Friday, December 28, 2012

That was Christmas - now for the recycling

That’s it, then. You’ve opened your presents, you’ve stuffed your face, you’ve marvelled at the new 3D Queen, you’ve been for a walk in your festive jumper and you’ve not got washed away in a flood.

Kiss me quick before it goes into the compost
For you, Tommy, ze Christmas ist over. 

But before you can start to think about getting back to work, or making any New Year resolutions, or paying off all the bills, or planning next year’s holiday, there’s one thing you’ve got to do: sort out all the leftovers.

Just as busy hospitals operate a triage system to decide which incoming patients are worth saving, you’ve got to take a robust, unsentimental approach to the Trimmings that Time Forgot.

Here, then, completely free of charge and printed on the finest recycled paper, are your top five post-festive Reuse It or Lose It Tips.

WRAPPING PAPER: easy one, you’re thinking. If you’d opened all your presents really, really carefully, you could by now be folding up the paper, giving it a quick iron, and putting it away in the loft ready for next year. As if. Most of it is scrumpled beyond redemption after an over-enthusiastic three-year-old ripped into it on Christmas morning. The rest has been used to wrap triangular presents and has a entered a spatial distortion field from which no amount of ironing will ever rescue it. Recycle.

BLUE QUALITY STREET: long after the green and purple ones have gone, and long after the last toffee penny has yanked at your fillings, you’ll find a small pile of blue coconut-flavoured uselessness lurking at the bottom of the tin. Not even hungry magpies are attracted to these, and they won’t burn. Send them for landfill.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS: did you know that they recently discovered the gene that codes for not liking these unlovely offshoots of the brassica family? People who have the gene are what are known in medical parlance as “normal”. People who don’t have it, and like sprouts, are... well, it’s not their fault. Sprouts are dangerous things, though. Just before Christmas there were reports about a man from Ayrshire who overdosed on Brussels sprouts. So if you have a any left over (and you will have), encase them in lead, bury them at least six feet deep, backfill the hole with nuclear-reactor-grade concrete, and set up an exclusion zone dotted with Vitamin K detectors. You can’t be too careful.

SPUDS: donate them to science. Yes, seriously. Another pre-Christmas TV news item reported that top plane-maker Boeing is using bags of potatoes to test wi-fi transmission in the passenger cabins of new aircraft. This raises lots of questions – not least of which is: “What were they on at the BBC Christmas party, and where can we get some?” But there’s always life in an old King Edward. Keep for later.

BATTERIES: you mean you remembered to buy batteries before Christmas Day? So all those toys and electronic do-dahs worked straight out of the box? If you’re that well-organised, you don’t need anyone's help getting rid of the old ones – have a fantastically green New Year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Craft yourself a merry little Christmas

Regular readers (and we understand that there are still two or three left) will no doubt be aware of this writer's fascination with the televisual opus of Kirstie Allsopp, Nigella Lawson and other domestic divas whose main role in life seems to be to make those of us who are unlucky enough to live in the real world all too aware of our own inadequacies.

Kirstie blows her own glass Christmas tree baubles. Nigella whips up a festive four-course meal from nothing but panettone and tomato paste. We watch, we marvel, we feel as though we can’t compete.

A lot of this DIY creativity plugs into a sort of fake nostalgia, a desire to go back to a simpler time before Xboxes, before 3DSXls, before Wii U’s, before other surreal and random alphabetic combinations.

Back to the time when you could make your own Christmas crackers from old loo rolls, a sheet of tin foil and a packet of Polos.

All right, they didn’t crack when you pulled them but they looked convincing, and gave your parents hope that you might have at least one creative bone in your body.

Or back to the time when you could even, in the case of Mrs D’s dad, fashion one large Christmas tree from the trunks and branches of two much smaller ones.

But if your nearest and dearest want the latest in technology for Christmas, and you still want to keep your crafting skills alive, there are a couple of swift projects you could just about complete in the brief time between now and the Big Day.

First, why not try knitting a pair of touchscreen mittens? It’s simple as anything: just buy yourself a couple of balls of conductive wool in the colours of your choice (like Kirstie, you should source yours from a chocolate-box wool shop in a tiny Cotswold village). Cast on, purl 3, plain 4, drop 2, round the back and tie the whole lot off with a bow.

Your iPad-toting relatives will be delighted – at least until they lose all feeling in the tips of their fingers.

Of course, this year’s must-have festive gadget is the radio-controlled helicopter with built-in webcam.

Which is not designed for spying on your neighbours, but for more mundane tasks like making spectacular videos of waterfalls, mountain crags and other inaccessible features. Like your guttering, for a start.

But why spend hundreds of pounds on off-the-shelf technology? Half the fun of this sort of thing is building it yourself from found objects.

A quick rummage in the loft should turn up all the parts you need: metal biscuit tins can easily be hammered into shape for the body of the chopper, a couple of wooden rulers can be pressed into service for the rotors, and the motor from that retired food processor will serve as the power plant.

Stick an old Polaroid camera in the nose and it’s chocks away!

And as for radio control, well who needs it? This baby can fly itself.

At least until your pride and joy starts making a noise like a Stuka dive-bomber, crashes into the cat and shakes itself into a million pieces. Happy Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Your ultimate Christmas Checklist

Do you know the last posting day for airmail packages to Vanuatu? Can you tell the difference between a chestnut roaster and a turkey baster? And can you tie one of those curly ribbons without which no present is truly presentable?

If your answer to one or more of those questions is “No”, then you need help, and you need it now.

Christmas is just around the corner (if you hadn’t quite realised yet) and there’s still lots more to be done.

So here it is – your Ultimate Festive Cut-Out-And-Keep-And-Stick-To-The-Kitchen-Wall-And-Forget-About-It-Until-It’s-Far-Too-Late Christmas Checklist.

  • CARDS: What do you mean, you’ve posted them already? You can’t have – not all of them. OK, you’ve been through your address book and decided who to send them to. But you’ve left off that family from down the road who moved to Canada two years ago. Sure as baubles is baubles, you’ll find a card from them popping through the letterbox on December 22, when it’s far too late to do anything about it. And nothing will assuage your guilt.

Add caption

  • DECORATIONS:  Based on 20 years of painstaking scientific research, Dixon’s Second String Theory postulates that any string of fairy lights that worked perfectly well last year will fail within five minutes of unpacking them and plugging them in again this year. It further states that no DIY shop within a radius of 10 miles will have the right fuses. And it finally predicts that the best way to get them working again is to chuck them out and buy a whole new set. All of which explains why fairy light makers are rich, and you are not.

  • FOOD: There was a time not long ago when your choices were limited to a monstrously large turkey or a monstrously expensive goose. These days, of course, variety is the key to spicing up your Christmas dinner table. So if you don’t like the idea of one of those four-bird roasts they’re always advertising on telly, why not try a five-bird roast? Or a six-bird roast? Or a grotesque amalgam of herb cheese, smoked salmon, chilli jam and filou pastry? The only limit is your own imagination. But don’t go overboard on the quail’s eggs and pomegranate sorbet. It has a nasty habit of repeating on you.

  • CHRISTMAS CRAFTS: You can crochet your own Nativity scene, you can create tree hangings from old paperclips, and you can even fashion decoupage tea-trays to give to your nearest and dearest. Let’s face it, though, life’s too short, and there’s only one Kirstie Allsopp. And by no stretch of the imagination is it you. 

  • OFFICE PARTIES: It’s OK to enjoy yourself, and have a few drinks, and strut your funky stuff on the dance floor. But never, ever, ever succumb to the karaoke. There are few festive experiences less pleasant than waking up on a Saturday morning with a rasping sore throat and the strains of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies still ringing in your ears. And you can take that from a man who’s tried it.

