Friday, June 27, 2008

taking on crap jobs

This week I took on a job I knew I shouldn’t have. In fact, there were a couple of them.

The main one is a short film someone’s making for a competition. He had a grand idea involving multiple CGI characters in a hand drawn animation style running around in a real filmed environment.

However, it quickly became clear that the script involved a lot of CGI work and that the money and timescales weren’t nearly sufficient to do the job.

I took it on on the basis that I’d do the work in a day, but of course the director added shots and didn’t really know what he needed and it grew and grew.

Even on the basis I accepted the work, I knew it was going to be a struggle. It’s now taken 2 and a half days, and been very stressful. I’ve had to delay going away for the weekend and I feel as though the job was a bodge.

I really owe it to myself not to take on projects where the budget and deadlines aren’t sufficient for the work being asked for. I’m getting enough work now and I really am having to delay real properly paid work to do this.

The film will end up being a lot better than the producer thought it was going to be and I’m sure he’ll be happy in the end, but I’ve had a rotten couple of days doing something that was far too ambitious and getting paid the kind of rate I’d have been on 15 years ago.

It’s so easy when you’re freelance to just take on whatever is handed to you, but it’s not always worth it, and you really have to see beyond “I could do this” to “why should I?”

All I’ve really done, actually is convinced a young director that if he demands the impossible, he can get it. And that does nobody any favours.

I’m a professional and I need to treat myself as one.

On the plus side, I’ve already used the money I did get for the project to buy a new widescreen monitor and a proper graphics tablet – two things I’ve been meaning to get myself for ages. It’s so good to be able to see High definition work in High definition as I’m working with it, and it’s also useful to be able to edit pictures and do 3d sculpting with a more responsive tool than a mouse!

We went out with Raoul last night to say goodbye to him - he's off to dig up prehistoric fish in South Africa. I met Raoul last year while I was making the shark documentary - he was one of the interviewees and is now just leaving his job at the Natural History Museum (which is a shame, because it was good to have a contact there!).

anyway - a night out with Raoul is always a drunken one, I'm afraid, so we all started this morning a little under the weather.

not so good for my rubbish day at work - but worse for Raoul who has to pack his library and papers...

Anyway, due to the overrun on this film project, I've now missed the chance to go down to Worthing tonight with Lisa and George and I'm going to have to stay here alone and meet them in Southampton tomorrow morning.

It's a packed weekend coming up with Gareth's birthday at a campsite in the New Forest on Saturday and Sunday at the last ever Police concert in Hyde park.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The strange case of the 20,000 fish

Ok - World stocks of fish are in a pretty bad way. If we treated the land the same way we treated the oceans we’d hunt chickens by dragging huge nets through entire forests, decimating the entire area and then throw back dead everything but the chickens.

And as a result, fish stocks are collapsing all over the world… if nothing’s done, cod, haddock and tuna will soon be extinct. The rest of the ocean’s life will quickly follow.

Apparently, eating farmed fish is just as bad – as it’s usually fed on the mulched up remains of… yep, you’ve guessed it… wild fish. It takes 3kg of wild fish to make 1kg of farmed salmon.

And I eat a lot of them. I don’t eat meat, so I pretty much replace that part of my diet with fish.

What’s worse, I’ve no intention of stopping. I’ve estimated that if I take fish, shellfish and everything into account, I’ll probably eat the equivalent of about 20,000 fish in my lifetime. And that’s a big dent in the world’s resources.

OK – I do try to buy sustainably fished varieties. line caught seabas, mackerel, sardines are all good – and I’ve all but stopped eating cod (swapping for coley or Pollock when I can). Apparently there’s only one type of tuna that’s not overfished, and there are a few sustainable fish farms – but there’s very little labelling to tell you which ones they are.

The problem with the oceans as opposed to the land is that they’re violent places – whereas on land most of the animals are vegetarian, in the oceans almost everything is carnivorous and that means that for every fish I eat, I’m taking out of the sea the nutrient from everything that fish has ever eaten too… People are just starting to farm plant eating varieties (look out for barramundi – a good replacement for white fish – it’s a staple in Australia and just beginning to be farmed over here)

Marks and Spencers and Waitrose are apparently good sources of sustainable fish.

But I’m not here to moan about the end of the world. I’m here to put a stop to it…Or at least to negate my own contribution to it.

So if I’m to fulfil my aim of making my effect on the world at least neutral, the search is on for a way to add 20,000 fish to the world’s aquatic population.

And as it turns out, this is more difficult than it looks… more difficult in fact than any of the other projects I’ve taken on in the last couple of weeks.

I can offset my carbon emissions. I can make up for my contribution to the exploitation of third world workers. I can even create more land to make up for the land used to fund my excessively normal lifestyle. But this is another kettle of … um…. Fish.

My online search has turned up nothing in the way of concrete practical ways to re-introduce fish to the oceans, and no groups singularly involved in projects to encourage the growth of marine ecosystems.

