Saturday, 19 March 2011

My own fault

I have taken the last post down. The reason for that is nothing to do with the content but because I noticed someone had clicked onto the 'send an email' link. It's the only one of my blogs that had permissions enabled to do that, and that was my fault however it happened, so I have now changed the settings. I really don't like the idea of people mailing my posts around the place, particularly if they don't comment and I don't know who they are. So to whoever it was from the UK, if you find my post so riveting that you consider mailing it to someone else, I would appreciate you possibly telling me exactly what was so interesting by leaving a comment. And if you don't want me to publish it you can mention that in your comment. Thank you. As I said on the previous one though, have a good weekend people.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

To party or not to party?

Some of my friends will know that I am considering a trip to the UK later this year. In a few months to be more precise. I say - 'considering'.

A week ago I received a surprise invitation from a very old friend, I mean I have know her for more than 30 years, rather than that she is ancient and decrepit. Both her and her husband are two of my friends from university. Since my sole remaining schoolfriend dropped off the map a couple of years ago, my university friends are my longest standing relationships.

There is something unique about the relationship that you built up with people so long ago in that period when you all first leave home, well, in term-time anyway. You spend three years in each others' company virtually every day, and after you have graduated you keep in touch and visit them for overnight stays.

Thirty years on and with far less contact you probably have very little in common except those first three years together, but it's still nice to see each other from time to time.

So, the invitation is to visit the UK in June for a house-warming. I say house-warming, but from the photo I have seen, mansion-warming would be more appropriate. And I am, of course, welcome to stay with them. In fact for his 40th birthday party in London, they not only put us up, but also our two dogs, in spite of the fact they had a couple of cats at the time. Whenever I have visited London - I have always been welcome to stay with them. And not usually just a night's kip - a visit to the theatre, restaurants, mutual friends invited around invariably got thrown in as well.

This is the couple for whom I was bridesmaid more than 25 years ago. I've spent time working with her on an archaeology dig when we rented a flat together, and we've been youth hostelling together. Would I specifically visit the UK for anything - or anyone - else? Unlikely. But we go back years with a lot of shared experiences, and sometimes that means a lot. And if that gives me an opportunity to visit the people I don't know, who I have pretty regular contact with on the internet, I think that would be good too. It's looking like a good plan and a nice trip.

So where is the dilemma? In my head obviously, although that probably goes without saying.

Let's start with the house-warming. It occurred to me, as I was thinking about it wandering to the shops (a very good time for pondering life's dilemmas) that I wouldn't know anyone else at the party. Our social circles are at extreme ends, if that's not a mixed metaphor. In fact I don't have one, so that's easy.

I started to play through in my head the typical sort of conversations that you have at these functions with people who you don't know. Stranger - 'What do you do then?' Me - 'Nothing.' Embarrassing pause. When one does nothing, one is expected to be busy doing nothing. You can't just do 'nothing.' I can. I can do nothing amazingly well. The art of being an only child is to ensure one is never bored with one's own company. And I am not. You should be busy doing voluntary things, or working on a consultancy basis, or at least dabbling at something to justify your existence. I could say that I hung wallpaper last week with my partner. 'Oh, so you're an interior designer then?' (says Stranger, vaguely interested in arty work). 'No. He's a painter and decorator.' Now this is where the non-existent conversation goes even further downhill. When mixing in fashionable middle-class professional and arty circles, confessing that one's partner is a skilled tradesperson is akin to sticking a pig's head in the mosque.

Perhaps I should play the game and tell them that I went to university with the hosts, have a Master's degree, a qualification in journalism and my last job was being in charge of cancer services for half a million people. Well the last one's a turn off to start with. Who wants to talk about cancer at a party? The journalism might get me a couple of points. Then they would want to know why I wasn't successfully writing loads of freelance stuff, or a really exciting book about my time abroad. I would like to know that too.

Having exhausted the work convo, the next inevitable one is ... or in fact perhaps it might have preceded the work convo given that I am a woman ... 'How many children do you have/what are they doing/where are they/blah meaningless blah questions about kids?' 'I don't have any children.' I could go further and say, 'I never wanted any.' We are now all but dead in the water and haven't even been chatting five minutes, so Stranger comes up with one last effort.

