Sunday, 18 June 2017

My tsundoku shame, and thoughts on blogging, and being a backwards burrowing bookworm

I am interrupting my planned cat and loosely 'perfume'-related post - so loose that the 'p' word has to be couched in inverted commas - plus I can't be technically 'interrupting' a post I hadn't started writing - to bring you some shock news about my book reading rate in the past 8 years, which also happens to be getting on for the time I have been blogging. I keep a 'book diary', you see, in which I write the year and month when I finish each title I read, so the data is there in all its inglory, which if it wasn't a word before, is now.

The topline is that in those 8 years I have read a paltry 48 books, or 6 per year on average. The rate varies between 1 book in 2012 (when I split up with Mr Bonkers and moved house) to 12 in 2015, for reasons that are not immediately apparent.

I posted this alarming statistic on Facebook, and two friends replied, one of whom has a speed reading rate that would blow me out of the water!

"56 pages an hour is my average rate. 12 hours a week is also a good average. 100 books a year allowing for 336 pages per book."

I love the precision of '336 pages'...that figure didn't come out of nowhere either, I sense, ditto '56 pages an hour'. I don't know for sure, but have a feeling my hourly rate might be nearer 20 pages. Plus there is the whole issue of print size and line height. I own some books which I think I might fancy reading, but as soon as I open them and see how densely covered in tiny type the pages are, I promptly shut them again, however engrossing they might otherwise be!

I don't watch much TV - or DVDs - either!

Another friend, who is a short story writer, posted:

"31 so far this year for me, thanks to having joined the FB group Read 100 books in 2017. Unlikely I'll manage the full 100, though."

So whilst not as voracious a bookworm as the first friend, she is still managing to read my annual average in a month, near as dammit.

I scratched my head for a while, puzzling at the massive disparity between these friends' reading rates and my own, before it dawned on me that blogging throughout that period will have accounted for a fair chunk of time...probably something of the order of 3,500 hours at a guess, which equates to two years in 'working week' terms, assuming no holiday allowance. But that still leaves the other six, haha, so further factors must also be at work.

For example, I recently discovered that I suffer from dry eye syndrome, and I do definitely struggle more with my eyesight for close work, despite having been told my prescription hasn't really changed in recent years. I don't own a pair of reading glasses as such, mind, and could probably do with one. For now, I am using an old pair of distance glasses from 15 years ago, which are not a bad substitute! And there was also the trouble with my old bath, which never seemed to keep the water hot for more than about five minutes, an ambient temperature not exactly conducing to a 'wallow and read' habit.

Then just this morning, it occurred to me to see if I had kept any records prior to 2008, and sure enough I had...all the way back to 2002 in fact. I got the idea off my late mother, about the meaning of whose system of ticks and crosses we can but speculate. She also noted where she got the tip off from to read a particular book, which ranges from The Times, to the 'S.T' - which I am going to assume is The Sunday Times - to The Oldie and The Spectator - plus occasional mentions of me!

Mother's book diary

And the upshot of my analysis of my own previous book diary is as revealing as it is concerning. In the 7 years between 2002 and 2008 I read 157 books(!), equating to 22.5 a year, versus my 6 a year nowadays. That is almost four times as many. And I was working A LOT more than I do today. I could imagine I got through a good few books on my trips away, in the absence of any human interaction. And also on those kind of beach-y holidays I don't take anymore.

So that is all rather sobering to put it mildly. Ironically, the fact that I read so little - I don't even take a newspaper now, which used to occupy entire weekends back in the day - doesn't seem to stop me buying books. ;) Why, only yesterday I bagged four for just over a fiver in Oxfam: two first editions, a Helen Dunmore that was new to me (in honour of her recent demise), and a Louise Doughty (on the premise that anything written by the author of the incomparable Apple Tree Yard simply had to be worth a punt!).

This compulsion to buy books is a trait I inherited from my father. At his death, he was virtually entombed by books in his tiny flat: they were piled high in the middle of the living room like the footings of an unfinished building, and the floor to ceiling bookcases in every room were double or triple stacked. There were books under the bed and in the bathroom, and none of the doors opened more than a crack because of a book-related obstruction lurking immediately behind. His library ended up filling 140 large cardboard removal boxes, which are in my brother's attic, still largely waiting to be sorted and sold, and are one of the subjects of this post from last September.


So yes, I am my father's daughter, and have tsundokus dotted all over the house, even if none of the gangways are impeded as such. ;) I regularly break them up into smaller piles so as not to frighten the horses, but the house is silting up with unread books all the same. I tell myself I will read them when I am retired, even though the government keeps moving the glimmering mirage of the state pension further off into the far distance. Hey, I have so little work at the moment that I am semi-retired already. Make that three quarters-retired even! And still I don't read.

No, I think the reason for my woeful book reading rate is partly the blogging, for sure, but it will also have a lot to do with social media and my propensity to fritter away time, and make a meal - and heavy weather! - of the simplest of chores. I have taken time wasting to the rarefied level of an Olympian sport. They say that mothers of new borns are the most productive people of all, getting more done in the odd 15 minutes they can snatch while the baby is napping than people like me achieve in a week.

And to make matters worse, I joined Instagram last week! I agree that the steady procession of arty photos people post on there is pleasingly restful, but I still prefer the verbal cut and thrust of Facebook, and I could never ever reconcile myself to that annoying thicket of hashtags. So I may not be on there for long...

I would be really interested to know what your reading rates are like, and whether they have changed lately.

If so, what do you put that down to? 

Some of these are admittedly hotel guides and dictionaries

Me, I am off to start 'The Trouble With Goats and Sheep', by Joanna Cannon, which was a birthday present from my friend Gillie. In a surprise turn of events, Joanna is helping out at her Alzheimer's choir group. I don't know what has brought her to Stafford.

