Thursday, 17 August 2017

Best Pier - Worst Park-Up

I've found a nice enough pub in Alton, Hampshire, to sit down and write this, while the rest of the family has gone to the cinema. There are plenty of pubs in this town, but this one - The George - seems to be the only one other than the 'Spoons (the intimidatingly huge, and hilariously-named Ivy House) that serves any beers suited to my discerning palate. This pub came with a recommendation from the man in the outdoor shop, which was also excellent, while I bought myself the most Dad pair of shorts I have ever owned, or probably ever will.  We've been in The Downs a few nights waiting for our new overcab window to arrive, and after tomorrow I hope to be able to write a glowing review of the work carried out by a man with a motorhome maintenance and repairs business not far from here. Why have we come so far from where it happened to get it done? He is literally the only man who appeared to want the job. So this blog, like the travels that are its subject, is not turning out much like I had expected. It doesn't seem to be realistic to drive to a town, see what we think of it and report back to you, because so many aspects of so many towns are so much like their counterparts elsewhere, and also because what we are looking for in each town is rarely the stuff of excellent subject matter. I could probably sum up most of the journey so far by telling you that there are an awful lot more branches of Waitrose in the South and East of England than a quarter century of living in London had led me to believe. So instead, I shall attempt a new approach, where here and occasionally hereafter I shall tell you about the best of something and the worst of something else that we have experienced so far. Best pier Southwold was our first. Here the 'Under the Pier Show' (which was on, not under) amused the boys for a while, despite mocking the authentic seaside amusement arcade experience with some arty pretensions and wry social commentary on the gentrification ship that sailed into that seaside town to stay some years ago. Next was Cromer's beautiful Alpha Papa denouement location, followed by Eastbourne's grand home to a Whack-a-Penguin game (bizarrely named 'Punku Tricks') and a Zoltar machine that had totally lost its shit. A hairy but semi-aquatic friend of Blues Night then kindly donated a Paddle Around The Pier (Brighton, I think?) sticker to cover an unsightly burn-blemish in the van. So we didn't even bother to visit the world's longest at Southend when in neighbouring Leigh, as we  decided there had been quite enough pier pressure. My favourite was the fit-for-purpose cold war construction at Deal that was absolutely heaving with fisherman on a hot and sunny afternoon, but the next day cut a brutalist line through pure turquoise sky and sea in a fine and mist-like rain, in such a way as to make me feel as if I were briefly visiting another planet. Admittedly I was off my tits on Sinutab at the time, but I think even the straightest square would've sensed something otherworldly. If they had been there too. Worst Park-Up I think it is fair to say that we are not even considering making our new home in any of the counties that dissolve into Greater London along one edge. We've spent more time in these than others so far, perhaps to eliminate them from our enquiries, or maybe for fear of nosebleeds if we stray too far from the mother's milk of polluted London air. Essex is one of those counties, no more and no less. Okay, so it has an old-fashioned reputation for badly-behaved, even vaguely menacing younger people with unsubtle tastes and educational shortcomings, but I've rarely seen evidence of these people myself. This is probably because I have spent more times in Essex's beautiful open spaces and rolling countryside, unaffected by the sights, sounds and smells of those who have given their county a bad name. Until last Thursday night.  A good old friend of Blues Night, himself a smart and sophisticated product of Essex (as is his partner) recommended Two Tree Island, way out in the raging waters of the Thames Estuary, for our overnight stay.  On our arrival, wind and rain was hammering at the walls and roof of the van, and our very brief excursion out into the long grey wetness revealed only a few other vehicles, whose occupants were presumably either quietly dogging or contemplating suicide. This remained the case until about eleven that evening, when the rain let up enough to encourage several carloads of people born around the turn of the century to blast music out while running about shouting, driving their cars around in circles, hitting their horns to the beat, and generally having a lovely time without any apparent concern for the feelings or sleep patterns of the family in the motorhome about fifty feet away. This was the only vaguely menacing aspect of their behaviour - their total disregard for what we, in this lone Other Vehicle, would make of it. Nevertheless, I had still decided to leave after about half an hour of twitching the curtain between cab and bed, as the shenanigans was impossible to ignore, and I was a little concerned that it might get worse, or one of these kids would get bored and decide to let our tyres down or something. I mean, I've seen friends of mine do that sort of thing. About 25 years ago. Then, all of a sudden, they left. I couldn't decide whether to be relieved or disappointed, as I had my clothes back on and the keys in my hand ready to go. I'd also sent a text to my Local Friend describing the situation on his much-loved nature reserve and he had already suggested we park up outside his house instead. So I drove off, relieved to not be making a spectacle of myself (or my van at least) while doing so, and almost pleased to have to pull in before crossing the bridge back to the mainland, assuming this was one of the groups of lads coming back for more. But it wasn't - it was the cops, and it had obviously been the sight of them passing Leigh-on-Sea railway station that led to a local lad calling his mate down on the island and all these asbomobiles driving off without delay. The last vehicle to leave was a motorhome with two children travelling (illegally) asleep in the overcab bed, a woman in the bed behind admonishing the driver for being such a wimp, and a driver whose nerves were frayed down to their last threads despite being well over the legal limit after a large bottle of an Imperial Stout. Thankfully the police didn't bother stopping this vehicle either, and its occupants were able to get an excellent night's sleep just a mile up the cliff from Two Tree Island. The lesson here was that residential streets are much more comfortable and inconspicuous places to park up for some stealth camping. You don't want to be on your own, away from modern civilisation, because you won't be for very long.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Sussex - Kent - Essex

Of course, we are not the first family to realise that there must be other places worth living in the UK. We have friends (at least they were the last time we checked) dotted all around the country, and have taken the chance in this first fortnight to check in with some of them. 

