20 December 2011

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like ... Christmas?

Well, the Big 'C' is almost upon us. I have to say that this year sees me feeling the least Christmassy I have ever felt, this despite having participated in two Christmas choir concerts and sung in the choir at the village carol service.

Followers of this blog will be aware that I have been busily engaged in an extended act of DIY.  I think I have this to thank for the dearth of festive cheer.  Seriously, for once I am glad of having DIY on which to spend every hour of my own spare time.  The job (decorating the hall) has managed to extend itself right up to this evening, with a final lick of paint being needed on the wall after I stuck my greasy bonce against it while fitting new skirting board.  As a consequence of this artisan activity, my involvement in the Yuletide offensive has been seriously curtailed.

I have been shopping once.

Yes, once.  Yesterday, the last Sunday before the Great Day.  I must admit to approaching the venture with a certain degree of trepidation.  I expected to encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of zombies wandering aimlessly and wondering hopelessly what to buy the missus...  Amazingly enough, the Metro Centre was busy but not heaving and no-one attempted to rip my head off; I even managed to park before running out of fuel.  My Special Forces approach to shopping—go in fast, shop hard, and get out before anyone knows I was there—worked a treat.  I was not offended by the ringing of tills or even aware of the relentless onslaught of Wizard, Slade or Wings. 

My Beloved has done her usual and excellent job of organising presents, getting clothes ready to be packed, and leading the wrapping effort, in which my index finger was usefully employed in holding down string whilst the knots were drawn tight.  I confess to having enjoyed singing along with Nat and Dean whilst proffering my finger in said occupation.

We're off to stay with family for the Festive Season, so we have not bothered with a tree or any decorations beyond a wreath on the front door, a garland over the fire, and greetings cards fixed into suspended holders that fail to hold them.

I appreciate deeply having got this close to Jesus' birthday without having to think about or be caught up in the commercialisation of it all; and mince pies are a warmly-welcomed mitigation of any negative influence, especially in the company of mulled wine.

All in all, it is the perfect Humbug's Christmas.

Except that the real meaning of Christmas, the celebration of the coming of Christ, really means something to me.  It's nice to have the space to reflect on that without it being buried under a landslide of tinsel.

Despite my hatred, if that's not too strong a word, of all the trappings of this time of year, I am looking forward to the next week or so of holiday, and especially to spending time with both sides of our family.  Even though this not particularly what Christmas is really about, it is special and treasured.

Maybe I'm not such a humbug after all...

Whoever you are, wherever you are, and however you are spending the season, I wish you joy and peace.  May you know the love of those close to you, even over the many miles that may separate you, and may you find the Gift of Christmas to be a rich source of hope and comfort for the year ahead, whatever it may bring (my Beloved is already planning the next DIY campaign).

18 December 2011

Never Mind the Chestnuts

Shepherds startled 'round an open fire,
Angel tells them what he knows—
Praises sung by a heavenly choir—
A baby's wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Everyone must know God's favour is among us so;
Shepherds rush to see the sight.
Mary and Joseph, their eyes all aglow,
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.
They know the Saviour came today
To show his Heavenly Father's love and to obey.
This virgin mother's child came from on high
So that one day for our sins he would die.
And so I'm offering this simple phrase
To everyone the whole world through,
Although its been said many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas, for you!

15 November 2011

Reflections on Remembrance

Remembrance Sunday has come and gone again.  Over the years, the usual commemoration for me has been a brief introduction in the course of a normal church service, sometimes given by a veteran or, more usually, the widow of a veteran, then two minute's silence, sometimes followed by a recitation of, 'They shall not grow old...'  There was never anything disrespectful about the event but there was always the impression that it was something that was done because it was the thing to be done; and I certainly think it should be done; we should never forget the cost of the freedom we enjoy today.

A couple of years ago, my Beloved and I were in London at this time of year and so made a particular point of attending the Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph.  It was a notable event, and no doubt deeply meaningful for those who have either participated or lost loved ones in armed conflict.  We stood next to an ex-serviceman who attended every year.  I would like to say we were there to honour those who gave their lives as much as he was but clearly it was a much more personal thing for him.  For me, the pomp of the event lessened the experience.

This year was very different.  Having recently become involved in a local church, we attended the joint Remembrance commemoration in the village.  The whole service was given over to the act of remembrance, attended by servicemen and women from a nearby barracks, elderly veterans marked out by their medals, and uniformed youth organisations, and followed by a procession to the local war memorial. 

Seeing the boys' and girls' uniformed groups reminded me of Church Parades I attended when I was a Cub.  I was surprised to realise that I had no clue at that time what Church Parade was about, and amused to note that modern day members do not seem to be taught how to march.

At the War Memorial, we and a couple of hundred others observed our two minute's silence, witnessed the playing of last post and the laying of wreaths, offered prayers, and remembered the fallen.  It became a much more meaningful event.

The War Memorial bears the names of those from our village who gave their lives.  The realisation of that grounded the event, making more real the fact that real people, local people belonging to families that still live here and remember their fallen, had left their homes and loved ones and given their lives so that we could know and enjoy peace in our land.

I thought about the futility of war, its waste of life and the lost potential, all for the vanity of evil men bent on oppression and conquest.  If only we could find some other way to settle differences, or even just accept them...

I thought also about those who did not die in war or conflict, who survived maimed, or even unscathed but who nonetheless sacrificed their youth, and who have since born the mental scars of their experiences.  I remembered my grandfather who fought as an infantryman at the Somme and in other battles in the First World War, rose to the rank of acting Major in the Home Guard during the Second, but died 21 years ago at the age of 98.  Though he survived, I believe his children lost the father he could have been, and I the grandfather, as a result of his experiences in the trenches.

