Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Working Nine To Five (well, sometimes)

I’m working!

I have been back in the capital a while now, and a couple of weeks ago decided I’d aim for a three day working week, just as I had been doing a few months ago in Campbeltown. 

Some think it’s lame, lazy even, but if I’m to try and hold onto what little is left of my sabbatical, it seems worth a try - at least whilst there is still some folding in the bank.

Last week, my three days in the office were spent setting up my machine and getting it to run right. It’s slightly older than the laptop I’ve been using so I had to retune my head a little. I also spent some time putting feelers out, contacting old colleagues, and generally looking for work.

LinkedIn, for the unaccustomed, is a fabulous website rather like Facebook but for professional contacts. You can hunt down old work contacts and see where they work these days, as well as target new ones who might be able to help you in some way. In return, you too become targeted by individuals who might be looking for your particular skill-set, or to make contact with someone you know. I think they call it ‘networking’. 

References from various key working relationships help sell your offer, both those that you hold, along with those that you write for others.

A combination of other sites and blogs as well as keeping my own up to date, have helped get my ball rolling, and very quickly at that.

By the end of the week, it seemed I’d had a spot of luck.

Firstly, out of the blue, an email from a magazine looking for someone to undertake a rolling illustration commission for a new publication - 13 issues a year.

The money isn’t great, but the work is - exactly the calibre I’ve been gearing myself towards with my personal illustration work! It seems all that hard work could be paying off, and I’ve yet to find out how they discovered me. I’ve been so busy in fact that I’m currently not really paying attention to the hunt for more work - the biggest error in business. 

That’ll come in time though.

The other interesting potential project around the corner is one for a couple of entrepreneurs who need help building their brand - the other calibre of work that is right up my street - mainly because I’m well practiced in this line of work. I approached them after seeing a call for input, and they seem interested in speaking to me.

It’s of huge personal interest too, so fingers crossed, the planned meeting in a few days turns it into something more solid.

So this week has been spent basically working on the commission to agree direction, and pulling a presentation together for the other guys. 

For the latter, I spent the best part of yesterday at the all new Canada Water Library, a fantastic resource that is well used by the community. 

Not only is the architecture amazingly cool, but the facilities inside are cutting edge!

I sat up in the gods of the building, overlooking Twinkle and Rhettstar in the toddler group far below, working away with a great coffee and slice of chocolate fudge-cake at a workstation with wifi and a power outlet along with some trendy student types.

I don’t have to stress about setting the alarm, I can avoid the rush hour, I’ve yet to work late (although I do work through lunch often to balance the time out), I can choose to work around the corner or go into the office, or indeed just take the day off without having to sign a form or beg to the boss (although technically, I guess I do beg the real boss - Twinkle)

I'm not entirely sure I can claim to be 'on sabbatical' any more, but if I can continue to pull this gig off, I think I might have found the perfect work / life balance!

Friday, September 14, 2012

London Calling

Finally, I'm in London again.

I've been away for five years. There is a fantastic vibe here I'd forgotten all about, but more than this, London is now new and improved!

It's been quite a year in London during my absence. The Queen (gawd bless her) has had her Diamond Jubilee, and the London Olympics have only just finished too.

And whilst I sadly missed the celebrations, there is still an air of happiness on the streets. People smile now, and god forbid, even the staff on the London Underground walk and talk with a new found spark of liveliness.

It's a London I like!

The coffee is good (so long as I remember to ask for a 'single shot Latte') as is the food and because of a lack of panic to get to work, the Underground now seems actually quite bearable in the mornings. My Oyster Card, framed in 2007 and underscored with the letters 'R.I.P.' has been reinstated as my ticket to ride (now with a funky Buckingham Palace illustration!), and I'm renting a desk 4 stops from home, in Waterloo, just a stones throw from Big Ben, London Bridge, and of course, the River Thames.

Working once again in a real office, with real people wasn't in the plan. Well, certainly not yet, but needs must, and our tiny flat here means there is no room for any form of setup at home now that we have a toddler. But the office is very close, and it does start to separate the two things - work and home - meaning I can start to treat my illustration work as 'work' and not simply play.

I feel like a grown up again - but not one who has returned to his old working life in London - a more mature adult who is starting out for the first time on a new mission. It's all fresh again. No one is telling me off for not working fast enough, no one is feeding me bullshit about why I can't have a better pay deal. I'm finally my own boss.

