Thursday, December 12, 2013

Essential Christmas Countdown

Wednesday. Two weeks before Christmas. Mrs D lurches from her bed with as much energy as she can muster, given that she is down with a very nasty case of Lady Flu.

(Which is of course exactly the same as Man Flu, except genuine.)

“It’s two weeks till Christmas!” she says, her voice hoarse from one too many rehearsals of the school Nativity Play. Or possibly from the aforementioned bug.

Yes, Mrs D, we know. It is indeed  two weeks till Christmas. Or at least it was. Now it’s considerably less than.


What we need is a Christmas countdown. You know, like all those domestic goddesses have. The Kirstie Allsopps, the Delia Smiths and the Mary Berrys (or even Berries) of this world.

Best leave Nigella out of it for now. She's got enough on her plate.

So here it is. Cut it out, fix it up with a fridge magnet, lose it down the back of the sofa, find it next August and wonder what all the fuss was about...

Your Essential 2013 Christmas Countdown. Accept no imitations.

Dec 12: Try on Santa outfit, blogger for the wearing of, and Mrs D’s impressionable young pupils for the scaring of. Examine suspicious marks left by previous occupant. Take to dry cleaners.

Dec 13:  Friday the 13th. Stay in bed, don’t tempt fate.

Dec 14/15: It’s the weekend! Not the best time to go shopping.

Dec 16:  Day off. Buy all the presents. Every last one. Including emergency replacements for the stuff that you ordered from Amazon and is due to arrive from Japan some time between now and Saint David’s Day.

Dec 17: Realise you’ve forgotten to send your brother a birthday card. Ring up and grovel.

Dec 18: Realise you’ve forgotten to send anyone any Christmas cards. Decide to go green, save trees, avoid wear and tear on the already strained postal service and generally make a virtue out of a necessity.

Dec 19: One week till  Christmas! No, wait, that was yesterday.

Dec 20:  One week till the day after Boxing Day! Go back to the dry cleaners to pick up Santa suit. Ignore pitying looks from dry cleaning operative. Take suit home, clamber into same. Succumb to sneezing fit induced by residual cleaning fluid in snowy white beard. Visit school, scare tinies. Job done.

Dec 21/22: It’s the weekend! Again! Crikey, where did last week go? Remember last weekend how you made a  good case for not going shopping? No more excuses, they won’t wash. Booze, smoked salmon, more booze, cheese footballs and even more booze won’t buy themselves, you know. The supermarket awaits.

Dec 23:  Ask spouse in a polite spirit of co-operation if she has definitely made the cake. Awaken some time later to discover that you have landed a starring role in 24 Hours in A&E.

Dec 24: Christmas Eve, and it’s too late to panic. Load up the car, hit the road for the relatives on the other side of the country, notice with abstract curiosity that everyone else in the entire world seems to have had the same idea.

Dec 25: Christmas Day. Relax, it’s all taken care of.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Four more candidates for Greatest Bathonian

The votes are flooding in for Bath law firm Mogers’ online poll to find the Greatest Bathonian.

As reported in last week’s Bath Chronicle, the sometimes controversial contenders are Jane Austen (obv), Uranus-discoverer William Herschel, painter Thomas Gainsborough, proto-postman Ralph Allen, four-minute-miler Sir Roger Bannister, singer Peter Gabriel, architect John Wood the Elder, and Georgian fashionista Beau Nash.

Now, whether or not these worthies were or are true Bathonians (born within the sound of the Abbey bells, or in the Princess Anne Wing of the RUH at a pinch) is open to endless and ultimately fruitless debate.

But there are certainly quite a few important historical heroes who are missing from the list. 

In no particular order:
  • Doctor William Oliver. The inventor of a very classy cheese biscuit. Bequeathed the recipe to his coachman, who got very rich on the proceeds. The  biscuit-making machine was purportedly moved from Bath to Reading in the 60s. Or the 70s. Or the 80s. The Bath Oliver has never tasted as good since.

  • Saint Alphege. Purportedly born in Weston Village, Bath. Saint Ælfheah to his Anglo-Saxon chums. Or Elphege, or Alfege, or Godwine. They weren’t that hot on spelling in 1006, when he became Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1012 he was clubbed to death with animal bones by a band of marauding Vikings. Most famous for having a school named after him in Whitstable, where Mrs D did her first teaching practice. There’s a spring in the hills above Weston called Saint Alphege’s Well, and tradition holds that if anyone attempts to build houses on it, the holy roller will rise from the ground and whack them round the head with a ham hock. If only.

  • Bladud. Legendary King of the Britons and early animal welfare activist, he purportedly drove his leprous swine into the Avon (as you do) and discovered the hot springs, thus accidentally founding Bath’s medical tourism industry. His name is honoured to this day by the stag and hen parties who visit the city every weekend and end up getting bladdered.

  • Queen Victoria. It’s all about the obelisks. Early in her reign, she pitched up in Bath and purportedly had a Hanoverian hissy fit when she discovered that Queen Square was named after her great-grandmother, Queen Caroline, rather than herself, and that the obelisk had been erected in honour of her grandfather. (Frederick, Prince of Wales, if you’re interested. Frederick, Prince of Wales, if you’re not.) The citizens tried to appease her by naming a park after her and building therein a second obelisk, guarded by three of the dopiest-looking lions ever to be rejected for service in Trafalgar Square. She was not amused.

Observant readers will have noticed four uses of the word “purportedly” in the above romp through Bath’s murky past. (Five including that last one.) Which goes to show that history is very much in the eye of the beholder.

But all claims for Greatest Bathonianhood for such luminaries as Napoleon Bonaparte, Catherine of Braganza, Albert Einstein,  Attila the Hun or Elvis Presley should be treated with the greatest suspicion.

And as for that Ronnie Wood...  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Selfies, onesies and twerking

So, the votes have been cast and counted, the contenders sorted and sifted, and we have a winner.

Not, you'll be happy to hear, for the Most Preposterous Supermarket Food Advertised During a Single Episode of I'm a Celeb… (although Lidl's Three Fish Roast ought to win a prize for something, if only for being conceptually even less appealing than the Waitrose five-birder).

Nor indeed for the most unappetising snack served up on said Ant-and-Declathon. No, this prize is a literary one, whose previous winners include such lexicographical luminaries as "chav" (2004); "bovvered" (2006); "simples" (2009) and "omnishambles" (2012).

Yes, folks, it's the Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year Award, in which thesaurian hopefuls vie for the key to enter the hallowed precincts of verbal Valhalla, to scale the Mount Parnassus of grammatical glory...

All right Dixon, stop showing off. Just tell us the winner and we can crack on with the rest of our lives.

A selfie, yesterday. Too old for twerking.
OK. The 2013 Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year was (drum roll)…

Selfie (n): "A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone... and uploaded to a social media website."

Among the also-rans were Schmeat, Oinguito, Binge-watch and Twerk. And if you don't know what those mean, you'll have to look them up. Oh wait, you can't: these upstarts will wither on the vine of linguistic respectability and will never find a home in Dictionary Corner.

"I've never taken a selfie," said Mrs D reflectively when she heard the news. "And I've never worn a onesie either. What do you do when you want to go to the loo?"

