A letter from Cornwall

Beautiful Grebbe beach at the mouth of the Helford

I had been swimming in the sea. It’s something I do most evenings during the spring, summer, and autumn – always without a wetsuit, finding as I do that the cold Cornish water blows away the cobwebs like nothing else I know. Swimming that daily half mile or so has been the routine of decades and, during that time, has become something of a meditation too, a half hour’s brain rest during which I enjoy the feeling of gliding that comes with a well-practised front crawl. As I swim, I try not to think. It’s a lovely feeling, letting go and allowing sensation to take over – the burn of the sea on my skin, the colours of the underwater as they seep into me – almost golden on hot sunny days and in the chill of autumn, inky and dark. This time, as I emerged from the water, a little boy who was floating in the shallows on one of those inflatable stand up paddle boards (SUP) piped up with a cheerful, “Hello, did you have a nice swim? Did you see much?”

Did I see much? “No, not really, my goggles were steamed up,” I said, and immediately sensed he’d hoped for more.

If I’d been more on the ball, perhaps I could have said something about fish of which I’ve seen very few or jelly fish, of which I’ve seen very many. As far as the fish go, I’ve noticed they tend to keep a low profile during the summer months and only show up back in the relative shallows in the autumn. Pollack, wrasse, and dogfish mainly – you could say they’re the locals. Jelly fish, the summer visitors, tend to clear off by the beginning of September. This year though, they swarmed as never before. During July and the first half of August, there were so many that sometimes, having been stung two or three times during the first couple of hundred metres of my swim, I felt I had no choice but to turn around and abort mission.

It would be mean spirited of me to compare holiday makers to jelly fish, so I won’t. If that little boy, and his mum, who was sitting on a towel on the beach, were visitors, would I wish for them not to have come away on holiday? Not to sample a taste of the beautiful place that I get to enjoy all year round? No, of course not. If I’m honest though, this year has been the first year in the decade or so that I’ve lived in Cornwall, that I’ve really felt that the summer season has been ‘too much’, that the numbers have been so great that at times it has felt oppressive.

Us lot down here at the very toe of the country have a funny relationship with the rest of you. My gran, who was Welsh, not Cornish used to say about visitors, “nice to see you come, nice to see you go”. She was right. For me, the annual influx of visitors during the spring serves as a shot in the arm. It injects additional vitality into a place which can otherwise begin to feel too isolated from the rest of the country, too claustrophobic, too small town, too insular. That sudden increase in numbers comes with a sense of ‘gearing up’ for the summer season which, when it comes is frenetic. The roads are rammed with cars and the tourist town centres are awash with people. The summer trade means there are nice places to eat and drink which wouldn’t necessarily exist if it wasn’t for the tourist money. There are festivals and events which are fun for everyone whether they live here or not. Local people who might not have steady work during the winter now have jobs; the place is temporarily cash rich – buzzing. As August bank holiday approaches, we hit fever pitch, and then it’s all over. The kids go back to school, the pace slows. We go back to normal. Nice to see you come, nice to see you go. Except this year, not so much.

Look closer – how many fire sites can you see?

This year, the numbers have been insane and, while many argue and maybe rightly, that this is good because Cornwall needs the money, needs the jobs, needs the visitors, what is often forgotten is the other side of the coin, the flip side of the tourist pound. A negative impact that isn’t just about the locals complaining of feeling stressed out by how busy everywhere becomes, but which is also a physical strain on our local environment. As I cast my eye over my local beach near Falmouth, the evidence of overburden is everywhere. What do I see? I see plastic waste, not tonnes of it and not all of it recently dropped; some is old and tide worn, but when you look closely, it’s everywhere: food wrappers, the remains of a pair of swimming goggles. One flipper. A plastic water bottle. Over there, dangling from a low branch is a pair of pants someone forgot to put back on, and there, the glint of crinkled aluminium from a left behind instant barbecue. Yes, a lot of rubbish when you look closely. Birds eat it, fish eat it, they get sick, they die.

