Tuesday 29 June 2010

Teatime Fiction. The Harbour Adventure. Part 4

Big Fat Helen has been rescued from the harbour but the alarm has given the Magistrate the excuse to encroach on the Harbour Master's territory.

The Magistrate arrived. To represent The Law In The Land, he had jammed his Bowler hat on to his head, which is what he wore when he was out and about. He reserved his top hat for ceremonial occasions, not least because it was his best hat. His Bowler was more the working hat and could be easier replaced. It was also lined in thin cork and was more likely to float if it wound up in the water.

"If anybody is dead, I am the Coroner's Deputy" he announced.
"Nobody is dead, thank The Lord." said the Harbour Master, curtly.
"Well, I'm glad you now thank The Lord for that and have give up appeals to heathenish gods" replied the Magistrate "And all that is needed is for you to respect some of the other Christian principles, and we'll all be better off"
"What do you mean by that?" spluttered the Harbour Master.

The Magistrate opened his mouth to answer but was shouldered out of the way by Little Fat Helen, who arrived with towels and a pair of stretcher-bearers, carrying the green canvas stretcher.
"Let me through. Got to get her home, lads" ordered LF Helen, as if the wet Helen might dissolve or shrink. The stretcher bearers looked doubtful, but rolled her on to the groaning canvas, then got another couple of mates to help heave the stretcher up. Eventually the four of them took a handle each and LF Helen walked alongside to make sure her sodden sister didn't roll off. The wooden spars creaked but did not crack.

The Harbour Master turned to Dadder and took out his note book and pencil. Pushing his nautical cap, the sign of his office, back a little, he squinted at us.
"Now then, what happened?"
The Magistrate broke in.
"Your daughter jumped in the dock when she was surprised by a seagull. Silly girl. These children saved her."
The Harbour master looked offended at this slur on his child.
"How do you know, Sir?"
There was an awkward silence.
"I saw it".
"How? You came from the other side of the bridge. It's miles away. Your eyesight must be good."
There was a long, awkward pause.
"I happened to be glancing out of the window".
"What window? The court has only got a little fanlight in that wall, and that in the upper gallery".
"If you must know, I was watching for the ... Mail packet from the West Indies. Yes. That was it."

The Harbour Master leafed back through his notebook of events from the past week.
"That boat arrived two days ago. The Post Mistress herself collected that mail, and she'll have sorted and distributed it by now. If there was anything on it for you, you should have had it early this morning."
"There's no law against a magistrate looking out of his own courthouse window."
"I never said there was. I just remarked that you must have very good eyesight."
"He could be using binoculars" interjected Dadder, remembering how these things go in Agatha Christie books.
"You have no proof of that" stuttered the Magistrate.
"Well what's that round your neck, then?" Dadder blundered on.
"Ah yes, these are...these are...birdwatching. My new hobby."

The Harbour Master shut his notebook with a snap. "I think I've heard enough to establish that there is no Foul Play here. Fowl play, yes. Foul play, no. My daughter overbalanced and, by the Grace of God, did not perish. I will put it in the incident book and the Harbour authorities can examine them as an when they think suitable."
"I'll be the one to decide if there has been Foul Play." Spat the Magstrate. He paused. "And I have found that there has not".
Dadder jammed his woollen hat back on his head.
"If you gentlemen have done agreeing, I'll take these children home" he said.

He was shooing the Raft children in to line, oblivious to the Magistrate and the Harbour Master looking daggers at each other. He suddenly remembered why he had come, and turned round.

"Blessed if it didn't go right out of my mind. Begging your pardon, Your Worship, but I came to ask the Harbour Master if it was alright to push a Revenue Man off the Raft, on account of him being an illegal boarder, but he says 'No' on account of the Revenue is the state's business and that's how the libraries are paid for. How say you Sir?"

The Magistrate thought about it for a moment, and then bearing in mind the legal opinion of the Harbour Master, gave his own.

"I should say that it depends on whether the officer has identified himself. If he has not, then you are entitled to take whatever steps seem sufficient to you, but you should take care not to go beyond sufficiency."

Dadder bowed. "Much obliged to you Your Worships. I can push him off the raft but not keel haul him. See, isn't that preciserly what I told Mrs Raft. Come along duckerlings, time to go home".

The End

Teatime Fiction. The Harbour Adventure. Part 3

Big Fat Helen has been knocked in to the harbour. She held up a Flying Saucer sweet and a huge seabird swooped at it from behind her.

The tide was high so she didn't fall too far, but she was fully dressed and she had her shoes on, and the little Rafts didn't know if she could swim the way wetbobs do. Seadogs are superstitious like that; they may never learn to swim as they think it invites drownding. Wetbobs learn to swim sooner than they walk because they are bound to fall in and swimming is the best way to survive.

"Quick Baba, the bell". Baba Raft ran over to the emergency bell and began to swing on it, dinging it madly. Middle Little Raft ran to the life-belt ring which was hanging on a hook and wrestled it down, heaving it in to the water where it hit BF Helen on the head. Big Little Raft went down the steps with a spare rope from the harbour-side, attached to a ring in the wall.

BFH was dressed, but she was big and buoyant, she hadn't hit the water too hard so she hadn't gone right down, and she was close to the steps. Her clothes spread on the surface.

By now grown-up sea boots were thundering down the steps, a cockleshell boat had appeared and great knuckles were grasping BF Helen, pulling her back from the sea's hungry mouth. She was slapped on to the dockside, coughing, spluttering, and being sick.

"Bloody kids" said a voice. "Always causing trouble".
"No" moaned BF Helen "albatross".
"We haven't got any albatrosses, nor golden eagles neither. We've got some pushy seagulls, if that's what you mean".

By now the Harbour Master had rushed down to clasp his daughter to his bosom and Dadder Raft was shaking us "What happened, what happened?" Baba Raft was crying, possibly because of the loss of the flying saucers, which were dotted over the water like rice paper petals and dissolving in a fizzy scum.

"I told you to deal with those gulls, didn't I. I said they would have somebody over" complained a voice in the crowd. There was a mutter of consensus. The public enquiry had found in under three minutes that this was all the fault of the Harbour Master, probably inevitable, and only justice that it had very nearly been his own BF Helen who was a goner. Perhaps that would persuade him to Do Something.

