How to fix a leak in your bathroom

The Billfold, January 2016. Original article.

bathroom wp

How to fix a leak in your bathroom

1. Move into your new flat and marvel at the fact that you own this place. Before you’ve finished unpacking, receive notice that they’ve examined every one of the building’s 27 flats to find the source of a leak — it’s your bathroom! You’re on the hook for the repair costs, as the building insurance only covers the cost of repairing the damage resulting from said leak. This doesn’t make any sense, but okay. You chase the insurance company for three months to get them to send their repair crew. This, you realise later, is what they call “foreshadowing”.

Week one.

2. A repairman is set to arrive at 8am on Monday. He won’t know how long the job will take until he’s had a look, but he estimates three days, maybe five at the most. On Monday he texts to say he’ll start on Tuesday, but he’s confident he’ll be done by the weekend. Tuesday: repeat.

3. Pete the repairman shows up on Wednesday, deems the bathroom floor to be damaged and pulls up the tiles. Now he just has to put down new tiles. Easy! Then Pete calls you from the tile shop: do you want different tiles? The insurance covers like-for-like replacement, but if you want something different you can just pay the excess. Oh! Pete needs to know right away, but that’s fine — this is the moment design-Instagram has prepared you for. You know exactly what you want, and feel like you’ve really got a great deal here.

4. Friday morning, Pete calls: the tile delivery was delayed and he’s only just got his hands on it now. The job will run into Monday, not including the grouting and finishes of course. Fine, whatever. You spend the weekend tiptoeing around on a concrete bathroom floor, but the final result is going to look great!

Week two.

5. Brian the tiler arrives, deems a section of wall to have water damage too and pulls down the tiles in question. They are standard white tiles so he’s just going to swap them out. Easy. A few hours later, a bewildered Brian calls: your old wall tiles were not standard! The replacements are no good! Since this discovery only came after the old tiles were knocked down, it means replacing every single wall tile. Work stops for 24 hours as the insurance company ponders the issue.

6. To everybody’s surprise, the insurer decides to to cover like-for-like replacement of the wall tiles. So, says Pete, do you want different tiles? You know the drill — you’re practically a design blogger by now! Pete spends the rest of the week removing the old tile and preparing the walls, leaving your entire flat covered in a fine layer of plaster dust. It gets everywhere, including inside the kitchen cupboards.

7. On Saturday morning, you get up early as Pete has arranged for a weekend tiler — let’s get this done! — he says. You feel encouraged until Pete calls: the tiler isn’t coming because broke his ankle last night. You attempt to feel sorry for him. A second weekend is spent tiptoeing around on a chipboard bathroom floor. You have to crouch down in the tub as you wash, as not to splash the bare walls.

Week three.

8. Brian is back — your bathroom has now become a nuisance for him as he has places to be. No one expected it to last this long, Brian informs you, while you make him a cup of tea after checking the mug for plaster dust. The feeling of getting a bargain has well and truly evaporated, but both Pete and Brian seem confident it will be done by Friday.

9. On Tuesday morning, Brian calls in a fluster: there’s a leak! It seems all the jostling around has cause the original leak — the one that triggered all this, remember? — to reemerge. Or maybe it wasn’t fixed properly in the first place, Pete suggests, but you care little for his excuses. All that’s certain is that a plumber is needed before they can proceed, and also, a section of drywall needs replacing. Work stops for 48 hours as the insurance company considers who will pay for all this.

10. Thursday rolls around, and you tell Pete to go ahead — you’re ready to throw money at the problem. Pete says he understands. He finds someone to fix the leak and repair the wall — they’ll be over Sunday morning! Great. You spend your third weekend in a stripped down bathroom, crouching down to shower still, now with the added challenge of trying to flush the toilet at little as possible as not to aggravate the water damage. You travel the London Underground, where each station is covered in colourful, sprawling tiles, and you feel like they’re mocking you.

Week four.