All the big organisations (friends of the earth, Greenpeace, WWW etc.) are putting all their efforts into bringing about political change.. it appears that the one thing everyone agrees is that this of all problems is just too big for them to make a dent in. the only way to allow fish stocks to recover is to stop overfishing.

Ok – there are a couple of angling associations re-stocking rivers with salmon and trout – but only so they can fish them. And there are a few organisations trying to create artificial reefs to replace those that are being lost, but it’s not the reef fish that are being overfished – it’s the open water fish).

It would appear I’ve hit a dead end. The Cod, the Tuna, the haddock are only going to survive if the EU acts to reduce fishing and set up safe zones and if the man in the street stops buying overfished varieties.

I just can’t put back my 20,000 fish whatever I try to do. They’re gone.

And that’s a bit of a blow. I know there are no magical one-pill solutions to the problems of the world, but it has to be possible to undo the damage you do on a personal level at least…

But how?

This is going to take a bit more research...
George is really moving on…. the last week has seen him work out how to clap and how to control his tongue (mainly to prevent us from cleaning his teeth).

But he’s most impressive this week in his moving around. He’s got a kind of davros-style wizzy chair with casters on the bottom which we put him in when we’re in the kitchen. It’s a flying saucer complete with the compulsory noise making buttons. And up to now he’s just sat in it, pressing the buttons (and occassionaly falling asleep with his head on the buttons despite the noise). Anyway, this week, he suddenly figured out how to move the thing around by running along the floor. He’s now whizzing up and down the kitchen.

He’s also suddenly got the strength in his legs to allow him to stay standing up –he still has to hold onto something to balance, but he can now stay upright as long as he likes.

In addition to that, on Sunday, at Lisa’s parents’ he started pulling himself up on the coffee table so he could stand on his own.

All of which is a bit odd because he still shows absolutely no interest in rolling over or crawling. I think he’s decided that none of the adults get about by crawling, so why should he?

Typical English Pooh Farmers
I sometimes wonder what he thinks we’re all about –we expect him to learn our language and yet we make very little attempt to learn his (typical English)… and from his point of view it must be quite obvious that we keep him around primarily to harvest his pooh and wee which as soon as it appears we promptly take away for our own as yet unknown purposes.

The East Dulwich Posh Pram Brigade
The other day, two women passed Lisa in the street pushing their own prams one remarked to the other quite audibly what a shame it was when people couldn’t afford to buy a new pram for their baby.

Bizarre behaviour – I guess some people just have nothing in their lives.

Lisa didn’t react, but the woman behind her (also pushing a pram – this is East Dulwich after all) had a real go at them.

We went to Worthing this weekend and had a nice time – even meeting up with Suzanne and Richard in a pub on the way home– except that when we got back, we were both violently sick. For me, it had been building all weekend, but Lisa suddenly got hit by it on Sunday night. Still trying to work out the cause. Lisa got over it pretty quickly, but I didn’t sleep at all last night, so today’s work has felt painfully slow. I really need to go to bed, but if I do, I won’t sleep tonight either!

PS I just got a call from Lisa. It looks like George has got it too - he's just thrown up in the park and they're on their way to the doctor. it looks like this is a bug. Sam's not feeling too great and Lisa's mum's gone down with it too. pretty miserable all round!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How much room do I take up?

OK, in my search for a neutral life, I’ve discovered how hard it is to find a carbon offsetting scheme that everyone agrees with, and I’ve concluded that the best way to make account for all the abuse that goes on in the industries that make my clothes and pick my food is (given that I can’t always know how every product is produced) to sponsor two children in the third world…

But living on this planet in a consumer society does more than create a few tones of co2 and build a market in non-ethically produced goods.

What about the landfill I create with the waste I can’t recycle? What about the pesticides used in the production of my food? What, for that matter about the land used to grow the food itself? All these things damage the world, but they also take up space which could otherwise be used more positively.

And it’s a complex thing – I’ve no idea about how to start working out what my effect is… and a quick search around the Internet reveals that nobody else really has a clue either.

Carbon offsetting calculators are everywhere, but what about all the other footprints we leave? Nobody seems to know.

So, in keeping with the rest of my Neutral Life project, I’m going to make an uninformed stab based on half hearted research and garnish it with a bit of slapdash maths….

So here goes:
The one factoid I’ve managed to pull from the Interweb which appears to have some kind of basis is a calculation of the amount of space each person takes up… the idea is that this is a calculation of the land needed to produce the food they eat, deal with their waste, manufacture the goods they use…. Etc.

In other words, it’s a calculation of the amount of the Earth’s resources that are taken up by the person over their life. And it’s where the much copied “3 earths” statistic comes from – the idea that if everyone lived the way we do, we’d need 3 earths to support them.
It turns out that the figure is about 5.5 hectares (13.5 acres) for a British citizen.

So far so good… but aside from living on another planet (and I’m sure there’d be “food miles” issues associated with that) – there’s not much I can do – I mean, I can’t just create more land, can I?