Now I would lie in the sun for a bit, but I have 100 chemical and cosmetic allergens taped to my back, and the nurse was most insistent that I 'stay cool!'. Hopefully this will confirm the source of my eyelid eczema and may well prompt a further post on the matter.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Baz Luhrmann's Sunscreen: do as he says, not as I do - plus wistful thoughts on Colladeen Visage, and other sunburn remedies

Burning in progress!
The other day, in the garden of a cafe in a Birmingham suburb, I aged ten years in a single lunchtime. It was a long and lazy lunch, but that's still some fast forwarding of the natural ageing process. Not even the delicious loaf of artisan baked rye bread I took home with me could make up for the damage I had inadvertently done to myself. And all because I forgot to apply sunscreen - or rather, I had applied a moisturiser with SPF30 that morning, which on closer - and retrospective - inspection of its crimped edge, turned out to have expired last September.

I had come down to Brum with my friend Gillie, to meet our new friend Maureen, a crime writer who lives nearby. The weather was intermittently sunny and cloudy, with a light wind. When the sun came out it did feel hot on my face, but I thought I was protected...or rather, I was so engrossed in our animated and wide-ranging conversation that I didn't really think at all.

A few days later, after a brief phase of redness on my cheekbones and under-eye puffiness, I was left with a lattice of new wrinkles under each eye that weren't there before. When I used to smile, I'd just have a little pouch of fat form under each eye, while the skin below that was near enough smooth. Ironically, the photographer at my godson's wedding the other weekend remarked on this very fact. Well, sadly that is no longer the case...or not when I smile. 'So don't smile!' volunteered ex-Mr Bonkers helpfully. And to be fair I don't really feel like smiling much at the moment. I am too busy kicking myself for this latest sun-related folly, the last one being in 2001 when I fell asleep in the sun on a bench, and woke up with swollen eyelids like angry red balloons. They eventually imploded - like punctured balloons indeed - but that incident kickstarted the crepeyness of my upper eyelids that is slowly worsening over time. Oddly it doesn't bother me nearly as much as what is now going on underneath my eyes.

Me (with makeup) a year ago. My skin certainly is 'dryer' now!

I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this latest lapse, for I am a person with appalling 'form' for self-abuse in the sun. In the 70s, a Health & Safety-free decade, as I recall, I used to use Factor 2 sun tan lotion on my body and Factor 4 on my face. As a hedonistic teenager I would spend all day in the sun, and when I went into the exam hall to sit my university finals, the staff jokingly asked me for my passport, a rather politically incorrect reference to the deep bronze colour I had turned thanks to my al fresco revision. In the early 90s, I remember being shocked and indignant on a visit to Australia to find that Factor 8 was the lowest strength of sun cream on sale over there at the time.

And now the laugh is on me...I should have listened to Baz, I should have had Undina with me(!), urging me to keep to the shade with her. My friend Suzanne is also very sun-aware, and would surely have plonked a big floppy sunhat on my head, after ensuring I was slathered in SPF50. As it is, I am slathered in coconut oil (at her suggestion) in a bid to rehydrate the taut, dehydrated delta where the new wrinkles lurk.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2007, wear sunscreen
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it
The long term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists
Whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
Than my own meandering experience, I will dispense this advice now"

Baz Luhrmann: Sunscreen

So yes, on to the wistful thoughts part...I recently started taking Colladeen Visage, which doesn't contain collagen, as the name might suggest, but rather a selection of collagen-boosting natural plant compounds that can supposedly 'play a protective role against the damaging effects of sunlight on skin'. The leaflet that comes with the tablets goes on to say: 'But please note: Colladeen Visage should only be used as an additional protection against sun damage. It certainly does not replace your normal sun protection regime.' Hmm, I think I should have listened to the makers of Colladeen too!

I should explain that the 'Visage' version of Colladeen differs from the regular one through the addition of lutein as well as anthocyanidins and OPCs. I know, I had to look them up too, They are bioflavonoids of some kind, basically plant extracts with antioxidant properties. Here's a link to all the different types, though I have to say it largely washes over me. The PR blurb for Colladeen Visage continues to mock and reassure the user in one deft (sun-) stroke:

"UV rays and over-exposure to the sun can be especially harmful to our skin, and it’s nice to know that there is a supplement which can help provide an internal SPF and help skin cope better with exposure to sunlight."

So I haven't half put it through its paces then!

Me, no makeup, not smiling - bags under the eyes!

Colladeen Visage does do well in consumer reviews: it got 88/100 in this survey in Good Housekeeping, for example. And I can honestly say I did feel my skin was smoother - (in a further ironic twist) particularly the under eye area - in the month or so that I had been taking it before this accident. In fact one day I woke up and the tautness of my skin actually looked as though I had had a face lift overnight! I have never seen anything like it, and though that effect kind of subsided somewhat over time, I really do think something was going on at a 'cellular level', as the dermatologists say. ;)

Me, no makeup, smiling - multiple wrinkles

(Editor's note: I promise I have other, grimmer-looking photos than these, but can't bring myself to show you in case the act of publishing them sets the wrinkles 'in stone'!)

And now it is a week and a half since that day in Brum, and I am carrying on with the Colladeen Visage, in the hope that it can mitigate the damage even after the fact, ditto the coconut oil, while also applying that Dr Organic Manuka Honey Rescue cream I mentioned in my eczema post. It is soothing and has the right amount of richness for my ultra parched skin. Finally, I have ordered some organic, cold pressed rosehip oil, which is supposed to have healing properties.

It may be too early to tell to what extent I can reverse the ill effects of that one act of thoughtlessness, though I will report back if these latest interventions seem to have helped. I think there may even have been a slight improvement since these photos were taken a few days ago, but I may be imagining it**. Meanwhile Gillie says I should be philosophical about the whole business, taking a leaf out of Buddha's book. You know, shit happens (those may not be his exact words), accept it and  move on.

