Thursday, April 29, 2004

While building the cloakroom

I've been building a downstairs cloakroom lately.

The warm weather we had was glorious, even the fetid atmosphere that sat over us on Tuesday that ended in a deluge with thunder and lightning. Today the weather has gone back to British best. Overcast, cool, breezing, very North Atlantic. Grey, grey, grey.

Yesterday I was singing and dancing and hammering and building and thinking I could start loving again, and thinking how dangerous such thoughts could be.

Today, I think I'd like to be coddled and tended to by servants.

I am like a cactus, think I. I don't ask for much water (e.g. money). I don't look big up top, but my roots spread far and wide in my own search for nourishment. I don't have a big strong trunk, but being juicy and succulent, I would be eaten alive if I didn't have my prickly spines to protect me. When in my correct element, my fruits are abundant and enjoyed by all passersby.

So what the hell is a cactus doing living in a damp greenhouse (eg. this London climate), where it is least likely to survive? Vulnerable to and attacked by rot and pestilence.

The rot that floats about in and spreads through the air (eg. our media), and rests in the decaying matter that has been shed by wasteful plants that have leaves (eg. the old fallen ideas of the loud squanderers). This is not even rot that produces beautiful mushrooms (eg. the exciting extremes of a decadent society), but lives invisibly and seeks vulnerable hosts like me to feed off parasitically.

The pestilence of blood-sucking aphids, and of soil larvae that emerge to burrow into my roots.

What masochist am I that I should choose to live here?


Like many in my generation, I was in the Seventies and Eighties taught that when it comes to buildings and furniture, old is always better. This movement was probably a reaction to the shabby construction and manufacturing standards that existed in the Fifties and Sixties here. Hence there was a massive trend to restore Victorian houses and buy up anything that was antique. This did great business for Sotheby's and Christie's and neighbourhoods where the owners wanted to fuck off to Majorca.

Well, not everything Victorian was always excellent. I've had to demolish a partition wall to install a doorway for my new cloakroom. This is a 1905 house. After taking off the plaster to reveal the brickwork, I discovered ye olde construction technique that I've heard other people complain about over the years. The brickwork was not in an interlocking pattern that you would expect. In fact, there were vertical timbers every 18 inches (2 brick lengths), and horizontal planks every 4 layers of bricks. In other words, this was actually a timber partition wall with brick infill. The heavier solid expensive bricks were used only on the bottom third of the wall, with the cheaper Swiss Cheese bricks used up on top.

Of course, the mortar was of lime, not of Portland cement, and the bricks all came out with scarcely any encouragement. For those of you who live and use everything around you without bothering to find out where it comes from: Portland cement, the very glue of your built environment, was only invented in the late 19th century. Prior to that, how did anybody build things, even in Roman times, you should wonder? They used lime, which is made from limestone, which is still in use today and which has some advantages, but adhesive strength is not one of them.

Being an analytical sort of person, I puzzled about why they used this wood and brick technique for building a wall. After all, there had to be a reason, and it had to be about money, which had to be about saving time. (These are the constants that run through history, while all else might change). And I figured it out. Lime mortar is quite sloppy, and takes many days or weeks to cure to a reasonably hard state. It does not achieve its full strength for many months. This is unlike Portland cement used today, which is quite hard after only one day. You can't pile bricks up with lime mortar quickly without worrying that the mortar will squish out at the bottom. So you have to put in horizontal timbers to prop up the bricks while they're setting. Then you need vertical timbers to hold up the horizontal timbers.

Just as well I gave up on the romance of Victoriana years ago. I couldn't afford to do it properly, anyway.

Get a load of this blog, which comes out of prison - Clearly Calm. It's going into my blogroll! Geez, they get to use Moveable type, money, money, money. Which reminds me that I saw a whole load of jobs going in the prison at Ashstead Middlesex, paying generous salaries for cooks and gardeners, because they required you to work with/supervise the prisoners. Money, money, money....

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