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.