personal

Life is what happens when you’re making other plans

Spilt

Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, sang John Lennon, and that’s been amply proven this week. We finally had our offer on a house accepted on Saturday, only for Geoff to lose his job – suddenly and totally out of the blue – on Monday. Now we’re living in a place we wouldn’t have chosen to come to, where we have no work, no friends, no home of our own, and no prospect of getting one until our income is healthy enough to be granted a mortgage. We can’t even reduce our rent by moving to a smaller place as we’d need an employer’s reference for that.

The shock was immense and we’re both still reeling from it. Just when it looked like there was light at the end of the tunnel, a b****y great freight train came steaming towards us and flattened all our hopes, dreams and schemes. All of these are on hold now, and both of us need to find work – any kind of work – as soon as we can.

I’ve been trying to apply for Christmas temp work using online forms. This is the only way you can apply for many of these jobs, but they assume a work background that just doesn’t fit with mine. I’ve had so many different types of work, sometimes two or three jobs or self-employed work all at the same time, other times jobs that have overlapped with each other or that involve contracts from several different places. These forms want details – to the day – of when I started and finished each one, plus things like addresses and postcodes for each employer. It’s almost impossible to fill them in sensibly, and there’s no other way to apply. I’ve been tearing my hair out in frustration – and all this just for a minimum wage temporary job in a shop.

Because of various health problems I haven’t worked since I got here and, of course, when we moved I lost all my local self-employed work and contacts. Until recently I simply hadn’t the heart to try to get set up again here, but in the last month or two I’ve begun to feel much better, more positive, and ready to put myself out in the world again. I have endless ideas and plans and schemes, but I’m not too good on the follow-through, and sometimes there seems to be so much that needs to be done before I can get going that I’m overwhelmed by it and end up doing very little at all.

So we’ve come up with a solution. Until he finds a new job, Geoff is going to devote a large chunk of his time to being my personal assistant, and I’m going to do my best to establish some photography-based sources of income. We’ve yet to see how this will pan out in practice, but if it works then it would leave me free to do what I do best – teaching and creative work – and take the marketing, logistics, and practical stuff off my shoulders. It’s a relief to be able to ignore the temp jobs, and one small, bright, spark in an otherwise dark and gloomy future. Wish me luck….

Digging up my roots

Jack and Margaret ShortJack and Margaret Short

These are my paternal grandparents. I didn’t know them very well and don’t have many memories of them, because they died when I was about seven years old.  It’s a sad story – my grandfather was dying of cancer and my grandmother was knocked down by a car and killed on her way to visit him in hospital.  My dad and the rest of the family kept her death a secret from him, inventing an illness that was stopping her from visiting,and my grandfather died two days later.  They were buried together.

When I look at this photo what really strikes me is how happy they look together. You can put on smiles on for the camera, of course, but look where their hands and arms are – they’re so physically affectionate with each other.  I compare it to photos of my mum and dad together – there’s always something a little strained about the smiles and the body language backs it up.  I wouldn’t have said that my parents had a happy marriage and our family unit was pretty dysfunctional.

After years of cutting myself off emotionally from the idea of family and all the bad connotations it has for me, I’ve changed in the last little while and am now trying to reconnect with my roots.  I’ve started with Jack and Margaret (who I think was called Peggy) because I feel the strongest tie and the most affection for them.  Jack was a homeopath, at a time when that was a very unusual occupation, and I feel my own interest in alternative health and therapies must have come from him.  We were often given little ‘pokes’ (Scottish for paper bags) of benign sugar pills to eat and cuts and abrasions were routinely doused in Calendula tincture, which we hated because it stung like hell.  We longed for the tubes of Germolene that other people used.  He lost a leg in WW1 and I remember the horrified fascination we felt when we saw his ‘wooden’ leg propped up in the corner of the room.  He didn’t wear it all the time.

I have some vague memories of my grandmother – I remember being very impressed because she took the kitchen table and some blankets outside to the garden so that we could play at making tents.  That would never have happened at home.  And I remember she kept a large pillowcase full of all sorts of toys that we could play with when we came to visit.  Most of all I remember that she was fun, and that I always liked to go there.