Or can I?

Ok – how about this:

There’s a lot of the world where the land is pretty tough to make use of. It’s not land of great ecological importance – it’s just barren. And there are a lot of people trying to turn that land into usable farming land – to produce crops the world needs.

What if I could contribute to turning 5.5 hectares of that land from desert into farmland? That would give back the 5.5 hectares that my life takes out of the system, wouldn’t it?

Ok… how do I do it?

A quick check on Oxfam, farm Africa and similar charities draws a blank. They’ll let you make a donation of course to lots of worthy projects, but there’s no way to distinguish between (for example) buying goats, and irrigating fields… and there’s no way to quantify what 5.5 hectares of land actually equates to in terms of seeds or irrigating farmland.

It seems really hard to find any quantifiable way to help with the recovery of farmland…It’s relatively easy to protect rainforest areas -

You can protect an acre for £50 – my problem with this is it’s land that’s already there – I’m not adding new useful space to the world to make up for the acres I’m using up. I keep going back to this, but my benchmark here is practical solutions with measurable results – and that’s what makes it so difficult.

However, what I do find is Self Help – an Irish charity helping people in Africa make use of land for farming. Their site tells me that 22 euros is how much it costs to enable a small plot to be farmed…

but how small is small?

A quick check on another site reveals that the average private farm in Ethiopia is about 1 acre, so my slapdash maths tells me if I can commit 11 euros per month to that charity (about £7) That will put 6 acres of land into production every year.

Works for me.

So I’m nearly done… this 6 acres is the amount spent on growing my food, burying my rubbish and handling the pollution created by my consumer goods…

But there’s still one more thing to tackle…Tune in next time, when I take on the strange affair of the 20,000 fish…

Underwater George

George is still recovering from his cough (and I’m still getting over mine). He’s not eating properly – which is unusual for him. He’s either refusing food (he’s learned to shake his head and I wonder whether the universal sign for “no” actually evolved from a reflex to stop yourself being fed something you don’t want) or he’s eating and then throwing up. And this is not just normal baby puking which happens all the time – it’s full on everything in the tummy coming up!

Anyway, he seems to be improving, so I took him to his swimming class yesterday. We had to dunk the babies underwater – which a lot of the mums were a bit nervous of. George spluttered and cried a bit the first time, but soon got over it and enjoyed his swimming lesson.

Having sold her flat in Chiswick just before George was born to Nina and Jahad – a couple who had split up years previously, but who were both still buying the flat together, Lisa got a call a couple of weeks back from Nina.

Nina was the primary reason Lisa sold the flat – Nina had been doing her utmost to make trouble for years: illegally doing work on the flat’s shared wall without getting permission, laying a patio with paving slabs Lisa had bought, complaining about Lisa’s tenant…. All stuff designed to make her sell – to the point that I eventually had to phone her myself and tell her to stop behaving like a spoilt child.

Anyway, when you have two flats owned separately, you need to have a management company to run the freehold – and Lisa, surprisingly enough always looked after the company, so it was no surprise when after she sold the flat, Nina came back to her a couple of months later wondering why Companies House had fined her for not putting her books in order.

Lisa forwarded the details and explained what she had to do.

Fair enough.

Then, this weekend, the other part of the buying pair, Jahad called.

Apparently Nina had told him that Lisa hadn’t exchanged on the flat. Nina had simply taken Jahad’s £175,000, bought the flat and run off with it.

This happened just after he told her he was getting engaged, so you can draw your own conclusions.

It looks like Lisa may have to give evidence…

Absolutely outrageous behaviour – Nina can’t possibly thing she’ll get away with it!

Monday, June 16, 2008

on Friday night a few of us went to the top of the Gherkin (the giant pointy thing in the middle of London – apparently one of the most expensive buildings in the world – valued at 1.6 billion) – we had a champagne to celebrate Lisa’s birthday and Claudia even brought a birthday cake in.

From the top you get great views over London as the sun goes down. Below us, the two buildings from which London has been run over the past 1000 years face each other across the Thames. On the South side, the Mayor’s building – entirely made of glass. On the North, the stone fortress of the Tower of London – built by William the Conqueror to let England know that it was under the control of France.

It’s a good indication of what’s changed – then, our leaders had to protect themselves with moats and armies to stop terrorist attack. Today their buildings are glass and they come to work by bike.

We’re being constantly told we’re living in a dangerous world where people are out to bring down our civilization… and they’re using that excuse to put fortresses around the glass buildings, to give the police more power - to move us slowly back across the river towards the Tower.

My mum is out of Hospital now – although she’s in some kind of suit that stops her moving her hip and it looks like she’ll be in it for 6 weeks at least. She’s in good spirits, though and seems receptive to the idea that she may need to make changes to her house so she doesn’t do her hip any more damage.