Well may she ask. Fortunately though, this year's must-have fashion item didn't even make the shortlist so we shall probably never find out. Still, there's always next year. 

A sneaky peek at the early declarations gives us such gems as:

Unsurance (n): The feeling you get when you decide not to insure your offspring's student bus pass and, yes, he goes and loses it.
A dictionary, yesterday. Too old for selfies OR twerking

Cashmare (n): A very vivid dream in which you convince yourself that your wallet is stuffed with £10 notes. But when you wake up and look, it isn't.

Shrumper (n): Your purple pullover after it accidentally got mixed up in a hot wash.

That's enough nouns. Verbs, adjectives, adverbs and even conjunctions are in with a good chance too, so if you can think of a good one, let the Oxford people know.

Although Squerk (v): To jiggle lasciviously while sitting at your desk - is going to take some beating.

All of which proves, if nothing else, that the English language is a tough old bird (if you want tender, go for a five-bird roast) that is quite happy absorbing all the neologisms that new technology, party politics and celebrity culture can throw at it.

And if you're still not convinced, you can stick that in your pape and sploak it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Watch out for Comet Ison

Excitement is mounting among star-gazers all around the world, as what could be this year's big interplanetary event comes ever closer.

Comet Ison, or Comet C/2012 S1 to its friends, or Comet Nevski–Novichonok to its Russian friends, was hatched in the mysterious and distant Oort Cloud, and is currently hurtling towards the centre of the solar system.
Comet Ison, yesterday. Or possibly the day before

It will reach its closest point to the sun on November 28, zipping round behind and heading back outwards again for a close encounter with Earth some time on Boxing Day.

It's already visible from the UK if you have a good pair of binoculars and know where to look. It's a bit fuzzy, and has a slightly greenish tinge. But the big question is, will we get to see it with the naked eye?

Will it be as bright as the Great Comet of 1843, which had a stupendously long tail; or as dramatic as the equally Great Comet of 1882, which broke up into little bits and had a backward-pointing "anti-tail"; or as attention-seeking as the no less Great Comet of 1744, which was a proper show-off and boasted six separate tails?

Well, it all depends on who you believe.

If you take certain over-excitable newspaper columnists at their word, Comet Ison will be 15 times brighter than the moon and visible in broad daylight, will cast double shadows and will shine in through your bedroom window at night, keeping you and yours awake for the next three months.

Too flashy for its own good: the Great Comet of 1744
If you're of a more sceptical disposition, you'll more probably be of the opinion that it will be visible in the night sky but won't be as exciting as all that.

And if you're a complete and utter killjoy, you may well decide that Ison is fated to boil up as it goes round behind the sun and won't be here for Christmas.

The fact is, in the immortal words of Sir Patrick Moore, "we just don't know". But it's certainly something to look forward to.

There was a time, of course, when superstitious people thought that comets brought wars, plagues, famines, natural disasters, revolutions and the overthrow of governments in their wake.

In these days of rationalism, we're perfectly capable of organising most of those for ourselves without the help of an extraterrestrial chunk of ice.

But surely it's no coincidence that the papers right now are full of stories of mutant super-rats, of false widow spiders lurking under lavatory seats and leaping out to bite innocent bottoms, and of ghastly orange Spanish mega-slugs that threaten our native British gastropods?

(Mind you, if the Spanish slugs eat up the broccoli before Mrs D has a change to cook it, the can't be all bad, can they?)

Until Comet Ison fades back into the firmament next January, things can only get crazier.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Guinea pig heaven is a place on earth

OK. That's the whizzes, bangs and flashes out of the way for another year.

All that's left of the money you spent on fireworks is a sooty cardboard box in the garden and the sticks from a few spent rockets rattling around on the garage roof.

The lovingly carved pumpkins are turning to mush on the front doorstep, the trick or treat sweeties have coalesced into a sticky mess on the kids' bedroom floor.

And even more tellingly, style icon Samantha Cameron, who graced a number of newspaper front pages earlier this week all done up for Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, has reverted to a wardrobe in sensible shades of autumnal russet, cumulonimbus grey and crepuscular blue.

Probably. This blogger's grasp of what's in and out, fashion-wise, is shaky to say the least.

Everything, in other words, is back to normal. It's cold, it's raining and it's six weeks till Christmas. Or is it seven? In many ways the latter would be far, far preferable.

So what are we going to do to cheer ourselves up?

Twitter seems a good place to start. There's always something heart-warming on Twitter.

Take the tale, repeated and retweeted ad nauseam, of Sooty the randy guinea pig.

Sooty, from Pontypridd, tunnelled out of his cage, broke into another enclosure occupied by 24 female guinea pigs, had his wicked way with them and was found the next day exhausted but highly chuffed with his efforts.

This, according to Twitter, is the best story about a guinea pig you'll ever read in your entire life.

Maybe so, but no one seems to be worried that it's old news, and that South Wales's very own cavy Casanova made his great escape way back in the year 2000.

Or that Sooty, and his 43 direct offspring, and probably all his grand-piglets too, have long since departed to guinea pig Heaven.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to broccoli: one of those vegetables, along with sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale, on our eat-it-to-set-a-good-example-never-mind-if-you-like-or-not list.

The only possible excuse for avoiding it, up to now, has been the fact that it contains high levels of fructose, which in susceptible individuals can cause distressing symptoms of a gastric nature.

That one's unlikely to wash at Dixon Towers, but there is a small chink of light on the ever-more-wintry horizon: our very own guinea pig Heaven, right here on earth.

Because living at the back of the house are three of the cutest cavies ever to escape a Peruvian cooking pot. (No risk of any offspring – the vet put a stop to any Valley-style shenanigans round our house).

And as Mrs D let slip just the other day, they are very partial to a stalk or two of broccoli.

So here's the plan. Next time the evil brassica pops up on the menu, hide it away while it's still raw.

Make a small hole in the side of the guinea pig cage, paint some convincing-looking tracks from there to the kitchen, and say, when asked if we have any broccoli: "We did have, but the guinea pigs ate it."

Sooty would have been proud.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Boys keep swinging

“Heaven loves ya. The clouds part for ya. Nothing stands in your way, When you're a boy." So sang David Bowie in Boys Keep Swinging, his 1979 song about growing up, being cool and coming to terms with your own identity.

Strangely, though, in among buying a home of your own, wearing a uniform and getting your share, Bowie didn't think to mention that most boyish of boyish activities – taking things apart.

Female readers may want to stop here, because they'll probably find most of what follows utterly meaningless (in contrast to the well-reasoned homily that normally adorns this blog.)

But if you were ever a boy, you'll know what it's all about.

You acquire an alarm clock – a proper one, with springs, and cogs, and a ringer, and a key to wind it up. It works for a while, and after a fashion, inasmuch as it tells the time with a certain degree of accuracy.

But it never seems to help you wake up for school – it takes persistent shouting from your elders and betters to do that – and eventually you overwind it, it stops working completely, so you take it apart and see what makes it tick.

You remove the winders and adjusters and you prise off the back. You make a careful mental note of how everything fits together, and carefully start removing the tiny internal screws.

Plink. You drop one on the floor, and it rolls away under the chest of drawers. Never mind, you can always pick it up later.

Two or three more screws meet the same fate, and the shiny brass plate at the back of the mechanism is working looser and looser.

