? Well, let’s just say that it will shortly be appearing as a clue in The Times crossword.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Give me a home where the wallabies roam

Apologies again to any readers who headed down to Avon Street car park to see for themselves the evidence – in the shape of a large poster –  that Tesco was transporting the city of Bath 100 miles east to London.

Unfortunately events moved on: almost overnight, it seemed, a new poster advertising oven chips had gone up on the same site.

More grist to the conspiracy theorists’ mill, you may think. And you’d probably be right.

For now, though, Bath is still comfortably ensconced in its niche in the heart of North East Somerset.

Where, it appears, even stranger things are afoot. For reports have reached the Bath Chronicle newsroom from an impeccable source (one of the chaps in advertising) that wallabies have been seen roaming the rolling hills of Saltford.

Yes, you read that right. Wallabies. Australian marsupials. With pouches. Quite good at boxing. But not as good as kangaroos.

There should be a joke about that. “What’s the difference between a wallaby and a kangaroo?”

But there isn’t.

A joke, that is. Not a difference.

Funny, though. You can drive the winding lanes of B&NES for weeks on end without seeing anything more exotic than the occasional dead badger, and then all of a sudden, out hops an antipodean anomaly.

Start to do some research and you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. There are at least 44 species of wallaby, ranging in alphabetical order from the Agile Wallaby to the Yellow-Footed Rock-Wallaby by way of the Dusky Pademelon and the Gray Dorcopsis. Although those last two sound more like  impostors than proper macropods.

You couldn’t make this sort of thing up. Well you could, actually, and no-one would be any the wiser.

But it’s true, all true. Small mobs* of wallabies do indeed roam this green and pleasant land. They’ve been reported from as far afield as Loch Lomond, the Peak District and even the fields around Gatwick Airport.

They escape from zoos or are released from private collections, and have no trouble surviving in a climate very similar to that of their native Tasmania.

Dig deeper into the world of the wallaby and you’ll find companies that sell them as pets or as self-propelled lawnmowers.

One such firm will even supply  a trained reindeer (£1250, no VAT), with its own harness and sledge. But before you can buy one, you need to get a certificate from DEFRA confirming that you have far more money than sense.

The mind begins to boggle. How long can it be before clusters* of antelopes churn the hallowed turf below the Royal Crescent? How long before stands* of flamingoes circle the skies above the Pump Room before alighting pinkly and gracefully beside the Roman Baths? 

Surely it can only be a matter of time before Bath becomes one gigantic wildlife park.

Then again, maybe it already is.

* All collective nouns have been checked by the management.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Avon Street conspiracy

Sooner or later, like it or not, you have to go to Bristol.

Maybe you develop an uncontrollable urge to queue for half an hour or more to buy Swedish flat-pack furniture in a low-ceilinged warehouse that reeks of meatballs.

Maybe you want to test your cultural credentials by trying to spot a Banksy among all the other graffiti.

Or maybe you just took a wrong turning at the Hicks Gate roundabout and found yourself inexorably sucked in.

No matter. Whether it’s fate or fortune that draws you to the sprawling metropolis on Bath’s doorstep, once you’re there you know you’re there.

Because on every other billboard, it seems, is a poster advertising a well-known supermarket chain that doesn’t have a major outlet in Bath.

An advert which states, in no uncertain terms: “The Big Price Drop on Bristol’s Shopping List.”

For better or worse, for richer or poorer, when you see a poster like that you can be pretty much certain that you are. Indeed. In Bristol.

Struggle back to Bath with your Nordic kitchen units or your shattered dreams – or both – and all those certainties crumble to dust.

Because - or at least until yesterday - right next to the exit from Avon Street multi-storey car park was a similar poster advertising the same supermarket. But there’s one subtle difference. Because this poster said: “The Big Price Drop on London’s Shopping List.”

Tesco advert, October 19 2011

Now hang on a cotton-picking minute. London? London? What’s going on here?

Well, Tesco (oops) is certainly a powerful organisation.

But surely even Tesco (oops again) can’t have got its hands on some transdimensional wormhole generator that rips Avon Street car park, the jewel in Bath’s architectural crown, from its noble setting between a neglected river and a dreary coach park and drops it 100 miles east in The Big Smoke?

No, there’s more to it than that.

That poster was the visible tip of the iceberg, a deep and insidious conspiracy created by big business, the council and the powerful Heritage Lobby to confuse Bathonians, tourists and taxi drivers alike into believing that they’re not in Bath any more.

And why would they want to do that, you might ask? Well any number of reasons, really. But to go into them here would be to expose oneself to unwanted attention from the conspirators themselves.

Suffice to say that there’s more to that drilling project next to Thermae Bath Spa than meets the eye.

