The Dream

How do we do this living thing? I’ve concluded it’s a lifetime learning process.

I’d been through a bad time. A bereavement. An in depth investigation by the Inland Revenue. I’d lost my sense of direction, questioned my values. I was thirty eight years old and an unexpected clarity settled on me:  Life has no purpose. You have to be religious to believe otherwise, and I have no religion. We are born, we live, we die. Driven by a need to survive, our species, like all others, has adapted our lifespan to fit in an ecological niche. Longer or shorter and we are less successful as a species.

Our lives are short by evolved design. Painfully short. I was half way though my life and realised, really understood, I was going to die. Like billions upon billions before me. There is no meaning to life. No purpose, but, what we have is so precious. Precious because it is in such a limited supply. Life. We can’t buy any more when it runs out. There is no refund if it fails to meet your expectations. We must therefore utilise every second in a way that minimises regrets and maximises joy.

I did the math. I could afford it if I was careful. So I retired. It took two years to find a buyer for my business. I arranged my life to minimise outgoings. I was surprised how little one needs to live when the focus changes from the material to the aesthetic.

The cost of living in UK is high though. In Spain it’s less. At the time, a lot less. The skies are bluer and they are blue nearly every day. I bought a hovel about 10 miles from the coast on the Costa Blanca for the price of a good second hand Jaguar. My life became a joyous adventure again.


A Proper Pool

It started off as a garage. My neighbour told me I needed to go to the town hall and obtain a permit. So I went, my Spanish was coming along nicely, I was confident.

The town hall, ayuntamiento, was a backroom in a small terraced house. They didn’t speak Spanish, they spoke Valencian. OMG, I was learning the wrong language. A Wallis & Grommet wrong trousers moment.

I muddled through, paid some money, understood a man called Architecto would visit. If OK, they would inform me.

Time past, I paid another visit. The Architecto should have been, I was told, I must have been out. As he hadn’t commented negatively I would be OK to start work. I spent several days laying a concrete base and had concrete blocks delivered. Five palettes of blocks. The garden was now a builders yard.

Bright and early (it was always bright), I mixed a batch of mortar and enthusiastically laid the first block. Life was good! No it wasn’t. By the third block a little van pulled up in the drive. The man from the town hall (house) was telling me I had to stop work. The lady that owned the field behind me had complained and I didn’t have a building licence. I showed him the receipt he had given me. That turned out to be for the tax I had to pay on the building project. It got worse. I could not build a garage there (next to the field) I had to be five metres away. Oh! I conveyed my disappointment at having to lay a complete new concrete base in front of the old one. No, that was not possible either. I had to be twelve metres from the road. He helped with the tape measure, the conclusion, my garage could be up to 1.5 metres long. So. They’d let me build a bicycle shed.

I gestured in dismay at the piles of concrete blocks surrounding us. He shrugged his shoulders and said “Piscina”. Was he taking the pisc? “Swimming pool,” my neighbour commented, lurking behind an oleander. Hmm. “Piscina?” I asked. “Si,” he confirmed, gesturing for me to take the end of the tape measure. After measuring distances from road and boundary, scratching acceptable size limits in the dirt, he patted me on the shoulder and left.

Much research, a lot more concrete and even more blocks. Lots of steel reinforcing bar. I bought myself a tiny digging machine. It took three months. But it looked like a proper swimming pool. It was!

Building a Better Bike

I’ve enjoyed cycling. I wouldn’t call myself a cyclist. Bicycles are basically a pain in the bum. Also a pain in the shoulders. And if you’ve any pretensions of sportiness you’ll have your head down over the handlebars and will also get a pain in the neck, if you want to avoid running into things.

There must be a better way. While cycling in Spain something low and brightly yellow zipped past very fast with a hiss of rubber and smooth whine of free wheeling derailleur. WTF? I was doing 37 mph down the side of a mountain! The rider  (pilot?) must have been doing at least 50 without pedalling. A gently twisting descent, the yellow thing was out of sight in seconds, no time to take in details but a seed had been planted.

