Monday, 25 July 2016

Ebay and everything that is wrong with this country

I have become addicted to getting rid of stuff from Chateau L and flogging it on Ebay. My house WILL look nice. The clever thing to do would have been to hire a skip for a fortnight and blitz it, simply closing my eyes when I found something that might have been worth something and tossing it in regardless. This would have been a much quicker route to success, however you can't argue with a recovery of several thousand pounds. The hassle has however been remarkable, boxes of junk hanging around the house for weeks, boxes and tape everywhere, endless packaging up, and then awkward trips to the post office before work. Worst of all however have been the general purchasing public. Some of them have almost made me regret not going down the skip route.

The worst are not the ones who bid, win, and then disappear never to be heard from again. I mean yeah they're annoying, definitely up there, but not the very worst. I'm currently waiting for someone who bought Mrs L's bike on day 30 of a day 30 listing to pay up. It's been over a week now and there has been complete radio silence. We were quite excited that somebody had finally bought it as it has been clogging up our shed for ages, but as I presciently observed when the auction ended, I'd only celebrate when it had gone. Four emails later and I've heard nothing whatsoever. I've got their address mind you, so in theory I could cycle the thing across London and toss it in their front garden. In pieces perhaps.

No, the worst ones are those who ask tons of questions, one after the other, including asking for information that is clearly listed in the description. Along the lines of “What size are the black 9F shoes you are selling?” This continues for some while, the questions getting more and more obscure or alternatively daft. “And what colour are they?”. Patiently you respond nicely, however tempting it might be to call them out as total idiots – the black shoes are black you complete cretin. And then you never hear from them again. Life is obviously too short to complain to them or about them, what is the point, but only once across loads of auctions have I had a guy come back and thank me for answering all his questions, but that he was very sorry as he had found a similar item nearer. I mean it's only polite isn't it?

Near the top of the list are those that write urgently insisting that the item be posted asap, first class (they have paid for second, the cheapskates), as they absolutely need it the following day. I go out of my way to get this done, to send it on precisely the day they want so that it arrives on a certain day. I know only to well how annoying having to stay in for a delivery is. And then you never hear from them again. Can you spot a trend? No thanks, no feedback, no nothing. You wonder why you bothered.

Then there are the ultra-agressive types. Those who type in capital letters, insisting that there is MAJOR PROBLEM with whatever it was, a scratch on the sole of a shoe for instance, and that unless you immediately give them a large refund they will be sending back the package at YOUR EXPENSE and YOU WILL PAY FOR IT. Right. To refer them to Arkell v. Pressdram is the very tempting response, but why bother for a fiver or whatever? The name of the game is to pacify. To grin and bear it. To make people feel like they are winners in life. All the while that skip looms in the back of your mind...

This I suppose is a microcosm of the British public, or that is what I am calling it anyway. The I'm all right Jack selfish attitude that blights our population. The loss of personalisation caused by social media, online shopping, and a general decline in knowing what it is to behave properly. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but surely it does not need to be this way? Shallow and vacuous, a little politeness goes a long way. Pleases and thank yous, it is not much to ask.

All this said, I have now managed to get rid of some 190 different things. This includes the aforementioned shoes – the buyer tried to wriggle out of it by the way but I was having none of it, lots of infrequently used optical equipment, a waistcoat, every single last piece of my extensive fishing gear collection, wooden trains, lego spaceships, copious amounts of whisky, a Dungeons and Dragons book from the late 1980s (why did I still have this?), old computer games, airline amenity kits, a 1950s light meter, the list is almost endless and every departure is a minor victory. Set against this is having to deal with people that I would probably actively avoid in real life. Thankfully it is nearing the end now, or at least until we attempt emptying the loft. A couple boxes of junk (yes I am the descendant of Gerald Ratner) linger on the upstairs landing, but they're gradually going down and it won't be long before I can chop them up and smuggle them into the weekly recycling. And then I may delete my account lest I ever do anything so stupid again. But let me first re-list this bloody bike. 

Sunday, 24 July 2016

All change

Big changes are afoot in Chateau L. Tape measures are out, architects and designers have been visiting, and things we have been meaning to do for about a decade are gradually beginning to take shape. The biggest change of all though is that Mrs L has resigned her commission. After nearly 20 years at the coal face she has decided that she has had enough and jacked it in. I know how she feels, most of us probably do, but she has proactively gone and done it. No, not divorce. She has resigned from her accountancy job.