As was probably common in those days, my parents kept us kids out of it when Jack and Margaret died.  We weren’t allowed to go to their funeral and I don’t think we were told at the time exactly what had happened.  I don’t remember much, but I do remember lying in bed at night feeling confused and missing my grandmother, but knowing it wasn’t something I could talk about.  I don’t know exactly where they’re buried, but I plan to find their grave and visit it as soon as I can.  I have a feeling it’s going to be very therapeutic.

What has struck me most in the course of these explorations, is how precious these old photographs are.  There are stories contained within them.  The one at the top of the post is a poor photo, with some light flare/ghosting that leaves my grandfather looking rather faded, but it’s the only one I have of them in the same shot.  The technical quality doesn’t matter; what matters is that I know what they looked like and that I have a pictorial record, and I’m so thankful they didn’t throw it away because of its technical defects.  I have a whole album full of old pictures of the people in my past and without those photographs many of them would just be names.  I wonder if the tradition of the family album is still alive and well, or if digital storage has replaced it?  There’s definitely something about having a tangible print in your hand, and knowing that the people in the photo have probably held that print in theirs, that feels both satisfying and necessary.

 

 

An open letter to estate agents

Green house, Folkestone

We know there are lots of you out there who’re doing a good job.  The one who sold our own house was very good indeed; admittedly we haven’t met many like him in this area yet, but we live in hope. For the rest of you, here are a few things we’ve been bottling up for a while.

If you don’t include a photograph of a particular room, we’re immediately going to assume it needs serious work. This is especially so if you’ve included photos of all the other rooms. What’s wrong with it?, we wonder, it must be really crappy if you don’t want us to see it. When we see a picture of the outside of the house and nothing else, we assume the inside is so scary it would need a total overhaul. Even if this is true, it would be useful to see just how bad it is before we decide whether or not to come and have a look. And that pink and black bathroom isn’t going to be any less of a shock if we haven’t seen a photo of it beforehand.

Please learn some basic photography skills – it’s not difficult and I’m talking really basic here. The most important one is to have the picture in focus and not, as in one case we saw recently, so blurred that it’s difficult to even see which room it is – even the floor plan was so blurred that you couldn’t identify individual rooms. Also try not to make the rooms slope; we assume they don’t really, but you never know……

(If you don’t know how to use a basic compact camera, then I’m available for tutorials at very reasonable rates 🙂 )

All we have to go on are the pictures and information you supply. More photos won’t cost you anything and will help us make a decision that might save your/our/the houseowner’s time and energy. Is that really so difficult to understand? You get paid quite a lot when you sell a house, so five minutes spent putting a few extra photos on the webiste is not unreasonable…….and think of the time it will save you in phone enquiries and visits in vain from people who wouldn’t have gone near the place had they known. Four photographs of a 4-bedroom, £200,000 house is just not enough.

Floorplans help a great deal, and in these days of computer technology are surely not difficult to do. Room measurements are even more important. Telling us it has three bedrooms doesn’t help if it turns out that two of them aren’t much bigger than cupboards.  While we’re on the subject, why do you sell on the basis of numbers of bedrooms anyway?  It doesn’t tell us much about the overall space.  Our old house was about 110 meters square and it was too small for us.  We’ve seen two bedroom houses that are bigger than that, and three bedroom houses that are smaller.  Please – give us the square meterage and we’ll take it from there.

Yes, we know you want to present the property in its best light, but leaving something important out doesn’t mean we won’t notice it once we get there. That quarry, for instance….did you really think we wouldn’t see it? Especially as we had to use the quarry road to get to the house? And didn’t you think that it would be a fairly clear-cut thing as to whether or not a quarry right next to the house would put us off? If we’re not put off by a quarry next door, then telling us about it won’t stop us viewing; if we are put off by it, then viewing the house isn’t going to make any difference. Really, it isn’t.  The same applies to the one with the large pylon in the back garden.

Likewise the room without the window. Yes, I know you called it an occasional bedroom/dressing room but we didn’t realise that meant it didn’t have a window. Windows are quite important to us.  And calling an attic space an attic ‘room’ is a tad misleading – even when it is on the same level as the other rooms – if you have to bend double to get through the door and it has no windows and no internal finishing.