Because we have something fairly fundamental in common, there are some nice and obvious reasons why these friends they have chosen the localities in which they now live. We have been able to appreciate some lovely towns over the last week - Worthing, Eastbourne, Rye, Deal and Leigh on Sea all shared their food and blue waters, beers, records and excellent company before an unchecked over-cab window was stolen away from us by air resistance and smashed to smithereens. Getting it fixed is now Top Priority, pushing "Does A Leaky Skylight Over A Wet Room Matter?" and "Why Is The Toilet So Smelly So Soon?" back into Rhetorical Status.

While we are getting used to the van, and tied to a single very definite date on the south coast, we have still been awkwardly circling London - literally, in fact - we have driven almost every mile of the M25 anticlockwise already. We would all like to turn left and park up outside the Ivy House for a while, but need to see a lot more of Not London before we burst our way back into the old bubble. So long as we can keep the Northern Weather outside, it's probably time to brave it next week.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Bucks and Sussex

So we have been at it for a week now. A kind of Holiday of Readjustment, traipsing from place to place on the map in an absurdly haphazard way, bypassing cities and towns in which we might consider making our future home, in order to string together random locations that we would surely not. This wildly disorganised and expensive vacation season must surely give way to something more methodical soon, if only to spare the lungs of the people from the evils of our diesel fumes. We've clocked up over 500 miles, and yet have felt like we haven't really started.

After a visit to the small and weird Royston Cave left our children wondering what on earth it was that their parents were mistaking for something important, we spent the night in the car park opposite The Harrow, a nice-enough Chiltern Hills coaching inn with friendly staff, tasty chips and the most unremarkable beer offering imaginable. This was conveniently close to Great Missenden, where I sought the truths behind Roald Dahl's farmer and old lady of whom he told my friend Big H. But did not find them, of course.

We then moved on toward the South Coast. M has wanted to visit Charleston for some years, and so wasn't about to let the Philistine Men of her family ruin it for her. We remained in the van in the car park and made pasta, then I sat over E while he ate it, explaining in some detail why Making Himself A Sandwich Instead was no longer an option. 

We found such a good parking spot outside the fantastic Snowdrop Inn in Lewes that I was reluctant to leave, especially as they had all sorts of delights from Burning Sky and Wild Beer on the bar. It's pretty clear why Nice Families left East Dulwich in droves for the home of Harveys throughout the early 21st Century. Lewes is a very pleasant town indeed, apart from the shitbiscuit who hit his horn when we had to stop at a >6'6"< width warning and turn around. Perhaps I should have proceeded regardless and wedged my new home firmly into the thoroughfare in front of him, to see if he liked that any better.

Now we are parked outside the boys' oldest friends' house, in Worthing, where they've lived for about a year. Toilet cassette and waste water emptied, the best broadband we've had in a week, and a gilt-edged parking voucher in the windscreen, we are getting pretty comfortable in a great town that has a bit of everything we are looking for. But there is an awful lot to see out there, and we do seem to be really getting started on it at last.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Norfolk - Suffolk - Cambs

We are gradually getting to grips with this vehicle. The water tank, which fills all of the space under the kids' seat, and takes about ten minutes to fill with my Dad's garden hose at full blast, only seems to last a couple of days' modest use. 

I filled it a second time using the AIR AND WATER machine at a BP garage near Lowestoft, which cost me about three quid in tokens and cramp in both hands, but seemed to work in the end. The toilet cassette, likewise, demands attention every couple of days, despite a whole-family commitment to keeping Materialisations of The Brown Lady for special occasions. On the suggestion of some bloke on the Internet, we've been using biological washing machine liquid instead of the blue stuff that is designed for the job, and the jury is still out on whether it is as effective. 

We've done another three nights without paying to camp. The first was in a council car park at Overstrand on the Norfolk coast, a gorgeous cliff walk to, and beach walk back from, Cromer, which is a much nicer town than one might ever have guessed from the expensive campsite of lost souls. 

The next night we drove to Knettishall Heath in Suffolk, en route to pick up a few eBay essentials (mains hook-up cable, another USB power bank, and a charging cable to connect this to the kids' 3DS) from my mum and dad's. We spent the night in a secluded muddy lay-by, and the nice fella who informed us the next morning that we are "not really supposed to" camp on the heath seemed to accept that there is very little that can be done to make the policing of it possible, and that even if there were, he certainly isn't being paid to do so. 

Last night we were as comfortable as we have been so far in a tiny cul-de-sac in Cambridgeshire. This was obviously all in the head - the fact that M's mum lives in one of these neat little bungalows wouldn't have made any difference to the way that passers-by looked at us, as nobody knew who we were, but we were confident in our right to be there. Maybe this frame of mind might serve us just as well when it is erroneous, too?