11. Alan the plumber was a little too gleeful when he told you that having a repair last four weeks is nothing — sometimes these jobs go on for months and months because they just can’t locate the source of a leak. Imagine! Mere hours later, you realise there’s still the tiniest leak, and now, the toilet doesn’t flush properly. Someone will be round to fix it and finish the job, tiling and all, says Pete — bright and early on Wednesday. This is a low, you think to yourself as you spend the next three days with what can reasonably be called substandard plumbing. Your place has slowly turned into a tip and there’s building dust everywhere, but there’s no point cleaning until the work is done. You consider checking into a hotel, but you can’t chance it — you have no idea how much all this will cost you.

12. On Wednesday, a fellow named John arrives and says he’s going to stay until the job is done, which means he’ll be working the weekend. You nod feebly — you’re starting to accept this situation as your life now. You no longer have any feelings about any of it: not about your bathroom, the now-lost weekend, the mess that is your flat, or indeed the certainty that the arrow of time only moves in one direction. But John fixes the toilet flush, and tiles the shower so you can wash without worrying about damaging the walls for the first time in weeks. In spite of yourself you feel a spark of hope, but only for a moment: John can’t make it on Friday due to a veterinary emergency. You make sympathetic noises, but it’s all an act.

13. Good old Pete comes to fix that tiny leak. He can’t work out exactly what the problem is so you authorise a full replacement — it’s not cheap, but the thought that money could save you from this is sweet relief. John returns the next day and claims he’ll be done by Sunday night, but you know better than to believe a word of it.

Week five.

14. John is back bright and early Monday morning — of course he is. Yesterday he told you that whenever builders say five days you have to allow seven, which is not your idea of good expectation-management. But the tiles are in place! Pete has arranged for someone to come and finish up the last bits, including shortening your bathroom door, which apparently is a thing that needs doing. That’s not happening until Thursday though. Deflated, you go to pour yourself a drink, only to discover that John has finished your good booze.

15. Some guy called Sam calls you on Thursday morning: can we push this final bit to Monday? Oh we most certainly cannot, you inform him, you need to move on with your life. Sam rocks up at 5pm and informs you it’s really not a big job! But there’s too much left to finish it all today of course, and he’ll have to come back on Monday. Your mind goes to that Seinfeld episode where Elaine tells her phone line engineer: “You know, I could’ve killed you, and no one would have known.”

Week six.

16. Sam, who’s still alive, returns on Monday as promised and everything is miraculously done. You’ve never been so happy for a chance to clean in your life. The bathroom looks so good! And, you think to yourself, maybe the kitchen could do with some tile too? This time you’d do it yourself though — hell is other people. And you’re determined! In that respect, Pete, Brian, Alan, John and Sam have nothing on you.

Staycations in the London summer

The Billfold, June 2015. Original article

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.18.33Staycations in the London summer
I woke up by myself today in my little flat in Hackney. My husband is away for work, so I slept past 10 o’clock which I never do unless I’m alone. As much as I like company, I’m very good at being by myself, especially in London. Last weekend I meant to go to a neighbourhood book festival but ended up roaming around all day until it was dark, even though this is June, the lightest month.

Something like that might have happened again today, but my best friend K text me, wanting to meet for coffee. I said yes despite having to rush, because there’s never too much time to spend with K. I took the Overground to Whitechapel, which all of a sudden has plenty of good coffee, the calling card of an “up and coming” neighbourhood. K and I talked for an hour and I decide to walk home, taking the meandering route through the backstreets.

London is full of concrete, but I’ve never seen a major city that’s this green. There are trees and flowers everywhere, drooping over the brick walls and onto the pavements. This city is a very pretty boy right now. It’s been muggy lately but it’s warm, and before long you’re sweating under grey cloud. London is tough in the winter, but for six months over the summer, there’s nothing you can do to get me to leave the city. Right now, London is better than anything I can imagine.