  • TREE: Don't worry, there’s still plenty of time to get a tree. Yes, really.

  • PRESENTS: At this late stage it doesn’t really matter what you buy. Just keep the receipts, and remember that Amazon don’t deliver on Christmas morning.

  • DRINK: Oh all right then.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The black hole in our kitchen

Disturbing news reaches us from galaxy NGC 1277, 220 million light years away from Earth in the constellation of Perseus, where space boffins have detected a black hole more than 4,000 times larger than the one at the centre of our very own Milky Way.

This discovery has thrown the astrophysical community into some disarray, forcing them to re-think their ideas about how black holes are formed, and causing one to exclaim: “When it first popped up we said: ‘We don’t believe it!’”

Which, if it adds nothing to our understanding of black holes, at least proves that scientists are human, and can on occasion be persuaded to do Victor Meldrew impressions.

As above, so below. Or so they say. Whoever “they” are. Probably the same people who say “Many a mickle makes a muckle” and  “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

But whoever they are, they’re right. Because the interstellar goings-on in NGC 1277 have their earthly counterpart: right here, right now, in the kitchen at Dixon Towers.

A few months ago the fridge went on the blink. The temperature rose inexorably like an impending Big Bang, the thermostat light flashed like a pulsar and the compressor started making the kind of expensive-sounding noises that can only mean one thing: get someone out to have a look at it.

So we did, but by the time he arrived it was working properly, so he went away, shaking his head rather sadly. At least he didn’t charge us.

Then last week, just as the astronomers announced their discovery, the fridge started making those noises again.

Presumably because of some sort of cosmic harmony between black holes and our fridge. One doesn’t like to probe too deeply into such things.

The same man came around, sucked his teeth, said we needed a new fridge and went away again, pausing only to mend the knob on the front of the washing machine.

So we ordered a new fridge, and set about emptying the old one. At which point it became all too clear that our chiller was the domestic equivalent of the black hole in NGC 1277: it had swallowed everything that approached it, and had become a something of a test bed for scientific endeavour and experiment.

Questions about the age of the universe pall into insignificance beside the greatest questions of all: How long can you keep a half-empty pot of Gentleman’s Relish before it starts to go off? And what is the radioactive half-life of one of Mrs D’s home-made pickled gherkins?

Our white hole
Investigations into the nature of matter are subsumed into the all-encompassing riddle: What happens to a frozen strawberry coulis when it enters its molten state?

Deeper inquiries into the origins of life are as nothing compared to the ultimate puzzle: What’s that growing on the Jarlsberg cheese?

And if you’re of a philosophical bent, you might even reflect on this little mystery: why haven’t we got any proper food in our fridge?

Be that as it may, the fridge was emptied, and now it sits, unplugged and defrosted, a white hole in the tiny galaxy that is our kitchen.

But as its light fades and dies like a brown dwarf, the ultimate question remains: When are they coming with the new one?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Man against the sewing machine

Lazy Sunday afternoon... a break in the rain... snoozing on the sofa... dreaming... Lottery... tropical islands... coconut palms... piña colada... don’t even like piña colada... glass of dry rosé would slip down nicely though...





“HUGH!!! Please can you mend the sewing machine?”

Probably not, if truth be told. For the sewing machine is a mighty beast, not to be trifled with by a half-asleep chap still shaking off his afternoon doze.

A black hand-cranked Singer 99 of 1927 vintage, with all the original filigree and a bentwood case, it looks more like one of those steam engines that pull trains full of disgruntled tourists up Welsh mountains than the sort of gadget a deft seamstress would use to knock up a ball-dress or a camisole.

Industrial archaeology. (Picture by Lloyd Ellington)

It has instructions that say things like: “Place spool of thread on spool pin. Raise take-up lever 5 to its highest point. Lead thread into thread guide 1, down and from right to left between tension discs 2, into the loop of the take-up spring 3, under the slack thread regulator 4 (not through the eye in the thread regulator).”

Which are enough to put even the most mechanically-minded of chaps right off his breakfast, but clearly held no fear for the genteel ladies at whom the Singer 99 was originally marketed.

It even has a shirrer and a ruffler. Whatever they are.

And it’s sticking.

This sounds like a job for the internet. You can diagnose any illness after five minutes on Google, so surely you can solve a Singer 99 malfunction with a quick blast of a search engine?

The first thing you find out is that you should never, ever, fiddle with the piece of red felt next to the bobbin. Point this out to Mrs D, who goes a bit quiet and admits that she did  have a tug at it because it looked like lint. It’s not. It a lubricating wick.

Slather with oil, loosen pull-rods, tighten reciprocating cams, turn crankwheel back and forth with increasing desperation. Still locked solid.

Remember when you were eight, and you took your alarm clock apart to see how it worked? And then you couldn’t put it back together again?

It’s like that, only five times worse.

Suddenly all becomes clear: the needle is jamming. Adjust needle alignment, spin handle, Singer 99 whirrs into action.

But there’s a nagging doubt: deep in the instruction manual, Mrs D has read the dire warning: “Under no circumstances must the screw EE be loosened.” It’s confession time: in the course of all that fiddling around in the bowels of the machine, screw EE did get loosened. But only for half a minute before it was tightened up again. Honest.

By now it’s nearly bed-time, and Weston’s answer to Kirstie Allsopp puts off her crafting to another day.

That day dawns, and with it a ghastly truth: the machine turns, but the bobbin won’t lift. The timing is out, the Singer won’t sew. And it’s beyond rescue by an amateur.

Thank heavens in Bath we have sewing machine shops who are prepared to have a look at it.

But spare a thought for the chap who has to carry it in for repair.

Because it weighs a flipping ton.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dachshunds, donkeys and why it's OK to pick your nose

Sooner or later, if you go to enough pub or charity quiz nights, the question is bound to arise: What is the derivation of the word “dachshund”?

Well, any quiz question is easy enough – as long as you know the answer. If you’re stuck on this one, though, dachshund means “badger hound”, from the German words “Dachs”, meaning badger, and “Hund”, meaning... well, you can probably guess that bit.

Fully-functioning dachshund sorts out a badger. In German
A previously crippled dachshund called Jasper leaped into the  headlines this week after undergoing a remarkable new medical procedure in which cells from his nasal cavity were injected into his spinal cord.

Although “leaped” is probably too strong a word, because Jasper actually trotted into the headlines.

On a treadmill, on which he was videoed, showing off his reacquired mobility for the delight of  TV and internet viewers across the world.

The power of the imagination whisks us to a Gothic laboratory at Cambridge University, where an experiment is getting under way.

“So, Igor,” says Doktor Victor Frankenstein. “Haben sie die olfactory ensheathing cells aus der nozen von dem kleinen Dachsenhunden extracten?”

“Ja, mein Doktor,” gurgles Igor.

“Gut,” says the Doktor. “Also preparen wir den allgemeinen Spinaltapsinjection...”

There’d be something rather ghoulish about all this re-animation if it wasn’t so heart-warming.

Because Jasper is clearly a happy little chap, and very pleased to be back on his feet again.

And parents  everywhere will  have to stop telling off  their children for picking their noses.

Because it IS good for you after all.

Speaking of heartwarming, and kids, and as exclusively revealed on the front of last week’s The Bath Chronicle, it’s Christmas. Yes, really.

And Christmas (pursuing the  tenuous animal connection) means donkeys in Mrs D’s nativity play, and donkeys  mean buying coconuts to make clippety-cloppety noises.

