In praise of eccentrics

 

So what is an eccentric? According to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s ‘a person of unconventional and slightly strange views or behaviour.’

If the strangeness is really marked does it border on insanity? Or are eccentrics always simply colourful individuals, free spirits unwilling to be vanilla, eschewing the bland, doing their own often decidedly odd thing? Yes, it’s perhaps a matter of degree (but then how do you define insanity? Some psychiatrists hold that there’s no clear boundary between mental illness and ‘normality’). And it’s also a matter of perception by conventional people. Some might find eccentrics amusing, but to others they’re just plain ridiculous.

There are two other things. Eccentrics are sometimes thought of as a bit subversive, always poking at the dull, the conservative and the reactionary. And often they’re creative, especially in the visual arts. I could fill this blog with examples.

Anyway, I love ‘em. To me, they bring colour to an otherwise drab, timid, conformist world.

Here’s a sample of some of my favourites. Some are long since dead, some I have known personally and one is fictitious, created by Yours Truly.

Billy King (1807-1873).  Australian Billy didn’t hold with any form of transport other than Shanks’s Pony. And not content with footing it everywhere, he enjoyed a challenge. One such was to walk from Sydney to Parramatta, a distance of 29km, carrying a perplexed, 40kg live goat on his shoulders. Regarding that as a little too easy, he added a further 5kg of dead weight but still made the journey in under seven hours. He was also known as the Flying Pieman. He sold freshly baked pies to passengers embarking in Sydney for a river trip to Parramatta, then walked briskly to the destination, beating the steamer, to met the astonished passengers off again. Presumably to ask the punters what they thought of his pies. Wonderful!

John Christie (1882-1962).  A famed British eccentric, Christie and Mrs Christie founded the Glyndebourne Opera Festival. He had a very relaxed attitude to formal dressing; on hot evenings at the opera he would cut the sleeves off his dinner jacket, and sometimes wear scruffy tennis shoes. (But then it was his event, after all.)  Christie also went through a phase of wearing lederhosen to the performances and in 1933 expected all guests to as well. One wonders how the singers kept straight faces at the unprepossessing sight of all those leather-clad bare knees. But it would have been appropriate if they were doing Wagner, I suppose.

Landmark_-_Pigsty_corrected

John Warren Barry. The squire of Fyling Hall near Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, he had a penchant for making his farm buildings as picturesque as possible. Said to have been inspired by the classical architecture he’d seen on his Mediterranean travels in the 1880s, at the turn of the twentieth century he built a lavish, elegant home for his pigs in the style of a Grecian temple. Pampered porkers, you might think. But not a bit of it. It was said that, quite unimpressed, they refused to go inside. The building has been sympathetically restored and enlarged as a holiday let by the Landmark Trust and is the butt of many a porcine-based bon mot in the visitors’ book.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). The famous playwright and wit was your consummate eccentric-creative. He was a popinjay (at last; an opportunity to use that word!) par excellence. His sexual orientation was of course illegal then, but he flaunted it nonetheless and his career came to an inglorious end, to mankind’s loss, when he was jailed for ‘sodomy,’ first at Wandsworth and then Reading, after an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. The two years’ incarceration broke the poor man’s spirit, and he lived just three years after release. Whilst at Oxford he would go about trailing a presumably reluctant lobster on a lead. I love that! I bet it was pink with embarrassment (sorry about that).

Capture Spooner

William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930. He of the famous ‘spoonerism,’ whereby letters in words are swapped around – in Spooner’s case usually inadvertently – often with comical result.  He was a lecturer, dean and finally warden of New College, Oxford, and students would often attend his lectures just to enjoy his linguistic manglings. A popular one was when he lauded British farmers as ‘ye noble tons of soil’ (sons of toil). There are two recorded versions of a cracking gem he bestowed when toasting Queen Victoria. I prefer this one, which will probably amuse Americans reading this: ‘Let us glaze our asses to our queer old dean!’ I’m sure you can decipher that. Brilliant!

I have personally known several colourful characters too:

Miss de la Questa. (she was much too old-school to reveal her first name). This wonderful lady lived in a large cluttered Victorian villa in Leicester in the 1960s. With an exotic-sounding name like hers, I used to imagine that she must have been a lover of Hemingway, or something. A friend and I had a bedsit in her house when we were at art college. When I knew her she’d recently retired from a career in physiotherapy. She proudly showed me her favourite retirement present. It was an electric drill!

Tony. I lodged briefly with larger-than-life Tony in 1977. Blessed with a splendidly fruity West Country accent, he’d been a docker at Bristol for most of his working life. But then he spread his wings. He divorced, and moved to Wales to do the hippy thing, as many of us did back then. When I was privileged to know him he was in his late sixties, perpetually waistcoated, corduroy-trousered, John Lennon-style-bespectacled, white bearded and styled himself ‘the oldest hippy in Wales.’ What a character!

Len and

Sally. I also lodged with these people during the same period. They were an odd couple indeed. Len had fought in WW2 in North Africa in the famous ‘Desert Rats.’ He was short, wiry, gimlet-eyed and as hard as nails. You didn’t mess with Len. After a continuing career in the military after the war, when he was finally obliged to reluctantly retire he’d gone into something equally hazardous and become a film stunt man.

Sally, all faded elegance and enormously long legs, had been a dancer in one of those 1930s troupes like the Tiller Girls (you know; linked into a long line and kicking legs high, wearing fixed grins). When she became too old to do that she’d become a wardrobe mistress in films, when she’d taken up with Len. When I knew them they’d left showbiz far behind, blown all their money and were living in cheerful penury and squalor amongst the dropout hippy community in Wales.

Finally, here’s one I made up:

Lowri Rees. She’s feisty, radically left-leaning, does demos and is the much older sister of one of the male protagonists in my new novel The One of Us. She takes him very much under her wing. In one saucy scene she engineers shy little brother Tomos’s loss of virginity. Here’s a snippet from another, later one, where Lowri visits Tomos, who’s recovering from a major operation in hospital:

The next day, the Sunday, Lowri and Will drove up from Cardiff. Lowri too had wanted to just drop everything and dash up to Birmingham, but once it was clear that all was well, the operation had succeeded, Glyn had persuaded her to wait a few days, until her brother was feeling up to receiving boisterous visitors. He would keep her well updated about things. Lowri had reluctantly agreed.

