Wednesday 25 June 2014

What cowboy done this?

Has anyone in the entire history of human civilisation and its Neanderthal antecedents ever bought a house that did not bring with it a whole heap of problems?

Somehow I imagine that the first intelligible sound a caveman heard, after he had found himself a dryish cleft in the rock, was a neighbour sucking through his teeth, pointing out some glaring defect and grunting “What idiot done that?”

(I apologise to those concerned about the finer feelings of idiots, but sadly at that stage evolution had not yet brought us the more freely abusable figure of the cowboy.)

Best builder's ad ever

I have owned my new house for four weeks now, and the only solid achievement has been the erection of scaffolding to permit the retiling of the roof. The contractor reckons he should be able to start the actual work around mid-July. So, if you are wondering when the glorious British summer will break and be replaced with a more traditional pattern of daily torrential downpours, there’s your answer.

To my surprise the only utility provider that has managed to deliver on its promises is BT, which had a phone line and broadband up and running within minutes of my completion of the purchase.

The wooden spoon goes to the electricity company which continues to deny categorically that any such property exists, despite my providing them with a fair amount of circumstantial evidence over and above my address, including an account number and the serial number on their meter.

It has been pointed out to me that I should stop moaning about this as it means I am getting my power for nothing. And, since they insist that my house is not there, they will clearly never be able to cut it off.

Meanwhile we discover little details that our surveyor somehow missed, like whole rooms bereft of a single electrical socket. Not bathrooms, either.

I realised before I signed the contract to buy the place that it had been converted from a chapel to a house by a DIY enthusiast who had done most of the work himself. What I did not realise, until I gained possession and started delving more deeply, is that he was even more incompetent at DIY than I am, which is saying something.

My favourite mystery so far is that the place is festooned with exterior lights that there appears to be no means whatsoever of switching on or off.

This is closely followed by the fact that every window in the house is equipped with a lock, but we have not inherited a single key.

The septic tank does not work properly and the man who claimed he could fix it has suddenly disappeared off to somewhere exotic, judging by the ringtone on his mobile phone, which he resolutely refuses to answer.

Meanwhile the remorseless advance of Building Regulations apparently means that we cannot replace our boiler, which is held together with gaffer tape, in its current location. Which would not be a problem if there were another logical place to put it. But there isn’t.

Every day seems to bring a new problem to which there is no simple solution. Even charming quirks like the wooden dog door, perfectly sized for Border terriers, proved to be a poisoned chalice; my insurance company vetoed it on the grounds that it would also afford ready access for Rat Boy to ransack our non-existent valuables.

I’d be tempted to stay put in the house we have rented for the last five years but for the fact that it is clearly reaching the end of its economic life, judging by the number of services and appliances that are failing on a daily basis.

Perhaps it is a curse. I have already written the unlikely story of the chapel’s supposed ghost. In exactly a week some chaps with a digger are supposedly going to excavate a large hole in the garden to install a gas tank. I am assured that, despite the ecclesiastical history of the house, it has never possessed a burial ground. Yet somehow I confidently expect to see the white glint of bones and hear a workmanlike voice saying, “Blimey, what cowboy sold you this?” 

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Missing London, and why I intend to do more of it

“You must miss this,” my driver said as we sat in a huge traffic jam on the edge of the City of London on Monday.

To our left a bus inched past, leaving just about enough clearance to accommodate a sheet of graphene. To our right assorted Lycra-clad loons on bikes wove gaily in and out of the traffic, scattering pedestrians like confetti.

“Are you trying to be funny?” I asked, thinking fondly of the beauty and tranquillity of the corner of Northumberland where I had just spent the weekend.

I lived in London for nearly 30 years, and have never regretted handing back the keys of my rented flat in 2006. Though I do bitterly regret selling my small stake in the capital’s property market 20 years earlier.

I felt sure things must have peaked, having more than doubled my money on my fourth floor walk-up flat in Earl’s Court in less than five years. I pocketed a magnificent £73,000. Not so long ago I thoroughly depressed myself by checking a property website and finding that it last changed hands for not much short of a million.

Which is, by any standards, utter lunacy. If I were starting my career again, even in an overpaid trade like financial public relations, I could surely never aspire to buy my own home.

