Volunteers (wearing nearly-time-to-go-home smiles)
Once upon a time – what seems like a very long time ago – Jack’s Mother opened the rusty biscuit-tin in which she kept her life-savings and said to Jack
Jasper? (she could never remember his name) …I want you to get up early in the morning and go to the market. Take this seven-pence-farthing I’ve managed to save up over a lifetime of drudge and go and buy some bricks and mortar, then when you get home you can build us a house …I’m sick and tired of living in this 800 year old caravan.
Jack’s Mother’s great-great-Grandfather had lent the King of Scotland 30,000 Livres back in Twelve-hundred-and-something, but the King forgot to pay it back before he died. Ever since then the family had lived in a simple caravan made from some kind of wood, nailed together with some sort of nails. The caravan had been handed-down from father-to-son, and after all that handing-down it was in a terrible state-of-repair: It had no wheels or roof, no walls, no doors, no windows (apart from the one I mention in a minute), no underfloor heating, no Argon-filled Pilkington ‘K’ double glazing units supplied with a generous 14mm bronze glazing bar …nor even infra-red number-plate-recognition to operate the electric gate they didn’t own.
Wealthy neighbours envied them their simple life-style. They looked longingly on Jack and his Mother, surrounded by their rotting pieces of wood which barely kept out the rain, and wished they could be as happy as they were, having so little.
If I could learn to be as happy as they are, having so little; they’d often say to themselves; …what with all the stuff I’ve bought off of Amazon – half of which I haven’t even had time to open – I’d be able to wander around this mansion grinning like a Sperm Donor who’s just switched banks.
At five o clock the next morning, just as his Mother had asked, Jack got out of his bed, opened the biscuit tin, slipped the seven-pence-farthing in his pocket and began walking the 362 miles to the nearest market. As he stepped over the garden gate, lying where it had fallen, he heard behind him the rickety old sash window which looked out from his mothers’ bedroom being thrown open …and turned to see his mother lean out:
If you meet any strangers, don’t talk to them. I’ve read thousands of these stories and that’s where the trouble always starts. She called.
No sooner had she finished speaking than a rumbling sound presaged the old sash window falling unexpectedly down, cracking Jack’s Mother on the skull before finishing its journey and trapping her arthritic hands by the wrists. Jack heard his mother yelp with pain.
I won’t! He called back, as he skipped away.
Being mindful of the fact that Nursery Stories always contain pithy morals; we interrupt this tale to point out that Jack went about accomplishing his long journey in the way that we must all accomplish our great endeavours: By taking the first step, and immediately following-on with a second …then a third. This fatuous observation will be so useful to us all in our own lives – if only we would remember it – that we almost don’t mind its intrusion here whilst we wait to find out whether Jack will meet a stranger on his journey; whether or not he will speak to that stranger; and what manner of disaster orbits our hero when he inevitably does.
At first Jack’s journey was pleasant as he made his way through the trackless woods. He observed many rare species of bird – pausing to record each sighting in his Bird Observation Book, just in case anyone was remotely interested: Into his book went the Silver Plover, quickly followed by an absolute corker of a sighting: the Medium-Eared Owl – which a close relative of both the Long Eared Owl and the Short Eared Owl (…so close a relative, in fact, that anyone possessed of a suspicious turn-of-mind might wonder if the two latter species had met one night during a power cut) – and after just a short distance more, with his back turned toward him, Jack surprised a Long Tailed Twat. Well, lets put it this way: …they surprised each other.
As Jack romped through the wood the morning mist snaked behind gnarled trees of Oak, Chestnut and Beech to watch him pass – watching without ever drawing near.
To his surprise (though not, perhaps, to ours) when he reached The Bridge of no Return, which crosses Desperation Brook – a painfully slow drain for the Swamp of Despair – Jack was sure he saw a stranger sitting on the branch of a tree some twenty feet above the ground. The stranger was dressed in a simple white smock, smoking a clay pipe. Some of our younger readers are probably not old enough to remember clay pipes because they went out of fashion in the mid 1700’s when it was discovered that the heat from the clay mouth-piece – which got very hot – caused carcinoma of the lip. All models of clay pipe were immediately withdrawn from sale and replaced 200 years later with the petrochemical compound ‘Bakelite’, still in use today.
Pendant from the stranger’s neck was a shepherds crook – he wore it in that manner for the simplicity it offered as a means of portage, allowing him both-hands-free …one to hold his pipe, and the other, crucially, to hold onto the branch. The Stranger’s eyes were fixed on Jack as he approached …and the sight of the Stranger, after his Mother’s warning, disconcerted Jack causing him to falter in his step, and eventually come to a standstill altogether.
They eyed each other – Jack twitching like the Cowboy in a Clint Eastwood film when he knows the plot’s about to thicken.
You’re late. Said the stranger… Five-of-the-clock you was told. Kept me waiting you ‘ave.
P- Pardon? Said Jack.
Ave you got the money?
How did you know?