War is a dreadful thing.  We do not appreciate or value the peace we have in our land anywhere near as much as we ought.  We owe the fallen and those who fought and survived a debt of gratitude.  I would like to think that, could they see us, they would be satisfied with what we have made of their legacy but, somehow, looking at us and the way we are, I doubt it...

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

(From 'For the Fallen' by Laurence Binyon, 1869-1943.)

12 November 2011

DIY - How to Fall Out of the Loft

We have decided to decorate the hallway. It should be easy because the hallway is a very small space. Needless to say, nothing is ever easy. It's complicated by virtue of the fact that I am married to a woman.

My Beloved wants new flooring, and I have to admit that the laminate flooring left by the house's previous owner is less than exciting. She also wanted a socket in the hallway (there having not been one up to now) and downlighters instead of a pendant light; all this in addition to new wallpaper and a lick of paint.

The socket got done on Thursday evening. This was surprisingly easy. The hallway is in the modern, single-storey extension of the house. Consequently, the internal walls are hollow and faced with plasterboard, much easier to work with than the lath-and-plaster construction in the old part of the house. The loft space above the extension has easy-to-find power cables, and so the obvious way to fit the socket was to drop a spur through the wall from above. This was all achieved with a couple of small holes needed to get past horizontal woodwork inside the wall, and only one hole drilled from above into the wrong room. The second attempt found the inside of the wall easily.

Today, I did the downlighters. The main problem with this job was having to clear junk from the loft so I could lift the boarding that lay over the area where one of the new lights was to go. I had already planned the job itself and bought the necessary fittings and additional tools on the way home on Thursday. Actually installing the lights was straightforward. The cutter I had bought made very simple the job of covering myself with plaster dust. Connecting wiring is always fiddly - there never seems to be enough room in a junction box. I dare say that electricians find it easy, having the benefit of plenty of practice, but for even the gifted amateur that I am it is a time-consuming, fiddly annoyance made worse by always being in a confined space. Connecting lighting units, their being overhead, also plays havoc with my neck and shoulders.

Anyway, all went well, and the final task was to make sure that the new lighting units were ventilated and not covered by loft insulation. Again, this was an easy task, and I had even remembered to buy (and wear) a mask to keep dust and insulation fibres out of my lungs.

Now we come to the highlight of the event. Crawling around between joists and roof bracing is a clumsy pass-time when you've been working for several hours and have forgotten to stop for lunch. One objective is to avoid placing one's foot in the room below by passing it through the plasterboard ceiling. In attempting to avoid the aforementioned disaster (successfully, I say now in an attempt to spare you any stress), I reached out to grasp a bookcase for support. This bookcase is normally nailed to the rafters but I had had to move it to get to the ceiling and, at this point in the proceedings, it was free-standing and unwilling to take my weight. Consequently, I found myself undertaking an unplanned lateral transition. In an attempt to arrest my fall, I stepped out only to find that my foot was on the less than firm support rendered by the open loft hatch. Had I not fitted a loft ladder when we moved into the house, I may well have fallen all the way to the floor below. As it happens, my concession to the influence of gravity was somewhat truncated, and I ended up half in and half out of the loft, having bent my thumb back during my flight, bashed my side against the rim of the hatchway, and clonked my right knee on the ladder for whose presence I heaved a hearty thanks heavenwards.

I decided that enough was enough and, since the actual job was done, I would reorganise the loft tomorrow and just tidy up the mess I had made down below.

Tomorrow, after a night's sleep has provided chance for the aches and bruises to set in, I will probably discover just how much damage I have done myself...

Meanwhile, I will attempt to allay the pain by use of muscle-relaxant in the form of a Cumberland Ale or two, and any other such medication that may be within reach...

04 November 2011

Public Sector Pensions Crisis

I am sick of hearing some private sector workers bleating on about how their taxes are being used to pay public sector pensions.  It is true that state pension is paid from taxes and all of us who pay tax, whether in the private or public sector, are therefore funding state pension.  That means that I, a public sector worker, am playing my part in supporting retired private sector workers just as much as anyone else is.

It is a myth that private sector workers pay public sector pensions through their taxes.

Let me point out that for the last 34 years I have been paying income tax, just as private sector workers have.  For the whole of that time I have been paying into a pension scheme (unlike some in the private sector) and so it is I who have made provision for the pension I will eventually receive.

Down the years, government has taken my pension contribution and promised, through a contractual agreement, benefit in retirement through the NHS Pension Scheme.  Government has not, however, taken my contributions and invested them in order to generate those benefits.  No.  My contributions go into the treasury and government uses the money as it sees fit.

You could consider that government uses the contributions of working public sector employees to pay the pensions of retired public sector workers.

The unions have suggested to government that a proper investment scheme be set up using public employees' contributions so that public sector pensions are self-sustaining and clearly independent of the tax system.  This is, of course, unpalatable to government because it would no longer have access to a very large amount of money to mismanage.

What is truly tragic is the failure of government to ensure that private sector workers are signed up to a decent, properly regulated and ring-fenced pension scheme, that people like Robert Maxwell cannot make off with the pension funds of those who are, and that companies are not allowed to take pension fund holidays so they can pay bigger dividends to their shareholders.