Chip advert, October 20 2011. Spooky.
Plus the fact that the original poster was replaced by an advert for chips on the very day this article originally appeared in the The Bath Chronicle.

Enough said: a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat.

If anyone has the slightest idea what’s going on down there at Avon Street, please keep it to yourself. Don’t write in, don’t email, don’t call. Because the less we know about it, the safer we’ll all be.

And if you’re one of those people who prefers to believe in cock-up rather than conspiracy (perhaps you think the poster is just a mistake), then sleep easily while you can.

But remember: truth will out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Serious one. NAS want to start B&NES autism group

Email received from the National Autistic Society, slightly edited. I've left out email addresses to deter spammers:

  • The BANES Link and The National Autistic Society (NAS) have worked together to arrange an Autism Meeting for B&NES on 24th October 2011 at The Guildhall, Bath.  The meeting will be held between 2pm and 4pm and you are free to come and go within this time 
  • We want to listen to and gather the views and experiences of adults with Asperger/Autism Spectrum conditions, and their families and carers, who live in and/or use Health and Social Care Services in Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES).
  • The information will be recorded by NAS and put into a report and sent to the B&NES Adult Autism Partnership Group.  The information that you give will be used to provide feedback to the professionals and people who make decisions on planning for future services for people with Autism. 
  •  Alternatively, please write to:

  • Marina Parrett, The National Autistic Society, Church House, Church Road, Filton, Bristol BS34 7BD

  • NAS would also like to facilitate the setting up of a B&NES Autism Group to continue the work started at the October 24th Autism Meeting. 
  •  The aim of the group would be to discuss the views and experiences of people with Autism/Asperger syndrome and their families, living in the area, in order to develop appropriate Health and Adult Social Care services in response. 
  • If you are interested in being part of an ongoing group, please speak to Diana Elliott or Marina Parrett at the meeting or contact Diana Elliott on Tel: 07825 227026  or Marina Parrett on Tel: 01179 748425 or 07770 687009 

Sunday, sweary Sunday

A couple of weeks ago in his blog and in the Bath Chronicle, editor Sam Holliday asked a very pertinent question: Are you a Downton or a Spook?

Do you devote your Sunday evening TV viewing to the trials and tribulations of a family of English aristocrats as they tough it out through the First World War without mussing up their make-up; or do you settle down with a nice cup of cocoa and a spy-related plotline so complicated it makes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy look like Janet and John – The Early Years?

Or indeed, are you one of those people who recognises that the whole toffs v spies debate represents a false dichotomy, and decides to watch Fry’s Planet Word instead?

If you plumped for Stephen Fry  last Sunday, you could well have ended up spluttering into your Horlicks. Because the programme was all about swearing.

Why we do it (if we do it), what effect it has on us, and whether it actually works.

There was some funny footage of Brian Blessed, swearmeister par excellence, sticking his hand in a tank full of iced water and turning the air blue.

And a clip of Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It going into four-letter meltdown at least showed that the BBC has its finger on the pulse of 21st-century discourse.

But Stephen Fry’s point, and it was a good one, was that the more you swear the less effective it becomes: the very occasional “Gadzooks” or “Odds Kittikins” dropped into one’s conversation is a heck of a lot more effective than an endless stream of filth if you really want to get your point across.

It’s all about communication, of course, and one problem today is choosing how to communicate, even with our nearest and dearest.

Picture if you will a blissful domestic scene: Mrs D is upstairs, doing something important on the computer.

Yours truly is in the kitchen, rustling up a light supper of toad in the hole with onion gravy.

Mrs D is starting to get hungry. But how should she best inquire about the arrival time of the sausage-and-battery comestibles?

By email, of course. The message is sent quickly and efficiently from the computer upstairs along BT’s sturdy copper wires (as long as  no one’s nicked them), off to a mail server somewhere in Arizona, then via satellite to a second mail server in downtown Buenos Aires, and back via undersea cable and fibre optic switchgear to its final destination: the mobile device in the Dixon kitchen.

No need for shouting: the internet can take the strain. And anyway, you can’t hurry a toad in the hole.

Similarly when it’s time to call the kids to lay the table: rather than yelling up at them through a couple of floors, texting them in their bedrooms is so much more effective.

Soon there will come a time when all communication is electronic: we’ll  have iPhones surgically implanted into our brains, and no one will speak face-to-face any more.

A nice thought, perhaps. But it won’t stop the swearing when you burn the toad in the hole.

How I updated my iPad to iOS 5

This is how I updated my iPad (original 32Gb wifi 3G) to iOS 5 with an iMac 24" early 2008.

It took quite a long time.

First I backed up my Mac to an external drive.