I’d like Lisa to go in as an OT and do an assessment for her, but I don’t want her to do it unless my parents agree that they’ll take on board her plans – which are likely to involve a new shower, different living room chairs and an eye level oven.

None of which my parents will want to do because they’ve only just finished redecorating and they’re thinking of moving anyway (thinking of moving can become a long term practice for my parents – they were thinking of moving from their last house for 20 years before they actually did anything about it).

Still, we did set up a broadband internet account for them over the weekend. They’ve been thinking about setting one up for a couple of years at least, and it will be such a benefit to them… hopefully Mum will be able to do her shopping online. Hopefully she’ll also be able to have something to do while she’s recuperating.

Hello, Mum – if you’re reading this, it means your broadband is working!

Lisa’s Birthday
On Saturday we had a lovely night out together for Lisa’s birthday. Every time we do get out, we promise ourselves to do it more often.

We went to beauberry house
For dinner. It’s a great restaurant in Dulwich – French and Japanese if that makes any sense.

I think there must be some kind of trend for posh chefs to use king crab right now. I had it on Saturday, but it was also served on the Orient Express…

I think the chefs may have seen the TV series “deadliest catch” in which the king crab fishing expeditions are described as the most dangerous in the world… I think they’ve decided that because they’re really difficult to catch, they must be great to eat.

They are – but I’m not sure how much better than, say, Cornish crabs they are. The reason I’m not sure is partly because I’ve still got a cold and couldn’t actually taste anything on Saturday night….

Modeling Sunday
Sam’s fashion and tailoring courses are coming to an end and on Wednesday there’s a show at the college in which she’s exhibiting clothes she’s been making – a suit, a corset, some underwear and a cloak.

She wants to put up some photos in the background, so we had a photoshoot on Sunday with Lisa as the model and me as the photographer.

We went for a paparazzi style shoot in the street, but nobody in East Dulwich thought Lisa was overdressed for Lordship Lane….

Friday, June 13, 2008

sweatshops and sponsorhips

Ok –following on from my post yesterday: with my carbon neutrality restored, is the Earth now safe? Can I float off on a white fluffy cloud, levitated only by the power of my own smugness?

Not a bit of it.

Much of what I buy – what we all buy - has been made by people in third world countries on wages I wouldn’t approve of.

Now, I can try to buy less (though I don’t quite know how – I barely even register in the world of consumer goods and don’t even own a supermarket loyalty card on the grounds that either it's an afront to my civil liberties or that I keep loosing it - can't quite work out which) and I can try to buy fair-trade goods, but labelling isn’t always there, and I don’t always have the time or energy to find out everything about every garment, piece of food, or factory produced item I buy.

Of course, there is an argument that says it’s better to have someone employed than not employed, and that the money is going into a country it woudn’t otherwise have gone to. This is true, but it’s not the point. The point is, I'm responsible for sustaining the marketplace which forces people into slavery.

So let’s take a guess. So let’s say I estimate my spending on goods that have been made, assembled, picked, packaged or built using underpaid workers and children. Let’s say I take a guess that 2/3 of the purchase cost of these items goes in getting the goods to the UK and in profits to the shops that sell them. Let’s say of the remaining 1/3, 1/5 is justifiable profit for the manufacturers. The rest should be paid to the workers.

In other words, for every £100 I spend, there’s £26 that should be going to the workers and probably isn’t.

A quick bit of research (I’m copying from another website here) says some of the biggest problem industries are:

Shoes: Many types of shoes are made in sweatshops. However, the biggest problem is found with sneakers and athletic shoes.Most athletic shoes are made in sweatshops in Asian countries.Child labor is also very common in the shoe industry.

Clothing: Clothing is very often made in sweatshops and with the use of child labor.In the U.S. the majority of garment workers are immigrant women that work 60-80 hours a week, usually without minimum wage or overtime pay. Overseas, garment workers routinely make less than a living wage, working under extremely oppressive conditions.

Rugs: A lot of child labor is used in the rug industry. Nearly one million children are illegally employed making hand-knotted rugs worldwide.Approximately 75% of Pakistan's carpet weavers are girls under 14.

Toys: A lot of toys are made in sweatshops and by child labor. Especially toys made in countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam. The average North American toy maker earns $11 an hour. In China, toy workers earn an average of 30 cents an hour.

Chocolate: 43% of cocoa beans come from the Ivory Coast where recent investigators have found child slavery. In addition, cocoa workers who are paid, receive wages that leave them at the edge of poverty and starvation.

Bananas: Banana workers are some of the most exploited workers in the world. They have to work long hours, get low pay, are forced overtime and are exposed to dangerous pesticides.

Coffee: Coffee is the second largest US import after oil.Many small coffee farmers receive prices for their coffee that are less than the cost of production, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and debt.

so how much do I spend on this kind of stuff?

