I am obsessed with the likes of Zoopla and Right Move and checking out properties where I live and in towns where I might want to live.  I often complain about how often I’ve moved house but I clearly find great interest in finding new places to live, even when I’m not officially looking.  I am not currently looking to move, but I am fairly up to date with the rental market in Folkestone at the moment, and also Whitstable and Hastings, the two other places I always check out.  I occasionally look at sale prices but it’s rental that I’m interested in.  Maybe it’s just to see what else is out there or maybe it’s to confirm that I’ve got the best of a some really grotty places to live, for a lot of what I see, particularly in Folkestone, is awful.

I guess a lot of people like to do this to see how much their property is worth if they’re considering selling.  Likewise, it’s good to know if you’re contemplating moving into rented accommodation, what you can get for your money.  However, as I am neither considering buying nor moving, I do sometimes wonder why I spend so much time looking on property search sites.  If I saw a seemingly perfect house/flat to rent, I wouldn’t do anything about it, though maybe I’d feel a bit annoyed that I weren’t in a position to go and check it out with a view to moving in.

Maybe the property search obsession is to do with an, I think, natural nosiness for other homes.  I love going to people’s homes and seeing new places.  I like to see how people decorate, what their house is like and, as with the house I went to over the weekend for the house party gig, it’s a joy to see really cool houses, particularly when they’re in really obscure or unexpected places – that particular flat was part of a school conversion and was at the end of a cul-de-sac of modern houses.

I am always really disappointed if there either aren’t photos of there are poor quality photos or no photos of certain rooms.  Best of all is when there is a floor plan.  I think they are the most useful addition to the basic information about the house.  I also hate, hate, hate poor English in the descriptions.  This ruins the whole description for me.  And if there is a fuzzy, useless photo too, well I’d never even contemplate renting the place.  Unfortunately though, most descriptions are badly written.

However, there is an estate agency that still exists, Roy Brooks (in fact I found one of my flats on their website), which was established by Roy Brooks 75 years ago.  He was known for his completely honest descriptions of properties.  If everyone wrote their descriptions like him. it would be much easier to only view properties you might be interested in, as even the dreadful properties wouldn’t be glossed over and seem cheap; you would know exactly why they were cheap and make your mind up accordingly.  Here, as quoted on the Roy Brooks website and in a book of his property descriptions, are some of his descriptions (NB they were probably all written in the 1960s):

“WILL NO ONE BUY THIS POOR OLD HOUSE? Empty, miserable & racked by the district trains that pass at the end of its tiny, overgrown garden…”

“WE HAVE A RATHER REPULSIVE OLD MAN who with his child-wife, are looking for an elegant town res. pref Belgravia…Price not important but must be realistic as he has, at least, his head screwed on the right way…”

“…SO CALLED GARDEN WITH POSSIBILITIES best solved by saturation bombing’, and a ‘back bedroom suitable only for a dwarf…”


{30/01/2013}   Tax returns

Tomorrow is the dreaded day when tax returns are due and need to be paid.  This year, more than most, it has filled me with dread for some months.  Oddly, I don’t get annoyed about having to pay all this money, I’ve somehow accepted that that’s just how it is.  It was maybe only for the first year or two of being self-employed that I thought about what I could have bought with the money I had to send to the Inland Revenue.  I have now been self-employed for 11 years and you’d think I’d learnt to organise myself and put money aside every month so my January and July tax bills don’t seem to come as a surprise to me.  Yeah, right!

A lot of friends who are self-employed also seem to be struggling to pay this tax bill, but for me the worry is more the realisation that I am truly useless with money and would probably cope a lot better being employed.  I have often thought I should put away about a quarter of each month’s salary into a tax account.  I have a tax account but it remains largely static until I have a panic and suddenly transfer all money I have available into that account.  I then tend to “borrow” from that account and not pay it back.  Then comes the surprise at having a tax bill which isn’t covered by my tax account!  I know I’m not the only one to do this so I don’t feel as bad as I could, maybe should.

