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.