Well It’d be really tough to work out… however:

Let’s say I spend £500 per year on clothes (I don’t think I do, but probably if I add George’s baby clothes in, I’m sure it comes to that)

Food: um… well, let’s say another £500 on foods picked under bad conditions (I’m not sure about this either…. I try to buy seasonal stuff, but not all the time). I haven’t got a clue about the processes behind every food item on the shelf and I don’t know that finding out would help much with the calculation.

And let’s say another £800 on sundry other stuff – bits of plastic, toys, etc…

Ok – so that’s £1800 per year, of which I’ve decided £468 is money that should be going to underpaid workers.

Now there are a lot of charities out there doing good work trying to get sweatshops and slave labour abolished.

But as I’ve said, though the political stuff is all very well, and very important, my aim in this is clear – I want practical measurable results. I want to create a solid positive benefit.

So what to do?

Well, a number of ideas occur to me, but the favourite – and the one I’ve gone for is to sponsor 2 children through Actionaid. … the idea being that the money that should have been going to the poorest communities instead of lining the pockets of retail chains and manufacturers gets used where it should have been in the first place.

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode – in which I try to work out how much space I really take up…

Lisa's birthday

It’s Lisa’s birthday today, but it’s a working day for me and she’s with George, plus, we’re going to the Gherkin this evening with a group - all of which means we had a present opening session before George got us up this morning and we'll have a glass of champagne later, but our real celebration will have to wait until we have our night out together tomorrow night.

David Davis
After the Government barely managed to get through legislation allowing them to hold terrorism suspects for 42 days (although the bill will almost certainly not survive the house of Lords), David Davis – one time runner for leader of the Tory party has resigned on principle. His idea is to force a by-election which he’s going to campaign on the basis of fighting the erosion of civil liberties.

Good for him – and I told him so in an email:

Just a note to say that I thought your actions today were honourable and intelligent.

You may be feeling isolated without the backup of the party mechanisms you’ve become used to right now, but be assured, you are not alone in believing that the principles on which our democracy was founded are worth defending.

The British have always guarded our freedoms jealously, and the veil under which they are now being eroded is thin indeed. Our freedoms were forged in times far more dangerous than these, and we forget sometimes quite how hard won they are.

I am not a natural Tory supporter – and I’m unlikely to become one any time soon, but I’d like to commend you for your stand today. As an IT journalist I’m constantly reminded of the small, technical developments that are eroding our personal freedoms piece by piece and of the difficulties of bringing the real issues underlying those changes to the public eye. The excuse of terrorism may be allowing our police and our leaders to persuade themselves that more and more draconian measures are needed, but it is good for them to be reminded that democracy makes them our servants, not our masters.

Good luck with your stand.

Christian Darkin

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Ok – so following on from yesterday’s post…. Let’s start with something easy: carbon footprints.

There are lots of carbon footprint calculators out there, so it ought to be easy enough to work out what to do about it…

You feed in your details, you get a figure, and you pay to some scheme or other that will help fund carbon reducing initiatives. Fair enough.

But digging into it, you discover a huge range of different schemes and an even wider range of people criticising the schemes they’re not a part of.

There’s even plenty of criticism about whether carbon offsetting is the right way to go anyway. it all boils down to the idea that if you ofsett your carbon (always assuming you find a scheme that actually does what it says it will do) then aren’t you just going to go around behaving as though you’ve got a right to pollute rather than doing what you should be doing to reduce your emissions in the first place.

My favourite quote as a satire on carbon offsetting is this one:

“If you have an extramarital affair, don’t worry – you can always offset any emotional damage caused by simply paying someone else to remain faithful”

and it’s a good point.

But not good enough.

The people wanting to do carbon offsetting are going to be people who are aware of the problem and are doing their best to turn off lights and stop using cars anyway – people who don’t give a toss aren’t going to do it anyway – so the argument that it discourages people from cutting their own carbon doesn’t make any sense at all to me.

Besides which – going back to my initial “mission statement” – it’s all about net results. If the net result of my existence is that less carbon goes into the atmosphere than if I hadn’t been born, then it’s a good thing, surely, however I get to that point.

The trouble is that this “don’t pollute in the first place argument” is so loud on the Internet with so many people shouting their own uninformed opinions that you can’t actually find out the important information when you need it.

You can’t see from most sites whether they’re serious – whether they know what they’re doing and whether they’re worthwhile. Also, most people (offsetters as well as environmental organisations) are desperate to persuade you that one scheme is better than another – and with so many competing schemes and everyone with an axe to grind, you can easily spend all your time hopping from one site to the next.

So all that the endless repetition of the advice to use long-life lightbulbs is actually doing is preventing people from getting to what they’re looking for.

As I search, I’m reminded of a vegetarian restaurant I got taken to in Australia (where vegetarianism is a little further back than it is in the UK). The restaurant was filled with pictures and descriptions of dreadful farming techniques and animal slaughter.