It's all on my shoulders now. No one to blame for it failing but myself.

Shit. What on Gods earth am I doing? I have mouths to feed! I'm too old to be pissing the family money up the wall on this daft sabbatical aren't I?

Well, you know what, life is too short. I learnt that lesson many years ago, and have recently been reminded of that fact again. So the party must continue, at least for now. The fear of money alone will keep me kicking like an enraged bull at a rodeo.

Yesterday, I started drawing again, catching up on last weeks Illustration Friday, and I now have in my possession what we shipped 9 months ago from Australia - including my iMac, and most importantly, my toaster desk tidy to house what now seems like a huge collection of pens and pencils.

London, I think we'll stay a while.

*If you too want pictures of London's iconic landscape without the presence of thousands of tourists ruining your shots, arrive before 6am. London is at it's best at sunrise.

Pause, Play.

When I began this sabbatical, I never thought for one second it would take the route it has over the past 9 months. And the latest saga only added to the madness endured since leaving our very standard life back in Sydney.

Here’s a quick recap of the situation so far:

Italy for 5 days. Terrible weather forced us to abandon ship.
Europe for 3 weeks, waiting for divine intervention. A fabulous holiday, but hardly a sabbatical.
Mull of Kintyre for 3 months. Some success with family time and creative projects, but utter remoteness soon ground us down. An issue with our own property came to light, and we decided to return to London.
Feral Tenants refuse to leave our home, rendering us homeless, jobless, and without any clue how to fix the problem (sending in the heavies was sadly not an option).

Following our latest dilemma, I did the only thing I could think of, and appealed on Facebook to anyone who might have an empty property that our family could move into immediately. It was a huge ask.

But sometimes the planets really do align. 

Our savior came in the form of an ex-colleague from several years previous. Her mum had sadly passed away up in Edinburgh, leaving the family home of 35 years to be tied up by three exhausted siblings. There would be lots of sorting of items, and lots of re-decoration to undertake, and in return unlimited use of the house for the foreseeable future. It seemed like a completely logical solution for two very different situations, and whilst initially it felt like it might be quite an uncomfortable experience, all involved seemed to think it might work.

My sabbatical took a pause whilst we were up in Edinburgh, to allow full dedication to the challenge, but the new skills I learnt during this period have proved just as worthy as the creative ones I thought I’d be learning. 

For a few short weeks, a truly beautiful house in the very charming district of Morningside, Edinburgh became home to us, as we forged close relationships with the family involved. In what went on to become a personal and humbling experience, I'm so honored to have been able to help the three of them - we'll forever be grateful they allowed us into their very private world.

But news soon came through that the feral tenants had been served papers from the courts, and they quickly moved out of our own property. We gave the order to immediately change the locks to ensure they could not return, and three weeks later, we endured the long drive south again, returning to London to collect our new keys.

What we found inside was a filthy pigsty, uncleaned (ironic, given that our tenants were actually professional cleaners), and uncared for during their stay. After putting in a claim for their entire deposit, we set about turning the hovel back into a home, leaving no stone unturned along the way. Whilst we still have much to do, normal life can finally begin to start. 

And so, what of my sabbatical? 

Our return to London after all these months has not put a stop to my creative adventures. Whilst it will be much harder here in London, my intention is still very much to break into illustration, rather than return to full time employment. Sure, I’m bound to undertake some freelance work to pay the bills and mortgage, but as the old saying goes,  it’s not over until the fat lady sings, and she’s yet to get up on stage. 

It's time to play again.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Keep Calm And Carry On

