The dead giveaway

Talking about secondhand cars has reminded me that I am not quite right in the head.

Most of the time, I think I am more than okay, and can function well in the world. After all, I am nearly 64 and still here, unemployed but in full working order, sitting in my lovely garden studio, that I can’t sell, Hunzi dreaming fitfully at my feet, writing my interesting and amusing bogl, that nobody reads; or, if they do, they must be too stunned to Comment on it.

Evidence, then, of normality.

Except that, when I look back on certain events in my life, I beg leave to remark that only someone who is missing synchro on third gear would behave the way I do.

It might fairly be observed that no-one in their right mind would ever have bought a short-wheelbase Mitsubishi Pajero in the first place, a ‘grey import’; something I later discovered would reduce its value considerably. The insurance companies hate them, owing to their untraceable origins. Be that as it may, I had decided to sell it and buy something more economical, that would not be quite so much like driving a cement cavity wallblock with no sense of direction.

This being West Wales, pop. 503, there are few car buyers looking for any given car at any one time, and no-one has any money, so it sat on the forecourt of the mansion for months while I advertised it in the paper. I soon became impatient, and ‘borrowed’ a month’s wages in advance from my employer to  buy a low-mileage Renault Laguna for a knockdown price. It seemed to be made entirely from recycled plastic spoons, but it ran pretty well; until, driving on what passes for one of our main city-to-city trunk roads, basically an unmarked rutted track with livestock, a salesman in a Volvo pulled out from behind a van as I was passing, and his sturdy Swedish wheelnuts chewed all four panels off my driver’s side. Another six inches and I would not be bogling so interestingly now.

Shortly after this incident, a fish nibbled the hook: a man turned up with his entire family to see about buying my Pajero – which, I have been reliably informed, is Spanish for ‘wanker’.

I was faintly appalled then, when the man produced from somewhere a pristine blue overall, zipped himself in, dove under the bonnet (hood) and started tugging expertly at the wires and hoses while his wives, children and aunts looked on in admiration, to discover what any expert mechanic might: that is, anything that could conceivably lead to a more insulting offer being proposed.

Having minutely examined every inch of my car, sucking his teeth doubtfully, he emerged after about twenty minutes from beneath it and triumphantly announced in his whining Brummie accent* that one of the outriggers that secures the bodywork to the chassis was rusted through.

By this time, gentle reader, one of the outriggers that secures my sanity to the inside of my skull had rusted through too, and my inner Basil Fawlty emerged. “Oh, my God!” I cried. “But that would mean an automatic MOT failure! I couldn’t possibly sell it to you in this condition! I must get it repaired first. Thank you so much for pointing it out!”

“No, it’s okay” he replied, doubt and alarm creeping over his face. “I can do that, honest… I’d really like to buy the car…”

“No, I won’t hear of it!” I persisted. “I am absolutely NOT going to sell you my car in this unsafe condition. Give me your number and I will call you when the work is done.” Which, of course, I had no intention of doing because, by now, the man and his prissy blue overall had earned my undying scorn. Albeit that he was the only person who had even glanced at the car in six months of advertising, I was damned if I was going to sell it to him.

So, he and his family trooped off disconsolately, fleas ringing in their ears, while I pondered how, having recently paid another month’s salary to have my mangled Laguna fixed-up with four non-matching panels and two illegal secondhand tyres (for reasons I can’t go into, I needed to avoid making an insurance claim), I was ever going to afford to have the chassis of my wankermobile (as my son christened it) welded.

As if cutting off my nose to spite my own face was not enough – the offer the man had proposed was not actually beyond considering – I then did something so extraordinary, so bizarre, that I cannot explain it, other than in terms of some underlying mental deficiency.

There was a garage up the road, and I took my Pajero there and asked them to estimate for the repair work, and I didn’t hear back from them. This being West Wales, you never do, no-one ever phones you back with a quote, they just do the work, sometimes not, and invent a large sum of money you owe them, which they forget to tell you about, sometimes for years, until you get notice of a court judgement in their favour.

Days, then weeks went by, and I forgot about my Pajero, other than from time to time I would drive past the garage in my two-tone Laguna (shiny red-and-blue, my family referred to it callously as ‘the Bruise’) and see it parked outside and wonder anxiously how much the welding was going to cost, and would I ever be able to afford it – I was paying my ex-wife half my net salary at the time and living on practically nothing. Plus, I still owed my employer the money for the car.