Now, obviously everyone going to the restaurant was already convinced by the vegetarian idea – so all the politics achieved was putting people off their food…

When I look for a vegetarian restaurant I don’t want to eat surrounded by photos of tortured animals. That much should be obvious even to the most political vegan. Equally, when I look for a carbon offsetting scheme, I don’t want to have to wade through the hard sell on global warming (because clearly if I’ve landed up at a carbon offsetting site, I’ve got some knowledge of that anyway) and I don’t want to contribute to my house’s already burgeoning long-life lightbulb mountain!

Anyway – I persevered and here’s the most useful thing I did find:
a comparison of carbon offsetting schemes.

Of which this one:
seems like one of the best choices (plus it’s got David Attenborough as a patron – so that gets my vote).

There’s a detailed carbon offsetting calculator on the site, but as soon as it started asking me about the make age and mileage of my car (of which I’ve no clue), I realised I’d already spent way too much time on this and with no end in sight I opted to bypass the calculator and simply describe myself as an average UK family.

Cost: £168 per year.

The national average is 10 tones of Co2 emmitted per year (unless you’re an American in which case it’s 25. 2 tonnes is about right apparently….

And that’s the one I’ve gone for.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Let’s have a crisis!

You’re supposed to have a mid life crisis, right? Well, I don’t seem to be having much luck on that one, so let’s try to manufacture one.

Well, not so much a crisis as an assessment - to put in place some of the things I’ve been meaning to do for the last 40 years, but never got around to. You know, all those vague ideas you always have floating around about getting fit, donating to charity and doing all that other stuff?

So it’s not actually much of a crisis at all really… I mean, a few years ago, I went traveling to find myself.. most people didn’t notice because I only went to Cornwall, and I went for the weekend.

The thing is, I pretty much knew where I was to begin with.

I’m not really one for having total re-thinks about who you are every few years – I’ve seen people do it and it leads to them creating havoc around them most of the time…

So what do I want to do? Well, to start with, let’s have a mission statement:

“I want the world to be a better place for my having lived in it.”

Pretty straightforward, that, but when you start unpacking it, you find that as a middle aged, middle class westerner, you’re not starting from a good point.

So the first real question is where am I at now?

Well, I can start by calculating my carbon footprint… trendy, so it’s easy to work out.
But carbon’s not the only pollutant my life produces – There’s pesticides, nuclear waste, and poisons created by any number of chemical processes that wouldn’t have been needed if I hadn’t existed. And how much landfill will I create in my life that will need to be recycled?

Then there’s the damage farming the foods I’ve eaten done in terms of water use, the destruction of rainforests, etc..? Plus, how many fish have I taken out of the oceans to eat – they need replacing if I’m to make my life a positive effect on the world?

How about my clothes and other consumer goods? How much exploitation has their been in their creation throughout my life – and more importantly what can I do to redress that?

So the question is, going back to my mission statement: Is it possible to make yourself an asset to this overcrowded world rather than a drain on it? What would it take to do it? And if it is possible, given that I don’t have lots of time to donate to worthy causes - how much will it cost me?

I’m not going to go for political fixes – It might be very worthwhile to (for example) contribute to lobbying African governments to pay a minimum wage (or even campaigning to make our government take stronger action)…but it’s not an immediate and practical response. Instead, in this project I’m only going to look at things that actually have a measurable effect.

Also, I’m trying to do the best I can to recycle, reduce waste, buy ethical stuff, and buy locally produced food, but the effect of this is not measurable, so I’m going to ignore it. I mean, I can recycle and do my best to reduce my carbon footprint and I can smile at people in the street, and that’s all good stuff, but sometimes it’s worth looking at the big picture.

Ok – over the next few days I’ll take a look at the parts of this plan and see what I can do.

Well, it’ll be an interesting exercise if nothing else….

mum and George

My mum’s hip came out of it’s socket again on Saturday and now she’s in hospital. This is the second time it’s happened and nobody seems to know why.

it's possible Mum is just not being as careful as she should with it. It's hard to tell as she'll tell me it's all OK and that she's doing everything right whether she is or not.

Anyway, it's been put back in place and she's hoping to be out of hospital this week. but she'll have to wear a leg brace for six weeks.

Hopefully they'll give her excercises and send an occupational therapist to tell her what needs changing in her house. Of course, Lisa could (and does) tell her that she needs a different toilet seat, handles and a shower in the bathroom, a different chair, and an eye level oven in the kitchen. but Mum and Dad have just changed the kitchen and bathroom and won't change it again unless they have a very good reason.

I think Mum's hip coming out of joint IS a very good reason, but what do I know?

George isn’t well either. He’s coughing and being sick… pretty much the same stuff babies do all the time, but he’s doing it a bit more than usual, and a bit more messily. I had to cancel his swimming lesson yesterday, and Lisa was up for 3 hours in the night with him, so it’s probably time to take him to the doctor’s.

Of course, the doctor will almost certainly advise calpol – which seems to be the only thing you can give children. (probably because it doesn’t actually do anything).

As for me, I'm getting over my illness of the weekend, and I'm back into the thick of work.