The alarm had gone round the harbour and up the cliff, and the Magistrate, who had been hard at work with his binoculars, came thundering over the swing bridge, carrying his Legal Authority in to Enemy Territory, in case the Harbour Master had been negligent in any way.

To be continued. Harbour Adventure part 4

Monday 28 June 2010

Teatime Fiction. The Harbour Adventure. Part 2

Dadder Raft is on his way to get a legal opinion from the Harbour Master on whether he is permitted, under Water Law, to push a Revenue Man off the Raft.

The river path gave way to the broad paved harbour with its adjoining squares of warehouses basking on the gentle slopes. At the far end of the harbour, close to the pier, was the Harbour Master's Office, an exceptionally fine building in the manner of the Magistrate's Court, which was on the other side of the estuary, over the swing bridge. On the Magistrate's side the terracing was steeper and the the houses clung to the cliffs like barnacles, keeping their glittering glass eyes on the comings and goings of the ships, tutting at the women going aboard in defiance of custom and inviting disaster. The Magistrate kept a pair of binoculars in a box in the upper balcony of the court. He would perch up there while the court was closed and he had no registry work to do, scrying the Harbour Master's side through the small fanlight window.

Matters of disagreement arose between the Magistrate and the Harbour Master. For instance, the Magistrate maintained that the moment a sailor or similar nautical - reprobates, pirates, convicts, drunkards, philanderers, blasphemers and general ne'er do wells - set foot on dry land, then landlaw was their lawful master.

The Harbour Master maintained that as the harbour edgings and pier were man-made and projected over the water, then he was the lawful authority according to Maritime law. Moreover, he believed that a little traditional maritime discipline would work wonders and he still had the Cat in its mahogany box, and he could use it, by Neptune he would, if the situation demanded it. Throwing a man in chokey was, in his view, cruel, whereas a quick stripe and back to work made the point without costing much or affecting a man's livelihood.

The Constable, the Harbour Bailiff, and indeed the thieves, reprobates, pirates, blasphemers, etc had all got used to waiting while the Magistrate and the Harbour Master had their procedural wrangles. It took so long that the drunkards were often sober by the time it was decided what should happen to them, so they went home or back on board, if they could remember where either were, when the Constable nodded them off. The pirates sat nervously in the lock-up - a desperate bunch of men - in case the Constable decided on a spot of pre-emptive hanging as a result of a jurisdictional misunderstanding.

Everybody knew that the real cause of disagreement between the Authorities was the extraordinary kindness shown by the Magistrate's wife to the Harbour Master when his wife died. This was not something the Magistrate could complain about - one is expected to show kindness when the mother of young girls passes away - but even so, there are limits. The Magistrate, the most upright of men if you don't count the Vicar, which he didn't because he didn't trust that Vicar further than he could throw him, suspected those limits had been breached on several occasions.

The pinnacle of the Harbour Master's undisputed authority was that he was in charge of the swing bridge over the estuary which divided the town. He decided if the bridge was to be swung, hence breaking the road, and the Magistrate could only howl in impotent rage if his lawful prey had already escaped over it. It was miles upstream before the river could be crossed by the Constables, so the Magistrate kept a boat on his side but knew that by the time it was crewed and launched, the miscreant would be long gone.

The Magistrate and his wife had no children, which perhaps explained a lot. The Harbour Master had two girls, each named Helen, as were all the women in the Harbour Master's family, for the famous Helen of Troy whose face Launched A Thousand Ships. Nature then determined that older would be Big Fat Helen and the younger Little Fat Helen. It had to be this way because you can't call a nineteen year old woman "Old Fat Helen".

Dadder Raft went in to the Harbour Master's Office, a temple to mahogany and polished brass. He dinged the ship's bell hanging over the counter and Big Fat Helen bustled out to warn the little Rafts to not put fingerprints on the brass, she'd just finished polishing that.
"Might One hinquire as to the precise nature of One's hinquiry?" she politely asked Dadder, who had whipped off his knitted beany bobble hat because he was in an Official Office, and was wringing it in his hands.
"It's a personal matter. I need to speak to the Master."
"Ah" said BF Helen sympathetically, with a broad wink. "I'll get him. I'll take the children for a walk".
"No, it's nothing like that, but thank you, the children could do with some air".

Outside the office, BF Helen immediately took the Rafts to the sweet shop and bought a bag of flying saucers and offered them round. Taking a pink one for herself and nibbling it, she instructed them. "Don't fall over the edge, don't go down the steps, don't get on any strange boats and don't feed the rats, cats or seagulls." She stretched out her arms with her shawl spread behind her head "An albatross this big carried off a kid last week. Never seen'im agin. If you hold up food for them, they'll grab you in their talons." Baba Raft looked on the verge of tears. "It's alright" cooed Big Fat Helen. "They only do it if you feed them. Don't feed them and you'll be alright".

Baba Raft howled as a huge white bird which had been cruising over the harbour spotted BF Helen's pink flying saucer and came at her from behind as she spread her arms in imitation of an albatross. It zoomed at her, its beak open, and scooped up the sweet, screaming as the sherbet began to fizz in its gullet.

The shock knocked BF Helen over the edge of the harbour, tripping her against the low chain which marked the boundary, and with a shriek she fell in to the water.

To be continued Harbour Adventure Part 3.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Teatime Fiction. The Harbour Adventure. Part 1

The Raft raft was moored inside the estuary just at the boundary where the Harbour Master's authority waned and the River Authority's authority waxed. Dadder Raft could get a little money by labouring, by transport, by buying and selling at the borders of these jurisdictions. There was, if absolutely necessary, The Social but they were a nosy lot and brought in their wake the gulls of the Revenue, not that they'd pick much off the spars of the Raft.

Every now and again one of the noisy Revenue buggers would land on the fairing, stamp up and down accusing Dadder of having a concealed sea-chest of golden doubloons, and eventually flap off with a token, having satisfied themselves that they had scavenged all there really was to have.

"Good riddance" Dadder would mutter, and we'd wonder if somewhere there was a glittering hoard, our patri-money. In truth, he had only his gold earring, the traditional cost of an emergency burial. In Dadder's view, Revenue men belonged to landlaw, not waterlaw, and this was sufficient to make their presence an illegal boarding. Could he lawfully push them over the side, make them walk the plank, or keel-haul them under the Raft's weedy hull?