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Was it a good idea?

"I don't mind admitting, when you first told me about this, I thought it was A FUCK IDEA," my 74-year-old Dad is saying. He is rather drunk and making strange new use of rude language, but is also expressing his enthusiasm for our motorhome, which does indeed seem to possess all of the features required to make a life on the road quite possible. Later that evening he will walk out of his front door in total darkness, fall over and start talking to a frog that is sitting in one of his plant pots. 

Fast forward three days, and I'm lying in the strange extra-single bed space at the back of the van next to the bog. I got a bit pissed myself last night, on Dark Fruit Strongbow ("When In Rome...") in a horrible bar on a campsite near Cromer that occupies the elusive middle ground between the outdoor experience and Butlins. As a result, I wasn't confident to clamber over a sleeping M in the double bed, so I ended up here. 

This campsite cost us thirty quid for a small space on a steep slope that served to empty the sink onto the gas hob and has stopped one of the rings working. Admittedly I might've noticed this happening if I'd drunk less nasty cider, but then I would have suffered more from the soul-destroying awareness that campsites like this are no way of discovering the geographical area in which they exist. 

The night before, I got even less sleep as I was nervous. Our first night sleeping in the van, we were determined to go stealth or rogue or wild or whatever it is, and lay awake in a van that bounced and swayed through some truly awful weather in the enormous riverside car park at Walberswick. The famous old lady with a beard who ran the campsite next door is surely no more, and we wouldn't have been able to get the van down the narrow track to it anyway, but there is a perfect understanding throughout the family that this project won't work if we have to go looking for a place to park and sleep in each locality where nobody can come and tell us to piss off. 

Admittedly, the man with the gorgeous wood-and-glass-built home looking out to sea, who was our nearest neighbour that tumultuous night, would have been quite mad to brave these raging elements just to tell us to sling our hooks when he surely could not have seen or heard us, but a combination of new experiences meant we could not rest easy. We will get used to it, M and I, we expect, but we have some way to go before we give as little of a shit as the kids do. They slept like logs.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Ready for the off?

The move was about as smooth as it could be, although the removal men arrived at half seven in the morning when my brain was still sleeping, and I forgot to show them the loft. Predictably, they weren't best pleased when M remembered it, so I had to shift all the things up there myself and attempt to pass them down without sweating onto this muscly Polish bloke. I didn't have the heart to bother him with the three dozen ‘last few bits’ that were loose up there, as he had long been receiving boxes I could barely lift with his fingertips, a grimace and tightly-closed eyes.

So I had to do an extra run to the lock-up at Jumbo's Safari Shithouse and didn't get back until
three o’clock on our last London morning. In an otherwise empty house, I found H blissfully asleep next to M on the inflatable mattress we’d borrowed, leaving me a foam dog-bed that was squashed completely flat under my weight, with a towel for a blanket. I got precisely three hours’ restlessness before getting up, seeing the boys off for their last day at school and making my testimonial visit to the dump. After overloading the Focus to the point that my tearful sons in scribbled-on uniforms had to sit cross-legged on piles of pillows, we headed for our bolthole in Suffolk, where my dad was pissed and my mum went to bed straight after Celebrity Mastermind.

Living with my folks again (four nights, so far, is my longest-ever stay with my whole family) has been surprisingly comfortable and easy. They are lovely old people who live a quiet life and have made space for us in a home that would usually make our ride out of Peckham look roomy. Both are fond of whisky - dad a little too much so, as evidenced by the loud banging we heard when M put a half-load of washing on yesterday morning. We stopped the machine and found mum had hidden a litre bottle of Lidl blended Scotch from dad under a towel in there.

We are picking up our van on Wednesday evening and are planning a short trip up to Cromer first, for that inevitable first-week breakdown. M has friends near there and my great aunt has a chalet that's  hardly ever used, so we have somewhere to stay while Norfolk’s least-reputable mechanics go mental rebuilding the entire bloody engine and giving us a bill that doubles the price we paid. They are probably Norwich fans, although they don’t actually exist yet.

My brother saw this van, a Hymer box on a Fiat Ducato, advertised on a noticeboard at work. This appealed to both M's instincts to get some kind of bargain that very few people would know about, and my instinct to hastily throw cash at the first thing that comes along. A couple in their fifties had been using it for the last SEVEN YEARS while getting their even-older-and-more-ridiculous camper fixed up. After a little conversation I had a lot of faith in them, and therefore their vehicle for sale. But I have been known to be wrong about these things.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

What’s Going On?

Um, not a lot. We are waiting out the final few weeks of the extension to the appendix of the over-run moving period, and are expecting to finally hit the road within twenty-eight days.

I’ve started moving my records back into my parents’ house. There are about six times as many of them as there were last time they lived there, so my aging ancestors weren’t that thrilled when the first carload arrived, but they do understand that valuable plastic and card can’t just go in the storage container next to the dual carriageway with everything else.

Meanwhile, I have been making a project of reducing my alcohol consumption, bringing it down to a respectable average of a pint a day over the last month. Or at least up until yesterday, when I enjoyed an afternoon at every place you can buy a drink on Borough Market, with an ex-colleague who holds the dubious honour of being the only teacher I have ever worked with who drinks more than I do. This requires a little more work before I enter into a new life that involves driving a large vehicle nearly every day.