*

“I’m an unrepentant Londoner, and the places that have chosen me – because I think it’s that way round: places choose you, rather than vice versa – have already done so. I think you only have room for two or three serious affairs of place in a lifetime, just as you only have emotional space for two or three serious love affairs,” said the writer Will Self.

I first read this a few years ago and I keep coming back to it. Familiarity isn’t enough to love a place, as I was familiar with the village I grew up in but it never felt anything like this. I’ve lived in London for 12 years now – it wasn’t love at first sight because this city is hard on newcomers, but if you stick it out, this place will reward you. I always say it takes two years to get on good terms with London, and it took me even longer to love it, maybe six years. That’s nothing like my experience of ever falling in love with a person, but make no mistake: London is it for me.

Most of the time it’s nice but nothing unusual, and then suddenly it’ll come over me: I’ll be walking along and I’ll look up and I realise that damn, I love this city. If I’m on a bus crossing the Thames, it’s bound to happen. Often though, it happens during the moments when London’s not so shiny, when I’m distracted or thrown off course. London has a knack for keeping you in that in-between space: a little hot, a little cold, leaving you guessing what’s coming.

Like the other night when I was out with my friend G. We just wanted to leave the house for beers, but suddenly we were wrists deep in barbecue sauce because that’s what Hackney is like now: cocktails and ribs. It was too cool to be wearing shorts down by the canal but we walked along anyway, shivering in the early London summer. Because isn’t this the best part? It’s so light, so much summer still to come.

*

I have a list in my head of things I want to do this summer, during the annual London staycation when I won’t leave the city. I want to go see Agnes Martin at the Tate Modern, and the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. I want go out to the Thames Barrier Park – this is the city’s flood barrier and a work of art. I haven’t been there in years as it’s a bit out of the way, but I want to go with my husband and a bottle of prosecco. I want to try this cocktail bar in Soho with my new friend R, and talk about work the whole time because sometimes that’s the best.

I saw a picture on Instagram from the Nunhead Reservoir recently, which apparently has amazing views of the city, a rare find in a shallow dish like London. I’ve never been to Nunhead. A few years ago, I went cycling up past the Hackney Marshes with the then-boyfriend who got me to finally buy a bicycle, and I’ve been wanting to go again ever since. There’s a grotty pub up the River Lea where you can get lunch, and even though the food won’t be great it won’t matter.

Sometimes though, the best way to go see the sights is having guests from out of town. When my mother visited recently we went to the London Transport Museum, which is brilliant: it chronicles the history of the Tube so it’s part trainset playground, but it’s also partially an archive of functional graphic design. Away from the rush hour, the Underground is a treat to explore, even after all these years – each line a different pattern of colours, each station a different style. I passed through Baker Street station the other day, on the platform that was part of the very first Tube line. The light wells are still streaming daylight down onto the platform.

I got out at Paddington, just onto the canal, which in West London is the same water that runs past my house in East London. It’s funny – I always tell people the key to London is to find your neighbourhood, that’s how the city will start making sense to you. I once spent three months not leaving Hackney, which would be easy to do again – like when I get Vietnamese on Kingsland Road with my friend C and we order the same things every time. There’s so much more to London than the patch where I live, but there’s a reason why I live here.

*

Last weekend I met up with K again, we walked along the canal up past London Fields, taking the long back around to my house. It’s quiet on the roads around here, away from the main stretch where the buses run. Heavy with green and flowers, and all the beautiful yellow-brick victorian terrace houses we can’t afford to live in. Then we came across this odd building made from corrugated iron plates, sticking out like a sore thumb in the row of pretty houses. It’s the Sight of Eternal Life church, said the internet, thought to be the oldest surviving “Tin Tabernacle” in the world. I took a photo and we walked on, but that’s the best part, I think: finding a piece of curiosity in a place I’ve lived for years, but somehow it’s something I’ve never noticed.