Sali Hughes, my go-to beauty guru, also has timely wisdom on the matter in her book 'Pretty Honest', reminding us that the wrinkle count on our faces is still very much a first world problem:

"It's really important that you don't fall down the rabbit hole of self-scrutiny in your mature years because, truly, you will be fighting a losing battle. Each month, your face will show new evidence of the ageing process, much of it uncontrollable, and you will drive yourself crackers, like someone holding their hand over the leak in a colander. That way madness lies."

Oh, and in case I find myself in the sun again - though I shall do my best to avoid it now, despite my reckless past! - I will be slapping on my (brand new!) tube of Avene's Eau Thermale SPF50 Emulsion (see photo below)...

Hmm, going back to Baz, I think my knees - while not an attractive feature of mine as such, and once famously described by a boyfriend as 'serviceable' - are in good nick at least, and I am working on the jealousy and the flossing. ;)

Have you ever really burnt yourself and lived to regret it? Especially on a delicate area of skin?

I would love to hear about your tried and tested sunburn remedies, especially any that help reduce wrinkles caused by sun damage!


Here I am on Day 11, slathered in coconut oil, enormous hands, gormless expression, and with no makeup except lipstick. I think the oil may be helping a bit after all.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

A spritzing blitz in London with Tara and Undina: Day 2 - Ormonde Jayne, Selfridges, Les Senteurs, & opaque bottle overload

Avery scent animals
Day 2 of my London trip dawned sunny and warm. Obviously, in my windowless room I learnt this from my phone, not empirical evidence. I was due to meet Undina and her vSO at their Airbnb flat at whatever time we all surfaced, a relaxed arrangement of which I heartily approved. Just as well really, for having ascertained that it was in fact morning, and with devices fully charged, I soon ran into another logistical snag: the mirror in the bathroom misted up following my shower, and in the absence of ventilation took over half an hour to clear again, rendering makeup application a hit and miss affair involving a compact mirror propped up on a pillow. The cord of the hair dryer wouldn't have stretched as far as the en suite anyway, so I cut my losses and blow dried my hair from memory. It didn't look too bad, considering, albeit the ends were all pointing the same way - as in towards the hotel exit.

It was about 10.30am by the time I arrived at Undina's and her vSO's place, luggage in tow. Having stashed it in a corner of their living room, we sat down to an impromptu breakfast of cheese, crackers and truffles (I like the cut of their culinary jib!), washed down by two mugs of most superior Earl Grey. I was intrigued to see Undina put marmalade in her tea, which I hadn't come across before, but a spot of googling confirms it as a thing. Then I was excited to note that their accommodation had the exact same make and model of bathtub (Carron Delta!) as in my bathroom, along with towels the colour of the woodwork - Purbeck Stone, to any Farrow & Ball fans out there - which made me feel even more at home.

Before we set off, Undina helped rationalise my bags and applied a prophylactic blister cream to my heels, as I wasn't wearing any form of hosiery that day. I did say in Part 1 that I love being 'straightened out' by Undina, and I really meant it! I think I was quite good during the day at keeping my one remaining bag shut (and safe from robbers, a tip I learnt from Undina in Paris), but my persistent habit of walking fast and/or jaywalking between parked cars needed periodic reining in. Undina's vSO came with us, and did his usual thoughtful peeling off trick in search of blokey emporia at each of our perfume destinations.

Royal Arcade, Old Bond Street

Ormonde Jayne

First up was Ormonde Jayne's original store in Royal Arcade, Old Bond Street, where we quickly got chatting to two ladies from South Carolina - serious fragrance lovers who were just off the plane and ready to pound the pavements between perfumeries on a major acquisition offensive. Undina was able to help them out with information on reclaming VAT and/or getting their purchases past customs - I was only listening with half an ear at this point, as it didn't apply to me - and they were fulsome in their thanks for her seasoned advice.

At Ormonde Jayne, Undina was keen to sniff Jardin d'Ombre again - on skin this time - though it can only be bought at Fortnum & Mason. Meanwhile, my wrist was deployed as a scent mule for Ambre Royal, a Harrods exclusive. Jardin d'Ombre seemed promising to begin with - a citrusy green floral reminiscent of Tiare - but as the day wore on, it collapsed down to a nondescript blur of cleanish musk. Ambre Royal was a pleasant fuzzy amber, but we both felt we had that box ticked already in our respective collections, so it too was ruled out of our inquiries, along with Sensual Lover and Passionate Lover. The names alone of that pair might have done it for me, to be fair. And I speak as a huge admirer of Ormonde Jayne, one of the brands with which I have historically had the best 'strike rate'. I once likened their original range to a fragrance capsule wardrobe. I even thought up actual outfits to go with each one. ;) And Ta'if is possibly in my top two fragrances of all time - certainly my top five. However, Ormonde Jayne's range seems to have mushroomed since I last looked, as well as adopting an exclusive positioning (in terms of both distribution and pricing) on certain fragrances, and I must confess I find it harder to relate to the brand these days.

While in the Ormonde Jayne store we also sniffed the powdery, slightly oudy oriental, Rose Gold, which we both liked, even though it costs a wallet-whittling £345 for 120ml. Its manly counterpart, Black Gold, weighs in at a hefty £420 for 120ml, which would be exorbitant if it had in fact been actual oil. At Selfridges, our next stop, we encountered the third scent in the trilogy, White Gold, which was upcoming at the time of our spritzing blitz, but which has now been officially launched in that store, also on an exclusive basis. I liked White Gold even more than Rose Gold, to the extent that I shall post its notes, collated from Now Smell This.

Notes: jasmine absolute, white musk, orchids, leaf green molecule, pink pepper, mandarin, bergamot, clary sage, carnation, orris, freesia, vanilla, ambrette, cashmeran, amber, moss, tonka, labdanum, opoponax, vetiver and cedar.


We had estimated half an hour to 'do' Selfridges' - now even more extensive perfume halls than when I was last there - but thanks to the indefatigable patience of Undina's vSO, managed to renegotiate this to nearer an hour. In that time we scored samples of Rose Gold (Undina) and White Gold (me), and I was able to study the opaque bottles of this trilogy for the first time. Rose Gold was in a hot pink bottle that wouldn't look out of place on a Bond No 9, and which was also not dissimilar to my small pink knitting indeed. My views on opaque bottles are well documented elsewhere on Bonkers, but it doesn't stop me loving Amouage Honour Woman, say, and it wouldn't put me off White Gold either, had the price been right.