As for the actual tax return, I always plan to get all my paperwork together in May to send off.  By November, I’m usually ready to send it off to my accountant.  I like having an accountant but I get annoyed that I still have to do the same amount of paperwork and receipt information as when I used to do it myself.  However, she does find other things I can use as expenses and she has given me lots of references for house moves, which prior to having an accountant always made moving house even more complicated and stressful.  As I do not keep track of my earnings, each month being so completely different, I get a little buzz of anticipation when I find out the year’s salary, though that buzz is always deflated when I then scan down to the more significant line, the bit about how much I need to cobble together to pay my bill!

I have never had a permanent job in the UK, only temp work and being self-employed, and I do usually feel envious of friends who get paid holidays and sick pay and don’t have to keep their receipts and who don’t have to pay tax on their monthly income, it of course having already been deducted.  I know there are advantages to being self-employed but around January and, to a lesser extent, July, I do not see those benefits and I do not feel the love for being self-employed.

Over the past almost two weeks of commuting into central London from zone 2, bearing in mind there was a week of snow carnage, I have concluded that, while my usual HS1 javelin train is hideously, financially cripplingly expensive, it is the least stressful commute I have ever had.  Over the past couple of weeks there have been snow issues, “inclement weather” issues, technical issues, signalling issues, rail replacement buses and problems with the boards displaying incorrect information.  I have as a result witnessed some hideous passenger behaviour, from mild scuffles to very, very raised voices.

Last night, London Bridge was in disarray, though I am not sure why as there were no announcements and I didn’t see any staff on the ground to pester.  People were everywhere and the bridge area over the tracks was rammed full of people, all looking confused and harassed.  Occasionally,  a flock of people would battle their way in one direction, clearly alerted to a train they could get on from a platform it wouldn’t usually go from.  I fell for this too.  The boards were wrong and some trains just didn’t exist.  Very odd.  In the end I got a train to a nearby stop.  That train was full and there were issues with the doors so it left late, by which time I had been at London Bridge for half an hour.  By this time, everyone was hot and bothered and there was much tutting, sighing and “excuse me”s.

However, that was mild compared to one journey a friend and I got together last week.  We got on at City Thameslink and were travelling for six stops, only the latter three of which people properly start getting off the train.  It was as full as a train could be and was an already late train leaving from a platform that hadn’t seen that many trains for a while – rush hour, of course.  It was horrid.  I heard at least three actually quite nasty arguments, one about a passenger’s bag in a seated passenger’s face (two women; I thought they would come to blows) and one was a bloke who was trying to get off the train but people weren’t getting off to allow him and others the room to get off.  It got very heated and very tense and I also thought there would be fisty cuffs.  The other argument was as a result of someone shouting into the carriage from the platform, trying to get people to move up.  What he couldn’t appreciate is that we were already nose to head and there was nowhere to move, which somebody informed him in no uncertain terms … and so it went on.  That didn’t end with handshakes and cheery greetings either.

As for the issue of rail replacement buses, that was on Sunday at Charing Cross, from where there were no trains – planned engineering works apparently.  Actually, I don’t think there were rail replacement buses (three words that send shivers of dread through me), passengers were sent to Cannon Street instead.  Like that’s close by.  Oh, and the Northern Line wasn’t running on that stretch of tube track.  Again, lots of stressed and confused passengers.

I don’t know how “we” so often get it so completely wrong and chaotic where train travel is concerned.  I think it is awful that so many weather conditions provoke train station and train carnage and it’s not really that surprising that passengers get angry, stressed and nasty, though the latter shouldn’t happen.  I wonder what further disruption and chaos I will endure over the rest of this week.

{28/01/2013}   Sending cards

I send birthday and Christmas cards to friends and would (and do) feel awful if I don’t (or I forget).  I know a few people who don’t send cards and I have very mixed feelings about this as a rule of thumb.  On the one hand I am resentful of the greeting card industry for forcing on me the notion that you send cards for all occasions, from get well soon to celebrating divorces, along with the more conventional cards.  But on the other hand, with some people, particularly those I rarely see, it is a way of touching base and connecting with them.

I have a few friends who don’t send cards for birthdays or Christmas and they are quite open about this.  I then never know whether to send them cards or not, knowing there’s no way they’ll reciprocate.  Up until now I have sent them cards because that’s what I like to do and it plays on my mind if I don’t.  Silly really but that’s how it is.  Maybe I’ll continue to send them birthday cards but not Christmas cards.  There, that’s a compromise.