I also owed another garage £500 for work they had done two years earlier, and at this time they tracked me down and sent me a reminder. So I wrote back and said they could have the Pajero in lieu of payment if they would care to come and collect it; which they tried to do, and then complained that the other garage had said I owed them money for the repair and would not release the car until I paid them.

This all seemed so impossibly complicated that I decided to ignore the whole thing.

One day the following summer I came to my senses and thought, this is ridiculous, I should go in and settle the matter as I was not going to pay for a repair they should not have done without my go-ahead while I was still waiting for them to tell me how much it was going to cost. Besides, I hadn’t even seen a bill.

So I drove up there, and it was gone.

I never saw it again.

* Demographic note: The Birmingham accent is distinguished by its tendency to induce suicidal mania in the listener. Examples: F1 driver Nigel Mansell; comedian Jasper Carrott; Dr Johnson.

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Great-uncle Harold and the Empire

I’m thrilled to have learned something new about my family.

Great-uncle Harold, I knew, was something in the Foreign Office. His wife, Doreen, was an expert on the condition of tribal women in the Yemen, and because she rode across the Empty Quarter on a camel to write a book about them, our name is still revered in academic circles in San’aa – although I don’t plan to go there to prove it.

We seemed to lose touch with my father’s side of the family in the 1950s, after my grandfather died in somewhat murky circumstances. Harold followed-on in 1973, and I don’t remember ever meeting him. Doreen passed away not long ago, at the age of 98. I had no idea she was still alive.

Today, however, while idly prospecting, I found a monograph about Great-uncle Harold on a history researcher’s website. With acknowledgement to the author, Christopher Knowles, here is a precis:

Wounded in the First World War, Great-uncle Harold joined the Colonial Service. Promoted initially to the exotic-sounding post of Administrator of Zanzibar, in 1936 he was reassigned to the Arabian peninsula, where he soon became the unsung equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia, only he was Great-uncle Harold of the Yemen!

He too wore tribal costume, rode a camel and united the warring clans against the Ottoman empire, or something. Germans? I am just not sure if he blew up any trains. If he was ever flogged and buggered by the Turks, I expect five years at an English public school would have inured him to any privation.

After the second world war, things got even more like an Evelyn Waugh novel. Appointed Head of Local Government in the British-occupied zone of Germany, Harold wrote papers and gave lectures promoting the virtues of English village-green-style democracy as the best model of governance the world had to offer. His superiors and the Americans were not convinced. He is said to have treated the defeated German burgomeisters like recalcitrant Bedouin tribesmen. He held court in a tent, and banged an official-looking stick on the floor to indicate when an audience was over.

Great-uncle Harold’s story explains everything. I’m so relieved, I thought it was just me who was leading a really interesting life.

Postscriptum

Further to this, I have learned that my grandfather, the brother of Great-uncle Harold, was also an administrator in occupied Germany and something high-up in British intelligence. Nudge nudge, enough said, eh? A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat.

(This Post is now closed. Ed.)

(Help, I’m calling from the international transit lounge at Heathrow airport. Somebody please get me out! Ed.)

The last resort

Have you ever had that thing where you buy a car, and suddenly you start noticing that everyone else has the same car as you?

When I had my lovely Alfa Romeo, there was only one other car like it in town, four years older and a slightly different shape. I sold my lovely Alfa Romeo in April because I thought I needed money. I had been offered a few days’ work, for which I might not be paid for a whole month. After putting aside the last £1500 of the money I got for the Alfa for my jazz holiday and a new garden fence, it dimly occurred to me that I would now need another car to get to this work, and so I spent the £1500 on one worth maybe half that, because it was shiny and had previously been owned by a garage mechanic.

Admittedly, it is okay, it runs okay, it just doesn’t really look it. In daylight, it’s a tired old rustbucket with broken and missing knobs and perpetually self-deflating tyres, a bit like me. If love is blind, so are used-car buyers.