All of a sudden it comes free, and with a ghastly death rattle the big spring comes unsprung, the cogs fly in all directions, and your alarm clock is no more.

Two years later you try a similar tactic on an old valve radio that will only pick up distant echoes of the BBC Light Programme.

The results are similar, if slightly more pyrotechnic. Which is what being a boy is all about.

Several decades later, long after your boyish coolness has evaporated and the only uniform you wear is beige and comes from M&S, your kids expect you to mend their Nintendo Wii, which has suffered a rupture of the disc drive and is very much Off Games.

You take your tiniest electrical screwdriver and try to remove the shiny white plastic back.

You fail at the first attempt, because you need a special three-winged screwdriver, only available from special three-winged screwdriver shops.

Even equipped with said (costly) screwdriver you fail, so you attack the thing with a drill. And finally the back comes off, exposing the electronic innards.

You do a bit of judicious bending, you blow out seven years worth of dust, you plug it in, the disk spins for two seconds and stops again with the same sort of death rattle the alarm clock made all those years ago. Total failure.

Ah well, off to the second-hand shop for a replacement, thinking to yourself on the way that David Bowie was wrong.

Boys don't always work it out.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Attack of the Mint Chocolate Pringles

It’s been a weird sort of week. All sorts of oddities keep popping up, like mushrooms in the forest after an autumn shower of rain.

But somehow rather less natural, or appetising.

Take for instance the Case of the Odd-Flavoured Pringles. A highly reliable source (ie Twitter) has reported, with no little horror, that the curvaceous and scrunchy snack is now available in a limited edition Mint Chocolate flavour.

Imagine, if you can, a largish crisp that tastes of After Eights. Now try to stop imagining. You can’t, can you? Thanks, Pringles, you’ve really made our day.

What next? Raspberry-flavoured Marmite? Orange-infused fishpaste? Salted meringues?

No. Sweet is sweet, and savoury is savoury, and never the twain shall meet, not even in Heston Blumenthal’s darkest nightmares.

(Latest reports suggest that you can also get Sweet Cinnamon Pringles. A top Bath Chronicle fact-checker was sent out to investigate, but they haven’t come back yet, and don’t seem likely to. Who could blame them?)

If that wasn’t weird enough for you, the BBC reported earlier this week that the carcasses of two giant oarfish have been washed up on the coast of California.

Now, at up to 56 feet long, a giant oarfish is the longest fish alive but is generally peaceable, despite its resemblance to a sea serpent. According to that BBC report, it “hovers vertically in the ocean and grazes on passing proteins”.

Once again it’s time to crank up the imagination. Picture a school of oarfish, with an oarfish teacher showing her oarpupils how to spot the right kind of food. “Watch out, Class Nine,” says Teach. “Here comes some protein. Have a quick nibble, and if it doesn’t taste of Mint Chocolate Pringles then it’s good to eat – get grazing!”

The really worrying thing about beached oarfish is that they are believed to herald earthquakes. No fun if you’re in San Francisco, which has previous history.

But Post hoc non propter hoc, as they say in Latin. Just because thing A happened before thing B, it doesn’t mean that it caused it. That’s enough philosophy.

Meanwhile, closer to home, strange signs have been popping up in the roads around Weston Village. Round they are, with a blood red border, a spooky white background and the mystical number 20 in the middle.

Yes, newer, lower speed limits are coming in across Bath, and no bad thing if they help to prevent just one death or injury on our roads.

But for several days no-one got round to changing the white roundels in the roadways, which carried on reading 30.

So guess which limit most drivers were observing? That’s right, neither. Some, it appears, still believe they have an inalienable right to do 40mph on any urban road they like.

While the limit was still 30, your law-abiding columnist was recently overtaken doing a little bit less than that along Penn Hill Road. Which suggests there needs to be rather more enforcement.

Still, that’s enough odd things popping up for now. But do watch out for the poisonous spiders.

They’re popping up everywhere.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Bad Day at Dead Woman's Bottom

Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your family. Like giving up your share of the tinned peaches, or using the wonky umbrella, or sitting on the hard chair to watch the telly – all in the interests of keeping your nearest and dearest happy and unrebellious.

Such a time was last Sunday, when Dixon Junior decided he wanted to cook a cosy lunch à deux for himself and his girlfriend. At our place. In private. And no one else was invited.

So in the interests of cosiness and privacy, it behoved the rest of us (Mrs D, young Miss D and self) to pack a picnic.

Now those of you who take note of such things will remember that last Sunday was remarkable for one thing: rain.

And those of you capable of even the teensiest bit of logical deduction will no doubt be thinking that rain and picnics go together like... well, soap and Marmite, or cheese and elephants, or gin and ginger ale.

But having given Dixon Junior detailed instructions on how not to burn the house down in our absence, we hit the road.

But where to? Wherever we went, we were going to end up sitting in the car, and even in the teeming rain we wanted to sit somewhere attractive.

“Why not near Frome?” said Mrs D in a flash of inspiration equalled only by  Newton’s discovery that apples don’t float away into the sky when they come off the tree. “It’s quite trendy these days.”

And why not indeed follow our picnic with a stroll round the bijou arcades and enchanting alleyways of Somerset’s answer to the Champs Elysées? Apart from the fact that it was still raining?

So Mrs D unfolded Ordnance Survey Explorer map 142, and we set course for the East Mendips.

Never let it be said that women can’t navigate. Even with a dodgy pair of contact lenses, she unerringly directed us to a quiet country lane with a babbling stream, a scenic wood, and a rustic ambience just suited to sitting in a steamed-up Peugeot and  munching on a corned beef sandwich.

It was then that we took a closer look at the map. And things took a turn for the scarier.

Just downstream was a bend in the river called Bedlam. Barely half a mile across the fields was a valley called Murder Combe. Further along the lane was a crossroads called Mary’s Grave. And between us and civilisation was a dark and winding hill.

Called Dead Woman’s Bottom.

Yes, these are all real places. And no, there wasn’t any phone signal.

The rain beat harder on the roof of the car. The babbling of the brook mutated to an eldritch cackle.

That thumping noise... was it someone – or something – trying to get into the car? Or just the sound of our pounding hearts?

This was clearly a place where people spent far too much of their spare time bumping each other off.

And it felt like we were next.

We were too unnerved to visit Frome. We headed back  through Vobster, thanking our stars we’d reached somewhere with a sensible place name before it was too late.

And when we got home...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Striking back at Bath's tourists

A curious factoid plonks onto the desk at Chronicle Towers: Bath’s digital creative industry, valued at £350m per year, is worth three times more to the city than tourism (a mere bagatelle at an annual £106m).

This raises a number of rather uncomfortable – and probably unanswerable – questions. 

First off, what exactly is a digital creative industry, and how would you know one if you saw one?

Second, given that this very blog is both digital (as in  typed with the fingers) and creative (as in made up on the spur of the moment) then where’s its share of the £350m?

Third and most important, though, is the question of what to do with all the tourists, now that they don’t matter nearly as much as they used to, finance-wise.

Just think of the fun we can have. We can stand on the pavement of the Circus as the coaches trundle round and round, their occupants soaking up the Georgian architectural splendours through smoked-glass windows from the comfort of their air-conditioned recliners.