Then I updated iTunes to 10.5. I did the Lion updates to 10.7.2 at the same time, just to keep things tidy.

Then I connected the iPad to the iMac.

Then I launched iTunes and started the update. Depending on your broadband connection, just the download could take an hour or more. If you're on cable or fibre optic, lucky you.

Next, the iPad backs up to your Mac. Depending on how much you have in the way of music, videos, apps and pictures on your iPad, it could take 15 minutes or more.

Then, the iPad verifies the backup with Apple. This is where things seem to have been failing for a lot of people: Apple's servers are being hammered by everyone from night owls in the UK to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Californians.

If it fails here, you have to backup again. Every time it fails with an "Internal error", you have to back up again and verify the restore.

Patience is a virtue: eventually you'll get the connection. A progress bar will show on your iPad and the software will extract and update. Then the firmware will update. Then you'll be able to set up the iPad for wifi, location services etc. It'll even ask if you want to set it up for iCloud. (I'd hang on.)

That took another 20 minutes or so.

But don't disconnect the iPad. Because it'll still be copying over your apps. And then your music. And then it'll resync your photos.

From successful verification of the iPad backup to a fully restored iPad running iOS5 took the best part of an hour and a half.

Now, what does this puppy do?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The facts about wife-carrying races (well, some of them)

Uplifting news reaches Chronicle Towers from the rolling heights of Lansdown: Bath Racecourse is to organise a wife-carrying contest.

It all sounds quite simple: you grab your spouse using any one of a number of  grips or handholds, lug her bodily over a 100-yard course (that’s a couple of lengths less than half a furlong if you’re a horse) and, assuming you win, claim the top prize of you and your partner’s combined weight in beer.

Actually, the rider doesn’t even have to be your wife: it can be anyone who’s female, over 17, and willing to climb onto your back and into the starting gate.

And there are no particularly strict rules about riding styles, either: piggybacks and fireman’s lifts are fine, and more adventurous competitors can even try the Estonian Technique, which sees the jockey/wife dangling upside-down with her legs wrapped around her steed/husband’s neck and her face squashed into the small of his back.

But despite looking like a rather advanced illustration from a very naughty book, the Estonian position does have one big advantage: it doesn’t get the jockey pregnant.

The event originates in Finland, a country otherwise known for having a language related to Hungarian, despite the two countries being separated by the best part of 1,000 miles.

(They have about 200 words in common, 55 of them to do with fishing. Now, where were we?)

According to one theory, a Finnish bandit called Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen and his band of merry men used to descend on unsuspecting villages and relieve them not just of their wealth but of their womenfolk as well.

Over the course of time, this unsavoury practice turned into an official sport with its own peculiar code of conduct, just like football turned into rugby in 19th-century England.

The official rules of eukonkanto, as the Finns call it, boggle the mind: “The wife may be your own, the neighbour’s, or you may have found her further afield”; “If she is less than 49 kg, she will be burdened with additional weight”; “The most entertaining couple, the best costume and the strongest carrier will win a special prize.”

Say what you like about the Finns, but they sure know how to have fun.

The politically correct brigade are up in arms: surely, they say, in the interests of equality we ought to have a husband-carrying event too.

A moment’s reflection will reveal the logical flaw here. Based on personal experience, the few times when Mrs D has tried to lift your sturdy columnist have ended up with her going purple in the face and collapsing underneath him in an undignified heap.

No, husbands are too big even to be picked by wives, let alone to be carried by them half a furlong over the sticks at Bath Racecourse.

The big race starts at 3.45pm on Sunday, October 16. And where it will end is anyone’s guess.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why flares are back in style

Fashion’s a funny business. Two years ago, if anyone had told you that in September 2011 it would be cool and trendy to walk around town wearing headphones the size of baked bean tins, you’d have treated them with the scorn you’d normally reserve for someone who claimed the world was flat, or that England would win the next World Cup.

But here we are in September 2011. Designer cans cost upwards of £120. They make the wearer look like Phones, the submarinating marionette from Stingray, and they annoy the hell out of anyone standing within 200 yards. They might look OK plugged into your hi-fi, but on the street they just make you look daft.

Flares are back in the news too. But not, as the headline might have mischievously suggested, flares of the long-leggedy hippyish trouser-type variety. If you thought you were getting the go-ahead to squeeze yourself into a pair of loon pants, then you’re out there with the flat-earthers and the England fans.

No, what we’re talking about here are solar flares. The kind that for the last few days have been shooting out of the Sun in the general direction of our innocent little planet, causing auroras both boreal and austral, knocking satellites out of whack and giving mobile phone companies a perfect excuse for those irritating drop-outs in G3 signal any time you venture more than half a mile from a built-up area.

