31 August 2010

Another Perfect Bank Holiday

I woke up this morning feeling flat.  Why I woke up in that mood I don't really know.  I had had a dream that was clearly stress-related but cannot remember what it was about.  It may be something to do with anxiety about my dog's terminal illness and the decision I will soon have to make.  It may just be that I hadn't slept well for the last two nights, having been away from home for the first of them or recovering from DIY in a cramped loft-space prior to the second.  It may be the result of an extended episode of boredom with work.  Whatever the cause of it, I just woke up feeling that I could not be bothered.  With anything.  Ever again.

Of course, I had to be bothered.  It was my turn to get up and walk the dog.  The slight improvement in his condition almost made dragging myself out of bed, taking him out and picking up his poo feel worthwhile but any such benefit was countered by the miserably cold and grey August weather.  Back at home, I managed to make mugs of tea for my beloved and me, and then immersed myself in one of Jeremy Clarkson's books for an hour or so.  I even managed to find amusement in some of it.  Then my beloved needed her breakfast, and the dog needed another wee.

Despite wanting to spend the day curled in a ball under my duvet, I managed to transport a car-full of garden waste to the local tip, to clean the inside of the car so that it no longer looked like a builder's pick-up truck, take the dog out for his favourite pass-time of swimming in the river, and replace the CRT monitor on my desktop computer with a space-saving LCD device.  The sun also shone for an hour or so this afternoon, and I was able to give Mr Clarkson a little more attention whilst exposing my hypothalamus to mood-enhancing rays.

I realised whilst driving home this evening with our Chinese take-away that I still felt pretty crappy - interesting how toilet analogies inform the description of low moods - a bit like after a migraine.  The dog wasn't feeling too good either, having overdone it on the river bank, and needed extra medication.  He, at least, is more settled now.

Actually, my mood must have improved or I would not have felt like writing this.  Perhaps I find some perverse pleasure in being able to inflict my misery on the entire Internet - or at least on the one or two people who persist in reading my blogs.  Had I tried to write this earlier in the day I would not have had the will to fini

11 August 2010

Burglars at Large! The Sequel

Well, the police contacted me to say they had arrested a couple of men for burglary in a nearby town, and suspected they were the same suspects in our adventure of the previous night.  Would I be prepared to look at some photographs?  Obviously, the answer was, yes.  Why?  Several reasons, as follows.
  • Criminals should not be allowed to set the tone of our society.
  • Criminals do not care about their victims.  Why protect them by looking the other way?
  • The police provide us with a valuable service but need our eyes and ears. 
  • We cannot expect to call on the police when we need their help but turn them away when they need ours.
Tonight, I went along to the local nick to look at video identity parades.  These were a bit like a PowerPoint presentations with nine images.  In my case, there were two suspects and therefore two parades. 

Everything was done very carefully.  One of the suspects had asked for a solicitor, who attended the parade to ensure that there was no prompting.  The second suspect had no solicitor, so the process was videoed.  The police staff were from a different station and had no direct involvement in the case to ensure there was no collusion. 

I was asked to view each parade twice without comment.  Thereafter I could see it as many times as I needed to, and freeze on any individual images I wanted to.  After each presentation, I was asked a series of questions, to which my answers were recorded exactly.

The first of my two parades showed a series of faces with just the area around the eyes showing.  One of the suspects I had seen had taken great care to conceal his identity.  I had also been at least 10m away from him.  If he was in the parade, I had no idea.

The second of my parades showed clear views of the faces; the other suspect had not shown such nous as to disguise himself.  As soon as I saw the first image, I knew the person I had seen was unlikely to be on show.  All the images in a parade are selected to match the suspect closely.  The guy I had seen had more hair and longer stubble.  Sure enough, I was unable to identify anyone.

Interestingly, the stolen bikes were in the station.  I had no trouble identifying them!

