Friday, 29 December 2017

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

Beyond the Pyramids: Travels in Egypt
by Douglas Kennedy
"With an acute eye for the unusual, the interesting or the plain absurd, Douglas Kennedy takes us on a continually surprising tour beyond the pyramids, to a place where Bedouin in an oasis watch American television; where monks in the desert are computer literate; and where an entire community of Cairo's poor has set up home in a cemetery."
Quite interesting, written in 1988 and presumably I bought it (in 1990 it says on the flyleaf) because I had been to Egypt around that time. Because of my current de-cluttering frenzy it is going to the charity shop next.

Image of the book cover

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
by William B Irvine
"Readers learn how to minimize worry, how to let go of the past and focus our efforts on the things we can control, and how to deal with insults, grief, old age, and the distracting temptations of fame and fortune. We learn from Marcus Aurelius the importance of prizing only things of true value, and from Epictetus we learn how to be more content with what we have."
This is not my normal reading fare. When it was lent to me by a good friend I have to admit feeling a little apprehensive - how long before I could decently return it unread? or would I have to pretend to have read it? But I thought I ought at least to have a go, and nobody could have been more surprised than I was at the truth I found inside. I knew nothing about Stoicism or any of the other ancient schools of philosophy and I'm definitely no philosopher, but this book lays it all out in very practical terms. At almost every page the messages tallied with my own 'philosophy of life' - an approach that I've adopted through trial, error and bitter experience to try to live the best life I can, minimising negative emotion and focusing on achieving equanimity. I laughed out loud when I turned the page and the chapter heading was "Negative Visualization - What's the Worst That Can Happen?" because I use that technique all the time. Imagining worst case scenarios can really help me to both move forward and also to appreciate life. The Buddhist group has a similar approach, but this book just put it all into language that I can truly understand rather than concepts derived from untranslatable Sanskrit words. I can give the book back with a clear conscience - in fact, I'm buying my own copy. So much for de-cluttering.

Image of the book cover

Small Island
by Andrea Levy

narrated by Andrea Levy
"It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. Gilbert's wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams."
I was apprehensive about a book read aloud by its author, because authors are not always good narrators, but she does a terrific job. It's taken a long time to read, but it's been worth it.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The eleventh week

There's been a lot of non-LTRP activity which I can't be bothered to put in a separate post. For example, I have been to the optician and will be getting new varifocal glasses with stronger near vision assistance. Because of my complex lens prescription I am entitled to an NHS voucher of about £37 towards the cost, which sounds lovely until you find out that the total cost of the specs including free frames is close to £400. Until I needed the varifocals my prescription hadn't changed for many years, so the optician's cheerful comment that my current glasses had lasted for four years was not as well-received as it might be. Only four years!

Musical activity - Lola II, Mr M, Cousin Y and I went to sing karaoke and had a great time. One of the highlights (and there were many) was Lola II's discovery that alongside the traditional karaoke pop songs you could also get Bernard Cribbins' 'Right Said Fred' and Victoria Woods' 'The Ballad of Barry and Freda'. I also took part in the clarinet and saxophone ensembles' Christmas concert, which went very well. Then there were two Christmas dinners, one for work and the other for badminton club 2. Badminton club 1 had a tournament which I was partly responsible for organising, but the formula that had worked so well in previous years went a bit wrong so we kept having to re-write the rules as we went along. And I went to see comedian Tom Allen and the film Paddington 2, but not at the same time, and both were good.

So you'll probably want to know where we are with the LTRP. This week saw a first for Team Ulf - something did not go according to plan. Electrician Ulf was due to visit on Monday to connect the appliances and the last few lights, but I got home at the end of the day and things looked suspiciously similar to how I had left them at the beginning of the day. After some investigation it emerged that Electrician Ulf has a chest infection, but was still hoping to do the job towards the end of the week.

Two floor laying Blfs

Tuesday brought a new team of two to lay the flooring, whom I am happily naming Blf 1 and Blf 2 now that I have run out of vowels. The Blfs arrived at an unspeakably early hour on my day off, prepared the surface, mixed up the levelling compound, carefully spread it over the floor and left me with full instructions for the following 24 hours.

I got Blf 1 to check the calculation for floor tiles (which I had already bought), and he sent me off on Tuesday to buy some more because it looked very tight and would be fairly disastrous if they ran out. He also told me the story of a big job they had done which for some reason I couldn't quite follow had to be done from start to finish without a break. It had taken 31 hours, at the end of which Blf could barely function and was hallucinating. "They were very grateful," he said. "They put a very nice comment on my website."