So it’s off to Waitrose, Mrs D’s shopping list in hand. Here it quickly becomes apparent  that self-checkouts and coconuts don’t mix. They won’t scan, and no amount of option-button pushing has any effect.

One assistant says he can put them through at £1 each, which seems a bit pricey. But another, who’s clearly dealt with this sort of situation before, has a coconut barcode stuck into her notebook. The price comes down to 69p for each soon-to-be-pair of donkey hooves, which seems a lot more reasonable. Back at home, though, things get really difficult.

Hammer several holes through entry points at end of coconut. Turn coconut upside down over bowl. Tiny squidge of coconut milk. Shake coconut. Huge spurt of coconut milk all over kitchen floor. Leave nut to drain, find mop. Wonder how Robinson Crusoe contrived to hold out for 28 years on a desert island.

Trawl garage for implement to grip husk tightly enough to saw it but not crush it. Extract flesh from severed halves with dangerous knife. Rinse and repeat. And relax.

So that’s Christmas sorted. Never mind present-buying, card-sending, tree-putting-up, carol-singing: as long as the sound effects are organised, everything else is bound to come right in the end.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Would you put your head in this?

At the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a mysterious black monolith appears before a group of pre-human apes.

It inspires our early ancestors to reach for the stars, and from there human history develops.

Sit yourself down, dear reader. Take a deep breath, and a sip of something restorative. Because the same thing is happening again.

Right now. In Bath.

A monolith, yesterday
Half-way along James Street West, in the vast expanse of the public realm known as the St James Rampire, an equally mysterious object has appeared.

To describe its physical appearance does not do justice to its awesome and disturbing immanence, its being, its pure Isness.  But let us try.

It is about four feet high. In plan it is about one foot square. It is constructed of two oblong blocks, one on top of the other, their corners rounded to give a waisted effect where they meet.

The lower block is devoid of any decoration. The upper block is pierced right through with a circular hole, about nine inches in diameter, lined with blue plastic.

Below the hole, on one face of the upper oblong, is a small, round stainless steel button.

And at the bottom of the large hole is a fine metal grille.

If any further proof were needed that this object is of alien origin, consider this: it is not made of Bath stone, but of concrete.

Well may you shudder, gentle reader.

Well may you take another hasty sip of that restorative beverage.
A proper water fountain, yesterday

Well may you pretend to yourself that this is nothing but a  water fountain.

But water fountains are not like this. Water fountains are Victorian outflowings of temperance and paternalism, and come with enlightening messages like “WATER IS BEST”. Just like the one outside Bath Abbey.

And the object that has appeared on the Rampire is none of those.

Stand and observe it for a few minutes from a safe distance, and you will see that it generates an eerie, impelling force.

People don’t walk past it: they walk around it, forced into patterns like iron filings round the poles of a magnet.

Stand there a little longer and maybe a group of schoolboys will approach it, laughing and chattering as schoolboys will.
Do not put your head in here

One of them, a little braver than the others, puts his face to the hole in the upper oblong and presses the button below it.

A second later he steps back, no longer laughing. A strange light glows in his eyes, the first sign of a deeper understanding, a maturity past his years. The Rampire Monolith has spoken to him, and it will speak again to others.

Only this week, the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary announced their new Word of the Year: Omnishambles, meaning a dog’s dinner, something shambolic from every possible angle. Rather like our kitchen when yours truly has been making toad in the hole.

But the monolith, which can only be defined by what it is not, is the antithesis of an omnishambles: it is a unithority. Or a symbol of one.

And we ignore it at our peril.

UPDATE: 1 July 2013. The thing has been removed. Or possibly departed of its own accord.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Incomprehensible instructions - the New Power Omnipotence Charger

This morning I bought an external phone battery charger. The guy in the shop showed me how to use it, which was just as well.

These are the instructions, in pure Chinglish, printed on the side of the box in tiny (like 3pt) condensed type.

I've tried to get this version as close as possible to the original, but some of it is almost impossible to read, especially the bits printed over the darker grey banding.

All of it is impossible to understand.

Reference of New Power Omnipotence Charger

Usage step

1. First adjust well the shrapnel according to positive and negative plate of battery, patting into the battery and make battery pole sliee get in touch well with the shrapnel. Then press the "TEST" button, if conlight turnbright, the pole is right; if not, press the "switch" to change the polarity. Then press "TEST" button until the lightumom.

2. Plug into the power source (no batlery, light turn bright, power designatio light is bright), place the battery, "PUL" light pur out, "CH" lightflashworkstart.

3. Whenfill with the electricity, the FUL light become bright gradelly until the "CH" light put on all the "FUL" lights on, first electricize completely. It is best to continue thetiny flows for 1~2 hours if no urgect use to guarantee the best results.

Warning: forbidden electricize the battery without electrification function,

  • It is suitable to lithium phone battery that capaliry below 200mAh, and inside is high ionction swneh powersources, the voltage orientation scope is wide, Alternate Current 100.200v.
  • Micro-computer sliee control the process of electrification and turn onle clriticy high speed and efficiency. When finishitshut down anto malionreally and safety is edpendable.
  • The shape is agile, take convenience, operation simple, fit to the majotity lithium ioncellular phone battety.
At least it seems to work.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Scrabbling for the right word

Dramatic news reaches us from the world of board games, where the UK national Scrabble championship has just been won by Paul Gallen, an unassuming-looking 26-year-old solicitor from Belfast.

"LORD", you might say in your excitement at these glad tidings. Or "HURRA". Or "VEEP". Or even "DOWP". But then again you might not, because you might not have a clue what half of them meant.

These were just a few of the words that were placed on the winning board in the final.

And to be perfectly frank, most of them don't make a lot of sense.

All right, AX might just be a transatlantic variant of AXE. And among the weirder chunks of arcane vocabulary there are a few gems that you might occasionally drop into your everyday discourse. Words like ENTER, and TIE, and WED.

But QAID? PULLI? ICTIC? " VAUNTIER? What kind of person knows these words? Indeed, what kind of person uses them?

Or COOF. You couldn't, as they say, make it up. Especially not in Scrabble, because in Scrabble, making up words is cheating.

And if you need proof that neither Mr Gallen or his opponent in the final, Waly Fashina, were cheating, then you need look no further than the spell-checker on the steam-powered computer system that pumps out the pages of The Bath Chronicle every week.

It has the disconcerting habit of putting a red squiggle under any words that don't reach its high standards of lexicographical exactitude.

And up to this point, the only words it balked at when we ran this blog through it were the names of the finalists themselves. Which does have a certain irony.

It's always rather tempting to try and beat the system, though. So we chucked another couple of winning words into the slavering maw of the spell-checker and see what it thinks.

GOEY. KEB. ZARI. Nothing. Not a tremble, not a hint of a red squiggle. Believe it or not, they're real words.

So how do Messrs Gallen and Fashina, and others of their ilk, pick up all this fancy vocabulary that has passed the rest of us by?

Well, in the era before children, and video games, and iPads, we Dixons weren't averse to whiling away the long winter evenings with a game or two of Scrabble. And we've hung on to a relic of those halcyon days in the library at Dixon Towers: Chambers Words.

This handy tome – "a shortcut to inspiration", it says on the cover – lists thousands of words, without meanings from shortest (AA), through middle-sized (STELLION) to longest. Which is... deep breath...


Maybe you knew them. And amazingly, the spell-checker hasn't thrown a wobbly, although by this stage there was a disturbing creaking noise coming from under the computer room door.