Solar flares emanate from sunspots, in this case the 100,000km-long Active Region 1302, which has been described by normally sober sources such as NASA as a “behemoth”.

And that’s not a word you hear too often in the context of coronal mass ejections. It’s not a word you hear much in any context, come to that.

Solar flares, it says on the internet, are divided by intensity into five categories: A, B, C, M and X. There’s something rather disturbing about that apparent lack of a logical naming convention. A, B, and C are pretty ordinary. Then things get so bad, so fast, that the space boffins don’t even bother with D to L.

And as for N to W, well don't stop to think about them. Just head for the shelters, 'cos here comes a category X1.9 and it’s got our name on it.

It would be tempting to suggest that all this cosmic assault and battery is the Sun’s warning to scientists at CERN who recently reported that they might, just might, have detected a particle in the course of breaking the ultimate speed limit: the speed of light.

 “Ho,” says the Sun. “I’m the top light source around here. Taste my flares.”

Tempting, but preposterous.

In the short term, the mighty AR1302 isn’t even pointing straight at the Earth yet, so we may not yet have felt the full effect of its toasty plasma eruptions.

And over the next couple of years solar activity is predicted to increase, which means there could be more sunspots, more geomagnetic storms, and more people going around wearing tin-foil hats to ward off the ill effects.

Which might look a bit silly. But not half as silly as the twits in the big headphones.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Secrets from the Man Drawer

It’s funny how you can walk around Bath and get the feeling you’re in a parallel universe.

Whenever you step outside your front door, a bizarre distortion field catches you unawares and makes you start to question what is real and what isn’t.

Hordes of Jane Austen fans stroll elegantly down Milsom Street in their Regency costumes, making the casual visitor think for a moment that they’ve been spirited back 200 years to a simpler and more graceful age.

The illusion is broken, though, when the assembled Janeites start glugging bottled water and nattering into mobile phones.

“I have missed the post chaise and shall not be home for luncheon,” they say to whoever it is they’re talking to. “Pray keep the roast goose a-warming until my return.”

Things get even weirder as you go further out from the city centre. For reasons too complicated to go into here, you’re waiting to get into town from the far pavilions of Kelston Road when a ghastly realisation creeps up on you – you’ve entered an alternative reality in which they’ve invented bus stops, but not the buses to stop at them. No wonder everyone else is driving.

And even in the safety of your own home, things are not quite what they seem. Instead of birthday presents, you get cards from DHL telling you to collect your goodies from an industrial estate on the other side of Almondsbury.

Is Almondsbury even a real place? Given its close proximity to another purportedly real place called Catbrain, we venture to suggest not.

At the centre of this whirlpool of unreality, though, is a force of nature so disruptive to the peace and tranquility of normal life that we shudder to mention it within the pages of a family newspaper.

Yes, dear reader, we are talking about the Man Drawer.

What, you may ask, is one of them? Well, in a bygone age, young ladies had Bottom Drawers in which to collect necessities for their future married life. Maybe they still do.

In a similar way, us middle-aged chaps have Man Drawers, in which we gather all we need to cope with our current life.

The trouble is, though, that Man Drawers tend to be affected by the reality distortion field we were discussing earlier. Yes, we were.

When you consider things from a rational perspective, you do not actually need a diary (unused) from 2010. Or one from 2009. Or indeed one from 2007. But there they are, clogging up the Man Drawer.

Even less do you need the headphones from a mobile phone you recycled two years ago. But there they are in the Man Drawer, entwined with the USB cable from the iPod that stopped working just before you happened to buy a brand new one (convenient or what?)

Clamps from the garage; old bars of chocolate; six kinds of propelling pencil lead; a bulging tube of glue: all are there because you thought they Might Come In Useful.

None of them ever will. But the Man Drawer takes them and twists them into a new and frightening reality. Ignore it at your peril.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bike in Bath website updated

Well, some of my criticisms in yesterday's blog about the Bike in Bath website have been addressed fairly quickly.

They've re-worded the subscription instructions to make it clear where you have to click. (Although I think you should just be able to click the word "Register" in the instructions to take you to the registration page. There, I just did it!)

And you can now type a full UK postcode into the box on the registration page. (Even if they do still call it a ZIP code for some reason.)

But on the registration page there are THREE fields for "State". One is an empty text entry field, the other two are pull-downs listing countries. Plus there are TWO pull-downs for "Country", neither of which is usable because they're empty.

A lot of the typos I mentioned are still there - four instances of "avabile" on the Stations page; "RECHARG" on the home page; "Holburne" still incorrectly spelled "Holbourne" on the home page graphic; a page called "SUBSCIBE". And the grey text is still jumping back and forth.