The Bank of England faces the uncomfortable challenge of setting interest rates that will dampen the undeniably overheating South East property market without visiting ruin on the rest of us.

It’s quite enough of a challenge maintaining a single currency in a country united by centuries of shared history, language and values, when its regional economies diverge so markedly.

How anyone ever imagined it was going to work satisfactorily across an entity as diverse as the European Union is completely staggering. But then, of course, they never did. The Euro was merely a lever to help achieve the grand objective of building a United States of Europe. Whether for the noble purpose of ensuring peace and prosperity or to allow a small elite to strut the world stage with added swagger I leave to you to judge.

A big fan of the Euro, you may recall, was one Tony Blair: a man still fond of global swaggering. We would be lumbered with the Euro now but for the sterling (in every sense) efforts of Gordon Brown, who deserves to have a statue erected in Kirkcaldy just for this. Even if he was perhaps motivated less by an appreciation of the Euro’s economic insanity than by a determination to deny Tony his desired place in history as the man who abolished the pound.

But, of course, Mr Blair has no need to worry about his place in history. That is assured thanks to Afghanistan and Iraq – and hasn’t that gone well?

Invading Iraq to eliminate non-existent weapons of mass destruction and clamp down on non-existent terrorists, we have managed to put great swathes of the country in the hands of real terrorists of particular savagery. The same brutes we support, oddly enough, when they are fighting the evil dictator Assad in Syria.

When the terror campaign spreads beyond the Middle East, as it surely will, I imagine that it will make rather more impact on life in London and our other great non-UKIP-voting, cosmopolitan cities than it will in the rural backwoods of the north.

Another great reason for all of us to count our blessings and ask just one question whenever we are asked to attend a business meeting in London: why?

If God had intended all our decision-making to be concentrated in one square mile, why would he have allowed us to invent videoconferencing and superfast broadband?

If the latter ever comes to my little hamlet, I’ll hardly ever need to leave the house again. And the cost of extending it would be a tiny fraction of the money we propose to lavish on HS2, to get people to their unnecessary meetings in London a fraction quicker.

Or, for that matter, on unnecessary wars that have achieved the exact opposite of what they were billed as being for, at a human cost that is almost unbearable to contemplate.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The hedge with the haunted urn

If you want a truly memorable 60th birthday, be sure to follow my example and ask two young children how they think you might like to celebrate.

That way you’ll find yourself spending the day at a zoo containing rather less wildlife than your back garden, allied with the worst catering on the planet.

The only edible item we managed to procure for lunch was a portion of chips, demanded and then fiercely defended by my younger son. When my wife suggested that it would be a kind gesture to share some with me, given what a special day it was, two-year-old Jamie said “Happy birthday, Daddy” and held out a chip to me, then whisked it away and crammed it into his own mouth. Repeated several times, until I grew bored with the whole concept.

Zoo catering: a connoisseur's assessment
Moral: you can get away with a lot if you are lucky enough to look cute

Things scarcely improved the next day, which I spent at the house we have just bought so that a series of tradesmen could come round, suck through their teeth, shake their heads and generally ask what cowboy done that and did I have any idea how much it was going to cost to put it right?

Well, I certainly do now.

The top prize for causing gloom and despondency went to the joiner who idly said, “Of course you know about the ghost?”

“What ghost?”

This was the cue for a hair-raising tale of how the first occupants of the house, after its conversion from a chapel 25 years ago, were driven all but mad by banging doors and articles flying around the premises.

Until the joiner and his chums took up the kitchen floor and located an urn, which they removed. Since then, he understood, peace and harmony had prevailed.

“What did you do with the urn?” I asked, expecting to hear that it had been given a reverent burial accompanied by a few comforting words.

“I can’t remember. I think we just chucked it in the hedge,” he replied.

Which was not massively comforting as my next task was cutting back the hedge that has been growing madly out of control around the property for the last couple of decades. Someone planted a Russian vine amongst it, and the thing has predictably grown into an intertwined monster that has strangled the life out of just about everything else.

All I need now is for my pruning saw to make contact with a mysterious urn and unleash a discontented spirit determined on revenge.

