Thursday, 30 April 2015

More than the usual amount of bewilderment....

What's bewildering me this week then? The general election, the potential result, and the things that are occupying the headlines, or rather, aren't.

First, Scotland, and the SNP. Now, I love Scotland, and some of best friends have even been there. Joke - I worked for Bank of Scotland for several years, I have Scottish family, and I know Edinburgh as well as any other British city. However, it seems to me that the canny bairns are getting away with political murder at the moment, and political mass murder potentially after the election. Last year, they had an open referendum, and decided by quite a reasonable margin to stay part of the UK; fair enough, though if can't say I was particularly arsed whether they stayed or went. Now, however, it looks like they'll send a bunch of MPs to Westminster who overwhelmingly will be intent on holding a likely Labour minority government to ransom for their support, demanding yet more cash than they already get under the Barnett Formula, cash that isn't deserved, and certainly isn't earned. All this, however, is not the bewildering part - it's a great scam on their part. What's bewildering me is that England and the English are not alive to this possibility, and are seriously considering electing a sufficient number of Labour MPs to make this scenario possible. If there weren't already enough reasons not to vote Labour, here's the decider, surely?

Before I go any further, let me re-balance things. I've just suggested that people shouldn't be voting Labour. The alternatives aren't that edifying however. Unless you genuinely want to see the UK's standard of living go backwards through economic stagnation and decline, voting Green is just mad. And neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats are properly serious about tackling two of the biggest issues that concern me - debt and housing.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like to take a rounded view of what's best for everyone when I vote, not just me. This is where I get bewildered again. Let's take the debt issue - the debate currently is all about the speed at which the various parties will eliminate the deficit. Not the debt, the deficit. There is no mention of the staggering £1.5 trillion we'll owe as the national debt, nor the £48 billion (minimum) interest bill we'll pay annually for the privilege of having that debt. The Tories' pledge not to increase taxes in the face of those numbers is just bonkers, and I don't truly believe any other party gives a stuff anyway; it's just about promising stuff now to get elected now. But debt levels like that (and what percentage of the electorate I wonder understands the difference between debt and deficit?), will really hurt us all in future years, young more than the old, especially if interest rates start back on an upward track at some point. It's time to stop increasing the overdraft and start paying off our loans, else today's school leavers will look back at claims that 2010 to 2015 were years of 'austerity' with a bitter laugh.

And so to housing. Again, I'm bewildered at both the big parties. So the Tories extend Right to Buy; great - but the problem is the lack of supply of houses, causing prices to be at historic multiples of average price to salary, in turn causing countless people not to be able to buy a home, even with interest rates where they are. The true market solution here would be to ensure that supply and demand were more in tune with each other, but I see few signs of that in what the Tories say. As for Labour, rent controls, really? Have you ever actually opened a history book any of you, or looked at overseas examples? Rent controls are a sure fire way to destroy the housing stock of a city, and a damn sight faster than you might imagine. Another insane policy, but countless inner city dwellers, the exact people who will be most harmed by that policy, will vote Labour nevertheless.

So as I say, I'm bewildered. I could go on, but I won't. I fear for what will happen after next Thursday. I may have to emigrate. ;)

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Top 5 things on today's DIY East Cheshire Mountain Marathon

Right now I'm going through one of those rare and frustrating periods - I'm in Macclesfield without any work; if I've no work I'd rather be in France, and frankly if my usual source of work doesn't get its act together a bit sharpish I'll be back off there next week.

Anyway, I saw the weather forecast last night and it looked great for today, and without anything round the house to do that couldn't wait another 24 hours, I decided to follow up the two quarter marathons and two half marathons I've done in the last four days, and go for a full marathon, in the hills, in the sunshine. Oh man, it was glorious too. I'm knackered now, as you would be after 28 miles and more than 4,000 feet of climbing, but it was so worth it.

