This time I’m hosting a blog by Richard Hennerley. It’s an entertaining antidote to all the earnest, helpful, encouraging and often quite unrealistic advice to would-be writers to be had out there in Cyberland. As Richard says, it’s written very much in a sardonic and cynical way, although it does contain more than a germ of Truth. Anyway, it really made me laugh. I hope it does you, too!
Drawing on the benefit of that experience, I’d like to present to you my own (not entirely) tongue-in-cheek list of tips that WILL get you signed up. And that’s a 100% money back promise!
The most important to thing to remember, if you want to get signed, is that literary agents are almost stereotypically white, middle-class, conservative and highly risk-averse ladies and gentlemen who lunch and they probably went to a better school than you did. It’s these particular characteristics of agents that have informed the construction of my list….
Here we go, top tips to get you a literary agent:
1. Have a BA (Hons) in Eng Lit from Oxford or Cambridge. This means that an agent can be sure that, even if you churn out plot-free, turgid nonsense at least it will be turgid nonsense with good grammar and spelling: and even if the grammar and spelling isn’t actually that good that’s because you’re being “clever” and “ground-breaking” in your “manipulation and reinvention of the English language.” In a literary agent’s eyes an Oxbridge BA Eng Lit (Hons) is the equivalent of Beatification and Papal Infallibility all rolled into one.
2. Be a celeb. Pretty obvious one this, really. You’re a celeb, people know you, you have a ready-made fan base who will buy anything with your name on it. To an agent, publishing a “book” by a celeb is a no-brainer (literally…). And if you have absolutely nothing to say and your writing skills don’t extend beyond “the cat sat on the mat,” don’t worry, it’s just your name we need, darling, and, anyway, that’s what editors and ghostwriters are for.
3. Be a journalist. Once again, pretty obvious. I mean, if you’re a journalist you’ll definitely be able to write a good book, right? After all, as a journalist, you will have had years and years of utilising your famed journalistic abilities of critical thinking and “having a great nose for a story” by reproducing other peoples’ press releases word for word and surely all that copying must have taught you something about writing? Surely? Its also useful to note here that you will get double points for being a journalist if you work for the BBC (that being the most middle class of media outlets…) or a nice magazine like The Lady or The Spectator.
4. Be “P.L.U.” This is a slightly more complex concept. Let me explain. “P.L.U.” means “People Like Us.” This is the question a literary agent would have, invariably, asked him/herself before casting your unread manuscript into the never to be read slush pile. Agents like to deal in known quantities, they don’t like straying out of their comfort zone and they’re not happy dealing with people who, well, who just aren’t like them. So, how do you make yourself P.L.U.? Here’s a checklist:
- Be (at least) middle-class.
- Live in London or the nicer parts of the Home Counties (not Luton).
- Express an interest in wholesome and class appropriate activities such as horse riding
- Ensure that your targeted agent is a friend, a friend of the family, or the friend of a friend.
- Do not be working class.
- Do not live in The North.
- Be white (which is blindingly bloody obvious, really).
5. Do not write about (I can barely bring myself to type the word..) homosexuals. Writing that features homosexuals scares the life out of agents. If they should accidentally pick up your manuscript because they’ve confused it with a copy of The Lady magazine or Sporting Life they will, upon spying the gay bit, throw your work into the air and run screaming from the room. However, there are exceptions. You can get away with gayness if you’re an already established and famous gay media figure (preferably a bit silly and very camp, like proper gay people are supposed to be…) or your portrayal of gays might be acceptable if it features them:
- Being extremely unhappy and tortured individuals.
- Only able to find a modicum of happiness when they settle into a relationship and adopt/surrogate/steal a child (it being a well known fact that all gays are actually really desperate to have children to bring meaning to their otherwise empty lives).
- Getting beaten to death by rough trade pick ups/rentboys.
- Receiving their just desserts and dying horribly of AIDS (this is a particularly effective tactic for sneaking gayness into your work).