So if you want to be a champion Scrabbler, it appears, you have to sit down and learn Chambers Words by rote. Well UG, and NOG, and POUPE to that. Life's too short, especially when you could be SQUEGGING. Actually that isn't a real word. But SQUEG is, and SQUEGGER too.

What they mean is anyone's guess, and to a Scrabble player, it doesn't really matter. It's that triple-word score that counts.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bond comes to Bath

“M wants you, James.” The call came from Moneypenny as Bond was finishing his bath. He answered it on the prototype iPhone 007 he was testing for Q Branch.

He grunted non-commitally and wondered if his loyal secretary ever took a day off. And if so, what sort of fun she got up to.

He raised a cultured eyebrow as he stepped from the steaming waters, lightly scented with Givenchy Eau Eau Sept, and buffed his honed torso dry with a towel.

It never changed, he thought. That number, that label, engrained in every moment of his waking life.

You were always needed, always on call. You could never let your guard down, not even for a moment. One mission led to another, the distinctions started to blur.

How many years was it now? Fifty? It felt more like a hundred. But you only live the living daylights twice, he brooded. And even if diamonds are forever, the world is not enough.

He shook himself from the encroaching lassitude and brusquely, almost peremptorily, scanned his craggy but still aquiline features in the mirror.

Easier said than done, he thought.

His reflection gazed back at him sardonically. Tomorrow never dies, it seemed to be telling him. And now isn’t the time to be going soft.

A grey, greasy, foreboding dawn stretched its fingers across the bleak October sky, and the empty London streets echoed to the pulsing twin exhausts of Bond’s supercharged Bentley.

Nestled snugly in its soft leather shoulder holster between the silk lining of his Gieves & Hawkes jacket and the cool, crisp cotton of his Turnbull & Asser shirt, the Walther PPK automatic normally gave Bond a sense of security.

Today, though, it only added to his tension.

Meetings with M were never easy: she didn’t hold with all the gratuitous product placement. Damn her, he thought: he had to pay the bills somehow.

He gritted his teeth grittily as he walked into M’s office. She glared at him through steel-blue eyes over the steel-blue rims of her steel-blue tinted spectacles.

She's yesterday’s woman, thought Bond. She’s running out of adjectives.

How wrong he was.

“We need you to get down to Bath,” she barked. “Agent H is in trouble – there’s going to be a defection.”

“Agent H?” asked Bond, his mind running through old contacts, trying to put a face to a codename. “Middle aged? Short of hair? Poses as a writer?”

“That’s him. And his wife’s the defector. She’s booked on a plane to Eastern Europe.”

“Ah, the exotic Mrs D,” mused Bond. “Tall, blonde, tantalising, deadly...”

“Stow it, 007!” snapped M. “You’re letting your fantasies run away with you. This is a just a quick in and out job. Pick up what you need from Q and get moving.”

Bond turned on his heel and headed to the armourer’s workshop.

The avuncular boffin smiled as he handed Bond a pamphlet. “I need you to take this to Agent H,” he said.

No gadgets, thought Bond. These days I’m just a glorified delivery boy.

“What is it?” he asked resignedly.

“It’s the manual for the tumble drier,” said Q. “It sounds like Agent H is going to need it.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Flood warning

From time immemorial Bath has been a Mecca for the rich and famous.

Ever since Prince Bladud drove his swine into the warm squidgy mud and discovered a cure for leprosy, the well-heeled have beaten a path to the city in search of style, solitude and hot and cold running waters.

Rumours abound – and true stories too – of retiring film stars and pop idols, their wild days long behind them, living quietly and soberly within the honeyed limestone fastness of their palatial Georgian townhouses.

Oh look, there goes Van Morrison! Could that be Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, back on a quick visit to his old stomping ground? Didn’t Johnny Depp used to live round here? Isn’t that Ronnie Wood out of the Rolling Stones?

Well no, actually. It’s someone else who looks and dresses very much like him. But he still gets the occasional mention on Twitter.

And of course there was a time not so long ago when you could walk all the way from Newbridge to Bathford and never step off land owned by Nicolas Cage. Happy days.

But one wrinkled rock god whose presence in Bath has hitherto been unsuspected is 60s (and 70s, and 80s, and 90s, and noughties, and teenties) electro-acoustic-folk-rock-balladeer Bob Dylan.

“Crash on the levee, mama, water’s gonna overflow,” sang Dylan in his seminal 1967 ditty Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood). “Swamp’s gonna rise, no boat’s gonna row...”

He can only have been writing from experience, and about one thing: the mighty flood that appears in Weston Road between Royal Victoria Park and the golf course every time it rains a bit.

For nearly two weeks, the traffic was down to one lane. It was (and still is) dodgy for bikes and impassable on foot.

In those laid-back 60s, Dylan could afford to be philosophical about such matters.

“It's sugar for sugar, and it’s salt for salt,” he droned. “If you go down in the flood it's gonna be your fault.”

But we live in a faster age of high-speed communication and instant gratification, and people can’t wait. They need action, and they need it now. Surely, they cry, the council should do something about it?

They could have enforced parking restrictions round the flood, to give traffic more of a chance of getting past, rather than sitting pumping out fumes into Bath’s “green lung”.

They could have diverted traffic through or round the park for a few days, perhaps even letting it out through the west entry.

They could even, heaven forbid, have applied the municipal equivalent of a sink plunger or Vax, and quickly removed the whole oozing mess.

For days, weeks almost, they did nothing.

Eventually they erected a sign that said “Flood” close to each end of said flood, so there was no advance warning. Plus some cones, and a few sorry-looking sandbags.

And then they went away.

Until yesterday, that is, when they actually got round to setting up temporary traffic lights to smooth the traffic flow.

They worked out that the whole mess was caused by a blocked drain. (Who'd have guessed?)

They closed Weston Road last night and brought up the big guns. Bowsers, gulley cleaners, king-sized drain rods, the lot.  

Maybe they'll fix it, maybe not. Decades of experience have taught them that the waters will eventually recede of their own accord. Or at worst seep away into the park, leaving a six-inch layer of foetid mud over road and pavement.

They are as philosophical about the Weston Road flood as former Bath resident Bob Dylan was. And we, the commuters, will just have to tough it out.

Meanwhile, though, rumours are spreading that Noah once owned a house in Brock Street.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

How not to buy a Bath student bus pass

Sorry, it’s time for a whinge. This week’s offering should have been about all sorts of entertaining weirdness like Jamie Fox the human scarecrow, French beekeepers finding blue honey in their hives and some nutter called Felix jumping out of a stratospheric balloon while slathered in Blue Stratos. You know, the usual stuff.

Whoops, just re-read that last bit. Should have said “sponsored by Red Bull Stratos”. Not doused in the 70s male grooming product.

Now where were we? The whinge, is where. It concerns First Bus student tickets, and it goes like this.

First Bus sells a Student Photocard, and students can use it to buy discounted bus tickets.

Students, for the purposes of the Photocard, “must be studying full time at a university, college or school.”

Which covers our son, who’s on a full-time course in the sixth form at a school in Bath.

So we took his photo, much to his displeasure, filled in our bit of the application form, got the school to fill in their bit of the form, and were duly issued with a Photocard.

This entitles him (or at least the fabled Bank of Mum and Dad) to buy: a FirstDay Student Bath (£3.40); a FirstWeek Student West (£17.90); a FirstMonth Student West (£70); or a FirstYear Student West (£750).

Now, the FirstYear option would require more quantitative easing than the Bank of England could comfortably afford, never mind the Bank of Mum and Dad.

And half term’s coming, so there’s no sense in buying a monthly if it’s only going to get used for three weeks out of four.