One typo I didn't notice before:

 It should be "bicycles". In fact it should be "7 free bicycles out of 15", but let's not be too picky.

Sorry, guys. You're getting there, but you've still got a way to go.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Early breakfast on a planet made of diamond

The Large Hadron Collider has been at it again.

Yes, the world’s biggest, baddest particle accelerator, which has always held an unnatural fascination for this writer, has only gone and created the Densest Matter Ever Observed.

Denser than lead, denser than a neutron star, denser than last Sunday’s collapsed sponge pudding, denser even than Denny Denson, Professor of Density at St Dennis’s College, Densebridge, quark-gluon plasma is so downright stodgy that if you had a matchbox full, it would weigh more than the entire universe.

(All right, that may be something of an exaggeration, but you get the general idea.)

Quark-gluon plasma, as its name suggests, is made out of a combination of quarks and gluons. And now that’s sorted out, we can move on.

Because dense things aren’t confined to the coils of the LHC. Spinning round a pulsar the size of Cologne, just 4,000 light years from Earth, is a planet made of diamond.

How it got that way is a matter of conjecture, but to put it into layman’s terms, a big star full of carbon bumped into a little star full of pulses, one thing led to another and you can guess the rest.

Now all that remains is to find a name for this new wonder of nature.

Suggestions have ranged from the romantic – Planet Tiffany – to the commercial – Planet Ernest Jones.

One thing’s for sure though: you’re not going to make a fortune by heading out there in a rocket and digging up some diamonds. You’d either be frazzled by the radio waves kicked out by Pulsar J1719-1438 as it spins through the firmament at 10,000 rpm, or squished by the gravity of Planet Bling.

Speaking of radio waves (and coming back down to Earth with a bang), the BBC has seriously messed up Radio 3 in the mornings.

Until this week, the start to the Dixon day ran as smoothly as a well-oiled machine. Alarm at 5.42 precisely. Leap up. Empty dishwasher. Make Mrs D’s tea. Back to bed to doze for an hour to the soothing strains of Through the Night. Up, shave and dress just in time for the news headlines at 7am. Three Breakfast with the muesli.

Not any more. As of last Monday, Radio 3’s breakfast show has moved to 6.30, when all right-thinking people are still dozing. The format’s changed, too. The news headlines at 6.30 are followed by the presenter (Petroc Trelawny at his far-too-cheeriest) reading them again at 6.45, followed by the newsreader again at 7am. Followed by Trelawny reading the weather.

Instead of gentle music, we’ve got the aural equivalent of Spongebob Squarepants.

There’s not much alternative, either. Radio 4 is too depressing. Classic FM is too full of adverts. Radio 2 has too much Chris Evans. Radio 1 has too much Chris Moyles.

All right, Radio 3 listeners are notoriously resistant to change, and that bit about Spongebob is the second exaggeration in 500 words.

But if you detect increased levels of grumpiness from Dixon Towers over the coming weeks, you’ll have a pretty good idea why.

Bike in Bath: great idea, flaky website

So, at last Bath has its own Boris Bikes. Bike in Bath is open for testing today, and gets its official launch later this month. And it's a great idea.

You buy a bike card (by registering online or in person from the Tourist Information Office in Abbey Church Yard), you head to one of the four docking stations (here's Green Park this morning, although apparently it's not operational yet), you wave your card at the gadgetry, you retrieve your splendid blue steed and off you pedal. Remembering only to return your bike to a docking station when you've finished with it.

As an added bonus, the first 30 minutes are free.

An excellent idea, and I shall be taking one of the bikes for a spin in the next day or so.

What's not so great, though, is the Bike in Bath website.

If you Google Bike in Bath you won't find it. Possibly because the page title on the Bike in Bath home page is "Home Page", which even from my limited knowledge of search engine optimisation I know is a bit of a bad start.

The fact that the words "bike" and "Bath" don't appear anywhere in the home page source code probably doesn't help much either, SEO-wise.

If you Google bikeinbath (without any spaces), Google will helpfully return a search for "bikes Bath". If you reject that suggestion and tell Google yes, you really did mean "bikeinbath", then the top link is to the whois record for

So far, so hard to find.

If you persevere and reach that elusive home page, your eye is immediately greeted by a chunk of light grey text on a white background (bad contrast), aligned left. Before you have a chance to finish reading it, it disappears and is replaced by another chunk of light grey text on a white background, aligned right (even harder to read.) This text flickers distractingly to and fro as you try to read the rest of the page.

Down the right-hand side are three grey panels with white text on them. Again, a bit hard to read. The middle one says "Recharg your ticket". Spelling mistake number one (there are lots).