Every year I am amazed by how elaborate beach going has become, an evolution of habits that reflects what? Our rampant consumerism? Really, I have to hand it to the folks who make the effort to carry all this stuff down here from the car park. It has become the norm for me to trundle down for my swim, Asda ‘bag for life’ in hand, to be greeted by the whiff of charcoal and singed sausages. Sure, people like their barbecues these days, but now it’s a freestanding stainless double barbecue. It’s platters of marinaded chicken, steaks, salads, bottles of beer – a sound system. Deck chairs – an inflatable sofa! It’s incredible. Back in my home county of Devon, I used to ‘do sausages’ in a frying pan on an old camping stove and that seemed quite opulent in the nineties

The lady – the little boy’s mum tends a smoking fire of twigs and barbecue charcoal over which she places a grill and loads it with bangers and burgers. As the food begins to sizzle the fat drips hissing into the flames. She keeps having to get up to gather the family dog, a lurcher called Bonnie who periodically wanders off to lick the stones.

“Back here, Bonnie. Staaay.”

The hound gazes longingly at the stones surrounding it, its hindquarters atremble. It salivates.

Why’s it licking the stones, I think, but of course I know the answer because haven’t I been tiptoeing around the very same pebbles trying not to tread on them? Here, there, everywhere I look are the blackened remains of fires, and the tarry runoff from instant BBQs and, yes, pebbles slathered with a thick layer of sausage and burger grease. It’s not that I begrudge this little family their al fresco supper. On the contrary, how nice that they’re here enjoying the evening, having their tea, and storing away some happy memories. It’s the cumulative effect of it all that gets to me. All those many, many fires and the mucky residue they leave behind. The winter storms will hopefully wash this beach clean but for now it’s filthy and it smells.

What do I see? I see that back when going to the beach meant spreading a blanket, swimming until your skin was mauve and your lips blue, and then wrapping up in a damp towel and sitting down to devour your sandwiches and maybe sip warming tea from a flask – the experience was actually no more or less enjoyable than it is now. Before barbecues were ubiquitous, before you needed a wetsuit to get wet, a floating platform to play on and all the comforts of home transported to the tide line – can you honestly say you had less fun? Think back to when you were a child and how exciting it was to visit the seaside. What was it that was so special? What did you see?

I’m guessing it was the beach and the ocean that you saw, and that what excited you was the elemental thrill of this most dynamic of environments, where the sea meets the shore, the sky pours over the horizon, and all is lit by the glare of the (occasionally) unshaded sun. Am I close?

The Cornish have something of a reputation for being anti-visitor and, particularly in terms of the way second homes and the airbnb bonanza deny local families the dignity of a place to live, you can understand why this might be the case. By and large though, I see far more welcome than hostility; I don’t know many people who refer to visitors using the derogatory ’emmets’, Cornish for ants. What I do see though, is that we who live and work here, whether born Cornish or not, and you who do not live here, could both do better. As I hop around on one foot trying to stuff my leg back into my shorts while avoiding landing on the grease and charcoal strewn everywhere, I remember lifeguard friends who spent their winters in Australia. Stories of Auz told of different ways of doing things. Over there, if you want to barbecue at a popular beach, you bring your food to a communal cook site, pay for your gas, grill your shrimp and snags over the barbie, and take it all back to your patch of sand to consume. If we’re going to continue to accommodate more tourists, why don’t we put some infrastructure in place to handle the numbers while avoiding turning our beautiful beaches into the equivalent of the bins out the back of a greasy spoon?