Editor's note: A reader has kindly pointed out that the bottle in the centre of this display in in fact ONE. I think the SA must have whipped a tester of White Gold out from behind the counter.

There was heaps more of interest in Selfridges, not least these animal-themed ceramic scent diffusers offered by Avery. (See also the pair of dogs at the top of the post. Undina and I scoured the fixtures in vain in search of a cat.)

Avery turned out to be the surprise stable for a host of brands, including ROADS Fragrances, which I have reviewed on the blog. I should point out that throughout the day, Undina had far more stamina than me for the actual business of sniffing, mainly from nozzles and on card. From time to time she would encourage me to join her in appraising something she considered of interest, or to ask my opinion on the notes we were smelling. (Tara would have been a better person to approach, had she been with us!) And here and there I got a rush of blood to the nose and got stuck in myself, notably when we came across the highly original - and punning! - Italian concept brand, Jusbox, whose bottles, sleeve notes, blotters, and assorted promotional material were based around the theme of vinyl records, the whole thing executed with gloriously whimsical attention to detail.

Undina and I were deeply impressed by the novelty of this brand, which had an extra resonance for me on account of my musical connections, and we tried them all on record-peeping-coyly-out-of-its- sleeve-shaped cards.

I initially thought I liked a spicy number called 14Hour Dream, but was quickly troubled by a phantom heliotrope note that I still seem to smell on the card some 10 days later.

We both liked Black Powder best, which is inspired by the 90s Grunge scene and its iconic spokesman, the late Kurt Cobain, and both came away with a sample. The blackcurrant top note caught Undina's fancy - no surprises there!

Notes: blackcurrant, apple, pimento, suede, tobacco leaf, olibanum, sandalwood, tonka bean, patchouli

We also swung by the Jo Malone concession briefly, where Undina public-spiritedly paused to refresh the 'tester stoppers' of one or two of their scents. I reminded myself how much I like Mimosa & Cardamom, and noted in passing that 30ml now costs £44 instead of £30 odd back in the day. I don't know if that is down to rising costs of ingredients or general opportunism, but prices of niche (I use the term loosely) seem to have increased across the board in recent years, with Roja Dove's line famously seeing the price uplift equivalent of a Harrier Jump Jet taking off from a warship. And being a bit of a born again tuberose lover, I also tried Tuberose Angelica, part of the Cologne Intense range, but it was too intense, sadly, despite a flurry of card wafting attempts to quieten it down.

Other highlights from our Selfridges session were the male fragrances, Layton and Pegasus from Parfums Marly, though I was found the fussy pink livery of the top-selling feminine scent, Delina, a tad disturbing.

It reminded me of talcum powder or those rather garish opaque Xerjoff bottles, and to my eye looked cheap, to be perfectly honest.


Just around the fixture, I fell hard for Amouage Blossom Love, despite its also coming in a pink opaque bottle! The opening notes were like being in a pillow fight of orange-inflected petals, and again I feel moved to document the notes:

Notes: bergamot, heliotrope, amaretto, ylang, rose, cherry blossom, amber, tonka bean, vanilla and suede

Source: fragrantica

Well, well, I see there's an actual heliotrope note and it didn't bother me at all. Colour me inconsistent! We also smelt Bracken - again in Undina's case - and whilst I found it interesting, it was absolutely not my thing, and got progressively 'strange fruit-ier' as it wore on.

Don't ask!

It was way past lunchtime by now, and so we popped into the cafe on the corner by Les Senteurs for a quick snack to fortify us for the final leg of our sniffathon. And here we had another of those comedy moments when Undina and I discovered we were both carrying Dior Paris it had been a case of 'Burberry bingo'. What are the chances of that? So obviously Undina's vSO had to photograph this uncanny coincidence...

'I'll raise you Pisanelle Pink!'

Les Senteurs

Undina's vSO sat on the famous stripey sofa to the rear of the store that is the ideal base for resting spouses, while Undina and I went for one last testing 'push', aided by the chatty and helpful Harley, who turned out to be proprietor Claire's niece. I daubed myself in Superstitious, the much talked about new release from Frederic Malle, in the hope that it would come up as prettily as on Tara; an hour or so into its development Undina and I remained to be convinced. I did come away with a sample to try further at my leisure, ditto one of ELDO's Fils de Dieu du Riz et des Agrumes, a bottle of which I definitely see in my future. Or more likely a split bottle with my friend Rachael Potts. I was also delighted to introduce Undina to Caron's Parfum Sacre, which I was hopeful she would like, and so it proved.

By five-ish we really were all sniffed out - okay, speaking for myself, I mean - for back at base, Undina went on to roll up a trouser leg and spray a sample I had brought for her to try on her knee (one of the few remaining clear spots left), before quickly rustling up a reviving meal of salmon and sour cream tortilla wraps. I will definitely try replicating that back home. I also extracted all Undina's blotters from between the leaves of my notebook where I was keeping them carefully separated for her, collected my luggage, and said my goodbyes. It was a real wrench, no question.

Not the ones we ate, but we discussed all meanings of 'tortilla'

Unfortunately, due to a conspicuous absence of tubes at Bayswater, I missed my (specific!) train back to Stafford. It took me eight conversations with staff at two rail companies and London Underground to extract a chit that confirmed the delay on the Circle Line (which they vehemently denied, but gave me the benefit of the doubt anyway!) to get my non-transferable ticket authorised for use on the next service, so I didn't have to buy a whole new single for the same money as my return. So that was a result, and only added an extra hour to my journey time.

