Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rage against the machine

This is a story of one man’s battle with the inanimate; of human ingenuity pitted against mechanical obstinacy; of native wit vying with the vindictive malice of a powered garden implement.

It’s a tale of frustration, of heroism in the face of adversity and ultimately of triumph – but of whom, and over which?

It begins in a small allotment on the edge of Bath, lovingly tended and nurtured by... Well, let’s just call her Mrs D.

It is spring, or at least something approaching it, and her thoughts are turning, as they always do at this time of year, to the burgeoning grass and weeds that thrive in the paths between the sturdy raised beds fabricated by her loving and resourceful Other Half.

Grass and weeds that might ultimately stand between Mrs D and the coveted title of Tidy Allotment Holder of the Year 2011.

After some debate, the die is cast. Yours Truly will buy a new grass trimmer to replace the current rechargeable model, whose battery goes flat after 10 minutes and whose approach to unsightly tufts is to tickle them into submission rather than give them the sound whacking they so richly deserve.

And Yours Truly will go where Yours Truly has never gone before: into the world of the two-stroke.

Now a two-stroke grass trimmer is a scary thing. It comes with a manual as thick as your wrist, and dire warnings about donning eye protection, ear defenders and hobnail boots before you even take it out of its box.

In fact, “scary” is an understatement. The new grass trimmer is downright terrifying, especially for someone whose relationship with two-strokes has never been close since the days when his dad wouldn’t get him a moped.

First, you have to put it together. You’d think they might have done that in the factory, but no, this trimmer is the grown-up equivalent of a Meccano set, designed to educate as well as to entertain.

Next, you have to fuel it up. In the special bottle provided, you mix 500ml of unleaded with several drops of gloop (whose main effect is to turn the petrol an evil shade of blue) and decant the heady brew into the tank of the waiting trimmer.

Which only holds 300ml.

Cue smothered guffaws from the assembled audience, who should be standing no closer than 15 metres IT SAYS HERE but persist in rubbernecking like gawpers at an accident waiting to happen.

Tighten fuel cap, clean up spill, tighten fuel cap even more, proceed to launch pad, stand by for blast off.

Contrary to expectations, this is the easy bit. A quick tug of the rope and the trimmer starts first time.

But will it trim? Not on your nelly. The business end whizzes round like crazy, but as soon as the plastic wiry stuff hits anything tougher than a single blade of red fescue it vanishes into the innards of the machine.

Turn off, dismantle soi-disant Bump Head, rewind plastic wiry stuff, re-assemble, pull rope, bump Bump Head, watch plastic wiry stuff do magic vanishing act for a second time. And a third, and a fourth.

Swear, give up, go home, try again next weekend.

There’s a knack to this trimming lark, apparently, so watch this space. If we ever find out what it is, we’ll let you know.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why gambling is a mug's game

Many, many, many years ago, stepmother Dixon decided it would be a good idea to put her stepson off gambling.

Her plan was a simple one. Give said stepson (yours truly) a fiver and tell him to pick a horse in the Grand National.

The chosen horse would naturally lose, young Dixon would be put off the gee-gees for life, and the Dixon millions would be safe for posterity.

Young Dixon decided to play along: first, he would choose the horse with the number of legs most closely approaching three; second, the dubious nag would be paired with a jockey with a career trajectory only slightly less promising than that of a seaside donkey minder.

As two concessions to hope, he would pay the extra 50p tax in advance (it was that long ago) and he would split his fiver each way.

Now an each-way bet, for readers unfamiliar with the ways of the turf, is similar to the offside rule in football. Those who don’t understand it spend hours having it explained to them by those who do, and neither party is happy with the outcome of the discussion.

But the general idea is if your horse comes in second, third or (sometimes) fourth, you still get a bit of your money back. But if the odds are less than four (or five) to one, you don’t get enough money back to recoup your original stake.

To add to your confusion, you also have to bear in mind the two basic rules of horse racing. The first of these is always to bet on the grey. Remembering always that greys aren’t grey, they’re white, with a bit of silvery-black thrown in. The second rule? Never bet on the grey.

And if you think that’s complicated, try working out a fourfold accumulator with a combination tricast on the side.

Anyway, the neophyte punter picked up the each-way concept pretty quickly, dashed off to the bookies and laid his money down.

Later that afternoon, the Dixons gathered round the flickering screen of their steam-powered black-and-white TV and waited for the off, secure in the knowledge that the horse would lose and that the heir to the Dixon fortunes would never henceforth be tempted to throw his supposed inheritance into the path of those thundering hooves.

The jockey was recovering from testicular cancer. His name was Bob Champion. The horse had the same great-great-great-grandfather on both sides of his pedigree, and was recovering from a serious leg injury. His name was Aldaniti.

Together, they won the 1981 Grand National at odds of ten to one.

Which meant a return on the original investment of something like £35, including the stake: not too shabby for a complete beginner.

There was a mighty throng at the bookies when we went back in to collect the winnings, and a sense of anticipation in the air.
Later that evening it was the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, and in those halcyon days the UK had at least an outside chance of winning.

