Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas mysteries

This Christmas, as always, is a time of mysteries. One of the more mysterious of which being the news that a young grey seal has fetched up in a field in Merseyside, 20 miles from the coast and looking extremely grumpy.

Sammy, or Suárez, or Cilla, or whatever they ultimately decide to call him (or her), appears to have taken a wrong turning during a Christmas shopping expedition to Liverpool from his (or her) home on the River Dee, swum up the brook to Newton-le-Willows, and eventually got stuck against a fence post.

(And we’ve all been on shopping trips like that, haven’t we, readers? Sounds like The Mall at Cribbs Causeway. On a good day.)

Sammy/Suárez/Cilla was eventually persuaded on board a trailer by animal rescuers equipped with brooms and a chunk of mackerel, and hopes were expressed that he (or she) would soon be gambolling once more in the choppy waters of the Irish Sea.

If only Christmas at Dixon Towers could be sorted out as simply as that. We don’t need a broom, though: we need an industrial strength vacuum cleaner to pick up the pine needles that are already falling in drifts to the sitting room floor.

And we cannot live by a slice of mackerel alone. Mrs D’s festive preparations demand smoked salmon, crab meat and several jars of Elsinore lumpfish caviar. Which, if you’re interested, is a bit like real caviar, but smaller, blacker, and significantly cheaper.

Which leads leads us to a second mystery: where can you buy it? Two days before Christmas? In Bath?

OK, it’s the biggest middle-class, first-world non-problem since the lady on Twitter who couldn’t find mini-pannetone. But when it’s your problem, it’s serious.

There is an answer, though, to the missing fishy bits crisis: Keynsham. And such is yours truly’s devotion to family bliss and harmony this festive tide, that he got in the car and drove there to pick some up.

Pausing only to look at the ingredients on the side of the jar and to discover that one of them “may have an adverse effect  on activity and attention in children”. So who needs brandy butter when you’ve got E110?

The third mystery presents itself on the way back from the Bath/Bristol borderlands: what are those two blokes from Wessex Water doing, standing at the bottom of the road, tapping the Tarmac with long metal rods with the general demeanour of people who are about to cut off your supply?

The mystery deepens with the arrival of the massed pipes and drums of the band of the Scots Guards, who proceed to muster at the corner and drill. Assuming they’re not an advance scouting party for David Cameron’s Own Highland Frackers, then the chances of extracting even a drop of water from the taps come Christmas Day look vanishingly slim.

Mystery piles upon mystery. What was it Mrs D asked for when she made up her Christmas list back in October? And can you still buy it at 3.30 on Christmas Eve?

Will the Amazon van get through on time?

And what will we do without Hugh?

This, sadly, was my last published column for The Bath Chronicle. Goodbye, and thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Let there be light. Please...

Christmas, as well as being a time for rejoicing, for celebrating, for  four- and even five-bird roasts, is also a time for remembering.

Especially, in our family’s case, for remembering where you put the Christmas lights last year when you packed them away so neatly and tidily in a labelled box up in the loft.

In the intervening months, through some supernatural force that only inhabits the upper storeys of family homes, that box has somehow got mislabelled. And  your task is to find it, or Christmas  won’t be Christmas chez Dixon.

So, after a neck-twisting, knee-piercing, elbow-scraping scramble through the outer recesses of the attic, you  retrieve three boxes.

The first looks quite promising. It has “Xmas Stuff” scrawled on top in thick red felt pen, but when you  delve inside all you find is a couple of baubles and   the kids’ old soft toys.

The second box is tagged “Miscellaneous”, and is most definitely not the one you’re looking for, containing as it does embarrassing pictures of yourself when you were 20 and didn’t know any better, which must remain hidden from the rest of the family at all costs.

The third box is labelled “Bank Statements 1995-7”, and deep within – Gloria in Excelcis! – are the Dixon festive illuminations.

Ignoring the protests from your maltreated joints, you stagger downstairs and proudly present your spoils. “That’s funny,” says Mrs D. “What’s happened to the ones we hung over the mantelpiece last year?”

After a brief but vain struggle to recall what they even looked like, let alone where they might be, you offer manfully to put up the special weatherproof strand that traditionally garlands  the spindly shrub by the front door.

But the malevolent force that switched round the labels on the boxes has another trick up its sleeve.

Some time last summer it must have got hungry, because it has chewed through one of the wires, with the result that only about half of the lights actually come on, and those that do  work don’t twinkle, pulse, glimmer or throb, but simply flicker despondently.

Two solutions spring to mind. The first involves a soldering iron and a lot of swearing; the second a trip to Homebase and a lot of money.

Not wishing to sully the air with expletives, you pile into the car. Everyone else comes along too. Ostensibly just for the ride, but more likely to make sure  yours truly buys the right sort. And there, amid a festive electronic menagerie of warbling penguins, gurning bears and flatulent  reindeer, you find a replacement.

On the way home, you can’t help but notice the house down the road. Snow-effect illuminations tumble from  every windowsill. Santa’s sleigh has landed on the garage roof  and is strobing fit to bust. The tree in the front garden is wreathed from trunk to crown with a thick rope of incandescent finery that  must have needed a crane to put up, and puts your low-wattage LEDs to utter shame.

Somewhere in your head, a switch goes off.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Nightmare before Christmas

It wasn't so long ago that if you wanted to get into a fight with a total stranger, there was really only one to go about it: head down to the pub on a Saturday night, neck seven or eight pints of Old Goatstrangler and start casting aspersions about some other bloke's parentage.

Cue a bloody nose, a swift ride in an ambulance and an awkward chat with two sturdy representatives of Her Majesty's constabulary.

These days we have Black Friday. To enjoy the same experience, without the debilitating after-effects of the Goatstrangler, just visit your nearest retail mega-centre and try to buy a 40-inch curved-screen LED TV. The sort that normally sells for £1,599.99 but – today only! – is a mind-bendingly cheap £1,299.99.

Cue a violent entanglement with a similarly-minded bargain-hunter, a long wait in A&E and an embarrassed telling-off by a PCSO who is clearly five years younger than yourself.

Then there's Cyber Monday, when you sit yourself down in front of your computer (nursing a sore leg, and wondering what to do with a boxful of loose LEDs), and try to order all your Christmas presents. Online, in one go.

Only to discover that everyone else on the planet has had the same idea.

The internet has slowed to the pace of a reluctant tin of treacle. The electronic whoozits that your kids have set their hearts on sold out three weeks ago. And all there is left to buy on Amazon is pre-owned CDs of Now That's What I Call Music! Part Six.