So what did I learn over the course of the two days about the stage I am at in this hobby? Well, that I am somewhat less eager to try new scents than I was a few years ago, probably because I have so many things I feel I should use up first. However, I still have the capacity to get excited about new perfumes (and even crave bottles of them), though I might struggle to integrate them into my oversized collection without pangs of guilt.

And I also had further confirmation - not that it was needed - that it's the people in our perfume world who matter most. And that while fragrance is the catalyst for our bonding, if you took it away, the friendships would still have a momentum of their own...

NB Val gave me this bunny via Tara. It didn't make it beyond Rugby.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

A spritzing blitz in London with Tara and Undina: Day 1 - Bloom Perfumery, a fried food frenzy, and a trickyHotel

Langley Court, home to Bloom Perfumery
Tara of A Bottled Rose and Val's daughter Hannah, aka the Blondeswunder, recently posted about their meet up in London earlier this month, including a sniffing, skincare and make up spree, some tasty street food, and a tour round Highgate Cemetery (not including George Michael's grave, as the guide was at pains to point out). For health reasons I wasn't able to make it down to join them for 'the graveyard shift', as it were, and though I was very sorry to miss Val, I had the opportunity to hook up with Tara last Sunday, along with Undina of Undina's Looking Glass and her vSO, whom I had not seen since our 2013 rendez-vous in Paris. They were spending a whole week in the capital, so it seemed like a golden opportunity to see them, given that they live over 5000 miles away in California.

Now I usually manage to pack quite discreetly for my trips, but Truffle happened to catch me in the act of fetching a case out from the cupboard under the stairs, whereupon the human's intentions were out of the bag, swiftly followed by my clothes going into it.

'I know those triangular things with clothes on, and they don't bode well.'

I think she also smelt a metaphorical rat at the sight of outfit contenders hung over the bed rail, and might reasonably have inferred I was going away for a week rather than one night. Hence her 'hangdog' look in the photo below. I've got all the animal metaphors going on, it would seem!

According to my time-honoured tradition - and despite considering myself a seasoned traveller - I forgot several things this time: antihistamine tablets, shampoo, and plasters (beyond the prophylactic ones I was stood up in - that were on my heels, I mean - which I knew would not survive a good wetting in the shower).

The journey to London was supremely slow, for on a Sunday the train wends it circuitous way through the little known outposts of Northamptonshire. I mean, whoever heard of Long Buckby, never mind wanted to go there any day of the week?

Tara and Undina had already got a few hours' sniffing under their belts and had lunch before I joined them around 4pm, though not before making a detour to my so-called easyHotel to check in. They were about to put me in a room on the ground floor when I reminded them that I had asked for an upper floor in the 'Special Requests' box, explaining that with the ground floor there is a risk people in the street might walk past your window and look in, possibly as you are getting dressed. So the hotel promptly put me in a room without a window instead, which I did not see coming. 'No chance of her being overlooked there', I bet they thought.

'The key to an easy night's sleep'...hohoho!

And not only did my room have no window, but it also lacked any furniture whatsoever apart from a bed - nor did it have any hangers, a bin, or a bedside light. Moreover, you had to choose between 'having the benefit of electrical current', as the estate agents say, and an unrelenting electrical hum. More on this anon, along with the geographical shortcomings of the electrical sockets. So yes, I am renaming the chain: 'reallyquitetrickyHotels'. And it is not as though I haven't stayed in this chain before, for example in Berlin last December, but the hotel in Old Street raised the bar in its testing of the customer's resourcefulness in the face of such compact and minimalist accommodation.

Having quickly freshened up (after a fashion ;) ), I made my way to Covent Garden, where I was due to meet Tara, Undina and her vSO in Bloom Perfumery. I was early, and popped into a nearby branch of MAC cosmetics to gaze in awe at the myriad shades of lipsticks that spanned several perspex display boards. I was drawn as ever to the pinky brown nudes of which I already own half a dozen variants, and accosted several young people eyeing up the same fixture to ask them to read the shade names that were in tiny lettering on the underside, before being momentarily sidetracked by two rows of astonishing Smartie-like colourways in purple and mauve, magenta and blue. I certainly did not need to know their names.

After a quick swoop on Holland & Barrett, where I picked up a bargain pack of sesame sticks and succumbed to an explosive piece of crystallized ginger they were giving away free at the till, I assumed a lookout position on the corner of Long Acre and Langley Court, the little alleyway in which the Bloom store lies tucked away. People-watching in London is as rewarding in my book as visiting any of the official tourist attractions the city has to offer, and even a ten minute stint didn't disappoint. I noted an emerging fashion trend for cut off bell bottoms-cum-sailor's trousers, while the sleeve style du jour that I can best sum up as an 'arm peplum' was also in evidence. And then all of a sudden Tara & co were there! Of course they arrived from the Floral Street end, so I didn't see them coming either...

Once in Bloom - notable for its open glass displays, exposed brick walls, and steel 'customer ladder' for reaching the uppermost shelves - Undina scoped the fixtures for brands that were either on her hit list or otherwise caught her eye, and got stuck straight in. My own MO was more desultory and haphazard, reflecting perhaps my current plateau phase in this hobby. I was genuinely curious about the Zoologist line, however, and tried a handful from that, including the upcoming addition, Camel. With a name like that it surely has to be a tobacco scent - as one of the others may be able to confirm. I do remember that my erstwhile nemesis Civet was surprisingly approachable, while 'floral fruity gourmand' Hummingbird by Shelley Waddington was a standout favourite.

Tara, looking winsome in 'Little Mermaid' pose

Later in the trip Undina rightly pulled me up for writing the name of a perfume on the same end of the blotter that I had sprayed with the tester. (Let me say right off the bat that I LOVE being 'straightened out' by Undina - she could do so all day long as far as I am concerned, with her uniquely endearing blend of common sense and motherliness.) Then additionally I see that I sometimes write on the opposite end to where I have sprayed, but then my writing may get jumbled up with the logo of the perfume house or store in question, such that I can barely make out the name later on. And occasionally, I do both ie spray and write on the end that already has writing on it.

