Saturday, December 29, 2018

Making Space

One of the best outcomes of the recent kitchen renovation was that it enabled us to get a clothes dryer, even though there was no room for a clothes dryer in our kitchen. None at all. Still, we managed to create some.

That is the enduring challenge of living in a tiny flat: creating space. We’ve become proficient at it, but by now we’ve pretty much conjured up all that is possible, so I was skeptical about generating a dryer-sized hole in a kitchen that obviously had no room for one. I was, however, keen to try.

This is the kitchen, with no space for a dryer.
We used to have a clothes dryer back in Pelham Court, and it was brilliant. There was more room there, so squeezing one in wasn’t very difficult. The difficult bit was the exhaust hose that we had to dangle out the window every time we turned it on. Eventually, however, they invented viable condenser dryers, and life got a lot more convenient.

Then we moved, and we haven’t had a dryer since.

The flat in the Forum, where we lived for about three years, had such a diminutive kitchen area that there wasn’t room for much at all. What it had was a tiny washer/dryer unit that was less than useless. It washed only a handful of clothes at a time, and its wash cycle ran for nearly two hours. To then dry the clothes in the same machine would mean spending the entire day getting three shirts and a pair of trousers done, so I used it only as a washing machine and strung the wet clothes up all around the flat. Sheet day was a joy, as I had to run a line down the hallway to hang them out to dry.

Moving to this flat, with its normal-sized washer, meant I could do the week’s laundry in two loads, and then string them up all over the flat.

This worked while I was the only one home during the day, but then my wife began her practice retirement and the paradigm shifted. It was still possible, but really inconvenient, to hang the clothes on racks, which are continually in the way with the two of us here, but sheets proved impossible to dry. There simply was no space large enough to hang them out. Our space-creating skills are fairly sharp, but they are not good enough to generate an empty room with the necessary dimensions to dry a set of sheets and a duvet cover. So, for the past nine months, we’ve been hauling our wet laundry to my mother-in-law’s house, like a couple of college kids, to use her dryer. It is not an ideal situation.

So when the destruction of our kitchen was proposed, my wife began shuffling cabinets and counters and drawers around in her mind—like a giant, imaginary Rubik's Cube—until the kitchen yielded up enough space to shoehorn in a dryer. It was an amazing victory of willpower over physics.

The plan called for removing the smallest of the kitchen cabinets and moving its contents to a larger cabinet that we had been using as a pantry. This not only gave us more space for the pots and pans, it also meant we could move the pantry, which was closer to knee-height than eye-height and therefore in a position we were both finding increasingly awkward. (None of us are getting any younger, and bending over to stare into the dim recesses of a cabinet to try to locate a tin of soup isn’t as easy as it used to be.) The pantry move involved me building a custom designed shelving unit to create even more space, a challenge I was eager to take on. I had, after all, created 25 feet of unobtrusive book-shelving in the hallway where there had been only 4, and produced 30 square feet of storage in the bathroom cupboard where they had been only 8, and pulled 97 and a half square feet of storage/shelving/work space out of thin air in The Office (its sort of like the loaves and fishes, only with pine boards and rawlplugs) so manufacturing enough space for a pantry would be child’s play.

As a bonus, I was able to justify spending some quality time in my shed (it’s really my mother-in-law’s shed, but I’ve kinda taken it over), emerging some time later with, if I say so myself, an attractive shelving unit that held all the stuff in our erstwhile pantry, plus a few bits more.

The new pantry, bigger, more visible, and with added space.
As a result of all this finagling, our kitchen has acquired a dryer-sized hole that is currently waiting for a dryer to be installed in it.

Now all we have to do is create enough space for the rubbish bin.

The Dryer-Sized hole.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Yes Virginia

Ah, the Christmas season! It must be time to trot out my “Brush With Greatness” story. But first, a little historical context.

If you were to buttonhole a random Brit and ask, “Do you know who Alice Liddell is?” They would most likely look stealthily around to see if there was a cop, or at least a PCSO, in the immediate area, but once they understood that you weren’t a serial killer or, worse, a Chugger, they might smile nervously and tell you they had no idea what you were talking about. If, however, you asked, “Have you ever heard of Alice in Wonderland?” They would nob and give a resounding yes, then look for a cop.