In terms of the cost of cards, I baulk at paying over £2 for a card, but increasingly cards seem to cost over £2.  I feel I’ve got a bit clever to all this and now often buy boxes of pretty/arty/nice cards to use as birthday cards.  I have even made a few, though they are of questionable quality as a rule!  Then there is postage.  It costs 50p to send a card 2nd class and 60p first class.  In my more organised years (ie from last year!), I am usually ahead where cards are concerned and usually send them second class.  But, really, it’s just a card.  Which is why I endeavour to write letters with cards, though with my cunning early sending of cards, I now realise that most friends seem to save their cards to open on their birthday, as indeed I do, so letters end up being a bit out of date.  That said, I’m pretty sure it’s always nice to receive a letter with a birthday card and it’s better to be an early letter out of date than a hurried letter arriving after the event.

But where do you draw the line?  I sometimes send cards of sympathy to good friends after a death of a close family member/friend/partner and I sometimes (usually) send new baby cards.  I’ve even been known to send the odd thank you card.  I despise Valentine’s Day and its commerciality and artificiality but sometimes it’s nice to receive a Valentine’s Card from a loved one (better from a gorgeous hunk of an admirer – does that happen?!) in which they write you a personalised message.  But that said, I’d far rather get a love note (or whatever you want to call it!) for no particular reason not on a day deemed by the greeting card industry to be the day you have to buy one of their cards for.

Every year for the past I don’t know how many years I have contemplated sending no Christmas cards but as soon as December gets going, I feel the twitch to write and send cards and I always do.  I write letters or fill at least the blank card space when I send Christmas cards and this really is sometimes a bit of an annual (well, the same for birthdays too, for friends I don’t see regularly) catch up.  And I am pretty sure I will continue to send Christmas and birthday cards until I am too frail to write.

Noel McCalla Acoustic Trio performing at a house partyI had a lovely, girlie Saturday night at my first ever house party gig.  There were about 30 of us in the open plan living area of a very cool school conversion in Faversham, Kent.  We saw the Noel McCalla Acoustic Trio, who I had never heard of before (though I knew Noel McCalla had formerly been the lead singer in Manfred Mann’s Earth Band).  Before going there, it had occurred to me that you’d have to be a pretty confident singer to perform in a small space with a small audience sitting right in front of you.  To my mind, the evening was the perfect way to hear live music.

I never knew that things like this existed and I am so glad my mum put me onto this concept of small venue gigs in an informal setting.  We were able to bring our own food and drink, it only cost £10 and being three of only c30 people, we were really close to the musicians and the sound was brilliant.  I love that you can eat and drink whatever you choose to bring and that there was a real mix of people and that it’s in someone’s (v cool) home.  I also found it refreshing that there was no merchandise for sale, in fact there was nothing to buy at all.  Just an evening about listening to good music with like-minded people.

The hosts are a lovely couple who have a lot of contacts in the music industry.  They have done quite a few of these evenings and there are two more coming up that I’d like to go to.  The only problem being there are few places and it seems the same people regularly go and bring more friends each time.

As for Noel McCalla, he’s a fun performer with an amazing voice that he kind of plays with.  They largely did covers of 1960s/1970s songs and there was a bit of audience interaction, which I really enjoyed.  I hadn’t expected them to do covers but when someone, in the words of an X Factor judge, makes the song their own, it makes for a good evening, especially as he played some classics, such as Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Particularly during the first half, I was permanently smiling because it was all so good.  The lighting was lovely and mellow, the music and singing were great and I loved not having to either stand up or sit in rows on uncomfortable seats.  The sound system and acoustics were surprisingly good and he was accompanied by two of my favourite musical instruments, a guitar and a double bass – well, more accurately, he was accompanied by two musicians.  Noel interacted and chatted a bit with us and I even had a chat with him outside the toilet during the break.

He ended their set with an impromptu encore, as chosen by someone in the audience (though chosen as one suggestion which he and the band could wing).  They performed “No Woman, No Cry” and we all joined in for the chorus.  Ahh, it was lovely.  My friend and I then sang it in the car on the way home and it is still in my head now.