Private sector workers should be up in arms to make sure they are treated well rather than trying to see that the public sector gets done down.  Instead of moaning, 'Why should they have that?' they should be demanding, 'Why can't we have it too?'  As far as I am concerned, everyone should be able to look forward to financial security in their declining years.  There are no free hand-outs to be had, however.  Future security means giving up otherwise disposable income now in contribution to the fund.

I pay my way in society through my taxes and make a contribution to society through my work.  I am paying for my pension.  I am not a parasite!

30 October 2011

DIY - Money Down the Drain

Well, I owe B&Q an apology.  In my previous post I implied that they were less than helpful.  I retract that accusation and apologise unreservedly.

We have a condensing combi boiler.  For those of you who may not know what that is, the combi bit means it produces heat for the central heating system and hot water on demand, with the consequence that one has no need of combination thermal underwear when indoors.  The system needs neither a hot water reservoir tank nor a cold water header tank.  The condensing bit means that its efficiency is improved by using a heat exchanger in the exhaust gases from the burners to scour heat that would otherwise be wasted on the atmosphere.  This means that I make better use of the calories in the LPG we have to use where we live, and as a result have a smaller carbon footprint. A side-effect of the heat exchanger is that water vapour in the exhaust condenses, hence the term.

This condensate is not really any use for anything as other substances from the exhaust are dissolved in it.  It has to be piped away to a convenient drain.  At our house, the condensate pipe passes through the wall at boiler height and then drops about 1.5m to the drain.  Normally, this works fine but our last two winters have been cold enough to freeze the condensate on its extremely long and exposed journey to the drain, thus blocking the pipe.  Herein lay my problem. Once the pipe is blocked, the boiler stops working.  To get the boiler going again, you have to boil kettlesful of water and pour it over the pipe to remove the blockage.  This is, of course, only a temporary solution, one that is reversed on the next cold snap.

One more useful solution would be to route the pipe inside the house and into a larger outflow, such as from the kitchen sink.  That had been my intention but the position of the breakfast bar and other kitchen units made the task impossible without dismantling the kitchen.  Since the kitchen cost me 8 grand I did not feel like wrecking it.

Another solution was to make permanent a temporary measure I had adopted last winter (and which seemed to work) in a desperate attempt to avoid boiler shut-down: lagging the pipe.  Hence my visit to B&Q.

I had hoped to find some pipe lagging that was made specially for the job, unlike the only stuff that was left in B&Q last winter, when everyone else was having the same problem and the same idea.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the pipe is of a larger diameter than anything B&Q stocks insulation for.  This is not a fault on their part; I don't think anyone would have it.  So, I spoke to an assistant in the insulation aisle, explaining my problem.  I mentioned that the only option I thought I had was to box the pipe in and fill the boxing with loft insulation or some such material.  'Which would be the best?' I asked.

'Don't do anything with wood,' he said, 'or you'll have to weather-proof it.  Use some square-section electrical conduit.  It's PVC and you can screw it to the wall and fill it with lagging.'

Brilliant idea!  Only problem was, B&Q's example of square-section electrical conduit was only about half the size I needed.  The assistant told me where a couple of electrical wholesalers could be found.  Very helpful.  Thank you, whoever you were.

I found a wholesaler nearer to home than the assistant had suggested.  I acquired a 3m length of 75mm square conduit (only 1.7m of which was necessary) and stood it in the back garden for a couple of weeks.  That was not a necessary part of the job. It just resulted from having other things to be done, bad weather and procrastination, a skill which I perform to a remarkably high level of expertise.

Anyway, today saw me with time and opportunity to get the job done.  I'd already spent a few days fretting about how to cap the end of the conduit to keep precipitation out (rain, snow, fallout from the local children's water cannons), with schemes involving self-tapping screws and cuts at various cunning angles.  However, this morning as I lay in bed procrastinating (I'll thank you not to snigger at this point) I realised that I had in my toolbox a remarkable adhesive called 'Pipe Weld' for PVC pipes which would make it remarkably easy to fix in place angle brackets and an end cap fabricated from the excess length of PVC conduit.

To cut a long story short, having avoiding cutting the conduit too short, the whole venture went off exceedingly well for a total cost of around £33.  The pipe is now nicely encapsulated in square-section electrical conduit.  It is not yet packed with insulation as it started raining while I was buying loft insulation at B&Q.  I need dry weather when installing that to give it the best chance of working.  Then I have to paint the shiny white conduit black so that it blends in with other external pipework and ceases to lower the tone of the neighbourhood.

Maybe tomorrow...

17 August 2011

Green DIY with Soot and Tuna Flakes

We have a log-burning stove in our lounge.  It's a great and green way to keep warm in the winter.  We have a chimney that handles the exhaust from the stove and is a very successful carbon-capture facility, judging by the amount of soot that gathers up it.

Chimneys being what they are, they have to be swept regularly, at least every other year, in an attempt to avoid burning the house down.  There is a metal sheet behind the stove that seals off the chimney from the lounge.  The flue from the stove passes through this sheet and the sweep has to pass his brushes through the flue to do his job.  An unfortunate consequence of this is that much of the dislodged soot misses the sweep's vacuum cleaner nozzle and is prevented from completing its plummet to the centre of the Earth only by the floor of the hearth that lies lies out of reach behind the sheet.

Over the five years that we have lived here, we have had the chimney swept twice.  Goodness knows how many times it has been swept since it was constructed in 1985.  I suspect that the space behind the sheet could be almost full.  Last time he was here, the sweep suggested I make a two-inch hole at the bottom of the sheet so he can get the nozzle of his vacuum cleaner in and remove such errant detritus (I paraphrase; whether he is that erudite or not I cannot say).