I remember when I stopped working back in 2009 that it was such a wonderful sense of relief, and I'm sure she feels that too. I was of course sacked due to economic woes and had nothing to do (because looking after children is officially worth nothing in this country) whereas she has big plans. Plans that also involve looking after children, for she has decided to become a teacher. Readers of this blog would probably not think that Mrs L has the necessary skills to be a teacher. You need to be fierce and very strict. You need to tell people off all the time without hesitation. You need to bark orders. Oh, wait.....

She's going to teach A-level maths, and has been studiously revising, essentially redoing her exams from all those years ago. The house is full of quadratic equations, calculus and all sorts of other things that mean nothing to me. In the dim and distant past I do vaguely remember being made to do quadratic equations by a fierce maths teacher, but the years have proved me right and that teacher wrong, as in the intervening 25 years I have had no practical need to ever use one. Telling Mr McConkey that cast-iron prediction got me into trouble in 1989, but the truth always prevails. The poor man died actually, very very young and not long after I'd left that school, and without ever having the chance to apologise. I skipped A-level maths and went the languages route, French and German, which I knew would be useful for life within the European Union..... (Gah!). I have of course worked in a bank ever since, but still without recourse to everything being over 2a.

Utterly useless

So, all that begins in September this year, when Mrs L becomes a student teacher and starts to take her first formative steps in how to be bossy and command total respect. Before that it means the summer this year is a lot more relaxed, without the usual conundrum of what to do with the children. This has coincided with a distinct lull in my normally absurd travel pattern, and so we've been having a really rather nice time just relaxing at home. Oh sorry, my mistake. When I say relaxing what I mean is that we've been running around like blue-arsed flies, doing all the things that we've set to one side over the last ten years whilst we've been busy having full time jobs and being parents. When my own parents note (frequently) that we should move, get an extension done, organise x y and z, I retort that this stage of lives is just too busy for any of that. They nod, recall that their late thirties and early forties were equally busy, and then return to hassling us. But finally things are getting done. Mrs L is organising a loft conversion and a functioning kitchen with cupboard doors that don't fall off when you brush against them. I've sorted out the greenhouse, cut down overhanging tree branches, and weeded the terrace. She has steam-cleaned all of the cupboards, drawers and windowsills upstairs, and I've been round the house sorting through hidden corners and clearing out a decade of ill-advised purchases and things I mistakenly thought might be useful one day. Mrs L has in turn moved 4 years of unopened post from the kitchen counter to somewhere I have not found yet, and I got rid of the manky moth-eaten carpet in our guest room in preparation for the arrival of our new au pair.

Yes, the time has come, we need help. I don't even like having relatives to stay for a weekend, so the thought of somebody else in the house for nearly a whole year is currently giving me kittens. It was actually my idea, but a bit like Brexit voters I didn't expect it to genuinely happen. With my family-friendly working hours and Mrs L's new PGCE course starting later this year, the only practical way to ensure our children's continuing education was to enrol them in breakfast and after-school clubs. These are run by enterprising extortionists all over London. S.P.E.C.T.R.E have nothing on these guys, and two kids attending one of these places for an entire academic year came in at somewhere just shy of ten thousand quid. "Ten grand....", I choked as Mrs L broke the news. "We might as well get an au pair!" I didn't really mean that of course, but it was too late. Once again I was labelled a genius by my entire family, and before I knew it a candidate had been found and an arrival date set. She's Spanish, which will be great for the kids languages, and hopefully doesn't know what a quadratic equation is.

This formula generates my expected mental state in September 2016.

But it does mean a certain amount of domestic reorganisation is needed, which includes the loss of my study / the guestroom, the disposal of decrepit carpets, and fixing the bathroom door which one of our friends broke at our house-warming party in late 2004. This is what I mean when I say we've been busy for a while. It's been on the list, but we just haven't quite got round to it. All that is now changing, energy has refocussed on Chateau L, and things are looking noticeably different. Nicer different. Less cluttered different. And once the building work actually gets done, hopefully fantastically different as the adults will be abandoning the pandemonium of the first floor for the peace and tranquillity of loftier realms. It will of course be hell for a number of months, all happening just when we are at our very busiest and least able to deal with it. But we do chaos very well indeed having had years of practice. In many ways it is all we have ever known.