I was right about going to a house party gig though, the singer and musicians need to be really good as it’s all so raw.  This band were great and it seemed to suit their laidback style.  I now keep thinking of musicians I’d like to see in a setting like that and who could easily pull it off.

{26/01/2013}   Bidding at auction

I went to Greenwich Auction House yesterday, the first time in over a year, and I was reminded how much fun it is.  I got there early to have a look around with the catalogue in hand, which is part of the fun, marking the things you want.  There were a few things I liked the look of but it was a “19th c style hardwood frame plantation chair with footrest arms, upholstered in antique tan leather with stud relief £120-£150” that I had my sights on.

I am fortunate enough to have a friend who lives opposite the auction house so as the lot I wanted to bid on was number 290 and there was still 40 minutes before the auction was even due to commence, I went to hers for coffee.  The auction house has a fantastic caff where instant coffee is sold in polystyrene cups.  There is something really old school about the whole auction experience in small-scale auction houses and it all adds to the charm.

Having spent time at the Greenwich auction in the past, I knew it would be cold in there so was well prepared with my puffy coat, and indeed I could see my breath for the duration of my time spent there!  I secured a seat about 20 minutes before my lot came up, having got my bidding card from the office.  I was all very calm, but then the auction adrenaline kicked in, the kind of adrenaline that makes you keep waving your bidding card furiously when other people try to outbid you.  It’s a dangerous thing, the whole shopping with a laminated piece of card that you merely need to raise in the air to attempt to secure a purchase.

I know from experience that you have to have in mind the maximum you will bid for something, particularly as 18% is added on at the end as the buyer’s fee.  At first I decided I would only bid for the chair if I could get it for £100, then I decided £120, then I saw lots of other people looking admiringly at it, so had a bit of  think about how much it could be worth.  We are ignoring the fact I have just bought three armchairs.  The reason I loved the chair was because it was good quality, worn tan leather and it was deep and had a lovely curve to it.  It also transpired that half of each arm (wooden) opened out to make a drinks table.  I was won over and I really wanted that chair.  Also dangerous in an auction, especially when raising an arm is such an easy, reflex thing to do!

As the auctioneer got to about 15 lots before mine, I started getting really excited and neatly arranged my card so the number would be the right way up when I raised it.  I was feeling the buzz and the great anticipation.  To my annoyance, the auctioneer paused over this lot and explained a bit more about the chair, creating additional interest.  Then the bidding started and before I knew it my hand was jerking up and down uncontrollably.  Dreadful.  £120 became £150 but it kept going up.  I then made moves to raise my arm at £170, at which point I was a bit panicky at clearly being out of control, but somebody else got the £170 before me.  It was then quite a way over what I had decided to pay and someone bought it over the phone for £190 and I got the impression that person would have kept bidding.  I was really disappointed.

I don’t like going to auctions and coming away empty handed, especially as there was a lot I liked as much as I liked that one.  Thing is, I suspect it wouldn’t have fitted in my car so I would have needed to get a black cab or hired a van, another 18 % would have been added to the total and it would have ended up a lot more than I could justify spending on a chair.  But it was lovely and I am now back in the swing of going to auctions.

{26/01/2013}   Making lifestyle changes

I know of a few people who have had major health scares and ended up completely changing certain aspects of their lives, usually where work is concerned.  I know a few people right now who should probably change their lifestyle to ensure ongoing decent health, but therein lies the infuriating problem, namely that people rarely seem to make huge lifestyle changes unless and until something drastic happens to them.

I read a book recently, “Hector and the Search for Happiness” by François Lelord, in which life changes were discussed.  I found it quite an inspiring book, particularly emphasis on happiness not being something you can achieve if you make it your goal.  I think happiness comes in unexpected places at unexpected times and sometimes as a result of making or experiencing huge changes.  In fact, maybe “usually” rather than just “sometimes”.

I know it is hard – because I’ve been thinking about it for years – to do things you really want to do when there is a degree of unpredictability or deep-end fear about what you want to do but it seems a shame that it often takes something awful to happen to kick start anything new.