No longer needing the same degree of intensive care, Tomos had been moved to the next grade down: a high dependency ward. His sister and Will peeped a little apprehensively into the ward just after lunchtime. It was a small room containing just four patients and she quickly spotted Tomos and the ever-present Mair (Glyn and Sioned having paid a morning visit and departed to have a look around Birmingham). She was bearing the traditional offering of grapes, bought in a Services where they’d stopped for fuel on the way up the M5, hoping he was at the grape-eating stage by now. Well, it had been three days since his operation. How long did recovery take? They’d keep for a few days until he was ready, anyway.

To Lowri’s astonishment, Tomos was out of bed, sitting in a chair. He’d spotted their arrival and raised a hand to gain attention, Mair swivelling to see who was making him smile. Lowri approached, her face wreathed in smiles, determined not to lapse into soppy tears of relief. She’d already done that, three days ago, when Dad phoned to say that everything was okay. Lowri fought to resist the temptation to hug him. Obviously that couldn’t be done; he was fragile.

So she could only convey how she felt through speech. ‘Hello little man. How are you?’ she said, voice quavering just a little, fighting down the mothering instinct he always provoked in her anyway, eyes smarting slightly.

He grinned up at her. He looked tired and drawn, but not as much as she’d expected. But there was a light in his eyes now that hadn’t been there for a long while.

‘Hello Lowri. Hello Will. Good, thanks. Really good.’

Lowri wanted to ruffle his hair but restrained herself. ‘Great; that’s my boy. Have you got your name down for the London Marathon yet?’

Tomos laughed. ‘I’m working on it. Perhaps I should take a bit of interest in sport, for the first time in my life.’

‘Well why not?’ Lowri enthused. It was so good to see her little brother happy. Actually indulging in banter. For the first time she noticed Mair, who had got up, offering her chair, to perch on the bed. (Will took the remaining one, beaming his pleasure too but staying discretely out of things. This was a family thing, after all.) ‘Hi Mair; you okay?’

Mair nodded. ‘Yes, fine, thanks Lowri. Certainly relieved, that’s for sure.’

Lowri grinned. ‘Yeah, I’ll bet. This young man’s caused us all quite enough worry, to be honest.’

She remembered the grapes and thrust them at Tomos. ‘Oh, these are for you Bach. And don’t tell me you don’t like grapes. You have to have grapes when you’re in hospital. It’s compulsory. Otherwise Will and me’ll have to eat the things ourselves.’

Tomos laughed again. ‘Diolch Lowri. Yes, I’ll eat them, don’t worry. I’ve got my appetite back. I’ll eat anything now.’

‘Good. That’s alright then. Perhaps you’ll put some weight on now; not be such a bag of bones. Have something for Mair to grab hold of when you’re back in harness.’

‘Lowri!’ Mair expostulated, pretend-shocked.

‘Well, why not? You’ve got to think of these things,’ Lowri retorted. ‘Haven’t you, Will?’ she added as an afterthought, including him for the first time.

Will sniggered too. ‘Absolutely! You’ll have some catching up to do, Tomos.’

‘Yes, well, you take it easy. Don’t overdo things when you do.’ Lowri was suddenly, uncharacteristically serious. ‘Leave most of it to Mair; know what I mean?’

‘Lowri! Mair shrieked again. Can we just stop talking about Tomos’s sex life please?’

But she was loving it. It was nice to be normal; be talking about normal things. But when that happy day or night arrived, she certainly would be very gentle with him. Wouldn’t risk anything.

‘So,’ Lowri continued, ‘how long will you be in hospital? Have they said?’

‘It’s about two weeks normally, apparently,’ Tomos said. ‘Assuming there are no complications. But Mr Petersen says it’s all looking good. He seems pleased with me. And I’m pleased with me. So maybe in about ten days’ time.’

‘That’s amazing,’ said Lowri, ‘considering what a major thing it’s been. Well I didn’t expect to see you out of bed today, for sure.’

‘Yes, they like to get you up as soon as possible. Tomorrow I can start a little walking, they say. Maybe even make it to the bathroom. That would be nice.’

‘Well you take it easy young man,’ his sister repeated, still solicitous. ‘We don’t want any relapses.’

‘Yes, I will,’ Tomos assured her. ‘Don’t you worry about that!’

 

My adventures with eccentrics are chronicled in my autobiography Wishing for the Better appearing on this site. Here’s another chapter from it:

Wishing for the Better/15 

The Christmas cards ranged along the mantelshelf remind me of another beginning, many years ago. Although the living conditions are considerably better here than they were when I moved into Barratt’s Hill. Mind you, there are one or two similarities. Like the farmhouse, Haulfryn’s heating (and cooking) are based on a solid fuel Rayburn. And also similarly, this house is quite un-modernised. I like that about it.

I have to say though that there’s one aspect of its originality I’m less keen on. It was built in 1933, but followed a centuries-old tradition of large kitchen/living room with one other much smaller room. In old cottages this was usually a bedroom, but in Haulfryn, being a two-storey building, it’s a little parlour, into which the family and guests would have squeezed for celebrations or entertaining on high days and holidays. Not that you could have fitted many guests in: the room is barely 9 feet square. I’ve decided it’ll have to be changed already. In an attempt to make the room more spacious Gill the renovator had removed the tongue-and-groove wooden partition between it and the staircase, which now rises directly out of the room. This has increased the visual space and allowed more light in from the stairs window (a ‘flood of light’, as the selling agent eloquently put it), but apart from a bit inside the front door, which now opens into the room, it hasn’t increased the usable floor space at all.

It’s difficult to arrange my furniture, and the problem isn’t helped by the door at the rear of the little room, leading into the back kitchen. With it there I can’t put my two-seater sofa right back against the stairs.  It has to be a door’s width forward into the room and right on top of the television. It’s ridiculous. In fact I can only get the two sofas and the television into the room: everything else is piled into the back kitchen. But the problem can be solved. I have a cunning plan.