Three days from the end of our holiday in Porto, and just 5 days before we were due to move into our flat in London, we received a very blunt email from our Estate Agent informing us that our tenants would not be leaving our property.
Initially, we thought they didn’t have a leg to stand on, given that we’d served notice some two months earlier, but, after appointing a solicitor to deal with the problem, it became very clear that these people could not be physically removed by us, or anyone else except Her Majesty’s Heavies - namely a Court appointed bailiff. 
We decided to do some digging around to see who we were dealing with, and after a quick visit to a neighbours house, we discovered that our tenants are in fact Brazilian, and aren’t the girlfriend and boyfriend that we were led to believe they were. They’re a family of four with two children aged around 10 and 14 who are both regularly seen riding their bicycles around the Close.
It also transpired after a visit to the Estate Agent that these people are refusing to leave purely because they’ve discovered a loophole in British Law - a ruling that suggests that they are guaranteed to jump to the very top of the waiting list for a Council property if they are evicted by the Court.
People like this make me (and most others) very angry. Not only are they depriving us of moving back home, but they’re also depriving others of a much needed affordable Council house - people who have possibly waited patiently in line for many years. It’s a blatent fiddle of the system, and to make matters worse (if that were at all possible), us, as landlords, have just one route to getting our property back - through the Court. 
If we interfere with them in any way at all, our case for repossession will only take longer - anything up to a year. As it stands, we could be homeless for up to 4 months. 
We can’t change the locks or cut their power supply, or send in anyone else to chase them out - in fact, we can’t even knock on the door and have a polite conversation with them without risk of them saying we’re harassing them. 
As tenants, they have the right to remain at the property until a Court orders them out. As landlords, we have almost no rights at all.
Interestingly enough, despite us suddenly being homeless, despite us having a child under the age of two and despite us being the lawful owners of the property (which is full of furniture owned by us), we aren’t entitled to emergency Council housing.
Why? Because we are homeowners.
Rulings like this often cause people to get physically violent, and whilst I don’t believe we will, it does get more and more tempting with each day that passes whilst they still live in our home. Almost all of our friends, and most of our family has mentioned at one time or another to ‘change the locks’, and even the lady on the customer service desk of the Nationwide (our mortgage provider) told us to ‘send in the heavies’.
It seems we are not alone in thinking the law in the UK does not work as it should. 

It equally seems that a man's home is only his castle once he's spent almost a thousand pounds of his child's college fund, and waited several months to repossess it.

A Brief Introduction To Porto

After our stay in Stratford Upon Avon, we found ourselves with 10 days to waste away before returning to our London flat, and so parted with a very overladen Croissant and boarded an Easyjet flight to Porto in Portugal. 
Porto is a wonderful place, still extremely rough around the edges, and full of mostly locals rather than tourists. Many menus, flyers, and signs are in Portuguese only, but with a little effort in the local language, the people of Porto are ridiculously friendly, especially with a toddler in tow.
There are apparently roads in Porto that are steeper than those of San Francisco, and after dragging 2 suitcases, a backpack and a push-chair from the tram stop to the hotel in blazing heat and along the cobbled streets, we soon realised this wasn’t going to be the peaceful, stress-free break we thought it would be.
Portugal is clearly in recession. Many of it’s shops are closed down, and urban decay is around each and every corner. Graffiti is rife in Porto too, adding to its incredibly run down look. 
But it does hold a certain charm. As wooden doors and windows flake and rot in the relentless sun, life goes on. Cafés buzz, there are trendy arts in every second store, and there are small businesses squeezed into the tightest corners of the city churning out a whole gamut of goodies. 
A deep ravine cuts its way through the centre, bridged by superstructures designed by amongst others Gustave Eiffel. An ancient tram system with vintage stock rattles its way through the tiny filthy streets, ringing it’s bell constantly at illegally parked cars blocking the rails. Porto is home to possible the worlds most beautiful bookstore, with a staircase like I've never seen before, and many of it's buildings are covered with stunning ceramic tiles.

By pure luck, we were there during the São João (Saint John) festival, whereby quite literally the whole of Porto parties in the streets. Locals release fire fuelled lanterns up high into the sky and spend the evening hitting each other over the head with large plastic mallets.

We loved it!
However, our brief introduction to this town was abruptly ruined, with a very blunt email from our estate agent back in London, telling us that ultimately we would not be moving back home any time soon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