Saturday, 23 July 2016


There was some element of surprise in Chateau L a few weeks ago when I signed up for the annual school class camping trip. Mrs L, having asked me a lot of easy questions to lull me into a false sense of security, then slipped it in right at the end. “Would you like to come camping with us?” Sure, I replied. “OK, well you'll have a nice quiet evening at home then, there's lots of jobs you could.......hang on, did you just say 'Yes'?” Yes. Smelling salts were procured, cushions arranged, and gradually wife and mother revived. “You weren't joking? You mean you'll actually come?” Yes. The children set off fireworks, celebrations carried on late into the night.

The day finally came around a couple of weekends ago, following about three days of preparation. Camping materials materialised from all corners of the house and a huge pile took shape in the hall. Sadly we were a roll mat short. Ie I wasn't getting one. Despite my protestations of innocence, it continues to be widely assumed that I threw it away in one of my purges. Anyway, the car was packed to the gills for this one night stay, and we drove the massive distance to the campsite at Loughton. For those of you not familiar with east London, this is all of about ten miles away and takes under twenty minutes. If you already own a house in London (With beds. And mattresses.) frankly it's the ideal place to spend the night, and has the bonus of costing money too.

We soon found the large group of parents and the familiar faces of our youngest's classmates. With two very small 2-3 man tents, we realised very quickly we were seriously outclassed in the camping gear department. Huge tents with individual rooms inside, ante-chambers, conservatories. And it didn't stop there – gas barbeques on tables were being fired up, fridges plugged in, and worst of all enormous air beds were being inflated. I looked wistfully at the bare area where my roll mat should have been. But wait, what's this that Mrs L is handing me? It's only a bloody camp bed! I wasn't aware we had even got a camp bed, then again the last time I had been camping was about in 2002 when I was a lot hardier and had no need of ridiculous home comforts. Where had that been lurking? She didn't know either. The kids went off to play in the woods, she got busy on the tents, and I started work on the camp bed.

Shaking out the bag there were a few poles, some rudimentary legs, and a cloth contraption that was supposed to stretch between the poles. It was clearly older than I was. So, three poles together to form one side, and slip that into the sewn sides of the unforgiving cloth bit. Easy. Or so you would think. Would it fit? I tried it every which way, but I simply couldn't do it. Exasperating. Meanwhile Mrs L had finished putting up the second tent, unwrapped her self-inflating sleeping mattress and popped it inside, and came to over to show her useless husband how it was done, no doubt looking forward to being able to tell the other parents that she had erected our entire pitch whilst I joined two pieces of tube together and struggled with a third.

It was obviously an ancient piece of crap. No doubt the height of camping luxury in about 1965, it had no place in the twenty-first century. After both struggling with it for half an hour we admitted sweaty defeat, threw the whole lot in the campsite wheely bin and opened a bottle of wine instead. Screw cap, one twist and I was pouring. True innovation. We rejoined the main group and got out our Tesco disposable barbeques.... Happily one other of our group also had this lowly method of cooking, and together we formed a huge rectangle of grilling happiness that I would like to think had the gas brigade rather envious.

Cooking commenced – sausages, lamb skewers, chicken wings, burgers. Not all ours I hasten to add, this was barbequing en masse. Happy adults, booze flowing, chat and laughter. And then we noticed most of the children were missing.... Clear instructions had been given to stay in groups and to return by a certain time. It was clearly possible that the first edict had been adhered to, but we were half an hour past the second. And this wasn't an enclosed site, it was a series of fields in Epping Forest. Roaming was limited only by the M25..... Cooking was partly abandoned and we all set off in different directions to hunt them down. With no success. With darkness looming one by one we returned without children. The men of course tried to put a brave face on it. So yes, we were down most of our offspring, but on the plus side it was a lot quieter and the burgers were nearly ready. The women on the other hand began to up the ante. Burgerless I set off west into the woods again.