Nana Raft (who was Mummy Raft in those days) had heard this line of legal reasoning several times and was no nearer an answer, although she had made a special trip inland to the library to answer it. The librarian offered her to look at the reference copy of the 1896 volume Dicey, Morris & Collins, The Conflict of Laws, but Mummy said it would take too long to find, let alone copy out the relevant passages. Beside, she was fairly sure this was a criminal matter, and what they really wanted to know was: was it maritime law or inland waterways?

"Depends precisely where the Raft is moored, I should think" said Miss Elizabeth, the librarian, "But you'd have to ask someone who knows because it might make a difference if it is an ocean-going ship or an in-shore boat." The librarian paused, wondering if a boat carried its legal jurisdiction within its timbers. It used to - that was the law of the sea. She fiddled pensively with the wheels on her date stamp. "I wouldn't mention it to the vicar. He might think you were looking to get in on the wedding business. In my opinion, you should try Agatha Christie. You can take books those out. She's always killing people and she usually explains where it is legal. I think you can kill someone on a train if you are coming back from abroad. Providing you do it before France that should be alright." she stamped the books and took the index cards out, popping them in to brown-card loans pockets. "But I'm not a lawyer".

Dadder asked Nana what she had found out, but he got no reply as she had reached a thrilling part. He decided to take this matter up with the Harbour Master. "No point in asking the Magister-rate, is there?" he announced "He's landlaw, so it stands to reason he won't know". "Uh-huh" said Nana, which he took to be agreement.

He strolled off up to the Harbour, a gaggle of little Raft tenders bobbing along in his wake. The Harbour was an adventure and there might be a chance of begging sweets.

To be continued, Harbour Adventure Part 2

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Top Shelf

As a short-house, I clear out the Top Shelf only once a decade. It pops in to existence when I think about it. Two manners of things roost up there: things which are needed Occasionally and things which will be needed only Once.

Birthday candles are needed on Occasion. There was a time when people were mad for them. They loved them so much that they would make excuses to have candles on anything; cakes, sandwiches, mashed potato. One pack of candles was never enough. Now it still wouldn't be enough, but that's because we'd need a cake the size of a table top and have a fire extinguisher standing ready.

The wick in a birthday candle is not engineered the same way as a table-candle. It is a lightly twisted thread in a column of fuel. If you got enough of them alight at one time you could set fire to the wax. That could ignite the sugar and fat in the frosted topping and the aerated structure of a chocolate sponge would give the fire imps a feast. You'd be lucky not to blow a hole in the cabin roof, all that energy going up at once. That's why people must get on and sing "happy birthday" or else they might as well do a countdown.

Luckily, disaster didn't happen. As the candles were only alight for a brief moment and the audience didn't care so long as it got to blow them out, I took to saving them and recycling them for the next festival of singed fringes. Special guests got new candles, of course, while people who could only be persuaded to eat fish if it first had Happy Tuesday chanted over it to it, as Our Lord Taught Us, made do with the re-treads.

Over the years the number of recycled candles grew, then demand dropped, and they were re-homed to the top shelf and lived in a slot next to the 4-Minute Food.

This food is what I will eat if the 4-minute warning goes off. I've never been clear about how long you've got left to eat it, but that is probably dependent on where you are in relation to the bang. It turns out that if you have delicious food up there, you will eat it in the course of ordinary and then where would you be if the moment came? It follows that 4-minute food is that which isn't tempting enough to eat normally but would keep you going in the event of need. It should take little preparation and be edible cold from the tin if absolutely necessary, or heatable over recycled birthday candles.

In field tests it turned out that there was a good reason the tinned spinach was marked down to fourpence. How Popeye the Sailor Man opens the stinky slithery stuff and chokes it down, I will never know. What I do know is that the remainder of life spent subsisting on something a slug would turn its nose up at, is going to need more than a birthday candle and a song floated on it to make it bearable. That's fourpence I won't see again.

I don't think May 2006 is going to come round again either, so the pease pudding is going to have to go to a historical collection or landfill. There are some purposes to old food; you don't break in to an Egyptian tomb and immediately set about clearing out the dead Pharaoh's food locker, it has historical relevance of itself. Except, what would a tin of pease pudding and jar of pickled walnuts say about me?

Future children would solemnly poke at it supposing that pease pudding was the delicacy of choice, kept in a sacred ark and served on Ritz crackers. As the serving suggestions says:
"Ready Cooked. Vegetable. Traditionally served hot with boiled meat. Try it also. Hot or Cold. With any meat or fish."

I only bought it for the label. I like its firm red recognition of my own wisdom. Foresight in a tin, combining traditional virtues with proven technology. Arguably, I should have made someone else eat the pudding - with a birthday candle on top - and then pasted the label smugly inside the cupboard door. Wait, what's this in the small print?

"Quality Guarantee. We want you to enjoy this product. If you are not entirely satisfied, please return the EMPTY can and coded can-end to our Customer Services Manager, saying where and when purchased. This guarantee does not affect your statutory rights".

They are even unwise enough to say where to send the can and, let's face it, they can't check where I bought it. As we can assume it was well before 2006, I've forgotten and I've probably lost the receipt by now, but it's a reasonable bet that hanging on to a product until it is four years out of date goes beyond the spirit of the guarantee. Anyway, if I don't eat it, how do I know if I've not enjoyed it, except that I haven't - yet.

Perhaps Premier Foods, who acquired the HL brand in the 1990s (probably about the same time as I acquired the tin) would like it back for their Company Museum. Tiptree, the jam makers in Essex, have preserved a preserves museum (free entry, next to the lovely tearoom), or maybe there's a food historian who would like it.

Out, out, brief candles, and take that pease pudding with you.

Monday 21 June 2010

Home Helps

The Raft family tree grows thus: Great Granny, Granny, Nana, Mummy, Dadder, Baba.

Many years ago Nana Raft was ill. In those days abdominal surgery involved the dangerous procedure of being opened up and consequently the patient was in bed for a month afterwards.

