Runton Hall is a Georgian country estate that mainly consists of ramshackle houses, crumbling gazebos and derelict pigeon lofts, all of which require restorative work. This work ranges from subtle wallpapering to outright demolition, and broadly speaking ‘Anton’, Joe, Becka and I are funding this in return for blind eyes being turned to our little side projects. This arrangement works well. However, there is a limit to what we can do, and the overall plan has always been to secure a Lottery grant once the spending gets gargantuan. We have never questioned this – when you have as much money already tied up in the place as we do, the prospect of plentiful free cash from people who buy scratch cards, don’t fold pushchairs on public transport and regard sentences such as ‘everything happens for a reason’ to be philosophical truisms is not the sort of gift horse you look in the mouth, after all.
Yesterday morning, the flaw in the Lottery grant plan was exposed when we were turned down for a Lottery grant. This is a spanner/works mismatch of the highest order but, as Joe points out, not necessarily a bad thing. Joe once spent a couple of years living in a Tibetan cave with a bunch of Buddist monks, learning how to make headscarves for hippies, and also more practical stuff, such as how to get a squat in Devon, keep a squat in Devon, and get out of a squat in Devon when some hippy accidentally sets fire to it. This exposure to spirituality is presumably what prompted ‘Anton’ to exclaim ‘How the fuck is that then, Rasputin?’ when, holding the damning letter from the National Lottery in front of him, he gave us the news that we might be in a spot of bother. My lips had gone numb with fear, so I was curious myself. The answer, when it came, was quite a performance. Sitting us down in front of the whiteboard in the Keeper’s Cottage, Joe pushed felt tip pens to the limits of their endurance with such a display of arrow drawing, underlining and giddy upper-case madness that at times he and the board seemed to be the same wounded beast, cornered and furious, roaring at outrageous fortune and raging against the dying of the light. To be honest, it went on a bit, but the crux is that although this is a mess alright, we can either accept defeat or remember that we are capitalists, and capitalise our way out of it. It was a magnificent call to arms, delivered with conviction and authority seldom seen in a man with a toddler hanging off each leg. Even Graham, who wandered in to see what was going on, was impressed and for the first time seemed to look at ‘Anton’ and I as real people in a real fight, rather than a couple of Cockney chancers who are scared of the petting zoo animals.
I am still low-carbing, and as I washed down a nutritious bowl of clotted cream and peanut butter with a flask of Nescafe Gold Blend, our master plan took shape. Again, it goes on a bit, but basically involves buying the Estate building by building, returning each in turn to working order, then selling them back to an expanded Board of Trustees, upon which Joe, ‘Anton’, Becka and I will sit to ensure that the agreement can’t be voted out of existence halfway through. At length, the owners will get their Georgian country estate restored at our expense, and we make a few quid from property sales and incidental side projects. Marvellous. There was some stuff about a suicidal cocktail of mortgage commitments and bank loans, but there’s been a lot of pictures of snow on social media this week so I was mainly looking at my phone during that part. It’s a bold plan that has the Trustees’ blessing, but for arcane legal reasons that were explained while I was once again looking at pictures of snow on my phone, they can’t forward any cash to get the ball rolling. This means we have to go to a bank for a loan, and that means I have to become a barber.
The thing about getting money from a bank is that you have to show you can pay it back. For this you need a verifiable income, which ‘Anton’ and I sort of have, and sort of don’t with our informal glamper tent hire business. However, ‘Anton’ is also now a real, actual, fully qualified electrician, a fact I greatly admire considering that three years ago he would get me to watch his stall at Greenwich while he nipped off to Poundland for horrible jewellery to break apart, restring and sell as enigmatically named ‘Sri Lankan crystal bracelets from a family business on the Indian sub-continent’. Having a trade holds great sway with the banks. He doesn’t yet earn enough to partake in hefty loans from them because no one’s going to let a black bloke into their house to look at their wiring, but he gets by and, at Runton, has enough work for the foreseeable future. Joe is salaried via the Trustees, Becka has the Forest School, but I don’t have, you know, a thing. Well, I’m doing a Masters degree via the Open University, but that doesn’t really count as a job. Therefore, having decried the standard of rural hair care last time we spoke, I’ve decided to become part of the solution and take up barbering on humanitarian grounds. I’ve often thought I might like a pop at it, and a legit barbering business will give me all-important credibility with the banks. It won’t be easy, but my strategy to get around that is to become a very good barber very quickly. Yes, I’m starting twenty years after everyone else and don’t have full sleeve tattoos, but the tactic here, surely, is to ignore all that. There’s bound to be a fair amount sweeping up pensioners’ hair under the guidance of a seventeen year old while I’m training and all that, but them’s the rules and I shall just have to get on with it.
Despite ‘Anton’s assertion that hairdressing is ‘all benders and slags’, it will be invigorating to learn something new. Anyway, although I am a straight man, I have Faith by George Michael on Spotify, which around these parts is considered at least bisexual. I have less than no idea how to barber a haircut, and wouldn’t even know which way round to hold the scissors, but I have a course in such matters booked and am excited by the prospect of going at the follicles of East Anglia, clippers-ablaze. What larks!
And so, with Runton all but obliterated by blizzards, and those of us comprising the de facto estate management team reeling from Lottery funding shock but galvanised for the struggles to come, I shall be spending the rest of the afternoon in my small snowbound house watching season two of 30 Rock and plaiting hair on a practice wig. You have to start somewhere, after all. I used to plait Amanda Cochrane’s hair in assembly, and although I was six at the time I’m sure the magic touch has not deserted me.
Main – Joe hands me a chicken for some reason at Runton a couple of years ago. The chicken and I were underwhelmed by each other.
Inset top – Sleeping hound in a nice leather armchair he is destroying in the name of comfort.
Inset middle – Despairing message left in snow on a car outside a rural Norfolk church.
Inset lower – The East Yard, Camden Lock, before dawn, winter 2014. Most days at this hour would find me charging between Spitalfields, Greenwich, Camden and the cellar of the Duke of Wellington public house, Toynbee Street London E1 (which functioned as a warehouse) on my gallant folding bike prior to trading, picking up this and dropping off that. The trader is Martin, also known as Northern C3PO. He did twenty years in the East Yard, five of them trading next to me, and is now up in York with a stall in The Shambles.