They didn’t teach me that at school

I’ve been learning quite a lot recently. Since my father died a couple of years ago, I have been helping my mother to move back from France, where they lived, and to get her settled here in the UK. This has meant finding somewhere to rent here, selling the house in France and sorting out the enormous amount of administrative stuff that comes with it.

Now, my mother is not – how shall I put this – the most organised of individuals. If she wants to do something, then she’ll generally do it. But when it comes to things that she’d rather not think about, such as paying bills or doing her tax return, then she has a remarkable capacity to forget all about them.

Take this morning, for instance. My mother rang me with the news that the plumber had arrived at the house in France to fix the heating, only to find that there was no mains water. He rang my mother, who promptly rang me. I rang the water company, who informed me that the water had been cut off because my mother has not paid the bill. Fantastic.

Annoying, but easy enough to sort out. I convinced the lovely people at the water company to send me a copy of the bill, so that I can make sure that my mother pays it and that the water gets turned back on. All done and dusted. Experience tells me, though, that while this particular crisis is well on its way to being managed, it will inevitably not be long before something else crops up.

The snag, from my point of view, is two-fold. Firstly, I’m the only one in my family who speaks French, so when problems arise with things in France, I’m the one my mother calls. And secondly, I’m far too nice to say no. She is my mother, after all, and I want her to get everything sorted out, even if it is – at the current rate – likely to take decades.

It’s also a great learning experience for me. Over the last couple of years I’ve learned how to surf French bureaucracy and have developed my language skills in hitherto unexpected areas. Here are just a few examples, in broadly chronological order:

  • reporting a death and getting a death certificate;
  • organising a cremation and a funeral;
  • writing and giving a eulogy;
  • hosting a wake;
  • schmoozing with the local mayor;
  • getting bank and utility accounts into my mother’s name (without anything being frozen in the process, which apparently is quite an achievement);
  • driving a tractor;
  • liaising with the notaire (French solicitor-type person) to sort out my father’s estate;
  • getting a bit shirty with the notaire because a year is not ‘fairly quickly’;
  • dealing with home insurers and convincing them to maintain cover despite my father having cancelled the policy and nobody having paid the bill;
  • sorting out a tax return;
  • arranging a high speed international house move;
  • coordinating a large number of family members in respect of a high speed international house move (spreadsheets were involved);
  • getting two unruly border collies across the channel without causing an international incident (it was going so well until the lady at customs tried to stroke one of them);
  • discussing with an estate agent why the house in France has not yet been sold and what we can do to make it more attractive to buyers;
  • negotiating payment of local and national property taxes, when nobody was sure what taxes need to be paid, which had already been paid and to whom they needed to be paid;
  • liaising with the estate agent once he had found a buyer for the house, to make sure that nothing – absolutely nothing, you hear me – gets in the way of the sale process;
  • selling a tractor (this is, incidentally, far more complicated and bureaucratic than one would anticipate initially); and
  • resolving a small issue around the non-payment of a water bill and disconnection of service (though you know that bit already).

I can say with some confidence that none of the French that I learned at school was of any use in any of these particular situations. The key, I found, was to be delightfully charming on the phone (i.e. don’t yell), to recognise what needed doing when, and to keep close track of a never-ending series of reference numbers.

At no stage, you will be pleased to hear, was I required to talk about my holidays, conjugate a verb or ask directions to the train station.

My life of filth

Last week, I made a rather distressing discovery. Brace yourself, because it’s pretty nasty. I have, it appears, been living in filth. Yes, filth. It’s shocking news, I’ll admit, but no-one was more astonished than I was. And what could have brought about such a revelation? Well, this harbinger of torment has a name. And its name is Dyson.

Yes, I have purchased my very first Dyson vacuum cleaner. To be specific, I have purchased a Dyson Animal, in the hope that it will help me to clear up after my own animal, the adorable (but very orange and with a tendency to moult everywhere) Molly. Sure, it cost more than I got when I sold my old car, but it’s big and it’s shiny and I just had to have one.