I had of course been doodling plans while waiting for the move. The floor space in the parlour could be maximised if the doorway through to the rear was moved to the front of the room. Then the sofa could go right back to the perimeter. It would still mean that everything else: bookcase, bureau, dining suite, would have to go in the back room, which was fitted out along three sides as a kitchen. This was hardly big enough to serve as a sort of enhanced dining kitchen-plus. But the back door led out of the kitchen into a small lean-to back room, not original, which was plumbed as a utility room. I reckoned that, enlarged a bit, it could accommodate all the ‘wet’ kitchen functions and also take a cooker.

So, I happily began the new project. The first thing was to move the doorway. It wasn’t too difficult to create a new one, as the wall wasn’t seriously load bearing: there was only a wood and plastered lath partition above it. The original doorway I mostly blocked up and re-plastered, leaving a display alcove in the top quarter. The alterations certainly improved the room.

Then I turned my attention to the kitchen. It was only possible to enlarge the lean-to by a small amount. It could only be a few inches wider – the width of a concrete block – because of the rear kitchen window, and could not go back very much farther either before it was interfered with by a stone wall separating my small back garden from the neighbour. But it became large enough to serve the purpose I wanted it to. The old asbestos roof was removed and replaced with a slate one, and it looked a lot better. I dismantled the hand-made kitchen units with simple boarded doors and moved them into the back kitchen, with the old Belfast sink. Not really liking the green limed finish my predecessor had used (they’d quickly become quite grubby due to the attentions of the tenants’ toddler) I painted them with a nice flat, matt green, an authentic period colour.

Next came redecorating the sitting room, which had to be done anyway because I’d altered the doorway. Gill had gone to great lengths to use traditional techniques and materials, and had used water paint based on natural resins for the walls. To be honest, although I admired her philosophy I wasn’t really taken with it. The paint had poor opacity so looked rather wishy-washy, as if badly done, and the strong red colour she’d used served to emphasise the smallness of the room. That sort of paint would be completely appropriate in a very old and humble building, but I didn’t think it was the thing for a twentieth century town house. I really preferred a nice well-covering modern emulsion, in a sympathetic colour. Indeed, although I was impressed by the fact that she’d avoided modernising, I felt that she’d really tried to impose a rather alien identity, that of a cottage, on the place –   which was after all a town house. For example, there were nice, original, white-painted, turned banister spindles at the top of the stairs; but she had inconsistently used stained, plain square ones when she converted the staircase into an open one.

I was now running out of things to do, because I was running out of the funds to do them with. Although I’d been really trying to find writing work, the opportunities had dried up. I continued to write speculatively, but selling it was quite another matter. There wasn’t any more I could really do for the dog magazine, except cover Pembrokeshire perhaps. Out on a limb in west Wales, I wasn’t geographically well placed to cover many different areas of Britain, and you could only do so many articles about Wales for a Britain-wide magazine. And I’d covered most of the areas I could when living in previous places.

I made another attempt at training for publishing-related work. Advertisements were appearing around then to learn proofreading. They caught my eye. The potential for serious money earning was great, they claimed. Well, I thought, I hardly needed to train: I used to do it as part of my old job (although admittedly not entire books). It sounded pretty boring but was probably a piece of cake; surely  this  should  be  a  viable  occupation?  So I enrolled for the correspondence course, mentioning airily that with my printing background  I was possibly already part way there. But although I felt myself to be virtually already qualified, I was to find that this complacency was ill founded.

Training was all very well, but no income was being generated. I would just have to admit that my unorthodox life style since 1991 was running out of steam. Long term, it just wasn’t viable. An ordinary day job was needed. So I visited the Job Centre and applied for Job Seeker’s Allowance. I was hardly in a position to be picky about what I wanted to do, but when the manager asked me what sort of work I was seeking I said, quite unrealistically, ‘Something in the publishing line, like proofreading, copy editing or writing’. She looked at me dubiously, but entered it in my details anyway. Of course, there was little work like that in that remote rural area, and what there was would just as likely be in the Welsh language anyway and closed to me. Because it was a condition, quite rightly, of receiving the benefit, I scanned the local press for job adverts of that nature, wrote speculative letters further afield trying to drum up freelance work, and looked on the Job Centre computer for jobs of any description. But in this economically relatively poor area there was very little of anything.

It came as quite an eye-opener finding how near the breadline an income of around £60 per week was. Obviously, with no dependants or housing costs like rent, I was on the basic. I was used to living on little, but even so I was glad that I could supplement the money a bit with what was left of my savings, which were not enough (I’d had to show my bank statements) to disqualify me from the benefit. But they would soon run out. It was certainly a how-the-other-half-lives experience. People with reasonably paid jobs who criticise ‘benefit scroungers’ should try it.

Meanwhile, things were not going well with the proofreading course. It consisted mainly of exercises whereby you were given pages of text that were deliberately peppered with typesetting mistakes. There was no recourse to automatic Microsoft Word spelling and grammar checking: you had to spot them yourself and mark them in red. It sounds quite an  easy task  for  someone  who can spell quite well and has a fairly good grasp of grammar, but it’s  actually surprisingly difficult, requiring intense concentration. The first exercises were comparatively easy with very obvious mistakes and I raced through them, smugly thinking that it was a doddle. But when the results came through the post, with the next set of slightly harder tasks, I was horrified to find that, in spite of my past experience, I’d missed some ‘typos’. And when they were pointed out, they were quite obvious. There was much smiting of forehead, like the ‘Allo Allo’ Italian. Mortified, and very cross with myself, I resolved to try harder, to really concentrate.

Things did then get somewhat better, but as the exercises got progressively tougher, with subtle, more difficult to spot errors such as commas omitted or in the wrong place, I still missed some mistakes. I wasn’t getting very positive comments from the course tutor. And I was finding no more success with copy-editing, an additional element I’d arrogantly chosen to do to ‘make a bit more’ of the course. That involved not just the skills mentioned above but things like a deep knowledge of correct grammar (which with my poor education I’d never been taught: to this day I often lapse into the split infinitive), logicality and clear expression, and a good eye for consistency of typographical and writing style.

When it came to the final ‘exam’ I did badly, and the tutor politely suggested that, although it was up to me whether I chose to try and pursue it, I would probably not make any sort of living at proofreading, much less copy-editing. There was a little consolation prize though. The last part of the course included a short element on English grammar and composition learning. I found it very interesting; and as a final part of the exam you were invited, just for fun really, to do a little creative writing. I got quite complimentary comments for that.