'Tis once more the chimney-sweeping season, and so I decided to act upon the necessity drawn to my attention of excavating said hole in the sheet.  Since I do not possess a two-inch drill or other conveniently-sized boring contraption capable of cutting metal, I set about the process in the following manner.
  1. Drew, near the bottom of the metal sheet, a circle around the lid of an old fish food pot which happened to be about the right size (and which now acts as a holder for drill bits).
  2. Using one of the small drill bits from the fish food pot, drilled a series of holes around the circle drawn in step 1.
  3. Using a larger drill bit from the fish food pot, enlarged the holes made in step 2, so that at least some of them overlapped to make a slot.
  4. Decided which end of a junior hacksaw blade to hold (the proximal end).
  5. Wrapped the proximal end of the junior hacksaw blade with insulation tape so that it would not cut a hole in my palm during the next operation.
  6. Pushed the other (distal) end of the junior hacksaw blade through a slot made in step 3 and sawed through the metal that remained intact between the holes.
  7. Removed the metal disc now released from its former location in the sheet of metal.
  8. Swept up the pile of soot that fell through the hole now in the metal sheet.
Flushed with success, I then had to find a way of closing the hole when it was not needed by the sweep.  I thought of getting a metal blanking plate, such as might be used in electrical conduit.  Now, the best place to get one of these, I thought, would be B&Q.  However, I couldn't be bothered to go all the way to B&Q and, in any case, we have a perfectly good hardware store on a nearby high street.  I am all for supporting local businesses and so I went to the hardware store.

Seeing that I was searching for something, the lady behind the counter asked what I wanted.  I explained I wanted a blanking plate and she showed me the plastic electrical blanking plates that the shop carried.  I explained what it was for and that the heat from the stove precluded the use of plastic.  Undaunted, she said, 'Why not use the lid of a tin can?'

I must confess to being bowled over at the sheer brilliance and creativeness of this idea.  I bought a small pack of the self-tapping screws I would need to fix the lid in place and hurried home to find a tin lid in the recycling bin.  Had I gone to B&Q, I may have been told that there might be something three-quarters of the way down Aisle 473 on the right hand side, or that such a thing was not available, or one could be ordered for a week next Thursday.   

Unfortunately, the baked bean tin lid at the bottom of the recycling bin was not large enough to cover the hole and still have room to drill holes for the fixing screws.  Fortunately, the tin of Asda savers tuna flakes in the cupboard was exactly the right size.  Furthermore, we had a small 'Tupperware' container (I use the name in a generic sense akin to the use of 'Hoover'; a Dyson is, of course, a Hoover) that was the right size to hold the contents of the tin that was to be sacrificed, thus ensuring that Monday's sandwiches would not be rancid.

All that remained to be done, after removing the lid from its can, was to punch two clearance holes in the lid to allow the shanks of the self-tapping screws to pass through, drill two corresponding interference-fit holes in the metal sheet in which the screws would find a firm grip, and fix the now recycled erstwhile tin lid in place in its new role as a blanking plate.

Job done!

06 August 2011

On Growing Old and the Ignorance of Youth

A couple of weekends ago, we were far from home celebrating my Beloved's mother's birthday; about 365 miles away, in fact.

For all of you who are now green with envy at my being so far from the 'outlaws', let me say immediately that this vast distance is a big problem for us. I actually like my in-laws and wish they were closer to hand, particularly as they get older and more infirm. My own father and step-mum live 200 miles away, and the same sentiment applies.

My Beloved's father is not, to put it mildly, a well man. In respect for the squeamish among you, I will not catalogue his impressive collection of surgical procedures. Suffice it to say that his heart is not likely to be made available for transplant ...

On the Monday after the festivities, we convinced him to see the doctor about an acute problem he was having. The doctor, on seeing how breathless he was, checked his blood pressure and pulse and promptly sent him to hospital where he was admitted.

I find myself thinking more and more about the ravages of age—perhaps because I am in my late fifties and beloved members of the generation before mine provide a salutary warning of what could lie ahead of me ... I reflect on how active and vital my father-in-law used to be—he did 20-mile walks easily when I first met him, and was involved in all manner of activities—and how much he struggles now. I see his frustration at the diminishing of his powers, and contemplate the inevitability that lies not far enough ahead of us ...

As a younger man, I hardly ever thought of ageing, let alone being old. We seem unable to grasp that the old were once the young, and that, one day, we will become the old, should we be lucky enough to live so long.  This seems to produce a disconnect in us that impacts forcefully on the way we treat the old.  We talk to them as though they are infants rather than possessors of hard-won experience; we see them as inconveniences to be stuck away in homes instead of people who spent themselves to give us a good start in life. For the young who are prepared to listen, the old are a source of wisdom and good advice; they have seen it all before, been there, done that, suffered and survived harder times than any we have seen.

I am disgusted by the contempt that certain elements of the young seem to display for the old.  Then again, they seem to be the sort of ignorant fools who show contempt for anything and anyone they perceive to be vulnerable; the sort of scum that torments puppies and terrorises old ladies.  One day, they may get a taste of their own medicine ...

I know there are old people who are bitter and obnoxious—I have met a few—who expect respect but give none.  Some of them have been that way all their lives and see no reason to change, some have become that way because of the way they have been treated. Nevertheless, in general, we should cherish our old folks, especially our parents and grandparents, particularly those who have helped us to find our way in life.

My father-in-law came out of hospital last Friday, much improved, much less breathless, but on additional medication. We are grateful for every second of his life.