Lisa got the news today that her offer of £160,000 on the house we went to see in Worthing has been accepted. The offer was refused to start with, and for the last week, various estate agents from the firm representing the old lady who owns the house have been phoning several times a day falling over themselves trying to get us to up the offer.

None of the estate agents seemed to have any idea what the others had said to us.

I guess that's no surprise. The news yesterday said that things have got so bad in the housing market that estate agents are on average making just one sale a week! no surprise then that the first thing the agents do when there's an offer on the table is to start trying to steal the sale from each other - fighting over who gets to close the deal.

Come to think of it, Estate agents are supposed by law to act in the best interest of the vendor. I wonder how many of them do so when the vendor's best interest would be served by not selling.

Monday, June 9, 2008

breeding stag beetles - or not

The fact that I’m working too hard is starting to show – I’ve caught a cold from George and although I made it to the end of Friday’s work, I pretty much collapsed on the sofa and felt under the weather most of the weekend.

Of course, I also ended the week having taken on two extra pieces of work with short deadlines (one is a print advert for vodaphone - the other is an animated rap video!) both I’ve got to do in about a week …. The joys of being freelance!


Saturday didn’t offer much recouperation. Apart from the fact that Lisa, Sam and about 8 others went to see sex in the city on Saturday night leaving me with George and the job of making sushi for anyone who came back for a nightcap.. The people living in the house that backs onto the end of our garden are cleaning up – and that means knocking down the wall of our garden and replacing it.

In our garden – between the greenhouse and the wall was a big pile of rotting wood. Our neighbours kindly offered to get a skip and help us move the wood through their garden (since we can’t get to it from behind the greenhouse).

Fair enough. Only, I don’t really want to move the rotting wood. I want to keep the rotting wood just where it is. Not because I’m ill, but because it’s what makes our garden unique.

That pile of wood is where the foxes chose to raise their young last year – which is why we had little baby foxes in the garden. But more than that, a big pile of rotting wood is just what stag beetles need for their breeding cycle.

Stag beetles do live in our wood pile – we’ve seen them flying in the summer – and it turns out they’re very rare – and south east London is one of the most important sites in the country for finding them.

The problem is, that stag beetles aren’t stag beetles for very long. In fact, they’re only stag beetles for about 2 months. The rest of their 7 year lives is spent as grubs living in piles of rotting wood.

No rotting wood. No stag beetles.

So I didn’t really want to remove it. However, what can you do? The wall was collapsing and if the neighbours wanted to reclaim their garden they had to replace it. As soon as they did, the wood pile would come crashing into their garden.

So it had to go.

And there were stag beetle lavae. I didn’t know what they were until we looked it up later – but there definitely were some big white grubs among the wood.

Luckily, the skip was too small and only half the wood pile was behind the section of wall we removed, so half the wood pile remains.

Still, I can’t escape the feeling we’ve destroyed something we can’t replace.

I’m hoping we can keep the rest of the wood pile… I did also find this:
which might be something we can do to add to our stag beetle population…

Friday, June 6, 2008

Last night, after George’s first full day at nursery, we left him with a babysitter and went out with Raoul – he’d booked what appears to be the only Swis restaurant in London and we had Fondue. The first time I’d ever tried it.

Eating a Fondue is a lot more complex than it would first appear. Apparently a bit like tightrope walking. You have to be sure to eat and drink the right things in the right measure to avoid the fondue turning into a solid ball in your stomach. The right thing to drink is a kind of peach schnapps – although, it tasted like pure alchohol to me – if you don’t drink enough of it, the cheese in your stomach will coagulate. If you drink too much, it will make you sick.

Surprisingly this dish – effectively cheese on toast in another form (with potatoes as a quite unnecessary side dish) is actually quite nice – although I was aware of a vague longing for something green.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

George and the Dulwich wives

Yesterday was my day with George and a packed day it was… his 2nd day settling in to nursery basically involved me taking him over there, then sitting in the staff room for a couple of hours chatting to the mother of another new intake while George played happily barely even noticing my absence.

I think these inductions are mainly for the parents’ benefit. After about an hour one of the minders came up and asked if we wanted to check on the children. We looked through the window, but didn’t go in. both were enjoying themselves and didn’t need us poking our noses in…

At midday I collected George and took him home. He’d fallen asleep before I got back, which was good because due to an American client on a ridiculous deadline (I’ve no idea when the employees of this company sleep as they seem to be able to contact me any time from 7am to 1:30am, and don’t see any problem with doing so) – I had lots of minor, but fiddly changes to make to a video animation that needed to be done by 6pm.

There was just time to do some of the work, and get George fed before I had to take him out to another baby event! This time it was a swimming class in London Bridge (called little floaters – or something like that). Anyway, this was a class in the hydrotherapy pool at Guy’s hospital.

Another chance to chat to the South London New Mothers… This time I was met at East Dulwich station by one who recognised George (not me, of course) and deduced that I was Lisa’s husband.