'You must have pets then?' (despairingly). I can actually answer yes to that one. I can tell him/her that we rescued a stray Spanish dog off the streets in our village. They can tell me about their pedigree Bichon Frise or Burmese cat which cost them a small fortune to buy. I can tell them about our dog nearly dying from tick disease and watch them squirming in front of me. At that point they would definitely see one of their old friends on the other side of the room and excuse themselves.

Of course, there may be other potential conversations that haven't worked themselves out in my head yet.

Moving swiftly onto meeting up with internet pals. Now, there is a decent handful of nice people within an acceptable radius of London. There is another decent group of people in Scotland but I haven't factored Scotland into the visit, so I'm sticking with the south (east).

But how to do it? Should I announce a date and hold court at King's Cross/Euston/Liverpool Street/Paddington or whatever main-line station would be most convenient for everyone or easily reached? That would give everyone the chance to meet each other as well as me. Or, should I plan an itinerary and travel around meeting up for a couple of hours with each person, and find myself nearby youth hostels? I think they still take 50-year-olds.

People who I have never met have already offered me accommodation. I don't know what to say, to say that I am touched sounds inadequate. I certainly appreciate people's willingness to open up their homes to a total stranger. It's the sort of thing you do when you are young and travelling around the world, but at 50? I can't even offer the favour back as we have a one-bed flat (without a bed), and a sofa for the dog. It's pretty tight on space.

And then, what about the whole food thing? If anyone doesn't know by now, I'm vegetarian. That doesn't mean I eat fish either. Having said that, everyone who has ever cooked for me has gone out of their way to ask what I did/didn't eat. Even the most obnoxious mother-in-law in the world bought a few veggie things from the supermarket. The only one who refused to cook for me was my own mother. Eso va la vida.

There is smoking too. I loathe it. I don't want it in my lungs, hair, clothes or anywhere remotely near me. Pop music and television are also on the no list. If I stay the night, please can I go to bed at 9pm and get up at 6am? Whereupon I should like either some very nice ground coffee, espresso or filter is fine, or Darjeeling or Assam tea. I do not like Nescafe. I do not like PG Tips or Brooke Bond either. In fact I would prefer a glass of heavily chlorinated tap water rather than drinking crap hot drinks. Mineral water would be nice though. I would bring a sleeping bag of course, and as I sleep on the floor in my flat, a bed isn't really necessary at all.

So you see, dear internet friends why I have a slight dilemma. I like my internet friends. I also have the mentality that when things are going well, don't fiddle with them, if it ain't broke don't fix it. These are people with whom I've shared emails, blogs, mutual woes, Christmas cards (well, not many of those), dog tales, and some good laughs.

Some time ago I had a hypothetical conversation with my-no-longer-internet friend and said I didn't know if I would want to meet him if he ever visited anywhere near. That wasn't because I didn't like him, but because I didn't want to spoil what we had. Irrelevant now of course. I think we agreed that the best way to meet internet friends (not specifically us) was to try a couple of hours on neutral ground and take it from there. But not staying with people and being in their face and all the rest of it. So that's the worry to me. Meet up - and - not get on. Everyone has a crap time and you lose a good internet friend. I've already lost one, and I wish I hadn't. In spite of everything I wish we were still friends. I'm not the only one who has been on the receiving end of an internet-initiated relationship that has gone sour. None of us like receiving mails that mis-judge us, or say they want nothing to do with us ever again. It's not pleasant at all. I'm honestly not sure I want to take the risk of that again.

And then, why am I even thinking about going to a party? I am no longer a party animal. Was I ever? Maybe once. But my idea of a good time is a walk with the dog, a meal at home, and a good book. Perhaps that has always been my idea of a good time though.

Comments, suggestions, answers on a postcard, all more than welcome on this one .....

Friday, 11 March 2011

Working woman's woes

It's nearly ten years since I quit work, which is virtually the same period of time I spent in my last job, ie working for the NHS. Has the time flown? Yes.