We can peer back at them in a vaguely authoritarian manner, waving placards with slogans like “Get Out And Walk!”

And then when they do, we can wave another placard that says “Get Back On The Coach, You’re Bunging Up The Pavement!”

In seven different languages.

We can stand at the back of a walking tour, point at the guide and whisper subversively into the ear of an unsuspecting grockle: “She’s making it all up, you know.”

Or we can try to grab our own slice of that rather tempting £106m by setting up our own tourist trap.

Here’s an idea: why not find an historical figure and work out their Bath connection? Set up a museum in their honour, hire out pre-recorded audio guides, sell classy-looking souvenirs and generally rake it in.

It can’t be anyone literary: the market is already saturated by the bonneted, frilled and furbelowed spectre of Jane Austen.

Scientists are out too: William Herschel, the 18th century’s answer to Peter Higgs of boson fame, got there first.

(Little-known fact about William Herschel: he originally named his newly-discovered planet, Uranus, after King George III, thereby earning himself an entry in the first edition of Ye Guinneffe Booke of Recordes as the Biggest Creep in the Entire Universe. Try telling that to a tourist.)

Moor your frigate here
(Little-known fact about bosons: they’re named after Indian mathematician Satyendra Nath Bose, who apparently never got the recognition he truly deserved.)

Where were we? Ah yes, trying to get rich off the holidaymakers.

This is how. Find an obscure naval officer who convalesced in Bath after Trafalgar. Build a replica of his three-masted frigate, sail it up the Avon and moor it off Pulteney Bridge. Dress up in midshipman’s gear, stand by the gangplank and leer nautically at the approaching coachloads. Regale them with tales of rum and floggings. Sell them funny hats, feed them ship’s biscuits.

Ker-ching. Job’s a good’un!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Married to the job

There are good points and bad points about being married to a teacher.

On the down side, you have to take your own holidays in the school holidays: a time when ferry operators, airlines, hoteliers and renters of cottages, to name but a few, rub their hands gleefully and connive to extract colossal sums of money from families with children – and families with teachers.

Then there’s the acorns. Mrs Teach has been out for an nature walk, liberated a few oak sprigs, and brought them home in triumph to create an autumnal display for her classroom.

But a note of caution has crept in. What if the little ones take a fancy to the acorns and eat them?
Could Bath & North East Somerset education department afford the compensation claims from the parents of all those poisoned tots?

Probably not, we reckoned, so the oak sprigs were arranged tastefully in a vase on the sideboard at Dixon Towers.

From where they shed acorns as fast as Premiership football teams shed managers, all over the floor.
And if you don’t know what it feels like to tread on an acorn as you stagger downstairs in your bare feet at six o’clock in the morning to make your beloved a cuppa, well it’s on a par with treading on a Lego brick.

But more quercine.

And that’s about it, as far as the bad points are concerned.

What about the good points?

Well, there’s the delight of sharing in the end-of-term booty, as grateful parents present your spouse with chocolates, biscuits, cakes and even the occasional bottle of wine along with the thankyou cards and handmade gifts from the little ones.

Then there’s the added insight you get into the political process, particularly with regard to the UK education system. Did you know, for instance, that the Secretary of State for Education is Mr Michael Gove MP? Well, you do now.

And do you know how many thankyou cards and boxes of Milk Tray Mr Gove gets at the end of every school term? Exactly.

The best bit of having a teacher for a wife, though, is getting to help out. No, not with the teaching. Best leave that to the professionals. But with the DIY.

Take last weekend. Mrs D had ordered a mighty metal boot rack, tinies’ multicoloured wellies for the storing of. And guess whose Saturday job it was to put it up?

Off to school, where there’s trouble at the gate: We’ve got the wrong keys. Back home, pick up right keys, back to school.

Assess disassembled boot rack. Hmmm. Thickly wrapped in industrial-strength clingfilm, no visible instructions.

Wrestle with clingfilm, find bag containing 12 bolts and an Allen key so flimsy even IKEA would be ashamed to hand it out with a flat-packed wardrobe. Still no instructions, visible or otherwise.

Home again home again, this time to pick up some serious tools. Use powers of logic  to construct the mighty rack. Stand back and bask in spousal thanks. Which, in the end, are the best thing about being married to a teacher.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is there life on Mars?

Somewhat disappointing news reaches us from the planet Mars, where NASA’s Curiosity Rover, having pootled around on the surface for the last year or so, taking samples and generally being curious, has reported back that it can’t find any methane.

Disappointing because it means that the chances of finding life on the Red Planet are vanishingly slim.

Red planet: Mars, yesterday
“It’s not a good sign,” Canadian astrobiologist Lyle Whyte told ABC News. “We have a problem.”

Hang on...

The last time anyone said that in a space-related context was when Apollo 13 blew a gasket and nearly blasted Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton into icy oblivion.

This sounds serious.

Meanwhile, even more disappointing news comes in from another corner of space. (Can space have corners? Ask your father.) Cosmologists say they are  confident that the earth will end in 1.75 billion years, when it finally gets swallowed up by the ever-aging, and ever-expanding, sun.

That’s if us uppity humans haven’t already blown up our home planet, or melted it, or swamped it with plastic pop bottles. And even if we haven’t, we’ll probably have evolved into telekinetic gasesous entities, and will be even less bothered than we appear to be now.

Every cloud, though, has a silver lining.

A third report, this time in  the New Scientist, is headlined “Death by Higgs rids cosmos of space brain threat.” If you understand that then you’re – well, the sort of person who understands headlines in the New Scientist.

But it can only be good news.

Methane delivery system
And the stuff about no methane on Mars is actually quite good news too, when you start to think about it. What makes methane? Cows. And if there’s no methane on Mars, then there are no cows either. And if there are no cows, then there won’t be any of those ghastly agricultural pongs that have been wafting across Bath for the last two weeks.

So when the sun starts expanding and the smell gets bad, we’ll know what to do. We’ll ride a trail of Higgs Bosons to the fourth rock from the Sun, settle down in odour-free bliss, and live out our days singing David Bowie songs. Sounds like a plan.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Every one's a winner

Anyone who happened to be lurking outside the kitchen window at the back of Dixon Towers last Friday night would have been (a) trespassing and (b) mystified.

For what would the putative lurker have made of the sight of the householder, on his knees with one of those strap-on torches on his head, peering through the murky glass door of the oven (cleaned by Mrs D only four short weeks ago), and conducting a close inspection of the interior?

Enough riddles – the answer is obvious. Having rashly decided to enter the scone-baking competition at the Weston Village Flower Show the following day, and having never baked a scone his life, the bloke with the torch was doing a trial bake.

And it wasn't going well.

Mrs D had gathered together her vegetable crop ready for the next day's competition, and was standing by with helpful advice. "Read the recipe twice before you start," she said. 

No time for that, we're on a deadline.

"Ten minutes to make, ten minutes to bake," she said, recalling the wisdom of a long-retired Domestic Science mistress."Knead it gently," she said. But how can you when it's thrashing around on the worktop like a disgruntled moray eel?

We eventually counted the first batch in, counted them out, and decided they were "All right".

Scones. Or Scowns. Or Sconns. In a tea towel. Last Friday
Although whether "All right" would be enough to compete with the doughty bakers of the assembled TGs and WIs remained to be seen.