Things took a further turn for the worse financially in the middle of 2002 when my car, the last of the bought-new ones from my proper-job period, failed its exam too. Now fourteen years old, at its MOT it was declared fit only for scrapping. I couldn’t complain, I thought; I would have to replace it sometime. So, with very depleted funds, and my usual naivety about cars, I  bought an eight year old Peugeot 104. To my untrained eye it looked fairly reasonable. But it was soon giving problems.

Then one November evening a minor tragedy struck. Haulfryn and its adjoining house shared a common access from the lane off which they were situated. I had a right of way across my neighbour’s frontage, with no gate into my own property. Likewise, there was no gate between the neighbour and the lane. Ever since moving there I’d meant to put up a gate to keep Bethan in, but had improvised by placing a wooden pallet across the neighbour’s entry during the day when she was away at work. When Bethan went outside in the evening I supervised her, because given half a chance she’d disappear into adjoining gardens. My lazy negligence would prove costly.

Late that evening, having had a bad day as the car had just cost me over £500 in repairs, I let Bethan out to do what she had to do. It was a bitterly cold night and I stayed indoors and left her to it. When I opened the door a couple minutes later she was nowhere to be seen. I was confident that she’d soon return, and she did. Hours later, at five in the morning, I rushed her to the vet. She’d lost strength in her back end – I’d been up all night watching her, meaning to take her there first thing in the morning – and had a seizure. Now she was totally rigid. I thought she was dead. The vet assured me that she wasn’t, and noticed a blue-green colour around her anus. During the seizure she’d defecated. He said that it looked like the colour of slug pellets. A test confirmed that it was, and judging by the colour of her faeces she’d probably eaten a large amount, perhaps a container full, of the lethally impregnated grain.

The only treatment he could offer was to put her on an intravenous drip and keep her under general anaesthetic for many hours to dampen brain activity. She hung on for nearly three days, although the signs weren’t good. The vet brought her out of it at one stage but she appeared to be blind and found touch painful. Finally she died. Of course it in no way compared with that other, much greater loss. But she was the nearest thing I had to a companion: I was bereft. I moped around the house for a couple of weeks oppressed by silence. Near- neighbour Shirley was a huge help. A doggy person herself (only months before she’d introduced me to her own little girl, a puppy and also a springer), she really understood how I felt. But there was no one to relate to in the same, everyday way I’d talked to Bethan. I cursed myself for my lack of care a thousand times. But I knew that melancholia wouldn’t help. Thankfully, I’ve never been threatened by clinical depression. I’ve always found in times of trouble that the best thing is action. It would be months before I finally stopped thinking about Bethan at least once a day, but I had to have another dog.

It had to be another springer. Any other breed just wouldn’t have felt right. I scoured the local press and rescue centres, and finally tracked down a specialist springer breeder who currently had a litter. A pillar of support, Shirley came with me to see them. I was the first enquirer, so I had the pick of the bunch. I chose a little bitch again, purely for sentimental reasons I suppose, and the one with the prettiest face. All right: not the most scientific or sensible reason I know, but then when was I ever sensible? Shirley came again to help me collect the pup. She could nurse her, at risk of being weed on, on the way back. I’d already decided on a name: I wanted another Welsh one that also worked in English. So it was Elin officially, but Ellie to me. I’d bought a ragger-type toy, ready, and it was lying on the floor as I carried her into the house. I put her on the floor, pointed at the toy and commanded ‘fetch’. Amazingly, she scampered over and dragged it (it was too big for her to comfortably carry) back to me. For such a little mite thrown into such a big new experience, I thought that was pretty amazing. That was how Ellie entered my life.

Meanwhile back at the job centre, no work opportunities were coming up. Not a lot, anyway. The proofreading college had suggested (before they realised that I wasn’t very good) having dignified-looking stationery printed, on which to type freelance work-seeking letters. Obviously, I knew how to design that sort of thing, and I asked the local Llandysul printers to print it for me. Apart   from  being  general   printers  they  were  also  the  largest producer of books in west Wales, and printing my stationery brought me to their attention. Soon after they’d done it, they offered me a proofreading job: a very abstruse science/philosophy book. It was wonderful: my first job! It was a world away from the course exercises I’d been doing. The proofs were virtually mistake-free (so much so that I began to worry that I was missing them again) and the only mark I made on most pages was a red tick signifying ‘OK’. And because they probably assumed from my elegant stationery that I was an established figure in publishing, they didn’t bat an eyelid when they wrote a cheque for my fee. This was quite hopeful; the company was a fair-sized one, due to expand and move soon into a shiny new factory. There could well be more work for them to come. And a few more jobs did follow, none of them very interesting reading in the normal sense – in fact it was pretty boring – but that didn’t matter.

Then I looked as if I might land a substantial contract, when they asked me to quote for proofreading costs for a massive tome they were quoting for. It was for the European Union. The boss of the firm tried to give me a good indication of the size and complexity of the proposed book, but it was very difficult to arrive at an estimate that I thought might be about right. I half guessed, half calculated a figure that finished up as several thousand pounds, closed my eyes and submitted it. This would mean several months’ work at one fell swoop. But nothing came of it. I don’t know whether the firm itself landed the contract anyway. Every time I politely enquired how it was going, they said they were still waiting to hear from the EU. The only problem about associating myself with the firm was that they did the majority of their printing in Welsh. I would have had to be fully fluent in the language to be useful to them, but I didn’t speak it at all.

These bits and pieces of work also caused some confusion at the Job Centre. Every time I declared, honestly, that I’d done some work they assumed I meant I’d got a normal job, and the benefit promptly stopped. I tried to explain that ‘job’ meant ‘item of freelance work’ but they seemed to only understand two concepts: full  time  proper work or  fraudulent  work  on the side.  Perhaps it was the only way their system could handle a client legitimately doing sporadic oddments of freelance work, but every time I did some I’d find myself coming off benefit only to go through the formal process of reapplying for it again a couple of days later.

