Monday, 30 July 2007

Mmmm... solar lighting

This little puppy promises to light an area of 148 square feet (however big that is), for up to seven hours a day (though we'll be using it mainly at night), includes a bulb with a life expectancy of 3,000 hours (600 days at five hours a day), and has a warranty of 10 years. At a competitive £79.99 from the CAT shop (battery not included), it's the best kit of its kind I can find. Almost the only one.

I thought it would be bigger.

What surprised me, in my short but very specific search, is the lack of choice on the market right now. Look in the Yellow Pages under "Solar Lighting".

You won't find it.

Even in Brighton.

Call me old fashioned if you must, but I wanted a shop where I could go in, look at all the options available, talk to an informed salesperson (I know, I know), get some idea about which set-up is best for our situation, and leave feeling that I knew a little something about this Soon To Be Massive Retail Sector.

But no.

Instead, I must buy before I try. Not, to the best of my knowledge, a wildly successful marketing strategy.

If it works as well as I hope, you'll be one of the first to know.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Mmmm... solar battery charger

Just got this boys' toy from the CAT online shop.

Another small step towards living off grid.

Morning post

You know how, most days, all you get through the front door are bills, bank statements, junk mail and flyers for pizza-burger-chicken joints you're never going to use?

Well yesterday, that didn't happen.

Instead, we had a letter from our English solicitor, enclosing a formal declaration about the path behind our house, which I had to sign in front of another solicitor, at a cost of £5, because I declined to spend £220 on a bullshit indemnity policy. Behind this, we had another letter, from the same solicitor (always confusing when they do this), enclosing the Contract to sign and return. And finally, a letter from our French solicitor, enclosing a cheque for €350.


A flurry of activity and a few flourishes of cheap biro later, the Contract is with our solicitor, signed and ready to Exchange, with a provisional Completion date of August 8th. Of this year.

If you're wondering what we might find on the doormat today, the postman's already been. Nothing but junk.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Two wrongs and a right

I spoke to our solicitor yesterday. She told me our buyer's legal beagle has only raised a couple of issues with the sale of our house, one of which she's already resolved. The other was an invitation to take out an indemnity insurance policy.

How kind.

"OK..." I said, expecting it to be the same one we were told about a few weeks ago. But no. This was not a policy to cover the missing piece of paper approving the beam that separates our living and dining room. Nor was it a policy to cover the danger of the Church of England tapping our buyers for repairs to a pre-reformation church somewhere hereabouts.

This was a policy to cover the apparent fact that our access to the path running behind our house has no legal somethingorother. The council could, at some stage hereuntowhatever, take the assumed right to use this path away, and the value of the house could, in some way, be affected. (In Brighton?) But look at how much we're being asked to pay: £220.


That's my first wrong: Bullshit insurance policies.

Needful to say, we declined the invitation.

My second wrong is this: Taps without washers.

Our bathroom tap's been dripping for a few days. In an attack of Practical Eco-Manliness, I unscrewed, unscrewed, took off, unclipped, unscrewed, unscrewed and replaced the washer with one of the several that have been floating around the bottom of the Really Useful Drawer in the kitchen these past few years. Prompted partly, it must be said, by the need to prove the shiny new socket-and-spanner set I bought recently was not a waste of cash.

Ten-minute job. No more drip. Didn't even cut myself.

Then I remembered, those washers were originally bought to fix a dripping kitchen tap. But when I prized off and unscrewed (clearly an easier operation to this point), instead of a washer, I found a Modern Ceramic Piece Of Shit That Was Singularly Failing To Do Its Job Despite Being Only A Few Months Old.

Job for a plumber. No more drip. £40. Which hurt a lot.

Here's the right: Right in the middle of my manly fixing, glass artist David Watson turned up with the medieval-style goblets he offered to make from some of the champagne bottles emptied during our party in Stanmer Park on Sunday. Two of them now look like this:

With the rest of the bottles, he's going to make some doorknobs for the doors Mark just finished (see below). Which is about as right as you can get.

And at the very least deserves a link to his website.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Remember the doors?

This is what they looked like yesterday:

Tidy up time


The shoulders drop. The breathing deepens. The heartbeat slows.