Saturday dawned, and with it a second round of scone-baking, even more stressful than the first. You know how scones are supposed to be flat on top? Well these went in flat all right, but came out slanting.

We displayed our produce in the village hall that morning, and stood by for the results.

Mrs D swept the board with her veggies, and is now the proud holder of the Nelson Wiltshire Memorial Trophy (the gardener's equivalent of the World Cup). Not unsurprisingly, the scones came nowhere.

There was some consolation. Yours truly won the guess-the-name-of-the-teddy competition. He's called Merlin. He's brown and fluffy. And he's a lot more cuddly than a scone.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Glut feeling

So here are again. Back from the hols with little more to show for it than a couple of fading mosquito bites and that warm feeling you get when you know you’ve helped pay off a significant portion of the French national debt.

All we have to do now is avoid reading depressing features on the BBC website with titles like The Ten Worst Things About Post-Holiday Blues, keep our heads down and wait for the bills to start rolling in.
Of course, September does have its good points: mists and mellow fruitfulness, yours truly’s birthday, kids off the video games and back into what is apparently known these days as a “learning environment”. What’s not to like?

Plus the added annual excitement of the Weston Village Flower Show, for which entries had to be in just a couple of days after we got back from foreign fields, thus causing a flurry of activity around the allotment as Mrs D and self tried to find six straight runner beans, an unfeasibly long stick of rhubarb and three matching onions.

The chum who had kindly volunteered to keep things watered while we were away had done a sterling job, but she obviously didn’t have much of a taste for courgettes.

Because there, among the burgeoning sweetcorn, the rampant pumpkins and the glistening tomatoes were two of the biggest specimens ever to miss out on being made into soup. Or omelette, or ratatouille, or zucchini surprise, or any of the many delicacies you can make out of said squash.

Imagine if you will (or even if you won’t) a pair of monster courgettes, each as long as your arm and exuding dark green vegetable malevolence from every pore. Hold that thought and you’ll have a fraction of an idea of what these courgettes were like.

Unfortunately there isn’t a prize for the biggest courgette in the entire universe at this Saturday’s show (September 7, 2.30pm, All Saints Centre, Weston, Bath). And a big courgette is an inedible courgette. So our two beauties had to go  into the compost –  ready to feed next year’s crop.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Good riddance to the Bath gasholder

“You can see it from everywhere!” That was the reaction of two London-based friends on a visit to Bath some years back, when behind every scenic vista of golden, Georgian stone terraces and crescents lurked the gaunt metal framework of the ghastly gasholder.

“’Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,” wrote Scots versifier Thomas Campbell in The Pleasures of Hope (1799), a sentimental ditty he knocked out just a couple of years before he penned his great epic The Battle of Mad and Strange Turkish Princes.

“And robes the mountain,” he continued, “in its azure hue.”

The Bath gasholder, trying to hide behind the trees. But failing.
That may well be true of mountains. But it doesn’t hold for the remaining Bath gasholder (there used to be three). Functional it might once have been, before more modern gas-containing technologies came along. Pretty it isn’t.

And few will shed a tear at its passing, although some may kick up a fuss if it’s replaced by bland, allegedly “Palladian” apartment blocks.

At a distance, the gasholder is an eyesore. Up close, it’s positively oppressive.

Between 1997 and 2008, The Bath Chronicle operated out of the squat and uncomfortable single-storey office building across the way. (The Western Daily Press used to send its out-of-favour reporters into exile there too.)

It was hardly surprising that there weren’t many visitors. The looming industrial ironwork and the delicate perfume of methyl mercaptan (the stuff they put in natural gas to make it smell) would have put anyone off.

Now the office block lies derelict too, its once proud corporate logo reduced either by random chance or a particularly inventive vandal to the phrase “Bat Chronic”. The present Chronicle Towers is a much more pleasant environment.

Redevelopment of the industrial wasteland that is Western Riverside is long overdue. But let’s hope they treat one part of it with respect: the war memorial in the driveway.

It commemorates employees of the Bath Gas Company, 11 of whom died in active service in the First World War and six in the Second, together with eight civilians who were killed in the Bath Blitz of April 1942.

This tribute to their sacrifice is already neglected and ignored. It would be a disgrace if it were to disappear entirely.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Not going glamping

So it was last weekend. It was a bit wet, and it looked like it was going to get an awful lot wetter. And we had decided to go camping.

No, let’s be accurate. (For once.) Mrs D had decided to go camping. Weeks ago, when it was far hotter.

The rest of us had agreed to go camping. Not decided. There’s a subtle difference.

We were only going for one night, and we were only going five miles up the road. But by the time we’d loaded up giant tent, floppy awning, wonky-looking gas stove and enough bedding for a princess and several very knobbly peas, the car and its rooftop box were straining at the seams and making the sort of noises you normally associate with one of those Second World War films where the submarine dives 20 fathoms deeper than its designer ever meant it to.

We head east out of town, regularly checking the rear-view mirror for the progress of the looming clouds behind us.

We arrive at the campsite two minutes ahead of the weather. By the time we’ve confirmed the booking with the management, the heavens have opened and we’re stuck in the car playing I-Spy-type word games with a pair of teenagers who seem more than a little disenchanted with their lot in life.

Wet wet. No filters were used in the production of this photograph.
Eventually the rain eases from a torrent to a heavy shower and we get the tent up, a fire lit and a barbecue cooked. And to be fair, the sky clears and the evening passes merrily as we watch meteors and satellites scoot overhead.

But at four o’clock on Sunday morning we hear the call of the wild. Or rather a call of nature, which urgently requires yours truly to stagger out of the tent and into the nearby bushes.

Where he stumbles over a large rock that certainly wasn’t there before and definitely had no right moving there at that ungodly hour.

Thus it was that we returned from our night in deepest Wiltshire with: one damp tent; four soggy pillows; two disgruntled teenagers; and a bruise on your correspondent’s right thigh of a width, length and mottled purple lividity never previously recorded by any branch of medical science.

Glamping? It wasn’t.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Words we love to hate

Sometimes you just have to make a stand. Speak out against injustice, prejudice and repression. Strike a blow for freedom,  never mind the consequences – all that heroic stuff.

Actor Nigel Havers is just such a stander-upper. A couple of weeks ago, the smooth-talking star of – ooh, you name it, he’s been in it – was interviewed in The Radio Times and described his own personal blow for liberty.

Nigel Havers. Definitely not a luvvie.
“I was never pissed off about being called posh,” he told the august journal, “but the one word I can’t stand is ‘luvvie’.

“I was listening to PM on Radio 4, and they said they had a luvvie on the programme. I phoned the BBC and demanded: ‘Stop using that word. It’s such a put-down’.

“They promised they’d never do it again, and they haven’t.”

From such small victories are greater freedoms won. For how could anyone whose trade, profession or calling has ever been demeaned by a throw-away epithet feel anything but sympathy for Mr Havers?

Journalists don’t take kindly to being called “hacks”. Lawyers aren’t too keen on “vultures”. And a lot of scientists really can’t stand being called “boffins”. Although as any hack will tell you, “boffin” is very often the only word for the job.