Having a baby means you can’t move in Lordship Lane without bumping into someone you know through your baby. Putting names to faces is tough (in fact you end up remembering the baby’s name rather than the mother’s because it’s the baby you end up talking about).

Monday, June 2, 2008

On Friday I got up to discover a trail of blood leading from the road, along the pavement, into next door’s drive, up their car, out again and off down a side alley.

It looks like an animal hit by a car, and then limping off… I couldn’t find any sign of it though. I hope it’s OK, but somehow I doubt it. Perhaps it was a fox, but I feel quite paternal about our neighbourhood foxes since a litter was born last year at the bottom of our garden, and lived for a while in the wood-pile behind the greenhouse.

Here’s a picture I took when they were a few days old and not scared to come up and be stroked by us.

I hope it wasn’t one of our foxes.

Houses back on
Lisa went down to Worthing on Friday to look at some houses. Her quest for another property is back on. This time it’s a 2 bedroom house near the hospital in Worthing… a rental for nurses.

I followed her down in the evening and she scheduled us both to take a look at her shortlist on Saturday. We met a lovely 96 year old lady who’s house we’re now putting an offer in on. As soon as she saw George, she leapt over the stairlift her (now retired) son had quite unnecessarily provided her with, ran up the stairs and got a cuddly toy for George to take home!

The house itself will need complete redecoration (she’s been living there for 65 years), but it’ll be a sweet little house when it’s finished.

This is despite the fact that up at the end of the road, the telltale signs of gang warfare were evedent. A pair of trainers tied together had been looped over the telephone wire.

This, I’m reliably informed, is a signifier of a gangland border.

It’s one of the mysteries of evolution that wherever there’s an ecological niche, a creature will appear to fill it. A modern example appears to be a species of spider which has evolved solely to live in the wingmirrors of estate cars.

These arachnids make a great living catching the flies that are flung into their webs on fast moving roads and are so successful that they have infested every estate car I’ve ever seen…


On Saturday afternoon, we got back and went out to Lunch in Blackheath with Jane and Dan, Gareth and some of Jane’s friends – we tried for Jane’s sake not to talk too much “baby” with her friends who brought their almost identical aged child along (their’s had a lot more hair than George!).

Vegetarian roasts
On Sunday, we did a lot of booking of things we’ve been meaning to sort out for ages. We’re going for a couple of weekends away, we’ve booked our holiday, we’re going to a couple of shows…. We’ve now got things going on for most of the rest of the year!

Having George we’re finding you just have to block out some time and book there and then whatever you want to do because the chances of getting organised if you don’t are pretty low.

Afterwards, we treated ourselves to Sunday Lunch at the East Dulwich Tavern – which usually serves great food.

This time, however, I went for the vegetarian Sunday roast – What I got was what I’d have expected about 15 years ago in a country pub: a Sunday roast with the meat taken out! In other words, just a plate of potatoes and parsnips.

The waiting staff were nice about it, but really, that’s not on these days. It lets you know that the chef really isn’t interested in what he’s cooking.

The veggie items on a menu should be another option which will appeal as much to meat eaters as to vegetarians. Not an alternative to “Propper food”. You wouldn’t get away with serving asparagus in saffron butter with grated truffles as the veggie option and for the meat option, an upturned can of spam, would you?

Get your act together EDT, Lordship Lane has moved on!

Sam turned up in time for pudding and promised to cheer me up with oysters from the little oyster bar in the new market opposite the pub, but unfortunately, the guy who runs it turns out to be an actor and he’s got a touring job, so no oysters (typical East Dulwich – more actors per square meter than Hollywood).

It turns out, our next door neighbour (not the one in Gavin and Stacy, her husband) is now one of the main characters in Holby Blue! Last week he came home in his new car – a Porsche no less (his other car is an electric 2 seater so he’s doing his environmental bit as well!). he says he’s like a kid with a new toy.

Anyway, this whole Dulwich actory thing is not new. It all kicked off by James Allen, a contemporary of Shakespere – who lived here and started the local school up in Dulwich Village.

This Sunday we want to an open Gardens day in some of the big houses on one of the roads named after James Allen. They variously had swimming pools, bronze horses, shoals of goldfish and bizarre rare plants. Dulwich Village is not like East Dulwich. It’s a bit posh.

Never mind.

George’s first day at nursery
It’s george’s first day at nursery today. Lisa took him over there for an hour and sat with him. He seemed to settle in fine, but tomorrow I’ve got to take him back and this time leave him for a couple of hours. I think this process of slowly leaving children for longer and longer is more for the parent’s benefit than the kids. George will be fine without us for a day. He’s the world’s most smily child in any situation, and we’ve made sure we leave him with other people fairly regularly, so I’m not afraid of leaving him.

George is very outgoing and will chat to anyone. He seems unperturbed by the fact that we all expect him to learn our language but nobody’s making the slightest effort to learn his.

He probably just thinks we’re typical English people.