When we phone up to book a viewing, and you know that the property is hard to find, giving us directions would be a good idea. After all, it’s your time that’s going to be wasted too when we don’t turn up because we’ve spent 45 minutes driving around trying to find it. Saying ‘oh yes, we have trouble finding that one ourselves’ does not make us feel any more kindly towards you and refusing – when we ask beforehand – to give us a phone number for the person showing us round only makes it worse.

And to the two estate agents who were asked twice to set up viewings over six weeks ago, and who have yet to come back to us, we wonder how interested you are in selling these houses. As it happens, we’ve changed our search area since then and are no longer bothered, but if I were the vendor I’d be very unhappy if I knew about this, and if we’re selling in the future we will not be using you.

When we come in and ask you for advice, we’re doing it because you’ve seen the houses for sale, you know the area, and you might be able to suggest something we hadn’t thought of or give us some good advice. Putting the number of bedrooms wanted, the desired location, and the price into a computer programme and hitting Send is something we are perfectly capable of doing for ourselves on Rightmove. We want more from you.

When we’re considering placing an offer, please don’t try to tell us that we can’t negotiate on the basis of replacing the bathroom. It’s entirely up to us what we negotiate on; your client doesn’t have to say ‘yes’ of course, but no-one can stop us negotiating on whatever the heck we think is significant to us. Whether or not you think it’s significant is not important. You might be happy to live with a bathroom that’s 35 years old and falling apart, but we’re not. Also, the schoolmistressy approach really doesn’t work for us. We feel we should be treated a little better, as we know there aren’t many people like us around – ie, house sold, mortgage approved and money in the bank waiting to be spent…….if only we could find a house we like.

Do try to be consistent. When I am told by you that the vendor will only consider an offer close to the asking price, it’s confusing when my husband is told – also by you – that the vendor is open to significantly lower offers. Which is it?

We know that advice is often ignored, and we realise that perhaps your client is one of those who has chosen to ignore it. However, please do your very best to get it through to them that because the house was worth X amount several years ago, it doesn’t mean it still is now that the property market is in a downward slide. This might help the surprisingly large number of vendors whose over-priced houses have been on the market for as long as two years.

Similarly, all of the following are very off-putting: leaving clear evidence of bad leaks, carpets that smell, anything that smells, obvious dirt or neglect, one whole room being taken up by a screeching parrot in a cage, renovating a three-bedroom house and putting in a kitchen barely suitable for a one-bedroom flat, renovating a house beautifully but not bothering to put in central heating, long-dead birds on the doorstep, single fathers who present their (over-priced) houses warts and all with paper peeling off the walls and tell us we have to see past that, and…..well I’m sure there will be more. It reminds me of Wendy Cope’s poem about men:

There are so many kinds of awful men –
One can’t avoid them all. She often said
She’d never make the same mistake again;
She always made a new mistake instead.

There truly are so many kinds of awful houses and while we’ll never make the same mistake again I’m sure we’ll go on making new mistakes instead. Estate agents, we really want to buy a house from you – how about making it easy for us?  And you.

Be careful what you wish for!

Everything is going to be alright

Another year, another birthday. Last year on my birthday, I wrote this:

I need a change or a challenge. And not the kind of everyday challenge like earning money and finding work, but something completely new and exciting and possibly scary, that will stretch me out of the complacent, contented shape I’ve recently grown into, even if it’s only for a few hours. I don’t know what it’ll be yet, but watch this space……..

Be careful what you wish for!

The last year has been tumultuous – the threat of Geoff’s redundancy hanging over us for the first half of 2011, then the reality of that, then his mother’s illness and death in November, followed by a job offer in December, then less than six weeks to get ourselves moved 300 miles, our frustrated attempts to fit all our possessions into too small a space, waiting for our old house to sell, and now looking for a new place to buy, not to mention the myriad other tiny frustrations and the strain all of this puts on a relationship between two very stressed people.

I think maybe it’s not too surprising I went into meltdown a couple of weeks ago and that perhaps the last year is simply catching up with me now that I have time to spare. I feel so much more positive now than I did, which is a blessing, but my emotions are as transient and fragile as soap bubbles, appearing and disappearing almost from moment to moment, triggered by the tiniest of events. It’s true that without change I get dull and bored, and I was certainly ready for some, but I’m not sure I’m very good at handling it when it comes.

