Saturday, December 12, 2009


Hurrah! I have solved the mystery of what happened to Sir Frank Whittle's Hero steam engine, and I have been mowing my lawn.

I like mowing my lawn: it makes me feel like a grown-up. You have to mow lawns in New Zealand. It is a national obsession. (Once walking deep in the bush I found five neatly mown bits of lawn, each fenced with chicken wire and laced with slug pellets. I called my companion over and he told me what the large leafy plant growing in the middle of each enclosure was.) I mostly mow my lawn with electricity, only straying onto the ride-on when it gets too long. We inherited the ride-on. It came with the house. It is a White Outdoor Product and if the global financial crisis has any silver linings, it will be the extinction of White Outdoor Products because they're crap. South Bend lathe? Excellent bit of American engineering. White Outdoor Product? Absolute shite. When each week she hears me maintaining my White Outdoor Product with a two-pound claw hammer my wife suggests I buy a new ride-on, but what does a ride-on accomplish? Short grass. Which you can more profitably obtain with a sheep. All the male New Zealanders I know talk longingly of Peak Oil so they can have a sheep instead of a lawn, but all their wives demur.

A Wotan shaper, this afternoon

Anyway, today I showed my wife a photograph of my shaper. She was very surprised. She said '*uck me, you've not gone and bought that.'
I said proudly 'Yes!'
She said 'Where are you going to put it? I never want to see that. Ever. You can keep it in Maud's Back Passage.'
Maud Lodge is one of the sheds, and it has a roofed passage between it and one of the other sheds, and it has a second passage behind it which, for want of a better term, we call Maud's Back - well anyway you've gathered that.

My wife was aware that I was purchasing a shaper. She was aware that Nigel had saved it from being sold as scrap iron to China. She was not fully aware of what a shaper is, nor how big it is, but by means of the above photograph she has been introduced to these concepts and now I have to win her round by assuring her that I can use it to repair the White Outdoor Product, which will be a lie. It can't. *Nothing* can repair a White Outdoor Product.

The shaper is mine, technically, because I now own it, but it is displaced 25 miles to the right, there being a geographical discrepancy between my shed and Nigel's back yard. How I get it here is going to be the difficult bit. It is, as you see, balanced on a pallet and wedged with a piece of marble. I do not like to ask whence the marble. It looks like it was stolen from a cemetery.

And from among his junk on a shelf this afternoon, Nigel plucked a small Hero steam engine and handed it to me.
'Know what that is?' he asked.
Sir Frank Whittle's Hero steam engine

You will remember, of course, that Frank Whittle used to take a little model of a Hero steam engine that he'd built, to all his lectures by way of demonstrating the jet principle, and that it subsequently disappeared and has never been seen since. About forty years ago Nigel's retired neighbour leaned over the fence and said 'Care to have this, boy?'
The neighbour had been a friend of Whittle. You would have thought being given a jet engine hand-made by him was pretty exciting but the neighbour happened to be an Army major, unusual in achieving retirement age because he was a bomb disposal officer, and for him excitement was probably the fact that he got home for tea each day. Anyway he handed this to Nigel and so if you've been wondering where Sir Frank's demonstration Hero steam engine went, it's in a shed in the Nelson region of New Zealand.

And if, instead, you were looking for the Red Baron's flying boots, they're in Blenheim, just over the ranges. The air museum advertised that they possessed only the one boot, and that not properly provenanced, and presently got a parcel in the post from a lady in Australia who said her father had brought it back as a trophy after the first world war. It was an exact match to the one the museum already had.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord

Our oil drum. And some roses. And our home-made solar drier. [Idea nicked from]

Actually it turns out there is a God, and He's German, and He happens to read this blog, and He's fat.

This morning I was wondering, as one does, how to occupy the valuable half hour immediately after breakfast and went and pondered John's current solar drier experiments and realised that with the summer sun more directly overhead modifications are required to capture the strong rays and dry out his thinly-sliced pieces of apple. We built a solar drier as our contribution to saving the world. It is not a particularly big contribution, but this region has more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in New Zealand and we have to make up somehow for our excess consumption of sunblock. - There's no ozone at all here. Well, four or five molecules, not many more.