Having done the obligatory bit of online research, I wandered down to my local John Lewis store and had a look at the different models. I wanted an Animal and I wanted a cylinder version (rather than an upright), which helpfully narrowed it down to one, the DC-39. Nevertheless, the lady manning the display stand insisted that I try out a couple of different ones, so that I could make an informed choice. (And possibly so that the cleaners could knock off early…)

As I wandered around the department store doing the hoovering, checking to make sure that nobody I knew was lurking around, I observed to the lady that rather than cleaning the whole house, it might just be easier to vacuum the dog. Rather disturbingly, Dyson have already thought of this, and the Animal comes with an optional dog brush attachment. I passed on that, but did take my DC-39. Here is it…

Dyson

When I got home, I couldn’t wait to give the thing a try, so unpacked it from the ton and a half of cardboard that it was wrapped in and got to work on the living room carpet. After I’d vacuumed about a square metre, I made two observations:

1. This bit of the carpet was now a very different colour from the bits around it; and

2. The cylinder on the Dyson was now almost FULL of dust, dirt and dog hair.

In those few minutes, I realised that I was not the person I thought I was. I’d imagined that I was reasonably neat, tidy and kept a clean house. But no. I am living in filth. I am surrounded by detritus. My house is quite possibly being held together by cobwebs and dog slobber. Thank you, Dyson.

By the time I’d hoovered the whole house (I could hardly stop now, could I?), I had emptied the capacious cylinder on the Animal THREE times! And when I did the vacuuming again a couple of days later (the in-laws were about to arrive), I had to empty it twice more. And it was pretty much all – you’ve guessed it – orange dog hair. Perhaps I should have bought the brush attachment after all, to head this all off at the source.

Talking of attachments, the DC-39 comes as standard with a whole host of different gadgets. I don’t know what they all do, and probably won’t actually use any of them, but they do look very impressive. Like I could clean the space shuttle, or something. (This isn’t a review, but the way, so don’t expect any kind of helpful analysis.)

Here’s one of the attachments, which looks suspiciously like the thing that’s already on the Animal, but smaller. Check out the rotating bristles, which distinguish the Animal from its lesser Dyson brethren.

Attachment

Here’s one of the other attachments. It’s about two feet long, with the first bit made of plastic and the second bit made of flexible rubber.

Another attachment

 I daren’t even think about what this could be for. A very different kind of filth, possibly.

Don’t call me, I’ll call you

I had a very strange phone conversation the other day with somebody representing a well-known national charity that I (a) am a member of and (b) have volunteered for quite extensively in the past. But rather than securing my further support for the charity’s activities, this particular conversation has made me wonder whether I really want anything to do with them at all.

It was clear from the off that the lady on the phone was calling from a telephone fundraising agency, not least because I have in the past received calls on behalf of two other charities from the same number. So it was with an air of resignation that I answered the phone (otherwise they just keep ringing…) and confirmed that it was indeed me.

The lady launched immediately into a rather stilted speech (I’m guessing it was a new campaign, so she hadn’t quite got into the groove yet) about the work the charity does and how it is currently trying to influence legislation and generally make the world a better place. I knew all of this, anyway, so listened vaguely while tapping away at my computer.

It struck me that this spiel was taking quite some time, but I was in no hurry as I had a cup of tea in front of me and no great desire to get back to doing some actual work. But after about four minutes of her speaking non-stop, I started to wonder when she was going to get around to what she had actually called to ask.

And then it came.

“So, would you be prepared to set up a direct debit payment for, say, £10 a month?” she enquired.

“No”, I replied. And waited.

There was a rather long pause, presumably as she scrolled down to the ‘how do deal with miserable, tight-fisted gits’ section of the screen in front of her.

“OK, no problem,” she continued eventually. “Obviously, we don’t have details of people’s individual financial circumstances available when we call.” I didn’t bother to explain that it wasn’t that I didn’t have £10 a month, but that I didn’t just hand over my money to anyone who calls up and asks for it.

The lady was, however, undeterred. She launched into a detailed advertisement for the charity’s befriending scheme, which helps vulnerable people by pairing them up with a volunteer, who can help them to get out and about. All very interesting, but having given fundraising talks about this particular charity for over two years, I was pretty familiar with what it does.