Instead of describing it (there are some photographs on Facebook of me at various high points on the route, and anyone who's interested in the route can follow me on Strava), I shall limit myself to the five best things about the run, other than, of course, the wonderful weather and amazing countryside we're blessed with round these parts.

#5: the number of old geezers out walking the Gritstone Way and other footpaths. There were dozens of them, some alone, but most in groups of perhaps seven or eight. Life doesn't end when you're 65.

#4: Cat & Fiddle pub - despite its proximity and the fact it's officially the 2nd highest pub in England, I'd never been in it before today, and it was the one bit of external help I allowed myself (a pint of Pepsi for a very reasonable, given the location, £2.50). What a nice surprise - it's really pleasant in there. I'd always thought it was a bikers' pub predominantly, and it might be at the weekends, but they serve all sorts of stuff.

#3: re-creating the moment in Wayne's World when they're lying on the bonnet of their car, talking, and they're drowned out by a plane above them. As I ran down from Shutlingsloe on the Forest side the daily Emirates service into Manchester - the gargantuan Airbus A380 - flew right over me; I could nearly read the pilot's name badge

#2: the smell of the gorse blossom at this time of year - it's a sweet, vanilla-like smell that was being  wafted over the moors and hills by the gentle breeze. Gorgeous

#1: coming face-to-face (well, perhaps 20 yards away) from a male, female and baby deer in Macclesfield Forest. First, perhaps I'm a bit dim, but I didn't know we had deer in the Forest, and second, they mustn't have thought I was much of a threat, because the three of them stopped and stared at me from just off the path I was running up. It was first thing this morning, with the sun just beginning to shimmer through the trees, and it was just magical

So for the price of a Pepsi, a couple of energy bars and possibly one lost toenail I've had a brilliant day.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Grappling Irons

Being offline right now as I am (aboard the M/V Bretagne between St. Malo and Portsmouth), I have no real idea what grappling irons actually are, though I’ve a suspicion they’re something to do with climbing. I have my doubts, therefore, whether they’d help me successfully grapple with the self-imposed dilemma I’m currently facing.

You see, like many of us, when things are swimmingly along quite nicely I get this temptation to complicate them a little. The plan had been to buy next door in France, then spend the next year to 18 months doing the place up progressively, whilst I carried on working in the UK when work was available. We’d move in to it this summer after a few basics were addressed, and all would be well.

Well….that still might turn out to be the plan, but there’s a bit of me that’s mighty tempted to take some extended time off now – till the end of July say – and blitz all the jobs that need doing. As I write, I have no confirmed work for the coming weeks, and I’ve been messed around a bit over the last couple of weeks by my regular source of work, another factor contributing to the consideration of a working sabbatical. (You might ask why I’m going home at all, if I’ve no work next week. Good question, but there are some loose ends to tie up, including confirming an agreement to do a minimum of 6 days work over the next few months with a new source, which is good).

A further factor still is that the “jobs” are, in the main, such damn fun. Over the last ten days or so I have, in roughly reverse order:

-         -  Had a fantastically aggressive bonfire last night with all the things we’ve cut down, pruned or pulled out of the ground; inevitably the wind was blowing in precisely the wrong direction, so the few neighbours we have would have been overcome by smoke till the thing was damped down (sorry to them. Sorry also if they witnessed me peeing on the compost heap earlier in the week; it needed watering, I needed a wee and I was outside, it seemed like a happy confluence of considerations)

-          - Bought and now used in anger a ride-on lawnmower. Three quarters of an acre of mowing done in an hour, bosch. Letting the 10 year old son of our new Scottish neighbours drive the thing a couple of nights ago also put a big smile on his face, which was nice

-         -  Dug and planted some of the veg plot.  God knows if anything will germinate, but if it does, we’re in for a salad-based treat
-         -  Knocked down two internal walls and made good the resulting holes and assorted other damage.  That’s the least interesting thing of all, but also the most time-consuming; the skirting boards took ages to fit and fill

