Friday, 25 June 2010

It is now!

Just a quick final note in case you are wondering about Lunchista, and possibly about how to follow on from a year-long lunch break.

Well let's just say that the Year-Long Lunch Break was a launch pad. And Lunchista's new blog comes to you from Space. Do join me.

Friday, 19 March 2010

They think it's all over...

There comes a time when a blog must live up to its title. Ladies and gentlemen, in the case of the Year-long lunch break, that time is 19th March 2010. A look back through Lunchista's musings will reveal an entire year of activities, thoughts, people and other curiosities. It also leaves me with the strange thought that as I write this post, the small spherical object on which I sit is hurtling through roughly the same bit of space as it was when I transmitted the first post, immortalising my boss, his exasperation, and an unknown committee at my former workplace. If I accidentally dropped anything there, now's the time to have a quick look for it.

So, what was the plan? "What do you do?". Well, there were never mighty empires to be built (too expensive, too unfriendly). The plan was to live in a place, rather than fall into the trap of using it as a dormitory. To find, learn about, and take part in, the many and various things that attempt to make local and national life better, and to do all that without much need of anything elaborate, like money.

As for the vexed question itself, well Lunchista did make the papers once during the Year-long lunch break, and the radio too, and for these purposes has been described as a "Sustainability Activist". I have also been the inevitable "Unemployed" (at the jobcentre) and "Housewife" (for our new insurance) as well as "Energy spokesperson" (for our Party), "Trustee" (for the Orchard and the Nature Reserve), "Consultee" (various campaigns) and of course "Urban Guerrilla" (gardener, that is).

I remain all those things, but for now anyone who has shared the Year-long lunch break will just have to imagine what happens next. Or better still, take a year-long lunch break of your own. You know it makes sense.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

A spot of Perestroika

Over the years, in the intervals (both long and short) between bouts of paid work, I have developed a taste for basic D.I.Y. Since this often involves re-arranging things it has, in Chateau Lunchista, acquired the nick-name "Perestroika" (literally "Restructuring", in Russian).

It started with cheap rented flats: I would rescue and restore pieces of old furniture. Two "Directors' Chairs" (discovered in an overgrown garden) which I re-strung in the early 1980s are still being used here at Chateau Lunchista to this day. I sanded and repainted an ancient chest of drawers one summer day as a break from writing up stuff about electromagnetic scattering. In some flats I'd offer to redecorate. The delight:expenditure ratio of brightening up a room was beyond belief.

It got easier with practice: a friend who decided to follow the 1980s fashion of property development bribed me to paint all the woodwork in his latest acquisition. The weirdest episode of this kind must have been the Valentine's Day I spent shovelling rubble out of a 1st-storey window.

All of which meant that when the first Chateau Lunchista was acquired, after the real hardcore stuff (they had to take the floor away because it had dry rot, and then we decided that since we were in Glasgow we'd better have some heating installed too) none of the decorating had to be paid for. Or the extra electrical connections. Or hoisting the chandelier. We found that the best colours to paint with were ones that made it look as if the sun was shining into the room, even if it was dull outside. Then I bought reams and reams of Damask for a song at Dalston market and made them into curtains (using material with a striped pattern makes this much easier).

We've also had the experience of moving into a house which was, well, sad. Nothing was dramatically wrong with it, it just needed a change of atmosphere.

Sanding the floorboards really brings some light into a room. Then it was a matter of getting rid of four rooms' worth of dull wallpaper: I bought a steamer, and spent days with steam and loud Heavy Metal while everybody else was away. Even wallpapering is far easier than it used to be in days gone by: no-one makes wallpaper that tears or deforms anymore, and there are step-by-step illustrated leaflets floating around in most D.I.Y. emporia these days.