Clearly taking the fact that I was still on the line as a sign of interest, rather than as a sign that I was reading the BBC science news and had forgotten that I was even holding my phone to my ear, she thought she’d have another bash.

“So how about £8 a month?”

I could see that this was potentially going to be a very long phone call, at the end of which I’d end up setting up a direct debit for 15p and a button, so I decided to knock things on the head.

“Look,” I said. “I appreciate that you’re probably phoning from an agency, so my beef isn’t with you. But, to be honest, I really resent you calling me asking for money. I’ve been a member of this charity for some years and have given up quite a lot of my own time to raise funds on its behalf. So I find the fact that you are calling me to ask for yet more cash insulting in the extreme.”

To her credit, she recognised that she was on a loser here. She confirmed that she was calling from an agency and that the charity had provided them with a list of people to call. I reiterated that I wasn’t angry at her, but rather with the charity itself. She thanked me for my time and we both hung up to get on with our respective days.

Now, I appreciate that charities are having a tough time of it at the moment. But when did they adopt such a money-grabbing attitude? What makes them think that, just because I’ve donated money in the past or done something else to get involved, I want to set up a direct debit to give them even more from now until eternity?

And this organisation isn’t the only culprit. I get a call each year from another well-known charity about its annual coffee morning campaign (you can probably guess the one I mean). And each time, they refer to a coffee morning that I ‘recently’ held on their behalf and ask if I’d be interested in organising another one this year. But it wasn’t recent. It was ten years ago!

I’m guessing there is research that shows it’s more cost-effective to approach previous donors and get them to give more, than to convince new people to hand over their hard-earned cash. But it just seems so ungrateful and… well… rude.

So to all charities out there who might be thinking about calling me, writing to me, stopping me in the street or knocking on my door and asking for money: I’m not an idiot. I know that charities do valuable work and am keen to support them where I can. But I will choose which charities I support, how I support them and when I support them. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Leaves, cuttings and a touch of colour

I’d been neglecting my houseplants a little recently, so at the weekend I lugged them all outside into the sunshine for a bit of a tidy up. And with the little fellas lined up on the lawn like a ragtag floral guerilla army, it was clear that some of the scruffier ones had to go.

But before I hurled them onto the compost heap, I took the opportunity to harvest a few cuttings from some of the Echeveria, which look great when they are young but then have a tendency to turn into bald rampaging stalks as they get older.

While I was at it, I thought I might as well take a few cuttings from some of the others, too. And then Natalie wandered over with some tiny Sempervivum, which we added to my growing collection in a large module tray.

Leaf cuttings

The result was somewhat more cuttings than I had anticipated, and I’m probably setting myself up for another houseplant crisis some time next year, but I have to admit that they do look rather cool, as you can see in these photos.

Leaf cuttings

They’re currently residing in one of the cold frames at the bottom of the garden, where they’ll stay as long as the warm weather lasts. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pot them up before the first frosts arrive, so that I can distribute them around the house. And then, my friends, I’ll be right back where I started…

Five ways my dog tries to hoodwink me – and one reason why she is (almost) never successful

As regular readers will know, I am the proud owner of a rather adorable Labrador called Molly. But like most Labradors she has a rather dubious approach to personal hygiene. She likes nothing better than to charge through the mud, roll in something disgusting (the slimier and stinkier the better) or pick up the thing she’s just rolled in and run around with it in her mouth.

Her preferred time to indulge in such activities is, inevitably, (a) when I’m in a hurry, (b) when I’m wearing a suit or (c) when we’re standing in front of a bunch of prim, disapproving elderly ladies just outside the church. But if I’m on the ball then I can usually see what’s about to happen and take appropriate steps to intervene (i.e. shout, scream, throw things and generally try to be more exciting than a piece of badger poo).

Molly

Would this face lie?

This does not go down well with Molly, who is clearly outraged that I could even think that she would do something so heinous as to roll in faeces or hurl herself joyously into a sludge-filled ditch. And to cover up for her attempted misdemeanour, she has a range of strategies at her disposal. Here are my top five.