But to give them their due, they did try to help me. Once I was sent on a three-day course for would-be entrepreneurs (although I didn’t actually want to become one, but simply find a way of becoming financially self-sufficient for six more years until retirement). Again, when I said what I had in mind to the tutor, his eyes glazed over in disinterest. He probably thought: ‘Stupid, daydreaming idiot’. He was probably right. I don’t recall very much of those three days, except one session when he tried to teach us business accounting. He might as well have been speaking in Mandarin: I didn’t understand a word of it. It then became farcical when he gave us an exercise in what we’d just learned. I just stared at my piece of paper; I hadn’t a clue. Although it wasn’t just me: a general air of bewilderment had filled the room, as all but a couple of well-motivated souls stared at their worksheets equally stricken.

The Department of Work And Pensions certainly set much store by Courses. Another time I was obliged to attend a course intended to encourage and motivate the long term unemployed. I don’t remember much about it either (such was the effect it had on me) apart from one game playing session – an American technique often used in the training of managers, apparently – whereby the tutors, two vaguely threatening women, said they would give each of us an embarrassing task, like in the TV The Generation Game, to stand up and perform in front of the others. Worse, some might even involve singing. A few extroverts thought it great fun, but most people, like me, were appalled. I couldn’t for the life of me see what this had to do with helping me find work.

Pieces of folded paper were handed out, and at a command we opened them. I looked at mine. My heart lurched. My task did indeed involve singing! The horror was quickly replaced by anger. Not on your Nellie, I thought. When it came to my turn I would really throw a wobbly. I would point out in no uncertain terms that I hadn’t attended this course in order to be embarrassed. I might even swear, and declare the entire course a load of bollocks. Perhaps I’d theatrically storm out. I was livid.

I was suddenly aware that the tutors were creased up, laughing. It was all a test of us, the uber-tutor said. She launched into a deep psychological lecture all about behaviour outside comfort zones, or something, and how this was pertinent to the sociology of interaction in the work place, or some such mumbo-jumbo. But I was still furious. Very bloody funny, I thought.

As 2002 ended and I was still workless most of the time, the Centre manager, with thinly veiled exasperation, now suggested Training. Well, it wasn’t so much a suggestion as ‘you will go for training’. I was sent for Useful Vocational Training for three days a week in Cardigan. The private ‘college’ that provided it offered a huge choice of subjects: information technology, plumbing or information technology. Or plumbing. After my frustrations in the world of plumbing over the years I’d no particular wish to be any more involved with that than I already was. On the other hand, IT sounded quite interesting. It would be good to sample this mysterious world of computers. I still couldn’t see how it would improve my work chances (I didn’t see myself working in a call centre or something), but I couldn’t have foreseen that learning about them would indeed prove useful.

So in the New Year I reported for training. My fellow students were mainly ladies, many of them made redundant from clerical jobs and now hoping to become more employable. The qualification at the end of it would be CLATE (I forget what the acronym stands for), in various grades. The tutor certainly knew her onions, but wasn’t a brilliant communicator. To teach an utter novice something as initially perplexing as computer use, you do have to be quite a good teacher. The lowest grade was pretty basic: simple word processing and some work in database use and spreadsheets. The first day I was shown how to enter the computer password, open Word, do some simple typing and send what I’d done to the printer, and after that she pretty much left me to it. With a large class to manage, she didn’t seem to appreciate that new joiners with  no  previous  experience  at  all  would  need extra attention. For much of the time in the early part of the course I found myself staring hopelessly at the screen, having forgotten her rapid-fire instructions.

There was very little back up literature, like an easy-to-understand instruction manual called Simple Computing For Complete Idiots, which for someone like me, who quickly forgets what he’s been told at the best of times, would have been really helpful. And when, baffled, I did manage to attract her attention she’d come and sit beside me and, instead of SLOWLY explaining and demonstrating, would simply do the task (or more often than not sort out my mess) quickly and wordlessly as I struggled to concentrate and remember what she was doing. On one occasion that I’d rather forget, I so confused the computer with my desperate panicky mouse clicking that it froze, the tutor couldn’t revive it and a computer engineer had to come in to sort it out.

But gradually I began to grasp the fundamentals and progressed to database and spreadsheet work. I found it surprisingly interesting. It was quite a discovery.

Then in the February of 2003 life took another sudden lurch in a different direction. I had my neighbour and friend Shirley to thank for it. One morning I found her standing outside her house looking slightly cross. She said she was waiting for a man to come and give her a price for an extensive decking job in her garden.  Katie, her young springer, had pretty well demolished it, and Shirl was fed up. Into her seventies and looking for a more labour-saving garden anyway, she’d decided to have the entire small, sloping garden converted into decking. Her man was very late: it looked as though he wasn’t coming.

I went indoors and sat and thought about it. I wouldn’t mind having a go at that, I thought. It wasn’t proofreading but it was a possible work opportunity. An hour later I knocked her door and asked if the man had been. Yes, she said, but he didn’t seem very interested; he had grumbled that it looked too problematical. Well I would be, I told her. I couldn’t see any great potential difficulty. ‘Oh, would you?’ she exclaimed.  Beaming, she  almost hugged  me. She was having trouble finding a tradesman she said: this was the second person who’d turned it down. I admitted that I’d never done one before, but bless her; she was prepared to trust me. I’d shown her pictures of my Penrorin and Henblas projects, which demonstrated some building skill. I suppose she thought that if I could those, I could build a deck.

And so I did, unfazed by any perceived difficulty. It was quite a steeply sloping site I had to admit, but it was doable. I drew a detailed plan, both plan-view and cross-section, and worked out a way of doing it in a series of terraces, with steps, raised planters and a gravelled toilet area for Katy. Both as a design project and a practical job, it was great fun. Because she was a friend, and I was hardly a professional in that trade, and she kindly didn’t expect me to quote for it (I wouldn’t have had a clue how much to say), I charged her a minimal hourly rate.

Two weeks into the job, fitting it in with the computer course, an idea was beginning to germinate. I was enjoying this. I liked both the creativity and the building. Why not do landscaping? I asked the boss of the college what he thought. Great idea, he said. I was coming to the end of the course, and because it was required, did the CLATE exam. I was more successful than I’d been with the proofreading one, and gained the certificate. Now I mentioned the idea I was considering with the Job Centre. They too were encouraging, (and were probably breathing a sigh of relief) and sent me off for yet more advice in business set up. I returned clutching literature from the business enterprise department of the council and application forms for a start-up grant, mainly towards the cost of a computer. The grant was predicated on producing a business plan, which was difficult and wearisome: I knew I could do the work, was keen to do the work, but any plan was surely just pie in the sky, hypothetical, thinking-of-a-number stuff. It seemed to me that it could only be a case of try-it-and-see. But it had to be done, and the advisers helped me prepare a three-year business financial projection that was about as comprehensible to me as the human genome.