10 August 2010

On Building a Patio

Our garden, when we bought our house, had a brick- and stone-built barbecue in it.  After four years, I realised that it was listing increasingly to starboard.  The corner of the garden is higher than the surrounding ground, so my suspicion was that the garden was subsiding.

Since my beloved and I are not ardent barbecuers, I suggested that I knock down the structure, and then investigate and rectify the problem.  I suspected I would have to dig down to the surrounding level and build a retaining wall, then back-fill the wall and lay out a new flower bed.  A fairly straightforward task.

'Oh,' said my beloved, 'if you are getting rid of the barbecue we could have a summer house there.'  It is truly wondrous how so simple a statement can can have such far-reaching consequences...

A summer house, of course, is a structure.  A structure needs something to stand on.  Something large enough and, since we would not want to replace a lopsided barbecue with a lopsided summer house, something level.  So now I had to build a patio.  I still had to build the retaining wall as above but also
  • make the area for the patio wide enough by knocking down a stone wall around a raised flower bed and deep enough by lifting some of the gravel-covered crazy paving,
  • dig the bed back and rebuild the wall,
  • build boundary walls (a couple of courses of brick), since the ground is not level, to define the front and back levels of the patio,
  • provide drainage for the area,
  • fill the area with hardcore,
  • top it out with sand, and
  • lay slabs.
Listed like that it all seems quite straightforward but, with my having vanishingly little experience with these things, it wasn't.  Walls need footings, and footings need trenches.  Trenches need to be dug, and I was amazed at how many house bricks and huge boulders I found buried in the ground in exactly the right place to be in exactly the wrong place.   Anyway, having dug them out (with what the dog would call help, and what I would call a downright bloody nuisance) and back-filled the holes they left, and laid down thicker concrete footings to compensate for any failings in the back-filling, I was ready for bricklaying.

The next set of problems were beyond my control.  I got the retaining wall built but had to stop short of expiring because of the heat.  I also struggled with the mortar mix.  How on earth do people build houses with that stuff?   The following weekend, too much rain proved to be an obstacle (weather is a great problem for outdoor work).  Having a social life is also a distraction, as is going on holiday for two weeks, and family birthday celebrations 200 miles away.

Anyway, I eventually got back to the job and finished the re-sited wall of the flower bed, creating along the way a nice pile of topsoil for the dog to dig in (at least, he thought it was for him) and which, at some time, I would have to redistribute around the garden or transport to the tip.  In the process, I mastered the mortar mix and managed to build the boundary walls, despite the dog's best efforts.  I even grew to understand why some people kick their pets, although I love mine too much to resort to such extremes.  The spade in my hand did not seem to discourage his interfering ways...

Now, having demolished a barbecue built largely of bricks, and having dug almost as many from the ground, I had a huge pile from which to make hardcore.  This entailed putting each brick in turn on a large stone (also dug from the ground) and pulverising it with a 1.8 kg lump hammer.  I am amazed how hard bricks are (in the USA, such rock-breaking amounts to hard labour in penal servitude).  I made good progress with that at first, then discovered that it gave me Tennis Elbow in my right arm.  Further progress proved painful.  I needed an alternative way to get the job moving again.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of buying some hardcore but, having looked it up on the Internet, it proved to be largely unavailable in the form that I wanted or that my beloved would tolerate...  There was no option but to continue doing it myself by hand.  Fortunately, I discovered a two-handed technique that enabled me to avoid the pain.

Work continued, and the pile of bricks grew smaller.  Looking at the dwindling pile and the area yet to be filled in, I began to wonder if there would be enough bricks or if I would have to begin prospecting in another part of the garden to see if there was another as yet untapped seam.  However, another day's hard labour - a whole day breaking bricks; one whole day; that's a working day doing nothing but smash brick after brick after brick - proved the stockpile to be adequate.  I still had a pile of bricks and other rubble to take to the tip.  Oh joy!  I also now had Golf Elbow in my left arm.