1. The wee. I was just stopping for a wee. Look, I’m weeing. You never trust me. This is outrageous.

2. The sniff. I was just stopping to sniff this blade of grass. It’s quite a fine blade of grass, wouldn’t you agree. Very green and … er … grassy.

3. The other sniff. I wasn’t going to roll in it. I was just going to sniff it. Honest. Look, I’m only sniffing. Sniff. Oops, I swallowed it. Butterfingers.

4. The fetch. I think I dropped my ball down there. I’m just going to get it back. There it it. I can see it. I can almost reach it. Almost. Just a little bit more. A little stretch. Splash.

5. The you can’t get to me in time. Look, fat boy. I’m standing right here next to this steaming pile of excrement and you’re a good fifty metres away. Even if you were Usain Bolt, which you’re patently not, there’s no way you can get here before I’ve had a good old roll. Sure, I’ll be in trouble and I’ll need a bath, but to be honest it’s sooo worth it. So here goes. Get running, chubbs.

Luckily for me, though, Molly’s plan to get as mucky as possible as frequently as possible suffers from one minor snag, which means that no matter how hard she tries she’s hardly ever able to completely pull the wool over my eyes.

And this snag is that whenever she spies an opportunity to do something disgusting, she approaches her task with such obvious glee – huge grin, eyebrows wiggling with anticipation, tail waving like a giant orange flag – that anyone within half a mile can tell exactly what she’s up to.

Guile, it would appear, is not a word that exists in Molly’s vocabulary. But she certainly does a good line in exuberance, excitement and general enthusiasm. And this, as dog owners across the world are well aware, is what Labradors are all about.

Grown-ups can have hide-outs, too

When you were young, did you have a favourite hide-out? Somewhere you could go to get away from daily life and grab a few minutes to yourself? Mine was at the top of a huge great beech tree in the back garden of our family home, where the branches formed a sort of crow’s nest from which I could see out over the neighbourhood.

My parents weren’t too keen on me climbing all the way up to the top of this massive tree, so tried to tempt me down with a treehouse (to the extent that a piece of plywood nailed across two branches can be called a treehouse) in the lower branches of the yew tree next to my hide-out. But I wasn’t having any of it, so I’d spend hours up at the top of ‘my’ tree, out of reach of the world.

At the age of thirty six, I suspect that my tree-climbing days are behind me. But I didn’t see why that should mean that I couldn’t still have a hide-out. So a little while ago, Natalie and I bought a flat-pack summerhouse to put in our garden.

We built a little patio to stand it on, put some root barrier around the bamboo plants so that they didn’t overwhelm it and then spent a happy day putting the thing together. And with a lick of paint, a quick trim of the hedge and a little re-arrangement of the outdoor pot plants, my (or, rather, our) hide-out was ready. He’re it is…

Our new summerhouse

(In case you’re wondering, the huge building behind the summerhouse is my next door neighbour’s pigeon shed, not some sneaky extension to our hide-out…)

For the inside, we got some outdoor chairs and a matching table from the local DIY store. We also bought a cheap rug from IKEA to put on the floor and found some seaside-themed pictures to hang on the back wall. It won’t be making its way onto the pages of Ideal Home any time soon, but it’s my (sorry, our) hide-out and I’m happy with it. Here’s a view of the inside…

Our new summerhouse

With the weather over the past couple of weeks having been reasonably sunny, we’ve spent quite a lot of time in our new hide-out, reading the paper and generally chatting and chilling out. It’s been really nice to just get away from everyday things (even though we’re only a matter of feet from the house) and relax. And Molly thinks it’s great, too, as she gets to sit with us in the sunshine. This is her ‘I approve of this hide-out’ face…

Molly in the sunshine

And this is Molly and Natalie sharing a brief snack-related ‘moment’ in the sunshine…

Natalie and Molly enjoying a 'moment'

In the evenings, when it’s not too cold or windy, we’ve taken to heading out to our hide-out after dinner, putting some little candles on the patio and nattering away until it gets dark. We’re usually rushing around doing our separate things during the daytime, so I really enjoy this time that we spend together. It’s the perfect way to just catch up with what’s going on in our lives and to wind down before going to bed. And it’s a lot less hassle than climbing up to the top of a tree.

