Friday, 10 June 2011

Things I miss

The Summer Palace
This summer of homelessness - even if I chose it, even if it is a gamble which still may pay off with something wonderful - has been tougher than I expected. This essay is to acknowledge that, and to celebrate those aspects of our modern western lives which actually are to be valued. So here's a list of things I miss...

Being warm

It's a fortnight before midsummer, late morning, and my fingers are so cold as I type this that the joints hurt. My bedding is damp again, not because of rain driving in - except during the big storm, it hasn't - but just because of the humidity in the air. I do have a little woodstove - borrowed - but because I have no walls it's ineffective either at raising the temperature or at cooking, so I don't use it much.

Closely related to being warm,

Hot water on tap

I'm a person who likes to be clean. I like to have a hot bath every night. I like to wash my dishes in hot water. Lots of hot water. Here, I haul every drop of water I use - at minimum from the water trough on the far side of my croft, but in practice usually from the farm, because the trough is open and therefore not clean. I use the wheelbarrow, so I'm not actually carrying it, but it's still five hundred metres over the hilltop; hard work. To heat it, I have my small kettle and my small gas stove. A cupful or two is easy to heat. A bathful (even if I had a bath, which I don't)? Impossible.

And next down the list

Dry boots

I have boots, of course. I have two pairs of boots which cope reasonably well with wet weather. But in the long periods of wet weather I've had I've twice got to the point where both pairs were wet. Boots are important. Wet boots are miserable. And drying boots out once they're wet comes back to being warm.

These are the critical things. Of course, there are things I have which if I lacked them would be critical. I can get clean water. I can afford food. I have friends. I have the National Health Service. And I do have security of tenure - I own this land, no-one can throw me off it. Less critically, but contributing to my quality of life, I also have technology - my laptop, my phone, my camera - and somewhere I can go to recharge their batteries.

Less important stuff

So having dealt with the critical things, what are the other things I miss?

Water on tap

Digging a track down the field and laying in a water pipe is going to cost a big chunk of the money I have, and it can't be a priority. I may not be able to do it straight off. But using water without having to think about whether there's enough, whether it will run out, what the cost of fetching it will be... that's a luxury.

Artificial light

OK, I have a storm lantern. Just at present it's out of oil and I ought to get more but haven't. But it doesn't throw a lot of light anyway, so I don't use it much... of course, it's summer. Of course, it never really gets dark at this time of year. In winter, artificial light may feel more important. Just at present, it's surprisingly minor. But... over the year as a whole... over the year as a whole, rather to be desired.


I have had a computer network connection into my home since 1984. Then, it was a 300 baud modem; then, it didn't connect to the Internet, because JANET had not yet been connected to the Internet; JANET ran on coloured books over X.25 rather than on TCP/IP. I used network chat to communicate with my profoundly deaf tutor. Later, I ran UUCP over a 2800 baud modem; it wasn't until 1993 that I had a PPP connection feeding real-time Internet protocol - and the then new Web - into my home.

Of course, I still have a network connection. The GPRS connection that my phone provides is far faster than those old modems. But in the meantime, the Web has developed to assume fast links. Web pages are graphics heavy, and call down complex JavaScript libraries or Flash animations. Browsing the Web on a slow connection is far more painful than it was seventeen years ago. I don't need a broadband link. I can live without it. But... it would be nice.


To get broadband here, I'm going to have to relay wifi over the hill. That means I'd need electricity in two places - one on the hilltop to drive the relay, and one in my home to receive it. Trecking over the hill to recharge laptop and phone batteries once a day - as I do now - won't cut it. On the other hand a mains connection is out of the question, since I can't afford one, let alone two. Laying cable is a non-starter, not only because of cost but also because of lightning strike issues. The hilltop relay can probably be solar powered, and reasonably low cost. But if I'm going to power a transciever at my home, I might as well have electricity for other purposes - powering a computer, for one; powering a bit of electric light, for another. So a wind turbine of about 1600 watts - and batteries to buffer its output - is the sensible way to go. And that doesn't come cheap. So electricity is a nice to have. It isn't a priority. But I would like it.
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