So what would we save if we bought a weekly as opposed to five dailies? None of us is too great at maths, but a minute’s work on the calculator suggests that (£3.40*5)-£17.90=-90p.

Yes, sums fans, five dailies are 90p cheaper than one weekly. All right, the daily only covers Bath, while a weekly lets you roam, free as a bird, to exotic locations like Wells, Devizes and Congresbury. But the main point of buying one of these things is to get Dixon Junior to school and back in one piece, not for him to swan about the darker reaches of the West Country.

And even if you did buy a weekly, when it expires you can’t buy a new one on the bus – you have to go to the bus station. For the cost, presumably, of an additional, undiscounted, adult single fare.

Dailies seem like the obvious choice. But the first time our son tried to buy one, Photocard in hand, the driver said he could only buy a student ticket if he went to the Uni or the Tech. Whatever the “Tech” is.
Where's Bath to?

Quick visit to the First website, where among other things you can discover according to their map, Bath doesn’t exist.

You can find a customer service number in Southampton that gives you the option to press 1 for customer services.

And when you press 1 you get the option to press 1 again. And again. And again. Kafka! Thou shouldst be living at this hour.

And if you persevere, you can also find a phone number for Bath lost property, which is actually the main number for Bath bus station.

Where a very friendly chap says that the driver was wrong and that yes, our son is indeed eligible to buy a daily student ticket.

Whinge over. Now pass the blue honey.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Eye of newt, and toe of frog...

"Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
"Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
 "Lizard's leg and owlet's wing..."
"I hope you don't mind the smell," said Mrs D brightly on Saturday morning as she put together a shopping list, self and young Miss D for the purchasing of.
A quick glance down the list was enough to convince us that yes, we would mind the smell.
Demerara and dark muscovado sugars. Mace, ginger, apples, stout – the only thing missing was vinegar, and Mrs D already had that by the bucketload.
For Saturday, she had decided, was going to be chutney-making day – and Heaven help the nasal passages of anyone getting within 30 feet of our kitchen.
There are two schools of thought about chutney. One cleaves to the view that it's succulent, spicy and piquant – a quintessential accompaniment to the enjoyment of cold meats and cheeses.
The other holds that it is an evil sludge which doesn't deserve cupboard space.
You may have guessed from the aforegoing which side of the Dixon household stands on which side of the debate.
There was only one thing for it, though – get into town, buy the stuff and then retire to the loft while Mrs D did her Weird Sisters bit and boiled and bubbled the autumnal hell-broth.
"Buy the stuff" – aye, there's the rub (says he, getting even more Shakespearian). For in that trip to the shops, what dreams may come, when we have gone to Waitrose or to Morrisons, must give us pause.
Because Waitrose these days is – to hammer the Shakespearian motif to destruction – the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.
As you walk in there's a sign pointing to "chilled goods" in one direction and "ambient goods" in the other. Which might raise a brief chuckle among fans of trance music, but leads only to an unmapped labyrinth of produce which customers may browse bemusedly at the back of the shop, while the builders refurbish the front.
Never mind, though. It'll be great when it's all finished.
Meanwhile Morrisons has gone through all the pain of remodelling and come out at the other end boasting one of the most extraordinary gadgets ever to grace a sales floor – the vegetable mister.
Imagine if you will (or even if you won't) a grid of stainless steel tubing supported above a rack of exotic vegetables.
Pierced into the tubes is a row of holes, and from the holes emanates a cloud of water vapour that envelops – nay, enrobes – the purple carrots, fresh samphire and galangal root that form such an essential part of our everyday diet.
"There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And most of them are on display on Morrisons' vegetable counter.
Well, there we are: a right old Shakespearian mash-up (not unlike Mrs D's chutney if truth be told).
Bath's supermarkets have become like Prospero's island: "Full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not." Meanwhile, Mum's gone to Iceland.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Other people's junk mail

Wouldn’t it be nice just for once if the post that hits your doormat every morning (or is it afternoon these days?) was actually worth the bother of opening?

Even after you’ve tried to stem the flow of bad news by arranging paperless bills, paperless bank statements, paperless tax forms, the junk just keeps on coming.

Here’s a waste of trees from Sky, pleading with you to come back to their slower-than-the-one-you’ve-got-now internet connection.

Here’s the pulped remains of a small forest from Barclaycard, offering you the chance to stretch the pain of repayment even further into the future.

Here’s a tasteful square of pasteboard from Google, promising  riches beyond your wildest dreams if you follow some incomprehensible instructions and fill your blog with carefully targeted adverts.

Here’s one for Mrs D called Teacher Catalogue, which fortunately doesn’t offer her the opportunity to trade in her current spouse for a new model with freshly-brushed Hush Puppies, an elbow-patched corduroy jacket and horn-rimmed specs, but is in fact a sales brochure for textbooks and interactive CDs, pupils for the educating of.

And here’s a multi-coloured charity gatefold, reminding you that Christmas is only three months away and hadn’t you better be doing something about it now? No. Charity, in this case, begins in the dustbin.

Although it doesn’t really. Because being a security- and environment-conscious type person, you have to open every piece of junk mail, shred the sheet with your name and address on it and recycle the rest.

This is the 2st century, for heaven’s sake. By now we were supposed to be living in a better world, driving flying cars and sending messages by thought waves.

Oh, and eating plankton. Not everything about the future is good.

But here we sit, Canute-like, before an ever-rising tide of information we don’t want to read from companies we don’t want to do business with.

Just you wait, though, until you foolishly agree to receive forwarded mail from relatives who are spending a couple of years abroad. That’s when the fun really starts.

Thud on the doormat. Yachtie catalogue. Thud again. Yachtie lifestyle magazine, filled with pictures of unattainable tat. Thud the third. Yachtie price list. In which anything bigger than a bathtub will set you back a sum not unadjacent to £150,000. Plus VAT.

All right, said relatives are on their own yacht. But this is rubbing it in.

And then, with a fourth and final thud, arrives The Installer magazine. No connection with The Enforcer, or The Terminator, or The Predator, you understand, but (it says here) “essential reading for heating, plumbing and renewables professionals”.

Leaving moot the question of what a renewables professional does for a living, The Installer offers readers a tantalising glimpse into the world of integrated home automation systems, fan-assisted radiators and, if you want a laugh, DIY plumbing disasters that the professionals have been called in to sort out.

A bit too close to home, really, but it does answer one question.

Why can you never get a plumber when you want one? Because they’re all swanning around on their yachts.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

More of the same old garbage

One of the perks of churning out the column in the Bath Chronicle every week is writing the headline to go on the top of it.

Now headline writing is a noble and time-honoured skill, somewhere between an art and a craft.

The headline has to fit the width of the column neatly, without changing the font size or the spacing between the letters.

It has to be punchy, it has to make sense, and it has to make the reader want to read whatever follows.

Normally, the headline is the last thing to get committed to paper. But this week's was written before even a word of the column itself was penned (or word-processed, to be strictly accurate – there are some concessions to modernity at Chronicle Towers).

Because even before it was started, there was only one possible subject that could be aired this week: garbage.

Or, to be slightly more accurate, garbage disposal.

It's been hitting the headlines big time over the last couple of weeks.

First off, there's a suggestion doing the rounds that "civic chiefs" – or B&NES as we know them – could soon be issuing us all with gull-proof rubbish bags.

What a splendid idea. The sturdy receptacles are a hit in other towns where gulls plague the residents with endless squawking, aggressive behaviour and acidic poo.

The bags are woven from tough plastic and have a zip on top to dissuade even the most persistent scavengers.