With hardcore laid down, and gravel thrown in to fill the small spaces, the next day's work entailed filling up the area with sand and covering it with slabs.  Off to B&Q I went to procure the necessary supplies.  It transpired that, because I live on the wrong side of a bridge with a 5 tonne axle weight limit, and could not guarantee that the delivery vehicle could get within 10 metres of our house at all times, the thirty 400mm  square slabs I needed could not be delivered.  I would have to transport them myself.  So, pro tem, I settled for the sand.  Fifteen bags I bought, in accordance with the advice the B&Q man gave me.  Loaded them in the car myself, I did.  Drove home very gingerly, avoiding potholes and bumps so as to preserve my car's suspension.

At home, I took the sensible approach of unloading the sand bags as I needed them.  That meant that the seven I apparently did not need were still in the car for taking back to B&Q once I had levelled off the area.  Back they went, and I unloaded them from the car onto the B&Q trolley I needed to get them to the returns desk.

I then bought my slabs and loaded them into the car.  One at a time.  I drove even more carefully this time, amazed at how low the car sat on its suspension.  Since I was sure I would need all the slabs, the next job was to get them all, one at a time, out of the car into the garden.  I cleared the route, in good manual handling practice, only to find that, on my very first trip, the dog had assumed that the clearing had been for his benefit; he was lying in my path.  In fairness to him, he was willing to move on being so instructed, and it only took him two or three tellings-off to cotton on...

I next had to master another black art: cutting slabs.  Now, hiring an angle grinder may have made the job easier but I am a tight-wad and, in any case, like a challenge.  Not only that, I had already been given an excellent DIY book one Christmas that contained all the enchantments necessary for cutting concrete slabs to size, and had all the requisite magic wands (lump hammer and bolster chisel) in my armoury.  I also had two-and-a-half slabs spare for training purposes.  With unbounded confidence, I set to and destroyed only four slabs (cf. two-and-a-half) in the process.  I ran out of steam before covering the whole area, but at least I got enough slabs down to give an impression of what the the finished patio would look like.  I also decided that cutting slabs by magic was never going to be an accomplished skill of mine, and that I'd better find the right tool for the job rather than destroy the world's entire supply of slabs single-handedly.

After the weekend's heavy lifting, I spent the following day at work aching at my desk, struggling to lift even my mug of tea.  Admittedly, it is a very large mug.  Ordinarily, it would not be a problem but manual labour, for which I was not designed, had taken its toll.  I used my lunch break to investigate the cost of hiring an angle grinder or block cutter.  Since I couldn't do any slab cutting until such an implement had been acquired, I used the next couple of evenings to begin the relocation of left-over bricks and rubble to the local tip. 

Better inspiration followed.  I asked a colleague at work if he had an angle grinder and, if so, would he mind if I borrowed it?  Of all the people at work, he was my most likely source of a free loan.  Jackpot!  He had one and was willing to let me borrow it, especially after I explained that I was always reluctant to lend my tools to others for the simple reason that they usually come back broken.  I had to buy some cutting discs but, hey, that was a small price to pay.

I got all my slabs cut, and the garden filled with white concrete dust, not to mention the back porch and stairs, my shoes and my socks, in one evening's work.  Magic!  I even managed to use the ones I had damaged earlier to good effect.  Setting the slabs out demonstrated that the sand bed was not as level as I had believed.  Further work was necessary to remedy that, and I wondered if I should have kept a few of those bags of sand instead of taking them back to B&Q.  I had half a bag left, and reckoned I would need one more.

My beloved made her contribution to the work by riddling and bagging the pile of topsoil excavated from the raised bed and patio area.  I found a neighbour whose rockery needed topping out and managed to off-load a fair amount of the soil on her; not literally, of course, that would be cruel. 