I took my mother on a long walk along the canal too when she was here, spending a whole day away from the London she knows from the pictures. Down past the canal locks and up through the market, into the park and down through the quiet back roads – I’ve walked this route so many times, and looked up to think, so many times, how much I love this city. Almost everything big that’s ever happened to me has happened in London. I know I keep saying things are the best, but there’s always something else about London that’s the best. Now how’s that for a love affair.

Possibly the least you can spend on getting legally married

The Billfold, 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 14.58.49Possibly the least you can spend on getting legally married

My husband and I got married last July. We wore jeans to the registry office, and except for the three friends who were our witnesses, no one knew anything about it until it was over. For us, it was perfect. As a side effect, it was also ridiculously cheap.

***

Going out and getting a bit drunk, ending up accidentally getting engaged at at bus stop at 2am. £67

Smoked salmon bagels at the 24-hour bakery, in a newly-engaged daze. £4.80

Hangover breakfast the next morning. £18

“Do you remember what we talked about last night?”
“Yes.”
“…”
“Marry me. No, really!”

Total engagement cost: £89.80

We started the planning 10 days later, once we realised we couldn’t think of a single reason not to go through with it. In the end we were engaged for 32 days, mainly because the British system has a 16-day waiting period for marriage permits.

Mandatory “notice of intent” appointment with the local council to get a marriage permit. This also served to verify our identities and making sure we’re not already married, and/or brother and sister. £60

Hiring a room for 15 minutes at the Town Hall, with a marriage official and registrar. (This is the Thursday rate; Saturdays cost more.) £79, or £5.80 per minute.

“Rings! We should get rings!” … We got titanium bands online, and they showed up two days before the ceremony. This was the only thing we bought that we didn’t strictly need. £54.75

Bus fare to the Town Hall on the day: £2.80

Pub lunch afterwards: Free, paid for by our wedding guests.

Cards, stamps and printing of photos for the thankyou notes: £36

Replacement ring when my husband left his in a hotel bathroom six months later: £25 … Somewhere out there a crooked and/or underpaid hotel employee is trying to sell that ring, only to be told it’s not platinum but titanium, hence it’s essentially worthless. Except as a symbol, that is.

Total wedding cost: £257.55

Ten houses in ten years in London: A story of hope over experience

The Billfold, 2013. Original article.

Ten houses in ten years in London: A story of hope over experience

Screen Shot 2014-03-01 at 15.18.15

1. Acton (1) – 6 months
The year is 2003, and two fresh graduates from Southampton roll into London to take it all on. Unfortunately they have no idea what they’re doing, which is why they’ve ended up in Acton, West London. Ten years later, this is still the worst location I’ve lived at in the capital, plus the rent there was more than what I pay now. The flat itself was very nice, but the area was thoroughly charmless and it was just ridiculous to pay £550 per month each. I cringe slightly at admitting that now, but we were new to London, a city that treats its newcomers in a way that makes you understand why it’s nicknamed ‘The Big Smoke’. My friend and I broke the contract early and have never really spoken about it since.

2. Acton (2) – 2 months
As a temporary arrangement, I moved in with my boyfriend and our other friend in their cream-carpeted semi-detached Victorian facing a very loud road. The rent here was the same as the first Acton flat, but as we split it threeways it was a very manageable £360. The bus stop outside meant you couldn’t watch TV with the windows open though, and everything was beyond walking distance. I was unemployed during these two months and thoroughly miserable; I don’t want to talk about it.

3. Chiswick – 15 months?
The Acton Three moved up in the world, to a nice flat just next to Turnham Green tube. It’s pretty pleasant there: there was a lovely chocolate shop that sold lavender truffles, and a coffee shop on the other side of the park. The rent was the same as the previous place, as I’d learned something vital about the London market by this point: living in a crappy area doesn’t necessarily mean you save on rent. London started to agree with me while I lived in this flat. The porter looking after the block, however, did not; he regularly left notes about drying laundry being visible through the window from the road. I still don’t know what that was about.