The final details of the move are being tidied up, but I can’t deny that I have more time on my hands than I know what to do with. As evidence of this, what follows is an extract from an email I've just sent in response to a quick enquiry from the nice people who are buying our house:


A table 2m long would fit, sure, but would only leave about 40cm clearance at each end. This would be enough for me to squeeze through fairly comfortably (and I have frankly enormous buttocks), but my personal feeling is that such a table would be just a tad too long. However, we only actually use the other side of the table when we have guests to dinner (virtually never) and I'm guessing most of your guests would be more agile and less curvaceous than me.

Other factors to take into account are that our existing table has curved corners (has yours?) and that about three quarters of the table's width at each end will have more clearance, as the kitchen unit and the wall next to the back door will mostly be either side of the bench, not the table.

You may disagree with my assessment, of course, and I rather hope you do. I would hate myself if I had crushed your table dreams. The width and height are perfect. Maybe you should come and have a look at ours again before ordering anything. It is not out of the question that our existing table and bench may be available if you want them, but you might have your heart set on something different.

Okay, I'm ducking out now. This is the single greatest responsibility I have taken on in months, and I can't handle it.


So I think I have to accept that I started this blog too early, really. I mean, I wanted to write about the house sale and how we felt about leaving London as they are relevant to the rest of the unfolding story, but I can’t kid myself that anybody would want to read about this Dead Zone before the move. Please do check back in a few weeks though, as there’s sure to be some thrilling material about living with your parents again at the age of 44. Or perhaps we might have to just buy the first vaguely suitable vehicle we can find, and get going.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Are you getting bored already?

No, I’m not. I have posted in the last few weeks, but M hinted that it was not of public interest, or it was boring or something. Personally I thought the post - my reasons why I was not prepared to do any of the work our buyers’ surveyor had recommended - was both informative and thrilling, but I took it down anyway, as I am learning to be a better listener in preparation for family life in a shed on wheels.

We have just been to see a broad selection of sheds-on-wheelses in the wilds of deepest Kent, and the boys got quite excited picking the ones they like best - basically the ones with the best bunk beds (which are bigger and probably more difficult to drive). We are ‘motorhoming in’ on what we want, ho-ho, which is very different from what we thought we wanted a month or so ago, and now we are getting down to geeky little details like whether it is actually safe or legal for our children to travel in it. It seems strange that among the vehicles we are looking at, there are comparatively few which sleep four and have four seatbelts.

The exercise was kind enough to expose what an hilariously bad fit we are as a family for what we are planning to do. First I decided I’d better check the oil and water in the car before actually taking it out on the motorway and found there was little evidence of either having ever been administered to the poor vehicle. This was quickly followed by (11-year-old) E’s very genuine “Are we nearly there yet?” as we drove across Blackheath. Our standards of motor vehicle maintenance and tolerance of road journeys are both going to have to improve, and very quickly.

But not as quickly as they might have. Yes, we’ve put the whole thing back another month, as we realised that the earliest we were going to be getting going now was only about three weeks before the end of the school year. M suggested that it might be “The Right Thing to Do” to offer E the chance to complete his Primary Schooling, and we were a little surprised when he jumped at it. Does this mean that we are just going to be setting off on holiday in late July, the same as everyone else? Perhaps. And maybe that would be a good way to start. Then, when everybody else goes back to school, we can start our home ed stuff, our exploration and our search for a new home.

The past and the present are more important than the future right now. E has been going to our brilliant (as far as I can tell) local school since he was three, and is about to be dragged off the grid into a world of fewer rules, expectations and demands. It might be a bad start to suggest to him that it isn’t worth finishing something you’ve spent most of your life working on.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Ha-ha. No, really - what kind of van are you getting?

Once again we are ahead of schedule. I said we might change our minds about the camper at the last minute. Not only have we done so already, but the last minute has been put back. We treated our housebuyers to my cooking at the weekend - a barbecue gave them a chance to see whether they still liked the house when its atmosphere was fifty percent paraffin fumes. After a few drinks and then a few more, we were able to discuss how soon it will all be done. It looks more like the end of June now, which I’m not going to allow to bother me, even if it does mean that I might run out of things to write about here before we get started.

So we have been thinking more about what we need from our rolling home. Do we need a shower? Nah. As part of my meticulous preparations, I’ve been teaching myself not to wash so frequently, conditioning my skin and glands to deal with a new routine where they have to sort themselves out. Then there will be visits to public baths, and anybody who’d like to register for us to come round and block their plughole is free to use the comments section to do so.

Do we need an oven? Again, I'd have to say no. ‘You would,’ counters M, ‘because you would never use it anyway.’ I think about reminding her that I do most of the outdoor cooking at present – which admittedly amounts to three or four times a year. I think about telling her that we are living to her exacting standards and if it were not for her, I would eat soil if I was hungry enough (and even if I wasn't, if I had some sriracha hot sauce to put on it.) Finally I think about telling her that if cooking duties are restricted to the preparation of beans on toast or tinned ravioli - "shitpillows" as M calls them - I will actually be able to pull my weight in this department, at least. But once a teacher, always a teacher, so I decide to hold this promise back for a moment in the future when I have to set myself some targets for improvement.