Naturally during my second foray, where I felt I nearly reached the Severn Estuary, the kids returned of their own accord and ate all the burgers. Turned out they had lost track of the time and where they were (go figure) and had asked a couple of teenagers which way the campsite was. Teenagers being the little shites that they are had sent them in the opposite direction FOR A LAUGH, and only when they had found some adults and borrowed a phone to call one of us had things started to recover. Nonetheless it had been rather a shock, there had been tears from many of them and perhaps some important lessons learned, which can only be a good thing. Including never trust teenagers. Once nerves had been calmed (adults mostly, with the aid of wine) things then returned to normal pretty quickly, and after a game of football in car headlights the children drifted off to their various tents leaving the parents to tend the fire and reflect on a near miss. And drink more prosecco.

So, off to bed. I was not looking forward to this at all. I had managed to lay out some blankets that I found in the car to try and provide some kind of cushioning against the hard ground, but it was pretty hopeless. Mrs L slept soundly on her posh mat and I endured a fitful night. On the plus side it didn't rain – our tent has seen better days, and whilst it was once completely impervious to the elements even the slightest moisture now comes straight in. So passed the night, I don't think I slept much and the groans the next morning were pretty impressive. I am not made for sleeping on the ground, and I ached in all sorts of places that I was not aware of being able to ache in. But the point is I camped and I survived. Let's just hope it's another fifteen years before the next outing.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Iceland for Waders: Part 1

They might have banned Grouse, but Waders are definitely still on the menu in Iceland and were one of the main reasons for going. The high probability of many Snipe, Godwit and others sitting up nicely on posts was a major draw for Shaun and I, and we were definitely not disappointed - albeit that actually finding a bird prepared to sit up and not fly off was rather challenging.

In late May the waders have for the most part been back a couple of weeks or are just arriving. Some are already on eggs, for instance Oystercatchers, others were still in full courtship behaviour - or rather they were fighting amongst themselves -as we observed Black-tailed Godwits doing. Most photography was done from the car, with me in the front seat behind the wheel, and Shaun typically in the back seat using whichever window worked best. We would try and roll the car into position and basically hope that the birds did not fly off as the car rolled to a halt. Redwings were utterly impossible we found, but all the other birds seemed mostly to tolerate us, even if only for a short while. The cambers in Iceland are often extremely steep, and stopping was often fairly fraught - the side roads were definitely safer.

So yeah, this is unfortunately a photo post. As I mentioned the other day, I've been working on it for a while, mainly as I have a huge processing backlog to get through having had a lot of other stuff going on. So, lots of filler, little content. Just like me. So little content in fact that I'm proud to be able to split it into two posts....

The commonest bird, utterly omnipresent, was Snipe. Rare to get other than a flight view here in Wanstead, but in Iceland the soundtrack was set to the beat of drumming Snipe, and there were birds all over the place - typically on fence posts. Lovely birds, only when you see them close can you appreciate the subtle plumage and the incredible patterning. To cut a eulogy short, they're wonderful and I wished I live somewhere in the uplands where they would be regular.

Probably in equal number, though not as obvious were Redshank. Plaintive calls - one I'm still waiting for on the patch - usually gave away their presence. Whilst they too quite like posts, they were more often found on grassy mounds, of which there are many in Iceland. Shaun and I also found a nest near a car park that had at least one chick and so had the parent birds apoplectic with rage. We left of course, but probably had our best views as the birds would not leave us alone until they were certain we were going in the right direction.

Next up Golden Plover, also numerous, although I did not persist with images because I had spent a fair amount of time with them on my first visit. I reckon I therefore did better a couple of years ago, but I still got a few I'm pleased with despite not getting the lighting conditions I really wanted. Stunning birds in their summer finery though, and you could base a trip solely around this species without much complaint. In fact looking through these I'd quite like to do just that. Hopefully this brief look at these three species will encourage you to as well.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

"Back when your blog was good..."