Let’s be aving it then. …Told you not to talk to me dint she?
Your haggard-faced, bony, mean, ugly, good-for-nothing old lady – living in that broken-down caravan.
How dare you speak of our caravan like that! Said Jack.
Caravan?…there’s bugger all left! Anyways- never mind all that …save you walking another 300-and-odd miles to market, I’ve got some straw for ee.
I don’t need straw, thank you very much.
Building a house aincha?
How did you know that?.
Then you’ll need seven-pence-farthings’ worth of straw bales. And God help ya – though they say tis awful ‘green’, and other such nonsense.
Jack raised his voice: Building a house out of straw bales is the rediculousist thing I ever heard – do you imagine I was born yesterday? Asked Jack.
The stranger answered that question by not answering it.
Every great truth begins life as a blasphemy [pithy moral] and once the stranger had fully explained to Jack how many Kilograms of Carbon would be captured per Square Metre of built-accommodation; how Straw – a waste product – ranked favourably against other more widely-used building materials such as Chromium, and Smoked-Glass in terms of both Sustainability and Embodied Energy; how straw is a low-skilled building material – only requiring the operator to hold an NVQ1 or a below average IQ; the Health Benefits of living in a house built from straw bale as opposed to, say, Asbestos; and how Straw Bale had been demonstrated to offer an 87% reduction in fuel bills, year-on-year when you calculate the compound interest on the sum invested; how your house may be at risk if you don’t keep up payments; and how, in tests, 8 out of 10 cats preferred them – Jack became convinced that the future of construction lay in straw and wondered why all hairy-arsed builders weren’t using it. Are they mad? He remembered thinking, as he handed over the seven-pence-farthing.
You’ve done what!! Asked Jack’s mother as he tried to explain the benefits of straw using a piece of graph paper and a NoBo board. Get to your room – and you’re not having a bite to eat.
Jack didn’t have a ‘room’, as noted earlier, but climbed instead into his ‘bunk’ bed. It wasn’t a real bunk bed because Jack’s Mother couldn’t afford a real bunk bed …Jack’s bunk bed differed from a real bunk bed in that his was at floor level, and didn’t have another bed above it. He lay there with his head approximately 3 feet away from his mothers slippers as she prepared herself a delicious meal of sardines-on-toast – minus the toast – muttering to herself all the while: Dear God – you wait until that boy comes down in the morning – I’ll give him bales-of-straw. If only the lord could look down and see me now, how I suffer.
Unbeknown to Jack’s Mother the Lord was indeed looking down upon her suffering. Up in heaven he was lying on a cloud – a white and fluffy Cumulus which had a Cumulo-Nimbus for its headboard, and a Cirrus Stratus at the foot-end which tailed away to nothing and was there purely for ornament. As beds go The Lord’s cloud was damper than Jack’s, but the Lord’s bed had the benefit of being higher, lifting him well clear of Jack’s Mother’s odiferous slippers. The Lord was looking over the side of his cloud and shaking his head, for he was very wroth with Jack. Oh God, what has he done now? The Lord kept saying as he looked down on the straw-stack. In fact because The Lord and God are really one and the same person, he didn’t actually say: Oh God!; but instead: Oh Me! …Me almighty! …for My sake!, and Dear Me …I don’t effing believe what he’s gone and done this time! …etc.
Next morning, Jack was first up. He yawned, got out of bed, and walked outside where to his amazement he found a house. He smiled to himself when he realized that the straw bales the Stranger had sold him were just like the beans he’d swapped for a cow in an earlier story – they were magic bales and had built themselves into a wonderful house overnight. Mother will be pleased, thought Jack, and went back to bed.
His mother got up next. She yawned got out of bed and when she went outside for a pee to her amazement she found a house.
Jeremy! Jeremy! She called. Someone’s built themselves a house right next to our place …how the hell did they get planning permission for that?
Jack got up and went outside. It’s not someone’s house, Mother, it’s our house. Isn’t it wonderful?
Ours? Yes, said Jack’s mother, it is!
Then both Jack and his mother jumped in surprise when at exactly the same time they noticed something they hadn’t seen before – there was someone sitting on one of the window-cills of the house wearing a white smock, smoking a clay pipe, and around his neck he carried a shepherds crook. It was the Stranger.
What are you doing hanging around my house – hop it! Yelled Jack’s mother at the Stranger; Shoo!!; she said, and began flicking her apron at him in the way that she did when she wanted to clear it of a few crumbs.
Don’t be so ungrateful you old crow …I always promised I’ d build ee a house, and now I built one – dint I?
You built this for me?
That I did …Like it?
No you didn’t – I built it …called God from his cloud.
You keep out of this. Answered the Stranger, poking his Crook up towards God’s cloud… or I’ll shove a hole in your cloud.
Might dry it out a bit… Answered God.
Whoever built it, it’s wonderful! Said Jack’s Mother.
Yer tis then – let me carry you over the threshold, my old maid.