6. Be “gender-appropriate” in your writing and, for God’s sake, don’t write anything that mixes genres.This means that, if you’re male, you should only write books that involve guns, fighting, detectives and monsters. If you’re female you need to stick to romance, children and female detectives. Remember, blokes write certain types of books, and women write other types, do not confuse your potential agent by trying to blur any boundaries here…oh, and if you are a bloke trying to write a book for kids, you had better soooo forget that idea…and whatever your sex, do not challenge a literary agent’s (usually somewhat limited) intellectual capabilities by writing a book that mixes genres; that is entirely too complicated and just is not the done thing (unless you satisfy Point 1. above, in which case any old piece of meandering crap is wonderful, darling).
That’s it! Simples! Adopt my 6 tips and I guarantee that an agent will sign you up in six months…..probably.
(Back to me). Brilliant! As a matter of further interest, Richard has written a bitingly funny and wicked satire on Celebrity, as per below. I thoroughly recommend it, provided you don’t mind a little swearing and graphic integrity in depiction (but only done in the Best Possible Taste, darling).
You can buy it as either a proper or digital book at Amazon
And now, having nothing whatever to do with the above, here is the penultimate episode of my autobiography, Wishing for the Better.
Wishing for the Better/17
Like so many times before, I’m improvising a bit at the start of a project. By my standards though it’s a trivial inconvenience this time. It just means sleeping on my three-seater sofa, the one I’ll always think of as Jenny’s and will never part with. I wish she were here to see my last place. She would have been fascinated by it, as she was by all the previous ones that she was able to see.
The first night here’s a dream compared with most of the others, particularly Barratt’s Hill. Or, even more ridiculously, the barn. I can’t believe I did such crazy things. This little house is perfectly livable-in; I can do the things I want to do to it at my leisure. And now there isn’t the need to go out to work to earn pennies to pay for it. I’m not materially affluent – my small supplementary private pension slightly more than doubles the state one, that’s all – but I’m time-rich indeed. I’d far rather have that. It’s a wonderful prospect ahead.
After Tony and I had re-moved all my large stuff into the house, and I had taken him back to Llandysul and his car, and I had cleaned Haulfryn ready for its new owner, and finally said goodbye to Shirley and come back for the first time to my new home, the day was almost finished. And after I’d made my first trip to the nearest shop in Llanybydder, three miles away, for provisions and then made my meal, it was even later. I couldn’t face taking the parts of my bed up the steep wooden hill and erecting them, so I’ve spread a sheet and duvet on the sofa to settle to sleep, surrounded again by the clutter of my worldly goods. Ellie occupies the other sofa, still looking a bit fed up. It’s a hard life for dogs, having to put up with all this upheaval.
Here I am then: in my final resting place. Some might say that it’s inferior to some of my other stops along the way. Certainly, in terms of architecture and original features, the farmhouse was a wonderful place. So was the barn, with the added bonus of a superb location. Going much further back in time, so was Kingsnordley for that matter. Knowing what I do now about sympathetically extending buildings, it could have become a lovely house too – and it too was detached. It’s almost tempting to think that I should have been content to stay in any of them. And with the last mentioned, I might have remained married had I done so.
But the other side of the equation is that it wasn’t until I’d done up a few places that I discovered what I really wanted to do with my life; and when I did, staying put wasn’t an option. If I’d never succumbed to that last major B(C?)M during the latter years of my second spell with Cyril, I would never have experienced the joy and intense satisfaction (in spite of all the bad bits) of the last five Projects. I had to do what I did, as inexorably as night follows day. Tanffynnon is smaller than any previous house. It’s only one and a half-bedroomed, and only has a small dining area, but it’s plenty big enough for Ellie and me, thanks very much. ‘Small is Beautiful’, as Schumacher said. In his book he cited Mahatma Ghandi’s philosophy of ‘enoughness’. I go along with that too.
Now, at last, I’ve got to journey’s end. Hopefully, the only way I’ll leave here is either en- route to a care home (but if so, I hope I’ll be so unaware of what’s going on it won’t matter) or head or feet first, deceased. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s go to bed, perchance to dream about this last wonderful Project.