Yes - dozens of bank statements, invoices, P45s, bills and all the other tedious bits and pieces that in some way represent a year in the life of a freelance copywriter have been found, ordered and bound into the single lever arch file sitting on my left.

I've even put the receipts in month order, in the vain hope that this will shave a few pennies off my accountant's invoice.

Funny how picking up a piece of paper from a cheap Italian eaterie on Ealing Broadway takes you straight back to the moment. I got a lift home that night, instead of making the two-and-a-half-hour, spirit-numbing journey by bus, tube, train and scooter, only to do some chores, sleep and go back again the next day.

I nearly took a full-time job in that agency. Five hours' commuting every day, to encourage people to buy more and fly more.


I provisionally said yes. The money was good. The job title was good. The people in the creative department were great. But the closer I got to the final interview with Le Grand Fromage, the pissier and snappier I got. Going out into the Sussex countryside at the weekends to look at houses just bigger than this one, that we might just be able to afford, barely lightened my mood.

Then, over dinner, Clare said: "Don't do it."

"OK," I said. "Shan't."

The shoulders dropped. The breathing deepened. The heartbeat slowed.


You instinctively know when something is right.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Blue skies over Brighton

Firstly, a big THANK YOU to everyone for coming to say "au revoir" in Stanmer Park yesterday. It was an unbelievably perfect day. Barely a cloud in the sky, despite assurances of a 40% chance of rain predicted by my most reliable weather website. Loads of friends from Brighton and beyond. Great looking yurt, after Clare's recent manic work to finish the cover. Superb food from the Real Patisserie, judging by how fast it vanished. There was only one problem.

Not enough time to talk to you all.

Clare is especially gutted, as she seemed to spend much of the afternoon running after Boy. It's very hard to have a conversation, with a 14-month-old. (A sentence that is equally true without the comma.) But as you probably know, we're still here for a few weeks, so maybe there'll still be time to catch up.

For the record, we're hoping to exchange contracts at the end of this week, and expect to complete about two weeks after that. We've also got a few bottles of fizz and red wine that we don't want to take with us.

Sadly, for the verbally challenged, we didn't take any photos. So I'll have to leave you with one we took a few days earlier...

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Proper pool rules

Not, as you might expect, instructions on what to do if the white and black balls both go down off the break, but something I think you Need To Know About Swimming In France.

Last October, in desperate need of a swim and with all the water parks closed for the season, we drove to Bergerac. (It's a seriously beautiful place with at least one Ramsay-esque restaurant and several big-nosed statues in quiet, tree-lined squares, but that's not important right now.)

We found the public pool, parked and paid.

Boys going one way and girls the other, I retrieved my towel and swimming shorts from The Bag and picked up one of those metal clothes-hanger-cum-shoe-basket affairs I haven't seen since the 70s.

Then I noticed the look of undisguised horror on the faces of the people behind the counter.

They pointed at me and spoke in rapid French. The gist of which was: You can't swim.

As it happens, I can swim. Not fast, but well. I also have a card that gives me permission to sink, with a tank of air strapped to my back, anywhere in the world, no questions asked.

"C'est pas propre," they were saying. Which I translated literally.

Seeing my lack of understanding, they pointed repeatedly at the poster on the wall.

There, in black and white for all the world to see, were many illustrations you would expect to see in any public pool. And two that you would not: a pair of shorts with a cross next to them, and a pair of trunks with a tick.

I stood, speechless, holding my shorts.

Fortunately, the French, as you will have read, are not backward in coming forward to help, and after a few moments' frantic activity, a pair of trunks was produced the like of which I also haven't seen since the 70s.

They were handed to me, with a triumphant: "Ça. C'est propre."

You have been warned.

Cover story

Here I am, sitting at the scribbled-on dining room table, sun pouring in through the lounge window, jeans on the radiator in the hall drying out after the tropical storm that drenched them (and me) an hour ago, seagulls laughing at each other through the open front door, neighbour performing some kind of operation on an acoustic guitar that, in a parallel universe, might pass for music, and this is what's going on behind my back:

Professional Yurt People will recognise it at once. For everyone else, it's a yurt cover workshop, and one of the reasons I've been doing so much parenting.