If you went on to tell your newfound, but unwilling, friend that you had actually met this famous Alice, they might think, “This person is obviously loony! Alice was a character in a book. How could he have met her?” This inner argument would be given credence by the fact that it would likely be taking place in a Care Home, because you’d have to be in your mid-nineties for your story to be true, but we’re getting away from the point.

Alice Liddell, looking all pouty and sexy in a photo taken by
Mr. Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll
My point is, if you told someone you had met the real Alice from Alice in Wonderland, they would (after you convinced them that she wasn’t simply a character in a book) be impressed. Such is her fame that this would happen on either side of the Atlantic. Everyone has heard of Alice. Not so with Virginia.

Virginia O'Hanlon, looking a little more demure than Alice.
Ask a random American if they’ve heard of Virginia O’Hanlon, and you’d get the same nervous looks and surreptitious search for law enforcers. But ask if they have heard the phrase, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” and they would immediately know what you are talking about. Then they’d go find a cop.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” is so ingrained in US culture that people probably think, as they might of Alice, that she was simply a literary device. But Virginia, like Alice, was a real little girl, and, like Alice, she didn’t really do anything. All she did was write a letter to The Sun newspaper asking if Santa was real. (All Alice did, by the way, was have herself born into the British upper class and befriend a literary pedophile.)

In 1897, Virginia, who lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side—not exactly on a par with the British upper class, but no slouch, either—asked her father whether Santa Claus really existed. She was eight at the time, and her father, who doubtlessly wanted her to stop annoying him, told her to write to The Sun, reportedly stating, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." And she did.

The letter was passed on to Francis Pharcellus Church, one of the newspaper’s editors. It was he who wrote what would arguably become the most famous editorial in US history. The editorial was well received and grew in popularity over the years. According to Wikipedia, it is the most reprinted editorial in any newspaper in the English language. In 1971, a children's book titled Yes, Virginia was published and noticed by Warner Brothers, who eventually made an Emmy award-winning television show based on the editorial.

As you can see, Virginia, her letter, and Mr. Church’s response, are rooted deep in the US national psyche.   

Well, I am here to tell you—Yanks and Brits alike—that I met Virginia O’Hanlon.

She spent her later years in the Barnwell Nursing Home in Valatie, NY. I am not certain what hideous things she did during her life, or any past lives, that caused karma to visit such a fate upon her, but that event allowed her to befriend a Mrs. Drum, who was my first grade teacher. At Christmas time, in 1961, Mrs. Drum invited Virginia to visit my class. She read her letter, and the famous response, and I recall at the time knowing that she was someone really famous, but I was most impressed by how incredibly old she was (whereas now I am wondering why, at the tender age of 71, she was in a nursing home).

Over the years, I have impressed many people by telling them of my encounter with the authentic Virginia (she of “there is a Santa Claus” fame; I did meet a woman over here who was a friend and contemporary of Virginia Woolf, she of “who’s afraid of” fame, but that’s another story), upon my arrival in the UK, however, this story stopped having any value. In Britain, asking “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus?’” gets the same response as, “Did you know that cat urine glows under ultraviolet light?”And, in truth, they’d likely be more interested in hearing about the cat urine.

So, there is it, my brush with Christmas Greatness. And here is the letter that started it all, along with the famous response:


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Customer Service UK Style

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that, this past week, we had some renovations done to the kitchen that resulted in the power going out. It eventually came back on. Here’s how that happened:

Our flat was apparently wired during the Victorian Era and not upgraded since, so the Kitchen Guy was not surprised when the fuse blew. Neither was I. Some months ago, all the lights in the flat went out, so I called the management company responsible for the flat (let’s call them Leaders) and they sent their trouble-shooter out to shoot the trouble. The trouble was the equivalent of a blown fuse, only it involved something the locals call “fuse-wire.”

You take some of this...

...and wrap it around this.
The trouble-shooter showed me how to wrap the thin wire around the knobs in the fuse and replace it. I found it fascinating. In my day, we had screw-in fuses and you just stuck a penny in the slot.

A proper fuse box, with fuses you can stick a penny in.
Although intrigued by the time-capsule of electronics he discovered in our wiring cabinet, the trouble-shooter said he would report it and recommend that something be done about it. That was the last we heard of it. Since then, I have had to replace a fuse-wire once or twice, but nothing truly untoward happened until this.

The Kitchen Guy poked around with an electrical thingamabob and said it wasn’t any of the fuses to the flat. In fact, there was no power coming into the flat at all, which meant there was another fuse somewhere down the line that had blown. Fixing it would solve the problem, but first we had to find it. Then he left.

