Thursday, January 27, 2011

Stuck with the traffic

Hot off the presses of Lonely Planet comes a new guide to the West Country, which rather cheekily suggests that Bath, despite its spectacular architecture, cultural sophistication and culinary savoir-faire, will have you, the tourist, “weeping into your steering wheel” as you try to negotiate the rush-hour traffic.

And there was a telling comment about the article from a reader on : “You’re not stuck in traffic; you are the traffic.”

It’s a tricky one. Visitors to Bath have the option of arriving by car, train, coach, bus or bike. Each has its pros and cons, but for most people the big pro about driving a car is freedom.

Freedom from timetables, freedom from arriving in need of a shower, freedom to enjoy your own space as you travel. And, sadly, freedom to sit in a queue on the London Road pumping exhaust fumes into the skies above the Georgian city.

Those of us who live here often end up being part of the same traffic, but the reasons are a bit different.

In an ideal world there would be no need for cars in Bath. We’d all travel for free, in non-polluting electric monorail pods whose tracks would blend unnoticeably into the honeyed stone background, and which would whisk us silently from our homes on the outskirts to the cultural and retail paradise of the city centre in three minutes flat.

During the brief journey we would be lulled by ambient New Age music and wrapped in an energising cloud of lavender, grapefruit and patchouli essential oils, arriving at the SouthGate transport hub refreshed, envigorated and primed to be gently separated from our money.

In the real world, there’s First Bus.

For which, unlike the mythical monorail, you have to pay.

Of course bus companies have to make money. And of course if the fares were subsidised, we’d end up paying for them through our council tax in any case. There’s no such thing as a free ride.

But there is something a little bit skewed about a city where the most economic way to get your family into the centre is to drive a mile and a half to one of the most expensive car parks in town.

Last Saturday, even before First put its single and return fares up, it was cheaper to park in the Podium for an hour than to take self and young Miss D on the bus from Zone 3 to the bank and shops.

Cycling isn’t an option for us.

Walking in might have been, but walking back – uphill all the way – with the mighty half shoulder of lamb ordered by Mrs D was not.

Even walking there and getting the bus back would have been more expensive than driving and parking.

If we’d wanted to stay in town for longer than an hour, it might have made economic sense to drive half a mile to the Park and Ride, get the bus in and out, and then drive back home. Economic, but logistically bonkers.

We all want our freedom, and we all want our flexibility. But just for once, it would be rather nice to feel you could be part of the solution to transport around Bath, rather than part of the problem.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Get in touch with the inner geek

Even when you get to the advanced age of [redacted], it’s rather thrilling when a relative even older than yourself gives you a book token for Christmas.

Because your modern book token is a clever thing: a plastic smart card as opposed to a cardboard folding one.

It’s got a magnetic strip and a barcode and a PIN and all that stuff, and you can go online and type in the numbers and it’ll tell you how much you’ve got left to spend on it.

Although the glacial reaction time of the National Book Tokens website suggests to the suspicious mind either that everyone else in the UK is trying to look up their balance at the same time, or that nobody’s ever actually tried it before, and the server is having a hard job remembering how it’s supposed to find out.

You can stuff your card into your wallet next to all the other bits of plastic, having read the dire warnings on the back about it expiring after 24 months and how you’re meant to treat it like cash.

(The difference being that cash, in this columnist’s hands, tends to expire in far less than 24 months. More like 24 hours, if you’re lucky.)

And then you can forget about it for three weeks, until suddenly one lunchtime, inspired by the brief appearance of a big shiny thing up in the sky, you decide to drag yourself away from your desk and go for a stroll.

Just like cash, the card starts burning a hole in your pocket, and before you know it you’re drawn as if by some eerie magnetic force through the door of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.

What to buy, what to buy? Fact or fiction? Words or pictures? Hardback or softback? So much to read, so little time to read it.

It’s time to get back in touch with your inner geek. And Just My Type by Simon Garfield looks just the thing.

It describes the difference between fonts and typefaces. (Don’t ask, read the book.) It tells you why the real geeks call fonts “founts”. It explains why Gill Sans is the “most British of types”, despite its designer, Eric Gill, being an out-and-out nutter. And it even tells you why you shouldn’t use Comic Sans for corporate communications.

Just the book for a newspaper office, you might think. To quote the typographer Beatrice Warde: “FROM THIS PLACE WORDS MAY FLY ABROAD/NOT TO PERISH AS WAVES OF SOUND BUT FIXED IN TIME/NOT CORRUPTED BY THE HURRYING HAND BUT VERIFIED IN PROOF.” (She wrote in ALL CAPITALS before it was considered SHOUTING. And she was more than chummy with Eric Gill.)

But a Tuesday afternoon at Chronicle Towers is clearly not the place for such musings.

The book gets a couple of sideways glances, before the banter (conversation is too grand a word) turns to more mundane matters such as why your columnist has never watched a single episode of Friends and the curious blob on a very senior executive’s elbow.

It isn’t easy having an inner geek. But with books like Just My Type, at least you know you’re not alone.

Friday, January 14, 2011

DIY on a wing and a prayer

Extraordinary news from the Caribbean, where paleontologists have discovered fossils of an ancient flightless bird which apparently used the ends of it wings as ninja clubs to fight off its rivals and generally cause avian mayhem around what is now Jamaica.

The xenicibis was an ancestor of the modern ibis, and clearly far more dangerous than its chicken-sized frame would suggest.

Luckily, though, it became extinct around 12,000 years ago, so you won't be seeing one on your bird table any time soon.

Speaking of which...

The trusty bird table at the bottom of our garden eventually fell apart just after Christmas, having given years of stalwart service, and the hunt was on for a replacement. But it's only when you start pricing up the alternatives that you start to realise that providing the local blackbird population with a safe haven from the local moggies is not an enterprise to be entered on lightly.

Off we go to the garden centre (fifth time this year and counting) to see what's available. It would appear that the garden centre has seen us coming, and has put out its grandest and most palatial tables in readiness for our arrival.

For these aren't your everyday common-or-garden bird feeders. These are works of garden architecture in miniature, with slate or even thatched roofs, solid brass metalwork and hand-turned finials.

They are painted in subtle shades of cream or duck-egg blue. They would grace and complement the finest country house, they cost the earth and they are, in a word, overkill.

The only alternative is a wobbly-looking structure made of metal tubes that looks like it would collapse if a linnet landed on it, never mind the overfed pigeons that hover around our back garden.

Back to the drawing board. Or rather, off to another garden centre, which this time hasn't seen us coming, and where there is at least a reasonably priced selection of self-assembly kits.

We choose one of a suitably rustic appearance and bring it home, secure in the knowledge that with just a couple of turns of a screwdriver the whole thing will slip together nicely and the birdies will neither starve, nor fall off, nor be propositioned by the cat.

How very naive. In the world of bird tables, it appears, you gets what you pays for.

Mrs D disappears to do something important on the computer, leaving self to puzzle out an instruction sheet which: (a) appears to be a photocopy of a Daguerreotype of a print by mad artist William Blake; (b) refers to screws that are too short to join the requisite pieces together; and (c) involves the forcing of bolts through holes drilled just a millimetre too narrow.

Plus it's freezing in the garden shed, and the battery's gone flat on the not-so-sonic screwdriver, and that man flu you had over the new year seems to be coming back with a vengeance.

There's only one thing for it: start the year with a jolly good swear.