Be that as it may, as any vulture would confirm, Mr Havers’ case sets a precedent for calling the BBC and asking them to stop using a word you don’t like.

That word is “iconic”.

A word that BBC presenters, reporters, continuity announcers and DJs splatter around with such wild abandon that you wonder if they’re on some sort of bet to see how many times they can squeeze it into their programmes.
Iconicles. Don't watch, it only encourages them.

A word that they use to describe anything from a mountain to an opera to a plate of fish and chips.

A word that has become utterly valueless, even if it ever had any meaning beyond “relating to an icon”. An icon is a representative symbol. Fish and chips is a cheap supper. Well, cheap-ish.

Further research on the topic led this reporter to discover that there is now a BBC kids’ show called Iconicles. At which point he had to go for a little lie-down.

Won’t somebody make them stop?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The little Prince in waiting

Well here he is at last. Let joy be unconfined. Crack open the bubbly, launch the Red Arrows, fire off a 41-gun salute. Wait, better make that 51. No, 61, just to be on the safe side. We wouldn’t want to appear disrespectful, would we?

Yes, HRH Prince George of Cambridge has breathed his first, and waved his innocent hand at a world which will soon expect him to be doing a heck of a lot more waving.

And a world that will eventually see him crowned King of a rather small country that still thinks it’s very important.

It looks like he might have quite a long wait, though. As third in line to the throne, Roderick Elphinstone MontMorency Windsor (one of the options we made up before he got his real name) will have to attend three funerals before he gets to the top of the royal tree. And if you’re looking for longevity, his great-grandma’s side of the family has it in spades.

The Queen Mum, Gawd bless 'er
The Queen Mother made it to 101, though history does not recall whether or not she got a telegram from her daughter.

The Queen herself is still going strong at 87, and shows no sign of abdicating. (Unlike her counterparts in some other European countries, who appear to think that monarchy is something you can retire from – for her it’s a lifetime obligation).

It’s a sobering thought that you would have to be 65 at the very least to remember what it was like being reigned over by anyone else.

And it’s equally sobering to reflect that most of us old enough to read (and indeed write) this waffle will have turned up our toes long before Crispin Delaney Barnabas Wintergreen accedes to the throne.

All of which goes to show that whatever the cynics may say, the Royal Family does have a point.

If nothing else, it’s there as a permanent, enthroned, bejewelled and anointed reminder of our own mortality.

Let’s hope, though, for his own sake, that Capriole Randolph Bandersnatch has a long, long wait before he takes on his kingly duties.

As one of his forebears (or at least top royal playwright Shakespeare) put it: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

And who would wish any sort of uneasiness on a lovely little baby?

Friday, July 12, 2013

We'll dig dig dig dig dig...

Sometimes life imitates art.

It was a warmish Saturday, before the heatwave really got going. Mrs D had realised her life’s ambition and ordered a polytunnel, fruit and veg for the growing of.

Yours truly had taken a look at the proposed site, waved a spirit level in its general direction, and decided that it wasn’t flat enough.

So yours truly, in a moment of madness, offered to do a bit of digging to even it out.

Now the thing about digging is that it lets your mind wander, even as your lily-white hands get shredded and blistered.

Not that it’s a mindless job – it’s just that it seems to let you split the functions of your brain, with the staid and boring left side getting on with the spadework, while the flamboyant, inventive right side gets up to all sorts of mischief.

Regular readers of this column will no doubt be aware of Mrs D’s recorded catalogue of Time Team.

Phil Harding off of Time Team. Not Indiana Jones,
 by any stretch of the imagination.
And with a bit of creative thinking, in the middle of all that digging you suddenly become an intrepid archaeologist. Rather like that bloke with the hat, but not quite as hairy.

Or  like Indiana Jones, but rather more handsome.

Every sod you lift promises to uncover some new treasure – a jewel from the Bronze Age, perhaps, or a pot from the Iron Age. Or even, if you’re incredibly lucky, a couple of stones from the Stone Age.

At the very least, you’ll expose the charred earth and mangled skeletal remains that prove incontrovertibly that Bath was once a hotbed of human sacrifice, and that the original Temple of Doom was located smack bang in the middle of your better half’s vegetable patch.

At the very best, you’ll discover the Dixon Hoard, a trove of Roman coins of such size and antiquity that your name is certain to go down in the history books – at least until that nice Mister Gove changes them all round again.

Meanwhile, though, Mrs D is voicing doubts about the necessity of all this digging. Leave it to the men to sort out, she says. And when they arrive a week or two later, they do.

No, whatever the Romans did for us, they didn’t do it on Mrs D’s prize-winning plot. But we should still get some nice tomatoes.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Farewell to the big red book

Sad news reaches us from the cloistered world of railway timetable publishing: the next edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable will be the last.

After a 140-year publication history and 1526 volumes, the so-called "Red Book" – 500-plus closely-packed pages of train and ferry schedules, listing every journey you could ever want to take (and quite a few you wouldn't) is being consigned to the great big remainder bin in the sky.

Sad indeed. In our courting days, the not-yet-Mrs D and her young swain would rely on the Red Book as we went on expeditions around the lesser-known corners of France.

In the course of several holidays, we trundled through the lush fields of Normandy and the scorching uplands of Quercy. We arrived in Canfranc, a one-horse Pyrenean border town, in a howling blizzard, where we stayed at a hotel whose proprietors didn't show up to collect the bill.

We saw soaring mountains, roaring rivers, bustling cities, sleepy villages.

We left behind us a trail of lost wallets, dodgy Eurocheques and empty bottles of cheap red wine.

We returned with half a baguette, some very smelly cheese and five francs in loose change.

All without a car, and all thanks to the Red Book to help plan the route.

And even when we weren't actually travelling, it was always useful for those ever-pressing questions that seemed to get asked on long winter's evenings when we only had four TV channels and no internet: "How long does it take to get to Zagreb?"; "What's the best route from Bergen to Bucharest?"

So what? you may say. These days you can find out train times online.

True, but you don't get the big picture, the sense of a purposeful, humming network stretching out across the Continent.

Because the Red Book was as much a work of imagination as of fact: 500 pages of numbers, footnotes and pictograms through which you could travel with your mind, even when you couldn't afford the tickets.

Others may take on the continued publication of the European Timetable as Thomas Cook concentrates on package tours.

But volume 1526 of the Red Book should become a collector's edition.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Meet the tardigrade

Now here’s a question. Actually, here’s several questions, but they all have the same answer.

What has eight legs, but can hardly bend them?

What can survive at temperatures from just above absolute zero to well above the boiling point of water?

What can go without food or drink for up to 120 years?

What can maintain life in the vacuum of outer space, withstand radiation levels 1,000 times higher than other animals, and exist at  pressures far greater than those at the bottom of the ocean?

What looks a bit like a cross between a teddy bear and a rag doll, but grows at most to 1.5mm long?

What has been around on this planet for at least 530 million years?

A tardigrade, yesterday
What can be most easily found by squeezing out damp moss, but also lives in hot springs, on top of the Himalayas, in glacial ice or even in walls and roofs?

What, in short, is the most mind-bogglingly weird creature that you’ve probably never heard of?

The answer is the tardigrade, known to its friends as the water bear.

A beast whose official name means “slow walker,” on account of those eight, rather inflexible, legs.