Undaunted, you click the link to the Subscribe page. Whose title is SUBSCIBE (another spelling mistake). Here your can check availability of bikes in your "municpality" (losing count here) and "zona" (spelling mistake or untranslated Italian?) You learn you can pick up a bike from the "Holbourne" Museum. (It's Holburne, and is correct on their Station page, although here they've spelled "available" as "avabile".)

As well as the spelling mistakes there is non-English English all over the place. For example "You will contribute to reduce emissions"; "each stations is composed by a series of cycle-parking columns"; "move around the city in a fast, amusing and ecologically-friendly manner". Yes, "municipality" is an English word. But not one that anyone ever uses.

Never mind, though. Let's follow the instructions to register online:

"1 Register on the portal by accessing the panel for the reserved area"

There's no hyperlink from that text. You have to guess that to register you actually need to click a tiny blue "Login" link in the top right-hand corner of the page. 

When you do, you get this:

They put a login form to their own administration pages on the same panel as they use for user registration? Why? Links like that should be totally private.

Click the Register button and it takes you to "Pagina senza titolo" which asks for personal contact details and password over non-secure HTTP. There are two pull-downs for "State" which both present lists of countries. There are two pull-downs for "Country" which both present lists of nothing at all. The "Zip Code" input box won't allow enough characters for a UK postcode.

These are all very simple mistakes which could have been put right with basic proof-reading (maybe by a native English speaker, since the site is directed at English people?) and usability testing.

Sorry, Bike in Bath. I want to love you, but I won't be using your website to register - there are too many errors to inspire confidence. Time for a stroll to Tourist Information.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Serving suggestions

 “Daaaad...” It’s a word that strikes fear into every father’s heart, because you just know that it’s going to be followed by one of those questions that you can’t easily answer.

“Daaaad...” said Dixon Junior many years ago as we drove round and round an unfamiliar French town, exhausted after a seven-hour drive and unable to reconcile the map the hotel had sent us with the street layout. “Daaaad... How many planets are there in the universe?”

The question has gone down in family legend, and even though we now know the answer to that one (squillions, if you’re interested) the questions keep on coming.

“Daaaad...” we had last week, “Why do food packets always say ‘Serving Suggestion’?”

Well, thereby hangs a tale.

Remember in Toy Story, when Buzz Lightyear sees a TV advert for himself, which ends with a voiceover: “Not a Flying Toy?” And remember how it makes Buzz turn from arrogance to grim self-awareness? He’s not a real Space Ranger, he can’t fly, and his only value is as a plaything.

Hubris leads to nemesis, pride comes before a fall. And so it is with food packaging.

That ham you bought from the supermarket may have dressed itself up enticingly with a pack shot of sliced tomato, crispy lettuce and a freshly baked baguette. But inside the packet (once you get the plastic film off) is the ham, the whole ham and nothing but the ham.

Even on simple packaging where they could just as easily have said “Remove from Tin and Put on Plate”, they print “Serving Suggestion”: more to make sure the content doesn’t get ideas above its station, than as a reminder to the literal-minded consumer.

But it’s a concept that could be usefully extended to other kinds of product.

Suppose you’re in the market for a new printer. (And why wouldn’t you be? It’s so much cheaper than buying replacement ink cartridges for the old one.)

Inkjet printers are all pretty much the same, and in the end your decision comes down to the box art. Which shows a proud dad and his admiring wife and children watching as cheerful family snaps and fancy-looking pie charts whizz out of the printer too fast to catch.

Boxes like that really do need a warning on them. Something like “Not A Real Family” or “Your Colours May Vary And Actually Be Restricted To Four Shades of Brown” would be a start.

Seed packets would benefit from warnings too. Readers whose memories stretch as far back as February will no doubt recall the saga of the World’s Hottest Chilli, and attempts to grow same.

There was indeed a warning on the packet: “Handle and taste with care!” But perhaps what it should say is “Handle With Utter Disdain. ”

On the packet, the Naga Jolokia peppers are red, fruity and pungent-looking. Whereas on our windowsill, they’re small, green and totally insignificant.

Because it’s the same with those chillis as it is with so many others things in life: What You See Is Definitely Not What You Get.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Skullduggery in the vegetable patch

Ahh, September. The month when the clouds of August roll back, the winds die down, the rain subsides and the sun bursts forth once more, just in time for everyone to go back to work.

All that remains of the summer holidays are memories, blurred photos of the family huddled miserably in the lee of a Welsh slate quarry, and bills.

Let’s not be gloomy, though. Because apart from meteorological schadenfreude, the end of summer also means the start of the vegetable show season.

Growers everywhere are preparing their prize specimens for display, and the methods they use to ensure success make the mind boggle.

Some competitors swear by secret potions. If you’ve ever wondered how that prize-winning pumpkin got so plump, then it’s probably thanks to regular doses of tea leaves, scrumpy and Bovril, drip-fed straight to the roots.