A dirty beach might seem a small price to pay for the financial benefits that accrue from tourism, but it’s not just the sand and pebbles which finish the summer season feeling worn down and over used. I could easily say the same of our roads and town centres, parks and open spaces, and our public services. Take our local NHS which, despite caring for all the extra people who use its services while they’re on holiday, receives not so much as one penny extra to help pay for it. Just how does our one main hospital, and an ambulance service designed to cater for a population of around half a million, cope with the annual trebling or quadrupling of numbers. Answer: it can’t. Witness last week’s announcement from Treliske hospital in Truro, that all routine and urgent surgery is to be halted due to pressure on services resulting from a combination of Covid, case numbers of which exploded after the G7 conference and later, the Boardmasters festival, bed blocking, plus continuing high demand from among others – tourists. This unwelcome announcement came along with a plea for local people and holiday makers to think twice before calling 999 for health emergencies because the ambulance service can’t cope with the numbers. Clearly, it’s not just beach barbecuing which could be better organised.

Did you know Norway has the biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world? It’s because they licensed the exploitation of North Sea oil and gas reserves to the benefit of their citizens. I see that tourists could be to the Cornish what oil is to the Norwegians. Why not tax the businesses which make a killing from camping, eating out, entertainments, and accommodation rental, to create a Cornish wealth fund to help pay for the upkeep of our infrastructure and environment, and to benefit the health, wealth, and wellbeing of the local population who, as-well-as living in one of the most visually stunning parts of the country, also live in one of the poorest.

Would you object to paying a little extra for your holiday to boost such a fund? Does that seem unfair? What if you knew the money was going to help to provide housing for local families who, even as you enjoy your stay in a pretty Cornish cottage, have been completely priced out of the housing market by holiday accommodation companies, Airbnb landlords, incomers, and second home buyers, and have nowhere to live? What if your money was used to boost the Cornish NHS services so that they could carry on serving the local community even as they pick up the pieces when your holiday goes wrong? Maybe you could save money elsewhere – and do something concrete to help the environment – by, for example, hiring a surfboard for the week rather than buying one forever. Hire wetsuits – that way no matter how much anyone has grown (or shrunk) since your last visit, you and your children can always wear a suit that actually fits and keeps you warm? Or just don’t bother with wetsuits at all and try getting cold instead – it’s good for you as long as you don’t overdo it. Maybe avoid buying boogie boards and try body surfing instead; it’s actually far more fun. Why not cook on gas which doesn’t release a cloud of particulate matter into the air, and clean the grease off your frying pan at home? Or bring sandwiches like we used to.

What do I see? I see a child chattering excitedly as his mum towels his hair, and then he sits and sinks his teeth into the freshly cooked hotdog she passes him. Somethings never change – a dip the sea makes you ravenous. Me too, I think and waving the pair goodbye, I head back to my car, my mind set on chips. This year of all years, despite the feeling of overwhelm, it has been good to see so many people enjoy a holiday. It’s just that if you’re going to keep coming in such numbers, and if you’re to continue to find a warm welcome here, we have to think differently and do things a little differently. That, I do see.

My South Seas Adventures: In which I join the ship and throw a heaving line with gusto

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She’s a beauty!

“You’ve got forty-five seconds to convince me to give you a go…”

Steve Randall 5th December 2007

Steve Randall – quietly spoken, precise, a lovely fellow… However when, moments earlier, he’d pulled up in a faded green pickup, opened the back, and passed me a box of wine, the thought that occurred to me was that here was a man with ‘Bond villain potential’, and so when he uttered the words above, I realised I needed something good or risk a grisly end to my tall ship aspirations.

I began by highlighting my extensive sailing qualifications – my RYA Dingy Sailing Level 2 certificate. A stern test of seamanship, had I not battled headwinds on the Exeter canal? Did I not know how to tie a bowline, and cove hitch? And surely he must realise that as a captain of lifeguards, I was a fine swimmer – a vital skill for a crewman in a ship such as this.

At some point, Steve held up a palm to stop my blithering and waved me onto the gangplank. Who knows why he offered me a spot? All I can say is that I’m glad he did. What followed was an introduction to acting captain, George and a tour of the ship that was to change my life. I was so excited, my knees shook.