You pop your black bin liners inside, stick them outside your front door on rubbish day, and the gulls fly off permanently in search of other fodder.

Or at least that's the theory. To be pessimistic for a moment, they'll probably fly back to Bath city centre, where they'll survive quite happily on left-over takeaways scattered across the pavements by weekend party people.

Which brings us to the second strand in this litter-picking Odyssey: solar powered bins.

Everywhere you turn a new one seems to have sprouted up, looking a little like a glorified speak-your-weight machine, with a panel on top to catch that solar energy, a flap in the front for drunken revellers to stuff their unwanted kebabs, and a compactor lurking inside to mash all the rubbish to pulp.

They do have a couple of drawbacks, though.

To start with, the way our climate's going we'll be lucky if we get enough sunshine in the next decade to evaporate a small puddle, let alone generate the necessary megawatts to power a townful of garbage-guzzling mechanoids.

Second, they're just not exciting enough. You open the flap, you put your rubbish in, you close the flap. So far, so dull.

What they should really do when we feed them is play us a merry tune, or spring up on a concealed telescopic pole and do a little dance, or dispense a packet of Haribos.

Something, anything, to reward us for using them.

Because whatever technological advances we may make in the field of urban waste disposal, at the end of the day it's our own responsibility not to make a mess in the first place.

It's just that sometimes, we do need a bit of encouragement.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What happened to Wenlock and Mandeville?

So there we are. Britain’s glorious summer of sport has finally drawn to a close.

If there was ever any doubt, it only took England’s deeply uninspiring draw against Ukraine on Tuesday, followed by a constant stream of drizzle on Wednesday, to remind us that we are now very much back to normal.

But as the victory parades march off into the sunset, and the medals are tucked away in their cabinets, it’s worth taking a moment or two to reflect on the fates of a pair of unsung heroes of the Olympic/Paralympic jamboree: Wenlock and Mandeville.

Remember them? The oddly-shaped one-eyed mascots? Of course you do.

Wenlock was named after Much Wenlock, the village in Shropshire where an early version of the Olympics, the Olympian Games, was founded in 1850.

Mandeville was named after Stoke Mandeville, the village in Buckinghamshire where yours truly had a girlfriend in the late 1970s.

Wenlock had a three-pronged head representing the three different Olympic medals. And a London taxi light, representing a London taxi.

Mandeville had a three-pronged helmet (oo-er missus) representing the three Paralympic colours. And a London taxi light, representing... yup, a London taxi.

The Cyclopean eyes weren’t really eyes but cameras, which according to the official description let them “record everything”.

What, everything? Really everything?

The entire population of the UK having its breakfast? A star exploding in galaxy SXDF-NB1006-2? A transparent prawn ploughing the depths of sub-glacial Antarctic lake Vostock?

With all that recording going on, anthropomorphic surveillance cameras Wenville and Mandelock would have needed some pretty hefty disk space tucked away inside.

But perhaps we’ll never know. Because as soon as the Olympics started, they went underground. Did you see Wanlock and Mendeville at the opening ceremony? No. Did you see them at the victory parades? No.

Apart from a brief appearance when they tried to photobomb Usain Bolt, the two mascots were conspicuous by their absence from almost every Olympic event.

All right, you can still pick up chocolate simulacra from the bargain bins in Tescos. And at Dixon Towers we have a couple of Wombat and Murgatroyd multi-coloured souvenir ball-point pens. You know, the sort of pen with a big fat barrel and sliders up the sides for all the different colours.

The sort of pen that won’t write properly, gets left in a drawer and dries out just when you really need it.

Which just about sums up our two Olympic mascots. We revelled in a summer of sport; they missed out.

What the future holds for them, only time will tell (© Clichés R Us).

There’s apparently a campaign starting to get them nominated as joint BBC Sports Personalities of the Year.

The only problem there is that judged on personality, they wouldn’t even beat Andy Murray.

So maybe it’s best if they just fade quietly away into the background.

Farewell, Whiplash and Mandible, it was lovely knowing you.

Now what did you say your names were?

Thursday, September 06, 2012

All aboard the Victory Dive Bomber

You can always tell it’s autumn. For a start, the sun comes out, the temperature rockets above 17°C for the first time since March, and you get a chance to wear the shorts you bought back in July when you still optimistically thought you were in with a chance of a tan.

Other signs of the changing season are more subtle, but nonetheless telling.

A text arrives from a certain teenager on his first day of sixth form, asking what time school starts.

A certain dad wonders if there are evening classes in how to avoid becoming a helicopter parent.

An email arrives from the alma mater, reminding former students that Christmas is only four months away and that the college online store will soon be open for the sale of cards, souvenirs and other festive knick-knacks.

At least one former student nearly succumbs to the temptation to (a) dig the degree certificate out of bottom of the filing cabinet; (b) ceremonially burn it; and (c) post the ashes back to said alma mater without a stamp.

But logic and good reason prevail. It might still come in useful in the event of a career change. (Fat chance of that, mind you, this far into middle age. But you’ve got to be prepared for anything these days.)

On a jollier note, there’s a funfair in Victoria Park this weekend. And not your ordinary disco-blasting diesel-fume-belching type of funfair either.

No, this is a steam funfair, Carters by name, and it offers such nostalgic delights as the Yachts, the Chair-o-Planes and the Galloper.

Plus white-knuckle attractions like the Wall of Death, Carters Rock’n’Roll Dodgems and the Victory Dive Bomber.

Which comes complete with RAF roundels and a beautifully painted warning that  “pregnant ladies, customers under the influence of drink or drugs, people with weak hearts, or a nervous disposition should not attempt to ride”.

There’s the Mini Octopus for the tinies and the Sensational Giant Octopus for the not-so-tinies.

And if those don’t tickle your fancy then you could try the Lightning Skid, Jollity Farm or the Scenic Electric Dobbies.

They’re all original fairground rides, some dating back to the 1920s or even before, lovingly maintained and restored and full of nostalgic charm.

One of the payboxes that was going up in the park on Wednesday bears the legend “A Show for Young and Old that Never Fails to Please”. And if that doesn’t beat the autumn blues then nothing will.

Except perhaps the Dixon family’s showing at the Weston Flower Show.

If you read last week’s offering you may well be interested to know how the cake got on. If you didn’t, then you may not, but stick with us.

It won a Highly Commended, which isn’t bad for a second foray into the arcane world of sponge baking, although it was probably the inclusion of Mrs D’s strawberry jam that swung it.

 Her runner beans and sweet peas carried the day.

As did Miss D’s Animal Crossing knitted toy.

And then there was Herman, the comedy carrot who looked a bit like a hermit crab and who has since been fed to the guinea pigs.

You  had to be there, really.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to have your cake and eat it

What goes around comes around, they say, and nothing with more regularity than the annual Weston Village Flower Show.

It takes place this Saturday, September 1, at 2.30pm at the All Saints Centre, High Street, Weston.
And preparations around the Dixon household have been, shall we say, fervid.

Of course the trouble this year is that we’re just reaching the end of the Summer That Wasn’t, and things horticultural aren’t as far ahead as they might be.

Indeed, reports have reached us from other parts of the country of gardeners resorting to performance-enhancing skullduggery in an attempt as they struggle to bring their veggies up to scratch.

The case comes to mind of the woman from East Anglia whose tomatoes were so unripe on the night before a show that she whipped out the nail varnish and gave them a surreptitious coating of scarlet.

And then there was the Yorkshireman whose pumpkins were so flabby that he took a bicycle pump to them in a misguided attempt to inflate them  to regulation size. He ended up in Casualty, peppered with pips.