Sadly, that's the way the modern festive season crumbles, and there's no point in moaning about it. Instead, you should prepare yourself for the days that lie ahead. Days like:

Sylvan Saturday. You book your family on a sound and light woodland walk experience at a nearby national arboretum. Printing the confirmation and e-tickets consumes seven sheets of paper. You wonder idly how many more trees they'll have to plant to offset that little lot.

Blue Sunday. You settle back, after a splendiferous festive repast, and reflect that a Quality Street would round it off nicely.

You reach for the sweetie bowl, only to find that there's nothing left but the horrible blue ones, and that persons unknown have decorated the floor with discarded wrappers from your favourite purple, green and red varieties.

Damp Tuesday. This is the day you booked off back in September, in a wholly uncharacteristic fit of forward planning, so that you could support small local businesses by doing your Christmas shopping in town.

It rains. And it rains. And it rains.

Sleepy Wednesday. Work. Zzzzzzzzzz...

Nightmare Thursday. You managed to order at least some of your presents on Cyber Monday, and since then you've been feeling just a little smug. But this is the day the truth finally dawns: the goodies won't be delivered until January the 8th, and you most definitely do not have Christmas all wrapped up.

So where's Santa when you need him?

Thursday, November 13, 2014


So there it was. The most shared, most read, most commented on article on the BBC website: “Why typos and spelling mistakes don’t really matter.”

A shiver ran down the grizzled old sub-editor’s back. He pushed aside his battered em-rule and wiped away a tear from the corner of his eye with the greasy, ink-stained sleeve of his well-worn, much-darned and utterly shapeless fawn cardigan.

“Does no-one else really care?” he thought to himself. “Am I really the only one left in the world who knows the difference between ‘their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’?

“Am I the only person who still understands when to put an apostrophe into ‘its’ and when to take one out of ‘it’s’?

“Or when to use double quotation marks and when to use singles?

“Does anyone else actually know when to use ‘affect’ and when to use ‘effect’? Or that both are verbs, and both are nouns?

“Does anyone still know what a noun is, for that matter?

“And am I the only one left who still thinks it’s wrong to start a sentence with ‘and’?”

He reflected for a moment, realised his mistake, took out his glossy briar pipe, filled it with his favourite mix of Old Clarendon’s Finest Shag and lumbered off to the far corner of the office car park, the only place left where he was still allowed to smoke it.

He didn’t care much for websites, anyway.  Or for Twitter, where people wrote about “sneaky peaks” when what they meant was “sneaky peeks”. Or for Facebook, where  “friends” you’d never met complained about  “lightening” when what they meant was “lightning”.

Who cared, he thought, about people who sent emails to the paper saying they were “defiantly” going to stop buying it? When what they meant was “definitely”?

What was the point of living in a world where the old boozer had become a gastro-pub?

When the only thing people used dictionaries for was propping up computer screens?

Where people relied on spell-checkers, and where the spell-checkers and their dotted red underscores couldn’t spot the difference between “Queen Square” and “Queen’s Square”, between “Lansdown” and “Landsdown”?

Why, finally, bother with auto-correction, when it turns “You’re great” into “Your grate”?

In the good old days, he’d have dealt with a mistake like that with a caustic comment and a swipe of a sharp blue pencil. These days, he reflected, that sort of behaviour would get you accused of harassment. One r, two s’s.

The fug from his pipe grew ever denser, and rose to merge with the leaden sky. A passing health and safety inspector donned mask, gloves and protective yellow coveralls and went to investigate. But when he fanned away the fumes, the sub-editor was gone.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How to get your password right

An ominous message flashes up on the computer screen at Chronicle Towers. From the System. Your password, says the System Message, will expire in 14 days. Do you want to change it now?

Well no, actually. It would be preferable never to have to change it again, and the idea of “wanting” to change it is philosophically akin to the idea of “wanting” to change one’s toes.

But the System is relentless. The next day, the count is down to 13. Today, it’s 12.

The System is clever, almost to the point of sentience. The System can count backwards, among other things.

It can also recognise that the passwords you, in your insignificance, try to set up, are utterly beneath its tentacular, Systemic, dignity.

Still, you give it a try.

1234 you type, more in hope than in expectation. Insufficient characters, says the System.

password you tap in, more in desperation than in hope. Insufficient upper case letters comes the reply.

Password Nope. Must contain a punctuation character.

Password? Nice try, sucker. Must contain at least one numeral.

Password1? You must be joking. You used that one  in August 2011.

Let us get this absolutely straight, continues the System, conversationally. For acceptable security, your password must be at least 10 characters long, and  contain at least one upper case letter, one lower case letter, one punctuation character and one numeral. Would you like to try again?

AsQlll4&X? That will do nicely.

Pausing only to reflect that while the System may be quite clever,  it’s not clever enough to use apostrophes, you proceed to commit your new password to memory. Which is where the trouble really starts.

Because it is a truth universally acknowledged, that for a password to be secure it must be complicated, and for it to be memorable it must be simple. Yours may be secure, but it’s utterly unmemorable. So you write it down, defeating the entire object of the exercise.

And when you get home and try to do a bit of cyber-banking, the fun starts all over again.

The System at Funds “R” Us has even more questions than the System at work. And the two of them  appear to be talking about you behind your back. Perhaps they’re Facebook friends.

Key in the second, fourth and ninth characters of your passphrase, says the System at the Bank.

b 8 % you type, referring  to the dog-eared notebook in which you keep it easily to hand. Along with your mother’s maiden name and where you were when you first had a snog.

Thank you. And your password?

AsQlll4&X? Try again. That is the password for Chronicle Towers.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Small sinkhole in Bath: no-one hurt. Yet

As natural disasters go, it wasn’t much to write home about. But as the local paper of record, The Bath Chronicle was duty bound to record it.

“A small sinkhole has appeared in Bath’s Sydney Gardens,” ran the report. And beyond that no one seemed to know very much.

Councillor David Dixon (Lib Dem, Oldfield, no relation) took to Twitter in his official capacity as deputy leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council.

he twote. Which proves that (a) at least some of our civic leaders have a sense of humour; and (b) the old jokes are the best.

The hole, according to Mr Dixon, is “about a metre wide and three or four feet deep”.

Crikey. Let’s hope he sticks to deputy leading the council, and doesn’t take it into his head to launch any interplanetary space missions.

Because in 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter plunged to the surface of the red planet after NASA and Lockheed mixed up their metric and imperial measurements.
Mixed measurements: Mars Climate Orbiter before its prang

And in 2002 our bathroom was flooded to the depth of three inches when yours truly fitted a 15mm coupling to a half-inch pipe and turned on the mains without due care and attention.