Two weeks  later, having whiled away the  rest  of  the  computer course creating a logo for my new business, I gratefully left the clutches of the Job Centre. I was officially self-employed. It wasn’t a complete leap in the dark: there was more work to follow on with. Shirley’s deck was finished; she was delighted with it and I was quietly pleased. We’d spent a happy conclusion buying lots of nice pots and plants for them and the raised beds. Impressed with the end-result, her friend asked me to redo her front garden. That wasn’t a decking job, but was also a terracing project entailing decorative block walling and steps. It was a good thing that it was for a friend of a friend otherwise it would have been a financial disaster. It was the first job for which I was being asked to quote. With my lack of experience, this was far from an exact science. When Ann, Shirley’s friend, was disappointed by my price because she couldn’t afford it, I rashly agreed to do the work for a lot less, an amount she could afford. But by the time I’d done it, the time spent had escalated to double what I had anticipated, and to get a reasonable earning I had to invoice her for more than my original quote. She was not at all pleased – a quote after all should be just that – but found the money from savings and paid me. It was decidedly embarrassing, and pointed up a problem I’d have throughout my landscaping career: realistic quoting.

I placed an advert in a local free paper and got a large response that gave more than enough work to keep me busy for the rest of that year. I found myself losing potential jobs because I couldn’t promise to do them in the near future. It was going swimmingly. After the embarrassment with Ann, the first large advert-generated job was the sort you dream about: one that, like Shirley’s, could be done on an hourly rate basis. If only they could all have been like that. It was a large terracing project, laying paving slabs of various sizes in a random fashion. I was spared the lengthy and tedious job of grouting them because the customer wanted to save money and do that herself. That was fair enough, I thought. The downside, as I soon realised, was that I was doing the heavy part. I’d turned sixty now and had never been a big strapping chap. 600x600mm slabs are by no means light, and after a day laying them I knew I had. But I quite prided myself that I wasn’t an effete desk-worker.

Shirley was still giving great support. She’d asked me to do other general building jobs for her (which I did at the same very low concessionary price as I had the deck) while I was waiting for the work to begin flowing in, and she also solved the problem of what to do about little Ellie. Most of the work I was doing was too far away to have lunch at home, and it was obviously not on to leave her shut in the house all day. At the same time, it often wasn’t possible to take her to work with me. Some customers were not dog friendly and didn’t appreciate a boisterous little canine rampaging round their garden. So for the first couple of years she stayed at home, and Shirl let her out mid-morning for playtime with her friend Katie, then again at lunchtime when she was fed, and for a third time in the middle of the afternoon. Bless you Shirley: I have a lot to thank you for.

Things were certainly improving financially. I bought a computer with grant aid and produced impressive stationery bearing my logo. I called myself Haulfryn Landscapes, which would sound quite good to a Welsh speaker; it was effectively Sunny Hill Landscapes. And within six months I was able to swap the Peugot for a more useful and credibility-boosting two-year-old small van.

I’d made myself known to HMRC and begun self-employment in April, and almost before I knew it my first tax year was complete. I did my first self-assessment return. It was quite encouraging I thought: I’d had a first year turnover of £16,500 with a profit of £12,000. Considering that some of the period had been spent working cheaply for Shirl and I’d had the (outright) purchase of the Ford Courier, that wasn’t bad. There was a little tax to pay, but as my income was relatively low there was tax credit too. They virtually cancelled each other out. For all the careful explanation of the tax credit calculation, I didn’t begin to understand it, and never would. It might as well have been Relativity Theory. It seemed a little nonsensical, one department working out how much money to take from me and then another department of the same organisation doing more sums to give it back. Why couldn’t I simply pay less tax in the first place?  But I wasn’t complaining. By my standards I felt reasonably well off.

2004 continued, and I was buoyed by optimism. I won a substantial job building raised flowerbeds and other things for a retired vicar in the beautiful seaside town of Aberaeron, and he and his disabled wife would become quite regular customers. Further down the coast I did a very creative paved patio for a lady who’d been my next-door neighbour when I first moved to Haulfryn, and then, in nearby New Quay, a complete garden design that included a first for me: a fountain.

Things were still going well. I was never without work, and it was mostly creative and interesting. I was noticing a couple of subtle changes though; I had to advertise quite regularly now to keep the enquiries coming in, and I wasn’t always winning with my quotes. I presumed that I might now be quoting too highly, and began to pare my prices down to what I thought might be acceptable rather than quote as high as I thought I could get away with.

The other thing I found, obvious for an outside worker really, was that the weather wasn’t always kind. Some sorts of outdoor work (like being a postman for example) can be done in all weathers, but laying paving slabs in the pouring rain is no fun.  A bronzed torso wasn’t my style, so I didn’t enjoy working in hot sun either. Or, conversely, doing something non-energetic when it was bitterly cold. I’ve always been prone to chilblains on my hands, and I found wearing gloves virtually impossible. So I would just have to work without, knowing that when I was indoors in the warmth later I would suffer. For that reason I was quite thankful for the Christmas break that year. Of course, being freelance I could take as much time off as I chose, but holidays weren’t paid. No work meant no bone money for Ellie and no pennies for me.

In early January I forced myself back to work. Conditions weren’t too bad, until late February when I found myself rebuilding a stone wall for a local lady. A bitterly cold north wind was sweeping across the garden, as I gritted my teeth and bent to the slow task. Working with natural random stone is a tedious process: you spend more time looking for the correct size and shape of stone each time than actually laying it. (I enjoy it in good weather though; the end result is very satisfying.) Watching me from her warm house, the lady clearly felt sorry for me and opened her back door. ‘Would you like to come in for a warm?’ she called kindly. I said thank you very much but no – I knew that if I went inside I’d never want to come out again – and struggled valiantly on. You need a strong masochistic streak for landscaping.

