My first week at home just felt weird; it was as if I was on holiday, but not doing any holiday things. I still had it in my head that I’d be going back to work.
Now I have established a routine of sorts, one that will need some tweaks, but at least I don’t feel like a truant. The biggest problem I have is getting time to read and write. I thought there would be lots of time to do all kinds of things, but there isn’t – not unless you make time for them. I’m not watching daytime TV (or much TV at all) and I’m not lying in bed late, the alarm is no longer set for 5am, but I’m normally up by 6.30am or 7am.
What has been nice is the opportunity to spend more time with Margaret (my wife, for clarity). There was some concern that we would be under each other’s feet and on each other’s nerves. That hasn’t been the case, although we both need to sort out some “me time” in our diaries.
So what have I been doing since December 27? I love lists, so here’s a quick list.
Baking bread: my low-salt, low-sugar, high-fibre diet means that as much of what I eat as possible has to be home made. I’m not a health nut, but I don’t want six spoonfuls of sugar in my morning yoghurt, a spoonful in every slice of bread ... you get the idea. So I’m making my own bread and it’s been working out really well. I’ve made bread before, but now do two or three small loaves per week and I have it down to a fine art. It takes around 20 minutes preparation time and about two hours for the bread to rise.
Cleaning: It was fair that we should share the housework chores, so we have a rota and specific jobs for me. My jobs are to clean the bathroom and downstairs loo, and to mop the floors in the kitchen (tiles) and lounge/front room (wood). We do that Monday, Wednesday and Friday and it takes a couple of hours.
Tree pruning: I’d offered to prune my sister’s fruit trees, lop some branches off her sycamore and also cut down her buddleia, which has got rather out of control. I did the buddleia and Maggie’s trees and cut the wood up for her to burn in her fire, but as we were getting to the end of the job, Margaret said she could smell something burning – was the chainsaw OK. I thought it might have been sawdust in the cogs, but we’d finished anyway, so I put the machine away.
Next day, we started to prune the hornbeam at the bottom of our garden. There were a couple of large branches which were taking light away from the bottom decking, Maggie’s fruit trees and our blackcurrants. I got one branch down, but part-way through the chainsaw was enveloped in blue smoke and stopped mid-cut. It’s an electric chainsaw and I thought I’d had it less than two years so it might still be under guarantee, so put it in the car and went to Peterborough Grass Machinery in Ivatt Way where we’d bought it from.
I went into service reception to find the lad on the desk engaged with a game on his mobile. He was clearly at a crucial part because he avoided eye contact until I was standing right in front of him and even then it took a “good afternoon” to get his attention. I told him my problem; he said he didn’t know what to do, so he scuttled off into the back to bring the manager. It’s good there are still companies giving jobs to hopeless cases like him; with regular bollockings and steady guidance, he’ll be a useful employee in a few years.
PGM said they’d check to see when I bought it and if it was still under guarantee. They also said they’d talk to the manufacturer and call me in two weeks. Two weeks and one day later, I called them to see how things were going and they’d clearly forgotten. The manager said he’d call me back in 10 minutes, which he did (to my surprise). I’d bought the chainsaw two years and four months ago and it was out of warranty. It wasn’t worth repairing, but he’d spoken to the manufacturers and they said they’d supply a new one at cost price - £78.
I’d looked on the internet and you could buy a petrol chainsaw for £85, which might have seemed a better bet, but the problem is that I use a chainsaw so rarely that a petrol one is a faff to store. You’d have to drain it each time to stop the carb getting gummed up and they generally take an age to get started when they’re run just a couple of times a year. Electric ones can just be cleaned and stored and because I use mine only around the garden, I’m not worried about power supply. Anyway, I said go ahead and the new one will be ready in two weeks (everything seems to take two weeks at PGM).
In the meantime, I’d recruited Chris Coakley and his new petrol chainsaw to finish pruning the hornbeam. He’d got his chainsaw from Argos for £100 and it was a Qualcast (made in China, of course). We unpacked it, added oil, petrol and it fired up pretty quickly. After a bit of a puzzle sorting out the chain adjustment, we got the job done very quickly. Chris took the bigger logs for his woodburner and I kept the rest to use around the garden and in the chiminea next year. Hornbeam is good hard wood and it should burn well.