Who said that? Asked Jack’s Mother, looking up at God, and then at the Stranger. God rolled his eyes heavenward, and with that the Stranger swept Jack’s mother clean off her feet and carried her over the threshold, very much to Jack’s amazement. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as they disappeared inside. Then Jack’s mother called back over the Stranger’s shoulder:
Johnny, this is your father, by the way. He’s built me a house – so I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave home and find a place of your own. Byee!
Jack swallowed hard, mournfully gathered up his few belongings, and then took the first steps of his long journey to a new and uncertain life when he heard a window being thrown open behind him. It was his mother, leaning out so that her voice wouldn’t be muffled by the Argon-filled double glazing unit and storm-seals. Jack – I was only kidding! Come on in!
Jack threw down his belongings, jumped up and down on them in triumph, and then ran into the straw bale house.
Jack – this is your father. Jack’s Mother said, introducing them.
Jack – I’m your father. Said the stranger, shaking Jack by the hand.
Father – I’m your son. Said Jack.
…And I’m the Holy Ghost. Said God, wittily. God asked if he could stay for a few days whilst he awaited delivery of a new cloud which he hoped would be drier – it was an Alto Stratus from John Lewis – and they all said ‘Yes’ they would love to have him to stay …not least of all because they’d only got one fish – a sardine – and no loafs of bread to feed three of them, and they wondered if God would perform one of the miracles for which he was famous.
God didn’t let them down – God never lets-down those who have faith in him. Seated around the dinner table, as with one voice, they spoke these words: For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly grateful …no sooner had they spoken than outside the window they heard the unmistakable sound of loafs of bread falling from heaven onto the lawn, followed by some fishes, and also some baskets to put them in. Those baskets alone must be worth a pretty penny, thought Jack’s mother, avariciously …I’ll take those down to the market and sell them as baskets. Jack’s mother was a very imaginative cook and when she saw the fish and bread falling in such abundance a menu immediately came to her mind: I know, she said, we’ll have fish with bread.
They all ate fish and bread until they became so tired they dropped off their chairs one by one and slept on the floor. And then the next day, when they woke up, they all lived happily ever after …in their straw bale house. Anyone would …wouldn’t they?
God didn’t live in the straw bale house, of course, as soon as his cloud arrived from John Lewis he moved back into heaven which is a bit more spacious and has fewer residents – the entrance exam being harder than most people imagine. The delivery men had had to climb the stairway to heaven carrying God’s huge cloud and were knackered when they got to the top so God gave them a tip for all their hard work – he is quite an accomplished baritone and as a treat sung them the hymn, Abide with me… the delivery men ran down those stairs faster than they’d ever run in their lives and when they got to the bottom they hugged each other and wept with joy. The very last thing they wanted to do was live in heaven, and they hadn’t got through all the other things they wanted to do before living in heaven. No one ever has.
By an extraordinary coincidence Linda and I are building a straw bale house. We’re fast approaching the stage where Linda will carry me over the threshold: The Straw Bale walls have been erected, greatly helped by the super human effort of some volunteers who joined us a week or two back …photographic evidence of which litters this blog.
The windows are in, glazed, and I am just getting to grips with the Lime rendering. You can’t apply lime if there is likely to be a frost during the following week or so – yet here we are in November and it’s so mild that we’ve got away with it so far. We’ve got climate change to thank for that …imagine – if all houses were built of straw we wouldn’t have benefited from climate change!
If you’ve been longing to lend us a hand with our straw bale build but weren’t able to make it to the straw bale raising weekend – don’t worry, taking the UK population as a whole most people were unable to make it. However, there is one more chance to help! Without getting too technical: You can claim VAT back on a new build, but you’re only allowed to make one claim. When you get near the end of your building budget – as we have – this ‘one claim’ rule throws up the interesting dilemma for self-builders of whether to make your VAT claim ‘now’ and use the refund to finish their building project …but lose the VAT on the final spend; or to borrow the VAT you will get back (£9,000 in our case) from someone wonderful so that all final purchases can be made, the VAT claim filled-in, and VAT returned on the whole blooming lot.
That’s where you come in. You know that £9,000-farthing you’ve got hidden in a rusty biscuit tin? …or perhaps you are one of 9,000 people who have a pound put aside? Well, if you don’t need your savings for about 4 months and were at all inclined to lend it to us… Linda and I have been talking and we’d be happy to knock the paltry 0.25% rate of interest the Bank of England are currently offering into a cocked hat by offering you the much more exciting rate of 0.26% Not only that but your money would be doing more good-in-the-world than you’ll ever know. God, too, will see your charitable work and he’s bound to take it into account if ever you need a favour from Him.
At the end of the 4 months a £9,000 loan will have earned £7.80 which we’ll re-pay to you, the lender, down at the local hostelry. And if you turn up in your Sports Utility Vehicle – we’ll chuck a couple of bales of straw in the back …they’ll get you off to a flying start with your own building project.
Don’t forget to act quickly! – we can only accept the first offer of help.