30 July 2011

Hundreds Made Homeless by Merciless Blogger

Today I demolished a wasps' nest in our garden. Cost me nowt except half a can of insect terminator. The stragglers that were away on foraging duty are doing their best to find their home BUT IT ISN'T THERE ANY MORE! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!

Synchronised Dreaming

Last night, my Beloved and I both had dreams about rats. Weird! Whatever could that mean? Are we joined at the psyche?

06 July 2011

Blatant Advertising

Do you like short stories?  If so, how about reading some of mine for free?  Have a look on my WordPress site or my Blogger equivalent.  The stories are the same but the WordPress site is better organised.

05 July 2011

Holiday 2011

Well, I've just about recovered from my holiday.

We went to exactly the same place in Kefalonia, Greece as last year, that's how good it was (see this post).  Contrary to the Law of Diminishing Returns, we were not disappointed.  In fact, we seemed to avoid the usual three-day adjustment period where your head is still at work and you body won't settle down. When we arrived, it felt like we had never been away.  Wonderful!

A typical day for us is:
  • wake up about 8 o'body-clock (10 am local time)
  • visit the toilet for the necessary
  • read a bit
  • have breakfast
  • visit the toilet for more necessaries and a wash
  • slap sun cream over the bits to be exposed to the sun (arms, legs, face, ears and neck in my case)
  • choose which swim-shorts and tee-shirt to wear
  • head down to the pool
  • lie on a sun bed under a brolly (so as not to burn; I burn easily and can tan under cloud)
  • read a lot
  • fall asleep
  • read some more
  • have lunch, including beer
  • read a lot more
  • sleep again
  • have a swim and a float
  • have a beer
  • go back to the room for a shower and to dress for dinner
  • head into town (10 minute walk) for dinner, with wine (naturally)
  • head back to the bar for a few drinks (beer or wine or cocktails) and talk with other holiday makers and the hosts
  • go to bed at about midnight by the body clock (2 am local time)
  • read until the brain stops functioning
  • sleep
As you can see, it's action all the way.  I don't know how we managed to fit it all in!

We had a few changes along the way, substituting the beach for the pool a couple of times, and walking up a hill in 30-ish degrees for 37 minutes to drink beer at a taverna with fantastic views.  Sometimes we had dinner at the hotel instead of walking into town (exercise is tedious; why move if you don't have to?).  Sometimes I listened to my iPod whilst reading, sometimes I just listened to my iPod.

In case you were wondering, we did drink water and other non-alcoholic beverages too.  And had a couple of ice creams.

I read six novels, in all.  My beloved managed a similar number despite the distraction from mosquitoes.  I'm pleased to say that the little beasties find her much the tastier.  I dare not disagree ...

Then it was back home and back to work.  When I arrived, it felt like I had never been away ...

23 May 2011

On Super-injunctions

Here in the uk, we've had a furore caused by celebrities obtaining court injunctions to stop the press publishing details about their sordid little affairs. They have all been rather upset that hundreds of users of twitter and other social networks have felt free to ignore the courts.

My thoughts?

Don't expect to keep under wraps if you can't keep it in your trousers.

On the Benefits of being Ill

The experience of the last week or so has been an interesting gastro-socio-philosophico-literary ride.  As I write, I am on sick leave having been smitten by a particularly nasty bug (I won't go into the gruesome detail but, if that kind of thing interests you, google campylobacter).

The Philosophico- Part

I've had a couple of nasty bugs before, of which one almost finished me and another took 14 weeks to get over.  The latest pestilence had me feeling almost as bad as I have ever felt in my life and fearing another long journey back to health.  For the first two days I slept, being physically capable of only the short, frequent and necessary excursions from my bed, and mentally almost lacking the will to make them.  I ate nothing, mainly to starve the invader, partly from lack of interest.

In the midst of all that, I thought of a friend of my Beloved's who was about to undergo drastic surgery and whose prognosis was far worse than mine.  At least I knew I would recover; she faced she knew not what.  It's not that there's 'always someone worse off' to think about.  Feeling how I felt, it was much easier to empathise with her in her plight.  We all-too-often merely sympathise with the afflicted without ever sharing in (or really caring about) their suffering.  We distance ourselves from their hopelessness; it's less disturbing that way.

The Socio- Part

A few days later, and having the benefit of a downstairs toilet, and feeling a little improved, I took to watching daytime TV.  Yes, that's how bad I felt.  Actually, some of it was interesting; much more was mindless.  There are programmes about people trying to raise cash for trivial escapades by auctioning the junk in their homes, or buying dilapidated houses at auction and trying to make fat cash from the investment of a few licks of magnolia.  And the adverts: so long; so boring; so repetitive; so many.

Then I thought of the audience.  What kind of people watch this stuff?  Obviously, people like me who are laid up for a while.  The housebound, who have no escape.  Judging by the adverts, people who are up to their eyes in so much debt they can only just afford the satellite subscription.  Or who have some pretext on which to enter litigation.  People who are easy prey for parasitic organisations that charge for services that are free, like reclaiming your payment protection insurance premiums.  Whoever we are, we still have brains and need stimulation instead of the mesmeric tripe churned out by even the BBC.

For the afternoons, I sought out SciFi programmes.  I have finally had my fill of Stargate SG-1 and the various Star Trek series, certainly I had one episode too many of Voyager (The Week of Hell, in two parts).  Crass, mind-numbing pap.  I think they have all run out of ideas. 

