Monday, 5 March 2012

Living in the Winter Palace, part two


This is (now) a blog (mostly) about building a house. But it's a blog about my life, and my life impacts on building the house. So I'm going to digress briefly; bear with me, it is relevant.

Having spent a great deal of my adolescence in and out of mental hospital, I have an intense dislike of psychiatric drugs. In my adult life, despite three major breakdowns, I'd always refused them; until the autumn of 2010, when, out of desperation, I asked my doctor for anti-depressants. They got me through the crisis of having to sell my home, but I stopped using them as soon as I felt I could. However, in November of 2011 things were worse. I had the shell of my new home up, but I was out of money, and my ability to cope with strangers was almost nil. I again asked my doctor to prescribe anti-depressants. I went, almost inarticulate, to the Citizens' Advice Bureau to ask for help applying for social security benefits; the volunteers there were extremely patient with me, and, in the course of talking to me, asked what I was doing for food. I admitted that I didn't have any, and they gave me a food parcel - including, bless them, food for the cats. I accepted it, gratefully. That's as low as I've ever been. I don't want to go there again; although, having said that, swallowing my pride and going to the Citizens' Advice was a positive step in itself.

I had considered trying to get a job stacking shelves in a supermarket, or something similar; and decided not to, because I thought (and my doctor agreed) that I couldn't cope with it.

And then, completely out of the blue, before the Department of Work and Pensions could even respond to my application, a friend rang up with news of a job in Dumfries which would have been, had I been well, perfect for me: my own skills, my own preferred choice of tools, and a very generous amount of money being offered. My initial thought was that I shouldn't even apply, because if I got the job I would inevitably fail, let my employers down, and further undermine my own self confidence. However, I did apply, and managed, through the interview, to be fairly articulate. I was offered a six month contract. I said I could only work three days a week for the first month, because of finishing my house. That was sort-of true, of course; I was finishing my house. But the real reason was to give myself a more gentle reintroduction to the world of work. I was pretty certain I'd fail.

All through my period of unemployment I'd been scrupulously careful to stay out of overdraft, but now I needed to eat and to be able to put fuel in the car to get to work. So I deliberately used my overdraft. As soon as I'd been working long enough that I was owed sufficient to cover it, I...

OK, so. Manufactured doors and windows come in standard sizes. Patio doors come in a number of standard sizes including eight feet wide by seven feet high. That fact has been built into my design thinking since the original sousterran design. So the portal in the front of this building was made to accommodate a eight foot by seven foot unit. Last November, this portal was closed only by a tarpaulin curtain, and that's how I expected it would remain all winter. I could live with that. But real glass which would let daylight in would be so much better. You can get patio door units framed in uPVC, of course. They're relatively inexpensive. For twice as much, you can get doors framed in 'engineered timber' covered in oak veneer. For twice as much again, you can get doors with real solid oak frames. In an ideal world I would have solid oak; but in early December I used my credit card to buy two enormous luxuries: oak veneered doors, and a steel bathtub, the first significant fruits of my employment.

Having doors to close out the weather was obviously a real improvement; having real glass to let in light, likewise. But for me the bath was equally important. I like to be clean, and, still more, I find long, hot baths relaxing and restoring.

There's a wee design quirk about my bath which pleases me greatly. This is a very small house, and it's a one person house. It was always the plan that the bath would be immediately behind the sink unit. It would, I planned, make the plumbing simpler. Well, or course it would. But it was even simpler than I expected. I had bought the cheapest mixer tap I could get for the kitchen sink, and I'd bought a mixer only because it was cheaper than two separate taps. I didn't know, when I bought it, that it had a swivel mechanism. I didn't think about it. But it does, and, because the bath is immediately behind the sink unit, you can swivel the tap round to fill the bath. It looks like a very clever piece of design, but in fact it's a happy accident.