Fix hole in hedge: The hedge has become choked with ivy and starved of light under the acer brilliantissima, some hawthorn had died and some elderberry grown in its place so that a hole had formed. Last year, when I was cutting the hedge, I pulled out some dead wood and ivy, so the gap was now very obvious. I decided I’d try to fill the gap by stretching hawthorn and beech strands across from adjacent plants, also plug holes with pyracantha from the bottom. I planned to use hornbeam branches from my tree pruning to form a frame and temporary fence (to discourage Holly from nipping into the field).
The pyracantha was planted years ago at the bottom and it has survived conifer felling and summerhouse building as well as poor light from the summerhouse and laurel shading it. I thought if anything can grow here it’s this stuff, so I’ve dug the remainder out from the bottom and managed to get about seven decent plants. Pyracantha spreads very easily by throwing out roots and then shooting up as a new stem, so it’s very easy to divide and very difficult to kill.
I think that might do the trick and, in the summer, I’ll remove a couple of branches from the acer to give the hedge a little more light.
Car problems: We’re off skiing in France soon and I’ve been a little concerned about the car. It’s not been running right and Andy Bunyan had it before Christmas where his diagnosis said problems with glow-plugs and particulate filter. He did the glowplugs, but it was still stalling when cold and not picking up smoothly all the time. So last week Andy had it back, cleaned the particulate filter (which he thought was causing the problem), but it was still not right. He then took it to a centre in Peterborough, which has more advanced test equipment and that showed faults with the throttle body sensor and mass air sensor (there are too many sensors on modern cars). It seems to be running better, but not right; there are still flat spots and issues when you want it to pick up from a constant or trailing throttle.
Anyway, Andy was hoping to get a new mass air sensor and fit it before we left, but it wasn't delivered in time on Monday, so I'll leave it until we get back. Fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong in France.
Bike stuff: Tom is thinking about writing a blog on motorcycle racing and I may contribute a regular column to that. It would be quite nice to be writing something to a deadline once more.
TV: we are not watching a great deal of TV. We're probably watching less now than when I was at work (well, no more). I have knocked off a couple of things that have been sitting on the Sky+ box for some time and last week, we spent all of Friday evening watching a series called Family Tree, which I'd recorded months ago. It was a mockumentary, the premise being that a man had been left a chest by his great aunt and it contained all kinds of family relics.
He got interested and that prompted him to find out about his family. So it was a comedy, along the lines of Best in Show, and starred Chris O'Dowd (an Irish comedian) and Nina Conti, who essentially played herself - a mixed-up woman walking round with a monkey puppet on her arm.
We watched eight half-hour episodes and it was really good, not hilarious, but with a nice steady story and some gentle humour. It had a sort of happy ending, but was clearly left at a stage where a second series would have been the obvious thing.
I was checking on the internet this morning to see if there was any news about Series Two and I found a story saying HBO had decided not to recommission it. What a shame.
Anton du Beke: On Saturday evening, we went to see the ballroom dancer Anton du Beke at the Barbican, London. Pauline and Chris came along too.
I’ve never really watched dance (except ballet, but never really close up) and it was staggering how light on their feet and athletic they were. When du Beke came on for his first piece, he seemed to skim the floor and even leaps and other moves which you’d think required a firm take-off or landing were accomplished without impact.
He did a lovely slow foxtrot, a lightning-fast quickstep and a great tango at a fast tempo to Mein Herr from Cabaret. I loved the way that the two dancers used the leverage of their partner’s body to gain momentum for a lift or fast twist. At the interval, I couldn’t believe the first half had gone so quickly.
Stamford: when Davina and Laura came to stay for Straw Bear, we went to Stamford on the Sunday and discovered a really nice cheese shop in St Mary Street called Stamford Cheese Cellar. Laura did her usual trick of breezing in and immediately becoming best friends with the lady behind the counter (Suzy) who was convinced she’d met Laura before.
Anyway, we had decided to use the shop for cheese from time to time and we went along on Sunday to choose some to take to France. We bought Cote Hill Blue, Stichelton and Wodehill Blue. We also bought some Northamptonshire honey and a relish and a chutney from Castle Bytham just north of Stamford. Suzy is such a good salesman that she also got us to buy Peter’s Yard crispbread, baked to an old Swedish recipe in Scotland. This will all be enjoyed in the cheese capital of the world – France!