We also had a browse through the Imaginary Authors range, whose bottles with their vintage scrapbook-like labels appealed to me, along with one or two of the admittedly quite straightforward - and inexpensive! - scents, though I am blowed if I can remember which ones now. I remember being intrigued by a perfume whose ingredients included 'the month of May', and marvelling at how they had managed to fit the whole of May in the same size bottle as the rest of the range. February might have been marginally less ambitious.

Then predictably the Beaufort range, which we briefly sniffed from the nozzle, only made me squeal ever louder with each one I tried. I am guessing their target audience is not lovers of dreamy summer florals like Songes. We also dabbled in the Dusitas, and I was quite taken with Issara, though I don't remember it reading as a fresh fougere, particularly. I also found myself muttering darkly over and over again that the sumptuously feminine floral, Melodie de l'Amour (featuring gardenia, tuberose, honey, peach and jasmine, to name some of the more punch-packing notes), would most likely give me a headache. 'Ooh, that would give me a headache....definitely give me a headache...oh yes, headache...mmm, headache...', and more of me banging on in that general throbbing, cerebral vein.

It was at that point that we spied a wrench** lying on the work surface, which is not something you see every day, least of all in a perfumery.

After about an hour Undina's vSO - who had peeled off to check out the menswear stores in the immediate vicinity - rejoined us, and we set off in an easterly direction in a bid to avoid the worst of the tourist crowds and find a quiet spot for a proper cup of tea (and coffee). Patisserie Valerie came up trumps, even though they expressly barred us from sitting at the far end of the cafe, for reasons none of us could fathom. Some kind of technical explanation was proffered - that involved opening a window, I think - but there were vital connecting bits of information missing such that whatever it was that they said simply didn't compute.

With the working week looming, Tara headed home after tea, while I led Undina and her vSO somewhat erratically on a walking tour of Holborn and Soho (the Holborn bit was accidental!), before we finally lit upon an inviting looking tapas restaurant just off Regent Street, where we had dinner. There was much ribaldry about my inadvertent menu choices, which turned out to be resolutely fried, from the chicken to the courgette to the cabbage and the parsnip fries.

A piece of fried chicken too far

And because our order as a whole was delayed, the management threw in some complimentary patatas fritas with that, which turned out to be...ahem...more fried food, clearly applying my pinky brown nude lipstick principle to Spanish cuisine.

'Have some fries with that, why don't you?'

After the meal, we said goodbye at Oxford Circus station, and went our separate ways until the morning. Back at my evermorechallengingHotel, I had the difficult call to make of whether to charge my phones overnight and put up with the electrical hum, or have a silent night and dead appliances in the morning. In the end I went with a compromise: silence till 5am, then I put my phones on charge and my ear plugs in. I was too perturbed by the claustrophobic concept of a windowless hotel room to sleep much anyway - in vain did I try to pretend I was on a ship!

Editor's note: I have just been informed by my bathroom handyman that these are in fact 'waterpump pliers'.

To be continued...

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Plumb crazy and round the U-bend: the ups, downs, and 'I'll know better next time's of a small bathroom renovation

'Just do it, Mum.'
I have already blogged about the problems that beset my newly refurbished bathroom shortly after its completion back in January - multiple leaks that were compounded that same week by spontaneously cracking plaster throughout the house (except the bathroom, as luck would have it, where the plaster was new). I did say at the time that I would write an account of the whole process of renovation: partly because I am myself curious about those 'before' and 'after' kind of transformations and figured others may be too - that's transformations of houses, and also of people in extreme makeover programmes like 'The Swan' - did anyone ever see that? Looking back, such a radical reworking of a human being all in one go, to bring them into line with contemporary conventions of 'good looks', was probably ethnically questionable, but certainly made for compelling viewing. Meanwhile, there is no doubt whatsoever that my bathroom was long overdue a good overhaul. Here is the  relevant snippet from a 2014 'Scent Crimes' post (on that notorious old chestnut of perfume bottles and bathroom storage):

"I have a scratched cast iron bath that is 104 years old at a conservative guess, an extinct model of lavatory that had the local plumbers merchant poring over their catalogue of 'archived designs' to locate a compatible loo seat, plus the bathroom is painted an aggressive shade of peppermint topped off with a mood-disturbing ceiling of bottle green."

You are lucky you can't see the ceiling

Then the other reason for doing a post about the bathroom refurb is simply to share some of the (many!, painful!, occasionally expensive!) lessons I learnt along the way...Some of these will have been peculiar to the size, geometry, and plumbing architecture of my house, while others may have wider relevance...

To manage or not to manage - that is the question

The first decision I had to take before embarking on the work was whether I wanted to use a 'turnkey' bathroom company, or project manage a team of tradespeople myself. I did speak to a couple of the former, but quickly sensed that they would have steered me towards the particular brands of sanitary ware etc that they dealt with, whereas I wanted the complete freedom to put together my own 'look' from scratch. I had compiled a mood board of images from home interior blogs and Pinterest, toured the bathroom showrooms of the West Midlands in my quest to find the perfect fixtures, and even lain in bath tubs and stood under showers without feeling the least bit foolish.

So between that and the fact that I already had a good plumber in mind, who came with a good joiner and electrician, I concluded that solo was the way to go, and proceeded to 'audition' the other trades I needed to complete the set (plasterer, painter & tiler - the 'blind man' and handyman/'shelf putter upper chap' fell into my lap later, as it were). Obviously ignore the above if you happen to be very handy at this sort of thing yourself, but I have no practical skills beyond knitting - and though there are patterns available to knit your own Jeremy Corbyn, Madonna, or even the whole Royal Family, complete with corgis, I have yet to see a knitting pattern for a bathroom, let alone a crocheted one, for porosity reasons you can well imagine.

The old airing cupboard was a tardis in the room!

Research within reason (which this may not be...!?)