Naturally I do not believe in ghosts, though I did have an unnerving experience in an Oxford college many years ago, when I was woken in my guest room by having the bedside lamp rather forcefully hurled at me. It had been a very hot summer’s night when I retired, yet the room was now as cold as a walk-in freezer.

Luckily I had enjoyed dinner enough to enable me to return swiftly to a drink-fuelled coma, but mention of my experience the next day established that I had got off relatively lightly. Other guests had reported disembodied hands appearing around mysteriously opening doors, among other spine-chilling treats, nearly all recorded at exactly the same time in the early morning.

I shared my latest ghost story with my solicitor and he advised that the vendor would have been very remiss not to declare any poltergeists or other manifestations in response to the usual pre-purchase enquiries.

We may be in some sort of hotspot because I have since been advised that the Big House nearby is renowned as the most haunted in the county. Apparently it changes hands with remarkable frequency as rational types with an eye for a bargain scoff at the ridiculous legends - then decide that they don’t want to live there after all.

I shared the story of the urn with Mrs Hann, against my better judgement, and she looked somewhat downcast.

At least, I pointed out, I am fortunate enough to know several priests who should be able to come round and exorcise it if the worst comes to the worst.

“You’ve bought me a house with a ghost in it,” she said. “And now you’re going to ask someone to take it for a walk?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Can you have a second childhood when you've never grown out of the first one?

People keep telling me that 60 is the new 40, but I simply don’t believe them.

Any more than the traffic policeman with the speed gun was persuaded when my wife tried a similar line on him in our village. Luckily she did not add that she always likes to put her foot down once she has passed the speed restriction signs, because the road there is wider and better lit.

No, 60 is surely a landmark like few others. It is the age I reached yesterday and, if the life of man is three score years and ten, and one thinks of that as a week, then today is Saturday. And that is from the traditionalist viewpoint that the week begins on Sunday.

This is the age at which I long looked forward to putting my feet up, reflecting on my decades of failure in academic and business life, and focusing my hopes on a reasonably painless death.

While possibly also renewing my acquaintance with organised religion by way of insurance, on the off chance that there turns out to be something in it.

All in all it was a low-key celebration as I restrained myself from going wild with my shiny new Senior Railcard and thought about how to spend my £728 occupational pension from a former employer. Unfortunately that is £728 per annum, not per month or week.

The other disappointment is the impossibility of actually retiring owing to my acquisition in the last few years of (a) a wife, (b) two small children and (c) a house, which we bought exactly a week ago and looks like proving an even bigger money-pit than the first two.

I have already had to grit my teeth and accept an outrageous estimate to equip it with a new roof. Which just leaves four walls and all the interior fixtures and fittings to go.

My mortgage application scraped through only a day or two before the new and tougher rules came in, which would have required my bank to enquire into how much money I waste on opera tickets, pub lunches and champagne. That would have done it nicely.

To be fair, I could pay off the loan in full if I won the lottery or sold the house I already own. At present the lottery looks much the likelier bet. Last Wednesday I turned down an utterly derisory offer from a man who had just made a killing in the London property market and clearly hoped to make another at my expense.

Still, I cannot deny that the last month has afforded some compensations. As well as buying a house and a Senior Railcard I have learned to drive a steam locomotive on the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway, and been to dinner at Buckingham Palace.

My colleague David Banks tells me that columnists should never drop names so I won’t reveal the identity of the person we chatted with over our meal, but I guess it will be all right to mention that it was an event organised by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

As a certain nonagenarian prince was working the room during pre-dinner drinks, I casually asked Mrs Hann what conversational gem she had up her sleeve if he approached us.

“So what exactly is your role in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award?” she replied brightly, leading me to feel an urgent desire to show her a very fine Canaletto in the furthest corner of the Picture Gallery.

Yes, it has not been a life without incident, if precious little excitement. And the absolute high points have occurred in the last few years with the birth of my two sons.

The elder of whom has just spent a delightful half term at an outdoor events centre, from which he proudly came home bearing a peashooter and catapult he had made himself.

I just read about that sort of thing in the Beano. I never actually experienced it. I wonder whether it is too late to start?

Being 60 might be a lot more exciting if it was not so much the new 40 as a bigger and better version of the old six. Second childhood? Bring it on!

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.