The doctors corrected the problem and Nana Raft rested for a few days under strict supervision. When it came to time for her discharge, the matron did what we would now call 'an assessment' by asking what the situation was on Nana Raft's craft.

The position was this; Granny Raft had to go home and Dadder Raft had to stay at work, him being the sort who only got paid if he did the job. If Dadder Raft didn't work, the ship would sink. This left the flotilla of little Rafts in the care of a woman who wasn't supposed to set foot on the deck, except to visit the heads, lest her stitches came undone. If Nana Raft had to move about, the Matron wasn't prepared to discharge her.

Don't come here with arguments about hospital not being a prison; in those days Matron decided when you could go home and saw herself as a deputy angel with a flaming sword, standing guard over her stricken patient, and she wasn't about to let a single one of them burst open and undo all Doctor's hard work. The Social was called, although I can't remember what the department was named in those sepia-tinted days.

The Social dispatched their agent, the aptly name Mrs McClean, to take charge of the Raft Raft. She berthed alongside us, a white bowsprit bosom billowing below her blond-grey hair and stone-blue eyes, and from the moment I saw her I knew we were saved to harbour. Mrs McClean was a Home Help, which does not adequately describe how vital her work was because without her we probably would have had to go in to care or at least been split up and distributed over a wider family, or we might have starved to death or fallen overboard.

Mrs McClean did not do counselling, which hadn't been invented and she wouldn't have done it if it had. She had Opinions, chiefly in the matter of the necessity of cleanliness, and her opinions were Right. Her Catholicism was betrayed only by a small golden cross round her neck and tightly pursed lips when heathenish views and practices were mentioned. Mrs McClean was of the Opinion, although she never said so, that there were few disputes insoluble in a decent bar of green soap, and this she applied to demonstrate the point. Cleanliness was next to Godliness, an' sure didn't Our Lord make that very point when he washed the feets of some mucky devils?

If it was good enough for the Son of Man, it was good enough for Mrs McClean, and she set about her work. Children were washed, fed, and washed again, being sent either to school or bed, as the situation demanded. Nana Raft was washed, fed, and tucked up in her bunk with an improving book. The pillows, pillow cases, sheets, blankets and candlewick bedspread all washed and monumentally constructed around the bed-cage which kept the weight off Nana's surgical wound, the way a snowy cloth is spread precisely over an altar stone.

Nana was to be presented as an Offering to the District Nurse, who came in to Check the Dressing. How would it be if the Nurse found Things Untidy? Unthinkable, unallowable. Mrs McClean would never be found dozing if the Son of God came by, and the District Nurse was His deputy, so it followed that they would both be treated the same, except that the District Nurse could keep her sensible lace-up shoes on and the Son of the Father should take his mucky sandals off and change in to a nice clean pair of slippers at the end of the gangway, unless he came in his Holy Ghost form and whafted about. If God had meant us to wear our shoes onboard, he'd wouldn't have given us slippers, would he?

Dadder Raft was the miserable beast of burden in this tableaux, and thus to be treated kindly. Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn, Deuteronomy 25:4, so he received egg and chips. She didn't go so far as to wash him and give him a quick once-over with a curry-comb, but there would be a basin, the soap and towel standing ready when he came home. "There's hot water, you'd better use it before it gets cold". Besides, oxen attended Our Lord's birth and if it's good enough for the Newborn King, then it's good enough for Mrs McClean, so Dadder Raft was allowed back on board, but he'd better take off his boots before he set hoof on deck.

Here Mrs McClean gave her lips an extra-tight puckering. She approved of children, of course she did, even godless little heathen ones like us, who might yet be Saved. She approved of marriage, which is ordained by God, and you can't get a higher recommendation than that, and it's better than heathenish practices, polygamy and I don't know what the By Our Lady savages gets up to, which is why she worked so hard to shore up marriages. She approved of families, and sure wasn't it good enough for Our Lord, so it's good enough for Mrs McClean. But she didn't approve of women being Bothered by men in general, and definitely not those Women Who Had Stitches in particular.

It might properly have been the business of God's deputies, the Doctor and the District Nurse, but Mrs McClean had her own flaming sword - as she feared did Dadder - and she felt that the very saintliness of God's deputies might prevent them dealing with this most earthy of subjects, especially when talking to a pagan and one who might, she suspected, really have hairy goat legs and cloven hooves, going by the great quantity of boywool in the wash basin. Deuteronomy 25:4 is specifically about mouths. Moses neglected to mention other muzzles, a typically slipshod oversight when law comes from men and not God. At least, she hoped it was an oversight and not a deliberate omission.

She fixed Dadder Raft with her eye as blue and hard as marble.
"She's not to be Bothered" she commanded.

It would have been pointless for Dadder Raft - long since gone to Valhalla under his shield on his fiery longboat - to protest that he had no intention of Bothering anyone, which probably would have earned him a clout over the snout with a broom for talking filth. He was mostly baffled, but he took the hint and found himself a billet up the other end of the Raft, padding along in his darned socks.

After a few weeks Nana Raft recovered and when the District Nurse said the stitches were healed, and the Doctor agreed, our angel McClean sailed away to save other children, another woman, leaving the smell of soap and the glow of polish, a lingering blessing from a woman who left no fingermarks or footprints.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Energy Performance Certificates

The following is to illustrate how law and politics and idiocy interact. It is very like Japanese Knotweed; you plant it thinking it may be useful and then find it grows through motorways and is impossible to eradicate.


To the mild surprise of the public, the Coalition did something both parties had promised to do: abolish the Home Information Packs. An immediate attempt at weed-clearance. They did so within days of taking office and laid an order in which suspended most of the legislation, pending its repeal, for which they have to pass primary legislation.

Despite the prompt action, the Coalition was lumbered with retaining one element of the pack, the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC), because that draws its authority not from English statute law, but from a European directive:

DIRECTIVE 2002/91/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 16 December 2002 on the energy performance of buildings

The original UK legislation on HIPs and EPCs was contained in section 5 of the Housing Act 2004, every word of which section is a monument to folly and can only have been written by someone capable of colour-coding their elastic bands and bonged out of their skull on amphetamines.

There is a related 2007 statutory instrument and explanatory note for bringing in the EPCs which was amended in 2008 and then again in 2010.