The Literary Part

A couple more days and I was well enough to be bored.  I was no longer prepared to put up with daytime TV and resorted to a much more stimulating medium: the printed page.  Actually, I found a couple of books that my Beloved had acquired long ago and that I had not read.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Skin and Bones by Tom Bale I found slow at first (although that may have been an effect of my then under-nourished brain) but it soon became a gripping read.  Very well written, too.  Now I'm reading Winter in Madrid, by CJ Sansom, which is proving to be one of the best reads I've had in a long while.  The imagery in books truly is better than on TV. 

A bit More Socio- Stuff

In these days when Government is imposing cuts, we are in danger of losing such valuable services as lending libraries.  It's tragic to think that the value of these institutions may have been undermined because of the convenience of daytime TV.  We should be promoting libraries, not closing them.  Yes, I know there's a lot of crap on bookshelves too but you don't have to read it.  Daytime TV is to reading what the naso-gastric tube is to the knife and fork.  The latter allows you engagement and variety.  You can only get emulsified slop through the former.

The Gastro- Part

At the beginning, abstinence from food was surprisingly easy.  The reintroduction of food had to be a careful process.  I had to take only bland food at first so as not to upset my delicate and sometimes painful gut.  As someone used to eating curry and stir-fry, and a lover of chocolate, I was delighted to rediscover the flavour of basic foods cooked simply.  Rice and steamed vegetables were delicious: it was as though my taste buds revelled in their very existence.  Strangely, my first glass of wine and my first square of chocolate last night were disappointingly offensive to my palate.  I'm hoping to recover very soon from that problem.  After all, I lost over a stone in a week and have to put at least some of it back on so I am well enough to return to work and normal life.

Being ill is never fun.  It has however been interesting, providing a change of pace and time to reflect on the things we take for granted. 

And now I am well enough to write again.  Too bad, you may say.  Well you didn't have to read this.

05 May 2011

On the Death of a Fanatic

So, Osama Bin Laden is dead.

Is the world a better place without him? No. It is just as bad and just as good after his death as it was before. Humanity seems perfectly capable of producing evil men however many we dispatch to the courtroom of eternity.  The deaths of Stalin and Hitler did not end atrocities. Pol Pot, Pinochet, Galtieri, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Mugabe and more rose to fill the void.

Has justice been served? Well, yes and no. Bin Laden has caused the death of thousands if not millions of innocents; he had to be stopped. Those that live by the sword shall die by the sword. What about the injustices perpetrated by Western powers on other peoples? Terrorists do not emerge from a vacuum.  Some who perceive themselves to be oppressed will always aspire to be the oppressor. 

Will terrorism diminish? Of course not. I will be surprised if no atrocities are committed to avenge Bin Laden.  Al Qaeda has lost its most recent leader. It may be distracted for a time while key figures struggle for ascendency but it will not remain leaderless. It may have lost access to Bin Laden's money, but there are surely other wealthy fanatics in the world willing to fund terror.

The world is not a safer place. I think it's a bit too soon to rejoice ...

05 April 2011

The Battleground of the Used Car Showroom

I hate buying cars.  I cannot express how much I hate buying cars.  Actually, it's not so much the buying of cars that I hate; it's the inevitable feeling that I've been ripped off.  This is the consequence of the high-pressure sales tactics used by car salesmen.  Let's face it, whatever they say, they are after taking you for every penny they can.

When buying the car we are about to replace, I think I was taken for a mug, at least on the sale price of the car.  Actually, it's the best car I've ever owned and my way of getting my own back on Car Salesmen everywhere has been to run the car until it is almost falling apart, thereby depriving them of further income for twelve years.  Serves them right for selling me something so good. 

Where I scored on that deal was on the finance of the purchase.  I was in the fortunate position of being able to play the dealer off against a high street bank which was keen to encourage borrowing (remember those days?).  The car dealer's finance package was more expensive than I could get from the bank.  So, immediately, they offered me a better rate.  I went back to the bank who did likewise.  Back I went to the car dealer and they offered me a lower rate still.  If this is not evidence of greed, I don't know what is.  They were keen to sell me the finance, even at the rate least favourable to them.  They were more than willing to hide those less favourable rates from me.

We began our current quest and had our first run-in with a car salesman last Sunday.  Now, he seemed like a nice guy, and he may well be, but you have to remember that the affable nature of the car salesman is part of his toolkit: he is trying to build rapport, to make you feel that he is your friend, to induce obligation in you.  He is not your friend, he is a predator. 

We had hardly set foot on the lot and begun looking at a car that was of interest when our friendly salesman accosted us.  He was very helpful, doing as much as he could to show off the features of the car, get the engine running, get us into it for a test drive.  This is all part of the obligation building: I have bent over backwards for you, now you do something for me.  Actually, the battery was flat so he had to go away a couple of times, which gave me chance to look around the car and pick up on a few things that caused me concern.  I suspected it had been in an accident, although later he assured me that no car that had been would be on the lot.

Prior to the test drive, he coaxed us into the office.  He explained how he was there to agree a sale that was mutually acceptable to us both of us.  He took down our personal details, address and contact numbers and such, found out what we were trading in.  After the drive, he sent us off for a free cup of tea while he talked to his boss.  Then he turned up with the first offer, including all the extras that would enhance our purchase and boost its resale value. 

Somehow, he had begun to reel us in, even though this was the first car we had looked at and we were not really ready to buy, being not entirely sure what we wanted.  We declined all the extras, vacillated over the part-exchange offer, and generally looked like we weren't going to buy.  He left us to think while we drank more free tea, and he went to see his boss again.