A comment on the last post (not the bugle tune but the thing I wrote about campers the other day, that wasn't really about campers) reminded me that a van without a pop top for one of the beds would be preferable, if we are to be indulging in STEALTH CAMPING on residential streets. Not for any real, practical reasons, but just because we don't want it to be obvious that we are taking the piss by very obviously residing, if only for one night, in a neighbourhood where we pay no council tax, have only contributed a tenner to the economy for egg sandwiches, and are waiting for a quiet moment to empty our chemical toilet into the gutter.

We won't do this of course. A full chemical toilet appears to be a huge responsibility. Even one of those little port-a-potty things that we could fit in a California. One review said something about how emptying one was not as bad as you might expect- "it just looks like lumpy chocolate milk" it said. Ew.

So the fundamental issue here is the toilet. We are going to need one in the van, there is no doubt about that. It would probably be better to have one in its own little room behind a closable door, as although we are not exactly squeamish, any of us, watching each and every member of the family curl one off every day may leave a trauma on the psyche of one or both of my children that goes undetected until their great dirty protest of 2037.

And the issue of what to do in the same situation at night is rather more, um, messy. When the rock 'n' roll bed (for I believe that to be the parlance) is folded down and M is asleep in it, there will be no remaining floor space for me to treat myself to a midnight poo. The only option would be to take the port-a-potty out of the van, which might be workable in a secluded area, but once again, in a quiet residential area of a city or town I've never visited before, it would be brave to sit on a glorified bucket doing a shit.

In order to have a little more space and a little more privacy when it is needed, we have shifted our sights onto a larger, high-top van. This will mean we deny ourselves the pleasures of Britain’s many wonderful multi-storey car parks, but if Peckham is to lose the jewel in its crown, we should probably boycott the others in solidarity. 

It seems that such a vehicle could even be cheaper than the Volkswagens we were looking at, so it really is a no-brainer. Certainly, we look to now be following the advice of the aforementioned Friends With Campervans. They will be delighted, I am sure.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

What sort of van are you getting?

Here’s a fun experiment you can try for yourself at home with the kids. Start telling people you are going to quit your current job, which is the only one they’ve ever known you to have. It helps if it's a job that nearly everybody knows all about and thinks they couldn’t do because the pay is a bit shit and you probably get loads of grief off of badly behaved boys and misguided middle managers. But they also have this notion that it must be “rewarding” in some pseudo-spiritual way and say things like “You are bound to miss it, though, aren't you?”
This is where teaching becomes rewarding for the first time. When you look them in the eye and say “I doubt it.” Because what you’re really saying is, “Although I never said anything about it at the time, spending a thousand hours in the company of your kid and his mates wasn’t as much of a thrill as you might imagine. And it was only when they went home that I was actually able to get any work done.”

Next they are going to want to know where you are planning to go and live.
London is expensive and they might want to sell up and ship out themselves one day, so if there is somewhere else that is worth going they want to know where it is. When you say you have no idea where you are moving to they are going to be very disappointed.
Tell them you are going to mooch about the UK until you find somewhere you like. Be prepared for them to ask you what sort of campervan you have got. They would really like to have a campervan because it would be brilliant for going to Latitude and Bestival. But otherwise they wouldn't use it very often and so it would spend a lot of time standing parked in what is actually a very nice residential street in a leafy neighbourhood with a surprisingly low crime rate but nevertheless campers get nicked there all the time. Especially older ones without immobilisers that can still be hot-wired by the most amateurish vehicle thieves. But even modern ones with immobilisers get nicked a lot by being loaded onto the back of flat bed trucks which takes a fair amount of organisation and a lot of balls but still happens astonishingly frequently.
It has now emerged that everybody knows more about campervans than you do. They are also forgetting that you are always, always flat broke and there is no way that you could afford a vehicle that would be so expensive to buy, insure and run but that you never actually have any time to use before it gets stolen.
Once they are past the disappointment of you not actually having this campervan that you are pretending you're going to live in for a year or something, they will want to know what kind you’re going to get when your house sale goes through.
They expect you to know exactly what kind of campervan you are going to buy, as if you will be able to pick it up, whatever it is, at Dulwich Sainsbo’s because they just have everything. Do not blame them for doing so. They want to find out if you are actually serious about this or if you are just making it up to appear more interesting than you really are. You have, as far as they are aware, always been a teacher, and therefore you always must be one, otherwise the fabric of the universe will become unstable before their very eyes like a special effect from a recent episode of Doctor Who.
They want to imagine you in one of those split screen vintage buses that look cool but are very expensive and break down every thirty miles. Or perhaps they want to imagine you in one of those enormous mobile home things like the one that is always parked in front of their house blocking out all the light. They want you to take it away from London and ruin somebody else’s life with it instead.
Surely you are going to want a really big, well-appointed one if you're going to be living in it for that long? Aren’t you? Erm, no. We are going to want what is just about the smallest vehicle that four people can actually sleep in. Why? First and foremost, it has to be easy to drive and park. We only really intend to drive it and sleep in it, so it doesn't need to be any bigger. Or am I being ridiculously naive here? When I visualise myself in my new life on the road, I'm walking hills and dales, rowing a boat on a lake or just exploring a park, or a pub or restaurant or whatever. Actually it was pubs I thought of first, and I pictured me getting drunk and then just being able to sleep in this big comfy car instead of having to drive home.
The perfect vehicle for us, it emerges, is a Volkswagen T5 California, which “is much too small for a week away, let alone several months” and will make us “look like a bunch of London wankers” according to some friends who do actually own campers and use them regularly. Why are we refusing to follow kind, considered, expert advice from people whose opinions we respect? Gosh, I dunno. Maybe we are contrary. Maybe we just like a challenge. Maybe we weren’t listening properly. Or maybe we will change our minds at the last minute, which will be in about a month.
In the meantime, I would really value any input I might receive in the comments below, from anybody of a mind to share some. Thanks for the comments so far, friends and strangers. I don’t know if I am supposed to respond.
Or how to.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Who needs estate agents?