From Warts 'n' All To Walton Hall

2 days ago, we left Scotland, and undertook another mammoth journey south, Croissant the Peugeot loaded to the rafters with all we currently have in our possession.
Various reasons have driven us away from the 17th century converted cowshed, including issues with our own property down in London, and sadly for now, we will have to move back south, and into our tiny flat. Timing has meant we have a fortnight on the road again, and so we are taking some time to relax.
Liverpool was our first port of call, to buy new clothes and shoes, and after somehow squeezing them into our very full cases, we drove to Stratford Upon Avon - the 800 year old market town famous for being the birthplace of William Shakespeare - for a spot of dinner with Emma, a friend from Australia, over for a holiday.
A truly stunning place, Stratford’s streets are littered with wobbly original tudor architecture, has Red White and Blue bunting everywhere thanks to the Jubilee and even a couple of ice cream canal boats. It’s probably what most Americans think of when visually summing up England. 
Equally impressive is the amazing hotel Twinkle booked us for tonight on a ‘less than £75 budget including breakfast’. 
Walton Hall is clearly meant to be more expensive than we have paid thanks to - nestled in 65 acres of rolling Warwickshire countryside, it boasts it’s own chapel, clock tower, stable block, and even a second, somewhat less impressive hotel we thought we were staying in. On arrival we were promptly told ‘we have your booking Sir, but you’re not in the hotel, you’re down in the Hall. It’s a short drive away I’m afraid’.
Clearly I’m not posh as I’ve never checked into a large hotel that lacks a reception desk, nor have I ever had a room that has it’s own entrance, an upstairs, and complimentary umbrellas, but I’ve quickly become accustom to how the other half lives!
I might insist on a brisk walk around the lake tomorrow morning to admire the swans before returning to the real world...

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Town That Time Forgot

Yesterday, I awoke at 4.45am, showered, and grabbed the camera before heading for the town centre. The objective - a little photography project I've had in mind since arriving in Campbeltown. I wanted to capture it in its full grim glory. Why so early? To capture it before the streets became lined with cars.

Whilst I wandered the streets with my trusty Nikon D40x, I was very conscious that I looked to be planning an armed raid on the Clydesdale Bank, especially when a Strathclyde police van cruised past me with it's uniformed occupant giving me a long hard death stare. I also saw a cyclist, and an old man who I think had had one too many whiskies.

Everyone else slept in their beds as I stood in the middle of the road snapping the High Street before returning home for breakfast before 7am. Twinkle and Rhett were still snoring.

Incidentally, the hours of daylight up here in Argyll are amazing currently - it's light long before even the farmers are out of bed, and it stays bright until well past 11pm.

The full set of images I clicked can be seen on Flickr - here

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Week In The Life Of A Caretaker

Keeping a row of 300 year old cottages running isn’t as easy as it sounds. A row of 300 year old converted cow sheds (which is what this place actually is) is even harder.
Almost overnight I had no choice but to become a handyman, to quickly fix leaks, an a gamut of other problems that constantly spring up. Everything from no tin opener to no electric is my problem, and I have to think fast when someone knocks on the door complaining that their Kintyre retreat isn’t quite as it was sold to them.
More often than not, I’m expected to fashion a repair using what limited resources I have up here, made all the worse to by an owner who often doesn’t like buying anything other than the cheapest of equipment. My toolbox is poorly stocked with screwdrivers that bend and buckle, and a drill that struggled to drill holes in anything except plasterboard.
Painting is made tricky because of cheap brushes that shed their bristles (it’s viewed as more cost effective to buy cheap brushes and throw them away, rather than spend money on cleaning materials), and the endless supply of twenty year old paint tins with an inch or two of crusty paint in their bases doesn’t make the task any easier.
Never the less, always up for a challenge, I’ve been plodding on with tasks over the past two months, to hold up my end of the deal. And I’ve learnt to make do with what I have, often with fairly pleasing results. 
This week, I’ve:

  • Built and fitted a DIY kitchen
  • Removed the old kitchen to the local tip
  • Laid a new lino floor
  • Painted two park benches
  • Painted three external windows
  • Painted an interior wall
  • Mowed the (extensive) grass
  • De-weeded the gravel driveway
  • Removed a dead Starling chick 
  • Removed the tail, hind legs, and lower torso of a brown mouse

Me and my little pal build a new kitchen

Rhett takes control of the hammer

Ways to wear your own car out

Not my choice of colour!

I’ve also arranged an electrician to fix a broken hot water timer after complaints from guests that their shower was cold, and arranged a roofer to check out the leaking ceiling in another cottage. Not easy when you don’t speak fluent Scottish like the local tradesmen do. Directions to our cottages are my Achilles Heel; even Google lists our postcode as being two miles south of where it actually is.
Juggling repairs around guests being on site is all part of the challenge, made especially hard when we have a full house, as we did last week.
And keeping track of the keys isn’t easy either. I have a bunch that quite literally makes me look (and often feel) like the head jailer - this week alone I've managed to lock two German guests out of their cottage twice. I think they think I’m rifling through their things when they’re not here, but a lifetime of living in the city has brainwashed me to check doors are locked at all times, even if people have very deliberately left them unlocked. Of course, up here, the only people likely to wander past usually have four legs and a sheepskin coat on.
Generally speaking, because the place is in such disrepair, jobs can, and often do wait. If the sun is shining, or the son is crying, I tend to drop everything, and head for the nearest beach. Life, after all, is short.
The owners seems pleased with progress - I've worked my way through nearly everything on their list - and besides, I guess the real reason we’re here is to keep the place occupied, and see guests in and out.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Grass Is Always Greener