Results were a little better at the end of my second tax year. Turnover was £20,000 and profit £14,000, and tax credit was almost eliminated. This was reasonable. But there was still the worrying, continuing drop off of enquiries, and I was still doing every job flat out because I was tending to under-quote to win jobs, leaving myself no margin for extra labour for unexpected difficulties. Usually things picked up in the spring as peoples’ thoughts turned to gardens, but this year they weren’t doing. As 2005 continued I began to worry that, if the trend continued, I’d eventually find myself back at the Job Centre. Just three more years of employment: that was all I wanted.

I decided that I’d have to try and diversify. I devised a new name: HomeWorks, and worked out an advert. It read:

Complete handyman service.

Property maintenance, carpentry,

minor building work, decorating,

wall/floor tiling, landscaping

No job too small

 

I was moving down market a bit, but needs must. Hopefully it would increase the flow of enquiries, and ten jobs done a bit less lucratively would be better than five done for a little more. Indoor work might be more desirable during cold winter months, and I could still keep the landscaping option open.

It helped. I did some decorating, and rebuilt a decaying pergola. I did some carpentry work for the local pets and gardens shop, which led to some landscaping for the owner’s own garden. There was an absolutely horrendous job where I was called in to assemble a fully fitted bedroom from flat packs. It sounded easy: a piece of cake. It was anything but. All the jokes they tell about self assembly furniture contain a very large grain of truth. I’d never done anything like it (it wasn’t my thing), and there were a lot of (rather expensive) items to assemble, in the large master bedroom of a new house. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked for a quote. When asked how long I thought it might take, I replied, airily, ‘Oh, two, perhaps two and a half days. By the end of the first day I’d only begun to understand the instruction book, which wasn’t in English, just undecipherable pictures (I hate those) and had established that (guess what) there were several pieces missing.

At the end of day two, a Thursday, I hadn’t made a great deal of progress and the customer was looking a little anxious. There was a carpet due to be fitted on the following Monday, and the wardrobes had to be installed first. Friday didn’t see completion either so I said I’d work the following Saturday, but in spite of working frantically all day – the missing pieces had now arrived – and with much swearing, it was still far from finished. I went in on the Sunday too (the customers seemed curiously grateful) and, working flat out, managed to get all the carcasses together and fixed to the walls. Inevitably, there was a problem when one wardrobe ended up right in front of the light switch. Thinking quickly, I moved the switch onto the side of the wardrobe.

But the doors were still not on, and I wasn’t at all confident that they’d fit. At least they could get the carpet fitted now though, and the man said not to worry, he’d do the doors himself (rather you than me, I thought), and how much did he owe me? Cringing inwardly I muttered ‘£400?’ Without batting an eyelid he brought out his wallet and gave me the money. It was all very embarrassing. I wanted to flee the scene, but he then took me outside and showed me where he wanted paving around the house and a deck. Could I give him a price for doing these? I worked out prices, probably much too low because I felt bad, but nothing came of it. I wonder why?

A similar situation to this, but the other way round, happened a year later. I was doing some paving and wall building, and was coming to the end. My customer indicated some packages, told me it was a greenhouse and asked if I’d assemble it for her. Her husband wouldn’t have the patience she said (where had I heard that before?) and it would finish up being thrown over the fence. I tried very hard to talk my way out of it, I really did. I said that I’d never put one up before and I’d no idea how long it would take and cost. But she insisted. And predictably, it took far longer than I thought. Again the instructions, although this time in English, required a far finer brain than mine to understand. The lady and I spent hours puzzling over them together. Her husband stayed well out of it. Finally, two and a half days later it was up. She asked me how much extra that would add to the job. It would be £200 now, I said. She said I was joking. She wouldn’t give me all that. £100 would be a fair price. Perhaps it would have been if an expert had assembled it. But I wasn’t, and had had my arm twisted to do it. I didn’t argue, but the lady unknowingly paid £100 extra for the slabs and building blocks I’d used for the main job.

Although the landscaping was now being augmented by other work, the turnover at the end of year three was down to £17,000 (I was spending less on materials) and the profit £14,000. I hoped that I’d make it to August 2008, one way or another.

The remainder of 2006 saw some interesting and challenging projects though. I was asked to do a deck in a garden in Llandysul. Like Shirley’s, it sloped up at the back of the house, but much more steeply. The deck was wanted near the house, but would still have to be decidedly aerial. I built a massive structure projecting out of the slope, with posts fifteen feet high sitting on the back yard. The ballustraded deck looked tremendously impressive: the customer was delighted with it and I was pretty pleased too.

That was followed by another unique one. A farmer’s widow wanted something doing with a redundant swimming pool, unused since they’d become elderly. She’d thought vaguely about covering part of it over. It couldn’t simply be drained – they’d tried that once and the sides had threatened to cave in. It had to remain a pool of some sort. It was a fascinating project. I drew a design spanning half of it with a deck and leaving the other half open water, with a fountain. Raised  planters separated  the edge  of  the edge of deck from the pool to prevent watery accidents and add colour, and diagonal sections of decking cutting off the corners of the pool made the remaining exposed water an attractive shape. Rough concrete around the deck/pool was covered with gravel, and that was bounded in turn with a row of paving slabs. It was great fun working out the design, and just as enjoyable executing it. Like the previous project though, I had to work a bit carefully sometimes!

Turnover and profit for 2006/7 dropped again a bit, to £15,500 and under £13,000, and by now I’d stopped expecting to make a fortune. But I didn’t mind: what I did earn was enough for the present, and the earnings per year would be enough to see me through to retirement. The mixture of landscaping, small building work and odd jobbing continued, There were fewer really interesting creative jobs coming my way now, but that was all right. There was still plenty of scope for creativity at home.

It was like the old graphic design days again; weekdays spent earning a crust and weekends, eagerly anticipated, doing my own thing. I’d come to the conclusion that, in spite of my first alterations, the house still didn’t work very well. The sitting room still felt pokey, and with most of the kitchen elements moved out of the back room it seemed unnecessarily large. There must surely be a way of rearranging the space to allocate more to the lounge area. I drew more of my famous plans. If I made a much wider opening through from front to rear, where I’d repositioned the door, half of the back room could be added to the front. That would then make the dining area too small, so I planned a new dining room extension on the end of the house, a lean-to structure similar to the new bedroom at Ashfield Row. The remainder of the back room would remain ‘kitchen’, linking the rear kitchen I’d created with the new dining room.