The Blfs were gone by 9 a.m., after which I was instructed to wait until the levelling compound had set and then introduce a space heater which would allow all moisture to evaporate before they came again at a similar unspeakably early hour on Wednesday and finished the job. It was a good thing I had bought the extra tiles, because some of them were needed.

Electrician Ulf was well enough to come back on Thursday, and discovered that the hob had been wrongly specified in the plans so that it needed a 32A rather than the 13A supply that had been prepared for it. He managed to run a new cable without having to tunnel through the fresh plaster but it could have been very much more disruptive. I was also delighted to welcome not only Ulf but Sons of Ulf too for a final reunion to finish the stairs, the skirting, door architraves, and rebuild a bit of the garden that had been destroyed. They even put up the airer in the utility although one of the pulleys had completely seized, and generally behaved very generously in doing things that weren't strictly their job. And, with perfect timing, they finished the biscuits.

The kitchen Ylfs have been the least satisfactory of all the tradesmen, some of which was not their fault, but in several respects was simply poorly executed. They made no allowance for the thickness of flooring when fitting plinths so the dishwasher door won't open, the cupboard layout in the utility room makes it all but impossible to reach the stopcock, and the hob specification error was down to Ylf as well. I will be feeding this back to them in the New Year, and I assume they will be coming back to finish up when the replacement parts arrive.

So it's all done just in time for Christmas, except for those few missing pieces of the kitchen installation. Operating the ovens seems extremely complicated, but I have done some grilling (fish fingers) and used the hob (it boils water very quickly indeed). The task of washing everything before it can find a new place in the kitchen is continuing slowly. I only have one casserole dish and one large frying pan that are suitable for the new hob, so buying saucepans will probably be my first task for the New Year. Now I'm off to celebrate Christmas and then do some walking over the New Year. I wonder which LTRP project I shall take on in 2018?

December 2017

Monday, 18 December 2017

Week ten

A walkway lined by trees with short knobbly branches
Düsseldorf, November 2017
It's so nearly finished! This was the second kitchen installation week, when all the worktop shaping took place. The worktops are made from an acrylic material, and shaping them involves grinding the unwanted material into fine dust resembling talcum powder, which floats oh so gently throughout the entire house, coating all that it touches with a white scum. Despite this, the worktops look great.

In fact there was no dust generation on Monday when there was too much snow for Team Ylf  to get here. Ulf, however, was on a new job that couldn't progress very much in the snow, so he came round and finished some of the loose ends relating to the stairs - filling in the holes in the parquet and fixing skirting boards.

Ilf came round as well, because there's lots for him to do and I wanted to book him for the New Year. He made some useful comments as well as admiring the job, and all being well he'll be doing some painting and varnishing in February.

Back came Team Ylf on Tuesday, and I'd had time to think about the draining board over the weekend. I had been so specific about the design of the draining board that to some extent it dictated the type of material we used for the worktops. Apparently, having draining board areas on both sides of the sink is so unusual as to be barely achievable, but they did it. The only problem was that while the surfaces were angled as I wanted so that water would drain into the sink, they were totally smooth where I was expecting grooves. Again, I had no idea that allowing the water to drain along grooves into your sink was something that had to be specified in particular. Team Ylf were informed of my outlandish request, and returned with a template and router and made it so. Then I realised that the other sink in the utility room has no draining board at all, smooth or otherwise.

Week 9
Week 10
By Thursday all was completed except for some bits that had been damaged or mis-ordered and won't be with us until the New Year (one door, one handle, one sink waste pipe, one upstand and one sill), so I have another visit from Team Ylf to look forward to. I'm not sure I have the strength to request that a draining board is cut into the utility room worktop, but I've got to go back to the shop anyway, because of the telescopic rails for the oven. These were supplied but not fitted, and I can't work out how on earth to put them in. I tried using YouTube but even the videos there weren't much help.

Although the work was completed, there was dust in every crevice. I've done a ridiculous amount of cleaning - not deep cleaning, it's true, but time consuming nevertheless - and then I'm gradually introducing kitchen gear into the new space. Everything that comes in also has to be washed because of the dust in the rest of the house, so I'm taking it slow. It's been harder than I expected to decide where to put things. I'm also having to think about starting to buy in new stuff that I need, like bar stools - the one in the pictures came from Freegle, and I rather like the splash of colour in its very neutral surroundings.