The next morning there was some serious sorting out to do. Being such a small house, it was chock-a-block full: I could hardly turn round. Ellie was looking at me very pointedly. ‘What have you brought me into?’ she was silently accusing. The first difficulty was getting things up the absurdly steep staircase. It was not at all easy going up, simultaneously holding on and clutching things. Improving it would have to be my first priority. Fortunately my double bed broke down into component parts. It was an old one, with nice oak head and foot boards connected by slot-in irons. Years ago I made a wooden slatted base for it to replace the saggy bedspring, to use with a modern sprung mattress. Later, having trouble getting my big heavy construction up an awkward staircase I’d cut it in two. That expedient proved vital here too. The individual pieces went up quite easily, as did the mattress, which was bendy enough to go round corners.
The single bed was another matter. I’d had an old fashioned single bed too, but had left it behind for my successor at Haulfryn, keeping a modern divan-type single one. I should have done the opposite. This one absolutely refused to go up. The top section went, just, but the deeper base wouldn’t negotiate the turn at the bottom of the steep stairs, no matter how I twisted and turned it. I tried taking the stairs door off to gain a little extra space, but still it wouldn’t go. There was nothing for it but to remove the top of the doorframe as well, and when that still didn’t work, brutally knock out a plasterboard section above it too. Then the handrail came off to gain width, and finally, with much heaving and a process of sliding, fearing that at any moment I’d lose control and it would come crashing down, I got the base up.
I’d been in the house less than twenty-four hours and already I was knocking it about. It was just as well that I knew I’d be changing things anyway, and I wasn’t vandalising original fabric so it didn’t matter. (Now I’ve reorganised the stairs and it will be equally impossible to get the divan down again. Someone clearing the house after I’ve left will have the same problem. They’ll wonder how on earth I got the bed up, and just have to break it to get it down again. I won’t be popular.)
With the beds upstairs and everything else, except the two sofas and television, crammed into the small downstairs room, the living room looked reasonably spacious. Things were a little more civilised, albeit that going to bed would be a bit like doing the north face of the Eiger until I got the stairs sorted out. They really were ridiculous, steeper even than the windy staircase at Hilton. That one did at least have the compensation of authentic charm. I could see why the one here was the way that it was. It ran up across the width of the house, starting at the rear where it initially turned a right angle into the living room with the stairs door (which was why it had been so difficult to get the bed up), to finish by the two bedroom doors. Because of the roof slope, these had to stand some way back from the front of the house, so there was insufficient travel from the rear to the front to get the staircase in at a reasonable angle.
I felt sure there must be a better way of arranging it. For one thing, the staircase need not rise fully to the upper floor. There could be a square half-landing by the bedroom doors, one step down. I remembered it being like that at Bridgnorth Road. And if the stairs door was dispensed with and maximum headroom created at the foot of the stairs, they could begin two steps into the room. Together, these alterations would enable the rake of the main flight of the staircase to be reduced to a sensible angle.
The next day I began demolishing the plasterboard wall around the staircase. As the side of it became exposed I discovered something that would make the alteration easier. It was actually an open tread one, with bits of plywood tacked on to make riser pieces – and the treads, obligingly, were coach-screwed to the strings (the main side pieces). It should be easy to dismantle the entire thing and rebuild it as I wanted. Interestingly, it appeared to have already been altered, from a lower rake to its present absurd steepness. I wondered what had happened there. The ceiling of the room seemed to have been raised a few inches, presumably when the house was ‘modernised’ in the 90s, so if the upper floor had been lower, the stairs could have been less steep. That was my theory, anyway.
It was a simple matter to unscrew the treads from the strings, which were also screwed in place and easy to remove. Soon there was an empty stairwell. Now I’d have to rely on a ladder, like at Penrorin, to go to bed for a few nights. It’s a good thing I’m not prone to sleep walking, otherwise there might have been a nasty accident. Then there was some careful reconstruction work to do. First I had to refashion the bottom of the stairs, with two steps within the room, then two more ‘winding’, to turn the corner. I made the top half-landing, hanging it eight inches down from the top floor level. I’d now ‘saved’ three steps on the main flight, so it could be reinstated at a much shallower angle. It was straightforward to re-fix the strings in their new positions, re-cutting the grooves that housed the treads at the new angle. Then a simple matter to replace the treads and riser pieces. Now I could go to bed without almost having to be roped up for the climb. It was so much better; I couldn’t understand for the life of me why it had been done so stupidly before.