It has flown faster than an afternoon sitting in my prison cell office wondering what on earth I was doing with my life. Five o'clock, or 5.30pm depending on what bus I had decided to catch, couldn't arrive soon enough for me.

This from the woman who, a few years previously, cheerfully stayed until after midnight writing documents - and then hand-delivered them to the board members who needed to see them as soon as possible. I'm sure they didn't get up at 1.30 in the morning to read them, but the effort had been made.

And do I miss work? No. There has not been one single day when I wished I was back there.

Am I bored? No. In fact the only reason for even considering working again is the obvious one. Money.

So this week, I have put in an amazing effort and worked four days in a row. Well, that's not strictly true. I didn't go on Tuesday, although my partner did.

We were decorating a new flat in one of Gib's rather up-market developments, hanging wallpaper to two feature walls. The paper was expensive and very stylish.

Day one was spent lining the walls. The walls were almost nine feet high, (nearly three meters) and the sitting room was 20 feet long (six meters). So there we are, standing on two step ladders with a huge long piece of lining paper that needed to be hung horizontally nine feet up. And the only way to move across the room was to start hanging in one corner, and then one person holds the concertina-ed lining paper while the other person moves their step ladder, we stick the next section, hold the paper, move the step ladder, etc etc. It took ages.

At one point, in the bedroom, I was standing awkwardly on the ladder and my head started swimming and I could feel the balance going. Not physically, just in my head with the sensation of falling backwards. I leaned forward, and it went away.

Day two was sizing the lining paper, which was why I got a reprieve.

Day three was hanging the expensive Parisian paper with a 64 inch pattern repeat. Paperhanging is like dressmaking, or making curtains - it's all in the measuring, the setting out, and - the cutting. One wrong cut, and you are stuffed.

I spent ages deciding on the best place for positioning the flamboyant pattern, and, just before we were about to start the cutting, I changed my mind about how to position the six pieces of paper, ie 1) centre it, 2) start from one corner and just work across, or 3) have two slightly narrower pieces at each end so that there was a virtually perfect match right across the wall. To me, a feature wall is just that, and it needs to look good.

Including measuring, matching, cutting, hanging, replacing the electrical fittings, washing out, and clearing up, it took us nearly six hours to complete the wall. My head was overflowing with measurements and calculations.

While we were waiting for the paste to soak I started working out the number of drops for the large sitting room wall. Basically there wasn't enough paper. We hadn't ordered it and we hadn't measured it, so not our responsibility - but ours to sort it out.

The wall needed nine full drops, two short pieces over the door, and a narrow drop on the side of the door frame. We would have to cut and splice the narrow piece. It also meant we had absolutely no margin for error, and if there was a fault in the paper, we would be nowhere.

I woke up at 3am with visions of an unfinished wall if we cut the paper wrong, or snagged it, or there was a fault, or ... or ....or.... I tried to work out a way of making a full length drop behind the door and couldn't. Then I started calculating drops for another job we had been asked to do. Ten drops, I thought to my insomniac self, got to be four rolls. I so did not want the stress of worrying about running out of paper. And why am I waking up at night fretting about work? That's one of the reasons I chucked it in the first place.

When anyone ever says that decorating is easy - they should try doing it for a living.

Day four had already begun, and when I woke up again, I did not want to go. It felt like one of those days where you have to chair a difficult meeting. I insisted on double-checking the measurements of the wall, even though they were ingrained in my head. We laid the paper out and made the cut.

Then I insisted on putting it against the wall, just to check it was right. Pretty fatuous waste of space really, because once we had cut one piece of paper, there wasn't anything we could do. If it was wrong, ie too short, we couldn't finish the job anyway. I just didn't feel like finding out we had got it wrong after nine pieces had been cut. It was OK.

We finished the wall in almost the same time as the previous day. It was a straight match so the cutting and hanging was easier, even though there were more pieces.

