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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!

Why I’ve been lying about the house

“I’m actually enjoying the mess, thanks for asking, it means I don’t have to worry about tidying”.

This is my stock answer when people ask me about the house. But I’m lying. The plaster on the walls is cracked and splotchy, every surface is covered in a fine dust, most of our belongings are stacked in randomly packed cardboard boxes behind the IKEA sofa which is missing its cover and has a fine collection of random stains. The kitchen is held together with tape. The bathtub is still full of random bits of wallpaper.

The biggest untruth is the word “enjoy”. A better description of my state of mind, underneath the sort of chirpy and cavalier “isn’t this an exciting adventure” type of attitude I tend to adopt in these situations, would be stressed, jaw-clenching, shoulder-aching, forehead-scrunching, stressed. Because this is the week when it all starts to happen.

Somehow I had managed to ignore it. The notes in my calendar saying “boiler fitter” and “kitchen arrives” were always going to happen at some point in the future. Well that future arrived sooner than expected. And the British prime minister has decided to call a new general election at the same time. So in between kitchen furniture getting stuck in our narrow Victorian hallway and men climbing up on the roof to drop down a flue for the wood-burning stove and the kitchen having to be emptied out and more things packed into more boxes (where are we going to store them!?) I’m keeping one eye on the UK political press on Twitter where there is also chaos and confusion. And it dawns on me that there won’t be any hot water for a while. And no hob, oven or washing machine. Where are we going to eat? How is it already the middle of April?

Perhaps I should just have titled this post first world problems. Perhaps I should try to figure out why everything always seems to happen at once in my life. Perhaps the answer is that underneath the stress there are bits I enjoy. These are the sort of days when there isn’t time to think too much and just about the right amount of time to act, it’s a kind of tunnel effect, a sharpened focus, or perhaps I’ve just had too much coffee and should have a little lie down. In a couple of weeks I can start worrying about tidying again. Now that’s something to complain about.

Photo by Martin Wessely.

The old yew tree of Runnymede

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.

How having a flu made me rediscover the wisdom of Gandalf

At the end of January I got the flu. I spent three days in bed with a fever, I hadn’t been that ill since we lived in Shoreditch. That was six years ago and I was floored by the swine flu.

We had a mezzanine in that flat and the only way to get up there was a rackety ladder. I was too ill to climb up the ladder and slept on the sofa downstairs. The flat was tiny, a small studio with a mezzanine, three narrow flights of stairs up and next to a train line.

I thought about that flat as I was laying in bed in January. I thought about how glad I was not to be living in Shoreditch where people from the bar downstairs sometimes made it difficult to get to the front door, where the cars and buses rattling by shook my whole nervous system until I started getting panicky in crowded places.

Before this winter’s fever got really tedious I started looking at my flu as a way of resetting myself. I did some mental rewinding and I downloaded The Lord of the Rings to my Kindle. I obsessed over the books when I was a teenager. I obsessed over the films. For a short period in high school I tried to dress like an elf.

What makes the books so special is that J.R.R Tolkien, this fusty old expert on Anglo-Saxon, had spent years creating a world, languages and his own mythology. You feel fully confident in the world and in the story because Tolkien made sure the stories rest on a solid foundation. There are hints of even more depth, of stories he has created, but decides not to tell the reader.

Reading the books was like catching up with old friends. Around the same time things started kicking off in the US and I was turning from my Twitter feed to Gandalf and Frodo having this conversation in the Shire.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s father died when he was three. His mother died when he was twelve. His guardian made him choose between finishing his studies and marrying Edith Bratt, the love of his life. The objection was that Edith was older and a protestant. If Tolkien wanted to graduate from Oxford he had to break off all contact with Edith until he turned 21. He waited three years and on his 21st birthday he wrote Edith a letter. The couple got engaged in January 1913. The following year Tolkien enlisted in the army, he fought at the Somme, he was wounded, several of his friends from school died in the war.

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The story has a happy ending. John Tolkien married Edith Bratt, they had four children. Tolkien became an expert in Anglo-Saxon and was a popular lecturer at Leeds and then Oxford where he became a professor and hung out with C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings. He wrote the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and plenty of other stories. He invented languages. His love story about Beren, a human, and the elven princess Lúthien, was inspired by his love for his wife. When Edith died he had the name Lúthien engraved on her tombstone, he followed her 21 months later.

His generation went through a lot. They helped lay the foundations for the slightly more compassionate society we created after the Second World War. I guess that’s a long time ago, I guess we’ve started to forget. But we can be inspired by what some people who lived through the horrors did with their lives and then decide what to do with the time that is given to us.

All photos from the amazing British Library Archive on Flickr.

Some thoughts about leaving the city and moving to the suburbs

In November Gerry and I moved from north London to the south east. We left an apartment nestled between a busy train line and one of the main arteries funnelling cars into the city from the north. We moved to a house in the suburbs.

Our north London was mostly a busy, noisy place. There was a Whole Foods store around the corner when we moved to the area and during our five years there the powers of gentrification brought a Foxtons estate agent, a Foxlow restaurant, several yoga studios, pubs full of men with beards and coffee shops charging three pounds for a black coffee.

It’s now the only place in London where you can get the pizza mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love. There is also a shop selling sticks. The rents shot up and I started feeling slightly self-conscious going to the shops in an old hoodie and my tired jeans, everyone else looked amazing, the odd celebrity walked down the street.

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I was glad to leave, but I didn’t really understand that moving would have a physical impact on me. I had been tense, bracing myself for some unknown disaster, my neck ached, trains interrupted my thoughts, the planes overhead were so common I hardly heard them, my shoulders crept up, my breath was getting stuck in my throat.

We now live on the slopes of the second highest hill in London. To the north is the river, to the south and east two ancient woodlands. After a fifteen minute walk I can be in a forest, a real forest. We have a garden and we’ve spent time digging into the earth, revealing worms, sending beetles and spiders scuttling away. I’m breathing more deeply, I feel less anxious. There is silence here.

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I’ve been reading about how living in cities affect how we feel. A while ago I decided to explore some more of south London and ended up in a bookshop in Greenwhich where I picked up “Headspace – The Psychology of City Living” by psychiatrist Paul Keedwell. The book cites several studies about how noisy, polluted urban living can make us tried, anxious and unwell.

One study at the University of Munich showed that being exposed to the colour green makes us more creative. Portuguese researchers found that “people who lived in areas associated with greater levels of air pollution scored higher on tests of anxiety and depression.”

Another study at the Humbolt University of Berlin looked at how traffic noise, air pollution and lack of green space affect health and showed that the participants who lived in “high burden blocks” had less healthy lifestyles. A study from Helsinki found that “even short visits to an urban park or an urban woodland led to marked stress-relieving effects in city dwellers”.

According to the book there is no need to move away form the city to find relief. Visiting parks and green spaces works just as well, as does exercise. But I have moved and reading about how living nearer green spaces and having a garden is good for you is positive reinforcement for what was a fairly major life decision.

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Central London has some of the most polluted streets in the world . I can taste the exhaust fumes in the city now. The street where we live is so quiet I notice when a car goes by.

It’s not all perfect. This part of London is poor. There are fewer restaurants and no shops selling sticks. Instead of having a bus stop outside the front door I have to walk for about twenty minutes to get to a tube station. So I walk more, down and up the hill to the station, looking out over east London on the other side of the river, listening to the birds, looking up at a few bright stars at night. I’m happier. My calves ache from all the walking.

Since moving here I’ve found out that a lot of other Finns have made this part of London their home, perhaps it has something to do with all the trees.