The next job was pure self-indulgence, one of my favourite pastimes. I did the rounds of the local garden centres, shopping for trees and shrubs. Whenever I go to one I want to buy everything. It’s the one area of retail therapy where I get dazzled, seduced and overspend. It was obviously a good thing to get large garden planting done as soon as possible, so it was the next priority. Having first checked with the neighbours up the hill behind me that they were happy with the idea, I planted several trees along my boundary: a beautiful yellow robinia, a flowering cherry, a white-berried rowan and even a copper beech. I also let an ash tree that was part of my mixed hedge-boundary grow unfettered, and there was an existing mature holly already making a splendid backdrop. When the trees had a few years they’d be gorgeous. It was nice to have sufficient space to plant large subjects. In ten year’s time the garden would be wonderful.
I’d been eying the chimneybreast in the cottage ever since I came. It really was awful. It wasn’t even good faked stone, so obviously was it cement render with stone shapes inscribed in it. If I’d been a betting man, I’d have laid odds that there was real stone beneath the horror. But it’s a good job I’m not, because I would have lost. Experimentally, I chipped a small piece away – to reveal not stone but clean red brick. Removing more (and it came away very easily) I could see that it wasn’t modern brick, as it might have been because there was a modern chimney stack, but the old, pre-metric 9 inch by 4½ inch imperial size. Wonderful! It could be Victorian. Whether it was original was impossible to say. It would be nice to think that it might be a nineteenth century replacement for an earlier open hearth, but even if it wasn’t at least it was old fabric, of which there was no other to be seen. And to think that someone had thought it clever to cover it so dreadfully. Philistines!
Excited now, I pulled the rest of the render off, still fearing that the brick might be badly damaged. But it wasn’t, apart from a couple of places around the front where it looked as if something, probably a range, had been removed. Metal mesh had been tacked on to give a key for the render, but thankfully it had been nailed into the mortar joints and the entire ghastly covering came off easily, leaving perfectly clean, sound brickwork. It was as exciting a discovery as the bread oven at Henblas had been. At least there wasn’t a 1950s tiled fireplace installed. It had been faked up as a supposedly open fireplace with (Heaven help us) a pretend-coal electric fire. When all the render was off I was left with a nice empty opening, blackened a little inside, no doubt from many years of open fires in the range.
The rear of the opening was the stone gable end smooth-rendered over, and I kept that, painting it with emulsion carefully colour-matched to the colour of the bricks. A modern clay flue had been installed (although never connected to any sort of fire or appliance) so it would be easy to do my usual thing and install an efficient wood stove. It would have a certain appropriateness, as a modern equivalent of an old dirty fuel-burning range.
Autumn was upon me, and I had to consider how I’d heat the cottage. It already had central heating, supplied by an oil fired Stanley cooker. It was all right, but it was a big appliance, as large as a Rayburn, and really more than I needed to cook for just me. And it wasn’t highly efficient, and it didn’t burn ‘green’ fuel. I wanted something more ethical. I’d heard about wood stoves that burnt not natural wood but pellets made from sawdust that would otherwise go to waste. They were very automated and super-efficient, and popular in North America (where they’d originated) and mainland Europe. They ran for many hours at a time from one filling of the built in fuel hopper, in fact you could even get a bulk storage system (if you had the space for it) that automatically fed the stove for months at a time. And because it was regarded as a renewable fuel, you could get grant assistance (at least, you could from the last Labour government) with installation.
So, all in all a pellet stove sounded a very good idea. It ticked all my boxes. I read up on them avidly on the Internet. It was all very interesting, but then I hit the first snag. Because this was a relatively obscure technology in reactionary Britain (the British prefer the ‘romance’ of inefficient open wood fires, or worse, coal ones) there were very few registered specialist suppliers and installers around. There was just one in all of Wales, although as it happened it was not too far from here. The only other one was over the border in Gloucestershire, a long way away. The second snag was cost. I suppose it was the economy-of-scale thing, but they were very expensive – anything up to £7,000 or more installed, even with the grant. And when I enquired of the Energy Saving Trust about grants, I learnt that they were conditional on the house being highly insulated – a good thing anyway, but if your house wasn’t already, it meant having to spend even more in order to save a modest amount to do the ethical thing. It was hardly encouraging.