“Shit. What have I let myself in for?”

Me, 7th December 2007

I was pleased; I was terrified. I will never forget the sense of awe I felt when first I stood on the deck of the Soren Larsen. I took in the sights and breathed in the smells… the cobweb of rigging, the sheer size and complexity of it all; the height of the masts, the tips of which swayed gently against the clouds. And then there was the smell: tar, linseed oil, blacking, varnish, diesel; a pungent aroma. I remember looking towards the poop deck, the brightly polished gleam of the binnacle and, behind it, the ship’s wheel. We could go anywhere, I thought, and thrilled at the prospect.

I felt awkward to begin with; I wrote in my diary, “The new crew started about two weeks ago and have already gelled. I feel like an outsider. What else can I do apart from grin and say “OK?” or “Alright?” And then grin a bit more? And all the time I’m thinking, do they like me or do they think I’m a prick?” That lasted all of a day. There’s something about tall ship sailing – social barriers cannot resist the fetid stench of the foc’sle, and the shared graft of sailing and maintaining a ship. All these years later, some of this crew – and others who joined later – remain my closest and best friends, and I remember them all with great affection, including some of the voyage crew I was soon to get to know.

To sea…sort of

Say the words ‘evening charter’ to any former Soren, and they’ll probably groan, but it was a good introduction to the ship – manning the vessel for a jaunt around Auckland’s spectacular harbour.

During the afternoon, we cleaned and polished and, after an early dinner, we rigged a bar in the ship’s waist, ready to welcome aboard a rabble of guests enjoying their office Christmas party. I’d like to be able to tell you what it felt like to leave the quay for the first time – the churn of the water from the propeller, the tilt of the decks, the evening breeze on may face – the salty tang – but I can’t because, as we got underway that first time, I stood proud in my brand new Soren Larsen rugby shirt and safety belt, and demonstrated to woozy administrators, how one flushes a sea toilet and then mopped up afterwards. Later, I took turns on the bow, the bar, in the galley, and yes, on the helm. We loosed some of the sails – but I wasn’t called on to help with that and was glad because I was scared of heights. And now we were coming alongside and my task was a weighty one – throwing the heaving line…

At the end of the summer before I left for New Zealand, I’d helped the council hoist yachts from the water for the winter. At one point, I was given the hefty responsibility of chucking a bow line to the beach manager – it did not go well. I’ve never like being ‘looked at’ when I’m trying to perform a task. Maybe it stems from my maths lessons; my teacher, Mrs Jordan was a terror, and when she would lean over me to inspect my workings out, I would freeze. To make matters worse, like fleshy ear defenders, her pendulous breasts would settle over my head and all I could hear as she remonstrated with me for my lousy fractions, was a low vibration coming from her chest. Tasked with throwing that line, I coiled it tightly, and took a mighty swing, let go, and managed somehow to throw it behind me. How they laughed.

And now here I stood on the gently vibrating foredeck of the Soren Larsen, the sozzled passengers scrutinising my every move. I told myself that this time, it would be different. Just this afternoon, unencumbered by breasts, Second Mate Gareth, had shown me how to coil a heaving line properly. I had listened carefully, and practised my action, and so, when the order came to “cast the heaving line”, I heaved with a confidence I did not feel and watched, my heart in my mouth, as the line arced through the evening gloom. No it didn’t go in quite the right direction but yes, it was headed for shore; yes, it did nearly take out a couple of punters at one of the restaurants lining the quay, no, it didn’t kill anyone. The weight at the end – the monkey’s fist – thudded into the tarmac; it bounced, it skidded. It slithered towards the edge of the quay; oh shit, it was going to fall in the water – but no – somehow, it clung to the edge of a bollard just long enough for one of the crew to grab it. Success! I was a sailor at last.