All of which meant that, on starting out on the year-long lunch break, I was able to finish off a lot of annoying odds and ends in the present Chateau Lunchista. There was a cupboard in Lunchista fils' bedroom where some kind of plumbing massacre had taken place, leaving holes in the wall and floor, and piles of old plaster. It's amazing the size of hole you can use pollyfilla on, and the transformation wrought with a tin of white paint. Someone had left the shelf brackets in, so I was even able to make slatted shelves by sawing up planks from an old pallet and painting them white.

Finally there was the hole in the kitchen floor. Breakfast bars are the height of fashion these days but that left nowhere in the kitchen where we could eat dinner, at least not all at the same time. So we got it removed by a professional, and underneath it we discovered the hole in the floor. The only reason I felt able to take it on was that our next-door neighbour put me up to it. Ah the joys of a positive attitude! That and a full collection of tools for that and all possible other D.I.Y. jobs.

It took me two days to chisel away blobs of concrete to make the hole the right shape to lay tiles in. Little shards of it riccochet round the room, so I had to don safety goggles. Then we discovered the tiles were a few millimetres too big, and had to get some smaller ones. You have to 'comb' the cement out until it's completely straight: this took me so long that the stuff was nearly dry by the time I'd got it right. Then the tiles just sat there looking odd until the following day when I could finally put the grouting in between them. I got it smeared all over the place to start with, until I found out that there are special tools for doing this. Oh well you live and learn.

The point of recounting all this is to say that at the start of any one of these jobs Lunchista had nothing to lose. Had anything gone wrong, or simply turned out beyond what either Lunchista or her other half could do, it could either be abandonned (in the case of the old furniture) or we could just pay someone to do it. As it is, we've saved a lot of money, we have the satisfaction of looking at our own work, and we've learned something.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Stern stuff

I've always liked spring evenings. Of course technically it isn't quite spring yet, not until the 21st. But it's a light early evening as I walk across the fields to the University, and it's about 6 degrees warmer than it has been. That is, it is about 6 degrees, and everything's no longer frozen. Birds are singing. Trees and grass smell of, well, trees and grass.

It was actually a bit of a gamble. I only heard about this evening's event yesterday, and hadn't realised until today that I'd be able to make it. Free tickets were available by phone or email. I emailed, and got no reply. Towards the end of the working day (4:30) I phoned too, but everybody in the Economics Department must have finished work early.

And can you blame them? Lord Stern (of Stern Review fame) had been invited to give a talk on his experiences at the infamous COP15 (that's Copenhagen climate talks to you and me). The fact that Lunchista had no ticket (free or otherwise) made me the official gatecrashing delegation, but I don't take up much room and I usually behave myself. In fact no-one was checking for tickets, and a handful of us late arrivals were quietly ushered in just as the Vice-Chancellor was finishing his introductory speech. Perfect.

The lighting (this "dramatic lighting from above" lark seems to be becoming fashionable) made Lord Stern's features look slightly Indian. I found myself wondering whether he, like Lunchista, had a slim Indian strand in his family tree, possibly dating back to some aristocratic liaison in those enlightened times before the Victorians started frowning on that sort of thing.

He lovingly described the characters, atmosphere, mistakes and successes of the Copenhagen talks, in particular how, because every decision had to be made unanimously, it reminded him of Student politics. Thinking back to when I was a student, many of our campus wannabe politicians were students of Economics, so that must have resonnated for practically everybody in the room. Somehow campus politics just didn't appeal as much to us Physicists, which perhaps explains a lot.

One of Copenhagen's successes, which I must admit had passed me by at the time, was the REDD anti-deforestation programme, by which countries with more trees than money can be bribed to keep their trees. The biggest failure, on the other hand, appeared to have been the idea of writing a "provisional" agreement in advance (with a view to saving time) which, naturally, offended every representative who wasn't directly involved in it. Oh well, you live and learn.

There followed lots of talk about future growth while reducing Carbon emissions. I wondered whether he'd ever had a chat with Prof Tim Jackson. There was even time for questions at the end: I would dearly have loved to ask about this but I felt I'd already pushed my luck a bit!