Up, up and away…

I was awoken at seven o’clock last Friday morning by my wife’s insistence that she could hear a balloon. Now, I know that I don’t always function particularly well first thing in the morning, but I challenge anyone to describe what a balloon sounds like. I thought at first that it might be some kind of Zen koan. But then it struck me that this weekend is the Bristol Balloon Fiesta and things started to make a bit more sense.

A quick glance out of the bedroom window confirmed that there was, indeed, a huge hot air balloon floating past at an alarmingly low level, its burner roaring as the pilot attempted to avoid the chimney pots and telegraph poles along our street. See what I mean in the photo below.

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The morning and evening ‘mass ascents’ are the highlights of the annual event. It’s quite rare that the winds (which usually blow the other way) bring the balloons in our direction, though, so we grabbed our cameras – and the dog – and headed out into the garden for a better look.*

It turned out that the balloon that had woken us was a bit ahead of the rest of the pack, which was heading towards us from the launch site to the north east. They made a brilliant sight as they emerged out of the sun, even if the photo below doesn’t really do them justice.

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I figured that we still had a few minutes before the rest of the balloons got to us, so I dashed in to feed the dog and to get us each a cup of tea. When I got back, things were definitely starting to happen. I was beginning to wish, though, that I’d put some jeans on over my jim-jams – or at least a dressing gown.

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It was fantastic to stand and watch the different balloons glide serenely overhead. And it was a particular fluke that most of them seemed to pass directly over our garden. This is my favourite photo, which I took as one of the balloons was just coming up over the house.

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This is my second favourite photo. I wish the sky was always this blue.

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Some of the balloons were quite a bit lower, though, so we could wave at the people dangling out of the baskets. A few of them were particularly enthusiastic.

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Molly was also quite enthusiastic. We’ve tried hard to socialise her to the sorts of things that she’s likely to come across, but I have to admit that low-flying hot air balloons full of screaming, waving people was not on our list. Once she’d got the obligatory initial bout of woofing out of the way, though, she seemed to take it in her stride.

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And then, as quickly and as silently as they had arrived, the balloons were gone.

* I’ll spare you the photos of me wandering around in a dazed fashion wearing only my Canon DSLR and a pair of pyjamas, because there’s already enough filth on the internet and I have no desire to add to it.

To be treated like a mug, press one

For the last week or so, I’ve been getting missed calls on my mobile from a freephone number that I didn’t recognise. The caller didn’t leave any messages and the calls always came at odd times in the evening, so I just ignored them and assumed that I would be around to answer the phone at some point eventually.

Well, today they finally caught up with me. I was walking down the street in the centre of Bristol, on my way to meet Natalie from work, and I heard my phone ringing in my bag. I pulled it out and that familiar 0800 number was on the screen. Interested to find out who had been hounding me for so long, I answered.

“This is British Gas,” said a computerised voice. “Please press one.” Now, I try not to be a cantankerous old git, but I didn’t want to press one. I didn’t see why I should have to press one, just because British Gas has a computer randomly calling people and getting them to show some sign of life so that they can get connected to a customer service person. So I didn’t press one, but hung up.

I’m not even a customer of British Gas, for goodness sake. I used to be, but switched to Ecotricity six months ago exactly because of behaviour like this. And because British Gas couldn’t be bothered to even pretend that they had a green energy tariff. In the first few months after I switched, they called me every couple of weeks to ask why I’d switched (so I told them, several times) and to enquire as to whether I’d consider coming back (I wouldn’t). And it seems that they’ve decided to start bugging me again.

This comes, ironically, on the day that Centrica, the company that owns British Gas, announced a rise in first-half profits up 15% to £1.45 billion, including profits of £345 million at British Gas itself. They claim it’s because of the cold weather during the first half of the year, though I can’t help but suspect that it’s because they get their customers to do all of the work for them. To be treated like a mug, please press one.

Competitive, moi?