Harbour Watch

Later, as I lay in the top bunk, in the worst cabin in the ship, the starboard side four berth, my elation at having survived my first stint ‘at sea’, quickly gave way to doubt. Did I really do OK? Could I maintain my 100% record with the heaving line? Would I ever be able to sleep?

Anyone who has experienced the Auckland nightlife from the vantage point of the Soren Larsen will know what I’m talking about. To lie alongside the bars and restaurants, in the basin between Princes’ Wharf and the Maritime museum, is to experience the kind of sound used to torture spies and test SAS recruits. It’s a blasting racket coming from three sides, and the noise is unbelievable. Still, as the cacophony finally began to die down, I must have drifted off because it was then that I was roused for my first night watch.

You do eventually get used to the lack of sleep. When you reach a certain level of fatigue, it plateaus; you can stay alert during your watch, and then fall asleep at the slightest invitation. I don’t think I’ve ever slept either better or less than I did when I was aboard the Soren. However, here I was, on night watch. It’s quite nice actually; when you’re surrounded with people all day; when you live, eat, and sleep in the same space as your crew mates, quiet time is the time when everyone else is sleeping. I read my book, I sat there thinking. I ‘maintained a presence’ like I’d been told, and every half hour, wandered below to sniff for fire but the only smell was the overpowering reek of the fish oil used to coat the anchor chain. Then I returned to the deck to check for any chaffing that may have occurred since the last time I’d looked a few minutes before – the mooring lines, not me – now is not the time for the story of how my bum fell off in the Marquesas. All was secure; all was safe, and so I settled to write profound things in my diary:

“O4:30 hours: My breath smells like a bear’s bottom.”

My South Seas Adventures: On sailors

File:Mother and baby sperm whale.jpg
Source: Wiki Commons

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. “

Moby Dick or The Whale, Herman Melville

It had been a “damp, drizzly November in my soul,” and I had indeed grown “grim about the mouth”, and now here I was, poised to take to the sea. I was a man at a crossroads; the ocean beckoned.

I think many of us end up travelling through life on a trajectory, the direction of which we had little choice in or control over. I knew I was on the wrong path but knowing didn’t make it any easier to get off it. Doing a job I didn’t like and wasn’t particularly good at was a confidence-sapping drain. In the end, even though I was sure I wanted to leave, I wasn’t sure I was capable of doing anything else either – we get used to our cages. And then there was the issue of property ownership; how well I remember sitting on a deckchair in my building site of a flat, watching Sarah Beeny explaining how to do up a flat. I had finally finished the renovations and the flat now looked lovely. Could I really give it up – step off that all-important first rung of the property ladder? A steady job and a mortgage are important stepping stones in life, but I needed a breathing space – some thinking time – and a chance to discover for myself what I really wanted from life.

I had tried once before to make a change, leaving a similar job to travel the coasts of France, Spain, and Portugal in a van, surfing and working at a vineyard. I had a great time, but ended up right back where I started. I was in my early thirties, stuck behind another desk pretending to be interested in computer code while continually distracted by the paintings that I’d done and brought in to to see what my colleagues thought of them. I remember once when it was my boss’ birthday and we were decorating the office in his honour – I was drawing a caricature of his face in black marker pen on a party ballon when my colleague commented, “that’s the most I’ve seen you concentrate in all the time I’ve known you”. And then there was that poem…

I needed to make a change, I needed a new direction and that is what I was looking for when I headed for New Zealand – I remember telling myself over and over “just try things – keep on trying new things”. It was a huge decision to sell everything and leave, but I knew I had to do it. I wasn’t running away – I was running towards my future. This was the best decision I have ever made and the one of which I am most proud. I will be forever grateful to Soren’s then owners, Steve and Rosie Randall for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime, and to the crew mates with whom I shared the adventure, for making it such happy and memorable experience. We of the Soren Larsen were a motley crew – be it a thirst for adventure, a career move, or simply for a well-earned holiday, everyone has their reason for turning to the sea, and this was mine.