The current legislation giving effect to the Energy Performance Certificate aspect of that Directive in English law is contained in the:

Energy Performance of Buildings (Certificates and Inspections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007 (as amended by the Energy Performance of Buildings (Certificates and Inspections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2010).

(As usual, where appropriate, separate orders exist for N. Ireland and Scotland. It is only necessary to look at the English law to illustrate the problem).

Current situation

To try to take the sting out of the retention of EPCs, it is possible to start marketing a house without one, but a certificate is supposed to have been commissioned and there is a £200 fine for failing to provide one by 28 days later, conditional on whether the person has made reasonable efforts to supply one and if the Trading Standards Officers bring a prosecution. However, that supposes the Trading Standards Officers haven't got anything better to do and somebody complains to them. See carefully worded questions and answers from the Communities and Local Government website.

The Energy Performance Certificate is a six page report which will cost you between £35 and £65, regardless of whether anybody ever buys the house. Indeed, it is a matter of supreme indifference to house buyers; they are worried about location and size. An EPC adds little or no value to the transaction.

The certificate has to be provided by an accredited supplier (as specified by Article 10 of the Directive), and they are finding they have to compete on line. One 3rd-party coordinator is offering them at £35, which makes no economic sense. It would mean an EPC assessor would have to be able to visit the property and fill out a report for under £25. That simply isn't possible; at that hourly rate you'd be better off as a mobile hairdresser, window cleaner or gardener. Besides, only a qualified surveyor would be able to undertake a meaningful assessment, and even they stud their reports with disclaimers such as "to the best of my knowledge". The information on an EPC is a fuzzy guideline which indicates something possibly true about the state of reality, assuming reality is what the householder said it was in the first place.


How we got here. There was public fury about the length of time it takes to complete property transactions under English law. That is partly because English property law (unlike Scots law) works by having the contract form at exchange, not earlier when people agree a price. This gives scope for people walking in to deals then trying to argue about money at the last moment and it drives people mad.

Then the EU Directive 2002/91/EC laid an obligation on governments to monitor and encourage energy efficiency in housing. It airily waved its fairy wand and decreed that all purchasers be given a certificate to allow them to compare energy efficiency of properties, which is no bad thing, but it isn't such a good thing that it really needs to be done. It did this in order to be seen to comply with the fine words of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Labour government seized on this and attempted to link the issues. All house sellers (except for some limited exceptions) would be required to do all the paperwork up front, including the EPC, and then it would all work more like selling a car at auction. The government would give effect to the Directive by obliging local authorities to keep registers of the EPCs which gradually allow them to build minutely detailed databases of housing in the area. There would be so much data that they had to remember to stick in a clause about it not be interrogated by any Tom, Dick or Harry - or at least, not without some proper authority which wasn't specified. The EU Directive could be complied with by hiding it inside something for which there appeared to be public demand. Hurrah, no nasty arguments from the Eurosceptics and a grateful public would carry the government aloft on their shoulders.

As we all know, HIPs didn't work. Rather than reduce friction in property transactions, they may have helped inflate the house price bubble by reducing the number of potential vendors and thus keeping the price of houses higher than it might otherwise have been. When Eric Pickles and Grant Schapps were charged with removing the structure, they were stuck with EPCs and had to do their best to neutralize them by reducing the penalties for failing to comply.


The state of play is that if you fail to produce an EPC, and you reasonably should have done so, you might possibly wind up about £150 worse off than you would have been if you had complied in the first place, but only if somebody can be bothered to put the boot in. That is hardly worth challenging, except that there is something spiritually wrong with inviting people to ignore the law. There ought to be a way round this.

The original EU Directive only wants a certificate of comparison to be provided, and it doesn't define precisely what should be on it.
"The energy performance certificate for buildings shall include reference values such as current legal standards and benchmarks in order to make it possible for consumers to compare and assess the energy performance of the building. The certificate shall be accompanied by recommendations for the cost-effective improvement of the energy performance."
Not even the Housing Act 2004 defines it precisely. Instead, at 163 it says:
"(4) In this section “relevant information” means information about any matter connected with the property (or the sale of the property) that would be of interest to potential buyers.

(5) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (4), the information which the Secretary of State may consider to be relevant information includes any information about—

(e) the energy efficiency of the property;

(7) The regulations may require a prescribed document—

(a) to be in such form as may be prescribed; and

(b) to be prepared by a person of a prescribed description on such terms (if any) as may be prescribed."

So the Secretary of State can say what the certificate should look like and who can prepare it. In the SI of 2007 this was gold-plated and had knobs put on it. The remedy consists of sawing the knobs off and chucking the remainder in the skip.

Now, it is always true that any property which requires an EPC (some are exempt) will be meet the definitions set out at the lowest level of efficiency, level G. So it doesn't need an assessor to say that a house complies with the minimum level. It might do better than that, but it will be logically and necessarily true that the minimum level has been reached.

The simplest thing do to then, is to authorize householders to be accredited persons for the purpose of self-certification at the minimum level, G, and to revise the definition of the certificates to contain only this data, along with a standard list of things one can do to improve energy efficiency.

Estate agents can hold blanks. In fact, they can do the job of running round and saying obvious things such as "you want low energy light bulbs, you do", and we can dispense with the people currently doing this non-job at the Council. Downloadable PDFs could be on the web. Just print one off and fill in your own address. Householders who want to pay to get their house in ratings A to F can still do so, if they think it is worth it. The ex-Council workers can re-train as EPC assessors, if they really won't take the hint about acquiring a useful skill. The local authorities can then pile the certificates in a box under the desk until such a time as we wish to shred them.

Another remedy is to withdraw from the EU and then it won't matter what Directive 2002/91/EC says.

Saturday 19 June 2010


Over at The Anger of a Quiet Man there's a thoughtful discussion of the negative attitudes in the media towards people expressing support for England in Patriotism, Jingoism and Nationalism.

This blog wouldn't necessarily agree with his assertion that it is all down to New Labour, but he's right in that
"people who count themselves as English, now rarely count themselves as British, not any more"
The media are some way behind the the public in this and only dimly recognize it. People now have a fractured view of national identity and increasingly see themselves as primarily from a particular group, not the quilted identity which was British nationality. It is a trend which accelerated under New Labour.