A beast so unrecognised by us allegedly higher forms of life that even the all-wise spell-checker on the Chronicle Towers computer system throws a wobbly whenever it tries to do a name-check.

A beast so far-flung across the globe that there are around 1,150 separate species, ranging from the poles to the equator, from the ocean depths to the highest mountain.

Weirder still, and straining the poor old spell-checker to breaking point: tardigrades are eutelic, which means that each adult member of any given species has exactly the same number of cells. (Many thanks to whoever it was who counted.)

So what, you may ask, has all this got to do with the price of fish? Or the proposed new Bus Gate? Or the demented gannets that dive-bomb you every time you take a stroll across Kingsmead Square?

Not a lot,  it must be confessed.

But sometimes you just have to stand back from the humdrum, and marvel at the world we live in.

And this is one of those times.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stuffed toys in space!

The internet can take you into some weird and wonderful places.

There you are, idly browsing through your Twitter feed (there's not much else to do on a wet Tuesday evening at Dixon Towers) when there's a message from NASA.

Not, unfortunately, a personal invitation to ride a Saturn V to the moon – although that would be rather fun – but a general announcement that the launch of the next Soyuz capsule will be live online in about five minutes time.

Well, it's got to be better than watching another of our 37 pre-recorded episodes of Time Team. There's only so many postholes a chap can stand, even on this aforementioned wet Tuesday.

So let's crank up the broadband, shove another log on the wifi router and stand by for blast-off.

Oh dear. Oh deary deary deary dear. What a terrible shock.

Into space on Soyuz TMA-09M (Picture: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
In the good old days, astronauts had The Right Stuff. Those of us wrinkly enough to remember the original moon landings still cherish an idealised picture of square-jawed American heroes, blasting into the unknown on a flaming trail of glory.

But the live camera inside Soyuz TMA-09M tells a different story. Because dangling from the roof on elastic strings are not one, but two, stuffed cuddly toys.

One of them might be a lion. The other, according to that reliable source "a quick search on Google", was a present to commander Fyodor Yurchikhin when he was a boy, and is a dog. Or maybe a hippopotamus. Google isn't quite sure on that one.

The animals don't appear to enjoy the flight. At first stage separation they jiggle up and down like thrill-seekers at some cosmic funfair. At second stage they lurch drunkenly around the cabin, bashing the crew on the head. At third stage they disappear into a hole in the roof.

Also on board is a tank of guppy-like fishes, science for the advancement of. But we don't see them. Perhaps they're camera-shy.

Six hours later, the capsule docks with the International Space Station, where stuffed toys, crew and guppies disembark safely.

Meanwhile, though, here on earth, childhood illusions lie in tatters.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A heron

This post was originally a test to see if the phrase "Local man arrested for twatting a heron" could be found on Google.

It pops up from time to time on Twitter in a photo of a newspaper sales bill for The Evening News.

But try as you might, you won't find the original story.

And that's because there is no story - the photo is fake.

Funny, yes. Genuine, no.

Look closely and there are clues. How many local papers would actually use the word "local" in their bills? How many UK evening papers still have "Late Prices"? (Most "evening" papers these days are produced overnight, and many have dropped the word "Evening" from their name.)

As far as I can tell, there are three papers called the Evening News still going in the UK - in Manchester, Edinburgh and Norwich. None of them uses the font Bodoni Bold Italic for their titlepiece.

When the original picture was posted, mid-May 2013, searching for the phrase "local man arrested for twatting a heron" returned nothing. After my original post about it (now heavily edited), this blog was the only link returned by the search.

There are quite a few other links now, but still no story.

This post now has the highest number of clicks on my blog, having overtaken the ever-popular Jane Austen Spreads Her Tentacles. Which is a bit galling when I come to think of it. I've written much better stuff than this. I even won an award once.

Anyway, just to be absolutely clear, I have nothing to do with the original picture. I wrote about it in my blog because I was curious, and because so many people on Twitter seemed to take it at face value.

Local man arrested for twatting a heron. Hmmm.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sorting the slugs from the scumbags

This is a public service announcement. Slugs, for the identifying, capture and disposal of.

There are two kinds of slug known to science. They are quite different, and need treating in completely separate ways.

The first kind is slithery, slimy, and brown, black, or grey, sometimes with a tinge of yellow round the edges.

It hides in your flower and vegetable beds, making midnight forays amongst the tender sprouts, which it munches with cavalier disregard for their ownership or intended destination in your finest vase or serving dish.

How to get rid of it without lacing the environment with a cocktail of unpleasant chemicals is a problem that has vexed conscientious gardeners for years, not least Mrs D.

This year she has invested in a gritty sort of porridge with which to dress her sweet peas, in beer traps to entice the little ones to a foamy alcoholic doom, and in a bag of clippings from the fleece of a particularly foul-smelling sheep, which are about as organic as you can get without straddling the console in Bath Abbey.

Results so far are promising, especially from the traps. Although they do seem a bit of a waste of beer.

The other kind of slug is much larger and uglier, and has a passing resemblance to a human being.

It breaks into your allotment at night, forcing a large metal gate off its hinges, and makes off with water butts, composters, storage boxes and wheelbarrows – anything that isn’t locked up and it can easily sell.

It happened to us and our fellow allotmenteers last weekend. The police know about it, but there’s not much they can do because none of the stolen equipment was marked.

So this is the second part of the public service announcement. Do what we did last Sunday: buy a tin of red paint and a small paintbrush, and mark your portable garden property with name, phone number, postcode – anything that will help you identify it if some scumbag nicks it.

Not only that, but it should also cause said scumbag to stop and think twice before nicking it at all.

Because with slugs of every kind, prevention is better than cure.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Coping with the comfrey

Springtime at Dixon Towers, and the unexpected bank holiday heatwave is over.

The barbecue has been put back under its cover, pending a warmer and drier day. Some time in mid-September, most probably.

Slugs and snails do a war-dance up the garden path. Slowly, slimily, hungrily.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, leaving unwanted bits of tree scattered all over the lawn.

But whatever nature may throw at us, the growing season has started, as witness the four propagators steaming away in the conservatory, pumping warmth into the roots of tender seedlings and causing no little strain on the National Grid.

It is breakfast time, and Mrs D looks up from the pages of her gardening magazine.

Yes, here at Dixon Towers we do indeed read at breakfast. At every other meal the conversation positively scintillates.

(“Have a good day, dear?”


But at breakfast, silence is golden. Until now.

Comfrey!” says Mrs D.

Comfrey? Comfrey? And what, pray, is that supposed to mean? You might as well say “Gerund!”, or “Cassock!”, or “Architrave!”, and expect your dopey husband to make sense of it.

“There’s lots of it growing at the bottom of the garden,” she goes on, clearly confusing said husband with someone who knows what comfrey looks like. Truth, though, will out.

It appears that this particularly stylish gardening magazine is touting the benefits of a particularly stylish plant food maker.

You pack the stylish infusion chamber with comfrey (nettles will do, if they haven’t already been made into soup). You fill the stylish outer infuser bucket, crafted of the finest stainless steel, with water. You plunge the chamber into the infuser and leave to stand. And just a couple of weeks later, you’ve got eight litres of plant food.