4. Dulwich – 1 month
Temporary dwellings after breaking up with my boyfriend of nearly five years. This marked the move to South London, with its other-side-of-the-river feeling and tricky transport links. I don’t remember much about this place, other than there being a ghost in the master bedroom. We all agreed on this when discussing it in retrospect, but were too fearful to acknowledge its presence while still living in the house.

5. Camberwell – 10 months?
A spider-infested but otherwise nice basement flat on what was allegedly one of the most burglarised streets in London. Top tip: if anyone you know move to such a location, please do leave them to their ignorance; we have the Daily Mail if we want to live in paranoia. I think the rent was around £450, which was a bit expensive but okay. Positives to this flat included oak floors and the neighbours’ cat, but the endless bus journeys to get to the tube is the overarching memory, not to mention a general reason never to move back south of the river ever again. Prejudiced, yes, but that’s my opinion.

6. Spitalfields – 10 months
This little flat marked the wise, wise move to East London. I could see Spitalfields Market from the living room window, a fantastic feature which was strongly reflected in the price, meaning my boyfriend and I were financially unable to take advantage of our new and fancy location. Having said that, paying £600 for this flat would be a steal today; the gentrification is complete and Urban Outfitters has since moved in across the road. I spent a lot of time wandering around buzzy Brick Lane late at night. Every few days I’d get a bag of fresh bagels, which at 15p a pop from Beigel Bake was budget food. It wasn’t bad at all.

7. Shoreditch – 18 months?
I found this flatshare in a grimy Shoreditch council estate on the internet while in a daze, brought on by looking for a new job and a new house while also contract-bound to co-exist with my ex in the tiniest flat ever. The fact the ensuing dark-side-of-Shoreditch life worked out as well as it did was a stroke of luck; at £550 the rent even included most bills. The estate kids threw water balloons, sure, but they never managed to hit me, and Shoreditch was the perfect place to live when I was single and needed a crowd on my street to walk through when coming home late at night.

8. Mile End – 10 months
Really nice flat, this, and the high-speed trains from Essex which brushed up against the wall every 15 minutes provided this interesting suction effect in the air. The rent was discounted because the recession had just hit, and at £450 it was a steal for such a spacious flat, close to both the tube and the park. I lived with a friend who was a cleaning nut, and he deemed my domestic efforts so insufficient that he preferred to do it all himself. It seemed like a good arrangement at first, until his control-freakery leaked into other aspects of our lives and it became absolutely necessary for me to leave. I’d go into detail, but I seem to have blocked out most of it. Safe to say, this is a cautionary tale.

9. Limehouse – 22 months
My longest stay at a London address to date. By this point I’d started to notice how a good flat would invariably reveal an issue to do with plumbing or the other humans and lead to short stays, while the shitty flats tended to result in long stays. This was no exception: the company was good, but the Poplar border-location was terrible and every single household appliance broke while we lived there – some more than once. A constant feature was how the shower would swing rapidly between hot and cold, meaning I can now wash like I’m Roadrunner. It was really cheap though, at just £420 a month, so we put up with it until the rent went up by 20% overnight and we left in shock. It was probably for the best.

10. Stoke Newington – 16 months and counting
My favourite house so far: it’s big, it’s full of nice people and touch wood, no major issues have yet to be identified. I mean, the mice moved on almost right away once we got the sonic repellers. If anyone’s curious, I’ve identified the key to houseshare happiness: a mixed group of three to five people, a cleaning rota and a working boiler. I moved to the Stokey-Dalston borderlands after a two-week stay at a friend’s to tide me over the search, which I actually conducted with some care this time. (In hindsight, this may have been the core problem leading to many of the previous duds.) The house is massive but the room is a shoebox; the rent reflects this and consequently I have money left to spend on airfare. I am very happy about this choice. This is also my first North London postcode, meaning I’ve done the circle. To my surprise, I absolutely love it up here. “I may never move again,” she said.