The bookies were offering ten to one – we just laughed. But a few hours later, Bucks Fizz ripped their skirts off and won with Making Your Mind Up. And that’s why gambling really is a mug’s game.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Trying to make sense of the Census

It’s amazing what pops through the letterbox when you’re least expecting it.

Only last week, as the Dixons were at work, or school, or whatever else it is they’re supposed to be  doing between breakfast and supper time, the postie came along with a great big purple envelope and crammed it carefully through the door.

It had a picture of an origami bus on it, and it threatened dire legal penalties if we didn’t open it up and give it a jolly good read. So we did.

Inside was one of those questionnaires that start off easy but get more and more complicated as you go on.

You know the kind of thing.

“What is your name?

“No, not your surname, your first name. Answer in BLACK or BLUE ink, NOT purple, or green, or red or any tint, shade, admixture or combination thereof.”

So if the original questionnaire is printed in purple, why can’t you fill it in with purple? Just asking. Not really expecting an answer or anything.

Next question: “What is your address?” Oh come on. They know that already: they sent the form to our house, and it arrived safely, if a bit scrumpled, so They must already know where we live.

Whoever They are.

OK, humour Them. Anyone displaying this level of ignorance must be pretty important.

“Will you be living at that address on Sunday March 27?”

Probably. Unless we’re made homeless by a herd of rampaging wildebeest, or we win the Lottery and zoom off to the Caribbean.

A bit like Mrs D’s brother. Not that he’s won the Lottery, you understand. But he’s a plumber, which comes to pretty much the same thing. However, we digress.

“Did you answer YES or NO to Question 7a?”

Sorry, can’t really remember. We were too busy digressing.

“If you answered YES to Question 7a, proceed to Question 15b. If you answered NO, go back to page 3 and sign the declaration thereon.”

By now you’re getting fed up with all this bureaucratic snakes and ladders, but persevere you must.

Because after some research on the UK Census 2011 website, you find that failing to complete the form  will leave you open to a fine “subject to level 3 on the standard scale under the Criminal Justice Act”.

Which in layman’s terms is anything up to a thousand quid.

So onwards and upwards. “A man walks two kilometres east, rests for half an hour and then walks 3.5 miles west. Where is he?”

Trick question, eh? Ah, hang on, it’s Dixon Junior’s maths homework. We’ll get on to that later.

Because finally, we reach the last few questions and can start to relax.

“What is your religion?” After the multiple choices (Anglo-Catholic, Postlapsarian, None, Nun...) there’s a box to fill in if you don’t feel you quite fit in to any of the pre-defined cultural norms.

You could use this space to claim  that your religious beliefs preclude you from filling in census forms, or do the sad old joke about the Jedi. But it’s probably best to be sensible.

Because, after all, They DO know where you live.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Joanna Lumley and "slack morals"

What does it take to turn an actor or other public figure into a National Treasure? How do they transmute from your everyday common-or-garden lesser spotted celebrity into something more enduring and – well – treasured?

There’s a good reason for asking. Because as soon as someone becomes a National Treasure, they seem to think they can mess with things they don’t really seem to know nothing about. And especially bringing up children.

As somebody said earlier this week, Jamie Oliver wouldn’t let a teacher manage his restaurant business without a bit of training. So what makes him think he knows how to run a classroom?

The latest National Treasure to enter the bringing-up-children stakes is Joanna Lumley. Who is, most definitely, a treasure.

She was one of the early Bond Girls. As Purdy in The New Avengers she was one of the few glamorous sparks in a dull decade bereft of true glamour.

She was hilarious as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. She has been doughty in her support for Gurkhas and Tibetans. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, she has more honorary doctorates than you could shake a stick at and in 2010 she was Oldie of the Year.

Joanna Lumley is every inch a true National Treasure.

But then, in the latest  Radio Times, she has to go and spoil it all.

(Dixon puts on his stoutest tin helmet and presses on regardless...)

Today’s children, says Joanna, find it “laughably amusing to shoplift and steal.” Today’s children copy and paste their homework from the internet. Today’s children need to take on more responsibility. Today’s children have “slack morals”.

Slack morals? Slack morals? Sorry, Joanna, but you’ve lost the plot.

Here’s a little thought experiment. You’re the parent of two teenage children. You’ve worked hard to bring them up as best you can. You’ve encouraged them to do their own homework rather than blag it off Wikipedia. As far as you’ve noticed, they’ve never been done for shoplifting. And one of them is starting his Duke of Edinburgh’s this weekend with a 25-mile hike.

Now put them in a room with Joanna Lumley, and get her to tell them to their faces that they have “slack morals”. Would she?

And what’s her answer to the problems of modern youth?

“I would like to see children involved in hearty-sounding pursuits, such as building a camp,” she says. So far so good - camps are fun.

“Or getting an entire school to go and work on a farm for a term.”

What a fantastic idea. The children could learn hearty skills like operating heavy machinery, mixing pesticides, gutting chickens and drenching sheep for worms. And the teachers could have the term off – unless they’re expected to muck in.

Take it from someone who had a Saturday job down on the farm as a nipper – smelly it is, hearty it ain’t.

Sorry again, Joanna, but you’re wrong. Kids are just the same as they always were – but as National Treasures get older, for some reason they think they know better.

(Dixon puts on a second tin helmet and retreats quickly to his bunker.)