Too late, I realised that if I had not bought the car I need not have gone to work at all. Three weeks tiptoeing up and down an exam room looking simultaneously tough on cheats and sympathetic towards supposedly clever undergraduates who have come with only one biro that doesn’t write = four 18″ sport tyres + a French-legal ‘repair kit’ + a dog passport + some diesel and no change.

The perfectly balanced equation meant I could still have afforded my jazz holiday and the new fence without going to work, just sitting in the sunshine out on my patio, drinking coffee while waiting for August and the fence man to come. I had had to go to work in the end, only so that I could afford to drive to France to see about another job that never materialised.

My snap decision to buy the car has been justified to some extent by subsequent events. Last night, for instance, I was out walking Hunzi, and as we crossed the railway crossing, two identical cars to mine passed us simultaneously, going in opposite directions. It was pure quantum physics! Further on, waiting at the roundabout, was another one. Two more were parked in the yard of the printing works round the corner… they were starting to breed!

I began to understand the social cohesiveness of the Welsh. Everyone here has the same late-1990s black VW Golf GT TDi, clearly more socially acceptable than a crisis-red Alfa Romeo with pale beige leather. I no longer look quite so, how shall we say, English? Either that, or I am trapped in an episode of Dr Who.

It could explain why I have been unable to sell my house. Many of my friends cannot sell their houses either, some have been trying for years. Yet it is a most desirable part of the world, where there is no crime and an old-fashioned sweetshop has opened on Pier Street.

We cannot sell, because we are prisoners!

There is no escaping from Aberystwyth, it is the seaside outpost at the end of the Universe, the last resort. Here, everyone drives the same late-90s black VW Golf TDi and walks a Springer spaniel in the exurban river valley spaces and along the iron-grey beach and spends their evenings bathed in the hypnotic glow of a 42-inch TV screen.

My car even drove me back from France, where I had thought I might be staying a while. Now I think about it, I might not have had a choice.

What’s the point of… Buy-to-let?

When I was still hoping to be allowed to go and pursue my vocation for looking after other people’s homes and gardens abroad, I thought about letting my house in Wales to boost my income.

‘Other people’ weren’t offering very much by way of a salary, some none at all, and in the end they stiffed me over the job, but with their roof over my head I would have had no use for my house.

It could have benefited someone who needed to be in the area temporarily, and it would benefit me to let my house out for a while and have the income to live more comfortably on.

But I already own the house. I live here, and at some stage I might want to return to it. What of the thousands of chancers who are rushing to take out cheap mortgages in order to buy more houses than they can possibly live in, so they can make money from letting them out to desperate wannabuys – young homemakers who can’t afford the crazy house prices being pushed up by the insatiable buy-to-letters?

It’s the stupidest business plan I’ve ever heard of! I wish someone would explain it to me.

So, you are going to spend £250,000 buying a house that you can let for £1,000 a month. You’ll have taxes, agents’ fees, repairs and maintenance costs… legal fees. Say you manage to clear £700 a month, it’ll take 30 years to break even on your invested capital!

Ah, but I have all these lovely rents coming in, the building society is paying for the house (and you’re paying for the building society) and at the end I have an appreciating asset so you have to factor-in the rising house prices as income too!

Sure. You’ll pay capital gains tax on any increase when you sell. Besides, look at the ‘increase’ in house prices over the past five years… they actually dropped in value. It could so happen again.

Then, when the government and the National Housebuilders Federation get their act together to start hitting their target of 250,000 newbuilds a year, supply will start to match demand and real house prices will fall – followed by rents. In the meantime, inflation is eating at fixed asset values, the currency is depreciating, food, fuel, transportation and energy all becoming more unaffordable by the day… but you’re all tied-up in nutritious, combustible, rapid-transit bricks-and-mortar, on a fixed income…

And in the meantime you’ve either laid-out a quarter of a million quid in cash, or you’ve had to take out a huge mortgage whose rate will eventually go up and you’ll have to sell the house.

So, great, you’ve got an income of £700 a month. Enjoy, Mr or Mrs Big Businessman or woman. You’ve earned it, bloodsuckers.

Neither a borrower nor a lener be

Kissinger, the WordPress Spam pundit, has intercepted an interesting message, which he passes on to me for want of any actual Comments this morning on my endlessly fascinating, provocative and insightful bogl. Something to do with August, no doubt, and the Western world being away on vacation.

