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Life in the big smoke

Five things I’ve learned renovating a Victorian house

We have a new kitchen. It feels like quite an achievement to have come this far, although the walls still need to be painted, the floor sanded (or treated somehow) and the sink drains into the washing machine. (The picture above was what it looked like before the work began)

After intense weeks of things being drilled through and various strangers coming in and out of the house every day, I could almost taste the silence when the work stopped. We’re not even half way through whole redecoration project, but we’re taking a short break. So, what have I learned so far?

1. There will be hidden problems

No house building, renovation programme ever reveals how unexpected problems can lead to delays and escalating costs. No tale about a house redecoration ever mentions “it was all going fine until we found the …”.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that everything should go smoothly and that there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises. Ha!

2. There will be lots of tiny, but very important decisions to make NOW

Suddenly you will find yourself faced with, say, a door-frame that has been made narrower by a previous owner just wedging lots of pieces of wood into the frame and then putting kitchen cupboards over it to hide the mess. And when you have a stressed out plasterer subcontracted by the kitchen fitters telling you he doesn’t know what to do about it, that the plaster will crack if he plasters over it, that the door frame can’t be widened because of stuff that is too boring to go into now, then you will have to take charge and make a snap decision without knowing anything about plastering or carpentry or much DIY stuff in general. There were tons of situations like this.

3. Every big decision is a silo

For each decision you take, there will be a myriad of smaller decisions to be made. You think you’re redoing a kitchen and that feels somewhat doable, but it’s not just redoing a kitchen, within that lurks a myriad of smaller jobs.

The wiring is a world of its own, where do you want sockets, when should they be fitted, what faceplates should they have and so on. What about the door frames, what happens when the architraves (new word bingo!) are suddenly flush with the new plaster, should they be ripped out, if so what should the new architraves look like? Taps, door-handles, colour-choices, every decision contains thousands and thousands of tiny choices that all turn out to be vital to the final result. No pressure at all.

4. There will be dust

My parents and my in-laws have done their fair share of renovating and re-decorating in their time. “There will be a lot of dust”, they said. Somehow it didn’t compute. We thought, “yes, of course there will be a lot of dust. We can live with that, things get dusty and then you just mop it up”. And then both Gerry and I seem to have suppressed this piece of information.

So when the very friendly boiler fitter arrived with a huge drill to install a new boiler in the kitchen we had just removed things from the one corner where he was going to work. He drilled the hole. There. Was. Dust. Everywhere. It was a dustocalypse, fine, particles that just went pooof up in the air and then hung around for days, slowly settling on every surface like someone had dumped bags of icing sugar through a hole in the roof, except this dust tasted like old cement.

We coped with that. Then the kitchen was ripped out and the plaster was mixed and one of the kitchen fitters cut up the wooden worktops indoors. The dust is winning. When my phone charges at night a new fine layer of dust settle on the screen. There is no point fighting it anymore. It’s taken over.

So remember this, when people tell you things are going to get dusty, just laugh and completely ignore it because then at least you don’t have to worry about it before it happens. Then you just have to learn how to live with the dust. Forever.

5. This is an amazing thing to be able to do

Even though its stressful and we lived in total chaos for about a month when the kitchen was being redone (with the occasional night without electricity or hot water) I’ve enjoyed most of the journey so far. I’m learning new things, I’m challenging myself. We’re turning this old, loved but neglected house into a beautiful place to live that will work for us.

The hardest part has been letting go of perfectionism. I’m the sort of person who thinks that I need to get everything right from the start. I’m trying to tell myself that I’m not a failure if I make a couple of mistakes, I’m just learning.

*I wrote this post in May, just after we had re-decorated the kitchen, but the whole experience was probably still a bit too raw since I didn’t post it then. We’ve moved forward at a snail’s pace during the summer. And that’s another lesson… sometimes it’s worth taking a time out, even if that means living with unpainted walls for a while. The electrician comes back this month to rewire upstairs and then it all starts again. Wish me luck!

Welcome to the inner workings of my mind

So. I spent yesterday in Brighton interviewing people at the Momentum festival for a reportage. The conversations must have settled at an odd angle in my mind because last night I had a very vivid dream about people protesting against brexit through the medium of French cheese.

There were all of these installations of brie and blue cheese (I can’t even think of the name of a French one at the moment). Some were molded into the shape of the British flag, others had been turned into tabloids with angry headlines. I can’t remember what I made of it all in the dream, but I woke up with the the installations quite clear in my mind, accompanied by the smell of cheese.

The most infuriating thing is that I can’t even blame the weirdness on having had cheese before bed. There you go. An insight into the strange inner workings of my mind.

Now, here’s a tune to cleanse your mental palate.

*Hurricane by MS MR. (Welcome to the inner workings of my mind/So dark and foul I can’t disguise/Can’t disguise)

Some thoughts for the equinox

At the end of our holiday in Finland earlier this year we spent a couple of days in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. We hiked through forests and spent several kilometers staring at the narrows paths between the bilberry bushes and the moss, trying not to stumble over any of the red pine roots criss-crossing the ground. We climbed up watch towers and looked out over a never ending forest. The air was so clean it felt thick and satisfying, like a fine meal for the lungs.

The days were cloud-covered and sometimes it rained. The temperature hovered around ten degrees centigrade. We stopped by a cold and windy lake on one of our hikes and watched three otters playing in the grey waves, slinky shadows underneath the water. Every now and then a head popped up, watching us watching them.