Go carefully, Councillor Dixon, the next time you do any DIY. Disaster is but a step away, so measure twice, and cut once.

Back to the Bath sinkhole, and now that B&NES has put a fence round it, let us reflect for a moment on how truly pathetic it is. (The sinkhole, that is. The jury’s still out on B&NES.)

For comparison, take the monstrous chasm that opened up earlier this year in Yamal, Siberia. A town you may not have heard of before, and which even the locals call the “end of the world”.

Which is better than “fundament of the universe.” But only just.

The Yamal sinkhole is 30 metres wide and at least 50 metres deep. It may have been caused from within, by methane bubbling up through melted permafrost. Or from without, by a meteor. Or by something else, from somewhere else. But definitely not by fracking. Oh no siree.

Take the Great Blue Hole in Belize. It’s 300 metres wide and 124 metres deep. It’s underwater. And it has its own collection of stalactites and stalagmites. Put that in your pipe, Sydney Gardens Sinkhole. And smoke it.

Heck, even the limestone swallets up on the Mendips are wider and deeper than the burst pimple at the far end of Great Pulteney Street.

If it were a football team, it would be lowly Hartlepool United, currently propping up the bottom of League 2.

If it were a car, it would be a lowly Lada Riva, currently propping up the bottom of a scrapheap in Penge.

And if it were a tourist attraction... Wait! Set up a ticket office and plug in the cash registers. This could be Bath’s very own Wookey Hole!

Just don’t stand too close to the edge – because if you fell in, you could easily sprain your toe.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bath grass grows long

Mankind has always had a  rather ambivalent relationship with grass.

No, not  that kind of grass, silly. What we’re talking about here is the sort of grass that grows in gardens, and parks, and meadows, and prairies, and cricket pitches.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

We seed it, we scare off the birds that come to eat the seeds, we water it, we nurture it, we cosset it, we feed it.

And then we come along with a great big noisy mower and give it the horticultural equivalent of a Number One crew cut.
Notice about long grass, Royal Victoria Park Bath
That notice

And the grass, quite uncomplainingly, just keeps growing under our feet.

But now things are changing, at least in Royal Victoria Park, Bath, where  the grassy banks and other less-used areas are being allowed to grow long.

The reason, as it says on the little signboards that the council has posted up and down Royal Avenue, being to make the park “more visually in keeping with an 1850’s setting” and to “increase wild flower numbers (over time) and habitats for invertebrates, birds, and mammals.”

And whatever the cynics may say about it just being a cover for spending cuts, this can only be a good thing.

(Come on, how much money are they going to save by not trimming a few square metres of grass? Everyone knows that the real savings are going to be made in closing down all the public loos and a children’s centre here and there.)

Long grass, Royal Victoria Park, Bath, distant magpie
The wild bit: uncut grass in Royal Victoria Park, with flourishing birdlife
Now, anyone familiar with the Bath-based works of Jane Austen will have a special fondness for her detailed descriptions of the wildlife that once roamed and gambolled in the city’s open spaces in the days before the city corporation began to cut the grass in the parkland to the west.

In Persuasion, for example, she refers on several occasions to the magnificent herds of spiny anteaters that once added animation to our rolling greensward.

And who can forget the dramatic scene in Northanger Abbey when romantic heroine Catherine Morland is rescued by the urbane Henry Tilney from the chitinous claws of a giant stag beetle?

Perhaps strangely, Austen makes no mention of the flocks of flamingos that once nested in the stately pines of Lower Lansdown, or the screech owl that was reported to have made its home in the Abbey bell tower in 1803.

Floral display and gardener, Royal Victoria Park, Bath
The tame bit: Royal Victoria Park, with parkie
But she can hardly have been unaware of their existence, given the habit, then as now, of opinionated Bathonians to write scathing letters to the Chronicle and Herald about the annoying habits of the city’s bird life.

All of which goes to show that grass deserves to be taken as seriously now as it was back in the days of the inimitable Jane.

So the next time Mrs D hints that the paths round the allotment are in need of a trimming, then yours truly has the perfect excuse.

Those unsightly looking tussocks are actually a vitally important wildlife habitat, and to molest them with the trusty two-stroke strimmer would be nothing less than a crime against nature.

And if she’ll believe that, she’ll believe anything.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why allotmenteers have to carry the can

It’s nearly crunch time up at Mrs D’s allotment. And we’re not talking about the crunch of freshly picked peapods or sumptuously succulent strawbs.

No, we’ve got a problem with our waterworks, and it’s going to take some fixing. Here’s why.

In the beginning was the Tap.  And the Tap was good, for it had a Handle which turned, and a Spout upon which to attach a Hose.

And the Allotmenteers rejoiced, and thronged unto the Tap, and fixed their Hoses upon its Spout, and spread its Water even upon the Face of their Onions.

For verily, they said one unto another, we have no need to fill a Multitude of Watering Cans, nor carry them unto the Plot, and sprinkle the Water thereunto, and then stagger back for more.

For lo, they said, we can run a Hose from the Tap unto our Crops, and swiftly bring the Water unto them, like as the River that floweth in the Desert and succoureth the Date and the Olive.
But the Board of Water, yea even the Water that is Wessex, saw the Tap and waxed exceeding wrath.

And it spake unto the Council, whose Name is called B&NES but whom Everyone knoweth as BANES, saying: Take away the Tap with its Spout and its turnable Handle, for it irketh us, like unto the Cockatrice that irketh the Lion in the Plains of Judah. For it wasteth the Water that belongeth rightly unto Us. And say ye unto the Allotmenteers: No more Hoses for you Lot.

Now when B&NES comprehended the Anger that was upon the face of the Water Board it was sore afraid, and replaced the Tap with a different Kind. Yea, even the Kind with a Knob, that must be pushed in else it springeth out and stoppeth. Yea, like unto a tap from a Public Convenience (before said Convenience was closed  by said Council), and upon which no Hose might be attached.

And the Allotmenteers beat their Breasts and wept, and asked of one another: What shall become of us, for we must needs squeeze the Tap until our Watering Cans are full, and make a Score of Journeys from Tap unto Vegetables. And verily our Hands will be calloused and our Feet besplattered.

And they mentioned this privily unto the Council, and the Council replied unto them, saying: tough. Which is to say, deal with it.