‘250 Euro lenen’ writes;

“lenen zonder bkrhoeveel kan ik lenenlenen zonder toetsing”

Now, this raises all kinds of interesting thoughts: not the least of which is, what does it mean?

Pasting it into Google Translate (other translators are available) seems the obvious next step, where a very clever occupant of a beanbag instantly opines that it might be Dutch, in which case ‘250 Euro Lenen’ seems to be asking: ‘Can I borrow without verification?’

Well, no, actually. That is asking quite a lot. Verification is always required for sums above 249 Euro, as you well know. Don’t ask such silly questions. Just bring along your personal documents, ID card, EU passport, driver’s licence, two utility bills, your birth certificate (original only), photographs of your family and friends, any receipts, ticket stubs, degree certificate, medical records, etcetera, a letter from your mum, and get on and verify, okay? I don’t have all day. (Ik heb niet de hele dag.)

Jesus, some people imagine they don’t have to verify anything, like I am handing over 250 Euro to some random random, and keeping my fingers crossed that one day they might just drop by and give it back, plus 4,000 per cent interest? The trials and tribulations of being a payday lender!

Don’t they know there’s a crisis in the Eurozone?

– E.P. van der Bogl (By Appointment)

Gardening News: a note of impatience creeps in with the late-summer weeds

‘Old Bogler’ writes:

During the past 15 years, whenever the necessity has arisen, which as I grow older is increasingly often, I have gone out to work the odd day here and there, whatever I can get, for an unskilled wage as a jobbing gardener. It is hard work, but honest, and I very much welcome the opportunity to get out in the wind and rain without being attached to a dog.

As the result of forty-plus years’ experience of owning my own homes with gardens; of having spent time around my grandfather, who lovingly bred dahlias; of listening to episodes of Gardeners’ Question Time on rainy Sunday afternoons, and of poring over learned books on gardening; whose London garden once featured in The Observer Colour Magazine (for its ‘natural’ appearance!), I may no longer be able to recall the names of plants: I don’t have an RHS certificate, like my ex-wife. Nor, having only a town garden of my own now, do I have my own tools.

Nor do I have ‘green fingers’. None of my clients has ever, to my recollection, asked me to sow any seeds or plant-up a border or grow edible vegetables for them: all I ever get to do is cut stuff down or dig it up or haul it out; and rearrange the compost. I am a human bulldozer, who practices a form of ‘extreme gardening’ from which I emerge like a Japanese soldier who has not realised the war is over, covered in scratches, stings and bites and totally exhausted. It’s a good excuse for a bath.

But I am also one of those people who retains weird tidbits of information, quite like a sponge. Consequently, I have excellent technical knowledge of garden management; my head is buzzing with a lifetime’s supply of handy hints for successful growing, acquired from here and there.

Which is why there are certain secret frustrations I have with my ‘clients’ that, if you too are a jobbing gardener, you will understand and sympathise with. Because, although a good garden ought to be like a slow-motion fireworks display, a year-round succession of colourful and thrilling explosions popping-off everywhere, gardening is not ‘rocket-science’ (unless you are growing rocket…). Remembering the names of all the plants in your garden is good, you can and I can’t; but caring for them is pretty straightforward.

You just need to know a little about how, why and where they grow best; and figure the rest out for yourself.

So why don’t you? Grrr!

People by and large don’t have money to spare. But they very often have mistakenly acquired gardens that prove too big for them to manage by themselves. (I have been lusting this morning over details of an outstandingly ugly but affordably cheap property the interweb thing has sent me, with 10 acres… sheer lunacy to contemplate, at any time of life!) They are also time-poor, which is why they will get halfway through a project in the garden, leave little heaps of stuff rotting quietly everywhere, abandon their tools in the undergrowth; and then call me.