Some resort to furniture polish. It’s a well-known fact in horticultural circles that a quick spritz of Mister Sheen will give your best King Edwards the glossy shine they need to catch the judges’ eyes. And noses.

Some resort to trickery. Without giving away too many secrets, tying little kitchen weights to the ends of your runner beans is a favourite way of getting them to grow straight and true.

And while frowned upon in the bean-growing fraternity, the practice isn’t exactly illegal. As long as you don’t get caught.

No, the world of prize vegetable growing is a tough one, with no quarter asked or given. And anyone who enters it had better keep their wits about them.

It’s thus with some trepidation that we Dixons view the approach of this year’s Weston Village Flower Show, which takes place on Saturday, September 3 in the All Saints Centre, starting at 2.30pm.

Not that any of the competitors would stoop to skullduggery, you understand, but because our family reputation is at stake.

Mrs D has had some success in the past, but she’s already blaming the hopeless summer on a lack of winning produce. So perhaps this Saturday her two-year run as Onion Queen of Weston will finally come to an end.

And yours truly? Well, just read the introduction to the show programme. This year’s celebration of fruit-, flower- and vegetable-growing expertise will be opened, and the prizes presented, by none other than... Hugh Dixon, columnist with Ye Olde Bath Chronicle.

Ooh heck. Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, but this is taking the mickey. It means getting up on the hind legs and making a speech in which one tries one’s best to sound knowledgeable and entertaining about subjects about which one knows next to nothing.

Including chilli-growing, if this year’s miserable crop of duds is anything to go by.

Quite seriously, though, please don’t let this rare public appearance by your humble columnist put you off going. As all good gardeners will tell you, every rose has its thorn.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How we went on holiday by mistake

“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”

That line should ring bells with anyone who's seen the 1986 film Withnail and I, in which two booze-riddled, drug-addled, out-of-work actors head out of London to spend a paranoid weekend in a country cottage that turns out to be a little less luxurious than they’d hoped.

Not that the Dixon family holiday was anything  like that, you understand. But after we got back from a wet week in Wales and girded our collective loins for an extra two nights under canvas in supposedly sunny Hampshire, it did start to feel a bit like we’d wandered onto a movie set.

The camping trip was intended as a celebration of our wedding anniversary, although it’s hard to see how two days without mod cons qualifies as any sort of celebration.

Dixon Junior had run away to sea for a week in preference to living in a tent with his parents and younger sister. We remaining three crammed the car with camping gear, mosquito repellent and portable video games and hit the road.

Into the worst rainstorm to hit the south coast of England. Ever.

For this was Thursday, August 18, the day that flash floods struck Bournemouth and environs, roads were awash, the wind howled and all was absolutely frightful.

By some quirk of fate, though, the rain stopped just as we reached Lymington, and the campsite appeared to be well drained.

All thoughts of escape were suppressed as we gritted our teeth in the last blusterings of the gale, hoisted the tent, bashed in the poles of the windbreak and set up the stove for a brew.

What could possibly go wrong? Well not much, funnily enough. Friday dawned crisp and clear, and we took the ferry across the Solent. Which is a bit like going abroad but staying in England – as you drive off the good ship Wight Light in Yarmouth you wonder for a moment if you should be driving on the left or the Wight. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

One of the best bits about camping, though, is watching the other campers and feeling smug about your own set-up.

A young couple pitched up that evening, and pulled out the floweriest, flimsiest tent ever to be seen outside the glamping enclosure at Glastonbury. They spent hours positioning it just right and getting the guy ropes completely straight, and then started the barbecue. At dusk it became clear that in all their perfectionism they’d forgotten to bring a torch. By 8.30 or thereabouts they were cooking in the dark.

We got our comeuppance for our smugness a couple of hours later, though, as a noisy, sweary bunch of people arrived and put up their tents by the headlights of their Land Rover. By midnight other campers were yelling at them to shut up, and at seven on Saturday morning they packed up their tents, still swearing and shouting about needing bacon sandwiches, and moved off to another part of the site.

Oh well, we thought, as we headed back to Bath.  We only had to put up with them for one night. Their families are stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Greengrocers and apostrophes: what went wrong?

Drive north out of Bath on the A46, and before you reach the all-day playground that is the M4, you’ll see a stall selling soft fruit.

At least, you can assume that’s what they’re selling. There’s a blackboard advertising their wares, but what it actually says is Strawberrie’.

At that point, whoever was doing the chalking must have run out of board. There’s a quite unnecessary apostrophe, but the final “s” is nowhere to be seen.

Or at least, it wasn’t last Sunday, when we trundled by. “Watch the road, Hugh, not the board! EEEEEEE...!”