I had to laugh recently - you know who you are! And indeed it's completely true. As I mentioned towards the start of this year in a post called something along the lines of "where is the joy?", the urge to blog has diminished remarkably. Once up on a time I ideas bubbling up all the time - stupid ideas to be sure, but ideas nonetheless. I wrote about them, and enjoyed doing so. Today finds the blog in need of love and attention, and I have none really to give it. I've actually got a list (no really I have) of blog posts. I started it several months ago and periodically add to it, and then I never get round to writing any of them. Back in the day I used to compose the posts in my head as I was wandering about and then simply blast them out when I hit a keyboard. Today I can just about manage the title and then it kind of slips away, not forgotten, but kind of on indefinite hold. The lurkers are as follows:

1. Istanbul - usual travel guff, a few photos, some lovely towels, and now lots of bombs, deaths, and a crumbling democracy. Promises to be fun.

2. Gardening. This is my latest hobby, or rather a recycling of a previous hobby. Most of my plants died or became significantly pissed off whilst I was birding madly, but I'm now showing them love again. Consequently I've not been birding. 

3. Doing a decade of jobs about the house in about three weeks. This is one of the reasons why you have not heard from me for a while. The BP count is off the chart and yet I've just discovered I probably can't do Shetland after all!

4. Camping. I went camping for the first time in, oooh, 15 years? This was actually quite amusing, but I have just about recovered now.

5. Selling crap on Ebay. I hate Ebay, I hate many of the people who use it, and I am going to tell you why. One day.

6. Politics and stupidity. To be honest I have about half a dozen posts on this topic, all seething in my head. In fact this is the closest I've come to the time when I composed entire blog entries in my head. This country is a bloody joke. My second country is even worse. I've tried to write the first of these posts three times, and each time have come away spewing, incomprehensibly angry.

7. Work. See final sentence above. Basically I am not amused.

8. Public Transport and the cretins that use it, which includes me.

9. Icelandic Waders. This is deeply in progress as it involves lots of lovely photos. Sorry, images. The plan is to bore the reader senseless with shot after shot of point blank birds on posts. Win.

So, nine posts (well, fifteen if you count all the things I hate about Brexit individually) gently simmering away. I may or may not get around to them, it will be a surprise. There is also the small matter of my sigmoid colon, a part of me that I had never heard of, frankly wish I had still never heard of, and probably the main reason for my relative silence in recent weeks. Well, months. The good news (for the blog, obvs) is that I'm not about to drop dead, which was initially a worry, but the same time all is not especially rosy and I'm actually rather annoyed by the whole situation. That said I've had some lovely new, ahem, experiences, my new bestest best friend is called Mark, and in time it will hopefully all be a lot funnier..... 

....10. I could do a great post on what I think may be the longest fart in the history of human life on earth. I'll try and give notice in case you're about to have dinner or something.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Essex from above

I may have mentioned this, but I quite like flying. I like it a lot actually. It would be odd if I did not given how much I travel on planes, but believe it or not I did actually go through a period of not liking it at all, which rather limited my horizons for quite a few years. I got over it, and these days I travel quite a bit, for leisure (and not just birds!) and also for work. The work trips are not that exciting if I'm honest, short hops up to Glasgow from east London, but this means that I fly over a lot of the UK and I get a real kick out of doing that as if the weather is amenable I get to landscape watch, to try and pick out exactly where we are simply by reference to the landscape or the coastline. And of course I relate this to birds I've seen - all perfectly normal.... this is probably why I frequently get an empty seat next to me, lest I start boring a fellow passenger to death. Anyway, I know the UK well enough, in places, to do this quite accurately, and no more so than the Essex coast which has many features which are easy to identify. Occasionally the London City-bound aircraft route out over the east and then fly more or less straight up the Thames Estuary, and this is a great opportunity to stare out of the window.

My flight home this past Thursday was one of these, and sat in my favourite seat, 2D, which is on the starboard (right) side, I had simply lovely views of Essex from about the Naze down. I gazed out transfixed as we flew over Clacton Pier, and then at Colne Point where the Dotterel was, followed by Cudmore Grove where I finally saw my first Essex YBW. Then I realised that I had my phone to hand and took a series of snaps as we gradually descended into London. So here is a short pictorial history of the final moments (in a good, non-disastery way!) of BA flight 8729.

The Dengie. Bradwell, where I saw my very first Rosefinch, is at the top right as the coast bends round into the Blackwater Estuary. The fingers you can see heading inland on the far side are Tollesbury Fleet, with Mersea Island to the far right

The end of the River Crouch, with Hanningfield Reservoir in the distance. We would have been about over Rayleigh at this point, approaching Basildon.