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Put a spell on you

Quite a few "traditions", especially those involving people a lot younger than Lunchista, make their way from West to East across the Atlantic. You know, like Rock'n'Roll, Trick-or-Treat, and, erm, Spelling Bees. I'd never given any of this much thought until Lunchista fils came home from school one day proudly brandishing a letter which explained that he was on their school team for the Times Spelling Bee. Apparently they'd been doing practice rounds in class and he had turned out to be rather good at it.

Isn't life strange? Because Lunchista's spelling is absolutely appealing, and marvellous other half hails from a land where spelling simply isn't an issue. In fact if you think about it, most non-English speakers do: whatever their countries' other tribulations, they don't have the effects of 1066 and the Great Vowel Shift to deal with. Thank you Polyglot Vegetarian for an example of one such alphabet.

Parents were warmly invited, in fact encouraged, to come along and cheer on. The regional heats were being held forty miles away on a Monday afternoon. Lucky Lunchista, not having to be at work on a Monday! (by this time of year in my old job I'd usually used up my meagre allowance of annual leave, even including the extra days I "bought" instead of having a pension).

The venue was one of those Multiplex cinemas. The teams, rather melodramatically lit from above, lined up at their desks with the silver screen behind them, while the parents sat in the darkness. Rules were run through, in quite some detail because this was apparently only the second ever national Spelling Bee held in the UK. I was relieved to hear it would all be refereed using a British (as opposed to transatlantic) dictionary.

About a quarter of the players, at a guess, were bilingual, including two of our team of four. Interestingly, they did just as well as everybody else, demonstrating as they did so that bilingualism is good for the brain. Except perhaps when culture got in the way: one lass who had come swathed from head to foot in black kept getting given words like "cognac" and "bodice". I was beginning to wonder if it was a put-up job.

Lunchista fils' team won! Strangely, neither he nor I could remember any of the words he'd had to spell. Even more strangely, that's supposed to be a sign of real concentration, of being "at one" with the game.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Double Vision

Nobody really had any idea what a Charrette was. Except Lunchista, because in her previous job, some arbitrary chain of contacts had landed our firm with the chance to take part in one. In East London, of all places. And so I'd been dispatched down south to a swanky hotel in Greenwich, to help a panel of architects, urban planners and property finance experts come up with interesting ideas for a regeneration project for the lucky citizens of Deptford. Lunchista's contribution had been to consider anything in the area connected to energy and sustainability.

The idea is to put together something like a brainstorming session, except instead of taking an hour or so and producing a list of possible ideas on a flip-chart, this was to take a week (plus extra days for feedback from, then to, the public) and produce proper architects' plans for what to do with the entire area. The name derives from the carts upon which Parisian art and architecture students of the previous two centuries would dispatch their project work so as to meet examiners' deadlines. The same carts, I might add, upon which undesireables were dispatched to the guillotine. But I digress.

Our city has so many giant projects ongoing, and so many possibilities, that Yorkshire Forward had decided we were in need of some serious brainstorming, to come up with a Vision of what the city should look like over the next 25 years, and how it should work. All local organisations, including our Party, were invited along. The panel, as in the Deptford excercise, weren't locals but were given several days to get to know the area's geography and apply their brains afresh to problems with which we ourselves may have become too familiar. We were offered two whole days of presentations and feedback on a range of subjects (such as Transport, Parks, Communities...). And someone with a wicked sense of humour had allotted Lunchista the subject of Business.

So as I sat down round the table with five other consultees and our panel representative, I was wondering which parts of our beautiful city all the others wanted to obliterate with large lumps of Business. But it didn't quite happen like that. Everyone around the table was so enthused by the possibilities offered by the University's expansion programme (which is already under way, and includes a science park, a theatre, a swimming pool and for all I know a spaceport) that they decided that, at least as far as buildings were concerned, was all the growth we need, for now. They then decided that the best business area to grow in was renewable energy: the Council, even as I write, are putting together a feasibility study for precisely that. Then how about a total refurb of the city's office space? And growth in local, organic food?...And...isn't it great that the time-frame of our "Vision" stretches over the time when all this work needs doing, but not into the unknown territory beyond, when the economy will still need Growth but he rest of us will already have all we need, or indeed are able to afford?