Life still feels as if it’s very much in limbo. We’ve sorted out the rented house to a point where it’s comfortable and looks reasonably nice, but there are a multitude of small things that haven’t been done because it seems a little pointless when we only expect to be here for a few months. There’s little sense in spending money on nice new curtains when they might not fit our future windows, so we make do with what we have. We’ve hung some of our pictures, but many more lie in the spare bedroom propped against the wall. Our guest bedroom never has been sorted out and has turned into a kind of junk room for the overflow, and it’s unlikely we’ll do anything about that now that we’re hoping to move again soon. Normally I’d have planted flowers and spent time in the garden, but it’s not our garden and I find it hard to sustain much interest in doing anything more than keeping it tidy.

Everything is still a little makeshift, including my lifestyle. I thought it would be wonderful to have all this spare time but I feel so unfocussed and scatter-brained that I rarely achieve much. I thought I’d have fun exploring, and I have to some extent, but without friends to share things with it feels a bit flat. I thought I’d set up some photography workshops and tuition here, but it takes time to know where to take people or where you can find good spaces to hire and I’ve lost a bit of confidence in myself, too, making it hard to put myself out there. I thought I’d get excited about the photographic possibilities of a new place and take loads of shots, and I’ve hardly picked up my camera since I came here. I thought I’d use the extra time to work on my website and online activities, but the more I sit at my computer the less I want to be there and all too often I find myself mindlessly surfing the web. Then, of course, I do a good job in beating myself up about all of this.

Slowly, though, the changes inside are coming to match the ones on the outside. I’m beginning to let go of the idea that Kent is ‘home’ and to see that this is where my home is now. I haven’t made any friends yet, but I’ve met a few lovely, bright, and intelligent people and one or more of those may turn into a friend given time; if they don’t, I can see there will be others who will. And my biggest problem – that this area has never felt like a good fit for me – now looks set to be solved by moving just over the border into North Wales. I’ve found a place I love there, a small and pretty village with several coffee shops, a great restaurant, a very nice pub, a wonderful farm shop/deli, lots of green spaces, and far fewer people to the square mile than you find here. I’ll be able to go for long walks in empty woods and I’ll be that much nearer to the beauty of the Welsh mountains and coast.  I’ve found somewhere I really do love , and I can’t wait to be living there.

And finally, we’ve seen a house we like. It needs work, and the work will have to be done before we move in, but it’s pretty much everything we wanted and didn’t think we’d find all in one place at a price we can afford. I would get the peace and seclusion I love – it’s at the end of a leafy, country lane – and Geoff would get all the space he’d like us to have – it’s a big, four-bedroom house with a huge garden. We’re costing the work at the moment, and hope to put in an offer soon.

Change isn’t something you can rush, or more accurately, getting used to change isn’t something you can rush. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ theory about the five stages of grief is well known, and it seems reasonable that it could also be applied to adapting to enforced change. I’ve been through the anger, the bargaining (yes, OK, I’ll move there but I have to be able to visit London frequently) and the depression, and the next one to come should be acceptance – although, of course, it’s not a linear process but one where you often keep looping back and forth. But I can feel the acceptance beginning to gather and warm me inside, like the good feeling of a hot meal in an empty stomach. I think everything is going to be alright.

 

Putting down roots

Old Railway tunnel

Roots, and home, and all that that means have been on my mind lately. I’m terribly unhappy at the moment and find it hard to write anything and even harder to muster up any enthusiasm for taking photos.  I feel displaced, out of tune with where I am, and almost as if I’m suffering a bereavement, but of a place rather than a person.  This last weekend I hit a new low and spent much of it in tears, sobbing from a deep, deep place, remembering all the things I loved about where I used to live and missing the friends I used to be able to see.   It’s hard not to see myself as pathetic and inadequate – I know of many other people who move countries and even continents and take it all in their stride.  I’ve been wondering why it’s hit me so hard.