Not us. We paid our seven hundred quid and the fella from the internet-only agents came round a week ago, took marvellous photos, and added them to his company's website. It went on Rightmove on Thursday evening and I got a call on Good Friday to arrange a viewing.

It went okay - they seemed to like the place, but it was out of their price range. I had a couple of cans of White Star to celebrate (I'm totally skint again, and White Star is the same price, the same strength, and much easier to swallow than White Ace). Then I got a call about another viewing.

The second couple came, had a look, had a chat, and were very friendly. I left them to themselves for a bit. After ten minutes she came downstairs and said, "I'll be frank. We want to buy your house."

They made an offer the next morning, which was actually pretty decent. I'd given them my number when I'd seen how keen they were and she sent me a text to ask me what I thought. I said we reckoned we might be able to get the asking price, so she offered that instead. It was exactly that easy. As I said to my friend that afternoon, if flogging records is as easy as flogging houses, I'm going to be a millionaire.

Now, assuming it doesn't all fall through, I have to accept that we have been hugely fortunate – at least lucky enough to find the perfect buyers. People, it seems, for whom ours is the perfect house. That said, with the housing market as it is, surely every property that goes on sale has the perfect buyer for it out there, as long as the price is right, and the person showing them around is able to answer all of their questions? But they're not going to be looking for it in a shop window in the high street, are they? They're going to find it on the web, specifically on Rightmove, aren't they?

What, I asked one of the (lovely) 'proper' estate agents who came and gave us a market appraisal, was he going to do to justify the extra ten grand this would cost me? "You'll get a professional agent, dressed like me," he began. He was talking about his suit, which was very nice, but surely could not have cost more than one twentieth of the fee we were talking about.

In conducting this crucial viewing half-cut on tramp juice, I can’t imagine that I came across as professional or sartorially elegant, but the good people seemed happy with the service I provided. They were a lot like us really - just ten years younger, a fair bit taller and better-looking, with lots more money. And they are probably less likely to judge people by their appearances. Or drink White Star.

We haven’t done this entirely without estate agents, of course. The nice people on the internet (whose company name I’ll reveal when the sale is complete, if you can’t work it out for yourself) sent a guy who did EVERYTHING except the viewings, which I would now suggest any reasonably proud homeowner should do themselves anyway. I said to him, "This'll probably sound pretty rude, but have you ever been a normal estate agent? It's just that you’ve been brilliant, when you could be forgiven for not giving a damn whether we sell this or not now, if you don't have any commission riding on it?"

He smiled and shrugged. “Yeah, I was once. What can I say? I like my job, and I want to do it well.” 

I hadn't really thought about that. I've been out of a job for four months now, and can't remember the last time I had genuinely taken pride in my work. 

It would probably be better for this blog if it did all fall through. You know, it’d give me something to moan about. The twists and turns of the whole process. If it's all plain sailing, this spiel is going to lack realness and I'm going to keep coming off as Pretty Damn Pleased With Myself. But I would encourage my readers never to give their business to a high street estate agent again. Take the time off work if you have to, but sell it yourself. Nobody knows what makes a house worth buying better than the owner.

Assuming it does all go through though, I suppose at least that our buyers' enthusiasm should give some indication of how much we are giving up in return for our New Bohemia. It is the sacrifice that keeps me humble. Yes, that is burning martyr that you can smell.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Is your house on the market yet?

People have been asking me this question for about six months now, with predictably ever-increasing frequency. As of a couple of hours ago, the answer is “Yes.” And so obviously I have never felt less like selling it.

It’s not just that we have made it look nicer – much nicer – than it has ever been before, with paint and de-cluttering and that weird feeling of I am literally cleaning this part of my house for the very first time. We expected to feel that little pang of self-envy of the style and class that comes from having zero dust bunnies in your hutch.

The feelings of uncertainty have been only very slightly exacerbated by the estate agent’s Camera of Phoney Enormousness. Thank God, in fact, that I don’t have to walk a dozen paces just to turn a record over – imagine the misery of all that unnecessary stylus wear.

No, I’m having a very parochial version of the Ian Dunt thing – where could be better than here? Not London, particularly, but Peckham. Or not even Peckham, but our bit of SE15 – our neighbours, our local shop, our local pub. Or not even that, but specifically our home.