And then Mrs D rose up, and went unto her Chest of Drawers, and brought forth a Belt of many Holes, and girded it about the Tap. And the Belt did squeeze the Tap mightily, and the Water continued to flow. And the Allotmenteers shared the Belt amongst them, and were exceeding(ish) glad.

And then spake Mrs D unto her Spouse, saying: Go thou even unto the Website that is called Amazon, and buy thou therefrom a mighty plastic Bag, which will ride upon the Wheelbarrow, even as Nebuchadnezzar rode in Triumph through Babylon. And fill thou it from the Tap, that we may carry four or five Canloads at once.

And then spake Mr D unto Mrs D, saying: What about my bad Back? But she heard him not.

And when the Allotmenteers saw the Bag, they marvelled at its Capacity, and lo, Mr and Mrs D used no more nor less Water than they did in the Days of the Hose. And they saw that their Vegetables were good.

Thanks be to B&NES.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Choosing a present for Father's Day

Here it comes again – Sunday June 15 2014, Father’s Day. A day on which to honour the paterfamilias, the man about the house, Big Daddy, He Who Must Be Obeyed (Or At Least Ought To Be). 

And not, as some cynics may suggest, a cheap marketing ploy invented by card manufacturers to drum up trade in the lull between Easter and Christmas.

Oh no sirree boss, Father’s Day is the real deal, and don’t you forget it, because if you do, your dad will think you don’t love him.

However many times you may call him “Popsicle”.

Right, that’s enough moral blackmail. Onwards to the presents. And what do you get for the man who has everything? Or would have everything, if certain offspring hadn’t borrowed it, covered it in paint and dumped it at the bottom of the garden?

Perhaps Mrs D’s magazines will point the way. In among the sofas, soft furnishings and sconces that grace the pages of the country-home-and-garden-style glossy periodicals strewing the floors of Dixon Towers, there must be something suitable for Popsicle on his own special day.

Let’s see now... Fabric cleaner... Nerve tonic... Wait, how about a shepherd’s hut? They’re all the rage, you know. Tastefully painted in rustic shades of sage, slate, or russet, they trundle around your garden on wooden wheels and offer the put-upon Pa a haven from the incessant demands of family members for him to fix the printer for the third time this week.

“Let your soul breathe,” says the advert. If only. That printer won’t fix itself, and if we ever did get a shepherd’s hut there’d be no room left in the garden to swing a cat.

Speaking of which...

How about an electronic cat tracker? This ingenious device uses the power of GPS, 3G and who knows, maybe USB too, to log your moggie’s wanderings in the great outdoors and relay them to your computer, tablet or smartphone.

All of which would be fine and dandy, and would no doubt offer hours of instructive fun, if it weren’t for two things.

First, the cat that condescends to live at Dixon Towers would consider a tracking collar an infringement on its liberty almost as heinous as being decked out in a big pink bow, and would react accordingly: claws first.

I ain't wearing no damn collar

Second, said cat spends 99.37 per cent of its time in bed, only occasionally stumbling through the catflap to make sure the sun is still shining before mooching back to bed for another prolonged nap.

The cat tracker sounds rather like the techno-feline equivalent of watching paint dry, and it won’t be making it onto our Father’s Day gift list.

No, Mrs D’s aspirational reading matter is no help at all when it comes to choosing the perfect paternal present for June 15.

So perhaps it’s best to stick to the novelty stuff. That Darth Vader “I am your father” T-shirt was well received a couple of years ago. Anything that says “40%” on the label and can’t be bought by kids is just great. And there’s a chap at work who is very proud of his “Who’s the Daddy?” coffee mug.

Oh, and some shower gel would be nice, too.

Last year’s has nearly run out.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

World Cup 2014 - Ultimate Survival Guide

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or so, you can hardly be unaware that the World Cup kicks off today.

And if you want a chance to join in the fun, here it is at last...

Your Essential – Nay Ultimate – Cut-Out-And-Stick-To-The-Fridge-Where-It-Will-Gather-Dust-Until-The-European-Championships-In-2016 Survival Guide to Brazil 2014.

Getting There: If you haven’t bought your tickets and booked your hotel by now, forget it. Brazil is a very, very long way away (a member of the Bath Chronicle staff went there once and can confirm this), and is not a country to be visited lightly. Especially if your passport needs renewing, which in the current chaos will take at least six months. By which time, they’ll think it’s all over. And it will be.

Watching It On Telly: At home, or down the pub? Your choice, but at least you can be assured that almost everyone in the pub will actually want to be watching, whereas at home there may be the occasional dissenting voice.

Who To Support: England, obviously. But beware of divided loyalties. Mrs D’s ancestry means there’s always a bit of a frisson whenever England play Poland. Luckily, though, we got that out of the way in the qualifying rounds. Which means that the only cloud on the horizon is Australia, by way of Grandma Dixon. The upside is that we’ll have another team to support if England go out early.

The Office Sweepstake: The rules are simple: You will pick a team without the slightest hope of reaching the last 16, let alone the finals. Your team will lose. You will complain that the whole thing is rigged, and that the bloke who ran the sweep kept the best teams for his mates. You will be ignored.

What To Sing: England doesn’t have an official song this time round. Which is probably just as well for those of us who remember watching a succession of squads on Top of the Pops, all dressed up in their best suits, miming to a ludicrously over-optimistic dirge, shuffling nervously from foot to foot and wondering if they were going to meet Pan’s People.

Instead, there’s an official World Cup anthem by Pitbull (because nothing says “football” like a slavering attack dog), or an unofficial, and actually rather catchy, little ditty called Kick That Soccer Ball by spoof Twitter user @usasoccerguy.

Neither of which is doing very well in the download charts right now, being beaten hands down by Noble England, by the late, great and sorely missed Rik Mayall.

Which brings us to...

What To Wave: Dismiss any doubts you may have that it’s in some way beneath you to fly the cross of St George while Our Boys are giving their all in the steamy Amazonian jungle. We will proudly be dangling our ginormous red and white flag from the front bedroom window at Dixon Towers, and will remain resolutely proud.

England expects, and all that.

How To Celebrate If We Win: When we win, more like. If we can draw 0-0 with Honduras in the warm-up friendlies, what can possibly stand in our way?

Come on, En-ger-land!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Jupiter's Great Red Spot - why is it shrinking?

If Jupiter were a teenager, it would probably be feeling rather pleased with itself right now.

Because according to reports from NASA, the mighty gas giant’s most prominent feature, the Great Red Spot, is rapidly shrinking.