Much as I love them all, there are six things I would say to my clients, if I dared, as follows:

  1. There is no point paying a man to cut the grass or weed your herbaceous borders to get rid of all that suddenly explosive alchemilla mollis or escaped crocosmia once a year, because it is “all you can afford”, if at certain times of the year you need to cut the grass or weed the bed twice a week…. It is simply not a cost-effective management strategy! It is impossible to achieve the permanently cultivated effect you naturally want, in this haphazard way. Gardens respond to regular, patient cultivation; they quickly recover from my infrequent visitations to resume their happy path of regression to temperate forest. God knows I understand, you are living on a budget, but maintaining your garden in dribs and drabs like this is worse than doing nothing at all – as, whatever I do in May, will have to be done again before July! Why not put a little money aside during the winter months, to employ me once – and then briefly twice – a week in the late spring and summer, and in early autumn, when I am needed most? Or invite me to live rent-free above your garage?
  2. Why are your compost bins and burning ghat as far as you can possibly put them away from where your garden is generating the most combustible material? I have to spend half the money you have scratched around to pay me, trundling to and fro, conveying the greenwaste for disposal to a heap somewhere over the horizon. Where, invariably, your bins will be far too small to compost properly, the amount of greenwaste your acre of garden is liable to generate, and is overflowing with material that can never rot down, to which I am going to add another half-ton by the end of my shift; and sprouting nettles. One of my clients follows me around, obsessively sorting my greenwaste into separate heaps and plastic bags according to its degree of softness or woodiness, and spends hours shredding material and spreading the chippings everywhere, on paths and beds. Most laudable, but none of the recyclates ever gets properly composted because her bins are too small and disorganised and too far from (and steeply uphill of) the garden, being distributed around a number of distant specialised sites where they are never given time or sufficient heat to rot down, and are therefore of little nutritional value. “Calm down, dear!” is Old Bogler’s advice. Gardening takes time and patience. And money.
  3. If your hubby must mow the grass at the weekend by racing his crisis-red lawn-Ferrari around it in five minutes flat, and then rush off to play golf, leaving little heaps of browning detritus everywhere, you should expect a) a ‘lawn’ full of broadleaved weeds, dandelion and plantain, sycamore seedlings, ruts and furrows; and b) all those cuttings the machine spews out sideways to pile up in your border margins, on top of the weed barrier, stifling those tender annuals, until they rot down and the creeping fescue invades and forms mats and, in a couple of years, produces a nice environment for those nasty, sticky cleavers and convulvulus and horrendous burnets (I de-burred my poor Hunzi the other day after a walk in the country, the viciously hooked seeds in his thick fur had blood on them. They have become carnivorous!) Eventually, bramble runners and sowthistle and ground elder take over. Please establish a careful mowing regime (a cylinder mower is best for lawns), respect the lawn edges, try to maintain a few helpful hygiene measures, rake out grass cuttings and compost them somewhere else, or you will forever be hiring me to clear out your beds. I know, “it’s not really a lawn…” You’re telling me?
  4. Please, PLEASE STOP! chopping the ends off those inconvenient side-branches of your trees and shrubs, that you have planted too close together and too near to the footpath! It breaks my heart to be confronted with a forest of tortured, dying gargoyles, beset with spindly water-branches and bottle-brush epicormic growth, and to be asked with a hopeless air if I can “do something with” them? The only thing to do, is to put them out of their misery…. Your trees and shrubs are like your pets. They are eager to please you by growing just how you saw them in the catalog. They have genes, just like you, that are trying their best to grow up to be just like their mums and dads. Chopping random bits off only panics them: they no longer know what you want them to do, they suffer an identity crisis and start growing frantically every which-way. If you must cut them back, because you didn’t believe when you bought them that they would really grow up to smother your azaleas, then carefully prune them back to a growth node that is pointing in the direction you want them to grow – or take off the whole branch, but try to leave enough leaf-cover so they can still get some sunlight into their hungry little chlorophytes. Better yet, call me before you reach for the secateurs.
  5. Who told you if you put down a barrier it would stop weeds growing? Why on earth did you listen to them? Expensive woven black plastic sheeting; odd junk like carpets and cardboard – these are known as ‘membranes’; and ‘mulches’, consisting of chipped wood or bark, nutshells or coconut fibre (‘coir’). They have only a limited role to play in the garden. The latter are perfect for growing annual weeds and fungi: the longer it stays down, the more rotten and soil-like it gets and the more soft growth like chickweed and creeping Jenny will spring up, as a precursor to worse. Nature abhors a vacuum. No-one ever wants to spend money on putting enough mulch down to really make a difference. Your membranes on the other hand provide the perfect environment for aggressive perennials like nettles, brambles and wandering raspberry canes, all of which will happily propagate (among other infernal habits) by growing extensive root systems along the surface under the membrane, where they are warm, dry and free of competition; sending up shoots wherever the opportunity arises (around the edges, or where you made planting holes for garden-centre ceanothus that didn’t survive the dry conditions). If you must ‘suppress’ weeds with a membrane, do so tactically, a season at a time. In three years, if you leave a membrane down on the ground, mats of grass will grow over it and rot down; wind- or bird-sown weeds will root into it (woven plastic sheet is not impermeable, it only keeps out light. Stuff mostly won’t come up, but, just like your savings and investments, it can grow down.) Then try digging the roots out…. your membrane cannot stop weeds growing, but it will successfully resist a spade or fork. Finally, the membrane itself rots, leaving a scrappy mess – but, by then, your garden will be gone, lost forever under a six-feet-deep thicket of brambles, beneath which your roses have been reduced to long, spindly suckers gasping for light. No, the best way to suppress weed growth is to hoe beds regularly – or pay me to clear them out once a fortnight, starting in April. Weeds soon learn when they are not wanted, and go elsewhere.
  6. For heaven’s sake, keep your power-tools properly serviced! I waste hours struggling to start stubborn mowers and strimmers whose spark-plugs are sooty and worn. It can take three days for my wrists and hands to stop jangling, after three or four hours of operating tools that are vibrating badly because of worn gears and bent shafts; forcing them to do heavy work they are not rated to do. I honestly fear permanent nerve damage. Don’t wait for the spring to get a service, the engineers are up to their necks by then. Do it before Christmas. And make sure there’s enough line loaded on the strimmer! You can’t cut anything with only an inch or two of line, it’s the least efficient use of the machine. Smaller power tools are designed not to last forever, three seasons at most; and are very often not robust enough to do the jobs you expect me to do with them. The bigger and wilder your garden, the sooner you must consider replacing them; or ensure that what you buy to begin with is of a capacity able to cope for years with your dream acre of wilderness.