Now, if you're planning on making your own yurt cover, which is a Very Good Idea if only because it pretty much halves the cost of a new yurt, you'll want to know the details. The main ones are:
Juki industrial sewing machine, from ebay, freshly serviced - should last a lifetime
12oz natural cotton canvas, water-, rot- and fire-proofed - should last five to six years
Anti-wick thread, designed to stop water penetrating holes
Needle, size 19 - tried a 21 but it was damaging the canvas

It also helps to have someone who knows how to use the equipment. Clare used to work as a seamstress in a theatre in California, then as a wedding dress maker, and trained on an identical machine. She tells me it's not a big deal. It's just like making a skirt.

Only bigger.

And much, much heavier.

If you have a mind to, you can sew your yurt cover by hand. Dan Frank Keuhn mentions doing this in his book MONGOLIAN CLOUD HOUSES: HOW TO MAKE A YURT AND LIVE COMFORTABLY. He just doesn't say how long it took.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Reality without the cameras

In February, we flew down to the Dordogne to sign the papers and take possession of the land proper.

We were met at Bergerac by the couple we sat next to in the restaurant in October. They drove us back to their gîte, which we were staying in for free, invited us the 30 or so metres to their home for an apératif, then insisted on cooking us dinner every night that week.

Pretty much all of which flew in the face of the French reputation for being arrogant, aloof, and many things besides.

Over dinner, in poor French, they listened to our Big Green Idea and concerns about gaining planning permission. They said it's a great project. We should just waltz up to the local Maire, tell him what we had in mind, and see what he said.

So we did.

The Maire was in a meeting at the time, with a harassed-looking group of people, and looked like he needed a change of scene. These are the two scenes that followed.


He: (WALKING UP, CHEERY) What can I do for you?

We: (NOT WALTZING - NERVOUS AS HELL - THIS WAS OUR FUTURE AT STAKE) Um. We're buying this land on Wednesday and we wanted to show you an idea for an exciting and sustainable project.

He: Sure, I'll have a look.


He: (WALKING AWAY, DISMISSIVE) Non! C'est impossible!



Clare, oddly convinced that everything will be alright, looks reassuringly at Alex.

Alex stares dejectedly at the head of his beer. Then looks across the road at the Mairie. He notices the number on the wall next to the door.


Over dinner that night, we review the day's events. Martin immediately calls his brother, who speaks a little English and agrees to come round the following morning.

Martin's brother likes our plans. After a heated debate, we decide that the Maire just needs something to sign and resolve to employ an architect. In the yellow pages, we find an architect in the Maire's village. We call. One of the partners speaks fluent English. He tells us one of the other partners is the third mayor. In the same village.


He's an environmental building specialist.

Just after signing the papers to buy the land, we meet the architect. Our fantastic estate agent , Nicolas, comes along (Martin's brother had also offered - by now, we're overwhelmed by offers of help). The architect loves the Idea. He phones the Maire and tells him it's exactly what the area needs.

The Maire agrees.

Then Nicolas drives us back to his home for dinner, and to meet his family, and enough animals to open a children's farm.

I would show you, but we didn't have a camera.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Very early doors

Before we can throw open the doors of our own yurt to guests, we need to have them made.

Me and Clare had already discussed the pros and cons of painted pine versus oiled hardwood, looked at various options on the Interweb, and decided on French doors (naturellement), with glass panels to let in much-needed some light on those winter days when our recycled wool insulation will keep us in the dark.

And yesterday I went to see Mark, who is not only one of the two-man team who built our yurts, but also a bespoke carpenter.

Literally, the best man for the job.

While I was there, during a very short break in the British summer, I took a quick shot of the Future Roots yurt (for you)

and its roof wheel cover pattern (for Clare)

We then played with bits of wood, made sketches, looked at the options, and some doors Mark had made earlier, and settled on ash doors with all the trimmings. Going one better than even I had anticipated, and in the true spirit of the project, Mark remembered there was already a beautiful pair of ash French doors on the site.

Here they are

What do you think?

Monday, 9 July 2007

When in doubt, ask a genius

It turns out, my free Dreamweaver trial has a minimum system requirement on a Mac of a G4.

This pisses me off.