The electrical connections have not yet been made (because they need the appropriate safety certificate) so I haven't yet got a working hob, oven or dishwasher, and the microwave and fridge are still in the lounge together with the washing machine. But I can make tea in the kitchen and I had breakfast there for the first time on Friday.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Ninth week

Team YlfUlf the Stairs
And on and on it goes. Not long now; all should be done by Christmas. And if it isn't, well, never mind. I've managed this long, I can last a few more days. Or weeks. Not months though. Definitely not months.

It isn't the lack of cooking facilities, actually. I haven't done badly for food, given that I'm also trying to eat as little as possible. Breakfast is easy - cereal most days, or scrambled egg done in the microwave when I have more time. Lunch - I've had microwaved fish with veg and rice several times, the stuffed pepper recipe is a keeper, I can do easy-cook pasta with pesto or tomato sauce, and soup from the freezer or bought. I've even had a sandwich once or twice. I'm trying not to eat much in the evening, which is easy when there's badminton or meditation or some other activity.

The main things I miss are the sink and washing machine. The bath works pretty well as a sink, and I've been to the launderette three times now, but the sink and washing machine are definitely what I miss.

Anyway, week nine brought more dust than ever, as the kitchen team got started on Tuesday. One door has been damaged and will have to be re-ordered, so that will delay final sign-off until after Christmas, but hopefully that will be the only delay. A lot of visible progress was made in the first two days, then nothing much seemed to change as Team Ylf attended to the detail - hanging doors, drawers, plinths, shaping the worktops. Having chosen all the components such a long time ago, it was nice to find that I am still pleased with my choices.

Week 8
Beginning of Week 9
End of Week 9
On Wednesday of the same week the stairs team arrived. I was at home for the destruction and removal of the old stairs, which caused much puzzlement as Ulf the Stairs tried to understand how it was constructed so that it could most easily be deconstructed. The top of the stairs was embedded between the ceiling and floor above! The bottom of the stairs was embedded in the floor! The metal strips holding the banister had to be ground off! But it was done, and then I had to go to work, and when I got back the new stairs were in place, and I am very pleased with them.

The new stairs are narrower and steeper, and will be even more beautiful when they have been varnished. I took the polystyrene packaging to the tip myself, and Ulf kindly took most of the cardboard to a rugby club bonfire, and a skip was definitely not needed.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Christmas Markets present and past

Reflections of trees and autumn leaves in water
Königsallee, Düsseldorf, November 2017
In between weeks seven and eight of the LTRP I spent the weekend in Düsseldorf with two friends. They had both previously worked there for a few years as a result of a business relocation, and in the end both had decided not to stay. However, the reason for this trip was to visit the Christmas Market as well as to revisit a few old haunts.

I am not a shopper at the best of times, and I don't get excited about Christmas either, so what was I doing there? It was partly because of my policy to say Yes to more invitations, and I like both these ladies, one of whom (A) I've known (through badminton) for nearly all the time I've spent in the Midlands. We now play for different clubs, which is a shame. A introduced me to S when we were regular quiz team members, long long ago.

Due to the complexity of budget airlines, and the fact that I was out for the day when A and S booked their flights and accommodation, I was on an earlier flight and in Airbnb accommodation rather than in their fancy hotel. On Friday I went exploring on my own, and it was delightful. I found an interesting market stall selling nothing but potatoes, and had a fantastic bowl of soup for lunch. Germans (and Austrians) really know how to make good soup. I bought a salami, and was flattered when the stallholder replied in French to my poor attempt at German. I am generally much too unkempt to be mistaken for a French woman.

I also passed a church which had a sign outside saying (in German) something along the lines of 'You don't have to believe in God, we have a really good cafe'. I was flagging at that point so I went in, and they were right, the cafe was excellent with a pot of Redbush tea for only 1 euro and very good cakes. There was also a notice advertising choral evensong later that evening, and having nothing better to do, with the encouragement that I don't have to believe in God, I went along and it was lovely.

I was up much earlier on Saturday than A and S, partly because their flight was delayed and they didn't arrive until after midnight. On Saturday morning while waiting for them to emerge I found a small botanic garden, and a shopping centre with a sleigh and reindeer that you could sit in to be photographed.

Eventually A emerged, and S followed an hour or two later. We spent the rest of Saturday together, me trailing behind them around market stalls with all manner of twinkly, sparkly, woody, fragrant, jingly, shiny and tasty goods. The tasty goods were all I was interested in buying, and I had a classic German bratwurst for lunch. Actually, I also bought a small ornament that was made of star anise and cinnamon and smelled wonderful. And of course there was Glühwein, and more soup for me. I must remember to keep saying Yes to invitations like this, because it was fun.