The project approached its final stages.  I bought another bag of sand on the way home from work on Friday.  I had a weekend to finish the job.  All I had to do was level off the slabs and grout them with mortar.  That's all.  That, and walk the dog, give a statement to the police (see here for the reason why), receive a huge delivery of logs and move them by hand into the log store, walk the dog again, and eat some lunch.  Anyway, I eventually got to levelling the slabs and worked my way around the outside of the patio.  I fixed those at the front and back to the supporting bricks with mortar plus a special ingredient that made the mix much more pliable and easy to work with: washing-up liquid!  Brilliant!  Saturday came to an end and all I had to do on Sunday was level all the slabs in the middle.

Well, actually, I had to go to church, eat my lunch, walk the dog and then set to work on the slabs.  All with a badly bruised toe on my left foot, since I had stubbed it on the solid wooden foot of my beloved's grandma's balloon-backed chair on Saturday night.  I'm not complaining.  I still had one limb in full working order.  Working on the slabs was actually a bit of a relief because it meant spending a good part of the day on my knees instead of my feet.  I managed to run out of sand with only four slabs to go, two hours after B&Q had closed. 

Finally, on Monday evening, after struggling out of B&Q on that badly-bruised toe with a large bag of sand (how many did I take back and why?), I got the slabs all level enough, swept dry mortar into the spaces between, and sprinkled water all over to dampen the mortar.  My heart sank a little later that night, when it looked like I would need to go over the grouting again, the mortar having settled when wet.

On checking the patio in the morning, I was elated to find that all was well.  I had finished!  I had built a patio!  It took a long time and sweat and pain but I did it.  On top of that, I have learnt a load of new skills which I hope never to use again.

And there you have it.  Well, not quite.  The rest of the garden has to be put right but at least the patio is finished.  We thought about having a barbecue to celebrate but realised that we no longer had the means...

06 August 2010

Burglars at Large!

Picture it.  It is 5:10 am on Tuesday morning and our beloved hound begins to bark.  Now, he is more than a little on the territorial side, and enjoys a good bark at passers-by, even those going about their legitimate business.  He also enjoys his sleep, and would not bother barking a this time of day without good cause.

'What's happening now?' said I, stirring from my oblivion.

'Max is barking,' said my beloved, informatively.

As the man of the house, it is my duty to investigate anything that may prove life-threatening or even irksome, especially in the god-forsaken depths of the night.  'Better take a look,' I said, and went down stairs to see what the fuss was about.  The hound was still in his favourite place - on the sofa - but on the alert.  No-one was at the door demanding our attention, so I told the dog he was a good boy and went back upstairs to stick my head out of the bathroom window for a better view.

Imagine my surprise to see someone prowling around with a scarf tied over his face!  Now, no-one who wanders the streets at 5:10 am is beyond suspicion, especially when he is clearly capable of walking in straight lines and his preoccupation appears to be the insides of other peoples' cars.  Anyone doing so whilst attempting to conceal his identity is clearly a ne'er-do-well deserving of having his collar felt.  I performed my citizen's duty and, at about 5:15 am, duly phoned the police.  'Someone will be there as soon as possible,' I was told.  I have to confess a lack of excitement with such a promise.  I would rather have heard, 'Someone is on the way now and will be there very soon.'  'As soon as possible' turned out not to be very quick...

From my bathroom, I can see a lot of what is going on without giving away my presence.  I watched the fat, scarfed suspect wandering down the road and out of sight, and his skinny accomplice come into view on a bicycle and loiter near the house.  This second person was either new to the world of crime, or was brazened, or just plain stupid, since he did little to conceal his appearance.  He moved away after a while and eventually was joined by the fat git.  They wandered off down the public footpath behind our house and out of sight.

Still no police.  We are no more than five minutes from the police station.

Since the criminals had disappeared, I continued my watch for the police, so that I could tell them which way to go to apprehend the suspects.  Then I heard another dog barking.  Then I heard a car start.  Amazingly, a few seconds later, a car turned into our road, which is a dead-end, and screeched to a halt near our house.  The fat git was driving, and the skinny git got out and ran off down the footpath behind the house.  I made a note of the car and its registration number and called the police again.  The skinny guy reappeared carrying a chain saw and jumped back in the car, which reversed out of the road and disappeared away from our hamlet.  This sequence of events was conveyed in real time to the recipient of my 999 call at about 5:30 am.