I’ve made a major move before and didn’t feel like this. But that time I was glad to be going, glad to be leaving a marriage that was falling apart and a place where I never had felt that I fitted.  I grew up near Glasgow in central Scotland and lived there until I was nearly thirty, but it never felt right to me.  I loved the Scottish land and scenery with a passion, but I found the towns and villages grey and austere and lacking in flowers, joy and life.  I didn’t fit with the people there either – Glaswegians are wonderfully friendly, funny, helpful, and easy to chat to, but they don’t have much interest in the arts (they regard you as rather suspect and a little bit up-your-own-**** if you do) and they don’t tend towards deep thinking (something I know I do too much of, but it’s who I am).  I liked a lot of people but never felt I could connect with them in any meaningful way.  So moving several hundred miles south didn’t make me feel as if I was being torn out by the roots, as I do now.

After a few years in the south-east, I ended up in Canterbury where I stayed for the next twenty-five and for the first time in my life I felt at home somewhere.  I put down roots there, great solid curling roots that drew in ample nourishment for my life.  I didn’t seem so much the odd one out, which was a huge relief and I was happy there.  It was the kind of place I used to dream about living when I was growing up.  While few places can compare to the drama of the Scottish mountains and coast, I loved the gentle, rolling Englishness of the scenery and the pretty, flower-filled villages and mediaeval towns.  I loved the orchards that grew everywhere and the sunnier, warmer climate.  Over the years I found places that came to mean a lot to me: the green, mossy, RSPB woods at Blean; the astonishingly lovely gardens at Mount Ephraim; the wide empty pebble-filled beach at Sandwich Bay, which was always quiet even on a hot summer’s day because you had to pay a toll to drive on the road to it and where you could park your car almost on the beach; another bay at St Margaret’s where you could buy an ice-cream and watch huge ships sail into Dover harbour; Canterbury Cathedral, where I spent hours with my camera; a secret wild-flower meadow just off the main street; Jojo’s in Tankerton, probably my favourite restaurant ever; Whitstable, with its quirky shops and working harbour and promenade lined with pastel coloured houses; and the list goes on and on.  It physically hurts when I think about these.  It’s early days, I know, but I haven’t found anything here that I love that much yet; it’s a different sort of place here and I’m not sure I ever will.

The thing that has bothered me most is my loss of enthusiasm for photography. I’ve hardly taken any shots since I got here and have had little or no inclination to.  I’ve wondered if my passion for it will ever come back, and at the weekend I even thought about abandoning it altogether.  While it often helps to write about things that trouble me, photography has always been associated with joy for me and I’ve never known how to use it otherwise.  I’ve taken photos because I’m happy, and what I see makes me happy, and I want to make other people happy by giving them – hopefully – something wonderful to look at.  But today I went out for a walk and photographed roots.

The Wirral Way is a cycle/walking track created from an old, disused railway line. In one area the rock has been sliced into and cut away, forming a sort of roofless tunnel of sandstone.  All along its length, trees and plants cling precariously to the rock and small pockets of shallow soil. Like me, they’re trying to root themselves in a place that isn’t quite suited to them.  Some of them manage to flourish regardless; some of them have established a foothold, but remain immensely vulnerable to the elements; some have their roots hanging in the air, looking for something to cling to.  I can identify.

Roots 2

Roots 3

Between a rock and a hard place

This little fern looks so vulnerable.  You can see the run of water that’s both keeping it alive and threatening to wash it away.

Survivor

Clinging

Here I stand; tree on rock

Tree on the edge 1

Tree on the edge 2

There’s something terribly optimistic about these little green ferns, managing to thrive but with their roots dangling in mid-air.  They make me think of terrestrial jellyfish.

Ferns

Hanging roots

Flourishing

Home truths

 

View from bedroomThe view from my bedroom window

After some wrangling over the final price, we’re exchanging contracts on our old house tomorrow. As you can imagine, houses – or more accurately, homes – have been on my mind a lot lately. We’ve been viewing large numbers of them and discovering it’s very hard to find anything we like that also suits our needs. I’m finding that no matter how firmly I put on my rational hat, in the end it’s the feel of the place that decides the matter. It’s made me think about what ‘home’ means, and what I need and want from it.