However, I do also think there is an element of escaping, particularly amongst people who decide their change will be to move abroad.  I remember when I first moved to Japan, someone who had been there for years asked me what it was I was running away from.  I was somewhat flustered and said there was nothing, to which he gave me a knowing look and a raised eyebrow.  I later realised I was running away from the reality of, having finished university, getting a “proper” job.  I was then aware of a lot of people who had moved to Japan after relationship breakdowns and a few who had been made redundant.  It makes sense, and indeed it goes back to my point about something needing to happen, something drastic, before you make lifestyle changes like that.  Maybe it doesn’t matter if it could be perceived as “running away” because ultimately a change is usually a good thing.

I guess I am writing this and thinking about it because I want to initiate a change but am happy not to have something awful in my life that means I have no choice in the matter.  I do have choice but I am struggling to do anything massively proactive, though I have (very unrealistically, I know) been buying lottery tickets every week as a windfall would mean I could finally pluck up the courage to take a massive financial challenge and get going with having my own cafe, which is ultimately what I would love to.  I often look at people who work in cafes I like and think how I would like to be doing that all day.  I know the reality will be hard work and different kinds of stresses and, distressingly, I would have to deal with some members of the public I would rather not have to encounter, but that’s what I really want to do. I’m just finding it hard to deal with the financial side of it and knowing I would have to change my lifestyle … it’s hard but isn’t that what new challenges are about?

{25/01/2013}   Foxes
The other day, I felt drawn into Tatty Devine on Brick Lane, a jewellery shop whose window I had often looked at from outside but had never been in before.  I ended up buying a wooden fox brooch, which I realise in part was because I love foxes.  I used to be indifferent to the presence of foxes in towns, but after a fox kind of rescued me a few years ago I am now happy to see them and I am pleased to have my fox badge.

A few years ago, I lived in a basement flat of a detached Victorian house.  The front door was down about four steps and that part of the house was surrounded by a brick wall about a metre high.  My mum and my boyfriend were with me on the afternoon of my fox story.  My mum had been outside with a broom and, on walking above the flat’s entrance height heading to the steps to get in the door, on a level with the metre high wall which was essentially holding back the lawn, she realised there was a poorly or injured rat by the front door, essentially blocking the front door.  She could tell it was angry so hung the broom pole down to see if she could ward it off.  The rat leapt at the pole and hung on with its teeth.  By this time, peering out the bathroom window, we inside knew about the rat.Eventually mum got the rat far enough away that she could get in.  It then felt like we were all held hostage in the flat by an angry, sick rat.  We Googled, contacted the landlady, spoke to pest control, spoke to the local council.  No options were viable, the council saying they would come over in three days!  We spent a long time trying to work out what to do, at least an hour.  In the end, it was decided that Chris would kill the rat with a spade, something all of us were really upset about.  But a sick, unpredictable and clearly angry rat standing guard at my front door was not a happy prospect.Chris then armed himself and climbed out the lounge window.  Mum and I felt awful for him as he clearly isn’t an animal killer type.  As he stealthed round the corner of the house, he stopped and whispered back to us that a fox was heading for the front door.  Bear in mind it was daylight, maybe 3pm.  He then watched in awe as the fox trotted past him, down the steps, picked up the rat and carried it off and presumably (well, obviously) killed it, leaving not a trace.

And that is why I love foxes.  In that same house, I once found my cat sitting on an interior window ledge, about three centimetres (through glass) from a fox who was leaning from the brick wall to the exterior window ledge.  Neither animal seemed distressed, it was like they were communcating hellos to each other.  The fox turned and left when he saw me but it was oddly calm and non-aggressive between my cat and the fox.

I know foxes can be a pest, raiding bins, pooing and weeing around houses and gardens and killing smaller animals/birds (I struggle with stories of foxes killing babies) but I am always pleased to see a fox in my neighbourhood and I love it when they stop in their tracks from hearing you and stare right at you.

Yesterday I caught a train from London Euston to Coventry and, as usual, arrived at the station far too early with a view to getting a coffee, looking in a few shops and not rushing for my pre-booked train.  Most days I am at major terminus train stations (St Pancras, London Bridge or Charing Cross) but there is something very different about catching an out of the ordinary train from an out of the ordinary station.