I knocked on neighbor’s doors, both to ascertain that their electricity hadn’t gone out (it hadn’t) and to see if they knew who was responsible for the building (they didn’t). So, unable to locate the building’s managing company, I called the emergency/out-of-hours number for Leaders.

The nice lady at the other end of the phone (somewhere in Jersey, I suspect) took my details and told me she would call the local office and that they would contact me shortly.

Shortly came and went, so I called them, and got a recording telling me the office was closed. This concerned me because calling the local office was what the Out of Hours lady told me she was going to do, and I suspected she would get the same response I did.

Fortunately, I am familiar enough with the operations of Leaders Property Management to know that they operate in the same offices as Leaders Lettings (can you say, “conflict of interest”?). I phoned them and explained the problem to the woman who answered. Her overriding concern was how to rectify my urgent problem. No, wait, that’s not it. Fobbing me off, yeah, that’s it. She simply told me that the office was closed, and I would have to wait until Monday.

After succinctly and calmly explaining that this would be unacceptable (something along the lines of “You’re fucking kidding me!) she switched tactics and tried to pin the blame on me. The upshot was, a contractor I had hired did something that caused the electricity to go out, ergo, it was my problem. I told her what the contractor had told me, that the electrics were dangerously sub-standard, and that was why the fuse blew. To which she replied, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

To her credit, I eventually talked her around and she came up trumps (not that kind of Trump, the good kind) and doggedly fought my corner until a solution was found. I left her to do what she could and pursued my own leads. After exhausting all hope of contacting the management company for my building—or even finding out if one existed—I called Npower, my electric company. The woman there was very concerned about solving my problem. No, wait, that’s not it. Avoiding responsibility, yeah, that’s it. She cheerfully explained that it had nothing to do with them. Contrary to what one might expect, they did nothing but collect my money; the nuts, bolts and fuses were the bailiwick of a local supplier. So, I called them.

The local supplier was concerned with one thing, and one thing only: getting my problem solved. Wait, no, that’s not it. Avoiding responsibility, yeah, that’s what she was after. I repeatedly explained the situation, and she repeatedly told me it was not possible. Furthermore—and she was very clear on this—they were not going to do anything about it.

After five hours, my contact at Leaders managed to get an emergency electrician to visit the flat. He affirmed that the Kitchen Guy had been correct, there was another fuse down the line that had blown, but it wasn’t outside the flat as he had supposed, it was in the closet with the rest of the wires and fuse boxes, disguised as a random piece of bakelite.

There it is!
The problem was, it had a seal on it that was not supposed to be broken by anyone but the local supplier. So, he called the local supplier.

He got the same woman I talked to, and she assured him—as she had assured me—that what he was describing was impossible; it could not, did not, exist, and even if it did, it wasn’t their problem. She was so focused on her company mission of not accepting any accountability that she wouldn’t let the electrician get a word in edgewise. He finally told her that all he needed was permission to break the seal and he’d deal with the problem, but she wouldn’t do that, either. Giving him permission to break their seal on what was clearly their fuse would be to admit that it existed, so she refused to address the question and, instead, reiterated her assertions that what we were seeing was impossible and not their problem and…

So, he hung up on her and broke the seal.

The fuse was, indeed, blown. He replaced it and the electricity came back on.

When I contacted Leaders on Monday, their overriding concern was for my inconvenience and putting right the issues surrounding the incident. No, wait, that wasn’t it. Pinning blame, yeah, that’s what they were after. Every communication I had with them was focused mainly on making sure I understood what happened was my fault.

My take on this was: if I had rented a boat from a marina (let’s call it Leader’s Marina) and both they, and the guy who owned the boat, knew it had a hole in it, and I invited a friend on board and then the boat sank, would it be my fault for inviting the friend? Or might it be their fault for not fixing the hole? Just a thought.

Anyway, after a few exchanges of emails, they gave up, but I’m sure I haven’t heard the last of this. Someone has to pay that electrician for coming out here, and you can bet it won’t be Leaders, or the landlord.

And the other thing I can be certain of is, nothing is going to be done about the state of the electrics.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Tales of Renovation

We all have a renovation horror story. Here’s mine:

The Dream

It started because I got tired of putting my hand down on grit every time I touched the kitchen counters.