Back he came with the next offer.  What amazes me is that I knew exactly what was coming but still felt hooked in.  A much improved part-exchange deal, extras thrown in, a more manageable final price.  But the deal was only if we signed up today, and they were about to close.  The offer hit me like a sledge-hammer.  Could I afford to pass this up?  Can't I have time to think about it?

This is a well-documented ploy and it is crap.  'Look, we are doing you a favour...'  No they are not.  If they were happy to sell it at that price today, they would be just as happy with it tomorrow.  Whoever came in the next day and showed interest in that car probably had exactly the same offer thrown at them.  Next time I hear this, if I am genuinely interested in buying the car, I will come back with a lower, counter-offer that I will not extend to the following day...

There are other ploys that we weren't subjected to: 'I only need one more sale to achieve my target and get my bonus,' for example, meaning, 'Look, we're friends now; you can do me a favour.'  Not my problem; I'm buying a car, and your personal financial arrangements with your employer are no concern of mine.  And you're not my friend, I don't know you from Adam.

We walked away.  We didn't want that car anyway.  At least the experience served to clarify in our minds that we don't know what we want.  And that it is a buyers' market.

13 March 2011

On the Inevitability of DIY

I am knackered. Almost too tired to write. It is only the joy at having finished (well, almost) the latest DIY adventure that affords me the motivation to write this post, which I offer in explanation as to why I have not posted much of late.

My Beloved thought it was time to decorate the stairs and landing, and who am I to contradict...

Now, normally, decorating is not that big a problem, other than having to expend effort in the doing of it. Having grown up in a household that did its own decorating, I learnt by osmosis how to hang wallpaper and to paint. I also had an uncle who was a meticulous (and master) decorator, if somewhat slow as a consequence. Thanks to his and my father's contributions to my Painter and Decorator's training, there is no decorating problem I would lack the confidence to tackle (in a normal private dwelling house, that is: Buckingham Palace is probably a little beyond me).

The old part of our house was built in 1898, or thereabouts, a fact which confers upon it high ceilings. Very high ceilings, especially on the stairs; 5.2m to be exact. Problem number one: my step ladders are nowhere near long enough.

The walls were covered in anaglypta wallpaper which would have to be removed to achieve the effect my Beloved had in mind. In a house this old, anaglypta is often used to cover up defective wall surfaces. Furthermore, the top layer of plaster, having been on the walls for 113 years, was likely to be equivocal over the question of whether it should stay with the wall or the wallpaper. I experienced a similar problem in a house that was built in 1930 and so imagined the worst as the only possible outcome. Problem number two: my plastering skills are limited.

The solution to these two problems, and my reluctance (as perceived by my Beloved) to do the work, was to give them to someone else. I agreed and suggested she obtain a couple of quotes. This she duly did. The first quote was £560; the second, £630. Additionally, we intended to carpet the stairs (currently bare) and the likely cost of that was over £400.

Now, the current economic climate is not conducive to the outlay of large amounts of cash. Around £1000, for us, is a large amount of cash. It is not that the decorators' quotes were unreasonable: these guys have to earn a living. It's just that, in our circumstances, it was more than we could afford. My beloved and I had the same thought: it would be cheaper to hire a ladder.

And so the decision was made that we (a much misused personal pronoun, in my experience) would do the job ourselves.  Should have known better.  If someone else could do it, it wouldn't be DIY.

A previous necessity (the installation of a shower) had given me some hope that the wall may be able to hold on to much of its plaster. Fortunately, this proved to be the case, even under the force of my Beloved's assault with steam-stripper and scraper. A few bits came off here and there but nothing beyond my limited knowledge of the black art of plastering.

As to scaling the heights, my beloved did what she could whilst retaining intimate contact with floor and stairs, and I ventured as high as my steps would take me. As for the parts that were out of reach...

I looked up tool hire firms but wondered how I would find time to get the work done within the hire period. I considered buying an adequate ladder but had no room to store one that would be useful for any other jobs (like clearing gutters). Then I had a brainwave! Borrow one from a neighbour!

Fortunately for me, my neighbour was very willing to lend me his ladder, and work took on a more deliberate tone.

The first weekend was spent getting off the huge amount of hitherto unreachable paper, re-sticking the ceiling paper that had sweated off in the sauna from the steam-stripper and then painting it, and patching the plasterwork.

The second weekend was spent hanging lining paper; I climbed the ladders and hung the paper, my Beloved pasted, needing only one reminder about making sure the edges of the paper got enough paste.

We were to paint most of the walls and paper only one of them. The wall that was to be papered needed the lining to be hung horizontally, a new and exciting encounter with gravity. Had Sir Isaac Newton done his own decorating instead of spending his time sitting about in apple orchards, he may have discovered gravity earlier in his career...

'I've never pasted paper that way round before,' joked my beloved.

'Don't be silly,' said I, 'Just turn the table round.'

At this point in the process, my father-in-law had a stroke. My Beloved flew off to his side and, suddenly, I really am doing it myself...

I spent last weekend applying two coats of paint to the lining paper. Thereafter, I could return the ladder to my neighbour, which I did with grateful thanks.

Over several ensuing evenings, I rubbed down and applied two coats of primer/undercoat to cover very dark maroon paint on the sides of the stairs, and then what would turn out to be the first top-coat on all the woodwork, including six panelled doors.

This weekend, this Saturday, in fact, I applied a second top coat to all the woodwork and hung wallpaper on the accent wall. Finished! Phew!

Finished, apart from the worst part of every job: clearing up. Oh, and I have new lights and switches to install. I did some clearing up today.  More tomorrow.

Of course, throughout the entire process I've also been holding down a full-time job, and glad of the rest!