Now when asked to a process such as this, it's useful to know in advance who started it, and what they might be looking for. In this case, as I mentioned, it was Yorkshire Forward, and they (after all it is their job) are looking for Prosperity. So when the time came for each panel representative to sum up what their table had put together, I was fully expecting, for example, the Transport table to express a collective want for more road space, but we were instead treated to a delightful prospect of an entire city centre without cars.

I wonder how far all the inspired ideas from this far-from-cheap excercise will propagate up the edifice of government? After all the very same government are still encouraging us to buy more cars, and reports still bemoan the recent reduction in road traffic as a sign of the Recession. All the while they're cheerfully shelling out for adverts to persuade people to reduce their Carbon footprints (for example by driving less).

Lunchista gets double vision when extremely tired. Might HMG be tired?

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The lost hour

Allow me to recount one of the strangest commuting days that Lunchista has ever had. It happened round about this time of year, which is why I'm reminded of it now, as the trees start to revive.

It started out normally enough, with a bus journey so routine that I have forgotten that bit altogether. But that was just to lull the unsuspecting Lunchista into a false sense of security. The first of my two trains, being late, was more crowded than usual: so much so that it was standing room only at the ends of the carriages, and not a hope of walking through into the warm, quiet bit where the passengers (remember them?) were supposed to be. Not if I wanted to get to the doors in time to get out at my stop, anyway.

Things started to go wrong just before the doors opened: I heard a bit of a kerfuffle behind me and felt a hand groping down my back. A young, smartly-dressed lass had collapsed and lay mumbling on the floor. Somebody who could spare more time than I could on the way to work called for help as soon as the doors opened. Another commuter nearby went to help the fallen girl. I only hope they knew what to do: I had ten seconds to sprint over the footbridge to my next train, or be made to feel terrible about being half an hour late in. Curiously enough, if I'd actually had any work to do when I got there, it wouldn't have been so bad, and I wouldn't have felt so guilty. Isn't that strange? As it was of course I felt terrible anyway: there were so many other people who looked as if they were doing something to help, but how will I ever know if they actually were?

There followed a working day so unremarkable that it slipped out of my consciousness as soon as I left the building to go home. My walk to the station, a third of a mile uphill and another third down, had to be brisk for two reasons: first, if I timed it just right I got straight on a train without having to wait half an hour, and second, there had been a murder nearby. I was always glad to get to the top of the route so I could see where I was going. That day I saw something else: a teenage couple were walking along chatting, when the lass suddenly, and without comment, threw up. Both continued on their way as if nothing had happened. And they hadn't even been drinking.

The way downhill is quite steep, lined with a staircase of classic blackened millstone houses: anyone parking there has to have a good handbreak. A white van pulled in just as someone was crossing the road. As I walked by it was obvious that the van hadn't hit him, but even so he just toppled over onto the tarmac. You don't forget the sound of a head hitting the road. I had to get there first in case anybody tried something daft, like moving him, or trying to drive round him and failing. People came out into the street, including a lady who said she was a nurse and knew what to do. Someone rang for an ambulance.

After all that I began to wonder, why today? What was it about this particular Monday that had done this to so many otherwise healthy-looking young people?

Those light evenings that everybody looks forward to in the spring, have a price. Some people will sail through the twice-yearly disruption to their daily rhythm. Some, like Lunchista, are a bit more sensitive but will at least try to make sure that they get enough sleep. Many will not realise that an hour of sleep has been taken from them as "the clocks go forward". I wonder how many accidents are caused by these discontinuities in time? Or how many people know that the idea was originally dreamed up by a golf enthusiast who wanted to give the Working Classes an extra hour of daylight in the summer in which to, well, work?