I thought about it long and hard, and reluctantly concluded that I just couldn’t afford it. The only other thing was a compromise. You could get space heating stoves without boilers, which were much cheaper to buy and install. Perhaps I should go for one of those, combined with a modern high efficiency condensing oil-fired boiler for the water and supplementary central heating, to replace the Stanley.
That seemed to be the best bet, unfortunately. But now there was another problem. When I approached the one and only Welsh supplier of pellet stoves they seemed quite uninterested in my enquiry. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t. That left the Gloucestershire firm as the only other official supplier, but they would have been dearer still, wanting a hefty ‘design and consultation’ fee, paid up front, before they got as far as actually supplying the appliance. The pellet stove idea was becoming less attractive by the minute, but like a dog with a bone I wouldn’t let it go. Another of the snags about a government grant was that it was conditional on using a ‘registered’ supplier, not just any old Tom Dick or Harry. Not even if they might be perfectly competent and still registered with the normal solid fuel regulatory body. And never mind the fact that there were hardly any of these specialist places anyway. It was ridiculous. To hell with it, I thought, I’d get one wherever I could and forget the not very generous grant for a space heating-only stove.
As it happened there was a reputable cooker and stove shop in Llandysul, the town I’d only recently left, who said they were able to supply pellet stoves. They gave me enticing leaflets and a fair-sounding supply and installation quote, and I chose one. Then they offered me another option: a stove they actually had in the showroom that they’d been running for demonstration. It was several hundred pounds cheaper than my first choice because of that, and was actually a much nicer looking appliance. Danish and with typical Scandinavian minimalist styling, it was very elegant. It was unlike any other pellet stove. All the others were elaborate devices, with electronic controls and automatic systems that fed the stove from its hopper. This one was much simpler though, with gravity feed and no electrics at all. With nothing to potentially go wrong, it sounded pretty good to me, so I went for it.
It was quite a struggle for them to install. Standing very tall, it only just went into the fireplace opening. It was slightly awkward ladling the pellets into the hopper through a door near the top on one side (if it had been top-filling I simply couldn’t have had it) but it was a lovely thing. After filling it would run for anything up to ten hours, depending how hot you wanted it, producing tremendous heat even at low settings. If anything, it almost got too hot in the rather confined space within the fireplace opening, so I devised a duct system (a typical Needham brainwave that worked only moderately well) with an extractor fan to transfer heat through into the kitchen and bathroom. The rest of the house got beautifully warm just by natural convection.
It had a nice flame picture behind its large glass window too, a surprisingly impressive display from just a few pellets burning at any one time. Apparently, it was better in that respect than the other more mechanised ones. The only drawback was that the flames died down for the last two or three hours of the burning cycle, and you had to wait then with nothing to look at until it was ready to be refilled. It was a very simple device, and therein lay its problem, as I would soon find out. It was essentially a large box with a vertical partition of thin sheet metal between the front, which was the burning chamber, and the hopper at the back. The front chamber was lined with slabs of insulation, like any wood stove. The pellets simply trickled through a narrow slit at the bottom of the hopper to burn and send their flames up the front.
I got the stove in October, but by the end of that year I noticed cracks beginning to form in the lining that stood in front of the partition. By January it had worsened: the liner was now broken right through. I looked at it carefully, and saw why. The metal partition was distorting at its bottom, above the slit. It was bulging forward and cracking, then breaking, the liner. I could understand why it would. I’d noticed that at the tail end of the burning cycle the remaining fuel would burn hotly inside the hopper, at its base. It was hardly surprising that the metal, un-insulated in that area, was distorting.
I reported it to the stove shop owner. He didn’t know what to suggest, as he hadn’t sold that sort of stove before. We agreed that I would monitor it, and if it got worse still he’d repair it for me. I ran the stove for the rest of that winter and the spring, and by now the stove, although it still produced lots of heat, was looking a mess. It clearly shouldn’t be like this. I contacted the shop again and they promised to fix it. So began many frustrating weeks of waiting for spare parts that never materialised, although I was unconvinced that repair would solve the problem anyway. The stove was a recent introduction, and it looked to me like a basic design fault. Eventually after many weeks they removed the stove to return it to the importer for repair. Apparently, the manufacturer had modified that part of the stove and new improved spares were on the way.