Sure, there was a deliberate attempt to delete the national identity in favour of some Euro-citizenship, but that began under the traitor Heath. New Labour realized too late that there is a good reason why that Victorian composite, so brilliantly romanticised by Rudyard Kipling, should have been hung on to. A Balkanized Britain is not in fact easier to rule, is not more tolerant or pragmatically integrated - it's the very opposite, illustrated by the police having to protect our own soldiers when they make their Homecoming parades.

People - other than us, of course - don't spend much time thinking about what to write down in the Nationality box on forms. They spend more time doing it than they used to because umpteen forms these days ask about ethnic origin, and they aren't sure what the difference between nationality and ethnicity is. Every time they are asked such a question, it reminds them that they might not be from round these here parts. It subtly tells them either that they are foreigners and always will be, or else it confirms that they have a prior claim on an area based on ethnicity.

All the deductions about what they think and feel on the subject have to be done by asking them - which gets you funny looks in the cafe, guess how I know - or by watching to see what they do rather than what they say.

Thus the significance of the picture above. Given a patch of wet concrete, what would you write in it? If you look at the walls on historic buildings, or the graffiti on modern ones, by far the most popular choice is the person's initials and a date, or a tag for the Banksy wannabes. Football teams come a second outside of religious settings. Swear words aren't as popular as they once were.

(You may be wondering what rigorous survey data I have for this. I don't, but if you find a woman with her nose pressed against what appears to be a blank wall in a church, it will be me reading the spidery tattoo in the plaster and stone. People leave marks the way dripping water builds limestone caverns. People being what they are, if you find a reachable stalagmite, some bugger will have carved their initials in it.)

Yet here, given the dream surface where he - and I think it was a male but could not explain why - could have put his hand print, or the name of his muvver or luver or footie team, thus permanently recording his own existence, the person writes the name of the country. We don't even know if he's English - he doesn't have to be, he's just some bloke writing a word quickly. He obviously didn't have long - it's not exactly copper-plate italics, is it?

He can't mean it as a geographical note. We know we are in England and so does every one else. It is a clue in concrete, but why of all the words in the language was that one, that name, right at the top of his mind? It means something when a person chooses that word above all others, but exactly what has yet to become clear.

Friday 18 June 2010

Job of the Month - Fair Isle Bird Warden

Would you like to live on a remote but inhabited jewel in the ocean 25 miles south of Shetland and 25 miles north of Orkney?

Can you tell a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler (a.k.a. Rusty Rumped Warbler) from a Sparrow and run bird observing projects?

Can you be polite to the migratory visitors - the humans - who bring the money, because otherwise it's back to kebabbing puffins and knitting woolies?

The Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust is looking for a pair wardens to run the projects and look after the visitors. They have a spanking new observatory in a wild and insanely beautiful spot, conducting world-class research in to bird migration patterns. The work of the Trust at the observatory costs money and that must come from offering an experience which is unique. No other island is quite like Fair Isle; not even the nearby islands are chosen by the birds for their stop-over, so ornithologists have been drawn there since the significance of the Island was realized from analysis in the 1920s.

Remarkably, they pay you to live there, and give you a vehicle, but you have to be able to combine ornithological research skills with academic support services and be a hotellier. The human visitors are often using their precious holidays to see the birds and need friendly guides and services to help them get the best out of their stay.

Traditionally the wardens have been a couple but all suitably qualified applicants are welcomed. The closing date for applications is 5 July, interview will be in August and the job starts next season.

For more details and an application form, contact:
Roger Riddington tel. (01950) 460080
or email editor@britishbirds.co.uk

For an idea of how the life is lived, the current warden, Deryk Shaw, blogs at Fibo Warden's Diary.

Photo: JM Garm for Wikipedia.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Gulls and Sea Eagles

On the south coast, especially in Peacehaven, war has broken out between people and birds. The seagulls have become aggressive as they are protecting their eggs and chicks, while the property owners hold much the same views, only in a mammalian context. Opinion is divided. The gull colonies are a nuisance but if you go and live at the seaside you can reasonably expect some seabirds.

Despite the claims of Tim McKenzie, founder of a pro-gull rescue service, that the numbers of British herring gulls are falling, you couldn't prove that by council offices, which regularly take complaints about the numbers of them. The figures from the British Ornithology Trust suggest that it makes a difference which sub-species you are talking about and the last survey was about two years ago. In global population the bird is not in danger.

Gulls are intelligent creatures with excellent eyesight adapted for scavenging and have been doing well since we stopped burning food waste or giving to the pigs and started trying to bury it at the rubbish dump. The south coast is lined with fast-food outlets and visited by people incapable of putting waste food in sealed bins. There are also people who insist on feeding the gulls in the mistaken belief that the creatures are starving to death. If herring gulls are dying - and English Nature says the numbers of certain varieties have fallen - it's only a wonder they aren't going off bang from over-feeding.

Gulls in general don't have to work very hard to increase their numbers. So long as they can find a nesting site, they are guaranteed all the food it takes to raise chicks and they have few predators except very determined cats. According to Mrs Rosemary Howat in Hove, her moggy has already given up after being dive-bombed and screeched at. In 2002 Mr Wilfred Roby, an 80-year-old retired ambulance driver from Anglesey, died when he was attacked by a gull in his garden. It was a heart attack brought on by surprise, so it wasn't like he was pecked to death, but that's of little comfort to the bereaved.

There are circumstances where gulls can be legally killed, or the nests moved. The licencing is now from Natural England which held a consultation in 2009 and revised their guidelines. They received helpful advice from conservation and wildlife groups such as the RSPB, who provided a summary of the general legal position:

"Licences issued under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) are bound by the requirements of EU Council Directive 79/409/EEC (the Birds Directive) on the conservation of wild birds. Member states are required to establish (Article 5) a general system of protection for all birds referred to in Article 1 of the Directive, including the prohibition of deliberate killing or capture. They are also required to prohibit (Article 8/Annex IV(a)) all means of non-selective capture or killing including, explicitly, 'traps'. Member states may, however, derogate (Article 9) from the provisions of Articles 5 and 8 inter alia in the interests of public health and safety, to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and water, and for the protection of fauna and flora. This may be done only in the absence of another satisfactory solution and if clearly defined terms and conditions are met."