Shrinking red spot: Jupiter's mega-zit could soon be a thing of the past
Quite why that should be, no one seems to know. The monstrous zit on the face of the biggest planet in the solar system has been rotating majestically around the upper Jovian atmosphere for hundreds if not thousands of years.

But the reasons behind its sudden reduction are causing space scientists to scratch their heads.

If not their spots.

Maybe Jupiter stopped eating so much chocolate between meals.

Maybe it started going to bed at a sensible hour.

Maybe it did all the other things parents nag their adolescent offspring about when said offspring break out in spots. Like washing its face more frequently than once a fortnight.

Maybe it switched to a new brand of spot cream – an intergalactic-sized tube of Clearasil, perhaps.

Or maybe Jupiter is simply growing out of its spot, just as parents promise teenagers will happen when nothing else seems to work.

As with humans, though, very little is certain in the field of interplanetary dermatology. Spots can come back to haunt you even when you’re quite grown up, and it already appears that a new crop of  red blemishes may be welling up around the fast-shrinking big one.

So it looks as though Jupiter is going to have to keep up with the interplanetary cleansing, exfoliation and moisturising for a little bit longer yet.

What is certain, though, is that all this upheaval in the swirling clouds of Jupiter has absolutely nothing to do with fracking, or melting ice caps, or deforestation of the rain forest, or any other human interference.

Or has it? Another fascinating science report suggests a more troubling explanation for Jupiter’s recent facelift.

Readers will no doubt be familiar with the Breit-Wheeler Process, by which matter can – at least theoretically – be created by ramming two particles of light together to create an electron-positron pair. If not, where have you been since 1934 when it was first thought up?

A photon generator unit, yesterday.
Messrs B and W never believed it could be done for real. But Professor Steve Rose, of Imperial College London, has other ideas. “We can create matter directly from light,” he says, “using the technology that we have here in the UK.”

It seems that the denizens of Jupiter may have got wind of this.

Deep within the Jovian maelstrom, Academician Tharg is preparing his photon generator. He points one end at the other, closes a switch and stands back, his mauve protoplasm throbbing in anticipation at the prospect of an infinite supply of free matter.

A hideous crash rends the firmament. Technician Groll dashes into Tharg’s laboratory, her tentacles a-quiver.
“Sir, sir!” she screams. “Look outside! The Great Red Spot – it’s shrinking!”

Tharg smiles grimly. In the cause of pure science, he has disrupted the very fabric of the universe. But on the plus side, he has discovered the perfect spot cure.

The only trouble is, we mere humans will have to go all the way to Jupiter to buy it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Digging up the past

The loft at Dixon Towers isn't really worthy of the name. It originally spanned the entire floor area of the house but, after a bedroom conversion it was squeezed out to the edges, where it became three crawl-spaces at the front, the end and the back.

With us so far? Good, there will be questions later. For now, though, the scene is set.

Into these crawl-spaces has been stuffed all the detritus that builds up in the course of everyday life and that seemed at the time too important to chuck away, but too cluttersome to keep out.

Most of it is crammed into large cardboard removal boxes.

So far so good. Old stuff stays in the loft, new stuff stays downstairs, and never the twain shall meet.

Until last Sunday.

That was when Mrs D suddenly decided, for no discernible reason, that it would be a good idea to have a rummage through the vaults and dig out the old photographs.

Now, if you've ever watched The Great Escape you'll have some idea of what happened next.

No, not yours truly zooming away on a purloined motorbike, jumping a barbed wire fence and heading for the hills. Although that might have been preferable to what really did happen.

Remember in the film when they dropped through a hole in the barracks floor, inched on hands and knees through a two-foot tunnel, and extracted the spoil by stuffing it down their trousers?

Well, something similar was going on in our loft last Sunday.

Except that in the film, the tunnellers were fit, flexible, 20-something military types. In our loft-based remake, the tunneller was a portly columnist with creaking hip joints who won't see the right side of 50 again.

Much grunting and straining later, the boxes were extracted and deposited in an untidy heap on the loft bedroom floor.

Due to an outstanding piece of foresight on our part many years ago, they were all neatly labelled – "Memorabilia", "Photos", "Bits and Bobs". Etc. Etc. Etc.

The scene switched from Stalag Luft III to Tutankhamen's Tomb as we tore the tape from the first box to reveal the treasures within:

A carrier bag, full of bank statements and pay slips from 1997.

A rolled-up school photo, three feet long, depicting the first-years tottering precariously along the top row, the lower sixth pulling a variety of stupid faces, Jock the caretaker running round the back so he could be in the picture twice, the headmaster smirking unctuously, and a grey blob that might just be the present writer in a pudding-basin haircut.

Old exam papers that would turn today's GCSE students into nervous wrecks.

A marble.

Then we hit the mother lode: photo after photo after photo after photo. Our forebears on holiday, in baggy shorts and smoking pipes. Us on holiday separately, before we were us. Us on holiday together.

Us looking dapper at dances, us looking drunk in seedy dives.

Us with babies, with toddlers, with schoolchildren, with…

With a disgruntled teenager who wanted his bedroom back pronto, and what was the point of going through all these boxes anyway?

It was fun while it lasted. But it was time to get back to the future.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

George Osborne and the new pound coin

As the fallout from the budget statement settles, and families across the country do their sums and realise with joy and gratitude that they could well be £2.37 a month better off – but not until 2016 – it’s time to sit back and reflect on our  Chancellor of the Exchequer’s lasting legacy.

What, when the history books are written and the students of 2114 scribble down factoids about the early 21st century, will be George Gideon Oliver Osborne’s foremost claim to fame?

Will he be remembered as The Iron Chancellor? The Bankers’ Buddy? The Hammer of the Needy? Austerity Man?

No. None of those things. If George Osborne is remembered by anyone, for anything at all, it will be as The Toff Who Invented The Twelve-Sided Pound.

Announcing it on the same day as the budget was clearly a ploy to distract us commoners  from the nitty-gritty of belt-tightening, and it appears to have worked exactly as he intended.

Because here we are, worrying more about the wear and tear on our pocket linings from those extra corners, and reminiscing about the days when the pound was foldable, rather than girding our loins for a few more years of pain.

Where did Osborne get the idea from, anyway? All this talk about the trusty round version being too easy to forge doesn’t really hold water. And don’t think for a minute that he was inspired by the good old threepenny bit.

Because he’d have a hard job remembering a coin that ceased to be legal tender just three months after he was born.

No, the smart money is on the theory that he was sitting in one of those posh cafés where they serve dainty petits fours on hexagonal plates, and  thought: “I can go better than that – twice better”.