The lower half is Vangé and Wat Tyler, scene of recent Red-footed Falcon and Black-winged Stilt happiness. The urban sprawl in the upper half is Basildon. Mmmmmm.

Getting a lot lower now, this is probably about Orsett whilst heading in over Grays.

And here's a landmark everyone knows, the M25, with Belhus Park to the left and South Ockenden to the right

Ford at Dagenham. We used to pick up lovely new cars from near the square white building to the right of the creek. Alas those days are now over!

Barking Bay to the north, Thamesmead to the south. You can't help feeling that soon the two sides could be indistinguishable.

Nearly there now, here's the bottom of the Roding, the river that borders my patch in Wanstead. Beckton sewage works is to the left, you don't realise quite how massive it is until you see it from above.

And finally down on 27, parking at the eastern-most slot which is mostly used for the JFK service. Half an hour home.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Two tick day having given up twitching

I dallied with twitching earlier this year, driving around the M25 in the hope of a Broad-billed Sandpiper in Wales, I didn't materialise and so I drove back home again. That is literally my only flirtation with attempting to up my British list. There have been good bird everywhere - Cornwall, Shetland, the Hebs, you name it, Monster birds all of them for the most part, and I've not succumbed. Too far, too much time needed that I do not have. Whether I've seen 400 birds or 450 makes little to no difference to my life, nor to anyone else's. 

I don't actually know the exact number, but I do know that today whatever it is went up by two. Two! I can't remember the last time I had a two tick day - perhaps the Bruinnich's Guillemot followed by White-billed Diver in the SW a few years back, or, as eventually transpired, the Harlequin Duck and Small Canada Goose on North Uist. I'm a little shaky as to whether I did get to add Cackling Canada or not, and I'm travelling at the moment so do not have access to the spreadsheet of happiness that would tell me, but suffice it to say that two tick days are very rare indeed.

Today I didn't even need to move for one to occur, which in many ways is perfect. I was at my desk (less perfect) in Glasgow - well actually, somebody else's desk in Glasgow and I am just squatting - when my phone buzzed to say that a committee of illustrious decision makers had decided to add two birds to my list. The first was the Rainham Slaty-backed Gull which was probably about five years ago now. I remember this one well as, like it, I had just arrived in the UK from America. The thought of spending a day at Rainham with a thousand desperate skivers did not appeal and so I gave it a miss. A few weeks later I found myself on the A13 going somewhere else, Pitsea or somewhere lovely like that I think, and so popped in when I heard it was loafing on Wennington. It was indeed, and one of my children who was in tow got it too, possibly several of them. OK, so I don't remember it that well. Anyway, big gull thing, miles away across the marsh, took flight showing a massive trailing edge to the wing, easy. We carried on to Pitsea thinking thoughts of immense satisfaction, or something like that. Five years later and the august body has decided that it passes muster and so it goes onto the UK list. For me I'd imagine that it sits somewhere in the 380's, and so will yet again displace that critical 400th bird. With all these late decisions I've had several 400th birds now, and have of course had to celebrate all over again.

Today's second tick came from rather unexpected quarters, and being much more recent leaves 400 well alone, or at least that's what I am guessing for it was only a couple of years ago. A Chinese Pond Heron turned up in Kent about a mile away from where I'd seen both Green Heron and Night Heron, so why I went down to have a look at it I am not really able to say. Some people say it was quite difficult, and indeed it did take the better part of a morning, but after a few hours it flew over my head and landed in a tree. Delighted, I left immediately to do something else. Anything else. I think I went to Dunge actually, so that shows you how bad it was. It couldn't possibly be anything else other than plastic could it? Well apparently it now sits on the British list immediately after Squacco Heron, which it closely resembles, and thus has been declared as non-recyclable by the same people who have seen fit to welcome SBG. Although quite biodegradable apparently as its head appeared on someone's lawn a few days after I saw it.

To say I am surprised is rather an understatement, but given that this year was looking very much like it might be my first blank year for ages, I can't say I am disappointed with either of them. And both were, even at the time, relatively pain free, which is part of what dissuades me from twitching these days - distance, failure, irritation and so on. I don't like any of them so I don't bother, which is a relationship that works for everyone concerned. Happy days.