And this morning, I woke up so pleased that it was not another work day. Phew. I was mentally and physically drained when I had finished work on the past two days, for 'just a bit of paperhanging' as people invariably say. That's before you even take into account keeping an eye on the cat who seemed to think wallpaper was the tastiest delicacy ever invented. Nicely chewed edges would look really good.

Now, if you have waded through hanging those two walls, here are a few points about working for yourself which are not related to the job above, rather, on years of self-employed working.

Working for yourself means just that. It means that, you choose what hours you want to work, obviously fitting in with clients' hours where possible. While we would prefer to start at 7.30am or similar, clearly it's not practical when people are rushing around getting ready for work. That's assuming they are even out of bed at 7.30am.

But when we say we are finished for the day, that's just what we mean. No, we are not working a standard eight-hour day just because you do. Or because you want the job finished faster. Because as the day goes on, we get slower and slower. And more and more tired. Then there is more chance of making mistakes. And if we finish it quickly you think we are too expensive.

We give a price for the job. We don't charge by the hour, by the day, by the roll, or by the gallon. It is up to us how we complete that job to the best of our ability in the time we want. We give a written fixed-price quote. When people accept that, we don't expect them to complain later if we finish the day's work by early afternoon (as happened a while ago). We do tell people that the job will be done over a specific number of days, but we won't necessarily be there all day. Clearly in one ear and out the other in a lot of cases.

Truth is, we are running a business, not a charity service. If we are fast at the job, surely it should be to our advantage? It doesn't mean a cheaper price for a client because we complete it quickly. What they are paying for is a good quality job. Easy. Isn't it? People can always say no to the price we quote.

On one job, the client was out until early evening, so she told us we wouldn't see her until the next day. Fine by us. Next thing we knew, she was ringing up in her lunch break asking where we were. Amazing that she could manage to find the time for a lunch break to pop home after all. And really, there was nothing else we could do that day, so what did she want us to do? Sit around doing fuck all to make her feel she was getting value for money?

We can, and usually do, work quickly. We take our time with the measuring and cutting. We could work slowly. And what is the added value in that? The job is the job, however long it takes.

I don't think people realise that when there are two people working that means the hours worked are multiplied by two. I don't think people realise the cost of setting up a business. Vehicle insurance, personal and public liability insurance, office costs, consumables, materials, capital equipment, and in Gib, annual trading licence and employment department certificates. No holiday pay included of course, social security to pay, and no pension rights unless you provide your own.

All people see is someone working a short day and they add up the cost of the job and divide it by the number of hours to work out an apparently expensive rate.

Then of course, there is payment time. There are those wonderful customers who just give you the cash or a cheque straightaway. Some of them even think to say that they like the job. We like that, it is nice to think that someone appreciates a job. When someone says 'Fantastic!' that is even better. Then there are the ones who hang you about, and it doesn't matter that you write payment on completion on the quote. On occasion, I have been known to say, after listening to a load of woffle 'So where's the money?'

But none of this compares with some of the people we know who have far worse experiences. As I wrote earlier, being self-employed, in theory, implies that you have some control over what you are doing. You give a price to do the job the customer wants, to a good standard, and complete it in a mutually convenient time. You are providing a skill, expertise and labour in return for the money you consider it to be worth.

No. One of our friends has, on more than one occasion, given a price - and then his customer turns round and tells him what he is prepared to pay. And what does said friend do? He accepts it. He needs the money and his customers know that. He's also been asked to do extra work on top of the original job and just not been paid at all for the extras. This is most definitely not being self-employed. Nor is giving a set price per day or per hour. You are basically working for wages. Or when he was walking down the street, a previous customer said 'You still painting? Be at my house in five minutes.' He was there of course. An order is an order. Even when given by someone who later negotiates the price down.

This is not a one-sided post though. There are occasions when the customer does not get a good deal. A painter we know went to do a job painting a couple of rooms in a flat. When the clients arrived home after work, he was happily asleep on the kitchen table having drunk a couple of tinnies, and three-quarters of a bottle of vodka. He hadn't done any work of course so he didn't get paid. But it didn't cost him anything for a drink that day.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Colour me .....