Neglecting eye protection just this once, as one sometimes does, I cut some blocks of wood and buzzed them on the sander prior to gluing. God was very kind and didn't lash a twelve-inch adjustable spanner to the second block, but in retribution for yesterday's post, He did allow it to shoot up and whack me in the face. Eyeball, specifically. I reared back in shock and immediately danced round the shed. I really did. I hopped about as if trying to backpedal time and since I was hopping at the speed of light this wasn't entirely unfeasible. If there'd been an audience they would have passed round a cap and put coins in it. In fact if I'd known in advance what was about to happen I would have strapped bells to my shins and turned it into a Morris dance. Anyway it bled inside itself, a haemsomethingorother, and got several doctors all alarmed and now I have to waste the day going to see an ophthalmologist in Nelson.

I felt the best thing would be to ride over there but all the doctors demurred, saying an eyeball jiggled on top of a bicycle isn't what you want if it's full of blood. Which is a pity, because I always feel energy-consumption guilt driving (in this case, being driven) to Nelson. It costs us ten litres of diesel oil getting to Nelson, which doesn't sound like much until you figure out that it's ten litres of high-grade energy and then you recall from your physics lessons that the energy concerned is the same amount of energy you'd have to use if the engine broke down and you were to have to get out and push it to Nelson. All of which puts transport into true context and makes bicycling rather sensible, because pushing a bicycle to Nelson is conceivable whereas pushing a car isn't.

What I didn't know till the other day was that New Zealand is an oil producer. On the 19th November (one makes a note of these things) I was amazed to learn from Gerry Brownlee, the New Zealand government minister in charge of energy, that oil is New Zealand's third biggest export commodity.

Our consumption of oil is 183,000 barrels a day, which means that 22 of us, combined, use up a barrel of oil daily. This is quite an interesting figure because it too takes oil consumption out of the abstract. You can imagine 22 people - about five households - having a barrel of oil delivered to their doorsteps each morning like the milkman used to do. (Well okay, milk, and pints, but you get the drift.) And using it all up. And expecting another barrel tomorrow. It's a collective thing, not just the business of what we put in our cars, so when you enter New World, our local supermarket, you shiver even in the heat of early summer because just inside the electrically operated sliding doors are huge fridges with no front whatever to them so all the cooled air cascades into the shopping area. I don't suppose this electricity comes from oil, but it certainly comes from somewhere and one does have to ponder the fact that our ancestors managed without electric sliding doors and chilled beer, and it looks like our descendants might just have to too. And do we really need wide-screen plasma TVs? They use five times as much electricity as or'nery ones, I read.

Anyway, God is obviously German because He took exception to my Wandervögel post and punished me accordingly. And He's fat because equally obviously He doesn't take exception to Germans saying Fat God to one other instead of Hello. (They do. Honestly. Everyone in Bavaria does. There are all these old German ladies hanging up their washing calling 'Grüss Gott' all the time. And He doesn't, to my knowledge, whack 'em in the eye.)

Gerry Brownlee is pretty fat too, come to think of it. He's a sort of human planet. Maybe having a fat energy minister is a good plan because when Peak Oil finally arrives, we can boil him down to two or three hundred kilograms of useful lard.

Somewhere here you might just be able to see Gerry Brownlee among the crowd.
[Pinched from]

And Peak Oil's likely to come to New Zealand sooner rather than later because Gerry Brownlee has decided to open up all the oilfields and gas fields that can be found off the New Zealand coast to commercial exploration. After all, why bother preserving a scarce resource? - Anyway I'd better discontinue this line of discussion. Comparing Gerry Brownlee with God could easily get me imaginatively punished again, and by a raft of disparate opinion.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Gerhardt is his name, a chuckling smiling happy German mountain biker who my wife inadvertently gave our address to at Auckland airport. (Okay, to whom. Shut up. Pedant.) This was a Mistake: we live in the remotest corner of the world where the only visitors now are slightly bemused iceberg-stranded Emperor Penguins on their way to the Copenhagen summit. The Antarctic ice shelves are breaking up, to which the local businessmen remain wilfully indifferent. There are 120 floating towards us at present. - Icebergs that is, not businessmen. -

But anyway when you're this far from civilization everyone hands your address out to all their friends - 'Oh, New Zealand? I know somebody in New Zealand!' and presently two smoking German students pole up in a battered camper van, annoying you by playing ping-pong late into the night in the sheds. Amazing how penetrating a noise is a ping when you're trying to sleep. (The second day we defeated them by stealing the balls.)