Although to be strictly accurate, George didn’t get his sums right in that glorious moment of gustatory inspiration. Because if you count the top and bottom, or the heads and tails, a hexagonal plate  has eight sides, and a dodecagonal coin has 14. And 14 isn’t twice eight but 1.75 times eight. (Guess who’s been helping out with the maths homework this week?)

And if you’re confused by all those numbers, just imagine the effect they had on the Chancellor.

As with any change in economic policy, though, some people will benefit and others will suffer.

Those with the most to lose, of course, are the manufacturers of  chocolate coins. Year in, year out, they’ve been happily churning out sweet circular simulacra of cash and packing them into plastic nets ready to be stuffed into Christmas stockings up and down the land.

But now a new challenge lies ahead for the doughty chocolatiers: digging out their old 12-sided moulds, left mouldering (sorry) since the demise of the thruppence, and retooling.

Vending machine-makers, meanwhile, are rubbing their hands in glee. Because once Osborne has knackered the pound coin,  what’s to stop him fiddling  with the rest of our currency? ATMs and self-service tills will all need updating, to accept rhomboid 2p pieces and triangular £7 notes.

There are even rumours that Osborne has it in for the venerable seven-sided 50p, and is having it redesigned as a four-dimensional Möbius Strip with no sides at all.

Sounds fun? Hah! Try getting one out of your pocket, the next time you want to spend a penny.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Thank you very much for the World Wide Web

Twenty-five years. Is it really that long since Tim Berners-Lee jumped out of bed one fine morning with a figurative light bulb over his head?

Looking back at that momentous day in March 1989, Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim), explained things very simply: “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and – ta-da! – the World Wide Web!”

Obvious, when you come to think of it. What’s amazing is that no one had thought of the World Wide Web before.

And what’s even more incredible is that Sir Tim later confessed that those two forward slashes we’ve been meticulously typing at the beginning of every web address are totally unnecessary. He put them in, he said, because “it seemed like a good idea at the time”.

Well, we’ve all done things like that, from painting our bedrooms mauve to sliding down a hill on a tea-tray.

But looking back over 25 years of trying to remember which computer key is a forward slash and which one’s a backslash, it’s hard to forgive Sir Tim for that particular boo-boo.

Let’s look on the bright side, though. Much has changed since Sir Tim wrote in his WWW User Guide: “When color [sic] comes along, we can use colour...”

Imagine a world in which you couldn’t click your mouse on the words Click Here! and find that nothing happens because the web designer meant you to click some graphic down at the bottom of the page.

Imagine a world in which you couldn’t find out, with another mouse click, why Dermatologists Hate This Woman For One Weird Trick. What weird trick could it possibly be? Laying the poor out dermatologists with a bunch of daffs? Creeping up behind them and giving them a wedgie? Must... just... click... that... link...

Imagine, too,  a world where you couldn’t watch videos of kittens doing cute, stupid or downright dangerous things when you should be concentrating on work.

Yes, dear reader. For those of us old enough to remember it, that was the World before Sir Tim stuck those two extra Ws on the end. Not to mention the /s. Or possibly the \s.

It was a dark and dreary place. A world without Facebook. A world without Twitter. A world where you didn’t have  to remember a 12-character password and the second, fourth and tenth characters of a nine-character phrase if you wanted to find out how much money you haven’t got.

A world in which casually mentioning your mother’s maiden name to some friendly stranger down the pub wasn’t a catastrophic breach of data security.

A world in which you had to use a proper encyclopaedia, with paper pages, to settle family arguments.

And a world in which you couldn’t check up on the progress of Lydia the great white shark, whose solitary meanderings have taken her across the Atlantic in the general direction of the UK where, we can exclusively reveal, she will swim up the Avon to Bath and take part in the Jane Austen Centre's  forthcoming all-singing, all-dancing tribute to the Bennet family.  

So anyway, thank WWW, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The world would be a lot less fun without you.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Something nasty under the tundra

It is at times like this, with the world in crisis, nations rattling their sabres and the price of fuel going through the roof, that one thinks of the words of Boney M’s 1978 chartbuster Rasputin.

“Ohhh, those Russians.”

The late Bobby Farrell, lead singer with the top-selling Deutsche Disco act, must have known a thing or two about international relations. He was born in the Dutch Antilles and lived in Norway, Holland and Germany before dying, at a tragically early age, in a hotel room in St Petersburg. Russia.Now how spooky is that?
Well, not as spooky – or scary – as the news coming out of Russia right now.

And we’re not talking about the Ukraine here, or the imminent outbreak of World War Three. Or at least Crimean War Two.

No, this week’s really bad news from the land of the borscht and the balalaika got rather buried under all the macho Putinic posturing.

It came from far north and east of Sevastopol, and it concerned not mad monks but mad scientists.

French mad scientists, to boot.

They were poking around in the Siberian tundra and found what they describe as a “giant virus” – Pithovirus sibericum to its friends. 

It has been lying dormant for some 30,000 years, but with the defrosting of the not-so-permafrost it has warmed up, come back to life and started chomping on its prey: single-celled amoebae.

Killer: Pithovirus sibericum, yesterday 
(Pavel Hrdlička, Wikipedia)
Pithovirus, like Rasputin, is obviously very hard to kill.

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie and his colleague Dr Chantal Abergel, from the University of Aix-Marseille, are quick to reassure us that humanity has nothing to fear from the unpleasant little critter. 

“It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell,” said Dr Abergel with more than a trace of Gallic glee. “It is able to kill the amoeba, but it won’t infect a human cell.”

Leaving aside the question of how she can be sure, what’s most worrying here is the thought that there might be something really nasty lurking under the semi-frozen plains of Siberia.

Picture the scene, if you will.The French boffins probe deeper into the squelchy half-frozen peat. Mais quel horreur! They reel back as a grey-green mass of sentient lichen pokes out a prehensile pseudopod, hauls itself up to the surface and fixes them with the three beadiest of its seven beady eyes.

“Hello,” it says. “My name is Dmitri. Please to take me where there is vodka.”

All of which goes to prove that just because you can do something (like re-animate a virus, or a lichen, or an Irish elk, or even Neanderthal Man) it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

From Icarus to Doctor Frankenstein, legend and literature are full of examples of those who flew in the face of nature, and fell. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris.

And when Vladimir Putin comes marching over the Russo-Ukrainian border, mounted on a prancing woolly mammoth and followed by troops of wild-eyed Orthodox monks, you can’t say that we haven’t been warned.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Chillies in a box

It’s a hard life being an amateur chilli grower, and February is the hardest month of all.