Journeys such as that which I made yesterday involve early arrival and browsing in shops and usually buying a magazine, for magazines are treats I associate with travel.  It is also one of the few occasions when I buy trashy snacks and don’t whince (as much as usual!) at the price; it’s all part of the journey experience, whether I like it or not.

As for coffee, every time I get within the station area I remember that the only coffee choices will be from chains and there are no chains that serve a really good coffee, in my coffee snob opinion.  I will always avoid Starbucks (don’t like their coffee and hate them on a variety of other levels) and Costa (coffees are too big and don’t taste good).  As for Cafe Nero, they would be my first choice but I would never go there unless I was in a chain hell area, such as a train station!  Yesterday I decided to give AMT a go, just on the off chance they would have baristas working there – where did that false optimism come from?  Yuck.  Burnt coffee, smallest size too big and the foam was not remotely creamy.  Very disappointing.

Admittedly I wasn’t going to Coventry on a happy mission but the whole chain-ness of Euston (all stations are the same) really got to me yesterday.  We pay lots of money to buy train tickets and often end up waiting around at train stations.  It’s horrible to then be surrounded by shops whose prices are pumped up, poor quality tea and coffee at unacceptable prices and just chain shops.  I have no doubt retail space must be very expensive so only chains can really afford to operate there but I wish it weren’t like that.  I like that there is usually a Boots and a WH Smith as they are useful chains selling things useful for journeys.  But for food and drink, the only offerings are places I would never otherwise go to.  The only (small scale) chain I am always pleased to see is Leon’s but I have only encountered them at the new look King’s Cross and there is one opposite City Thameslink.

Oh I just sound like a moaning minnie again but I wanted to air my views on train stations and how infuriating I find the guarantee of chain shops, cafes and restaurants and their “special” monopoly prices.  There, rant over.  And today I will not be getting a bitter/milky/burnt/foul coffee from the train station, I will be savouring a proper, good quality, well made coffee from an independent coffee stand.

For the month of February 2012 I adopted a suggestion by a friend who had read a blog about a-letter-for-every-posting-day-in-February.  I did it, though not posting a letter every day, rather writing the correct number of letters for that month within that month.  I have always written letters to a few friends, though they would usually take about a month to write.  For that month last year, on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed writing to friends.  A lot of people had never had a letter from me before and most people weren’t expecting one.  To my surprise, knowing what I’m like, I continued writing a fair few letters throughout 2012, some being replies to a letter chain that started with my February month of letter writing.  I am now preparing myself for another month of it in February.

I know I have written about letters before but letter writing is something that I love doing.  I really do feel that time writing to a particular friend is the next best thing to time spent with that person as you tend to be slightly more diary-like in letters than in, say, phone calls, emails or texts.  There is then the double joy if you get a reply.  Last year, I wrote to some friends I’ve never written to before, and would otherwise have seen no reason to write to.  Some of those people surprised me by replying.  I genuinely believe I discovered a few new things about those friends.  For example, one friend wrote back and I realised I had never seen their handwriting before, except on a Christmas or Birthday card.  I then had a whole letter from them.  Two people in particular were way, way more witty than I could have imagined possible!  I mean, both are fun people to spend time with but their way of writing was genuinely funny and I loved their letters.  Well, I love letters whatever, but you get a real sense of the person’s voice and them being really truly themselves.  Emails may be written but they are often abbreviated, often rushed.  Letters, however, require more time.  I also love that people, me included, usually explain where they are when they are writing and give observations of people around them.  These are perspectives you wouldn’t probably get in other forms of communication and they are such wonderful insights into people.

I am glad that I have written more letters than I usually would as a result of my month of letter writing and I am glad that that has happened naturally, ie because I want to and because I enjoy it.  I also love, love, love getting (usually) texts from people after they’ve received an unexpected letter saying how nice it was to have received your letter.  It’s lovely.  And, of course, it’s lovely when you get home and discover a hand written letter (typed is of course ok too, but the envelopes are pretty much always hand written so you know to get a mug of tea to hand and time to sit on your favourite chair to read the letter, with plenty of time to savour the words).

Mind you, I write most letters on the train and for the next two weeks I won’t be commuting any significant distance.  I do, however, have my writing paper and address book with me so I’ll see if I manage to write a letter not from the train!

et cetera