I'm pleased to report that my father-in-law has made a good recovery, and that my Beloved returns tomorrow to a finished DIY project. All she has to do is clean the house I messed up while she's been away, and restock the fridge whose contents I've depleted to the point of near famine conditions.

I don't mind DIY, except for the bits I have to do myself...

13 February 2011

Blimey! I've got a Bonus!

This week, I was awarded a bonus of £100-worth of vouchers to spend any way I like in honour of my 25 years of loyal public service with the same employer.  I really appreciate the gesture, meaning I will be able to afford the iPod Touch I want.  Seriously, it is good to mark the occasion in this way.

It kind of takes the sting out of the £1.45 million pounds the leader of my bank is getting for this year alone.

04 February 2011

Losing Your Dog

It is now exactly three calendar months since we lost our dog, Max, to cancer.

Losing your dog is an awful thing.  I knew it would be difficult but it is as much like grief as losing your best friend would be, which of course is exactly what it is.  The thing about dogs is that they are social animals with individual personalities and mannerisms.  You do not have a dog.  You have a relationship with an intelligent, rational being.  It is a mutual relationship in which he depends on you for his needs and is very eager to play his part in your life, giving you all that he perceives you need from him.  When that relationship ends, it leaves a hole in your life.  An enormous hole.

You could say I have a dog-shaped hole in my life but that doesn't really describe it.  I have a Max-shaped hole in my life.  It is a very specifically shaped hole precisely because of his particular personality.  No two dogs are alike and, at the moment, no other dog could fill it.  I will probably get another dog some time but it will be a new and different relationship with a new and different dog.

We miss him almost every day, some days deeply.  I have been amazed just how integral a part of our lives he became in the five short years he was with us.  So much that we did involved him, and our plans always had to consider his needs.  He was worth every sacrifice we made because of him.

Losing him has been surprisingly demotivating.  I have written hardly anything since he went.  At the end of hard days at work, however disgruntled I felt, without fail, Max would cheer me up immediately when I arrived home.  I am so grateful for the time we had with him.

I know the grief will pass.  Already, we think of the happy times we shared with him and not just the sadness of his ending.  We are thankful that he was happy and fulfilled almost to the end of his life and, awful as having to end it was, relieved that we did not hang on to him when it was clear that he needed to go and that keeping him would only have made him suffer.

I just wish we could have him back...

12 January 2011

More Money Wasted on a Banker

It seems that the Lloyds Banking Group has at least two million pounds more than it needs.

Just think what good could be done with that.  Four hundred thousand mosquito nets to protect children in Africa, perhaps.  That's just one idea.  I'm sure the money could be put to good use in Haiti, for another.

The bank has come up with a much better idea: let's give it to someone who has absolutely no need of it. What can possibly justify a bonus of TWO MILLION POUNDS?  Is this not an immoral waste?  Even if the banks don't want to do some positive good, what about them clearing up the mess they made instead of leaving us, the British taxpayers, to pay off the deficit caused by shoddy banking?  We even own a huge part of Lloyds, for goodness sake.  Don't they owe us some reparation?

What is the bonus for?  Doing a good job? Didn't Mr Daniels buy HBOS and get Lloyds into debt in the first place?  If he's done a good job in recovering his failure, give him a couple of grand and do something useful with the rest of the money.  £2k is a much bigger bonus than I'll get - £2k bigger, in fact.

Our government has shirked facing the issue, of course, telling us, 'Bankers may move to overseas banks if we don't let them have their bonuses.'  I have two things to say to that:
  1. How dare the bankers hold us to ransom?
  2. Given the mess they've made, who would want the spoilt brats?
Of course, we have no idea what Mr Daniels intends to do with the money.  He may give it away to worthy causes.  Good for him if he does.  I'm not holding my breath.

10 January 2011

Another Adventure in DIY: Undoing What I Did Myself

Our downstairs toilet has been a little on the sluggish side for a while now, sometimes requiring many more than one flush to avoid offending its subsequent users.  Yesterday, it decided it had taken enough of our crap and refused to work.  Fortunately, its strike-action, which amounted to filling up on flushing and only very slowly emptying itself, was instigated without vast quantities of unsightly contents in view.  Unfortunately, no amount of coercion could force it to cooperate.  It looked like time to get the drain-rods out.

On arriving home from work today, I kitted myself out with old clothes, overalls, wellies and rubber gloves and then, dreading what I might find, I lifted the inspection hatch.  On the up side, the very obvious blockage just happened to be where the drain ran into the inspection chamber and it looked like I wouldn't need to use the drain-rods (or clean them afterwards).  On the down side, there was a great wad of poop and paper lodged behind the piece of loose concrete that had given rise to the offence, and I was going have to get my hands in there.

I'm not sure what we will do if supermarkets and department stores abandon the use of plastic bags completely.  I used one to line my bucket so as to avoid having to clean it, and one on each hand as an extra barrier between skin and dwang.  I reached into the drain and transferred one large, double-handed scoop of poop into my bucket, and then a second.  There was a third but it must have taken fright because it broke free and slithered away along the drain and out of sight.  I had my beloved running up and down the stairs flushing both toilets to make sure that the fleeing dollop made it all the way to its demise in the septic tank without getting lodged anywhere else.

Satisfied that the blockage was cleared, I replaced the hatch, changed out of my still-clean protective garments, and washed my hands several times, just in case.  Purely as a precaution against anything noxious I may have inadvertently ingested, I disinfected my inner self with a couple of glasses of red wine and a shot of Glenmorangie.

The facility has now been restored to normal service, having being tested fully...