I’ve discovered a few things about myself that I hadn’t been fully aware of. It seems my need for privacy is almost overwhelming and is also coupled with a craving for green and natural spaces. The privacy thing is a big issue, both inside and outside the house. Starting with outside: I hate, hate, hate houses that are all crammed in close to each other with no space around them – they make me feel claustrophobic; I can’t bear people being able to look in through the windows but I do want to be able to look out, so nets at the window are not a solution; I need a garden that’s not overlooked so that I can potter about in a bikini (a somewhat alarming sight these days) or do yoga on the lawn without being observable; and while I’d love to have nice friendly neighbours – and to be one – my idea of a nightmare is someone constantly turning up on my doorstep wanting to come in for coffee.

I’m afraid I get even weirder when it comes to the inside. My secret fantasy has always been to have a relationship where each spouse has their own house next door to each other, or they share a house that’s split into two flats, or some variation on that theme. I’m really not very good at sharing a space and I tend to spend nearly all my time in the one room that feels like mine – my study/office. I rarely use the living room, and only sit in the dining room when we’re eating together. I know where this comes from. My mother was a very difficult person and it was good policy not to be where she might notice you and decide you were doing something she didn’t like, or not doing something she thought you should be doing – out of sight, out of mind was the safest option. We were a bickering sort of family, too, and I didn’t like that, and my room became my safe place where I could hide and get some peace and quiet.  Most of my childhood was spent in my bedroom and even now I can only truly relax when I’m by myself in a non-shared space.

My husband comes from a (much happier) family of four children and is considerably more at ease sharing spaces than I am. Understandably, he doesn’t really ‘get’ my need to have my own exclusive territory. I was quite appalled with myself recently (and I’m sure he would be too if he knew about it) when I realised that the main appeal of one house we were considering was that I could have my own bathroom, my own sitting room, and my own bedroom as well as my study, as there were enough rooms to divide the house up between us. Oooops…..

The craving for nature has two prongs. The first ties in with the privacy thing – if you’re looking out onto fields and green spaces, then by definition you’re not overlooked by other buildings. The second is a little deeper. I’ve been reading a book called House as the Mirror of Self by Clare Cooper Marcus – a fascinating read about the psychology of home. One of the exercises asks you to tune in to where you feel most at home and my sense of belonging in the world – ie, feeling at home in it – only really kicks in when I’m in a green space that’s empty of people. The man-made world seems like a crazy kind of place to me most of the time and nature restores my faith in it all making some kind of sense. Walking through woods, or on the beach, I feel connected to the world and at peace with it. Given the choice, the only sounds I want to hear are birdsong or lapping waves or the wind in the trees or foxes barking. When I’m inside my home, I want to be able to see a lot of sky and at least a few trees and some greenery. If I had my way, I’d most like to live right out in the country down a narrow single-track lane. I did this once, for a while, and I loved it – my room looked out over fields full of cauliflowers to the sea on the horizon.

As you can imagine, unless you have an unlimited budget these kind of requirements make it hard work finding somewhere that fits, especially when the bulk of houses in this area are relative new-builds packed in to sprawling estates. Most of these houses are bland and box-like as well; I didn’t mention we’d also like our new home to have a bit of character. At the moment I’m despairing of ever finding somewhere that will work for us, and I feel as if I’m turning into a fussy, demanding, pain in the ass, to be honest. I really wish I wasn’t like this; I wish I loved being right in the middle of this messy, people-filled thing we call life, but I don’t think I’m going to change any time soon. And given that we’ll probably be living in our new home for the next fifteen years or more, I think we have to get it right.

“There should be at least one room, or some corner, where no-one will find you and disturb you or notice you.  You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other [people].”

Thomas Merton

Boxes again, and a cat in a basin

Boxes

I just have two quick things for you today. First, notice the pile of empty boxes above – there are 130+ and don’t include the 25 or so we gave back to the removers on the day.  The question now is: where do we put the empty boxes???  (we’re going to need them again before the year is out)

Second, one of my cats has taken up residence in the wash hand basin. She’s fascinated by the water that comes magically out of the taps; she can’t quite figure out when it’s going to happen, and hasn’t made the connection yet with my presence being the deciding factor, so she hangs around in hope……

Jammy the cat