I’ve been indulging in a masochistic fantasy – a premonition perhaps. One of my sons, bored to hell of being cooped up in a van with no PS4 and no friend from five doors down who pops in most days. A single tear gleaming upon his soft and rounded cheek, he looks up at me and says “I just want to go home.”

I knew there would be doubts. There were always going to be times that I would have to have the courage of my convictions – and I do mean me, as M has been very clear recently that she doesn’t want to do this at all. If you will excuse me, I might have a quick look at TES Jobs to see if I can find something I would enjoy in London
That will soon get me back into the idea of moving house.

Friday, 7 April 2017

What's that you're playing?

Last night I had a surprise, one-off, secret, additional, extra, final, last-ever gig in London. A charmless corporate affair, the fee for which I simply couldn't turn down, wherein the music provided was never going to be anything more than an inconspicuous soundtrack to noisy conversation, this gig nonetheless demonstrated that making a living as a professional player of the record players could be even less enjoyable than teaching. 

The venue was a new office development on a gorgeous square. A cavernous, L-shaped room entirely devoid of soft furnishings, with a laughably inadequate sound system arranged along one side. The right-angle of the room was packed with very smartly-dressed London Property People. 

There was a preponderance of blokes, of course, who seemed like perfectly nice people. Some of the younger men were very handsome and cheerful-looking. The old boys who came over to talk about their record collections or their valve amps were friendly and only slightly boring, and my policy of sticking to 45s on these occasions saves me from the stress of attempting to appear interested in what somebody is saying while cueing up an album track on the headphones. 

There were women there too. One asked if I had anything off of Dirty Dancing, and another told us several times to turn it down, probably because she had chosen to stand very close to one of the speakers for all of her conversations that evening. It will irritate M if I take this opportunity to point out that I recognise that these individuals were not representative of all women, and were indeed, like the slightly boring men, probably perfectly nice people, despite their dissatisfaction with the service we were providing.

I knew beforehand that nobody was going to dance, and dancing is not always the appropriate response to music anyway. I knew as soon as I saw the room and the speakers that the sound quality was not even going to be adequate for people to enjoy listening to the music. If I had been on my own behind the decks, I probably would have kept the phones on all the time, so that I could entertain myself, at least, for five hours or so. Further, all of these people had conversations to conduct, I knew that. I'm really not complaining about any detail of this gig last night. Honest. It was a useful experience for a man whose life is changing, whose future is uncertain, and who is writing a blog about it.

For twenty-five years, and now more than ever, what I have really wanted is my own room, with a simple-but-entirely-effective system, that people might want to come to, and actually listen to the music. They are allowed to talk, just not too much.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

How important is breathing?

That bloke Ian Dunt (I think that is his name) wrote something provocative on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, about how stupid he thought people were to move out of London when they have kids. "Where are you going to raise them that's better?" he asked. I found myself reading the replies for the best part of an hour. Some people were getting really cross about how Londoners reckon themselves and their home city to be so great. Londoners seemed economically obliged to fight their corner - if they can't justify the enormous extra expense of living here, they are daft to be doing so, I suppose.

In amongst loads of emotive language on both sides, a Scottish paediatrician took the time to list more-than-one-tweet's-worth of toxic agents and carcinogens that he believes Londoners and their children are breathing, all day, every day. In fact, throughout these tuppence-worths, the idea of bringing your kids up breathing poison was second only to making them live in a smaller house without much of a garden in its frequency of appearance.

I grew up a loathsome asthmatic, one of those kids whose lungs make such unpleasant noises that other people around them forget how to breathe properly too. This was deep in the heart of rural Suffolk, and was particularly bad late in the summer, around harvest time. When I came to London as a student at eighteen, I started breathing better straightaway. My alveoli took to the heavy metals and diverse pollutants in the London air so well, in fact, that I often found it difficult to go home in the holidays. I had also become allergic to my parents' cats and dogs, something there had been no sign of before.

Twenty-six years later, as long as I stay away from hairy animals, which I'm usually very happy to do, it's unusual for me to have the slightest of wheezes. My two sons have both inherited my crappy lungs, however, and I feel a little guilty when I read on the internet that I am slowly killing them with my selfish metropolitan lifestyle. But what if they, like their father, turn out to thrive on lead and dangerous chemicals rather than with all that pollen and organic nastiness?

We usually find that we all breathe better at the seaside, oxygenated air inflating our wimpy bronchioles like withered foil balloons, leaving us over-aerated and ready for bed by seven. But on holiday in a chalet in Cromer once (where it seems a dog had been staying not long before), I ended up in hospital on a nebuliser, a facemask strapped over my nose and mouth.

Fred Neil was going where the sun was shining... where the weather suited his clothes. I guess we are going to have to go where the air suits our lungs. Oh yeah, and the kids have said that wherever we end up, they are going to want a dog.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Why are we doing this?

...the same two reasons people always give for leaving London - in the hope of having more money and a better life. 