But still nothing happened. After another month of inaction I finally lost patience – it would soon now be the start of the next heating season, and I’d begun to fear that the stove would never be fixed. I demanded a replacement, but an ordinary stove, not another pellet one. The shop owner didn’t argue (as he couldn’t, of course) and offered me one of comparable value. It was made by the same manufacturer, but this time it used a tried and tested technology. They’d been making this particular model for years. So that’s what I’ve got now. It’s a pity my good intentions came to nothing, but it looks as elegant – and yet appropriately functional – sitting in my nice old fireplace opening as the other one did. In fact this one’s more aesthetic; it’s smaller and more in scale. And it can’t go wrong. It isn’t quite as ‘green’ as the pellet stove but it’s still very efficient. When it came in October 2009 I bought a load of very dry hardwood logs and it lasted for the season, keeping me beautifully warm throughout that very cold winter.
Meanwhile, I’d been looking at the other nasties in the house, particularly the wall surfaces. The outer walls didn’t even try to look like stone, and were just as bad as the chimneybreast. With their swirly, pointless trowelled finish, they looked more like iced cakes than walls. There was a simple way of rescuing them. Perhaps a purist would have taken the whole sorry mess off and re-plastered them with traditional lime plaster, but I decided to achieve virtually the same visual effect and incorporate some insulation while I was at it. As I’d done before, I battened the walls, inserted high performance insulation board between them and finished with plasterboard. This was skimmed with plaster in the usual way, but the plaster finished with a brush after levelling to give just a slight, subtle texture. Rather than use modern angle bead to form hard corners around door and window openings, I used wooden bead, in the old fashioned way, to create softer corners. The overall effect was much better, much more authentic-looking, than the previous Brewers’ Gothick.
The spring of 09 was the time for insulating in general. I used the same technique to improve the bedroom walls. In their case that meant most of the ceilings too, as the greater part of the walls were ceiling slope. I’d found more frustration talking to the Energy Saving Trust on this subject too. They’d written a circular letter to me advising that there were insulation grants available, asking about my house and inviting me to apply. Again though, I found myself thwarted. If I’d had a nice conventional house with cavity walls that could be filled and a flat loft that could be blanketed with mineral wool it would have been fine. But my house, like its owner, is eccentric. I have great difficulty in defining it for insurance purposes. The only part of it that’s ‘normal’ is the extension, with its modern walls and flat kitchen ceiling. The greater part has solid walls and, with the bedrooms being in the roof, no empty loft space.
I’d replied to the circular and had a follow-up conversation with a bureaucrat in Cardiff, explaining that I was insulating my house comprehensively, albeit slightly unorthodoxly. He’d listened sympathetically and then told me that he couldn’t help me at all. Grant assistance was only available for ‘approved’ (where had I heard this before) work like double-glazing (which is less effective than the insulating shutters I make), cavity wall filling and lofts. But not internal solid wall insulation. Or insulation of sloping ceilings in loft bedrooms. And certainly not, horror of unconventional horrors, insulating shutters. So, although I was a pensioner on a modest income, if I wanted to do these things out of my concern for climate change I’d just have to pay for them myself. Had I not been practical enough to do the installation work myself, the measures I’d taken on my own initiative would have cost hundreds of pounds. It was outrageous.
To add insult to injury, he told me that there wouldn’t even be help available to do the 40% of my house that was ‘normal’ because, being quite a small area, it fell below the minimum at which they considered it worthwhile to give help. Infuriating! Actually it was also disgraceful that, as an advisor, he was giving me incorrect information there. Sometime after this conversation I was cold-called by a firm arranging insulation on behalf of utility companies. I told the person that I’d been given to understand (by a government organisation) that I didn’t qualify, being neither very old nor on benefit. She thought I probably did, and sent a surveyor who said there was no problem. So I got my kitchen and bathroom walls insulated, at subsidised cost, after all. I could have had the loft above them done too, but I reckoned it would cost me even less to do it myself than by a contractor minus the grant, so I declined the energy company’s generous vested-interest offer.