Back home I attempted to do a bit of cleaning and thought about the next phase of the LTRP. While looking for lampshades I noticed a bar stool that looked quite good, and made a note for future reference. I also put out a Wanted notice on Freegle for bar stools, and someone offered me one, and it turned out to be the same design that I'd noticed in the shop! Quite a coincidence, and it gives me a bit of a breathing space before deciding what to buy. In return, I posted an Offer notice on Freegle for the indestructible ivy I'd tried so hard to kill with both neglect and weedkiller but which refused to die, and it was collected very promptly.

Then my friend Steve died.

I met him in the 1990's when I was working for RNIB. He was working for Marconi as a programmer, but I met him through the British Computer Association for the Blind (BCAB). I remember only a few experiences from those days, but many of the people I worked with and met through work at that time were so positive, thoughtful and generous, like Steve. When I moved from Manchester to the Midlands I arranged to meet Steve for a pub lunch because he lived here and could perhaps give me a few tips on places to live or to avoid.

Not long after this he was made redundant from what had by then become GEC, and BCAB happened to be funding a new post within RNIB. Steve got the job, so now we were working together in Coventry, before the office moved to central Birmingham. Even after we both left RNIB we kept in touch and met up every so often to see a film or have dinner or to visit the German Christmas Market in Birmingham where he bought panettone, I bought nothing, and we drank glühwein together. He survived several bouts of illness - apart from the retinoblastoma that had taken his sight as a child, he was successfully treated for bladder cancer, and then lung cancer.

But the latest diagnosis of a brain tumour was his last. Surgery was ruled out and eventually chemo and radiotherapy stopped, and in the last month or so he was just managing with pain relief. He went back to live with his mum for a time and then went to a local hospice. I spoke to him on the phone a couple of times when he sounded quite positive about being able to go home once they had got the pain relief right. I did ask whether he might be fit enough to go to the Christmas Market in Birmingham this year, and he laughed. No, that wasn't going to happen.

I had a meeting on the same site as the hospice about a week ago, and dropped in to see him. When I walked in I thought it was the wrong room, and nearly went out again before seeing his name above the bed. He wasn't alert enough to speak. I visited twice more during that week, once speaking to him on the phone beforehand, but each time he couldn't be roused when I was there, and then the news came.

I don't usually dwell on serious or sad topics, but this is the first death of a friend I have experienced. My uncles, aunts and cousins have nearly all died abroad, in the countries where they live. My grandparents were all gone before I was a teenager let alone an adult. I have hardly had to deal with death or grieving, and it is a new and sad experience.

Düsseldorf, November 2017

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Weeks seven and eight

In this picture-tastic episode we conclude the main story of Ulf and his Henchmen, although Ulf will be back to finish a few things, then sign off the whole project and make sure the building inspector is happy. I shall miss them, with their tuneless singing and their drinks with two sugars. They have consumed more than a pound of sugar in eight weeks, not counting the biscuits.

Week 1

Start of week 6

End of week 6

Week 7
The theme of the last two weeks has been nice, smooth surfaces - the floor, walls and ceilings. It is starting to look like a real room. The floor so far has involved two layers of levelling compound followed by boards, and that is how it will stay until the last phase of the project when the floor man cometh. The walls and ceilings have been prepared and skimmed, and on week 7 day 4 the roof lantern finally arrived. I wasn't at work that day but they came so early that I missed the initial hoisting into place, which was a pity. Never mind; Ulf and Doors and Windows Ulf gave me a guided tour from the roof and posed for a photo.

Electrician Ulf made a welcome return and continued work on the wall sockets and various electrical necessities. The floorboards of the upstairs hall had to be taken up to route the electrics to the fuse box by the front door, the defunct burglar alarm was removed, and there is a mini fuse box in the utility room as well. Spotlights and other light fittings started to appear, and I came home from a weekend away to find that the doorway between the kitchen and the rest of the house had finally been opened - no more traipsing through the garden, although it means there is a much more straightforward route for the dust to permeate every corner of the house. Pictures show the scene from the living room side:

Week 5

Start of week 7
End of week 7

Week 8
Doors were delivered towards the end of week 7, and they look really nice but will need finishing with paint and/or varnish. The radiators were also put in by Plumber Ulf. An extractor fan appeared in the utility room, and an outside light with motion sensor - I must remember to ask about the other outside light fixed to the garage. The days that I came home and found the radiators were warm, and the electricity supply to the new kitchen had been turned on - those were good days. I also bought the floor tiles that should be laid after the kitchen is in.