Because February, of course, is the month when the little darlings get planted. Or should it be March? Or even January? It depends a bit on which packet of seeds you read, but one thing’s for sure: chillies need both light and warmth.

Neither of which is much in evidence in the conservatory at Dixon Towers, which faces north west and lets in draughts like the Titanic let in water.

So what we need is a controlled environment. And that means a visit to IKEA to buy a chest, which we know before we set off is called an Apa. And it also means a conversation with a member of staff who isn’t keen to tell us where we might find said Apa in the flat-pack aisles at the end of the store, and who instead suggests we track it down in the children’s section.

Which, what with it being a Saturday afternoon, is knee-deep in tinies, hell-bent on obscuring the product from the paying customer.

So it’s back to the staff member, who is at last persuaded to look up the Apa on his terminal and divulge its hiding place among all the other flatpacks (what is it, some sort of trade secret?).

Home again to build the chest. Pause for  speculation about why IKEA Allen keys are never up to the job.

Finish chest with aid of electric screwdriver, stand back and admire.

OK, now for the heat. Place horticultural mat in bottom of chest. Drill hole for wire in end. Remove plug, pass wire through hole, re-attach plug.

Pause  to reminisce about the good old days when you had to buy a plug whenever you bought a new appliance.

Crack on with it, Dixon. We need light. Assemble fluorescent fitting and switch, in contravention of every wiring regulation known to man.

Fix gaffer tape to inside of lid. It doesn’t stick. Apply two coats of PVA glue to lid. Pause overnight while glue dries. Attach more gaffer tape to lid, fix light fitting to gaffer tape with double-sided tape. All seems well.

Place seed trays on mat, turn on mat and light, close lid and await results.

Important scientific discovery. Fluorescent light fittings give off heat. Seed trays give off water vapour. Gaffer tape does not stick to PVA-impregnated hardboard in warm damp environment.

Light fitting falls off, missing trays by a whisker.

Off to the DIY shop to buy industrial-strength pipe brackets. Drill holes in lid, attach brackets, dangle light fitting from same. Sorted.

By this stage the budget is so out of control that  if any chillies do emerge in August (or July, or October), the unit cost will be on a par with  expensive luxuries like saffron. Or even printer ink.

Then Mrs D  sucks her teeth judiciously and asks  “Don’t plants need air?”

Resist temptation to debate  transpiration with someone who clearly knows more about it than you do.

Open the lid a crack, leave the chillies to do their stuff.

They’ve had all the help they’re going to get.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hot. Cool. Yours. It's Winter Olympic meltdown!

So there we are, sitting on the sofa and catching our breath between multiple sessions on Netflix (we’re proper binge-watchers these days) when it hits us: the Winter Olympics are on!

As we watch, the Dixon drawing room fills with a sense of wonder. 

“I wonder how they do it?” says Mrs D, as a 15-year-old elf nonchalantly throws a single Salchow, a double Axel and a triple toe loop with bells on before landing gracefully in the arms of her swooping swain.

“I wonder if they get dizzy?” says young Miss D, practical as ever.

“I wonder when we can watch Breaking Bad?” mutters young Mr D, terminally unimpressed.

Another source of wonder is the ability of the BBC commentators at Sochi to tell at a glance the difference between an ollie, a stalefish and a McTwist 540.

All of which are genuine snowboarding tricks, fact fans. You really could not make them up.

And that’s when those very same commentators aren’t stretching the English language to breaking point by pressing innocent nouns into service as verbs.

As in: “The English hopeful had a chance of medalling but it was the Russian veteran who podiumed.” Doctor Johnson must be spinning in his grave.

Even more wonderful (in the sense of making you wonder what it’s all about) is the Sochi slogan.

According to the official Sochi website, this ringing phrase is “a universal solution successfully combining innovation and dynamism.”

According to yours truly, it’s even more daft than Wenlock and Mandeville. And who remembers them?

Moon. Jam. Varnish.

Clamp. Knee. Bedwear.

Take any three words, put them in a row and stick full stops after them. You know it makes sense, especially if you’re being paid for it.

Enough linguistic opprobrium, though. We’re off to the moguls (bumpy skiing to the uninitiated) where the commentary team are getting a teensy bit overwrought.

“The poles are working overtime!” screams one, somewhat ambiguously. “Those kneepads let the judges know exactly what’s going on below the waist!” yelps another, somewhat less ambiguously. “The British pair are going back to back!” yodels a third with as little ambiguity as it’s possible to muster before the 9pm watershed.

To be strictly accurate, the British pair were snowboarders. There wasn’t any room for us Brits on the moguls after the three Dufour-Lapointe sisters from Canada took to the slopes.

Which of course leads us to further wondering, this time about the quality of dinner-table conversation chez Dufour-Lapointe.

“Hi girls,” says Mum. “And what did you do today?” “Mogulling” says Chloé. “Mogulling” says Justine. “Mogulled” says Maxime, who is soon to join the BBC.

The real trouble with the Winter Olympics, though, is that so many of the so-called sports are subjective. If it takes a judge to decide the winner, then is it really a sport?

Still, while our British curlers enjoy their brush with destiny, those of us left at home do at least get to play Spot-The-German-With-The-Rudest-Sounding-Surname.

Andreas. Ski-jump. Google.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Bristol crocodile blocks last route out of Bath

Typical, isn’t it? No sooner does one news story of weird animals threatening humanity get put to rest (last week, remember, it was mutant cannibal rats on a 21st-century Marie Celeste death ship) than another rears its ugly head.

Or to be absolutely precise, its scaly head. Because yes, gentle reader, a six-foot crocodile has been spotted sploshing around in the river Avon in Bristol.

It was first reported by a bus driver on Bedminster Bridge, which immediately raises two questions: (a) what was he on? and (b) where can we get some?

But that would be uncharitable, and the story must be true, because it’s been in all the papers, and the croc itself has not one but two Twitter accounts, and it’s been posting some fairly gruesome selfies all over the internet.

Indeed, no less a personage than Nick Gargan, chief constable of Avon and Somerset Constabulary, also took to Twitter (as you do) to advise his followers not to go water-skiing in the river.

Which could actually be a bit awkward, because over the last couple of weeks the Avon has become pretty much the only reliable route out of Bath. If the roads aren’t shut by design, for the fettlement of the sewage system or the installation of super-fast broadband, then it’s by accident.

Fallen branches, collapsed walls, rising tides and people driving the wrong way along motorways have all conspired to thwart any sort of escape from this fair city. Not that you’d necessarily want to leave, but if you did, it looks like the river is currently the only way out.