This wasn’t because we’re slobs; it was the fault of the counter itself, which came in the popular grey/white/black pattern I like to call Crumb Camouflage. Anything falling on that counter was immediately invisible and, therefore, not cleaned away. The solution, most people might suppose, would involve cleaning the counters more often, but to me, the obvious course of action was new counter-tops.

Kitchen Counter in the popular "Crumb Camouflage" style.
Incredibly, I managed to convince my wife of this. We knew we wouldn’t be able to convince the landlord, so we opted to cover the cost ourselves. Then I figure, if we were replacing the old kitchen counters, we might as well replace the old sink, and the antiquated hob, at the same time. My wife agreed to this, as well, but with less enthusiasm. The landlord approved our plans—with the stipulation that it wouldn’t cost him any money—and we set out to buy new kitchen stuff.

Love at First Sight

We picked out a nice wood-effect counter, a spiffy modern hob and then went to look at sinks.

Because I do the washing up. the sink is my domain, and I was the one picking it out. I looked at the standard-issue sinks on display, and was resigned to buying one of them, until I discovered, hidden away in a drawer, a granite sink.

It was black and sleek and sexy, and much sturdier than the stainless-steel models. I fell immediately in love and managed to convince my wife that, at merely twice the price of a normal sink, it was a bargain we couldn’t pass up.

Seriously, is that a sink to die for, or what?
Arranging a Date

We had already hired a kitchen fitter. He had visited, given an estimate and told us to call him once we had the materials. But when the materials arrived, he—like any good builder—became impossible to contact for a week or two. And when he finally called back, I was at a choir performance and not exactly in a position to give him my full attention. Fearing I wouldn’t be able to make contact for another two weeks, however, I agreed to the date he offered, which was two days before we were to host a Thanksgiving Day meal for friends. The astute among you will have spotted the problem. I wasn’t worried, however, because he assured me it would be a quick job, easily finished in a single day.

You can tell I don’t have builders in very often.

Second Thoughts

The night before the work was to start, my wife lay awake thinking of colors. She had picked out the counters she wanted, and I had picked out the sink I wanted, and we had picked out the paint she wanted for the walls, and in the night, belatedly, it occurred to her that the colors didn’t match the current kitchen decor. In the morning, we stared at the kitchen, imagining the new fixtures in place, and I realized two things: she was right, and there was nothing we could do about it. 

The Reality

On the appointed day, the The Kitchen Guy and his mates arrived and the destruction began. The one stipulation we had was that the kitchen cabinets and the tiles on the kitchen wall were not to be damaged as they were not being replaced. The Kitchen Guy was very conscientious about this, but no one (except my wife, who is a die-hard realist) was prepared for what he found when he lifted out the old counters.

A quick-and-dirty installation of a boiler sometime in the recent past had pipes running along the base of the kitchen wall, and the cabinets were simply shoved up against them. This meant that the cabinets were not flush with—or even attached to—the wall, which also meant that the old counter tops didn’t touch the wall, either. They solved this problem by sticking wall tiles on with gobs of plaster to fill the inch-wide gap between them and the wall. As a consequence, the tiles were basically balanced on the back edge of the counter and, when it was removed, they fell off.

The Kitchen Guy said he could put them back up, but seeing a chance to rectify the color-scheme dilemma, I told him to take them all off and re-tile.

This pushed the work into a second day, not the re-tiling—which is yet to be scheduled—but merely the removal of the old tiles and putting right the series of bodge-jobs inflicted by builders past. Still, on the second day, they began work with unflagging optimism and assured me they would finish by noon. At 5 PM they called it a day and said they would return in the morning to clean up and do the few remaining odds and ends. So we put the kitchen back together, turned the oven on to begin baking for the Thanksgiving feast the following day, and discovered the oven wasn’t working. The Kitchen Guy said he could fix it the following morning when he returned.

And so, on day three of a one-day job, they came back, cleaned up, pulled the oven out to check the wiring, and the electricity went out.

But more on that later.

Suffice it to say, the electricity was eventually put right, along with the oven, and we have been left with a kitchen decorated in what I like to call Ghetto Chic.

Our walls are now done in Ghetto Chic.
The bonus is, when they removed the tiles, they found a mural painted on the wall just above the hob. Not a lost Rembrandt or anything, but it adds a bit of whimsy.

It actually looks better than you think; the tiling on top of it didn't do it any favors.
The end result, however, is that I’m still putting my hand down on grit every time I touch the kitchen counters.

But at least I can see it.