The next job on the list was changing the kitchen windows. It had two, at front and side. The side one was full sized. Although dating back only as far as 1995, it was already rotten in places and had to go. The front one was smaller, more in keeping with the windows in the old part. But not entirely. Although narrow like them, it was taller, presumably to meet building regulations. I didn’t like it. I didn’t see why it shouldn’t be really tiny, like the others. After all, if regulations were an issue there was still a large, legal one in the side, that didn’t matter so much to look at. It was the façade that I wanted to look right. So I replaced them both, making the front window the same size as the others. The front now looked much more unified. Never one to waste anything, I would recycle some parts of the discarded windows later.
Now things were beginning to get really interesting. I knew that the house was an ancient type: a ‘croglofft’ cottage. Croglofft is a Welsh word translating to English (in the house context anyway) as ‘garret’. In other words, and more specifically, it means a single storey house with a garret (or sometimes garrets), or loft bedroom(s). Eager to learn more, I bought a book on Welsh houses that talked a lot about crogloffts. It had a dust jacket picture that just blew me away. It showed a gorgeous little cottage in Pembrokeshire, with a roof that was part thatched, as mine had been, and part slated. What really drew me though was the front wall, which was of whitewashed stone. It was a wonderful little place. Once, mine must have looked very like that . . .
It hadn’t occurred to me until now to do anything other than leave the roughcast render (which I’ve always hated) on, partly because it had to be on the extension to cover the concrete block construction. The old and new parts of the cottage did at least hang together in visual unity, especially now I’d altered the kitchen window. On the other hand, whilst the house had lost its thatch, it did seem an awful pity that one of the oldest houses in the village was hidden behind an ugly later cladding. It would be so much nicer if it actually looked its age. And anyway, regarding unity of appearance, the current thinking amongst heritage organisations is that later additions should be honest and reflect their own age. To that I would add: ‘whilst still being harmonious’.
It would be a major undertaking, but I decided to go for it. First though I checked what was underneath the render at eaves-level. The walls might have been raised at some point, possibly with brick or, worse still, given a course of concrete block when the new slate roof was put on. Certainly, there was quite a lot more wall above the windows and door. But no: thankfully, an exploratory hole showed stone all the way to the top.
Interestingly, I’d assumed that the render was put on as part of the modernisation, making the old and new parts consistent, but I learned that wasn’t the case. My neighbour across the lane from me had a photograph taken in 1983, showing Tanffynnon in the background. It was already rendered then. So it was the other way round: the 1995 kitchen with its masonry surrounds to its windows had been finished to match the appearance of the old part. The photo also showed a previous small lean-to kitchen, with an outside door. I was told that there’d been no internal access to it; the householder had to come out of his front door and go in through the kitchen door every time he wanted to boil a kettle. Not ideal on a cold rainy winter’s night! With his permission I copied my neighbour’s picture and now it’s on my computer, part of the photographic history of Tanffynnon.
Feeling slightly (but only slightly) guilty that I was wrecking someone’s careful work, I set to with my lump hammer, cold chisel and crowbar, and gradually the render came off. A builder would have taken a mechanical breaker to it and had it off in no time, but I wanted to be careful and not risk damaging the stone. So I chose the much slower, more laborious route. The stone was slowly revealed, and it showed very careful work, built in tidy courses. I‘d been prepared for it to possibly be quite rough-and-ready. There was an interesting revelation where the wall met the gable end of the two-storey house next door. I’d made another wrong assumption; that mine was the older house and next door was added later. But not so. Rather than bonded into it, the stones of my wall simply butted against it. It strongly suggested that next-door came first. Looking at it, you’d never think so. It has the usual ubiquitous render and plastic windows and door. Because it’s rendered you can’t tell whether the window openings are even their original size. There’s no sense of the house’s age or original appearance at all. That’s why I hate modernisation so much.