My mum does the lottery each and every week - she always plays the same numbers, religiously watches the live draw on the Beeb, and without fail rolls her eyes and toots as her numbers fail once again to come up.
Money, she thinks, will make life so much better. If she gave me a pound every time she said ‘When I win the lottery...’ I’d be rich enough to buy her a house. And a speedboat for that matter.
Money, so they say, makes the world go round - the more you have, the easier life is.
I can vouch for this to some extent - I used to have a job that allowed us a fairly good standard of life. We had a beautiful apartment in the centre of a bustling city, went to restaurants whenever we wanted, and bought more new clothes than a family of three could ever need. I even used to have my hair cut by someone who used to massage my head for 30 minutes prior to pulling her scissors out. Life indeed was good.
So money wasn’t our problem. 
Time, I felt was the main issue, hence exchanging wealth for a clock with more hours.
Now, with all the time in the world, and nothing to spend our money on except food and diesel, logic would suggest that I’d be as happy as a pig in shit. 
But no, it’s now inspiration I crave - the one thing I don’t have here, yet the one thing I need so desperately to make it as an Illustrator. The call of the big city with its rich tapestry of inputs is very tempting compared to the endlessly boring hills of the Kintyre Peninsula. 
So, to help me work through my latest dilemma of disappointment, I now try on a daily basis to live by this fabulous quote I recently read:
If the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, maybe yours needs a little more tending

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Too Good To Be True?

Rent free.

Two little words that would make most people's ears prick up in view of suddenly being a whole lot richer than they are currently. It's a bit like a free bus ride, or fiddling the electric meter. It sounds good in theory, but there must be a catch, right?

Get caught dodging a bus fare, and you'll land yourself a fine. Get caught fiddling the electric company out of your hard earned sterling, and you'll land up in prison. But what is the catch with (legally) living rent free?

Rent free is what it says it is - you simply don't pay rent. And that can save you tens of thousands of pounds each year. Often, there are other perks too, like no council tax, free phone calls, and free power. We pay for the electricity we use, and for broadband, but everything else is free.

On the upside, our arrangement offers us a life without annoying neighbours, 4 other fully furnished cottages that we can (and do) use, our own large field - great for spontaneous games of football, kite flying and the like, and endless usage of the farmland on which we're located.

But probably the biggest upside is no boss on site, essentially leaving us to our own devices practically all the time. We can work when we choose, and only work one day per week, leaving the majority of time for our own endeavours.

But surely, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Living conditions clearly weren't ever going to be the Ritz, and we certainly didn't walk into this project thinking we'd be living like Lord and Lady of the Manor. But until you arrive at a property in view to a long term sit, you really have no idea what you're walking into, except for a few honest, or not so honest chats over Skype with the owners.

We've had chats twice now, with the people that own this place, and with Angelika in Italy. In both cases, the truth does seem to have somewhat been glossed over. It's not that there were blatant lies told, more that the honest and open truth wasn't quite told.

Because if the truth be known, the truth would probably put most people off.

So, expect the worse.

We didn't, and have been hugely disappointed since first arriving here almost exactly as we were in Italy - you'd think we'd have learned from our previous mistakes!

Constant dampness

Press once for washing up, twice for a shower. Ready in 30 minutes

1950's heating in the bedrooms

Gutter Gardening

All mod-cons

Last tested in 1997

Expect there to be shocking furniture and decor, poorly maintained interiors, windows that don't close, roofs that don't keep the rain out, peeling paint, damp, mould, rodents, poor equipment, and a general living condition you might not have been expecting.

Twinkle perfectly summed this place up after a couple of days of living here when she observed we were suddenly living like students. That's exactly what it's like - a student house, poorly furnished and extremely poorly maintained. Well, certainly that was the case in at least 3 of the houses I lived in whilst studying all those years ago.

But remember, the moral of this story is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Ever.

So, if you want to be your own boss, and do very little work in exchange for a roof over your head (albeit a not so dry one), and importantly, you don't mind living like a scabby student, his house sitting gig might just be right up your street.