Mrs D is dismissive. You can do it just as well with an ordinary plastic bucket, she says, and the whole process is pretty smelly too.

She turns the page, to feast her eyes on leather-lined wellington boots. At £199 the pair. With a full-length gusset...

Mmm... Gusset...

Spring has most definitely sprung.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Bath's Big Bang Theory

It was a mystery surrounded by a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

It came in the middle of last Sunday night, when all right-thinking Bathonians should long since have trundled up the Wooden Hill to Blanket Fair.

It was weird, it was loud, it was eerie. And the following morning, on, the mystery got its first public airing:

"Bath baffled by big bangs" read the headline, and by golly were we baffled.

Not a few West Country towns and cities are known for their strange noises. Gallons of ink, for example, have been spilled dissecting the mystery of the so-called Bristol Hum

Others are not so well known: you can Google for hours without finding any mention of the Gloucester Rumble or the Shepton Mallet Whine.

And yet, and yet...

Bath, blessed in so many other ways, never had its own special noise. Until Sunday, that is, when it got The Bang.

Early reports of it came through on Twitter, as they always seem to these days. One bang was heard at 11:43pm, the other about six minutes later.

And that was it. Everything went quiet again. Except for Twitter.

Now the really strange thing about all this auditory upheaval was that Dixon Junior and yours truly heard the bangs almost exactly an hour earlier. We were watching Match of the Day, and we thought it was Mrs D thumping on the bedroom floor for us to turn the telly down. And we did, sharpish. But the following morning she denied all knowledge.

So what was it that we heard? A pre-echo of the sound reported on Twitter an hour later, transmitted through a wormhole in the space-time continuum? (There's a lot of those up our road. Not as many as there are potholes, though.)

Were they sonic booms, or fireworks, or even, as some wag suggested on thisisbath, property prices going through the roof?

Perhaps we shall never know. Shakespeare had a point, though, when he wrote in The Tempest:

"Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,/Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not."

Perhaps he'd heard the Bath Bang.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Baking bad

After the disconcerting news a couple of weeks ago that a school in faraway Canvey Island has banned the distribution of triangular flapjacks at lunchtime on the grounds that someone might get hurt, things could only get worse.

Mrs D did the weekly shop the other day at a supermarket that shall remain nameless (they’re all the same really, only the carrier bags are different) and came back with a baguette so floppy that...

Well, so utterly bendy and unbaguette-like that if you’d used it as a wand, or a baton, which is what “baguette” means, and tried to produce a rabbit from a hat, or conduct Beethoven’s Fifth, you’d have ended up with a vole, or Air on a Penny Whistle.

All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion (in Mrs D’s mind, in any case): why not bake our own bread?
It’s the latest big thing. Every other TV programme seems to be cashing in on the bread-making craze. And how simple could it be?

Grab a bag of flour. Weigh it out, sprinkle in dried yeast. You haven’t got any dried yeast. Go to shop and purchase same. Add salt. Engage in half-hour deliberation on relative merits of adding sugar or leaving it out. Chuck in some olive oil for good measure. Add water. Mix. You’ve added too much water, dough has consistency of treacle. Add flour to correct. Mix. Dough is too dry. Add more water. Mix. Repeat until quantity of dough is twice that required in recipe. Add more salt. Taste. Feel unwell. Knead until dough is soft and pliable. Remove leavings from under fingernails.

Cover and allow to rise in warm place. If such a place actually exists.

Wait for two hours, periodically peeking into bowl. Dough oozes, bubbles and quivers.

Pummel violently, leave to prove.

Form into Gallic-looking stick, bake until done, wait until cool.

Slice, tear, rip, chew.

Outside is like reinforced concrete, inside is like Blu-Tack.

It’s not as easy as it looks, this bread-making mallarkey.

Meanwhile, though, in the kitchens at Dixon Towers, Mrs D is whipping up a Schiacciata with Olives, Prosciutto and Porcini Mushrooms. That’s an Italian flatbread to you. And what could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Signs of spring

Extraordinary though it may seem, it is now spring.

In the world of modern-day newspaper publishing, where this first appeared, yesterday is the new tomorrow and these words were processed in winter, while the wind was howling, the frost was freezing and the hail was hailing.

Whereas they're being ingested by you as you recline on your patio in the vernal sunshine as lambs are gambolling, daffodils are blooming and blackbirds are all of a twitter.

As if. The chances are that whatever the season, the icy eastern blast isn't going to turn itself off any time soon.

Be that as it may, it's time to get this year's vegetable crop going. Last weekend's treat was a visit to the garden centre – one that sells seeds, and plants, and trowels and stuff along with the scented candles, wind-driven mobiles, ambient CDs and malevolent-looking reptiles that are your average garden centre's stock in trade. 

Here, while Mrs D pondered which brand of spud she'd be digging up next autumn, yours truly wandered amongst racks and stacks of chemicals, and wondered as he wandered: how much of this stuff actually works?

Here, for instance, was a packet of friendly mycorrhizal fungi, which allegedly encourage massive amounts of root growth. (Don't buy the unfriendly sort, or you'll end up under three feet of toadstool.)

Here was a bottle of brown treacly gloop, extracted from algae, which purports to pep up your petunias and put poke into your potentilla.

And here were the nematodes, which sound like a 60s pop combo but are actually a natural method of pest control.

Everything sounds promising, and over the years we've tried quite a few of them. We've got no idea of how much good they've done, mind you. Because you can't, unless you test everything under rigid scientific conditions.

But it's springtime, and who cares about science? We'll just stick them all in the ground, and see what pops up.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Weird tales from the red planet

 Things are going a bit pear-shaped up in space. Or on Mars, to be a little bit more precise.

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has been pootling around on the surface of the Red Planet since August last year, sieving soil, hammering rocks, drilling holes and brushing up the dust afterwards.

Looking dangerous: Mars Curiosity Rover
Not to mention taking some rather attractive panoramic holiday snaps of the surrounding landscape when it has a moment or two to itself.

Or at least it was until last Thursday, when it threw the interplanetary equivalent of a massive wobbly and stopped in its tracks.

Understandable, really: there is only so much DIY a 2,000lb six-wheeled scientific dune buggy can do without needing a sit-down and a cup of tea.

The boffins at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were having none of that. They logged straight into the computer systems on the stubborn little gizmo, worked out that there had been a crash, and put it into something called “safe mode”, which basically means that Curiosity stops all of its scientific investigations and sits there quietly waiting for someone back on Earth to work out what is wrong with it.

Weird or what?
Although it does make you wonder what would happen if they pushed the wrong button and accidentally sent it into dangerous mode.

 Wild parties with luscious five-legged Martian lovelies?

Drag races across the arid plains of Gale Crater against rolling balls of prickly, sentient Venusian tumbleweed?

Titanic pincer-to-pincer battles against malevolent crab-like fungoid entities from the dark planet Yuggoth?

Sounds like someone has been reading too many weird tales by HP Lovecraft. Or eating too much cheese before bedtime. Or indeed both.

Because putting a Mars Rover into safe mode is really no different from what all of us do when the computer fouls up.

The advice of endless magazines, of spotty lads in computer shops and of husbands who would rather be having a kip works for both, and really is the only solution: turn it off, and turn it back on again.