Which is an awfully long way of saying: 'don't kill wild birds, except if you absolutely have to in order to protect something else which deserves protection more, and you can't avoid the killing'. No quarrel with that; the RSPB and English Nature are both wildlife protecting groups, not pet-keepers.

English Nature then issued general guidance notes about gull-control, summarizing the changes.

"These changes included the removal of the herring gull and great black-backed gull species from general licences (the status of lesser black-backed gull was unaffected).... Natural England has decided that it is appropriate to control the scale of killing under licences. Therefore, with some exceptions (for example, air safety and herring gull egg control in urban areas for public health and safety) action against both species will now be authorised via individual licences. This approach will help to ensure that killing is only undertaken where strictly necessary. It will also allow Natural England to limit the number of birds killed".

In summary: gulls can be killed under general licence from English Nature (a power devolved from DEFRA), but it they are of the named species herring or greater black-backed, (not the lesser black-backed) you have to get an individual licence which means showing there is no alternative to destroying the adult bird. If you are the manager of an airport this will be granted but otherwise the next step down is to deal with the eggs.

Rather than break them or remove the nest, eggs are oiled so that they never hatch, but the birds sit on them and don't attempt to nest and lay eggs elsewhere - at least until they realize that they are wasting their time. It's a effective form of population control. Keep that up for a few years where you don't want the gulls nesting and they'll soon get the message; go find a proper cliff . Don't forget to put up spikes so that they don't try to come back again. And stop putting food out for them.

There is another option based on an old craft and which preserves both breeds and skills. Falconry. It's already used in seagull control by professional falconers in Eastbourne. It happens that last week the RSPB were disappointed to have to abandon plans to re-introduce the Sea Eagle to the Suffolk coast, when English Nature withdrew the half-a-million pound funding, and there was fierce opposition from farming groups. There is an opportunity here.

Admittedly it wouldn't be a wild eagle, but a trained hunting eagle would be better than nothing. They would give the tourists a magnificent free show and it would be a proper job for a person in these difficult times, present no danger to livestock, and the cost could be met out of the savings on clearing up seagull guano. Indeed, it doesn't even violate the intention of the legislation; the eagle doesn't so much hunt the gull as intimidate it in to getting the hell outta town.

Suffolk's loss could be Eastbourne, Peacehaven, Hove and Brighton's gain.

Wednesday 16 June 2010


Down to Ely to watch the Royal Anglian Regiment's Homecoming parade, this being the first battalion, The Vikings.

The weather was perfect; warm but not hot and with a lazy breeze. Cardigan weather for the casual, blazers and Panama hats for the more formal. What was surprising was the level of security and the police looking nervous, attending with camera vans. Having seen yesterday's coverage from East London, that might explain their fretfulness.

The Royal Anglians have the Freedom of the City, which means they do all the hard PR work of marching and carrying weapons while the folk clap politely and stand the poor devils a tea and sandwiches reception but only after they've performed for the kiddies, listened to the big-wigs whilst shouldering a rifle, waited for the veterans of the British Legion to form up, and risked their necks on the slippery stones of the nave of Ely Cathedral where their parade boots struggle to get a grip.

The market square and approach roads were gratifyingly full; the police did civilian crowd management while quietly-placed soldiers stood at the corners of the square watching, checking for trouble. Fortunately it is a place with plenty of exits; if you had to clear the area it wouldn't be difficult to do so but it could take a little while considering the number of slow-moving elderly and disabled people.

In the event nothing untoward happened, the crowd were happy to see the Regiment and were reminded that these are not clones grown in a lab somewhere; these fighters are from our families.

People with reservations about the conduct of the war behaved themselves in the traditional and correct fashion of these parts; they scowled and chose which statements to applaud. But they turned out to make it clear: whatever your political views, the soldiers are owed respect. It is high time that sentiment was demonstrated by guaranteeing the welfare of soldiers' families if the worst happens, and full support whatever else happens. It is relatively simple to enlist sympathy for the wounded and physically disabled where we can see the damage, but too many ex-service people are amongst the homeless, addicted or psychologically incapacitated.

Even when money is tight - especially when money is tight - it is reasonable to pick and choose your priorities for social care and these soldiers have earned their place at the head of the queue.

In the meantime, the Royal Anglian Regiment Benevolent Charity tries to respond within 24 hours to requests for help for former members and their families, which may make all the difference in a critical situation. You may care to donate money or sponsor a charity walker in July. If you are in East Anglia anytime between 16-25 July, you may wish to join the walk for a while and make a donation to do so.

Monday 14 June 2010

It's only a coffee-table, Ingrid.

A coffee table needed cleaning and polishing. I read that vegetable oil was as good a cleaner as anything else. That didn't sound right, so I checked online and blundered in to a huge professional argument where people bandy words such as "disaster" and the word 'Philistine' hisses beneath the genteel rhetoric of furniture restoration.

The major controversy is the Conservators -v- Modernists. The Conservators' motto is "nothing you can't reverse" which sounds sensible. They do not like anything in fine wood finishing which has happened since 1930, with the exception of the vacuum cleaner with a soft brush. They are such purists, they do not like what happened in the entire Victorian period. Do not say "linseed oil" to these people, except in relation to cricket bats.

The Modernist thinking is that technology has moved on, and while material ought to be matched to period in restoration, there's nothing spiritually wrong in using new wax and solvent blends, especially as they are extremely consistent products which produce stable, tough surfaces even when applied by amateurs. Not every house has to be a museum.

What they were broadly agreed about was that the third, and perhaps the largest group of consumers of wood cleaners and polishes - that's us, householders - are chumps who have been had over for years by polish manufacturers, and deserve to live in a world of chipboard and plastic laminates for our crimes against furniture.

First distinguish cleaning, which is the matter of removing dust or other things you don't want on your furniture, from polishing, which is either smoothing the existing surface or adding a removable coating which acts as an ablative shield.

The vacuum cleaner with a soft brush is a boon. The aim is to remove the dust. If the surface of the piece is water-soluble then it gets wiped with a dry lint-free cloth, but a waxed surface can be wiped with a slightly damp cloth, if it is dried immediately. A very dirty item - perhaps reclaimed from a garage - may have to be washed. The Conservator's choice is Vulpex liquid soap. If it's more difficult than that, especially if you suspect you have a piece which has been French polished, then don't muck about with it. If it turns out to be a water-sensitive surface and you'll end up causing even more damage. Leave it to a specialist and remind yourself that furniture should reflect life.