So what with my wife and these two and now Gerhardt the place has been heaving with Germans. It's as if we lost the war. The students were furniture restorers or welders or something and came to our notice by inverse invitation from a wife's cousin (sic.) who was at school with Kirsten. They telephoned in that questioning manner the young have:
'Helo, here iss Kirsten from Berlin? Iss Heidi there?'
which always makes me want to ask
'Here iss Richard?'
but I never think of it in time.

They used our address as a mail forwarding address so we can look forward to future visits, and maybe Kirsten will restore some of our furniture or Jens will weld a few recumbents for me in gratitude, which is as far-fetched an idea as their obtaining antique restoration work as paid employment. I fear they will discover ere long that the New Zealand farmer does not want his furniture restoring by young German students. He wants his apples picking. However that should still allow time for plenty of sex, which is the only thing I can think of that draws them together since it doesn't seem to be conversation or cycling, Jens being a keen Rennrad and Kirsten a keen and gasping smoker. I liked the idea that Jens was a Rennrad. The German does not separate the two concepts racing bicycle and racing bicyclist. He had a go on the penny farthing, and very soon separated the two concepts penny farthing and uninjured survivor because he didn't want another go. When they come back I shall be interested to see if his brain has calculated why I am a gunbag-owner, because he looked with alarm at the gunbag that he saw me carry out, and asked what it was, and looked even more alarmed when I said it was a gunbag, and mopped his brow with exaggerated relief when I showed him that it was empty. Later he didn't get to see me load the gunbag into the van, more's the pity, because by then it had a deceptively terrifying-looking Olympic target air rifle inside it which I was taking up to the range to test. Perhaps he thinks I just aberrantly collect gunbags. He borrowed two of my books which I doubt he will voluntarily return, and then maybe it will be time to reveal why I do keep a gunbag.

Now they've gone there's only Gerhardt the smiling happy mountain biker who laughed all the way to the kitchen table ('Oh I shall sit here! Ha ha ha ha ha!') and spent the afternoon distracting Susie from her revision. He smiles a great deal and laughs happily whenever he says anything regardless of whether he deems it witty ('Will you pass me a small spoon! Ha ha ha ha ha!') and he smiles and laughs so prettily and so much that I actually want to whack him in the face with a short piece of wood to which I've lashed a 12" adjustable spanner with a strip of innertube, just as an experiment, just to see if he can do anything other than laugh. I think I actively hate him, he's so agreeable. Like the students he doesn't get up till noon. Maybe it's endemic. You remember those Simon King documentaries that always began 'Dawn start' and there he is fiddling with a camera the size of Mons Meg while mist rises up over the Winchester countryside? Your German student has one that goes 'Noon start'.

I am going to be very kind and give him Mr Knight's address. I can't think of a valid reason for Mr & Mrs Knight being exempt from the pleasure of his company. He's so cheerful that after a while you want to whack him in the face with the adjustable and never mind the experiment. I'm hiding from him right now. Even Jens and Kirsten hid from him, he was so cheerful. Yesterday I had to go to the bog to hide from him because Jens and Kirsten were hiding from him in the kitchen, and now I've come out here and he's gone off to his room, I think, because the light's on and the door's open and anyway if it wasn't I'd make sure it was just so some mosquitoes will go in and bite him all night. I'll go and put my Jean-Paul Sartre novel by his bedside in the hope that it will stop him being so pleased with himself. I only have one Jean-Paul Sartre novel. Nobody ever has more than one Jean-Paul Sartre novel because when they finish reading it they're so depressed they commit suicide. Heidi saved my life in 1991 by putting it back on the shelf when I'd got to chapter 4, and (obv.) I haven't touched it since.

Tomorrow I shall harden a reamer I'm making out of a file that warped when I annealed it, so we will see if it warps again when I harden it in the drill press. You besmear it with liquid hand-soap to prevent scaling, pop it in the chuck, switch on, heat to orange-red, and raise a pot of water up round it while it's rotating and then it's supposed to harden dead straight. Even if it fails I'll do it just for the opportunity to give Gerhardt a sudden unexpected blast of propane to see if it makes him stop laughing so happily.