Journey over with no further incident, there was time to waste a few minutes of reflection on that degenerate scion of English punctuation, the greengrocer’s apostrophe.

People have trouble with apostrophes: greengrocers more than most. Because even if the people selling summer fruits by the side of the A46 had squeezed a final “s” on to their board, they’d have been wrong.

The first rule of apostrophes is that they don’t go with plurals. But look at any display of fruit and veg worth its name, and you’ll see the problem. If you don’t fancy the pear’s, then choose some apple’s. How about some carrot’s with the roast tonight? And then a couple of mangoe’s for afters.

Those are the greengrocer’s apostrophes.

The second rule is that apostrophes show possession. If something owns something else, then the owner has an apostrophe and an s.

A couple of examples from the animal kingdom may be helpful here. Think of the bee’s knees, the cat’s pyjamas, the dog’s...

No, not those, cheeky.

The bee, the cat and the dog are the owners of the knees, the pyjamas and the... all right, dinner. So the three animals get an apostrophe-s.

It gets more complicated when you combine plurals and possessives. They go s-apostrophe.

So if two bees had 12 knees between them, they would be the bees’ knees. If four cats wore pyjamas, they would be the cats’ pyjamas. And as for the dogs, well, you get the general idea.

Rule three: apostrophes show that something has had a letter or two left out. “The cat’s outside” means “The cat is outside”. Simples.

Rule four. There is no such word as Its’. “Its” means “belonging to it”. “It’s” means “it is”. As in “It’s time the cat had its dinner.” You just have to learn that one.

To go back to our original roadside example: “Strawberries” is the plural of “strawberry”, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe.

The only time you’d put an apostrophe anywhere near strawberries would be if something belonged to those strawberries – for example the strawberries’ flavour, or the strawberries’ colour, or the strawberries’ tendency to get snaffled from the fridge before yours truly has a chance to sample them.

(Have you ever stared at a word for so long that it starts to look wrong even when it’s right? It’s happening right now with strawberries.)

So if you’re (shortening) in a greengrocer’s (possessive) shop and you see a sign advertising “Strawberrie’s”, you should now be able to explain confidently to them where they’ve gone wrong.

Although whether the greengrocer would thank you for the explanation is quite another matter.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why our family is a load of losers

There was a young guy walking round Sainsbury’s last Sunday morning who added a touch of culture to the otherwise mundane commercial proceedings.

He was singing, very pleasantly, in a mellow baritone. And the song he sang was Amazing Grace.

As we struggled up and down the aisles in a fruitless search for Ainsley Harriott’s Creamy Vegetable Spelt (don’t ask), his song drifted in and out of earshot, at once uplifting and slightly unnerving.

Prophetic, too, with its references to “lost” and “found”. We’d better change the subject now,  before things get too deep and meaningful.

Especially because, over the last week, the Dixon household has become a veritable Bermuda Triangle of things disappearing and not showing up again.

First it was Mrs D’s reading glasses. She only bought them last Saturday morning, and by that same afternoon they had completely and utterly vanished.

Cue the old joke about needing your specs to find your specs. Or rather don’t, because it didn’t amuse Mrs D at all.

Especially when it transpired, two or three days later and after extensive floor-by-by-floor searches, that she’d dropped them down the front of her apron rather than putting them back into the case, and they’d been  in the pocket ever since.

There have been other episodes too – like the car keys found in a jacket that hadn’t been worn for weeks – but the worst has been the Mystery of the Disappearing Book.

The book in question is Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut. It was meant to complement our already extensive collection of the Vonnegut oeuvre , and it was sitting on the sideboard waiting to be read.

And then it wasn’t.

It had gone, completely and utterly. The searches we conducted for Mrs D’s glasses paled into insignificance compared with the root-and-branch upheaval the house went through looking for Galápagos.

We still haven’t found it, and it looks like we never will. The only rational explanation seems to be that it got recycled with the papers. But with these disappearances becoming more and more irrational by the day, we probably need to look further afield for a reason.

And as regular readers of this column will know, this means blaming the Large Hadron Collider.

Boffins there announced last week that they have nearly found the Higgs Boson, or so-called God Particle. Nearly, but not quite.

Because it’s a well-known fact that the Large Hadron Collider has a mind of its own, and doesn’t want us to find the Higgs Boson, and sends out all sorts of coded warnings whenever anyone gets close.

This time, the warnings are plain for those who choose to read them. There’s a ghost in the machine, and if it wanted humanity to find the Higgs, it wouldn’t have hidden the book, or  the glasses, or the   keys.

Don't mess with the boson. Or, in the words of that hymn:  “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine”.

You have been warned.