I discovered what I had to have was something called a “recumbent”. They came in many forms and configurations. The technology and design was young and in a state of flux but they had one thing in common: One sat reclined on a hammock facing skywards rather than hunched over the handle bars looking at the ground with a piece of hard plastic or leather stuffed up one’s backside. Yo! There was a better way!

Reality check. These machines were nearly all custom made. There were one or two semi mass produced models but more of a novelty line than a serious bike. They were talking £2000 plus for a credible bespoke machine. Out of the question.

But not out of mind. I’d worked on some mind bendingly complex projects in the past, how difficult could it be to design and build one? I owned three bikes, I could sacrifice one to the cause. I brought home a couple of dumped bikes found on waste ground. After a couple of weeks looking at other designs I decided on a feet in front of front wheel configuration. The pedals would be mounted on a strut extending out and above the front wheel.

I’d done a bit of brazing in the past so this was to be the method of “gluing” the bits together. A mig welder would have been a better choice but cost ruled that out. I had to buy a small 20″ front wheel but otherwise the three bike frames gave me all the bits I needed to build a rolling chassis. With the extended chain hanging almost to the ground and no brakes at all, I was soon wobbling along in a fixed gear on a quiet lane. This was really going to work!

I added lugs for V brakes. A 3 speed hub gear combined with a 7 cog derailleur gave me 21 gears. I sprayed the frame bright red and added a comfy foam padded seat. It even looked good. Weird, but good.

It took a few weeks to adapt physically but soon I was cruising along in what looked like a very cool way, literally “laid back”. The best part was downhill. Going over the brow of a hill was like falling off a cliff. Wind resistance was so much less, even on a moderately steep descent I’d reach speeds of over 50 mph. I regularly overtook cars and motorbikes.

Not all was plain sailing. A common problem with recumbents is “numb bum”. Your weight is mostly on your bum cheeks and after an hour of pedalling at first a numbness occurs, and shortly after a dull ache. Another problem was the amount of interest it generated. I could not go anywhere on it without having to explain the ideas behind it. Even if I never made a stop I’d get other cyclist alongside keen to know all the details and often wanting to race me.

So, an exciting ride, definitely good fun. Design and building made a very interesting project. But I’m glad I couldn’t afford to buy a ready made one for £2000.






My Little Motor

I was stuck in commuter traffic. Two lanes, stop, start, progressing at a snails pace. I edged passed a car transporter. On it’s flatbed was a very strange, well strapped down, quite dilapidated vehicle. It was almost toy like, vaguely like an old motorcycle sidecar. A pre-sixties number plate confirmed its antiquity.

I discovered later it was a Messerschmitt KR175, a two seater, one seat in front of the other. Powered by a lawn motor size 175 cc engine, a top speed of 50 mph was pretty impressive. What a useful vehicle it would be in today’s world of congested cities, where average speed was no more than a cruising pedal cycle.

I wanted one. Totally impractical, unreliable, and even if I could afford one, too valuable for just pottering around town. Oh well.

Years later, Renault introduced The Renault Twizy. A two seater, one in front of the other, electric car! Practical, totally reliable, affordable. I had to have one! And here it is!

The 17 BHP electric motor does not sound impressive, but for a car that weighs a third of a “normal” car, performance is more than adequate. 0-30 mph in 4.4 seconds. 0-60? It’s limited to a max of 50 mph. This ensures a useful range of up to sixty miles. To drive, it’s like an electric go kart. Exhilaration takes over, screeching tires, whistling wind. The shape, the size, the plastic body, it’s like an amusement park ride! Where’s the coin slot? Up to 60 miles range in reality for me is less than 40 miles. It’s very difficult to stay sensible. I love it!



I would see it in the distance, close enough for it to look interesting but not close enough to appreciate the scale and incongruity. I would have been about six years old the first time. We were on our way to Salisbury, Saturday morning shopping trip.

“What’s all those big stones for Dad?”