I know, you don’t have money for tools. Have you thought of moving to town? (No, don’t, I need the work!)

Cheerio, m’dears!

– Old Bogler

Married. Divorced. Dead.

I suppose at my time of life I need to contemplate spending Eternity in the state I was born in, which is to say alone.

It’s not much consolation to point out that even the most uxorious of persons will return to the soil alone, just as we slid with ease down our mother’s birth canal, alone. (My mother travelled to the hospital by bus, dropped me off and went back to work… She thinks birthing women make a lot of fuss about nothing. I agree. What choice do I have?)

Apart from achieving absolute power over the greatest number of middle-class people, forging a permanent bond with one other human seems for most to be the key driver of the process of living.

If you aren’t a fluent English-speaker, or haven’t done an MBA, ‘key driver’ means – oh, I don’t know what it means, it’s just another empty modern idiom. Nothing to do with keys, or driving.  It means: ‘The most important thing, that makes something else happen’. Whatever floats the boat. Or drives the car. That’s the engine, right?

I did my best. I spent a total of 32 years in a state of permanent bondage to two significant others. And the weekend inbetween, that I deeply regret, with Barbara. If you are still there, sweetie, It was just too soon. Please understand, I overheard your phone call. I froze. I’m so sorry. Add the year I recently spent in temporary thrall to Ms Lovely Person, 23 years younger than I. Than me? But it wasn’t enough for you, you left me for another woman. Damn you!

And the six weeks in 1969 that I lived with Maddie. Weeks I will never forget, bizarre though they were. You set out to do Europe. And you did, bless. You even gave me crabs, which caused such hysteria! I have occasionally wondered about the H-Pap virus, too?

But for the last four years, I have lived alone – apart from Hunzi, my dogfriend. And I have reached an interesting mental state of relaxation as regards relationships. I can now see why monks find it possible to abjure human contact. Sex outside of procreation is completely absurd!

In fact I say this, and I may be the only human being on the planet to stand up, albeit rather limply, and say this: sex is messy and sweaty and pretty pointless and virologically dangerous, it can cost you a lot of money, it ruins perfectly good friendships and it screws up your life.

Only, if you’re the lady I met at the concert on Thursday, please call me. You are utterly adorable.

I don’t know why I said that.