Week 6

Week 7

Week 8
I realised that if I move quickly and find some wall lights then they'll be put up by someone more proficient than me. Unfortunately despite hours of online searching and visits in person to at least three different stores I have failed to identify wall lights that I particularly like, so I've bought the cheapest adequate option, which will be fine. I have had a look at lampshades and all I have to decide now is the colour scheme, but I'll wait for the kitchen to go in before I go any further down that route.

The extra jobs that aren't 100% kitchen-related also got some attention. Ulf reckons that the damp in the wall in the living room is caused by naked hot and cold water pipes, so he got Plumber Ulf to cut them back and then re-plaster. Sons of Ulf finished the outside drains and put back the veranda roofing that had to be taken down while the kitchen roof went on. The only casualties of the works so far are one mug and one knife missing in action, and I think the doorbell is broken.

Start of week 1

End of week 1

Week 6

Week 7

Week 8
Ulf and Sons had surprisingly many vehicular experiences during the eight weeks - after the wind blew a board into a neighbour's car, another supplier's van door dented Ulf's van, which then had to go for repair and a replacement van was temporarily supplied. Without sufficient confidence in this van's security, my hallway served as equipment store for a week. Then Son of Ulf had a nasty experience when his windscreen was broken by hitting a black-clad cyclist with no lights or high-vis or helmet in the dark. His truck was briefly confiscated and he was badly shaken, but the cyclist is OK and so is he.

I have had a brief altercation with the kitchen company (Ylf's mum) who wanted to know where the skip should be delivered. I told them that the kitchen is empty and no skip is needed, but they thought that the packing material and any offcuts were worthy of the price of a skip. I had a chat with Ulf about it and he agreed with me, and I hope that is the end of it. Ulf told me that Ylf's mum had contacted him to see if the start date was still OK or if the work had overrun. When he said that it was all ready for them to start exactly as planned, she said that was a first in her experience.

I realise that I have failed to document the progress of biscuit consumption. There is a distinct periodicity; sometimes none are eaten, sometimes whole packets, and it doesn't seem to depend on how many mouths there are to feed. We'll see how the kitchen fitters compare.

Sons of Ulf

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
by Patrick Süskind

narrated by Sean Barrett
"Survivor, genius, perfumer, killer: This is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He is abandoned on the filthy streets of Paris as a child, but grows up to discover he has an extraordinary gift: a sense of smell more powerful than any other human's. Soon, he is creating the most sublime fragrances in all the city."
A strange book, but I liked it. It reads as a normal novel, but has a few elements of fantasy and unreality that spice up the story. Recommended.

Image of the book cover

The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable
by Terry Pratchett

narrated by Stephen Briggs
"Cohen the Barbarian. He's been a legend in his own lifetime. He can remember the good old days of high adventure, when being a Hero meant one didn't have to worry about aching backs and lawyers and civilization. But these days, he can't always remember just where he put his teeth."
Apparently this is a picture book, and I imagine it would indeed be enhanced by drawings of the characters. I believe it is the last of the Discworld books, and despite his progressive Alzheimers Terry Pratchett manages to produce entertaining and thought-provoking ideas right up to the end.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Six weeks

Six weeks! and I can't remember what life was like before. There is dust everywhere - I make a token effort at cleaning at weekends, but dust-covered normality is restored almost immediately. There are lots of pictures this week, however.

First, the ceiling panels go up, followed by the walls including their extra insulation. The wall nearest the pub is far from straight - none of the walls is straight - but Ulf insists that it must be made straight otherwise the worktops won't look right. Running the best straight line means that the doorway into the rest of the house has to be moved slightly, which is fine because I have decided to replace that door with a new one. Ulf brings me a big thick catalogue for choosing doors and door handles, and I'm getting quite good at choosing things now. Practice makes perfect.

Week 1

Week 4

Week 6

Later in week 6
On Wednesday I came home in the dark (actually, most days now I came home in the dark) and the back door and French doors and windows had been installed! I had to wait until morning to get a proper look, what with there being no light in there. The partition wall acquires its plasterboard surface, and the plastering starts, in the utility room first of all.

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

Week 6
The last thing to happen is that the perimeters of the room have been cleaned up to allow for the final cement filling before the floor is levelled. When I got home on Friday, in the dark, the skip was gone! I went round to the kitchen to see what progress has been made, and found that there were two fan heaters plugged in and running. I texted Ulf to find out whether they need to run all night, and he replied that it's OK to turn them off. That text message has saved quite a few quid on my electricity bill.

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