For a bit more than a week after we came back to London I dreamed of these forests. When I woke up in the morning the only thing on my mind were the trees. Every year I feel more and more homesick when I come back to London. It’s as if I miss the land itself, the forests and the air and the water. And I kept dreaming about trees.

lapland forest

Little by little the memory fades and I sink back into the reality here in London. We have a house to renovate and decorate and there is a lot of other work to do. We’re in the process of emptying two rooms upstairs and have set up camp in the living room downstairs for the first time since we moved in. These last few weeks are the first we’ve been able to use the fire place we installed at the beginning of the year. We found some boxes of old wood at the studio and have been keeping the fire going most nights. That reminds me of home. Even though this is a tame fire, in a perfect and sealed modern stove, a different beast to the smoky, fierce flames in the open fire place at the summer house.

Yesterday we had a fire. Yesterday was the equinox and the days will grow shorter now. That made me think of this Sami story I read while we were in Lapland. It’s about a pagan woman, Mariska, and the priest who tries to convert her. I found the story on this blog.

The priest says, “My poor child, you are now the only pagan left in this region”. Mariska agrees and turns around and sends a kiss to the Sun. She answers, “When you are old like me, you will like the warm Gods”. The priest continues: “But what happens, when the Sun disappears in the winter, behind the clouds?” “One of Beaivvás´ sons sits upon my wood oven. I give him firewood to eat.”, replies Mariska.
“I thought that wood is also one of your Gods. I have seen how respectfully you treat the bark and use it in your handcrafts. How can you put your God in the fire?”, asks the priest. “Only a God is worthy to be food for another God”, answered Mariska, and then she explained that she prefers a God that can be cut down, like a tree, instead of a God she cannot see nor touch.

So this winter I will keep feeding the fire, thinking of home.

Books I’m half-way through at the moment

I always have several books on the go at once. I blame this on the fact that I tend to get very excited about new things, so the books I order off Amazon always outpace the amount I read. Hello piles of dusty books in the living room. This issue also applies to writing projects. I’m sure no other writers recognise themselves. Finishing things is easy, right?

Here are some books I’m reading at the moment. Some have sat next to the bed for several months. I am planning on finishing them one day.

The Medical Detective: John Snow, Cholera and the Mystery of the Broad Street Pump, by Sandra Hempel

The newest addition to the pile. Research for a project I’ve been working on for a while. It’s about cholera, more interesting than it might sound.

The Enlightenment Trap: Obsession, Madness and Death on Diamond Mountain, by Scott Carney

SO INTERESTING. It’s about a buddhist cult and the death of a man called Ian Thorson. He died of dehydration after spending months in an isolated cave with his wife and guru Christie McNally.

The book explores how Buddhism has been adopted by the West and its impact on the minds of people who’ve grown up in instant-gratification Western societies. I’ve read about the Diamond Mountain tragedy before and the tale ticks all the right boxes for me, religion, cults, the odd motivations behind acts of self harm, psychology, death and so on.

Edit (26.9): I’m now nearing the last quarter of the book. I wrote the above having read the first few pages and a very exciting blurb. And I’m left slightly disappointed, but perhaps my expectations were a bit too high. The description of the book made me think the story would have been interspersed with interviews, research and descriptions of what happens in the mind of people who go on long silent meditation retreats. I was expecting more psychology. Instead the book (so far) has been a bit of a true crime read with some paragraphs about Buddhism. It’s a bit of a let down. These people make bad decisions and then things spiral out of control. It’s depressing. So I’m giving the book a rest.

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation, by Thomas Homer-Dixon

I’ve been reading this cheerful little book before going to bed. It’s written by a Canadian academic and looks how societies break down. Homer-Dixon is fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and looks at the different stressors (climate change, terrorism, financial crises) that might make our societies collapse. The books was published in 2006 and so far a lot of the potential problems he’s identified seem worryingly familiar.

Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13000 years, by Jared Diamond

I bought this book because an Amazon review said it had changed the reviewer’s worldview. It’s written by biophysicist, ecologist and anthropologist Jared Diamond and offers a multidisciplinary investigation of how human societies were formed and why some societies became more advanced than others.

It’s a fascinating take on the complete randomness of life and our current system of organising ourselves, our beliefs and our power structures. The book makes it seem blindingly obvious that chance, rather than some grand plan, lies behind the way we’ve chosen to live on this planet. It’s very interesting, but also seriously dense with a tiny font, which is why I’ve been plowing through it slowly for almost six months now.

*

I know the list isn’t exactly jam-packed with what you might call feel-good reads. But these topics have in one way or another been on my mind for a while now, they pop up on a regular basis in the work I do and I feel the need to dig deeper. Considering I spent my teens wearing black and reading about serial killers it’s probably something of an improvement.

Afternoon at Oxford Circus

Hurry up Regent Street. No need to linger, the city doesn’t want you stop or to dawdle. Keep moving, keep looking at the crowd. Girls in face veils, bags swinging off each arm. Besneakered couples wearing backpacks. They walk slowly, looking up, looking down, looking the wrong way as they cross the road. Well dressed women in tight dresses, in high heels. People carrying coffee, people carrying dogs. Buses and cars and black taxis, exhaust fumes so thick they make your nostrils black.

I’m early, so I walk through gaping glass doors. Rows and rows of colourful dresses and shirts and blazers. I don’t know what to do with it all. The shop assistants smile a lipsticked smile.

Another shop. Red and black and blue jackets, quilted fabrics, sown on badges of flowers, embroidery. The same feel of the fabric. The same factories churning out neatly displayed truck loads.

Shop after shop after shop. An avenue of them full of carefully displayed mountains of products. New for each season. Belted jackets, leather shoes, flower crowns, sneakers and new phones. Where do they all end up?

I brush my hand along the fabrics. They’re not looking for a home, they just want to be seen. To be worn once. Then what?

Blinking signs and mannequins in yoga poses. Masses flowing in and out of the temple, staring open-mouthed at high resolution screens and iMacs. Shopping bags lining arms like bangles. What is it all for?