I should point out that the amount of research I did into the complete look of the bathroom - from the wc and sink down to the smallest accessory such as a hook that looked like a tap head (the one I liked was sadly discontinued!) isn't really necessary. I have a friend who let her builder design several bathrooms almost entirely off his own bat - which is unthinkable to me ;) - while another friend made a single trip to one of the many showrooms I visited in and around Birmingham, and bought every item in a particular Laura Ashley range of sanitary ware in about five minutes flat. She was admittedly blessed with a big space in which to work, and has a far more business-like attitude to most things in life. And not much disposable time. They both think I am nuts, and may be right at that.

Astor tap hooks, sadly no longer extant!

Measure, measure, and measure again!

But in my case the small space issue was (paradoxically!) huge, and eventually the penny dropped that I could in fact only consider 'cloakroom suites' of sinks and wcs. Given that I had set my heart on a vintage style, my options were actually extremely limited, though it took me forever to bottom all this out.

We have a match!

Not only that, but I was looking for a cloakroom-sized sink with the exact 'footprint' - as in 'basin print' - of the one it was replacing; which could have a recess for soap (but it must on no account be scallop-shaped if so), and must have an upstand (as I wasn't planning on tiling that wall), and a pedestal that was nicely fluted and not overly clumpy or God forbid covered in toile de jouy (trust me, this is a thing!); that in turn had to match the wc, whose cistern could only measure x wide with a projection of y (so as not to block the window frame), along with an overall seat projection of z (to give sufficient clearance from the bath). Oh, not forgetting the all-important nod towards Art Deco styling. And compatibility with a walnut toilet seat that I had my eye on with a particularly nice grain. I know, I know, verily I am the bathroom remodelling equivalent of a 'bridezilla'. 'Bathzilla' - let's give myself a name! And that is just one of many seemingly - and sometimes actually! - impossible constellations of attributes with which I was grappling on a host of fronts, from towel rails to shelving, tiles to lighting, blinds to shower panels and beyond.

Nice, but too dear, and came with bulky if elegant loo!

Now clearly if you don't have such draconian design ideas as me, the measuring imperative is not that critical, but generally speaking it is still the single most important aspect of bathroom planning, I'd say. Otherwise, this sort of thing can happen. ;)

City Club, Augsburg

Leave nothing unspecified that could conceivably come back to haunt you

I realise I may sound a bit like a couples counsellor when I bang on about the importance of communication, and to be honest, this is a point that works really well in hindsight, but is very hard to anticipate at the time.  I will give you one example, but there are others...! When the electrician came to do 'first fix' ie make any necessary adjustments to the wiring to accommodate the new lights, he disconnected the wall mounted light to the right of the basin, after first asking me where the new sink was going. This caught me slightly on the hop, as the plumber and I had yet to have that conversation, but based on the general layout we had agreed, and the fact that the new sink was going to use the existing plumbing, whereas other pipework was going to be majorly reconfigured, I said the sink was going to stay put. So he disconnected the light and promptly went on holiday.

A week later, the plumber was about to install the  new ware at the exact moment that I was due to go to the dentist - the only hour in the entire programme of works where I was not on hand to field questions, never mind one of this magnitude (as it turned out). On my return I noticed that the sink was approximately 5-6 inches further to the right of the spot where the old one had been. The plumber announced cheerily that he had decided to move it closer to the wc, whilst keeping the two items the same distance apart, as the cistern of the new loo was narrower. In this way he had cunningly created extra door clearance and a greater feeling of space overall. All of which was true, and admirable, but the wall light was now three quarters of the way across the sink rather than just to the right of it, such that the plumber had killed any chance of having a mirror above, unless it was derisorily small and silly.

Mocked by a mirror mock up, & directionally conflicted taps

So after his holiday, the electrician had to pop back to chase a sideways channel in the brand new plaster so the wall light could also be moved 5-6 inches to the right and a space created on the wall above the sink for a normal-sized mirror. And the painter and decorator (whom I also fatally left to his own devices, not least because the door was invariably shut when he was working), didn't even ask what this channel was and gaily painted over it, leaving a deep groove that would be visible even when the mirror was up. And more where that came from, even such little things as which way the tap handles should point when in the off position. The plumber inferred pistols at dawn (for ease of operation with your elbow, 'you know, like in hospital toilets'), while I wanted them to be outstretched like wings (the vintage look you see in pictures, and also the way they are styled in the company's own brochure, which I hadn't thought to show him).

The shelf was a head bumper in the making - it went back!

Hold out for what you want (assuming it exists!)

One thing I learnt during this exercise is that to some tradespeople your job is 'just a job', which on one level is fair enough, for that is all it is at the end of the day. Accordingly, if there is any decision left open, they will take the easy option or line of least resistance, in the hope that the customer doesn't know there is another - more complicated, more time consuming, but ultimately potentially more effective or attractive-looking - option. However, when you live alone and are not remotely adept at such things, you really want a tradesperson to care about your house the way you do, and to want the best for it as if it were their own. Now I did have that attitude with the plumber and joiner in spades - they were both really creative and proactive (very occasionally too much so!) - but the same could not be said of the decorator (who painted a hole in the wall, basically), or the tiler.

Or rather the first tiler, as I let him go before he started the work, for muttering darkly about the faff factor of my preferred idea of having a bullnose edge to the tiles - something common enough in the US I gather - from where I got the idea, indeed - but virtually unknown over here, where edging strips in plastic and chrome are favoured. Nothing wrong with those, but I was holding out for a more vintage look here. The second tiler I approached was the polar opposite - wildly enthusiastic about edging tiles or anything the customer wanted to try, and video footage of the work in progress even ended up on his Facebook page. In fairness he seemed to do that with all his jobs(!), but it still felt a bit like the digital equivalent of being featured in Hello magazine. ;)

'Spacers everywhere' (obscure band joke)

And I didn't just come up against brick walls in terms of the fixing of the tiles, but also on the purchasing side. Having set my heart on matching trim tiles, it took a great deal of Internet research and phone calls to suppliers all over the country to identify a source. The local tile shop from whom I had by now bought 9 sq m of field tiles denied there even was a trim tile to go with them. And because tiles are not sold under the various manufacturers' brands, but rather have heir provenance obfuscated by the use of more evocative names like 'rustico craquele gris' or 'Richmond Park' or 'Grey ecru' - or just plain 'Mink' - it takes a good deal of sleuthing to know if you are truly comparing like with like. You can also save an absolute fortune that way. In the end, thanks to a couple of sotto voce tip offs from the trade, the trail led me to a company called Equipe in Spain, who did both field and trim tiles in the style I was after (vintage, glossy, rustic) - snappily named Masia Gris Claro Brillo. Well, it turned out there wasn't even a stockist of these as such in the whole of the country, but I did find a tile shop in Solihull who could order them in at a month's notice. And best of all, I was able to return the tiles I had already bought for a full refund.