Next post – Let the good times roll: I join the Soren Larsen and learn the ropes!

My South Seas Adventure: Episode 2 – A Tale of Two Ships…

Lost in Auckland by Robin Falvey

“Auckland is pleasant, the people are pleasant, the salt water pool, ‘Parnell Baths’, is pleasant, but I’m not quite sure what I am doing here.”

To the reluctant traveller, there is nothing quite as soul destroying as wandering the streets of a strange city – especially when there’s no prospect of being able to pack up and go home any time soon. Plus, what with this being New Zealand, there were no castles to visit.

I’m from Brixham in Devon which is – or was – an important fishing port and is now a slightly faded, ever-tacky tourist hotspot. William of Orange landed there when he came over from Holland to take the throne and his seagull-shit streaked statue stands on the quay to this day – a reminder to wear a hat whenever in town.

Seasick, horrified, and shit-splattered: William of Orange statue, Brixham harbour
Photographer: Knut Schlensog

As a teenager working at Oscars Coffee Shop, one of the many cafes which served the hordes of tourists from up north, I was no stranger to the dark side of holidaying. Rainy days were the worst; the cafe would be rammed with half-soaked families, plus animals. I remember the steamy atmosphere, the pungent smell of bacon grease mingled with the sugary waft of cheap cash-and-carry jam and fake cream. Most of all I remember the dirty plates with their half-chewed leftovers which it was my job to clear away and wash up; that plus the bickering, complaining customers, my aching feet, and the sense that holidaying wasn’t necessarily the happy experience it was made out to be.

Then there were our own family holidays which mostly took place in rainy North Wales and which mainly involved being lost in the mountains, arriving at tourist attractions after they’d closed and – yes – bickering over orange squash in steamy, overheated cafes.

Now here I was – on holiday – lost and bored to death in Auckland. Here’s what I wrote of my visit to the maritime museum:

“Managed to spend an impressive five hours at the National Maritime Museum – mostly spent looking at boats.”

29th November, 2007

A sight for sore eyes

There she is – the Soren Larsen

After the night porter had ushered me from the museum, I wandered around to Prince’s Wharf, and there they were: two ships – a black one, and a white one. Now here was something worth a second look.

Ship One: Spirit of New Zealand. Trim, taut, her officers in smart blue shirts strutting about with poise and purpose. Safety lines rigged… everywhere.

Ship Two: Soren Larsen. Faded, rust-streaked. Music blaring, a ragged, tattooed bloke with bare feet lounged on the main hatch twiddling a bit of rope. The whiff of tar and other, less identifiable smells.

Obviously I tried for Ship One.

Scouts at sea

Now I’m sure the Spirit of New Zealand is a fine vessel but, to me, having secured a quick tour from the officer of the watch, a young woman with a slightly military manner, it all felt a bit ‘scouty’ for me. Everything shipshape and Bristol fashion but a bit dull. I tried for Ship Two – the man had disappeared but the stack of slightly limp fliers attached to the signboard did advertise a phone number which I wrote down and promptly lost. Next time I visited, the ship was gone, but the fliers remained. When I rang the number, a harassed-sounding chap answered with a brusque “No, sorry, we don’t need any volunteers”.

So that was that. Or was it? I had based my decision to move to New Zealand on the poem, ‘The Old Gray Squirrel’ and a flow chart. Now here I was and my new resolve was to try stuff – just try, give anything I fancied doing a really good go. I decided to pester this chap, Ian – and Rosie, who picked up the phone the next time I rang, and so I did. As an added incentive there was this really spooky dream I’d had before leaving for for Heathrow. I’d even written it down in poem form, as you’ll see below. If that’s not the call of the sea, I don’t know what is.

Please read this slightly strange poem by a slightly strange man – or the next bit won’t make sense.