Straw walls have a number of problems. Firstly - and this was quickly evident - they shed straw and dust, to the extent that particles of straw get into everything. Also - in a house heated by a wood stove and lit by lanterns and candles - they're vulnerable to fire. So it's necessary to seal them. The most usual way to seal them is with a lime mortar (lime, not cement, because a cement mortar seals any damp in and the bales can rot inside the mortar seal). But a cheaper alternative is clay, and because when I started on the walls the budget was extremely tight, I'd decided to use clay. It took a very long time to arrive, because through most of the winter the ground was too soft and wet to get a heavily laden trailer over the hill; but in early February we had a few days of hard frost, and Angus, who'd dug the clay for me, was able to deliver it.

I'd thought of a number of things to do to get the clay on the walls. I'd planned a big tub in which the clay could be trampled with water to get it soft enough and even in texture. I'd bought a number of different floats and trowels to apply it with. Some people had advised me to take a hedge trimmer or even a chainsaw to the walls to get them as flat as possible. In the end none of these things proved necessary. The best way to get the clay into the walls proved to be just to push it in with your hands; and the clay proved to be naturally fairly homogenous and plastic. By the end of February - which is to say this last week - the clay on the interior walls was complete. It's now drying; once it's dry, it will get a coat of limewash, and then I can (at last) move my furniture in. Claying the walls was an intensely dirty job, and it was inevitable that the floor got extremely dirty. I thought it unlikely that I'd be able to clean it up again without sanding it off, but to my surprise and delight a bit of work with a mop got it back to good condition. Let's hear it for the old school floor! It always was my intention at some stage in the future to sand off the floor and oil it, but to do that would be to lose its arcane pattern of randomised gym lines; I'm now thinking I may just use polish on it.

Of course, claying the interior walls was not all I achieved in February: I now have a proper back window, not quite as posh as my front window but still a great improvement over polythene. My bedroom walls are now panelled on the inside. Although I don't yet have my wind turbine and consequently don't yet have electricity, I've nearly completed the wiring. I've floored the storage areas in the eaves. But it is the clay that's made the biggest difference: with the walls rendered and the floor clean, the winter palace feels much less like a building site and much more like a home.

I'm not yet finished. The next priority is the wind turbine; after that, I need some finish for the clay walls that will make them less dusty. But then - by the end of March, I hope - the interior will be substantially done, and I shall be able to move my furniture in. That will be a milestone. There are other milestones beyond that - glazing for the front gable, the render of the outside walls, a more salubrious lavatory - but having my furniture, my books, my computer once again in my home will be a step change in my comfort, and will mark, clearly, the beginning of the end of what has been a very tough couple of years. Life is getting better, and will soon, with any reasonable sort of luck, be good.

This job, of course, may not last for ever; my present contract lasts only until May. But by May I shall have earned enough to make this house extremely comfortable, to fence my land, to plant some more trees, possibly to buy myself some cattle, and to put some aside to pay my taxes and to live on through the summer; so if my contract isn't renewed it's no tragedy. Furthermore, if my contract is not renewed, I've regained confidence in my ability to hold down a job, and do it reasonably well.

So, to go back to the beginning: in the beginning, I was not coping. I was, in strict medical terms, insane. Am I now sane? As I've said before, I'm not really persuaded by modern psychiatry's account of mental illness. All human life is ultimately performance, and the psychiatrist's art borrows much from ornithology and from drama criticism. If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck; if you can give a convincing performance, over an extended period, of sanity, you're sane. I'm still the same person I was with the same vulnerabilities and weaknesses, but over the past couple of months I've performed consistently well enough to not worry my colleagues - and, more significantly, to earn my not inconsiderable wage. Of course, it helps that they don't know me well enough to know how much less well than my best I'm performing. But the very fact that I'm able to give a convincing performance of coping raises my self confidence and makes it easier for me to cope, and consequently my performance is improving. Furthermore, to have got through the dark of the year with improving performance is an achievement in itself, and that, too, increases my self confidence. The anti-depressants? I stopped taking them at Christmas. I have, as I mentioned before, an intense dislike of psychiatric drugs.
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