If the other house had been added after mine, it could have been done in one of two ways. First, it might simply have been butted against the end of my already existing one. In that case, there’d also be no bonding of walls. But my house would have its own gable end, and if you subtracted the considerable thickness of one, the width of my smaller room at that end would be significantly less internally compared with outside. I carefully measured the two, and they were exactly the same. The only other slight possibility was that next door might have been built around mine absorbing, as it were, my gable end into its. But that seemed a vanishingly remote possibility, and looking at the rear of our two houses it did indeed look as if mine was abutting it. It might also explain why my house was such a funny shape. Rather than a regular rectangle, its plan is a parallelogram with the four original corners nowhere near right angles. It’s as if it was squeezed in later to fit a very awkwardly shaped site. If it had existed first it could have been built as a true rectangle. Anyway, it means that the party wall of my house is essentially, structurally, the gable end of next door. That perhaps poses an interesting legal situation. I really must avoid any disputes . . .
But I digress. It was possible to see that the stone wall had been lime-washed. Although it had mostly been cleaned off to accept the ghastly render, there were still traces. Sometimes I could detect successive layers: white, topped with cream with in turn was topped with pink. My house seemed to have been pink in its last incarnation. This was absolutely fascinating: real architectural archaeology, like at Henblas. I would have some important decisions to make soon. Five days later all the render was off. I had revealed oak lintels over the windows and door, although, having been imprisoned behind render for so many years, they were quite moth-eaten. There was no evidence of alteration around them, so I could assume that I was looking at original-sized openings. Apart from the lack of thatching of course, there was a wonderful sense of how the cottage would have looked, perhaps as much as two hundred years ago. I was thrilled to bits.
Now I came to re-pointing the walls, although they were in such good condition, they didn’t need a great deal. As I’d done at Penrorin – although this time I didn’t adulterate with cement – I used a lime mortar. Inspired by the picture on the cover of my book, I decided to paint the walls white, and again be authentic and use lime-wash. It was the first time I’d used this, and it took a little getting used to. The technique was to apply several coats to build up a thick layer. The first coat was worryingly transparent and the second a little less so, but as each coat went on the opacity increased until the final result was a layer of brilliant, shimmering whiteness with every stone beautifully defined.
It was extraordinary to think that this was an entirely natural material: simply crushed limestone suspended in water that chemically changed when it reacted with atmospheric carbon dioxide and attached itself tenaciously to the stone walls. For the still rendered kitchen I used ordinary white masonry paint, as I was dealing with modern materials. If anything, the lime (which came from the White Peak district of Derbyshire) beside it was actually whiter. It was quite dazzling when you looked at it bathed in direct sunlight. I reflected humorously that I might have to issue passers-by with sunglasses.
Rather than paint the windows white, which would have been rather uninspiring as white-against-white, I used a traditional darkish-green colour. It looked more appropriately ‘humble’ and cottagey than white. When I’d changed the kitchen windows I’d removed the front door, which wasn’t nice and the wrong style. It was a flush-panelled affair with a four-paned window bodged in. I’d made a simple wide-planked door with a single small pane of glass. Actually it wasn’t a door at all, but a fixture within the existing frame with a thick slice of insulation on the inside and an inner leaf also of boards. I reckoned I didn’t need it to be a working door (and besides, it was very low, even for me) when I’d got two others: the kitchen door, which already had a letterbox, and French doors to the rear. But with an old Suffolk latch added just for show it looked the authentic part. (I must put up a sign saying that it isn’t one though. I’m always having to rush out through the kitchen door and around to the front when people innocently knock on it, before they give up and walk away.) This too was painted green.
I completed the transformation by painting the black fascia boards, bargeboards, guttering and down pipes white. The end result was (although I say it myself) wonderful. It looked infinitely better. I was really pleased. It would have been even better if it were still thatched of course. Once more I was tempted to think about what might have been if I could have got to it first in 1994. Then it might now be thatched. But then that presumed a lot. At that time I was well into another nice project: Penrorin. The timing was wrong. If it had been two years earlier I might have come to Tanffynnon instead, fairly affluent from selling Barratt’s Hill and able to afford, perhaps, to have it re-thatched. But I would also have had to discover a viable means of earning a living so that I could have stayed. I couldn’t imagine regarding it as just another project and being willing to leave it after that. But there again, then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of doing the barn, or Henblas, or indeed the ultimate thrill of finding it now. There were a lot of What Ifs. It was futile conjecture, really.
But at least I had got it now.