Or at least it was, until Chris the Crocodile came along and blocked the aquatic route too.

Help is at hand, though, in the shape of a press release cunningly disguised as junk email, received earlier this week at Chronicle Towers, promoting the benefits of a thing called the JetCard.

This “ultimate gift for the man or woman who has everything” (it says here) “buys world-class travel by private jet for time-strapped executives and HNWI’s who want a sense of private jet ownership without the costs and responsibilities.”

What’s a HNWI? Have Not (got the) Wildest Idea. But it sounds like a lot of fun. All you need is an airstrip and one of those cards, which comes in its own black box and is made of aviation-grade titanium, and you’re away.

But the real point of this spam (sorry, marketing communication) is to remind readers that Valentine’s Day is only just round the corner, and that if you’re the sort of HNWI who wants to surprise their significant other with a romantic gift on February 14, then prices start at a mere 4,320 Euros per hour of private flight.

For those of us who are more HMRO – Help (my) Money’s Running Out – than HNWI, the traditional Valentine’s Day profferings of chocolates, smellies and inexpensive pieces of jewellery will probably have to suffice.

Oops, that’s given the game away. If Mrs D was expecting a romantic river cruise with a bit of reptile-spotting at end of it, then she’s going to be sorely disappointed.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Purple tomatoes, cannibal rats

It can hardly be a coincidence, in the week in which Mrs D sits down and starts to think seriously about ordering the entire contents of five separate seed catalogues, that the BBC should choose to stir up horticultural alarm and despondency.

“Genetically-modified purple tomatoes heading for shops,” screamed the headline, while the mind quietly boggled.

How much genetic modification are we talking about exactly? Have the Canadian growers bred sentience into these mauve solanaceae? Have they endowed them with little purple legs so they can trot their way to the shops? And little purple hands to hold their shopping bags?

Let's face it, we could be looking at a squirrel scenario here. You know how it goes: tough foreign breed is introduced to our shores and squeezes out native red variety, which only survives in niche habitats in the north of Scotland.

All right, our British red tomato isn’t really any more native than its Canadian GM clone. But it’s happened before, it could happen again. So why let the facts get in the way of a good scare story?

And speaking of scare stories, did you hear the one about the cannibal rat ghost ship? Now that really did make the skin prickle.

It started in the Sun, with a sobering headline: “SHIP OF GHOULS”; a well-balanced introduction: “A GHOST ship laden with cannibal RATS is sailing for our shores, experts fear — as nobody knows where it is!”; and a photo of the ill-starred cruise liner Lyubov Orlova looming out of a writhing mist of Photoshop.

Regional papers with circulation areas bordering on the Atlantic Ocean were quick to pick up on the tale. Step forward the Herald of Plymouth with “Ghost ship full of cannibal rats could be about to crash into Devon coast.” (Notice that phrase “could be”? Try replacing it with “not” and see if it changes the meaning.)

And it can only be a matter of time before our very own Bath Chronicle splashes (geddit?) on “DEATH ship packed to the GUNWALES with cannibal RATS with a taste for purple TOMATOES sighted at Saltford MARINA and heading up the Avon for BATH!!!”
MOLECULE: some anthocyanin, yesterday
PURPLE TOMATO MOLECULE: some anthocyanin, yesterday

At least it would make a change from all that fuss about bus gates.

In times of trouble, though, the BBC is quick to calm our fears. It pretty much ignored the cannibal rats, and instead concentrated (double geddit?) on the tomatoes.

It appears that they will be squished in their native Canada before embarking for our shores, and every last seed seived out to ensure there’s no chance of genetic contamination or cross-breeding.

And the purple pulp will contain enhanced levels of anthocyanin, which sounds nasty but is really an anti-oxidant that does all sorts of healthy things to you. Allegedly. You can get it from blueberries and cranberries too, but they don’t taste quite as good on pizza.

So mix yourself a stiff Bruised Mary and relax: when it comes to tomatoes, the boffins know best.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Yes, they have no bananas

Rather sad news reaches us from Bristol Zoo, where the monkeys are having bananas phased out of their diets.

The same thing is happening at Paignton Zoo, too. Recent research has shown that bananas grown for human consumption are too sugary for simians, and as a result the macaques,  marmosets and cherry-crowned mangabeys are becoming over-aggressive and prone to tooth decay and diabetes.

Instead, they’re being switched to a diet of fresh green vegetables and brown rice, as a result of which, according to the head keeper of mammals at Paignton, their coats are getting shinier and their outlook on life sunnier.

Now, skirting around the gloomy prospect for any living creature of a diet that could well include both broccoli and brussels sprouts, the main thing about all this no-bananas shenanigans is that it brings into sharp focus one of the biggest bugbears of modern life in January: the Enforced New Year’s Resolution.

Nobody asked the monkeys if they wanted to give up bananas. (Come to that, nobody asked them if they wanted to live in a zoo.)

And in the same way, no one asked if you wanted to give all the things that are bad for you and do a bit of exercise, on the flimsy pretext that it’s no longer 2013.

And you certainly didn’t ask a certain national newspaper to force-feed you a new supplement called Do Something. Because frankly there’s more than enough to do already, from cleaning the gunge off the bathroom tiles to rebuilding Mrs D’s raised beds, which have gone soggy in the rain.

Mind you, if you do fancy a new hobby, you could always start collecting partworks.

Back in the day these informative publications, which by some bizarre coincidence always seem to launch in early January, would help you learn carpentry, car maintenance, cross-stitch, egg-painting and any number of other useful household crafts, all for £1.99 for the first issue along with a free – yes FREE! – binder, then £4.99 each for the remaining 127 instalments as long as you place an advance order with your newsagent because it won’t be on the shelves come April.

Nowadays, as well as sharply priced instruction manuals, you can collect all the requisite bits for a Marvel Comics superhero-themed chess set (FREE board!), a Lancaster bomber (FREE Guy Gibson!) or even a Disney Pirates of the Caribbean Black Pearl Galleon™®© (FREE Johnny Depp!)

Although it’s hard to see the attraction of building up a model plane or sailing boat, rib by laborious rib, over the next two years of your already glamorous life. Or indeed of spending a sum not unadjacent to £250 on a chess set (£7.99 a pop), when you’ve got a perfectly good one already. Even if the Marvel variety is crafted from lead-free metallic resin, and yours is only made of plywood.

No, this year let’s stick to simple resolutions, like writing sentences with a proper verb. And not starting them with “And”.

Damn. That’s two broken already. Pass the bananas...