.... Autumn. I have a confession. This may surprise and shock some of you, but I have actually been colour analysed or whatever it's called. For someone who finds putting on make-up a drag, and rarely wears it, and spends most of her time messing around in casual trousers and boots - my hedonistic moment (actually nearer an hour) may sadly diminish my standing in your eyes. I was wandering around Selfridges in Oxford Street, as you do. I was dreamily looking at fabrics when I should really have been buying notions or whatever they are called. Interfacing, buttons, thread, etc. There was one of those promotional stands. Colour Me Beautiful in fact. I looked idly at it, and flicked through the book. It looked quite interesting. It basically said that people look better in some colours depending on their skin tone and hair colour. I could buy that theory. There was a practical chapter about colour wheels and tones and blah blah blah that all made sense. There was even a consultant relatively near me. I bought the book but didn't make an appointment. I didn't make an appointment for another three or four years, but finally, with a lieu day from work and in the north of England, I bit the bullet. The price had gone up of course. I think the astronomical sum of £25 had shot up to £35 or £40. Still, I had a day off and it was time to get this out of my system. I was sure I was a Spring, or maybe even a Winter, looking at my wardrobe full of strong colours. Blacks, bright reds, whites, greys, bright pink, royal blues. I figured I wasn't summer, or autumn with all the bright orange and lime green colours. Off I went through glorious North Yorkshire scenery to a lovely house reached by an exceedingly long drive. I was dutifully wearing a white top so I could be draped with scarves in varying colours which showed me to my best/worst aspects. They all looked the same to me, and so did I. I could not tell the difference between one colour next to my face or another. Also I had frosting on my hair apparently. Why do Americans call everything frosting? Icing on cakes is frosting and so are highlights in hair. (My consultant was American). I was not to wear grey. This was a no-no. Especially with the frosting. If I went back to dark blonde/light brown I could consider it. Bit of a bummer as most of my work clothes were based around grey. Serious, sober, and professional. Somewhat unlike me I suppose. It turned out I was a sludgey autumn. NO bright colours. No shocking pink. No burgundy. No black. No white. The list of NOs was endless. The amount of clothes I would have to discard would be endless too. At least my lovely olive green Barbour was a Very Good Colour. As was my mother's chocolate brown coat which I stole at every opportunity. I was such a wimpy autumn I 'flowed' into summer. Hmm. Not sure about that one. I skipped off with my portfolio and wondered if this woman even knew what she was doing. I suspect she did actually. Incidentally she was one of the models in one of the official books. And I did get coffee and biscuits (which I didn't eat) included in the price. Do I stick religiously to 'my colours' after all these years? Of course not. But I do think there is still some basis to it and most of my clothes are built around the palette for my muted and broody autumn. Why did I do it? Curiosity primarily. I couldn't for the life of me work out what 'season' I was and I wanted to find out. And, as someone working in PR and journalism, it's difficult not to admit to the fact that first visual impressions matter, especially when advising people on what to wear on television, or for a press conference. So, there was some professional interest in it too. How can you knock something when you don't know enough about it? When I was working in London, I went on a management course and one session was directed towards telling advising us what to wear. I thought it was ridiculous. I didn't need to be told what to wear to look good. After all, I wore home-knitted pullies, silk shirts, expensive skirts, had a couple of tailored suits, and otherwise dressed - eccentrically? I certainly didn't want to look like the overly made-up dressed-up woman jigging around in front of us all telling us we should aim to dress like her. A few years later on, I started to buy Vogue Designer Patterns. The suits, in suitable autumnal sludge colours, flew under my fast fingers on the sewing machine. And there I was. Finally, still frosted, I mean blonde highlights, suited in suitable autumn suits, and even wearing the make-up. By then I could have given the lecture myself. Not sure I could ever have successfully done the colour analysis for anyone else though. Post Script I have just looked up the American site and see perhaps I am not in such dreary, drudgey, sludgy, company after all. Seems like Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, and Jennifer Lopez are all gloomy autumns too. I also think Angelina Jolie's hair on the CMB website is frosted. Wonder what her consultant said about that?