The iBook under my fingers, which I love dearly, is a G3. Barely several years old. It's done me proud, except for the time when, after just 18 months, the hard drive went. It went, the repair shop told me, because it's been carried around.

It's a fucken laptop.

They then told me to expect my hard drive to go every 18 months or so.

Not very green.

Not very sustainable.

And not upgradeable to a G4.

Apparently, I must buy another Mac. I already have three: a Plus from the 80s, signed in plastic by all the creators, including Steve Jobs, that controlled the lighting rig on tour with Tina Turner; a Powerbook from the 90s, that struggles to run System 10; and this baby from the naughties, which is failing to keep up with the ever-changing times.

The point is, my website placeholder was in doubt.

So I phoned a boy genius friend and soul mate, fresh from making 30 music videos in as many days for Live Earth. He put me in touch with some Dreamweaver software that will run on this apparently antiquated machine. Then said he had nothing to do that afternoon and would be happy to knock something together for me.

This was yesterday.

The day after the gig.

In next to no time, this is what he did: écovallée

And here's another link to his blog: Café del Nightmare

Big love to you, Simon. You're one in just over six billion.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Waiting for "Go do"

We came up with the name for the website months ago.

Registered the URL.

Wrote the site - gathered links to various local attractions - green technology - all that fun stuff - and we waited.

Waited for permission from the local Maire (in English: Mayor).

Waited while our Architecte (Architect - can you see how this works?) explained how we will have to wait for at least two months after submitting papers to the regional authorities for an answer and how, after a "Oui", we will have to wait at least two more months for the next set of papers to be approved (by the same people) before we can start building our Big Green Idea.

We waited while the house sale fell through.


And waited for a load of other things.

Like the rain to stop and summer to start.

With weeks more waiting until we can leave the country, the question is: What to do?

Walking round Brighton looking for free, cheap and entertaining stuff to do with a one-year-old (try the Discovery Room in the Brighton Museum and the Jubilee Library for starters) while your daughter's at school and your partner's at home making yurt covers can become tedious.

Ask anyone.

The answer, I decided a few days ago, is to stop waiting for a web designer to build the site, and create a simple placeholder homepage myself.

First, I had a go with Netscape Communicator.

The text uploaded. The image didn't.

So I found a friend with Dreamweaver, went over to his place and built it again.

Then ran out of time before I could upload it.

But, while working on the tutorial, I spotted the free 30-day Dreamweaver trial.

So I came home and downloaded it.

You might have to wait for a few days, but you'll be able to see the results at:

Monday, 2 July 2007

Know your French

Now, the French have had some fairly bad press over the years. But our experience has been nothing short of fantastic.


Not only did we meet the world's most excellent estate agent...

But complete strangers were incredibly polite - greeting you in the street with a "Bonjour Monsieur" "Bonjour Madame" or less obviously "Bonjour Monsieur-dame"...

Or saying "Bonjour" to everyone in a restaurant or café before ordering a drink...

Or being outrageously generous...

Like the time we went into a restaurant just after signing the papers to buy the land in Lalinde. A local couple, Josette and Martin, sat down at the next table. After spending the meal talking to them in our limited-but-improving French, they offered us the use of their own gite in a nearby village completely free of charge. Which we took them up on, as you'll see.

No doubt, it helps to read the odd book on French cultural differences. Like one that explained how to behave in a café. It goes something like this: Find a café that appeals to you and sit at a table. Face the street, so you can watch the world go by as you enjoy your coffee. And do not try to catch the eye of the waiter. They know you are there and may be offended if you think otherwise. When ordering, use "Monsieur" after your "S'il vous plait"s and "Merci"s for politeness and... that's it.

If you didn't know this "rule", walking into a café, sitting down with your back to the place and ignoring the waiter might seem rude. But it's quite the opposite.


So here we are again. Or should that be still?

As far as we know, Plan B has swung into action. Plan B was for the lovely couple who wanted to buy our house after the first fiasco (see Sold. Again.) to buy it. With no chain. So we should only be delayed for a week or so.

Even longer to say goodbye to people. And make yurt covers. And enjoy Brighton in the summer. And plenty more ands. Like and write the website for our yurt campsite (more on this later).