Dive in, just bloody dive in, I thought and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It turned out that the reason the ship was no longer alongside was because part of the rudder assembly had fallen off. The next time I called, Rosie answered and explained that everyone was too busy to talk to me. I waited a couple of days – noted on my next foray into the city, that the ship was back – and rang one last time.

“How about if I come down to the ship?”

3rd December 2007

Answer: “Oh God, OK, OK.”

I put the phone down and turned to survey the cluttered lounge of City Garden Lodge backpackers. What a place. A mecca for young yoga enthusiasts, there was a meditation tent in the garden and the kitchen floor was gritty with spilled lentils. Now here was that Spanish chap with the pony tail and the self-identified ‘large aura’. He approached the whiteboard and wrote upon it:

“Yellow electric human”

City Garden Lodge, December 2007

The Germans gravely nodded their approval, a couple of Brits with faux-Kiwi accents emitted wise “uh-huhs” of agreement. I pulled a face and muttered: “What the fuck does that mean?” I had to get on that ship!

South Seas Adventure – your escape from COVID19

The adventure of a lifetime – exclusive access to Old Bean’s Adventure Diary

Join me as, in the autumn of 2007, I arrive in New Zealand and begin to blunder about the city of Auckland; a man without a plan, somehow I land the job of a lifetime – the coveted position of deckhand aboard the aboard the magnificent tall ship Soren Larsen. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a tale of high adventure, considerable drunkenness, wonderful people, seasickness, fear and loathing in the Southern Ocean, plus lashings of Bundaberg ginger beer amid much sweat and toil. May I present…The Soren Larsen Diaries.

From unpromising beginnings

21st November 2007 Auckland New Zealand

“I had long discussions with many people about whether or not to bother coming and in the end, decided that I may as well.”

I will never forget the misery of being stuck in a job I hated. A computer something or other at the NHS in Exeter, not only wasn’t I a very good at it but when, a few years before, I’d done a business degree, I had actually paid someone to do the IT module for me. How I ended up working in the same bloody sector is outside the scope of this series but, somehow, I did and it was a miserable existence.

Me busy renovating my flat

The rot really set in after I was forced to move from one role to a very similar one and took a pay cut along the way. By then, I had bought a flat and was in the middle of gutting and rebuilding it. It was the height of the housing boom and I was an unapologetic capitalist. Faced with the prospect of a drop in income, I resolved to make the money up outside of work. So began a period of frenetic activity: I imported Polish people, bought and sold second hand furniture, acted as an unofficial estate agent, worked on firework displays, and even took up trouser hems. I also began to paint, and sell my work.

At the same time, I was club captain at Dawlish Warren Lifesaving Club where I trained new lifeguards, helped to run volunteer patrols, ran exams at other clubs, and joined in with fundraising activities. While my Poles were in town, I rented my flat to them and slept on a stretcher in the girls’ changing rooms (less smelly than the boys’ ones).

My artwork was selling, I was selling, I was doing so much outside of work that, in the end, something had to give. I asked if I could go part time. “But why?” I remember my boss asking. “Because I don’t have time to come in every day,” I replied. His answer was no.

I had a mortgage to pay, I was unhappy, I felt stuck in a rut. And then, sat on the loo at my parents’ house, I came across a poem that changed my life: The Old Grey Squirrel by Alfred Noyes. It’s about a school boy who dreams of running away to sea but bottles it and becomes an accountant instead:

“For they caught him like a squirrel and they caged him,
now he’s totting up accounts and turning grey.”

The last thing this poor fellow sees before he dies?

“Is the sailormen a-dancing in the moonlight
by the capstan that stands beside the quay.”

The Old Grey Squirrel by Alfred Noyes

As soon as I got home, I went directly to the lifesaving club where there’s a big whiteboard screwed to the wall. On it, I drew a chart of all the possible choices I could make. When I was finished, I wiped away all the things I didn’t fancy doing, and what was left was this:

“Sell everything, and go to New Zealand”

So I did though, as you shall see, I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the effort…