I’m not exactly what you could call a prolific blogger. I mean, I read quite a few people’s blogs, click some ‘likes’ and leave a comment here and there. I like messing around with my own blog, too, and try – and sometimes even succeed – to post a couple of times a week. But recently, things have got a bit more serious.

I set up my blog in October 2010 and then proceeded to do very little with it. I sort of liked the idea of having a blog, but things were fairly hectic and I just didn’t get around to writing anything. This was, unsurprisingly, reflected in a complete lack of readers, visits and page views – as you can probably see from the diagram below.

I started to make a bit more of an effort in August last year, when I decided to try a little harder to be a decent, well-rounded human being. (Read my very first post.) This is when people actually started to read my blog, which was all extremely exciting. And when I got my first ‘like’ (thanks http://princesayasmine.wordpress.com/, by the way), I was almost beside myself. My first comment, a couple of months later, provoked similar jubilations.

Wordpress Stats

You’ll notice, though, that I experienced a further bump in views (if going from 50 views a month to about 150 can really be called a ‘bump’ in the big scheme of things) in January this year. So what’s that all about? Well, it shames me to admit this, but this is when my wife started her blog, and I was darned if she was going to have a more popular blog than me. You know all that drivel you read about the male of the species being insecure, egotistical, shallow and pitifully competitive? Yup, it’s true.

So I tried hard to up my blogging game. I read more of other people’s blogs. I wrote more posts of my own. I wrote about what I was doing, thinking, reading, eating, growing and shouting at. I used tags properly so that people could find my blog. And it was great. I’m not saying that I have millions of readers or anything like that, because that’s clearly not true, but I have started to build up a little community of people like me across the world.

So at least a couple of evenings a week, Natalie and I come home from work, walk the dog, have tea and then settle down on the sofa for a couple of hours of blogging*. We catch up with the blogs we follow, we share things that have caught our eye and we write some posts of our own. Far from being a solitary pursuit, like so many people would seem to have us believe, blogging for my lovely wife and me has become a bit of a communal activity. And, thank goodness, I still have more views, ‘likes’ and subscribers than she does.

* This is not a euphemism. I really do mean blogging. Please don’t write in.

Why I’ll probably never live in a little country cottage

I used to dream about living in a little cottage in the country, miles from the nearest neighbour, with a dog resting on the front wall and chickens scratching around in the back yard. Or perhaps an old coastguard cottage on a cliff top somewhere, nothing in sight but the sea and the sky. But the older I get, the more I realise that this isn’t going to happen.

For one thing, I’m no longer sure that I want to live in the middle of nowhere. Having lived for the last four years on the edge of a small market town in Somerset, I’ve kind of gotten used to having neighbours and to being able to walk to the shops. And while it’s not exactly what you’d call a particularly urban area (there are open fields just a five minute walk away), it’s nice to have things like the farmers market, doctor’s surgery and vet within easy reach.

For another thing, I need to earn money and I’m not sure how I’d go about that if I lived cut off from the rest of civilisation. Even though I can do much of my writing and research at the kitchen table (as long as I have a phone and internet access), I do need to get out occasionally. And for my consultancy work, I really need to be near to my clients. If I were to live somewhere in the wilds, I’d definitely need to (a) write a lot more and a lot more quickly or (b) come up with a very different approach to paying the mortgage.

I also like having access to the things that you can only really get in a large town or city. We’re just a twenty minute drive or a short bus ride away from the city of Bristol, with its university, bookshops, clothes stores, coffee shops, theatres, evening lectures and other cultural events. And I’m not sure that I’m ready to give up on them quite yet. Having a mainline railway station, two motorways and an airport all within about fifteen minutes is also a definite plus, and not something that many country villages can boast.

I’ve always loved the countryside and the coast and they have a very strong influence on my life. And I’m really not much of a city dweller. But we’re fairly sociable creatures and living on the edge of our little town seems to suit us quite well. In fact, it strikes me that a city ‘hub’ surrounded by a series small towns could be a fairly sustainable way of living for most people. So while an isolated cottage in a picturesque valley or on some rugged coastline somewhere may have its appeal, it’s perhaps not for me. Or, at least, not yet.