Of course there’ll be no such monkey business at Weston this weekend, and even for those who don’t aspire to high honours in the vegetable stakes, a quick glance down the list of classes in the programme offers all sorts of alternative challenges.

What’s this in the Homecraft section? “Class 9: MEN ONLY, a Victoria Sandwich baked in a seven-inch tin.”

Hang on a minute. MEN ONLY? Why isn’t there a WOMEN ONLY section? With classes like unblocking drains, sealing baths, strimming allotments and other tasks which might otherwise be considered the domain of us chaps?

There’s only one response to this reverse sexism: bake that cake.

First, it’s off to the supermarket to top up on self-raising flour, baking powder, eggs and caster sugar. Then it’s back to Dixon Towers for a practice run, only to be subjected to a well-meaning blast of back-seat cooking from Mrs D.

“Read the recipe before you start,” she says. “And warm up the oven while you’re mixing.”

So far, so flipping obvious.

Because this is easy. Weigh it out, mix it up, realise you should have beaten the eggs before you put them in, decide it doesn’t matter, slap the mixture into the tins, re-read the recipe for some light entertainment, realise you’ve forgotten to add the baking powder, decide it does matter, scoop the mixture back into the bowl and stir in the magic dust while Mrs D mutters dark imprecations about “not rising properly” (whatever that means), slap the mixture back in the tins and stick them in the cosy oven.

What emerges, after cooling, sandwiching with jam, sprinkling with sugar and inspecting for leaks, is tested by assembled family and friends and judged to be “All right.”

Which isn’t bad for a first attempt.

So the second attempt will be on display at the All Saints Centre Weston on Saturday afternoon.
Unless of course it’s rolled off the plate and smashed a seven-inch hole in the floor.

In which case we won’t be taking it home with us for tea.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Job in a million

“WANTED: Enthusiastic moped rider. Must be able to stay perfectly upright at gradually increasing speeds and keep self-composure while being followed closely by a horde of burly cyclists (male or female).

“Moped, white, will be provided, but the successful candidate must supply their own uniform of peaked black motorbike helmet and overalls. Ability to keep a straight face while looking like a total plonker would be a distinct advantage.

“Competitive package for the right candidate. Immediate start, two-week contract. Apply to LOCOG, c/o Lord Coe, Stratford, London, England GB.”

That, if there’s any justice in the world, is the advert that ought to have appeared in the specialist cycling press in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics.

While some people made sure that the stadia were built on time, some were topping up the water in the diving pool and others ordered truckloads of sand for the beach volleyball, it was one person’s responsibility to seek out the ideal candidate for that most challenging of Olympic tasks: the pacer in the Keirin.

What’s the Keirin, you may well ask, and why does it need a pacer?

Hush, grasshopper, and all will be revealed. The Keirin is a very unusual bike race in which the competitors follow a guy on a motorbike (the pacer) for several laps as he gets faster and faster before pulling off the track and letting the real cyclists sprint to glory over the last couple of laps.

Your initial reaction when you see a Keirin race is that the chap out in front must be cheating: he’s using a motor while all the others are only allowed to pedal.

But then you realise that this is all some inscrutable oriental ritual – the Keirin does, after all, originate in Japan – and that the race is a fascinating combination of tactics and chance.

And then, in the blink of an eye, it’s all over. Did it really happen? Did a moped-rider looking like a extra from Thomas the Tank Engine really lead a cluster of aerodynamic-helmeted, Lycra-shorted athletes round and round the Velodrome?

Yes, he really did. But then the Olympics was always a magnet for the bonkers and the bizarre.

In the 1908 London Olympics (yes, the ones when GB won even more medals than this year) they had motor-boat racing. Five British boats with sturdy-sounding names like Gyrinus, Quicksilver and Sea Dog battled it out with one French entrant, the rather less sturdy-sounding Camille.

And of course we won, even though the Wolseley-Siddely ran aground in a gale.

Even today we have such oddities as dressage (otherwise known as horse disco) and synchronised swimming (otherwise known as treading water with style).

But of course the most bizarre – and heartening – thing about the Olympics for us Dixons was that we made it to Cardiff for the men’s football match between Team GB and South Korea, watched our local heroes go out in a performance that only occasionally went beyond the lacklustre, and still had the most amazing Olympic experience a family could ever enjoy.

If only there could be a next time...

Friday, August 03, 2012

Off to the Olympics

You can’t beat ’em so you might as well join ’em.
Those Olympians, that is. They get everywhere. Sculling across your TV screen, swimming out of the front page of your daily newspaper, lobbing heavy metal balls into your muesli bowl, running round and round the dining table...
Hang on a minute. Suffering from an overdose of beach volleyball here. Must have a little lie-down.
That’s better. Now let’s take these Olympics seriously.
It all started last Friday night, when James Bond and the Queen jumped out of a helicopter, narrowly missed Mister Bean and lit the Olympic tulip. Or something like that. Details are a little hazy because this blogger found himself regularly having to wipe away tears of laughter – big boys don’t cry, so it wasn’t unbridled emotion – at the sheer chutzpah of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony.
Give that man a knighthood, ma’am. Once you’ve recovered from the helicopter ride.
And so much has happened since then. Bath has laid claim to every rower, swimmer, rider, runner and beach volleyballist under the sun, although if you visit Penzance you’ll discover that they think they own Helen Glover, and Llanelli has a pretty strong claim on Dai Greene, seeing as he was born there.
Never mind, though: no-one can take away our Amy.
Olympic fever struck Dixon Towers big time on Saturday. We stapled our trusty Union Flag to the lintel of the garage door, checked to make sure the garage was still standing, Mrs D laid down the law about yours truly’s attempts to grow a pair of Earl-Bradley-of-Wiggins-style sideburns, and all outstanding DIY projects were mercifully put on hold as we finally decided it was time to buy our very own Olympic tickets.
Leaving it rather late, you might think? Not a bit of it. No ballots for us, we just went online and bought four tickets to the quarter-finals of the men’s football at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff without any trouble at all.
But if getting the tickets was a doddle, getting to the game may be more of a challenge. Driving isn’t really an option as they’ll be closing all the car parks round the stadium, and the last train from Cardiff back to Bath looks eminently missable.
So we’re looking at a quick trip round the Bristol ring road to Parkway, a train under the Severn, a queue to pick up the tickets, the minor detail of watching the game and then the whole journey in reverse at 10 o’clock at night.
Hannibal could have learned a lot about logistics from us when he took his elephants across the Alps.
And he didn’t have to worry about what to do if there’s extra time.
Team GB beat Uruguay on Wednesday night so we’ll be watching our own local heroes, including Bath boy Scott Sinclair, taking on the might of Korea.
And if you’re in Bath on Saturday night, you’ll hear the cheering from right across the Bristol Channel.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bored teenagers

Here we go again. The schools are breaking up, the teachers are out on the lash, the education secretary is wondering why he didn’t get any end-of-term presents and the kids are starting to complain of boredom.
So if you’re a perplexed parent with a tortured teenager, take heart.

We’ve gleaned advice from experienced parents, youth workers, PCSOs and probation officers, chosen the best bits, had a few ideas of our own and packed them all together into... drum roll...our essential Top Ten* Tips for Summer Holiday Teen Taming.
*(There may not actually be ten tips. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.)