So that was what I did. Building the extension itself was straightforward, but I’d decided that the best solution was to create an opening nearly as wide as the back room through to the extension,  which   would   not   be   overly  large. This  was  partly due to the logistics of removing large amounts of soil from the (higher) side garden. By limiting the size of the excavation, the removed soil could be redistributed across the garden rather than have to be taken away. Also, the width of the extension was restricted by the nice tall stairs window, and it could only be moderately deep because it was a lean-to. The roof limited the projection. And I hadn’t wanted a horrible flat roof.

Making a large opening through the very thick, immensely heavy stone built original gable end wall was quite a challenge though. The massive weight had to be temporarily supported safely until steel beams, eight inches deep and five of them side by side to span the twenty-inch thickness had been inserted to carry it. It meant using eight ‘acrow’ props in four pairs, with other temporary beams connecting them. When they were all in position it looked a veritable forest of steel poles. This was the one building job I called in assistance for. Such a potentially hazardous undertaking needed to be handled by someone who really knew what he was doing; besides which I couldn’t possibly have physically done the job single-handedly anyway.

I enlisted the help of a builder, a wiry little man not unlike Len from the post-farm period, and his big strapping son. Ironically, it was the builder himself who nearly came to grief. I smile sometimes to see people filmed for TV wearing hard hats for health and safety reasons (and probably for avoidance-of-litigation-reasons too) when there seems to be no conceivable hazard for miles around. On the (rather worrying) Big Day of the opening-making I was there ready, wearing my hard chain-sawing hat. But neither the builder nor his son was wearing one. I remarked on the fact. He smiled at me indulgently. ‘Haven’t even got one’, he said.

The job went smoothly, and soon the beams were in place. It had all looked quite precarious when he’d taken out a slot of stone work and nothing was supporting the massive weight above but the poles. I breathed a sigh of relief, and he began demolishing the wall below as I continued carrying the stones outside, out of the way. On one of my return trips I found him leaning, dazed, against the wall streaming blood from a gash on his head. A loose stone had fallen from above. Alarmed, I sat him down and bathed the wound with clean water. Thankfully, it seemed quite slight and the bleeding soon stopped. He carried on, in  spite of a headache, and although I didn’t expect it, turned up the next day to finish the job. He said he’d had to go to Casualty for stitches. He was a very lucky man indeed, albeit a very silly one.

I’d incorporated a small lean-to into the extension, as a boiler compartment, and now I could do away with the old Rayburn in favour of a modern oil-fired boiler. It had been a pain, coming home tired to a cold house, then taking Ellie for her main walkies, then messing about first lighting the Rayburn and then the parlour fire, and only then cooking my meal, after which it was past normal peoples’ bedtimes and the house was just about getting warm. Having an automatic heating system made life a bit easier, at least. The fireplace opening vacated by the Rayburn made a pleasant alcove for an item of furniture.

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After the anxiety over the opening, finishing the extension was easy. And the sitting room opening was a dream by comparison, as was the partitioning off of the extra space for the front room. Having radically altered the layout of the ground floor, I did the opposite to the parlour. Now that there was more space, Gill’s removal of the staircase wall could be reversed, so that at least in that respect the house would be returned to the original. I took down the wrongly styled square banisters (they would be reused more appropriately elsewhere) and rebuilt a wall, restoring the door using the one now redundant because of the opening. It seemed a shame though to lose the ‘flood of light’ into the room, so half way up the stairs I installed an internal window that would still let it in. So now the room was cosier but still, as my selling agent would later remark, had a ‘light airy feel’.

I wasn’t finished yet. Having done a sort of loft conversion at Ashfield Row, I wanted to do one here too. The house had only two bedrooms and I wanted to maximise the sell-on value as much as possible. I didn’t know how much cash I’d need for the next, hopefully final place. It was simple enough to create a landing running through the front bedroom to a second staircase above the existing one. Doing this reduced that bedroom to a single one, but there was still a double one at the back and the house became a one double, two single bedroomed one. Well, virtually. It wasn’t possible to convert the roof space into a fully viable bedroom, some would say, because of insufficient headroom. I got over this by dividing the floor space equally into two. The half at the gable end, where the new staircase rose, was lowered by six inches, stealing ceiling height from the landing, bathroom and parts of the bedrooms below.

The other half (reduced in height a bit more when deeper floor joists were added) became a bed platform (it could take something like a futon); after all you didn’t necessarily need a lot of headroom in an area where you spent all your time lying down. That was my theory, anyway. I then added a lot of insulation to the roof slopes and the short walls meeting the lower points of the slopes. It became very cosy. I supplied light by installing a window with a triangular top in the gable end, tucked under the roof. When it came to selling we called the room an attic, a storage room, and left buyers to define it as they wished. In the event, I sold to another single person who didn’t need three bedrooms anyway.

Apart from the new one for the attic, most of the windows were the nice original wooden sash ones. It would have been criminal to take them out. But they were quite large and only, of course, single glazed. So as I’d done before, I made insulated shutters for them all. It was difficult to measure how effective these were: they were not done until my last winter at Haulfryn and I would have needed to monitor the house over several seasons to make a meaningful comparison with the years before. But I felt I was doing the right thing. Finally there was the tremendous pleasure of decorating throughout and seeing all the work come together. The end result was good; I was pleased with it.

I still wasn’t quite finished though. There was the garden to do. I’d spent the last few years designing and landscaping gardens, so I’d really have to do it here. Because it was for me, and was pressure-free, creating the garden was a joy. Since the earthworks, the level of the garden relative to the house had risen further, so there was much building of retaining walls to do, some of it in manufactured decorative blocks and some in natural stone. I levelled and sowed seed for a lawn (there had been grass when I’d arrived there but it had disappeared in the upheaval) and created beds and borders. I built steps, laid gravel and made a stone circle around the base of the apple tree. Justifiably, I thought, I would describe the garden as ‘professionally landscaped’. It looked quite good when I’d finished; it was just a pity I’d never see it nicely planted up.

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About wordsfromjohn

Once a printer, graphic designer, house renovator and landscape gardener, I'm now retired and a writer of books with a passion.
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