Something I've repeated even more often than the bit about not getting VFM out of LDN is "I don't have a problem with working hard, and I don't have a problem with being skint. But I've been doing both for twenty-odd years now and I'm bloody bored of it." We were massively lucky to get our house when we did - we literally could not have afforded fifty quid more. But, although the mortgage we got wouldn't buy a two bed flat round here now, it's been pretty much beyond my means since day one. I haven't had a proper pay rise in ten years and had got into the kind of debt that (although it's a fraction of that with which the average graduate starts out in working life nowadays) spirals out of control. I simply couldn't make the repayments as well as keep up with the mortgage and cover all the rest of the bills. The numbers just weren't adding up, which, in tandem with how tough I was finding the job (more of which another time), meant things were going to have to change. 

Would I stay here if (pathetically hypothetically) I could find a new, better-paid job? No. I need a change of lifestyle too. If I admitted I was a borderline alcoholic, M would snort and say that there is nothing borderline about it. To an even greater degree than the average middle class man with a beard (I have had one for 16 years, by the way - I pretty much invented not shaving) I've been a very enthusiastic participant in the craft beer palaver, the success of which seems to be down to the lifestyle phenomenon of turning what's essentially a Very Bad Habit into an "avid interest". 

Apart from drinking beer, my other hobby has always been buying and playing records. I've (actively) played them in pubs and clubs around London and beyond for 23 years. Once I tried to give up teaching to concentrate on working as a dj but it soon became apparent I might drink and debt myself to death. Sitting at home listening to records (passively) is nice, but didn't happen often enough when I was working as a teacher. I want to live the music experience and share it with people, along with my enthusiasm for beer, without drinking it all. And I need to get more exercise.

I'm at least a couple of stone overweight. I don't hate myself for it, as, since all I ever do in my free time is eat and drink, I might expect it to be worse. I really enjoy being active and love all sorts of sports (despite not being very good at any of them) but have virtually never found the time to participate over the last eleven years - the time that I have had children. Shouldn't I be doing sports with my children? Of course, but they come home from school tired, just wanting to relax. At the weekends (the only time computer games are allowed), they feel, if asked to do anything else, they're being denied a favourite thing, to which they are entitled. They do work really hard at school and their behaviour is excellent.  

Are they being overworked at school? Possibly, but they're not being nagged to death with an education like the kids with whom I worked until recently. Are we going round in circles here? Yes. So it's time to break from the predictable arc and head off at a tangent, wherever that may lead us.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

So where are we now?

Erm, still in Peckham. I haven't spent three months sitting on my arse, though, honest. We knew it would take some time to get the house ready to sell, and amusingly we had to give it an extra month for the convenience of our lodger.

He has, to his credit, done a great job on the downstairs front windows, the front door and the shower room. Basically the things that people are going to look at closely, that have to be worked on with a certain amount of skill and technique. Meanwhile I've been slopping my new favourite paint - Sandtex Trade High Cover Smooth, people - over anything that stands still for long enough. Oh, and removing literally dozens of boxes and bags of miscellaneous items (the reasons for keeping which, I cannot possibly fathom) from the loft.

We have also been selling a lot of our possessions, as we would obviously like to be putting as little as possible into storage for the many months to come. eBay has been as fickle a friend as ever, sometimes delivering lovely people (who are prepared to pay substantial amounts of money) to our door to collect broken things they will enjoy tinkering with, and at other times sending us cheeky young scrotes who've got a bargain but still want to push it and moan about some detail, or don't even bother to turn up.

And I've been enjoying living here, as if for the first time. It's true that there are loads of great things to do for free in London, especially if the weather is good and you can set your own agenda - the kids are still going to school, of course. For years I've whinged about how "I don't get value for money living in London. I just go to work, eat, sleep and occasionally get pissed. I could do that cheaper anywhere." I'm now suffering the irony overload of really loving the place while working to get away.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Right, here goes...

I packed in my job as a primary school teacher at Christmas. It was too hard and it made me pretty miserable. You have probably heard that kind of stuff from teachers before. I stuck it out for seventeen years, so I must've been okay at it, and it made some other important things possible, but it was always going to come to an end before I turned fifty. I'm forty-four, so I'm doing something ahead of schedule for the first time ever.

This may or may not be my own selfish endeavour, but I think I have the rest of the family on side. We are going to sell our house in Peckham, South London, and find somewhere else to live, preferably a town or city that needs a second hand record shop. I'm going to stock the place with my own collection at first, which will save my kids having to flog it on eBay when I'm dead.

We have no idea whatsoever where this Somewhere Else is going to be. London is so ingrained in our hair and skin and souls that we have never been anywhere else (we rarely had the time or money anyway) and been able to say, "Yes. We could live here." So M (my partner, mother of E and H, our ten- and eight-year-old sons) had the idea of Going On Tour. When the house is sold, we are going to take the kids out of school and travel around the British Isles in a camper van. We are going to go to places we've always wanted to visit, and places we have never heard of, and we are going to explore and adventure for as long as we damn well feel like it.

And at some point, I expect, we are going to find a town and think, "Yes. We could live here."

I'm planning to record what happens in this blog. I hope people will want to read it, of course, so I shall try to make it useful and informative. I will try not to bang on about boring things, but I think some stuff about what my old job was like, what my children are learning while missing school, maybe even the good old house prices conversation might have to come into it once in a while. But mostly I will want to talk about the places in the UK and Ireland that we visit and what they are like. I can't wait to get started. It would be great if you came along for the ride.