I got bullnose! And a different hook. ;)

Plasterers are messy b**gers

That's it really. That's even allowing for the fact that mixing plaster is inherently more messy than stirring paint or fashioning tongue and groove, or daubing big gobs of Plumber's Mait all over the shop. My plasterer was so messy there was a trail of congealed white gunk out the front door, down the drive and all the way onto the road. I half expected a bill off the council for ad hoc street cleaning services, like the time I upended a 5 litre tin of purple paint on the kerb outside my house. They didn't bill me then either, in case you were wondering.

Lighting is a leap in the dark

I learnt a lot about lighting in the course of my research: about incandescent, LED and halogen bulbs, Kelvin ratings, lumens and watts, not forgetting IP ratings for different zones of a bathroom. It's a strangely complex and counter-intuitive subject now, compared with the good old (if somewhat dimmer!) days when you had 60 watt bulbs everywhere and knew exactly where you stood. I just wanted a column-style wall light not unlike the one that was there before, only thinner and with less projection - and settled on this one from Amara.

But even though you can achieve different qualities of light using different bulbs - warm white, cool white, daylight (God also forbid!) etc, insofar as there are alternatives available for your particular fitting, which is by no means certain - it is only when you finally turn the blinking thing on (having long since committed to the fitting being on your wall (in two different places in my case!), that you finally discover what kind / quality of light you have actually got!

For reference, here is my ceiling light. I did try it with a squirrel cage bulb, but you can see right past it to the annoying sticky label. After T K Maxx, light fittings are the world's worst for annoying sticky labels you cannot get off for love nor white spirits.

Compromises are inevitable

Ooh, where to start? There are too many instances to mention, but one that particularly stands out is the emergency sawing job the plumber had to do on the pipe that goes through the wall to make it fit firmly round the waste fitting from the wc. Had the plumber not managed to connect the two securely, even with a ragged edge and on a slight bias, the toilet would currently be floating in the middle of the room - and all my best upfront measuring efforts would have counted for nothing! A wooden batten also had to be inserted in the resulting gap between the wall and the cistern to give the latter extra support. Said batten is now painted white and largely forgotten!

Embrace the disruption (assuming you have another bathroom - of any description!)

I put off doing the bathroom refurb for years, because I was afraid of the upheaval and stress it would cause, but in the end bit the bullet. Omelettes and eggs and all that jazz, and so it jolly well proved. From the day the plumber smashed up the bath outside on the drive with a lump hammer, I knew there was no going back. As did Truffle, who - terrified by the noise - from that day forward switched to using the great outdoors as her bathroom, unless physically confined to the house, as she is when I go away. Which was an unexpected spin off, as I had no idea how I was going to go about that final stage of her toilet training. ;) As for me, I was lucky I had another loo in the utility room - and a shower, as I thought, which I used for months on end before belatedly discovering that every time I did so, the water leaked all over the concrete floor underneath the linoleum, inches away from the trio of fire hazards-in-waiting of washing machine, tumble dryer and freezer. So no sooner had I completed one bathroom refurb when another one popped up, like a hydra's head - or do I mean a hydrant hose? - to take its place.

The time capsule of bathroom floorboards! 

Everything takes longer than you thought

Yes, the whole project took way longer than I would ever have imagined - about five months in all, excluding finding a picture as a finishing touch, the framing of which took four weeks on its own!

Because I was organising the different trades myself - or herding cats, as it sometimes felt, partly in the holiday season to boot - I quickly found out that any delay in the timetables of their other jobs could have knock-on effects on mine. And you could never be sure they hadn't bumped your job to shoehorn in another customer they had just landed with a more pushy 'want it doing yesterday' kind of manner.

Stepping back from everything, my overarching take on the project - of whose associated tribulations this is but a small snapshot! - is that despite the best laid plans, things will still go wrong, and you can only roll with it and accept that nothing is perfect. It will still be worth it in the end to have a room that gives you pleasure to use and that is a 'sanctuary', to use that rather twee Champney-esque expression, rather than one that is depressing to the point of embarrassing.

Also, a friend of a friend has a high end kitchen fitting business, and his rule of thumb is that on any given project three things WILL go wrong. Only three, huh? Well, he is a real pro after all. And he told me that his timetables are always being shunted, domino-style, by problems arising on other jobs his team are involved in.

That all said, having workmen who really own any problems that arise (as with the leaks, that were down to an unfortunate combination of manufacturing flaws, and space issues) makes it so much easier to keep your nerve when the going gets tough.

'What do you mean, there are several kinds of acid toner?'

Finally, as an example of the joiner's creativity, he demolished the old airing cupboard that was fully inside the bathroom, and from it fashioned a shallower one accessed through two small doors from the landing (made from the panels of a reclaimed door). The old airing cupboard door is meanwhile doing sterling service covering up the hole in the garage roof that Truffle fell through. And the extra one the bloke next door inadvertently made. ;) So I guess another lesson could be: don't be too hasty to throw away spare materials, as you never know what might come in useful some day!

Oh, and obviously, don't keep perfume in your bathroom, as I have been saying like a cracked record since the dawn of Bonkers, hehe.

'Go on...!'