-         -  Bought a roll-end of lino and fitted it in a bathroom, and not too disastrously at all as it turned out

-         -  Jet-washed anything that moved; good job the cat was inside

-         -  Conspicuously failed to get a tap working from an outside tap. I know that sounds like it should be straightforward, but with nearly 80 metres between the tap and the outer reaches of the veg plot, we opted for two cheap hosepipes and equally fittings. Mistake. Leaks, punctures and frustration abounded

I’ve been ably supported by Mrs M of course, who’s undertaken a Herculean amount of weeding herself, along with the catering, and if she could catch me, supervision of my efforts.
The point is, it’s been fun, and apart from one ride and one run, I’ve denied myself my usual athletic pleasures. If I was here for a longer period, those sacrifices wouldn’t be necessary – it was a delight to re-acquaint myself with French backroads in temperatures of 24c plus – and I (we) could both take the raw materials we’ve bought and turn them into a very splendid French home, and make the existing place more rental-friendly.

So there we are: should I stay or should I go, and all that? Going (back to France) would be the slightly irresponsible thing to do, in that I’ve never either been unemployed or turned down work as a self-employed person in my life, and whilst I would probably only be lighting a candle under my bridges rather than burning them down completely, it still goes against the grain a little. On the other hand, I’ve spent nearly all my working life being sensible, and when I have taken risks (changing employers, changing professions, becoming self-employed), they’ve always worked out ok. And whilst taking the time off would feel irresponsible, the fact is that I’d be creating value on a property rather than squandering it on world tour or suchlike.

Well, I’ve got the next 8 hours to contemplate things, as that’s how long I’ll be sitting on this ‘ere boat. I’ll let you know what happens.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Les grands travails

After last week's post Mrs M suggested that maybe this blog should evolve into a record of our new adventure in France. It's not a bad idea actually; I've been droning on about running, cycling and anything else that exercises me for some time now. I don't think I'm going to abandon the old stuff completely, but there's going to be plenty of goings-on to record from the southern side of the Channel over the next few months.

So we duly took delivery last Friday of our next door neighbour's place, which consists of:

- one large, empty, abandoned, uninhabitable house
- one small, one-bedroomed, quite cute inhabitable house
- one stone building, left half acting as laundry, right half currently a wood store
- one garage of wooden construction, in pretty good nick
- one hen house
- one greenhouse with approximately a third of its panes missing
- one shed, most recently used as a sheep shelter
- one fruit and veg plot
- about half an acre of grass; lawn over-glamorises it
- two ponds, connected but each on different levels
- half a menhir (basically a ancient monumental rock; think Stonehenge in extreme miniature)
- an 11 tree orchard

And stone me, there's a lot of work to do to get it looking half-decent. As I mentioned last week, the previous owner has managed the decline of the place over the last couple of years. He has, we discovered to our horror, undertaken some DIY however. I mentioned the one-bedroomed house above, which, as far as we remembered, had a rather lovely mezzanine bedroom and study area above the living space below. Well, blow me if he hadn't put a plasterboard wall in behind the balustrade and boxed it off, and done the same thing at the top of some nice granite steps on the way to the living room. Many Euros-worth of deterioration.

We need to be able to camp in that house, if not occupy it properly, by the second weekend in May, when the French national mountain biking championships are being held in our village, and the house in which I'm writing this now is rented out to some French mountain bikers. And making lots of dust after that point won't be ideal, so bringing the wall down is an early priority. Is....was....down the wall duly came yesterday. I employed a modicum of subtlety rather than just attacking it with a sledgehammer which was my first instinct. I blame You Tube - there's no excuse not to see how to do things properly these days, and Canadian Steve was my friend when it came to demolishing a plasterboard wall.