Still no police. 

They did phone me back, however, to tell me that the car had been reported stolen and to ask which way they had gone.  There are two roads out of our hamlet, and the answer to that question later transpired to be, 'The other way.'  Had the police driven directly to us from the station, rather than trying to second-guess the villains, they would probably have caught them even as they made their escape.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.  If only we could have it in advance...  In fairness, with the information he had at the time, the officer who was dispatched made a reasonable call.  What he really needed was enough support to approach along both roads and the footpath.

And our government wants to cut police funding.

Anyway, the police eventually arrived in several cars.  They searched the area and found two bicycles leaning against our fence; clearly, the criminals had broken into a well-stocked shed at some point during the night.  The car belonged to a neighbour.  The suspects had broken into the neighbour's house, stolen a laptop computer, found the car keys, and stolen the car even while I was waiting for the police!

The police helicopter arrived and went, and later reported that the stolen car was nowhere to be seen.

I spent the next I don't know how long making a statement, and, despite being up earlier than is good for a God-fearing soul, was later for work than I normally am.  I wouldn't mind, but the officer who took my statement thought there was little chance of catching the scrotes unless there were fingerprints.

The police called me again later in the day.  Would I be prepared to look at some mug-shots?  Of course I would.  They would contact me again when they had found someone who knew how to operate the mug-shot computer program and was available at a time when I could go along.  I haven't heard anything yet.

It has been rumoured that the suspects have been apprehended, although I have yet to confirm this.  The fact that I have not been called to view mug-shots may lend weight to this rumour.  On the other hand, maybe there is on-one who knows how to drive the program...

02 August 2010

Unemployment Policy in a Big Society

Government seems to be displaying a lack of joined-up thinking.

Messrs. Cameron and Clegg want us to stay in our jobs for longer, meaning that the number of people in need of work will increase. If we older folks don't leave our jobs, there will be less opportunity for those just starting out to find work. If there is nothing done to increase the number of jobs, this measure will lead to growing unemployment and more claimants for state benefits such as job-seekers allowance.

They want to encourage benefit claimants to work by reducing the value of benefits relative to paid employment, meaning that the number of people in need of work will increase. More people looking for work means that more jobs are needed. If nothing is done to increase the number of jobs, this measure will lead to growing unemployment and a greater burden on charitable organisations trying to support unemployed claimants whose benefits are inadequate.

Somehow, all employers need to be willing to take on more people. That's not very likely, as the last decade or so has seen employers make their dwindling workforce do more work. One way they do that is to not replace us when we leave or retire. So, even if we didn't have to work longer, there would be no extra opportunities for the unemployed to find work...

Public services are being pruned to make them more efficient. For example, the NHS's Primary Care Trusts are being abolished. This will lead to the redundancy of thousands in the PCT sector. The job currently being done by PCTs is being dumped on GPs, who would rather be looking after their patients and so will need to employ other people to do the extra work. Where will they get them from? Ah! Ex-PCT employees! Or some of them at least! We can make them work harder but we'll pay them less. And ourselves more for the extra responsibility we have to carry. The rest can get unemployment benefit... And we don't have to spend the money inside the NHS. Let's try out private health care. That will reduce the burden on the NHS even more, meaning fewer staff are needed. More efficiency savings! Never mind, they can get unemployment benefit.

The Government wants to encourage the 'Big Society', where more people volunteer and exercise greater social concern. Good idea. Because of the government's policies, there will be lots of unemployed people available for looking after many other unemployed people. So maybe the government has got it right, after all...

Question. Who is going to pay for it and how? Presumably, those of us still in work until we're 90 being paid peanuts by GPs.

Messrs. Cameron and Clegg, you have provide an incentive to employ, not just an incentive to work!