Anyway, what's wrong with a few scratches, rings or mottling? So long as things are not sticky with spilt drinks, it is a marketing hype that surfaces have to be mirror-perfect and it will drive you bonkers trying to achieve it. Also bollocks are terms like 'feed your wood' and 'prevent waxy build-up"; these are emotional hooks which are designed to get fools like me to part with pounds for a product which costs pennies and may ultimately be more of a problem by the time it has reacted with the existing finish, got in to the wood and discoloured it, or turned gloopy and stuck to the dust in the air. The simplest way to look after your furniture is to vacuum more frequently and wipe over with a nice dry, lint-free duster. That's it. Job jobbed for the most part. Go on, go out and enjoy the money you just saved.

However, you might want to keep a household polish as a protective coating, so which one?

Number one hatred was any polish with silicones in it. They make dusters glide but they get in to any wood finish and make it cloudy. When the Conservators take over the world, these products will be treated like Class A drugs, available only on prescription to automotive workshops. Even the Modernists don't like these in the domestic environment; they regard them as escaping convicts, just waiting to get in to good pieces and ruin them. They were also agreed that they didn't trust the cream polishes which might involve water. For one thing you don't know exactly what is in them, for another any 'wet' finish, whether oil or water, is likely to be softer for longer and will make dust stick to it. In certain situations a cloth with a smear of oil can be used to clean a surface in the same manner as cleaning make-up off the skin, but the oil will have to be polished away immediately. They didn't care for aerosols; you don't know how they are going to behave over time but it's a fair bet that this will be 'badly'.

The major agreement was that furniture - except French polished and lacquer pieces which are already finished - is best protected by a thin layer of a hard wax paste which lays on the surface can can be removed. That's the point; you revive the sheen by rubbing away a thin layer of wax until the coat is all gone, then you re-coat. Polishing in the sense of applying a coat should only be necessary twice a year. That's why you don't get waxy build-up; you are always removing it.

The formulations thereafter illustrate the religious differences. The Cons will expect a varnish (based on oils) as colour topped off with a hardened beeswax coat. The Mods will point out the advantages of polyurethane stains and sealants, protected by a coat of microcrystalline wax. In general, the modern formulations tend to be harder and are easy to use.

It isn't possible to make a modern microcrystalline wax polish at home economically or even safely. It means mucking about with dissolving petroleum-derived wax powder and other waxes in toluene. It's much quicker and cheaper to just buy a tin of Renaissance wax and that way you'll get a stable, standardized, repeatable product which won't scramble your brain. Yes, you'll have to rub it on, wait for it to dry, then buff it with a clean cloth, but it won't be difficult, it only takes a few minutes. Fans of the Renaissance range argue that it is even less reactive than traditional polishes, so fulfilling the requirement of not changing anything.

If you are a stickler for tradition be careful of the marketing on some polishes. Yes, there is bound to be beeswax in a product, but there is dispute about what else is allowable in there. The general objection is that things which make the polish easy to spread also make it a soft goo which never dries properly, is likely to penetrate the wood and change the colour, and will darken over time. This is disputed by the linseed and soap fans, who say that if it was good enough for Queen Victoria to have in her polishes, it's good enough for us.

If you like household alchemy, this is the simplest recipe for beeswax paste polish.
Melt 3 parts beeswax with 1 part carnauba wax.
Remove from heat, stir in 3 parts of turpentine.

The carnauba wax is crucial; it is what makes the coating hard. You could also add a few drops of lavendar oil for fragrance. When heating wax, don't do it directly; use a basin in a pan of water. If you have one, a slow cooker makes the perfect bath which keeps the water even and below boiling point. This recipe contains no linseed oil in deference to the conservation controversy, however best-selling Sheraton Beeswax Balsam, for example, contains linseed oil and has many fans.

Having compared the technologies, I'll treat myself to a Care Kit, if I can find a UK stockist.

Sunday 13 June 2010

The Way We Were

"Substantial and sustained progress across the economy and public sector is breaking down barriers to essential opportunities for all, according to the 2005 Strategic Audit from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. " The report puts the facts of the UK’s performance in the public domain in a clear and coherent way," said David Miliband, Minister for the Cabinet Office. "Britain has never had a better chance to meet the challenges of the modern world. Thanks to the foundations laid since 1997, we are making prosperity, security and opportunity realistic goals for the British people."

Cabinet Office Press Release 24 February 2005

This was cobblers but in the run-up to the May election that year the credit bubble was being inflated to produce a general feel-good factor. Nobody wanted to hear that their house was not worth what they hoped, or that a degree in a so-so subject might not be worth £20k. Still, there was unease growing; the Iraq war had been on for two years and the party was shrinking in popularity. Labour won in May 2005 because the public still fancied Tony Blair more than the alternatives.

In September 2005 Mr Wolfgang was manhandled out of the Labour Party Conference and threatened under the Terrorism Act. The mask slipped and for a moment everyone saw the face beneath. At that point every Labour Party member should have torn up their party card and stuffed them up Jack Straw's behind, where he should already have shoved his own, signalling to the wider electorate that they at least had seen the light. They did not; like David Miliband they sincerely wanted to believe that the con was true, assuming that he did believe it and was not telling lies.

Five years later David Miliband is the favourite to win the leadership of the party - not that it matters - but he is still subject to the same delusions. "I think I can turn dreams into reality" he assured the Times, which is a forgivable turn of phrase in a young hopeful on a talent show trying to express the virtue in aspirations and getting the words muddled. In a politician taking over a collapsing party, it's unrealistic guff.

There is a difference between giving people hope and leadership or merely talking out of your arse. The difference lies in whether the person has appreciated the underlying reality of a situation. That's not easy; evidence can be interpreted about the world in several ways and it is possible to be either over-optimistic or pessimistic.

It is also observed often enough that the optimists tend to come out of things better in terms of health and property, so it is rational for Miliband to be f-wittedly cheery simply because talking out of your arse pays off more often than can reasonably be predicted.