I'm only here till next Monday though, and I'm keen to get as much done as possible before then, so besides the demolition job I've:
- weeded, dug and levelled about 25 square metres of the veg plot 
- planted beans, chard and petits pois
- made the balustrade a bit safer, such that anyone leaning on it won't find themselves on the ground floor two seconds later
- started the marathon weed clearing process
- removed the first 20 metes of fencing that kept the previous owner's sheep in the right place
- bought and assembled a petrol-driven strimmer
- ordered a ride-on lawn mower. It arrives tomorrow afternoon, and I have to say that slightly to my surprise I'm not that excited - it just feels like a necessary tool

And that doesn't even begin the scratch the surface of what needs to be done. It doesn't even begin to identify which surface needs to be scratched. It would be easy to be hugely daunted by it. But it doesn't need to be done at once, and it could be, will be, terrific in the future. It's going to be a long journey though, and I'm sure there'll be ups and downs along the way. I'd love to jack work in for six months and crack on with it, but that's not going to happen. If I'm honest, I'm not entirely sure why we've bought this lot (other than the fact I'd have been heartbroken if someone else had bought it), and what we'll end up doing with it all. We will, however, have plenty of time to ruminate on that as we get stuck in. Expect more in due course.....

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Chalk and cheese

As a rule, I'm not the kind of fellow who tends to extremes. Everything in moderation and all that. I'm not teetotal, but nights like last Saturday excepted, I rarely drink to excess. I'm not vegetarian, but I don't eat that much meat either. I'm conscientious enough at work, but not to the point of workaholism; good enough is, well, good enough. And so on.

Yet there's one part of my life where this rule doesn't apply, and that's physically where I spend my time. For the majority of my working life I'm in central London, buzzing between buildings, meetings and a hotel room. I know you're never supposed to be more than a few feet away from a rat, but I'm never more than a few feet away from a Londoner (though there are some shared characteristics). In fact, I'm never more than a couple of dozen yards away from hundreds of other people, and for an essentially miserable, introverted, middle aged git, that's quite hard. There's always, even at 3am, background noise; somebody, somewhere close, doing something. 

However, on the distressingly few recent occasions I've had the chance to go over to Brittany, the opposite is true much of the time - within a radius of two miles (I should probably say three kilometres), there might be a couple of dozen people, and the chances of bumping into those are pretty low. When I wake up in the morning, then assuming neither the missus nor the cat are snoring (and both have their moments in that department), the sound of birdsong is deafening, for no other reason than it's filling a total noise vacuum. And that, I do like.

I'm mentioning this because the week or so from Saturday promise to be even more solitary than usual. The explanation for this is that motorways and ferries permitting, we shall be siting in a notaire's office at 11 am on Friday going through the arcane, anachronistic and incorrigibly French process of completing the purchase of a house. Two in fact, though as I've explained before lest you think we've turned into some sort of moguls, one is one bedroomed, and the other doesn't have running water, let alone any internal walls. However, they come with land, some of which was in its heyday, a mighty fine vegetable and fruit garden.

Unfortunately, the French owner for the last two years has been more interested in planting his seed in a romantic way than a green fingered style, and the state of the garden bears testament to his neglect. I'm hoping that once cleaning duties in the new house are concluded, I'll get chance to start to restore the glory of the veg plot, not least because Mrs M has made a hefty (for her) £9-worth of investment in seeds, and it'd be a shame to waste them.

The point of this is that when I'm in that garden next week, it will feel like a world away from work, and a nice world at that. Suits, PowerPoint and hustle-and-bustle will give way to wellies, a spade and peace-and-quiet. I'm not quite ready to hang my computer keyboard up yet, not least because I can't afford to do so, but I tell you, as I printed and bound earlier today the 150 or so pages that represent my post-Christmas labours, I reflected on how little satisfaction they gave me compared to the courgettes I hope to harvest later this summer.

So when you read, if you do, my grumpy tweets of a Thursday night, you'll understand why I'm in that place. It's not the work, that's not too bad; it's the constant presence of other people, other strangers. That probably explains too why I love running in the hills so much; back to that subject, probably, next time. Unless I have an overwhelming urge to tell you about my cultivations. 
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