[Update: 13 houses in 15 years in London]

How to be a freelancer and still go travelling

Published in The Billfold, 2012. Original article here.

billfold travelHow to be a freelancer and still go travelling
There was very little about going freelance that threatened to put me off, back when I did it a year or so ago. Sure, I would probably never be able to get a mortgage, and my lack of preparation meant that my savings would take a pounding as I worked to get the show on the road. These were the things that bothered my friends when I told them about my plans to quit to go it alone, my voice full of manic relief at finally reaching a point where I no longer gave a monkey’s about money; I just wanted my freedom.

The only thing that niggled at me about my plan, or should I say lack thereof, was the fact that I probably wouldn’t be able to travel. I love going places, mostly long weekends in neighbouring European countries, but I suspected my hair-brained idea would cost me my precious San Francisco trip. I’d lived in the Bay Area for three months when I was a very impressionable 19, and I’d fallen hook, line and sinker for the foggy city and was gagging to go back. But transatlantic vacations are for people who sweat it out in offices, collecting regular salaries … right?

Actually, no. A year and a bit after I jumped into the freelance pool I found myself on an airplane headed for San Francisco, where I stayed for 29 amazing days without putting any of it on credit. This is how I did it:

1. I’m a freelancer; I’m a minimalist. The day my pay checks stopped coming in at regular intervals was the day I stopped shopping. Goodbye to new clothes, trinkets and gadgets; hello make do and mend, libraries and hand-me-downs. This may sound restricting but I found it strangely liberating, knowing I could live on very little money. It made me feel in control. And unless you are Kate Middleton, no one needs more than five dresses, I swear. Of course, I still get coffee and the occasional Thai meal with friends, but now that my income is so closely tied to my efforts, the value of money has gone up.

2. Experiences are the new Things. As a kid I remember thinking it doesn’t count as a gift unless it’s wrapped. Don’t get me wrong: I get as excited as the next geek over my Apple products, but generally speaking, shifting my focus from things to experiences has gone a long way to make me happier spending less money. For me, freelancing meant trading money for time, but this is the thing: they were right when they said the best things in life are free. Happiness isn’t a widescreen TV, it’s an afternoon walk by the canal with an ice cream. Or at the very least, I’m convinced you can have just as good a time, if not better, at the hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant where you can bring your own beer, as you can at some fancy place with linen napkins.

3. Let your freak flag fly. Of course, this sudden tightwad attitude may well cause people to think you are weird. I remember the look on my then-boyfriend’s face when I suggested that instead of spending three figures on his birthday present, I get us some fish and chips and a bottle of rum, and throw the money saved in a pot marked ‘Rome’. Apparently that’s not as romantic as I thought. So beware: once you start comparing every price tag to or airmiles, there may be casualties.

4. We do what we want. When I announced having finally bought my San Francisco ticket, people would lament over not having the money to do something similar. Then they’d show me what they’d just bought from American Apparel. I’ve realised most people resent being reminded of the connection between the two, because underneath it all, we do what we want – even if we don’t realise it. I kept thinking I wanted to buy my own place, but it finally dawned on me that I’ve moved ten times in the past ten years so I’m probably the rootless kind. I’ve now stopped reading the real estate pages. To sum it up: if you want to travel, stop buying takeaway pizza.

5. Keep your eye on the prize. I can spend a hundred on a big night out, or I can use that money to pay for a whole week in a hostel in Istanbul. Of course there has to be a balance, but chances are you can have just as good a time on half that money if you’re careful. And while being a new-ish freelancer puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to cash, the time saved on commuting alone means I now have time to cook from scratch. But all this presumes one thing: that there is something you want, and badly. For me it was a Mission burrito and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Now I’m thinking it’s high time I go to a little place called New York. I hear it’s incredible.