“Ancient Britons put them there .”

“What are they for?”

“No one knows.”

“Can we go and see them?”

“Not today. We’re going shopping today.”

I asked a a couple more times on later trips but invariably our schedule was prefixed and immutable. I lost interest, we moved two hundred miles north, the tantalising glimpses soon tucked away in a dusty corner of my mind.

My father being a military man meant we moved every two or three years and at the age of fourteen I was excited to be told we were moving back to the area. I’d recently seen a TV program explaining that the stones had been transported an immense distance, thousands of years ago. Their purpose was probably religious and astrological. These explanations seemed both wondrous and implausible. The alternatives of magic or aliens seemed equally possible and more appealing to a young teenager. I stated my urgent need to visit the stones and managed to infect my parents to a small degree with excitement at the prospect.

I wish we had a record of the visit! At the time it was a minor excursion, to my parents anyway. No thought of digging out the Kodak Brownie, what with the cost of film and developing. That was only for special occasions.

It must have been Spring. A sunny morning, cool, crisp air but warm in the sunshine on an almost windless day. We arrived in my father’s rusty old Jag, a sparsely gravelled strip along the side of the road provided parking. Before getting out of the car I was impressed, intimidated, intensely curious. There was a rickety fence separating us from the grassy slope leading up to the stones.

“We’ve got to pay!” said my father indignantly, “One and sixpence each!” For a moment I was dismayed, then noticed my father smiling.

The entrance was marked with a tired looking wooden shed with a fold down front. A very old man, at least sixty I thought, sat behind a selection of key chains, pencils, booklets and the like.

“Two adults and a child please,” requested my father pleasantly. Horrified I noticed the child price of sixpence up to the age of twelve on the chalk board. I tried to look small. And younger. The very old man smiled at my father and winked at me while he unrolled and tore off the requested tickets.

stonehengeDashing ahead, up the slope, I was impatient to be amongst the stones at last. I slowed to a respectful walk as I passed between two massive monoliths. The true scale was now revealed. I felt insignificant in both stature and time. These huge boulders had been dragged hundreds of miles and erected here by stone age man. How was that remotely possible without modern technology? The events and history that these stones had witnessed… Already thousands of years old when the Romans arrived, and that was thousands of years ago. I walked among them as the stone age men and Romans had done. I touched them, ignored the “Please don’t climb on the stones” sign, climbed on them. They emanated a brooding antiquity. They had presence. I was fascinated and enchanted by them. And that’s something that’s stayed with me to this day.

I was working on something that needed me to do a fair bit of delicate wood shaping. I’d got myself suitably tooled up for the project and it was quite a satisfying experience. So. I decided to carve Stonehenge out of a surplus six foot plank of wood.

I felt my skills were more artisan than artistic, perhaps inadequate for the accurate 3D  depiction I had in mind. To enable a more predictable outcome I downloaded a 3D model of Stonehenge into Sketchup, a 3D design program. Using this I was able to play around with the viewpoint and then create a grey scale image. From this I printed a suitably proportioned copy  to paste to the plank of wood. It was the 3D carving equivalent of a colouring book and crayons.

Carved, sanded, stained, waxed, polished. Back illuminated with LED strip. It’s quite striking and seems to impress visitors who marvel at my artistic ability. What a fraud I am! Just a colouring book artist.

This ‘Ole House

I was listening to the radio, one of those text in the answer features came up: What was the song that had the words “fix the shingles”. That rang a bell, what was it? Shakin’ Stevens, This Ole House? I looked up the lyrics and found the song had quite a story behind it. Written by Stuart Hamblen in 1954, he was quite the “colorful character”. Mostly a singer/songwriter, he was born to the family of an itinerant Methodist preacher. Later in life he described himself as the original juvenile delinquent. As a young man he was often in trouble with his drinking, even ending up in jail for brawling and destructive behavior.

He did write some amazing songs though and this one was particularly moving for me when I discovered the inspiration behind it and found the original version. Listen, and be moved.