  •  Video games: Letting them take on the role of a US Marine as he battles his way through the steamy jungles of the Philippines not only hones their reflexes but also prepares them for the history A-level they’re allegedly going to start in September. The only drawback is that this year’s syllabus covers the economic development of the Hanseatic League in the late 15th century. Still, never mind, it keeps them off the streets.
  •  Sport: Get together a gang of like-minded mates and organise a summer tournament? But don’t call it the *l*mp*cs, and don’t award G*ld, S*lv*r or Br*nz* m*d*ls, or the marketing police will be down on you C*t**s, *lt**s, F*rt**s than a ton of bricks. And best steer clear of target shooting, too. You don’t want any nasty incidents with next door’s cat.
  •  Video games: Letting them take on the role of a Formula 1 driver as he battles his way through the gritty racetracks of Europe not only hones their reflexes but also helps to alleviate their disappointment when you tell them that you can’t afford real driving lessons, never mind the insurance.
  •  Pick your own: Get back in touch with nature by cramming your teenagers in the back of the car, driving out to a sodden pasture in the back of beyond, breaking your back gathering strawberries while they huddle up and smirk, trying to make jam, realising that you haven’t got any jam jars... Summer really doesn’t get any better than this.
  •  Video games: Letting them take on the role of a cheeky pizza-loving plumber as he battles his way through the green and yellow pipes of the Mushroom Kingdom, defeating a giant turtle with a horned shell and rescuing a princess with the unlikely name of Peach not only hones their reflexes but also prepares them for GCSE Italian. Or reality.
  •  Get a job: This is the big one. Because the problem here is that your average shop-owner or restaurateur is going to realise fairly quickly that your average teenage boy’s standards of personal grooming are never going to match customer expectations, and your average teenage girl’s getting-up times are never going to fit in with your opening hours. Any dreams of getting them to finance their own further education will remain just that: dreams.
  •  Read a book: Ha! If you think you can persuade any teenager to read a book for fun, you have seriously lost the plot.
  •  Video games: Admit defeat. It’s the only way to keep them happy.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Orange gone bonkers

What to do if you can't log in to the updated Your Orange app on the App Store:

"If you experience login issues please delete and reinstall app and reset your PIN by pressing Cancel and setting a new PIN so the more secure PIN can be set.

"If resetting password please allow time for the reset to take place before trying to login again and remember if you get your password wrong 3 times, your account will be suspended for 15 minutes and locked thereafter requiring you to call 150 to unlock it.

"Alternatively please try Quickview for quick access to your account details."

Well that's simple then. And remember that you won't be able to read any of it while you're trying to log in. Nice one, Orange.

Location:Bath,United Kingdom

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The alien from planet Ogle

Thought-provoking stuff on the telly this week. And not just the puzzle about how Sherlock apparently fell to his death from a roof, only to reappear, large as life and twice as natural, snooping on the mourners at his own graveside.

No,what we’re talking about here is Stargazing Live, in which the BBC gathers the talents of a Brian (Cox) and a Briain (Dara O) and rambles on engagingly for an hour or two about black holes, white dwarfs, red giants and purple haze.

And exoplanets. Which, in case you didn’t know, are planets that orbit suns other than our own. They’re being discovered by the bucketload and the hope is that eventually we’ll find one capable of supporting life.

Once we find it, though, the question is how would we communicate with it? And how would it communicate with us?

Picture the scene. After aeons roaming the interstellar void, a mission from planet OGLE-2-TR-L9b (Ogle to the natives) reaches Earth, mistakes Bath for a landing site and touches down in the Circus, singeing the plane trees and rattling the windows of the great and good.

A delegation of dignitaries is dispatched from the Guildhall to greet the alien visitors.

Resplendent in the chains trappings of office, they huff and puff their way up Gay Street, at the top of which a small crowd has gathered in search of what passes for excitement in that part of Bath.

As the wheezing worthies crest the hill, an aperture opens in the side of the Oglian vessel and a jelly-like heptapod steps forth.

The chief dignitary greets it (or him, or her) through the mayoral megaphone: “Greetings, traveller, and welcome to the fair city of Bath, where we hope...”

“Kraark! Snerp! Whopple!” interjects the Oglian, its upper sensory organ glowing a nasty shade of magenta. “Fargle bork nootpad! Engle frickly!”

The creature seems angry. But how, not speaking Oglian, can the ermined dignitary make it realise that we earthlings are friendly?

Suddenly, a little girl rushes forward from the crowd, a daffodil in her hand. “Pingle neep ferossle noobly,” she pipes. “Nimmy nom flibble, mar lar par!”

At once the alien’s demeanour softens. The hideous magenta glow fades to neutral blue, the alien says “Flork” and a new era of interstellar friendship is born.

So how did the girl speak Oglian? Well, she didn’t. She was, in fact, revising for Year One phonics.

Which involves six-year-old children reading out 20 invented “pseudo-words”, like “Bribble” and “Glink” and “Bleck”, in order to assess their reading skills.

Sounds bonkers? As bonkers as a state-funded King James Bible for every pupil? As bonkers as an equally state-funded Royal Yacht?

When education secretary Michael Gove has a hand in all three projects, you can never be sure.

But if it saves us from alien invasion, then it’s just possible he’s on to something. So grarp nally froop, as they say on Ogle. You know it makes sense.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rhubarb growers face crisis

Disturbing news from the pages of i, the cut-down version of The Independent, published especially for readers with little time and less money. (Here at Dixon Towers we are so part of that demographic).

Steady your nerves before reading on. For it would appear that the UK rhubarb harvest is under threat, and likely to be a poor one this year.

Not because of a plague of rhubarb weevils, much less from a virulent infestation of the dreaded stalk mould. Because those are both made up diseases.

No, it’s the mild British winter that’s to blame. The noble rhubarb originally hails from Russia (heaven alone knows how it ended up here) and needs a short, sharp shock of Siberian-style frost to energise its roots and bring its stems to peak, pink perfection ready for scrunching in the spring.

Specialist Yorkshire rhubarb growers are already predicting shortages, and this is reflected at our allotment, where Mrs D’s single specimen has never really got going.

(Although this may be connected with the fact that said specimen took more than a year to reach us, and looked decidedly limp and sorry for itself when it did eventually flop through the letterbox. Britain’s mail order rhubarb industry still has much to learn.)

Rhubarb’s a funny sort of food, though. It has an identity crisis about whether it’s a fruit or a vegetable: a bit like the tomato only the other way round. It has a close affinity with pizza (they’re both one of your five a day), and of course everyone knows that the stalks are edible but the leaves are poisonous.

But how do we know that, exactly? In the dim and distant imperial Russian past, did some poor peasant from the banks of the Volga sit down to a salad of tasty-looking rhubarb leaves, only to succumb in agony?

Did Peter the Great’s food taster nervously sample a chunk of boiled pink stem and live to tell the tale?

And did some predecessor of today’s oligarchs establish the first rhubarb trade between Russia and England, later buying up a football team here, a newspaper there?

Probably not, but it does bring us back – more by coincidence than design – to The Independent.

According to i,  growers in the Netherlands have come up with a solution to original horticultural problem – lack of cold – that involves shocking the rhubarb roots into action by treating them with a liberal dose of acid.

Now, it’s undoubtedly the case that the Dutch have a much more relaxed attitude to recreational drugs than we do on this side of the North Sea, but this is taking things a bit too far.

All right, it’s not that kind of acid, and rhubarb produced using these dodgy foreign tricks certainly doesn’t come out psychedelic. It actually comes out paler and with less flavour than the traditionally grown stuff from the candle-lit forcing sheds of the Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle. (Not made up).

So, if you want a proper stick of tangy, vibrant pink British rhubarb to whisk into a fool or bake in a crumble over the next few months, then you may find yourself paying a little a bit extra for it.

But it’ll be worth every penny.